Friday, July 21, 2017

Little Fish



Michael John LaChuisa has been writing musicals non-stop for over two decades. He’s drawn from a wide variety of source material including Greek myth, celebrity biography, French and Spanish drama, Japanese cinema and American poetry. Little Fish was drawn from two short stories Deborah Eisenberg: Days and Flotsam.

The heroines of Days and Flotsam are forced to reinvent themselves. The former after she quits smoking and the latter after she flees an abusive relationship. LaChuisa combines them into the character of Charlotte. The cigarettes had been a coping mechanism for so long that she forgot what she was coping with. Her pain forces her to build a community with those around her instead of swimming upstream on her own.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Big Fish



I wasn't the target audience for this story. I side with the practical son whereas a musical comedy has little choice but to side with the wacky father. Reviews were mixed and the run was short but the show has a passionate fan base and has done well in regional productions. Norbert Leo Butz has stolen shows before and deserves another chance at a star vehicle.

Here's Norbert Leo Butz and Kate Baldwin performing "Time Stops."

Saturday, July 15, 2017

They're Playing Our Song


Ever hear the one about the manic pixie dream girl who romances the uptight boy?
How 'bout the one where the destructive manic depressive hooks up with her priggish passive-aggressive co-worker?

On paper They're Playing Our Song shouldn't work. Neil Simon's characters are too unpleasant to root for. They should not be together. It's not that he's trying to deconstruct the romantic comedy. He's too busy writing wisecracks to cover up the lack of plot. She's late for work, they argue, her ex calls on the phone, rinse, repeat.

And yet the show was a hit running 1082 performances. Watch the clip from the 1979 Tony Awards and you may see why. Lucie Arnaz oozes carefree sex appeal while Robert Klein transforms his role into a clumsy jittery clown. You may not want Vernon and Sonia to get together but you'll have fun watching Arnaz and Klein.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Ragtime



In March of 1540 Hans Kohlhase was executed for leading a gang of raiders through Saxony. They were seeking vengeance against a nobleman who had stolen his horses. The anti-hero would be re-imagined as Coalhouse Walker in E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel Ragtime.

Ragtime weaves together the stories of three New York families battered by the tides of history in the early 1900’s. Coalhouse crosses paths with Booker T. Washington. The other families meet influential figures like Henry Ford, Harry Houdini and the activist Emma Goldman. Terrence McNally would juggle each story line in his ambitious libretto for the musical adaptation.

Coalhouse and his companions suffer tragedy in their quest for justice but Ragtime is ultimately an optimistic show. Ragtime believes that each generation can learn from the mistakes of the past and slowly build a kinder world.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

9 to 5


In 1973 a group of women founded the 9to5 organization to campaign for the same pay and treatment as their male co-workers. When actress and producer Jane Fonda met with them the idea for a screenplay was inspired. The film Nine to Five went through multiple rewrites before its release in 1980. A drama about workplace harassment became a black comedy about three secretaries attempting to murder their boss. The final product softened the murder to a kidnapping but kept the social commentary.

Singer/songwriter Dolly Parton wrote the award winning title song and made her film debut in the role of Doralee.  When Robert Greenblatt, president of entertainment at Showtime Networks, Inc., pitched the idea of a musical adaptation he secured Ms. Parton to write the score and co-screenwriter Patricia Resnick to write the libretto. Ms. Resnick told reporters she was sad to see how little had changed in the modern workplace. Nine to Five was as relevant in 2009 as it was in 1980.

9 to 5 at the 2009 Tony Awards.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Chicago



On April 3, 1924 Beulah May Annan shot her lover. On May 24 a jury declared her “not guilty.” The Chicago Tribune sent a rookie reporter, Maureen Dallas Watkins, to cover the trial. The jury was told that Annan and her lover had “both grabbed for the gun” after he’d threatened to kill her.  Watkins reminded her readers of the many contradictions in Annan’s story.

Watkins left the Tribune soon after and recounted the trial in her first play. Chicago premiered on Broadway in December of 1926. Beulah May Annan was reborn as Roxie Hart. Watkins declined all requests for the musical rights till her death in 1969. Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon then secured the rights from her estate.

Roxie’s trial is seen through the lens of a vaudeville stage. The libretto makes nods to the likes of Sophie Tucker, Marilyn Miller and Texas Guinan. The Cook County jail is no Palace Theater but Roxie quickly learns that in America anything can become entertainment for the masses.

1976 Tony Awards - Jerry Orbach performs "All I Care About is Love"
1970's Mike Douglas Show - Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera perform "Nowadays" and the "Hot Honey Rag"
1997 Tony Awards - Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking perform "All That Jazz" and the "Hot Honey Rag"
1998 Kennedy Center Honors - Chita Rivera and Bebe Neuwirth perform "All That Jazz"

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Caroline, or Change


Tony Kushner did not adapt the libretto for Angels in America the opera. He did, however, provide the libretto for another musical. The show had a lengthy development process and a tragically short Broadway run. It's a marathon of a show with two leading roles that are difficult to cast. The show has lived on through a strong cast album and multiple regional productions. 

It's interesting to compare it to the book and film The Help. Both are set in the American south in 1963. Both concern the relationship between a black maid and a white child. But The Help painted this relationship in a positive light and made a great deal of money. Caroline ends with Caroline reminding Noah that they were "never friends." That doesn't sell as many tickets but it's closer to the truth. 

Panel discussion on the creation of the show.
Tony Kushner interviewed by NPR in 2006.
Tonya Pinkins performing "Gonna Pass Me a Law" at the White House.
Tonya Pinkins performing "Lot's Wife" on the Tony Awards.