Tuesday, December 30, 2014
With the success of Into the Woods hope has rekindled among the die-hard fans that we'll see a film of Follies. If such film should ever occur it is nearly guaranteed to be a glorious and fascinating failure. The original Broadway production received mixed reviews and a truncated cast album, leaving the fans to spread the legend of the perfect cast and ghostly set. When concerts, revivals and extended recordings began to emerge they were held against the enhanced memories of the original.
At one point Follies was to have connected it's showbiz reunion vignettes with a backstage murder mystery. The plot was dropped in favor of a dream scape where the guests at the party interact with the ghosts of their younger selves. Imposing a stronger plot upon the film could be as problematic as the screenplay for Nine, yet leaving the film shapeless would be an even riskier experiment. Regardless, when and if it happens I'll be there opening night with a front row seat!
Friday, December 26, 2014
I decided to look at the Metacritic scores for movie musicals of the past ten years and see if I noticed any trends.
Heavily Rewritten Adaptation
- 81% - Hairspray (2007) – New songs: Ladies’ Choice, The New Girl in Town, I Can Wait (cut), Come So Far (credits)
- 49% - Nine (2009) – New songs: Guarda La Luna, Cinema Italiano, Take It All
- 47% - Rock of Ages (2012)
- 33% - Annie (2014) – New songs: Moonquake Like, The City’s Yours, Opportunity, Who Am I
Faithful Film Adaptation
- 83% - Sweeney Todd (2007)
- 76% - Dreamgirls (2006) – New songs: Love You I Do, Patience, Listen
- 71% - Into the Woods (2014)
- 63% - Les Miserables (2012) – New song: Suddenly
- 54% - Jersey Boys (2014)
- 51% - Mama Mia (2008)
- 40% - The Phantom of the Opera (2004) – New song: Learn to be Lonely (credits)
Filmed Broadway Cast
- 53% - Rent (2005)
- 52% - The Producers (2005) – New song: There’s Nothing Like a Show on Broadway (credits)
Few of these have been embraced by fans of the original productions. Putting the Broadway cast on film won’t solve all your problems.
I felt the Sweeney Todd film missed the comic tone completely but it felt more like a “movie” than many of the other adaptations and critics embraced it for that.
A singing actor can give a thoughtful performance of the right song, or thoroughly embarrass themselves. Rarely do they justify not casting an actual singer in their place. Dubbing isn't coming back. Auto-tune needs to be kept at bay.
If you’re putting a new song in just to win an Oscar… don’t bother.
The inevitable film of Wicked will break hearts.
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
The following post contains major plot spoilers for Into the Woods.
Into the Woods mixes the characters of four classic fairy tales into an original story. Everyone pursues their wish in a fast, funny, tightly plotted act one. Act two shows the sour side of happy ever after. The wishes have ugly consequences and half the cast dies. Like Candide and The Fantasticks the survivors sing an older but wiser ballad and replace adventure with domestic life. It’s messy, depressing and unfulfilling… which some say is the point.
I’ve seen about eight live productions, thus far, and the second act has never satisfied me. One director will be slavishly following the original Broadway staging. Then I read their program note… BAM… Cinderella’s Castle is the World Trade Center! The Giant is Global Warming! Wait… what? Before seeing the new film I thought I’d jot down some thoughts for my dream production.
Who are your protagonists?
Little Red, Bakers Wife or Witch can steal the show but they can’t carry it. Their arcs wrap up too quickly. I’ve seen many productions hit their emotional climax at the Witch’s “Last Midnight.” Show’s over folks, you can all go home…
Only we can’t. There are three more ballads and a reprise to sit through. If your Cinderella hasn't grown a spine and your Baker is charmless the energy sinks like a lead balloon. No one wants to hear Louise reprise “Little Lamb” after Rose has sung “Rose’s Turn.”
The film has cut The Baker’s “No More” and I know Anna Kendrick can play Cinderella’s arc. I’ll be curious to see how this shifts the balance.
What’s your favorite theme?
Sexual Awakening. Little Red, Jack, Cinderella and the Baker’s Wife each get seduced. Their flings lead to heartbreak, violence and self-growth. When the Baker’s Wife sings “Momentsin the Woods” the conclusions she draws can be a culmination of the lessons all four characters have learned. If your Jack and Little Red are cast too young, or your Wolf/Prince Charming is staged too chaste, the theme can be buried.
Death. Lots of people die in Into the Woods. I’ve seen a production where the actors built a grave for each death till the stage was covered in them… but Cinderella’s mother became a ghost in a tree so where does spirituality fit in? And what happens to the witch when she vanishes? Some productions turn her back into a crone. Some have her kill herself or be killed by the curse.
I’d like to see a production where she turns into a tree. Perhaps when the dead characters come back in the epilogue they are all trees and the survivors are holding a memorial ceremony. Which brings me to…
Community Building. Is “No One Is Alone” your thesis statement? Are the characters moving from separate journeys to pursuit of a common goal? If it results in two mob murders (The Narrator and the Giant) is it a good thing? It’s easy to lose this thread among all the late show exposition. When do your actors consciously decide to change their ways and work together? Can it be physicalized? Perhaps we see them rebuilding the broken homes, burying the Giant or holding the aforementioned tree funeral in the final scene?
Flawed Parents. Is “Children Will Listen” your thesis statement? Most of the characters are abused or abandoned by their parents. The Baker and his Wife want a baby. When they get one, they neglect it. The Narrator was killed for telling a harmful story to the cast but we end with the Baker telling the same story to his son. I always see this staged like it’s a positive thing. Are we supposed to believe the Baker is going to try to do better now? Your Baker had better have given us a reason to like him before that point or it will ring hollow.
And about that Narrator... I hate that his death is handled as a throw away gag. I’ve never seen a production where his absence has any consequence. Some directors deconstruct their set at intermission. Maybe save your big reveal for when the Narrator dies. Without him your set/structure/woods begin to fall apart.
I’d also like to see a production where Cinderella acknowledges the Narrator is gone. He steered her to her mother’s tree in act one. She’s offstage when he dies. Her next scene is at the fallen tree. Give her a moment to look to the narrator’s corner. The spot light comes up. No one is there. This is new. His death is real. Now she has officially lost her last parental figure and has to write her own story.
What does this all add up to? Maybe nothing. These are a collection of “moments” that have bugged me after watching multiple productions. They may go over the heads of other audience members. But I wanted to write them down before the movie becomes a new generation’s definitive version.
Look, tell him the story
Of how it all happened.
Be father and mother,
You'll know what to do.
Sunday, December 21, 2014
The following post contains major plot spoilers for the 2014 film Annie.
Tracie Thoms is giving my favorite performance in Annie2014. She’s given no name, though her stage equivalent would be Lily St. Regis. She’s been hired to pose as Annie’s mother. When she looks at Annie she doesn’t clutch her or start sobbing. She offers a heartfelt smile and holds out a broken locket. She asks “is it a match?” and Annie obediently pulls out her own locket to prove she’s the right little girl. She is silent and submissive upon meeting Annie’s guardian Will Stacks (aka Daddy Warbucks). In a film full of broad, cartoon-ish performances, Tracie keeps her cards to her chest. When she confronts Annie in a locked, speeding car, the scene is terrifying. She’s been instructed by Stacks’ henchmen to “hold on to Annie” till Stacks' mayoral campaign is over then “dump her in the system.” Does the system mean a group home or the Hudson River? Annie’s lucky she never has to find out.
- The premise. A multicultural Annie is not an inherently bad idea and there are moments where you see why people signed on.
- The leads. Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx and Rose Byrne have charm and chemistry.
- The opening scenes. The Overture, Maybe, Hard Knock Life and Tomorrow are inventively staged. This stretch is faithful to the source material and shows you can create something new while honoring something old.
- Tracie Thoms and Dorian Missick as Annie’s fake parents. The stakes are higher for them than anyone else.
What doesn't work
- Miss Hannigan. Comedy benefits from context. Is Miss Hannigan a wounded soul in a gritty real world setting? Or a grotesque in a cartoon world? One moment she’s Bad Teacher screaming and vamping. Then she’s Glee’s Sue Sylvester; deadpan snarking, breaking the fourth wall and showing flashes of vulnerability. No one else in the film knows how to respond to her so they leave her in a vacuum.
- Composite Characters. The Russian Social worker is part Grace, part Hannigan, but the film already has a Grace and a Hannigan. Bobby Cannavale, David Zayas and Dorian Missick are each playing different aspects of the character of Rooster. All of them look uncomfortable.
- Celebrity Cameos. Speaking of folks who don’t belong here.
- Gross Out Humor. Oliver Stacksbucks tells a poop joke and performs multiple spit takes. I didn’t like this stuff when I was a kid and don’t like it now. Your mileage may vary.
What’s in between
- The Politics. Annie praises hard work but loves getting free stuff. Stacks claims he built his cell phone empire through hard work… as opposed to sweat shop labor and conflict minerals. Telephone surveillance is bad… unless you use it to outwit your kidnappers. Stacks wants to help the poor, except the ones he thinks are gross. Is this movie Harold Gray conservative or FDR liberal? It never decides and the whiplash is painful.
- The Annie/Stacks Relationship. Stacks is a prissy germ-a-phobe who hired a kid for P.R. Annie knows she’s being used (“What’s the hustle?”) and is determined to grab as much free swag from his penthouse and premiere parties as she can. She sings “Opportunity” to his campaign donors with the steely determination of Eva Peron. Then she’s asked to read a speech to the crowd about how great Stacks is. She can’t do it. She runs off the stage in tears.
- “This is it!” I thought. “This is where she’ll realize how cynical this movie has been and that Stacks has made her a whore!” But that’s not quite it. Instead *** major spoiler *** she confesses to Stacks that she can’t read. This shocks him to the core and inspires his first feelings of responsibility for her future. Then there’s a kidnapping plot and a quick reconciliation that I didn’t quite buy. The darker implications of their relationship are left unresolved. To be fair I find this relationship creepy on stage too.
- The New Songs. Moonquake Lake, Opportunity, Who Am I and The City’s Yours have not made this Broadway baby a fan of Sia and Kirstin’s pop stylings. Will their pop fans enjoy being introduced to synth remixed show tunes? Which leads to the biggest un answered question.
- Who is the audience for this movie? It's clearly not show tune lovers. Will a new generation of little girls gush over Annie’s materialism? Or be touched by it’s last minute, kinda-sorta change of heart? Or will this movie be as forgotten as 1995’s Annie:A Royal Adventure?
The Little Orphan Annie comic strips ran for 80 years putting Annie in peril. She may have been adopted by a billionaire but a constant stream of thieves and gangsters kept her from ever seeing a happy ending. When we last see Tracie Thoms she’s being tackled to the ground by Stacks’bodyguard. What’s happening to her while Annie and Stacks cavort to “I Don’t Need Anything But You?” No doubt Stacks will “dump her in the system.”
Still, I liked it better than Oliver &Company.
Friday, December 19, 2014
Buddy: You can never have too many boy friends!
The 2003 film Elf was adapted into a Broadway musical in 2010. In 2014 NBC produced an abridged, stop-motion animated version of the musical titled Elf: Buddy's Musical Christmas. While the first joke of the original film was how un-elf like Will Ferrell was, the actors who've played it on stage have been cast to differing degrees of elf-y-ness.
Watching the special I began to wonder what other musicals could be served this way. Rumors of an animated Cats circulated for years. Would Peter Pan Live! or the recent Annie remake have fared better if their stars had lent their voices to a 90 minute animated version? Now I want to get some play dough and make a Dreamgirls music video! You've inspired me Elf!
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
I've discussed Annie's unlucky sequel, Annie Warbucks, in the past. With a third film opening to bloodthirsty reviews I'd contrast the other adaptations. While Annie 2014 sets the story in a modern setting, the previous films have at least tweaked with the climax to place Annie in more peril and give their star villains more to do. Grace often gets a little more music too.
Your numbers may vary. I count "Sandy" and "Dumb Dog" in the 1982 film as one new song, and while Jamie Foxx sings "Something Was Missing" on the 2014 soundtrack I 've read it is not included in the film proper.
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
The recent Peter Pan Live included several new songs, two of which took set melody's from Do Re Mi to new lyrics.
- Hubie's "Ambition" became Captain Hook's "Vengeance" and
- the record producer's "I Know About Love" became Wendy's "(Is It) Only Pretend?"
The original show won't miss them as it's not likely to be revived any time soon. It was written as a star vehicle for Phil Silvers and seen briefly at Encores with Nathan Lane in 1999, but neither production had much praise for the slight book. It was mainly a launching pad for a star turn.
"Hubert Cram, the bluntly drawn schlemiel of a hero in the musical ''Do Re Mi,'' is not a character to be served without sauce. He needs the twists, fizz and flourishes that only an outsize comic presence can provide, the sort of performer to whom shtick is an intricate and highly evolved art. In 1960, when the show first opened, Phil Silvers was on hand to come up with the necessary embellishments. Baroque shtick was Silvers's specialty, as it was to a whole galaxy of funny men whose style was descended from vaudeville, from Bert Lahr to Zero Mostel." ~ New York Times
Wednesday, December 3, 2014
I'm Mrs. Santa Claus, the invisible wife.
And Mrs. Santa Claus needs a change in her life.
I saw this special when it first aired, then promptly forgot it. Something recently reminded me of its existence and the earworm title song popped back into my head. Terrance Mann's campy villain makes an impression as well.
"The CBS movie, billed as the first original musical for television since Rodgers and Hammerstein's ''Cinderella'' in 1957, turns out to be, of all things, a feisty feminist and unionist tract set in 1910." ~ New York Times.
Friday, November 21, 2014
The director and choreographer Tommy Tune may have the most extravagant imagination in the American musical theater right now, and there isn't a moment, or a square inch of stage space, that escapes its reach in ''Grand Hotel.'' The musical at the Martin Beck Theater is an uninterrupted two hours of continuous movement, all dedicated to creating the tumultuous atmosphere of the setting: an opulent way station at a distant crossroads of history in Berlin - that of 1928. ~ New York Times.1989.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Book by Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov
Ruth Sherwood may have felt overshadowed by her sister Eileen but the stories she wrote about their life launched a successful franchise. My Sister Eileen was adapted into a hit Broadway play, a film, a TV series (starring Elaine Stritch!), and two competing musicals!
Columbia Pictures' film musical featured a sexy challenge dance between Eileen’s suitors, Bob Fosse and Tommy Rall, but Bernstein, Comden and Green’s Wonderful Town had the longer shelf life. The show rejuvenated the career of Rosalind Russell and boosted the profile of Donna Murphy in a successful revival.
Monday, November 17, 2014
“In early 1986 the Space Shuttle blew up and that’s when I realized that we still haven’t learned the lesson of not putting our unconditional faith in the infallibility of technology. Now we really need to tell the story so that we can live and learn from it... Now Peter had written the show 1776, and had taken an historic event, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and convinced the audience by the end of the play that they were not going to sign it! I said, Peter, you are the perfect man to write Titanic because you are somehow going to convince the audience that the ship is not going to sink or at least hope that it won’t." ~ Maury Yeston
"It's good to be reminded that most of those who perished were travelling to the US to make new and better lives for themselves." ~ Guardian. 2013.
Friday, November 14, 2014
Mary McCarty is best remembered today for originating the roles of Mama Morton in Chicago and Stella "Who's That Woman" in Follies. In 1949 she played the ill-treated third wheel in the love triangle of Irving Berlin's Miss Liberty. Her character was so poorly treated by the callow leading man that audiences turned against him and his new love.
Though an Irving Berlin score is always fun, the critics did not consider this work his best. Miss Liberty lasted 308 performances but has not been heard from since.
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Lorenz Hart
Book by John O'Hara, based on his novel
"If it is possible to make an entertaining musical comedy out of an odious story, Pal Joey is it… Although Pal Joey is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” ~ Brooks Atkinson, New York Times, 1940.
"Joey as a person met with a great deal of resistance in 1940 when he was first presented to the American public, but I have an idea that this was due largely to the fact that nobody like Joey had ever been on the musical stage before… While Joey himself may have been fairly adolescent in his thinking and his morality, the show bearing his name certainly wore long pants, and in many respects forced the entire musical comedy theater to wear long pants for the first time. We were all pretty proud of this fact." ~ Richard Rogers, New York Times, 1951
Monday, November 10, 2014
The film The World of Henry Orient gave Peter Sellers a star turn as the frazzled musician. The stage adaptation gave Don Ameche considerably less to do in the title role, giving the lions share of the songs to Robin Wilson and Neva Small as the two school girls.
Clive Barnes at the New York Times was blasting all musicals that season that didn't have pop or rock scores and his review was blamed for the shows early demise, but the cast recording indicates that there were other problems. Bob Merrill's "youthful" lyrics can't decide how young the girls are supposed to be. At times they seem teenagers, at other times toddlers. He could get away with this sort of thing in Carnival for plot reasons, but it's problematic here.
Alice Playten received the lions share of the notices for her two belty songs as the school bully, Kafritz. Even cranky Clive Barnes praised her for "belting out the music like a toy Merman."
Friday, November 7, 2014
Alfred Uhry: When I was a child, when anybody would mention Leo Frank, people of that generation would get up and walk out of the room... Then one time I told the story to Hal Prince, and he said, “My God! That’s the musical theatre piece I’ve been looking to do!”
Parade has an ambitious libretto. It contains pieces of a detective story, a courtroom drama and a romance yet refuses to focus on any one plot strand. By giving every member of the town a chance to weigh in on the court case, even in the scaled down 2007 revisal, Parade presents the mindset of an entire fragmented town that eventually joins together as a mob.
Thursday, November 6, 2014
Music and Lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross
Book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell
based on the novel 7½ Cents by Richard Bissell.
Adler and Ross amazed audiences and critics with two Tony winning musicals back to back. Then Jerry Ross had the misfortune to die at the age of 29 of bronchiectasis. While we'll never know what they could have written their two hits, Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game were captured in faithful films and successful in revivals.
Wednesday, November 5, 2014
Judy Holliday had the misfortune to follow her hit musical Bells Are Ringing with the flop Hot Spot. The show closed after 4 months on Broadway and a disaster prone tryout.
No director was credited in the program… During the tryout, the show even lost its musical director… Hot Spot was in such disarray that the New York Times reported Holliday jokingly remarked that the musical would have to be frozen for a least the five mintues prior to the New York opening night curtain. ~ Dan Dietz. The Complete Book of 1960s BroadwayMusicals
During previews in New York a new opening number for Holliday, called “Don’t Laugh,” was added. Quite the best thing in the show it was mostly the work of Stephen Sondheim, a close friend of Mary Rodgers.’ ~ Kevin Mandelbaum, Not Since Carrie.
“It’s a shame. There’s a bright idea for a satire in Hot Spot, but it is still in crude outline form.” ~ Howard Taubman. New York Times.
“You can only live through one or two Hot Spots in your life.” ~ Judy Holliday
Monday, November 3, 2014
A musical comedy about a lovable stalker!
" Writing in The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson called the story “one of the most antiquated plots.”Yet the show ran for 924 performances on the strength of its sui generis star, Judy Holliday, a curvaceous but prurience-proof blonde with a foggy voice and a sunny mien. Comden and Green had performed with Holliday as part of a comic cabaret team, and they tailored the part of Ella the operator, stitch-by-stitch, with their friend in mind." ~ New York Times
Faith Prince had less success in a 2001 revival but Judy Holliday's performance has been captured on film for all to see why this show was a hit.
Friday, October 31, 2014
At one point in Act II, Mr. Okulitch, his skin now covered in hideous scales, is suspended by wires. He enters his studio upside down, crawling along a ceiling crossbeam and then slithering head-first down a metal column, singing all the while. This is something voice students are not prepared for in conservatory training. ~ New York Times.
Just about any subject is ripe for opera. The film world and lyric stage have been influencing and stealing from each other since the days of silents. Brundlefly is no less reasonable a character for musical amplification than Rigoletto. ~ L.A. Times
Thursday, October 30, 2014
The story is familiar, the script and lyrics are not especially innovative, but somehow "Thrill Me," Stephen Dolginoff's pocket musical about the Leopold and Loeb murder case, lands like a well-placed punch, arresting and a bit breathtaking... every time Mr. Kreeger and Mr. Bauer blend their voices in close harmony, it's a reminder that evil often looks and sounds beautiful. ~ New York Times.
Here, Loeb is the self-loving one, and it's not always clear why his pal doesn't rumble him as a prat from the off. We have to take Leopold's sexual obsession on trust. ~ The Guardian
''Roxie Hart a mother? That's like making Leopold and Loeb Scoutmasters!" ~ Velma Kelly, Chicago.
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Are the children simply rebelling against their strict upbringing?
Is the boy's infatuation with the male servant a sign of possession or merely budding homosexuality?
Is the Governesses' infatuation with the master causing her to see ghostly men everywhere she turns?
One of my favorite ghost stories has been adapted and interpreted in many ways. Putting the ghosts on stage, and letting them sing, is a rsik. You reduce the ambiguity of the story. The opera still has great fun playing with who exactly can and can't see them.
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
The macabre and the misty-eyed vie uneasily for supremacy in “The Visit,” a musical adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 tragicomedy about vengeance and venality... Claire is a kind of female Sweeney Todd. Her heart was singed by betrayal in her youth; now she is bent remorselessly on brutal revenge. But as reconceived here, she wavers between sentimental musical interludes and glinty-eyed commitment to retribution. ~ Charles Isherwood, New York Times.
Monday, October 27, 2014
100th Comic! That's 300 panels of musicals!
My favorite horror musical manages to surprise on a first viewing and provide new discoveries on repeated viewings. We're very fortunate that the controversial film is not the only record as Lansbury, LuPone and Thompson have all had their stage productions broadcast.
Saturday, October 18, 2014
"I can't. I'm in tech."
I'll be taking a break this week, returning on Monday, 10/27, with my 100th comic! (That's 300 panels of musicals!)
I've got some more horror musicals in my sites as we head towards Halloween, and then I'll be looking for my next topic. Are there any particular musicals or composers you'd like to see on the blog? Mention them in the comments!
I'll be taking a break this week, returning on Monday, 10/27, with my 100th comic! (That's 300 panels of musicals!)
I've got some more horror musicals in my sites as we head towards Halloween, and then I'll be looking for my next topic. Are there any particular musicals or composers you'd like to see on the blog? Mention them in the comments!
Friday, October 17, 2014
Julie Taymor wrote a meta-theatrical libretto in which four comic book fans debate the connections between modern super-heroes and Greek myths. The mythical Arachne creates Spiderman and his foes, toys with their fates… and sings a song about shoes.
After a skyrocketing budget, an extended preview period, defiant critics, backstage battles, onstage accidents, casting changes and a lawsuit the new writers scaled down the ambitions. The revised Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark followed the arc of the 2002 film. Spiderman gains his powers, pines for Mary Jane, and defeats the Green Goblin.
Would the more ambitious libretto hold up in a concert staging, without the burden of expensive sets and dangerous stunts? Did the Greek myth/Comic hero parallel have potential? Now that it is tied up in legal red tape we may never know.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
Where the 1966 Superman was kin to Adam West the 2010 Dallas revisal aimed for Christopher Reeve. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa attempted to flesh out the Clark/Lois romance and introduce more characters from the lore. In a diplomatic interview he explains that DC Comics did not approve and he was asked to make his characters legally distinct from their comic counterparts. “So Lex (Luthor) went back to being Max Menken….”
Reviews were mixed suggesting that the modern sensibilities of the new book didn't always gibe with the retro score and the villains again stole focus from Lois and Clark.
One change that interests me was the use of the song “WeDon’t Matter At All.” In 1966 Lois sang this duet with her disposable love interest Jim Morgan. He sings of peppy nihilism (“We Don’t Matter At All”) and she refutes him (“Oh we matter we do. What’s the matter with you.”) In 2010 the cynical verse goes to the gossip columnist and the rebuttal goes to Clark Kent. This makes him more sympathetic than the Gaston-like boasting of “Doing Good” and “Pow. Bam. Zonk.”
DC Comics may never let this production go to Broadway but Sacasa was soon scooped to save another flailing superhero musical…
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Superheroes and musicals have been an uneasy match. Musicals are often about big characters pursuing big dreams. In a superhero narrative that’s usually the role of the villain. This week we'll look at three super hero musicals. The libretto for It’s Superman keeps Clark and Lois busy with new love interests while three villains drive the plot.
Benton and Newman’s Superman is an Adam Westy / Lil’ Abnery lug with big ego. In today’s era of angsty superheroes it’s interesting to see Superman’s act two angst played for broad laughs.
The writers never came up with anything compelling for Superman to sing. The breakout song, “You’ve Got Possibilities,” goes to a villain’s girlfriend as she tries to seduce Clark Kent. Some have suggested that song should go to Lois, while Lois’ ballad “What I’ve Always Wanted” should go to Clark. The 2010 revisal had other plans. More on that tomorrow.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
I love Damn Yankees but I’ll admit it’s oddly structured. Who is it about? Joe and Meg are technically the protagonists as their marriage is at stake, but Applegate (The Devil) and Lola drive the plot and get the best songs. The baseball team gets the dances while their quest to beat the Yankees and win the pennant is kept offstage. The 1994 revisal adjusted this by focusing on “the big game” in the finale.
Gwen Verdon’s Lola was unquestionably the heart and… soul… of the original production. You can play Lola as a comical vamp and get laughs but Verdon did more. She’d grown tired of the vamp act. Joe’s initial resistance made it fun for her again but his sincerity made her drop the mask. She never forgot that she was “the ugliest woman in Providence, Rhode Island” wearing a supernatural disguise. It gave the breezy musical comedy some pathos.
Monday, October 13, 2014
If you've any interest in obscure musicals you'll want to read Ken Mandelbaum’s fantastic book Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops.
The original production suffered from the conflicting styles of the original artistic team who made it a strange mix of earnestness and camp. Carrie and her mother were staged for Greek Tragedy while the chorus of mean girls were staged for a revival of Grease. The show closed in five performances to jeers, catcalls and snarky reviews.
"But when was the last time you saw a Broadway song and dance about the slaughtering of a pig? They've got one to open Act II of ''Carrie,'' and no expense has been spared in bringing the audience some of the loudest oinking this side of Old McDonald's Farm." ~ Frank Rich
The writers pulled the show from circulation and retooled it bringing a new Carrie to Off-Broadway in 2012. While that production received mixed responses the show is now available for schools and regional theaters to tackle.
Friday, October 10, 2014
Three vampire musicals opened and closed on Broadway in quick succession. Each approached their subjects from a different angle.
In the public domain, no one can hear you scream. ~ NY Times on Dracula.
“We ended up with two shows at war with each other,” says Steinman. “One was sensual and Gothic, the other was camp ‘Rocky Horror.’ I knew the critics would kill us for that. ~ NY Post on Dance of the Vampires
"Lestat," .... is the third vampire musical to open in the last few years, and it seems unlikely to break the solemn curse that has plagued the genre.... the show admittedly has higher aspirations and (marginally) higher production values than the kitschy "Dance of the Vampires" (2002) and the leaden "Dracula: The Musical" (2004), both major-league flops….
"Lestat" brings to mind a fancy-dress version of "The Boys in the Band," Mart Crowley's landmark play about the miseries of being gay. Here again is a set of expensively attired men who, when they aren't on the prowl for a luscious new conquest, lament the all-consuming urges that have turned them into outcasts. ~ NY Times on Lestat
Thursday, October 9, 2014
Being in the chorus of Jekyll and Hyde is rather thankless. The Governors lost their comic song "Bitch Bitch Bitch" in early drafts, the Act Two opener "Murder Murder" is nobody's favorite and most of your efforts go into the FIVE renditions of the song "Facade."
There's a face that we wear
In the cold light of day -
It's society's mask,
It's society's way,
And the truth is
That it's all a facade!
Get it! We're all Jekyll and Hyde! You don't see it? Don't worry, we'll sing it again!
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
While there are few horror musicals there are many musicals based on horror properties. You can change your monster to a clown or a hunk. It makes it easier to write a song for him, but doesn't guarantee a successful show.
NY Times on Young Frankenstein
No, it is not nearly as good as “The Producers,” Mr. Brooks’s previous Broadway musical. No, it is not as much fun as the 1974 Mel Brooks movie, also called “Young Frankenstein,” on which it is based….
Despite its fidelity to the film’s script, “The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein” (to use its sprawling official title) feels less like a sustained book musical than an overblown burlesque revue, right down to its giggly smuttiness.
NY Times on Frankenstein a New Musical
For all their talk of fidelity to the original text, the show’s authors have departed radically from it in this piece of casting. … With hairless pecs and buzz cut, this Creature would probably be a man magnet on a Saturday night in Chelsea.
Village Voice on a third Frankenstein
While the first act follows the novel somewhat faithfully (excepting some scenes of haunting), the second contains some great departures, including a comic number the Creature (Timothy Warmen) sings to his unsuccessfully resurrected mate and a scene in which the Creature rapes Elizabeth (Cadden Jones) before throttling her. Perhaps rape scenes ought not be set to music at all, but if they are, they certainly should not include the repeated lyric "Forgive the intrusion."
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Yeston and Kopit wrote their version first. Webber's was produced first. Yeston and Kopit released their rights to regional theaters first allowing it to be produced around the country.
The Phantom of the Opera was originally a horror story, though both musicals emphasize the tragic romance. When the Phantom's do begin their killing sprees the tones are inconsistent, often promoting as many giggles as gasps.
There was something unwholesome and pathetic about the 1925 Phantom, who scuttled like a rat in the undercellars of the Paris Opera and nourished a hopeless love for Christine. The modern Phantom is more like a perverse Batman with a really neat cave. ~ Roger Ebert on the 2004 Webber Film.
What transpires from this point to the end of the show is a frustrating mix of comedy, spectacle, sentimentality, revelation and suspense, with great highs and great lows. ~ L.A. Times on Yeston and Kopit's Phantom.
Monday, October 6, 2014
The Wild Party is more existential dread than horror themed, but it has something in common with the other horror musicals I'll be looking at this week. Public domain source material and two competing musical versions.
New York Times on Lippa:
Mr. Lippa's score, dexterously orchestrated by Michael Gibson, has a jittery, wandering quality, conscientiously shifting styles and tempos as if in search of a lost chord. ... Mr. Lippa's book and lyrics have expanded the focus of March's notoriously cool-blooded poem to depict a quest not just for novel sensation but for that funny thing called love.
New York Times on LaChiusa:
This latest version, the work of Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe, is big on letting its characters suffer, loudly and aggressively, in the spotlight. The suffering is embodied by talented stars like Mandy Patinkin, Toni Collette and the legendary Eartha Kitt.
Friday, October 3, 2014
Let's kick October off with some horror musicals! Anthony Rapp, Pasha Pellosie and Eric Michael Krop star in the short musical film Grind now screening on Out.com. The songs are catchy and the mystery is skillfully unveiled.
Not to be confused with Ben Vereen's Grind.
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
"Take it from one who saw it, Drat! The Cat!, which ran a week at the Martin Beck in 1965, was a very funny (if very silly) show. It was full of inventive Joe Layton staging, and its leads, Lesley Ann Warren and Elliott Gould, gave performances so wonderful that one could only assume that one would be seeing them in show after show." ~ Kevin Mandelbaum
"Yes, Drat! The Cat! a musical comedy about a cat burglar plundering 1890's New York society, opened on October 10, 1965 -- and closed on its first weekend. And that's a bigger crime than ever The Cat ever pulled." ~ Peter Filichia
"With its bizarre plotting and outlandish resolution, Drat! the Cat! wins no prizes for logic or depth, but it may well have been the breeziest musical comedy of 1965." ~ Marc Miller
Monday, September 29, 2014
I was thrilled to catch the Broadcast of Sweeney Todd at the NY Philharmonic starring Emma Thompson, Audra MacDonald and Christian Borle. I was less thrilled by the one note performance of Bryn Terfel as Sweeney though part of that is my personal bias against the traditional opera performance style.
Thursday, September 25, 2014
My video game series concludes (for now) with Pokémon Live! featuring Andrew Rannells, the Tony winning star of The Book of Mormon. A musical based on a cartoon based on a video game franchise in which children train cute animals to combat in battle arenas.
The show is online and as camp as can be with a non-canon straight romance to balance out all the subtext. I wonder what parents thought of the whole thing?
Edit: On September 15, 2016 the writer of Pokemon Live gave a fascinating interview with Game Informer magazine.
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
A ballet based on a video game? It exists and is currently online.
I lack the vocabulary to comment on the dance, though I’ve sat through enough Nutrcracker’s to know you can stage an exciting sword fight. Adding a Barbarian woman to the heroes team helps balance out the distressed damsels. I was really hoping the Dragon Lord would turn into a giant dragon puppet. (Spoiler: He doesn’t).
The most successful element of the project appears to be Koichi Sugiyama’s score. He’s composed gorgeous video game music since the 1980's and it lends itself well to the stage.
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
And now for something completely different.
I recently watched the documentary “Gaming in Color” which explores the intersections between the gaming and LGBTQ communities.
I saw parallels between the growing pains of the gaming industry and those of commercial musical theater. Both industries have found that quickly rising production costs and producers pushing for escapist entertainment have left creators fighting for art.
I’ve loved theater and video games for most of my life but rarely have the two worlds intersected. My small pile of video game design ideas includes an adventure game where you play a stage manager rushing to solve the technical and emotional problems backstage at a show before opening night.
I’ve decided to draw some comics this week that look at cultural intersections between musical theatre and gaming, from game characters portrayed on stage to in-game villains performing fabulous musical numbers. First up, THE PROTOMEN! A rock opera inspired by the Megaman games. The games started on the NES and followed a series of battling candy colored robots and their human creators. The rock opera reimagines the backstory for the anti-hero supporting character Protoman.
I’m not sure if there’s an audience for this topic beyond me. If you find these interesting, let me know in the comments.
Monday, September 22, 2014
And now for the other musical based on The Odyssey. It threw in The Illiad and The Judgement of Paris for good measure.
If The Golden Apple was so brilliant, why didn't it run longer on Broadway? There were those who maintained that it was somewhat lacking in emotional involvement, but emotion is there in the music for Penelope and Ulysses, and the sheer theatrical imagination of the piece provides sufficient excitement to make up for any lack of feeling... Most of the shows in this book failed their audiences; it was the audience that failed The Golden Apple. ~ Ken Mandelbaum, Not Since Carrie.
Latouche... conceived the work as a satiric illustration of America's change from a rural culture to an urban one, dotted with a few jabs at the militaristic mentality. But his funniest material is more literary than political, depending for laughs on the audience's familiarity with Homer's epics--a sure way to please the cognoscenti, but no guaranteed ticket to wide popularity. ~ Albert Williams. Chicago Reader.
Check the blog tomorrow for something completely different.
Friday, September 19, 2014
Mitch Leigh and Joan Deiner never re-captured the success of Man of La Mancha but that didn't stop them from trying. Home Sweet Homer only lasted one performance on Broadway but before that the team suffered through a monstrous tour. Yul Brynner swiftly returned to revivals of The King and I.
Thursday, September 18, 2014
Our palaces are gaudier,
Our alley ways are bawdier,
Our princes more autocratic here,
Our beggars more distinctly aromatic here!
I love the score to Kismet! The original production was a success and Dolores Gray brings the fun in an uneven film, but the show's parade of sexy stereotypes make it a tougher sell than Disney's Aladdin to a modern audience.
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Broadway jackals suspicious of Ms. Gifford’s bona fides were surely hoping for an epoch-making turkey in time for Thanksgiving. Sorry, guys. “Scandalous” isn’t so much scandalously bad as it is generic and dull. ~ Charles Isherwood. New York Times.
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Whoa, alas, I'm a poor person living in the streets, and can belt high H. ~ Broadway Abridged.
Regrettably, "Brooklyn" feels less like the next "Rent" than a soot-and-sugar revue bound for Vegas, where it might fit comfortably amid the simulated big-city authenticity of the New York-New York Hotel. ~ Ben Brantley, New York Times.
Monday, September 15, 2014
Act one of Goodtime Charley reads like Once Upon a Mattress; full of innuendo and burlesque. Act two reads like Game of Thrones; building to a scene where a vengeful Charley runs a sword through his General, feeds his Archbishop to the Inquisition, and tosses his treacherous mother down a flight of stairs. The New York Times described the show thus:
“The tone of the book is uncertain. It tries to be both flippant and serious, but it really succeeds in being neither. The story of a little guy’s being made into a king is not a bad idea at all – but although Mr. Grey is the star, the story rests on Joan. This is a conflict of narrative interest that Mr. Michaels never resolves. Whose story is this? We never find out.” ~Clive Barnes. New York Times. 1975.
Friday, September 12, 2014
All this talent and labor has been squandered on a conventional Western story written by Leonard Gershe and based on a story by Max Brand. There are times when it seems to be a cartoon on the Western stencil. It seems to be poking fun at itself, hoping to have its cake and eat it also. ~ Brooks Atkinson. New York Times.
Destry Rides Again is a comedy and could easily be played for full blown camp, ala Blazing Saddles. Still Deputy Destry and the two unfortunate sheriffs carry a kernel of drama. Jimmy Stewart’s Destry refused to carry a gun… until he did… in the 1939 film. Andy Griffith’s Destry tricks the villain into betraying his henchmen, who take swift revenge.
While Destry drives the plot the redemptive arc goes to Frenchy. Legend has it that the diva-tastic Dolores Gray’s temper kept her from achieving full stardom. In Destry Rides Again she got a dandy vehicle that featured her in nine songs. Marlene Dietrich died in Stewart’s arms but Gray got to walk with him into the sunset.
Thursday, September 11, 2014
Lili has her sorrows and romantic frustrations. They do not seem to be deep, but when she grows up at the end, “Carnival!” achieves an effect of honest emotion. That is quite an achievement for any musical. ~ Howard Taubman. New York Times. 1961.
Lili may be the most unworldly heroine ever in a Broadway musical, dangerously blurring the lines between innocence and mental deficiency… But there were glimmers of a more cynical attitude in ''Carnival,'' anticipating the self-hating, self-worshiping portraits of theater folk by Bob Fosse. ~ Ben Brantley. New York Times. 2002.
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
How much can an anti-hero get away with in a financially successful musical? The onstage Harry Bogen was guilted out of his worst act in the source novel but his victims were more sympathetic than those of J. P. Finch or Pal Joey.
Regardless, Harry Bogen is not the one folks remember from Wholesale today:
The evening’s find is Barbara Streisand, a girl with an oafish expression, a loud irascible voice and an arpeggiated laugh. Miss Streisand is a natural comedienne, and Mr. Rome has given her a brash, amusing song, “Miss Marmelstein,” to lament her secretarial fate.
~ Howard Taubman. New York Times.
Thursday, September 4, 2014
“Mame is also the most basic of sixties titles, in a form invented in this decade, which I call the Big Lady Show. This is a star vehicle that doesn’t wait for you to be enthralled by the star: it vigorously informs you that the star is enthralling - in writing and direction that make her almost absurdly conspicuous." ~ Ethan Mordden.
Mame and Hello Dolly were big successes that featured a wide range of stars, though both suffered from miscast film versions. Dear World's source material defied adaptation to the formula and suffered despite a fantastic lead performance.
Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Marriage vs. Career is a common theme in musical theater. While the leading ladies in my last post had to compromise their ambitions to keep their partners, the leading men in The Will Rogers Follies, Barnum and Stop the World; I Want To Get Off ignore their marriages till death puts a sudden end to them.
Barnum and Littlechap tell their stories in a Circus Ring while Will Rogers performs his in a heavenly Ziegfeld Follies. I almost included Pippin here. His life is presented as a play (and a circus in the 2013 revival) and he contemplates committing suicide rather than settling down with Catherine. Still his quest for meaning takes him many other directions in the first act and his quick foray into a career is quickly abandoned.
Will Rogers and Betty Blake have the least combative marriage of the three couples, though his career leaves her singing "There's No Man Left for Me." Barnum and Cherry's squabbling has a friendly nature to it but Littlechap and Evie turn genuinely sour, not reconciling till late in their lives.
Friday, August 29, 2014
While Annie Get your Gun has been successfully revived several times, Wildcat has vanished and The Unsinkable Molly Brown is only now seeing a resurgence. Ethel Merman's Annie threw a shooting match to heal the wounded ego of her suitor. Bernadette Peters did the same in 1999 but her suitor caught on and threw his own shot as well. Will the upcoming revisal of Molly Brown put her on equal footing with her spouse? Time will tell.