Thursday, July 31, 2014


Though there were stirrings beforehand, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! is widely acknowledged as the granddaddy of the integrated American Musical Theater Libretto. As a life-long fan of musical theater I find the R&H classics surprisingly difficult to sit through. It’s mostly the gender politics with their abusive, occasionally homicidal, alpha males and their sad, passive-aggressive leading ladies. The New York Times’ Clive Barnes called the leads in Sondheim’s Companyworthless and horrid.” I say take a good look at Billy Bigelow or Emile De Becque.

There is one R&H character I really like. More on that tomorrow.

I drew a series on R&H’s flops in May starting with Allegro.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A New Brain

William Finn’s 1998 semi-autobiographical musical has been called shapeless and “spliced-together.” It wasn’t till late in rehearsal for a production that I drew a structural connection to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. 

Gordon hates his life and is haunted by visions of his spiteful employer (a Jacob Marley-esque cautionary tale). In the hospital he is visited by his complicated mother (Christmas Past) and his almost-perfect partner (Christmas Present). Gordon rails against his loved ones and throws his lover out of his hospital room (Scrooge’s break-up with Belle). When surgery puts him in a coma he sees them grieving his death (Christmas Future).

At first I thought Gordon’s recovery was the climax of the show. The scenes afterwards felt unnecessary. The Christmas Carol lens makes Gordon’s post-surgery reconciliations and the syrupy “I Feel So Much Spring” important steps towards rebuilding the life he almost lost. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Now that my Elaine Stritch series is complete I'll be catching up on some requests. First up Passion

Stephen Sondheim: "'Passion' is about how the force of somebody's feelings for you can crack you open and how it is the life force in a deadened world."

David Richards (NYT): In "Passion," however, Mr. Sondheim has dropped his defenses. With the playwright and director James Lapine, he has written an unalloyed love story, one that wants to penetrate the heart's deepest mysteries. Ironically, he has come up with his most somber musical since "Sweeney Todd."

Charles Isherwood (NYT): Indeed, arguments surrounding "Passion" have often focused on whether Giorgio is redeemed or destroyed by Fosca's love. Look for the answer in Mr. Sondheim's music, and you'll find only more questions. The musical's final trio has a soaring, rhapsodic sound, but the very last note reverberates with doom.

Monday, July 28, 2014


Larry Kert: Who do you have to f**k to get out of Company?  
Stephen Sondheim: The same people you f**ked to get in it. Happy birthday, Larry.
Dean Jones: I went out there in Boston and sang this song ‘Happily Ever After’ and I could feel the audience asking me, ‘Why are you doing this to us?’ I saw their eyes widen as they asked, ‘Why do you hate us?’”
Company gave Elaine Stritch her signature song, frightened off its first leading man, and kicked off Sondheim’s most prolific decade.

Ethan Mordden: No show was as misunderstood as Company. This is odd, because its theme is very clearly stated: the absolute intimacy of marriage is very difficult but very necessary…. Sondheim spend the 1970s producing five consecutive masterpieces… yet was, at that time but not after, the most contested major talent in the musical’s history…. Rodger’s and Hammerstein were accepted masters at that time and after- taken, even, for granted. Sondheim was argued.

*** Update 7/18/2016

A recent production of Company inspired me to revise this comic slightly. The original was in pencil and marker. The revised was drawn with digital pen, keeping the same models but cleaning them up and giving Elaine Stritch more prominence (never a bad thing!).

Friday, July 25, 2014

Sail Away

To be a professional pepper upper/ isn’t everyone’s cuppa tea.
But I've wit and guile / and a big false smile
And the tourists rely on me

Noel Coward was impressed by Elaine Stritch’s performance in Goldilocks and offered her a supporting role in his new musical Sail Away. Stritch’s cruise ship hostess would supply the comedy while Jean Fenn’s tourist would engage in a bittersweet romance.

Ethan Mordden (Open a New Window): “Stritch confronted Coward with the rumor that one of the woman leads was going to have her name listed last and set off in a box with the word “and” in front of it. The exasperated Coward replied ‘she shall have her name listed last and set off in a box with the word ‘but’ in front of it.”

Out of town audiences were bored so Fenn’s role was cut and Stritch’s role built up to get the love interest and the jokes. She was a smash. The show wasn’t.

Howard Taubman (New York Times – 1961 review) “As Mimi, the brash, energetic, implacably vivacious cruise hostess, Elaine Stritch gives what must be the performance of her career. She reads lines like an unerring marksman.” Ben Brantley (New York Times – 1999 concert) “Critics fell to their knees in adoration in 1961.That adoration did not extend to Sail Away itself. ''The general feeling was that in 1936 it would have been the best musical of the year,'' wrote the actor Graham Payn, Coward's companion. ''In 1961 it ran for five months.'' The reasons are still apparent.” Ken Mandelbaum (Not Since Carrie): “The failure of both her star vehicles, Goldilocks and Sail Away, did irreparable damage to Stritch’s career.”

It would take eight years for Stritch to appear in another musical on Broadway.

Thursday, July 24, 2014


Who’s been sitting in my chair? Just me. Just me.

By 1958 Elaine Stritch had sung a solo in the revue Angel in the Wings,  played featured roles in revivals of Pal Joey and On Your Toes, and understudied Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam. Goldilocks was to be her breakout starring role. There were some fun songs and a comic supporting role for Margaret Hamilton, but the book was a third-rate Kiss Me Kate. The show closed in 5 months.

Brooks Atkinson – New York Times - 1958
The book undoes what the actors and collaborating artists accomplish, which is a pity…
Miss Stritch can destroy life throughout the country with the twist she gives to the dialogue. She takes a wicked stance, purses her mouth thoughtfully and waits long enough to devastate the landscape.

Elaine Stritch on the dancing bear: “I think he was more or less the funniest guy I worked with - well, certainly in that show. I didn’t like any of the directors. I didn’t like - what else didn’t I like? The whole production.”

Noel Coward was impressed by her performance and offered her a role in his new musical. More on that tomorrow. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Miss Saigon

Frank Rich – New York Times - 1991
For all that seems galling about "Miss Saigon" -- and for all that is indeed simplistic, derivative and, at odd instances, laughable about it -- this musical is a gripping entertainment of the old school…

Michael Billington - Guardian – 2014
So how does Boublil and Schonberg’s musical stand up 25 years after its premiere? In this new production by Laurence Connor, it survives very well as a piece of musical storytelling and as a public spectacle. It's not a show one loves, in the way one does Guys and Dolls or Sweeney Todd, but I found myself watching it with a professional admiration.

And for the shows liveliest moment here's Jonathan Pryce as Thernandier... The Engineer singing the 11 o'clock number

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


In the most recent show from Boublil and Schonberg a woman is torn from her lover by wartime. They reunite just in time for her to die in his arms. Sound familiar? 

The New York Times’ Matt Wolf wrote:
There's nothing wrong with "Marguerite" that some wit, a trace of leavening irony, the occasional relief from its own self-importance wouldn't put right.

The Guardian’s Michael Billington wrote:
We warm to Dumas' Marguerite not just because she is consumptive but because she makes a heroic sacrifice. The musical's Marguerite, however, simply seems an opportunist who, as Armand shrewdly says, 'screws your little pianist in the afternoon and runs home to your German general' … If you can accept a musical with a less-than-sympathetic heroine, then there are things to savour.

Audience’s savoured the show for about five months.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Pirate Queen

I fought my wars on land and sea
To be a woman strong and free
I should have learned, at journey’s start,
No woman’s free who ignores her heart.

Boublil and Schonberg avoided adaptation for The Pirate Queen and created a libretto whole cloth from a historical anecdote. The collaboration with the producers of Riverdance meant that there would be long stretches of dance (at a wedding, a funeral, and a christening) leaving the plot to be quickly shoved into short scenes (like the one where Grace gives birth aboard a ship, gets out of bed to sword fight British soldiers, then belts an angry divorce song at her husband).

Grace's crew was deadly earnest while her Gaston-y first husband and Queen Elizabeth's court were played for high camp. The famous treaty between Grace and Elizabeth, arguably the purpose for adapting this story, took place off-stage while the courtiers gossiped.

Ben Brantley wrote: The Pirate Queen” registers as a relic of a long-gone era, and I don’t mean the 1500s. The big-sound, big-cast show pioneered by Messrs. Boublil and Schönberg is now as much a throwback to the 1980s as big hair and big shoulders. 

The Pirate Queen ran 85 performances and 32 previews.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Nance

Three Panel Musicals
The Nance

Play by Douglas Carter Beane. Broadway 2013.

Nathan Lane's burlesque comic goes cruising for trade and finds a boyfriend.

 Lane refuses to censor the gay content out of his burlesque act.

Mayor LaGuardia shuts down the burlesque houses and Lane self-destructs.

 Not technically a musical but there's enough music in the burlesque interludes for me to sneak it in here. After a short run at the Lincoln Center the Nance was filmed and is currently being broadcast in theaters across the U.S. It's a well-researched piece of theatre history and a titanic performance from Mr. Lane. The whole cast is terrific and Johnny Orsini as the mis-treated boyfriend is heartbreaking... even if Beane's script does make him a bit too good to be true.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Martin Guerre

They all look for someone to blame
But to hell with this crowd
I will be proud
That Martin Guerre is my name!

Boublil and Schonberg would follow their hit Les Miserables with the successful  Miss Saigon. Their next collaboration, Martin Guerre, was problematic. The show is a three person story but the music has the same epic sweep as Les Miz. Critics have compared the score unfavorably. Despite multiple revisions the trials of Martin, Arnaud and Bernadette have not compelled audiences the way Valjean, Eponine and Kim have.

Variety 1999 review.
Multiple 1996 reviews.
The belty title song.

Thursday, July 17, 2014


I saw my fourth production of Assassins last night and decided to do a longer comic. The show tells the stories of nine American Presidential assassins. Some are presented as comical loons. Some are presented as tragic victims of poverty or mental illness.

The libretto refuses to state a clear lesson or moral stance. Somecite this as a weakness in the book. While the show doesn't provide any answers I find my lesson in the contrast between the songs “Another National Anthem” and “Something Just Broke.” In the first the assassins decide if they can’t win understanding they’ll settle for attention.

They might not want to hear it,
But they listen,
Once they thinks it's gonna stop the game...

In the second the chorus of witnesses remember everything about the incident but the assassins themselves and insist that they’ll do all they can to forget.

Fix it up fast,
Till it's just smoke.
Till it's only "Something just passed"—

Every time I see this show the news stories of U.S. violence have only escalated. But there are always plenty who are willing to ignore and forget… tacitly allowing history to repeat. The assassin’s claim they’ll be in every school book but the only reason I know who most of them are… is because of this musical.

The Boublil and Schonberg series will resume tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Les Miserables

Like Andrew Lloyd Webber, Boublil and Schonberg had some of their greatest successes in the late 80's. Before I examine some of their less successful shows I'll start with the one that put them on the map.

In 1998 they spoke to the Independent about how they first met.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Woman in White

After exploring some new territory, Andrew Lloyd Webber returned to gothic novel adaptation with Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White. The magic of Phantom was not recaptured. The show ran 19 months in London and 3 months on Broadway despite the efforts of leading lady Maria Friedman and a series of guest stars in the role of supporting villain Count Fosco (Michael Crawford, Michael Ball, Simon Callow).

  • Maria Friedman singing the belty All For Laura.
  • Count Fosco's duet with a misbehaving live rat.
  • Guardian 2004 Review - "It's a pity Jones's book isn't better because the show has a lot going for it. Lloyd Webber has written a particularly good score...  in trying to ... show all Victorian women as social victims, she actually deprives Marian of much of her odd, independent quirkiness that makes her one of the most original characters in fiction."
  • NYT 2005 Review - "It's not a terrible show, but it's an awfully pallid one. The difference between it and "Sweeney Todd" is the difference between water and blood."
  • Broadway Abridged's Recap - "I'm so glad I found you!  I've come back to again mention I have some vague secret, then to sing in very poorly-written ballads, and to shriek enough for the audience to cover their  ears."

This is my 50th comic! Thanks for reading everyone!

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Beautiful Game and The Boys in the Photograph

So you've advertised a show about football but it’s really about terrorism. Most of your football players end up dead or maimed and your ending is a downer. What to do? Change the title to take the emphasis off the football. Then slap on a new happy ending for your protagonist. Neither The Beautiful Game nor The Boys in the Photograph was a great success but it was an interesting development Andrew Lloyd Webber’s career. As with Whistle Down the Wind he attempted to apply his music too a small naturalistic story. A few years later he’d return to form with The Woman in White and Phantom of the Opera 2: Coney Island Boogaloo

Friday, July 11, 2014

Whistle Down the Wind

The 80’s were a strange time for American Musical Theater. While American artists suffered crisis after crisis producer Cameron Macintosh and composers Andrew Lloyd Webber and  Boublil and Schönberg brought their hits from the West End to Broadway and settled in for long, franchise building runs. Later in his career Webber tried a hand at some smaller scale stories with mixed results. 

The novel and film of Whistle Down the Wind focused on precocious children in Lancanshire. The musical gave us sultry teens in Louisiana. When your leading lady has to believe Jesus is in her barn, and you cast a sexy 18 year old woman in the role, you are begging for camp. Maybe she was kicked in the head by a pony.

Review quotes:

Near the end of "Whistle Down the Wind," the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that had its world premiere last night at the National Theatre, we finally get the Big Snake-Handling Number. Performing "Wrestle With the Devil" in a diabolic red light, the singers writhe and sweat and spin and grimace and shake rubber snakes and dance frenziedly and fall into ecstatic trances with their feet twitching. It's all pretty embarrassing, but at least the evening momentarily comes to life. Rarely has a show needed a jolt of bad taste more. Lloyd Webber is often accused of vulgarity, but that's not the problem here. "Whistle Down the Wind" is just dull.

"Whistle Down the Wind," in its premiere here at the National Theatre, may be the most spectacular miscalculation in Andrew Lloyd Webber's long and phenomenal career…. The script… scuttles everything.

The Guardian (2006)
But, although Bill Kenwright's new production is infinitely superior to the over-inflated original, I still can't warm to a musical that asks me to believe six impossible things before suppertime.

Song clips:

Sarah Brigthman singing the title song accompanied by Webber.
No Matter What - Children giving gifts to Jesus in the 1996 production.
Tire Tracks and Broken Hearts - Jeremy Jordan and Ashley Spencer in 2012. The song goes to the sexy biker teens who betray the convict's hiding place.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


Younger me: I don't understand what's going on.
My aunt: Neither do I.

We sat in the top balcony of a cavernous auditorium while an old lady cat tap danced with a troop of cockroaches. The  acoustics and sound design left the touring company's lyrics unintelligible. It was only later I learned that Cats was adapted from a book of unrelated poems and that there was only the smallest sliver of a story. If the Cats are auditioning for Cat Heaven are they all dead? Or are they planning a mass junkyard suicide after the curtain call?

The much mocked show broke records running 21 years in London and 18 years on Broadway. and Webber is once again pushing for a film adaptation. Will a narrative be built around it or will the screenplay adapt it as is? Also would Memory be remembered today if the fabulous Judi Dench had originated the role of Grizabella as originally planned?

Over the coming days I'll be posting quick sketches of some of Webber's lesser known musicals.

Background reading
NYT review of Broadway opening

Monday, July 7, 2014


Thanks to all who have read my blog. Posts will be slowing down for a while as summer travel and other artistic projects are drawing near, but I've got more musicals on my agenda. What are your favorite obscure musicals?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Via Galactica

The authors of Hair had a success with Two Gentlemen of Verona but couldn’t repeat it with their next projects. While Gerome Ragni’s Dude collapsed in 16 performances, Galt MacDermot’s Via Galactica lasted 7. Pixar’s Wall-E has since taught us that an intergalactic trash collector’s story can be interesting but the libretto of Via Galactica was dismissed as incoherent. Eventually a plot synopsis that was inserted in the program.

Fun facts: 
  • Via Galactica was originally titled Up. Then the producers saw that the Marquee at the Uris Theater would read “Up Uris.”
  • When Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark was having trouble in previews Jennifer George wrote a retrospective about her parents flop.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014


Gerome Ragni’s life changed when the musical Hair became a hit. Some say his follow up musical, Dude (aka The Highway Life), was an incomprehensible mess. Others say it was his attempt to write about his struggles with his new found success. The New York Times wrote a fascinating article on the collapse of Dude. Reviews and other behind the scenes articles are archived here. A full song list is here. Dude closed after 16 performances.

Some fun facts I learned from the articles include:
  • Dude was played by a white adult who couldn't sing. He was replaced by a black child who could sing, who later shared the role with a black adult who sang the “mature” songs as “Big Dude.”
  • At one point the set was covered in dirt which kicked up dust into the audience. The set was later “watered down” leaving the actors covered in mud.
  • Gerome Ragni had played Berger in the original cast of Hair and had wanted to play the role of God, (aka “#33”), in Dude. Since the role of Dude was based on himself he would have been pardoning himself on stage for his youthful indiscretions. Producers wouldn't let him play the role as he still needed to write a second act.
  • Gerome Ragni asked to release 100 butterflies into the audience at the top of each performance.
  • Nell Carter was in the original cast. Here's a clip of her song "So Long Dude."