Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Follies



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

Modern Movie Musicals

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)


Some thoughts.
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

My Dream "Into the Woods"



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

Thoughts on Annie 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.

What works?
  • The premise. A multicultural Annie is not an inherently bad idea and there are moments where you see why people signed on.
  • The leads. Quvenzhan√© 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

Elf



Jim: I already have a boyfriend.
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

Adapting Annie



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

Do Re Mi



The recent Peter Pan Live included several new songs, two of which took set melody's from Do Re Mi to new lyrics.


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

Mrs. Santa Claus



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.