Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Paint Your Wagon

Away out here they've got a name for rain and wind and fire. 
The rain is Tess, the fire's Joe. 
And they call the wind Maria.

Why is the fire "Joe?"

There's not much plot to this one. The mining town is built. The townsfolk fall in love or lust. The mine dries up. Everyone leaves. In place of a plot we get a series of skits with the various eccentric townsfolk and a delightful Lerner and Loewe score. The film added a love triangle, and Clint Eastwood, but cut most of the songs.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Modern Musical Tropes : Running the test

Last week my friends and I drafted a short quiz to see which modern musicals had "progressive gender politics." This week I put a few modern shows to the test.

Does your leading lady: Sing about a non-relationship goal Achieve that goal (spoilers)
Hairspray (2002) Yes. Good Morning Baltimore. Yes. She gets to dance on TV, then teams with Maybelle to integrate the show.
Wicked (2003) Yes. The Wizard and I.
Defying Gravity.
Almost. She liberates the imprisoned animals but fails to overthrow the Wizard.
Legally Blonde (2007) Yes. So Much Better. Yes. Though Emmett and Vivienne get her to the trial she wins the big court case herself.
If/Then (2014) Sort of.  She shares the song A Map of New York. Sort of. Elizabeth is split between alternating marriage and career timelines.
Honeymoon in Vegas (2015) No. Betsy's Getting Married. She's passed between two men and marries one of them.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Modern Musical Tropes : Gender Politics

I'm still debating my friend's question about which musicals have "progressive gender politics." With some brainstorming I've attempted to draft a quiz. Sort of a musical theater Bechdel test.

  1. Does your musical have significant roles for women? Y / N
  2. Does a woman pursue a goal that is not marriage, sex or a baby? Y / N
  3. Does she sing a song about said goal? Y / N
    • Example: Annaleigh Ashford in Kinky Boots wants to save the factory, but her solo is about her crush on Charlie.
  4. Does she achieve that goal by the end of the show? Y / N
  5. Does she have to seduce or sexually blackmail someone to achieve her goal? Y / N
    • Example: Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes pursues wealth, but has to use sex appeal to get it. 
  6. If a man helps her, does he help or does he give her what she wanted as a prize?

This is a work in progress. Give it a look and let me know what you'd edit or add!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Modern Musical Tropes : Men's Roles

Yesterday I looked at female tropes in modern musicals. Today I’ll take a look at the leading men. Once again I’m starting with musicals written between 2000 and2015.


If the leading man is just there to be the leading ladies love interest he’s “The Boyfriend.”

  • Grey Gardens (2006) - Matt Cavenaugh played two feckless love interests. There’s also a part for a disapproving father.
  • The Light in the Piazza (2005)
  • The Little Mermaid (2008)
  • Little Women (2008)
  • Wicked (2003)

If the leading lady is torn between two men they are often polar opposites. “Good Boy / Bad Boy.”

  • Marguerite (2008)
  • The Pirate Queen (2007)
  • Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002)
  • Violet (2014)

If the leading man is the focus and his pursuit of the leading lady is the main plot we get the “Romantic Lead.”

  • Aladdin (2014)
  • Amour (2002)
  • Honeymoon in Vegas (2015)
  • Shrek (2008)


Some leading men want to succeed in show business.

  • A Class Act (2001)
  • Billy Elliot (2008)
  • Chaplin (2012)
  • Curtains (2007)
  • The Full Monty (2000)
  • The Glorious Ones (2007)
  • A Man of No Importance (2002)
  • Title of Show (2008)
  • White Christmas (2008)

Some are chasing another career goal, a crown, or a vague sense of “purpose”

  • Avenue Q (2003)
  • Kinky Boots (2013)
  • The Last Ship (2014)
  • Rocky (2014)
  • Spamalot (2005)

Some are protesting injustice:

  • Newsies (2012)
  • The Scottsboro Boys (2010)
  • Spring Awakening (2006)
  • Urinetown (2001)
  • The Visit (2015)


Here’s where we find the juicy stuff. A surprising number of leading men are homicidal. They kill for love, money or revenge.

  • The Adding Machine (2008)
  • Bonnie and Clyde (2012)
  • Dance of the Vampires (2004)
  • Death Takes a Holiday (2011)
  • Dracula (2004)
  • A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder (2013)
  • Love Never Dies (2010)
  • Sweet Smell of Success (2002)
  • Both Wild Parties (2000)

Others settle for being loveable con men.

  • Catch Me If You Can (2011)
  • Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (2005)
  • Leap of Faith (2012)
  • The Producers (2001)

Some female centric shows make the leading man a villain for the ladies to overcome.

  • The Color Purple (2005)
  • Nine to Five (2009)
  • Sister Act (2011)
  • The Witches of Eastwick (2000)
  • The Woman in White (2005)
  • Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2011)


  • Male friendship was explored in The Thing About Men (2003), A Year With Frog and Toad (2004) and The Story of My Life (2009). One could argue that this is also a focus of The Book of Mormon (2011).
  • Fathers feel rarer than mothers in musical theater but still come into focus in The Addams Family (2010), Big Fish (2013), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (2005), Elf (2010), Fun Home (2015).

What are some tropes I’ve missed?
What are some differences you’ve noticed between male and female tropes in musical theater?

Monday, March 23, 2015

Modern Musical Tropes : Women's Roles

A friend is programming a season at her student camp and asked for musicals with "progressive gender politics." The conversation went in many interesting directions. I took a look at a list of contemporary musicals produced between 2000 and 2015 and began to categories the types of roles and relationships currently being written for our leading ladies. Here are some trends I found.

The Girlfriend
When the plot hinges on the man's ambition the leading lady is often reduced to the love interest. She may have hopes and dreams of her own outside the relationship, but they are rarely pursued within the plotline. Ulla in The Producers wants a show business career but she's primarily written as a love interest and foil for the leading men as they plan their caper.

  • Aladdin (2014)
  • Big Fish (2013)
  • Catch Me If You Can (2011)
  • Elf: The Musical (2010)
  • The Producers (2001) 

Spunky Ingenues
When the focus shifts from the leading man to the leading lady, but her goal still revolves around landing a man, we get this. What's a catchier term for it?

  • The Little Mermaid (2008) *** In which Ariel gets the stage time but Ursula steals the show.
  • Marguerite (2008)
  • Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002)

Mother and Daughter 
Gypsy set the gold standard but mother/daughter relationships can still serve as a focus or subplot of a musical. In several of these examples the daughter wants a boyfriend or career path that the mother doesn't approve of.

  • The Addams Family (2010)
  • Bat Boy (2001)
  • Curtains (2007) (in which the ingenue is "The Girlfriend" but Carmen and Bambi's feud gets significant focus. As an added bonus everyone is a murder suspect.)
  • Grey Gardens (2006)
  • The Light in the Piazza (2005)

Good Girl / Bad Girl
Ado Annie and Laurie. Adelaide and Sarah. Roxie and Velma.
When two leading ladies are in orbit their personalities are often polar opposites. If they have separate love interests you get the comic/dramatic couple split. If they're both interested in the same man (or job) you can get a good girl/bad girl rivalry. If the focus is on one woman the second is usually an antagonist to be overcome. Other times the women join forces towards a common goal.

  • Avenue Q (2003)
  • A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder (2013)
  • Jane Eyre (2000)
  • Legally Blonde (2007)
  • Love Never Dies (2010)
  • Wicked (2003)
  • Both Wild Parties (2000)

Teacher and Students
Some interesting variations here. The teachers will often clash with parents or authority figures who disapprove of their methods. Caroline doesn't quite fit this category. She keeps refusing the mentor role thrust upon her by her employers son as she's got children of her own to raise. 

  • Billy Elliot (2008)
  • Caroline or Change (2003)
  • Mary Poppins (2006)
  • Matilda (2012)
  • Sister Act (2011)

Friendship Trio
Three women band together against a male adversary. The musicals in this mini-genre are all based on films. How many more films are left to adapt in this vein?

  • Nine to Five (2009)
  • The First Wives Club (2009)
  • The Witches of Eastwick (2000)

Here are some new musicals that didn't immediately fit into any of these categories.

  • The Drowsy Chaperone (2006) - Janet and Mrs. Tottendale want husbands. Kitty wants a career. Trix is a deus ex machina. The Chaperone wants a drink. 
  • Fun Home (2015) - the focus is a father/daughter relationship
  • The Color Purple (2005) - The many women in Miss Celie's life help her with her journey towards independence. 
  • See What I Wanna See (2005) - Three short stories in which the featured women play vamps, killers, fortune tellers and a dying mentor figure. 
  • Spelling Bee, The 25th Annual Putnam County (2005) - The three women competing in the Bee have parental and peer pressures to wrestle with. 
  • Title of Show (2008) - Heidi and Susan clash with their gay BFF's as they put together a show for a festival.
  • Women on the Verge (2011) - they all want revenge against the man who abandoned them, but it doesnt' seem to fit the Friendship Trio template.

What are some tropes for women I've missed? What are some tropes for men?
What is your definition of "progressive gender politics?"

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Happy Time

Good Idea: Let's turn Samuel Taylor's coming-of-age comedy into a chamber musical!

Bad Idea: Let's shift the focus from the naive nephew to the roguish uncle! And put the show in a giant theater!

Good Idea: Let's cast hearthrob Robert Goulet as the uncle!

Bad Idea: Let's rewrite the uncle so he's a big success instead of a failure who lies about his success to his family!

The result? A book with no stakes, a short run, and a Tony for Robert Goulet.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

70, Girls, 70

The well intended 70, Girls, 70 was competing with the senior citizen casts of Follies and No, No, Nanette for audience nostalgia. The slight caper plot was padded out by a series of vaudevillian turns for the cast members and their ever present accompanist Lorraine.

Clive Barnes wrote "This is a musical of gentle pleasurs, which may well please most the old who are young in heart, and everyone else who likes to see old poeple having fun. It is certainly different from "Hair." ~ New York Times. April 16, 1971.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Flora the Red Menace

"A musical dramatization of Lester Atwell's novel ''Love Is Just Around the Corner,'' ''Flora,'' whose book was written by George Abbott and Robert Russell, tells the Depresion-era story of an idealistic young fashion designer who is persuaded by her stammering boyfriend, Harry, to join the Communist Party. Unable to deal with the organizational discipline and outmaneuvered by a rival for his affections, she is kicked out of the party.

''If the show has a guiding philosophy,'' Mr. Ebb said, ''it is to be true to yourself. When we wrote the show, I was having a similar identity problem, since no one in my family was thrilled at my decision to be a lyricist.'' ~ New York Times. 1987.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Steel Pier

In 1997 Kander and Ebb were put in the unusual position of competing with themselves on Broadway. Their sincere new musical Steel Pier was overshadowed by the hit revival of their cynical musical Chicago. 

Karen Ziemba's heroine is a con-artist but she's no Roxie Hart. She's being dragged into crime by her sleazy boyfriend. Her spectral dance partner quickly reforms her, drawing some to compare the book to Touched by an Angel or Quantum Leap. A far cry from the nastiness of the dance marathon film They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

The fun is relegated to a thin subplot with Debra Monk and Kristin Chenoweth as competing divas in the marathon's talent show. The book doesn't give them much but Debra got her signature song, "Everybodies Girl", and Kristin's next show launched her to stardom.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


The 1968 Broadway cast recording of Zorba is delightful. On stage it was dismissed as a pale imitation of the award winning film. The angry chorus sang "Life is what you do while you're waiting to die" drawing a sharp contrast with Zorba's insistence that every moment in life be treated like "the first time."

The 1986 revival cast the film actors and ran twice as long. The rewrites, re-orchestrations and non-singers make this album considerably less pleasant. The chorus now sings "Life is what you do till the moment you die." Cheerier yes but Zorba's the only one in this story who should sing that.

Antonio Banderas has been in talks for a Zorba revival for some time but it's hard to say if this is wise. Zorba's love 'em and leave 'em philosophy can come across as cruel to modern audiences. Quinn made him The Life Force but regional revivals have dismissed him as a poor man's Tevye.

Monday, March 9, 2015

City of Angels

City of Angels has a fantastic score and great roles for women. The original Broadway production won Tony Awards for best musical, score and book. So why isn't it more frequently produced?

Some say the expense. Stine writes in his screenplay in a color studio while Stone investigates in a black and white film world. Both stories require lots of sets, costumes and characters. It's hard to scale this one down to ten actors and a piano.

Others say the book. Gelbert's libretto is deservedly praised for it's pace and humor. However Stone's mystery is hard to follow, relying on exposition dumps, and Stine's personal problems are hard to sympathize with. Hollywood paid you a fortune to turn your pulp novel into a pulp screenplay? You can't stop cheating on your sanctimonious wife? Gee that's tough.

Gelbert wrote a similarly complex book for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It was peopled with cartoon characters but at the heart was Pseudolus the wily slave. In his "I want" song he tells the audience he longs to be free. That sets the stakes for the rest of the show. Stine sings  that he wants "lots of fun and pots of dough." Understandable but less than compelling.

There's more to Stine if you examine the wish fulfillment in his screenplay. The bully producer who dominates the Stine's world is quickly dispatched on screen. He writes his mistress as a spinster and his upstanding wife as a prostitute. Stone resists the advances of multiple women in ways Stine never could. If we ever got a major revisal I'd love to see all this pay off. Stine could stand to learn a more valuable lesson from Stone than he does in the final scene. Till then I'll settle for the songs.