Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Murder Mysteries: Drood

Last fall I led up to Halloween with a series of horror themed musicals. This fall I'll be looking at murder mysteries.

In 1976 Walter Kerr of the New York Times dismissed the genre saying:  "It's never worked. Reason: the music totally relaxes the suspense, and the suspense makes the music seem intrusive."

The successful musical mysteries, like Drood, tend to forgo suspense for comedy. Charles Dickens died before completing The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The suspects are introduced, Drood vanishes, a disguised detective appears and the story ends. Several authors and screenwriters have supplied answers over the years, though the one Dickens foreshadows isn't very interesting. Rupert Holmes shakes things up by letting the audience vote for the identity of the killer and the detective. The audience can then pair off two of the survivors as lovers.

Few of the 8 suspects have actual motives for killing Drood and Holmes acknowledges this. He's set us in the framing device of a music hall. Many of the actors admit they simply want to sing another song.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Triassic Parq

This June I drew a fanfiction comic about the Jurassic World  I  wanted to see. In 2010 the New York Fringe Festival featured a musical retelling of Jurassic Park from the dinosaur’s point of view. Triassic Parq owes less to the Speilberg film than to the political parody Urinetown and the gender bending farces of Charles Ludlam.

New York Times: “Give the authors, Marshall Pailet, Bryce Norbitz and Stephen Wargo, a little time. Their material eventually settles into a contentedly sophomoric vibe, happy to show off here and pander there. There are worse things than seeing clever people try too hard.”

L.A. Times: “Courting laughter with broad physical comedy… the performers convey the pathos in the dinosaurs' struggles to find friendship and love from the prisons of their enormous, hungry, lethal bodies. When Caitlin the T. rex … roars out her jealousy, the sound seems to contain the pain of every scorned lover since evolution began.”

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


The 1991 film Dogfight was adapted into a musical in 2012. The waitress, Rose, translates easily to the musical realm. She sits right beside Marian Paroo, Fanny Brice, Lizzie Curry and other self-conscious leading ladies dipping their first toes into romance.

Eddie and his Marine buddies are a trickier bunch. Masculinity is hard to portray in musical theater. The stylized angst of West Side Story and the profanity laden camp of Grease put quotation marks around the "macho" male chorus. The angrier rhythms of Full Monty and Billy Elliot reflect men's anger at being "emasculated" by unemployment. Paul and Pasek's songs suggest the bravado of "Greased Lightning" while Duchan's crueler book scenes suggest the psychopaths of Neil Labute's In the Company of Men. 

Eddie may go too far to redeem himself to some audience members but Rose wins our heart with every song.

Up next: Triassic Parq!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Flower Drum Song v.2

In 2002 Flower Drum Song was revived on Broadway with a new book. Mei Lei had a tragic backstory, Linda had a sassy gay assistant, and the roles of showman and conservative father were combined into that of the conflicted theater/club owner. The show received mixed reviews but received a stellar cast album and opportunities for regional licensing.

DAVID HENRY HWANG: "The show, which originally arrived on Broadway in 1958, had fallen off the cultural radar, regarded as quaint, patronizing and old-fashioned. But I had always admired Rodgers and Hammerstein's ambition to write a musical about America through the eyes of Asians, who even today tend to be regarded as perpetual foreigners. And notwithstanding shows like ''Miss Saigon'' and ''Pacific Overtures,'' which are set overseas, ''Flower Drum Song'' has long stood alone as the only Broadway musical ever produced about Asian-Americans....

Over time, we evolved the story of a rundown theater in San Francisco's Chinatown, whose patriarch clings to his dreams of performing Chinese opera despite an ever-shrinking audience. The story of this theater's transformation into a Western-style nightclub became a metaphor for assimilation."

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Flower Drum Song v.1

A novel about an older generation of Chinese immigrants became a musical about their children. Themes of assimilation remained but darker subplots were removed to focus on comedy and romance. Reviews were mixed but the show drew audiences and cast the leading lady in an uneven film version.

The show would gain a reputation for being condescending to the non-Americanized characters and would disappear for several decades. David Henry Hwang attempted to update the book in 2002. More on his revision in my next post.

DAVID HENRY HWANG: I think the original FDS ("Flower Drum Song") was demonized during a period in American social history when it was necessary to do so. When APA's (Asian Pacific Americans) began writing our own stories, we needed to draw a distinction between our work and popular examples of these stories which were written by non-Asians. Nowadays, when Asian authors and films are more numerous and popular, we're able to view the original FDS ("Flower Drum Song") in a more balanced and nuanced light.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

One Touch of Venus

Marlene Dietrich dropped out of the show calling it "too sexy and profane." Stage fright seems more likely. She was replaced by Mary Martin. Martin had made a splashy Broadway debut in 1938 singing "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" in Cole Porter's Leave it To Me. Her legendary moment in Venus came when she sat on a chair on an empty stage and crooned the song "That's Him." The brassy comedy suddenly had a heart and the audience was spell bound.

A film and TV broadcast have faded from memory and the show is seldom revived. Kurt Weill purists have dismissed this slight show for a lack of politics. However if you squint at this gentle  farce there is social commentary to be found. Venus inspires more fear than lust from those around her and is dismayed by the lack of romance in the modern world.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

American Idiot

Rolling Stone: The Nineties' irrepressible punk brats grew up with a bang, proving they could take on the kind of gargantuan old-school concept album that nobody else seemed to have the guts to try anymore. Billie Joe Armstrong raged against the political complacency of Bush-era America with ferocity and a Who-size sense of grandeur.

New York Times: Pop on Broadway, sure. But punk? Yes, indeed, and served straight up, with each sneering lyric and snarling riff in place.

Peter Filichia: “If we didn’t have so ugly a society, we wouldn’t have shows as ugly as American Idiot. In the post-9/11 world, everything seemed to be breaking down- including perfect rhymes in lyrics.”

Broadway Abridged:
DIRECTOR MICHAEL MAYER: So what do you think the... Rock opera would be about?
BILLIE JOE ARMSTRONG: Maybe things don't work out the way you think they'll work out, or maybe that girl you feel like drunk dialing once in awhile... (trails off, smiles weirdly)

Tony Awards clip here.
Chicago premiere clip here.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

By Jupiter

A forgotten play starring Katharine Hepburn as an Amazon warrior...
Became a forgotten musical starring Ray Bolger as the unhappy Amazon king. The show was their longest running hit.

New York Times, 1942: “Mr Bolger… can cross the stage like a waif, or a king, he can sing or mug. He can play the unhappy, mincing consort of Hippolyta before the Greeks brought the breath of new thought into the kingdom of the Amazons, and afterwards he can bellow like an injured Senator. There is much for him to do and Mr. Bolger is not one to back away from a part. He is magnificent.”

Larry Hart was not at his best of health in 1942. The comedy based on reverse gender roles (Women acting likemen? Crazy!) was stale in revival and the Rodgers and Hart score was dismissed. 

New York Times, 1967: “This particular score – which always was a second-best in the Rodgers-Hart canon- is full of tunes that are little more than titles. Someone got a bright first idea, jotted it down as it stood, and then never did bother to turn the juice on.”
We won’t be seeing this one at Encores any time soon, but here are some clips of the big numbers.