Monday, November 7, 2016

Cabaret



Cabaret has gone through many rewrites. Bob Fosse's film brought the text closer to Christopher Ishwerwood's original stories. Revivals turned the subtext into text. But from the beginning the show turned a mirror on a hedonistic society that ignores politics at their peril.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Nightmare Before Christmas


I didn't appreciate The Nightmare Before Christmas in the theaters in 1993. The trailer had spoiled the film's best gag and Danny Elfman's moody ballads didn't appeal. Ten years later I saw the film again and was amazed by what I'd missed. The film is gorgeous with an bold design and a clever score.

The stop motion field was revitalized and continues today with the crazy geniuses at Studio Laika. However Laika, for all their artistry, has been criticized for their inability to sustain a narrative. Nightmare's story remains clever, subversive and well told. Haven't seen it in a while? It's worth another look.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Nixon in China



In 1972 U.S. President Richard Nixon flew to China to meet with Chairman Mao Zedong.

RealClearPolitics writes: "The trip would begin a new period of Chinese-American relations. Nixon's visit was a strategic maneuver made after relations between the West and the Communist East were gradually changing. China had publicly disagreed and split from the Soviet Union. Nixon used this confrontation, which was peaking in the early 1970s, to make a visit that would stun the world."

Director Peter Sellars proposed the subject of the opera to composer John Adams. Adams described the work as "part epic, part satire, part a parody of political posturing, and part serious examination of historical, philosophical, and even gender issues."

The libretto seeks to humanize the controversial leaders. The historical conversation is touched upon but the opera is more concerned with the characters inner thoughts and doubts throughout the visit. While National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger is presented as a boorish clown the Nixon's and the Mao's are treated with more kindness than general audiences may have expected.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Teddy and Alice


Irving Berlin's fictional president was immersed in a light family sitcom. Teddy and Alice puts historical figures in a light family sitcom, then dials up the creepy.

The New York Times wrote:  "Teddy sees his daughter as the reincarnation of his beloved first wife and refuses to share her with others - never mind that such monopolistic practices are in violation of the newly passed Sherman antitrust act. A happy ending can arrive only when Alice's mother returns from the grave to encourage Teddy to give up the ghost. This exorcism, unfortunately, takes considerably longer to accomplish than the charge up San Juan Hill."

Only in the theater folks. Only in the theater.

Monday, October 24, 2016

First Lady Suite



Michael John LaChiusa remains committed to writing challenging musicals with complex scores. Audiences may not flock to them but they gather committed fan bases. First Lady Suite and the sequel First Daughter Suite each present four vignettes about women who've lived in the White House. Some focus on the First Ladies themselves. Others view them through the eyes of their staff and admirers.

Variety writes: "What’s missing is any semblance of insight or revelation. A talented ensemble, under the capable guidance of Daniel Henning, instills as much pizzazz as possible into the proceedings but ultimately is defeated by LaChiusa’s convoluted, unfulfilling libretto."

The New York Times was kinder writing: "Weird, funny and wigged-out, "First Lady Suite" looks at history through frankly surrealistic glasses and extends its feminist sympathies even to a Presidential spouse as seemingly conventional as Mrs. Eisenhower. Yet, with the exception of "Eleanor Sleeps Here," the last and best developed of the three segments, Mr. LaChiusa's ambitions for his musical are more bracing than the musical itself."

Friday, October 21, 2016

Presidential Songs

1600 Pennsylvania Ave covers 100 years of U.S. Presidents but only a handful have songs. The best numbers go to the First Ladies. I decided to look through the list of U.S. Presidents and see how many have sung a song on stage.

Songs Sung By Presidents on Stage

1 George Washington Hamilton (2015) - various including "One Last Time". 1600 Pennsylvania Ave (1969) - On Ten Square Miles by the Potomac River
2 John Adams - 1776 (1969) - various including "Is Anybody There?"
3 Thomas Jefferson 1776 (1969) - various including "The Egg." 1600 Pennsylvania Ave (1969) - "The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon Party March." Hamilton (2015) - various including "What did I Miss?"
4 James Madison Hamilton (2015) - various including "Washington On Your Side."
5 James Monroe        1600 Pennsylvania Ave (1969) - The Little White Lie
6 John Quincy Adams Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (2010) - The Corrupt Bargain
7 Andrew Jackson Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (2010) - various including "I'm Not That Guy"
15 James Buchanan 1600 Pennsylvania Ave (1969) - We Must Have a Ball
16 Abraham Lincoln Our American Cousin (2008 Opera)
26 Theodore Roosevelt Teddy & Alice (1987) - various including Can I Let Her Go?
32 Franklin D. Roosevelt Annie (1977) - A New Deal for Christmas, Annie Warbucks (1993) - Somebody's Gotta Do Somethin'
34 Dwight D. Eisenhower First Lady Suite (1993) - Where's Mamie?
35 John F. Kennedy Smash S2 - 2013 - Our Little Secret
37 Richard Nixon     Nixon in China (1987 Opera)


Some Notable Songs Sung About Presidents on Stage

25 William McKinley Assassins (1990) - The Head of the Line
30 Calvin Coolidge Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949) - Keeping Cool with Coolidge
31 Herbert Hoover Annie (1977) - We'd Like To Thank you Herbert Hoover
34 Dwight D. Eisenhower Call Me Madam (1950) - They Like Ike. 
36 Lyndon B. Johnson Hair (1967) - L.B.J.

Who did I miss?

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue



Lerner and Bernstein collaborated on an ambitious piece about the history of race relations in the White House. The original libretto was a play within a play. An argument between the "actors" was the through line as they switched between numerous Presidents, First Ladies and servants. The finale suggested that American Democracy was always "in rehearsal." The show went through many rewrites during a tumultuous tryout period. When it arrived on Broadway the framing device was gone leaving a revue-like series of sketches.

Critics praised Patricia Routledge's turn as the First Ladies and panned the rest. The show closed in 7 performances. Bernstein's estate has arranged  a 1992 student production and a 2008 concert. They've restricted licencing rights beyond that and avoided a full recording.

Snippets of the original show have been found online. Abigail Adams' ballad "Take Care of This House" has received several recordings. The true show stopper of the evening was "Duet for One," a clash between outgoing First Lady Julia Grant and incoming First Lady Lucy Hayes at the 1877 inauguration. Patricia Routledge rapidly alternated between the roles with two distinct character voices. Recordings of the song capture some of the humor but the physical staging apparently lifted it to musical theater heaven.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Mr. President



This week I'll be posting on musicals that explore the office of U.S. President. We'll start with Irving Berlin's Mr. President which places a fictional President Henderson in a shallow family sitcom. The show was a flop and would prove to be Irving Berlin's last.

The synopsis on Wikipedia is a sprawling mess with no character development or stakes. The songs I've found online are bland one-joke affairs despite a fun performance from Nanette Fabray as the First Lady.

In Ethan Mordden's book, Open a New Window, he writes: "Blame unfortunately fell on Berlin... Actually, the only thing that worked in the show was Berlin's score. It is not at all impressive; but it is tuneful and it tries to create content for the silhouettes that Lindsay and Crouse gave Berlin..." 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Gershwin series part four: Political Musicals



Life has gotten busy and blog posts have fallen behind.
The election season has reminded us all that "Nobody's Got No Class."

So here is a quick sketch of the political satires of George and Ira Gershwin. I've covered politically themed musicals in the past but there are many more.

Strike Up the Band deals with a war motivated by corporate greed.

Of Thee I Sing deals with a Presidential candidate drawing international outrage when he mistreats a beauty pageant contestant.

In an earlier post I looked at the sequel, Let Them Eat Cake, in which that same candidate, now President, has his fascist proposals undermined by women voters.

Make of this what you will.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Quick Sketch: Showboat and Carousel



Show Boat. Music by Jerome Kern. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein and P.G. Wodehouse. Book by Oscar Hammerstein. 1927 Broadway.

Carousel. Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics and Book by Oscar Hammerstein. 1945 Broadway.

I didn't have time to draw a full cartoon today. I tried a couple of quick sketches and looked for a theme. I realized that these two particular shows were groundbreaking classics that I don't particularly enjoy watching today.

The Lincoln Center's 2015 concert of Showboat reminded me that it can still work if it's cast and paced well. Two well received productions of Carousel reminded me that I'll never really appreciate that story.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Sherry!





Some musicals eclipse their source material. Others just add songs. The Man Who Came to Dinner remains a delightful comedy while Sherry! is rightfully forgotten. In 2004 an all star cast was assembled for a studio cast album of the score. The problems were laid clear. The three act play was squished awkwardly into two acts and the generic songs never quite fit the characters. The secretary got ingenue ballads (Elizabeth Allen /Bernadette Peters), the diva got the belty numbers (Dolores Gray / Carol Burnett), but poor Sheridan Whiteside (George Sanders / Clive Revill / Nathan Lane) was stuck with dull Henry Higgins patter and a bizarre dream ballet.

A fuzzy recording remains of Dolores Gray belting the title song. Critics agreed she was the best thing in the show but she wasn't onstage long enough to carry the show.

Marc Miller's review of the recording ended with: "The deluxe presentation and drop-dead cast seem a little silly under the circumstances; you can take hamburger, dress it up with spices and fancy cheeses, flip it onto a silver platter and call it steak haché au gorgonzola, but it'll still be hamburger."

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Opposite Sex


By most accounts the 2008 remake of The Women was bad. The sexual politics of 1939 did not sit well in the 21st century. The sharp banter was replaced with flat sitcom humor.

The 1956 remake of The Women isn't bad per se... merely unnecessary. The mediocre songs don't comment on the plot or characters. Adding a male cast removes a gimmick and leaves the actors nothing to do. They are just sort of there. The female cast holds there own. Joan Collins is an ideal Crystal, setting a template for future roles. Dolores Gray provides a fresh take on Sylvia, standing apart from Rosalind Russell. June Allyson gives the leading lady some spine, improving in some ways on Norma Shearer's dewy performance.

Crystal is upgraded from shop clerk to fashion model allowing for some gorgeous gowns and catwalk strutting. Allyson gets a sexy nightclub number to establish that she's no naive ingenue. Gray throws herself gamely into every scene including a brawl with Ann Miller! Sadly the film lost money, providing Gray with yet another flop.

Edit: And here's Jeanette Winterson's marvelous analysis of the 1939 film

Thursday, September 22, 2016

It's Always Fair Weather



Why hello pen and ink! It's been a while. Yes I still love you. No you aren't as easy to correct as digital art.

Betty Comden described this cynical follow up to On The Town as a study of "the corrosive nature of time on friendship." This forgotten musical flopped in 1955 but fascinates in 2016. Several of the creatives hate each other off screen as well as on and the tension is palpable.

Dolores Gray plays Madeline Bradville, the self-absorbed host of a reality television show. She's introduced with a bland ballad titled "Music is Better than Words," than vanishes. The story isn't about her. It's about the three unhappy soldiers and Gene Kelly's romance with Cyd Charisse. Then, at the last minute Dolores Gray re-appears to sing the bizarre and fascinating 11 o'clock number "Thanks a Lot but No Thanks." Any fan of musical theatre and/or camp should click the link and watch it right now. Gray complained that the role was "an ageless, sexless caricature" but she scorches the screen in this song.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Carnival in Flanders



I'm a big fan of Dolores Gray. She had the voice, the looks, and the talent to become a star. She had delightful comic timing which she could dial up to camp when required. Sadly she also had a penchant for flops. She's the highlight of several dull films and energized several flop musicals.

Dolores claims the choice to retire from show biz was hers. She left  to start a family. In an interview she said "I'd been working since I was a youngster,.. I loved show business, but it became everything to me. I wanted to have a normal life, to get married, and I waited a long time to choose the man."

Not much remains of Carnival in Flanders. Do a search on YouTube and you get a dance clip from the Ed Sullivan show and renditions of the breakout ballad "Here's That Rainy Day." There was no cast recording and there have been no Encores revivals. The show has a footnote in musical theatre books for Dolores Gray's Tony. As of 2016 she sets the record for the shortest lived show (6 performances) to win a Tony Award. It was her first leading role on Broadway.

In Kevin Madelbaum's book, Not Since Carrie, he writes "(The film) La kermesse heroique had musical possibilities, but Carnival in Flanders' flat plodding book, full of lame jokes, destroyed them. The score was considerably better, with a lot of opportunities for Gray to unfurl one of the theatre's best voices."

In 2005 Peter Filichia reported some backstage gossip from John Raitt and understudy Susan Johnson.

EDIT: Thank you to the gentlemen who pointed me towards two more songs from the score.
Lena Horne singing the opening number, Ring the Bell.
Bobby Short singing I'm One Of Your Admirers.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Gershwin series part three


.
Girl Crazy. Music by George Gershwin. Lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Book by Guy Bolton and John McGowan. 1930 Broadway

Includes the songs Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm and But Not for Me.

A typical Ginger Rogers role does not believe in love at first sight. Whether you're Allen Kearns or Fred Astaire you have to earn her affection. Girl Crazy would launch the careers of Rogers and a brassy young singer named Ethel Merman. It also proved a delightful movie for a young Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

I have to make a confession. I'm not a fan of the song "I Got Rhythm." I was in a highschool production of Crazy for You. "I Got Rhythm" is the act one finale and the dancey arrangement lasts about 9 minutes. It felt like 90. It's a different experience with Ethel Merman singing it. She made headlines for effortlessly sustaining the big note as the crowds went wild.

Merman's role had two other songs that I find more interesting. The menacing "Sam and Delilah" and the snarky torch song "Boy! What Love Has Done To Me!" Both were sadly cut from Crazy for You though the supporting woman in that show gets the delightful "Naughty Baby."

Pardon My English. Music by George Gershwin. Lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Book by Herbert Fields and Morrie Ryskind. 1933 Broadway

Pardon My English is less fondly remembered. It provided a showcase for vaudeville comic Jack Buchanan in dual roles. The songs "Isn't It a Pity?" and "The Lorelei" have had some legs and the rest of the score was heard again in a 2004 Encores Concert starring Brian d'Arcy James.


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Gershwin series part two


Oh, Kay! Music by George Gershwin. Lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Book by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse. 1926 Broadway. 1927 West End.

The musical starred Gertrude Lawrence, the "first British performer to star in an American musical on Broadway." The score introduced Clap 'Yo Hands, Fidgety Feet and the evergreen Someone to Watch Over Me. The bootlegger-in-disguise premise was used in the 2012 Gershwin jukebox musical Nice Work If You Can Get It.

Funny Face. Music by George Gershwin. Lyrics by Ira Gershwin, Book by Paul Gerard Smith and Fred Thompson. 1927. Broadway.

The Gershwin's would feature the Astaire's again in Funny Face. Adele Astaire and her love interest introduced the song S'Wonderful. The title song would be re-purposed for Fred Astaire to sing in the unrelated 1957 film Funny Face. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

Gershwin series part one


Lady be Good, Music by George Gershwin. Lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Book by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson. 1924 Broadway. 1926 West End.

Tip Toes, Music by George Gershwin. Lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Book by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson. 1925 Broadway.

George Gershwin passed away at the age of 38 from a malignant brain tumor. By that point he had composed an incredible body of music that survives till this day. His brother Ira found new collaborators but devoted his late life to compiling George's music and correspondence for the Library of Congress. He lived to the age of 86.

I was introduced to the Gershwin's through a high school production of Crazy for You (1992). The show took the premise of Girl Crazy (1930) and cherry picked from their song catalog for the score. Tommy Tune and Twiggy had starred in 1983's My One and Only which was a similar hybrid of old and new. Nice Work If You Can Get It (2012) and the stage adaptation of American in Paris (2014) would follow suit. I lined up the song list for these shows and saw they share many of the same songs. "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "But Not For Me," and "S'Wonderful," appear in three out of four.

There's a reason new books are written for the Gershwin catalog. The brother's original shows have extremely creaky librettos relying on thin romantic farces to showcase the stars. When their first shared Broadway show, Lady Be Good, was revived at Encores in 2015 the New York Times called it "a featherweight farrago of romantic contrivances that wears out its daffy appeal long before the curtain falls."

But oh those songs.

Lady Be Good included "Fascinating Rhythm" and "'The Half of It, Dearie' Blues." The song "The Man I Love" was cut. It would be cut from two more shows before becoming a standard on its own.

Tip Toes introduced "Looking for a Boy" and "Sweet and Low Down."

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Matilda


"Whatever it was that hurt (Roald) Dahl so deeply, he never forgave it, and his children's stories... are driven by it." ~ Roger Ebert

Here's another tale that could have ended very differently. Matilda could have gone the way of Carrie, using her powers to destroy others and herself. Instead she makes the choice to use her powers for good.

Matilda and her mentor, Miss Honey, are both victims of abuse. They handle their situations very differently. Miss Honey has stayed with her abuser and become a self loathing neurotic. Matilda fights her fate and saves Miss Honey from hers. Deep topics for a so called "children's musical."

"Just because you find that life's not fair it
Doesn't mean that you just have to grin and bear it
If you always take it on the chin and wear it
Nothing will change." 

Tim Minchin's lyrics are dense and clever. They were also left at the mercy of child actors and theatersound systems. A common complaint, particularly on the American tour, was that audiences couldn't understand the words. I've yet to hear the score of his new show, Groundhog Day. I'll be curious to learn if he slows the rhythm of his lyrics a bit so that more can be taken in on a first listen.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Spring Awakening



Last month I covered several musicals that centered on youthful rebellions. This week I'll add two more to that list starting with the teen angst rock musical Spring Awakening.

Frank Wedekind's groundbreaking 1906 play follows three teens who suffer the consequences of abstinence only education. Steven Sater's 2006 libretto is faithful to the plot but not the tone. Melchior and Wendla's relationship becomes kinder while Hänschen and Ernt's relationship becomes crueler. Wedekind provides Moritz with a deus ex machina at the end. Sater's Moritz must cope with his grief alone.

Deaf West Theatre's 2014-15 revival cast the show with a mix of deaf and hearing actors. They expanded the adult cast from two to four and emphasized the communication gap between the parents and children.

Composer Duncan Sheik's score is angry and exciting in the first act. Things turn ballad heavy, with one exception, in the gloomier act two. Sheik would return to Broadway that same season with the less successful American Psycho. As a fan of the score I'm hoping another company revives it some day to a more receptive audience.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Amour



Amour triumphed in Paris, flopped on Broadway, then vanished. The New York Times dismissed it as “ a wispy… twinkling trinket” but the cast album developed a passionate fan base.  In 2016 the rights to the English translation were finally secured by Tams Witmark for licensing.

There is a core of melancholy beneath the whimsy. Dusoleil has effaced himself to the point where he’s literally disappearing. His Doctor calls his wall walking power a disease. Isabelle is kept prisoner in her home. Her husband treats her like Rapunzel. When they find freedom they seek vengeance on their tormentors. The story could have easily flipped from superhero to supervillain narrative.

The townsfolk have survived WW2 and the memories haunt them. Dusoleil’s acts inspire his allies to break free from routine and pursue their dreams. The antagonists fear change and seek to control those around them. The libretto favors the former but reminds us that dreams have a cost.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Mame



Why does Patrick Dennis turn on his lovable Auntie Mame?
Why does the open minded Mame immediately reject Patrick's fiance?
If Mame and Patrick had been so close, why do they never discuss his late parents?
Why is Mame's late husband so quickly forgotten?
What happened to Patrick at boarding school that made him feel ashamed of his upbringing?

Many things are left unsaid in Mame. This was true of the original novel and play as well. The Mame/Patrick relationship takes a backseat to Mame's episodic adventures and those of her friends Vera and Gooch.

Mame was a huge success on Broadway running 1508 performances over 4 years. Sadly the movie was a miscast bore and a 1983 revival ran little over a month. Hello Dolly and La Cage Aux Folles have had successful revivals but Mame's magic seems harder to replicate. The star must be a triple threat who can balance comedy, class and pathos. She must also overcome the dated, creaky book.

Tilda Swinton has proposed a new film based on the novel. This may revive interest in the musical. Till then we'll always have the fantastic original cast recording.


Saturday, August 27, 2016

Bite: A Pucking Queer Cabaret



Midsummer Night's Dream lends itself well to a queer narrative. The fairy potion allows lovers to mix and match in any combination. Directors can paint the show light and spunky or dark and erotic. Still there's only so dark it can go. Midsummer pairs off all the pretty young things. Some of us relate better to the handful of bitter singles at the end of Twelfth Night.

Bite sets the fairies and lovers in a contemporary gay bar, swapping Shakespeare's prose for modern slang and pop hits. It works. Love and lust, requited and unrequited, are universal. Unlike Shakespeare, Bite has Titania take over the narrative midway. She wants the lovers to share her pain and disillusionment. For some love is the sense of being understood. Of being known. It all ends happier than I expected but gave me plenty to ponder.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Cole Porter series part 3


Can Can. Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter. Book by Abe Burrows. 1953 Broadway.

Out of this World. Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter. Book by Dwight Taylor and Reginald Lawrence. 1950 Broadway.

In the past 4 shows the leading man pursued a lady. In these 2 shows the leading lady pursues a man. Both Can Can and Out of this World have had concerts at Encores but their books are too weak for Broadway revival. The Paper Mill Playhouse produced Can Can with Kate Baldwin and a new book, but the production did not have legs.

Can Can featured some juicy backstage intrigue. Leading lady Lilo was upstaged by supporting player Gwen Verdon and apparently seethed with diva rage. Both scores have their klunkers but Can Can features "I Love Paris" and "It's All Right With Me." Out of this World has the delightful, if forgotten, "Cherry Pies Ought To Be You."It starts as a compliment duet for the lovers. Then Juno and a gangster enter and turn it into an insult duet.

I know GoodTickleBrain has drawn a Can Can comic as well. It's buried in the archive but if I find it I'll post a link.

Edit: Here it is!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Cole Porter Series part 2


Anything Goes. Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter. Original book by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. 1934 Broadway.

High Society. (1956 Film) Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter. Screenplay by John Patrick. Based on The Philadelphia Story by John Barry.

High Society. (1998 Broadway). Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter. Additional Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. Book by Arthur Kopit.

Poor Hope and Tracy. Their engaged to unsuitable spouses. The supporting cast must unite to reconnect them with their stalkers exes for true happiness.

The leading lady in Anything Goes is Reno Sweeney. She loves Billy but will devote her time to seducing Hopes fiance and setting her up with Billy. But the plot doesn't really matter. It's all an excuse for Ethel Merman (and subsequent divas) to belt some of Cole Porter's best tunes.

Tracy was the lead in Philadelphia Story. Katherine Hepburn commissioned the play, bought the film rights and saved her struggling career. Hepburn often played strong women who needed to be "tamed." She brought such strength to her roles that her leading men never really cowed her. High Society's Tracy is less successful. The film shifted the focus to her suitors, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Grace Kelly was not a singer and she lacked Hepburn's fire. The Broadway version gave Melissa Errico's Tracy more music but the trunk songs never felt right for her character. Critics recommended that audiences stick with the Hepburn film.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Cole Porter Series part 1


Kiss Me Kate. Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter. Book by Samuel and Bella Spewack. Basis William Shakespeare's play The Taming of the Shrew. 1948 Broadway.

Silk Stockings. Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter. Book by George S. Kaufman, Leueen MacGrath & Abe Burrows. Basis Melchior Lengyel's story Ninotchka. 1955 Broadway.

This week I'll be looking at six musicals composed by Cole Porter. Two bad films have been made about his life. Both tell us he wrote musicals, had a complicated marriage, and broke his legs in a riding accident. The second film explores his bisexuality. The first film is less honest but features stronger musical performances.

It's been quoted that Cole Porter felt Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical librettos "made it that much harder for everyone else" Kiss Me Kate was Porter's most ambitious and most successful musical to date. The interweaving of Shakespeare's brutal comedy and Spewack's backstage farce inspired a broad range of music from Porter. It also explored a common theme of his: the abusive mismatched couple. Fred and Lilli's first duet, "Wunderbar," is a parody of Viennese opera. The honest song they share is "So In Love."

"Taunt me, and hurt me.
Deceive me, desert me.
I'm yours till I die.
So in love with you am I."

The melody and lyric present their co-dependent relationship as something beautiful and tragic.

Silk Stocking's leading lady gets her liveliest song when she dismisses love as "A Chemical Reaction." When she falls for Steve she sings the dreary "Without Love (What Is a Woman?)" which makes romance sound funereal. Porter's heart was clearly in the brassy comedy and the spiky conflict.

"Though the uninstructed faction
Calls it mutual attraction
it's a chemical reaction, that's all."

Part 2's shows will continue a theme from Kiss Me Kate: hooking up with your ex.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Newsies



Extra! Extra! Read all about it!
Cult flop film becomes Tony winning Broadway hit!

The story was inspired by a real life news strike but don't look to Newsies for historical accuracy. Do look to Newsies for handsome male dancers. If fit men in tight vests were still delivering "the papes" then print media would be in a better place today!

Jack and David's intense friendship has inspired much fan fiction. Fierstein's libretto mitigates the homo-eroticism a bit by strengthening the leading lady. On film Sarah was "the beard." On stage we get Katherine, a feisty news reporter with career goals.

Underneath the love triangle and athletic dancing is a story about capitalism and the importance of worker's unions. It's simplified and romanticized but there are worse messages for kids than to stand by their co-workers.


Monday, August 15, 2016

Pete's Dragon

"It's not easy to find someone who cares.
It's not easy to find magic in pairs."

Okay so I stretched the truth a little on this one.

Pete's Dragon was no masterpiece. It stopped Disney from making live musicals for many years but it had some catchy songs. The 2016 remake cuts the songs and apparently improves upon everything else. Disney tends to base their heroes journey around dead parents. In the original film Pete is fleeing from an abusive family bringing things closer to a Roald Dahl narrative.

Today's artwork is loosely inspired by the game Undertale

Monday, August 8, 2016

War Paint



War Paint's Chicago premiere has many things going for it: Two great stars, a score that plays to their strengths, and interesting source material. Reviews have been mostly positive. Unfortunately the current book lacks conflict.

Librettist Doug Wright has several challenges. The real Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein refused to meet with each other. Wright has to give his leads equal stage time while keeping them apart. In this he succeeds. Without a co-star to play off of the leads steamroll the supporting cast. The founders of Revlon get two juicy scenes but vanish before they can develop into true antagonists. Wright will need to beef up the feckless love interests or scheming shop girls so that Patti and Ebersole have someone to play off of.

The Chicago production has been extended through August 21. A Broadway transfer has yet to be confirmed but is certainly in the cards.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Now. Here. This.


Another shout out to Peanuts this week, inspired by Bowen's joke about Linus Van Pelt.

When Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen wrote [title of show] they gave the character arcs to their friends Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell. In the sequel, Now. Here. This., they reveal a little more of themselves. Jeff talks about his closeted youth and Hunter shares the self-loathing logic behind his comic persona. Meanwhile sweet Heidi and salty Susan recall childhood events that shaped their careers.

It helps to have seen [title of show]. The work provides context for these 40-somethings in various states of arrested development. Revues with plots are usually about romance (I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change or Putting It Together). Now. Here. This. is focused on families, high school, and mid-life crisis. I hope Now. Here. This. isn't meant as Bowen and Bell's goodbye to musical theater. I'd like to hear what they come up with next.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Plain and Fancy



This week's posts have looked at teen rebellion channeled through rock music. The teens of Plain and Fancy rebel in a milder way. Hilda tries on some "fancy" lingerie and  Ezra drinks a bottle of scotch. They return to the Amish community after a quick visit to a carnival.

Plain and Fancy had a successful Broadway run and could prove a worthy candidate for an Encores concert.  The Round Barn Theatre at Amish Acres revives the show annually and the York Theatre Company has revised it for a small cast. Barbara Cook's ballad, "This is All Very New to Me," was the closest thing to a breakout ballad but the score has other lovely moments.


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

All Shook Up


Since I've posted two Elvis-themed musicals this week, I figured I'd add a third.

All Shook Up didn't bring much new to the table. Twelfth Night has already inspired a rock musical and a jukebox musical. Hairspray handled inter-racial teen dating better two years prior and Broadway critics were tired of jukebox musicals in 2005.

It is refreshing, and still rare, to see a bisexual leading man in a musical comedy. Chad's coming out ballad was played for laughs but the feelings were sincere. Unlike most adaptations his bisexuality didn't vanish when he learned Ed's true identity. The role wasn't great but it launched the career of Cheyenne Jackson. He would go on to better things.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Cry-Baby


Today's art gives a shout out to Archie comics and the kids of Riverdale High.

Cry-Baby is not John Water's most popular film but it had a point of view. The film sent up the movies of Elvis Presley and Johnny Depp's teen idol reputation.
"It’s a parody. Johnny Depp’s screaming girl fans were confused by the movie. They knew we were making fun of something, but they didn’t realize it was them." ~ John Waters
Divorced from this context the Cry-Baby musical was about... capitalizing on the success of the Hairspray musical. While they shared a book writer the inferior score was by Broadway newcomers Schlesinger and Javerbaum. The show received praise for Harriet Harris's arch line readings and Ali Mauzey's demented torch song. I also enjoyed the cynical finale, "Nothing Bad Is Ever Gonna Happen Again." It was an anti "You Can't Stop the Beat." The rest of the show was bland and it closed after 68 performances.

Schlesinger and Javerbaum went on to write the opening number for the 2011 Tony Awards: Broadway's Not Just for Gays Anymore.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Hairspray



The musical Hairspray has been compared to Bye Bye Birdie. Both shows feature:

  • A teen idol on a 60's television show
  • A mix of adult and teen romance
  • A racist antagonist

But while Rose's struggle with racial prejudice is a small subplot in Birdie the struggle to integrate the Corny Collins show is front and center in Hairspray.

Protagonist Tracy Turnblad has three goals in act one. She wants fame, love and for her unhappy mother to like herself. She achieves all three before the first act finale. Then she pushes for integration and puts her success at risk. When Tracy loses her nerve in Act Two she's called out on it. The exchange is more powerful than anything in Bye Bye Birdie and should never have been cut from the 2007 film.

Maybelle: Hold it. Nobody ever said this was gonna be easy. If something's worth having it's worth fighting for. Tracy, why did you start all this in the first place? Was it just to dance on TV?
Tracy: No.
Maybelle: Was it so you could get the boy?
Tracy: No. I almost lost him because of it.
Maybelle: Then maybe it was just to get yourself famous.
Tracy: No. I just think it's stupid we can't all dance together.
Some have criticized the musical for taking itself more seriously than John Waters' 1988 film. John Waters himself has praised the musical, though he also admits:

I've certainly made more from Hairspray-the musical, not the new movie-than anything I've ever made in my whole life. I'm very thankful to Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, who were very fair with me and brought me into the deal from the very beginning. It has been a great experience.






Friday, July 29, 2016

Bye Bye Birdie



In 2014 I wrote a post on Bring Back Birdie, the dreadful sequel to Bye Bye Birdie. The sequel had the same writers, star and structure but lightning didn't strike twice.

As I attempted to summarize Bye Bye Birdie I was reminded of what a bizarre show it truly is. The libretto juggles 5 principal characters, 2 key supporting roles, 2 romances and the teens vs. parents conflict. The hip rock star, Conrad Birdie, gets the title but the old-fashioned heart of the story is carried by Rosie and her desire to settle down with Albert.

If Dick Van Dyke wasn't playing him Albert would be a very unpleasant character. That's one reason revivals keep flopping. It was made clear in the sequel when he dumps Rosie for a "newer model." It's better to ignore the sequel and let their story end with Bye Bye Birdie's charming finale.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

High Spirits



Last night I saw the new Ghostbusters movie. I loved the cast and their banter. I was disappointed in the ghosts. The designs were generic and they behaved like bosses in a video game. If the franchise continues I'd like to see more interplay between the ghosts and mortals.

This made me think of the musical High Spirits. Noel Coward agreed to direct this adaption of his play Blithe Spirit though he eventually ceded control to Gower Champion. The supporting role of Madam Arcati, the medium, was expanded for comedienne Beatrice Lillie. Sadly Lillie was in ill health and would improvise large portions of her dialogue. This delighted audiences but enraged Coward.

Elvira, the ghostly wife, gets a fun establishing song: You Better Love Me While You May. The rest of the score is pleasant but forgettable. The play gets regular revivals while the musical is largely forgotten.

"As Coward surely meant it, however, it presents a homosexual whose closet marriage is destroyed by the reappearance of an old boy friend." ~ Ethan Mordden, Open a New Window

Even if “High Spirits” had no other attractions—and it has a stageful—it would be cause for celebration. It has brought back Beatrice Lillie. ~ Howard Taubman, New York Times.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Man of La Mancha



Man of La Mancha makes a case for optimism in tragic times. Though remembered primarily for the big song it always proves timely. Sadly a poorly sung film and a bland revival have dimmed the shows reputation.

"In its heart, Man of La Mancha is about the 1960s, and by extension, about any time of political unrest – including today – and it is about the responsibility of each of us to make the world a better place than we found it." ~ Scott Miller




Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The SpongeBob Musical


Earlier this month I compared The SpongeBob Musical to Lil' Abner. Both involve a collection of cartoon characters fighting to save their town from destruction. There are some key differences. The villains drive the plot in Lil' Abner. Abner himself has little to do. He's mostly along for the ride. In The Spongebob Musical there is no chief antagonist. The threat to the town is an active volcano. Spongebob and Sandy go off on a Lord of the Rings-style journey to drop a machine inside the volcano and stop the eruption.

The SpongeBob Musical recently closed their Chicago tryout. Reviews were positive and a Broadway transfer may be announced soon. Many praised Ethan Slater's lead performance and Gavin Lee's 11'o clock tap number. Others pointed out that the show was too long for the target audience. Any rewrites before the transfer may prove challenging. The score is written by a collection of pop composers. Cutting any superfluous songs would involve removing a composer's name from the marquee.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Company v.2


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!).

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Yank!



The title suggests camp. Maybe some tap dancing soldiers and some drag queens dressed as the Andrews Sisters. The tap dancing is there but Yank! has greater ambitions. Stonewall may have launched modern LGBTQIA liberation but the journals that inspired Yank! reveal a healthy gay subculture that thrived during WW2.

The world's at war
Rules are suspended
Whole world's... upended

Yank! had a lengthy development process and a successful run at the York Theatre. A Broadway transfer was scheduled for the 2010-2011 season. When the transfer fell through the York cast recorded an album and the rights were released to regional theaters.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Lil' Abner



So you have an established cartoon franchise. How do you compress them into one story? You can do an origin story, like Annie or Spiderman, or you can put the town in danger. The latter worked for The Simpsons Movie in 2007, its working for Spongebob the Musical in 2016 and in 1956 it fueled the plot for the musical adaptation of Lil'Abner.

The show ran for 693 performances and saved most of the original cast for the film. The show has received concert productions from Encores and Reprise but doesn't merit a full scale revival. Like Annie, the original comic is out of print. The show lacks heart and the Cold War satire has not aged well. The movie is worth catching for Stubby Kaye's performance and Michael Kidd's choreography.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812


The novel War and Peace is over 1400 pages. Rather than compress the narrative, ala Les Miserables, Malloy has wisely focused on a 70 page subplot.

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 produced an exciting cast album starring a pre-Hamilton Phillipa Soo and the delicious tenor voice of Lucas Steele. The supporting cast pushes the character voices and the act two lyrics rely on narration, but group numbers like The Prologue and The Opera give a sense of how much fun this show can be in person.

The Broadway transfer will feature the smooth baritone of Josh Groban as Pierre. However the dinner portion of the show has caused the prices to inflate in the transfer to a Broadway production. Hopefully it will last long enough to reach a broader audience outside the passionate core fan base.



Monday, June 27, 2016

Bat Boy: The Musical


I had touched on Bat Boy in my Camp Horror Mad Libs, comparing it to Reefer Madness and Little Shop of HorrorsLike Audrey II, Edgar can only survive on blood. Like Jimmy, Edgar is brought down by his own addictions.

The element Bat Boy introduces apart from the others is the chorus of cruel townsfolk who push Edgar to his downfall. Edgar is less Dracula and more Frankenstein, a tragic creature who is denied love by his appearance.

Scott Miller writes:
"Many musicals are built on the concept of Assimilate Or Be Removed. The central character in many musicals must make a choice to either change in certain ways in order to join the existing community or he must be removed from that community either by leaving or by dying. In The Music Man, Harold Hill turns legit in order to join the River City community. In Sweeney Todd, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita, the main characters will not change so they must be removed, by death."

Which side does Edgar fall on? The show is still being produced so you'll have to see a production (or listen to one of the terrific cast albums) to learn.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Dear Evan Hansen


A tip of the hat today to Charles Schulz

The 2016 Tony Awards are over and the new season of Broadway musicals are preparing for their transfers. Dear Evan Hansen received strong reviews for the leading man, Ben Platt, and mixed reviews for the book and score. The show deals with teen suicide but, unlike Heathers, it takes the topic seriously. Still some feel that focusing on Evan's journey, while ignoring the story of the deceased, is a distasteful premise. The musical will open on Broadway in December. Time will tell if there are substantial rewrites from the initial productions.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Musical Revivals of 2016

A quick sketch of this season's revivals before the 40th Annual Tony Awards. Four of these six were nominated for Best Revival of a Musical.

Links to compiled reviews for:
The Color Purple
Dames at Sea
Fiddler on the Roof
She Loves Me
Spring Awakening
The Robber Bridgegroom

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Hamilton



The concept for Hamilton could have gone very wrong. A hip hop musical about the founding fathers could have been campy like Rockabye Hamlet or dull like Ben Franklin in Paris. Happily Lin-Manuel Miranda took the time to workshop, try-out, write and rewrite till Hamilton had the proper mix of history and drama.

Miranda gives most of the rap to Hamilton himself, while the melodies go to the supporting cast. This lets Aaron Burr steal act two with “The Room Where it Happens” and “The World Was Wide Enough.”

Hamilton is set to sweep the Tony Awards this Sunday. The material is strong and should run long after the original cast departs. Will we get strong regional productions or is the show to large in scale? Will high schools perform awkward all white productions, like we’ve seen with The Wiz and Once On This Island? Will the score hold up or will the “contemporary” music seem dated when the inevitable film rolls around 10 years from now? To quote Miranda: "Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?"

Here's a link to a gorgeous collection of fan art.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Coming Out of Their Shells



I didn't care for the recent Turtles movies, but it's important to remember that the Turtles have survived worse. Eastman and Laird created and published them as an independent comic in 1984. When Playmates bought the rights to a toy line the Turtles expanded into a global franchise. Eastman and Laird struggled to keep creative control and got buried in an avalanche of property rights contracts and lawsuits.

In the early 90's some actors in creepy animatronic suits toured the states dancing to pre-recorded songs. A "behind-the-scenes" look at the tour was released on VHS. The composers of these songs seem uneager to take credit.

The live singing arrives as an 11 o'clock power ballad for news reporter April O'Neil. Good lord is that... yes it is!... That's Broadway's Sherie Rene Scott playing April! And what on earth have they done to her hair?

Friday, June 3, 2016

Tony Awards Ballot - Best Musical 2016





The 70th Annual Tony Awards are next Sunday, June 12 at 8/7CST and will be broadcast on ABC.

You can download a ballot through their website. I've had a chance to draw three of the nominees and will be working on the big one next week.


Thursday, June 2, 2016

Xanadu


Camp is hard. Good camp looks effortless, but for every Little Shop of Horrors there are ten Rachael Lily Rosenblooms. Douglas Carter Beane had a low bar to hurdle as the film was a notorious flop. He was also wise to keep it to a 90 minute run time. Other comedies would benefit from such brevity. Add a viral marketing campaign and some backstage drama and you've got a modest hit.

Performance Clips
Suddenly
Evil Woman
Don't Walk on By


Sunday, May 29, 2016

American Psycho


American Psycho is closing before the summer tourists get a chance to see it. The reviews and think pieces have raised many questions.

Moralistic satire or misogynistic porn? Wildly theatrical or un-adaptable? Does the ending blame Patrick or society? Can the 1980's materialism depicted be applied to America today? Should it have opened off-Broadway? Or with a movie star? Will it have a life in regional theater? Will we get a Broadway cast album?

And finally what does Patrick Bateman want? Sweeney wants revenge. Seymour wants love. J.P. Finch wants a material success. Patrick already "has it all" but feels nothing. Does he want to "feel?"

Clips:
Selling Out
Cards
You Are What You Wear
A Girl Before
Backstage vlogs
London Cast Album at Entertainment Weekly
*** And some fun backstage gossip on Broadway.com. 

Nominated for 2 Tony Awards.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Shuffle Along



This is not a revival of the 1921 musical Shuffle Along. Rather it's a story about the rise and fall of Shuffle Along's creators. Critics praised the dances but criticized the libretto for an over-reliance on first person narration.  

"The dramaturgical tactic is vaguely Jersey Boys meets 42nd Street." ~ Time Out

As with Hamilton we are left with a question of who remembers you and who tells your story.

Nominated for 10 Tony Awards.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Little Shop of Horrors


I've touched on Little Shop twice before, but wanted to give it a full post.

Reviews of the recent American Psycho musical have said there's no way to make the murderous protagonist sympathetic. This got me thinking about Seymour Krelborn. I mock (and lust after) Patrick Bateman. I pity Sweeney Todd. I genuinely like Seymour. From the moment I hear the song "Skid Row" I'm on his side. How does he do it?

Well, like Sweeney, he has a loathsome antagonist and a seductive accomplice. Like Sweeney he also does some truly awful things in Act Two. Unlike Sweeney he holds on to the possibility of redemption. *** spoiler? *** The movie gave him a happy ending, but it left a sour aftertaste. We may want him to get away with it but understand when he doesn't. ***

So why did this popular show flop when it opened on Broadway in 2003? Some said the stage was too big, the performances too arch, the material too dated. An Encores concert in 2015 showed that the show still works if the larger-than-life characters are played with honesty.

*** EDIT: Seeing the show again I realize that Seymour and Audrey's fatal flaw is their crippling self-loathing. It's not greed as they don't really take advantage of their new found income. They're given several opportunities to escape their fate but keep making poor choices from a place of low self-worth.