Thursday, April 28, 2016

Dreamgirls



Some critics dismissed Michael Bennet's production of Dreamgirls as style over substance. I disagree. Effie and Lorell are complex, three-dimensional characters and the theme of cultural appropriation is thoughtfully woven throughout. My quibbles come from the characterizations of Deena Jones and Curtis Taylor Jr.

Actresses who play Deena often fight against her passive ingenue nature. It's possible the writers wanted to avoid a lawsuit from her real life inspiration. She stands up to Effie in Act One but never gets to let her inner Eve Harrington out in Act Two. Beyonce got a new 11'o clock number which almost made up for the blandness of her book scenes.

Then there's Curtis. Many charismatic actors have tackled the role but the libretto only has time for his villainous side. Whatever happiness he found with Deena is left offstage at intermission. By act two he's spouting so much villain dialogue you expect him to tie the Dreams to the train tracks. If Curtis is "the best man Effie will ever know" than she needs to rethink her dating strategies. Curtis is just the worst.

People remember the big songs but, like Rent, some of the most interesting music occurs in the sung through book scenes. The solo "And I Am Telling You" is all the stronger for following the fantastic "It's All Over" sequence.

Monday, April 25, 2016

More on Rent

*** The following post contains plot spoilers for the musical Rent ***

Seeing Rent again live is restoring my love of the piece that the movie tarnished. The first act book is tightly constructed and a lot of important information flies at you. I still love the solos and duets but I've gained new appreciation for the choral numbers. The flea market sequence, A Happy New Year and the funeral confrontation do a lot of heavy lifting for plot and character growth and are musically complex.

My high school peers knew all the words to "La Vie Boheme." I had to look up half the references as if it was "I'm Still Here." The point is that the rich have absorbed their pop culture from the poor artists they scorn. I'd forgotten the police are burning down the homeless tent city during that song.

All those Benny defenders who say he just wants his rent, forgot the part where he runs out on his wife to offer a homeless woman drug money for sex . I forgot that part too because the second act is such a mess. A lot of important developments occur offstage between scenes. I decided to take a stab at tracking them in a chart. It quickly grew unwieldy.






Friday, April 15, 2016

More on Heathers

*** The following post contains spoilers ***

Some stray thoughts after seeing Heathers the musical.

My favorite songs: Fight for Me, Dead Girl Walking, Seventeen.

To folks who say Heathers is odd source material for a musical I say murder and suicide are common musical tropes. They've fueled classical opera for decades. Heathers only contains one more teen death than West Side Story. 

Many remember Heathers as a black comedy but the biggest laughs and quotable lines vanish about a quarter into the story. Then it tilts closer to horror.

Murphy and O'Keefe's scores to Bat Boy, Legally Blonde, and Heathers lack satisfying finales. I find they front-load their best songs in the first act. Duncan Sheik's two murder-suicide musicals, Spring Awakening and American Psycho also suffer from ballad heavy second acts as things turn "serious." But to be fair even the great Sweeney Todd lacks an 11 o'clock number.

The adults in Heathers the movie and West Side Story are clueless. The teachers in Spring Awakening are sadistic but the parents are given a brief moment to mourn the deaths. The adults in Heathers the musical are grotesque caricatures who are completely indifferent to teenage suicides. Their lame "comedy numbers" are low points that keep the show from greatness.

The movie Heathers included a date rape. The musical Heathers settles at attempted raps set to a "comedy song." Some critics found the song "Blue" funny. I was squicked out. Your mileage may vary.

Tone is a challenge. The story has at least four endings which alter the overall piece considerably. The producers vetoed the first two screenplays. I'd heard of the ending where everyone dies and dances in heaven. In a 2014 interview screenwriter Daniel Waters also mentions another:

"The ending I should’ve fought harder for is where Martha Dumptruck pulls out a knife, stabs Veronica, and says, “F— you, Heather.” And Veronica’s on the ground laughing, with a knife in her stomach, saying, “My name’s not Heather. My name’s not Heather.”"

Grim stuff. The film settled for the death of the "villain." The musical goes one step further with the attempted redemption of the protagonist. Some have criticized the musical for missing the point by softening the protagonist. Seeing it myself I was uncertain they were sincere. The "happy ending" seemed rushed and cynical which somehow made it even more disturbing. I'd say by that point in the story Veronica's about as redeemable as Mrs. Lovett.

EDIT : Thinking more on it, the fact that Veronica seduces some audience members into her worldview, and presenting herself as the heroine, may be the most subversive thing about Heathers the musical. The screenplay's cut endings took J.D's point of view but Veronica's may be just as toxic.

I also don't by Veronica's insistence that all kids are "beautiful" and kind before they reach high school. I remember plenty of kids being just as toxic in middle school and parts of elementary school.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Rent



Rent was a big deal. Like Hamilton big deal. I hope Hollywood gives Hamilton a better movie in 10+ years.


Now Rent is considered silly by some:

            WE'RE NOT GOING TO GROW UP
            AND GET JOBS AND PAY OUR DAMN RENT
            EVEN THOUGH EVERYBODY DOES IT,
            AND SOMEHOW THIS MAKES US
            SYMPATHETIC CHARACTERS! ~ Broadway Abridged

And profound by others:

Perhaps the people who hate Rent see their younger selves in these characters and they don't like that. After all, most of us are whiny and selfish when you're young (and we artsies can be the worst); we still have growing up left to do. Though to be honest, a lot of people in their forties still have growing up to do. It’s not hard to see a parallel to American politics today. ~ Scott Miller

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Heathers



More murder this week as we look at Heathers the musical. This vicious teen "comedy" set the template for softer films like Mean Girls, but also shares DNA with the horror of Carrie. Westerberg High School is a battlefield filled with violent bullies and clueless teachers, honing students for the cruel world of the late 1980's.

Veronica, the anti-hero protagonist, dances on a knife edge. The film never quite tells us how aware she is of J.D's schemes and the musical pushes her further into ignorance. By the end of the story she's seen and done too much to be truly innocent but the right actress can still maintain audience sympathy.


 Much ink has been spilt about the escalation in high school violence in the past decade. High schools may perform West Side Story but it will be some time before they feel comfortable producing Heathers. Neither the 1988 film, nor the 2014Off-Broadway production had commercial success but both have established loyal cult followings who remember the world it portrays.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Smash: Season Three



The first two seasons of NBC's Smash were wildly uneven in quality. With Season Three Netflix tightened things up considerably. It's perfect for a weekend binge watch. RuPaul's cameo in Episode Four was hysterical and Marc Shaiman's new song for the movie version of Bombshell is bound to be heard in audition rooms.