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.