Friday, December 22, 2017

A Christmas Story

In March 2017 Pasek and Paul shared an Oscar with Justin Hurwitz for best original song in La La Land
In June 2017 Pasek and Paul won a Tony Award for Best Score for Dear Evan Hansen
In December 2017 Pasek and Paul received critical pans for the television broadcast of A Christmas Story: The Musical and the film The Greatest Showman

What do these shows have in common? What's different?

Anti-heroes: All four feature protagonists who behave badly. I sympathized with the unstable Evan but couldn't stand the narcissistic jerks in La La Land. Ralphie's youth excuses his obsessions while Showman ignores the unsavory side of P.T. Barnum.

The score: La La and Evan use a modern pop sound in a modern setting. Christmas Story goes "classic Broadway" for the 1940's setting. The Greatest Showman put's the anachronistic modern sound in an 1880's setting... It worked for Moulin Rouge but critics didn't like it here.

The performers: La La Land's movie stars were not skilled singers or dancers. For some that was the point. Their dreams were bigger than their reality. For others it was an ugly Hollywood compromise that sunk the film. Evan, Showman and Christmas Story feature a mix of Broadway vets and new up-n'-comers. Some argued this did not fit the working class families of Christmas Story. The television special dialed up the disconnect with Jane Krakowski's sexy school teacher and Chris Diamantopoulos's smoking hot daddy.

Target Audience: La La Land features 20-somethings and Evan Hansen features teens. They have resonated with audiences inside those groups and beyond. Who is the audience for The Greatest Showman? They hedge their bets by surrounding the middle aged Jackman with younger co-stars. Will Zac Efron and Zendaya draw a family audience over the holiday weekend? Christmas Story aims for the family audience but pits itself against their feelings for the original film. Love the original? You can enjoy the musical on stage but there's no reason for a TV remake. Hate the original? Still no reason for the remake.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny

RifTrax gave this laughably bad low budget children's film a new life and brought attention to the creepiness of the sweaty Santa Claus and the creepy animal costumes. A comic really can't do it justice. Check out this clip.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Once On This Island

Promises, Promises, The Fantasticks and Once on this Island fall into the category of romances with pretty songs and ugly stories. Ti Moune's story is told with such glee that it's easy to forget it's a tragedy. The Gods attempts to grant her wishes are comically inept and the gentleman she wants is a garbage person. They are less Romeo and Juliet than Jason and Medea. Still "Mama Will Provide" is a fabulous song.

Gee I really should have saved this series till Valentine's Day. I'll get to Christmas shows eventually.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Fantasticks

Two innocents go on a journey, suffer and return home sadder but wiser. It works for me in Candide and Into the Woods. So why don't I care for the world's longest running musical? I think it's the lack of self-awareness. I find the father's plot so unpleasant and the lovers so ill-suited to each other that their sincere act two duet rings as hollow as the satirical act one duet. The original production charmed audiences for 42 years so I've had to accept I'm simply not the target audience. I haven't experienced the things the show feels nostalgic for. I can not remember so I can not follow.

Still, it did give us Jerry Orbach.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Promises, Promises

Okay so it's not really a holiday musical but it does have the song Turkey Lurkey Time.

Billy Wilder's The Apartment and the musical adaptation Promises, Promises fall into the genre of dark romantic comedy. It's boy meets girl with a villain in the way but this time the boy is self loathing and the girl is suicidal. The corporate setting makes it a creepy cousin to the peppier How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. 

The brittle film has held up better than the sentimental musical. It was a hit in 1968. Bacharach's sound was fresh and the gender politics slightly less dated. When the show was revived on Broadway in 2010 the critics found Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth's natural liveliness was undercut by the hangdog roles. The 2017 London revival faced similarly mixed reviews.

Fortunately act two is perked up by the arrival of Marge, a flirty alcoholic. Christine Baranski and Kate Finneran made three course banquets out of her would be seduction of the leading man.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Be More Chill

The musical Be More Chill had a short run but the cast album has inspired a rabid fan base. I was introduced to it by the shows breakout song "Michael in the Bathroom." The premise reminds me of Little Shop of Horrors. Each features a self-loathing protagonist goaded by a malevolent force into harming others for the sake of his crush. Audrey II wants to eat the world. The Squip wants to control it. The Squip in the novel could be cruel but it has been upgraded to full super villain in the musical. Seymour wants Audrey. Jeremy wants the underwritten Christine. She takes a back seat to Michael, the leading man's mistreated best friend. They get the duet and the arc. Hence the fan base (and the fan artists) focus on the bro-mance.

There's a lot of tonal whiplash on the album. I'm curious to see how a live production balances the black comedy with the uglier themes of depression and sexual assault. Particularly after watching season 3 of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend balance these so well.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Zombie Prom

I don't have much to say about this one.Grease without the sex. Little Shop of Horrors without the horror. It occupies a bland middle ground. The antagonist, Miss Strict, gets a fun song but they didn't let RuPaul sing it in the abridged film version. I'm running out of Halloween themed shows.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Addams Family

So producers ask you to write an Addams Family musical. What story do you tell? The films contrasted the Addam's with "normal" criminals who wanted to harm them. The stage show introduces a fiancee and conservative in-laws. The device has fueled many comedies including You Can't Take It With You, Auntie Mame and La Cage Aux Folles. So that's your spine. But what do you do with the details?

Who are the Addams's? Are they undead? If so are they zombies, ghosts or vampires? Are they just unusually morbid mortals? How much of their BDSM leanings can you mention in a family show? If you put them onstage do you use the personalities from the comics, cartoons, TV sitcom or films?

The stage show went through multiple rewrites before and after the Broadway engagement. The squid was cut for the tour. She certainly isn't in the school version. But the song about squid molestation was in the Chicago tryout and made it to Broadway.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Fan

Lauren Bacall started a new chapter of her career by starring in the musical Applause. She followed this up with two less successful musical projects. The Fan opened a few months after the opening of Lauren's next musical, Woman of the Year. Unfortunately it also opened after the murder of John Lennon. The grim ending was quickly re-written and re-filmed. A happy ending and an award bait song weren't enough. The film was a box office bomb.

Lauren Bacall's musicals cast her as fairly passive figures. Margo Channing, Tess Harding and Sally Ross start off with thriving careers. The active supporting characters harm that success and leave them reeling. We watch them cope with the loss rather than strive to recover.

A similar plot would have more success in the 1992 film The Bodyguard... which has just been made into another terrible musical.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

300 Comics. 900 Panels.

Somewhere along the way I've passed 300 comics. The 2 in 1 posts make it hard to pinpoint the spot but my counter says it's happened.

So why do I do this? Why obscure (and sometimes not so obscure) musicals? I fell in love with my grandmothers' vinyl cast album collection at a young age. Soon my noisy toddler self was singing Jerry Herman, Lerner and Lowe, Frank Loesser and some inappropriate lyrics from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. 

Since then I've studied, attended, performed in musicals. Reading the behind the scenes books of Ken Mandelbaum and Ethan Mordden taught me that every musical, hit or flop, took a great deal of blood, sweat, tears and cash to create. High schools are still producing shows that succeeded 60 years ago. Other shows opened to bad reviews and quickly shuttered. The musicals without cast albums have all but vanished. That so much time and effort would be put into a work of art only for it to vanish in days is tragic. Even the worst shows can still bring pleasure to people but it's up to the super fans to record the history, retell the stories and keep the memories alive.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Bring It On: The Musical

Lin-Manuel Miranda: I'm sorry I haven't gotten the chance to see Bombshell but I hear the tourists love it.
Christian Borle: Thanks. I tried to see Bring It On but it closed so fast I didn't get the chance.
~ Smash, episode 2.15

Bring It On: The Musical does not retell the plot of the 2000 film. Instead they mix plot points from the direct-to-DVD sequels with subplots from Hairspray and All About Eve. With 12 principal characters the show could have been a mess. Instead we get a well a perfectly serviceable pop musical. The plot is more teen friendly than Lysistrata JonesLysistrata's cheerleaders wanted their peers to learn the importance of competition... and sex. Bring It On’s ruthless cheerleaders need to learn the importance of friendship.The Broadway run was short but the show toured well and was quickly licensed to high schools.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Lysistrata Jones

It's not a war. It's a basketball game. Stakes are low. Why exactly do the men want to play basketball if they're choosing to throw the games? Why do the gay players care about the cheerleader sex strike? Don't overthink it. Lysistrata Jones wants to be an old fashioned tired businessman musical with lotsa jokes and legs. There will always be an audience for that, though not always at Broadway prices.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Drowsy Chaperone

Molina has the Spider Woman. Trevor has Diana Ross. The Man in the Chair has Janet Van de Graaff. Each glamorous muse welcomes you to forget your troubles.

What are the Man in the Chair's troubles? He never says outright though he admits he's "feeling a little blue." He's been married and divorced. He reads as gay (Well, not so much when Bob Saget played him) but denies it. ("I'm a very complicated person.") Now he's a recluse.

Why is The Drowsy Chaperone his favorite musical? He claims it's just "fun." And it is. Janet retires from the stage to marry Robert. Her former producer wants her back. Fidelity is tested and Janet's alcoholic drowsy Chaperone foils the producers schemes. One deus ex machina later we have a happy ending.

Purists have griped that the score sounds more 50's than 20's, particularly in Janet's homage to "Rose's Turn," while others have dismissed the show as mindless fluff. Those of us who like a darkness for flavor can see the Man in the Chair's fate as a sad one. But at the end of the day The Drowsy Chaperone remains fun. It also won Beth Leavel a Tony and provided Sutton Foster with one of her best numbers.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Kiss of the Spider Woman

This show isn't great but at times it's very good. If you're familiar with the novel the very idea of adapting this into a musical sounds silly. To the show's credit it dances the fine line for most of the run time.

The seduction of the straight cell mate is a touchy subject for many. In the book this is an act of vulnerable affection. ("You are the one who is kind.") In the musical it is a cynical manipulation. ("If we touch before he goes he'll make that call.")  Which is more believable? You decide.

The Spider Woman, Aurora, is Molina's muse. Her tunes provide comical commentary on a dark story in a manner similar to the Emcee in Cabaret though her films are much cheerier than the propaganda film in the novel. Two performances were recorded: Chita Rivera's and Vanessa Williams'. I've heard it said that Chita plays a gay man's fantasy and Vanessa plays a straight man's fantasy. Simplistic but funny. Chita brings out the scary gravitas of the character. She's there to kill. Vanessa brings out the sex appeal and the comedy. She's there to party.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Trevor the musical

In 2017 the short film In a Heartbeat made me cry. The adorable story of a middle school boy falling for his peer was a sweet piece of wish fulfillment with a hint of darkness for flavor. It's a fairy tale that would have been unthinkable to me in 1994. Back then I got the film Trevor.

Much of the humor stems from Trevor's obliviousness to his budding homosexuality. His peers figure things out before he does. When he's outed he *** spoiler *** attempts suicide. One pep talk later he is strutting home to Diana Ross's "I'm Coming Out." It was an upbeat capper to a film that tackled some dark subject matter. The film won an Academy Award and inspired The Trevor Project. The organization provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ+ youth.

Today marks the closing performances of Trevor the musical at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, IL. The show features a talented cast and has received positive reviews. I felt it was a work in progress but am eager to see where it goes next. Act One is wisely structures around the school talent show. The moment was a throwaway joke in the film but on stage it provides the spine for Trevor's relationships with the boy he likes, the girl who likes him and his showbiz dreams. Act Two feels a bit shapeless at present. The students shun him and *** spoiler *** his crush writes him a letter calling him a fairy.

As a target of school bullying myself I know that your peers don't shun you. They attack you. They call you worse than "fairy" and they do it to your face. I'll bet the writers know this too. Right now they're pulling their punches for the sake of their audience. I say tell us the truth. We can take it.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Marie Christine

If you've heard of Medea you know what she did. The question of any adaptation is why. The cast album did not make this clear to me. Audra MacDonald's Marie sounds remarkably self-possessed, boasts of her magic powers and is clearly too good for Dante Keyes. The libretto told me more.

In Marie Christine LaChuisa spends time developing the world Marie is fleeing from. Act One's Louisiana is no more home to her than Act Two's Chicago. Her magic is questionable as well. She boasts of her power to seduce men but uses her magic to manipulate and murder other women. She has no biscuit or ribbon to hold on to Dante. Her obsession with Dante becomes a fatal flaw. She "will not let go" and she cannot change enough to fit the new life he leaves her in. 

Children complicate the matter. If she simply fled with them she'd have no means to support them. If she left them to Dante they'd become servants. Perhaps that would have been better but she'll never know. 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Hello Again

If La Ronde was a play about class then Hello Again is a musical about loneliness. Both stories feature a daisy chain of hook ups but neither has much to say about sex. In a sense that's the point. The sex in Hello Again is rarely for love or pleasure. It's a tool to gain something from a partner; financial support, a career boost or a sense of feeling "safe."

The scenarios are flexible enough to allow for literal or fantastical staging. The 2017 film version includes a lovely mix of both. The roles are juicy enough to showcase stars or newcomers and the original Off-Broadway cast has gone on to great things. The show was not LaChuisa's first musical but it was definitely the one that put him on the map.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Queen of the Mist

Michael John LaChuisa is fond of existential crisis.  His protagonists come from all walks of life but most of them feel empty and trapped. Queenie, Charlotte, The Priest and the lost souls of Hello Again. and Anna Edson Taylor

"It can get pretty lonely being the kind of person who goes over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Anna Edson Taylor (1838-1921) made her name more than a century ago by doing just that, and received oceans of publicity...
As deeds of daring go, writing eccentric, highbrow historical musicals in a business that rewards hummable tunes and straightforward story lines may not rank with... shooting the falls. But it probably requires a similar degree of true, mad, deep dedication." ~ New York Times

"I like to work, but if I just did projects like Queen of the Mist, which I just adored and is one of the most magnificent parts I’ve ever had, I would be in the poorhouse..." ~ Mary Testa

Sunday, September 10, 2017

See What I Wanna See

Like The Apple TreeWeird Romance and Little Fish before it See What I Wanna See grouped short stories with similar themes. Michael John LaChuisa adapted three short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa concerning the theme of "truth." The subject matter earns mixed reviews but the compact cast size makes it attractive to smaller theaters.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Shockheaded Peter

Children are the future but children are naughty. How shall we teach them to behave? Perhaps tell them the stories of those who did not. Awful things happen to children who do not behave. 

Before Wonka's Chocolate Factory of Doom there was Struwwelpeter. German psychologist Heinrich Hoffman had written his son a series of "funny stories." Each followed a child who broke a rule and suffered a disproportionate fate. He published them in 1845 to bring laughter to the children of the world. 

In 1998 the Tiger Lillies, a British punk trio, premiered the stage adaptation. The children's stories were are told but the title characters story was adapted to shift blame to the narcissistic parents. Lead singer Martyn Jacques was surprised to learn the show made him popular with children. In a 2016 interview with The Australian he said: “Kids love me... They are not usually allowed to see me, but when they do they absolutely love me. They look at me and go, ‘Ooh, he’s bad’ — the rare misbehaving adult. I mean, adults tend to be a bit boring really — they behave themselves and have boring conversations. Children love it when you misbehave. And I am known to be a little naughty.”

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Seven Basic Plots of 2018

I recently matched last season's musicals with Chris Booker's "Seven Basic Plots." I thought I'd do the same for the scheduled musicals of the coming season and a few still in development.

Overcoming the Monster - Protagonist must defeat an antagonistic force to save themselves and/or their homeland.

  • Spongebob Squarepants vs. the volcano.
  • Beetlejuice. Ghosts vs. the living.
  • The Devil Wars Prada? This could also be a rebirth or rags to riches journey of the young heroine. Rebirth's a common theme next year as we'll soon see.

Rags to Riches - Protagonist achieves success only to lose it and grow as a person.

  • Mean Girls maybe?

The Quest - Protagonist and companions travel towards a place or object. They overcome obstacles on the way.

  • Spongebob's journey to the volcano.

Voyage and Return - The protagonist travels to a strange land, overcomes adversity, and returns home changed.

  • The Band's Visit which tells of an Egyptian band giving a concert in Israel.
  • Frozen as Anna and Elsa leave and return to Arrandale.
  • Hadestown

Comedy - A messier definition than the others. Protagonist overcomes adverse circumstances that grow increasingly complex till a "clarifying event" resolves it.

  • No immediate candidates. Maybe Beetlejuice again?

Tragedy - The protagonist is brought down by a fatal flaw.

  • The revival of Once on This Island. 
  • Beaches
  • King Kong the Musical. Twas critics killed the beast.

Rebirth - An important event forces the protagonist to change their ways and become a better person.

  • The revival of Carousel could be seen as a tragedy or a story of rebirth.
  • The revival of My Fair Lady sees the rebirth of both Henry and Eliza. 
  • Gettin' the Band Back Together. Playbill sums it up as a "new musical about an investment banker who loses his job and decides to restart his life by reorganizing his high school rock band." There've been a lot of band themed shows lately. 
  • The jukebox musical Escape to Margaritaville focuses on a slacker protagonist and the sensible woman who changes him. (Those who hate jukebox musicals are free to classify this as a tragedy).
  • 13 Going on 30. We've done the body swap film adaptation with Big the musical and Freaky Friday the musical. Didn't see those? Well here's 13 Going on 30!
  • 17 Again. But wait. There's another body swap film with a number in the title that we can adapt. This time it's an adult who wants to be a teen! But only if he's a teen who looks like a 22 yr old Zac Efron. 
  • The Bodyguard. 

Shows I couldn't fit.

  • The Hal Prince revue The Prince of Broadway. 
  • Archie the Musical. No word on what the plot will be. Maybe a sexy murder mystery like Riverdale! Or the zombie filled horror of Afterlife with Archie! Nah. It'll probably stick to the love triangle. Maybe something about their band. Bands are big next season.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


Why doesn't Candide work on stage? Some said Lillian Hellman's grim book clashed with Bernstein's bouncy score. However the score has it's share of pathos and Wheeler's jokey new book robs the characters of depth. The 90 minute version does not earn it's meditative ending and the extended opera house version can be a chore to sit through. Perhaps it's simply that Voltaire's philosophical novella doesn't belong in a literal setting.

The Broadway premiere ran 73 performances but two revivals outran it and opera companies have made it a staple. While the title role is a cipher the supporting roles provide showcases for divas and clowns. Cundegonde's "Glitter and Be Gay" deserves all the praise it musters and the Old Lady frequently walks away with the show.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Gay Life

Barbara Cook spent the first decade of her career playing ingenues in musical comedies. The Music Man was her biggest hit but even "flops" like Candide and She Loves Me gave her signature songs like "Glitter and Be Gay" and "Vanilla Ice Cream." Today I look at one of her real flops; The Gay Life. 

We start with a set of one act plays about a rouge named Anatole and his many mistresses. In adapting them to a musical a through line was needed. That would be Liesl the young woman who loves him from afar. Like Bobby in Company she observes all his adventures. Like Sandy in Grease she wins him by asserting her own sexuality. The role could have been a cipher or a joke. Instead Barbara Cook made her the beating heart of the show.

Italian film star Walter Chiari couldn't really sing. The mistresses and the sidekick get the comedy numbers but those are mostly uninspired. The good stuff goes to Barbara Cook and her tracks on the cast album are spellbinding.

"Our leading man couldn't act, dance, sing or speak English, which was a handicap." ~ Howard Dietz

"When the show was published for the first time in 1986, it was retitled, for perhaps obvious reasons, The High Life." ~ Kevin Mandelbaum

Thursday, August 10, 2017


Galavant never clicked with me. The humor felt too broad and the characters too unpleasant. Ratings never competed with Smash at its best or Glee at its worst. Still it lasted two seasons and the folks who stuck with it adored it.

Some favorite songs include:

A New Season which has a nice Muppet Movie vibe to it.
Kylie Minogue singing Off With His Shirt
The falling out of hatred duet Maybe You're Not the Worst Thing Ever.
The challenge duet I Don't Like You
and the bouncy title song, How Long Can This Go On Galavant!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017


"Fade in on a girl with a hunger for fame."

Smash suffered from an identity crisis. Theresa Rebeck wanted a drama about the struggles of balancing her personal and creative life. NBC wanted a soap opera about the sex lives of Broadway artists. I wanted a show about the development of a new Broadway musical. It soon became clear that Bombshell, the fictional musical about Marilyn Monroe, was incomprehensible. I gave up on full episodes once Uma Thurman's smoothies became a plot point. I kept watching the songs from Bombshell. Here are some of my favorites:

Let Me Be Your Star
The 20th Century Fox Mambo
Public Relations
They Just Keep Moving the Line
Don't Forget Me

Oh, and I'm Team Ivy all the way.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend - Season Two

I got nervous around the middle of season two. The story was wandering and I wasn't sure what the stakes were. Everything started to feel less... well... crazy. The season finale had to cram in a lot of plot to ramp things up again. Afterwards I listened to several interviews with the series creators. They described Season Two as having a three act structure. Looking back I can see it. I also respect how the characters can have multiple ups and downs without hitting the "reset button" and forgetting what they've already learned.

Favorite songs this season include:

and my number one favorite: The Math of Love Triangles.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend - Season One

"She's so broken insiiide!"

The song that won me over was "Feeling Kinda Naughty" in episode 2. That was the moment I knew this show would be appointment television. Other favorite songs that season include:

A Boy Band Made up of Four Joshes
Settle For Me
I Give Good Parent
I'm the Villain

Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna are writing about mental illness in a way I haven't seen in pop culture. The protagonist is coping with an abusive childhood, depression, anxiety and self-loathing in a mix of healthy and incredibly unhealthy ways. She's tried therapy and over-medication. Now she's diving head first into the fantasy of a romantic relationship and destroying everything around her in the process. The show still doesn't have the ratings it deserves but it has won awards and critical acclaim.

The people who love this show reeeally love it. I'm one of them.

Friday, July 28, 2017


The Elton John / Tim Rice musical. Not the Verdi opera or the 1952 musical My Darlin' Aida

Revisiting 2000's Aida I see that it laid some groundwork for 2003's Wicked. The serious woman chooses political rebellion over romance. The shallow leading man finds his angsty side. The privileged woman sings a comedy song about fashion in act one and a heartbroken ballad in act two before taking political power.

A key difference is that Wicked focuses on the friendship between the leading ladies while Aida devotes about 7 songs and 2 reprises to the chemistry free romance. Critics were cold but Headley won a well deserved Tony and the show ran 4 years. The score won a Tony too but it was up against two LaChuisa scores which likely cancelled each other's votes.

Now I suppose I'll have to research My Darlin' Aida.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Little Fish

Michael John LaChuisa has been writing musicals non-stop for over two decades. He’s drawn from a wide variety of source material including Greek myth, celebrity biography, French and Spanish drama, Japanese cinema and American poetry. Little Fish was drawn from two short stories Deborah Eisenberg: Days and Flotsam.

The heroines of Days and Flotsam are forced to reinvent themselves. The former after she quits smoking and the latter after she flees an abusive relationship. LaChuisa combines them into the character of Charlotte. The cigarettes had been a coping mechanism for so long that she forgot what she was coping with. Her pain forces her to build a community with those around her instead of swimming upstream on her own.

Tension builds as she passes from person to person, then dissipates in a "don't worry / be happy" ending. The structure has been compared to Company though there's no "Ladies Who Lunch" or "Being Alive" to cap off the night. Instead I held on to the songs for Charlotte's Sorry-Grateful friends, Marco and Kathy, who end up the most fully formed characters on stage.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Big Fish

I wasn't the target audience for this story. I side with the practical son whereas a musical comedy has little choice but to side with the wacky father. Reviews were mixed and the run was short but the show has a passionate fan base and has done well in regional productions. Norbert Leo Butz has stolen shows before and deserves another chance at a star vehicle.

Here's Norbert Leo Butz and Kate Baldwin performing "Time Stops."

Saturday, July 15, 2017

They're Playing Our Song

Ever hear the one about the manic pixie dream girl who romances the uptight boy?
How 'bout the one where the destructive manic depressive hooks up with her priggish passive-aggressive co-worker?

On paper They're Playing Our Song shouldn't work. Neil Simon's characters are too unpleasant to root for. They should not be together. It's not that he's trying to deconstruct the romantic comedy. He's too busy writing wisecracks to cover up the lack of plot. She's late for work, they argue, her ex calls on the phone, rinse, repeat.

And yet the show was a hit running 1082 performances. Watch the clip from the 1979 Tony Awards and you may see why. Lucie Arnaz oozes carefree sex appeal while Robert Klein transforms his role into a clumsy jittery clown. You may not want Vernon and Sonia to get together but you'll have fun watching Arnaz and Klein.

Thursday, July 13, 2017


In March of 1540 Hans Kohlhase was executed for leading a gang of raiders through Saxony. They were seeking vengeance against a nobleman who had stolen his horses. The anti-hero would be re-imagined as Coalhouse Walker in E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel Ragtime.

Ragtime weaves together the stories of three New York families battered by the tides of history in the early 1900’s. Coalhouse crosses paths with Booker T. Washington. The other families meet influential figures like Henry Ford, Harry Houdini and the activist Emma Goldman. Terrence McNally would juggle each story line in his ambitious libretto for the musical adaptation.

Coalhouse and his companions suffer tragedy in their quest for justice but Ragtime is ultimately an optimistic show. Ragtime believes that each generation can learn from the mistakes of the past and slowly build a kinder world.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

9 to 5

In 1973 a group of women founded the 9to5 organization to campaign for the same pay and treatment as their male co-workers. When actress and producer Jane Fonda met with them the idea for a screenplay was inspired. The film Nine to Five went through multiple rewrites before its release in 1980. A drama about workplace harassment became a black comedy about three secretaries attempting to murder their boss. The final product softened the murder to a kidnapping but kept the social commentary.

Singer/songwriter Dolly Parton wrote the award winning title song and made her film debut in the role of Doralee.  When Robert Greenblatt, president of entertainment at Showtime Networks, Inc., pitched the idea of a musical adaptation he secured Ms. Parton to write the score and co-screenwriter Patricia Resnick to write the libretto. Ms. Resnick told reporters she was sad to see how little had changed in the modern workplace. Nine to Five was as relevant in 2009 as it was in 1980.

9 to 5 at the 2009 Tony Awards.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017


On April 3, 1924 Beulah May Annan shot her lover. On May 24 a jury declared her “not guilty.” The Chicago Tribune sent a rookie reporter, Maureen Dallas Watkins, to cover the trial. The jury was told that Annan and her lover had “both grabbed for the gun” after he’d threatened to kill her.  Watkins reminded her readers of the many contradictions in Annan’s story.

Watkins left the Tribune soon after and recounted the trial in her first play. Chicago premiered on Broadway in December of 1926. Beulah May Annan was reborn as Roxie Hart. Watkins declined all requests for the musical rights till her death in 1969. Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon then secured the rights from her estate.

Roxie’s trial is seen through the lens of a vaudeville stage. The libretto makes nods to the likes of Sophie Tucker, Marilyn Miller and Texas Guinan. The Cook County jail is no Palace Theater but Roxie quickly learns that in America anything can become entertainment for the masses.

1976 Tony Awards - Jerry Orbach performs "All I Care About is Love"
1970's Mike Douglas Show - Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera perform "Nowadays" and the "Hot Honey Rag"
1997 Tony Awards - Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking perform "All That Jazz" and the "Hot Honey Rag"
1998 Kennedy Center Honors - Chita Rivera and Bebe Neuwirth perform "All That Jazz"

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Caroline, or Change

Tony Kushner did not adapt the libretto for Angels in America the opera. He did, however, provide the libretto for another musical. The show had a lengthy development process and a tragically short Broadway run. It's a marathon of a show with two leading roles that are difficult to cast. The show has lived on through a strong cast album and multiple regional productions. 

It's interesting to compare it to the book and film The Help. Both are set in the American south in 1963. Both concern the relationship between a black maid and a white child. But The Help painted this relationship in a positive light and made a great deal of money. Caroline ends with Caroline reminding Noah that they were "never friends." That doesn't sell as many tickets but it's closer to the truth. 

Panel discussion on the creation of the show.
Tony Kushner interviewed by NPR in 2006.
Tonya Pinkins performing "Gonna Pass Me a Law" at the White House.
Tonya Pinkins performing "Lot's Wife" on the Tony Awards. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Angels in America: The Opera

How do you adapt a 7 hour play cycle into a 2.5 hour opera? Focus on one character’s story and cut the others down ruthlessly. Where the stage play follows five principal characters 6 principals the opera zeroes in on Prior Walter the dying prophet. The other five are there but primarily serve as support to Prior’s story.

Kusner’s play was subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. The opera minimizes the political themes and emphasizes the spiritual. Prior’s debate with the Angels is the centerpiece of the second act as Louis, Harper, Joe and Roy fall to the sides. Poor Belize is barely a cameo. I couldn’t say how the opera functions as a stand-alone work but I found it fascinating as a companion piece to the play.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Victor/ Victoria

Victor/Victoria thrived on film and flopped on stage. Why? Julie was older, yes, but the show didn't work any better with Liza Minnelli, Raquel Welch or Toni Tennille. I think the rewrites did it in. On film the story is a delightful ensemble farce. On stage it's a weak star vehicle. The supporting roles are diminished by bland new songs and a tendency to disappear.

One way the stage show expands upon the film is with Julie's love interest, King Marchand. James Garner determines Julie's a woman before declaring his love while Michael Nouri decided it didn't matter. This feed into the films larger thesis of sexuality as performance. 

Julie Andrews singing Louis Says on stage.
Rachel York singing Chicago, Illinois on stage.
Raquel Welch singing I Guess It's Time on stage.
Liza Minnelli's press reel.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

When Pigs Fly

The costumes were the stars of When Pigs Fly but the cast album makes a good case for the score and the skits. If you haven't heard it yet give it a listen.

Happy Pride month!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Seven Basic Plots of 2017

The 2017 Tony Awards are tonight! They'll be broadcast at 8/7c on CBS. 11 new musicals opened this season in an attempt to avoid last season's juggernaut Hamilton. Only 6 of them will be performing tonight. Of the cast albums I've heard Dear Evan Hansen and War Paint are favorites. Ben Platt, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole's solos are permanent additions to my playlist.

Groundhog Day and The Great Comet have earned raves in the theater but their reliance on the staging makes for dull albums. Day repeats the same underscoring under Andy Karl's physical comedy. The solos are filled with vulgar lyrics as if Minchin was shaking free of the kid-friendly Matilda in a rage. The result is that most of the characters sound alike. Comet is a mix of impressive singing (Lucas Steele in particular) and harsh, untrained voices. The character songs in act one give way to loads of narrative exposition in act two.

After seeing some parallel themes I thought I'd screen this year's musicals through Christopher Booker's "Seven Basic Plots." Booker writes of archetypal struggles that fictional protagonists have faced for centuries. The following seven plots can mixed and matched.

Overcoming the Monster - Protagonist must defeat an antagonistic force to save themselves and/or their homeland. (A common plot in video games and superhero films)

  • Not this season but in the upcoming Spongebob Squarepants Musical. Spongebob must save his town from a volcano.  

Rags to Riches - Protagonist achieves success only to lose it and grow as a person.

  • War Paint. The rise and fall of Arden and Rubinstein's corporations.
  • Dear Evan Hansen somewhat though his journey is closer to "rebirth."
  • A Bronx Tale: The Musical. 

The Quest - Protagonist and companions travel towards a place or object. They overcome obstacles on the way.

  • Anastasia's journey to France in search of her family. 
  • In Transit. The train is a metaphor.
  • Do backstage musicals fit here? When characters are putting on a show does the opening night serve as their destination? In that case Bandstand and Holiday Inn fit the bill.

Voyage and Return - The protagonist travels to a strange land, overcomes adversity, and returns home changed.

  • Groundhog Day. Phil's journey through Punxsutawney.
  • Come From Away. The American tourists in Newfoundland. 
  • Spongebob again. The journey to and from the volcano. 
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Charlie magical visit to the murder factory of doom.

Comedy - A messier definition than the others. Protagonist overcomes adverse circumstances that grow increasingly complex till a "clarifying event" resolves it.

  • Hello Dolly - Dolly complicates other's lives in order to improve her own. 
  • Amelie - Like Dolly she performs good deeds for others. Unlike Dolly she loses control of the narrative. Her friends and her suitor have to band together to supply the happy ending. 

Tragedy - The protagonist is brought down by a fatal flaw.

  • Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Both Natasha and Pierre are brought down by their ideals.
  • War Paint's second act. The women refuse to change with modern trends and are brought down by competitors. 
  • Miss Saigon? Kim flees her village and travels to America, fitting the "quest" narrative, but when she gets there she sees she can't be with Chris and *** spoiler *** kills herself. *** end spoiler *** Her fatal flaw, perhaps, is seeing Chris as the destination. She can't re-invent herself in America the way the Engineer can. 
  • Sunset Blvd. Nora won't let go of the past and Joe won't let go of the wealth... until it's too late.

Rebirth - An important event forces the protagonist to change their ways and become a better person.

  • Dear Evan Hansen
  • Groundhog Day again
  • Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Possibly. It depends on how you interpret the ending. 
  • The revival of Falsettos. Marvin is a scrooge like figure who (arguably) doesn't care for his family till he nearly loses them.
  • Cats... maybe? For Grizabella at least.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Me and My Girl & No, No, Nanette

Me and My Girl. Music by Noel Gay. Lyrics and Book by Douglas Furber and L. Arthur Rose. 1937 West End. 1952 & 1985 West End Revivals. 1986 Broadway.

No, No, Nanette. Music by Vincent Youmans. Lyrics by Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach. Book by Frank Madel and Otto Harbach. Revival book by Burt Shevelove. 1925 Broadway. 1971 Broadway revival.

Two old fashioned musicals that got revised for modern sensibilities. Though My Fair Lady is the best remembered there were many musicals in the 1930's about crossing class lines.

Meanwhile No, No, Nanette toyed with sexual promiscuity while making sure Nanette and her uncle Jimmy never actually get laid. The men drive the plot but the women get the best songs. Ruby Keeler came out of retirement to dance up a storm in the revival. Helen Gallagher took home a Tony in the role of Lucille. She has the least effect on the plot but the score treats her like a star.

Me and My Girl at the 1987 Tony Awards
No, No, Nanette - A starry medley at the 1972 Tony Awards.
No, No, Nanette - Trailer for the 2011concert at Encores

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Julie Andrews Flops

Julie Andrews attempted to shake off her wholesome image with a pair of sex comedies. It didn't work. You'd think these films would be camp classics. Sadly they are simply boring. Blake Edwards blamed Darling Lili's failure on studio interference but his attempts to mock the studio in S.O.B. proved no less tedious.

Darling Lili. Written by William Peter Blatty & Blake Edwards. Music by Henry Mancini. Lyrics by Johnny Mercer. 1970 film.

S.O.B. Written by Blake Edwards. Music by Henry Mancini.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Flapper Julie Andrews

The Boy Friend. Music, Lyrics and Book by Sandy Wilson. 1953 West End. 1954 Broadway

Thoroughly Modern Millie. 1967 screenplay by Richard Morris. Original music by Elmer Bernstein.  2002 book by Richard Morris. Original music by Jeanine Tesori. Original lyrics by Dick Scanlan.

The Broadway transfer of The Boyfriend featured the New York debut of Julie Andrews! She would don her flapper dresses again for Millie and make her directing debut with a production of The Boyfriend in 2003. Both stories focus on flappers who enjoy their independence till their poor boyfriends confess they are secretly rich and propose. It's telling that the sequel to The Boyfriend was titled Divorce Me, Darling!

The Boy Friend is a fairly conventional musical that was turned into a strange film.
Millie was a weird film that got turned into a conventional musical. Carol Channing and Beatrice Lillie are doing... something... bizarre that the raise the film to new camp levels. Channing's character was toned down when the show transferred to Broadway but Harriet Harris made Lillie's villain her own crazy (and Tony winning) creation.

Trailer for The Boy Friend on film.
Trailer for Thoroughly Modern Millie on film.
Performance from Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Tony's.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Sunset Boulevard

Scan the reviews of Sunset Boulevard and you’ll see some common threads. The leading lady gives a star turn but the lyrics are klunky and there was no point adapting the film for the stage. Sondheim declined a chance to adapt after Wilder said the film could only work as an opera. The current revival has been praised for scrapping the giant sets but something else is missing. What exactly? Let’s take a closer look at the libretto.

What is the story about?

May-December romance? The dark side of Hollywood? The horrors of age, death and time? The horrors of being trapped in a big house with a crazy lady?

The characters pursue big dreams and destroy themselves in the process. This lends itself to the musical form. At the same time the characters are static. This does not. Their fatal flaws lie in their denial. Norma isn’t hustling to be a star. She believes she is one. Joe isn’t hustling to be a better writer. He believes the folks rejecting his work are fools and jerks. Halfway through act one the career arc fades. The action shifts to Joe’s attempts to escape the house and Norma’s attempts to keep him there.

Who is the protagonist?

The music thinks Norma is. She gets the “I want” songs (With One Look, The Perfect Year), the “I am” songs (With One Look again, New Ways to Dream) and the “celebration” song when she thinks she’s achieved her goal (As If We Never Said Goodbye).

The plot thinks Joe is. We follow his journey and everything is seen through his eyes. He leaves the house frequently to pursue work at the studio and a relationship with Betty. Norma becomes his antagonist attempting to lure him back with money, threats and violence.

Sadly the score doesn’t have much use for Joe. He’s stuck with recitative and reactive duets. His only solo, Sunset Boulevard, has to serve as his “I want,” “I am,” “I’m becoming” song as well as a takedown of Hollywood culture. It’s more responsibility than the lyrics can handle. (“Beneath the tan the battle rages.”)

What’s missing?

For me it’s a consistent tone. Webber’s romantic score undercuts Wilder’s cynicism. The music buys into her delusion that she’s a dethroned queen. A tragic victim. Is she? Is it really so bad to be a wealthy retiree living in an L.A. mansion with a servant who worships her? A snarkier composer might have played up the contrast between her dreams and her reality. They might have given Joe something interesting to sing while they were at it.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Hello, Dolly!

Hello, Dolly! is a big brassy star vehicle with a hit title song. The libretto is based on a play by Thornton Wilder which lifted generously from French and Austrian farces. Though Dolly is a matchmaker the story isn't necessarily a romance.

Dolly, Horace and Irene have each survived a spouse and settled into unfulfilling lives. Dolly decides to let her memories go and "rejoin the human race." She learns to like herself again and teaches the others to do the same.

Check out Richard Skipper's collection of testimonials on the many, many divas who've played Dolly Gallagher Levi.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Pirate

Vincente Minnelli’s famous musicals—among them Meet Me In St. Louis and An American In Paris—tend to eclipse his 1948 Technicolor flop The Pirate, one of his richest and strangest works. One of his kinkiest, too. ~ The AV Club

It takes this mammoth show some time to generate a full head of steam, but when it gets rolling it's thoroughly delightful. However, the momentum is far from steady and the result is a lopsided entertainment that is wonderfully flamboyant in its high spots and bordering on tedium elsewhere. ~ The New York Times.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Pirates of Penzance

W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan wrote 14 comic operas together within a period of 25 years. Sadly their works were hijacked by “pirates.” Unauthorized American productions could not be halted by British copyright laws. The pair attempted to route this by holding the world premiere of Pirates in New York on December 31, 1879. The show was a hit though “pirated” showings continued.

The Pirates of Penzance remains one of their most produced works alongside H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado. “A Modern Major General” is one of their most referenced and parodied songs. The story and score are accessible to fans of opera and musical theater.

Joseph Papp's musical theater-y Pirates managed to introduce a modern zaniness to the work while remaining (mostly) faithful to the libretto. Some felt it bastardized the source material but it gave me an appreciation for G+S I hadn't held before. If you want to see a bad modernization of G+S watch The Pirate Movie... Actually don't. Don't watch The Pirate Movie. 

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Holiday Inn & In Transit

I wrap up the musicals of this season with two works about stressed out New Yorkers finding love. And yes Holiday Inn cut the blackface number that was in the film for Lincoln's birthday.

Holiday Inn. Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin. Book by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge. Based on the 1942 film. 2014 Goodspeed Opera House. 2016 Broadway.

In Transit. Book, Music and Lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth. 2010 Off Broadway. 2016 Broadway.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Three Year Anniversary

Musical theater can help us escape or explore our world. The attitudes and song styles capture moments of the past and make us re-evaluate our present.

Here are some of my favorite comics from 2016.

Bright Star
Pete's Dragon
Quick Sketch: Showboat and Carousel

Thank you so much for reading.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Monday, May 1, 2017

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory & Groundhog Day

And now we have two London to Broadway transfers based on beloved stories about disproportionate retribution.  Groundhog Day's weatherman is trapped in never ending purgatory for his sins. Charlie's naughty peers are brutally killed. They may survive in the book and films but on stage those kids die. Veruca's dismemberment by squirrels is in full Struwwelpeter territory. Is there a commercial audience for that? Time will tell.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Original Music by Marc Shaiman, Lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Re-purposed film songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. Book by David Greig. 2013 London. 2017 Broadway.

Groundhog Day. Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin. Book by Danny Rubin. 2016 London. 2017 Broadway.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Bronx Tale & Kid Victory

And now two musicals that tell dark stories with jaunty scores. The mobster loving teen of A Bronx Tale gets to sing. The teen protagonist of Kid Victory never does despite some critics' hopes that he'd find his voice by the finale.

A Bronx Tale. Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Glenn Slater. Book by Chazz Palminteri. 2016 Broadway.

Kid Victory. Music by John Kander. Lyrics and Book by Greg Pierce. 2016 Off-Broadway.

300th post?!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Amelie & Anastasia

Several films have been adapted to the stage this season. The following both feature spunky heroines with tragic childhoods who find love and self worth in Paris.

Amelie. Music by Daniel Messé. Lyrics by Daniel Messé and Nathan Tysen. Book by Craig Lucas. 2015 Berkeley. 2017 Broadway. Based on the 2001 film.

Anastasia. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Book by. Terrence McNally. 2016 Hartford. 2017 Broadway. Based on the 1997 film.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Bandstand & Come From Away

The Tony nominations will be announced soon and it's time to catch up on the new musicals of 2017.

Bandstand. Music by Richard Oberacker. Book and Lyrics by Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor. 2015 Paper Mill Playhouse. 2017 Broadway.

Come From Away. Music, Lyrics and Book by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. 2015 La Jolla & Seattle. 2017 Broadway.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Most Happy Fella

“You ain’t young no more, and you ain’t good-lookin’, and you ain’t smart.”

Thus says Marie to her brother, the unconventional protagonist of The Most Happy Fella. He has proposed to a young woman by letter and sent a photo of his handsome foreman in his stead. This Cyrano set-up could have carried a musical comedy but writer Frank Loesser was more ambitious. He resolves things quickly to focus on Tony’s rocky marriage to his wary new bride.

Loesser is best remembered for the brassy scores of Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed. The Most Happy Fella is something different. The brass is mixed with complex arias, quartets and chorales. The title role was originated by operatic baritone Robert Weede though Loesser denied the work was an opera. When asked he said “It’s a musical with a lot of music.”