Friday, December 28, 2007

Broadway Documentaries: Feature Film Bonus Feature Bonanzas

Hairspray Shake and Shimmy Edition
As part of the 2-Disc DVD edition, we get a chance to explore the roots of the musical Hairspray, including the hit Broadway show. The original producers take part is explaining how the Broadway production came to be. Interestingly, lead producer Margo Lion talks about searching for a youth-friendly property, not necessarily a movie-based property, when she stumbled upon the film of Hairspray. She and the other producers do take us through their journey of workshops, with some additional insights from librettists Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. The only cast member to share experiences, though, is Marissa Jaret Winokur, who addresses not only her battle with cancer but also her tortured history with the show. She was the first Tracy the creators saw, and as she plugged on through the workshop process, she kept being forewarned that she would not be their final choice to open the show. Sadly, the doc contains no clips from the show, only still pictures, though there is a sampling of Nathan Lane singing as Wilbur Turnblad.

Honestly, it’s not a particularly insightful detailing of the creation of the Broadway show, but for someone who eats up that kind of information, I am still glad to have doled out the extra money for the 2-Disc edition just to have it.

Rent 2-Disc Special Edition
Okay, so I’m not really a Renthead. It’s not that I don’t greatly admire the late great Jonathon Larson’s work; it’s just one of those cases where the material, as a whole, doesn’t resonate with my experiences.

For me, though, the purchase of the 2-Disc edition of the movie was a must because of No Day But Today, the excellent doc on not only the making of the Broadway show but also on Jonathon Larson’s life, drawing on the remembrances of close friends as well as family members. As one who aspires to be produced on Broadway (and elsewhere), I found great inspiration in Larson’s life story, which is not only filled with a thriving in the joy of lack but also a love for life and art, the pain of learning the hard way, and the jubilation of triumph. I also found inspiration in the mechanics of Jonathon Larson’s success, the knowledge of what he had to do to get where he got.

After establishing many of the sources of inspiration for the events and characters of Rent, the documentary (which runs almost two hours) details the workshop and off-Broadway production of the show, including the process of casting and the pain of collaboration. It walks us through Jonathon Larson’s unexpected death as well as those days after in which the cast and creative team found a way to move on, as well as the show’s triumphant opening on Broadway. In fact, not even a full thirty minutes of the doc is dedicated to the film version. Best of all, the producers of No Day But Today call on original cast members Daphne Rubin-Vega and Fredi Walker to share their experiences in the process.

We’ve had a string of fantastic documentaries in recent years—Broadway: The Golden Age, Broadway: The American Musical, and Show Business: The Road to Broadway—and Rent’s No Day But Today belongs right up there with it.

The Phantom of the Opera
2-Disc Special Edition

Count me as one of those who really enjoyed the film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, a show I enjoyed on stage but was more blown away by the movie. I probably never would have bought the DVD, though, because I find it pretty much impossible to set aside the chunk of time needed to watch it all. However, I couldn’t pass it up when I heard about Behind the Mask: The Story of The Phantom of the Opera documentary on the 2-Disc edition.

If Behind the Mask is less interesting than No Day But Today it’s because The Phantom of the Opera is a less interesting show than Rent without the seasoning of the passion and struggles of a starving artist in the story of Jonathan Larson. Still, Behind the Mask is an interesting snapshot into the creative mind of one of the most successful and beloved theatrical composers of our time.

Running just over an hour, Behind the Mask follows Andrew Lloyd Webber’s show from the idea to the final production, peppered with many scenes from the stage show. As one might expect in such a thorough documentary, it covers the hiring on of key creative personnel, including interviews with them about their experiences. Hal Prince shows up for the documentary, as do lyricists Richard Stilgoe and Charles Hart. Included in the story is the show’s premiere at Sydmonton, Webber’s country estate where he annually premieres shows and songs. At one early presentation of The Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom was played by Colm Wilkinson, who appears here in footage from that 1985 performance (as does original Raoul Steve Barton in a later Sydmonton performance).

There’s the inclusion of the story of original lyricist Richard Stilgoe and “replacement” Charles Hart, with them discussing how they view their work today. Of interest is the inclusion of original Phantom Steve Harley (whose biggest regret in leaving the show was not being able to work with Hal Prince, whom he says changed his life).

The doc is loaded with clips from the stage production as well as the original music videos that were used to promote the show in London. We even get the scene from the stage show in which Christine’s voice gets replaced by a pre-recorded track, a switch which is identifiable only if you know about its use in advance. Choreographer Gillian Lynne also explains her choices in “Masquerade” which help cover up the use of dummies on the stage (which I had not known about until seeing this doc, and I’m not alone—according to Hal Prince, George Abbott didn’t figure it out either). We even get to see the dummies up close to see how they work. Also of interest is the inclusion of some photos of the process used in creating the look of the Phantom.

I guess if I despised The Phantom of the Opera (as some theatre folk do), I wouldn’t enjoy the documentary, and while there are no great revelations overall, not a whole lot that a creator myself can take away for future reference; it is still a pleasant and worthwhile story of the creation of the longest-running show on Broadway.

the Broadway Mouth
December 28, 2007

P.S. For info on the Bombay Dreams documentary and a musical-themed bonus feature on The Wedding Singer, click on "Broadway documentaries" below.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Clearly Not For All People: Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd

There is probably little that can be said about Tim Burton’s film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street that hasn’t already been said. The story is excellently adapted, the script slightly refocused to perfection, the song cuts hardly noticeable, the cinematography breath-taking, and the singing thin, particularly Helena Bonham Carter who is physically incapable of doing justice to several of Mrs. Lovett’s songs because of her weak vocal cords.

I did think it interesting that while the score is adjusted for the film medium, several moments in the first act still feel distinctly like opera, particularly “My Friends” and “Johanna.” Though it didn’t bother me, I can see how people who aren’t into musicals as a whole could become impatient in the first act.

A guy seated behind me was one of those people who aren’t into musicals as a whole. After taking his seat, he turned to a friend to say, “I think this is the first musical I’ve ever seen. Wait. I take that back; I saw Grease. I also saw Hairspray, except it was the original one, not the new one.” So, I was impressed that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp did what no one else could have possibly done in attracting some new ears to the magic of the musical.

However, Burton delivers a Sweeney Todd that is, as Sally Brown would say, clearly not for all people. Take someone like me, for example.

[Warning: Spoiler Below]

Whereas the stage version—at least the one preserved on DVD and indicated by the libretto—is more like Jaws or Jurassic Park, the impression of gore with much suspense, Tim Burton’s film version lives up to all the hype and promise of blood that you read about on the Internet. The film still builds up the suspense and terror, but Burton delights in the violence and gore factor. It’s R-rated, so this is no surprise (and it wasn’t for me), but to this viewer (who admittedly has no interest in slasher movies or the newly dubbed “torture porn” genre), it was beyond excessive. Sweeney doesn’t just slit throats; he slices before your eyes as a waterfall of CGI blood flows like water after a rainfall (when not squirting Old Faithful, complete with gurgling sound effects. No longer does Sweeney send his victims down a chute, they drop through a hole in the floor, sliding backwards, their heads crashing onto the pavement in full Technicolor gory . . . I mean glory (How Judge Turpin survives a slashing so brutal it leaves Depp covered in blood and then the pounding thud with enough wherewithal to grab for Mrs. Lovett is not addressed) During Sweeney’s “Johanna” reprise, which is oddly humorous on stage because of Sweeney’s casual tone as he sings a beautiful song while he slits throats, plus the whimsical nature of the victims’ delivery to Mrs. Lovett, the humor is largely lost in the literal nature of Burton’s storytelling.

For more fun, there’s also a prominent displaying of the remnants of Mrs. Lovett’s meat-stripping, though nothing tops the delight of not only witnessing Mrs. Lovett get her just desserts but actually seeing her on fire, screaming in the oven. Gotta love that.

[End Spoiler Alert]

This is not to say that Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a bad movie. Like I said, it is excellently adapted and has many merits in its execution. Because of this, it has deservedly won acclaim from many prominent sources, and clearly, there are many people who would line up to watch people getting killed—How many Saw movies have there been?—but one who lines up for a musical will not necessarily enjoy this version of Sondheim’s tale. I, for one, left feeling like I needed some distance from my OBCR and the DVD before I would find myself able to enjoy it again.

the Broadway Mouth
December 26, 2007

Friday, December 21, 2007

Another Bloom and Vlastnik Book

One of my favorite theatre books is Broadway Musicals: The Greatest Shows of All Time by Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik, which I discussed in a blog entry back in September. Will, just in time for Christmas, Bloom and Vlastnik have done it again, though this time in a book much less related to Broadway. While Sitcoms is a small text (in height), it does what the Broadway Musicals book did so well, detailing the 101 best sitcoms. Like the previous book, it is augmented with beautiful full-color photos (sometimes even from black-and-white shows) and sidebars with interesting information on particular stars. There are also pages set aside for special categories, such as the best shows that failed. Already affordable with a list price of $29.95, it is currently on sale for 20% at Barnes and Noble, Sitcoms is high on my list of non-theatre books to get. I really enjoyed their first book and since I do love a good sitcom, I’m looking forward to this new book as well.

the Broadway Mouth
December 21, 2007

Thursday, December 20, 2007

About the Longest-Running Shows List

Whenever the longest-running shows on Broadway list is updated, I always am reminded that the totals don’t always tell the full story. Yes, obviously, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables have been major hits, which are indicated by their numbers. However, when looking at many of the longer runs of the past decade, we have to take into account the stunt-casting factor.

In the Golden Age, shows still needed big stars to sell—Gwen Verdon, Lucille Ball, Ray Bolger, Rosalind Russell, Ethel Merman, and many others. Some shows opened with big Broadway stars, while others required big film and television stars to get off the ground. Few of those shows relied heavily on replacement stars, though Hello, Dolly! is well-known for big-name replacements, as is Mame. I’m sure if I were more familiar with historical replacement casts, we’d find a few other long-running shows with stunt casting of various degrees.

However, there were many shows that didn’t call on big film, television, or pop recording names to sell tickets. When the producers of Damn Yankees needed to replace Gwen Verdon, they called on Gretchen Wyler. Julie Andrews was replaced by Sally Ann Howes. You never hear of big names being needed to replace performers in the long-running Rodgers and Hammerstein shows as well. So when you see the tally of performances of those grand old shows, the numbers seem less impressive; however, the feat is more remarkable.

So now we have musicals with great runs of 5+ years (in relation to many of the great shows of the past, that is a strong showing). But I do think we need to at least acknowledge that in comparing the runs of the past with today, it’s not an even playing field. For example, the revival of Cabaret far outran the original. But the original never used Maxine Andrews, Rose Marie, Anne Baxter, or Ella Fitzgerald the way the revival called on John Stamos, Molly Ringwald, Jon Secada, Joely Fischer, Gina Gershon, and many others. Similarly, the Chicago revival, Hairspray, Beauty and the Beast, Aida, Jekyll and Hyde, The Drowsy Chaperone, The Producers, and even Urinetown (and many others, of course) have resorted to stunt casting to run longer.

This is not a criticism against the shows themselves or the producers; it’s just a comment.

the Broadway Mouth
December 20, 2007

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Great Opportunity Alert: Rocco Landesman

I am told that legendary Broadway producer Rocco Landesman is taking questions to answer over at The New York Times’ Freakonomics Blog. It sounds like a priceless opportunity to me.

Rocco Landesman has been on the producing teams of such shows as Big River, Titanic, The Producers, and a host of others (just check out his credits at the Internet Broadway Database) and is now the head (and owner) of Jujamcyn Theatres, the third largest theatre-owner on Broadway. For those less familiar with his work, he can also be seen in the documentary Broadway: The Golden Age. For a great article on his work, check out Mervyn Rothstein’s article at Playbill.

You just submit your questions to the blog above, and you have a chance of getting to hear the answer from the expert himself. I always value such opportunities because the business and art of Broadway is so fascinating, and here is a chance to get a glimpse into it from a primary source.

the Broadway Mouth
December 18, 2007

Friday, December 14, 2007

From the Mouth of Stephanie J. Block II

I love reading interviews with Stephanie J. Block because she always shows herself to be a thoughtful and intelligent woman in addition to being a phenomenal Broadway talent. Her latest interview on Playbill with Andrew Gans is no different.

In the old days, the big Broadway talents all toured; Carol Channing, Mary Martin, John Raitt, Julie Harris, and even Ethel Merman all made their way through the provinces, as Lynne Fontanne called them to Carol Channing. In an interview, Carol Channing explained that an actor should tour because, to paraphrase, if you visit them at home, they’ll visit you when they come to New York.

Much has changed since those days—it’s harder to become a big-name Broadway star that is known outside New York theatre audiences to name one—but I found what Ms. Block had to say very interesting.

Andrew Gans: It's also a great way to get your name to different parts of the country that wouldn't necessarily know you.

Block: I had no idea what sort of fan base you could gain by going out on the road until we were out there. I still get emails from people that had seen it in Denver or St. Louis. It was really remarkable to me. I didn't understand that until we were on the road for the year, and those sort of fan relationships are still existing.

In fact, I have only seen Stephanie J. Block on tour in Wicked during her stop in Los Angeles. And when I get to New York again, I would love to stop and visit her latest performance.

the Broadway Mouth
December 14, 2007

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mamma Mia! Movie II

Thanks to the posters on Broadway World, I am linking to two versions of the Mamma Mia! trailer, and I must say, I’m very excited. You get a hint of some added book material, and it seems very fun. Meryl Streep looks great!

Trailer 1
Trailer 2

the Broadway Mouth
December 13. 2007

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Take a Chance on Me: Why Mamma Mia!-Haters May Lay All Their Love On the Movie Adaptation

I always found it interesting that the Brits—the nationality that brought us the masterpieces of Malory, Spenser, Shakespeare, Austen, Brontë, Brontë, Brontë, Dickens, Shaw, and so many other great writers—would be purveyors of weak-booked musicals. Okay, so they’re not all weak—there’s a lot of plot happening in some of them—but they do seem to be a people who love the spectacle over logical content—Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Mamma Mia!, and Bombay Dreams all come to mind.

It’s not surprising, when you see it, that Mamma Mia! was actually directed by someone with an opera background. People say that when you go into Mamma Mia! you should plan for a purely good time, check your brain at the door. When I first saw the show on tour, I thought that meant it was pure mindless fun; I didn’t realize that if you thought very much about the evenings’ proceedings, there would be too many gaping holes in the events for it to make sense. Maybe it’s not musical theatre; perhaps it’s opera pop.

Let me say that I understand the appeal of Mamma Mia!, and there’s no denying people love it. Yes, I do wish the Winter Garden was filling the seats with a brand new musical with brand new music, like one written by me perhaps, but I don’t begrudge the people who walk out of the show having had a marvelous time. And let’s face it, people do love this show and have a great time.

I actually saw it on tour having very little familiarity with the ABBA music. I had (and still have, though hardly ever listen to it) the A-Teens album of ABBA covers (which I picked up on a music-buying whim after reading a strong recommendation in Entertainment Weekly). Because of the music, my expectations were that I’d see a really fun show that made sense with lots of big dance numbers. I was disappointed. The story didn’t make a whole lot of sense—it got lost in the music—and I wondered why no one even proposed a paternity test in the end (acknowledging it would have made it okay for the characters to refuse; not acknowledging it seems illogical). Also, for such energetic music, there were relatively few dance numbers.

But of course, like some of the great literature I was required to read in high school, I knew it had to be me. I mean, just because Steinbeck’s use of foreshadowing in Of Mice and Men wasn’t clear to me in tenth grade doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

I do love my Mamma Mia! CD, and I have listened to it many, many times (ABBA is irresistible, though I now have two mock-ABBA albums and none of the original recordings). But I was then prepared to catch the tour when it came to town the following year just to “get” what I had missed the first time.

Yeah, it didn’t make much more sense. Now prepped knowing what the show was versus what I expected it to be (i.e. a big dance musical), I was better prepared to enjoy the show, but I still didn’t find it a super-enjoyable night. That’s not say that I didn’t enjoy myself. It is, after all, ABBA. But it wasn’t a great theatrical experience by any means.

I don’t begrudge the concept. I don’t like the jukebox musical form, but at least here it was something original (as opposed to the copycats that followed it). I guess I just don’t care for the execution.

Still, I really wanted to write a screenplay for a movie version. I felt like the concept could work; it just needed someone who could make it lift—remove a few songs, strengthen the book, and create stronger characters.

That’s why I’m excited for the movie. I don’t think those making the movie will allow for the same errors to be made on film. I have a feeling that what we’ll get is the ABBA musical that should have been—one with stronger characters, fewer songs to clarify the story (and I believe I read that a few songs have been cut), and maybe even fresher jokes. The only sad side effect will be that the Winter Garden will get a boost in attendance, and Mamma Mia! will run forever.

So what did I find to complain about in Mamma Mia! on stage? Well, to begin with, it is worth noting that none of the characters really make a great impression. Donna, for example, is a lot of fun, but she is lacking a certain stage dynamism; she’s utterly forgettable no matter who is playing her. Compare one’s impression of the character to Rosemary, Dolly, Golde, Babe, Lola, Tracy Turnblad, or any other great, spunky musical theatre creation. Donna is flat. Because the character is not particularly outstanding, the actress never fully gets to shine. Everyone is always impressed by the final note of “The Winner Takes It All,” and it is impressive, but that is the only time the part gives the actress portraying Donna a chance to shine. It’s the Tarzan syndrome. A great actor needs great material to shine.

The jokes are pretty predictable. She’s inflating an air mattress . . . a high school student’s got that joke done. My memory is that most of the humor is of that same ilk, sophomore sexual. While popular on television, it seems too predictable (and therefore not very funny) on the Broadway stage.

Also, as many have pointed out, the audience is required to not think in order for the evening to gel. I have no problem with a purely entertaining, fun night at the theatre (like The Wedding Singer), but Mamma Mia! has too many holes. For example, I find it disturbing that Sky wants Sophie to love him like a father. Her desire to find her father doesn’t really have anything to do with him, and I don’t see how the relationship could be healthy if she’s counting on him to be husband and father. Another twisted moment to me is “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”, when Sophie’s friends ravish her potential dads on the dance floor. If my friends—male or female—danced like that with one of my parents—mom or dad—I’d be a little freaked out. I no longer recall the specifics of the choreography, but it didn’t seem right to me at the time.

Again, I also wonder why no one contemplates getting a paternity test. It’s a sweet idea that all three men want a daughter and so agree to share Sophie, but the fact that no one even mentions it, even acts like there is no way they could possibly know who is Dad, seems odd.

I also have to say that I find it curious that in this feminist world—where single mothers don’t need dads, women take control, and the daughter doesn’t need marriage to find happiness—that Sophie has no problems with the implied bachelor activities Sky will take part in. Maybe I’m just an old fashioned romantic who loves his Austen and Brontë heroes too much, but I feel sorry for Sophie.

That isn’t to say that Mamma Mia! doesn’t also have its positive moments. “Does Your Mother Know” is lots of fun, with great choreography supporting a great concept, and there are some genuine emotional moments in “S.O.S.,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” and “The Winner Takes It All.”

And that’s why I’m looking forward to the Mamma Mia! movie. Movie producers are so apprehensive about musicals anyway (look how the television version of The Music Man zapped out every bit of caricature and made a comedy into a drama), I can’t believe they wouldn’t at least attempt to remedy the problems in the opera-styled Mamma Mia! libretto. The concept of Mamma Mia! is a fun one—ABBA music is pure energy—and if anything, it can’t turn out any worse than the stage show. I know I would definitely see the Broadway tour again if I only had to pay $9.00. What’s not to look forward to?

the Broadway Mouth
December 12, 2007

Monday, December 10, 2007

In My Fashion: The Unique Struggle of Revivals

The Crucible is one of my favorite plays, tied with A Raisin in the Sun as tops on my list. I was assigned to read it as part of a high school America literature class, and it instantly gripped me by the transcendent elements of the story; I knew people in my own life who would have easily found themselves caught up in the hysteria. Finishing the play became painful. I wanted to know the ending but dreaded reaching it, knowing that there was no way it could possibly arrive at a happy conclusion.

I recently watched parts of the Nicholas Hytner film version, which I have yet to see in its entirety. I loved the play so much that, even though I had never seen it on stage, when the movie came out, I didn’t see it. I had envisioned it so vividly all the times I read it, I couldn’t face the changes in the movie. I even read Arthur Miller’s screenplay, published at the time of the movie’s release, while never seeing the movie.

For me, the idea of showing the events in the forest—one of the scenes from the movie I’ve never watched—spoils the mystique of what actually happened. In the original play, the audience finds out about it piecemeal, like good exposition should be given, but the result is an element of surprise as the reader/audience learns about it, all shadowed by the darkness of the unknown, allowing the imagination to take over from the dialogue.

What I have seen of it, I have also struggled with the difference between the images cultivated in my head by multiple readings and those of Hytner. I know that Arthur Miller thought Daniel Day-Lewis to be ideal for John Proctor, but not only did he not look the part to me, he never fully embodied my vision of the man, though I do like the choices of Winona Ryder and Joan Allen as Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Proctor.

But this latter point is the nature of a revival. Yeah, this was a film adaptation, but the concept is the same. A new work arrives onstage without any opinion or bias shaping its reception. There is no Pearl Bailey rendition of “I’m Here” to haunt LaChanze and no Robert Morse or Bonnie Scott to influence our hearing of “If I Told You.” In thirty years, should The Color Purple or The Wedding Singer be revived, that’s exactly what the future generation of actors will need to face.

It seems to me that many of the complaints I hear about revivals are a simple matter of choices. The choices the director made in comparison to the choices someone on a message board would make. I had heard “Conga!” from Wonderful Town probably two-hundred times before the Donna Murphy revival opened. When they performed the song on The Today Show, I had envisioned the staging in my head so many times, it was slightly disappointing. It wasn’t that Kathleen Marshall didn’t so a fantastic job, because she did; it was that I had my own picture formed.

Truth be known, the vision in my head was no more correct than Kathleen Marshall’s. I would not be so presumptuous to even suggest that I could direct anything a fraction as well as Ms. Marshall does. I had simply formed my own stage pictures from the process of listening.

Unfortunately, many people take their choice preferences, formed by prior productions, years of listening to original recordings, and their own imaginations, and use that as a reason for discouraging the new production of an existing work. If a libretto or play is rich enough, it will withstand and welcome the interpretation of directors, readers, and audiences (though if enough alterations are made to book or songs, that’s another matter entirely). It boils down to choices, choices that, many times, are really just differences of opinion.

That is not to say that every revival is great or that one shouldn’t make criticism; however, I think it is important to analyze what is motivating that criticism. For many plays and musicals, the production requires the director to make a series of interpretive choices. It also requires the actors to do the same. Sometimes, these choices are a matter of preference. One preference doesn’t trump another; it’s all a matter of personal taste.

the Broadway Mouth
December 10, 2007

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Tips for Educational Directors

Directing high school plays was a love/hate experience for me. I loved working with my kids, and I loved directing them, but it was always a time of long, long hours (usually followed by bouts of pretty serious illness from getting no sleep) and trying to balance the demands of directing with the demands of being an English teacher with 60 short stories to grade.

Still, whenever I see a high school play, I always think back fondly on my experiences (and my students), wishing I could take that task on again. There’s such satisfaction in seeing an entire audience erupt into laughter over something a student says—something that took you thirty minutes to pull from him.

I was a very insecure director, probably because, at the time, I was pretty insecure about everything (now it would help if I was a little less secure). Now, though, as I see more and more high school and community theatre productions, I’ve come to see that I did possess many key strengths that directing an enjoyable production requires. I never felt like the shows I directed were ready for Broadway (some directors do pat themselves on the back nicely), but I was always very proud of them. I have since become more so.

There were several principles given to me by my college director (and a few I picked up myself) that I let guide me in directing my shows. Over the years, a few of those principles have dropped by the wayside, and a few have been reaffirmed by what I’ve seen.

1. Never pre-cast shows. This was something passed on to me by my college director, and it is something I am proud to say I stuck to during my time as a high school director.

It’s imperative for kids to be able to walk into an audition and know that they have a chance at getting any part in the show, and it’s only fair. Kids grow in talent and ability, and it’s amazing to see the leaps some kids make in ability between shows, and if the roles are already cast (or if a show is selected for certain students), then they never have a chance.

I directed in a fairly small school, and like most small schools, the number of boy parts in musicals is disproportionate to the number of girl parts. The only thing I did was to select shows I felt like I would have enough boys for and to think over the boys I had to make sure I had several boys from which to choose for leads, in terms of singing ability and range. However, I never once thought about who might be cast, only whether I had a good chance of finding anyone. I simply wanted to give everyone a fair chance.

This actually worked in my favor on the final play I directed at my former high school because a large group of my talented seniors decided not to audition because they wanted an easy spring. Had I pre-cast the show, I would have been let down by missing some key people. (Interestingly enough, I wound up with a spectacular cast that was a pure joy to work with, completely lacking in teen drama, attitude, or ego. It was an amazing experience.)

2. Stir it up. When casting, I always stirred it up as much as I could. Naturally, you have to have the talented people in the key parts, but I worked hard to give many people a chance. As for the actual lead roles, I never once repeated the students as leads because I wanted to give everyone a chance to shine (that is not to say that leads didn’t wind up in large supporting roles in other shows, though even that was never a given). Your number one concern must be the audience, but it’s good to give everyone a chance.

3. Put your audience first. There is nothing more satisfying to a kid than to hear an audience burst into uproarious laughter at their line or to hear someone in the audience cry. Kids will be energized no matter how good or bad a show is, but they feel it more acutely when they know they’ve reached the audience.

I always let this guide me, and I never once regretted it. The kids often got tired during rehearsals when I made them do the blocking for the tenth time and there were mumblings of “Isn’t it good enough?” But I tortured them (and me) by doing it again (and again and again) because I wanted them (okay, and me) to do it the best they could. The audience can feign a standing ovation; they cannot feign mass laughter or any of the other energizing responses felt while performing.

4. Trust the original creators. While there are many talented high school and college directors out there, a relative few of them would ever be ready to tackle a new production on a Broadway stage like a George Abbott, Abe Burrows, or Gower Champion. Don’t try to better them by changing the work.

There’s always room for interpretation, but interpretation doesn’t fall under throwing out scenes, songs, or rewriting the entire libretto. No kidding, I attended one atrocious high school production of Godspell that had been entirely rewritten. Not only was it directed like a third rate kiddy concert, it was written like one as well. Horrendous!

Most people have seen those productions—they cut out “Motherhood March” (since it’s not in the movie and therefore they can’t tell what to do with it), cut out “Rock Island,” or “Her Is.” Often changes are made to reflect film versions, but the problem is that the movie and the play are constructed differently. “Motherhood March” from Hello, Dolly!, for example, is an extremely satisfying number, when it is well-directed. I once heard of a production of The Pajama Game that used a gun instead of a knife-throwing board. Yes, it is a challenge to make the knife-throwing board and walls, but when you do the work, your audience’s response rewards you greatly for your work.

5. Select a show based upon your limitations. One of the most important abilities it takes to put on a great show is your ability to schedule. A show will fall apart if you struggle with managing a tight schedule or cannot work into it needed extras—time to work on accents, the time to locate bizarre props, the time to acquire the right costumes. Unfortunately, this is something one really only learns the hard way. However, if you select Fiddler on the Roof, you’re going to have to work in time to teach your actors—at least Tevye—to speak in a Russian accent. If you’re doing Mame, you have to make sure you have the budget to acquire and the time to find all of those period costumes.

6. Hire a great support team. Whenever I see a high school show, I am always thankful for the fact that I had great set designers, the best high school choreographer, lighting designer, and a wonderful costume designer (and so on). Yes, they were under my vision as the director, but they always far surpassed what I could ever have asked for. They made me look good.

I was very fortunate, for other than the lighting designer and the costume designer, I inherited everyone else from previous directors. Now, if I were to embark on the same course, I would be very careful in finding those support staff instead of taking in whoever was there or finding whoever was willing.

7. Keep it all in perspective. So many high school directors take themselves so seriously. There’s one pretty bad director in my area who gets coverage in the local paper when his shows open. He practically trips over himself patting himself on the back and emphasizing his work in developing his “program.” Obviously, it’s important for us to take our work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. There’s a big difference.

8. Keep seeing shows! So many directors don’t take time to see other shows. It gets to be a little like inbreeding because not only do they not grow as directors, they keep perpetrating the same directorial flaws.

One of the best experiences for me as a director has been to watch other directors take on shows I’ve done. My college director said in doing so, we would learn our weaknesses and their strengths, and that is ever true.

9. Pet Peeve: Not every show is Rent. Ditch the glaring head mics. I recently saw a beautiful production of a period show where the lavish costumes were destroyed by the kind of mics public speakers use. There are great mics that can be purchased or rented that either clip onto the lapel, or better yet, can be somewhat discreetly taped to the forehead and covered with make-up (like on Broadway). In recent years, I’ve seen an increase in high school shows that use these bizarre microphones, and it usually takes me the entire first act to get past the fact that they’re there. It worked for Rent and The Civil War because it gave them the rock concert effect. Oklahoma! does not need a rock concert effect.

the Broadway Mouth
December 6, 2007

Monday, December 3, 2007

Rediscovering Jerry Herman’s Mrs. Santa Claus

Angela Lansbury really is something. I don’t know if there is another performer who can lay claim to a career that is as long, as varied, or as beloved. Film, television, Broadway—she’s conquered them all. I don’t know if she’s ever received a lifetime achievement Tony; however, with her final Broadway role in Deuce, this next year’s ceremony might be the most appropriate time to bestow such a deserved honor.

Among her Broadway credits include a short run in Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle, a knock ‘em dead turn in Mame, followed by Dear World, Gypsy, The King and I, Sweeney Todd, and a return as Mame. Mrs. Santa Claus, with its Broadway pedigree and her warm performance, practically fits into her series of roles on stage.

After always intending to look for the DVD for the past few Christmas seasons, I remembered recently that I had recorded it back in 1996 when it originally aired on CBS. Watching it reminded me of what a Christmas classic the movie truly is. Why it’s not a regular primetime presence on CBS every Christmas, I’ll never know.

In it, Lansbury plays Anna Claus, the wife of Santa himself (played by Charles Durning). After years of contentment as being the woman behind the great man, Mrs. Claus decides to step out for herself. However, while testing a new flying route a week before Christmas, she lands in 1910 New York City with an injured reindeer, unable to get home. What unfolds is a tale infused with all the fascinating events of the time—the suffragette movement, immigration, and unionization—with Lansbury’s Mrs. Claus working her special magic through it all. Often when family movies attempt to tell stories from historical periods, there is a decided determination to highlight every fault of the time with a clear modern eye. The creators of Mrs. Santa Claus, however, allow the stories and characters to take center stage, with the modern interpretation taking a backseat to a simple presentation of events like those that happened.

With its 1910 setting, Mrs. Santa Claus oozes Christmas, celebrating the season to a backdrop of the diverse cultures and customs that help make New York so wonderful. It’s almost like a Christmas card come to life.

There’s also much inventiveness in the story. Tavish the toymaker, for example, has an employee motto which is “It only has to last ‘til Christmas,” when his toys will inevitably break. There’s also a touching plotline of one woman from “the Old Country” who always keeps a bag packed with family treasures in case the government forces her out, a fear escalated by her daughter’s outspoken stance against the government’s law on the woman’s ability to vote.

With music and lyrics by Jerry Herman (who makes a brief appearance himself, tickling those ivory keys), Mrs. Santa Claus feels like a full night at the theatre (There are eleven songs with numerous reprises). There are more than a handful of gems in his score, most of the numbers feeling like perfect theatre songs, with catchy hooks, clever rhymes, and satisfying ends. This is a score that rivals my two favorites of his, Hello, Dolly! and Mame. As you would expect, there’s a song introducing the main character, a big dance number (the memorable “Avenue A”), a beautiful love song, a vaudeville turn, and so on. I will admit that in hearing this score for the first time in about ten years, I longed for the great scores of old, with the simple, hummable showtune, as Herman himself has called it (I, for one, agree with Peter Filichia, however, that showtune is a term that has far outlived its use).

Mrs. Santa Claus is of interest for more than its intelligent family friendly story and its perfect Jerry Herman tunes, for it even has a great Broadway cast. In addition to Lansbury and Durning, there’s also Michael Jeter as elf Arvo, and Terrence Mann as the villainous toymaker Tavish, plus David Norona as Marcello, a charming young actor with a splendid theatrical tenor voice (and look for Sabrina Bryan of Dancing with the Stars fame as one of the children in the toyshop). Choreography is courtesy of Rob Marshall, who helps make “Avenue A” a highlight.

If you’ve never seen Mrs. Santa Claus, or saw it ten years ago and have since forgotten it, I encourage you to seek it out. Since Mrs. Santa Claus, we’ve had a respectable number of television musicals, from the great (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and Annie) to the mediocre (Once Upon a Mattress, South Pacific) to the bad (The Music Man, Gepetto—which has great music), but none have managed to top Jerry Herman and Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Santa Claus.

the Broadway Mouth
December 3, 2007

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Reflections from Call Me Anna Part II (Please Indulge)

In addition to the fascinating account of her involvement with the original play and movie of The Miracle Worker, later in Patty Duke’s fantastic autobiography Call Me Anna, she addresses the making of the television remake of her original triumph, this time taking on the role of Annie Sullivan to Melissa Gilbert’s Helen Keller. As elsewhere in the book, she provides an absorbing detailing of the experience, a role she had fantasized about getting since her original run in the supporting role. She also addresses her devastation at being passed up for playwright William Gibson’s stage sequel Monday After the Miracle, which was a project she set in motion.

Interestingly, her own critique of the second filmed version of The Miracle Worker was dead-on for one of the two reasons why I couldn’t sit through the third version—the Disney remake—for more than fifteen minutes, namely its inappropriate candy store colors (the Disney version also used a screenplay that was a more than slightly bastardized version of the original play).

Having now finished Call Me Anna (which I will say had me riveted even though I had not seen many of the television projects she mentions in the book), I was pleasantly surprised by how much Duke addresses the craft of acting. It’s not a handbook by any means, but it allows insights into her acting mind—her process, her working style, and her insights into the work. She shows us Patty Duke in film and Patty Duke on stage, with a particularly interesting few pages dedicated to her touring work with then-husband John Astin, providing insight to his process as well. I loved reading about her work and her perspectives on it.

Of interest to others will include the endearing telling of her experience on the set of Valley of the Dolls and her encounter with Judy Garland before the Legend was fired, her Emmy-Award winning turn in My Sweet Charlie (based on a stage part she was offered but was unable to take), plus her choices in raising two children in the business (very talented sons Sean Astin from Rudy and The Lord of the Rings and Mackenzie Astin from The Facts of Life and Iron Will).

Call Me Anna is a page-turner, but that is not to say that the book is an entirely pleasurable read. The problem is I love Patty Duke. I love Patty Duke as the actress in The Miracle Worker and The Patty Duke Show, but you can tell from her narrative style and how she portrays events (not to mention interviews I’ve seen of her) that she is an incredibly intelligent, funny, and warm person—someone you’d love to have over for Sunday dinner. Because of this, when she first heads down the road of bad choices spurned on by the onset of bipolar disorder, it’s as hard as watching someone you know personally about making/living those choices (or watching the Britney Spears segment on Access Hollywood on any given night, seriously). It’s riveting, but it’s very hard to experience her experiencing it.

However, I have to also add that I greatly admire her ability to move on from those painful times. She reflects on them with great honesty and humor. She acknowledges that she made the choices but that she wasn’t really making them of her own accord. So she doesn’t wallow in guilt. I love that. Perhaps it’s because there’s such hope and life at the end of the tale that you want her to move on in life unencumbered by needless guilt.

I do have to say that Call Me Anna also returns me to one of my soapboxes, which is the lack of roles for talented women over forty, particularly those who haven’t botoxed themselves into kewpie-dolldom. Patty Duke is the real deal. I wish she’d have more chances to shine. In the works I’ve written, I have consciously attempted to write meaty roles for older women. It’s not always possible, particularly when the plot requires the focus to be on young people, fathers, or something, but I have created my fair share of significant roles for women over 40 and 50 in a number of the projects I write. I wish other writers would do the same.

I’m surprised more producers haven’t called her to Broadway since her Aunt Eller moment in Oklahoma! several years ago. Not only does Duke have a sell-able name, she’s the genuine article. I’d love to see her take on Lost in Yonkers, The Glass Menagerie, Death of a Salesman, Doubt, or something entirely new. We can’t let such talented fall through the cracks.

the Broadway Mouth
December 1, 2007

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Reflections While Reading Call Me Anna

Right now I'm reading Patty Duke's autobiography Call Me Anna. I have had the book for probably ten years and am finally getting around to reading it. Amazingly, I actually saw a copy of it at Barnes and Noble recently, which means that it has likely been in continuous publication since 1987, which is very impressive for an autobiography.

My first encounter with the talent of Patty Duke was in the Nick at Night reruns of her sitcom The Patty Duke Show. We didn’t have cable growing up, but when I’d sleep over at a friend’s house, I’d always sleep on the couch in the living room, where I could stay up late watching great old shows on Nickelodeon. I was never put off by black and white shows because I had grown up loving The Honeymooners, Father Knows Best, and The Andy Griffith Show even though I grew up in the era of 227, The Facts of Life, and Amen.

I guess the appeal of the show was both the spunkiness of Duke’s dual characters—particularly spunky was Patty—and the writing, which was always youthful and clever. I probably laughed more from The Patty Duke Show than I do from anything currently on primetime.

For Broadway audiences, though, she is best known for her work as Helen Keller in William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker and her recreation of that role in the original film version.

In her book, Duke spends much time addressing the issue of her unusual childhood, which, in short, was completely controlled by her monstrous managers John and Ethel Ross; however, the section I have been riveted by is her detailing of her experiences in The Miracle Worker. Because Duke was writing this in the mid-80s, she is giving the adult perspective on her time in the play (and the movie). Part of what is fascinating is that some of those observations are that of the ten-year-old Patty Duke as well as the reflective older Patty Duke. It’s a joy to relive the experience with the older Patty Duke who looks back so lovingly on the entire experience and on the play itself.

She also vividly illustrates what sets apart a child actor from an actor who is young. Duke, even then, had the inherent understanding of what it requires to develop and play a character. Yes, the Rosses did offer some training, but that inner director was guiding her even as a child. There are some kids who are very talented in being able to emote and read a line believably—but then there are those kids who are truly actors, able to create an interpretation and to make creative choices in presenting a character. This innate ability is why Duke has survived in the business for so long, still making movies and appearing in plays for long after her childhood stardom days.

One interesting anecdote in the book is that on opening night out of town, the cast had eighteen curtain calls. On Broadway, there were thirteen. While I’ve never had the chance to see The Miracle Worker onstage (I have read it and taught it), it is a reminder that audiences love to be moved. There are so many masterpieces that move you intellectually, that make you feel something for the characters, but to write something that genuinely moves an audience to such a degree with a measure of mind and heart is a unique gift (and talent). That’s why Les Miserables has run for so long whereas other musicals have since opened and closed—it moves people. Laughter is great. It can earn a record-setting number of Tonys. But laughter fades, while something that is sincere, heartfelt, and truly moving always touches the heart.

One particularly heartfelt moment in Duke’s book is when she reflects back upon her father, a struggling alcoholic who was pretty much run out of her life by her controlling managers. Some years after the run of the play, a woman tells Duke that three or four times a week during the run of The Miracle Worker, her father would use his pittance of money to buy standing room tickets to The Miracle Worker just to be near his daughter, never once going backstage or approaching her.

the Broadway Mouth
November 27, 2007

For Your Irresistible Viewing Pleasure:

Friday, November 23, 2007

Enchanted (Spoiler Free)

Despite five songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, Enchanted isn’t really a musical. Three songs are performed in the traditional musical storytelling manner—one with Giselle and Edward in the animated world, two by Giselle in New York City—with two of the songs being performed by contemporary music performers over the events—one song as a pop “Beauty and the Beast” (Jon McLaughlin in place of Angela Lansbury) and the other with Carrie Underwood performing one song over the final events of the movie.

As expected, the three performed by Giselle and/or James Marsden are great songs. They are attempts to pastiche a musical style Menken has helped redefine, done with great humor (and coupled with some very funny visuals). It’d be nice if the final two songs weren’t performed so pop. In comparison with the three earlier songs, they don’t make quite the impact upon first hearing. They almost seem like throwaway pop songs like those heard in most contemporary movies instead of something exciting and new by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.

The biggest appeal for Broadway fans, though, may be Idina Menzel as Patrick Dempsey’s girlfriend Nancy. It’s not exactly a revelatory part, but it’s great to see Menzel in another movie, and she looks great, particularly when dressed for a ball scene. I loved seeing her in her very final scene, and if anyone knows of anyplace online to find that image, I’d love to know.

Also look for Tonya Pinkins in several scenes as a client of Patrick Dempsey’s, plus very brief appearances by Judy Kuhn and Paige O’Hara. Crazy for You and Smile star Jodi Benson also appears in several scenes as Patrick Dempsey’s assistant.

While it’s not a great movie(in comparison to, say, Hairspray), Enchanted is much fun (and sure was an audience pleaser the night I saw it), and the first three songs—including a big choreographed number in Central Park—make it a must-see for every musical theatre fan.

With great success, maybe Disney will venture in the live movie musical once again. We can hope!

the Broadway Mouth
November 23, 2007

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Five Top Ten Theatre Things for Which I’m Thankful This Thanksgiving

High School and College Directors—In the last few weeks, I saw a number of college and high school drama productions. One was strong, one was mediocre, the other was downright awful, but they reminded me of the importance of those programs. For some, those directors and teachers will create lifelong theatre-goers; for others, it’ll open the door to an exciting new hobby; and for another group, it’ll simply give them a chance to belong and to feel good about themselves.

Right out of college, I directed plays at a high school. I loved the directing, but let me tell you, I put every ounce of myself into those productions, often working 80-100 hours a week. After two years, two plays, and developing curriculum, I couldn’t do it anymore. I was literally fried out.

It’s in remembering those years when I am thankful for those people—good, bad, or mediocre—who step out every season to put on a show, to balance teaching (or other day jobs) to work with kids in creating theatre. It is a tremendous personal sacrifice.

I am personally thankful for my own college director (and professor). Because I came from a high school with an amazing drama program (which I never took part in), I don’t think I ever fully appreciated my college director/professor who labored so tirelessly to put on great shows. I also think of the depth of knowledge she passed on to us. What to me seemed elementary as a high school director (because of my training), I see as severely lacking in many of the high school and community theatre productions I’ve seen. I was so blessed to have her in my life, so incredibly blessed.

My Readers—The biggest struggle for a writer is not the writing part. It’s getting people to read what he/she has written. When I started this blog, I didn’t know what kind of readership I’d earn or how long I’d hold onto them. I only knew that I needed an outlet for my theories and thoughts that naturally arise when you study something you love so much. I figured that if I’m not getting my dramatic work read, at least I can get something theatrical out there. I am so very thankful for all those who check in to see what I may be rambling on about.

The Resurgence of Movie Musicals—As a teenager, I fell in love with The Sound of Music. Oh, how I longed for more movie musicals, though I always knew we were past that prime. That’s why, when Evita hit the theaters, I saw it five times; I knew it would be a rarity.

Now we are in a resurgence of the almost-lost art form of the movie musical. Within the past year’s time, both Dreamgirls and Hairspray have been solid hits, with Enchanted receiving great reviews and likely to be another hit for the genre. We are set to get Sweeny Todd, Mamma Mia, and Nine, not to mention another High School Musical. The more profits these movies generate, the more of them that will be produced.

I am also thankful for the interest in musicals for television. I wonder how many years down the road we’ll be hearing about people’s interest in stage musicals being ignited by the MTV broadcast of Legally Blonde and Disney’s High School Musical franchise.

Ghostlight Records—The division of Sh-K-Boom devoted to Broadway cast recordings often gets my thanks. When I shop for CDs and I peruse the labels, I often think of how fortunate we are to have Ghostlight to preserve so many shows. There are some shows that would get recorded anyway—Legally Blonde, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, for example—but there are so many more that wouldn’t. Little Women, for example, wasn’t a great show, but I enjoy revisiting the CD. I don’t know if that one ever would have gotten recorded otherwise. Certainly Amour and High Fidelity wouldn’t have made it, and The Last Five Years, Bernarda Alba, and See What I Wanna See would have been iffy otherwise. And those are the short lists.

The problem is that the profit margins for cast recordings are so small, and it requires patience to earn any sort of profit on them anyway. I don’t know how Ghostlight has been able to do it, but they have become a bright light in the Broadway community for their work in preserving shows.

Today’s Acting Talent—I know I sound like a broken record, but I can’t help but be thankful for the massive amount of talent we have on Broadway today. My first contact with Broadway was with the talent of Carol Channing, one of the warhorse talents (and an amazing one at that) of the Golden Age. They don’t get much better than Carol Channing in any way.

However, as I’ve seen many other shows since the day of Hello, Dolly!, I find that her performance isn’t a shadow looming over the youngin’s. Yes, no one will ever be like Carol Channing (or Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, et al), but that doesn’t mean we don’t have phenomenally talented performers in our day. They may not be the same, but that doesn’t mean they are any less talented.

the Broadway Mouth
November 21, 2007

Friday, November 16, 2007

Those Rotten Critics (And Other Reasons We Hate Mirrors)

In watching the commentary track on Dori Bernstein’s Show Business: The Road to Broadway, I was confronted with the issue of the theatre critic. Those on the track, including producer Bernstein, actor Alan Cumming, and songwriter Jeff Marx, can barely contain their loathing for the critics as they watch them partaking in the round table discussions.

But interestingly enough, Bernstein, Cumming, and Marx become critics themselves as they discuss the shows. During the discussion, we learn how much they loved Taboo (though it was not perfect) and Caroline, or Change, and we hear about how great Idina Menzel was in Wicked, though they don’t seem particularly filled with praise for the show itself. By their lack of praise for Wicked in relation to the other two shows, they are basically voicing their feelings (and Cumming goes on record as saying he hates “Popular,” a song I would categorize as great).

So who is allowed to share an opinion?

I understand the aggravation, it’s one I hope to someday have the opportunity to risk experiencing myself, but I don’t know how valid of a concern it is.

No one likes to face criticism. As a writer, I love hearing criticism because it helps me improve, but once that baby is frozen and on its own, it’s got to be awfully hard to hear someone saying, “Well, this part isn’t very good.” As someone very sensitive to critique, it would be a big challenge for me to know how to process that without doubting myself or the final presentation I so desperately would want to love.

We’ve all adored shows the critics have hated or were mixed about—Jekyll and Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Aida, Jane Eyre, Bells are Ringing, Follies, The Wedding Singer. It could be a never-ending list. We vehemently disagree, we get angry at the effect they have on shows and audiences, we return to the theatre to show our support.

But then there are times we like the critics. If Ben Brantley says something nice about our show, then we like him. But if he says our show is boring or unfunny or lacking in emotion, only then he’s wrong. Right?

I love the interview with Boy George on the documentary when he addresses the issue of the critics. Now, for the record, I doubt Taboo ever had a chance to succeed because a show with posters that feature a man standing at a nasty urinal is not going appeal to a mass audience, particularly if it is a case of truth in advertising. And the adoring fan interviewed for the documentary comments that though people say it’s too gay, “it is theatre;” obviously, if gay people were the majority audience for theatre, Taboo would still be running today. I’m sure Boy George wrote some amazing music for the show, and it’d be great if he’d write another score, but I think his comments about critics are irrational. First of all, I wonder how much effect they actually had on the success of the show. Secondly, he despises the critics only because they didn’t like his show. That’s not a logical reason. He is biased—and his comments are important for the discussion—but his opinion of his own show is not a valid point in the grand scheme of things. The completion of his statement (which I here paraphrase) “If you stop shows like Taboo from succeeding” could be “then you get left with great shows.” I wasn’t in New York when Taboo ran, so I’m only playing Michael Riedel’s advocate, but it begs the basic question of any review or critique—Who should be the one to voice their opinion? The artist? Or the artist’s critic?

Obviously you are going to hate the critics if they don’t like your work. Yes, it is frustrating that one paper and one critic gets so much pull. Yet, it is very frustrating to pay $50+ on a ticket for crap when you could have gone to see Hairspray again.

We need to face the truth that musicals are expensive, and the average audience member needs an idea of which shows are going to be worth $50-450. Not everything is going to be good. Something has to be bad. And nobody is going to have the same opinion on any of it.

Often you hear about how critics have changed over the years, that critics during the Golden Age were so much better and so helpful. I can’t comment on that (except to say that the shows were probably better then as well—that statement makes me a critic— though we have actors on stage now who are just as good as any previous generation—that statement makes me a good critic in many people’s eyes). I’m excited for the next Rick McKay documentary because he will be highlighting that as a topic.

The truth is, though, that reviews appear after opening night, by which time the show is theoretically frozen. By nature of the process, I don’t know how helpful constructive criticism can be at that point. Perhaps critics should critique the show with constructive criticism mid-previews (which producers would hate), then reviewers should review after the opening. Essentially, that is the only fix to the complaint available. By opening night, having specific complaints about the plotting, with concrete examples of where things went wrong, seems futile.

Can one person ever be qualified enough to take on the task of critiquing a show, particularly anyone in as powerful a position as Ben Brantley? (And the collective answer heard all over New York is: Well I am.) It is frustrating that people who hate pop operas get to review them and that people who don’t like completely serious musicals review them, but that is the nature of the business. We have to acknowledge that The New York Times, Variety, and all those other respected publishers of reviews have a system and standard in place to select people to be in those positions who have established their qualifications for reviewing. (Except for Michael Riedel, who isn’t a reviewer but just a gossip-monger. Though, I must add that I adore Michael Riedel, his wit, and his charming smile, and should I ever have a show on the boards, I want to go record as saying that I mean gossip-monger in only the kindest way possible.)

So where was I—oh yes, the critics. Those people we hate because they disagree with us, the us we are who disagree with others, the others with the venue we’d love to have, to voice the opinions others would hate us for voicing.

I think we all need therapy.

the Broadway Mouth
November 16, 2007

(P.S. I reserve the right to renounce this commentary the day after my first show opens on Broadway.)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Wicked: The Grimmerie (A Book Report)

by Balliwon Grunmouer
Guest Ozian Book Report Writer

For my book report, I read David Cote’s marvedible book on the Broadway musical Wicked. Lots of humans have seen Wicked, which is an attempt to tell the true story of Elphaba of Oz, following the theories of her actual survival (giving credence to the sightings at a McMorrible’s on the edge of the Impassable Desert, according to the latest Wizernet reports).

Most Ozians are flattered by the human fascification of our Ozian history, but I for one don’t always apprecify their mis-represtentiveness of our culture. However, even as an educated Ozian, I cannot help but find Stephen Schwartz’s songs hummateous and book-writer Winnie Holzman’s Ozian vernacular is so spot-on, she is like the Mark Twain of our land.

If you haven’t read Wicked: The Grimmerie, it’s the story of the making of the Broadway musical Wicked from when Stephen Schwartz contacted lead producer Marc Platt about musifying it for the Broadway stage to its writing and production—including the nature of book writer Winnie Holzman and songwriter Stephen Schwartz’s collaboration, Stephanie J. Block’s role in the original readings, and the out-of-town tryout in San Francisco. For anyoz interested in how a musical is creativated, it is an interesterous read.

It’s always interesterous to hear artists talking about their creativate choices, and Wicked: The Grimmerie pulls back the curtain for all to see. For each of his songs, we are given Stephen Schwartz’s insights into each, including what role they have in the story, what the germigate ideas were, and his own emotions related to them. Many of the other creative elements—dance, sets, costumes—also get detailed discussion with first-hand words from the creativate talents about what they desired to achieviate.

Often the original cast members get the glory and all those who follow the originals get forgotten. That’s why it’s so marvedible that Cote details the various interpretations of the characters, using original, replacement, and tour cast members to give insights. This not only provides fans a splendalacious insight into the characters, but it is a fascinatious snapshot into the acting craft. The replacement and tour cast members are also given face-time in lusherizing full-color pictures.

The book is not without its teen girl section with fan-girl fluff that provides little more than eye candy, such as “The Primer,” which provides great pictures (always of appreciatance) and such insightful information as that Elphaba is “Frequently Seen With: Flying broom and The Grimmerie tucked under one arm.” I couldn’t live without knowing that.

There’s also a meatified section of the song lyrics with contextual dialogue. Unfortunately, much of that dialogue is summarized in paragraphs, so it’s not very helpful in trying to understand how the songs are integrated. It’s great to have the lyrics there for instant access (illustrated with beautifulized Joan Marcus photographs), but without the full libretto (which would have been most desirated) or at least unedited libretto sectionotions, the selected format for presenting them is kind of pointless.

After reading the book, I gained a fresh appreciation for what Wicked sets out to do and why it has spoken so vividly to so many humans, but what I most appreciated it for was presenting an insightful view into the creative process. I have a feeling many Ozians (and humans too) who like to theatricalize will be surprised at how insightful it is.

So, that is my book report. I am very happy I read it, and I am very very very very very very very sure you will like it too.

But don’t take my word for it.

Balliwon Grunmouer (with some editing assistance from the Broadway Mouth)
November 12, 2007

Friday, November 9, 2007

Money, Money, Money for a Mel Brooks Show Must Be Funny in a Rich Man’s World

Mel Brooks to anchor Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News about the $450 seats to Young Frankenstein:

“One thousand eight-hundred-and-thirty seats—over 1000—1600, 1700 seats are a normal, whatever the Broadway prices are, and there’s a front row for twenty-five bucks a seat.”

You know, Mel Brooks does have a point. I love close seats to see a show and could never afford $450 for one, but I can understand his thinking. If people are willing to pay that much to see his show, why shouldn’t he charge it? There are plenty of other seats left over for the rest of us.

It is indeed a sad state of affairs in our more enlightened time that wealth buys you things many other people cannot afford—like seats on a plane where you have a statistically better chance of surviving a crash, your freedom after wrongfully being accused of a crime (or even being correctly accused), enrichment experiences for your children such as special camps and tutors, or the luxury of turning your lips into clown lips (a.k.a. lip augmentation). It’s really about time Broadway catches up with the rest of world, and it seems to me like off all these things (with, perhaps, an exception of lip augmentation), the cost of exclusive Broadway tickets should be the least of all things we exert energy worrying about.

But this issue also brings to the spotlight the much-discussed dilemma of the rising costs of tickets.

Let’s review a few facts. Broadway shows need to make money, but a majority of them close without turning a profit. See Exhibits A: The Pirate Queen; High Fidelity; The Wedding Singer; Caroline, or Change; Taboo; Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; Tarzan; and many others. The butts in seats need to create these profits.

Cost of living is very high in New York City and all those people involved in the daily grind of Broadway need to have a home, have clothing, and pay taxes, often all while only being employed for two months until their show closes. These people include lead actors, chorus members, standbys, swings, instrument players, backstage workers, dressers, wig assistants, ticket window people, and so on. You can’t just cut people out of the process to save money, unless you have a small show with a small cast, that is. The butts in seats need to pay these expenses.

The actors need to be wearing great costumes and they need to be acting against stunning set pieces. This isn’t Dandelion Village Community Players presenting You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown after all. Large sets and great costumes cost money. The butts in seats need to pay these expenses.

So . . . When the world rights itself and the producers lower prices to $35 a seat for orchestra, then how do all these things get financed?

We have to face that fact that putting on a Broadway show is an immensely expensive proposition. If the tickets are lower—even, say, to $75 for orchestra seats, I’m not sure how this stuff would ever get paid for. After all, even when a show sells many discounted tickets, some people do pay the full price, which goes toward keeping the show running and keeping the blue collar Broadway workers employed.

Yes, we also have to face the fact that many shows don’t sell tickets at full price. Of course $125 for a seat is prohibitive and way too expensive, and at that price, shows have priced themselves out of the reach of many theatregoers, but so many tickets sell daily at TKTS, and there are a myriad of ways to access discount codes. If you don’t have $125 to spend on a show, there’s a very good chance you will find a ticket to a show you will enjoy for $55.

Even for the big hits—The Lion King, Wicked, The Little Mermaid, Young Frankenstein—that won’t sell discounted tickets for a number of years, the truth is that it’s only a matter of waiting. Yes, without paying full-price tickets (some at $450), no one ever got to see Nathan Lane or Matthew Broderick in The Producers, but they did get to see other very fine actors like Hunter Foster and Roger Bart.

To me, a great Broadway show would be worth $500 a ticket if I had that kind of money to spend on it. Nothing will ever compare to sitting down and hearing Marla Schaffel and James Barbour singing “Secret Soul” or laughing uproariously at Bob Martin’s Man in Chair. I do agree that ticket prices rise too fast for the sake of practicality, but let’s temper that reaction with the reality of what ticket prices need to finance and the availability of cheaper tickets.

(For the full Mel Brooks interview with Brian Williams:

the Broadway Mouth
November 9, 2007

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Seussical Revisited

The night I saw Cathy Rigby in Seussical on tour was a very cold night in the dark of winter. I had gotten our tickets late but had managed to get front row, a section most ticket-sellers don’t see as ideal seats and which get saved until late, a location I don’t mind at all.

My friend Jo and I had decided to meet at a mall, stop for a bite to eat, then to drive into the city for the show.

But then freezing weather got in the way.

In meeting at the mall, I parked my car to wait for Jo. And my battery died. I couldn’t get it started again to save my life. To sweeten the deal, Jo had gotten stuck on the phone with one of those people who are very kind but just don’t stop talking, so she was running late (and the rush hour traffic from her home is horrendous anyway).

She arrived, though, with just enough time for us to eat at a restaurant across the street from my car, and then she drove us into the city for Seussical. In the darkness of the winter evening, Jo was looking for something in her purse and pulled out a Colombian quarter someone had brought back with them from a trip, an item they had deemed lucky.

For fun, she’d say, “We’re getting closer. Rub the quarter!” Or “Oh traffic’s slowing down, better rub the quarter!” And in the dark, I’d make a show of rubbing it with my thumb.

We got to the theatre just in time, found free parking, and hurried to the theatre with the lucky Colombian quarter in the car.

When we got back to the car, with the dome light on, we could see clearly. Our lucky Colombian quarter was actually a Chuck E. Cheese token.

Well, a Chuck E. Cheese token can’t take credit for getting us to the show on time, and it certainly can’t take credit for the delightful evening we had. I had bought the CD some time before and had already fallen in love with the Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty music, and the show didn’t disappoint. It was, simply put, a tremendously fun night with great music and some extremely talented performers (by name: Eric Leviton as Horton, Garret Long as Gertrude McFuzz, Gaelen Gillilan as Mayzie LaBird, Drake English as JoJo, NaTasha Yvette Williams as the Sour Kangaroo, and Dioni Michelle Collins, Danielle M. Gerner, and Liz Pearce as the Bird Girls). Not only were we never bored, but we had a thrilling time.

And, might I add, this was without the glamour of the Broadway costumes. The tour’s costumes had been inspired by the Broadway costumes, but they were not the same. For example, the Sour Kangaroo wore yellow sweatpants and a sweatshirt with a robe which had black and red zig-zig lines on it, very different from the picture in the OBCR booklet. However, despite this downgrade in costuming, the talent was top-notch, and the show was, like I said, very enjoyable.

Maybe that was about the time I began to wonder about trusting the “word on the street” and from critics in New York. Like Jane Eyre and Bells are Ringing, here was another show everyone bashed but I found well-worth the cost of the ticket. (Later, though, I learned that they weren’t always wrong when I bought a full-price ticket to Tarzan.)

Recently I took in an educational production of Seussical, and mid-way through, I began wondering why I had enjoyed the tour so much because here, the story’s thinness shone through and the plotting didn’t seem right. There was a problem with the plotting that I couldn’t put my finger on, but I could tell that I wasn’t engaged in this production like I had been the with the Broadway tour. It was a beautifully done production—beautiful voices, nicely done sets—but I was trying to figure out if the Broadway tour had somehow managed to smoke and mirror away the flaws in the storytelling.

It was when the show was over and I was noticing a missing song or two that I investigated in the program and learned this was a “Theatre for Young Audiences” edition (which was part of the advertising for the show, though I wasn’t aware that that was in reference to an edition of the show and was not a marketing ploy), which explains the missing songs and the awkward plotting. In comparing the program song listing with the Original Broadway Card recording, not only were several songs missing but songs were re-ordered, which explains why the story seemed limp and didn’t build dramatically in an effective manner.

There were some improper directing choices that didn’t aid the anorexic edition of the book. The costumes were, overall, very creative (and improved upon the tour’s costumes in many ways), but the colors of the set didn’t match the bright, fun atmosphere of the show. The director had chosen a unit set, which was effective at first, but didn’t do anything to help the flagging energy in the plot later on. The choreography also couldn’t match the energy of the music. The result of all this was that when the story began to lag as a result of the effect of awkward cuts and restructuring, there wasn’t much to prop it up. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy myself. It is only that I didn’t enjoy the show nearly as much as I could have had the original book been presented.

I’m still choosing to believe that the Seussical I saw, the original tour libretto (I don’t know if it was changed from Broadway), makes for a highly entertaining show. The show has gone on to great success in schools, community theatres, and children’s theatres the past few years, which I hope is vindication for Ahrens and Flaherty that Seussical can be one fun meussical.

the Broadway Mouth
November 6, 2007

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Four Top Ten Acting Techniques That Need to Go Away

For everything there is a season, and in observing the Broadway musical over the last seventy years, almost every aspect has turned after a season—the strength of the book, the integration of music, the styles of musical storytelling, the technology of set changes, the use of amplification, and so on. With the latter change, a new style of stage acting was ushered in. Without the need to fill a huge theatre with the voice alone, actors have been able to adopt a more subtle style of acting, one that still fits the medium of stage acting but also takes into account the tastes of modern audiences who daily enjoy the subtlety of film and television acting.

We have so many fine actors today—just take a gaze at my 50 Amazing Broadway Performers in 50 Weekdays list for proof. However, on both Broadway and regional stages, there are yet some acting “techniques” that, like shag carpet and lead paint, need to say good-bye once and for all.

1. overly caricatured acting— I once had a former student who majored in theatre in college (why, I’ll never know; she only once participated in high school shows), but she dropped out because she said “the acting was so fakey.”

The stage will always be an acting medium that requires a larger-then-life performance because, as Carol Channing has said, you can’t perform in a 1000+ seat theatre and be normal. However, technology has allowed a change in acting style from the Golden Era which still has some remnants in professional theatre.

A performance can be stage-fitting without being “fakey.” The stage doesn’t allow for actions/mugging in place of genuine emotional expression. I’m specifically referencing grand expressions that communicate the subtext of “I’m acting on a stage!!!!” instead of “I’m devastated” or “How exciting.” This isn’t just a thought aimed at high school directors; this overly caricatured style still finds its way onto professional stages.

Yes, you need a certain amount of caricature for most types of humor (on stage or off), but there’s caricature still in touch with reality and that which is completely disconnected. The completely disconnected must be, well, completely disconnected for good.

2. Adults playing children—Unless it is a play that, like LaChiusa’s The Wild Party, would expose a child to adult behavior that they shouldn’t be exposed to, the expense in employing a child to play a significant child character pays off.

If the character is a small part and requires limited character development (such as Helen Burns in Jane Eyre, played so tenderly by Jayne Patterson), it can be done well. If the character is an intended caricature, such as those wonderful kids in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (which are surprisingly accurate caricatures), then it works. However, if there is complexity or it is a large part, it just doesn’t work. Now matter how talented the actresses playing young Amy were in the recent Broadway/tour of Little Women, a certain humanity was lost in the play. It was as if humans were playing the other sisters while Amy was a cartoon.

When adults take on complex kid roles, the typical result is that overly caricatured acting style which sucks the verisimilitude from the show. A realistic child character ends up with the same treatment as a broad comic character, a caricature of a child. This is not the fault of the actor. It’s simply that most adults cannot effectively portray children in complex or nuanced roles.

3. Squeaky-voiced chorines—Unless the show is a period piece that requires a show-within-a-show effect or the show is a parody of historical shows, the squeaky-voiced chorine is otherwise past its prime. Again, it is the overly caricatured effect that neither creates a realistic character nor brings additional life to the stage. It is an out-moded style of acting that doesn’t work with contemporary audiences.

4. Energy in place of character development—A still common occurrence, this is when actors present their character with energy rather than with emotion, when speed and perkiness triumph over truthful emotional expression. It’s when the audience understands the emotion rather than feeling it inside as a result of the performance. For women, this is often coupled with a raise in the pitch of their voice.

The stage requires energy—without it there is no stage presence—but a great, energetic performance doesn’t have to lack character development. There are so many excellent musical comedy performers who have mastered this concept—Faith Prince, Nathan Lane, Hunter Foster, Sutton Foster, Roger Bart, Susan Egan, and Cady Huffman, to name a few. For the ultimate example, see Kristin Chenoweth in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown or Wicked. She naturally speaks in a higher pitch but still communicates true emotions.

the Broadway Mouth
November 3, 2007

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Show Business: The Road to Broadway

Sometimes things get better with repeated viewing. The most common first reaction to Dori Bernstein’s Show Business: The Road to Broadway when it hit theaters (now available on DVD) was that it didn’t uncover anything surprising, that it documented an exciting season unfolding as every exciting season unfolds—the show openings, the gossip, the critics, the Tonys, and the show closings with as much drama backstage as was ever onstage. This, too, was my first reaction, but upon second viewing, Show Business: The Road to Broadway proves itself to be more than just a fascinating telling of a familiar story.

There’s the saying that there are no new stories in the world, that what sets a story apart is the way that it is told. The stories of Show Business are of the same ilk—change out Caroline, or Change with Grey Gardens, Tonya Pinkins with Marla Schaffel, Wicked with Aida—but it’s the details that are unique. There’s Rosie O’Donnell’s passion Taboo, which struggles in the face of journalistic adversity despite tears from passionate followers. There’s Tonya Pinkins who shares openly about the struggles of being a working actress and then making it in a beloved show that still closes early. There’s Wicked, which succeeds despite middling reviews to become a phenomenon. Fresh or not, every story is Show Business is interesting and is a story theatre fans will find themselves wanting to visit repeatedly.

The most valuable perspective Show Business uncovers is that of the critic community that holds such persuasion over the theatre-going public, particularly when it comes to musicals with non-traditional concepts or non-traditional stories, the shows audiences are less likely to risk attending. It’s fascinating to see the roundtable discussions that illustrate the thought processes some critics experience in analyzing a show. For example, one critic appears to dismiss Caroline, or Change simply because, to her mind, it offers nothing new.

An unexpected surprise of this second viewing, however, is that once you are done tasting the strongest flavors, there are many subtle spices mixed in with the narrative (and bonus features), words and ideas that give us cause for pause and reflection. One of the biggest ideas presented indirectly is questioning what makes for a great show that is produce-able in this day and age. After all the Taboo drama ends with the show’s closing, Dori Bernstein pulls the viewer away from the storm and presents calmer perspectives on the show, and it makes you wonder how much of the Broadway drama is just that—drama—instead of level-headed thinking. And there are a myriad of other important questions that arise out of the narrative. The key to seeing them is to take a step in viewing the film a second time, when the narrative can take a backseat to detailed observation.

The DVD is also filled with a variety of interesting bonus features. The best is probably the commentary track with producer/director Dori Bernstein, co-producer and Tony-winning actor Alan Cumming, and Tony-winning Avenue Q co-songwriter Jeff Marx. While there are a few interesting tidbits in what they say, the most appealing aspect of this commentary is that the viewer gets to listen in while three significant Broadway figures share their perspectives on the Broadway process and the shows of that season. Jeff Marx talks about seeing Taboo and Caroline, or Change several times, for example, and all three heap praise on various figures within the narrative. It’s fascinating and a side of the Broadway creative talent no one really gets to see—their honest reactions to what is going on in the Broadway world.

The other bonus features are also worth a second visit to the feature. In the section in which each of the four profiled shows gets additional face-time, Bernstein includes clips from the shows, including Raul Esparza performing in Taboo and more Tonya Pinkins and Anika Noni Rose in Caroline, or Change. There’s Harvey Fierstein’s BC/EFA speech at the end of a performance of Hairspray, deleted scenes that include Avenue Q’s Tony campaign party and set construction footage from Wicked. In the Broadway Speaks section, several significant Broadway figures share experiences from their Broadway experience, including John Lithgow sharing about thunderous applause right after being told his show was closing and Donna Murphy’s demonstrative expression of her passion for performing onstage. There’s even an early trailer for the film different from the one that popped up on the Internet.

The DVD of Show Business offers a valuable illustration of the vagaries, passions, and talent of Broadway. For the uninitiated, it presents an eye-opening look at what people do for love under adverse circumstances. For those of us who are well-studied on the process of Broadway, it’s a great story of a fascinating season and one we’ll want to relive again.

In other words, don’t miss it.

the Broadway Mouth
October 25, 2007

Monday, October 22, 2007

Teaching Musical Theatre Literature: Why and How (Part 1 in a Series)

I don’t have the financial statistics, but I think it’s fair to say that more people attend musicals in a year than attend straight plays, either on Broadway or throughout the rest of the country. Yes, straight plays often populate the landscape (outside of New York) because musicals are prohibitively expensive, but a musical always pulls in greater attendance. Despite this, there is very little going on in schools in terms of teaching musicals.

Why Musicals Aren’t Taught
There are several factors in this. First of all, in selecting works to teach, teachers are looking for works that will speak to kids and also have something important to express in a well-crafted manner. When I was a teacher, I taught A Raisin in the Sun, once to analyze in a theatre class and once as part of a regular American literature class. For the theatre class, we were able to analyze the characters of the play using method techniques and analyze the structure of the play and how the Aristotelian elements of drama can be used to express, understand, or communicate the playwright’s intentions. When I taught it as part of my American literature class, we studied it through various interpretive lenses, looked at the historical perspective, analyzed it for its themes, connected the themes to modern times, reflected on those themes, and evaluated them in our own lives. Let’s face it, it would be hard to go that deep on most musicals, even something as rich as The King and I or A Little Night Music.

Secondly, most English teachers know and enjoy musicals but don’t fully understand them. They can read The Miracle Worker or Death of a Salesman and introduce the kids to great insights on human nature, relevant themes, and life-altering ideas. For most musicals, though, understanding and appreciating them are largely artistic appreciation exercises. The Music Man is a great musical, but I don’t think there’s much to discuss in the way of great insights on human nature, relevant themes, and life-altering ideas. If you were to teach The Music Man, you’d be looking at the character development, the use of music to advance plot and develop characters, the choice of musical styles, and the choreography. Of these four major elements, the average English teacher will only feel comfortable discussing character development.

Thirdly, there is not easy access to most musical libretti. They are not published as part of a literature textbook nor are they readily available through other outlets. This makes it difficult because the chance of legally obtaining enough copies of a musical you’d want to teach is pretty much impossible, unless it was a modern play purchased within your window of opportunity of publication.

Additionally, musicals are viewed as fluff by our culture and don’t garner the same reverence as a great Arthur Miller or Edward Albee play. In selecting great literature, comparing Hello, Dolly! to The Great Gatsby seems like a no-brainer; however, musical theatre literature isn’t as shallow as it may seem. Dismissing a great musical theatre libretto only shows how people don’t fully understand the genre.

Part of this also comes from the fact that most people in the country aren’t aware of some of the more recent musicals, which would be great for use in a classroom. Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, for example, would make for great discussion; however, hardly anyone outside of New York has even heard of it.

These are all valid points, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for musical theatre literature in an English curriculum. In fact, there are many important reasons why reading musical libretti should be included as part of a drama curriculum.

Why Musicals Should be Taught
1. It is one of the few genuine American art forms. The musical’s roots reach back into European opera and operetta tradition, but out of that came an entirely different set of rules and a new form, first developed by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern in Show Boat and later perfected by Hammerstein with Richard Rodgers in Oklahoma!, the general template that is still used today. As one of our few original art forms, the American musical should not be ignored by educational institutions.

2. It is a greatly misunderstood art form. Those who say they hate musicals because people just break into song and dance betray their ignorance of how great musicals are constructed. Most musicals that have made it to Broadway never have someone break into a song or a dance. Instead, the song flows naturally from the moment and the dance is used to express emotions. Most people don’t understand that. How many people can sit through an action film with little character motivation or even a logical series of events and not be nonplussed by it all but cannot at least appreciate the non-literal expression of a musical.

3. To appreciate a musical requires higher order thinking skills because it is a non-literal medium. For example, you need to understand how a dance could be a physical representation of an intangible emotion.

4. It can be a gateway into the world of drama. Kids really struggle in reading plays. The problem is that kids equate visual storytelling with movies; however, most plays lack the sequential storytelling of the typical movie a kid sees or they lack the style of conflict, storytelling, and character development kids expect as a result of seeing movies. Look at some of the most popular plays taught in high schools—Fences, The Glass Menagerie, Our Town, Death of a Salesman. Kids walk away thinking plays are weird and boring when they don’t understand that literary storytelling is far different than what they experience in a typical movie. Yes, these plays all follow the traditional structure of a story—exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement—but the stories are not always linear or person vs. person conflict.

Musicals could act as a bridge between the film-like storytelling medium and the stage play medium because musicals regularly use linear storytelling structures with relatable conflicts. For a kid to be introduced to drama literature through a “confusing” Shakespeare play or a play with a “boring” plot creates a barrier to appreciation. Teaching a musical can be a mid-level step to helping students understand the unique qualities of a story told on stage and the more challenging, idea-based plays of Wilson, Miller, or Sheridan.

5. Kids in lower-ability classes and those struggling with reading love plays. This past summer, I taught summer school at a juvenile detention center. These boys, who wouldn’t do anything but try to look for cute girls on the street outside the window, looked forward to reading plays. The problem, as mentioned earlier, is finding plays of a high enough level of interest and quality. A musical plot, involving love and humor, would be a very good option for them.

Also, with the addition of playing songs on a stereo, it makes for a quicker read. Even in a play kids enjoy reading, that final act can really be a bummer because the play itself has been dragged on for so long. Because of the music in a musical, the songs can be played on a CD player, allowing for a shorter time spent reading.

6. It is a form of drama literature. If a district or college class seeks to educate student on drama literature, musical theatre literature is one important aspect of that genre.

It is not unusual for high schools and colleges to offer classes in genre fiction that is lacking in depth, such as gothic, mystery, popular, or fantasy literature classes. These classes tend to be focused on learning about the genre—the origins, the changes, the impacts, the philosophies. Musical theatre literature typically has more depth than these genres, yet it is hardly ever taught.

Coming Next: In this non-consecutive series, I will also be looking at great options for teaching musical theatre literature and methods of teaching musical theatre literature.