Wednesday, June 27, 2007
But in seeing Follies for the first time, all that worked to my benefit because I also didn’t know how “Loveland” was supposed to look or how Phyllis was supposed to sing or how “I’m Still Here” was supposed to be staged or anything.
So that night when the lights went down . . . Oh, what a show!
Immediately when the ghosts of the follies past entered, I was captivated. They were humans on stage, but it really was as if they were from another world. As the story unfolded, I was stunned by the storytelling, the past commenting on the present, the present living in the past. I can still remember how my insides churned with excitement during “Who’s That Woman” and after that, how Polly Bergen stopped the show with “I’m Still Here” in the way that stars used to stop shows. Then came “Loveland,” and I just couldn’t get enough of those songs and what they were expressing and how. The entire evening was astounding, exciting, imagination-inspiring.
At the end of the night, I left the Belasco almost speechless. The story seemed like that of a straight play, but the music pulled it deeper psychologically. I wanted to get my hands on the libretto because I felt like I had been so dazzled that I needed to read the ending again to understand it all.
When I returned home, no matter how I tried, I couldn’t fully communicate to people the excitement that was Follies. Unless you see it for yourself or read the libretto with a vivid imagination, I don’t think an average person could fully grasp that show.
But now matter how excited I was about the show itself, the story that really piqued everyone’s interest happened at the stage door.
At this time, I was still waiting at the stage door to meet the stars of the shows I had seen. In this cast, I knew who Marge Champion was and knew who Betty Garret was from Laverne and Shirley. Marni Nixon I knew, as well as Treat Williams and Erin Dilly. But by the end of the show, I was a big fan of everyone involved and so desperately wanted to meet them. Unlike most other shows I had been to that week, only a small gaggle of fans gathered outside this theatre, but we still scrambled as each diva exited.
As if each performer wasn’t generating enough excitement, Blythe Danner walked out with daughter Gwyneth Paltrow (star of the movie Emma, which I love) beside her. Thankfully, people were very respectful, though, as you can imagine, excited to see such a film star. I was more interested in meeting her mother after such a riveting performance in a riveting show. I politely asked Ms. Danner if I could have my picture taken with her, and she said yes, but because I was alone, I didn’t have anyone to take the picture. Used to this, I turned to the people around me and said, “Could anyone take our picture?” to which a certain Academy-Award winning actress said shyly, raising her hand timidly, “I could.”
“Oh my gosh, I just had my picture taken by Gwyneth Paltrow!” I said after thanking Phyllis Rogers Stone for a spectacular performance and Gwyneth Paltrow for taking the picture. At that very moment, Marge Champion came out, so I let other people grab at the movie star while I met Ms. Champion who, for the record, is much sweeter in person than she is on stage in Elaine Stritch’s show.
When I got pictures with a few other stars from the show, I turned to see mother and daughter movie star walking down the street, knowing that now away from the stage door, they deserved their personal time without my interruption. I never regretted not getting my picture with her because, well, she wasn’t in the show. I am, after all, a movie fan who is a die hard Broadway baby.
For the record, Gwyneth Paltrow takes a very fine snapshot, and I’d sell my camera on eBay for oodles of money if I could prove her fingerprints were on it.
So anyway, about a year or so after seeing the show, I discovered that the Follies libretto was available and bought it.
It’s amazing how truthfully Follies deals with the issues of the past and our response to it. Every time I read it, I connect with the events and the characters more deeply. And the more people I know getting married, getting divorced, and even re-connecting after divorce, the more I can see how the show mirrors life.
Recently, I finally read Ted Chapin’s soon-to-be legendary book Everything Was Possible, in which he describes with great detail the laborious rehearsal period for the original Hal Prince/Michael Bennett production. In addition to being a fascinating read because it details the creation of Follies, it gives you a stripped-away, glam-less documentation of the making of a Broadway musical (which, for the record, has a great many similarities with directing plays at the high school level, which I found fascinating).
Reading it shed a great deal of light on why Follies is the way that it is, which is brilliant but, to my opinion, not perfect.
As a writer, you generally have an idea of where you want your story to go. The journey getting there might be unclear, but you have a clear idea of where you want to go and how. You then build your work to ready your audience for that end.
The problem in the creation of Follies was that there were several key pieces missing from the plot puzzle for a significant portion of the rehearsal period. With the exception of “Losing My Mind,” the songs for the final follies sequence—“You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow,” “Love Will See Us Through,” “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues,” “The Story of Lucy and Jesse,” and “Live, Laugh, Love” were not written. And Phyllis was actually set to sing “Losing My Mind.”
The older actors were really struggling with some of the material. In fact, Chapin says that, for the entire run of the show, several of them regularly botched their songs. “Who’s That Woman” was particularly challenging for the older women, and Michael Bennett and his team worked tirelessly with them to get it down. Because of that, can you imagine what it must have been like to have only begun to conquer all that dancing and music . . . then to be handed “The Story of Lucy and Jesse” or “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues”? When reading Chapin’s book, by the time these songs are ready and the show is complete, you can almost feel the sigh of relief from everyone involved in the production just at the thought of having a complete show . . . and that’s without having the show entirely on its feet. There would have been no way to make major changes to the conclusion or to the opening without threatening the ability of the cast to pull it off. Also, I doubt there was time for anyone to really sit back and objectively observe and reflect on how the story came together and how it should be altered. The result was that the show never fully comes together thematically.
Unjustly, James Goldman tends to get much of the brunt of this criticism, but if you look at the timing when those songs were completed, the amount of work that was still before the cast, and the break-neck pace at which everyone was working . . . The guy deserves a break for even having had a chance to write anything for the actors to do after Ben’s breakdown. Even if he had had the time to understand what changes needed to be made, there would have been no way he could actually implement them without risking the whole show.
I humbly submit these as the key problems with Follies. Please note that these thoughts are largely derived from the edition of the play published by Theatre Communications Group after the 2001 revival, carrying a copyright date of 2001 by James Goldman. If you haven’t seen Follies, I highly recommend you pick up this relatively inexpensive book and read it as soon as you can. I know that there is an older edition published with the text of the original Broadway show. In my dream world, I would have copies of each libretto; however, right now I don’t, so my comments reflect the currently published edition.
First of all, as Steven Suskin points out in his Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001, the placement of Ben’s song as last and the show pivoting on his breakdown sort of makes him the main character. The problem is that the show isn’t about Ben Stone. Suskin does mention how the actress playing Phyllis Rogers Stone typically gets top billing, which would indicate Phyllis as the main character; however, billing isn’t always connected with the size of the role. For example, Dorothy Brock gets top billing in 42nd Street (and wins Leading Actress awards), but it is the character of Peggy Sawyer on which the major dramatic question of the show rests (and who gets the most stage time). This structural dilemma in Follies is understandable because of the stress in constructing the show. As Suskin points out, a show about follies girls should not be centered on a man. With this ending the show seems to be about Ben, but I don’t think the creative team could have done anything to set it up differently at that stage.
Secondly, the characters leave the reunion returning to their original spouses without there being any indication of their ability to do things differently. Each character goes through a moment of self reflection in the follies sequence’s songs, but they never come to a conclusion. For example, Phyllis identifies her problem, but there’s no resolve. The ending never indicates that Lucy and Jesse will finally combine. This makes for an unsatisfactory ending because the characters never really make a decision; their choices just seem to happen as if there’s nothing better to do. The audience cannot believe that these couples will be truly happy, and an unhappily ever after ending doesn’t comment on any other part of the show or fit into a grand thematic statement. There’s nothing elsewhere in the musical to suggest that there’s a good reason for them to have to be unhappy.
As I said earlier, when I left the theatre, I felt like I needed to read the ending to fully realize its deeper meaning. When I finally read the play, what I realized was that there were no deeper meanings to get. That’s because, again, the ending seems disconnected from the rest of the show.
Thirdly, the cause of all this mess is never entirely clear. It is known that Sally gave it out, so to speak, too quickly, and she even acknowledges this in her fight with Young Sally. However, why Ben picked Phyllis (who seems to have given it out as well) when he really loved Sally is never clear. And not only is it not clear, but it’s very important because Ben’s choice is the impetus for everyone’s regrets. This lack of meat in the flashback scenes robs the current plot of its substance. Number one, it makes the events seem more like those in a soap opera, and number two, the psychology of the characters that is so brilliantly depicted in the follies sequence lacks drive or substance.
One could carp about the lack of humor in the show, as Michael Bennett did, but to go through adding more zingers would tamper with Goldman’s style. Besides, as Foster Hirsch noted in his book Harold Prince and the American Musical Theatre (Expanded Edition), the original production wasn’t lit or set brightly enough for humor. It is my supposition that the show requires a darker set because of the nature of the characters’ struggles and the need to bathe the ghosts in a supernatural light, so adding humor to the libretto would also be somewhat futile.
Lastly, one could argue that the show never really says anything concretely, though the makings of some themes are present. It more so presents ideas—the futility of regret, the dangers of living in the past, the naiveté of youth, the nature of youthful marriage—without ever commenting on them (in the way that straights plays do, like The Crucible, A Raisin in the Sun, Death of Salesman, or Sweet Birth of Youth). Sondheim’s shows tend to contain a myriad of ideas, but Follies, by its serious nature, can’t remain observations, at least not in its current form. It needs to complete the statement its unique structure feels like its building to.
Ideally, someone would be able to take Goldman’s book and, with a concrete driving theme in mind, restructure it to fit in all of Goldman’s original ideas and align them with Sondheim’s ideas without damaging Goldman’s tone and sensibilities. It would be a cut and paste job with many of the same scenes happening, perhaps just in a slightly different order.
As I outline some potential solutions, I do think it’s important to note that, without the ability to fully cut and paste, I don’t know if anyone could really build to a concrete driving theme. Still, I’d like to propose some fixes within Goldman’s current libretto.
The first big change needs to be a clarification of why Ben chose Phyllis when he clearly preferred Sally. It is made clear that Ben wants to be a big success, so perhaps there could be something that happens to indicate that while he loves Sally’s childlike nature, he wants to love Phyllis’s maturity and sophistication. In other words, he really prefers to shop at Wal-Mart, but he wants to want to shop at Macy’s because it’s classier. Ben’s desire to be rich and have the best is very clear, but the connection of his choice of Phyllis needs to be as clear as well.
There needs to be something in the follies sequence that allows the characters to make a choice that foreshadows/builds to the ending. It would be better to break concept and allow the audience to leave the theatre wholly satisfied than to hold rigidly to the concept and leave the audience cheated. In my mind, these choices look like this:
Buddy: In the final chorus of “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues,” he sings it with caricatures of Margie and Sally. On the final line or note, perhaps he could dip Sally with a kiss, while Sally’s extended leg could kick Margie away. This would indicate his choice.
Sally: Sally is really in love with her personal rendering of Ben Stone. Her entire adult life has been whiled away reliving memories of a man who never was. When, at the end of “Losing My Mind,” she sings, “You said you loved me, / Or were you just being kind?” there should be a pause. A spotlight shines on Young Ben passionately making out with Young Phyllis in their follies costumes. Sally hears this behind her and reluctantly confronts the past she’s desperately tried to suppress. She looks back, finally sees the truth that she’s denied up until this point, then turns to the audience, belting, “Or am I losing my mind?”
Phyllis: In a change of the traditional staging, when the chorus boys come on to back Phyllis during “The Story of Lucy and Jesse,” a caricature of Lucy and Jesse also hit the stage. Choreography could echo the problem indicated in the story. In the final moment of the song, perhaps after its ended, Phyllis should take the hand of each caricature to indicate her desire to get them together quick. This could be done in the button of the song or as a bow after the music has ended.
Ben: I don’t think the idea of a breakdown fully suits the moment, particularly a breakdown of the evening’s events. If anything, the breakdown should consist of the Young counterparts re-singing their follies songs in a psychedelic manner, since it is the past that haunts him, not the other present-day characters.
I think it’s okay to end on Ben’s follies because it doesn’t have to be the climax of the show, and the truth is that the fate of the other three characters hinged on his choice of Phyllis back in the day. Because of this, their ability to overcome their present-day problems also hinges on his present-day choice.
In my mind, when the chorus keeps singing and he’s shouted out his whole “Look at me. I’m nothing” realization, the lights change instantly from follies to reunion, and Ben is left alone on stage, calling out Phyllis’s name with great panic.
The End: As Ben is silently, but with great panic, exiting the stage to find Phyllis before she leaves him, Sally enters. She calls out his name. He turns. She’s honest with him and makes the decision to not go with him, with which Ben eagerly agrees.
Buddy runs onstage and sees Sally with Ben. He pulls Sally aside and declares that he won’t let her leave with Ben. This is important because he needs to make the choice to pick Sally over Margie himself. Sally informs him that Ben was only a fantasy, maybe even saying that she just temporarily lost her mind (to tie the dream follies into real life). Now that Buddy is finally getting what’s he’s never been able to get, he realizes that he’s being confronted with his old problem (from his follies song). There’s a beat, a release. He hugs Sally to show that even though he’s got her, he still wants her. Perhaps Sally speaks a line about really loving Buddy, a gentle reflection on something endearing about him that she’s learned in the years since their youth, as if to say, “You were Plan B then, but now I see you were Plan A material all along.”
Some of the other characters come on for their final good-byes and reflections. Someone asks Ben where Phyllis went to, tells him to tell her it was great to see her again, and they leave. After these people exit, Ben is left alone. Young Ben comes behind him and calls out Phyllis’s name, surreptitiously as if in a scene from the past. Young Phyllis rushes on from the other side of the stage, whispering that it’s too late (as in, at night . . . but for the audience to understand differently in present context), for him to go home.
Then Phyllis re-enters through the theatre door. She calls out Ben’s name. The decision is now hers, and the climax rightfully rests on her shoulders. Perhaps a gentle “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” plays from the orchestra.
They key here is that Phyllis can no longer be the caustic, one-line hurling Phyllis of ten minutes ago. Lucy and Jessie have to take some steps toward combining. So she calls Ben’s name. Ben runs to her, saying his lines about “I need you, Phyl” and so on.
Young Ben would say something like, “Phyllis, please” to which Young Phyllis would respond, “Ben . . .”
One of Ben’s problems is that he feels unloved, and Phyllis has become “cold as a slab.” Phyllis isn’t going to feel comfortable enough to throw herself at Ben anymore, but it’s important to show that she’s willing to try, that they now have a chance to make it. Since Ben’s breakdown in “Live, Laugh, Love” has already happened, the audience can see his change of heart. Phyllis’s change needs to be made physical somehow.
So, awkwardly, Phyllis puts out her hand, clumsily caressing Ben’s shoulder. She looks at him a moment, then says, as the orchestra plays the orchestral “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow,” “Come on, let’s get our coats.” At that, Young Phyllis runs into Ben’s arms, saying, “Oh, you know I can never resist you.” Phyllis and Ben exit, awkwardly holding hands, and the lights go out on the Young counterparts in embrace while the orchestra booms the final part of “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow.”
So that’s how I would fix Follies. Though, maybe I’m losing my mind.
June 27, 2007
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
For my latest blog entry on Tarzan, please scroll down and read “Broadway Funk.” I just wanted to take a minute to let you know about something pretty awesome.
I don’t know whom, but on a deleted discussion thread from Broadway World, someone was kind enough to post info about this great piece of technology. In honor of doing unto others what I was thrilled someone did unto me, I’m going to tell you about FLV player.
In short, there is an EASY and FREE way to save YouTube video so that you may access them whenever you want. So far I haven’t figured out a way to make it work for Blue Gobo, but maybe someday.
The best part is that if you don’t even have Internet at home, you can use this. You just download the FLV player for free onto a USB drive, then install the player on your home computer. Then any files you save on your USB drive (or on your hard drive or wherever) can be played at your whim.
If you have dial-up, just go the library to save the files, then it’ll play on your computer without a problem because it’ll be a saved file. You can actually skip through and go back in clips without those pesky pauses because it’s not coming from another source.
There is some pretty awesome legal footage available on YouTube, such as a promo video for the tour of Wicked featuring the uber-talented pair Stephanie J. Block and Kendra Kassebaum, and there’s great Tony performances there too. Now you don’t have to be victim to the vagaries of people’s whims as footage comes and goes; you can keep what you want for posterity and reference. The more we can access such great footage, the more we can learn. The more we learn, the more we improve.
The site is www.keepvid.com. You download the player, just click on the giant play button (labeled “Click Here for a Free FLV Player”) at the top.
To save a clip:
1. Find it on YouTube.
2. Cut and paste the web address where you found the clip into the green bar at the top of the keepvid site.
3. When asked where the address comes from, click on YouTube.
4. Hit the download button. Below the green box, a grey/white rectangular box will appear labeled “Download.”
5. Hit the “download link” button.
6. A box will come up. Save it to whatever location you want (USB drives are usually in the E or F drive).
7. In naming the file, follow the example given by the site. Example: wicked_tour.flv. You must include .flv, or the player won’t be able to open the file.
Note: If you forget .flv, you can still change the name of the file once it’s been saved. Just right click on the file before you open it, then rename it with an .flv at the end.
8. Install the FLV player. Then to play an FLV file, click on “file” at the top of the player.
9. Watch your clips, learn, and be thrilled.
I don’t know who originally posted this on Broadway World, but I would like to thank that person for sharing this. I can’t tell you how excited I was to discover this big miracle and to learn how simple it is to do.
June 26, 2007
Monday, June 25, 2007
Because there is, unhappily, a very large contingent of the New York theatre people and journalists . . . who pray devoutly, with all of their being, that any new show is a disaster. And in the case of Titanic, a title synonymous with disaster, this malevolent hope reached new heights—or plumbed new depths, depending on whether you’re rooting for the passengers or the sharks.
I have had great experiences at many of the Disney shows. The national tour of Beauty and the Beast with Kim Huber as Belle was the second Broadway show I saw, and I was elated every moment. That gut reaction you get to at great Broadway show—from the emotional response to the awe and wonder that lasts in your memory forever—was there for me that evening.
For The Lion King, I got to see it with the original cast—Tsidii Le Loka, Heather Headley, the late Jason Raize, Samuel E. Wright, et. al—from front row, center. Yes, I was awed and inspired every moment, particularly from those thrilling performances.
I even saw On the Record with Emily Skinner and the future Mary Poppins herself, Ashley Brown. I walked in hoping for a smashing presentation of great Disney songs, and I was never disappointed, particularly with such an amazing cast and fun staging by Robert Longbottom.
The unrivaled Disney show for me has always been Aida. I don’t think I could fully express how thankful I am that I got to see that show with the original Broadway cast. I vividly remembered how powerful Heather Headley had been in The Lion King, so I could hardly wait to catch her in Aida. From the moment she opened her mouth, saying, “Release them,” I had chills. Then, if that wasn’t enough, there was Adam Pascal and Sherie René Scott, plus Damian Perkins, John Hickok, and Schele Williams—You’d think God Himself cast the show. Everything about Aida was amazing, and I saw it twice on tour, once with Simone as Aida, then with understudy extraordinaire Merle Dandridge, and Kelly Fournier as Amneris and Patrick Cassidy as Radames.
Tarzan, which recently announced its closing, was a very unique experience for me. It’s been a show that has been an easy target for many people, and I think that just because its Disney, Tarzan has had too many people happily tap dancing on its red-inked grave, so I’d like to take a moment to recognize some great things.
First of all, I think it’s important to acknowledge Thomas Schumacher, head of Disney Theatricals, for the daring steps he took with Tarzan. A big critique Michael John LaChiusa had of many recent shows in his Opera News article, which I discussed in my first blog entry, was that they didn’t step far enough away from the source material. With Tarzan, David Henry Hwang’s libretto immediately starts branching away from the film and with several gigantic steps, such as Kerchak sending Tarzan (and then by her own choice, Kala) away from the family. For Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, there were elements added—more gradual changes for the enchanted objects, songs to fill out scenes and characters—but with Tarzan (and later with Mary Poppins), the story takes off in different directions. This stems from an apparent and admirable desire to take the material deeper.
It’s also important to praise Disney for keeping the spectacle in check. I always admired the set for Aida because it looked so simple, yet it was stunning. I don’t think Tarzan’s set was all that simple, but it appeared to be that way. The creators could have thrown in a lot of do-dads and theatrical gadgets, but they risked it with the more simple set, which they altered periodically through the evening to (successfully, as far as I’m concerned) keep it from looking monotonous. For all the complaints about the tire in Cats and the engulfing costumes of Beauty and the Beast, under Thomas Schumacher’s guidance, Aida, On the Record, Mary Poppins, and Tarzan avoided excess to keep in touch with the human story.
Can we also take the time to give Disney a hand in discovering and casting such amazing talent? Look at people who got a big break in a Disney show—Susan Egan, Jason Raize, Heather Headley, Ashley Brown, Josh Strickland, and now someone new in The Little Mermaid. If that weren’t enough, admire the list of people who were either in original or replacement casts—Terrence Mann, Gary Beach, Beth Fowler, Burke Moses, Tom Bosley, Samuel E.Wright, Mary Stout, Chuck Wagner, Kerry Butler, Andrea McArdle, Matt Bogart, Idina Menzel, Maya Days, Mandy Gonzales, Rebecca Luker, Daniel Jenkins. They have not only selected established talents for their original casts, but they have sought out great people as replacements. And while they have pulled the stunt casting card (most sadly to the detriment of Aida), they’ve done it far less than other successful shows, like Chicago and Cabaret. Some of their stunt casting has even been respectful, such as pulling in Broadway vets Christy Carlson Romano and Donny Osmond for Beauty and the Beast, or giving a genuine talent like Anneliesa van der Pol her Broadway debut.
Look at the cast for Tarzan—Jenn Gambatese, Merle Dandridge, Tony-winner Shuler Hensley, Chester Gregory II, and newcomer Josh Strickland. They didn’t skimp.
They also deserve an ovation for the creative talent they’ve utilized. Disney has done first class Broadway shows using first class Broadway talent. The choice of Bob Crowley to direct Tarzan should be applauded. Whether it resulted as a wise choice or not, Thomas Schumacher did what should happen more on Broadway—He took a gamble with an extremely talented person and gave him the reigns to create. That doesn’t mean his work shouldn’t be evaluated just as stringently as a more experienced director, like a Hal Prince or a Susan Stroman, but we should at least applaud him for the guts for his choice.
And it happens. Yes, sometimes you have the recipe right, the oven temp right, the right-sized pan, and the angel food cake still overflows and gets encrusted on the oven’s heating coils. Creating a great show is an art, not a recipe. Even the greatest of producers and directors have those shows that somehow overflow and leave a charred mess, and they still need to go before the media to put on a happy face to protect the investors’ interests.
(Please note: If you were somehow involved with the show, and you were kind enough to read my blog, I would encourage you to now scroll down and re-read my entry entitled “If They Could See You Now.” There is so much negativity on Broadway, as Peter Stone said, and I prefer to focus on the positives, except this time. Though I will endeavor to have a positive critique of the show, a critique in general implies that I could end up hurting your feelings, which is most definitely not my aim. I love Broadway and Broadway people. So, as Grover once so aptly said, there is a monster at the end of this blog entry, so please don’t turn the page.)
Everybody with a computer has a solution to every single show ever produced. If they had only been there, the libretto would have included this, the composer would have written that, and that actor would have gestured like this instead. And we all know that the number one (and most important) qualification to being able to create on Broadway is to have an opinion and a Broadway Mouth loud enough to get it out there, right? And nobody else could possibly be correct, obviously.
And if they had been there, that stupid show Guys and Dolls would have lasted much longer than it did. If only . . .
So I would like to take a moment to acknowledge that, firstly, it is easier to fix rather than to create one from the ground up. Secondly, hindsight is always perfect. Thirdly, these ideas are take it or leave it. I’m throwing them out there as a creative exercise for myself and nothing else.
Many people go into shows hating them, sitting there challenging the people involved to make them like the show. It’s like they have a checklist, and they’ll only leave the theatre happy if every item on that general checklist is marked off, no matter what the genre or goals of the show are.
I love theatre too much to do that. I go in and enjoy myself, and I only form critiques when I realize that I’m not enjoying myself or, after a show, when I try to figure out why I didn’t enjoy myself as much as I could have. As a writer, it is, for me a way, of learning and stretching my own skills.
For Tarzan, boredom set in pretty quickly. I have honestly never sat in a theatre with such an amazingly hard-working cast resulting in so little energy. Thirty minutes into the show, it was like a black hole had settled in at the back of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, sucking all energy into it.
The first symptom of Tarzan was that here was an amazing cast—Shuler Hensley won the Tony and is amazing on the Oklahoma! DVD, Merle Dandridge was an outstanding Aida, and I have heard so many great things about Jenn Gambatese—and they had so little with which to work that the performances never lifted. I walked away from Merle Dandridge’s Aida gaping, in awe of her talent, and here, I wouldn’t have left realizing her talent had I not already known. Josh Strickland, because he has an awesome rock voice, came off the strongest, but he still didn’t have enough to work with.
The next big problem was there was no humor. Poor Chester Gregory II tried so hard, but for a comedic character, he was given lines that held absolutely no humor, and he was forced to try to milk the humor with an Eddie Murphy dialect. Three cheers for him because he was out there trying the whole night I saw the show, and for the little response he got, he still kept going. It wasn’t his fault! Even Elaine Stritch couldn’t pull a laugh out of her script in Monster-in-Law. It’s impossible for a comedian to rise above laugh-less material.
I don’t ascribe to the philosophy that every Broadway musical needs to be another How to Success in Business Without Really Trying. Just like in movies and on television, there are theatrical stories that don’t require a ton of humor to be entertaining—Jekyll and Hyde, Jane Eyre, and The Civil War come to mind. But Tarzan needed it. The film was constructed for humorous characters, and since those characters were included on stage, the humor was needed as well.
Henry David Hwang is so very talented, as I have already gushed over in my mention of Aida, but just as he doctored Linda Woolverton’s book for that show, he really needed someone to come in on Tarzan. Besides his lack of humor, the show doesn’t skillfully accomplish all that he attempts to do. In the film, for example, Jane Porter sheds layers of clothing throughout the movie, indicating the shedding of her Victorian repression. In the stage version, Jane just arrives, blinks, and is experiencing a sexual awakening, which gets expressed in song, staging, and dialogue. There are a number of elements in the show that get handled that way—such as Kala’s separation from Kerchak.
The songs imported from the film work extremely well. While they are not inherently theatrical songs, they are great songs, and when blasted into the audience by voices like those of Josh Strickland and Merle Dandridge, they gave the show its only real energy. The songs written for the stage, however, only deserve an A for effort. I once made an ill-fated attempt at being my own lyricist, and I can honestly say my stuff was on par with “Sure as Sun Turns to Moon.”
I have always wished I was in New York while a show was previewing and the word was bad. I really wished I could have gone into the Richard Rodgers Theatre, then said, “Mr. Crowley, if you give me a copy of the libretto, I’d love to fix it up for you. If you like it, great. Use it. If not, you’ve wasted no money and no time.” Of course, if that fantasy ever actually happened, I would have really been shot down and put in my place.
If that had actually happened and if Bob Crowley hadn’t hung me by one of those vines, some of the changes I made would have been these. I do think that, while not necessarily the best choice for a Broadway show because animation was the best medium for the story, Tarzan does hold much potential because of the emotional core of the story.
I should also insert here that it has been almost a year since I saw the show, and I never bought the CD (the only Broadway show I’ve never bought the CD for—I will eventually, but I have the movie CD, and those were the best songs in the show), so I know I won’t be addressing all of the things I thought about after seeing it.
Before I touch on any changes I would have made to the libretto, I would have recommended Disney bringing in a lyricist to salvage Phil Collins’ new music. I remember thinking the lyrics for one or two songs worked, but that was it. Disney has had a successful relationship with David Zippel, who is very talented. I bet he would have been a great choice.
1. When the situation arises that Tarzan makes a spear and Kerchak kicks him out of the family, it seems so random. I’m a big believer in the need to foreshadow big plot twists. Face it, this is pretty big. Not only is he kicking a boy out, but it sends Kala away, which clearly disturbs him. I would have written into the stage directions that, during “Two Worlds,” Tarzan’s father attempts to spear a gorilla while Kerchak is watching. That way, when Kerchak sees the homemade spear, the audience would instantly sense his fears. It would feel integrated into the plot, unlike so many moments in the show. There wouldn’t even have to be any exposition worked into the dialogue; it would be in the visuals.
2. I remember the book trying to take the story a level deeper by creating a parallel between Kerchak and Kala’s relationship struggles and that of separated parents. It was a great idea, but I remember feeling like it never fully came together.
3. As mentioned above, Jane’s transformation happens way too quickly. Part of what works so well in the film is that Tarzan’s openness changes Jane. There is a change in each character as a result of knowing the other. Like I said before, here she blinks and is losing all her Victorian repressions.
4. The Ice Capades called and wants its spider back. Which is fine, because it’s not very threatening. But there’s actually a further problem beyond its appearance. On stage, directors can play with time and spacing. Dolly Levi can be eating in Harmonia Gardens, then stand up and address a judge in court. But in this case, none of it made sense; it was too severe of a leap. How did Jane look up and realize that she’s in the middle of a spider web, which was spun around her by a giant Day-Glo spider? If we were to stretch our imaginations, how did she fall into a web and not realize it had happened until she looked up from her notepad. Perhaps her sexual awakening distracted her, but I’m not buying it.
Here’s a case where it would be impossible to top the film, which has an exciting and hilarious baboon chase that is visually thrilling and emotionally involving.
However, there had to be something better than a large spider. Perhaps she is walking through thick foliage and finds herself falling over a cliff, a wire attached to Jenn Gambatese’s back, and, with strobe lights making for slow motion, Tarzan swings in and saves her. Perhaps Clayton is down below, and, hearing a scary sound, he shoots first and asks questions later, and right after Tarzan saves her, a non-purple bird falls from a very nearby branch to show how close she had been to death on several levels.
Maybe this isn’t the best idea, but there had to be something better than a large spider.
5. Clayton didn’t work as a Southerner. Kudos to the creative team for trying something different, but it didn’t work. The character in the film was very theatrical—just listen to that voice—but I also agree that it would have been a mistake to have re-created that in the Broadway show.
Perhaps they could have taken a page out of the Hercules handbook, and Clayton could have been a humorous, fast-talking, car salesman type with an edge. He’s could be a mercenary for a Most Dangerous Game-inspired nutcase who wants him to bring back to England some unusual prey for the hunt. Clayton first goes after Kerchak, then realizes that Tarzan would be the most challenging prey of all.
I honestly don’t remember the ending of the show—what led to the climax or how it all unfolded—but this would involve the apes, then his violence would become directed solely at Tarzan. Because of my lack of memory, I don’t know if this would solve the ending, but it would at least provide for a vivacious and more theatrical characterization.
A really daring move would have been to remove the villain altogether, and leave the story one about these two cultures coming together, perhaps a parable for inter-racial relationships.
6. Porter needed his personality back. Again, the character in the movie was distinctly animated. I doubt he could have been translated directly onto the stage, but the character needs a distinct personality and a distinctive character actor to play him. I’m unfamiliar with the man who originated the role on Broadway (I saw his understudy), but perhaps Robert Morse could have been brought in to make him into a joyous Santa Claus type character, boisterous and charming, delighted at everything he sees (like the in the film) but perhaps a little less child-like (because I think that would be hard to do on the stage).
7. What “Jungle Funk” was accomplishing was quite unclear. It came across as an inserted dance break and not an integral part of the story. I honestly don’t remember that part of the show well enough to make a strong recommendation, but I do know it needs to be more related to the events on stage.
8. Nothing kills a show like projecting a movie, which, when juxtaposed next to living, breathing actors, stops the show for all the wrong reasons. The song is supposed to illustrate Tarzan’s development from boy to animal-man, and there are enough specific ideas in the lyrics with which to work in staging humans. I would have recommended energetic vignettes that illustrate mini-conflicts that Tarzan rises above, with an actor or two taking on intermediate Tarzans between boy Tarzan and Josh Strickland.
9. “Trashin’ the Camp” opened the second act but, like “Jungle Funk,” seemed disconnected from everything, as if it was included because it had to be there rather than because it fit. Again, my remembrance of the show isn’t strong enough to recall what happened after, except that it seemed very disconnected.
10. Terk needs some great one-liners.
Obviously, a show is more than a list of ingredients, and a needy show is more than a list of fixes. As I’ve said, it’s been almost a year since I saw the show, so these are derived from fragments of my remembrances, though I’m sure if I had actually seriously attempted to doctor the show, a fresher experience would have yielded more thoughts.
It’s always a happy time when a show has a good run, even if it doesn’t break even, because it has employed great actors and other theatre folk, then leaves so another production can fill the theatre. Instead of taking malevolent delight in Disney’s first major failing, let’s learn from it for ourselves, then focus on the great things Disney has done and admire the honorable steps they took with Tarzan and all their shows.
June 25, 2007
Saturday, June 23, 2007
Friday, June 22, 2007
Yeah, I’ve got my fair share of those pesty little slips of paper saved in my Playbills to remember who I really saw in the role as opposed to who was originally listed. Sometimes it’s not a big deal. Like when you don’t know who Renee Elise Goldsberry is from Wilhema Van Butternose. Other times, it is a big deal—it’s someone you’ve seen before, read about, or has won a Tony—and you want to see that person in that role.
Truth be told, only a few times have I been sorely disappointed in seeing the understudies. At two different occasions, for example, I saw understudies for either of the Thenardiers, and they lacked either the vocal chops or the comedic skills to do justice to the roles; that was quite disappointing. But other times . . . You know, you can’t complain when you see Kenita R. Miller as Nettie or JoAnn M. Hunter as Lois Lane. And I still remember, quite vividly, how understudy Leslie Hendrix turned Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn into a comedic tour de force that made me howl in the Susan Stroman revival of The Music Man.
This understudy thing has become quite the issue of discussion. There are certain stars whom you hear repeatedly missing shows, either for known causes, such as illnesses, or for reasons up for gossip.
I love seeing Kaye Ballard discuss this shift in the times in Rick McKay’s Broadway: The Golden Age, saying that when she was in The Pirates of Penzance in 1982, “it was a joke! Every night it sounded like Nurse Ratched. ‘This one will be out, that one will be out, this one will be out. Someone’s breaking in a new pair of shoes; they’re not coming in tonight’ . . . I never saw anything like it.” In her sixteen months in Carnival!, she missed one performance when she had a temp of 104. Similarly, Carol Channing has been infamous for missing only one performance as Dolly Levi in her entire career, a result of food poisoning, but still going on to perform through cancer treatments, broken bones, and all sorts of illnesses. Ethel Merman was another star known for never missing performances.
While we should look back to see the examples set for us, it’s also important to note that there is a shift and that there are also several other factors going on.
First of all, times are different. The older generation in general valued work above all. I grew up in the generation of day care, latchkey kids, and two parents working. Quality family time was replaced with quality family purchases. It was the norm to put family first by putting work before family time.
I don’t think we can criticize people for choosing some things, like their children, over a performance. Twenty years from now, the applause will be history, but those children will live on, better people for having their parents there when they were needed. Those kids will fondly look back on vacation times taken with their parents and Thanksgiving dinners spent together, with an understudy going on for dad. I think, as a culture, we learned from the mistakes of our parents, and we’ve reacted to that. You hear about how people in general are working fewer hours and are sacrificing job for family in other professions—why not on Broadway? Who knows what mysterious reason people are out of shows—How do we know that there’s not a child going through rehab or a friend going through cancer who needs help?
And sometimes you hear of people taking time off to see a spouse’s concert or to take advantage of another opportunity. Ideally for their fans, their priorities would be the show, but . . . even Broadway stars are people. How can we criticize the value-based personal choices people make in such a situation? You shouldn’t have to sacrifice your marriage to be on Broadway. People did it in the good old days, but that doesn’t mean it was the right decision.
The requirements of roles have changed considerably as well. In the bonus features on the Rick McKay film, Ruthie Henshall jokes about the vocal ranges that stars are expected to have these days. Yes, stars back in the days didn’t have amplification, so they were still working hard, but I have a feeling that Sally Adams in Call Me Madam, for example, is half as vocally demanding as Brooklyn, Jekyll and Hyde, or Elphaba. You never heard Mary Martin mention almost passing out after singing “Do-Re-Mi” in The Sound of Music like Heather Headley talked about in Aida. The roles have changed, and the requirements to do those roles have changed as well.
This past winter, I, who never get sick, managed to catch every germ in circulation. I remember thinking, “What if I was on Broadway . . . Could I really get myself on stage to play even Corny Collins?” Once or twice, the answer would have been no.
But, a-ha, there’s also a flip side to all this. One of the big complaints of people interviewed in Broadway: The Golden Age and David Wienir and Jodie Langel’s book Making It on Broadway is the lack of Broadway star status on Broadway today. In the old days, people knew who Mary Martin, Janis Paige, John Raitt, and Alfred Drake were. Stunt casting consisted of Carol Channing as Ruth Sherwood in Wonderful Town, and a lesser name like Gretchen Wyler could be Lola once Gwen Verdon exited Damn Yankees.
The multiple-absence problem plays a hand in this. Actors become well-known when masses of people see them shining. It’s pretty hard for that to happen when you miss every other Saturday performance. Your producers can’t afford to have the audience too excited to see you in a show when, four months into the run, you’re gone for a week of vacation. When you acknowledge your own insignificance in the show by being gone often, then why should anyone else lift you up?
If you want to make a name for yourself, then you have to make choices. Even if you’re an un-famous Belle in Beauty and the Beast, that’s a chance to make a name for yourself. And though 98% of the audience will leave the theatre not knowing you, even if a few theatre people and those little girls waiting at the stage door walk out with your name permanently imprinted on their minds, you’re a step closer to being a star. I don’t know who was supposed to be Mayor Shinn’s wife in The Music Man that night, but I walked out knowing the great talent that is Leslie Hendrix. Honestly, if the sitcom I wrote had been produced, Leslie Hendrix would have been on my mind.
Being in show business is like being in any other business—you have to be scrappy and you can’t be successful unless you are going after every last dime. McDonald’s, for example, advertises its coffee. Coffee! The same thing you can buy anywhere for cheap, and McDonald’s spends millions to remind people that they have it. Eddie Bauer trains its employees to ask customers if they want socks or belts when they check out. Success comes in not missing a single opportunity, and on Broadway, one of the biggest opportunities is gaining fans.
I would have been sorely disappointed if I had gone to Tarzan and Merle Dandridge had been out. This is a business where you can’t afford to disappoint fans. It’s not movies where people can watch you do your thing a million times; you may have only a few chances to win that fan. If they come to see you in your show and you are gone, there’s a good chance they won’t have the money or chance to see you again. The bond will be broken.
Every missed performance is a missed opportunity, and a Broadway performer needs to weigh what’s important. If we don’t have more Broadway stars, that is partially because we don’t have enough people demanding that they be. I can’t imagine Gwen Verdon being in a show that lasts two months and having given her understudy a chance to steal that spotlight.
And really, maybe we should thank God we don’t have as many of those stars. I must admit that there are some shows where, if the audience were there for names, there’d be big refund lines every night.
Again, if people don’t see you, they’re not going to remember you. If you don’t value your own star presence, nobody else will acknowledge it either.
I still wish I had seen Beth Leavel. And I’m awful glad I got to see Marin Mazzie before she went on vacation. And how thankful I am that the night I saw Wicked Stephanie J. Block didn’t have the flu.
Still, I don’t know if we can ever judge people for the career choices they make. Why should making it to three performances in a Broadway show be any more important than being there for your children or supporting your spouse? How can I say whether someone’s flu or ankle pain or headache isn’t a good enough excuse? For me, what it comes down to is that Broadway stars are people, and their personal needs are no more or less important than mine.
June 22, 2007
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
And, indeed, I am completely in awe of stage people. If I could have a chance encounter with Sherie Rene Scott or Norm Lewis, I would prefer it a million times more than a chance encounter with the likes of Tom Hanks or Julia Stiles. Though I certainly have enjoyed their movies, they don’t make me excited like stage people. Give me Amy Spanger anytime!
I’m so bad that when I go to shows on tour, I try to get my theatre-going friends to eat out after the show at one of the restaurants touring actors are known to frequent when in my city. Unless there was a chance encounter, I’d never work up the guts to approach one of them, but I can’t help being in awe.
And no, I’m not a stalker. Remember, I was a teacher, so I’ve passed every background check imaginable.
I know the stage life isn’t nearly as glamorous as the movies would suggest it is—read Making it on Broadway if you want it to happen to you too. But I’m still every bit as envious of their talent and ability as I’ve ever been. The moment Marin Mazzie entered the stage in Kiss Me, Kate, it was love at first sight. Can anyone be more beautiful than Marin Mazzie? Can anyone be more talented than Marin Mazzie? Okay, so she ties with Rebecca Luker, Lea Salonga, Audra McDonald, Emily Skinner, Sutton Foster, Rachel York, Carolee Carmello, Heather Headley, and a bunch of others, but you can’t blame me for falling for her. She’s not only beautiful, but she’s talented. She’s a Broadway star.
I’ve often said it. If I was rich and it was the 1920s, I’d be one of those guys with flowers and an engagement ring outside the New Amsterdam Theatre, waiting to ask the most talented Follies girl to marry me.
My stage door Johnny pictures have actually been very important to me. I don’t think I could even fully put into words how much I have cherished my photos with all these wonderful people, even though I always end up embarrassing myself by burbling on and on and sounding extra stupid. I don’t get nervous at job interviews. I don’t get nervous speaking in front of groups. As a teacher, I never even got nervous on the first day of school. But boy do I get nervous around a talented stage person.
More importantly, I have formed an unspoken bond with the people I’ve met. Having met them in person, I feel like I owe it to them to support their work. That’s why I bought Adam Pascal’s first album (which is awesome), for example. That’s why I would make a point of seeing Michael Berresse—who was so incredibly nice beyond belief times fifty outside Kiss Me, Kate—in A Chorus Line if I make it to NYC while he’s still in the show. I keep my eye open for what Coleen Sexton is in, cheering her however I can when she gets another role. I perk my eyes up when I read that Mary Testa has been cast in something new.
I can’t wait until one day, when I have my own shows on the boards, I’ll remember some of the folks who were so kind to me as I stood in awe beside their talent. They had just done marathon dancing and singing on stage, sometimes twice in one day, but they didn’t exit through a secret door to escape notice, though they were tired. When they are cast in one of my shows, I’ll happily show them a picture of me with them, and they’ll see how excited I was to even be near them. And hopefully they’ll be happy they took the time.
June 19, 2007
Thursday, June 14, 2007
I, on the other end, almost lost it during The Wedding Singer. I’m not kidding. I had flown in on a moment’s notice to interview for a job. One day, I was sitting at home hoping for the next phase of my life to jump start, and two days later, I’m sitting in seat D115 in the Al Hirschfeld Theatre watching my first Broadway show on Broadway since my second visit to The Music Man in 2001.
I’m not even a crier. Honestly. But to be sitting there watching an awesome number like “It’s Your Wedding Day” in person on Broadway after watching it over and over from the Tony Awards, I was overcome with emotion. Even though I had seen every show that was even decent on tour, I told myself, “No matter what happens, I have to make it back here again soon. It’s been too long.”
I had a great time seeing lots of fun shows on that trip, The Wedding Singer, Tarzan, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The Drowsy Chaperone, Hairspray (which I had seen once on tour), and The Color Purple.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at every single one of those shows except one. However, when all was said and done, I realized that as strong as these shows were, the only one that could really hold a candle to the great shows of the past was Hairspray. Don’t get me wrong; I really enjoyed myself at all of these shows except one. I laughed heartily at Spelling Bee and felt so bad for Celia Keenan-Bolger’s poor Olive Olstrovsky. I cheered at the turn of events in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I was glued to Sutton Foster in The Drowsy Chaperone, and so on.
On my life game of Broadway Star Bingo, I finally got to check off a number of amazing performances from people I had always wanted to see or to see again—Jose Llana, Amy Spanger, Merle Dandridge, Schuler Hensley, Sutton Foster, LaChanze, to name just a very few.
At the same time, I wouldn’t say that as a whole, the shows I saw were as good as shows from previous trips which consisted equally of revivals and new works. I don’t want to join in on the chorus of people proclaiming the death of Broadway or lamenting how it’s not like in “the good old days.” Like I said, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at almost all of those shows, and I think that is all that we can ask of a Broadway musical, to be entertained thoroughly. The rest is, as Sherie Rene Scott said, too wonderful to be true.
I don’t find this disheartening, however. I really don’t. I do think it is important to acknowledge that I didn’t see anything as hilarious and poignant as Kiss Me, Kate or as enrapturing as The Music Man or as moving as Les Miserables, but I don’t find it disheartening.
Again, I saw performances as great as any on the Broadway stage ever—look at the original casts and replacement casts in that list. As far as I’m concerned, Sutton Foster is the next Marilyn Miller but with more talent, Felicia P. Fields as sweet as Gwen Verdon, and Stephen Flaherty as charming as Robert Morse. I couldn’t have paid big bucks to see better talents.
Something we all need to remember is that rarely did the great writing talents of the previous Golden Age hit a homerun their first times at bat. For example, we are all looking forward to the revival of Guys and Dolls, but I’ve never even heard of a contemporary production of Frank Loesser’s Where’s Charley. We all love Oklahoma!, but how many of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s older shows do we see today? Other than Show Boat and Pal Joey, not many. Stephen Sondheim had Anyone Can Whistle before Company. For Kander and Ebb there was Flora, the Red Menace. Cole Porter had written a number of duds, and he was written off until Kiss Me, Kate. If I were to take a look on ibdb.com, I’m sure I could find similar early flops (or even popular hits that by modern standards aren’t very good) for librettists.
We live in a time when artists get very little chance to develop their craft before their works hit the big time. When I went through a mini-Tennessee Williams kick this past spring, I was surprised to learn that he had actually written an early shorter play that became A Streetcar Named Desire. He had had many opportunities to write and have his work seen before The Glass Menagerie, his first big hit. Composers and lyricists might have had songs here and there in revues, where they could earn money to support themselves as they developed their crafts. As a result, these people learned by doing and failing.
Today, it’s harder to break in. People have to learn by doing in college or in programs like BMI instead of in front of authentic audiences. They have to work tirelessly to get their music into anyone’s hands then pray fervently that someone will pop the CD in and actually listen. All the while, living costs in New York City have skyrocketed, and they must balance living with developing their craft. Very few people write their first produced songs in the early 20s anymore. To be produced at 22, for example, allows you a lot of time learning from your audience and learning from a creative team. These days, people are getting produced when?—often their 30s and 40s.
It is my belief that we are on the cusp of a second Golden Age. When the time comes, I doubt anyone will acknowledge it because to some, nothing will ever be as grand as the past, but our time today shares a number of key similarities with Broadway prior to the Golden Age.
We have many young talents cutting their teeth on their first shows. Listen to the scores of The Wedding Singer and The Color Purple—there’s real talent there! Look at the ingenuity of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee—that’s hilarious and so fresh. Admire the boldness of Tarzan’s concept and visuals. How clever was the conceit of The Drowsy Chaperone. If Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison can write the score to The Drowsy Chaperone now, think of how great their fifth Broadway show will be. If Winnie Holzman—new to Broadway if not to writing—can produce Wicked her first time around, how great will her fifth show be? That’s real promise.
Right now, everything is in place for not only thoroughly enjoyable shows, but shows that are practically perfect in every sense—like Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, The Pajama Game, Wonderful Town. They may be dramatic like The Color Purple, they may be rock like Spring Awakening, or they may be full of spectacle like The Pirate Queen, but if we can get these people venues for writing, support them in their success and in their learning experiences (also known as failures), Broadway won’t just post record revenue but record attendance as well.
June 14, 2007
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
After subduing the nation of Nubia, Radames brings back the Princess Aida (Heather Headley), with whom he promptly falls in love. The three of them proceed to scream their heads off for two acts—lamenting cruel fate, etc., etc.
Perhaps Al Hirschfeld, who was alive to see so much of American theatre in the past century, said it best in the great PBS documentary Broadway: The American Musical when he observed that the “form changes, and that’s difficult for a lot of people to accept. They’re stuck on one period, and they think that’s the period that’s important . . . It changes, and you have to roll with the punches, I think.”
What led to Broadway’s need for life support, as Elaine Stritch called it in the Rick McKay film Broadway: The Golden Age, was not because America fell out of step with the Broadway musical. Instead, as Frank Rich states in the PBS documentary, “Broadway was basically trying to ignore the 60s . . . [and the] Broadway musical [fell] out of sync with pop culture.”
Yes, we need to remind ourselves, Broadway used to be part of pop culture. Broadway albums would be purchased by people all over the country and hit high on the sales charts, much like if the Grey Gardens CD was right up there with Rihanna’s latest success in today’s terms.
Not only was it popular, but some songs were often written to be pop hits. For example, “Hey, There” was intended to be heard outside of The Pajama Game. Its lyrics were made specific to the character but general enough to reach a wide audience to promote the show, and it was skillfully reprised in the second act to reinforce its sell-ability. “If I Ever I Would Leave You” was played on the radio.
Broadway was also talked about and written about. Shows and their stars made the covers of major magazines. It was not uncommon to see performances on variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show. And even a mildly successful show, like The Unsinkable Molly Brown or Silk Stockings, made it to Hollywood.
So what’s wrong with Broadway catching up with the times?
Let me state that I agree that there is room for all sorts of different musicals—musical comedies, musical plays, pop operas, rock musicals, deconstructed musicals, linear musicals, and whatever else may arrive on the scene. Of my first three shows I’d like to see on a Broadway stage, none of them are pop or rock or anything threatening like that. But I don’t know why Broadway critics act as if shows like The Pirate Queen can’t coincide with shows like The Drowsy Chaperone. That really annoys me.
Part of the problem is that the average theatre-goer and critic is out of touch with the times. If you grew up with A Chorus Line being the ideal musical and that musical style defining what Broadway music should be, then how can you possibly connect with other styles of music that are currently on the scene or will come on the scene in years to come?
For example, if I listen to rap music, I can probably identify 1/19 of the words; however, if I bought several rap CDs, before long I’d be in the 18/19 range. My lack of understanding or appreciation of rap music doesn’t negate its nuances any more than a rap artist’s lack of understanding or appreciation of a Broadway ballad from the 1950s doesn’t negate its nuances. It’s more to do with the listener than the artist.
In his thought-provoking book The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen, Ethan Mordden laments the popification of Broadway with shows like Jekyll and Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Hairspray (see: Note), arguing that pop music cannot be character specific. Perhaps it’s just that some critics don’t have an ear for the sound.
Several years ago, I heard a rock band at a free concert, and I immediately fell in love with their music. I have since expanded my listening to a variety of other bands, and what was once noise to me is now music. There are rock songs of all sorts and of all emotions. Rock didn’t all of a sudden become high quality—I just caught up with that boat. Now I could appreciate a rock show much more than I could have ten years ago.
Broadway is essentially a pop art, so why it doesn’t welcome pop music forms strikes me as a discordant note. If a show like Spring Awakening could get a song on the radio—either performed by one of its stars or covered by a hot act—it wouldn’t have needed eight Tonys to stay afloat. Even a show like The Wedding Singer, if the song were made into a contemporary pop song with some more generalized lyric alterations, could get “Right in Front of Your Eyes” or “If I Told You” on the radio. Not only would the show probably still be running, but it would attract a wider audience to Broadway shows in general and to tours. Get them once, and you’ll hook them for life.
That is not to say pop forms of music shouldn’t be held to the same standards. Yes, it should be character specific. Yes, the lyrics should have exact rhymes and be poetic. Yes, it should service story, character, and plot.
When Brooklyn came on tour, I took my godson to see it. Even though it was not a great show in terms of plot, he loved it. He’s a very intelligent young man; it’s just that the music spoke to him. It sounded something like the stuff on his iPod. To David Barbour, Diana DeGarmo might have been screaming, but to my godson and to me, it was awesome, power belting much like contemporary music stars do. It’s different than Rebecca Luker stepping out and hitting high notes at the end of “My White Knight,” but that doesn’t mean it’s not as good. It’s just different.
Jekyll and Hyde is one of the few shows in the past decade with original scores that have found life beyond its stage origins. Perhaps the lyrics aren’t Cole Porter, but it seems like most people criticize the show’s music for its pop aspirations. Well, shame on Frank Wildhorn for trying to reach a contemporary audience. How dare he! Memo to me: Put an end to that ASAP.
Let’s get on to more important shows like The Drowsy Chaperone, with its admittedly well-deserved Tony for Best Score. I can’t wait until I see kids singing “Fancy Dress” at their school’s variety show.
A lot of people like power belting. That’s what made Kelly Clarkson a favorite, put Whitney Houston on the map, and allowed Celine Dion to sell album after album after album until she was a gazillionaire. Perhaps Michael John LaChiusa (from his Opera News article) doesn’t care for power belting, but listen to an audience cheer after an actress “hollers an incomprehensible” rendition of “Defying Gravity” at the end of Act I in Wicked. That speaks for itself.
Broadway musicals are in such a vulnerable position. A film or television show can survive disastrous reviews. If movies survived like Broadway shows, National Treasure would have been a huge disaster. But sadly, the costs of attending shows on Broadway or on tour are such that audiences have to observe the reviews. The average theatre-goer isn’t attuned to any potential bias against non-Sondheim types of music, so when they read that a show like The Scarlet Pimpernel or Jane Eyre or Side Show is bad, they don’t risk their hard-earned money to see it.
Aida survived because it was Elton John and Disney. I love Aida. For the record, between Broadway and the tour, I saw it three times, and when I took a group of students and teachers to go, they all loved every minute of it. Watch an average person talk about their fondness for Les Miserables. Ask some theatre kids in Chugwater, Texas, and they’ll sing to you five or six songs from Wicked. Too bad none of them know how incomprehensible it is.
According to Steven Suskin in his awesome book Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000, six out of ten of the major critics panned Aida. Suskin himself states that “[n]othing in Aida was quite enough to impel you toward the Palace—Amneris’s or the Nederlanders’.” Perhaps if there had been something to impel you toward the Palace—obviously the Tony-award winning score, Henry David Hwang’s revised book, Heather Headley, Adam Pascal, Sherie Rene Scott, Matt Bogart, Simone, Will Chase, Merle Dandridge for one performance, Idina Menzel, Mandy Gonzalez, Maya Days, Wayne Cilento’s choreography, Bob Crowley’s sets and costumes, and Natasha Katz’s lighting simply weren’t enough—it might actually have run, right?
June 12, 2007
Note: For the record, I vote that a show containing pop music over forty years old should officially be labeled pastiche because nothing like “You Can’t Stop the Beat” has been popular since Johnny Angel got Peggy Sue pregnant after prom. I know Mordden would probably call me stupid for saying this (or perhaps a purveyor of stupid shows), but I don’t see how much different this is from the music of Thoroughly Modern Millie, a show he generally enjoyed, which utilizes pop music from 77+ years ago.
Saturday, June 9, 2007
The Good News
Sorry for the cliché, but it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. How else would the TV show Life on a Stick have ever made it on television?
There are people born knowing people. If your dad was Jay Leno’s garbage man, and you want to make it in Hollywood, you have a much better chance of making it than the writer with the next I Love Lucy up his sleeve and no connections.
I don’t know where I fall into the big picture of talent—I know I have lots, perhaps less than some, more than others. But what I don’t have is connections. And I hate networking! I picked the wrong business to get into for someone who hates networking. I can’t bring myself to impose on another person or to use another person to get my work noticed.
Thank God, however, that even non-networkers get their breaks! I may be getting mine soon.
I really wanted to focus this blog on my thoughts concerning ideas in theatre—and that still is the focus—but I figured that if I didn’t blog about exciting things potentially happening in my career, then what good is a blog anyway?
So let me set the scene. Bear with me. I think it’ll be worth it in the end. I think.
It is a grocery store. Broadway Mouth’s Sister enters the stage, pushing a cart with an adorable niece who is, literally, the cutest little girl ever, both in physical attributes and outgoing personality and endearing personality traits.
Sister, looking about at the merchandise along the cash registers, makes her way to a checkout lane where a Woman is cashiering.
Woman: Oh my gosh, she is the cutest little girl ever!
Sister: Aw shucks. I get that a lot.
Woman: Honey, if you make babies that cute, it’s your American duty to have a few more.
Sister: Um, this one was 11.6 pounds, and the drugs wore off after ten minutes of pushing. Sorry but my body signed a petition . . .
It is now over a year later. Broadway Mouth’s Sister’s friends—Deanna, Jen, and Woman—are seated around a table, snacking and chatting while Niece wanders about the house chattering in toddler gibberish and being really cute in every way possible. It is June 7, 2007.
Sister: And you guys should have seen the Easter basket Woman gave my daughter! It was huge and filled with the coolest things.
Deanna: (in awe) Wow . . .
Woman: Well, she’s just such a sweetheart. And I always wanted to have more kids of my own, but it wasn’t possible. By the way, forgive the lack of transition, but someone I know someone involved in a show that’s up for a Tony this Sunday.
Sister: You’re kidding.
Woman: Yeah, she’s a producer on _______________. She’s almost like a daughter to me.
Sister: No way! My brother is the most talented writer I’ve ever met in my life!!!! Of the three I’ve known, he’s the best hands down. And he writes un-produced musicals that are waiting to earn billions! I’ve never seen a Broadway show, but trust me, I know!
Deanna: (in awe) Wow . . .
Woman: I’m going to be seeing her in October when I fly out for a wedding. If he wants me to, I’d bring her a copy of his work.
Jen: Um, by the way, did I mention I play the banjo in five different languages?
Let’s pause for a moment of reflection. The word producer means any number of things these days—from creative participant to someone with money to gamble. It is my hunch, based on billing, that it is possible that this is one of those people with money to gamble. BUT that’s pretty darn good in my world. Whatever the case, if this producer isn’t a creative producer herself, certainly she knows SOMEONE who initiates projects. My two libretti could get be on a pile for three months, but something is better than nothing. Getting your work seen by someone other than your college buddies is better than nothing. If it never goes further, that’s fine. But to at least get your work read is an amazing opportunity.
The Other News
If you’ve read my “About Me” write-up to your right, you’ll notice how I talk about interviewing for two jobs, one of which I was on the road to being offered but passed on, the other which I wasn’t offered but wanted.
Well . . . one of my nanny agencies called, and the first family is looking again. This is such a bummer because I really, really want to move to New York City or Los Angeles to be closer to something creative, and I simply must have a high-paying job to do it.
The problem is that this job sounds horrible. I can’t say too much because of signed disclosures and stuff, but it’s a very wealthy family with incredible nanny turnaround for some pretty obvious reasons. Think of every Ovitz-inspired cliché you can think of, and you’ll see why I don’t want it . . . but I also don’t want to be sitting here for another year waiting. Mannies are somewhat in demand, but because I don’t live in NYC, I get passed up for consideration a lot even though the agencies tell me I have a great resume.
The other twist is that if I were to actually take this job (which I’m not really planning on at this moment), I don’t even know if I would have enough time to fix up my libretti for October, the job is that time-consuming.
So . . . excitement and upsetment (yes, I made that word up) all in less than twenty-four hours.
On Thursday, I walked out of the library (before getting the call from my sister about the above events), and I saw a brilliant double-rainbow arching over the eastern sky. You see, I was on the verge of being offered a long-term job locally that I really didn’t want and was in distress about making the right decision (a lot like I am right now). I can’t remember the last time I saw a rainbow or took the time to really see one, but as I looked at it from one end to the other, the lyrics of a song came to mind.
I end with the lyrics to the song “The Last Day” by Sandi Patty that has greatly inspired me during this crazy journey.
If today were the last of all days
Would it change how you feel,
Who you are
Would you rise for a moment above all your fears
Become one with the moon and the stars
Would you like what you see looking down
Did you give everything that you could
Have you done all the things that you wanted to do
Is there still so much more that you would
Follow your dreams to the end of the rainbow
Way beyond one pot of gold
Open your eyes to the colors around you
And find the true beauty life holds
Would you live in the moment like when you were young
When time didn’t travel so fast
Being free in the present enjoying the now
Not tied to a future or a past
Follow your dreams to the end of the rainbow
Way beyond one pot of gold
Open your eyes to the colors around you
And find the true beauty life holds
You’d probably say all you wanted to say
But doesn’t it strike you as strange
That we’d only begin to start living our lives
If today were the last of all days
If today were the last of all days
June 9, 2007
Thursday, June 7, 2007
Now on with the show . . .
The Tony Awards present a real problem for me, namely in that I don’t have cable, and my CBS reception is really crappy. I always end up pawning myself off on someone who will let me watch and record the awards. Right now, I still don’t have anyplace lined up to go . . . Gulp!
Like a lot of people, I like to record the show because I love watching those performances over and over and over and over and a hundred times more. As a teacher, I used them a lot in teaching theater, but I really record them for myself.
Since everyone rants about the Tony Awards after the fact, I think I’ll do my ranting (soul-searching reflection, really) now.
In short, Broadway is home to some of the most incredibly talented people in the entire universe—Susan Stroman, Bob Crowley, Kathleen Marshall, Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, Stephanie J. Block, Jerry Mitchell, Jason Robert Brown, Stephen Schwartz, Robin Wagner, Sam Mendes, Tina Landau, and a ton of other people. Yet somehow, the Tony Awards always seem like an afterthought, like someone was so busy doing their taxes, they forgot to leave time for those annoying old Tonys. You know, it’s sad when the MTV Movie Awards are more creatively produced than Broadway’s biggest night.
For example, when Hal Prince was given his lifetime achievement award, the best thing people could come up with was a funky tableau representing his significant work?
Sometimes we get a smashing opening number, such as Hugh Jackman and everyone on Broadway singing “One Night Only,” and other times just a solo song.
Sometimes we get a host and sometimes not.
Considering all the potential, the Tony Awards should be a little more creative. If I was producing, I would gather together a committee of the most amazingly talented people working in the theatre and let them have at it. Let them know to be uber-creative, that nothing is too outlandish.
If I was part of that committee, here are some things I would propose.
1. For the latest trend, the unavoidable pop music performance, I’d make the pairing one of an audience-grabbing pop music star with a true Broadway star—Kelly Clarkson singing “Written in the Stars” with Adam Pascal, Katherine McPhee singing “Foor Good” with Eden Espinosa, or Michael Bublé and Donna Murphy singing “Better Than a Dream.” That would allow the world-wide big-name talent to bring in viewers and the phenomenal Broadway talent to keep focused on Broadway.
2. Get a host. Talent should trump name. Yes, it would be nice if some hilarious television personality would do it, but if they’re going to just have a gaggle of “All-Star Presenters,” it would be better to pass it on to someone who can keep it lively and full of spark and spunk—Leslie Kritzer, Stephen Lynch, Douglas Sills, or someone else. Then instruct that person to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Wink wink jokes about gay dancers or Jewish producers or puppets ogling Hugh Jackman’s butt only serve to create an exclusive atmosphere and unwelcoming to anyone watching who isn’t “in the know” or part of that world. Why join the party if you’re never going to be able to take part?
3. If you advertise that people should watch the Tonys for performances from “Broadway’s Brightest,” then give them performances (and don’t be bullied out of it). Allow every nominated musical to do their thing, then provide a way for other current shows to perform, at least in a medley combining them all or something. It was great in the Rosie/PBS days when you got to see a significant representation from many of the shows on the boards because of the PBS education segments.
4. Bring back the PBS portion and their educational segments. Gosh, I loved those.
5. Make it bold, different, and classy in every way. When Carol Channing presented with L.L. Cool J, that was different and fun. Seeing Elaine Stritch praise librettists from the heart was engaging. Watching Jane TV Star (or even Jane Broadway Star) flatly reading something flat off a teleprompter is not too exciting.
6. Require Broadway show producers to provide interesting scenes from their shows. Watching an incomprehensible, LSD-inspired medley from Into the Woods, for example, is not interesting. Seeing a stand-alone scene from Thoroughly Modern Mille is.
We do need to acknowledge that the Tony Awards are in a difficult position. You have an event that is very narrow in its appeal. It’s the only televised award show where the majority of Americans have no clue about the nominees. CBS wants to carry the show because it appeals to higher class viewers, but I’m sure they are conscious of the ratings as well.
It’s also important that the show remains available for all the country to see because it educates people. I have been greatly influenced by what I’ve seen. Like a great many people, not only have I gone to shows because of what I’ve seen, but I’ve supported shows and artists based solely on what I’ve been introduced to. A few examples:
Impressed by the performance from Side Show, I bought the CD. Because I loved the CD, I bought the libretto from Samuel French. If I would have had an African-American male in my theatre program, I would have directed the show when I taught. Even then, I attended a local production of the show with a friend, and I bought one of Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley’s CDs. Because of all this, I was ecstatic to see Emily Skinner in the tour of On the Record. Even though she wasn’t on the CD, I bought the On the Record CD. I also fell in love with Norm Lewis’s voice and would love to someday write a role for him (and I just plain old fell in love with Emily Skinner). Additionally, I showed this scene to several of my classes of students as an example of the standard of Broadway performers (and they were impressed). And all this came about because of a Tony Awards performance.
I fell in love with Parade because of its performance. I made sure to see the show on tour, made a point of meeting Jason Robert Brown after the show, and bought the CD. Because I am in love with the show, I keep an eye open for whatever Jason Robert Brown is doing and plan on buying The Last 5 Years hopefully soon. I also bought the American Theatre issue that published the libretto, then bought Wiley Hausam’s collection The New American Musical to get a more permanent copy. I’ve also used the clip numerous times in teaching about plays in my classes. Lastly, I bought a copy of the CD as a gift for an actress friend of mine. Now she loves the show and has talked about using one of the songs as an audition song.
Honestly, I could go on about any number of shows and people I’ve come to know and financially support because of the Tonys—among them Sutton Foster; Follies; Bells are Ringing; Hunter Foster; Kiss Me, Kate; Ragtime and its stars; and the list goes on. While people as fanatic as I are in the minority, the Tony Awards is the only chance for Broadway theatre and our theatre folk to get a prime-time nationwide audience. A small nationwide audience is better than no nationwide audience.
The televised Tony Awards are very important to the theatre community. In reality, there are probably a half-dozen things that could be done to ensure a more interesting presentation, something that will inject the show with spunk. My specific solutions may not be the solutions, but we can’t risk losing the chance for these to be televised.
I just don’t get why the awards show representing such an exciting craft needs to be so standard.
Broadway MouthJune 7, 2007
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
I’ll always be indebted to Alanis Morissette for saving the show that one week because it allowed the producers to keep the show open long enough for me to see it. I was finishing up my second year of teaching then, and the last day of school was the Friday after the Tony Awards. Jane Eyre announced its closing date the next day, and I realized that I needed to move my NYC travel plans ASAP. On Saturday morning, I was flying out to NYC. I saw Bells are Ringing before it closed on Saturday night, and I saved the Sunday matinee time slot to see the final performance of Jane Eyre.
At Jane Eyre I was sitting next to a woman who had seen the show seventeen times, if I recall correctly, and she was crying through the whole thing. It was an amazing show. I wanted to do the Stage Door Johnny thing (I’ve since stopped, though it’s been a temptation many a time), so I ran out of the theatre once the lights went up to line up at the stage door. I got there right away, and as a mob of people encircled the door, I was right in front.
Shortly after the mob formed, a woman with two kids pushed her way to the front of the group and planted herself right in front of me. Oh was I mad. But at that time I was a little less assertive than I’ve learned to become in the years since, so I didn’t say anything to stand up for myself.
Across from me there was a couple, perhaps in their early thirties, maybe younger. She was dowdy, her straight brown hair pushed out of her eyes, no make-up to cover up her blemished skin. He was just a dopey-looking guy, hair parted down the middle. Both were wearing solid-colored t-shirts and shorts. They had a stack of Jane Eyre Playbills they were waiting to get signed.
The dowdy woman was clearly annoyed on my behalf. With contempt she stared at the mother and said something to the effect of, “That’s rude.”
“Would you mind your own business,” the mother said dismissively, looking away.
“Thank you,” I mouthed to my dowdy benefactress.
“He was here first, and you just cut in front of him,” she continued.
“You know what, I’m here and I’m not leaving, so you should just be quiet.” She had a curt tone, with that New Yawk accent that gave her the perfect amount of “You talkin’ to me” attitude.
It went from being a little tiff to becoming noticeable to people standing behind us in the mob.
“We’ve all been waiting in line, and you just cut in line in front of everyone, and that’s not fair. You should wait in line at that back. You’re rude.” Pause. “And you’re ugly.”
Now them’s fightin’ words, and Mamma Hen pulled out the big guns.
Loudly she said, being sure to cast her eyes over the crowd of patiently waiting fans, “I don’t know what your problem is. I’m just here with my son and his friend who are in Les Miz waiting for their friend who’s in this show to come down with a poster she was having signed for them.”
After a few moments of silence, her little Gavroche stepped out and said—and yes, tears were in his eyes—“My mom is not ugly!”
By the way, for the record, he was right.
Anyway, the moment she mentioned Les Miz, you could feel the crowd shifting from general discomfort to awe that two Broadway actors were in our midst. One tween-aged girl ventured through her awe to talk to the boys, and Stage Mamma Hen even stepped in to offer her a backstage tour.
The point of all this was (kinda) that the dowdy couple had arrived at the Brooks-Atkinson after having left early from Bells are Ringing, which explains how they had gotten to the front of the mob even before I did. When I heard that they had been to see the show, I said something like, “Oh, I loved it! What did you think?”
“Well . . .,” my dowdy benefactress said with some hesitation, “she wasn’t Judy Holliday.”
I remember hearing that before I went to the show and after, such as in Ken Mendelbaum’s review of the CD.
Lately I’ve read about how Laura Bell Bundy isn’t Reese Witherspoon.
Let me tell you how much I hate that. And it is precisely the Bells are Ringing notices that got me started. I do need to let you know that I adored every second of Bells are Ringing, and the CD is actually probably one of my most-listened to Broadway albums.
Now, it’s entirely possible that when Faith Prince began the run perhaps she wasn’t communicating the charm that is so critical to the success of the show, but that’s also part of the magic of the theatre—that doing a part for weeks or months allows the performer to grow in the character. By the time I saw the show, Faith Prince was every bit as adorable and charming as Ella Peterson must be. I had fallen head-over-heels in love with Ella by the third scene.
I’ve since seen the movie, and Judy Holliday is wonderful and charming and all that jazz, but she doesn’t have the trademark on cute. In fact, I would venture to say that what I’ve heard of the Original Broadway Cast recording with Holliday, she seems lacking in that charm on that recording.
Judy Holliday is dead. There’s not going to be any more chances for Judy Holliday’s name to shine up in lights. She’s dead. Gone. So long, dearie, and heaven hopping.
And Marlon Brando is gone. And Kim Stanley. And Gwen Verdon. And Ethel Waters. And a whole heck of a lot of other talented people. But the scripts lives on. The music lives on. Yes, Ella Peterson was written for Judy Holliday, but . . . Juliet Capulet was written for a teenage boy. And yet talented people are still committing suicide on stages all over the world.
So, if we ever want to see this gem of a show again, it’s going to have to be starring someone other than Judy Holliday. I know that sounds obvious, but there were those who didn’t realize that in 2001.
Faith Prince will never be Judy Holliday. I’ll repeat that. Faith Prince will never be Judy Holliday. So what? Judy Holliday could never be Faith Prince. Bernadette Peters will never be Ethel Merman. Ethel Merman could never be Bernadette Peters. I will never be Oscar Hammerstein. Oscar Hammerstein could never be me.
If that is to be our fate—that our creativity and success is measured by those we are not—then I think we’d all best roll over and die.
I agree that it is entirely appropriate to say, for example, “Actress Jane Smith is lacking the sweetness to creating an entirely sympathetic Sally Jones,” but to say, “Well, she’s not as good as Wilhema Van Butternose” is futile.
And a work that is good—and Bells are Ringing is excellent—will survive for a very long time. Yes, the right person needs to be cast, but if you want Judy Holliday and only Judy Holliday, you’re going to miss out on so much. Sadly, when it came to Bells are Ringing, many people did.
So Charlotte d’Amboise isn’t Donna McKechnie. Donna McKechnie hasn’t cornered the market on extreme talent. I have a feeling that there a hundred people out there who could be a smashing Cassie. Charlotte d’Amboise is one of them. Good for her. I’m happy a true Broadway talent got the part.
Please note: If you were a potentially dowdy person who got in an altercation while waiting in line for autographs at the final performance of Jane Eyre, please understand that I was not talking about the dowdy person you are thinking or even the same final performance of Jane Eyre. If you refuse to believe that, then please understand for those other dowdy people who I was really writing about, I didn’t mean to offend or hurt them in any way by writing this. I just felt it added to the character development. In fact, I still am very thankful that they said something when I wouldn’t stand up for myself.
June 5, 2007