Saturday, June 2, 2007

Hello and Faux

Unwittingly, I once told an entire class of my high school students that we were going to play an improv game called Pass the Clap. I kid you not. Pass the Clap. I was so naïve. Immediately, the kids started snickering.

“What? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Nothing,” said several of the kids, looking around at each other, “Go on.”

“So,” I continued undaunted, “the object is that you want to pass the clap to other people in the circle until everyone in the circle has gotten it.” That’s not really one of the rules of this particular game—the include everybody part—but I added that in because, well, I didn’t want anyone accidentally left out. Yes, I wanted everyone to get the clap.

After class, one of my brave students educated me in the ways of venereal diseases. I hadn’t learned that much about the ways of life since 7th grade health class!

By the way, the next hour, the game was promptly renamed Pass the Applause.

Like the entendres of improve games (and Shakespeare’s plays, come to think of it), I guess I’m a little naïve about this blog thing as well. God knows I know how to write and that I love talking and sharing thoughts on Broadway and theatre in general, so I’m hoping that’s interesting enough for other people to want to read. I’m actually nervous about posting this first entry.

As an aspiring librettist (make that aspiring-to-be-produced librettist), I am often thinking about Broadway. Even though I don’t live in NYC (though not for lack of trying!), I read quite a bit about Broadway shows and current thoughts/trends, all of which goes into the food processor of my mind and, hopefully, comes out into some good material.

So my goal is to make this blog an interesting exchange of ideas. Since there’s really not an opportunity to exchange ideas with my (potential) readers, I’ll consider this an exchange with works I read/have read and ideas expressed about Broadway/theatre elsewhere on the Net. If there’s a place on the blog to share your thoughts (again, I told you this was all new to me), please do! Sincerely, I really want to learn and grow. Hearing the thoughts of people smarter than I is key in that!

On Friday I finally bought a CD I’d wanted to get for some time, Michael John LaChiusa’s Bernarda Alba. Because of sacrifices I’ve made to follow my dreams, I haven’t been able to buy as many Broadway CDs as I have traditionally been able to, so it just took me awhile to both be able to get it and to find it in a store near my home.

I fell in love with LaChiusa’s work the moment I bought the Marie Christine CD way back when. Instantly I was pulled into the character of Marie Christine and loved the interpretation of the classic story of Medea. It required two listenings, on the other hand, to fall in love with The Wild Party when I first bought that CD. At first the music seemed disjointed and often lacking melody, but—like some of Sondheim’s best scores—the second listening brought it all together and illuminated LaChiusa’s brilliance.

With my recent reading of Ethan Mordden’s The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen, I remembered LaChiusa’s reference to the text (and also to Barry Singer’s excellent Ever After) in his controversial Opera News article from August 2005. Yes, I found it interesting that LaChiusa praises Mordden’s book (who highly praises LaChiusa’s work, particularly The Wild Party) and dismisses Singer’s book (who didn’t highly praise LaChiusa’s work, particularly Marie Christine), but re-reading the article in full about a year after I first was able to find the article (surprise! a local library did have Opera News) helped me to better understand what LaChiusa was saying.

Now, I know it seems odd for someone to be addressing this article two years after the fact, but I’m ready to share some insights, some of which weren’t apparent the first couple times I read it.

Last summer, I made it to New York City for the first time since 2001, a long, long awaited trip. The first show I saw there was The Wedding Singer, of which I adored almost every minute even though I had never seen the movie. When I arrived back home, I ended up buying a used VHS copy of the movie for $2 to see what the source material had been like.

I was shocked to see how closely the musical followed the movie. Almost all the best jokes came from the movie, the character development came directly from the movie, and the plot closely followed the movie. The biggest difference is that the (for me) unwatchable Adam Sandler was replaced with Mr. Stage Presence, Stephen Lynch.

So, it’s a faux musical. Unlike South Pacific, which synthesized two short stories to create something new, it didn’t “transcend its source material,” as LaChiusa writes. (Thought, for the record, I would say that the stage version is far superior to the screen version.)

I haven’t seen Hairspray the movie, but I did see Hairspray the musical. The second act was a little stuffed, but how much fun I had seeing it on tour with Carly Jibson and on Broadway with Shannon Durig. Did I maybe have a faux good time?

While LaChiusa didn’t care for Hairspray (and neither did Kander and Ebb, as expressed in their book Colored Lights) I thought it was interesting that LaChiusa praised the operetta The Light in the Piazza, which I recently saw on tour starring (sigh) Christine Andreas. It was an admirable show, but for all the unfaux 42nd-street cred in its lyrics, the book to me seemed very cheap, telling us directly far too much that we’d rather see happen. It was the equivalent of having Sid Sorokin turn to the audience and say, “I’m new in this town, but boy am I gonna show them what I can do! Not like the last time, when they under-estimated me.”

I’ve listened to my Hairspray CD tons of times, along with my CDs of The Wedding Singer, Wicked, and even Mama Mia (even though I didn’t care for the show, you gotta love ABBA), but I haven’t popped in The Light in the Piazza often. It’s got beautiful music, but it is essentially an operetta, a form I don’t care much for, and I don’t find great pleasure re-visiting its thin plot in the way that I like revisiting the plot for other shows, including LaChiusa’s own Marie Christine and The Wild Party.

So does that mean I prefer faux musicals?

Last year I watched the DVD of the Rosalind Russell movie Auntie Mame, assumingly closesly based on the Lawrence and Lee play. I was somewhat surprised to see how much like the movie/play Jerry Herman’s Mame was. Agnes Gooch lost her husband, but other than that, it hit upon all the major plot points and used much of the same dialogue.

Wait? Could this mean faux musicals have been lurking in our beloved canon of classic, perfect shows for several decades?

Yes, there is a big difference between Mame and The Wedding Singer. Mame is a far better show, but that doesn’t mean The Wedding Singer wasn’t tremendously entertaining and worthy of a year-long run. The Wedding Singer should have done something with the movie’s soapy second act, improving upon the film’s teeny-bopperish dilemmas (Oh no, she thinks he’s slept with Linda!) and by restoring a sense of class to the Broadway stage, but I thought it was the most enjoyable show from that season which I saw (though I never did see Jersey Boys).

Please don’t get me wrong. I think LaChiusa’s article is an important one. I learned and will continue to learn a heck of a lot from it. But I don’t think a musical has to be Company or The Wild Party to be a great or very enjoyable show. Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, Bells are Ringing, Hello, Dolly!, and Annie are all spectacular shows. And yes, they are all better than most of the stuff that’s making millions on Broadway now, but I don’t think we should lose sight that these classic are basically fluffy, energy-filled shows that entertain and make people happy about living. Yes, they have a strong spine, but they are essentially shows out to make people feel happy, much like Hairspray, The Wedding Singer, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

There is more to LaChiusa’s definition of faux musicals, and I’m really interested in fully understanding it all because, like I said, I want to write great musicals . . . not faux. I admire his inclusion of great lyric-writing (and yes, there are some dud rhymes in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Brooklyn and even a few classics), which I think is essential, along with strong books. But I don’t think certain categories of musicals are inherently more theatrical than others. According to Edie Adams on Rich McKay’s Broadway: The Golden Age, the small ensemble shows are probably her faux. But just because Company isn’t Li'l Abner doesn’t mean it’s not a valid and genuine Broadway show. Just because Les Miserables isn’t Follies doesn’t mean it’s not a valid and genuine Broadway show. Just because Hello, Dolly! tells a linear story doesn’t mean it’s not a valid and genuine Broadway show.

Similarly, I question whether a show has to have integral choreography to be a great show. Part of Oklahoma!’s brilliance is the dream ballet, which is integral to the plot. But is Bloomer Girl or Carousel or The Pajama Game faux because they copy the concept from Oklahoma!? Is Guys and Dolls faux because the “Crap Shooters Dance” is essentially spectacle? Is Dreamgirls faux because there’s only concrete story-driven dance? (Or so I’m assuming from the concert CD . . . We don’t get productions of shows like Dreamgirls much where I’m from.)

In trying to fully understand LaChiusa’s ideas, to weed out what works and what doesn’t, I do think that he presents some important ideas for those of us who want to be produced to consider and mull over. But we mustn’t get caught up in the hype either.

As an (aspiring-to-be-produced) librettist, I aspire to write completely original musicals, as evidenced by my first two efforts which have been entirely original ideas (a third is based on a long out-of-print young adult novel). However, I found Alan Jay Lerner’s foreword to a published edition of Paint Your Wagon, entitled “Advice to Young Musical Writers” and dated January 25, 1952, very relevant:

In recent years there has been an ever-increasing number of adaptations in the theater and, by consequence, a steady decline of original works . . . This dearth has frequently been mentioned in the press, and when it has been, it has always been accompanied by a mournful cry for more fresh creation . . . No one, neither critic nor public, is clamoring for originality. The only desire is for something good. And to be good is quite original enough.

Broadway Mouth
June 2, 2007

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