Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Amazing Broadway Performer: Jose Llana

One significant gauge of amazing talent is versatility. Like everyone else, I first heard Jose Llana on the revival cast recording of The King and I. He’s the dictionary definition of outstanding Broadway tenor. He’s like a voice you would have heard a lot in the 1950s, except he has a contemporary appeal. Lun Tha’s two songs “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed” are highlights even on a disc with the incomparable talent of Donna Murphy.

A second great Jose Llana CD is the revival of Flower Drum Song in which he played Ta. Again, there’s that powerful voice singing great Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. All of his songs are highlights (I think it’s one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most pleasing scores), and I love his “Like a God.” Actually, I often finding myself hearing that song in my head and wishing I could sing it like Jose Llana.

As everyone has already figured out, the versatility comes from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Having taught literally thousands of students, his caricature of a spelling bee kid didn’t seem all that far off from the truth. And after having taught my fair share of middle school, neither was his predicament. I laughed so hard throughout that show, and Llana’s Chip Tolentino was definitely a highlight. The night I was in the audience, Harvey Fierstein was as well, and during “My Unfortunate Erection,” Llana pounded Fierstein with P.T.A. confection. I howled when Llana re-appeared as Jesus, affirming to Marcy Parks that “I really don’t care.”

Website: http://www.josellana.com/

the Broadway Mouth
July 31, 2007

Monday, July 30, 2007

Amazing Broadway Performer: Emily Skinner

Like many others, my first encounter with the wonderful Emily Skinner was in her work in Side Show, though I was only able to see it on the Tony Awards. Because of that amazing song, I bought the CD.

My opportunity to see Ms. Skinner in person was, thankfully, due to my city being an early stop in the On the Record tour. As I mentioned in my blog entry “Broadway Funk,” one of the big things we should praise Disney for is utilizing real Broadway talent. It would have been very easy for them to cast a third-rate talent in that show (or even a less-expensive first-rate talent) since Emily Skinner’s name wouldn’t be recognized by the average On the Record attendee, but how thrilled I am that they chose her! Her powerful voice filled that theatre and hit every emotional note of each song. One particular standout was her rendition of “Someday My Prince Will Come” in which she took a song written to express the feelings of a little girl and made it into an expression of mature desire.

And that’s probably one of the things I love most about Emily Skinner. She has maturity and depth in her voice. She possesses the traditional Broadway soprano, but she interprets songs with such passion, however that word may be defined in a variety of songs.

She also does great things with comedy, as witnessed in the comedy songs on her Duets CD with Alice Ripley and her solo album Emily Skinner. There’s a ton of great songs and performances on both CDs (including a lovely number from James Joyce’s The Dead performed with Alice Ripley on her solo album), but I never stop laughing at “My Simple Christmas Wish” on her solo album.

Okay, it also helps that Emily Skinner is just too darn hot. Extreme beauty and talent. You can’t ask for more in a Broadway diva.

Getting to Know You Interview: http://www.robbierozelle.com/emskinner.html

the Broadway Mouth
July 30, 2007

Friday, July 27, 2007

Amazing Broadway Performer: Faith Prince

I’ve said it before. Count me in as a big, big fan of Bells are Ringing. I saw it late in the show’s run, and I fell head-over-heels in love with Ella Peterson and, by association, Faith Prince.

Faith Prince made Ella so charming, so endearing that I kept wishing there could really be a woman out there in real life as wonderful and spunky. This was another one of those shows where so many distinct images remain with me because it was such a remarkable evening of theatre, and it was all anchored in Faith Prince. The cast recording has become one of my most-listened-to CDs, not only because of the great Comden-Green-Styne music but because of the charm Prince exudes. From the innocent manipulation of “Is It a Crime?” to her irresistible giggles in “Drop That Name,” I can’t get enough.

And I am already having empathy pings for whoever gets the role of Miss Adelaide in the 2008 revival of Guys and Dolls. Just by listening to the CD, you can tell Faith Prince gave one of the greatest performances of the decade, and since it is still so recent, how can anyone compete in a world where “not as good as” has become a key phrase.

The CD of Guys and Dolls and seeing the Broadway production of Bells are Ringing was a one-two punch. For snappiness sake, I’d like to say that she had me at “Hello, Hello There,” but the truth is that when the light first came up on Ella Peterson, I could already hear the bells ringing for Faith Prince.

Website: http://www.faithprince.com/

the Broadway Mouth
July 27, 2007

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Amazing Broadway Performer: Amy Spanger

My first encounter with Amy Spanger was when a little slip of paper fell out of my Kiss Me, Kate Playbill to tell me she was out. I was still a wee theatre-goer then, so I didn’t know who Amy Spanger was. However, when I got the revival cast recording, I quickly came to admire her talent. So after all those years of hearing her declare her unique brand of faithfulness to Bill Calhoun, I was excited to finally get to see her when I saw The Wedding Singer.

What wowed me immediately was what a versatile performer she is. On the CD of Kiss Me, Kate, she’s sexy and seductive, with a smooth voice that is both contemporary theatrical and reminiscent of the 1940s. Here she was in The Wedding Singer as this loveable (but very un-sexy) STD poster child of a character, belting out songs in the style of Cyndi Lauper. Had I not known who she was, I never in a million years would have guessed that she was the same person I had heard a billion times as Lois Lane.

The fact that she’s an excellent dancer is icing on the cake. It was such a thrill to see her electrifying the stage with her movement, full of verve and spunk. She gave us a 100% Broadway performance, not just fully in character but loaded with “it.”

Getting to Know You Interview: Can anyone explain to me why there are NO interviews with Amy Spanger?

the Broadway Mouth
July 26, 2007

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Amazing Broadway Performer: Michael Lanning

I can’t dance, but during the tour of The Civil War, I wanted to get up and try. A score like that takes an immense talent like Michael Lanning to do it justice, and I walked out of that show a big fan of his talent.

It was a tragedy to me that The Civil War never got a real OBC recording, but hearing Michael Lanning on three tracks of “The Complete Album” has helped to appease me. Of course, it always depends on the show, but I love great voices that are both theatrical and unique. Michael Lanning has one of those voices with intense warmth to it. It’s a rock/country voice that would also be very appropriate for traditional musical theatre, but it can do more than give texture to the melody. His voice seems to come out and wrap around you, taking all the emotion of the song and injecting it into your heart. To me, Phil Collins’ work on the film Tarzan has that same effect, and Michael Lanning is the only other performer I know of with that quality, though Lanning’s voice seems to me deeper and more versatile.

Anyone who laments the rocking of Broadway, I defy them not to find extreme theatrical pleasure in Michael Lanning’s vocals.

Website: http://www.michaellanning.com/

Note: In the clip below, that’s his voice you hear first.

the Broadway Mouth
July 24, 2007

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Amazing Broadway Performer: Denis O’Hare

Christina Applegate might have won the Tony had she not starred with Denis O’Hare. That sounds horribly cruel, but Denis O’Hare’s undeniable stage presence acted as a foil for Applegate’s considerable television abilities. It was like coloring with crayons as a child and thinking they’re great . . . until you met markers.

Denis O’Hare onstage in Sweet Charity was everything a Broadway star should be. The moment he appeared, he illuminated that stage. He had the talent to make Oscar the most charming quirk ever, both adorable and weird, but he embodied that un-bottle-able stage presence that demands your attention. There are extremely talented performers, and then there are those who have “it.” Denis O’Hare has “it.”

I love hearing him on the revival cast recording, and even if you didn’t see the revival, his Oscar makes the CD worth having. His “I’m the Bravest Individual” is a highlight on the CD as he talks himself out of his phobia through the song. And Oscar’s two solo-ish songs, which I skip over on the OBCR, I love to hear.

My only other encounters with O’Hare have been in the revival cast recording of Assassins and in the television Once Upon a Mattress. Again, with Charles Guiteau, O’Hare creates another quirk, though this one is admittedly less charming. He’s a splendid addition to such a strong cast, and the CD serves to prove his versatility and talent. In Once Upon a Mattress, he makes the prince a loveable mamma’s boy.

Getting to Know You Interview: http://www.broadway.com/gen/Buzz_Story.aspx?ci=511600

the Broadway Mouth
July 24, 2007

Monday, July 23, 2007

Amazing Broadway Performer: Sherie René Scott

When you don’t live in New York, you consider yourself blessed beyond measure for getting to see a Broadway star of Sherie René Scott’s caliber once. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to have been able to see her twice.

I first saw her in Aida. I had never heard of her before, except for her appearance on the Aida concept album. I figured that Heather Headley and Adam Pascal would blow her out of the water. Oh, but then she sang, “This is the story of a love that flourished in a time of hate,” and I learned Sherie René Scott is no third wheel to anyone.

Scott gives those stick-to-your-ribs types of performances, so when you’re listening to a CD, you can remember what she did and how she did it. I adored her layered Amneris with her rock ‘n roll inflections, and whenever I page through my souvenir program, I remember her simple feminine qualities which sheltered a deeper, stronger person trying to break out. And when she came out in the black dress to belt out the ending to “My Strongest Suit,” I was exhilarated beyond words.

How great it was that she had returned to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels by the time I made it to the show in its final month. I don’t want to give away too much of the show, but I totally fell in love with her character and, like every other person in the theatre, was cheering for her by the end of the show. Listening to her say with such great excitement, “These fries are French!” on the OBCR is one of the highlights for me.

I know she’ll make a delightful Ursula in The Little Mermaid, and I can’t wait to hear what she does with “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” and I hope to be able to see her in the part as well. If I miss another Sherie René Scott role, I’ll surely be a poor unfortunate soul myself.

After seeing her in Aida, I was compelled to buy her Men I’ve Had CD. I would love to hear a more theatrical solo album, but she sounds great. And the picture on the back of the case is worth the price alone.

Getting to Know You Interview: http://www.broadway.com/gen/Buzz_Story.aspx?ci=512596&pn=1

the Broadway Mouth
July 23, 2007

Friday, July 20, 2007

Amazing Broadway Performer: Carly Jibson

While I do keep up with what’s going on in the Broadway World despite my distance from 42nd Street, I try not to learn too much about new shows until I get a chance to see them on tour or on Broadway. Yes, I record shows when they appear on The Today Show and love the Tony Awards, but if I can, I like to walk into shows expecting nothing but what I’m given by that particular cast.

Let me tell you, I didn’t expect a lighting rod of a talent like Carly Jibson when I saw the tour of Hairspray. It was as if she was a never-ending wind-up toy, and she danced and sang around the stage like she was channeling the energy of Speedy Gonzales and the sweetness of Tweety Bird. The moment her eyes opened in bed and got to “Woke,” you couldn’t help but be madly in love with her Tracy Turnblad.

She was everything Tracy must be—cute beyond belief, perky, passionate, tough, spunky, and adorable. I vividly remember so much of her performance—her dancing with Penny (Alli Mauzy) to the opening of The Corny Collins Show, her cute walk, her gleeful spunk as she finally topped Amber Von Tussle—that you’d think I saw it yesterday. When I saw an excellent Tracy on Broadway and another charmer in the film version, I still couldn’t help but see Carly Jibson echoing in my mind. That’s not a negative reflection of these two other very talented women; it’s simply a comment on the young talent of Carly Jibson.

I can’t wait to see Carly Jibson on stage again. I believe she was only nineteen when I saw her in Hairspray. All that talent and only nineteen . . . I get excited thinking of all the great roles she could conquer as she gets more and more experience under her belt.

Getting to Know You Interview: http://www.broadway.com/gen/Buzz_Story.aspx?ci=40134

Broadway Mouth
July 20, 2007

Film Musicals: The $50 Million Answer

The key to any successful business venture is to produce a product at a low enough price without resorting to amoral manufacturing methods (such as exploitative labor) to achieve that low cost. You figure out what you think you can make, then produce the item for less than that amount, keeping in mind the all-important profit margin.

Fortunately for Hollywood, there is actually a simple mathematical equation for producing live-action film musicals. While I am no mathematician, I am hoping to get a portrait in Sardi’s someday for this genius discovery of Pythagorasian proportions.

In surveying the recent past, the almost sure-fire gross of a musical film (provided there is adequate advertising and decent reviews) is $50 million.

(Pause for effect.)

The problem has been that a number of recent live-action musicals have cost that much to produce, so they essentially are only earning back their production costs in their theatrical run and are still falling short in earning back marketing costs, though I’m sure they all generate a profit on DVD and when taking overseas grosses into consideration.

Evita, which had mixed reviews back in 1996, brought in $55 million. Moulin Rouge, which had stronger reviews, pulled in $57 million in domestic gross in 2001. Interestingly enough, despite having comparable budgets, meaning nearly equal profit or loss, Moulin Rouge was seen as a big hit and kick-stepped the recent interest in film musicals. The Phantom of the Opera earned $51 million in 2004.

There are two aberration in my sound scientific, mathematic, afro-tastic, and philosophic theory—The Producers and Rent. The film of The Producers made only $19 million. That gross must be tempered, however, with its lack of marketing. In my city, there were a lot of theaters playing it like any other wide release, but the marketing was so anorexic, you’d hardly have ever known it was playing. Rent garnered only $29 million in 2005.

However, when musicals are successes, they succeed big-time. Chicago and Dreamgirls both made it to the $100 million mark, with Chicago at $170 million and Dreamgirls at $103 million, also having high-selling soundtracks, getting Oscar nominations and wins, and doing very well on the DVD front.

It’s interesting to look at critics’ views when analyzing box office data. According to Rotten Tomatoes, Evita was 66% fresh, Moulin Rouge was 78% fresh, The Phantom of the Opera was only 33% fresh, Rent was only 48% fresh, and The Producers only 52% fresh. Dreamgirls was 78% fresh, while mega-hit Chicago was 87% fresh. Today’s debut, Hairspray, no shocker, is at 94% fresh.

This year there are at least three big musicals coming our way. Opening today is the awesome adaptation of Hairspray, which I have a feeling will be a big hit. Then there is an all-new musical, Disney’s Enchanted, which features Broadway’s own Idina Menzel (let’s hope this is a big hit; perhaps Idina could have a big enough name to take on Amneris in the Aida adaptation). These will be followed by Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, which, with Burton and Johnny Depp attached, is sure to garner a considerable amount of buzz.

So, if studios can keep budgets in line and produce a strong film, they can seem to count on a $50 million gross. One way to keep budgets in line is to hire top new talent who don’t require huge salaries. For example, Disney could keep costs down of their planned Aida film by using a major talent like, um, let’s just say Heather Headley as an example—who has name-recognition in the African-American community and could do the part better than anyone else and deserves to—rather than tapping a big music star who cannot act the part and will cost several millions more to cast. Look at The Phantom of the Opera. There was only one named minor star, Minnie Driver, and it did $51 million in business.

Looking at this burgeoning boom of musicals on film, I can’t help but become thrilled. When I was a kid, I remember lamenting the lack of new film musicals. I loved Newsies so much, I managed to see it twice during its blink-and-you-missed-it run. By the time Evita was released, I was in college, and I think I saw it four or five times because I knew seeing it on the big screen could never be repeated at home.

I never believed the industry pundits who said people wouldn’t buy a musical today. When musicals that were done well were played on television—Mrs. Santa Claus, Cinderella, South Pacific, and Annie—they were monumental hits on television and on video. One success could be a fluke. But more than one, no way.

And yes, if my remembrance serves me correctly, Gepetto, The Music Man, The Christmas Carol, and Once Upon a Mattress weren’t such mega-hits, but they also weren’t very good.

So, I can’t wait to see how Hairspray does this weekend. It’s crucial that everyone who can goes out to see it because as musicals grow in popularity, the more studios will make. Plus, for kids like me for whom attending a Broadway show was as unreachable as flying like Peter Pan, it is great musical films like Hairspray that will help create more generations of Broadway attendees and creators.

To see my spoiler-free review of Hairspray (“The Beat Goes On: Yes, They Got Hairspray Right!”), just look for it on the index to your right. I would like to make one addition, which is that I did see Ratatouille and found it extremely enjoyable; however, Hairspray is the best movie I’ve seen all summer.

the Broadway Mouth
July 20, 2007

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Amazing Broadway Performer: Cleavant Derricks

This was another case of walking into a show and not realizing the name before me but walking out in awe. I walked into the tour of Brooklyn knowing Melba Moore from the Purlie CD and Diana DeGarmo from American Idol. But I walked out thrilled to have seen them and in love with the talent of Cleavant Derricks.

Right away when the show began, the moment Cleavant Derricks rocked out in “Heart Behind These Hands,” I was in awe. People thought they came to see Diana DeGarmo and Melba Moore, but it was then they realized that they wanted to hear more from the Streetsinger. The CD does a great job of capturing his performance, but like it is for the best of Broadway performers, it cannot fully communicate the power of the live performance. He filled that theatre with his voice like a rock star, standing out even in perfectly harmonized group numbers.

I didn’t even know he was one of the original cast members in Dreamgirls until after the show. That just goes to prove, there are names and there are talents. Sometimes they go together. Sometimes they don’t. No matter what show, no matter what role, no matter what name, Cleavant Derricks proves that talent always, always rises above.

In addition to hearing him handle more rock scores (He’d be a great fit for The Civil War.), I would love to hear Derricks handle traditional theatre scores. How exciting it would be to witness him performing some of those great Rodgers and Hammerstein songs or even the music of some of the contemporary classics. I don’t know about you, but I smell a perfect talent for a solo album. That is, alongside more theatre roles.

Website: http://www.cleavantderricks.com

Okay, this isn’t exactly Dreamgirls, but this was the best I could find. As Tracy Turnblad would say, “It’s afro-tastic!”

Broadway Mouth
July 19, 2007

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Amazing Broadway Performer: Mary Testa

I first met the talent of Mary Testa as she was singing about selling the kids in “Cincinnati” from Marie Christine. As I would drive around unable to take the CD out of my car stereo because I loved it so much, I loved the brassiness in Testa’s voice, though I didn’t yet know who she was.

Seven or eight months later, I’m sitting in the Ford Center for the Performing Arts watching a million chorus kids dancing away in flashy costumes with bright Colgate smiles, and I hear this voice. It took me about two second to realize, “Hey, that’s the woman from Marie Christine!” Her Maggie Jones was one of the highlights of that evening for me. It was a fantastic cast, but I loved Testa’s old school Broadway bravura, that voice that shouts out to the back of the theatre, defying microphones to contain it.

There are so few character actors today, either on film or on stage, and Mary Testa is a classic with the best of them. What I love is that she does have that classic stage presence in her voice and demeanor, but she’s tempered it with contemporary acting restraint. It’s too bad that Whoopi, on which she was doing a reoccurring role, didn’t last longer. With such a talent, Testa would have had a chance to make some inroads into Hollywood to become one of those well-known bicoastal stars whose name can sell tickets to tourists.

I know Testa has a slew of Broadway credits, but my other encounter with her has been as Domina on the Nathan Lane revival recording of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Needless to say, I love her “That Dirty Old Man.”

She’s recently opened in Xanadu. I would love to see Kerry Butler in person, but for me, the main reason to see Xanadu would be Mary Testa.

Getting to Know You Interview: http://www.playbill.com/news/article/110074.html

Video Footage: http://www.broadwayworld.com/viewcolumn.cfm?colid=18189

Broadway Mouth
July 18, 2007

“When you’re listening to this, try to ignore the lyrics. I know it’ll be difficult, but block them out. They’re not the best . . ."

The full title: “When you’re listening to this, try to ignore the lyrics. I know it’ll be difficult, but block them out. They’re not the best. But the tune is beautiful.” or . . . Upon Finally Buying the Tarzan OBCR

The fact that it took me eleven months to buy the Original Broadway Cast recording of Tarzan says a lot. I consider buying the cast recording an essential part of attending a Broadway show. You’ve just doled out $50-$125 (or maybe even $450) for a show, and listening to the CD is one of the best ways of remembering what you saw. The only other Broadway recording to get such a delay from me was Brooklyn, which was a length of about seven months.

I detailed some of my thoughts on Tarzan in a June blog entry entitled “Broadway Funk: Overhauling Tarzan,” so no fear, I’m not going to go into that here.

Upon hearing the new songs again for the fist time since last August, two observations come to mind. First of all, the lyrics are as bad as I remembered them. The songs from the original film are great, but of all the new songs, only the lyrics of “Who Better Than Me” rival those of the original songs. Even the lyrics of its reprise fall short.

But I’m also struck by how beautiful Collins’ music is and how the songs truly communicate important ideas in the story. Take “I Need to Know,” young Tarzan’s aching lament about his between-two-worlds life. The lyrics, yes, are dopey, but the concept is dead-on with what the character is experiencing, and its unusual melody is both melancholy and searching. It helps that Alex Rutherford has a strong voice but is also vulnerable in communicating the character’s predicament. Because of the lyrics, the song is almost un-listenable, but if you can block them out, the tune is very fitting.

Another great tune is Jane’s “Waiting for This Moment,” which, in its music, effectively expresses Jane’s excitement and wonderment around her. I honestly don’t know how much of that credit goes to Collins’ original music or to Doug Besterman’s orchestrations, but I can honestly say I love hearing that song.

“Different” is another example of this phenomena. It has a strange melody, but when you listen to what the lyrics are pounding into your head, that melody is very fitting. I have also fallen in love with Jane and Porter’s “Like No Man I’ve Ever Seen,” which is so whimsical in its orchestrations that it makes for a fun listen . . . despite the lyrics. It suits the characters perfectly . . . musically, that is.

The songs from the film make for excellent listening in their new arrangements, and I would actually be satisfied with my purchase with those songs alone.

This recording really makes me long for the Tarzan that might have been. If you watch the bonus features of the Brother Bear DVD, for which Phil Collins wrote songs that rival his film Tarzan songs, he addresses his experience co-writing the film’s underscore. When asked to write songs for Brother Bear, he expressed his desire to Disney to tackle the film underscore, so they paired him up with Mark Mancina, who has written a number of film scores. On the DVD, Mancina talks about hearing Collins’ first attempt at scoring. Collins thought it was great, but then Mancina used it as a learning experience to show him the many places where it needed improvement. By the end of the film, there wasn’t one ounce of bad underscore, and you can’t tell where Mancina’s work ends and Collins’ begins.

It’s a tragedy that that didn’t happen here. Listen to the music! It’s wonderful music. Had Collins’ been paired with a theatrical lyricist, such as David Zippel, something great could have evolved from what we have here. From the interviews on the DVD, Collins seems like a true artist, more concerned about the result rather than ego. I bet he would have been open to working with and learning from a collaborator.

I also can’t possibly talk about the Tarzan OBC recording without addressing the talent. Holy cow, I love hearing these voices! I was so thrilled to get beloved Merle Dandridge on CD, and I can’t get enough of her “You’ll Be in My Heart.” I also love hearing her in “No Other Way” because you hear a hint of her great interpretation of Aida in her passionate stance for her adopted son. Her amazing voice always rises above all those lyrics she’s given.

A pleasant surprise is Jenn Gambatese. Wow! I can’t get enough of hearing her sing on the CD. What a pretty voice in a traditional theatre sense. I love her playful line “I’m not following you, Daddy,” and her “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no.” Yes, I know the latter is pretty pathetic lyrically, but she’s so cute when she says it.

Josh Strickland, whose great voice I vividly recalled from seeing the show, is in strong form on the CD. I do hope he gets a shot at a role in a better show. Chestor Gregory II is also in fine voice.

No shocker, Shuler Hensley sounds great. He makes for a strong but human ape leader.

I also think Disney should be applauded for giving both talented actors who portrayed Young Tarzan a chance to sing on the CD. You know darn well it cost them a pretty penny to do that when they didn’t need to, but how generous of them considering how one of those kids would have felt at not having the chance to record.

So, maybe I’m just another Man in Chair (and you know many of you are, too), but he describes the Tarzan CD best when he says:

When you’re listening to this, try to ignore the lyrics. I know it’ll be difficult, but block them out. They’re not the best. But the tune is beautiful.

Broadway Mouth
July 18, 2007

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Amazing Broadway Performer: Douglas Sills

In the “olden days,” many of the big Broadway talents toured—Mary Martin, John Raitt, Carol Channing, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and others. Today, rarely do the big New York theatre names make it to the provinces, so when they do, to us theatre fans, it’s a really big deal.

And indeed, it was a really big deal when Douglas Sills came to town in The Scarlet Pimpernel because word had spread about his wonderful Tony-nominated performance. I’m so incredibly glad he toured!

To me, getting to see Douglas Sills as Percival Blakeney was akin to getting to see Robert Preston as Harold Hill. I mean, here is this phenomenal role filled with romance and howl-inducing laughter in a great show (Yes, I said a great show.) being played by the person for whom it was fitted.

I still have so many vivid memories of Douglas Sills in that show. Not only do I remember how Sills made the entire theatre burst into simultaneous laughter as he declared the importance of fashion, but he also pulled out all the stops for the agony in “Prayer.” We felt his urgency in “Into the Fire” and cheered him during the climactic battle against William Paul Michals.

For such a versatile actor, it’s a shame that Sills hasn’t done more in New York since. Perhaps he should do one of those one-laugh-an-hour Fox sitcoms for a few years then come back in another great role suited to him many talents.

Getting to Know You Interview: http://www.broadway.com/gen/Buzz_Story.aspx?ci=30594

Broadway Mouth
July 17, 2007

Monday, July 16, 2007

Amazing Broadway Performer: Marla Schaffel

There are so many great performers whose talents demand shows to be written for them. It’s nothing short of a major theatrical injustice that Marla Schaffel has not found a role on Broadway since her tour de force turn as Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre. I keeping hoping she’ll be chosen to take Mary Poppins on the road if not replace Ashley Brown on Broadway when she chooses to depart.

Jane Eyre is an extremely delicate and complex role. As a mega-fan of the Charlotte Bronte novel, I must say that despite many Janes on film, Marla Schaffel is the definitive Jane Eyre (and the musical the definitive adaptation of the show to any visual medium). Scene after scene, Marla Schaffel pounded every nuance, every detail, every ounce of Jane into that show. She brought out Jane’s firm determination, her longing and anguish, her loving, beautiful side. This was not just a tough role—Jane not only sings in most of the show’s songs, but it demands nothing short of 110% of the performer for an entire evening.

I know many people were mixed about the show itself. The novel has survived over 150 years as a favorite of men and women alike, and Paul Gordon and John Caird’s musical succeeded in adapting its epic scope in a manner that not only felt complete but wholly satisfying. If people disliked the show, I have a feeling they would have disliked the novel, which, again, has survived over 150 years in continuous publication. Whatever people felt about the show itself, Marla Schaffel was universally praised for her monumental performance. Yes, there were many gifted performers in the show—James Barbour, Mary Stout, Elizabeth DeGrazia, Jayne Paterson to name a few—but Marla Schaffel’s star turn gave the show its heart and soul. When I saw her, you could see every ounce of her passion exerted for the audience’s sake. By the curtain call, I couldn’t clap and cheer enough. I tried. I tried really hard. But how can you ever fully acknowledge such an amazing performance?

In fact, I can hardly listen to her on the CD or watch the clip below without wanting to re-read the original novel again.

Some people fondly remember Ethel Merman in Gypsy, Mary Martin in South Pacific, or Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd. I, for one, will always count Marla Schaffel in Jane Eyre as one of the greatest theatrical blessings I’ve ever been granted.

Unofficial Website: http://www.currerwells.net/marlaschaffel/

Broaday Mouth
July 16, 2007

Friday, July 13, 2007

Amazing Broadway Performer: Susan Egan

I have such a big crush on Susan Egan, and I’ve never even seen her in person. I always liked her in the OBC recording of Beauty and the Beast, but I think I was first fully awaken to her charms when I saw her doing promotion for the Disney film Hercules. Her interviews with Leonard Maltin were so funny, and she was perfect in the role of Meg. Not only was she sassy and funny, but she got to sing that wonderful Alan Menken/David Zippel song “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love).”

The Triumph of Love CD was one of the first Broadway CDs I bought without seeing the show, and it was because I saw that Susan Egan was on it in a spot on CNN. I love that CD. Yes, it had an embarrassment of rich performances, but I love imagining Susan Egan’s performance as she attempts to come up with quick lies and stories to explain her ever-changing existence.

People often mention her unique voice, and I think that is one of the great appeals to her talent. She’s not the traditional soprano, which gives her not only depth but character. It sets her apart in a positive way. In hearing her voice, you can already see her vivid interpretation of characters like Miss Adelaide, Babe Williams, or Charity Hope Valentine.

I consider it a great travesty that I missed her performance in Thoroughly Modern Millie, though I did make up for it by seeing 13 Going on 30. Yes, I saw that dumb movie solely for her, even though I knew she didn’t have a speaking role. I always thought Susan Egan would make a great lead for a romantic comedy, so that was the closest I’ve gotten to that vision.

I love her album So Far, which is one of those great theatre albums where the star sings each song as if they were cast in the show. If you are a Beauty and the Beast fan, you must have it because it has her rendition of “A Change in Me,” even though she never actually sang the song on stage. After you’ve gotten the CD for that song, you can enjoy many other great performances on it. She has a second album which includes a song cut from Hercules, which I can’t wait to get the next time I’m in New York.

Website: http://www.susanegan.net/

Broadway Mouth
July 13, 2007

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Broadway-Themed Bonus Feature Details: The Wedding Singer: and Circuit City Hairspray: Preview DVD

It’s taken me five months, but after a long waiting list at the library, I finally got The Wedding Singer: Totally Awesome Edition on DVD which has, as a bonus feature, “A Backstage Look at The Wedding Singer on Broadway,” identified on the back of the case as a featurette.

I had never seen the original Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore movie when I fell in love with the Broadway show. When I finally saw it afterwards, I was reminded why I didn’t see it originally since watching Adam Sandler makes me want to gouge my eyes out with oven mitts on. However, even I would buy the DVD if there were some primo stuff on the bonus feature.

So, here are the details. The featurette is a 10-minute look at the show featuring interviews with the creative team, Stephen Lynch, and Laura Benanti. Each person gets a chance to talk about their thing, such as set designer Scott Pask describing his rubics cube squares as part of the set design. The footage seems to have been shot largely during the rehearsal period before the first preview out-of-town. There are a few snippets of chorus members getting make-up on, shots of the set, close-ups of costume design drawings, but most of the footage is of the promotional photo shoot for the picture which adorned the poster, including Lynch in the ‘80s wig he wasn’t wearing by the time I saw him in the show.

One really interesting observation made on it is from director John Rando who compares Stephen Lynch’s touring comedy career to the old days when actors refined their craft on the vaudeville circuit, which probably helps explain why Lynch was so amazing.

The second interesting observation is a brief interview with Laura Benanti. After reading about her on Broadway message boards for all these years, I was really surprised to see that she’s not the Loch Ness Monster. Not only is she extremely beautiful and talented, but she seems like, gasp, a really cool person. And I don’t think it was all in the editing.

The only footage from the show ends the featurette, with a one-minute look at “Come Out of the Dumpster,” which seems to be from a rehearsal with audience applause mixed in at the end (since there is no laughter on some of the big laugh lines).

I honestly don’t know if I would buy the DVD just for the featurette. It is always interesting to see people’s vision for a beloved show and to hear them discuss their work, but it is really lacking in meat—show footage. Oddly enough, I think footage from the show would have been their best bet in getting audiences to see it.

I often pop in such things to watch while I’m eating lunch on a Saturday or need some inspiration. My guess is that a year or two from now will tell whether this featurette is enough to get me to buy it when I am either craving the chance to see it again or have no interest.

Remember that this footage is only available on the Totally Awesome Edition, which features a close-up of Sandler and Barrymore against a white backdrop. The earlier edition is readily available, but it is lacking the “Behind the Scenes” look.

It’s of interest to note that in the Hairspray movie preview DVD available for free from Circuit City when you buy any CD or DVD (limited supply of the preview DVD are available), there is a $2 off coupon for several New Line romantic comedies (only good at Circuit City), of which The Wedding Singer: Totally Awesome Edition DVD is listed. The coupon is good through the end of August 2007. This seems like the type of movie that goes on sale, often for under $10.

Also included in the preview DVD is a coupon for $3 off several other New Line movies, including Antonio Banderas in Take the Lead with America’s sweetheart, Laura Benanti. It also indicates that specially-marked packages of the DVD The Last Mimzy have a Hairspray move voucher. I do remember from a preview trailer that The Last Mimzy seemed to me like The Exorcist For Kids. I’m sure we all want to rush out and buy it.

And, if interested—I know it’s been posted elsewhere—the Circuit City preview DVD features the “Ladies’ Choice” music video with Zac Efron and the dance stylings of Nikki Blonksi. It’s presented more as a scene from the movie than a regular music video, which is cool. There’s also a really great preview to the movie featuring interviews with the key creative staff and the main film stars, illustrated with lots and lots of footage from the movie. The packaging says it “INLCUDES OVER 30 MINUTES OF CONTENT!” As the packaging also states, the Behind-the-Scenes footage is 15 minutes (that includes credits), and the music video isn’t even three minutes. The other 12+ minutes of exclamation mark-worthy content is the must-see New Line previews for such high-interest movies as Rush Hour 3, Monster-in-Law, and The Notebook, the commercial for which, FYI, always pushes me near to vomiting. I recommend you skip over that one, too.

For free, though, the DVD is great to have, particularly since I’m already dying to see the movie again. If you don’t get the DVD, I have a feeling the bonus footage and music video will be included as bonus features on the Hairspray DVD, so “please don’t have a cow” if you miss it.

Amazing Broadway Performer: Chuck Wagner

People say that they don’t make ‘em like John Raitt anymore. Actually they do. His name is Chuck Wagner.

Now, I don’t mean to cheapen Chuck Wagner’s immense talent by comparing him to other talented performers, but what I mean is that he’s got that classic booming baritone voice, spot-on acting talent, and classic masculinity.

In addition to seeing him on the video of Into the Woods, I have been very fortunate that Chuck Wagner tours. I was first introduced to him in Jekyll and Hyde, opposite the formidable talents of Sharon Brown and Andrea Rivette. I was still a young, uneducated theatre-goer, but I remember the impression his performance left on me, that his Jekyll/Hyde was amazing. Even then, I could appreciate the magnitude of his performance. I hoped beyond hope that he’d get to do the show on Broadway by the time I made my first trip there. He didn’t get the chance, but whenever I listen to the OBC, I can’t help but remember Chuck Wagner’s great performance.

My most recent experience with Chuck Wagner was as Harrison Howell in the tour of Kiss Me, Kate, where he stole the show nightly with Rachel York in “From This Moment On.” Here was the same man playing a character completely different from Jekyll/Hyde in a show that was completely different from Jekyll and Hyde. As Harrison Howell, he was a hilarious buffoon, completely different from the tortured, sensuous character I’d seen prior. It was the producers’ sad loss that he was not cast as Fred Graham, where his amazing voice would have rightfully filled the theatre.

Whenever I play the dream casting game in my head, Chuck Wagner seems to always find a role—opposite Marla Shaffel in a tour of Jane Eyre, as Carl-Magnus in the revival of A Little Night Music, as a replacement King Triton in The Little Mermaid on Broadway, as someone in a regional production of 1776, Officer Lockstock in Urinetown, and others.

His self-named solo album is an exceptional recording, seeking to present great contemporary theatre songs with character-driven interpretations. Until he gets a shot at that next great role, it’ll have to suffice.

Website: http://www.chuckwagner.com/

Broadway Mouth
July 12, 2007

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Amazing Broadway Performer: Carol Channing

I owe a lot to Carol Channing. As I’ve mentioned before, it was her 1994 pre-Broadway tour of Hello, Dolly! that got me hooked on theatre. The show was a true God-send to me.

I was a senior in high school and had worked away my summer in a miserable job at Target, but that job turned out to be the best thing ever because it gave me the money to see the show. My family was not well-to-do in the least, and when my mom saw that Carol Channing was coming to town in Hello, Dolly! and that there was this amazing discount on the tickets (I’ve never seen an Equity show do such discounts since), we went on a whim. She wanted to see Carol Channing, and while I knew who she was, I just went just for something different.

Everything about the show was amazing. I listened to the CD for two months straight afterwards, no exaggeration. In fact, it was in the week after seeing that show that I decided that I wanted to write a Broadway musical and came up with the premise for the show that I’ve been pursuing ever since (though I didn’t write the first draft until a year out of college).

It’s hard to explain Carol Channing’s appeal except to say that she filled that theatre with her presence. Yes, she had dead-on comedic timing, moved well, and was an amazing actress. But it was like she was a giant magnet and we, the audience, were all metal scraps unable to turn away. I was one of the first ones to stand up after the “Hello, Dolly!” number, and it was because I had to, not because I wanted to. Same with her curtain call at the end of the show. I was propelled to my feet; it wasn’t a choice. Even then, standing and clapping didn’t feel like enough to acknowledge this thing . . . this performance (which seems too small a word to describe it) which I had seen.

Ten years to the week after I had originally seen the tour, Carol Channing came to town again in her one woman show. She re-enacted the choreography for that wonderful title number, even indicating what she had done with her dress. I had chills down my spine remembering that moment and seeing this indescribable woman doing it again.

It is my dream to see her do the show again. Until then, I’d love to see some footage on YouTube (Hint, Hint). She’s recently indicated her desire to do it, though I don’t know if she could physically do it at her age. I once read in an interview that she does the show every 15 years, which means that she should be back coveting Vandergelder’s cash register in two years. I’m holding my breath.

In my dream world, when I’ve had hits on Broadway and on television and in film, I have enough money to build a new theatre on Broadway called the Carol Channing Theatre. Not only will it be one of those really big ones that can house expensive independent musicals with lots of knee room for people 6’5”, but it will have classical style artwork depicting great performances from great shows all over the walls. Above the proscenium arch will be Carol Channing with waiters in Hello, Dolly!

Broadway Mouth
July 11, 2007

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Amazing Broadway Performer: Felicia P. Fields

One word: sexy.

I don’t know what it is about Felicia P. Fields, but when she is on stage as Sofia in The Color Purple, she is the embodiment of sex appeal. She made Sofia such a strong woman, confident and charming, that she made her sexy. There’s no question why Harpo loves her so much or why Squeak feels threatened by her. When you got it, you got it, and Felicia P. Fields ’s got it.

Plus, I love her voice. Not only is it strong, but it’s full of character. Like Norm Lewis below, I keep hoping to hear she’s been cast in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog because she’s got the perfect voice for animation.

Oh, and did I mention stage presence? This woman’s got it. I couldn’t take my eyes off her in The Color Purple.

Her Playbill credits list a number of traditional black roles. That’s great, but her talent calls for casting beyond such boundaries. Every month or so, someone’s starting a message board thread about who should play Mame in a revival. I bet Felicia P. Fields would be smasheroo.

Getting to Know You Interview: http://www.broadway.com/gen/Buzz_Story.aspx?ci=530470

Please Note: The image below is of LaChanze, but the clip is of Sofia's big number "Hell No."

Broadway Mouth
July 10, 2007

The Beat Goes On: Yes, They Got Hairspray Right! (Spoiler-Free)

They got it right. They got it right! Thank God, they got it right!

Seriously, the producers of the Hairspray movie need to write a book on how to adapt Broadway shows for film. I’d write it myself, but I lack the experience. But they know their stuff and prove it in about every second of the Hairspray movie.

First of all, John Travolta is a revelation in this movie. Okay, maybe he was a revelation back in the ‘70s, but I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything since Grease, so he was a revelation to me. I don’t want to go into too many details (because I promised “Spoiler-Free”), but mid-way through “(You’re) Timeless to Me,” I realized that he’s topped Danny Zuko. He was wary about doing another film musical because he didn’t want to compete with Danny Zuko. No need. He’s done better. He’s that good in the role.

Best of all, to me, the film does what The Sound of Music film did, which was to take several great songs and give them a better placement than where they were in the original stage version. The result is a meatier second act, which leads more strongly to the climax.

Also executed perfectly was the adaptation of several songs for the film. For example, “I Can Hear the Bells” is done completely different from the film but is just as much fun. There’s also much cleverness in the adaptation of “Welcome to the 60’s” and “Without Love.” There’s been some talk that “Miss Baltimore Crabs” was replaced, but it’s still there, though now there’s an unbeatable callback later on.

I always said that Hairspray would be the perfect musical for kids. It has a lot to say, and not only does it say it well, it’s incredibly inspiring. To me, the problem with the stage version was the sprinkling of a few things that just weren’t needed (i.e. kids having sex on the playground; the African-American boy being the one who wants to de-flower the pure, innocent white girl; the gym teacher wanting to shower with her students . . . that last one was always an “ewwww” to me), but they are pretty much gone in this version. It has one or two light entendres for the PG-rating, but it’s really a great film for all ages. And I will say that I left the theater inspired and wanting to act on doing something for my personal cause, the Not for Sale campaign against human-trafficking.

I would also like to add that not only is the movie inspiring, it’s also very touching. I would go as far as to say that it moved me, like the stage version did, in the strength of Wilbur and Edna’s bond as well as in Tracy’s courage.

As far as I’m concerned, the only complaints anyone could have are in the typical film adaptation complaint department. First of all, the voices generally aren’t as strong as their stage counterparts (and I am still very satisfied with only my Broadway OBC recording) and quite simply, it’s not a stage show, which is always more energetic and, as a result, funnier. However, considering that stage musicals on film can never fully capture the original’s energy or comedic timing, I am more than pleased with the film. Like I said, I loved it!

I also have a feeling the film will give the stage version longer legs. I walked out of the movie last night wishing I could rush off and see an Equity production of the Broadway show so badly. I can’t believe I’ll the only one.

At the end of the movie (and do stay until the end for some great songs cut from the Broadway show), I remembered some of the criticisms I’ve read about the show from Ethan Mordden and Michael John LaChiusa. Watching the movie reminded me of what a blast Hairspray is on stage, and I defy anyone to criticize the joy this musical gives you or how it moves you.

This summer, I’ve seen many of the big movies—Spider-Man 3 (twice), Pirates of the Caribbean: More Confusing Than Dostoyevsky (once is enough), Transformers (good but not great), and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (better than the original). Okay, so I need to see Ratatouille still, but I will say this: Of all the movies I have seen this summer, Hairspray is been hands-down the best.

So, on opening weekend, go see Hairspray! When Hollywood gets a musical right, the suits need to know there’s an audience for them. Opening weekends are crucial to send a message to the analysts. Take your kids, take your nieces and nephews, take your friends. I know I can’t wait to see it again myself.

Broadway Mouth
July 10, 2007

Please Note: Okay, I've never read a novel by Dostoyevsky. I'm just going off rumors.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Amazing Broadway Performer: Norm Lewis

I was first introduced to the Voice that is Norm Lewis from his work on Side Show, and he has quickly become one of my favorite male voices on Broadway. Not only does he have amazing depth in his voice, but he exudes power and warmth. Maybe that’s why I can’t help but feel in the second half of “You Should Be Loved” that Emily Skinner gets what she deserves after turning down a broken-hearted Norm Lewis.

Norm Lewis is high on my list of “Favorite Broadway Stars I’ve Never Seen” (which is an official list, by the way). I can’t get enough of his voice on The Wild Party (gotta love “Eddie and Mae”), and hearing his Curtis Taylor, Jr. on the Dreamgirls concert CD spoiled me; I can’t hear Jamie Foxx sing “When I First Saw You” without cringing because Lewis is so perfect for that role.

I so wanted to make it to New York to see Les Miserables because I wanted to see Lewis as Javert, and I’m so happy that he’s going to be King Triton in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Maybe somebody in the organization will perk up and think of him as a good voice to join Anika Noni Rose in their highly anticipated traditionally animated The Princess and the Frog.

As a bonus, not only does Norm Lewis have an amazing voice, but I’ve heard from people who’ve met him about what a wonderful and nice person he is, which always magnifies any talent in my estimation.

Getting to Know You Interview: http://www.broadwayworld.com/viewcolumn.cfm?colid=12255

Broadway Mouth
July 9, 2007

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Prelude to 50 Amazing Broadway Performers in 50 Weekdays

For Friday's normal blog entry, "Broadway Revivals: The Right Canvas," please look below.

You have the book, the music, the CD, the photographs. The one thing you can never fully appreciate or duplicate as you read books about Broadway shows or listen to other people chat about them is the performance itself. If you listen to Ethel Merman on CD, you don’t get it. Seeing a snippet of her performance used in Broadway: The American Musical, you have to imagine being in a theatre in order for her voice not to be too much like a foghorn. But when you’ve seen an amazing performance, you understand a little of what it might have been like to see the Merm as Annie Oakley, Sally Adams, or Mamma Rose.

Over the next ten weeks or so, providing nothing unusual comes up, I am going to take time to write a little about my favorite performers and the amazing performances that have awed me. Each day’s entry will be saved for future reference, but on the day that I honor them, I will attempt to have a picture of them in the title rectangle of my blog. Additionally, I’ll link to any relevant websites or interviews and search for any online video of that person in performance.

Please keep in mind that my ability to post depends on a number of factors, largely work. That may mean that Monday’s blog entry might be posted at 5:00 EST, then Tuesdays could be posted on noon. I’ll do what I can. Unless something comes up where I can’t get to a computer, there will be a new entry every weekday until I hit 50.

The 50 Amazing Broadway Performers will be listed in no particular order and will be in ADDITION to my usual blog entries. If you are looking for a new performer to be listed, please also look for a new regular entry. I don’t want to be writing entries no one reads!

Broadway Mouth
July 7, 2007

Friday, July 6, 2007

Broadway Revivals: The Right Canvas

Important English teacher philosophy: You breathe in by reading, and you breathe out by writing.

Writers read, and what you read influences how you write. I love reading the likes of Willa Cather and Jane Austen and Richard Wright because I learn so much and it inspires me to write things that aspire to their heights.

There’s been a lot of discussion about revivals on Broadway and how they take up space for new works. As someone who wants to write those new works, I really hope there’s plenty of space for new works. When my times comes, I don’t want to have to wait two years for a theatre to open.

At the same time, we need something to breathe in. As I said in a blog last month, I loved seeing The Color Purple and The Wedding Singer, but I still don’t think many of the big shows of today yet compare with the big shows of the past. You’ve got to have amazing, flawless works staring down at you as you write so you can ask yourself, is this even close to being as good as Kiss Me, Kate (or The Music Man or Guys and Dolls or The King and I)?

On Broadway you get the best performers, the best directors, the best choreographers. Where else but Broadway could you get Brian Stokes Mitchell as Fred Graham, Faith Prince as Ella Peterson, Kelli O’Hara as Babe Williams, or Michael Cerveris as Sweeney Todd?

There are tons of productions of any number of great classic musicals all over the country. At any given time, I can see a high school doing Anything Goes, a college doing Guys and Dolls, a community theatre doing Annie, and maybe even an Equity production of The Music Man. In fact, I’ve seen them all, but none of them have come close to seeing them on Broadway. I live in a city with a very large theatre community, but we generally get 2-5 Equity productions of great Broadway musicals a year, and there’s typically nothing to compare with the Paper Mill Playhouse or the Pasadena Playhouse.

The first time I saw The Music Man, it was at a community theatre. It was an okay show, but I didn’t walk away in awe of an amazing score or libretto. When I walked out of the Susan Stroman revival, however, I felt like I had seen a spectacular show.

That’s because nobody does it like Broadway. Seeing a community theatre production of Oliver! is comparable to watching an epic film like Gone With the Wind on DVD. It’s better than not seeing it at all, but it’s the way the show was meant to be seen.

Not only does Broadway do them better, Broadway provides opportunities for shows to get produced that wouldn’t otherwise be seen. I think I could die without ever seeing a middling local production of Bells are Ringing; Kiss Me, Kate; The Pajama Game; Sweet Charity; 110 in the Shade; and a host of others, let alone a first-class Broadway production surrounded by first-class Equity talent.

In fact, I wish people like Tommy Tune who, in the Rick McKay documentary DVD, complain about revivals taking up New York theatres, would put their money where their mouths are and direct great touring productions of classic shows that haven’t been tampered with (like the Michael York Camelot was revised). He could give us Broadway names in Call Me Madam, Gypsy, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and a host of other shows that would help fill out the gaps between great new Broadway shows coming into town on tour.

The good news is that all Broadway musicals are a gamble. You have the revivals that make money, like Kiss Me, Kate and A Chorus Line, but then you have those that don’t run long and probably don’t make money—Wonderful Town, Sweet Charity, Bells are Ringing. So, people get a chance to see these amazing shows, they run their season, and they generally quickly open up space for new productions, just like new shows do the same thing.

Mame is a Broadway musical, and it was meant to be seen on Broadway. You can see the Mona Lisa in a book, but if you are really passionate about experiencing and studying art, you don’t settle for a book in the library. If new creators want more new musicals, then they need to create shows that deserve that space, both to inspire the next generation of writers and to delight audiences to keep them coming back to Broadway. Until then, revivals play an important part not only in providing opportunities to see these great shows in the way they were meant to be seen but also in allowing the next generation of creators to learn from them.

Broadway Mouth
July 6, 2007

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Show Business: The Road You Didn't Take to Broadway

If you could wear out a DVD, I would have long ago worn out the DVDs of the two great Broadway documentaries—Rick McKay’s Broadway: The Golden Age and Michael Kantor’s PBS Broadway: The American Musical. Because of that, I was supremely excited to see the Dori Berinstein film Show Business: The Road to Broadway when it finally made its way to a theater near me. When it hits DVD, hopefully with a good amount of bonus material, I have a feeling it too will get the re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-watching treatment as well.

As many have said before, yes, the film itself doesn’t offer any tremendous amount of insight into the Broadway theatre world, partially because I was following theatre closely during the 2003-2004 season and because I am aware of all the difficulties of getting a show on Broadway and making it stay there. That is not to say, though, that Show Business: The Road to Broadway isn’t a must-see for anyone even remotely interested in theatre and one I wish all casual theatre-goers would see to help them appreciate the art form. Of particular interest are the perspectives of critics and gossip columnists interviewed for the film, which helps shed some light on what the heck they are thinking as they critique and what pressures they face from their reviewing peers. Needless to say, I can’t wait for the DVD.

The biggest thing the movie did for me, though, is to remind me exactly what the road to Broadway is. Sometimes I forget what following your dreams is supposed to be like. Seeing Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx in Show Business: The Road to Broadway reminded me that the road to Broadway is paved with good intentions and a lot of pain and frustration. I forget the exact details of their stories, but they essentially held a lot of dumb jobs, lost them often, and struggled like artists tend to struggle.

Now, for the record, I’ve never lost a job. In fact, I tend to get people asking me to reconsider my resignation or telling me that they are sad to see me go. But I’ve held my fair share of “I am capable of so much more” jobs, just like Lopez and Marx did. This past Christmas, I worked in the stock room of a big box retailer, which was the epitome of brainless, mind-numbing work that left me at one point contemplating, “Would it be better to finish out my shift or to maim myself with a sippy cup?” It was a tough choice, but I really was greatly thankful for the paycheck that that job provided to supplement my substitute teaching job during the day. I just hope I can look back and say that my road to Broadway was paved with big box retailers.

I love David Wienir and Jodie Langel’s book Making It on Broadway, which I very highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet. Collecting interviews from a number of both significant and working class Broadway talents, Wienir and Langel present a vividly real picture of the Broadway life, both before and after “the big break.” You get the stories of the first apartments—roach-infested cubicles in scary areas of the city—and stories of life after the show closes—such as topping off a great role in Cats by having to dress in a cat costume and performing at birthday parties while Mom gives you direction on how to do what you were just paid big bucks to do and were grandly applauded for doing. Yes indeed, Mr. Berlin, there is no business like show business.

But then, face it, what would be a good success story if the person graduated from college, made all the right choices, then became an overnight sensation and won the Tony by age 25?

Last week I attended a recital for a friend raising money, and there I met up with a college theatre friend I hadn’t seen for quite some time. An extremely talented actor, this friend had some success with an upstart theatre group but is now focusing his efforts on other very worthwhile causes. One by one, these very talented theatre folk I know have chosen other roads in life. I don’t blame them. My gosh, I’m thrilled for them. It’s not an honor to stand at a gathering and say, “Yeah, I quit my job to follow a dream in a manner that I thoroughly researched and prepared for but hasn’t come to fruition, so I’m stuck here instead of being there, doing a temporary job that brings only dissatisfaction and frustration.” Maturing doesn’t mean holding onto childhood whims, it means realizing what’s important in life and going for it—whether that’s at a 9-5 job or whether it means aiming for a road less traveled.

At the same time, as frustrated as I get, I guess I’m like so many other people who go for broke to pursue their dreams. I’m happy with the choices I’ve made. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m happy with the choices I’ve made, but I’m happy nonetheless. When I turn fifty, I won’t have to wonder if the dreams I never dared are dead.

That’s why when I hear the news that a great Broadway talent like Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Norbert Leo Butz, or Audra McDonald land a television show, I’m so happy for them. Yes, it would be tragic if Audra McDonald were to star in a television show for eleven years, but I don’t know if I can criticize someone for wanting job stability or for wanting to become a big Broadway star via television. The sad truth is that if you come to Broadway via Los Angeles, it’s much easier to get meaty roles. Somewhere recently I read that Audra McDonald wanted to do a revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but knew that she wouldn’t have the name to do it. How sad that she was passed up for Beyonce, who, after how many films, finally just learned the definition of the word acting in the film of Dreamgirls. The devastating reality is that if McDonald were to be a big television star, she could come in for a summer and do a big show. She could be stunt casting. Instead of Melanie Griffth in Chicago, we could have Audra McDonald. She may not be a dancer, but then again, these days, what star of Chicago is?

Even if Norbert Leo Butz appears for two or three seasons on a stinky Fox sitcom, he could return to Broadway with a stronger ability to originate roles.

For the modern Broadway star, Los Angeles becomes an all-important detour. Nathan Lane, Kristin Chenoweth, and Alan Cumming have all enjoyed great success on stage because of their Los Angeles detours. Yes, Lane had The Producers to propel him into Broadway super-stardom and Chenoweth had Wicked, but that’s because the rest of the country knew them from movie roles and failed sitcoms. People knew Lane from The Lion King, Mouse Hunt, Stuart Little, and all those other generally forgettable roles in generally forgettable movies, so when there was this talk of this stupendous new hit on Broadway, they paid attention because they knew the name.

Sometimes, like the three above, we get them back, other times, we lose them entirely or almost entirely—John Travolta, Kevin Kline, and Marilu Henner all come to mind. But we do need to face the fact that part of the problem lies within ourselves. The Broadway community needs to respect its own self before anyone will respect it.

Look at what happens. You have the Tony Awards, which spends ¾ of the evening proving to the country that because Hollywood validates Broadway, then Broadway is valid. If someone appears on stage opposite of Cheryl Ladd or Reba McEntire or some other big outside star, they list it in their Playbill bios. No one would say, “Beast in Beauty and the Beast (w/ Kerry Butler)” but they would mention Toni Braxton, as if performing with Braxton is any more impressive than performing with Susan Egan or Sarah Uriarte Berry.

It particularly bothers me when people go overboard praising Hollywood talent because they are Hollywood talent. I never saw Reba in Annie Get Your Gun. I was in New York at the time, but because the show was coming on tour, I wanted to see something I wouldn’t get to see at home. I recently watched her “I Got the Sun in the Morning” on Blue Gobo, and she clearly is very talented, but her dancing was pretty stunt-casting quality. I can’t honestly evaluate her overall performance because I didn’t see her, but to say she was better than Bernadette Peters who could act, sing, and dance the role seems a little starry-eyed Other-World awe to me.

Similarly, I remember Chita Rivera praising Antonio Banderas on the Tony Awards, saying something to the effect of what a joy it was to see him making such progress in the show. So . . . when everyone else was falling over themselves trying to say enough words to praise Banderas, was it because he was truly Broadway quality or was it based on the fact that someone of his caliber was stooping down to do little old Broadway?

We have to get to the point where talent is what matters most. Yes, Broadway producers need to get butts in the seats, but if we (as in die-hard Broadway fans) are so awed by a cocktail of Hollywood name and/or sex appeal, then why shouldn’t the producers be too? Is stunt casting bad unless it’s Joey Lawrence because he’s got muscle?

I saw Christina Applegate very early in her time as Charity before she hit Broadway. I will say I was very impressed with how she tackled the role. She had the right amount of charm and perky cuteness for the role, and for a non-dancer, she really moved on that stage to beat the band. She would have been amazing in a film version. However, she lacked the stage presence of any number of very talented “no name” performers I’ve seen—Kim Huber, JoAnn M. Hunter, Darcie Roberts, Andrea Rivette—and from the New York reviews I read, she didn’t seem to become Amy Spanger overnight. Okay, so I know we can’t all be Amy Spanger, but Applegate got a Tony nomination. Christina Applegate gave a great performance, but it was not up to par with many other great performances I’ve seen, and I can’t believe that there weren’t a number of other dynamic performers that season who gave great performances and had stage presence.

I have honestly felt that I would have a much more likely chance of getting a show on Broadway if I could spend five or six years writing for a middling sitcom. If I were to call up one of the big producers on Broadway and say, “Hi, I’m so-and-so, and I wrote for show XYZ,” I’d not only get heard but would actually get somewhere. Why? Because people on Broadway feel honored when Hollywood folk “stoop down” to their level. Look at Mel Brooks. He gets washed up in Hollywood, and everyone is ecstatic when he rehashes his past successes with inserted song and dance.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t applaud talent from wherever it comes. In her second Tony acceptance speech, Christine Ebersole basically acknowledged that she came back to New York because Hollywood didn’t want her anymore. Similarly, Hugh Jackman got his start on the stage and was by all accounts a true stage presence in The Boy From Oz. And even though performers like Sandy Duncan and Marilu Henner left Broadway for Hollywood and have not established themselves as contemporary Broadway regulars, they are true Broadway talents and their pre-sitcom Playbill credits prove their talent.

I don’t even have an issue with the flood from American Idol. I saw Diane DeGarmo as Brooklyn, and that girl’s got some real talent. She may have come from television, but she’s very talented. The fact that her first big audition was televised doesn’t make it any less impressive of a talent than Ashley Brown, another young performer who made it big while young because of talent.

And that’s what should count on Broadway—talent. I’m less interested in the road that people take to get to Broadway than I am in what they’ve got while they’re there and how dedicated they are to the craft.

In my dream world, at some point I get a show on television that can be filmed in New York. In fact, I’m in the midst of creating a tween type of show (think Hannah Montana but funny) that will probably never see the light of day, but my goal was to have it produced in New York. I wanted a specific Broadway star to play a reoccurring role, then guest bits and one-time shot characters could culled be from the Broadway ranks. Not only would this provide income to help supplement the life of actors, but it would help create Broadway names so that when families came to New York, little Sally might say, “The mom from that sitcom is in that show; I want to see it!” So instead of seeing a first-rate television star giving a third-rate Broadway performance, there could be a first-rate Broadway star with television credits giving a first-rate Broadway performance.

Any job in show business is a tough one to get and to keep. For every starving artist who hits it big just before being foreclosed upon, God only knows how many there are who never get that big job. Sadly, sometimes to get that big job, these days a theatre star could use the help of some Los Angeles street cred on their road to Broadway. So why shouldn’t we cheer our Broadway talents when they land a big role on a television show? Sadly, we may never see Norbert Leo Butz again (or Heather Headley or Marissa Jaret Winokur or Sara Ramirez), but perhaps he’s just taking the advice of his own community—you’ve only really made it on your road to Broadway when you’ve made it in Hollywood.

Broadway Mouth
July 3, 2007

Monday, July 2, 2007

Follies Footage

To read my latest blog entry "From the Mouth of Alan Jay Lerner," please look below.

To help my readers appreciate some of my comments on the Sondheim show Follies (written about in "The Road They Didn't Take: Fixing Follies" below), I thought I'd include this great footage from Blue Gobo, complete with Yvonne DeCarlo forgetting the lyrics!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

From the Mouth of Alan Jay Lerner

When I wrote the blog entry “A Hundred Million Miracles,” I did so because I wanted to share something exciting I had found with the people who read my blog. I am very thankful to those who upload footage onto You Tube and Blue Gobo because it’s all about education. The more I can see of, say, Gwen Verdon from the original Sweet Charity, the more I can learn. Theatre is a living art form. You can gain much from reading about the great performances and from hearing first hand accounts, but until you see Heather Headley and Adam Pascal singing “Elaborate Lives” or see Gower Champion’s original “Before the Parade Passes By” choreography, you can never fully understand.

So below, I’ve scanned in the foreword to the published Paint Your Wagon libretto from which I quoted in my “Hello and Faux” blog entry. It is entitled “Advice to Young Musical Writers” and is written by Alan Jay Lerner himself. Reading this article really gave me perspective on a number of the current trends on Broadway.

The longer I study Broadway, how true it seems to me that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In the Rick McKay documentary Broadway: The Golden Age and on the DVD bonus features, a number of significant theatre folk acknowledge that people have been bemoaning the state of Broadway since the 1970s. In looking at this article, it’s clear that people have been bemoaning the state of Broadway much longer . . . even in the midst of the great Golden Age.

So I propose that we limit complaining, continue learning, continue creating, and continue to fight the good fight of getting a great show on Broadway.

Advice to Young Musical Writers
by Alan Jay Lerner

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 has been especially-true of the musical play (musical play as opposed to musical comedy). There have actually been only three successful original musical plays in the last decade. 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. As one who has written four originals, the one between these covers included, let me hereby warn all aspiring authors and composers to stuff their ears with cotton and pay no heed to this soulful wail. 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. If you create a total work that finds general acceptance, no mention will be made of what you have done. If it's unsuccessful, no one will commend you for your effort and encourage you to continue. All this I can state as a positive fact. And though it may seem edged with bitterness, I can assure you it is not. I have always been fully aware of the folly of that end of my endeavor and have often cursed the ambition that drives me. But with it all, my rewards in the musical field have been far in excess of what I truthfully feel I have contributed. No, my reasons for the above advice are sound and practical and come from one who loves his trade and has deep respect for it as a medium of expression.

The lyric theater is the one, and only one, true invention that has been made in theatrical form for many years. It is also a purely American creation; so American, in fact, is this subtle interweaving of word, song, and dance, that no other country has even been able to approach it. Because it is new, it also has great possibilities for development. And with a public that is searching for escape almost more avidly than it did during the war, there is a large, waiting audience. But there is also a problem. And this problem is a serious one. The spank in the machine is that there are very few people writing musicals. I don't believe there are more than a dozen composers, librettists, and lyricists in all who are regular practitioners and who have committed their careers to the musical stage. Not only that, but of that number no more than three, possibly four, have been developed in the past ten years. The rest have been the backbone of our musical theater since the twenties and early thirties.

There are a myriad of reasons why this should be so. The most important one, however, is economic. Although there are many struggling neophytes composing musical plays, the cost of production these days is so astronomical that investors are reluctant to trust their funds to any but the tried and true. The hazard is further increased by the fact that the cost of attending a musical has risen so that although there is a public longing for entertainment, people are unwilling to risk the price of a ticket unless they have been assured by the press that the evening will be a rewarding one. This means there is no room for the moderate success. A musical show is either a smash hit or it will invariably be a financial failure. And to increase the hazard even more, favorable notices by a majority of the eight New York critics are not sufficient. There are two of the eight writing for the daily press who must be pleased above all. Survival without their blessing is relatively impossible; even though survival with their blessing is not absolutely guaranteed. All of this naturally has immediate effects on the economic and emotional plight of the author and composer. How long can they continue writing without seeing production of, and receiving remuneration for, their efforts? Where do they make mistakes and thus learn? And how long can anyone endure without some sign of encouragement?

And so I return to my early thesis. With the risks being what they are—and I have only mentioned a few of the multitude—your chances not only of reaching production but achieving success will be inestimably enhanced if you begin with a book, a short story, a motion picture, or a play that has already been approved by public and critic alike. The value of the basic story cannot be exaggerated. There is often a general tendency to regard the book of a musical as of little consequence. This is especially true when the musical is a success. But let the opening night be a two and a half hour wake and you will read the next morning how neither the cast, the music, the scenery, nor the dancing was able to overcome the inept plot. I can tell you the book is all-essential. It is the fountain from which all waters spring. So start off on the right foot and select a story that is all prepared for you. The translation of that story to musical form is quite complex enough. Within that frame you will find more than adequate challenge to your originality and enough on which to experiment.

January 25, 1952

Originally published as a foreword to the published libretto of Paint Your Wagon

MLA Citation Information:
Lerner, Alan Jay. Foreword. Paint Your Wagon. Coward-McCann, 1952. vii-ix.

(Blogger doesn't allow for underlining, but please be aware that MLA requires titles of plays to be underlined instead of italicized.)

Please Note: I would just like to acknowledge that I am a big fan of copyrights, having ownership of a few of them myself. My intent in posting this piece of copyrighted work is solely education. I make no money from this blog. Since it has been long out of print, I trust that by posting it, I am not taking away from any earning potential from those who own the copyright.

I would be a happy camper if I got an email saying that this essay was going to be collected into a new collection of articles about Broadway over the past century, and therefore, I needed to remove it; however, since that seems sadly unlikely, I make it available. If you are the owner of this copyright and would like me to remove it, please contact me.

Broadway Mouth
July 1, 2007