Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Musings on ElleTV and The Little Mermaid Gossip Machine

Legally Blonde on MTV

Whenever you endeavor to do something new or different, it’s a major risk. Safety rarely brings about change or innovation. It was a risk to open a show with an old bat churning butter instead of leggy chorus girls stepping away. Thank God for Oklahoma!, right? It was a risk to cast film star Angela Lansbury in a major singing and dancing role, but she won the Tony (and everyone’s hearts) in Mame. It was a risk for Andrew Lloyd Webber to put a bunch of poems to music, but Cats has entertained how many?

That’s not to say that risk is always met with success. In My Life was a risk, which ended famously with a thud of disbelief. First time producer Rosie O’Donnell sinking her own money into the sinking Taboo was a big-time risk. The list could continue endlessly.

Broadcasting Legally Blonde on MTV is undoubtedly a gigantic risk. People like me, eager to see all the great shows, would gladly catch the broadcast on MTV then go to New York to see other shows. Of course, nothing ever replaces live theatre, but when you’re spending $60-120 and there are so many tantalizing shows on the boards, you have to spend wisely to see as much as you can.

That said, this could be the start of a major wave. The vision is there. When teens and tweens fall in love with things, they fall hard and fast. This could totally boost the Broadway box office as kids come to see Laura Bell Bundy live. Look at the High School Musical phenomenon—kids have watched the move dozens of times, bought two editions of the CD, have seen the concert, bought the concert DVD, are now running to see it on stage, and are now eating up the sequel in record numbers. This airing isn’t even a shot-in-the-dark. People like me—and those of us who post on the message boards and gobble up—aren’t the ones for whom this airing is intended.

The truth is that Legally Blonde will otherwise surely struggle during the winter months when vacationers aren’t coming to the city in droves. Like The Wedding Singer, it might otherwise face an end-of-the-year farewell. This MTV airing is hardly a sure bet, but it’s a calculated risk and a piece of visionary thinking.

Even if it costs the Broadway show, it will definitely set up for a popular tour and probably many successful high school productions once the show is ready for licensing. Plus, the Original Broadway Cast recording could have sales going through the roof, or at least a few feet off the floor. With such broad national attention, a successful airing is going to do something for that CD.

Two people are going to benefit the most. First of all, theatre folk. Not only will we get a free Broadway show and a lifelong remembrance of it, but the airing will do something to ignite interest in theatre among young people. We all have our own first life-changing encounter with Broadway story. For how many kids will this present a different version of the same experience? It’s MTV, and it’s sure to be a mega-hit with teen girls, at least, likely more. After all, boys dig High School Musical just as much as girls, and Legally Blonde is a beloved movie.

Secondly, it’s also possible that it’ll give a big boost to Laura Bell Bundy’s career. Again, you never do know, but this will give her attention in Hollywood, and if the airing is really successful, she’ll become popular with the teen crowd. When that happens, a beautiful, intelligent, and talented woman like Laura Bell Bundy could become very famous.

So, I’m excited for Legally Blonde on MTV, even though I don’t even have cable. I think it’ll be fascinating to see what happens and how this could affect shows in the future. I applaud the producers of Legally Blonde for thinking outside-the-box and being willing to try something new.

The Little Mermaid buzz

As word hits New York and pictures begin to surface of Ariel and friends, I think it’s important to remember a few things.

One of the recurring ideas among contemporary Broadway actors interviewed by Rick McKay for his Broadway: The Golden Age documentary and sequels (as previewed on the bonus features of the original film’s DVD) is how the stage version of Beauty and the Beast really, in the words of Tovah Feldshuh, “changed the value system [on Broadway] pretty drastically.” Now, this is not my own commentary, but I think it’s important to hear what she’s saying. To some degree, I have to agree with Feldshuh when she says, “It’s so interesting to see an actor do this in a leotard [motioning like a teapot], let us say, or in something where you can perceive that there’s a person in there rather than having the teapot being so all-encompassing that you don’t even know Beth Fowler’s in there, that it could be Beth Fowler or it could be Mrs. Clinton.”

Part of the magic of the theatre is the audience’s use of imagination. This is one thing I always taught my students. I also think this is one reason why The Lion King has been so successful. It’s not literal. The first time I saw Our Town, I still remember how magical it was because of Wilder’s creative use of the audience’s imagination. That’s magic, maybe even more so than Norma Desmond’s mansion.

It’s important to remember that Disney Theatricals head Thomas Schumacher wasn’t involved in the production of Beauty and the Beast. The productions that he has helped create are not literal interpretations of films. Obviously, The Lion King is a great example of that. Aida, while not based on a film, was not realistically Egyptian either. In my opinion, the creative team produced a concept that was far more theatrical and visually appealing. Even Tarzan, which needed help, took large and daring deliberate steps away from the film. I haven’t seen Mary Poppins yet, but from my understanding, it too attempts to create a uniquely theatrical experience and takes vast steps away from the movie.

I have a feeling that Thomas Schumacher has a more theatrical heart than his Beauty and the Beast forbearers, which will influence The Little Mermaid. That’s a good thing.

The best determination, it is important to remember, will always be the final product. Personally, I’d take a more literal Beauty and the Beast to the more imagination-based Tarzan any day, but that is based solely on the overall experience. The Little Mermaid, above all, will fail or succeed based on its storytelling. Having an imaginative design will really be secondary. Remember Follies?

Now, that is not to say that abstract costuming is the best idea, or that the show doesn’t need work—be it major or minor. I have no clue. But I think avoiding literal interpretation is at least a far more interesting take than simply taking the movie and projecting that onto the stage. If Disney were to simply present an image-by-image replica, then why not do it at Disney World?

I also take issue with Michael Riedel’s recent column on Disney’s relying on new people to help create their shows. I think that’s a mark of inventiveness. It was that same thinking that moved Thomas Schumacher and Peter Schneider to call upon Julie Taymor to take on The Lion King. So it didn’t work as well with Bob Crowley as director of Tarzan, but I think the Disney people should be applauded for experimenting. Sometimes the experimenting works, and sometimes it doesn’t; however, it is better than always taking the easy path. Opera costume designer Tatiana Noginova and director Francesca Zambello are intensely creative people with a history of very interesting ideas. What a good idea to hand-deliver their talents to Broadway. Maybe it’ll work like The Lion King, and maybe it won’t, like Tarzan. But no one is going to know until they try.

As history has shown us—Oklahoma!, Mame, and Cats, for a sampling of examples—is that taking risks can lead to something spectacular. Taking the safe route rarely does.

the Broadway Mouth
September 12, 2007

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