Thursday, October 25, 2007

Show Business: The Road to Broadway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, don’t miss it.

the Broadway Mouth
October 25, 2007

Monday, October 22, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 21, 2007

From the Mouth of Baz Luhrmann

In watching Singin’ in the Rain again, I came across an interesting thought from Baz Luhrmann—director of Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge, and the Broadway La Boheme—on the DVD commentary track.

(Note: We he is referencing “we,” I believe he is including himself in the creation of his film Moulin Rouge in the discussion.)

Singin’ in the Rain is made up of a lot of old music. . . . The idea of contemporary music, period setting. When Judy Garland is singing, “Clang, clang, clang went the trolley,” in Meet Me in St. Louis, the film is set in 1900 . . . She is singing big band 1940s radio music, the equivalent of Beck and Bowie, and, you know, just pop music. We are using our popular vernacular, our popular music, to understand character and story in another time, another place.”

Twice now I’ve discussed my thoughts on the subject of pop music on Broadway (most recently in “Musings on Hairspray Movie and Hairspray Stage” from September and “Give Them What They Want / Za Ba Zoovee” from June), and I find Luhrmann’s comments an interesting addition to the discussion.

the Broadway Mouth
October 21, 2007

Friday, October 19, 2007

Broadway Space

I bit on a posting on Talkin’ Broadway about the new online networking site BroadwaySpace. I never got into MySpace or Facebook, but I couldn’t resist something as focused on theatre as this. We’ll see how exciting it proves to be in the long run, but right now I’ve been having fun playing around.

I think it’s much like the other networking sites, where you can post photos and information about yourself, blog, visit with others, and join interest-based groups. I’m using the blog feature to re-post some of my older blog entries just because many of them are still relevant but get lost in the shuffle (particularly from when I did the 50 Amazing Broadway Performers in 50 Weekdays series, which makes those older entries easy to lose on the index).

The interesting part for me is that I’m lacking in online networking social skills. What is the purpose of being someone’s friend? How do you go about it? Are there any special rules for leaving comments on other people’s pages? Why would I leave comments on their pages?

I think this could be a great place to enter into discussion about theatre on a more personal level. Message boards are great, but you are pretty much risking attack at anything you say. I love discussing theatre and learning from that discussion, so perhaps BroadwaySpace will become another avenue for just that sort of thing.

By the way, my photo for the space is actually a drawing. When I did a reading of my first musical, I hired models, a photographer, and a graphic designer (for far below minimums, but they all got great additions to their portfolios) to create it. This was from the graphic designer’s pencil drawings of his idea for the poster.

Broadway Space:

Broadway Mouth’s Broadway Space:

the Broadway Mouth
October 19, 2007

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Redefining Success: How Long Does a Show Need to Be Running?

I love the exceptions we set up. No one wants this onslaught of jukebox musicals to continue. Except the music of ________________ would make a great show. Disney needs to stop doing Broadway! Except for the movie ________________ which really would make for a great Broadway musical. And those long-running shows—enough already! Except ________________ is closing too soon!

This was particularly prominent when Beauty and the Beast was closing. Despite all the online objections to Beauty and the Beast being a carbon copy cartoon on stage, on its lack of integrity as a Broadway show, and so on, the moment Disney posted the closing notice, it seems like everyone was saying how Beauty and the Beast should be running longer, that it was sad to see it go so soon.

Broadway fanatics respond to shows very personally. It is as if the alchemy of costumes, book, music, choreography, lighting, sets, and marquee form a human being, we get so attached. Our favorite performers may no longer even be in the show, but we mourn over lost experiences that can never be recreated, the new audiences that will never get to laugh at that joke or be awed by that choreography.

The result is that we want theatres to open up for great new shows without having to lose their previous occupants. Recently there has been much online speculation about the impending closing of The Drowsy Chaperone and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee based on weekly grosses (neither of which has announced closing) plus much conjecture about Legally Blonde. Each of these shows have their own fan bases, so . . . no one can bare to see ________________ close so early!

In the Golden Era, shows lasted a couple seasons if they were a big hit—My Fair Lady lasted six and that was a mega-hit—then closed. Today, though, we have a new standard, the enormous number of performances racked up by Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Miss Saigon. If you compare, say, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee to Miss Saigon, okay, its run will be short then.

But even though we have this new definition of a long-running show, the formula for determining success still remains. If a Broadway musical stays open long enough to re-coup its initial investment, then that’s time for celebration. If, like the two current shows named above, they not only re-coup their investments but also brings in some profit . . . then that’s all the success anyone can require of a show. If a show closes breaking even or earning a profit, then its closing is a time for hearty celebration, for not only has it entertained many people but its closing is now nurturing a new musical production which can open in that newly vacant theatre.

So, let’s keep mourning the passing of our favorite shows, but let’s also keep it all in perspective. If A Chorus Line were to close tomorrow (the show’s numbers seem healthy, so it is very doubtful it’ll be closing soon), the show has already turned a profit, as has The Lion King, Wicked, Jersey Boys, and a bunch of other long-running shows.

Who could ask for anything more?

the Broadway Mouth
October 18, 2007

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Wanted: Published Libretti

Painters go to museums to look at Rembrandt’s work. Filmmakers pop in their Gone with the Wind DVDs. Songwriters buy the latest hip hop album from Target. Librettists, however, have to scramble to get their hands on whatever they can.

This summer I was reading the Keith Garberian book The Making of Guys and Dolls, and it brought to mind a great frustration, which is that it is difficult/impossible to get your hands on the libretti of so many musicals. If you are a producing organization, you can just request perusal copies of whatever shows you want, and if the show is available through Samuel French or is a Sondheim show, you can easily buy a copy.

Unfortunately, many of the great libretti from the past aren’t that easy to find. When it comes to finding out-of-print libretti, I’ve managed to be very scrappy, finding classics like The King and I, The Sound of Music, Camelot, 1776, and Of Thee I Sing and lesser-known older shows like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Fanny, Flower Drum Song, and Me and Juliet at used bookstores in small cities. But it is hard to find some of the best ones—Oklahoma!, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, Damn Yankees, The Music Man, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and others—and when you do find them, they tend to be very expensive.

Furthermore, even in a Broadway revival, rarely do you see the original libretto. In most of the revivals from the past decade, you are getting interpolated songs and altered books. The movies, most will agree, are not the same thing either. In the very few successful film adaptations there are, it’s a different medium and changes have had to be made if only for that sake. So, attempting to experience the libretto through the movie version is just not the same, not only for the prerequisite new songs and cut old ones, but because the stage is different altogether.

As an aspiring-to-be-produced librettist, I long for the ability to get my hands on these, to read them, re-read them, to mark them up. If you want to study the masters, you need to have access to their unabridged work. As Garebian was discussing the process of writing Guys and Dolls, I so much wanted to read the libretto to better understand its construction and use of humor. I wanted to study it and learn from the best.

Having access to libretti also allows you to experience shows in the original form. I’ll probably never get to see Me and Juliet, but by reading it, I was able to enjoy it. God only knows if and when there will ever be another production of On the Twentieth Century, but by reading the libretto, I could relive the Broadway production I never saw. There are a host of older shows that will never see production, but being able to read their libretti (like Wildcat, Allegro, Do Re Mi) gives you the chance to learn from others’ mistakes (and often, there is still a level of pleasure in reading them).

The number of recent publications, while not expansive by any means, suggests that there must be some market for them. Among the recently published libretti include Hwang’s Flower Drum Song; Urinetown; Hairspray; Caroline, or Change; and The Light in the Piazza. Some of these have been a real blessing because for those of us not in New York, this has been the only way to experience these shows when they didn’t tour. I’m particularly thankful for Willy Hausman’s collection The New American Musical in which he gathered Floyd Collins, Rent, Parade, and The Wild Party. I’m hoping he produces a sequel collection soon.

And for all the great libretti published, there are still many which would be great to have—Marie Christine, Ragtime, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Wicked, and The Color Purple, to name a few. This out leaves out the vast majority of classic musicals that aren’t available. It would be great to have easy access to the original books to Oklahoma!; Carousel; Brigadoon; Bloomer Girl; Hello, Dolly! and all those other great shows from the Golden Era.

In a June blog entry entitled “Announced for Next Season: The Second Golden Age,” I stated my belief that we are on the cusp of another golden age. One key element for that to happen is the need for strong musical book-writers, people who are not just great film writers who can be tapped for Broadway but people who know and understand and love the art form. Yes, we need great songs, but a great score can hardly rise above a mediocre book. We tend to nurture songwriters and value their contribution above the book-writers, but there needs to be educational opportunity and support for them as well.

One group that could lead the pack on this is the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization. Their shows are some of the best-known in the world, and I can’t believe there wouldn’t be interest in individual or collected publications of the Masters’ original libretti. Perhaps if they did, others would follow suit.

Speaking as a wanna-be-produced librettist, I want access to these libretti to learn and study. When I’m wondering what kind of humor Abe Burrows used in Guys and Dolls, I want to look it up and see. When I want to understand why Walter Bobby felt the need to improve on Sweet Charity, I need to read the original libretto to get it. When I want to see how Oscar Hammerstein developed Billy without getting us to hate him, I can only do that by reading the libretto.

the Broadway Mouth
October 13, 2007

Thursday, October 11, 2007

You Simply Cannot Do It Alone or, How I Became a Theatre Expert in Three Easy Steps

Step 1
In student teaching 7th graders, I decided to create a unit on William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker. I entered the experience unsure of what I would be teaching, and as I was paging through a literature book from the early 80s, I spotted the play. Instantly I knew it’d be just the thing.

I created a fantastic unit centered on the play which focused on theatre appreciation and the theme of overcoming challenges/disabilities. I began by giving the kids notes on what makes a play—why live theatre is unique from movies sort of things—and pumped them up for enjoying the play. As part of this, I showed them clips from shows on The Tony Awards, including The Lion King and The King and I, to illustrate those points. So, for example, when we watched “Shall We Dance,” we learned how the imagination helps create the set.

I also created a bulletin board complete with photos of Broadway shows, pamphlets from local theatres, pictures of myself doing improv and the few shows I had done in college. I will admit it was a great unit. The kids were excited, loved the play, wanted to read it, and we all had a blast doing it.

My co-operating teacher was very inexperienced when it came to drama, so to him, my use of all this background and knowledge combined with my enthusiasm and the success of the unit made him impressed.

In my letter of recommendation, he wrote, “He has an extensive drama background.” I was 22. By this point in life, I had certainly developed an interest and had seen a respectable number of plays, but my actual formal education was three theatre classes in college and two literature classes focused on plays (Drama Literature and Shakespeare). I had only acted in two plays, done stage crew for one, but had been heavily involved in improv for 2 ½ years. That was it.

I now had an “extensive drama background.”

Step 2
When I interviewed for a one-year English teaching position at a prestigious arts school three years later, I advertised my artistic talent. Admittedly, by this point, I had developed considerably more in my learning and experience. I had directed high school plays, had written a ton of skits and one longer play (which was basically a gathering of long skits into one cohesive story, but nothing grand by any means), plus I had been working on my first musical (and was in fact preparing it for a local workshop reading). I had even received some encouragement from a local musical development program (headed by a respected Broadway producer) when my work (at the age of 22, pat myself on the back) remained into the second round of selection for development . . . up against some people who had had professional credits on both coasts. I had also studied musical theatre considerably to learn more and to grow as an artist.

As part of that interview, I shared all my letters of recommendation and, to my surprise, was hired.

Step 3
This was a wonderful school, and it was filled with top-notch teachers of the core academic subjects (the group of which I was a part) as well as teachers who were experts in teaching performing, visual, and written arts, including two drama teachers who were very experienced and passionate in the way you would imagine arts school teachers to be.

After I was hired, the school’s wonderful program director mailed out a “welcome back” letter to all the teachers in the building. In that letter, he introduced the new faculty.

I was introduced as the new English teacher who had “an extensive drama background.”

Gee, that was easy.

The Reality
Unfortunately, actually getting an extensive drama background under any other criteria is pretty hard. In watching the Rent 2-disc special edition DVD this past weekend, I was astounded by the fascinating documentary on the making of Rent (both stage and film), which included an extensive look at the life of Jonathan Larson and his dream of writing musicals.

Jonathan Larson labored unceasingly toward his goal. Obviously he was talented beyond belief—just look at the longevity of his show—but he still had to develop his talent. Even as his show was courting Broadway producers, the producers were acknowledging that there needed to be work done on the show. It was rough. Even today when you read analyses of Rent, it is clear people think it is a great show. But I’ve never read an analysis that points to the show as perfect, possibly a result of Larson dying before the show could be frozen to his perfection.

It appears as if Larson was learning the difficult art of collaboration. According to friends on the documentary, Larson resisted collaboration. One even suggests that his resistance to collaboration may have been why his Suburbia never got produced, that it wasn’t because he was a new talent but because it was flawed.

In my journey as a wanna-be-produced librettist, I have learned many important lessons about the art of musicals. Some of these are lessons I learned the hard way, and others I learned by reading from people more experienced than myself. However, I bring them up because in my search for collaborators in the past, I have seen many people making the same mistakes I used to make and those that even the great Jonathan Larson was prone to making as well.

Allow me to be transparent for a few paragraphs. When I started on this journey, I had a musical play I began writing. I was only twenty-three when I started it, and as I mentioned above, I did receive some encouragement on the project.

But my vision for how I would hit the Broadway scene was that I would be an all-knowing creator. I just needed to find a composer and lyricist who could take all the songs I wanted them to write (because the libretto was genius, naturally) in the style my superior judgment understood they should be. I knew exactly where the dance was to be, how I wanted it performed, and that was that.

Then I met Hattie. Hattie is not her real name, but Hattie is a very talented composer-lyricist who has a great concept for a project.

She posted online wanting a collaborator for a project, so I emailed her several samples of my work. She immediately read it, sent back a bruising email in which she strongly critiqued my work point-blank. After catching my breath, I was actually extremely thankful for her harshness because that is the only way you learn. I grew from her comments. A few of them were dead-on, a few of them not. Despite her critique, she was interested in meeting to discuss the project. Over the phone she made it clear, “I don’t suffer fools.”

As I was to learn over our next two meetings, the only fool Hattie suffered was herself. First of all, she had some great songs, but they were tripped up by forced meter and a few off rhymes, though I will say that of all the composers with whom I’ve communicated that claim to be influenced by Sondheim, she’s the first of which I said, “Yes, I can see it,” though her work has a more easily identifiable and instantly pleasing melody than the Master's.

But Hattie was much like I was. She wanted me to come in and write the libretto the way she wanted. She wanted two comedic characters much like those in another show (which, if I had ever done that, everyone would have thought it was ripping off, her idea was so blatant). She had specific plot points in mind. It was all laid out. I just needed to follow her lead.

The problem is that very few artists work alone. A novelist has an editor who gives feedback, and a playwright gets help from a director. A musical requires the typical writer/songwriter to stretch so far beyond their natural talents. I have come to learn that I need a songwriter because I can’t do what a songwriter does. I need a choreographer because he or she better knows how to make a show dance. If I am dependent upon myself to do all the roles in a musical, then there’s going to be a great book and everything else will stink. Collaboration is about individual people bringing their best talents to make the show better than any one person could do it. Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Schwartz, and every other successful Broadway creator has needed collaborators. No one else is going to top these people on their own.

The problem with Hattie’s idea was that it was an awesome concept with no conflict or plot structure. It was a series of events in a man’s life—interesting events, no doubt—but there was no dramatic tension. As I tried to propose a plot that would give the story a spine and a sense of direction, she balked at the idea. And she should have balked because I was very far off from her original concept (she wanted me to incorporate all her songs but never handed me her lyrics); however, the idea as she envisioned wouldn’t work.

She said she wanted a collaborator, but when I stepped in to suggest improvements (or at least changes) as a collaborator would do, I realized that’s not what she wanted. She wanted someone who would be a puppet, someone who realized her ideas were as genius as she did.

And honestly, having been there/done that, I can say I have seen much of that in people trying to find collaborators online. They want a clone of themselves who writes the book instead of just the music or writes the music instead of just the book.

But I’m thankful for Hattie because I figured it out before it was too late. I realized that I was just like her, wanting to do everything myself to the detriment of my beloved projects.

As for Hattie, after our second meeting when she rightly rejected my ideas for the plot, she emailed me to say, “Thanks but no thanks” (which, for the record, is a really tacky/chicken/unprofessional means of turning someone down unless you’ve only been communicating through email). Her project still has not come to fruition despite her having a big-time connection to Broadway. And it won’t until she learns what I had to learn.

You simply cannot do it alone.

the Broadway Mouth
October 11, 2007

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Every Story is a Love Story: The Great Romantic Musicals (Part 2 of 2)

And now I present Broadway Mouth’s Top Ten Most Romantic Broadway Musicals.

10. Parade—Even though they are married, Leo and Lucille’s journey forces their awkward relationship to change. She can no longer be a weak Southern Belle, and he can no longer be completely self-sufficient. Through their incredible life circumstances, they both come to love each other passionately. Because of this “All the Wasted Time” is a beautiful expression of their newly re-discovered love.

9. Bells are Ringing—There’s something irresistible about Ella Peterson. She’s extremely cute in how she wants to help everyone and manages win over everyone no matter what she does. While Jeff Moss is falling madly in love with her, it’s hard for us not to as well.

There is also a firm foundation in their relationship. They both need each other. Jeff needs her to help him write his plays, and Ella needs him to have someone to love.

Bells are Ringing has what is probably the most romantic line in any musical, when Jeff says to Ella, “You’re a girl with a lot of love to give. Instead of spreading it around all over the place, give it to me. I need it. I want it.”

That’s like “You complete me” long before Tom Cruise.

8. The Sound of Music—The film adaptation is the quintessential romantic story (and my favorite movie since childhood), and it is also the only case where the movie actually improved upon the Broadway show. But just because the film improves upon the romantic factor by adding location scenes (as well as additional material and re-organizing the songs) which helps create a stronger bond between the children and Maria as well as strengthening the bond between Maria and the Georg, it doesn’t mean that the original stage version doesn’t succeed independently.

There is something incredibly romantic about a love story that includes incredible children. It’s probably part of the happily ever after factor (or in love forever factor) which is so important for a romantic story because here we have one giant happy family when all is said and done. It’s beautiful.

7. Fiddler on the Roof—In our society, we value the concept of love and romance, and yet, we have a huge percentage of love-based relationships ending in divorce. I love in Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye presses Golda to answer, “Do you love me?”

Her response sums it up quite well. She sings, “Do I love him? / For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him, / Fought with him, starved with him. / Twenty-five years my bed is his. / If that’s not love, what is?” Despite my postulations on what makes for a great romantic story, Golda has pretty much summed it up—It’s the daily expressions and motions, the shared experiences, and the drawing closer together that is really what love is about.

The romantic story is also augmented by the experiences of the three daughters. While they are young, they each make severe choices in following their loves, choices rooted in cause and purpose, rather than emotion and whims. You can safely assume that each of these daughters will live with a measure of struggle but also with a life companion to share her pains.

6. The Music Man—You have a conman wanting to take advantage of a seemingly simple small-town woman, even going so far as to praise Hester Prynne for her scarlet letter. However in attempting to woo her in order to deceive her, he falls head-over-heels for her Irish imagination, her Iowa stubbornness, and her library full of books.

Marion is no foolish small town chickie, so when she accepts him for what he’s done for the community in spite of his con, she’s making a conscious decision and not one rooted in romantic notions. It is only when he changes that she really falls for him.

Above all, we love Harold Hill despite his con, and we love Marion for her stubbornness. You can help but cheer for them in the end.

5. Kiss Me, Kate—Here are two titanic personalities who clearly love each other deeply but can’t risk the gamble to admit it. Because of their mutual hard-headedness (or maybe their mutual insecurities), they almost miss out on their chance to have each other forever. Their song “Wunderbar” is beautiful for what it develops, their relationship when they have their guard down. “So In Love” then becomes icing on the cake.

4. Aida—Opposites attract, and when those opposites become not-very-opposite and fall deeply in love, it’s romantic.

Like many great love stories, it starts with the characters. Aida is a wonderful character, and her strength and determination is sexier than however the woman may look who is playing her. Though Radames starts out a jerk, his change is heart makes him a respectable guy (also, we need to remember his kindness to a young Mereb which attests to his inner nice-guys beginnings).

Because we are presented with these two characters we inherently like, we root for their love. It begins as something physical, but it becomes a union of similar personalities, a one-in-a-kind sort of love. Their love is deep, which is defined through several songs, most powerfully “Written in the Stars,” which is passionate even though it is about parting forever.

And yes, I can hardly resist the ending in which they die in each others’ arms.

3. 1776—Here we have a peripheral love story of a married couple separated by many miles, and yet, Edwards and Stone give us several very romantic moments.

John and Abigail Adams have a relationship firmly founded on mutual love and respect, which is always sexy. He huffs and fumes, and she picks on him; it’s a relationship that can only be formed through years of marriage and love. And theirs is a love that has survived separation and strife, only to grow stronger. It’s beautiful when Abigail asks John about the women in Virginia, obviously troubled by the months apart, and, knowing his wife so well, he basically says, “Don’t worry. These women can’t hold a candle to you.” Similarly, when he is in his moment of desperation and everything seems to be caving in, she is there to build him up as well. When she ends the reprise of “Yours, Yours, Yours” with the sending of saltpetre, the subtext of the action is “I love you and believe in you.” That’s more romantic than a kiss or a touch.

If most stories with romance portray the much-desired search for love, then 1776 gives us the love we hope to have forever.

2. Guys and Dolls—While it’s not written as a love song, “Luck Be a Lady” is probably one of the most romantic songs ever to appear on a Broadway stage.

First of all, there’s a romance that develops from dishonorable circumstances which could forever split apart the lovers (and almost does). Sarah Brown is a very sweet and passionate woman who sincerely intends to go great things. I would argue that she is a very modern character. Sky Masterson, while a gambler, is a respectable and honorable fellow. He does take Miss Sarah to Havana and even gets her drunk (unintentionally I believe), but he never intends for it to be harmful. After he realizes that she has downed too many drinks, he takes care of her and keeps her from harm or embarrassment.

When Sarah thinks that Sky has used her and leaves him once they’ve both fallen in love, the audience’s heart aches for these two who people who earnestly love each other but could be forever parted because of a misunderstanding.

That’s why “Luck Be a Lady” is such a romantic song, because of the desperation in which it is sung. Sky realizes he has screwed things up (with Nathan’s help), and this is his one chance to fix things up and get her back.

1. Jane Eyre—I know this’ll be controversial, but I can’t think of a more romantic story ever (and I saw the stage version before I ever picked up the novel, so I didn’t enter the Brooks Atkinson with any novel-based expectations).

It starts with two strong characters. Jane may be ugly, but she is one of the most beautiful women in all literature. I love how strong Jane is. I admire greatly how she refuses to give in to her passions because she realizes that it would betray her conscience and her sense of self-worth. I stand in awe of how she refuses the Rochester family jewels as a sign of her independence and her refusal to lose herself in the signs of wealth. I also adore Jane for her love of knowledge and learning and how that has shaped her view of the world.

Rochester, while certainly flawed, is also a very endearing character in how he treats his women. This complex topic could be discussed in a multi-page analysis, which I’ll forgo, but the fact that he has done his best to take care of Bertha Mason and to honor his wedding vows despite the difficult circumstances in a time when the insane were discarded and locked up under cruel circumstances is very honorable. And while he does attempt the dishonorable by wedding two women, his intentions are pure in his desire to keep both respectable (in a “what you don’t know won’t hurt you” way) and in violating only his own soul.

There’s also romance at the heart of how they meet and live. They both deeply love each other but cannot express it out of fear—Jane’s fear for her appearance and lowly position and Rochester’s fear of his dark secret and Jane’s youth. Then when they finally cross that hurdle, they are almost torn apart forever—each still singularly attached to the other—until a Providential intercession unites them forever. Their love for each other is rich and rooted. Even when circumstances change—Rochester is disfigured and Jane inherits great wealth—their love survives because it springs from their equality in spirit and intellect, their enjoyment of the company of the other.

It doesn’t get much better than this. It really doesn’t.

the Broadway Mouth
October 10, 2007

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Every Story is a Love Story: The Great Romantic Musicals (Part 1 of 2)

As Tim Rice says, “Every story is a love story.” However, not every love story is a romantic one. Love exists in many forms—the love between parent and child (The Rink), siblings (Side Show), ruler and country (Camelot), and friends (Wicked) to name just a few. And just because a story features a romantic love story between a couple of marriageable status doesn’t mean that their story is romantic. Fanny, for example, features a touching story of love an older man has for the young Fanny, even though she is emotionally devoted to the wayward father of her child. These are surely romantic notions, but the situation itself is hardly romantic. Hello, Dolly! is another prime example. It features two highly satisfying and endearing love stories, though ultimately neither of them sends flutters of romantic sentiment through the heart (and I don’t believe they were ever intended to).

Even as a man, I appreciate a good love story. I think as women read Danielle Steele novels to be swept away by a man of her dreams, I love a good Jane Austen novel because of its depiction of noble and honorable men finding an intelligent and independent woman in a pack if ninnies (and it helps that Austen’s characters are psychologically complex and are featured in fascinating stories of life in Edwardian England). I would go as far as to say there are very few great romantic stories, at least in comparison to the number of them which are created. Perhaps this is because I’m too cynical or approach romantic comedies with too masculine a perspective and find corny Kate Hudson movies to be lacking in true romance that doesn’t induce dry heaves.

So what makes for great romantic stories?

Well, first of all, there has to be some substance to the characters. Character types and cardboard lovers fall flat. In college I had to read a section of a romance novel in a literature class, and it was actually laughably funny (of course, I am a man, so . . . no offense, ladies). The characters should have a psychology and live a plot that rise above the been-there-done-that a hundred times normalcy.

The characters have to meet and fall in love in a reasonably realistic way. This is crucial because you have to believe that these characters are going to “make it.” People need to know each other before it can be believed that they will live happily ever after. There are more than a handful of musicals where the characters meet and fall madly in love in one scene, which is completely fine. It just makes for a love story rather than a truly romantic one.

There should be a clear reason why the characters love each other. Because she’s pretty and he’s strapping doesn’t work for a truly romantic story. I think of Wicked as a great example. Fiyero falls for Elphaba because he gets to know her. Because of this substance, “As Long as Your Mine” becomes a very romantic expression of mature love.

The conflict should be romantic in nature. Romantic conflicts include, but are not limited to, two powerful personalities who clash despite (or because of) their strong feelings, stories where there are roots to connect the lovers (like the woman loves for the man’s children too), love separated by circumstances, horrible misunderstandings that keep lovers apart, situations where one of the lovers almost makes a drastic and life-changing decision, stories where the lovers change because of knowing the other, and stories where two people have been together for years and are still (or are just realizing they are) madly in love.

There are several situations that can inherently sink a story from being romantic. If the characters are too young to really end up happily ever after beyond the end of the show, then it’s difficult to be too emotionally involved (unless the story is of another time or culture where youth equates into lasting relationships). Obsession is also inherently unromantic. It looks like love, but it comes from an emotional void that can probably only be patched in other ways. Stories that depict the main character being intimate with other characters is also not very romantic. Also, stories that are couched in insincerity lack romantic sentiment.

Above all, the story can’t be corny. I can’t think of any corny romantic musicals, but other genres that tell romantic stories are often corny, such as Hugh Grant winning Drew Barrymore’s heart by surprising her with a love song at a concert in Music and Lyrics or Ryan Gosling climbing a Ferris Wheel to woo Rachel McAdams in The Notebook.

That is not to say that there aren’t exceptions to rules. It’s always about how something is done. A musical about a barber who kills people and a woman who then bakes them into meat pies sounds gag-inducing, but the execution (forgive me) is so expertly done, it rises above all musical rules about not writing musicals about barbers who kill people and women who then bake them into meat pies.

So, now that the criteria have been established, in my next blog entry, I’ll take a look at the ten most romantic Broadway musicals.

the Broadway Mouth
October 6, 2007

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Readers' Choice: Amazing Broadway Performers

As promised, here are readers’ selections for Amazing Broadway Performers. A few of these are names I know, but I’m thrilled now to have a few more people to look forward to seeing, to add to my list of names of talents I must see.

Thanks for sharing!

From Jeff:
Amazing Broadway Performer: Bob Martin

I know he’s only played in one show on Broadway, but Bob Martin from The Drowsy Chaperone is amazing. I think it would be so easy to sleepwalk through that part because it doesn’t involve any singing and dancing or anything, but he created a well-rounded complex character. He’s mostly a comedy character, but there are times you as an audience member feel real emotion for Man in Chair, like when he goes into his lines after he can’t make out Beatrice Stockwell’s “leave” or “live” line. And it does help that he was hilarious in the part. He really was. I hope Bob Martin gets a chance to do more on Broadway.

From Maddie:
Amazing Broadway Performer: Michael Arden

I have not had the privilege of seeing Michael perform live; however, his brilliance shines through even when you're just listening to a recording. Say what you will about The Times They Are A-Changin', but you can't deny that Michael took what was there and did all that he could with it, giving kick ass performances night after night. From an acting perspective, he connects to each and every character he plays on a very deep level, committing to that character 100%. I know that that sounds like something that all actors do and that it shouldn't be a big deal, but the truth is—they don't. I have seen countless actors on Broadway and in professional touring companies only invest in their characters to a certain extent, making them shallow or one-dimensional. Michael has given some of the most believable performances I have ever heard (has anyone actually been able to sit through his rendition of “Absolution” from Bare: A Pop Opera without crying? Anyone? Didn't think so.). All acting brilliance aside, he is also an amazing singer. He can sing a heart-wrenching solo softly and with so much emotion that it brings you to tears, and then turn around and belt out a whole song start to finish, leaving you sitting there thinking "How the heck did he do that?". And as if acting and singing weren't enough, he is also an immensely talented composer. He's written some of the most beautiful scoring I've ever heard, and is definitely emerging as a skilled lyricist as well. He may not be a huge star yet, but it's only a matter of time until he gets a show that really showcases all his talents and when he does, everyone's going to know who he is.

From Melissa:
Amazing Broadway Performer: Adam Pascal

I couldn’t believe Adam Pascal wasn’t on the list of performers. I have only seen Adam in Aida, but that was all I needed to be a mega-fan. Firstly, he has a great voice. There are many Broadway performers who can pull off rock, but there are very few who are rock. Adam Pascal has that great rock texture in his voice, and he used it in Aida to draw out the emotion of Radames. When you hear him sing “Elaborate Lives” or “Written in the Stars,” he makes you feel the emotions in the song. I love his voice, and I love his two CDs.

From Sammin33:
Amazing Broadway Performer: Jarrod Spector

If you didn't see Jarrod Spector perform on the Emmys a few weeks ago, go watch the video on YouTube right now! Spector plays Frankie Valli in the 2nd National Tour of Jersey Boys and sounds and looks quite similar to the real Frankie Valli. His effortless falsetto in "Dawn," "Walk Like A Man", and "Who Loves You", among others, always blows me away. He has smooth dance moves (he does the splits in "Beggin'") and incredible stage presence that captivates the audience right from the very beginning of the show. Spector shows off his range as an actor as his character grows from a naïve "teenage Frankie" to a confident "adult Frankie" during the course of the show. Spector really embodies the character of Frankie Valli, as his touching and soulful rendition of "Fallen Angel," a tribute to Valli's deceased daughter, seemingly always leaves both Spector and the audience in tears. Jarrod is a true performer, and his charisma onstage and off signifies a great future for this star on the rise!

From Lori T:
Amazing Broadway Performer: Kendra Kassebaum

I saw Kendra Kassebaum as Galinda/Glinda in Wicked and loved her! You mentioned in your list two big name Elphies, but I have to mention Kendra Kassebaum. Galinda is a really tough character to play. You have to have the voice to do it, but then the actress plays a ditz who isn’t that ditzy. It’s easy to think of Galinda as a cheerleader type of character, the stereotype, but she’s more than that. Kassebaum showed that side of the character, making Galinda not only real but relatable. The character is funny, but I think it is crucial to make her real as well, and Kendra Kassebaum did just that. Kendra Kassebaum has a beautiful voice, too.

the Broadway Mouth (and readers)
October 3, 2007