Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Reflections While Reading Call Me Anna

Right now I'm reading Patty Duke's autobiography Call Me Anna. I have had the book for probably ten years and am finally getting around to reading it. Amazingly, I actually saw a copy of it at Barnes and Noble recently, which means that it has likely been in continuous publication since 1987, which is very impressive for an autobiography.

My first encounter with the talent of Patty Duke was in the Nick at Night reruns of her sitcom The Patty Duke Show. We didn’t have cable growing up, but when I’d sleep over at a friend’s house, I’d always sleep on the couch in the living room, where I could stay up late watching great old shows on Nickelodeon. I was never put off by black and white shows because I had grown up loving The Honeymooners, Father Knows Best, and The Andy Griffith Show even though I grew up in the era of 227, The Facts of Life, and Amen.

I guess the appeal of the show was both the spunkiness of Duke’s dual characters—particularly spunky was Patty—and the writing, which was always youthful and clever. I probably laughed more from The Patty Duke Show than I do from anything currently on primetime.

For Broadway audiences, though, she is best known for her work as Helen Keller in William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker and her recreation of that role in the original film version.

In her book, Duke spends much time addressing the issue of her unusual childhood, which, in short, was completely controlled by her monstrous managers John and Ethel Ross; however, the section I have been riveted by is her detailing of her experiences in The Miracle Worker. Because Duke was writing this in the mid-80s, she is giving the adult perspective on her time in the play (and the movie). Part of what is fascinating is that some of those observations are that of the ten-year-old Patty Duke as well as the reflective older Patty Duke. It’s a joy to relive the experience with the older Patty Duke who looks back so lovingly on the entire experience and on the play itself.

She also vividly illustrates what sets apart a child actor from an actor who is young. Duke, even then, had the inherent understanding of what it requires to develop and play a character. Yes, the Rosses did offer some training, but that inner director was guiding her even as a child. There are some kids who are very talented in being able to emote and read a line believably—but then there are those kids who are truly actors, able to create an interpretation and to make creative choices in presenting a character. This innate ability is why Duke has survived in the business for so long, still making movies and appearing in plays for long after her childhood stardom days.

One interesting anecdote in the book is that on opening night out of town, the cast had eighteen curtain calls. On Broadway, there were thirteen. While I’ve never had the chance to see The Miracle Worker onstage (I have read it and taught it), it is a reminder that audiences love to be moved. There are so many masterpieces that move you intellectually, that make you feel something for the characters, but to write something that genuinely moves an audience to such a degree with a measure of mind and heart is a unique gift (and talent). That’s why Les Miserables has run for so long whereas other musicals have since opened and closed—it moves people. Laughter is great. It can earn a record-setting number of Tonys. But laughter fades, while something that is sincere, heartfelt, and truly moving always touches the heart.

One particularly heartfelt moment in Duke’s book is when she reflects back upon her father, a struggling alcoholic who was pretty much run out of her life by her controlling managers. Some years after the run of the play, a woman tells Duke that three or four times a week during the run of The Miracle Worker, her father would use his pittance of money to buy standing room tickets to The Miracle Worker just to be near his daughter, never once going backstage or approaching her.

the Broadway Mouth
November 27, 2007

For Your Irresistible Viewing Pleasure:

Friday, November 23, 2007

Enchanted (Spoiler Free)

Despite five songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, Enchanted isn’t really a musical. Three songs are performed in the traditional musical storytelling manner—one with Giselle and Edward in the animated world, two by Giselle in New York City—with two of the songs being performed by contemporary music performers over the events—one song as a pop “Beauty and the Beast” (Jon McLaughlin in place of Angela Lansbury) and the other with Carrie Underwood performing one song over the final events of the movie.

As expected, the three performed by Giselle and/or James Marsden are great songs. They are attempts to pastiche a musical style Menken has helped redefine, done with great humor (and coupled with some very funny visuals). It’d be nice if the final two songs weren’t performed so pop. In comparison with the three earlier songs, they don’t make quite the impact upon first hearing. They almost seem like throwaway pop songs like those heard in most contemporary movies instead of something exciting and new by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.

The biggest appeal for Broadway fans, though, may be Idina Menzel as Patrick Dempsey’s girlfriend Nancy. It’s not exactly a revelatory part, but it’s great to see Menzel in another movie, and she looks great, particularly when dressed for a ball scene. I loved seeing her in her very final scene, and if anyone knows of anyplace online to find that image, I’d love to know.

Also look for Tonya Pinkins in several scenes as a client of Patrick Dempsey’s, plus very brief appearances by Judy Kuhn and Paige O’Hara. Crazy for You and Smile star Jodi Benson also appears in several scenes as Patrick Dempsey’s assistant.

While it’s not a great movie(in comparison to, say, Hairspray), Enchanted is much fun (and sure was an audience pleaser the night I saw it), and the first three songs—including a big choreographed number in Central Park—make it a must-see for every musical theatre fan.

With great success, maybe Disney will venture in the live movie musical once again. We can hope!

the Broadway Mouth
November 23, 2007

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Five Top Ten Theatre Things for Which I’m Thankful This Thanksgiving

High School and College Directors—In the last few weeks, I saw a number of college and high school drama productions. One was strong, one was mediocre, the other was downright awful, but they reminded me of the importance of those programs. For some, those directors and teachers will create lifelong theatre-goers; for others, it’ll open the door to an exciting new hobby; and for another group, it’ll simply give them a chance to belong and to feel good about themselves.

Right out of college, I directed plays at a high school. I loved the directing, but let me tell you, I put every ounce of myself into those productions, often working 80-100 hours a week. After two years, two plays, and developing curriculum, I couldn’t do it anymore. I was literally fried out.

It’s in remembering those years when I am thankful for those people—good, bad, or mediocre—who step out every season to put on a show, to balance teaching (or other day jobs) to work with kids in creating theatre. It is a tremendous personal sacrifice.

I am personally thankful for my own college director (and professor). Because I came from a high school with an amazing drama program (which I never took part in), I don’t think I ever fully appreciated my college director/professor who labored so tirelessly to put on great shows. I also think of the depth of knowledge she passed on to us. What to me seemed elementary as a high school director (because of my training), I see as severely lacking in many of the high school and community theatre productions I’ve seen. I was so blessed to have her in my life, so incredibly blessed.

My Readers—The biggest struggle for a writer is not the writing part. It’s getting people to read what he/she has written. When I started this blog, I didn’t know what kind of readership I’d earn or how long I’d hold onto them. I only knew that I needed an outlet for my theories and thoughts that naturally arise when you study something you love so much. I figured that if I’m not getting my dramatic work read, at least I can get something theatrical out there. I am so very thankful for all those who check in to see what I may be rambling on about.

The Resurgence of Movie Musicals—As a teenager, I fell in love with The Sound of Music. Oh, how I longed for more movie musicals, though I always knew we were past that prime. That’s why, when Evita hit the theaters, I saw it five times; I knew it would be a rarity.

Now we are in a resurgence of the almost-lost art form of the movie musical. Within the past year’s time, both Dreamgirls and Hairspray have been solid hits, with Enchanted receiving great reviews and likely to be another hit for the genre. We are set to get Sweeny Todd, Mamma Mia, and Nine, not to mention another High School Musical. The more profits these movies generate, the more of them that will be produced.

I am also thankful for the interest in musicals for television. I wonder how many years down the road we’ll be hearing about people’s interest in stage musicals being ignited by the MTV broadcast of Legally Blonde and Disney’s High School Musical franchise.

Ghostlight Records—The division of Sh-K-Boom devoted to Broadway cast recordings often gets my thanks. When I shop for CDs and I peruse the labels, I often think of how fortunate we are to have Ghostlight to preserve so many shows. There are some shows that would get recorded anyway—Legally Blonde, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, for example—but there are so many more that wouldn’t. Little Women, for example, wasn’t a great show, but I enjoy revisiting the CD. I don’t know if that one ever would have gotten recorded otherwise. Certainly Amour and High Fidelity wouldn’t have made it, and The Last Five Years, Bernarda Alba, and See What I Wanna See would have been iffy otherwise. And those are the short lists.

The problem is that the profit margins for cast recordings are so small, and it requires patience to earn any sort of profit on them anyway. I don’t know how Ghostlight has been able to do it, but they have become a bright light in the Broadway community for their work in preserving shows.

Today’s Acting Talent—I know I sound like a broken record, but I can’t help but be thankful for the massive amount of talent we have on Broadway today. My first contact with Broadway was with the talent of Carol Channing, one of the warhorse talents (and an amazing one at that) of the Golden Age. They don’t get much better than Carol Channing in any way.

However, as I’ve seen many other shows since the day of Hello, Dolly!, I find that her performance isn’t a shadow looming over the youngin’s. Yes, no one will ever be like Carol Channing (or Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, et al), but that doesn’t mean we don’t have phenomenally talented performers in our day. They may not be the same, but that doesn’t mean they are any less talented.

the Broadway Mouth
November 21, 2007

Friday, November 16, 2007

Those Rotten Critics (And Other Reasons We Hate Mirrors)

In watching the commentary track on Dori Bernstein’s Show Business: The Road to Broadway, I was confronted with the issue of the theatre critic. Those on the track, including producer Bernstein, actor Alan Cumming, and songwriter Jeff Marx, can barely contain their loathing for the critics as they watch them partaking in the round table discussions.

But interestingly enough, Bernstein, Cumming, and Marx become critics themselves as they discuss the shows. During the discussion, we learn how much they loved Taboo (though it was not perfect) and Caroline, or Change, and we hear about how great Idina Menzel was in Wicked, though they don’t seem particularly filled with praise for the show itself. By their lack of praise for Wicked in relation to the other two shows, they are basically voicing their feelings (and Cumming goes on record as saying he hates “Popular,” a song I would categorize as great).

So who is allowed to share an opinion?

I understand the aggravation, it’s one I hope to someday have the opportunity to risk experiencing myself, but I don’t know how valid of a concern it is.

No one likes to face criticism. As a writer, I love hearing criticism because it helps me improve, but once that baby is frozen and on its own, it’s got to be awfully hard to hear someone saying, “Well, this part isn’t very good.” As someone very sensitive to critique, it would be a big challenge for me to know how to process that without doubting myself or the final presentation I so desperately would want to love.

We’ve all adored shows the critics have hated or were mixed about—Jekyll and Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Aida, Jane Eyre, Bells are Ringing, Follies, The Wedding Singer. It could be a never-ending list. We vehemently disagree, we get angry at the effect they have on shows and audiences, we return to the theatre to show our support.

But then there are times we like the critics. If Ben Brantley says something nice about our show, then we like him. But if he says our show is boring or unfunny or lacking in emotion, only then he’s wrong. Right?

I love the interview with Boy George on the documentary when he addresses the issue of the critics. Now, for the record, I doubt Taboo ever had a chance to succeed because a show with posters that feature a man standing at a nasty urinal is not going appeal to a mass audience, particularly if it is a case of truth in advertising. And the adoring fan interviewed for the documentary comments that though people say it’s too gay, “it is theatre;” obviously, if gay people were the majority audience for theatre, Taboo would still be running today. I’m sure Boy George wrote some amazing music for the show, and it’d be great if he’d write another score, but I think his comments about critics are irrational. First of all, I wonder how much effect they actually had on the success of the show. Secondly, he despises the critics only because they didn’t like his show. That’s not a logical reason. He is biased—and his comments are important for the discussion—but his opinion of his own show is not a valid point in the grand scheme of things. The completion of his statement (which I here paraphrase) “If you stop shows like Taboo from succeeding” could be “then you get left with great shows.” I wasn’t in New York when Taboo ran, so I’m only playing Michael Riedel’s advocate, but it begs the basic question of any review or critique—Who should be the one to voice their opinion? The artist? Or the artist’s critic?

Obviously you are going to hate the critics if they don’t like your work. Yes, it is frustrating that one paper and one critic gets so much pull. Yet, it is very frustrating to pay $50+ on a ticket for crap when you could have gone to see Hairspray again.

We need to face the truth that musicals are expensive, and the average audience member needs an idea of which shows are going to be worth $50-450. Not everything is going to be good. Something has to be bad. And nobody is going to have the same opinion on any of it.

Often you hear about how critics have changed over the years, that critics during the Golden Age were so much better and so helpful. I can’t comment on that (except to say that the shows were probably better then as well—that statement makes me a critic— though we have actors on stage now who are just as good as any previous generation—that statement makes me a good critic in many people’s eyes). I’m excited for the next Rick McKay documentary because he will be highlighting that as a topic.

The truth is, though, that reviews appear after opening night, by which time the show is theoretically frozen. By nature of the process, I don’t know how helpful constructive criticism can be at that point. Perhaps critics should critique the show with constructive criticism mid-previews (which producers would hate), then reviewers should review after the opening. Essentially, that is the only fix to the complaint available. By opening night, having specific complaints about the plotting, with concrete examples of where things went wrong, seems futile.

Can one person ever be qualified enough to take on the task of critiquing a show, particularly anyone in as powerful a position as Ben Brantley? (And the collective answer heard all over New York is: Well I am.) It is frustrating that people who hate pop operas get to review them and that people who don’t like completely serious musicals review them, but that is the nature of the business. We have to acknowledge that The New York Times, Variety, and all those other respected publishers of reviews have a system and standard in place to select people to be in those positions who have established their qualifications for reviewing. (Except for Michael Riedel, who isn’t a reviewer but just a gossip-monger. Though, I must add that I adore Michael Riedel, his wit, and his charming smile, and should I ever have a show on the boards, I want to go record as saying that I mean gossip-monger in only the kindest way possible.)

So where was I—oh yes, the critics. Those people we hate because they disagree with us, the us we are who disagree with others, the others with the venue we’d love to have, to voice the opinions others would hate us for voicing.

I think we all need therapy.

the Broadway Mouth
November 16, 2007

(P.S. I reserve the right to renounce this commentary the day after my first show opens on Broadway.)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Wicked: The Grimmerie (A Book Report)

by Balliwon Grunmouer
Guest Ozian Book Report Writer

For my book report, I read David Cote’s marvedible book on the Broadway musical Wicked. Lots of humans have seen Wicked, which is an attempt to tell the true story of Elphaba of Oz, following the theories of her actual survival (giving credence to the sightings at a McMorrible’s on the edge of the Impassable Desert, according to the latest Wizernet reports).

Most Ozians are flattered by the human fascification of our Ozian history, but I for one don’t always apprecify their mis-represtentiveness of our culture. However, even as an educated Ozian, I cannot help but find Stephen Schwartz’s songs hummateous and book-writer Winnie Holzman’s Ozian vernacular is so spot-on, she is like the Mark Twain of our land.

If you haven’t read Wicked: The Grimmerie, it’s the story of the making of the Broadway musical Wicked from when Stephen Schwartz contacted lead producer Marc Platt about musifying it for the Broadway stage to its writing and production—including the nature of book writer Winnie Holzman and songwriter Stephen Schwartz’s collaboration, Stephanie J. Block’s role in the original readings, and the out-of-town tryout in San Francisco. For anyoz interested in how a musical is creativated, it is an interesterous read.

It’s always interesterous to hear artists talking about their creativate choices, and Wicked: The Grimmerie pulls back the curtain for all to see. For each of his songs, we are given Stephen Schwartz’s insights into each, including what role they have in the story, what the germigate ideas were, and his own emotions related to them. Many of the other creative elements—dance, sets, costumes—also get detailed discussion with first-hand words from the creativate talents about what they desired to achieviate.

Often the original cast members get the glory and all those who follow the originals get forgotten. That’s why it’s so marvedible that Cote details the various interpretations of the characters, using original, replacement, and tour cast members to give insights. This not only provides fans a splendalacious insight into the characters, but it is a fascinatious snapshot into the acting craft. The replacement and tour cast members are also given face-time in lusherizing full-color pictures.

The book is not without its teen girl section with fan-girl fluff that provides little more than eye candy, such as “The Primer,” which provides great pictures (always of appreciatance) and such insightful information as that Elphaba is “Frequently Seen With: Flying broom and The Grimmerie tucked under one arm.” I couldn’t live without knowing that.

There’s also a meatified section of the song lyrics with contextual dialogue. Unfortunately, much of that dialogue is summarized in paragraphs, so it’s not very helpful in trying to understand how the songs are integrated. It’s great to have the lyrics there for instant access (illustrated with beautifulized Joan Marcus photographs), but without the full libretto (which would have been most desirated) or at least unedited libretto sectionotions, the selected format for presenting them is kind of pointless.

After reading the book, I gained a fresh appreciation for what Wicked sets out to do and why it has spoken so vividly to so many humans, but what I most appreciated it for was presenting an insightful view into the creative process. I have a feeling many Ozians (and humans too) who like to theatricalize will be surprised at how insightful it is.

So, that is my book report. I am very happy I read it, and I am very very very very very very very sure you will like it too.

But don’t take my word for it.

Balliwon Grunmouer (with some editing assistance from the Broadway Mouth)
November 12, 2007

Friday, November 9, 2007

Money, Money, Money for a Mel Brooks Show Must Be Funny in a Rich Man’s World

Mel Brooks to anchor Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News about the $450 seats to Young Frankenstein:

“One thousand eight-hundred-and-thirty seats—over 1000—1600, 1700 seats are a normal, whatever the Broadway prices are, and there’s a front row for twenty-five bucks a seat.”

You know, Mel Brooks does have a point. I love close seats to see a show and could never afford $450 for one, but I can understand his thinking. If people are willing to pay that much to see his show, why shouldn’t he charge it? There are plenty of other seats left over for the rest of us.

It is indeed a sad state of affairs in our more enlightened time that wealth buys you things many other people cannot afford—like seats on a plane where you have a statistically better chance of surviving a crash, your freedom after wrongfully being accused of a crime (or even being correctly accused), enrichment experiences for your children such as special camps and tutors, or the luxury of turning your lips into clown lips (a.k.a. lip augmentation). It’s really about time Broadway catches up with the rest of world, and it seems to me like off all these things (with, perhaps, an exception of lip augmentation), the cost of exclusive Broadway tickets should be the least of all things we exert energy worrying about.

But this issue also brings to the spotlight the much-discussed dilemma of the rising costs of tickets.

Let’s review a few facts. Broadway shows need to make money, but a majority of them close without turning a profit. See Exhibits A: The Pirate Queen; High Fidelity; The Wedding Singer; Caroline, or Change; Taboo; Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; Tarzan; and many others. The butts in seats need to create these profits.

Cost of living is very high in New York City and all those people involved in the daily grind of Broadway need to have a home, have clothing, and pay taxes, often all while only being employed for two months until their show closes. These people include lead actors, chorus members, standbys, swings, instrument players, backstage workers, dressers, wig assistants, ticket window people, and so on. You can’t just cut people out of the process to save money, unless you have a small show with a small cast, that is. The butts in seats need to pay these expenses.

The actors need to be wearing great costumes and they need to be acting against stunning set pieces. This isn’t Dandelion Village Community Players presenting You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown after all. Large sets and great costumes cost money. The butts in seats need to pay these expenses.

So . . . When the world rights itself and the producers lower prices to $35 a seat for orchestra, then how do all these things get financed?

We have to face that fact that putting on a Broadway show is an immensely expensive proposition. If the tickets are lower—even, say, to $75 for orchestra seats, I’m not sure how this stuff would ever get paid for. After all, even when a show sells many discounted tickets, some people do pay the full price, which goes toward keeping the show running and keeping the blue collar Broadway workers employed.

Yes, we also have to face the fact that many shows don’t sell tickets at full price. Of course $125 for a seat is prohibitive and way too expensive, and at that price, shows have priced themselves out of the reach of many theatregoers, but so many tickets sell daily at TKTS, and there are a myriad of ways to access discount codes. If you don’t have $125 to spend on a show, there’s a very good chance you will find a ticket to a show you will enjoy for $55.

Even for the big hits—The Lion King, Wicked, The Little Mermaid, Young Frankenstein—that won’t sell discounted tickets for a number of years, the truth is that it’s only a matter of waiting. Yes, without paying full-price tickets (some at $450), no one ever got to see Nathan Lane or Matthew Broderick in The Producers, but they did get to see other very fine actors like Hunter Foster and Roger Bart.

To me, a great Broadway show would be worth $500 a ticket if I had that kind of money to spend on it. Nothing will ever compare to sitting down and hearing Marla Schaffel and James Barbour singing “Secret Soul” or laughing uproariously at Bob Martin’s Man in Chair. I do agree that ticket prices rise too fast for the sake of practicality, but let’s temper that reaction with the reality of what ticket prices need to finance and the availability of cheaper tickets.

(For the full Mel Brooks interview with Brian Williams: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3032619/)

the Broadway Mouth
November 9, 2007

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Seussical Revisited

The night I saw Cathy Rigby in Seussical on tour was a very cold night in the dark of winter. I had gotten our tickets late but had managed to get front row, a section most ticket-sellers don’t see as ideal seats and which get saved until late, a location I don’t mind at all.

My friend Jo and I had decided to meet at a mall, stop for a bite to eat, then to drive into the city for the show.

But then freezing weather got in the way.

In meeting at the mall, I parked my car to wait for Jo. And my battery died. I couldn’t get it started again to save my life. To sweeten the deal, Jo had gotten stuck on the phone with one of those people who are very kind but just don’t stop talking, so she was running late (and the rush hour traffic from her home is horrendous anyway).

She arrived, though, with just enough time for us to eat at a restaurant across the street from my car, and then she drove us into the city for Seussical. In the darkness of the winter evening, Jo was looking for something in her purse and pulled out a Colombian quarter someone had brought back with them from a trip, an item they had deemed lucky.

For fun, she’d say, “We’re getting closer. Rub the quarter!” Or “Oh traffic’s slowing down, better rub the quarter!” And in the dark, I’d make a show of rubbing it with my thumb.

We got to the theatre just in time, found free parking, and hurried to the theatre with the lucky Colombian quarter in the car.

When we got back to the car, with the dome light on, we could see clearly. Our lucky Colombian quarter was actually a Chuck E. Cheese token.

Well, a Chuck E. Cheese token can’t take credit for getting us to the show on time, and it certainly can’t take credit for the delightful evening we had. I had bought the CD some time before and had already fallen in love with the Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty music, and the show didn’t disappoint. It was, simply put, a tremendously fun night with great music and some extremely talented performers (by name: Eric Leviton as Horton, Garret Long as Gertrude McFuzz, Gaelen Gillilan as Mayzie LaBird, Drake English as JoJo, NaTasha Yvette Williams as the Sour Kangaroo, and Dioni Michelle Collins, Danielle M. Gerner, and Liz Pearce as the Bird Girls). Not only were we never bored, but we had a thrilling time.

And, might I add, this was without the glamour of the Broadway costumes. The tour’s costumes had been inspired by the Broadway costumes, but they were not the same. For example, the Sour Kangaroo wore yellow sweatpants and a sweatshirt with a robe which had black and red zig-zig lines on it, very different from the picture in the OBCR booklet. However, despite this downgrade in costuming, the talent was top-notch, and the show was, like I said, very enjoyable.

Maybe that was about the time I began to wonder about trusting the “word on the street” and from critics in New York. Like Jane Eyre and Bells are Ringing, here was another show everyone bashed but I found well-worth the cost of the ticket. (Later, though, I learned that they weren’t always wrong when I bought a full-price ticket to Tarzan.)

Recently I took in an educational production of Seussical, and mid-way through, I began wondering why I had enjoyed the tour so much because here, the story’s thinness shone through and the plotting didn’t seem right. There was a problem with the plotting that I couldn’t put my finger on, but I could tell that I wasn’t engaged in this production like I had been the with the Broadway tour. It was a beautifully done production—beautiful voices, nicely done sets—but I was trying to figure out if the Broadway tour had somehow managed to smoke and mirror away the flaws in the storytelling.

It was when the show was over and I was noticing a missing song or two that I investigated in the program and learned this was a “Theatre for Young Audiences” edition (which was part of the advertising for the show, though I wasn’t aware that that was in reference to an edition of the show and was not a marketing ploy), which explains the missing songs and the awkward plotting. In comparing the program song listing with the Original Broadway Card recording, not only were several songs missing but songs were re-ordered, which explains why the story seemed limp and didn’t build dramatically in an effective manner.

There were some improper directing choices that didn’t aid the anorexic edition of the book. The costumes were, overall, very creative (and improved upon the tour’s costumes in many ways), but the colors of the set didn’t match the bright, fun atmosphere of the show. The director had chosen a unit set, which was effective at first, but didn’t do anything to help the flagging energy in the plot later on. The choreography also couldn’t match the energy of the music. The result of all this was that when the story began to lag as a result of the effect of awkward cuts and restructuring, there wasn’t much to prop it up. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy myself. It is only that I didn’t enjoy the show nearly as much as I could have had the original book been presented.

I’m still choosing to believe that the Seussical I saw, the original tour libretto (I don’t know if it was changed from Broadway), makes for a highly entertaining show. The show has gone on to great success in schools, community theatres, and children’s theatres the past few years, which I hope is vindication for Ahrens and Flaherty that Seussical can be one fun meussical.

the Broadway Mouth
November 6, 2007

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Four Top Ten Acting Techniques That Need to Go Away

For everything there is a season, and in observing the Broadway musical over the last seventy years, almost every aspect has turned after a season—the strength of the book, the integration of music, the styles of musical storytelling, the technology of set changes, the use of amplification, and so on. With the latter change, a new style of stage acting was ushered in. Without the need to fill a huge theatre with the voice alone, actors have been able to adopt a more subtle style of acting, one that still fits the medium of stage acting but also takes into account the tastes of modern audiences who daily enjoy the subtlety of film and television acting.

We have so many fine actors today—just take a gaze at my 50 Amazing Broadway Performers in 50 Weekdays list for proof. However, on both Broadway and regional stages, there are yet some acting “techniques” that, like shag carpet and lead paint, need to say good-bye once and for all.

1. overly caricatured acting— I once had a former student who majored in theatre in college (why, I’ll never know; she only once participated in high school shows), but she dropped out because she said “the acting was so fakey.”

The stage will always be an acting medium that requires a larger-then-life performance because, as Carol Channing has said, you can’t perform in a 1000+ seat theatre and be normal. However, technology has allowed a change in acting style from the Golden Era which still has some remnants in professional theatre.

A performance can be stage-fitting without being “fakey.” The stage doesn’t allow for actions/mugging in place of genuine emotional expression. I’m specifically referencing grand expressions that communicate the subtext of “I’m acting on a stage!!!!” instead of “I’m devastated” or “How exciting.” This isn’t just a thought aimed at high school directors; this overly caricatured style still finds its way onto professional stages.

Yes, you need a certain amount of caricature for most types of humor (on stage or off), but there’s caricature still in touch with reality and that which is completely disconnected. The completely disconnected must be, well, completely disconnected for good.

2. Adults playing children—Unless it is a play that, like LaChiusa’s The Wild Party, would expose a child to adult behavior that they shouldn’t be exposed to, the expense in employing a child to play a significant child character pays off.

If the character is a small part and requires limited character development (such as Helen Burns in Jane Eyre, played so tenderly by Jayne Patterson), it can be done well. If the character is an intended caricature, such as those wonderful kids in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (which are surprisingly accurate caricatures), then it works. However, if there is complexity or it is a large part, it just doesn’t work. Now matter how talented the actresses playing young Amy were in the recent Broadway/tour of Little Women, a certain humanity was lost in the play. It was as if humans were playing the other sisters while Amy was a cartoon.

When adults take on complex kid roles, the typical result is that overly caricatured acting style which sucks the verisimilitude from the show. A realistic child character ends up with the same treatment as a broad comic character, a caricature of a child. This is not the fault of the actor. It’s simply that most adults cannot effectively portray children in complex or nuanced roles.

3. Squeaky-voiced chorines—Unless the show is a period piece that requires a show-within-a-show effect or the show is a parody of historical shows, the squeaky-voiced chorine is otherwise past its prime. Again, it is the overly caricatured effect that neither creates a realistic character nor brings additional life to the stage. It is an out-moded style of acting that doesn’t work with contemporary audiences.

4. Energy in place of character development—A still common occurrence, this is when actors present their character with energy rather than with emotion, when speed and perkiness triumph over truthful emotional expression. It’s when the audience understands the emotion rather than feeling it inside as a result of the performance. For women, this is often coupled with a raise in the pitch of their voice.

The stage requires energy—without it there is no stage presence—but a great, energetic performance doesn’t have to lack character development. There are so many excellent musical comedy performers who have mastered this concept—Faith Prince, Nathan Lane, Hunter Foster, Sutton Foster, Roger Bart, Susan Egan, and Cady Huffman, to name a few. For the ultimate example, see Kristin Chenoweth in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown or Wicked. She naturally speaks in a higher pitch but still communicates true emotions.

the Broadway Mouth
November 3, 2007