Friday, December 28, 2007

Broadway Documentaries: Feature Film Bonus Feature Bonanzas

Hairspray Shake and Shimmy Edition
As part of the 2-Disc DVD edition, we get a chance to explore the roots of the musical Hairspray, including the hit Broadway show. The original producers take part is explaining how the Broadway production came to be. Interestingly, lead producer Margo Lion talks about searching for a youth-friendly property, not necessarily a movie-based property, when she stumbled upon the film of Hairspray. She and the other producers do take us through their journey of workshops, with some additional insights from librettists Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. The only cast member to share experiences, though, is Marissa Jaret Winokur, who addresses not only her battle with cancer but also her tortured history with the show. She was the first Tracy the creators saw, and as she plugged on through the workshop process, she kept being forewarned that she would not be their final choice to open the show. Sadly, the doc contains no clips from the show, only still pictures, though there is a sampling of Nathan Lane singing as Wilbur Turnblad.

Honestly, it’s not a particularly insightful detailing of the creation of the Broadway show, but for someone who eats up that kind of information, I am still glad to have doled out the extra money for the 2-Disc edition just to have it.

Rent 2-Disc Special Edition
Okay, so I’m not really a Renthead. It’s not that I don’t greatly admire the late great Jonathon Larson’s work; it’s just one of those cases where the material, as a whole, doesn’t resonate with my experiences.

For me, though, the purchase of the 2-Disc edition of the movie was a must because of No Day But Today, the excellent doc on not only the making of the Broadway show but also on Jonathon Larson’s life, drawing on the remembrances of close friends as well as family members. As one who aspires to be produced on Broadway (and elsewhere), I found great inspiration in Larson’s life story, which is not only filled with a thriving in the joy of lack but also a love for life and art, the pain of learning the hard way, and the jubilation of triumph. I also found inspiration in the mechanics of Jonathon Larson’s success, the knowledge of what he had to do to get where he got.

After establishing many of the sources of inspiration for the events and characters of Rent, the documentary (which runs almost two hours) details the workshop and off-Broadway production of the show, including the process of casting and the pain of collaboration. It walks us through Jonathon Larson’s unexpected death as well as those days after in which the cast and creative team found a way to move on, as well as the show’s triumphant opening on Broadway. In fact, not even a full thirty minutes of the doc is dedicated to the film version. Best of all, the producers of No Day But Today call on original cast members Daphne Rubin-Vega and Fredi Walker to share their experiences in the process.

We’ve had a string of fantastic documentaries in recent years—Broadway: The Golden Age, Broadway: The American Musical, and Show Business: The Road to Broadway—and Rent’s No Day But Today belongs right up there with it.

The Phantom of the Opera
2-Disc Special Edition

Count me as one of those who really enjoyed the film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, a show I enjoyed on stage but was more blown away by the movie. I probably never would have bought the DVD, though, because I find it pretty much impossible to set aside the chunk of time needed to watch it all. However, I couldn’t pass it up when I heard about Behind the Mask: The Story of The Phantom of the Opera documentary on the 2-Disc edition.

If Behind the Mask is less interesting than No Day But Today it’s because The Phantom of the Opera is a less interesting show than Rent without the seasoning of the passion and struggles of a starving artist in the story of Jonathan Larson. Still, Behind the Mask is an interesting snapshot into the creative mind of one of the most successful and beloved theatrical composers of our time.

Running just over an hour, Behind the Mask follows Andrew Lloyd Webber’s show from the idea to the final production, peppered with many scenes from the stage show. As one might expect in such a thorough documentary, it covers the hiring on of key creative personnel, including interviews with them about their experiences. Hal Prince shows up for the documentary, as do lyricists Richard Stilgoe and Charles Hart. Included in the story is the show’s premiere at Sydmonton, Webber’s country estate where he annually premieres shows and songs. At one early presentation of The Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom was played by Colm Wilkinson, who appears here in footage from that 1985 performance (as does original Raoul Steve Barton in a later Sydmonton performance).

There’s the inclusion of the story of original lyricist Richard Stilgoe and “replacement” Charles Hart, with them discussing how they view their work today. Of interest is the inclusion of original Phantom Steve Harley (whose biggest regret in leaving the show was not being able to work with Hal Prince, whom he says changed his life).

The doc is loaded with clips from the stage production as well as the original music videos that were used to promote the show in London. We even get the scene from the stage show in which Christine’s voice gets replaced by a pre-recorded track, a switch which is identifiable only if you know about its use in advance. Choreographer Gillian Lynne also explains her choices in “Masquerade” which help cover up the use of dummies on the stage (which I had not known about until seeing this doc, and I’m not alone—according to Hal Prince, George Abbott didn’t figure it out either). We even get to see the dummies up close to see how they work. Also of interest is the inclusion of some photos of the process used in creating the look of the Phantom.

I guess if I despised The Phantom of the Opera (as some theatre folk do), I wouldn’t enjoy the documentary, and while there are no great revelations overall, not a whole lot that a creator myself can take away for future reference; it is still a pleasant and worthwhile story of the creation of the longest-running show on Broadway.

the Broadway Mouth
December 28, 2007

P.S. For info on the Bombay Dreams documentary and a musical-themed bonus feature on The Wedding Singer, click on "Broadway documentaries" below.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Clearly Not For All People: Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd

There is probably little that can be said about Tim Burton’s film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street that hasn’t already been said. The story is excellently adapted, the script slightly refocused to perfection, the song cuts hardly noticeable, the cinematography breath-taking, and the singing thin, particularly Helena Bonham Carter who is physically incapable of doing justice to several of Mrs. Lovett’s songs because of her weak vocal cords.

I did think it interesting that while the score is adjusted for the film medium, several moments in the first act still feel distinctly like opera, particularly “My Friends” and “Johanna.” Though it didn’t bother me, I can see how people who aren’t into musicals as a whole could become impatient in the first act.

A guy seated behind me was one of those people who aren’t into musicals as a whole. After taking his seat, he turned to a friend to say, “I think this is the first musical I’ve ever seen. Wait. I take that back; I saw Grease. I also saw Hairspray, except it was the original one, not the new one.” So, I was impressed that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp did what no one else could have possibly done in attracting some new ears to the magic of the musical.

However, Burton delivers a Sweeney Todd that is, as Sally Brown would say, clearly not for all people. Take someone like me, for example.

[Warning: Spoiler Below]

Whereas the stage version—at least the one preserved on DVD and indicated by the libretto—is more like Jaws or Jurassic Park, the impression of gore with much suspense, Tim Burton’s film version lives up to all the hype and promise of blood that you read about on the Internet. The film still builds up the suspense and terror, but Burton delights in the violence and gore factor. It’s R-rated, so this is no surprise (and it wasn’t for me), but to this viewer (who admittedly has no interest in slasher movies or the newly dubbed “torture porn” genre), it was beyond excessive. Sweeney doesn’t just slit throats; he slices before your eyes as a waterfall of CGI blood flows like water after a rainfall (when not squirting Old Faithful, complete with gurgling sound effects. No longer does Sweeney send his victims down a chute, they drop through a hole in the floor, sliding backwards, their heads crashing onto the pavement in full Technicolor gory . . . I mean glory (How Judge Turpin survives a slashing so brutal it leaves Depp covered in blood and then the pounding thud with enough wherewithal to grab for Mrs. Lovett is not addressed) During Sweeney’s “Johanna” reprise, which is oddly humorous on stage because of Sweeney’s casual tone as he sings a beautiful song while he slits throats, plus the whimsical nature of the victims’ delivery to Mrs. Lovett, the humor is largely lost in the literal nature of Burton’s storytelling.

For more fun, there’s also a prominent displaying of the remnants of Mrs. Lovett’s meat-stripping, though nothing tops the delight of not only witnessing Mrs. Lovett get her just desserts but actually seeing her on fire, screaming in the oven. Gotta love that.

[End Spoiler Alert]

This is not to say that Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a bad movie. Like I said, it is excellently adapted and has many merits in its execution. Because of this, it has deservedly won acclaim from many prominent sources, and clearly, there are many people who would line up to watch people getting killed—How many Saw movies have there been?—but one who lines up for a musical will not necessarily enjoy this version of Sondheim’s tale. I, for one, left feeling like I needed some distance from my OBCR and the DVD before I would find myself able to enjoy it again.

the Broadway Mouth
December 26, 2007

Friday, December 21, 2007

Another Bloom and Vlastnik Book

One of my favorite theatre books is Broadway Musicals: The Greatest Shows of All Time by Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik, which I discussed in a blog entry back in September. Will, just in time for Christmas, Bloom and Vlastnik have done it again, though this time in a book much less related to Broadway. While Sitcoms is a small text (in height), it does what the Broadway Musicals book did so well, detailing the 101 best sitcoms. Like the previous book, it is augmented with beautiful full-color photos (sometimes even from black-and-white shows) and sidebars with interesting information on particular stars. There are also pages set aside for special categories, such as the best shows that failed. Already affordable with a list price of $29.95, it is currently on sale for 20% at Barnes and Noble, Sitcoms is high on my list of non-theatre books to get. I really enjoyed their first book and since I do love a good sitcom, I’m looking forward to this new book as well.

the Broadway Mouth
December 21, 2007

Thursday, December 20, 2007

About the Longest-Running Shows List

Whenever the longest-running shows on Broadway list is updated, I always am reminded that the totals don’t always tell the full story. Yes, obviously, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables have been major hits, which are indicated by their numbers. However, when looking at many of the longer runs of the past decade, we have to take into account the stunt-casting factor.

In the Golden Age, shows still needed big stars to sell—Gwen Verdon, Lucille Ball, Ray Bolger, Rosalind Russell, Ethel Merman, and many others. Some shows opened with big Broadway stars, while others required big film and television stars to get off the ground. Few of those shows relied heavily on replacement stars, though Hello, Dolly! is well-known for big-name replacements, as is Mame. I’m sure if I were more familiar with historical replacement casts, we’d find a few other long-running shows with stunt casting of various degrees.

However, there were many shows that didn’t call on big film, television, or pop recording names to sell tickets. When the producers of Damn Yankees needed to replace Gwen Verdon, they called on Gretchen Wyler. Julie Andrews was replaced by Sally Ann Howes. You never hear of big names being needed to replace performers in the long-running Rodgers and Hammerstein shows as well. So when you see the tally of performances of those grand old shows, the numbers seem less impressive; however, the feat is more remarkable.

So now we have musicals with great runs of 5+ years (in relation to many of the great shows of the past, that is a strong showing). But I do think we need to at least acknowledge that in comparing the runs of the past with today, it’s not an even playing field. For example, the revival of Cabaret far outran the original. But the original never used Maxine Andrews, Rose Marie, Anne Baxter, or Ella Fitzgerald the way the revival called on John Stamos, Molly Ringwald, Jon Secada, Joely Fischer, Gina Gershon, and many others. Similarly, the Chicago revival, Hairspray, Beauty and the Beast, Aida, Jekyll and Hyde, The Drowsy Chaperone, The Producers, and even Urinetown (and many others, of course) have resorted to stunt casting to run longer.

This is not a criticism against the shows themselves or the producers; it’s just a comment.

the Broadway Mouth
December 20, 2007

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Great Opportunity Alert: Rocco Landesman

I am told that legendary Broadway producer Rocco Landesman is taking questions to answer over at The New York Times’ Freakonomics Blog. It sounds like a priceless opportunity to me.

Rocco Landesman has been on the producing teams of such shows as Big River, Titanic, The Producers, and a host of others (just check out his credits at the Internet Broadway Database) and is now the head (and owner) of Jujamcyn Theatres, the third largest theatre-owner on Broadway. For those less familiar with his work, he can also be seen in the documentary Broadway: The Golden Age. For a great article on his work, check out Mervyn Rothstein’s article at Playbill.

You just submit your questions to the blog above, and you have a chance of getting to hear the answer from the expert himself. I always value such opportunities because the business and art of Broadway is so fascinating, and here is a chance to get a glimpse into it from a primary source.

the Broadway Mouth
December 18, 2007

Friday, December 14, 2007

From the Mouth of Stephanie J. Block II

I love reading interviews with Stephanie J. Block because she always shows herself to be a thoughtful and intelligent woman in addition to being a phenomenal Broadway talent. Her latest interview on Playbill with Andrew Gans is no different.

In the old days, the big Broadway talents all toured; Carol Channing, Mary Martin, John Raitt, Julie Harris, and even Ethel Merman all made their way through the provinces, as Lynne Fontanne called them to Carol Channing. In an interview, Carol Channing explained that an actor should tour because, to paraphrase, if you visit them at home, they’ll visit you when they come to New York.

Much has changed since those days—it’s harder to become a big-name Broadway star that is known outside New York theatre audiences to name one—but I found what Ms. Block had to say very interesting.

Andrew Gans: It's also a great way to get your name to different parts of the country that wouldn't necessarily know you.

Block: I had no idea what sort of fan base you could gain by going out on the road until we were out there. I still get emails from people that had seen it in Denver or St. Louis. It was really remarkable to me. I didn't understand that until we were on the road for the year, and those sort of fan relationships are still existing.

In fact, I have only seen Stephanie J. Block on tour in Wicked during her stop in Los Angeles. And when I get to New York again, I would love to stop and visit her latest performance.

the Broadway Mouth
December 14, 2007

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mamma Mia! Movie II

Thanks to the posters on Broadway World, I am linking to two versions of the Mamma Mia! trailer, and I must say, I’m very excited. You get a hint of some added book material, and it seems very fun. Meryl Streep looks great!

Trailer 1
Trailer 2

the Broadway Mouth
December 13. 2007

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Take a Chance on Me: Why Mamma Mia!-Haters May Lay All Their Love On the Movie Adaptation

I always found it interesting that the Brits—the nationality that brought us the masterpieces of Malory, Spenser, Shakespeare, Austen, Brontë, Brontë, Brontë, Dickens, Shaw, and so many other great writers—would be purveyors of weak-booked musicals. Okay, so they’re not all weak—there’s a lot of plot happening in some of them—but they do seem to be a people who love the spectacle over logical content—Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Mamma Mia!, and Bombay Dreams all come to mind.

It’s not surprising, when you see it, that Mamma Mia! was actually directed by someone with an opera background. People say that when you go into Mamma Mia! you should plan for a purely good time, check your brain at the door. When I first saw the show on tour, I thought that meant it was pure mindless fun; I didn’t realize that if you thought very much about the evenings’ proceedings, there would be too many gaping holes in the events for it to make sense. Maybe it’s not musical theatre; perhaps it’s opera pop.

Let me say that I understand the appeal of Mamma Mia!, and there’s no denying people love it. Yes, I do wish the Winter Garden was filling the seats with a brand new musical with brand new music, like one written by me perhaps, but I don’t begrudge the people who walk out of the show having had a marvelous time. And let’s face it, people do love this show and have a great time.

I actually saw it on tour having very little familiarity with the ABBA music. I had (and still have, though hardly ever listen to it) the A-Teens album of ABBA covers (which I picked up on a music-buying whim after reading a strong recommendation in Entertainment Weekly). Because of the music, my expectations were that I’d see a really fun show that made sense with lots of big dance numbers. I was disappointed. The story didn’t make a whole lot of sense—it got lost in the music—and I wondered why no one even proposed a paternity test in the end (acknowledging it would have made it okay for the characters to refuse; not acknowledging it seems illogical). Also, for such energetic music, there were relatively few dance numbers.

But of course, like some of the great literature I was required to read in high school, I knew it had to be me. I mean, just because Steinbeck’s use of foreshadowing in Of Mice and Men wasn’t clear to me in tenth grade doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

I do love my Mamma Mia! CD, and I have listened to it many, many times (ABBA is irresistible, though I now have two mock-ABBA albums and none of the original recordings). But I was then prepared to catch the tour when it came to town the following year just to “get” what I had missed the first time.

Yeah, it didn’t make much more sense. Now prepped knowing what the show was versus what I expected it to be (i.e. a big dance musical), I was better prepared to enjoy the show, but I still didn’t find it a super-enjoyable night. That’s not say that I didn’t enjoy myself. It is, after all, ABBA. But it wasn’t a great theatrical experience by any means.

I don’t begrudge the concept. I don’t like the jukebox musical form, but at least here it was something original (as opposed to the copycats that followed it). I guess I just don’t care for the execution.

Still, I really wanted to write a screenplay for a movie version. I felt like the concept could work; it just needed someone who could make it lift—remove a few songs, strengthen the book, and create stronger characters.

That’s why I’m excited for the movie. I don’t think those making the movie will allow for the same errors to be made on film. I have a feeling that what we’ll get is the ABBA musical that should have been—one with stronger characters, fewer songs to clarify the story (and I believe I read that a few songs have been cut), and maybe even fresher jokes. The only sad side effect will be that the Winter Garden will get a boost in attendance, and Mamma Mia! will run forever.

So what did I find to complain about in Mamma Mia! on stage? Well, to begin with, it is worth noting that none of the characters really make a great impression. Donna, for example, is a lot of fun, but she is lacking a certain stage dynamism; she’s utterly forgettable no matter who is playing her. Compare one’s impression of the character to Rosemary, Dolly, Golde, Babe, Lola, Tracy Turnblad, or any other great, spunky musical theatre creation. Donna is flat. Because the character is not particularly outstanding, the actress never fully gets to shine. Everyone is always impressed by the final note of “The Winner Takes It All,” and it is impressive, but that is the only time the part gives the actress portraying Donna a chance to shine. It’s the Tarzan syndrome. A great actor needs great material to shine.

The jokes are pretty predictable. She’s inflating an air mattress . . . a high school student’s got that joke done. My memory is that most of the humor is of that same ilk, sophomore sexual. While popular on television, it seems too predictable (and therefore not very funny) on the Broadway stage.

Also, as many have pointed out, the audience is required to not think in order for the evening to gel. I have no problem with a purely entertaining, fun night at the theatre (like The Wedding Singer), but Mamma Mia! has too many holes. For example, I find it disturbing that Sky wants Sophie to love him like a father. Her desire to find her father doesn’t really have anything to do with him, and I don’t see how the relationship could be healthy if she’s counting on him to be husband and father. Another twisted moment to me is “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”, when Sophie’s friends ravish her potential dads on the dance floor. If my friends—male or female—danced like that with one of my parents—mom or dad—I’d be a little freaked out. I no longer recall the specifics of the choreography, but it didn’t seem right to me at the time.

Again, I also wonder why no one contemplates getting a paternity test. It’s a sweet idea that all three men want a daughter and so agree to share Sophie, but the fact that no one even mentions it, even acts like there is no way they could possibly know who is Dad, seems odd.

I also have to say that I find it curious that in this feminist world—where single mothers don’t need dads, women take control, and the daughter doesn’t need marriage to find happiness—that Sophie has no problems with the implied bachelor activities Sky will take part in. Maybe I’m just an old fashioned romantic who loves his Austen and Brontë heroes too much, but I feel sorry for Sophie.

That isn’t to say that Mamma Mia! doesn’t also have its positive moments. “Does Your Mother Know” is lots of fun, with great choreography supporting a great concept, and there are some genuine emotional moments in “S.O.S.,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” and “The Winner Takes It All.”

And that’s why I’m looking forward to the Mamma Mia! movie. Movie producers are so apprehensive about musicals anyway (look how the television version of The Music Man zapped out every bit of caricature and made a comedy into a drama), I can’t believe they wouldn’t at least attempt to remedy the problems in the opera-styled Mamma Mia! libretto. The concept of Mamma Mia! is a fun one—ABBA music is pure energy—and if anything, it can’t turn out any worse than the stage show. I know I would definitely see the Broadway tour again if I only had to pay $9.00. What’s not to look forward to?

the Broadway Mouth
December 12, 2007

Monday, December 10, 2007

In My Fashion: The Unique Struggle of Revivals

The Crucible is one of my favorite plays, tied with A Raisin in the Sun as tops on my list. I was assigned to read it as part of a high school America literature class, and it instantly gripped me by the transcendent elements of the story; I knew people in my own life who would have easily found themselves caught up in the hysteria. Finishing the play became painful. I wanted to know the ending but dreaded reaching it, knowing that there was no way it could possibly arrive at a happy conclusion.

I recently watched parts of the Nicholas Hytner film version, which I have yet to see in its entirety. I loved the play so much that, even though I had never seen it on stage, when the movie came out, I didn’t see it. I had envisioned it so vividly all the times I read it, I couldn’t face the changes in the movie. I even read Arthur Miller’s screenplay, published at the time of the movie’s release, while never seeing the movie.

For me, the idea of showing the events in the forest—one of the scenes from the movie I’ve never watched—spoils the mystique of what actually happened. In the original play, the audience finds out about it piecemeal, like good exposition should be given, but the result is an element of surprise as the reader/audience learns about it, all shadowed by the darkness of the unknown, allowing the imagination to take over from the dialogue.

What I have seen of it, I have also struggled with the difference between the images cultivated in my head by multiple readings and those of Hytner. I know that Arthur Miller thought Daniel Day-Lewis to be ideal for John Proctor, but not only did he not look the part to me, he never fully embodied my vision of the man, though I do like the choices of Winona Ryder and Joan Allen as Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Proctor.

But this latter point is the nature of a revival. Yeah, this was a film adaptation, but the concept is the same. A new work arrives onstage without any opinion or bias shaping its reception. There is no Pearl Bailey rendition of “I’m Here” to haunt LaChanze and no Robert Morse or Bonnie Scott to influence our hearing of “If I Told You.” In thirty years, should The Color Purple or The Wedding Singer be revived, that’s exactly what the future generation of actors will need to face.

It seems to me that many of the complaints I hear about revivals are a simple matter of choices. The choices the director made in comparison to the choices someone on a message board would make. I had heard “Conga!” from Wonderful Town probably two-hundred times before the Donna Murphy revival opened. When they performed the song on The Today Show, I had envisioned the staging in my head so many times, it was slightly disappointing. It wasn’t that Kathleen Marshall didn’t so a fantastic job, because she did; it was that I had my own picture formed.

Truth be known, the vision in my head was no more correct than Kathleen Marshall’s. I would not be so presumptuous to even suggest that I could direct anything a fraction as well as Ms. Marshall does. I had simply formed my own stage pictures from the process of listening.

Unfortunately, many people take their choice preferences, formed by prior productions, years of listening to original recordings, and their own imaginations, and use that as a reason for discouraging the new production of an existing work. If a libretto or play is rich enough, it will withstand and welcome the interpretation of directors, readers, and audiences (though if enough alterations are made to book or songs, that’s another matter entirely). It boils down to choices, choices that, many times, are really just differences of opinion.

That is not to say that every revival is great or that one shouldn’t make criticism; however, I think it is important to analyze what is motivating that criticism. For many plays and musicals, the production requires the director to make a series of interpretive choices. It also requires the actors to do the same. Sometimes, these choices are a matter of preference. One preference doesn’t trump another; it’s all a matter of personal taste.

the Broadway Mouth
December 10, 2007

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Tips for Educational Directors

Directing high school plays was a love/hate experience for me. I loved working with my kids, and I loved directing them, but it was always a time of long, long hours (usually followed by bouts of pretty serious illness from getting no sleep) and trying to balance the demands of directing with the demands of being an English teacher with 60 short stories to grade.

Still, whenever I see a high school play, I always think back fondly on my experiences (and my students), wishing I could take that task on again. There’s such satisfaction in seeing an entire audience erupt into laughter over something a student says—something that took you thirty minutes to pull from him.

I was a very insecure director, probably because, at the time, I was pretty insecure about everything (now it would help if I was a little less secure). Now, though, as I see more and more high school and community theatre productions, I’ve come to see that I did possess many key strengths that directing an enjoyable production requires. I never felt like the shows I directed were ready for Broadway (some directors do pat themselves on the back nicely), but I was always very proud of them. I have since become more so.

There were several principles given to me by my college director (and a few I picked up myself) that I let guide me in directing my shows. Over the years, a few of those principles have dropped by the wayside, and a few have been reaffirmed by what I’ve seen.

1. Never pre-cast shows. This was something passed on to me by my college director, and it is something I am proud to say I stuck to during my time as a high school director.

It’s imperative for kids to be able to walk into an audition and know that they have a chance at getting any part in the show, and it’s only fair. Kids grow in talent and ability, and it’s amazing to see the leaps some kids make in ability between shows, and if the roles are already cast (or if a show is selected for certain students), then they never have a chance.

I directed in a fairly small school, and like most small schools, the number of boy parts in musicals is disproportionate to the number of girl parts. The only thing I did was to select shows I felt like I would have enough boys for and to think over the boys I had to make sure I had several boys from which to choose for leads, in terms of singing ability and range. However, I never once thought about who might be cast, only whether I had a good chance of finding anyone. I simply wanted to give everyone a fair chance.

This actually worked in my favor on the final play I directed at my former high school because a large group of my talented seniors decided not to audition because they wanted an easy spring. Had I pre-cast the show, I would have been let down by missing some key people. (Interestingly enough, I wound up with a spectacular cast that was a pure joy to work with, completely lacking in teen drama, attitude, or ego. It was an amazing experience.)

2. Stir it up. When casting, I always stirred it up as much as I could. Naturally, you have to have the talented people in the key parts, but I worked hard to give many people a chance. As for the actual lead roles, I never once repeated the students as leads because I wanted to give everyone a chance to shine (that is not to say that leads didn’t wind up in large supporting roles in other shows, though even that was never a given). Your number one concern must be the audience, but it’s good to give everyone a chance.

3. Put your audience first. There is nothing more satisfying to a kid than to hear an audience burst into uproarious laughter at their line or to hear someone in the audience cry. Kids will be energized no matter how good or bad a show is, but they feel it more acutely when they know they’ve reached the audience.

I always let this guide me, and I never once regretted it. The kids often got tired during rehearsals when I made them do the blocking for the tenth time and there were mumblings of “Isn’t it good enough?” But I tortured them (and me) by doing it again (and again and again) because I wanted them (okay, and me) to do it the best they could. The audience can feign a standing ovation; they cannot feign mass laughter or any of the other energizing responses felt while performing.

4. Trust the original creators. While there are many talented high school and college directors out there, a relative few of them would ever be ready to tackle a new production on a Broadway stage like a George Abbott, Abe Burrows, or Gower Champion. Don’t try to better them by changing the work.

There’s always room for interpretation, but interpretation doesn’t fall under throwing out scenes, songs, or rewriting the entire libretto. No kidding, I attended one atrocious high school production of Godspell that had been entirely rewritten. Not only was it directed like a third rate kiddy concert, it was written like one as well. Horrendous!

Most people have seen those productions—they cut out “Motherhood March” (since it’s not in the movie and therefore they can’t tell what to do with it), cut out “Rock Island,” or “Her Is.” Often changes are made to reflect film versions, but the problem is that the movie and the play are constructed differently. “Motherhood March” from Hello, Dolly!, for example, is an extremely satisfying number, when it is well-directed. I once heard of a production of The Pajama Game that used a gun instead of a knife-throwing board. Yes, it is a challenge to make the knife-throwing board and walls, but when you do the work, your audience’s response rewards you greatly for your work.

5. Select a show based upon your limitations. One of the most important abilities it takes to put on a great show is your ability to schedule. A show will fall apart if you struggle with managing a tight schedule or cannot work into it needed extras—time to work on accents, the time to locate bizarre props, the time to acquire the right costumes. Unfortunately, this is something one really only learns the hard way. However, if you select Fiddler on the Roof, you’re going to have to work in time to teach your actors—at least Tevye—to speak in a Russian accent. If you’re doing Mame, you have to make sure you have the budget to acquire and the time to find all of those period costumes.

6. Hire a great support team. Whenever I see a high school show, I am always thankful for the fact that I had great set designers, the best high school choreographer, lighting designer, and a wonderful costume designer (and so on). Yes, they were under my vision as the director, but they always far surpassed what I could ever have asked for. They made me look good.

I was very fortunate, for other than the lighting designer and the costume designer, I inherited everyone else from previous directors. Now, if I were to embark on the same course, I would be very careful in finding those support staff instead of taking in whoever was there or finding whoever was willing.

7. Keep it all in perspective. So many high school directors take themselves so seriously. There’s one pretty bad director in my area who gets coverage in the local paper when his shows open. He practically trips over himself patting himself on the back and emphasizing his work in developing his “program.” Obviously, it’s important for us to take our work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. There’s a big difference.

8. Keep seeing shows! So many directors don’t take time to see other shows. It gets to be a little like inbreeding because not only do they not grow as directors, they keep perpetrating the same directorial flaws.

One of the best experiences for me as a director has been to watch other directors take on shows I’ve done. My college director said in doing so, we would learn our weaknesses and their strengths, and that is ever true.

9. Pet Peeve: Not every show is Rent. Ditch the glaring head mics. I recently saw a beautiful production of a period show where the lavish costumes were destroyed by the kind of mics public speakers use. There are great mics that can be purchased or rented that either clip onto the lapel, or better yet, can be somewhat discreetly taped to the forehead and covered with make-up (like on Broadway). In recent years, I’ve seen an increase in high school shows that use these bizarre microphones, and it usually takes me the entire first act to get past the fact that they’re there. It worked for Rent and The Civil War because it gave them the rock concert effect. Oklahoma! does not need a rock concert effect.

the Broadway Mouth
December 6, 2007

Monday, December 3, 2007

Rediscovering Jerry Herman’s Mrs. Santa Claus

Angela Lansbury really is something. I don’t know if there is another performer who can lay claim to a career that is as long, as varied, or as beloved. Film, television, Broadway—she’s conquered them all. I don’t know if she’s ever received a lifetime achievement Tony; however, with her final Broadway role in Deuce, this next year’s ceremony might be the most appropriate time to bestow such a deserved honor.

Among her Broadway credits include a short run in Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle, a knock ‘em dead turn in Mame, followed by Dear World, Gypsy, The King and I, Sweeney Todd, and a return as Mame. Mrs. Santa Claus, with its Broadway pedigree and her warm performance, practically fits into her series of roles on stage.

After always intending to look for the DVD for the past few Christmas seasons, I remembered recently that I had recorded it back in 1996 when it originally aired on CBS. Watching it reminded me of what a Christmas classic the movie truly is. Why it’s not a regular primetime presence on CBS every Christmas, I’ll never know.

In it, Lansbury plays Anna Claus, the wife of Santa himself (played by Charles Durning). After years of contentment as being the woman behind the great man, Mrs. Claus decides to step out for herself. However, while testing a new flying route a week before Christmas, she lands in 1910 New York City with an injured reindeer, unable to get home. What unfolds is a tale infused with all the fascinating events of the time—the suffragette movement, immigration, and unionization—with Lansbury’s Mrs. Claus working her special magic through it all. Often when family movies attempt to tell stories from historical periods, there is a decided determination to highlight every fault of the time with a clear modern eye. The creators of Mrs. Santa Claus, however, allow the stories and characters to take center stage, with the modern interpretation taking a backseat to a simple presentation of events like those that happened.

With its 1910 setting, Mrs. Santa Claus oozes Christmas, celebrating the season to a backdrop of the diverse cultures and customs that help make New York so wonderful. It’s almost like a Christmas card come to life.

There’s also much inventiveness in the story. Tavish the toymaker, for example, has an employee motto which is “It only has to last ‘til Christmas,” when his toys will inevitably break. There’s also a touching plotline of one woman from “the Old Country” who always keeps a bag packed with family treasures in case the government forces her out, a fear escalated by her daughter’s outspoken stance against the government’s law on the woman’s ability to vote.

With music and lyrics by Jerry Herman (who makes a brief appearance himself, tickling those ivory keys), Mrs. Santa Claus feels like a full night at the theatre (There are eleven songs with numerous reprises). There are more than a handful of gems in his score, most of the numbers feeling like perfect theatre songs, with catchy hooks, clever rhymes, and satisfying ends. This is a score that rivals my two favorites of his, Hello, Dolly! and Mame. As you would expect, there’s a song introducing the main character, a big dance number (the memorable “Avenue A”), a beautiful love song, a vaudeville turn, and so on. I will admit that in hearing this score for the first time in about ten years, I longed for the great scores of old, with the simple, hummable showtune, as Herman himself has called it (I, for one, agree with Peter Filichia, however, that showtune is a term that has far outlived its use).

Mrs. Santa Claus is of interest for more than its intelligent family friendly story and its perfect Jerry Herman tunes, for it even has a great Broadway cast. In addition to Lansbury and Durning, there’s also Michael Jeter as elf Arvo, and Terrence Mann as the villainous toymaker Tavish, plus David Norona as Marcello, a charming young actor with a splendid theatrical tenor voice (and look for Sabrina Bryan of Dancing with the Stars fame as one of the children in the toyshop). Choreography is courtesy of Rob Marshall, who helps make “Avenue A” a highlight.

If you’ve never seen Mrs. Santa Claus, or saw it ten years ago and have since forgotten it, I encourage you to seek it out. Since Mrs. Santa Claus, we’ve had a respectable number of television musicals, from the great (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and Annie) to the mediocre (Once Upon a Mattress, South Pacific) to the bad (The Music Man, Gepetto—which has great music), but none have managed to top Jerry Herman and Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Santa Claus.

the Broadway Mouth
December 3, 2007

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Reflections from Call Me Anna Part II (Please Indulge)

In addition to the fascinating account of her involvement with the original play and movie of The Miracle Worker, later in Patty Duke’s fantastic autobiography Call Me Anna, she addresses the making of the television remake of her original triumph, this time taking on the role of Annie Sullivan to Melissa Gilbert’s Helen Keller. As elsewhere in the book, she provides an absorbing detailing of the experience, a role she had fantasized about getting since her original run in the supporting role. She also addresses her devastation at being passed up for playwright William Gibson’s stage sequel Monday After the Miracle, which was a project she set in motion.

Interestingly, her own critique of the second filmed version of The Miracle Worker was dead-on for one of the two reasons why I couldn’t sit through the third version—the Disney remake—for more than fifteen minutes, namely its inappropriate candy store colors (the Disney version also used a screenplay that was a more than slightly bastardized version of the original play).

Having now finished Call Me Anna (which I will say had me riveted even though I had not seen many of the television projects she mentions in the book), I was pleasantly surprised by how much Duke addresses the craft of acting. It’s not a handbook by any means, but it allows insights into her acting mind—her process, her working style, and her insights into the work. She shows us Patty Duke in film and Patty Duke on stage, with a particularly interesting few pages dedicated to her touring work with then-husband John Astin, providing insight to his process as well. I loved reading about her work and her perspectives on it.

Of interest to others will include the endearing telling of her experience on the set of Valley of the Dolls and her encounter with Judy Garland before the Legend was fired, her Emmy-Award winning turn in My Sweet Charlie (based on a stage part she was offered but was unable to take), plus her choices in raising two children in the business (very talented sons Sean Astin from Rudy and The Lord of the Rings and Mackenzie Astin from The Facts of Life and Iron Will).

Call Me Anna is a page-turner, but that is not to say that the book is an entirely pleasurable read. The problem is I love Patty Duke. I love Patty Duke as the actress in The Miracle Worker and The Patty Duke Show, but you can tell from her narrative style and how she portrays events (not to mention interviews I’ve seen of her) that she is an incredibly intelligent, funny, and warm person—someone you’d love to have over for Sunday dinner. Because of this, when she first heads down the road of bad choices spurned on by the onset of bipolar disorder, it’s as hard as watching someone you know personally about making/living those choices (or watching the Britney Spears segment on Access Hollywood on any given night, seriously). It’s riveting, but it’s very hard to experience her experiencing it.

However, I have to also add that I greatly admire her ability to move on from those painful times. She reflects on them with great honesty and humor. She acknowledges that she made the choices but that she wasn’t really making them of her own accord. So she doesn’t wallow in guilt. I love that. Perhaps it’s because there’s such hope and life at the end of the tale that you want her to move on in life unencumbered by needless guilt.

I do have to say that Call Me Anna also returns me to one of my soapboxes, which is the lack of roles for talented women over forty, particularly those who haven’t botoxed themselves into kewpie-dolldom. Patty Duke is the real deal. I wish she’d have more chances to shine. In the works I’ve written, I have consciously attempted to write meaty roles for older women. It’s not always possible, particularly when the plot requires the focus to be on young people, fathers, or something, but I have created my fair share of significant roles for women over 40 and 50 in a number of the projects I write. I wish other writers would do the same.

I’m surprised more producers haven’t called her to Broadway since her Aunt Eller moment in Oklahoma! several years ago. Not only does Duke have a sell-able name, she’s the genuine article. I’d love to see her take on Lost in Yonkers, The Glass Menagerie, Death of a Salesman, Doubt, or something entirely new. We can’t let such talented fall through the cracks.

the Broadway Mouth
December 1, 2007