Friday, December 26, 2008

The Glass Ceiling of 29

There’s a little Mary and Joseph in all of us. I know that it’s after Christmas and Christmas references are out-dated, but this was something that came to me while reflecting on the season.

Mary and Joseph didn’t have it easy at all. She wasn’t married and was pregnant. He was an honorable man engaged to a pregnant girl. There was a census. She traveled far on a donkey with absolutely no back support. She gave birth without a midwife in a barn. Then they had to flee for Egypt. I mean, honestly, you’d think giving birth to the son of God would be a little easier.

So, if things were so darn difficult for them, why shouldn’t they be for poor fools like us trying to make it on Broadway? Wouldn’t it be nice if we were at some party ten states away from New York, chatting with an old friend who happened to be dating a Broadway producer looking for new talent. A firm handshake, a few laughs, a couple sips of Diet Coke, and low and behold, you’re handing him/her a libretto and getting a call the next day about how he/she stayed up all night imagining the possibilities, and he/she called his/her good pal Andrea McArdle about starring in it.

Unfortunately, things don’t happen that easily for anyone. Making it in anything involves monumental struggle, sacrifice, and determination.

The worst part is, statistically, you have such a little chance of getting anywhere until you’re too run-down to keep fighting.

Most people in this business seem to make it in their 30s. If you look at the cast of Friends, they didn’t get on the show until they were in their 30s. And I don’t think it was just a matter of getting the right audition. Yes, they all had short-lived shows before they hit the cash cow, but you have to imagine their lives before they finally made it. How many years did Jennifer Aniston have to wait tables, room with annoying people, struggle to make ends meet before she finally got Friends? And how many other people missed out on the same audition because they finally threw in the towel at twenty-nine?

The big reason people don’t make it until they are in their 30s is because they don’t deserve to. Of course, there are those prodigies out there like Sutton Foster, but the reality is that we simply need time to develop our talents. If we think we’re a genius at twenty-five, wait until we see ourselves at thirty-three.

The question then is, will we make it to thirty-three?

I recently reconnected with the female lead from my reading, and I was thrilled to hear that she had started getting some parts worthy of her talent. But of course, she’s probably now in her early thirties. It’s that time.

the Broadway Mouth
December 26, 2008

Saturday, December 13, 2008

10 Broadway CDs: I [Don’t] Get a Kick Out of You

Marie Christine, summer of 2000. I picked up the Original Broadway Cast Recording from Barnes and Noble, and within moments, I was lost in the music and the story.

There’s nothing quite like buying a Broadway Cast Recording for a show you’ve never seen. It’s a little like getting a book on CD. You get to experience a show for the first time. There are plenty of shows out there that have closed on Broadway for which there is little chance that many of us will ever get to experience on stage—Wildcat, Triumph of Love, Do Re Mi—and the shows’ only chances of surviving are people picking up the OBCRs.

But for every Marie Christine, Ragtime, Parade, there’s one of those CDs you listen to here and there, recordings that never win a place in your heart. Here are ten from my collection.

All American—This was one of those browsing through Barnes and Noble, “Hey, this looks like it could be a rare gem” purchases that never paid off. Ray Bolger, you steered me wrong! It’s not that the songs aren’t fine. There are some fun satirical songs, like “It’s Fun to Think” (which I often wanted to play for my high school students at my last teaching position), but as a whole, the story never lifts through the songs, and the songs never jump from the disc. Plus, it doesn’t help that Eileen Herlie’s voice, at times, reaches nail-on-chalk-board proportions, which was probably effective for her character on stage but is less tolerable in my car.

Barnum—Talk about a charming, humable score. Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart really knocked one out of the park with Barnum, the circus/autobiographical musical which starred Jim Dale and Glenn Close on Broadway. Never having seen the show, however, it seems more like a great pop album rather than a cast recording. Song after song after song is great—“There is a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute,” “The Colors of My Life,” “One Brick at a Time,” and many others. But when you pop in a Broadway Cast Recording, you’re looking for something different than when you pop in a CD from Jordin Sparks or David Cook. You want a full story, rich with characters, and Barnum just doesn’t give you that. Perhaps after I see the DVD of the show, I’ll listen to it more. Until that time, I’ll think fondly of it, then pop in Hairspray instead.

Bombay Dreams—I honestly got what I deserved when I went into the store to get Passion and walked out with Bombay Dreams (though in my defense, they didn’t have Passion in stock). I’ve written about Bombay Dreams before, so I’ll work on not repeating myself, but there are some good songs on the disc—“Shakalaka Baby” is infectious and addictive as is, to a lesser degree, “Chaiyya Chaiyya,” and “The Journey Home” is pretty moving. Most of the other songs, though, are too repetitive and lacking in lyrical depth. “Like an Eagle,” for example, repeats itself so many times, you can’t listen to it all. I can’t help but feel that on stage Bombay Dreams was plenty of fun, but on disc, there’s no spectacle to bedazzle you away from its weaknesses, the very little hint of story or character.

Children of Eden—I got this CD used for an amazing price. I’m awfully glad I didn’t pay full price. I don’t know if I’m failing the musical or if the musical is failing me; I honestly believe that I will probably love the musical if I ever get a chance to see it performed. Until then, I’m not a big fan.

I am a huge fan of Stephen Schwartz’s work, but I don’t think I’ve ever made it all the way through both Children of Eden discs (though I have been known to earnestly attempt it). My theory is that the story isn’t strong enough. Not that the sources material isn’t—how many centuries has that survived—but the music comes across as “This happened, then this happened, then this happened,” so that, while it is in essence telling one coherent story, it doesn’t come off that way on disc.

A Christmas Carol—For the longest time, I thought I wasn’t getting into Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens’ score to A Christmas Carol because I wasn’t listening to it enough. I’d often pop it in only around Christmastime and then contemplate why I wasn’t absorbed into it.

There are few tunesmiths as talented as Alan Menken, and Lynn Ahrens is a genius as well; however, their score to A Christmas Carol simply lacks a “stick-to-your-ribs” quality. As with the other scores in this list, there are strong songs in the score—“Link By Link” and “A Place Called Home” are two whose melody and lyrics I recall with fondness—but perhaps it is the familiarity with the story or something else, but I just don’t get into the score like you would think I would.

Destry Rides Again—I bought this recording based on the recommendation Destry Rides Again got in Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik’s original edition of Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time. There’s no reason why it should not be a great album—Andy Griffith and Dolores Gray are the leads. The music and lyrics are by Harold Rome. There are plenty of fun songs and strong performances on the CD, particularly Gray’s charming “I Hate Him.” But somehow, it never all comes together. Perhaps the story—about a sheriff without a gun reforming a crime-ridden town and falling for the mistress of the residents of the residence of ill repute—isn’t strong enough. Perhaps the songs don’t do enough. Maybe “Anyone Would Love You” is a signature moment in the score, a song so studiously ripped off from a Rodgers and Hammerstein score, you can’t help but skip over it. I don’t regret getting Destry Rides Again—it has such a nice cover and liner notes—but I also don’t listen to it often.

Do Re Mi (1999 Cast Recording)—This was another score I bought after seeing it in Bloom and Vlastnik’s Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time. Overall, I’d say they made great choices, but here was another one in the “Not So Much” category. Heather Headley and Brian Stokes Mitchell’s songs play really well, including Headley’s hilarious “What’s New at the Zoo.” The rest of the score, however, feels rushed. Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green wrote one of my favorite scores—Bells are Ringing—but here, the lyrics fall awkwardly on the ear, refusing to rhyme when it feels like they should, ending before they seem completed. The characters seem to have some charm, but when everything written for the supporting characters of John (Mitchell) and Tilda (Heather Headley) soars, it only shows how weak the rest of the show is. By the end of the score, you’re only concerned about hearing “Cry Like the Wind,” “Fireworks,” and “What’s New at the Zoo” again. After I got Do Re Mi, I pretty much had to force myself to listen to it the whole way through.

First Impressions—As a Jane Austen fan, I rushed out to order First Impressions after I read a negative review on Yeah, the reviewer was right after all. I once wrote an entire column on the thought of a Jane Austen musical, so I won’t repeat myself here, but the score simply doesn’t work. First of all, the show isn’t authentic in feel. The choices aren’t even made out of mis-visioning, but the heavily-spoken score seems to be trying too hard to be My Fair Lady. Either way, the score doesn’t do justice to Pride and Prejudice, and with one or two exceptions, the songs just aren’t that good.

Martin Guerre (1999 Cast Recording)—I’m one of those types who loves Les Miserables, but Martin Guerre simply doesn’t do anything for me. I love expansive, epic scores, but my feeling is that the plot for Martin Guerre doesn’t match the vision of the creators. I haven’t listened to the recording for awhile—and to be fair a number of songs have stuck with me over the years—but my memory is that most of the second half is a court trial. A court trial as a key setting doesn’t strike me as terribly engaging on stage. It work for two songs in Hello, Dolly!, but Martin Guerre is more People’s Court: The Musical than Night Court.

RaisinA Raisin in the Sun is one of my two favorite plays (tied with The Crucible), and I have immensely enjoyed reading it multiple times as well as teaching it a few times. Reading the libretto of Raisin (available because it is licensed by Samuel French) shows that Raisin was likely a very enjoyable show on stage, but the score is perhaps too bound to the intimacy of the original play to thrive independently.

There are some very fine songs—“Not Anymore” is a particular favorite, a dark comedic number where the younger Youngers explain to matriarch Lena about the man coming from the Clybourne Park Association to keep them from moving into a white neighborhood. “Man Say,” “Runnin’ to Meet the Man,” and “Measure the Valleys” are all strong enough, but the score never fully engages you in the story, despite its strong rooting in Lorraine Hansberry’s original brilliance.

the Broadway Mouth
December 13, 2008

Monday, December 8, 2008

Seven Reasons to Believe in Broadway Now

7. When fire clears the forest floor, death leads to rebirth and life. In the long run, the destruction can help the forest. Yes, these shows closing is tragic on some levels, but only when the old voices have gone away can new ones enter.

It’s sad to see Hairspray, Spamalot, Spring Awakening, et al go, but let’s get ready to fall in love with some new shows.

6. Even during the Great Depression, Broadway flourished. My great uncle, who has the typical post-traumatic stress disorder related to the Great Depression—he is exceptionally frugal to the point of using napkins many times before throwing them away—gave my family comfort when he said things were entirely different back then because nobody had anything to begin with.

So, the audience may change, the subject matter of the shows may change, but it will survive. If Broadway survived then, it can survive this, a time when we, as a nation, are better equipped to survive.

5. The core of Broadway is great shows with great performances. Everything else is excess. Shows can be created for limited means and still turn a profit, even if things get really tough.

Once, in a college production of Little Women, there were some concerns related to the set. My director said, “It won’t matter if we have a set. People are coming for the story, not the set.” Yes, we all love a Broadway show with great showmanship, but it’s better to have a modest set than a dark theatre.

That’s why I’m shocked the Godspell revival never made it to Broadway. An inexpensive show with a name attached and the music of Stephen Schwartz, that’s a no-brainer.

Some investor should’ve had a V8.

4. Necessity is the mother of invention. If you’re scrambling to get a larger market share of a smaller market, you get scrappy. I have a feeling the more creative of producers out there will learn new marketing and producing tricks that will inform the industry for years to come.

3. We still have Wicked. As long as Wicked runs, there will be an audience for Broadway. Just today I talked with a high school student who saw Wicked and realized she wanted to sing on Broadway or in opera. Wicked and Legally Blonde on MTV have probably done more to get people hooked on Broadway than anything else. As long as Wicked is running, new audiences will be nurtured.

2. Broadway has always been risky. But for every floundering show, there’s a Wicked, In the Heights, Rent, The Drowsy Chaperone, or The Color Purple. Even if the economy gets worse, shows that get poor reviews and fail to grab the audience’s imagination will lose money, and the shows that tantalize and get great word of mouth will make money.

I’m not a mathematician, but it sounds like your chances of investing in a dud are about the same in any economy. And let’s be honest, you can’t take it with you anyway.

1. When the economy recovers—and it will—only the shows that are running will get the benefit of consumer confidence. I’ve always read that the smart people are the ones who make money when everyone else is losing and afraid to buy. Buy low, sell high. Getting a great show up now means that when people are back into treating themselves to a Broadway show, the shows that are still open and running will be ready for the influx of butts in seats.

If you’re waiting to produce or invest until after the economy has recovered, you’ve waited too long. You’ll have missed the upswing, and instead of riding the wave, you’ll be running to catch up.

The time to start producing or investing in a show, starting a project that will take three years to get up and on the boards, is not after the economy has recovered. There will be less competition in the spring, and that sounds like a good time to be in the running for the Tony to me.

the Broadway Mouth
December 9, 2009

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Now I'm a Believer

While I don't think the economy can be blamed for every closing, here's one that certainly points to the potential for bleak times ahead.

I'm not ready to gloom and doom just yet, though. Sure, Disney is offering a free ticket offer for each of its three shows, including The Lion King, and the closing of Grease so soon is a shocker, but I'm still holding out hope. I mean, how many times in the past two months have I seen on the news about a horrible drop on Wall Street or some other ominous sign, only to have it followed by "the lowest its been since 2001" or "an event that hasn't happened since 1997." Let's face it, things weren't so bad in 1997 or 2001.

So, we'll see. As always, the key is not to panic. Blaming every closing on the economy is not productive, and it's not accurate, either. After all, Jane Eyre, A Class Act, The Life, Carrie, and Urban Cowboy all closed in healthier times. Things can close because they are bad, poorly received, or have just run their course. Let's be sure the decifier which is the case before enjoying a good panic.

the Broadway Mouth
December 3, 2008

Saturday, November 29, 2008

You Gotta Get a Gimmick: Good Storytelling as a Gimmick (Ruminations on Making It, Part 3)

I once had someone look at a work I wrote and said, “I don’t think there is a market for this sort of thing anymore. Even if you found someone to produce it, who would see it?”

The sad part is, I knew that from the moment I started writing the play. My reasoning was that if the show was funny enough, the characters endearing enough, the plot executed well enough, then its quality would rise above marketability. That is, the quality of the show would give advertising folks enough to work with to promote the show to find an audience.

Hollywood has become an industry obsessed with marketability, and its movies show it. You have an idea, and you boil it down to a tag line, “This” meets “That,” complete with a target audience and popular appeal.

Sometimes in the malls near my home, there will be people at booths asking me to preview movie previews to give my perspective. The last one was for the Jason Biggs and Isla Fisher comedy Wedding Daze. I was asked plenty of questions focused on the appeal of the actors, images I remembered, my perceptions, the likelihood I would see the movie. Who knows how many thousands of people around the country saw that same preview and gave similar feedback. And yet, the movie still hasn’t made it to theaters. I later read about it in Entertainment Weekly, and it has apparently been sitting on studio shelves for a few years.

All that work on marketability, and no one even cares.

Broadway has taken on the same perspective. A year ago, there was all this talk about the 90-minute musical, looking for a show with a unique hook, something to set the show apart. Maybe I’m still new to this whole Broadway thing, but getting good reviews might be the best place to start. We recently lost two shows I was really wanting to see—A Tale of Two Cities and 13—one was traditional, one was unique, both got weak reviews, and neither lasted to Tony season.

The best works, the ones that last, in the end, have something far better than marketability, uniqueness, or “it” factor. They have great stories, and in the case of musicals, great stories that are told through great music.

the Broadway Mouth
November 29, 2008

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

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

The Producers of 13I am thankful to the producers of 13 for bringing another Jason Robert Brown score to the stage. I haven’t heard it yet, but since I’m a big fan of the songwriter, I’m comfortable assuming I’ll like it when I hear it.

Little House on the PrairieI am thankful for the stage adaptation of Little House on the Prairie. I’d be more thankful if the score would be recorded, but for now, I’ll just be thankful I got to experience it on stage. For now.

Words and Music by Jerry Herman
I am thankful that the DVD for the PBS documentary Words and Music by Jerry Herman included the title number from Hello, Dolly! with Carol Channing. Precious little footage from her performance has ever been readily available.

WickedI am thankful for Wicked. I look forward to having kids to take to it myself someday.

Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal—I am thankful Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal are touring in Rent. What a rare opportunity for fans of these performers who don’t live in New York City.

Felicia P. Fields—I am thankful that Felicia P. Fields is still on tour with The Color Purple. Hers is a performance too remarkable not to make it across the country.

Word of Mouth—I am thankful Craig Bierko may be returning to Broadway. I thought he was amazing in The Music Man, and I bet he’d be great in Guys and Dolls.

In the HeightsI’m thankful In the Heights is still on the boards. I hope I get to New York City one of these days to catch it; it is probably the show I’m most excited about.

the Broadway Mouth
November 26, 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008

It Only Takes a Moment: Is Persistence the Only Answer? (Ruminations on Making It, Part 2)

I love Ken Davenport’s line, “He’s just not that into you.” I think of it daily when I’m at work.

In my job, I filter through applications, resumes, and phone calls to determine who to bring in for interviews. Fewer than ten percent of the people who contact me—typically at least two hundred in a month—are ever people I would consider bringing in (and fewer of those are ever offered work).

I get these annoying people who call me back every two months, most of whom don’t realize they are doing that. They just don’t keep jobs for long and start from scratch when they walk off their job or are fired. Some of them, though, are purposefully calling back again and again, perhaps thinking that by putting their name or voice in front of me, I’ll warm up to their job jumping, I’m-so-desperate-for-a-job-though-I’ve-had-three-in-the-past-year resume and finally bring them in. Because I’m always busy, I can’t help but think when I get these calls, “He’s just not that into you!”

With Thanksgiving coming up, last week was particularly busy for me because of people needing time off from work. This one woman called in again. I finally got annoyed enough to call her and say in a very respectful, professional tone, “I talked with you in July, and you’ve called me four times since. If I have anything, I will give you a call.” Of course, in another month, she’ll be paging through the phone book and call again anyway.

If it’s that bad for me, think about what it must be like for producers on Broadway and in Hollywood. No wonder they put up so many barriers to reading work! Everyone is working on a screenplay or a musical, and we can only guess how many of them aren’t very good.

So, the answer to “He’s just not that into you” is perhaps not to keep annoying people until they beat you over the head with a stick. Like me with my job, they don’t need to spend ten days with you to know if you’re going to suit their needs or not. With my job, within two or three questions, I can almost always tell if I’m going to bring someone in for an interview and whether we will hire them.

The answer, then, has to be to improve, to change somehow. Because when you call on them again a third or a fourth time, their cough medicine or the quality of lettuce with their lunch isn’t going to change their perspective. You have to face the fact that you are lacking something they are searching for. The only way that producer or director is going to change their perspective is if something about you changes.

If you’ve never read David Wienir and Jodie Langel’s Making It On Broadway, read it. There’s a great story in there from Cory English, who was part of the cast that changed my life with Hello, Dolly! in 1994 (and he was recently cast in Young Frankenstein). In Making It On Broadway, he talks about auditioning for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway nineteen times, wearing the same shirt to each audition. Talk about fortitude! But the reality is, there’s a long string of shows listed under his name in the book, and not one of them is Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. They just weren’t into him. But the hope for us all lies in his bio, which is that his persistence got him nowhere then, but somewhere along the line, he improved or found someone who saw the qualities they needed in him. After all, he does, indeed, have a long line of shows under his name, and he’s still adding to that list to this day.

the Broadway Mouth
November 24, 2008

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Sometimes You Just Need a Good "F%&@ You" (Ruminations on Making It, Part 1)

She handed me a poem to critique. When I was teaching writing, I always tried to read my students’ work before they handed it in for a grade to give them feedback in order to improve. As my college professors said, handing students a graded paper with a ton of comments is time-consuming and helps no one. Better to get the comments to them before they write the final draft.

This girl had written a poem about being a teenager with a roller coaster as a metaphor for the teen experience, with all the ups and downs. Yeah, not that original. When I gave her feedback on how to improve, her response to me was, “But this is really what it’s like to be a teenager.” To which I probably said something like, “Yes you’re right, but this is poetry, and one of your goals is to express something in a way no one has said before (or at least not that 500 million other people have said before).” When she handed me her final poem, she hadn’t changed a word.

The best writers I ever had—be it of essays, short stories, poems, or plays—were those who appreciated feedback and applied it to their writing through the filter of their own vision. I had my fair share of kids who handed me their final draft, and it was the exact same as the working draft I had written comments on. A rare few really felt like their lack of changes were justifiable (and I always let kids sit down and explain their reasoning), though most were either just lazy or conceited.

How we as artists (or humans, really) handle critique determines where and how far we go in life. Sometimes, I am so overwhelmed by my own lack of knowledge and skill about so many things that I wish I could get a graduate degree in nine or ten areas. There are people, though, who simply cannot handle being told how to do anything better or face any kind of critique, from the minute (you really didn’t handle that situation right) to the grand (that guy you’re about to marry is a loser).

It can be hard because we all want to think the best of ourselves. Who doesn’t want to be perfect? The problem is that as writers, actors, directors, and so on, we have to face criticism in order to grow.

Of course, the critique always has to be filtered through your own vision. You don’t want to be a chicken grabbing at everything that looks like feed, gobbling it all up without consideration. In my younger and less educated days (okay, just about six years ago), I received some critique on my play. One comment a wise, older man told me was that I needed to incorporate more historical details, making reference to changes in daily living that were affecting the people. I did just that, and a few years later, I removed almost all of them because they were more of a distracter. I needed the maturity of time to realize that references of that nature weren’t required for the story.

But if you shun everything and realize your own genius before everyone else does, you’ll be hard fit to figure out why you’re not “making it” on Broadway (or anywhere).

One time I was reading a sitcom someone was writing. People sat around in a bar, telling jokes. I told the person, “It’s funny, but there’s no plot.” The response I got was, “What do you mean? There’s a plot!” I don’t think this person could even outline a plot. If you can’t handle critique, then don’t expect your talent to get anywhere. No one is born knowing everything.

My aunt used a term the one time I read a short story she wrote. She said, “Be brutal.” That’s my mantra as well when getting critique. Yes, it is nice (and important) to know what you are doing well, but facing the tough thoughts are the ones that will help you.

In my younger days, I was very open to critique, and I ate it up (and still do). But I wasn’t smart. Someone read something I wrote—and let me tell you what a rare blessing that is—and when he offered his great points of critique, I felt the need to say, essentially, “That’s really good, but please understand that, even though it was the wrong choice, it was an intentional choice.” Unfortunately, I think it came off as, “I disagree.” I later wrote a thank you letter better explaining my intentions.

New Yorkers, I am finding, give the best critique. An acquaintance (another person who spoke truth into my life when it was hard to hear) once told me there was a New Yorker cartoon where there was a person from Los Angeles greeting a person from New York on a street. Now I’ll paraphrase here, but the New York person was saying, “F%&@ you,” while the man from Los Angeles was saying, “Hello.” However, the person from Los Angeles was thinking, “F%&@ you,” while the man from New York was thinking, “Hello.” If you’ve ever been to both places, you know nothing could be truer.

A few months ago, I got a good “F%&@ you” from a New Yorker who read my work, and it was the best thing ever.

Peter Filichia once wrote a column on where he commented on how much he liked David Yazbek's work in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but strongly criticized Yazbek’s cheating with rhymes, matching “obscene. Her” with “Orangina” and “what it’s fer” with “Bar Mitzver.” I don’t remember Yazbek’s response word for word, but he basically said, “Yeah, you’re right. They don’t rhyme.”

So . . . find someone in your life whom you trust to say “F%&@ you” from time to time, particularly when it comes to your art. If it comes from a place of concern, love, or respect, it’ll be the best thing in the world. If it comes from a place of jealousy, spite, or mean-spiritedness, it’s probably the second best thing in the world.

the Broadway Mouth
November 22, 2008

Monday, November 17, 2008

It Sucks to Be Me: Tips for After Being Left Out of the Film Version of Your Musical

In an interview from CBS Sunday Morning several years ago, Carol Channing was asked what she thought about the feature film version of Hello, Dolly!, the one that starred Barbara Streisand in the role Channing ate up on stage to the thrill of audiences around the world. It's been over forty years, and she's still bitter. Forty years!

Okay, so yeah, I'm bitter too, but I only got bitter in 1994 when I rented it after seeing Channing in the role. In another two, I'll be over it, I promise.

I don't know what is more sad, that big Broadway stars lose their big Broadway roles to less-talented folks on screen or that they hold onto that bitterness for so long.

I guess it's easy for me to say from such a safe distance, but I can't help but wish Broadway stars were more Gwen Verdon about it than Carol Channing. Verdon, you'll remember, was passed over for the film version of Sweet Charity and ended up assisting husband Bob Fosse in the role.

The tally of modern Broadway stars who have publicly poo-pooed getting cut out of film versions include Patti LuPone, Harvey Fierstein, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Jennifer Holliday. Yes, seeing Madonna take your role of a lifetime must be more difficult than most can imagine; however, it's the nature of the business.

So . . . A few tips in handling the unfortunate experience of seeing your role being performed by someone who has less talent than you (or is just plain not you).

1. When starting a role on Broadway, be mentally prepared to accept the fact that you will undoubtedly get passed over for the role on film. When it happens, cry, be devastated, curse out the producers in private, then put on your gracious face for the public.

2. Sharing a minor, snippy word in Entertainment Weekly or the New York Times may seem not so bad, but it looks bad.

3. Understand that in movies, age is an important thing. If you are no longer the right age to play the role in a movie, then don't waste time being upset about it. Smile and get on Dancing with the Stars instead. Sag happens. Why think about it?

4. Only criticize the movie if you've seen it. If you haven't, shut up. You hate it when critics publicly criticize your work; how would you feel if they did so without seeing it all?

5. Being bitter only affects yourself. Expressing bitterness only makes you look bad. Remember that.

6. When other people do express public bitterness about being left out of the film adaptation, be understanding. It may not look the best, but it's a pain most people can't relate to.

November 17, 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Wicked Effects

When the great Michael Kantor PBS documentary Broadway: The American Musical first aired, many of the Broadway base took issue with his focus on Disney and Wicked. The rest of the series had mostly highlighted significant shows that somehow shaped the Broadway landscape—the structure and storytelling of Oklahoma!, the deconstruction of the story in Company, the bold work of Stephen Sondheim in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Michael John LaChiusa, for example, took issue with the exclusion of George C. Wolfe, and I was personally disappointed to see no reference to LaChiusa and Jason Robert Brown.

But in hindsight, I think we have to compare Wicked to the success of shows like Kiss Me, Kate or Guys and Dolls. No, it didn’t change the landscape of the Broadway musical like a West Side Story or Rent, but its status as a phenomenon speaks for itself. Perhaps the greatest impact it and Beauty and the Beast will have (though Wicked is infinitely smarter and should not be put on the same level as that show, as charming as the former is) is that it creates an audience for Broadway. Plus Wicked will continue to inspire writers, producers, and investors. I think it’s safe to say that people invested in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 13, and Shrek with vision of green witches dancing in their heads.

There is a second effect Wicked has had on the Broadway landscape, and that, I believe, is to block the machine of Disney in the Broadway market. I take no issue with Disney being on Broadway, but Disney has in essence forced a certain cannibalism of its own product by creating competition with itself. Because of Julie Taymor, The Lion King was able to rise above the family audience, but Mary Poppins and The Little Mermaid are essentially competing for the same audience that still hasn’t been quenched in their thirst for Wicked. Furthermore, Wicked is a show whose story, marketing, and presentation appeals equally to adults and families. In fact, I think its safe to say that Wicked is marketed to adults, knowing that kids are already attracted. I can’t help but feel that most marketing for Mary Poppins and The Little Mermaid is geared toward attracting families. If I was an adult tourist on Broadway, I would not be instantly attracted to either of the Disney titles. It’ll be interesting to see what happens as Shrek opens and runs.

the Broadway Mouth
November 14, 2008

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What Is This Feeling?: A Return to Wicked

I enjoyed Wicked the first time I saw it, though I wasn’t as ga-ga for the show as many others. And I still stand-by my initial feelings about the show, but yet, after seeing it a second time, when my familiarity with the flow of events of the second act positively affect how I feel them, I can’t help but think that Wicked is more than deserving of all the hype and box office success.

To me, there’s something powerful about the character of Elphaba, someone whom I long to be like (except for the outsider part), and her story in Wicked is so beautifully told and superbly executed. In watching the show I was close to being moved to tears twice (a rare phenomenon for me), once when Elphaba is rejected by her father at birth and second, “Defying Gravity,” because I so much long to have the intelligence and power to take a stand to change the world for good.

Elsewhere, the show is intensely smart. In our world today, we are constantly teetering on the edge of Oz, and you can’t help but feel that we are closer than ever to crossing over. By no means am I indicating that we are there, but in watching the economic fear that has dominated our country in the past two months—a fear played upon greatly in the election—it’s easy to see how an entire group of people could be swayed to put their trust in a Wizard (or Hitler). It’s scary. Obviously, I’m not saying that our elected officials are Wizards, but you can see the potential there for those types to weasel their way in . . . not to mention a few similarities in the campaigns of the recent election.

I found the “Animals should be seen and not heard” slogan to be particularly powerful, for there are times I see the desire to silence people in our country. Just go to the Broadway World off-topic message boards and search Elizabeth Hasselback. As a person who was raised that hate in any form was wrong, I can’t help but feel that the increasing air of “only voice your opinion if it matches mine” sentiment which is strongly taking hold in a number of political factions in our country to be unhealthy in every way possible. After all, extremism of any form is going to be dangerous, and differing opinions, no matter how widely they differ, are needed to provide checks and balances to political thought. Yes, for democracy to survive, animals need to be seen and heard.

I also have to say, I’ve heard the Wicked score a million times on CD, but seeing it live made me appreciate Stephen Schwartz’s genius all over again. That is one great score. And you can’t fool fifteen hundred people a night for five years all over the country with sub-par work. His work (not to mention Winnie Holzman’s book) moves, thrills, and delights night after night. You could feel it in the audience.

Overall the tour is in good shape. This is the second time in my life I was supposed to see Katie Rose Clake but got an understudy instead. Donna Vivino is a fine, strong-voiced Elphaba, and the rest of the cast is largely superb (I wrote about most of them in my last column). It was great to see The Drowsy Chaperone alum Lenny Wolpe as the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a grandfatherly sort who makes for a freakily huggable nasty.

I don’t know if it was because I was far house right in lottery seats, but this was one of the few shows where I saw stage hands when I would rather not have. It doesn’t beat the fat guy behind the taverna in the Mamma Mia! tour several years ago, who always took his seat behind the set piece thirty seconds after the lights went up, but I would think a show as big and well-produced as Wicked wouldn’t be flashing such gears more than most others.

Mid-way through the first act, I couldn’t help but feel glad that there was a great chance that Wicked would still be touring when my niece gets old enough to see a Broadway show. I only hope I have kids in time for them to see it as well.

the Broadway Mouth
November 12, 2008

Monday, November 10, 2008

Coat of Many Colors: The Beauty of Broadway

The tour of Wicked is in good shape. After winning my second lottery to see the show (well, I didn’t actually win the first time, though I did get in), I was thrilled by the show even more than the first time. Most impressively, though, I remembered one of the reasons why Broadway is so awesome—the casting.

In Hollywood, you have a few actors of color who have broken through—Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, Halle Berry—but you can still attend movies where the most color comes from all those African-American cops and Asian-American women judges. People of color in Hollywood are largely relegated to perfunctory friend roles or distinctly cultural parts—the wicked karate master, the Chinese restaurant hostess, Tyler Perry flicks.

But on Broadway, on glorious Broadway, people are cast based upon talent, as evidenced by the glorious Wicked tour cast. Myra Lucretia Taylor was a sinister Madame Morrible, playing her early scenes as annoyed grandmother until she joins with the Wizard, her declaration of Elphaba as the Wicked Witch being truly, purely evil. DeeDee Magno Hall—a popular Kim in Miss Saigon—is a powerful Nessarose, playing all the shades of the character in her second act scene, making Nessarose both sympathetic and selfish, hateful but needy. Hall’s husband Cliffton Hall, an experienced Chris in Miss Saigon, probably has some Asian heritage somewhere, and he was a superbly sung Fiyero, a masculine, romantic leading man who shines in the role in every way.

When I write, I do whatever I can to specifically write for actors of any color (though, granted, this wouldn’t work for the historical piece), and I’ve even written a role specifically for an Asian-American actress, attempting to highlight the struggles of actors who—as Lea Salonga says in Making It on Broadway—find themselves typed out because of ethnicity.

We’re still not fully “there” yet, but I think we are getting closer—to the point where someone could hopefully star in Bombay Dreams and Guys and Dolls or Aida and Wicked. Let’s continue casting based on talent alone.

the Broadway Mouth
November 10, 2008

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Magical First: Hello, Dolly!

I learned what a real standing ovation was. It came after Carol Channing and cast sang the title number to Hello, Dolly! in 1994, during the show’s pre-Broadway tour. If you’ve seen the show, you know the scene. Dolly Levi returns to her old haunting ground, the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, her return to living life after years of mourning the loss of her late husband. She arrives and is greeted with joy by the waiters and chefs. Great Gower Champion choreography ensues (largely recreated for the tour), and when the casts stops, the audience begins.

That Tuesday night (October 12, 1994), I was one of the first to stand to my feet, a shy eighteen-year old seeing his first Broadway musical, not because I wanted to but because I had to. The only decision made was not to check my shyness at the door because I knew even standing for such a performance by such a woman still wouldn’t be enough to express what was going on in that theatre and inside of me.

This repeated for the curtain call, another thrilling moment when my legs spoke for me. I couldn’t clap hard enough when Carol Channing came down in her wedding dress. I knew I had seen something phenomenal, something I would never get a chance to relive.

It was a miracle I even went. As a high school student, plays weren’t even on my radar. Like so many other kids, my experience with drama was from well-intentioned teachers who took us on field trips to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream or some other unreachable play that made drama seem boring. Furthermore, for my family, the cost of attending a Broadway musical (even in 1994) was high enough that it was literally the equivalent of going to Italy for many other families. Broadway musical was nowhere in my vocabulary.

It was when the producers offered a 50% discount on tickets that my mom saw the ad and suggested we go. I had labored my summer away in utter misery at Target, and I had some of the money left over (my parents would no way have had the money to fund two tickets). My mom wanted to see Carol Channing, and on a whim, I agreed to go. We didn’t go for the highest priced ticket because it seemed superfluous all things considered and went for the second-tier pricing (those seats, by the way, are now considered first-tier pricing). I paid $21.75 for row BB. I paid $21.75 for one of the best nights of my life.

It’s hard to explain the magic of that night. People who haven’t seen Carol Channing on stage can’t possible understand the impact she has on an audience, the domination she has over comedic timing and musical delivery, not to mention the magnitude of stage presence she carries in her hip pocket. Remember, I was an eighteen-year old, and women of her age weren’t exactly on my radar; it’s not like she was a cast member from Saved By the Bell. But the moment she appeared on stage, I knew. I knew this was going to be something special.

My favorite moment from the evening was “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” with those Victorian-era costumes in bright reds, greens, and oranges. Like its star, the number was larger-than-life. But in truth, so much of that evening still stands out in my mind—moments of Channing’s performance, looks she gave, bits of stage business.

Amazingly, ten years to the week that I had originally seen Hello, Dolly!, Carol Channing came to town in her one-woman show. In that show, she performed the title number in its entirety, including the choreography, even going so far as to indicate when she pulled up on her dress. Yes, I had tingles, lots and lots of tingles.

It’s sad to me that so little of her performance has been captured on film. I know there was a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade performance from a number of years ago that has yet to make it on YouTube as well as a CBS Sunday Morning profile from 1995 that featured a healthy dose of clips, but off all the cities she toured, of all the performances she played as Dolly Levi, there sure isn’t much of her performance recorded. I don’t know if it was recorded for the Lincoln Center, but if you live in New York City or visit there, make a point of checking to see if it was.

The God-send in all this—and I do mean God-send—is the wonderful PBS documentary Words and Music by Jerry Herman DVD, which provides the entire “Hello, Dolly!” number in black-and-white as a bonus feature. What’s interesting is that as someone who was so moved by that number, seeing it in its entirety almost as I saw it (there were some changes made for the revival), I was so incredibly moved. For others, though, seeing it on the screen doesn’t really do justice (as is the case with most filmed live performances); I don’t know if the average Joe would grasp exactly how powerful that number is with that woman and that choreography when performed live.

The legacy of the Lee Roy Reams-directed revival lives on. At the theatre, I bought the OBCR and literally listened to it for three straight months, never popping in another CD the whole time (and when the revival cast recording was released, I got that too). In the week after seeing it, I generated the idea for my first musical (which I would produce and direct a reading of in 2003). Yeah, after that, I knew I needed to write musicals, that I had to have more of this in my life. And when I started directing plays at a high school, the first show I did was Hello, Dolly!.

We Broadway fans, we all have similar stories, stories of how the bug bit us, the story of that magical first time. I urge everyone out there, take a young person to a Broadway musical or tour. Pick a show that you think they’ll like, then make it a magical first time. Get them the CD, the program, and if you can, take them out to dinner. Like me, that child might become a lifelong Broadway fan, whose ticket dollars and cast recording purchases continues to fuel Broadway for generations.

the Broadway Mouth
November 8, 2008

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Preparing a National Tour: Don't They Always?

It's the cliche of cliches. A big show closes on Broadway without turning a profit, and the press release announces that the producers are planning a tour.

Isn't that kind of like saying tomorrow you'll start that diet, next week, you really will get to the gym three times, or you will really stop watching so much television?

It's the biggest letdown of any closing for the millions of Broadway fans not living near Broadway, this big, empty promise of a tour, the tour that never happens.

Perhaps a better idea would be to tour first, then get to Broadway. I'm not a Broadway economist, so I'm sure there are a thousand reasons why its not economically feasible, but a big, lush show like A Tale of Two Cities with instant name recognition must stand a strong chance of finding an audience on the road, particularly with an advertising slogan like "Pre-Broadway Engagement." It would give creators a chance to really work on the show with a variety of audiences, get feedback from a variety of critics (including those from the Variety) before heading into New York. Plus, they would make some money, money, money while doing so.

Historically, there isn't much hope that A Tale of Two Cities will actually tour, which is a tragedy. It seems like the type of show middle America would eat up (remember, they always went for shows like Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera).

Now, I can only hope someone somewhere steps up to record the show. If The Pirate Queen can get recorded, there must be someone somewhere willing to put this down on CD for posterity. There are record companies out there whose goal seems to be to preserve shows that otherwise would not get recorded. It didn't help get Cry-Baby out (a score I would love to hear), and statistically it's not looking to good for this one either.

the Broadway Mouth
November 5, 2008

Monday, November 3, 2008

It’s a Hard Knock Production

Miss Hannigan was staged like an old tyme baddie, only missing the moustache to twirl. She delivered her lines half to the audience, then twisted her body unnaturally to deliver half the lines to the orphans. I half expected the kids in the audience to boo her loudly as she rubbed her palms together while sharing a dastardly plan.

In fact, this entire production of Annie was pretty bad. The cast was directed with adjectives. Annie was chipper. Miss Hannigan was evil. Daddy Warbucks was grumpy. Lily St. Regis was masculine. It was like watching cardboard puppets on stage. And chipper Annie popped out for the final scene with her beautiful brown hair shoved under a stunning red wig with short, tight curls that made me think she’d be later on scrubbing out Daddy Warbucks’s bathtubs with her head. It was stunning for all the wrong reasons.

We’ve all seen shows like that, those high school or community theatre productions that take a musical that thrived on Broadway for years and turn it into something, well, something stunning, shall we say.

A high school in my area that has presented many magnificent productions of great shows was the first place where I saw Camelot. It was boring, static, unexciting. It wasn’t until I saw the show at a professional theatre that I saw Camelot in all its magnificence. It really is a magnificent show. Or make that, it really can be a magnificent show.

I’ve heard many young people mention on Broadway Space or on message boards, that they saw a production of Hello, Dolly! or The Music Man and don’t like the show. It wasn’t funny, engaging, moved at a snail’s pace, whatever. But the problem is perhaps not the topic but the canvas. Surely there are certain plays that simply will never speak to a particular person—South Pacific and West Side Story are shows like that for me (please hold all stones until the end)—but until you see a production on Broadway, professionally, or at a theatre whose work you generally enjoy, it’s really hard to determine if the show is at fault or if it’s the production.

During intermission of the above described production of Annie, I actually heard one person (no doubt related or otherwise connected to the actor) described this Daddy Warbucks as powerful. Actually, the word I was looking for was . . . stunning.

the Broadway Mouth
November 3, 2008

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Wildcats, Here We Go

Is it a sign that I'm getting old when I can't bring myself to go to High School Musical 3? I saw the first two on DVD from the library and found them pleasant enough, but they don't excite me by any means. Still, it is a big, splashy movie musical that will no doubt have great choreography and a measure of musical excitement. So yes, when I find someone who will be brave enough to go with me to this teeny-bopper delight, I'll see it.

Until then, I share with you a review of the movie from a certified musical theatre lover, to give you a musical fan's perspective on Senior Year.

the Broadway Mouth
October 28, 2008

Monday, October 27, 2008

You've Had a Good Run: Hairspray, Spamalot, Spring Awakening

It's a sad coincidence that three Best New Musical Tony-winners happened to post their closing notices within such a short distance of each other. Some people have used this happening to point to a weak economy, but I don't think the ending of these shows is so complicated. They had good runs, and their time has simply come.

Hairspray has been on its last legs for a few years, as evidenced by the casting of George Wendt, Lance Bass, Ashley Parker Angel, and a number of other "stars." The fact that it's ending at the same time as other shows, I wouldn't read too much into that. It was winding down. It's time has come.

Spamalot has been very successful and has toured successfully, stopping in my city twice. It has never been a favorite of the Broadway base, and its producers' dependency on stunt casting--Clay Aiken, Drew Lachey--started long before this recent economic crisis. It never had the heart of a Hairspray or the pizazz of Chicago, so it's not a surprise that it's not running forever. Comedies do close earlier for a reason; it's not a show that cries for multiple viewings at $100 a pop.

Spring Awakening was never destined for a long run. It's simply not commercial enough. As an adult, when I think of shows I'd like to see, the teen sex show doesn't appear on my list. Even as a person who loves musicals with intellectual content--like Parade or Marie Christine--a show about teenagers' sex drives doesn't strike me as deep. I can see why kids would like it, and I don't mean to undervalue its beautiful score or book, but I don't think it ever had the legs to run long. Again, before this "economic crisis," the show was showing signs of fatigue at the box office.

As Eva Person says (at least in the movie of Evita), "You had a good run. I'm sure he enjoyed you." The fact that these shows are all ending at the "All ashore who's going ashore" time of early January is a sign that they had a good run, and their time has come. It's not as if they are closing in July or two weeks before the Tonys. Most importantly, they all turned a profit and have either had successful tours or are embarking on one.

the Broadway Mouth
October 27, 2008

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Modernizing Movie Musicals: Epilogue

In my series on how to modernize movie musicals to overcome some of the typical criticisms of the genre, I looked at ways of better meshing the stage influences found in early musicals with modern audience expectations, to take the “break into song” cliché and essentially erase it.

The thing is, while I can diagnose, I can’t control audiences. Interestingly enough, the worst of all worst perpetrators of these hated and cursed techniques happens to be the most successful—Kenny Ortega’s High School Musical franchise.

Honestly, look at any clip of the movies, and you’ll see all my suggestions gone to waste. You have actors singing and dancing directly into the camera, pretty much acknowledging the audience that isn’t there during the dialogue scenes. Some of the kids are very talented singers, while others try their best. And while the musical staging doesn’t seem to come from a different performance style from the book scenes, a number of those kids graduated too quickly from the Nickelodeon School of Acting.

What’s most odd about it all is that it is helmed by Kenny Ortega, who did such a brilliant job on all fronts with Newsies. Whatever rules he worked with in that musical, he boldly threw away for the High School Musical series.

Recently on Nightline, Ortega spoke about learning to make film musicals from the master himself, Gene Kelly. Interesting, you can, indeed, see those old school influences in the HSM movies.

The Broadway Mouth
October 23, 2008

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Little House on the Prairie: The Show Doctor is In

If you read my earlier column, you know how much I loved (maybe even am smitten with) the new musical version of Little House on the Prairie. I don’t think the show was ever intended for Broadway, and it seems doubtful the show would ever transfer there; however, in case that should happen, here are a few “fixes” director Francesca Zambello might be mulling over.

1. I don’t exactly remember the lyrics of “Up Ahead,” the song which opens and closes the show, but lyrically, it ties together the expansive story. Somehow reprising the song in the middle of the show (or including a new song with very similar concepts) will help focus the audience on the main idea, which is Laura Ingalls as a symbol of Americans’ industrial nature and indomitable spirit. It would provide the audience with a clearer direction in the storytelling.

2. There was a song in Act 1 (which I believe to be “Uncle Sam, Where Are You?”) in which the lyrics seem to be doing some fighting with the melody. Rewrite one of them.

3. “The Prairie Moves” is the other song in the piece that doesn’t soar. Steve Blanchard’s voice is perfectly suited to the moment, but the lyrics and melody simply don’t lift.

4. “I’ll Be Your Eyes,” the song in which Laura dedicates herself to Mary after her blindness, is so beautiful and moving. The problem is that as placed now, it requires too much of an emotional transformation from Mary in such a short time. She can’t go from devastated to content in three minutes.

5. “Wild Child,” Melissa Gilbert’s solo at the end of the show, should be an intimate moment between Laura and Ma. As currently staged, she starts to sing it to Laura in front of the family before heading outside. It’s too intimate of a moment, and it should be shared between the two. With the new staging, the song would be even better adapted to Gilbert’s singing voice, which has a natural intimacy to it.

6. The lyrics could use some additional refining to smooth over some of the off-rhymes, though I can’t remember noticing if there were tons.

7. Of course, there are the regional touches that would need to be fixed if the show ever made it to Broadway. It would not due on Broadway for Mary and Carrie to suffer deadly illness sitting on a kitchen chair or lying on a kitchen bench. Nor would it be acceptable to have wealthy, spoiled Nellie Oleson sleep on a big wooden table with a blanket, particularly when there’s such an effective backdrop.

8. Most obviously, the show would need an increase in actors and, oh let’s hope, instruments in the pit. This is a score that begs to be vast and open like the prairie, not limited by a regional budget.

The Broadway Mouth
October 21, 2008

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Little House on the Prairie

After hearing what all the reviews said, I went in skeptical. In fact, when I told people I was going, I said, “Well, I guess it’s not that great, but I still had to see it.”

First of all, it’s Melissa Gilbert. Everyone of my generation came home from school to watch Little House on the Prairie on a daily basis. Get men and women of my generation talking about Little House on the Prairie, and they’ll start talking about the episode with the raccoon, the one where Laura thinks Mr. Oleson has murdered Mrs. Oleson, the one where Albert dies. It brings back a flood of fond memories and stories, and in every one is Melissa Gilbert.

Not only that, but the show was playing in Minnesota, the home of Plum Creek, the location for all those snow-less episodes of the television series.

But just because there is a fondness for the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder doesn’t mean the musical Little House on the Prairie gets an automatic pass. It certainly didn’t with the critics. First of all, it has the rare almost all-woman creative team with very little Broadway experience. It’s directed by Francesca Zambello, who was lambasted for The Little Mermaid. Rachel Portman, who won the Oscar for her underscore to Emma, is an untried musical theatre composer. Lyrics are by Donna di Novelli, book by Rachel Sheinkin, and choreography by Michelle Lynch. It was also developed at the Guthrie Theatre, a nationally recognized and highly respected theatre but one that is not known for developing new musical works.

I’ll just cut to the chase. I loved it. I loved it. I walked out of the Guthrie more satisfied with Little House on the Prairie than after most of the shows I saw my last time in New York.

The story has been criticized for attempting to tell too much of the Ingalls story. In this version, which appears to be an amalgam of the books, the Ingalls family starts out in Wisconsin, Pa immediately dreaming of moving west. The family ends up in South Dakota, struggling through tough times on the prairie, fighting to survive the harsh winter.

During that time, bookish Mary contracts Scarlet fever, which causes her to lose her sight. Bereft of her ability to learn, her greatest passion taken from her, spunky little sister Laura becomes her eyes and, eventually, more when Laura takes a teaching position far away in a cold, God-forsaken community to fund Mary’s tuition at a special school for the blind.

During this time, gutsy Almanzo Wilder begins to court Laura, who will have nothing to do with him. Rejected, he begins to be seen around with Nellie Oleson. Though jealous, Laura can’t bring herself to admit that she is, indeed, in love with Almanzo. Now a teacher earning a salary, she has tried too hard to be like Mary to let herself go for a man such as Almanzo. Only when Ma encourages her to let the wild child inside her free does Laura allow herself to have Almanzo.

At first blush, the plot of Little House on the Prairie appears fragmented and unfocused; however, in production, the show is book-ended by “Up Ahead,” a song in celebration of the pioneer spirit, making this not just Laura Ingalls Wilder but Laura Ingalls Wilder as Willa Cather—a story in celebration of the American spirit, hard work, and freedom. Here, Laura is more than a spunky girl on the prairie, but she is the spirit of every American man and woman, able to face down times of death and sadness and, using his or her own inner strength, faith, and determination, to carve out a place of happiness and to thrive.

As has been said by many, Melissa Gilbert is not a strong singer. Her solo called “Wild Child” is an impassioned plea to Laura, to not loose sight of her American spirit, her inner wildness, the thing that sets her (and our country) apart. It is appropriately written to her limited vocal abilities, which is fitting. And what the heck, it’s Melissa Gilbert in Little House on the Prairie. All is good. Fortunately, Gilbert is more than comfortable on stage and gives a strong stage-worthy performance.

Billing aside, perhaps the brightest star in the show is no stranger to many, Jenn Gambatese as soft-spoken Mary. She’s perfect in the role and makes Mary a nuanced and multi-faceted character. In one of the best moments in the show, she handles her blindness with bravery and strength before her parents, then loses it completely with Laura, the tears literally escaping her when she can hold them no longer.

The other shining star is Kevin Massey as Almanzo, whose voice is golden and his spirit alive on stage.

The rest of the cast is fine. Kara Lindsay is a cute Laura, taking her from pre-adolescence (always a tough task) to young adulthood. Her voice has a certain Kristin Chenoweth quality to it, which is oddly fitting to the youthfulness of the part. Best of all, her spunkiness seems natural.

Like Ma, Pa’s character is appropriately sparsely developed, much like in the books. Steve Blanchard highlights both Pa’s strengths and weaknesses, bringing him a few giant steps closer to the real Pa than Michael Landon’s version on the television show.

Sara Jean Ford is a cute and naughty Nellie Oleson, milking her moments for some big laughs, and Maeve Maynihan is a cute, endearing Carrie Ingalls. Norah Long, in the small part as school teacher Eliza Wilder, makes a strong impression as well.

Musically, Rachel Portman gives Little House on the Prairie a strong prairie sound interspersed with Indian drum beats and traditional musical theatre moments. The score is thrilling, ripe with beauty, passion, and personality. In general, it’s a myth that you can leave a theatre humming songs. I’ve seen many of the greatest musicals ever written and have rarely left the theatre humming specific tunes. Here, though, I found myself singing several songs both during intermission and after the show.

Lyrically, Donna di Novelli’s lyrics could probably use some refinement as there are some off-rhymes throughout. That is not say, however, that her lyrics are not often clever and perfectly suited to the characters.

Among their best songs include the opening number “Up Ahead,” in which the settlers travel west, which was accomplished on stage through a beautiful bit of staging to replicate a wagon train. Laura and Mary get a really beautiful song called “I’ll Be Your Eyes” in which Laura promises Mary to be there for her. “Go Like the Wind” is a rousing song as Almanzo races.

That is not to say that there aren’t a couple of duds in the score. There’s a song in Act I, perhaps “Uncle Sam, Where are You?”, in which the lyrics never seem to align to the music, and Pa’s big solo, “The Prairie Moves,” is filled with big open vowels and longs to be as vast as the prairie, but even Steve Blanchard’s booming baritone can't make the song soar. It just doesn’t work.

Francesca Zambello’s staging is clever and appropriate for the regional stage. Michelle Lynch’s choreography is not particularly complex, but its strong infusion of country dance and movement is perfect for the needs of the show.

Perhaps the biggest complaint is in the orchestra. Portman’s music longs to be big, worthy of a far-stretching prairie, and there simply aren’t enough instruments to give the music the oomph it requires.

My first thought upon leaving the theatre, honestly, was how badly this show needs to be recorded. This is a rousing, heart-warming, get your blood pumping score filled with charming characters and great beauty. If nonsense like Happy Days can get recorded, let’s all earnestly pray that this score makes it to record, particularly with Kara Lindsay, Jenn Gambatese, and Kevin Massey.

The show closes tomorrow at the Guthrie, though my understanding is that it will tour. While the show as written is definitely worthy of the Broadway stage, I don’t know if it is really the type of the show that could make it there. It sold out quickly in Minnesota and was a definite audience-pleaser, but its Midwestern heart might just not be big enough for New York audiences. Hopefully the tour will reach enough cities to spread the word, and Little House on the Prairie will have a healthy life regionally. Of course, how much word spreads will also be dependant on the show’s ability to court a recording of the score.

The Broadway Mouth
October 18, 2008

Note: I will write soon about some suggested changes that be made to the staging and tweaks to the writing of Little House on the Prairie.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Directing The Diary of Anne Frank: Open Up a Can of Kale

When I was directing high school plays, I was constantly exhausted. You have to remember that I did this my first two years of teaching, which is brutal for everyone. Teachers in their first five years of teaching tend to work 60+ hours on a regular basis because everything is done from scratch (and I think English teachers need to work even more). You’re reading novels for the first time, learning short cuts in grading essays, creating engaging activities from nothing.

Add on to that 15-18 hours of drama practice, plus all the subsidiary directing duties (organizing with the creative team, dealing with high school student drama, talking to parents about why their child wasn’t cast as Hines for an hour, ordering lights, sticking around late for the lighting designer, finding costumes and props, cleaning, and so on), and you work a heck of a lot. In fact, my first year when I was directing the musical, I was working 100+ hours a week. I calculated my paycheck, and I figured that I could have been working at McDonalds for 100 hours and earned the same amount of money.

Those two years, I was constantly exhausted, getting four or five hours of sleep on a regular basis. Four times during those two years, I wound up with really bad cases of strep throat, one which laid me up for an entire week (they always happened during the plays).

When I was directing The Diary of Anne Frank, the play has the characters surviving off old kale. That was the semester I had three creative writing classes in addition to my two American Literature classes, which meant that there were about 95 short stories handed in (for two short story assignments), 95 poems (for about five or six poem assignments), and 95 plays handed in, in addition to the usual things I needed to do. It was a hellish semester.

Somehow in my mind, I had it that kale was fish. I was too busy to think about looking it up, so I just figured it was fish and determined that getting turkey Spam would be the best way of having a fish-like substance on the table.

In my last mad dash for props as we neared tech week, I picked up turkey Spam (in addition to cat food, a cat box, and cat litter for Mouschi) and showed my prop person how it should look on the plates.

I made the kids eat the Spam. I figured it had to be better than eating actual fish anyway (I don’t like eating things that swim, unless it’s a really gifted chicken or something), and it was easier to manage than fish. You just open the can, dump, and cut. No need to worry about choking on bones or a funny smell or anything.

It was so funny that first time with the Spam, the expression on the kids’ faces. I started out to cast the show different than normal—my Mr. Van Daan was originally a thin boy who dropped out (because he was upset he wasn’t cast as Peter)—but when he dropped out, my only other option was a somewhat round boy, who was very sweet and did very well with the role but wasn’t the brightest boy on the stage. That said, I actually think he did better than my original Van Daan would have. However, true to stereotype, he dug in to the Spam that first day with it. “Hey,” he said gladly doing his duty, “just eat it. It’s not so bad.” Everyone else groaned.

Nobody in the audience ever did ask me why my kale looked like meat, and it wasn’t until a few years later that I realized kale didn’t swim along the river bottom.

I guess we all learn at our own pace. And maybe Mr. Van Daan wasn’t the only one involved in the production who wasn’t the brightest.

the Broadway Mouth
October 10, 2008

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Modernizing Movie Musicals: Chapter 4 (Musical Staging)

On stage, performances must be big enough to fill a theatre. Acting for the stage is a very different experience than acting for a movie. If acting for a stage is somewhat exaggerated, acting for the screen is minimized. If you watch a movie and really consider how the actors are acting, it can almost be hilarious because it is so reserved. When you watch the snippets of acting performances on the Academy Awards, you can get a good feel for how unrealistic acting really is (the goal of which, just as it is with writing, is to create the illusion of reality and not to actually recreate reality).

In many classic stage movie musicals, the filmic style gets tossed out the door when choreography or musical staging is brought into the picture. For example, according to choreographer Michael Kidd, the opening street scene of the Guys and Dolls movie was taken directly from the stage. If you watch that scene, it’s so stylized, it’s doesn’t feel like it fits in a movie. Actions are exaggerated, movement almost pantomimed, and for modern audiences, that simply doesn’t work because it breaks the reality of the world created elsewhere in the movie. Because movies require a reserved performing style, histrionic choreography or movement feels painfully out of place. It looks corny, and breaks the bridge between the dialogue and the music. When people complain that in musicals people just break out into song, my theory is that they are thinking of the classic musicals where there was one style of acting for the book scenes and another for the song and dance numbers.

In Mamma Mia!, there was an unintentionally hilarious moment because of this. I think it is during “Mamma Mia” that Streep leans against the wall and bumps her hips back and forth to the music. She is given a huge motion that doesn’t fit with the preceding scenes. It was a classic movie musical moment which announced THIS IS NOW A MUSICAL!!!!!!!. It was just one of such scenes that earned a chuckle from audience members at a packed screening I attended.

The greatest film musicals got this—Meet Me in St. Louis, Mary Poppins, and The Sound of Music are just a few that pop into my mind—and they survive today among a wide audience because they got the mixture right. Some modern movie musicals have had directors who understood this—Dreamgirls and Hairspray are two key examples. For modern musicals to continue to find wide audiences (and earn big profit margins), directors and choreographers will need to continue to find the bridge between Broadway and film.

the Broadway Mouth
October 8, 2008

Monday, October 6, 2008

Modernizing Movie Musicals: Chapter 3 (Getting Singers to Sing)

Of the recent movie musicals, audiences have been notably put-off by musical stars who can’t sing. The first thing I heard from plenty of average non-Broadway fans about The Phantom of the Opera was “The Phantom wasn’t that great of a singer, and he had odd pronunciation.” Most reviews noted how thin Helena Bonham Carter’s voice was in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Very few reviewers commented how great Pierce Brosnan sounded in Mamma Mia!. And my personal vendetta is against Jamie Foxx who murdered “When I First Saw You” in Dreamgirls. He went on record as saying he chose not to practice his numbers too much since Curtis is not a singer, but for anyone who has heard Norm Lewis’s “When I First Saw You,” they know how Curtis is supposed to sound.

The struggle between audience-drawing names and movie stars with musical talents is as old as movie musicals. Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, and Audrey Hepburn all sang just like Marni Nixon. Vera-Ellen was a commonly dubbed dancing star, and many great actors couldn’t pull off their own singing for roles (or weren’t given the chance)—Angela Lansbury, Debbie Reynolds, Ava Gardner, Lucille Ball, and Christopher Plummer were all dubbed at one time or another. Even in modern times, Broadway stars B.D. Wong and Matthew Broderick found themselves dubbed in Disney movies.

The modern day response to having a star who can’t sing in live-action musicals is to cast them anyway and hope for the best. With the exception of Minnie Driver’s dubbed Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera, having musical stars who can’t sing strong enough for the roles hasn’t deterred anyone from letting them sing in a movie.

The problem is that musicals require the ability to sing well in order to act well. As an actor, the only instrument you have at your disposal is your body, and your voice is part of that body. If you are vocally unable to do something with your character, then you can’t appropriately act the part, just as if you are not physically strong enough to play a football hero, you can’t appropriately play the part. In a musical, if you can’t sing well, you can’t act well.

In the old days, stars were required to be phenomenally versatile—singers, dancers, actors. They were nurtured for movies that required them to be. It’s funny to contemplate Dean Martin, who was a typical star of his day—a very versatile singer and actor.

The problem is that these days, musicals are returning, but the musical talents are not being nurtured, so that when a movie musical is in production, there are only a few natural musical film stars from which to choose.

That’s not to say that there aren’t significant musical talents out there who would be very capable of being a movie star; they just need to be developed.

Studios primarily look at projects on a film-by-film basis. Nobody really gets nurtured to be a star. Patrick Wilson has made it far in film by building his movie presence movie by movie, not because someone decided to nurture his talent.

If I ran a movie studio, I would start building real music talents who can do the singing and acting. I’d start by casting them in small movie roles and working them into larger roles (which is how most stars make it). That way when there came to be a big movie remake of My Fair Lady, I wouldn’t be stuck looking at whose name might draw people in, but I could find stars who had the name AND the talent.

Let’s be honest, Johnny Depp may be a highly regarded actor, but he pulled off Sweeney Todd instead of really bringing the material to life musically. The same could be said of Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia!, Uma Thurman in The Producers, Amanda Bynes in Hairspray, and a number of other actors in the recent string of musicals.

There are actors are out there who can pull off musical material—Hugh Jackman, Jane Krakowski, Anne Hathaway, Patrick Wilson, Emmy Rossum, and Catherine Zeta-Jones all come to mind. But obviously, that’s not enough.

I’m curious to see this promised remake of My Fair Lady. Kiera Knightly is a very talented woman; I just hope she’s musically talented. Eliza Doolittle is not a role that can be “rocked” through, learned in three weeks of musical training, or breathed through a la Helena Bonham Carter. No one wants an Eliza Doolittle with a thin voice being blasted at you through THX. Most moviegoers didn’t know how Mrs. Lovett should sound, but Knightly won’t have that luxury with Eliza Doolittle thanks to the still-popular original movie adaptation. And after all, it’s Henry Higgins who gets to talk through his songs, not everyone else.

the Broadway Mouth
October 6, 2008

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Modernizing Movie Musicals: Chapter 2 (Giving the Actors an Audience)

One of the worst moments in musical film—or at least the one that comes to mind for the sake of illustration—is in the bad adaptation of Kiss Me, Kate, when the two gangsters, out of nowhere, turn to the camera and start singing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”

It’s a movie. There is no audience to whom you have to cheat front.

The musical numbers of a movie musical must be filmed as if there is no Broadway audience, which means that the performers cannot randomly turn to an audience. An entire movie can’t exist within four walls, then for short bursts acknowledge the fourth wall. For modern moviegoers, that changes the rules created by the conventions of film and is awkward. That's when people say musicals are not sophisticated enough for modern audiences.

You see this handled well in many of the recent musicals. When Jack Kelly sings “Sante Fe” in Newsies, he’s not singing it to the audience. It is a reflection of his own state in life, and it is sung back to himself. It is photographed from a variety of directions, so that he is not always facing the camera. When he is filmed facing forward, his expression reverts his attention to his own contemplations. When he dances, he is not performing a number for the audience; it is the physical expression of his emotions. Because of this, “Sante Fe” is not awkward at all.

You see this done beautifully and often by Adam Shankman in Hairspray. During “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful,” the dancing is photographed facing toward Maybelle and Edna. The audience still experiences that wonderful choreography, but it is given an audience within the movie. It feels natural, rather than having it all faced out, acknowledging the existence of a fourth wall audience.

Even when Shankman uses the traditional forward-facing style, as he does in the ending of “Welcome to the 60’s,” he places the camera at an angle, so that the characters aren’t performing to the fourth wall. This gives the choreography a sense that these characters all happen to be dancing in the same direction, as opposed to performing for an audience.

A good example of how this might have changed classic musicals is “I’m Going Back” in Bells are Ringing. In the show (and movie), it is the moment when Ella has finally exhausted herself with all of her own antics and secret identities. She feels she has lost the man she loves because of her antics, and she’s ready to give up being an operator. In the movie, as in the stage show, Ella sings the song facing the fourth wall, doing her choreography, including the Jolson bit, to the audience.

To give Ella an audience within the movie, a modern director might have Ella perform the song to her switchboard. It would be a natural outlet, since all of her problems stemmed from her job at the switchboard. In essence, she would be letting out her frustration on herself because of the people whom she tried to help, represented in her mind by the switchboard where she met them all. Ella might turn away, singing to herself in a manner similar to Jack in Newsies, but the focus is still on something within the movie—herself.

Modern audiences don’t buy musicals when they push the boundaries of reality too far. We know audiences have a high tolerance for creativity and artificiality in movies—the plethora of horror, torture, action, super-hero, and romantic comedies more than proves this. But it’s the random performance to a fourth-wall audience that pops up out of nowhere that creates awkward moments in movie musicals. To resolve this, be it in singing or choreography, it is key to give the performer an audience within the movie, be it himself or herself, another character, or another object. This keeps a consistent tone and focus throughout the whole piece, just as is done in every other movie genre.

the Broadway Mouth
October 2, 2008

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Modernizing Movie Musicals: Chapter 1 (Concept)

When I talked about the Hollywood adaptation of the musical Hairspray last year, I mentioned how the producers should write the book on making movie musicals. Honestly, this is something I’ve thought much about long before Hairspray last summer, and since they haven’t written a book on the subject, I’m taking it upon myself to do it for them, one chapter (or idea) at a time.

Chapter 1 is about the concept. Hollywood analysts used to say that modern audiences wouldn’t buy musicals because audiences have become too sophisticated. I said it then, and I’ll say it again—Nonsense!

Let’s face it, there’s nothing “sophisticated” about the run-of-the-mill torture movies or action flicks. It takes as much willing suspense of disbelief to watch Transformers, I Am Legend, and Iron Man as it does to watch a musical. I would believe that Judy Garland saves the day by singing in Summer Stock as much as I can believe that Edward Norton turns into a giant green man.

This is evidenced by the great successes of Moulin Rouge, Chicago, Dreamgirls, Hairspray, and Mamma Mia!, the latter of which is probably one of the corniest, most un-sophisticated musicals of them all.

The key, however, is all in how it is done. Up until Hairspray, no one ever would have thought that the traditional singing musical would work again, which explains a few of the problems with the Dreamgirls adaptation, which attempted to hide its musical roots until the characters had to inevitably sing something outside of the concert setting.

What those analysts should have said is that audiences were too sophisticated for musicals the way they were usually done in the 1930s-1950s. It’s simply a matter of updating the style, which means breaking away from the movie musical’s Broadway roots.

the Broadway Mouth
September 30, 2008

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Don’t Tell Her Who Told You

You know, for a writer, those are the suckiest words ever. I’ve heard them twice. Twice! Life is so not fair.

I’ve already written about how much I hate networking and why I’m so bad at it (namely because I hate using people and that’s what networking usually becomes).

But, okay, there’s another reason. It always backfires on me and ends with “Don’t tell her who told you.”

The first incident isn’t industry-related like the second. After my first two years of teaching when I attempted to run from the profession in every direction but back, I wanted to become a technical writer as a way to support myself while I worked on my craft. I didn’t go to college for technical writing, but to my way of thinking, if you have skills, the desire to work hard, and the natural intelligence, you can write anything well, even poetry.

But not everyone agreed with me, particularly the people hiring technical writers. Fortunately, the librarian at the school where I had taught and his wonderful wife had a friend who had done technical writing. They hooked me up with her, and she gave me great advice. I mean, she really guided me. She wanted to give me a leg up, and she knew a place where they would likely be hiring technical writers.

But there was a hitch. There’s always a hitch. She gave me the name and phone number of the guy who owned the company, but she had had an awkward run-in with him at a meeting once, and she said, “Just don’t tell him who told you to call him.” She told me to tell him that I met her at a specific conference or something like that.

Did I mention I was only twenty-four at the time? I was a smart twenty-four, but in this situation, I was simply inexperienced.

So I called the guy. I introduced myself and said something like, “Someone told me to call you. She said you might be looking for technical writers and that I might be a good fit.”

“Who was she?”

Crap! He wasn’t supposed to ask that. That wasn’t in the game plan! He was supposed to buy it, ask for my resume with writing samples, and then interview me.

My response to his question was so incredibly stupid (like something I would have said during my days in improv) that I won’t even write it here anonymously. It’s that bad. No freakin’ surprise I didn’t get the interview.

Jump ahead to the summer of 2005. I am now a much smarter twenty-eight, and I am in California for the summer in an attempt to get a sitcom pilot, a drama pilot, or two spec scripts in the hands of anyone with eyes in the industry. Based upon advice in a book (pretty worthless advice, in my opinion, unless you happen to be a telemarketer), I start cold calling agencies in an attempt to talk to someone who will allow me to send them a script.

I start with the smaller agencies. No one cares, no one wants to hear me, see me, or even believe I exist. Every single one. So, I begin in on the bigger agencies.

I call one of the biggest agencies in the industry; I mean huge. This guy answers the phone.

Guy: I’m sorry, man, I can’t transfer you to an agent. You’re aiming too big. No one here’s going to talk to you unless you know someone.

Me: That’s how it is everywhere. I did start small, but nobody wants to talk to you unless you know someone.

Guy: Listen, I know someone you can call. She’s a show runner on South Beach, but I bet she’d be a great person to go to. I’ll give you her number, but you cannot tell her who gave it to you. Whatever you do, don’t tell her who told you.

For those of you not in the industry (or don’t have a $14.95 handbook like me), a show runner is basically a producer. It’s a high-level, work-your-butt-off-to-get-somewhere-and-have-arrived position.

South Beach was the very short-lived UPN drama (though everything on UPN was short-lived, including the network) co-produced by Jennifer Lopez, the show about pretty young rich people who have reckless sex (not to be confused with the entire 2008 fall line-up on the CW). Yes, it was UPN, but Jennifer Lopez gave the show pedigree, and this was a big-time connection.

So, I called the phone number, which must have been for someplace in UPN because that’s how the receptionist identified herself. I asked for the woman, and the receptionist says, “Oh, she’s out of the office. Let me give you her cell phone number.”


I call her cell phone.

Me: Hi, my name is _________________, and I was given your name by—

Show Runner: Wait a minute. Who is this?

Me: I’m _________________, and I was given your name to call. I’ve written a few shows—

Show Runner: How did you get my cell phone number?

Me: I . . . called your office, and when I asked for you, she gave it to me.

Show Runner: I’ll have to talk to her. She should not be giving out my phone number. She just can’t be giving it out to just anyone.

Me: I’m sorry. Would you like me to call you back another time at the office?

Show Runner: I’m actually on my way to catch a flight. Who told you to call me?

Me: I’m not supposed to tell you.

Show Runner: What?

Me: He told me that you might be interested in reading my work, but he said I couldn’t tell you who told me.

Show Runner: He told you not to tell me?

Me: I know it’s odd, but he said you would be a good person to contact.

Show Runner: (awkward pause) Okay . . . why don’t you email me copies of your stuff. I’m really busy, but I’ll try to take a look at it.

Me: Thank you, I’ll do that. And don’t worry. I won’t call you on this number again. I’m sorry.

So I emailed her my stuff, and I never heard from her again. No wonder. Would you have emailed me back?

I guess I should have emailed her again to check in, then called to check in, then sent a sympathy card saying, “I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your job. I hope it gives you more time to read scripts emailed to you by freaks who call you out of the blue on your cell phone.” Live and learn.

I guess I need to justify these two embarrassing stories by saying that I was actually almost hired as a technical writer twice. The first one was for a position writing about medical treatments in a manner that an average person could understand. The interview went great, and the man interviewing me was a former teacher. We connected instantly, and he had full confidence I could do it well. When the time came, though, he did call to let me know that he had hired someone else, someone who had actually done that very same writing before. He couldn’t pass that up.

An interview for a second position was going really well. The man who co-owned the company graduated from the same college as I, and we shared a few stories of professors we knew. In an attempt to paint myself as a skilled and versatile writer, I talked about my playwright aspirations. Duh! He didn’t hire me because he was looking for someone long term, which is what he basically told me before I left. Little does he know that it’s been seven years, and I’m still not produced anywhere.

I haven’t mentioned this on my blog yet, but I actually did finally escape the clutches of the teaching profession. This past spring I was hired by an exceptional, small, privately owned company. I have the most kind, incredible, and all-around amazing employers and work with some really great people in a human services industry in a position that makes me feel like I’m doing some good in the world.

Getting the job was the story of my life. When I actually get the interview, people genuinely seem to like me, and when they check my professional references, they find that the impression is supported by my track record. I earned this position out of a pool of two hundred applicants, was actively pursued by my employers, and wound up very happy.

There’s a certain hip hop star out there. I interviewed with his/her personal assistant to be a manny. I didn’t get the job because my years of teaching weren’t experience enough. See, if you’d only checked my references . . . You would have had one heck of a manny . . .

But, for the record, I’m happy where I am now. I’m still not anywhere near my dreams, but I have been able to watch my niece grow these past two years, and I now have a job that doesn’t require every ounce of my energy. I actually have time to write! As long as I can write, I know I can improve until my work is worthy of production or publication.

But I hope to God to never hear anyone say, “Don’t tell her who told you” again!

the Broadway Mouth
September 28, 2008

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Let’s Put on a Musical!

Almost a year ago, when I wrote about my very favorite theatre books, high on the list was Peter Filichia’s Let’s Put on a Musical!. I didn’t realize when I had originally written the piece, but Filichia had recently updated the book. Well, I’ve finally acquired a brand new copy of this wonderful second edition. Honestly, theatre fans, you need to check it out.

At first, it may not seem like such a great book for the average theatre fan. It’s a book written to guide theatre group into picking shows that will work for them—outlining general plot, casting needs, significant sets, props, and so on.

But even for the serious musical theatre aficionado, there’s a wealth of interest.

My favorite part is Filichia’s analysis of each show. For each show profiled, he discusses the shows strength and weaknesses (called liabilities). These can include anything from plot holes and weak book-writing to lame lyrics. As one who aspires to write musicals worthy to be produced on Broadway, his insights—don’t forget he is a highly respected critic—are not only interesting but invaluable.

Also of interest is the background he gives on each show, which are brief but to the point, his often detailing their success or failure by listing specific performances for their runs, often including revivals. That’s interesting because it gives you a perspective on how modern audiences have responded to shows.

He also details any suggestions he has or directors have had after working with many of the shows. Again, here are some valuable insights into the construction of the shows, how they work, and how directorial choices affect the final result. It’s interesting to read what these theatre professionals have to say about their experiences with the shows.

Gone from the prior edition are his lame advertising suggestions (well-intended but pretty bad, nonetheless), and replacing it here is the inclusion of any special effects needs, which is a pretty significant consideration in selecting a show.

Also new to this edition are many new shows, from bigger titles like Thoroughly Modern Millie; Beauty and the Beast; and Titanic, to smaller shows, some off-Broadway, like Caroline, or Change; A Man of No Importance; and The Spitfire Grill. Even many of the entries from the prior edition have been updated with new suggestions, revival successes, and other information of note.

As must be expected, there are a few significant absences from the book. My beloved Jane Eyre is not discussed (though, I already know Filichia has qualms with Rochester’s struggle not to get divorced before marrying Jane), nor is the rather big Disney title Aida, which would be high on my list as a high school director (not to mention the show ran for some four years and was far more successful than many other smaller titles included here). There are a number of smaller titles that made it in order to, my guess would be, give choices to small theatre companies looking for small, inexpensive shows. Still, it seems odd to include A Class Act, Pete ‘n Keely, and Thrill Me and to leave out a success like Aida.

Also absent are the “Also Worth a Look” titles from the prior edition, which Filichia only briefly summarized, perhaps because they were shows of lesser interest or higher difficulty. A few of those—Meet Me in St. Louis, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Singin’ in the Rain—are produced quite often and their exclusion would probably be noticed by many community theatre and high school directors.

Despite those exclusions, Let’s Put on a Musical! is an invaluable reference, either to learn about shows or just to learn more about ones you know. Whenever I see a production, hear a new cast recording, or even revisit a recording I’ve heard before, I often pull out Let’s Put on a Musical! to get another perspective. In fact, I would say get the new edition AND hunt down a copy of the old one. There’s enough differing material in both to make it worth the while.

the Broadway Mouth
September 25, 2008