Monday, January 28, 2008

Broadway Star Bingo

Welcome to the first (and perhaps last) edition of Broadway Star Bingo.

Rules: As in regular Bingo, try to get five boxes in a row up, down, or diagonal. Mark off the boxes of Broadway stars you’ve seen perform live.

What counts: Broadway, off-Broadway, regional, or any other venue for live theatre. You must have seen them in a musical or play (not concert, benefit, etc.) and must have seen them live (DVDs, videos, and bootlegs don’t count).

Winning: When you hit a bingo, call it out on the comment space below. You do NOT need to be a registered Blogger user to post. You may be as anonymous as you’d like.

When you have a bingo, call off the five squares in which you won, listing at least one show you saw each performer in.

Prize: The prize is pride and bragging rights, plus the chance to share your beloved theatrical memories.

If people express interest, I can make this a regular feature on my blog.

the Broadway Mouth
January 28, 2008

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Memoir: What I Did For Love

I was twenty-five when I endeavored to produce a reading of my own work. I was a little like J. Pierrepont Finch with my copy of Mark Hillenbrand’s Produce Your Play Without a Producer in my hands, excited to elicit some interest for my self-proclaimed masterpiece.

The most difficult part of producing the show was getting people to help. At one point I contemplated driving around to find someone with a “Will work for food” sign to run the sound board. Finding actors wasn’t much easier.

There are plenty of actors in my area. At least there must be because we have plenty of theatres. Perhaps I simply didn’t know how to find them.

After placing several ads in the city’s major newspaper, I rented out space at a community center for auditions. My biggest hindrance to finding actors was actually Equity. Several friends from college had committed to taking part in the work, none of whom were Equity. If they were willing to take part, I wanted them in my reading no matter what. In fact, having them in the reading was a dream come true.

The problem was that while I was paying above Equity minimum for a reading, I couldn’t hire any Equity actors because, with my four college friends lined up to do the show, I would have had to give any Equity actors special billing and paid them a certain amount above the other actors, which would have been prohibitive. Even for a reading there has to be a certain ratio of Equity to non-Equity actors. I actually had interest from two Equity actors to take part, including one who had toured with The Phantom of the Opera; however, I was not willing to turn a blind eye to union rules. I respect Equity, and I figured that starting out my life as a producer would best be done playing by the rules.

I’m not affiliated with any theatre, so I needed to find a respectable place for people to audition, which is how I wound up auditioning at a community center. I had four women to audition for the female lead, a soprano role I would have died to give to one an alto friend. The best part was that my room in the community center was next to a room being used for kids’ soccer refs in training. It was an entire room filled with future refs, and whenever we had an audition, they could hear it through the thin walls. These women sounded great, and they could project! The organizer would stop over and give us the dirty eye, saying, “We’re trying to have a meeting here.” I apologized, but what could I do? Besides, it’s not like this was a cattle call; I had four women showing up!

The final actress to audition had a gorgeous operatic soprano, and she gave it all to the non-existent rafters. Being in the same room as that voice was thrilling, and when she performed her monologue, she knocked us (me and my collaborator) out.

When she left, the soccer ref organizer popped his head into the door to say, “She was good.”

Yes, she was. In fact, in the first day of rehearsal, she nailed the character 99%.

Oddly enough, I also hired one of the other women from the audition, and she and my female lead turned out to be former roommates. It’s a small world.

For the actresses I didn’t hire from the audition, I called them and let them know the news first hand. It was important to me that they not be waiting endlessly to know, that they knew how much I admired their work (for which I gave specifics in praise) but, for whatever reason, I had cast another person.

Finding the three remaining male roles, which included the lead, was much more difficult. I had actually scouted out some non-Equity talent prior and tried to establish contact, but I was young. I have a feeling I came off as a dreamer and not a doer, or perhaps I just sold myself poorly. Nothing came of it. From my first newspaper ad I found one of the very talented Equity actors whom I didn’t even audition. I actually had to run a second ad in the newspaper, and it resulted in a last-minute phone call. The actor had quite a bit of experience, but because of the timing and his lack of a vehicle, there was no way to audition him in person. He sang “Falcon in the Dive” for me over the phone. I didn’t know what else to do. It was him or no one. Sight unseen, I cast him.

He wasn’t perfect for the role, but he was perfect for the reading. He sang really well, but most importantly, he was a great person. I was such a tyro, and he stepped in to help out in many ways, fixing lyrics (my horrendous lyrics; I learned I am not a lyricist), stepping in in ways a musical director would have (if I was a tyro, my composer was a lump), and interpreting the part well, challenging me in some important ways to make some decisions about the character.

I never did find the final male role. I had two actors lined up—a very talented former student who had to drop out after the first rehearsal and another actor who simply never showed up. I finally divided the part up and had to give some of his roles to one of the actresses (who was so incredibly talented, she made it work beautifully).

I don’t think I could possibly thank all those people enough for helping me out on that reading—the actors, the photographer, the graphic designer, the website designer, the photo shoot costumer, and the hair stylist. I was pretty scrappy and paid as little as I had to/as much as I could (I financed the thing myself out of my teacher’s salary). The poster was photographed by a skilled hobby photographer (and very talented actress), the poster created by a very skilled college senior art student, the models worked for nominal pay and the experience, the hair done by my sister, and all the actors put forth so much for so little money. My friends in the cast, knowing me from my more timid days, supported me and ensured that nobody would steamroll me (which wasn’t a risk because I was very possessive, but I was thankful for their concern).

The experience was a bust in some ways. A big producing theatre in the area had promised to be there, and despite my reminder call, no one showed up. I mailed out expensive invites to many local theatre people, and none showed up. No matter what I did—phone calls upon phone calls, a write up in the local paper, expensive desserts for after the reading—very few people outside the friends of the cast showed up. I spent over $4000 on that reading.

And seriously, I wasn’t even in New York. I was pretty darn stupid.

Yes, the experience was a smash in other ways. At twenty-five I had practiced the rudimentary steps of producing and had actually produced something. I had directed a cast of professional actors. And I learned that, though there was much work to be done, my show had much promise. People seemed to like it, and the cast was enthusiastic for its possibilities.

Another big learning experience from the reading was the whole collaboration thing. The day following the reading, I called my collaborator and broke ties (It had been my project to begin with). He was a nice guy, but we didn’t communicate well, and he talked a lot but produced little (some of the blame which lies on my horrendous lyrics, some of which lies on him because he promised much and produced little). The song the cast seemed to like best, oddly enough, was the one where I had generated the basic melody. It’s best to say it was a learning experience, probably for both of us. I learned I needed a true collaborator and not a puppet, not to mention someone who didn’t think Andrew Lloyd Webber was all the rage . . . in 2003.

I write this for mostly selfish reasons. I’m now nearing the five-year mark of that reading, and, even though it’ll have little or no relevance to anyone else, I wanted to take some space and document the experience. I often wish I would have used that $4000 for a few other things that might have changed the course of my life, but then, what I purchased with it was something I could never place a dollar amount on—learning, growing, solidifying friendships, producing, memory-making, creating theatre.

I guess I did what I had to do. No, I won’t forget, can’t regret what I did for love.

the Broadway Mouth
January 26, 2008

P.S. I earlier wrote “You Simply Cannot Do It Alone or, How I Became a Theatre Expert in Three Easy Steps” about my learning curve when it came to collaboration and viewing my own work. If you are an aspiring creator (or aspiring-to-be-produced), it may be of interest.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Strange Case of Dr. Brooks and Mr. LaChiusa: Seriously? Make 'em Laugh!

There are so few laughs in Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Raisin in the Sun, A Doll House, and Fences. They’re so bleak, so joyless. To quote from one of my favorite theatre writers (about another work), some of them have “a bunch of characters so unappetizingly drawn that you wouldn’t especially want to go to dinner with them.”

Take Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a play that fills the stage with so many obnoxious and unappetizing figures, you even hate the kids. Is there anyone in the play you’d ever want to talk to on the phone, let alone go to dinner with them? What about Death of a Salesman? I guess Happy isn’t so bad, but he’d still not be my choice dinner companion.

But naturally, these are plays. You like what the playwrights say or how the playwrights say it, not necessarily the characters with which they express it. It’s a given (and forgiven). They are entertaining via their ability to enlighten and communicate. You enjoy Death of a Salesman even though you aren’t necessarily entertained in the traditional definition of the word.

Okay, so I really do “get” why straight plays don’t have characters with whom you’d want to sup. What I actually don’t understand is the dual standard. If a serious play, movie, or novel lacks broad comic characters or witty banter, that is acceptable. No one questions it. But let a musical do that, and it’s blasphemy, a dour and dull night at the theatre, devoid of any redeemable qualities.

It’s a curious situation.

Many of the great contemporary musical theatre pieces were ones I first experienced on CD. When I first heard Marie Christine, for example, I was a young twenty-three or so, enraptured by the story it told. I couldn’t imagine anyone not finding themselves fascinated by LaChiusa’s updating of the Medea story. It was quite the shock when I read some of the critics’ responses to the show several years later.

One of those beautiful “serious” shows I have experienced in the theatre was Parade, which I was able to catch on tour. I don’t recall laughing much during the show, but I do remember it riveting me, drawing me in with the power of its story and what it had to say. The fact that I wasn’t laughing every five minutes didn’t even occur to me.

I’ve read similar critiques of other shows whose scores I’ve loved—LaChiusa’s The Wild Party and Bernarda Alba, Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll and Hyde, Bill Russell and Henry Kreiger’s Side Show, and Paul Gordon’s Jane Eyre. A few of these I’ve seen on Broadway, a few I’ve seen regionally, some I’ve only heard the score. I was never bothered by the almost solely dramatic nature of the pieces.

The problem is that the Broadway musical has developed so that, as Arthur Laurents says, it’s now okay to die or be raped in a musical and even to have a sad ending. We still haven’t gotten to the place, however, where the musical can completely sever ties with its comedic past and still be a success. Critics still enter shows with certain expectations—that musicals should entertain through comedy, that only straight plays can settle for being thought-provoking (or moving or gothic or exciting).

I love musical comedy. There’s nothing like a laugh and a song. However, if we truly believe in the power of music, and the emotional expression that can be accomplished uniquely through song and dance, then there’s no reason why a musical can’t be the equivalent of Death of a Salesman in the musical form. Some musical ideas are better suited to humor, but just because others may not be doesn’t mean that they aren’t riveting and intriguing stories worth being told filled with themes needing to be heard.

The final vote always goes to the paying audience. The problem is that to a great extent the critics act as an entryway to the more unusual or unknown shows. It is possible that the masses simply aren’t ready for Parade and won’t be for some time. Yet, it seems like shows with great critical appreciation—which non-humorous shows seem to rarely receive—can still overcome audience trepidation to achieve a level of success.

Look at the score of Parade; “The Old Red Hills of Home,” “My Child Will Forgive Me,” and “This Is Not Over Yet” are amazing songs, songs that are fitting for the show’s tone and perspective. The story of Leo Frank is one that deserves to be told even if it doesn’t allow for subplot hilarity. Willy Loman didn’t need any, so why does Leo Frank?

the Broadway Mouth
January 23, 2008

A Raisin in the Sun preview

When I saw this posted on Talkin' Broadway, I had to post it here. Since I first read it in college, A Raisin in the Sun has been one of my two favorite plays (tied with The Crucible). In many ways, it was if my my family was the Younger family, that I was reading my own life story.

I haven't seen the movie yet, but seeing this preview--complete with all those great Broadway performers--sends chills down my spine. While there have been two versions filmed before, I'm excited that this important work with speak to an entirely new generation of people, and because of Sean Combs, it will reach many millions more than it ever would have otherwise.

the Broadway Mouth
January 23, 2008

Friday, January 18, 2008

Tell My Father I Didn’t Break the Rules

“Too Darn Hot” could be entirely excised from Kiss Me, Kate without affecting the story. Entirely. First off, it doesn’t develop anything. If you look at it literally, it’s Paul and chorus singing about it being too hot, then dancing, which means that they’re actually making themselves hotter. It does nothing to advance the Fred/Lilli or Bill/Bianca plots. Paul and Hattie are there, but it does nothing for them. Second, it’s hardly even character-specific. It could be Paul singing, that chorus guy, that other chorus guy, or someone from any other show. Thirdly, it’s basically 1940s pop. Had it not been so ribald, it would’ve been a major pop hit in its day. It’s that generic.

Fortunately, though, for those of us who are fans of the show, the creation of a Broadway musical, as with any other form of artistic expression, is not a simple matter of mathematics. Kiss Me, Kate is far more than just a love story and a love story subplot with an energetic opening number, love song, dynamic Act One closer, energetic Act Two opener, love song reprise, eleven o’clock number, and exit music.

Yeah, “Too Darn Hot” is essentially disconnected from the plot, is not terribly character-specific, and is pop. But it works. It works because it’s a great song in a perfect location that affects the audience in just the right way.

It’s not math. It’s art.

Sometimes we get caught up on the rules of structure. It’s not that the rules of structure aren’t important, but it is not an end in itself. I’ve read plenty of critiques of shows—both on message boards and in publication—that focus too much on what the show “should” have rather than what it does have.

In Ethan Mordden’s thought-provoking The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen, he takes to task “Tell My Father” from The Civil War because he says the audience is expected to feel emotion for a character they’ve hardly known. Now, I only saw the tour, which was altered from the Broadway production, but the context seems about the same.

The Lehman Engel book of thought would agree with Mordden—and it certainly is a more than accurate theory in pretty much every case. If you have no emotional connection to a character, you’re not going to care two cents about their plight. If you saw the final scene of West Side Story without the rest of the show, it’d be just another girl crying over her hoodlum boyfriend. Yes, it makes complete sense.

However, it’s not math. It’s art.

To me, “Tell My Father” was extraordinarily effective because it was tapping into a character type, one that doesn’t need much to gain sympathy. I don’t have to know a person to see a story on the news and have my heart go out for the wife of a shooting victim, the daughter whose parents have been deported to Mexico, or the student who was brutally hazed. In the context of The Civil War, a piece that walked a fine line between musical theatre, concert, and mosaic, there was no need for established characters. I don’t have to know the personality of a boy killed in battle to sympathize with his last wishes. It’s an incredibly poignant song, a dying boy whose final thoughts are for earning love and respect from his father, a man who will undoubtedly have markedly different worries on his mind when the tragic news arrives.

Sometimes when the rules are broken, it flops big time. There’s a whole decade of shows Mordden details in his book whose memory has not survived past 1989. But even when you paint by the numbers, the show might thud anyway.

Then sometimes, you play with the rules, shifting things, experimenting, trying, or just doing what seems right for your story, and you wind up with Oklahoma! or Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street or Assassins.

It’s not the rule. It’s the effect.

the Broadway Mouth
January 18, 2008

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Advice to American Idol on Broadway Night

I was devastated last year for Sabrina Sloan, the American Idol contestant with talent who was cut out of the top 12 in lieu of Hayley Scarnato. I had seen Sloan on tour in Hairspray and even briefly met her at a promotional appearance for the show. She was a dynamite Dynamite, and she would have been a serious contender on American Idol had she made it into the final twelve.

A number of American Idol alumni have taken their talent to Broadway but not without first taking Broadway talent to American Idol. Unfortunately, Broadway night, when they have it, tends to be one of the worst nights of the series. First of all, the dynamic nature of the songs is hacked to shreds for the sake of time. Secondly, and most importantly, you have voices that aren’t suited to the material. The contemporary pop voice isn’t going to do justice to “Mack the Knife” or “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” and those songs don’t do justice to the pop voice.

As all we Broadway folk know, there are a ton of great contemporary Broadway songs out there that are perfectly suited to the typical American Idol voice, but because Broadway is no longer part of the mainstream culture, no one out west knows these songs to recommend to the finalists.

That’s where I come in. Below is a list of some of the best Broadway choices should this season of American Idol have Broadway theme night. What makes for great songs on American Idol are songs that have a pop flavoring, have melodies and lyrics that are easily communicated, that can be truncated, and aren’t originally duets. Great theatre songs by the likes of Stephen Sondheim or Michael John LaChiusa won’t translate well, overall (LaChiusa’s “People Like Us” is a great song with the potential for wide appeal, but it’s a duet).

So, without further ado, my American Idol recommendation list:

“And I’m Telling You” from Dreamgirls
This has now been done on American Idol, at least twice last year alone. We all know what a powerhouse song it is if the finalist has the chops for it. The key is to make it unique, not copying Jennifer Holliday or Jennifer Hudson.

“I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables
One of the great pop opera solos from its 1980s heyday, “I Dreamed a Dream” is still a powerful, heartfelt song after all these years. This genre of musical struggles today, but “I Dreamed a Dream” will keep playing forever. You don’t necessarily need a powerful voice, just one with much depth and emotion.

“On My Own” from Les Miserables
“On My Own” is another song with a simple idea that is communicated through powerful music and allows a strong voice to shine. Like “I Dreamed a Dream,” it is tried and true, with a strong base of people who will know it and will welcome hearing it again.

“This Is the Moment” from Jekyll and Hyde
This song works better for me in the show than out of it, but it is a recognizable song with a great arc and some pop meat for a singer to bite into. Frank Wildhorn, whose honorable goal it has been to bring contemporary music to Broadway, has written many songs that would provide many great American Idol moments.

“Someone Like You” from Jekyll and Hyde
A powerful song easily relatable outside of the show, “Someone Like You” would provide a singer like Jordin Sparks or Katharine McPhee something to rip into. Linda Eder is pretty much impossible to match, but unlike Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, or Celine Dion, her material isn’t known by most of the country, so a singer can tackle her stuff without fear of comparison.

“A New Life” from Jekyll and Hyde
Here is another gem from Jekyll and Hyde with room for that glorious belt.

“What You Own” from Rent
One of the best-known rock scores is Jonathan Larson’s Rent, but the songs are either duets or wouldn’t translate well outside of the show. “One Song Glory” is amazing, for example, but I just don’t think it would work well on American Idol. “What You Own” is a duet, but I think it could translate well to a solo (and it’d have to be truncated anyway, so the character-specific parts could be jettisoned). It has a catchy melody, and it has a message that many people can relate to.

“Only Love” from The Scarlet Pimpernel
Another Frank Wildhorn gem (yes, I said gem), it allows for a theatrical presentation (such as by the incomparable Christine Andreas) or a more pop rendition (such as by the incomparable Linda Eder). The theme is simple, taking a chance on love, which will be easily identifiable with general audiences.

“I’ll Forget You” from The Scarlet Pimpernel
We’re not done with Frank Wildhorn yet, this time with a song from the revised version of The Scarlet Pimpernel. I love this song. It has the complexity of a theatre song—there’s subtext to the lyrics that is different from what the character is saying—with the instant appeal that a song on American Idol needs to have to connect with an audience. This is one of those songs I often find myself randomly singing out of nowhere.

“Back to Before” from Ragtime
I love the to-the-rafters songs from this era (can you tell), and while “Back to Before” is less pop-friendly than the Wildhorn stuff, it’s a very powerful song, allowing for a depth of emotion and that great belt.

“Your Daddy’s Son” from Ragtime
Again, this one is going to be a little less audience-friendly, but it is nevertheless a very powerful and moving song. In a show that can often be filled with the belters of the Christina Aguilera variety, “Your Daddy’s Son” could be a way of differentiating talent.

“Tell My Father” from The Civil War
A touching song about a soldier on his deathbed, “Tell My Father” is a beautiful and moving song. We’re in a time of war, and it could really connect with audiences.

“Freedom’s Child” from The Civil War
Here’s another rousing song from the Frank Wildhorn songbook. Given a country or rock twist (or both), it would be a spectacular showcase for someone like Bo Bice or Chris Daughtry on a night that otherwise wouldn’t allow them to shine.

“Fortune Favors the Brave” from Aida
There are few rock voices that compare with Adam Pascal’s, and he really rocked out to this song. It’s a great chance for a rock voice to really shine in a theatre song.

“My Strongest Suit” from Aida
No one will ever top Sherie Rene Scott’s rendition on the CD, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be great to see people try. What a fun song with a chance for someone with a great voice.

“I Know Where I’ve Been” from Hairspray
Since it is from the movie that most people know this song, this would actually be a great showcase for a contemporary voice. Queen Latifah does a fine job in the movie, but it’s not a voice that many other singers, like LaKisha Jones, couldn’t easily outshine. When you top the well-known version, it’s always bonus points from the judges.

“Defying Gravity” from Wicked
Do I need to say anything else? A powerful song written for a powerful pop voice with a meaning that extends beyond the show, “Defying Gravity” is also now getting to be one of the more recognizable Broadway songs from the past decade.

“Once Upon a Time” from Brooklyn
Diana DeGarmo did a beautiful job belting out this one on the road company after Eden Espinoza brought it to life on Broadway. A gem in a middling score, “Once Upon a Time” has a memorable melody with room for a woman with a big voice to come in and knock it out of the park. When Diana DeGarmo sang it as part of a promotional appearance before the show opened, it was a powerful. It’s a song that often runs through my head, and I sometimes pop in the CD just to hear it alone.

“Here I Am” from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
It’s very character specific, so some of it may not always make sense to the audience at home, but it’s a catchy and fun song with the capability of showcasing a great voice (like Sherie Rene Scott’s, for example). When that great voice rises up for those final lines, it’s awesome.

“I’m Here” from The Color Purple
Already known from Fantasia’s performance last season, “I’m Here” is another great chance for a diva of any color to rip in and make it her own. The message, first of all, is so powerful, one many people can relate to. Secondly, it’s a great song with a strong melody that allows the singer to not only belt but bring out emotion. If the finalist can relate to it and sheds a few tears at the end, all the better for getting votes.

the Broadway Mouth
January 15, 2008

Saturday, January 12, 2008

An Ode to New York City

I was too excited and couldn’t sleep. Honestly, it was a double-whammy. In the summer of 2006, not only had I planned a trip to New York in a matter of two days, but I was going there to interview for a big job.

Those commercials from the early 80s, the “I Love New York” ads couldn’t say it any better. I love New York. My first trip was in the summer of 2000. I originally had a couple friends who had talked about joining me, but when they fell through, I was determined to do it—my first real vacation ever and the farthest I’d ever been from home—and I never once regretted going it alone.

I did a lot of great things that trip—saw the Statue of Liberty, rode the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel, traipsed through the Bronx Zoo, saw a half-decayed rat carcass by the side of the road in the Bronx, sat next to a drunken man on the subway drinking liquor from a bag. It was all so exciting.

The most exciting of all, though, were the shows. Riding in the Super Shuttle from La Guardia, I drove past all those glorious marquees—Annie Get Your Gun; Jesus Christ Superstar; Miss Saigon; Kiss Me, Kate; Aida . . . At home, when we get the big touring shows, the show’s title is simply spelled out on the marquee in standard letters. How I loved seeing the pictures of the stars plastered all over the theatre doors, big billboards in Times Square, the mark of live theatre everywhere.

The shows I saw that trip: Jekyll and Hyde; Kiss Me, Kate; Aida; Miss Saigon; and The Music Man. I stage-doored for my first time, thrilled to meet Barrie Ingham, Marin Mazzie, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Heather Headley, Rebeca Luker, and a ton of other performers, all of whom where mega-stars in my mind (and still are).

My second trip followed in June 2001. I had planned to head to New York again later that summer—by myself, though never lonely—but when word came that Jane Eyre was finally closing for real, I knew I had to take my chance to see it when I could. In about three days, I planned my trip to New York. My last day of school was Friday; I got my grades done, arrived home late that night to pack, and was flying out on an early morning plane. The shows that trip: Bells are Ringing, Jane Eyre, The Phantom of the Opera, 42nd Street, Follies, and The Music Man (in which I somehow managed to get the exact same seat as before—second row, center orchestra, far right seat).

In 2006, though, things were even more exciting. I hadn’t been to New York in five long, long years. In my attempts to find a new career and/or to free myself up for writing the next great American musical, I had quit two teaching jobs and taken one that was only for one year, not exactly the career path that allows for great vacations.

But this time, it was all coming together. The word came from a nanny agency that they had an interview for me, so in two days, I planned the whole trip. Trying to sleep the night before my trip was a gargantuan task in itself. The very next day, I would be flying into New York City, the best place in the world, and not only would I be in New York and get to see shows, I would be interviewing for the job that would change my life and get me closer to really cool places like the Theatre District, the BMI Workshop, and NYU. I probably slept for almost two hours that night.

I arrived in New York as tired as I was excited, but in taking the Super Shuttle through the city, those marquees and billboards were like caffeine concentrate. Who needs sleep in New York City?

Just getting out and walking those streets, being within the aroma of Broadway . . . What else could I possibly want more? Certainly not sleep!

First show that night—with my discount code in hand—The Wedding Singer. I almost cried during “It’s Your Wedding Day.” It was so beautiful—the choreography, the song, the actors, the energy, the location. As I applauded fiercely, I told myself I couldn’t do that, be away for so long. Now a little older, I chickened out on stage-dooring, but like a powerful electro-magnet, I couldn’t entirely stay away from the Al Hirschfeld stage door, watching quietly as Stephen Lynch, Tina Maddigan, Amy Spanger, Kevin Cahoon, and others exited, visiting with fans. I did work up the nerve to speak to Amy Spanger as she stood quietly outside the barricade, to tell her how amazing I thought she was, how I had missed her in Kiss Me, Kate but had heard her a billion times on the recording and how talented I thought she was because here she was doing another amazing job playing an entirely different character. It was with great reluctance that I left the stage door, leaving all the fun for the kids with their cameras.

I don’t remember what I did after the show. I probably stopped at a deli and picked up some fresh fruit or maybe at a bakery for something chocolate and gooey, then walked around a little . . . The Virgin Megastore was probably a stop. When I returned to my hotel room, now quite late, I could hardly fall asleep. I had an interview with the agency in the morning, but I couldn’t bring myself to close my eyes on the city. I just lied in bed, thinking over and over, “I can’t believe I’m in New York. I can’t believe I’m in New York!”

The next morning I awoke to my alarm bright and early for my interview with the nanny agency. I’m one of those guys who really needs his 8 ½ hours of sleep, minimum (though I rarely get it), but I half-cheerily stumbled my way into the bathroom, gazing at my face in the mirror.

My eyes were bloodshot like Bobby Brown on a Wednesday. Except I wasn’t doing crack. I was going to be interviewing for a job working with children. Bloodshot eyes from severe sleep deprivation . . . And this from a guy who’s never even had a drink of alcohol.

Quickly I dialed my sister. “Kris, my eyes. I’ve hardly slept the past two days, and they’re completely bloodshot. I have that interview and—!”

“Here’s what you do.” How calm she is in times of panic. “Go to the drugstore. There’s a product called Clear Eyes in the pharmacy section, probably next to the contact solution . . .”

Well, thank God not everyone in my family has never had a drink of alcohol.

So the agency liked me, liked my “impressive resume,” sent me on the interview, I did well, and was far on the road to getting the job. But I don’t know . . . There was just something about the job . . . I mean, as great as nannying Rosemary’s babies for eighty hours a week sounded, it seemed like the educated former teacher getting offered the first job he tried out for could maybe get something a little less all-consuming, less unpleasant. Sure, with my sole Mondays off I could see The Phantom of the Opera four times a month, maybe five when the calendar fell right . . .

Alas, I didn’t take the job.

Alas, I got another high-profile interview.

Alas, they didn’t hire me because of my lack of in-home experience. So much for the “impressive resume.”

The shows I saw that trip: The Wedding Singer, Tarzan, The Drowsy Chaperone, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Hairspray, and The Color Purple.

My 2006 trip was also marked by sightseeing. Sightseeing for me, in addition to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was primarily walking around Manhattan. Will I ever get enough of it, walking downtown, midtown, uptown, across the town, through Central Park, into the theatre gift shops, through music stores and book stores, into pizza places, past Sutton Foster? Oh, and how great are those buildings, those beautiful old buildings that remind you of all those classic movies with Maureen O’Hara or Claudette Colbert in those cool 40s hairstyles, slapping the faces of their leading men or throwing witty quips their way.

Not that all my New York memories are as classy. Let’s jump back to my first night in New York City, July 31, 2000. It’s Monday, and I’m having fun experiencing the city for the first time after having arrived around suppertime, getting the hang of how the streets are connected in relation to the Gershwin, my hotel. As I’m walking past the streets numbered in the 60s, I’m finally taking notice that the sky is getting kinda dark. It’s getting dark. It’s getting dark in New York City, and I’m God only knows how far from my hotel, not entirely sure how to get back, and I’m probably going to get mugged or killed or worse because this is New York City and isn’t that the sort of thing that happens late in New York City to gullible Midwesterners even if they do look intimidating themselves. Let’s see now, I’m thinking, my hotel is off Fifth, and I’m on 67th, that’s like a million blocks, but I have to go back the way I got here, which means crossing to Times Square like I did before so I can follow the billboards I used as a marker.

So, I’m walking fast back to my hotel, keeping business-like, trying to blend in with all the other to-be mugging victims around me. I don’t stop for souvenirs. I don’t stop for pizza. I’m just marching back as fast as my size 14s will get me there. As I’m walking, though, I see stillness among the moving bodies. I glance over. Oh look, there’s a nice woman leaning against the pay phones. She’s smiling at me. Yeah, okay, I’m in New York and everything but, you know, does it mean I have to totally act like a New Yorker, and maybe she’ll even think I’m a big racist goon if I don’t respond and . . . And I smiled back, stiffly, but still a smile.

Her smile grew. “Hey Honey,” she said with a sparkle and a New Yawk accent, “got a quate’?”

I don’t think I ever walked so long a distance in such a short time. A few more experiences like that, and I would have qualified for the speed-walking Olympic team.

Where else could you run from a streetwalker and see a Broadway show all in the same day? Where else can you walk past Chuck Wagner while he’s in the city for Kiss Me, Kate tour rehearsals? Where else can you walk past a guy proclaiming, “I’m not afraid to admit it. She gave me crabs.” Where else can you see Christopher Sieber at a Ranch 1? Where else can a theatre person go and not feel out-of-place? Where else do you get energy just by stepping onto a street and seeing masses of people?

I love New York, the city of dreams.

the Broadway Mouth
January 12, 2008

On my second trip to NYC, I was still waiting at the stage door. Here's Marc Kudish, uber-talented actor from Bells are Ringing, and my shoulder. I really loved that show.

August: New York 2000--Only in New York can you see Rent, Saturday Night Fever, and Beauty and the Beast all on the same cow.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Tips for the Young Theatre Connoisseur

One thing I love about BroadwaySpace is seeing how many young people there are on the site, writing about their favorite shows and stars—Idina Menzel and Wicked, Legally Blonde on MTV, or Spring Awakening. Some of these are kids who live far away from New York and may not have enough money to actually attend a Broadway show or tour, but the budding passion is there—perhaps birthed by the movies of Hairspray and Dreamgirls, or by seeing Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, aided by Rent and Les Miserables.

I was young myself with the bug bit. I was a senior in high school when, in 1994, on a whim, I ended up attending the tour of Hello, Dolly! starring Carol Channing. No, it wasn’t rock music, and there were no songs I had heard before. It was simply a great story told with great music, utilizing all the dazzling spectacle of Carol Channing, who was more awe-inspiring than any falling chandelier or landing helicopter could have been.

In the week after seeing the show, I generated the idea for writing what would become my first musical.

Like a lot of the fans spawned by shows like Wicked, I knew musical theatre was a magical art form like no other, one I wanted to see more of. For me, Hello, Dolly! was followed by Kim Huber in Beauty and the Beast, Ralph Macchio and Roger Bart in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Cloris Leechman in Show Boat.

So, for those young people who are like I was, finding themselves falling in love with something so amazing, those out there seeking to replicate the great experience you had at Wicked or Rent, I offer you some tips.

1. A big step for me was checking out the library. If you live in a community where they have a larger library, check out the selection of Broadway CDs. This was how I learned tons about musicals. I’d look through the CDs on the shelf, look for ones that had stars I knew (Julie Andrews in The Boyfriend for me, perhaps Idina Menzel in See What I Wanna See for you), had composers I liked (the Mary Poppins duo Richard and Robert Sherman’s Over Here for me, perhaps Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell for you), or told stories I knew a little about (Cats for me, perhaps Aida for you).

Maybe even do an Internet Broadway Database search for your favorite Broadway stars and see what other shows they might have been in and check out those recordings.

It didn’t take me long before I was sampling CDs just to see what they were like. Honestly, I’d skip over the slow songs (I was a teenage boy, who needed ballads?!?) and get to the comedy numbers, like Rosalind Russell singing “One Hundred Easy Ways” in Wonderful Town or the big, energetic dance numbers like Angela Lansbury’s “That’s How Young I Feel” from Mame.

What I would later enjoy doing, and I would highly recommend for you, is to give each song a chance. If you listen to the songs and the plot isn’t clear (which it may not be), trying reading the synopsis in the liner notes. That’s really helpful. Your experience then becomes like listening to an audio book and gives you a full feeling for what’s going on as you hear each song.

Honestly, I discovered so many great songs and musicals through the library, shows whose CDs I would later buy for myself. Plus, I learned so much. I am still building on the foundation of knowledge of shows I learned from the library.

Also, I should add, that if your library doesn’t have the CD to a show you want to hear, check and see if they have it at another branch or can get it through interlibrary loan.

2. Many of the teens I know love to buy music, either CDs or through iTunes. If you really like shows, peruse the CD racks at Barnes and Noble or listings on iTunes. I love grabbing a CD from a show I’ve never seen and experiencing the story that way. I’ve actually learned many of my favorite scores from such CD-buying stops—Big River, Marie Christine, Jane Eyre, Bernarda Alba, Assassins, and so many more.

Again, if you can understand the story through the music, it’s like getting an audio book, one you’ll want to listen to again and again.

Many stores carry Broadway CDs, though the best selection I have found is at Barnes and Noble bookstores or Borders bookstores. Best Buy and Circuit City do have some Broadway CDs, but it’s usually a more superficial selection. Perhaps there are other stores to check out in your area.

(Note: Most people would agree that the Original Broadway Cast Recording of a show is going to be superior to the soundtrack. The choice is yours, but most soundtracks are missing songs from the show and have performers with weaker voices.)

3. Check your library to see if they have any Broadway shows on DVD or video to check out. It’s harder to find shows that are recorded directly off the stage, but they are out there. Check for Wicked alum Coleen Sexton in Jekyll and Hyde; Rachel York and Brent Barrett in Kiss Me, Kate; Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods; Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; Cathy Ribgy in Peter Pan; and Hugh Jackman in Oklahoma!, all of which make for great viewing.

4. Attempt to expand your horizons. Whether it is attending a show or checking out a CD, try to get beyond the shows you’ve seen. There’s much merit to Wicked, Rent, Spring Awakening, Hairspray, and Legally Blonde, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised by many other shows.

When it comes to CDs, maybe try The Color Purple, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Disney’s Aida, Urinetown, Ragtime, The Scarlet Pimpernel, or Titanic for a start.

5. Get involved in the theatre program at your school. Even if you can’t sing or act, you can help move couches, paint trees, or sell tickets. As a former high school director, I can attest that getting involved in the theatre program at your school can be so great. I had kids who didn’t really fit in anywhere make really good friends backstage or while dancing in the chorus.

Plus, it’s really fun.

So, now here’s where I call on my readers. Whether you are a fan of 60 or 16, what recommendations would you add for the young theatre people out there? You can leave a comment below anonymously (you don’t have to have a Blogger account).

the Broadway Mouth
January 9, 2008

Thursday, January 3, 2008

In Celebration of Wicked

Oh my gosh, not only do I love Les Miserables and not West Side Story, but I’m now going to bat for Wicked, which means I will probably lose fifty percent of the authority I have in the world of musical theatre. Tracy Turnblad would be proud. And knowing I am proud of that means I gain fifty percent of that authority back but lose thirty percent of the original fifty percent I kept.

Well, here goes.

My only experience seeing the show was in the summer of 2005 when it was playing in Los Angeles with Stephanie J. Block and Kendra Kassebaum, two immensely talented women. Not one to plan, I figured that if I showed up at the theatre, I could easily get a single ticket. I was driving to Los Angeles, was there to scout things out, get the lay of the land, and to see the sights, so I didn’t want to get a ticket in advance and then not be able to attend for some unforeseen reason.

Silly me.

The show was sold out. Not even an itty-bitty single seat was available. So when waiting in the cancellation line didn’t prove fruitful, I took advantage of being in downtown Los Angeles and took my first walk down Hollywood Boulevard.

The next night I returned to try the lottery. I got there early to put my name in and met a few people in line. There was this really nice woman who needed four tickets for her family and was hoping to net a few. Since I was alone, I told her that if my name was picked, I’d let her have one of mine.

When it came time to pick names, oddly enough, one of the men from the theatre was wearing the exact same shirt I was. Who knew I was so trendy? But it didn’t help my situation. The first name was picked. Not I. The next. Nope, not I. The next. The next. And the next . . . It was looking like I’d be back for another lottery. Still, hope beyond hope, there was one more name to be picked . . .

Not I.

I was at least happy that it was the woman whom I’d been chatting with. She went up, said something to one of the name-pickers, who then announced they’d pick one more name for a single seat. I waited, hoping beyond hope (again) that I would get that ticket, that of all those people waiting to see Wicked, that it would be I who would hear his name.

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

But the next thing I knew, the woman whose name had been chosen, the woman I had been chatting with in line, came up to me. She had only bought one ticket because she needed four, and she was going to give me her ticket for the $26 face value.

I was in to see Wicked!

It was a double blessing as well, though, because by the time Wicked arrived in my home city, my understanding is that the tickets were gone shortly after being made available to the general public. There was such a hunger for them, no doubt doubled by ticket “agents” and scalpers, that I never would have had a chance to get a ticket otherwise.

First Impressions Can Be Tough [Spoilers Ahead]
I’ll be the first one to say that Wicked is not the greatest show ever written. I have, however, enjoyed many, many shows that were not the greatest shows ever written, most recently The Color Purple, The Drowsy Chaperone, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. A show doesn’t have to be the next Guys and Dolls or A Little Night Music to be a wondrous night in the theatre.

After the first act, I actually entered the lobby of the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles feeling like I was seeing the greatest show ever written. First of all, “Defying Gravity” is an exhilarating song, at least for someone born in the 1970s with a fleeting interest in contemporary music. Add to that the flying effect, which echoes the song’s emotional high, and it makes for a tremendous Act I closer. And best of all, it’s a capper on a terrific first act with lots of humor and heart. I was flying as high as Elphaba, if not a little higher.

To me, however, the second act lacked follow through. For whatever reason, second acts are tough, probably because it’s a fine balancing act between the multiple plots and subplots started in the first act, not to mention the development and completion of themes. Having written a couple myself, I can vouch for the fact that it is much easier to write about the flaws of a second act than it is to write a second act in the first place.

Now keep in mind that it’s been two-and-a-half years since I’ve seen the show and that the OBCR doesn’t contain a synopsis, but to my way of thinking, the second act of Wicked, in short, attempted to stuff too much into the short time it had. The result was, for me, a series of events that lacked development, like trying to watch the moving figures on a Disneyland ride while on a roller coaster. There’s wasn’t much time for it to sink in emotionally.

The transformation of Fiyero into the scarecrow was developed, but my remembrance is that Boq’s change into the Tin Man was thrown at us, and the change of the lion cub was only addressed in a song lyric. These are major changes that are tossed at the audience like throwaway comedy lines.

As part of that, there’s the addition of Dorothy and friends, not to mention the development of the characters’ relationships and the use of new locales . . . There’s a lot of great stuff going on, but sitting in the theatre, by the time we got to “For Good,” I had lost emotional involvement in Glinda and Elphaba because of all this other stuff going on, storytelling that seemed to be reduced to a checklist of events.

Since walking out of the theatre, I have always felt as if the excising of the transformation into the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion would have thinned the proceedings out and allowed for more emotional development.

I do think, however, that when I do see the show a second time—which I would like to—after having heard the music a million times and having seen the show once already, I will more easily fall into the emotional core of the second act. Instead of trying to process something afresh, I will be able to focus on what I already expect.

However, the phenomenal success of Wicked speaks volumes beyond my response or experiences. I might say that its initial success could have been a knee-jerk reaction to the hype or the subject matter, and perhaps at first there was, but the show has been a smash wherever it’s been and is still a hot ticket on Broadway. Tarzan survived over a year on name recognition and advertising, but to thrive as long as Wicked has, there must be something more to the show.

So Wicked didn’t speak to me on a great level, at least not as great a level as it was on the road to speaking, but very clearly it resonates with thousands upon thousands of others. As Lois Lane would say, that ain’t hay.

I’ve never fully understood the vituperative response some Broadway fans have had toward Wicked. I don’t know if they genuinely don’t care for the craftsmanship of the show, the story, or if they hate it because it’s such a success. When people are entirely dismissive of something, I personally wonder if they are doing so out of reason or some other force. I, for one, would heartily say that despite the flaws I perceive Wicked to have, that isn’t to say there isn’t much to love in Wicked.

The Music
Poor Stephen Schwartz—er, scratch that. Filthy rich Stephen Schwartz gets such flack for his work in Wicked, a CD which gets much play on my CD player and is probably the most beloved theatre score since Rent, if not well on the road to surpassing it.

Most of the flack springs from the listener’s personal taste. If you don’t like theatre music that integrates pop, then there’s no use trying to change your mind. Theatre music wasn’t always Jerry Herman and Bock and Harnick, nor will it continue to always be that. As one who appreciates pop vocals (though not most pop music), I can easily stand in awe of Idina Menzel, Stephanie J. Block, or Eden Espinoza as they do their thing in “Defying Gravity,” called screaming by the theatre elite (whom I highly respect and revere), named belting by everyone else (who I am, apparently). Count me as one who calls “Defying Gravity” enormously powerful; it is a song that has inspired me in many low moments.

Similarly, people have been vocal (maybe even screaming) about their dislike of “One Short Day” and “Popular.” I find “One Short Day” to be motivated by story—establishing Oz’s reverence for the Wizard—and fun, not an optional jaunt into spectacle. Also, as Alan Cumming said on the commentary track of Show Business: The Road to Broadway, “Popular” is a pretty much perfect song. It may not be to one’s taste for whatever reason, but that isn’t a reflection on Stephen Schwartz.

Some people take to task Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics. I would say Stephen Schwartz is a genius lyricist, evidenced by his prior work in Godspell, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Prince of Egypt, and Gepetto. He creates perfect rhymes that don’t require cheats in the music, and he writes in perfect poetic form. Some point at specific lines in Wicked’s lyrics, like Boq’s rhyming “Nessa” with “Confess, a,” but one’s personal taste doesn’t negate the cleverness of what Schwartz does. Again, look at his body of work. Schwartz is more than capable of writing great lyrics, so it’s not as if he’s a man of limited talents struggling within the confines of lyric-writing, something that could not be said of some songwriters with recent scores on Broadway.

Even the best lyric-writers of eras past get extra creative in writing lyrics. Dorothy Fields, for example, wrote that Charity thinks Charlie is a “hundred watt elec-a-tric light” (also a “Puli-i-itzer Prize”).The great Cole Porter pulled several cheats in his music, like switching the subject verb order (“So in love with you am I”) . No one ever criticizes Tom Eyen’s lyrics for Dreamgirls, which treats rhyme with a full pop sensibility, even in the book songs in which words like “out on the line” are expected to rhyme with “been too kind.” So whatever minor gripes one might have with Schwartz’s score, in the context of other writers, it’s nothing unique.

More importantly, I appreciate the score for how perfectly it suits the characters and develops the situations. Look at how perfectly “Popular” expresses Galinda’s personality, both in tone and lyrics, while “I’m Not That Girl” is a heartfelt, vulnerable expression of Elphaba’s experiences. Another “perfect” song in the show, those ones that some people hate for being too perfect, is “For Good,” which is such a beautiful expression of mutual love and respect, a song that has already started to have a life outside of the show (and, with a few lyrical changes to make it more general, would make for a great pop song).

For all that people criticize Schwartz, no one ever steps aside to praise the genius of his lyric-writing. Pick almost any song in Wicked, and there will be unearthed a treasure trove of rich rhymes and words. Some of my favorites include, but are not limited to:

Let’s just say—I loathe it all!
Ev’ry little trait, however small
makes my very flesh begin to crawl

“What is This Feeling?” is another one of those perfect songs, and the quick and catchy rhymes are part of the reason why it works so well.

Nothing matters
By knowing nothing matters

This is typical of Schwartz’s ability to cleverly use words to communicate his ideas. Here, Fiyero’s double use of the word nothing emphasizes his carelessness and happy-go-stupid outlook.

Enough to give pause
To anyone with paws

I admire Schwartz’s ability to play with words, to take either homonyms or word combinations with similar sounds and match them up.

Blithe smile, lithe limb
She who’s winsome, she wins him

The pairing of winsome with wins him is such an ingenious play on words, both poetic and truthful. I literally love hearing Idina Menzel sing it every time just for the word combination.

Too long I’ve been afraid of
Losing love I guess I’ve lost
Well, if that’s love
It comes at much too high a cost

I admire Elphaba so greatly, and one reason is because of this line, her insistence on doing what is right no matter the personal cost. In her heart, she wants Fiyero, but she’s willing to give up the hope of having anyone or any love in order to do what is right. Schwartz’s lyrics sum her up so beautifully.

The score of Wicked does successfully what many scores have either not attempted to do or have not been capable of doing, which is embracing the traditional musical theatre tradition—smart, character-specific lyrics with exact rhymes—while communicating in a musical vernacular that is accessible to the public and, better, is written in a form to which they can relate. No, it doesn’t have the beauty of Michael John LaChiusa’s Marie Christine or the smartness of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George, but it is the 2000s equivalent of Camelot, The Pajama Game, and South Pacific.

The music of Wicked, perhaps, isn’t intended to speak to everyone, but for those to whom it does speak so vividly—the general public—it is magic.

The Book
Even though I criticize the libretto to Wicked for being too busy in the second act, there’s a lot of greatness in Winnie Holzman’s book.

To begin, I greatly admire Holzman’s ability to find humor in the situations of the story. In looking at a synopsis, Wicked might be confused as pop opera type of show—one or two characters for comic relief, everyone else in misery or in love. I love the dialogue in “Popular,” which is so funny. Here is a moment that could be played very seriously—Galinda and Elphaba finally connect when Galinda makes Elphaba feel beautiful for the first time ever—yet Holzman balances the emotions of the scene with audience-roaring laughter. Now that’s talent.

Some take to task the school setting of the first act with the cute boy subplot; however, when one considers the story of two girls who meet, it’s far more likely to happen in a school than in a pumpkin patch or while working at a McMorrible’s burger joint.

And Holzman handles the setting with great dexterity. She takes the schoolroom setting—so common on television shows and in movies—and creates nuanced, realistic characters. So we are given a cheerleader type of character in Galinda and a goth in Elphaba, but both characters are far more than the labels others would attempt to pin on them. Galinda isn’t so much mean-spirited as oblivious to the plight of the unpopular, while Elphaba reacts to Galinda’s popularity. The events at the dance, in which cause leads to effect which leads to Galinda regretting some of her choices from that evening, are skillfully choreographed by Schwartz and Holzman until Galinda, in a beautiful and touching scene, legitimizes Elphaba’s bizarre dance so that it becomes popular. It’s a beautiful moment.

The blossoming of their friendship is handled so delicately and so well that by the end of Act I, it is a difficult thing to see them part their separate ways as Galinda decides to join the Wizard and Elphaba refuses to pair with evil.

Each of the three main young characters—Elphaba, Glinda, and Fiyero—undergoes a change; however, Elphaba is the one who stands out. Yes, she gets “I’m Not That Girl,” “Defying Gravity,” and “No Good Deed,” but she’s also a rich stage character. I’m jealous of her ability to turn her back on the world to pursue what is right, to sacrifice love and adoration to stand up for what she believes in, to go for what is just to the detriment of her career. Many teenagers relate to Elphaba because at some point, everyone feels less-than-perfect, like a wallflower in a room of bad 60s wallpaper. I, on the other hand, admire Elphaba because she is all that I want to be, a crusader for what is right no matter the personal cost. We need more Elphaba’s in this world.

Though the lack of a readable libretto makes writing about it a challenge, there’s much more to praise in Holzman’s book.

The Theme
It was Ben Brantley who, in Show Business: The Road to Broadway, called Wicked preachy. I guess it is kind of preachy in the same way that Hairspray is, or John Steinbeck’s novel The Pearl or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

In the good old days, we called a well-developed theme great writing.

As you can imagine, I disagree strongly with Ben Brantley and admire Wicked greatly for presenting issues at a deeper level. On Broadway, we are still enamored by shows that break new ground in content or concept—teens having sex on stage, a lesbian love story, the rock musical. I admire Schwartz and Holzman for actually presenting a show with depth, with attempting to tell a story that communicates ideas in way that a straight play or, particularly, a novel does.

Once again, without having a copy of the libretto, it would be a challenge to write a full analysis of Wicked, but my memory and the CD provide opportunity to present some of it.

To begin with, let’s take “Popular.” Yes, it’s a fun theatrically poppy song, but there’s truth in those lyrics. Life is all about popular. Glinda’s dead-on when she says:

I remind them on their own behalf
To think of
Celebrated heads of state or
‘Specially great communicators
Did they have brains or knowledge?
Don’t make me laugh!

They were popular! Please—
It’s all about popular! It’s not about aptitude
It’s the way you’re viewed
So it’s very shrewd to be
Very very popular
Like me!

I don’t mean to belittle brains—I’m very glad I have them myself—but a dynamic personality can make tidal waves where a shy brain can’t even splash. Our potential presidents believe it—Bill Clinton played the sax, Gore got airbrushed on the cover of Vanity Fair, Bush smiled his little boy smile, Hilary Clinton got botoxed, Fred Thompson announced his run on Jay Leno . . . It’s not about aptitude. It’s the way you’re viewed.

More importantly, “Popular” fits into the grand scheme of what Schwartz and Holzman are communicating, for it will be Elphaba with the aptitude who will sink, while Glinda the Good (viewed) who will succeed. Galinda will need Elphaba to show her the way, but in the end, Elphaba will never do all that Galinda can.

The subplot of the animals losing their voices is another brilliant piece of the puzzle, the symbol of those whose voices are silenced by fear and public opinion, the same public opinion that the Wizard can manipulate because of how he’s viewed. This is mass hysteria in action on a daily basis in any society, particularly in America in every decade.

For me, “Wonderful” was always a rich experience. I guess it doesn’t present anything that I haven’t encountered elsewhere in my life, but it presents those ideas in a concise and richer manner, punctuated by Schwartz’s clever rhymes.

The truth is not a thing of fact or reason
The truth is just what ev’ryone agrees on
A man’s called a “traitor”—or liberator
A rich man’s a “thief”—or “philanthropist”
Is one a “crusader”—or “ruthless invader?”
It’s all in which label
Is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don’t exist

There’s a lot of truth to this, a lot of truth that the average American doesn’t address despite that fact that we take part in this every single day. This idea of how we create history by how we label it stretches beyond political parties or current events; it is a reflection on our world, how we view it, and how we choose to ignore the flip side of most coins.

This ties in beautifully with one of the main concepts of Wicked, this idea of looking at the world of The Wizard of Oz through a different perspective. Just as we as Americans now look back with new perspectives on slavery, the Japanese internment during World War II, and segregation, Wicked asks us to look at our lives now and discover for ourselves what the interpretation should be, not with just whatever modern label is able to persist.

While some of this may be old hat for the theatre elite who read regularly and only watch foreign movies, this is pretty deep stuff for musical theatre, which has traditionally sought praise for the breaking of barriers in concept and content, not theme. The poster promises Beauty and the Beast but delivers something so much deeper than that.

Not every show is going to be the cup of tea for everyone, but I celebrate Wicked for what it sets out to do, for its success at reaching so many people. There’s much more I could praise—Susan Hilferty’s costumes, great choreographer Wayne Cilento’s movement for a start—but I think time will do that for me. I have a feeling that in thirty years, people will stand in awe that anyone ever had such harsh words for the original Broadway production of Wicked (which will have since been adapted for the big screen, no doubt, and produced at least twice by every American high school this side of the Atlantic Ocean). Maybe we’ll even get a day where shows with developed themes will not be seen as preachy but important.

As for me, I can’t wait until the day when I get to see Wicked again.

the Broadway Mouth
January 3, 2008

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Broadway Mouth Blog Table of Contents (2007)

According to Blogger, I posted 121 blog entries from June-December 2007. If you’re trying to find the meat on the site, that can be a lot to wade through, particularly if you weren’t there with me from the beginning.

To help you through them, I’ve selected the blog entries of highest interest and listed them below, with a brief description of what they were about. You can easily navigate my blog using the archive on the right of the screen; however, with so many entries from my 50 Amazing Broadway Performers in 50 Weekdays, many of them may get lost in the shuffle. I would be inclined to say that all of my entries are of high-interest; however, I wanted to attempt to narrow it down as much as I could.

The list below begins with June 2007 and ends with December 2007.

Give Them What They Want / Za Ba Zoovee
Here I addressed the use of pop music in the Broadway musical vocabulary. This is a pretty big issue now.

If They Could See You Now
One of the big areas of discussion online is cast member absences. Here I attempt to give other perspectives on the matter.

Broadway Funk: Overhauling Tarzan
I know this is a moot issue since the show has since closed; however, I really feel what I had to say about the show was valid.

The Road They Didn’t Take: Fixing Follies
This has probably been my most-read blog, the entry where I suggest my own repairs to Sondheim and Goldman’s masterwork. Plus, you’ll learn about how I got my picture taken by Gwyneth Paltrow.

From the Mouth of Alan Jay Lerner
This wasn’t actually anything I wrote but a posting of an essay I found written by Alan Jay Lerner. It feels like it could have been written today, and I think it adds much to the discussion of the state of musical theatre.

Show Business: The Road They Didn’t Take to Broadway
This is a reflection on the recent phenomena of stunt casting and of the westward move of a number of significant Broadway stars.

Broadway Revivals: The Right Canvas
This is a discussion on the need for revivals on Broadway. That’s right, the need.

“When you’re listening to this, try to ignore the lyrics. I know it’ll be difficult, but block them out. They’re not the best. But the tune is beautiful.” or . . . Upon Finally Buying the Tarzan OBCR
Okay, so nobody really cares about Tarzan all that much. However, I think Phil Collins had more potential than Tarzan demonstrated.

Amplification: Back to Before
Here I discuss the benefits of the microphone. I think we have a knee-jerk reaction that whatever way things were in the past is the best. I wanted to present the benefits of amplification.

Online Bootleg Footage: Toward the Future, From the Past
This is why I think producers shouldn’t fear YouTube.

An Ode to Rosie O’Donnell
I’m not a Rosie guy, to paraphrase a critic from Show Business: The Road to Broadway, but I do think she deserves more credit than we give her.

Eight Top Ten Theatre Books I Love
There’s nothing like a great theatre book. Here are eight favorites.

Get with the (Souvenir) Program
A subject near and dear to my heart, the souvenir program. These are my tips on doing them well.

Epilogue: 50 Amazing Broadway Performers in 50 Weekdays
I did my series on 50 Amazing Broadway Performers in 50 Weekdays. Here is my wrap-up, including a full list of the honored talent.

Revivals and Revisals: Paint Your Wagon Any Color You Want
So here is another issue of note, the changing of masterworks for contemporary productions. I’m torn on this one. If only everyone thought like I did . . .

Every Story is a Love Story: The Great Romantic Musicals
This is the actual list of the most romantic stage musicals of all time and why. If you want to know my criteria, first read Part 1.

You Simply Cannot Do It Alone or, How I Became a Theatre Expert in Three Easy Steps
This will probably be more of interest to up-and-coming musical theatre creators (or those interested in knowing a little of my learning curve). This is about the importance of collaboration.

Wanted: Published Libretti
This is an argument for the need to make libretti easily available (in book form) for the sake of the art.

Redefining Success: How Long Does a Show Need to Be Running?
This one was written with The Drowsy Chaperone in mind.

From the Mouth of Baz Luhrmann
I appreciate this quote and think it adds much to the debate over popular music in modern Broadway shows.

Teaching Musical Theatre Literature: Why and How (Part 1 in a Series)
So I haven’t written the other parts in the series yet, but I do think this is an important topic.

Four Top Ten Acting Techniques That Need to Go Away
Okay, so this wasn’t my best-titled piece. I do think, however, that it contains some good thoughts.

Money, Money, Money for a Mel Brooks Show Must Be Funny in a Rich Man’s World
I’m surprised I didn’t get stoned for this one. Is it really possible that Broadway shows aren’t over-priced?

Those Rotten Critics (And Other Reasons We Hate Mirrors)
Are critics really to blame? Here’s some food for thought.

In My Fashion: The Unique Struggle of Revivals
New works have it easy! Well, at least easier than older works when it comes to facing the critique of “every way is better than the way the director did it” thinking.

About the Longest-Running Shows List
Here are some thoughts about the list of the longest-running shows on Broadway and why it can be deceiving.

Broadway Documentaries: Feature Film Bonus Feature Bonanzas
Are those 2-Disc DVDs with Broadway-themed “Making Of” docs worth it? Find out here.

the Broadway Mouth
January 2, 2008

(P.S. Look for a new regular entry tomorrow on Wicked.)