Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Casting Quandaries I: The Most Difficult Role to Cast

Casting a play is a little like Christmas as a kid. Growing up, we’d always get the Christmas catalogue from JCPenney and Sears, then page through it, dreaming of all the wonderful toys within our grasp. Casting is the same way. Just replace the toys with talented actors, and you get the picture.

I made a big snafu my first time casting. I was being very practical about it, and after auditions, I knew who I wanted to be my Dolly Levi and Horace Vandergelder. So I didn’t add them to my call back list. It seemed pointless.

There was no greater disappointment than when my two very talented leads saw the callback list. I also have a feeling there was no greater joy then when my two very talented leads saw the final casting notice.

As I write my musicals, I’ll admit to having fun contemplating what beloved Broadway stars might get cast on the day my shows hit the Great White Way. It is, granted, a long shot, but, as the Andrew Sisters would say, I can dream, can’t I?

Casting isn’t always easy, though. I would imagine that in casting big productions of classic shows, you’re always fighting the expectations of the audience (perhaps from prior actors or, worse yet, film versions) while trying to find the actor who will best bring to life a character in a unique but faithful interpretation.

My theory is that one of the most difficult roles to cast in musical theatre has to be Annie. Yes, the plucky little orphan. Because of this, it doesn’t surprise me that the casting problem that plagued the original Broadway production reared its ugly ahead during the last revival. As detailed in the book It Happened on Broadway, the original creators cast a very talented girl in the lead, but they realized that Annie needed to be a tough kid. Out went saccharine Annie, and in came chorus girl Andrea McArdle. In the most recent Broadway revival, the understudy Peggy Sawyered her way to the top as well.

Because of “Tomorrow,” we associate Annie with chipper, cheerful-til-you-puke, pluckiness. As a result, the temptation is to cast the biggest voice or the most expressive kid in the part, which is why so many community theatres get it wrong. There are shades of Annie’s personality that can’t be painted in bright red colors. The song “Tomorrow” is so effective because it is expressed from a place of deep pain. It can’t be oversimplified and be effective, and the one-note chipper Annie simply can’t do justice to the song.

the Broadway Mouth
April 30, 2008

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Evita: Falling Through the Cracks

Before I officially exited the teaching profession, I brought the movie of Evita with me to a choir class I was substitute teaching, thinking I’d have it on hand in case the teacher didn’t leave lesson plans. There was some time left over in the period, so I popped it in. Most of the girls in the class weren’t even aware of the movie’s existence—and these were girls interested enough to be talking about the MTV showing of Legally Blonde before class.

The truth is, there are kids out there who really like musicals. No matter what an individual movie’s box office gross suggests, there has been a DVD audience for the big film musicals of the recent past.

In my years of teaching, it was not unusual to hear kids having get-togethers to watch The Phantom of the Opera for the tenth time or to hear them talking about loving the film adaptations of Hairspray, Rent, or even The Producers.

The one title, however, that has managed to escape this trend is, oddly enough, Evita. It’s a movie that features two readily identifiable names—Madonna and Antonio Banderas (who is probably best known by the younger generation for the Shrek movies). The music is not only great, but it’s written in a strong rock idiom. It’s like Dreamgirls with white people.

Part of the problem is that Disney (who produced the film under its Hollywood Pictures banner) has not done much to promote the film in recent years, such as discounting it afresh so that retailers like Target and Walmart will stock it and put it in their weekly advertisements (you know, those $7.50 type of ads). Evita has been repacked as a “2 on 1 Disc” special with Frida, but that will probably not do much to sell the movie to the broadest audience It is strange that, with the recent upswing in interest in musicals, that Disney has not done something more significant to remind people of Evita.

Another reason that Evita has fallen through the cracks may be that many kids get introduced to film musicals through middle and high school music classes, which is how Newsies became such a cult hit. That’s unfortunate because Evita has much to offer, and with its PG-rating, it would be appropriate but high-interest for older kids. Yes, it is sung-through, which will be a turn off some, but its great music would win over many others.

I guess to a big company like Disney, one title doesn’t mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, but as a musical theatre fan, Evita does have the power to inspire and delight a whole new generation. It’s too bad it’s fallen through the cracks.

the Broadway Mouth
April 24, 2008

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Broadway Mouth on American Idol: Judging the Andrew Lloyd Webber Week

I’ve been watching American Idol since Season 3, so that means I’m an expert. Because of this, we’re going to pretend I was sitting there between Paula and Simon (or between Randy and Paula, your choice), and this is what I tell each finalist after their performance on Andrew Lloyd Webber night.

Syesha Mercado: This was definitely one of your stronger nights. Where you couldn’t sell the song based on your voice, you sold it on interpretation. Your performance of “One Rock ‘n Roll Too Many” was exciting and sensual. The judges say that this is your element, but the truth is that there are many a voice on Broadway stronger than yours. Keep working on the instrument.

Jason Castro: This was definitely a leap. There are a number of Andrew Lloyd Webber songs that would have suited your voice very nicely—perhaps something from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. “Memory,” however, requires a stronger emotional outpouring, which your voice just doesn’t have in it. It would have been better to attempt something more light-hearted and fun. You can’t rock your head back and forth and smile through “Memory.” Someday, you’ll see a production of Cats and look back on this night with dread. I think this will be your final night. You’ve had a good run, I’m sure they enjoyed you, but you can go back to school.

Brooke White: I don’t think your starting again was a big deal because everyone loves you. You can get away with something like that if you’ve earned it. The song as a whole, and “You Must Love Me” is a great song, wasn’t a terribly strong performance because your voice just didn’t have the power to sell the emotions. You have a beautiful voice with tremendous depth, but it wasn’t served right by this song choice. It was square peg in a round hole.

David Archuletta: This is really what a Broadway-themed night on American Idol should be. You took “Think of Me,” a great theatre song, and attempted to present it as a pop hit. The song didn’t appropriately build and climax and the verse was a little boring, but you got the idea. It was a nice fit; as has often been the case this season, the arrangement could have used some work.

Carly Smithson: Admittedly my favorite of the season, you really rocked out “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I think you could have rocked out more with it, but you picked a song that perfectly suited your voice. I bet it was an electric performance in the studio. To me, this was the best performance of the night.

David Cook: “Music of the Night” was a daring choice for you, but it was a wise one in terms of taking full advantage of showing off what you can do. Honestly, it was a little boring, but you sang it perfectly. It would have been nice to see some of the rocker you brought out in the final note elsewhere, but this was your night to show off, and that you did.

the Broadway Mouth
April 22, 2008

P.S. Paula, her name is Betty Buckley.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Melissa Errico: Lullabies and Wildflowers

Usually an album from a Broadway star means one of two things—Broadway standards or pop. In Lullabies and Wildflowers, Tony-nominated Broadway star Melissa Errico deviates into something quite different. Setting aside her soaring soprano, Errico, whose Tony nomination was for her work in Amour, chooses soothing vocal restraint in this satisfying mix of lullabies (and, apparently, a few wildflowers).

Most of the titles on the album will be familiar to the average listener. The thirteen tracks consist of a number of traditional lullabies, two new ones (one by Errico herself, another by her brother Mike Errico), and a few well-known titles interpreted in the genre of, including the two theatre-related entries, Gershwin and Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” and James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn’s “Walking Happy.”

Errico’s beautiful voice is well showcased on the album in a soothing tone that sometimes borders on folk (in fact, one of the best tracks on the album is a cover of the Judy Collins song “Since You Asked”). The disc opens with the simple “Mockingbird” lullaby, which is a song typical of the album—warm orchestrations coupling with the softness of Errico’s voice—creating a track that is both traditional lullaby and a beautiful listening experience on an adult level.

There are a number of strong entries on Lullabies and Wildflowers, including Errico’s hauntingly beautiful “Hushabye.” Another highlight is the traditional lullaby “Tiny Sparrow,” which receives an ethereal treatment in Errico’s vocals and Rob Mathes’ arrangements. Interestingly enough, the best track on the album is probably Errico’s take on Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers,” which manages to change the tempo of the album with a song celebrating free spirits without disrupting the overall concept of lullabies. Similarly, the folk-infused “Garten Mother’s Lullaby” is also both spirited and pretty at the same time.

Not all of the songs, however, fully register as stand-out material, sort of dissipating into the background until one of the stronger tracks begins. There are a few curious turns on the album including a “Someone to Watch Over Me” that requires Errico to find a balance between her beautiful Broadway soprano and the restraint used elsewhere, an effect that never fully lands. The final track, “Walking Happy,” is pretty much unlistenable as it is filtered through a gimmicky audio effect, which gives the impression of an gramophone playing the song on the next block over.

Lullabies and Wildflowers will undoubtedly be a welcome addition to the collection of any parent in need of something soothing to lull their little ones into a peaceful sleep. For the adult without children, however, the greatest appeal of the album will undoubtedly be for times of quiet and soothing, perhaps on a rainy evening with a mug of hot cocoa in hand. The album hits stores on April 29, in time for Mother’s Day.

For those Broadway fans who can’t wait until then to hear Errico (whose Broadway credits also include Anna Karenina, High Society, Frank Wildhorn’s Dracula), you can catch her in her concert at Joe’s Pub on April 23 and 24 at 7:30 p.m. at Joe's Pub (425 Lafayette Street, New York). Ticket's are $30 and can be purchased at Joe's Pub's website.

the Broadway Mouth
April 19, 2008

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Networking: I Hate It. I Need It.

In the arts, networking is everything. You can be the next Richard Rodgers, but if you don’t know how to network, you’ll never get anywhere. Just check out producer Ken Davenport’s recommendation on getting your work to a producer—get it into the hands of someone who will act as a go-between. Even submit to NYMF, you have to know the right person.

That’s one of the reasons why getting into this business is a challenge, to say the least. The reality is that if my dad had been Steve Martin’s mailman, I would have a much easier time breaking through than I have had. It’s just the nature of the business.

The bummer is that I hate networking. I love people, but I hate imposing on them or putting myself in a position to feel like I am using them. Real networking isn’t using people, but it can become a fine line, particularly if you’ve run across any power networkers in your past.

In my attempts at networking, I have learned much, and as social networking sites like continue to grow, it’s important to learn a few things about the art of networking.

A few rules I share:

1. Networking is a mutual act. It is not “helping me.” The best piece of networking advice I have ever received is to look at it as helping others. Do what you can to help others because it’s the right thing to do, and when the time comes, they will reciprocate the action.

Several years ago, I spent some time in Los Angeles to scout out the Hollywood scene. While there, I traded business cards with a number of really kind people who were excited to meet me. However, when I emailed them with an idea or to maintain contact, I never got a response. Why? Because they gave me their card so that if I got a show produced, I could call them with a job. That’s using people, not networking.

There was one woman—a propmaster—with whom I did maintain some contact, and she even went as far as to invite me to an industry Halloween party. When my times comes—and come it will if I have to create a project for myself—guess whose card I still have in my wallet.

This means that if you expect people to read your work and comment on it, then you must be willing to read and comment on theirs. Don’t send your MySpace friends a big update about your career and ask for support if you never respond to their calls. If you have a concert, a reading, or a gig, don’t expect anyone to show up if you don’t support them. You haven’t earned it.

2. Cut off the dead weight. If you do find yourself attempting to befriend someone who is clearly using you, delete them from your friends list, don’t respond to their emails, and don’t go out of your way for them. Use your time wisely.

I have cut once-close friends out of my life because I got tired of them never responding to my invitations, never being able to attend my performances without so much as a response to an email, only to then receive minute-by-minute invites to their projects, multiple mailings to raise funds for their causes, and so on.

Everyone is busy, and we have to understand that, but if you really mattered to that person, they wouldn’t treat you like a footnote. Cut them off.

3. It’s all about the work. Talk is cheap, and in the world of the arts, very easy. A great networker is going to get nowhere if he or she doesn’t have work to prove themselves. No one cares about the plans you’re making; they only want to see the result.

To quote myself in my second musical:

There are two kinds of dreamers—those who talk about what they’re going to do and those who do it. It’s in your hands now.

4. Online networking doesn’t replace face-to-face communication. You could literally spend ten hours a day networking online, but what you really need to be doing is getting yourself in a position to meet and work with people.

Online networking is very difficult because the proof is in the pudding, to use a cliché. You might chat with some of the kindest, greatest, nicest people, but in the end, it’s ability that makes the cut, not friendships. Singers and songwriters can post music online, but the rest of us need to get ourselves in a position to have our work read or seen. Nothing will ever replace that.

This is not to say that online networking isn’t valuable. I’ve met some great people online. The Internet is too young to accurately gauge its success in matching people to projects, and perhaps in ten years, we’ll be seeing a string of shows that have grown from online friendships. But don’t neglect the face-to-face kind!

5. Respond. I once tried being part of a Yahoo group called Musical Makers. I was shocked at the lack of professionalism from the people in the group. I would get emails from people wanting to collaborate, and if I knew our styles were not compatible (or if I didn’t care for their work), I gave a speedy reply that was both respectful and personable. If someone reaches out to contact me for that, that’s the least I can offer.

This pansy, no-response thing, I don’t get it. I have had people interested in working with me (actors and songwriters) who just drop off the face of the earth without so much as an email. That’s what you do in tenth grade when the “special” girl in class keeps hitting on you; that’s not how you react as a professional, creative adult (particularly when you initiate the contact). In some ways, for me, it was good when that happens because then you don’t waste time on that person. But if you’re not in the game to play, then go back to the minor leagues.

I once had someone contact me for collaboration, to which I responded promptly with some information. Not only did the songwriter not respond, but he put me on his email list for updates about his career. Yeah, thanks for the spam.

6. Remember the Ten Minute rule. At one point, Idina Menzel was ten minutes away from never being a wedding singer again.

the Broadway Mouth
April 17, 2008

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I Never Knew Its Name: The Dilemma of Promoting a Broadway Show

As one who aspires to write musicals that may not have instant name recognition (or, more accurately, one who aspires to write great musicals but just happens to have a few in the works that don’t have name recognition), the dilemma of the hour is making your work known outside the New York City area.

The truth is that I don’t live in New York, but I have a keen interest in Broadway (can you tell?). I check Playbill,, Broadway World, TheaterMania, and All That Chat on a nearly daily basis, and yet, there always manages to be new musicals opening that I don’t seem to know much about until Tony time.

Part of the problem is that with off-Broadway thrown into the mix, it’s not always easy to tell what is what. Is a show called Adding Machine a musical or a straight play? Is Passing Strange the latest Tom Stoppard play? I honestly didn’t know what Passing Strange was until the day it opened.

There are three factors that steer me into knowing the new musicals (be they off-Broadway or Broadway). One is, like everyone else, name recognition. Years before it opened, I knew Legally Blonde was coming to town, so as the show neared opening, I was ready for it. It’s not hard to catch that there is a new musical adaptation of a title like Legally Blonde, Little Women, or Young Frankenstein.

Second is advertising and promotion. Those interviews on really help keep me afloat with what is what. A flashy photo or a write-up allows me to know what’s going on, particularly when casting is appealing.

That leads me to third, the talent draws me in. I was up on Next to Normal, despite its un-musical name and off-Broadway status because of the presence of two mega-favorites, Brian d’Arcy James and Alice Ripley. Similarly, like with Legally Blonde, I had been anticipating Curtains because of Kander and Ebb’s music. This in itself, however, is not a strong enough appeal on its own because, clearly, most people flying into the city for a weekend aren’t going to know those names.

Considering research indicates that more and more of Broadway is being driven by the tourist dollar, it is an important question, a crucial one—how do you vie for tourists so that your original show has a chance (before it wins the Tony), without bastardizing yourself with gimmicky casting. Winning the Tony Award is a good step; however, a producer can’t bank on it. If I actively follow Broadway and am not aware of shows, how can those shows attract audiences outside of New York?

the Broadway Mouth
April 16, 2008

Saturday, April 12, 2008

New Broadway Shows to Naysayers: I Ain’t Down Yet

In her memoir of sorts, Just Lucky I Guess, Carol Channing wrote:

“Most every worthwhile project as far as I have seen goes through a period of, ‘It’s not going to work, why did we ever start this?’ The storm has to come.”

According to Carol Channing, Hello, Dolly! was a mess out of town. In her one-woman show, she has said that the producer was going to close it, the show was such a mess.

Shortly thereafter, Hello, Dolly!, of course, became the show to win the most Tony Awards until The Producers came along, was the longest-running show for a short time, and is one of the happiest evenings you could ever have in a theatre.

What changed the course of events? A song. One song.

Okay, it was really Jerry Herman because he wrote the song, but the point is that what the show started out as isn’t what it came to be. Could you imagine the message board posts about the Detroit tryout if it was being produced today?

I saw the show in Detroit. Yeah, whoever gave Carol a show should have their taps permanently revoked. Give her a revival of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Idina should have gotten it. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the show is an unmitigated mess.

I agree. The show had some moments, but it never builds. The title song and “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” worked well, but other than that, there’s no reason for it to exist. I should know; I used to sell drinks at the Plymouth. It’ll close before previews.

I thought the songs were pretty forgettable. I heard them once and can’t hum a single one.

I think it has potential. It’s not perfect, but it is out of town for a reason.

Die, schill, die!

There’s nothing wrong with people posting about shows on message boards or criticizing during previews because, as someone somewhere once said, if people are paying to see the show, they have a right to know how it is. After all, $125 during previews is $125.

But let’s remember that no show is a lost cause until it officially opens. Something as simple as a song can refocus the material (like it did for Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). Five lines of dialogue can provide needed character development or exposition (something like in The Light in the Piazza). Recasting a role can reinterpret a character (like with Thoroughly Modern Millie). Those were very important changes, but in the grand scope of the shows’ creations, they were relatively minor.

Anything Goes, don’t forget, was rewritten in two months. The score for Wonderful Town was rewritten in one month. What matters most are not the names or the experience of the people involved, what the naysayers say, or the quality of the source material. What matters most is the talent of the people involved, the union of the creative team, and the support of the producers.

So, let’s add a new entry to our message board discussion above.

Doesn’t make a bit-a
Difference for you to keep
Saying’ I’m downnn, till
I say to

the Broadway Mouth
April 12, 2008

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

For Every One Step Backward, We’ll Go Two Steps Forward

As Fred Ebb said in Colored Lights, “We survived Flora, and Jerry [Bock] and Sheldon [Harnick] could survive The Body Beautiful and go on to Fiddler.” That two giant steps forward, two times.

What was the show Kander and Ebb wrote after Flora, the Red Menace? That was Cabaret, and Fiddler is short for, of course, another Broadway masterwork, Fiddler on the Roof. In Colored Lights, Kander and Ebb discuss in the book their admiration for Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party and reflect on the absence of a follow-up show, a serious concern they mention about today’s Broadway. As they say, “Flora flopped and without hesitation Hal [Prince] said, ‘Let’s go to work on Cabaret.’”

Success at anything comes only from experience. When I was a teacher, I did a lot of things well my first year teaching, but I also made many mistakes. I had to make those mistakes so that I could improve to become the teacher that I did become. Our musical theatre writers today need to stretch their legs on work before an audience in order to grow. As I’ve written before, Rodgers and Hammerstein worked on dozens of shows separately before they could present the groundbreaking Oklahoma!.

A successful director sees that in actors which the actors themselves cannot see. I love the story of Bob Fosse saying, right before his death, that he had figured out how to make Chicago into a movie and that he would win Madonna an Academy Award, the same Madonna who has been lambasted in many of her movies.

A producer must also do the same, see something in a project that perhaps many others can’t see, a vision to make the material better. They must also see something in the creative team that perhaps others can't see, like Hal Prince did with Kander and Ebb.

I think we, as a Broadway community, need to do the same when it comes to writers of musicals because for every Flora, the Red Menace there is a Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman.

For me, one such score is Mindi Dickstein and Jason Howland’s Little Women, their adaptation that ran for 55 previews and 137 performances in the 2004-2005 season.

Yes, I have pinpointed in many different columns here about flaws in the show, and I think its short life on Broadway is an accurate measure of the show (as is its seeming regional success).

However, let’s not dismiss it altogether.

I actually bought the CD shortly before I attended the tour so that, afterwards, I would be ready to listen to it. I wasn’t overly thrilled about the show, but because I had already bought the CD, I listened to it. After just a few listens, however, I found myself wanting to hear it again and again. Yes, like many others, I immediately embraced “Astonishing” (a sort of anthem for me), but I then found the beauty and joy in the rest of the score. In fact, it’s now one of the shows I listen to fairly often.

I would highly encourage you to give the score a second chance as well because the songs do reveal themselves to be very catchy and tuneful, almost in an old school sort of way, as if they came from a Disney movie (and not just because Kim Scharnberg’s orchestrations have a very Beauty and the Beast feel to them).

Not only does it have the power ballad of “Astonishing,” but Dickstein and Howland work into the score a variety of styles. Often, the big dramatic scores of the past twenty years get criticized for sacrificing humor and charm for mood or emotion, but Little Women offers a score that is ripe with both. Look at “The Most Amazing Thing,” the song in which Amy and Laurie reveal their marriage, which exchanges the beautiful ballad with a fun and jaunty tune.

In addition to fun and jaunty and the power ballad, we are given a host of other song styles. Two of the best are Marmee’s solos, “Here Alone” and “Days of Plenty,” the latter of which is a moving and powerful testament to survival.

Other gems include the introductory “Our Finest Dreams,” which establishes all of the children and alternates between fun character antics and beautiful harmony. “I’d Be Delighted” is a really delightful number, as is “Five Forever,” the lively number in which the March girls welcome Laurie as one of their own.

There are three particularly beautiful numbers in Little Women. “Small Umbrella in the Rain” is a touching duet between Jo and Professor Bhaer, in which they express their love through their differences (united by their passion for life). Beth and Mr. Laurence get the simple “Off to Massachusetts,” which is amazingly catchy and a song I often find pleasantly running through my mind. And of course, Beth and Jo’s moving “Some Things are Meant to Be” never fails to move me, both for its simple but emotional melody and how beautifully the lyrics depict the beloved sisters as Louisa May Alcott wrote them.

It wasn’t apparent when you saw the show, but Dickstein’s lyrics are filled with exact rhymes and richness in thought. I particularly admire her use of the word astonishing, which takes a word we know but uses it in a way we wouldn’t normally hear it. By the time Jo is done with her song, it’s like a whole new word was invented.

Perhaps it’s best to say that where the score fails is in song placement, not in the melodies and lyrics themselves. In fact, the melodies and lyrics reveal great strength and potential. Perhaps in a show without such a classic story, with a different book-writer and director, Dickstein and Howland will find their place to shine.

Simply put, their Little Women score is way too melodic and enjoyable for them to be ignored.

The Broadway Mouth
April 9, 2008

Monday, April 7, 2008

From the Mouth of Jerome Kern (via Mary Martin): Don’t Be a Dime a Dozen

Here’s another tidbit from Mary Martin’s autobiography My Heart Belongs:

Mr. Kern didn’t comment [on my audition] for a moment. Then he gave me some of the best advice I ever received—and I have had enough advice to fill this book and another besides. He said, "Miss Martin, why do you want to be a prima donna? They are a dime a dozen, and most of them have better voices than yours. Why don’t you find your own métier, your own style, and perfect it? Learn to be you.”

Then we visit another mouth:

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion . . .

That was Ralph Waldo Emerson in his oft-assigned essay Self-Reliance, his anthem of individuality.

Success breeds imitation, but imitation rarely breeds success. There are those with vision, then there are those who feed off the vision of others. Yes, no vision is entirely independent—we are all shaped by that which we encounter because, as Richard Rodgers once said, nothing comes from nothing. However, there is a monumental difference between chasing the trends and being authentic to whom you are as an artist.

For example, look at Mamma Mia, a show which has been phenomenally popular. How many investors dolled out money for Good Vibrations, All Shook Up, and Ring of Fire thinking that it was a new trend, the jukebox musical? How many of those shows were being developed before Mamma Mia hit it big—not many, likely.

Hollywood is a good example of this. In My Heart Belongs, Mary Martin writes about how she was, at different times in Hollywood, fashioned to look like many of the big mega-stars of the day—Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur—a practice which was popular at the time.

Hollywood is no different today. After Gladiator, we got Troy, Alexander, and others I don’t remember (and which, in twenty years, no one else will either). After The Lord of the Rings, we got The Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass, and a myriad of other similar movies. How many of them have been successful? The two based on classic novels that remained fully true to their original sources.

Even among Hollywood actresses today, the people who thrive are those who are unique. The dime-a-dozen generic blondes might get to be some muscle-bound action hero’s wife in a movie or two, then get relegated to bimbo parts on television, but it’s Julia Styles, Renee Zellweger, Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Christina Ricci, and Rachel Weisz who hit the big time.

This has been a part of my own personal journey. I am learning to embrace the fact that my writing is never going to be as witty as Michael Frayn or that my dialogue will never be as snappy as Tom Stoppard’s, but what my writing does have is much heart, much middle-America appeal, and brains. If I write plays and fiction that is true to myself, then I will do what no one else can do better—write like myself.

So, just as Mary Martin had to learn to stop trying to be other people in order to hit it big—and hit it big she did—we have to do the same. By her own account, her cheek bones were wrong, her neck was too long, and her nose was too rounded. She even says she lost her high soprano after touring in Annie Get Your Gun, but what she had was something different, something that couldn’t be hired in anyone else. She had Mary Martin.

the Broadway Mouth
April 7, 2008

Friday, April 4, 2008

Creepy or Fun, It’s Up to You: Guess the Broadway Mouth

You knew it had to come. See how well you know some of your (and my) favorite Broadway mouths. A name bank is included below, but beware! There are more names than Broadway mouths. Scroll down to the bottom of the post for the answers.





Laura Benanti
Will Chase
Merle Dandridge
Hunter Foster
Cheyenne Jackson
Carly Jibson
Judy Kaye
Marin Mazzie
Audra McDonald
Donna McKechnie
Idina Mensel
Kenita Miller
Matthew Morrison
Broadway Mouth
Adam Pascal
Anthony Rapp
Douglas Sills
Rachel York

the Broadway Mouth
April 4, 2008

The Answers:
Broadway Mouth 1: Hunter Foster (in a photo from Urinetown)
Broadway Mouth 2: Laura Benanti (in a photo from The Wedding Singer)
Broadway Mouth 3: Marin Mazzie (in a photo from Ragtime)
Broadway Mouth 4: Idina Menzel (in a photo from
Broadway Mouth 5: Matthew Morrison (in a photo from South Pacific)
Broadway Mouth 6: Judy Kaye (in a photo from Sweeney Todd)
Broadway Mouth 7: Rachel York (in a promotional photo from The Scarlet Pimpernel)
Broadway Mouth 8: Audra McDonald (in a headshot)
Broadway Mouth 9: Carly Jibson (in a photo from Hairspray)
Broadway Mouth 10: Merle Dandridge (in a professional photo)
Broadway Mouth 11: Douglas Sills (in a promotional photo from The Scarlet Pimpernel)
Broadway Mouth 12: Broadway Mouth (taken outside the Pantages Theatre in LA; I figured it was only fair I that I do it to myself too)

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Ten Minutes Ago: Loretta Ables Sayre

Here's a story that gives us all hope, the Broadway debut of Loretta Ables Sayre in the revival of South Pacific.

Ten Minutes Ago, what will you have been?

the Broadway Mouth
April 3, 2008

Hearing the Sweet Smell of Success

On a recent trip to buy a new Broadway show CD, I picked out the 2002 Marvin Hamlisch/Craig Carnelia show Sweet Smell of Success, the adaptation of the Burt Lancaster film which, at this juncture, is a show most remembered for its cast. The role of J.J. Hunsecker won John Lithgow his Tony award, but it was golden-voiced Brain d’Arcy James (future Shrek and past stoker Frederick Barrett of the Titanic) who spent most of the evening on the stage. The Sweet Smell of Success would also be the OBCR rookie card for an ingénue named Kelli O’Hara. Unlike another prolific leading lady who also got her big, big break that season—Sutton Foster—O’Hara’s show didn’t win the Tony, but she walked away with an equally prolific career. Also of note in the cast is Frank Vlastnik, co-author of the favorite Broadway book Broadway Musicals.

In perusing written documentation of the work, critical response to the show is a curious mixture. In Broadway Musicals, Vlastnik and co-author Ken Bloom identify Sweet Smell of Success as a show in which the book (by John Guare) surpasses the music, though they also call the whole show ahead of its time elsewhere.

Ethan Mordden, premiere historian of the Broadway musical, includes the show in his chapter on “Five Special Shows” in The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen, his documentation of “The Last 25 Years of the Broadway Musical.” In this chapter, he discusses shows that he identifies as, well, special, unique, and probably the antithesis of his book’s title. He praises Sweet Smell of Success for taking a brilliant film and adding a lacking ingredient—reality, taking the film’s “stick figures” and creating human figures.

According to Barry Singer in Ever After, the show was actually a project initiated by Garth Drabinsky during the short-lived glory years of Livent, and his feelings on the result was, well, to be polite I’ll paraphrase Singer’s words, bad. Sony actually tried to back out of its contractual commitment to record the score, though, in a reported mist of secrecy, the show was thankfully recorded (If anyone wants to share the dirt . . . I’d like to hear!).

There’s not much like the joy of buying the Original Broadway Cast recording of a show you never saw, paging through the notes and pictures, and following the story being told in song. Sweet Smell of Success has the added bonus of beautiful cover artwork—a supreme use of black-and-white photographs to convey the essence of gossip-mongering with an appealing chalk orange that complements the tone. No matter how great the cover artwork, however, the experience is best when the score is worth discovering, and my purchase of Sweet Smell of Success has been among the best of experiences.

Why Marvin Hamlisch isn’t a regular presence on Broadway, I’ll never know. Perhaps it’s a result of all those happy royalties from A Chorus Line, but this twice in the seventies and once a decade thereafter isn’t enough!

Like the best of the contemporary scores, the plot of Sweet Smell of Success can be mostly followed through the recording. The plot concerns Sidney Falcone (Brian d’Arcy James), a budding press agent willing to scheme and fib to make it to the top, to catch the aroma of the sweet smell of success. However, on Broadway as in real life, one desperate action always leads to another when Sidney falls into the clutches of mega-time gossip columnist and power broker J.J. Hunsecker (John Lithgow’s role patterned after Walter Winchell). So close to his goal, Sidney becomes willing to do whatever he can to keep in the manipulative Hunsecker’s good graces. Kelli O’Hara is Susan, J.J.’s overprotected sister who is mad for singer Dallas Cochran, both of whom become pawns for the controlling J.J. Hunsecker and the desperate Sidney Falcone.

It is interesting to view Sweet Smell of Success in relation to Broadway’s traditional interpretation of the American Dream. In other musicals—The Pajama Game; Hello, Dolly!; Hairspray—the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps hero/heroine is the successful embodiment of the American Dream. In Sidney Falcone we are presented with a character who is an equally realistic interpretation of the American Dream (if Dolly Levi is the “I worked hard to make it” dreamer, then Sidney Falcone is the equally truthful “I succeeded from the blood of others” dreamer). By the end of Sweet Smell of Success, one succeeds not from hard work or determination, but from one’s ability to outwit, outlast, and outplay.

What is unusual about the recording of Sweet Smell of Success is that while the story is undeniably bleak and filled with interesting repulsive characters who do repulsive things, to quote Little Sally, “the music’s so happy.” Okay, that’s not a completely accurate description, but whereas bleak shows like those of Michael John LaChiusa or Jason Robert Brown carry the weight of their themes in the music, an unsuspecting ear could easily think of the score to Sweet Smell of Success as something flashy and fun. Of course, there is darkness in the score—the disturbing base line in “For Susan” or the two-faced lyrics of “Don’t Look Now” for starters—but at heart, Sweet Smell of Success plays on CD like a big, classic Broadway musical, perhaps akin to Chicago in how the light is used to mask the dark.

What this means is that musically, Sweet Smell of Success is a great listen on CD, providing a showcase for Brian d’Arcy James who has, when given the music that showcases it, one of the best male voices on Broadway hands-down. His “At the Fountain” is a powerful testament to the hope-filled side of the American Dream, the title referring to a story he tells in which Lana Turner got discovered at a soda fountain, just as J.J. Hunsecker has discovered him.

Kelli O’Hara gets to shine with James in “What If,” another strong entry on a recording filled with them. In it, Susan pleads with Sidney to make a name for Dallas, while the chorus echoes the warning flags inside Sidney’s mind.

Another O’Hara gem is her duet with Jack Noseworthy “Don’t Know Where You Leave Off,” the prerequisite love song ingeniously sprinkled with sung dialogue, beautifully written and beautifully sung.

John Lithgow, not surprisingly, is one of those talents whose strength lies in interpretation rather than singing, so his few songs on the disc are marked with his intonations. His “For Susan” is both loving and wistful as well as pain-filled and dangerous. His highlight, though, is the vaudeville-styled “Don’t Look Now,” a great Broadway song in which he is the magician with “nothing up their sleeve” who only seeks “to deceive.”

In addition to Hamlisch’s music, kudos must be given to Carnelia’s great lyrics. Topped with exact rhymes, Carnelia’s lyrics dig into the passion and drives of the characters, alternating with wit and charm where needed (like the clever use of numbers in “One Track Mind”). Hearing the few intervals of sung dialogue (placed in the middle of songs) reminds the listener of how it can be done perfectly rather than perfunctorily as is often done in some un-named British shows.

In short, I love this score, and I'll have to make a point of getting the libretto.

After investigating on one of the best research tools available for musical theatre—Talkin’ Broadway’s All That Chat—it’s interesting to note how director Nicholas Hytner and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon handled the dual duties of the chorus, which act both as a traditional chorus and as the voice for Sidney’s inner thoughts (presumably similar to what happens in Jane Eyre). Here, to emphasize Sidney’s inner dialogue, the chorus was staged to surround Brian d’Arcy James (as Sidney) to sing to him, while their more traditional chorus parts were danced and performed in traditional chorus style.

Honestly, if I was still directing high school musicals, I would love to check into Sweet Smell of Success because in a production with a big cast, there would be a lot of play space for what the chorus could do and how they could be used to interpret Sidney’s thoughts, particularly when the director could divide the chorus into two categories. With completely different actors in each chorus, a different set of costumes, and a clever use of lights, there’s much that could be done with this music.

Sadly, the song “Dirt” preserved by the Tony Awards is oddly one of the least-memorable of the bunch on the CD. Sweet Smell of Success announced closing the performance after that Tonys airing—a moment touchingly retold by John Lithgow on a bonus interview on the Show Business: The Road to Broadway DVD. Perhaps the plot was simply too bleak, too inaccessible. Maybe it was the harsh reviews. Sweet Smell of Success survived only about 3.5 months (109 performances and 18 previews) in the Martin Beck Theatre. Once again, thank God for cast recordings, for whatever the show was on stage, on CD, it makes for a great listen.

the Broadway Mouth
April 3, 2008

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

From the Mouth of Mary Martin: On the Writing and Selecting of Roles

In her autobiography My Heart Belongs, Mary Martin writes:

A fine libretto, wonderful music, a role full of vitality can make milestones in the careers of entirely different personalities in the theater. Annie [Oakley] was one of those roles. It was one of Ethel Merman’s unforgettable ones; it gave Delores [Gray] her first big break; it afforded me many of my happiest hours onstage.

And that brings up one more thing I have learned: beware of any role which somebody says is "written especially for you." If the role isn’t written so well, so strongly, that any professional can play it, don’t get involved. That, too, is what theater is all about.

Some examples:

Mama Rose: Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone (not to mention the many great regional Roses)

Dolly Levi: Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Pearl Bailey, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye (and that’s the short list)

Charity Hope Valentine: Gwen Verdon, Shirley MacLaine, Debbie Allen, Donna McKechnie, Charlotte d’Amboise, Christina Applegate

Perhaps Martin’s statement rings true because the basis of any production of a show that is either new or used is interpretation. The interpretation is derived from the libretto, which means that a great role can survive many different interpretations, provided they are rooted in the text and supported by the playwright’s intentions. If someone is writing a show for a specific personality, that means that they could be using that actor’s natural charisma, acting style, or personality as a crutch, to cover any gaps in characterization.

As you can imagine, I’m always casting shows as I write them, organizing my dream cast as I go along; however, it’s equally delighting to think of the many different actors who could also play the part. I feel like I’ve done my job if I can imagine people with different appearances, voices, or personas taking on the roles.

the Broadway Mouth
April 2, 2008

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

“My Funny Valentine”: Melinda Doolittle’s iTunes Release

I was a big fan of Melinda Doolittle’s versatile performance abilities on American Idol last season. Whatever genre was thrown at her, she could handle it with finesse and style.

Recently she released a single on iTunes, her rendition of the Rodgers and Hart classic “My Funny Valentine” from Babes in Arms, probably either as a net to see what interest there would be if she were to release a full album or, possibly, as a promotion of something to come.

True to her style from when performing on the show, she begins her rendition with soaring voice but lacking in emotional direction. It’s as if she’s enjoying the vocalization without communicating a strong intent; however, there comes the moment in the song when she and the orchestrations collide into an up-tempo rhythm that grooves the song for modern audiences. I love it. If Doolittle were to release a full album of pop standards, not only would it give songs of this style—many of which are classic Broadway songs—a new audience, but it would give us a great full-length album.

It is worth noting that this is not the same version Doolittle performed on American Idol; it is much better.

The download in only 99 cents. Check it out!

the Broadway Mouth
April 1, 2008

(Note: And while you’re there, check out the Webber Trio from the My Favorite Broadway: The Leading Ladies concert. It’s the glorious arrangement of “Love Changes Everything,” “Unexpected Song,” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” so beautifully sung by Audra McDonald, Marin Mazzie, and Judy Kuhn. It’s simply to die for. Except you don’t have to die for it. It’s only 99 cents!)

I Caught What I Could Redux (I Caught It All)

When it was “slipped” to me, I was told that the demo recording was filled with songs that weren’t that great, that weren’t very “catchy” (his actual words). I won’t go into great detail because I know how stupid and artistically unethical it is to review or go into length concerning a work that is in progress; it’s something delicate, and God knows that anything could change between now and Broadway. However, I do think a little preview to whet your appetite is warranted. And I will go far enough to say that I’d have to overall disagree with my kind informant, quite a lot, actually.

The opening number of this show will probably be the most exciting opening number of recent times, rivaling another exciting opening number from this songwriting duo. With a full orchestra and a great voice, the audience will be jamming with the rock and country-infused tune (perhaps it’s rockabilly—my knowledge of musical terms from this particular era is underdeveloped, I’m afraid). Of course, the staging will be very important as well (it could become redundant), but I have to say that I keep listening to the song, and based on that number alone, I’d want to buy a ticket.

What may have caused someone to say the music isn’t very catchy could be that, while there are some strong rock-infused songs, there are also many numbers in, I’m not even sure I know how to accurately describe it, in the crooner style, perhaps that of a Frank Sinatra or a Dean Martin. But I would say that these songs are not only very theatrical in nature but also very exciting in their own right.

Perhaps where the negative comment may have come from is that it’s hard to tell how the final songs will play, perhaps because they are performed by the composer and not Broadway singers (though he does very well elsewhere). Sometimes it’s hard to tell if they are meant to be sincere or if they fulfill some other function within the plot. Since Urinetown, it’s hard to know if river metaphors are serious or not. A few of those final songs almost feel the same, though one really can’t judge a theatre song based solely on the recording. The book could very well support the styles and that’s what matters most.

Two more words must be said, one about a track performed by, it has to be, Patti LuPone (can anyone confirm or deny the presence of a Patti LuPone?) in a beautiful song that won’t sound nearly as stunning without her singing it (though maybe I’ll make out more of the words), and another favorite being sung by a prostitute character. I don’t know who’s singing it on the demo, but it has been a part rumored at various times to be going to well-known singers. I don’t know who the woman on the recording is, but she knocks it out of the park. I want to see her on stage.

I look forward to when this show opens, not only to hear this music live, but to see how the story has been made to work on stage. This particular source material has a lot of strength, but if the last 1/3 of the source material isn’t made to work on stage (and plain-old fixed; the source material never had a strong ending), the strength of the songs I’ve heard so far won’t do much good. That said, I can tell you that this story is in good hands.

I recently quoted a writer from Variety saying that those in the music industry need to stand up and take notice of the talent on Broadway. Perhaps Jessica Simpson would have a hit with a song like one of these on the radio. In the old days, artists could have one or two good songs on an album then pad them with crap. Here’s an album with a plethora of strong melodies. Hello, music industry . . . ?

Anyway, I’m excited.

the Broadway Mouth
April 1, 2008