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

1 comment:

cara said...

"Days of Plenty" is an incredible song. Guh.
(...And I may or may not secretly enjoy Flora the Red Menace. Hehe.)