Monday, June 30, 2008

20 Great Broadway Songs of the Past 10 Years: “Way Back to Paradise”

It’s a challenge to contemplate selecting only one song from Marie Christine to single out as great. Not only is it a moving, passionate score of the kind we don’t see often enough these days, but the songs weave in and out of the story with such dexterity that entire sections of the score play better than just one cut.

“Way Back to Paradise,” like the rest of Michael John LaChiusa’s work, is more complex than the surface of its lyrics and music. A catchy melody beautifully performed by Audra McDonald on the Original Broadway Cast Recording, it at first appears to be a traditional feminist anthem, proclaiming the struggles of women living in a world dominated by men, with lyrics such as:

We are rules by our brothers.
We are rules by our husbands.
We jump at the voices of our masters
And do as they say.
We are bartered and traded,
Along with cattle and cotton.

In it, Marie Christine proclaims that women were thrown of out Eden (the Paradise of the title) because of the jealousy of Heaven (the angels who came to call), who put the garden into men’s hands. Her solution is to:

Study all men.
Learn what they lack.
Sweeten and stroke
Before you attack:
Put up a front
And then slip through the back
Be on your way back
to paradise

And a short time later she further instructs:

But there is a way back to paradise,
There is a way:
Bide your time.
Be clever and wise.
When you look at a man,
Look him dead in the eyes.

Do not be seduced,
Tell him elegant lies.

All this well-intended cautioning, however, dissipates when Marie meets Dante Samuel Keyes because, as one prisoner knows before Marie says anything, she gets seduced. And not only does she get seduced, she gets thrown out of Eden after she has fallen for Keyes’ elegant lies. Indeed, she does later sweeten and stroke before she attacks and puts up a front and slips through the back to murder his fiancĂ©e, but it is out of the weakness of defense, in response to falling for his own front, that of undying love and devotion.

What is interesting about LaChiusa’s work that I’ve heard on recording (particularly Marie Christine and Bernarda Alba) is that he writes about female characters who are seemingly strong and in control—the violent Marie Christine, the dominant Bernarda Alba, the strong-willed Adela—but these are actually complex creations with insecurities and foibles that create within them passionate, strong-willed external responses that belie their core weaknesses. In comparing these seemingly strong women with strong female characters from classic literature—Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennett, Miss Alice Henderson, for example—the truth of LaChiusa’s characters (and their depth) becomes apparent.

the Broadway Mouth
June 30, 2008

Saturday, June 28, 2008

20 Great Broadway Songs of the Past 10 Years: “96,000”

I haven’t seen In the Heights yet (curse not living in New York!), but “96,000” from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning score has to be one of the most exciting Broadway songs from the past ten years.

I love shows with traditional scores (like those of The Light in the Piazza, Ragtime, and The Drowsy Chaperone), but I also love when a show successfully integrates contemporary sounds, almost like it was the Golden Age when Broadway played on the radio.

I can’t really comment on the role the song plays in the show or how it fits characters; I just love that it really pulls you in and makes you want to move. You have strong vocals combining with rapping and Latin rhythms, and it’s so electric. Hearing it on and on the Tonys telecast was so exciting, I can’t wait to hear it live.

the Broadway Mouth
June 28, 2008

Thursday, June 26, 2008

2007-2008 Season, Part 2: What Makes for a Broadway Hit (Stand Aside Oprah, This is the Real Secret)

I once asked the following question in my group discussion for Bookwriters and Songwriters:

If you look at some of the big shows that have succeeded in the recent past, you find many non-traditional shows . . . puppets, spelling bees . . . or big film-based hits the average joe could never get rights to . . . Disney shows, Spamalot, Legally Blonde, The Wedding Singer.

Can the traditional book musical without a snappy hook be a hit?

Perhaps a better phrasing would have been “Can the traditional book musical without a snappy hook get produced?,” but the meaning of the question is still the same—What constitutes a produce-able new work these days?

For some thoughts, we turn to the 2007-2008 season.

In the Heights—The big winner is an original book musical—a rarity these days—but it probably got noticed for its hook, a contemporary hip-hop infused pop score accompanying a traditional book.

It’s also important to note that the show also got some pretty good reviews, if I am remembering correctly.

A Catered Affair—Because the source material is so obscure (at least to the under-50 crowd), A Catered Affair could almost be considered a completely original work. The rumor on the street is that the music wasn’t so great. While I would like to experience the OBCR, I would have to say seeing Tom Wopat and Faith Prince chatting on The View sold the show much better than the drippy song the producers selected to showcase their work on the Tonys telecast, which probably only worked to strengthen any hesitation future audiences may have had.

Kudos to the show for a beautiful advertising campaign, though it may have worked better with the older folks in the matinee crowd that the average New York theatergoer.

Cry-Baby—Best Advertising Campaign of the Year Award goes to Cry-Baby which balanced hip with a retro look. Honestly, other than In the Heights, Cry-Baby was probably the new musical showcased on the Tonys I wish I could have seen. If only those reviews hadn’t done it in (or, perhaps, if only the people creating the show hadn’t done it in by earning the reviews).

If we categorize Cry-Baby, it’d definitely be a movie adaptation, though it is curious to think that Cry-Baby never would have happened had it not been for Hairspray.

Passing Strange—Okay, so I still don’t really get this show, but if you were categorizing it, something unique and eye-catching this would be. This show—or is that concert?—definitely stood out from the crowd.

The Little Mermaid—Disney does kind of get its own category. Yes, The Little Mermaid is a movie adaptation complete with “lift him up on your shoulders like a cheerleader” choreography that, I swear, was lifted right from the Chugwater High School musical last year, but it deserves its own categorization because only a Disney show could be as bad as Tarzan was and actually survive.

Young Frankenstein—This is a movie adaptation. How it remains open after showcasing “Deep Love” on the Tonys telecast, I’ll never know, but I truly wish Beth Leveal the best of everything.

Glory Days—Four people, young show creators—now that’s unique! Closing on opening night? Not as unique but certainly different.

Looking over that list, we have two extremely unique, stand-out they’re so different types of shows—Glory Days and Passing Strange. If you look at what catches people’s eyes, what stands out, these two shows would be it . . . but oddly enough, they didn’t.

The movie adaptations didn’t fare much better—The Little Mermaid will run for years, but A Catered Affair, Cry-Baby, and Young Frankenstein have not been big hits. Young Frankenstein will probably turn a profit and tour successfully, but the other two will probably not. We’ll all be fortunate if we can even buy a Cry-Baby OBCR, which it sounds like will not be released.

As for original works—We have the big winner of In the Heights, which is also pretty unique, though it is traditional at heart. If we consider A Catered Affair original, it didn’t fare so well.

Interestingly enough, what matters most about the shows, what it boils down to most, was—get this shocker—the quality of the storytelling. Name recognition saved Young Frankenstein and The Little Mermaid from their reviews, but the show that cost less to produce and could very well end up grossing the most was an original show with, get this, a great story! Just like Hairspray succeeded based on its storytelling, as did Wicked, Urinetown, and pretty much every other hit has. Some of the successful shows were unique and bold—Rent, Avenue Q, Spring Awakening; some successful shows have had name recognition—Hairspray, Beauty and the Beast, The Color Purple; some just had were original—Urinetown, In the Heights, The Drowsy Chaperone. But the key is that they found their audiences because they were great shows. No gimmicks, no stunts, no super-creative marketing campaigns to cover up flaws. They were great shows.

Let’s repeat that.

The key is that they found their audiences because they were great shows.

If I had money to invest in Broadway or was looking for a show to produce, that’s what I’d look for.

If I was looking for a project to adapt into a musical or was starting from the ground up, that’s what I’d be most concerned about.

the Broadway Mouth
June 26, 2008

Monday, June 23, 2008

2007-2008 Season, Part 1: The Trend

Well, another Tonys ceremony has come and gone, leaving a string of bodies in its wake, most notably A Catered Affair and Cry-Baby, and rumors of a number of others.

In looking over the talk of the past year, I guess it’s time to think back and reflect on a few ideas that surfaced.

Long plays are in after all.

During one of the pre-Tonys daytime performances, Cheyenne Jackson was still touting that Xanadu was only 90 minutes, a key selling point the producers used during the shows early press period. Not too long after the opening, this was followed up by producer Ken Davenport sharing his thoughts on short shows at his Producer's Perspective blog, as well as in an article on Bloomberg.

One of the big winners of the season has, as everyone already knows, been the 3+ hour August: Osage County, which has recently increased ticket prices, a trend not followed by the producers of Xanadu, who will not be funding a new summer home anytime soon, unlike the producers of August: Osage County.

What’s most important about a show is not its length but its quality and popular appeal. If Kiss Me, Kate had been 90 minutes, I doubt it would have survived its original season, and if The Drowsy Chaperone has been two minutes longer, its conceit would have really run dry.

Xanadu had the makings of a hit—a recognizable title, bankable Broadway stars, some pre-opening backstage drama, strong reviews, and familiar songs. I doubt its lack of smash hit status is closely related to its length, but clearly its 90-minute running time was not a selling point for most New York theatergoers.

In Hollywood, it’s common standard for insiders and analysts to pick everything to pieces in hopes of being the first to identify a trend, leaving the less-inspired among the producers to be chasing after scripts just like a past hit like the man with a shovel at the circus (i.e. Gladiator spawned Troy, King Arthur, Alexander). I can’t count how many times I’ve read about family films being the new trend in the past fifteen years, just as we are now hearing about how chick flicks are the new In thing just because Sex and the City was a hit (not keeping in mind the box office gross for chick flicks Fool’s Gold, 27 Dresses, and a host of others this past year). I hope to God Broadway doesn’t start the same thing!

the Broadway Mouth
June 23, 2008

Saturday, June 21, 2008

20 Great Broadway Songs of the Past 10 Years: “Show Off”

The Drowsy Chaperone has a very interesting score, particularly when you consider how the show is constructed. A number of the songs are of a declarative nature, where characters have the opportunity to sing about themselves. These are not typically the best songs in any particular show. For example, two of the songs that always get skipped on my Damn Yankees CD are “A Little Brains, A Little Talent” and “Those Were the Good Old Days.”

Why declarative songs tend to be less interesting is probably due to the flat dramatic nature of the song and situation. In a declarative song, the reliance has to be on humor because, after one verse, the information communicated just gets repeated, but if the humor is of clever rhymes and funny situations being told, that alone usually isn’t enough to garner repeat laughs.

Listen to Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison’s score of The Drowsy Chaperone, however, which is happily repeatable even though its short score contains three significant declarative songs, all of which remain hilarious and/or charming upon repeating listening.

My favorite in the show is “Show Off,” Janet Van De Graaff’s declaration of her desire to give up the stage for married life, all the while basking in the glow of that which she insists she doesn’t want. What tremendously fun lyrics and music (and creative staging) executed with perfection by Sutton Foster.

When I finally saw the show on Broadway, I had seen the number performed on the Tony Awards repeatedly, and not only was it still as exciting as if I had never seen it before, it was beautifully topped with Kitty’s, “Yeah, I’m surprised she didn’t do an encore,” followed by, of course, Miss Van De Graaff’s entrance with, “I don’t wanna encore no more.”


the Broadway Mouth
June 21, 2008

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Promoting the Hat: Guidelines for Selecting Showcase Scenes

An employee at work recently called and left a message like the following:

“I’m just calling to let you know that I won’t be able to see my client tomorrow, but if he wants to, I can see him on Friday instead. Just let me know.”

What is wrong with this picture? If you were in charge of staffing 200 people, would you know what to do? We sure as heck didn’t.

It’s amazing what a simple piece of information can do. A first name somewhere in the message would have given us enough to go on to figure out what the message was about.

Xanadu on Live

To me, this message was a little, er, a lot like the recent Xanadu performance on Live With Regis and Kelly in which members of the cast performed “All Around the World.” I haven’t seen the show (though I do have a good idea of what it’s about), and I was totally and completely lost as to what was going on. There was some specific choreography happening, and there was some reason why the chorus was dancing, but because there was no dialogue and no proper set-up, the performance was as engaging as the telephone message above was informative.

This is something good English teachers understand clearly. People need to have enough context so that when they receive new information, they know how to organize it. Imagine reading The Crucible without understanding Puritan America, seeing The Dairy of Anne Frank without knowing what the Holocaust was, or watching The Client without knowing what the mob is. It would be confusing, and you would quickly lose interest.

When Broadway shows give performances on the morning shows, the producers are trying to sell the show. To do so effectively, the audience needs to be able to grasp what is happening in a moment. The performance Xanada gave on The View when it first opened provided that, quickly letting the audience know what Cheyenne Jackson’s character was doing, giving context for the song. The performance on Live did not.

One of the worst Tony performances I’ve seen was from the Into the Woods revival, in which the show was basically thrown into a blender and presented to the audience as a mishmash of color and sound. I’m very familiar with the show, and I was completely lost. What a wasted opportunity for that show!

When producers are provided the opportunity to showcase their musical, it’s crucial to think like a viewer, asking yourself the following questions:

1. If someone doesn’t know the show, what will they need in order to appreciate what is happening?
2. Is there enough set or costumes to provide context?
3. What scene can be comprehended with the shortest introduction?

When you look at how cast recordings have change over the decades, you’ll notice the role intro dialogue plays on many contemporary recordings. Why? Because the dialogue helps provide context for the song to follow.

A Catered Affair on The View
Interestingly enough, the segment with Faith Prince and Tom Wopat on The View was extraordinarily effective in selling the show. Prince and Wopat came off as exceedingly genial and fun, and they were given the chance to speak impassionedly about the project to the point where it felt like seeing A Catered Affair would be the experience of a lifetime. If I was heading to New York, I’d be putting A Catered Affair high on my “Must See” list based upon what they had to say alone.

What might this say about the best ways to promote a show?

the Broadway Mouth
June 15, 2008

Friday, June 13, 2008

20 Great Broadway Songs of the Past 10 Years: “This Is Not Over Yet”

While it was unjust, the real tragedy was not that Parade closed after only eighty-four performances. The real tragedy is that it will have taken ten years for a second Jason Robert Brown show to have made it to Broadway when 13 opens this fall (and no, Urban Cowboy doesn’t count).

Here’s another one of those great scores loaded with genius songwriting, ripe with emotion and intelligence. My favorite song of the bunch, though, was aired on the Tonys telecast, “This Is Not Over Yet.” I’ve often said that if I was magically gifted with a beautiful singing voice, I’d sing “This is Not Over Yet” first.

Lyrically, I love it for its intelligent use of rhyme. Jason Robert Brown writes songs where songs don’t rhyme for rhyme’s sake, but the lyrics works together with the music to propel the ideas forward. Look at the section:

Tell my uncle not to worry!
Tell the Reaper not to hurry!
Make the hangman stop his drumming
‘Cause I’m coming into town to win the day!
Somehow I haven’t with my scheming,
Screwed things up beyond redeeming,
And we’re finally on our way!

When he uses internal rhyme to pair drumming with coming, he’s speeding up the pacing of the song, reflecting the hope and excitement building within Leo Frank, furthered by the tempo created by the remaining rhymes and the use of alliteration in the t and s sounds.

Musically, the song soars, rivaling a romantic ballad in the final moments as Lucille comes in. Indeed, it is a song that is both about Leo’s hope and also the newfound love between these two people whose week marriage has only been strengthened by adversity.

Inside the liner notes of the OBCR, there is a note that says a contribution toward the recording was made in memory of Mae Holliday and Chickie Brown. I can’t think of a better way of being memorialized than in the preservation of this amazing, majestic, and powerful score.

the Broadway Mouth
June 13, 2008

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Broadway Bonus Feature: Guys and Dolls DVD

My one-two punch in theatre was the pre-Broadway touring production of Hello, Dolly! in 1994 that starred Carol Channing, followed just a few weeks later by Guys and Dolls on my high school stage.

Looking back, I was very blessed to have experienced that. Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly!—it doesn’t get any better than that—but Guys and Dolls was the first time I had seen a play at my high school (and I was a senior that year). I have since come to see that not all high school and college drama departments are created equal, so it was exceptional that I saw such a strong production of one of the best musicals ever, Guys and Dolls. How could I not become a big fan of musicals after that?

However, I was sorely disappointed by the film versions of both musicals. I rented them hoping to capture of bit of the magic I had experienced on stage, and both were lacking the zest of a live performance. I was particularly disappointed by Guys and Dolls because of the cuts and additions to the score, not to mention Marlon Brando’s awkward singing voice.

Anyway, where was this going . . . Oh yes, the most recent DVD of Guys and Dolls promises a bonus feature about taking it from “stage to screen.” Those features, such as the one on the DVD of Can-Can, can be invaluable in understanding the process of creating Broadway musicals. On Can-Can, for example, we were even given some footage of Gwen Verdon performing in the original Broadway production.

Well, I am disappointed to report that the DVD of Guys and Dolls doesn’t really discuss the Broadway show as a whole, mostly in terms of the creation of the movie. For example, Michael Kidd reveals that some of his Broadway choreography was basically kept in tact for the movie (which, by the way, makes Guys and Dolls a great study on the difference between stage musicals today and in the Golden Age, because some of those dances would be too exaggerated for today’s audiences).

It’s interesting to hear one historian comment on Vivian Blaine giving a stage performance in the film, suggesting that her performance doesn’t fit comfortably next to Frank Sinatra’s subdued film performance, though I would suggest it is because Vivian Blaine realizes that she’s playing a character part, while Frank Sinatra could not pull off character acting. After all, Nathan Detroit is supposed to be a comedic character, not a leading man.

The most interesting aspect for Broadway fans who didn’t care for the movie is hearing Frank Loesser’s children discuss both the show and Loesser’s thoughts about the mutations made for the movie.

the Broadway Mouth
June 12, 2008

P.S. For info on bonus features and documentaries from shows like Hairspray, Rent, The Wedding Singer, and Can-Can, click on Broadway documentaries below.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Hope on the Horizon: The Tonys Column

“We’re going to watch the Tonys tonight,” a friend told me last year. “I don’t know how long we’ll last, but we’re going to try.”

When I saw him a few days later, I asked him about the show.

“We watched the first award presentation, and we couldn’t bear it any further. I had to turn it.”

If you remember last year’s show, the first award was given to Billy Crudup, whose aimless and energyless, um- and and-filled acceptance speech was allowed to go on for an ungodly 1 minute and 48 seconds, to the point where he seemed to be searching for people to thank after running out. No doubt, had he not been cut off, he’d be thanking the citizens of Nebraska by name to this very day.

In all the years that people have been complaining about the Tonys needing fixing, this actually seems to be the first year since the days of Rosie that there’s hope on the horizon.

Getting Whoppi Goldberg to host is more of a coup than Elle Woods knowing the pope. Goldberg was always my favorite Oscars host, and if anything, she knows how to keep a show going and to get people talking. Whoopi will get viewers just for being Whoopi.

Getting performances from The Lion King and Rent are also brilliant because those are shows with which people are familiar. It’ll all depends on how the productions are presented, but there’s hope for something exciting that could catch some media attention, particularly with the uniting of the two casts of Rent. The Tonys, despite all the creativity abundant on Broadway, have been a vacuum of creativity in recent years, typified by the “Huh?” tableau celebrating the achievements of Hall Prince in one of the recent Tonys telecasts.

As I wrote last year, there’s no reason why the Tonys need to be so stiff. Every year they should have celebrations of something that lead to the creation of exciting montages, dance numbers, something . . . a celebration of the Best New Musical Tony winners of the past ten years, a celebration of Best New Scores from the past ten years, a celebration of the choreography of Susan Stroman . . . Something that is presented in a manner that is energetic and exciting, not simply getting some famous singer to perform a Broadway song and then randomly inserting it somewhere in the broadcast.

Only Sunday, June 15 will tell, but here’s to hoping for a great Tonys telecast.

the Broadway Mouth
June 10, 2008

Monday, June 9, 2008

20 Great Broadway Songs of the Past 10 Years: “Defying Gravity”

Oh you Wicked haters out there, you knew it had to come. Stephen Schwartz’s score is probably the best-loved score since Rent, maybe even more so, and I stand on the side of those who celebrate its strength and power.

There are any number of great songs in Wicked that could be listed above; “What is This Feeling?,” “Dancing Through Life,” “Popular,” “I’m Not That Girl,” and “For Good” are all remarkable songs, “For Good” being particularly powerful.

“Defying Gravity,” however, stands out as the ultimate Act I closer. Sitting in the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles and seeing Stephanie J. Block fly while singing this amazing song was thrilling. It pushed you into intermission not wanting to leave the story and very excited to return.

It’s the song that best represents what people love about Elpaba, her determination to rise above expectations and to change the world. I love the lyric:

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

There’s a truth to that, the choice many people make while in middle school that affects the rest of their lives, that decision to follow the crowd and to never be unique. We do follow our fears and settle for less than we want to be because we crave acceptance. Elphaba, in “Defying Gravity,” inspires us all to follow our dreams and aspirations instead.

Plus I am in love with theme of the song as a whole—rising above expectations, soaring beyond limitations, and following your heart, all with defiance toward those who would bring you down. If you listen to “You Can’t Stop the Beat” to cheer you up, you listen to “Defying Gravity” to inspire you to do great things.

the Broadway Mouth
June 9, 2008

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Broadway Recording Producers: Stop the Insanity!

I typically wait at least several months before buying pop/rock albums because I don’t want to get burned by any more “special tracks” available exclusively at one store. It is frustrating to buy a CD at one store, only to realize that you are missing out on a track or six available elsewhere

Let’s be honest, it would be very easy to steal music for free online, but as obsessive Broadway collectors, we enjoy supporting the artists and doing what is honest and right—paying for our music. When I buy a Broadway CD, I do look at it as, “I’m supporting Jason Robert Brown” or “I’m making a statement that there is a market for shows like Bernarda Alba.”

But there is a two-way street. Let’s ask those who produce and sell Broadway recordings to be fair in return.

We’d already gotten to the point where the revival cast recording of A Chorus Line had an additional track available from one of the online music sellers, and now the annoyance with the revival of South Pacific, in which Barnes and Noble is selling a special edition with additional tracks, after many fans flocked to Amazon to pre-order the CD at a special price.

Nate on All That Chat on Talkin’ Broadway listed the following details about the Barnes and Noble edition:

I just bought the CD tonight...the Bonus Tracks are:

27. Bali Ha'i (Billis)...this is Billis's reprise after the song proper

28. Cable Hears Bali Ha'i...this is Cable's reprise that follows Billis's

29. Company Street...this is incidental music that plays during the transition after all "Bali Ha'i" Reprises and the book scene leading into "My Girl Back Home" (the book scene is not on the CD...just the incidental/transition music)

30. A 30 second track labeled simply, "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair." This is the small section that Emile sings in the last scene of Act I when he is teasing's odd that they didn't include it in the normal place, because they have all the other reprises in the Act I Finale scene on the regular CD.

31. Wonderful Guy (Orchestral)...It is simply the orchestral track sans Kelli O'Hara, but the chorus sings at their proper times.

32. Some Enchanted Evening (Orchestral)...The orchestral track sans voices...NOT the Exit Music, which is what I initially thought it would be.

Personally, the orchestral tracks are not particularly of interest, but I would really want the vocal reprises. When someone buys your product, you want them to be thrilled with what they’ve purchased, not frustrated or angry that they are saddled with the lesser version for which they’ve paid top dollar. You also want strong opening week sales for bragging rights on the charts. Doing something that causes people to wait before buying the CD isn’t an effective way of achieving that.

the Broadway Mouth
June 7, 2008

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Sitcom to Stage Adaptations: Good Luck on That

The Honest-to-God Thought Process:

1. Upon reading that the television show Happy Days was being adapted into a musical:

What next—The Apprentice? . . . Oh, wait . . . But honestly, aren’t we digging to the bottom of the barrel on this one? Seriously, people, a TV show? Is there nothing else worth adapting, no story worth singing and dancing but a sitcom?

2. Upon seeing the Happy Days cast recording at the library and after having had some time to get used to the idea:

Well, okay, I guess it could work. That is, the idea isn’t the best one I’ve ever heard of, but sitcoms do have rich characters not unlike those of classic musical comedies. If a show like Happy Days has survived this many years, it does say something about the universal appeal and love of those characters. Would Hello, Dolly! be a bad musical if it had been based on a sitcom instead of a play? Are Li’l Abner and Annie horrible even though they were based on comic strips? Perhaps there is some potential to this idea . . .

3. Upon hearing the cast recording of the Paper Mill Playhouse production of Happy Days: A New Musical:

Wow, that Felicia Finley sure is talented. To bad the thing as a whole just doesn’t work.

I have a theory concerning Broadway musical source material, which is that no one really cares where a great musical comes from as long as it’s great. That was a theory Alan Jay Lerner expressed in his lifetime, and we see it alive and well today. Amidst the grousing about the film adaptation trend that manifested itself in Urban Cowboy, The Wedding Singer, and High Fidelity, no one ever paused to complain about Hairspray. Why? Because Hairspray is a great show. Who wants to bother complaining about a great show?

So, could a sitcom adaptation work? Perhaps? Honestly, I wouldn’t invest any money in it, but I wouldn’t rule it out. The problem with a musical adaptation of a sitcom is the same problem incurred in the television reunion of a sitcom. The structure of the original show is centered on short situations that provide comedy in a 22-minute timeframe. A sitcom plot is only as good as the number of laughs it provides; no one watches a sitcom for remarkable plotting. To enlarge the storytelling into the length of a stage musical or television movie requires an entirely different set of criteria. You can no longer have the entire plot centered on Henry throwing away Punky’s favorite doll because that’s not going to sustain the audience’s attention for two hours.

When you see reunion specials of sitcoms, you always get a comedy that has been weakly turned into a drama, resulting in something with only glimpses of comedy. Take some famous reunion movie plots—Patty and Cathy Randall have to reunite to save their old high school from evil developers, the town of Green Acres needs to unite against evil developers, Mike and Carol Brady struggle to get everyone back home for Christmas . . . None of these are particularly funny scenarios, nor are they faithful to what made those sitcoms successful in the first place.

In listening to the CD of Happy Days, it appears as if this too has suffered from the same weakness (and a few others). First off, the plot centers on trying to save Arnold’s from being turned into a parking lot and mall (curse those evil developers!). A musical requires something not quite so perfunctory.

Secondly, the plot becomes a slave to the audience’s memory. There’s no mystery about Joanie and Chachi because we all know Joanies loves Chachi. We know Fonzie, so there’s no doubt about how he will react in certain situations. Because musicals are largely adapted, it’s not uncommon to know what is going to happen, but a perfunctory plot filled out with characters so well known pretty much removes all suspense. Instead of inviting us in for the joy of discovery, we are really just being reminded of that which we already know.

Thirdly, this adaptation suffers from its source material. We get the by-the-book feminization of Marion in a song where, naturally, she can’t be happy with her 1950s housewife existence (which she did experience in the sitcom a little, but far less bluntly). It’s too much tampering with something so well known. Similarly, Pinky Tuscadero has been morphed from a 1980s rocker chick to the more era-appropriate Marilyn Monroe-esque blonde with short shorts. That’s not Pinky.

It’s a tough situation to be in because my second and third complaints pretty much go against each other, but that’s the dilemma inherent in the adaptation of a sitcom. You’re either stuck repeating the show or reinventing it in a way that works against your audience’s 30-year history with the material.

To appeal to the fans of the show, we get dialogue that crams in references to Pinky and Laverne, but it doesn’t feel natural, as don’t many of the song placements. It isn’t fitting that Fonzie would sing:

I was convinced that I belonged here
Maybe not
When the legend starts to fall
You don’t really wonder why
You face up to the fact
It was prob’ly an act
He was average
At best just a guy
Just a guy, what a shame
Time to forget what’s-his-name

The score is by the talented Paul Williams, whose songs for The Muppet Christmas Carol are loaded with charm and heart; this just doesn’t seem like strong plot material with which he had to work. If Fonzie is required to open up and sing about his emotions, it seems to work against the character. My hunch is that Fonzie would more likely sing a Sondheim type of song, not one where he proclaims his “black belt in cool.”

I won’t be lining up to write Facts of Life: A New Musical (though I do love me some Facts of Life), but I guess I’m not ready to say it can’t be done well. It’s a huge risk because the nature of the sitcom genre is far different than the nature of a stage musical. Of all the material available to adapt, what could be more challenging than something which was so loved it ran for 4-10 seasons on television, surviving for generations in syndication, ensuring that millions of people know every nuance of character and piece of history? I think that’s a set up for failure.

the Broadway Mouth
June 4, 2008

Monday, June 2, 2008

A Year of Living Anonymously: Stepping Out (a Little)

No one knows who I am.

No, I’m not quoting a song from Jekyll and Hyde; literally no one knows who I am. It’s been exactly one year (and over 34,000 hits ago) that I started writing as the Broadway Mouth with a column entitled “Hello and Faux,” an introduction to myself and a few thoughts concerning the very talented Michael John LaChiusa’s coining of the phrase faux musical.

I owe a big thank you to everyone who has been checking in this past year, be it daily or occasionally to see what the Broadway Mouth has to say. When you start something like this, you never know what to expect, and I have been very blessed to have received so many repeat visits.

But writing in anonymity has been an important part of all of this. I have fought to remain intentionally anonymous to protect me when my loud mouth gets the best of me. I’ve been critical of a few shows (hopefully for the sake of education, not to be nasty or out of a mean spirit), and let’s face it, it’d stink big-time to someday have it thrown in my face that I wasn’t a big fan of someone’s show and to lose out on some great opportunity because of it.

That said, I’m going to withdraw the veil of secrecy for a select few, a few who just might remember me (or just have been annoyed). You have to remember this when I finally do get a show on Broadway because I’ll probably remind you of it if I get the chance to meet you, and I’d appreciate it if you acted like you didn’t remember (or were grateful, whichever the case may be).

Russell Warfield, I owe you an apology and an explanation. In August of 2000, I saw Jekyll and Hyde (which was my first show on Broadway). While waiting in a deluge to meet the cast as they exited the stage door, my Playbill managed to soak up buckets of water. Since I’m a saver, I returned to the theatre the next day to get another. The woman at the ticket office said to go to the stage door. When I did, you were eating McDonald’s and chatting with the man who guarded the door.

As I’ve written before, I get horribly star struck around Broadway people. Long story short, you didn’t believe I had actually seen the show because I didn’t recognize you, but let’s face it, you were wearing much more clothing than you did in the show. I was both embarrassed because your part in the show was very sexual and because I wasn’t used to seeing that sort of thing on stage. Then, in my state of star-struckness-embarassedness-feelinglikeanidiotness, I asked to have my picture taken with you even though you were eating McDonald’s. No wonder you look like you want to ax me in the picture. I apologize.

Marin Mazzie, I apologize for snapping a picture of you outside of Kiss Me, Kate when you weren’t expecting it. You probably thought it was rude. I wasn’t trying to be rude, but I was in such awe, and you are so beautiful, I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance for a picture with you. It took me several years to realize how that could have been a violation of your personal space, but at least you look great in the picture. I’m sorry.

Jason Robert Brown, after one performance of Parade on tour, a young man came up to you and said that he taught your song “Stars and the Moon.” That was I. I actually taught it many times since, and it was always a big, big hit with kids. In fact, it was a favorite of the kids when I taught summer school at the juvenile detention center, and they even wanted me to play it again several weeks after I had originally taught it to them. I’ll add, too, that I always showed the scene of Parade from the Tony Awards whenever I did my drama unit.

Merle Dandridge, not even a month into the first stop of the Aida tour, you went on for Simone a second time. As you exited the theatre, a tall young man with a female friend greeted you and told you how wonderful you were, but I don’t think you quite believed them. It was I who saw was there, and your performance is still a favorite of mine. I’m a fan forever.

Faith Prince, I saw you in Bells are Ringing on the Saturday night before its closing Sunday. I was still waiting at the stage door in those days, and I was so sad when you didn’t come out that, the next day, I left a card for you at the stage door. You were so fantastic in that show (mid-way though, I remember thinking, “I want to marry Ella Peterson. Where’s my Ella Peterson!”) that I wanted you to know how much I loved your performance. Your recording of the show is one of my most-listened-to CDs, by the way, and I have many vivid memories of that wonderful production and your performance.

Jayne Patterson, I’ve been a big fan of yours since Jane Eyre, and I was elated to discover that you were playing Fantine on tour a few years afterward, which I didn’t know until I got my program in the theatre. I even bought a third (or was that fourth?) Les Miserables souvenir program just to have a keepsake of your performance. I’ve seen many very fine Fantines on tour, but you’re my favorite. I was the one who wrote you a fan letter about it.

Sherie Rene Scott, it doesn’t really matter because no one will ever see it, but I was writing a pilot for a sitcom for kids (think Hannah Montana but funny) and always envisioned you as a regular character, the rock star mother who was a Madonna on the outside but a Britney Spears on the inside. I guess it’s kind of pointless to even bring it up, but I just wanted you to know someone thought of you, even if he was never even minutely close to having anyone of any importance seeing. It would have been fun, though.

The guy who came on to me in the Broadway shop under the Marriot Marquis in August 2006, I was in there several times in one day simply because I love shopping there (and had to return to find a card to send to someone). When you came on to me, I tried to act disinterested in a way that was respectful and polite. Please don’t take it personally . . . I’m straight. Really, all I wanted to know was if you knew where I could find a 42nd Street souvenir program. I didn’t mean anything by it.

the Broadway Mouth
June 2, 2008