Friday, December 26, 2008

The Glass Ceiling of 29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the Broadway Mouth
December 26, 2008

Saturday, December 13, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the Broadway Mouth
December 13, 2008

Monday, December 8, 2008

Seven Reasons to Believe in Broadway Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some investor should’ve had a V8.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the Broadway Mouth
December 9, 2009

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Now I'm a Believer

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

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

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

the Broadway Mouth
December 3, 2008