Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Carnaval del Barrio: In the Heights

I have to admit that I wanted to be the first to bring hip hop to Broadway. I own very little of anything that could be called hip hop, but when it’s used as part of a song or with the right rhythms, hip hop can be really awesome stuff. And even though my hopes were crushed, I was so excited when In the Heights opened on Broadway back in 2008. And all this time later, I was still ecstatic to see the show on tour.

And it surpassed all my expectations.

The Cast
Huge kudos go out to the amazing tour cast, lead by the talented and charismatic Kyle Beltran as Usnavi. There are times you leave a tour thinking, “I could not have seen a better cast on Broadway,” and that describes the In the Heights tour. Beltran is joined by the dynamic Rogelio Douglas Jr., who has such depth and richness in his voice, as Benny. Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer couldn’t possibly be a cuter Vanessa, and she imbues the character with a powerful voice and an innocent girl-next-door sweetness. Arielle Jacobs looks like she was made for the role of Nina, singing with power and gentle beauty. Shaun Taylor-Corbett is effortless and hilarious as Sonny, embodying the character so completely you wouldn’t even know he was acting. The impossibly beautiful Isabel Santiago (and fellow BroadwaySpace resident) is hilarious and vocally powerful as Daniela, and she gets to deliver what ranks as one of the funniest lines in all Broadway history, “I heard you and Nina went for a role in the hay!”

For the more mature characters, Elise Santora is a powerfully voiced Abuela Claudia, and Daniel Bolero is a moving and impassioned Kevin. Natalie Toro, recently of A Tale of Two Cities, pulls out all the stops as Camila and makes “Enough” a powerful highlight of the second act.

In short, it is an amazing cast. In an ensemble show, casting is all important, and here, everything is pitch perfect. This was truly a Broadway tour with a Broadway worthy cast.

The Structure
Structurally, the use of music in In the Heights is an interesting mix of classic Broadway and the pop opera genre. In the same way that Les Miserables is largely constructed of stunning solos for Jean Valjean, Javert, Eponine, and Marius, there are a fair number of soul-revealing songs in In the Heights—Nina’s “Breathe,” Kevin’s “Inutil,” Abuela Claudia’s “Paciencia y Fe,” and even Vanessa’s “It Won’t Be Long Now”—that function to reveal character psyche but are not plot-based scenes in themselves (though there is some plot advancement in most of the songs). In other words, they have more in common with “I Dreamed a Dream” than, say, “Serious” or “Put On Your Sunday Clothes.”

Songs are also used as snapshots into moments of life. “No Me Diga” and “Carnaval del Barrio,” for example, don’t have over-arching ideas driving them forward. That is not to say that they aren’t important songs. As an ensemble piece, In the Heights is dependant upon such snapshots to pull us into the lives of these characters.

And of course, there are plenty of traditional style Broadway songs—the opening number, despite its rap and Latino flavor, is all Broadway. “When You’re Home,” “Champagne,” and “When the Sun Goes Down” are all traditional Broadway songs with traditional Broadway purposes.

What can’t get lost in my librettist-perspective analysis is that these are remarkable, exciting songs. And the best of them all—“96,000”—is an old-fashioned Broadway showstopper. In fact, it’s probably the closest thing I’ve seen to one since seeing Carol Channing and waiters singing the title number from the revival Hello, Dolly! in 1994. It’s an exciting, thrilling number, a perfect amalgam of purpose, music, lyrics, choreography, and casting. It had a tremendous effect on me both times I saw it.

And that what In the Heights teaches us, that formula isn’t as important as effect. And there’s no arguing that In the Heights is extraordinarily effective.

The Libretto
Like the classics of the Golden Age, In the Heights is filled with loveable and memorable characters. It shouldn’t be—Sonny, Vanessa, Nina, Benny, Daniela, et al. are not outrageous caricatures, bigger-than-life personae, or historically significant. They are simply, to quote Sesame Street, the people on the street where you live. But they’re so funny, so honest, and sing such great songs, you can’t help but love them all. The next time I get to New York, I feel like I should go to Washington Heights, but without Usnavi and Graffiti Pete, I might be more than just a little disappointed.

Like all great literature (and pieces of musical theatre) that focuses on the life of one particular culture, In the Heights is ultimately universal because of the stories of the characters. What working class man can’t relate to the fear of being inutil, who doesn’t want to rise above his station in life like Benny, and who doesn’t love the home they want to leave behind? I couldn’t tell if I was more Kevin, Usnavi, Benny, or Nina.

In the Heights is a truly great show, one on par with shows like Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, and Hairspray. While many recent Broadway shows have been immensely enjoyable—Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Wedding Singer, Legally Blonde, Mary PoppinsIn the Heights counts as one of the greats. Of course, most of my readers will have already seen it, but I can’t help but celebrate my own discovery.

the Broadway Mouth
December 9, 2009

See footage of Rogelio Douglas Jr. and Arielle Jacobs. The sound isn’t the greatest, but their talent rises above.

This video is really fun and funny. Take the chance to meet tour Usnavi Kyle Beltran.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Almost Practically Perfect

The Mary Poppins tour is one of the few shows that came through town where a lot of people I know attended. I know people who want to see The Lion King or Wicked and aren’t able to get tickets, but here, they had the magic blending of the desire to pay the money to see the show and the availability of seats for it to happen. And the one thing each of these people who saw it had in common was that they all loved it.

I was one of them.

Of all the Disney stage shows that originated as movies, Mary Poppins is the first show to feel authentic to the stage, not dependant upon gimmicks (the video projections of Tarzan), awkward visuals (Timon and the waterfall in The Lion King), or incongruities (a teapot the size of Beth Fowler in Beauty and the Beast). Thankfully, the creators don’t attempt to replicate all the special effects of the movie—let’s hope Disney continues down this route.

And that is the strength of Mary Poppins. I had already heard that the movie differed from the original books—and the movie is fantastic—but it seems right for the stage show to return to those roots, particularly if the movie cannot be replicated. On stage, the characters are deeper, more human. The Banks family of the original movie is a Disney creation of the era, the Banks family of the stage is rooted more firmly in real life.

The biggest strength of the production—the biggest strength of any production—is that cast. God bless Disney and Cameron Mackintosh for sending Ashley Brown and Gavin Lee out on tour! They spear-headed a marvelous group of actors.

Ashley Brown imbues Mary Poppins with humor and a sauciness that differs from the Julie Andrews interpretation, which is more than fitting since stage Mary is written more than just a little differently from movie Mary. My favorite moment of the whole show is when Ashley Brown tells Mr. Banks that she doesn’t explain anything with a flirty wink that leaves him speechless.

Gavin Lee is a great Bert filled with charisma and stage presence. Other highlights of the cast include Ellen Harvey as a delectable and hilarious Miss Andrew who stops the show twice with crazy vibrato. Megan Osterhaus also shines as a prettily voiced but uncertain Mrs. Banks. The two children—Aida Neitenbach and Christopher Flaim—were wonderful.

Upon reflection, the weakest link in the show—which I am, by far, not the first one to acknowledge—are the new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Within the show, they are very fitting and appropriate. The songs do what they should, and in that respect, they are delightful. At the same time, the Sherman Brothers have a knack with melding melody with clever and melodic lyrics that Stiles and Drewe don’t have. The Original London Cast recording, for example, doesn’t withstand multiple hearings in the same way many other recent scores do—Legally Blonde, The Drowsy Chaperone, or The Wedding Singer, for example. The best songs in the show are undoubtedly the ones that remain un-rewritten from the movie (and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”). Stiles and Drewe do a nice job of zapping the spark from “Jolly Holliday” and “Step in Time,” though it was important that they alter the songs to fit their new purpose.

The other weak link in the show is the choreography by Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear. “Step in Time” is wonderful, and the spelling in “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is a good, but songs like “Jolly Holliday” never excite (wouldn’t it be fun to think of what Susan Stroman or Kathleen Marshall might have done with them?).

The sets and costumes are by Bob Crowley, who always does such beautiful work.

In a separate note, I think it’s important to acknowledge that Mary Poppins seems to be part of the increasing trend over the past few years to get lazy on hiding the backstage. Though I paid full price, I saw several performers standing in the wings waiting for their entrance, saw a stage hand behind one of the sets during one scene, saw Mary grabbing the kite and waiting for her big entrance in Act 2, and in getting Bert ready for his specialty in “Step in Time,” the stage hands were all but on stage preparing him. Perhaps some of the Disney magic needs a little help from smoke and mirrors to mask the backstage.

Those criticisms aside, Mary Poppins is a delightful show, tons of fun, and left an audience thrilled and moved.

The Broadway Mouth
October 3, 2009

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Broadway Mathematician Style

It was a surefire hit. Dolly Parton. Allison Janney. Joe Mantello. An adaptation of a well-known movie. It even had a music video for one of the songs.

Oh, wait. I got that wrong. It should be: Elton John. Anne Rice. A title everyone would know.

Shoot! I got it wrong again. Boublil and Schonberg. Irish dance. Irish culture. The producers of Riverdance. Big sets.

Okay, maybe I mean them all. And Phil Collins. And an adaptation of a beloved Disney movie. And Jason Robert Brown. A unique show concept. The music of the Beach Boys. Johnny Cash. Elvis. Christina Applegate. Adaptation of a John Waters movie. A unique cast of four.

The list goes on and on and on. And looking at the list of titles—9 to 5, Lestat, The Pirate Queen, Tarzan, 13, Good Vibrations, Ring of Fire, All Shook Up, Sweet Charity, Cry-Baby, and Glory Days—one thing is clear. Broadway is not a place for cookie-cutter anything. In Hollywood, producers rip things off all the time. If Transformers is a big hit, tap into another popular 80s toy and make G.I. Joe. If The Wedding Crashers is a hit, make Knocked Up and a host of other “adult, R-rated movies.” If Beauty and the Beast is a hit, make Thumbelina, The Swan Princess, and Anastasia. But Hollywood can get away with it; they produce a great deal more movies than plays or musicals ever appear on Broadway. Statistically, they have a better chance of making money off bad ideas.

If a producer is looking for a surefire hit, the only guarantee is to find a show that is truly entertaining (and even that isn’t a guarantee). If Dolly Parton, Allison Janney, and the name 9 to 5 can’t be a hit on genetics alone, then no show can. Each of those flops—and no doubt they were passion projects for some producer—didn’t work, even though they all fit the mould of some other success. You can just see investors (and maybe producers) thinking Cry-Baby would be the next Hairspray, that Good Vibrations and cousins would be the next Mamma Mia, that no one would miss out on Hollywood starlet Christina Applegate in a revival of Sweet Charity.

So, if I was a producer, I would clear away my concerns about a musical being marketable, worries about finding a star name who won’t screw things up too much, trying to find a recognizable title, or trying to find that unique, stand-out-from the crowd Purple Cow concept. Find something that’s strong and make it stronger. Make it entertaining.

To paraphrase Alan Jay Lerner—In the end, all anyone cares about is if it’s good.

the Broadway Mouth
July 30, 2009

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Like, Totally Baby Einstein: Broadway Edition

My 3 ½ year-old niece gets carsick. As evidence, she’s gotten sick in my car twice. Recently, I was driving her about two hours from home to a family wedding party. She slept for the first hour, but when she woke up, it was a race against time. My dad and I tried our best to distract her, but when she put her hand up to her mouth, it was a sure sign it was time to stop the car. Three times.

I had a CD of Disney songs in the car, and in an effort to distract her from her pains so we could actually get to the party, I put on her favorite, “Part of Your World” from the movie The Little Mermaid. And when the next song would start, she’s say, “I wanna hear Mermaid again.” I love “Part of Your World” and am, as my dad calls me, the overkill king, but by the end of the trip, even I was a little tired of it.

The next week, I was babysitting my niece on a night when I had a birthday party to go to on a farm about an hour away.

Gulp. I really wanted to walk away that night still loving “Part of Your World.”

I put in my Legally Blonde OBCR. Let me tell you, Legally Blonde soothes the savage stomach. On the way there, she immediately latched onto “Omigod You Guys.” It started with Bruiser barking. She loved barking along with the dog, but after three listens, I could hear her singing along to parts of the song. I skipped ahead to another up-tempo gem, “What You Want,” and because of the repetitive title phrase, even then, she was singing along until she fell asleep.

After the party—a night filled with piglets, goats, a gazillion dogs, and fireworks—we were in the car, ready to head home. She was tired. When she gets tired, she starts to mumble, so I knew she’d be out cold for the ride home. Still, I asked her, “Should we turn on some music?”

She mumbled softly from the backseat, “Bzosmd bdhof “Omigod” dmfn ajdhd.”

And she sang along until she fell asleep. Oh my God, you guys.

the Broadway Mouth
July 23, 2009

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dog Eat Dog: Crappy Backpack with Souvenir Program

I’m a 32 year old straight man. What the heck do I want with a cheap vinyl/plastic/whatever backpack with Legally Blonde: The Musical written on it? Honestly. What am I supposed to do with it? Tell me. I’m at a loss. I was halfway forced into paying $10 for it, so I at least want to know what I can do with it.

Even if I did want a Legally Blonde: The Musical backpack, what the heck would it hold—tissue paper? I think trying to carry two thick books and a cell phone would be too much stress on the “fabric” of this backpack.

I thought it was preposterous when Disney forced you to shell out $20 to buy a Tarzan souvenir program with a paperish Tarzan tote bag. But at least Disney had the class to make the souvenir program something special—extra thick with beautiful studio photographs of the actors. Even if the show wasn’t too hot, the program was at least worth $15 of the $20 you had to pay.

If you were not aware, the latest trend seems to be—on the road at least—to force anyone who wants to buy a souvenir program to pay $20 to get a program (the same ones that were formerly $10) AND a stupid logo backpack. Make that, a stupid and worthless logo backpack.

I always get the programs because I am a Broadway nut and want to remember the experience. I love looking back on my collection of programs from The Music Man, Aida, Les Miserables and remembering the evening I had. At the same time, when you’ve just dished out $80 for a Broadway tour, you have to be conscious of the price of things. I can’t believe that the average Broadway tour attendee who typically buys a program is going to be dedicated enough to pay extra to get the backpack. Face it, of the thousands of people who pack a touring house every stop, how many of them are really going to walk around with a Legally Blonde: The Musical backpack?

If producers really think people want these backpacks, then they should sell them separately for $10. Until that happens, I think we need to acknowledge what they really are—pieces of crap lobbed onto a popular souvenir item to gouge the audience member even more.

Shame on you, producers (namely Legally Blonde: The Musical and A Chorus Line) for gouging your audience members. I hope it bites you in the butt.

the Broadway Mouth
June 30, 2009

Monday, June 22, 2009

Casualty of Love: A Chorus Line

I one time counseled someone in a Broadway chat room not to write off Hello, Dolly! after they had seen a community theatre production of it and thought it was only okay. Hello, Dolly! with Carol Channing was my first big Broadway show (on tour), and I can’t imagine anyone seeing the show for the first time with such talent and not loving it. It’s such an amazing show and a model of musical theatre perfection.

I wouldn’t myself understand the power of community theatre to destroy a perfectly good musical had I not experienced it on a few occasions. The first time I experienced The Music Man was in a so-so production where the director fixed Meredith Willson’s original book by removing “Rock Island.” In this production, Harold Hill was old enough to be Marian Paroo’s father.

When I saw the thrilling 2000 revival of The Music Man starring Craig Bierko and Rebecca Luker, I got the message loud and clear. Any Broadway masterpiece can become a casualty of love in the world of community theatre (which, in my findings, tends to be far weaker than high school theatre).

A Chrous Line is a particularly difficult show to do unprofessionally. You have to have triple threats, and you can’t easily rely on a bunch of clumsy hockey moms to carry you through, like you can with The Pajama Game or Annie. A show that communicates so much with dance simply must have people who can actually dance (not to mention a choreographer up to the challenge of creating impressive steps).

It also doesn’t help that the libretto of A Chorus Line is fragile in areas. I probably wouldn’t have noticed this except I witnessed a community theatre production in which A Chorus Line became a casualty of love. Without skillful directing, the plotless nature of the show becomes a burden on the audience, with the “What will you do when you can’t dance” section collapsing under the weight of its own annexation, feeling more like a Michael Bennett soap box than an extension of the narrative. Furthermore, without careful direction, the conceit of the show gets off to a rough start as actors struggle to make establishing dialogue function as subtext-rich, naturalistic dialogue.

Plus, it doesn’t help when the Cassie really can’t act.

The true test of A Chorus Line came when the Broadway tour came into town. But more on that next time.

After my first trip to Broadway in 2000, I remember sitting in the audience of the Parade tour, talking with a woman who was planning a trip to New York. She was asking me what I liked, and I was telling her about Kiss Me, Kate. “Oh,” she said dismissively, “I’ve seen that.”

Now, I might have the guts to say, “Yes, you’ve seen a production, but I don’t think you’ve really seen Kiss Me, Kate.”

the Broadway Mouth
June 22, 2009

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Broadway Cast Recordings, Soundtracks, or Audio Books?

Before embarking on a three-day drive to California several years ago, a friend said, "And you're bringing some audio books?"


"You don't get audio books?" she said with astonishment. "I always get them when I drive."

Then it occurred to me. In a way, I do listen to audio books. But we don't call them audio books. We call them Original Broadway Cast Recordings (not soundtracks). It works the same. You pop it in, then follow the plot through the songs. Better than an audio book, you don't get tired after one listening because, well, it's music. Music is much more repeatable than a traditional audio book.

This works particularly well with contemporary recordings. Older recordings tend to cut out all dialogue, so you're only getting songs. Contemporary recordings, however, include introductory dialogue as needed to give songs context. There may be a need to read some liner notes to get clarification, but overall, it makes for a very entertaining listen!

Some of my favorite Broadway Audio Books, shows I first discovered on album:

Triumph of Love: I love following the twists and turns on the recording, which is almost the complete show.
Jane Eyre: This is a great score to get lost in, and it's easy to follow the plot on the album.
Dreamgirls (Concert Cast): This is pretty much the whole show in concert.
Marie Christine: I still have vivid memories of the first time I followed this story on disc; it was riveting.
Bernarda Alba: Not exactly an uplifting show, but it makes for an intriguing listen.
Ragtime: So much music is there, you can easily follow what's happening in the plot.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: Because the recordings are two discs, you can easily following all the horrific details of the plot.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: Okay, so I first saw this one on Broadway, but the album is a delightful document of the twists and turns of the plot.

the Broadway Mouth
June 10, 2009

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Legally Blonde: Omigod, That Music! (Part 2)

While I don’t think there is anything revolutionary about how music is used in Legally Blonde, I’ve learned immensely from the show through repeated viewings of the MTV broadcast and the Original Broadway Cast Recording. As mentioned in my last column, there are some perfectly placed songs in the score, courtesy of songwriters Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin (plus, no doubt, bookwriter Heather Hach and director Jerry Mitchell), but it is how several songs inform scenes and sentiments that is also impressive.

Song/Scene Structure
One of my great weaknesses as a librettist is song placement. I’ve been aware of this for years, and the few knowledgeable people who’ve read my libretti have readily pointed this out. Of course, this happens because I don’t have musical collaborators, so my writing team—being me—is sorely lacking in balance.

I’ve been in a position for most of my life to need to teach myself many things, from tying my shoelaces (long story) to using symbols in fiction. I never took a class on writing musicals; I’ve just avidly studied the form for over a decade and learned the hard way. Watching Legally Blonde a number of times now (once on stage, multiple times from the MTV broadcast), has illustrated why writers need access to libretti of well-written Broadway musicals to study. Legally Blonde has provided me with another level of understanding of how music can be used in a musical (not that this will necessarily do me any good until I start working in the same room as collaborators, but still, it’s valuable).

You see many musicals with very effective song/scene structures where a song takes the place of what otherwise would be dialogue (and you see this in Legally Blonde as well). Lilli is left longing for Fred and sings “So in Love” to express it in Kiss Me, Kate. Glinda is torn between trying to earn rank with the Wizard and trying not to betray her friendship with Elphaba, so she masks it with “Thank Goodness” in Wicked. Tracy finally gets Edna out of the house and introduces her to a whole new world in “Welcome to the 60’s” in Hairspray.

There are several songs in Legally Blonde, however, that really highlight other ways of using songs (not that there is anything wrong with using songs in the ways described above—Kiss Me, Kate; Hairspray; and Wicked are all masterpieces).

“What You Want”Lyrically, “What You Want” is pretty straightforward (which is fitting because Elle, at the point, is a pretty straightforward woman). What I love about it, though, is how it encompasses (and compacts) a number of key events—events that need to happen in order for the plot to move forward and to develop Elle as a determined, intelligent, and resourceful flaky chick. The setting spans Elle’s sorority house, a golf course, her room, and Harvard admissions. We are not just told about events happening, but because of the scope of the song, we see it all happening in a compact song (with great choreography). The fact that these are short scenes doesn’t matter; the song connects them into one longer segment that unifies the disjointed nature of her quest.

“Chip On My Shoulder”
Packed with character development and interspersed with important dialogue scenes, “Chip On My Shoulder” is another song that beautifully compacts scenes into a cohesive single number. Look at the span of this song—Emmett mocks Elle after the party, follows her to her room where he goads her into studying, spends large portions of his time over several months to help her, and then Elle actually starts to show promise in class. “Chip On My Shoulder” not only develops the plot, it also establishes Emmett’s character, Emmett’s and Elle’s relationship, and Elle’s friendship with Paulette. This is sixty pages of a novel condensed into one delightful song.

“Take It Like a Man”
As addressed in an earlier column, “Take It Like a Man” is a strong example of a subtext-laden song. Stephen Sondheim has talked about how “Finishing the Hat” in Sunday in the Park with George isn’t about the hat; it’s about the obsessive nature of George’s art (and art in general). “Take It Like a Man” is the populist version of the subtext-laden song. There are funny references to love and subtext in the song, but lyrically, it’s about Elle shopping for Emmett. Under the surface, though, it’s about this beautiful friendship that has blossomed into love. It’s a very romantic and well-written scene.

There are a lot of great moments musically in Legally Blonde, but as an aspiring-to-be-produced librettist, I can’t help but admire the show and its creators for their perfect song placement, their use of songs to compact the storytelling, and for their populist use of subtext in a satisfying way. Plus, it’s just really fun music.

the Broadway Mouth
June 7, 2009

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Legally Blonde: Omigod, That Music! (Part 1)

As I mentioned in a previous column, the Legally Blonde Original Broadway Cast Recording is probably destined to be one of my most-played new Broadway scores. The biggest reason for that is there are tons of really fun songs—“Omigod You Guys,” “Whipped Into Shape,” “Bend and Snap,” and many others. In addition to the infectious music and lyrics, however, there are two other reasons to love this score.

Perfect Placement
First of all, I think it’s important to comment on the perfect placement of songs in Legally Blonde. Songwriters Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin (as well as bookwriter Heather Hach) really use the songs in Legally Blonde to highlight important points, not just to advance the story or to establish character. Yes, songs like “Serious” and “Bend and Snap” are not only well-placed but are also typically placed for musicals. What I’m referring to, however, are songs that establish plot points or character emotions that later have payoff.

For example, how perfect is “The Harvard Variations”? Before Enid is even finished, the audience is thinking, “Holy cow, is Elle out of her league here.” Beforehand, we have an inkling that Elle is going to be in trouble at Harvard, but because of “The Harvard Variations,” we are painfully aware that she is way in over her head, particularly when Aaron, Padamadan, and Enid begin to reprise their verses.

“So Much Better” is perfectly placed as well. In order for “Legally Blonde” to work in Act II, we need to understand how important getting the internship is for Elle. Part of the song is dogging on Warner for undervaluing her, but the overarching idea is that earning her spot in the internship is so much better than having Warner, that she “is so much better than before,” “before” being the Elle that opened the show in “Omigod You Guys” and “Serious.” When Callahan fires her, it stings because being a successful lawyer is her new Warner, because of what is established in “So Much Better.”

“Find My Way” is a simple but very important number. I don’t know if the movie has a moment like it, but it’s important for Elle to have a scene to acknowledge her growth, to complete the journey that started with “What You Want,” changed direction with “So Much Better,” is finalized in “Legally Blonde,” and is resolved in “Find My Way.” This is Elle’s chance to acknowledge her growth, to admit that she was “living in ignorant bliss” but that there is “still so much to learn.” How she states it is also an acknowledgement of her growth—she’s no longer dogging on Warner, verbally spitting in his face. Instead, she admits, essentially, that he was right when he dumped her and that his dumping of her was a time for growth. She has even grown to the point that she declines his proposal with kindness. It’s not just the sentiment that’s important, but it’s also how Elle says it is crucial to her development.

the Broadway Mouth
June 6, 2009

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Legally Blonde: Omigod, That Libretto!

Legally Blonde librettist Heather Hach has an almost annoying history. She was accepted into the Walt Disney Screenwriting Fellowship, parlayed that (courtesy of some sweat and talent, I’m sure) into nabbing the task of writing the Freaky Friday remake (which has the very rare distinction of matching the original movie in charm and humor), and somehow got the drool-worthy task of writing the libretto to a Broadway show.

Talk about stunt casting. Where’s her time at BMI? Her long history of longing to create the next Guys and Dolls? Her years of studying the art form? Her Stephen Sondheim CD collection? Does she even know the difference between Ethel Merman and Ethel Waters?

While I wouldn’t call Legally Blonde the next Hello, Dolly!, I would call it an immensely enjoyable show and a job well done for Hach. And you know what, a few droolers like me can even learn a few things from her work (as well as that of songwriters Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin).

The Romance
Hach herself has acknowledged that she pumped up the romantic quotient of the show. In the movie, Elle and Emmett fall in love perfunctorily. That is, they join together at the end of the movie because, as a romantic comedy, that’s what’s supposed to happen. Here, Emmett is not only a major character, his and Elle’s relationship is developed gradually and believable throughout the story. They do not set out to be in love—Emmett mocks Elle even though he is helping her. Elle drools over Warner, even into “So Much Better.” Yet, by the time they are abandoned in the prison, they have clearly spent much time together and are clearly good friends. They are so close, in fact, that Emmett’s pressuring Elle to give up Brooke’s alibi despite her promise is a sign of his stress. It’s a betrayal of his friendship with her; Elle’s surprise at it is our surprise.

Because of this relationship, “Take It Like a Man” is a truly romantic song. It’s such a beautiful moment (sold so beautifully on tour by Becky Gulsvig and D.B. Bonds). The song references love as a subtext for humor, but the characters are never singing about being in love. In it, Emmett is acknowledging that he is realizing his feelings for Elle; however, Elle’s actions only read love; she never expresses it directly (nor do I think she realizes it).

I love the lines in the song where Emmett says, “It’s just me,” and Elle responds, “That’s the best part / The inside is old / The outside is new / Now it reflects what’s already in you / Couldn’t change that if I wanted to. / And I do not.” It’s touching, and it’s romantic. I hope I someday get to be involved in a show with a moment like “Take It Like a Man.”

The Character Development
The romance in the musical works because of the changes Hach (and probably Laura Bell Bundy and Becky Gulsvig) makes to the character Elle Woods. In the movie, Elle is still pretty clueless by the end. She wins the trial only because of her knowledge about hair care, not because of her skills as a lawyer. The viewer never totally buys into the fact that Elle could have won the trial if the false testimony had been about baseball, reading Jane Austen, or power tools.

Hach, O’Keefe, and Benjamin are careful to create an intelligent Elle from the start. She’s has “a high IQ,” a 4.0 average (not an easy thing in any major, even if it is fashion merchandising), and the scholastic ability to get a 175 on the LSATs. Broadway Elle is just simply focused on Warner, fashion, and partying. Intelligent but focused on ditzy things. It’s not that she can’t read the law book and comprehend; it’s just that she doesn’t get that she’s supposed to.

As she studies and grows from her experiences at Harvard, Elle’s intelligent side takes over. Whereas Movie Elle maintains her ditzy air throughout the movie, Broadway Elle is never really ditzy, just mis-focused. By Act II, you not only believe that an intelligent, hard-working guy like Emmett could fall for Elle Woods but also that she could pull off winning the trial, even if the deciding evidence hadn’t been hair care. In an odd turn of events, Movie Elle is more cartoon-like, and Broadway Elle is more human.

Beauteous Moments
Throughout Legally Blonde, there are some really nice character moments. My favorite is probably the scene in the prison where the legal team is trying to follow Callahan’s instructions to “speak MTV” to get Brooke’s alibi. Each character responds exactly how they should—there’s clueless Emmett trying to pass off “anywho” as a relatable and hip word, Warner and Vivienne trying to reason with her without their brains (or their hearts), and Enid trying way too hard to be cool. Elle, being the intelligent one of the mix, is purposeful in earning Brooke’s trust and nabs the alibi. The ensuing scene, when Emmett tries to pressure Elle into giving up the information, is also beautifully handled, with Elle calling him on the real reason why he wants her to betray Brooke’s trust. It’s one of those moments where you watch and wish, wish you had the chance and the ability to write it.

the Broadway Mouth
June 3, 2009

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Legally Blonde: Reflections on the Tour

Like, prior to seeing the tour of Legally Blonde, my experiences with the show were totally limited to the original movie (which I think I last saw in the theater), seeing “Omigod You Guys” on You Tube from the MTV airing, a portion of “What You Want” that aired on The Today Show, and three songs I allowed myself to listen to off the album (after seeing the tour, I got a copy of the MTV airing).

I was so psyched to see it. There has been, like, so little of anything exciting that has been touring that I hadn’t seen on my last trip to New York, and having heard a few of the songs, I was totally pumped when I got tickets.

And overall, the show was so cool. A few observations:

Observation 1: Dude, Be Careful What You Pare Down
Omigod you guys, the tour totally gets off to a rocky start. As most people know, the tour nixed the Delta Nu house which totally rocked “Omigod You Guys” in the Broadway production. The opening of those doors so totally added energy to create an exciting open number, and because of the MTV airing, like, everyone knows it.

Without that house set, the staging relies on choreography, which—not to be rude—is not the show’s strongest suit. In place of a fun, energetic set piece with clever staging, tour audiences are presented with the sisters signing a card on a table placed on an empty stage (with the sky backdrop), followed by some pretty dopey choreography that looked so completely pulled from a high school stage. Instead of the stairs, which provided some interesting levels on Broadway, Elle’s room door was off to the side of the stage. I can’t help but feel that for the thousands of audience members out there who came to the tour because of the MTV airing, this staging was, like, a major letdown. Letting down your audience is not a strong way to start a show! Wouldn’t it have been, like, so much better to have cut something else?

Interestingly, the staging had some weak moments, though now that I’ve seen the MTV airing, I see that what made those moments weak were the set changes required by the tour and how director Jerry Mitchell handled them. For example, when Elle walks into the party in her bunny costume, I don’t recall the tour having the door set piece, so that Elle walks halfway onto the stage before stopping with the realization that she’s dressed so not cool (or before anyone sees her). Cutting corners when the audience can tell is so not cool.

Similarly, when Callahan kisses Elle, on tour, Vivienne and Warner see it through the door. Because they just show up there in this crammed space, and the following action (Vivienne pushing Warner away but seeing Elle slap Callahan) happens so quickly, it’s just awkward.

Observation 2: Performers are the Best Spectacle of All
Snaps! The performers were totally able to recover fro the weak start. Becky Gulsvig as Elle gives the character a Kristin Chenoweth spin, imbuing her a squeaky voice, and while Laura Bell Bundy injected some pop power, Gulsvig’s voice is more traditional musical theatre. And though she lacks the stage presence/energy to be as dynamic as a Broadway show's star should be, she’s a very good (and cute) Elle. D.B. Bonds as Emmett was so awesome. He has a strong, appealing voice and imbued Emmett with charm. Jeff McLean, another great singer, was totally strong as Warner. Natalie Joy Johnson, who played Enid on Broadway, was total fun as Paulette (and honestly looked like a Paulette should, more than traditional hottie Orfeh), and Ven Daniels was way fun in his multitude of roles, most notably as Kyle.

I was psyched to see Kate Rockwell (one of the finalists on Grease: You’re the One That I Want) as Serena. Ken Land and Gretchen Burghart also deserve a mention because they gave strong performances as Professor Callahan and Enid. The big bummer of the night was that Coleen Sexton (who rocked as Lucy in Jekyll and Hyde on Broadway) was out for the night, and since there was no paper insert, I don’t even know who I saw as Brooke.

Observation 3: That Music
Omigod, the music in Legally Blonde so rocks! I can already tell the OBCR will totally rate up there with Hairspray, Wicked, and The Wedding Singer as one of my most-listened to new scores. It totally balances the fun, pop sound (which is really Broadway masked as pop) with some cool, serious stuff. Duh, it doesn’t get much funner than “Omigod You Guys,” “What You Want,” “Positive,” “Whipped Into Shape,” and those other fun songs, but then there’s those awesome serious songs like “Chip On My Shoulder,” “Take It Like a Man,” and “Legally Blonde.” The title song is so beautifully written—a really moving song so fitting to the characters. Plus, you then get a strong character song like “Blood in the Water,” which, like, so fits Callahan.

And I just have to say, “There! Right There!” was simply one of the funniest things I’ve seen on stage in a long, long time. I was howling with laughter—it was the perfect combination of scene, character, and situation, all with a real world application that made it ten times funnier. Very clever.

Observation 4: The Comparative Experience
I was so surprised, though, because as much as I enjoyed the show, I didn’t leave Legally Blonde pumped like I did after The Wedding Singer on Broadway (though my seats were farther back for Legally Blonde; I think I paid orchestra prices for mezzanine seats), which was such a hilarious, energetic, heart-warming show. Not that both shows didn’t completely deserve to run; I’m just surprised Legally Blonde was a bigger hit.

Best of all, however, was—shut up!—Legally Blonde feels entirely authentic to the stage—there’s nothing about it that feels forced fit to the stage (or even ill-fitted). I left The Wedding Singer and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels feeling like parts of it were a movie on stage, but I didn’t get that with Legally Blonde.

So, while the tour was not, like, a perfect representation of the show, it still totally rocked. I’m so glad I have the MTV airing now so that I can revisit it whenever I want (and to share with others too).

the Broadway Mouth
June 2, 2009

Monday, June 1, 2009

Welcome to Legally Blonde Week!

To kick off Legally Blonde week, I share with you footage from the national tour. Look for more coverage of the show all this week!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

And the Award for Most Amazing Person in New York Goes to . . .

Ken Davenport, producer of Blithe Spirit, Altar Boyz, 13, and a number of other Broadway and Off-Broadway shows.

What makes Davenport amazing? It's not because he held a Broadway blogger social. It's not because he divulges his theatrical heart five days a week in his Producer's Perspective blog. Nor is it because he helped bring a new Jason Robert Brown score to the stage. Though these are all awe-inducing achievements, Davenport is amazing because he has done the daring and unthinkable.

He's accepting play submissions.

Let's take a mome (to quote movie Millie Dillmount) to contemplate this.

In the Broadway/Hollywood industry, people on any level of power carefully erect monumental walls to control the flow of ideas reaching them. In theory, only the best ideas from the smartest people make it over the wall.

In other words, it's who you know. It is not easy to make it over those walls, and only the best of ideas (like Life on a Stick, Brooklyn: The Musical, and Gigli) get through.

What makes this so daring is that there are many, many people like me--aspiring-to-be-produced writers who so passionately want to make it. The problem is, we have an inflated sense of our own talent.

(Potentially Mediocre Talent + Open Access) x Everyone Out There = A Lot of Work

I never fully understood why the barriers were erected until I found myself in a career where I sort through resumes. You get a whole heck of a lot of junk in order to find a useful morsel. Change out a one-page resume and insert a 150-page movie script or a 90-page musical, and someone's assistant is getting overtime.

But the hope is in that phrase--useful morsel. Someone doesn't have to be well-connected to be talented or to have a well-executed idea. Literary agents accept unsolicited query letters all the time, which is how many talented writers get a start in writing fiction and non-fiction. Now, playwrights have the same opportunity.

Just as exciting is the offer you see by scrolling down on the page. For a $49 fee, you can get an analysis of your script. Gasp! That's better than any deal at Wal-Mart.

While this doesn't help me now (no music for my musicals has always been a problem), what hope it brings! Someone needs to submit an amazing idea now so this fluke can become a trend. Remind everyone that you don't need to know the right person to be talented.

the Broadway Mouth
May 27, 2009

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Show Me!: That Bad Boy, Narration

I recently saw Grey Gardens for the first time, and its use of narration (or maybe a better term would be a character addressing the audience) for half the story had me intrigued. Here are some reflections on the choice below:

Narrator: Cody tried everyone he knew. Nobody believed him. He realized that he would have to face his transformation alone. Being alone in your time of need is a terrible feeling, and Cody felt it.

The first play I ever wrote was for my high school creative writing class. In it, I used a narrator to act as glue between the parts of the story, dispensing such nuggets of wisdom as the one above. Yes, it was an intentional line of dialogue, but unnecessary nonetheless. In fact, when I taught creative writing, I saw how easily my students would use narration as crutch in playwriting and finally got to the point where I wouldn’t let them use it.

The use of narration in writing a play is a tricky thing. Sometimes, it’s unavoidable. Stage adaptations of long narratives tend to require narration to condense a 300+ page novel into a two-hour play, though it is a fine line. The first time I learned this was in watching a production of Great Expectations as adapted by Barbara Fields. The production had so much narration that I began to feel like I was having a bedtime story read to me rather than experiencing a compelling production of a great plot. There’s something wrong when the narrator tells you that Pip ran away while you are watching Pip run away.

A great example of the use of narration in a musical is Jane Eyre. In the novel, Jane tells her own story, and she does so in a way that opens up her own emotions to the audience, at times addressing them, such as in the famous, “Reader, I married him” line. The musical adaptation required the narration to help convey the breadth of the storytelling—stretching through Jane’s childhood at Gateshead, her time at Lowood School, her life at Thornfield, her return to Gateshead, her sojourn to Moor House, and her final return to Thornfield. Never is Jane required to spend great lengths addressing the audience, and when there is need for telling of events, the chorus is employed in a way that creates mood and atmosphere, communicating ideas without simply throwing them at the audience.

An example of when narration is superfluous is in the Broadway version of Jekyll and Hyde, where the narration that opens Act I and Act II could be entirely removed without affecting the plot. It was an interesting choice, considering the opening of each act in a musical is considered to be a place to grab the audience’s attention and pull them in, but the use of narration starts things out didn’t work in this case.

In reading the libretto of Big River, the weakness of the show appears to be the extensive use of narration. I’ve never seen Big River in production (a local high school was set to do it, but the school board nixed the idea), but it has entire paragraphs of Huck talking to the audience about what he’s done or is going to do. It reads as if you don’t actually see much happening. Instead, the story is being summarized and the audience is given vignettes to flesh out the most important points. The result is a show with great music holding together a weak book (Though, to be fair, adapting The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the stage would be no easy task. As they say, there but for God, go I . . .)

The danger of narration is resorting to verbalizing a story rather than dramatizing it. One of the writer’s adages is “Show, Don’t Tell.” If the narration acts as a transition into the Show, sometimes it’s needed. But the story is being told to you—particularly when it could easily be shown to you—that’s when it gets to be too much.

the Broadway Mouth
Originally posted May 10, 2008

Saturday, May 16, 2009

An Ode to New York City

Lately I've been having dreams of New York City, reliving the thrill of being in the city of my dreams. My second musical is a ode, of sorts, to the New York I know, the New York of the tourist, the New York depicted below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alas, I didn’t take the job.

Alas, I got another high-profile interview.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love New York, the city of dreams.

the Broadway Mouth
January 12, 2008

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

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

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Casting Quandaries: The Most Difficult Role to Cast

Here we have a 3 for 1 special:

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.

Charlie Brown

As Alice says in Alice in Wonderland:
“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn't be. And what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?”

That about sums up the casting for a couple of musicals. The more apparent one is probably Sally Bowles in Cabaret. She’s not supposed to be a spectacular performer, yet people pay big bucks to see someone who can sing. I believe it was Ken Mendelbaum who identified Susan Egan as the best Sally of the last revival because she was able to perfectly balance those two facets of the character.

Like Annie in “Casting Quandaries I,” there’s another role that’s mysteriously difficult to cast. It’s hard for me to fully comment because I don’t think I’ve seen the definitive production of the show (though I have seen several strong productions). When it comes to Charlie Brown in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the temptation seems to be to take the kid you want to cast because he’s so nice and give him the role. After all, it is good old Chuck; how much stage presence do you need?

I love my Broadway revival cast recording of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown with Anthony Rapp in the title role, a production I never got to see. It’s interesting to hear it because, though the character is . . . well, Charlie Brown . . . Rapp is still giving an endearing, strongly sung, and theatrical performance. He found a way to bring to life a wallflower, a failure, and a self-defeating character without sacrificing stage presence, warmth, and humor.

It seems to me that the best casting of Charlie Brown would be in finding one of your strongest character performers, then casting him in that role. The show is, after all, named for Charlie Brown. He shouldn’t be the least memorable character in the show (just as he was never the least memorable character in the cartoon specials).

The casting of The Sound of Music became infinitely more challenging when Julie Andrews stepped into the role of Maria for the film. It’s interesting to ponder that Mary Martin was cast in the role in the original Broadway production after playing parts like Peter Pan and Annie Oakley. Those aren’t roles you would ever imagine Julie Andrews taking on.

Since the movie, what stage production will ever be able to live down the memory of Julie Andrews in one of the most beloved movies ever made? In the last revival, Rebecca Luker and Laura Benanti were consecutively cast as everyone’s favorite postulant, casting choices that followed the film’s lead (and both are tremendously talented women). But look at the choice—you could never imagine casting either Luker or Benanti as Peter Pan or Annie Oakley.

Casting a movie can be a very different exercise from casting a stage production. Often the integrity of the role is sacrificed for celebrity by casting someone who can’t sing too well, can’t sing the role the way it was written, or is too old for the part. Casting Julie Andrews as Maria was inspired, though it fits a film’s style more than it would probably fit a stage production (particularly in the way that The Sound of Music was reconceived for film). What the film captures in a close-up with Andrews may have been difficult for the stage to have successful communicated. I never saw Mary Martin on stage, but my understanding is that her performances were full of pluck, energy, and charm. I have a feeling her Maria didn’t abandon those traits (and the show was written to play to those strengths as well).

Yet, stage productions of The Sound of Music are always caught chasing after the beauty and charm of Julie Andrews, rather than going for someone with the plucky cow-town charms of a Mary Martin.

It’s interesting to compare this to the casting of Millie Dillmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie. The original Broadway Millie was going to be Erin Dilly, a very talented and versatile actress in the Julie Andrews vein (who played Millie in the original movie), but the show’s creators realized that they needed something different. It seems to me that their final choice—Sutton Foster—has more in common with Mary Martin than she would ever have with Julie Andrews. But then again, the needs of casting for the stage are something altogether different.

So, if I were to cast a stage production of The Sound of Music, I think it would be interesting to expand my horizons in casting Maria. A great role is open to many different interpretations, but I would love to see what a Sutton Foster type would do with the role . . . if I could only escape the movie.

the Broadway Mouth
Originally posted May 3, 2008, May 1, 2008, and April 30, 2008

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Networking: I Hate It. I Need It.

It's been a year since I originally wrote this, and I'm still not great at networking. I'm just now getting the hang of not shutting down when someone wants me to describe a project I'm working on. Some of us are more comfortable at self-promotion then others. We all grow at different stages, right?

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
originally posted April 17, 2008

Thursday, May 7, 2009

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, May 5, 2009

I'll Forget You

I just saw the Legally Blonde tour (more on that when I'm back into the swing of things) and was thrilled to to see three familiar names in the cast--Coleen Sexton (who I knew was the cast, though I ended up seeing her understudy), Natalie Joy Johnson (from the NET Godspell tour, though I saw her understudy in Godspell), and Kate Rockwell. No, I don't forget easily, I guess.

Nancy Opel in Making It On Broadway:

I had a baby and I left the business for two years. I literally had to move away. I knew that if I didn’t, I would stay in this business. The lure is too strong. I was warned by some people, “If you stay away too long, they will forget who you are.”
Damn it, that’s right. They do forget, and I don’t care. I did the right thing for my family. Do I have regrets about the things I may have missed? Not really. A scrapbook isn’t the same as a healthy, well-adjusted child.

It’s interesting to watch the trends in Broadway casting; people do get quickly forgotten. Watch how new people are quickly cast from one show into another. One minute, they are nobody, and the next, they are in the latest hit show. While the people who did that a mere five years ago are nowhere to be seen.

Take, for example, Tyler Maynard, who was able to move from Altar Boyz into The Little Mermaid. Tony Yazbeck got Gypsy after A Chorus Line, just as Mara Davi got The Drowsy Chaperone.

Everyone gets their breaks in their own ways, and I’m thrilled for anyone who can make a go of acting on Broadway because each role in earned with much blood, sweat, and tears. I’m not saying that Maynard, Yabeck, and Davi haven’t earned their roles—I’m not implying that at all.

But, as Nancy Opel mentions, I wonder of the great talents who have been forgotten along the way. It’s so easy to focus on the big talents who have deservedly managed to get from one show to the next because they are wowing us right now, but as we reflect on who we’d love to see in roles, let’s not forget that there’s a truckload of major talents who are, from reports, still in the business. It’s not atypical for people to enter into the profession of starring on Broadway, only to then tire of it, crave the stability of family, or to choose other avenues for their talents. However, just because we don’t see them doesn’t mean they are not out there, trying to get seen.

The hot tickets of not-too-long ago, I can’t just forget them. I choose not to forget them. I don’t know what reason we haven’t seen them on stage, but it wouldn’t be surprising to know that they simply haven’t been able to get seen.

Let’s all take a moment and remember all the fantastic performers from the past fifteen years who are still out there—the Matt Bogarts, Sandra Allens, Chuck Wagners, Maya Days’—pounding the pavement, trying to a nice man like a Ziegfeld or a Weismann to get them into a great, big Broadway show.

I’ll not forget you.

the Broadway Mouth
Originally Posted March 31, 2008

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Ten Minutes Ago

Ten minutes ago I saw you
I looked up when you came through the door
My head started reeling
You gave me the feeling
The room had no ceiling or floor
--Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella

Ten minutes ago she was a secretary. Ten minutes ago she was a wedding singer. Ten minutes ago she was scooping poop. Ten minutes ago he was fired from TCBY. But now, they are Ethel Merman, Idina Menzel, Laura Benanti, and songwriter Jeff Marx.

Never underestimate people of talent and ambition, even if that ambition seems far-fetched or muted by shyness. That man waiting your table before you head off to Cry-Baby really could be a Broadway star next year. That kid promoting his songs on BroadwaySpace could write the next Hairspray. That girl with the funny voice who keeps calling you about attending her reading could write the next Les Miserables.

Sure, there are a lot of folks out there knocking on doors who really aren’t the best dancers, aren’t that great with their monologue, and maybe don’t even write strong lyrics. But, some day, if you open your eyes, you’ll find someone who really is the undiscovered Heather Headley or Marc Shaiman.

Idina Menzel has my favorite story, told in Making It on Broadway. She was a wedding singer, one of the same that gets pushed to the back of the brain because she sings “while people chew.” Worst of all, the bandleader of her band once had the sound guy turn her mic down so his girlfriend would be louder. Some time after that, she starred in Rent, Lippa’s The Wild Party, Aida, Wicked, See What I Wanna See, and now people are paying $20 a pop to buy Enchanted, where she became the Disney princess and $15 to hear her new solo album.

But it’s no Cinderella story. It takes a lot of hard work, a lot of determination, a lot of faith in yourself to become something. But the truth is that Idina Menzel was always Idina Menzel, and starring in Rent didn’t change that. If she had never gotten the Rent gig, she’d have the same voice, the same talents, even if she was an administrative assistant.

So, the quiz of the day is:

1. Who will the people around you become in ten minutes?

A) Someone I will later regret not taking seriously.
B) Someone who’ll invite me to the opening night party.
C) Someone I’ll be glad for keeping in touch with.
D) Someone who could have made me a ton of money.

2. In ten minutes, who will you become?

A) a Broadway performer
B) a Broadway songwriter
C) a Broadway book-writer
D) a Broadway producer
E) a Broadway director
F) a Broadway set-designer
G) a Broadway costumer
H) a Broadway historian
I) all of the above except A and C
J) all of the above except A-F
K) I’m going to Hollywood.

the Broadway Mouth
Originally posted March 27, 2008

Friday, May 1, 2009

Amazing Discovery: Joseph Kramm’s The Shrike

This was such an awesome find that I'm happy to share it again.

It plays out like a modern movie. A man, in a moment of desperation, attempts suicide. After failing, he finds himself in a mental institution with only his estranged wife to comfort him, not to mention to keep his new girlfriend at bay. With his estranged wife bearing sole legal power to free him from the confines of state custody, he grows increasingly agitated at being a sane man in an institution, as his wife begins to peel away all his connections to the outside world.

Over a year ago, I stumbled upon an old Random House copy of Joseph Kramm’s 1952 Pulitzer Prize-winning play in a used book store on a search for rare musical libretti. Not wanting to leave empty-handed, I grabbed The Shrike on a whim, knowing nothing about it. The play was produced and directed by Jose Ferrer, who also starred as Jim Downs, the man whose life hangs in the balance. According to the book Show Time, Ferrer won the Tony for the role and later brought it to the screen in 1955 opposite June Allyson. The play itself ran for 161 performances and also starred Judith Evelyn as his desperate wife and Isabel Bonner as the female psychologist Dr. Barrow whose feminine perspective inadvertently imprisons him longer.

The story begins as a curious depiction of a man facing a life of broken dreams but emerges as a tense observation of a woman desperate to escape loneliness, despite her mutual consent to the condition. By Act Two, it is unclear exactly why Jim is in the hospital—Is he really, indeed, mentally unstable, or is he being driven there by a system that requires him to give up sanity in order to appear sane. In reading, The Shrike becomes a page-turner.

In all my years of bookstore shopping, in all my years of keeping an eye on plays, I’ve never seen The Shrike before. If you’re into reading plays, particularly in search of something of high interest for your theatre group, check out The Shrike.


shrike (noun)— any of numerous predaceous oscine birds of the family Laniidae, having a strong, hooked, and toothed bill, feeding on insects and sometimes on small birds and other animals: the members of certain species impale their prey on thorns or suspend it from the branches of trees to tear it apart more easily, and are said to kill more than is necessary for them to eat. any of numerous predaceous oscine birds of the family Laniidae, having a strong, hooked, and toothed bill, feeding on insects and sometimes on small birds and other animals: the members of certain species impale their prey on thorns or suspend it from the branches of trees to tear it apart more easily, and are said to kill more than is necessary for them to eat.

the Broadway Mouth
March 20, 2008

Monday, April 27, 2009

From the Mouth of Arthur Miller: The Nature of the Adaptation

“I had never thought to make a play of [the real event that formed A View From the Bridge] because it was too complete, there was nothing I could add. And then a time came when its very completeness became appealing.”

That’s what Arthur Miller wrote as an introduction to a published edition of his revised A View From the Bridge, his 1955 play about a man driven to sacrifice his name and honor out of an unspoken love for his niece, a daughter figure in love with a spellbinding illegal immigrant.

I found this an interesting quote because there is a strange hypocrisy at work among stage people, myself included. As writers, we crave to find our own entry into a story, some way to make it personal and workable to us. We don’t just adapt a life story, for example, but we alter it to fit our own interpretation. If this doesn’t happen—this interpretation of the work—we become critical, call the musical “faux,” and walk away lamenting the easy path taken by the show’s creators.

However, when Hollywood takes on a property, we are not so forgiving of any attempts to personalize a work. Most people, it seems, found the new scenes in the recent A Raisin in the Sun to be unobtrusive, but most did not welcome them with open arms. We accepted Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street without ever agreeing to the cuts to Harold Prince’s original version. To me, I never accepted the add-ons Arthur Miller himself gave the film adaptation of The Crucible, insisting that showing the girls in the forest steals from the mystery of the unraveling of the events.

The problem is that most pieces of creative work are personal. They are somehow a reflection on one’s own ideas and worldview. I recently contemplated how a book would adapt to the stage, and I found myself attempting to interpret the story and characters, not only to breathe some life into them for the new dimension but also to find my way into the story, someone else’s story. I was doing exactly what I dislike Hollywood doing. This is not unusual—the few other works I’ve contemplated adapting for the stage were all rooted in my interpretation—but it still makes me a hypocrite of sorts.

Perhaps the criticism for whether an adaptation is a bastardization or a blessing lies in the success of the work. No one ever complains about the alterations made to the movies of The Sound of Music or Hairspray because they work so beautifully. If Hello, Dolly! or Guys and Dolls had been immensely entertaining, I guess no one would mind the changes.

the Broadway Mouth
Originally posted March 14, 2008

Friday, April 24, 2009

You Don’t Really Know This Man (or That One or That One): The Musical as an Entry to the Writers’/Writer’s Psyche

This revival is in honor of Next to Normal's opening on Broadway:

There’s something very personal about The Glass Menagerie. It’s as if Tennessee Williams opened up his soul and gently laid it on the stage. The Great Gatsby is also a very personal work. When you study the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, you can almost see him hiding behind both Gatsby and Nick Carraway, one foot in Nick’s arm-length distance and another in Gatsby’s parties, trying not to want the life that’s there. Most pieces of great literature seem to be that way—Charlotte Bronte’s hopes and ideals in her Jane Eyre, John Steinbeck’s social concerns and love of nature in The Pearl, or August Strindberg’s meditations on truth in The Father.

Compare that intense personal expression with most musicals that have been successful on Broadway. It’s hard to see that kind of personal expression conveyed in, say, Guys and Dolls or Hairspray or even Meredith Willson’s solo opus The Music Man. Perhaps one or two of the Sondheim shows feel that personal and Rent. Rent is unique, however, in that Jonathan Larson had the chops to write the book, the music, and the lyrics, so Rent is largely his own creative expression.

The problem is that musicals are, by nature, a collaborative art form. One hundred percent of Sweet Bird of Youth is Tennessee Williams; there is no lyricist to take over for part of Chance Wayne’s dialogue or a composer needed to help convey Heavenly’s psyche.

It’s also important to remember that musicals are typically adapted from another source, so Flower Drum Song is a derivation of C.Y. Lee’s vision and The Secret Garden brings to life Frances Hodgson Burnett’s unique worldview. Sometimes those works might be filtered through creators’ lenses (such as the fairy tales in Into the Woods) or re-imagined/refocused to become a personal reflection of a creative team (like Annie), but the art form is still largely a group effort.

It’s such a rare occurrence that, when it does occur, you can’t help but sit up and take notice. In listening to Bernarda Alba recently, I was reminded of the singular nature of Michael John LaChiusa’s work, for which he typically writes the book, music, and lyrics. After having CD exposure to four of his works—Hello Again, Marie Christine, The Wild Party (librettist duties shared with George C. Wolfe), and Bernarda Alba—it’s fascinating to study the unique voice that emerges from his work despite their adaptive nature. You could never watch How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and feel like you are getting an entry into Frank Loesser or Abe Burrows’ minds, but in LaChiusa’s work, you begin to see patterns, thoughts, and ideas that give entry to his soul.

If we can ever get to the place where musicals don’t have to be like The Producers or Spring Awakening to hit the cash cow, where audiences and critics welcome personal shows without requiring laughs every three minutes or broad comic caricatures, it would be interesting to see how else music can be used to express emotions.

I find Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creation of In the Heights interesting. In a recent Gothamist interview with John Del Signore, Miranda discusses the origin of his show:

The first song I wrote is called “Never Give Your Heart Away.” It came out of a conversation with a Latino friend of mine. At the time I was in a long term relationship and my friend was sort of your classic player. And he was telling me what his mom told him as a kid: "Never let a woman play you; play them first!" And I remember thinking about what a f--- up life lesson that is. I wrote that song on the subway from West 4th Street, riding back to my home on 200th Street, imagining a mother imparting that lesson to her son. That character ended up becoming Benny.

In an original work, those revelations belong to the creator. In an adaptation, those revelations belong to the creator of the original work, sometimes losing something in the process of interpretation (and sometimes gaining something else). In The Scarlet Pimpernel, for example, Frank Wildhorn and Nan Knighton reinterpreted and refocused Baroness Orczy’s original tale. Whatever motivated Orczy to create the character is reinterpreted for the musical. Sometimes what gets adapted is pop in nature. For example, Elle’s journey in Legally Blonde is an interesting one, but it lacks the level of insight that it might have had had the characters been created by someone on the creative team. Similarly, Arthur’s final dilemma in Camelot is a fascinating one, but it is not one that seems to be a fervent concern of Alan Jay Lerner’s. It’s one that fits the story well.

This is not in any way a negative perspective of these works; it is an observation for the sake of discussion. In my musical comedy, which I would call intensely personal despite its physical humor and fun caricatures, the journey of the main character is strictly at the musical comedy level.

I loved the Alice Ripley interview with Andrew Gans on in which she discusses her off-Broadway musical Next to Normal. In it, he writes:

Ripley plays the mammoth role of Diana, the manic-depressive wife of Dan (Brian d'Arcy James) and mother to Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) and Gabe (Aaron Tveit). After years of a drug-induced existence, where she experiences neither life's highs nor lows, Diana tries to find happiness, at first without the aid of medication and later through more drastic methods. While researching the role, Ripley says, “I did everything that I could. I definitely did a lot of homework, reading up on the subject matter of the show — books and online research. Also, I'm drawing from my mother's side of the family. Diana's story is in me personally. Even though I don't have the same story . . . the bloodline of what she goes through is definitely in my family.”

That sort of depth of character is something the musical hasn’t seen much of; it is something that can’t be nurtured in an adaptation or in an atmosphere where only comedy is welcome.

But it’d be awfully interesting to watch.

Broadway Mouth
February 27, 2008

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Defining a Golden Age

I don’t know if you can actually identify a golden age while you’re in it. It’s one of those phenomena that only become apparent after some distance and reflection.

Yet I have written about (and others have been considering) the possibility of there being another Golden Age for musicals on Broadway, perhaps something akin, if not replicating, the great Golden Age spurned on by the revolutionary Oklahoma! in 1943.

But before the question of a Second Golden Age of musicals can be answered, the term must be defined.

First of all, it’s important to remember that, while a critical element of theatre, a Golden Age is not defined by financial success alone. Financial success is extremely important in the world of Broadway because it is an arena of the arts that is still largely financed by individual investors as a means of earning a profit. Success breeds interest and more success. Historically, great shows that have now been identified as brilliant and ground-breaking are shows that have had a measure of success. No one stands and takes notice of the revolution made by a flop.

However, the definition of a Golden Age must take into account something other than financial success. In terms of financial success, Broadway has never matched the heights of the 1920s, particularly in the 1927-1928 season in which, according to Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon in the book Broadway: The American Musical, an astounding 264 new productions opened. Broadway was tremendously successful in the 1920s; however, the era has never been defined as a Golden Age. The shows of that era are products of their time, and while many of the songs live on, the shows themselves tend to be footnotes to greater shows from the Golden Age or have only survived by falling victim to post-Oklahoma! sensibilities as their books have been reshaped to be palatable to new generations.

Compared to the plethora of quick-closing shows of the 1980s (Rags, Starmites, Wind in the Willows, Smile), Broadway is indeed in “great shape” as Elaine Stritch says in Rick McKay’s Broadway: The Golden Age. We still have our fair share of shows that close in the red (The Civil War, Jane Eyre, Urban Cowboy, High Fidelity, Brooklyn, The Pirate Queen, Sweet Smell of Success, to name a few), but the shows we’ve had with great runs are also very impressive. For original shows, there are fourteen new shows from previous seasons (non-revivals) still running on Broadway, not to include recent closers The Drowsy Chaperone and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

However one may bemoan the state of musicals on Broadway, the reality is that The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a modest show, ran 1136 performances on Broadway, compared to the original Carousel at 890, Damn Yankees at 1019, Guys and Dolls at 1200, and Hello, Dolly! at 2844. Yes, the theatre was smaller, but what’s important is that it was financially feasible for a comparative number of performances (in other words, profit is profit). A few other impressive runs of late: The Color Purple at 910, Hairspray at 2274 and counting, Thoroughly Modern Millie at 903, Avenue Q at 1878 and counting, The Full Monty at 770, and Rent at 5,012 when it closes in June. Other shows with impressive runs include Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Drowsy Chaperone, Tarzan, and The Light in the Piazza.

It is, indeed, an exciting time to love Broadway. While we have few of the big name-recognized stars of the Golden Age (like Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, John Raitt, Gwen Verdon, Alfred Drake, Mary Martin), we do have a growing number of names that are becoming recognizable to the outside world—Audra McDonald, Nathan Lane, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Patrick Wilson, and Anika Noni Rose. Almost as important, we also have a growing number of stars who have been able to make a career on the Broadway stage, people who have managed to parlay one or two successes into reoccurring roles—Sutton Foster, Hunter Foster, Donna Murphy, Marin Mazzie, Rebecca Luker, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Norbert Leo Butz, Karen Ziemba, Christine Ebersole, Kerry Butler, Christopher Sieber, and many others. That’s tremendously exciting.

We are also in a time when Broadway is getting increased visibility. No, it’s not to the same height as the Golden Age, but it’s getting there. Grease: You’re the One That I Want was not a ratings powerhouse for NBC (though enough of a hit to warrant extending the series by an episode or two) and still turned a poorly reviewed production into a hit, not to mention giving several very talented people a leg up on a Broadway career (and more than just Max and Laura). Disney’s High School Musical and the feature film adaptation of Hairspray spotlighted the magic of musical theatre and will surely create an entirely new generation of musical fans; they all already have songs from those movies on their iPods. MTV turned Legally Blonde into a teen favorite (when was the last time anyone outside New York was singing Broadway songs from a new show on such a grand scale?), and not only was it impressively successful when it aired, it has since spawned a reality television search for a woman to star in the tour, which will not only help make the tour a rousing success but will further the cause of Broadway.

Other than Hairspray, we’ve had many other Broadway film adaptations that have sparked the interest of a new generation—Chicago, Rent, The Phantom of the Opera, The Producers, Dreamgirls, and Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Let’s not forget, as well, that not only did Fantasia create a stir on Broadway, but she performed “I’m Here” on American Idol and at Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy party, causing someone from Variety (quoted on Broadway World) to suggest that “Broadway shows could be a great source of material and there are not enough A&R execs mining this increasingly rich territory.”

Even without Fantasia, with LaChanze in the leading role, Oprah helped make The Color Purple a must-see show, generating intense interest by featuring it on her daily talk show. To top this off, there’s Idina Menzel’s new CD and Marissa Jaret Winokur on Dancing With the Stars, two great opportunities to showcase Broadway talent to the rest of the country. That’s all very exciting.

Those are all signs of a healthy theatre season.

However, there is another qualification of a Golden Age, shows must be of a certain quality. The Golden Age is the Golden Age because of Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, The Pajama Game, My Fair Lady, and Fiddler on the Roof. We’ve had many fun shows the past five years with tremendous scores, but I’m not sure how many of them touch the great shows of the past. The greatness is present today; there’s simply something missing in the recipe—perhaps the struggles of adapting films to stage, concepts that are a stretch for a full evening, or a missing element in the creative team.

As I’ve written before, I saw seven shows on my last trip to New York in August of 2006, and the only one in the league above was Hairspray. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy myself very much, it’s simply that the shows didn’t leave me with that tremendous impact (as compared to, say, the trips I took in which I saw The Music Man, Follies, or Kiss Me, Kate). I think we’re on the way to getting there; our creators are building their muscles.

In looking over the selected chronology in the book Broadway: The American Musical, it’s interesting to note when shows opened. It varies from year to year, but during the Golden Age, two or three superb (or beloved/remembered) musicals would open in a year—in 1960-1961 there was Camelot, Do Re Mi, and Carnival!; in 1961-1962 there was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; in 1962-1963 there was Oliver! and She Loves Me; and in 1963-1964 there was Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl. In 1997-1998, we had Side Show, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Lion King, and Ragtime. It seems to me that those shows all make for a more interesting season than most recent years.

A third key component for a Golden Age is the road. We are no longer in a time when a young Elaine Stritch could take Call Me Madam on the road (or when road audiences would know Mary Martin and John Raitt on tour in Annie Get Your Gun). Look at how Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (one of those fun shows with a tremendous score from my last Broadway trip) struggled on the road with Norbert Leo Butz as the lead. As a person who thrives on road companies, the past five years have been pretty pathetic in terms of Broadway tours. The road never got the revivals of Gypsy, Wonderful Town, or Man of La Mancha. With non-Equity actors (and the related changes to staging and choreography), we got sacked with Oklahoma!, The Music Man, and The Wedding Singer. Many of the shows that tour from Broadway now are the shows with name or music recognition (Saturday Night Fever, All Shook Up), changes from Broadway (Seussical and Sweet Charity), and small casts that can keep costs low (Little Women and Brooklyn). Part of a Golden Age is when the energy and excitement from New York spills over into other parts of the country.

This is not to be doomsdaying, however, because there is much to be excited about in the theatre—In the Heights is giving us the first Broadway musical incorporating hip-hop, not to mention that shows like Rent and Spring Awakening are able to thrive alongside Hairspray and Curtains (a show whose staying power is very Golden Age-like). There are so many very talented people performing and auditioning, and there are folks like Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, David Yazbek, Stephen Schwartz, and Jason Robert Brown writing new music for Broadway.

Yes, I still say we are on the verge of something great.

But then . . . I don’t know if you can actually identify a golden age while you’re in it. It’s one of those phenomena that only become apparent after some distance and reflection.

the Broadway Mouth
Originally Published February 23, 2008