Thursday, January 29, 2009

Luba Mason in Chicago

Here's a little clip I thought some would find interesting in light of the two AUTOGRAPHED Luba Mason Krazy Love CDs I'm giving away (courtesy of Miles High Productions).

Krazy Love dropped January 27, 2009, and it is a departure for Mason’s Broadway fans as she explores a Brazilian-tinged jazz side to her talents in an album that is largely of her own writing.

How to Enter
No need to sign up for any annoying newsletters or to create some stupid password you’ll never remember. To win one of two autographed copies of Luba Mason’s Krazy Love CD, just write a paragraph telling me about your favorite Broadway memory.

I’ve often written on here about my favorite Broadway (or Broadway tour) memories—seeing Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! or almost crying during “It’s Your Wedding Day” in The Wedding Singer. Tell me what your favorite experience was and then explain how that show, performance, song, or whatever affected you in a paragraph.

The two winning entries will be edited for content and clarity and posted next week. Enter by Friday, January 30, 2009, by emailing me at Send me your paragraph and your first name, and if you are a winner, I will email you on Monday to get your address for mailing you your autographed Krazy Love CD. Then, look for my review of the CD early next week.

the Broadway Mouth
January 29, 2009

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Broadway as an Educational Tool 2: Jason Robert Brown's "Stars and the Moon" . . . in Kiddie Jail

There are some things you only do for money. Prostitution and teaching in a juvenile detention center are high on the list. I think dressing in that spider costume from Tarzan might be on there somewhere as well (but no judgments). Selling drugs is high on that list too, I think, and if you're under eighteen, it comes with no 401K but a great free meal plan in a juvenile detention center.

Let me start at the beginning. I first encountered Jason Robert Brown's song "Stars and the Moon" on Audra McDonald's first solo CD, Way Back to Paradise. In fact, hearing his work on that album was one of the main reasons I made it to Parade on tour (that and seeing the performance on the Tony Awards).

"Stars and the Moon" is a song about a woman who wants to marry for money. On the road of life, she encounters men who offer her excitement, romance, and adventure, but they don't have what she really wants in life. Finally, she accepts the proposal of a rich man who provides her with a life of the rich and indulgent. By the end of the song, however, she looks back on her life of wealth and security and realizes all the things she's missed out on. It's a beautiful and moving song, starting with a soothing and memorable piano intro, and topped, of course, by McDonald's stunning voice and interpretation.

I first taught "Stars and the Moon" to low-ability sophomores my first two years of teaching. In that class, I was always trying new works to pull the kids in. Some things were effective--Sherman Alexie, short plays, short stories dealing with gangs--some things were not--Maya Angelou, anything in the literature book, anything long. When I first selected it, my principal was coming to observe me, and I wanted something good. "Stars and the Moon" was just the thing.

I began by having my kids draw pictures of what they wanted their life to look like in fifteen years (it was always the big car, the big house, all the money), and then we'd share. When we got to the song, which I'd always play for them as they read along, we discussed the different sections of the song--looking at what each of the men are offering (i.e. what is "the open road" representing, what is meant by the stars and the moon). Then we discussed the ending, exploring how she could be unhappy after getting exactly what she wanted. After that, we evaluated the message of the song and kids shared ideas about what is of more value, the stars and the moon or champagne.

Okay, so I'm not exactly doing justice to the lesson here, but it may help to know that my principal was very impressed with the selection, and essentially for the same reason I was, because it would speak to the kids at their level without talking down to them. There was some new vocabulary in the song, but it wasn't so far beyond them that they couldn't comprehend it. And it was high interest. Best of all, the kids really liked the song and enjoyed getting to share their ideas about the concepts in it.

"Stars and the Moon" has come in handy at all the schools I've taught at. When I taught a discussion class, I used it as a basis for the kids to enter into a discussion (and my singers were all writing down the name of the song and songwriter for later use). When I taught middle school, I used it in a unit with Our Town as a pre-read activity to get the kids thinking about what in life is of value. I also used it once in an eleventh grade unit on The Great Gatsby as a related work. The Great Gatsby is about the American Dream, and "Stars and the Moon" ties in so beautifully with that concept.

The most interesting response to the song, however, was when I taught summer school at a juvenile detention center. Talk about a horrible place to teach. The first day on the job was a training on self-defense techniques--what to do if a knife is held up to your back, what to do if a student has you by your hair, that sort of thing. We learned the different emergency codes to use (one was if you needed a student removed from your classroom, the other if you needed emergency assistance from about everyone in the building--I used that one once).

I'm an idealist, and as much as teaching wore me out more than inspired me, I really worked hard for my kids. I always put in 110% and really longed to inspire and motivate my students to become more than what they imagined they could be (I am, at heart, a nurturer).

But let me tell you, it was hard there. As everyone young and naive (or is that stupid?--I was 30) thinks, I really felt like I had the chance to change their lives. But as the days wore on, I realized the chances of that happening were slim to none. Dean (not his real name), for example, started out really eager to do work, to read, to engage in conversation, but then two days later, he was belligerent and rude and remained that way the whole five weeks. Mitch informed me that when he got out he'd go back to dealing drugs because that was the easiest thing to do and the whole time refused to do any work, to focus, or to even be pleasant. Little John was in for spray-painting a police car (he was about fourteen), and though he wanted acceptance more than anything, he could not earn anything but scorn from the older kids. He would certainly never do anything as un-cool as be respectful or do work.

And it wasn't a question of me being nice. I was so nice to those kids and did everything I knew how to do to bond with and engage them, but for the most part, it just didn't work.

When I wound up with about forty-five minutes at the end of the day with no district-endorsed curriculum (though I quickly learned the district-endorsed curriculum was worthless for these particular students anyway), I decided to round up some songs to teach. I wanted to find songs that had some literary depth to them but would speak to something about their situation in life--give them hope, give them motivation, inspire them.

I don't remember all the songs I used, but the one that the kids liked best was undoubtedly "Stars and the Moon." Here's a room with eight or so really tough kids, most of them people of color, and I'm playing for them a song performed by operatic Audra McDonald. And they liked it!

There was one kid, Jimmy, who would close his eyes and move his head to the music, playing an imaginary piano. He was trying to get a response from the other kids, but at the same time, I could tell he was connected with the music. After discussing it, he said, "That was a good song." And he wanted me to play it again.

At the end of the summer, five weeks after I had originally played "Stars and the Moon," we discussed our final song, and Jimmy asked me to play "that one with the piano." There were some new kids in the class now (there was a constant rotation of kids in and out of the detention center), and he wanted them to hear it too.

When I gave up the district-endorsed curriculum, I replaced it with high-interest articles from People and Ebony. Like the songs, I tried to find articles that gave them hope--stories about people rising out of poverty, using their time in prison to develop their talents, that sort of thing. A number of times, after reading the articles or the songs, one of the kids would say, "Are you trying to tell us something?" or "Did you pick this just for us?" I'd always answer, "No, I just thought it was interesting."

They always believed me. I don't know if that's a good thing. Yet, I still hope that one of those kids remembers something from that summer, maybe even that sacrificing your freedom and joy to make quick, easy money won't bring true contentment.

I don't know if any will, but I will always hope.

the Broadway Mouth
January 28, 2009

Note: Don't forget to enter the giveaway for one of two autographed Luba Mason Krazy Love CDs. For info, see below!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Autographed Luba Mason Krazy Love CD Giveaway!

For those of you familiar with Luba Mason through her work as Heddy LaRue from the 1995 Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (appearing on the cast album), Mason’s latest CD—Krazy Love—will seem quite the departure. As Heddy LaRue, Mason was the cure for the common secretary, the empty-headed sexpot who had her claws in boss J.B. Biggley and almost ruined things between Matthew Broderick’s J. Pierrepont Finch and Megan Mullally’s Rosemary Pilkington. Her tracks on the OBCR are in a rich, squeaky character voice.

Mason’s Broadway credits, however, show her depth as a singer and actor. Her debut had been in The Will Roger Follies, which was followed by Sunset Boulevard. After H2S, she appeared opposite Marc Anthony and Ruben Blades (who is now her husband) in Paul Simon’s controversial The Capeman, then as the big-voiced Lucy in Jekyll and Hyde. As if jumping from dancing, character, and singing parts wasn’t enough, Mason’s last appearance on Broadway was as triple-threat Velma Kelly in the popular revival of Chicago.

Krazy Love drops January 27, 2009, and it is a departure for Mason’s Broadway fans as she explores a Brazilian-tinged jazz side to her talents in an album that is largely of her own writing. Soon, I’ll be reviewing Mason’s latest work, but until then, you, dear reader, have a chance to win one of two autographed Krazy Love CDs courtesy of Miles High Productions.

How to Enter
No need to sign up for any annoying newsletters or to create some stupid password you’ll never remember. To win one of two autographed copies of Luba Mason’s Krazy Love CD, just write a paragraph telling me about your favorite Broadway memory.

I’ve often written on here about my favorite Broadway (or Broadway tour) memories—seeing Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! or almost crying during “It’s Your Wedding Day” in The Wedding Singer. Tell me what your favorite experience was and then explain how that show, performance, song, or whatever affected you in a paragraph.

The two winning entries will be edited for content and clarity and posted next week. Enter by Friday, January 30, 2009, by emailing me at Send me your paragraph and your first name, and if you are a winner, I will email you on Monday to get your address for mailing you your autographed Krazy Love CD. Then, look for my review of the CD early next week.

the Broadway Mouth
January 26, 2009

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Broadway as an Educational Tool 1: Elaine Stritch and The Glass Castle

One of my assistant principals (from my teaching days) always managed to observe me on a day when I was showing my students a video clip. It got to the point where we would laugh about it in my post-observation meeting. I was never big on showing entire movies (of course I usually did it once a year in most classes, incorporating it into an actual unit and making it a valuable learning activity), but I’d often show short clips and scenes to illustrate a point.

I never used Broadway clips to indoctrinate my students (though it sometimes resulted in that); I used them because when you are up until midnight trying to figure out the best way of illustrating something, you grasp on to what you know well and what will be the most effective manner of communicating the idea. As my assistant principal agreed, showing five-minute clips was much more effective than showing entire movies. I also think the Broadway clips I showed were important because it exposed the kids to art, something they wouldn’t otherwise see. I always felt like I was expanding their minds in one tiny way or another.

Elaine Stritch At Liberty came in handy when I was teaching Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle, her memoir of growing up in a crazy household where her parents moved constantly and required parenting themselves, often leaving their children without food, without heat in winter, without even proper garbage removal. Life begins for the Walls children as an exciting adventure as their father moves them around the country in hopes of striking it rich and inventing great things. As his dreams crumble, and he is faced with the reality of the life he has created for his children and that it is vastly different from the dreams he had, he begins to medicate with alcohol, which causes things to deteriorate even more rapidly for the children.

One of the greatest pains I experienced as a teacher was knowing that my students would spend their weekends drinking and drugging themselves up and not being able to do a single thing about it. It’s particularly troubling when you read the statistics on teen drinking and how it relates to alcohol addiction later in life. I don’t know the statistics now, but the relationship between teen drinking and adult alcoholism is astounding. In my first years of teaching, I thought if I shared with them the moderation with which I lived my life that they would see they didn’t need reckless behavior to enjoy their time on this earth. Well, that backfired quickly, and I never knew really how else to address this effectively.

I also wanted to delve into the psychology of the characters in The Glass Castle (these were eleventh graders in a class for students with low ability/achievement) without it turning into me preaching. My objective was to help them process and interpret the characters in the story while also helping them to understand the steps of addiction.

I popped in At Liberty and began by showing them the scene when Stritch has her first drink. It’s a funny memory, and the kids laughed (one said, “She’s crazy”). I have a feeling a number of them could relate to the “fun” of first getting drunk. I then showed the scene in which she’s performing in California and is forbidden from drinking backstage, to which she forges congratulatory notes on bottles of booze with rigged corks to mask the sound of opening the bottle. Again, it’s a very funny story, but Stritch hints at why she was depending on alcohol, and it begins to become apparent that this is more than a choice. I ended with the wrap party in which she starts out with one drink, and then argues with herself about having another, then another, until she almost kills herself because she lacks the control she perceives herself to be exerting. I then fast-forwarded to the part at the end of the show when she says she’s had a great life and almost missed it all.

Yeah, it was an old woman singing, and I did have to explain that she was wearing dancer’s tights and wasn’t walking around in her underwear, but it helped us enter into a discussion of the dad in The Glass Castle. It helped us engage in a discussion on the power of addictive substances, how people come to depend on them, and we looked at why both Stritch and Rex Walls came to be alcoholics. The discussion wasn’t forced, it wasn’t me preaching; it was a discussion.

I ended the unit by showing the Sherman Alexie-penned Smoke Signals, which allowed us to discuss (less vibrantly) the effect of parents and how a person’s intentions aren’t always the same as their actions. It was a good unit, and the best part was that Elaine Stritch helped me cover the topic I was least-skilled at covering. Stritchy rocks.

the Broadway Mouth
January 22, 2009

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Make ‘Em Laugh

I am a huge fan of the Michael Kantor documentary that aired on PBS (and is now on DVD) Broadway: The American Musical. Kantor’s latest work is Make ‘Em Laugh, about the history of comedy in America, and it is currently making the rounds on PBS stations across the country. I just happened to catch the tail-end of one of the sections, and just like the Broadway documentary, I’m finding this one fascinating. I’m looking forward to getting to see the entire series on DVD (PBS has horrible reception in my area, and I don’t have cable).

I’m still not confident of what (if any) strengths I have as a writer of musicals, but I think my experience of growing up watching way too much television has actually helped. As a writer of scripts and plays, I can’t believe how fortunate I was to grow up watching I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Diff’rent Strokes, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Patty Duke Show, Father Knows Best, The Facts of Life, and The Andy Griffith Show (among many others). These are hilarious, brilliantly written comedies, and I actually got to grow up experiencing them.

When I was teaching acting, I realized that as a play director, I could direct a kid to be funny (which I did, quite successfully) but I could not teach him to be funny. When I had to revise my curriculum to fit state standards (the ones my state spent millions upon millions to implement before repealing them just a few years later—only one of the reasons congress needs to allow teachers to do the teaching), I decided to break down my units into different kinds of acting—a comedy scene, a dramatic scene, or something along those lines.

And I realized you can’t teach kids to be funny. As any writer or actor knows, the comedy of any given scene is dependent on at least two things, the rhythm of the comedy line (which includes wording, phrasing, situation, set-up, and character development) and execution. You can have a very funny play destroyed by a bad director or an inexperienced actor (think of a high school production you may have seen), and you can have a very funny actor bogged down by weak material (think Elaine Stritch in the movie Monster-in-Law or a very hard-working Chestor Gregory II in Tarzan on Broadway).

To remedy this, I tried showing them classic comedy bits and analyzing them. Yeah, it didn’t work so well (Who ever heard of anyone not laughing at a classic I Love Lucy scene? I did, when I showed them to my high school students that year.).

The ability to analyze is the key to anything challenging you may want to undertake. Kids who become billionaires from creating computers started out by taking them apart, reassembling them, trying to create something new. Those well-paid mechanics who forgot to put the oil cap back on my car learned to fix things by tinkering around with engines at a young age. I learned about writing and storytelling by experiencing it at a young age AND analyzing it. Just as a mechanic learns his way around an engine by getting in there and taking it apart, a writer learns by getting into stories and taking them apart to see how they work and why (or why not). It’s the same set of skills as a mechanic; it’s just less provable on a resume.

I’ve said this before, but I feel sorry for kids today who focus on the newer, not-so-funny sitcoms like Yes, Dear; According to Jim; The George Lopez Show; or That 70s Show. There’s a wealth of styles of comedy they are missing out on entirely because they don’t get the older stuff. I didn’t have seventy-five channels to choose from, so when Green Acres was on, it was either that or Taxi or The Munsters. How will the comedy writers of tomorrow learn what they need to know if they’re only learning from today?

If you’re a writer and aspire to write for Broadway, then run out and buy Broadway: The American Musical, and when you’re done with that, you could probably gain something by checking out Make ‘Em Laugh as well. After all, the ability to analyze is a key step in writing.

the Broadway Mouth
January 20, 2009

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Effects of Gamma Playwriting Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Fiction Marigolds

The longer you teach English, the worse your grammar gets. You get so used to kids writing suceed instead of succeed, using random commas, or using colons incorrectly, you forget the way it's supposed to go. Just as reading helps improve kids' spelling and punctuation, reading kids' spelling and punctuation helps un-educate educators.

Apparently the same thing happens when you write plays.

I've been writing so much drama in one form or another for the past nine years, I've almost lost all eloquence in my fiction writing. Even before my playwriting journey began, I could never aspire to the prose heights of my favorite writers--Mary Stewart with her lyric use of words, Jane Austen with her fancy British tone, or Amy Tan with her Amy Tan-ish style--but two music-less musical libretti, four sitcom episodes, five or six other minor plays, two television drama episodes, a half-completed movie script adapted from a beloved novel, and countless skits later, I've lost the little I had.

My friends who have read my fiction tell me that how I write is fine and that they don't see anything wrong with it, but I know what I'd really like to do with what I say. Yet, no matter my intentions, when I sit down to revise my second novel (the one I actually think has a hope of getting published), I can't help but feel like I use the same fifty words over and over. It's almost as if I just want to get to the point, like stage directions and dialogue. I don't want to wow anyone with rich, exciting, original metaphors or vivid, lyrical descriptions of trees; I want my (non-existent) readers to know that Grant saw Sam, the boy looked away, and Clark said something. Grant didn't gaze, ponder, take in, peruse, observe, consider, or wonder at his similar features. He saw Sam, enough said.

It's not that I don't try to write my fiction with great eloquence and beauty; it's simply that when I say what I have to say, it doesn't come out pretty. It's basic. Perhaps someday I'll be admired for my style. Critics will rave about my direct, minimalist style as if every word was carefully selected for its most basic synonym, weighed out like single grains of rice on a scale. My work will be seen as a breath of fresh air after the bloated, pompous works of late (though I don't know when "of late" will be).

Oh but wait, maybe someone else will have published a book just as basic as mine, only first. Then my book will be seen as a cheap knock-off, the generic version of that other writer's work (the jerk) who found a publisher before I did. Critics will read my book and think (in a derogatory tone), "Another one like this?!?"

Hmmm, there seems to be a lot more to this creating thing that just creating. It's also all about timing and attitude, what people are tired of and what trends have passed their prime.

Well, I guess that part is out of my hands. Maybe like my two music-less musicals, my novel will be in the wrong genre for the moment, passé because someone beat me to it, or will just manage to hit the bookstores AFTER the crest of a wave that started while I was looking over the galleys.

Still, I'm going to keep revising. I'm an aspiring-to-be-produced librettist with no musical collaborators. I think revising a novel I wrote some five years ago is as good as any other project to focus on. And maybe it will open doors. Could you imagine if Nicholas Sparks, John Grisham, or Amy Tan wanted to write a Broadway musical? Yeah, skip the overture and go directly to the eleven o'clock number, that's what would happen.

the Broadway Mouth
January 18, 2009

Friday, January 16, 2009

Izzy’s First Musical: High School Musical 3 (Part 2, My Response)

I kid you not, for my thirty-first birthday last year, my dad paid extra to get me a High School Musical cake. It had lots of festive red frosting and a circular red High School Musical CD holder with the image on it of the six lead cast members jumping in the air (FYI, the cheap thing can’t actually hold CDs). I had never seen High School Musical (I don’t have cable or tweens), but if my dad picked that out for his musical-loving son, I figured it was time I get down to business.

I got High School Musical and High School Musical 2 from the library.

High School Musical is what it is. It’s a Grease rip-off that celebrates musicals and wholesomeness with little that is clever or original. It has some energetic dance numbers staged in the classic “imaginary audience” fashion of the 1930s and 1940s with cast members that display a wide range of musical abilities from impressive (Lucas Grabeel, who looks like he could pass for Cheyenne Jackson’s younger brother) to not so impressive (Vanessa Hudgens). At the same time, it’s not hard to see why kids (and a few adults) have eaten it up (though, as a middle school director I know pointed out, no one seems to question why the siblings are trying to get the romantic leads in the school play).

High School Musical 2 is a change in two ways. The music and choreography take a big step up with moves that are more energetic, complicated, and overall impressive, a variety of the numbers requiring more complicated moves. While the acting is still overall Nickelodeon-annoying, the same cast members seem to excel—Lucas Grabeel and Monique Coleman still being tops. Directed by Kenny Ortega, High School Musical 2 even has a fun homage to Esther Williams during Sharpay’s clever “Fabulous” number. Storywise, however, the movie falters. The original film’s story was nothing special, but at least it kept moving in a forward motion. Here, the plot begins is stagnate midway through and never really picks up steam.

For what it’s worth High School Musical 3 is a big step down from the other two films in both story and music. In plotting, there is very little happening, and the story almost entirely lacks forward motion. Instead of a strong central conflict that moves to a climax, the movie consists of loosely connected events that don’t really add up to anything. The plot seems a mish-mash of ideas, which may explain the void of logic in the series of events.

Oddly enough, the High School Musical series is more realistic than many other high school movies because of its desire to unite students rather than capitalize on perceived cliques and group stereotypes. For example, the overweight cheerleaders who are not bearing abs are pretty much a dead-on portrayal of every high school sports game I’ve been to. That said, any semblance of reality disappears in the structure of putting on a high school play. Characters drop in and out of the show at will, understudies are assigned for some characters and not for others, the understudies are deemed as important but never are rehearsed, and dedicated theatre students like Troy don’t even bother to show up for opening night. One major plot point involves a student missing out on the end of senior year to head off to a college camp, which, of course, is ludicrous. It’s as if the writers knew they were creating something intended for kids and didn’t bother to revise anything.

Musically, the show opens very weak. Instead of having a strong opening number (like “What Time Is It” from 2), the first song is garbled in a basketball game, unclearly staged and the lyrics muddled by the action. There’s a nice dance number for Troy and Gabrielle, and there’s some clever ideas in the junkyard number “The Boys are Back,” but it does nothing to rival the energy and staging of 2. Just as Ortega hearkened back to Esther Williams in 2, here he calls back to Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding (Ortega is too big a fan of old musicals for it to have come from Lionel Richie or NSync) in a stunning number feature Zac Efron. The number that really makes its mark, however, is the final number “High School Musical,” the only song to revival the hits from the past two movies.

What all this means is that I was bored out of my mind during High School Musical 3, simply because there was no forward motion in the plot and the numbers rarely dazzled in the way they did in High School Musical 2. I love getting to see any big screen musical packed with dancing and fun, but I only wish I didn’t spend so much of the movie wanting to leave.

That said, Izzy enjoyed it. As bored as I was, watching her dance along with Troy and Chad in the junkyard made it all worth the while. And that’s why I love the High School Musical series. Plot, intelligence, and music quality all seem so unimportant when what is there is creating a huge new audience for film and stage musicals at a level they understand.

the Broadway Mouth
January 16, 2009

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Izzy’s First Musical: High School Musical 3 (Part 1, Her Response)

I’m not an expert in brain development, but I taught long enough that I’ve acquired some basic knowledge of how the brain grows. In short, young brains are infinitely malleable, and children soak up everything to which they are exposed, which is why children learn second languages much easier when they are 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 than when they are 12 or 13. At very young ages, children’s minds are forming based upon what they need to know, and as they are exposed to new learning and new experiences, their brain forms new pathways to accommodate the learning, enabling them to take on more skills and knowledge. It’s a use it or lose it sort of thing.

Anyone who has been around young children knows what sponges they are. My niece (whom I will call Izzy for the sake of this column), as young at sixteen months, was intentional in how she copied things her mother would do. By twenty-seven months or so, she was copying phrases from her mother, wanted to wash dishes like her mother, make dinner like her mother, and so on. It’s like the television commercials tell us, children learn from the adults around them—be it how to discriminate, how to cope with sadness, how to handle anger, how to be in relationships, how to forgive, how to laugh, even how to walk and talk.

At some point, the brain slows down in the process of forming new pathways, and as the child ages, the ability to develop in some areas of the brain decreases (which explains why learning a new language at 13 is much harder than at 5). By the time we reach our late 20s, our brain begins to shed cells that we don’t use.

Bear with me, this is getting to musicals.

I am one of the most horribly uncoordinated people you will ever meet. As a teenager (when my athletic brother would delight in reminding me of this), I always thought it was just the way I was born—I was born to be the reader/writer/thinker of the family. But now that I know what I do about brain development, I realize that the athletic, coordinated, kinesthetic part of my brain never had a chance to develop. Whereas my brother somehow managed to get into sports (my parents weren’t so much “guiders” as they were “let the chips fall where they may” types when it came to fostering talents and skills, which is not a complaint or judgment but an observation on my part), my early memories are of my mom reading to me and of me taking delight in Disney book and tape sets. When you spend a lot of your time playing with Duplo blocks, green army men, and playing inactive games with your friends, you don’t develop a lot of physical coordination or skill.

This is exactly why I want Izzy to have a variety of exciting and interesting experiences even though she is only three. This is why I tried taking her to an art museum at two-and-a-half (we saw about two paintings before she was asking to go), to the zoo, and so on. I want her mind to be engaged and intrigued by new experiences from a very early age.

I have long been wanting to take Izzy to a musical, but obviously, at three, she still has a good four or five years before she’s ready for that. My favorite thing would be to take her to a final dress rehearsal of a high school musical so that she can experience the singing and dancing from a young, malleable age without the worry that she will interrupt the people around her. Not knowing any high school choreographers or directors well, this hasn’t happened.

That isn’t to say she hasn’t experienced movie musicals before. She loves Hairsrpay (when she was two and a few months, she would sing along to the “Oh oh oh”s in “Good Morning Baltimore”), The Little Mermaid, and Enchanted, and thanks to me, she’s been around as Dreamgirls has played (as well as a bevy of Disney animated musicals). But there’s something about live theatre that is more powerful. And if live theatre can’t be found, a musical on the big screen is an acceptable Plan B.

The perfect solution, then, was High School Musical 3 at the discount theater, where she could sit in the back and be easily removed if she caused a stir without great loss of money.

The narrative of the story didn’t particularly hold her attention. It didn’t take long before she got antsy, but let me tell you, she loved the musical numbers. This child has been dancing around since she learned to walk, and no matter how distracted she was during the dialogue, she was glued during the musical numbers. There’s a scene in the movie where Troy and Chad dance in a junkyard, and she was on her feet shaking her booty during the whole thing.

Yep, High School Musical 3 did the trick.

Obviously, I love musicals, and I want Izzy to love them to. It’s the same reason why my brother bought her ice skates and took her to a hockey game. Not yet having children of my own, I need to pass my love for musicals on to my niece. In a perfect world, I would have money to enroll her in a dance class and all that, but to me, this was really more about exposing her to the arts, allowing new pathways to form in her brain, to see exciting things in the world and to allow her to ponder them.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Take a kid to a musical or a play. It doesn’t even have to be Broadway (though, obviously, a splashy Broadway show or tour excites like nothing else possibly can). Once they are a theatergoing age, the younger you can get them there, the more a love of the art will develop. Kids need to see great theatre that excites them and fosters within them a lifelong pattern of supporting the arts. Form new pathways while you still can.

I have a pseudo nephew. When he was young, I always wanted to take him out places and show him a world he wasn’t getting at home, but I allowed my misperceptions (about over-stepping my boundaries with his mother’s live-in boyfriend—one experience of two that has caused me to see live-in relationships as an effective way to permanently damage children but that’s for another blog site) to hold me back. When I finally found the courage to overcome that, I treated him to the Broadway tour of Urinetown (complete with the cast recording, a souvenir program, and a fancy dinner), and it was a magical night. We still talk about that show, and whenever I can, I still take him to theatre (to date Thoroughly Modern Millie, On the Record, Brooklyn, a high school production of The Pajama Game, and a regional production of Altar Boyz).

I don’t know what will be touring when she gets to be of age to sit through a Broadway show without interrupting the people around her, but thinking of my beloved Izzy, I can’t help but be thankful for Wicked. Perhaps something else will come along, but if not, I would be thrilled with Wicked as Izzy’s First Broadway Musical.

the Broadway Mouth
January 14, 2009

Monday, January 12, 2009

White Christmas in January: Reflections on Movie Musicals and Movie Musicals on Stage

I’ve admitted worse on here before, including that I once entered Barnes and Noble with the intention of getting the OBCR of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion and walked out with Bombay Dreams instead. But this time I’m admitting I’ve never seen the movie White Christmas. It’s not that I haven’t intended to, but December is always so busy. I do sometimes see a copy of it at the library, but June 18 is such a bad time to check out White Christmas.

I did see a portion of the movie on television once a number of years ago and remember thinking that I needed to rent it. I liked it. But that’s not a surprise because I usually enjoy musical movies from that era. Not only do they have charming storytelling, if not the most engaging integration of songs into the story, but they exude class, sophistication, and humor.

Several years ago, I had the great fortune of seeing Singin’ in the Rain on the big screen. I had rented it while I was in high school and had seen it at least once since, but getting to experience it on the original canvas, a movie screen before an audience filled with people, was another experience entirely. It is a hilarious movie. It was a romantic comedy with music, much like a romantic comedy people see today, except funny (and with music). I mean, people were constantly laughing.

I’ve since been able to see two other great old musicals on the big screen—one of my favorites, Meet Me in St. Louis (which featured a post-show discussion with Margaret O’Brien) and one I had not been a particular fan of, The Harvey Girls. Interestingly enough, while I had really disliked The Harvey Girls on DVD, watching it in a theater filled with people brought out so much I had missed at home, namely the great humor and charm in what is essentially a very light romantic comedy that, in our time, takes on the burden of being a classic and minor epic because of the presence of Judy Garland and the added aura of it being a musical.

To us, a movie musical is an event—Chicago, Hairspray, The Phantom of the Opera—an expensive, costume-heavy movie promoted to high-heaven. To movie-goers in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, they were often breezy evenings at the movies and while they were hard for the talented artists involved in making them, studios were popping out many every year like machine-work. Musicals like The Harvey Girls and White Christmas were not the epics we associate with movie musicals of today. They were simple, popular entertainment intended to be viewed once and then locked away in a movie vault somewhere.

Back to White Christmas.

This Christmas, not much changed. I still need to see White Christmas the movie, but now I can say that I’ve seen it on stage. It was the very last performance of a regional run, a performance which fell on a very un-Christmasy post-New Years Saturday.

Though I have nothing to compare it to (except my knowledge of movie musicals from that era), I guess it doesn’t take a genius to form an opinion and then analyze it to death.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy White Christmas so much as it didn’t thrill me, didn’t leave me with much of anything I’ll fondly remember in a year. It was, I suppose, nothing in particular. It wasn’t particularly funny. It wasn’t particularly romantic. The characters weren’t particularly rich or memorable. The choreography was energetic and fun but not particularly striking. I don’t think I’ll ever stop and reflect on what a great evening it was or go out of my way to find the original cast recording. In a year, I may have no specific memories of it (except maybe the final ice-skating dance, which was pretty clever and beautifully costumed).

Because I know one or two people who rave about the stage show (telling me that the movie is a must-see Christmas tradition) and because I know that it is a show that is gaining popularity around the country (evidenced by its run on Broadway this past Christmas), I assumed that it would be a remarkable show. But after seeing it for myself, I find it interesting that I’ve now met a number of people who either echo my sentiment or who respond, “Yeah, I’ve heard that.”

I think part of the problem is the book. It feels like a movie pulled onto the stage, and the characters still feel largely bound to the screen. The four lead characters feel very much like the type of characters found in musical movies of that era (as opposed to the fun, theatrical characters found in stage shows of that era). It didn’t help that in the production I saw the male leads were well-sung but not particularly thrilling in the parts, but I can’t help but wonder if, in the bigger picture, that doesn’t have more to do with the material. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye automatically bring a certain charm and air to their film roles that stage actors don’t have access to.

Musical movies of this era were known for having thin plots bloated by show within a show numbers. I admired the stage White Christmas for almost not over-doing the show within a show numbers (a problem I had with the 42nd Street revival), but the plot isn’t any more thrilling or compelling because of it. Again, I can’t comment on what may have been added or dropped from the movie, but the folksy “Let’s Put on a Show to Save ____________” where Broadway hoofers start coming out of the cracks and take up eight minutes of stage time to sing a song disconnected from the plot doesn’t make for a satisfying evening at the theatre.

The show definitely has impressive production values, with sets and costumes that made the tour of Grease I had recently seen look like a community theatre production, and there is an attempt to make the show something special, but the material just doesn’t hold up.

Had I paid $70-100 for the ticket, I would have been greatly disappointed (which, by comparison, I didn’t feel after paying $76 to see Grease), and I can’t help but wish the thousands of people who see White Christmas around the country every Christmas hadn’t had a chance to be thrilled by The Drowsy Chaperone, The Color Purple, or Hairspray instead. On stage, White Christmas may bring back fond memories, but it doesn’t manage to form any new ones.

the Broadway Mouth
January 12, 2009

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Grease: (Why Are So Many) Hopelessly Devoted to You? (Part 2)

If Grease has survived based upon the love people have for the movie, its original run can probably be credited to the air of nostalgia it must have created. To stand on its own two feet otherwise is almost incredulous.

Grease is a show that thrives on a meager plot plugged with songs that are high on the nostalgia factor but low on the purpose factor. That is not to say that there isn't richness in the characters--Danny, Frenchy, Marty, Patty, Kenicke, and particularly Rizzo are all vibrant personalities befitting the stage. The problem is that the plot doesn't strongly revolve around them. Sandy and Danny break up and get together without much motivation. They proclaim undying love to each other, but, as appeared on stage in the tour, there's no particular reason for them to be together or not to be together. Sandy's big transformation at the end is also without any real motivation. Though her character is weakly developed, it still seems almost entirely out of character for her to change so drastically. And with the exception of Rizzo and Kenicke, the other secondary characters could easily be excised without much of an impact on the main plot.

While I was watching Grease (and enjoying myself enough to make it worth the trip if not on the Hairspray or Les Miserables level), I couldn't help but think, "How did this show make it all these years?" Obviously, as the movie proved, there is the germ for an appealing plot in the show, but it simply isn't developed. Yes, it wasn't developed because that was not the vision of the original creators, but that doesn't make it any more fascinating of a plot for those of us who don't "Remember the good old days."

Most interestingly, seeing Grease really explained Over Here!. As a teenager, I had discovered the OBCR of Over Here! at the library and immediately picked it up since I have always enjoyed the work of Richard and Robert Sherman (who wrote music for Mary Poppins, The Happiest Millionaire, and most of the music for The Jungle Book). It's a great CD, loaded with that great 1940s sound (this was the show which starred two of the Andrew Sisters), and the songs are stupendous, even if it did take me a number of years to fully get what the VD Polka was.

The libretto for Over Here! is available through Samuel French, and when I discovered that, I immediately picked it up. I was shocked by how plotless the show was. Though the score hints at the lives of the main characters and the plot of some secondary characters, the show doesn't have a strong plot structure. The events almost just happen to happen with a funny plot twist at the end which acts as a climax, a climax that is not adequately built toward. It is, in essence, a show whose heart is "Remember the good old days." There is the promise of a really great plot with fun characters, but that was not the purpose of the show. As a result, there isn't one.

Did I mention the original production of Over Here! was produced by the original producers of Grease two years after that show's phenomenal success? Hmmm . . .

I was honestly shocked that The Wedding Singer didn't run longer because it was not far from Grease in its kitschy references to an era gone by. The big difference is that The Wedding Singer has a much stronger plot, far more interesting characters, and is extremely funny. Perhaps, as well, the producers could have played up the 80s throwbacks better (and stronger reviews would have helped too).

When Hairspray hit movie theaters with its 1960s music and energetic dancing (not to mention John Travolta), many made a connection between the success of both movies. Having seen the stage Grease, I'm not sure if there really is such a strong connection after all. Either way, Hairspray is far superior to Grease in about every way. But then, Hairspray's creators were also out to create something that told a great story with great music.

the Broadway Mouth
January 7, 2009

Monday, January 5, 2009

Grease: (Why Are So Many) Hopelessly Devoted to You? (Part 1)

Some press releases get more press than others. For example, when it was announced that reality show winners Max Crumm and Laura Osnes would headline the Broadway tour of their Grease revival, posted the news with their photos.

It was only after I had bought tickets for me (and two friends) to see the show that I realized plans had changed.

Honestly, I really don't like Grease, and the only reason I wanted to see the tour was for Laura Osnes (who had been my choice for Sandy from her first solo performance). Taylor Hicks was very much not a draw, particularly since I purposely selected a performance where he would not be appearing.

I had liked the movie of Grease as a kid. Whenever it would air, my siblings and I would be at the television, waiting for all our favorite songs. I distinctly recall, however, not being a big fan of the ending. It wasn't the corny car effect I didn't like. It was that slutty Sandy wasn't as pretty as real Sandy.

Times haven't changed. Give me real Sandy any day.

Surprisingly, however, I enjoyed myself at the revival tour. It's been years since I've seen the movie (the viewing when I realized it was just too stupid) and about seven since I saw a high school production. How I managed to enjoy this one, I'm not sure.

What strikes me as so odd about the/this stage version of Grease is how disconnected it is in terms of plot. It was created as a "Hey, remember the good (!?!) old days" reflection, so the emphasis is on recreating moments from the era rather than on telling a satisfying story. You could literally excise most of the numbers and not negatively affect the plot. In fact, the main plot--the Sandy and Danny drama--isn't even well-developed. It is, in essence, Sandy and Danny reflect on falling in love that summer, they meet, they part, they get back together, they part, Sandy becomes a slut, they get back together. That is literally their plot--they get together and part without much conflict or drama or character development.

The show isn't even that funny. It is fair to say that 95% of the humor (a term loosely defined here) is about breasts and erections, most of which you can see coming from a mile (or two or three) off and land with a thud (no matter how talented the actors are).

What makes the show satisfying, if not particularly great, is the music, which is infectious and fun, no matter how superfluous most of it is. The tour cast is particularly talented with some amazing voices among the cast. The inclusion of the songs from the movie--and here I betray my purist soul--are a welcomed addition, since "Hopelessly Devoted to You" helps flesh out the rather bland Sandy character and "You're the One That I Want" is so memorable from the movie.

If you really stop to look at the sets of the tour, it is a pretty cheap show, which was particularly apparent when it was paired in viewing with a regional production of White Christmas. However, I think it's fair to say the show required nothing else. If I was noticing that the sets were nothing special, I wasn't thinking about how much better they could be. Perhaps I was too focused on what is most important, a very talented cast.

It is an exceptional cast. Eric Schneider is a perfect Danny, and if Emily Padgett isn't Laura Osnes, she definitely sings more strongly (though why did they have to make her blonde?). In fact, her "Hopelessly Devoted to You" was 100% Broadway belt and a glorious moment in the show. Taylor Hicks' understudy Preston Ellis proved why Broadway folks belong on Broadway. His golden voice is light years better than Hicks. The rest of the cast are all very talented--Will Blum, Bridie Carroll, Kate Chadwick, Brian Crum, David Ruffin, Allie Schulz, to name just a few.

There isn't much to be said for the staging. There's some energetic, fun choreography, but there's also some muddled staging with the "where am I looking" effect.

If Grease has survived to find an audience with those who don't "remember the good (?!?) old days," it is because the movie managed to make it more about Sandy and Danny than about the era, and the stage show rides the crest of that ever-popular wave. I can't help but watch Grease (a show my mom has said reminds her of her days in high school--is anyone as disturbed as I?) and think, if those were the good old days, the new generation is ten times better!

the Broadway Mouth
January 5, 2009