Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Casting Celebrations 2: The Smartest Casting Directors on Broadway

You know the drill. The replacement and tour casts look and perform as much like the original cast as possible. If you need a replacement Beast, you always look to the guys who played Javert. If you need Javert, you look to the guys who played the Beast. If you need a Belle, she needs to look and sound a certain way unless you cast Toni Braxton. If you need a star name, you cast whoever is least likely to be an embarrassment but still be big enough to get butts in seats.

But last week, we were given the exciting news—Faith Prince as Ursula!

It’s not remarkable that Disney cast Faith Prince. They’ve used big Broadway names many times before—Andrea McArdle, Idina Menzel, Norm Lewis, to name a few. What’s remarkable is that they went in the entire opposite direction of the original casting. Sherie Rene Scott is a pop powerhouse, sexy and young, and they should have cast a Kelly Fournier or a Sara Gettelfinger. Instead, we get the very versatile and cute Faith Prince.

Faith Prince is perfect casting, utterly perfect. She can do character roles with great zest, but she’s also proven her ability to handle more subtle roles, earning strong reviews in The King and I and James Joyce’s The Dead. Her Ursula will be entirely different from Sherie Rene Scott’s—I don’t know how it could be anything except different—but it will also be utterly satisfying and genius in her own way.

Faith Prince is genius casting in anything, but as Ursula, it’s unexpected genius. Theatre fans will be willing to go a second time just to see her interpretation of the role, and general audiences will walk away having witnessed a great performance.

Personally, when I heard about the original cast members trickling away, it made The Little Mermaid less of a draw if I make it to NYC this summer. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the less-known performers out there, but it’s extraordinarily nice to over-pay to see someone you love or have wanted to see perform for a long time. Faith Prince as Ursula is exciting.

Way to go, Disney! You turned stunt casting into stunning casting.

the Broadway Mouth
February 25, 2009

Monday, February 23, 2009

Casting Celebrations 1: The Smartest Person on Broadway

Laura Osnes may be the smartest person on Broadway right now. She went from a dinner theatre production of Grease, sang her guts out on a TV show no one in the industry respected, got very poor reviews in a very poorly reviewed production, and walked out with a coveted replacement role.

From the start, Laura Osnes was my #1 pick on Grease: You’re the One That I Want, and I felt like she had the talent to make it. But the truth is, there’s so much more to star power than just talent. Sam Levene couldn’t sing strongly, but he was cast as Nathan Detroit in the original cast of Guys and Dolls for other talents. Gertrude Lawrence was also not a singer, but she starred in The King and I, originating some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best songs (for the record, every Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score has some of their best songs, except maybe Me and Juliet, but it always seems like the right thing to say). I haven’t yet seen Osnes on stage in a big Broadway show, but I know she at least has the singing talent.

And her recent casting in South Pacific proves she’s got something important, and whatever it is, she’s going to be selling tickets to South Pacific. If I make it to NYC this summer, South Pacific is now on my “Must See” list (it was with Kelli O’Hara, but with just any replacement cast member, it would not have been). And how many Broadway people are out there who are more experienced could have out-performed Osnes in the role? Quite possibly a ton . . . actresses who have been pounding the pavement for years, who have refined themselves with three other lead roles in Broadway shows, earning rave reviews for each one.

But they’re not the smartest person on Broadway.

Why more Broadway babies don’t audition for those singing and dancing reality shows, I’ll never know. It’s a long shot, but auditioning for a Jersey Boys replacements is pretty darn long too. And it’s probably much easier than spending all that time griping about Laura Osnes, Max Crumm, Constantine Maroulis, or Diane DeGarmo "stealing roles from legitimate Broadway performers."

As a performer, take every chance you get. As a writer, take every chance you get. There are darn too few of them that come along to pass any up.

At one point, Osnes’ husband (pictured above) had talked about possibly getting back to performing. After all, the story is that they met in a children’s theatre production of Aladdin. If he has chosen to go that direction, then let me tell you, he needs to take every chance he can get. And he’d better not be shy about using his wife’s connections.

Take every chance you can get.

Take every chance you can get.

Take every chance you can get.

the Broadway Mouth
February 23, 2009

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

From the Mouth of David Letterman (and Lauren Graham)

Lauren Graham: I did a TV show for seven years where our typical day was fourteen hours. And you tell people that, and they're like, "Yeah, but that's not theatre." And I'm like, "It's still fourteen hours!" That was a really long day!

David Letterman: That's a lot of standing around . . . and then a lot of this, "Lunch!"

Because I hated even the commercials for The Gilmore Girls, I find Lauren Graham a little hard to swallow, but I enjoyed watching her on David Letterman a couple weeks ago. On the show, she was trying to prove her theatre street cred, making sure to let everyone know that she had earned her equity card at the Barn Theatre in Augusta, Michigan (which is where Jonathon Larson and Marin Mazzie earned their Equity cards, by the way).

I’ve been concerned about the casting of Lauren Graham and Oliver Platt in the revival of Guys and Dolls. Honestly, if Guys and Dolls is a dud, I’m not sure there will be enough shows of high interest to warrant my hoped-for trip to NYC this summer. To me, Craig Bierko, Kate Jennings Grant, and Mary Testa are huge draws, but a show like Guys and Dolls thrives on all the leads being fantastic. After all, what good is a salad if half the lettuce is rotten?

That is not to say Graham might be bad just because she made her name on television. She obviously has stage experience, and she is presumably very talented. Perhaps the same can be said for Oliver Platt.

I just hope she is more Eric McCormack (who was great in The Music Man) than Christina Applegate (who, in Sweet Charity, was strong for someone who hadn’t been on Broadway before) or David Hasselhoff (does that really need to be qualified?).

A big star name can mean the difference between financial success (A Raisin in the Sun) or financial ruin (Seussical), greatness (Ragtime) or disaster (the Ashley Judd Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). I guess it boils down to that no matter what choice a producer makes, it’s a mighty big risk. And if your Hollywood star turns out to be Jeremy Piven, then I guess that’s the gamble you take and the result you deserve.

Broadway shows need stars to survive, but they also need talent and professionalism too.

As for Guys and Dolls, I’m hoping for the best.

the Broadway Mouth
February 18, 2009

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Critical Interception: Analysis of a Review (Part 3)

Note: You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

3. Bullying

I one time wrote a skit about two friends who had been at the same potluck dinner. Sarah was very upset that there had been two tater tot casseroles at the potluck, and while the other dish was all gone, hardly anyone had touched hers. Naturally, she called her pal Barb to vent about the other casserole, “which wasn’t even that good.” Of course, we learn it was Barb who made the other casserole and what follows is an overly pleasant, sub-text heavy advice session laden with such helpful hints as:

Sarah: Honey, I was thinking that next time, you might want to add a little water before cooking your casserole. That’ll help make it less cementy.

Tone is everything. I would have no problem telling my mom that something she made was a little dry, but to say it was cementy is more than just a little brutal.

The same thing is true about reviews. You can easily say that something is ineffective or that it doesn’t work without resorting to bashing or insulting. It’s almost like middle school all over again, with one kid trying to gain popularity by besting another. And true, funny insults get mileage. Years ago, published a selection of funny lines from reviews on works during the prior season, and I laughed very hard. But when you consider all aspects of a review, it doesn’t seem like the most production route, no matter how funny.

In Suskin’s review of Thou Shalt Not, for example, he goes as far as to say that the “I Need to Be in Love Ballet” “looked more like ‘The Laundress Has Conniptions.’” Admittedly, it’s a very funny description. That is until you think about Kate Levering or Susan Stroman reading it. No matter how ineffective the dance was, there was an intention behind it, a bold move to communicate something through dance. And to reduce it to an insult just doesn’t seem productive, particularly when you think about Levering needing to do this choreography eight shows a week after maybe reading such reviews. Again, there’s nothing wrong with the nature of the criticism, it is the spirit in which it is communicated that seems wrong.

Suskin, in particular, has a habit of piling on the criticisms. It’s as if it’s not enough to say that something doesn’t work, but then you have to nit-pick. In Thou Shalt Not, he questions the lyrics “all alone in your all night gown,” asking, “What, pray tell, is an ‘all night gown?’” Call me a fool, but I have a feeling that when Bierko sang this to Levering, all alone except for a bed, the audience didn’t have any trouble answering that question. In earlier editions of his Broadway Yearbook series, Suskin also questions the phrase “welcome hinges on the door” from Bloomer Girl and “secret soul” from Jane Eyre. It doesn’t seem too hard to figure out what “welcome hinges” mean, and as for “secret soul,” not only does it come directly from Charlotte Brontë’s novel, but she likely got it from a hack playwright/poet named William Shakespeare who used the term in an almost-forgotten work he wrote called Twelfth Night, when Duke Orsino says to Viola/Cesario, “I have unclasped / To thee the book e’en of my secret soul.”

Once again, let me clarify that I am not attacking Steven Suskin. As I have written numerous times before, I love Suskin’s Broadway Yearbook series and was greatly saddened that it did not continue, for his observations are invaluable to those of us who got to see the shows as well as to those of us who didn’t.

At the same time, I find reading reviews like Suskin’s to be crippling at times. Plays are like people. You just plain old like some people and dislike others. A personality trait you tolerate in one person, you may readily attack in another simply because you don’t like him/her in general. Similarly, what you overlook in your best friend you may find annoying beyond belief in that co-worker down the hall. In short, it’s all about the adjectives. Your best friend is funny, while the guy down the hall is judgmental. It’s hard to say “which label [will be] able to persist.”

When I think of the plays I’ve written, I wonder what critics would say if the plays actually got anywhere. Would they attack the traditional plotting and lose sight of the humor? Would the unabashed romance help them ignore the number of ballads? Will the review be about the clever show-within-a-show, or about that fact that it’s yet another backstage musical?

I suppose the solution is to always stay close to your original vision, to focus on the act of creating in hopes that you have the talent to make your intentions shine through. Then, I suppose you need to hear the criticism of the creative team, the audience, and the out-of-town critics in order to use what they communicate to improve the show in every way possible for opening night.

Then when that’s done, you try really hard not lose sight of their meaning when someone tries to help you by calling your passion piece “The Laundress Has Conniptions.”

the Broadway Mouth
February 15, 2009

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Critical Interception: Analysis of a Review (Part 2)

Note: You can find Part 1 here.

2. Attacking Bold Moves

I’m not a big fan of the “Well, they tried hard” school of thought. Intentions don’t do a heck of a lot to the couple who dished out $125 a ticket for Tarzan.

However, too many critics—those who get their voice heard because they were hired by an editor or those who get their voice heard thanks to the Internet—love to pull out their swords and go on the attack against those who dare to rock the status quo.

In his review for Thou Shalt Not, Suskin comments on one particular dance, saying that the “program called this the ‘I Need to Be in Love Ballet’. . . This was followed, fifteen minutes or so later, by the related song. (In musical theatre, we usually sing the song first and then do the dance, so that the audience knows what the character is dancing about. But we’ll let that pass.)”

How patronizing! It’s so obvious that Susan Stroman doesn’t know the rules, right?

Yeah, so maybe this structure didn’t work for the show, and maybe it landed with a thud like a boulder dropped from the top floor of the Empire State, but isn’t it enough to comment that it was ineffective? Does a critic need to be insulting about it?

The problem is that the creator needs the freedom to experiment. If everyone always plays by the rules all the time, then there’s never an Oklahoma!, a Cabaret, or a Rent. Experimentation leads to innovations and exciting new works with bold moves and daring choices. And yes, sometimes it leads to turkeys, laid eggs, and Bombay Dreams, but without the freedom to try in the absence of holier-than-Thou-Shalt-Not digs, the creator can never find that something new that works.

The famous words one observer had for Oklahoma! out of town was “No legs, no jokes, no chance.” Of course, Oklahoma! was such a smash because it had no legs and no gags. And I don’t want to lose sight of this most important point, which is that Oklahoma! broke the rules and was a smash because it broke the rules to create a spectacular evening of theatre. And yes, at $125 a ticket, no one gets a free pass, and yet, I can’t help but wonder what critics would have intoned about Oklahoma! or A Chorus Line if they hadn’t appreciated the bold moves their creators made. Would Agnes De Mille’s ballet have become “a superfluous reminder that ballet is not Broadway and that Broadway is not for ballet” or “a text book case of why God gave us dialogue and lyrics”? If you’re strictly operating under the “Business as usual” model, then all you’ll ever get is “Business as usual.”

The words of a critic can be harrowingly powerful, and it doesn’t have to be insulting or degrading. Remember that writer Kate Chopin’s The Awakening was so brutally attacked by critics that’s never wrote another novel. The Awakening is now regarded as an important American classic, and even if the book really had been wretched, that’s not to say her next work wouldn’t have been grand.

Instead of attacking the idea of a choice, perhaps it is better to critique the choice itself.

the Broadway Mouth
February 11, 2009

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Mary Poppins on DVD Broadway Bonus Features

I have not yet had the chance to see the recently re-re-re-released Mary Poppins DVD which contains more than just a peek at the Broadway show. Until I have, here is a look at what the DVD contains to see if it’s enough to entice you into purchasing it.

The Broadway Mouth
February 10, 2009.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Luba Mason’s Krazy Love

I have one jazz album on my shelf of 300+ CDs, and that is my recently received copy of Luba Mason’s Krazy Love. And I can’t help but wonder . . . Do you have to know something about jazz in order to comment on a jazz album?

Luba Mason was a Broadway star of the 1990s, appearing in such shows as How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Jekyll and Hyde, The Capeman, and Chicago. Now married to Latin music star Ruben Blades, Mason has spent a number of years away from the Broadway spotlight, and she finally returns, not in an album of Broadway standards but in Krazy Love, a Brazil-flavored jazz album featuring eight tracks written or co-written by Mason herself (and two additional tracks, including one duet with Blades).

As discussed previously, my favorite solo albums are those in which Broadway stars do what Broadway stars do best, interpreting Broadway songs as if they were singing the songs on stage. That doesn’t prevent Broadway names (like Adam Pascal, Idina Menzel, and Alice Ripley) from doing silly things like branching off in other genres and expressing themselves in other artistic forms. For the Broadway fan, the core of any Broadway star’s fan base, this can be a hard pill to swallow. While many Broadway fans appreciate a variety of music styles, it’s hard to accept a solo album by Heather Headley when all you want to do is hear her belt out a favorite from Aida, not whisper through an over-produced R&B ditty.

So what is a Broadway Mouth to do with Brazil-flavored jazz?

Best news of all is that Mason is in fine vocal form on Krazy Love. True to the genre, she isn’t belting out anything or singing with a lyric soprano, but her cool, subdued jazz vocal stylings are a natural fit for her very versatile voice, never seeming forced or whispered. With great ease, she caresses, embraces, and seduces with the lyrics, allowing us to forget that she has the vocal chops to perform roles like Lucy Harris from Jekyll and Hyde.

Lyrically, Mason’s songs sometimes dwell in abstraction. In the title song, for example, she sings of a powerful love that has disappeared; however, instead of painting any concrete details, we are told about “poison no longer flowing through my veins” and “No longer swimming / With the falling stars”. At the same time, the melody of the song, combined with the depth of Mason’s voice, creates an atmosphere that allows the lyrics to melt into the distance. What remains is the impression of the song, the fragrance of an emotion set to a pretty jazz melody.

Where the album excels is in the convergence of Mason’s voice and the jazz melodies. In the second of the ten tracks, “From Me to You,” we are given a sultry Mason longing after an untrustworthy man who has moved on to another woman, the Latin beat celebrating both the passion and the loss. In “Gorgeous Fool,” she flirtatiously sings to her gorgeous fool, a man whose rich inner beauty overcomes his outward flaws. And perhaps the best song is “Lovely,” and it excels because of this convergence. Mason caresses, her lovely voice on a jaunt with the lyrics, the Latin rhythms dancing behind her as she sings of her romantic daydreams outside a launderette. It’s a lovely and charming song, and while the lyrics don’t fully connect (her husband comes in at the end, but there is not clear connection between the hero who “who appears wearing tight faded jeans” and her husband who “boats of me as his beautiful queen”), everything else about the song allows you to get lost in its charms.

The album, however, is not without a few weak links. “A Summer Night” is one of those songs so slow and intentionally soothing that it’s almost background music, and “Olhos nos Olhos,” the only track without any English lyrics, fails to register because of its lack of rooting in English, leaving the listener to focus almost entirely on the department store melody/arrangement.

Someone who is totally opposed to jazz or has no interest in music outside Broadway will not find Krazy Love to be too enlightening; however, Mason sets forth with a solo album with great beauty and charm, and for those fans who enjoy music of many different styles, Mason’s CD just might be a tempting divergence. I know I’ll be listening to it again.

the Broadway Mouth
February 9, 2009

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Critical Interception: Analysis of a Review (Part 1)

It’s a love/hate relationship. Yes, I love reading Steven Suskin’s three Broadway Yearbook volumes (for seasons 1999-2000, 2000-2001, and 2001-2002) and soaking in all I can. The first two are particular favorites because I was actually in New York to see some of those productions with the casts that he writes about in such detail.

I love the books because Suskin is well-spoken, entertaining, and his analyses are always thoughtful and written with a clear knowledge of the subject at hand. At the same time, as I read the individual entries, I can’t help but feel that I am also witnessing some pretty standard crimes against my beloved Broadway.

Perhaps I’m also afraid of how my own work will stand under such scrutiny. Second-guessing what you do can be pretty crippling.

I honestly don’t get to read many New York reviews—I don’t have tons of time to locate and read them online—though I do follow the general leaning of reviews via the various Broadway message boards (I do miss the days when would publish a survey of the reviews).

Yet, I’ve read enough of them to feel like Suskin’s writings in the Broadway Yearbook series are a good representation of the beast, though Suskin also takes the added step of including a vast amount of background and historical detail related to each production.

As a model for analysis, I use his Thou Shalt Not review from Broadway Yearbook 2001-2002. Thou Shalt Not was the 2001 Harry Connick, Jr./Susan Stroman musical that starred Craig Bierko, Kate Levering, Norbert Leo Butz, and Debra Monk. Coming off the highs of Contact and The Producers, Thou Shalt Not was another Stroman baby; however, unlike so many of her other children, this one received a harsh critical backlash and was brutally expelled, as is typical of anything that aims high and thuds hard.

I did not see Thou Shalt Not, so I cannot speak to its quality. My only experience with the work has been through the bonus CD included with the revival recording of The Pajama Game starring Connick, Jr. Despite the considerable talents of the songwriter and Kelli O’Hara, who perform several songs from the show on the CD, nothing on the disc ever registers. As earnest an effort as it is, the recording never rises above in-one-ear-and-out-the-other status.

1. Experiencing the Source Material is Not a Necessity
It would seem reading the book, reading the play, or renting the movie would be a good first step in reviewing a big new Broadway production. It certainly is an honorable thing to do (a tradition that I’m sure could come to an abrupt end if anyone ever writes Portrait of a Lady: The Musical!).

The problem is that “the movie is never as good as the book.” And even if the adaptation is better than the book, no one who’s read the book can recognize that. Nothing ever beats mom’s sugar cookies because you ate them first. The definition of sugar cookie was defined by mom’s recipe. The only place to go from there is down.

As an example, I offer Pat Conroy’s huge novel The Lords of Discipline, his fictionalized account of his years at the Citadel. While the book was not a favorite by any means, I enjoyed much of the narrative and characters and so rented the movie. It’s a somewhat okay movie, but the characters are an abbreviated version of the novel’s characters, the plotting is summarized, and the conflicts are reduced. While The Lords of Discipline as a novel could amble its way through some 500 pages or so, it didn’t warrant a five hour epic on the big screen. Someone had to make some cuts somewhere, and they just happened to make a lot of the wrong ones.

But the problem is that I couldn’t honestly evaluate the movie of The Lords of Discipline as a movie because I was evaluating it as a novel. Whether it succeeds or fails as a movie independent of the novel, I’ll never know. Millions of Americans have not read the novel and will encounter the movie version in an entirely different way. As an aspiring-to-be-produced writer, it’s an important educational exercise to evaluate and learn from the adaptation, but in purely determining its quality as an independent work, experiencing the source material doesn’t allow one to speak to that.

In his review of Thou Shalt Not, Suskin compares it significantly with its source material, the Emile Zola novel Thérèse Raquin, highlighting the differences between what made the novel work and how the adaptation offset the delicate balance Zola created, thereby making for a crappy evening of theatre.

Not surprisingly, Zola’s Thérèse Raquin was far superior to Stroman’s Thérèse Raquin. And I should certainly hope so.

What makes for an effective adaptation is a topic in itself, but in short, the successful adapter needs to decide between faithfully adapting the work for a new medium (think Jane Eyre), revising the work (think Thoroughly Modern Millie), or interpreting the work (think Marie Christine). And to borrow a phrase, it is indeed brain surgery. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. The problem is that if you are bathing yourself in the source material immediately before reviewing the show (and the source material is of high enough quality to have survived generations), there is a statistically higher chance that it is not going to work in the show’s favor. And since most people aren’t out to adapt You Don’t Mess With the Zohan or Zoolander, this is typically a reviewing recipe for disaster. It’s the Mom’s Sugar Cookies effect.

The most annoying example of this was with the comparisons between Judy Holliday’s Ella Peterson in the Bells are Ringing movie and Faith Prince’s Ella Peterson in the revival. As far as film musicals go, Bells are Ringing is a pretty minor work. It’s enjoyable, but I can’t imagine it ever rivaling one’s affection for, say, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Sound of Music, or State Fair. I can’t for once believe that most of the critics dancing the “She’s Not Judy Holliday” ballet were basing the evaluation based upon their Comden and Greene period back in ’89. As much as I love the show, the movie hasn’t particularly stuck to my ribs. So by watching the video—and how else would Holliday’s performance be so fresh (it’s not, by any means, a remarkable film performance, though it probably was so on stage)—people were bringing on the Mom’s Sugar Cookies effect.

the Broadway Mouth
February 5, 2009

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Shrek to Elphaba: Green With Envy

I don't get the fuss about Shrek. Sure, its box office may be struggling, and sure, it may be DreamWorks's attempt to best Disney (something they've been failing to do almost since inception, that curious Shrek 2 Oscar aside), but a show is a show is a show. And shows are big risks that often fail.

I have not seen Shrek because I don't live in New York, so this is not comment on the quality. But big shows fail--Elton John and Lestat, Michael Crawford and Dance of the Vampires, those Les Mis people and The Pirate Queen. I don't think Shrek deserves any more dancing in the news (or bad publicity) because of it. Just because it's Shrek, it's not a shocker.

What I'd rather hear more about is why. Why is the show failing to find an audience? My guess is that there's just too much competition for those types of shows, and while people love Shrek, The Little Mermaid and Mary Poppins are beloved. If I had kids to take to a show, I'd take them to either of the Disney shows. If I didn't have kids to take to a show, I'd go to In the Heights.

So, I'd love to hear other thoughts. Why do you think Shrek is currently (and that is an important word) failing to find an audience?

the Broadway Mouth
January 4, 2009

Monday, February 2, 2009

Luba Mason Autographed Krazy Love CD Winning Broadway Memories

Thanks big time for everyone who submitted a favorite Broadway memory! The entries that won an autographed Luba Mason Krazy Love CD are below. Look for my own discussion of the album soon.

From Dan:

Many years ago, I was taking acting classes, and the instructor told us that to help learn our craft, we needed to see how other actors performed. And since we were starving artists, he told us to wait until a Broadway show broke for intermission, then sneak into the balcony when everyone went back in. Of course, it would have to be a show that wasn’t sold out. Five of us from that class tried this with The Buddy Holly Story. I was so nervous that when the usher came around to hand out the program for Buddy’s last performance, I thought he was coming to kick us out. Fortunately, we made it through the second act, but I still wish I could have seen the whole thing. I still remember that incident and show vividly.

From Kathy:

My mother had grown up loving Broadway musicals, and I had a tradition of taking her to a show in New York on Mother's Day every year. In December of 1986, she was diagnosed with cancer and faced some life-threatening surgery. I immediately went out and bought two tickets for the new musical Les Miserables for Mother's Day 1987 and gave them to her. As we entered the Broadway Theatre that May, she told me that my faith in buying the tickets had given her the strength to fight the disease. To this day, I can't hear the Colm Wilkinson's soaring tenor without remembering that very special day.

the Broadway Mouth
January 2, 2009