Monday, March 30, 2009

Revivals and Revisals: Paint Your Wagon Any Color You Want

It's amazing how perspective changes things. There are always so many press releases that never come to anything, and this Paint Your Wagon revival was another. Still, I think the reflections that came from it are still valid.

Most recently, there has been some talk of a new production of Paint Your Wagon in which the story has apparently been rewritten to remove the polygamy elements while keeping the characters and basic elements of the original story.

I love my Paint Your Wagon CD. There are so many wonderful Lerner and Lowe songs (I can’t get enough of Olga San Juan’s “How Can I Wait?”), but when I read the libretto a couple years ago, it didn’t quite leave me with the same feeling.

Very few of the revivals to hit Broadway do so without some alteration. In Kiss Me, Kate, John Guare was tapped to make some ghost alterations to the Spewack’s original book, including making major changes to the Ron Holgate character as well as interpolating “From This Moment On” from another Porter show. According to Donna Murphy, there were some nips and tucks to Wonderful Town, while the producers of Bells are Ringing brought in Comden and Green to make some lyrics changes. In addition to her usual new orchestrations to open up shows for more dance, Susan Stroman switched around the order of things for The Music Man. Trevor Nunn got the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization to allow for some changes to Oklahoma!, and The Sound of Music revival added the two songs from the film.

Throughout Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik’s Broadway Musicals: The Greatest Shows of All Time, Bloom and Vlastnik make a case for keeping classic musicals just as they are, no re-writes, no updates, no edits. For a long time after reading this book for the first time, I felt strongly about that.

But now, I’m honestly torn.

Broadway musicals, in my mind, are like the plays of Tennessee Williams, the novels of Willa Cather, the short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. You don’t mess with great pieces of literature. They act as the signature of the writers, and they should be enjoyed and studied without alteration.

But then the truth is that musicals are collaborative pieces. It’s not just Jule Styne and Leo Robin’s songs, it’s also Joseph Fields and Anita Loos’ book, not to mention John C. Wilson’s direction which no doubt guided the whole effort, plus Agnes DeMille’s choreography. Without any one of those pieces, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes could have become a very different piece.

What changed my mind about Bloom and Vlastnik’s assertions was The Boy Friend. I saw the Julie Andrews tour. I was very excited to see it. Because Julie Andrews was on the CD, I had checked it out of the library several times in high school and copied three of the best songs onto a mix tape. Once I got into Broadway musicals, I bought the CD.

There are a lot of fun songs in that show, and from reading the plot synopsis in the liner notes, I had imagined it to be a funny and romantic show along the lines of Guys and Dolls. I even mentioned this to a friend of mine as a possible show I could direct when I was directing high school plays. She had seen the show and said, “I saw that at a high school once, and there was just nothing to it.” I figured she had just seen a dopey production.

Nope. Nope, she didn’t.

I know the show has fans, but when I finally saw it in production, whatever charms it had on the 1950s audience intimately familiar with the 1920s shows to which it was a valentine, was completely lost to the 2000s me. The plot is paper thin and the characters ½-dimensional.

A show simply must appeal to a modern audience. Theatre is not a museum. So, if that show contains sexist or racial caricatures no longer acceptable or jokes and plotting that wouldn’t connect with a modern audience, then the show needs to either be shelved or altered.

The problem is either when the music is so good or the book is so good except for “that one element” (or is great in summary but not in execution). One could argue that these are the exact reasons why Encores or Reprise exists, to showcase great music from shows that don’t get much play anymore, usually because of out-dated or clunky books.

However, there are millions upon millions of people without access to Encores or Reprise, yours truly being one of them. In its short run, more people saw the Sweet Charity revival (myself included) than could have ever have seen it in an Encores or Reprise production.

That is not to say that all changes are necessary. There is a big difference when “I’m an Indian Too” is excised because it requires Native American stereotypes that will turn off the wealthy, well-educated audience that supports Broadway, and when new songs are inserted in The Pajama Game for no apparent reason.

Honestly, there are many changes made for artistic interpretation of the director. That’s where I have issues. Nobody takes a great modern play, like The Crucible, and begins to add re-writes and switch things around because of their own artistic interpretation. This classic piece of literature, particularly now that Arthur Miller has died, is considered “locked.” Tennessee Williams isn’t around to makes alterations to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, so nobody else will be allowed to. The director works to interpret what the playwright has given him or her. Like all great literature, it still leaves room for interpretation—is Brick gay or is he straight?—but it does so within the intents of the playwright.

I think of the Trevor Nunn Oklahoma! preserved so beautifully on DVD. As far as I can tell, the changes to that production were essentially interpretative changes—Trevor Nunn saying, “If I had originally directed this, here’s what I would have done.” But, I would say, “You didn’t, and you are compromising the playwrights’ intentions.”

That is really one of the key problems with much of the criticism on message boards. The harshness often comes not from “Where did this production go wrong” as much as “Here’s what I would have done, which is obviously infinitely better.” The problem arises when it results in the compromising of great American works of art.

But then you do have a problem when the shows become museum pieces. Should no one ever hear those great Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh Wildcat songs live because the libretto is reportedly weak?

A good example of this is with Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman’s Over Here!, which has a libretto by Will Holt. If you read the synopsis in the liner notes, the show sounds like tons of fun. However, if you read the libretto—published by Samuel French, so you can actually order it and read it—the show is written to the people who lived during World War II. It has a “remember the good old days” aura about it.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember the good old days. The good old days to me are Saved by the Bell. And, I don’t think there are tons of people who remember those good old days left to fill a theatre for a long run.

It would be my dream to write a modern musical comedy libretto for Over Here! using the old songs (and probably needing a few more added) to make it palatable for modern audiences, allowing audience to hear that great music again.

Did I mention I would love to see Paint Your Wagon on stage in an entertaining form?

But there I go contradicting myself. Bad, bad Broadway Mouth.

In the end, it’s all about money. Who wants it and who is willing to sacrifice grandpa’s work to get more of it? If I ever get a show or eight on Broadway, I hope to God my grandchildren aren’t bastardizing my work to send their children through college. But then, I also hope I write shows that are timeless enough to survive decades untouched.

the Broadway Mouth
September 26, 2007

Friday, March 27, 2009

Epilogue: 50 Amazing Broadway Performers in 50 Weekdays

The summer I start my blog, I did a regular sereies called 50 Amazing Broadway Performers in 50 Weekdays. Below is the epilogue to that series. If you'd like to see what I originally wrote about them, just type in their name into the search box in the upper left corner, and any related entries will pop up.

On a side note, I've now seen some of the people mentioned here perform live--Susan Egan, Judye Kaye, and (referenced below) Hunter Foster.

Norm Lewis
Felicia P. Fields
Carol Channing
Chuck Wagner
Susan Egan
Marla Schaffel
Douglas Sills
Mary Testa
Cleavant Derricks
Carly Jibson
Sherie René Scott
Denis O’Hare
Michael Lanning
Amy Spanger
Faith Prince
Emily Skinner
Jose Llana
Stephen Lynch
Rebecca Luker
Randal Keith
Sutton Foster
Lea Salonga
Rick Faugno
Leslie Kritzer
Merle Dandridge
Marin Mazzie
Carolee Carmello
Rachel York
Audra McDonald
Donna Murphy
Brian Stokes Mitchell
Keith Byron Kirk
Craig Bierko
Leslie Hendrix
Christine Andreas
Elaine Stritch
Bernadette Peters
Donna McKechnie
Bebe Neuwirth
Michael Berresse
Heather Headley
JoAnn M. Hunter
Stephanie J. Block
Judy Kaye
Sharon Brown
Tina Maddigan
Christiane Noll
Idina Menzel
Chita Rivera

When I look at this list of talent, I am amazed by these people. I mean, seriously, look at these names and try to tell me that the people out there pounding the boards today don’t compare with those of the past. For each of these performers I’ve seen in person, I look at their names and waves of excitement wash over me as I think about the prospect of being able to see them again. For each of the performers I haven’t seen in person, I get excited in hoping to someday witness their talents in person.

As I said before, nothing will ever replace Gwen Verdon or Ethel Merman or John Raitt, but then, nothing will ever replace Keith Byron Kirk or Donna Murphy or Michael Berresse.

And the best part is that there are so many other talented people not on the above list who are amazing Broadway performers. On the people I’ve seen list, there’d be Felicia Finley, Richard H. Blake, Jessica Snow-Wilson, Diana Kaarina, Andrea Rivette, Coleen Sexton, Elisabeth Withers-Mendes, Krisha Marcano, Kenita R. Miller, Kendra Kassebaum, Jenna Leigh Green, Bob Martin, Danny Burstein, Sandy Duncan, Natasha Diaz, Solange Sandy, Paul Schoeffler, Melba Moore, Adam Pascal, Damian Perkins, John Hickok, Kelli Fournier, Beth Fowler, David Garrison, Deborah S. Craig, Barret Foa, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Sarah Saltzberg, Lisa Yuen, Margaret Ann Gates, Melinda Chua, Luoyong Wang, Christa Justus, Kim Huber, Kate Levering, Christine Ebersole, David Elder, Howard McGillin, Sandra Joseph, Jenny Hill, Blythe Danner, Judith Ivey, Polly Bergen, Mary Stout, Austin Miller, Alli Mauzy, Tom Hewitt, Charlie Pollock, Samuel E. Wright, Tsidii Le Loka, Cherry Jones, Ashley Brown, Amy Bodnar, Brian d’Arcy James, Sara Gettelfinger, Jacques C. Smith, Loretta Divine, E. Faye Butler, Hayley Mills, Jay Garner, Florence Lacey, Cory English, Michael DeVries, Monica M. Wemitt, and Lori Ann Mahl, to name just a few.

If I were to create a list of amazing Broadway performers I’d love to see, names like Tonya Pinkins, Hunter Foster, Betty Buckley, Judy Kuhn, Anthony Crivello, Norbert Leo Butz, Kerry Butler, Sally Murphy, and Kelli O’Hara would make that list as long as the one above.

the Broadway Mouth
September 24, 2007

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Get with the (Souvenir) Program

This was originally posted September 18, 2007, and it's still pretty dead-on. It feels good to be dead-on.

I never leave for a show without the money to buy a souvenir program. To me, the CD and the program are essential elements of the experience. You pay $80+ for the show, and not only do you want to remember every minute of that awesome/expensive experience, you want pictures to help you remember and the music to relive it again and again.

When I come home from New York on the plane, the care of my souvenir programs is of utmost concern. I don’t want smashed corners or bent pages. That means they never go in my suitcases or in overhead compartments. I make sure one of my carry-ons is a nice plastic shopping bag that is small enough to keep my programs close together, and I slide it carefully under the seat before me. I then don’t move my legs (which are quite long, since I am 6’ 5”) for the entire flight unless I can do so without stepping on my programs.

Thankfully, they all still look as good as new.

Lately I’ve seen a few programs popping up at used bookstores in my area, which is how I got my Ragtime program (a souvenir of my Lincoln Center Theatre archive viewing). I often pick them up and am surprised at how vapid a number of them have been, more filler and fluff than actual substance. Now, I know not every theatre-goer out there is as obsessive as I, but on some of these, I can see why they’d have no problem selling them for a quarter to a used bookstore.

If you’re paying $10 (or $20 at Tarzan with a cheap bag), you want something to help you preserve the memory. No wonder people were selling of these Rent tour and various other programs. They gave no real clue about what they had seen on stage. Obviously at one point they wanted to preserve the memory, so the show must have been dear them enough to pay for the program in the first place.

I love my programs. When I want to remember how great Jane Eyre was, I just page through the beautiful photographs. When I want to remember how much I laughed during Kiss Me, Kate, I’ll pick up the Broadway or the tour cast program. If I want to remember how great Jayne Patterson was as Fantine, I pull out one of my Les Miserables programs.

And I know I’m not the only one.

Sometimes, though, I do think the producers’ perspective of what we want to remember and what the audience really wants to get are two different things.

So, dear producers, here are some guidelines to help you as you assemble the program you want to sell to aid your bottom line and to aid us in remembering a (hopefully) magical experience.

1. We want pictures. Lots of them that we can easily see.

On this front, The Color Purple program had to be about the most disappointing program I’ve ever gotten. Many of the pages consisted only of one large picture spread out across two pages. There’s one beautiful picture of LaChanze when Celie finds Nettie’s letters, where the crease comes in at her shoulder, which damages the effect. And since the picture is basically LaChanze (lit beautifully) surrounded by pitch black stage, I’m not sure show two pages were needed for that picture, particularly considering the program as a whole.

In addition to the overall shortage of pictures, there are a good number of pictures printed in the program which are so small, they might as well not be included. Seriously. God forbid you should want to remember any of the supporting characters. For such a beautiful show, you’d think they could include something to better help you remember it.

There is, however, a nice picture of Oprah, as if we don’t get a chance to see her often. She looks great, of course, but she wasn’t in the show.

2. Fewer words. There can be one page dedicated to words about the show, but that’s really about it.

In The Color Purple, we get one page dedicated to Oprah telling about how the book changed her life (she already gets a whole monthly magazine and a daily television show to tell us about herself and her experiences). There’s also a page dedicated to Alice Walker and the various incarnations of The Color Purple (with two very small shots from the show at the bottom, relegating Krisha Marcano’s beloved Squeak to a size smaller than my thumb). There’s also two pages about the creation of the show, and another page dedicated to the composer/lyricists and choreographer. There’s also one page (two bottom halfs) detailing the history of juke joints, and one page and a quarter (roughly ¾ of two pages) dedicated to a timeline of African-American history. Then writer Marsha Norman—oddly enough, almost the least-winded of them all—get her say in less than a page of writing (spread out into two pages). I’m surprised the stage hands don’t have a page to share their thoughts, though perhaps that’s one thing that’ll be negotiated for soon.

So, did I buy this program to remember the $120 I spent on The Color Purple or to get a textbook on African-American history?

My Wicked program is an example of an exceptional program in this regards. There is one page dedicated to Gregory Maguire (spread out over two half-pages), and the rest is pretty much pictures that don’t require a magnifying glass to identify.

And even though the cast pictured is the Broadway cast and not the original tour cast that I saw, the pictures are of significant scenes and costumes so that I can vividly recall the images I experienced that wonderful night.

3. Don’t get too cutesy. Stylish design is good, but you don’t want it to overpower the content. A board game in the Urinetown program, for example, is great fun . . . until you realize how much space it’s taking from other content.

Similarly, my program for The Drowsy Chaperone has ten pages of fun fluff. The pictures in the rest of the program are spectacular, but when I find myself looking I through it again, the two pages dedicated to Gable and Stein’s stable aren’t very interesting. The ten pages of Man in Chair’s scrapbook don’t help me remember the show.

4. Remember your audience. Why do people buy souvenir programs? To help them remember the wonderful experience they just had. As flattering as it surely is, an entire page dedicated to snapshots of the producers at the end of my Hairspray program is not why I bought the program. Don’t get me wrong, I am very thankful for all nineteen people and organizations shown there, but . . . They weren’t in the show, so why are they in the program?

Similarly, the Hairspray souvenir program—which has lots of beautiful pictures of the Original Broadway Cast—sprinkles throughout pictures and bios of the entire creative team. The bios come in the insert in the program (which, by the way, was cleverly printed on a fold-out poster). Not only is it redundant to take up space with them in the program, it’s a repeat of information.

When I see the programs that wind up sold to used bookstores, often, there’s so much information not related to the specific experience that I look at the programs myself and can’t get a feel for what they experienced.

5. Use updated pictures as much as possible. I think, as happens so many times, Cameron Mackintosh leads the way on this one. Towards the end of its tour, Les Miserables would hit my city almost yearly. And with every pass through, the souvenir program would be updated with the cast changes. It was a smart move on Mackintosh’s part because I bet I’m not the only one who didn’t mind double-dipping, particularly when it came to getting photos of favorite performances (for me, it was the amazing Jayne Patterson as Fantine).

It seems to be happening less now, but on tour, it often seems like we just get the New York cast in our photos. That’s still nice, but since it is supposed to be a souvenir of what we just saw, updated photos would be ideal.

And I know late in runs, the New York programs tend to be an amalgam of photos from various casts. I bet most theatre-goers would prefer to see photos of their cast rather than a mix of great casts of the past.

6. Make sure that there is a souvenir program!

Probably the strangest purchase I ever made was a program I got at the Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat tour with Patrick Cassidy and Deborah Gibson, which not only didn’t feature the cast I saw, but it wasn’t even the production. I think it was a program of photos from perhaps the original Broadway production. Strange.

I figure if the non-Equity tour of Godspell can come to town with not only a program of the cast but a CD as well, a Broadway tour could at least manage a souvenir program.

I’ve been fortunate that for several tours, I was able to get missing programs on a trip to New York, but it is annoying to see a show and to discover that the program isn’t available. Sometimes it’s a matter of printing times, such as when The Music Man was so new in New York, the programs just weren’t made yet. However, on a tour like Annie Get Your Gun or The King and I, which had been playing in New York for some time, some form of souvenir program should have been possible until new ones were printed.

Two exemplary souvenir programs that I remember are the programs for Bells are Ringing and Tarzan. For Bells are Ringing, there were a ton of pictures throughout (literally from cover to cover), of varying sizes but all large enough to easily see what was going on. The design includes lines on each page, I think to represent telephone lines, but they don’t obscure any pictures. There is writing (a piece from Betty Comden on the inspiration for the show, two historical sections on prices in 1956 and the history of communication, and a few paragraphs from the producer, and about a page from the director), but the best part is that these writings seem secondary to the photographs. They are beside the pictures, in corners of the actual photograph, and above them. A little less writing would have been nice (who cares about a history of communication—what’s the audience for this program?), but the great and many pictures make up for it. This program, by the way, was designed by Dewynters.

It’s almost unfair to use the Tarzan program as a model because it was for a Disney show and is about twice as long as other souvenir programs, no doubt because of the history of Disney’s success on Broadway (and the additional $10 I paid). The program, however, was filled with so many beautiful photos that the amount of writing doesn’t matter. There are many photos from the show itself, plus many others from photo shoots. There is an essay on Edgar Rice Burroughs, three paragraphs from producer Thomas Schumacher, and a few snippets here and there on the creative team for the show. But it is essentially a luscious book loaded with pictures printed on very high quality paper (even the insert of the actors’ bios is printed on thicker paper).

My love for Broadway and the excitement for seeing a show runs incredibly deep. There are times that I pick up a brochure or catalogue and I am immediately taken back to great memories when the printing smell is that of a Broadway program. That smell—no, aroma— takes me back to so many great experiences in the theatre that it makes me wish I could go run and see Show Boat again or Urinetown.

Souvenir programs not only help the bottom line for the producers, they are an essential part in recalling the experience for many people in the audience. When well-created, it becomes a permanent memory when the shows are long-gone and the casts have moved on. When not well-created, you can buy them for $3 at your local used bookstore.

the Broadway Mouth
September 18, 2007

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Eight Top Ten Theatre Books I Love

I originally posted this column September 8, 2007. I love nothing more than a great theatre book, and here are the best of the best.

Honestly, when I began buying theatre books, I’d pick them up as remainders at a local used bookstore. I never expected to fully read them, just to use them as reference books to look up shows and their creators.

However, the breakthrough came in reading Keith Garebian’s books on “the making of” My Fair Lady and West Side Story about seven years ago. Garebian’s books make for interesting reading, which somehow came as a surprise to me at the time (Give me a break; I was only twenty-three). Since then, I’ve worked my way through a good number of theatre books—from two Ethel Waters autobiographies, another Keith Garebian book (with the other two waiting in the wings), Ted Sennett’s fantastic Song and Dance: The Musicals of Broadway, Max Wilk’s Ok! The Story of Oklahoma!, Peter Stone’s lengthy account on Titanic (not to mention the show’s libretto), Stuart Ostrow’s A Producer’s Broadway Journey, among many others (many of which I have bought brand new, by the way).

And, naturally, like any good reader, I have many more to go, with Donna McKechnie’s Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life and Letters from Backstage: The Adventures of a Touring Stage Actor by Michael Kostroff high on my list of books to buy.

In all my reading, though, there are eight theatre books I probably have relied on more and revisited more often than any others. Above all, they make for interesting reads about topics that greatly interest me, but a good number of these are also books that have not only kept me informed but have also worked to shape my understanding of musical storytelling structure, characterization, and song placement. For someone like me, that’s invaluable.

Making It on Broadway by David Wienir and Jodie Langel—I’ve already detailed this one in an August blog entry, so I will save time by paraphrasing myself. If you read that blog entry, maybe skip ahead to the next book.

Making It on Broadway is a collection of first-hand accounts from contemporary Broadway performers about the heart-breaks and disillusions they’ve met as they’ve worked to make it on Broadway. Reading it was instant meth. Once I started, I literally couldn’t stop. It’s both hilarious (with many laugh-out-loud moments) but very enlightening and touching too. It’s all real stories by people who have pounded the boards.

Making It on Broadway has honestly had a profound effect on me as a theatre-goer and as a future librettist. When I think about whom I’d love to cast in my shows if they ever made it to Broadway, I think about this book. When I see Jerry Mathers stumbling through a televised performance from Hairspray, I think about this book. When I see people attacking performers on message boards, I think about this book. When I envision the career I’d like to have as a writer and the impact I’d like to have on Broadway no what genre I write, I think about this book.

Honestly, I need to also say again, I really think Wienir and Langel should write another Making It on Broadway book, perhaps dealing with another aspect of the business, like what performers think about current trends—amplification, the types of shows that are produced, savage message boards, etc.

(P.S. If you did read that rather melancholy blog entry, first of all I apologize. Secondly, I never did take a teaching job in California. Despite great encouragement from a recruitment organization, I couldn’t make the timing work. I’m working on Plan C . . . or is that Plan G? Anyway, this will all make for a great memoir someday.)

The TheaterMania Guide to Musical Theater Recordings, edited by Michael Portantiere—This is such an invaluable guide. It’s one of those books I find myself perusing often, re-re-re-reading entries. It’s great for the critical commentary on shows and performances, as well as a go-to guide for which recording is best suited to your needs. I love that there’s such a handy one-stop-shop for finding out which CD is the most complete recording, the best-sung, and all that jazz.

Obviously, there are entries with which I greatly disagree—Les Miserables, Aida, and the revival Hello, Dolly! come to mind—but I can’t get enough of this book and these observations. I don’t know if there’s a plan to update, but I sure hope we get another one soon. There are so many great new recordings I want to read about.

Let’s Put on a Musical! by Peter Filichia—I value this book so much because I have such a high respect for Peter Filichia and his TheaterMania column, though he does produce some darned exasperating quiz questions.

I originally picked this book up when I was directing high school plays, but in the six years since I decided I wanted a personal life and resigned that position, I couldn’t count how many times I’ve paged through Let’s Put on a Musical!.

In the book, Filichia outlines all the information you’d want to know about specific musicals in deciding whether to produce a show for your school, community theatre, or whatever, identifying significant set pieces, the amount of dancing, casting needs, and so on. What keeps me picking the book up are his concise appraisals of the musicals in his identification of assets and liabilities. It grants you a glimpse into Filichia’s thoughts on most of the significant musicals from about Oklahoma! to 1993, the year it was published. It’s like a movie guide from a great movie critic, except for musical theatre.

Whenever I see a show performed or read a libretto or listen to a CD I haven’t popped in for awhile, I love to read other people’s view of the show, and because of that, Peter Filichia’s Let’s Put on a Musical! has been invaluable. Sometimes I just open it up and page through the information on various shows.

There was word a few years back about Filichia updating the text to include the many new shows that have arrived on the scene since 1993. Personally, I can’t wait. I want to see what he has to say about The Scarlet Pimpernel and Titanic and Aida and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and so on.

Note: Thanks to someone who commented on this thread, I can pass on to you that the new Let’s Put on a Musical! is already published. I’m excited!

Everything Was Possible by Ted Chapin—Again, I paraphrase/quote myself from a June blog entry where I analyzed problems and solutions to Sondheim and Goldman’s imperfect masterpiece Follies (for that blog entry: in which I discuss this amazing book.

In Everything Was Possible, Ted Chapin describes with great detail the laborious rehearsal period for the original Hal Prince/Michael Bennett production of Follies. In addition to being a fascinating read because it details the creation of this breathtaking production, it gives you a stripped-away, glam-less documentation of the making of a Broadway musical (which, for the record, has a great many similarities with directing plays at the high school level, which I found fascinating).

It becomes a page-turner as former intern Chapin details the week-by-week developments of the show. You know how the show turns out before you even take in the introduction, but as you read, you do find yourself wanting to know what happens next. It makes for a fascinating read and a must-have for anyone interested in how Broadway musicals are made.

Broadway Musicals: The Greatest Shows of All Time by Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik—In this fascinating must-have tomb, Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik list and detail the 101 best Broadway musicals of their choosing. This is an exciting read loaded, stuffed, and jammed with rare full-color and black-and-white pictures and tons of interesting information. I know this book received a lot of press in its 2004 publication, but it shouldn’t be ignored or forgotten.

First of all, the book is only $34.95 which, considering its size and plethora of full-color pictures, is a real steal. Most importantly, however, the content is even more impressive.

It is clear Bloom and Vlastnik really researched this book. They reach back to such shows as The Desert Song, The New Moon, and The Student Prince in Heidelberg, often describing these lesser-known musicals in such vivid detail as to make you wonder where they hid the time machine. Most importantly, they make these older musicals—which are only names in books to many of us—come alive and seem vital. In a quick and pleasurable read, I learned so much about the pre-Oklahoma! periods and why those shows were popular.

While incorporating these important older shows, the list does consist of mostly modern (or post-Oklahoma!) musicals, giving you a front-row seat to their glories. In addition to the usual suspects, you get shows such as Destry Rides Again, Do Re Mi, and Fanny, none of which I knew much about until I read this book, beyond being a CD on a store shelf that is.

I love learning about Broadway musicals, and I gained so much insight from this wonderful book. Not only did I take in all sorts of new information about classic shows that I had seen, but I was also introduced to much rarer gems.

Plus, the authors don’t just stop at discussing shows. There are sidebars on legendary Broadway performers and their varied careers, as well as creative team members, such as choreographers and songwriters.

So, for example, in the Brigadoon entry, there are three full-color photos accompanying the main text (including two with great views of the set), a sidebar on Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe (with a black-and-white picture of the pair with Moss Hart) and a color picture of Julie Andrews and Richard Burton in Camelot. The pictures throughout the book are as varied as to include Elaine Stritch out-of-town in Sail Away, Betty Buckley in Triumph of Love, and Tommy Tune and Darcie Roberts in Busker Alley.

Personally, I’d buy Bloom and Vlastnik’s book on the 101 second-best musicals, 101 most mediocre musicals, and the 101 most miserable musicals if there’s this much important information and rare visuals to accompany them.

Broadway Yearbook series (1999-2000, 2000-2001, and 2001-2002) by Steven Suskin—This was a short-lived but cherished series in which Steven Suskin provided detailed analysis and discussion of all the Broadway shows from their respective seasons. Personally, the first two books were particularly nice because those were the first two years where I made trips to Broadway, so I saw some of the shows he discusses with the cast members he names. For me, it really is a beloved record to help me remember (jn addition to all the Playbills and souvenir programs I so carefully hauled home) those two glorious trips.

I hardly feel qualified to criticize Steven Suskin, who is not only extremely knowledgeable about theatre but is also a very skillful and witty writer. I will, however, endeavor to try.

Namely, I often find myself disagreeing with Suskin’s harsh words and interpretation of events. For example, I find his excellent analysis of the structure of Bells are Ringing to be pointless because musical comedy is an art, not a science, and the fact that the songs are unevenly distributed doesn’t matter in the face of what a fantastic show it is (Mel Brooks, by the way, is on my side in this). His harsh criticism of the text of the show seems particularly silly when, in the same book, he so highly praises 42nd Street, a show with a bloated book that I’m betting was written by a fifth grader.

Still, I find Suskin’s informative background information invaluable and his erudite criticism fascinating. In fact, when I disagree with him, I love the books even more. I can honestly say that by reading these books, I have learned much about storytelling in musical theatre and what critics expect of a show, priceless concepts for someone who wants to create.

I don’t think these books are still in publication, but they would be an invaluable addition to any musical theatre library.

Ever After by Barry Singer—This was another one of those books I bought and devoured in a very short time. It is essentially a collection of articles Singer wrote for The New York Times (thanks to Michael John LaChiusa for that info). In addition to being a fascinating read, this is another book that has dramatically shaped my theatrical worldview.

When I started writing my first musical, I was listening to a number of amazing contemporary theatre scores. This was around the time I began shopping at Barnes and Noble, searching for interesting CDs to buy from shows I’d never experienced—which ended up in my exposure to favorites like Triumph of Love, Side Show, Marie Christine, and Ragtime. This was coupled with then-recent touring productions of shows like Jekyll and Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Titanic, Les Miserables, and Parade. My first attempt at writing the show (which was without collaborators) was heavily influenced by these lush scores of emotionally charged ballads and anthems which I still cannot get enough of. However, in analyzing the list, only a few of those ran long enough to recoup their original investment.

And, as in life, the right role models are so important in art.

But as I read Barry Singer’s book, I gained insights into these and other shows, understanding what audiences want and what critics (usually the door-keepers to any show) perceive. It took a few years of my opus lying dormant on my computer before I understood what needed fixing, but when I did, Barry Singer’s perspective was crucial in coming to see it for myself.

Plus, I love books on contemporary theatre. When I read a book on musical theatre, I want it to be contemporary, so I can learn what is happening now. I also appreciate being able to read about productions of shows I’ve seen. I want to know what people think of Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Pimpernel. I will probably vehemently disagree with what they have to say, but I love learning that new perspective.

The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen by Ethan Mordden—For many of the same reasons as with Singer’s book, I devoured Ethan Mordden’s book when I finally got it. Here is a discussion of contemporary musical theatre with smart observations and interesting analyses. Invaluable for me was his very strong coverage of the dark ages of the 1980s, where he details what sounds like some pretty fantastically awful shows I never even knew existed (save for Starmites, which I regretfully experienced first hand in a high school production).

I love Mordden’s style which, while a little showy in the superfluous wordy footnotes department and the tossing around of fancy foreign words, is lively and engaging. His style is such that, after reading The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen, I feel like I would know Mordden if I ever met him on the street. Perhaps someday I will.

Once again, I can’t say enough about how this book, like the Singer and Suskin books, has greatly impacted me as a wanna-be-produced librettist (by the way, that one’s for you, Mr. Mordden). I love theatre, I love musical theatre, and I just want to soak it all up to write the best I can.

I’ve read many theatre books, though I have a great many more to go. While I haven’t been there yet to know the best advice to give to other people in my shoes, where I stand now, I don’t think I could say enough about Making It on Broadway, Everything Was Possible, Broadway Musicals: The Greatest Shows of All Time, Steven Suskin’s Broadway Yearbook series, Ever After, and The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen as fascinating reads that will shape how you view any writing task before you.

As for The TheaterMania Guide to Musical Theater Recordings and Let’s Put on a Musical!, they are fun reads and valuable reference books. Personally, I wouldn’t want to part with them from my library.

the Broadway Mouth
September 8, 2007

Friday, March 20, 2009

Eight Top Ten Things to Guide You in Recording a Solo Album

This list was originally posted August 23, 2007.

Emily Skinner wrote in the liner notes to her self-titled solo album:

“What I didn’t want was an ego trip of the ‘Songs I like to listen to myself sing the most’ type.”

I don’t know about everyone else, but I like those kind of ego trips! After all, if you don’t like to hear yourself sing the song, why the heck would anyone else want to hear it? Who cares who picks the songs as long as you sing them well?

I love a good solo album. It’s a delight to hear the stars I love singing songs I wouldn’t otherwise get to hear them sing. On message boards, people are always fantasizing about ideal casts and who they’d die to hear sing different parts. A solo album is a theatre fan’s chance to dream in stereo.

Though while we all love a good solo album, sinking your hard-earned money on a great voice underperforming on disc is a major letdown. Not only is it a waste of money if you don’t like the CD, even worse, it’s a waste of talent. It can also hurt that star’s chance of having a successful second album.

So, as an avid theatre fan, here are some guidelines for recording a solo theatre album that will entertain and delight your fans and hopefully win you a few more.

1. Theatre folk seem to like to pick the most obscure Broadway songs to sing. For example, Dorothy Loudon performed a song from Ballroom on the My Favorite Broadway: The Leading Ladies concert. I’ve read a ton about Broadway musicals, and I’ve never heard of that show. Audra McDonald chose a song from Hooray for What. She sang it well, but, um, it never stuck to the ribs, you know. Heather Headley sang “He Touched Me” on The Love Songs, and I still don’t know which show that’s from.

It’s understandable because an artist wants to have the chance to trod a path that few have trod. There are songs that, because they are so popular, have been performed by everyone and their YouTube-obsessed cousin. But if you are making a theatre CD, the selling point is going to be your awesome voice singing songs people have wanted to hear you sing or have wanted to have on disc.

So, guideline one is to select a variety of songs for your CD that are both new to your audience but also familiar. I like being introduced to new songs. It’s just that when you have a CD that is mostly new songs, it can be difficult to enter in without the hook of familiarity. Theatre songs are linked to stories, so if you are performing a song from a 1930s show that is no longer produced, it’s hard for people to follow your stories. At the same time, it’s nice to be introduced to new songs. It’s great to see a new show and have one or two of the songs in your back pocket to look forward to. A blend of the new and familiar is always a good mix to have.

2. Recording songs from shows that were never recorded, however, is a big bonus. I love that Emily Skinner brought in Alice Ripley to record a duet from James Joyce’s The Dead on her solo album. That’ll be one of the few chances I’ll ever have to hear anything from that score. Similarly, Matt Bogart’s “Tell My Father” from The Civil War, which was never recorded by a Broadway performer, is a highlight on his CD.

It’s also a joy for your fans to hear the songs you performed on stage as a replacement or tour cast member. Personally, I would love to have Merle Dandridge signing an Aida song or Kim Huber singing one of Belle’s songs. We theatre fans eat that sort of thing up. Feed us well!

3. If you want theatre people to buy your CD, do a theatre CD. Audra McDonald can pull off her solo albums because she has the marketing push behind her and has found crossover success. But if you do, say, a jazz CD, then don’t be surprised when it doesn’t sell well. I love Brian Stokes Mitchell, and I have no clue how his Playbill CD has sold. However, it was a jazz CD. Personally, I’m not interested in jazz. Jazz fans buy jazz CDs with jazz songs, and theatre fans buy theatre star CDs with theatre songs with theatre arrangements. Personally, I want a Brian Stokes Mitchell theatre CD, just not with jazz arrangements.

In fact, there is one beautiful theatre voice I won’t name who has permanently destroyed several aging pop songs for me because they were such a poor fit for her tremendous talents, and now I can’t bear the thought of hearing them again. Oh, if only she had recorded theatre songs!

That is not to say that there isn’t room for difference. For example, Adam Pascal’s rock albums are great. But he’s not taking “The Party’s Over” and turning it into a rock anthem. He’s got the voice to pull it off, and he’s doing rock songs. Similarly, Laura Bell Bundy has a country album out. She’s not directly reaching her Broadway fans. She’s not doing “For Good” with a country twang. I’m sure many of her fans will go along for the ride, but she knows her primary audience for the album isn’t Broadway.

So if you want to primarily sell your theatre voice, do theatre songs! And do them with theatre arrangements.

4. Give us theatre interpretations. I love Susan Egan’s solo album So Far. In addition to Egan’s great voice, she gives us a theatre CD in which she sings theatre songs as if she was in the show. That’s really the ideal album for the theatre fan.

I think of as an example the two Fantasia solo albums, both which have not sold to Fantasia’s American Idol fanbase. Fantasia earned a billion votes by singing one style, then produced two albums in a completely different style. She’s probably happy with their R & B integrity and how they reflect the kind of music she wants to do, but she’s not making the kind of music people voted for her singing. The result is that her sales reflect that. It’s the same analogy for theatre albums. If people are buying your CD because they liked what they saw on a Broadway stage (or on YouTube or on an OBCR or whatever), then determine what level of success you want to have before releasing the solo album that deviates from it.

Also, if you do have traditional theatre interpretations, do your character analysis work. A theatre song is not intended to be sung only by hitting the notes. Even if you can hit amazing notes, there’s more to a theatre song than that. That’s actually really boring. Unfortunately, I bought a CD by a theatre star whom I esteem highly, but his CD is so boring. It’s like a solo choir concert—a performance lacking emotion.

5. Make sure that the sound quality is top notch. There are a few CDs out there with great voices I won’t name that sound like they were recorded in a tin can in a basement. The vocals are strong, but they don’t have a clear audio quality. If you’re going to go through the process of recording your voice, do it justice!

6. If you do a gospel album, you’re not allowed to be photographed without a significant percentage of your clothing for a ten-year time span. Jubilant Sykes (from the Encores! Bloomer Girl), for example, did an album that showcased his voice beautifully through Gospel songs in 1998. He’s never been photographed without a majority of his clothing. And he’s got one year to go.

7. As for arrangements, if you can’t finance a full accompaniment, follow the example Chuck Wagner set on his self-named solo album. I once read how many instruments he used, and while I don’t recall that number, I do know the final tracks don’t sound like they were done on a budget. The ideal is a full orchestra, but if you can’t do that, be creative.

8. Do an album. Actually record it. I don’t know the financial aspect of recording a solo album, but there are plenty of people out there who need to do a solo theatre album—Carolee Carmello, Rachel York, Donna Murphy, Brian d’Arcy James, Anthony Crivello, and Norm Lewis all come to mind.

When I think of great solo theatre albums, several come to mind as great examples. One of those is Matt Bogart’s Simple Song album. His song selection is a mixture of classics, contemporary, and rare. A sampling of the seventeen tracks include “Soliloquy” from Carousel (classic), “I Don’t Hear the Ocean” from Marie Christine (contemporary), and “Proud Lady” from The Baker’s Wife (rare). I know that when I finally get to see The Baker’s Wife (or Anyone Can Whistle), because of Bogart’s album, I’ll have something to which I can look forward.

In his own words (from the liner notes), his “aim was to create a theatre album where I could bring the appropriate theatricality to each of these pieces as though I were simply performing them live and on stage . . . I feel these theatre songs demand a certain attention be paid to their design to tell a specific story.” As Michael John LaChiusa also writes in the liner notes, Bogart understands that a song “needs no embellishment, no ego-driven interpretation.” And because of this, it’s an extraordinarily effective album. When I hear his “Written in the Stars,” I feel like I’m sitting in the theatre watching the show.

I’ve never seen Matt Bogart perform, but the CD showcases his talents beautifully. The songs use traditional arrangements, but he makes them his own through his theatrical character-driven interpretations. Because there is a mixture of songs, you can focus on hearing the new ones for the first time and take the time to figure them out, while enjoying the better-known songs instantly. There’s also a blending of different styles of songs, so it doesn’t feel like one long ballad or you don’t skip ahead to the songs that have a different tempo just for a change of pace. It is a well-rounded CD that perfectly showcases Matt Bogart’s talents.

In thinking about Bogart’s Simple Song CD and Susan Egan’s So Far, both produced for Jay Records by John Yap, I wonder why this Yap fellow isn’t doing this with other people. He should be calling Sutton Foster, Brent Carver, or Marla Schaffel.

So . . . In short, don’t forget your roots. If you want to do something different, then go completely different. But after that, come back and do a theatre CD. We love your voice. It’s just that there’s a lot of CDs out there vying for our money, and we want to spend it on what we love.

the Broadway Mouth
August 23, 2007

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Amplification: Back to Before?

Here is one on amplification on Broadway from August 18, 2007. This is one of those topics that never seems to go away.

One of the theatrical controversies that always pops up in theatre books, documentaries, and message boards is the microphone debate. I’ve honestly never heard a great voice un-miced, which I think would be an awesome experience, but there are other considerations to take in mind when it comes to this issue. It’s about so much more than just actors on Broadway being able to sing with that kind of projection and clarity.

First of all, we have to acknowledge what Marin Mazzie said in one of the American Theatre Wing seminars, which is that microphones in the theatre allow for a more nuanced style of acting. Everything still needs to be sold to the back balcony, but it can be taken down a notch because the voice isn’t required to do so much work. We still have some remnants of that style of acting left on Broadway, but it’s still often prevalent in high school and community theatres when big facial expressions and gestures replace genuine emotion. Thank God that’s slowly going the way of the dinosaurs! By today’s standards, set by film and television, the sort of acting un-miced on a stage in a theatre the size of the Palace, the Broadway, or most touring houses would require would be a major turn-off.

The presence of microphones has also allowed for more naturalistic staging. Not everything has to be sold out front all the time anymore. Book scenes can happen with one character facing the back of the stage, turning around, or whatever. I’ve often wondered how spectacular the revered acting performances of the past would seem today now that we have the ability for more nuance in acting style and staging.

We also need to acknowledge that audiences have changed. Cameron Macintosh said this in the Broadway: The Golden Age documentary, that modern audiences require amplification. When I attend reputable regional theatres that don’t have amplification, it’s a major frustration for the first twenty minutes or so because you do miss words or partial phrases. It’s not even the actors. It’s that guy with the cough, the woman with the squeaking seat, or the guy who needs to take his pill twenty minutes in. These are common occurrences in the theatre, and the presence of amplification takes these distractions away.

Heck, even in a movie theatre I get annoyed if the promised THX or DTS sound doesn’t kick in. I panic about not being able to hear properly or easily get distracted by popcorn crunching or soda slurping. Of course you settle in and survive, blocking out the distractions, but as an average person from the generation of stereos, headphones, car stereos, and concerts, my ability to block out distractions and hear clearly is limited. Add to that any other theatrical distractions (like air conditioning in theatres as one sound person pointed out), and you have someone paying $120 for a show they can’t hear clearly.

Then there are the shows that require amplification. Amplification, for example, pumped Tarzan with some much-needed energy. Other shows with rock scores require, by the nature of the genre of music, to be amped. You can’t have Amneris rocking out “My Strongest Suit” and not have those guitars and drums pulsing through the theatre.

I particularly hate when people use this issue as an excuse to attack actors. There are plenty of people out there who could do classic shows eight performances a week without microphones. As someone on the Broadway World message board recently pointed out, many modern scores are too taxing to perform eight times a week without amplification. Could you imagine trying to be Jekyll/Hyde without it? Or Aida? Or Eva Peron? But there are plenty of actors who could do traditional scores without mics.

But more importantly, there are many, many more who could easily learn to do it. There are the Betty Buckleys of this world who are born with pipes o’ steal, but that’s not a requirement. It’s usually about technique. Actors don’t develop that part of their voice because it’d be a waste of time. There’s no need to spend time learning to sing in a huge Broadway theatre without amplification because that’s not the scenario anymore. We have nuance now. In the old days, if Gertrude Lawrence, Sam Levine, Gwen Verdon, and Barbara Harris could do it—all extremely talented people who starred in un-miced musicals but were not known for strong singing voices—then there’s no reason why most contemporary performers couldn’t learn to do it too. Right now, I can’t drive a semi-truck, but with the proper training, there’s no reason I couldn’t do it. It’s the same thing for actors and singing un-amped.

This is not to say that amplification is the ideal. When I went to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, I sat in the orchestra section under the balcony in the Imperial Theatre, and the speakers sounded like $99.99 Wal-Mart specials. When that happens, it just takes time for your ears to adjust and get used to it. So if there is amplification, the speakers have to be of a quality to help make the sound appear to be natural, not like it’s emitting from a tin can.

I also remember sitting in the front of the balcony for the tour of Titanic and literally being unable to make out 85% of what the men were saying because the sound system was such crap. This was really sad because it was the first Broadway show for two of my friends, and they really didn’t get much out of it for obvious reasons. The actors were doing their thing. The producers and the theatre were the problem.

I will agree that no mics would be best. I’ve often sat close to the stage, wondering what it would sound like if there were not speakers audibly sending out sound from my right or left. But I also know that I appreciate the benefits that amplification brings—namely nuanced acting and staging techniques, not to mention the comfort of hearing comfortably. Personally, I’d love to go to un-amplified concerts, but as for my Broadway shows, I want to enjoy the story without any distraction.

the Broadway Mouth
August 18, 2007

Monday, March 16, 2009

Broadway Revivals: The Right Canvas

I originally posted this one on July 6, 2007.

Important English teacher philosophy: You breathe in by reading, and you breathe out by writing.

Writers read, and what you read influences how you write. I love reading the likes of Willa Cather and Jane Austen and Richard Wright because I learn so much and it inspires me to write things that aspire to their heights.

There’s been a lot of discussion about revivals on Broadway and how they take up space for new works. As someone who wants to write those new works, I really hope there’s plenty of space for new works. When my times comes, I don’t want to have to wait two years for a theatre to open.

At the same time, we need something to breathe in. As I said in a blog last month, I loved seeing The Color Purple and The Wedding Singer, but I still don’t think many of the big shows of today yet compare with the big shows of the past. You’ve got to have amazing, flawless works staring down at you as you write so you can ask yourself, is this even close to being as good as Kiss Me, Kate (or The Music Man or Guys and Dolls or The King and I)?

On Broadway you get the best performers, the best directors, the best choreographers. Where else but Broadway could you get Brian Stokes Mitchell as Fred Graham, Faith Prince as Ella Peterson, Kelli O’Hara as Babe Williams, or Michael Cerveris as Sweeney Todd?

There are tons of productions of any number of great classic musicals all over the country. At any given time, I can see a high school doing Anything Goes, a college doing Guys and Dolls, a community theatre doing Annie, and maybe even an Equity production of The Music Man. In fact, I’ve seen them all, but none of them have come close to seeing them on Broadway. I live in a city with a very large theatre community, but we generally get 2-5 Equity productions of great Broadway musicals a year, and there’s typically nothing to compare with the Paper Mill Playhouse or the Pasadena Playhouse.

The first time I saw The Music Man, it was at a community theatre. It was an okay show, but I didn’t walk away in awe of an amazing score or libretto. When I walked out of the Susan Stroman revival, however, I felt like I had seen a spectacular show.

That’s because nobody does it like Broadway. Seeing a community theatre production of Oliver! is comparable to watching an epic film like Gone With the Wind on DVD. It’s better than not seeing it at all, but it’s the way the show was meant to be seen.

Not only does Broadway do them better, Broadway provides opportunities for shows to get produced that wouldn’t otherwise be seen. I think I could die without ever seeing a middling local production of Bells are Ringing; Kiss Me, Kate; The Pajama Game; Sweet Charity; 110 in the Shade; and a host of others, let alone a first-class Broadway production surrounded by first-class Equity talent.

In fact, I wish people like Tommy Tune who, in the Rick McKay documentary DVD, complain about revivals taking up New York theatres, would put their money where their mouths are and direct great touring productions of classic shows that haven’t been tampered with (like the Michael York Camelot was revised). He could give us Broadway names in Call Me Madam, Gypsy, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and a host of other shows that would help fill out the gaps between great new Broadway shows coming into town on tour.

The good news is that all Broadway musicals are a gamble. You have the revivals that make money, like Kiss Me, Kate and A Chorus Line, but then you have those that don’t run long and probably don’t make money—Wonderful Town, Sweet Charity, Bells are Ringing. So, people get a chance to see these amazing shows, they run their season, and they generally quickly open up space for new productions, just like new shows do the same thing.

Mame is a Broadway musical, and it was meant to be seen on Broadway. You can see the Mona Lisa in a book, but if you are really passionate about experiencing and studying art, you don’t settle for a book in the library. If new creators want more new musicals, then they need to create shows that deserve that space, both to inspire the next generation of writers and to delight audiences to keep them coming back to Broadway. Until then, revivals play an important part not only in providing opportunities to see these great shows in the way they were meant to be seen but also in allowing the next generation of creators to learn from them.

Broadway Mouth
July 6, 2007

Friday, March 13, 2009

From the Mouth of Alan Jay Lerner

This has been one of my favorite blogs to quote because what Lerner writes here is so relevent, even all these years later. I originally posted this on July 1, 2007.

When I wrote the blog entry “A Hundred Million Miracles,” I did so because I wanted to share something exciting I had found with the people who read my blog. I am very thankful to those who upload footage onto You Tube and Blue Gobo because it’s all about education. The more I can see of, say, Gwen Verdon from the original Sweet Charity, the more I can learn. Theatre is a living art form. You can gain much from reading about the great performances and from hearing first hand accounts, but until you see Heather Headley and Adam Pascal singing “Elaborate Lives” or see Gower Champion’s original “Before the Parade Passes By” choreography, you can never fully understand.

So below, I’ve scanned in the foreword to the published Paint Your Wagon libretto from which I quoted in my “Hello and Faux” blog entry. It is entitled “Advice to Young Musical Writers” and is written by Alan Jay Lerner himself. Reading this article really gave me perspective on a number of the current trends on Broadway.

The longer I study Broadway, how true it seems to me that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In the Rick McKay documentary Broadway: The Golden Age and on the DVD bonus features, a number of significant theatre folk acknowledge that people have been bemoaning the state of Broadway since the 1970s. In looking at this article, it’s clear that people have been bemoaning the state of Broadway much longer . . . even in the midst of the great Golden Age.

So I propose that we limit complaining, continue learning, continue creating, and continue to fight the good fight of getting a great show on Broadway.

Advice to Young Musical Writers
by Alan Jay Lerner

In recent years there has been an ever-increasing number of adaptations in the theater and, by consequence, a steady decline of original works. This has been especially-true of the musical play (musical play as opposed to musical comedy). There have actually been only three successful original musical plays in the last decade. This dearth has frequently been mentioned in the press, and when it has been, it has always been accompanied by a mournful cry for more fresh creation. As one who has written four originals, the one between these covers included, let me hereby warn all aspiring authors and composers to stuff their ears with cotton and pay no heed to this soulful wail. No one, neither critic nor public, is clamoring for originality. The only desire is for something good. And to be good is quite original enough. If you create a total work that finds general acceptance, no mention will be made of what you have done. If it's unsuccessful, no one will commend you for your effort and encourage you to continue. All this I can state as a positive fact. And though it may seem edged with bitterness, I can assure you it is not. I have always been fully aware of the folly of that end of my endeavor and have often cursed the ambition that drives me. But with it all, my rewards in the musical field have been far in excess of what I truthfully feel I have contributed. No, my reasons for the above advice are sound and practical and come from one who loves his trade and has deep respect for it as a medium of expression.

The lyric theater is the one, and only one, true invention that has been made in theatrical form for many years. It is also a purely American creation; so American, in fact, is this subtle interweaving of word, song, and dance, that no other country has even been able to approach it. Because it is new, it also has great possibilities for development. And with a public that is searching for escape almost more avidly than it did during the war, there is a large, waiting audience. But there is also a problem. And this problem is a serious one. The spank in the machine is that there are very few people writing musicals. I don't believe there are more than a dozen composers, librettists, and lyricists in all who are regular practitioners and who have committed their careers to the musical stage. Not only that, but of that number no more than three, possibly four, have been developed in the past ten years. The rest have been the backbone of our musical theater since the twenties and early thirties.

There are a myriad of reasons why this should be so. The most important one, however, is economic. Although there are many struggling neophytes composing musical plays, the cost of production these days is so astronomical that investors are reluctant to trust their funds to any but the tried and true. The hazard is further increased by the fact that the cost of attending a musical has risen so that although there is a public longing for entertainment, people are unwilling to risk the price of a ticket unless they have been assured by the press that the evening will be a rewarding one. This means there is no room for the moderate success. A musical show is either a smash hit or it will invariably be a financial failure. And to increase the hazard even more, favorable notices by a majority of the eight New York critics are not sufficient. There are two of the eight writing for the daily press who must be pleased above all. Survival without their blessing is relatively impossible; even though survival with their blessing is not absolutely guaranteed. All of this naturally has immediate effects on the economic and emotional plight of the author and composer. How long can they continue writing without seeing production of, and receiving remuneration for, their efforts? Where do they make mistakes and thus learn? And how long can anyone endure without some sign of encouragement?

And so I return to my early thesis. With the risks being what they are—and I have only mentioned a few of the multitude—your chances not only of reaching production but achieving success will be inestimably enhanced if you begin with a book, a short story, a motion picture, or a play that has already been approved by public and critic alike. The value of the basic story cannot be exaggerated. There is often a general tendency to regard the book of a musical as of little consequence. This is especially true when the musical is a success. But let the opening night be a two and a half hour wake and you will read the next morning how neither the cast, the music, the scenery, nor the dancing was able to overcome the inept plot. I can tell you the book is all-essential. It is the fountain from which all waters spring. So start off on the right foot and select a story that is all prepared for you. The translation of that story to musical form is quite complex enough. Within that frame you will find more than adequate challenge to your originality and enough on which to experiment.

January 25, 1952

Originally published as a foreword to the published libretto of Paint Your Wagon

MLA Citation Information:
Lerner, Alan Jay. Foreword. Paint Your Wagon. Coward-McCann, 1952. vii-ix.

(Blogger doesn't allow for underlining, but please be aware that MLA requires titles of plays to be underlined instead of italicized.)

Please Note: I would just like to acknowledge that I am a big fan of copyrights, having ownership of a few of them myself. My intent in posting this piece of copyrighted work is solely education. I make no money from this blog. Since it has been long out of print, I trust that by posting it, I am not taking away from any earning potential from those who own the copyright.

I would be a happy camper if I got an email saying that this essay was going to be collected into a new collection of articles about Broadway over the past century, and therefore, I needed to remove it; however, since that seems sadly unlikely, I make it available. If you are the owner of this copyright and would like me to remove it, please contact me.

Broadway Mouth
July 1, 2007

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Road They Didn't Take: Fixing Follies

This has probably been my most popular column, originally posted June 27, 2007.

When I walked into the Belasco Theatre on Wednesday, June 13, 2001, I was entirely clueless about Follies. By this point, I had seen quite a few Broadway tours, had been following Broadway online often, had been to New York once before where I had seen quite a few shows, and had gotten into the habit of buying Cast Recordings quite often. Yet, I didn’t know exactly what Follies was or how significant Sondheim is (trust me, I’ve since made up for it and then some).

But in seeing Follies for the first time, all that worked to my benefit because I also didn’t know how “Loveland” was supposed to look or how Phyllis was supposed to sing or how “I’m Still Here” was supposed to be staged or anything.

So that night when the lights went down . . . Oh, what a show!

Immediately when the ghosts of the follies past entered, I was captivated. They were humans on stage, but it really was as if they were from another world. As the story unfolded, I was stunned by the storytelling, the past commenting on the present, the present living in the past. I can still remember how my insides churned with excitement during “Who’s That Woman” and after that, how Polly Bergen stopped the show with “I’m Still Here” in the way that stars used to stop shows. Then came “Loveland,” and I just couldn’t get enough of those songs and what they were expressing and how. The entire evening was astounding, exciting, imagination-inspiring.

At the end of the night, I left the Belasco almost speechless. The story seemed like that of a straight play, but the music pulled it deeper psychologically. I wanted to get my hands on the libretto because I felt like I had been so dazzled that I needed to read the ending again to understand it all.

When I returned home, no matter how I tried, I couldn’t fully communicate to people the excitement that was Follies. Unless you see it for yourself or read the libretto with a vivid imagination, I don’t think an average person could fully grasp that show.

But now matter how excited I was about the show itself, the story that really piqued everyone’s interest happened at the stage door.

At this time, I was still waiting at the stage door to meet the stars of the shows I had seen. In this cast, I knew who Marge Champion was and knew who Betty Garret was from Laverne and Shirley. Marni Nixon I knew, as well as Treat Williams and Erin Dilly. But by the end of the show, I was a big fan of everyone involved and so desperately wanted to meet them. Unlike most other shows I had been to that week, only a small gaggle of fans gathered outside this theatre, but we still scrambled as each diva exited.

As if each performer wasn’t generating enough excitement, Blythe Danner walked out with daughter Gwyneth Paltrow (star of the movie Emma, which I love) beside her. Thankfully, people were very respectful, though, as you can imagine, excited to see such a film star. I was more interested in meeting her mother after such a riveting performance in a riveting show. I politely asked Ms. Danner if I could have my picture taken with her, and she said yes, but because I was alone, I didn’t have anyone to take the picture. Used to this, I turned to the people around me and said, “Could anyone take our picture?” to which a certain Academy-Award winning actress said shyly, raising her hand timidly, “I could.”

“Oh my gosh, I just had my picture taken by Gwyneth Paltrow!” I said after thanking Phyllis Rogers Stone for a spectacular performance and Gwyneth Paltrow for taking the picture. At that very moment, Marge Champion came out, so I let other people grab at the movie star while I met Ms. Champion who, for the record, is much sweeter in person than she is on stage in Elaine Stritch’s show.

When I got pictures with a few other stars from the show, I turned to see mother and daughter movie star walking down the street, knowing that now away from the stage door, they deserved their personal time without my interruption. I never regretted not getting my picture with her because, well, she wasn’t in the show. I am, after all, a movie fan who is a die hard Broadway baby.

For the record, Gwyneth Paltrow takes a very fine snapshot, and I’d sell my camera on eBay for oodles of money if I could prove her fingerprints were on it.

So anyway, about a year or so after seeing the show, I discovered that the Follies libretto was available and bought it.

It’s amazing how truthfully Follies deals with the issues of the past and our response to it. Every time I read it, I connect with the events and the characters more deeply. And the more people I know getting married, getting divorced, and even re-connecting after divorce, the more I can see how the show mirrors life.

Recently, I finally read Ted Chapin’s soon-to-be legendary book Everything Was Possible, in which he describes with great detail the laborious rehearsal period for the original Hal Prince/Michael Bennett production. In addition to being a fascinating read because it details the creation of Follies, it gives you a stripped-away, glam-less documentation of the making of a Broadway musical (which, for the record, has a great many similarities with directing plays at the high school level, which I found fascinating).

Reading it shed a great deal of light on why Follies is the way that it is, which is brilliant but, to my opinion, not perfect.

The Cause
As a writer, you generally have an idea of where you want your story to go. The journey getting there might be unclear, but you have a clear idea of where you want to go and how. You then build your work to ready your audience for that end.

The problem in the creation of Follies was that there were several key pieces missing from the plot puzzle for a significant portion of the rehearsal period. With the exception of “Losing My Mind,” the songs for the final follies sequence—“You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow,” “Love Will See Us Through,” “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues,” “The Story of Lucy and Jesse,” and “Live, Laugh, Love” were not written. And Phyllis was actually set to sing “Losing My Mind.”

The older actors were really struggling with some of the material. In fact, Chapin says that, for the entire run of the show, several of them regularly botched their songs. “Who’s That Woman” was particularly challenging for the older women, and Michael Bennett and his team worked tirelessly with them to get it down. Because of that, can you imagine what it must have been like to have only begun to conquer all that dancing and music . . . then to be handed “The Story of Lucy and Jesse” or “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues”? When reading Chapin’s book, by the time these songs are ready and the show is complete, you can almost feel the sigh of relief from everyone involved in the production just at the thought of having a complete show . . . and that’s without having the show entirely on its feet. There would have been no way to make major changes to the conclusion or to the opening without threatening the ability of the cast to pull it off. Also, I doubt there was time for anyone to really sit back and objectively observe and reflect on how the story came together and how it should be altered. The result was that the show never fully comes together thematically.

Unjustly, James Goldman tends to get much of the brunt of this criticism, but if you look at the timing when those songs were completed, the amount of work that was still before the cast, and the break-neck pace at which everyone was working . . . The guy deserves a break for even having had a chance to write anything for the actors to do after Ben’s breakdown. Even if he had had the time to understand what changes needed to be made, there would have been no way he could actually implement them without risking the whole show.

The Problems
I humbly submit these as the key problems with Follies. Please note that these thoughts are largely derived from the edition of the play published by Theatre Communications Group after the 2001 revival, carrying a copyright date of 2001 by James Goldman. If you haven’t seen Follies, I highly recommend you pick up this relatively inexpensive book and read it as soon as you can. I know that there is an older edition published with the text of the original Broadway show. In my dream world, I would have copies of each libretto; however, right now I don’t, so my comments reflect the currently published edition.

First of all, as Steven Suskin points out in his Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001, the placement of Ben’s song as last and the show pivoting on his breakdown sort of makes him the main character. The problem is that the show isn’t about Ben Stone. Suskin does mention how the actress playing Phyllis Rogers Stone typically gets top billing, which would indicate Phyllis as the main character; however, billing isn’t always connected with the size of the role. For example, Dorothy Brock gets top billing in 42nd Street (and wins Leading Actress awards), but it is the character of Peggy Sawyer on which the major dramatic question of the show rests (and who gets the most stage time). This structural dilemma in Follies is understandable because of the stress in constructing the show. As Suskin points out, a show about follies girls should not be centered on a man. With this ending the show seems to be about Ben, but I don’t think the creative team could have done anything to set it up differently at that stage.

Secondly, the characters leave the reunion returning to their original spouses without there being any indication of their ability to do things differently. Each character goes through a moment of self reflection in the follies sequence’s songs, but they never come to a conclusion. For example, Phyllis identifies her problem, but there’s no resolve. The ending never indicates that Lucy and Jesse will finally combine. This makes for an unsatisfactory ending because the characters never really make a decision; their choices just seem to happen as if there’s nothing better to do. The audience cannot believe that these couples will be truly happy, and an unhappily ever after ending doesn’t comment on any other part of the show or fit into a grand thematic statement. There’s nothing elsewhere in the musical to suggest that there’s a good reason for them to have to be unhappy.

As I said earlier, when I left the theatre, I felt like I needed to read the ending to fully realize its deeper meaning. When I finally read the play, what I realized was that there were no deeper meanings to get. That’s because, again, the ending seems disconnected from the rest of the show.

Thirdly, the cause of all this mess is never entirely clear. It is known that Sally gave it out, so to speak, too quickly, and she even acknowledges this in her fight with Young Sally. However, why Ben picked Phyllis (who seems to have given it out as well) when he really loved Sally is never clear. And not only is it not clear, but it’s very important because Ben’s choice is the impetus for everyone’s regrets. This lack of meat in the flashback scenes robs the current plot of its substance. Number one, it makes the events seem more like those in a soap opera, and number two, the psychology of the characters that is so brilliantly depicted in the follies sequence lacks drive or substance.

One could carp about the lack of humor in the show, as Michael Bennett did, but to go through adding more zingers would tamper with Goldman’s style. Besides, as Foster Hirsch noted in his book Harold Prince and the American Musical Theatre (Expanded Edition), the original production wasn’t lit or set brightly enough for humor. It is my supposition that the show requires a darker set because of the nature of the characters’ struggles and the need to bathe the ghosts in a supernatural light, so adding humor to the libretto would also be somewhat futile.

Lastly, one could argue that the show never really says anything concretely, though the makings of some themes are present. It more so presents ideas—the futility of regret, the dangers of living in the past, the naiveté of youth, the nature of youthful marriage—without ever commenting on them (in the way that straights plays do, like The Crucible, A Raisin in the Sun, Death of Salesman, or Sweet Birth of Youth). Sondheim’s shows tend to contain a myriad of ideas, but Follies, by its serious nature, can’t remain observations, at least not in its current form. It needs to complete the statement its unique structure feels like its building to.

Some Fixes
Ideally, someone would be able to take Goldman’s book and, with a concrete driving theme in mind, restructure it to fit in all of Goldman’s original ideas and align them with Sondheim’s ideas without damaging Goldman’s tone and sensibilities. It would be a cut and paste job with many of the same scenes happening, perhaps just in a slightly different order.

As I outline some potential solutions, I do think it’s important to note that, without the ability to fully cut and paste, I don’t know if anyone could really build to a concrete driving theme. Still, I’d like to propose some fixes within Goldman’s current libretto.

The first big change needs to be a clarification of why Ben chose Phyllis when he clearly preferred Sally. It is made clear that Ben wants to be a big success, so perhaps there could be something that happens to indicate that while he loves Sally’s childlike nature, he wants to love Phyllis’s maturity and sophistication. In other words, he really prefers to shop at Wal-Mart, but he wants to want to shop at Macy’s because it’s classier. Ben’s desire to be rich and have the best is very clear, but the connection of his choice of Phyllis needs to be as clear as well.

There needs to be something in the follies sequence that allows the characters to make a choice that foreshadows/builds to the ending. It would be better to break concept and allow the audience to leave the theatre wholly satisfied than to hold rigidly to the concept and leave the audience cheated. In my mind, these choices look like this:

Buddy: In the final chorus of “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues,” he sings it with caricatures of Margie and Sally. On the final line or note, perhaps he could dip Sally with a kiss, while Sally’s extended leg could kick Margie away. This would indicate his choice.

Sally: Sally is really in love with her personal rendering of Ben Stone. Her entire adult life has been whiled away reliving memories of a man who never was. When, at the end of “Losing My Mind,” she sings, “You said you loved me, / Or were you just being kind?” there should be a pause. A spotlight shines on Young Ben passionately making out with Young Phyllis in their follies costumes. Sally hears this behind her and reluctantly confronts the past she’s desperately tried to suppress. She looks back, finally sees the truth that she’s denied up until this point, then turns to the audience, belting, “Or am I losing my mind?”

Phyllis: In a change of the traditional staging, when the chorus boys come on to back Phyllis during “The Story of Lucy and Jesse,” a caricature of Lucy and Jesse also hit the stage. Choreography could echo the problem indicated in the story. In the final moment of the song, perhaps after its ended, Phyllis should take the hand of each caricature to indicate her desire to get them together quick. This could be done in the button of the song or as a bow after the music has ended.

Ben: I don’t think the idea of a breakdown fully suits the moment, particularly a breakdown of the evening’s events. If anything, the breakdown should consist of the Young counterparts re-singing their follies songs in a psychedelic manner, since it is the past that haunts him, not the other present-day characters.

I think it’s okay to end on Ben’s follies because it doesn’t have to be the climax of the show, and the truth is that the fate of the other three characters hinged on his choice of Phyllis back in the day. Because of this, their ability to overcome their present-day problems also hinges on his present-day choice.

In my mind, when the chorus keeps singing and he’s shouted out his whole “Look at me. I’m nothing” realization, the lights change instantly from follies to reunion, and Ben is left alone on stage, calling out Phyllis’s name with great panic.

The End: As Ben is silently, but with great panic, exiting the stage to find Phyllis before she leaves him, Sally enters. She calls out his name. He turns. She’s honest with him and makes the decision to not go with him, with which Ben eagerly agrees.

Buddy runs onstage and sees Sally with Ben. He pulls Sally aside and declares that he won’t let her leave with Ben. This is important because he needs to make the choice to pick Sally over Margie himself. Sally informs him that Ben was only a fantasy, maybe even saying that she just temporarily lost her mind (to tie the dream follies into real life). Now that Buddy is finally getting what’s he’s never been able to get, he realizes that he’s being confronted with his old problem (from his follies song). There’s a beat, a release. He hugs Sally to show that even though he’s got her, he still wants her. Perhaps Sally speaks a line about really loving Buddy, a gentle reflection on something endearing about him that she’s learned in the years since their youth, as if to say, “You were Plan B then, but now I see you were Plan A material all along.”

Some of the other characters come on for their final good-byes and reflections. Someone asks Ben where Phyllis went to, tells him to tell her it was great to see her again, and they leave. After these people exit, Ben is left alone. Young Ben comes behind him and calls out Phyllis’s name, surreptitiously as if in a scene from the past. Young Phyllis rushes on from the other side of the stage, whispering that it’s too late (as in, at night . . . but for the audience to understand differently in present context), for him to go home.

Then Phyllis re-enters through the theatre door. She calls out Ben’s name. The decision is now hers, and the climax rightfully rests on her shoulders. Perhaps a gentle “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” plays from the orchestra.

They key here is that Phyllis can no longer be the caustic, one-line hurling Phyllis of ten minutes ago. Lucy and Jessie have to take some steps toward combining. So she calls Ben’s name. Ben runs to her, saying his lines about “I need you, Phyl” and so on.

Young Ben would say something like, “Phyllis, please” to which Young Phyllis would respond, “Ben . . .”

One of Ben’s problems is that he feels unloved, and Phyllis has become “cold as a slab.” Phyllis isn’t going to feel comfortable enough to throw herself at Ben anymore, but it’s important to show that she’s willing to try, that they now have a chance to make it. Since Ben’s breakdown in “Live, Laugh, Love” has already happened, the audience can see his change of heart. Phyllis’s change needs to be made physical somehow.

So, awkwardly, Phyllis puts out her hand, clumsily caressing Ben’s shoulder. She looks at him a moment, then says, as the orchestra plays the orchestral “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow,” “Come on, let’s get our coats.” At that, Young Phyllis runs into Ben’s arms, saying, “Oh, you know I can never resist you.” Phyllis and Ben exit, awkwardly holding hands, and the lights go out on the Young counterparts in embrace while the orchestra booms the final part of “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow.”

So that’s how I would fix Follies. Though, maybe I’m losing my mind.

Broadway Mouth
June 27, 2007

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Give Them What They Want / Za Ba Zoovee

Originally posted June 12, 2007

My favorite entry in The TheaterMania Guide to Musical Theater Recordings has to be David Barbour’s summary of the plot of Aida.

After subduing the nation of Nubia, Radames brings back the Princess Aida (Heather Headley), with whom he promptly falls in love. The three of them proceed to scream their heads off for two acts—lamenting cruel fate, etc., etc.

Perhaps Al Hirschfeld, who was alive to see so much of American theatre in the past century, said it best in the great PBS documentary Broadway: The American Musical when he observed that the “form changes, and that’s difficult for a lot of people to accept. They’re stuck on one period, and they think that’s the period that’s important . . . It changes, and you have to roll with the punches, I think.”

What led to Broadway’s need for life support, as Elaine Stritch called it in the Rick McKay film Broadway: The Golden Age, was not because America fell out of step with the Broadway musical. Instead, as Frank Rich states in the PBS documentary, “Broadway was basically trying to ignore the 60s . . . [and the] Broadway musical [fell] out of sync with pop culture.”

Yes, we need to remind ourselves, Broadway used to be part of pop culture. Broadway albums would be purchased by people all over the country and hit high on the sales charts, much like if the Grey Gardens CD was right up there with Rihanna’s latest success in today’s terms.

Not only was it popular, but some songs were often written to be pop hits. For example, “Hey, There” was intended to be heard outside of The Pajama Game. Its lyrics were made specific to the character but general enough to reach a wide audience to promote the show, and it was skillfully reprised in the second act to reinforce its sell-ability. “If I Ever I Would Leave You” was played on the radio.

Broadway was also talked about and written about. Shows and their stars made the covers of major magazines. It was not uncommon to see performances on variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show. And even a mildly successful show, like The Unsinkable Molly Brown or Silk Stockings, made it to Hollywood.

So what’s wrong with Broadway catching up with the times?

Let me state that I agree that there is room for all sorts of different musicals—musical comedies, musical plays, pop operas, rock musicals, deconstructed musicals, linear musicals, and whatever else may arrive on the scene. Of my first three shows I’d like to see on a Broadway stage, none of them are pop or rock or anything threatening like that. But I don’t know why Broadway critics act as if shows like The Pirate Queen can’t coincide with shows like The Drowsy Chaperone. That really annoys me.

Part of the problem is that the average theatre-goer and critic is out of touch with the times. If you grew up with A Chorus Line being the ideal musical and that musical style defining what Broadway music should be, then how can you possibly connect with other styles of music that are currently on the scene or will come on the scene in years to come?

For example, if I listen to rap music, I can probably identify 1/19 of the words; however, if I bought several rap CDs, before long I’d be in the 18/19 range. My lack of understanding or appreciation of rap music doesn’t negate its nuances any more than a rap artist’s lack of understanding or appreciation of a Broadway ballad from the 1950s doesn’t negate its nuances. It’s more to do with the listener than the artist.

In his thought-provoking book The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen, Ethan Mordden laments the popification of Broadway with shows like Jekyll and Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Hairspray (see: Note), arguing that pop music cannot be character specific. Perhaps it’s just that some critics don’t have an ear for the sound.

Several years ago, I heard a rock band at a free concert, and I immediately fell in love with their music. I have since expanded my listening to a variety of other bands, and what was once noise to me is now music. There are rock songs of all sorts and of all emotions. Rock didn’t all of a sudden become high quality—I just caught up with that boat. Now I could appreciate a rock show much more than I could have ten years ago.

Broadway is essentially a pop art, so why it doesn’t welcome pop music forms strikes me as a discordant note. If a show like Spring Awakening could get a song on the radio—either performed by one of its stars or covered by a hot act—it wouldn’t have needed eight Tonys to stay afloat. Even a show like The Wedding Singer, if the song were made into a contemporary pop song with some more generalized lyric alterations, could get “Right in Front of Your Eyes” or “If I Told You” on the radio. Not only would the show probably still be running, but it would attract a wider audience to Broadway shows in general and to tours. Get them once, and you’ll hook them for life.

That is not to say pop forms of music shouldn’t be held to the same standards. Yes, it should be character specific. Yes, the lyrics should have exact rhymes and be poetic. Yes, it should service story, character, and plot.

When Brooklyn came on tour, I took my godson to see it. Even though it was not a great show in terms of plot, he loved it. He’s a very intelligent young man; it’s just that the music spoke to him. It sounded something like the stuff on his iPod. To David Barbour, Diana DeGarmo might have been screaming, but to my godson and to me, it was awesome, power belting much like contemporary music stars do. It’s different than Rebecca Luker stepping out and hitting high notes at the end of “My White Knight,” but that doesn’t mean it’s not as good. It’s just different.

Jekyll and Hyde is one of the few shows in the past decade with original scores that have found life beyond its stage origins. Perhaps the lyrics aren’t Cole Porter, but it seems like most people criticize the show’s music for its pop aspirations. Well, shame on Frank Wildhorn for trying to reach a contemporary audience. How dare he! Memo to me: Put an end to that ASAP.

Let’s get on to more important shows like The Drowsy Chaperone, with its admittedly well-deserved Tony for Best Score. I can’t wait until I see kids singing “Fancy Dress” at their school’s variety show.

A lot of people like power belting. That’s what made Kelly Clarkson a favorite, put Whitney Houston on the map, and allowed Celine Dion to sell album after album after album until she was a gazillionaire. Perhaps Michael John LaChiusa (from his Opera News article) doesn’t care for power belting, but listen to an audience cheer after an actress “hollers an incomprehensible” rendition of “Defying Gravity” at the end of Act I in Wicked. That speaks for itself.

Broadway musicals are in such a vulnerable position. A film or television show can survive disastrous reviews. If movies survived like Broadway shows, National Treasure would have been a huge disaster. But sadly, the costs of attending shows on Broadway or on tour are such that audiences have to observe the reviews. The average theatre-goer isn’t attuned to any potential bias against non-Sondheim types of music, so when they read that a show like The Scarlet Pimpernel or Jane Eyre or Side Show is bad, they don’t risk their hard-earned money to see it.

Aida survived because it was Elton John and Disney. I love Aida. For the record, between Broadway and the tour, I saw it three times, and when I took a group of students and teachers to go, they all loved every minute of it. Watch an average person talk about their fondness for Les Miserables. Ask some theatre kids in Chugwater, Texas, and they’ll sing to you five or six songs from Wicked. Too bad none of them know how incomprehensible it is.

According to Steven Suskin in his awesome book Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000, six out of ten of the major critics panned Aida. Suskin himself states that “[n]othing in Aida was quite enough to impel you toward the Palace—Amneris’s or the Nederlanders’.” Perhaps if there had been something to impel you toward the Palace—obviously the Tony-award winning score, Henry David Hwang’s revised book, Heather Headley, Adam Pascal, Sherie Rene Scott, Matt Bogart, Simone, Will Chase, Merle Dandridge for one performance, Idina Menzel, Mandy Gonzalez, Maya Days, Wayne Cilento’s choreography, Bob Crowley’s sets and costumes, and Natasha Katz’s lighting simply weren’t enough—it might actually have run, right?

Broadway Mouth
June 12, 2007

Note: For the record, I vote that a show containing pop music over forty years old should officially be labeled pastiche because nothing like “You Can’t Stop the Beat” has been popular since Johnny Angel got Peggy Sue pregnant after prom. I know Mordden would probably call me stupid for saying this (or perhaps a purveyor of stupid shows), but I don’t see how much different this is from the music of Thoroughly Modern Millie, a show he generally enjoyed, which utilizes pop music from 77+ years ago.