Monday, April 27, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the Broadway Mouth
Originally posted March 14, 2008

Friday, April 24, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it’d be awfully interesting to watch.

Broadway Mouth
February 27, 2008

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Defining a Golden Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those are all signs of a healthy theatre season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the Broadway Mouth
Originally Published February 23, 2008

Monday, April 20, 2009

Memoir: What I Did For Love

It's now been seven years since the reading referenced here. And the sentiment still applies.

I was twenty-five when I endeavored to produce a reading of my own work. I was a little like J. Pierrepont Finch with my copy of Mark Hillenbrand’s Produce Your Play Without a Producer in my hands, excited to elicit some interest for my self-proclaimed masterpiece.

The most difficult part of producing the show was getting people to help. At one point I contemplated driving around to find someone with a “Will work for food” sign to run the sound board. Finding actors wasn’t much easier.

There are plenty of actors in my area. At least there must be because we have plenty of theatres. Perhaps I simply didn’t know how to find them.

After placing several ads in the city’s major newspaper, I rented out space at a community center for auditions. My biggest hindrance to finding actors was actually Equity. Several friends from college had committed to taking part in the work, none of whom were Equity. If they were willing to take part, I wanted them in my reading no matter what. In fact, having them in the reading was a dream come true.

The problem was that while I was paying above Equity minimum for a reading, I couldn’t hire any Equity actors because, with my four college friends lined up to do the show, I would have had to give any Equity actors special billing and paid them a certain amount above the other actors, which would have been prohibitive. Even for a reading there has to be a certain ratio of Equity to non-Equity actors. I actually had interest from two Equity actors to take part, including one who had toured with The Phantom of the Opera; however, I was not willing to turn a blind eye to union rules. I respect Equity, and I figured that starting out my life as a producer would best be done playing by the rules.

I’m not affiliated with any theatre, so I needed to find a respectable place for people to audition, which is how I wound up auditioning at a community center. I had four women to audition for the female lead, a soprano role I would have died to give to one an alto friend. The best part was that my room in the community center was next to a room being used for kids’ soccer refs in training. It was an entire room filled with future refs, and whenever we had an audition, they could hear it through the thin walls. These women sounded great, and they could project! The organizer would stop over and give us the dirty eye, saying, “We’re trying to have a meeting here.” I apologized, but what could I do? Besides, it’s not like this was a cattle call; I had four women showing up!

The final actress to audition had a gorgeous operatic soprano, and she gave it all to the non-existent rafters. Being in the same room as that voice was thrilling, and when she performed her monologue, she knocked us (me and my collaborator) out.

When she left, the soccer ref organizer popped his head into the door to say, “She was good.”

Yes, she was. In fact, in the first day of rehearsal, she nailed the character 99%.

Oddly enough, I also hired one of the other women from the audition, and she and my female lead turned out to be former roommates. It’s a small world.

For the actresses I didn’t hire from the audition, I called them and let them know the news first hand. It was important to me that they not be waiting endlessly to know, that they knew how much I admired their work (for which I gave specifics in praise) but, for whatever reason, I had cast another person.

Finding the three remaining male roles, which included the lead, was much more difficult. I had actually scouted out some non-Equity talent prior and tried to establish contact, but I was young. I have a feeling I came off as a dreamer and not a doer, or perhaps I just sold myself poorly. Nothing came of it. From my first newspaper ad I found one of the very talented Equity actors whom I didn’t even audition. I actually had to run a second ad in the newspaper, and it resulted in a last-minute phone call. The actor had quite a bit of experience, but because of the timing and his lack of a vehicle, there was no way to audition him in person. He sang “Falcon in the Dive” for me over the phone. I didn’t know what else to do. It was him or no one. Sight unseen, I cast him.

He wasn’t perfect for the role, but he was perfect for the reading. He sang really well, but most importantly, he was a great person. I was such a tyro, and he stepped in to help out in many ways, fixing lyrics (my horrendous lyrics; I learned I am not a lyricist), stepping in in ways a musical director would have (if I was a tyro, my composer was a lump), and interpreting the part well, challenging me in some important ways to make some decisions about the character.

I never did find the final male role. I had two actors lined up—a very talented former student who had to drop out after the first rehearsal and another actor who simply never showed up. I finally divided the part up and had to give some of his roles to one of the actresses (who was so incredibly talented, she made it work beautifully).

I don’t think I could possibly thank all those people enough for helping me out on that reading—the actors, the photographer, the graphic designer, the website designer, the photo shoot costumer, and the hair stylist. I was pretty scrappy and paid as little as I had to/as much as I could (I financed the thing myself out of my teacher’s salary). The poster was photographed by a skilled hobby photographer (and very talented actress), the poster created by a very skilled college senior art student, the models worked for nominal pay and the experience, the hair done by my sister, and all the actors put forth so much for so little money. My friends in the cast, knowing me from my more timid days, supported me and ensured that nobody would steamroll me (which wasn’t a risk because I was very possessive, but I was thankful for their concern).

The experience was a bust in some ways. A big producing theatre in the area had promised to be there, and despite my reminder call, no one showed up. I mailed out expensive invites to many local theatre people, and none showed up. No matter what I did—phone calls upon phone calls, a write up in the local paper, expensive desserts for after the reading—very few people outside the friends of the cast showed up. I spent over $4000 on that reading.

And seriously, I wasn’t even in New York. I was pretty darn stupid.

Yes, the experience was a smash in other ways. At twenty-five I had practiced the rudimentary steps of producing and had actually produced something. I had directed a cast of professional actors. And I learned that, though there was much work to be done, my show had much promise. People seemed to like it, and the cast was enthusiastic for its possibilities.

Another big learning experience from the reading was the whole collaboration thing. The day following the reading, I called my collaborator and broke ties (It had been my project to begin with). He was a nice guy, but we didn’t communicate well, and he talked a lot but produced little (some of the blame which lies on my horrendous lyrics, some of which lies on him because he promised much and produced little). The song the cast seemed to like best, oddly enough, was the one where I had generated the basic melody. It’s best to say it was a learning experience, probably for both of us. I learned I needed a true collaborator and not a puppet, not to mention someone who didn’t think Andrew Lloyd Webber was all the rage . . . in 2003.

I write this for mostly selfish reasons. I’m now nearing the five-year mark of that reading, and, even though it’ll have little or no relevance to anyone else, I wanted to take some space and document the experience. I often wish I would have used that $4000 for a few other things that might have changed the course of my life, but then, what I purchased with it was something I could never place a dollar amount on—learning, growing, solidifying friendships, producing, memory-making, creating theatre.

I guess I did what I had to do. No, I won’t forget, can’t regret what I did for love.

the Broadway Mouth
January 26, 2008

P.S. I earlier wrote “You Simply Cannot Do It Alone or, How I Became a Theatre Expert in Three Easy Steps” about my learning curve when it came to collaboration and viewing my own work. If you are an aspiring creator (or aspiring-to-be-produced), it may be of interest.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Strange Case of Dr. Brooks and Mr. LaChiusa: Seriously? Make 'em Laugh!

There are so few laughs in Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Raisin in the Sun, A Doll House, and Fences. They’re so bleak, so joyless. To quote from one of my favorite theatre writers (about another work), some of them have “a bunch of characters so unappetizingly drawn that you wouldn’t especially want to go to dinner with them.”

Take Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a play that fills the stage with so many obnoxious and unappetizing figures, you even hate the kids. Is there anyone in the play you’d ever want to talk to on the phone, let alone go to dinner with them? What about Death of a Salesman? I guess Happy isn’t so bad, but he’d still not be my choice dinner companion.

But naturally, these are plays. You like what the playwrights say or how the playwrights say it, not necessarily the characters with which they express it. It’s a given (and forgiven). They are entertaining via their ability to enlighten and communicate. You enjoy Death of a Salesman even though you aren’t necessarily entertained in the traditional definition of the word.

Okay, so I really do “get” why straight plays don’t have characters with whom you’d want to sup. What I actually don’t understand is the dual standard. If a serious play, movie, or novel lacks broad comic characters or witty banter, that is acceptable. No one questions it. But let a musical do that, and it’s blasphemy, a dour and dull night at the theatre, devoid of any redeemable qualities.

It’s a curious situation.

Many of the great contemporary musical theatre pieces were ones I first experienced on CD. When I first heard Marie Christine, for example, I was a young twenty-three or so, enraptured by the story it told. I couldn’t imagine anyone not finding themselves fascinated by LaChiusa’s updating of the Medea story. It was quite the shock when I read some of the critics’ responses to the show several years later.

One of those beautiful “serious” shows I have experienced in the theatre was Parade, which I was able to catch on tour. I don’t recall laughing much during the show, but I do remember it riveting me, drawing me in with the power of its story and what it had to say. The fact that I wasn’t laughing every five minutes didn’t even occur to me.

I’ve read similar critiques of other shows whose scores I’ve loved—LaChiusa’s The Wild Party and Bernarda Alba, Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll and Hyde, Bill Russell and Henry Kreiger’s Side Show, and Paul Gordon’s Jane Eyre. A few of these I’ve seen on Broadway, a few I’ve seen regionally, some I’ve only heard the score. I was never bothered by the almost solely dramatic nature of the pieces.

The problem is that the Broadway musical has developed so that, as Arthur Laurents says, it’s now okay to die or be raped in a musical and even to have a sad ending. We still haven’t gotten to the place, however, where the musical can completely sever ties with its comedic past and still be a success. Critics still enter shows with certain expectations—that musicals should entertain through comedy, that only straight plays can settle for being thought-provoking (or moving or gothic or exciting).

I love musical comedy. There’s nothing like a laugh and a song. However, if we truly believe in the power of music, and the emotional expression that can be accomplished uniquely through song and dance, then there’s no reason why a musical can’t be the equivalent of Death of a Salesman in the musical form. Some musical ideas are better suited to humor, but just because others may not be doesn’t mean that they aren’t riveting and intriguing stories worth being told filled with themes needing to be heard.

The final vote always goes to the paying audience. The problem is that to a great extent the critics act as an entryway to the more unusual or unknown shows. It is possible that the masses simply aren’t ready for Parade and won’t be for some time. Yet, it seems like shows with great critical appreciation—which non-humorous shows seem to rarely receive—can still overcome audience trepidation to achieve a level of success.

Look at the score of Parade; “The Old Red Hills of Home,” “My Child Will Forgive Me,” and “This Is Not Over Yet” are amazing songs, songs that are fitting for the show’s tone and perspective. The story of Leo Frank is one that deserves to be told even if it doesn’t allow for subplot hilarity. Willy Loman didn’t need any, so why does Leo Frank?

the Broadway Mouth
January 23, 2008

Friday, April 17, 2009

Tell My Father I Didn’t Break the Rules

“Too Darn Hot” could be entirely excised from Kiss Me, Kate without affecting the story. Entirely. First off, it doesn’t develop anything. If you look at it literally, it’s Paul and chorus singing about it being too hot, then dancing, which means that they’re actually making themselves hotter. It does nothing to advance the Fred/Lilli or Bill/Bianca plots. Paul and Hattie are there, but it does nothing for them. Second, it’s hardly even character-specific. It could be Paul singing, that chorus guy, that other chorus guy, or someone from any other show. Thirdly, it’s basically 1940s pop. Had it not been so ribald, it would’ve been a major pop hit in its day. It’s that generic.

Fortunately, though, for those of us who are fans of the show, the creation of a Broadway musical, as with any other form of artistic expression, is not a simple matter of mathematics. Kiss Me, Kate is far more than just a love story and a love story subplot with an energetic opening number, love song, dynamic Act One closer, energetic Act Two opener, love song reprise, eleven o’clock number, and exit music.

Yeah, “Too Darn Hot” is essentially disconnected from the plot, is not terribly character-specific, and is pop. But it works. It works because it’s a great song in a perfect location that affects the audience in just the right way.

It’s not math. It’s art.

Sometimes we get caught up on the rules of structure. It’s not that the rules of structure aren’t important, but it is not an end in itself. I’ve read plenty of critiques of shows—both on message boards and in publication—that focus too much on what the show “should” have rather than what it does have.

In Ethan Mordden’s thought-provoking The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen, he takes to task “Tell My Father” from The Civil War because he says the audience is expected to feel emotion for a character they’ve hardly known. Now, I only saw the tour, which was altered from the Broadway production, but the context seems about the same.

The Lehman Engel book of thought would agree with Mordden—and it certainly is a more than accurate theory in pretty much every case. If you have no emotional connection to a character, you’re not going to care two cents about their plight. If you saw the final scene of West Side Story without the rest of the show, it’d be just another girl crying over her hoodlum boyfriend. Yes, it makes complete sense.

However, it’s not math. It’s art.

To me, “Tell My Father” was extraordinarily effective because it was tapping into a character type, one that doesn’t need much to gain sympathy. I don’t have to know a person to see a story on the news and have my heart go out for the wife of a shooting victim, the daughter whose parents have been deported to Mexico, or the student who was brutally hazed. In the context of The Civil War, a piece that walked a fine line between musical theatre, concert, and mosaic, there was no need for established characters. I don’t have to know the personality of a boy killed in battle to sympathize with his last wishes. It’s an incredibly poignant song, a dying boy whose final thoughts are for earning love and respect from his father, a man who will undoubtedly have markedly different worries on his mind when the tragic news arrives.

Sometimes when the rules are broken, it flops big time. There’s a whole decade of shows Mordden details in his book whose memory has not survived past 1989. But even when you paint by the numbers, the show might thud anyway.

Then sometimes, you play with the rules, shifting things, experimenting, trying, or just doing what seems right for your story, and you wind up with Oklahoma! or Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street or Assassins.

It’s not the rule. It’s the effect.

the Broadway Mouth
January 18, 2008

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

In My Fashion: The Unique Struggle of Revivals

This one was originally posted in December 2007, and it's as true today as it was then.

The Crucible is one of my favorite plays, tied with A Raisin in the Sun as tops on my list. I was assigned to read it as part of a high school America literature class, and it instantly gripped me by the transcendent elements of the story; I knew people in my own life who would have easily found themselves caught up in the hysteria. Finishing the play became painful. I wanted to know the ending but dreaded reaching it, knowing that there was no way it could possibly arrive at a happy conclusion.

I recently watched parts of the Nicholas Hytner film version, which I have yet to see in its entirety. I loved the play so much that, even though I had never seen it on stage, when the movie came out, I didn’t see it. I had envisioned it so vividly all the times I read it, I couldn’t face the changes in the movie. I even read Arthur Miller’s screenplay, published at the time of the movie’s release, while never seeing the movie.

For me, the idea of showing the events in the forest—one of the scenes from the movie I’ve never watched—spoils the mystique of what actually happened. In the original play, the audience finds out about it piecemeal, like good exposition should be given, but the result is an element of surprise as the reader/audience learns about it, all shadowed by the darkness of the unknown, allowing the imagination to take over from the dialogue.

What I have seen of it, I have also struggled with the difference between the images cultivated in my head by multiple readings and those of Hytner. I know that Arthur Miller thought Daniel Day-Lewis to be ideal for John Proctor, but not only did he not look the part to me, he never fully embodied my vision of the man, though I do like the choices of Winona Ryder and Joan Allen as Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Proctor.

But this latter point is the nature of a revival. Yeah, this was a film adaptation, but the concept is the same. A new work arrives onstage without any opinion or bias shaping its reception. There is no Pearl Bailey rendition of “I’m Here” to haunt LaChanze and no Robert Morse or Bonnie Scott to influence our hearing of “If I Told You.” In thirty years, should The Color Purple or The Wedding Singer be revived, that’s exactly what the future generation of actors will need to face.

It seems to me that many of the complaints I hear about revivals are simple matters of choices. The choices the director made in comparison to the choices someone on a message board would make. I had heard “Conga!” from Wonderful Town probably two-hundred times before the Donna Murphy revival opened. When they performed the song on The Today Show, I had envisioned the staging in my head so many times, it was slightly disappointing. It wasn’t that Kathleen Marshall didn’t so a fantastic job, because she did; it was that I had my own picture formed.

Truth be known, the vision in my head was no more correct than Kathleen Marshall’s. I would not be so presumptuous to even suggest that I could direct anything a fraction as well as Ms. Marshall does. I had simply formed my own stage pictures from the process of listening.

Unfortunately, many people take their choice preferences, formed by prior productions, years of listening to original recordings, and their own imaginations, and use that as a reason for discouraging the new production of an existing work. If a libretto or play is rich enough, it will withstand and welcome the interpretation of directors, readers, and audiences (though if enough alterations are made to book or songs, that’s another matter entirely). It boils down to choices, choices that, many times, are really just differences of opinion.

That is not to say that every revival is great or that one shouldn’t make criticism; however, I think it is important to analyze what is motivating that criticism. For many plays and musicals, the production requires the director to make a series of interpretive choices. It also requires the actors to do the same. Sometimes, these choices are a matter of preference. One preference doesn’t trump another; it’s all a matter of personal taste.

the Broadway Mouth
December 10, 2007

Friday, April 10, 2009

Those Rotten Critics (And Other Reasons We Hate Mirrors)

Here is one from November 2007. Even though it's getting a revival, I still reserve the right to renounce this.

In watching the commentary track on Dori Bernstein’s Show Business: The Road to Broadway, I was confronted with the issue of the theatre critic. Those on the track, including producer Bernstein, actor Alan Cumming, and songwriter Jeff Marx, can barely contain their loathing for the critics as they watch them partaking in the round table discussions.

But interestingly enough, Bernstein, Cumming, and Marx become critics themselves as they discuss the shows. During the discussion, we learn how much they loved Taboo (though it was not perfect) and Caroline, or Change, and we hear about how great Idina Menzel was in Wicked, though they don’t seem particularly filled with praise for the show itself. By their lack of praise for Wicked in relation to the other two shows, they are basically voicing their feelings (and Cumming goes on record as saying he hates “Popular,” a song I would categorize as great).

So who is allowed to share an opinion?

I understand the aggravation, it’s one I hope to someday have the opportunity to risk experiencing myself, but I don’t know how valid of a concern it is.

No one likes to face criticism. As a writer, I love hearing criticism because it helps me improve, but once that baby is frozen and on its own, it’s got to be awfully hard to hear someone saying, “Well, this part isn’t very good.” As someone very sensitive to critique, it would be a big challenge for me to know how to process that without doubting myself or the final presentation I so desperately would want to love.

We’ve all adored shows the critics have hated or were mixed about—Jekyll and Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Aida, Jane Eyre, Bells are Ringing, Follies, The Wedding Singer. It could be a never-ending list. We vehemently disagree, we get angry at the effect they have on shows and audiences, we return to the theatre to show our support.

But then there are times we like the critics. If Ben Brantley says something nice about our show, then we like him. But if he says our show is boring or unfunny or lacking in emotion, only then he’s wrong. Right?

I love the interview with Boy George on the documentary when he addresses the issue of the critics. Now, for the record, I doubt Taboo ever had a chance to succeed because a show with posters that feature a man standing at a nasty urinal is not going appeal to a mass audience, particularly if it is a case of truth in advertising. And the adoring fan interviewed for the documentary comments that though people say it’s too gay, “it is theatre;” obviously, if gay people were the majority audience for theatre, Taboo would still be running today. I’m sure Boy George wrote some amazing music for the show, and it’d be great if he’d write another score, but I think his comments about critics are irrational. First of all, I wonder how much effect they actually had on the success of the show. Secondly, he despises the critics only because they didn’t like his show. That’s not a logical reason. He is biased—and his comments are important for the discussion—but his opinion of his own show is not a valid point in the grand scheme of things. The completion of his statement (which I here paraphrase) “If you stop shows like Taboo from succeeding” could be “then you get left with great shows.” I wasn’t in New York when Taboo ran, so I’m only playing Michael Riedel’s advocate, but it begs the basic question of any review or critique—Who should be the one to voice their opinion? The artist? Or the artist’s critic?

Obviously you are going to hate the critics if they don’t like your work. Yes, it is frustrating that one paper and one critic gets so much pull. Yet, it is very frustrating to pay $50+ on a ticket for crap when you could have gone to see Hairspray again.

We need to face the truth that musicals are expensive, and the average audience member needs an idea of which shows are going to be worth $50-450. Not everything is going to be good. Something has to be bad. And nobody is going to have the same opinion on any of it.

Often you hear about how critics have changed over the years, that critics during the Golden Age were so much better and so helpful. I can’t comment on that (except to say that the shows were probably better then as well—that statement makes me a critic— though we have actors on stage now who are just as good as any previous generation—that statement makes me a good critic in many people’s eyes). I’m excited for the next Rick McKay documentary because he will be highlighting that as a topic.

The truth is, though, that reviews appear after opening night, by which time the show is theoretically frozen. By nature of the process, I don’t know how helpful constructive criticism can be at that point. Perhaps critics should critique the show with constructive criticism mid-previews (which producers would hate), then reviewers should review after the opening. Essentially, that is the only fix to the complaint available. By opening night, having specific complaints about the plotting, with concrete examples of where things went wrong, seems futile.

Can one person ever be qualified enough to take on the task of critiquing a show, particularly anyone in as powerful a position as Ben Brantley? (And the collective answer heard all over New York is: Well I am.) It is frustrating that people who hate pop operas get to review them and that people who don’t like completely serious musicals review them, but that is the nature of the business. We have to acknowledge that The New York Times, Variety, and all those other respected publishers of reviews have a system and standard in place to select people to be in those positions who have established their qualifications for reviewing. (Except for Michael Riedel, who isn’t a reviewer but just a gossip-monger. Though, I must add that I adore Michael Riedel, his wit, and his charming smile, and should I ever have a show on the boards, I want to go record as saying that I mean gossip-monger in only the kindest way possible.)

So where was I—oh yes, the critics. Those people we hate because they disagree with us, the us we are who disagree with others, the others with the venue we’d love to have, to voice the opinions others would hate us for voicing.

I think we all need therapy.

the Broadway Mouth
November 16, 2007

(P.S. I reserve the right to renounce this commentary the day after my first show opens on Broadway.)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Four Top Ten Acting Techniques That Need to Go Away

Yes, stupid title, but important concept. This is one from November 2007.

For everything there is a season, and in observing the Broadway musical over the last seventy years, almost every aspect has turned after a season—the strength of the book, the integration of music, the styles of musical storytelling, the technology of set changes, the use of amplification, and so on. With the latter change, a new style of stage acting was ushered in. Without the need to fill a huge theatre with the voice alone, actors have been able to adopt a more subtle style of acting, one that still fits the medium of stage acting but also takes into account the tastes of modern audiences who daily enjoy the subtlety of film and television acting.

We have so many fine actors today—just take a gaze at my 50 Amazing Broadway Performers in 50 Weekdays list for proof. However, on both Broadway and regional stages, there are yet some acting “techniques” that, like shag carpet and lead paint, need to say good-bye once and for all.

1. overly caricatured acting— I once had a former student who majored in theatre in college (why, I’ll never know; she only once participated in high school shows), but she dropped out because she said “the acting was so fakey.”

The stage will always be an acting medium that requires a larger-then-life performance because, as Carol Channing has said, you can’t perform in a 1000+ seat theatre and be normal. However, technology has allowed a change in acting style from the Golden Era which still has some remnants in professional theatre.

A performance can be stage-fitting without being “fakey.” The stage doesn’t allow for actions/mugging in place of genuine emotional expression. I’m specifically referencing grand expressions that communicate the subtext of “I’m acting on a stage!!!!” instead of “I’m devastated” or “How exciting.” This isn’t just a thought aimed at high school directors; this overly caricatured style still finds its way onto professional stages.

Yes, you need a certain amount of caricature for most types of humor (on stage or off), but there’s caricature still in touch with reality and that which is completely disconnected. The completely disconnected must be, well, completely disconnected for good.

2. Adults playing children—Unless it is a play that, like LaChiusa’s The Wild Party, would expose a child to adult behavior that they shouldn’t be exposed to, the expense in employing a child to play a significant child character pays off.

If the character is a small part and requires limited character development (such as Helen Burns in Jane Eyre, played so tenderly by Jayne Patterson), it can be done well. If the character is an intended caricature, such as those wonderful kids in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (which are surprisingly accurate caricatures), then it works. However, if there is complexity or it is a large part, it just doesn’t work. Now matter how talented the actresses playing young Amy were in the recent Broadway/tour of Little Women, a certain humanity was lost in the play. It was as if humans were playing the other sisters while Amy was a cartoon.

When adults take on complex kid roles, the typical result is that overly caricatured acting style which sucks the verisimilitude from the show. A realistic child character ends up with the same treatment as a broad comic character, a caricature of a child. This is not the fault of the actor. It’s simply that most adults cannot effectively portray children in complex or nuanced roles.

3. Squeaky-voiced chorines—Unless the show is a period piece that requires a show-within-a-show effect or the show is a parody of historical shows, the squeaky-voiced chorine is otherwise past its prime. Again, it is the overly caricatured effect that neither creates a realistic character nor brings additional life to the stage. It is an out-moded style of acting that doesn’t work with contemporary audiences.

4. Energy in place of character development—A still common occurrence, this is when actors present their character with energy rather than with emotion, when speed and perkiness triumph over truthful emotional expression. It’s when the audience understands the emotion rather than feeling it inside as a result of the performance. For women, this is often coupled with a raise in the pitch of their voice.

The stage requires energy—without it there is no stage presence—but a great, energetic performance doesn’t have to lack character development. There are so many excellent musical comedy performers who have mastered this concept—Faith Prince, Nathan Lane, Hunter Foster, Sutton Foster, Roger Bart, Susan Egan, and Cady Huffman, to name a few. For the ultimate example, see Kristin Chenoweth in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown or Wicked. She naturally speaks in a higher pitch but still communicates true emotions.

the Broadway Mouth
November 3, 2007

Monday, April 6, 2009

Redefining Success: How Long Does a Show Need to Be Running?

This is one from October 2007, and while the shows are a little outdated, the ideas are not. Take out A Chorus Line and throw in Hairspray, Spamalot, or Spring Awakening.

I love the exceptions we set up. No one wants this onslaught of jukebox musicals to continue. Except the music of ________________ would make a great show. Disney needs to stop doing Broadway! Except for the movie ________________ which really would make for a great Broadway musical. And those long-running shows—enough already! Except ________________ is closing too soon!

This was particularly prominent when Beauty and the Beast was closing. Despite all the online objections to Beauty and the Beast being a carbon copy cartoon on stage, on its lack of integrity as a Broadway show, and so on, the moment Disney posted the closing notice, it seems like everyone was saying how Beauty and the Beast should be running longer, that it was sad to see it go so soon.

Broadway fanatics respond to shows very personally. It is as if the alchemy of costumes, book, music, choreography, lighting, sets, and marquee form a human being, we get so attached. Our favorite performers may no longer even be in the show, but we mourn over lost experiences that can never be recreated, the new audiences that will never get to laugh at that joke or be awed by that choreography.

The result is that we want theatres to open up for great new shows without having to lose their previous occupants. Recently there has been much online speculation about the impending closing of The Drowsy Chaperone and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee based on weekly grosses (neither of which has announced closing) plus much conjecture about Legally Blonde. Each of these shows have their own fan bases, so . . . no one can bare to see ________________ close so early!

In the Golden Era, shows lasted a couple seasons if they were a big hit—My Fair Lady lasted six and that was a mega-hit—then closed. Today, though, we have a new standard, the enormous number of performances racked up by Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Miss Saigon. If you compare, say, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee to Miss Saigon, okay, its run will be short then.

But even though we have this new definition of a long-running show, the formula for determining success still remains. If a Broadway musical stays open long enough to re-coup its initial investment, then that’s time for celebration. If, like the two current shows named above, they not only re-coup their investments but also brings in some profit . . . then that’s all the success anyone can require of a show. If a show closes breaking even or earning a profit, then its closing is a time for hearty celebration, for not only has it entertained many people but its closing is now nurturing a new musical production which can open in that newly vacant theatre.

So, let’s keep mourning the passing of our favorite shows, but let’s also keep it all in perspective. If A Chorus Line were to close tomorrow (the show’s numbers seem healthy, so it is very doubtful it’ll be closing soon), the show has already turned a profit, as has The Lion King, Wicked, Jersey Boys, and a bunch of other long-running shows.

Who could ask for anything more?

the Broadway Mouth
October 18, 2007

Friday, April 3, 2009

You Simply Cannot Do It Alone or, How I Became a Theatre Expert in Three Easy Steps

If I could direct any young writer's attention to anything I've written, it would be (and has been) this entry. I've learned so many things the hard way in life, and how to go about finding collaborators is one of the most frustrating of all things learned. Learn from my mistakes!

Step 1
In student teaching 7th graders, I decided to create a unit on William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker. I entered the experience unsure of what I would be teaching, and as I was paging through a literature book from the early 80s, I spotted the play. Instantly I knew it’d be just the thing.

I created a fantastic unit centered on the play which focused on theatre appreciation and the theme of overcoming challenges/disabilities. I began by giving the kids notes on what makes a play—why live theatre is unique from movies sort of things—and pumped them up for enjoying the play. As part of this, I showed them clips from shows on The Tony Awards, including The Lion King and The King and I, to illustrate those points. So, for example, when we watched “Shall We Dance,” we learned how the imagination helps create the set.

I also created a bulletin board complete with photos of Broadway shows, pamphlets from local theatres, pictures of myself doing improv and the few shows I had done in college. I will admit it was a great unit. The kids were excited, loved the play, wanted to read it, and we all had a blast doing it.

My co-operating teacher was very inexperienced when it came to drama, so to him, my use of all this background and knowledge combined with my enthusiasm and the success of the unit made him impressed.

In my letter of recommendation, he wrote, “He has an extensive drama background.” I was 22. By this point in life, I had certainly developed an interest and had seen a respectable number of plays, but my actual formal education was three theatre classes in college and two literature classes focused on plays (Drama Literature and Shakespeare). I had only acted in two plays, done stage crew for one, but had been heavily involved in improv for 2 ½ years. That was it.

I now had an “extensive drama background.”

Step 2
When I interviewed for a one-year English teaching position at a prestigious arts school three years later, I advertised my artistic talent. Admittedly, by this point, I had developed considerably more in my learning and experience. I had directed high school plays, had written a ton of skits and one longer play (which was basically a gathering of long skits into one cohesive story, but nothing grand by any means), plus I had been working on my first musical (and was in fact preparing it for a local workshop reading). I had even received some encouragement from a local musical development program (headed by a respected Broadway producer) when my work (at the age of 22, pat myself on the back) remained into the second round of selection for development . . . up against some people who had had professional credits on both coasts. I had also studied musical theatre considerably to learn more and to grow as an artist.

As part of that interview, I shared all my letters of recommendation and, to my surprise, was hired.

Step 3
This was a wonderful school, and it was filled with top-notch teachers of the core academic subjects (the group of which I was a part) as well as teachers who were experts in teaching performing, visual, and written arts, including two drama teachers who were very experienced and passionate in the way you would imagine arts school teachers to be.

After I was hired, the school’s wonderful program director mailed out a “welcome back” letter to all the teachers in the building. In that letter, he introduced the new faculty.

I was introduced as the new English teacher who had “an extensive drama background.”

Gee, that was easy.

The Reality
Unfortunately, actually getting an extensive drama background under any other criteria is pretty hard. In watching the Rent 2-disc special edition DVD this past weekend, I was astounded by the fascinating documentary on the making of Rent (both stage and film), which included an extensive look at the life of Jonathan Larson and his dream of writing musicals.

Jonathan Larson labored unceasingly toward his goal. Obviously he was talented beyond belief—just look at the longevity of his show—but he still had to develop his talent. Even as his show was courting Broadway producers, the producers were acknowledging that there needed to be work done on the show. It was rough. Even today when you read analyses of Rent, it is clear people think it is a great show. But I’ve never read an analysis that points to the show as perfect, possibly a result of Larson dying before the show could be frozen to his perfection.

It appears as if Larson was learning the difficult art of collaboration. According to friends on the documentary, Larson resisted collaboration. One even suggests that his resistance to collaboration may have been why his Suburbia never got produced, that it wasn’t because he was a new talent but because it was flawed.

In my journey as a wanna-be-produced librettist, I have learned many important lessons about the art of musicals. Some of these are lessons I learned the hard way, and others I learned by reading from people more experienced than myself. However, I bring them up because in my search for collaborators in the past, I have seen many people making the same mistakes I used to make and those that even the great Jonathan Larson was prone to making as well.

Allow me to be transparent for a few paragraphs. When I started on this journey, I had a musical play I began writing. I was only twenty-three when I started it, and as I mentioned above, I did receive some encouragement on the project.

But my vision for how I would hit the Broadway scene was that I would be an all-knowing creator. I just needed to find a composer and lyricist who could take all the songs I wanted them to write (because the libretto was genius, naturally) in the style my superior judgment understood they should be. I knew exactly where the dance was to be, how I wanted it performed, and that was that.

Then I met Hattie. Hattie is not her real name, but Hattie is a very talented composer-lyricist who has a great concept for a project.

She posted online wanting a collaborator for a project, so I emailed her several samples of my work. She immediately read it, sent back a bruising email in which she strongly critiqued my work point-blank. After catching my breath, I was actually extremely thankful for her harshness because that is the only way you learn. I grew from her comments. A few of them were dead-on, a few of them not. Despite her critique, she was interested in meeting to discuss the project. Over the phone she made it clear, “I don’t suffer fools.”

As I was to learn over our next two meetings, the only fool Hattie suffered was herself. First of all, she had some great songs, but they were tripped up by forced meter and a few off rhymes, though I will say that of all the composers with whom I’ve communicated that claim to be influenced by Sondheim, she’s the first of which I said, “Yes, I can see it,” though her work has a more easily identifiable and instantly pleasing melody than the Master's.

But Hattie was much like I was. She wanted me to come in and write the libretto the way she wanted. She wanted two comedic characters much like those in another show (which, if I had ever done that, everyone would have thought it was ripping off, her idea was so blatant). She had specific plot points in mind. It was all laid out. I just needed to follow her lead.

The problem is that very few artists work alone. A novelist has an editor who gives feedback, and a playwright gets help from a director. A musical requires the typical writer/songwriter to stretch so far beyond their natural talents. I have come to learn that I need a songwriter because I can’t do what a songwriter does. I need a choreographer because he or she better knows how to make a show dance. If I am dependent upon myself to do all the roles in a musical, then there’s going to be a great book and everything else will stink. Collaboration is about individual people bringing their best talents to make the show better than any one person could do it. Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Schwartz, and every other successful Broadway creator has needed collaborators. No one else is going to top these people on their own.

The problem with Hattie’s idea was that it was an awesome concept with no conflict or plot structure. It was a series of events in a man’s life—interesting events, no doubt—but there was no dramatic tension. As I tried to propose a plot that would give the story a spine and a sense of direction, she balked at the idea. And she should have balked because I was very far off from her original concept (she wanted me to incorporate all her songs but never handed me her lyrics); however, the idea as she envisioned wouldn’t work.

She said she wanted a collaborator, but when I stepped in to suggest improvements (or at least changes) as a collaborator would do, I realized that’s not what she wanted. She wanted someone who would be a puppet, someone who realized her ideas were as genius as she did.

And honestly, having been there/done that, I can say I have seen much of that in people trying to find collaborators online. They want a clone of themselves who writes the book instead of just the music or writes the music instead of just the book.

But I’m thankful for Hattie because I figured it out before it was too late. I realized that I was just like her, wanting to do everything myself to the detriment of my beloved projects.

As for Hattie, after our second meeting when she rightly rejected my ideas for the plot, she emailed me to say, “Thanks but no thanks” (which, for the record, is a really tacky/chicken/unprofessional means of turning someone down unless you’ve only been communicating through email). Her project still has not come to fruition despite her having a big-time connection to Broadway. And it won’t until she learns what I had to learn.

You simply cannot do it alone.

the Broadway Mouth
October 11, 2007

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Every Story is a Love Story: The Great Romantic Musicals

Originally published in two parts, these are my thoughts on what makes for a romantic musical. Most musicals have love stories to some extent, but not every love story is a romance.

As Tim Rice says, “Every story is a love story.” However, not every love story is a romantic one. Love exists in many forms—the love between parent and child (The Rink), siblings (Side Show), ruler and country (Camelot), and friends (Wicked) to name just a few. And just because a story features a romantic love story between a couple of marriageable status doesn’t mean that their story is romantic. Fanny, for example, features a touching story of love an older man has for the young Fanny, even though she is emotionally devoted to the wayward father of her child. These are surely romantic notions, but the situation itself is hardly romantic. Hello, Dolly! is another prime example. It features two highly satisfying and endearing love stories, though ultimately neither of them sends flutters of romantic sentiment through the heart (and I don’t believe they were ever intended to).

Even as a man, I appreciate a good love story. I think as women read Danielle Steele novels to be swept away by a man of her dreams, I love a good Jane Austen novel because of its depiction of noble and honorable men finding an intelligent and independent woman in a pack if ninnies (and it helps that Austen’s characters are psychologically complex and are featured in fascinating stories of life in Edwardian England). I would go as far as to say there are very few great romantic stories, at least in comparison to the number of them which are created. Perhaps this is because I’m too cynical or approach romantic comedies with too masculine a perspective and find corny Kate Hudson movies to be lacking in true romance that doesn’t induce dry heaves.

So what makes for great romantic stories?

Well, first of all, there has to be some substance to the characters. Character types and cardboard lovers fall flat. In college I had to read a section of a romance novel in a literature class, and it was actually laughably funny (of course, I am a man, so . . . no offense, ladies). The characters should have a psychology and live a plot that rise above the been-there-done-that a hundred times normalcy.

The characters have to meet and fall in love in a reasonably realistic way. This is crucial because you have to believe that these characters are going to “make it.” People need to know each other before it can be believed that they will live happily ever after. There are more than a handful of musicals where the characters meet and fall madly in love in one scene, which is completely fine. It just makes for a love story rather than a truly romantic one.

There should be a clear reason why the characters love each other. Because she’s pretty and he’s strapping doesn’t work for a truly romantic story. I think of Wicked as a great example. Fiyero falls for Elphaba because he gets to know her. Because of this substance, “As Long as Your Mine” becomes a very romantic expression of mature love.

The conflict should be romantic in nature. Romantic conflicts include, but are not limited to, two powerful personalities who clash despite (or because of) their strong feelings, stories where there are roots to connect the lovers (like the woman loves for the man’s children too), love separated by circumstances, horrible misunderstandings that keep lovers apart, situations where one of the lovers almost makes a drastic and life-changing decision, stories where the lovers change because of knowing the other, and stories where two people have been together for years and are still (or are just realizing they are) madly in love.

There are several situations that can inherently sink a story from being romantic. If the characters are too young to really end up happily ever after beyond the end of the show, then it’s difficult to be too emotionally involved (unless the story is of another time or culture where youth equates into lasting relationships). Obsession is also inherently unromantic. It looks like love, but it comes from an emotional void that can probably only be patched in other ways. Stories that depict the main character being intimate with other characters is also not very romantic. Also, stories that are couched in insincerity lack romantic sentiment.

Above all, the story can’t be corny. I can’t think of any corny romantic musicals, but other genres that tell romantic stories are often corny, such as Hugh Grant winning Drew Barrymore’s heart by surprising her with a love song at a concert in Music and Lyrics or Ryan Gosling climbing a Ferris Wheel to woo Rachel McAdams in The Notebook.

That is not to say that there aren’t exceptions to rules. It’s always about how something is done. A musical about a barber who kills people and a woman who then bakes them into meat pies sounds gag-inducing, but the execution (forgive me) is so expertly done, it rises above all musical rules about not writing musicals about barbers who kill people and women who then bake them into meat pies.

And now I present Broadway Mouth’s Top Ten Most Romantic Broadway Musicals.

10. Parade—Even though they are married, Leo and Lucille’s journey forces their awkward relationship to change. She can no longer be a weak Southern Belle, and he can no longer be completely self-sufficient. Through their incredible life circumstances, they both come to love each other passionately. Because of this “All the Wasted Time” is a beautiful expression of their newly re-discovered love.

9. Bells are Ringing—There’s something irresistible about Ella Peterson. She’s extremely cute in how she wants to help everyone and manages win over everyone no matter what she does. While Jeff Moss is falling madly in love with her, it’s hard for us not to as well.

There is also a firm foundation in their relationship. They both need each other. Jeff needs her to help him write his plays, and Ella needs him to have someone to love.

Bells are Ringing has what is probably the most romantic line in any musical, when Jeff says to Ella, “You’re a girl with a lot of love to give. Instead of spreading it around all over the place, give it to me. I need it. I want it.”

That’s like “You complete me” long before Tom Cruise.

8. The Sound of Music—The film adaptation is the quintessential romantic story (and my favorite movie since childhood), and it is also the only case where the movie actually improved upon the Broadway show. But just because the film improves upon the romantic factor by adding location scenes (as well as additional material and re-organizing the songs) which helps create a stronger bond between the children and Maria as well as strengthening the bond between Maria and the Georg, it doesn’t mean that the original stage version doesn’t succeed independently.

There is something incredibly romantic about a love story that includes incredible children. It’s probably part of the happily ever after factor (or in love forever factor) which is so important for a romantic story because here we have one giant happy family when all is said and done. It’s beautiful.

7. Fiddler on the Roof—In our society, we value the concept of love and romance, and yet, we have a huge percentage of love-based relationships ending in divorce. I love in Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye presses Golda to answer, “Do you love me?”

Her response sums it up quite well. She sings, “Do I love him? / For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him, / Fought with him, starved with him. / Twenty-five years my bed is his. / If that’s not love, what is?” Despite my postulations on what makes for a great romantic story, Golda has pretty much summed it up—It’s the daily expressions and motions, the shared experiences, and the drawing closer together that is really what love is about.

The romantic story is also augmented by the experiences of the three daughters. While they are young, they each make severe choices in following their loves, choices rooted in cause and purpose, rather than emotion and whims. You can safely assume that each of these daughters will live with a measure of struggle but also with a life companion to share her pains.

6. The Music Man—You have a conman wanting to take advantage of a seemingly simple small-town woman, even going so far as to praise Hester Prynne for her scarlet letter. However in attempting to woo her in order to deceive her, he falls head-over-heels for her Irish imagination, her Iowa stubbornness, and her library full of books.

Marion is no foolish small town chickie, so when she accepts him for what he’s done for the community in spite of his con, she’s making a conscious decision and not one rooted in romantic notions. It is only when he changes that she really falls for him.

Above all, we love Harold Hill despite his con, and we love Marion for her stubbornness. You can help but cheer for them in the end.

5. Kiss Me, Kate—Here are two titanic personalities who clearly love each other deeply but can’t risk the gamble to admit it. Because of their mutual hard-headedness (or maybe their mutual insecurities), they almost miss out on their chance to have each other forever. Their song “Wunderbar” is beautiful for what it develops, their relationship when they have their guard down. “So In Love” then becomes icing on the cake.

4. Aida—Opposites attract, and when those opposites become not-very-opposite and fall deeply in love, it’s romantic.

Like many great love stories, it starts with the characters. Aida is a wonderful character, and her strength and determination is sexier than however the woman may look who is playing her. Though Radames starts out a jerk, his change is heart makes him a respectable guy (also, we need to remember his kindness to a young Mereb which attests to his inner nice-guys beginnings).

Because we are presented with these two characters we inherently like, we root for their love. It begins as something physical, but it becomes a union of similar personalities, a one-in-a-kind sort of love. Their love is deep, which is defined through several songs, most powerfully “Written in the Stars,” which is passionate even though it is about parting forever.

And yes, I can hardly resist the ending in which they die in each others’ arms.

3. 1776—Here we have a peripheral love story of a married couple separated by many miles, and yet, Edwards and Stone give us several very romantic moments.

John and Abigail Adams have a relationship firmly founded on mutual love and respect, which is always sexy. He huffs and fumes, and she picks on him; it’s a relationship that can only be formed through years of marriage and love. And theirs is a love that has survived separation and strife, only to grow stronger. It’s beautiful when Abigail asks John about the women in Virginia, obviously troubled by the months apart, and, knowing his wife so well, he basically says, “Don’t worry. These women can’t hold a candle to you.” Similarly, when he is in his moment of desperation and everything seems to be caving in, she is there to build him up as well. When she ends the reprise of “Yours, Yours, Yours” with the sending of saltpetre, the subtext of the action is “I love you and believe in you.” That’s more romantic than a kiss or a touch.

If most stories with romance portray the much-desired search for love, then 1776 gives us the love we hope to have forever.

2. Guys and Dolls—While it’s not written as a love song, “Luck Be a Lady” is probably one of the most romantic songs ever to appear on a Broadway stage.

First of all, there’s a romance that develops from dishonorable circumstances which could forever split apart the lovers (and almost does). Sarah Brown is a very sweet and passionate woman who sincerely intends to go great things. I would argue that she is a very modern character. Sky Masterson, while a gambler, is a respectable and honorable fellow. He does take Miss Sarah to Havana and even gets her drunk (unintentionally I believe), but he never intends for it to be harmful. After he realizes that she has downed too many drinks, he takes care of her and keeps her from harm or embarrassment.

When Sarah thinks that Sky has used her and leaves him once they’ve both fallen in love, the audience’s heart aches for these two who people who earnestly love each other but could be forever parted because of a misunderstanding.

That’s why “Luck Be a Lady” is such a romantic song, because of the desperation in which it is sung. Sky realizes he has screwed things up (with Nathan’s help), and this is his one chance to fix things up and get her back.

Jane Eyre Broadway Maral Schaffel James Barbour Paul Gordon
1. Jane Eyre—I know this’ll be controversial, but I can’t think of a more romantic story ever (and I saw the stage version before I ever picked up the novel, so I didn’t enter the Brooks Atkinson with any novel-based expectations).

It starts with two strong characters. Jane may be ugly, but she is one of the most beautiful women in all literature. I love how strong Jane is. I admire greatly how she refuses to give in to her passions because she realizes that it would betray her conscience and her sense of self-worth. I stand in awe of how she refuses the Rochester family jewels as a sign of her independence and her refusal to lose herself in the signs of wealth. I also adore Jane for her love of knowledge and learning and how that has shaped her view of the world.

Rochester, while certainly flawed, is also a very endearing character in how he treats his women. This complex topic could be discussed in a multi-page analysis, which I’ll forgo, but the fact that he has done his best to take care of Bertha Mason and to honor his wedding vows despite the difficult circumstances in a time when the insane were discarded and locked up under cruel circumstances is very honorable. And while he does attempt the dishonorable by wedding two women, his intentions are pure in his desire to keep both respectable (in a “what you don’t know won’t hurt you” way) and in violating only his own soul.

There’s also romance at the heart of how they meet and live. They both deeply love each other but cannot express it out of fear—Jane’s fear for her appearance and lowly position and Rochester’s fear of his dark secret and Jane’s youth. Then when they finally cross that hurdle, they are almost torn apart forever—each still singularly attached to the other—until a Providential intercession unites them forever. Their love for each other is rich and rooted. Even when circumstances change—Rochester is disfigured and Jane inherits great wealth—their love survives because it springs from their equality in spirit and intellect, their enjoyment of the company of the other.

It doesn’t get much better than this. It really doesn’t.

the Broadway Mouth
October 6 and 10, 2007