Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dog Eat Dog: Crappy Backpack with Souvenir Program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the Broadway Mouth
June 30, 2009

Monday, June 22, 2009

Casualty of Love: A Chorus Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the Broadway Mouth
June 22, 2009

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Broadway Cast Recordings, Soundtracks, or Audio Books?

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


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

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

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

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

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

the Broadway Mouth
June 10, 2009

Sunday, June 7, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the Broadway Mouth
June 7, 2009

Saturday, June 6, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

the Broadway Mouth
June 6, 2009

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Legally Blonde: Omigod, That Libretto!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the Broadway Mouth
June 3, 2009

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Legally Blonde: Reflections on the Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the Broadway Mouth
June 2, 2009

Monday, June 1, 2009

Welcome to Legally Blonde Week!

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