Thursday, October 22, 2009

Heart and Music

I know my MANY followers (Hi Mom!) are thrilled that I'm writing on this blog again. Finishing up the season with my theatre company has made me busy and a bit exhausted of musical theatre. My recent decision to take a new direction in my life and think about everything differently got me thinking about a wonderful unsung musical that I've been a fan of since it came out. It is appropriately (for my current mindset anyway) titled A New Brain.

A New Brain premiered in 1998 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. (For those who don't know, Lincoln Center theatre has two spaces: A larger "upstairs" theatre and the very intimate blackbox downstairs.) Directed by Graciela Danielle, the show boasted the talents of Malcolm Gets (a wonderful stage actor but also familiar from his film and TV work), Mary Testa, Penny Fuller, and a young and undiscovered Kristen Chenoweth (Tony winner for You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, who is now a nationally known recording artist and film and TV star-you may have seen her in Bewitched or on Pushing Daisies). The peppy and inspiring score is by William Finn, the composer of the popular and Tony winning The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

The story is quite autobiographical. Many of Finn's shows have been drawn from his life experience, but A New Brain was the first to really tell Finn's story. The main character and personification of Finn is Gordon Schwinn, a writer for a children's TV show. He is increasingly frustrated and feels creatively stifled by his boss, Mr. Bungee (played by Chip Zien, famous for Into the Woods). During a lunch with his friend Rhoda, Gordon passes out and is immediately taken to the hospital where he is diagnosed with a deadly brain condition called arteriovenous malformation. If this disease doesn't kill him, he might never be fully functional again, and therefore may not ever get to realize his most beautiful songs, which would be trapped forever in his useless brain.

As Gordon goes through the process of coping with his loved ones and contemplating his fate, the action alternates between reality and halucinations, during which he pours out songs so he can get them on paper before its too late.

Luckily, this one has a happy ending: Gordon recovers completely and rediscovers his creative energies and the beautiful things in his life. Sounds sappy, but really its not. Finn handles it with the awkward humor that tends to make his work so poignant.

A New Brain is the unsung musical for a less musically inclined audience. The songs are "hummable" in the best way possible: They are catchy and memorable but the musical patterns and melodies used in them are very unusual. Finn's lyrics are often silly and odd, but also in a fun and appropriate way. When a waitress takes Gordon's order at a restaurant early on, she sings "First the fish of the day, calimari! Which isn't a fish, but lives in the sea, as set in a dish, it happens to be the fish of the day...okay..." A sassy nurse sings "I am the nice nurse. If I can help you please let me help you, 'cause the others won't help you...those bitches!" Perhaps the best wacky moment comes in a montage of songs Gordo experiences during his surgery, where Rhoda, as a ventriloquist dummy, sings "Whenever I dream I dream pornographically explicit..." and the silly male nurse sings "I'm eating myself up alive." The oddities go on and on but they are what make A New Brain such a scrambled delight and a clever mirror for the chaos occurring in Gordo's brain.

Even more wonderful are the perfect amount of interspersed touching songs. "Sailing" is a stunning duet between Gordo and his lover Roger; the heartbreaking "Just Go" is Gordo telling Roger to leave and forget it, "I can't even walk across the room unassisted." and Roger responding with his insistence that he'll stay. Gordo's mother sings a beautiful song called "The Music Still Plays On," which is Gordon imagining how she'll be when he's gone.

Colleges often perform A New Brain, usually with student groups. The show is daunting to cast properly and so a fully student production can potentially miss much of what makes the show work. Gordo should be at least in his late thirties, disillusioned with his job and reflecting on his dreams. Mimi, his mother, needs a worldly sophistication and an understanding of what it means to be a parent. These problems are not unique to casting shows but the idea of age and life experience really are necessary here (as they are in a show I DON'T like, Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along-also often performed by students. ) The male nurse is often the most difficult to cast, as ideally he needs to be large, flaming, and able to carry the phenomenal eleven o'clock number (the song that comes towards the end of the show that is meant to renergize the audience for the finale.) So a student cast has the potential for problems. On the other hand with a number like "Heart and Music", the show's main theme, it is hard not to give your audience goosebumps through the pure love of art that is exuded.

I would love to see more productions of A New Brain with casts who can realize its full potential. I recommend this one to anyone who likes to laugh and cry at the same time. The cast recording is available. A fun fact about it: Christopher Invar, the original title role in Floyd Collins, played Roger, but the recording features Norm Lewis (whom I have raved about for his "like buttah" voice in this blog) as Roger. So give A New Brain a's an emotional rollercoaster ride with a fantastic payoff.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Warts and all

Upon reading comments made by reviewers on my theatre's production of Floyd Collins and other productions of the same show, including the original New York production at Playwright's Horizons, I got to thinking about musicals that have a lot of flaws.

When musicals we haven't grown up on or maybe even heard of are produced, often we are quick to find the flaws with the writing and blame the show's lack of commercial success on them. By "we" I mean those who aren't musical theatre geeks..just those who pay to be entertained and educated.

Floyd Collins has it's share of problems with the book and the pacing. However, consistent critical negativity towards the show makes me wonder why the writing is not more often examined in the older musicals we have grown to love and that are guaranteed to pack houses no matter where they are done.

A few examples:

  • Oklahoma!, by the infamous Rodgers and Hammerstein, is perhaps one of the most often performed musicals in the genre. A few years ago it saw a surge in performances by summer stock and amateur companies was the cool new old show to do. Running approximately 3 hours, the show is plagued with superficial characters who don't have much at stake. The most interesting and complex character, Jud Fry, is painted as a villain, killed at the end, and no one is made to pay for his death mostly because nobody liked him. Jud has been treated like dirt his entire life (in one song the romantic lead actually tries, in all seriousness, to convince him to kill himself), and while not a nice guy and definitely a bit crazy (he attempts to kill the romantic lead over a girl), it would have been fun to explore why he was the way he was. There is a beautiful and haunting song entitled "Lonely Room" that is often cut from the show, where Jud laments his lonely state in his little shed behind a farmhouse. The song is often cut because we almost feel sorry for Jud when we hear it. Then who will the villain be? Many will say Oklahoma is celebrated for its innovation: Agnes DeMille's dream ballet was revolutionary. Still, the show is problematic. Newer shows with very innovative ideas (for example, in Violet, the plot centers around a main character with a disfiguring scar. Other characters onstage are terrified and go so far as to scream when they see her face. The scar is not done with makeup. The audience never sees it) are not given the credit they deserve for their new ideas that are risky and end up working brilliantly. Another example lies in the echoes used in Floyd Collins as part of the music to reflect Collins in the cave. This brilliant innovation is rarely mentioned in reviews or acknowledged by audiences. If Oklahoma was written today we'd find it tedious, dull, and shallow.
  • Another musical that brings people out in droves is My Fair Lady. Talk about a show that drags. For three hours we are subjected to lengthy songs in which the characters pontificate, celebrate or complain ("Why Can't a Woman Be More Like A Man", "Just You Wait", "With a Little Bit of Luck", "Without You" etc.) rather than songs that move the action forward (with the exception of "The Rain In Spain", where Eliza finally speaks with her new accent for the first time). But we care for these characters, mostly because we spend so much time with Eliza Doolittle, Henry Higgins, and Colonel Pickering...and because we are holding out for the realization of romantic feelings between Henry and Eliza-even though they aren't really realized.
  • The Sound of Music onstage is perhaps one of the most tedious musicals out there. My theatre company did it before we went to doing lesser known pieces, and we chopped a good forty-five minutes off of it, still ending up with a 3 hour show. The Nazi threat and Captain Von Trapp's dangerous stance against it are hardly addressed, with the authors focusing instead to focus on the cute little kids. Critics hated this one, advising diabetics in particular to stay away from the saccharine musical. But people still flocked, and it is performed in approximately 500 venues each year. When done in its original form VERY few of the songs do anything to move the action forward. My company paid the extra fee to replace some of the original songs with ones from the movie. But people love this one. LOVE it. When played correctly and with depth there is a sweetness to it...but it takes quite a bit of work to extract.
  • Damn Yankees has a great deal of problems. I love it, but the second act has so many scenes in it that unless you have a fancy rotating stage with everything on tracks you are in for some lengthy and frequent scene changes. The ending also makes little sense, with there never really being an explanation for why Joe Hardy didn't have to release his soul to the devil, except that he has realized how much he loves his wife. But it's full of rousing production numbers and hysterical lines.
  • One that hits close to home for me, as I was in the National touring company: Cats. Nothing happens in this musical. In 2.5 hours nothing happens. There is no through line, very few distinguished characters, and it makes no damn sense. If that is not a reason to lombast a musical I don't know what is. But Cats really is now and forever. For whatever reason, people dressed as kitties prancing about in unitards is enough to keep the crowds coming...over and over and over, many of them dressed up. Yeesh.

These shows were successful in their time because they were what people wanted to see. The problem is that 60 + years later, with new musicals coming out constantly, they are still what people want to see. We have not allowed our ideas about what musical theatre should be to change.

Have we come to expect more? Do we forgive these older shows their flaws because musical theatre was even newer when they came out? If we've come to expect more, why do we continue to want only to see these flawed musicals that are nonetheless tried and true?

No show is perfect-a few come close in my book, but musical theatre is such a new art form, with so many different skills crammed into it, that we haven't quite figured out the formula. The above examples present reasons why these beloved musicals are treasured in spite of their why are flaws used to quickly dismiss new works?

In only a century of existence many different styles have been attempted in musical theatre. And we must recognize that the newer musicals, the ones that we are skeptical of now, are the ones that will someday be remembered as classics. They are the ones that will someday be forgiven for their flaws. But if we do nothing but look back, what will happen to this quickly developing art form? I don't have the answer to this. But I do know that focusing on flaws in these newer musicals because we are skeptical of what we have to offer is not the answer to helping the art form move forward, especially because we are so forgiving of the major flaws in musicals that have made a significant mark.

Take a chance on something you haven't heard of. It won't be perfect. But guess what? It can still be worth it.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Rock crosses over

The phenomenon of rock musicals is not a new one. With Hair in 1968, Broadway music became mainstream again. When Broadway and vaudeville originated, they were the source for popular music. The stage was where the tunes you knew and loved came from. As the decades progressed and with the birth of rock and roll, this decreased. Then it all came full circle and the creators of Hair took the style of music that had become popular and put it back onstage. The rock musicals that have been born since are countless: Jesus Christ Superstar, Rent, and Godspell among them. However, unlike Hair, these shows had scores written by composers who specialized in musical theatre.

In 1993 Pete Townshend of The Who brought his famous rock opera Tommy to the stage at last. Tommy had an odd journey-it began as a concept album (as did Jesus Christ Superstar) and was then made into a film starring The Who's Roger Daltrey in the title role along with appearances by Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Ann-Margaret, and Jack Nicholson, as well as Townshend and John Entwistle. Tommy was finally developed for the stage in the early 90s and was a smashing success. The adaptation of the score incorporated a Broadway sensibility to the raw rock style, adding a larger orchestra and trained singers with edgy voices, as opposed to straight up rock singers...but the rock authenticity of Townshend's style remained-he was NOT a musical theatre composer writing in the rock style. Putting the story and its characters onstage, combined with the dramatic use of songs like "Sensation", "Acid Queen", and "Pinball Wizard" made audiences flock to the theatre. Tommy tells the story of a young boy who witnesses the murder of his mother's lover by his father and is instantly traumatized, becoming deaf, dumb and blind. His childhood is traumatic, as he is molested by his uncle Ernie and tortured by his Cousin Kevin, unable to speak out or defend himself. For whatever reason, Tommy is able to play pinball like no other and becomes a sensation across the world. When Tommy is cured of his ailment he becomes wrapped up in the superficiality of celebrity, which eventually backfires and causes Tommy to re-establish his relationship with his family, who has been there for him in good times and bad, famous or not. In the musical version, young Tommy and adult Tommy interact, and adult Tommy narrates, taking only the audience into his mind as those around him struggle to communicate with him.

Now Townshend has announced (in one sentence on his blog) that he will write a new musical. Sources investigated and found that the musical is called Floss and is about a suffering baby boomer marriage. The songs from the show will be the basis for The Who's new album, which will be released in 2010, and a concert production of the full scale musical will be launched in 2011. Apparently talks are already out there for a Broadway production, but that's a long way off, especially considering the thing isn't even done.

Townshend explains the musical as such:
"The collected music and sound for Floss convey the story of a married couple whose relationship gets into difficulty. Walter, a straight-cut pub rock musician, is able to retire when one of his songs becomes the TV anthem of a big car company. He becomes a house-husband while his wife Floss devotes herself to a riding stables and stud. When he tries to return to music after a fifteen year hiatus, he finds that what he hears and what he composes evoke the ecologically rooted, apocalyptic mindset of his generation. Shaken by this and torn by personal difficulties, he and Floss become estranged. A series of dramatic events in a hospital emergency ward bring them both to their senses."

This raises a couple of questions for me. First of all, will Floss have nearly the same kind of following as Tommy? How many of Tommy's Broadway fans just went because they love The Who, and how many were people who weren't necessarily huge "Who" fans but had heard and enjoyed the music? Will people go to Floss just because its The Who? Keep in mind that the musical version of Tommy had 24 years preceding it, those years containing a hit album and a major motion picture. "Floss" will have had only one year to reach the mainstream before it is attempted onstage. And even if it does sell, how will it work artistically? The thing that makes me wonder, and want more information on the plot of Floss, is that Tommy was epic in was an Amazing Journey that matched the Who's nonstop fast paced music. A story about a marriage in trouble is much more, for lack of a better word, normal. When you have a musical that explores the relationship between two people, the music tends to be much more intimate and introspective. Can Townshend adapt to that? People have come to expect epic spectacle from The Who thanks to Tommy.

To play devil's advocate with myself, Tommy does have very human elements to it as Tommy reconciles with his family and as they struggle to deal with his problems. Townshend demonstrates his ability to tug at heart strings in songs like "See Me, Feel Me" and "Listening To You". Still, in Tommy those songs are interspersed with whirlwind music, not to mention a plot that cannot be paralelled. Nothing like Tommy had ever been seen or heard (no pun intented...or was it?) The whole marriage in trouble thing has been done. And done. And done.

Time will tell. In the mean time the original Tommy album as well as the cast recording of Broadway's The Who's Tommy are both worth checking out. The songs are addictive-it is easy to see why it has developed such a following. I predict that Floss will be unable to match its predecessor, but time will tell.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Carrie-You're the Flop!

I had to get to this one sooner or later.

In 2005 I felt very privileged to attend a colossal flop of a Broadway show entitled "In My Life". This was written, directed, produced, and everything else-ed by Joe Brooks, Oscar winning composer of "You Light Up My Life" and was, perhaps, one of the most entertaining evenings of theatre I've ever spent. But in that very special way...where something transcends being bad and becomes so bad its good. Seriously, people were GIVING away tickets to this thing (How do you think I got them?) and it got some horrible reviews. Which is understandable. Whether it be the roller skating angels, the young musician wannabe hero with tourettes shouting obscenities, or the lemons that descended from the sky at the end, this one was a classic clunker that will go down in history.

Musical flops can be determined by a lot of things. Artistic merit sometimes has little to do with it and you get into the field of the business of shows. According to author Peter Filichia, who recently announced that he would write a book on big hits and flops in Broadway history, defines a flop through four categories: The expectations for it (think Frank Loesser of Guys and Dolls and his flop Greenwillow), the critical reception (my post about Glory Days discussed a show getting lambasted by the media after its one night run), length of run (Bring Back Birdie, the sequel to...well you can probably figure it out...ran only 4 performances) and the big one: How much money was lost.

There is one musical that is considered the ultimate in flops. The ultimate in disasters. This show failed in every category above: Expectations were high (The composers of Fame, a Tony winning actress and choreographer, a bestselling author for source material), critics hated it, it closed in five performances and it lost around $7 million. And it has developed the ultimate of cult followings. Because the music is believed by many to be great. (I find there is a lot of unmotivated belting, but nonetheless there are several haunting melodies)

Musical theatre geeks now know that I'm talking about Carrie. Yes, THAT Carrie. The one based on Stephen King's 1970s novel about a tormented high school girl with telekenetic powers. The 1979 film made stars out of Sissy Spacek and John Travolta. The musical version was developed by Michael Gore (music), Dean Pitchford (Lyrics) and Lawrence D. Cohen (book). The team was responsible for "Fame". They then teamed up with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Fame + RSC=CONFUSED.

The show inspired the wonderful book "Not Since Carrie", which details the disaster of this show. A few highlights of the train wreck include a book very difficult to follow, an assault on eyes and ears with special effects to make up for said bad book, the fact that the high school kids were played by overworked thirty year old actors, and the insanity of the music (at the time audiences weren't as accustomed to mega belting, which Carrie was full of)...but it is hard for me to sum up his account here. It sounds like a "You had to be there" situation to really understand. Below is a link to one account of the show that I found.

What's crazy about Carrie is that it just may have lasted longer in a different time. Many accounts of the show criticize it for it's blaring belting songs, which have become a staple of musical theatre today (Wicked, Aida, Side Show, Rent). In addition, perhaps we enjoy the music now because it is a throwback to an era that is now considered vintage. The 80s pop flavor is predominant but there are some beautifully written melodies that cause us to feel for the troubled teen and haunt us.

Still, no show can survive on belting alone. The costumes and scenery were nightmarish, and the choreography resembles an 80s dance video. Instead of focusing on the terrifying relationship between Carrie and her peers, the focus went to being ridiculous and garish. It used spectacle to mask poor character development and weak plot. Still, it certainly had an effect on audiences: It left many cheering, many booing, and many with their jaws on the floor at the utter ridiculousness in front of their eyes. People didn't know what to think...which is another unique factor.

In my previous post I talked about weird ideas for musicals that ended up working. I honestly think Carrie might have worked too in the right hands. Some of the music is rather like Debbie Gibson on acid...perhaps a stronger connection stylistically would have made a difference. Betty Buckley, of Cats fame, played Carrie's psycho religious mother, and Linzi Haitley, an 18 year old British newbie, played Carrie. When the two sang together the melodies reflected their angst filled relationship. Then all of a sudden the audience was transported into a fast forwarded Cyndi Lauper music video. One of the things that made the film version of Carrie so terrifying was the darkness that existed in the minds of these girls who seemed so normal. The idea then comes to the surface: The questions of inner and outer beauty and how good and evil take on many forms. But in the musical the creators stuck to what was easy: Girls jumping around in unitards and dancing frantically. The show is also criticized for its special effects being, well, unaffecting. Again though, these days who knows what they might be able to pull off? Some say the scene of Carrie destroying her entire high school couldn't have been done onstage-others say this production just did it wrong.

In the reviews of this show we hear that this was a terrible idea for a musical. I disagree. If we can write musicals about demon barbers, trapped men in caves, child killers, and manic depression we can have a musical about a telekentic teenager. It's all in the execution.

The rights to produce Carrie are not available, though there have been several productions, including one at Stagedoor Manor, a theatre camp for teenagers. The production was not sanctioned by the creators, who attended and expressed their disdain, but nonetheless allowed it to continue. There are revisions of the script and music online at the links below. Perhaps we will be seeing this thing remounted more often, and I wouldn't be surprised if audiences in certain areas flocked to it--if for no other reason than for a morbid fascination.

A TV review of the Broadway production
Several TV reviews

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Buried alive: The musical

Actually it's called Floyd Collins. But essentially that tag line sums it up. Or it could be called "Media Circus" the musical (hey, someone should write that. I want a credit though). My theatre company begins rehearsals for this musical next week. It will perform Sept. 12 and 19 at 7:30pm and Sept. 13 and 20 at 2:00pm at the River Arts Center in Prairie du Sac, WI.

Floyd Collins premiered off-Broadway at Playwrights' Horizons in NYC. (I've mentioned it before-home to the beginnings of some phenomenal works of theatre). It was written by Adam Guettel, who later won a Tony for best score for The Light in the Piazza, and Tina Landau, a Steppenwolf company member. Floyd Collins is a true story about a man who became trapped in a cave in 1925 and started a media frenzy as his friends and family fought to get him out. The story itself is rather complex but fascinating, so I'll send you here to read about it in detail if you wish. What I want to discuss is what an innovative piece this show is.

Lets start with the subject matter. Here we have an event that, while very well known at the time, has been nearly forgotten. To top it off, we have the fact that the event is pretty morbid and dark...a guy getting trapped in a cave? My theatre has wanted to do this show for many years and I've spent those years enduring very skeptical gazes from people who I explain the show to. I also get a lot of "Oh, sounds like a happy family story!" We'll get to that in a moment because in fact it IS a family story, if not happy...but I find it interesting that people get wierded out about the subject matter even though musical theatre has been attacking wacky ideas for years: A barber kills his customers and his girlfriend bakes them into pies?(Sweeney Todd-1979) Two New York gangs are rivals to the point of rape and death? (West Side Story: 1957)Several people await torture and possible execution in a basement during the Spanish inquisition (Man of La Mancha: 1965)? I wouldn't call these happy family fare either, but since they've established themselves as classics we let it slide. Then we have the newer stuff: A soldier in Vietnam falls in love with a young prostitute and leaves her behind at the fall of Saigon. (Miss Saigon, 1989). A man steals a loaf of bread, serves 19 years and then spends decades outrunning the authorities for breaking parole. (Les Miserables, 1985)A scarred phantom terrorizes the Paris Opera House. (If I have to tell you which one I'm talking about here, abandon all hope...but I will tell you it debuted 1986.) Look at these subject matters separate from the titles and see what your first response would be if someone told you they wrote a musical about them.

Musical theatre knows no bounds these days-just in this blog I've talked about musicals dealing with murder, prostitution, statutory rape, Siamese twins, robbery, the devil, and psychotic, sadistic Roman emperors. So now we get to one about a guy who gets trapped in a cave.

Floyd Collins works on many levels, not the least of which is its ability to tug at heart strings by bringing a rich life to Floyd's family and the people who cared about his entrapment. To make the show work we spend as much time with those affected by the tragedy as we do with the victim. Also, the story attracted a phenomenal amount of attention because of the humanizing of the man who was trapped by a young reporter named Skeets Miller. Miller is a prominent character in the story and he serves as sort of our Emcee (Cabaret) or Balladeer (Assassins)...he is our link to the action while also a part of it. This perfectly symbolizes the role he played in the actual tragedy. While other members of the media exaggerated the story like crazy, Miller kept it real and kept the story coming straight from the horse's mouth.

Then there is the beautiful score. Guettel has taken the style of the era, a folksy, bluegrass sound, and infused it with a musical theatre style. Folk music is much about telling stories (A folk song called "The Death of Floyd Collins" has been recorded about a zillion times)and so Guettel and Landau use this device as part of their means of communication. It is simply brilliant. Then of course you have the phenomenal use of the echoes Floyd encounters in the cave...when he finds the spot he believes opens up into a large cavern, he begins to yodel, and a phenomenal cacophany of echoes begins. One of my favorites is "Is That Remarkable?", a song markedly different in style from the rest of the score because it depicts three silly reporters exaggerating Floyd's story. The song features incredibly intricate harmonies and a vaudeville-like style that plays up the ridiculousness of claims made by the press at the time (such as that the rock that trapped Floyd weighed 7 tons, when in reality it was only 27 pounds). While it's a great song, it is also genuinely funny, proving that Guettel and Landau understand that their audiences need the comic relief.

I could go on and on until your eyes bleed so I'll stop now. If you're in the Madison area, and I may shamelessly plug my theatre for a moment, I suggest you come and see this musical. It is a true gem of the musical theatre genre and the opportunities to see it will remain few and far between because of the complexity of the score, the difficulty of casting it, and the fact that just not enough people know about it.

Music Theatre of Madison: Tickets to Floyd Collins

Roger Brucker, expert on Floyd Collins (who will appear in Madison for the show)

A tripod fansite on the musical

Scott Miller's interesting essay on the musical (see my post from May on Randy Newman's Faust for more about Scott)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Promising future for "Mrs. Sharp"

Playwright's Horizons, the off-Broadway theatre responsible for the births of shows like William Finn's FALSETTOS trilogy, Stephen Sondheim's ASSASSINS, and the beautiful FLOYD COLLINS (my theatre company's next production), will present an invitation only reading of the new musical MRS. SHARP. The show has music and lyrics by Ryan Scott Oliver and book by Kirsten Guenther. The piece has already been the recipient of the Richard Rodgers Award, the Jonathan Larson grant, the Margo Lion Award and several others. The reading will star Jane Krakowski (Tony winning actress from NINE, best known for her work on Ally McBeal and 30 Rock) and Christian Borle (Spamalot) and will be directed by Michael Greif (Rent, Grey Gardens, Next To Normal).

Oliver's website describes the show like this:

"Based on the 1991 teacher-student sex scandal and murder trial surrounding Pamela Smart, Mrs. Sharp tells the story of a woman who 'wants you to become more.' Having written an unsuccessful self-help series entitled 'Invent Yourself: Five Words to Live By,' 31-year old Kimberly Sharp (Jane Krakowski) is encouraged by her husband (Christian Borle) to take a job teaching at the local high school. Kimberly sets out to change the lives of her students, absorbing them into her web of fantastical delusions and private affairs. But when her husband discovers she's gone just a bit too far, Kimberly realizes there's only one thing that can be done about him. Someone goes to jail, someone becomes a beloved self-help guru and someone gets shot in the head — but everyone learns a lesson from Mrs. Sharp."

I was VERY excited to find that Oliver's website streams three songs from "Mrs. Sharp": "Mrs. Sharp", "G'Nite Jake" and "What I Wouldn't Do For You." The score is typical musical theatre adapted rock, accompanied by keyboards, drums and guitar (my old classmate Adam Wachter is on piano!). It is reminiscent of SPRING AWAKENING, HIGH FIDELITY, NEXT TO NORMAL, RENT, and TICK TICK BOOM!, (though slightly more "bubble gum poppy" than some of these)A link to the clips is below.

The style and lyrics of the music make the show sound almost more satirical than dramatic. The subject matter, I must admit, is fascinating-though I am a sucker for those dark and twisted musicals! Still, it's a story everyone is familiar with (how many student-teacher sex scandals have there been since?) which may make it a popular off-Broadway or cult hit in future years. My question: Will there be a sympathetic character? Are we made to feel for Mrs. Sharp? Or is she a villain? Do we feel for the teenager she seduces? Do we feel for her murdered husband? Do we feel for anyone?? Time will tell! I for one am really hoping this show gets produced commercially (OFF post on Glory Days!) It seems like it would be a fun one to produce at my theatre if only I could afford Jane Krakowski.

Ryan Scott Oliver webpage and "Mrs. Sharp" audio clips article

Friday, July 17, 2009

Which wild party for you?

The poem was widely banned in 1928. Joseph Moncure March's first published work was provocative, sexual, and well...wild. But many who managed to get their hands on a copy loved it, and it was considered successful-though March learned from the experience and toned down his subsequent poems.

The poem was book length and entitled "The Wild Party". The story centers on two vaudeville performers: Queenie, a gorgeous blonde, and Burrs, her jealous and bad tempered lover with whom she lives. One evening they throw a party, where Queenie's friend Kate brings a man named Black. The two quickly fall for each other, angering Burrs and resulting in a climactic confrontation. Other characters populate the poem, including lesbian Madeline True, bisexual Jackie, the incestuous brothers D'Armano, a prize fighter named Eddie, his showgirl wife Mae, Mae's young sister Nadine, producers Gold and Goldberg, and a stripper named Doris.

In 1994 a new edition of the poem was published, subtitled "The lost classic." Upon reading this, two composers saw a potential musical. Michael John LaChuisa was a young composer with some success, including several major award nominations for his musical "Hello Again" (another incredibly sexual piece based on Arthur Schnitzler's LA RONDE), his Public Theatre production of the innovative "First Lady Suite", and the Broadway show "Chronicle of a Death Foretold."

Andrew Lippa had been a graduate of...that's right, my alma mater, the University of Michigan musical theatre program (which I shall promote at every turn in case you haven't noticed) and had found work in various areas of the theatre for several years. He had worked with Tom Greenwald to compose the sweet two person musical "john & jen" (which my theatre company produced in 2008). At the time of "The Wild Party", his career was still blossoming; the year before The Wild Party debuted, Kristen Chenoweth sang his song "My New Philosophy" on the Tony Awards, and later won herself the title of Best Featured Actress in a musical for "You're A good Man Charlie Brown". Lippa had written new songs for the Broadway revival of this beloved musical.

So then we come to "The Wild Party." Lippa's opened first on February 24, 2000 at Manhattan Theatre Club off-Broadway. Julia Murney (Wicked) starred as Queenie, Brian D'arcy James (Shrek) as Burrs, Taye Diggs (Rent) was Black and Idina Menzel (the original Elphaba in Wicked, Maureen in Rent) was Kate. Lippa's version was told in a mostly traditional musical theatre style, with cast members occasionally breaking the fourth wall (the barrier between the action and the audience) to narrate using passages from March's poem. Though there are occasional distractions, such as a moment for Madelaine True to belt about how she needs an "Old Fashioned Lesbian Love Story" or for mismatched newlyweds Eddie and Mae to claim they are "Two of a Kind", the majority of the action centers around the four main players. Lippa's version ran for 54 performances (about 7 weeks). Gabriel Barre directed.

LaChuisa's version opened on Broadway on April 13, 2000. Film star Toni Colette (The United States of Tara, Muriel's Wedding, The Sixth Sense) made her Broadway debut as Queenie. Mandy Patinkin (a Broadway legend of Sunday in the Park with George, among others, and accomplished film and television actor) played Burrs. Yancey Arias (TV's NYPD Blue, One Life to Live, CSI, and others) played Black. Tonya Pinkins (Jelly's Last Jame, Caroline or Change) was Kate. In a notable supporting role was the legendary Eartha Kitt (as in Catwoman!) as hooker Dolores. Also present was Mark Kudisch (currently starring in 9 to 5 on Broadway) as bisexual Jackie. LaChuisa tells the story in a series of vaudeville sketches, allowing each character to have at least one featured moment and developing many secondary storylines outside of the love triangle. Though nominated for 7 Tony awards, including Best Musical, it won none, which caused it to close after 36 previews and 68 performances (about 13 weeks). George C. Wolfe directed, and used much more stylized, choreographed staging in the tradition of a vaudeville show.

The differences are MANY. Since this post is pretty long already I'll point out a few of the larger ones:

-LaChuisa's version is more historically based, focusing on the fact that at the time this poem was written Manhattan social circles were changing, and blacks and whites were becoming more integrated and changing neighborhoods. Lippa's featured a multi-racial cast as well, but did not delve directly into the issue.

-As mentioned above, every character in LaChuisa's version is given a chance to shine. In fact, the focus on the supporting characters make an even more obvious difference: Certain characters from the poem that don't even appear in Lippa's version have entire songs in LaChuisa's version, such as Broadway producers Gold and Goldberg and Madelaine True's new love Sally.

-The character of Jackie is silent in Lippa's version, his most prominent moment being a dance solo at the conclusion of the party. In LaChuisa's version, Jackie is a much more fleshed out character with several featured numbers.

-Likewise Dolores is a non-singing supporting role in Lippa's version and a prominent character (as played by Eartha Kitt) in LaChuisa's.

So which is the preferred version? Obviously that depends on who you talk to. I will start by saying that my theatre company will be producing Lippa's version of The Wild Party next summer. However, LaChuisa's has always been my favorite of the two. The music in LaChuisa's version is tightly focused on the style of music from the era it takes place in. I also am a fan of unconventional storytelling methods. But mostly I think there is just more substance to LaChuisa's version, focusing on issues of race, sexuality, discrimination, the American Dream-there is so much to take away. I find LaChuisa's musical style incredibly exciting, though it is an acquired taste for some people. My favorite songs, which I think are also very accessible, are "Uptown", "A Little Mmmm", and "Blame it on the Gin".

Lippa's, on the other hand, is also fantastic. Though he never settles on one musical style, Lippa's music is undeniably rousing. The 11 o'clock number "Let Me Drown" is one of those songs where the performers can throw caution to the winds, let loose and go nuts. There are almost too many showstoppers in Lippa's version: The fast paced "Raise the Roof" at the beginning of the party, Madalaine True's obscene "Old Fashioned Love Story", Queenie and Burrs example of their upcoming show "Wild Wild Party", Kate's opening for Act II "Life of the Party" and the climactic "Make Me Happy" are all examples of the energy one normally only sees a couple of times in most musicals. Lippa uses vocal acrobatics in many of his songs, adding runs and belted high notes for effect. Unlike many composers who use this tactic however, Lippa uses it only in moments where it is naturally called for. The story is still engaging, and the main characters well crafted. Lippa's in short, is the equivalent of a really well crafted beach read, while LaChuisa's is more of a literary work to be studied by English classes.

It is worth noting that Lippa's version is also produced far more often regionally because it is easier to cast and the music much easier to learn, if more difficult to sing.

Idina Menzel in "The Wild Party" off-Broadway

The Tony Awards performance of LaChuisa's Broadway version

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Unsung musicals get their day!

Above the Stag Theatre in London is debuting their new musical revue, "Blink...and you missed it!", which pays tribute to short lived musicals. Here's a rundown of several of them (it's like six posts in one!)

Metropolis: By Joe Brooks and Dusty Hughes, this adaptation of the 1927 silent film ran briefly in London in 1989 and starred Judy Kuhn. A 1984-esque tale of the future...although in this musical the future is the year 2000. So I'd say this one has had its day in the sun. Cast recording is available on

Matador: By Mike Leander and Edward Seago. The rise and fall of a fictional matador. This began as a concept album which featured Tom Jones. After a long struggle to get to the West End, it closed after three months in 1991 due to the severe economic impact of the Gulf War. No cast recording-there was supposed to be one but it got called off. John Barrowman, the star, recorded a couple of the songs.

Children of Eden: Stephen Schwarz (Wicked) wrote this musical and premiered it on the WEst End in 1991. Also affected by the Gulf War, this one closed quickly. It got a boost in 1997 when Paper Mill Playhouse mounted a production starring Stephanie Mills (The Wiz). A cast recording of that production was made and since then it has received numerous regional productions. Act I is Adam and Eve (complete with five headed harmonizing snake) and Act II is Noah and the flood. Some gorgeous songs in this one.

The Scarlet Pimpernel: Frank Wildhorn and Nan Knighton's musical hit Broadway in 1997 and ran for two years. Typical Wildhorn contemporary pop style music based on the novel of the same name. A cast recording is available.

Side Show: I'll probably do a full post on this one at a later time. Featuring music by Henry Kreiger (Dreamgirls) and lyrics by Bill Russel, Side Show made stars out of Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley (who just won the Tony for best actress in a musical for "Next to Normal) as the Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. They were nominated for a joint Tony for their performances. Though it didn't last long on Broadway, it has developed a cult following and is produced fairly often regionally. The cast recording is worth buying if for no other reason than to hear Norm Lewis (The Little Mermaid) sing "You Should Be Loved".

Steel Pier: This musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret) and David Thompson ran only 76 performances. The show is about a 1930s dance marathon held in Atlantic City and featured Karen Ziemba (Chicago), Debra Monk (Assassins) and the now famous Kristen Chenoweth (Wicked), who played a supporting role. Cast recording is available.

Many others are performed, including songs from "The Act" (another Kander and Ebb), "Ballroom", "Merrily We Roll Along", "Ragtime" and "City of Angels"--the last three are performed fairly often in the US but not as often in the UK.

The article references a "Silence of the Lambs" musical that never made it to opening night-the only musical version of this 1992 horror film that I've been able to find is called Silence! The Musical. I'd think that was it...but I'm not sure. More to come on that one. How could I resist? article

Monday, July 6, 2009

Glory Days gets a second wind

On May 6, 2008, a musical called Glory Days, about four friends returning from their first year of college and struggling with their identities, opened on Broadway.

On May 6, 2008, a musical called Glory Days, about four friends returning from their first year of college and struggling with their identities, closed on Broadway.

That's right. One night and it was over. Critics panned this musical mercilessly. A few examples:

THE NEW YORK POST REVIEW:The best thing about Glory Days is that it lasts 90 minutes. But those 90 (intermissionless) minutes seem longer than all of "Tristan and Isolde" without Wagner.

VARIETY REVIEW:"An irritating offshoot of the digital revolution is that it's democratized the filmmaking process, opening the floodgates for kids straight out of school with no life experience and no stories to tell to start making navel-gazing movies. Beyond the small-time local level or the ubiquitous solo show, theater is mostly spared that indignity because it costs more, requires more collaborators and demands an audience. But occasionally, one such immature self-indulgence slips through, such as Glory Days, which slipped all the way through to Broadway."

AMNY REVIEW:We guarantee that anyone who sees the new Broadway musical Glory Days, which was written by two lucky 23 year olds, will be stunned. But not in a good way. After enduring all 90 painful minutes of this undercooked, horribly amateurish show, you'll be wondering how the hell it got to Broadway.

Yeesh. These reviews hit close to home for me as I am friends with Nick Blaemire, who wrote the music and lyrics, and Adam Halpin, who played the role of Skip. While knowing it is disappointing from a distance, once you know the people and hearts behind the work, it really strikes how devastating the experience must have been for them.

The curious thing about "Glory Days" is that it originated at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA and recieved many positive reviews, including a rave from the Washington Post:

The buoyant product of the talented young team of composer-lyricist Nick Blaemire and librettist James Gardiner, "Glory Days" swiftly, tunefully and yes, authentically latches onto the rhythms of late adolescence and plays them back to us as the music of wrenching transitions. Over the course of 15 spirited songs and 85 minutes, fissures are exposed in friendships, especially those lacking a capacity to adapt to new facts. It is a show that reminds us that even in comfortable suburbs, you can't really go home again.

Is this the same show? Pretty much. From what I understand not many changes were made on the road to Broadway. So what was it that made this show shut down so quickly on the Great White Way?

From what I can tell it sounds like everything happened too fast and before anyone had time to assess the situation. The show was not entirely developed (Blaemire and his co-writer, James Gardiner, even admit to not being adept at writing a musical-and why would they be? This was their first one.) and yet a few people got their hands on it, believed in it and had the heart and soul to want to see it on Broadway...which is where all musicals belong, right?

The fact is, it seems Glory Days was just one of those shows that was never meant to get there. First of all Broadway is about profit, and even at the tiny Circle in the Square Theatre the overhead costs were just too much to keep the production up. Which makes sense-Broadway is a tourist's market, and shows like Glory Days often fall under the shadow of shows like Wicked or Jersey Boys. What's left are savvy theatre audiences with very high standards who look at a musical from educated perspectives. With the amount of inventory available, theatregoers in New York City want to be challenged, thrilled, and tormented. (Some of the shows they dislike are still successful. Ask any of these savvy theatregoers what they think about Phantom of the Opera. Go ahead. I dare you.) It seems to me that Glory Days was never meant to be the kind of show you write a thesis about-it is fun, reflective, relatable, a bit crass, and altogether entertaining. Which, in a regional and particularly non-profit market, is a sure fire crowd pleaser. But on Broadway its a different story. Shows like Wicked, with big name stars, lavish effects, name recognition and major publicity, can survive mixed to negative reviews from critics (which is exactly what happened in Wicked's case). None of these advantages existed for Glory Days.

From an artistic standpoint the problems are harder to determine, especially since I have not read or heard the show. But it appears that the characters were all in search of their identities. This can work and has appeared in many musicals before but it only works if you have a strong focus and strong characters surrounding that one who is unsure. Four reactive characters who respond to the world around them tend to get dull. It sounds like, from what I read, the characters were not fully developed and none of the strong personalities were able to emerge. Again, maybe with more time...but these are the subtle changes that educated theatre geeks know can make all the difference.

Perhaps if the profit question had not been part of the equation, Glory Days would have lived on and found its following...and it looks like that is exactly what is about to happen. With a new cast recording coming out, the songs will be heard and the show will most definitely be picked up for performances at regional theatres across the country-apparently the interest is already in place. And I'm happy for my friends because I know how hard they worked. I wasn't there when they went through all of this but I can only imagine how hard it must have been, and I feel for them. Because in spite of faults and mistakes it was their baby, their creation and they love it. Luckily they didn't escape totally empty handed-Nick and James received some kind words from the mother of all critics, Ben Brantley, in the New York Times:

I do find it heartening that a pair of enthusiastic and gifted young artists have fallen in love with that beleaguered form, the musical, as a means of self-expression.

Glory Days is an interesting study of the fact that some musicals, like most of the ones I post about in this blog, may not be meant to pack Broadway houses. But this doesn't mean they don't have something to say and the ability to touch hearts-it just may be a little tougher for them to find their audience.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Luck! gets lucky

I was in a workshop production of this musical at the University of Michigian in 2003. I played the "lion on the loose" referenced in the article.

Luck! is by Mark Waldrop and Brad Ross. It is based on a folktale called "Mazel and Schlimazel"-good and bad luck. A reading will feature Faith Prince and my friend and co Michigan graduate Stanley Bahorek.

The music in Luck is fun. I'd be interested to see how far its come since I did it 6 years ago. Working on a new musical is always an adventure...sometimes things change quite a bit and sometimes the changes are more subtle. While I don't know if Luck! has a place on Broadway or in large commercial venues, I could definitely see it becoming a staple of children's theatres or even going on a Theatre for Young Audiences tour.

Playbill article on Luck!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Caligula the musical??? Fantastic.

I LOVE reading about the era of the Ceasars, particularly Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula. (If you want a thoroughly entertaining, outstandingly acted thirteen hours of entertainment rent the miniseries "I, Claudius" immediately.) I also confess to having a morbid fascination with the 1979 film version of "Caligula" starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole and John Gielgud. This notorious flop featured a-list actors who were later joined on screen by Penthouse Pets, and whose scenes of artistic integrity were edited to be interspersed with scenes of flat out pornography. In spite of that, Caligula's story remains fascinating. He was a spoiled brat, son of a celebrated war hero and a brown noser of the nth degree. When his uncle, the emperor Tiberius, was doing away with the majority of Caligula's family, Caligula remained Tiberius' right hand man and was eventually named heir to the Roman throne. Tiberius was much disliked by the people, and when he finally died (at Caligula's hand, no less), the citizens rejoiced. But after becoming violently ill and teetering close to death, Caligula became convinced he had been reborn a God. He abused his power in the sickest ways possible-pronouncing torturous death sentences for no reason, opening a brothel in the royal palace, spending the country into the ground, and even fornicating with his own sisters. After four years he was assassinated.

This could make a fantastic musical. And now hopefully it will. A reading of the new musical "Caligula" by Eric Svejcar will take place in July at an invitation only reading in New York. Press notes describe it as follows:

[Caligula]"is placed in an ancient rock-and-roll theatre somewhere between the years 41 and 1973 (or perhaps both simultaneously). This particular ancient theatre just happens to somehow have electricity, a bitchin' sound system, a light show, a rock band, and costumes more in the world of Ziggy Stardust than Julius Caesar. History's most notorious tyrant takes the audience on a musical journey of murder, sensuality, heartbreak, world domination, immortality, and absurdly unmitigated ego."

Sounds a teensy bit ridiculous but I'm anxious to see how this one pans out. For in truth, the story itself is ridiculous. Caligula was lavish and outrageous and to create a musical that does not incorporate these elements would be a waste. What other theatrical genre gives you the excuse to play up the outlandishness? It will be tricky, however, to balance that outlandishness with truth...this may not be possible, in which case the show could just end up being a comedy. We shall see. The rock score interests me as well--is it used as a link between modern day and ancient history? If so, why stop at 1973, as described in the press release? What will make this relevant to today's audiences? Will it be funny and ridiculous or will it be dramatic and gut wrenching? It seems the creators will have had to choose one or the other....

Newest Sondheim show can now be heard by all

Road Show, Stephen Sondheim's first musical in over a decade, now has a cast recording available on Nonesuch Records. The story is of two brothers on a quest for the American dream and spans four decades from the gold rush to the 1930s. The Public Theater engagement cast provides the recording, starring Michael Cerveris (Tony winner for Tommy and Assassins) and Alexander Gemigniani (late of the Sweeney Todd revival and as Jean Valjean in the Les Mis revival-and a Michigan musical theatre grad..woot woot! He actually called my dorm room once offering to accompany me for a voice lesson when I was looking for someone. But I digress). news release here

A musical in two axe

After my company's production of "Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story" opened, I got to thinking about the various other true crime musicals that are out there. Assassins, of course, pops into mind immediately. Jason Robert Brown's gorgeous "Parade" chronicles another supposed "Crime of the Century": The murder of 14 year old Mary Phagan in Georgia in the early 1900s, which was unjustly pinned on a Jew from the North, Leo Frank. A previous post chronicled the many musical adaptations of Bonnie and Clyde. Two musicals chronicle the case of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of 1930s African Americans unjustly accused of a murder-one by legendary team John Kander and Fred Ebb (Chicago) and one currently available through Dramatists' Play service by Harley White and Mark Stein.

Even Sweeney Todd, a legend with roots dating back to the 16th century, is rumored to have some truth to it. While some believe Sweeney Todd to be a pure work of fiction, similar criminals did exist and some even believe Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett to have been real people (this is detailed in Peter Haining's fascinating book SWEENEY TODD: THE REAL STORY OF THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET.) Crime is so often linked to passion, and whether it be on the part of the criminals or on the part of those affected by the crimes. And what better place to start a musical than with pure passion?

Adding to this complex (albeit short) list of true crime musicals is Lizzie Borden: A Musical Tragedy in Two Axe. The Borden case is one of the most talked about crimes in American History, mostly because the truth was never known. Borden was accused of murdering her father and stepmother on a stifling August day in 1892. Much evidence suggests that she was indeed guilty, including the destruction of a dress thought to be evidence, her father's considerable thriftiness in spite of his wealth, and her well known rivalry with her stepmother. Other evidence suggests that there were other suspects with more obvious motives for committing murder. No blood was found on Lizzie's clothing, and the axe found in the basement of the Borden house was not fingerprinted and therefore could not be linked positively to the murder.

Borden was acquitted of the crimes but now, more than a century later, her case continues to fascinate us, inspiring operas, ballets, movies, comic books, novels, pop songs guessed it...a musical.

Christopher McGovern and Amy Powers' musical premiered at the American Stage Company in 1998. It then was produced at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut (known for their touting of new works) and the Stoneham Theater in Massachussets, the crime's home state. As I understand it, this production is darkly comic (hence the billing in the title) but cuts to the bone in its examination of Lizzie and her troubled life. Beyond the retelling of the crime, the show adds a character to the mix: Lizzie's younger self. The play also suggests that Andrew Borden, Lizzie's father, had sexually abused Lizzie and her sister Emma (which is backed up by historical evidence).

The story is told in multiple flashbacks, interspersing the events of the day the crime was committed with trial testimony and glimpses of Lizzie's life as a young girl. The music is also notably Sondheimian. (What, that's a word, isn't it?) According to a review of the Stoneham Theater production in 2004:

McGovern's debt to Sondheim is implicit: It's hard to envision such a tragicomic, chiaroscuro treat but for the precedent of Sweeney Todd.

My question when looking at this was whether the musical takes a stance on Lizzie's guilt or innocence. I am unable to find any definitive answer on this, but, as is it seems the creators have opted to allow the audience to relate to and sympathize with Lizzie, which suggests her innocence. Unlike in a piece like "Assassins", where we are terrified to find ourselves relating to the criminals onstage, it seems that with Lizzie Borden the audience is allowed into Lizzie's psyche, and therefore she is portrayed as a sympathetic character. Also to quote the aforementioned review:

What's remarkable about Lizzie Borden: The Musical is that, in lieu of ironic distance, the composer allows himself a full measure of empathy with the title character. Not for a moment do we imagine that Lizzie is not one of our own.

I am still searching for clips of the music from this, but a cast recording of the 1998 production is available from Original Cast Records.

Incidentally, in my search for information on this musical, I learned that there was an opera composed in the 1960s by Jack Beeson entitled "Lizzie Borden". This piece was filmed for public television and places less emphasis on the crimes than on the environment that bred them, and, as I understand it, concluding that the murders were Lizzie's doing. Also, In "New Faces of 1952", a musical comedy revue that ran for a year on Broadway and then was made into a film, the comical hoe down "Lizzie Borden" closes the second act.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bonnie and Clyde-the race is on

Following up on a previous post, it appears that Hunter Foster and Rick Crom's musical version of the Bonnie and Clyde tale will receive a reading at the West Side Theatre tonight (June 16th). The reading will feature such theatrical legends as Sutton Foster (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek), Debra Monk (Assassins, Steel Pier, Chicago) and Christopher Seiber (Shrek, Spamalot) as well as relative newcomer Will Swenson, recently Tony nominated for his performance as Berger in the Tony winning Broadway revival of Hair.

Apparently this version is a light hearted version of the tale-seemingly the only one of the many adaptations to take this approach. Still, Frank Wildhorn's version will premiere at La Jolla Playhouse in a full production this fall. While several of Wildhorn's musicals haven't made it past the regional stage, I have a strange feeling about this one...and I also have a feeling Foster and Crom's will take off as well. Perhaps in 2010 or 2011 we will have another "Wild Party" on our hands. (See an upcoming post for the full story on the Wild Party musicals). article on Foster and Crom Bonnie and Clyde reading

Friday, June 12, 2009

Fela! news

It was officially announced (officially officially, that is) that Fela! will come to Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. The unique, afrocentric musical will move there from off-Broadway's 37 Arts, where it closes October 5th.

The leading man, director and production team will remain in tact-it remains to be seen whether the rest of the cast will travel with the production.

The director/choreographer of Fela! was Bill T. Jones, who received the Tony for best choreography for Spring Awakening in 2007. The show received numerous awards in its off-Broadway run, including the Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical.

As long as the Broadway run is at least moderately successful, this means there will be a cast recording, which I look forward to hearing.

Fela website

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Bonnie and Clyde Musical-but not the first announced today that the musical version of BONNIE AND CLYDE will debut at La Jolla Playhouse this fall. I clicked on the headline because I knew of a version that had been written by a graduate of my alma mater, Hunter Foster. I was curious to see what this was.

Turns out this is one I wasn't aware of: this one is by Frank Wildhorn. Wildhorn is best known for JEKYLL & HYDE, which ran for four years on Broadway. He is also responsible for DRACULA, THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, and THE CIVIL WAR-none of which fared as well. (Indeed, Jekyll and Hyde probably should have quit while it was ahead. In a desperate attempt to keep the production alive David Hasselhoff was cast in the title role and filmed. The tag line "This is no day at the beach" pretty much tipped everyone off that this monster was done with its Broadway run.) Nonetheless, JEKYLL AND HYDE is frequently performed regionally, and many of Wildhorn's works that have yet to make it to the US have found great success overseas.

So now Wildhorn has created BONNIE AND CLYDE, a musical version of the classic Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway film telling the true story of a couple that terrorized through crimes. In the Playbill article, Wildhorn is quoted as saying:

"When I started working on this show, no one was talking about Bonnie & Clyde. Now, two new books have been published, a remake of the Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway classic film is in production, and the FBI recently released close to a thousand pages of classified memos on the infamous couple...Clearly, they are once again piquing the interest of a troubled America. This has been a musical challenge unlike any I've known before. These are the most incredible and intriguing characters I've given a musical voice to."

That's great Frank. But to say no one was talking about Bonnie and Clyde isn't entirely true. Apparently this infamous couple's exploits have inspired no less than four other musical adaptations.

The one I knew about was the one written by Hunter Foster and Rick Crom. This one appeared in 2008 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival and is billed as "a side splittin' toe tappin' gun totin' musical". This adaptation seems to be of the lighter sort-a folktale with an emphasis on the fun of the time and place. I had heard that Foster was working on this show back when I was at U of M, and so it appears it has finally come to fruition only a year ago. The current version uses 14 actors.

The second, written by Bernard Poli and Simon Porter, French composer/lyricists. Their version is clearly much more on the dramatic side, with intense orchestral accompaniment and a cast of only 6. From what little I've heard, it sounds a bit Andrew Lloyd Webber like in style. This production does have a cast recording (recorded in English) but has apparently never been staged. My google translator didn't do a great job but from a French website I (think I) read that this will be staged in Russia in 2010 for the first time. Oddly enough, from that article I found out about another version...

Raphael Bancou's version will be presented in France in the summer of '09 at the Theatre de Beliers in the Festival off Avignon. The French version of the story features book, music and lyrics by Bancou. The director of the 2009 production will also direct the above mentioned Poli version in Russia in 2010. So apparently there are no hard feelings between these European composers.

Finally, there is "Bonnie and Clyde: The Two Person, Six Gun musical", which is represented by Colorado's professional Summerwind Productions. This version was created by Will Pomerantz, Andrew Phillip Heron and Doug Ritchie. As you may have detected from the title, this is a two person version of the story. It has been produced in Seattle, WA and has a production pending in Alberta, Canada. The show seems to have been through several incarnations, including a disastrous one in Chicago...and is just now finding its audience.

And we thought The Wild Party was an unfortunate coincidence...

So there you have it, Mr. are actually number FIVE to attempt this...and there could be more. I need to go back and watch the film, but it seems that Bonnie and Clyde is appealing to composers because it plays on so many different themes: Love, crime, comedy, drama, suspense...cram them all into one tale and it would be fairly natural to musicalize.

I'll be interested to see how Wildhorn's turns out. There was an industry reading produced by The Roundabout THeatre Company, which featured another Michigan alum, Brynn O'Malley. No doubt that in the final version there will be some very poppy songs, perhaps with some stylistic flair. (The press release describes the score as a "non-traditional score, combining rockabilly, blues and gospel music." I'm also confident that there will be a large ensemble of unfortunates that Bonnie and Clyde meet along the road. And a full orchestra. Having seen zero of these musicals I'm in no position to comment on what works and what doesn't...but I'm sure the answer will come in time.

Bonnie and Clyde at the New York Musical Theatre Festival

Bonnie and Clyde en francais

Bonnie and Clyde-The Musical by Bernard Poli and Simon Porter

Bonnie and Clyde-The two person, six gun musical at Summerwind Productions/Sleek Theatricals article on Wildhorn's pending verison

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A different take on the Phantom.

We've all heard of that show about the man in the mask who terrorizes the Paris Opera House. That's the one with the chandelier that comes down from the ceiling, the one with the ominous opening chords pounded out on an organ. The one with the giant skeleton guy is the longest running musical in Broadway history and has been seen in numerous productions all over the world. In the week of May 25-31, 2009 the show grossed $781,442 and was filled to 85% capacity. Not bad when you've been around for 22 years.

Andrew Lloyd Weber's The Phantom of the Opera hardly qualifies as an unsung musical. Luckily that's not the one this post is about.

When I was probably 13 or 14, my mother and I went to see a show called Phantom at Starlight Theatre in Kansas City, MO. We had been to the national tour of Phantom of the Opera, and being a budding musical theatre junkie I had of course loved it. But this Phantom was different, my mom told me. She wasn't sure how, but she knew it was the same story, just a different version.

I don't remember a ton about that night under the stars. But I do remember walking away with a brighter, happier feeling than I had when I saw Weber's Phantom. I remember being particularly entranced with Carlotta, who, unlike in Weber's Phantom, is the show's comedic relief. Her rafter rattling anthem "This Place is Mine" became a staple of my repertoire at the young age of 15. It is a tour de force character song with a variety of acting challenges that are coupled with distinct musical ones as well: Rhythmic running passages, a difficult patter section, and a high B punctuating it at the end. (Without looking at the sheet music I can guess the song spreads through two octaves.) It remains to this day one of my favorite songs to sing.

Not that it was the only song from this beautiful musical that made an impression on me. But I'll back up a little and give you some background. This Phantom came about in 1982 as an idea from actor/director Geoffrey Holder. Holder approached Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit to create the musical. Fresh from their Tony award winning turn with the musical Nine, Yeston and Kopit got to work. Holder had acquired the rights to adapt the famous book from Gaston Leroux's estate, and held exclusivity for two years.

Then came the announcement in Variety. Andrew Lloyd Weber, the controversial composer who had created the likes of Cats, Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar, planned an adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, which was to play on London's west end. In England, the rights to adapt the story were public domain. After the two years of Holder's exclusivity ended, the rights would become public domain in the US as well.

This put a significant damper in the efforts of Yeston and Kopit to attract investors for their show, which they intended to play Broadway. While Yeston and Kopit's Phantom was still a work in progress, The Phantom Of the Opera opened in London and was announced for Broadway. Investors promptly backed out.

But when Kopit attended a production of Weber's Phantom he realized his approach was very different. So the team got together again, made adjustments, and premiered the work at Theatre Under the Stars in Houston in 1991. That production birthed the original cast recording.

Since you've most likely seen the infamous Weber Phantom, I'll just point out a few of the fundamental differences that exist between Yeston's and Webber's versions. For one thing, the Phantom has a name, Erik. Rather than portraying him as a menacing shadow, he is fleshed out into a human being with a past. He is made into a sympathetic character. Erik has lived under the opera house for years, protected by the owner, Carriere. His love for the young singer Christine (who is a street singer at the opening of this version, not a chorus girl already employed by the opera) is genuine and pure, not obsessive and harmful. The Carlotta character is also fleshed out in this version as a diva even worse than the Carlotta in Webber's version-one who can't sing and takes over ownership of the opera house from Carriere. It is later revealed that Carriere, who has housed and protected Erik all his life, is Erik's father. Finally, one of the most disturbing scenes in Webber's version is when the Phantom's mask is ripped off and the audience can see the damage done to his face. Yeston's Phantom uses a more subtle approach to the subject of Erik's being disfigured: A flashback shows the young Erik seeing his reflection and becoming terrified.

Yeston's Phantom is a more traditional book musical that, I believe, makes the story more accessible. While Webber's Phantom features some haunting ballads, they have been performed so often over the years (many times badly) that they are losing the power they most likely had when they were initially heard. The songs in Yeston's Phantom are not meant to thrill but to entertain and to tug at heart strings in a much more obvious way. Christine sings a beautiful song called "Home" about her love for the opera and how she has always dreamed of performing there. Another of her beautiful songs is "My True Love", in which she begs the Phantom to show her his face. And the song "You Are My Own", while perhaps not a lyrical masterpiece, is an irresistable tearjerker.

Luckily, this Phantom has found its life in regional theatres. Since its debut at TUTS in 1991, it made appearances in Chicago, Fort Worth, Seattle, Wichita, San Bernadino, Daytona Beach, and in New York State. Internationally the piece has been adapted in Japan, Germany, and the obscure Estonia.

If you're looking for a different version of the story, or if Webber's Phantom doesn't do it for you, this one is worth checking out. It doesn't hide behind boats, chandeliers and pyrotechnics, and would perhaps have made a better movie than the dreadful adaptation of Webber's that premiered in 2004.

By the way, there was a version of Phantom that preceded both Webber's and Yeston's. In 1976 Ken Hill's version, which adhered more closely to the Leroux novel than either of its successors, was written to the music of infamous operatic composers like Verdi, Mozart and Offenbach, among others. This version, which rose to popularity in England, is said to have inspired Webber to create his infamous blockbuster.

PHANTOM on Wikipedia

Ken Hill's Phantom of the Opera on Wikipedia

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Adding Machine: A musical

Elmer Rice's 1923 play "Adding Machine" seems dated at first glance. A man who has worked at a company for 25 years is laid off and replaced by an adding machine. (My grandma has one of those). An adding machine-a lost technology you barely see in the era of computers and...well, calculators! But stop and think-how often have you called a customer service number and gotten a recorded voice? How often have you had trouble getting ahold of an actual human being? It's the same concept-machines doing work and people losing jobs. This rings true specifically in the haphazard economy of 2009.

Of course, in "Adding Machine", Mr. Zero, the man who is fired, doesn't react very well. He kills his boss. And he is then sent to trial and executed for his crime. But in the afterlife he finds redemption and a second chance at romance.

"Adding Machine" premiered in 2007 at the Next Theatre Company in Chicago. The show was met with great acclaim and moved off-Broadway in 2008 with the lead actors from Chicago still in tact. New York embraced the show vigorously and was the winner of 4 Lucille Lortel Awards and 2 Outer Critics Circle Awards. Time Out New York declared it "The Best new musical of 2008".

So what makes this musical such a gem? The unique aspect of it cannot be denied. While musical theatre is no stranger to dark subject matter, particularly in recent years. But Adding Machine, according to Christopher Isherwood's New York Times review, is beyond is "impossibly bleak", yet "improbably brilliant". It seems that the beauty of Adding Machine is its straightforwardness, its refusal to sugar coat anything.

I must note that I have not seen Adding Machine but I have heard the music and am quite intrigued by it-sort of a combination of Sondheim and Phillip Glass. Straightforward, dull rhythms combined with unsettling synthesized melodies, with a bit of a throwback to the era in which the play is set, the 1920s. The music beautifully reflects the subject matter it addresses. The eight minute "Zero's Confession", which is probably my favorite song in the show, is quite repetitive and yet keeps the listener on the edge of his or her seat. THe repetitive nature does not deter from the plot, and it does not sound as though the composers ran out of ideas. It reinforces the disturbing idea that Mr. Zero feels no remorse for his crime.

I would love to see more regional incarnations of Adding Machine. This is not one that everyone can handle though-even communities that might embrace "Assassins" and the like may have a problem with this one. The specific audience that "Adding Machine" caters to is definitely one with an open mind as to the purpose of musical theatre, one that is open to the idea that it's more than entertainment. I look forward to continuing to explore this great show.

Adding Machine official site

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fela! to appear on Broadway...maybe's story on this is a little unclear: It says that the new musical FELA!, which played off-broadway at 37 Arts in 2008, will be moving to the Eugene O'Neill theatre on Broadway to begin previews. Then under that it states that a Broadway run has not been officially announced. I'd say announcing that you're moving into a Broadway theatre kind of qualifies. But I digress.

FELA! is the story of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a groundbreaking African composer and activist. It won multiple Lortel Awards including Best new musical.

The question is, can Broadway handle such an offbeat musical? In an era of economic turmoil I hope the move doesn't knock them down while they're ahead. Broadway is a tourist's market more and more (Jersey Boys, The Lion King, Wicked, West Side Story and Billy Elliot are currently grossing the most) and often the musicals like this that make the move and don't survive very long.

FELA! Official website

Randy Newman's Faust

We all know the Faust story. It has appeared in numerous variations since its first publication in 1587. The basic story, which has been adapted and altered, tells the story of a man who desires superior knowledge and thus makes a pact with the devil in order to obtain it. It has inspired operas, plays, poetry, paintings, ballet, contemporary and classical music and, as luck would have it, musicals.

A very familiar Faustian story is from a popular 1955 musical (made into a dreadful but still popular 1957 film) DAMN YANKEES. This was a modern (for the time anyway) look at a man who sells his soul to the devil so he can become young again and play for his favorite baseball team, the fictional Washington Senators, to help them win the World Series. The show was a star vehicle for quirky dancer Gwen Verdon and her life long love Bob Fosse, who choreographed (and danced alongside her in the movie). As a musical it is plagued with problems, most of which present themselves in the second act. Nonetheless it ran 1019 performances on Broadway in its original run and has since been revived often regionally and once on Broadway in 1994. Toe tapping songs, the irresistable Lola and the dry humor make it one of my favorite shows-flawed though it may be.

Which is what draws me to Randy Newman's Faust, a newer adaptation of the story. In 1993 Newman recorded a concept album of the show, featuring such talents as Linda Rondstadt, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt and Elton John as well as Newman himself. Here is musical theatre expert Scott Miller's description from the New Line Theatre website:

Randy Newman's pop/rock musical updating of the Faust legend is nasty, smart, sexy, and completely irreverent, painting God as a smug egotist, the Devil as just a hard-working guy who can't catch a break, and Faust as a slacker college kid who beats his girlfriend. The all-star concept album features James Taylor as God, Randy Newman as the Devil, Don Henley as Faust, plus a supporting cast including Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, and Elton John. This show was put on stage a few years ago and it flopped because it was dumbed down and made "palatable." If they'd put the bite back in, it could be a masterpiece.

The above mentioned La Jolla playhouse production was followed by a production at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. The reception it seemed was rather positive because the songs were just so darn good. However, Ben Brantley's review of the Goodman Theatre production reveals that those who took this concept album and put it on stage took the easy way out: They went for a spectacle and glossed over the cynicism of Newman's piece in an effort to make it more marketable. While there was talk of a Broadway production, it never came about. Rights are not available to perform this show and it seems to have hit a bit of a wall.

New Line Theatre Company has listed the show on their website under possible future shows. Calling themselves "The bad boy of musical theatre", New Line is a St. Louis theatre company producing edgy and thought provoking musical theatre. This company is never afraid to take risks, and artistic director Scott Miller provides some of the most intelligent insights into musical theatre that I have ever encountered. If they could somehow acquire permission to perform the piece and find a way to embrace the edginess of Newman's original concept album it seems this could be a darkly comedic cult hit for alternative theatre companies regionally. It is certainly worth exploring.

New Line Theatre Company

A short essay on the show link to the concept album

Ben Brantley on the Goodman Theatre Production

A list of the many works based on the Faust legend

Monday, May 25, 2009

Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story

My theatre company in Madison Wisconsin is producing this musical gem this June 19-26. It will be the state premiere.

THRILL ME: THE LEOPOLD AND LOEB STORY has book, music and lyrics written by Stephen Dolginoff. It was staged at the Midtown Theatre Festival in 2003, directed by Martin Charnin. In 2005, it was scheduled for a limited engagement at the York Theatre Company in New York City. After garnering many positive reviews (see below), the show was extended. Since then, there have been 31 companies of the musical world wide, including in Seattle, Buffalo, New Orleans, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles (where it won five Ovation Awards), and overseas in Seoul, South Korea, Athens Greece, Melbourne Australia and soon in both Canada and Japan! Upcoming US productions include ours in Madison as well as one in Charleston, SC.

THRILL ME is a different look at the legendary thrill killers Leopold and Loeb, who murdered a young man in Chicago in 1924 simply to see if they could get away with it...or so we thought. The story has been treated in numerous adaptations: Alfred Hitchcock's ROPE, the book and movie COMPULSION, and Joshua Logan's NEVER THE SINNER. But these adaptations focused on the trial and the crime, where Dolginoff's adaptation goes behind closed doors and develops a hypothesis for why the two young men REALLY committed the crime. It was proven, but often pushed into the background, that Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were lovers. The two had a contract between them: Loeb would satisfy Leopold sexually if Leopold would assist him in petty crimes. Dolginoff elaborates on this idea, painting Leopold as love struck and desperate for Loeb's attention. It certainly provides an explanation for the crime that so many people were fascinated by simply because it seemed to be random and pointless.

What attracted me to THRILL ME was its ability to surprise me. When I first listened to "Nothing Like a Fire" I thought, "Okay. This is a nice song. Pretty, whatever." Then I read the synopsis. Turns out, the beautiful, romantic fire the two boys are singing about in the song is actually one that they had set in a warehouse. The beauty of the piece against a backdrop of such a terrible situation made me want to explore it.

The show is written for only two actors and a piano. But somehow it managed to take New York by storm in the era of Jersey Boys, The Drowsy Chaperone, The Wedding Singer and Grey Gardens (it was nominated for Drama Desk awards alongside all of these hit shows). And it has been picked up with great enthusiasm internationally, which is rare for a show of this size and notoriety. I believe that it is going to become one of those shows you see quite a bit in edgier theatres and cities: a more structured "Assassins". The piano accompaniment, played beautifully on the cast recording by Eugene Gwozdz, is enough to satisfy anyone's need for a grand orchestra-the piano is a third character, embellishing the story with carefully planned flourishes and haunting underscoring.

Dolginoff stresses flow in this production in his author's notes. There are to be no applause breaks and no blackouts, and there is to be as little moving of scenery as possible. I am so excited to get our production on its feet (our actors are just wonderful) and to see how the audience reacts to it. It is a wonderful reminder that musical theatre grows and changes constantly, and that at this point in its development almost nothing is off limits.

Critics quotes: "Stephen Dolginoff's pocket musical about the Leopold and Loeb murder case lands like a well-placed punch, arresting and a bit breathtaking. Others have told the tale in plays and films, but there is something brazenly satisfying about Mr. Dolginoff's rendition. It's a reminder that evil often looks and sounds beautiful. Credit the lean approach to the storytelling." —NY Times. "Startling...Provocative...I can't get enough of this...Will keep you spellbound…THRILL ME freezes the blood and keeps you wanting more!" —NY Observer. "Stylish! With a noir attitude, THRILL ME is a two-character slice of pulp fact-fiction by intriguing storyteller Stephen Dolginoff." —NY Newsday. "A soaringly intense, propulsively melodic musical. Chillingly well-told, in all of its dark complexity." —Gannet Newspapers. "Dangerously attractive...Powerful...Dolginoff is a smart craftsman with a knack for forging arresting tunes. The robust score is feverishly crafted." —Star-Ledger. "A taut, compelling two-character musical. Stripping the event of the psychobabble that has surrounded it over the years, Dolginoff gets at the heart of it. The story sizzles." —BackStage. "Dolginoff shows that unlikely musical subject matter can be mastered if the approach is strong enough. You will be intrigued." — "A brilliant, unforgettable musical...Sends chills down the spine. Uncompromising and intoxicating." —Talkin' Broadway.

THRILL ME official site (Buy the cast recording and vocal selections here)

THRILL ME on the Drama Desk awards with Doug Kreeger as Richard and Stephen Dolginoff as Nathan.

Music Theatre of Madison production

Dramatists Play Service License (Listen to song clips)