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).

PLaybill.com 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 and...you 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).

Playbill.com 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

Playbill.com 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. Wildhorn...you 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

Playbill.com 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