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!