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)