Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Out of the darkness and into the...dark?

Forgive me, because this post is a bit of a rambling as I try to make sense of something.

After September 11th, 2001, theatre crowds wanted something least that's what I remember hearing. And evidence would suggest the same. In 2002, Thoroughly Modern Millie took home the Tony Award for Best Musical. It was nominated alongside Mamma Mia!, which may not have won but has stayed alive to this day. Contrastingly, Sweet Smell of Success was also nominated but only ran 109 performances.

In 2003 another high energy show, Hairspray, took home the title. With a closing number like "You Can't Stop The Beat", it's hard to top the enthusiasm surrounding this one. But then in 2004 Avenue Q surprised everyone by winning Best Musical. (Rumor has it that everyone expected Wicked to win, so the screens actually had the logo for Wicked displayed before the envelope was read. Oops.) While Hairspray is loads of fun, Avenue Q had people rolling in the aisles night after night with it's topical humor and crass jokes...and the fact that it was puppets doing both. The year after that it was the goofiest of all: Monty Python's Spamalot. Next up we had the slightly more poignant but still crowd pleasing Jersey Boys.

Only in 2007 did we get back to something with more depth: The brilliantly innovative Spring Awakening, exploring sexual repression at a turn of the century school through the modern music of Duncan Sheik. Following that was In The Heights, a beautiful show with Latin flare about family, struggles, and dreams. Billy Elliot took home the prize in 2009, but had some stiff competition with Next To Normal, a dark musical about a woman suffering from bipolar disorder. And regardless Billy taps into some deeper issues too.

An interesting article in the New York Times on 3/2 explores the topics of off-Broadway musicals in the current season, focusing in particular on The Scottsboro Boys, a Kander and Ebb (Chicago) musical that explores an infamous case of several young black men being falsely accused of raping a white woman. Also included in the off-Broadway season are The Burnt Part Boys, about several teens who wait for the mine where their fathers were killed to reopen, and Signs of Life about Theresienstadt, a "model" concentration camp. All sounds VERY interesting, and much like the type of musical fare I gravitate towards.

One thing came up in the article that perplexed me though. If I may, a quote:

"...complexity is something audiences have been searching for", said Nathan Tysen, lyricist for “The Burnt Part Boys,” and Tim Sanford, artistic director of Playwrights Horizons, which is co-producing that show with the Vineyard Theater. “In these times people want to see something with some weight, that justifies putting your money down,” Mr. Sanford said.

Mr. Tysen added, “I don’t think there is a lot of serious musical theater that tackles loss, and people are hungry for that in musical theater.”

While I certainly respect the efforts of the composers of The Burnt Part Boys, I would have to big fat disagree with the second part of that statement. Do I really need to list for you the shows I can think of off the top of my head that tackle loss? Okay I will...and this is without really even looking into it that deeply: Floyd Collins, Next to Normal, Carousel, Parade, Hair, Assassins (when they leave in "Something Just Broke" that is), The King and I, Marie Christine, john & jen, West Side Story, Falsettos, Into the Woods, Ragtime, Dessa Rose, that enough of a list to kick us off?

The question is are audiences having more of a response to the serious subject matter now, when the economy has left many people devastated? I can respect the idea that people want something that is worth putting their money down, but what is "worth it" to people really depends on the person. Some people want to walk away with something having touched them emotionally and intellectually, others just want to laugh and escape their troubles. Both are "worth" the money, depending on who you talk to and whether they have money to spare anyway. And if 9/11 has been any indication, when times are tough and dark people don't like to be "brought down" (faced with serious subject matter) further.

While musicals are certainly progressing, I think it has more to do with the feelings of the creators rather than what audiences want to see. And we all know you can't measure the success of a show on commerical success alone. These shows may not run very long for whatever reason but they're bound to pop up at regional theatres in future years. (I will have my eye on all of them, that's for sure.) The influx of more complex ideas I think has to do with a) the growth of an art form that is around a century old (this depends on when you classify musical theatre as having started...whether it was with operetta and vaudeville or not until the likes of Show Boat, in which case it hasn't even hit the ripe old age of 90 yet.) and b) the feelings of composers and creative types who are no doubt saddened by the fact that theatres are shutting down, great artists are out of work, and they themselves have to work at Mail Boxes Etc. just to pay their rent. (B. does not apply to John Kander, of course).

As usual I encourage using music to explore every topic under the sun and executing that exploration correctly. But does the dark subject matter have to do with the economy, and does it mean that these shows will be more successful? That I don't know. Any thoughts on this are welcome!

PS-The Scottsboro Boys sounds awesomely innovative...I can't wait to explore it more!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hold me, Bat Boy!

So after making that top ten list I remembered a bunch of musicals I wanted to write about. I decided to start with #2 on my list: Bat Boy.

Bat Boy is a musical by Laurence O'Keefe, Brian Flemming and Keythe Farley. I think of it as a show that exists in a world where the tabloids could be true. The idea is based off a 1992 news article about a half boy, half bat creature found in a cave. Bat Boy brings that idea to life. The character of Bat Boy starts as a heathen beast confined to a cage and turns into an educated, well spoken young man (complete with a British accent) and the name Edgar. He grows into this new self with the help of Meredith Parker, a housewife in a less than happy marriage. Soon he develops feelings for Shelly, Meredith's daughter. But Dr. Thomas Parker is less than pleased with Edgar's presence and vows to get rid of him. He doesn't need a lot of help, for the townspeople (5 actors who play a variety of roles) are disgusted by Edgar. Things begin to get out of hand when Edgar's taste for the blood of animals prohibits him from acting fully human.

Sound ridiculous? It is. But Bat Boy finds a genius balance between being ridiculous and utterly believeable. There is not a moment where you go "Oh, give me a break." You are watching, going "This is so freakin' silly but I totally buy it!" You are wildly invested in Edgar and the other characters,. That is if the production is done correctly. Many fall prey to the influence of either side, making it far too melodramatic or far too goofy.

I consider Bat Boy to be one of the best structured musicals of the last fifteen years. Here are my reasons why:

1) The story is unique, funny and easy to follow.
2) The characters are quirky, weird, and funny, making them fun to get attached to.

3) The dialogue flows easily into the music, which serves as a continuation of the action without feeling forced.

4) There is a very distinct tongue in cheek feel towards musical theatre and the tabloids, which keeps the mood light.

5) There is a horrific and emotional element to the plot on top of all the humor.

6) It makes fun of musicals, but unlike the other shows that have attempted this, it is not obvious to anyone but musical theatre geeks. If you have an audience who is new to musical theatre the last thing you should be doing is downplaying the art form or making fun of yourself as you do it. Bat Boy is appropriately goofy with commercial appeal, but it does include references to many musicals.

I was in the Detroit premiere of this show with a cast of outstanding actors. (A picture below...I'm the one with the wacky hairdo in the yellow and purple dress. Yes that is my own hair.) It was incredibly educational because we had to work so hard to find that balance that makes the show work. I felt we did an excellent job of finding the balance, in spite of a less than capable director...our Edgar was simply exceptional, and everyone else was just perfect for their roles...there wasn't a weak link in the bunch. We got lucky that everyone understood the idea appropriately. The key as an actor in this situation, and in most humorous situations, is to play every moment with utter sincerity. Let the audience come to their own terms on whether it's ridiculous or not. As I said, Bat Boy exists in tabloid land. A headline from the Weekly World News is as reliable as the New York Times.

Oh, and have I mentioned the music?? Oh the music! From the first twangy chords of the electric guitar in the opening number and throughout the show, you have song after song that is memorable yet different, infused with wonderful melodies and lyrics that keep the plot moving. For the most part the score has a rock feel, though there are some exceptions: "Another Dead Cow" is as hillbilly country as it gets, "Show You A Thing Or Two" has a bouncy, traditional musical theatre feel (complete with tap dance), and "A Home For You" is a sweet ballad. But it's the rock songs where the score really shines. My favorite is "Comfort And Joy", the Act I finale that combines several individuals in several different scenes singing simultaneously (an homage to Les Miserables and, even before that, West Side Story).

Check this one out if you haven't already. It is guaranteed to make you laugh, gasp, and get down to the super groovy beat!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Top ten musicals you've never heard of

I've been obsessed recently with a website called, which has a bunch of lists. Unfortunately there are very few relating to musicals (Appalling!) so I decided to make a list of my top ten all time favorite unsung musicals. Some of them I've written about on this blog, some not. They are ALL exquisite and worth checking out. I've ranked them in order of my preferences based on their power as theatrical pieces.

10) Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story

Book, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Dolginoff

We staged the state premiere of this unique little musical at my theatre company in Madison. This show is fantastic because it plays on what makes drama great: A relationship. This was the subject of my first blog post. I've had some people say they didn't like the lyrics here but honestly I don't get that. I find it incredibly emotionally stirring and an amazing example of what you can do with two people and a piano.

9) The Life
By Cy Coleman and Ira Gasman

What a fun, gritty, fabulous show. All about prostitutes! The music ranges from catchy to heartfelt and the characters are remarkably flawed but loveable. Cy Coleman wrote Sweet this is a musical from the genius behind "Hey Big Spender". This show featured a Tony winning turn by the fabulous Lilias White as a "worn out and weary" prostitute. At one point she does the math and discovers that she has slept with 15,000 men. Except its Lilias White, so she has to riff a bit, and it sounds like "fif...teen...thowoweeeowowowowowsand men."

Get this one for the next time you're on a road trip.

8) Violet
Book by Brian Crawley, Music by Jeanine Tesori

Violet is an incredible illustration of the power of the actor. She is a young woman with a disfiguring scar who makes a pilgrimage to see a televangelist who she believes can make her beautiful. Along the way she meets two young men: Monty, a pompous womanizer, and Flick, a quiet African American dreamer. Both are soldiers, and both fall for Violet in their own unique ways. "You're different", sings Monty. Throughout the show a younger version of Violet serves as her alter ego. The people she meets along the way are terrified and disgusted by her scar.

Here's the catch: The actress doesn't wear any makeup to illustrate the scar. It is left entirely to our imaginations. It is human nature to become preoccupied with a physical trait. By keeping Violet's scar off of her face we are treated to seeing her for who she is right away, while the characters onstage react and characterize her based on her scar. Add Image

The music has a folksy, country feel to it. Particularly worth a listen are "On My Way", "Let It Sing", "That's What I Could Do", and "Promise Me, Violet".

7) Floyd Collins
Book and Lyrics by Tina Landau, Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel

Upon first listen Floyd Collins is hard to fall for. It's weird. It's lengthy. It requires research to understand from the recording alone. So read a bit about the Floyd Collins story and then listen to it. Because once you know what's going on, the music takes on a whole other meaning. The context of this show is incredibly important when attempting to understand it's brilliance. Easy to receive songs all on their own are "The Riddle Song", "How Glory Goes" and "Is That Remarkable?"

Read more about it here.

6) The Glorious Ones

Music by Stephen Flaherty, Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens

A beautiful musical that I gushed about here. Though on the surface it seems to be very specific to actors, it really isn't. It's about dreams, love, and being remembered for what you've contributed to the world. What does it mean to be truly remembered? Must you be remembered by your name and exact life? Or do you live on through your contributions to the world? The Glorious Ones beautifully proves the latter.

5) The Wild Party

Book, Music and Lyrics by Michael John LaChuisa

I already did a lengthy post on The Wild Party but here's the gist: There are two. They are very different. Both are great in their own ways. But I have put LaChuisa's on this list because the chances of you seeing it any time soon in your area are slim to none. Andrew Lippa, who wrote the other version, provides a more widely accessible version of the story, and it too is great fun. LaChuisa's version focuses on several stories, and pays paticular attention to the issues of the day, including the merging of black and white people in social circles.

Again not your typical musical theatre fare, but all the same it is a blast to listen to. It is tough to cast and learn so regionally it just isn't done very often. But unlike Lippa's version LaChuisa's opens doors to numerous issues of the day which are worth exploring. My favorite songs on here are "Queenie Was A Blonde", "Blame it On the Gin", "and "A Little Mmmmm". The musical style of the day is also very effectively captured in LaChuisa's, while in Lippa's there is a modern twist put to the songs.

4) A New Brain

Book, Music and Lyrics by William Finn

I said what I had to say on this musical here. Just get the CD. You will love it.

3) john & jen

Book, Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa

This musical is extremely close to my heart after directing and appearing in it with my theatre company. We had come off of a tumultuous year, and decided to switch to doing only lesser known musicals. With no money whatsoever we produced a show that left audiences in tears night after night. I'll be doing a longer post on this later but here's the gist: Brother and sister grow up together. Brother dies in Vietnam. Sister is crushed, then has a baby and tries to reincarnate her son through him (not literally but she wants him to be just like her brother). The same actress plays Jen from age 6 to age 44, and the same actor plays both her brother John and her son John. The script explicitly calls for minimalism. No set, suggestive costumes, two actors and a story. john & jen remarkably tells an epic tale, and all it needs is two people in a room. Again, a longer post is to come on this one. But in the meantime check out the songs "Little League", "Talk Show", and the absolutely heartwrenching "It Took Me Awhile". I am proud to say I went to the same college as this fine composer and author. What he has created here is simply magical.

2) Bat Boy

Book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, music by Laurence O'Keefe

While you're on that road trip listening to The Life, throw this one in too. Bat Boy is a story told in an alternate universe where what you see in the tabloids can be true. A half bat half human creature is discovered in a cave, lovingly adopted by a local family and yet persecuted by the townspeople for being different. A core group of actors plays multiple roles.

Since I was in Bat Boy in 2003 I have grown tired of musicals making fun of musicals. Bat Boy, however, does this in such a way that I find it charming. The reason is that the jabs at musical theatre are only obvious to people who already love the genre. In other musicals that make fun of themselves the parodies are obvious to everyone. Bat Boy tucks the musical references in often, to be sure, but without knowing them you don't appreciate the show any less. I also need to do a post on this show. It is hilarious, tragic, poignant, and revolutionary. And all around, from the book to the lyrics to the concept, it is just a solid, well written musical.

And the number one musical you've never heard of.......

Where's my drumroll?

1) Parade

Book by Alfred Uhry, Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown

This musical is stunning. STUNNING. From the early drum beats as we watch a young solider go off to fight the civil war to the final chords, this musical invades your soul.

I will only give a gist here, again, because I want to write extensively on this masterpiece. I will say this: Critics don't like it. It is not a "textbook" good musical. If you analyze every aspect of it you find problems. But if you let it speak to you, let yourself become wrapped up in the story, and let the music carry you through, it is an experience unlike any other. The story is of Leo Frank, a Jew in the south in the early 20th century, and his unfair persecution when a young girl is murdered in his factory. Because of his faith he is convicted and sentenced to death, but his wife makes every effort to get this overturned, renewing their love in the process.

Jason Robert Brown is a genius. This musical proves it. The complex beauty of what he writes demonstrates that he has a truly unique gift. Get this CD immediately and listen to "Big News", "The Old Red Hills of Home", "All the Wasted Time" and "That's What He Said". Or just listen to the whole thing. It's not for the light hearted. This one is deep. It gets under your skin and stays with you.

Some honorable mentions: Marie Christine, The Secret Garden, Phantom, tick..Tick...BOOM!, Adding Machine, Bernarda Alba, Songs for A New World, and The Great American Trailer Park Musical.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What is this life but the beauty of improvisation?

For Christmas this past year I asked for and received the original cast recording of The Glorious Ones, a musical by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. These composers are best known for their popular hits Ragtime, Seussical, and Once on this Island, but they are also the composers of some gorgeous lesser known pieces like Dessa Rose, A Man of No Importance and, most recently, The Glorious Ones. I have fallen head over heels in love with this musical and would love to see it produced with my theatre company. I am just bummed out it took me so long to discover how wonderful it was.

I had heard of The Glorious Ones when it ran at Lincoln Center in 2007. Once the performance rights became available I took a look at it, but determined from reading the plot synopsis that it wouldn't have a broad enough appeal...that it would really only mean something to actors. Then for whatever reason I popped it on my wishlist at Christmas time, and soon I had a new obsession.

Notable members of the original cast were Mark Kudisch as Flaminio Scala. Kudisch recently appeared on Broadway in 9 to 5 and was in, among other things, the successful 2004 revival of Assassins. Another cast member was Natalie Venetia Belcon, who rocketed to stardom as the put upon and hysterical Gary Coleman in Avenue Q. She takes a drastic turn here playing the voluptuous and sexy prostitute Columbina. I had the privilege of seeing both of these actors live (twice for each!) in Assassins and Avenue Q...both radiate charisma and were no doubt a fiery onstage couple.

The Glorious Ones is based on a novel by Francine Prose, and tells the story of a commedia dell'arte troupe from Italy in the 17th century. This art form depended upon certain types and utilized masks and improvisation to develop performances. This musical follows Flaminio Scala and his troupe of actors, all of whom fall into a certain type: the charismatic leading man, the sly harlequin, the quack "dottore", the old miser, the voluptuous leading lady, the devoted dwarf, and the elegant Moon Woman. The troupe endures (as does any theatre troupe to this day) a great deal of backstage drama involving unrequited love and perceived conspiracies. Early in the show the company travels to France, where they present an outlandishly perverse (but hilarious) performance and are promptly kicked out. While most of the actors are forgiving of Scala for making fools of them, they begin to wonder how things would work under new leadership. Scala typically plays the leading man, but is pushed aside by the troupe into playing the comedic role, considered secondary to the lead. He is replaced with a more youthful actor. Hurt and discouraged, the passionate Scala takes an extreme action. The show ends with him asking (I'm paraphrasing) "Did anyone notice I was here?" The answer, we conclude, is yes, for we are transported into the future as comedy developed: there are references to the three stooges, Lucille Ball, Charlie Chaplin, and more. Because of the work of Scala's troupe and others like it, the art form of comedy has flourished.

The show is filled with people whose lives revolve around the stage, but you don't have to be a theatre junkie to get it and love it. The concepts are simple: Loving something, loving someone, and wanting to be remembered. The beautiful ballad "I Was Here" pontificates on the latter idea. We want "to be known for what little we've done". "The Comedy of Love" is a tragi-comic duet between two members of the troupe who pine for those who do not love them in return. The lovely song "Opposite You" is a truly unique way for two people who love the stage to express their love for one another. These are concepts we can all relate to.

On the other side of the coin there is the hysterically lewd "Armanda's Tarantella", the play within a play in which a young woman from a convent travels to Italy and wishes to learn something new every day. She enlists four men to help her. They teach her to "dance a tarantella", "blow the piccolo", "ride the pony", "stuff the sausage" get the picture. (This is the play that gets them kicked out of the French court). Also a lot of fun is the fiesty duet "Making Love", sung between Scala and his mistress, Columbina.

But my favorite moment in the show is the song "Improvisation". Scala sings this to his downtrodden troupe after they are ousted from the French court. If I may, the wonderful lyrics:

I've gone without bread

Lived close to the bone

Got into deep water and sunk like a stone

But now and again I have risen and flown like a kite.

And God help the people who don't get the joke!

Who won't risk a failure, who won't go for broke!

I dare them to stand in our boots in the mud for one night.

For do what they do, or say what they say,

I'd rather be me at the end of the play.

For what is this life but the beauty of improvisation?

Scenes of amazement and constant surprise to us all!

We live each moment as if we were children discovering creation!

We rise or we fall but it's always glorious!

This beautiful song touches me on a very personal level, particularly with the trials and tribulations I've experienced through my theatre company. Throughout the musical various characters are removed from the "types" that they normally play. They are separated from how they have always thought of themselves, from what they always expected to be. Many of us have experienced this feeling...."how did I end up here?"

More than a backstage commentary, The Glorious Ones shows us that even the smallest of contributions makes a difference. Whether you are performing on Broadway or doing community theatre, or, in layman's terms, running a multi million dollar corporation or owning a mom and pop store; whether you're what you thought you'd be or if life took you in a different direction than you had always planned, if you love what you're doing, it matters. A bit idealistic, perhaps, but hey, when the chips are down, I could use that.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Anne Frank, the musical?

It's true. There is a musical version of The Diary of Anne Frank. I have gotten some pretty priceless reactions when I've told people that my theatre will be doing this next year (one friend almost spit out his wine). But hold the skepticism if you will, and think about it. I did a post not long ago about odd topics for musicals. You can read it here. But the gist is that dark subject matter has made for some wonderful and even popular musicals...but when you look at the subject matter on its own it sounds odd.

The musical is called Yours, Anne. I absolutely adore the music from it. The show openly admits to being based on the famous play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, as well as on the diary itself. Recently I had a conversation with a professor at the center for Jewish Studies here in Madison, Wisconsin at the University of Wisconsin. She has written about Anne Frank and is quite passionate about the story. Her first question for me, about 60 seconds into the conversation, was "Is it sugary?" She went on to elaborate on the fact that she is often disappointed by adaptations of Anne's story because of the way she is portrayed...basically as an eternal optimist. She alerted me to the criticism the famous play (which was the basis for the movie adaptation) has received over the years: It takes the historical context mostly out and focuses on Anne as an inspirational character.

In case you aren't familiar with the details of the Anne Frank story: She was a German Jew living in the Netherlands at the time of the Nazi occupation. Her father owned a spice factory, but when the Nazis started seizing Jewish businesses, her father transferred ownership to an Austrian gentile friend. In 1942, when things were getting worse and more Jews were being deported, Otto Frank, Anne's father, arranged for the family to go into hiding. They went sooner than planned when Anne's sister Margot was summoned to a work camp. Their hiding place was behind her father's office building in what Anne called "The Secret Annex". They lived with another family, the Van Pels family (called the Van Daans in the diary and dramatic adaptations) and a dentist named Fritz Pfeffer (known in the diary as Mr. Dussel). While there, Anne kept a diary. The diary is remarkable because her transition from girl to young woman is extremely obvious, especially as she accepts the reality of what is going on in the outside world. First the issues at hand are those typical of a teenager: Worrying about physical appearance, boys, movie stars...but as she grows up she learns to analyze her surroundings and the people she lives with with a very unique precision. Her last diary entry was August 1, 1944. The Secret Annex occupants were arrested on August 4, 1944. All were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau and then to various concentration camps around Europe. Anne died in the work camp Bergen-Belsen in April of 1945, a month before the camp was liberated. Of the occupants of the Secret Annex, only Otto Frank survived. He returned to find Anne's diary saved by a family friend, and had it published. It has since been translated into 67 languages and, next to the bible, is the most widely read non-fiction book in the world.

Any dramatic adaptation of the story should be a window to the historical context, and it must never be forgotten that Anne suffered a horrific fate, as did millions of others like her. To portray Anne Frank as an eternal optimist and an inspiring literary figure is incorrect. Through the years Anne Frank has become a commodity, and her story of a brief romantic affair with Peter Van Pels, one of her co-hiders, has become the selling point for the book and movie. The movie trailer paints it as a romance!

Goodrich and Hackett, who won countless awards when it debuted on Broadway, but drew criticism from some for it's sugar coating the story. Meyer Levin, an author of the time, maintained that his version of the Anne Frank story, which he had shopped to producers, was phased out in favor of making the story less "Jewish". Oddly enough, Otto Frank supported that idea, telling Levin he did want it to be "a Jewish play".

Yours, Anne incorporates some of the optimism found in other adaptations. However, the underlying musical quality sets the tone for a much darker storyline. With only spoken lines on the page it can be harder to convey impending doom. However, the haunting songs from Yours, Anne give a sense of the danger that awaits the residents of the Secret Annex. Good music heightens the story it is telling, and the music in Yours, Anne does just that: It adds another layer to an already stirring story.

As I've discussed before, its all in the execution. The libretto of Yours, Anne leaves room for the actress playing the title role to go either way with the character. I will direct our theatre company's production, and it is my hope to help our actress make Anne into a fully realized and flawed individual, much like she really was. I do believe that the music captures the mood very effectively, and truly embodies Anne's remarkable personality. I look forward to making this show one that can reach everyone but also one that does not discount the historical context.