Tag Archive for musicals

Listen: Jayne Houdyshell’s “Broadway Baby”

Jayne Houdyshell was nominated for Featured Actress in a Musical at the Tony Awards for her performance as Hattie Walker in the Follies revival. That character gets to perform one of the more cheerful and upbeat numbers in the show, “Broadway Baby.” In context, while the four leads star to relive their past relationships, the rest of the company takes turns recreating their big moments. Hattie busts out her showstopper “Broadway Baby.”

It’s an intentional disconnect with the material. You have an older performer singing a song about dreaming of being a big star on Broadway when her career is already over. She flirts with the audience and approaches the material in a way that worked when she was 40 years younger, but not now. Houdyshell really played this up to great effect in the production.

A cast recording of the Follies revival has been available for a while. However, “Broadway Baby” is preserved in the same format as the show. Reprises of “Ah, Paris” and “Rain on the Roof” pop up at the end.

This did not serve the needs of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum is compiling a collection of showtunes set in NYC and wanted Houdyshell’s “Broadway Baby” without the other songs. So, Jane Houdyshell graciously went into the studio and recorded a new version of “Broadway Baby.” It’s sensational.

It is available to download for free right now. Thank Playbill for letting us all know about it.

Coming Back: Side Show (Possibly, Maybe)

There’s been rumblings about a revised Side Show for a couple years. The cult musical about Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twin side show performers, has a beautiful score. It’s a rare school year if a few of my theater students don’t ask me if I know Side Show. It’s rarer still when they don’t follow that up with “Do you have the score? I want to sing ‘I Will Never Leave You.’” Suffice to say I have the song memorized at this point.

The Henry Krieger/Bill Russell musical is coming back. Playbill reports that La Jolla Playhouse in California and The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. will be hosting the updated version of Side Show next season. This is quite exciting. There’s so much to this story and so many ways to go about telling it. Who know what ideas director Bill Condon came up with to restructure the show?

And not to get ahead of ourselves, but The Kennedy Center and La Jolla Playhouse have a history of transferring productions to Broadway. La Jolla hosted Memphis, Jersey Boys, and Thoroughly Modern Millie before their Broadway runs. The Kennedy Center did the same for the recent revivals of Follies, Master Class, and Ragtime. Could Side Show really be coming back to New York? A guy can dream.

In conclusion, here’s Alice Ripley’s most rage-inducing stage failure. Watch for when the wind during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade knocks her out of sync with Emily Skinner. Flames on the side of her face, people.

What do you think? Sound off below.

Everything New is New Again: Broadway Edition

There’s an odd trend popping up on Broadway that I’m getting a kick out of. Shows that recently closed on Broadway are coming back a year or two later for limited sit down engagements. This is not to be confused with cash grab moves like staging a revival of Rent in a smaller Off-Broadway theater or testing out material just long enough to be eligible for Tonys ala Bring It On.

No, this is referring to touring productions taking a Broadway house for a few weeks over the summer. Playbill announces the newest beneficiary of the trend is Fela!. This was one of my favorite new shows a few years ago when it popped up off-Broadway. The musical recreation of a Fela Kuti concert where he tells his life story while announcing his retirement (due to political opposition) is a thrilling show.

hairtour Everything New is New Again: Broadway Edition

Hair came back after a brief absence from Broadway to lukewarm sales.

It didn’t exactly set Broadway on fire the first go around. It felt like the show was kept open to keep it in the Tony voters minds and then dragged along after a post-awards glow till the end of the year. I was happy as it meant being able to get discount tickets to see it a few times. However, where is the audience for another run of this?

The Hair revival that won all the Tonys a few years back did the same thing after it closed. I seem to recall the box off receipts weren’t that great, either. The show hadn’t even been closed for two years and the same production was thrown back on the Great White Way.

These rumors pop up occasionally but don’t always come through. There was hope of this happening last year with The Scottsboro Boys and this year with the Follies revival. And we’re still waiting for that limited return of the Ragtime revival.

I understand the business of it. You have a tour that can go anywhere in North America. A theater is vacant for the summer in NYC. You can easily squeeze in a three, four, five, or six week run in between longer sit downs without much effort. Your tour is selling well enough to allow you to take the hit if the Broadway stop doesn’t sell out. I just question what it does for the brand of the show in NYC if it comes back and doesn’t sell well.

Thoughts on this phenomenon? Love to hear from you. Sound off below.

What You Missed: The 66th Annual Tony Awards

The 66th Annual Tony Awards were held last night and it was a great night if you were connected to Once or Peter and the Starcatcher. These two shows picked up the lion’s share of the statues last night. Once in particular cleaned up, winning eight of their 11 nominations. Peter and the Starcatcher was close behind with five wins out of nine nominations.

Unlike last year, the 2012 Tony Awards ceremony was very unpredictable. The musical prizes were going to mostly be swept by either Newsies or Once depending on who you talked to. Both had huge support from the community after a season that started off on very shaky ground.

Play categories were even more unpredictable. There seemed to be a scenario where–tech categories aside–any of the nominees in the categories had a good chance of winning. How do you choose between Stockard Channing as a tortured mother, Cynthia Nixon as a cynical cancer patient, Linda Lavins as a woman slowly losing her husband to cancer, Tracie Bennett singing, dancing, and acting as Judy Garland eight shows a week, and Nina Arianda vamping her way through the is it or isn’t real S&M fantasy of a scholar? This was a strong season for play productions and the voters had a wealth of great shows to choose from.

Here are some of the highlights that you might have missed out on last night.

Steve Kazee wins Best Actor in a Musical for Once

Steve Kazee had a rough go with Once. For all the critical and commercial success, Kazee had far more pressing issues on his mind during the run. His mother was battling cancer back home in Kentucky. She passed away a few weeks after the show opened. Suddenly, Kazee was starring in a musical about love, loss, and regret while grieving the loss of his mother.

He still went on eight shows a week and gave himself to the audience in a very powerful role. Glen Hansard, the original Guy in the film, made my Best Actor shortlist in 2006. It’s a deceptively simple role that could so easily swing into boring if the performer doesn’t grab you. Kazee does. He deserved this on the merits of his performance alone. That he was struggling with such a tremendous loss just proves how committed he was to this role.

Plays Get Major Stage Time

You know what’s almost impossible to do? Showcase a straight play in the context of an awards show. Plays, by their nature, are meant to be seen in full. You can get a feel for a musical production by playing the sheet music selections or watching a video of a song. You can’t get a real feel for a play with a random out of context scene or even reading the text on the page.

The 66th Annual Tony Awards came very close to a workable solution for that. With the Best Play nominees, back-lit tableaux took the stage. Venus in Fur showed a man and a woman in a power struggle over a couch. Other Desert Cities showed a family circling each other in a living room. Peter and the Starcatcher showed a strange and wondrous contraption made of people and a bit of rope. Clybourne Park showed two couples, separated by time in the same living space. Jim Parsons read brief synopses of each nominee as the actors in the tableaux came to life and demonstrated the connections between characters. It was a really clever way of handling a big Tony problem.

However, three of the nominated shows lent themselves to isolated performances onstage. Peter and the Starcatcher is a silly fantasy with song, dance, and curious staging. They did a little montage of gags involving a trunk, a razor, and a man in a mermaid costume. One Man, Two Guvnors is a farce with music. Now Tony winner James Corden performed a big showy monologue with lots of physical comedy to the delight of the audience. End of the Rainbow is a show all about one of Judy Garland’s last concert appearances, backstage and onstage. Tony nominee Tracie Bennett performed selections frmo two Judy standards. These performances were used to break up a well-cut video montage of all the plays that performed on Broadway this season.

It was a good night to be a play for once. That hasn’t happened since they built elaborate dioramas of the sets ten or so years ago.

Neil Patrick Harris is Neil Patrick Harris

I’m warming up to Neil Patrick Harris as a Tony host. His Jimmy Fallon-like laugh at your own jokes presentation actually worked for me this year. I wish they had more time for his index card gags. Only one made it to air and it was great. I think his “My Left Footloose…think of the choreography” joke got the rest pulled.

That’s a minor blemish on a grand series of songs and gags. The absolute highlight was his post-opening number song about imagining a world that was like more like theater. The song was cute, the staging clever, and the guest appearances worth raving about. Sure, it was nice to see Amanda Seyfried camp it up onstage. Steffanie Leigh got to fly in as Mary Poppins for a Tony audience.

But where else will you see Patti Lupone push a lawn mower and say how much she loves the audience? Only in scripted theater. Not since she shook her tush while playing the tuba.

Audra McDonald Breaks Through as a Lead

It’s amazing to think that someone could win four Tony Awards, practically be a household name, and not have picked up a win in a leading category. That has been the story of Audra McDonald’s amazing Tony history.

She’s won five of the seven Tonys she’s been nominated for: Carousel, Master Class, Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun, and now The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. However, despite stellar work carrying Marie Christine and 110 in the Shade, the leading actress category had not been kind to her.

Who knew it would take playing one of the most iconic roles in the canon of musical theater to get McDonald an award for carrying a show on her shoulders? Her speech was kind and gracious. And no, she didn’t make a rape joke. Calm down, Internet. No one trivialized sexual assault victims last night. If thanking a scene partner for making an extremely upsetting moment in a script a pleasure to perform is considered a joke, we’re all in trouble.

Here are all the winners.

What were your highlights from last night? Any category you wish went to someone else? Sound off below. I love to hear from you.

Taboo Returns to London

Seeing Taboo was one of those theater experiences I will never forget. Though the crowd was already dwindling by the time I caught it, the attendees were very enthusiastic. Taboo is a show that has a strong identity and will attract the audience that wants to see it. This is not a big commercial property unless you can travel back in time and stage it when Boy George was the hot new thing in the music industry.

taboolondon Taboo Returns to London

Could there be a better teaser for Taboo?

Playbill reports that a new production of Taboo, the story of Boy George’s rise to fame out of the London club scene, will play a limited run this fall in London. From 7 September to 23 December, you have a chance to see Taboo as it was originally written. This production will use the original book–not the Charles Busch revisions–as well as Boy George’s fantastic orchestrations. Christopher Renshaw also returns as director.

Even better is the size of the venue. The Brixton Club House is a small nightclub. The total capacity is limited to 1050 people and the largest room only holds 400.

Taboo is a musical about the 1980s British club kids. A small club is the perfect venue. The audience will feel like they’re part of the action and Renshaw could easily incorporate some more interactive elements if he wanted to. With a small crowd in a small venue, you can have a lot more fun.

Now will someone please do the same thing with a small NYC club? Make it an event with pre-show music and it could be a successful short run this time around.

Thoughts on Taboo? I remember it being quite polarizing in NYC. Sound off below.

The Other Best Movie Musical Moments

The good people over at Pajiba put together a collection of their favorite movie musical moments in honor of the amazing Les Miserables trailer. It’s a cool little collection that can’t possibly please everyone. For one thing, there’s no Oliver selection and no one but me sticking up for the show in the comments. Boo.

But I digress. Any excuse to explore some of the lesser viewed movie musicals is a good excuse in my book. Pajiba has the basics covered. Now I’m digging deeper for five lesser known/seen/remembered options that are just as good.

Passing Strange: The Movie (2010)

Is it cheating to include a masterfully filmed presentation of a brilliant Broadway production? I don’t think so. Spike Lee’s labor of love Passing Strange: The Movie even played festivals. Every cut he makes adds to the experience of Stew’s semi-autobiographical rock musical about coming of age through self exploration, self expression, and self destruction serves the story.

Stand Out Moment? “Welcome to Amsterdam/Keys/It’s Alright.” “What’s Inside Is Just a Lie” is fantastic, too, but “Welcome to Amsterdam” captures the full cast, staging, and the raw energy of this brilliant musical.

Lil’ Abner (1959)

Poor Lil’ Abner. It’s gained such a reputation for bad things that are non-issues in the actual movie. The painted backdrops and exaggerated costumes are lifted straight from Al Capp’s colorful Appalachian comic strip. The story is a bit more sophisticated, pulling notes of Cold War paranoia and sexual politics into the sweet little love story of Lil’ Abner and Daisy Mae. The choreography is arguably some of the most athletic and impressive ever captured on film and the cast is extraordinary.

Stand Out Moment? “I’m Past My Prime.” Stubby Kaye singing opposite Leslie Parrish (vocals by Imogene Lynn) singing a two-handed Vaudeville-styled number about being an old maid at 17 years old. It’s such a silly and sweet moment. The “Sadie Hawkins Day (Ballet)” is a brilliant feat of choreography, but this song always brings the house down onscreen or onstage.

An American in Paris (1951)

I’m not afraid to say that An American in Paris is my favorite film musical. I mean, it’s based on an orchestral piece written by George Gershwin. That’s ballsy no matter which way you look at it. Add in a fun story, a great cast, and fantastic songs and you have a fun Hollywood-style musical.

Stand Out Moment? “Our Love is Here to Stay.” A sweet love song between Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, complete with a lovely ballet interlude on the Seine.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)

Looking back now, it makes perfect sense that Trey Parker and Matt Stone would turn their hit animated show South Park into a movie musical. Casual filmgoers may have left thinking of the vulgarity and the absurdity of the plot. However, theater fans embraced the film as a brilliant musical. The songs drive the story even in their blatant vulgarity. Anytime is the right time to throw in a fantastic Les Miserables parody and that show becomes a subplot of the larger US/Canadian War in the film.

Stand Out Moment? “La Resistance.” This is the start of the Les Mis parody. It’s brilliant and it foreshadows the fantastic Act I closer of The Book of Mormon, “Man Up,” with its clever megamix approach. Do I need to mention this is NSFW?

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

Like I’d skip out on of my favorite movies of all time in this post. Love it or hate it, Hedwig is one of the best movie musicals of the 2000s. It’s right up there with Chicago and Moulin Rouge!, only it’s low budget, dark, and centered on a very unhinged character with the proof that transitioning is not a decision you take lightly.

Stand Out Moment? “Sugar Daddy.” This is the moment that sets everything else in motion in Hedwig. The song is fun and driven by the story, but the audience response and the tension between Yitzak and Hedwig’s approach to heckling is quite impactful. It also plays to the stage show fans familiar with the car wash and audience participation elements.

Can I tell you I’m still mad John Cameron Mitchell is not an Oscar nominee yet? Between this, Shortbus, and Rabbit Hole, something should have stuck. Next time.

What about you? What are you favorite movie musical moments? I’d have included Happiness of the Katakuris but my favorite song still hasn’t been re-uploaded to YouTube or an alternate service. Sound off below.

The Importance of Voice: Everyday Rapture

I often get lost on YouTube. The more information I can take in before writing about a topic or working on a score, the better. Today, by chance, I wound up in a cycle that kept leading me to a promo reel for the short-lived Broadway musical Everyday Rapture.

everydayraptureposter The Importance of Voice: Everyday Rapture

Everyday Rapture played with stardom, faith, and the history of musicals

The Sherie Rene Scott starring, quasi-autobiographical jukebox musical has stuck with me for quite some time. It’s not like I hadn’t seen Sherie in other shows. I had previously seen her in Rent (replacement Maureen, very funny interpretation), Aida (the original Amneris, hilarious), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (just as good as John Lithgow), and The Little Mermaid (no comment). She has a great voice and does broad comedy in a very subtle way. It’s a see it to believe it thing.

Yet Everyday Rapture is when I really noticed Sherie for the first time. Every word of dialogue, every note, every song, every move on stage played to what she does best. I guess that’s the advantage of writing your own star vehicle. You get to control how it goes, for better or worse.

Everyday Rapture was not revolutionary theater. The sets were not mind-blowing, the costumes were minimal, and the lighting was adequate. Even the story being told was–broad strokes–similar to other rise to fame/success stories.

What gave the show its power was Sherie Rene Scott’s voice. Not her singing voice, either. Her writing voice.

Scott collaborated with Daniel Scanlan to bring a highly fictionalized version of her story to life. The goal was to fabricate the little things and stay as true as possible to the big things. For example, it’s hard to know for sure if some boys from her Mennonite church really did try to burn down a temple, but Scott gave quite a few interviews stating that most of the moments people thought were made up were actually the truth. Similarly, those interviews made me think that some of the more mundane x to y exposition was a device to get to the next nutty moment based in reality.

The result is a book that gave Scott laugh lines at every turn. She didn’t need to oversell anything. Her naturally dry wit came through. The framing of the story and the fictionalized elements allowed her to create a caricature of herself that felt as real as the one person productions of actors like John Leguizamo or Chita Rivera. Everyone takes liberties when they stage their life story. The trick is to find the angle of truth.

everydayraptureglitter The Importance of Voice: Everyday Rapture

Sherie Rene Scott's voice sparkled in Everyday Rapture

Scott found it in her religious background. She really was raised in a Mennonite church and taught things about the entertainment business that created a crisis. This little tidbit–who knows how formative it was on her actual experience?–became the driving conflict of the story. We know that Sherie Rene Scott succeeded as a Broadway performer. We don’t know going into the show that faith was as big a struggle as cattle calls and dead end jobs.

Though Everyday Rapture did not have the greatest grosses, it was very well received. Critics gave it strong reviews, zeroing in on the strength of the book and Scott’s presence onstage. Awards followed suit, climaxing with a surprise Best Book of a Musical nomination at the Tony Awards (in addition to the expected Best Actress nomination). Of course, if I had my way, it would have received a Best Musical nomination, as well, but I might be in the minority on that one.

For an artist, the takeaway from Everyday Rapture is to know your voice. Make bold choices but choose elements that go with the tone and style of the piece. If you find the right angle and stay honest to that approach, you’ll produce something that people will remember.

An even greater lesson is the element of chance. Everyday Rapture wouldn’t have played at all that season if Lips Together, Teeth Apart didn’t get pulled after Megan Mullally dropped out. Scott’s show was quick to mount and left a big impression. A show this tight only had a chance to be recognized when a big shiny production failed to come through at the last minute. The only way to plan for that kind of chance is to create a good product and be prepared to move with it.

I always wonder where YouTube will lead me on these random voyages. Today was a happy accident. Now I get to share a show I’ll always remember fondly for the impact it’s had on me as a writer.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

The Scottsboro Boys Gets West Coast Premiere

Good news for theater fans in California. The Scottsboro Boys is currently engaged in its West Coast premiere. This is Kander & Ebb’s musical that subverts the conventions of the minstrel show to tell the story of nine black teenagers who were falsely accused and convicted of raping two white teenagers in 1930s Alabama. The Old Globe Theater in San Diego has the production through June 10. From there, it transfers to San Francisco for a run at the American Conservatory Theater from June 21 to July 15.

Though The Scottsboro Boys only ran for 49 performances on Broadway, the show has made a huge impact on the theater scene. It received an astounding 11 Tony award nominations last year despite being closed for over five months. Regional productions have been popping up all over the country since.

Playbill got their hands on a great highlight reel that shows off the style of the show. A big reason why The Scottsboro Boys did so poorly on Broadway was a very dry marketing campaign. This video is the direction they should have gone: a high energy showcase of the staging with just a hint of the horrors that will pop up throughout the night.

If you’re in the area, I strongly encourage you to see this show in person. It’s an event unlike any other in recent theater history.

Did you ever get a chance to see The Scottsboro Boys? I still think about the electric chair number from time to time. Sound off with your thoughts below.

The Surprises of the 66th Annual Tony Award Nominations

The 66th Annual Tony Award Nominations were announced a few minutes ago and they’re filled with surprises. It seems that shows that closed were remembered fondly and shows that are still running but not so good were mostly ignored. Even within that understanding, there are surprises.

The biggest shock has to be Leap of Faith getting a Best Musical nomination. The show was critically panned for being spectacle and nothing more. The producers even had to start running one of the most annoying “here’s what the audience had to say” ads I’ve ever seen to try and drum up business. The musical is an adaptation of the Steve Martin film with the same name. If you trust the reviews, the show lacks a compelling story, good songs, direction that makes sense, and opportunities for the cast to do anything worth noting.

I know the pickings were slim for new musicals this year–Lysistrata Jones, Bonnie & Clyde, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and Ghost were the only un-nominated options–but it really does feel like people just voted for the last show to open and said “good enough.” I’m happy that the cast and crew of Leap of Faith are guaranteed another month of a job. That’s the nice thing I can say about that. The not so nice thing I could say is that the producers of End of the Rainbow, the Judy Garland play centered around one of her last concert appearances, should feel foolish for not pushing that show as a musical. The reviews were better and it has enough musical performances to feel close enough to a musical.

lauraosnesbonnie The Surprises of the 66th Annual Tony Award Nominations

Look at that. The world did remember you, Laura Osnes.

Coming real close on the shock scale is Laura Osnes being nominated for Leading Actress in a Musical for Bonnie & Clyde. This is not to discredit the quality of her performance. She was very good in the show. The nomination (and Frank Wildhorn/Don Black’s Original Score nomination) marks the first time a performer has been nominated for a Wildhorn show since Douglas Sills was nominated for The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1998. It’s also the first time that a Wildhorn show has been nominated since The Civil War in 2000.

It’s taken over a decade for a Wildhorn property to earn enough votes for a nomination. Could the impressions of his pop/rock theater approach be turning back in his favor? He did have back to back closed in one month flops. Will we ever see Broadway mountings of some of his shows that received career best reviews in Europe or do we settle for maybe a kinder look at future works?

Orchestrations had some pleasant surprises. As underwhelming as some of the original musicals were this season, most of the musicals (revival and new alike) had distinctive orchestrations. They easily could have gone for the folk stylings of Bonnie & Clyde, the synth pop of Ghost, the sugar of Lysistrata Jones, or even the stronger Latin rhythms of the Evita revival. When a bunch of people got mad that the Drama Desk Awards eliminated Orchestrations, it wasn’t because of a strict adherence to tradition. It was because it was a fantastic season–on and Off-Broadway–for orchestrations. There were comparatively tiny, limited run Off-Off-Broadway shows that could have competed against fuller orchestrations in Broadway shows this year.

One thing that did not surprise me was the Orchestrations nomination for The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Deidre Murray did the “music adaptations” for the A.R.T. run in Boston that created a lot of the controversy. She did not orchestrate the Broadway production. William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke did. Regardless of any changes to the book or attempts to “correct” what the Gershwins and Heywards got “wrong,” that score is a beast. If you tame it right, it sounds like the most beautiful music in the world. Clearly, Brohn and Janke did something right.

There was a bit of a surprise during the nominations telecast. Kristin Chenoweth and Jim Parsons announced the nominees. After Best Orchestrations, Chenoweth went off script and said, “I just love that category, don’t you?” I wonder how the “get rid of Orchestrations, no one cares about them. Wait, what do you mean every music director and orchestrator in the NYC+ area signed a petition and went to the media to denounce our awards? Quick, drum up some nominations. We’ll apologize on Monday,” board of the Drama Desk Awards feels right now. Kristin Chenoweth had to stand on a box to reach the microphone and even she’s taken them down for their foolish decision now. Well played, Kristin Chenoweth.

ghostthemusicalprojections The Surprises of the 66th Annual Tony Award Nominations

Critics and Tony Voters agree that Ghost has magnificent lighting effects. Crickets on the music.

Another non-surprise was the lack of nominations for very visual shows. Spider-Man was only nominated for its amazing set and elaborate costumes. Ghost was nominated for lighting design and Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s performance as Oda Mae (now officially a baity role on stage and screen). Leap of Faith is Gospel revival spectacle and only got one nomination. It’s in Best Musical, sure, but that’s it. On a Clear Day, with its forced 1960s op art perspective, only received an acting nomination for Jessie Mueller. Lysistrata Jones relied on the spectacle of basketball to wow audiences and only got nominated for its Book. It’s hard to say the Tony Awards don’t go for pure spectacle because they do in the design categories. You just need to have a strong show surrounding the visuals to get much attention beyond that.

Unless you’re Leap of Faith. Then you get a Best Musical nomination and nothing else.

You can read the full list of nominations at the Tony Awards site.

Thoughts? Love to hear them. I especially love to hear them if they support Once, which is finally getting its due as a brilliant story. It’s more than “Falling Slowly,” good people. I’d also love to see Eiko Ishioka win a post-humous Tony Award, even if it is for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. It’s also quite telling that they do not count Julie Taymor’s masks as part of the costume design. Lots of things to unpack about the Tony nominations this year.

When April Fools’ Gets Too Real: Theater Edition

Two really strange but believable theater news stories popped up over the weekend as jokes on Internet theater and geek culture fans. The problem? Unlike the pranks at a site like XKCD or Film School Rejects, there really weren’t any obvious clues that maybe these were jokes.

On the one hand, you can commend the writers for coming up with believable stories. They clearly took note of trends and brainstormed ideas that read super-realistic online even on April Fools’ Day. On the other hand, when a prank isn’t funny online, isn’t it just trolling? The only person really laughing is the person who posted the story.

The first one that really picks up on trends comes from the Godspell revival currently running on Broadway. Broadway World reported yesterday that there would be Kindle nights at the show. The show is built on audience interaction and makes enough pop culture references–a moment of prayer for Steve Jobs and the like–to have a techy twist on Broadway make sense.

unavail image When April Fools Gets Too Real: Theater Edition

Is handing out book lights that different than letting cellphones be used during a show?

A few weeks ago, Godspell became the first Broadway production to have a Twitter night. Special seats were available where theater attendees could have their phones out and live tweet the performance. I read a lot of reports from people at that performance–tweeters and not–who all said that you wouldn’t have noticed where the cellphone users were if you didn’t see them seated at the start of the performance.

So, how hard is it to imagine that a production struggling to fill the house on weeknights would offer a new incentive to go to the show? People who buy Kindle seats would receive a Godspell book light and ear plugs so they can tune out if the show loses their interest. It seems like an odd strategy, but it’s not that different from people who suddenly whip out their iPods or start thumbing through the program to kill time during slow scenes.

If you’re reading the article today, you’re not reading the original version. The new version really exaggerates the rhetoric of the technological ghetto comment (which I do not recall at all from yesterday) and adds in an April Fools’ Day message. I suppose the former was added in because most people did not realize there was a joke. This is, after all, the show that wanted people to not pay attention to the actors and use distracting electronic devices for two hours instead.

The second story comes from a non-theater source, but still reads as quite plausible given some theater trends. Disney Theatricals is really looking for their next big hit production. Tim Burton properties are being optioned–like his Alice in Wonderland–to be turned into musicals aiming for Broadway. Sci-fi/horror shows are making a big come back, with productions as diverse as Re-Animator, Carrie, The Toxic Avenger, and Chix6–a superhero musical–all trying to get to Broadway.

So when Geeks of Doom claimed that a Mars Attacks musical had Broadway ambitions on Friday, it felt real. For one thing, I swear I’ve heard of people trying to option the rights to this music-driven sci-fi story before. For another, it’s a total camp fest that could lend itself to a really big show.

The only real clue was the bad subtitle. Not punny enough for a marquee.

The only thing to suggest that the story could be a gag was the statement that the show wasn’t written yet. That hasn’t stopped many shows from announcing a Broadway run before they were written. Love Never Dies and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland both announced Broadway bows before the shows were written. The former is still being rewritten/reimagined and the latter just announced itself by saying it had a director.

Everyone wants their show to go to Broadway. You say “we’re coming to Broadway” to convince investors they should pony up the cash for your show. I have Broadway bound musicals that haven’t even had staged readings yet. It’s just the rhetoric you use to drum up interest.

Last night, Geeks of Doom updated the article to say it was, sadly, a joke. Aside from relief that another show concept better suited for an intimate theater would not be eaten alive on Broadway, I was struck by how unfunny the whole prank was. Bad musicals are written every single day. Good and bad musicals get to Broadway based on money and contracts, not artistic merit or public demand. Where’s the gag in saying “just kidding” about something that seemed just as plausible as a musical adaptation of Lysistrata, The Addams Family, or the complete works of Dr. Seuss?

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I’m all for a prank on April Fools’ Day. Just make it funny. If you’re going to go with the serious news story as a prank, make it really absurd. The Onion works because–from headline to conclusion–the stories just fall into satire. Even political strategists and journalists can be tricked by Onion headlines, but (as the video on the right shows) they can get a good laugh out of the absurdity.

Saying a production that already allowed cellphones during a performance will hand out book lights and ear plugs isn’t far enough from the truth, especially since it crowd sourced its funding. Announcing a campy sci-fi musical as the source for a new musical isn’t that far a stretch, especially when people have been begging for a second stab at cult classic Carrie: The Musical for two decades.

Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” If you’re going for hyper realism in a prank, there has to be enough off about it–something to clearly kick it into parody territory–to come across as an actual prank. No cheating by altering the content (beyond confirming it’s a joke) after people thought it was real.

Saying “just kidding” does not a good prank make. You have to make the reveal worth it. Stories that would be viewed as real news any other day of the year probably aren’t the best choice unless you really ramp up the absurdity the first time they’re published.

But here’s where this kind of discussion gets tricky. Does the creation of a fake news story for April Fools’ Day that results in people like me writing about it make the prank an effective one? Does interest in a prank mitigate any flaws that existed in the execution? And does calling attention to pranks that may have gone too close to the truth actually encourage more people to take the same approach? I don’t have those answers.

All I know is that I really do want a Mars Attacks musical now to see how the aliens would be handled onstage. Puppets? Projections? Cast every other role with 6′+ actors and cast the aliens 5’4″ and under ala The Lord of the Rings musical in Toronto? We’ll never know.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Film Review: The Lorax (2012)

There is something charming about the original television adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. It has a clear anti-industrial/pro-environmental message, but it doesn’t feel needy. It lets the sad story of ambition gone wrong get the point across in charming pastel style.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the big screen musical adaptation of The Lorax. The boilerplate is the same, but the effect couldn’t be any different. A young boy ventures out to the home of the Once-ler to find out what happened to the natural trees that used to fill Thneedville. The Once-ler tells him all about his encounter with The Lorax, a mythical creature who speaks for the trees. Cue the destruction of the forest out of greed.

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This is the closest anyone gets to real trees in Thneedville.

It’s hard to place the blame on who, exactly, lost the soul of Dr. Seuss in adapting a tiny children’s book into an almost 90 minute film. Is it Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul’s screenplay that removed it? They’re the ones who put the focus on the boy, now Ted, who only wants to save a tree to win the affection of an older girl, Audrey. All trees have been replaced by plastic imitations in a consumer-driven society built on the foundation of convenience and bottled air. This new framing device for The Lorax works well enough to fill out the story, even if it casts a far broader net of commentary than is necessary.

The original music in the film is more problematic. It’s hard to write a good musical. You need to justify the existence of the songs in some way. This could be heightened emotional states, unexpected conflicts, or a story that by its very nature requires music (think Phantom of the Opera or The Music Man, where the existence of music is the foundation of the plot). The Lorax fails to do any of that.

It feels like the songs were added in not to pad the story but to sell more merchandise. This decision wouldn’t be nearly as off-putting if you could remember any of the songs after leaving the theater. They are bland and repetitive. The only one that sticks in my head is a humming/nonsense song that doesn’t actually end. Animated films do not require big musical numbers to feel complete anymore. Just cramming songs into any animated film makes the final product feel dated and out of touch.

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The rise of the Once-ler could have been a great film.

The sad part is the quality of the actual animation is good. The characters are very expressive and move in a way that makes sense for a Dr. Seuss-inspired film. Everything looks right in the film, especially the color palette. The truffula tree forest is beautiful and all the little critters–especially the Lorax–feel right. Even the voice acting is charming. The sometimes-clunky dialogue sounds right and natural in context because of the casting.

It’s a shame that a story like The Lorax was handled like this. Conceptually, the adaptation was flawed from the start. The original book does a great job of introducing young children to the conflict between free enterprise and conservation. This film adaptation throws itself in so many different directions that one of Dr. Seuss’ more even-handed social commentaries feels pedantic and charmless. The film treats itself like a piece of popcorn fluff and the weightiest movie ever written at the same time. There is fun to be had at The Lorax, but it is fleeting.

Rating: 4/10

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Coming Soon: The Jungle Book: The Musical

Disney Theatricals have announced their professional theatrical production in the US. Is it a big push for the long-gestating Aladdin? The recently announced Dumbo? That Hunchback of Notre Dame musical that is completely written and only requires an English language translation?

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The Jungle Book at Goodman Theatre in Chicago

Nope. It’s The Jungle Book. The 1967 musical film about a lost boy named Mowgli is being expanded and re-imagined by writer/director Mary Zimmerman for a debut at the end of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre’s 2012-13 season. The film, based on the stories by Rudyard Kipling, imagines a boy’s trials as he tries to find his place in the world one species at a time. His two closest allies, Bagheera the Panther and Baloo the Bear, help Mowgli work his way toward joining the nearby man village to protect him from the murderous Shere Khan the Tiger.

I can’t say I’m particularly surprised that The Jungle Book would be chosen by Disney for a full length stage version. Even if the story isn’t as popular, the music is well-known and beautifully composed. “The Bare Necessities” received an Academy Award nomination for Original Song (losing to “Talk to the Animals” from Doctor Doolittle) and still works its way into Disney compilation soundtracks.

Beyond that, the score has taken on a certain theatrical cache over time. I have a few musical theater anthology books that include songs from The Jungle Book in their original forms. Would it surprise you to learn that “Trust in Me,” Kaa the Snake’s seduction song, actually has a melody? It surprised me when I played through it for the first time. It’s a play on reflecting vocal patterns: three notes up, three notes down; phrase jumps down, phrase jumps up. The (alto?) flute and muted brass play off each other like the swing of a pendulum to slip into the memory banks. It’s clever and effective.

Similarly, the sometimes disliked “My Own Home” is, at least on a composition level, quite lovely. Put aside the lyrics about male versus female duties in the household or any feminist reading of the text. The lilting melody against the play of the harp and the vibraphone is quite enchanting. You can imagine this being a lovely moment onstage for an ingenue.

Here’s the official description of the stage production from the Goodman Theatre.

From the imagination of Tony Award winner Mary Zimmerman comes a dazzling song-and-dance-filled event that chronicles young Mowgli’s adventures growing up in the animal kingdom. Based on Rudyard Kipling’s time-honored children’s tales and featuring music from the classic Disney film, this spellbinding world premiere is the theatrical event of the season.

Mary Zimmerman will most likely find a way to incorporate more Indian flourishes into the production, which sounds quite exciting. The score already has touches of that in melodic structure and instrumentation that can be brought out (the same way Andrew Lloyd Weber is reorchestrating Evita for more authentic style). The story is set in India and the use of stage conventions or referential imagery could bring life to the story. Kipling wasn’t just writing a series of stories about animals and a boy in a vacuum.

Furthermore, there is a lot more to the book and even the score to play with. The Disney adaptation took highlights from the story that could be molded to form a linear storyline. There’s a whole lot more going on that could easily expand the story to a two act structure without dragging it down.

Similarly, the familiar score by The Sherman Brothers was actually the second attempt to write the music. Terry Gilykson (“The Bare Necessities”) wrote several songs that stayed closer to the text of Kipling’s story. They were deemed to dark for the film and replaced one by one. Those songs still exist and could easily be tweaked to bring in more music. That’s not even going into the lovely theatrical scoring by George Bruns that could be built on to make entirely new songs. They could even be molded into dance breaks for some of the existing songs. There is more than enough material here to produce a piece of theater that stands on its own merits.

The Jungle Book feels like it will work on stage. We’ll just have to see what happens next year.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Read: Time Out New York’s Greatest Broadway Diva List

Time Out New York took on a monumental task that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. They decided to rank the top 25 divas to ever step foot on Broadway. The first problem? There have been many more than 25 divas–in this usage; fewer if you stick to the true operatic origins–on Broadway.

How do you handle the variety of experience? Do you weight the list for recurring leading ladies or performances you’ll never forget? Do you toss the names in a hat and choose whoever comes up so long as Ethel Merman is listed as the number one diva?

Ethel Merman is the obvious winner. She was the queen of theater. Composers wrote shows for her that didn’t sit right on many other performers. She refused to play scenes facing another actor because the audience paid to see the show, not the side/back of her head. Her voice was strong enough to fill any theater and she had a fantastic understanding of how her body worked to manipulate this sound.

The top twelve, actually, make a whole lot of sense. The ranking isn’t as important among them because they’re all clearly iconic theater performers. These talented women are either known for one massive role–Carol Channing is the Dolly and no one will ever be able to take that away from her–or a varied body of headlining work that demonstrates immense skill–Bernadette Peters has done everything from the only woman on stage for the entire act of a dance musical to being the central figure of a large ensemble show. Actresses like Chita Rivera, Gwen Verdon, and Audra McDonald are known for their theater work because it’s the work they love and excel at.

From there, the list becomes a bit more adventurous. Kristin Chenoweth ranks nine slots higher than her Wicked costar Idina Menzel presumably because she worked more on Broadway (even if they have the same number of show-stopping memorable roles). Tonya Pinkins gets in for her incredible turn as Caroline Thibedeux in Caroline, or Change with special mention of all her Broadway roles, but Christine Ebersole outranks her by one slot solely for her work in Grey Gardens. Barbara Streisand and Carol Burnett get in with minimal stage work but large musical experience on camera.

Any ranked list of art is a challenge. There is no right answer (other than Ethel Merman at the top of a list of best Broadway performers, or Bach on the list of best counterpoint writers (he made the rules we still follow)). For every person who says “great list,” you’ll get many more who say “how could you…” about some minor quibble and even more attacking the list for not including their “best.”

I think Time Out New York took on a big task and did a great job. There list is nicely formatted with information about the performer and why they’re one of the all time greats. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Coming Soon: Carrie: The Musical

I don’t think there’s a musical fan alive who is ashamed of finding a copy of the soundboard bootleg from one of the only performances of Carrie: The Musical. The show is infamous. From Debbie Allen’s pop video choreography to the large white box set to Carrie suddenly having pyrokinetic powers to a song dedicated to slicing up pigs, Carrie reads like a colossal failure on paper.

Technically, it was. The original production only managed five performances before shuttering. The critics ripped the production to shreds and the show even lost a leading lady–Barbara Cook–before it reached Broadway. The producers were confident the show would resonate with NYC audiences and they were right.

Every report you can find about Carrie: The Musical dives into how wild the audience went for the show. Yes, it was over the top and kind of trashy and didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but the crowd ate it up. When done right, musicals can be an excellent vehicle for horror. It’s hard to imagine someone not wanting to see more of a show based on the grainy video footage available on YouTube.

Unfortunately, most of the show was nothing like this. Just based on the footage of Margaret and Carrie White in the house, I’ve fantasized about a revised production taking place entirely in the White house. Forget about showing what the kids are doing to Carrie–she’s a reliable enough narrator early on to establish her as a victim. Focus on the isolation she feels at home leading to her psychic awakening. Key characters–Sue, the gym teacher, Billy, etc.–could visit the Whites to deal with the school drama.

But I digress. What the original Broadway production did was…special. Unique. Bizarre.

A large white box. Spandex. Leotards. No sight of the title character at all. This is how the Broadway production opened. A rap-aerobics song about catching a man. An intimate little story about a high school girl on the brink of something big and dangerous doesn’t need huge dance songs to draw the audience in.

It gets stranger. I’ve seen the book and score before. People trade copies of real Broadway books/scores all the time. And you know what? The show is solid on paper. It really is.

When you can actually see the lyrics and how the music is arranged, the disconnect between the White household and the high school world makes sense. Carrie slowly starts to shift away from the grandiose religious tones and rhetoric to the contemporary language and sound of her peers, only to be thrown right back into her mother’s arms by the prom prank that fully unleashes her power. There are so many clever tricks in the score and really beautiful moments specified in the book that it’s hard to imagine how the show bombed.

carriemusical Coming Soon: Carrie: The Musical

Representational imagery doomed Carrie: The Musical

The problem was not one of content but one of presentation. You know, there’s another musical that thought it would be a great idea to take a popular story and try to turn it into a Greek tragedy set to music. It’s former director is now being counter-sued for irreparably damaging the book and staging of a $75+million superhero musical.

Sometimes, production teams get in their own way. Such was the case with Carrie: The Musical. There was this grand vision of an epic rock tragedy onstage with flashy visuals and a collapsible set. What the show needed was a realistic set, simpler choreography, and a cast of actors that looked like teenagers. A modern production would need new orchestrations, as well, as the shrieking synth orchestra from the original 1988 Broadway mounting is like nails on a chalkboard.

Enter the MCC in NYC. The original writing/composing team–Lawrence D. Cohen, Michael Gore, Dean Pitchford–has been quietly rewriting the entire show in workshops over the past few years. Now, in February, the show will return Off-Broadway for a limited run. Half of the score will be missing (boo! hiss!) and there’s a brand new book that focuses on characters, not spectacle (I’m listening).

What encourages me the most is not new content, but the limited view of the set in a new video from Broadway World. It’s the White household. It’s dull, it’s rundown, and it doesn’t appear to be designed for a quick transformation into a large white tomb. Did they really rewrite it as the chamber musical of my dreams?

I’m not so sure about the new song (it’s no “Crackerjack (Out for Blood),” but what is?), but I’m a little more optimistic about the new Carrie. It’s starting to turn into a “some version is better than no version” situation. I would love to be involved in a production of this show but the only way right now is to stage it without permission. That kind of production rarely ends without issue.

Carrie: The Musical at MCC

The goal, quite clearly, seems to be to build interest for a Broadway revival. Of course there’s interest. A running gag in the NYC area is that more people claim to have seen the original production than there were tickets sold from the first preview to closing night. The question is whether or not there’s enough good in Carrie to salvage.

The “half new songs” emphasis scares me. I can only think of a few songs–”Out for Blood,” “In,” “Wotta Night”–that probably needed to be replaced. Unless the bulk of these new songs go to Carrie and Mrs. White, I fear this production might not do any better than the original.

What drives people to Stephen King’s best novel and the film version is the story of Carrie White. For every moment that the focus shifts to Tommy, Sue, or Chris, there are at least two moments that focus on Carrie. The only place for a huge series of fireworks (not literally, for goodness’ sake) is the prom. At that point, you’re so invested in Carrie’s story that it almost becomes a relief that the prank results in the destruction. Huge dance numbers and large crowd scenes do not compliment the story at all.

We’ll see in a few weeks what will come of the MCC production of Carrie: The Musical. I never wish a production will fail, but this is one of the few that I want to succeed beyond my wildest imagination.

And you know what? If I get to see it, I’ll be happy just to see “Evening Prayers” performed live. They wouldn’t cut “Evening Prayers,” would they?

Thoughts? Love to hear them.