Be what I know I can be

February 29, 2012

A recent exchange on a theatre chat board brought up the subject of writers’ ambitions. What are we trying to do when we write our shows?

This may seem silly, pedantic and theoretical at first, but stick with me. There was much discussion of Merrily We Roll Along, a show that’s undergone countless revisions over the thirty years since its creation. Most agree it’s seriously flawed in all its forms. When some fan opined “Let’s just admit it, this is the best show in town.” there began a comparison with what critics, comedians and audiences seem to concur is the actual best show in town, The Book of Mormon.

Still following all this?

Chatter A: As a show, though, I agree Mormon is well crafted. They got it right the first time. Whether or not it’s a show for the ages, there won’t be production after production trying to make it work.

Chatter B: Yes, they got it right the first time. But then, the thing they were trying to do is much easier, isn’t it? They weren’t trying to make a psychologically and emotionally coherent musical out of a play that was problematic (that is, didn’t work) to begin with, and was told chronologically backwards. I have no quarrel with Book of Mormon; it’s okay. But one show was an attempt to expand the boundaries of musical theater, and one wasn’t.

So we’ve finally reached the topic I wished to discuss: If Stephen Sondheim & George Furth tried “to make a psychologically and emotionally coherent musical out of a play that was problematic (that is, didn’t work) to begin with, and was told chronologically backwards…an attempt to expand the boundaries of musical theater” they set the goal posts awfully high, and came up lacking.

Trey Parker, Matt Stone & Bobby Lopez set out to write a funny musical comedy about religious missionaries. I think that’s a pretty big ambition, too, and evidently they succeeded,  creating the biggest hit of the new century.

The trouble began way back when Sondheim & Furth set themselves such seemingly impossible goals. Why’d they have to attempt something so difficult? They ended up confusing Broadway audiences for a couple of weeks. (Or 30 years, if we want to count subsequent stagings.)

One gets the sense that Sondheim was attracted to the time-in-reverse construct because he can’t resist a good puzzle.  His two non-musical scripts, the screenplay The Last of Sheila and the stage play Getting Away With Murder are known for clever plots.  Not emotional ones.  Not ones in which you care about the characters.  One thing that impressed me about The Book of Mormon is that, amidst all that silly irreverence, I cared about these two mismatched missionaries and a Ugandan girl.

Some might counter that, after the heaviness of Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd, Sondheim and director Hal Prince sought to get back to musical comedy, simpler, more palatable fare.  A little like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s return to less-serious entertainment with Me and Juliet after South Pacific and The King and I (How’d that work out for you, R & H?).  But the mopey moralizing of Merrily is more akin to Allegro, the Rodgers & Hammerstein non-hit on which young Sondheim served as gopher.  Allegro, while innovative, is fairly straightforward.  The story goes from a man’s birth to age 30, and a singing Greek chorus tells us what to observe.  Merrily‘s chorus tells us to “Never look back” before proceeding to do precisely that, and then helpfully staves off confusion by singing out the year, each one earlier than the last.  Are you following all this?

The Last Five Years, a two-actor musical, goes one step further in the wrong direction.  It’s a dialogue-free song cycle about a romance that appears to be based on events in its author’s life.  But the woman’s songs start at the end of the five years and move backwards, alternating with the man’s songs which start at the beginning and move forward.  They meet at the middle to share the show’s only duet.  Figuring out this Rubik’s cube of a format (and trying to feel something for its characters) was an excruciating experience.

As you’re setting out to write your musical, know that you’re already setting out to do something difficult.  Don’t add to your challenge by monkeying with the time continuum, exorcising personal demons through thinly-veiled auto-biography, or locking yourself into using nothing but triple meters. To do so is to risk short-changing the most important ambition of all: entertaining the audience. One could argue it’s a given. That every musical author seeks to divert the patrons in the seats.  But looking at some of these puzzlers wrapped inside an enigma served in a couple of conundrums, I gotta wonder.

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The show must go on

February 24, 2012

I’m on a little vacation with my family, but the blog goes on.  By happy happenstance, two of my songs just appeared on YouTube, affording me the chance to write a shorter-than-usual post.

Marissa Sheltra, Brian McAloon/Photo by Michael Eric Berube

They’re from the recent Portland production of The Christmas Bride and I’ve written about these songs before: Fluttering and The French Wheel.  I’ve also long ago pointed out that seeing a piece of musical theatre on video ain’t nothing like the real thing.  These clips therefore illustrate some things I’ve said before, as well as the severe limitation of the single-camera recording

At Lucid Stage in Maine the playing space is a not very deep rectangle, with seats on three sides.  So the live audience understood that Marissa Sheltra had to “play the sweep.”  Viewers of the video can’t see where the audience is – they’re not lit, of course – making Marissa seem a little unfocussed, overly animated.  But the people in the theatre didn’t perceive her this way.  When a musical performance is staged for TV cameras, performers use a different kind of focus, and are far more still.  And since most of us spend more hours watching television than watching live theatre, we’re used to something subtler, more sedentary.  Most of us?  Who are these people who see more live theatre than television?  How can I get to be one of them?

If you haven’t seen The Christmas Bride, and are viewing The French Wheel for the first time, out of context, the piquancy of one of MK Wolfe’s dialogue lines will be lost on you.  On the video, the police chief says “My eyesight is not what it once was” and then we see that he’s wearing an eyepatch.  In the show, we’ve long ago learned why he’s missing an eye, and have gotten rather used to the eyepatch.

The eyepatch exists for at least one reason that isn’t as plain as the nose on his face.  Part of the fun of the show is that the same actor must play two brothers (who have a total three eyes between them).  The quick change the actor must do to get from meek and mild, two-eyed Thomas to the vindictive villain single-eyed Simon is part of the fun.  In Portland, though, I don’t think the audience ever got this.  The actor, Bill Vaughan, did such a thorough transformation, metamorphosing his voice and the way he carries himself, viewers didn’t catch on that he wasn’t two different actors.  Bill was too good for his own good!

In the video, everyone except the lead, Brian McAloon, is doubling.  All those performers around the roulette table have other, larger roles, elsewhere in the show.  In context, you’d be impressed with their versatility; here, excerpted in a video, you get no sense of how different they are from the other characters they play.  But I love how the clip ends with the tight shot of the distressed heroine.  That sort of concentrated focus was not something the thrust-stage production could provide.


I’m too romantic

February 18, 2012

“How could it happen?” asked some guy on Facebook, referring to Phantom of the Opera’s recent milestone, 10,000 performances on Broadway, as if it were some avoidable catastrophe.  Tragedy or not, there is, somewhere in there, a question we should all be asking ourselves.  What is it that has led Phantom of the Opera to be so phenomenally successful?

My last few posts, I’ve sounded like a nattering nabob of negativism.  I could continue that this week, and point out Phantom’s flaws, but that’s picking low-lying fruit and besides, it’s Valentine’s Day as I write this.  So, I’m going to take an uncharacteristically charitable view of a Eurotrash blockbuster, and focus on what it’s doing, not how well it’s doing it.

So let’s start with something obvious: Phantom of the Opera is a romantic musical.  Love is central to the plot, with the concomitant jealousy and devotion front and center.  It’s firmly part of a long-standing tradition in which outsized emotions are given full exploration and expression.  Sweeping, passionate.  Some look for this sort of feeling in the opera house; certainly, one finds it in operetta.  And today…

Today, there’s certainly still a sizable segment of the ticket-buying public that wants to see a romantic musical, one that’s pretty in costumes, sets, performers’ looks, and, yes, music.  One can argue about the quality of those melodies, but I, for one, thought these tunes were pretty back when I heard them in The Girl of the Golden West, The Pirates of Penzance and Threepenny Opera.  Of course, they had far better lyrics, not to mention orchestrations, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that tunefulness is one of the principal virtues of this poperetta.

That Facebook fellow seems to view the five-digit quantity of performances Phantom of the Opera has racked up as some sort of a disaster.  I feel the only fiasco here is that, during this long run, producers failed to wise up and put on similarly romantic/pretty shows to capture that audience. What else has there been?

Well, one might argue that two of the longest-running hits, Rent and Miss Saigon, have certain similarities.  Both these shows are based on operas, and both put romance front and center.  You get moments when characters are singing passionately to each other about the love-ly emotions they feel.   I’m reminded of a show I enjoyed a whole lot more, Thoroughly Modern Millie: using a comic and light tone, the heart of the character is depicted in larger-than-life numbers like Gimme Gimme and Forget About the Boy.
On record, I quite enjoy Michel Legrand’s music for a little flop musical called Amour.  But what leaps out at me, looking over the list of musicals that have opened since Phantom of the Opera, is how few shows amplify amour.  It’s as if Broadway powers-that-be have become embarrassed by emotion.  They’re poorer for it, and the not-quite-lovable and near-witless Phantom is laughing all the way to the bank.


Friends don’t do this to friends

February 12, 2012

Meet Frank, a movie producer hosting an opening night party on a terrace off Mulholland Drive. He’s the envy of all, repeatedly tells us he’s happy with his success. His problems. which seem relatively minor, are that his wife has found out about his hot starlet mistress, an old friend of his is so drunk she can’t keep her footing, and there’s a playwright whose name he doesn’t want mentioned. But hell, he’s got a son who’s straight and all this money so . . . we don’t care a bit about him. And the last question in the world we’re asking ourselves is, “How did you get here, Mr. Shepherd?”

George Furth and Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, now at Encores, based on one of the few Kaufman and Hart plays that wasn’t a success, plays a foolish game with chronology. Time goes backwards, so each scene happens earlier than the one before. Therefore, the creators must always spur at least a passing curiosity, in our minds, about previous steps the characters took. Once this device is established, we know we’re in for a night of revelations: How did that lush begin her affair with the bottle? How did the Hollywood mogul get to his exalted position? What influenced the unseen son to try heterosexuality? And the first problem is, we’re only remotely curious about any of those questions.

A couple posts ago, musing on another Sondheim show, I pointed out the importance of what the main character is doing throughout the evening. Franklin Shepherd, Inc., it turns out, has been a prick for years. We learn he’s a serial adulterer who keeps making business decisions without considering the feelings of his writing partner, Charlie. Realistic, it may be. I’m sure a lot of Hollywood titans made ruthless deals, and bedded a bevy. But musicals are supposed to be entertaining: Watching a prick behave like a prick for three quarters of an evening just isn’t a good use of stage time. If this were a story that moved forward, we might look forward to the prick getting his comeuppance, but, in backwards-land, that’s not going to happen.

I will not spoil the plot, but the final quarter of Merrily, when the characters are young, optimistic, and actually behaving, well, merrily, gets very entertaining. The final two numbers, in particular, stir the heart. It’s been said that if your show starts with a great opening number, you can get away with reading the phone book for the next fifty minutes. Merrily We Roll Along rolls to such a strong conclusion, it has a chance of making the audience forget how bored it was for the better part of its first two hours. I think about those political surveys, where, say, during a debate, they chart, on a moving graph, how viewers are feeling at every moment. Twenty minutes before Merrily We Roll Along ends, if you tap the average audience member on the shoulder, they’d say “I’m hating this.” But twenty seconds before it ends, the reading would be “I’m loving this!”

Merrily We Roll Along was the sixth and last of a string of collaborations between Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince – a more impressive set of musicals it’s hard to fathom, including A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd. By choosing the backwards chronology, they set themselves a very difficult challenge. Why did they choose it? Are musicals created because the creators like to work on puzzles, or are they created to entertain an audience? Master-puzzler Sondheim, and librettist George Furth fail to solve the difficult conundrum of how to tell a story backwards, and the audience is left unsatisfied, puzzled.

Furth, Sondheim

A lot of people love Sondheim songs when they hear them out of context. In the context of a book musical, though, we greet songs with certain expectations, one of which is that the song will effectively tie in with the plot, and the set of feelings we’ve developed about a character. So, if you introduce a character and instantly give him a big, emotional song to sing, it’s problematic because, at that point, the audience has nothing invested, emotionally, in the person singing. Prime example: Not a Day Goes By. The song is about the persistent and obsessive nature of a long-standing romantic relationship. In context, it’s sung by a character we’ve just met. So, we’re going “Who the hell is this woman?” It’s way too early for us to care about her, and a pretty song falls flat.

Like the even more convoluted Last Five Years, the authors are victimized by a seemingly-impossible structure. A Kevlar-reinforced paper bag they can’t write their way out of.

It can be done. Many times, over many years, at the ASCAP workshop, Stephen Schwartz has pointed out the brilliant seed-planting in Harold Pinter’s reverse chronology play, Betrayal. In each and every scene, there’s a cryptic reference to something in the characters’ past, and you’re dying to learn what it is. It’s continually satisfying. In Merrily We Roll Along, scene after scene makes you go “What the hell was that?” and “Why are we seeing this?” That’s the real mystery. The question of how Franklin Shepherd became an asshole is not something I care to look into, thank you very much.


Not much right now

February 6, 2012

actresses hung like slabs of meat

Steven Spielberg wanted Smashto be an absolutely authentic depiction of an arcane world.

Epic fail.

I suppose we’re supposed to be happy that network television has finally seen fit to set an hour-long drama in our little world.  Just a few years ago, it was impossible to find any characters breaking into song on the little screen.  But I’m reminded of a lady who bitterly complained about the quality of the food at a Catskills retreat.  Could have been worse: there could be no food at all.

So let’s be grateful for the tasteless morsel we’ve been thrown, and spend a few moments picking on the bone.  It certainly could be worse.  They’ve decided to use an admirable quantity of original songs, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman rather than covers of old rock hits (with a key exception) and the cast includes Christian Borle and Brian D’Arcy James, guys I’ve actually enjoyed in Broadway shows.  Good moves, there, and, again, better than starvation.

Since seeing the pilot (I also read the script, many months ago), I’ve been wondering if I’m more upset than I should be.  I mean, of course it seems inauthentic to me: it’s the world I live in.  And does it really matter if NBC viewers are fed a false impression?  Suppose I knew nothing about how musicals are prepared and produced, would I find Smash so disappointing?  It’s a little like wondering if that Catskills harridan had eaten ground glass all her life, would she still have caviled on the buffet line?

There are worse things a network could do, sure.  And there are worse crimes than seeming ersatz.  For instance, being very boring, or riddled with the hoariest clichés.  But, given Speilberg’s publicly-stated ambition to hold up a mirror to our little world, you’ll pardon me if I mock the mock.

(SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen this yet, consider yourself lucky.)

Feels a bit weird to be commenting on television.  I’ve merely seen the pilot, and a zillion things can change – for the better, I hope – as the series progresses.  While I have a lot of friends in the TV-writing business, I’ve no special insight into the making of meat for the small-box medium.  Maybe spinning out cliché upon cliché is, somehow, encouraged in Tubetown.  As you know, I’ve a sign on my desk that says “Eschew cliché” so naturally I sneeze at:

The set-upon spouse who pleads for the obsessed (and admirable) partner to forget their obsession, settle down and spend more time at home.  In a not-so-novel twist, the pleading one is the husband, Brian D’Arcy James.  It’s got to be a big let-down for him to go from his stage roles (Burrs, Sidney Falco, Shrek) to a cliché kvetch.

A divorcing couple, where one spurned spouse is itching to show the other up with a public triumph, pronto.  Even Anjelica Huston’s hair-do screams 1930s Hollywood.

A more modern rendering of the “skyrocket to fame” idea is the viral video that’s so popular, it actual exerts pressure on the business world.  Reluctant songwriters collaborate on a song for a musical about Marilyn Monroe, invite a friend over to learn it and sing it back to them.  Someone takes a video of this, which gets posted on-line and voila! there’s a producer green-lighting the as-yet-unwritten project.  I remind you of the Spielberg quote above: “an absolutely authentic depiction of an arcane world.

The main character, an aspiring singer who may win the grand prize or merely come in second, is played by Katharine McPhee, an aspiring singer who came close to winning the grand prize on American Idol but merely came in second.  Nice to see her stretch.  Her parents worry about all the rejection she faces in the city.  Her boyfriend reminds them she’s not a waitress, she’s an actress.  Is anything else on?  Is ABC running that game show in which ordinary people fall off slippery things into wading pools?  I’m there!

At her audition, McPhee transfixes the table with her rendition of the Christina Aguilera hit, Beautiful; and if you listen carefully to the lyric, which few do, it’s about seeing the true beauty in people, not the surface beauty.  Marilyn Monroe, of course, is the iconic embodiment of surface beauty.  Perhaps the Karen character wants the panel to see past her unextraordinary brunette good looks and find her inner Marilyn.  Are you following any of this?  The show insists you must.

But wait, there’s an immediate response from the director, in the form of a text message that says come over to my place.  Hold the phone!  Well, it’s the cellular age; I guess we always hold the phone somewhere on our person.  And poor Karen, like Pauline in The Perils Of runs off to this fabulous bachelor pad.  There, the lustful Svengali insists she reveal the smoldering sensual fire within her.  She considers fleeing, but, just before reaching the door, she steels herself, grabs his shirt, comes out wearing it and no pants, and coos Happy Birthday, Mr. President.

At the risk of sounding like an out-of-touch prude, I’d like to point out that children are going to watch this program and believe every word.  After all, some have read famous director Spielberg’s proclamation that Smash is “an absolutely authentic depiction” so it must be so, it must be, that the way to win a role on Broadway is to go alone to the director’s apartment late at night and act all sexy.  NBC, by the way, has helpfully launched a program to get school kids watching this thing.  Great to see a big corporation supporting arts in schools that lack performing arts, but it comes at the cost of spreading moral turpitude.  Does the good outweigh the evil here?

Young ladies: Should you find yourself the recipient of a “come over to my place” late-night text from a director, immediately contact the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, ask “Is this proper?” and forward the text.  But why am I telling you this?  It’s not going to happen in real life.  Scenarios like this only occur in the creakiest of old melodramas, or, to put it in a word, “Smash.”

Warning: playing the drink-every-time Shaiman-&-Wittman-use-a-cliché game may lead to blackouts.