To the victors go the spoils

Jono J. Travanti

When John Travolta, the other night at the Oscars, butchered Idina Menzel’s name beyond all recognition, it was as if you could hear the entire theatrical community smite its forehead. The quips ran fast and furious, one being that the incident eviscerates long-standing rumors that Travolta is gay. The implication being that no gay man could possibly be unfamiliar with Menzel’s monicker.

I appreciate the mirth, but can’t help thinking that a blind spot is revealed in all of this. We’re an insular bunch, we musical theatre mavens. There’s quite much, it seems, that is well-known to us, but genuinely obscure to those outside our merry band.

Idina Menzel – and let’s admit right off the bat, the name’s a bit of a weird one – starred in two of the most successful musicals of the past 20 years, Rent and Wicked. But note that Rent‘s something of an ensemble piece: she didn’t have one of the three biggest roles. The same could be said about the character, Collins, and his original interpreter, Jesse L. Martin, is the most famous person to have emerged from that company. While Idina earned a Tony for Wicked, the show’s other lead, Kristin Chenoweth, is far better known as well. This, of course, has little to do with their talents and accomplishments and everything to with the power of television. Martin, for many years, played a detective on Law & Order and never essayed a stage musical again. Chenoweth had her own flop series, Pushing Daisies, and over the years has seized every opportunity to use her impressive singing voice. She’ll sing on talk shows, headline revivals on Broadway, release albums. One more thing about Cheno: she’s a character, engagingly quirky. One other thing about Martin: he’s handsome, with a cool vibe, sexy.

And Idina Menzel? Well, her strong suit is high and powerful belting, and it’s a very impressive gift. But not the sort of gift the camera loves. She’s not the cute pixie Chenoweth is nor the suave charmer Martin is. And so she’s infrequently seen on screens. She’s admirably continued to do original musicals, and is now headlining If/Then, by Yorkey and Kitt, on Broadway. But no TV series.

I’ve read of plans to revive Funny Girl, that most-demanding-of-star-vehicles, with Lea Michele. She, too, appeared in two well-regarded musicals on Broadway, Ragtime and Spring Awakening. But her notoriety derives from leading the cast of a TV show, Glee. As all of my in-the-know compadres can’t help pointing out, she doesn’t have half as powerful voice as Menzel. And Funny Girl demands power.

But a revival of Funny Girl demands a star the ticket-buying public has a keen interest in seeing. So, I’ve long said, Lea Michele is the natural choice to carry such an expensive venture. Now, if theatre were a meritocracy, we’d more likely see Leslie Kritzer in the role. She could do it well; she’s a truly funny girl. Michele’s never proven comedy bona fides; she’s just far more famous. And more likely to sell more tickets.

And on it goes, this disconnect between talent and ability-to-put-butts-in-seats. There was a time when television didn’t selectively skyrocket certain performers to stardom. The Broadway audience could see a newcomer make a splash one season, and buy enough tickets for a new-name-in-a-leading-role the next. The original Funny Girl was like that: people bought seats to see Barbra Streisand because they’d been impressed by her Broadway debut in I Can Get It For You Wholesale. Success on stage led to an enormous opportunity on stage. Such a thing is unimaginable today. But TV stars are whisked onto the Broadway stage and sell seats fast (like Bryan Cranston in the new play, All the Way).

Of course, Streisand made some TV appearances as well. And for some reason I’m reminded of Irene Bordoni, a stage star from about 85 years ago. Cole Porter could write “You’re the eyes of Irene Bordoni” and his audience knew exactly what he meant. This despite the fact that Bordoni had no fame from movies or the not-yet-existent television. In a way, I must admit, I long for this: being able, in a lyric, to name-drop someone who’s known only for stage work, like Philip Bosco or Carolee Carmello. Hmm, two names ordinary people associate with chocolate. Yum.

But that would be cliquish, somehow. We, the insiders, love our Bosco with a Cherry Jones on top. But the uninitiated would feel alienated by references to stars they’ve never heard of. And are we writing shows just for insiders? A specific audience with a certain knowledge base? These questions, it seems, are frequently on my mind.

Some seconds after the Travolta gaffe, a website appeared that purported to tell you how John Travolta would pronounce any name entered. Facebook lit up with friends’ hysterical Travolta-ized appellations. A musical theatre writer I’ve known for many years, Tom Toce, said he entered his name and it came back Travolta-ized as Idina Menzel.

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