Danse macabre

The abrupt and sudden postponement of Hearts and Lights at Radio City Music Hall is a thunderbolt reminder of the fragility of this business. And since I can’t seem to avoid those huge ad posters everywhere, the bolts keep coming. A new musical – or was it? Some controversy on this – with a huge budget and unusually large cast and crew suddenly and without warning, pulls the plug, leaving its talented workforce instantly unemployed. I’m not voicing a criticism here: it’s all too sad.

If writers are to glean something from this, it might be helpful to think about the difference between a desk fan and an automobile. At my father’s house is a frightening fan that must be over 50 years old. You’d think such a thing would have long since gone to a museum of twentieth century artifacts but it still works. Cars, on the other hand, break down so frequently, our streets are lined with garages and mechanics and we think nothing of it. Gas guzzling motor engines are so complex, we expect something to go wrong. Electric fans, on the other hand, are so simple, they can run a lifetime. And where in the world can you find a desk fan repairman?

That show you’re working on: is it a fan or a car? Does it have so many moving parts, it’s a near-certainty something will gum up the works? Or is it so modest in scale, it’s a safer bet the damn thing works? The longest running musical ever involves a small cast on a bare stage, accompanied by two musicians (The Fantasticks). When we think of fiascoes that lost all of their sizable investments, Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark leaps to mind first. For me, who missed the arachnid all-time top money-loser, my mind goes to a couple of Frank Wildhorn shows, Wonderland and Dracula, as well as the legendary flop by writers I admire, Nick and Nora. All had an unusual number of characters, way too many sets, and plots that no viewer could ever follow or care about.

I recall Nick and Nora having an extremely long period of previews on Broadway. At the time, one hoped (and imagined) the creators were using that time well, making fixes. But it can be hard to employ a last-minute change in a piece with car-like complexity. It’s far easier to believe that an alteration can go into an uncomplicated single-set piece, such as Man of La Mancha, and save the day. Leads one to wonder why people fashion behemoths in the first place.

One thing I suspect is going on in the minds of big builders is an unrealistic vision of what musicals are. When MGM, in its heyday, made musicals – or, more to the point, films about the making of musicals, such as The Band Wagon – they’d often show a cast of hundreds, accompanied by a 100-piece orchestra. Film is flim-flam, of course. It makes more sense to get your idea of what stage shows are by seeing a lot of live theatre.

But that brings up another widespread misconception: that musicals need to move like film. Some do, of course, and they’re often thrilling, but the magic involved relies on the director and designers’ art. When writers seek to ape film fluidity, they’re often barking up the wrong tree. A theatergoer sees action all around: if one wishes, one could snap one’s head back and forth like watching a tennis match. The movie camera cuts the field of vision to exactly what the director wants you to see. It could be a close-up of a falling tear, or the broad battlefield at Gettysburg. The stage tradition – and I think many have forgotten this – is to have, far downstage, a drop or curtain. This comes down to block us from seeing large scene changes behind it. In front come performers who do scenes or songs “in One.” The term refers to the front-most lighting area. Some of musical theatre history’s best-loved moments are in One numbers, such as Brush Up Your Shakespeare or On the Street Where You Live. Now, nobody’s writing these things today, but it’s always helpful to remember our tradition, which differs in many key ways from the history of film.

A friend of mine saw Rocky and was disappointed that one actor’s interpretation of a role was markedly different than the source film. Things have come to an unpretty pass if Broadway musicals are somehow required to recreate famous flicks. Just read Hilton Als’ review and three phrases jumped out at me:

What works in film often feels reductive in the theatre. While film is fluid—forward motion, wrapped in light—the stage is a solid, fixed in front of us; whatever you put on it has to stand there with the irrefutable weight of fact.
Stallone’s version is too deeply imprinted on our collective imagination.
Timbers, like Karl, has to contend with the simulacrum problem – that is, the challenge of making something new out of something tried and tested.

Some fine musicals were made from well-known films. It’s been nearly forty years since the Rocky film, but Promises Promises, for example, was based on The Apartment, the Oscar-winner from earlier in the same decade. It didn’t feel the need to recreate much of Billy Wilder’s piece-de-cinema, and, as you might have noticed, it didn’t retain the title. Master producer David Merrick relied on the quality of the writing (by Neil Simon, and the hottest songwriters of the time, Bacharach and David) and not the title of a fondly-remembered-film to put butts in the seats.

I’ve yet to adapt a film into a stage musical, but can understand the appeal of having a good dramatic structure in place at the beginning. One of the pieces I’m working on now has a cast of two (as did my long-running comic opera for kids, The Pirate Captains). I’ve written large-cast, multi-set shows before, but, there’s so much that can go wrong in the writing of a musical: It feels infinitely better to build and tinker with a desk fan rather than a car.

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