NBC’s broadcast of The Wiz got me thinking about live-ness. That is, the specific pieces of enjoyment we get from viewing a live event that we can’t get from viewing a dead event. Or not dead, exactly, but we’re not in the room where it happens, breathing the same air. And there’s no using the phrase a filmmaker pal tells me is so common in his medium, “We’ll fix it in post.”
Some view me as a New York-centric chauvinist, lording it over those who don’t see live theatre with my “You had to be there.” I’m sorry to be rude but all my collected understanding of how musicals are created points to the fact that writers design work to be heard and seen live. Sure, some musicals have been written for television. (I’ve written two that were designed to be videos, and won three awards.) There have been a great many original musical films, one of the best of which is 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, which used a completely original plot, unrelated to the stage musical of the same books some decades before. More on that later.
Picture Stephen Sondheim writing his television musical, Evening Primrose. He knows that the bulky camera can hold steady on a face, giving the viewer enough concentration to grasp a song like I Remember. Picture Richard Rodgers writing music and lyrics for I Have Confidence, knowing that director Robert Wise will fill the screen with beautiful images of Salzburg, Austria. When they or anyone are writing for Broadway, there’s a whole different set of parameters. The face that looks so big on a screen looks tiny within a proscenium. Your stage picture won’t include sunshine reflecting off of snowy Alps, or thirty pianos and ten thousand shoes. Your orchestra will be limited in size. But here’s a good thing: voices will bounce off the walls of the theatre, and you can hear singers from different parts of the stage. One of the most stunning aural experiences I’ve had was listening to the people strolling though the park in the first act finale of Sunday in the Park With George.
You know, I usually try to illustrate my points on this blog with a video. But how could I? You’d hear that chorus coming from one or two speakers, and I’ll wager you don’t have them set up as wide as the stage of the Booth Theatre. There’s stuff that inevitably gets lost when you watch a video or listen to a recording. And that stuff is what we pay the big bucks for.
It’s here I put on my Old Man Fedora and try to remember things I saw many decades ago. The Wiz, I think, was most extraordinary in its bursts of color. It’s the only musical I can think of where the director, Geoffrey Holder, also designed the costumes. They were fantastic, and I use that word in the sense of “the stuff of fantasies.” The Tharon Musser lights played around a cyc and what seemed like twister-like swirls of smoke turned out to be dancers. Of course, we all remember the special effect from the 1939 film, but this was so fresh, so different, so inherently theatrical, the wordless tornado number got one of the biggest hands of the night.
Of course, a lot of the songs were showstoppers. The Dorothy I saw was Ren Woods, and there was something magical in the way this powerful instrument, on such a small and young girl, hit your ears. Then it became a cavalcade of impressive vocals from Ted Ross, André De Shields, Ella Mitchell and Dee Dee Bridgewater. The bass and drums rocked the house as their mouths opened and stirring sounds filled the air.
So, for the third year in a row, NBC has broadcast a Broadway musical live. And they’d like you to believe that your experience, at home watching your screen, is “just like” being there, in a big theatre. After all, it’s live: Things can go wrong. Isn’t that fun?
Well, not for me. I was rather bored by the whole thing. Sure it was light years ahead of their previous two efforts, a wooden and unconvincing The Sound of Music and a totally misconceived and poorly-acted expansion of Peter Pan. But that stuff, the stuff that made The Wiz a wonderful experience in the theatre was missing Thursday night. The costumes were appalling. The choreography was uninspired, and the dancers didn’t sing. Perhaps I shouldn’t make a big deal about this, but when I go to a show and see people move, precisely and strenuously, plus they sing, in tune and all – that’s a thrill. NBC used a combination of pre-recorded choir and singers who weren’t on camera. That’s not impressive.
Television regularly delivers special effects at a certain level. This production had the now-common use of moving images on screens, but that seems like weak tea compared to Holder’s original staging in which you felt anything could happen because dancers grew like poppies out of the set. Our nation’s beloved expert on black gay culture, Harvey Fierstein, substantially rewrote the book. Only a few jokes landed, but then, only a few of the performers have any experience with comedy. Most of the numbers were sung quite well, and I say, with no cynicism, that a certain number of viewers tuned in just to hear their favorite music stars: truly, no disappointment there. It surprises me that I longed for better choreography and costuming, because those bits aren’t usually my thing.
The original Broadway show had an element that just can’t be recaptured 40 years later: audaciousness. Clever and creative people come along and put a whole new spin on a familiar tale: The Wizard of Oz, the Afro-American version. How fresh is it today to put on an alternative version of The Wizard of Oz? My TV station cagily included an ad for Wicked, just in case this left you hankering for another one. Now, I’m no more an expert on African-American culture than Fierstein is, but, it seems to me that whites know a little bit more about black humor, music and points of view than they did in the 70s. You could be something of a tourist, back then, peering in on a world you never knew. Thursday, it all seemed familiar somehow. Now, in a way, that’s progress, but it sure ain’t audaciousness.