The path not taken

If I share a few thoughts about the writing of Grease, The Wiz, Peter Pan and The Sound of Music, don’t misconstrue this as yet another critique of the live television broadcasts of those shows. That’s old news, foul water long under the bridge.

But I noticed something, staring at the small screen, which might be of value to those who create for the stage. It has to do with something I’m going to call narrative thrust. Now, what do I mean by narrative thrust? It’s a plot with a set of events that move logically from one to another. Nothing is arbitrary, out of left field, or a deus ex machina. Characters in conflict lead to events. A character’s flaws or quirks lead to something happening. These events are, in and of themselves, somewhat interesting. The true test of an effective plot involves the question, “Is the audience wondering what’s going to happen next?”

Suspense stories, mysteries, adventures are generally written with narrative thrust. The best television shows are, although an arc over a long season may hide the thrust of an individual episode. To give one example, the series, 24 always made me wonder what would happen next, and, sometimes, waiting an entire week for the next story beat was a kind of a torture.

Television viewers could literally change channels from a good example of narrative thrust to an utterly thrustless live musical, such as The Wiz or Grease. People often tell me how broadcasting musicals leads to wider interest in seeing live theatre, but, as Colonel Pickering says, “I’m afraid you’ve picked a poor example.” If someone unfamiliar with stage shows should flip from The Good Wife to Peter Pan, they couldn’t be blamed for thinking musicals are silly, that they sit there, dull due to lack of narrative thrust, occasionally enlivened by some barely-motivated dancing.

“Isn’t it great that they’re doing all these Broadway musicals live on television?” Well, no: Not if they’re The Rocky Horror Show or The Wiz. Both contain a procession of unusual events. We suddenly meet a purple haired rock chick, or a dancing man made of tin who busts moves after a dollop of Crisco or STP. These events have nothing to do with any character’s peccadilloes, and little to do with events before or after. They’re more than a little arbitrary.

Narrative thrust isn’t the only thing that makes a musical work. There can be compensating factors. The Wiz, on stage, assumes we all know the plot from the Judy Garland movie. What delights is how that plot is re-imagined for all-black setting. The original Geoffrey Holder production kept surprising us with wild designs and fresh stage pictures, including creative theatrical substitutions for the movie’s special effects (dancers with swirling silks for the tornado, for instance). Put all this on television and much of what’s good about The Wiz evaporates. Viewers are used to seeing special effects all the time: a tornado always looks like a tornado. Dancers with silks pale in comparison because we’re watching a medium that is usually literal. The translation of the story to African-American culture seemed far more fresh four decades ago; today it’s old hat. As a piece of television, I found The Wiz fairly boring, and I think this is more due to its lack of narrative thrust than anything else.

NBC and Fox have an annoying habit of shouting “Hey, look at us! We’re doing this LIVE. And it’s very hard to do live television!” Yeah, I know: I wrote a musical about that difficulty. Such Good Friends is set in the early 1950s when all television was live. Can you imagine a magician telling you, after every trick, how hard it was for him to do the slight-of-hand? In effect, Grease Live kept doing just that. Ooh, such a quick costume change! Actors had to run from soundstage to soundstage. Good for you, Fox. Here’s a pat on the head for your efforts. Now, leave me alone.

I previewed Grease, never reviewed it, and only wish to comment, that wasn’t Grease. Grease doesn’t contain an auto race, or malapropisms over a loudspeaker. What you saw was a television adaptation of the hit movie, from which all semblance of narrative thrust had been systematically removed. Is Danny Zuko the sort of kid who will exert all the effort needed to letter in track in order to impress a girl? Is Sandy’s decision to dress tough-and-sexy totally without motivation? Her name’s no longer Dumbrowsky, so Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee ceases to be a pun. Even the big dramatic moment, There Are Worse Things I Could Do, comes out of left field. Nothing leads to it, and I wasn’t moved one whit.

I understand how it makes commercial sense to adapt a popular film to the smaller screen. What’s harder for me to understand is why anyone would take a successful Jerome Robbins musical, one that had already worked famously well on the small screen, and add an hour to its running time. Peter Pan’s not one of the great musicals, in terms of dramatic thrust, but the 21st century adaptation added songs and scenes that turned a bright thing dreary. Peter Pan is the boy who doesn’t grow up, and the Darling children (yes, large D: that is their name) must be so enraptured by him, their inevitable journey towards adulthood has to feel poignant. Watching the TV Peter Pan, on its cheap sets with painted floors, I couldn’t wait for the kids to mature.

But the obvious missing element from Peter Pan and The Sound of Music: Mary Martin. Arguably the greatest star of Broadway musicals of all time, your spirits were lifted by every moment in her presence. So, when she starred in the far-shorter version of Peter Pan, and sung the hell out of I Gotta Crow and Mysterious Lady, you understood why Darlings and lost boys wanted to hang with Peter. Television’s Allison Williams has no such magnetism, and therefore the show seemed a fruitless exercise.

Lindsay & Crouse, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music is, thank God, a show with dramatic thrust. Not their best work by any measure, but good enough. It, like Peter Pan, was a Mary Martin-generated project built around her particular talents. The authors knew the audience would love Mary in every scene; this knowledge guided their writing. The show still works, on stage, when cast with a captivating Maria. The only way to destroy it is to put in some non-actress whose wooden line-readings rob the play of all verve. NBC cast Carrie Underwood. Need I say more?

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