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April 29, 2019

I don’t like memes, generally. And the recent round about musicals you hate, love, cherish, etc. encourages a certain level of thoughtlessness. People think for two seconds, come up with a title, move on to the next question: the very opposite of considered conversation. I’m grateful that some people offered explanations, or objected to the “musical I hate” question because every bad musical involved a serious effort to create an entertainment.

Sometimes I forget I have a blog. I can take my time and relate why I’m saying what I’m saying. Besides loving musicals, I obviously love talking about musicals, so I’ll use that meme as a point of departure.

MY FAVORITE MUSICAL is How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Every scene and every song makes me laugh. Done correctly, it is not without heart. “Comedy is hard,” said the dying man, and I’ve a lot of admiration for shows that successfully target the funny bone. If I’m laughing, I’m often distracted from flaws. So, all these years later, I can nitpick away at The Producers, The Book of Mormon or The Drowsy Chaperone. But when I saw them, I guffawed for two hours and that’s no small accomplishment.

Seems a good time to mention some off-Broadway musical comedies you’ve probably never heard of: Das Lusitania Sonspiel and From the Hip. The latter was about Siamese twins in show business, a premise that should ONLY be treated comedically.

MUSICAL THAT MADE ME FALL IN LOVE WITH MUSICALS inspires me to recall my earliest experiences. I remember a foot-wide circle of vinyl in a fancy font sleeve(pink on black!) and when the needle hit it, a very weird, very low woman’s voice came out and I thought I was hearing someone in her nineties. “I have always been a woman who arranges things for the pleasure and the profit it derives. I have always been a woman who arranges things, like furniture and daffodils… and lives.” Turns out I was hearing a woman who’d go on to live until a couple weeks short of her 98thbirthday this year, Carol Channing. Hello Dolly’s cast album may have started the ball rolling but another Jerry Herman show was my first time in a Broadway theatre, Mame. Before that, I’d seen H.M.S. Pinafore, Brigadoon and the first version of Young Abe Lincoln. This last one ends with the tall man in the stovepipe hat deciding to run for Congress. Interesting that it’s an origin story, retelling none of the events we get from history class. You don’t want to tell an audience something it already knows.

MUSICAL I COULD LISTEN TO ON REPEAT The Most Happy Fella is the masterpiece of Frank Loesser, who also wrote the score to my favorite musical (see above) and the far better-known Guys and Dolls. This three-album set (can you imagine such a thing?) is so emotional an experience, it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve heard it, I still cry buckets of tears. I’m a firm believer that we all need catharsis in our lives, and I don’t care if I have to flip over six sides again and again to get it.

MUSICAL I THINK IS OVERRATED: I’m completely puzzled that anyone sits through The Last Five Years and says “That was good.” A turntable carries a woman who proceeds to pity herself for four and a half minutes. She’s sad about a relationship that’s ended and I’m not. I’m feeling nothing but boredom. But the turntable then caries her away and some Latin music enlivens the proceedings. And a man sings an unfunny comedy song about a girl who isn’t Jewish. I’m looking at the exit. The revolve revolves again and we continue to get solos with catchy tunes. Was it too much to expect that a two-character musical contain duets? Or actions leading to consequences? Eventually, you figure out that the woman’s songs go backwards in time while the guy’s go forward and the only duet is when they meet in the middle. But I never figured out why Latin music was chosen. Or that reggae. Educate me.

MUSICAL I THINK IS UNDERRATED: My mother and father each loved musicals that nobody else seems to love. Mom was much taken with Fanny, an extraordinarily passionate love story set in a French port town. The record has some off-putting half-songs and shanties, but there’s also Be Kind To Your Parents, which sort of characterizes this paragraph. While Dad was never a fan of Jackie Gleason, he loves Take Me Along, which manages to wrest traditional Broadway entertainment out of an O’Neill play. Neither of these has a good opening number, but both were produced by David Merrick, who also mounted Hello Dolly. Say what you will about him, the man had taste.

Speaking of family, my niece just directed a college production of The Apple Tree, another under-appreciated gem.

MUSICAL I HATE Any show that didn’t spring from songwriters and script-writers sitting down together to tell a story. If you choose to repurpose already-famous ditties, you’re implicitly stating that you don’t think songwriters should be part of the process of creating a musical. How can I not feel insulted by that?

GUILTY PLEASURE This is hard to answer, because I don’t feel guilt about enjoying anything I enjoy. Racking my brain, now: There’s this thing called Ankles Aweigh that, at first glance, seems to be one of the worst musicals ever written but then I find stuff in it oddly irresistible such as an eleven o’clock song called The Eleven O’Clock Song.

MUSICAL THAT CHANGED MY LIFE At last I’ve the opportunity to name one of my own: Our Wedding was an original musical comedy at the Soho Playhouse that made a husband of me and a wife of Joy. Which rhymes with “life of joy,” which is what you get when you cherish musicals and make them a key component of your life.

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Come away death

April 19, 2019

There’s no doubt in my mind what the strangest thing I’ve ever seen on Broadway is: It’s the current revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!

Some of you, reading this, are understandably scratching your heads right now. Just about the least strange thing that could possibly be would be yet another mounting of the much-produced 76-year-old classic. Oklahoma! – as I often explain – set the template; that is, the bunch of conventions that, to a fair extent, all Golden Age musicals conformed to. We fans of musicals have all seen this rousing love letter to the pioneer spirit countless times. And it’s always the same.

So why do it that way again?

Director Daniel Fish, without altering a line of text, has re-imagined the familiar classic as a meditation on America’s addiction to firearms. As you enter the barn (for that’s what The Circle in the Square has been transformed into), you pass rows and rows of rifle racks. And this was – excuse the pun – triggering to me. After moving, for the first time, to a place where people keep guns in their homes, my wife asked about the practice on a community on-line message board, and was met with hostility. One miscreant posted a picture of about 100 rifles on a garage wall. I’ve always kept this blog a politics-free zone, so I’m just sayin’ this particular Oklahoma! explores the tragedy of our violent past and present.

In saying my mind was blown, I’m not reaching for a pun. Fish’s staging gets you thinking. Practically everything that happens in the play leads to new revelations. About race. About so-called “disability.” About the fine lines between a social outcast and a true creep. About the circumstances that lead to shootings. About injustice and misjudgments. And about one of my favorite topics (as those who’ve seen The Christmas Bride know), the times when people sing happy songs at unhappy people in an effort to force cheer.

I’d heard about this production’s earlier incarnations at Bard College and, more recently, a Brooklyn church. I knew I was in for a radical interpretation, and was ready to enjoy this Fish feast with two caveats: the text, by Rodgers and Hammerstein, needed to be respected, and, as always, I needed to feel something. Boy, did I feel. I was emotionally drained, totally caught up in the tragedy of what, on paper, looks like a happy ending. In the weeks since seeing it, I’ve hardly let it go. The events turn over in my head and the stun of it all has barely dissipated.

People disagree about what respect for Rodgers and Hammerstein means. During the dark days of World War II, when audiences needed to feel good, the masters didn’t produce a cautionary tale about the violence of the Wild West. Originally, civilizing forces, taming the Wild West, prove the Oklahoma territory worthy of inclusion as a brand new state. Much time is spent on a trial in which minor characters make a concerted effort to follow the letter of the law. A lass who lacks the monogamy gene is reformed, readied for marriage. A libertine traveling salesman is saddled with a wife.

Fish upends our expectations of Oklahoma! in a host of fascinating ways. There’s a contemporary bluegrass band, mostly female players. In 1943, those slide guitars we’re so used to from country music didn’t exist. So, does doing it this way denigrate Rodgers? It ignores orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett, and if you care about a thing like that, stay away. The Hammerstein words get new interpretations by admirably committed actors. One glare one character gives another was particularly devastating to me. I think the authors are being honored, here: a small company of performers are taking every word seriously. And, suddenly, old Oklahoma! is the talk of Broadway.

One disappointment is the lack of a narrative ballet. Think of how 1940s audiences must have reacted to Agnes DeMille’s long dance sequence, entitled Laurey Makes Up Her Mind. Here’s a virginal ingénue who’s bought a hallucinogenic drug from a shady peddler. She sniffs it, and we see what she dreams, and what she dreams is far from her prairie experience. There are the high-kicking French postcard girls in black stockings; there’s the rivals for her affection facing off in a duel. Like much of mid-century theatre, this owes a lot to Freud, the id as rendered by Terpsichore. Heady stuff.

When we come back from eating our chili and cornbread at intermission, we expect some movement to tell us what’s on Laurey’s mind, but do we really need to know? There’s nothing novel, any more, in pointing out the sexual underpinning of a woman’s attraction. So John Heginbotham’s choreography gives us something unexpected, to blaring pre-recorded electric guitars, distortion and all. A little of this goes a long way and I only wish it was only a little of this. It was a lot, too long, too meaningless; a big flaw in the diamond.

And while we’re on negatives, I had some problems with the singing abilities of the two leads. Let’s face it: that’s a strange thing to say. It’s a Rodgers and Hammerstein show and the voices were less than top-notch; how could that be good? The answer becomes a question: Did I attend this thing in order to hear People Will Say We’re In Love sweetly sung? Broadway has seen five previous productions that served up that. This is a very different experience.

Generally, folks who care about dulcet tones gravitate towards the opera house. They’re OK with glorious vocals even if their minds are not engaged. I’m not trying to sound superior, here, but I prefer to think. Your run-of-the-mill revival of Oklahoma! is unlikely to affect your intellect, to stick with you weeks afterward, to stir your compassion and, in my case, a revulsion of lethal weapons. But this is something else, an extraordinary reconsideration that surprises and shocks in many a new way (pun intended).


Jewish girls

April 8, 2019

Last Sunday one of the most extraordinary musicals I have ever seen ended its Broadway run. I apologize for being so late to the party, but, if you’ve seen anybody’s reaction to The Band’s Visit, you’ve heard similar awestruck commendation. I don’t like being redundant because it renders me redundant, you know? So, I’ll briefly describe the show, discuss a commercial aspect, and tell you that if you’ve missed it, you’re plum out of luck. (This reminds me: I’m out of plums and must run to a market later.)

What was that?

Much as I don’t like being wrong about things, I have to start with a confession that I had an idea about The Band’s Visit before seeing it that turned out to be totally off-base. It’s set in an obscure part of Israel and many of the characters are Egyptians. This description led me to believe the show would touch on the much-commented-on Arab-Israeli conflict. I thought, somehow, that the shared language of music would somehow draw a group of people together who are normally across a political divide, mellifluous sounds overcoming prejudice.

It’s not expressing a political opinion that a lot of people have a lot of strong feelings about Israel, and I found it a challenge to get myself into the mood to see a show on that subject. Wondrously, The Band’s Visit stays true to its setting, depicts differences between Israelis and Egyptians, and yet makes no comment on any “hot button” issue. What a relief! I’ve complained, in the past, about “spinach musicals” – shows that are supposed to be good for you, but don’t provide the comforts of unhealthy vittles. I think of a line Carolyn Leigh wrote, “Sermonize and preach to me; make your sanctimonious little speech to me.” Who wants that?

Theatrically speaking, I prefer candy. But I don’t mean to say I don’t like serious musicals. The Band’s Visit is one. And feels, somehow, like an intriguing straight play. Characters rarely burst out in song. One particularly important number has no lyrics – it’s on clarinet and doesn’t build to an applause button. There were plenty of times I couldn’t quite tell what was going on, what the show was communicating to me.

And then, in one of the most infectious and beautiful ballads of Broadway’s past half-century, the meaning of everything that had gone before came into focus, like I was adjusting binoculars.

Extraordinary enough for you? The Band’s Visit has very little action. “The band” – that is, a set of uniformed male musicians that have gotten lost on their way to a gig – is, essentially, a main character. But, unlike most characters in musicals, they take almost no actions. And yet, when they make music, they have a catalytic effect on all who hear them.

Director David Cromer, one of those MacArthur geniuses, is experienced with straight plays, not musicals. His attention to detail, on a stark Scott Pask set (say that three times fast), allows us to concentrate on a succession of quiet moments. These amount to a meditation on the human need to connect, and how music nudges us in that direction.

And what music! The songs by David Yazbek are varied, sometimes exotic, often rapturous. So, if I say The Band’s Visit feels like a play (by Itamar Moses) it shouldn’t sound like I’m denigrating a perfectly wonderful score. It’s just that the show often uses music in a way most musicals rarely do.

Here’s something that strikes me about contemporary musical theatre: Four years in a row, the Tony has gone to a work that, in certain ways, is wholly unlike anything that has gone before. That’s an exciting transformation, if off-putting to traditionalists. It’s been a hell of a time: Fun Home, a memory play that never offers up easy answers; Hamilton, which is Hamilton; Dear Evan Hansen, which beat two other extraordinary musicals for the prize, Come From Away and Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, and The Band’s Visit. Usually, you need a few years of perspective to declare an era transformative. But come on! Those are six shows none of us could have dreamed of a decade ago.

Shekels?

The Band’s Visit, I’m pleased to report, recouped its entire $8.75 million investment. But here we are, less than a year after it won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and it’s closed. Something’s Rotten…had more performances. I find something disturbing about the shortness of The Band’s Visit compared to other Tony laureates.

But I embody the problem. Glance back at my second paragraph. The Band’s Visit is not only hard to describe and not anything like what I expected, it doesn’t sound wonderful. Not in the way, say, a comedy about silly missionaries in Africa sounds wonderful. (And there the magic words “South Park” get many TV-viewers interested in attending.) Commercial Broadway requires something of a crave factor. That is, when someone first hears about a show, there’s got to be some reason they want to go. Cyndi Lauper score about a drag queen saving a shoemaker – people want to see that. The Band’s Visit is very much like a dream. And if I start telling you about this dream I had, your eyes are likely to glaze over. In fact, I’m surprised you’ve read this far.

Tiny country; tiny town; tiny company

There are no production numbers. Nothing is big; everything is small, intimate. The Band’s Visit began at the rather small off-Broadway Atlantic Theatre. I saw it from the first row of the mezzanine at the Ethel Barrymore, one of Broadway’s smaller houses (about 1000 seats). Call me a snob about these things, but it was very important to me to see it in New York. Soon, the show will be off on a national tour, where it will play some theatres with more than 4000 seats and that’s just horrifying to me. Being close enough to see actors’ faces is essential to the experience.

Now, after the big house tour, it’s possible small theatres will start mounting it in more appropriate spaces. Try to imagine you’re in the modest abode of a couple who’ve recently had a baby. And the baby won’t sleep. And the couple’s relationship seems frayed by parental struggles. (So far, this is very similar to the musical I’ve been writing, Baby Makes Three.) In comes a quiet gentleman, carrying my favorite musical instrument – the clarinet, which I loved from the time one was played in my childhood apartment. He plays directly into the crib, lulling the baby to sleep. And this draws its parents closer together.

I told you it was like a dream. But what a happy one.