After Terrence McNally had traveled with John Steinbeck and his family as tutor to the kids, the novelist advised he write anything except for the theatre, because the theatre breaks your heart. Broadway isn’t fair; Broadway doesn’t care – I think we can all agree. A couple of songwriters this past season did some admirable work, and yet they’re left with broken hearts this month. Their shows have posted closing notices, and I feel for them.
Just a couple of decades ago, it was hard to find a funny musical on Broadway. I have my theories about why this era of bad feelings occurred, but, as a frequently disappointed theatregoer, I dreamed of a sunnier day. What if shows had original stories, or, if not entirely original, were based on books I hadn’t heard of? Rather than, say, movies? What if a new generation of songwriters came along who could create songs that made you laugh out loud? And wouldn’t it be great if the sound of their music seemed informed by recent innovations in pop? Was this too much to hope for?
My prayers, and the prayers of a whole bunch of people I know, were answered last November by The Prom, by Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin, and Matthew Sklar. Here’s an entertainment where the jokes keep sailing across the footlights, all the while providing a satisfying emotional experience. And the critics went crazy: The Times, The Daily News, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, New York, and here’s a brief quote from David Cote in the Observer:
Had The Prom‘s creative team…limited the frame to this story of intolerance and resistance, it would be spinachly worthy and Trumpily relevant. But they wrap an outrageous showbiz satire around the earnest center, and the result is the perfect blend of salt and sweet.
There was a time – maybe as recent as that dour decade, the nineties – when a set of reviews like The Prom’s would have guaranteed years of sold-out houses. But, a couple of weeks ago, it announced its end date this summer.
June has long been the time when the Grim Reaper swings his scythe on shows. In early June is that mammoth marketing tool, the Tony telecast. Shows that perform on TV hope to see a boost in ticket sales, and, if they don’t, they depart. We’re used to this. And now that we’re on the subject of dying, I must utter three spooky words: Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice. The musicalization of the oddly beloved movie saw a surge in ticket sales following the broadcast, despite winning zero Tony awards. One might surmise the excerpt looked good to people: Hold that thought. The Prom also aired a sequence, which included two teen girls kissing, a particularly joyous moment in the show when you see it. It didn’t see its sales increase, and so it goes.
But what if the Tony show includes a wonderfully humorous number, but nobody watching knows its from a currently running Broadway show that they can buy tickets to? When I said, a moment ago, that the Tonys live on CBS are a marketing tool, I wasn’t criticizing, just pointing out a fact. But here’s where I’m of the opinion that Be More Chill suffered a particularly cruel fate. Three years ago, in a New York cabaret show, I got to play a charming rendition of a song from the score, Michael in the Bathroom. I’d long admired the songwriter, Joe Iconis, for other amusing numbers I’d also played over the years, such as Blue Hair and Joey Is a Punk Rocker. Naturally, I was glad to see the author of Broadway, Here I Come come to Broadway and get nominated for a Tony.
Be More Chill arrived in 2019 but had already gained an impressive number of fans, which explains how a young man thought of doing it three years prior to its opening. Iconis gets his songs out there, and while very few have seen his shows on stage, millions have enjoyed his songs which have a knack for the vernacular. His award-winning lyrics capture adolescent vocabulary with verisimilitude. His always-catchy tunes gibe with that, a young person’s music.
Lorenz Hart wrote that Radio City Music Hall is “where the ladies’ room is bigger than a palace” but the small screen revealed James Corden sitting on a toilet, singing a familiar tune. The lyric was different – specific to the anxiety of hosting the Tonys – and soon he was joined by last year’s hosts, Sara Bareilles & Josh Groban. Droll? I suppose. But when nobody mentioned that the song was a parody of the aforementioned Be More Chill number, my smile turned to disgust. I later discovered that Joe Iconis was totally surprised by this lampoon; nobody had bothered to tell him in advance.
Two weeks later, Be More Chill announced its terminal date. Television viewers might have loved that number; they wouldn’t have known what show to buy tickets for.
While I very much enjoyed Be More Chill’s recording, I haven’t seen the show and it didn’t get great reviews. Neither did Beetlejuice, which received this knock from The Wrap in a review titled “Tim Burton’s Ghosts Turn Scarily Uncomic in Musical Misfire”
Elaine Stritch once visited Nathan Lane backstage at the “Addams Family” musical and famously told him, “They’re not paying you enough.” They’re not paying Alex Brightman enough to star in the ghost ship of a new musical called “Beetlejuice.”
Maybe I sound too fixated on what critics have to say, but this has to do with my remembering a time when reviews mattered. Theatergoers used to educate themselves before buying a ticket. If you trusted, say, John Lahr, you’d want to go to whatever he said to see. This may sound like ceding to much power to critics, but consider the alternative: You don’t read reviews, hear no word of mouth, fail to familiarize yourself with behind-the-scene names, nothing. You just scan names of shows: Be More Chill, The Prom, Hadestown – you haven’t heard of these. Beetlejuice, Pretty Woman, Tootsie – you know these titles, and probably have fond (if vague) memories of the hit film comedies from years ago. That’s where the money of the willfully ignorant ticket-buyer goes.
June gloom, practically every year. Broadway, that heartbreaker, will do it to ya.