As I pointed out in my recent post of The Best Musicals of 2013, it was a darned good year for musicals, but it was also a doozy for not-so-great musicals. Try as I might, I just couldn't get the list of the bad down to 10 shows. I mean, it's an arbitrary number anyway, and in truth, there's always more bad than good when it comes to art and entertainment. Quality is always the exception.
Most of the shows I've listed here won't be all that surprising. The lion's share received mixed to negative reviews and have since closed. But there are three shows here that received strong reviews and sold or are selling extremely well as of this writing: Pippin, Here Lies Love, and Kinky Boots. I hereby acknowledge that I am in the decided minority in disliking these shows, but they're essentially the reason that this list swelled to number 13. It would have been very easy to leave them off the list and just let the whole thing slide, but I decided that I didn't want to end the year without one last jab. Am I saying that I'm right and the world is wrong? Not at all. I'm saying that, in my estimation, the shows weren't all that and a bag of chips. See below for why.
Click on the show titles below for my original reviews.
13. Pippin - Nobody can say I didn't try. I saw Pippin both at the A.R.T. in Cambridge, as well as on Broadway. And, on the whole, not so much. All over my Facebook feed, people were kvelling over this show, saying it was the Best. Thing. Ever. Sorry, I just don't see it. There are certainly individual moments in the show, particularly Andrea Martin's show-stopping rendition of "No Time at All," that made attending more than worth my time. But I found the whole circus theme distracting rather than additive, and I still, try as I may, can't quite figure out what the show wants to be about. There's a sinister undercurrent, which I know was intentional on Bob Fosse's part, but the current production feels like it's trying to cover up the menace. Apparently, the effort has been successful, because people come out of the piece with a sense of life-affirming awe, which was exactly the opposite of what Fosse had in mind. So, it's a combination of the piece itself as well as the Diane Paulus treatment of the show that really leaves me scratching my head. I just don't see any there there.
12. Here Lies Love - Here's another production that had people going cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, and I just don't get it. Some folks suggested that I didn't enjoy the production because I sat in the gallery above the action rather than participating in the immersive experience down on the dance floor, but I call BS on that. A good show is going to demonstrate its inherent quality no matter where I'm sitting. There was really only one sequence in the whole of Here Lies Love that I found captivating, which was the assassination and funeral procession for Benigno Aquino. Otherwise, Here Lies Love felt like Evita Lite, but without Tim Rice's clever lyrics and deeply cynical point of view, or Andrew Lloyd Webber's apt use of leitmotif. (Yes, Lloyd Webber sometimes gets it right, in my estimation, although it's been a good 30-plus years since last he did.) Continual talk of finding another venue for Here Lies Love to give it a chance at an extended commercial run has so far not come to fuition. I can't say I'm terribly distraught.
11. Hands on a Hardbody - This show wasn't so much bad as bland. An endurance contest to win a truck may seem an unlikely subject for a musical, to be sure, but essentially the same dramatic potential as A Chorus Line: it's not so much about who wins as what we learn about these people along the way. And that's where Hands on a Hardbody failed: it didn't make me care. There were some really strong performances in the show, particularly from Hunter Foster and Kaela Settle, and director Neil Pepe found ways to keep the action from becoming static. There were quite a few stirring songs from composer Trey Anastasio and lyricist Amanda Green, including a terrific 11 o'clock number for Foster. But the success of the show really hinged on making these characters into real people, and that just didn't happen. Ghostlight Records released a cast recording, and there have been announcements of certain regional theaters including the show in their upcoming seasons, but I have a hard time imagining that the show is going to really catch on. Hands on a Hardbody shows every sign of becoming last season's High Fidelity: gone and almost entirely forgotten.
10. Annie - I like Annie. I really do. No, it's no masterpiece, but it's really good fluff. It tugs at the old heart strings and has plenty of fun and good humor along the way. But the most recent Broadway revival, which closed shortly after the new year, was a mess. Director James Lapine seemed to have no idea how to handle the humor in the piece, because most of it fell flat. What's more, the production numbers just kinda sat there. Overall, there was no lift to the production, no effervescence. The culprits here are Lapine and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, both eminently talented men when they're working on the right project. This wasn't a good fit for either. Lapine did succeed at bringing out the warmth of the piece, but left the comedy and the pacing high and dry. And Blankenbuehler only seems to work out on projects that involve a more contemporary style. As was true for 9 to 5, Blankenbuehler's decidedly street-wise choreographic style seemed woefully out of place in Annie.
9. Kinky Boots - Now, I'm not just bitter that Kinky Boots won the Best Musical over Matilda. (I am bitter, but it's not just that.) Kinky Boots is bad, folks. Really bad. The book is preachy, the characters are two-dimensional, the lyrics don't rhyme, the set is depressing. I could go on. Also, as a director/choreographer, Jerry Mitchell is in no danger of challenging the legacy of Jerome Robbins. Now, it's certainly great to see Billy Porter finally get some recognition, and Cindi Lauper still has a populist touch with her tuneful music. Also, regarding the controversy over the show's appearance on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade broadcast, I say bring on the drag queens. The higher the heels, the closer to God. So I support the intentions of the show, and of the authors. I'm glad so many people are enjoying this show, because it really does have a message that needs propagating. I just don't think the show itself is very good. As I say to my students every year when they write a paper about their choice for the Most Underrated Musical, bad shows can have good messages. It's all about execution. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm hoping to find a reasonably priced ticket to see Matilda for the third time.
8. Big Fish - A real heartbreaker. Of all the shows on this list, Big Fish is really the one that pains me the most to include. Talk about your appealing cast. Do we have any folks currently working who are more talented, likable, and reliable than Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin, and Bobby Steggart? Plus, Susan Stroman may just be the best director/choreographer we have. The original novel and movie of Big Fish would seem to lend themselves quite handily to the musical treatment. However, composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa and book writer John August weren't able to create a piece that did the solid story and compelling characters justice. I even went back to see the show a second time to see if perhaps I was just in a mood when I first attended, but the second viewing only served to solidify my view. There just wasn't enough magic, which is quite a liability in a show that's purportedly about the magic of storytelling. The second act seemed designed to lead up to a big dramatic reveal that was actually rather anticlimactic. The last ten minutes of the piece were extremely affecting, and almost made the previous two hours or so worth the journey. Almost, but not quite.
7. Love's Labour's Lost - Fogettable and forgotten. Expectations were high for Alex Timbers' new musical, based of course on the original Shakespeare play. Timbers and composer/lyricist Michael Friedman previously created Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which despite its short Broadway run has become a rather prominent feather in these gentlemen's respective caps. But whereas Bloody Bloody had a unified vision and a snarky sense of fun, LLL was a mishmosh of styles, a jumble of underdeveloped plot lines, and at the end quite the downer of a show. The problem seemed to be that Timbers retained too many of the characters from the Shakespeare, and remained too slavish to its structure. Friedman's songs were replete with lines with too many syllables for the melody, and weren't nearly as funny as they seemed to think they should be. The show had a fabulous cast, including Colin Donnell, Daniel Breaker, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Bryce Pinkham, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, and many more of New York's finest. Unfortunately, Timbers and Friedman gave these fine performers a show that was detrminetally fragmented, and characters that were too thin to really do anything with.
6. The Jungle Book - Here's my sole regional entry on this year's list. After director Mary Zimmerman's absolutely stunning production of Candide, produced a few seasons back at Boston's Huntington Theater, I had very high hopes for The Jungle Book, which ran at the Huntington last fall. What a tremendous disappointment. Whereas Candide amounted to nothing less than a theatrical tour de force, a fundamental rethinking of the piece, and a stunning reinvigoration of Bernstein's admired/maligned original, The Jungle Book was aimless, lifeless, and joyless. The show simply meandered from episode to episode without any sense of build, and the production numbers just kinda sat there on stage. My understanding is that Disney kept a very watchful eye on the production hoping to develop the piece as a commercial property. Although the production was financially successful, in fact becoming the Huntington's all-time best seller, I can't imagine the folks at Disney were all that pleased with the artistic result. Short of a complete rethinking of the piece, I'm not expecting to see a New York production any time soon. (But, hey, what do I know, right?)
5. Motown - I've been thinking about it, and it's actually rather rare for a show to come along that's absolutely critic-proof. Mamma Mia is certainly one, as no amount of reasoned analysis would seem to impede that juggernaut. And you might argue that Cats, Phantom, and Les Miserables to a certain extent fit the bill, although the last two received their share of decent reviews along with the quibbles and brickbats. Now there's Motown - the Musical, an amateurish embarrassment, at least in terms of libretto writing. But the show has defied all critical analysis and become one of the best-selling shows in recent memory. Hey, sure, the songs are great, the cast members are exceptional, and the staging is at times quite thrilling. But I will never quite be able to erase from memory the sheer pain of hearing such ham-fisted dialogue as, "Mr. Berry Gordy, you built a legacy of love." I suppose it's foolish to expect Gordy to create a show that took a hard-eyed look at his true legacy, fraught as it allegedly is with questionable business practices. I just have a hard time accepting the ticket-buying public so wholeheartedly embracing one man's love letter to himself.
4. Bare - I never saw the original version of Bare, although I have heard the cast recording. But if the recent Off-Broadway revival of the show was supposed to be an improved version, I can't imagine how bad the former must have been. Truth be told, there was a certain amount of decent writing in the first half of the new Bare, but by the time the show got around to the sturm und drang of the piece, the show really seemed to fall apart. You certainly couldn't blame the talented cast of youngsters who gave it their all. And I certainly have no intention of dancing on the grave of composer Damon Intrabartolo, who passed away last August at the age of 39. But Bare as a show doesn't begin to justify to the vociferous cult following the show has developed over the years. Here's another case of extremely good intentions without the actual craft and quality to do the message justice.
3. A Night With Janis Joplin - Oh, the pain. What an excruciatingly loud musical. I can't recall being in such agony at a Broadway show before. Now, clearly I am to blame for forgetting to bring earplugs, but should I really need to in a legitimate house? Physical discomfort aside, the show itself is no great shakes. A reader contacted me after I posted my review and urged me to reconsider the show on its own terms. True, the piece doesn't delve into Joplin's tortured soul, content to merely skate along the surface. But does every show need to be a cathartic experience? Well, no. Is there no merit in simply celebrating the woman's musical accomplishments? I think there is merit in such a goal, but I didn't feel A Night With Janis worked on this level either. For me, the show represents a tremendous missed opportunity in terms of bringing out the pain behind the music. We're not talking Perry Como or Tony Bennett here. This is Janis Joplin, the woman who died at the age of 27 from a heroin and alcohol overdose. To focus on the power of her music and ignore the torture behind the rasp, at least for me, does this amazingly talented women a disservice.
2. Soul Doctor - Oy gevalt. Yeah, I know, not the most inspired lead, but certainly an appropriate one. If good intentions were all that determined a show's success, the Soul Doctor would have run for years. As with A Night With Janis Joplin, Soul Doctor sought to celebrate the life and music of one particular person, in this case Shlomo Carlebach, the so-called rockstar rabbi. But Soul Doctor made a fairly common mistake with bio tuners: it tried to cover too much. By the time the show got around the celebrating Carlebach's music, there had been so much leaden exposition of his life that it was really hard to care. Along the way we got some fairly strong performances, particularly from Amber Iman as Nina Simo and Eric Anderson as the soul doctor himself, but there really wasn't enough good material for these fine actors to make a difference. (Oh, and after this show and The People in the Picture, there should really be some regulatory oversight on the part of the state of New York with respect to dancing rabbis and rabbinical students. I'm not saying it can never happen, but people should at the very least have to apply for a permit.)
1. Jekyll and Hyde - How do you make the worst musical to hit Broadway in 30 years even worse? You negate the one thing that the show has ever had going for it - Frank Wildhorn's not-unpleasant melodies. For the short-lived revival of Jekyll & Hyde, the admittedly generic charms of Wildhorn's music were crushed beneath the squelch of harsh steampunk orchestrations. Take that away, and what you're left with is a plodding book with more holes than wheel of Swiss cheese, and a set of puerile, non-specific lyrics. Lyricist/librettist Leslie Bricusse used to be an extremely talented man, back when he worked with Anthony Newly, but even on his own solo projects, like the movie Scrooge. Wha' happen? Director Jeff Calhoun replaced the laughable staging elements from the original Broadway production with elements that were even more risible, such as the appallingly ridiculous confrontation sequence between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Perhaps the failure of this revival, combined with the failure of every other Wildhorn show that has ever made it to Broadway, will make producers think twice about the fiduciary wisdom of funding same.