Regular readers with note that most of my posts lately have been lists of links to my About.com posts. When I took on the About.com gig, I thought that I would be migrating some of my more evergreen posts to theater.about.com, which is the page that I now produce for About.com. My goal was to keep posting my reviews to this blog.
Well, then the semester kicked in at the Boston Conservatory, as well as the obligation to generate two posts per week for About.com. So it turned out I needed every available story idea to meet my quota. My hope is that, as I settle into a groove, that I'll be able to find a bit more balance between the blog and About.com.
That said, here are my most recent posts for About.com, including my reviews of Side Show and The Elephant Man, as well as my lists of the best and worst musicals of 2014:
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 EvitaLite, 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.
Hey, you know what? The year 2013 was a pretty good one for musicals. And I'm not even talking about the crowd-pleasers that seemed to please everyone in the crowd except me (Kinky Boots, Here Lies Love, and Pippin, all of which are conspicuously -- and deliberately -- absent from this list). Nor am I discussing the critic- and reason-proof blockbuster that is Motown - the Musical.
No, I'm talking about musical shows of genuine craft and quality. I'm sure, as always, people will take issue with some of my selections. Far From Heaven?The Last Five Years? Hey, what can I say? I like what I like, and don't like what I don't like. I look for credible drama, rich characterizations, evocative music, well-crafted lyrics, solid performances, and that certain ineffable frisson that arises when the elements merge into a moment of transcendence. The following shows each produced those synergistic moments of theatrical magic.
Now someone might look at this list and be able to find a show that violates one of my previously espoused quality indicators. For instance, well crafted-lyrics should actually rhyme, should scan well with the music, and shouldn't require extra syllables to make a lyric fit. Matilda violates each of these criteria at various points throughout its score. But the reason I was able to overlook the lazy lyrics in Matilda -- and not in, say, Kinky Boots -- was that Matilda was giving me so much of the other criteria listed above that somehow the lyrical indiscretions faded into the background.
Click on the show titles below to read my reviews. And be on the lookout for my list of the Worst Musicals of 2013. (Gee, I wonder which award-winning show will feature prominently on that list...)
10. On the Town - I like to include at least one regional entry on my Best and Worst lists, and the Barrington Stage revival of On the Town was easily the best thing I saw outside of New York last year. The folks at Barrington opted to put on the show without the original Jerome Robbins choreography (or perhaps it wasn't available), but choreographer Joshua Bergasse proved more than up to the task of creating his own, albeit based on Robbins' blueprint. Also on hand was director John Rando, who kept the pacing at a fever pitch, which is just where it needs to be for that show. There was talk of the production moving to Broadway this season, but I haven't heard anything beyond the initial announcement. I've given up trying to predict if such moves are fiscally prudent, but I wouldn't mind another chance to see this production, hopefully with a large portion of the Barrington cast intact. (Particularly Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Clyde Alves as the three central sailors.)
9. Violet - It's not often I get a chance to see those one-night-only events in New York City, but thankfully I was able to snag a ticket to see the redoubtable Sutton Foster in the concert staging of Violet as part of the new Encores! Off-Center summer program. I never had a chance to write up reviews of the three shows that inaugurated that series. (The other two were The Cradle Will Rock, which felt disappointingly rushed and slipshod, and I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road, which was quite a revelation. What a remarkably moving, albeit dated, show.) But Violet was by far the strongest of the three productions. It reminded me of how strong a show Violet is, in particular Jeanine Tesori's glorious score. Sutton was, of course, glorious in the title role, with more-than-capable back-up from Joshua Henry as Flick. So, you can imagine how pleased I was to hear that the Roundabout Theatre would be hosting a limited run of the show on Broadway as part of its spring 2014 season. If you didn't have a chance to see the concert, I would highly recommend catching it on Broadway.
8. After Midnight - What a joy. I wasn't really expecting much from After Midnight, and perhaps my lack of expectations added to my enjoyment. But I like to think I would have been bowled over anyway by the sheer energy, jubilation, and professionalism on stage at the Brooks Atkinson. After Midnight is essentially a homage to The Cotton Club, that fabled Harlem night spot in the '20s and '30s. There's no book per se to After Midnight, it being a revue and all, but what holds the show together is a unified vision from director/choreographer Warren Carlyle, as well as a more than able cast of top-notch performers. As much as I enjoyed Fantasia Barrino in the star spot, I wouldn't mind going back when Barrino leaves and K.D. Lang takes her place in March. I'm not so sure that Toni Braxton and Babyface, who follow Lang in a rotating slate of headliners, will be my cup of hooch, but then I wasn't expecting much from Fantasia, and was quite pleasantly surprised. (One never knows, do one?)
7. Far From Heaven - When I saw Far From Heaven, I sat transfixed by the quiet beauty and subtle shades of the score, the book, and the performances. Far From Heaven is the latest show from composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, the gentlemen who brought us the lovely Grey Gardens, and for some reason Far From Heaven failed to enchant either the critics or the theatre cognoscenti. In fact, things got rather nasty. I'll never quite understand all the hate that developed for this show on the Interwebs. People seemed downright livid about Far From Heaven, as though it were a personal affront against their very humanity. I found the show haunting and the score exquisite, and I'm thrilled to have the chance to revisit the show continually on CD. Is the show slow? I prefer the phrase "deliberately paced." Is it to everyone's taste? Clearly not. But it's a well-crafted show, as was wonderfully performed by Kelli O'Hara, Steven Pasquale, and a passel of talented supporting cast members. I'm hoping to see Far From Heaven catch on with some of the more adventurous regional theaters.
6. Murder for Two - Another pleasant little surprise of a show. Murder for Two is a two-hander in which the two actors not only portray all of the characters (actually, one actor portrays all of the characters bar one) but also provide the piano accompaniment for each other, sometimes simultaneously. The novelty of the virtuoso character changes and self-accompaniment might be enough to make the show a winner, but the show also has a tuneful and clever score (from newcomers Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair), plus crack comic direction from Scott Schwartz. I caught the show at the Second Stage's uptown theater, as well as when it moved to a commercial run at the New World Stages. Even knowing whodunit ahead of time didn't spoil my enjoyment of the show the second time around. Actually, truth be told, the denouement is the least satisfying part of the show, but the journey more than makes up for the somewhat disappointing destination.
5. The Last Five Years - After I published my review of The Last Five Years at the Second Stage, a couple readers contacted me to say that they were disappointed that I liked the show. "I was looking forward to you tearing it apart," one said. "I usually can count on you to tell the truth," said another. Well, I was telling the truth. I genuinely like L5Y, and I particularly enjoyed this production of the show. I respectfully submit to these readers that their desire to see me trash L5Y likely says more about them than it does about me. Why would I devote so much of my life to musical theater if I didn't like at least some of it? I think Jason Robert Brown is one of the most talented composer/lyricists we currently have working, and his direction for the Second Stage production was spot-on. He kept the staging and production elements to a minimum and let the complex characterizations carry the day. Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe brought warmth, humor, and just the right amount of neurosis to their performances. Will the upcoming movie with Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick do the show justice? You know I'll be among the first to weigh in.
4. A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder - An utter delight. As an inveterate Anglophile, I was predisposed to love this show. It's sort of a mixture of Monty Python and Gosford Park, with a little Gilbert & Sullivan thrown in for good measure. Gentleman's Guide is easily the best musical to open this season on Broadway, at least so far. Much like Murder for Two, Gentleman's Guide is the product of a fresh new writing team (librettist/lyricist Robert L. Freedman and composer/lyricist Steven Lutvak), and has a resolution that's slightly inscrutable, and yet there's so much pleasure to be had along the journey, it hardly seems to matter. The sterling cast includes Bryce Pinkham, Jefferson Mays, Lisa O'Hare and Lauren Worsham, all pitch-perfect in their roles. There was some concern among cast-album aficionados that no recording had yet been announced, but earlier this week we heard that Ghostlight Records would indeed be recording the show. (And all is well with the world.)
3. Matilda - Kinky Boots? Best Musical? I think not. I'm not sure what crawled up the collective ass of the theater community during awards season, but to so honor Kinky Boots, a middling show at best, over Matilda, an admittedly flawed but nonetheless delightful show, is simply ludicrous. I mean, it's not even a close contest. Matilda more than makes up for any flaws with rich characterizations, honest emotion, and songs that a far more specific to their context than those of Kinky Boots. Thankfully, Matilda is selling extremely well, which doesn't always happen with shows that lose the Best Musical Tony. Matilda seems to be around for the long haul, which will give the ticket-buying public a chance to decide for themselves. I've already seen Matilda twice an I eagerly anticipate seeing it again and again. I can't imagine ever wanting to see Kinky Boots again. (And have to sit through that preachy second act and those painfully generic songs again? I shudder at the very thought.)
2. Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 - An unusual title, an unusual show. But Natasha Pierre was one of the most captivating and moving shows to come to New York in many a season. Who would have thought that a musical based on War and Peace of all things would make for such a lively and compelling piece of musical theater? In my defense, I'm no stranger to the 19th-century Russian novel, having taken an in-depth seminar in same my junior year of college. So I guess I shouldn't be all that surprised that the tremendous passion and drama of that distinctive genre would yield such a rich theatrical result. I say it all the time: There's no such thing as a bad idea for a musical, only poor execution. Natasha Pierre is executed with great passion and care by its sole author, Dave Malloy. I'll be very interested to see if the show catches on regionally. It certainly lends itself to a variety of staging possibilities, beyond the immersive, cabaret-style presentation the show enjoyed Off-Broadway.
1. Fun Home - Oh. My. God. What a show. What an experience. Fun Home comes from an even more unlikely source than Natasha Pierre does: a graphic novel about a lesbian cartoonist who grows up in a funeral home with a closeted gay father. It's a tribute to composer Jeanine Tesori (making her second appearance on this list) and librettist/lyricist Lisa Kron that they've taken on such a challenging topic and created something genuinely sublime. Fun Home is extraordinarily powerful, bringing out the quiet dignity and desperation of its characters, while also providing strong dose of tongue-in-cheek entertainment as well. The performances were staggering, particularly those of Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn as the father and mother, respectively. Kron and Tesori also make the risky but ultimately successful choice of splitting the daughter character among three different actresses. I say "risky" because it could have been confusing, or precious, or pretentious. But it works, and splendidly so. Fun Home ends with a series of shattering solos for each of the three main characters, and the one-two-three punch is almost too much to bear, and yet somehow exhilarating at the same time. Fun Home easily ranks as one of my favorite musicals, not just of this year, but of all time. It's really that good.
Bad theater is a gift. I genuinely believe that. I know plenty of people who only go to see shows that they're already pretty sure they're going to like, or that have received strong reviews. I suppose that makes sense. But I make it a point to see every new musical and revival that opens on Broadway, and as many Off-Broadway musicals as my schedule will allow. And when you see a lot of theater, you see a lot of bad theater. That's just the way it goes. As I've said many times, quality is always the exception.
So where's the gift part? Well, I firmly believe that you need to see what's bad in order to fully appreciate what's good. So seeing bad shows helps to maximize your enjoyment of truly great shows. That's a gift, right? Sure, sometimes I get a bit testy when I'm sitting through some godawful mess of a production, but I usually just remind myself that there have always been fewer great shows than mediocre-to-bad shows. And there always will be. Sure, there used to be more musicals in general, back in the '40s and '50s, because the economics of putting on shows was very different back then. But more shows means more crap. As a percentage, great musicals are always in the vast minority.
For me, whenever I see a bad musical, I see the experience as becoming part of my continuing education in musical theater. And let's just say that
2012 gave me ample opportunity to grow in this respect, but that's
really no different from what happens in any other year. (Oh, and lest you think I'm dwelling on the negative, check out my my list of the Best Musicals of 2012.) To read my reviews, click on the names of the shows listed below.
10. Lysistrata Jones. Technically, I saw Lysistrata Jones in 2011, but I didn't include it on my 2011 Worst Musicals list because I had plenty of other candidates to write about. I include it on this year's list, partly because the show did technically play on Broadway in 2012 (albeit very briefly) and also because, the more I think about it, the more I see Lysistrata Jones as just plain bad. The book by Douglas Carter Beane is full of more one-liners than character-based humor. Beane also renders the anti-war message of Aristophanes' original Lysistrata utterly meaningless. And the score, by Beane's life partner Lewis Flinn, was just one unmemorable pop song after another. The production featured an appealing cast of fresh faces, including Patti Murin in the title role and Josh Segarra as her boyfriend. Director/choreographer Dan Knechtges created some very impressive and character-appropriate dances for the show. But, of course, those aren't the sort of things that make a show last beyond its Broadway run. I'm having a hard time seeing Lysistrata Jones catching on in regional theaters.
9. End of the Rainbow. OK, so, not technically a musical, I know. But I figured that, if I was going to include One Man, Two Guvnors on my list of the Best, I would be justified in slamming End of the Rainbow as one of the Worst. The only real reason to see End of the Rainbow was to witness Tracie Bennett's admittedly impressive, if not entirely accurate, impersonation of Judy Garland. (Although, Michael Cumpsty also had some fine moments as Garland's put-upon accompanist.) As for the play itself, by one Peter Quilter, End of the Rainbow was simply a straightforward, by-the-numbers representation of the events surrounding Garland's disastrous final concerts in London. There was no real point of view or artistry in Quilter's writing, and very little in director Terry Johnson's presentation of the play that was interesting or exciting. If you're interested in the waning years of Garland's career, you're better off watching the DVDs of "The Judy Garland Show" and reading Get Happy, Gerald Clarke's detailed and fascinating Garland biography.
6. Something's Afoot. Here's another one that sort of pains me to include on this list. I'm an ardent supporter of the Goodspeed Opera House. I've not only seen many of their shows over the years, I'll also be attending their annual Festival of New Artists this weekend, which will be my third time attending this event. They not only put on top-notch productions of historic shows, they also actively cultivate new works, and give lots of young performers their first chance to break into the business. But, for some reason I can't quite comprehend, the good folks at the Goodspeed decided to dredge up and present Something's Afoot as part of their most recent season. Now, Something's Afoot is one of the many shows that Goodspeed has helped shepherd along the way to a New York run. It played the Goodspeed in 1973, and went on to an abbreviated Broadway run in 1976. But it's bad. Very bad. The book is as creaky as the staircase in the gloomy mansion that serves as the show's setting. And the songs are tuneless, formless, and generic. I remain a fervent fan of the Goodspeed, and look forward to attending their production for many seasons to come. As long as they don't include Something's Afoot.
5. Carrie. Carrie? Bad? The devil you say. Yeah, well, go figure. One of the most legendary bad musicals of all time got a complete makeover and turned out to be...a bad musical. For years, Carrie, based on the novel by Stephen King, has stood as sort of a low watermark for musical-theater dreck. And, for years, the authors have been thinking that their show got a bad rap the first time around. So Lawrence D. Cohen (librettist), Dean Pitchford (lyricist) and Michael Gore (composer) teamed up with the MCC Theater and director Stafford Arima to the give the old girl another go. But here's the thing: they removed the stuff that made the show legendary in the first place, the hilariously miscalculated stuff that made the original Carrie so-bad-it-was-good. And they replaced it with treacle, new numbers so earnest that they were eye-rollingly dull. But, at the heart of Carrie remain a handful of songs that are genuinely strong -- "And Eve Was Weak," "I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance," and "When There's No One" -- and the second time around those songs were just as out-of-place as they were the first time. The production did provide some top-notch performers a chance to shine, including the marvelous Marin Mazzie, and collectors finally got a professional cast recording to suuplement their...er...shall we say "private" recordings of the original.
4. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (with Nick Jonas). What a difference a lead makes. When I saw the recent revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with Daniel Radcliffe, I was charmed. (Read my review). But when I went back to catch the show again with Nick Jonas in the lead, the production seemed to have fallen apart. Apparently, director Rob Ashford had moved on to other projects, because the production had gotten really sloppy. Significant members of the original cast had taken their performances and made them broad beyond reason in an apparent attempt to curry cheap laughter from the audience of Jonas Brothers groupies and tourists. And the new cast members -- Mr. Jonas and Hollywood veteran Beau Bridges -- seemed to be leading the way, mugging up a storm, pushing for laughs, and abandoning all sense of moderation and dramatic integrity. Thankfully, the production closed shortly thereafter, sparing us all the indignity of witnessing Joey Fatone or Jonathan Knight running the production further into the ground.
3. Evita. When I saw Michael Grandage's revival of Evita in London, I genuinely enjoyed the production, and was very eager to see the show when it transferred to Broadway. Elena Roger was a veritable spitfire in the title role, and I was hoping to see her again. (Read my review of the London production.) However, I mistakenly bought a ticket for a show in which Roger's New York alternate, Christine DiCicco, played the role. Something definitely got lost in the import process, because the New York production was lifeless, despite the admittedly eye-pleasing presence of Ricky Martin in the role of Che. But Martin just smiled inanely throughout the entire show, seemingly oblivious to the meaning of the words he was singing, and the rest of the production lacked the vibrancy of the London staging. I thought perhaps it might have been the absence of Elena Roger that made the difference, but I'm told that the show played pretty much the same even when Roger was in it. The show has been playing to pretty strong houses based on Ricky Martin's presence, but the producers have opted to close the show rather than attempt to replace Martin. Again, one shudders to think of who they might have replaced Martin with, but it seems doubtful that anyone short of Mandy Patinkin himself could have raised this production out of the doldrums.
2. Scandalous. If only Scandalous had lived up to its name, it might have been at least somewhat entertaining. But it wasn't. Dear Lord, it wasn't. Other than the presence of Carolee Carmello and George Hearn in the cast, Scandalous had practically nothing going for it. First, it's hard to imagine that a musical about evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson would have any drawing power. I mean, does anyone under the age of seventy five know who she is? Sure, one of the authors has some name recognition: Kathie Lee Gifford, who wrote the book and the lyrics. (The music was by David Pomeranz and David Friedman.) But Kathie Lee's fame wasn't sufficient to draw enough people to the theater to keep the show afloat. And the show itself was an amateurish mishmash of leaden dialog, inconsistent characterizations, and bland gospel anthems. After I published my review of the show, a reader contacted me accusing me of being overly harsh on the show because of its religious subject matter. Trust me, the subject matter had nothing to do with my reaction: the show itself was mortal sin enough.
1. Ghost. And then there's Ghost, a show that reflected everything wrong with modern musical theater: an over-reliance on technical production values; an under-reliance on quality songwriting and storytelling; the presence of pop-music dilettantes who assumed that writing popular songs is the same as writing cohesive musical theater scores; cast members forced to belt fortissimo over the over-amplified orchestra. Thankfully, Ghost didn't last very long, and didn't win any awards, which gives me hope that producers will think twice the next time they underestimate the ticket-buying public by bringing in another seemingly pre-sold brand name (here, the 1990 film "Ghost") with a high-profile but inexperienced writing team (Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame, record producer Glen Ballard, and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin), and hire an otherwise talented director (Tony-Award winner Matthew Warchus) for the thankless task of making it all work. Warchus will hopefully bounce back with the upcoming Broadway bow of Matilda. But I get the feeling that Ghost isn't going to stop producers from scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to turning safe-but-tired Hollywood properties into Broadway musicals. (See Flashdance.)
When I was in eighth grade, our class produced a little mimeographed yearbook, of which I was the editor. The yearbook contained individual student profiles, essays about class trips, a class song, and a whole bunch of other yearbook-type items. Each student profile contained a line item for the student to announce his or her future career plans, and another line for a "class prediction" of what job the student would actually end up in. At the time, I thought I was going to become a doctor, specifically a psychiatrist. (Interpret that as you will.) But my classmates predicted that I would become a critic, "because Chris is never satisfied with anything." (Kinda harsh, huh? Well, eighth graders aren't known for their tact, now are they?)
Well, I've been thinking about that prediction lately, not just because it actually came true. I think a more positive spin on the notion that I'm supposedly "never satisfied" is that I have high standards. At the Boston Conservatory, where I teach, I'm known as a tough grader. And I suppose I'm pretty hard to please as a critic as well. I don't necessarily go into shows with my arms figuratively crossed, demanding nothing less than to be blown away. It's just that I've been developing a certain aesthetic regarding musical theater for many years, and I apply that aesthetic to every production that I see. Sometimes I genuinely am blown away, but most of the time I am not, but that's to be expected. As I say to my students all the time, quality is always the exception.
Anyway, all of this is by way of introduction to my annual list of the best musical productions that I've seen in a particular calendar year. It might come as a surprise to some people (my eighth-grade classmates in particular) that, yes, every once in a while, I do see productions that I appreciate, enjoy, and sometimes am even blown away by. And here's proof: ten productions from 2012 that could even please me, the guy who's "never satisfied." Of course, I'll be following up later with my list of the ten Worst Musicals of 2012, but I wanted to post this list first as a sort of preemptive strike. Click on the show names below to read my original reviews of the shows in question.
10. Murder Ballad. Here's a perfect example of a show that, while not perfect, had enough going for it that it tipped the scales for me in the positive direction, and I wound up enjoying myself immensely. Murder Ballad is a classic love triangle that (as it says on the tin) ends rather badly, but along the way we're treated to an entertaining mix of sentiment and snark. The show is by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash, and I'm looking forward to seeing future work by this promising pair. Of course, much of the appeal of Murder Ballad, which played an extended engagement at the Manhattan Theatre Club's new Studio at Stage II this past fall, lay in its superlative cast: John Ellison Conlee, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Karen Olivo, and Will Swenson. But I get the sense that Murder Ballad is going to catch on on its own merit with regional theaters and colleges, particularly after the upcoming release of the show's cast recording.
9. Porgy and Bess. As you probably recall, Porgy and Bess had a rather bumpy road to Broadway last season. After Stephen Sondheim's excoriating letter to the New York Times, and Ben Brantley's less-than-stellar review of the show's pre-Broadway run at the A.R.T., it was looking as though the show might not make it to New York. At issue were the efforts of director Diane Paulus and adapter Suzan-Lori Parks to "streamline" and "modernize" the show. Purists balked, but I found the show a huge improvement over previous productions of the show. There were a few times when I found the trimming to be a bit too aggressive, but overall I found the production thrilling. Much of this came from the central performance by Audra McDonald, for which she deservedly won her fifth Tony Award. (Although I do have to say that, the first time I saw the new Forbidden Broadway, it included a number called "A Diva is a Sometime Thing," poking fun of Audra's numerous and extended absences from the show. It was one of the funniest things in the show, but the number wasn't there the second time I saw FB, and it isn't included on the new CD either. Could it be that Gerard Alessandrini is starting to pull punches in his latter years?)
8. Without You. I always like to include some shows that I didn't see in New York on this list, and one of the best things I saw last year was in my hometown. Anthony Rapp brought his one-man show Without You to Boston early last summer, in anticipation of runs in London and Edinburgh, and the show was intimate, disarming, and extremely moving. As you may know, Rapp originated the role of Mark in Rent, and Without You tells the parallel stories of Rapp being a part of that production and experiencing the premature death of Jonathan Larson, as well as Rapp's own struggles with the passing of his mother. Without You mixes songs from Rent with original material by Rapp and his collaborators. Under the direction of Steve Maler of Boston's own Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, Rapp takes what could have been a maudlin exercise in self-pity and turns it into a sweet remembrance of a powerful and formative time in his life. (If you didn't get a chance to catch the show live, PS Classics recently released a recording of the show.)
7. Closer Than Ever. The venerable York Theatre Company provided a welcome respite from the overblown spectacles of Broadway by reviving Closer Than Ever, the intimate and knowing Off-Broadway revue by songwriting team of Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire. The show featured some updated material, but the real reasons that the production was a must-see were the two female performers, Jenn Colella and Christiane Noll, as well as the brisk and sensitive direction from Mr. Maltby himself. I think I also responded to the show because the material seemed so much more meaningful to me in 2012 than when the show first came out. A lot of the songs are about adjusting to aging process, and, well, let's just say I'm a bit closer to the ages at which Maltby and Shire wrote this material than I was in 1989. Anyway, I'm certainly looking forward to the show's upcoming cast recording from Jay Records.
6. One Man, Two Guvnors. OK, yeah, this one wasn't technically a musical. But, hey, it did have more songs that many musicals do, and even produced a cast recording to prove it. Whatever it was, One Man, Two Guvnors was easily one of the most enjoyable productions I saw last year, play or musical, and for that reason alone I decided to include it on this list. In fact, I had such a grand old time, I went back twice again to revel in the sheer joy of this gleefully ridiculous production. (The third time, I brought my brother and niece. We had just been to the Carnegie Deli for dinner and had half of a brisket sandwich with us. If you've seen the play, you know where this is headed.) One Man, Two Guvnors is by Richard Bean, and is a modern reworking of Carlo Goldoni's classic Servant of Two Masters, but the real attraction here was the expert cast of British hams, led by Tony winner James Corden, ably abetted by Jemima Rooper, Oliver Chris, and Suzie Toase. Add in the expert direction from Nicholas Hytner, and you have one of the most ridiculously entertaining nights in the theater to hit Broadway in many a season.
5. Dogfight. Song-writing team Justin Paul and Benj Pasek made their Broadway debut this season with the holiday run of A Christmas Story. I was not among the many people who enjoyed that production. In fact, I would much rather have seen Pasek and Paul make their Broadway bow with Dogfight, which played Off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre last summer. Admittedly, Pasek and Paul had some wonderful moments in their score to A Christmas Story, including some warm and intimate character numbers for the mother. But they were able to sustain that intimacy and depth of characterization throughout most of the score to Dogfight, particularly for the female lead character, Rose, played with heart-breaking subtlety by the wonderful Lindsay Mendez. Director Joe Mantello re-affirmed here his grip on crafting solid ensemble work and nuanced individual performances, after floundering over the past few seasons on mindless musical comedies and farce. I'm hoping to see some future life for Dogfight, if only in the form aof a cast recording, which to this date has not been announced.
4. Anything Goes (starring Stephanie J. Block). Last year, I had the chance to revisit the two Broadway musical revivals from the previous season, and it was a genuine study in contrasts. Whereas How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was coming apart at the seams with Nick Jonas at the helm (watch for my list of the Worst Musicals of 2012), over at the Stephen Sondheim Theater, Anything Goes was going full guns, despite the departure of Tony winner Sutton Foster. In fact, although I had certainly enjoyed Anything Goes the first time I saw, my second viewing was one of pure joy. Somehow the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival, featuring the strong direction and fluid choreography of the redoubtable Kathleen Marshall, seemed even more sure-footed and ebullient with Stephanie J. Block. as Reno Sweeney. Unfortunately, the show closed shortly thereafter, but I was gratified to have experienced first-hand a long-running production that had gotten even better with age.
3. Carousel (Goodspeed Opera House). I'm a big fan of the Goodspeed Opera House, and last year I was fortunate in starting to cover the Goodspeed for TheaterMania. The folks at the Goodspeed always put on top-drawer productions. (Even, as we will see in my Worst Musicals of 2012 list, the shows themselves aren't always of the highest caliber.) With Carousel, the Goodspeed took on the challenge of taking a classic Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein show that's often big on production values and making it work on the Goodspeed's admittedly diminutive stage. Just as they did last season with Show Boat, the Goodspeed found ingenious ways of making Carousel work in their space, and even made an asset out of that potential liability by bringing the action closer to the audience and rendering the grand sweep of the show on a compellingly intimate scale. The cast was also a huge part of the show's success, particularly James Snyder as Billy Bigelow and Teal Wicks as Julie Jordan.
2. Bring It On. Yeah, I'm surprised, too. First, for even having Bring It On on my Best Musicals of 2012 list, and second, for ranking it so high. Make no mistake: Bring It On is fluff, but but it's extremely well executed fluff, with a smart and funny book by Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) and a variegated score by composer Tom Kitt (Next to Normal), composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) and lyricist Amanda Green. Bring It On is really nothing more than "Who's gonna win the big cheerleader competition?," but hey, what's wrong with that? Along the way, we meet some genuinely likable performers (led by the adorable Taylor Louderman), witness some heart-stopping cheerleader routines, and watch choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (who also directed) back in his pop-and-lock element at last, after some unfortunate miss-fires. (See 9 to 5, featuring pale white men in three-piece suits grooving to the hip-hop beat. Oy.) I'm fully expecting to see Bring It On catch on with high-school and college theater groups, and I'm all for that. (Although it will be interesting to see how they handle the transgender teen.)
1. Once. There are so many wonderful reasons why Once makes the top of my list this year. First of all, it's a really good show, and probably would have topped the list no matter what else had occurred. But then it went on to sweep the Tony Awards, over the crowd-pleasing Newsies, And now, it's already made back its initial investment and continues to sell really strongly. And what makes it all so gratifying is that it's such a small show: cast of 12 people, no orchestra, unit set, simple costumes. It warms my heart to think that small show like this can become a Broadway hit. Maybe this will make producers think twice about the new overblown, overproduced movie adaptation. If the show is good, people will come no matter how elaborate the sets and costumes are. Much credit here goes to director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett for creating a seamless flow between scenes and for letting the truth of the characters speak for itself. Then, of course, there's the haunting score by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. And at the center, we have the nuanced and heart-wrenching performances from Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti, all of which coalesce to make Once the most heart-warming smash-hit in more than a decade.
HONORABLE MENTION: Leap of Faith. OK, I couldn't very well end this list without making one last plug for a show that I genuinely think got a bad rap. Go ahead and think less me based on my affection for Leap of Faith, but when I saw the show I was disarmed by the level of genuine characterization, the meaningful integration of the score, and the strength with which the cast members seemed to believe in the story of these appealing, yet flawed, individuals. Unfortunately, Leap of Faith wound up being the biggest financial flop in a season replete with same. Lost in the rubble were an intelligent book by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight, a rousing set of songs from composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, and two genuinely strong yet layered performances from Raul Esparza and Jessica Phillips. All will of course land on their feet, and in the meantime we have the cast recording to remind those of us who enjoyed the show of how much genuinely solid work went into it, and to give those of us who didn't see the show a chance to experienced what they missed.
Gee, you folks really like lists, don't you? Well, I'm more than happy to comply.
I recently posted this semester's list of the "most overrated" musicals, as selected and defended by my current crop of students in my musical-theater history course at the Boston Conservatory. Many of you commented on the selections -- some agog, some aghast -- and said that you were looking forward to their selections of the "most underrated" musicals.
As promised, here we go, with the usual caveats. Students typically discuss their choices with me before they sit down to write, and I try to steer them toward shows that lend themselves to the "underrated" treatment, and away from the shows that don't work as well. So the following list is decidedly unscientific, and heavily influenced by yours truly.
Why is it that some shows work for this paper and some don't? Well, essentially, I use this paper to give the students an opportunity to start spotting and analyzing the various innovations, techniques, devices, and other signs of a quality musical that we're exploring in the course. Of course, most of these innovations spring from our discussions of Rodgers and Hammerstein. (e.g. integrated songs, dramatically purposeful dance, extended musical scenes/sequences, effective character arcs, uses of leitmotif and the dramatic reprise, etc.) So shows that don't adhere to the R&H revolution (Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys), or shows that come later in the historical sequence and deliberately subvert the innovations (Chicago, Cabaret, Movin' Out, Contact, The Drowsy Chaperone) are much harder for the students to defend, at least at this point in the course.
That said, here are the shows that received multiple "votes":
So, what exactly do we mean here by "underrated"? Well, essentially, there are two broad categories of underrated shows: hidden gems that don't get the attention they deserve, and big blockbusters that frequently get dismissed as being too frothy, too spectacular, too...well...popular.
Ergo, Wicked, clearly this year's winner, and by quite a hefty margin. I'm sure the fact that I consider Wicked underrated myself frees my students up to express their affection for the show, an affection that is often met with derision from their peers. I frequently receive comments on my own list of the most underrated musicals, particular as to how I could possibly consider Wicked to be underrated. The comments are sometimes impolitely incredulous. "Wicked!? UNDERRATED?! [scoff] How could you possibly consider Wicked underrated!? [sneer] It's, like, the most overrated show, like, EVER!!" (Actually, I should probably add some more egregiously capitalized words here, and maybe a dozen more exclamation points, but you get the point.)
Well, when I say that Wicked is underrated, I mean exactly that. And I think the intensity of the incredulity of some of my commenters only serves to reinforce the notion that people don't give Wicked enough credit for being more than just entertaining. It's also smart. The characters are complex. Glinda and Fiyero claim to be shallow, at least at first, but Stephen Schwartz gives them complex rhymes and clever wordplay to make their eventual evolutions more credible. "Don't be offended by my frank analysis/Think of it as personality dialysis/Now that I've offered to become a pal, a sis-ter and adviser, there's nobody wiser."
Schwartz also makes liberal use of leitmotif ("Unlimited...", "I'm limited...") and includes a really effective dramatically purposeful reprise. In fact, I include the following paragraph in the directions for the underrated paper to give the students a sense of what I'm looking for:
Wicked has a number of clever musical devices that help audience members understand what the characters are feeling. One particularly effective device is the use of the dramatic reprise. In the first act, Elphaba sings a song called “I’m Not That Girl,” in which she laments that she could never gain the hand of Fiyero, the show’s main male love interest. Elphaba sings, “Don't dream too far. Don't lose sight of who you are. Don't remember that rush of joy. He could be that boy, but I'm not that girl.” Composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz paints a heartbreaking picture with just a few lines, nicely evoking Elphaba’s loneliness and resignation. But the real payoff comes later, when Glinda sings a reprise of “I’m Not That Girl.” The simple device of using the same song but switching characters deftly demonstrates not only that the tables have turned for Elphaba, but for Glinda as well. Glinda sings almost the exact same refrain as Elphaba, and the reprise is only four lines long, but it nonetheless conveys both Glinda’s loss and Elphaba’s gain.
What's more, Wicked is a terrific example of a show that people can enjoy on multiple levels. If you're just looking for spectacle and screlting, the show has both in abundant supply. But if you're willing to take a closer look at the underlying message of the show, it's actually fairly savvy when it comes to social commentary. Take, for example, the sly political reference in "Popular":
Celebrated heads of state,
Or even great communicators.
Did they have brains or knowledge?
Don't make me laugh.
They were popular.
Please, it's all about popular.
It's not about aptitude,
It's the way you're viewed.
So it's very shrewd to be
Very, very popular, like me.
And who was the great communicator? Why, Ronald Reagan, of course. The idiot who ruled our country for eight years, not because he was bright ("Not just because you're bright..."), but rather because he was charming and had a way of saying genuinely horrendous things in a way that was palatable to far too many people in this country. ("Romney...cough, cough...Romney...")
Is Wicked a masterpiece? Hardly. I've never really been a fan of the bland power ballad that is "As Long As You're Mine." And there are a few minor songs that don't really serve much more purpose that they would if they were simply turned into dialog. ("A Sentimental Man" and "Something Ba-a-a-a-ad") But, overall, I'm genuinely thrilled that Wicked has become the seemingly unstoppable blockbuster that it is. Think of all the kids that get turned on by musical theater because of Wicked. I'd rather see them swoon over Wicked than The Lion King, Mary Poppins, or [shudder] Spider-Man.
But, then, the current list of underrated musicals doesn't completely conform to my personal preferences. I'm not really much of a fan of In the Heights, although it has its heart in the right place and contains many elements of genuine quality. [SPOILER ALERT] I just can't quite get past the deus ex machina plot resolution. Everything works out just fine because someone wins the lottery? Really? That's the message we're giving out to people seeking upward mobility? Play the lottery? Haven't lotteries done enough damage? Preying on the poor with false hope, exhorting them to divert huge portions of their income based on infinitesimal odds? How about making the plot resolution based on someone making a decision to effect a major change in his or her life through personal initiative?
But enough of my tirades and encomiums. What do you think of this year's list, dear reader? Surprises? Omissions? I'm all ears. (Unless you use all caps and/or exclamation points. In which case, my ears shut down.)
One thing that musical-theater majors are never short on is attitude. And when I started teaching musical-theater history at the Boston Conservatory, I decided I wanted to tap into that attitude. So, I developed two introductory writing assignments to help me develop a sense of what my students were capable of, as well as to give students a chance to figure out what I was looking for on the midterm and the final.
As regular readers will recall, this led to The Most Overrated MusicalTM and The Most Underrated MusicalTM, in which students choose, develop and support their candidates, all while developing a stronger sense of what makes for a quality show, using themes, structures, techniques and innovations that we discuss during the course.
Of course, the students' actual choices are just a conceit to get them thinking. It really doesn't matter, ultimately, which show they choose, so long as they're developing their analytical writing skills. Nonetheless, I always like to share the lists of shows with my readers, because the lists serve as a sort of unscientific barometer of the MT zeitgeist.
A few caveats: this list is heavily influenced by the discussions that students have with me before they write their papers. There are certain shows that I steer students away from, and other shows that I point students toward. So, again, this list is anything but scientific. Also, students can only write about shows for which they have direct access to the libretto. Between my own collection and that of the Boston Conservatory library, the students have access to hundreds of scripts. But, for instance, neither I nor the library has a copy of the script to The Lion King, which comes up a lot as a candidate.
So, after much ado, here's this year's list, with my attendant comments, harangues, dogmas, digressions, and miscellany. These are the shows that received more than one "vote" (i.e. the number of students who chose to write about that show as being "overrated"):
So, whaddya, think? Some pretty clear trends here. First, I tell students that there are essentially two classes of overrated shows: the "bloated blockbuster" versus the "shows that make MTs swoon." Clearly, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables fit into the former category, while The Wild Party and Children of Eden fit into the latter. In terms of sub-categories, there are the high-school perennials like Bye Bye Birdie and Anything Goes, and the modern-day power weepies like Rent and Spring Awakening.
And then there's Legally Blonde, which appears to be well on its way to becoming a high-school perennial. The show ran about 600 performances on Broadway, and as far as I can tell didn't recoup its original investment. The show received a much better reception in London, however, and recently ended a three-year run followed by a UK tour. It even won the Olivier Award for best musical. And yet my students clearly reflect the American attitude toward the show: not so much.
I must confess that, although I found Legally Blonde unbearably shrill when I first saw it, the cast recording is really starting to grow on me, mostly because of the work of composer/lyricist married couple Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin. (It's really no surprise that O'Keefe's work would become richer to me over time, since he's responsible for the score to one of my favorite shows of the last 15 years, Bat Boy.)
As I mentioned earlier, there are certain shows I steer students away from and others that I encourage them to consider for their papers. Over the ten years I've been teaching this course, I have found that, with certain shows, it's easier for students (generally freshmen in college) to figure out what's wrong and to provide specific support. With other shows, it's a lot harder to capture what's wrong. In fact, based on my life-long love of skiing, I've organized the usual suspects for the overrated paper into categories based on the trail-marking system that ski resorts use to steer skiers to slopes that match their level of ability. To wit:
GREEN CIRCLE (Easiest) - Legally Blonde
- Bye Bye Birdie
- The Sound of Music
- Spring Awakening
- The Phantom of the Opera
- Billy Elliot
- Anything Goes - Newsies
- In the Heights
- Big River
- Sweet Charity
- Funny Girl
BLUE SQUARE (Harder) - South Pacific
- Man of La Mancha
- Les Miserables
- Thoroughly Modern Millie - Mary Poppins
- Promises Promises
- 42nd Street
- Beauty and the Beast
- The Music Man
- Miss Saigon
- The Wild Party (Lippa)
- Children of Eden
Bear in mind that these three lists have nothing to do with whether I personally find the shows in question good or bad. Some of these shows I love, others I despise. I'm just saying that, in terms of the criteria that we establish in my course (meaningful integration of song, demonstrable character arc, musical sophistication, etc.), it's a lot easier for my students to find something to criticize in Bye Bye Birdie or Spring Awakening than in Gypsy or Chicago.
Some of the more difficult shows are challenging because they represent some sort of satire or parody that the students have a more difficult time wrapping their minds around (e.g. How to Succeed or Grease). Others represent a sort of post-modern or meta show structure (e.g. Chicago, Cabaret, The Drowsy Chaperone) that we won't really get around to addressing until later in the course.
And then there's Cats. It might surprise some readers that I find Cats to be a black-diamond show, but consider this: What exactly is wrong with Cats? Is it bad because it has no plot? Well, it has about as much plot as Company. And it pretty much has the some plot as A Chorus Line. (A bunch of dancing performers get together to compete for a certain honor. They all get their moment in the sun, and at the end the sentimental favorite wins.)
I've only ever had one student who came close to capturing what is really wrong with Cats. She focused on the fact that Andrew Lloyd Webber stuck too close to the original T.S. Eliot poems, which are mostly written in the third person. As a result, we rarely hear any of the cats singing about themselves, rather we hear about them from a third party. So, we never develop a bond with anyone on-stage, with the exception of Grizabella, who sings one of the few songs in the show that wasn't based directly on one of Eliot's poems. Pretty savvy, huh?
So, what do you make of the list, dear reader? Any surprises here? Any glaring omissions? Gimme a holler.
I love the fall. I've always been the type of nerd who couldn't wait to get back to school. And now that I teach full-time, that nerd-liness continues unabated.
Of course, one of the things that I look forward to the most is teaching my musical-theater history course, and this year I had something extra exciting to look forward to. For this academic year, my course is two-semesters long. Previously, it was only one semester for my freshmen sections, although last year I did get a chance to teach two semesters to the grad students for the first time.
And more students means more work, naturally, but for you, dear reader, it also means more robust lists. Every year, I start my course by asking students to write down the three best musicals of all time. We then make a list on the board of the shows that people have voted for, and then we start a discussion about what makes good shows good.
This year, I had 75 students in total voting, and here are their choices, as well as the number of students who chose that show as one of their top three:
West Side Story 25 Les Miserables 20 Ragtime 15 Into the Woods 14 Oklahoma 12 Hair 9 The Phantom of the Opera 8 Sweeney Todd 8 Rent 5 South Pacific 5 A Chorus Line 4 Carousel 4 In the Heights 4 My Fair Lady 4 Next to Normal 4 Singin' in the Rain 4 Spring Awakening 4 Sunday in the Park with George 4 Wicked 4 Anything Goes 3 The Light in the Piazza 3 The Music Man 3 Once 3 Parade 3 Porgy and Bess 3 Show Boat 3 The Sound of Music 3 Aida 2 Cabaret 2 Chicago 2 Gypsy 2 Hairspray 2 Kiss Me Kate 2 The Lion King 2 Miss Saigon 2
So, what do we see here? Well, as always, the students' choices are partly governed by which shows are currently, or were recently, playing on Broadway and/or touring the country. The presence of West Side Story at the top of the list was no doubt influenced by the national tour, which recently ended its trans-continental traverse. The similarly high ranking of Les Miserables and Into the Woods is likely related to the number of regional and high-school productions of those shows.
Rent is ranking much lower than it has in the past. Not sure what to make of that, other than the fact that more people are getting a chance to see it regionally, and it's possible that the show seems less impressive without professionals performing the vocally challenging score.
Spring Awakening also seems to have slipped in recent years. I'm thinking this is because the show needs a very strong directorial concept to work, and even though the show has been getting a lot of regional play, it's possible that in the absence of a strong director, people are noticing that the show itself isn't really that strong.
Wicked is ranking a lot lower than it has in the past. Perhaps the Future Show Queens of America (FSQA) have finally moved beyond the whole "Wicked is Like the Fiercest Show That Ever Was" (WILFSTEW) stage and started including other shows in their general barometer of fierce-osity. (Don't get me wrong. I love Wicked. But I also love when show queens broaden their horizons beyond Elphaba worship.)
It's wonderful to see Ragtime place so highly on this list. For years, I was concerned that Ragtime would sort of fade from the national consciousness, mostly under the presumption that not many local theaters would put the show on because of the controversial subject matter as well as because of the need for large numbers of African Americans, who traditionally haven't been as involved in community and regional theater. Thankfully, that seems to be changing, which gives more people a chance to see this powerful and challenging show.
So many classic shows placed relatively strongly on this year's list, including a big thumbs-up for Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, including Oklahoma, Carousel and South Pacific. Regular readers will recall my deep and abiding esteem for the first two of these shows, and my relative disdain for the last.
Among the new shows, Next to Normal has been holding fast over the past few semesters. This will likely continue as the show continues to catch on regionally. Regular readers will also recall my ambivalence about Next to Normal: I admire the craft of the show, but have significant problems with its apparent message regarding psychiatry. One lovely new addition to the list is Once, the big winner this year at the Tony Awards -- and rightly so -- and a significant financial success, having recently recouped its investment, and continuing to perform strongly at the box office, even in the traditional post-Labor Day drop-off.
There are always a few oddballs and aberrations on the list each year. Who'd a thunk Gypsy would rank so low? And after the wonderful revival of Follies last season, you'd think the show would get more than one vote, right? Also, why are Singin' in the Rain and The Wizard of Oz even on the list? I guess I should have specified that we would be focusing on stage musicals as opposed to movie musicals. (Sure, both shows have been done on the stage, but never very well, at least IMHO.)
How about you, dear reader? What do you notice in the list year's list? Any surprises, pleasant or otherwise? Any glaring omissions, from where you sit? Any shows included here that warm the cockles of your heart? Do the choices of these FSQAs give you hope for the future, or do they make you wish ever more strongly for a musical-theater time machine? Lemme know, m'kay?
I like to think that nobody deliberately sets out to write a bad musical. Every composer, lyricist, and librettist who has ever set pen to paper, hands to piano keys, or fingers to computer keyboard has had it in his or her mind to craft something of quality.
But, as I'm fond of telling my students, quality is always the exception. In any art form, there will always be a bell curve of artistic achievement. The factors that contribute to the creation of the works in the top percentiles are just as numerous and ineffable as those that drive the works at the bottom. And there's really no predicting which ideas will lead straight to artistic success, nor which ideas will lead to disappointment.
In my previous post, I listed what I considered to be the Best Musicals of 2011. Now, let's focus on the worst. The following list comprises the disasters, the defeats, the debacles, the downfalls, the drubbings of the year, with comments from me as to why, at least for me, the shows came up short. I think some of you will be surprised by some of the omissions: Bonnie & Clyde, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Lysistrata Jones, Queen of the Mist, The Legend of Julie, Lucky Guy, Silence - The Musical. All are shows that I wrote negative reviews about (or am about to, in the case of Bonnie and Clyde and On a Clear Day), and that could easily have made the list. But I found the following ten musicals, for a variety of reasons, more egregious than any of those. And it's my list, so there.
Click on the initial mention of the title of each show to read my original reviews.
10. Yeast Nation - The follow-up show from Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, the creators of Urinetown, had been a long time aborning when it finally made it to NYC under the auspices of the New York Fringe Festival, which, not coincidentally, was where Urinetown received its breakthrough production. Yeast Nation was the runaway hit of the Festival this year, selling out all of its performances before the Festival even got under way, based solely on the Urinetown pedigree. So expectations were high, but unfortunately Yeast Nation most decidedly failed to meet those expectations. The main problem for me was that Kotis and Hollmann didn't seem to have anything to say that they hadn't already said, and in a far more effective way, in Urinetown. Yeast Nation played like an uninspired retread, both in terms of conception and execution. Because of my deep respect for Urinetown, I remain open to the possibility that Kotis and Hollmann might some day create another groundbreaking, smart, and/or entertaining musical. Yeast Nation, alas, seems extremely unlikely to develop in any of those directions.
9. Catch Me if You Can - Another major disappointment with a world-class pedigree. With all the talent involved in Catch Me If You Can, both behind the scenes and on-stage, you'd think we'd get something even half as good as Hairspray, the previous effort of most of the creative staff. No such luck. Despite the presence of composer Marc Shaiman, lyricist Scott Wittman, director Jack O'Brien, choreographer Jerry Mitchell, and librettist Terrence McNally - all Broadway veterans with more than a century of Broadway experience among them - Catch Me If You Can was an irritating and depressing affair. The entire evening suffered from a lack of purpose and focus, leaving high and dry some of Broadway's most experienced and talented performers (including Aaron Tveit, Norbert Leo Butz, Tom Wopat and Kerry Butler). Here's yet another example of the supreme challenge of creating a show around an antihero, in this case convicted swindler and forger Frank Abagnale, Jr. The labored framing device of the 1960s television variety show did nothing to illuminate why we were supposed to care about a man who put other people's lives in danger in search of personal gratification. I'm not saying that it couldn't have worked. It just didn't.
8. Sister Act - It's funny, but a lot of people I talk to love Sister Act. What's also funny is that even when we compare notes and even agree upon the manifold flaws in the show, they still hold steadfastly onto their admiration and enjoyment. Go figure. For me, the score, from composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, is inoffensive but unmemorable. The book by TV veterans Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, is bland and jokey, despite the efforts of Douglas Carter Beane, who was brought in to punch things up. There are a number genuine jaw-dropping miscalculations in the show, including one involving a trio of hoodlums planning on sexing up some nuns, and another involving a backup chorus of homeless people. Such choices, as well as the general lack of inspiration, must inevitably fall at the feet of director Jerry Zaks. Even the presence of supposed rising star Patina Miller in the Whoopi Goldberg role, and reliable stage pros Victoria Clark and Fred Applegate, failed to lift Sister Act above its uninspired material.
7. Wonderland - Composer Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll & Hyde) had two productions on Broadway in 2011: Wonderland and Bonnie & Clyde. Both were financial and critical disasters, but, although Bonnie & Clyde had problems aplenty, Wonderland was much, much worse. At the end of act one of Wonderland, I turned to my theater companion and said, "Wow. That wasn't awful." But at the end of act two, I said, "Wow. That was awful." Wonderland was a gross miscalculation on so many levels, but the first half was moderately entertaining. Sure, the character numbers were plodding, and a listen or two to the cast recording reveals that there wasn't nearly as much there there as it seemed during the performance, but there was a fun sense of activity and it seemed as though the show was building toward something promising. And then came act two, which was an utter mess, veering off into the land of bland power ballads and lame deus ex machina. It was great to see Jose Llana and Karen Mason on Broadway, which is where they belong, but I look forward to the day when I see them again in shows more worthy of their talents.
6. Spider-Man 1.0 - You knew this one was coming. Yeah, Spider-Man is an easy target, but it was also genuinely bad, in both of its versions. But they were each bad in different ways, so I'm treating them separately on this list. Leaving aside all of the bad press, the infighting, the injuries, the lawsuits, I'm focusing here on the show itself. I'm listing Spidey 1.0 as slightly less awful than Spidey 2.0 simply because under the ministrations of Julie Taymor, the show may have been utterly incomprehensible and woefully misguided, but it was never boring. That might be because you had to keep on your toes simply to figure out what was going on on-stage. And I will always cherish the jaw-dropping hilarity of "Getting Furious," the now legendary second act number about Spidey's spirit guide (Nemesis? Love interest? Dental hygienist?) Arachne and her obsession with shoes. Yes, shoes. Trust me, if you didn't get to see it, it was an absolute hoot, although it clearly wasn't intended as such.
5. Spider-Man 2.0 - Once Julie Taymor got the boot, "creative consultant" Philip William McKinley and book doctor Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa set about making Spider-Man somewhat comprehensible. They succeeded in that respect, which only served to highlight what was still wrong with the show: that awful score. Bono and The Edge seem to have unfairly singled out Taymor as the main source of the show's troubles, neglecting to notice that they hadn't produced any decent songs. The up-tempo numbers are incomprehensible, and the ballads are beyond tedious. What we're left with is a streamlined and efficient series of circus acts pretending to be a musical. I'd say it was a waste of a Broadway theater, but our main consolation in this respect is that the Ford...er, Hilton...er, Foxwoods Theatre is a useless impersonal barn, and any show that would be likely to take Spider-Man's place would probably be another mindless, overblown, crowd-pleasing, lowest-common-denominator seeking spectacle.
4. Prometheus Bound - There were a lot of advocates for Prometheus Bound when it played the American Repertory Theater. And in truth, what was there on the stage had a lot going for it. My problem with the show was mostly based on what was not on the stage: a plot. Yes, I know, Prometheus Bound followed almost to the letter the Aeschylus play upon which it is based. But when was the last time a great, or even a good musical adhered strictly to its source material? Why adapt something if you have nothing to add? Director Diane Paulus certainly gave the show a lively and dynamic treatment. The cast, including Gavin Creel in the title role and the awe-inspiring Uzo Aduba as Io, was outstanding. But librettist/lyricist Steven Sater (Spring Awakening) didn't really give them anything inspiring to do. Composer Serj Tankian, lead vocalist for System of a Down, provided some hard-driving and even tuneful music. I would respectfully suggest that Sater enroll in the BMI Workshop, or a similar program, if he plans on continuing with musical theater. Maybe he'll get the support and feedback he needs to create more integrated songs and more cohesive libretti.
3. The People in the Picture - Many of the shows on this list have genuinely noble intentions, and none more so than The People in the Picture, presented last spring by the Roundabout Theatre Company. The show focused on the members of a Yiddish theater troupe in Poland during World War II and used their experiences as a lens through which to focus on the plight and treatment of the Jews during the Holocaust. I mean, how much more noble can you get? But, as I said in my review, the only thing that matters is what ends up on the stage, and in that sense The People in the Picture was a terrible mess. The book and lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart (Beaches) were riddled with clichés and schmaltz. The production's only redeeming value was Donna Murphy in the lead role, but the indignities foisted upon her - including a number in which she played a tap-dancing rabbi - were beyond even Ms. Murphy's ability to render effective or entertaining. The show produced a cast recording, but I can't imagine it catching on in regional theaters, except perhaps among the most earnest of Jewish performance ensembles.
2. The Blue Flower - Regular readers might recall that The Blue Flower was also on my list of the Worst Musicals of 2010. That listing was based on the show's 2010 run at the American Repertory Theater. (Read my original review.) The show then received a production at the Second Stage Theatre (2ST) in New York this past fall, and I list it again here based on revisiting the show at the 2ST. The Blue Flower seemed to change very little between its Cambridge and New York runs, at least not in any way that addressed or fixed what I considered to be the central flaws of the show: an egregious amount of narration and overly oblique lyrics. In fact, I disliked The Blue Flower even more in New York because the production was less visually interesting than the show had been at the ART. Here's another show with noble intentions: showing the effects of the two World Wars on the lives of a group of artists and intellectuals. But what frustrated me most about the show is how librettist/lyricist Jim Bauer seemed to be going out of his way to create a distance between the characters and the audience, turning what could have been a very moving show into a dull, enervating slog.
1. Baby It's You - The most lazy, cynical, and venal musical I've seen in many a year. Baby It's You has the ignoble distinction of being the absolute nadir of the songbook/jukebox/Boomer-pleasing concoctions. Not so much a musical as a marketing ploy, Baby It's You was a bald-faced attempt on the part of Warner Brothers and Universal Music Group to cash in on the monumental success of Jersey Boys using the songbook of The Shirelles. They might as well have just called it Jersey Girls: that at least would have tipped ticket-buyers off to the derivative and calculated nature of the show. Baby It's You was written and directed by Floyd Mutrux, who performed the same tasks on the marginally more entertaining Million Dollar Quartet. But whereas MDQ had the benefit of a long run in Chicago to work out an kinks in the material, Baby It's You played more like a slapdash, desperate rush job. Playing the central character Florence Greenberg, the stalwart Beth Leavel attempted to rise above the drivel, but as with Donna Murphy In The People in the PIcture, there's only so much even the most talented people can do when surrounded by such drek.
For Christmas, I treated myself to the Stephen Sondheim's Hat Box, which comprises both volumes of his collected lyrics: Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. I'm in the active process of devouring the latter, and was struck by one of Sondheim's sidebars, this one about "Awards and Their Uselessness." Sondheim very cogently and soberly dissects the theater-awards process, a process that he himself is no stranger to, both in terms of being recognized and passed over. Sondheim concludes that the only real uses that artists have for awards are building confidence and, for the prizes that come with a cash sum, livelihood.
As I sat down to put together my annual lists of the best and worst musicals of the year, Sondheim's essay kept coming to mind. Lists are much like awards, in that they artificially create competition among the incomparable. And yet, like awards, we can't seem to get enough of lists. I know that the primary traffic drivers to my site are the numerous lists that I've compiled of The 100 Best Musicals of All Time, The Most Overrated Musicals, The Most Influential People in Musical-Theater History, etc. So forgive me, dear reader, while I pander to our baser instincts and engage in the arbitrary, subjective, and all around unfair process of ranking the best and the worst in musical theater (at least that I had a chance to see) in 2011.
(To read my full reviews, click on the initial mention of the title of each show.)
10. Ten Cents a Dance - A lot of people seem to be over director John Doyle and his actor/musician approach to musical theater. (Some would call it a gimmick. I think of it more as another potential way to approach a show. The charming new musical Onceuses actor/musicians, and I haven't heard anyone griping about that. At least not yet.) With Ten Cents a Dance, Doyle found what was perhaps the best use yet of actor/musicians in this revue of songs of Rodgers and Hart, which played this summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Doyle centered the story around a musician (Malcolm Gets) and five women in his life (including Donna McKechnie and Lauren Molina), and the actor/musician device proved an apt and compelling device for illuminating the relationships and creating a strong sense of collaboration, conflict, and catharsis. The show also played at the McCarter Theatre earlier this fall, and I haven't heard about any additional engagements, but I'm hoping to see maybe the Roundabout pick it up for a limited New York run.
9. Show Boat - Even though Show Boat is a universally recognized classic, opportunities to see the show live are relatively few. This is partly because of the imagined set requirements for a show of such sweeping chronological scope, but the good folks at the Goodspeed Opera House found a simple but ingenious way around this - they used the theater auditorium as a proxy for the audience section on the boat itself. This had the double benefit of creating a festive theatrical atmosphere for the show, but also bringing the audience members closer to the action. This allowed for the full emotional sweep of Oscar Hammerstein's compelling book and lyrics and Jerome Kern's glorious score to come to the fore. I had some quibbles with some of the casting and with the director Rob Ruggiero's at times breakneck pacing, but on the whole, this production became a welcome blueprint for more theaters to take on the seemingly onerous task of putting up one of the most important and glorious shows in the musical-theater canon.
8. Company - I wanted to include at least one of the "cinecasts" from the past year, simply because I want to encourage producers to keep them coming. My favorite this year was the filmed version of Stephen Sondheim's Company, which an all-star (or mostly-star) cast performed in a very limited run with the New York Philharmonic. Some thought that, with the ready availability of the DVD from the recent Broadway revival, this broadcast was a tad de trop. But given the opportunity to see Neil Patrick Harris as Bobby, and Patti LuPone as Joanne, I mean come on, folks. In some ways this version of Company surpassed all others that I've seen: Bobby has never been more sympathetic or lively than in the hands of Mr. Harris. And the supporting cast - which included Martha Plimpton, Craig Bierko, Katie Finneran, Jill Paice, Jennifer Laura Thompson, and Aaron Lazar - was simply outstanding. Word on the street has it that we probably won't see a DVD release of this production, but perhaps it might show up on PBS. (Please?)
6. Follies - A lot of people were incredulous that I didn't fly down to DC to see this production of Folliesat the Kennedy Center. (Anyone who would like to fund any proposed theater trips around the country is welcome to contact me through Paypal or some other money-transfer mechanism.) I think I knew deep down that I would get to see the production on Broadway, and I did. Quite happily. And twice. Follies has one of the best scores ever written (Thank you, Mr. Sondheim), although it is saddled with a book by James Goldman that possesses a few too many overripe passages than I care to enumerate. Nonetheless, the show is a wonderful showcase for a bevy of seasoned performers, and this production has a rich and varied complement of same. Bernadette Peters was the ostensible star here, but for me the production belonged to Jan Maxwell and Danny Burstein, who proved in spades why they're two of the most reliable and frequently cast performers of the past ten years. Follies runs until January 22nd. If you haven't already seen it, I order you to do so. Twice.
5. Porgy and Bess - As if we didn't already have enough to thank Stephen Sondheim for, we can also tip our hats to the master for bringing much-needed and -deserved attention to the upcoming Porgy and Bess revival. Of course, that wasn't his intention. He was really just fulminating about proposed ("proposed," mind you) changes to the now-classic show by director Diane Paulus and adaptor Suzan-Lori Parks during its tryout run at the American Repertory Theatre. For a while there, it was looking as though Sondheim's letter to the New York Times was going to scuttle any chances of Porgy and Bess reaching New York, but thankfully cooler heads have prevailed, and the show is now in previews at the Richard Rodgers Theater. Which means a much wider audience will have the opportunity to luxuriate in the glorious music of George Gershwin, the rich and resonant voices of Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in the title roles, and a much more dramatically efficient and compelling version of this heartbreaking story than any I've seen.
4. Candide - Here's another terrific production that, like Ten Cents a Dance, needs to find its way to New York. Of course, director Mary Zimmerman's fresh new take on Candide, which I saw at the Huntington Theatre in Boston, has already been seen in Chicago and Washington, DC. But it's the first version of Candide (and there have been many) that has truly done justice to both Voltaire's scathing book and Leonard Bernstein's sweeping score, and thus merits a sit-down stay in Manhattan, preferably on Broadway. Zimmerman has not only crafted a lively new libretto that takes full advantage of Bernstein's music, she has also put together an innovative production that brings more life, humor, and theatricality to the Candide story than any production I've encountered. Reliable rumor has it that we may indeed see this Candide, and some time very soon.
3. The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World - When I saw The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World at Playwrights Horizons, I genuinely thought it would garner a raft of glowing reviews. It did not. The critical reaction was all over the map, with many of my critical colleagues finding the show grim and depressing. I found it haunting and moving, and the production and the performances have stayed with me, like the persistent throb of a particularly disquieting dream. Writer Joy Gregory, composer/lyricist Gunnar Madsen, and director John Langs took the story of the unsuccessful singing group The Shaggs, an their notoriously awful but somehow mesmerizing recording, Philosophy of the World, and crafted a compelling story of unrealized ambition and quiet desperation. The Shaggs, as far as I know, did not receive a cast recording, which usually means that a show is dead in the water. It's really a shame, since this show would probably play extremely well at some of the more adventurous regional theaters around the country.
2. A Minister's Wife - This might come as a surprise to some of my regular readers. In my initial review of A Minister's Wife, a musical version of George Bernard Shaw's Candida, I expressed disappointment at not being able to enjoy this ambitious and challenging show more than I did. Even when I decided to return and revisit the show, I was still more in admiration of the show than in love with it. But then came the glorious cast recording from our friends at PS Classics which gave me a chance to revel in the richness of Joshua Schmidt's score, and in the intelligence and poetry of Jan Levy Tranen's lyrics. It seems I just can't get enough of A Minster's Wife on my iPod, in particular the thrilling final quintet, "Into the Night." It certainly doesn't hurt that the three central performances (from Mark Kudisch, Bobby Steggert, and newcomer Kate Fry) are so strong and layered. Both A Minster's Wife and the brilliant Adding Machine have solidified Schmidt's position as the most promising new composer that we have. I eagerly await the announcement of his next project. (The MP3 download for Adding Machine is currently available on Amazon for only $4.99. Do yourself a favor and grab it. It's quite challenging, but ultimately rewarding.)
1. The Book of Mormon - Predictable, I know. But deserved. The Book of Mormon is the biggest hit that Broadway has seen in years, perhaps decades. As of this writing, the soonest you could score a pair of seats at regular prices would be August 2012. I'm told that folks camp out overnight for rush tickets. Premium seats go for as high as $477.00, and who knows what you'll pay for tickets from a scalper or a ticket broker. Well, I'm not going to tell you what you should pay to see The Book of Mormon. I'm only going to say that the show deserves the hype. It's one of the most laugh-out-loud evenings I've ever had in the theater. The songs are strong, albeit littered with slant rhyme and mistressed words. And the book is actually smart in addition to being hysterically funny. Here's one of those perfect storms we only occasionally see in musicals, a fortuitous marriage of sensibility and stagecraft. Those zany "South Park" guys Trey Parker and Matt Stone no doubt deserve a good deal of the credit, but there's little question that Broadway veterans Robert Lopez and Casey Nicholaw were crucial in refining that satirical sensibility with a solid sense of practical theatricality. It seems clear that The Book of Mormon will be around for many years to come, even after the two terrific central performers Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad have moved on to other projects.
So it's back to school for me and for my students. This semester promises to be even more zany-kooky-crazy than ever, and I couldn't be happier.
Of course, one of the things I look forward to each semester is the opportunity to utilize my new musical-theater history students to help me create more lists. As you may have noted from my recent posts, I'm kind of a nut about lists.
One of the first things I do each semester in my musical-theater history course is ask my charges to write down the three best musicals ever. The criteria: theirs. Then we use the compiled list as an opportunity to start a conversation about what makes great musicals great.
Here's a list of the shows that received multiple votes:
West Side Story 14 Sweeney Todd 12 Les Miserables 8 Gypsy 8 Into the Woods 6 Wicked 6 Company 5 A Chorus Line 4 Ragtime 4 Funny Girl 3 Next to Normal 3 The Sound of Music 3 Carousel 2 Hair 2 The Music Man 2 Oklahoma 3 Parade 2 The Phantom of the Opera 2 South Pacific 2 Sunday in the Park With George 2
And here are the shows that received one vote each:
Anything Goes, Big River, The Book of Mormon, Cabaret, Candide, Caroline or Change, Cats, Damn Yankees, Fiddler on the Roof, Glory Days, Grey Gardens, Guys and Dolls, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hello Dolly, La Cage aux Folles, The Last Five Years, The Light in the Piazza, A Little Night Music, Memphis, The Pirates of Penzance, Rent, Show Boat, Singin' in the Rain, The Spitfire Grille, Songs for a New World, Spring Awakening, Starting Here Starting Now, [title of show]
The shows that I've placed in bold text are the outliers, the ones that I find interesting either because they're ranked higher or lower than usual, or because they're making their first appearance on the list. (Click here to see a sampling of lists from previous semesters.)
Funny Girl has never ranked as high as this. In fact, it usually only shows up once, if at all. The show is rarely done regionally or in high schools, so the students would likely only have been exposed to the show thus far through its marvelous movie version with what's her name. I think we can reasonably attribute the show's position on this semester's list to the upcoming revival of the show, and the attendant publicity on the casting of Lauren Ambrose and Bobby Cannavale in the leads.
I can't recall Next to Normal ranking this high before. I get the feeling that this is the last gasp for the show on this list, given that the show has closed on Broadway and the tour has wound down. Then again, the show is starting to catch on regionally, so it's possible that the show will continue to stay in the public's mind, and therefore on this list in the future.
The Book of Mormon makes its first appearance on the list, which is understandable, because it only opened last spring. I think we can attribute the fact that it didn't get multiple votes to two things: the show is sold out through the new year, and the tickets are pretty darned pricey. We're talking poor students here, after all.
It's a bit of a surprise that Rent only got one vote, as it's usually quite the sentimental favorite among my students. Plus, the show just re-opened Off Broadway, giving a new generation a chance to catch a professional version of the show. (Read my review.) Also, the show is pretty popular now among regional theaters, but that make in fact have worked against the show. Although powerful, Rent is chockablock with flaws and inconsistencies. It's possible that repeated exposure to the show has lessened its luster in the eyes of my students.
Then there are the one-offs, shows that rarely appear on the list, and probably only make an appearance when some regional theater decides to do it, and the students get a chance to appear in or see a relatively obscure show. I think this explains the presence of The Spitfire Grill, Starting Here Starting Now, and Songs for a New World. The last of these is very popular with students looking for songs to add to their rep books, so it's possible that the person who voted for Songs has never actually seen it, but only listened to the recording.
And then there's Glory Days, the one genuine WTF on this year's list. The show is a bit legendary among Broadway types, as it's the only one-performance Broadway flop in recent memory. I was scheduled to see the show the weekend after it opened (and closed), so it was the one show that season that I didn't get a chance to see. But my fellow bloggers tell me it was embarrassingly bad, and the cast recording, while revealing a certain naive charm, nonethless exhibits very little genuine craft. The subject matter - four high school buddies get together one year after graduation and discover they've grown apart - is certainly appealing to those of the incoming-freshmen mindset, but rather ridiculous to those of us of a certain age, who understand that one year out of school is hardly a prime vantage point for gaining wisdom or perspective.
Oh, well. At least no one voted for Jekyll & Hyde.
Yesterday on Twitter, there was a lot of talk about a recent list that EW.com posted of the 13 Funniest Broadway Musicals Ever. (Although upon closer inspection the list was actually published in June. Whatever.)
Click through the link above for a slide show of the musicals that made EW's list, but here's a less labor-intensive breakdown of the winners:
1. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum 2. The Book of Mormon 3. Avenue Q 4. The Producers 5. Spamalot 6. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee 7. Little Shop of Horrors 8. The Drowsy Chaperone 9. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels 10. Kiss Me Kate 11. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying 12. Hairspray 13. Urinetown
Well, lists are always suspect, specious, artificial and subject to vociferous debate. But they're also a helluva lot of fun to compile and to contemplate. So, let's start with EW's choices. Whadya think, reader? A little too heavily focused on recent shows, perhaps? Not enough historical perspective? Inevitably, one of your favorites will be missing from the list, or perhaps listed lower than you might like. My first thought was about some glaring omissions. I mean, Guys and Dolls? How could any supposedly compehensive list of the funniest shows be complete without Guys and Dolls?
But even beyond that clearly unpardonable lapse, the more I thought about it, the more some other genuinely funny shows, both recent (Xanadu, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) and not-so-recent (Little Me, They're Playing Our Song, City of Angels), kept coming to mind.
Keep in mind, though, that I've ranked these particular shows not in terms of their overall quality but rather in terms of their humor content. Often, the two go hand in hand, but some of the shows here listed aren't primarily known as comedies, although they may contain a considerable amount of humor. That explains why certain magnificent shows (e.g. My Fair Lady, The Fantasticks) might not be ranked as high as some other shows that are not quite as good but are considerably more funny.
Anyway, let the kvetching begin.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
The Book of Mormon
Guys and Dolls
The Drowsy Chaperone
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Little Shop of Horrors
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
City of Angels
[title of show]
They're Playing Our Song
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
The Full Monty
A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine
The Music Man
Kiss Me Kate
The Great American Trailer Park Musical
A Chorus Line
Fiddler on the Roof
Into the Woods
La Cage aux Folles
The Pajama Game
My Fair Lady
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
As Thousands Cheer
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
On the Town
Of Thee I Sing
Me and My Girl
My Favorite Year
No, No, Nanette
On the 20th Century
Once Upon a Mattress
When Pigs Fly
Annie Get Your Gun
Strike Up the Band
The Boys From Syracuse
The Pirates of Penzance
The Rocky Horror Show
Gutenberg - the Musical
High Button Shoes
A Connecticut Yankee
Pins and Needles
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
She Loves Me
A Little Night Music
The Wedding Singer
The Sound of Music
Bye Bye Birdie
Rock of Ages
Little Mary Sunshine
The Marvelous Wonderettes
Dames at Sea
The Toxic Avenger Musical
Ernest in Love
Olympus on My Mind
What's That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling
The Musical of Musicals - The Musical
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown
Whoop De Doo
Evil Dead - The Musical
Honorable Mention: Forbidden Broadway - Why haven't I listed it above? Because it has so many different versions. Which one was the funniest? That's another post entirely.
Ah, spring break. Time for me to catch up on some long-overdue blogging.
Towards the start of each semester, the students in my musical-theater history course at the Boston Conservatory embark upon two writing projects: the Most Overrated Musical and the Most Underrated Musical. See below for the results to the former. Herein lie the results to the latter.
Major caveat: my students are unquestionably influenced in their choice of shows by my impassioned in-class rhetoric, as well as my previous posts and lists on the subject on this very blog. So this is a decidedly skewed sampling, one that doesn't even begin to approach scientific validity. Nonetheless, I like to post the results to give my readers a glimpse into what the theater queens of tomorrow are thinking with regard to overall show quality.
Here are the shows that received more than one "vote" each:
And here are the shows that received one vote a piece:
Annie, Beauty and the Beast, Brigadoon, Bye Bye Birdie, Footloose, The Last Five Years, Legally Blonde, Les Miserables, The Light in the Piazza, The Most Happy Fella, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Secret Garden, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Tick Tick Boom, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Now, I know what you're thinking: "Wicked?! How could anyone call Wicked underrated? It's one of the biggest hit shows in the history of ever!" Well, I offer my students a number of essential categories into which an "underrated" show might fall: an undiscovered or forgotten gem (She Loves Me, 110 in the Shade), a financially unsuccessful show that may have deserved a longer run (The Wedding Singer, A Catered Affair) or an overblown spectacle that doesn't get the credit it deserves (Wicked, Les Miserables). The idea isn't for students to make a watertight, unassailable case for the show in question. It's to get them thinking more analytically about the artistic value of the shows that they see and perform in.
I've always been a big fan of Wicked. I happen to think that it has a whole lot more going for it than simply a spectacular production and flying green witches. It also reflects a lot of the topics, tactics, and techniques that I cover in my musical-theater history course, including believable and compelling character arcs (Elphaba, Glinda, Fiyero, and Nessa Rose), ambitious extended musical sequences ("No One Mourns the Wicked," "Dancing Through Life"), dramatically motivated reprises ("I'm Not That Girl"), political allegory ("Popular," "Wonderful"), as well as leitmotifs ("...unlimited...," "...I'm limited..."). To me, Wicked is very similar to Cabaret or Chicago in the sense that you can enjoy the show purely for its entertainment value, or you could listen more closely and maybe learn something.
I'm also totally on board with The Wedding Singer. It was one of the first shows I ever reviewed on this blog, and at the time I thought it was fairly mediocre. But in the years since the show bowed (and bowed out) on Broadway, the cast recording has made me a genuine fan. There's some really smart writing in the book and the lyrics, the songs are tuneful, and the orchestrations instantly transport me back to my distant youth in the 1980s. It also employs contrafactum ("Letter From Linda," "Letter From Grandma"), extended musical sequences ("Not That Kind of Thing," "Saturday Night in the City"), and leitmotifs ("...tell the night to save its moonlight..."). Plus, the show has its heart in the right place, and it seems to be catching on in regional and high school theaters. I know I'd much rather see The Wedding Singer proliferate than, say, Fame or Footloose. High schools need more than just Grease and Bye Bye Birdie in their repertoire.
So, whaddya think, dear reader? Any of my students choices surprise? Appall? Anything missing that you'd add to the list?
Papers, papers, papers. I recently sat down to calculate how many pages I would be reading and grading this semester. I have 79 students, who will engage in a total of 15 writing projects. That's 1,185 papers. And let's say the papers are an average of 3 pages each. That's 3,555 pages. And that doesn't take into account various midterms, finals, and quizzes.
Don't *nobody* bring me no bad news.
But, even though yet another pile of papers awaits, I couldn't resist the temptation to share with you, dear reader, this semester's crop of my students' choices for "The Most Overrated Musical." In my course on The History of Musical Theater, I assign students two writing topics as a sort of ramp up to the midterm and the final. This gives them a chance to see what I'm looking for, and for me to see how they think and write.
Every semester, I publish the list of shows that my students choose to write their papers on, with editorial comments from yours truly. A few caveats, though:
I guide the students quite heavily in their choices, so the list is clearly influenced by my own preferences and prejudices. Also, they clearly read my blog looking for ideas, and check out my own list of "overrated" musicals for inspiration.
I strongly suggest that they only write about a show for which they, or I, have access to the libretto. So even though numerous students express the urge to lambaste Mary Poppins, Billy Elliot, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King, I don't have copies of the libretti for those shows, so I usually try to steer these students towards another show.
I discourage students from writing about certain shows - for instance Cats and Grease - not because I think they're good, but because experience has taught me that students have a hard time pointing out exactly what's wrong with them.
I also discourage other shows that are just so bleeding awful that calling them "overrated" would be like shooting fish in a barrel. Examples here include Footloose, Fame, and High School Musical.
So, all that said, here's this semester's Most Overrated Musicals:
The following choices received one "vote" each: The Addams Family, Blood Brothers, Brigadoon, Carousel, Hello Dolly, Next to Normal, Pippin, Rent, Sunday in the Park With George, Sweet Charity, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Wicked, The Wild Party (Lippa).
Very few surprises here. Again, it's pretty clear that my students read my blog, which accounts for the strong presence of South Pacific. Regular readers will recall that I consider SoPac to be the most overrated musical of all time.
And I make specific mention of Spring Awakening quite frequently in class, particularly when I'm talking about integration - A.K.A. the extent to which elements of a musical propel the plot, reveal character, establish time and place, or just in general serve some kind of thematic or dramatic function in the show. No matter how you feel about Spring Awakening, the first three numbers of act 2 - "The Guilty Ones," "Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind," and "Left Behind" - are of questionable relevance at best, at least in as much as the lyrics connect to the story and the characters.
The big surprise this semester is Two Gentlemen of Verona. Few people have heard of this show, let alone seen or performed in it, but this unbearable little clunker has the notorious distinction of beating out Stephen Sondheim's Follies for the Best Musical Tony Award in 1972. And Two Gentlemen is awful. Awful, awful, awful. The cast recording is virtually unlistenable, and the show has fallen into well-deserved obscurity, while Follies has rightfully attained the status of, if not a masterpiece, then a deeply flawed but nonetheless fascinating experiment, with one of the best scores in musical-theater history.
You might ask, well, why focus on the negative? Why not have the students write about The Most Underrated Musical? Well, I do. I'm of the opinion that students can sharpen their critical-thinking skills through constructive analysis, but in the positive and negative realms. And the next batch of papers on the Most Underrated Musical sits right next to me as I type, looming large upon my blue-penciling horizon.
Snow day here at the BoCo. Gives me a chance to catch up on some blogging. Here goes...
Each semester, I begin my musical-theater history course at the Boston Conservatory by asking students to write down the three best musicals of all time. We then tally the results on the board and use the list to spark a spirited discussion about what makes a good show good.
Since I started this blog in 2006, I've been posting the results of this exercise for my readers to enjoy, benefit from, disagree with, etc. (Click here to see previous posts.)
This semester's list is a bit different in a number of respects. First, it's longer than usual. This is because I have more students this semester. For the first time, I have two separate sections of the course, one for undergraduates and one for grad students. I also have more than my usual complement of visiting students from Berklee College of Music, with whose campus the BoCo's is intimately interwoven.
However, the additional students haven't simply increased the size of the list, they've also transformed its very character. Here are the shows that received multiple votes, as well as the number of votes each received:
And here, in no particular order, are the shows that received one vote each:
The Music Man, Miss Saigon, Parade, Man of La Mancha, Legally Blonde, The Light in the Piazza, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Fantasticks, Hairspray, The Scottsboro Boys, Singing in the Rain, Little Shop of Horrors, Hello Dolly, Spring Awakening, Candide, [title of show], Little Women, Kiss Me Kate, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The Last Five Years.
Lots of really great stuff, huh? What really sticks out for me is how high Show Boat and Oklahoma rank this semester. They each usually make a nominal appearance, but I can't recall a time when they were both in the top ten. I don't think it would be condescending of me to point out that the relative maturity of the grad students accounts for this, especially considering all 5 of the Show Boat votes and 3 of the Oklahoma votes came from that class section. Are the grads simply making a more overt effort to impress, whereas the undergrads are simply voting their hearts? I'm feeling uncharacteristically charitable today, so I'm going to ascribe it to a genuinely refined sense of quality.
I also notice in the current list more of a sense of historical perspective. These lists are always influenced by which shows are actually playing on Broadway and on tour at any given time. But the only real evidence I see of that this semester is the presence of both In the Heights and Next to Normal. Now that both of those shows have closed in New York, it makes me wonder whether they'll continue to show up in future semesters, and indeed in future years. I genuinely think In the Heights will fade from memory rather quickly, at least until the movie comes out. Next to Normal will likely have a bit more staying power, particularly in light of its recent Pulitzer win.
One genuine surprise this time is the multiple votes for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a decidedly lackluster musical that nonetheless won the Tony Award (by default: it was a really slow year), and then proceeded to virtually disappear. I'm not sure how to explain its presence on the list this semester, except for the fact that the Speakeasy Stage put on a production of the show a few years back. But since these students are mostly freshmen, many of whom come from outside the Boston area, I can't really see that production as much of a factor.
So, whaddya think, dear reader? Anything in this semester's list that sticks out for you?
One thing I like to tell my students is that quality is always the exception. Good times, bum times, there's always a paucity of true quality, almost by definition. Sure, there have been times when the economics allowed for more productions, which seemed to give rise to more great shows. But that's partly because there were simply more shows being written and produced. It's not as though there was a higher percentage of great shows in the '40s and '50s. There was plenty of crap, too.
This, of course, is a major oversimplification. The show-development process was very different in the '40s and '50s, and there were more people who were able to make a living doing nothing but writing shows. Today, these folks are few and far between.
But that doesn't mean that people aren't writing new musicals. As I type this, I'm looking at two large boxes of scripts and CDs that I recently received from The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. This year, I'm a reader for the O'Neill's annual National Music Theater Conference, and for the past week and most of next week, I'm reading through the scripts and listening to the CDs and making recommendations for which shows should move on in the selection process. And you know what? Most of them aren't very good, at least in their current form. But every once in a while, there's a script that shows a glimmer of promise. And that's probably the way it should be.
Why am I telling you all this? Because this post is ostensibly about the worst musicals that I personally encountered in 2010, and I thought it was important to set the context: there will always be bad musical theater, as long as there's musical theater. I applaud anyone who sets about the task of putting together a new musical. But that doesn't mean I have to applaud the results. Musicals don't get an "A" for effort. What matters is what ends up on the stage and whether it works artistically.
Anyway, here's my list of the worst productions I saw in 2010. Click on the show titles to read my original reviews.
1. Come Fly Away - Quite possibly the most tedious show I've ever seen. Not because there wasn't a single line of dialog, or that there wasn't an original score. I'm not one of these purists who says that shows need to have X, Y, and Z to be considered true musicals. I'm completely open to the possibility that a show that's 100% dance could be compelling, moving, and entertaining. Come Fly Away wasn't. Part of the problem was the characterizations: I had no idea who these people were individually. But the main problem was that nothing really much happened to them. It was just a 90-minute morass of undifferentiated people and meaningless dance. There were a few times when Twyla Tharp's choreography rose above the pedestrian, but these moments were few, and not frequent enough to hold my attention. Tharp has apparently reworked the show and brought it to Las Vegas under the name Sinatra: Dance With Me. If you happen to be in Vegas, I say resist the invitation.
2. The Addams Family - As bad as The Addams Family is, I have to admit it was never boring. The credit here should probably go to the sturdy cast of Broadway stalwarts, including Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth. My main issue was that no one in the creative department seemed to be even passingly familiar with The Addams Family. Would Morticia be afraid of growing old? No, she'd throw a party to celebrate her first crow's foot. Would Wednesday come home one day and announce that she expected "One Normal Night" from her family? No. The Addamses haven't the slightest idea that they *aren't* normal. That's part of the humor. Would Uncle Fester proclaim, after the Addams ancestors have risen from the dead, that no one would return to the grave until true love prevailed? Puh-lease. The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice produced a few choice, if nonspecific, one liners, but Andrew Lippa score was embarrassingly flat and generic. The show, however, has become a money-maker, at least until Nathan Lane leaves in March. Will the show continue to sell out under the helm of the redoubtable Roger Rees? Stay tuned.
3. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown - I hated this show. Hated, hated, hated it. But, as often happens when shows get either really bad or really good word of mouth, the second wave of public reaction has gone in the other direction. "Geez, it's not *that* bad," people seem to be saying now. Well, yes it is. The book was flat, the score didn't contain a single memorable number, the dance was superfluous, and the mechanized set overshadowed the proceedings to a distracting degree. You know a show isn't working when you have Sherie Rene Scott, Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Danny Burstein on stage in front of you and you can't quite shake the feeling that you'd really rather be someplace else. That said, I was going to give the show a second chance. As a newly appointed member of the Outer Critics Circle, I was invited to the see the show next Wednesday. But, as you may have heard, the show will be closing this weekend, three weeks earlier than previously announced. All that star power, and the show couldn't even manage to sell above 50% during Christmas week. Ouch.
4. Promises, Promises - Easily my biggest personal disappointment of the season. I'm not really that big a fan of the show itself, but the cast (Kristin Chenoweth, Sean Hayes, Tony Goldwyn) and crew (director/choreographer Rob Ashford) had me practically giddy with anticipation. What happened? Well, Chenoweth was simply miscast in the role of a suicidal schlub. Hayes never let me forget for a minute that he was performing: he never quite made the transition past the mannerisms into playing the whole person. Goldwyn was stuck in the role of an underwritten, cardboard bad guy. And Ashford seemed to be too focused on the choreography - which was undistinguished - and gave the characterizations and pacing of the show short shrift. If it weren't for the scintillating Katie Finneran in an all-too-brief appearance in the second act, Promises, Promises would have been a complete washout. The show has sold rather well based on the presence of the stars, but clearly the producers understand that the show itself is a bit of a dog, since they're simply closing the show at the end of the stars' contracts.
5. The Blue Flower - The only regional entry on my list this year, The Blue Flower is currently playing at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. While I applaud the ART for including such an adventurous show in its season (especially after recent charges that the venerable ART is becoming too populist), I really wish the show itself had been less of a pretentious bore. Neophyte creators Jim and Ruth Bauer have put together a show in which the main characters rarely if ever speak, but rather express their thoughts and emotions through painfully oblique song lyrics. The show relies on lazy narration and projections to tell the actual story. The result is an admittedly ambitious but ultimately frustrating attempt at exploring and illuminating the dynamic of art and war, and the lives of the people caught in between.
6. A Little Night Music - Let me be excruciatingly clear here: I'm specifically referring to the Broadway production of A Little Night Music when Catherine Zeta-Jones was the star of the show. I must admit, in my review, I said that CZJ was "perfectly presentable, if uninspired" as Desiree. But then she won the Tony. The frickin' Tony. And why? Because she's a star, and the Tony voters wanted to congratulate themselves on being able to attract stars to Broadway. And then I saw A Little Night Music again, this time with Bernadette Peters as Desiree. What a transformation. (Read my re-review.) The production was virtually the same, but Peters, through the sheer force of her talent, professionalism, and genuine star presence, brought the entire production into focus and transformed the rest of the cast along with her. It was an amazing feat to witness, and the comparison brought into unflattering relief exactly how wanting CZJ's performance really was. The producers did themselves a favor by bringing in Peters: the show ran for another 6 months and probably brought them a lot closer to solvency. But they weren't doing CZJ any favors. In retrospect, I'll bet she wishes she could have simply paid the producers off to have closed the show on her departure.
7. The Burnt Part Boys - It seems unfair to pick on The Burnt Part Boys, simply because the show meant so well. It was a very serious musical about two young men who lost their father in a mining accident ten years before, and their efforts to restore honor to their father's memory. Pretty worthy stuff. Unfortunately the show itself didn't do its ambitious subject matter full justice. The bluegrass score by Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen scored points for authenticity, but the songs themselves didn't differentiate themselves from each other, and the result was idiomatic but dull. The cast was game, particularly Al Calderon and Charlie Brady as the central pair of brothers, but the book by Mariana Elder didn't really give them anywhere to go. Plus, the final plot complication was unconvincingly resolved, which left the entire show with a sort of "Why?" kind of feeling at the end. The characters and conceit for The Burnt Part Boys were more than worthy. Unfortunately, the score and the book didn't live up to the promise.
8. American Idiot - Another show that fell considerably short of its admittedly worthy ambitions. The best parts of American Idiot were the hard-rocking but melodic Green Day songs, the cast of energetic young performers, and a spectacular visual style. Where the show fell down was the story. (That really seems to be the theme of this list overall: these shows are long on concept but short on actual narrative.) Once director Michael Mayer came up with a scenario to hold the Green Day songs together, he seemed to just let it go at that and not give the characters anything to do except brood. American Idiot has been playing to really anemic houses, except for the week when Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong stepped into the part of St. Jimmy. So, rather than close a show that simply isn't catching on, the producers have persuaded Armstrong to join the show for an additional 50 performances, to help the show survive the winter. My prediction: the show will do extremely well with Armstrong, but once he leaves it will be back to business as usual.
9. Freckleface Strawberry - Just because you're writing a show for kids doesn't mean you get a pass with regard to dramatic structure and genuine inspiration. The show is based on the children's book FreckleFace Strawberry by the luminous Julianne Moore. But in bringing the story to the stage, the creators have failed to provide a cohesive story or a decent score. The show seems thrown together rather randomly, without thought for any kind of unity among the various elements. The energetic cast members give it their all, but ultimately they can't overcome what is essentially a hodgepodge of inferior songs and a book that's about as watertight as a colander.
10. The Roar of the Greasepaint/The Smell of the Crowd - I truly love the York Theater, and I genuinely support their efforts to both rediscover musical gems from the past as well as hone and burnish the jewels of the future. So I don't mean this to be a reflection at all on the valiant efforts of the good people at the York. I'm sure they meant well when they selected The Roar of the Greasepaint/The Smell of the Crowd as part of their fall Musicals in Mufti series. The score has plenty of catchy songs, including "Where Would You Be Without Me?," "Nothing Can Stop Me Now," "Who Can I Turn To?" and "A Wonderful Day Like Today." Listening to the cast recording, it's easy to wonder why the show has slipped into relative obscurity. But then there's that book. That pretentious, self-important, irritatingly allegorical book. I'm genuinely glad that I had a chance to experience the show, if only to give me a stronger sense of just how ponderous and annoying the shows from the 1960s could get. But otherwise I won't be in any great hurry to re-experience TROTGTSOTC any time soon.
DISHONORABLE MENTION: Million Dollar Quartet - MDQ wasn't all that awful as a show, but it does represent the increasing trend toward safe choices that give Baby Boomers exactly what they want, and nothing more. I have to admit that there's a little streak of vindictiveness lurking here. I originally hadn't planned on mentioning the show at all until last week, when I made a snide comment on Twitter about Stray Cats bassist Lee Rocker joining the cast for 12 performances in January. In the context of the show's growing list of one-night-only guest artists, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Darlene Love, Ray Benson, and Melissa Etheridge, I remarked that MDQ was becoming the next Chicago, in terms of stunt casting, and that I didn't mean that as praise. Well, a couple of my followers (no names, but we're talking really highly placed people here) took me to task for criticizing a producer's efforts to keep a show running. The implication seemed to be that, as an increasingly well known member of the theatrical community myself, I should be more positive and supportive. I bristled. My tweeted responses were as follows: "If I had liked the show, I might applaud it. But I didn't, so I don't. My $0.02," "I reserve the right to praise efforts that prolong shows I like and criticize efforts to attenuate shows I detest," and finally "And I happen to think that Broadway needs my cynicism in the face of shameless hucksterism. I'm on nobody's payroll."
Whaddya think, dear reader? Do I owe it to the Broadway community to be more supportive (i.e. mindless), or is considered criticism the best support of all?
Yes, it's that time of year again. When otherwise intelligent writers take time out of their busy schedules to create arbitrary, specious, and otherwise suspect lists of the best and worst of the year. I hate lists. But I also love lists.
Why the ambivalence? Well, I'm as much a sucker for lists as anyone else: it gives me a chance to reflect on what I loved and loathed over the course of the year. To be honest, lists drive traffic, but they also spark debate. But I also find them as artificial and unfair as, say, the Tony Awards. Why must everything be a contest? Why must we continually pit people and product against each other in the relentless pursuit of good, better, and best?
My personal hesitations notwithstanding, I nonetheless present the following as my decidedly personal, skewed, biased, and irreverent take on the best musicals - and one play with tons of music - of the year. To read my reviews, click on the title links. Sometime next week I"ll be posting my list of the worst. (And it ain't gonna be pretty, m'kay?)
1. The Scottsboro Boys - Hands down, the most powerful, tuneful, and paradoxically entertaining show of the year. How fitting that The Scottsboro Boys would cap the Broadway career of two of the most daring and innovative creators in Broadway history: John Kander and Fred Ebb. There's been a lot of moaning about The Scottsboro Boys with regard to its supposedly premature closing on Broadway. Yes, it's too bad the show couldn't find a wider audience. But here's a show that, in an ideal world, would have been better off finding a berth Off-Broadway. Unfortunately, there really isn't room for The Scottsboro Boys Off-Broadway either. Because of its challenging subject matter, it's really a show that can probably only play non-profit theaters, and there's talk of touring the show around to regional non-profits. The producers are also promising to bring the show back to Broadway in time for the Tony Awards in the spring. They're asking fans of the show to put their money where their emails are, and pledge to buy a ticket if the show reopens. Despite my reservations, I signed the pledge. Will you?
2. Anyone Can Whistle - What can you do with a show that has a fantastic score but a mess of a book? Well, you cut the book down to a bare minimum, you cast Donna Murphy, Sutton Foster, and Raúl Esparza in the leads, and you get Casey Nicholaw to stage it. The result was the exhilarating Encores production of Anyone Can Whistle, a perennial favorite among Stephen Sondheim's many ardent followers. Foster and Esparza had terrific chemistry, but it was Donna Murphy's virtuoso turn as Cora that really carried the day. Murphy is one of the best performers we currently have on Broadway, and she dug into the part of Cora with gusto and relish. It was truly one of those performances that you carry with you throughout your theater-going career. Nicholaw's direction and staging were nearly as indelible. Anyone Can Whistle is a show that depends upon a strong directorial hand, and Nicholaw brought the entire cast onto the same page with an arch but never clownish tone. Nicholaw's work on Elf was somewhat less inspired, but he has clearly proven himself a director and choreographer of tremendous promise.
3. La Cage aux Folles - Whoever said it was too soon to bring back La Cage clearly underestimated both the strength of the show itself and Terry Johnson's honest and empathic direction. I actually sort of enjoyed the 2004 revival of La Cage, but it wasn't until I saw the current revival that I truly understood the emotional impact of the piece. This production would probably never have happened without Kelsey Grammer, but the real star of the show was Douglas Hodge, who managed to be both mannered and moving at the same time. I'll be very interested to see how the show changes under the ministrations of its upcoming replacement cast: Jeffrey Tambor and Harvey Fierstein as Georges and Albin, respectively. As we saw this season with A Little Night Music (see below), replacement casts can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of the show. Yes, Fierstein wrote the durn thing, and has a lot of drag experience. But can he bring Zaza to convincing life? I can't wait to find out.
4. A Little Night Music - I want to be very clear here: I'm specifically referring to the Broadway production of A Little Night Music *after* Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch joined up. I had very little praise for the show under the helm of Catherine Zeta-Jones (read my review). But once Bernadette and Elaine came on board, suddenly the production transformed itself into a genuinely moving and heartfelt show. Sure, Bernadette chewed a bit of David Farley's unappealing scenery. And Elaine forgot her lines to a distracting extent. (At the performance I attended, she looked at young Fredericka at one point and bellowed, "What the hell was I going to say to you?") But the sheer presence, professionalism, and warmth that these two wonderful performers exuded permeated the rest of the cast, bringing what was a ragtag bunch of admittedly talented but unfocused performers into a unified troupe. It was one of the most drastic theatrical transformations I've ever witnessed, and for that we have Catherine Zeta-Jones to thank: the show would never have come to Broadway without her, and then we wouldn't have had the chance to see a far superior performer take her place.
5. Yank - Sheer joy, both in terms of the writing and the performances. Yank was a lovely surprise for me. I'm certainly sympathetic to the subject matter: the story of two gay soldiers finding love during World War II. But what made this show work was the delightful score by David Zellnik (book and lyrics) and Joseph Zellnik (music), and a bevy of smart and moving performances, led my the terrific Bobby Steggert and Ivan Hernandez. The pair brought such credibility and warmth to their scenes together, it was quite easy to get caught up in their passion. The show was one of a number of Off-Broadway shows that were announced for Broadway this season, but Yank was later postponed, even after director David Cromer signed on to further develop the show. I'm not sure Yank will meet a more promising fate than the other shows on this list that moved from Off-Broadway to On-, but I greatly look forward to seeing this show again, hopefully with the delightful Bobby Steggert in the starring role.
6. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson - What a difference an audience made. The first time I saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at The Public Theater, I was a bit nonplussed (read my review). The book and direction were sharp, but I found the the score to be one long undifferentiated drone. Plus, the audience just wasn't getting it, which made it hard to really appreciate the humor. Then I saw the show after it transferred to Broadway. I still had problems connecting with the score, but the preview audience was eating it up, and I went happily along for the ride. Some people have quibbled that the show plays fast and loose with history, taking Jackson's story and forcefully wringing out modern political resonance. To those people I reply, "Yeah, so?" Name one musical that's historically accurate. 1776? Ragtime? Name one musical that's faithful to its source. My Fair Lady? West Side Story? Gypsy? Sweeney Todd? Nope. Not one of 'em. I simply don't buy the notion that shows need to be documentaries and stick slavishly to history. I'm all for that which serves the author's vision of the piece, provided it's executed with genuine wit and passion, as it most certainly is in BBAJ.
7. The Kid - This one kind of came out of nowhere for me, played for a while, and then went away. I'm really hoping to see The Kid resurface at some point, because there was a lot worth recommending in the show. The story involves sex columnist Dan Savage and the efforts by him and his boyfriend to become parents. Along the way, they meet with various obstacles, challenges, and eventually success. The show is by a talented trio of newcomers, Michael Zam (book), Andy Monroe (music), and Jack Lechner, (lyrics), and featured a charming cast, led by the always remarkable Christopher Sieber. There have been hints of a cast recording as well as future versions of the show, and I for one look forward to both, as well as to future work by these promisingly talented gentlemen.
8. See Rock City - Another pleasant Off-Broadway surprise, and one that I might not even have noticed if my friend Andy Propst at Theatermania hadn't pointed it out to me. The show was a travelogue of sorts, taking the viewer on a tour of various tourist destinations across the United States. What could have been a fragmented mess instead coalesced into a humorous and moving collation of stories and songs from composer Brad Alexander and lyricist/librettist Adam Mathias. The show was performed by an appealing cast of New York regulars, including Stanley Bahorek, Donna Lynn Champlin, and Bryce Ryness. Combine all that with wonderfully environmental staging by director Jack Cummings III, and the result was an innovative and engaging evening, one that I sincerely hope has a future life.
9. Brief Encounter - "Oh, come on now, Chris. Brief Encounter is a play, not a musical." Yeah, I know. But Emma Rice's imaginative staging of Noël Coward's play and screenplay was also chockablock with some of Coward's best songs, including "Mad About the Boy" and "A Room With a View." The show was veritably suffused with music, dotted with dance, and rife with the sort of inspired theatricality that most Broadway musicals can only aspire to. The cast strolled the aisles of the Studio 54 in troubadour fashion, and even took literal flight above the stage. What's more, the spectacle didn't detract from the human element of the story, but rather enhanced it, creating one of the most sublime and unforgettable theatrical experiences in many a season. Simply enchanting.
10. Fanny - It tells you something about the artistic caliber of the musicals on Broadway this year that I needed to list two Encores productions to fill out my top ten. But, in truth, Fanny probably would have made the list anyway, mostly because it represented an opportunity to experience what programs like Encores are all about: a rediscovered, nearly forgotten little gem of a show with a delightful score (by the under-appreciated Harold Rome), a funny and moving book (S. N. Behrman and Joshua Logan), performed by a sturdy cast of performers, both old (Fred Applegate and George Hearn) and new (Elena Shaddow and James Snyder). Encores got off to a bit of a pedestrian start this season with Bells Are Ringing, but I'm genuinely intrigued by the season's remaining two productions: the obscure Where's Charley? and the heartrending Lost in the Stars. Watch this space for my take on both.
I've just about finished grading this semester's crop of papers in which my students defend their choices for the most "underrated" musical. As always, it's not really about the choice of show, but rather how well they present and support their arguments. But I always like to share the list of shows with my readers, as it typically brings to light a number of wonderful but under-appreciated musicals.
Here's the list of shows that received more than one "vote":
As always, the list breaks down into three main categories: little-known gems (Steel Pier, Violet), financially unsuccessful shows that may not have gotten their full due (The Wedding Singer, Passing Strange), and popular shows that despite their success have considerable detractors (Spring Awakening, Miss Saigon, The Sound of Music).
It's lovely to see Once on This Island get some love. I'm a big fan of Flaherty and Ahrens, and of Once on This Island in particular. It has a lovely score, a great deal of heart, and it's considerably more faithful to the Hans Christian Anderson "The Little Mermaid" than the Disney film and stage show.
I was a big fan of Steel Pier when I saw the show on Broadway during its original run. I found the characters alternately endearing and reprehensible, as befits their roles in the show, and the show featured a breathtaking amount of Susan Stroman's artful choreography. But then there's the score. It's certainly not top-drawer Kander and Ebb. There are a few pearls ("Willing to Ride," "Everybody's Girl") hidden among the costume jewelry ("Running in Place," "First You Dream"), but overall I find that I don't have the urge to play the CD very often, if at all. I feel much the same about Curtains. Thankfully, The Scottsboro Boys more than makes up for the previous fallow period in the Kander and Ebb canon, and represents a fitting cap to a fruitful and important partnership.
I really need to break out my Violet CD and reacquaint myself with this charming and heartfelt show. I saw it years ago and was thoroughly disarmed and impressed, particularly with the "Luck of the Draw" sequence. Violet comes up quite frequently in these "underrated" assignments, and it even pops up from time to time during the "Bestest Musical Ever" exercise. If you're not familiar with Violet, it's about a young girl who is the victim of a horribly disfiguring accident: her father accidentally hits her in the face with an axe. Talk about your bad ideas for a musical, right? But, as with The Elephant Man, the disfigurement is only suggested through the staging, giving the audience a chance to focus on the beauty within.
Every year, the "underrated" list features a few questionable choices. Like Spelling Bee. It ran for three years, made a considerable profit, and is now becoming one of the most performed shows in regional theater. That doesn't sound very underrated to me. But, again, the paper is about students defending their choices, so the grade here won't be based on the choice of topic, but rather the strength of the support.
So, dear reader, what do you think? What do you make of the list above? And what's your choice for the most underrated musical?
My blogging frequency typically plummets this time of year, what with the start of a new semester and all. But the upside of all this academic activity is that I have a new crop of musical-theater majors who are actively sharpening their critical skills on a couple of exercises that I submit them to each semester. And the upshot of those exercises, dear reader, is a number of lists that I make a habit of sharing with you.
My most recent post enumerated the students' choices for The Bestest Musical Ever (subject to change by semester's end), and just today my students passed in their first paper, the assignment for which was to select and defend (emphasis on "defend") their choices for the "most overrated" musical ever.
When I mentioned this paper topic on Twitter, one of my followers wondered why I chose to "take the negative tack." "Why not ask about the most underrated musical and hear about virtues?" My prescient friend anticipated the next assignment facing my students: the most underrated musical. But his point is a fair one: why focus on the negative? Why not put the "underrated" paper first? Well, as we all know, for many people it's much easier to criticize than to praise, so this makes for a more accessible task to start with. And once they've ripped some poor unsuspecting show a new one, they're in a better position to discuss what makes the good shows good. At least that's the theory.
Below is the list of shows that students chose to write about this semester, as well as the number of students who wrote about that show. A few caveats: Based on previous experience, I actively discourage students from writing about certain shows, including Grease, Cats, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I'm not saying I think these shows are above reproach. Hardly. It's just that I've found that students have had a difficult time explaining what exactly is wrong with them. There have been exceptions: I had a terrific anti-Cats paper last semester, and one of the best papers I've ever received was about Joseph. But over the years, I've seen more students struggle with these shows, so I tend to steer students away.
Also, the list below is clearly influenced by my own personal biases, as well as what I've written about these shows on my blog. I even have my own list of The Most Overrated Musicals, which you can check out by clicking through on the link. (Equal time: I also keep a list of The Most Underrated Musicals.) So, in no way is this list a representative sampling of...well, of anything, really. It's just an academic exercise, more important for the process than the product.
All that said, let's take a look at the list:
5 Pippin 3 The Phantom of the Opera 2 Bare 2 Bye Bye Birdie 2 In the Heights 2 Mamma Mia 2 South Pacific
One paper each: Aida, Annie, Curtains, Godspell, Footloose, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Nunsense, Rent, Side Show, Spring Awakening, The Pajama Game, Thoroughly Modern Millie
Now, Pippin has shown up before, but never quite to this extent. I do know that I steered at least two students toward that show. When students are having a hard time choosing a show, I ask them to send me a list of shows that they've done, and clearly I've been in an anti-Pippin state of mind. Which is funny, because it's one of the shows that I'm having the students in my criticism class write a review for. And since I have the DVD and script on reserve in the BoCo library, it was easy to steer students who were unsure toward that show based on available resources.
And, as regular readers will no doubt recall, I am not a big fan of South Pacific, and have made no secret about it on my blog, so I'm sure I'm directly responsible for its appearance on this list.
But I claim no responsibility for Barebeing on this list, although, frankly, I'm not a fan of the show. I find it maudlin and cloying, and the songs simply don't grab me, despite multiple listenings. The show certainly has its ardent (rabid?) fans, and I've had many people defend it to me over the years, but the way I see it, the show has to make me a fan of itself, rather than relying on some outside PR job.
As for the rest of the list, these are fairly standard choices. I'm not sure how Footloosegot past me, though. I usually steer students away from it, on the premise that criticizing Footloose is like shooting fish in a barrel. Is there anyone out there who genuinely thinks Footloose is a good show? Interestingly, one of the best papers I've read in the past few years came from a student who was defending Footloose as part of her "Underrated Musical" assignment. She did a great job of demonstrating some things about the show that are actually pretty good, including the arc for the character of the preacher's wife.
But, ultimately, it's not really about whether these shows are good or bad. The most important part of this assignment is how well they support their choices with cogent arguments and specific examples from the shows. And, as my past students will tell you, that has absolutely nothing to do with whether I happen to agree with their choices. Seriously.
The start of another school year means another crop of freshpersons to induct into the world of musical theater. And the first thing I always do in my History of Musical Theater course is ask the students to write down the three best musicals of all time. The criteria: theirs. We list the results on the board and then start to discuss what these shows might have in common, if anything. The point: to get them to start thinking about what makes a quality musical.
Every semester I make it a point to share the list with my readers. It's hardly a scientific sampling, of course, but it does serve as a nice touch point on what shows are part of the theater queen zeitgeist. (I use the term "theater queen" in an egalitarian sense. It has nothing to do with sexuality: women and straight men can be TQs, as far as I'm concerned.)
Here are the shows that received multiple votes this semester:
This is the highest that I recall Wicked ever ranking on this list. Usually the show receives a few votes, but I don't think it has ever received 7. As always, the current list is clearly influenced by recent shows and revivals. Hair wasn't even on the list a few semesters back, so the recent Broadway production and the upcoming national tour have undoubtedly given the show a higher profile. The list also tends to be dependent on the shows that these students have performed in and seen in high school and community productions. This partially explains the high ranking for Les Miz, but it doesn't account for why Guys and Dolls only came up once, considering how frequently it's performed. And how good it is.
Sweeney Todd is also ranked surprisingly low, especially considering we're doing it here at the BoCo this semester. Perhaps folks who weren't cast in the show were reluctant to select it as one of their best?
One final unusual feature of the present list is the absense of oddballs or outliers, except perhaps for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. In previous semesters, there has usually been the occasional High Spirits or Little Mary Sunshine throwing off the curve. Such abberations are usually dependent on some adventurous director out in the hinterlands who's sick of doing Bye Bye Birdie and Greaseand looking for something a little offbeat to break the monotony.