You know, you'd think that there would be a lot more Broadway Christmas songs than there are. People periodically ask me for recommendations, for cabaret performances and choral concerts and whatnot. But there really aren't that many.
Try thinking of ten off the top of your head. Unless you're my friend Kevin at Theater Aficionado at Large, you'll probably have difficulty getting beyond five.
So, below I've provided a decidedly biased sampling of Broadway (or Broadway-related) Christmas songs, along with some links for you to listen to the songs in question. Feel free to share your own personal favorites as well.
A very happy Christmas to all of my friends, old and new, out there in EIKILFM Land.
I'm just now catching up on my blogging. I've been busy this week getting ready for the annual Pride concert with the Boston Gay Men's Chorus. This year, the theme is "Divas"; those fabulous ladies of the stage, screen, concert hall, and recording studio. We had our first concert last night, and it was a rousing success. But we have two more concerts this weekend, on Friday at 8 PM, and Sunday at 7 PM. If you're in the area, you might want to stop by and check out the proceedings.
"But," you ask, "what part do you play in all of this, Chris?" Well, thank you for asking. I'm not only part of the corps de ballet, dancing up a storm in such energetic numbers as "Le Jazz Hot" and "Proud Mary," I also make a special appearance as your humble blogger, introducing and providing color commentary during the section of the concert in which we pay tribute to the fabulous divas of the stage, including Ethel Merman, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, and Patti LuPone.
So, if you're looking for a fabulous way to celebrate Pride in the Boston area, why not stroll on over to the Cutler Majestic Theater in Boston's theater district. Tickets are $15 to $45, and are available through Telecharge. There are limited seats available for Friday night, but there are plenty of good seats left for Sunday.
Of course, at the time, the recordings would have been in the form of LPs, all in a pile strewn across my bedroom floor. The great thing about LP cast albums was they often had gatefold interiors that opened to reveal adult-size production notes, pictures, essays, and synopses. And I devoured them all with the brio of a star-struck, musical-obsessed little Nancy boy. I can still remember some of the names contained therein: the Martha Swopes, the Thomas Z. Shepherds, the Goddard Liebersons, the Kevin Kellys. Who were these people? How did they come to be involved in this hallowed process? And how could I become one of them?
Cut to 2010. I'm in the midst of correcting final exams, when I get a phone call from Tommy Krasker, executive producer at PS Classics. Now, Tommy and I had been in touch off and on for years. I think he contacted me about a glowing review that I wrote of one of the shows that his label recorded, although I can't recall which show. Possibly Adding Machine, or maybe A Catered Affair. Anyway, I took the opportunity to put a bug in Tommy's ear about giving me the chance to fulfill a life-long dream of writing the liner notes for a cast recording. He was actually very positive about the possibility, but I didn't hear back from him about it, although we did continue to correspond, albeit infrequently.
So, back to the phone call. Tommy said that the person who was supposed to write an essay to accompany the upcoming PS Classics release of the obscure but delightful 1930s revue Life Begins at 8:40 was unable to meet the already-passed deadline, and would I be able to scare something up in impossibly short order?
"Can I roller-skate?!"
As soon as I hung up, I made a beeline for my theater bookcase and amassed a pile of books to begin my research. For the uninitiated, Life Begins at 8:40 was a lavish Broadway revue in the traditional of the Ziegfeld Follies and George White's Scandals. In fact, Life Begins at 8:40 was going to be another in the Ziegfeld series, the famed Shubert Brothers having purchased the rights to the Follies after the great Zeigfeld's death. But legal problems arose, and the show eventually came to be called Life Begins at 8:40. The title is a reference both to the 1932 bestseller Life Begins at 40, and to the typical curtain time for Broadway shows of the era.
The new CD will be the first-ever complete recording of the score from the show, and features a veritable who's who of contemporary Broadway scene, including Kate
Oscar, and Faith
Prince. The recording will be released on June 8th, but you can pre-order it on Amazon or CD Universe, or you can wait and download the tracks from Amazon or iTunes. Whatever you do, please don't download the songs from an illegal file-sharing site. The good folks at PS Classics work tremendously hard, and if it weren't for people like Tommy Krasker we wouldn't have a chance to hear previously undiscovered gems like Life Begins at 8:40 and Kitty's Kisses. And if it weren't for Tommy, I might not have had the chance to fulfill a lifelong dream. So, do us all a favor, and pay for your music. In the long run, you'll be glad that you did.
For me, there's no greater pleasure than sitting down to listen to the cast recording of a beloved show. Of course, I'll buy practically anything, irrespective of whether I've seen the show. Years ago, my cousin Joanne asked me why I would buy the cast recording for a production I hadn't seen. I sputtered at first, for lack of comprehension. Why would one need to have seen a show to enjoy a cast recording, I eventually replied. I wasn't alive to see Ethel Merman in Gypsy, but I can still marvel in her clarion call of a voice on what might just be the greatest score of all time.
In deference to my cousin, I will say that cast recordings are that much sweeter when I have seen the production in question. It's one of the reasons why I'm so delighted with the new PS Classics release of Finian's Rainbow. Alas, this production of Finian's Rainbow played its final performance at the St. James Theater in January. I saw the show once at Encores (read my review) and twice on Broadway (read my review and my re-review). My take on the show itself varied, but my reaction to the score was steadfast: it's a gem. Fortunately, the good folks at PS Classics have done their usual bang-up job of preserving classic and quality shows, which now includes this nonpareil score from composer Burton Lane and lyricist Yip Harburg.
Sure, there are more cohesive and integrated scores, particularly those from some of the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. But I'll be damned if I can think of another score from this or any period that has as many genuinely tuneful, funny, and charming numbers as Finian's Rainbow. There honestly isn't a single bad number in the bunch. Lane and Harburg run the full gamut from sweet lyricism ("Look to the Rainbow") to charm songs ("Something Sort of Grandish") to rousing production numbers ("If This Isn't Love") to wry social comment ("Necessity"). And when you've got the personable and professional likes of Kate Baldwin, Cheyenne Jackson, Jim Norton, Christopher Fitzgerald, and Terri White to sing such a gem of a score, well, all the better.
This recording of Finian's Rainbow captures so much of what made the show charming, particularly Kate Baldwin's stirring soprano voice and Christopher Fitzgerald's impish playfulness. And what a delight it is to hear Terri White's husky voice emanate from my stereo once more. In younger days, I practically wore out my LP of Barnum, particularly White's bravura take on "Thank God I'm Old."
Rediscovering Finian's Rainbow got me to thinking about other shows that feature the worth of Burton and Harburg. Both gentlemen had distinguished careers as songwriters, but neither really hit it all that big on Broadway. Harburg's other shows include the underrated Bloomer Girl, the joyous but forgettable Jamaica, and the utterly bizarre Flahooley. None of these shows was particularly successful financially, and Flahooley was a outright bomb. Lane's most memorable shows, other than Finian's, were On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Carmelina, both of which have much to recommend them, although as a whole they're rather unfulfilling.
But as is often the case with talented creators, even their biggest flops contain diamonds in the rough. Which is one of the reasons that Kate Baldwin's new solo CD, Let's See What Happens, is such a delight. As a sort of Finian's tie-in, PS Classics has also recorded and released this compilation of musical delights, mostly from the various shows and movies that Lane and Harburg contributed to over the years. And who better to interpret these songs than the dazzling Ms. Baldwin.
The CD errs on the side of the slow and contemplative ballad, and
although I'm usually more of an uptempo guy, Baldwin's clean and
rounded delivery make for energizing listening even on the slowest of
slow songs. I really hope this woman has a long and successful career
ahead of her. She's enchanting both on-stage and in the studio. It's
Another semester, another spate of impressionable minds to indoctrinate into the...er...doctrine of musical theater.
Regular readers eagerly anticipate my students' biannual lists of the "bestest" musicals ever. At the start of my musical-theater history course, I ask my students to write down their choices for the three best musicals ever, and we tally the votes on the board. This prompts a discussion of what, if anything, these shows might have in common. We then take a huge step backward and begin our tour through 150 years of musicals.
Upon reflection, I'm not entirely sure why I use the twee neologism "bestest" to describe these lists. I think it's because it's the start of a new semester, before we've had a chance to establish a set of critical criteria for evaluating shows. The hope is that, by the end of the semester, they'll have a stronger sense of what "best" might entail. (More than a little condescending, I know. I've been accused of worse.)
In any case, here's the list for this semester's class. Here are the shows that received more than one vote:
It's interesting that the number-one show this semester, A Chorus Line, was only chosen by one person last semester. And West Side Story, which topped last semester's list, has fallen four slots to tie with Ragtime for fifth place. This is hardly a scientific sampling, but I do find the exercise vaguely illustrative of the changing tastes of the future theater queens of America. (As I've said before, I consider "theater queens" to be an all-inclusive term, male/female, gay/straight, whatever.)
I'm pleased to seeThe Drowsy Chaperone, a personal favorite of mine, make its first appearance on the list. Perhaps this is in some way a reaction to the recent announcement that MTI recently made available the amateur performance rights. Maybe two of my current students are harboring not-so-secret desires to play Man in Chair. (Get in line, bitches.)
As always, there are some interesting one-off choices on the list. Jacques Brel is a relatively recent discovery for me, based on listening to the wonderful revival cast recording. Some of the English lyrics are a bit pretentious and forced, but overall the raw sentiment of the songs and the haunting music itself are (at times, strangely) compelling. I'm particularly enamored of Robert Cuccioli's heartfelt recording of "Song for Old Lovers," so moving that I saw fit to include the song on my list of The Most Beautiful Theater Songs Ever.
And then there's Golden Boy. I'm intrigued as to how this particular student even knows about the show's existence, let alone choose it as one of the best shows ever. Golden Boy ran 568 performances in the mid-sixties, mostly based on the popularity of its star, Sammy Davis, Jr. Davis reprised the role in London in 1968, but the show then proceeded to pretty much disappear. There was talk a few years back of a Broadway revival of the show starring Usher, but beyond the initial announcement I haven't heard anything further.
As for the presence of Cats, Legally Blonde, and Mamma Mia on the list, well, the goal is that by the end of the semester, the students will have a stronger sense of what these shows are lacking in the context of the overall progression of the musical form. They're certainly free to enjoy whichever shows they choose. But maybe they'll have a slightly clearer idea of why Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, and My Fair Lady are that much better.
Earlier today, the revival of Finian's Rainbow played its final performance at the St. James Theater, and I must admit that I'm experiencing mixed feelings about this. I'm certainly sad to see the show go, but after seeing the production again last weekend, I think I have a clearer understanding of why it didn't catch on.
Some history: When I saw the show during its Encores stint, I found it tuneful but creaky. (Read my review) But when I saw the show on Broadway during previews, I was pretty darned charmed by the whole thing. (Read my review of the Broadway production.)
But, in retrospect, I think that's why Finian's Rainbow is closing at a loss. It's charming, it's sweet, it's tuneful. But it doesn't provide the emotional impact of South Pacific, the sweeping romance and spectacle of The Phantom of the Opera, or the fun and, well, razzle dazzle of Chicago.
Of course, Finian's Rainbow does have that glorious Burton Lane music, which is more than matched by the alternately heartfelt and clever lyrics of Yip Harburg. I was continually, almost in spite of myself, drawn in by the sheer magic of Lane's sweeping melodies. Numerous songs sent a chill up my spine as the luscious chords swelled from the orchestra pit, including "Look to the Rainbow" and "Come and Get It Day"
I still think that Finian's Rainbow is one of the best of the old-style musicals, but as I watched the show last week, I was lot more aware of the choppy nature of the book. There's something about Finian's Rainbow that just doesn't
build. The show feels overly episodic, with the resolutions coming very
shortly after their precipitating complications. So, although the show
certainly provides its share of charms, they don't coalesce into a
larger sense of catharsis.
Fortunately, we have the upcoming release of the Finian's Rainbow cast recording from PS Classics to look forward. Even if you didn't get a chance to see the show in New York, rest assured that most of the best that the production had to offer is on that CD. This may well prove to be the definitive recording of the show. You certainly couldn't ask for a better cast, particularly Kate Baldwin, Cheyenne Jackson, Jim Norton, Christopher Fitzgerald, and Terri White. But, honestly, there's not a weak link in the cast, at least not vocally. I get the feeling that this will be a recording to savor for years to come.
In my junior year in college, I heard that a classmate was going to be directing Ernest in Love, a musical version of The Importance of Being Earnest, the comic masterwork by Oscar Wilde. I had never heard of the show, nor indeed had I ever seen or read the original play, but a lot of my friends were auditioning, so I signed up. It wound up being my favorite theatrical experience of my college career, and the show has since occupied a special place in my heart.
So I was thrilled to hear that Irish Repertory Theatre would be mounting a production of Ernest in Love, which opened in December and has since been extended through February 14th. I had never seen the show, only appeared in it, and was hoping to see if it would hold up against my fond recollections.
Not quite. I still found much to admire and enjoy in the show's score, with music and lyrics by Anne Croswell and Lee Pockriss, respectively. But, despite my affection for Ernest, it wasn't quite working for me. I had to wonder: Was it the piece itself that was flawed? Were the performances not quite hitting their Wildean mark? Or had director Charlotte Moore somehow failed to bring all the pieces together to fully evoke the arch and rarefied world of Oscar Wilde?
I think it was a combination of all three. Some have questioned the necessity of turning The Importance of Being Earnest into a musical to begin with. It's an interesting question to ponder: Are there some works, plays in particular, that shouldn't be tampered with? For instance, Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones spent years trying turn Our Town into the musical Grover's Corners. Some said, why bother? The play's just fine the way it is. Well, if you take that reasoning too far, you can talk yourself out of writing any musical adaptation at all. Just because the source material works, does that necessarily mean it could never work as a musical? It's far too facile to say, "Oh, they never should have even tried." No one thought Pygmalion would make a good musical. Rodgers and Hammerstein tried for a year before giving up. Then Lerner and Loewe found a way to make it work, and the result was My Fair Lady.
So, I think Ernest in Love could have worked. In fact, it almost does. The main problem is that many of the numbers are stop-and-sing, and aren't necessary to the progression of the plot. This throws off the pacing of Wilde's farcical goings-on, stopping the show dead when we want it to move forward. In the best musical adaptations, if you remove the songs, the show wouldn't make sense. Too few of the songs in Ernest in Love are crucial to understanding the plot, except perhaps "A Handbag is Not a Proper Mother." In fact, the Irish Rep production does remove two songs from the show -- the opening "Come Raise Your Cup," and the four-character round "Eternal Devotion" -- with very little damage to the narrative. That's poor integration.
As for the production itself, the main liability was the otherwise talented Noah Racey, who is miscast here as Jack Worthing. Racey is known primarily as a dancer, and a fine one at that. He was one of the best things on stage in Curtains, and an absolute pleasure to watch. But his style was wrong for Worthing: too much purposeless movement and not enough solidity. As a sort of compensation, director Moore has added extended dance breaks for Racey, which really didn't work on the small Irish Rep stage, and served to emphasize that Racey wasn't the right choice for the role.
Fortunately, most of the rest of the cast is terrific, particularly the marvelous Beth Fowler, who is simply sensational as Lady Bracknell. Fowler lends an air of class to everything she does, and Ernest in Love is no exception. Also quite strong were Annika Boras as a laser-sharp Gwendolyn, Ian Holcomb as a charmingly louche Algernon, and Katie Fabel as a quirky, borderline maniacal, Cecily. Once the show got fully underway, all the main characters introduced, and the focus pulled away from Racey, the production settled more firmly into the world of Wilde, and the fun began to flow.
NOTE: New Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations require bloggers to disclose when they accept anything of material value related to their blog posts. I received complimentary press tickets to this performance of Ernest in Love.
Last Friday, the New York Post published a pointlessly cruel column by Riedel, in which he practically snickered with glee over the closure this past weekend of the Ragtime revival. Ordinarily I'd include a link to the column, but I don't want to justify his mean-spirited screed with extra traffic.
Amid the snark, Riedel dismissively referred to the Ragtime cast as a bunch of "regional" performers. (As though that would be something to be ashamed of.) Reidel is, however, quite wrong on this score. As Ragtime star Bobby Steggart pointed out on Twitter, "Funny how people who call themselves reporters don't check their facts. I've lived and worked in New York for 10 years." What's more, Christiane Noll made her Broadway debut in 1997 with Jekyll & Hyde. And Ron Bohmer has been performing in New York since 1985.
I really don't understand Riedel's apparent need to kick a such a fine bunch of people when they're down. The producers of Ragtime took a gamble when they decided to move the critically acclaimed Kennedy Center production to Broadway's Neil Simon Theater, and unfortunately that gamble didn't pay off. So why does Riedel take so much joy from this? ("What is your damage, Heather?")
Whatever, I had a chance to see Ragtime again over the weekend, and while I still had some reservations, I remain an ardent admirer of the show, and of this particular production. What's more, I'll take Ragtime over Riedel's little pet, Fela, any day.
As I said inmy initial review, this Ragtime didn't completely gel for me the first time I saw it. I found it very professional, but it seemed to be missing an
emotional center. Seeing the show a second time, I had the same reaction, and the key problem was the end of act one, which failed to reach the shattering climax that the story deserves. The primary motor for the plot at this point is the destruction of Coalhouse's car, and the subsequent scenes should ideally build with a sense of righteous indignation, but here Coalhouse comes off as merely petty. This makes the finaletto seem anticlimactic.
The problem with this sequence would seem to stem from a combination of the writing, the direction, and the performance of Quentin Earl
Darrington as Coalhouse. Composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens have certainly provided effective music here, particularly "'Til We Reach That Day," but the entire sequence happens so quickly, it's hard to really get a sense of the gravity of the proceedings. Librettist Terrence McNally shoulders some of the blame here, but director Marcia Milgrom Dodge also seems to have given this sequence short shrift, staging it in a way that robs it of the proper weight. And Darrington, while an admittedly talented performer, simply doesn't wrench the heart in quite the way the situation requires. The failure of this crucial sequence upsets the balance of the show, creating less interest in and sympathy for Coalhouse and Sarah, and leaving the other characters to pick up the slack.
I must admit Darrington became far more affecting at the very end of act 2, at which point the was a more palpable sense of fire in his performance, but this ultimately served to emphasize what he was missing throughout the rest of the show. Newcomer Stephanie Umoh, while quite beautiful and possessing a powerhouse of a voice, was even less effective as Sarah than the first time I saw the show. Her performance reflected surface grief and studied mannerisms; there really didn't seem to be anything behind her eyes to indicate she was genuinely feeling the role. (Full disclosure: Stephanie is a former student of mine, but I feel I owe it to my readers, and ultimately to Stephanie, not to pull any punches. I look forward to watching her grow as a performer.)
Unfortunately for Umoh and Darrington, but fortunately for the audience, the remainder of the principle cast was superlative. The marvelous Bobby Steggert had even more fire and intensity, some of which might have come from the indignation and grief of his last weekend as Younger Brother. Ron Bohmer exuded a childlike energy as Father, creating a remarkably sympathetic portrayal, while still portraying the man's flaws. And the delightful Christiane Noll remained a revelation as Mother. After so many years of sub-par material, Noll finally found a role commensurate with her talents. Noll was such a natural on stage, bringing such humor and nuance to her portrayal.
Despite the flaws of this production, I love me some Ragtime. If you didn't have a chance to see it, fear not: the performance that I saw was filmed for the Lincoln Center archive. So you can see and judge for yourself whether Riedel was right in saying that the production had no business coming to Broadway. I think you'll find Missy Riedel was wrong.
It suddenly occurred to me that Shrek is closing today and that I hadn't really made much mention of it, other than a Twitter post when the closure announcement first came. Kinda tells you something about the lasting impression that the show has made on my consciousness.
The main problem for me was, and remains, the lackluster songs by Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire. Other than "I Know It's Today," there really isn't any song in the show that has stuck, for me at least. I think if the score had been more overtly tuneful and memorable, Shrek might have been a winner. The story is certainly very strong, the cast was exemplary, and most of the production elements were solidly in place. "Family" shows really live or die based on the appeal of the actual songs in the show, and Shrek just didn't have the "wow" factor in the score department.
I'll be very interested to see if David Lindsay-Abaire continues to get offers to write musicals. Both Dreamworks and Disney have had mixed results in bringing on the pedigree playwrights to work on their would-be blockbusters. Experience seems to have shown that writing a mass-appeal musical (Shrek) is quite different from crafting a Pulitzer-Prize-winning drama (Rabbit Hole). Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife) had similar challenges with The Little Mermaid, although he did fare much better with Grey Gardens. And David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) has likewise met with both relative success (Aida) and a decided lack thereof (Tarzan). So, I don't think we're going to see these guys disappear entirely from musical creative rosters, but producers will likely think more carefully before they blithely assume that the skill sets for crafting effective plays and winning librettos are necessarily transferable.
As for Shrek, Dreamworks has been very tight-lipped about the total cost for the production, but it's very likely to be well north of $20 million, perhaps even $25 million, given the weekly operating losses the show has reportedly been incurring. There's no way the show recouped on Broadway, but a national tour will embark this summer. Might Shrek eke out a profit in the provinces, much as Disney is (realistically?) hoping to do with The Little Mermaid and Mel Brooks is (laughably?) hoping to do with Young Frankenstein? If I find out, you, dear reader, will be the first to know.
Another one bites the dust. No sooner had Ragtime posted its closing notice than Finian's Rainbow almost immediately followed suit. The show will end its run at the St. James Theater on January 17th, having played 92 regular performances and 22 previews. With a run that short, it's very unlikely that the show was able to make back its investment.
I must confess that, as big a fan as I am of Ragtime, I'm just a bit sadder to see Finian's Rainbow shutter. I wasn't all that taken with the show during its Encores run at City Center (read my review). As is often the case with Encores shows, the book was significantly truncated, which had a deleterious effect on my enjoyment of the show.
But when I saw the show on Broadway (read my review), I was captivated by its many charms, including the sensational score by Burton Lane and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, and a dynamite cast, headed by the dazzling Kate Baldwin, the sexy Cheyenne Jackson, as well as Jim Norton and Christopher Fitzgerald in delightful supporting roles. Director/choreographer Warren Carlyle whipped the production up into a charming, frothy, good-time of a show, one that I found much more artistically satisfying than the current production of Ragtime. Sure, they're radically different shows, and the comparison is a bit unfair, but that's my gut response to their relative closure announcements.
The producers of Finian's Rainbow blame the show's demise on the "economic realities of Broadway today." Closure announcements are always full of bluster and grandstanding: no one ever comes out and says the truth. But as I see it, the producers made an unwise decision in bringing the show to Broadway. As much as I enjoyed this production, and hope to see it again before it closes, it just wasn't a show that the ticket-buying public was crying out to see, economic vicissitudes notwithstanding.
It's probably good that I don't have the money to invest in shows, because I'm pretty sure I'd be terrible at deciding which shows the public is going to respond to. If I had had the opportunity to invest in either Ragtime or Finian's Rainbow, I'd have backed Ragtime, no contest. Yeah, I know, that seems to contradict what I just said above about which production I enjoyed more. But here I'm talking about what my prospective take would have been on which production would have had the greater chance of success, before I had had a chance to see either. Because that's when producers write their checks: before the show goes up, not after it becomes a success. Of course, I would have lost it all no matter which show I had chosen. But I really thought that Ragtime had a chance, and I genuinely believe it didn't get a fair shake the first time around. Ergo, it's a good thing I'm not an investor.
I'm headed down to New York next weekend to see A Little Night Music and Ernest in Love. When Ragtime announced it was closing, I also grabbed a discount ticket to see the show again that weekend, to see if perhaps it had coalesced into a stronger production since I saw it early in previews. Perhaps I'll also have to get a ticket to Finian's Rainbow to see if the brimming effervescence remains.
I love bad musicals. Not necessarily when I'm sitting through them, of course, but I cherish having the chance to relate the gory details to my friends, students, and readers. I can't count the number of times that I've dined out on Into the Light, an atrocious show whose creators chose to musicalize the process of scientifically verifying the Shroud of Turin. I always say that there's no such thing as a bad idea for a musical, only poor execution, but without question there are some show creators who are biting off more than they can chew. Into the Light contained the following immortal line: "Science with the data is like Christ without the stigmata." You don't soon forget a lyric that heinous.
Lately, one of my favorite topics for bad-musical discussions has been the song "Lice" from Kristina, in which two characters accuse each other of infesting a boat full of immigrants with the creepy crawlies. Charming. Then, in an attempt to quell the argument, one character intervenes by discussing how you can take the lice and put them between two slices of bread and feed them to your children. "It tastes like toffee," she exclaims.
The following shows were full of such what-were-they-thinking moments. Which is why I've come to almost treasure them, in a perverse sort of way. I tell my students that it's important to see bad shows to fully understand what makes good shows good. If that's true, then the creators of the shows listed here have provided me with quite an education indeed. And for that, I thank them.
The Worst Musicals of the 2000s
15. Ordinary Days: The Roundabout Theater has not exactly had a stellar track record of late. (Bye Bye Birdie? Pal Joey? The Ritz? Oy oy oy.) Lately, it's gotten to the point where I automatically assume that something put forth by the Roundabout Theater will be dreadful until I'm proven otherwise. But I'd like to think that I approached Ordinary Days with a relatively open mind. The show was the first musical presented as part of the Roundabout Underground series, and for the most part it was fairly innocuous. (Read my review.) But for one reason and one reason alone I chose to include the show on this list: because of the cheap, manipulative, and clumsy way that author Adam Gwon used 9/11 for dramatic effect at the end of the show. One of the female characters has trouble committing to a relationship, and in justification she sings about a whirlwind romance she had a few years earlier. Everything was going fine...and then first tower fell. I'm not saying 9/11 is off limits. But it needs to be consistent with the tone of the rest of the show, and in Ordinary Days, a would-be quirky romantic comedy, it decidedly was not.
14. The Boy From Oz: This was the sorriest excuse for a star show since Happy Hunting. Had it not been for the involvement of Hugh Jackman, this lame bio/jukebox musical would never have made it out of Australia. The life and songbook of Peter Allen just weren't enough to hang an entire show on. What's more, the producers knew that, so they crafted the show in such a way that Jackman was rarely off-stage, to the point where he actually changed costumes in full view of the audience. Now, I'll certainly pay good money to see Hugh Jackman with his shirt off, especially if he's kissing Jarrod Emmick as part of the deal. But in terms of compelling and interesting musical theater, The Boy From Oz was mere window dressing and nothing more.
13. The Tin Pan Alley Rag: I have to admit, including The Tin Pan Alley Rag on this list was just a wee bit vindictive. After publishing my negative review of the show, I received an email from the show's librettist, one Mark Saltzman. He said that, after reading my review, he wondered whether he should give back all the money he's made from the show, and return all the awards that he's won. But he ultimately decided not to. I didn't answer him directly, but I did publish an open reply on my blog: Dear Bad Writer: Are you sending hate mail to everyone who panned your show? You must be very busy. Regards, Chris. At the time, I didn't mention Saltzman by name, nor did I specify the show, lest I come off as overly petty. But now his show has closed, and I feel better now about addressing his snark directly. If Tin Pan Alley Rag had been half as entertaining as Saltzman's email, he might have had a winner on his hands. But the show was a turgid history lesson, frequently didactic but rarely entertaining. So hold onto those awards, Mr. Saltzman. They may be the last you'll ever see.
12. Vanities: Another yawnfest. Vanities is the musical version of an amiable and popular Off-Broadway play of the same name by Jack Heifner. Heifner also wrote the libretto for the musical, and the result was rather one-dimensional and dramatically unsatisfying. The characters lost any shred of believability in the transition from play to musical. And the score by David Kirshenbaum was more than merely forgettable. The songs seemed to add nothing to the plot, the characters, or even help establish the time and place. You could remove any or all of them and still be able to follow the story. That's a sign of a poorly integrated musical. Vanities was supposed to have landed on Broadway, but financing fell through in the bad economy. Which is probably a good thing: instead of a high-profile death on the main stem, the show was able to fail quietly in the relative shelter of the non-profit world.
11. Kristina: Ah, Kristina. I couldn't possibly finish up my list of the worst of the 2000s without making mention of Kristina. I received more hate mail in response to my review of the Carnegie Hall concert presentation of Kristina than in my entire three-and-a-half years of writing reviews for this blog combined. The entire nation of Sweden, it seemed, wanted to rip me a new one. I have never before been subjected to such vitriol, such discourtesy, such childish whining than in the comments to my Kristina review. That experience alone might have justified my placing the show at the top of my worst list. But I ranked it relatively low on my list because it's still a show under development. I must repeat, however, that the show I saw at Carnegie Hall didn't show a tremendous amount of promise. The drama was manufactured, the plot was detrimentally episodic, and the lyrics were replete with cliches and banalities. So, even without the ad homenem attack, Kristina would still have made this list. And quite handily so.
10. Saved: Not so much bad as bland, Saved suffered from a complete lack of focus. The creators couldn't seem to decide whether they were making a fluffy musical comedy, a trenchant social satire, or a serious musical about religion. (Read my original review.) The source material was pretty strong: the 2004 movie "Saved" starring Macaulay Culkin. But the show never established a consistent tone, veering from upbeat kitsch to ponderous introspection, all the while wasting a truly sensational cast of Broadway pros, including Aaron Tveit, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Julia Murney, Curtis Holbrook, and John Dossett. The show has since disappeared entirely - no cast recording, no regional productions, no developmental workshops - and I would be very surprised to see it resurface. There just wasn't enough there to make it salvageable. [Must resist urge to include "salvation" pun. Must...resist...]
9. 9 to 5: The movie "Nine to Five" has always been a sentimental favorite for me. I keenly recall sitting in the now-defunct Sack Cheri Theater in Boston watching the movie with my fellow drama nerds from high school, all of us convulsed with laughter, particularly during the fantasy/revenge sequence. I was genuinely rooting for this show to be a well-crafted hit. Alas, the show was neither well-crafted nor a hit. (Read my review.) Director Joe Mantello has officially lost whatever capital he may have accrued for his previous successes. The otherwise talented choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler was easily the worst possible choice for this show. His pop-and-lock style may have worked for In the Heights and The Wiz, but here it was woefully anachronistic. Librettist Patricia Resnick seemed to have no idea how to craft a musical, which forced Mantello and Blankenbeuhler to cover the clumsy transitions with pointless business and dance sequences. And Dolly Parton's score was awkward, tuneless, and unmemorable, save for the insanely catchy title tune from the movie. The only reason to sit through this show was to witness three terrific actresses at their best: Allison Janney, Stephanie J. Block, and Megan Hilty. Otherwise, 9 to 5 was an utter washout.
8. Happy Days: Easily the worst of the nostalgia-motivated musical adaptations, Happy Days was an affront to the eyes and ears. (Read my review.) I don't think it was such a bad idea to make the classic TV show "Happy Days" into a musical. Unfortunately, the show's creator, Garry Marshall, decided that he was the right person to write the libretto. Oh, how wrong he was. And Paul Williams' insipid songs didn't exactly enhance the show's prospects for success. I caught the show at the Goodspeed in Connecticut, where it apparently was very popular. Unfortunately, popularity at the esteemed Goodspeed isn't always an accurate indicator of quality or future success. (cf. The Story of My Life, 13, Little Johnny Jones, Harrigan 'n' Hart, All Shook Up, etc.) But I'd sooner sit through any of those shows again before deigning to revisit [shudder] Happy Days.
7. Evil Dead: Intentional camp is very difficult to pull off. Of course, it helps if you start with a cheesy classic like Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead." Then you need the chops to craft material that's simultaneously true to the source but also genuinely solid in its own right. The creators of Evil Dead seemed to think that the script and score didn't need to be any good because the show wasn't meant to be taken seriously. (Read my review.) But anyone familiar with Little Shop of Horrors or Bat Boyor even Xanadu knows that precisely the opposite is true: campy shows need to be even better than serious shows. Any actor or playwright can tell you that comedy is much harder to execute than drama. Apart from the hysterical denouement of Evil Dead -- a veritable ballet of blood -- the show was almost completely forgettable and without merit.
6. The Pirate Queen: Oh, the bloated, listing, foundering mess that was The Pirate Queen, the latest attempt by the creators of Les Miserablesand Miss Saigon to get back on the boards. Bad word of mouth dogged the production based on its poorly received 2006 Chicago tryout, so the producers brought in director Richard Maltby, Jr. to help right the ship. But then Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil refused to make changes based on Maltby's advice, and the show that arrived on Broadway was slightly different from how it had been in Chicago, but not much better. Among The Pirate Queen's crimes were cardboard characters, bland power ballads, incomprehensible staging, and turgid, unbelievable drama. (Read my full review.) With the ignominious failure of The Pirate Queen, along with the taint of the pair's two London failures, Martin Guerre and Marguerite, one wonders if we'll see a new show from Boublil and Schönberg any time soon -- on either side of the pond.
5. Young Frankenstein: No sooner had The Pirate Queen sunk than another bloated monster of a show took its place at the cavernous Hilton Theatre. Young Frankenstein may have been damned before it ever started performances in New York. The production team committed a number of PR blunders leading up to the show's opening, including some rather tacky behavior on the part of Mel Brooks, as well as an obscenely high top ticket price of $450. (Read a full account in my review.) But all would have been forgiven if the show had been any good. It wasn't. It was one of the laziest, most unimaginative productions I've witnessed in more than 30 years of theater going. Brooks seemed to think that, based on the phenomenal success of The Producers, all he had to do was throw the original "Young Frankenstein" movie on stage with a bunch of random, generic songs, pump it all up with Susan Stroman stagecraft, and the watch the money pour in. The show closed after little more than a year, and although Brooks famously didn't make the show's numbers public, there ain't no way in hell that a run that short could pay back on production costs that easily exceeded $20 million. Boo hoo.
4. Dirty Dancing: As cynical as Young Frankenstein was, it couldn't hold a candle to the staged abomination that was Dirty Dancing. The show has been running for years in cities across the world, which just goes to show that popularity and artistic quality are at best vague acquaintances. I caught the show during its Boston stint, and it was every bit as bad as I expected. And quite a bit more. (Read my full review.) Whatever its flaws, Young Frankenstein at least made a feint attempt at putting songs into the mouths of its characters. Not Dirty Dancing. The lead characters never sang a note. The songs from the best-selling soundtrack of what I guess is now considered a "classic" movie were sung by pool boys and chamber maids drifting along in the background. In other words, there was no creativity in evidence whatsoever. The dance was generic. The set was hideous. There were some decent performers in the cast, but the guy I saw play Johnny had all the charisma of cinder block. So far, Dirty Dancing hasn't made it to Broadway. (Perhaps the garlic and holy water that I secreted under the TKTS booth are working...) If you're ever faced with the option of seeing the show, stay home and throw in the DVD. It's the least you can do to honor the memory of the late Patrick Swayze.
3. A Tale of Two Cities: Every once in a while, a show makes it to Broadway to a collective cry of "WTF?!" A Tale of Two Cities was one of those shows. (Read my review.) It's hard to imagine that anyone could have seen this raw material and thought it was ready for a New York stage. It's also hard to conceive of producers who genuinely thought that the public would be crying out to see Les Miserables all over again, except this time without the decent score and credible human drama. Nonetheless, A Tale of Two Cities played an inexplicable 60 performances at the Al Hirschfeld Theater, then seemingly disappeared. Ah, but not so fast. Like many other unworthy properties, A Tale of Two Cities has found an international fan base, and will receive a studio cast recording and a PBS concert broadcast, which will reportedly be released on DVD. I say catch it on TV when it plays in your area. Don't take my word for it: witness for yourself the muddled, amateurish horror that is A Tale of Two Cities.
2. Frankenstein: Most bad musicals are tedious. But then there's the occasional misstep that becomes a bastion of unintentional comedy. Frankenstein was one of those shows. Not to be confused with Young Frankenstein, this show was a sober attempt at setting the tale of the Modern Prometheus to music. And while Young Frankenstein was trying unsuccessfully to be funny, Frankenstein fought a losing battle to be taken seriously. (Read my review.) The real fun started when the monster himself made his first appearance. Eschewing the green-skinned, bolt-necked Hollywood cliche, the creators came up with the idea of making the monster look like a gay porn star/speed-metal bass player. (Click here to see a picture of the horrible hottie.) The show pretty much went downhill from there.
1. Lestat: If the 2000s taught us one thing, it's that creating a musical about monsters (Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein) or vampires (Dracula, Dance of the Vampires) is fraught with peril. I didn't have a chance to see the latter two shows, but I have a feeling that if I had, they would have placed prominently on this list. I did, however, get to see Lestat. In fact, my review for Lestat was my very first post ever on this blog. Such an auspicious debut. The show has since become my low-water mark against which to measure bad shows. ("Was it worse than Lestat? Could anything ever be?") The main problem with Lestat was that it was mind-crushingly dull. The show moved at a positively glacial pace, and when it wasn't putting me to sleep, it was setting my nerves on edge with its shrill, unlikable characters, and Bernie Taupin's puerile lyrics. Elton John has since gone on to greater acclaim with the overrated Billy Elliot, on top of his phenomenal success with The Lion King. I get the feeling he would rather we just forgot about Lestat. The cast went into the recording studio before the show closed, but as yet the CD hasn't been released. But cast recording or no, I will never forget Lestat, Sir Elton. Never.
Following up on yesterday's list, here are my remaining choices for the best musicals of the 2000s. Feel free to carp, snipe, and otherwise disagree. But, in my humble estimation, these ten musicals represent the best that Broadway and Off-Broadway had to offer over the past ten years.
10. Xanadu: I loves me some Xanadu. I saw the show three times on Broadway, and each time was a delight. (Read my review, my re-review, and my re-re-review.)
Some found the show's appeal limited, or even nonexistent. One joke in
the show refers to itself as children's theater for 40-year-old gay
men. Many people seemed to agree, and failed to find the any charm in
the show. Frankly, I pity those people. Xanadu wore its satiric heart
on its sleeve, to be sure, and absolutely nothing in the show was meant
to be taken seriously. It wasn't just another jukebox musical; it was a
satire of jukebox musicals. Librettist Douglas Carter Beane
took one of the worst movies of all time and turned it into a night of
hilarity and frivolity. That's no small feat, and I for one can't wait
to catch the show again as the national tour wends its way to Providence, R.I.
9. A Man of No Importance: No list of the best musicals of the past decade would be complete without the presence of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.
In my humble opinion, Flaherty and Ahrens are the most talented writing
pair we currently have in musical theater. At their best, we get Ragtime and Once on This Island. But even when they misfire, we still get My Favorite Year or The Glorious Ones. A Man of No Importance
may turn out to be their best show. There's a seriousness of intent and
a quiet dignity than in many respects surpasses those of their other
shows. And the show certainly doesn't skimp on entertainment or comedy.
But, most important, it reflects the desire that Flaherty once told me
that he and Ahrens have for all their shows: to give voice to the
underrepresented and to bring about social change. And with the able
assistance of their Ragtime librettist, Terrence McNally, Flaherty and Ahrens achieve those goals with A Man of No Importance, and without making the show strident or preachy. That's certainly no mean feat.
8. Grey Gardens: The 2006-2007 Broadway season gave rise to two very different musicals, with nonetheless similar development arcs. Both Spring Awakening and Grey Gardens began their professional lives Off-Broadway at non-profit theaters: Atlantic Theatre Company and Playwrights Horizons,
respectively. But, other than the fact that they are both musicals, the
similarity really ends there. And, as is so often the case when there
are two strong shows in a given season, theater aficionados tend to
form camps, championing their favorite, to the dismissive exclusion of
the other. I know that many of my readers are in the Spring Awakening camp. I am not. Both shows are worthy in their own ways, and each has its flaws, but for me Grey Gardens was significantly more powerful and better crafted. Many took issue with the first act of Grey Gardens,
but I saw it as an intentional homage to the typical musicals of the
time period. And the second act is simply devastating. Some people
implied that Grey Gardens was for the fogies while Spring Awakening appealed to more youthful theatergoers. If that's true, I'll gladly accede to fogy-dom.
7. The Drowsy Chaperone: Quite a few recent shows have made affectionate fun of musical theater, including Urinetown, Xanadu, and Bat Boy, all of which appear elsewhere on this list. But The Drowsy Chaperone holds a special place in my heart, no doubt because I identified so strongly with "Man in Chair," played with great warmth and minor neurosis by co-librettist Bob Martin. The conceit of the show is that Man in Chair puts on one of his favorite cast records -- yes, records -- and the show comes to life around him, turning his dreary New York City basement apartment into a frothy 1920s musical comedy. The show was nothing but fun, and that's exactly what I had each of the three times I've seen the show: fun. Some of the songs are a bit lame, perhaps intentionally so. But the overall feel of the show was infectious, and the talented original cast, including Sutton Foster, Georgia Engel, Edward Hibbert, Beth Leavel, and Danny Burstein. was an unmitigated pleasure to watch. I dearly hope one day to actually play Man in Chair. And I don't care who I have to step over to get the part. (Hear that, Ricky?)
6. Bat Boy: Fans of musical theater have a lot to thank Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman for. These men single-handedly (well, double-handedly) created an entirely new sub-genre of musical theater with their wonderful Little Shop of Horrors. That genre: The Campy Off-Broadway Bloodbath. Granted, it took almost two decades for the genre to take off, but once it did we got a profusion of small shows with camp factors of 11 and body counts higher than that of Hamlet. Some of these shows were quite good (cf. Urinetown, Reefer Madness). Others, well, not so much. (cf. The Toxic Avenger, Evil Dead). Among the best was Bat Boy, which is easily one of the funniest shows I've ever seen, at least in its original Off Broadway production. The show closed prematurely in the aftermath of 9/11, but it has since gone on to become a staple in regional theater. It couldn't happen to a nicer half-boy/half-rodent.
5. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee: Easily my sentimental favorite of the decade, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is an absolute joy. I think a lot of us theater nerds saw ourselves in these misfit kids and their outside-the-mainstream passion for spelling. And William Finn created one of his best scores for the show, one full of humor, heartbreak and warmth. I thought at first I might be a bit biased: when I saw the show at the Second Stage, I was one of the onstage audience member spellers, and I was the last one eliminated, a fact of which I remain quite proud. (Read my original post here.) But I've since seen the show on tour and at its birthplace, the Barrington Stage, and I still had a ball even when I wasn't on stage. The show seems poised for a long and healthy afterlife, and I hope someday to play Vice Principal Douglas Panch. And I don't care who I have to step over to get the part. (Hear that, Ricky?)
4. The Light in the Piazza: I have a confession: I didn't really like The Light in the Piazza the first time I saw it. I guess I wasn't smelling what composer/lyricist Adam Guettel and librettist Craig Lucas were cooking, at least not at first. The show is often quiet and slow, and the music can be difficult to take in on a first hearing. Thankfully, The Light in the Piazza received a TV broadcast shortly before it closed, and I've since had the chance to watch the video again and again, each time finding more to appreciate and more to fall in love with. Likewise, repeated hearings of the score revealed an emotional richness and subtlety that few musicals strive for, let alone achieve. I greatly look forward to seeing what Guettel comes up with next, now that The Princess Brideappears to be a goner. Let's hope it's not another ten-year gap, as we had between Floyd Collins and Piazza.
3. Avenue Q: So much more than just a smart and funny new musical, Avenue Q represented something of an economic watershed. The show came seemingly out of nowhere, snatched the Tony for best musical from the hands of Wicked, and proved that small shows could make a profit on Broadway. Conventional wisdom held that, in order to make money, musicals needed to be huge, with elaborate sets and lots of theatrical pyrotechnics. Wrong. If it weren't for Avenue Q, we might not have seen many of the musicals on this list make it to Broadway, including Spelling Bee, Xanadu, and The Drowsy Chaperone. And now that Avenue Q has made the almost unprecedented move from Broadway to Off Broadway, the show appears to have opened yet another...well, avenue...for smaller shows to follow. Beyond that, it's also a very good show, full of wit, wisdom, and an entrancingly tuneful score by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. Even if it hadn't rewritten the rules, Avenue Q would still have made this list for the sheer quality of the writing.
2. Adding Machine: I had a really hard time deciding which show to place first on this list, but ultimately I had to make a decision. A tie would have been too annoying, and a bit lazy. But I could just as easily have justified putting Adding Machine first. I was simply blown away by this show. It wasn't just Joshua Schmidt's dynamic and eclectic score, or his and Jason Loewith's faithful adaptation of Elmer Rice's original play. It was also David Cromer's brave, uncompromising direction. The show starts off as a tale of the faceless everyman, but it quickly veers into far more subversive and satisfying territory. I greatly look forward to seeing the show again when Boston's Speakeasy Stage produces it this spring. If you're in the Boston area, I urge you to check it out. If not, I highly recommend the cast recording. This is a show to be experienced and savored. Truly one for the ages.
1. Urinetown: An unlikely masterpiece. Rarely have I experienced a musical that was so cohesive, so united in its intent, so solid in its execution as Urinetown. Mark Hollmann's score is a direct homage to Kurt Weill, and the show itself is partly a re-imagining of Marc Blitzstein's seminal The Cradle Will Rock. But Urinetown is so much more than that. It's also a shrewd satire of theater itself, and musical theater in particular, and that's really the level upon which the show truly shines. The book by Greg Kotis basically asks "What is the worst possible idea for a musical?" And the answer that it provides is nothing less than brilliant, and frequently hilarious to boot. In the original production, director John Rando kept all the actors on the same satiric page, and choreographer John Carrafa made comic reference to everyone from Bob Fosse to Gower Champion. The show has really caught on in the provinces, a fact that I find both gratifying and a bit surprising. Thankfully there appears to be room in the hearts and minds of the theater-going public for more than just Andrew Lloyd Webber and Mamma Mia.
mention: [title of show]: I couldn't finish up this list without making mention of [title of show]. I genuinely considered placing it somewhere on this list, but I decided that I needed to separate my affection for the show from an objective view of its inherent quality. I had a marvelous time both times I saw [title of show] on Broadway. I inadvertently bought a ticket to the show's first Broadway preview, an experience that was alternately thrilling and annoying: thrilling because of the sheer energy that permeated the proceedings, but annoying because of the exaggerated ovations and disproportionate response that each number, and seemingly every line, received from the [tos]-ser faithful. When I went back the next day, the show received a more moderated and realistic response, and while I once again genuinely enjoyed myself, I had to question whether the show would appeal to the general public. And, as it turns out, [title of show] wasn't able to cross over and attract a mainstream audience. I remain an ardent fan of Hunter Bell's sweet and witty book. But I also remain unimpressed by Jeff Bowen's music and lyrics. The music is fine for what it is, if somewhat derivative, but the lyrics are full of bad scansion ("car-RIE", "mar-RY"), filler lines ("And if they like us, will they mic us, me and you?"), and bland repetition ("Filling out the form, filling out the form...", "Festival medley, festival medley..."). I have great affection for [title of show], mostly because of its unapologetic and unbridled love of musical theater. But, as for being a genuinely well-crafted show, I'm afraid that it comes up just a little short.
All right, all you show-tune queens. Stop downloading that bootleg of the Finnish cast of Spring Awakening for a second and do something productive with your time.
One of my Boston Conservatory students -- the very talented and entrepreneurial Tyler Paul -- was recently the associate producer on a benefit recording for the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research. Tyler tells me that he holds the cause of raising funds for and awareness about pancreatic cancer research very dear to his heart, as he lost his beloved great uncle to the disease early last year.
The recording is called Heart and Music, and it boasts performances from quite a few of my BoCo students, including Marissa Miller, Sarah Drake, Ben Simpson, Niki Sawyer, and Mr. Tyler Paul himself. The recording features a number of popular, contemporary theater songs, such as "In Whatever Time We Have" from Children of Eden, "A New World" from Songs for a New World, and the title song, "Heart and Music" from A New Brain. The recording also includes some pop standards, such as "Let it Be" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water." All of the proceeds go directly to the Hirshberg Foundation.
Heart and Music is available now on iTunes; in fact, it's currently ranked as the #10 vocal album, right between Josh Groban and Norah Jones. As Tyler said to me in an email, "Not too shabby, huh?"