The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Dreamgirls

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Producers

December 16, 2005, Universal/Columbia  135 min.
Tho The Producers didn't resurrect Musical Comedy on Bway entirely on its own, it sure seemed like it. Such was the fuhrer--er, furor for the show--a last happy gasp before 9/11; and an even more welcome balm afterward--that it single-handedly changed the concept of premium seats at premium prices (thereby scalping the scalpers) that has, unfortunately become ubiquitous along The Street, pushing Bway Theater evermore into a luxury pursuit. Thus the ultimate legacy of The Producers is, ironically, a real boon to all Bway producers.

That the show was a smash was no surprise to me, having investigated nabbing rights-- oh, ye of youthful penniless idealism!--to Mel Brooks' original 1968 movie back in 1978--with a friend, Bill Waters, from my days at the Cherry Lane. Despite my love of musicals, I was wholly uninspired then in conceiving new or original tuner ideas, except for such obvious adaptations of films like this and Some Like it Hot. But I had definite ideas about how to do them, and in my estimation, no one could write a cheerier, bubblier, more apt score for The Producers than Charles Strouse & Lee Adams--my conviction not entirely based their shimmering vaudeville turn for Jack Cassidy in Superman, "You've Got What I Need"--which, with nary a lyric change could serve as the song Bialystock hooks Bloom into partnership--Cassidy's character is even named Max! But having written two original songs for the movie, including the peerless "Springtime for Hitler," why shouldn't Mel Brooks write the whole score?--even if no one would ever mistake him for Rodgers, Sondheim, or Strouse. But Bway also had no shortage of successful one-fingered tune-tinklers. Perhaps in deference to the musical task at hand, Brooks brought in help on the book; the man who gave Annie its coherence and focus, the veteran Thomas Meehan. Tho Brooks won an Oscar for his original screenplay (which he also directed) the film moves briskly, rather recklessly, masking large gaps in plot and logic. A full scale Bway evening needed some filling out.

It took the length of Jesus's entire life before Brooks finally got around to turning his first pot of gold into a Bway musical. By then he had cycled thru his entire film career (eleven features in 23 years; the signature farces of the early classics giving way to less popular fare over the years, rendering him retired by the turn of the Millenium. Among the last of the vaudeville scribes, Brooks cut his teeth in the legendary writer's room of Sid Caesar's TV variety show--the final refuge of what had been the great Bway revues. One of the last, New Faces of 1952, marked his Bway debut. Five years later he wrote the book for the Archy & Mehitibel musical, Shinbone Alley (improbably filmed in animation many years later); and in 1962 a collegiate musical, All American--which did him no favors (nor he it) and brought low both Ray Bolger and Joshua Logan, but left unscathed a lovely sophmore score by Strouse & Adams, as a follow up to Bye Bye Birdie. (Another teaming might have benefited all concerned.) 

I had considered the musical's tryout as an excuse to go visit my friend Ed in Chicago, but by the turn of the century I had resumed my annual visits to NY, which in conjunction with my indirect access to the R&H office, put me in house seats for their Encores! productions--timed perfectly in late Spring with the April Bway openings that thrive in latter day seasons--much as Oscar-bait movies open at year's end. The Producers was paramount on that list for me, and it was still in previews on my first 2001 visit; attended  by a  whole coterie of  friends and 42nd St. 
Moon contacts, all of whom--it seemed to me--were more in thrall with the show than I. No question this was a Mel Brooks production, but so much of the humor was facile if not puerile, and only cheapened by its vulgarity. Yet the audience ate it up. Still, there was much I admired about the production; it's varied visual pleasures and career-high performances. But I wasn't over-the-moon enthusiastic like most of New York; that is before I returned two months later (to see Encores! Hair) and in an online fluke--or a Gift from the Gods--scored a front row seat off the right side of the orchestra, literally touching the stage. As it turned out, another middle-aged fanboy had clicked the single next to me--as gaga as I over our unlikely good fortune--our pair its own private row. Turning around was a view tantamount to being on stage. I feasted on thoughts of the St. James' enchanted history: the  historic  first runs 
of Oklahoma! Where's Charley? The King & I, The Pajama Game, Li'l Abner, Flower Drum Song, Do Re Mi, Subways are for Sleeping, Hello, Dolly!--lingering ghosts of their vibrations left behind. I first entered these portals in 1970; to see Merman no less, in Dolly. Later, Two Gentlemen of Verona; the impeccably reconstructed 20th Anniversary My Fair Lady; the rollicking first preview of On the 20th Century. And now at the first smash hit of the 21st Century: the resurrection of Musical Comedy itself: The Producers. The audience hyped and waiting in electric anticipation.

My interest had another component as well, as there were a number of parallels with my own long-aborning musical, When Stars Collide--not the least being set in the same era (1959/60) and Shubert Alley environs. Visually The Producers did not disappoint, nor in the opening jingle, leading to Max's star entrance, revealed--like Dolly Levi--from behind a newspaper. His opening gambit "The King of Broadway," is surpisingly good, not only in Susan Stroman's characterful staging but in Brooks' Russian-infused melodic line. An encouraging start to the show, but 
short-lived as "We Can Do It" and "I Wanna Be a Producer" reveal the more prevalent Brooks product; simple, pleasant utilitarian tunes--with jokey lyrics that often turn sophomoric ("I just gotta be a producer/Drink champagne until I puke"). I confess I've never much enjoyed the whole Franz Liebkind sequence. Brooks obviously relishes making morons out of Nazis; but I don't get much from "Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop" or the whole gag with carrier pigeons. What if Springtime for Hitler had been authored by a looney mental patient instead?--someone who'd be more likely to accept Roger DeBris' campy staging, without complaint. Not that Franz objects either--but wouldn't he? Surely I digress...


Attempting to turn Leo & Ulla into Fred & Ginger for a second act opener is really just more filler--especially with a tune as facile as "That Face." After that we're rushing toward the musical's apotheosis, so it's all the more surprising that Brooks pulls off one of his better numbers with "You Never Say Good Luck on Opening Night." But the entire show has been leading to the moment "Springtime for Hitler" sweeps us away in its outrageous exuberance; and knowing this, Brooks and Stroman wisely extend the production with the addition of a lengthy middle section, essentially another song, "Heil Myself," which serves to turn the shocked and offended audience in on the joke--even if that isn't Max & Leo's intention. It's an inspired addition, with a hilarious mid-song solo (at stage edge ala' Judy Garland) for DeBris, who, despite filling in for the stricken Franz at the last moment, plays the scene as if he'd been doing it all along. Which begs the question of how Leibkind ever tolerated such direction, never mind wrote a lyric for Hitler such as "I'm the German Ethel Merman, don'tcha know." But logic is a slippery slope, and why carp with a number that delivers? And they made sure it wouldn't disappoint. Beginning with folksy Bavarians, the stage gives way to a Zeigfeldian stairway and a bevy of showgirls in overblown costumes depicting German cuisine (pretzels, sausage, beer); and the world's blondest tenor in SS chic--all as intro to the man of the hour. But this Adolph is more Green than Hitler--extolling "Ev'ry hotsy-totsy Naxi stand and cheer!" to a nightclub bongo beat, and a born-in-a-trunk confessional. Circling back to the main refrain, the curtain rises on a line of Stormtrooper Rockettes dancing in swastika formations for an artillery-heavy finale. There's really nowhere to go from here, but the story plays out with Leo & Ulla escaping to Rio while Max stews in jail. This gives him a potential tour-de-force number, "Betrayed" which is marred by a needless recanting of the entire show's bullet points (including its intermission--the one good gag) in a rapid litany--which only makes the evening seem longer. The story ends in court, a trope that goes back to our start with On the Town and includes more than a few Bway musicals, including Hello, Dolly!--which The Producers parallels with more than common tenancy at the St. James--running six years, respectfully just shy of Dolly's original marathon. But "'Til Him" is "It Only Takes a Moment" with a lesser tune, and the show races to an unlikely conclusion of Bialystock & Bloom's future portfolio: (High Button Jews, South Passaic, Maim, A Streetcar Named Murray--are these titles really funny to anyone?) And yet the end result renders such nit-picking irrelevant--thanks more to Stroman and the cast.

Nathan Lane hasn't the cartoon face and body of Zero Mostel, who dominates the original movie, but it is inconceivable anyone but Lane could've landed this show on Bway with such thunderous impact. He'd been working up to this for years, alternating plays & musicals; re-inventing lead roles in Guys & Dolls and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. (again of Mostel's  original imprint.) Like the legendary clowns of Bway yore, Lane was a huge box office draw as well; proving himself a bigger star than the show--which his replacements (including Henry Goodman, Richard Kind, Tony Danza) made clear. I don't know how to factor Matthew Broderick into this equation. He's a passable song & dance man, a restrained comic actor with none of the quirky energy of Gene Wilder (who got the film's other Oscar nomination), yet he rode the show's success in tandem with Lane. (Their pairing brought a box office stampede for a 4-month return later in the run, when reciepts were falling.) But it's hard to say Broaderick was equally essential to the show as Lane. To my estimation a much better fit would've been Martin Short, who did play Bloom on the road, opposite Jason Alexander--who wasn't a bad Max, but their pairing was more of a clash than a meld. Gary Beach (as Roger DeBris) and Roger Bart (as assistant Carmen Ghia) made a meal of their supporting roles, which lead both to Tony nominations (and win for Beach) and leading parts in future shows. Cady Huffman got her own Tony for Ulla--and Brad Oscar a nom for Liebkind, but unlike the quartet above neither were signed for the movie.

Understandably, Hlwd couldn't ignore a hit of such magnitude, yet still the need was felt to split the risk between two studios: Universal and Columbia. If Brooks was first approached to direct (and why wouldn't he be, given his experience), he was wise to defer to Stroman, who elevated the stage musical above its cruder, cheaper instincts. Nor was there any question of anyone for Max & Leo other than Lane & Broderick--who by then were as inseparable as Lunt & Fontanne (They were reteamed as The Odd Couple on Bway at the time of The Producers film release.) Beach &  Bart were also retained, but Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell were marquee concessions. Uma doesn't bring much more than her imposing height to improve on Huffman's Ulla--certainly not her musical skills. But Ferrell's sentimental Nazi was entirely within his demented range. Stroman calls in a good deal of Bway talent for cameos thruout--including, most prominently, Andrea Martin & Debra Monk as two Little Old Ladies;  Karen Ziemba as an opening nighter, and an atomic blonde John Barrowman as the lead tenor for "Springtime."

If Stroman doesn't stray far from her Bway staging, she sure revels in the lushness of the scenery, pumped up for the screen in what feels like old-fashioned saturated Technicolor. The movie opens with a zoom in on a model of mid-century Times Square, coming to a jaw-dropping soundstage reconstruction of West 44th St. at the southern end of Shubert Alley, with the Shubert Theater across from the Astor Bar (A landmark I was never to see, for my first visit to NY was just after the great Astor Hotel had been replaced by the monstrosity that is One Astor Plaza which laid its unwelcoming concrete backside to Shubert Alley, altering its ambience forever.) The set expands along the street showing Sardi's, the NY Times truck dock, the Broadhurst, St James, and Lunt-Fontanne Theaters (tho the last is relocated from 46th St.--the clue to its misplacement is how it's framed in the film's last shot, with just the bottom of the blade sign visible "--anne," a nod to Brooks' wife, Anne Bancroft). It's the kind of set you can't get enuf  time eyeballing;  so astonishing in its detail;


The movie cuts from "Opening Night" to Max's office and the arrival of Leo--revealing Lane for the first time from under a pile of newspapers. I'd forgotten how good the scenes are, full of rapid-fire exchanges and quicksilver emotional swings. The flatness of the on-the-nose, "We Can Do It" is smoothed by dividing verses into locales; moving from office to street, to taxi, to Central Park. Even the otherwise filler tune, "I Wanna Be a Producer" has me in its corner with Stroman's expansion into movie musical territory--and  full  soundstage  neon  marquee  madness. 

If "Along Came Bialy" on stage was a vaguely annoying excuse to have a Geriatric Chorus Line tapping walkers in unison, the number makes even less sense on screen. Leading a parade of dozens down Fifth Avenue, Max lines them up and collects their checks. But it's his personal (and presumably private) attention to each one that earns him his backing, not a uniformly dressed social club. And given the sharply delineated characters of the film's ensembles thus far, it's all the more jarring that these Little Old Ladies aren't given their own individual dressage; but instead lined up and knocked down like a row of dominoes. Oh, I get it--its metaphoric! But no--it's idiotic, and a real wrong turn in the film. A further detour follows with "That Face," an unconvincing romantic interlude for Leo & Ulla. Here's what should have been cut from the movie; the long verse of the song is a snooze, tho it does perk up in the dance--but Fred & Ginger allusions do no one any favors. Once we get to the Hitler auditions the show is back on track (tho one wishes another two or three actors were seen) and here Will Farrell earns his keep with his demented vaudeville rendition of "Haben Sie Gehort Das Deutsche Band?" In Brooks' first film they cast a stoned hippie Dick Shawn as their Hitler. But the musical made a choice of economy that also makes more sense, having Franz reveal himself born to the role.

And yet by opening night Franz is disposed with to give Roger DeBris his Ruby Keeler moment, and deliver a performance of such camp as to pivot the show into a hit. (Tho, in fact, the material goes a long way to help him--you can't get much sillier than "hotsy totsy Nazi.") As the moment we've all be waiting for, "Springtime for Hitler" fortunately pays off, but with a tinge of disappointment that even this has been trimmed, needlessly, in Roger's "Heil  Myself"  section.  The  production  looks  spectacular 
with showgirls topped by a towering Uma Thurman; a magnificently Aryan tenor in John Barrowman and a chorus line of precision stormtroopers (which begs the question of why it's put together so professionally if what they were going for was disaster?) "Where Did We Go Right" is reduced to one line of dialogue, and the ensuing post-opening morning in the office turns into a scene of chaos and comics and again I'm puzzled why Franz would be screaming heresy when he surely sat thru the rehearsal and saw the show unfold? Was it simply Roger's campy performance? And if the show is now a smash, couldn't they just pay back the backers and start collecting on a robust box office? I know, I'm asking for the moon. Maybe it would irk me less if I could love the score better. Leo & Ulla escape to Rio, and Max is put in jail--giving him a potential tour-de-force in "Betrayed," which is betrayed by not cutting its needless plot summary middle section. And as many musicals do, it seems only fitting to end in a courtroom with a song--but in this case an underwhelming plea by Leo in defense of Max, "'Til Him"--which might as well be a lullaby for all the energy it has. They both get sent to the Big House nonetheless, where they openly resume their fundraising scheme (prisoners have money?), and lickety split are pardoned for bringing joy to jailbirds in Sing Sing (but they're still rehearsing the show which hasn't yet opened!) and Back on Bway--for the gag filled marquee backdrop (Katz; Death of a Salesman On Ice). And here I must chide myself somewhat, for why do I keep dwelling on the flaws in reality and rationale? Am I being unfair to The Producers because I saw my own version so many years ago? As it were, Brooks was the right tonic at the right time, and Bway was in many ways better for it.

As a Bway phenomenon The Producers didn't translate to national wildfire. The movie was released on December 16, 2005, positioned for both holiday crowds and award visibility. It didn't get much of either, grossing a very hum-drum 19 million domestically, and nearly the same internationally. Combined with the underachieving Rent, released almost in tandem, Hlwd was looking at Bway again with caution if not skepticism. The Producers lasted at the St. James until April 2007--long after the movie become available to one & all on DVD. Happily, the disc offers much of the deleted material, especially "King of Bway" and a very funny bit in the Astor Bar with a drunk. A feature length commentary track by Susan Stroman sounds promising, but alas is more than simply disappointing, it's vapid. ("Matthew is so strong, he had no trouble lifting Uma off the desk--several times!") Instead of juicy insights about the show's creative process, technical info or details of the actors, Stroman describes the actions, gags or even breaks down the jokes, while we're watching them!--all of which we can easily discern for ourselves. Unfortunately this sort of thing takes up most of her commentary--which I might understand if she did the whole thing off the cuff. But these seem to be prepared notes. Still, all aside, Susan Stroman's movie is a valiant preservation of the Bway musical with some regrettable (tho not major) cutting, but with a number of nostalgic mid-century New York sets as some compensation--and the pic's one major advance on the stage show. I first saw the movie at a screening on November 18, two days before I saw Rent--which was released at Thanksgiving. Neither met their full potential, tho with The Producers, it was often the material that didn't rise to the high style of the production, while with Rent it was the other way around.

With the start of a second depressing term of Bush/Cheney & Co. there was ever more reason to dig deeper into my cultural studies of film, theater, music & TV. On the creative front I was putting the finishing touches on When Stars Collide for an initial presentation, at the expense of time spent with friends, but there was no lack of amazing entertainment to be had on the tube: Carnivale, Six Feet Under, Rome, Huff, and gulp, yes, the first few seasons of Grey's Anatomy. There were great comedies as well, like Arrested Development, The Office, and Little Britain--with two of the Maddest Hatters England ever produced: Matt Lucas and David Walliams. By now I no longer went to the cinema except for a few screenings at year's end, courtesy of my emeritus status with the WGA. Aside from the rarity of having two new movie musicals that season, much attention was lavished on Brokeback Mountain, which I found mostly annoying for overdoing its hate card--making me embarrassed to be an American. Around the same time I discovered an unheralded gem called Big Eden--in which a gay man returns home from NY to Montana, and falls into a love affair with a straight man that's everything but the sex. It's a sweet, lovely story that always makes me cry, and stars one of my secret loves, Tim DeKay--as the halfway hetero. (Fun fact: he made local fame playing Fagin in his high school's Oliver!) For sheer clueless cultural appropriation, nothing could top my year's find: an Elvis Presley Xmas vehicle from 1965, Harum Scarum; an unbelievable OPEC adventure with a chorus of BevHills Jewesses playing Persian harem gals (You can hear them thinking: What's the diff?--they're all hairy you know) and about every insensitive cliche one could make about the Middle East. Good fun.

Better fun was my Spring trip to NY, one of the very best, and not only for the robust joy and quality shows that season: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Monty Python's Spamalot, The Light in the Piazza and William Finn's Spelling Bee. This quartet was a full banquet, but somehow I remember Spamalot the most affectionately, for it's black light/day glo sets, Sara Ramirez, and the "hey!" joke that propelled me into the most explosive, longest sustained laugh I ever had in a Bway theater. Luckily we were in standing room--because I needed some space! As if that wasn't enuf, the centerpiece of the week was Encores! The Apple Tree, Bock & Harnick's whimsical triptych of a musical; a curious and particular favorite of mine, done with the only possible contemporary successor to Barbara Harris: Kristen Chenoweth. Tho cited by many as the best of the three episodes, the Adam & Eve segment didn't thrill as it should in Chenoweth's hands--but she doesn't play poignancy well. Passionella was happily all I could hope for, but the big surprise was how good Lady & the Tiger was too. The best Encores! show I'd seen since my first--Do Re Mi. On that Sunday's matinee I left another mediocre parody show (Musical of Musicals) to sneak back into the second half of Apple Tree for a personal encore, this time in the orchestra. It was a week of good or lucky choices. Larry Rubinstein rented us a business apt. near Penn Station with a 35th story view of downtown (now sans Twin Towers) that was so blindingly white as to suggest a booby-hatch, but gave us view of a spectacular fireworks show over the Statue of Liberty. We had a fabulous time. Prior to NY I landed in Boston to see Laura for the second year in a row, and enjoy the city from the Lenox Hotel. But alas, yet again there was no show in Boston to catch in tryout for NY.

Thruout these years I was blessed to continue my association with Gary Bell and harness our two-man team thru the dozens of building projects for which we secured permits; not least for the liberal holidays we allowed each other, his frequent excursions to Egypt and South Africa; my Spring East Coast jaunt. Upon my return there was one inticing prospect awaiting me in SF, the tryout of a new musical based on The Mambo Kings--a flawed but charming movie whose Cuban-flavored soundtrack I devoured and looked forward to seeing it expanded and staged. Alas, it never caught magic or fire, and never made it into NY. Another original tuner, The Haunting of Winchester (the rifle heiress of the San Jose manor under eternal construction) was an excuse for an excursion to San Jose with my newly relocated pal, Michael Paller--now suddenly hired from NY as dramaturg to SF's American Conservatory Theater. Haunting wasn't. Michael immersed himself in the varieties of his new position. A steady job in theater--something I'd have coveted in younger days. Concurrently he was enjoying the release of his Tennessee Williams bio: Gentlemen Callers, which approaches the playwright's work thru his homosexual lens--and now sells for collector's prices on Amazon.

My autumn holiday kept me on the West Coast, with a lot more driving.  First to LA to pick up Larry and see Reprise! On the Town (jolly), then off to Vegas, primarily to see the new Cirque de Soleil show, Ka (on par); followed by a stop in Palm Springs (which I hadn't been to since leaving LA in '95) before winding up in San Diego (meeting Karr) and going to see Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life at the Old Globe. We sat dead center in the third row, and I still swear she did the whole show staring directly at me. Then it was back to LA for a lively Rosh Hashanah at Tommy's before heading home. The broadest legacy of the trip, however, was my reawakened desert longings--keyed to the surprise that Palm Springs had retained its sleepy resort vibe and not exploded into the suburban sprawl that swallowed LA. I was 53 years old. The lights of Bway were still in my eyes, but the velvet comforts of the Mojave were in many ways more alluring. With Bway alighting with Musical Comedy again in the century's first decade, I had high hopes that my own entry would hit the sweet spot. I wasn't ready to retire my theatrical ambitions just yet. The gleaming example of The Producers--notwithstanding its runaway success--gave me fuel.


Next Up: Dreamgirls

Report CardThe Producers
Overall Film:  B+
Bway Fidelity:  A- (some cuts only)
Songs from Bway:  14
Songs Cut from Bway:  3
Worst Omission:  "The King of Broadway" 
       (filmed, and viewable in Bonus tracks)
New Songs:  2: "You'll Find Your Happiness in
       Rio" (seen in brief) and "There's Nothing
       Like a Show on Broadway"
       (heard only in end credits)
Standout Numbers: "Springtime" (of course)
               "You Never Say Good Luck on
               Opening Night" "Keep it Gay"
Casting:  Bway with a couple of  marquee
               upgrades, numerous famous cameos
Standout Cast: Nathan Lane, Gary Beach
Cast from Bway: Lane, Broderick, Beach, Bart
Direction:  Fluid, nicely opened-up
Choreography:  Funny, flashy, characterful,
Scenic Design:  Best Bway sets ever?
Standout Sets: West 44th St/Shubert Alley
Costumes: Period & character perfect
Titles: Cast photos in end credits, long scroll
Oscar noms: None

Monday, February 27, 2017

Rent

November 23, 2005   Columbia  135 minutes
As the undisputed Bway phenomenon of the '90s, Rent followed the line of once-a-decade blockbusters, Oklahoma, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, A Chorus Line, The Phantom of the Opera; running over a dozen years at the largely neglected Nederlander Theater in the hinterlands below 42nd Street. On top of its own virtues, the musical came packed with a true-life tragedy that is pure Show-Biz legend; the shocking death of author Jonathan Larson on the eve of the Off-Bway premiere--ironically the biggest shot of publicity since Gower Champion's  death on  the  opening  night  of  42nd  Street. 
Only Larson's demise was sadder for coming at the very beginning of what promised to be a champion career. Yet such drama didn't hype the show beyond its due merit. Whether Larson would've tinkered with it further makes no difference; it feels fully complete; helpfully shaped, no doubt, by director Michael Greif. The score, virtually thru-sung, is a heady mix of rock, blues, pop, & punk seamlessly worked thru the idiom of musical theater. It's just as Larson intended, "musical theater for the MTV generation." As a flash point in the Zeitgeist, it compares most to Hair; both roaring with uncensored Youth; both raging against the establishment, whether over War or Disease; both packed with wall-to-wall music; both cultivating a devotion bordering on the religious.

I wasn't a quick convert to the phenomenon, tho I certainly picked up the CD the moment it was released. But if I hadn't any negative impressions, per se, neither was I compelled enuf to score a ticket to the show when I went to NY for the first time in five years that October of 1996. I was more excited about the rebirth of Chicago. But later that 
year, in tandem with December (a season fraught with anxiety for me--and when most of the show takes place) I fell down the rabbit hole, and absorbed the CD with a rare intensity, in awe of Larson's achievement. I came to love it--much more, as I found out, than any of my 40-something theater friends. By the time I finally saw the show in March 1999 (on tour in SF) the bloom was somewhat off the rose, and I understood why many had resistance. I knew the score well, but to the uninitiated it was near impossible to make out the lyrics in a noisy theater--and this is a thru-sung show.  For me, the musical remained a strictly aural pleasure--one in which I visualized my own pictures. Tho it's doubtful Larson saw far enuf to imagine a movie of Rent, he unwittingly planted the idea for the film's director in a lyric of "Light My Candle":

               Our eyes'll adjust
                              Thank God for the moon
               Maybe it's not the moon at all
               I hear Spike Lee's shooting
                              down the street

Lee was attached to the film at one point, and it's easy to see where his trademark touches (the operatic emotions, the moving sidewalks, the saturated colors) would suit the show's ethos, but alas Rent did not become "a Spike Lee joint." For true street cred, it might've been an intersting match for Jim Jarmusch.  Or, Susan Seidelman who captured the East Village milieu with such painterly strokes in Desperately Seeking Susan. But Rent was too big a smash to stay cheap & gritty, to stay "downtown." Still, the material, equal parts rock concert and opera, was challenging to translate into a movie musical. Yet, the same was said of Hair, which exceeded any and all reasonable expectations, by transforming a shaggy free-for-all into a work of poetic flair. But Hair was lensed by a Czech emigre
with keen eyes on America. Rent was made by. . . the director of Home Alone. Chris Columbus came in thru the Spielberg factory in Hlwd and quickly rose to writer/director of hugely popular mainstream comedies, Mrs. Doubtfire, Nine Months and Stepmom. Freshly off two Harry Potter movies, he wasn't an obvious candidate for what would seem to be the ultimate indie street musical. And if there are stretches of the movie that reek of Hlwd-ism, there are enuf parts that surprise with their acuity or enchantment. I've no idea the process that went into choosing him; tho I feel it must be noted that one of the twelve film producers was Robert De Niro. The screenplay was given to Stephen Chbosky, riding an enormous success as author of a wildly popular Young Adult novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower--presumably under the logic that Chbosky "got" youth. Ironically, the cast went the other direction. One could play a parlor game imagining Hlwd stars in all the lead roles (Catherine Zeta Jones as Maureen, Justin Timberlake as Mark, Jennifer Lopez as Mimi--you get the idea) but Columbus wisely went with the original cast (tho they were now ten years older than their 20-something characters. However, two were missing: Daphne Rubin-Vega who was pregnant at the time of filming and Fredi Walker, always a decade older than the rest now in her mid-40s. A younger Tracie Thomas inherited the role of Joanne (isn't that the go-to name for the oldest gal around? See: Company). For Mimi, Rosario Dawson steps into the role like Doris Day slipping into The Pajama Game. It's a solid fit, and she's frankly more photogenic than Rubin-Vega. (Columbus drools over her repeatedly in the CD commentary.) And yes, she is quite pretty and does the part justice. Jesse L. Martin, now better known than any of the others from his weekly role as a police detective in TV's Law & Order brings an aura of joy to the angst-ridden narrative, along with Wilson Jermaine Heredia's well-worn Angel. Idina Menzel was coming off a Tony-winning career peak in Wicked, and Taye Diggs was exploiting his smooth Hlwd-hotness on screens big & small--the two were married by then-- tho not forever.

Chbosky's screenplay was essentially a job of editing, selecting passages of recitative to turn into spoken dialogue, and restructuring a time-line narrative that extends the long Xmas eve first act over several days. One major change was beginning the film with "Seasons of Love" (the show's one bona fide hit) sung by the principals
in a line across a bare stage--setting upfront the score as the movie's primary ingredient. On stage the number served as a chaser to intermission before heading down the spiral of the second act narrative, but the film needed no such moment, which in fact would hinder the momentum of the story. As it stands, it's a terrific opening, paying tribute to the musical as a true stage phenomenon, but also vocally introducing us to the players. The story then begins with Mark's raw film footage (which frankly looks rank amateur) but nicely melds into full color wide screen; and we are off following Mark on bicycle starting the title song--a full out rocker--and here's where our hopes first shudder; the number builds into a huge production with an entire city block of angry tenants simultaneously out in balcony force, singing their lungs out and throwing garbage  pails  of   burning  papers   into  the  street--little

bonfires that remain burning in the background thru "You'll See," moved up to the next scene. Not only over-produced; it's fairly ridiculous, and arsonist to boot. But there's some recovery in the next few songs, done with some degree of inspiration, and better still, restraint. "One Song Glory" is taken up to the rooftop--always a winning location in NY musicals; but also layered with flashbacks to Roger's romance with junkie g.f. April, now dead following her discovery of catching AIDS--not a bad way to convey his backstory.  The filmmakers recognized that much of the sung recitative (including many phone machine messages) is better dropped for spoken dialogue (something that should be noted by Andrew Lloyd Webber) giving breathing room between songs, the better to absorb them; to enjoy them. On stage it's a concert/opera, but on film it doesn't want to be either. And of course it's the songs that make  the  show. Things  perk  up  with  "Tango  Maureen,"

which becomes another production number but more forgivably so for being Mark's delusion under concussion. A vacant warehouse filled with tango couples in black; here's where we view the much-discussed Maureen for the first time: Idina Menzel in flaming red dress and harsh, smeared lips in erotic clinch with her dancing partner. It works nicely as a musical fantasy, and distinguishes the movie from the stage.  "Life Support" is among several edits that should have remained sung, and  "Out Tonight" has Mimi working the Cat Scratch Club before preying on Roger back home. "Another Day," which in its second half becomes "No Day But Today" (a harmonic convergence of exquisite melody) is too abstract a stage picture to translate successfully on screen. But "Santa Fe" is a slice of groovy heaven that could've come from Galt MacDermot--it almost feels like being stoned. Columbus sets it in a subway car, brilliantly juxtaposing its urban grime against visions of western serenity. The beautifully staged sequence incorporates a captive audience of riders in thrall. I had a single such experience once in Buenos Aires, with a latter-day Louis Prima swinging a sax and some vocal funk. (In all my years of NY subway riding I never saw an "entertainer" who wasn't simply annoying) The number is so wonderful it's a shame that Columbus missed an obvious button: the car jolts to a rude stop, the doors fly open and the urban crowds  rush  in.   Instead it just ends.
"I'll Cover You" follows immediately, and the song is so infectious it requires nothing more than the joy Jesse & Wilson bring to it, walking down a Village block. On stage the entire first act took place on Christmas Eve, but on film the actions--more convincingly--stretch over several days, which explains the omission of "Christmas Bells," a full cast collage building narrative momentum, all leading to the priceless final tinkling strains of "The Twelve Days of Xmas" as Maureen--making at last her first appearance, blithely asks, "Joanne, which way to the stage?" There's no reason the story had to begin on Dec 24th; Maureen's performance and what follows thru the Life Cafe seemed better suited for Xmas eve, and could then include "Christmas Bells." But never mind. As a satire of performance art, Maureen's show is as brilliant as it is facile & tedious. I had always visualized it set in an empty lot, chain link, brick and snow. But here it's inside an abandoned warehouse (no doubt the same one used in "Tango Maureen") and hasn't much punch, fizzling into a poorly staged (and filmed) riot. Once again excess takes a toll, calling into question how or why Joanne would run so elaborate a technical show on her own. She's a lawyer, remember. Doesn't it also seem elaborate and unnecessary to film parts in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco? (How did they miss Toronto?)

The musical's centerpiece, its time-specific  manifesto is, of course, "La Vie Boheme"--which like many songs in Hair is a list song.

       Bisexuals, Trisexuals, Homo Sapiens
       Carcinogens, Hallucinogens, Men
       Pee Wee Herman
       German wine, turpentine, Gertrude Stein
       Antonioni, Bertolucci, Kurosawa
       Carmina Burana

Do you know that last one? I didn't. It's a 1983 Ray Manzarek (of The Doors) album, riffed off a 1930's composition by Carl Orff (who?) based on a medieval poetry collection--clearly one of Larson's personal totems. On stage the scene plays across one long table with the cast seated Last Supper-style; the film has the luxury of incorporating the entire East Village Life Cafe, with patrons in back booths, and one central runway made of two-tops shoved together. It's a bright & jolly sequence, and the cast--reunited years after their bonded breakthru--have the time of their lives laying it down for posterity.

The movie takes greater liberties with the musical's second act; reducing whole songs to spoken dialogue and filling others entirely with montage; characters drifting, Mimi on & off & back on smack; Mark grudgingly taking corporate (and high-paying) work; Collins caretaking a dying Angel; time passing--all to "Without You." Happily the movie omits the egregious "Contact"--as needless and silly a "metaphoric" sex dance as "Tick Tock" was in Company. Chbosky removed all the parental phone messages that pepper the show, which would leave all blood relatives out, but adds an invented committment ceremony for Joanne & Maureen, introduced by a proud, posh & liberal Anna Deavere Smith as Joanne's mom, with a suburban Randy Graff as Maureen's. I don't quite buy the incendiary argument in song, "Take Me or Leave Me" taking place in full view of all the guests, even dragging them inside as voyeurs when they step away for some privacy. But at least there's some real energy in the scene. On the other hand, Angel's funeral is poorly directed, the energy somehow lacking, but the follow-up in the graveyard, "Goodbye Love"--the unraveling of friends & lovers--is intriguingly staged   as  the   group  climbs  up  a  hill  of   tombstones.

We're back to montage--what else is there to do?-- as they all go their separate ways. "What You Own" is a laudable roar against corporate dominance, and one of the better hard-rock numbers in musical theater. Perhaps it's my advanced age but I find Mark's attitude to his new job petty and ungrateful. Given his new access to equipment, experience, connections; to say nothing of income, he'd be wise to use these gifts to further his own ambitions. But no, we see him back with his obsolete crank-camera obscura; his "documentary" unveiled at the end--a collage of non-linear images; in "arty" over- or under-exposed shots, out of focus, shaky or burned at the edges--hardly suggestive of a film career in Mark's future. Nor is Roger's "one great song" unveiled to Mimi on her deathbed the great reveal the show has been building to. But no matter, Larson delivers so consistently thru-out we can't expect more. (We'll never know how much more tinkering he would've done given the chance.) Columbus lets us down in this last scene--strangely lacking any punch. They perk up for the final chorus of "No Day But Today" and we're out--without they cathartic theatrical climax and full-cast encore.

The stage show remains fresh and accessible to compare with the movie by a another "film" made just three years after Columbia's release; the final Bway performance filmed live at the Nederlander in September 2008. It's exceptionally well captured, particularly in the clarity of its soundtrack (often a problem in-house), but also in the devotional attention from the audience. If only they did this with all closing hit musicals. Fascinating too, is the stellar umpteenth replacement cast 12 years into the show's life. While the movie happily recorded the (almost complete) original cast, these latter day players are fine indeed. Interestingly, the film's Joanne, Tracie Thoms is back and nicely matured into the role. Terrific, too, is Renee Elise Goldsberry, who would ascend to Tony glory in Hamilton, as Mimi; and as Roger, Will Chase challenges Adam Pascal's signature on the part. The two actors would compete for and fill the same roles on Bway, but Chase would ultimately claim the greater fame with his many forays in TV, including musical roles in Smash and and Nashville. With a live audience of rabid Rent-heads charging the cast with electricity, there's a lot more visceral energy here.
I first saw the movie at the Dolby screening room in San Francisco three days before it opened nationally on November 23, 2005. Reviews were mixed, and the film grossed a mere $29,000,000 domestically, a shocking repudiation by its supposed youth audience--but the Zeitgeist had shifted by then. Even the medical procedures had changed so much as to make AZT a relic of the past. In addition the film's parochial milieu didn't translate globally, yielding a mere $2,500,000 more coin. All told, disappointing news in a Hlwd that had just taken renewed interest in Bway musicals.

The word "rent" has a double meaning; the transactional one which everyone recognizes, but also a schism; a split in a party or group--which is the journey taken by Larson's family of Bohemians. Aspects of both meanings also inform another colloquial usage, what some of us used to call our begetters: the 'rents. (Rent makes no use of it tho it has enuf parental phone messages to earn the usage). My own remaining 'rent: Mother, now 84, miserably widowed, and in frail health but hanging on for some unfathomable reason, extracted an emotional toll in my obligatory nightly phone calls and relentless Saturday treks to San Jose for the same joyless visit, tasteless lunch and pointless recriminations. After a fender-bender in the Safeway parking lot she had to stop driving entirely, relying more & more on her much younger Puerto Rican neighbor, Lourdes, and her nurse-practicioner at Kaiser, Mary, who out of pity grew into Mother's watchdog and therapist. The weather was as ceaslessly grim in the country's mood; as the Bush/Cheney cabal blundered deeper into Iraq and proved their ineptness further in responding to (or rather not) a hurricane which nearly wiped out New Orleans. All this after a highly suspicious re-election of whom many considered the Worst President in American History (who knew there was worse yet to come?) made for scant good news along any front. As usual, the place to bury my head in the sand was in writing, reading, listening to music, watching movies & TV--all happily available pursuits enjoyed in solitude.

During my youthful residence in New York, I was strictly a West Village habitué, the East Village in '75 was still way too skid row to warrant interest--as was Soho, then a scary ghost town of dark abandoned warehouses. But by the early '80s that had all changed and in my frequent jaunts to NY (mostly staying with Laura off Bleecker St, or with Reno in Tribeca) a good deal of our trawling shifted East, to loud and nameless bars and all-night Ukranian diners. How young we were, always looking for love, or sex; still full of boundless if unfocussed ambitions, still innocent of any plagues, or even the thought thereof; still thriving on the pulse & rhythm of the World's Greatest City. Yes--La Vie Boheme.


Next UP: The Producers
Report CardRent
Overall Film:  B
Bway Fidelity: B  
Songs from Bway: 20
Songs Cut from Bway:18 (including long passages
            of recitative & phone msgs)
Worst Omission:  "Christmas Bells"
New Songs:  None
Standout Numbers:  "Santa Fe"
Casting: Bway originals + two newbies
Standout Cast: Rosario Dawson
Cast from Bway: Adam Pascal, Idina Menzel 
     Anthony Rapp, Wilson Jermaine Heredia,
     Jesse L. Martin, Taye Diggs
Direction: Uneven; stellar & flat moments
Choreography:  Minimal
Scenic Design:  East Village collage (NY, LA, SF)
Costumes:  Trash & Vaudeville
Titles:  Over opening: "Seasons of Love"
Oscar noms:  None

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Phantom of the Opera

December 22, 2004,  Warners   141 minutes
Shortly after Nine opened on Bway in 1982, Geoffrey Holder recruited the show's authors, Arthur Kopit & Maury Yeston, to begin work on a musical of Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera--for which he had sole American rights, ahead of the work going into public domain. In Britain, however, it was already in public domain when soon thereafter Andrew Lloyd Webber made a showy pronouncement of his latest project. Fearing a pointless duel of Phantom's, Kopit & Yeston moved on to other pursuits until L-W's version revealed itself. It was, of course, the commercial smash of the century. No exaggeration. Still running uninterrupted in London since 1986 and on Bway since 1988, the show has been minting money from global box offices for as long as most people on the planet have been alive. And yet, Kopit & Yeston saw that L-W's play was sufficiently different from their approach and resumed their version which debuted in Houston in 1991, and has had over a thousand regional productions since, but hasn't dared, and likely never will, play Bway. (It might be an intersting Encores! selection, however.)

Even Cats, whose logo was "now & forever," eventually closed (tho it's needlessly back), but Phantom of the Opera is now entrenched in the majestic Majestic (first home of hits: Carousel, South Pacific, Fanny, The Music Man, Camelot, The Wiz) in what seems to be a permanent attraction. It might as well be Madame  Tussaud's  come  to  life.
Will it ever close? Frankly, the phenomena is beyond me. Was there an unfulfilled hunger for operetta dormant for decades? Why am I so clueless to its rabid devotional appeal? Don't others find the story more silly than romantic? A disfigured, bitter, vengeful man residing in the bowels of the Paris Opera, woos a young singer hypnotized by his mystery only to lose her by his boorish behavior; while her young lover & childhood pal plays hero. A story old as time, or at least  since the silent movies--known from a Lon Chaney classic in 1925. The French have a thing for these tales --"Beauty & the Beast"  by  any  other  name: Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Cocteau's Le Belle et le Bete; Leroux's Phantom. The Alienation of the Freak; a metaphor for the outsider in all of us. The need to be seen for our Inner Beauty. Lloyd-Webber took to it like Puccini to Japan. If he needed any further inspiration, his then wife, Sarah Brightman was the template for Christine, a role he gifted her for both London & NY premieres. The scale of the work called for the return of Harold Prince (absent from L-W World since Evita.) They immediately put together a team to address what was most important about the show: the production. No doubt much of the musical's appeal is its opulence. Aside from being set within a grand opera house giving license to Aida-sized numbers with elephant statues; there's a grand chandelier that must fall and  a  dry-ice  journey  into  the  bowels of the  Phantom's 
lair. Maria Bjornson was a British designer who worked mostly in opera and ballet and the Royal Shakespeare Co. At a time when musicals were leaning on the unit set or minimal scenery, Prince & L-W let Bjornson go wild, elevating the show's budget to over $14 million--a record at that time. But money well spent, for it generated word-of-mouth that seems to never end. I'll admit my memories of the show (seen but once on stage) are entirely visual--the lavish opera sets, the subterranean cave; and yet nothing topped the very opening: the parting of curtain after velvet curtain until at last revealing the stage. Everything that followed was inarguably smart, professional and state-of-the-art but couldn't spark much affection from this diehard musical lover.

As always, the critical question is whether the score delivers; and for me this one is postage due. It isn't fair to entirely blame Lloyd Webber for the genre he's mining--but neither operetta nor grand opera are idioms that illicit enthusiasm from this quarter, so that's strike one. Oddly, the title song is the single exception, being a sort of rock-based horror-movie kind of thingy that hasn't much comparison. It also gives the show a shot of hipness, used much (if rather misleadingly) in TV ads. The show's top ballad, "Music of the Night" having entered the L-W repertory as companion to Cats' "Memory"--tho nowhere near as pleasing to my ears--is a thin steal from Loewe's Brigadoon--"Come to Me, Bend to Me;" a snooze of a song to begin with. And in Michael Crawford's premiere recording it isn't exactly music to my ears. I've written earlier  about  my  bafflement  to  his  appeal,  but  he  was
older now and matured into a real West End matinee idol. And here he was the star of the world's most successful musical. Like Rex Harrison rising to immortality with My Fair Lady; only. . . not. He was the first, yes, but hardly the definitive Phantom and tho Crawford had once a brief, promising film career, there was no outcry to cement his performance on film, tho he was expected to when Warner's first purchased film rights in 1989, giving Sir Andrew complete artistic control. L-W quickly hired Joel Schumacher (a costume designer turned writer/director, who began in movie musicals writing scripts for Sparkle and The Wiz) and all was ready to roll when Sir Andrew's divorce from Sarah Brightman led to complications, and put the film into a long dormant stage that lasted a dozen years.

But there was really no need to rush it onto screen. Aside from the endless NY run, there were the countless tours and international companies, including a 4 year sit-down in LA, followed by a six-year fixture at the Curran in San Francisco--a city of few long runs. The show feels like a tenant you just can't get to move. As time passed, Michael Crawford became less necessary and other casting rumors circulated. For a long while John Travolta was attached, which didn't seem so wrong. Then Antonio Banderas--who might be better. Hugh Jackman was also in the mix, but in the end they chose Gerald Butler, who aside from being relatively unknown had no vocal experience whatsover. Hadn't they learned since Paint Your Wagon days? Katie Holmes and Anne Hathaway were serious contenders for Christine, which eventually went to Emmy Rossum; thus ensuring no box office value in leading players. As Raoul, Patrick Wilson was on point, still a rising star. Judy Kaye's Tony-winning   opera  diva,   Carlotta  went  to  a  younger, 
hammier Minnie Driver. Ciaran Hinds and Simon Callow were the impressarios, and Miranda Richardson, the shadowy Madame Giry. Schumacher returned to shoot the entire film at Pinewood in England. The film was royally unveiled in London on Dec 10, 2004 (my 52nd birthday) and in major US venues on Dec 22. However thanks to my Writers Guild emeritus, I was able to go to an industry screening at the intimate Dolby viewing rooms in SOMA, on December 1st. Coming at the property with less anticipation than usual, I was impressed enuf to return for a second look in January at the Metreon. I hadn't seen it since.

The movie begins as stunningly as it does on stage, only enhanced with digital technology. From a faded sepia postcard of Paris, 1919 we zoom into the frame as it comes alive in dusty black & white: the Opera Populaire from the street to the stage, an auction in progress, the fabled house now destined for demolition. (Shades of Follies) As a final lot comes to bid, a chandelier "in pieces" is hoisted upward and in the process wipes the theater from ruin to pristine glory and b&w to color, all to Lloyd-Webber's most stirring orchestration of the title tune. The opening continues with a flurry of backstage activity that consumes an opera house of this scale. It's all breathlessly thrilling and concludes at a rehearsal in progress with La Carlotta--the house diva. In short order we meet new company owners Firmin & Andre, their patron, the Vicomte, Raoul--a childhood sweetheart of chorine Christine Daae, who is pushed forth by company manager, Madame Giry, when Carlotta bolts in tantrum. It's all rather limp understudy drama; but wait--now it gets wiggy. Instead of basking in her debut glory, Christine retreats to a basement chapel to commune with her Angel of Music--a voice she's been hearing--which Mme. Giry claims has been teaching Christine. But how? Thru the ducts or pipes? It's a puzzlement. And tho Phantom is pleased with his pupil's debut, he flies into jealous rage at Christine's reunion with Raoul, and abducts her to his lair. 
One of the musical's signature moments is the gondola ride into the underground chamber. Schumacher & Co. are aware of this and inflate the journey to ridiculous length, including one passage down a hall with human arms holding candelabras (an image stolen from Cocteau), and another down a ramp that for no visible reason involves the needless assistance of a horse--all to the throb of the Vangelis-like title tune, which upon examination makes so little sense. Why, for instance would Christine sing, "Those who've seen your face/Draw back in fear"? How would she know?--those who've seen it are all dead. The man cave itself is so absurdly choked with candles (but where is all this smoke venting?) that you can easily expect a good half-days work just in getting them lit. But the extravagance is convincing in accepting Christine's hypnotic surrender, tho she has to endure, as do we, his lugubrious "Music of the Night." A novice vocalist, Gerard Butler took lessons--which leaves him sounding like a novice who's had a few lessons. (Tho in truth, neither Michael Crawford, nor anyone else I'd ever heard made this song sound any good.) But Butler is no better with any of the music, and not that compelling a presence, which pretty much nullifies his casting. Minnie Driver, on the other hand overdoes an annoying Italian accent, finding scant warmth underneath her bitchy shell.  Her  best  moment  is  in  "Prima Donna" 
being carried to stage in a sedan chaise. This sequence which begins in the Opera lobby as a heavily expositional song, "Notes," perks up the movie after the dark scenes of Christine's encounter with the Phantom--which should have been the more enticing. A major mistake was made in giving his facial disfigurement such a soft pass. Unlike previous film Phantoms, who looked truly scary, Butler looks no worse than your average burn victim. Nor do we see any look of horror in Christine's eyes when she dares to peek under his mask--now fully melted in empathy to this creature. Was this an editing oversight? Without Christine's repulsion, the Phantom's enraged reaction to her act seems all the more psychotic. By now it's clear that the central story is either silly or moribund but what really works is all the otherwise  arcana  surrounding the  Opera. 
The stage sets are lovely enuf, but even more stunning are the operahouse rooftop and a foggy graveyard. Along with solid performances by Patrick Wilson & Emmy Rossum these details make tolerable another two L-W ballads of no particular distinction: "All I Ask of You" and "Wishing You Were Here Again." There's far too many ballads in this score, and tho it's too facile to say they all sound alike (they don't) they do propound a feeling of sameness--a gateway to tedium. And damn if L-W can't dispense with his insistence on thru-sung musicals--burdening the show with yards of his painful recitative. (Not to put too fine a point on it: but Maury Yeston's version sounds positively lively--and no less dramatic--in comparison.)
"Masquerade" begins in fine form, dazzling in every way--a latter day "Ascot Gavotte" with Alexandra Byrne's costumes giving Cecil Beaton a run for his money. But the number dissembles after awhile, and ends rudely; the Phantom's entrance on the main staircase abruptly silencing the room. Does this make sense? First off he's masked as is everyone else present. It's not like his figure is well known; in fact few have ever seen him--so what's the panic?   Is  it  because  he's  dressed  in  red?  Like  the 
devil? As it happens, the opera he's come to demand they perform (so he's a writer!--But, as we shall soon see, he really wants to direct) is apparently set in the third circle of hell: something called Don Juan Triumphant--tho the movie drops the adverb from the title. It's a wholly different work than what we've seen so far--something dissonant and "modern" with no indication whether it's meant to be ahead of its time, or simply bad. A troupe of Martha Graham-like dancers pop up so unexpectedly I could only laugh. The Phantom drops in to play his own protagonist for the "Point of No Return" and from there it's swordfights and dungeon drama and the Kiss from Beauty to the Beast--the act of transformation, the great romantic climax. She's now free to go with Raoul and the Phantom can slip away into legend.  I know millions are moved by all this claptrap, but I'm afraid, like A Chorus Line's Morales, I felt nothing. Still, the movie has an epic sweep and elegance that recalls My Fair Lady, tho without the indelible performances or the unquestionable score. After Chicago, the Phantom's makers had every hope Hlwd's Academy would embrace them, but the film won only three nominations: cinematography and art direction were givens (so how did they miss costumes?) but nothing in the major categories. Lloyd-Webber (with Charles Hart) got notice for the obligatory end-credits new song, "Learn to Be Lonely"--an absurd bid for aggrandizement in a category long since bowdlerized by the lack of original songs in post '60s movies. It lost to a Spanish tune (no doubt lovely) from Motorcycle Diaries that no one's heard of since. Not that "Learn to Be Lonely" has entered the L-W canon. Without the imprimatur of Oscar, The Phantom of the Opera grossed $51,269,000 domestically--a soft showing for the "world's most popular" musical. The film did much better overseas, doubling that for a global total of $154,649,000. That's not peanuts, but compared to the new standard, Chicago, disappointing to Warners, and Really Useful (Lloyd-Webber's empire).

By the time of the film's release I was pretty much entrenched in my own grotto, a social phantom, writing--at a snail's pace--my own musical. Three years after my presentation to a gaggle of 42nd Street Moon players, I had managed to rewrite the first act and pen lyrics to ten songs. My composer apparently wasn't in much of a hurry, either. These were dark years, the looming Bush/Cheney cabal unleashing a MidEast hornet's nest; a still traumatized general public; a prevalent post-millenium depression. I soldiered on, but my long-held belief in my own protective angels was shattered when I suffered a head-on collision on Post St. moments after dropping Greg off at physical therapy. I never found out why this illegal Latino "borrowing" his bosses truck drove straight into me, but I was fortunate to suffer no worse than a broken wrist (from the airbag--of all things) and some long-range PTSD. But my contract with the universe was now forever broken. That it happened on the eleventh of June, on top of Greg's initial car accident (Dec 11) the Madrid bombings (July 11) and of course the grandaddy of them all: 9/11; branded the 11th as my day to beware. By 2004, my last known blood relative on the planet, Mother, was 83--and having always been older than her years, a very old 83. Yet determined to remain on her own in her 2-story tomb of a house; with daily reminders of where her husband shot himself. In widow's shock she declined to the point her mind couldn't make simple connections, basic logic, or reasoning. The sad truth was she had no good reason for being alive. And wanted nothing more than to die. Only for some bizarre reason (as we will later find out) she couldn't. She was about as negative, unpleasant and tiring a person as you can imagine being around. And now, suddenly on her own, she demanded a good deal more attention, meaning almost ceaseless weekend visits and nightly phone check-ins. I went back into therapy.

In May I returned to NY for the first time since 9/11. There was nothing of interest at ground zero--just a giant construction site; but Bway had changed. It was roaring back to life--not Golden Age/National Influence life but thrivingly cultishly popular as well as freshly creative (or shamelessly commercial)--and the newly renovated Times Square now swarmed with family-friendly crowds in this musical comedy (and drama) Disneyland. In truth what finally drew back to Manhattan was Encores! production of Bye Bye Birdie (which was crisply done, but undermined by low-wattage casting.) I came in via Boston, where I stayed with my dear old Laura (who by now I hardly ever saw anymore), but also to take in some unfamiliar sites to freshen these tired eyes; and Boston is a lovely town. I met Larry in NY and we stayed in a condo near Penn Station so uniformly white as to feel like a booby hatch. In short order we saw Caroline or Change (with my beloved Alice Playten!); Assassins, Jumpers, Here Lies Jenny, and Bombay Dreams. The Roundabout Studio 54 Assassins was best, but in truth none have lingered in fond memory. I saw a fair share of theater in California as well: Urinetown, Hairspray, Man of No Importance, the tryout of Wicked in SF; A rare revival of Duke Ellington's Beggar's Opera in Marin, Bat Boy in Mt. View; Elaine Stritch At Liberty, Grand Hotel, my friend, Lisa Loomer's latest at the Taper: Living Out--in LA; and the most enchanting surprise of all: the tryout of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the cozy Globe Theater in San Diego--the most fondly recalled of all those above.


The revived commercial interest in Musical Comedy led to two documentaries released in 2004: one on PBS in conjunction with a book by Michael Kantor & Laurence Maslon called Broadway: The American Musical--an entertaining affair that by time constraints jumped from one pillar to another, but with much unfamiliar historical footage. The other, Broadway: The Golden Age by Rick McKay was more visceral: living legends from the Golden Age (filmed like "witnesses" in Warren Beatty's Reds style) recalling stories familiar and un- of all aspects of the stage. (These weren't restricted to musicals). There weren't any movies I enjoyed more that year. I was still attending the cinema then but with waning frequency. For the most part movies were less & less interesting, and I mostly went to year-end screenings of those intended For My Consideration as Writers Guild emeritus. But there was really more interesting work happening in new platforms on cable television: Six Feet Under, Sex & the City, Absolutely Fabulous, The Sopranos, and two new exceptional (and underrated) series, Carnivale and Dead Like Me.  Fortunately HBO gave Mike Nichols the freedom 
to film Angels in America with the budget, the length and the all-star cast the play deserved. And with the introduction of Netflix DVD rentals, along with gigantic flat screen TVs dropping rapidly in price, going to the cinema was less & less necessary; drifting me further into reclusion. It seemed apt that my worse years would coincide with what then seemed to be the worst possible American administration. Most surprisingly I found pitiful solace in Elvis Presley movies--a genre I'd steadfastly ignored before. Now they appealed in their utter innocence, but even more for their Technicolor travelogues 
made back in my favorite decade, the '60s: Blue Hawaii, Fun in Acapulco, Viva Las Vegas. Celluloid valium to counteract all the disturbing political turmoil--altho this had become an unlikey subject of fascination as well, which resulted in my new, unexpected devotion to CNN & MSNBC. The 2004 election was more gripping than any fictional thriller, down to the climax with a downbeat--nay, dystopian--ending.

One thing was looking up--literally. After a decade living deep in San Francisco's forever-gentrifying, yet always noisy/filthy Mission District, I found a new apartment up the hill on Twin Peaks, looking down at my old 'hood, and the whole eastern part of the city. More than moving from Victorian to contemporary '70s digs, the psychological effect was incalcuble. Scaling down considerably in size, we purged a lot; but foolishly (aside from some help with the biggest furniture pieces) I moved every last bell, book & candle up the hill by myself in countless car trips--which is the last time I'll be doing that. A compact apartment, it met our needs in crucial ways: a garage with same level access (for Greg's now apparent long-term disability) two bedrooms at separate ends; modern not drafty. The main room provided an office niche for Greg, and my bedroom buried deep in the back, became my office & library as well, from which I type these words a dozen years later. In compensation for a single bath and small kitchen, there is a room-sized   deck   with  stunning  eastern   views,  which 
is more often than not uninviting as day progresses into night, and SF weather flaunts its famous fog and bone-chilling wind. Installation of a compact vinyl hot tub made outdoor evenings possible, and became my meditation studio. Radish & Shannon our two aging felines, used to roaming the back alleys of South Van Ness, took to the new sun-drenched digs like two elderly gentlemen retiring to Miami. A fresh start was needed by all. We had moved from the trenches up into the caves; we could look out on our world again (to live in SF without a view is nearly criminal) and gain some perspective. Right after our first Xmas, as Phantom of the Opera was just opening around the world, the horrific tsunami-to-end-all-tsunamis (my core horror) happened in South East Asia--washing away at least a quarter of a million souls. It's easier to be vigilant from atop a mountain.


Coming Next: Rent


Report CardPhantom of the Opera
Overall Film:  B
Bway Fidelity: A--  
Songs from Bway:  11
Songs Cut from Bway:  3
Worst Inclusion:  the endless recitative
New Songs:  1 (accessory: over end credits)
Standout Numbers:  "Notes"/"Prima Donna"
               "Masquerade"
Casting:  Uneven, lacking star charisma
Standout Cast: Patrick Wilson
Sorethumb Cast: Gerard Butler, Minnie Driver
Cast from Bway: None
Direction: Competent, occasionally brilliant
Choreography:  Minimal
Scenic Design:  Lavish, enchanting, detailed
Costumes:  Sumptuous, Best in Show
Titles:  Endless, dull end titles
Oscar noms: 3; Cinematography, Art
            Direction, Song ("Learn to Be Lonely")