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: The Last Five Years

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Into the Woods

December 25, 2014,  Disney   124 minutes

Image result for into the woods film
News of Stephen Sondheim's new musical was enuf to draw me to San Diego in the winter of '87, stirred by the intrigue of fairytale characters in a mashup of Walt Disney & Bruno Bettleheim. I was ready to revive my faith in Sondheim after the huge letdown of Sunday in the Park with George--which aside from its chef d'ouerve: the final assembly of Seurat's painting as tableau vivant--was,  to my taste, a pretentious "art" musical, and a collosal bore. But then it's always hit or miss with me & Steve. And generally against the prevaling grain. He may have lost me with Sweeney Todd but won me back with Merrily We Roll Along. Even his shows which I liked were rarely without some wrong notes; to say nothing of the ones I couldn't bear. Being the show's tryout, Into the Woods was a bit in the weeds in Balboa Park, but there was potential there, and I had mixed but hopeful feelings it would find its shape for Bway. From a critical and commercial viewpoint it certainly did.  Some love it beyond reason. But I could never muster up much interest in it, let alone affection. 27 years later it arrived on screen in a loudly-touted Disney package; the general public if not by now accustomed to the prestige of Sondheim, would be spoon-fed by the Mouse House.

James Lapine's head-spinning libretto throws together a catalog of characters from the Brothers Grimm playbook in an elaborate roundelay of mix-and-match-ups that play out as if built on the stringed-diagram of a police investigation. There is more plot per page than just about any other musical, achievable via our ingrained familiarity with its fairytale  tropes. Indeed, the opening number, which requires a narrator to parse ("Once upon a time...") sets up more narrative than most entire shows. This isn't merely Cinderella's tale (as was enuf for Rodgers & Hammerstein to musicalize) but one which incorporates Jack & his beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, a generic Giant and an all-purpose Witch. Lapine contrived a Baker and his Wife--not familiar as the others, but not out of place either--whose quest is to reverse a curse (on their inability to breed) thru a scavenger hunt. The whole thing is an elaborate puzzle, something up Sondheim's alley, yet the result is more of a technical achievement than a holistic entertainment--but enuf to secure a reverent position within the Sondheim canon.  But to my mind a veil of elitism hovers over this strain of Sondheim--a construct of cleverness that stimulates (if it does) the intellect but engages little in the heart--which according to Adler & Ross, "You've got to have..." Imagine if you will, a broader, more musical comedy "Broadway" concept with a book by Abe Burrows or reconnecting with Sondheim's Forum partner: Larry Gelbart. In other words, something funny. Really funny, as in farce funny. No, the choice was to take this seriously, as metaphor and psychology: something to think about. A few chuckles, no boffo laughs. Deep, inner meaning.

The show was ear-marked for film adaptation quite rapidly--something of a rarity by then. The first try given to screenwriters Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel--riding a commercial streak from Splash, Parenthood, City Slickers, and A League of Their Own--comedies. Yet an industry reading with a starry cast: Robin Williams & Goldie Hawn (as the Baker & his Wife), Cher (as the Witch) Steve Martin (as the Wolf) Roseanne Barr (as Jack's mother) and Danny DeVito (presumably ironic, as the Giant) produced no momentum. Soon after, Columbia (with Jim Henson and Craig Zadan producing) developed the project for several years--with Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan and Susan Sarandon in talks--before going into turnaround in 1997. It took director Rob Marshall, after his success with Chicago, to get the ball rolling again; asking Sondheim for his blessing to film either Follies or Sweeney Todd. Steve suggested Woods instead, and thus the film wound its way to realization, with a new screenplay by original librettist James Lapine, but a cautious budget of $50 million--Disney still somewhat shy of the show's darker themes. Not to mention its duller or repetitive moments. And the plot- heavy narrative was trimmed from some its many detours (such as the two Prince's affairs with Snow White & Sleeping Beauty); major character's deaths were shown with less violence, and six songs were fully cut, including the first act finale, "Ever After." However, there's still plenty of meat on this bone with a dozen characters getting roughly equal time and narrative importance; an all-star forest (unseen for the trees?) And no shortage of musical passages, if not full on numbers.

Lapine centered his story around the Baker and his Wife. Chip Zien & Joanna Gleason originated the roles on Bway. Gleason (who, let's make a deal, we easily forget is Monty Hall's daughter) brought a beatific simplicity to her playing that earned her the sole Tony among the cast. A similar miracle assembled in the person of Emily Blunt for the movie--an actress illuminated from within, a quiet stunner who here must have (unknowingly) given her audition for Mary Poppins. The Baker is James Corden, who manages to be wholly appropriate yet largely unappealing. Tho no larger than any other role, the Witch has attracted Star talent from the start, with Bernadette Peters continuing her Sondheim romance. Thus it Image result for into the woods filmseemed no overreach to secure Meryl Streep for the movie; who dove into it with glee. Anna Kendrick is a toothy Cinderella, and the two Princes are Chris Pine, who is billed above the title, and Billy Magnussen who's not--tho in equal roles. As for Little Red's Wolf, the part is short enuf that it pairs on stage with Cinderella's Prince. But no part is too small for Johnny Depp to cameo his signature weirdos. Made up like a Tex Avery cartoon character in a zoot suit, crooning half a seduction song, he earns his billing. His vis a vis is a Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford; apparently the result of an exhaustive search) who alarmingly suggests a pre-teen Ernest Borgnine. (For some reason I kept wanting to call her "Chester.") Another rare, beautiful and funny talent, Tracey Ullman, is rather wasted in a lackluster role as mother of Jack (of the fabled Beanstalk), who spends much of the movie looking for a cow. Christine Baranski enjoys a far campier romp as Cinderella's stepmother, tossing her evil barbs like glitter, sheparding her two vacant daughters like bait. Frances de la Tour plays a Giant's vengeful widow, wreaking havoc on the land; but barely seen--and quite oddly, as if projected on a screen in the sky rather than three dimensional.

Visually, the film is lensed in a soft-focus, sunlight-stingy palette, all dreary, hazy shades of brown, green or gray. To my eye, entirely (almost purposefully) missing the serene beauty or the enchanted magic of The Woods as illustrated by numerous artists, or featured in previous films shot in the fertile British countryside; as was this one. Nor was any oomph given to even the Royal Palace--seen here not in the least matching up to the fairy-tale Disney castle logo that opens the movie like a storybook. No, this is a drab brick Norman fortress, whose interior we never see; only shots of Cinderella fleeing the exterior bridge and staircase.  Perhaps one location that was exquisitely utilized was an artificial waterfall found at Windsor Great Park that served as stage for the two Prince's duet, "Agony"--one of the few good numbers in the musical. And visually the closest any-thing comes to magic.

As a wannabe Classic in the league of The Wizard of Oz, Into the Woods greatly misses the mark. A simple comparison between Sondheim's title tune, which sets the pace and theme of the show, with Arlen's "We're Off to See the Wizard," demonstrates a key difference: joy. I don't hear it in Sondheim's music here, there's no romantically longing "Over the Rainbow," but instead a chilly "Children Will Listen." No sweeping Rodgers waltz for Cinderella ("Ten Minutes Ago"), but an introspective musing, "On the Steps of the Palace"--and filmed here with the action in freeze frame behind her. The journey here is a scavenger hunt for (ironically?) iconic totems of its fairytale personages: Red's cape, Rapunzel's hair, Cinderella's slipper--as ingredients to reverse the Witch's curse, turning Meryl Streep back into Middle-Earth Miranda Priestly; and instantly planting child into Blunt's belly--a babe in arms by the next scene. But having produced progeny is it really necessary she die? Are such random deaths (for Tracey Ullmann, as well) really needed to provide a rejoinder to Happily Ever After? We get it, it's an Adult fairytale. Which is why the Child-in-Us gets restless & bored as the second half labors on. I wish the encounter between the Baker's Wife and Cinderella's Prince were anywhere as exciting or poignant, as we're meant to think it is. As it stands, I don't even know why they bothered, other than to give her a quick thrill before she expires. In the end we come to a foggy moral lesson--not a warm & fuzzy "no place like home" but a less convincing compromise. "No One is Alone," goes the post-apocalyptic anthem, gathering families from the remains of devastation. I happen to think we are all, ultimately, alone. But in any case I'm not swayed by the lugubrious tune selling their case. Think of Carousel, and the catharsis of "You'll Never Walk Alone." This  doesn't come close to generating such emotion.

year has passed since I've been able to resume writing--affected in no small measure by my relocation from San Francisco to my "forever home" in Palm Springs. But in truth as well as finally being in a receptive mood to watch Into the Woods again. I had seen it once before, the month of its release, at the Lucas Screening Room in San Francisco--one of my last times viewing a film in an actual theater. (Age, convenience and jadedness make Jack a lazy fellow.) The overwhelming impression left by this second screening is: dreary and unrelenting. I want to like it, I really do. But alas, even with this highly attractive cast, I cannot find an ounce of enchantment in it. But apparently not so for a good many. Opening on Christmas 2014, the movie made a nice $128 million domestic and $85 million overseas. Critical opinions were largely positive, tho the Academy was somewhat cool on it, failing to nominate the film in nearly all major categories, coming up only for production & costume design, and the unstoppable "supporting" Meryl Streep--her 19th Oscar nom. The Grand Budapest Hotel  took both design awards and Meryl lost to Patricia Arquette in Boyhood. Meryl and Emily Blunt were both nominated for Golden Globes--the latter as leading actress, and the film in the separate comedy/musical category--but again won nothing. The American Film Institute chose it among the top 11 (?) films of 2014, and Streep won a "Best Villain" accolade at the MTV awards. Now how about giving her something with real potential? Like Sunset Boulevard.

Report CardInto the Woods
Overall Film:  D
Bway Fidelity:  B
Songs from Bway: 21
Songs Cut from Bway: 6
Additional Songs:  None
Standout Numbers:  "Agony"
Casting:  Starry
Standout Cast:  Streep, Emily Blunt
Cast from Bway:  None
Direction:  Plodding, unentrancing
Choreography: Unnoticeable
Scenic Design: Dark, rustic, dreary
Costumes:  Well designed yet too subtle
Titles:  Post film, unremarkable
Oscar noms: 3; Meryl Streep; Art Direction;
                Costume Design 

Next Up: The Last Five Years

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Jersey Boys

June 20, 2014,  Warners  134 minutes

The songs of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons were in my attic of memories; pop ditties that amused me during my pre-teen years, but had little hold later once I'd begun to absorb the more sophisticated writing found in Bway musicals. Coming upon them now, they seem silly enuf to be parody or novelty numbers, with such campy sentiments as "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk Like a Man." The trouble with jukebox tuners is that the songs aren't written for theatrical context --which hasn't deterred their proliferation, nor limited their popularity and commercial success. Which leads them to one of two paths: either an entirely conjured plot written around the existing non-contextual lyrics (see: Mamma Mia, Rock of Ages, Waitress,) or the Bio-musical route; a group or individual celebrated in a chronology of song hits: The Boy from Oz, Motown, Beautiful--and the King of the Hill: Jersey Boys, which berthed from La Jolla to Bway--running nearly a dozen years (4,642 performances), spawning numerous touring companies and sit-down productions, including the inevitable (and ideal for) Vegas fixture for 8 years. I get that, but the seemingly infinite popularity around the globe frankly puzzles me.

I had to watch the film twice before I could let go of my prejudgment against what I expected would be a lame excuse for a concert of Frankie Valli hits. As written by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elise,there is more story here than music, inclining toward a mob drama over a show-biz chronicle. Sort of a junior Goodfellas with period song hits popping up once in awhile. (Joe Pesci is even a featured character here, as the young Joe Pesci, the one to introduce Valli, Nick Massi, & Tommy DeVito to songwriter Bob Gaudio--the final element in the mix to success.) Each of The Four Seasons (group) are given their say, tho not labeled as seasons per se (as in the stage show); each to break the fourth wall and address the camera every once in awhile-- narrating their own angle. The Quartet are unfamiliar actors, which lends them cachet as stand-ins for faces I didn't know anyway--which, I suspect would go for most audiences nowadays. Vincent Piazza's Tommy DeVito thoroughly reeks of trouble, not saved in the least by his Italian good looks. As neither major contributor nor big talent, his importance to The Four Seasons is inflated by his own self-destructive ego. Michael Lomenda convinces as the self-described "Ringo," Nick Massi. Erich Bergen, on the other hand, truly stands out as Bob Gaudio, a welcome contrast to the Newark ethos prevalent elsewhere. So, too is Mike Doyle as record producer, Bob Crewe--whose queerness is compared to Liberace, who says Massi, everyone excused as just "theatrical" As the lynchpin, Valli, John Lloyd Young was the one original Bway holdover--no worse for wear nine years later. He won a Tony (over no serious competition) and must suggest a solid facsimile of Frankie Valli, but the perf doesn't exactly impress on screen with the same force. I have to say that after all the talk of Valli's "amazing" voice, the first time Young lets loose in Frankie's falsetto, it sounded so cartoonish I couldn't help laughing. This was the sound of a promising vocalist? The script paints Valli in no uncertain terms as the moral center of his universe. Not for him the perks and excesses available to pop stars of the '60s; no Frankie Goes Hollywood, this one is painted as a church-going, family-first, straight-up kinda guy--whose professional occupation nonetheless prevents him from letting his wife slip into alcholism and his daughter into drugs and death.

But low-level gangsterism aside, the impetus for the show is, of course, the music--its creation and performance. And tho a heavy whiff of that tired trope: "And Then I Wrote..." wafts thruout, there's undeniable pleasure in gleaming various backstories; the building of "Sherry" from instant four-part harmony on first try, to the American Bandstand; Tommy's comment watching Kirk Douglas slap Jan Sterling in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, as genesis of "Big Girls Don't Cry"; the Four-ever-changing-Somethings finding their final moniker off a neon bowling alley sign, etc.  The kinds of "inside" moments that are the raison d'etre of musical bios. One especially sweet bit of nostalgia has the Quartet hitting Times Square to land a record deal. Arriving at the fabled Brill Building  the camera rises up & up as we hear the various groups and singers making their pitch on each floor. Details such as this call attention to the pic's professionalism. The best musical number however is outside the narrative: an MTV-style video of "Oh, What a Night" with the whole cast stepping out on a studio street set--which serves as the film's end titles.

Clint Eastwood has demonstrated a solid taste for and skill with music, neverminding his own musical perf in Paint Your Wagon. As a director, the man delivered a stunning Charlie Parker bio in Bird, and has himself scored the music to no less than 18 of his own films--demonstrating a taste for jazz, blues & r&b. As Oscar's oldest winning director, Eastwood had an additional decade on him when he made Jersey Boys at the age of 84. And he's even made another 3 movies since, including another one (American Sniper) nominated for Best Picture. Upon consideration this iconic, laconic movie star  has accumulated an even more impressive resume as director over five decades, including two Oscared Best Pics, Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, along with Mystic River, Space Cowboys, Gran Torino, The Bridges of Madison County, Letters from Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers and Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil, among many others. Surely he's our latterday equivalent of John Ford or John Huston--or both. And tho Jersey Boys fits neatly into his ouevre, it was no bullet point.

By the time of the film's release, Bway was in deep with jukebox and other parasitic concepts crowding its theaters. The season leading up to Jersey Boys film premeire, had new musicals about Janis Joplin, Carole King, Billie Holiday, Motown, and The Beatles. The other, ever-active trope: the movie-made-into-a-musical was even more rampant: Kinky Boots, Big Fish, Rocky, The Bridges of Madison County, Bullets Over Broadway, Aladdin. Astonishingly the most unusual, if delightfully retrograde of them all won the Tony and ran longer than such rarefied, intelligent shows usually last. A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder was based on one of the greatest Ealing British classics, Kind Hearts & Coronets--a particular favorite of mine; which made me naturally skeptical of the prospect, particularly from an unfamiliar team (Robt. L Freedman & Steven Lutvak--who are no more familiar to me now.) But deft and delightful as it was, it was more reminder how far Bway had strayed (some say "evolved") from it's golden era of Musical Comedy. New original musicals now were more along the lines of Next to Normal, If/Then and The Scottsboro Boys.

As for me, this was a time of laying groundwork for the future. Nose to the grindstone I continued working as liasion between the City and Builders & Architects; watching films and writing my blog; and upgrading my future palace in Palm Springs in quarterly visits, financed by vacation rental income. Evidence of the evolving world, if perhaps just my own take on it, is in the single visit to a Cinema I made in a year & a half--a lifelong habit (if not passion) gone obsolete by the tsunami of entertainment available on TV and the Web, growing exponentially in budget, quality, form and convenience as to encourage homesteading--and let's face it, particularly for those over 50 whose desire & need to socialize about town recedes. Alas, my attendance to live theater grew rare as well; tho something leads me to suspect San Francisco itself played greatly into that aversion. More than anywhere else, I saw five decades of change in the city, and by then I was far too jaded to maintain any sense of enchantment about the place--which truly once was Oz to these eyes. Perspective is one perk of aging, and tho I'm often daydreaming of episodes past in the many chapters of my life (or times imagined or gleamed from movies, photos and records) I didn't really swoon to the milieu of Jersey Boys--even tho it depicts my favorite era. As light entertainment the show has certainly been a financial bonanza, but the film--which might be considered an upgrade--was only a fair performer, earning $47 million domestically, and $65 total globally--but cost $58 mil. My own low enthusiasm surprised me, for surely I rocked if not rolled to 4-Seasons AM-radio hits in my pre-teen youth. Some things just don't stick. Truth to tell I was listening an awful lot to Boy George's Taboo while wrestling this article. Now that has somehow stuck in my brain. I'm waiting for the movie. Please, someone out there? (I hear even Soderbergh is filming on iphones now.)

Next Up: Into the Woods

Report Card:  Jersey Boys
Overall Film:  B-
Bway Fidelity:  B
Songs from Bway:  21
Songs Cut from Bway: 7
Additional Songs:  None
Standout Numbers: "Oh What a Night"
     "Can't Take Me Eyes Off You" "Sherry"
Casting: Considered, fresh, unfamiliar
Standout Cast: Erich Bergen
Cast from Bway:  John Lloyd Young,
                Renee Marino (as Mrs.Valli)
Direction: Thoughtful, detailed
Choreography: Unnoticeable
Scenic Design: Period accurate yet subtle
Costumes: Mid-century cool & chic
Titles: Endtitle video with full cast in
     street-sweeping "Oh What a Night"
Oscar noms:  None 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Les Miserables

December 25, 2012,  Universal   157 minutes

Who today actually reads Victor Hugo's historic 1862 novel--all five volumes and 365 chapters over 1,500 pages, rambling off-topic over a quarter of its length with essays on religion, morality, urban design and the meaning of Waterloo, among a catalog of subjects? (All of which I know courtesy of Wikipedia) For most of today's planet, Les Miserables is now (& forever) an internationally successful Pop Opera--for better or worse the very definition of the genre. Originating, like the novel, in France, the title is so venerable rarely is it translated into English or any other language; understandably evoking more charm or appeal than a literal translation like The Miserable Ones or more bluntly put, Misery. A theatrical phenomenon on a scale beyond even most Bway smash hits, Les Miz (as commonly abbreviated) tho widely loved, is as often derided by musical theater connoisseurs. As Ethan Mordden points out, Pop Opera reaches for a generic universality which makes for a hollow-feeling core--a sense of coming from nowhere, not somewhere honestly rooted. Of course, Frenchmen Claude-Michel Schonberg & Alain Boublil wrote the show for Paris, but Brits John Caird & Trevor Nunn shaped the show for London and subsequent international productions. Opening on Bway in 1987, it ran for 16 years and has already been revived twice. The West End production, however, has been running continuously now for well over 30 years; which only goes to prove: misery loves company.

I never felt the love myself. From my first exposure to the album thru production on stage and now film, I remain unmoved. I find the score musically pedestrian with lyrics blunt where they should be poetic--an enormous bore; sincerity & bombast without distinction. Its fame rests on a trio of tentpoles: the full-throttle arias, "I Dreamed a Dream" and "On My Own," and the act-ending call to arms, "One Day More" (which cribs half its line from "Dream"). Woefully, the rest remains painfully monotonous, especially the relentless recitative that hews the piece to Opera rather than simply (less-pretentiously) a Musical. On top of which, a time-jumping narrative outlines an endless chain of misfortune, struggle, abuse. What's the word? Oh yes, misery. Fight/Dream/Hope/Love reads the film poster's copy. A nice set of directives--which could more accurately be replaced with just a single word: Endure.

I don't recall approaching any movies in this survey with as much dread, and I put off viewing it for as long as I could. Some of that, no doubt, stems from my present state of mind; tentative, weary, anxious, on the verge of major change; on top of which the current political climate casts a dark and frightening shadow across America--led by that would-be dictator on the throne; manifest in the widespread decline of civil behavior and tolerance. In an increasingly ugly and violent society, entertainment both reflects and glorifies depravity. Do we really need musicals to join in? So, OK, perhaps I'm overreacting; it's a World Literature classic, after all--(not a gratutious piece of shit porn like Silence of the Lambs)--a tale as old as time. If that's the case then the fault must lie in the telling.

Onstage Les Miz utilizes a turntable and skeletal scenery out of necessity, but a film, of course has the luxury of realism, even if it's pumped up with fantasy CGI. From the start Hlwd's version goes for the IMAX jugular, opening with a stormy scene of colossal human labor, hundreds of slaves pulling a mountainous ship into dock. It almost makes Ben Hur look like a Sandals resort. There will be various moments of such epic tableaux, but for the most part the movie is kept close and personal to the characters. The scorched purity of Jean Valjean--jailed 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread--to feed a child no less. A week wouldn't be enuf punishment? Is it possible to lack that much empathy without at least a racial bias to give it credence? Or consider the twisted righteousness of Javert who perversely ignores Valjean's redemption. Is he so blind with misdirected rage not to see this as a model transformation? Or Fantine's expulsion from the factory.  On and on . . . But I digress . . .

Producer Cameron Mackintosh made a fortune from endless stage productions, and took a chair among others on the film's team. For director they chose Tom Hooper, with a resume of British costume dramas building to his Oscar win for The  King's Speech. He would guide Les Miz to a Best Pic nomination in the recently widened category, but not find himself in the five slots for Best Director. Beyond the upgrade to epic "realism" the movie luxuriates in major Hlwd casting. Who could object to Hugh Jackman & Russell Crowe as the main adversaries? Or Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried as the hapless heroines? Fresh, breaking Bway talent like Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit make for attractive revolutionaries. Throw in one genuine ingenue, Samantha Barks--unknown outside the West End. One by one, each are given platform to sing their hearts and guts out--tho most are not quite singers. Hooper takes his frame in close for each aria--painfully close--magnifying the histrionic emoting. The actors don't sing the songs as much as punch them up in go-for-broke acting exercises. Hathaway turned her raw, hair-raising, hair-shorn  solo,  "I  Dreamed  a  Dream"   into  an   Oscar.
Jackman had to settle for a nomination (but who could beat Daniel Day Lewis's Lincoln?) Crowe waxes philosophical while treading upon ledges, until at last he hurls himself off in despair. Then there's Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, inhabiting a different movie altogether, as villainous innkeepers appearing like walk-ins from a Tim Burton film. "Master of the House" is the show's single attempt at comedy--but is such a lame number it makes me long for Lionel Bart. Carter & Cohen make slapstick mince meat of it, but it doesn't comport with the rest of the film.

The movie opened wide on Christmas Day, 2012. The starry cast gave catchet to an already marketable title, and likely helped push the domestic gross to $148 million--the highest for a musical since Chicago. Global figures were nearly twice that. Factor in 8 Oscar nominations (winning 3), Les Miz was unquestionably a hit film musical, riding a torrent of publicity, acclaim and hurrahs that December--with Obama safely re-elected and the world receptive to a 19th century French epic, sung-thru by some Hlwd faves. I finally got to it sometime in July. Suffice it to say I didn't view it again until preparing this entry.

I was otherwise engaged that December. It seemed inconceivable but I was turning 60. As it happened, the second Playbill cruise was sailing over my transition, and as the route was the one other I couldn't resist: Buenos Aires to Rio (during the South American summer)--it was fated. Larry Rubinstein was game again--as he always is--and I was able to go ahead a few days and pop over to Montevideo (a ferry ride away) and indulge my curious life-long obsession with Uruguay on my own. After meeting Larry for half a week in lovely Buenos Aires, we were back (on ship) to Montevideo and further to Punta del Este, but the thrill of my mini-intro to this far-flung fantasy was price-less. The cruise reunited us with Jeff & Karen Seltzer, whom we'd just met on the previous sail, but now became our good friends and anchors. Seth Rudetsky was back as musical director. But if my goofy pal, Andrea Martin wasn't along this time, I got to discuss David Yazbek's amazing score to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, with Sherie Rene Scott. And enjoy some giddy/disarming flirtations with Jason Daniely.

We had a full day at sea on my birthday and a most wonderful one it was. Very quickly we found ourselves invited into an clique of 60-something married couples, who all seemed to adore us. Jeff & Karen were mostly responsible, as these were folk they had made acquaintance with on the previous cruise. One threw a cocktail party in her suite (the largest on ship) for my birthday, with a small crowd, including Playbill publisher, Phil Bersch and Judy Perl--the cruise agent. Since the last cruise Jeff & Karen had become pals with Christine Ebersole & her husband, Bill; so now I was drawn into their orbit. Early on I suggested Christine sing "My Ship," having done Lady in the Dark at Encores! which she thought a wonderful idea; and a week later she performed it at a Playbill event--"at request"--tho Seth pointed out they don't normally do requests. It was wonderful, funny (for her "trumpet solo" in the bridge), and felt like an extra special gift to me. Seth Rudetsky was a completely different person this time, and we connected on a more personal level. My knowledge in the trivia contest made me known to many as "that know-it-all," which brought forth the repeated, if bafflingly inane query: "How do you know all that stuff?" Oy. The response was such that Playbill insisted on staging a contest between Seth & I--and did--which was rather uncomfortable for me, set in the main theater with an audience that included all the Playbill performers. Lewis Black nearly shut down the whole thing by questioning one of editor Blake Ross's more inane/absurd questions. It kinda fizzled out, but I sure got a lot of attention on board. The Playbill shows were mostly splendid (the exception being Marin Mazzie's bizarre, "These are songs I liked growing up in the '70s" program); to say nothing of how chilly and unengaging her presence was. Christine was the best, improved from the year before, with all new material ranging in character, tone, mood and vocal ability. Sherie Rene was fun, too--the only one to acknowledge our whereabouts, with a Brazilian samba medley. And Seth played accompaniment with proficiency and finesse. Jason Danieley didn't get his own show, but did a matinee with Marin (his much older wife) about their initial romance--he sings divinely, but sadly their voices do not mesh well. Lewis Black toned down his political raging but was hysterical about the cruise ("Why is the staff happier than the passengers?") I imagined a potential Woody Allen-ish movie about a comic on a cruise. When I told Black, he said he'd tried to sell Hlwd on such a script--with no luck. He talked much about his mostly failed playwriting career, which Larry thought rightly absurd, but I found interesting, no doubt by how much I could relate. "My ship" sailed into Rio harbor on a disappointingly foggy morning--I get enuf of that in San Francisco. But the city's landmark beauty came out in the midday sun. We embarked for Copacabana post-cruise, and with our last minute, newest and most intrepid friends, Mike & Eliot (who it turns out lived but 2 blocks from me in SF) we finished the trip off in visceral exotica for a few days more. (Why isn't there a great musical set in Brazil?) But I digress. . .  Again. 
Next Up: Jersey Boys

Report Card:  Les Miserables
Overall Film:  A- in Quality/D in Pleasure
Bway Fidelity:  A-
Songs from Bway:  20
Songs Cut from Bway: 6
Additional Songs: 1 ("Suddenly")
Standout Numbers: "One Day More"
Casting:  Star heavy, but well-chosen
Standout Cast: Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway,   
     Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit
Cast from Bway:  Colm Wilkinson--demoted  from
    Jean Valjean to Bishop
Direction: Up close & personal
Choreography:  Miminal
Scenic Design: Historical epic
Costumes: Rags & Ruffles
Titles: End titles over symphonic "One Day More"
Oscar noms: 8--Best Picture, Hugh Jackman
     Song ("Suddenly"), Production Design,
     Costume Design; 3 wins: Anne Hathaway,
     Makeup & Hairstyling, Sound Mixing

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Rock of Ages

June 15, 2012,  Warners/New Line  123 minutes

I suppose it was only a matter of time until we got a Tom Cruise musical--and a cruise missile of a musical it is. Repurposing rock hits into narrative arcs can only be classified as naked commercialism. It's not like these songs were crying out for dramatic context--they're AM radio fare. The movie's poster comes at you like those cheap TV ads for K-tel records, the big names flying at you--Tom Cruise! Mary J. Blige! Catherine Zeta Jones! Alec Baldwin! Foreigner! Journey! Guns N' Roses! Bon Jovi! "Nothin' But a Good Time" promised. But in fact the movie has a lot of (uninspired) story--tho less than the stage show, astonishingly, whose libretto by Chris D'Arienzo was a virtual season's worth of melodrama stuffed between 24 musical numbers--a good many of which are mash-ups of two or three songs by disparate bands. Such a long-winded book prevents any mistaking the show for a rock concert masquerading as theater. And great effort has been made to use  familiar '80s hits in a context that defines the characters and/or advances the plot; in other words, like a real Bway musical. This was something of a surprise to me, having come to another, less cohesive prejudgment based on what little interest I could muster to consider this in the Bway canon. The mere mention of the heavy metal bands whose songs make up the score was enuf to kill my interest in its tracks. Or should I say, traxxx?

Being a Bway baby didn't preclude my taking interest in other genres of music as I emerged from the cocoon of childhood, including--prominently enuf--"rock" in manifestations of pop, reggae, ska, new wave, salsa, world beat and electronica. Wheras musicals are a finite study (perhaps a dozen new a year), rock is a countless universe of bands with a dizzying spectrum of banality to sophistication. With so much volume how do we ever find our way to our own musical gods? Or do they somehow find us? Surely our friends & peers influence our taste, or at least introduce new sounds into our lives. Some relationships are built entirely around the appreciation of music. It was my high school friend, Bill (and later first roommate in New York) who began my education down the slippery slope with such hippies as The Mamas & the Papas and Spanky & Our Gang before acclimating me to the likes of Grace Slick, Santana, Pink Floyd and Rick Wakeman. What does our taste in music say about us? Does it in some fundamental way, define us? Is it as ephemeral a question as one of nature vs nurture? Music has been an incalcuable factor in my life--I couldn't imagine living without it. But for the most part, the score of Rock of Ages fires very little in my brain's pleasure center.

Is it unfair to surmise a certain demographic drawn to the catalog of bands chosen here? (White, blue-collar, parochial, testosterone driven?) Was the impetus for the show from (D'Arienzo's) musical affection, or was this a wholly commercial opportunity seized? In either case the question remains: did the score (as chosen) dictate the characters, the sensibility, the milieu and the story? Or did the script come first, seeking songs to make its points? My guess is the former--for it's hard to take the narrative seriously. A sort of  A Star is Born of the LA rock scene; the story revels in the finer points of sleaze even as it wants to wink at it in parody. It's still a little difficult for me to accept the pic as a period piece--but in fact it is set some 25 years ago, which ages the music more than I can readily recognize. I mean this: in 25 years pop music evolved from The Andrews Sisters and Benny Goodman to Janis Joplin and The Rolling Stones. If it doesn't seem to me so radically different now from the '80s; then call me ignorant of current rock. At any rate the core audience here was aging adults whose youth was steeped in this soundtrack.

After tryouts in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Rock of Ages tested the waters Off-Bway for a few months before transferring to Bway in March 2009--where it ran as long as Man of La Mancha--until January 2015.  The show was rushed to the screen faster than any in memory; with the film coming--and going--midway thru its Bway run. Such optimism wasn't built on Chris D'Arenzio's book, given the fundamental changes made, and the addition of two other scribes (Allan Loeb & Justin Theroux--yes, Jennifer Aniston's mate) --to wrestle a new screenplay. Much of this might have something to do with attracting Tom Cruise to playing Stacee Jaxx. In the stage musical Jaxx is entirely despicable and ends up a has-been. The film paints him more ambiguously. Indulgent & excessive beyond parody, he also wants to be the pic's soul--a psuedo-zen freak with spiritual powers; he not only retains his status but succumbs to a blonde wife with (at coda) baby on board. Curiously, the young wannabe rock stars, Sherrie & Drew on stage wind up heading for the suburbs; whereas on film they, of course, find stardom. Wisely cut was a subplot with a German father & son (villainous developers after the Bourbon Room club); whose conflict is the son's passion for confectionary baking. The film invents instead a morality-spouting adulterous Mayor, whose wife campaigns to close the club with a fervor equal to her once devotion as groupie (and bedmate) of Jaxx's.

D'Arienzo demonstrates no talent for names. Stacee Jaxx? Wofgang Von Colt? Constance Sack? Drew Boley? A boy band called Z Guyeezz? A glass of beer and two friends could improve on this on any given night. But not apparently a trio of screenwriters. When Sherrie meets her idol, Stacee, she gets off this gem: "When my hamster died your music really helped me pull thru." Yes, I know it's meant to be ridiculous, but really? Much of the script seems to have been written around a bong. Such as when Sherrie and Drew trade notes on how far their fortunes have fallen:
--"I'm a stripper at the Venus Club"
--"I'm in a boy band"
--"You Win."
Club owners Dennis & Lonny are thrown the one uncliched character surprise: they realize their attraction for each other, and act on it, unabashedly. It's not really very convincing, coming off more as patronizing--but as it celebrates rather than condemns queerness--in a (arguably) heterosexually-aimed piece of entertainment, it's hard to object to. But there's only manufactured conflict, nothing of any substance, or really, even interest. Was there ever such an outcry over rock in the '80s that had the religious right protesting on the Sunset Strip? The flimsiest of devices parts lovers Sherrie & Drew--he thinks she fucked Jaxx; she thinks the spotlight has turned him into an instant asshole; Jaxx himself has an unlikely reckoning confronted by a journalist. It's all as random as Dennis & Lonny's sudden passion for each other.
The film was assigned to Adam Shankman who'd directed Hairspray a few years before, demonstrating an understanding of musicals on screen. In fact, his helming here is not to be faulted--neither in his staging of the many musical sequences, or the semi-starry casting with top-lined (but not top-billed) Cruise. Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Malin Akerman play roles newly written for the pic; and Mary J. Blige, Alec Baldwin, and Russell Brand nicely prop up supporting characters. Somehow I've remained rather clueless about Julianne Hough, who seems entirely new to me, tho apparently she came to prominence quite young on TV's Dancing with the Stars, and had already made the Footloose remake in Hlwd, as well as Cher's Burlesque. (Later in 2016 she plays  Sandy  in the  live-TV Grease.)  As Sherie  in  Rock, 
Hough defines the country girl gone Hollywood-rocker with exactitude down to her still blushing youth. For her love interest, Shankman determined that Mexican TV actor and singer Diego Boneta would score as Zac Efron did in Hairspray. He's fine as well, but Boneta appears to me underage for getting in, letting alone working a bar. Which makes Baldwin & Brand look like codgers. Their slow burn for each other adds some fresh humor, even tho it never feels very real. Mary J. Blige models a series of wigs while running a strip joint; Catherine Zeta-Jones gets to sing Pat Benatar while feigning Republicanism; and Paul Giamatti disappears into the role of slimey agent, complete with world's most pathetic pony-tail. Unfortunately, none of them are very interesting characters.

Credit Shankman for boldly putting forth an unapolegetic credence to the laws of musical comedy right from the start, with Hough belting her heart out on a bus heading west, only to have her fellow passengers naturally join in. Her arrival in Hollywood is "Just Like Paradise" tho in short order she dodges a drug bust, gets accosted by hookers, harassed by males and loses her suitcase to a thief. Heavy handed, sure. But these people are going to sing these songs as if they were the narrative, and not some MTV video, and they come with much more frequency than you'd expect. A good many of them are also mash-ups of two or three songs, and reflect various pairings and storylines. But the film is also uncommonly vulgar while shying away from more hardcore realities (there's more cocaine in Annie Hall than all of here); as a rock god, Stacee Jaxx gives Tom Cruise license to indulge in his brand of movie star weirdness (better exploited in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia), complete with hawk-like stares  and  tattooed bod--tho  at  times  it  feels
like he's relying on his bandanna to do all the acting. The Sub-Saharan circus surrounding him is a bit much (including a monkey butler lamely called "Hey-Man")' but you can see his magnetism as a rock star--a performance kid Cruise has been rehearsing since pubescence. As well as the soft-porn scene that's "I Want to Know What Love Is"--tho what's meant to be comic is simply trashy. Later at the Venus Club Mary Blige unleashes a Cirque de Soleil-worthy pole dance number to "Anyway You Want it" by Journey--an insanely popular band, of which I've managed to exist all my life knowing virtually nothing about. Their catchy but vacuous anthem, "Don't Stop Believin' " wraps the film up in a fairy-tale ending: Jaxx sober, reborn & soon-to-be-dad by journalist bride; Drew & Sherrie a duo in Jaxx' show, and all remaining characters rocking out in the audience, including an unleashed Zeta-Jones in fishnets & leather. And not a hint of marijuana smoked on screen--in this hardcore LA rock scene. It's almost unbearably silly.

To great extent one's enjoyment of this pic, depends on one's taste for the chosen brand of rock. Half a dozen songs were familiar to me from the '80s zeitgeist, but I ran a very different soundtrack during those years: Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Paul Simon, Sade, The B-52s, Blondie, The English Beat, Springsteen Madness. Along with...Evita, Dreamgirls, Nine, Rags, Little Shop of Horrors, Chess. But in truth I listened to more rock in those days than Bway--which felt evermore in decline, or worse: irrelevant. Rock of Ages hit the summer market on the Ides of June 2012--but even a starry cast (and Tom Cruise to boot!) didn't draw a millenial audience. The film scraped up $38 million domestic, but less than $60m worldwide--falling far short of its $75m cost.

It had been two and half years since Nine--the last Bway musical transferred to screen, and a great deal had transpired in my life with a nod to the future. A smart agent sold my deceased mother's house in San Jose instant-quick, and for above asking; which in turn allowed me to put a serious bid on the house I'd eyed in Palm Springs, struggling in a bottomed-out market, now in a short sale. I came out like a bandit--first-time homeowner in what felt like my spiritual homeland since I was nine years old. Fully furnished and equipment stocked, I was set from the start to accommodate vacation rentals until my own retirement & relocation. In the meantime, that allowed for my own extended desert getaways, which effortlessly drew friends from both coasts and Chicago. Times were good. Obama had taken reigns from the idiot Bush; my job was as secure as it was unobtrusive; Greg was stable if not terribly active; my entire known family was dead and scattered to the wind and I had at last unshackeled myself from the slavery of ambition. I conceived & commenced this very blog--which became more pleasure than project and has smoothly driven these last 7  years of my creative life. 2011 was also the year I finally broke my 28 year streak of passport storage. The impetus was a maiden voyage on a luxury cruise line sponsored by Playbill magazine, a Bway-themed cruise with top Big Street talent sailing around Italy in September. It was compelling, and easy to convince Larry Rubinstein to join me. But prior to sailing I granted myself a continental mini-Grand Tour, hitting London, Paris, Rome, after a quick dash thru New York, where I had just enuf time between visits with friends to catch The Addams Family (even with a replacement cast
it was de regiuer--as "mi familia" of course.) and Catch Me If You Can, which I loved even more than in Seattle, but which sadly, puzzlingly, didn't catch on in NY. Far less memorable was the single West End show I caught, Betty Blue Eyes--a pleasant if minor musical based on a minor 1984 British film, A Private Function. (Even the Brits were now adapting their old movies.) What I most wanted to see, Matilda, was still a month off. I lucked into a discount rate at Claridges and ran all over London for 3 nights--which was but a tasty sample of a town that feuled my imagination for over half a century. I suspect my British obessesion was first perked (again at age 9) by an hour-long sitcom from ABC in the fall of '62 called Fair Exchange--which left a strong impression upon me, despite airing for only several months. A NY & London family swapped daughters for a school year. Culture shock ensued. Paris was an embarrassment of landmarks, but I came away from my whirlwind trio of days, feeling the place somehow cold. That was instantly corrected upon arrival in Rome--as I'm always comfortable around Italians, which is more than I can say for the French.

The Regent cruise introduced these eyes to a series of Mediterranean jewels: Portofino, Monte Carlo, Sorrento, Amalfi. The Playbill contingent proved to be only about 120 out of 700 passengers, but we got to know a few. As the online face of all-things-Bway, Seth Rudestky was familiar to most of us already, and as Camp Counselor he quickly matched Larry & I up to John & James from London, who aside from bonding so nicely (and having such great senses of humor) were only over time revealed to me to be well-connected British theater folk. It was nice at this stage of life to enjoy them merely as people and not calculated opportunities to exploit. Among the marquee names on our cruise none was more exciting to me than Andrea Martin--whom I had worshipped for decades  (for
her catalog of characters on SCTV and other comedy shows) long before she stepped on a Bway stage and earned Tony nominations for each of her five Bway musicals--and winning twice. Aside from considering her a comic genius I felt I had a deeper understanding of her as an Armenian-American woman; as she had much in common with a friend of my parents, who I'd grown up knowing only too well, and who in 1970 took me and my high school pal, Bill, from Syracuse (my birthplace and her home) to Niagra Falls, Toronto and up to Montreal--all the while revealing herself a character worthy of Andrea Martin. It was a thrilling treat to watch the genius behind Edith Prickley and Pirini Schleroso, work up close, of course, but it was even better to engage with her offstage. Yet there was a moment in one of the Playbill informals where we did some improv that afforded me the chance to reference a rather obscure (but choice) bit from Andrea's SCTV days with but a gesture. Our eyes locked as she got my reference, and it was all either of us could do from breaking up entirely. Something in the bolt of that moment between us was so private, yet in full view of an audience made it all the more electric. Her friend, Debra Monk accompanied her on the cruise (without performing), and the 4 of us later spent an afternoon at Peggy Guggenheim's museum in Venice after sloshing down the Grand Canal in a motorboat. Also on board ship were Christine Ebersole (who would figure in later travels) and Brian Stokes Mitchell  who  arrived  only  on
the final night, but lingered long after his lovely concert to chat up our group, allowing me to impress upon him how good (divorced from its ill-fated, manic produc-tion) the score was for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown--something he didn't seem aware of had come thru on record. It was nearly the end of the cruise before we got acquainted with Jeff & Karen Seltzer, dedicated theatre fans--and in Jeff something of an archivist after my own heart--they too, would figure later. If the world was opening up to me again it wasn't thru the cinema or theater. Rock of Ages doesn't satisfy as either a Bway or film  musical, nor did it draw fans of these bands in large numbers. But there will be no end of rock music and musicians featured on Bway, some misguided fast flops, some immensely successful.

Report Card:  Rock of Ages
Overall Film:  C+
Bway Fidelity:  B
Songs from Bway:  19
Songs Cut from Bway:  11
Additional Songs: 5
Standout Numbers: "Don't Stop Believin'"
                "Can't Fight This Feeling"
Casting: Starry for something so trashy
Standout Cast: Hough, Boneta, Brand
Sourthumb Cast: Catherine Zeta-Jones
Cast from Bway:  None
Direction: Crisp, lively, worthy of better material
Choreography:  Strictly MTV
Scenic Design: Florida for Hollywood
Costumes: Rock 101
Titles: Over opening numbers
Oscar noms: None