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: Sweeney Tood

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Hairspray

July 13, 2007,  New Line  116 minutes
I've already confessed that my favorite year is 1962, tho my unreliable memory of that time is undoubtedly buttressed by the record of movies, recordings, photos and historical arcana available ever since. Perhaps everything looked so golden, so stylish & modern to me then because it was the year I became "woke"--viscerally aware of the world outside my hermetically sealed home. I was, after all, nine. It was time to get acculturated (much of this was covered in my entry on The Music Man.) So, naturally, any musical set in 1962 automatically cues my primal pleasure zone. Hairspray was a particular balm--forty years after the fact, and less than a year after the national psychic wound that was 9/11. On top of my own challenging traumas, there was no better time for Hairspray to arrive. I had, of course, seen John Waters 1988 pic--several times--and the musical opportunities were obvious and many. And best of all, what could have easily been another jukebox tuner, was given a fresh, original score that recalled nothing less than the joyous bounce of Bye Bye Birdie. Who'd have thought it? Some might put Grease in the same category--but that show dispensed with adults for the most part and propped up a razor thin narrative with very simple, one-note declarative songs. 

One of the few truly radical cineastes of the '70s, was Baltimore's own John Waters, who saw his brand of comic outrage rise from the extreme edges of the indie market to cult appreciation to the Hlwd--well, "Off-Hlwd"-- mainstream. Much of this was in tandem with, and thanks to, his muse: Divine--a 300 pound drag queen who expanded this ghetto genre into uncharted territory (both funny & grotesque). Having achieved their goals of making the trashiest, most offensive films possible, there was only one way to go: up. While Divine ran off to make disco records and star in legit Off-Bway (including plays by Dreamgirls author, Tom Eyen: Women Behind Bars and The Neon Woman) he periodically returned whenever Waters had a new film financed. After the almost-but-not-quite-respectable Polyester (which was halfway to a Doris Day comedy, but did offer Scratch 'n' Sniff cards for its gimmick: Odorama) Hairspray was a jump into the American mainstream, albeit with some of Waters' trademark subversive touches intact. Yet still fit for the whole family!

John Waters' characters have long been off-the-chart outliers, whether psychotic killers, sexual maniacs or simply hopeless welfare trash. But Edna Turnblad was devoid of any such excess, nor had an ounce of glitter or glamour--this was the Real Housewives of Baltimore: fat, frumpy and agoraphobic. It was the performance of Divine's career--and sadly, too, his last film. And tho not quite the main role (he wished to play Tracy as well, and was initially going to) he made enuf of a meal of it, that a musical adaptation wouldn't even think of Edna as anything but a male drag role. And who better for Bway than Harvey Fierstein? Of equal stature, both physically and professionally, Fierstein's rep was made on Bway in his own material, Torch Song Trilogy (playing a drag queen--tho mostly out of drag).  He  followed that up with the book for Jerry Herman's La Cage Aux Folles; softening its edges for a hetero mainstream Bway audience  (which  to  some was a sellout.) And tho he turned into a semi-regular musical librettist (Legs Diamond, A Catered Affair, Newsies, Kinky Boots) he was only a performer in Hairspray--whose book was by the even more prolific scribe, Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Elf, Young Frankenstein, Bombay Dreams, Chaplin, Rocky). Divine was shamelessly obese, but beginning with Fierstein, Ednas have mostly been enlarged with padding. But the show's nucleus and true star is Tracy Turnblad, the teenage "hair-hopper," whose enthusiasm is matched by her weight. Unlike Edna, whose costume is part fat suit, Tracy requires the real thing: a genuine fat girl. Ricki Lake began her career in Waters' original (later slimming down to widen her options). Marissa Jaret Winokur was a Bway find--a graceful-moving plus-size youth, with a Lesley Gore-ish voice. She won the Tony (as did Fierstein--as male lead in a musical) but hasn't parlayed her success into other Bway roles, unlike Kerry Butler who made Tracy's best friend, Penny Pingleton a springboard to musical stardom: following up with leading roles in Xanadu, Rock of Ages, Catch Me if You Can and as Audrey in the first Bway mounting of Little Shop of Horrors. Matthew Morrison set the pattern for dreamboat Link Larkins; and took his rank among Bway's leading men with A Light in the Piazza, South Pacific and Finding Neverland, building on his wider audience as the star teacher on Fox TV's Glee. Laura Bell Bundy was Amber Von Tussle soon to go Legally Blonde. As her mother, Velma, Linda Hart (one of Bette Midler's former Harlettes) made a meal of her "Miss Baltimore Crabs" mambo. And Jackie Hoffman began her reign as our latter day Alice Pearce with several bits here before heading off to Xanadu and then as Grandmama in The Addams Family tuner. It was a veritable New Faces of 2002. The century was still fresh and things were looking up on The Great White Way.

With a Bway run just short of My Fair Lady's, I finally caught up to it in NY in June 2008, tho I'd seen a road company in San Francisco in 2004. The show was irresistible on stage, from its brisk staging to its bright pop colors and wall of lights--again recalling the smooth professionalism of Gower Champion's Bye Bye Birdie. But Birdie was tinkered with and flattened by Hlwd, and chances were much the same could happen to Hairspray. Happily, the translation had fallen into the right hands: producers Craig Zadan & Neil Meron whose Chicago revived the Hlwd musical as Oscar bait and box office performer, and who were the closest thing the aughts had to an Arthur Freed. (Tho more often than not they brought tuners to TV: Bette Midler's Gypsy, Cinderella, Annie, The Music Man). Rather than going to a major studio, they set the movie up at New Line--which also produced Waters' original. For director they chose Adam Shankman, a former dancer turned Hlwd choreographer who'd graduated to helming mid-level studio comedies.

As with Chicago, their casting was starry and mostly solid. The single carryover was Queen Latifah, a natural for Motormouth Maybelle. Michelle Pfeiffer, edging into middle-age, was a smart, if over-qualified pick for Velma von Tussle. Similarly, Christopher Walken seems like an egregious upgrade for Wilbur, Tracy's dad. Amanda Bynes and Brittany Snow were teen stars who brought their TVQ to the table, and Zac Efron kept the objectified hunk component to Link Larkin intact. No less dazzling is James Marsden (he of the greatest smile in the universe) as show host, Corny Collins. And Alison Janney (who seems to never not be working) was given Penny's mother, to chew whatever corner of the scenery she could find. Fresh faces were found for Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) and Tracy (Nikki Blonsky), but the linchpin for publicity was the now-established drag role of Edna. Fierstein wasn't known outside NY, besides which his voice strains the ear. No, here was the choice hook: an unexpected Hlwd star. So why not John Travolta? Adept at comedy as well as musicals, here was a meal to make into a banquet. You can tell he's having the time of his life letting loose--but is he any good? 
It's a strange performance, padded in affectations as well as stuffing; his face so swollen as to render eyes too close together for comfort. And tho it shouldn't be, the best moments are when the iconic Travolta peeks thru the layers: a yodel riff in "Welcome to the 60s"; a move out of Pulp Fiction; a quick pose from Saturday Night Fever. But that's all a wink to the audience; he doesn't embody a character, he's playacting in a fat suit. You never for a moment forget Edna is Travolta, where even an undisguised Michelle Pfeiffer makes you believe she was Miss Baltimore Crabs, for at least the length of a number.



The elephant in the room--if you'll excuse the expression--is the show's take on obesity; a laudable defiance against shame and prejudice toward the overweight while simultaneously playing it for laughs. "I'm black & I'm proud" was a period mantra, but Motormouth Maybelle, amends that to "Big (read, fat), Blonde (but black) and Beautiful" (proud)--a blatant endorsement of caloric indulgence:

           Bring on that pecan pie
           Pour some sugar on it, Sugar,
            Don't be shy
            Scoop me up a mess
            Of that chocolate swirl
            Don't be stingy
            I'm a growing girl


Alas, obesity is a serious health issue, and while it's fine to extoll the equality of "all shapes and sizes," defending gluttony while making fun of it is a screwy message. Fat may be beautiful, but those whose initial fame came in part from their size, such as Ricki Lake, and the Jennifers, Holliday and Hudson, later slimmed down, transforming their images entirely. Divine did not, and died at 42 from an enlarged heart. Watching a person of heft move with ease & grace is unexpectedly eye-catching. (I might have first noticed this with either Jackie Gleason or The Borden 
Twins who tickled the nation as Teensy & Weensy on I Love Lucy since 1955--with whom I was so enraptured, I even painted them in oils many years ago.) Likewise, Tracy is a stand out on the dance floor. The girl can move--the part requires it. And whether Lake, Winokur or Nikki Blonsky, there's no denying a fleshy girl her natural due. Divine didn't dance, but Edna didn't either. That is until the pic, which of course capitalizes on Big John's moves. But there's no authenticity in Edna's "body"--it's transparently Travolta sashaying under all that stuffing. Good for a gag on Saturday Night Live, perhaps, but giving credence to Ethan Mordden's dismissal of the musical as clever, stupid junk--a latter-day "George Abbott show" (i.e. Pajama Game) but without a quality score. I certainly don't agree (about the score, at least); as part of the first wave of Musical Comedy resurgence in the 2000's, Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman's score delivers just what's needed--and more so than Brooks' The Producers, makes for a sonic house party.

So, Travolta isn't quite right yet he's still eminently watchable. But if not him, who? Maybe Richard Gere--or is he too contained? Johnny Depp--too surrealistic; Alec Baldwin? John Lithgow? Not so obvious a choice, is it? Christopher Walken was an unusual pick for Wilbur, but he brings a welcome goofiness to the role contrary to his trademark intensity. Queen Latifah could play Maybelle in her sleep, and she's always fine company but that's nothing new here. It's Michelle Pfeiffer who adds the most to what's primarily a cardboard villain, making her spotlight number, "Miss Baltimore Crabs" better than anyone could expect  (with some flashback scenes to her teenage glory). 
She looks magnificent in the era's styles; her hair a series of wind-blown sculptures; her clothes suitable for Jackie Kennedy. As her daughter, Amber, Brittany Snow hasn't the skill to add any shades to her nonstop petulance. That's in stark contrast to Amanda Bynes' Penny, whose expressions go a long way to filling in a character. Tho she's mostly sidelined, her subtle, but committed underplaying rewards those who pay attention. As her fanatical mother, Prudy, Allison Janney throws herself into John Waters mode and crazily overacts--if appropriately so. As does Jerry Stiller as a truly creepy Mr. Pinky (of Pinky's Hefty Hideway--plus-size fashion shop.) Zac Efron was still sporting baby fat in his dreamy face, yet his future hunk-status was obvious. But I've nothing much to say of Nikki Blonsky's Tracy; she gets the requisite points across, sings well, dances okay, but doesn't shine like the star she's meant to be.  On the  other  hand,  Elijah Kelley's  Seaweed 
(great name, that), exhibits enuf resemblance and charisma to demand the lead in any future Sammy Davis Jr. bio. And most prominent among the chorus boys--er, teenage students--is Curtis Holbrook as Brad, who'd already joined the ranks of Buzz Miller, John Mineo, Scott Wise, Robert Wersinger, Sean Hingston and Jay Armstrong Johnson as my fantasy ensemble. Between James Marsden's smile, Michelle Pfeiffer's coif & couture, and Zac Efron's permanent curl, the film twinkles with plenty of eye candy.

The movie avoids the clever "overhead" shot that Jack O'Brien's stage scene opened on, looking down on Baltimore instead of Tracy, before reaching her bedroom. The infectious beat of "Good Morning, Baltimore" carries on thru Tracy's route from bed to school; hitching a ride on--not in the cab of--a garbage truck; a nod to the story's trashy badge of honor. (John Waters makes a quick cameo as the flasher.) Brief moments in class show Tracy's impatience until 4 o'clock and the Corny Collins Show broadcast--and with  James Marsden  flashing those pearly 
whites and a room full of sharply dressed 1962 teens (boys in jackets & skinny ties; the girl's dresses twirling like toy tops) jumpin' & jivin'--I have no trouble believing Tracy & Penny's keen interest, for I could easily share it. Shankman wisely retains a good many scenes from the dance show--which paired with Shaiman's tunes, makes for some joyful noise. The movie dispenses with "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now," altho split-screen film is well suited for the song's tryptich approach. "I Can Hear the Bells" benefits from roaming in numerous locations as a visualized fantasy. "Welcome to the 60s" builds into a giddy production number, complete with animated billboards and a fireworks climax, but might as well be another fantasy. "Run and Tell That" remains earthbound, but it meets its title and then some. I'm afraid I find "Big, Blonde & Beautiful" a chore to listen to, tho Queen Latifah does all she can with the barrelhouse tune, which begs the question of who she's enabling. The song makes a curious reprise for Velma in attempting to seduce Wilbur. Easy-listening is the best description of "You're Timeless to Me," an "adult" number that's intentionally meant to evoke the great songwriting era before rock; but the song is sadly pedestrian with lame jokey lyrics: "You're like a stinky old cheese, babe--" to which Edna recoils: what? "--Just getting riper with age." And so on. But "Without Love" is a real knockout, a rousing quartet that builds and builds to a sensational climax that takes a sudden left turn in the final bars and ends in a gasp! The musical's eleven o'clock number, "You Can't Stop the Beat," is a song I'm taxed to find a comparison to. It's a shameless feel-good finale that brings all the characters (even the evil Von Tussels--well, at least on stage) to their helpless feet for a blissful--integrated!--climax; and on and on it goes, spreading cheer and happy endings for all. Welcome to the '60s. Then credits roll with a new Shaiman/Wittman tune, "Come So Far/Got So Far to Go" that prolongs the house party atmosphere. The final track is "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now" split among the three Tracys: Lake, Winokur & Blonsky as an aural easter egg. Virtually a whole score of tunes that can easily get lodged in your head.

The screenplay was consigned to Leslie Dixon a mid-level Hlwd writer who, 20 years earlier made big on a spec script that became a hit for Bette Midler (Outrageous Fortune) which led to other assignments, such as Overboard, Mrs. Doubtfire, That Old Felling and Pay It Forward. Dixon retained most of Hairspray's original jokes (Edna's "occidental laundry")  and dialogue ("....a whole lot of ugly coming at you from a neverending parade of stupid") adding a few visual gags as signifiers of our evolution (kids riding seat-belt-less in cars; the teacher's lounge engulfed in cigarette smoke; pregnant women sipping martinis--not to mention ubiquitous use of cancerous aerosol--the show's very title). Dixon also simplified an already slender second half, dumping "The Big Dollhouse" and any incarceration scenes (having Tracy locked up instead in Prudy's bomb-shelter--which has, incongruously, a window! Just one of several gaping lapses of logic. To wit: why would Prudy have the TV on at all, let alone tuned to Corny Collins "race music," long enuf to see her daughter, dancing with a Negro? Would yesterday's agoraphobe, Edna, really wear a short,  red  beaded  dress  and  jump  into a  teenage dance 
show as if she were Ann-Margret? Why does the protest march start in the morning and two verses later find itself a candlelight vigil in the darkest hour of night? These and other questionable choices (in design, editing and camerawork) first gave me pause after the precision and brilliance of Dreamgirls; but in the end--after several more viewings--it doesn't seem to matter as much with this material. It joyfully entertains in a primal way. And carping about details seems awfully petty.

Shankman's Hairspray looks even better in comparison to the 2016 live TV presentation. Harvey Fierstein was lured back to leave a record of his Edna, but 14 years on makes him closer to Tracy's grandmother; and his performance looked rather rusty. Jennifer Hudson was tapped for Maybelle, but what was the point now that she's as slim as a model? Kristen Chenoweth was an obvious Velma von Tussel but brought no subtlety to her villainy. Which put her more in line with the full-on cartoonish approach taken by Martin Short (as Wilbur), Andrea Martin (as Prudy) and Sean Hayes (as Mr. Pinky). But even here the show proves indestructible; a new century's Bye Bye Birdie. The movie nods to that '60s musical, having talent agents (Shaiman, Wittman, Shankman & Ricki Lake) at Corny Collins' Miss Hairspray show scouting for the 1963 Birdie pic. While his 1988 original was somewhat of a reach to a broader audience, surely John Waters never expected his baby--whose first title was White Lipstick--to evolve into a perennial crowd-pleaser, whether in amateur, regional or professional stagings. On top of that, Hairspray proved the most successful Bway musical on screen since Chicago, grossing upwards of $119,000,000, as counter-programming to the now-ubiquitos summer action or super-hero franchises. I saw it first on July 23rd--one of the last times I rushed to the cinema.

Filmed entertainment and public accessibility had changed so much by the mid-aughts that the traditional parameters were no longer valid. The internet was flooded with endless arcana such as the website Bluegobo, whose master had possession of rare video clips from Golden Age Bway musicals; many of them from Ed Sullivan shows, broadcast once and unseen for decades--a veritable treasure trove: Do Re Mi, Flower Drum Song, Henry Sweet Henry (Ed praising tiny Alice!) This was just the start of what would come to be a black market in Bway videos (legal and not). By 2005 my lifelong moviegoing habit had reached extinction. Flatscreen TVs with enormous monitors supplanted the need to venture out to increasingly costly cinemas, with evermore annoying audiences. Even the most prestigious and popular films were available for home viewing within months--altho those of interest to me seemed to be shrinking every year. At the same time, the proliferation of cable channels with their need for content made for a new, unheralded Golden Age of television. 2007 was filled with Big Love, Rome, Flight of the Concords, Little Britain, Pushing Daisies, Ugly Betty, The Office, among many others.

The same month Hairspray hit the screens, a failing cable network (AMC--American Movie Channel, which had decisively lost the battle for classic film prominence on cable to TCM) unveiled its initial original program, which being set in New York and starting in 1960 was of particular catnip to me. The creation of writer Matthew Weiner, Mad Men turned out better than I could imagine, becoming over 8 years and 92 episodes, what I truly consider The Great American Novel. Using an advertising agency as a mirror of midcentury culture, hypocrisy and morality, the show was painstakingly authentic in look, design, music, language and social conventions. And tho much of the latter were now painfully repressive and happily gone--the cultural explosion of the period has me forever pining for those carefree years of civil-rights riots and Cold War hysteria, so long as big-finned Cadillacs, girls in taffeta dresses, Roadshow Cinerama epics and Bway musicals are just the tip of a modern renaissance iceberg. Mad Men would traverse the entire decade--occasionally referencing various Bway hits. (But Weiner seemed to deliberately avoid mention of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, even tho--or perhaps because--Robert Morse was Mad Men's senior partner. What's wrong with a sly inside reference?) Mad Men wrapped after 7 flawless seasons leaving its characters on the doorstep of the '70s. But I knew by the second season, which was set--you knew it was coming--in 1962, that this was destined to be my all-time favorite television program. Hairspray doesn't qualify or aspire to such lofty status, but there's no denying its pleasures are rock solid and undiminished with age.

Next Up: Sweeney Todd

Report CardHairspray
Overall Film:  A-
Bway Fidelity:  B-
Songs from Bway:  13
Songs Cut from Bway:  3 
Worst Omission:  "The Big Dollhouse"
New Songs:  3
Standout Numbers: "I Can Hear the Bells"
               "Run and Tell That" "Without Love"
               "You Can't Stop the Beat"
Casting:  Starry, silly, stellar
Standout Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Zac Efron
               James Marsden, Amanda Bynes
Cast from Bway:  None
Direction:  Solid, competent, not overly clever
Choreography:  Super sock hop steps
Scenic Design:  Candy-colored, period pop
Costumes: Period adequate, lacking Wm Ivey  
     Long's (stage) humor and taste
Titles: Jetsons-age graphics over film bits--a 
     delight accompanied with new songs.
Oscar noms:  None

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Dreamgirls

December 15, 2006, Dreamworks/Paramount 130 min.
It seems preposterous that Dreamgirls took 25 years to reach the screen--especially given how Michael Bennett's stage direction was noted for its cinematic fluidity. Altho a  4-year smash on Bway, the subsequent years didn't quite expand the show's cachet; with no London mounting (until 2017), a disappointing road tour, and the burden of a complex production with a large cast, making it a poor candidate for regional or amateur licensing, the show took on the aura of cult status over its first two decades. Those who revered the OCR which producer David Geffen released as a polished pop album (not unwisely--it sold well) were deprived of at least half the score, getting scant sense of its complexity and largess, demonstrating the brilliance of Henry Kreiger (in his Bway debut) for translating pop idioms into musical theater lingua. (For my money, his mastery of setting recitative to melody is far superior to the likes of Lloyd Webber.) Twenty years on, an Actors Fund benefit with an All-Star Cast, (and with musical direction by a rising Seth Rudetskty) was recorded live, giving us audio access to the show in its full glory. With the surprise success of the millennial films Moulin Rouge and Chicago, Hlwd reawakened to the musical, and looking to the shortlist of recent Bway hits, Dreamgirls finally got its due.

Of the dozens of Bway musicals trafficking in "show business," scant few represented the Black experience. An early outlier, Show Boat dealt with racism, miscegnation, and even white appropriation of black music; but little more was explored until the 1967 Jule Styne/Comden & Green show Hallelujah, Baby!--which chronicled the progress of African-Americans on stage from the turn of the century up to the Civil Rights Era (without the lead characters ever aging--yes, it was another concept from Arthur Laurents, who also penned Anyone Can Whistle.) It was well-intentioned and won the Tony (in a weak year--tho months after it had closed) but had the taint of white liberal pandering; and let's face it, sounded a bit old-fashioned next to the concurrent release of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Which in no way should diminish the beauty of the score--under-appreciated Bway gold (Styne won his only Tony for this one, not Gypsy or Funny Girl or Bells Are Ringing or Peter Pan or Gentlmen Prefer Blondes) with scarcely a dud in the show. But by 1967 black voices were prominent thruout pop music, with a decidedly modern sound. Still another 14 years would ferment before Dreamgirls arrived to tell the story behind that rise.

It was ostensibly about The Supremes, of course, except it was really more about them as archetypes than biographical figures--which goes for all the characters. And tho the creative team was as white as Hallelujah, Baby's, Tom Eyen's book felt more reportorial than fabricated. Laurents penned the former as part apologia. Eyen fleshed out full human beings--as ugly and conniving as they are warm and generous. His scenes crackle with tension and excitement within the brevity necessary to accommodate such a full score. The exposition is never clumsy; it segues smoothly into recitative. Eyen's lyrics (rarely mentioned) aren't merely servicable, they find clever undercurrents reflecting the story and relationships while masquerading as generic pop, R&B, and disco hits. More than perhaps what's fair, Michael Bennett gets credited with creating Dreamgirls, which is half-true, but the now-iconic director/choreographer really needed resurrection after the anemic Ballroom proved such a letdown following A Chorus Line. That electric energy was back, in a literal sense as Bennett set up three towers of whirling lights around a minimalist flowing set, which suggested cinematic movement. But the show is on a fundamental level more Henry Kreiger's than Bennett's. The score is nearly wall-to-wall sound. Much of Eyen's dialogue has been lifted (and elevated) into musical recitative that is at times as piquant as the main numbers.

From the very start the show tosses off four throwaway tunes at a talent contest, most of which serve as background to the backstage intros of the main characters--while layering in their now & future dynamics. The not-yet-Dreamettes song, "Move," is a good facsimile of a minor Holland-Dozier-Holland hit--as are most of the Dreams' group songs. The show's two-decade timeline takes us up to disco and the beginnings of rap, with songs in various genres. So how unlikely is it that in a show full of ready-made pop hits, its one well-known/signature song is an R&B aria that's become the "Rose's Turn" for big black women: "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" which for all its defiance proves in vain. (For those with a sense of humor, it's a natural for funerals--as once seen in Six Feet Under) And like "Rose's Turn" the song ends, or should I say, explodes on the final word (which is of course the very subject). . . ME! Yet Effie is not only going, she's gone as the second act begins. While Deena negotiates the demands of stardom, Effie's struggle & resurrection are the pillars of the second act; including a last minute, "You're the Daddy!" reveal that could be viewed as somewhat racist were it not so touching. But there's no getting around the fact that it sags in the second half, and never recovers the dramatic tension that ends the first. Gypsy has Rose bringing down the house in Act One, but she tops even that at the end of the show. Dreamgirls, alas, loses steam--tho, and this is important, it doesn't leave us disappointed; it satisfies.

The original Bway cast was dominated by acclaim over Jennifer Holliday's star turn as Effie. She tore the theater apart with her gospel-on-steroids performance, and won every conceivable award. But this didn't anchor a further Bway career, nor precede much of a recording one, either--tho she did make albums (and disco no less). A mountain of a woman initially, Holliday slimmed down over time; beneficial to her health, no doubt, if not her physical stature. And talented as they all were, none of the '81 cast became true stars, even along Shubert Alley. (Tho Loretta Devine, in middle-age became a frequent guest on TV dramas.) By the time of the 2001 concert there were true Bway stars like Audra Macdonald, Heather Headley, Lilias White, Norm Lewis & Brain Stokes Mitchell to give a royal polish. But in the Millennium there were even more bonafide black movie stars to justify a commercial "risk" in turning Dreamgirls into a movie. As the top pop diva of the '00s, Beyonce (here billed with her last name as well: Knowles) was tailor-made for Deena, having been virtually playing her in real life. As a recent Oscar winner, Jamie Foxx added dramatic cachet to impressario Curtis. And who'd have thought Eddie Murphy (once a box-office champ) would be so ideal for a musical, embodying James Thunder Early to the depth of his desperation. And here was the platform to "introduce" Jennifer Hudson, the fleshy and sassy American Idol reject who had since been beating her own drum to ever rising fortunes. Is there a black woman who hasn't felt the betrayal and rejection that Effie suffers? Not to diminish Hudson's perf but I'm sure she didn't have to dig deep to access Effie's rage. There was one rising Bway light chosen for Lorell: the sweet Rose called Anika Noni. Which makes the Dreams a pretty starry crew. Hinton Battle was another Bway recruit; a 3-time Tony winner, including one for his supporting role in Henry Kreiger's 1985 musical, The Tap Dance Kid; Battle is little used. I don't know where they found Keith Robinson ("Power Rangers," I am told--not that I know what that is), but I don't care, he's just fine as C.C. And Danny Glover shows up as old-school manager, Marty. You could say it was a dreamcast for Dreamgirls.

Hlwd was still skittish about musicals so once again two studios divided the risk: Paramount & Dreamworks. After Chicago, Rob Marshall was top choice for musical helmer in Hlwd, but Bill Condon was the one who'd found the key in translating that show to screen, and with directing credits as well (Gods & Monsters, Kinsey) he was deserving of this assignment. There wasn't much he needed to change from Eyen's book; whole scenes survive verbatim. A few musical passages are now spoken, but not that many, and the score survives, not only intact, but with a trio of new songs--one for each of the Dreams (all of which were Oscar nominated--in a rather weak year; Melissa Etheridge won for an environmentalist anthem to ride Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth documentary.) Condon's changes seem to be mostly geographic. The opening talent contest is now in Detroit, not the Apollo in NY; the Dreams debut their act in Miami not Cleveland, after Jimmy Early implodes at the Fountainbleu. Such are the subtleties of Condon's rewrite. Perhaps his best contribution is to capture the final moment when Curtis realizes Effie's daughter is also his own, during the farewell concert. It's enuf to induce a lump in the throat if not a few tears. But with lesser script repairs, Condon was able to focus on directing, and it's hard to argue with his choices, from casting to production design to editing. With so much of the film pure stage performance, care was taken to present a variety of venues--clubs, theaters, niteries, TV &  


recording studios--all shown with fancy filmwork (under sizzling lighting by nonpareil Bway masters Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer) capturing the temperature of theaudiences. So much music is heard in the opening talent contest, while overlapping the expositionary narrative that you hardly notice when the characters start singing offstage outside the context of performance. But despite frequent streams of recitative, this is a show that knows when to stop for breathing room; moments that need only dialogue. Something that would benefit other sung-thru epics like Evita and Miss Saigon.

Condon starts the movie with a drumbeat and flashes of blue light on stage ephemera, before hitting the act (The Step Sisters) in full lights in front of a rocking audience. There's real energy and excitement in the way the exposition unveils thruout this opening talent contest. And by the time Early's "Fake Your Way to the Top" transitions from a backstage lesson to onstage performance there's little doubt the film is in good hands. Eyen and Bennett laid out the perpipatetic narrative breathlessly on stage, but there's nothing like the chilling moment when the Dreamettes lose the contest and the curtain falls like a slice of Siberia; the audience's applause vanishing into cold silence. There's a good deal of montage and story-movement thru "Fake" and on to "Cadillac Car" which in one song establishes Curtis Taylor's postition as a car dealer, C.C.'s cred as a songwriter, and the absorption of a black "race" record into white culture. We get the point made in the white-washing of "Cadillac Car," but, really, was anything this square? It's virtually a lullaby. Yet this atrocity leads to one of the musical's highlights, "Steppin' to the Bad Side"--the very model of the mid-first-act showstopper that every great musical has. The movie does it justice, ending in full onstage performance with a male chorus on rising platforms. (The CD has a bonus disc with a stunning audition video of the entire number by choreographer Fatima Robinson filmed in a dance studio.) 

With Miami comes a new Jimmy Early: smooth crooner for the largely Jewish crowd. I find his song a persistent ear worm,   and  Murphy   delivers  one  of  his  best  moments 
spitting out "I Want You" as a verbal assault on the prim fur-clad white newlywed in the front row. Of course this stunt destroys his crossover viability, but paves the way for the Dreams to be born in the rescue--beginning the swift, winding path to Effie's elimination. And I am telling you there's no definitive track of this song. Jennifer Holliday made it a Bway legend but Lilias White or Amber Riley take no back seat, yet Jennifer Hudson was the one to lay it down on film--which in no small measure led her to an Oscar.

The musical's subtext (female empowerment) takes over the second act--expressed thru its girl group, controlled and exploited by men. Effie suffers the worst for her ferocity and size--but climbs back embracing those very qualities. Beyonce plays the most held-back Deena I've seen; in character & performance she remains a bit of a wallflower until the second half. As a star she fights for her own instincts; Kreiger gives her a new anthem, "Listen"--which in truth sounds nothing like music from the pic's period, but more to the image Beyonce holds for her fans. Lorrell's growth is in gaining the upper hand on a hopeless affair with the married James Early, but her excoriating "Ain't No Party" is MIA--all the more a shame as Anika Noni Rose is such a vibrant presence. The pic's advantage is in showing the contrast between Deena's Hlwd lifestyle vs. Effie's doldrums in Detroit. A number of musical montages exhibit period details such as posters, album covers, film & TV graphics--all done with uncanny accuracy.





Curtis has built an empire worthy of a glass house and Deena into a goddess from Vogue. Meanwhile, broke & unemployed, single-mom Effie draws welfare and dodges ghetto riots--a bit that leads into a new song, "Patience" made as a demo by Early (with Lorrell)--tho quickly shot down by Curtis as a "message" song. Poor Jamie Foxx--top billed and in the leading role, but playing an unlikeable asshole and unrepentant opportunist. Curtis has a lot to answer for. Not only does his rejection of "Patience" send Early down the path to overdose & death; he can't let Effie have her own comeback record--vehemently punishing her long after he's pushed her to ruin. For all his constant aim of "a new sound"--which turns out to be disco--he fails to recognize the import of Early's inventing rap on the spot. And what was so uncommercial with "message" songs anyway? This wasn't the buttoned-down '50s, but the chaotic '70s.


The fourth (and least) new song is a number for the transparent Jackson 5 stand-ins, The Campbell Connection: "Perfect World," again, in Kreiger's perfect pastiche. Condon stages another lovely transition with Effie's "I Am Changing," from audition to performance in the pan of a camera at a rooftop nightclub. "One Night Only," like many songs is used to advance the story thru montage, which it does effectively for sure, but at the cost of lessening the musical impact. Disco seems more palatable now as a historic artifact--and in only the smallest & best of examples-- in contrast to the anathema felt by fans of Punk & New Wave at the time. But Diana Ross didn't really go toe to toe with Donna Summer. And even if Effie is clearly modeled on Florenence Ballard--the Supreme who was let go--she also draws from Aretha Franklin. Yet with so many obvious parallels to real-life black entertainers and their histories, this doesn't transcend fiction, in the way that Gypsy does for Rose Lee or Funny Girl for Fanny Brice. These Dreamgirls remain fiction. Nowhere is this more evident than in Deena's break from Curtis in pursuit of autonomy: an indie movie (pitched by John Lithgow & John Krasinski); a defiant "message" song, "Listen"--which becomes defacto Beyonce's "eleven o'clock number." Did Deena write the song, too? The lyrics are too on the nose as a rebuke to Curtis. Then it's "Hard to Say Goodbye," which is the song it should be, and the final slow coda of "Dreamgirls" during  which Curtis has his parental awakening. A pretty nifty twist for what otherwise would have been just a final reprise.

I heard there were some who carped about the film, but I can hardly see how anyone could be disappointed. So rarely was a musical transitioned to screen with such fidelity, yet enhanced by the properties of cinema. Clinging to my Writers Guild card, for such rare occasions, I saw the movie first at a screening on Dec 9th at the state-of-the-art theater in George Lucas's campus at the Presidio in San Francisco. Heaven. The movie was quite well received upon its nationwide release on Dec. 15, 2006, and was expected to be a strong awards contender--the first musical since Chicago to be deemed worthy. (Entertainment Weekly ranked it 2nd on their "25 Movies you must see before Oscar" list.) So it was something of a shock when the Academy came up short on a Best Picture nomination, surely close behind the tally run up for Babel, or The Queen, if not Letters from Iwo Jima, The Departed or Little Miss Sunshine (which itself became a William Finn musical later.) But Eddie Murphy & Jennifer Hudson got well-deserved nods (with Hudson winning). Alas, writer-director Condon came up twice shy; as did the cinematography, and most criminally, the film editing (which truly makes the pic). Properly recognized were Art Direction Costume Design, and Sound Mixing--along with those 3 aforementioned songs. But the numbers were encouraging, with a domestic box office of $103 million, reversing the sinking numbers of the last three Bway movie-musicals since Chicago.

The gestation of a new musical is often long and agonizing. This certainly proved to be the case with my own, When Stars Collide, which had been dragging on for years, hobbled both by my full-time employment and partnership with the most lackadaisical of composers. But by summer 2006 we were finally ready to put together a staged reading to access what we had. Further delays pushed it back to October 23rd--an evening Greg MacKellan let us use the Eureka Theater. With his wife (Meg Mackay) as star and inspiration of the show we'd written, Billy Philadelphia found most of the chorus, while I cast major roles from the 42nd St. Moon regulars, including Maureen McVerry, Darlene Popovich, Richard Pardini, John Elliott Kirk & Michael Patrick Gaffney--all of whom delivered beautifully. Billy had rehearsed some of the music, but there was no rehearsal on script, which was a huge disappointment to me. Still, it played as well as could be expected with such limited preparation. Fortunately, as memory--and opinion--is so fluid and unreliable, the reading was recorded on video, providing a most instructive blueprint when viewed later, dispassionately. Happily, there were a good many moments (and songs) that played as well as I'd intended. But also scenes a bit askew, or song amiss--some of which were simply jarringly wrong.  Still, combined with strong encouragement from our audience of 50 or so (their response is palpable on disc), I was energized to forge ahead. But now Billy, whose enthusiasm had been draining since nearly the moment he began composing (at his own invitation I need add) bowed out. Given how often I found his melodic line coming up short or his meter clashing to my lyrics, I felt a big sense of relief, tho I was now alone saddled with the full burden again. Yet, as Ed Zimkus pointed out, "If Mel Brooks can do it...." Yes, why couldn't I peck out the tunes? Isn't that what Lionel Bart, Bob Merrill, and even Irving Berlin did? Perhaps there was unearthed talent there as well.

This was also the year I had resigned to call myself, by definition, an incurable dilettante. For having pursued both vocation & pleasure in theater, movies, TV, books, music, painting, collage, architecture and stand-up comedy without any one field dominant, what else was I to call myself? As if to prove the point, after all the frustration with getting When Stars Collide onto the stage, I began writing a fictional biography of my two divas (which tho fairly extensive has yet--if ever--to be finished.) My own memoir, should it ever be written, might well be called I, Dilettante. And I am telling you . . .

Next Up: Hairspray


Report CardDreamgirls
Overall Film:  A
Bway Fidelity:  A
Songs from Bway:  23
Songs Cut from Bway:  4
Worst Omission:  "Ain't No Party"
New Songs:  4 (3 Oscar nominated)
Standout Numbers: "Steppin' to the Bad Side"
     "And I Am Telling You..." "Dreamgirls"
     "Fake Your Way to the Top" "I Want You"
Casting:  Starry and stellar
Standout Cast: Hudson, Murphy, Noni-Rose
Cast from Bway: Hinton Battle (who replaced 
     Cleavant Derricks) Loretta Devine (cameo)
Direction:  Steady, energetic, brilliant
Choreography:  Looks 10, Dance 3
Scenic Design:  Stages, clubs galore
Costumes: Show Biz 60s-80s
Titles: Lenghty end credits, cast photo ID'd.
Oscar noms: 8: Eddie Murphy, Art Direction, Costume Design, (3) Songs. 2 wins: Jennifer Hudon, Sound Mixing.

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