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: Nine

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Mamma Mia!

July 16, 2008,  Universal   108 minutes

I was struck by a comment from the Irish-American author, J.P. Donleavy who just died at age 91 that “Writing is turning one’s worst moments into money.” My problem is that I can't seem to do that. I prefer my writing to take me away from my worst moments, not quarry them for mental therapy or literary revenge--let alone money. Sure, I'd love to quantify my musings into currency (any takers?) but really I'm compelled more by love to note this sentimental education, while I still have the memory to do so. For lately it seems to be slipping. At least for latter day events--fewer of which seem important, or hold any fissure of impact or excitement. And that is as good a place as any to start with Mamma Mia!  As with more than a few latter day Bway musicals--and biggest hits--here's another one I couldn't get much interested in.

If Zorba's Greeks were depressing to Ethan Mordden for pretending to be life-affirming while embracing an amoral nihilism, Mamma Mia! could be seen as a corrective on steroids. Every moment with these "Greeks" bursts with life-affirming intentions. Yet all of these main characters are anything but Greek. Only the chorus--a literal Greek Chorus natch-- lends any native flavor beyond the scenery, which is that added element Bway couldn't supply to make this jukebox musical a Hlwd blockbuster. It was no slouch on Bway either, running over 5,000 performances over 14 years. The original West End production first starting partying like it was 1999. It was. And from there the show moved across the planet like a virus, such was the pop contagion that was a Swedish band called ABBA--a moniker formed of the first name initials of its quartet (they could as easily have been BABA.); two married couples, no less, inevitably headed for divorce. Winners of the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest the group captured numerous foreign markets, but not quite so rapidly in America. At that time my take on their glam-pop sound was the definition of Eurotrash, as dismissable as disco; and equally surprising in its durability, which is what Mamma Mia! not simply proves, but fairly flaunts. A Greatest Hits album laid on an innocuous past-catches-up-with-present story, set in a Greek inn. Purists may scoff but who can argue its commercial success?

Mamma Mia! was the brain-child of British producer, Judy Craymer, whose idea of setting ABBA's pop hits to a narrative story was initially met with skepticism by its own authors, Benny Andersson & Bjorn Ulvaeus. Nonetheless British playwright Catherine Johnson was engaged, and a story was laid out--one that drew comparisons with a '68 Melvin Frank Hlwd comedy, Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell. (Three Americans return to an Italian village where their one-time wartime romance--with Lollabrigida--yielded a child. But whose?) MM inverts this so that none of its male trio are aware of a child--who is the one inviting them back to determine her parentage. In time Andersson & Ulvaeus succumbed to the show's creation--tho no new material was offered. By then the duo had embarked on their own forays into legit theater with Chess, and a Swedish language epic, Kristina. Putting it all together was stage director Phyllida Lloyd--completing the triumvirate of 40s Brit birds (all born within weeks of each other), making this a rare femme-centric production from the top down. A prolific stage director, Phyllida wasn't an obvious choice for film director, Still, if Julie Taymor could prove her talents translated to film, why not Lloyd? And as it happens, she does a surprisingly fluid and cinematic job--especially considering how static the stage show had to be. The movie soaks in the Greek Isle milieu, much as The Sound of Music gave us Salzburg as porn. I could see similarites between the two pics in their pride of place and contagiously crossover songs--qualities which helped make each the highest grossing movie musical of their time.

Is there anything Meryl Streep can't do? I'm convinced she could transform herself into Hattie McDaniel, should she so desire. Just as Julie Andrews was that unquantifiable X-tra that sold The Sound of Music; Streep's contribution here is incalculable. Aside from making each moment on screen count for something, who knew she could sing? Well, some of us did--she had her climatic moment in Postcards from the Edge, and there was some pseudo-musical comedy in Death Becomes Her, but she tears into the songs here, convincing you she really was head of pop group back in the day. She has quite a few numbers as well, and they range in moods and styles. Her vanity & indulgence in "Money, Money, Money" is hilarious.; she's a pied piper thru "Dancing Queen," a heart-sick belter in "SOS"; a sentimental mother lamenting with "Slipping Thru My Fingers"--and managing to keep it maudlin-free. And then topping it all with her eleven o'clock number: "Winner Takes it All" making it an entire master class of acting. She isn't just Donna Sheridan, she's Medea reading Jason the riot act. She sells the hell out of it--and her vocal stands up to any classic Bway turn.

Of her former band-mates (The Dynamos), I find Christine Baranski the more believable and enjoyable to watch. She gets her own production number with "Does Your Mother Know?" Julie Walters seems a bit too frumpy, and I find myself constantly wishing it were Tracey Ullman, who would have brought a bit more sparkle to the part (as well as recalling the great chemistry she had with Streep in Plenty.) The 3 potential fathers are a former James Bond, Pierce Bronson; Bridget Jones's crush, Colin Firth; and Stellan Skarsgard, a Swede (changed from the play's Australian.) Perhaps these are a middle-aged woman's fantasy trio--they're not mine. In truth none of their characters are interesting, even with  Firth "coming out" by the end, flirting with a hirsute Greek (which is redundant I suppose). The script doesn't help them out by making the guys too slow on the uptick--wouldn't Sophie's age immediately suggest their potential parentage?--particularly paired with an invitation to her wedding? Duh. 
But Amanda Seyfried scans well against Meryl, her singing as laudable and their familial resemblance uncanny. Her boy-toy groom-to-be, Dominic Cooper provides eye candy with his half-naked, sun-tanned bod. And a deep-black British kickboxer with electro-shock hair and a killer smile, Philip Michael, pops up from time to time as a strangely ardent suitor of Christine Baranski. Not a bad group of people to spend a couple of hours with.

Universal released the film in July, boosting it to a global take over $600 million, the 5th highest grossing film of 2008 (in which it must be noted the rest of the top ten were either superhero, animated or action flicks.) Here was a real throwback, a musical! And yet despite my respect & love for Andersson & Ulvaeus' Chess, a score stiched from ABBA pop hits had no purchase on my interest, which kept me from seeing the movie until December. With mild surprise, I liked it more than expected, but apparently not enuf to see it again until now. Nor did it awaken any new desire to see the show on stage--where it remained lodged in the Winter Garden for another seven years after the film's release!

That summer I returned to NY for the first time in 3 years, and found to my dismay an unfamiliar antagonist: oppressive humidity--which consequently impacted my heavily scheduled week of theatregoing far too much. 9 shows in 8 days: Young Frankenstein, The Country Girl, Mary Poppins, August: Osage County, Gypsy (with Patti Lupone), Spring Awakening--none of which resonated like they promised. Hairspray (then in its last year; with Bruce Villanch) proved the single true highlight--even tho I arrived late, on the run the final 12 blocks, hyper-ventilating and sweating into the Siberian air-conditioning.  I was sure  I  was  having  a  heart attack  the 
next night, thru In the Heights--a false alarm that didn't fully abate thru my final hoped-for enchanted evening: Bartlett Sher's South Pacific--one supposedly for the ages, but not, alas, for me in my frazzled state. Had it come to this? Was I over New York? Had I become my father?

More enjoyable trips were made to LA and Vegas. Larry & I took a train to San Diego to see the Bway-hopeful adaptation of MGM's Bandwagon musical (retitled Dancing in the Dark) which (deservedly) went no further. 9 to 5 trying out at the Ahmanson did get to Bway--another unecessary movie-turned-musical, with an uninspired score. Closer to home, I trekked to Mt. View to see a well-done Grey Gardens, albeit lacking Christine Ebersole's indelible mark; and in SF: The Drowsy Chaperone on national tour--cute, but thin. And tho I no longer frequented  the  resurrections at  42nd St.  Moon,  curiosity 
compelled me to see Rick Besoyan's Bway flop following Little Mary Sunshine: The Student Gypsy. And also their postage-stamp version of Coco--as I had first suggested this to Andrea Marcovicci when she came to do On a Clear Day. I was right; she was perfect for the role and sang it miles above Katharine Hepburn--tho without much of a production the show is a wash.

As I noted at the time, 2008 was a mixture of hope & suffocation--an anxious year. A tense constipated sense of world affairs at the collapse of the Bush term reflected my own creative stassis at the time. For once I wasn't capable of anything but watching the fate of the world unfold. With Greg still healing (at great expense), and Mother still hanging on (ever more erratic) was it any wonder I started having panic attacks, which Kaiser readily medicated. Effective as these drugs were I didn't particularly enjoy them enuf to develop an addiction. But one doesn't need new addictions with the cable universe. TV was well enuf to fill any void; particularly when the quality was on the epic level of Mad Men or Pushing Daisies--among dozens of others. A few theatrical films made lasting impact: Wes Anderson's Darjeeling Limited and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood were the comedy & drama of the year, but the musical was Julie Taymor's Across the Universe. Another jukebox tuner (using the Beatles catalog) the film, alas, is egregiously underrated--one of the best original musicals in many years. One more must be mentioned for merely one scene: the last. After a series of adventures getting to the sea, Mr. Bean's Holiday ends with Bean finding a open door, and at last, sight of the Riviera. Filming with his camera, Bean steps out onto a roof, and Magoo-like descends an unlikely but magical staircase that forms from street traffic and other objects placed in his path, carrying him down to the beach; scored to Charles Trenet's "La Mer." (The French pop tune that became "Beyond the Sea" in America) By the time the film's cast is lipsynching to the full-bodied chorus I am happily brought to tears. (It's easily found on Youtube). Rahadlakum like this is precious gold. It fills me with hope.

There was an enormous infusion of hope that November when after a closely watched year, the Man I backed (who had me at hello) made the most remarkable, unprecedented ascent to the presidency. Not since JFK had there been such a sense of new energy, style and common sense, and I had a new hero: Obama. But the pendulum swings, and now that it's swung to the point of idiocy; nuclear trash-talking, public snipers and a parade of natural catastrophes (hurricanes in Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico; fires in California), the state of the world is very depressing. Over this time I watched Mamma Mia! five times; it's songs rattled my brain nonstop for weeks (they are the fiercest earworms). In the end, for me the surprise of Mamma Mia! was that its value is essential and clear. Something silly, tuneful and lovely to look at becomes a comforting balm in hard times. Apparently that isn't lost upon the film's creatives: an original film sequel is now on the way: Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again.

Up next: Nine

Report CardMamma Mia!
Overall Film:  B+
Bway Fidelity:  B+
Songs from Bway:  17
Songs Cut from Bway: 5
New Songs: 1 "When All Is Said & Done"
Standout Numbers: "Money, Money, Money"
               "Mamma Mia" "Dancing Queen"
Casting:  Starry but successful
Standout Cast:  Meryl, Amanda, Baranski
Cast from Bway:  None
Direction: Surprisingly sprightly, fluid
Choreography: Some
Scenic Design:  Exquisite Pinewood sets
               Travel porn location scenes
Costumes: Some
Titles: Over Donna & the Dynamos 
     performing, joined by the b.f. trio
     all in ABBA couture
Oscar noms: None

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Sweeney Todd

December 3, 2007,
         Dreamworks/Warners   116 minutes
Are we required to revere all acknowledged artistic genuises? Is there a hard & fast rule of taste? I can't deny the high cultural status of Stephen Sondheim. As a lyricist he's second to none; but as a composer, to my ears he falls short of the likes of Rodgers, Porter, Kern, Berlin, Styne, Loesser or Stouse. Not that he doesn't know how to take my breath away. Take "Lovely" from Forum--it's almost pastiche yet so solid, so melodically sweeping, so, well. . . lovely. But it's not the kind of Sondheim tune that pops up in his songbook concerts. Or "Me and My Town," the "Kay Thompson" number from Anyone Can Whistle. Thrilling. And who would dispute Follies' "Beautiful Girls" as every bit the equal of Berlin's "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody." But this isn't really Sondheim's metier--his true voice--the new music--which often takes on a sardonic or bitter harmonic line, to match his chosen subject matter. Challenging or improbable themes for a musical; grown-up themes that demand grown-up attention; artistic chores that earn, nay demand our admiration. But not our glee.

My New York years were concurrent with Sondheim's renaissance, and I traveled thru Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and even caught Merrily We Roll Along in its two week run. But the one that got away was Harold Prince's production of Sweeney Todd. To be sure, some of that was proximity. I'd left NY for San Francisco the year before, but tho I visited twice during the show's Bway run, I wasn't inclined to see it. The truth was from the moment I played the OCR upon its release, I just hated the score.    I could barely stand to listen to it. Not that either Night Music or Pacific Overtures had been in frequent play on my turntable, but at least they had some appeal. Sweeney Todd both assaulted and bored me. Whatsmore, by this time, a year into my transition to SF I was listening to all kinds of music other than Bway musicals, tho of course that deep vein could still be tapped with some fresh melodic heroin (as On the Twentieth Century proved the year before); Sweeney Todd was painful to my ears. And so it stayed on the shelf. But if Sondheim was increasingly turning me off, his stature was exponentially growing, and in very short order Sweeney was considered by many to be his masterpiece--not to mention a classic of musical theater. An opinion that only persists with time. The show is essentially an opera--tho Sondheim prefers to call it a "musical thriller" And he's right, for the show is not in fact sung-thru, yet even the dialogue scenes are underscored in the rich tradition of old Hlwd movie scores by composers like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner & Bernard Hermann. It has in its two leads, Todd & Mrs. Lovett, roles of great substance attractive to actors of stature (Imagine great duos of the past in these roles: Lunt & Fontanne; Tracy & Hepburn, Cronyn & Tandy, Steve & Eydie.) And a supporting cast--young & old--of rich characters as well. But the beating heart of the piece is its compliance with the Grand Guignol tradition--naturalistic horror, often graphic and amoral; the shock effect. You can decide what this says about Sondheim's psyche; that of all his works this is the one that he himself initiated. But as Walter Kerr once pondered (about Pal Joey, no less), can you draw sweet water from a foul well?

Over a quarter century passed as my initial aversion faded into apathy, then reluctant acceptance and finally a little curiosity. Enuf, at least to take in John Doyle's celebrated 2005 Bway re-imagining, which came thru SF's venerable ACT company two years later. This was the production that dispensed with a chorus and had the actors double up as the orchestra. (Come see Patti Lupone on tuba!) The concept was more impressionistic than literal--Grand Music Hall more than Guignol. (Judy Kaye played the tuba in SF.) I found it less abrasive but not much more appealing. And while I couldn't entirely hate the score anymore, neither was I any closer to loving it. Only two months later the movie musical hit the screen. Or should I say, slashed? Tim Burton's 13th feature was one of the first he ever imagined. Long before he had a toe-hold in Hlwd, he was enthralled since he first saw the show--3 nights in a row--in London, 1980. Burton approached Sondheim about a potential movie once his film career took off, but distracted by other projects, didn't follow thru. When years later, a long-developing film version by Sam Mendes fell apart, Burton eagerly stepped in--as tho it were destined all along. And so it probably was.

It seemed a perfect match of man & material. Burton having long since proven himself a master of dark content and visual panache. I was a fan from his first weird feature, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, both for his surrealist style and offbeat humor; a technique he developed thru Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorshands, and perfected in my absolute favorite Burton film: Ed Wood. But Batman bored me to the point of leaving midway thru; and thereafter I wasn't often in thrall: Mars Attacks, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. Eh. Still, if anyone could make Sweeney Todd proud, it figured Burton was the one. First off, this wasn't to be the filmed stage play--Tim's imagination was beyond that from the start. Besides which, Prince's staging was filmed for PBS, preserving much of the original cast, including Angela Lansbury--in her crowning (& 4th Tony-winning) musical role. 25 years later, Burton quickly cast his longtime ally, Johnny Depp as Todd, and his then-spouse Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett--an act of nepotism that might have rankled some.  Both might 
have seemed a bit young at first, but in fact are more appropriate than the 50-60 year-olds who often play the roles. Todd's absence from London was only 15 years, which would place him at most in his 40s. With this trio of names on top and a gothic vibe & subtitle (The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) the film was broadly advertised with little hint of its musical nature. A singing serial killer!? Inevitably there would be a number of walkouts.

Burton was less concerned with enbalming a by-now well-established Sondheim opera, than making a Tim Burton interepretation of the piece. And this would entail a great deal of editing and shortening of the score. I have no complaints on that front. To my taste the show is far too serious and lacking in humor. What there is comes from the razor wit of Sondheim's lyrics, but that is in short supply too; most prominently featured in "A Little Priest"--which, let's be honest, is awf'ly clever for these working-class characters, don't you think? It's Sondheim showing off, pure & simple--which I'm not disparaging, for it provides some genuine dark-comedy into the melodrama. But the show is operatic in the Sondheim key, and that feels so off-key to the material on display--particularly this palette of naturalism; so dismal & dirty. The narrative is at odds with the music--it's an artsy imposition not a natural, or even ironic counterpoint--a Music Hall style by a Lionel Bart say, would feel more natural. Sondheim's rapid patter songs, "The Worst Pies in London," "By the Sea" ""God, That's Good," are a chore to absorb and the ballads dreary. "Pretty Women" sounds like some jazzy thing from an entirely different musical, a contemporary show, or French new wave movie; the sort of song Charles Aznavour or Tony Bennett might record. Or Michael Buble. It feels so odd in this scene, in this musical. Todd might as well be singing Sammy Davis's "Too Close for Comfort"--which lyrically would be more on target. But Burton, smartly doesn't coddle the score; he cuts to the chase; dispensing right from the start with the choral opening, "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd..." and just getting on with it. Do we need an invitation?

The film actually opens with a spectacular credit sequence, in photographic animation, tracing the flow of blood from attic to sewer. The story proper pricks thru the London fog as a ship arrives in the blue night bringing our protagonists, Todd and young Anthony into town. Their abrupt break into song is a bit jarring, but the verses are kept short and we're off to London. Here's another cinematic amuse-boche, Burton's sped-up zoom thru labyrinthine streets (which must be model sets of extraordinary atmosphere & detail) coming at last to Mrs. Lovett's pie shop  and the atelier upstairs where Todd once 
plied his trade as barber. It's a tracking shot that may be the best thing in the entire movie. (Throw it in the bin with Burton's Greatest Hits.) He's also refreshingly unfussy about the musical segments, content to film them without flashy editing or dizzying camerwork--not that these numbers would suggest such an approach. Depp wears his usual restrained intensity as expected--with a healthy dollop of his Edward Scissorshands; and Bonham Carter overcomes initial discomfort (both hers and ours) to give a surprisingly warm performance. Watching their entwining unfold makes the movie look promising. The opposite effect is generated by the secondary love-interest, Anthony & Johanna. Even allowing for the Love-at-first-sight musical trope, few are as insipid as this one. Burton doesn't help; it happens thru a closed second-story window, as Anthony first spots Johanna singing thru a closed second-story window, a song, "Green Finch & Linnet Bird,"  unlikely to draw anyone near. She too is instantly smitten (tho admittedly she might be looking for anyone to release her from this prison--her guardian's home.) Thus without even so much as hello Anthony is propelled into committed pursuit. It's... "Maria, I've just met a girl named Maria..."--yes, but he hasn't really met Johanna yet--he's told her name by a passing madwoman--whose claims might well be questionable; and instead of Bernstein's soaring symphony we get Sondheim's dour ballad, "Johanna," with its studied "wrong" note every third bar. And the kids in these roles: Jamie Campbell Bower & Jayne Wisener--are real teenagers so bland they almost seem like animated Disney   characters.    Alan  Rickman,   who'd  made  a  rich
career by now playing villains, relished this one with a nasty gleam; his Judge Turpin ruthlessly sentences a child to a hanging; locks up his ward, Johanna, even as he contemplates marrying her--after raising her from infancy; stealing & seducing her mother while banishing her father (Todd). As his co-conspirator, The Beadle, Timothy Spall's looks  alone  make  you  shudder.   As the fake-"Eyetalian," 
Pirelli, Sasha Baron Cohen brings a surreal intensity to what's little more than a cameo role. His amusing sartorial getup suggests a trans Eleanor Bron. As his orphan slave, Tobias, Ed Sanders could've come fresh over from Oliver! Oddly, the former stage Mary Poppins, Laura Michelle Kelly played the haggard Beggar Woman--She was then 26--which would suggest she was a wife and mother at age 11? A curious casting choice.

Maybe it's my advanced age but 15 years doesn't seem very long; certainly not long enuf to render Todd so unrecognizable. OK, Lovett & Perelli catch on soon enuf, but what about Judge Turpin? When Beadle brings Turpin for a shave how could either not recognize this man, this barber in Benjamin Barker's old flat, who looks just like Barker? The man whose life Turpin destroyed and whose wife & child he stole. The child he still owns, but whatever happened to said wife? If she was worth stealing, why was she so (quickly?) discarded? That's one piece of the puzzle never explained. Of course it turns out--Spoiler Alert!--she's the Beggar Woman now haunting the streets. When Anthony asks her whose abode Johanna resides in, she responds, "the Great Judge Turpin" without a trace of a suggestion she had anything to do with him other than knowing his name. A real false note. Seen barely under a hood, it's forgivable Todd doesn't recognize the Love of his Life, the Motive behind his Vengeance; but is Lucy really so daft as to not recognize him--even if only his voice? Yes, she does occasionally ponder, "Don't I know you?" But hard to believe she doesn't put it together. I can only assume Barker's return was a mere 15 years later so as to place Johanna at her prime virginal bloom; as bait for Judge Turpin and young Anthony--and fuel even greater paternal rage for Todd. But is that really long enuf to eviserate their memories?

After a well visualized "A Little Priest" (with Todd & Lovett scanning street traffic as they jokingly speculate on the quality of meats), the movie descends into the truly gruesome. Burton spares no blood in showing Todd's murders, and as if it weren't enuf to view a parade of throat-slittings  (set to music!)  as  graphic  as  any  slasher 
film, we see each victim fall thru a trap door, to land a storey below on their heads with a curated sound effect that's guaranteed to make us cringe. Meanwhile Lovett is running a suddenly thriving beer garden serving plates of Todd's victims--tho how so many are killed without anyone but the Beggar Woman noticing is a mystery. Blind to Todd's single-mined  mania,  Lovett  imagines a  domestic 
bliss in "By the Sea" which Burton smoothly tran-sitions to fantasy and back (the bathing costumes are adorable); and nurtures her maternal instincts in protecting her new ward, Tobey--who puts the final snuff out--slashing Todd's throat after Todd has killed the Beadle, Judge Turpin, his own wife, Lucy, and Mrs. Lovett as well (throwing her in the furnace, letting us watch her burn alive--arguably an even more disturbing image.) Don't bring the kiddies.

In my current immersion of Sweeney Todd I finally got around to viewing the original Harold Prince production, which has long been available since its initial PBS broadcast in 1982. Filmed at LA's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the cast features George Hearn as Todd, and original cast members Lansbury, Edmund Lyndeck (Turpin), Ken Jennings (Tobey) and understudies sprung to stage: Cris Groenendaal (Anthony) and Betsy Joslyn (Johanna). Filmed for TV with well-placed cameras allows for the intimacy of close-ups. But this visual upgrade isn't taken into account by the director, for the cast is aiming for the balcony with their emotions and facial contortions. Lansbury, who had an entire career of subtle performances seems unusally hammy and broad here, where she might seem fine from the second balcony of the Chandler. Of interest too is the (fabled?) physical production of Eugene Lee, with its industrial scattershaw purged from a Rhode Island foundry. But mostly I saw a central rustic box which twisted and turned (with stagehands) to serve as the pie house and barber shop, among other locales. You can see where Burton's mind went wild with ideas for filling these spaces to the max. What's apparent too, is how all of the cast seems 10-20 years too-old for their roles, especially Tobey who comes across less a child than a mentally defective adult. Which reinforces how much of a correction Burton's casting makes. Depp is so obvious a choice (given their long-time collaboration); not least for the Edward Scissorshands connections; both masters of razors--Sweeney even looks like an older Edward, his single white hair streak (like Susan Sontag's) the sign of a hard-lived life. He doesn't sing his arias in full-throated opera, but he goes a long way in making a convincing Todd. Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett is equally varying from the Hal Prince template (which led to the likes of Dorothy Loudon & Imelda Staunton), by being less of harridan; softer and more perfect a match for Depp's Todd. And with Burton's approach of naturalism over the cartoonish performances on the stage, Helena proves the film's biggest surprise.

Altho Sweeney Todd opened at the end of December, 2007, I didn't see it until it was released on disc in April. Apparently content to confine that experience but once until now, I had other factors to deal with the last half of '007. Five years after his catastrophic accident, my longtime partner, Greg began developing new and serious maladies, in part from his insistence on holistic remedies over prescription meds. A growing abscess on his backside resulted in another lengthy hospital stay--which left me a solitary home life up on Twin Peaks. With medical coverage up in 100 days, and Greg still not ready to return home, we struggled to find a board & care facility that would take him, given the stage of his wound (which nonetheless was healing well). In the end, a prophetic and expedient solution was found to park him at my 86 year-old mother's home in San Jose for a month or so. This, I figured might also allow her to get used to having a live-in nurse, which was something she was already close to requiring, but fiercely resisted. It proved considerably less than a good idea, but provided Greg an inside view of this woman, who was soon to become consumed by an entity not her own; which ultimately makes him the only other person I know who got insight into Valentina (The Demon Mother of Greengate Drive), my strange, pathetic & ultimately tragic maker.

My nights alone at home were now filled with new treats, such as the discovery of Bluegobo, one of the first musical-centric websites coming thru with previously cold-storaged clips of many a Golden Age Bway musical from vintage TV shows like Ed Sullivan, with such archival treats as the entire opening of Do Re Mi, a multi-song slice of Flower Drum Song, and Alice Playten knocking it out of the park for Henry, Sweet Henry. Aside from the internet, watching TV became practically a vocation; between a good many serial dramas there were the competition shows of cooking, designing & traveling. I'd also fallen into a steady diet of MSNBC, now more fascinated/consumed/disgusted with national politics than anyone would ever have predicted of me. And tho I no longer ventured out to the cinema, I kept up with films as they came to Netflix, altho fewer new movies than ever interested me. One of my life's pleasures is discovering a vintage picture that hits a core emotional nerve. It was during that autumn that I came upon Otto Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse on TCM, which fed some primal wanderlust for another time & place. Deep into the movie at a busy outdoor cafe, the populace breaks into spontaneous song a moment so genuine and enchanting it brings me to tears of joy. But no such emotion has ever swayed me in any of Sondheims's score for Sweeney Todd, other than--at best--an academic appreciation.

Burton's mise en scene is so masterful and the Oscar-winning art direction by Dante Ferretti so breathtaking I found myself reluctantly surrendering to what I've long resisted, at least for awhile. But after Todd blows his chance to kill his nemesis, Turpin (by indulging in a lounge rendition of "Pretty Women") he curdles into indescriminate evil, all of humankind gone to hell and he's out to kill those who cross his path. Among the strongest, most shocking (to me) opinions Ethan Mordden has ever put to paper declares this "one of the ugliest, most life-denying pieces of evil shit ever perpetrated as a Bway musical." Well, I'd certainly concur with that, if he was writing aboout Sweeney Todd--for surely all that & more applies. But no, he wrote that of Zorba (!) Yes, that Stein, Kander & Ebb musical offends Ethan, "Not least because it pretends to be beautiful and life-affirming." Sweeney doesn't pretend nor aspire to being either, and (to me) that makes it all the more despicable. I felt similarly about Silence of the Lambs--which disgusted and angered me for its gratuitous exercise in depravity, whose sole reason for existing is to terrify. That may well be the whole point, but such a purpose is pointless to me--at least or especially in musical theater. Mordden defines it as "a unique masterpiece." Do people come out of Sweeney Todd feeling thrilled? Entertained? Aroused? Contented?  I come out feeling bludgeoned, pummeled, depressed. This was Sondheim's passion project. After such bloody passion, I need me some Hairspray.

Next Up: Mamma Mia

Report CardSweeney Todd
Overall Film:  B--
Bway Fidelity:  B
Songs from Bway:  26
Songs Cut from Bway:  7
New Songs:  None
Standout Numbers: "A Little Priest"
               "By the Sea"
Casting: A generation younger
Standout Cast: Helena Bonham Carter
Cast from Bway:  None
Direction: As distinctive as the material
Choreography:  Not exactly
Scenic Design:  Exactly & perfectly so
Costumes: More so
Titles: Trail of blood from attic to sewer
     (a masterful animated sequence)
Oscar noms: 3, Johnny Depp, Costumes
               1 win: Art Direction

Sunday, July 30, 2017


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