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: Beauty & the Beast

Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Last Five Years

February 13, 2015,  Sh-K-Boom,  94 minutes

Here's a rarity: a chamber musical that works as well, if not better, expanded on screen. A singular work of creative catharsis by Jason Robert Brown, the musical--a follow up to his Tony winning Parade; all composed by the age of 28--was essentially a form of artistic therapy processing his failed first marriage to an Irish Catholic woman. Lawsuits resulted on both ends, but ultimately were resolved with story and character details changed for sake of privacy. One change was to make Jason--er, Jamie--a wunderkind novelist; a choice that seems counter-intuitive given that virtually the entire show/film is thru-sung, and would seem better suited to the province of a composer over a writer. I suspect greater changes were made to accommodate Theresa O'Neill, the object of Brown's romance, here renamed Cathy, an actress often cast in summer stock musicals. Inability to advance her career in NY to match anything close to Jamie's rising star is at core the poison that destructs their relationship. As one suspects it did in real life.

My familiarity with the original stage show is confined to the CD--which is helped no small measure by its two stars, Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott (two-name stars need not apply). The show played Off-Bway for ten weeks in the spring of 2002. Not exactly the smash hit begging for screen translation. Nonetheless, buoyed by Brown's rising star, tuneful score, and minimal staging requirements, a decent life in regional venues over the next dozen years gave validation to a film version. Norbert & Sherie, already alumni from Rent (as Bway replacments) would shine 3 years later as tricksters in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (for which Butz would win a Tony--and Scott, along with John Lithgow & Joanna Gleason would get nominated). I sincerely hope they enjoy each other's company offstage as much as they convey on. And so, on disc for Last 5, the duo alternate bravura performance bits by Jason Brown; no 16 or 32 measure songs, when 64 or 128 will do better. It's often just showing off, but then that's just right for both the characters and the composer who had already impressed the cognoscenti in his Bway debut. To emphasize the idea that there are always two sides to every story/marriage, the alternating segments told by him & her are also set in opposite directions. Thus we start with Cathy at the very end and work backwards to her joyful beginning, while Jamie arrives in first flush and works forward to his final straw. None of this chronology is expressly stated (at least not on film), leaving one having to figure it out with visual clues more than the lyrics. The mid-point, where both visions and emotions match in time, is their wedding day. The structure of the movie virtually requires two viewings to absorb.  It's a gimmick, yes--but lifts the story into an interesting dimension.
It's rather daring to start the show with a song so glum as Cathy "Still Hurting," (tho it undoubtedly reflects the emotion of the moment, it could send the impatient running for the exits); but that quickly brightens up with Jamie's over-the-moon salsa-inflected "Shiksa Goddess" (among the lyric charms is a list of Jewish schoogirl crushes past--here briefly shown as if assembled on an Off-Bway stage). "See, I'm Smiling" is Cathy on verge of cracking, slapped against Jamie's joyous infatuation, "Moving Too Fast," which illustrates his literary rise as well. Fine as these compositions are, my ear isn't quite turned until "A Part of That," Cathy's process of navigating the growing chasm between Jamie's success and their marriage; so beautifully expressed in Brown's melodic felicity, told in more story illustration. "The Schmuel Song" demonstrates Jamie's narrative salesmanship, pulling Cathy from her doldrums--a bit overdone for my taste. But "A Summer in Ohio" brims with a simmering giddiness--Cathy suffering thru regional summer stock, waiting for her beau to join her. Their time-lines connect for "The Next Ten Minutes"--their engagement and wedding, and from there Cathy gains energy in her youthful ambition ("Climbing Uphill" and "I Can Do Better Than That") as Jamie struggles with the perks of fame & success ("A Miracle Would Happen"and "Nobody Needs to Know"). And tho it ends as it begins on a sad note, I suppose the sweetest thing about the musical is that it shows the two really did love each other. Who says love lasts forever, anyway?

Reaching the screen over a dozen years past its stage debut, justifiably ruled out original couple, Scott & Butz. In their place are Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, neither of whom in any way resemble their prede-cessors, which is not to say they are wrong. Jordan has American Idol cuteness, but not much Jewishness about him--she has more. With her chipmunk smile, Kendrick is perhaps more appealing here than in the Woods. I've no doubt the pairing pleases many a fan but fine as they are, neither is particularly exciting to me. And yet they do well enuf to define the project for recorded history. Tho the script is still a two-hander, dozens of other faces light up their world, including cameos from Sherie Rene & Jason Robert--as a rehearsal pianist.
As a highly independent film, I suspect that much of the muscle came from screenwriter and director Richard LaGravenese--whose mark must be all over this. Tho he's had a decent up & down Hlwd career (The Fisher King; Bridges of Madison County, Beloved) I was much taken with his very first produced script, Rude Awakening--a much underrated comedy in which the upscale 80s collided with the ragtag 60s. This debut was during my own Hlwd days--an encouraging sign of industry acceptance of the sort of quirky comedy I was then spinning. So, LaGravenese was fine by me. And here, working essentially with all JRBrown's material, there's writing only in the sense of illustrating the material--which he seems to have addressed with loving care. It's a lovely film, shot in three weeks in all NY locations, with, surely, no expectations of financial profits. But in a world now so saturated in films pouring from an ever expanding (infinite?) universe of studios, networks and platforms. The future is to be drowning in an ocean of recorded past.  To call it a vanity project is beyond the point. For those who like this sort of thing, it's a lovely bit of dessert.

The film's release was just weeks after the Bway opening of a new musical by Jason Robert Brown; Honeymoon in Vegas, on the heels of yet another, The Bridges of Madison County just 11 months prior. On paper, highly appealing, commercial prospects both, yet neither managed a run more than several months. Nor an afterlife anywhere close to The Last 5 Years. But their failures cannot be attributed to Brown's scores. Tellingly, they both concern romantic relationships. Honeymoon opens with our everyman hero chirping "I Love Betsy" with site-specific lyrics that could equally come from the mouth of Jamie (and might well have been a discarded version of "Shiksha Goddess.") He likes "taxis, trains, Brooklyn when it rains/dancing on the pier/ Broadway (once a year)." I love how those parentheses are written in the lyrics, and how you can hear it in Rob McClure's voice on the OCR. There's still a bit of self-shaming on loving Bway, even from the creators who perpetrate it for (presumably) an audience that enjoys it. But even good shows now sputter, while lazy, inferior and uninspired mediocrities gain traction for decades-long runs. If Bway isn't cool, it's certainly big business these days, bringing in shows by such crossover talents as Sting (The Last Ship), Tupac Shakur (Holler If Ya Hear Me), Carole King (Beautiful) Gloria & Emilio Estefan (On Your Feet); competing with Bway stalwarts Alan Menken (Aladdin), Ahrens & Flaherty (Rocky--yes, that Rocky), Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), Tom Kitt (If/Then) and a double dose of Alan Jay Lerner film-to-stage transcriptions (An American in Paris, Gigi) and the very last Kander & Ebb opus, The Visit--which even with Chita Rivera was too grim for Bway consumption. But no one knows anymore (if they ever did) what's going to work and/or take the public's fancy. And Brown's two quick failures (despite his winning a Tony for Bridges), would find his Bway output dormant for at least...ahem...the next five years. 

The main course for me that year was a return to the Southern Hempishere after my initiation 3 years before on the 2nd Playbill cruise, which proved to be the lure needed to bring me to Uruguay--a country long held in the recesses of my mind from a house featured in an early '80s Architectual Digest that looked as if were built by Dr. Seuss. In the end, this country would be prove to be my touchstone: home by any other name--tho not one I'd inhabit (aside from in my imagination) more than mere days. A diamond shaped country the size of Missouri, tucked underneath Brazil & Argentina along the Atlantic coast, Uruguay is the South American Riviera. And all the more attractive for being so generally under the radar--particulary here in America. You don't hear of Americans going to Punta del Este or Montevideo. They come from Spain and Italy and Argentina. And tho my Spanish is far too negligent, nothing could disturb my whole-hearted embrace of this jewel--which I've indulged twice in the last five years.
Report Card:  The Last Five Years
Overall Film:  B
Stage Fidelity:  A-
Songs from Off-Bway:  16
Songs Cut from Off-Bway:  O
Additional Songs:  None
Standout Numbers: "A Summer in Ohio"
Casting:  Credible, if unexciting
Cast from Off-Bway:  Sherie Rene Scott
            (in cameo)
Direction:  Visual, expansive to the material
Choreography: Minimal, but creative
Scenic Design: NY locations
Costumes:  Old Navy
Titles:  Post film, unremarkable
Oscar noms:  None

Next: Beauty & the Beast

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Into the Woods

December 25, 2014,  Disney   124 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Up: The Last Five Years

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Jersey Boys

June 20, 2014,  Warners  134 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Up: Into the Woods

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

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Les Miserables

December 25, 2012,  Universal   157 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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