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: Mamma Mia

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

'90s Also Rans

There were signs of life in the Bway musical as the 1990s progressed, tho the Bronze Age wasn't over yet. But Hlwd's relation to Bway was always a decade behind, which left the '90s as barren of film musicals as the '80s were on the Rialto. With the exception of a few hits, Bway was having a mix of Golden Age revivals (mainly retooled); lazy movie adaptations, and post-Sondheim experiments of all stripes --most lacking comedy. Given time and more success with movie musicals some of those listed below may still become films--if they aren't already in development.

Grand Hotel arrived on the eve of the decade; a rare resuscitation of a failed musical (from 1958) that actually worked. It took guts, half a new score and Tommy Tune to polish its tarnished edges. Based on Vicki Baum's 1929 novel, adapted for the stage and later made immortal by MGM's first All-Star motion picture, the musical was commissioned by California Civic Light Opera honcho, Edwin Lester for his favorite writers, Bob Wright & Chet Forrest, who had done him good adapting classical composers for Song of Norway and Kismet--only this time they wrote their own tunes. The show (which starred Paul Muni and Joan Deiner--being cast, as usual, by her husband, director Albert Marre) played subscription engagements in LA & SF and then shuttered before Bway. Three decades later it was disinterred by the last remaining master-stager from the Golden Age, Tommy Tune. Luther Davis's '58 book credit was retained tho Peter Stone rewrote and reset the story back in Baum's original Berlin (At the Grand was set in Rome); and only half the original score was used. Tune brought in Maury Yeston (with whom he'd done Nine) to fill in some gaps. The result was a seamless gem that evoked a 1920s German sound without echoes of Kurt Weill or John Kander. The show played over a thousand performances, longer than its Tony-winning rival, City of Angels, but in the still crippled Bway climate of 1990 didn't risk a recording until just a month before closing (by which time original Tony-nominated Baron, David Carroll was dead.) Lilianne Montevecchi and Karen Akers were stars carried over from Nine, but the real show-stealers were newcomer Jane Krakowski and elf-ish Michael Jeter whose joyous transformation from oppressed clerk to lucky man of means (albeit dying) is so vividly captured in his Tony performance of "We'll Take a Glass Together" (available on YouTube)--a feat so giddy, it always moves me to blissful tears.
I saw the show on Bway, and years later in a more intimate, yet equally affecting staging in LA; its multi-story arc of desperation & resolution ("people come, people go") never truly dates, which suggests movie potential as well. Of course, MGM would seem to have the inside track, but movie musicals (esp. those from Bway) and MGM as a functioning studio were tropes of the past. Had it been otherwise, it would've been easy to cast as a mid-to-late '90s movie: Kevin Kline as the Baron, Meryl Streep as Grushinskaya, Dustin Hoffman as Presysing, Daniel Day-Lewis as Kringelein; Rene Zellwegger, or Krakowski as Flaemmchen--just for starters. Unless an Encores! production brings new excitement to the show (ala' Chicago) it doesn't seem likely Grand Hotel will make it to the screen, but if it does there will likely be no shortage of real stars to fill its juicy roles.

It was more fitting to see City of Angels in LA than on Bway--so I didn't bother using up a night in NY, and waited until it came to the Century City Shubert. As a big fan of Cy Coleman I was thrilled to have him back after nearly a decade's absence. The show, with a clever, if complicated book by Larry Gelbart pitting a Hlwd writer's life against his noir alter ego (in color vs. b&w), was headier than most. But I wasn't as keen as I'd hoped over Coleman's score with its heavy reliance on Eisenhower era jazz. (Where was the cover album by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross?) Yet, "With Every Breath I Take" is a stunning sonic translation of noir in mood and feel, and in the reprise duet positively breathless. The only other track I'm compelled to return to time & again, is the marimba victory song, "All You Have to Do Is Wait"--which doesn't remotely sound like something heard in the '40s, but slides across with a seductive Latin beat--listen to the bridge ("Time to fiesta...") for a real slice of Rahadlakum. And mention should be made of David Zippel's zippy lyrics, especially here:

     I'm leading an ovation
     At your asphyxiation
     As crowds line up
     To watch you pay your debts
     I'll collect my bets
     Playing castanets

Had the climate been friendlier a mid-'90s movie could've been argued for, with good roles for Travolta and Mandy Patinkin as the two halves of Stone/Stine. And plenty of
candidates for the distaff support: wives, sirens, gal fridays. Even another good role for Madonna (whose vocal on "Every Breath You Take" seems de reguier). Not that Bway's Angels had much star power. Randy Graff, Dee Hoty, Rachel York--talents yes, but none a blazing original like those that showed up regularly when Bway still made Stars. Leads James Naughton & Gregg Edelman were of even less wattage. But what mattered here was the conceit; the literariness of Gelbart's libretto--that rare musical whose songs take a back seat to the book. For this reason, and being a spoof of Hlwd, and in particular its noir genre, a City of Angels movie has much potential. Tho by now, this is perhaps a road too well tread--witness the Coen Bros. recent witless, Hail Caesar! I suspect there would be more interest were the score more tantalizing--tho it won Coleman his 2nd Tony award.

He would cop his third a year later, and in a more competitive season--with a bit of every trend: The latest whale from London; a period classic novel adaptation; the Bway debut of a dedicated new musical team; and then an old-fashioned musical comedy--albeit in concept form: the story of Will Rogers as if staged by Florenz Zeigfeld: The Will Rogers Follies. Of course it wasn't staged by Zeigfeld, but the last Golden Age wunderkind, Tommy Tune. Coleman was back in fine form to my ears, with a cheery, tuneful, if not indelible, score--that sounds at times like Jule Styne, which isn't too surprising given the lyrics are by Comden & Green (their final Bway show, capping a half-century career with another hit and a Tony). It was also the longest Bway run for all the authors. And my 10th (and possibly final?) visit to the fabled Palace Theater. In Keith Carradine they found a laid-back, middle-aged former hippie who embodied the spirit of Rogers perfectly. It was a perfect "tired businessman's show." A smart-alecky masculine lead surrounded by dozens of showgirls in visually spectacular, easily digestible production numbers. 
What's not to like? But there wasn't much here for the movies. Will Rogers segued into pics in 1918 and by the end of his life in '35 was at the peak of his popularity--cementing his status as the American Everyman Cowboy Humorist  Philosopher & Movie Star--But unlike his early stage years, there's really no equivalent "revue" concept to translate into pictures. Follies, is exactly what it announces: a stage show, and thus a hard sell for the movies. One of the show's highlights was an entire row of seated chorines, playing patty-cake and kicking their alternately red & blue stockinged legs in rally for "Our Favorite Son" --stunning, yes, but about the antithesis of cinematic. No, Hlwd didn't come calling.

Tho he worked on many projects thru these years, Cy Coleman would only get one more musical to Bway, The Life in 1997. A would-be Threepenny following the fortunes of (mostly black) whores and pimps set in the sleaziest Times Square circa 1980. Unfiltered  in language and content, The Life was equally sans poetry. In a time of encroaching Disneyfication, here was an odd bit of nostalgia for darker days. (And why is it that the trashiest characters are always black?) There's a progression of grimness in Coleman's trio of New York musicals: Sweet Charity to Seesaw to The Life. But tho the rousing "My Body"  recalls Charity's "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This;" most of the score sounds more like Seesaw's grittier, "hipper" attempts ("My City"; "Ride Out the Storm"). Where Seesaw's Gittel wondered, "He's Good for Me/But Am I Good for Him?" Life's Queen determined "He's No Good/But I'm No Good Without Him"--same self-denigration, more fatalism. The musical, which ran a year on Bway despite its pleasureless themes and ugly milieu, found its only joy in vulgarity. Take that, Disney!--it seemed to rebuke, tho the Empire struck back mere months later, and now The Lion King threatens to never close. Lacking humor, or even much poignancy above cliche, The Life didn't have the pulse to transfer to the screen.

On the other hand, Miss Saigon  is already years in the development stage, and will likely be on screens within a few years. An updated retelling and expansion on Madame Butterfly, set during the Vietnam War, the sophmore spectacle from Les Miz's Boubil & Schonberg (with lyric assist by Richard Maltby--scoring a retirement goldmine away from partner David Shire) was the latest British behemouth brought to NY under a cloud of controversy and yet another record advance sale. The overblown production led Village Voice critic Michael Feingold to notoriously declare it evidence of the End of Western Civilization. He wasn't in the mood. For all its bombast the show is gripping and perhaps has the better score of all the British poperettas that peppered the Rialto in the last decades of the 20th century. (For sheer La Scala-size magnificence, "This is the Hour," has few Bway matches, and suggests that Schonberg's compositions will slide into the classical repretory one day as easily as the once-decried Puccini.) I waited until the edge of the millenium to break down and see the show on Bway. Stuck up in the second balcony from an impulse TKTS choice, I was impressed at how well the Broadway Theater was fitted for sound. Lea Salonga was back in the show then, which was running close to 4,000 performances. Yet I could see the true power of the piece, as close to opera, really, as musical theater gets, and appropriately so. A true star, Lea hasn't obliterated all racial barriers (ala Audra McDonald) and outside of voicing animation, has been mostly confined to playing the Asian repertory. Charges of racisim and misogyny have clung to the show since its inception, to little commercial deficet. Orientalism continues to grow as a touchy subject; as western interpretations of Asian culture are by nature exotica--and as such, offensive to some. Yet most occidental audiences fail to see what's demeaning. If certain characters reflect the underbelly of Vietnamese society, we don't take that as reflection of a whole culture anymore than we'd think the Mafia taints all things Italian. 
Another fiery contest was over Jonathan Pryce reprising his London perf in NY--as disputed by Equity. Producer Cameron Mackintosh threatened to cancel the whole production, so Equity caved. (Curiously nothing seemed in dispute about Salonga--who was likewise not a US citizen, but a Filipina.) Presumably they understood the difficulty of prime Asian talent, still. Yet here we were decades after Flower Drum Song, and a Brit actor was not only blatantly cast, but considered essential for Bway. Personally I don't see the indelible Star in the equation, and we'll certainly see a very different one in the coming film version. Tho Britain's musical takeover has yielded unprecented theatrical fortunes, the poperettas haven't done quite as spectacularly on screen. Understandably Miss Saigon's future was predicated on how Les Miserables fared at the box office. The news was encouraging and plans are moving forward. Potential directors mentioned include Lee Daniels and Danny Boyle.


The success of Phantom and Les Miz renewed energy in adapting literary classics; and soon they came: Anna Karenina, Jekyll & Hyde, A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Woman in White, Jane Eyre, Therese Raquin, Little Women, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dracula, Rebecca--most of them flops. Ahead of them all came The Secret Garden in 1991. Pulitzer-winning playwright, Marsha Norman, adapted Frances Hodgson Burnett's children's classic, wisely avoiding the sung-thru format; tho Lucy Simon's score is rich and full without operatic pretensions. Produced by scenic designer Heidi Landesman, who created a set of Victorian storybook designs that were enchantment itself, the musical has an atmospheric, gloomy, almost Hitchcockian mise en scene; a haunted house, a magical garden. There's much death and depression all around that takes a full evening to heal; it's not really a show for children--only the most patient and avid. For them it could be mind-blowing--surely it was to some during its two-year Bway run. Without meaning to I chanced into it impulsively thru TKTS and found myself pleasantly persuaded. Lucy (sister of Carly) Simon's score is fiercely appropriate to the source, yet sounds fresh, lush and in a voice of its own--not Sondheim, not poperetta, not traditional Bway musical. (My ex, TC, would play the CD frequently on Sunday mornings--along with Nine--it never got old). Cast with audacious Bway talent: Mandy Patinkin, Rebecca Luker, Alison Fraser, John Cameron Mitchell; the show oozed "specialness," not least for introducing an 11 year-old, Daisy Eagan as the antidote to armies of Bway Annies. (Eagan, Marsha Norman & Landesman would win the show's only Tony Awards--against Miss Saigon and Will Rogers Follies.)
As a film prospect, the narrative-heavy score weighed against it in the uncertain millenium years, tho it may yet see light of day. There is always a market for moody, period British mysteries, and Secret Garden is no slouch in that department, with catharsis and rebirth its primary destinations. And Simon's score has at times a folksy, slightly Celtic beat that wouldn't sound out of place on a U2, or Van Morrison album. Like Rupert Holmes before her (with The Mystery of Edwin Drood), Lucy Simon brought her roots in folk/rock to assist her theatrical instincts, brilliantly fusing them together. And also like Holmes, it's too bad she hasn't written more for the stage. It would be a quarter of a century before she got another show to Bway; only to see it quickly expire. With inexcusable neglect I have yet to listen to Doctor Zhivago. Whatever the show's faults, chances are Simon's score is least among them.

In the parched desert of the '80s, one new composing voice was heralded from its first rumblings Off-Off-Bway. Praise for William Finn's compositional talent seemed hyperbolic until I heard it myself. Here was something fresh and unique--without any hints of rock, Sondheim or Lloyd Webber influence. Finn's style is colloquial in both lyrics & music, steeped in an everyday vernacular with a surprising melodicism. The so-called Marvin Trilogy was shaped by James Lapine into a two-act Bway musical, Falsettos in '92. Tho virtually a sung-thru show there's no whiff of opera about the musical; nor sense of being overdone. Finn's narrative gathers specific, non-heroic characters in an unconvential family grouping, that seems to reach the universal the deeper it delves into its smallest details. A non-cliched, non-salacious, matter-of-fact presentation of gays at the story's center was groundbreaking. No one's sexual preference was of dramatic issue here, but accepted at face value without being used for any incident. And tho it ran 14 months at the compact John Golden Theater, it was possibly too ahead of its time. (Losing the Tony to a populist-friendly Gershwin reboot, Crazy for You.) Perhaps the upcoming Bway revival will elevate the show's cult status to a higher profile. Certainly any thought of a film version rests on a passion for the material over commercial expectations. But the story's insular nature requires no expensive trappings--neither sets or costumes, nor extras or special effects; this is a relative bargain for a musical, and with a clever director might make an effective film. The script's seven fully deliniated characters are three couples: gay, lesbian & straight, and one child whose navigation of this minefield is the clever viewpoint for unfamiliar viewers. Casting would be a delicious task. Juicy roles await the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Jonathan Groff, Jennifer Lawrence, Adam Driver, Melissa McCarthy, just to start the potential list. Tho my heart shall remain  forever in Michael Rupert's corner; his velvet baritone arousingly manly, cut with shadings of a three day beard. There's no better male love duet than the musical's ultimate moment "What Would I Do? (If I had not met you)" where lovers face early death from AIDS, in a song of such emotional heft and beauty as to induce tears of astonishment. Exquisite.

William Finn's voice is so personal he seems incapable of writing outside of his own experience. His attempts at broader themes (a pageant of Americana; a play by Kaufman & Ferber) have fizzled. Another circle of friends & family surround another gay man in crisis in Finn's '98 A New Brain, built around a frazzled composer suffering a tumor--facing mortality with contemplation of love and artistic accomplisment. That Finn had such a scare himself is obvious. Again the score poured forth from a highly personal place, and in my opinion it's even better than Falsettos. With songs about writing songs with insipid (or reality-check) messages for children; or about subjects such as damage wrought by a gambling-addicted father; a mother's resentment of her son's books; a bag lady's disgust at do-gooders offer of change; feeling horny on the eve of risky surgery; a list of restaurant specials by a perky waitress (Kristen Chenoweth in a small role); the plight of a fat male nurse, eating himself alive; the serenity of sailing--all subjects of peculiar specificity, yet such infectious rhythm and melody they go down as easily as the best pop tunes. With such talent it's a shame Bway didn't welcome a new William Finn show every other year.

Rushing in to fill the breach, BMI workshop graduates Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty were the '90s most dedicated Bway newbies. Unlike Finn, A&F were master adapters zig-zaging thru wildy diverse sources, none from personal experience. Their first musical was based on the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore cult film, Bedazzled--a brilliant movie candidate for musicalization. But rights weren't given, and we are deprived of hearing their effort so far. After their Playwrights Horizons Off-Bway workshop debut, Lucky Stiff  (which improbably was turned into a film decades later--which we'll get to) their follow up, an adaptation of Rosa Guy's Caribbean novel, Once on This Island, was developed into a modest Bway hit. As usual, the Carib island setting prescribed a folktale narrative, but unlike Harold Arlen's House of Flowers or Jamaica, this had more reggae than Rialto. Lincoln Center welcomed their next effort,  My Favorite Year, a too-literal adaptation of the 1982 movie--a charming comedy about the early days of live TV, that is favorite pic of mine. The movie has a balance of comedy, romance and satire that already feels like a musical, thus seemingly good material for Bway tunesmiths; and tho A&H's score is nothing less than professional, it doesn't elevate the story one iota. The show brought Lainie Kazan back to Bway--in a gem of a cameo expanded for the stage. but the big winner of the enterprise was Andrea Martin, the sole performer to outshine their screen predecessor. She won her first Tony, and began a regular affair with Bway--as befitting this astonishing comedienne. The show didn't catch on, but even if it had would be redundant to film. More and more movies were turning into musicals, with too few for good reason or worthy result: some eked out long runs, but none brought light to Bway.

Ragtime was supposed to be the Show Boat of our time. E.L. Doctorow's panoramic novel was an audacious melding of real and historic figures, a pagaent of Americana circa 1906; a time of growing pains. Milos Forman directed a would-be epic movie in 1981, which despite luring James Cagney out of a twenty year retirement, eschewed an all-star cast in favor of newer talent (Mary Steenburgen, Howard Rollins Jr., Elizabeth McGovern, Brad Dourif, Mandy Patinkin). The film received 8 Oscar nominations but not Best Picture or Director--and won none. Time has not grown its cachet. Two noms went to Randy Newman, (for scoring & song) perhaps the closest pop composer to the spirit of ragtime. Ahrens & Flaherty had to audition for the musical. Assembled and incubated by Canadian producer, Garth Drabinsky (who was later imprisoned for financial fraud), the show was workshopped and tested in open-ended runs in Toronto & LA before coming in to Bway in January '98. The lavish, over-produced show suffered from fresh comparison to the recent heralds hurled at Julie Taymor's radical re-imaging of The Lion King--which took the all-important Best Musical Tony. Ragtime ran for two years but didn't earn the passionate embrace of the public. Playwrights were hired for both screen and stage adaptations--Michael Weller, who gave Milos Forman an actual screenplay for Hair; wrote the movie; Terrence McNally the libretto--which in its structure as a musical is closer to Doctorow's carnival of events. The opening is ingenious in introducting a large cast of characters, delineating three major groups: immigrants, blacks and the landed gentry--as well the celebrated figures who walk among them; all to the music of the new century in progress: "Ragtime." There isn't much to criticize of A&F's score, a polished, melodic & anthemic achievement. I'm especially fond of "New Music" and "Our Children." And yet why is it I can't seem to connect to it with any passion? Charles Strouse's Rags--which shares a similar period & immigrant narrative, as well as partial title--a Bway flop, but with a score that thrills me in a way Ragtime never does. Poor Strouse, he went from project to project thru the end of the century, but just couldn't get traction on anything worth his talent.
The unexpected, resurrection of Chicago (the 1996 revival, now Bway's longest running American musical ever) fuels hope that other underappreciated gems might return at more opportune time and become the success they deserve. Like Pal Joey, which made its rep on its revival 12 years after its debut, Ragtime was revived in 2010--sharpened and more intimately re-focussed--earning critical raves. But for whatever reason the public did not respond. Perhaps the show wasn't so much ahead of its time, as it was behind it. Surely this banquet of Americana would've been crowned the Pulitzer in '84--It might have been to Reagan what Hamilton is to Obama. Will a film ever materialize? Economics would dictate no. Forman's film cost $35 million and made $11. A musical today--and one with this much period detail and large cast--would be astronomical. And frankly, the commercial appeal is highly questionable in the era of super-heroes and animation. And yet, all the issues plaguing America today are there in Ragtime: racism, inequality, class division, immigrants, celebrity fethishism, terrorism. Perhaps a score by Lin Manuel Miranda would make this relevant again. In comparison Ahrens & Flaherty's composition sounds like time gone by. Of course that's the point, isn't it? Point achieved but not geared for maxiumum traction.

Among the few remaining Golden Age teams Kander & Ebb perservered thru the millenium --and beyond. In '92 they reuinted with Hal Prince (who first hired them back in '65) to tackle Manuel Puig's Argentine noir, Kiss of the Spider Woman. Another book & movie adaptation by Terrence McNally with another "suspected" terrorist; this one safely in prison--rooming with a queer, who typical of K&E musicals conjures musical sequences outside the narrative reality. The "emcee" here is the titular femme fatale, a construct of the gay lad's imagination--his coping mechanism; a role  built for  Chita
Rivera. Tho she wasn't in the show's first incarnation that mistake was remedied with further test engagements in Toronto and London, before settling in to a two-year run on Bway. I never did get to NY during that period, and subsequently never saw the show on tour either. But I had seen Hector Babenco's Oscar-nominated movie, which impressed primarily for its lead actors: Oscar-winning William Hurt and Raul Julia (who switched roles after they were cast). Tho Chita headlined, the musical's leads were Brent Carver & Anthony Crivello--competent performers with little star wattage--further example of Prince's preference for character over star charisma. Puig's prison romance in which a silly queen wins the love of an anti-fascist revolutionary, and finds "redemption" of his shallow (movie-obsessed) life in his sacrifice to save his cellmate. This isn't just serious musical theater, it's grim. Relief comes in the form of cinematic fantasies that break up the narrative; with almost flashing signs saying "insert song here." Even with Prince shaping the project you don't see this as Sondheim material. It's tailor-made for Kander & Ebb--and the result is thoroughly on point but lacking surprise; more Bway than South American in feel. You don't think of the show as "Argentine," the way you do with Lloyd-Webber's rock/pop/opera fusion, Evita. Not until the first-act closer, "Gimme Love," do we get anything that explodes with Latin percussion. And not much afterward. A serious show demands serious music, and there are many ballads, some nearly lullabies. It's doubtful Hlwd gave much consideration to a movie version, if for no other reason than the memory of the acclaimed Babenco film. Perhaps if Madonna still had any clout as a screen star she could generate interest. Don't hold your breath.

Kander & Ebb still had another five musicals produced ahead, but the only other to reach Bway in the '90s was Steel Pier-a sad misfire that was their biggest flop since 70, Girls, 70. The brief, pathetic Depression-era fad for marathon dancing (which happily has never been revived) suggests an obvious milieu for a musical. Here again, this is no comedy--but a portrait of desperate people in desperate circumstances. The benchmark here is the 1969 Sydney Pollack film, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? likely the inspiration for K&E, if not their initial source. But David Thomson's book turned  into a  sticky stew of  sentiment and camp centering on a dead pilot come to life by divine providence to get Karen Ziemba to move on with her life. Of course a show of this scope has plenty of supporting players--each with their own story. Prominent among them, Debra Monk singing Fred Ebb's lewdest ever lyric ("Everybody's Girl") in as vulgar a manner possible, lip-smacking such lines as "And so to reaffirm my status/It's absolutely gratis/To use my apparatus/I'm everybody's girl." Within the K&E canon this score feels like nothing but trunk songs. A trunk show as well.

Stephen Sondheim continued his late career leisurely pace with ever quirkier musicals. Assassins got a brief showcase run (for the privileged few) at Playwrights Horizons in '91, but took another 13 years to get to Bway. A meditation on killers of American presidents, the musical (written with John Weidman) was a story-less narrative more akin a revue. Not film material. Nor was his next (and to date, last new Bway show) Passion in '96, a chamber opera that was filmed onstage for PBS's American Playhouse--demonstrating no further need for cinematic transcription.  Given this is a rare project initiated by Sondheim himself, there's more than usual revealing his psyche. A passionless musical about passion, that disguises its true core as a gay fantasy: where the queer breaks down the resistence of his straight prey. Was Steve aware, or in denial? I confess to enjoying it (on PBS) more than I'd  expected--but  this  is only  caviar for the general. 
The end of the millenium saw the long overdue internment of Saturday Night,  Sondheim's first almost-produced Bway show from 1955--which was abruptly derailed upon it's patron/producer's sudden death. Given its quality--if slightly offbeat--it remains a mystery why no other producer picked up the option for nearly half a century. Tho the score is more conventional than radical, it remains Sondheim, who even at this age had enuf brilliance, polish and wit to impress. Yet even at this belated date the show was run for a limited engagement Off-Bway, inciting no further public demand. I was fortunate to see it--and it lingers in memory as unjustly underrated.

Having dominated the '80s as no one else, Andrew Lloyd Webber slowed down in the next decade, presumably to count his billions. His first post-Phantom show was a curious tangle of romantic couplings between an English soldier and a French actress across 18 years; toying blithely with all manner of young/old pairings, including that of a 15 year old girl. Based on a 1955 novella by British novelist, David Garnett, Aspects of Love was more suggestive of an Eric Rohmer film; something inherently French, the kind of social tolerance we puritan Americans accept as "Continental"--but condemn at home. The show ran three years in London but less than one in New York. As always, L-W stuffs the show with endless music, this one without a hint of pop sensibility--which even Phantom had at times. There's as little humor as there is spoken word; a serious study of amour. (And doesn't Sondheim's Passion--in both form and gravity--seem like a kissing cousin to this work?) L-W was introduced to the book when first asked to write some songs for a proposed film version that never came off. It isn't likely his sung-thru score will ever bring it closer to the screen.

Billy Wilder's gothic masterpiece, Sunset Blvd was Bway bait for many years. Gloria Swanson first spearheaded a musical version in the late '50s, which (possibly from being in amateur hands) went nowhere.  In the early '60s Hal Prince tried to get it off the ground with Stephen Sondheim. But it was finally, Lloyd Webber, the post-Phantom-King-of-the-World who took it to completion, full of pomp & circumstance and a production as elaborate as Phantom. Wilder's screenplay is so tight, there was no room or need to expand or alter; so in essence it was putting the action and dialogue to music. Of course as usual Sir Andrew never met a passage he didn't want to set to music. But with sincere homage to film composers of the story's late '40s era, such as Max Steiner, Franz Waxman and Miklos Rozsa, L-W's score is consistently fascinating in how it captures the mood of each scene; how it sounds "cinematic." Patti Lupone, who despite its import on her career cites Evita as one of the worst experiences of her life, returned to L-W's clutches for the privilege of debuting Norma in London, with full intention of moving on to NY. But major scandale erupted when L-W thought better of re-casting for America, granting Glenn Close the honor of tryout in LA (where I first got to see it) and subsequently on Bway. Having the London OCR to absorb the score, I was less impressed with Close in both voice and performance--her craziness seemed too over the top. But Judy Kuhn's Betty Schaffer was beautifully sung--tho her pregnancy lost her the role on Bway to Alice Ripley. With Close & Co. heading East, the search was on for a third Norma to remain at Century City.
In  my last year on Bonner Dr. in West Hlwd I heard singing from a nearby backyard; a woman's voice, strained and painfully off key at times, always singing one of Norma's Sunset ballads. Keep your day job was my thought. I didn't realize who this was until one afternoon I saw Faye Dunaway outside my kitchen window in Alex & Loretta's driveway. She was looking for her cat. We spoke. What I should have said but didn't was, "You're Faye Dunaway, You used to be in pictures. You used to be big." She was living one house a way--a serious down-sizing in the slope of her film career. But now Lloyd-Webber had hand-picked her to replace Glenn Close, and there was much anticipation of Mommie Dearest tearing into the role. Alas, shortly after our encounter she was fired in rehearsals, and the show folding tent altogether to proceed East. Now in sisterhood with Patti Lu, Dunaway trashed L-W, who stood his ground: Faye wasn't up to the role. It was my geographic fortune to have clearly heard why. But Dunaway might not have been a bad choice for a movie Norma, had they continued the Marni Nixon tradition. Glenn Close is of course as much a movie star, and would doubtless want to leave her somewhat kabuki approach on celluloid (or really, it's all digital now); and it isn't out of the realm of possibility a film may yet be made. This is the movie Streisand should be striving for, not Gypsy. Her age here is more appropriate, and let's not forget she recorded these arias on her albums. And who doesn't like playing someone going insane? Wake up, Babs! Get on the phone, Andrew. We're none of us getting any younger.

Movies continued to be adapted into musicals thru the '90s; at least a dozen including The Goodbye Girl, The Red Shoes, Victor/Victoria, Big, Saturday Night Fever, Footloose--none of them necessary; most of them clinging close to their sources without much creativity or reconstruction. Few of them noteworthy. Or hits. None of this discouraged the practice--over fifty pics have been reworked for Bway since the turn of the century; most of them inevitably named "[movie title]--The Musical," where once a Bway adaptation demanded a new title to distinguish its difference. In his attempt to brand himself the American Lloyd-Webber, Frank Wildhorn chose instead to adapt literary classics in the public domain, beginning with Jekyll & Hyde, the last of 4 new musicals
(Titanic, Steel Pier, The Life) to open the final week of April '97; the worst reviewed and longest running (4 years) of them all. Wildhorn's style of power ballad tuner illicits universal trashing from the cognoscenti, yet he filled the hungry, if diminishing demand for Bway poperettas. Encouraged, Wildhorn quickly proved to be as prolific as he is prosaic. At one point in '99 he had three musicals running at once on the Bway. His second, The Scarlet Pimpernel was revamped not once but twice in mid-run over two years. And another 18 (!) musicals have so far burst forth from Wildhorn's pen, raiding the library for familiar sources (Dracula, Carmen, The Count of Monte Cristo, Cyrano de Bergerac, Svengali, Mata Hari, [Alice's] Wonderland--none of them elevated over previous incarnations. He even tackled The Civil War--which seems the definition of hubris itself. Hlwd never took note. He did jump on the film adaptation bandwagon once, and predicatably Bonnie & Clyde lasted as briefly as his three previous Bway flops. In all fairness and full-disclosure I admit I've invested little energy in studying Wildhorn's ouevre--driven off by the Consensus of the Discerning, who simply consider it junk. Life's too short.

Not that I didn't relish the Art of the Flop, as it was served in The Golden Age: Flahooley, The Body Beautiful, Whoop Up, All American, Bajour, Maggie Flynn--valiant but misguided attempts at the integrated musical comedy. But in the waning years of The Brass Age (1971-2000) there was far too little comedy as musicals had become, almost by definition, dead- (and often deadly-) serious. Thus we come to our last quartet: shows built around a nautical catastrophe; a senseless murder; racism & anti-semitism; Siamese twins--too serious to be popular, tho one was a hit. But each a unique gem in one way or another.

The hit was Titanic--and a surprise one at that. Skeptics were sharpening their knives waiting for the inevitable disaster metaphors. But Peter Stone, who'd managed to turn the making of the Declaration of Independence into an exceptional libretto, penned another historical narrative with dozens of characters into a cohesive, dignified whole--and didn't even use Molly Brown! And Maury Yeston provided another full-meal of a score without the need of nonstop recitative. The majesty of the occasion lent it the pomp of an opera--but this was no pop- or operetta. Regretfully I never saw the Bway production, which I've been told was technically brilliant; and unfortunately not feasibly duplicated in subsequent tours. (I'm sure if Chas Addams had been alive to attend the opening he would've said, "I came to see the iceberg.") The show was in its 8th month at the Lunt-Fontanne when James Cameron's epic movie was released. Few remember that a similar cloud of doubt shrouded the pic before its release--only to become the highest grossing film of all time. Naturally Cameron's approach was less characterlogical and academic and more fictionalized romance and state-of the-art special effects. That both stage & screen Titanics--produced 85 years after the event--were successful is a fluke as improbable as the sinking itself. Whatever interest Hlwd might have had in Stone & Yeston's musical (if any) was obviously obliterated by the Oscar laden--and Celine Dion vocalized--movie. As movie or musical Titanic can thrill us, it can leave us awestruck-but not uplifted.

Side Show took me by surprise like no other musical in years. I didn't get to see it in its brief Bway bow--but did make it to the first regional production at Theatreworks in Mt. View (outside SF). By then I had long been enraptured by the OCR. Melody is a keen gift. In today's overly rhythmic, overly spoken musical preference, there's far too little of what we used to treasure as melody. Anyone can write a song, but stringing the notes together to follow a path that turns the ear in such a way as to put a smile into it--that's not an everyday thing. Rodgers had it in spades. Jule Styne had it and Charles Stouse--to name a few. In latter days William Finn startled us again by reminding how long it had been. And in this group include Henry Kreiger--whose Dreamgirls score was much more than Motown pastiche. Side Show is a backstager as well, tho trawling in more down market venues: the  freak show.  Yet there's nothing repulsive or disturbing to look at our two heroines, The Hilton Sisters, Daisy & Violet, who are simply always attached. Kreiger sets whole scenes of dialogue to music, but unlike so often in Lloyd-Webber's shows, the melody simmers with inspiration rather than plain utility. It's a wonderful score, with exquisite orchestration and an exceptional chorus--the final minute of "Say Goodbye to the Freakshow" gives them a slice of heaven to vocalize. And mention must be made of the mini-opera that is "Tunnel of Love," a breathtaking quartet of roiling emotions set to a driving, spooky beat that thrills to no end. Alice Ripley & Emily Skinner are irreproachable as the Hiltons, and this was our introduction to the velvet tones of Norm Lewis. Robert Longbotton's production, too, was much praised, but the public would not be sold. Like Tod Browning's 1932 pic, Freaks (which the Hilton's wound up in) the subject was of limited appeal. But a show this good awaits rediscovery. A Bway revival came from director Bill Condon in 2014 and was received with even more enthusiasm but couldn't fill seats. Yet here's one flop musical that would make a terrific movie. From the beginning I could lose myself in the album and visualize a film by Tim Burton. He has just the right eye for this sort of thing. Not a moneymaker, perhaps--and isn't that true of all his better films?--but potentially a bit of Rahadlakum.

Perhaps Spike Lee could make something wonderful out of The Capeman, Paul Simon's magnificent Bway debut. Apparently the libretto by Derek Walcott was problematic. True, Simon's songs are often not in a familiar theatrical idiom, but that makes them all the more exciting. It's a hypnotic blend of Island rhythms and '50s folk, pop & doo-wop, all thoroughly in character and period; tracing the sad, fated life of a Puerto Rican teen who commits senseless murder; and the man he becomes after prison. Again, serious stuff. I cannot speak for what transpired on stage, but it might be that uber-choreographer Mark Morris's direction was yet another layer of unconventionality (and was possibly all wrong). But my many hours lost in the (unreleased--bootleg) OCR leave no doubt that this (along with Rent and Side Show) is among the 3 best scores in all the '90s--at least in my humble opinion. Woefully unappreciated, Simon's score was lost in the wake of Lion King and Ragtime, which arrived shortly prior, and suffered the further indignity of recording a cast album, but not seeing it released. Instead, Simon's record company put out a "Songs from Capeman" album by the artist himself--which even among his following was largely dismissed, and saw no upside to a Bway CD release of a show that played nine weeks in the winter of '98. Simon's record is fine but it's a Paul Simon record, not the full show, and missing both the exceptional orchestrations and the wonderful cast including Ruben Blades, Mark Anthony and Sara Ramirez. Bway was still a bit chilly welcoming composers from the rock or pop worlds--something that would change soon enuf with the likes of Sting & Cyndi Lauper; and now they're all writing musicals. But for Simon the experience was so fraught with disappointment he's not likely to ever try his hand again in the theater. Nor has Mark Morris quit his day job.

And finally, Parade, whose central scenic element was a giant oak tree from which the lead character (a hapless Jew in Atlanta) is doomed to be lynched by play's end. Fun times. Again, Ethan Mordden may have said it best: "The entire show is disturbing; it is the only musical I can think of that has stirred real anger in people, tho none that I've spoken to could articulate exactly what had incensed them." Surely it wasn't the quality of the score by 29 year old Jason Robert Brown nor the libretto by Alfred Uhry--a Southern Jewish playwright who'd won the Pulitzer Prize a decade prior for Driving Miss Daisy--both superlative if uncompromising. Brown's stated major influences are Sweeney Tood & Sunday in the Park with George, which makes it easy to see why he took to the Leo Frank tragedy. And where Hal Prince fits in. This is no would-be opera; but an actual musical with strong book scenes. It's also a rather scathing indictment of prejudice and the scourge of Confederate fethishization in Southern culture. Dark stuff, no matter how pretty the tunes. More Caviar for the General--or in this case, the Aficionado. Not a show to drag the reluctant husband to. For the most part revivals from the Golden Age provided Bway's merriment at the end of the millenium. New works reached for profundity, gravity; as if entertainment alone were a sin. And as for musical movies. . . well there really weren't any. But a new century was coming, and with it surprising new life on Bway.
Next Up: The Fantasticks

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