The Only Thing Better Than Hairspray…

The rats on the street all dance round my feet
They seem to say, “Tracy, it’s up to you”
So, oh, oh don’t hold me back
‘Cause today all my dreams will come true

Good morning Baltimore!…
There’s the flasher who lives next door
There’s the bum on his bar room stool
They wish me luck on my way to school

A solid opening number for a solid Broadway musical. Oversized girl with a big heart is ready to take on the world. Unfortunately, the mechanical mice at her feet were too small, the flasher traded his dignity for a silly dance, and the bum overplayed his tiny scene.

Hstairspray Live cast

Hstairspray Live cast

The big show–more than 50 cameras–was in some trouble when it began. Then, Corny Collins showed up with a very snappy dance number, well-staged and glittery, and there was good reason for optimism. When Kristen Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, and Ariana Grande shared the stage with three lesser-knowns on “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” I started thinking, this is going to be fun! Maddie Baillio–Hairspray Live’s Tracy–was credible singing “I Can Hear the Bells,” but the staging (fake Christmas bells) was not appropriately cheesy–the tone of the design was off by a noticeable degree, as if the creative directors did not quite get the kind of humor that John Waters, Harvey Fierstein and others on the core team intended. Ms. Baillio looked the part, sang reasonably well, and danced well enough, but I found myself longing for the spark in Nikki Blonsky’s eyes, the sense of humor and absurdity in every word she sang in the movie version of this special musical. The subversive lines lift “Hairspray” from just another musical into something vaguely sinister. Still, Ms. Baillio did competent work on “Welcome to the Sixties”–perhaps without some of the sass, but with Harvey Fierstein nearby, I was satisfied.

The “Miss Baltimore Crabs” number has never been a favorite, and although I believe in the magic of Kristen Chenoweth, the number continued to leave me wondering why it wasn’t cut or replaced years ago. The “crabs” joke is funny, and she used her hands to suggest an absurd crab in a reasonably skillful manner, but I sure wish she had more raw material.

Oh–time for a commercial. How about a bunch of commercials? How about every song or two? No better way to enjoy a full live presentation of a musical theater show than to watch as many commercial breaks as possible. How to make that worse? How about some insipid commentary by an overenthusiastic and utterly unnecessary commentator telling us how the performers are getting on a tram, or explaining that the people we’re seeing on the screen are enhancing the home audience experience via tweeting. Ugh. NBC, how about stepping up and doing what you did before. Limited commercial interruption. This is theater, not a football game.

Ah, but Harvey Fierstein! If anybody understands the twisted humor and social activism agenda, it’s the man who so expertly performed Tracy’s mom, Edna. After suffering through John Travolta’s mugging and occasional creative success in the movie version, Mr. Fierstein changed the game for me. I finally understood the role, and he managed to clearly articulate every one of his funny little lines, asides, grimaces, body moves, and other silliness. Given the director’s overeagerness for rapid cutting, and the crew’s tendency to miss lighting and audio cues, and the overall sense that cutaways needed to be fast regardless of what the performer was doing at the time, Mr. Fierstein got every move onto the TV screen. He was uniformly terrific–so good, in fact, that I left the TV screen for a bit to check out the very limited video of him performing Tevye in Broadway’s “Fiddler on the Roof.” Gosh, he’s great. And he wrote a lot of “Hairspray” in its various versions.

I’m not much of a Martin Short fan because he often overdoes it–too much style, even for satire–but he, too, was excellent in this production. Watching Mr. Fierstein and Mr. Short perform “You’re Timeless to Me” was just about the best part of the evening. It was simple: two people on stage, singing and dancing, and sometimes, doing lines. It felt like a Broadway musical–straightforward, relying upon sheer talent and excellent material (not a gigantic cheering crowd). Producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan are old hands at staging Broadway musicals for television–and I wonder how they felt when they experienced this bit of Broadway magic sandwiched in-between, well, a dozen more commercials, and, perhaps, a longing to bring these productions back to the New York City area where, at least to my eyes, the whole company and crew treated past productions (“The Sound of Music,” “Peter Pan”) with respect and wonder. In L.A., this just felt like another bloated TV show.

But then, there’s Jennifer Hudson belting out “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” and later, “I Know Where I’ve Been,” and there’s the magic again. The dancers are excellent. The sense of social change in the racial integration scenes worked, but it lacked the energy and authenticity that the movie version captured so well. I can’t help but wonder how much time it took to rehearse more than fifty cameras, and how much of that time might have been better used in sharpening the characterizations (many of the “negro” characters were rendered in two dimensions–even the knife scene fell flat) and the staging.

Worst staging goes to the jailhouse scene which was badly designed, badly lit, and badly directed–a trifecta of high school theater style in what should have been a turning point. Many dramatic moments fell flat.

But–oh wait, time for a bunch more commercials and insipid cheering from sideline crowds–okay, we’ll be back in a moment.

(Deep breath).

Give ’em a great closing and they’ll forgive you for anything. The show’s signature song, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” became a gigantic dance party, lots of fun, very messy staging, difficult to hear some of the lines, but heck, it was terrific anyway.

Except: remember Ariana Grande? Brilliant performer. Lovely actress. Great sense of style. Small, though. Small girl in a big show. Often cut out of frame, or suffering from those fast cutaways that the directing team favored. If you get the opportunity to watch this program again, keep an eye on her. She played her role with subtlety and brilliance–and I wish we had been able to see more of her. Unfortunately, her final scene (over curtain calls and credits), singing alongside Jennifer Hudson, was poorly engineered and perhaps poorly selected for her voice. Lots of unused potential here.

In closing, some notes to NBC and to the producers:

1. Cut down the number of cameras and big sets. Nobody cares.

2. Focus on performance, not spectacle.

3. More close-ups! So often, we saw a good dance number that would have been a great dance number if you added closeups. More than 50 cameras–you should have been able to get the close-up job done! (More reaction shots, too–but you need allow lots of rehearsal time to get them right.)

4. The next time you hire Kristen Chenoweth, give her a great song to sing. The next time you hire Ariana Grande, make sure we see her on camera a lot.

5. Move the production back to New York.

6. One commercial break at the beginning, one during intermission, one at the end.

7. No big sideline crowd. No extra host. Completely unnecessary.Put the money into extra rehearsal time.

8. Think twice about doing “Bye Bye Birdie” next year. The teen dancing is fun, but a show built upon the craziness of a new Elvis appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show might not possess the appeal that you imagine.

THANKS for doing this. Sorry for a review that’s not entirely positive, but given the enormity of your enterprise, we all offer congratulations for all that you did so well. And the fact that you’ve done this at all is a kind of a miracle.

Hey Netflix? Time to step up.

The Magic of Musicals, from the Inside

“Not every show has an ‘I Want’ song. Or a conditional love song, or a main event, or even an 11 o’clock number. But most do.”

The terminology may be unfamiliar, but the ideas are not.

A Broadway-style musical begins with an Overture, except when it doesn’t. Is the overture the lightning bolt that energizes the whole enterprise? Or is a divine spirit that visits a particular script, score, director, performer, ensemble, or theater?

Form matters. That’s the mantra of Jack Viertel who wrote a book with the odd title, The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows are Built. He’s the Artistic Director of Encores!, responsible for the simple re-staging of three musicals every year for Broadway-literate audiences. During the recent past, Encores! has produced and presented “1776,” Do I Hear a Waltz, Cabin in the Sky, Zorba!, Paint Your Wagon, Lady Be Good!, Fiorello!, Lost in the Stars and Where’s Charley—mostly shows from the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s. As for more recent shows, Viertel questions their meanderings away from proper form and structure.

He is a man who has helped to construct magic—his credits include Hairspray, Angels in America and After Midnight—so his opinions are both well-formed and well-informed. He has credibility. I learned a lot by reading his book, in part for professional purposes, but mostly because he’s an terrific teacher with a subject that fascinates me.
In his words: “How do you begin a show?” How does a musical greet the audience at the door? How do creative artists introduce the characters, set the tone, communicate point of view, create a sense of style, a milieu? Do you begin with the story, the subject, the community in which the story is set, the main characters?”

enmjW_the-secret-life-of-the-american-music....jpeg.220x0_q85_autocrop_crop-smart_upscaleSince overtures “have become a rarity today,” the opening number carries the weight. Originally, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum began with “a sweet little soft shoe about how romance tends to drive people nuts” but that misled the audience because the show was not about romance or charm, but instead, a boisterous vaudevillian take on three Roman comedies. Critics and audiences don’t enjoy mixed messages, so the reviews were lousy and the audiences stayed away. The creative team—a top-notch group that included Larry Gelbart, Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, George Abbott, and Burt Shevelove—didn’t know what to do. They asked director Jerome Robbins what he thought. He asked Sondheim (music, lyrics) to write something “neutral… Just write a baggy pants number and let me stage it.” Viertel: “He didn’t want anything brainy or wisecracking, but he did want to tell the audience exactly what it was in for: lowbrow slapstick carried out by iconic character types like the randy old man, the idiot lovers, the battle-axe mother, the wiley slave and other familiar folks. Sondheim wrote “Comedy Tonight” as a typically bouncy opening number, but he couldn’t resist his clever muse, and so, the “neutral” number’s lyrics go like this:

Pantaloons and tunics,

Courtesans and eunuchs,

Funerals and chases,

Baritones and basses,

Panderers,

Philanderers,

Cupidity,

Timidity…

You get the idea. (Go listen to the song! It’s terrific.)
Another show provides the textbook example of Broadway construction. The opening scene in Gypsy is a mirror image of the closing conceit—and both are built around the song, “Let Me Entertain You!” (Sondheim wrote those lyrics, too!)

Unknown.jpegAnother simulates the movement of a train pulling into River City, Iowa a century ago—serving to introduce the flimflam man named Professor Harold Hill—“Cash for the merchandise, cash for the button hooks, cash for the cotton goods, cash for the hard goods…look, whataytalk, whataytalk, whataytalk, whataytalk?…”to set the stage for The Music Man. Similarly Cabaret begins with the multi-lingual “Wilkommen” and Fiddler on the Roof begins with “Tradition.”

Some shows combine the traditional role of the opening number with the inevitable song that follows, called the “I Want” song. “Good Morning Baltimore!” provides a taste of what Tracy wants in Hairspray, but A Chorus Line is more direct in its use of I Want in its opening number:

Chorus-Line-Weston.jpg

God I hope I get it.

I hope I get it.

How many people does he need…

I really need this job.

Please, God, I need this job.

I’ve got to get this job!”

hqdefaultIn Annie, the I Want song is “Maybe”– the orphan dreams of her parents. In Gypsy, the “I Want” song is “Some People,” and in “West Side Story,” it’s “Something’s Comin’” In Hamilton, it’s “My Shot.” It’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” in My Fair Lady and “Somewhere That’s Green” in Little Shop of Horrors. Note the consistency of a place far away as a device to express desire—“ Part of Your World” in The Little Mermaid follows the same pattern.

The conditional love song comes next—or follows shortly after. “If I Loved You” from Carousel, ”I’ve imagined every bit of him / From his strong moral fiber / To the wisdom in his head / To the homely aroma of his pipe..” sets up the unlikely romance between a gambler and a Salvation Army worker in Guys and Dolls.And now, things become complicated. (Heck, you could write a book about it…) There is “The Noise” — “a pure expression expression of energy” that’s intended to be, mostly, fun, without much consideration for story. Try, for example, “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly. Then, the plot thickens, a secondary romance is introduced, unexpected obstacles, confusion that must be resolved within the next hour or so. The disappointment—a character has made an unfortunate choice. Tentpoles lead to expanded  audience expectations: “I had a dream / a dream about you, Baby! / It’s gonna come true, Baby! / They think that we’re through, but, Baby…” From at least one character’s point of view, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” but others in Gypsy have their doubts—and when the first act curtain falls, many of the characters are gone, never to be seen again.
b6d1048bcf323255f40fcaf41997abd7Gee, this is fun. Suddenly, every musical I’ve ever seen makes more sense than ever! I could go on about “The Candy Dish,” “The 11 O’Clock Number” and the construction of the ending, but that would make the whole blog article too long. Pace matters.

Buy the book. See the musical(s). If you’re in NYC, buy a ticket to “Encores!” — even if you  don’t know the show, will not be disappointed because now you’ve taken a glimpse backstage, under the hood, inside the dream. It’s all a glorious confection—characters in the midst of the most dramatic adventure of their lives stopping everything to sing their hearts out and dane a lot. Makes no logical sense. But it’s wonderful. And it’s been going on for the better part of a century. And there are people who are very, very good at this particular art form. Every once in a while, it’s nice to celebrate them.

%d bloggers like this: