History

Tripping Over My Own Feet as I Go Fleetingly Down Memory Lane

By Grumpy Olde Guy® (a/k/a Michael Kape)

One thing I hate more than seeing bad theatre (and I’ve seen a lot of bad theatre) is moving (one of life’s great traumas, I’m told, along with losing a spouse—which has also happened to me; more about that shortly). Right now, I’m pulling up stakes and leaving my cozy retirement abode in Palm Springs to face life again in New York City (sounds crazy, but I’m not known for my rational, sane moments; if anyone has a lead on an apartment, let me know—please!).

The realtor is on my case to “declutter” my place. I mean, how can you declutter decades of memories—some even older than me (if that’s even possible)? As I write this, I’ve just packed away 60 some odd years’ worth of Playbills and theatre programs. Those are NOT clutter! I swear they are not clutter. You might as well say my right arm is clutter. (Okay, it does get in the way sometimes, but I still need it. I need my programs and Playbills.)


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Theatre has always been a part of my life—good, bad, or indifferent, it’s always been there for me. Even in the worst of times. I have had a worst of times: My partner of 23 years died in my arms on Thursday, March 27, 2008. It was all kind of sudden—and devastating (my collapse in the hospital after it happened was something out of a bad Lifetime movie). The worst [expletive deleted] moment of my life. So, what did I do? A week later, I was at New York City Opera seeing a production of Candide directed by an old friend from college. (Artie never could direct comedy, and I walked at intermission—probably because it wasn’t funny, and I just wasn’t in the mood yet for bad theatre.)

Don’t think of this as cold-hearted. If the situation had been reversed, my late partner would have been at the theatre too.

Over the next few weeks, I grew increasingly morose (understandable under the circumstances) yet continued to go to the theatre as often as I could. This was New York City, and you could get tickets to everything from the flashiest and most-expensive Broadway shows to an Off-Off-Broadway show presented in a loft. Tickets could be had for cheap from the seat filler services (Theatermania Gold Club, Play-By-Play, etc.). And in truth, I just couldn’t face the prospect of going home to an empty apartment every night. Could you?

The research psychiatrist in the office next to mine saw me one day (had I been crying?) and said, “You look terrible. I’m sending you to see my friend Bill.” He did. Turns out Bill was the leading psychoanalyst in New York City. He listened to me talk for 45 minutes and then said, “You don’t need me. You just need to remember three words: MAKE NEW MEMORIES.” And so I did—seeing as much theatre as I possibly could. A total of 245 shows in the space of 12 months. Sometimes three shows on weekdays and five on weekends. Making new memories.

Except now, in packing away those Playbills in anticipation for my move home, I discovered I’d lost a lot of those new memories. Yikes. It isn’t Alzheimer’s, I swear. I was tested six months ago and ended up showing the doctor where he was wrong. Okay, I’m still a smartass. But as someone who used to educate doctors (yeah, me with a degree in theatre), I know when I’m right.

I’ve culled several Playbills from the bad years to try to remember something about the shows my memory has lost. Some of them featured well-known names in the cast. Some of them are just not memorable. So, I’m hoping some of you can help. These are from my bad period. Do you know them? And if you were connected to any of them, my apologies in advance.

·         A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick, Playwrights Horizons. It had an interesting set. That’s all I can remember.

·         All New People, Second Stage Theatre. Remember Zach Braff from Scrubs? He branched out into writing, first a movie, Garden State, and then this play. All I can remember about this piece is my friend Dean was the general manager. That’s kind of sad.

·         Antony and Cleopatra, New York City Opera. This piece by Samuel Barber has an interesting history. It was written for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. It received terrible reviews then and was largely forgotten. New York City Opera was having a bad time; it had lost use of its home for a year (while it was being reconstructed). So, it resurrected Antony and Cleopatra in a staged concert at Carnegie Hall. Sometimes, things are better left dead. The first act was painful, which is all I remember of it now. But the most memorable thing about the night was intermission, when half the audience ran in droves for the exits, never to return for the second act. I was right there with them.

·         Boy’s Life, Second Stage Theatre. Featured Jason Biggs, Betty Gilpin. Directed by Michael Greif. No clue.

·         Compulsion, The Public Theater. I don’t remember this at all, despite it starring Mandy Patinkin with direction by Oskar Eustis.

·         Cradle and All, Manhattan Theatre Club. Written by Daniel Goldfarb. I think I vaguely remember something about two parents who can’t handle a screaming baby.

·         Dust at Westside Theatre. I should really be ashamed of myself. I actually saw this opening night. It starred Richard Masur (who was a couple of classes ahead of me in college) and Hunter Foster (post-Urinetown and pre-[title of show]). My friend Hugh was promoting it. Again, I remember nothing about it.

·         Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco. The buzz was super strong about this production. It starred Geoffrey Rush, Susan Sarandon, Lauren Ambrose, and Andrea Martin. What could go wrong? Even my BFF was urging me to go from the other side of the country. I took my friend Jill (a big macher in the Fringe Festival) to see it with me. I don’t remember much about it because the creative team managed to take fascinating Ionesco and make it sleep-inducing.

·         Kin, Playwrights Horizons. Featured Bill Buell. Directed by Sam Gold. I’ve got nothing.

·         Made in Heaven at Soho Playhouse. Nothing. I do know my friend Hugh was promoting it. Maybe I should ask him.

·         Mindgame at Soho Playhouse. One of the lead producers was Michael Butler, the original producer of Hair on Broadway. The lead was Keith Carradine (The Will Rogers Follies). The direction was by Ken Russell—yes, that Ken Russell—in his first break from directing movies. Can’t remember it at all.

·         Romantic Poetry, Manhattan Theatre Club. Actually, I do remember some things about this one, mostly it being one of the most misbegotten ideas for a musical, with book, lyrics, and direction by John Patrick Shanley, and music by Henry Krieger. Mark Linn-Baker was in the cast. It was not a good evening of theatre, sad to say. It was Mr. Shanley’s first—and last—outing with a musical.

·         Séance on a Wet Afternoon, New York City Opera. Libretto, lyrics, music, and orchestration by Stephen Schwartz. Let’s put it this way: this production is what killed New York City Opera. Really. It wasn’t long but felt like it went on for two weeks instead of two hours. It was extremely expensive for City Opera to produce. It just was not good. It just was not memorable. It was the final dagger in the back of City Opera (which had just one good production that entire season, and this wasn’t it). BTW, this is not me being vindictive about Mr. Schwartz (I have plenty of reasons for that); this is about a substandard piece of work.

·         Side Effects, MCC Theatre. For those of us of a certain age (i.e., children of the ’60s), Moonchildren by Michael Weller was an anthem play. It defined us in so many ways. Alas, not even Joely Richardson and Cotter Smith could make this piece by Weller register in our brains.

·         The Book of Grace, The Public Theatre. Written by Suzan-Lori Parks. Nope. Nothing. Completely gone from my memory banks.

·         The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, The Public Theatre. The cast included such notables as Michael Cristofer, Steven Pasquale, and Stephen Spinella. Direction by Michael Greif. Written by Tony Kushner. All I can remember is being incredibly bored and looking at my watch—a lot. Not one of Mr. Kushner’s better efforts (I think I’m being kind but I’m not sure).

·         The Kid, The New Group. I remember the build-up of this musical, based on the book by Dan Savage. It starred Christopher Sieber (pre-Shrek) and Jill Eikenberry. The New Group invited subscribers to a talk-back with the creative team before the show opened. Directed by Scott OMG Elliott. Do I remember anything about it? The set is about it.

·         The Language of Trees, Roundabout Underground. This is embarrassing for me. I received an email from Roundabout thanking me for the lovely comments I made after seeing the show. I don’t remember the comments. I don’t remember the show. Help!

·         The Other Place, MCC Theater. This is one show I really do want to remember better. It starred Laurie Metcalf in a stunning performance as a woman losing her mind. It was directed by Joe Mantello (one of his best efforts). I just wish I could remember it. I do recall walking out of the Lucille Lortel Theatre sobbing.

·         The People in the Picture, Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54. I know it’s a play about the Holocaust. It starred Donna Friggin’ Murphy, and featured Alexander Gemignani, Lewis J. Stadlen, and Joyce Van Patten. It was a musical, but I can’t recall a single song from it. (Some of the songs were in Yiddish, if that helps.)

* * *

And that’s only half of the Playbills I culled. I’ll spare you the rest. It does go to show some talented people can do some terrible things when they try (not intentionally, of course). And if you remember any of these better than I do, please let me know.

I guess this proves there is such a thing as seeing too much theatre. I know there is such a thing as seeing too little. A co-worker of mine during this period boasted how he had only seen three live theatre performances in his life. When I told him I had seen five in one weekend, he looked at me like I was out of my mind. Maybe I was. Maybe I still am. To wit: For four years I took a generic blood pressure medication called valsartan. This generic was manufactured in a Chinese factory and distributed in the United States by three different companies (one of which was an old client of mine).

Last July, I started having horrible spasms, sometimes violent, for no apparent reason. Having done years of medical research for work, I started on a quest to find out the cause. I plowed through tons of medical literature, touching briefly on a study done by Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in 1999. It mentioned a mere 22 cases uncovered in the course of the study, all causing a rare form of Tourette’s Syndrome due to a poisonous substance known as NDMA. It was interesting but of no help to me—or so I thought. Then I received a letter from my pharmacy. The valsartan I had been taking was tainted with NDMA. A doctor on the same campus as La Jolla Playhouse (where a few of us recently saw the premiere of a new musical, Diana) finally diagnosed me as someone living with Tourette.

My biggest fear about having Tourette isn’t the spasms. I don’t do the verbal (so no inappropriate cussing). No, my biggest fear is I wouldn’t be able to go to the theatre anymore because my episodes would be disruptive to the rest of the audience (and I’d be asked to leave). For me not to be able to go to the theatre any more? A fate worse than death. Really. So far, knock on wood, I can control the spasms pretty well (not completely) and I’m still attending. Go figure.

 

(Grumpy Olde Guy® a/k/a Michael Kape has haunted so many theatres he’s applying for membership in the Theatre Ghost Society. He has been known to use theatre as therapy when his world is at its darkest.)

Rodgers and Hammerstein? No Thanks.

By Grumpy Olde Guy® (a/k/a Michael Kape)

When I was three years old (yes, I really was—once in 1957), my mother, the late, great Frumah Sara(h), bought me a box of 45 rpm records filled with Rodgers and Hammerstein for Children. And I played those 45s until they wore out—even the songs from Pipe Dream and Me and Juliet and Allegro. No Flower Drum Song or The Sound of Music; those had not been written yet.

Got older, wiser, and learned a thing or two along the way. Played the Professor in South Pacific in my junior (and last) year in high school. Did my senior thesis in college about the impact of Oklahoma! on American musical theatre. Actually saw productions of Allegro, Me and Juliet, and (*gasp*) Pipe Dream. Cringed through the stage version of The Sound of Music (a/k/a Life With Father in Austria). Read the biographies of both men as well as Musical Stages, Richard Rodgers’ autobiography. Was even accused of reporting a wayward production of Oklahoma! to the R&H Library (it was indeed wayward—setting the show in a rehearsal hall on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed; don’t ask but we at Atlanta Theatre Weekly carried the review in 1997).

No one can say what I’m about to discuss comes from a place of ignorance.

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* * *

I was maybe 10 years old; the television remake of Cinderella was airing (with Lesley Ann Warren in the title role). She starts singing, “In my own little corner,” and I remark to my family (gathered around our giant 24-inch RCA color television at the time), “That sounds just like all the other Rodgers and Hammerstein songs!” Same exact music. Same cadence. My 10-year-old self had called it. It’s pretty damn sad when a 10-year-old can see through the miasma and deception now known as Rodgers and Hammerstein.

* * *

The first (and only) time I saw The Sound of Music onstage, I couldn’t help but notice something very odd about the song, Do Re Mi. It’s a song filled with English language puns (“Doe, a deer, a female deer, ray a drop of golden sun”). So far so good. But here’s the rub. The characters singing it (seven children and their governess) only speak German. They don’t know from English language puns. Just one of the many things I dislike in Austrian Life With Father.

* * *

Richard Rodgers wrote incredible scores with Lorenz Hart. Some stunning work. American Songbook classics. Rodgers wrote the music first, and Hart then supplied the (often-brilliant) lyrics. In Musical Stages, Rodgers spend two-thirds of the book on his collaboration with Hart. It was about the art of creating Broadway musicals and how much it thrilled him. Then he gets to his time with Hammerstein. Just a few scant chapters. It was a business deal. And he got bored after Carousel, which might be why all his subsequent shows with Hammerstein began to sound the same (even the melody to Me and Juliet’s No Other Love, arguably the best song in the musical, was actually a cutout from an earlier effort, just as The King and I’s Something Wonderful sounds so much like Love Look Away from Flower Drum Song). Is it any wonder my 10-year-old self could immediately identify an R&H song? After all, the songs for the “slightly-older-but-wiser” alto they wrote all sounded the same from show to show to show.

* * *

Ever notice how the best music Richard Rodgers wrote had no lyrics? I mean Carousel Waltz. Slaughter on Tenth Avenue Ballet. Victory at Sea scoring. March of the Siamese Children. But when he did his own lyrics in No Strings, they were pretty lame (except the opening number, The Sweetest Sounds).

* * *

There is the matter of R&H racism. Before you start citing South Pacific, let me go further back and cite Oklahoma! Even in my college thesis I called out the racist approach Hammerstein used with the character of Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler. I’m not Iranian, but I found the characterization to be extremely offensive and, yes, racist. It was meant to be funny; it was not. Racism is never funny.

Likewise, examine the casting of African American actress Juanita Hall. First in South Pacific, because her skin was darker than others in the show, she played Bloody Mary, a Tonkinese proprietress (and pimp—more about that shortly). A few years later, R&H cast her again, this time as an Asian American in Flower Drum Song. Really? What about the casting of Jewish actor Larry Blyden as Sammy Fong? Another case of “Oh just give them slant-eyed makeup and the audience will think they’re Chinese.” Yeah, not racist at all (bullshit).

Bloody Mary is a character in the short story Fo’ Dollar, one of the pieces in Tales of the South Pacific R&H used as the basis for their show. She also pimps out her 14-year-old daughter Liat to Lt. Joe Cable. Liat’s age is never discussed in South Pacific, but it sure looks like pedophilia to me (not unlike one of the storylines in ALW’s Aspects of Love—but I digress). Can we say this is just oh-so-distasteful? I knew we could.

I even question the pseudo-liberal bent of South Pacific (You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught). I’ve checked and anti-Tonkinese discrimination is not now nor then running rampant. Just me, I guess.

* * *

When the last revival of Carousel (the one R&H show I can stand) was playing, a lot of discussion arose (finally) about the matter of spousal (and child) abuse. Billy strikes Julie. He strikes Louise, his daughter. He’s a sexist pig (Soliloquy) who would much prefer having a song to a daughter. The problem here is simple—what worked in 1945 doesn’t work 70+ years later. It definitely makes an audience uncomfortable—and not in the intended way.

* * *

For 62 of my 65 years, I’ve had Rodgers and Hammerstein drummed into my head. I want them out. Gone. Vamoosed. If I could reach out to my 10-year-old self, I’d say, “Kid, you’re smarter than you realize.” (I’d say smarter than you look, but I was a bespectacled geek back then and I looked pretty damn smart.)

I know people will start raining venom on my head because I just don’t like the work done by these two. “It’s classic American musical theatre,” they’ll cry. It might be classic but it ain’t good. “But I love [fill in the name of any R&H show]. How can you not like it?” After all this time, believe me, it’s very easy.


Similar Musicals; Different Successes: The Music Man vs 110 In the Shade

David Culliton

The following is a transcript of a surreptitiously recorded dialogue between rainmaker Bill Starbuck and music man Harold Hill in no particular place during no particular time.

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Starbuck: Say, ain’t you that fellow who became a music man for a little town in Iowa without knowing a lick of music?

Hill: That certainly sounds like me! Professor Harold Hill at your service, my friend. Who might you be?

S: The name’s Starbuck, Bill Starbuck. I’m a rainmaker, ending droughts and bringing that sweet water from the sky for only $100 per location!

H: Truly a pleasure, sir. Can’t say I’ve ever met a rainmaker before.

S: Oh no, sir, we’re a rare breed. Though I reckon you might be more familiar with my way of business. We may be of vastly different professions, Mr. Hill, but something tells me we’re in the same line of work. Or at least were, ‘till you settled down with that sweet little librarian.

H: Ohhhh a con man, then! Perhaps I have—

S: I ain’t never said that, my friend.

[Transcription note: a brief pause in the audio followed by a slight chuckle from Hill seems to indicate a wink from Starbuck after his ostensibly coy rebuttal of that label]

H: Oh, yes, you must excuse me, my tongue has the nastiest habit of slipping on occasion.

S: [laughing] Oh it’s quite alright.

H: Now how can it be that I’ve never heard of a man of such unique talents as yourself?

S: You tell me. I’ve had my story told a few times; some northern theaters thought it would be a keen idea to bring my tale to the stage set to some quaint music. I always enjoyed the little show they wrote about me. Now keep in mind, I got a brother with the voice of an angel, so you best believe I grew up with an appreciation for the musical arts; this ain’t no untrained ear’s opinion…

H: I seem to be the king of untrained ears, my friend, I’ll trust your judgment.

S: Well, they gave me some mighty fine songs, some good ones too to the wonderful spinster I met in the southwest, and to her family, too! The script they wrote is nice and simple, accurate to how it all happened, some good performers have been in it over the years, and yet with all that, the good people of the world barely know my name!

H: Fascinating! Now what is this theatrical piece of yours called?

S: 110 in the Shade. Damn accurate title, too. The town I was in when that story of my life took place was about as hot as could be, on account of the drought I had rode in to cure. There was actually a non-musical play about that same story of mine BEFORE my musical, called The Rainmaker, but even fewer people done heard o’ that one.

H: How truly ignorant of them! You know, I’ve had my own stories told in a similar medium…

S: Oh I know, it’s how I heard o’ you in the first place! The Music Man, one of the most popular musicals of all time.

H: [chuckling] Very good! Yes, truly an honor to have such a wonderful piece written about me, and to have it reach such success! It’s won awards, been seen by millions, even brought to the cinema a couple of times.

S: Must be nice…

H: Oh well, yes, don’t mean to brag, another one of those bad habits of mine.

S: Hey, we all got our vices.

H: I thank you for understanding, friend. But you must understand, it is nice to have such a legacy!

S: Well naturally; it’s what we all want from life, really.

H: Exactly! And mine is quite rewarding. When my story was first put on stage, it was heralded as a veritable modern masterpiece! People called it funny and inventive, comparing it to some other popular theatrical piece about gamblers or something.

S: No kidding!

H: You wish I were. I’m telling you, this musical play had everything! I was portrayed by some dashing fellow called Preston, my lovely wife by a gifted soprano whom I believe was named Barbara Cook; she even won an award for it!

S: For playing your wife?

H: Only she!

S: Hell of a world we live in…

H: Well that’s not even the best part! The whole piece itself won some sort of huge award that only the best of the best of these kinds of things do. Erhm… did yours win an award like that?

S: Not as far as I remember.

H: Oh, pardon me, I hope you took no offense at that.

S: None, friend; just the facts of the case. I don’t think we won any such awards, but that doesn’t mean folks didn’t like it.

H: Well I should hope not!

S: No, no, people certainly have said nice things about my story over the years! They seem to enjoy its simplicity, theatrical journalists callin’ it things like charming and sturdy. Almost everyone who knows about it seems to like the music at least. The guys who made the music for it I guess created some other show that holds some sort of fantastick record, like longest running ever somethin’ somethin’, so they’re known for solid tuners.

H: What kind of music, pray tell?

S: Oh, it’s all some sort of simple, rural, classical style. Originally, they wrote it more like one of those operas you always hear about, but they ended up changing it to how it is now. You got your ballads and a showstoppin’ song or two, but it mostly is all straightforward and melodical, a real southern, folks-of-the-land flavor, ya know?

H: I think I follow, yes.

S: How about you? What’s the music in yours like?

H: Well it’s got a flavor for the folks of the land as well, but bear in mind these are northern folks, as you might call them. It’s simple, too, like yours, but they like their music big and brassy! It was written to try to reflect the kind of American band music of which I became the purveyor in River City.

S: Same stew, different spices.

H: My thinking exactly! Makes me wonder then why my spices ended up making my proverbial stew so much more popular than yours.

S: Beats me, seems both the pieces based on our lives have so many similarities.

H: A dashing con man rides into town…

S: [chuckling] Dashing, nice touch.

H: Well I certainly thought so.

S: The charismatic fella promises a miraculous solution to a problem, falls for a skeptical young woman…

H: [gasps] You fell for the spinster, didn’t you?

S: Harder than Icarus when he lost his wings.

H: Ouch.

S: Didn’t end quite as perfectly for me as it did for you, either, but I hear she’s all happy and fulfilled with her town’s sheriff so at least she’s not lonely no more…

H: But regardless, fell for her, changed her mind about the man…

S: …AND the whole town’s minds while he’s at it, even if they don’t find the gentleman’s business practices totally… legitimate.

H: Well it doesn’t matter; he brought joy and excitement to a somber little American town!

S: And the girl…

H: And everyone learned something about themselves in the process.

S: Those sound a hell of a lot alike to me! And yet…

H: Curious, isn’t it? So similar and yet one vastly more well-known than the other! But why?

S: Well, maybe it doesn’t help that my story was first being told around the same time as some much bigger stories about people like some matchmaker and a popular comedienne who came after my time, Fanny something…

H: And the people liked it bigger and flashier than just a simple piece about some folks in the south, didn’t they?

S: I reckon. I think the one about the matchmaker won that award you were talkin’ about. It’s a shame, really. There weren’t all that many worthwhile stories being told when mine first came out, but just a few months down the line those other one overshadowed us. Suddenly no one cared much for the tales of a town in a drought.

H: But I don’t understand! My story is the same simple idea: a small town and a man with a big personality, and no one could get enough of it! It was said to be a “fresh slant on Americana,” a loving send up to a bygone era—just like yours!

S: From what I remember of YOUR story, though, it was first being told at a time that wasn’t as crowded with these mega-tales. The only other theatrical piece I really can recall comin’ across at the same time as yours was some big, sad tale about fighting gangs and starcrossed lovers. It was damn good, but it was far from enough to overpower your story.

H: And mine was big, too. Bigger than yours, at least. I think the first time it was shown, the crafty fellows telling it had an actual smokestack blow onstage at the beginning of each telling.

S: Now you’re gettin’ it! Like you said, the people of the north like it when things are big. You had big, brassy music, my friend. There were probably a lot more people up on that stage than mine had, you even had some impressive technical effect to kick it all off! People remember that, especially when there’s only one other really good story to remember any way.

H: It might have had something to do, too, with that fantastic talente who portrayed me in the first go-round. He had told some other stories in the past but hadn’t had the chance to really tell a good one in a while. Portraying me is what really made him a star, especially as… do you mind if I brag a little more?

S: [laughing] Go on ahead, Hill.

H: Well, especially as someone like me, full of bombast and charisma. People love a man with confidence and swagger, and as I think we both know they LOVE a good success story. With that Preston fellow in the lead, the people who heard my story got both of those things rolled into one!

S: That sounds like it’s got some merit. The guy who played me when MY story premiered was already well known. I’m about as charismatic and memorable as you are, but it was another solid spangle in an already well-decorated belt. Not quite as exciting as your Preston.

H: My word… is it really all down to that? Timing and a single well-placed man is what makes people know who I am and draw a blank on you?

S: Certainly sound like that to me, but it’s hard to draw solid conclusions in such a metaphysical plane of existence...

H: Oh, undoubtedly. Mr. Metaphysical Author, would you kindly conclude for us?

David: Gladly, thanks guys! The Music Man had a lot of things going for it upon its opening: an exceedingly strong cast and creative team, relatable success stories in the form of Preston and Meredith Wilson (himself finding great success on his first big Broadway foray), a nostalgic but still large and impressive homage to an idealized (if not a little silly and puritanical) old Americana, not a lot of overwhelming competition, memorable bombast, technical prowess, the works. It came out at the perfect time with all the right pieces in place to create one of the most iconic American musicals of all time. 110 had some good stuff going for it, too: the composers responsible for New York’s longest-running musical EVER, two powerhouse stars, a solid and emotionally-driven book, but it showed up too late for what it was. It was TOO small and TOO simple in a time when Broadway was coming back from a slump better than ever with musicals that were large and complex. It didn’t have room to breathe and so it petered out, a sweet little gem undeservedly lost to the ages. There are so many little intricacies and details that can’t be covered with a speculative dialogue like this, and I encourage you all to look into both shows (and generally look up and listen to 110 if you never have before) and see if you can draw your own conclusions based on what you find.

S: Neat trick!

H: Oh, that was nothing. The con man’s greatest talent, you know it! When you’re not sure where to go next, you can always pull that extra ace card out of your sleeve.

S: Hell of an ace card, though.

D: Thank you, I take that as a compliment!

S: You gotta teach me how to pull that one, Hill.

H: Well hey, you need to show me how to conjure some rain first, Starbuck.

S: With pleasure! Now, your “think method” ain’t bad, but I find props come in real handy. Let’s see if we can find you a hickory stick…

[the two voices fade away]

[end transcript]



Race and Representation in Theatre: The Most Commonly Questioned Shows

Zachary Harris
On the heels of MLK Day, we start to look a bit closer at some shows that continuously come up in the race debate in our group. Before diving into this I wanted to share an opinion of mine that will be a helpful segue into this dialogue. I will also note that these are all my opinions as a Theatre/African American Studies graduate and I would love a dialogue!

 In many cases these conversations on race, representation, and what that means turns into a very black and white dialogue. It is very important to understand that more people are in the line of fire when it comes to underrepresentation than just black people or African Americans that audition for shows. However, I do truly believe that the idea behind telling authentic stories does then too extend to not having the broad stroke of people of color playing roles they shouldn’t because they are of color or having roles that in actuality should be played by white people. How often does a script actually call for a white person specifically? Not that often, however in an effort to to authentically tell these stories (given circumstances aside) these are all things that we must keep in mind when tackling plays or musicals of any type.

If I’ve missed shows that you think should be discussed, please let me know and down the line I can make another one of these! Before beginning I’m going to define two words that I’ll be tossing around a ton:

 Classism: prejudice against or in favor of people belonging to a particular social class.

 Colorism: Discrimination based on skin color, also known as colorism or shadeism, is a form of prejudice or discrimination in which people are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin color.

 

Evita

 But Zach, why this show? Recently news broke that a company in the UK was searching for the first ever black Eva Perón. The show does not (to my knowledge) specifically discuss the characters race, which in many cases then becomes the standard of “should this be cast regardless of the color of the actor”, however in the case Eva Perón we hit a cross road - for those of you who don’t know Eva Perón was a real person. You can google her, there are books on her, and she did indeed exist (http://bfy.tw/H0vr for those of you curious). As you can tell, she wasn’t black. Now certainly she wasn’t white in the American sense either, because being from Argentina makes her South American or Hispanic. Historically speaking Eva Perón has been played by a white person, most notably by Elaine Paige, Patti LuPone, and Madonna (in the movie!) so what does that then mean? For me personally that then means that we should be casting Hispanic women in the famed role, along with the other roles in the show. However the show isn’t ABOUT race, but more so about the woman. This gives me pause, however I do truly believe that when picking shows to produce we have to be conscious of these decisions/what they then mean. In the same way many argue that Eva Perón is not black, she certainly wasn’t white either. There are HUNDREDS of shows, why pick this one?

 

Now I will note that my opinions on this show do differ than my strong opinions on similar casting decisions discussed later, and very plainly the reason is because the show doesn’t revolve around her race. While again I personally believe the show should be authentically cast, this rubs me less in the wrong way than other shows on this list. By no means does this imply cast the show with people ONLY from Argentina due to a lot of what I had mentioned in the previous article, however this is an opportunity to create a platform in musical theatre that (outside of works by Lin-Manuel Miranda) don’t really exist for Hispanic/Latinx people.

 

Aida

 Oh boy! Based on the opera by Giuseppe Verdi, Elton John and Tim Rice wrote a musical depicting this love story between Aida (played by the impeccable Heather Headley) and Radames (played by Adam Pascal!). The focus of this show are the Egyptians and the Nubians, who are longtime foes, and how that comes to head. The show in many cases is about love transcending time and culture, and honestly in many ways this musical is incredible (though, not my favorite). The question I kept asking myself is how Adam Pascal (or any of the Egyptians for that matter) look anything like Egyptians? Well, they don’t. Now this is an interesting thing because in many cases people who are from that region can really range in appearance. However, the stark difference between Nubians (all played by black people) and the Egyptians (you guessed it! White!) is really staggering to me and I think in this case really unnecessary. Why not cast the show with black people? What does stark difference do? In my mind the casting of white people as Egyptians is to create a stark contrast between the cultures and the people by connecting it to modern day race issues… I think the show and the text speak for itself when creating those differences (along with whatever dramaturgy would then be available to them). Is the concern that audiences can’t tell difference between the people onstage? Can people really not tell the difference between black people on stage? Sass aside, a show in Africa should probably have people who could generally look like the people in the story. Though this show differs from Evita in the sense that these people aren’t real historical figures, we should quite definitely be aware as to where the show takes place.

 Again, as artists and creators we are continuously at the helm of a platform, and a lot of the disparity in casting can be fixed with a bit of awareness. Aida, while not in the same spectrum as a historical piece like Evita should be looked at carefully. Why would we cast this show with someone other than people who look like Africans?

 Once on This Island

 I’ll begin this section with this - if you missed the revival you certainly missed some incredible theatre. Now, this show centers on the idealisms of colorism, colonization, and classism. The skin differentiation between Daniel and Ti Moune are incredibly important to the story and to these characters. To quickly quote a line from the song The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes “They despise us for our blackness, It reminds them, Where they’re from”. For those of you who don’t know the show the Beauxhommes are people who descend from France AND the French Antilles. They long for France and French culture, and the peasants are not able to access the same sort of luxury. Daniel is a Beauxhomme and Ti Moune is a peasant, the colorism and classism presented in the show really creates the obstacles that Ti Moune face within this show. White people playing Ti Moune in the original version of the script makes no sense. The whole script is about their struggle and classism created by their blackness, so doing it other ways is really missing the point. In the case of Daniel, he’s supposed to be biracial as the story says, however casting Daniel as white (which Isaac Powell is not, before you go there) really is missing some of the most important parts of the story. Here we should consider a fairer skinned black man before erasing the anchor to the island that the curse of the Beauxhommes gives to Daniel/his people.

 In the alternative version of the script (that apparently exists, however it’s not advertised on the MTI website), they remove all mentions of race and focus on the idealism of class… So problem solved? Not really. The classism here is all great and dandy, there are a ton of love stories that focus JUST on classism. However dramaturgically speaking, have we forgot the show still takes place on an island in the French Antilles? The island would still be inhabited by black people, and the sanitation of the materials inherent blackness is also missing the point. Again, there are LOTS of shows about classism, so why pick one that you don’t have the diversity for?

 

Hairspray

 This one always baffled me as to why this becomes such an argument. The show takes place in the 60s and uses a faux Civil Rights Movement as a platform the integrate a TV show. The obvious points to race being instances such as “though the night is as black as my skin”, “only see the color of my face”, and “the blacker the berry the sweeter the juice”. With this in mind, people always get up in arms about Hairspray when an all-white cast comes along. Now I will note, though I don’t have the copy of this that came in my scripts any longer, that the creators of the show state that disallowing anyone of any color to play any of the roles is racist and the suspension of disbelief should be used when watching (wrongfully) alternatively cast productions of Hairspray. I wholehearted believe that this is incorrect in this instance, and just people a particular majority has had most opportunities to do what they would like to does not then mean that everything needs to be universal. This story isn’t about some sort of universal grief, but of a white girl who gets fat shamed and black people who are facing segregation.

 Many note that their productions have used shirts, hairstyles, and (god forbid) blackface to get around such an issue, which I find odd. Obviously with these adjustments everyone involved then is realizing that they lack the people of color to do the show, so they do what they can to do what they can to fill the gap in a modern minstrel-adjacent way. What I then must bring up is that black and African American people can’t peel their skin off, and have to live with the harsh reality of what society gives to them on a day to day BECAUSE of their skin color. No t-shirt or other concept can really encapsulate what the symbolism of the black body on stage can stand for.

 

Miss Saigon (and other shows involving Asian heritage/culture)

 Admittedly, this is a show I knew far less about than the others mentioned. However first I would like to send you to when it comes to the (now corrected) yellowfacing history of the production.

 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/17/theater/the-battle-of-miss-saigon-yellowface-art-and-opportunity.html

 Outside of this, let’s talk about Asians/Asian Americans in musical theatre. From The Mikado to Miss Saigon there is a history of yellowface when it comes to shows based in Asian culture. I’m taking this moment to then also note that in many of these cases these shows revolve around a white person either saving or teaching or conquering the people of this area. Outside of the Jonathan Pryce scandal of sorts, Miss Saigon revolves around Chris (an American soldier there for the Vietnam War) and Kim (a prostitute). It has in many instances been protested against for being racist/sexist, and to quote Sarah Bellamy, co-artistic director of the Penumbra Theatre, dedicated to African American theater, states "It gets a lot easier to wrap your head around all of this for folks of color when we remember a key point: this work is not for us. It is by, for, and about white people, using people of color, tropical climes, pseudo-cultural costumes and props, violence, tragedy, and the commodification of people and cultures, to reinforce and re-inscribe a narrative about white supremacy and authority."

 Returning specifically to the point of the importance of casting, though I can discuss the potential problems within works written by white people for Asian Americans, we need to continuously remember that these stories are usually deeply entrenched in a portrayal of their culture and it’s incredibly important to give Asians and Asian Americans that opportunity to tell those that are previously written. Instances like The Mikado (which is historically done in yellowface) don’t have a space in an ever evolving society where authentic storytelling (read: not denying people of color to tell their own stories) should be at the forefront of every conversation. These dialogues are SO important, and in many cases the default is black or white… However the representational struggle of minorities is MUCH more than just that.

 

Lin-Manuel_Miranda,_Phillipa_Soo,_Leslie_Odom,_Jr.,_and_Christopher_Jackson,_White_House,_March_2016.jpg

Hamilton

 When creating works you get to set the rules for your world, in many examples things like race and gender get turned on their head to make a point (such as in Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, which I highly suggest) … So why does Hamilton get people all in a rut? Obviously when looking at history books, portraits, etc. of the founding fathers none of them are of color, so why here? Lin-Manuel Miranda through his hip-hop storytelling and the standard created in casting by having everyone (outside of a few ensemble members and King George) being of color to show that they (like the immigrants of yesteryear) can “get the job done”. The link between the present and past creates a really strong image that is a huge part of what makes Hamilton great in my opinion. This then means that any use of Hamilton to backup the reasoning behind not casting people of color in other things is less than supported. Miranda created a unique world that then has no bearing on other things, and any fundamental understanding of the material would bring you to a similar conclusion. The artistic foundation with Hamilton is built is deeply rooted in that idealism, which isn’t present in other shows, is why George Washington can be played by someone like Christopher Jackson. That then doesn’t mean Motormouth Maybelle can be white, because George Washington certainly wasn’t black. While I understand that then means a huge group of people may never get the opportunity to be in a production of what many consider the soon to be (if it isn’t already) biggest hit in the history of Broadway that doesn’t then mean spaces that should be for people of color should disappear.

 For every Hamilton there are hundreds of shows that don’t have a single person of color in them, for every Lion King there are hundreds of shows that are long running that are just now having their first black principles, and while I understand the strife that may be caused by this reality the use of Hamilton to attempt to whitewash other works is very specifically working against what the story is meant to be about.

 Overall, I think theatre has come a long way, however we are chasing ourselves in circles many times in the comment sections of these debates. These dialogues are incredibly important and until we as individuals look at the privilege we each have (or don’t have) we can never really make headway in this department. Theatre is supposed to be accessible to everyone, however cultural appropriation and accessibility are not one in the same. In the same way I would never want to tell a story that wasn’t mine (or like mine, outside of the given circumstances) I hope that we continue to move forward as a community when going about casting. Race in theatre continues to be a hot topic, however we need to continue to work towards listening to our fellow artists on the matter instead of figuratively (or literally, who knows) smashing our heads against a wall. This series is a particular perspective, not the only perspective, and I will be more than to continue the dialogue in the comment section.

 

 

 

RENT: An Imperfectly Perfect Musical

Jonathan Fong
It introduced thousands to Broadway. Every night it played at the Nederlander Theatre, it touched the souls of hundreds. It did so with one simple message – no day but today.

I am, of course, talking about the rock musical sensation of Rent. Born of Jonathan Larson’s creative ministrations and orphaned just before its first preview by Larson’s unfortunate passing, the musical about a band of young bohemians trying to navigate life riddled with death, bills and AIDS is loved by millions, and for good reason. For its brash, coarse yet utterly real content matter – not many musicals unabashedly yell odes to “mucho masturbation” in their Act 1 finales – it truly touches the heart too. The harsh electric guitar and frenetic energy of “Out Tonight” is tempered by the soft guitar melody and haunting repetition of “Will I”, inspired by one of Larson’s own visits to an AIDS support group, while the lighthearted romance of “I’ll Cover You” is turned on their head by its reprise in the second act. Not to mention, of course, the joyous, life-affirming finale with everyone belting their hearts out to affirm the show’s message and show that all does, indeed, work out in the end and that there truly is no day but today. And that is truly among the show’s biggest flaws.



Thing is, Rent is just too perfect. Everything, all the dramatic tension, the underlying question of “will I lose my dignity” and the ever-present fear of death within all the scenes, is thrown away quite simply on a whim in those last few moments; a true deus ex machina, if I’ve ever seen one. Angel’s death leaves a grim, stark impression on the cowed audience; that one of the most beloved, kindest and most selfless of people the audience sees in the show can so easily be taken away is one of the most grim reminders of the true dangers of AIDS back then, in a time when the epidemic was so widespread and few knew what to truly do to contain it. In light of that, Mimi’s sudden, seemingly magical (or rather, illogical) revival and second wind comes across as a scoff in the face, a ‘whatever’ moment. It makes for a heartwarming ending to the show, sure, but it doesn’t make the touching, heart-wrenching one we as the audience have been led to expect from the show. Not to mention how some parts of the show simply don’t quite make sense – dogs do generally know not to jump off buildings, even when in extreme auditory discomfort from a street drummer’s fierce drumming – while others do feel a tad awkward (“Your Eyes” isn’t the most touching goodbye song, not in the same way “One Song Glory” or “I’ll Cover You Reprise” are heartbreaking ballads setting near-impossible standards to match, at least).

And yet, does that change the perfection of the show one bit? Does it make the tears of joy as Mimi and Roger embrace any less heartfelt or the joyful reunion of the cast – plus Angel – at the end to belt out the final lyric “no day but today” any less beautiful? Does it mean that “One Song Glory” suddenly loses its meaning, ceases to remind one of our inner fears, of death and failure and of making a mark? Does it make the show as a whole any less poignant and coarse and utterly real? The answer, in my opinion, is no.

Sure, Rent’s ending leaves something to be desired. Sure, there are a couple of songs – particularly in the second act – which fall a little flat, perhaps somewhat explainable by the fact that they simply couldn’t be revised or replaced by their original composer between the show’s initial Off-Broadway debut and its inevitable record-breaking run on Broadway. Sure, the show as a whole could have been made more watertight had Larson had more time to work on it or simply written it with another ending in mind (he was, after all, insistent on Mimi living in the end, though who knows if time and additional previews/performances might’ve changed his mind). But nothing changes the fact that the story and message of the show are just so incredibly necessary in a way that one cannot comprehend unless they’ve seen or heard it and so perfect in that they, even in spite of being imperfect and flawed, make you feel a whole rollercoaster of emotions and then some in a mere two and a half hours of runtime (plus the obligatory 10-minute intermission). If you were to ask me to choose between a technically perfect yet bland show and the raw, imperfect truth of Rent – made ever more poignant by the fact that its composer and writer lived, breathed, and died in the same world as the musical he wrote was set in – I’d choose Rent any day as an example of what a truly perfect musical should be. For it, unlike any other show, truly reminds one that there is no day but today.

The (Really) Lower Depths

There once was a king named Oedipus Rex.
You may have heard about his odd complex.
His name appears in Freud’s index
’Cause he loved his mother.
His friends all used to say quite a bit
That as a monarch he was most unfit.
But still in all they had to admit
That he loved his mother.

Tom Lehrer

Michael Kape

Here was the challenge. A recent ATB blog examined the decidedly dark side of some famous musicals. Could I do the same thing with plays (i.e., tragedies)? Well, harrumph. Theatre was created by the Greeks from tragedies. Now, I know many of you prefer discussions about musicals here (and I can discuss them for hours on end), but it’s good to broaden your horizons and get down to the lower depths (more about that later). I’ve done a little time travel to pick and choose some of the great ones for your consideration.

The Greeks invented tragedy (and comedy), as I noted. To me, the “Oedipus Trilogy” by Sophocles is perhaps the greatest extant set of Greek tragedies: Oedipus Rex, which was followed by Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone. (I have special affection for Antigone having once played the Grumpy Olde Guy in the show, but Oedipus Rex is the best.) Oedipus accidentally kills his real father (he was adopted), solves the riddle of the Sphinx, marries his mother, has four children, discovers the truth, his mother/wife hangs herself, he plucks out his eyes, his children war on each other and their Uncle Creon, and ultimately kill each other and/or themselves. It’s a devastating story, based on mythology, with no happy ending in sight. And yet it’s great theatre.

In Greek mythology, Electra was the daughter of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra, and princess of Argos. She and her brother Orestes plot revenge against their mother Clytemnestra and stepfather Aegisthus for the murder of their father. She appears in two Greek tragedies, Electra by Sophocles and Electra by Euripides. She is also the central figure in plays by Aeschylus, Alfieri, Voltaire, Hofmannsthal, and, our own great tragedian, Eugene O'Neill (more about his version shortly).

(Just a note for you musical purists: all Greek tragedies were actually sung and danced by the actors and chorus.)

After the Greeks (and their inferior Roman copycat tragedies), theatre came under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church—which pretty much frowned on the artform. It was the age of morality plays (like Everyman), which weren’t really tragic or comic but instead served to keep the unwashed masses in check (really—theatre as political propaganda; ah, well, that’s a subject for another blog which I’m not supposed to write). And then, well, Welcome to the Renaissance, as they sing in Something Rotten.

The greatest tragedian (oh, hell, playwright) of that age (or any other) was, of course, William Shakespeare. His plays have been classified into four categories: the comedies, the histories, the romances, and the tragedies. And what tragedies they were:

·         Hamlet—Arguably the greatest play Shakespeare wrote (and certainly his longest), this is the tragic story of a young Danish prince whose father is killed by his uncle (who then marries Hamlet’s mother). He seeks revenge when challenged to do so by his father’s ghost. He employs a troupe of wandering players to perform a dumb show in front of the new king, who realizes Hamlet is on to what he did and exiles the young prince. In the end, just about everyone dies in the last scene and Denmark is conquered by Norway. Hamlet certainly contains the most exquisite language Shakespeare wrote. I fear you can’t call yourself a true theatre person without knowing Hamlet.


Edwin Booth as Hamlet in 1870

Edwin Booth as Hamlet in 1870

·         Julius Caesar—It’s about greed. It’s about ambition. It’s about murder. And a funny thing happened to poor Julius on the way to the Forum—he was stabbed multiple times by the Roman senators, including his beloved Brutus (“Et tú, Bruté?”). It’s another Shakespeare play where almost everyone ends up dead, except Mark Anthony (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”), who lives to show up in another tragedy.

·         Anthony and Cleopatra—Middle-aged Will Shakespeare set his sights on mature love in this tragic tale of a beautiful Egyptian queen and the two Romans who come to control her (though she really controls them), love her, and ultimately doom her. In his time, onstage lovers were usually portrayed as comic foils and not tragic characters. In this play, Shakespeare completely turned the tables on the contemporary norms (he had started to do that in an early play discussed below) and made this the stuff of tragedy.

·         Romeo and Juliet—My late, great college Shakespeare professor, Dr. Irving Ribner (of the Ribner-Kittredge acting editions) made us change our thinking about this play. As I noted above, in Shakespeare’s time, love—especially young love—was the stuff of farce. And the first two acts of R&J are some of the funniest material Shakespeare wrote. Romeo is a foolish cad. Juliet is a silly young teenager. The balcony scene is actually very funny (with Juliet trying her damnedest to get Romeo to leave). But when Mercutio dies, the play goes from farce to tragedy in a heartbeat. A series of misunderstandings and miscommunications kills the main characters (ironically in a tomb). And this is the true brilliance of this tragedy. It completely upset the theatre norms of the time, making Shakespeare a truly revolutionary playwright. We don’t consider R&J to be a comedy because Shakespeare so skillfully changed the way we look at young (and foolish) love.

·         King Lear—“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” But nothing could be worse than to have a foolish old king (along with his fool) divide up his kingdom based on which of his daughters professed undying love for him. A great tragedy, yes. Easy to pull off as an actor? I’ve seen Lear many times with great actors and I’ve never liked it.

·         Othello—Someone once described this play (Shakespeare’s shortest) as a lesson in how wives should be careful with their personal linen. Othello is a great but foolish and jealous soldier who loves his wife Desdemona. Iago is his evil lieutenant who hates Othello (racism definitely fuels the engine of this play) and plots his downfall. While Othello and Desdemona die tragically, Iago essentially gets away with his evil doings, which makes this yet another revolutionary moment for Shakespeare.

·         The Scottish Play—If you don’t know what play I mean, then stop reading. Seriously, one of the greatest tragedies ever written, this is another story of greed, ambition, revenge, and a moving forest.

·         And more (Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus).

(Around the time Shakespeare was creating his tragedies, another artform arose, closely akin to the original Greek drama—the opera. Tragic stories sung to beautiful music. But opera is fodder for a different discussion, so I’ll let it go at that.)

The late 19th and early 20th centuries gave rise to stark realism in the theatre, perhaps to counterbalance the frivolous romanticism of the age. Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths is perhaps the greatest of these tragic plays, depicting a group of impoverished Russians living in a shelter near the Volga. It is stark, humbling, difficult to watch without being moved. Gorky is said to have been inspired by the denizens of a Russian homeless shelter. The play was initially slammed for its pessimistic outlook (not much happens and everyone who starts out poor ends up poor), but still, The Lower Depths is a masterpiece.

Henrik Ibsen plays often bordered on tragedy, though they depicted more political themes than real tragic ones. But one of his plays does stand out, Ghosts. No spectral characters, but the tragedy of the father is visited upon the son, with an underlying story of venereal disease (never stated but firmly implied) making this one of the playwright’s most controversial works.

Two playwrights came to dominate American tragedy in the 20th century—Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller.

It has been argued Miller’s greatest play is Death of a Salesman. In this piece, Miller takes the majesty of Greek tragedy and applies it to a humble traveling salesman (He argued strenuously for tragedy not always being about people of noble birth, which I believe to be a correct stance). Willy Loman is one of the great figures of American tragedy. His frustrating life (for both himself and his family) makes for a towering work. Still, it can be hard to like this piece for some of us. It creaks. It’s verbose. But the story itself is infinitely sad. (I would argue The Crucible the better and more tragic piece, and certainly better written.)

O’Neill simply turned tragedy on its ear. He made it compelling. He paid tribute to its Greek roots in plays like Mourning Becomes Electra (based on the Electra plays), moving the Orestes tragedy to 19th century New England. But perhaps his greatest tragedy (one of the rare tragedies where nobody dies) is his most autobiographical one: Long Day’s Journey Into Night. This intimate look at the disintegration of a family tells a tale of frustration, drug addiction, serious illness, and alcoholism. And it all plays out in less than one day. It is perhaps the greatest American tragedy ever written.

There are hundreds more tragedies out there and I’ve barely scratched the surface. One of the great joys I had growing up as a theatre nerd was discovering new tragedies written long before I was born. They speak to universal truths beyond their settings—the foibles of human beings and the unfortunate consequences they can cause.

 

Michael Kape is a Grumpy Old Guy® and definitely a cynic, but he does so love a great tragedy. Lighten up. It’s only a play.

Haunted Theatres

Taylor Lockhart
Ah, October. ‘Tis the season for scary things isn’t it? You may or may not decorate your house with cobwebs and styrofoam gravestones. Perhaps at one point you trick or treated, or like me didn’t have a choice because from freshman year on, Halloween lined up with a run thru or with a tech rehearsal. Despite spending the holiday every year with the Gershwins, in 1889 attire, or costumed as a british schoolboy, Halloween is one of my favorite holidays and since it’s this Wednesday, I’m excited to be able to give you one last spooky article before the end of the month.


Whether only slightly through the Phantom Of The Opera or historical documentaries you've probably heard of a haunted theatre before. Perhaps have your own experience of what may or may not have been a spectral encounter or a noisy janitor in a theatre of your own. However the actors and actresses in these theatres all over the world tell you their ghost’s are no joke.



The Real “Phantom Of The Opera” - The Palais Garnier

Odds are you’ve all seen, or at least heard of, the only musical that can give Les Miserables a run for its money. But if the words like Star Wars, Michael Jordan, and Mickey Mouse don’t ring a bell to you, it’s time to get out from out under that rock you’ve been living under. I for one can say that most of the time I should've been busy writing this I spent getting sidetracked watching chandeliers crash. You may or may not be surprised to know that the famous crash may have happened just not quite the way it does in Phantom. No, it didn’t involve a man cutting the chandeliers chains and it ripping through the ceiling before crashing into the stage and making a giant fire that quickly consumes the theatre (though the author has gone on to state the Phantom is and was real). In reality the story is believed to be that a counterweight fell killing someone. Who knows though, maybe a deformed man named Erik dropped that counterweight. Probably not, but if you’ve ever worked Fly Crew for a show, then you know that if those things ever drop from the catwalk or even higher than the catwalk it isn’t pretty and it lead to one person's death. Before we get off Phantom though, I want to address there is really an underground lake of sorts under the theatre. More of a water problem the theatre can’t do anything about, but you probably could possibly ride a gondola through it. Anyways with at least 1 death being confirmed and popularized in the the 143 year history of the theatre that it isn’t surprising the theatre is counted along with other more haunted theatres.



Ghost’s Of The Blaze- The Oriental Theatre

Today it’s called The Ford Center for Performing Arts Oriental Theatre. Once upon a time it was called the Iroquois Theatre, a theatre deemed absolutely fireproof, but as you may know calling anything along the lines of indestructible will almost always lead to its destruction and the fire at the Iroquois Theatre in 1906 claimed at least 602 lives when the doors leading outside of the theatre were barred shut and is the single most devastating fire in any american theatre. Its unsurprising then it’s often considered one of the most haunted theatres in the world. It was torn down years later and replaced with the Oriental theatre. It’s most haunted spot is often considered the alley behind the theatre given the nickname “Death Alley” because of how the dead bodies were stacked up there after the fire. There hasn’t been much more than things that can be chocked up to coincidence and the stories we have received from people apart of the production of Wicked there which have since been stated to be exaggerated. It’s no doubt that a disaster like that if not truly haunted the memories stick around as such.

The Iroquois theatre before the tragic 1903 fire.

The Iroquois theatre before the tragic 1903 fire.



Cut That Out! -The Huguan Huiguan Opera House

During World War 2 a man nearby the opera house built housing for the poor however in something straight out of a horror movie he destroyed a burial place to do so. You may if you travel to this theatre be able to hear sounds that have been pondered by people to be ghosts and most famously if you decide the throw a stone in the courtyard you may hear someone tell you to, Cut it out! Sounds to me less like the ghost of an ancient native, or of a poor man, but of one of the theatre’s previous stage manager. If anyone ever find gaff tape laying around and no one knows where it came from we’ll know thats true.


Spirits On A Bridge -The Colorado Creede Repertory Theatre

So, I’m just going to say this and you tell me if its stupid or not. You’re performing in a show and you hear the theatre may be haunted so you go out onto the bridge behind the theatre and shout, spirits come join me on stage! Thankfully since then, Annie Butler the actress on the bridge would agree. She hired an exorcist and may or may not still be haunted but the theatre that was built to entertain miners is theorised to be. The director has gone on to state its not a surprise the theatre is haunted and that they’ve observed most of the stuff haunted theatres are known for footsteps when no one’s there, whispering, etc. The real reason I chose to write about this was just to let you all know if something is haunted never ever invite them in. Seriously just don’t try to talk to ghosts. Real or not, why would a Ouija board ever be a good idea.


Bones Under A Music Hall- The Cincinnati Music Hall

Throughout the entire history of this theatre, through excavations and remodels, human bones have been discovered. It is believed the theatre was built over a potter's field. It should be stated building anything over a burial site is always a very bad idea. Those working at the music hall claim that it is in fact very haunted. There have been numerous sightings and experiences but the one that stood out most to me was of an employee who brought his 3 year old boy Charlie in one day. Charlie enjoyed pretending like he was performing. Charlie stopped and asked his dad who was that in box 9. He looked up and the father said no one’s in box 9. The 3 year old then said yes there is, he’s waving at me. They then quickly left. This seems a possible coincident for its only one of many experiences that you can find on the Music Halls own official site and possibly for yourself in one the halls guided ghost tours.


Goodnight Olive Part 2- The New Amsterdam Theatre

The New Amsterdam Theatre, currently home to Disney’s Aladdin is my favorite haunted theatre in America and the entire world and its due entirely to the woman who haunts it, Olive Thomas. Avid readers of the blog may recognize this is not my first time talking about Olive previously including her in my top 13 superstitions article and how cast and crew of the theatre often say goodnight to a picture hanging up of Olive Thomas. However Olive is not a feared spectre or unwanted guest like other theatre ghosts on this list. Olive is akin to New Amsterdam’s Casper. She has been heard replying to conversations in various ways, seen sliding across the stage blowing kisses to the crowd. Historically Olive was a member of the Ziegfeld Follies, the theatres most popular show at a time. She later married Jack Pickford and when the two went on a vacation she was later found having overdosed on mercury bichloride liquid solution, a medicine prescribed for syphilis pain. It is unknown and a matter of controversy whether the death was accidental confused with sleeping pills or drinking water, suicide, or even possibly murder. What is known is that Olive is not resting in peace. Perhaps at peace but like all great actresses never resting. The story of Olive’s ghost is interesting and is very hard to not run into when researching the theatre’s history. You can find a picture of Olive Thomas on the right in the main 42nd Street entrance. I encourage you if you see Aladdin or visit the theatre soon, to either give Olive a compliment or say Mary Pickford her sister in law was the best actress of the silent film actress. Either way, you may get a little reaction.


I want to take a brief minute to tell you about a recent creation around the Olive Thomas story that I think some of you may find interesting. I am talking about, Ghostlight The Musical. Not much has happened with this since 2015 and it even originally starred Phillipa Soo as Olive. It seems like the creators of this musical have since moved since its performances but I’d still love to see the rights available to this musical at some point. There’s not much more I can say just that I thought it important while we talk about Olive Thomas again to inform you of an incredibly interesting musical that I’d love to see more done with.


I had planned to talk about others ghostly theatre experiences here but unfortunately didn't receive enough responses. So here’s my backup.


It’s October 29th, Halloween is, as previously stated, in 2 days and you don’t have a costume. Well let me help you with 10 last minute DIY Halloween costumes.


A Newsie

This one is pretty easy, the most important thing is definitely the hat. You may be able to find one at a thrift shop for cheap but they still sell them at JC Penny’s and other clothing stores. Then a plaid shirt, vest, and perhaps a pair of cargo shorts that are too big and finally some boots. This is all stuff you may be able to find at thrift stores or may just have lying around.


Elphaba

All you need to pull off everyones favorite gravity defying witch is a black cape, some sort of black dress or cloak, a witch’s hat, and green face makeup. All of this can be found at stores that sell Halloween supplies or you may already have.


Enjolras

I’ll be doing the movie version since the broadway version is more complicated. You’re going to need a red jacket preferably suit like and a white button down shirt. Now you need a black tie make sure to leave it loose, Enjolras is rebellious and refuses to wear it properly and black pants and black boots. Bonus points if you can find some red fabric to tie around your waist and use the remainder of that fabric to make a cockade.




Tony

Ok so a tan jacket, white button down shirt, a really skinny tie, and black pants. Congrats you’re now Tony. Now just walk around all night singing Maria and terrifying little kids and you got it. Don’t accidentally stab someone though. Oh hold on, is that spoilers? Is it spoilers if the shows over 50 years old? What if it’s source material is hundreds older than that. Well uh, sorry if I did.



Heather

Which one you ask? That’s up to you. The fun thing about the Heathers is nothing has to be an exact copy just kinda similar. Try to find a green, red, yellow, or blue (if you’re going for Veronica) jacket, It doesn't really matter what you wear under it but the costume looks best with something white and a necklace. Next a skirt, again not all that important as long as the color choice looks good with the jacket. You will also need tall socks preferably with a bit of green, yellow, blue, or red. Finally a pair of stylish shoes, and if you can manage to find one a Croquet mallet. If you’re going as Chandler though the red scrunchie is very important. However if you want to pull off our other lead JD, all black and a black overcoat is really all you need or if you do need a bit of color keep it dark. The edgier the better.



“Ghost Light”

Have to tie it all in somehow. All you need is a white sheet and to cut out three holes for the mouth and eyes. You now have the classic ghost costume but wear a headlamp or hold a flashlight under it and suddenly you’ve become a “ghost light”. Warning: joke may not be very effective around non theatre people/



Well, you have a costume, you know where to, I’d say you’re ready for Halloween. If you’re a kid go out and enjoy yourself, trick or treating is one of man’s greatest achievements after all and if you’re an adult take advantage of the November 1st markdowns. I hope you all learned something today and that sometimes a haunted theatre is just a series of coincidences or a disturbing past and sometimes it’s all completely real. Who knows maybe you’re theatre is haunted. Perhaps it’s the ghost of a harmless actress or maybe its a malignant old director who was murdered and is back for revenge and will bring your entire proscenium crashing down to the stage. Probably not though. Happy Halloween! See you next time.




Attend a Tale for Halloween

By Michael Kape (a/k/a Grumpy Olde Guy®)

It was a frigid February afternoon in New York City. My BFF was dragging me to a seedy cinema uptown to catch a British horror movie from 1936. If I remember correctly (and he can always correct me on here if I’m wrong), a friend of his had suggested seeing it.

In hindsight, it was a strange movie. Very 1930s British horror/melodrama. Greed was the motivation behind the monster doing all the killings. He’s caught in his murderous ways. A string of pearls and other valuable jewels stolen while men come in for a shave are recovered. All is right with the world once again. Or is it?

As we near the holiday of All Hallows Eve (a/k/a Hallowe’en), it’s time to drag out the scariest of scary stories, and certainly this movie—in its cheesy way and hammy performances—is a scary story. It’s based on an urban legend told often in penny dreadfuls, with British children in the 19th century warned if they didn’t behave, this villain was going to swoop down and eat them up—with eat being the operative word here, perhaps.

A successful barber with premises at 152 Fleet Street, this villain would seat his unsuspecting victims into his specially constructed barber's chair while lathering their faces. The trick chair would then flip around, throwing the victims through a trap door into the cellar below. If the fall didn’t kill them, the barber would polish them off with his razor. Then he robbed them and dragged their bodies to the basement of his mistress. In turn, she turned these victims into tasty meat pies, which she sold at her pie shop. The demons would relieve the victims of any valuables, including a string of pearls—which ultimately led to their undoing. A determined judge and a pair of lovers help bring the dastardly duo to justice, and they are put on trial at the Old Bailey.

Was this urban legend based a real person? Probably not (despite claims to the contrary). But it’s a great story. And perhaps indicative of the times; even Dickens refers to popping pussies into pies in Pickwick Papers and Martin Chuzzlewit.

The movie version starred a British actor named (seriously) Tod Slaughter in the lead role of the lustful, villainous, greedy, demon barber on Fleet Street who slit the throats of his customers. Indeed, Slaughter had changed his first name after playing this role on stage because he became so enamored of the character; once a serious British actor, Slaughter had taken a career turn into British horror. In this film, the murderous barber and his next-door neighbor steal valuables off the dead gentlemen (who never thereafter were heard from again?). The trick barber’s chair is essential to the story, of course.


Ted Slaughter as Sweeney Todd

Ted Slaughter as Sweeney Todd


I’m hoping some of this is beginning to sound familiar.

Having seen well over 1000 musicals over six decades (including the revised and bloody Carrie), I believe Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler (based on the play by Christopher Bond) is probably the scariest and bloodiest thing I’ve ever seen onstage (and I’ve seen plays with onstage simulated leg amputations—don’t ask). So, with Hallowe’en fast approaching, what better time is there to take a fresh look at slimy, vengeful Benjamin Barker, er, Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street.

In the 19th century penny dreadfuls and urban legends, Sweeney is just a greedy barber with an evil and equally greedy neighbor. The brilliance of the Christopher Bond play (well worth reading if you can track it down) is giving Sweeney a more human and humane motivation—revenge for the loss of his wife Lucy and daughter Joanna by the truly evil Judge Turpin and his beadle.

Still, as my mother asked when I first described this story to her, “That’s a musical?”

Yes, that’s a musical:

·         A musical featuring an evil dentist/barber (long before Little Shop of Horrors had its own singing and horrifying dentist)

·         A musical with a song of self-flagellation—the Judge’s “Joanna” (Mea Culpa), cut from the original Broadway production but subsequently restored in the opera house version)

·         A musical requiring a gallon or so of stage blood spurting out of a specially-rigged prop razor

·         A musical ending Act I with “A Little Priest” and starting Act II with “God That’s Good” (what, you never made that connection before? It was intentional)

·         A musical ready to rhyme butler (subtler), potter (hotter), but not locksmith; with a “shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top”

·         A musical with more onstage deaths than Hamlet

Well, it’s not Rodgers and Hammerstein (thank goodness).

At heart, it’s kind of a twisted love story. Nellie loves Sweeney, who loves his lost Lucy, while Joanna and Anthony love each other, while the Judge lusts after Joanna, and poor Tobias loves Nellie (until she tries to kill him, that is). And does anyone know whatever happened to Mr. Lovett? Just curious.

I first saw Sweeney Todd in the cavernous Uris (now Gershwin) Theatre two weeks after it opened with Len Cariou as Sweeney and Angela Lansbury as Nellie Lovett. Hal Prince decided it was a story about the grinding down of the working class in Industrial Age London (though there is only one oblique single reference to this in the script: “How gratifying for once to know that those above will serve those down below”), perhaps with the Dickens allusions in mind. Designer Eugene Lee moved a Rhode Island factory to the stage, and every set piece had originated in that factory. It was friggin’ huge.

I returned to the Uris three more times: once with my mother; once to see the last performance with Carious and Lansbury (poor Len had completely lost his singing voice by then, and he had to croak his way through “Epiphany” that night); and once to see George Hearn and Dorothy Loudon as the leads. My BFF and I subsequently traveled to Philadelphia to take in the national tour and to NYC Opera to see the opera house version staged by Prince. Since then, I’ve seen big productions and teeny productions—and they all work no matter what. Sweeney Todd is indestructible.

It is a Grand Guignol-like masterpiece by virtuoso composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. In subsequent productions of Sweeney Todd, Prince’s original indictment of the British class system (and decidedly Dickensian turn) has been swept aside—for the most part—with greater emphasis placed on the twisted humanity of the characters. And I could easily argue it is one of the greatest musicals (not operas, to be sure) ever written, as revolutionary in its own way as Show Boat and Oklahoma (both written by Sondheim’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II).

Which brings us back (don’t ask how) to Hallowe’en. There are plenty of Sweeney Todd and Nellie Lovett costumes available online. Sweeney Todd themed parties are a favorite on Pinterest. Haunted houses decorated like a tonsorial establishment in 19th century London are easy to create (with a little imagination and a trick barber’s chair to lure unsuspecting trick-or-treaters to their “doom”—or maybe worse if those damn whippersnappers don’t stay off my lawn). Even cosplay events for Sweeney Todd readings have been staged by regional theatre companies (okay, I suspect they’re just using their costumes from their annual Christmas Carol productions—but these are a lot more fun).

Your good friend Sweeney is waiting for you this Hallowe’en. Are you ready to take up his challenge, bleeders? His chair awaits.

 

Michael Kape is a Grumpy Old Guy® and definitely a cynic, but he does so love a great musical. He also assiduously avoids horror movies though he’s been called a monster by those damn young whippersnappers when he tells them to get off his lawn.

Acknowledging the Past While Looking to the Future

Darren Wildeman
Carousel
, Flower Drum Song, My Fair Lady, Miss Saigon, South Pacific, etc. The list goes on. Many of these shows are beloved classics by many, yet many other people take issue with these shows. From white washing, to blatant portrayal of domestic abuse, to outright sexism and antiquated themes. We’re living in 2018. We’re living in a time when founding fathers, their spouses, and cohorts are being played by people of colour. We’re living in a time when a Disney princess doesn’t have to find her happily ever after in a prince. We’re living in a time when while theatre still has a long way to go, there are still more roles now for minorities now than there has been, we’re living in a time of #MeToo and when women can share their stories of assault, abuse, and harassment. This begs the question; how can we recognize and enjoy pieces of theatre as being transformative to the art and as an objectively well written piece when it has so many problems? Or can we?

The first aspect of this question becomes what are the big issues of the show? Is it something that’s written into the script? Or is it more of a perception on how a character is presented? The answer to this question goes a long way in how you perceive or take on a piece of musical theatre. To some extent you can do the same thing for both, but there are other answers that go in wildly different directions.

In both instances, whether the offending content is written right into the script or if it’s a perception thing. Directing, lighting, and staging can go a long way. For example, if the issue of the show is domestic assault (i.e. Carousel) where it is obviously right in the script that Billy is abusive a director can put everything around the show in a darker, more reserved context that is more appropriate for domestic abuse today. Kristina Dorsey of theday.com writes about such a production where some modifications have been made. You can read that article here https://www.theday.com/article/20160228/ENT10/160229294. This musical is presented in a light that is more appropriate, and this can be done with more musicals. Direction can go a long way. Another thing you will notice is a script change.

If the issue with the show is written in a script sometimes the rights holders will allow for special changes to be made in a production. In fact, the recent production of Carousel did have one of the songs removed. Whether it’s an offending slur or a song with just a putrid message that is unacceptable by today’s standards sometimes script changes can be made to bring a production up to date. However, this begs the question. What if there’s too much to change in the script or a script change will screw up the story too much? Or what if a simple change isn’t enough and it’s still too problematic?

In this case you need to ask a really important question. Is this piece important enough to musical theatre and its history that it is still worth being watched or even performed today?

Keep in mind that even in these instances the direction of a show can go a long way. However, on the flip side in some circumstances direction can only go so far. There are shows where problematic messages are just woven in. What should be done in this case? Should that piece of theatre just be buried to never see the light of day again?

While some might say yes, I think this view is also problematic. Can we just ignore a piece of theatre history? Some pieces that are now considered problematic are huge pieces of theatre that did wonders for advancing the art. From a historical stand point I’m not sure if we can just ignore something that means a lot to history. Not only this; but ignoring these shows is also ignoring prejudices that used to run rampant and to some degree still exist today.

Is Billy Bigelow being abusive uncomfortable? Good. Is seeing yellowface or blackface done in old shows cringey to see and something you never want to see done ever again? Good. Is the stereotypical portrayal of Asians in Flower Drum Song make you mad? Good. You see to some degree seeing these things done in old shows also serves as a reminder of things that used to exist. A reminder of what we shouldn’t and cannot be, a reminder of a route that we should never travel down with modern theatre.

It’s also worth noting that watching something does not equal supporting it. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing if a person likes an old show and appreciates the music, how it’s done, and depending on the show- even the story in some cases. I don’t think it’s wrong to appreciate what a show is and does as long as you also realize and understand the problems the show has and why certain messages are hurtful to some people or why some people can’t or won’t watch the show. For example if someone who has been in an abusive relationship- or for another reason the subject hits close to home- can’t stomach watching Carousel, or if someone with close ties to Vietnam finds Miss Saigon to be offensive or too much; rather than calling the “Snowflake” or some other nasty modern day name we need the be respectful and understanding that not everyone can stomach watching or having an objective view of certain shows. On the flip side I don’t think it’s fair to immediately condemn someone if they enjoy an old show that has some problems. As long as they understand the issues and don’t turn a blind eye to things like abuse, racism and sexism.

Overall these shows can be appreciated as classic pieces. They did some things really well that helped shape musical theatre as we know it. I don’t think that can be ignored. However, if other people struggle with them or for one reason or another can’t stomach them or just find them too problematic to study too much in full that is understandable as well. We need to have a healthy respect for the past, while moving forward and adapting for the future.

Photo by benjaminec/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by benjaminec/iStock / Getty Images

Old Musicals You Don't Know but Probably Should

Michael Kape aka Grumpy Olde Guy
“Burns Mantle Yearbooks”. When I was a mere lad trying to steep myself in as much theatre as I could possibly find, I devoured each and every “Burns Mantle Yearbook” in my school library. Every Broadway opening—and closing. Ten edited scripts from the best plays and musicals of the year. The gossip. The dirt. The dish. Who made money? What ran the longest?

Sorry, we had no Internet back then. No looking up shows on Wikipedia. We just had to learn what had happened before we were born (and contrary to popular belief, I was NOT in Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot; I was doing East Lynne in Burlington, Vermont).

I bristle when I see lists (as appeared here a few weeks ago) of “Best Musicals,” and none came from before 1970. Yikes-and-a-half! I swear some people think there was no musical theatre before the first musical they ever saw. Bulletin: musical theatre as we know it has been around since The Black Crook in 1863. Gilbert and Sullivan. The operetta era. The Princess musicals. The Golden Age of Musicals.

So, with little regard for the eras from which they came but in alphabetical order, I’ve compiled my own list of 40 Best Musicals before Hair (1968—Broadway), which helped change everything. If you don’t know these musicals, maybe it’s time you discovered them. And remember, the internet is our friend. So is Burns Mantle.

·         A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: In many ways, this is a smart-ass college boy senior thesis—write a new musical based on the low Roman comedies of Plautus with a highly-sophisticated score. But Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart—both masters of comic writing individually—crafted a truly hilarious book. And Stephen Sondheim’s score is witty, melodic, intricate, and downright funny on its own. The overture alone is one of the best ever written. Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight. (An obscure but interesting side note about Forum. It was the first successful modern musical comedy done with a single set. Nothing moved in on wagons or flew in from the flies. Just a single set.) And whatever you do, don’t assume you know the show just based on the horrific and decidedly unfunny movie version.

·         Annie Get Your Gun: Fresh off the success of Oklahoma (more about that later) Rodgers and Hammerstein became producers. The story goes Dorothy and Herb Fields brought their fictionalized story of Annie Oakley—to star Ethel Merman in the title role—to the pair to turn into a musical (Mike Todd had turned them down). R&H had already picked out their next writing project (which became Carousel), so they set out to find someone to write the score. Initially, it was going to be Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. But Kern was hospitalized and died before they could get started. So, R&H tried to persuade one guy who had never written a book musical before (though he’d written plenty of revues, e.g., As Thousands Cheer with Moss Hart) to write the score. He wrote three audition songs: “Doin’ What Comes Naturally”, “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun”, and a little ditty to be sung in one during a massive set change—"There’s No Business Like Show Business”. The result was a major triumph for Irving Berlin and marked an entirely new direction in his writing. And the show itself became one of the classics of musical theatre. Yeah, some of it is cringe-worthy today (I’m an Indian Too), but it is still a masterpiece.

·         Anything Goes: This was another piece originally intended to star Ethel Merman, with a score by Cole Porter and a book by P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton. The basic bones of the story were there—a musical set on an ocean liner—but it was centered around a shipwreck. But a real shipwreck had occurred a few weeks before the show opened (or so legend has it) and it was decided to scrap that story. The original book writers were unavailable, so director Howard Lindsay recruited Russel Crouse to help him rewrite the libretto, thus beginning one of the more successful writing teams in Broadway history. (They would go on to write the long-running Life With Father and the book to The Sound of Music.) No matter. The real story here is a triumphant score by Porter, with plenty of show-stopping gems.

·         Babes in Toyland: Composer Victor Herbert was fresh off a rousing success—a musical version of The Wizard of Oz, featuring a book by L. Frank Baum. Herbert, one of the brightest lights of the operetta era, cast his sights on writing another musical for children, this time incorporating characters from Mother Goose into a story of kidnapping, greed, and ultimate redemption in Toyland. (Do NOT compare this with the horrible Walt Disney movie of the same name with drastically altered Herbert songs and a ridiculous plot. Even Walt ending up hating it.) It has a beautiful score, with the song Toyland being one of the most moving and melodic pieces Herbert ever wrote.

·         Boys From Syracuse: Take William Shakespeare’s first known play, The Comedy of Errors. Throw into the mix the most successful songwriting duo of the 1930s, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Add in wildly funny librettist/director George Abbott. Get George Balanchine to choreograph. The result is Boys From Syracuse, which was actually written, in part, for Hart’s brother Teddy. Classic songs from this uproarious musical comedy include “This Can’t Be Love”, “Sing for Your Supper”, and “Falling in Love With Love”. The show itself, like its source, is just fun, silly, and altogether a great musical comedy.

·         Brigadoon: Lerner and Loewe wrote some classic shows (Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady, Camelot), but to me, this is their best work. The luscious score by Fritz Loewe can leave you gasping for breath at times (“Come to Me”, “Bend to Me”—a/k/a “Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera—oops, did I say that?). The final line (“You must really love her, laddie”) leaves me in tears. A Scottish village magically appears only once every 100 years. Yup, I can thoroughly believe this premise when it’s surrounded by that score.

·         Bye, Bye Birdie: This little-known and rarely-performed piece (okay, being facetious—it’s done in high schools, colleges, and summer camps all the time) was revolutionary in its time. Based loosely on the drafting of Elvis Presley into the Army, it was the first Broadway show to include rock music within its score by Lee Adams (lyrics) and Charles Strauss (music). However, the story really centers around musical producer Albert and long-suffering girlfriend Rosie, his racist mother Mae, and yes, the McAfee family. Do not judge the original, groundbreaking show by the rather awful, truncated, refocused movie. Michael Stewart wrote a rocking book and Gower Champion crafted it into a Tony-winning musical.

·         Cabaret: Kander and Ebb. Joe Masteroff (who we sadly lost over the weekend). Nazis. Nightclubs. A ghostly Emcee. A huge success in its original Broadway run, it’s gone on to be an even bigger one in its many revivals. If you’ve only seen the movie, you owe it to yourself to see the stage version. Really.

·         Candide: Okay, this was a flop when it was first produced, but oh, that score, that overture. It took a reimagining of Candide by Hal Prince to bring this show the honor it deserves. Yes, it’s moved into the opera realm, but at heart, it’s still musical comedy based on the classic novel by Voltaire. Perhaps Lillian Hellman was not the ideal person to write the book (think Edward Albee writing Breakfast at Tiffany’s), but Leonard Bernstein’s score is a masterpiece. If you’ve never seen it, there’s a great video available online.

·         Carousel: Richard Rodgers said the best thing he ever wrote with Oscar Hammerstein II was Carousel. A lot of us agree with his assessment. Yes, it has book problems when seen through a contemporary prism (it does, after all, hinge on spousal abuse). It also has a glorious score. Unfortunately (in my opinion), it also set the template for every subsequent R&H musical. They were never really as original and daring again (though Allegro does come close for being different).

·         Damn Yankees: Coming off the success of The Pajama Game, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (score), along with George Abbott and original novel (The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant) author Douglass Wallop (book), put together the quintessential Golden Age musical. Although original producer Hal Prince says he prefers Pajama Game, Damn Yankees is the more moving, heartfelt piece. It’s love, redemption, temptation, and the devil—with some baseball thrown into the mix. And yet there’s great sorrow attached to this piece. Jerry Ross died a few months after it opened, and Richard Adler could never duplicate the team’s success on his own. The movie version is actually slightly better, with Tab Hunter making a better Joe Hardy than Stephen Douglas.

·         Fiddler on the Roof: Come on, do I really need to tell you why this is a masterpiece?

·         Finian’s Rainbow: I confess, I love this show (so much so I invested in the Broadway revival). In its time, the show tackled an array of thorny issues (e.g., racism) in a light-hearted but meaningful way. Yip Harburg (lyrics) and Burton Lane (music) crafted a beautiful and eclectic score. When the strains of “Look to the Rainbow” are played, I start crying and don’t stop until the last notes of the finale. Whatever you do, don’t judge it by the mangled movie version directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

·         Fiorello: Some things I just don’t understand, especially how this brilliant show could be so forgotten today. It won Tonys. It grabbed the Pulitzer Prize. The score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick is one of their best. I know people don’t remember NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia any more (and this show is a highly-fictionalized version of his life). Still, this amazing musical stands on its own. If you’ve never discovered Fiorello, it’s not too late. Interesting side note. This was another situation where the writing team for the score was auditioned (audaciously I believe) before landing the assignment. Bock and Harnick were given the assignment to write two songs over a weekend. They came up with a couple of classics: Politics and Poker as well as Little Tin Box. ‘Nuff said.

·         Funny Girl: To be painfully honest, this highly fictional version of the life and career of Fanny Brice had major problems—like the book by Isobel Lennart is not very good or particularly truthful (omitting her first marriage and her son from the story). But then there’s the score by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill (I mean, for goodness sake, “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, “I’m the Greatest Star”, “The Music That Makes Me Dance”, and that little ditty, “People”). And that Styne overture—one of his best. The movie is better, but I wish it had not jettisoned so much of the original score.

·         Gypsy: It had Merman. It had Jule Styne’s music. It had Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics. It had Arthur Laurents’ book (arguably the best book of a musical ever written). It had that amazing overture (arguably the best overture ever written). Seriously, if you don’t know Gypsy, can you really call yourself a fan of musical theatre?

·         Hello, Dolly: Yes, yes, yes, we should all know this hugely successful show for any number of reasons. So, instead, I going to ask you to consider some back story. Start in 1835, with the one-act farce by John Oxenford, A Day Well Spent made its debut. Fresh off his Pulitzer win for The Skin of Our Teeth, Thornton Wilder adapts the original farce into The Merchant of Yonkers. It is not a success, but he adapts it again into The Matchmaker, enlarging the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi. Enter producer David Merrick (a/k/a The Abominable Showman), determined—at all costs—to make this story (then called Dolly, a Damned Exasperating Woman) into a successful musical. Michael Stewart is recruited to write the book (after his success with Bye, Bye Birdie) and Jerry Herman the score (after his modest success with Milk and Honey). Hal Prince, Joe Layton, and Jerome Robbins all turn down the directing gig, which eventually is accepted by Gower Champion. Ethel Merman and Mary Martin both turn down the lead (though both would eventually play it) before Carol Channing makes it her signature role. It opens out of town (Detroit and Washington, DC)—and flops with audiences. Merrick flies in every show doctor he knows. New material is added (and songs jettisoned). Bob Merrill is paid a lot of cash (but not credited) to rewrite Elegance and some of Dancing. New opening numbers are tested and rejected until I Put My Hand in There prevails (but is ultimately cut from the awful movie version). But the Abominable Showman finally got his way and Hello, Dolly became a smash hit, a blockbuster, and a well-loved classic.

·         HMS Pinafore: It’s difficult to pin down a favorite comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, but Pinafore was the most often produced (and loved) and successful among their early works. It’s utter nonsense, but it’s delightful utter nonsense. It set the pattern for all their subsequent works. Is it their best? To some people, yes. To me, the honor goes to The Mikado (despite the inherent and unintended racism of the piece since Gilbert really knew next to nothing about Japan). American audiences took The Pirate of Penzance to heart because its world premiere was in New York City. And then there’s always Patience. Oh, hell, just learn your Gilbert and Sullivan already.

·         How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying: In its time, this show was hilarious, irreverent, and inventive. It won a Pulitzer. Today, it’s cringe-worthy, sexist, and horrifying in light of the #MeToo movement.

·         Kiss Me, Kate: Cole Porter tackles William Shakespeare and wrestles him to the ground. Though ostensibly a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, it’s really the ultimate backstage musical, with two major storylines overlaid on the Shrew story. Why? Because ultimately the Shrew story defied being turned into a musical. Its two leading characters are quite unlikable.

·         Lady in the Dark: Until this 1941 show by Kurt Weill (music), Ira Gershwin (lyrics) and Moss Hart (book, based on his own experience), psychoanalysis had never been the fodder for a musical. This brittle, brilliant piece breaks convention everywhere it can (it’s been called a straight play with three musical dream sequences). Alas, the movie version doesn’t do it justice, and the performance rights have been highly restricted, so it isn’t done often.

·         Mame: If you don’t know this show, I can’t help you. But whatever you do, don’t look at the movie version starring the totally miscast Lucille Ball (she bought the film rights). But take heart. Somewhere someone is coming down those stairs, with trumpet in hand, singing It’s Today.

·         Man of La Mancha: Again, if you don’t know this show by now, I’m taking away your Musical Fan Club card. That’s right. Hand it over. Even as you read this, some lousy lounge act singer is crooning “The Impossible Dream” (in any of dozens of languages), even though no one can sing it as Richard Kiley did originally (I speak from experience here; you’d never know it was the same song). Whatever you do, do not view the movie version with Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren—both of whom had to be dubbed. (There are some rumors as to whether Mitch Leigh really wrote the music. It’s thought it might have instead been composed by a few music students, with Leigh taking credit and buying them off. This has not been confirmed, but I should note he never had another successful Broadway musical though he sure tried. His last effort, Home Sweet Homer, opened and closed the same night.)

·         Most Happy Fella: This is a show you should know but many of you likely do not know. I think that’s a crying shame, because this is truly Frank Loesser’s (book, music, lyrics) masterpiece above all others. Based loosely on Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted, it tells a story of an old man in love with a young woman (who loves a young man—who gets her pregnant). One of those rare three-act musicals. The story is simple yet infinitely moving. The show has moved into the opera realm, though it’s really still a brilliant musical drama. It’s actor-proof (trust me on this) and even orchestra-proof—it’s been done successfully with just two pianos. (Whatever you do, don’t judge it by that I Love Lucy episode, which is hardly indicative of the show itself. Remember, three acts, not two, which the Lucy episode alludes to as its plot device.)

·         Oklahoma: I wrote my senior thesis in college on Oklahoma—not about the show itself (more about that shortly)—but rather about what it did. First, it brought Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein together again (they had written one song together when Rodgers was still at Columbia). It created the model for the integrated musical—in this case I refer to the integration of music, book, lyrics, and choreography. Most important, it saved the Theatre Guild from extinction. The Theatre Guild was the most daring and inventive producing organization of the 1930s, but it had fallen on hard times until it produced Oklahoma. (The Guild finally did go bust many years later.) So far as the piece itself, it’s way too long (clocking in at nearly three hours), it completely sanitizes the source material, the latently homoerotic Green Grow the Lilacs. It adds a level of unneeded racism (the Persian peddler). And the leading man literally gets away with murder. Really? The show itself did a lot of good, but I personally can’t watch it.

·         On the Town: Once upon a time, choreographer Jerome Robbins created a ballet with music by fledgling composer Leonard Bernstein called Fancy Free. It was about three sailors on a one-day leave in New York City. Everyone loved it and said it should be a Broadway musical. Bernstein called in his pals Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Thus, a classic musical came into being. Even now, decades after its 1940s debut, it’s an amazing piece. Whatever you do, DON’T even think about looking at the Hollywood version, which jettisoned most of the score and starred a woefully miscast Frank Sinatra.

·         On Your Toes: One of my two favorite shows by Rodgers and Hart, this musical about jazz dancers mixing it up with a Russian ballet company has a particular relevance today. It’s détente played out in the title song. It’s some of the best music Richard Rodgers ever wrote (Slaughter on Tenth Avenue). It’s a string of classics in the Great American Songbook (There’s a Small Hotel). You really need to know (and love) this show.

·         Pal Joey: My other favorite Rodgers and Hart show. It’s decidedly different from all their other works, and it was a major departure from typical Broadway shows at the time. The leading character is the ultimate anti-hero. He’s mean, sexist, and thoroughly unlikable—and really is not redeemed at the end. (It still made a star out of Gene Kelly.) But with a score including such standards as Zip as well as Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered (if you really listen closely to the lyrics, it’s really a racy song), how can you go wrong?

·         Porgy and Bess: It’s George Gershwin’s greatest Broadway show. It’s Ira Gershwin’s crowning achievement. Even the 1957 movie isn’t bad. If you don’t know Porgy and Bess, once again, I’m taking away your card.

·         Promises, Promises: Why did I include this show from 1968? It’s a likable enough musical, but it subversively broke new ground in its own way. It was the first musical (and only Broadway outing) written by Burt Bacharach (music) and Hal David (lyrics). The producers took a chance on an up-and-coming choreography named Michael Bennett. The orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick included voice parts in the orchestra (something he’d go on to do again with Company). And it’s the best musical book Neil Simon ever wrote. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend time in the theatre.

·         She Loves Me: In the pantheon of perfect musicals (there are a few), She Loves Me is the best. It features the best score ever written by Bock and Harnick, and an extraordinary book by Joe Masteroff. So why wasn’t it a success in its original production? I think part of the problem was director Hal Prince, who at the time lacked the deft hand needed to stage such a light confection of a musical. It’s been revived successfully—without any need to change the score or book. It’s perfect as written. If you’re not crying at the end, you have no heart. Period. Not going to discuss it.

·         Showboat: This landmark musical was the epitome of the operetta era (both Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern came right out of the genre), yet it broke entirely new ground with its integrated storyline of racial prejudice, vaudeville, and a traditional love story in a magnificent score. Integrated might be the operative word here. Until Showboat, racially mixed casts were basically not common on Broadway (there were musicals with strictly African American casts—a practice continuing until the late 1930s). Showboat is significant for another first: it was the first musical cast album ever recorded. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the original Ziegfeld production (ah, to have heard Helen Morgan) but the original London production (so we do get Paul Robeson on record singing Ol’ Man River).

·         Street Scene: Okay, this is strictly in the opera realm now, but its origins are strictly Broadway musical, with music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Langston Hughes, and a book by Elmer Rice, based on his play. My professor in college referred to this as a “slice of life” drama. People come. People go. They love. They laugh. Life goes on. And that’s pretty much the plot. Still, it’s an extraordinary piece.

·         The Boyfriend: It’s fluff. But it’s really good fluff. Another one of those rare three-act musicals. Sandy Wilson took London and then New York by storm with this light-hearted send-up of 1920s musicals. And the original production gave us one special gift: Julie Andrews in her first starring role.

·         The Fantasticks: It’s still the longest-running musical ever (is ALW keeping POTO open just to beat this record?). Based loosely on Rostand’s The Romancers and written in a blindingly fast (by today’s standards) six weeks, it is the epitome of charm.

·         The Merry Widow: Alas, this is another great show, right out of the operetta era, decidedly gone from the Broadway musical scene (actually, the Lehar piece came from Germany) and sent packing to the opera world. But it’s not an opera. It’s light and merry, totally ridiculous, and full of plot twists and comic intrigue. But when the NY Metropolitan Opera has shanghaied a piece, you can bet we’ll never see it on Broadway again. Too bad.

·         The Music Man: Come on, is there a high school, college, or summer musical camp without a production of the Music Man in its past? From its opening rap number (what, you thought rap was relatively recent?), to the final strains (and I do mean painful strains) of Minuet in G (“Think men, think”), it’s a joyous throwback to earlier times in a fictional Iowa town, bamboozled by the ultimate con man.

·         The Pajama Game: The first musical outing of Adler and Ross (see Damn Yankees above), it’s just a fun show with a great score (who wrote the music and who wrote the lyrics is a mystery we’ll never solve).

·         Threepenny Opera: Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill adapted an old English piece, The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay, into a socialist tract on oppression—albeit with a jazz score (and a few songs lifted from a French author). Notably in the original production was Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya playing Jenny. She would go on to play the role again years later in the Off-Broadway production (as well as appearing in the original cast of Cabaret). Threepenny Opera is definitely a subversive piece—even by today’s standards (Beggar’s Opera is pretty benign by comparison).

·         West Side Story: Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Jerome Robbins wanted to adapt Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into a musical called East Side Story (really). They fussed with it but dropped the project until Robbins suggested moving it across town and changing the warring factions into rival street gangs. And so, they began, with Laurents adapting Romeo and Bernstein writing the score (music AND lyrics—a few of which survived in the final version; remember, Bernstein wrote the lyrics to “I Can Cook Too” from On the Town as well as both music and lyrics to his version of Peter Pan). Then Laurents ran into a young composer/lyricist named Stephen Sondheim, who’d recently completed his first musical, Saturday Night. Laurents had attended a reading of the show. So, when Sondheim inquired as to who was doing the lyrics, Laurents smote his head. He hadn’t liked the music much, but he admired the lyrics to Saturday Night. “You are,” replied Laurents. The result, of course, was West Side Story. Bernstein graciously removed his name as co-lyricist, giving Sondheim sole credit. Currently, West Side Story is being given an entirely new and reimagined production soon to open in London, as well as a new movie version being directed by Steven Spielberg. Is it a great, landmark musical? Of course it is (though Sondheim would like to ignore some of his lyrics, especially the ones in “I Feel Pretty”).


Original Cast of West Side Story singing “I Feel Pretty”

Original Cast of West Side Story singing “I Feel Pretty”

·         Wonderful Town: “Why, oh why, Ohio. Why did we ever leave Ohio?” So sing sisters Ruth and Eileen. Good thing for us they did. Once again, Bernstein teamed up with pals Comden and Green to adapt the play My Sister Eileen into a great musical. It’s worth going out of your way to know this score. Yeah, it’s that good (though somewhat forgotten these days).

 

Are there others? Of course. I deleted more than 20 from this list even before I got started. I omitted The Black Crook—even though it started everything—because we have only some of it extant today. Still, these are the shows people should know if they want to steep themselves in musical theatre.

 

Michael Kape is a Grumpy Old Guy® and definitely a cynic, but he does so love a good musical. He’s also the administrator for Broadway Remembers, a Facebook group dedicated to theatre old and new—when he’s not telling young whippersnappers to get off his lawn.

Write Your Very Own R&H Musical

Steven Sauke
Several years ago, I watched a monologue by Anna Russell giving detailed instructions on writing your very own Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. She had much of the plot worked out for hers, detailing the exploits of the lovely maid Pneumonia. There was a patter song and a contralto involved. She observed that most of Gilbert & Sullivan’s operettas were basically the same, with all the same elements.

You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYCXO_FZj5k

It got me thinking… Rodgers & Hammerstein were another classic pair of composers. They also had similarities in style and story elements in all or most of their musicals. A few years ago (more recently than when I watched Anna Russell), I wrote some tips on writing your own Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. Unfortunately, I don’t know where I put it, but I remember enough that I think I can recreate it from memory (all alone in the moonlight… oh wait, wrong composer).
 

First of all, the music. Your Rodgers & Hammerstein musical must have the same style as every other Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. It can have varieties in instruments (for example, The King & I uses a Thai-sounding style, and The Sound of Music involves yodeling), but the songs from one musical to another must sound like they could easily be from the same musical.

The plot. Your Rodgers & Hammerstein musical must involve a somewhat controversial plot. South Pacific addresses interracial relationships (more controversial at the time than it is now), racism and a “good” character who had to flee for his life because he killed a man. Flower Drum Song involves a mail-order bride. Oklahoma! sees a main character taking a hallucinogen, and also involves abuse and a fight to the death. Carousel also addresses abuse, adding murder and stealing to the mix. The King & I involves slavery, a harem, and violent punishment (although Tuptim being whipped was less violent than the real story, in which she fled the palace, posed as a monk, and was subsequently beheaded). The Sound of Music involves Nazis.

The vocabulary. There are certain words that must be used in your Rodgers & Hammerstein musical:

Cockeyed. This can mean crooked, askew or absurd.
Examples:
“They call me a cockeyed optimist.” (South Pacific)
“While somersaulting at a cockeyed angle, we make a cockeyed circle round the sun.” (The Sound of Music)

Dope. This is the older definition of the word, as in a silly or stupid person.
Examples:
“I’m stuck like a dope with a thing called hope.” (South Pacific)
“I sit around and mope, pretending I am wonderful and knowing I’m a dope.” (State Fair)
“The gentleman is a dope!” (Allegro)
“The world is full of zanies and fools who don't believe in sensible rules, who don't believe what sensible people say, and because those daft and dewy-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes, impossible things are happening every day!” (Cinderella)

Gay. Again, this is an older definition of the word, as in happy or fun.
Examples:
“I feel so gay in a melancholy way that it might as well be spring.” (State Fair)
“Younger than springtime am I. Gayer than laughter am I.” (South Pacific)
“The games they played were bright and gay and loud! They used to shout, ‘Red Rover! Red Rover, please come over!’” (Flower Drum Song)

Louise. It is important for a character to be named Louise or a variant on that. Julie Bigelow names their daughter Louise in Carousel. Anna’s son in The King & I was Louis. When writing The Sound of Music, none of the children’s names were anywhere similar. We can’t have that! The solution was to change the names of all seven children so that one of them could be named Luisa. (I’m more inclined to believe that their names were changed because the real “Luisa” was named Maria, and that could lead to confusion in the storytelling. It caused enough confusion when she died a couple years ago, and a lot of people thought it was a different Maria von Trapp who died. I’m not sure why they changed the names, but that’s my theory.)

The haunting plea. In South Pacific, Bloody Mary decides that Lt. Joe Cable would make a great husband for her daughter Liat, and thus expounds on the virtues of her island “Bali Ha’i” to him. The tune is slow and haunting. In The King & I, Lady Thiang realizes that Anna is the only person who can help the King in his current predicament, but as Anna is currently angry with the King, Lady Thiang sings a haunting ballad about how the King can be infuriating at times, but sometimes he can do “Something Wonderful.”

The advice. In The King & I, Anna advises Louis to “Whistle a Happy Tune” when he is afraid. In The Sound of Music, Maria reveals her strategy in a similar situation is to think about “My Favorite Things.”

The lovers. Their song(s) must start with one lover singing a verse. Then the other lover must repeat back almost verbatim what the first lover sang. Certain adjustments are all right. For example, “You are sixteen going on seventeen” in the first verse becomes “I am sixteen going on seventeen” for the second verse. Sometimes the verses are almost completely identical. For example, “I Have Dreamed” and “We Kiss in a Shadow” from The King & I, “Do I Love You Because You’re Wonderful?” and “Ten Minutes Ago” from Cinderella. The Sound of Music mixes this one up a bit with the song “How Can Love Survive,” as the duet is about the lovers, but only one of the lovers in question is actually singing. Interestingly, that love does not survive, as the Captain later realizes that the Baroness is far too willing to compromise on important matters. Flower Drum Song flips the formula, in which two characters try to convince the other: “Don’t Marry Me!”

Denial. In Oklahoma!, Curly and Laurey give each other advice on how to behave, as they aren’t willing to admit publicly that they’re dating. They worry that “People Will Say We’re in Love,” so they decide to pretend they are not. In Carousel, Billy and Julie (played by the same actors as the previous couple in the classic movies) aren’t willing to admit to each other, let alone publicly, that they’re in love, so they tell each other what they would do “If I Loved You.” It just so happens that what they sing about doing is exactly what they are doing. They end up not verbalizing their love for each other until it’s too late. (“Make Believe” from Show Boat also fits in this category, and that musical was by Oscar Hammerstein, though he composed it with Jerome Kern rather than Richard Rodgers.)

The breakup. At least one of the lovers decides they can’t go forward in this relationship. After learning of his children by a Polynesian woman in South Pacific, Nellie decides she cannot get past that and resolves to “Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair.” Emile quickly manages to help her get over her racist attitude, and that resolution falls flat. In The Sound of Music, Maria counsels Liesl what to do when she realizes that Rolf doesn’t love her as much as she thought, in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen (Reprise).” (Again, Show Boat fits into this category, as Gaylord Ravenal leaves and Magnolia must raise their daughter on her own. He eventually returns, but their daughter has grown up by then.)

The breakup sometimes leads to the women singing about their frustrations with men and marriage. “Give It to ’Em Good, Carrie!”, “Stonecutters Cut It on Stone”, “Many a New Day”. These songs often don’t work to convince her to foreswear her love. Either the lovers get back together, or they never stopped loving each other in the first place and were just in denial or pretending.

The soliloquy. A character should ponder their options, as they have a difficult choice ahead of them. In his “Lonely Room” in Oklahoma!, Jud Fry considers how to proceed in his relationship with Laurey and resulting rivalry with Curly, having just been taunted and threatened by Curly. Jud’s decision ultimately leads to his death. In Carousel, Billy Bigelow walks along the beach singing his “Soliloquy” dreaming about his child and pondering how he is going to provide for him or her. Again, his decision ends up resulting in his death. On the other hand, the “Twin Soliloquys” in South Pacific combine the love song and soliloquy. Nellie and Emile are pondering their options related to their budding romance. They sing nearly verbatim what the other person sings, but they are pondering these things to themselves rather than singing to each other. Unlike the lone soliloquys mentioned above, their decisions do not end up in their deaths. Another variation is near the beginning of the musical, as the character sings a soliloquy about their current situation, such as “In My Own Little Corner” from Cinderella and “It Might as Well Be Spring” from State Fair.

The ballet. Carousel, Oklahoma! and Flower Drum Song have dreamy ballets. The one in Oklahoma! is particularly important to the plot, as it helps Laurey realize the extent of the danger she is in from Jud’s abuse.

Careful, awkward wording. A character is put in an awkward situation where they must word their requests very carefully. In South Pacific, Nellie is set the task of asking Emile why he killed a man. This is a red flag in the mission the US army has in mind for him, and they need to be sure he is trustworthy. But for Nellie, who has feelings for Emile, she doesn’t want to damage their relationship, and she can’t reveal why she is asking. In The King & I, Anna must give the King advice without seeming to. She resorts to “guessing” what the King is going to do, thus preventing an international incident. In Cinderella, the title character tells her stepfamily about the “Lovely Night” she just had at the ball, but can’t reveal that she was actually there. So she acts like she’s dreaming about how it would have been had she gone.

Singing about the location of the musical. Oklahoma! has an enthusiastic song about the virtues of their territory that will soon be “a brand new state!” State Fair has a similarly enthusiastic song about “All I Owe Ioway.” In both of these examples, they spell out the name of their state/territory in the song. When State Fair was revamped and reset in Texas, “All I Owe Ioway” was replaced with “The Little Things in Texas.” The similar tribute in The Sound of Music doesn’t mention Austria by name, but “Edelweiss” does ask to “bless my homeland forever.” Flower Drum Song gets very specific with its song about “Grant Avenue, San Francisco, California, USA!”

The smaller story within the story. Characters tell a story. Sometimes they reenact it. Tuptim composes a play called Small House of Uncle Thomas, based on the classic novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in The King & I. Maria and the children sing the story of “The Lonely Goatherd” (using marionettes in the movie, but not in the stage version) in The Sound of Music. We learn (very briefly) about “Fan Tan Fanny” in Flower Drum Song.

The big dance. This is different from the ballet. It is much more enthusiastic, and is accompanied by a song sung partially or entirely by the full company. I’m talking “The Farmer and the Cowman” (Oklahoma!) “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” (State Fair), and others

The finale. No matter the subject matter, the title of the song must be “Finale Ultimo.” While not necessary, it is a good idea to have the audience incredibly moved at this point. They could be grieving a lost main character. Maybe the wedding was just that powerful. It could be any variety of reasons.

I hope this gets your creative juices going, and I look forward to seeing everyone’s Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals on Broadway someday!

Steven Sauke grew up watching Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. He has performed in two of them.

Is Two Better Than One?

I was a mere lad of 17. Well, I felt that was a good age at the time. And I was so excited, because I had been recruited to work on a production of a new musical version of the classic, episodic American play, I Remember Mama. The show was being installed at Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, NY, and all of us young whippersnappers were being promised the experience of working on a show in its pre-Broadway tryout. We would even get to meet and greet the star, Celeste Holm. I mean, she had been in the original production of Oklahoma! and she would have lots of stories to tell us. (She didn’t. She was a stuck-up bitch then and later when I had to deal with her in my soap opera publication days. But I digress.)

We were all excited. Then we were all disappointed. The show, well, quite honestly, sucked. There was no musical hidden in I Remember Mama.

Imagine my surprise, several years later, when a new Richard Rodgers musical was announced: I Remember Mama starring Liv Ullmann in the title role. As lyricist Martin Charnin later explained, “Liv Ullmann was the best and worst thing that happened to that show.” Best, because she was an award-winning actress who could bring in audiences. Worst, because she couldn’t sing. And she REALLY couldn’t sing. Sadly, I Remember Mama was the last show Rodgers ever composed. It wasn’t very good. There really wasn’t a musical hidden there.

* * *

In 1928, Joseph Moncure March wrote an epic tone poem called “The Wild Party”. In 1999, Broadway saw two musical versions of the poem, one by Andrew Lippa and the other by Michael John LaChiusa. Yes, I concede it: there really was a musical idea lurking in the poem. But TWO musicals? They were very different, yet the underlying similarities could not be disguised. And both failed to run the season. Once audiences saw one, they saw no reason to see the other, and both of them died as a result.

* * *

We celebrate the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth this year. While he is best remembered (in some circles—not ours, I hope) for his dazzling work in classical music, he’s also much beloved for his breakthrough work in musical theatre. Shows like On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide, West Side Story, and the much-lamented flop (which should have been a hit because his score is amazing) 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But wait, there’s one Broadway musical by Bernstein missing from that list. Peter Pan. No, not that Peter Pan, you know, the televised one starring Larry Hagman’s mother. That was in the mid-1950s and is still much beloved today. No, Bernstein wrote the score (music and lyrics) to Peter Pan in 1951, starring Jean Arthur in the title role, with Boris Karloff (yes, the same actor who did all those Frankenstein movies) as Captain Hook. It had a respectable run (actually longer than the second one, which was not considered a success at the time). But thanks to the magic of television, the Bernstein one is forgotten (though an original cast album can be found if you look for it). What a pity, truly.

* * *

Think this phenomenon of two shows from one source is anything new? Think again. Late in their careers, Gilbert and Sullivan (who weren’t speaking to each other by this point) had one of their first major failure (compared to the 12 coming before), Utopia Limited. They should have stopped then and there. They didn’t. Gilbert decided to adapt a short story called The Duke’s Dilemma—even though it had already been turned into a comic opera, The Prima Donna. Sullivan had steadfastly refused to work again with Gilbert on a number of ideas, but his resistance was finally worn down and the duo created The Grand Duke. Was it bad? That’s being kind. They never worked together again, each one blaming the other for the failure.

* * *

Speaking of Gilbert and Sullivan, at one point there were TWO productions of a swing version of The Mikado running on Broadway simultaneously (and across the street from each other) in 19309 Both were called The Hot Mikado. Both had respectable runs. Fast forward a few decades to 1996. My old pal David H. Bell comes out with his version of Hot Mikado. It’s a brilliant and stunning production (and very funny). Alas, it died on the road but is still done in Europe. The CD is available online.

* * *

I love Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It’s a seemingly small play with epic meaning (the third act always gets to me). But is there a musical there? Well, there was one done for television starring Frank Sinatra as the stage manager. It’s largely forgotten now, except it did have one hit song, “Love and Marriage” (a/k/a the theme to Married With Children). There is also a second musical version, one never making it to Broadway but with an impeccable pedigree: Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (The Fantasticks, 110 in the Shade, I Do I Do, Celebration) took a stab at turning Our Town into a musical called Grover’s Corner. It was on the road for years, but it never was much good, sad to say. Another case of there really being no musical in the source material.

* * *

This brings up to a new quandary. Billy Wilder was a cinematic magician. His credits are too numerous to name, but I’ll mention a couple. Sunset Boulevard (wait, isn’t there a musical by that name; yeah, that’s the source). The Apartment (which won the Oscar for Best Picture) became Promises, Promises on Broadway. And one of his funniest movies of all, Some Like It Hot. It became Sugar, with a book by Peter Stone, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Bob Merrill. It had a respectable run, but it really didn’t translate well to the stage. And yet, a new musical version of Some Like It Hot is heading to Broadway in 2020. Why? Sometimes, the better the source material, the harder it is to adapt well into a musical.

* * *

So, all this begs the question: are two versions of the same source material really necessary? And if the source material really is superior, how is it being served by being turned into a musical. In a time when way too many movies are being musicalized (and not particularly well), doing the same thing again really shows a lack of creativity. Personally, I’d still rather see an original musical. But that’s just me. I’m olde. I’m grumpy. I love musicals. Just not two musicals with the same friggin’ source.

 

Michael Kape is a Grumpy Old Guy® and definitely a cynic, but he does so love a good musical. He’s also steeped in politics and American history when he’s not telling young whippersnappers to get off his lawn (“And stay off!”). In a former life, he published a weekly newspaper, Soap Opera NOW!

 

Come From Away: Stories and Lessons of Those who Lived It

Steven Sauke

The news came as a shock. That morning, I was emerging from my room when my mom met me in the hallway. “Steven!” she said. I could hear in her voice that something serious had happened. I wondered if I was in trouble for some reason. Her voice trembling, she said, “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!”

Surely it must have been an accident. But what a catastrophic accident! We rushed into the living room and watched as they showed the horrifying footage on the news. Someone in a building near the Twin Towers called in to the news and told the anchors that they had seen it from their window. A plane had deliberately flown into the Tower. Deliberately? Who would do such a thing? It occurred to me that this was the “JFK” event of my generation, where everyone remembers where they were when they learned of it. I looked at my watch to take note of the date. September 11, 2001. I needn’t have bothered.

As we watched in horror, a second plane slammed into the other tower, causing a massive fireball. This couldn’t be a coincidence. Two planes crashing into two of the tallest buildings in New York within a few minutes of each other doesn’t just happen by accident. By this time it was getting time for me to start preparing for my work day, as Seattle is 3 hours behind New York due to time zones. I took a small radio into the bathroom to listen while I prepared and prayed desperately. The radio announcer related that a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon. We later learned that a fourth plane crashed in a field near Pittsburgh, as the passengers tackled the hijackers.

American Airlines Flight, over the North Atlantic

Meanwhile, an American Airlines plane was flying westbound over the Atlantic Ocean, en route from Paris to Dallas. Captain Beverley Bass got word on their air to air radio frequency that the towers had been hit, and New York airspace was closed. The airspace for the entire country was closed soon after. They knew then that they would need to divert to Canada, initially considering Toronto or Montreal. They then got word that a remote area would be wiser in case something happened, so they were ordered to land in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland.

Air France, over the North Atlantic

The plane bound from Paris to Newark suddenly dropped in elevation, and passenger Kevin Tuerff, accustomed to flying, looked up at the GPS map on the ceiling of their jumbo jet. He wondered why they were suddenly flying due north rather than due west. Were they flying to the North Pole?

Continental Airlines, over the Atlantic

The flight was bound from Gatwick, England to Houston, Texas. Diane was returning home from visiting her son Mike and his family, stationed in the US Air Force in the UK. On the same flight was an oil industry professional named Nick, whose business took him to Houston. Neither of them knew that tragedy would bring together two strangers from opposite sides of the ocean.

Gander, Newfoundland

Gander Academy French immersion teacher Diane Davis heard of the attacks that morning. She went home for lunch and watched live as the towers fell. She would return to school to teach that afternoon. Her colleagues asked her to help mobilize help, possibly preparing food, and she readily volunteered as a point person for staff. With a staff phone list in hand, she registered with the town of Gander, telling them she had about 50 names and could probably count on half of them helping out. They moved desks and set up computers in the front at three schools, starting with the local high school. By the time they got to Gander Academy, they had about 100 volunteers setting up. After being up for 72 hours straight, she was ordered home to rest. She slept three hours and went back to work. By that time, they had 770 people who needed help.

As the people of Gander prepared, so did the nearby towns of Appleton, Glenwood, Lewisporte, Norris Arm and Gambo. Six towns got ready to welcome thousands of people diverted to Newfoundland. Janice Young, a nurse from Lewisporte, worked 12-hour shifts to help people in need. Members of the local media, including Janice Goudie and Brian Mosher, would work tirelessly over the next few days, splitting their time between reporting the news and bringing aid to those who needed it.

“The world changed today, for the worse. Our flight from Paris to New York missed an international terrorist disaster in New York and Washington, DC. (Hijacked planes crashed into WTC & Pentagon. We’ve been sitting on our plane now for 12 hours (7 now on the ground). All we can do is wait patiently for news about the tragedy, for a place to try to talk to our families. We’ve been told we may have to sleep here overnight (on board). We are fortunate to be alive. Many on the plane cried when we heard the news. Everyone is shell-shocked. No one can imagine what is next regarding our national security. Who can we trust now? Will this heinous crime start a war? All we can do is pray. P.S. Just learned we will soon depart plane and perhaps spend night in school here. At least 30 planes here waiting with stranded passengers aboard.”

So wrote Kevin Tuerff on his in-flight menu, having landed at Gander Airport. He was travelling with his partner, also named Kevin. Very few people had working phones on the plane, though Tuerff was able to attempt making calls from a first-class seat that someone in first class graciously allowed him to use. He didn’t get through because most people in the US were calling each other to make sure everyone was all right. He finally got through to a friend in Amsterdam, who was able to fill him in on what he had heard on the news. He then went back to their seat and told everyone what he had found out. Between trying to call out, watching Shrek twice, and dealing with an upset passenger behind them (Kevin J. offered her some medication for her nerves, which she declined), they passed the long hours. Their plane was on the tarmac for 15 hours before they were finally allowed to deplane, one of the first of the 38 planes, containing a combined total of 6,579 passengers. They had to leave their checked luggage on the plane, so they were only allowed their carry-on items. So Kevin and Kevin had only their bags containing cameras, passports and two bottles of Grey Goose vodka that Kevin J. had managed to procure in Paris.

In his book Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11, Kevin relates what happened when they left the plane. Security at the airport was tight. Members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were stationed there. (As another character in the musical comments, “There were soldiers everywhere.”) They went through immigration and customs, and Kevin says, “And that’s when the first wave of unconditional love hit us: the terminal was filled with volunteers greeting us as we registered. It was like we had walked into a party!” The people of Gander had stepped up and provided help and food for their thousands of guests. People had homemade baked food, chicken from KFC, and everything in between. Kevin managed to find a pay phone and call his parents, but had to go, as his ride was there. He watched people at the airport put “Out of Order” signs on the phones so they could get people to the places they were to stay.

Captain Bass’s plane deplaned early the morning of September 12, having been on the plane for 28 hours. She tells me that they “walked into the terminal building in Gander. I was shocked to see all of the food that had been prepared for the nearly 7k passengers and crew members. It was evident the folks of Gander and the surrounding communities had stayed up all night preparing and cooking for all of us. It was so heartwarming. During our 5 days there nearly 285,000 meals were served to the come from aways…as they call folks who are not from Newfoundland.”

The come from aways were housed all over Gander and the surrounding communities. Beverley Bass and her crew stayed at Gander’s Comfort Inn. She mainly stayed put at the inn, as she did not have a cell phone at the time and she needed to know right away if they were ready to leave. Kevin and Kevin were among a large group housed at the College of the North Atlantic. A Ganderite teenager gave them an air mattress, and it deflated the first night. The Society of United Fishermen Hall in nearby Gambo welcomed Nick, Diane, and the other passengers from their plane. Janice Young of Lewisporte hosted a couple British women in her home and helped out at a local church. Gander resident Beulah Cooper aided passengers from an Irish Aer Lingus flight, and filled four rooms of her house with passengers. The people of Newfoundland welcomed strangers into their schools, churches, businesses and homes with open arms. As Mayor Claude Elliott points out in his foreword to Kevin Tuerff’s Channel of Peace, they came from over three dozen countries. (Kevin tells me there were people from more than 90 countries.)

Among the passengers on the Aer Lingus flight was a couple named Dennis and Hannah O’Rourke, returning to New York from visiting Ireland. Beulah Cooper helped them as they desperately attempted to contact their son Kevin, a firefighter back home in New York. She developed a friendship with Hannah, which would be invaluable later when the O’Rourkes arrived home and found that their son didn’t make it. His name is inscribed on the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero:

Photo by Jodi Parks Disario. Used with permission.

Photo by Jodi Parks Disario. Used with permission.

Diane Davis tells me, “As one of hundreds who helped at the school, I fell into an organizational role. I helped with general information in the office of the school for passengers. Like others, I helped passengers make international phone calls, I did announcements and took notes for Captain Burgess when he met his flight. I organized bulletin boards for communication for each flight and helped to answer questions. Other teachers organized food and clothing. Some planned games and activities for children. Some took people home for showers, to sleep, or for laundry. We did not do things that were out of our skill set or extraordinary. We did the same thing we would do for anyone needing help. What is remarkable is how many need help and how many came to give it in the most basic of ways. Food, clothing, a drive somewhere, use of a phone.”

Kevin Tuerff relates that wherever they went in Gander, strangers stopped and offered to drive them to their destination. Others had similar experiences.

Stop the World!

On September 13, as Nick and Diane had been getting acquainted, they decided to take a gander (pun intended) at the nearby Dover Fault. Nick brought his camera, which he pulled out at the lookout. Diane suggested getting out of the way so he could photograph the beautiful scenery, but she didn’t realize that he was more interested in her than the scenery. With this single photograph, he “stopped the world” and preserved a memory that would be a turning point in their lives:

Photo by Nick Marson. Used with Permssion

Photo by Nick Marson. Used with Permssion

They would return a year later, on their honeymoon, and again in 2017 when the town of Dover updated the plaque at the lookout with their story:

Photos by Nick and Diane Marson. Used with permission.

“What Was That Ungodly Screech?!”

During that time, some of the come from aways were “screeched in.” Kevin Tuerff would not have this privilege until 2011 at the 10-year celebration, and his (now former) partner would be screeched in later. The musical explained some of the background behind the Screech In ceremony, but I was still curious about it and asked Diane Davis. She tells me, “The Screech In had many variations. A Google search will get you some info but the Screech is a rum based drink that harkens back to when our salt fish was shipped to Jamaica and the ships came back with rum and molasses. It’s a bit of fun and when well done, it’s a good laugh. Kissing the cod is perhaps similar to the effort it takes to kiss the Blarney Stone in Ireland. You really need to want it bad to do it. I love the Screech In song. Another song of the musical genius of Sankoff and Hein. Folks will be thinking it’s a traditional song.”

Departure, Tributes and Reflection

After five days in Newfoundland, the planes were finally allowed to leave. Kevin’s Air France flight returned to France, and they found themselves stranded once again, this time in Paris. At the airport, they witnessed a deeply moving show of support there and on the TVs as Europe came to a standstill, cars stopping on the road and people getting out of their cars to observe a moment of silence for the people of America. Europeans stopped what they were doing and stood at attention as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played.

For Diane Davis, “The most moving experience for me was helping to count money from a donation box to put it in the school safe. We were exhausted and my vice principal and I began to cry. There were so many denominations from 4 aircrafts that we had to sort it by colour first to try to recognize currencies. There were 2 personal cheques for 1000 made to Gander Academy. When I see the scene of the collection on the aircraft and the passenger writes a cheque, I cry. We were overwhelmed with the gratitude of passengers. I still am by the hugs from strangers.”

A grateful American businessman welcomed by the town of Lewisporte took up a collection to fund scholarships for students there. It lasted for years, and both of Janice Young’s daughters benefitted from it.

Come From Away

Years later, the 10-year celebration and the musical Come From Away would serve to bring many people together. Mayor Claude Elliott met Kevin Tuerff at the celebration. Beulah Cooper and Diane Davis met when they learned that they had been combined into a single character named Beulah Davis for the musical. (They laughed about having never met before that.) Sankoff and Hein combined reporters Janice Goudie of the Gander Beacon newspaper and Brian Mosher of Rogers Cable into one person named Janice Mosher.

Kevin Tuerff finds the song “Prayer” from the musical particularly moving. He tells me that the “Most moving part of Come From Away for me is the song, “Prayer”, based in part on the Christian hymn “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.”  I’d always loved that hymn. It had played in my head for days after 9/11, and was sometimes the only consolation when I would see the continuous loop of TV footage of planes crashing into the World Trade Center. Its lyrics were on my heart when I attended Mass at Notre Dame in Paris on September 16th, 2001. The first time I heard it, I immediately started crying. I never remembered telling the writers about this, Air France lied to us, saying we would leave Gander for New York, but instead they flew us back to Paris. We should’ve just stayed with the kind people in Gander!”

I must say I concur with his assessment of the song. The first time I heard it, I was in tears. I love the combined Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu prayers, in addition to multiple languages in one song, all praying for the same thing: Peace (Shalom in Hebrew, Shaantih in Hindi) and praise to God (Allah in Arabic).

Response

Kevin founded an environmental marketing firm called EnviroMedia in 1997, and after his experiences in Gander, he started a new initiative called Pay It Forward 9/11. You can learn more about it at www.payitforward911.org. Basically, as described in the musical, every year on 9/11, he distributes $100 to groups of his employees and sends them out to do random good deeds for strangers. In this way he hopes to remember the horrific acts of 9/11 and the incredible selfless outpouring of love he was shown by strangers in Gander. He describes some of the truly moving deeds his employees have done in his book. In this way he hopes to combat xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia and racism and replace them with compassion. He calls it a “jump start to the heart.” I highly recommend ordering his book Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11 on Amazon. I now own it in audiobook form (read by the author), as well as Kindle and the physical book. In addition to his story in Gander, and that of many of the others mentioned in the musical, he includes practical tips about how you can do good deeds for strangers. (You can also view the tips on the website for free.) It doesn’t have to be expensive, but he has seen lives changed for the better by some of the simple acts performed.

Similarly, since her retirement from teaching, Diane Davis has been instrumental in helping displaced Syrian refugees in Gander. Kevin Tuerff recently moved to New York so he can help his church to welcome immigrants and refugees there. Beverley Bass enjoys picking up the tab for first responders and others at restaurants. She paid airfare for the family of a member of Come from Away’s band when their homes in Dominica were destroyed in Hurricane Maria. Last summer she took her family to Newfoundland and personally thanked every mayor of every town that helped out. According to Nick and Diane Marson, “It has renewed our faith in humanity and given us a new family. It certainly changed Nick’s life, he threw his life up in the air, moved to Texas and married Diane. Sounds easy, but it wasn’t!”

Accuracy and Repeat Viewings

One thing I asked everyone I interviewed was how accurate their characters were represented in the musical Come From Away. The consensus was that they were very accurate. As mentioned above, some characters were combinations of two people. Kevin Tuerff told me that “The Kevins” actually lived in Austin, Texas rather than Los Angeles. Sankoff and Hein made this change so that they wouldn’t have “too many Texans” in the musical. (He also mentions in his book that they did not go to the Legion for a drink while stranded in Gander, and they were not Screeched In until years later). Nick and Diane Marson pointed out that they made some minor changes to put everyone in one airplane and one shelter. Beverley Bass is deeply impressed with the way she is portrayed. She tells me that Jenn Colella is an ideal actress to play her. “First of all, she is adorable and has the most amazing voice. She belts out ‘Me and the Sky’ which is my aviation life compacted into a 4:19 second solo, the only solo in the show. Her body language and everything is just the way that I am. We both have similar haircuts and she used to have blonde hair like me, but has decided to let it go natural and is no longer blonde.” Diane Davis tells me that she personally observed most of what happened in the musical, and it brings back the memories of those events actually happening.

Another thing I asked everyone was how many times they have seen the musical. I believe Beverley Bass holds the record at 106 times as of the time she responded to my questions. Diane Davis hasn’t counted, but she believes it has been at least a dozen times, in Gander, Toronto, New York City and Winnipeg. It makes her cry every time. Kevin Tuerff recently attended his 26th performance over the course of five years, with his nephew and an African friend who was recently granted asylum in the US. Nick and Diane Marson are at second place among the people I interviewed, at 75 times in six cities and two countries. They tell me it is rewarding to show people who are older and yet have not found their “special someone” that there is still hope. Nick and Diane were “both into middle age, not 20 somethings” when they met. They also feel it is like renewing their vows every time they see the musical

Relating to Come From Away

One thing I love about Come From Away is how much I can identify with it. I grew up in the Philippines, but I currently live in the Seattle area. I have also lived in Hong Kong and Montana. Having lived on opposite sides of the Pacific, I often feel like a come from away wherever I go. (“Where are you from?” is a complicated question for me.) In addition, I distinctly remember the events of 9/11. I remember the uncertainty of what would happen. That horrible morning, the hits kept coming. A plane hit one tower. A plane hit the other tower. A plane hit the Pentagon. A plane likely bound for the White House crashed in a field near Pittsburgh. Where would the next plane hit? After I got to work in a Seattle highrise that morning, I wondered if it would hit our building. Would a plane crash into the Space Needle? Our employer gave us the option of going home just in case. I decided that, worst case scenario, a plane would hit our building, and I would be killed and go to heaven. Heaven didn’t sound so bad right then. When I listened to the cast recording of the musical years later, it brought back those memories and left me in tears.

With that in mind, I also asked everyone if there was a way they could relate to the musical like I could.

Diane Davis shared that “9/11 was the hardest I worked ever to do something good, to volunteer, to be a contributing citizen. I am also on Gander Refugee Outreach Committee now and the time and energy involved in welcoming 4 Syrian families to Gander has renewed and polished all those citizen skills. Part of teaching our families was telling them the story of 9/11 and again, David and Irene selected stories that emphasize inclusion, compassion, empathy and community. For me though, the memory that always strikes me is the passengers seeing it on TV for the first time and when I see it on stage I cry. It’s the sense of helplessness, no matter how willing we were, that there was nothing we could do to make this not true or better.”

Nick and Diane Marson tell me, “As we travel to other cities where the show opens, and meet so many new people, we feel like we still are come from aways. One of our favorite aspects of the show is meeting new people and sharing stories with them.”

Kevin Tuerff says, “As a gay Catholic, I know what it’s like to be marginalized. When I see the scene when the Muslim man (Ali) is scared because of how others are treating him simply because of his religion, it makes me sad. No doubt there was tremendous anxiety about who was a terrorist because the ones who hijacked the planes came from Muslim countries. But they were extremists who disobeyed their own religion. Virtually every religion in the world has one common teaching: The Golden Rule­–Treat others as you want to be treated. I hope as Come From Away goes on tour around the world, people are reminded of this, and take their experience in the theater and incorporate it into their daily lives.”

Tips for Visiting Newfoundland

Another question I asked everyone was where they would recommend going when visiting Newfoundland.

In addition to Gander, Beverley Bass recommends visiting Gambo and Lewisporte, as well as the other “adorable little towns” in the area. As far as restaurants in Gander, she recommends Bistro on the Roe, Rosie’s, and The Gander Bread Box Bakery & Café. “Everyone is so incredibly nice that you really never want to leave.”

Diane Davis says, “There is a Beyond Words bus tour that will take visitors to the various sites around Gander and does a great job of telling Gander’s 9/11 and aviation history. I like to make sure people see Gander Heritage Memorial Park and read some of the letters at the town hall in Gander. I also recommend the Peace Park in Appleton and visiting all the town halls in the communities where passengers were housed. Gander, Appleton, Glenwood, Lewisporte, Norris Arm and Gambo. Everyone should visit the Dover Fault and sing “Stop the World” too.”

Kevin Tuerff says, “The best place to start a tour of Gander is at the North Atlantic Aviation Museum. They offer a seasons tour of the Gander International airport and several scenes in Come From Away called Beyond Words. I recently took a self-driving tour of other beautiful town across Newfoundland from Maxxim Vacations, called the Come From Away Experience. The island has absolutely stunning beauty and remarkably kind people.”

Nick and Diane Marson have a rather unsurprising yet exciting suggestion: “Do we ever! Of course we like to see our Newfie families, but ….   Our visit to Dover Fault on Sept. 13th, 2001 highlighted the budding feelings between us…Nick wanted a photo of Diane, not the beautiful scenery, so that meant he was as interested in me as I was in him...  It is the “Stop the world” moment in our lives and is portrayed as such in the play.”

Go See Come From Away!

Come From Away is currently playing on Broadway and Toronto. The musical is kicking off its national tour in Seattle in October. (I can’t wait!) The tour is currently slated for Seattle, Salt Lake City, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Costa Mesa, Las Vegas, Portland (Oregon), Vancouver (British Columbia), Edmonton, Calgary, Omaha, Appleton (Wisconsin), Pittsburgh, Greenville, Baltimore, Hartford, Milwaukee, St. Louis, New Orleans, Tampa, Orlando, Miami, Atlanta, Cleveland, Chicago and Ottawa. The show also opens in Melbourne, Australia in July 2019. Tickets are now on sale for the Dublin production, and it runs in London starting January 20, 2019. Tickets are now on sale there as well.

The show lasts 100 minutes, and there is no intermission. It is recommended for ages 10 and up.

You can get more information on the musical’s website, www.comefromaway.com. I also highly recommend visiting www.payitforward911.org for ways you can help spread the kindness that the people of Newfoundland showed to strangers.

Doing the Dark Side Shuffle

Michael Kape

I spent seven years as one of the most hated, hateful, grumpy, delighted, even-handed, fair, miserable people in theatre. It’s no secret—I was a theatre critic in Atlanta, first for WABE-FM and Southern Voice, and then for Atlanta Theatre Weekly. I refer to this as my time on the Dark Side.

Yet I would never trade the experience, even though it was soul-crushing having to give honest reviews (some good and some bad) to people I liked and respected. Yes, even theatre critics have souls. They might be hard to find (nearly impossible, some would say), but we have them.

Just don’t do something stupid. That can incur our wrath.

Photo by nito100/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by nito100/iStock / Getty Images

* * *

One of my fellow critics at the time had a tendency to go off on tangents, and the tangent would become the main thrust of his reviews. He was a nice guy in real life, but you’d never know it from what he wrote. (As long as I knew him, he was trying to write a biography of actress Piper Laurie; I don’t think it ever was published.)

I tried very hard not to do this, and I succeeded—except once. A local company was doing a production of Pump Boys & Dinettes, a musical I genuinely like. It was going well until the middle of Act II. From out of nowhere, a character holds up a logo and says, “And I buy all my stereo equipment at Hi-Fi Buys,” the local chain serving as a sponsor of the theatre company. Totally broke character. Totally not in keeping with the script or spirit of the show. Just. Plain. Wrong.

I was pissed. I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the show. I was seeing red. When it came time to deliver my review, I went off on a tangent—and couldn’t come back. Hi-Fi Buys banned me from its stores.

(BTW, not the first or last time I’ve ever been banned. Soap opera actress Deirdre Hall—who hated being called a soap opera actress but that’s what she was—once had me declared persona non grata at NBC for a year. A local theatre company here recently banned Grumpy Olde Guy® because I told the truth about its production of the highly-offensive Jewtopia.)

* * *

The late Robert Goulet was touring in South Pacific (a show I genuinely don’t like) playing Emile. In my review, I referred to him as the “dipsomaniacal Robert Goulet,” because, well, frankly, he was the night I saw him. His wife (and fierce protector) pointed out to him what I meant: he was drunk as a skunk onstage. He decided he liked the other reviewer better. Okay, I pissed him off, but he was really inebriated, and you could tell by his performance.

* * *

Speaking of pissing off famous people, there was the time I reviewed Marla Maples (soon to become Wife #2 to Donald Trump) as Ziegfeld’s Favorite in The Will Rodgers Follies. Okay, so I called her a “celebrity by osmosis.” Sure, I noted how you could see her counting steps to herself when she tried (unsuccessfully) to dance. But was that any reason for Mr. Trump (not POTUS then) to call the station and demand I be fired? (BTW, I wasn’t fired.)

* * *

Sitting next to me right now as I type this is the London cast recording of Hot Mikado, conceived, written, and directed by David H. Bell. It’s a terrific show, and it deserves a Broadway production. Of course, I’ve been saying this for 20 years. Yet before he did Hot Mikado, David wrote a musical loosely based on the history of the Beach Boys. It was awful—a show with no conflict (every minor dispute was resolved by the end of each scene, with no reason to lurch forward to the next one). Yes, I panned it, and David wouldn’t speak to me again until the glowing review of Hot Mikado made it into print. No, I wasn’t surprised. But it was kind of soul-crushing.

* * *

Can a critic really kill a show? I truly do not believe so. Yet I know from first-hand experience a critic can definitely do in a cast. I was seeing Les Misérables for the fourth time. The first time (and not as a critic) I saw it, I thought it was fantastic. So, this was not a matter of me not liking the material. The opposite is true—when it’s done well. The tour of Les Misérables pulls into town, and the cast is clearly tired from being on the road too long. Opening night. Everyone is dragging their collective asses on stage—leads and chorus. Even the orchestra seemed to lack enthusiasm. So, I gave this production a bad review for the reason I cited. The theatre was furious at me (the people there had not seen the show the night before). They decided to go see for themselves how wrong I was—but they concluded I had been justified in what I said. The next morning, they called Cameron McIntosh, who flew in to see for himself that night. After the performance, he gathered the cast together on stage—and fired every single one of them (he subsequently did the same thing to the Broadway cast). Oops. (Yes, I feel badly about this. I keep telling you being a critic can crush your soul.)

* * *

One review landed me and my partner in Atlanta Theatre Weekly in a whole lot of trouble because it was totally accurate—and that was the problem. One of our friends works at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Library and has for many years; he was also a subscriber. For a long time, I had been hearing about this radical idea an artistic director had for Oklahoma, which he finally was able to present. While there were many problems with the production, the main one was he had added a prologue, epilogue, and interpolated dialogue into the musical. He had also reset the show in a rehearsal hall on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed (BTW, Oklahoma opened nearly two years after Pearl Harbor). It was totally going against the spirit of the show (I consulted Rodgers autobiography, Musical Stages, to verify this). The R&H Library saw the review and threatened to shut the show down immediately if the changes weren’t cut. A brouhaha ensued. Our review was at the center of it. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution damned us. We were blamed for doing our jobs. Indeed, a few years later, a book about gay theatre came out, and the first chapter blasted us for publishing a review critical of this “daring concept.” More than 20 years later, I stand by that review.

* * *

There are some things a critic may never do. You can’t go to a show drunk (not a problem for me since I never was much of a drinker, and these days not at all). You may never express an opinion about a show until it appears in print or is aired (the producers of the Miss Saigon tour tried to get us to break that rule—and were sorely disappointed as a result). And no matter how bad the show is, you can’t walk at intermission. Well, almost never. I saw over 600 shows during my time as a critic, and I only left at intermission twice. It wasn’t my idea either time. The first time, I had initially been asked to come to dress rehearsal to do my review. Frankly, the show wasn’t ready to be reviewed. At intermission, the producer came up to me and asked if I could come back at a different time, half-expecting me to laugh and turn him down. He forgot I had spent many years on the other side, so I completely understood the dilemma. I told him I would gladly return at a later date to do my review—and I did (I gave the show a good review, too).

The second time I walked I did not return. A theatre company had imported a show—sight unseen—from South Africa. The first act was ghastly (to be kind). Indeed, it was so bad I really did not want to review it because I could see nothing redeeming about it. But I still planned to stay for Act II. Again, the producer came to me and asked me not to review what I had just seen. I couldn’t grab my coat fast enough.

Having now come back from the Dark Side, the ability to walk at intermission of a truly awful show is a luxury. I savor those moments when a show is so bad I don’t want to come back (wish I had done that for Love Never Dies, which I knew was going to be dreadful from the first five minutes; it didn’t get better after that).

* * *

One of life’s great ironies is I studied to be a theatre critic (major in theatre, minor in journalism). Once I did it, I never wanted to do it again. Now I just kibitz from the audience like everyone else. And I’m okay with that. At least my soul is still intact. I think.

 

Michael Kape is an opinionated, miserable, and decidedly grumpy decrepit olde guy. Other than that, he’s a pretty nice person.

 

Never cross a critic. It can get ugly.

'Murica!

By Michael Kape (a/k/a Grumpy Olde Guy®)

The picnics have been packed up and put away.

The fireworks have exploded, noisily.

The flags have been furled.

The Boston Pops has sounded the last cannon of the 1812 Overture (which has nothing to do with Independence Day).

So maybe it’s time to look at the impact of some notable musicals and how they celebrate many aspects of American history—both good and not-so-good.

Photo by Choreograph/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by Choreograph/iStock / Getty Images

Independence Day and the American Revolution

Any discussion of musicals, the American experience, and Independence Day has to start with the obvious one—1776. It’s a great (but a tad long and highly fictionalized) retelling of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. All those historical figures we read about in American history class bush off the dust and become flesh and blood people once again. It’s catty. It’s chatty. It exposes all the blemishes (i.e. slavery) and all the brilliance of three men, Ben Franklin (more about him shortly), John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. It even won the Tony (deservedly) for Best Musical. Sadly, it was the only musical Sherman Edwards had in him.

What about first POTUS George Washington? He’s offstage in 1776. The closest he ever came to having his own musical was George M. Cohan’s George Washington Jr., and it is completely forgotten today (for good reason, and it’s not about George Washington). Washington does play a minor role in one other now-obscure three-act musical, Dearest Enemy by Rodgers and Hart. It’s based on a true story about a patriotic woman doing Washington’s bidding and delaying a British general in 1776.

Washington almost comes into his own in Act II of the extraordinary Hamilton. But he’s not the focus; Aaron Burr and the Schuyler sisters are (and yeah, well, Alexander Hamilton, too). I don’t think I need to tell everyone the impact of this musical; others have already done it for me—and better than I ever could.

What about founding father Benjamin Franklin (a/k/a America’s first Dirty Old Man)? He took center stage in the highly fictional Ben Franklin in Paris. Franklin was much more of a rogue than he’s portrayed in the musical, which has been largely forgotten today. Still, it does convey the foreign intrigues occurring as America was engaged in its revolution—with King George III a notable—but offstage—presence.

The American Experience—Good and Bad

Hundreds of musicals have been written about the American experience (or experiment in some cases), and it’s impossible to catalogue them all. Instead, let’s look at some notable ones, in alphabetical order:

·         Allegro—The cheery disposition of Oscar Hammerstein II was sullied considerably in what is probably his most honest (and cynical and autobiographical) look at American life. Think of it as a musical version of what would happen if the citizens of Our Town’s Grover’s Corners all became money-grubbing and greedy doctors out to flatter hypochondriacs. Yes, it’s a big show with some good songs, but it really doesn’t speak well of what the country had become at that point.

·         Annie—Despite the sunny outlook of “Tomorrow”, a streak of cynicism and reality run through this musical. Songs like “I’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover” (set in a shantytown) and “We’re Getting a New Deal for Christmas” (not really, gang) paint a picture of desperate times. Even the orphanage is no place for kids.

·         Annie Get Your Gun—Irving Berlin IS American Music, according to Jerome Kern, and this optimistic musical, filled with too many gems to count, is a rose-colored look at show business in the Old West. Of course, looking at it through a contemporary lens, we might want to decry some of the overt sexism (“You can’t get a man with a gun”), but it is Irving Berlin, after all. Yet that’s not always a guarantee (see below).

·         Assassins—Despite its subject matter, this might be the most American musical ever written, at least from a musical perspective. Sondheim incorporates so many ingrained musical styles into this piece it becomes a statement about the country, in almost a positive way. But then the assassins urge on Lee Harvey Oswald and all bets are off.

·         Avenue Q—It’s so damn funny and so damn true for anyone just starting out in our great American experiment. “It Sucks to Be Me” isn’t just a song, it’s an anthem. And for many people, the internet is for porn. Oh, just chill.

·         Bandstand—WWII is over, and the vets are suffering. Say it with music and it’s a great (but yes ever-so-cynical) musical.

·         Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson—The emo retelling of the story of a populist, xenophobic POTUS who hated immigrants, Native Americans (and killed thousands of them), and the Washington establishment. Change a couple of names around and it’s a look at the current state of affairs (and I don’t mean that in a good way). It’s actually a great show but it might have been above the audiences’ heads.

·         Bye, Bye Birdie—It’s songwriting. It’s small town America. It’s Elvis going into the army. Just put on a happy face and call me in the morning.

·         Call Me Madam—Irving Berlin could be a big-time cynic when the depressive side of his bipolar disorder kicked in. This snide look at President Truman and his diplomatic appointment of Merle Mesta feels sadly quaint today, especially since it has some terrific musical numbers in it.

·         Finian's Rainbow—It’s whimsical but it’s deadly serious when it handles (deftly) the topic of racism in the South.

·         Follies—It was the years between the wars, and Sondheim serves up a brilliant panoply of pastiche numbers. ‘Nuff said.

·         Flower Drum Song—Truly unwatchable now, a (somewhat-racist) look at the Asian-American experience in 1950’s San Francisco as seen through a very non-Asian Rodgers and Hammerstein.

·         Hello, Dolly!—An idealized look at the early 20th century, which glosses over the underlying cynicism of Thornton Wilder’s The Merchant of Venice (i.e. American capitalism runs amok).

·         I Remember Mama—Forget the fact this anecdotal story completely eluded musicalizing (twice) and consider it as a rosy look at the Swedish immigrant experience in turn of the century San Francisco.

·         I'd Rather Be Right—Kaufman and (Moss) Hart. Rodgers and (Lorenz) Hart. George M. Cohan singing and dancing (huh? FDR was in a wheelchair). It’s all about Washington political games (and corruption) but everything comes out all right. It’s satire, and as Kaufman himself said, satire closes Saturday night. Basically, not something you’d want to run out and see, and 90% of the references in it are very dated.

·         Little Johnny Jones—George M. Cohan was the master of jingoistic American musicals in his day, and this was his first (from which we get ”Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway”). The plot is ridiculous, even for its time. It was meant to showcase Cohan as a performer, along with the rest of his family. Is it good? Actually, it’s kind of snide in the midst of its unabashed patriotism.

·         Miss Liberty—A true Irving Berlin clunker musical (with a book by noted playwright Robert Sherwood), it purported to tell the story behind the sculpting of the Statue of Liberty. But it was a complete fiction (though it’s the first time Joseph Pulitzer shows up as a major character in a musical; he’d show up again decades later in Newsies). Berlin was convinced this was going to be his biggest hit with the title song becoming another national treasure (like “God Bless America”). It wasn’t. The critics and audiences weren’t buying it.

·         Miss Saigon—Talk about cynical storytelling. This retelling of the Madame Butterfly story just reeks of venal soldiers and corruption in the last days of the Vietnam War. Not America’s finest hour, and this musical drives that point home (again and again and again).

·         Of Thee I Sing—The first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize, it’s largely forgotten today. A satirical look at Presidential politics, it’s just silly but not in a fun way, even with a score by the Gershwin Brothers. It spawned a terrible sequel (Let ‘Em Eat Cake), which is far better left forgotten. (Sequels to musicals NEVER work.)

·         Oklahoma!—This musical brought Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II together, and it was a landmark moment in musical theatre history. It has a tiny plot (who is Laurie going to take to the box social?), but it’s also an insightful (though highly inaccurate) look at folks in Indian Territory (as that part of Oklahoma was then known). Hammerstein stripped all the tough realities found in Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs (its source). And let’s not forget the show ends with a murder onstage (Curly kills Jud and gets away with it). But everyone is singing and dancing about the brand-new state. It looks like the epitome of innocence but scratch the surface and some of Riggs’ darker values still come through.

·         Pacific Overtures—The United States decides to get on the imperialist bandwagon (along with Britain, France, The Netherlands, and Russia) and open up Japan to the world. Throw in some of the most beautiful melodies (and inventive pastiche) Sondheim ever wrote, along with John Weidman’s decidedly negative view of the proceedings. The result is a deeply-disturbing look at American imperialism and its impact on an unsuspecting nation.

·         Rags—Another look at the immigrant experience, this time set in the rag trade in New York. It has a terrific title number but then the rest falls apart. It should have been better and done better. It’s not a pretty story to tell, and others would come along and tell it better (see below).

·         Ragtime—It was a runaway bestselling novel incorporating a fictional family along with real persons of the early 20th century. Then it became a blockbuster movie (and sadly, James Cagney’s last screen appearance). So, of course it became a musical, and a nearly perfect one at that. Immigrant struggles. Racism and murder. Vaudeville. The trial of the century. Blowing up the Morgan Library (almost). This sprawling musical encapsulates the growth of the American experiment into something more mature. Horrible things happen, but so do some wonderful things. And it has that delicious score by Ahrens and Flaherty.

·         Showboat—The grandfather of the modern American musical, it dealt with some tough topics (both when it debuted and still today). Hammerstein broke away from his operetta roots to retell Edna Ferber’s story of love, gambling, and racism in the early 20th century. While some moments in it feel a little twee by today’s standards, it’s still an enduring piece of musical theatre, with so many standards in its score it’s hard to keep track of them all. Unlike its contemporaries, Showboat continues to be produced today, although it has migrated to the opera world.

·         South Pacific—To some people, this is a highly romantic story of Americans abroad during WWII. To some people, it’s the story of two racists, Nellie and Joe, who find love, respectively, with a French murderer on the lam and a 14-year-old girl. Throw in a mother who prostitutes her daughter, a conniving Seabee who almost destroys a naval operation, facile liberalism, and rampant sexism and you have South Pacific. This is NOT everyone’s cup of tea.

·         The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N—Classify this largely-forgotten musical under a great loss. It had the misfortune to open during a crippling newspaper strike (there was no internet or ATB back then), so no one even knew it existed. A crying shame, too. It’s a charming musical about an ESL teacher and his most memorable student, Hyman Kaplan (they both find love by the end of Act II). It is a period piece (1920s) and has a lovely score. Maybe someday some enterprising producer can resurrect it.

·         The Music Man—We round out this list with a musical with a second act taking place on July Fourth. Of course, it’s an idealized and nostalgic (but slightly cynical) look at America in 1912. Sure, the lead character is a con man. Sure, the townspeople are Iowa stubborn. But Meredith Willson clearly had such fond memories (distilled through rose-colored glasses) of that moment in time it’s infectious. And that score. Wow. It has worked its way into the Great American Songbook, and deservedly so, too.

 

Other entrants include: Skyscraper (build, build, build no matter what), Mame (the stock market crashes but Auntie Mame marries well), Saturday Night (stock manipulation), Legally Blonde (our juris prudence system at work), Lil Abner (hopelessly outdated now, but once a topical and snide look at American politics at work—or maybe not), West Side Story (gang violence in 1950s NYC), Porgy and Bess (the stark realities of the African American experience and it’s friggin’ Gershwin), and Paint Your Wagon (a hopelessly inane musical look at the Old West).

As this list was being compiled, one interesting thought began to emerge. Musicals about the country’s origins as well as the American experience seem to be infused with a healthy dose of cynicism and not idealism. Why is that? Probably because the underlying cynicism of so many of these musicals provides the engine for the conflict. Without conflict, you don’t have a show. These musicals represent a need to present a troubled reality onstage, defying the mistaken notion of musicals being all sweetness and froth from overture to finale. And seen through that prism, perhaps they are more reflective of reality than we thought.

Michael Kape is a Grumpy Old Guy® and definitely a cynic, but he does so love a good musical. He’s also steeped in politics and American history when he’s not telling young whippersnappers to get off his lawn.

 

Originality is Dead, But it was Never Alive

Darren Wildeman

As yet another Tony season passes that was dominated by movie adaptations, there are many people screaming about the lack of originality on Broadway. Yet, they seem to think this is a recent development. Whenever I see this argument I always ask myself the question, is it really that recent? So, I did some research. I looked at over 1,300 shows going back to 1925 to analyze where these shows came from and what they were based off. This includes all major shows, and many, many more minor shows which you haven’t heard of (which for a lot of things are better that way) as well as many in between. I will show you the raw data, and then manipulate the year and one or two other things to show some patterns and explain what is going on in these graphs.

You can find the graph below, but first here is a quick definition of terms and some notes on the categories. Most of the categories are pretty self explanatory. The first thing the needs some definition is the Jukebox Musicals/Revues category. Back in the early 1900s before Showboat, a lot of musicals didn’t really have a plot- at least not how we define a plot today- and it wasn’t unusual for songs to be recycled. This could sometimes really blur the line between “Original Musical” and “Revue” so it’s possible that there are some musicals in the original category which could be a revue and vice versa, it is just hard to make the distinction sometimes that early in theatre history. The other thing is the “Something Else” category. These are musicals based on miscellaneous things. Comic books, video games, other art, etc.

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The first thing that immediately stands out is that Original Musicals definitely are not in the majority. Even going back all the way to 1925. When original musicals of questionable quality were being produced like mini donuts at a State Fair (more on this later). However, what if I told you it was possible to take an even bigger hole out of original musicals?

Some of you may have already noticed this, but to some people there is one category missing. Musicals based on a person’s life or real events. I went back and forth on this category because even though it is based on something, it isn’t like a movie or book either where there is a previous item to work with. However, at the same time it is still based on something.

I didn’t count these myself, however according to the Google machine there are approximately 116 Musicals based on true events. However, I am going to increase this number a little bit due to my study including a lot of minor musicals that I know for a fact aren’t on the initial list I see. However, I won’t increase it by as much either because some historical musicals are already non-original by being in another category (Jukebox, movie etc). Yes, this is a little bit arbitrary but I also feel like it’s a fair number to work with.

Now, this is what the chart looks like.

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As you can see, this takes an even bigger chunk out of original musicals. The conclusion of this article: Musicals have been based on things much longer than the last 5 years or so. However, we aren’t done here. We’re going to play with this pie chart even more.

As I stated previously, in the early 1900s, musicals were quite different. Some of them were closer to being a bunch of songs with a common theme than being an actual musical with a story. For this reason, it was also quite a bit easier to write an original musical because the writer didn’t necessarily need to have a strong plot. They could string a bunch of songs together and call it good. Showboat was really the first musical to tell a story with the music, and ironically enough it was based on something, a book to be exact. Showboat was produced in 1927, but even after this not many musicals caught on to the whole “telling a story through music thing.” Original Musicals continued to be mass produced. In fact, there’s no point in showing you a pie chart of just the ‘20s and ‘30s because they really are dominated by the originals. However, as I stated previously, it was also easier then to write an original musical. Not only because the plot was looser but also partially because there wasn’t as much source material around at the time. It wasn’t until the 40s where music driving the plot really started to happen more. And this was largely helped a long by another Musical theatre staple: Oklahoma! Which ironically enough was also based on something - a play to be exact.

Our first stop in further analysis will be 1940. The rules for the pie chart are the same, except every show from before 1940 has been eliminated.

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Admittedly, the pie chart doesn’t look too different yet. However, if you compare the numbers, you will se the group that took the biggest hit is in fact Original Musicals. In fact, they lost exactly 90 shows. The next biggest loss was “Musicals Based on a Piece of Theatre” which only lost 21 shows. All the other categories remained almost untouched.

We’re going to go away from the Original Musicals category for a second to examine and compare two other categories. The number of Musicals based on a book, vs. a piece of theatre. If we look at the number of musicals based on a book vs. another piece of theatre from before 1970, they’re dead even with exactly 93 adaptations a piece. However, after 1970, this shifted dramatically. There would be 222 more book adaptations, as opposed to just 88 more based on a movie. This could partially be because there are generally more books to choose from than previous theatre works. However, other than this, I’m at a loss. That seems like a pretty flimsy explanation for that big of a difference. If you have any thoughts on this please leave them in the comments. I’d be curious to hear feedback on why there is such a discrepancy.  

The patterns I’ve pointed out so far kind of maintained. However, we’re going to jump ahead now and kill one stone with two birds (or something), I’m going to show you the same pie chart I did before, except this time we’re going to start it from 1990. 

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This graph has some very noticeable differences. The first obvious one is unsurprisingly how much smaller a piece of the pie the original musicals are. However, you will probably notice that two categories grew substantially. Musicals based on a movie, and Jukebox musicals.

I think the explanation for both of these is relatively simple. There’s more movies and music readily available now than there ever has been. In the 90s and early 2000s especially and even to some extent now, going to the movies was a big thing. It makes sense that composers and writers would write about what is big in pop culture. Services like Netflix, Hulu, Crave, as well as download and streaming sites like iTunes, Google Music, Spotify, and now YouTube Music, can be added to that fray.

Music and radio has been around much longer than movies so the rise Jukebox musicals aren’t as easy to explain as movie adaptations, but I think there is another explanation.

Look at the bands who have had jukebox musicals made about them: Donna Summer, Janis Joplin, Motown, Carole King, Elvis, Johnny Cash, The Four Seasons, Jimmy Buffet, among others. A very large percentage of jukebox musicals are from older bands, artists or genres. It’s entirely possible that it’s very much a nostalgia thing. These jukebox musicals could be giving older audience members a chance to relive some of their favourite artists from when they were younger. And even better, these songs of that they loved when they were younger are now telling a story. It’s interesting that as of right now there’s no serious or professional jukebox musicals for Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Imagine Dragons, or any other band or artist that’s been big in the last few years. It makes sense though. Jukebox musicals target the older audience for nostalgia, but, the older audience is also who has money. Even financially speaking for investors and producers, a jukebox musical about a current artist, especially if that artist is still touring, would be a huge risk.

Another thing worth noting is that unless the musical is by an extremely well recognized composer or writer, it is extremely hard to pitch an original musical. Even for well known composers it can be hard. An original musical is a massive financial risk for investors and producers. If the musical is based on something it is much easier to pitch, and much easier for possible investors to see the potential, target demographic, etc. They can base these things on how the original work did in those categories. In a lot of ways, with an original musical, the people working on it are going in blind. And financially going in blind is a huge risk. Theatre is already a volatile market with no sure thing, an original musical is even worse.

What these graphs tell us though is that musicals have ALWAYS been based on something. And even more so since the musical started to move the plot. People complain about the recent influx of movie musicals but seem to want to ignore that in the mid 1900s, book and previous theatre adaptations were dominating the theatre scene. It’s just that now movies are one of the most popular ways the public consumes entertainment, so that’s what musicals are made of. I imagine it will continue to go like this. In 20 years we might musicals based on popular YouTube videos, or something going on in social media. Or some weird virtual reality musical. What musicals are based off will continue to evolve with what people are entertained by. Musicals being based off of something isn’t a new phenomenon and anyone claiming it is has a really short memory. Theatre has never really been a major medium for producing original content, and I don’t think it ever will be.

Instead of worrying about how much of the content is original, how about we just worry about how much of it is quality? I personally don’t really care if I’m seeing something original or a remake. I just want to watch something good.

Putting the Tony in the Tony Awards

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For a little over a month, we here at The All Things Broadway Blog have been preparing you for the single biggest night in theatre, and now it’s just about time to wrap up Broadway’s Award Season and look into the future. However, I’m sure just like you, it will take a while for us to debrief from all this madness, and there will still be plenty to discuss, but for now the time for preparation has come to an end. If you’ve not finished planning your tony parties yet, or made your predictions on who the winners will be, or if you still don’t even know what the heck I’m talking about, then you are almost out of time because this Sunday June, 10th at 8/7 Central, only on CBS, it’s finally time for the moment we’ve all been waiting for...The 72nd Annual Tony Awards!

The History of Broadway And The Musicals That Call It Home- The Tony Awards Special!
Have you ever wondered how award shows came into being? Or where the awards came from? I mean, who even designed the physical Tony Award? All good questions and well, I’m sure there’s a book somewhere that will tell you all that because that’s way too much for me to research. I’m kidding of course, it was legendary Art Director Herman Rosse. However, there is one question I really do want to get to the bottom of today and that is, why the Tony Awards? I mean have you ever thought about why our award shows are named what they are, I mean sure there named after people, but who? Who was the original Oscar, is he the guy the statuette was based off of? What about the Pulitzer Prize, I mean, why do we have an award based off a guy who swindled a bunch of kids just trying to sell papes? I mean, who even is this “Tony”? Well, every name has a story as you may know, and the story of the Tony Awards goes way back to 1917 in where else, but New York City.

Charitable Beginnings
In 1917 right before America would enter World War I, the country was feeling patriotic and everyone was doing their effort in the war, including Rachel Crothers who decided to create the Stage Women’s War Relief. She and several other theatre women made uniforms, collected food and clothing, and sold Liberty Bonds, but of course being actresses and playwrights, they also raised money the best way they knew how to - through performing. They built a makeshift Liberty Theatre outside of the New York Public Library, and in total, the group ended up raising a ton of money for the war effort, and you might not know Crothers today or her small organization, but you might know it by its updated name.

 The Birth Of The American Theatre Wing
The Stage Women’s War Relief was abandoned after the end of World War I, but as you all may now, it wasn’t very many years after the first war that we discovered just that. It was only the first, and once again at the beginning of World War II, Crothers was ready to get back to work and re-established the organization as a branch of the British war relief. However, when America decided it was time to enter the war, Crothers renamed the organization to something you might know a little better today- The American Theatre Wing - which focused on the American war effort and got straight to work, getting back to its New York roots and opening the stage door canteen to entertain servicemen in America. They raised money, boosted ally spirits, and once again did what they did best, put on shows. However, after the War ended suddenly, the Wing had once again lost purpose. But unlike after World War I, it didn’t disband and instead kept going stronger than ever, and though the war was over they still assisted veterans on their way home and helped in the effort to move on from the war. They then started to establish themselves and help grow the expanding world of theatre and in 1946, The American Theatre Wing was about to make one of its biggest contributions to theatre history yet, after the call for an award banquet for New York's distinguished actors was made. The award would be given to those working on Broadway, The Tony Award, named after who it was dedicated to.

 Antoinette Perry And The Tony Awards
Why the Oscars? Why the Oliviers, why do we name awards after people, and who even are the people we name them after and in this case, who is Antoinette Perry? She is, as you may be able to guess, the namesake of the Tony Awards but, who is she? We haven’t discussed her yet and odds are the name isn’t ringing a bell. Well, she is an integral part of not only the story I just told you but also of theatre history. You see, as I said, Crothers established the organization, but when she brought it back after World War I as the all new, American Theatre Wing she didn’t do alone and I purposefully left out one of her key new members, the co-founder Antoinette Perry.

Perry is known as an actress, producer, and director, but most of all for her role in the wing in World War II. She created scholarship opportunities, funded works of new plays, and supported the theatre in every way possible. To give you an idea of who Perry was, when she died in 1946, she was $300,000 in debt, and that was purely because Perry gave everything she had to theatre. Her daughter described her as a bit of a gambler but that all her winnings went straight to providing for the theatre wing. Once a reporter asked her, “Why do you give so much time and money to such thankless activities?” to which Perry replied, “Thankless? They’re anything but that, I’m just a fool for theatre.” Perry was anything but a fool, though. It was clear to her friends and coworkers that she had a passion for theatre like no other, and that’s exactly why when she did die in 1946 from a heart attack, it was no question to Brock Pemberton, head of the Wing at the time, that the new award would be named “The Antoinette Perry Award For Excellence In Theatre”, or as it would catch on, The Tony Awards.

So, if you get anything from the article get this, winning the Tony Awards isn’t the huge deal we make it out to be because it’s exclusively for Broadway, or it’s so hard and exceptional, but because it’s something reserved for only the most passionate and exceptional individuals: those who represent what Antoinette Perry stood for and would gladly give their life for theatre. So, if any of you reading this ever do win a Tony, maybe skip the note cards, and skip drawn out speeches and simply say, “I’m just a fool for theatre,” because it means so much more than the audience may ever know and if you do end up thank anyone, thank Antoinette Perry, the war supporter, theatre legend, and woman who lived her life to help grow this wonderful artform into what we know today.

And ever since that first Awards Banquet in 1947 where no medallions were even given out just jewelry and other valuable accessories we have had 71 ceremonies since. With changes to awards, changes to locations, and changes to theatre in general, the Tony Awards are now able to be seen by everyone since they've been broadcast on CBS since 1967, and its brought everyone a little closer into the world of theatre we know and love and given everyone the chance to get involved in the event. As we approach the 72nd show, it’s nice to look back onto humble beginnings in times of war and at those often unheard who paved the way for not only The Tony’s today, but theatre in general, and as well to look forward to the future as The Tony Awards is looking into the digital age and may soon find another home outside of just television, but also Broadway and the bright future of this ever growing artform.

So that’s the history of the Tony Awards! Do you enjoy this history stuff? I mean love it, but I want to see what you think, do you want more of this or should I write about other things tell me in the comments below and as always, make sure to be there or be square, unless you’re Ethan Slater who has to be there AND be square. Make sure to tune into The Tony Awards on CBS at 8/7 Central this Sunday! Wait, though I know what you’re already saying what about all of us not in America, worry not friends overseas because I got your back. I’d like to refer you to https://www.tonyawards.com/en_US/tonynight/international_viewing.html which tells you everything you need to know about overseas watching. But for those of us in America, tune into CBS, jump on the couch, pop some popcorn, and get ready to either hate or love the American Theatre Wing, you know, the ones who decided The Producers was absolutely worth a record number of Tonys and they are totally right, but also that Big Fish couldn’t even get a nomination. What?!? Sorry, Darren already covered that one, still mad about it though. I love Big Fish if you can’t tell. I mean would it have won, no probably not. But not even a nomination? I mean Nice Work If You Can Get It got a nomination for Best Musical in 2012 and that’s just a jukebox musical featuring an already done Gershwin plot and the absolute worst of Matthew Broderick practically being carried by Kelli O’ Hara, but Big Fish featuring my favorite boy, Norbert Leo Butz, can’t even get a nomination for Best Musical, and speaking about 2012, don’t even get me started on Newsies losing to Once, because we will be here all day.

Well that’s it for me, thankfully. I’ve been Taylor and I can't wait to watch the Tony Awards with all of you guys. So, thanks for reading. I encourage you if you’re just finding the blog to go back and read the other entries the team has made over the past month and make sure to keep up to date, as we all have much more to talk about and of course, if I haven’t said it enough, make sure to tune into The 72nd Annual Tony Awards Live on CBS at 8/7 Central! Thanks once again and have a great Thursday everyone.

 

 

 

Very Superstitious (13 Theater Superstitions)

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Taylor Lockhart

I’d like to start off with a story, It all starts in 1991 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City, New York. When a man named George Isaac Roberto Stevenson The Second was working backstage as stage manager for the play, Lost In Yonkers. George had been with the show since its opening and was a long time worker of the theatre about to retire after this final show. Many of the cast and crew at the time had planned a surprise party for George’s final day with the theatre to bid him goodbye. He walked in prepared to tell the cast to get into their places just when they were about to cut a cake that said, Good Job Getting Out Of Yonkers George! The surprise should have gone great except George and the crew were running late and the show should have already started. Running down the hallways he entered into the green room ready to yell places when the person cutting the cake had the knife positioned in the wrong place at the wrong time and George came bounding into the room. If it hadn’t had been for an askew prop causing him to trip he would have ran face first into the knife. He ended up breaking his left leg in the process but remarked how close the blade was to his face and actually credited the trip for saving his life. He of course had to bring up the safety concerns later but ended up staying another year before retiring, and every night before the cast went on would say, Break a Leg. No one understood why until they heard the story and when he left slowly the story stopped being told but the tradition just stuck, and now it’s highly likely you two have said Break a leg before opening a show

So Now might be a good time to let you know that everything you just read was a lie, but it probably made you think about where the phrase, “Break a Leg” actually comes from and why it’s considered bad luck to say good luck before a show. Well you’re in luck. See what I did there, because today you’ll be learning that and the meaning of 12 other theatre superstitions. Why 13? Well, It’s supposed to be a friday the 13th thing but im like 12 days late so pretend your reading this 2 Fridays ago. Anyways Follow me, read along and we’ll gather round the ghost light and get very superstitious.

#13   No Wearing Blue Or Green On Stage
This is one you probably haven’t heard before and most likely never will, because it would make productions of Wicked, Shrek, Beauty and the Beast, Heathers, and many others near impossible to do. However, there is a very good reason why it was once considered bad luck to wear blue on stage and that is blue dye back in the day was somewhat rare and very expensive and some theatres even went bankrupt putting on a wealthy facade by having actors and actresses adorned in blue clothing. As for green, back when shows were frequently done outside wearing green clothing acted as an accidental camouflage and caused actors to not stick out and be noticeable on the stage. There have also been times yellow clothing has been considered bad luck because of its connection to satan, you may have heard before that a yellow bird means a bad omen, this is because of that connection. Of course today, blue dye is abundant, shows are performed inside, and hardly anybody would associate yellow with the devil.

#12   Bad Dress Rehearsal
This superstition is fairly easy to see where it comes from, It is believed that if you have a bad dress rehearsal before opening night than it is actually a sign of good luck that your show will do well. Obviously this isn’t always the case, and if you’re having severe problems the day before a show they most likely won’t just disappear because there's an audience. When your a director though it can be just as dangerous to go into opening night with fear and uncertainty so with a bit of superstition and white lies, You may give the cast just what they need to believe they can have an incredible opening and then some of the problems may seem to just fix themselves with a bit more confidence. I don’t know, I generally think it’s pretty terrifying to go into opening on a low note so whatever you can do to boost morale is probably the best thing.

#11   No Peacock feathers
This one is rather short but it was once believed that the peacock represented the eye of evil and that using and wearing them on the stage would lead to sets collapsing, fires, and other horrific disasters

#10   No Mirrors
This is one is actually quite practical and less superstitious, it is considered bad luck to use a mirror on stage because breaking one will cause seven years of bad luck for the theatre and while that most likely isn’t true using mirrors on stage can lead to reflections of light shining in the eyes of the audience, and cast and crew member which may not cause the stage to catch fire but can be quite annoying and lead to problems or technical difficulties.

#9   No Real Money
This superstition comes from the fear of cast members stealing props and is still widely used today because why would you even use real money

#8   No Real Jewelry
This holds the same purpose as the former but isn’t as widely used today. Both items being used are said to cause bad luck, and if you consider having a valuable prop stolen bad luck then yeah, I guess you’re right.

#7   No Whistling
It is said to cause bad luck whistling on or off stage and just in a theatre in general, this must make Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle fun to figure out how to perform. In reality like the others this comes from a time when headsets didn’t exist and some crews consisted of sailors due to the similarities of ropework. They would often use whistling as cues and so if an actor or actress whistled at the wrong time it could mean disaster and a possible date with death and sandbags.

#6   Sleep with your script
Have you ever heard someone say sleeping with your textbook under a pillow causes the information to somehow enter your head. Well, that’s just simply stupid and not true but theatre has its own version of that. It is said that sleeping with your script under your pillow can help you learn lines faster, but don’t try this out hoping to learn all your lines the day before your show. You may find it surprising to learn you won’t be able to catch up on practice in your dreams.

#5   Flowers Before a Performance
It's likely everyone who has performed has received or at the very least watched someone else receive flowers once before, and if that’s the case please go out and buy yourselves some flowers you really deserve it. Well, while that’s for some a pivotal part of opening night. Many actors and actresses wouldn’t accept flowers until after curtain call because they believed receiving them before led to a bad performance. I can’t say I disagree, It’s not going to cause your show to go terribly wrong but it’s good to be rewarded after you’ve finished the job. It is also commonly believed you should leads flowers from a graveyard, but don’t do that. Seriously please don’t go steal flowers from someone's grave.

#4   “Break a Leg”
And now maybe one of the most famous sayings and superstitions of all and we have no idea why we say it or where it comes from. I know that’s kinda anticlimactic but its the truth, there is no definite origin. Its believed it may come from understudies jokingly saying to break a leg so that they can go on. It might have its roots in greek theatre, or it might be referring to the actual curtain called the leg, in which breaking the leg meant to go on and perform. These all work pretty well as origins. It could also be rooted in the idea to wish good luck is bad luck and so you wish bad luck in order to receive good luck. That makes about as much sense as it sounds but superstitions aren’t generally smart. All you need to know is never say good luck or you may cause your performance of the worst most disreputable musical in existence to go horribly right and  turn into a fun satire. If you don’t know the reference just look it up something should come up.

#3   Goodnight Olive
These final 3 aren't so much outdated practical rules, or weird beliefs as they are theatre’s ghost stories. I mean one of them will literally have ghost in the name so that might hint to something. Anyways, Goodnight Oliver is a superstition rooted in the New Amsterdam Theatre. That Ziegfeld girl Olive Thomas haunts the theatre. There have been numerous occasions of security guards feeling a tap on their back like someone was playing a trick on them but when they turn around no one is there. One security guard ended up calling the president of Disney Theatricals and owner of the New Amsterdam theatre after an encounter. Once while a group of people were talking about Olive backstage, while talking about the film The Artist one person asked what Olive would think about the film causing then several dvd’s to fly off a table. People believe she likes the attention her haunts cause. They now keep a picture of her backstage and say goodnight to it every night as some sort of gesture of respect.

#2  The Ghost Light
Mostly the ghost light is used for safety purposes, and the to keep away from the danger of walking off the stage into the pit. It is one singular light left on in the theatre when the rest are turned off. However, because theatre people are very superstitious the ghost light is said to ward off ghosts, including very famously the mischievous ghost of Thespis a greek actor credited as the first to step out of the chorus. It is also used to help ghosts see in the dark and keep from bumping into scenery. Many theatres use it and The New Amsterdam theatre previously listed actually has a lot more than just a single light because people are very very sure that Olive haunts the place.

#1  The Play That Should Not Be Named
Oh come on, you all knew this would be #1. By far the most famous theatre superstition of all time, the forbidden word, referred to as the Scottish play. Macbeth, now the superstition goes it causes extreme amounts of bad luck to say the words Macbeth on stage or in a theatre. I don’t think it’s bad luck to type it and I’m not in a theatre so it should be fine, but if you’re in a theatre reading this currently you may not want to read this out loud. The origin of the superstition comes from the belief that the spells in the Three Witches scene are real or were real and used by Shakespeare unknowingly until a group of people made him rewrite it. The accidents caused by uttering the forbidden name date back all the way to the shows opening when it was said an actor died when a real dagger was used instead of a prop one. The difference between and the others though is that this one is widely believed and though many myself included simply have fun with the theatre inside joke there are many who believe it ruins shows and curses theatres. Many hardcore believers even make you perform a cleansing ritual that varies but often involves spinning around three times and reciting a line from one of Shakespeare's other plays. Since it is a superstition there is really no way to prove or disprove it and it remains one of theatres unspoken rules, Never say the name of the Scottish play. Just about every theatre can list an instance of accidents happening afterwards or commotion caused by fear of the curse. While it’s fun to watch non theatre people scratch their heads when the room goes silent after its nothing to let get in the way of a show and when working with little ones can cause quite a commotion. So often it’s best to just refer to it as the Scottish play to avoid fear and people making you do a cult like ritual, which to be fair theatre is sort of a cult isn’t it?

Are there any superstitions I missed? Do you have any stories of ghosts or ghost light mishaps in your theatre, and do you believe in the Macbeth superstition? Tell me down below and remember to check back in the future for more history, theatrics, and possibly spooky ghost stories.

 

Oh and don’t turn off that light when you leave, I’d hate to leave our friends alone in the dark.

The History of: Broadway and the Musicals that Call it Home

Consisting of 33 miles, or 55 kilometers the Manhattan road known as Broadway is home to many of New York’s treasures. The area its most known for though is the Theatre District that runs from 42nd Street to 53rd Street and emcompesses Times Square, often reffered to as The Great White Way of Broadway. Musical theatre has become synonymous with Broadway and it’s easy to say the art form holds a ginormous presence in all of New York City. Your clearly here because you love the place or at least the shows it gives home to. Whether you’ve listened to Hamilton once or are one of the 7 people alive who have seen Legs Diamond you’d probably like to know a bit more about this whole broadway thing.  So if you’re as ready as I am let's right into it and talk history, of course not the actual road itself though im sure you’re very interested in reading about how the Wickquasgeck (try pronouncing that right) trail eventually came to be known as Broadway, I’ll give you a clue it involves stealing it from the Native Americans. No, I’m sure you’re much more interested in what’s on the streets- it’s many diverse and entertaining musicals! Also occasionally plays but the history of theatre in general is terrible because it actually starts from almost the beginning of time so we’ll just be crash coursing through the history of musical theatre as we know it today. Going from where I believe is a good place to start and showing you how we got to shows like Dear Evan Hansen and Newsies and the chain of ideas and influences that led to the Broadway we know today. So without any further ado. My names Taylor, There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow. And this is- The History Of: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!

But What Is Oklahoma?

I assume most of you know what Oklahoma! Is, but considering I still have friends that shake their heads when I mention The Music Man I guess I can’t be too sure. Nevertheless Oklahoma! Is a 1943 Broadway musical by American composer Richard Rodgers and American lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, I’ve noticed nobody really names their children after themselves anymore, probably a good thing. You should probably know these two because they are probably the most famous musical theatre duo of all time, let alone possibly one of the most famous duos of all time and definitely some of the most famous in their respected jobs. Bottom line is Rodgers and Hammerstein is a huge name in musical theatre. One we’ll definitely focus on a ton in this article, and their show Oklahoma! Is about the Oklahoma territory before its become a state and the lives and romances of the people who live there. You can read a full plot synopsis down below. Right there, just scroll down a bit. It’s really long, has a bunch of parenthesis, you can’t miss it.

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A “Brief” Plot Synopsis of Oklahoma!

Alright, Good you made it. Anyways Its 1906 in the Oklahoma territory and cowman Curly Mclain is just out and about singing about how great a day it’s going to be ("Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'") as he wanders into Laurey Williams yard to kinda sorta if the two can stop teasing each other ask her to the box social dance that night where they’ll be auctioning off picnic baskets to help raise money for the school house. Laurey upon him finally asking her refuses because he’s waited till the literal day of. Curly tries to persuade her claiming he has the best ride money can buy and she should just imagine what it would be like going with him in it ("The Surrey with the Fringe on Top") she continues to tease him though and Curly getting frustrated tells her he made the whole thing up, this upsets Laurey and she forces him away unaware he actually has rented such a ride. When the farm hand Jud Fry asks Laurey out for the social she accepts his offer to spite Curly even though she’s somewhat afraid of Jud. Meanwhile Cowboy Will Parker has recently returned from the city with all sorts of news to share (“Kansas City”) He also has won 50$ in a steel roping contest which is what Ado Annie’s father needs Will to possess in order to marry her. However in a blunder he spent all of it in order to buy gifts for Ado Annie and a tube holding scandalous pictures for Ado Annie's father unaware there’s a hidden blade inside of it. Later, Ado Annie confesses to Luarey that she’s been seeing a persian peddler Ali Hakim. Laurey pushes her friend to choose one of them but Annie claims she can’t choose because she loves them both (“I Cain’t Say No”) Laurey and her friends prepare for the box social and when Gertie Cummings a local girl flirts with Curly. Laurey claims to her friends she doesn’t love him. (“Many A New Day”) Andrew Carnes, Ado Annie’s father finds Annie and Hakim together and forces at gunpoint Hakim to agree to marry her, Hakim and a few other towns men are very outraged by this (“It’s an Scandal! It’s an Outrage”) Then Laurey tries to convince both herself and Curly that the two aren’t in love (“People Will Say We’re In Love”) hurt by Laureys refusal Curly goes off to find the guy she is going with and... convince him to kill himself?!? Wait hold on is that right? Thatt cannot be right. No, No Yeah that’s right. Curly actually tries to convince Jud because he’s not appreciated and no one really likes him he should hang himself and taht way people would care about him after he was dead and the song of course is appropriately titled (“Poor Jud Is Dead”) Like Curly, I get it rejection is hard but isn’t that a bit far. That’s like JD levels of overreaction. Anyways, Laurey not sure whether she should go with Jud or Curly purchases a “magic potion” which is actually a form of opium and has a dream about it. In the dream she is about to marry Curly and when her veil is uncovered Jud is standing in front of her. She realizes Jud would be a terrible husband and then Curly comes back to defend her and then Jud kills him. Laurey wakes up just for Jud to stroll on by and pick her up for the social. There's a fun square dance in which everyone realized the Farmer and the Cowman who tension is high between should just be friends ("The Farmer and the Cowman") Ali Hakim in an effort to rid himself of Ado Annie buys all of Wills souvenirs from him for 50$ and Jud buys the viewer with the hidden blade from him. Will then bids all of his 50$ on Ado Annie’s basket leaving the peddler to have to bid 51$ so Will can marry Ado Annie. Jud and Curly both compete for Laureys basket, Jud bidding his entire life savings and Curly bidding everything he needs to be a cowman, his horse, his saddle, and his gun. Curly wins the auction and later Will and Ado Annie have a conversation about staying faithful to each other (“All Er Nuthin”) Jud tries to discreetly kill him with the hidden blade. Aunt Eller stops this and Jud goes off to see Laurey. They have an unpleasant conversation and when Laurey feels uncomfortable with Jud she fires him and orders him off her property. Jud leaves and Laurey runs to Curly afraid of what Jud might do next but Curly promises to protect her (“People Will Say We’re In Love (Reprise)”) The peddler bids Ado Annie goodbye telling her Will is the man she should marry. Three weeks later, Curly and Laurey are married and the territory finally becomes a state (“Oklahoma!”) Hakim returns with his new wife Gertie who he was once again forced by shotgun to agree to marry and a drunken Jud returns and harasses Laurey. He and Curly get into a fist fight with Jud ultimately falling on his knife and dying. There’s a quick trial where Curly is found “Not Guilty!” by means of self defense.and he and Laurey ride off to their honeymoon in a surrey with fringe on the top (“Finale Ultimo”)

 

Rodgers and Hammerstein before Oklahoma!

Okay, So now if you’re still here you know full well the story of Oklahoma! And obviously that synopsis doesn’t do it justice. I’d still try to go see it for yourself of watch the 1955 movie. Actually you can go do that right now. Go on, you can walk away and watch it and I’ll still be here when you get back. It really is great piece of classic cinema, We’ll talk about it later obviously...Oh are you back? Ok, by now you know full well the story and it might be surprising to you that this was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first show together. They were in now way new to broadway though, not at all. In fact by 1943 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were already veterans to the broadway scene. Rogers having notably worked on Pal Joey in 1940 and Hammerstein having worked on Show Boat in 1927. A show we will definitely talk about later. They weren’t huge world known names  yet either. Because before Rodgers and Hammerstein, they were simply Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, well to be fair Rogers was Rodgers and Hart but that doesn't matter yet. Going back to the very very beginning Richard Rogers was born to Mamie and Dr. William Abrahams Rodgers in Arverne, Queens, New York City. He began piano at age six and composed some of his first songs in his teenage years. He studied at Columbia University where he eventually transferred to the Institute of Musical Art now known as Juliard and in 1919 Rogers met Lorenz Hart, there you see Rodgers and Hart now it matters. The two of them over the next couple of years went on to write several mediocre musical comedies struggling in that field. However eventually they broke out Rogers having said to have believed the song “Manhattan” made their names known. They worked on more broadway shows and also worked in Hollywood looking for greener pastures however their last show, By Jupiter marked the ending of Rodgers and Hart partnership and the beginning of something much bigger. On the other hand Oscar Greeley Clendenning Hammerstein II was born in New York City, the son of Alice Hammerstein (née Nimmo) and theatrical manager William Hammerstein. His father though a theatrical person was opposed to is son going into the arts and pushed him to study law at Columbia University. When he was 19 his father died of Bright’s disease. After his father's death  he went on to write and star in several shows eventually making it to broadway with first musial, Always, You. Throughout the next 40 years he collaborated with many people doing lyrics and book writing the huge theatrical breakthrough that is often credited as the first book musical, Show Boat which would lead to the creation of Oklahoma! Among all of those collaborations though was his most famous, Richard Rodgers


 

The Dirt Road To Oklahoma!

The idea for Oklahoma came about when The Theatre Guild produced Lynn Rigg’s play Green Grow The Lilacs. The play was rather unsuccessful however ten years later Theresa Helburn co director of the guild saw a production done with folk music and square dances seeing it she had the idea to revive the struggling guild using a musical of the play. She contacted Rodgers and Hart who were interested in doing it. Rodgers asked Hammerstein as well to collaborate in the process who had said a few years earlier in By Jupiters if Hart were unavailable to work he would gladly step in and soon Rogers decided to take Hammerstein up on his offer after Hart overcome by alcoholism and no desire to write anymore forced the two to split paths. Rodgers and Hammerstein was born and the two worked incredibly well together.They both preferred to write lyrics before music and the new risky partnership proved to be a success as the two frequently agreed with each other and decided to an incredibly innovative move that music should dictate the source material, a change from the usual style of the time. They both got to work and soon Lynn Rigg’s Green Grow The Lilacs started to turn into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s, Away We Go?

 

From Territory To State

Yes, the show wasn’t given the name, Oklahoma! Until right up into its opening on Broadway.It was originally titled Away We Go. A lot less memorable isn’t it? Once the show had its music layed down and its story ready to be performed the two got to work on casting it and bringing the whole thing to life. Roles in musicals at the time were generally filled by actors who could sing but Rodgers and Hammerstein instead chose to cast singers who would act. Director Theresa Helburn suggested they cast Shirley Temple as Laurey, and Groucho Marx as Ali Hakim. Though Rodgers and Hammerstein pushed for performers more appropriate to the show as a result no stars were cast, a very unusual thing at the time.The show ended up being choreographed by Agnes de Mille a ballet choreographer who never had worked on broadway up until them. Agnes de Mille decided to cast dancers based on talent rather than looks another very unusual and innovative thing for time. She also added in one of the shows most famous features, The act 1 finale or The Dream Ballet. The show opened with out of town tryouts at New Havens, Shubert Theatre on March 11th, 1943, expectations were low with the musical not being a comedy and Hammerstein having worked on 5 flops in a row. After the number, “Oklahoma!” was added which also gave the show opened on March 31st 1943 and despite review initially being just fair. Oklahoma on broadway was an unexpected and unprecedented hit.

 

Oklahoma! To Broadway and Beyond

The musical soon was frequently sold out with enormous lines in order to buy tickets. Never had a musical became so successful as Oklahoma! In a time where the most successful musicals ran 400-500 performances, Oklahoma! By the end of its 5 year run had done 2,212 performances. It wasn’t until My Fair Lady in 1956 a show beat it out for longest running musical. It still stands today as the 31st longest running broadway show of all time. It was safe to say Oklahoma was a smash hit. Originally consisting of Alfred Drake as Curly, Joan Roberts as Laurey, Celeste Holm as Ado Annie, Howard Da Silva as Jud Fry, Betty Garde as Aunt Eller, Lee Dixon as Will Parker, and Joseph Buloff as Ali Hakim. Just one year later the first of several National US Tours began and in 1945 the US sponsored the show to perform for troops in the war, The show had the first of 4 broadway revivals in 1951 and another just two years later in 1953 for the tenth anniversary. A production also opened in the West End in 1947 being the first postwar wave of musicals to reach the West End. There was then another broadway revival in 1979 at The Palace Theatre which was directed by William Hammerstein, Oscars son. The show also had two West End revivals one in 1980 and 1998 this cast featured little known at the time Hugh Jackman as Curly Mclain who would go on to star as The Wolverine and eventually return to musicals with Les Miserables and The Greatest Showman. There have also been many London tours. Another Broadway revival opened in 2002. The show has also been done in Japan as well as in Sand Springs, Oklahoma The Discoveryland theatre would show the musical nightly over summers from 1977 until 2011 eventually causing Mary Rogers and William Hammerstein to designate the theatre the, “National Home of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!”

Oklahoma also had a film adaption in 1955, seven years after the original broadway production though it was produced with Samuel Goldwyn it was the first movie musical of its time where direction was in complete control of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The movie was one of the firsts to be shot in Todd-AO. The film omitted the songs “Lonely Room” and “It's a Scandal! It's an Outrage!” and sensored several lyrics to pass movie ratings. It went on to win 3 oscars for Best Music, Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, and Best Sound.  Between being the first musical to have a record released with the original broadway cast, the incredible success of both the musical and the movie. Oklahoma! Went for a critics choice for failure to the biggest musical of its day but it did a lot more than just acquire fame. It expanded on the previous idea of a book musical set down by shows like Show Boat And created a new standard, a new artform all together- Musical Theatre.

 

The legacy of Oklahoma! 75 year later

I’ve set out to show you the history of musical theatre and to start anywhere else would be silly. Although the credit for the first book musical typically goes to Show Boat, Oklahoma! Is the breakthrough of everything happening in theatre in the 1930-30’s. I’ve mentioned before a lot about war and it should be a friendly reminder that when Oklahoma opened it was only two years past Pearl Harbour and America entering the war. A time marked with The Great Depression and people looking for an escape within the theatre from the struggles of everyday life, was coming to an end and even though these problems and more loomed over people’s head. It was time for America to grow up and face its problems head on and that’s all the same for musical theatre. I know when I mention Oklahoma! It certainly doesn’t come to mind as a serious play, but for the time it was. It came down simply to Oklahoma! wasn’t a comedy. When Jud threatened to kill Curly it wasn’t for laughs it was real. There were real stakes and real drama and the music and dance rather than show off for the audience reflected that. It was used simply to drive forward the plot. When Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to put the source material first and work off of that it was maybe the best decision they ever made. The book musical, a thing that thankfully nowadays doesn’t even need to be said was finally here to stay. Rodgers and Hammerstein would go on to make some of the most well known broadway musicals of all time like Carousel and The Sound Of Music. Hammerstein would go on to mentor another well known composer Stephen Sondheim. They worked on countless shows and helped establish a new artform known as musical theatre. Oscar Hammerstein II died on August 23rd 1960 and Richard Rogers died on December 30th, 1979. There legacy is unfathomable and some would argue they are the best Broadway composers of all time. Oklahoma! though nowadays perceived as an old out of date musical is maybe one of the most inspirational and important musicals of all time. Oklahoma! and definitely Rodgers and Hammerstein helped created musical theatre. It’s possible to argue that without them no musicals today would exist and Broadway would look a lot different. Agnes de Mille helped tear down the chorus line by being one of the first to cast by talent instead of looks. The dream ballet was used quite a bit throughout shows after Oklahoma though isn’t used much anymore. Oklahoma this year is 75 years old. It celebrated the anniversary of its opening night 5 days ago and still 75 years on its frequently performed and a staple of the golden age of Broadway. To most it issued in the golden age of Broadway. The show led to the creation of many others that would go on to inspire those after it and through that line we eventually get to today and what broadway looks like now. We’ll continue down that line by discussing a show that took large amounts of inspiration from Oklahoma! And went on to inspire countless musicals of its own, all that and more Next time on. The History Of: Broadway And The Musicals That Call It Home

 

Heres three quick little Oklahoma facts that I didn’t get the chance to discuss

-The song “Oklahoma!” is in fact the state song of Oklahoma

-There are a lot of parodies of Oklahoma in popular culture, I will leave you to look those up

-For a very long time the peddler Ali Hakim was played by a white man, although its said multiple times he’s persian. That's the 40’s for you and basically every era up until the civil rights movement.

Do you want to go see Oklahoma! now? Not sure where it’s playing? Well luckily for you I might have a solution

The Marriott Theatre in Illinois April 11 - June 10, 2018- http://www.marriotttheatre.com/

Derby Dinner Playhouse in Kentucky April 11th - May 27th, 2018 https://derbydinner.com/show/oklahoma/

Iowa State University April 5th - April 8th http://www.theatre.iastate.edu/

Black Hills Playhouse in South Dakota July 13th - July 29th  https://www.blackhillsplayhouse.com/

Bauxite High School in Arizona April 13th - April 15th 2018

Fort Frye High School in Ohio May 10th - May 12th

Even more listed at http://www.rnh.com/more-productions.html?item_id=OK



Hint for the next article:

Our next musical recently had a high school version premier at the International Thespian Festival last year. What musical am I talking about? Hope you can find out, until then shout a yipeekayay! Your doing fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma, O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A, Oklahoma, Yeow!


 

Picture credits- Courtesy of Rodgers & Hammerstein: A Concord Music Company, www.rnh.com