Off-Broadway

Spotlight on the Small Ones: Zneefrock Productions

Jonathan Fong


In one of my earlier articles on this blog, I praised the smaller, less-known side of theatre—community theatre, amateur dramatics, high school theatre, etc — and how much they truly bring to the theatrical community as a whole. In line with that, I figured I’d start a little series of articles to do just that—put a spotlight onto the lesser-known theatre companies, organizations and people who make theatre what it is.

Zneefrock Productions, based in Woodmere, New York, is a youth theatre company that embodies everything that youth and the next generation bring to theatre. Founded by (then-12 year old) Andrew Feldman in 2014 (yes, the Andrew Feldman that’s currently starring in Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway), it has grown from a simple Bar Mitzvah project of a cabaret of showtunes to an established company who’ve performed everything from fully-fledged licensed productions of big musicals like Seussical and Be More Chill to concert performances akin to their first and even original musicals. And it’s run by teenagers.

They have a mission. The company raises money for, among other organizations, NEXT for AUTISM, an organization supporting people with autism across America in societies and communities; Feldman, who has a cousin with autism, explains in an interview on Odyssey that donating to them was “the obvious choice”. Run by teens at the forefront of the social movements of today, the company draws attention to the social dynamics of modern society in their productions. Their aforementioned production of Seussical, in Feldman’s own words, was a “re-imagining…more stripped-down and socially conscious”, while their novel production of The Last Five Years featured a rotating cast with differing gender pairings, with some performances done traditionally and others with one or both of the two main characters of Jamie and Cathy gender-swapped to explore the differences in gender dynamics caused by the flipping of gender roles and expectations on their head, even if within the confines of the same story.

They don’t mess around either. Their first original musical, a Star Wars parody named SW: A New(sical) Hope written by Feldman and Adrian Dickson, is a full hour and forty minutes long with an intermission to boot (an official recording of the full show can be found on YouTube). They’ve professionally recorded cast albums for their shows—their cast recording for A New(sical) Hope can be found on Soundcloud. And as a non-profit theatre company, they’ve raised over $21,000 US in support of autism-supporting organizations; their very first cabaret raised a thousand dollars for the cause, while more recently their production of Seussical raised $5000 and their production of Be More Chill, staged right before the show’s current Broadway run, raised a full $9000.

The point is—Zneefrock is what theatre should be. Not flashiness or money—they, driven not by money nor visual spectacle but by the society and social movements of today, demonstrate the power of youth. Not just within the theatre, but of theatre itself, in helping those among us in need and putting a spotlight on the chasms and gaps in modern society which need addressing. And with members of their company going on to achieve great things already out there in the world of professional theatre, there’s no doubt that they’re a force to be reckoned with, no matter how small they may appear to be.

Confessions of a Musical Theatre Addict

Chris Lynn

Previously, I wrote a blog about non theatre people who state that they hate musicals.  I gave some advice and suggestions on how to introduce a non theatre person to the wide variety of music and subject matter encompassing musicals via the hater’s personal interests and hobbies. My claim was that there was a musical for everyone and everyone’s interest.

Today’s blog is a similar theme, but instead the focus is on a more insidious hater: the hater within. Before diving in, I have a confession to make. I am a recovering hater.  I loved Be More Chill and hated Rent.  (Oops! I did it again! After reviewing the situation, I think I'd better think it out again!)

Why would a music theatre fanatic expressing hate for a particular show be an insidious act?  Consider the following: (1) Aren’t many of the members on All Things Broadway either very young or very new to the world of music theatre?  (2) Which were the first musicals that swept you into the world of music theatre? Certainly a goal of All Things Broadway as well the goal of many of you readers is to encourage and promote more theatre.  Trashing a specific musical that is the catalyst for a newbie losing their showtune virginity is counterintuitive to this goal. Most of us can remember our firsts! My first loves were Fiddler On the Roof and Phantom of the Opera.  I still have a fondness and reminisce my date with Fiddler.  While I once loved Phantom, I have moved on and feel like Little Red Riding Hood as I have discovered many more musicals: “I know things now, many valuable things, that I hadn't known before” (Stephen Sondheim).  

Maybe we all need to leave trash talkin’ to those that dribble a basketball and NBA fans that heckle the opposing team’s players and referees. Music theatre is not a spectator sport, (we no longer live in the times of Shakespeare) however, it is an art that requires a great deal of collaboration from a multitude of disciplines. When a musical is successful and wins, we all win.  Instead of bashing a musical or someone’s personal taste, rejoice in their newly found passion and support that passion by suggesting similar shows or other shows that may be of interest.  See my previous blog:

https://allthingsbroadway.com/blog/2019/6/17/a-musical-for-everyone-according-to-their-hobby?fbclid=IwAR3a8uMweLN6tVFfOPJiGe_-6y0Zr-b4E8VvZwnKVlDpyNhiQ7BBLWNnrCE 

Certainly, you can criticize, debate, critique, give your opinion, and analyze a show.  However, all of this can be done respectfully while also preserving and promoting the artform. The same applies to trash talking a new Broadway show by openly hoping for its financial demise.  As evidenced in the title of this blog, I loved Be More Chill.  I get the argument that Be More Chill was too small for a larger Broadway stage and more appropriate for a house with smaller audiences.  I also understand that many were annoyed by the obnoxious fanbase. Again, I invite debate and dissenting opinion. However, I will NEVER understand rooting for a show to fail.  I don’t understand it in a cliquey community theatre environment, and I certainly don’t get the motive on a larger national scale. If you truly love music and theatre, you do not hedge bets for music and theatre to fail.

Perhaps some shows are more appropriate for the smaller, more intimate Off-Broadway theatre (100-499 seats).  However, by this logic, these smaller more intimate shows will rarely get the recognition that they deserve. Of course, Off- and Off-Off-Broadway shows have their own recognition awards called the Obie’s. On the other hand, how many of you watch the Obie awards? How many posts on the Obie Awards did you see on All Things Broadway? (I get it.  It is not called All Things Off-Broadway). What kind of national attention do the Obie awards receive? I will debate anyone wishing to compare the quality of Broadway shows to some Off-Broadway shows such as The Adding Machine, Bat Boy, Dogfight, Evil Dead, Floyd Collins, Forever Plaid, The Last Five Years, Murder Ballad, A New Brain, Songs for A New World, and many more that this midwesterner has not been offered exposure priviledges. Thankfully, some of the Off-Broadway shows listed above have enjoyed exposure beyond New York City. Sadly, many more deserving shows have not. Most of them are on the other end of the exposure spectrum than the exceptional granddaddy of them all: The Fantasticks. Again, if the goal is to promote and give exposure to great musical theatre, then why not have some of these shows highlighted on a nationally televised awards show like the Tony Awards?  I would like to see Off-Broadway shows having eligibility to win a Tony or an award with an equivalent media exposure. While I agree that many of the Off-Broadway shows that transfer to Broadway are swallowed whole by cavernous spaces and lose their intimacy and charm, many of them still deserve just as much or more exposure than their razzle dazzle big set design counterparts.  Perhaps the award shows should be split into 2 different shows: one for plays and one for musicals. I know that is probably not the answer, but I certainly would love to see performances of some of these Off-Broadway shows. At the very least, I will be anticipating the Obie Awards with as much enthusiasm, if not more, than the Tony Awards! They have also had some incredible hosts including John Leguizamo, David Pierce Hyde, and Rachel Bloom this past season. Here is a link to the Obie Awards. http://www.obieawards.com/

Julie Bovasso, Shelley Winters and Jason Robards at the 1956 Obie Awards

Julie Bovasso, Shelley Winters and Jason Robards at the 1956 Obie Awards

While I love musicals, I will venture to say that I am probably like many of you. Like you, I have strong opinions and discerning tastes. Some people love every single musical, but I don’t think that applies to most of us. Most of us love many shows, cannot stomach many others, or leave the theatre of some shows indifferent  with an unmemorable impression. Granted there are some shows that you love right from the starting gate. I got a horse right here, his name is Into the Woods or Pippin or Big River. Some shows, unlike one’s personal thoroughbreds, are considered more as icky sticky glue. For me, those shows are Cats, Rent, and  (Sondheim fans around the world take a collective GASP!) Passion. Still, there are many other shows I am willing to give a second chance on a different race track (theatre company), managed by a different trainer (director), with different jockeys (leading players). Recently, in the role of hater, I made a snippy comment about a musical that was not one of my favorites. I stated that Spring Awakening was basically a story about sexually frustrated and repressed teens. Of course I was called out on my ridiculous overgeneralization by a Spring Awakening fan. Luckily, I was able to swallow my pride and admit that she was correct and there was much more to the musical than just that. I promised to give the show another chance and actually found a production from a reputable theatre next Spring. Who knows?  After seeing a different production I may change my mind. Then again, I may not. Generally I have an aversion to biopic musicals, jukebox musical, and recent non-musical movie stagings. BUT BUT BUT!!!! I am willing to give some of these shows a try. I am willing to shed my hater ways and be a little more open minded. Certainly, I have not seen many of the musicals in these genes, so there is a good chance that my opinions of them could change. I will be seeing an equity production of The Full Monty next week. I adored the movie. Watching the musical with fresh unbiased eyes and ears will be difficult, but I promise to try.

I am sure I am not the only one, but I used to avoid listening to a new musical or reading about it until I personally saw a production. This has become increasingly difficult due to 1) the temptations found on social media and streaming music and 2) living in the midwest and the need to always hear or see something new. For my non theatre friends, appreciating a show beforehand by simply listening to a cast recording is a near impossible task. For theatre folk like us it is both a welcoming reprieve and a curse. Every once in awhile, however, one cannot judge a musical merely from a cast recording. 

What if you are giving your honest opinion about a musical while being respectful of others, yet people still get offended? Well, welcome to today’s world where some people are addicted to outrage. I am a fairly Pollyanna kind of guy. I choose to believe most of us are good as well as smart enough to see when a fellow theatre aficionado is doing their part in creating an honest, open, dissenting, and respectful climate for public discourse. Having said that, the very few that do not fit this description, tend to be much louder and obnoxious than the mainstream. The sheer volume of their few voices makes their numbers seem greater than what they actually are.  What do these outrage addicts look like? They make take personal offense to any criticism of a show that is close to their heart. Honestly, if you are not one of the writers, producers, actors, creative team members, or anyone else directly involved in Tootsie or Beetlejuice, then respectfully, take it down a notch. There are members on All Things Broadway that are indeed involved in a Broadway show in one or more of these capacities. Some get offended by the discussions followed by the barrage of threads on the topic of overrated vs. underrated musicals. While some took offense, a small cadre of users laughed it off, and playfully poked fun at the ridiculous notion of meaningless terms such as overrated and underrated!  

The most disgusting display of outrage is when people are accused of being racist, homophobic, sexist, etc, simply for having a less than favorable opinion on a particular show.  I’ve seen this on All Things Broadway as well as in person in Play Selection Committees that I have served as a member. I have been called any number of these names, and then I did the unspeakable!  I confessed that I hated Shakespeare! Agghhhhhhh!!!!!!!!! Blasphemy!

Most of the disrespectful speech or speech that is counterintuitive in promoting and encouraging the artform of music theatre are listed below

Overly Produced Musicals

In tne of the community theatres that I participate, the mere mentioning of Oklahoma! on the play selection committee becomes a running joke.  I think the show has been produced there at least 7 times during its 40+ years of existence.  Other musicals that fall into this category include

  • Anything Goes

  • Bye Bye Birdie

  • The Sound of Music

  • Guys and Dolls

Please keep in mind that even though these shows are older and considered classics, there are still some people left on the planet who have never seen them either live or on a screen. Even newer shows are being produced quite a bit as well. I would encourage your local theatres to keep revivals limited to at least 5 or 6 years between productions. There is a plethora of worthy musicals for your local community theatres and high schools to produce. Give your audiences a smorgasbord of variety.

Outdated/Racist/Sexist Musicals

The criticism of some of these shows has merit, yet some criticism is overblown outrage as discussed above. One such example is Carousel, a musical with arguably some of the most lush music ever written by Richard Rogers. These themes of domestic abuse, however, are difficult for most of us to swallow. Carousel, indeed is a difficult show to watch. How can one reconcile such a beautiful score with a show that seems to not only accept but encourage a man striking a woman? The challenging bit of dialogue in question follows: “It is possible for someone to hit you. Hit you hard and not feel it at all”. Julie responds to her daughter that yes, it is possible to love someone so much and never feel the physical slap at all. Was Oscar Hammerstein trying to make a point about the power of forgiveness? For many of us, myself included, some acts such as domestic violence are unforgivable, or in the very least should not be tolerated. For me the message of Carousel, was a cautionary tale - a tragedy. Carousel is very real, raw, and relevant today with the themes of domestic violence and the choices many women make in those types of complicated relationships. I suspect we have many real life examples of Julie Jordans walking amongst us today. We scratch our heads when we see them continue to return to their abusive homes, husbands, and boyfriends. We hear these modern day Julies eerily echo the sentiments of Julie Jordan: “He only hits me because he loves me.  It is my fault that he hits me”. For me, this makes Carousel a challenging, important, and ultimately a heartbreaking piece that was actually ahead of it time, rather than outdated.

A show that I do consider outdated and thus somewhat offensive is My Fair Lady. I personally find very little admirable qualities in Henry Higgins. Falling in love with a woman he treats like dirt does not redeem him. Many may argue otherwise, but personally, I just don’t care for this show, or Learner and Lowe’s other musical (Camelot). Both are very pretentious/snooty in my opinion.

Other musicals considered outdated due to culturally sensitivity issues include the following.  You decide if there are merits to these arguments:

  • Annie Get Your Gun

  • The King and I 

  • Showboat

  • The Robber’s Bridesgroom

Rabid Fanbase

While a rabid fanbase can be annoying, please try not to judge a show based on the obnoxious behaviors of its adorers. Of course, Be More Chill is the most recent and newsworthy of this category. Judge the show on its own merits. Some of the shows you will like and some you will not. Try not to allow meaningless terms like overrated, underrated, over appreciated, or underappreciated sway your opinion. Who cares what others think anyway? What a boring world it would be if everyone’s favorite musical was Wicked. For fun, see if you can give the nickname for fans of each musical below:

Rabid Fan Quiz

Musical ----------------------------------------> Nickname of the Fans

Wicked

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Newsies

Fun Home

American Idiot

Spring Awakening

Phantom of the Opera

Les Miserables

Matilda

Heathers

Jeckle and Hyde

Something Rotten

Passing Strange

 

*Answers at the end of this blog.

Biopic Musicals

I am personally not a fan of Biopic musicals. I would rather just see a music artist in concert or (if deceased) on youtube or a film. I have no interest in seeing an impersonation on stage.  Sounds too much like Elvis in Vegas. If you love this type of musical, then more power to you and the musical theatre artform. There is certainly enough room for this sub-genre. If the subgenre plays a small role in bringing in new fans via an already established fanbase, then I say Bravo!  I would suggest, giving your biopic musical loving friend additional suggestions of both bio and non biopic musicals that would be of interest:


Jersey Boys  ---> Forever Plaid

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical  or Motown ---> Dreamgirls or Memphis

Bat Out of Hell---> Rocky Horror Picture Show

Million Dollar Quartet ---> Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story

Always...Patsy Cline---. Pump Boys and Dinettes

Personal Favorites

We all have our personal favorite musicals.  If someone else does not like it or hates it, then who cares?  That should not diminish your joy nor the joy of others who love the same show.  No, No, No, they can’t take that away from me. One of my personal favorites is Stephen Schwartz’s Children of Eden.  As the song goes, the show hits very “Close to Home”. I had once suggested this show in a play committee for an outdoor community theatre. One of the members who had great pull, shot it down with the argument that the show was too long and the story dragged. Of course, the show’s typical running time falls within the average of 2 hours and 30 minutes. Oh well, the show was nixed from our list fairly quickly after that exchange. We all have those shows that seem to have been written specifically for us and our own unique situation in life. Another show that resonates with me and my personal philosophy is a complete unknown late 1970s one man show called Reason and Rhyme or 3 Questions: A Musical Oratorio by Robin Field. See Link below. Funny that my two favorite musicals have never played on a Broadway or Off-Broadway stage. This just goes to show, once again, that great musical theatre is not confined to the Broadway stage, regardless if it has a huge cast and set design or a one man show with only a piano on a bare stage. Link to Reason and Rhyme:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIs9xM7Sac8&t=1698s

Guilty Pleasures

Some of the musicals we love DO NOT have the best music or include corny or contrite dialogue. Yet, we still love them and derive great pleasure from them. You don’t have to remind us! So, don’t poo poo on our parade! One of my favorite guilty pleasures is Evil Dead: The Musical. Yes it is campy, but I think that it is intended to be…. well… stupid. Evil Dead does not take itself seriously. I don’t think the musical mega hit Mamma Mia takes itself seriously as well.  The plot is ridiculous and the song lyrics are woven into the story in a tongue and cheek punfest fashion. Mamma Mia is not my kind of musical, but as evidenced by all the community theatres around the world mounting productions, for many it certainly is their kind of entertainment. What is your favorite guilty pleasure?

Movie Adaptations

When I mention movie adaptations, I am speaking of non musical big box office hit films that made it to the Broadway stage less than 10 years after its initial movie release.  Again, not my preferred musical brand, but my opinion should not interfere with others who love these shows. I’d rather see a story that is not so fresh in my mind with iconic performances so recently established.  As mentioned earlier, I will still give these shows a chance as I am seeing The Full Monty next week.

Slow Moving Shows

Not all shows are full of razzle dazzle or showstopping numbers. Some musicals play out more like a dramatic play. While the music may or may not be memorable after leaving the theatre, these shows can be appreciated if not loved. Musicals that come to mind include: Fun Home, Grey Gardens, and A Little Night Music. Interestingly, most of the songs from Fun Home and Grey Gardens are personally unmemorable, but their stories and dramatic performances left an indelible mark. Conversely, I know all the songs from A Little Night Music and enjoy listening to them, but the show itself (for me) was slow and pretentious. I love you, Sondheim!  Don’t hunt me down and shoot me one of these weekends in the country. Still, I have immense appreciation and respect for A Little Night Music.

Non linear / Non traditional plots

Some people hate musicals that do not follow a traditional plot. I have directed 6 musical productions. Of those musicals, 3 of them were productions of Godspell. My wife and daughter do not like Godspell.  Ironically, I am an atheist, and Godspell is one of my favorites!  Go figure! Special thanks to Mr. Sondheim for starting the trend and giving us great non linear musicals such as Company and Follies.

Objectionable Plots

Are there some shows that include a plot that are a total turn off? Which shows leave a bitter taste in your vibrato? For me those shows are Rent, Grease, and Passion. Most of the musicals I enjoy include characters with strong traits of individualism and a will to overcome. I love the music in Rent, but I have zero empathy for the cadre of characters that beg us to feel sorry for them. I really wanted to love Grease, another show with great songs.  Why did the writers have to create such a terrible ending where Sandy compromises herself? Did she have to fall prey to peer pressure? In order to fit in, she turns into a slut. No thanks. I totally disagree with the concept of unconditional love as portrayed in Passion. Yes, Fosca was sickly, however, I felt like she was suffocating both the leading man and me the entire show by manipulating both of us with unearned guilt. Love without reason? No thanks.

Jukebox

I think I already covered Jukebox musicals both with its cousin, biopic musicals. Enjoy your show Jukebox fans!

Thank you for reading all. Relax! Let’s all agree to agree and agree to disagree. The most important thing to do is go see a musical…..and don’t forget to bring a friend!  After all, just as we learned in The Book of Mormon.

Happy Musical Theatre Humming all!


*Answers to Rabid Fanbase Quiz:

Rent: “Rentheads”

Wicked: “Wikedites”/”ShizKids”/”Mizzies”

Hedwig and the Angry Inch: “Hed-Heads” 

Newsies: “Fansies”

Fun Home: “Fun Homies”

American Idiot: “idiots”

Spring Awakening: “Guilty Ones”

Phantom of the Opera: “Phans”

Les Miserables: “Les MizFits”

Matilda: “Maggots”

Heathers: “Corn Nuts”

Jeckle and Hyde: “Jekkies”

Something Rotten: “Egg-heads”

Passing Strange: “Scaryotypes”