This song, which was written for an early draft of the show and is included on the concept album made during the show’s pre-Broadway stages, is haunting, devilishly erotic and infused with pure, irresistible evil. It’s arguably even an improvement on Frank Wildhorn’s earlier attempt at the same effect, in Hyde’s numbers “Alive” and “Dangerous Game” from Jekyll and Hyde. However, I understand why they ultimately replaced it with “Where’s the Girl?”. Both songs are seductive solos for primary villain Chauvelin, and both are absolutely exquisite songs, ranking with the best material Wildhorn ever wrote. The difference is that “Marguerite”, as stated, is deliciously and palpably evil, and the creators ultimately decided they wanted to portray Chauvelin as more of a tragic, misguided antivillain, a corrupted former hero who didn’t quite notice the point at which he turned into the bad guy. As such, “Where’s the Girl?” is a straightforward and rather sweet love song that doesn’t sound villainous at all, and it establishes this man as not evil by nature and his love for Marguerite as genuine. It also allowed for an intense and angry reprise when Chauvelin finally goes over the edge into unambiguous villainy, something that would have been extremely difficult to do with a song that was already as evil-sounding as “Marguerite”. This song is an interesting illustration of how a genuinely good song may not be right for a particular moment for reasons unrelated to it’s quality, but I will say I am genuinely happy that it did get preserved on the concept recording, because dramatic issues aside, it really is one of the best items written for this show.
Archives for February 2016
Jason Robert Brown’s other show from this era, Honeymoon in Vegas, deserved to be a success, but this one earned its failure fairly, despite having significantly the better score of the two.
This show won a Best Score Tony for a reason; it really is one of the finest theater scores of our time, and might even qualify as the finest thing Brown has written to date, which is no small feat. The show it is most often compared to is Adam Guettel’s magnificent The Light in the Piazza, and I can see why; Brown’s complex, atmospheric music is so lush, fascinating and often sublimely gorgeous that it really does remind one of Guettel’s masterpiece.
It also featured Piazza‘s star, Kelli O’Hara, and while she was actually quite miscast here from a character perspective, far too young-looking for the part and with a rather atrocious attempt at an Italian accent, her marvelous voice and passionate delivery only served to enhance the glories of the score.
But the critical difference between the shows is that The Light In the Piazza had a beautiful story as well as beautiful music. The primary problem that led to this show’s failure is that, for all its virtues, it still carries with it the problems of its source material.
The original Bridges of Madison County novel was the hacky romance-novel sensation of its time…think Twilight without the fantasy elements, or a much less explicit 50 Shades of Grey. And it shares with those books a conviction that its characters are in some kind of transcendental perfect love, as well as a total inability to demonstrate that claim in the actual writing.
The two main characters are nowhere near as likable as the novel’s author apparently thought they were. Leading lady Francesca, the dissatisfied farmwife entering early middle age, is somehow convinced, despite her lack of any serious problems, that she is a tragic heroine, constantly plunging into self-pitying reveries about her largely imaginary sorrows. Leading man Robert Kincaid, on the other hand, is supposed to be a wandering alpha-male philosopher-king, but comes off on paper as a pretentious bore who is nowhere near as interesting as he thinks he is. Their love for each other is frequently stated in increasingly florid terms to be some kind of magical connection that most people never achieve in their lives, but given that they only know each other for three days, their relationship comes off more as a shallow infatuation between two people who barely know each other and are more in love with the idea of this perfect fantasy love than with anything real about each other.
And while Brown finds beautiful music in Francesca’s melodramatic yearnings and manages to capture Robert’s restless spirit in his complex, shifting music, the fact remains that he’s still dealing with these rather insufferable characters, and for all their shimmering love duets full of vaunted language to match the novel’s, their ‘love’ for each other is never entirely convincing.
Also a problem is that none of the other characters in the story matter in the slightest (except, to a very limited extent, Francesca’s husband). The zombie-like chorus of disapproving neighbors, Robert’s ex-wife (who pops up briefly to sing “Another Life”, which is exquisite and touching but just winds up making Robert look like an even bigger jerk), and even Francesca’s two teenage children, are all essentially irrelevant background characters, of little importance to either to protagonists or the authors (in the novel, the kids eventually state outright their unimportance and unworthiness in comparison to their mother’s ‘perfect love’ for Robert). The leads’ indifference to the rest of the world has less the intended effect of making them seem totally enveloped and self-sufficient in their love and more the effect of making both of them seem like the kind of people who think everything is about them and other people are just extras in their movie, especially since they both have this attitude even before they meet each other.
And frankly, the cuckolded husband, who has the only other role of any significance at all, is much more sympathetic than either of the leads. He has completely accepted the fact that his wife doesn’t love him, and yet still shows her an incredible degree of patience and understanding. There’s a reason schlocky romantic melodramas where the leads are adulterers usually make the husband an abusive jerk; here, you wind up feeling sorrier for him than for the protagonists, and Hunter Foster’s touching and nuanced performance, fine as it is, only exacerbates this problem.
In fact, most of the show’s good qualities just wind up emphasizing the fundamental problems of the source material. This really should have been obvious to Brown beforehand, because there had already been an attempt by much greater talents than him to make this material work…the famous 1995 film version. The film certainly made some improvements…Meryl Streep brought an emotional weight and depth to her character’s self-pity that the Francesca of the novel never even approaches, and of course Clint Eastwood can actually make Robert Kincaid seem fascinating, charismatic, and philosophically deep, simply because Eastwood already is all of those things to begin with. And Eastwood’s direction did provide a number of exquisite visual collages, and did what it could to mitigate the problems of the story.
But ultimately, even if the film is much more successful at its attempts to manipulate than the novel, it is still a tedious and manipulative potboiler whose style-over-substance approach to filming cannot overcome the harlequin-romance schlock that forms its actual story content. If Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep couldn’t redeem this material, Brown should have known better than to try it himself. The show is ultimately, like so many Broadway flops, a marvelous score wasted on a bad story, and while it qualifies for the coveted ranks of what we in the business call “Heartbreaker Flops”, it still pretty much got the treatment it deserved.
This show is perhaps the greatest new Concept Musical of the current decade. Its novel central gimmick alienated a lot of people, but so did Merrily We Roll Along, another show with a non-linear storytelling device, and that show is now considered a classic by most serious musical-theater fans. Put simply, it tells two side-by-side stories about the two directions a woman’s life might take depending on one small, seemingly inconsequential choice. It’s an extremely moving, bittersweet show that articulates a lot of profound truths about human existence, with a wonderful score and a luminous star performance by the great Idina Menzel, and deserved far better than the lukewarm reception it received on Broadway.
The score is by the same songwriting team that brought us Next To Normal, and while it follows a more traditional book-musical format than that show’s operatic structure, it features the same combination of incredible emotional intensity and catchy Pop-Rock melodies. Highlights include the funky “It’s a Sign”, the anguished, conflicted “I Hate You”, the quietly heartbreaking “You Learn To Live Without”, the truly beautiful “Love While You Can”, and the thrilling eleven-o’clock number “Always Starting Over”, but virtually all of the music is lovely and does a superb job of dramatizing the story.
Admittedly, the show does have one clear flaw, though that’s only to be expected of a show that takes this many risks. During the first act, while ‘Liz’ and ‘Beth’ are still basically the same person in different circumstances, it can get extremely confusing which story we’re supposed to be watching at the moment. However, in Act Two, the characters have grown into completely different people, so that Menzel can convey the difference instantly simply by her bearing and the look on her face.
Some might take objection to the large number of songs that ruminate directly on the show’s themes (“What If”, “You Never Know”, “Ain’t No Man Manhattan”, “Some Other Me”, “What Would You Do?”)…they’re all fine, intelligently-written work, but this is a show that discusses its thematic concepts very openly, the way a Shaw or Sartre play would, which might strike some as too unsubtle in a modern theater piece (although it’s worth noting that Next To Normal did the exact same thing). Still, the only real dud in the score is the heavy-handed “What the Fuck?” (trying to use profanity for shock value just doesn’t work anymore on post-Book of Mormon Broadway).
But above all else, this show is a marvelous opportunity for Idina Menzel, who gave arguably the best performance of her career in it. Her two big-name co-stars, La Chanze (the original star of Once on This Island) and Anthony Rapp (one of Menzel’s co-stars in the original cast of Rent) both get some splendid opportunities too, but Menzel’s honest, touching, incredibly nuanced turn in this dual role is the heart and soul of the show. The role offers Menzel the chance to show these two women who were once the same person growing in totally different directions, being essentially a vastly subtler version of the possibilities offered by the dual title role in Jekyll and Hyde.
This show seems like the type that is almost sure to be vindicated by history, and its only obstacle will be the difficulty of finding another actress to replace Idina Menzel. In fairness, Menzel has shown an impressive degree of devotion to the show, heading a nationwide tour after the show had essentially flopped on Broadway, but she can’t stay in it forever, and her particular combination of massive Pop-inflected belt voice and incredibly nuanced acting will be hard to find in another performer. Still, there’s probably someone out there who can pull it off, and this show certainly has everything else lined up to be acknowledged as an underrated gem someday.
This production is certainly far from the disaster that the first two live TV musicals in this vein were, but it kind of misses the point of the original material. For the record, while it bills itself as a live production of the Grease stage musical, it very obviously isn’t. This is nothing more than a studio recreation of the famous film version, with most of the plot and character changes made for that version, as well as the four famous songs added for the film version (although to be fair, stage productions generally use those songs too if they can get the rights).
The two best songs from the stage score that didn’t make it into the first movie are added here, and we get a very brief taste of the original opening number, “Alma Mater”, but otherwise the tunestack is indistinguishable from the movie. The cast is pretty uneven, with a lot of polish throughout but mixed returns on actual content. Aaron Tveit as Danny is so clean-cut and whitebread from the beginning that there’s no room for him to develop, and this also makes him laughably unconvincing as the tough-guy delinquent he’s supposed to be. I don’t know what was wrong with Tveit here…he managed to play ‘edgy’ brilliantly in Next To Normal, so I can’t imagine why he comes off so bland here.
Julliane Hough is easily the highlight of the cast…not only is she twenty times the actor Olivia Newton-John will ever be, she’s also a more interesting singer than Newton-John. In fact, her performance is about the only aspect of the show that actually improves on the movie. Vanessa Hudgens is entirely too sophomoric for Rizzo—she has the bitchy Mean Girls ringleader persona down, but that’s not who Rizzo is supposed to be, and her handling of the comedy scenes makes her sound more like a middle-schooler than the experienced, jaded character she’s supposedly playing. I will say, though, that she does better in the second half when she has some real drama to play, which makes a certain amount of sense given what was going on in her life at the time.
Carly Rae Jepsen is a touching, well-sung Frenchie, and the new song they added for her is quite good…I can actually see it becoming a permanent part of the score and being retained for future productions…but its earnest wistfulness does make for a bit of an awkward lead-in to the intentionally ridiculous “Beauty School Dropout”. That said, Boyz II Men are pretty much the closest thing to Frankie Avalon we have in our current culture, so bringing them on to sing the number was an inspired choice. Pop singer Jessie J was also brought on to sing the title-song, but while I’m generally an admirer of her work, without Franki Valli’s vocals to provide that Fifties-Eighties fusion feel, the song just doesn’t sound right.
Overall, though, a few miscastings aside, this production has two overarching problems. The first is that they constantly remind you that this is a live show, putting the studio audience on camera entirely too often and blowing up the bigger numbers with huge throngs of backup singers and dancers who appear out of nowhere in garish costumes that don’t remotely match what the actual characters are wearing. In the finale, the characters even drive right off the studio lot like in Blazing Saddles. The effect of this, at least in this kind of show, is to distance us from the action and prevent us from getting emotionally invested. There’s a reason you don’t do these kinds of things in a film musical; even doing them in stage musicals is tricky.
The other problem is that the production as a whole is far too innocent. Remember, Grease started out as a bitterly raucous spoof of the 1950s, and the film version merely played those elements more subtly, creating a dark subversion of the Frankie-and-Annette film formula while pretending to play it straight. Well, this version does play it straight, and without that dark undertone nearly all of the show’s actual content is lost. This isn’t Grease in any real sense, just a more sophisticated, more adult version of High School Musical. They even use the sanitized ending that was added to the latest revival, but frankly, coming after a production that dropped nearly all of the darker subtext, the original ending would have just come across as the blatantly false attempt at a happy ending it pretends to be on the surface, and no-one watching for the first time would have realized its disturbing implications were intentional. This production was entertaining enough, and it certainly serves as an impressive showcase for the show’s fantastic score, but it isn’t really the same show as the Broadway or film versions, and that comes as something of a disappointment for the show’s fans.