This is less a case of ‘cut song’ per se, and more a case of ‘song revised out of recognition’, since there is still a song with the same melody and title in the current draft of the show, but the song’s lyrics would be pretty much rewritten from the ground up. People who know this show mainly from the cast album may resent these changes, since the song on its own actually works better in the original version, but I get why the changes were made. The original song is the direct ancestor of Gaston’s “Me” from Beauty and the Beast, albeit with more interesting music, and paints a hilariously perfect picture of swaggering male egotism. The problem is that it paints Dominique as a conceited, insincere, sexist sleaze, and since our heroine Genevieve is at least temporarily convinced that she’s in love with him, this winds up making her look like a shallow idiot who’s only interested in the sexual components of what she calls ‘love’, which is not who her character is supposed to be. This sabotages the show’s message, which is supposed to be to pit intense, passionate Romeo-and-Juliet romantic love against gentle, comfortable ‘share-our-lives-together’ love and see which one is more sustainable. For this to work, Dominique has to be at least vaguely plausible as an actual love interest, or Genevieve’s interest in him comes off not as passionate romance but mere lust, which makes the show’s central question a lot less interesting. In the current version, Dominique is still quite full of himself, but he at least seems to genuinely believe he is in love in Genevieve, and even shows a brief glimmer of sympathy and regret for the jilted husband he’s going to have to hurt to get her. Also, this more genuinely romantic version of the song is arguably a more natural match for the ravishing and extremely sensual music to which both versions are set. Both versions are excellent songs, the second version even arguably less so, but while the original version sounded great in the context of a cult cast album, the new version is far more effective at actually telling the story the show was meant to convey.
Archives for April 2016
There are reportedly plans to bring this moderately successful animated musical to the stage, and while there are certainly some serious problems with it that will have to be ironed out as revisions, the idea is not quite as foolhardy as some might believe.
The main problem with the film is that its Disney-style Princess fantasy is overlaid onto a historical reality that is not really compatible with it. Certainly, the film presents a ridiculously sanitized and oversimplified version of the history of the Russian revolution, designed largely to keep their Princess heroine’s family from looking like greedy, spoiled autocrats who more or less deserved what happened to them (which, let’s face it, they pretty much were in real life). And the story the movie tells, with the ghost of a heavily demonized Rasputin brought in as the fantasy villain, is just far less interesting than that of the famous play on which is it extremely loosely based.
In the play, Anya’s true identity is left slightly in doubt at the very end (“If it should not be you, don’t ever tell me!”, as the Dowager Empress says). Making it the straightforward story of a Princess rediscovering her identity rendered it much simpler and removed a lot of the more adult elements, which, while perhaps useful for a children’s film, removed the sense of mystery that made the original play so fascinating.
But all that said, the movie does have a lot to recommend it, and provides some real potential for a revised adaptation. Much of the animation is gorgeous, in that elaborate hand-drawn style that Disney was actually in the process of abandoning at the time.
And apart from its dishonest treatment of history, the screenplay is actually quite well-written. The central romance may have been based on the model established in the Disney films of the time, but it took the sniping and bickering of the eventual love interests to a much sharper and more fiery level, and the two have excellent chemistry that renders the love story portion of the film extremely satisfying and successful.
Rasputin is admittedly a bit of a cardboard villain, very much fitting the Disney-Renaissance villain model pioneered by Jafar in Aladdin, but one interesting touch regarding his character is his relationship with his villainous sidekick, an albino bat named Bartok. Given an extremely distinctive characterization by Hank Azaria, Bartok showed no signs of actually being evil and acted less like a henchman and more like a sympathetic best friend who hangs around with Rasputin largely because he feels sorry for him (he turned out to be an extremely popular character, and even went on to star in his own direct-to-video prequel/spinoff, Bartok the Magnificent). Apart from Azaria, the voice cast includes such luminaries as Meg Ryan, Liz Callaway, John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd, Kelsey Grammer, Angela Lansbury, and Bernadette Peters, all of whom do fine, classy work here.
Above all else, the movie’s songs are by the greatest composing team of the modern Broadway era, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, and like all of their work, they feature soaring melodies and richly emotional lyrics. Granted, “A Rumor In St. Petersburg” and “Paris Holds the Key” are a bit weak: while Ahrens can occasionally be hilarious (as in the underrated off-Broadway gem Lucky Stiff), she often runs into trouble when writing comedy lyrics (as with her work on My Favorite Year and The Glorious Ones), and this unfortunately also holds true here. But the breathless ballad “Journey To the Past”, the ravishing “Once Upon a December”, and the spine-tingling villain song “In the Dark of the Night” could easily hold their own with the best songs to come out of the Disney Renaissance.
And the credits theme, “At the Beginning”, which became a huge pop hit for Donna Lewis and Richard Marx, was actually written by Flaherty and Ahrens themselves, despite sounding exactly like a piece of Nineties radio pop (albeit an unusually good one). Apparently Flaherty and Ahrens, in addition to their staggering body of work in their chosen field, were able to blow the pop songwriters out of water at their own game as well.
The music, above all else, seems to justify at least trying regarding the stage version, especially since Flaherty and Ahrens have been contracted to expand their score, and given the nearly miraculous rehabilitation undergone by the Disney The Hunchback of Notre Dame film in its stage version, it actually seems like, with a few judicious rewrites, this property could actually be Broadway-worthy. And even if the stage adaptation ultimately ends up failing, a new score by Flaherty and Ahrens is never a bad thing, even if it winds up living out its life on one of those cult cast albums instead of in performance. So either way, I’ll be watching this project closely for further developments, and I suggest you do the same.
This show was the first real example of an unfortunate phenomenon of the new century…the critic-proof show. Now, ‘critic-proof shows’ as such have existed since the Eighties, but back then they were generally wonderful shows like Phantom and Les Miserables that the professional critics were giving the snob treatment, and they were only critic-proof because everyone was aware that the critics were genuinely wrong. But in the days before about 2008, legitimately awful shows did not succeed on Broadway. Now and then a mediocre show, like Applause or Starlight Express, would manage to become a major hit, but the decisively horrible shows invariably failed. They might have managed to eke out a decent run now and then (the most obvious example of this being Ilya Darling, often proclaimed the worst show of the Sixties, which ran for 300 performances), but they lost money, they didn’t go on national tours, and they were widely acknowledged as all-around failures.
This was, to my knowledge, the very first show in Broadway history to become more or less a smash hit despite the fact that virtually no-one liked it. For the record, I, like everyone else, wanted to like this show, given that it was Mel Brooks’ follow-up to The Producers, but the honest truth is that it’s a total piece of crap. In fact, this might be the single worst theater score of the decade to make it as far as an actual cast album. This is the modern equivalent of something like Ankles Aweigh, with every single number being pure floppo.
Frederick’s entrance number, “The Brain”, has some of the stupidest lyrics ever heard on Broadway, a chorus that half-heartedly parodies Rodgers and Hammerstein (“there is nothing like the brain”), and the first example of the show’s worst habit: taking hilarious single lines from the film and expanding them into three-minute songs, destroying all their humor in the process (e.g. “Roll In the Hay”). Later, we get an out-of-nowhere, imbecilic dance novelty, “The Transylvania Mania”; the stupidest Brecht-Weill parody of all time, “He Vas My Boyfriend”; “Please Don’t Touch Me”, with its incredibly annoying melody and screamed repetition of “Tits!”; and the brainlessly generic cheer-up ditty “Listen To Your Heart”, with its middle section making lame puns about the names of great philosophers.
For the hilarious yet oddly moving scene in the film where Frederick finally accepts the monster, which cried out for another “Til Him”, we get only the forgettable ditty “Man About Town”. And the hilarious “Puttin’ On the Ritz” sequence from the film is destroyed by being turned into a stage-filling production number. Worst of all is the eleven-o’clocker; replacing the “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” gag from the film is a truly disgusting song called “Deep Love” that is about exactly what you’re all currently praying it isn’t about.
You’d think the cast would help, featuring as it does Roger Bart, Megan Mullaly, Sutton Foster and Andrea Martin, but in reality, only Foster manages to turn in a decent performance. The others are dragged down by their material, especially Mullaly, who is burdened with the worst of the score.
In this case, I honestly believe the only reason for this show’s otherwise inexplicable success is that, because Brooks’ last show was so glorious, that there really were enough people who wouldn’t listen to the bad word-of-mouth and just needed to find out that this show sucked for themselves, to fill the theater for over a year. Even so, it set a very dangerous precedent, and and while I generally dismiss critics who sneer about the supposed dumbing-down of Broadway and the purported ignorance of modern Broadway audiences, I can’t deny that this show’s utterly undeserved success is a heretofore unheard-of mark of shame for Broadway, and that it doesn’t exactly say anything positive about the intelligence and taste of modern Broadway audiences.