For my next entry on the art of the villain song, let me show you how a villain can lose on all fronts and still make his exit seem like a victory. This song, which essentially functions as the show’s eleven-o’clock number, serves as the parting words by Steven Kodaly, a heartless cad who uses and manipulates his on-again, off-again girlfriend Ilona and has an affair with his boss’ wife that drives his boss to a suicide attempt, yet is so charming you can’t really bring yourself to dislike him. Just before this song, he has been exposed, fired and dumped by Ilona, yet he makes his exit with perfect poise. This song, an epic combination of withering sarcasm, condescension and veiled threat, conveys all the contempt of flipping the bird with all of the grace and poise of an ironic bow. It serves to make Kodaly’s exit from the show one of the grandest in Broadway history, and certainly stands as one of the theater’s all-time great villain songs.
Archives for June 2016
In addition to bringing us a great deal of prominent mediocrity, the ‘05-’06 season gave us this monstrosity, which has my vote for the worst musical-theater score of the decade, or at least the worst to actually get a recording.
This is another composition in Lachiusa’s deliberately alienating style, but unlike the others, it combines the intentional harshness and abrasive qualities of Lachiusa’s work with a massive amount of unintentional incompetence.
The show itself is a shallow, sex-obsessed reduction of a classic play, taking a work with serious themes about class and gender and freedom, and making it purely about a group of teenage girls in heat (seriously…they spend the show running their hands over their bodies and saying things like “My pains, mother, are not the pains of hunger”).
The star is Cosby Show veteran Felicia Rashaad, here absurdly cast as the play’s title character. Bernarda is supposed to be a domineering, castrating matriarch, but Rashaad and an unwise attempt by the authors to soften her have dissolved all the terrifying power she had in the play.
And the score, easily the most unlistenable of the decade, shows what happens when Lachiusa writes genuine floppo numbers (like “The Stallion and the Mare”, about horses having sex) in his trademark, flip-off-the-listener style, combining its skull-pounding beats and wailing vocal parts with some of the most idiotic lyrics of the decade (Example: “I want to feel a fire between my legs/and on my lips/and on my tongue”).
This show has no discernable redeeming features, and it actually serves as a reminder of how legitimately well-written Lachiusa’s other shows really are, even in spite of their aggressively avant-garde styles of music and performance.
This may not the Michael John Lachiusa’s ‘best’ score, but it is unquestionably the most accessible and enjoyable thing he ever wrote. Idina Menzel played the lead in this show, and her presence probably got a lot of people unfamiliar with Lachiusa’s work to listen to it, but almost none of the negative things I’ve said about Lachiusa’s work in the past really apply here.
The idea for the show was frankly brilliant…two one-acts based on the famous Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, both dealing with the subjective nature of truth. Both one-acts are far more accessible than anything Lachiusa had done in years. The first, based on a modernized version of the famous Rashomon, features some of the most genuinely catchy music Lachiusa has ever written in one place. The standout numbers go to Menzel, of course…the jazzy title-song, the heartbreaking “Louie”, and the scathing tirade “No More”.
The second act is in a classical-influenced vein closer to Lachiusa’s normal style, and, apart from the beautiful “There Will Be a Miracle”, less accessible musically, but it does feature an emotional pull and dramatic simplicity and primality that nothing else in Lachiusa’s oeuvre even approaches. It tells the story of a disillusioned priest who spreads a rumor of an impending miracle in Central Park. The news draws a vast crowd of emotionally desperate modern-day disciples, and, in the words of the main character, “I told a lie, and the lie became the truth. The lie was for everyone, but the truth was only for myself.”
Only once in the show does Lachiusa’s trademark “Theater should hurt” philosophy rear its head, in the second act’s incredibly disturbing “Coffee”, which bears a certain resemblance to “Song of a Child Prostitute” from Swados’ Runaways. Granted, the ‘Kesa and Morito’ bits that frame the action are mostly just embarrassing, but even they seem fairly tame compared to Lachiusa’s other show that season, the grisly Bernarda Alba.
Given that this show came out in one of Broadway’s worst seasons, it actually stands head and shoulders above virtually all of its peers. In fact, it’s probably the best original score of the season, given that the best shows that year were a jukebox musical (Jersey Boys) and an off-Broadway song cycle consisting mostly of recycled material (It’s Only Life). And compared with most of Lachiusa’s output, its straightforward enjoyment value and emotional appeal seem almost revelatory.
Lachiusa claimed this was his attempt to write a light-hearted musical comedy, but that statement seems more than a bit disingenuous. The subject matter is, admittedly, relatively light compared to his usual fare (which admittedly is not saying much), but the opening number, “Days”, although it may be about something as simple as giving up smoking, sounds exactly like the opening of The Wild Party, right down to the dissonant trumpet blasts. It’s funny, characterful and even catchy in a perverse sort of way, but it doesn’t really differ much from Lachiusa’s usual fare.
Granted, after that, we do get a score that, apart from a couple of individual numbers like the dementedly perky “It’s a Sign” or the explosively mocking “Poor Charlotte”, is relatively accessible by Lachiusa’s standards. The song are certainly not conventional musical-comedy show tunes, but they’re fairly euphonious and pretty in a jangly sort of way. Particularly lovely are “Flotsam”, sung in a hallucinatory dream sequence by Anne Frank (yes, that Anne Frank); the moving “Remember Me” for the heroine’s best friend after she’s diagnosed with cancer; and the gently comforting title song. Other notable items include the dynamically pounding “I Ran” for the heroine’s gay friend; the caustically sarcastic but nonetheless pretty accurate “Short Story”, in which the heroine’s ex-boyfriend brutally lays out her failings; and the show’s impressive emotional climax, “Simple Creature”.
And Lachiusa does handle the attempt at something resembling “Musical Comedy” better than his clearest predecessor, the late Elizabeth Swados. I’ve always rather preferred Swados to Lachiusa for a variety of reasons, but I will admit that Lachiusa seems capable of meeting the musical comedy template halfway without completely compromising his style, something that Swados’ attempts at the same thing (like the Doonesbury musical) couldn’t seem to achieve.
The story, a very modern plot about a woman confronting her psychological issues, could have played as a semi-conventional musical comedy with a different treatment, but it doesn’t come across that way here, instead amounting to a kind of self-consciously contemplative contemporary drama. Really, I blame the show’s failure less on Lachiusa’s alienating style and more on the book’s pretentious tone and lack of an actual plot beyond this not-very-likable woman trying to figure out why she can’t connect.
It’s been compared to Sondheim’s Company by a lot of people, including its creators, but the central conflict of Company (the question of whether making a commitment to share your life with another person is worth it) is both much more clearly defined and far more compelling than the vague introspection on display here. Even Alice Ripley, who sings the lead role on the cast album, can’t really do much to make you like or care about this self-involved neurotic whose problems are all of her own making.
This isn’t Lachiusa’s weakest show by any means…the music alone does enough to carry it to put it well above misfires like Queen of the Mist, let alone the utter horror that is Bernarda Alba…but it doesn’t really have the arresting if alienating impact of his best work. It’s not nearly as hard to force yourself to appreciate as Marie Christine or The Wild Party, but it also doesn’t even approach the sheer emotional devastation those shows can achieve. It’s interesting, like all of his work…even Bernarda Alba was interesting in its awfulness…but it stands somewhere toward the middle range of Lachiusa’s output, and while the score is worth hearing, I can’t say I really recommend seeing the show.
I decided, in honor of the recent Tony Awards broadcast, to cover some earlier Tony Award ceremonies from the last few years. I decided to start with this one, partly because of the rather iconic status it has achieved and partly because it was the first Tony ceremony of the modern Broadway renaissance, although said renaissance hadn’t really set in yet. The truth is that, apart from one monumental phenomenon of a show, this was actually a pretty poor season for Broadway, but the choice of performances here actually does a pretty good job of disguising that.
Neil Patrick Harris is also an enormous help…this was his second Tony hosting gig, and it probably still ranks as his best. His opening number, the hilarious “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore”, would become the standard by which all Tony introductory numbers would be judged, and his medley of parodies with Hugh Jackman and his surprisingly credible closing Rap monologue are pretty fantastic too.
The actual performances from the shows themselves do get off to a rather questionable start, as the first one shown is former Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which could easily be redubbed “How to succeed in show business without really being any good”. I’m sorry, but Daniel Radcliffe has never had any business being on Broadway, and while this role may have been less of an outrage than casting him in Equus, his total lack of qualification still makes him look like a little boy playing dress-up as a Broadway star.
After that, though, the performances do a pretty good job of making the most of what they have. Norbert Leo Butz’s performance of “Don’t Break the Rules” from Catch Me If You Can is thrilling…the show was kind of underwhelming on stage, but they were smart enough to pick its best number for the Tonys telecast. This phenomenon is even more pronounced with The Scottsboro Boys, as the entire performance is drawn from the show’s first fifteen minutes, at which point it hadn’t become clear just how off-track the show was headed. In fact, I blame the Tonys in large part for that show’s undeserved legion of defenders among people who never actually saw it.
Sister Act had a reasonably winning formula for a Tony number…almost any of its big gospel showstoppers would have worked for the purpose. There was also an ‘encore’ number from last year’s undeserved Tony winner, Memphis. The number they use, “Steal Your Rock’n’Roll” is, like most of the show’s numbers, pleasant and lively but conventional to a fault, but they manage to spark it with an energetic performance featuring a bunch of kids dancing in the aisles.
The Anything Goes title-song is familiar fare, to say the least, but Sutton Foster’s performance is undeniably impressive…this was the first show she appeared in that was really worthy of her, and she definitely made the most of it. Company’s “Side by Side by Side” is also something of an old chestnut, but it is performed with great panache, with Harris himself leading the number (he had starred in the superb revival and film of the show that same year).
The Priscilla Queen of the Desert number blatantly cheats by getting the original singer of “It’s Raining Men” to perform the song, which undoubtedly makes for a better Tony number but is even more misleading about the show’s actual quality than the careful cherrypicked selections mentioned above. Outside of the How to Succeed revival, the only show to genuinely come off badly is Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which showcases a moderately attractive ballad that nonetheless betrays how badly the show plays in performance.
And Book of Mormon, of course, completely stole the show with one of its best numbers, the unforgettable “I Believe”. Some of the more uptight theater buffs were offended by Chris Rock’s raucously vulgar presentation speech for the Best Musical award, but he only said what everyone was thinking…we hadn’t had such an obvious foregone conclusion in this category since The Producers ten years earlier.
Given the overall quality of the season, they did a surprisingly good job putting together this broadcast, and when you factor in Neil Patrick Harris’ numbers, this might be the best all-around Tony ceremony of the decade so far, at least as a viewing experience.
This show has a rather notorious reputation…it has its fans, but it is often held up by critics as one of the worst musicals of all time, particularly among those who hate Andrew Lloyd-Webber and basically find this show to be a perfect form of ammunition. It is not, in reality, even close to being one of the worst shows ever made, but it is definitely among the worst shows ever to become a smash hit.
First off, the show’s concept…a musical about anthropomorphic trains…is a ridiculous idea to begin with. The show on stage is somewhat impressive as pure spectacle, which might explain why it seems to draw an audience, but it also looks incredibly ridiculous, with its tin-man costumes and giant rollerskating ramps.
The story is more substantial than that of CATS, but still dangerously thin and simplistic; essentially an expanded version of The Little Engine That Could, it tells of a steam train named Rusty who conquers the odds to win a race against two much more modern and glamorous engines and win the heart of an observation car named Pearl. There’s a vague subtextual message about God being in all of us, but the show seems more concerned with an illogical Luddite message about going back to steam power that it adopted for plot purposes and very obviously has zero interest in actually promoting, since such a message is not exactly compatible with the cutting-edge technology utilized in the show’s production.
The only thing of any real interest about this show is the score, and even it has no shortage of issues. Granted, even Webber’s weakest scores tend to contain at least two or three truly beautiful melodies, which in this case consist of the gentle “There’s Me”, the spectacular ballad “Only He”, and the soaring title-song. The rest of the score has its share of clinkers, but the better numbers actually feature some of the best Rock music Webber ever wrote. Particularly good are the campy showstoppers for the rival engines, “Rolling Stock”, “AC/DC”, and “Pumping Iron”, the highly enjoyable yet surprisingly twisted villain song “C.B.”, and the spectacular mock-gospel finale, “Light At the End of the Tunnel”.
Richard Stilgoe’s lyrics can be clever at times, as on the self-demonstrating lesson in Blues songwriting “Poppa’s Blues”, or the amusing Country spoof “U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D.”, but more often they tend toward the simplistic and banal. They also suffer from one of the strangest problems I’ve ever encountered in a musical…it’s at least nominally aimed at children, yet the lyrics are loaded with constant double-entendres, many of them downright filthy, in what I can only conclude was a lazy attempt at making the show entertaining to adults, but instead comes off as rather creepy.
Some of the more egregious clinkers include “Freight”, which is banal to the point of being monosyllabic and has become the show’s calling-card among its detractors; “A Lotta Locomotion”, with its annoying melody and groan-inducing dirty jokes; “Make Up My Heart”, a ballad with a melody that quotes “Musetta’s Waltz” and a lyric that is one long threesome joke (“they say two lovers can be twice the fun”); and the truly disgusting “Belle the Sleeping Car”, about a “Sleeper with a heart of gold”.
Not helping matters is that the show was revised both for its Broadway production and midway through its London run, and all of the various revisions are significantly inferior to the already questionable original draft. For example, the London revision dismantled what little logic the story possessed, deleted the show’s most interesting character, the deviously psychotic villain C.B. the Red Caboose, and his entertaining villain song, and replaced “Only He” with a generic ballad called “Next Time You Fall In Love”, which makes no sense in context and was very obviously not written for the show.
If the show is not anywhere near as bad as Love Never Dies or the various incarnations of the Jeeves musical, it is still vastly inferior to any of Webber’s other actual hits, and is definitely below his usual standards of quality in every aspect. The good numbers are still worth hearing, though, and singers Ray Shell and Stephanie Lawrence do them glorious justice on the original cast album, so you might still want to wade through this (pardon the pun) trainwreck for the sake of its better moments.
This show, despite a tongue-in-cheek joke that it makes in its first scene, wasn’t an ambitious drama with serious themes like the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, nor was it even a more subtly ambitious stylistic tour-de-force like Guys and Dolls. It was, essentially, just a standard potboiler musical comedy of the period, yet it became a Broadway classic that remains surprisingly popular more than sixty years after its debut just by being such a well-made piece of product that it transcended its potboiler status, proving that you don’t need to be trying to create great art in order to do so.
Granted, the book is not the primary reason for this continued success, and in fact has done more to hamper it over the years. It’s still funny in a trashy sort of way, and it provides some memorably colorful and likable characters, including a genuinely compelling leading man who masks his deep insecurities with false bravado and provided a marvelous opportunity to original leading man John Raitt. Even so, the book has also dated severely in a number of ways. Not only has the show’s setting…labor vs. management at a pajama factory complicated by a Romeo-and-Juliet-style romance…consigned it to being played as a period piece, since business practices have altered out of recognition multiple times since then, but its sexual politics have a very Fifties feel to them, and several scenes can feel a little uncomfortable to modern audiences.
What makes the show a classic is the two things musical comedy lives for…the songs and the dances. The choreography was Bob Fosse’s first work for Broadway and remains some of his most iconic even today, especially the sexy trio number “Steam Heat” and the mock tango “Hernando’s Hideaway”. In addition to Fosse’s contribution, the show’s other claim to fame is the score, which, while it may never reach the heights achieved by the top-level Broadway classics, is notable for its sheer degree of consistency and enjoyment value. This score was written by co-songwriters Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, and while the team would go on to score one more hit and Adler would write three more shows after Ross’ death (including the beloved cult flop Kwamina), neither of them would ever write anything this good again (it helps that a couple of the songs have some co-writing contributions from the team’s mentor, Frank Loesser).
The melodies sparkle, especially on the immortal ballad “Hey There”, the exquisitely lilting waltz “I’m Not At All In Love”, the driving Country-flavored showstopper “There Once Was a Man”, and the pop-tango sound of “Hernando’s Hideaway”. As for the lyrics, they are frequently superb, especially on the numbers for Hines, the show’s comic relief figure, such as the riotously risque “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again” or the gloriously absurd “Think of the Time I Save”.
Even the songs added for later revivals are uniformly delightful, with “The World Around Us”, “The Three of Us”, and “If You Win, You Lose” basically living up to the level of the original score (“The World Around Us” was actually written for the original production and was even present in the show on opening night, but it was cut immediately thereafter and not used again until much later revivals). Hell, even the song Adler and Ross wrote to be added to the movie version, “The Man Who Invented Love”, which wound up being cut at the last minute, became surprisingly popular in its own right, with Doris Day’s rendition even making it onto at least one of her greatest hits albums…not at all bad for a cut song from a musical. Richard Adler was not the most consistent of songwriters…even his score for Damn Yankees contained several seriously weak songs…but somehow everything he added to this particular score over the years seems to have turned to gold.
This score is unambitious, unashamedly pop-friendly, at times blatantly derivative (I’m not the first person to notice how much “A New Town Is a Blue Town” sounds like “Lonely Town” from On the Town in both music and lyrics), and one of the finest scores of the decade, a decade that, it’s worth noting, did not lack for competition in terms of great theater music. I have to acknowledge that most of the musical-theater classics that have shown this level of endurance are actually more artistically interesting than this one, but I also have to acknowledge that precious few of them are as much fun to see or hear, so I’m not entirely sure this show doesn’t come out on top in that particular contest.
This show initially seemed like another of those inexplicably critic-proof disasters like Young Frankenstein, The Addams Family or Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, but when you actually see it in the theater, it proves to be more of a semi-respectable guilty pleasure in the vein of the early Frank Wildhorn shows. It’s far from flawless, but it has more than enough positive qualities to explain, and possibly even justify, its massive success.
I was extremely skeptical when I heard that Gary Barlow, the singer-songwriter behind the British Pop band Take That, was hired to write the music for an adaptation of the film Finding Neverland. Not that Take That are a bad band by any means, but this material seemed to call more for an ethereal, atmospheric composer, like an Adam Guettel or a Ricky Ian Gordon, and I wasn’t convinced that this purveyor of Pop tunes was up to the task of capturing the necessary atmospheric richness. To my surprise, the score is easily the best thing about the show as a composition. The songs aren’t totally without the retro-sounding cheesiness associated with Barlow’s pop songs, but they are admirably up to the job of meeting the emotional and atmospheric needs of the story, and many of them are simply lovely as music alone. “Neverland”, “All That Matters”, “What You Mean To Me”, and the devastating “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground” are every bit as ravishing and moving as the loveliest songs from far more critically acclaimed musicals of the last few years. The thrilling “Believe”, the crescendoing first-act finale “Stronger”, and the joyous ensemble number “Play”, with its dizzying Irish jig feeling, are the showstoppers, but the sprightly tango “We Own the Night” and the optimistic credo “We’re All Made of Stars” are also lovely.
The book poses more of a problem, and explains why the show’s critical reception was less than stellar. Whenever the show tries to be funny, the results are disastrous…these jokes are about on a par with the ones in the Broadway version of Dance of the Vampires. But the thing is, this is a story that was going to be moving no matter what they did with it, and the serious portions of the book, while a bit too gloomy to match the audience’s preconceived notions of Peter Pan, actually do a very successful job of pushing the necessary emotional buttons.
The staging is also an enormous help, featuring a string of increasingly exquisite stage tableaus…in particular, the scene where the dying love interest is shown flying off to Neverland is such an utterly perfect fusion of drama, staging and music that it could justify the whole show on its own. It also didn’t hurt that the cast was luminous…Broadway legend Matthew Morrison chose this role for his return to Broadway after the cancellation of Glee, and Kelsey Grammer and his replacements Terrence Mann and Marc Kudisch, playing the dual role of a theatrical producer and the embodiment of the hero’s dark side as represented by Captain Hook, played their roles with panache and did quite a bit to make up with sheer personality for the terrible jokes they were given.
This isn’t a sophisticated show, and it got a lot of negative press on its release (I believe one person dubbed it “Peter Pandering”), but there’s room on Broadway for both ultra-sophisticated showpieces like Fun Home and Hamilton and simple, basic appeals to emotion like this one, and the show is oddly satisfying as theater. In any case, it’s worth noting that everyone expected this show to sink like a stone and it has someone managed to stay afloat, so audiences must be seeing something in it, and between the score, the staging, the performances, and the sheer emotional impact of the story itself, I just might be leaning toward their attitude on the subject myself.