Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Continuing with the game, more efforts to look at what make a list of the ten -- or twenty -- great musicals.

But before I go on, I have to fold in another important ranking; which is whether I know a particular musical well enough to feel justified in commenting on it. At the very end of this scale, then, are those musicals I've heard of, perhaps heard a song or two from, but basically know nothing about. Next up would be musicals I've heard the buzz about, read reviews, but still can't really say I know. Following that are those that I know primarily from music and libretto. Next up are the ones I've actually seen (but my memory fades; I have seen "Me and My Girl," with Tim Curry even, but I can't tell you a thing about it other than a show-stopper number about Noblese Oblige and some hilarious business with an ermine coat.) Following that would be those musicals I've actually worked, but trumping that would have to be the ones I designed for. That, more than anything, gives you an intimate understanding of the dramatic strengths and challenges of a work.

But onwards, picking works more-or-less at random;

"Oliver!" : Not just one of the Holy Thirteen, not just one of that group of musicals with exclamation points in their title, it is also second only to "Annie" in the number of kids you need for it. Things being what they are, most of your "boys" will be, like your usual "Lost Boys," girls in disguise. At least, unlike "Peter Pan," there is no specific language in the script preventing cross-casting. Still, whatever the gender, this means dozens or more rambunctious youngsters racing all over backstage and the shops, and this is why for theater people the exclamation point at the end of "Oliver!" is meant to invoke a curse.

A Dickens book and fascinating characters -- although Fagin is as touchy as Shylock to put on the stage these days. It suffers, as does Annie, from the Candide-like aspect of Oliver himself. Although he is not the optimist of Candide or his red-headed distaff twin: Oliver instead goes through the show with a sort of wary surprise, accepting whatever fate comes to him with a round-shouldered shrug.

Strong characters, excellent songs, evocative period setting, and the sound business sense of a large kid cast and a favorite work of English literature behind it. It would be hard to argue that it does not do all those things that a musical would need to do to make the top twenty list.

"On the Town" : a jazzy score with oddly angular harmonies, an ode to New York and a magical twenty-four hours that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Extended ballet sequences, meticulous linking of themes and bridges to make it practically a through-composed work. The opening number apparently deeply informed by Gershwin's "An American in Paris" in it's energetic evocation of a modern city. The aching sadness-with-acceptance of the final sequences, that evocation of ships that pass in the night. And some really funny numbers in the middle "And what for did you stop?" "That ain't the highest spot!"

If I'm not careful the entire list would be Bernstein and Sondheim. With maybe a little Rogers and Hammerstein in salute to those who codified the form. And this is very much a "selections from" musical, with a thoroughly meaningless plot that exists only to string together songs. But it is very hard not to include this jazzy, modernistic, elegant, elegiac gem in the list.

"Jungle Book" : Not quite from the sublime to the ridiculous. Right, clever songs and fun characters, but its from a movie. The test is always; would you enjoy the musical as much if you'd never seen the movie? I'm not seriously considering it for the list. But what I might include it in mention for is as an example of a clever and wonderful thing Disney has begun doing. They are packaging shows for young people's theater. A cut-down book that can be performed without intermission. With the book you get a CD with all of the backing tracks already created for you by a studio orchestra. And, for most of the Disney stock, a second CD with performances of those songs to help those of your cast that haven't learned to read music. They even throw in the sound effects, clearly placed with rehearsal numbers corresponding to the tracks on the CD -- and to add chocolate sprinkles to the frosting, there's a little introduction to the theater, its language and lore and the basic do's and don't's, in the front of each and every script.

It's a slick deal, and it trades on the fact that there are a lot of people out there who have never seen live theater in their lives and have never heard of Eliza Doolittle -- but they HAVE heard of Doctor Dolittle, and Mary Poppins, and Princess Jasmine. So Disney trades upon the public familiarity with and love for their trademark properties, and the exceptional work by the Disney songwriters who made such gems as "Cruella DeVille" or "Let's Go Fly a Kite," -- and rakes in yet more cash to keep the power on in Uncle Walt's cryogenic chamber.

But they also make accessible and plausible a good, solid musical by a children's theater group; by a school, by a daycare, by a recreational department, by a summer camp. They smooth the way into that first production for a new generation of singers, actors and dancers. And we need that, if there is to be theater in the future.

"Oklahoma!" : Put the title number aside for the moment. ("And when we say.....a yippee-yadie-yay....we're only saying 'you're looking fine Oklahoma...'") This is a well-crafted work. And it is the work that brings in some of the pillars of the musical form; the second-act show-stopper that wakes up an audience grown sleepy on too many rich refreshments during intermission, the two pairs of lovers, one heroic and one comic, the extended dance breaks, the dramatic core, the comic characters and interludes...

Here's a secret. There's a device in "Oklahoma!" a device made even more bare in "Guys and Dolls." When one of us who do theater for a living spot this device, we greet it with a nod of appreciation; _this_ writing team knew how that massive complex mechanism called a musical runs. In "Oklahoma!" the device is the scene played entirely inside Jud's shack. Dramatically, of course, this moment away from the sweeping plains and open sky of the rest of the settings amplifies the unhealthy, furtive nature of Jud's existence -- and the squalidness of this lonely room where the floor creaks and the roof leaks gains the character needed sympathy. But even more -- and this is something too many production teams miss -- the tiny setting called for allows you to play the scene "in one"; in front of the act curtain, while the crew dresses the farmhouse for the big party. (In "Guys and Dolls," the scene narrows to a man on a telephone, giving the crew time and space to go from street scene to the sewers.)

"Oklahoma!" also gets another mention in the technician's book. If you see a cow head and trumpet in the box of props being rented, you know someone is doing "Gypsy." For "Oklahoma!" the tell-tale prop is "The Little Wonder." You see a kaleidoscope with a hidden knife blade, and you know what show is coming up.

"Oklahoma" is a bit wince-inducing in several places; the character of Ali Hakim, the itinerant and apparently "Persian" peddler, the shabby treatment afforded Jud; who seems to have had mostly the bad luck to be born to the wrong social class, and the classic basket scene in which two men literally bid against each other for a girl. But it also allows a more complex love triangle by providing the Dream Ballet, where the three actors are replaced for a time by three dancers; and Jud's infatuation with Laurey is shown to be perhaps not so one-sided.

If all else fails, though "Oklahoma!" should make this list for this; that here for the first time all the structure and traditions of the great American musicals appeared together.

"Gypsy" : Time to take the cow by the horns. "Gypsy," of course, falls under what has to be the longest -- or at least the loudest -- shadow in the musical theater; that of Ethel Merman. Rose is the most important character of the show, for all that she is literally on the sidelines for most of the story. How you interpret Rose is what makes the show. And...what we have to ask of every Rose when "Rose's Turn" finally rolls around; does she "got it?" Personally, I think you have to be guided by what a stripper says in an earlier scene; Rose could have been one of the best. That is what elevates her character from pushy stage mom living vicariously through her kids, to someone who never had the chance she deserved in the limelight.

Gypsy herself is slighted, having one decent moment early on ("Little Lamb,") with her final transformation all but off-screen -- from shy Louise to Gypsy Rose Lee takes place over a single montage, and we never really get the chance to meet her, as the focus belatedly shifts to Rose herself. Her cohorts in vaudeville fare even worse, with so little shown of their motivations, their dreams, or their fates -- Tulsa and his first-act tap number must do all that speaking for them.

It is a strange, mixed show. A show named for and inspired by a book about a great stripper, the rise and subsequent fame of Gypsy Rose Lee is nothing but a short montage and a dressing room scene. Where the show spends most of its time is in celebrating the fading days of vaudeville. The show is so much about taking a show on the road, hitching your wagon to that tawdry glittering star that is theater.

It might appear an inordinate part of this essay is about sex. Deal with it: entertainment is largely about sex. The strange conflict in Gypsy is that this wholesome 1959 musical, that spends so much of its time in the song and dance of the vaudeville era, spends its penultimate scenes attempting to simulate the most raunchy of strip clubs. Furthermore it requires that the young women we've watched grow from girlhood through the musical, finally reach their maturity by taking off their clothes in front of an audience. Obviously the strip scene is "cleaned up," and presented with humor ("You Gotta Get a Gimmick.") But it is still a strange turn after the bulk of the show.

It is a show that moves with economy, despite the variety of settings and gimmicks needed (Electra's outfit always brings out the electronics hobbyist -- as out-of-period as LEDs on chase circuits are, I expect the next version of that costume I see will be using EL panels and imbedded micro-proccesors.) At this point is worth noting "Gypsy" is the first show I did, way back in high school. However, I enjoyed rather more a production in a small theater with a smaller pit; although a jazz combo could not do justice to some of the more romantic numbers, it was an interesting and effective musical texture for the strip club scenes.

With the star-making (and unmaking), the travails of living on the road, and the essential dream of show business ("Some people can get a thrill, knitting sweaters and sitting still....") "Gypsy" is perhaps that musical that more than anything else, celebrates the musical itself.

"Into the Woods" : It's Sondheim. It's about what happens after "They lived happily ever after." It combines well-known fairy tales in surprising new patterns. It gives good characterization and motive to all the characters, be they Baker's wives or wicked stepmothers. The music is of course spectacular, and the songs at the very least clever.

The only production I've worked took the course of extending the framing story; instead of a story-teller talking to the audience, they chose to set the show within an orphanage, and as the story-teller begins, the children act out and begin the performance. This paid off in spades in the second-act number "Children Will Listen" and provided (I think!) more closure than Sondheim's original setting.

It is a strange show to come to grips with. The first act is mostly cleverness; weaving together a whole cluster of fairy tales and coming up with excuses for the character's paths to cross. The second act is more about stripping down these games to get at the emotional heart; at the real humans inhabiting this land. If there is a major flaw in this musical, it is that the material is just too rich. There is too much of it, too many ideas you want to highlight and explore. It also feels like Sondheim felt the same way -- towards the end particularly it begins to feel a little rushed, as if he too felt the weight of too many ideas and gave up trying to resolve them. But then again, that too is one of the lessons of the show; that life doesn't resolve as neatly as a fairy-tale. Sometimes witches lie and giants are good. And sometimes you have to take, not the path of heroism, but the path of lesser evil.

"Pacific Overtures" : I can speak to this, having worked on it, though not in a design capacity. Clever use of some of the framing devices of the Japanese stage, although these are perhaps not taken far enough. The absolutely glorious "Haiku" song, the frightening cadences of "Four Black Dragons" and the succinct summing up of the incredible changes into the quietly electrifying "A Bowler Hat" stand out among many, many excellent songs. It is also a show that, unlike "Mikado," demands the theater company reach out to the Asian American acting community for key roles.

Although you should not vote in a show just for the attempts to understand a complex time and a different people, "Pacific Overtures" is an effective modern outreach to the Pacific community even as it is a strong theater piece in its own right. It achieves its effects without reaching for affect; without falling into the sing-song cadences of "Flower Drum Song" or the cutesy names of "Mikado" in some attempt at crass Orientalism. It is -- and this should not be unexpected for Sondheim -- an honest and well-thought-out work by a man who knows his subject very well.

(As an aside -- one might fault "Flower Drum Song," but this was the team that also created "South Pacific." They did very well for their time in trying to combat racism, even if the presentations they often made of other cultures were so focused on certain surface attributes as to make them seem crass stereotypes to later audiences.)

"Bye Bye Birdie" : Dismissed. It's an odd little book; Elvis gets drafted, to the great disappointment of his groupies. And in a completely unrelated plot, red-hot Latin Lover Chita Rivera sings up a storm. Maybe the cleverest moment in the show is the anthemic "Ed Sullivan" where a theatrical musical sings to the television that is beginning to supplant it in the American eye.

And I've gone about as fur as I can go, at least for now. Next blog entry will be something appealing, something appalling, well, at least something different.

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