The Exorcist: The Play!

Holy...

Just because anything can be turned into a play or musical does not mean that it should be turned into a play or musical. The Exorcist, for anyone that has missed a few decades, is a frightening book written by William Peter Blatty. For those of us that don’t read, he also wrote the Academy Award winning screenplay for the movie version The Exorcist. Basically, a twelve year old girl becomes possessed by the demon Pazuzu.

Sounds like the perfect idea for a play, right? It was an amazingly successful book and the movie opened the material up to an even wider audience. Besides, the plays initial run in Los Angeles managed to secure John Doyle, famous for making actors do musicians’ work, as director and Teller, from Penn and Teller, to work on some of the stage effects. Then there’s the fact that John Pielmeier (Agnes of God) signed on as playwright. That’s intriguing! Plus, Brooke Shields in the Ellen Burstyn mother role… Well, alright, that’s some interesting casting.

Really, though, whether or not the show is any good, it’s going to have a problem taking audiences away from the movie. The movie has become an icon of the horror genre, and it’s a little hard not to have people not expect to see pea soup and head spinning (SPOILER: These both were cut from the stage version). That’s alright, though! The writing and creative team were looking to stray away from the horror and go straight for the movie’s other strength: psychological thriller.

So far so good.

Then the reviews started coming in. It should be noted that a lot of reviews mentioned they did like the special effects. They were also fond of the fact that the male ensemble of priests provided the voice of the demon. Well, that’s really about all they liked.

Oh, well. Pop in Leslie Nielsen’s Repossessed and call it a day.

Broadway Hates Jesus

Oh, Jesus

Broadway and Jesus seem like two things that could go together like two things that go together, but that doesn’t seem the case this year. It’s not shocking to find musicals that have powerful religious messages in them. There are tons, and several of those are very bankable machines. So why then is this the year of a mass exodus?

I’m going to suggest that there are a number of reasons for this. First of all, there’s an over-saturation of the market. Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Sister Act, and Leap of Faith have all played on Broadway this year. Holy shit. Literally. That’s a lot of God, and these are only the ones that use MAJOR religious themes.

Okay, but that’s fine. Just because there are a few shows with religious themes on Broadway, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have had successful runs. The real problem with over-saturation is the fact that Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar are shows that every college, community, regional, church, and corner theatre do all of the time. Want to see one of these two shows? Walk outside, I’m sure some kids are performing it down the street. Then you have Sister Act and Leap of Faith. Sister Act is based off of a beloved movie from the ’90s, and Leap of Faith is a movie Steve Martin did for the money. That doesn’t mean people were screaming for a stage musical of either of these.

The other two reasons come down to the fact that either the production just wasn’t that good or the material just wasn’t that good. Godspell in particular suffered from a modernization that drove theatre purists batshit crazy. The original production is nostalgic now, with those cute clowns telling the story of Jesus Christ, but that formula only worked when it was initially mounted. Whatever happened with the revival was just uncomfortable to watch. Don’t believe me? Go take a look at their Tony Awards performance this year. Side note: Telly Leung can do no wrong, even in this.

Jesus Christ Superstar… This show is fun. It’s written by the Dark Prince himself, Andrew Lloyd Webber, but it’s fun. Why didn’t it work on Broadway this season? I don’t know. Aside from a mostly talented cast, it was boring to watch. There are moments of true theatrical magic, but then the damn projection screens go crazy and I forget where I am. Oh, and yeah. The projection of Jesus at the Tony Awards freaked the hell out of me.

When it comes to Sister Act, the problem was all in the material. The only reason I perked up when hearing about a musical version of Sister Act was because of the gorgeous music in the film… which appears nowhere in the musical. That’s fine, I can accept that. But the material that replaced it was just okay. A few of the songs I genuinely like, and “Raise Your Voice” still gives me chills, but the show itself is not better than the movie. Now, a Sister Act remake with Patina Miller and Sheila Hancock? I’d watch it.

Leap of Faith suffers from the same problem as Sister Act, only people actually saw Sister Act. This musical about a traveling conman impersonating an evangelist lasted for only 19 official performances. I’ll be fair and say that I never actually saw this one, but I’ve heard it and it had a lot of problems. Again, a stellar cast that suffered from nothing to work with. Still, Leap of Faith gets the last laugh of all the shows on the list. At the Tony Awards this year, even though it had already closed, it performed and killed it. One of the best numbers of the evening.

Alright, so there you have it folks. All of the shows in this article are closed or are about to close (Godspell – June 24, Jesus Christ Superstar – July 1, Sister Act – August 26, Leap of Faith – May 13). Also, none of these made their initial investments back, even with a bunch of insane publicity stunts (fuckin’ Tweet Seats).Oh, wait. There is one show about the big J that’s still on Broadway with no signs of stopping: The Book of Mormon. Huh. The Mormons got it right.

Penn and Teller

I’m a magic geek. I love all of it, the sleight of hand stuff, the card tricks, the illusions, stuff bursting into flames and transforming into something else, all of that crap excites me and it has always been a childhood dream of mine to be a magician. So lately I’ve been doing some research into some basic tricks, small sleight of hand stuff, so that I can learn the basics and start building up. While my dreams have shifted and I no longer aspire to be a magician, I still want to learn some of the stuff that manages to mystify me.

While looking up some tricks I stumbled across some videos of the famous comedy/magic duo Penn and Teller. These guys have been performing solid routines since the late 70’s and they’ve only gotten better. I plan on writing more on these guys and why they’re my favorite magicians out there, but for now why not take a look at some of their more amazing illusions?

1776: Someone Had to Write It

1776

Sitting down to write a post today, I initially wanted to write something on musicals about the Presidents of the United States.* Then I started to realize that the pickings were slim. Anyone remember 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Didn’t think so. To anyone that might have saw one of its seven astounding performances, I am so sorry.

Then I cracked in my trusty copy of the film version of 1776 and I realized that I might as well write about that because I’m not doing anything else today until someone starts exploding things outside. That might make me sound not-so-patriotic, but it’s tradition.

For a little bit of background, 1776 first opened on Broadway on March 16, 1969 at the 46th Street (now Richard Rodgers) Theatre after tryouts in both Washington DC and New Haven. The original production was a success, managing 1,217 performances and landing the Tony Award for Best Musical, and has been heralded as having one of the best books of a musical ever. Hell, the show was so successful that it managed a movie deal, the rights selling for $1.2 million. And that’s in back then money!

So what made the show watchable? Because, let’s be honest, there have been some pretty awful musicals based on historical events. I’m looking at you Teddy and Alice. First of all, it didn’t hurt that the writing team behind the show was a near perfect match. Sherman Edwards, the composer and lyricist, had been wanting to work on a musical about the founding fathers since the 1950s. A writer of several rock and roll hits, Edwards left the mainstream music industry so that he could write 1776. Although the most criticized thing about the show seems to be the lyrics, they’re catchy and fun and the opening number “Sit Down, John” is a brilliant opening number. It sets up John Adams as the all out antihero about to duke it out against the other founding fathers.

That’s where book writer, Peter Stone, comes in. The men and (two) women in the show aren’t just new characters. These are characters that we’re all very much aware of. No matter that we didn’t pay attention in history class, we know who these people are. Stone and Edwards both take liberties with historical accuracy, but they do so in a way that it almost makes you think the members of Congress are not going to sign the Declaration of Independence. And then where would we be? Well, we’d still be here, but we’d be under different rule. Yes, John Adams was nicer than he’s shown in the musical and yes, there were a lot more members of Congress than the ones shown, but John “Dickface” Adams is more interesting and you’ve only got so much stage space.

The writers also managed to do something that most writers would think was crazy: They managed to realize that a musical does not need a song every five minutes. In fact, 1776 has a good 35 minute break between songs in the first act (if the particular production has an intermission, as it varies). The break was so long that during the original Broadway version, pit musicians would take a break during the time and go out to the bar in the lobby. Mmm, Broadway booze.

The original production was also not short on talent in its cast, which didn’t hurt it. William Daniels as John Adams, Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin, and Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson created a shockingly strong lead trio. Rounded out with people like Tony winner Ronald Holgate as Richard Henry Lee and newcomer Betty Buckley as Martha Jefferson and this show had one of the strongest casts on stage that season.

Thankfully, most of the original Broadway cast is now preserved on film. Major exchanges come on the form of Blythe Danner playing Martha Jefferson and John Collum (who replaced Clifford David in the Broadway production) as Edward Rutledge. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen Clifford David in the role, but no one’s “Molasses to Rum” gives me chills like John Collum’s. Fortunately, the movie provides a preservation of Howard Da Silva, who had a heart attack and was unable to record his part on the original Broadway cast recording.

Speaking of preservation, the original movie went through one rough area because of the feelings of a certain man named Richard Nixon. Nixon, after seeing a screening of the film, took offense to the song “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men”, which he deemed as an insult to conservatives. Well, it did show pre-Revolutionary conservatives in a bad light, but Nixon ordering the destruction of the original negative of the song seemed a bit much. Fortunately, the song was only cut from the theatrical release, but later restored. Take that, Nixon.

1776 had proven to be lasting theatrically, with regional theatres, community theatres, and some brave high schools all across the world taking it on. In 1997, it was revived on Broadway with the intention of a limited run. It then transferred to the Gershwin Theatre for a commercial run, playing 333 performances with a cast that included Brett Spiner, Pat Hingle, and Paul Michael Valley.

In no way is 1776 perfect. What it is, though, is a damn fine musical with interesting music, an amazing book, and an important story. And, really, when your main characters are Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, that’s just awesome.

*Yeah. I know. It’s Independence Day in the US, and Presidents Day would have been more optimum for something like that. If the History Channel can talk about presidents all day, then so can I.

“A Tragedy of the Imagination”

I recently finished watching Rupert Goold’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart and was blown away. The adaptation keeps the Scottish locations and names, but sets it in a bleak, gloomy environment that is essentially an old run-down hospital morgue, with Stalinist soviet-era costumes, weapons, and sensibilities. Amazing performances aside, simply the aesthetic that Goold created in this adaptation is enough to keep you drawn in completely. There is a constant air of menace and distress, every shot is dark, grimy, dirty, and the three witches (portrayed here as blood-soaked nurses) are frightening. Not to mention the blood. There is a lot of blood in this production, which is fitting since the word “blood” is spoken a good 50 or so times throughout the whole play.

The main hook of this production for me though was of course Patrick Stewart as the titular tragic Macbeth, a character full of unchecked ambition, and a desire for a new world (even at the cost of the old one). If you’re familiar with Macbeth then you’re aware that this unchecked ambition doesn’t go so well for Ol’ McB, as he is eventually beheaded by the Thane of Fife, Macduff. In the few productions of this play that I have seen, the director and actors make it clear that this final duel between the Macs is Macbeth’s final push for his ultimate goal; his fight against spiritual prophecy that has predetermined his failure. What makes this production different and exciting is the director’s ability to make it clear that it is not Macduff who ultimately brings Macbeth’s undoing, but rather Macbeth’s own readiness to be killed. It’s almost as if he’s given up, allowed his death to happen, he no longer cares for this world he has fought for, and I believe that the best way Patrick Stewart makes that choice apparent to the audience is in his “tomorrow” soliloquy.

Admittedly, this speech is in my top five favorite Shakespeare monologues. It completely encapsulates Macbeth’s nihilistic attitude towards life in about twelve lines.

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

Brilliant. And Patrick Stewart brings his own equally brilliant adaptation to this monologue. Just take a gander:

Upon hearing the news of his wife’s death, he hardly takes a pause and responds completely cold, not a single utterance of grief at the passing (by her own hand) of his wife. The speech carries on with Macbeth’s sudden realization that time, “tomorrow”, will forever spin forward; completely painful, and completely meaningless. The anguish on his face at the third “tomorrow” is heartbreaking, the way he looks down to his diseased wife on “all our yesterdays” and the disdain with which he says “out, out brief candle” show that he has completely given up.

Man, I can talk about this monologue for hours, but just go ahead and watch it. And then watch the whole production, it’s on Netflix so check it out, it’s pretty fantastic.

How to Succeed: Opening Night

Tonight marks the opening of the new Broadway revival of the 1962 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.  Heading the cast and making his Broadway musical debut is Daniel Radcliffe as J. Pierrepont Finch.  Also headlining the cast is John Larroquette as boss J.B. Biggley.

Included also in the cast are Rose Hemingway, Robb Bartlett, Tammy Blanchard, Mary Faber, Christopher J. Hanke, Ellen Harvey, and Michael Park.

Originally opening on Broadway in October of 1961, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying details the story of J. Pierropont Finch who, with the aid of a book by the same name as the musical and some morally questionable actions, climbs the corporate ladder from window washer to Vice President of Advertisement at the World-Wide Wicket Company.  The show features music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert.  It is based off a 1952 book by the same name, written by Shepherd Mead.

Thespian of the Moment: Julia Sweeney

Probably best known for her four (1990-1994) seasons on Saturday Night Live, Julia Sweeney is a thespian that has appeared in such films as Pulp Fiction, Stuart Little, Beethoven’s 3rd, It’s Pat (based on the androgynous SNL character) and… Beethoven’s 4th.  Okay, so her film work has some hits and misses, but it happens, and her films aren’t why she’s the prestigious Thespian of the Moment.

What makes her the Thespian of the Moment is a series of three autobiographical one woman shows that she’s produced since the mid-nineties.  God Said Ha!, In the Way of Family, and Letting Go of God all detail her diagnoses with cancer, the adoption of her daughter, and her own struggle with religion.  But these three shows are more than glimpses into this woman’s life, they’re told in a genuinely funny way that still manages to make a connection and show the heart of the subject matter.

Because of her immeasurable talent, wit, and style, Julia Sweeney is my Thespian of the Moment.