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.

A Catered Affair

Based on the 1956 Bette Davis film The Catered Affair, A Catered Affair is a 2008 Broadway musical collaboration between book writer Harvey Fierstein and composer/lyricist John Bucchino and director John Doyle.

The story follows a young couple, Jane and Ralph, who are planning to be married in less than a week.  The couple want a quick and small ceremony, but Jane’s mother, Aggie, has different plans, wanting to give Jane a large “catered affair” after a dinner with the groom’s parents.  To complicate matters more the bride’s father, Tom, needs money in order to buy out a share of his taxi company from a partner.  That, mixed with the story of Winston, the “bachelor uncle” who is in a snit for not being originally invited to the wedding, and Aggie and Tom’s son who has just died in the Korean War, serve as the basis for the musical.

The show opened on Broadway on April 17, 2008 and closed on July 27, 2008 after only 116 performances.  An unfortunate flop, and one that I really don’t understand.  The show is more of an intimate piece, not exactly a big Broadway show.  It has a lot of heart, though, that shows not only in the music, lyrics, and book but also within the look of the entire Broadway show.

It also helped that the Broadway production hired a cast of more than competent actors.  Faith Prince as Aggie is beyond words playing the wife that has watched life pass her by, and Tom Wopat is equally good playing husband Tom opposite her.  Then, of course, there’s Harvey Fierstein as Winston, and you can’t get much better than Harvey Fierstein in a show.  Leslie Kritzer and Matt Cavenaugh round out the main cast as the two love birds and they each offer their own charming touches to the roles.  With that cast alone, it’s a shame that the original production didn’t stay longer.

Fortunately for everyone,  a cast recording was released, and although I’m a fan that wishes the entire production was recorded, filmed live, made into a big-budget movie (so that I could then scathe that they hired Hollywood actors instead of Broadway), and become the biggest thing to hit the scene since pudding, the cast recording preserves the show nicely.  Highlights include the opening number, “Partners”, Harvey Fierstein’s fiery  “Immediate Family”, Leslie Kritzer’s delightful “One White Dress”, and two passionate numbers for Faith Prince: “Our Only Daughter” and “Vision”.

So that’s that.  Seriously, if you’re a Broadway lover and don’t own this cast recording, go out and get it now.  Yeah, that’s an order.  Do it.

Little Shop of… Stuff

The one thing missing on television these days is an animated television show based off of a hit 1980s off-Broadway musical about a man-eating plant.  But, hey, FOX already tried this in 1991 with Little Shop.  If you haven’t figured out what musical the show was based off of, it’s Little Shop of Horrors.  Yeah, that Little Shop of Horrors.  You know, the one with the man-eating plant.

But this incarnation was far different than the off-Broadway show, or even the subsequent 1986 Frank Oz film.  This version follows a Seymour Krelborn in Junior High, who works in a flower shop owned by Mr. Mushnik.  Oh, yeah.  And Seymour happens to have a talking Venus Flytrap (this version complete with eyes) named Junior, that helps Seymour with whatever shenanigans he happens to get into each week.  The best part about the plant is that he was actually hatched from a 200 million year old plant that had just been laying dormant for a while.  Oh, yeah, and the plant raps.  He raps.

Audrey also makes an appearance in the series as Mr. Mushnik’s daughter.  For no apparent reason, she’s gone from a blonde to a brunette that’s constantly thinking about the different jobs that she wants when she grows up.   Thankfully for her, Orin does not appear in the series, but is instead replaced with Paine Driller, a local bully that… wears braces.  Har Dee Har Har Har.

Rounding out the cast of characters are a trio of singing flowers, reminiscent of the Urchins from the stage version.  They, along with the rest of the cast, managed to find time to sing various hip-hop styled songs each week.  Yeah, with the rapping plant.

Although the show is cute its own special way (kind of like when the cat knocks itself out by jumping at his own reflection in the mirror),  FOX pulled the plug after thirteen episodes.  It’s probably for the best, though.  I mean… rapping plant.

Budget?

In light of the recent never-ending  discussion of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, one fact about the soon to be (maybe by next year) Broadway musical. $60 million. It’s been no secret that the show is costing somewhere in the ballpark of $60 million.

Who in their right state of mind would make a Broadway musical on a movie budget?* Better yet, what show would I mount on Broadway with $60 million? Cue the list:

1) Wicked: One of the highest grossing and most popular musicals of all time is my first choice. The show’s numbers suggest that the production is doing something right, but I feel like the show can be bigger and better. First, the flying monkeys. Love them to death, but they look a little cartoony. I suggest finding actors that don’t mind being in a show for a long time and instead of strapping wings on them, we surgically attach fully functioning wings to them. Also, Glinda damn well better be riding in on a real bubble, the Tin Man will be made out of tin, Elphaba needs to learn how to fly without a cherry picker, and there best be a lion around. Top it all off by gold-plating the chairs in the Gershwin theatre so that the whole place looks like the yellow brick road and it’s a hit.

2) We Will Rock You: Resurrect Freddy Mercury. Enough said.

3) Batman: The Musical: Everyone knows that Batman is a better character for a musical than Spider-Man is. Besides that obvious point, think about it. What could possibly be better than watching Batman chase the Joker around a scale set of Gotham City… while singing? Dear lord, with $60 million you might even be able to get Adam West to put on a costume… Poison Ivy’s. Don’t tell me I’m the only one that longs to see that. Really? Well alright then.

4) Titanic: I might venture to say that this is one of the more misunderstood musicals of the 1990s, but an interesting piece of theatre. Give me $60 million and I can promise you that you’re going to need a theatre big enough to hold a scale replica of the Titanic. Add in an iceberg that crashes down from the ceiling (Thank you Andrew Lloyd Webber), a hydraulic lift that plunges the ship beneath the stage, and a good enough water pump to fill the audience with ice cold water and we’ve got a fun evening for the whole family.

5) The Little Mermaid: Alright, so maybe it wasn’t everyone’s favorite piece of theatre, but for $60 million I’ll just build an aquarium for the kiddies. Once a week I’ll dress the fish up and play the movie over the intercom.

Alright, investors, make me an offer.

*Yeah, we all know that Julie Taymor is the obvious choice, even if she had never touched Spider-Man.**

**Poor bastard.

Via Galactica or What the Hell, Broadway?

Opened: November 28, 1972

Closed: December 2, 1972

Number of Performances: 7

There has been much talk and debate over what is the worst flop in Broadway history. A lot of people point out the musical version of Carrie. It should be noted that though Carrie is a hard musical to watch, swallow, or shoot up; it at least had a plot. The same cannot be said for Via Galactica.

Via Galactica, from what I can gather, is a musical about… something. The basic gist is that there are a group of outcasts that are living on an asteroid. Oh, yeah, and the year is 2972.

On this asteroid, we find a man named Gabriel Finn. Gabriel Finn is a blue (literally) “space sanitation” man that picks up trash in garbage shipped named the Helen of Troy. This ship leads him to the above mentioned asteroid (named Ithica) and beyond that I have no idea what is going on. The songs, and almost the entire show was intended to be sang rather than spoken, leave no clue as to what is happening and I honestly could not care less.

The most interesting thing about the show was what was involved with the production. The show, which played in the Uris (Now Gershwin) Theatre on Broadway, made heavy use of trampolines onstage. Even better than that, laser light shows, random trapeze dances, and a man who was nothing more than a head all make this show interesting enough to see.

Who cares if it’s absolute drivel? Give an trampolines covering a stage as part of a musical, and you’ve got butts in your seats… sometimes.

Interesting Fact: The musical was originally titled Up! Producers felt that that may look awkward with “Uris Theatre” following it on the marquee.

Oliver Richman-Defying Gravity

Nine year old Oliver Richman has become an overnight sensation to anyone that knows or cares about anything Broadway (about seven people). His performance of the song “Defying Gravity” from the musical Wicked has left more people spellbound than the top ticket price for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. So what’s so special about him?

I was introduced to Oliver when creepy pictures of him kept popping up on the ad-bar for Facebook. These I chose to ignore. When he began making appearances on the news sections of many Broadway websites, I still ignored him. It was not until he began popping up on message boards and people began ripping on him that I decided to check out his video.

It needs to be said that obviously Mr. Richman is talented. He could be out in the world, tipping over old ladies and drinking glue like a normal nine year old, but no. Oliver chose* to show the world his gift of a magical voice, and for that I applaud him. Some other people might not, so here’s hoping that he attends a performing arts school.

That’s all fine and dandy, but what really needs to be discussed is this music video. How has thing won no awards? I was in tears when the old woman** at the beginning of the video expressed her sentiments to the kid. Put this woman on Broadway and give her a Tony***.

Then the singing began. For those of you that are familiar with the song probably know that it is typically sung by a girl with a bad complexion and an unnatural ability to fly****. In this video, none of that happens. Instead, Oliver Richman has to suffer the trials and tribulations of a sunny day on some beach. As he belts through the song, we see him strike the infamous Titanic Jack and Rose pose with someone that can only be considered his sister. Awkward.

But the fun does not end there! Oliver proceeds to move onto many more locations, while clad in a red shirt and sunglasses.  We see him running down a row of miniature columns, looking something like if John Doyle had tried to direct Gladiator*****. The scenes continue as Oliver can be seen twisting, turning, and having a seizure whilst running down a boardwalk, some more beach, and a rather odd looking hill.

The highlight of the entire video occurs right on that rather odd looking hill. Oliver proceeds to tell all of Oz that “No wizard that there is or was is ever gonna bring me down!!!” complete with epic riffs. This is fine when watching Wicked. It’s a bit odd when a nine year old screams it at the hills of California.

All in all, the video is amazing. Watch it, learn it, live it, love it.

6/5 STARS

*Or at least his mother did.

**Mother? Grandmother? Sister with an aging defect?

*** I’ll settle for a Drama Desk Award.

****WITCHCRAFT.