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.

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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.

One for the Money, or a Fan’s Wet Dream

I had been a fan of the books for four years.

I had waited patiently for at least three years.

I had devoured eighteen books, four novellas, and a short story.

The project had been eighteen years in the making.

Finally, after the book was published in 1994, One for the Money was released in theatres January 27, 2012, and I almost peed in my seat out of pure happiness for what the Gods had bestowed upon me.  If you really want to sum up how emotionally attached (potentially to an unhealthy state?) I am to this film, take a minute to look and see how many times I have personally talked about movies on this site.  That’s right, for all two of you that decided to take a gander: Zero.  I haven’t bothered.  And why?  Because One for the Money wasn’t fucking released until just now.  That’s why.

For those of you not familiar with the books, and if you aren’t then you need to go cry in the corner and think about all the things that are wrong with your life, One for the Money is the first book in the Stephanie Plum series written by Janet Evanovich- the patron saint of writing a shit-ton.  This information is already listed above, but it needs repetition:  this woman has written eighteen books in the same series along with four novellas and a short story, because she loves me.  Or maybe because she likes the series, or maybe just writing in general.  I like to think that she does it because she loves me.  Right, Janet?  I’m sure she reads this, you know.

But I’m not on here tonight to praise St. Janet.  I’m on here because this movie rocked, and everyone that still religiously looks at this blog needs to know that.  Now, so far actual critics (also known as unhappy pricks who cry every time they pass a mirror- Also, they smell) have picked apart this film, to the point that it currently has a 0% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.  That’s pretty rough for any movie.  Strap on the fact that this movie is about a female bounty hunter whose only prior experience is selling lingerie at Macy’s and I have no idea what the hell is going on.

Oh, wait.  I do.

Katherine Heigl plays Stephanie Plum, a new bounty hunter whose only prior experience is selling lingerie at Macy’s.  Following so far?  She’s strapped for cash, so she agrees to take on a few failure-to-appears, and the hilarity rolls out.  Also, the guy she’s trying to hunt down happens to be Joe Morelli, a high school boyfriend that she ran over with her car once.  Oh, yeah.  Shit just got real.  And if she can bring Joe Morelli in, she gets $50,000 and a pat on the back for doing it in heels.  I should write chick-flicks.

Now, the movie itself is not a masterpiece.  Yeah, it has tons of flaws, including a beginning that made me think it was going to be the worst thing I had seen since I dreamt I was being attacked by sausages in my sleep.  But the film has something that you can’t quite fully comprehend.  Maybe it’s the setting or the costumes or the cleavage.  Hell, maybe even the lighting designer was just that good.  Part of me, though, wants to put a lot of praise on the cast.

I’ll be one to admit, when someone told me that it was going to be Katherine Heigl as Stephanie Plum, I was outraged.  Then I asked for clarification on who it was and realized the person had not said Sam Kinison.  That would have just been ridiculous.  I mean, he’s a man AND dead.

After Googling to find out who the hell Heigl was, I felt better about the whole thing, and she works in the film.  I found myself getting slightly annoyed with her voiceover work at parts, but she made up for it with the fact that her acting was close to how Stephanie is portrayed in the book.  She’s naïve and not totally sure of herself, but she’s pissed and she has a job that she needs to do.  It worked, and, in the end, you can’t help but find her charming, just like the Stephanie that’s been fleshed out over the years.

Top this off with the fact that the cast also includes Debbie Reynolds as Grandma Mazur, the grandmother you would have if she stopped taking her medication and opened a few bottles of whiskey, and you’ve got the start of a good supporting cast.  I was just happy to see Debbie Reynolds doing something that didn’t have Halloweentown in the title.  Then there’s Debra Monk playing Stephanie’s mother, giving a performance that, again, just seems to fit.   Jason O’Mara, though completely different in look and even style to how I had imagined Morelli brought a different flare to him that made him more human than I had imagined, and I liked that.  It might have had something to do with the fact that I was watching an actor rather than reading a page, but whatever.  Don’t judge me.

The supporting cast has two big stars, though, that deserve special notice.  Ana Reeder as Connie, the file clerk at the bonds office was a bit of brilliance.  When you first see her in the bonds office you’re not quite sure what to think of her.  Sort of like a woman that you need to give a few shots to before she’ll loosen up and tell you the tales of her life at sea.  But it just makes her character even more funny and interesting, and not another smudge on the wallpaper of this film, like she could have easily been.  The other notice goes to Sherri Shepherd.  Playing a hooker must be interesting.  Playing the hooker that is Lula must be a bonkers experience.  From the way she holds herself in those skin-tight outfits, to the careful delivery of her lines, Sherri Shepherd walks away as the most memorable and the best part of the cast.  She has wit and heart, and that’s something that makes the middle of the this film have a bit of a tragic side.

Alright, so I’ve gone ahead and praised this film, but there’s one last thing about it that is the secret to the success of this film.  It’s that the soul of this film is the soul of the book.  The two were written in the same style, and the movie never has a problem using the book as its one and only guide, keeping the sort of things that made the book so damn popular to begin with.  The writers even use tiny things to keep the avid readers of the books smiling, letting us see the world of Trenton that Evanovich has slowly created in the past eighteen years.  That’s right, writers, I saw the Pino’s number listed in Stephanie’s phone- wink, wink.

Most importantly, though, they keep the heart and soul of Stephanie herself.  Stephanie is a character that a lot of people can relate to.  Helpless in most situations, but not one to give up just because things aren’t easy for her.  Mix in some humor and hookers and you have a golden, though slightly imperfect, film.

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.

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.

As For Tomorrow, Well, Who knows?

Girdles, dancing girls, mascara, and a Jerry Herman score all combine to form the basis for the gay romp known as La Cage aux Folles.  Even with Harvey Fierstein currently leading the production as Albin, the current Broadway production is a little less gay than usual.  Jeffrey Tambor, who entered the production opposite Harvey Fierstein on February 15, has been released of his contract (playing Fierstein’s husband, Georges) with the show since February 24.

The producers of the show issues a statement that referenced the fact that Jeffrey Tambor had recently had a hip replacement, and that the strains of doing a show eight times a week was too much for him.  Now, as with any good press release, not everyone believed this.  A certain “reporter”/”critic”/thing for the New York Post reported that Tambor had been struggling with the score and was visibly uneasy when in front of a live audience.  He even gave this little gem of a quote about the struggling actor:

He’s hitting notes in some of Jerry Herman’s lovely ballads that aren’t found anywhere on the traditional Western scale.”

Nothing like kicking an actor when he’s down.

This brings up a point about the role of Georges, though.  In the 2005 Broadway Revival of La Cage aux Folles, there were severe rumors about severe tensions running in the cast.  Actor Daniel Davis (Of The Nanny fame) was in the role of Georges, while Gary Beach was playing Albin.  Supposedly there was a constant feud between the two, which eventually led to the dismissal of Mr. Davis.  He was later replaced by Robert Goulet (Of Goulet fame).

Goulet!

Not saying that the role is cursed, but even the original Georges on Broadway (Gene Barry) only had minimal television, movie, and theatre offers after his time in the show.  And he had an extensive career before going into it!

If this is any sign for the good things that happen for those that play Georges on Broadway, then Kelsey Grammer, who originated the role in the current production, should be keeping an eye out.  He married his newest wife on the stage of the Longacre Theatre, where La Cage aux Folles is currently playing, on February 25.

Goulet!

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.

A Bloody, Bloody Month on Broadway

January has always been an important month for Broadway shows.  While it  marks a joyous time that people have once again survived the holiday season, it also marks the death of many theatre productions.  With producers no longer being able to count on holiday tourists to fill seats, many shows find themselves dimming their stages.

Closing tonight, January 2, proves to be the most popular closing date of the month.  Fela!, Promise, Promises, West Side Story, and the only recently opened Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson shutter.  The limited engagements Brief Encounter, Elf,  and The Pee-Wee Herman Show also close tonight.  Special notice should go to the limited engagement musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown closing tonight, ahead of its original January 23 closing date.

This marks a break in closing until January 9 when A Little Night Music, In the Heights, Rock of Ages and A Free Man of Color will also follow the previously mentioned shows.  This date also marks the premature closing of La Bête, which was originally intended to close on February 12.  The show, which will have played under 100 performances since opening in October, did moderately better than its original run in the early 1990s… which played twenty-five.

This marks another cooling in closings until January 16 when the Pulitzer Prize winning musical Next to Normal stops performances, closely followed by Time Stands Still on Janurary 30.

If nothing else, all of these closings should serve as a reminder that more great things are slated to open this season… and then promptly close next January.