Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Theatre Droppings: Thomas Nostradamus Invents The Musical

The producers of the musical Something Rotten! (and according to the program, there are about 112 of them) gambled big with their show, and it looks like it has worked out for them.  I saw the show many months ago, during its preview period, when its future was far from secure.
Brad Oscar's soothsayer (left) predicts the Next Big Thing: the Musical.  This sequence occurs about 20 minutes into the first act; the resulting song stops the show cold. I've truly never witnessed a standing ovation for a musical number in the middle of Act One, but apparently it's become a usual occurrence in Something Rotten!. An abbreviated version of the song was presented at the Tonys, but the full effect of this showstopper can only be witnessed in the theatre. (Another of the show's songs was featured a few weeks ago in these pages, go here if interested.)
The show was originally scheduled to premiere in Seattle, where the creators planned to work out any kinks and then, if all went well, move to New York. 
Brian d'Arcy James as Nick Bottom.
When the show's Seattle engagement
disappeared, James chose to withdraw
from Hamilton, where he was playing
George III, in order to lead this cast. 
Those plans went out the window when a theatre suddenly became available on Broadway;  noting the absence of a breakout new musical, they bypassed that out-of-town tryout and opened cold in New York.  This took some major stones, as Something Rotten! is that rare musical which is brand new.  It's not based on any existing work which might provide a pre-sold audience, it was cooked up from scratch.

The Bottom Brothers want to be on top. Something Rotten! is at its best when it's sending up the theatrical culture which it also celebrates. Shakespeare and musicals take the brunt of the kidding. There is a plot here, concerning two brothers who scheme to create something new while in the shadow of that Elizabethan horndog, the Bard.
Because nobody had ever heard of this thing, tickets were available for a song during the preview period, so I picked one up.  They were offering seats to their first few previews for only 20 bucks;  I can no longer afford to attend Broadway shows, even ones on the half-price board, but this was too good to pass up.  I saw the show's 3rd public performance, which included scenery bumping into itself and a couple of mangled lines. 
John Cariani and Kate Reinders play roles meant to provide
some romance. I recognized Cariani from his many TV
appearances, notably a recurring role of a forensics nerd in the
Law and Order franchise. He is also a playwright; his
Almost, Maine has become one of the most frequently
produced plays in recent years.
In one scene a platform slid in from stage left (it's called a wagon, but it isn't one, it's simply a flat platform that moves). Clearly it was supposed to land center stage and stop, but it hooked itself onto a standing flat and was stuck. There were a table and chairs on the wagon, where our two heroes were to play their next, interior scene. 
Heidi Blickenstaff plays Bea Bottom (the show is peppered with names like that). She's perhaps the only true belter on Broadway today (ok, there are a couple of screamers over at Wicked, but is that belting?). Heidi first caught my attention years ago when I attended the abysmal Addams Family musical during the final week of a very tired run. She was a replacement for  Mrs Beineke, and stole the show from stars Roger Rees and Brooke Shields. She is Something Rotten's voice of reason, and she gets to do a little Shakespearean crossdressing as well.
Brian d'Arcy James and John Cariani simply glanced at each other, shrugged, and moved the furniture off the platform and placed it on the flat stage where it was supposed to land. 
Christian Borle won the Tony
playing Shakespeare as an
ego-driven rock star. He was
the show's only Tony winner.
Of course, anytime something like this happens, the audience eats it up, particularly if the actors handle it with humor and professionalism (as these guys did). They were faced, however, with the problem of what to do with this furniture once the scene was over, since the wagon could not return to the stage to remove it. James took the lead and, while continuing the dialogue of the scene, simply slid the table, then each chair, off-stage. Thunderous applause.
In a fairly convoluted plot twist, Shakespeare disguises himself as an itinerant player and auditions for the Bottom Brothers' show. At the preview I attended, Christian Borle mangled his "audition speech" pretty badly, but gamely went back to correct himself with the ad lib "Let me do this again. I really want this job." The house roared approval
Who cares about such mistakes, particularly at a preview?  Our audience surely didn't. Despite the various mishaps, the cast was clearly having a ball, so we did too. Something Rotten! is not the greatest musical out there (it runs out of steam a bit in Act Two), but is certainly great fun and deserves a long, healthy run.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Friday Dance Party: The Last Time I Saw Paris

Everyone's minds and hearts have been on Paris this week. I can only obsess on such tragedies for a while before my mind goes a little berserk. I think it's a coping mechanism. The mind wanders, stream-of-consciously, bringing other, happier, thoughts about Paris to the fore.
I spent four days or so in Paris as a teen-ager, and have always had the intention of going back.  My memories of the city are sketchy, as my visit was so many decades ago, but until I finally get back there, I revel in the various artistic depictions of the City of Love.
This week's Dance Party comes from an unusual little film which presents quite a stylized picture of Paris.

In 1962, the scrappy independent animation studio United Productions of America, or UPA, released an artsy cartoon feature which set a bit of a precedent. 
It was highly unusual, at that time, for established stars to lend their voices to animation. The thinking, I suppose, was that producers did not want audiences picturing famous people when watching their cartoons.  It's commonly done now, of course, and in fact, it's difficult to find ANY animated feature film these days which does not brag a boatload of stars voicing the characters.  Back in 1962, this was quite unusual.
Gay Pur-ee placed two stars in its two leading roles, and two other stars as featured players. Judy Garland was in the midst of (yet another) comeback, and Robert Goulet, fresh off his breakout performance in Broadway's Camelot, was at the height of his celebrity. Character actors Red Buttons and Hermione Gingold were enlisted to support these headliners, together bringing a lot of star power to this animated flick.
Gay Purr-ee's story was definitely overshadowed by its score, which includes one of Garland's favorite songs, "Little Drops
of Rain." The tune made its way into Judy's subsequent acts (she also sings it on the Christmas episode of her variety series). The clip below is not that song, but showcases the stylized animation of the film, as well as Garland's flawless vocal performance.
Director Abe Levitow used the paintings of Monet,
Cezanne, and others to create the film's very
unusual look.
At Garland's suggestion, UPA enlisted Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, the songwriting team famous for, among other pieces, a little thing called The Wizard of Oz.  They provided a musical score which was much more sophisticated than was usually heard in animated films.  They made very good use of their stars; Garland and Goulet both sound fabulous on the film's soundtrack.
UPA's technique of "limited animation"
allowed the product to be completed in
record time. The studio moved into TV,
creating one of my favorite series as a kid.

The film was written by Dorothy Webster Jones and her husband, Chuck Jones, who was a giant in the cartoon industry. He actually worked on the film in violation of his contract with Warner Brothers, an act which caused his dismissal from the studio which had benefited from his prestigious work with Bugs Bunny and his crowd. (Mel Blanc, the major voice artist for Warner Brothers animation, was also involved with Gay Purr-ee).
I did not see Gay Purr-ee in the theaters, and once it hit television, I did my best to love it. I find it more admirable than lovable.  Even watching it as an adult, I find it difficult to get through in one sitting.  Cloying character names like "Mewsette" and "Meowrice" don't help.
The villains in Gay Purr-ee were voiced by Hermione
Gingold and voice-over legend Paul Frees.
UPA pioneered a new process called "limited animation," which reused backgrounds much like live action films use stock footage. This technique drastically cut down the amount of time it took to create animation, and was a direct contrast to the prevailing Disney style of super realism.  The technique also gave the finished product an unusual stylized form which, to me, looked cheap.  Well, what did I know? It was less expensive, but it could also be used in imaginative ways, which was certainly the way it was used in Gay Pur-ee.  This week's clip illustrates the point.
Unfortunately, the story containing these artsy images is a pretty lousy one, concerning a country cat who, longing for the excitement of the big city, escapes to Paris, where she is seduced by evil forces and is ultimately rescued by the love she left behind.
UPA only produced two feature films, and was known primarily as the studio which brought us Mr Magoo. (I was never a fan of Magoo, but UPA also produced a pretty slick Dick Tracy series of which I was quite fond).  The same year Gay Pur-ee was released, UPA created a Christmas classic for television when it presented Mr Magoo's Christmas Carol
Like Gay Pur-ee, this one hour version of Dickens's story featured an established songwriting team.  Jule Styne and Bob Merrill were working on their score for Funny Girl while writing the tunes for this project, which is in fact the first animated Christmas special ever produced for television. It received its own Dance Party here.
UPA's newer, faster animation technique was well suited for the pace necessary for television production, and it was adopted by other studios, most notably Hanna-Barbara, who had great success using it for their Flintstones and Jetsons franchises. UPA itself ceased producing cartoons in the early 70s and became known as the American distributor of Japanese movies such as Godzilla.

Here's Judy Garland singing an ode to Paris. It's a pretty torchy number, perhaps the only of its kind sung by an animated cat, but this clip gives a very good illustration of the style of this unique film. It's not much solace for the horrors of the past few week, but it makes me feel a little better.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Friday Dance Party: Seven Year Itch

Just as I attempt to reactivate the Dance Party (only last week, as a matter of fact), I turn the page of my planner (yes, I still use a planner. It's 22 years old and I'll never give it up) and find that this weekend marks the 7th Anniversary of the weekly Dance Party on this site. Yikes.

I used to give an annual shout out to this
guy. Larry Dalke invented the Dance Party
and promptly gave up on it.
He probably saw the monster it would
become in these pages.
In its early years, in fact up until about 2 years ago, I was very conscientious about creating an entry every week. At each year's anniversary, I would congratulate myself by writing a little rundown of all the clips presented that year. Once I fell out of the habit of the weekly entry, the annual review also disappeared.  I hope to continue the Party on a weekly basis, since I actually enjoy the research and the compiling of the entries, I just got lazy.  Allow me to review the relatively few Dance Parties which have appeared in these pages the last few years.

I used to celebrate various holidays with DP clips, but I'm surprise to see that, looking over the past two years, I did that only four times. 
Rita Moreno's turn as a waitress in the musical Working
reminded me of the many Thanksgivings I worked as a waiter. Confession: I actually considered using her song as an audition piece.
For Christmas, I talked about my favorite Christmas carol ("Little Drummer Boy") which The West Wing used to great effect here. 
Independence Day was celebrated with a very revolutionary
outfit, courtesy of Christine Ebersole.
As almost always happens, New Years rolled around a week later, so I wrote about the great Frank Loesser song which he meant to be sung in springtime, but which has now become a New Years Eve perennial.  And the 4th of July last year gave me the chance to showcase one of the great Broadway stars of our generation, Christine Ebersole.

Speaking of Broadway, the Tony Awards inspired two entries a year ago.
Tony winning Jessie Mueller as
Carole King.
Carole King, who was not nominated for anything, came up a winner anyway when her portrayer, my favorite Jessie Mueller, snagged the Best Actress prize.  Sadly, another of my favorites, Tyne Daly, was a big ol' loser that year, so I compensated her with her own entry.

Terrence McNally wrote a play specifically for Tyne Daly, Mothers and Sons, for which they each received a Tony nomination. They both lost, and the show closed a week later. The least I could do was give them a Dance Party.
Speaking of the Tonys, did The Sound of Music win any awards way back when? I'm too lazy to look it up, but I do know that the Live presentation on NBC last year, starring a reality TV star turned C/W singer, won derision from critics but ratings so stellar that it triggered a mini-trend. 
Is there anything more frightening than a nun with a guitar? The masses didn't care, as the ratings went through the roof for The Sound of Music Live!. Go here for my report, which included my wish for a future live presentation (complete with Perfect Casting Suggestions)
NBC followed up their Sound of Music Live with a truly
dreadful Peter Pan, starring a somnambulent Christopher
Walken but co-starring current Broadway Stud Christian
Borle, who appeared in last week's Dance Party.
Birthdays and Deathdays have always played a big part in inspiring Dance Parties, and the past 2 years were no exception. When Sondheim (he doesn't need a first name in these pages) turned 85 the same week his hit film Into the Woods was released on DVD, we had to hear from Meryl Streep.  When Jerry Herman hit 83, we enjoyed the danciest party in recent years, imported from Britain.  When Charles Kimbrough turned 78, we got two little clips, a live action song and a cartoon ditty. Neither of them came from his biggest success, Murphy Brown.
Karen Morrow is one of my very favorite belters, so when she
had a birthday, we had to take note.

As I mentioned, Deathdays also inspire entries.  Being dead does not disqualify anyone from the Dance Party. 
Sammy Davis, Jr., as Mr. Bojangles
The anniversary of the death of Sammy Davis, Jr reminded me of his fondness for a particular song about a particular hoofer, which he performed on Flip Wilson's ultra-groovy TV series.  
Moms Mabley provided the most unlikely Dance Party of the past two years, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
When director Gene Saks went to his maker, I
enjoyed reviewing his illustrious career, but
could no resist capping it with his most
notorious bomb: Lucy as Mame.
Elaine Stritch's death did not come as a surprise, as she had retired due to ill health and advancing age less than a year earlier, but it was a sad event nonetheless. Instead of presenting one of her signature tunes ("I'm Still Here, Broadway Baby, Why Do The Wrong People Travel", etc), I was pleased to showcase her very dry humor with this clip from a Rodgers and Hart classic.

"You can't have New York City without Queens," some wag once said, and it's equally true that you can't have the Dance Party without them either. 
Manilow's gay marriage was met
with shrugs. Show biz types rarely
get much press for coming out
these days.
Two gents got their own entries when they stepped out of the closet. I was pleased to report that both revelations induced more shrugs than shrieks;  show biz personalities revealing their homosexuality isn't newsworthy anymore, all those histrionics are now saved for the instances when sports figures come out. But still, when Barry Manilow married his longtime business manager, he got a cartoon DP, and when octogenarian Joel Grey revealed his sexuality, I discussed how we are practically twins.

There were a handful of Dance Parties which were inspired by nothing much. Angela Lansbury has made frequent appearances here over the years, so when she was Damed by the Queen, we took a peek at one of her very early film musicals. When I saw a local production of The Threepenny Opera, Pearl Bailey and Dinah Shore dropped by for a duet
Jane Lynch channeled Madonna when I
wrote a bit about Glee's finale.
Though I'm not a huge fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein, I had to admit that their Stepsisters' Lament is a real hoot, and always has been: two versions, starring three of my favorite character actresses, proved the point.

When the Dance Party first appeared in these pages, it was envisioned as a way to enjoy pure dance. That concept fell by the wayside pretty quickly, and the majority of entries over the years (a whopping 276 of them!) have featured musical performances which did not necessarily feature dance. But in keeping with tradition, the Annual Review Dance Party presents a clip starring amateur youngsters displaying enthusiastic talent. Here are a couple of teens who love to boogie.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Friday Dance Party: Mad About The Borle

As this site lurches uncertainly back to life, we pay tribute to my favorite Broadway Go-To Guy. He first attracted national attention more than a decade ago, in this fun commercial below.  Who IS this guy??

I confess I don't remember ever seeing this commercial, but it is fondly remembered by most fans of Christian Borle (and I am one of those).

Broadway musicals do not usually appeal
to the MTV audience, even one based on a
tweenie movie, so the network's broadcast
of Legally Blonde still confuses me.
The first time I ever saw Borle's work was probably in the stage version of Legally Blonde, though I didn't know it at the time. In 2007, MTV made the unusual decision to air the original Broadway production in its entirety. I did my best with it, but could not get through the thing, mostly due to the unending commercial breaks inserted. So I know I saw Borle, who played love interest Emmett (and who earned a Tony nomination for his work), but frankly, I don't remember him.
As Bert in Mary Poppins
Borle held his own among comic
experts Hank Azaria, Tim Curry,
and David Hyde Pierce in Spamalot.
Legally Blonde was Borle's first Tony nod, but not his first Broadway appearance. He had replaced actors in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Mary Poppins, and originated several roles in Spamalot (including everyone's favorite Not Dead Fred). I had heard Christian Borle's name tossed around theatrical circles for quite a while before I actually saw the guy, and it wasn't onstage at all. 
On stage he's often flamboyantly
theatrical, but in Smash, Borle gave
a nuanced and unassuming
He gained national attention with his leading role in Smash, NBC's noble attempt to musicalize episodic television. The show ran two seasons, and Borle's character was a major presence throughout. (Smash had its own Dance Party a while back, go here.)

Christian's costar in the current Something Rotten!, Heidi Blickenstaff, hosted a video blog for a while, an entertaining look at the backstage shenanigans. Borle was regularly seen sitting in his dressing room clutching a book (he spends more time offstage than just about anyone else in his cast). "Book Nook" became appointment viewing among us Borlites.
During this period, Borle was also heavily involved in Peter and the Starcatcher, an unusual little play-with-music which was an impressive Off-Broadway hit.  
The show transferred uptown and Borle went with it, opening the Broadway production during his hiatus from Smash. He won the Tony for his efforts, an award I can attest he deserved, as I saw his energetic performance.
As Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher. The show isn't exactly a prequel, but is rather an imagining of how the Peter Pan myth may have begun. Finding Neverland, a giant show currently on Broadway, is also Pan-adjacent, though it covers the supposed inspiration for the writing of the original story. What the hell is it about Peter Pan that attracts people, over and over again?
Smash did not survive its second season, but that did not stop our hero, who has maintained a television presence in recurring roles on The Good Wife and Masters of Sex.
I'm a big fan of The Good Wife, so I'm delighted when Christian shows up to play one of Alicia's many nemeses.
Impressively, Borle has given satisfying performances in both of the live productions of Broadway musicals with which NBC has had such ratings success during the past two holiday seasons. His stage cred came in handy as Max in The Sound of Music, opposite stage vet Laura Benanti (I wrote about that production here). He was happily back when NBC's Peter Pan took flight (or rather, floundered), playing Mr. Darling and Smee.
Arms and the Man. Borle began working out during his Smash days, when bedroom scenes revealed a slender physique. Boy has that changed. His appearance as a pirate in Peter Pan Live ignited major interest in his huge arms. Some viewers suspected they were faked for the show, but no, it's really him. These days, Christian's biceps even have their own twitter account (which our hero claims he does not run).
Though neither of these live shows received much critical praise, they were ratings winners, and one would think Christian might be a good luck charm worth keeping (as far as I can tell, he is the only performer to appear in both The Sound of Music and Peter Pan live productions).
Before the big Borle Bicep Bulge, our hero starred
in a prestigious revival of Angels in America,
opposite Zachary Quinto. This guy does not need
song and dance to excel.
It was announced a while back that this year's event would be The Music Man, which is a show I dislike but one which might have given Borle the MUCH deserved leading role he has earned. I'd love to see how he handled conman Harold Hill. Soon after that announcement was made, it was rescinded. Instead, The Wiz will be easing on down the road, live, this Christmas. If the producers really want to insure ratings success, they should consider putting Borle in blackface to play one of Dorothy's cohorts. EVERYBODY would watch THAT, if only to complain about racism in Hollywood!

I have a hunch Borle is a bit of a hound
around the ladies, but why not? He was
married to his college sweetheart until
their individual careers really took off.
Yes, that's Sutton Foster, the former
Mrs. Borle. He's been linked to others
of his costars as well; who could resist
that wide, toothy grin?
Well, we finally come to our Dance Party, which features Christian singing one of his songs from his current hit, Something Rotten! (Look for my thoughts on seeing this show soon, as I attempt to get back in the habit of updating these pages. I saw the show months ago, early in its preview period.) 
The principal cast of Something Rotten!
This show is populated with many of Broadway's current creme, but when the show opened last spring, Borle was the face most recognizable to a network audience (due to his Smashing appearances), so there are several clips out there of Christian performing on the various morning/talk shows.
Instead, please enjoy this little video which the Broadway.com team produced themselves, to showcase the show's only Tony winner (did I mention Borle won his second Tony with this performance as Shakespeare?). It's a fun little number capitalizing on Christian Borle's comic timing. And of course, his arms.

As I watched this music video below, it occurred to me: isn't there a Popeye musical out there, just waiting to be put on the stage? Arms And The Man, indeed.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Friday Dance Party: Barry, Oh Marry!

He got married a year ago, but the news just trickled out last week.  And like other recent, shrug-inducing announcements, the revelation that 70s superstar Barry Manilow married his longtime male manager isn't cause for much excitement.

Though he married a woman, briefly, about a hundred years ago, Manilow successfully ducked questions about his sexuality for most of his career.  He seemed like the kind of guy who would always be single.
This was the only Manilow album I ever
owned. He proved himself a lively showman
and his concerts were lavish events.
Except that Manilow really was a huge star of the 70s who built his music career on scores of weepy ballads of love and yearning. He was the most unlikely of sex symbols, with a tall gangly frame and, let's face it, a real Jimmy Durante shnozz. But something about his music, and his public persona, struck hard.  I was not a big fan, but you really couldn't get those earwick ballads out of your head.
Barry had the occasional uptempo hit, like the disco-tinged "Copacabana," but primarily, he was known for sappy ballads with refrains that churned around in your head long after the song was over.
He's hardly recognizable here. He
spent some time in TV production
before his career as a jingle writer
took off.

Funny thing about those love ballads.  For the most part, the lyrics were not gender specific.  Did anyone notice this back then?
Our hero hit #1 for the first time
since "Mandy" with this song.
"I write the songs that make the
whole world sing," except he
didn't write it. Nobody cared.

Many, many songs were actually direct address, with the song aimed directly at the subject, rather than a tale of woe about the time "she" left me.  Was this a subtle way for Manilow to duck questions regarding his own romantic life?  Whatever it was, it allowed gay men to appropriate those songs without the hassle of changing pronouns.

Ah, who cares at this point. I find that I am more interested in the on-again, off-again relationship Barry had with another music superstar, Bette Midler. 
These two met back in the 70s, when Manilow was hired to accompany "the talent" who entertained at Manhattan's Continental Baths on Saturday nights. I guess back then, gay bath houses offered entertainment to the deviants wandering around the club in towels. Bette Midler made her first big splash performing there, with Barry at the piano. This club provided the inspiration for Terrence McNally's 1975 play The Ritz.  Rita Moreno won a Tony playing a role loosely based on Midler. 
Barry and Bette hit it off (not surprisingly, as The Divine Miss M has always been Best Friend to the Gays), and their professional lives were intertwined for about 3 years.  Manilow produced her first two albums in the early 70s, just as his own career as a solo artist was unexpectedly taking off as well. 
Gotta love those 70s fashions.

Somewhere in there, the Great Feud began, which was to keep the two apart for several decades, as they each rose to fame.  As much as I love Miss Midler, from what I've read, the fault was mostly hers:  she had trouble accepting the fact that her records sold "only" 30 million copies, while Barry's topped 80 million. 
By 2003, two older and wiser heads prevailed, and the Bette/Barry team was back in business.  Manilow produced Midler's well-received tribute albums to Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee, and the two even recorded a few songs together.
Tensions linger, apparently.  In 2013, Barry and Bette were both, coincidentally, on Broadway. A concert evening called Manilow on Broadway was selling out, while Midler's one-woman play I'll Eat You Last was packing them in as well.
There was talk of Midler and Manilow opening the Tony Awards with a duet, since they were both on Broadway at the time.  When it didn't happen, folks were sure the feud was still smoldering, but in reality, I think Bette was pissed she did not receive a Tony nomination for her work playing Sue Mengers.  Her show was a smash and did not need the publicity of a Tony appearance, so she skipped it.
There are a couple of clips out there, of the two superstars together, but for this week's Dance Party, here's another, more unlikely, collaboration.  In 1988, Disney released an animated musical adaptation of Oliver Twist, rewritten as a story about dogs. The score for Oliver and Company was written by a bunch of people, and included one song written by Barry Manilow.  The tune was given to the character of Georgette, a spoiled showdog, which, by coincidence or not, was being voiced by Bette Midler.  So, inadvertently, Barry and Bette were collaborating again, though in different rooms, and at different times.
Oliver and Company predated the great animation renaissance which Disney was to enjoy a bit later, but the film was a modest success.
I've never seen this film, but it's kind of a fun song.  So, in the spirit of congratulations to Barry and his hubby, enjoy Bette Midler belting a Barry Manilow song.