Sunday, September 8, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Monster Mash Up

This gal had a birthday last weekend, and inspires this week's Dance Party:
Mary Shelley
Though her writings included novels, short stories, travelogues, and critical analyses, Shelley is really remembered for only one thing, the creation of one of the most famous and influential horror stories in the English language. 

Boris Karloff's image in the role of his lifetime dominated all
renditions of the story for years and years.
The story goes that Mary accompanied her lover (and later husband) Percy Shelley to Geneva in the summer of 1816, where the unusually wet weather trapped the duo indoors for much of the season.  They were joined by Lord Byron and family members and friends;  to pass the long hours, Byron challenged everyone to come up with a ghostly tale.  Mary began what she thought would be a short story;  the end result was a full-length novel which is considered a masterpiece of the horror genre (and is sometimes considered the first true science fiction story as well).  That novel introduced the concept of man creating life in a laboratory and in the process, introduced the world to Frankenstein.
Universal Studios released a series of Frankenstein movies in the 30s, which brought Mary Shelley's tale to the masses.  It also reinforced the misapprehension about exactly who Frankenstein was;  in Shelley's original, he was the doctor, while the creature he created had no name.  That never really clicked, and Frankenstein is now and forever the monster, as well as the mad scientist who created him.
Boris Karloff's performance as the monster was so iconic, no one thought to vary from it. 

Gods and Monsters was the 1998 biopic of James Whale, the director responsible for bringing Frankenstein to the big screen in the 30s.  This was not a horror film but was certainly "Frankenstein-adjacent," as it depicted Whales's later life being influenced, and perhaps distroyed, by the success of his classic horror movie.  Good use was made of Brendan Fraser's flatheaded resemblence to Frankenstein's creation, and Gods and Monsters is a fascinating study of an artist in decline.  Both Ian McKellen, as Whale, and Lynn Redgrave, as his housekeeper, received Oscar nods, and writer Bill Condon won for his screenplay.
For most of the 20th Century, anytime anyone thought about, wrote about, or portrayed Frankenstein's Monster,  they used Karloff's performance as a template. 
The Rocky Horror Show provided a dramatic departure from the standard version of Frankenstein. This creature was a scar-free muscle boy;  I wrote about this show here, on a previous Dance Party.
Eventually, though, creative forces looked for alternatives to the Karloff image of the gruesome flathead with grotesque scars and outstretched arms.  The Frankenstein franchise was ripe for parody, but most comedic versions of the story maintained the physical look of the Monster. 
Even comedic versions of Frankenstein tend to keep the general look of Boris Karloff's original monster.  TV's The Munsters featured Fred Gwynne as an endearing goofball.
In 1974, Mel Brooks tailored Young Frankenstein as both a parody and homage to the original series of horror flicks. 
Gothic soap Dark Shadows created its own version of the
Frankenstein story. The performances of Robert Rodan and
Marie Wallace, as Adam and Eve, dominated the show for
almost a year.

The film was a big hit for all involved.  Thirty-plus years later, Mel turned his classic comedy into a stage musical, with limited success. 
The Producers had "Springtime for Hitler," Young Frankenstein had this scene as its centerpiece, in which the doctor and his creation sing "Puttin' On The Ritz."  Lightening did not strike twice, and Young Frankenstein, the Musical, did not live up to anyone's expectations.  Despite assembling the same team which made The Producers a smash, Brooks was unable to duplicate his success.  He is currently working on a stage musical of yet another of his film hits, Blazing Saddles.
Mel Brooks had phenomenal success with his stage version of The Producers, which won a record 12 Tony awards.  
Emmy winner Megan Mullally, and
Tony winners Roger Bart, Sutton Foster,
 and Andrea Martin took the roles
created in the film by Madeline
Kahn, Gene Wilder, Terri Garr, and
Cloris Leachman. The failure of such a
cast must be laid squarely at the feet of
the material.
It was probably inevitable that Brooks's follow-up to The Producers would be a letdown, and Mel certainly provided one. 
"He's having a stroke. OF GENIUS!" And indeed, it seemed Mel Brooks could do no wrong when he adapted The Producers into a musical. The show won the Tony in every category in which it was nominated, and it was nominated in every category in which it was eligible.  The only major Tony it lost was one for which the show had no candidate, Best Actress in a Musical.
In one of many fits of hubris on Mel's part, he called his new show The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein, and charged a top price of over $400 per ticket.  The production ran just over a year, after opening to decidedly mixed reviews;  in a break from Broadway tradition, the show declined to reveal weekly box office tallies.  After the success of The Producers, and indeed, after the success of the original film of Young Frankenstein, the new show must be counted a disappointment.
"He vas my boyfriend!"  The original film featured Cloris Leachman as housekeeper Frau Blucher [horse shriek!] She was the only original player, other than Brooks himself, ever involved with the musical version.  She played her role in an early reading of the musical, and it was considered a good idea for the box office if she were to recreate her role on Broadway. Here's the fun part of this story: Mel was concerned that Leachman, now over 80, would be unable to play 8 shows a week;  the role went to Andrea Martin, who earned one of the only 3 Tony nods for the show.  Martin was later succeeded in the role by Beth Leavel, who had recently won the Tony for The Drowsy Chaperone.  Meanwhile, Leachman joined the cast of Dancing With The Stars, and proved herself a very able octogenarian.  Brooks reversed himself, and asked Cloris to take over her original role when Leavel's contract ended.  But Young Frankenstein closed before Leachman could join the cast.
I saw the First National Tour of Young Frankenstein (excuse me, I mean The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein) when it came through DC, and it was a well-produced but poorly constructed hodgepodge.  Broadway's original star Roger Bart headlined the tour, and I actually liked his performance, which had been overlooked at Tony time (in fact, the show received only 3 Tony nominations, losing them all). 
Roger Bart was a popular supporting star when Brooks placed him in the title role of his musical.  He had made a splash in Mel's own The Producers, winning a Tony nod as Carmen Ghia, and his previous work included a Tony winning performance as Snoopy in You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown.  The NY critics did not accept him as a leading man, and his reviews were a bit tepid.  When he came through DC in the tour, I found him charming and funny.
The show just did not have the strength of The Producers, and in later years, Brooks blamed the popularity of his original film for the musical's rather poor reception.  He claimed that, with The Producers, nobody remembered the film which provided the source material, but everybody knew and loved Young Frankenstein the movie. 
This number, "A Roll in the Hay," was presented on all the early morning and late night talk shows as Young Frankenstein the Musical attempted to gain steam at the box office.  Like the weekly grosses, the final tally for the show's Broadway run has never been made public, making us wonder if it made any money at all.
Mel claimed that, because of the film's popularity, any change for the stage version was met with dismay by its fans.  He is making way too many excuses for his own lukewarm work;  other than the addition of the throwaway music, there are very few changes from screen-to-stage.  All the film gags are still in place, but Brooks's score and libretto are both more smutty than amusing.  His style of tongue-in-cheek snark was a good fit for the show biz world of The Producers, but did not work in a horror/sci-fi send-up. 
Everyone loved the overblown "Puttin' on the Ritz," but  buried in the middle of Act Two, it was a long wait for this showstopper.
So, finally, we come to this week's Dance Party, one of the big production numbers from Young Frankenstein.  This presentation is from the Today Show's Halloween edition, and illustrates how Young Frankenstein was filled with perky but forgettable songs. 

It also illustrates the thesis I presented so many paragraphs ago, that the visual personification of Frankenstein's Monster has varied little from the old Hollywood film days (Matt Lauer's costume is proof).  After the number itself, the staff indulges in the obligatory chitchat with the cast, which includes Bart, Foster, and another Tony winner, Shuler Hensley as the creature.  You can skip that part.

To get tickets, all you had to remember was the name of the
creator of the show.
Happy Birthday to Mary Shelley, the creator of the world's most recognizable monster.  That rainy summer in Austria in 1816, she could not possibly have imagined how her creation would live on.  Nor could she know that, almost two centuries later, she helped create another monster in the ego of Mel Brooks.