Friday, March 27, 2015

Friday Dance Party: The Or Means More Than It Did Before

Stephen Sondheim turned 85 this week, coinciding with the DVD release of Into The Woods, which is the most successful of his stage-to-screen musicals. Naturally, a Dance Party is in order!
I didn't have a single problem with this cast, all of whom did their own singing, and quite creditably too.
Sweeney Todd made money and
raised eyebrows: could Sondheim
musicals become hit films?
When the Sweeney Todd film was released several years ago, I lamented the fate of Sondheim fans (or"Sondheimites," pardon the double entendre) who are always disappointed in our hero's screen adaptations.  Go here for that report. But Sweeney ended up making money, earning legitimate critical raves to boot, and Into The Woods has done even better.  The release has grossed just shy of $200 million, worldwide, and the video release will surely increase that number exponentially.  Sondheim can celebrate his 85th birthday with a legitimate film hit.
This week's Dance Party showcases the work of Meryl Streep, who previously appeared on the Dance Party in one of the more bizarre entries in the series, go here for that oddity. Her portrayal of The Witch earned another Oscar nod. Cynics were all over that, but one need only see her scenes with her adopted daughter to admit that she was doing award-worthy work. This was not Margaret Hamilton's witch.
The Into the Woods adaptation is an excellent one, and only Sondheim Poops complained.  By necessity, certain aspects of the original had to be "adjusted" (read CUT), but even purists had to have been pleased.  The songs excised were, with a few exceptions, reprises (though Sondheim reprises are never mere rehashes of previous songs, they stand alone).  Most of the missing music served to update the theatre audience on the passage of time and the progress of the characters's various journeys.  They were not necessary in the film.  
I wish the reprise of "Agony" might have been filmed for a DVD extra, as the original was one of the highlights of the film. No one knew Chris Pine could sing, but the bigger surprise was Billy Magnussen, a surfer dude turned soap star (he spent several years on As The World Turns) whose previous claim to fame was stripping to his skivvies as boytoy Spike in Broadway's Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike.  He won a Tony nomination for his work in his underwear, and has a major film career brewing.  
Tom Aldredge played the Baker's Father in the original. I
wrote a bit about him when he died. The theme of absent
parents was much stronger in the stage play than the film, a
theme which always resonates with me. But it had to go.

I felt the loss of the ballad "No More" most heavily, but have to admit that, here again, it simply was not needed. It's a raw and wonderful duet between the Baker and the father who deserted him as a child, and is probably my favorite song in the show.  But the Baker's Father was a minor character in the film, and the exclusion of his subplot was probably a wise, if painful, decision.
I suppose there are always complaints to be heard, in this case, regarding both Johnny Depp and Lilla Crawford. Depp received the usual snark regarding his eccentric choices; I rather enjoyed his portrayal of the Wolf.  Unbelievably, there were those who actually complained that the two younger roles, Jack and Little Red, were being played by children. Are they kidding? On stage, we might suspend our disbelief and allow 20-somethings to portray pre-teens, but on film, that would be ridiculous.  Crawford in particular handled the intricacies of her role quite well.  She has substantial stage cred, having played Annie in the most recent Broadway revival.
The success of Into the Woods, following that of Sweeney Todd several years ago, has awakened interest in translating Sondheim to film.  Our birthday boy has revealed that someone who shall remain nameless is tackling his Pulitzer prize winner Sunday in the Park with George for film. Considering it took decades to get Into the Woods into the theaters, no need to hold our breaths. 
"The Send In The Clowns Musical"
was the only way they could think
to promote this disastrous Sondheim
film adaptation. It was more than 30
years before anyone tried another.

I myself wish Steve's most cinematic work, Follies, would make its way to the big screen;  it really belongs there.  And boy I wish one of those TV networks planning live presentations of Broadway musicals would take a long look at A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum;  before Robin Williams died, I wrote a piece about how suitable the show would be for such a treatment, and I even cast the thing with TV-friendly stars.
Zero Mostel. Phil Silvers.
Jack Gilford. Buster Keaton.
What could go wrong?

Ah well, maybe one day. For now, enjoy this week's Dance Party, in which Streep has been betrayed by her daughter, who must now pay the price.  Happy Birthday, Steve, and congratulations.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Friday Dance Party: Strike A (Final) Pose

Two pop culture phenoms intersected this week to inspire this week's Dance Party.
Nobody in their right mind would suggest these two women resemble each other.  Except those dreamers over at Glee.
Well, okay, here is one instance when Madonna
does resemble Lynch. She recently took a topple
during a live performance in Britain; Lynch is a
bit of a klutz herself.
Madonna's "Vogue" turned 25 years old on Friday, the same day Glee ended its 6 season run. I must first point out that I am not, nor ever have been, a slavish devotee to Madonna, though I have admired her work ethic, and her business sense, over the years.  For decades she's been known as the woman who can, quite cagily, reinvent herself with new images.  That rare ability has kept her on the A list of recording celebrities while other performers' careers wane and fizzle.
It was during Madonna's fling with Warren Beatty that she appeared in his film Dick Tracy and began her Marilyn Monroe period. While portraying mob moll Breathless Mahoney, she was prompted by Beatty to examine her character's inner thoughts/desires.  A list of celebrities was already percolating in her mind when Madonna became aware of the newest dance craze in hip gay nightclubs.  She married the two concepts, and "Vogue" was born.  It hit #1 around the world.
Glee was unable to repeatedly reinvent itself like Madonna, so after an opening season which dominated pop culture for a time, the show slid into irrelevance pretty quickly. 
I claim to have ignored Glee since its first season, but the
Dance Party in these pages begs to differ: the show has
provided 3 previous entrees.  When juvenile male lead Corey
Monteith OD'd, I wrote a little obit here.

I watched the show during that first season, but must confess that I abandoned it thereafter;  I was too frustrated by the wildly fluctuating quality of the show, where one episode would be clever and heartbending and true, and the next would sink like a boot in quicksand.  But there were enough "Gleeks" out there to sustain a run of 6 seasons.
After its first season, Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison were invited back to their Broadway roots to perform at the Tony Awards.  Michele was an alum of Spring Awakening, and Morrison had a slew of White Way Credits.  I included his Tony performance here.
Glee had its share of compelling characters, most of them teenagers who were treated as outcasts by  their peers, but the single Emmy winner among the regular cast was Jane Lynch. 
Turns out Jane Lynch CAN sing, and
CAN resemble Madonna. After this
breakout episode, Jane sang quite a
few times on Glee. She also headlined
the Annie revival on Broadway, and now
that the show is done, she is constructing
a cabaret act. I toasted Lynch on her
birthday a while back, here.
As she was playing the in-house antagonist, it seemed inappropriate that her character break into song, so for the majority of the first season, Jane's Coach Sylvester remained musically mute.  Then an episode came around which featured the music of Madonna, and Glee took a chance that Jane Lynch could carry a tune.
Glee's finale spent a lot of time in Flashback Mode, but as far as I could tell, all the material was new except for this poignant moment. They included the first, and best, sequence which defined the show. In this pivotal scene from the pilot, the original Glee club perform "Don't Stop Believin' " in an empty theatre;  it is the first time we see these kids triumph.  The recording of this song became a substantial hit during season one, and it has special significance as it showcases the late Corey Monteith.
As I mentioned, the series finale of Glee was broadcast on Friday;  I succumbed to the temptation to tune in.  I was lost only a bit of the time, as the creators wisely chose to focus the finale on the original members of the glee club, those same characters which had drawn the audience to the show in the first place. They shamelessly pulled at the heartstrings, showing us "before and after" portraits of these folks;  it was a fitting end to the series.
I suspect that most of Glee's large cast will sink into obscurity soon enough, but a few of them are already making waves on their own. Lea Michele is rumored to be returning to the stage in the first major revival of Funny Girl, and Amber Riley is touring with BeyoncĂ© (just as her character announced in the "flash forward" segment of the finale). Chris Colfer has already written and produced a well-received indie film, and Matthew Morrison is in previews on Broadway playing J.M.Barry in the musical version of Finding Neverland.  And Jane Lynch is hitting the road with her new cabaret act.
But back to this week's Dance Party, which features Jane Lynch performing the Madonna smash "Vogue."  I do not know if this is a true, frame-by-frame recreation of Madonna's video, but who cares?  It's great fun.  Like Rita Hayworth, she gives good face.