May 172014

This year’s Tony nominating committee chose to pass over several respectable musicals to nominate only four shows rather than the usual five. And I would suggest that there are only two “authentic” musicals in the nomination pool: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” and “Aladdin.” The other two, “After Midnight” and “Beautiful,” are what is commonly referred to a “Jukebox Musicals” because they are based on the work of a recording artist or a theme or period in commercial music. Jukebox musicals pose an interesting conundrum: they purport to tell a story (for me, a characteristic of authentic musicals), although their primary focus for audiences is the recreation of the music of the original artists. “Beautiful,” like the reigning king of these musicals, Jersey Boys, tells the story of it’s music maker, Carole King. But A”fter Midnight,” a tribute to the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem, dispenses with story entirely. Between 2001 and 2009, the Tony’s gave an award for “Best Special Theatrical Event” but discontinued this recognition after a few seasons failed to produce enough presentations to make the competition credible. Since then, the “would-be” musicals have been assigned to the “Best Musical” category.

This year, much attention has focused on the prevalence of musicals adapted from movies. By their very nature, these shows always contain what I consider to be the essential elements of authentic musicals: a story line of some type and a musical score that contributes to or reflects upon the story. Ironically, only one of the six eligible movie adaptations ended up with a nomination, “Aladdin.” The creators of “Gentleman’s Guide” insist their show is based on Roy Horniman’s novel and not the beloved English movie adaptation, “Kind Hearts and Coronets;” although the popularity of the film certainly was a factor in raising funds for the musical on Broadway.

Each of the unnominated adaptation musicals had their weaknesses, but each also tackled the challenges of converting from one medium to the other creatively and admirably, if not totally successfully. The one that did get nominated, “Aladdin,” was neither creative nor admirable; its strength was that it appeared to have no obvious weakness, at least in the view of the critics for the mainstream press. Charles Isherwood of the New York Times was careful to point out that he entered the theatre with particularly low expectations but felt the show’s mixed up styles and anachronisms created a “breezy insouciance that scrubs away some of the material’s bland gloss” – not exactly a rave, but enough to assuage the fears of those who resist Disney’s brand of “family musicals.”

It was that very “breezy insouciance” that made “Aladdin” my least favorite Broadway musical experience this season. I remember commenting to an out-of-town friend who accompanied me to the Disney show that I thought they had cleaned up prostitution on 42nd Street, but “Aladdin” seemed to refute that claim. My dictionary describes prostitution as “the unworthy or corrupt use of one’s talents for the sake of personal or financial gain.” And, as I watched the latest adaptation of a Disney animation hit, I kept wondering how such a strong production team and a producing organization with such vast resources (Disney Theatrical Productions) could “corrupt” their talent to create such an “unworthy” product for “financial gain.”

The artists creating “Aladdin” are well established in their field. The composer, Alan Menken, has a long list of Broadway credits including the current Disney hit, “Newsies,” and the iconic off-Broadway musicalization of “Little Shop of Horrors.” He has expanded his score from the popular Aladdin movie. The original lyrics by the late Howard Ashman are supplemented by no less than Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s original collaborator, and the less well-known Chad Beguelin, who also wrote the book for the stage “Aladdin”. In a show adapted from a lush animated feature, the designers of the sets, costumes, and lighting must find a way to translate the seemingly infinite possibilities available to the animator to the confines of the live stage and this show has a very experienced team of designers: Bob Crowley, Gregg Barnes, and Natasha Katz. Finally leading this talented crew as director and choreographer is Casey Nicholaw, the co-director of the mega-hit, “The Book of Mormon.”

From the moment the curtain rose on a very old fashioned and not very elegant set for the mythical sultanate of Agrabah, it was clear that all of this talent had gone to waste — little painted box-like miniature buildings vaguely reflecting Persian architectural styles against a backdrop with a cut-out skyline that looked like something I might have created for my 6th grade President’s Day pageant. Some of the sets that followed were a little richer but none fully exploited the exotic possibilities that might have animated this fairy tale. The costumes varied from vaguely authentic to totally anachronistic (like the feathered head-pieces carried by the women of the sultanate in a Las Vegas-style production number).  The most entertaining production number was a full company tap-dance. What, you don’t know about the rich history of tap dancing in the Middle-East?

The book maintains the basic plot elements of the fairy tale. But its style varies from dialog you might find in a book on a child’s bedroom night table to self-deprecating jokes about the unrealistic aspects of fairytales. The songs do little to amplify the characters or advance the narrative. The dances are repetitious: how many times can you get away with putting your hands above your head with your palms turned out and upward while you move your head as if it is seemingly detached from your neck – you know, the belly dancer move? The sets frequently use nothing more than a painted backdrop so the actors frequently appear to be playing in front of, rather than inside of, the environment. The unspecial special effects include streamers shot into the audience and the occasional fire spark in reaction to the villain Jafar’s evil pronouncements. James Monroe Iglehart plays the Genie pleasantly, if incongruously, as a cross between Tyler Perry’s Momma characters and Arsenio Hall delivering a late-night monologue.

The audience anxiously awaits the flying carpet scene in the second act, but even this piece of theatrical magic is disappointing. Yes, the young lovers fly around the stage seemingly with no visible line of support. But the scene is set against a dark, twinkling star sky, hardly the trip around the world portrayed in the original. Given the variety of styles in the script, it’s hard for the audience to care about any of the characters, least of all the romantic leads that are individually quite good but have very little chemistry as “true lovers.”

Sitting through a press preview performance, it was difficult to judge the audience’s response to the production. However, they did seem to like it. The production numbers received lots of applause (nothing unusual about that). They laughed at the vaudevillian humor. There were even “oohs” and “ahs” for the flying carpet scene and appearance of the Genie in the hidden cave, one of the few sets that came close to being imaginative. But I found the lack of a creative vision, a less than opulent production of a story about the temptation of opulence, and a book, music, and lyrics that could not decide whether it was a beautiful fairy tale or a Las Vegas nightclub act to be artistic prostitution. You get what you paid for, but it’s more commerce than art.

My “Aladdin” experience came just one week after I saw another less-than-satisfying adaptation of a classic movie theater property, “Rocky.” But “Rocky” did not provoke the same sense of artistic corruption as the Disney travesty. In fact, “Rocky’s” weaknesses are exactly what might have made “Aladdin” a worthy Disney product. The original “Rocky” was a small, rather intimate movie about an oafy but endearing Philadelphia “wanna-be” boxer, his awkward romance with a young woman who suffers from extreme self-worth deficiencies, and his unexpected shot at being a contender. But intimacy is a tough sell for Broadway musicals, particularly shows that have the tourist industry as their target audience, just ask the people behind “The Bridges of Madison County,” a show that struggled at the box office in spite of its cinematic provenance. Even though “Bridges” receive three Tony nominations, including one for its popular star, Kelli O’Hara, it closed before the Awards.

Similarly, another movie adaptation, “Big Fish,” could not find an audience for its spectacular (but misguided) production by Susan Stroman. Unlike “Bridges,” that took an intimate film treatment and tried to replicate its intimacy in a big Broadway theatre, “Big Fish” took a highly stylized original film and blew it up with one fantastic piece of scenery after another, failing the capture the movie’s anguished portrayal of the relations between father, son, and mother. Clearly, Stroman and company were banking on the salability of spectacle.

So it was not surprising that the production team for “Rocky” decided to convert this small film into an oversized Broadway extravaganza. “Rocky – The Musical” is full of huge sets, large-scale projections, and evocative lighting effects. Even though the romantic scenes between Rocky and his true love, Adrian, are scaled down into realistically cramped apartments on old-fashioned theatre wagons, they are still dwarfed by the combination of large grey panels and sky-high scaffolding in the background. And for the all-important boxing finale between Rocky and the world champ, Apollo Creed, the production converts the Wintergarden Theater into a fighting arena by relocating the people in the front rows of the orchestra to bleachers on the stage while the boxing ring is projected out into the center of the theatre. What follows is a very well choreographed fight sequence that actually captures the “strum und drang” of Rocky’s one chance to prove himself.

Frankly, I found the ten minutes of transition into the fight scene rather distracting as stage hands ran down the aisles to install support devices for the fight ring while TV screens attempted to distract the audience with the usual pre-fight commentary — gratuitous comments since everyone in the audience already knew the information being shared, not to mention the outcome of the fight we were about to witness. But, as most of the mainstream critics noted, it certainly gave the show a rousing finale, for some, making the whole evening worthwhile.

While this inflated aesthetic and the inevitable simplification of character development that frequently plagues movies converted to Broadway musicals did not satisfy me, “Rocky” does seem to give its target audience what it paid to see. As Ben Brantley observed in his New York Times review, “This is surely the first Broadway production in which sides of butcher’s beef receive entrance applause” in the famous training scene in the storage refrigerator. Similarly, the appearance of a long flight of steps arouses a similar audience response (even if there is not the slightest suggestion that they are attached to the Philadelphia Museum of Art).

I had hoped that “Rocky” would find musical theatre solutions to the challenges of converting a movie into a musical. The book was adapted by Thomas Meehan who won Tonys for his work on “The Producers” and “Hairspray,” both screen-to-stage translations. The music and lyrics are by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens who made “Ragtime – The Musical” into a rich and moving version of the book by E. L. Doctorow and the less-than-successful movie adaptation. While “Ragtime’s” songs memorably elucidated characters and carried the narrative forward, “Rocky’s” music adds virtually nothing to the story or the character development.

But I am not “Rocky’s” target audience. Two-thirds of Broadway’s audiences are tourists; many visit a Broadway show as part of their sightseeing agenda. A Broadway musical is like a trip to the top of the Empire State Building, meant to be a known commodity full of “oohs” and “ahs.” This audience is not experimenting; they expect to be impressed with the familiar made spectacular. And that is exactly the focus of “Rocky – The Musical” and the failure of “Aladdin – The Musical.”

Many theatre commentators lament this aspect of the contemporary Broadway economy, pointing to “Mama Mia” and the string of jukebox musicals that play on the audience’s memories of the original musical groups. But there is clearly a market for this type of entertainment. And sometimes Broadway can have its cake and eat it, too. We need to look no further than the current highest grossing Broadway musical for a near perfect meeting of art and commerce. “The Lion King,” now in its 17th year on Broadway, continues to produce the requisite “oohs” and “ahs.” Julie Taymor’s wonderfully inventive production reinvented the source material, bringing a uniquely theatrical richness to the Broadway musical.

While the production originally won raves from almost every type of theatregoer and commentator, its continued success relies on the same target audience as “Rocky” and “Aladdin.” A recent New York Times article detailed how Disney Theatrical Productions uses a secret computer algorithm to predict audience patterns and modestly increase ticket prices at peak tourist periods to keep it on top (“Ticket Pricing Puts ‘Lion King’ Atop Broadway’s Circle of Life,” by Patrick Healy, New York Times, 3/17/14). While many new Broadway musicals charge $300-$400 for premium seats, Disney caps their premiums at $227 and makes up the difference by adding $10-$20 to the regular tickets that are more in the price range of an average tourist looking for something he or she can check off of their bucket list.

“Wicked” is another long running, amazingly profitable show with a popular movie selling point. While it’s not an adaptation of “Wizard of Oz” or L. Frank Baum’s classic book (it’s actually adapted from a popular series of prequels by Gregory McGuire), its marketability was predicated on “Wizard’s” niche in American culture. “Wicked’s” long run though can only be attributed to the ingenuity and creativity of the original production team that fully realized the fantasy of McGuire’s invention. This show, that (deservedly) received mixed reviews, has developed a cult following of people willing to pay for full-priced tickets repeatedly on their visits to the Big Apple.

Two other Broadway hits are also adaptations from movies, but those films reached such a limited audience that their success can only be attributed to artistry of the Broadway production teams. “Once” was a minor hit in the art-house cinemas, but that hardly helped its chances for success on the Great White Way. And, like the struggling “Bridges of Madison County,” it’s an intimate love story with little opportunity for spectacle. But the Broadway production team adopted John Doyle’s technique of having the actors double as the orchestra and broke the fourth wall by inviting the audience to have a beer on stage before the show and during intermission. Essentially, they forced the audience to become a part of the story’s intimacy. In the Tony Award world, it’s pretty rare that a show with so many unknowns (film, cast, writers, etc.) wins best musical over a splashy Disney hit like “Newsies” (another film adaptation). But art became commerce for “Once.”

“Kinky Boots” was also adapted from a less-than-successful film with very limited audience recognition. But unlike “Once,” “Kinky Boots brought pop music royalty to Broadway with a score by Cindi Lauper and then employed Broadway royalty, Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Mitchell, to adapt the film into a very old fashioned but thoroughly entertaining musical. While “Kinky Boots” is still riding the wave of a Best Musical Tony, it will be interesting to see whether this very traditional musical (albeit with a chorus line of drag queens) is able to maintain its attraction to the tourist audience.

Ironically, “Kinky Boots” beat a much more “marketable” musical adaptation for last year’s Tony. “Matilda” opened to strongest reviews since “The Book of Mormon.” Ben Brantley’s New York Times homage exclaimed:

Rejoice, my theatergoing comrades. The children’s revolution has arrived on these shores, and it is even more glorious than we were promised. Rush now, barricade stormers of culture, to the Shubert Theater, and join the insurrection against tyranny, television, illiteracy, unjust punishment and impoverished imaginations, led by a 5-year-old La Pasionaria with a poker face and an off-the-charts I.Q.

Alas, I was not as enthusiastic as almost every mainstream critic, but it is certainly a show that has found an extraordinary style to convey the warped children’s tale by Roald Dahl, also adapted into a movie with limited success. And it comes to Broadway adapted with a theatre enthusiast’s ideal provenance: The Royal Shakespeare Company. Again, it’s a little early to see the long-term prospects for this show that continues to draw full houses, but it’s clear that its target audience is families looking for a spectacular Broadway experience as memorable as the Statue of Liberty (or even a side trip to see the steps leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art).

One new musical adaptation this season fell victim to its cinematic origins. I found “Bullets Over Broadway” to be a thoroughly entertaining old fashioned musical. This is a vehicle perfectly suited to Susan Stroman’s talents; she really knows how to “put on a show” and “Bullets” had all of the qualities of a traditional book-musical and most of those qualities were satisfyingly (if not overly originally) fulfilled. The same friend that shared my dislike for “Aladdin” dismissed “Bullets” saying “it’s too much like the movie.” Well, actually, it’s not like the movie – it’s a musical that adapted music from its period to its story. The book does not have the level of wit that would have made this show a sure-fire hit with local and tourist audiences. And it is very old-fashioned. Most of the people attracted to the show by the Woody Allen brand forget that the original was not as funny or as bitingly satirical as some of his other homages to a period or a style. The show got raves and pans from the mainstream critics (the latter most significantly from Ben Brantley in the New York Times).

Some more snobbish theatre devotees consider all of these shows to be acts of artistic prostitution. They lament “the old days” when original work dominated the musical stage. But they seem to forget that those original works were no more original than the current crop of shows. “Oklahoma!” was adapted from a play that flopped; “Carousel” was adapted from a popular foreign play and a little known film adaptation; “My Fair Lady” was based on Shaw’s classic play and the ever-popular 1938 screen adaptation.

Broadway is not corrupted by the prevalence of musicals adapted from film. Shows are corrupted when the values of commerce are allowed to outweigh art. The musical is a popular art form. While we occasionally get a musical that challenges us intellectually, those shows usually have short lives (think “The Scottsboro Boys” or “Caroline or Change”). Even successful shows based on great works like “Les Miserables” owe their success to the craft of the musical creators, not the draw of their source material (no one said, I can’t wait to hear Victor Hugo set to music). After “The Lion King” and “Mary Poppins,” “Aladdin” is a big disappointment. But it’s not the fault of the source material. As Beckett so aptly warns us, man tends to “blame his on shoes the problems of his feet.”







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