Thursday, October 31, 2013

THAT’S Your Favorite Musical? - Part 3

Happy Halloween, campers!  We have come to the third and final installment of musicals I just don’t get.  I’d like to reiterate that everyone is entitled to their opinion on these musicals and you are free to voice them.  Except for Oliver! I’m sad to say I don’t think you’ll ever change my stance on that show.   We will conclude the “THAT’S Your Favorite Musical?” series with the (for some reason) West End and Broadway smash, Evita.

Based on: Life of Argentine First Lady Eva Peron
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber

Lyrics: Tim Rice
Broadway Debut: 1979
Tony Nominations-Wins: 11-7

High points of Evita:
·         Mandy Patinkin. Need I say more? He belts like a boss!
·         The music
Low points of Evita:
·         Patti Lupone. See below.
·         The plot (historical ambiguity and failure to create empathy)

The only exposure I’ve had to Evita is the original cast recording, that God-awfulnumber Ricky Martin and Nurse Ratched’s sister did at the 2013 Tonys, and the Madonna film.  I don’t think the film is terrible, I just think Antonio Banderas is the only one who has a clue what the frak he’s doing there….. Mmmm, Antonio!!!  He should do more Broadway.  I’m such a sucker for them triple-threats!  But seriously; Jonathan Pryce just stood (and sang) there like a prop while looking lustfully at Madonna, who was just happy to be there, always singing a key lower than the original score.

Evita follows the brief life story of street-scamp-turned-actress-turned-spiritual-leader-of-Argentina, Eva Peron.  Brought up in impoverished Junín, she tags along with a tango singer to happenin’ Buenos Aires to make her fortune at the tender age of fifteen.  She makes her way up the social ladder to the rank of “established radio actress” by way of numerous trysts with increasingly prominent gentlemen.  Then she meets the significantly older Col. Juan Peron at some fancy shindig.  They hook up.  Rich people and the military don’t approve.  They get married.  Rich people and the military REALLY don’t approve.  She gets up on a balcony in a ball gown and tells the Argentinians that they shouldn’t cry for her.  Pandemonium! Then she gets all dolled up and tours Europe to try and gain favor with other nations, receiving mixed reviews.  She comes home and creates a charity foundation that happens to line her own pockets quite nicely.  She gets uterine cancer and dies at 33. Argentina is beside itself.  Juan sticks her in a glass coffin and has a bunch of embalming preservatives pumped into her (I’m guessing he had some Snow White fascination or something, cuz that’s just creepy). The End.

I spent the majority of this musicalrockoperawhatever thinking so what?  Yeah, she made her way from a bastard street urchin to spiritual leader of Argentina and stuck it to the elite who snubbed her.  Yeah, she was a champion for the descamisados, but she also manipulated her fascist husband’s political movements, screwed over countless people and organizations to fund her charity foundation (*cough* money laundering *cough cough*), and she was an avid Nazi sympathizer (it’s widely speculated that her European “Rainbow” tour was a front to help transport former Nazis to South America).  Why should I invest in this story emotionally?  She gives me no reason to like her.  I give a bigger shit about Che’s character than hers (and he’s not even a “real” character). So whenever she’s got her hands raised up on the balcony going, “Oh, my impoverished Argentine people, I LOVE you!” I’m just thinking How nice, the power-hungry, full-o-crap tyrant with a better wardrobe than Kate Middleton loves her people… still don’t care.  The only conclusion/revelation Evita seemed to come to at the end was her “choice” to be a shining flame that dies quickly instead of being a slow-and-steady success from the sidelines (right, cuz uterine cancer had nothing to do with it). That’s kind of selfish if you ask me.  I wonder if Jackie Kennedy ever had problems like that… 

I do like the songs; very catchy, memorable, hummable, pretty, sweeping melodies. The usual Andrew Lloyd Webber recipe. However, does anyone else notice Andrew Lloyd Webber’s habit of recycling the same tunes? Phantom, Joseph, Cats, Sunset Blvd, etc. He writes 7 tunes for each show and just has his lyricist write different lyrics each time they occur. Y’know that song “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina?”  Well, it’s also pretty much the same tune as “Oh, What A Circus,” “The Actress Hasn’t Learned The Lines,” and “Eva’s Final Broadcast.”  I’m cool with a reprise from time to time, but that’s just being lazy.

There are a two songs that make little sense to me: “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” and “Another Suitcase In Another Hall.” “Don’t Cry…” finds Evita bidding the rabble below not to mourn her ascent to stardom, as she still remembers where she came from and loves her kinsmen.  Cue the puke machine! Please, you’re wearing Dior and we’re supposed to find you endearing because you used to be poor?  LAME.  I’d be cool if she sang that after she was dead or something, but you sound like a pompous ass when no one’s crying yet.  I’m pretty sure the reason she always has her hands raised during this song is because she’s holding up an imaginary cross.  And I’m not alone on this.

I fuckin' OWN this place...
I actually like the song “Another Suitcase In Another Hall.” Peron’s mistress sings about moving on from her failed relationship after Evita unceremoniously supplants her.  A fitting song.  Crap, my lover/sugar daddy found a new hussy and I’m out on my ass… However, I feel kinda bad that this lady with such a good song gets no character development, no addition to the plot, not even a name (she’s only referred to as “Mistress”).  It’s kind of a weird stop in the action of the show. We’re following Evita’s speedy rise to power and then we’re sideswiped with having to listen to this sad, nameless chick who just came out of nowhere…. And then she’s gone, never to be seen again.  At least it made some sense when Madonna sang it in the movie (remember that tango singer? Well, he jilts her as soon as they get to Buenos Aires in the movie).

I've got a glass of Bitch Juice and I ain't afraid to throw it in your face!!!
And what about Patti Lupone?  I would dedicate an entire post to my disdain for Patti Lupone, but I’m pretty sure that if she ever read it, I’d never be seen again.  In one of my favorite quotes from The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby describes the nature of blithe socialite, Daisy, affirming, “Her voice is full of money.”  In my opinion, Patti Lupone’s voice is full of Patti Lupone.  She’s an unabashed diva (not the good kind).  At a performance of Gypsy (which, I believe she demanded be revived on Broadway about 5 minutes after Benradette Peters’ version closed, just so she could play Mama Rose), she stopped the entire show to rant at an audience member for trying to take a picture with his phone.  Now phone use is obviously bad form at a performance, but is it the job of a performer to point that out?  I’m pretty sure if any other cast or crew member had pulled that shit, they’d be on unemployment the next day.  The show must go on, right? ….I guess not if you’re Patti Lupone and someone in the house is pissing you off.  According to her own memoirs, she trashed a dressing room and threw a lamp out the window because they didn’t cast her in Sunset Blvd. when it went to Broadway.  So in a way, I guess the role of Evita is perfect for her: spiteful, entitled, tyrannical…

I will grant you, she has some powerhouse pipes. But when I hear her sing, I hear no character, no richness, no color, no lilt, no enunciation; just a bunch of shrill, slurred notes being adequately hit (and I have heard her live… 2nd worst Mrs. Lovett ever).  Her brassy voice is reminiscent of Ethel Merman, but without the personality.  Her singing range consists of Loud and Really Loud. Her emotional range consists of Lethargic and Slightly Irritated.  Have you ever been in a choir where there’s always that one singer who refuses to blend?  Yeah, that’s Patti.  She’s just not for me…

So that’s my take on Evita.  Not a bad work, just severely overhyped.  But good for Argentina.  The rest of the world can probably find it on a map now, thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber.  I believe the only rave-worthy thing about this show is Mandy Patinkin (and maybe Madonna’s 9,000 costume changes in the movie version).  I don’t care what he sings, he makes the show (and life in general) wonderful.  He could be singing The Brady Bunch theme song and I’d still be geeking out.  But he can only make up so much for the glorified puffery that is Evita’s appeal.  That too harsh for you? Well, you can go to Argentina and cry about it…

Saturday, October 26, 2013

THAT'S Your Favorite Musical??? - Part 2

Greetings to you, fellow musical addicts (or people who should be musical addicts if you’re reading this blog)!  We have come to entry #2 of musicals whose popularity and acclaim I simply do not comprehend. Feel free to peruse Musical #1 and state your opinions (even though I’m right)!  

Oliver! (Yes, that exclamation point is there intentionally. What-ev...)
Based on: Charles Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist
Music, Lyrics, Book: Lionel Bart
Broadway Debut: 1962
Tony Nominations: 10 (only won 3, because Forum SWEPT that year!!!)

Like My Fair Lady, I also walked out at the intermission of this show at the Media Theatre because it was simply unbearable (don’t blame the Media Theatre for this.  They actually put on really good stuff!).  I will admit off the bat that I may be overly harsh with my views on this show, as I have had minimal exposure to it.  I’ve never read the book or seen the show all the way though (However, I did make my way through a 7 part community theatre production of the show on YouTube just to say I’d done my homework.)  But I gotta say the exposure that I have had has been quite off-putting.

Oliver! follows the journey of a wholesome little British orphan boy: Brought up in a workhouse, he gets kicked out and sent to live with an undertaker after asking for more dinner.  He soon escapes the undertaker and ends up with a gang of minor pickpockets and their seedy criminal coach, Fagin.  And on top of all that 19th century London sadness, Oliver gets wrongly tagged at the scene of a botched handkerchief heist, but the wealthy victim of said crime (who turns out to be Oliver’s relative) takes him in, much to the chagrin of Fagin and sociopath, Bill Sikes, who believe that Oliver would rat them out.  So after several hijinks, some kidnap attempts, a murder, and a deus ex machina, all is well in the end for our orphan with a heart of gold.
We’ll start with the cockney accents.  I must say they bother me.  Immensely.  I don’t know which cast version I’ve had the displeasure of hearing, but they did not hire the most pitch-aware children, if you get what I mean.  My flesh crawls every time I hear the intro to any of the child ensemble numbers. It abuses my earballs enough when adults sing flat. But when you’ve got children singing flat WITH Cockney accents, you’re just being mean.  I don’t care if you’ve got 20 of the greatest 9 year-old boy singers on the planet; someone’s gonna be flat. However, it’s a British show and I guess British people get it. They clearly did something right. It ran at the West End for 2,168 performances! Some Americans get it (apparently), but it’s truly a British piece.  Not an American piece with British characters or a British setting.  100% British.  Does this mean I’m anti-British?  I like some British stuff: Dr. Who, fish & chips, those awesome red phone booths, the Spice Girls (in small doses), Monty Python & the Holy Grail, and those little hats Kate Middleton wears (she’s so hoity-toity, it makes my teeth hurt!). So I don’t think I’m anti-British; must be the show is shitty and everyone else is a sucker!

I understand the significance of the book, as it covers the then taboo matters of child labor, child crime, class clashes, and poverty.  It’s classic (British) literature.  A timeless novel, blah, blah, blah.  But is this just a case of a popular book on stage? That’s nothing new.  But just because it’s a beloved book doesn’t mean it’ll make a good musical. Look at Carrie! And vice versa.  Just because it’s a great musical doesn’t mean it’ll make a great movie (I’m lookin’ at you, Into the Woods.  You’re already on very thin ice with that sorry excuse for a cast. Did Les Miz + Russel Crowe not teach you anything?  You better not eff this up, Rob Marshall!)

I have read the synopsis for this show and I just find myself thinking, “So what?”  If Oliver had walked up to ask for more breakfast and the gruel dispenser guy in the cafeteria just said “No, you don’t get any more. Now go sit down, ya little punk,” the story would be over much quicker and I would be just as happy.  At least we would have bypassed that drawn out declaration of “Ooooooooollliiiiivvaaaahh!” in the titular second number.  And technically, with that deus ex machina where some beggar with a stolen locket (that belonged to Oliver’s mother/Mr. Brownlow’s niece) shows up, Oliver most likely would have ended up with his moneybags relative in the end anyway.  So all that gallivanting with singing pickpockets was kinda unnecessary at the end of the day.

Now let’s look at the songs. With an exception here and there, most of these songs (to me anyway) sound like they could have been written by some teenagers for a school project on Oliver Twist.  I gather very little feeling and/or plot progression from them.  Take “Food, Glorious Food” for example. Check out this little snippet of lyrics:

Oliver Twist
Food, glorious food!
Don't care what it looks like --
Don't care what the cook's like.
Just thinking of growing fat --
Our senses go reeling
One moment of knowing that
Full-up feeling!

Clearly these kids are hungry and dream of eating from the big kids’ buffet.  But do we need a wordy, banal filler song to convey that?  And the same goes for just about all the other stop-the-show-and-sing numbers in this show.  I’m aware that I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to music and lyrics. I want there to be substance and emotion in a show tune.  And I don’t mind if there’s a lame song or two thrown into an otherwise golden score, but I’d say about 90% of the songs in this show don’t deliver for me and resemble a brood of melodic love-children stemming from an evening with a rhyming dictionary.
2013-05-17-LizLemonOhBrother.gifI will admit to enjoying the ballads, “Where Is Love” and “As Long As He Needs Me.”  However (FYI), the latter is sung by Nancy, a backstreet girl in a severely abusive relationship with the aforementioned sociopath, Bill Sikes.  That said, I can’t really condone her character singing it. Now I’m really not trying to be a feminist here (see Part 1 for views on Eliza Doolittle’s pathetic moral stance), but what is the deal with these passive female characters inviting their men to step all over them?!  Eliza’s just lame for doing her thing, but Nancy’s thought process is not only wrong, it’s harmful (and fatal) to her health!  That song also puts the writers in a spot if they ever want to do a revival (or a movie. See below).  Portraying domestic violence as an acceptable thing is “no bueno” in today’s media. When I saw Fiorello in NYC last year, they changed some unsavory-by-today’s-standards lyrics in a song that brings up domestic violence in a particular verse. So in this case, how can anyone change the lyrics to 1) One of the most popular, well-known songs in the show? and 2) A song where ALL of the lyrics are about staying with someone because you’re in “love” after they proceeded to beat the shit out of you? Maybe Britain’s cooler about that stuff than Americans… *Spoiler alert* Nancy dies at the end from a series of club blows to the head, delivered by her abusive boyfriend. You stay classy, Britain!

In other news, Sir Cameron Mackintosh (producer of Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, Mary Poppins, Oliver!, Miss Saigon and Cats fame) has announced that he’d like to do a film remake of Oliver! shooting for a 2016 release.  Great.  I’m sure he’ll find spots for the usual seasoned movie-musical butchers, Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, and some Disney child star hopped up on Auto-Tune.

So there you have it: I don't like Oliver! for the Britannia overload, the female lead's lame life choices, and the obnoxious, weak sauce songs.   It simply does absolutely nothing for me. 

You got something to say about it?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

THAT'S Your Favorite Musical??? - Part 1

During my last community theatre stint (How To Succeed…), I recall sitting around the green room (as I often do), chatting it up with my fellow thespians.  We would make suggestions for what shows our theatre should put on next season.  Among the myriad show titles that got tossed around, I heard some that disturbed me greatly: My Fair LadyOliver, and Evita
WHAT?! Why???  “Because it’s my favorite musical!”

To me, the very names of those particular shows resemble the sound of nails on a chalkboard.  It’s like someone telling you their favorite movie is Live and Let Die.  Of all the movies in the world, you’re gonna pick that?  I’m not saying it’s a horrible movie (great opening song!), but in the vast wealth of all the wonderful, substantial, engaging films in the world ever made, you seriously deem that as your favorite?

Don’t get me wrong; each of these musicals do have at least one really kickass number and relatively interesting subject matter.  But I just do not understand the volume of their mass appeal and popularity!  The very best musicals tend to have a good story/theme/message AND good music. In my opinion, these shows seem to lack one or both of those things.  But these shows have won numerous awards and rave reviews, so is it me?  This will be the first of a short series of posts questioning the overall charm of shows I simply can’t stand (and you’re in luck, cuz there aren’t that many of them).

My Fair Lady:
Based on: George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion (which was further based on the mythical ancient Greek sculptor of the same name who created a female statue that eventually came to life)
Music: Frederick Lowe
Book & Lyrics: Alan Jay Lerner
Broadway Debut: 1956

My Fair Lady has been called “the perfect musical.” WHY????  Now in all fairness, I’ve only seen the first act of the musical live at the Media Theatre (we left at intermission because we were bored to the point of expiration) and the film version (seriously, Warner Brothers? Audrey Hepburn???).  So maybe there was something golden I missed in the second act of the live performance version that would have changed my view… doubtful.  And I’m not saying it’s a bad musical. I just don’t think it’s that great.  Does it have great songs? Hells yes!  Does it have a great plot? Meh.

The story pretty much boils down to:
Boy meets GirlGirl can’t speak “proper English,” so Boy teaches her how on a bet with his buddyBoy treats Girl like crap and she eventually articulates weather patterns in Europe.Girl gets tired of Boy’s Grade-A B.S. and ditches himBoy kinda-sorta realizes he misses having Girl aroundGirl comes back and fetches Boy’s slippers * The roles of Boy and Girl were played by Prof. Henry Higgins and Miss Eliza Doolittle, respectively.
With the song “Ascot Gavotte” coming in a close second, my biggest problem with this show is the lack (or total dismissal) of revelation at the end.  On both characters’ ends.  We’ll start with Enry Iggins.  Henry Higgins’ only glimmer of awakening is that he’s gotten used to having Eliza around.  Not that he loves her or misses her; he’s just grown accustomed to her being there.  He admits this with about as much warmth as if he’d lost his iPod.  It really helps to get me going when I go jogging every morning!  Does he even have a clue of what he did wrong?  Why she left him?  I realize he doesn’t get women (hell, I am one and I still don’t get them!), but he’d have to have Asperger’s or something not to realize he’s being a total A-hole to Eliza.  Am I to assume that as soon as the woman he saw as nothing more than a service parrot walks out on him, he suddenly grows a conscience and a soul and finds he’s got feelings for her?  Um, no.  

My Fair Lady Damn You

Is Henry Higgins a great character? Absolutely. He’s recklessly chauvinistic, hilariously snobby, and Rex Harrison tackles it like a boss.  But he never earns Eliza’s love and sure as H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks doesn’t deserve it at the end.  But when she does return, all he has to say is, “Where the devil are my slippers?” which more or less translates as “Yeah, ho. I knew you’d be back. Now go and make me a sandwich.”  If I were her, I’d have walked right back out again! Not cool, Higgins. Not cool.

And shame on Eliza too!  She comes to the much more meaningful realization that no matter how she dresses or speaks, she is a human being and deserves to be treated like one.  More than that, she realizes she has the power to walk away from her self-important “creator” and be her own person.  She successfully escapes class and gender oppression; not an easy feat in Edwardian London!

Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle
My Fair Lady, 1964…….. And then she goes back to his misogynistic ass half an hour later.  I’m not trying to slather feminism onto this crap sandwich or anything.  I just don’t get what brought her back.  And frankly, neither did George Bernard Shaw.  He staunchly disapproved of any production in which Eliza and Higgins end up together.  In Pygmalion, she walks away and stays away.   Now I don’t really care if she goes back to him in the musical. I get it; musicals need to have a happy ending (at least they did in 1956). But if she’s gonna go back to have a relationship with him, I need a good reason!  She knows he hasn’t earned and doesn’t deserve her love, but she gives it to him anyway.  All Eliza wanted from her mentor was respect and friendship.  She never expressed love for him and vice versa.  Was love just supposed to be implied? Well, I sure didn’t pick that up.  At some point, I’m pretty sure that Lerner and Lowe must have said said, “Ah, fuck it. We’ll just wrap it up with an impromptu romance in the last 30 seconds. Yeah, that works!”  It’s a musical, for Pete’s sake!  There’s supposed to be love seeping out of every note!  Don’t assume I know you’re in love if all you do for 2½ hours is learn how to stop dropping H’s.  And if he’s not really in love with her, even worse!  She comes back to… what?  Just be there out of convenience?  Not cool, Eliza. Not cool.

And then there’s the cockney. The overload of exaggerated cockney accents irks me quite a bit too.  Immensely, actually.  I don’t mind it if I can’t understand British people speaking (I watch Dr. Who and I understand roughly every 7 words), but when they’re singing, I want to understand the words!  When I hear the Covent Garden inhabitants start singing “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” or “With A Little Bit ‘O Luck,” I instinctively start fidgeting in anticipation of their conclusion.  I’m cool with certain regional British accents, like Manchester or “the Queen’s English” (aka BBC English).  But I’m kind of on Henry Higgins’ side on this one.  It’s like American accents in the Bible Belt or “Noo Yaw-kuh” accents.  Thick accents on the obnoxious side make my earballs very sad.  Maybe it’s because I was raised by a grammar Nazi. Maybe it’s because I’m just a snob…

So how ‘bout it?  What am I missing that makes this the “perfect musical” and not just an “okay” musical? It’s definitely got some wonderful, timeless songs, but so does Cats (I guess… which reminds us that “Entertaining” does not = “Good”).  I want to understand the appeal.  So please, try and sway me.  I'm listening…


Fun Fact: Rex Harrison's microphone (hidden in his neckties) would occasionally pick up police broadcasts from passing police cars. "Damn, damn, damn, damn! I've grown accustomed to her- Code purple! 10-72!