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?

1 comment:

  1. Again, you have succinctly nailed this show with a vastly overblown reputation to the wall. In truth, I give the Food Song a "B" rating for catchy melody and a fun, interesting slant on hunger and food in general that we can all identify with to some degree. I must give an "B+" rating to the Where is Love Song for its lyrics and universal desire all people share to seek out and find Love. The As Long as He Needs Me is a slam dunk, hands down "A+" in my book for its engaging melody and identification of women's timeless passion and faithfulness toward their true love in spite of _______ (fill in the blank here with whatever neggies about your particular men you choose to mention). Story line? Yech.