Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Leading Player > Roxie Hart & Velma Kelly And Other Observations

Well, another EPIC Hanukkah present is in the books! My dad took me to NYC for a musical double header. A word of advice to those of you who frequent the Manhattan theatre district: bring folding chairs if you plan on standing in rush/standing room lines. You’ll be able to wait in comfort AND see the jealousy seeping out of your fellow line inhabitants at your ingenuity. We brought lightweight camping chairs with carrying straps on our journey and they were beyond beneficial!
It turned out to be Fosse Appreciation Day, as we got to see two of legendary choreographer, Bob Fosse’s greatest musicals: Pippin and Chicago! We’re only going to talk about Pippin today because it was by far the better show of the two.  Though Chicago had an energetic and VERY talented cast with snappy, memorable tunes, I was kinda bored and not able to invest in the show emotionally (like I had with the movie version, which I LOVE!) So yeah, Pippin wins.
Anyway, to the fun part!  We jumped in the student rush line (and thank GOD they don’t only offer student rush tickets to students!) for maybe 20 minutes before they opened the box office of the Music Box Theatre,. We snagged the 2nd and 3rd to last rush tickets of the day (same thing happened when my mom and I saw Book Of Mormon. What can I say? Broadway loves me!).  BOOYAH!  This show marked the first time I have ever sat in a theatre box.  I always wanted to sit in a box!  I may have been delusional, but I think Patina Miller was giving some serious love to the box-sitters; maybe because she knew that those were the cheap seats… and you can always count on the cheap seats. And this audience was on fire!  Nothing better than when the house is eagerly anticipating the next chance to erupt into riotous approval of what the insanely talented people are doing onstage!

Music & Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Book: Roger O. Hirson
Broadway Debut: 1972
Tony Nominations-Wins: 11-5 (not counting the 4 more snagged by the revival!)

I saw the understudy for Pippin and dear God, he was DREAMY!
The Story:
Pippin is an abstract, anachronistic tale of the son of Charlemagne.  Encouraged by the Leading Player and the brightly-colored troupe of circus performers, acrobats, and contortionists, Pippin embarks on a quest to live a fulfilling and extraordinary life. He experiments with academia, war, politics, ruling the Holy Roman Empire, art, religion, and carnal pleasures in attempts to find a meaningful existence, all of which leave him “empty and unfulfilled”.  Along his journey, he meets Catherine and her son, Theo.  Pippin feels he is above their ordinary life of sweeping, shoveling, milking cows and repairing pig pens.  Though they eventually become attracted to each other, Pippin leaves Catherine to continue his quest for perfection. The ending is somewhat unorthodox, which I won’t spoil for you today (unless you want me to. In that case, read the next paragraph!), but Pippin eventually decides how he is going to live his life and achieve happiness.
At the end of the show, The Leading Player offers Pippin the chance to accomplish the perfect act of glory that will cement his fame forever: The Grand Finale. However, he ultimately chooses an “ordinary” life with his newfound love and her son (minus his dead duck), devoid of costumes and makeup and colored lights and magic.  He decides he would rather spend his life with a woman (with a mole on her face) who makes him truly happy than to fruitlessly search for perfection.  The Leading Player is infuriated and calls off the show, telling the players and the orchestra to pack up and leave Pippin, Catherine, and Theo alone on a now empty, dark and silent stage.  Pippin realizes that though he has given up his extraordinary purpose for the simplest and most ordinary life, he is finally happy.  Theo remains on stage and the players return to offer him a chance to be extraordinary. The circle continues…

The Message:
In exploring the field of what constitutes as success, Pippin reminds us that extraordinary doesn’t necessarily mean fulfillment or happiness.  We can become enamored with the magic and costumes we see on stage, but we can’t touch or hold or love magic (at least not mutually) because it isn’t real. It’s great to visit the circus, but it’s not home.  The ending of Pippin presents everyone with the choice to aspire to be a star or be someone’s star. *Oh God, that’s effing hokey!* It’s up to each person to decide what they want to be and what kind of life is most worth living.
It’s not easy being extraordinary. Some people can hack it, but it’s usually not be all it’s cracked up to be.  Look at Howard Hughes.  Look at Mozart.  Look at Judy Garland.  Wildly successful, talented, inspiring people who made major contributions in the world.  But for all their accomplishments, they had severe problems coping with life.  They were miserable offstage.  Whether their misery stemmed from their success is up for speculation (alcohol and chain smoking don’t help).  But with great power comes great responsibility, which is always tough to manage.  Not everyone is meant to be extraordinary, and those who are certainly have no guarantee of fulfillment. 
This show make me think a lot about my brother (who, fittingly, has venomously despised this show ever since he saw a video of the 1981 broadcast version… starring the incomparable Ben Vereen). I’d like to clarify first that he has Apsergers Syndrome, so he’s a funny little man to begin with. Anyway, he’s been preoccupied for the last several years with finding the perfect woman (who is apparently Trophy Wife Barbie on steroids). He’s attracted to things for their aesthetic value (in his eyes) and is under the impression that he is entitled to keep company with only beautiful young ladies (Bonus Points if they went to his high school).  Anyone who doesn’t meet his criteria is unworthy of his attention/ time.  I’m all for shooting for the stars, but this is more like shooting for the stars 5 galaxies away with a pea shooter.  He spends a good percentage of his waking existence angry at the world for not delivering his dream girl to his doorstep, as he claims he does not have time to find and strike up a relationship with said fabricated goddess.  I feel bad about his predicament; he’s a big kid at heart, but he isn’t an easy person to get along with for the most part and his views about relationships (among other things) are very one-sided.  Like Pippin, he sets his sights and ambitions so high that he sets himself up for failure and disappointment almost intentionally.  Both young men want to find fulfillment in brilliant, shining places. But unlike my brother (whom I wonder if he’ll ever grasp the meaning of fulfillment like the rest of us do), Pippin finds contentment in the last place he’d think to find it: Ordinary life. It’s not perfect. It’s not extraordinary. But it’s real. So Godspeed, Big Brother, in your search for fulfillment!
I think we’re all responsible for finding the extraordinary in our own ordinary lives.  A sense of fulfillment can be found in performing at Madison Square Garden or amassing a grandiose fortune, but it can also be found in comforting a child over a lost pet or maintaining a humble home with your life companion.  It just depends on what kind of fulfillment you’re willing to pursue. I think the greatest sense of fulfillment is found in something you share with another.  If you feel you need the adoration of thousands over the real love of just one person to be happy, prep yourself for disappointment.
I’ve made peace with the fact that I’m never going to be Audra McDonald, married to Hugh Jackman, besties with Neil Patrick Harris, have 6 villas, BeyoncĂ©’s body, or Gordon Gekko’s salary. I do laundry and cook dinner and work at a less-than-ideal job and burn popcorn (only once), but I’m content because the tedium pales in comparison to the gratification the people in my life bring to everyday living. I have my family. I have my man. I have theatre.  I have a job. I have access to Freddy’s Steakburgers (seriously, crack on a bun!).  That may not be fulfilling for my brother or for you, but it works for me and I’m pretty satisfied!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Honey, Either Get Some Acting Lessons Or Stick To Country

Happy December, Black Friday Survivors!

Today, we’re going to talk about a musical whose film version (for some unknown reason) has become associated with Christmastime and just underwent a pretty ballsy re-treatment.  I am talking of none other than the timeless, family-friendly classic, The Sound Of Music!

The Sound Of Music
Music: Richard Rogers
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II (This was Rogers & Hammerstein’s final musical together, Hammerstein died 9 months after the Broadway premiere)
Book: Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse
Broadway Debut: 1959
Tony Nominations-Wins: 9-5 (Tied for Best Musical with Fiorello!)
Based On: Maria von Trapp's autobiography/memoir, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers

The Musical
Maria is a wannabe nun in pre-WWII Austria with a pretty set of pipes and a powerful connection to the Alps. The other nuns and Mother Superior are pretty sure she’s not cut out for nunnery life, so they send her to babysit a negligent naval captain’s 7 pissant kids. She wins the little ankle-biters and their hormone-driven, 16 year-old sister over by making them play clothes out of curtains and teaching them how to sing. With music back in the house, the negligent naval captain regains interest in his children. *Hear that, inner city education systems? The arts improve lives!!!* He becomes so taken with Maria during a sexually charged Ländler dance, he ditches his longtime girlfriend (he’d been stringing her along for a while, but she was kind of a bitch anyway) and marries the help. Five minutes later, the Nazis move in and “offer” the captain a position with the Third Reich.  The captain says “in your dreams!” So they divert the Nazis by singing at a big, fancy festival, which they use to escape to Maria’s old abbey.  The nuns rig the Nazis’ car and the family escapes on foot over Maria’s beloved mountain to Switzerland. *Happy Dance!*
Fun Fact: Mary Martin was 46 when she debuted as Maria on Broadway!

The Movie
Give or take a song or two and Rolfe going full-blown Nazi (literally) on his ex-girlfriend instead of manning up and helping her family escape the mean ol' Third Reich, the film version is pretty true to the musical (unlike Guys & Dolls). It won 5 Oscars and is played annually around Christmastime.

Seriously, when did this become part of the Christmas TV-special repertoire?  It’s like broadcasting The Ten Commandments every Easter: It's a PASSOVER movie. It has nothing to do with Easter!!! I’ve heard that it all spawns from that one line “…brown paper packages tied up with strings.” But that’s just stupid.  When I think brown paper packages, I think FedEx, not Christmastime.  Furthermore, it takes place in the summer!  …With Nazis!  Nazis are kind of the opposite of any Christmas-related happenings.  It makes no sense to me.  But then again, there are nuns. Singing nuns.  So they might be on to something after all.

But I digress…

The “New” Movie
The Sound Of Music Live! was broadcast (live) on NBC last week. Over 18 million viewers tuned in; most of them probably for the same reason I did: to see how much of a train wreck it was gonna be.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Then again, any excuse to expose the world and younger generations to the majesty of musical theatre is a good thing. Though I am typically opposed to using mainstream star power in musical theatre, I tried going in with a relatively open mind (mind you, they didn’t make it easy. Carrie Underwood looks like a virginal-but-not St. Paulie Girl in all the ads).

To my surprise, I found it pretty enjoyable. I mean, how judgmental can you get when you've got 7 kids in sailor uniforms singing about a drink with jam and bread? The only train wreck was (unfortunately) Carrie Underwood’s acting!  I knew no one was ever going to be Julie Andrews, they weren’t going to have the lush mountains of Austria as a backdrop, and it was going to be live, so mistakes might happen.  The broadcast went off pretty well, give or take some actors showing their nerves on camera. No monumental screw-ups/deaths is a success in my book. I was taken aback by the diversity casting (i.e. a black nun.... a black chief nun.... in lily-white Austria.... in the 1930s) for about a millisecond, but I got over it because c'mon! It's Audra! But back to Carrie.  I’ve got nothing against Carrie Underwood. She’s a very lovely lady (so I don’t see why they felt the need to photoshop the crap out of all her pictures), she’s got killer country pipes, and she calls all the sports world to prayer for Sunday Night Football. It was gutsy of her to even take on that role at all. She did what was asked of her with a smile on her face while not trying to be Julie Andrews. 

HOWEVER, my real beef is with the individual who decided to cast her as one of musical theatre’s most iconic characters without even asking and/or caring if she had any acting ability… whatsoever.  I’ve seen trees with less wooden acting than her. I’ve seen a middle school (not even high school) production of Seussical with more interpersonal chemistry. It was pretty painful to experience a grown woman practice the “If I don’t blink, they’ll think I’m acting” mantra. Especially when she's sharing the soundstage with Great White Way royalty, Audra McDonald (who was fucking FLAWLESS... as usual).  I didn’t think much of the guy who played the Captain (I don’t watch True Blood or Vampire Diaries or whatever show he’s from), but he didn’t have to garner the charm and appeal Maria’s character did, so he’s off my hook. And I wanna know who did Rolf's makeup.  I hear the guy's a college student, but they gussied him up to look like he's in his thirties!

A lot of people expressed their displeasure with the harsh criticism aimed at Ms. Underwood. I’ve heard a lot of “You try performing on live TV that millions of people will see in a role that was once perfected by Julie Andrews!”  I realize this was a very difficult project to tackle.  TV hasn’t seen a live musical broadcast like this in over 50 years (which I applaud their attempts to restore); it must have been very harrowing for even the seasoned Broadway veterans present to perform a musical while playing to a camera. But then again, that’s what these people get paid to do. If you can’t do it without looking like you’re pinch hitting in your first high school play, why should you get the biggest paycheck of the evening? Find some other cute blonde with pipes out there among the 7 billion of us who can! I don't care how famous you are: if you'rean Oscar winner but you can't sing, you probably shouldn't sign on for a broadcast of The Magic Flute. Just saying...

Other highlights of the evening included the ever adorable Christian Borle, some pretty sweet sets, and (of course) Audra singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” (which she delivered like a BOSS. She even got the theatrically-challenged Underwood to unleash the waterworks!)

Chills. Every time.

So I give the broadcast a 7.5 rating. Nothing historically Earth-shattering, but it was a pleasant evening of entertainment with the kiddies that will hopefully pave the way for more live musical theatre on more people’s TVs! Just cast talent to fit the venue next time!

The Real Story
Though there’s no nail-biting escape or saccharine songs or Hitler Youth boyfriends (or Max Detweiler), the real story of the von Trapp family is pretty interesting. Though Maria really was a postulate and did go to stay with the von Trapps, she was also a schoolteacher and was sent there to tutor just one of Georg von Trapp’s children, who had to be homeschooled while she was recovering from scarlet fever (which is how the captain’s first wife – the granddaughter of the inventor of the torpedo! – died). She then became close with the other children and the captain (Maria von Trapp wrote that even though she eventually grew to love her husband, she wasn’t in love with the captain at the time of their marriage and she was really “marrying” the children). Maria and Georg were married for more than 10 years before the Anschluss and had 3 children together, who joined the other 7 in the Trapp Family Singers.

Until the family went broke – due to a bad business venture – they had only sung together as a hobby. The family resorted to dismissing most of their staff and renting out parts of the villa. Georg actually was opposed to his family getting into the music business, as he felt the music business as manner of income was beneath them.  Maria started booking the children at events and concerts to get by until they started receiving wider recognition, which led to even sweeter gigs and paychecks (like Vienna!). Germany tried repeatedly to woo Georg to accept the position in their navy. And though he was tempted (they were broke, remember?), he ultimately could not serve the Nazi regime and decided to flee Austria.
Hold up a lonely goatherd minute!  Hiking from Salzburg to Switzerland is impossible! The Trapp family did vacate Austria when the Nazis offered the captain a position in the German navy, but not to Switzerland or in the middle of the night. The family would have ended up in Berchtesgaden and virtually within sight of Adolf Hitler's vacation house. So yeah… oops! Luckily, Georg von Trapp was born in at-the-time Italian territory.  So the family could legally claim Italian citizenship, and they were able to take a train to Italy in broad daylight. From there, they traveled to England and then sailed to America. They lived in Merion, Pennsylvania (LOCAL!!!) for a while before settling in Vermont (my parents actually saw Maria von Trapp in Vermont when they went down there for a vacation! Apparently she was a little nutty in her golden years…).
Let’s see, what else can I reveal to shatter your Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer dreams? Oh yeah! All the kids’ names and ages were changed, Georg von Trapp was actually a very attentive and doting father, and the von Trap kids claim that Maria had some pretty wild manic-depressive tendencies. Cool, huh? Finally, Y’know that song “Edelweiss?” I want to clarify that it is not an Austrian song or the Austrian National Anthem. It was written by Rodgers & Hammerstein for the show. The movie is actually pretty widely ignored in Austria and Germany. Who knew?!

My final thought is that I recommend that everyone see the original film and THEN the new live broadcast version.  One is obviously better than the other, but the latter deserves some love too… mainly because of Audra. I’d probably want to become a nun to if I got to hang out with her!