Is La La Land an Homage to Something that Doesn’t Exist?

la-la-land-vinyl-cover-2On Christmas Eve, like may good gays, I saw La La Land with my mother. At the time, I had pretty much only read about it via Kyle Buchanan’s Oscar Futures column at Vulture, which lead me to believe there was a generally unified positive consensus about this movie. But the audience response at the theater was decidedly mixed–some people loved it, some were confused, one guy kept complaining about spending 2 hours and 4 minutes watching it–and the twitter-verse seems to be the same. I personally loved it. I loved its visual style, the fine performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, the elegant and wistful choreography by Mandy Moore (not to be confused with the one from This is Us), the way it tempers dreamlike fantasy with somber reality, and what it says about defining success and succeeding on one’s own terms.

One thing I think La La Land was NOT was a “throwback to classic movie musicals,” mostly because I don’t know if that’s a thing that really exists. I mean, yes, obviously, there are non-animated musicals written directly for screen that are classics. But I don’t know if, as a genre, the Original Movie Musical (OMM) ever fully developed into a recognizable, codified, art form.  What are the “tropes” of the genre?

I can identify a few major types of OMM:

  • “Let’s Put on a Show!” (Summerstock, things with Mickey Rooney)
  • Elegant Ballroom Dancing (things with Fred Astaire)
  • Family Fantasy (Songs by the Sherman Brothers, The Wizard of Oz)
  • Almost a Regular Musical (Gigi, Calamity Jane, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Vincent Minnelli movies)
  • Jukebox OMMs (Holiday Inn, White Christmas, Singing in the Rain)
  • ARTISTIC (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg)
  • Huh? (Repo: The Genetic Opera)

While some of these types can coexist in a single movie, for the most part they only seem at all similar if they share major performers, directors, or writers. Perhaps that’s why there’s always something a little uncomfortable about watching an OMM–there’s never anything to hold on to, nothing to let you know what to expect. They haven’t sung for 20 minutes, will the ever sing again? MAYBE. Are these secondary characters going to get story lines and songs or even a second scene? COULD BE. Oh, so now there’s just a 20 minute impressionistic dance sequence? IS THERE A QUESTION? The OMM isn’t a style of how movies are made so much as a list of things that happened.

So what is La La Land an homage to? I think it bears the strongest connection–in terms of visual style, tone, theme, and musical sensibility–to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but a case could be made for almost any of the types identified above. There’s a tension in the fact that you think La La Land *should* feel familiar, but instead it feels like they’re making up the rules as they go along. Maybe it’s this reckless unruliness that most connects La La Land to the Golden Age is seems to allude to (even if it never existed).

Enough About Hamilton (But Seriously, Buy the Book)

It’s been awhile (some might argue since The Book of Mormon, others would cite Rent, A Chorus Line, or The Black Crook) since a new musical has so thoroughly insinuated itself in the mainstream media and consciousness. New York Magazine’s Vulture devoted an entire week to articles about Hamilton.

Of course, I’m not immune to this (meta comments about this article aside). And the show really is very good. And it does seem to hit genuinely newsworthy milestones frequently. It already recouped! The cast recording is a certified gold record! The Casting Controversy! The Profit-Sharing-with-Workshop-Actors Controversy!

hamilton-the-revolution-coverNow there’s a companion book – Hamilton: a Revolution – adding to the hysteria, with articles building up to, and on the day of, its release as well as articles discussing it’s success. It would be rather annoying if it weren’t for one thing: The book is damn good.

The structure is very compelling: behind-the-scenes essays about the show’s origins presented in tandem with the libretto. Each essay/chapter is devoted to a particular team member/element of the show but also ties directly to a specific song. (Ex: Chapter on David Korins and his set design relates specifically to “Schuyler Sisters”). The lyrics are then laid out beautifully over full color photos with generally interesting and modest footnotes from LMM (they run more along the lines of pointing out historical factoids, musical influences, and discarded ideas than bragging about his own cleverness). It’s a fun read and only occasionally makes you want to gouge your eyes out with its deification of the show. It’s also well presented – elegantly designed and printed on nice, rough-edged paper that almost feels homemade. It’s an attractive coffee table book that you can flip through as casually as a magazine in addition to being a fun close-read.

So do yourself a favor. Remind yourself that there are other shows this season. Read an article about Waitress. Watch Carolee Carmello sing something from Tuck Everlasting (music Chris Miller, lyric Nathan Tysen). And then get a copy of #Hamiltome.

Beautiful in Cleveland

IMG_6989.jpgWhat is in the Mueller family well? Jessie was Tony-nominated Broadway debut in a revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever that was otherwise ignored. She won her Tony for her star-making Carole King in Beautiful: the Carole King Musical. Her sister Abby is now playing the role in the national tour, currently playing the Connor Palace, and whenever she’s on stage things are indeed beautiful.

A. Mueller’s King is intelligent, funny, sympathetic, empathetic, and relatable. And she sings real good too.  The show, directed by Marc Bruni with a book by Douglas McGrath, that surrounds her is polished and professional, if not necessarily distinct (although costume designer Alejo Vietti creates some fun period looks and a few magical quick changes).  The story is somewhat thin–Carole falls in love and becomes a successful writer. She gets divorced and records tapestry–and padded with other hits of the era under the pretext that they were written by friends of King or came out of the same office she worked in before moving to the West Coast. This glimpse into the music biz in the 1960s is not as interesting as it could be, but the baby boomers around me sure loved hearing those songs.

But the show has one clear objective–to make you like Carole King and appreciate the emotional context for Tapestry (an album the production assumes you already know and love…and let’s face it, your probably do). In this–thanks in large part to the utterly delightful Abby Mueller–it is unquestionably successful.

The BWYinCLE Series is Announced!

IMG_5408Last night the KeyBank Broadway Series was announced is a surprisingly fun and informative evening. I attended with my chorus buddy Patrick and our excitment in this picture was both genuine and shared by the rest of the capacity crowd in the Connor Palace (which seats 2,800). The announcement of each show was accompanied by some enthusiastic discussion between series producer Gina Vernaci and local newscaster Natalie Herbick. This patter was often joined by a special guest star and/or live musical performance. My thoughts on each announced show – as well as notes on the presentation specials guests and performances – is below.

For the record, I correctly predicted 5 out 7 shows (and one more was a prediction until I changed my mind on February 21st). Correctly predicted shows will be GREEN. Incorrectly predicted shows will be in RED.

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5 Things I Loved About If/Then

IMG_6883If/Then is exactly the type of show that makes me glad I’m a subscriber to the KeyBank Broadway series. If I had to buy a single ticket to it…I probably wouldn’t. Not because I had zero interest, but because it’s really easy to think of reasons to not leave the house and not spend money on theater tickets, especially in Cleveland in February, and especially when the show in question was somewhat coolly received by critics and generally overlooked by awards. But boy am I glad I saw it. I found the production smart, tuneful, and quite entertaining. Here are 5 things I loved about If/Then:

  1. Despite If/Then being the definition of ponderous, everyone in it has a lot of fun. And I don’t mean “ponderous” as an insult, it’s simply a fact that the characters spend a lot of time  asking “What if?” I mean, that’s the title of the opening number. And some pretty dark shit happens to them. But the production finds a joy and energy in asking the question and dealing with the answers.
  2. It wasn’t at all confusing. In this musical, a young woman is presented with  two seemingly innocuous choices (get coffee with a new friend or meet housing activists with an old friend), and we see the divergent ways in which her life plays out as she goes down each path. The musical goes back and forth between parallel stories giving “Elizabeth” only enough time to put on/remove glasses to differentiate between “Liz” (she gets coffee with the new friend and falls in love, though is less career driven) and  “Beth” (she meets the activists and has a wildly successful career…and an equally unsuccessful love life). Not only is this all perfectly clear as it plays out, the production has a lot of fun with the transitions and connections between the Liz and Beth’s plot lines.
  3. It works against expectations. It’s a musical about youngish people in NYC trying to discover who they are and what they want–and no one is an artist! Serious career-driven Beth doesn’t wear glasses–Liz, the fun one, does! There’s racial diversity! There is a bisexual character whose interest in both men and women is taken seriously. Even its choice of Madison Square Park as a recurring meeting place is unconventional. Who even remembers Madison Square Park exists? I sure don’t, and I worked half a block away for three years!
  4. The ensemble. There wasn’t a huge chorus–basically enough to play an assortment of bit parts and cover the principals–but their presence added a sense of movement to the evening and helped expand the scale of many of the numbers. And they had some great vocal arrangements.
  5. The SANGING. This musical seems to operate under the philosophy that the audience’s investment in a character is directly proportionate to the amount of belting done by said character. This philosophy is not wrong, and suffice it to say I was VERY invested in most of the characters. Jackie Burns sings her face off approximately every 7 minutes and it is pretty thrilling. This may have originally been a bespoke Idina role, but it’s Ms. Burns’ now, so bow down. In the role of “new best friend”, Tamyra Gray doesn’t have the best material, but is strong voice and is a natural and commanding actress. Janine DiVita is very winning (and underused) as Gray’s love interest. Their Act 2 duet, “Love While You Can” is definitely the evening’s non-Jackie-Burns musical highlight. In the  second most demanding role, Anthony Rapp sounds as good as any Rent fan would want him to.

If/Then. Director – Michael Greif. Music – Tom Kitt. Book/Lyrics – Brian Yorkey. Choreographer – Larry Keigwin.

What will come to #BWAYinCLE in 2016/2017

logo-bigOn March 22, I will attend the Key Bank Broadway Series launch event, at which the shows for next season will be announced. This will be the first season to run each show for 3 weeks (a fact Playhouse Square is REALLY driving home). It doesn’t seem like we’ve had an issue getting first-tier tours to stop here before adding a third week, so I’m curious what effect this will have on the line-up. Does it make us more or less likely to get a show like The Bridges of Madison County to stop here? Would Idina have added Cleveland to her list of If/Then cities it we had or 3rd week? I know literally nothing about how these decisions are made, so this kind of speculating is pointless. That being said, I have been looking into what OTHER cities have planned for 2016/2017 (though most have not announced their season’s yet either) and have created the following list of possible shows. This is probably 50% prediction and 50% wish list.

The list is broken up into 3 categories.

God I Hope I Get It” represents the tours launching in 2016/2017 I most want to come to Cleveland.

I Ain’t Down Yet” lists shows that I wanted to come last year and didn’t, but appear to be making bookings in other cities next season.

Possible…Very, very possible” lists shows that could possibly (or even very likely) come to Cleveland next season…and I’m not particularly excited about it. These are also shows that could come to Cleveland even if they are not included in the Broadway series.

The shows in RED are my best (if random and totally uninformed) guesses and to what will be announced on March 22.
GOD I HOPE I GET IT
  • Aladdin (This is more likely to happen in 2017/2018 as it launches in Chicago in April 2017…but it could definitely hit Cleveland next summer.)
  • An American in Paris
  • Curious Incident…
  • Fun Home
  • Hedwig and the Angry Inch (**added to list 2/5/2016, made a prediction on 2/21/2016)
  • The King and I
I AIN’T DOWN YET
  • Cabaret
  • The Sound of Music (Jack O’Brien)
POSSIBLE…VERY VERY POSSIBLE
  • An Act of God (** added 2/15/2016 per Denver’s announced season)
  • Amazing Grace (**added 2/11/2016 per this article)
  • The Bodyguard
  • A Christmas Story
  • Finding Neverland
  • The Illusionists
  • The Lion King
  • The Little Mermaid
  • A Night with Janice Joplin (***removed on 2/21/2016 because it’s playing in Cleveland this March)
  • Rent 20th Anniversary
  • Riverdance
  • Something Rotten! (***removed from prediction 2/21/2016)
I may update this list periodically as more cities announce shows. I will try to make revisions clear

Scene In Cleveland: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

GGLAMIf you want to write a Tony-Award winning best musical, I highly recommend writer a murder mystery with a setting and score inspired by the tradition of English Musical Hall. To my knowledge, only musicals have appeared on Broadway with this pairing of subject matter and performance style, and all three took home the big prize: Redhead (1959), The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1985), and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (2013). Last night, I had the pleasure of seeing the most recent entry in this very specific cannon, and it is easily one of the top 2 shows I’ve seen since subscribing to the KeyBank Broadway Series last year.

I’m actually somewhat surprised I enjoyed A Gentleman’s Guide… (aka GGLAM) as much as I did. I find “English Music Hall” to be the most grating, merit-less, and irrelevant of theatrical traditions and cannot fathom its appeal to the three American composers over the past 55 years who have emulated it. Fortunately, the score to GGLAM (by Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman, each making Broadway debuts) is never annoying, which distinguishes it from its predecessors. GGLAM may not have any moment as rapturously beautiful as Drood’s “Moonfall”, but it is always pleasant to listen to.

But the score to GGLAM is somewhat immaterial. The success of the production is primarily due to the consistently creative and clever Tony-award winning staging by Darko Tresnjak. Every moment is precisely conceived and executed, with even the smallest hand gestures delivered with style and perfectly timed to as to read to the back of the Connor Palace (a house three-times larger than GGLAM’s Broadway home). This specificity and wit is perfectly exhibited in their spot-on Tony performance.

A small proscenium (designed by Alexander Dodge) sits center stage and is a fun-house of a playing space. Scenes seamlessly flow in and out of this toy theater. Its red curtain will descend so a scene can play in front of (or beside, or practically on top of) the mini-stage. Every time the curtain rises again, the setting revealed is whimsical and visually striking. The setting contains many tricks and surprises that are revealed throughout the evening (but won’t be revealed here). The staging is completely fluid and never repetitive, making the 2.5 hour + intermission show feel like a 90-minute one-act.

The cast is uniformly excellent. All exist in a single, idiosyncratic, universe. All possess strong, pitch-perfect singing voices that fit the music’s style while still sounding pleasant to contemporary ears. All have wonderful comic timing. Kevin Massey as Monty Navarro makes an earnest and appealing serial killer that you legitimately root for. Kristen Beth Williams and Adrienne Eller each excel as the two women he loves (and love him in return). Most impressive is John Rapson, a phenomenally talented singer actor at the beginning of what promises to be a notable career, who plays all eight members of the D’Ysquith family who Navarro must kill in order to become an Earl.

GGLAM may not have a deeper level beyond being thoroughly entertaining, but it is clearly brimming with intelligence and mastery of craft. Is there such a thing as intellectual fluff?

Scene in Cleveland: Bullets Over Broadway the musical

Last night I saw the first official performance of the 1st National Tour of Bullets Over Broadway: The Musical. I had trepidation about the show from the start because I knew that, despite this being a 1st National Tour, it was a non-Equity production, which made me queasy both ethically—they’re charging Broadway tickets prices and paying the actors 25% of a Broadway salary—and artistically. Once the house lights went down, however, the cast’s lack of union representation was the furthest thing from my mind.

They didn't sell magnets so I had to make one out of my ticket.

They didn’t sell magnets so I had to make one out of my ticket.

The cast was, by and large, excellent. Recent college graduate Michael Williams is wonderful leading man: instantly likable, an impressive dancer, a fine singer, and in possession of good comedic timing. I imagine this won’t be the last time I hear from him. The three leading ladies—Hanna Rose Deflumeri, Jemma Jane, and Emma Stratton—are all fantastic singers. The latter two are pretty darn funny as well. (Deflumeri had more of a “straight man” role and as such didn’t have to opportunity to exhibit whatever comedic chops she may or may not possess). The remainder of the cast and ensemble fully inhabited the zany world of the show and pulled off Susan Stroman’s impressive choreography (recreated by Clare Cook) enthusiastically.

But a well-executed musical (I’m sure there’s a gangster pun in there somewhere) is not the same as a good musical. And I’m not even sure that Bullets… is a musical to begin with. There were definitely songs, dances, characters, and the general shape of a plot, but they rarely had anything to do with each other. The score represents the first time in which I’ve seen a jukebox musical in which 90% of the audience has never heard of 90% of the songs. The book (by Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath based on their screenplay) tried to squeeze in jokes wherever it could, but failed to justify the actions of their lead characters or the existence of the minor ones. (There is a character whose sole arc is seeking psychiatric help for a stuffed dog. Another character gets two unrelated plot lines—if you count “having an affair with a mobster’s girlfriend for no discernible reason” and “eating pastries” as plot lines.) The songs—aside from a phallic ode to hot dogs–were largely devoid of any humor whatsoever unless Stroman was able to find a way to ignore the content and choreograph a joke on top of it, a rabbit she managed to pull out of her hat a few times over the course of the evening. While the performances and heroic efforts of Susan Stroman (at least as a choreographer…perhaps she should consider ceding directing duties to those with a better understanding of musical development) created an evening with much to enjoy, the disjointed affair didn’t give us anything to like.

10 Things You Need to Know About Hamilton

obligatory show magnet instagram

obligatory show magnet instagram

If you follow musical theater at all, you’ve heard a lot about Hamilton: An American Musical. It’s been touted as the greatest musical of the decade/since A Chorus Line/Of All Time. But it’s often hard to found specific information in such effusive praise. Since I was #blessed enough to see it this past weekend, and in honor  of NPR being awesome and streaming the cast album (and its upcoming digital release on Friday and CD release in mid October), here are the 10 things you need to know about Hamilton.

  1. I would disagree with the notion that it is “Revolutionary” or a “Game Changer”. This isn’t a criticism of the show per se, more of an attempt to bring it down from the mythic level of expectations to something more reasonable.
  2. the first 15 minutes are not that great. it kinda feels like In the Heights in 1776 costumes on the set of Robber Bridegroom. It’s perfectly watchable and sets up everything it needs to set up, but i was definitely concerned that the show would not live up to the incredible hype.
  3. The show really starts to come alive once the Schuyler sisters enter. Partially because Renee Elise Goldsberry (who plays Angelica) and Phillipa Soo (who plays Eliza) are incredible performers. Partially because that’s when the score starts to take on different colors and styles (the opening is heavily reliant on Lin Manuel Miranda’s rapping which isn’t bad but WE’VE SEEN IT).
  4. Rennee Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo are incredible performers (it bears repeating). Renee in particular is stunning. The minute she walks on stage she radiates that special something and you know you will be invested in her for the rest of the evening and will only be able to watch her whenever she’s onstage. (The only other time I’ve experienced that kind of magnetism was Amy Morton in August: Osage County). She should win every award in whatever category she is nominated in. Featured Actress, Lighting Design of a Play, whatever. Phillipa is the emotional core / heart of the show.
  5. “Helpless” and “Satisfied” comprise the most outstanding 10 consecutive minutes of musical theater i have ever seen live. SPOILERS FOLLOW (skip to #6 if you want to avoid them). “Helpless” is a wonderfully catchy-sweet account of  Eliza’s courtship with Hamilton – seeing him across the room at a party, being too shy to go up to him and asking Angelica to make an introduction, letter writing, asking for parental blessings – culminating in their wedding. For a song that covers a lot of plot and exposition, it is a pure musical delight. A “musical scene” in the truest sense of the word. And it truly sounds like something you could hear on the radio today. That song is followed by Renee Elise Goldsberry’s toast the couple that goes back and replays the courtship from her (very different) point of view. The vocal performances of both songs are impeccable and the staging is exciting and clear. The combination of writing, performance, and stage craft was truly dazzling.
  6. The second act might be better than the first. While it might not have a moment quite as breathtaking as “Helpless”/”Satisfied”, it doesn’t have the same sluggish exposition that starts Act 1. It also features some more generally moving emotional content (much of which is supplied by Soo) and a tremendously winning performance by Daveed Diggs as a smug (and hilarious) Thomas Jefferson. Diggs does a respectable job playing Lafeyette in Act 1, but as Jefferson he threatens to steal the show.
  7. The show is REALLY INTERESTING. In addition to being a wonderful musical, it is a legitimately fascinating, detailed, and nuanced look into the founding of this country.
  8. This is one of the most fluid, organic stagings of a show I have ever seen, and also among the most simple. A unit set with some well-used revolves. No projections, very little furniture. And yet I was never confused about where I was or what was happening.
  9. The score is impressive not just because it uses a contemporary sound to make a historical tale feel visceral and relevant. The score is beautifully layered and complex and fully integrated within itself. Each song feels like a fully realized and distinct musical idea, and yet will often (especially in Act 2) feature lines and motifs from earlier in the show. This gives the score both a great deal of variety and a wonderful sense of cohesion.
  10. As impressive as this current original cast is, the shows greatest strengths are its writing, staging, and design. So you will have a full and moving experience regardless of what cast is in whenever you are finally able to get a ticket.