originally published September 28, 2013
As the lack of such topics on this site may indicate, I am not a raving fan of Broadway musicals. I’ve seen some that I quite liked and other that were Cats, but they just aren’t my thing. Naturally, I married someone who teaches musical theatre for a living. So in much the same way my wife now begrudgingly cares about Peyton Manning’s passer rating, I too can admit to having truly enjoyed a handful of the musicals that without her, I probably would have avoided.
So today I’m passing off the mic to that oh-so-fabulous inner voice of mine which has been moved to a whooping frenzy in the quivery afterglow of an outstanding Broadway show.
In some ways, a performance in a musical can be the absolute pinnacle of showing off one’s thespian chops. I’ll always be more of a movie guy than a theatre guy, but ultimately I’m an arts guy. I’ll applaud anyone who blows brains to the back of their skulls (metaphorically of course) through their art. So in that spirit, here’s a smattering of facts that even my non-theatre-loving friends might enjoy.
Rent, based on Puccini’s La bohème (though more rockish and less opera-y, to put it in industry terms), was set to debut off-Broadway on January 25, 1996. Jonathan Larson, the writer who had poured his impassioned soul and frothy guts into the musical, died suddenly that morning of an aortic dissection, the tragic result of an undiagnosed genetic disorder. He was literally hours away from seeing his vision open up in front of a New York crowd, one that would wind up praising the hell out of the show.
Many people aren’t aware that the insipidly puckish Annie was the subject of two stage musicals. The first, Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge was so deeply loathed upon its Washington DC premiere that even a retooled version was deemed too outlandishly sucky to warrant an appearance in New York. Annie Warbucks, however, made the cut. In this sequel, Daddy “Cheap-Balls” Warbucks, who hasn’t even sprung for a new dress for the kid, has to marry within 60 days or Annie would be sent back to the orphanage. Apparently Social Services felt there were simply too many Depression-era whores showing up at the Warbucks estate.
While the New York Times lofted a glowing review onto its pages, the play lost a key investor and never made the leap to Broadway. Without a slab of stage on that magical avenue the musical didn’t qualify for the Tony Awards. Without even getting a mention on the Tonys it was relegated to the summer stock bin.
At some point in the early 1980’s, when the public was still trying to wring those last stubborn drops of “Dancing Queen” from their ears, Benny and Bjorn, the powerhouse songwriting team from ABBA, wrote a musical. They went for a Cold War commentary, pitting a Soviet and American chess player against one another. An obvious love story ensues, and of course lots of spontaneous choreography.
Thing is, American audiences weren’t into it. While Chess ran for three successful years in London’s West End (amid mixed reviews), the Broadway version didn’t crack two months. They had subbed out songs for more spoken dialogue for the American audience but it just didn’t take. Chess’s lasting legacy is the song “One Night In Bangkok”, sung by Murray Head, the lead in the play. This is one of the only musical-inspired songs to scrape at the top of the pop charts in my lifetime. The song also got banned in Thailand, due to its suggestion of a rather inappropriate attitude toward Buddhism on the part of Bankokians.
I don’t really have much to say about this one. But if Avenue Q ever drops by your town and you don’t go see it, you may as well give up on calling yourself a cultured member of the intelligentsia. Avenue Q is what would happen if Seth McFarlane was put in charge of Sesame Street. It’s crude, offensive, and without hesitation my favorite musical. The songs (“The Internet Is For Porn”, for example) ring astonishingly true.
Also, Gary Coleman is a character. This seems like an odd choice, but given the musical’s theme of the promises of childhood turning out markedly dingier and cruddier when adulthood becomes real, it actually makes sense. Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, the show’s creators, actually wanted to snag the former child actor to play the part of his fallen adult self, working as a superintendent for a run-down apartment building. They were hoping Gary would have a sense of humor about himself. Though he did accept a meeting with them, he never showed up. He’d later grumble about suing the Avenue Q people, but nothing came of it.
So much for a sense of humor.
For whatever reason, it appears to be mandated that Beauty And The Beast be performed by some theatre company or some school at least once every year in my hometown. I don’t know why. This is the musical that prompted Disney to blow its load up and down Broadway, leading to The Little Mermaid, Tarzan, The Lion King and the unfortunate Mary Poppins, which was brilliantly staged but agonizingly cutesy for my tastes – the epitome of what I don’t like about musicals. All this Disney content would have all been running concurrently in 2007 if Princess Ariel hadn’t booted Princess Belle out of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
I suppose I can’t jazz-hands my way through an article about Broadway musicals without mentioning Phantom Of The Opera, the longest-running musical upon that majestic strip of melodic dreams (25 years and counting). Gaston Leroux’s novel Le Fantôme de l’Opera has been adapted for film, television, children’s literature, radio, comic books, spin-off books, and concept albums. But it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 stage adaptation that seems to get all the love.
Not from me. It’s a haunting story, and while I haven’t seen the 1925 film with Lon Chaney, it’s definitely on my list. But Lloyd Webber’s music puts me off – I’m just not a fan. For one thing, he borrowed just a little more from other composers than he should have, leading to accusations of plagiarism. The heirs of Giacomo Puccini settled out of court after claiming before a judge that “Music Of The Night” strongly resembles a segment of the opera Girl of the Golden West. A guy named Ray Repp sued, claiming the title song was based on a 1978 song he’d written. The jury found in Lloyd Webber’s favor, but only because Repp’s song, “Till You”, was found to be a rip-off of a song from Lloyd Webber’s Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. So yeah, Lloyd Webber ripped himself off so he gets away with it.
And anyone who has sunk their cerebrums into Pink Floyd’s epic 23-minute “Echoes” from their 1971 Meddle album knows that the signature ascending/descending riff in Phantom’s title song is more than just slightly similar.
It’s almost enough to turn a guy off musicals altogether. Well, not quite. But wherever possible, I’ll still see the movie first.