Sunday, July 09, 2006

Stream of Consciousness No. 4: Let's Put On a Show

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - These days, Broadway musical theater just doesn't excite me as much as it used to. The "let's-put-on-a-show" enthusiasm of a lot of famous Broadway musicals often strikes me as energetic trivialities, and I'd be hardpressed to remember the content or even the songs of many of the ones I've seen (although, that said, compared to how many films I've seen over the years, the number of musicals I've seen is relatively few). Sorry if that makes me sound like a grinch, but honestly: film simply intrigues and excites me more than Broadway musical theater, which, to be honest, seems less and less relevant by the year---except, perhaps, as a New York City tourist attraction for myself, I guess.

Still, I suppose I'm not immune to the possibility of at least having a good time at a Broadway musical, and so sometimes I will go see one, whether or not it's on Broadway or simply being put on by a community group. Which is why I suppose I decided to go see Plays in the Park's most recent production of The Scarlet Pimpernel tonight. Heck, I had nothing better to do anyway, since I took a day off from Megamovies.

I don't really have much to say about the musical itself---technically, it was a well-mounted production, although some of the humor seemed labored, and Billy Piscopo's central performance as the British nobleman who becomes known as the Scarlet Pimpernel struck me as wildly uneven (conceptually interesting at best, garishly unfunny and irritating at worst). But, as I watched The Scarlet Pimpernel, I found myself concentrating less on the music and lyrics, and more on the themes and satiric undertones of the show. It seems that my habit of looking out for such things while watching films has a tendency to translate to the way I look at other art forms, even if I suspect I probably should be looking at something different for a theater production as opposed to a film.

The most interesting thing I picked up about The Scarlet Pimpernel is its connection of actors to the outward images we project towards people. At least two of the main characters in Pimpernel---the main character and his French actress wife---are keeping identity secrets from each other, and in order to cover up their identites---as a do-gooder rogue in Sir Percy Blakeney's case, as a French spy in his French wife's case---they put on facades...facades that hurt each other in the process. I haven't read the original novel by Baroness Orczy, but I wonder if she was suggesting something about how people believing in outward images led France into the Reign of Terror in the first place: using the ideals of the French Revolution to justify mass slaughter.

That's the kind of stuff I thought about as I watched the stage musical adaptation. Not about how catchy the tunes were (although I think "Into the Fire" is probably the most memorable tune, in my mind), or how fancy the costumes were or how convincing the sets were. Instead, I thought more about the kind of stuff I'd think about at a movie: if there are any consistent themes to the film, and how those themes are expressed. I'll probably never have much of an intellectual capacity for writing authoritatively about plays and musicals as I believe I can about film. (But heck, if a newspaper or web publication is willing to grant me to space to give it a try, I'll do it. Freelance writer Stephen Metcalf was allowed to rant about how overrated The Searchers was over at the online magazine Slate, even though his deliberate attack on us "film geeks" simply exposes how little he understands film as an art. I wonder if the piece was actually meant to be taken seriously, or if it's just Metcalf's attempt at getting a cheap rise out of people.)

Dunno if there was a real point to this post, but make of it what you will, heh.

Oh, and for the record: the best musical I've seen is probably a Livingston Theater Company production of A Chorus Line. A Chorus Line is probably the most brilliant and moving musical I've seen, less memorable for its tunes (I guess "One" is its signature number, although I've always thought it was a terribly awkward fit at the end of the musical, giving it a false sense of Broadway-style uplift) than for its seemingly honest and sensitive take on the hard life backstage.


odienator said...

the best musical I've seen is probably a Livingston Theater Company production of A Chorus Line. A Chorus Line is probably the most brilliant and moving musical I've seen

I saw A Chorus Line on Broadway 100 million years ago. It won the Pulitzer. I was unmoved by the characters' plight, but it was an interestingly staged production (a relic of a past era), and I do like the songs--especially Dance 10, Looks 3 (tits and asssss).

It's coming back to Broadway later this year, so you might want to check it out since you liked it so much.

As for me, my favorite musical is the one A Chorus Line beat for the Tony that year, Chicago, which I not only saw on Broadway but also performed in (of course, not on Broadway!)

kenjfuj said...


Sometimes I wish I could see more Broadway shows, just for the experience of seeing a lavish musical in a fancy theater. If only tickets didn't cost so much...

Yeah I got wind of a Chorus Line revival too; if some organization on Rutgers can offer reasonable priced tickets to go see it whenever it returns to Broadway, maybe I'll check it out and see if it holds up for me.

I like Chicago too, although I've only seen the Rob Marshall film version; never saw it onstage. Great tunes, and I guess I liked its virtuosic balancing act aspect: trying to put on a great show while remaining cynical about people who try to put on a great show. Or something like that.

The only shows I've seen on Broadway: The Producers (post-Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick) and Bernadette Peters in a revival of Gypsy a while back. Most of the others I've seen in local or community productions. But only A Chorus Line has really made a great impression on me (although I do enjoy Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum on a pure entertainment level). That and Dreamgirls---and I definitely can't wait for the upcoming movie version coming out in the fall!

odienator said...

I have you beat on musicals and plays on Broadway. In addition to ACL, I've seen:

The Wiz, Dreamgirls, On Golden Pond (w/James Earl Jones), Avenue Q, Annie (Sarah Jessica Parker was Annie!), Miss Saigon, Spamalot (a disappointment), The Producers (with Matthew and Nathan), Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, A Chorus Line, Little Shop of Horrors (twice off Broadway, once on Broadway, and I played Seymour 26 times in a rinky dink little theater), Chicago, Beauty and the Beast (w/Toni Braxton), Nine and Hairspray.

For somebody who hates Andrew Lloyd Webber, I've seen plenty of his crap. The Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Blvd (which, despite its Glenn Close perf, was sheer blasphemy), Cats (which is the worst musical I've ever seen) and Evita (which I actually liked).

I've also seen four of August Wilson's plays, including Fences (with J.E. Jones) and Two Trains Running (with Laurence Fishburne). Whoopi Goldberg's first show on Broadway back in the 80's should also be on this list.

I'm sure I'm missing a few, but there you go. I envy that you got to see Gypsy, my favorite of the musicals I've never seen live.

Hopefully Rutgers will offer some kind of el cheapo starving student deal for B'way tix!

kenjfuj said...


Well, Plays in the Park here at Middlesex County---which produced the performance of The Scarlet Pimpernel I saw last night---is putting on Cats as their summer season ender, so I guess I'll be getting a chance to see how great or awful it is for myself very soon. Could it be quite as bad as my experience sitting through the movie version of The Phantom of the Opera, which to me felt simply endless? I'll see, I guess. (To be fair regarding Phantom, I don't think Sir Lloyd Webber's music itself is quite as bad as most critics suggested when the movie came out. Some of his tunes can be rather memorable. As long as you forget the sometimes embarrassing lyrics, forget the laughably anachronistic '80s disco sound that taints some of it, and try to disregard the fact that Webber doesn't really know how to musically develop his melodies in an intriguing way---some of it is pleasant enough to listen to, especially the luscious way some of it is orchestrated. I haven't really given a serious listen to Evita, although I couldn't escape Madonna's rendition of "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" when the Alan Parker film came out years ago.)

The only other musical from the ones you list that I've seen is Miss Saigon, and again, that was via a Plays in the Park production. I liked it; I especially enjoyed that bitterly ironic "American Dream" number. And they actually did a reasonable job with getting a convincing-looking helicopter onto the stage. Oh, and Little Shop of Horrors I saw too, thanks again to the Livingston Theater Company. I enjoyed the invention of the score and lyrics, although the production I saw didn't have the best acting around.

And man, I hear a lot of good things about the current revival of Sweeney Todd. A Broadway opera? Sounds like my cup of tea, heh!

odienator said...

And man, I hear a lot of good things about the current revival of Sweeney Todd.

It looks fascinating. The concept of the actors playing their instruments on stage is very intriguing. But I don't like the Sondheim of that era, and the price is too steep for a musical I already saw.

I couldn't escape Madonna's rendition of "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" when the Alan Parker film came out years ago.

Antonio Banderas almost saved that movie. I think if Evita had been made when the play was hot, it would have made more money (and wouldn't have had Madonna in it). Webber's stuff doesn't seem to translate well to film. I didn't see the movie version of Phantom, and unlike you, I found the music intolerable.

Cats has one great song in it, but the rest of the score belongs in a litter box. Where we sat, we had the cat actors interact with us. They are supposed to do things that real cats do. I hate cats, so this was not exactly something I was interested in having happen to me. Anyway, this guy in a cat outfit decides to get on my lap and put his ass in my face. This did not endear me to the musical nor to cats.

It could have been far worse; he could have hacked up a hairball on me. Be careful where you sit!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed what you shared but even more important the passion inwhich it was shared.
I have tried to create a platform for those who love musical theatre, but rarely have an opportunity see the actual show. I wanted to create a place for musical lovers to discuss the merits or problems and wastefullness of musical recordings.

I would greatly appreciate your stopping by my blog. Feeback is not only welcome. it is requested.

kenjfuj said...


...this guy in a cat outfit decides to get on my lap and put his ass in my face. This did not endear me to the musical nor to cats.

Gosh I hope no one feels the need to do that when I check out Cats at Plays in the Park next month!

Anonymous (or, Bill):

Thanks for the kind words. Honestly, I don't know quite so much about musical theater as I do about film, and I'm not quite sure if I care so much (to put it rather bluntly). And I haven't heard any cast recordings of recent shows, except maybe bits of Avenue Q ("The Internet is for Porn" and one or two other funny numbers) and some of the Rent original cast recording. But you seem to have an interestingly interactive blog for Broadway fans to pool their thoughts, and I wish you luck in getting more traffic to it. Who knows? Maybe one of these days I'll actually feel like picking up a cast recording from a local library and pooling my thoughts on it on your blog.

odienator said...

Kenjfuj: Gosh I hope no one feels the need to do that when I check out Cats at Plays in the Park next month!

Too late! I already bribed a cat to give you the ultimate Cats experience! I'll be there with my camera to catch this very special episode of My Life, at 24 Frames a Second! :)

Anonymous Bill: Interesting site, though I admit that I don't buy Broadway soundtracks unless I'm practicing for a show, something I haven't done in years. Interesting premise for a blog, though. Maybe I'll stop by once in a while. Break a leg!