25 February 2009

Slumdog! Part Two

On January 12 I wrote:

Before I even saw Slumdog Millionaire I thought, "how long until this is made
until a musical?"

Apparently the answer was 6 weeks, at least according to this article at Broadway.com

This is why I'm glad I put these things in writing.

It's a Valid Question

on the 1 train at 28th st.

14 February 2009

No More Bitching About GUYS & DOLLS

Here's a video from a concert at the Beechman featuring the works of a composer/lyricist named Daniel Maté. Never really heard of him until now, but wish I had. Here's a funny song called "I Don't Think of You", made funnier by the wonderful Donna Lynne Champlin.

13 February 2009

More About Guys and Dolls

The more I think about the current revival of GUYS & DOLLS the more I dislike it, and the more bothered I am by how little sense of romance and whimsy the creative team found in the production. Since I'm covering phones all day at work and bored out of my mind, I read the NY Times review of the 1992 revival, which seemed to do everything the current G&D did not. Hell, if Des McAnuff had even an iota of the affection for the source material as the REVIEWER below, he would have had a more successful production. Things the previous revival suceeded in doing the current revival does not:
1) Whimsical physical production
2) Genuine Musical Theater Star Turns
3) Having a Sky Masterson with pitch.

Read on:

Guys and Dolls; Damon Runyon's New York Lives Anew
By FRANK RICH Published: April 15, 1992, Wednesday
If you have ever searched Times Square to find that vanished Broadway of
lovable gangsters, wisecracking dolls and neon-splashed dawns, you must not miss
the "Guys and Dolls" that roared into the old neighborhood last night. As
directed with a great eye and a big heart by Jerry Zaks and performed by a
thrilling young company that even boasts, in Faith Prince, the rare sighting of
a brand-new musical-comedy star, this is an enchanting rebirth of the show that
defines Broadway dazzle.

It's hard to know which genius, and I do mean genius, to celebrate
first while cheering the entertainment at the Martin Beck. Do we speak of Damon
Runyon, who created the characters of "Guys and Dolls" in his stories and with
them a whole new American language? Or of Frank Loesser, who in 1950 translated
Runyon into songs with melodies by turns brash and melting and lyrics that are
legend? This being the theater department, please forgive my tilt toward
Loesser, whose musical setting of phrases like "I got the horse right here" and
"a person could develop a cold" and "the oldest established permanent floating
crap game in New York" are as much a part of our landscape as the Chrysler
Building and Radio City Music Hall.

The thing to remember about Runyon is that he was born in Kansas and
didn't reach Manhattan until he was 26. His love for his adopted town is the
helplessly romantic ardor of a pilgrim who finally found his Mecca. That romance
is built into the text of "Guys and Dolls," in which the hoods and chorus girls
engage in no violence, never mention sex and speak in an exaggeratedly polite
argot that is as courtly as dese-and-dose vernacular can be.

Runyon's idyllic spirit informs every gesture in this production. Mr.
Zaks, the choreographer Christopher Chadman and an extraordinary design team led by Tony Walton give the audience a fantasy Broadway that, if it ever existed, is
now as defunct as such "Guys and Dolls" landmarks as Klein's, Rogers Peet and
the Roxy. Yet it is the place we dream about whenever we think of Runyon and
Loesser or anyone else who painted New York as a nocturnal paradise where ideas
and emotions are spelled out sky-high on blinking signs and, to quote another
lyric, "the street lamp light fills the gutter with gold."

Mr. Zaks, whose achievements include most relevantly the Lincoln Center
revivals of "Anything Goes" and "The Front Page," stages the book of "Guys and
Dolls" for both its comedy and its emotions. That book was written by Abe
Burrows from an abandoned first draft by the screenwriter Jo Swerling, and its
solid construction reflects the influence of the original production's director,
George S. Kaufman. But funny and fast-paced as the dialogue is, the show seems
about more than Nathan Detroit's farcical route to a crap game and the
calculating efforts of Sky Masterson to win a bet by bamboozling the puritanical
Sarah Brown, of the Save-a-Soul Mission, into a dinner date in Cuba. This
company turns up the temperature just enough to induce goose bumps in the
guy-and-doll encounters of "Guys and Dolls."

Peter Gallagher, who made an impression in one Broadway musical (the
short-lived "A Doll's Life") before moving on to heavier dramatic duties, is a
heaven-sent Sky Masterson with brooding good looks, a voice that always remains
both in mellow key and in gritty character, and a dark, commanding presence that
is up to the high theatrical stakes of "Luck Be a Lady." Mr. Gallagher also has
a shy smile that slowly breaks through his tough facade much as the Havana moon
does through the clouds behind him. When he clasps the hands of his Sarah, Josie
de Guzman, to his chest while she sings her half of "I've Never Been in Love
Before," you feel the sweet infatuation typical of couples in Mr. Zaks's
productions and you understand that the Loesser who wrote this ballad is indeed
the same man who wrote "My Heart Is So Full of You" for "The Most Happy Fella."
Ms. de Guzman, whose refreshing mission doll is bemusedly prim rather than a
schoolmarm, makes a lovely partner to Mr. Gallagher, with a voice that peals
joyously as well as tipsily in "If I Were a Bell."

The evening's biggest laughs, of course, belong to Ms. Prince's Miss
Adelaide, the Hot Box dancer and perennial fiancee who stops the show with her
sneeze-laden lament in Act I, then brings down the house in Act II with "Take
Back Your Mink," surely the only strip-tease ever written as one long nasal
kvetch. Ms. Prince, the only bright spot in the late "Nick and Nora," here
crosses into another dimension as she punctuates "A Bushel and a Peck" with
Marilyn Monroe squeaks, roars a lifetime of frustration into the phrase "then
they get off at Saratoga, for the 14th time" and turns the word "subsequently"
(as in "Marry the man today and train him subsequently") into a one-word playlet
that makes happily ever after sound a bit like boot camp.
With her big
features, piled blond hair and prematurely matronly sexuality, this wholly
assured actress echoes Judy Holliday as much as she does her famous predecessor
as Adelaide, Vivian Blaine. The combination, though, is a bracing original. As
her eternal intended, that supremely gifted actor Nathan Lane does not remotely
echo the first Nathan Detroit, Sam Levene, for whose New York Jewish cadences
the role was written. Mr. Lane is more like a young Jackie Gleason and usually
funny in his own right, though expressions like "all right, already" and "so
nu?" do not fall trippingly from his tongue. But once he and Ms. Prince loudly
lock vocal horns during "Sue Me," chances are you will forgive him anything.

In all his casting, Mr. Zaks seems to have followed the producer Cy
Feuer's 1950 dictum of seeking "people with bumps." There are some classic
gangster mugs on the mugs in this company, including those of J. K. Simmons (as
Benny Southstreet), Ernie Sabella (Harry the Horse) and Herschel Sparber (the
villain, Big Jule). Walter Bobbie nicely breaks the chubby mold established by
Stubby Kaye in the part of Nicely-Nicely Johnson (the character is thin in
Runyon) and leads an infectious "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" that is
choreographed to a claustrophobic frenzy by Mr. Chadman, who has such
spectacular dancers as Scott Wise and Gary Chryst stashed in his chorus.

Mr. Chadman's other dance routines, including the energizing
"Crapshooters' Dance" led by Mr. Wise in the depths of a sewer, are in the
spirit of Michael Kidd's wonderful originals (as re-created in the Sam Goldwyn
film) but are not imprisoned by them. The same is true of the orchestrations,
which preserve all the indelible passages of the Ted Royal-George Bassman
originals but are helpfully amended by contributions from Michael Starobin and
Michael Gibson.
The production's highly stylized design is in a class apart.
William Ivey Long's boldly striped and extravagantly iridescent costumes pay an
acknowledged debt to those first created by Alvin Colt and Irene Sharaff for
Broadway and Hollywood, much as Mr. Walton's sets take a recognizable bow to Jo
Mielziner and Oliver Smith, who respectively designed the original settings for
stage and screen. The brilliant lighting, which offers a rainbow of hues for all
times of day, is by Paul Gallo, who both here and in "Crazy for You" is setting
a high standard for his art that would have been unimaginable, and
technologically unattainable, in the days of Loesser or the Gershwins.
Mr. Walton's achievement here goes beyond his nostalgic evocation of 1950's
musicals, with his pointed use of the painted drops that dominated Broadway
design mechanics of that time. In his "Guys and Dolls," a black-and-white front
curtain of an urban scene reminiscent of a Reginald Marsh drawing can pull up to
reveal the same scene, now painted on a backdrop, that remakes New York in
deeply saturated colors from the fantastic spectrums of Matisse and Dufy. A
vintage pay phone can be splashed in sea green, as if rising up from an
audience's buried collective fantasy of a distant past, and stacks of newspapers
thrown on a Times Square pavement at daybreak can form a lonely composition
worthy of Edward Hopper's New York.
Everything about Mr. Walton's design,
like nearly everything about this production, demands that the audience look at
"Guys and Dolls" again and see it fresh. The cherished Runyonland of memory is
not altered, just felt and dreamt anew by intoxicated theater artists. No doubt
another Broadway generation will one day find a different, equally exciting way
to reimagine this classic. But in our lifetime? Don't bet on it.

I then went and read the ORIGINAL review, which, oddly enough, wasn't nearly as glowing or enthusiastic as one might expect. True, it has absolutely no complaint, but it doesn't say, for example, something along the lines of "'Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat' is best damn production number I've ever seen." Even though I'm almost certain it was. Perhaps it is just a change in the styles of criticism. Anyway, read on.

Guys and Dolls
By BROOKS ATKINSON Published: November 25, 1950
Out of the pages of
Damon Runyon, some able artisans have put together a musical play that Broadway
can be proud of. Guys and Dolls they call it out of one corner of the mouth. It
opened at the Forty-sixth Street last evening. With a well-written book by Jo
Swerling and Abe Burrows, and a dynamic score by Frank Loesser, it is a more
coherent show than some that have higher artistic pretensions.

But you can count as its highest achievement the fact that it has
preserved the friendly spirit of the Runyon literature without patronizing and
without any show-shop hokum. It is the story of some gamblers and their
unfortunate women who try to fit into the shifty pattern of Broadway life some
of the stabilizing factors of marriage and love-making.

Let one playgoer remark in passing that there is something a little
disconcerting about the casual attitude this story takes toward a religious
mission which is trying to save a few souls in the neighborhood. But even this
intrusion on the way of life of some street-corner salvationists is redeemed by
the hearty camaraderie of all the characters of the book. Although they are
gamblers, showgirls, cops and adult delinquents, they have their ethics, too,
and live in a gaudy, blowzy world that is somehow warm and hospitable. After
all, the Broadway culture is simple and sentimental but has a better heart than
some cultures that are more literate.

Everyone concerned with Guys and Dolls has cast the show with relish
and originality; and George S. Kaufman has never been in better form in the
director's box. As the executive officer of the oldest floating crap game in
town, Sam Levene gives an excitable and hilarious performance. Vivian Blaine
makes something comic out of the lively vulgarity of a nightclub leading lady,
singing her honky-tonk songs in a shrill but earnest voice. Isabel Bigley does
as well by a missionary sergeant who astonishes herself by falling in love with
an itinerant gambler. She plays a few enticing tricks on one of Mr. Loesser's
most rollicking songs-"If I Were a Bell." As the tall, dark and handsome
gambler, Robert Alda keeps romance enjoyable, tough and surly.

The Runyon milieu is rich in startling types, and Guys and Dolls has
the most flamboyant population of any show in town. Stubby Kaye, as a rotund
sidewalk emissary; Johnny Silver, as a diminutive horse philosopher; B. S.
Pully, as a big gun-and-blackjack man from Chicago-are sound, racy members of
hallway society; and at last Tom Pedi has got a part that runs more than five
minutes as Harry the Horse, executive secretary for a thug. No one could make a
more lovable salvationist than Pat Rooney Sr., who sings "More I Cannot Wish"
with cordial good-will.
Everything is all of a piece in this breezy fiction
which has been organized as simply and logically as a Runyon story. Michael
Kidd's comic ballets of night club production numbers and crap games belong to
the production as intimately as Jo Mielziner's affable settings and Alvin Colt's
noisy costumes. Mr. Loesser's lyrics and songs have the same affectionate
appreciation of the material as the book, which is funny without being
self-conscious or mechanical.

From the technical point of view we might as well admit that Guys and
Dolls is a work of art. It is spontaneous and has form, style and spirit. In
view of the source material, that is not astonishing. For Damon Runyon captured
the spirit of an idle corner of the town with sympathetic understanding and
reproduced it slightly caricatured in the sketches and stories he wrote. Guys
and Dolls is gusty and uproarious, and it is not too grand to take a friendly,
personal interest in the desperate affairs of Broadway's backroom society.

12 February 2009

A Few Things About GUYS & DOLLS

I caught a preview of the new GUYS & DOLLS last night. I don't really want to write a review because (a) it's in previews and (b) I'm not all that interested in writing reviews. However--SPOILER ALERT--I will bring to light some of the points of interest of this production.

1) GUYS & DOLLS is a great show--This isn't a spoiler, or even news, but it is something that bears repeating. The book is funny, the characters sharp, strong and memorable with clear objectives, character arcs, etc. It's one of those things you look at in Writing a Musical Class, or Acting in a Musical Class. And the score is fan-fucking-tastic. So, in general, if moderately competent people say most of the words right, and sing most of the notes right, you will have a decent evening on your hands.

2) Lauren Graham Can Sing--There was a definite hush over the audience when Laruen "Gilmore Girls" Graham first took to the mic to sing "I Love You a Bushel and a Peck"....and a sigh of relief when it was fine. In general she is an okay Adelaide. However, though it may sound cruel to say she doesn't have a musical theater bone in her body, that seems to literally be the case. Her comic timing is fine, as is her singing. But Ms. Graham simply isn't able to take and fill a stage with presence--there is no natural comfort on stage. Her posture is week. She tended to let her eyes turn towards the floor in a manner natural for people on film, but abnoxious in theaters, especially to those sitting in the mezz. She isn't without hope, however, and may work these issues out by opening night (sometime in March).

3) Craig Beirko Can't Sing--As an actor, he was a very charming and convincing Sky, he just happens to be mildly tone deaf. His voice was thin, couldn't sustain the more legato phrases of his (and the show's) two key ballads ("I'll Know" and "I've Never Been in Love Before"), and he had pitch problems all over the place. "Luck Be a Lady Tonight" was particularly painful, and it really, really shouldn't be. I don't foresee this issue resolving itself by opening--unless he tries to sing less and "Rex Harrison" his way through the show.

4) Oliver Platt and Kate Jennings Grant Were Fine--I found Grant to be a particularly likable Sarah Brown--a hard trick to pull off when a characters chief traits are being both a prude and pious. But it was entirely believable that Sky would fall for her, and vice-versa. Oliver Platt was a rather adorable Nathan and sang his half of "Sue Me" just fine (though the treatment of that number was oddly melancholy). His low-key performance let a few jokes fall flat, but he managed to seem convincing both as a Gambling Tough Guy (within the world of this play), and the Overgrown Man Child in love with Adelaide.

5) Des McAnuff Hates Musicals--Or, rather, Des McAnuff appears to hate musical comedy. At the very least he has no faith in its charms. This is the most tech-heavy GUYS & DOLLS ever produced. He came out before the show started to make a curtain announcement explaining that we were in previews and that if there was a "train wreck" they might have to stop the show for a bit. Anyone who has seen GUYS & DOLLS would be puzzled by this statement. How could it possibly be a train wreck? There aren't any helecopters, chandeliers, or flying green witches. At preset we were greeted to an essentially bare stage with some steel beams. (Think GUYS & DOLLS on the set of TOMMY). And That's basically what we get for the rest of the show, only there are about 2,000 pieces of rolling furniture and a super high-tech screen in the background with moving backdrops composed of computer-generated images on New York (hence the potential for any number of train wrecks). During a song like "The Oldest Established" the gamblers traveled into a barber shop, funeral parlor, and around any number of corners (looking for a craps location), and the backdrop would zoom in and out and weave through streets. In Sky and Sarah's scene at the Save a Soul Mission, a computer generated elevated train passes overhead a few times. In "I've Never Been in Love Before" (located here at a dock) a computer generated boat sails away at the end. All this struck me as being entirely unwhimsical and unromantic, nothing in keeping with the "Fable" GUYS & DOLLS originally purported itself to be. The entire production was too busy and kinetic to enjoy itself. No one has ever had a problem seeing Nicely Nicely and Benny Southstreet more or less stand there and sing the title song, or needed to see 6 different couples wander past Sarah and Adelaide's park bench in "Marry the Man Today". No one, that is, but Des McAnuff.

The whole evening is framed with the image of Damon Runyon at his typerwriter. He starts typing, leaves his apartment (and the backdrop scrolls down 6 flights and opens up to a street view) and spends the rest of the evening watching scenes and also participating in dance numbers. It was unclear if were are supposed to think he is watching his creation, or watching the gritty underbelly of New York for inspiration. The former makes the most sense (as these characters are neither gritty nor real), but I'm not convinced that's what McAnuff is going for. He put in a new prologue, filled with noir-ish scenes of gamblers, boxers, brawls and dames, and inserts a few other "mob guys as callous killer" sight gags throughout. If perhaps this is a more accurate--or at least sexy and dangerous--depiction of mob life than the quirky gambling-loving mobsters of GUYS & DOLLS, the show is simply not about sex, danger, or accuracy. If we ever really thought they were the real kind of mobster the whole show would fall apart--they would shoot or buy their way out of any of these situations. And sing less.

I have no idea whether or not this will be a hit, or if critics will think of it as "fresh" or "cold", but, as I said in #1, GUYS & DOLLS is a great musical. If, in this case it is probably better than the production presenting it, you'd probably have a hard time being miserable.

01 February 2009

5 Seconds To Justify a Musical's Existence

For those who read books and study English literature, Bright Lights, Big City is kinda a big deal.

Then Scottsh Composer/Lyricist/Bookwriter (how many times has THAT happened?) Paul Scott Gordon wrote a musical version. It has its supporters (like most shows do), but was not, on the whole, well received. Partially because it looked like a desparate folow-up to Rent. (Much of these comparisons are the result of flawed producing...Michael Greif as director? Production at NYTW? Come on.) Read the original NY Times review.

As was the case with Prettybelle, Bright Lights, Big City got somewhat of a posthumous cast recording, featuring original star (Patrick Wilson) and a bunch of other great people like Christine Ebersole and Sheri Renee Scott.

However, the entire score is justified, in my opinion, from about 5 seconds performed by Sharon Leal (who you may remember from Boston Public, or as the girl who replaces Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls). She plays Patrick Wilson's wife and sings a song about modeling. The verse with the 5 seconds in question begins at 40 seconds, at 1m9s the greatness happens. It's actually shorter than 5 seconds, but when I first heard it I went back and listened to it on repeat for about 15 blocks. The song doesn't improve much after that point, but feel free to listen to the whole thing.

Discover Simple, Private Sharing at Drop.io

Also here's a nice, if contrived, song from the show sung very well by Ms. Sheri Renee Scott, mainly because I felt obligated to share it after mentioning her earlier.

Discover Simple, Private Sharing at Drop.io