I usually play “conflict of interest” by ear and on a case-by-case basis, but my Spidey sense says I have to be extremely cautious where three of the new musicals are concerned, above and beyond the norm. Much as I love deconstructive analysis of musicals—if, as a critic, I live for anything in the writing, it’s that—there are too many crossed (and one shared) professional paths; I don’t dare.
But upon reflection, what I think I can offer, neutrally and without risking impropriety—which might in a certain context be more useful now that said shows are well-defined in their niches—is a little appraisal by way of consumer advice. Because there is, with each of these shows, a love-it contingent and a not-so-much contingent (in these cases, “hate” would be too extreme) and a clear dividing line separating the factions. Though across the board, the observable audience response to all these shows is one of populist approval—laughs in the right places, applause in the right proportion, a seeming air of satisfaction—all have vehement debaters on either side of the equation in aftermath conversatons.
I can tell you—I think—what to expect such that you’ll know right
away on which side of the dividing line you’ll fall. (I might add “…and whether
or not to attend” as well, but that’s extreme too. Mainstream Broadway musicals
have so much at stake these days that full-metal bombs and conceptual train
wrecks rarely survive the developmental process into full production. So, after
a fashion, everything’s worth seeing. But if you’re counting your pennies, this
will help you prioritize.)
were two additional new musicals that fell under this topic heading
too, ones with which I have no conflicts that I'm aware of. But all
things considered, it seemed appropriate to include those as well.
You'll find them at the end.
dividing line where Disney’s Aladdin is
concerned, is the place where it crosses content-wise into shameless
anachronism, and production-wise, into giddy excess. Linguistic anachrosism of
language is, of course, coin of the realm where Disney animated features are
concerned; and as for the scenic and visual excess—in the absence of the
magic that can be achieved with animation, director Casey Nicholaw and
cohorts have gone a route that can best be described as Arabia-cum-Vegas, the
magic of glitz, glitter and too-much-is-never-enough. When James Monroe
Iglehart as the Genie kicks it up with Menken & Ashman's “Friend Like Me” and
gets to the “Can your friends do this/that?’ section, extravagance is just the
beginning. Trick and effect and opulence follow trick and effect and opulence
and just when you think there’s no more to do, there’s three times more to do.
This is absolutely entertainment for the hoi-polloi, unabashedly
self-conscious, the ultimate in animation-to-live-action merchandising, and if
you were to accuse it of that, it would smile at you and go, “Uh-huh,” and
consider that part of the fun. In short, you’ll either find Aladdin to be
exhausting, or you’ll have the time (and the carpet ride) of your life.
Rosalyn Drexler is a pop artist and novelist now in her 80s and still productive, who has had many lives. Among them in her youth was a brief career as a lady wrestler. She wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about the experience and, as will happen in the world of publishing, that flagged her as the Ballentine Books tie-in editor’s choice to novelize Sylvester Stallone’s screenplay for Rocky, which she did in 1977, under the pseudonym “Julia Sorel.” In being interviewed for an article about the craft of novelizing, published not long after that book’s release, she talked about how the text of her manuscript had been policed by Stallone, who had contractual approvals. And she mentioned passages in which she sought to explore certain aspects of Rocky’s internal life (as I recall, his sexual life) that Stallone had slashed from the final version, either disagreeing with her interpretation of his characters in that regard, or just not wanting to go there. (Stallone himself would novelize Rocky II and Rocky IV, with Rocky III by-lined to Robert E. Hoban.) Nonetheless, the little book, clocking in at only about 140 pages, is a breathless and involving read, zipping by so efficiently you don’t even question how deep it does or doesn’t go.
And one gets a similar feeling from the musical version of Rocky: that Stallone, though he didn’t hands-on write it, was nonetheless hands-on and very specifically. For in most aspects, it really is a lateral transposition from screen to stage—not a musical enhancement, not an elevation, not an enrichment, but simply (and not so simply) the film writ to another medium. Everything about it is attractive and paced well under the impeccably flashy direction of Alex Timbers. The score manages to feel just right and simultaneously like Ahrens and Flaherty Lite, as if, like Ms. Drexler, they were permitted to dig this far and no further. (I have no idea if this is true; I only report on the sensation.) Likewise the libretto by the ubiquitous adapter of iconic properties, Thomas Meehan. And the actors manage the neat trick of making their own marks on the roles yet absolutely honoring the film iconography; in nuance they find their own way; but in soul and substance they offer no grand variation. Rocky says the marquee, Rocky is exactly, but exactly, what you get.
The dividing line marks whether or not this is enough for you—and this holds true whether or not you know the original film. As with Aladdin, this, in its very different way, is intended as a crowd-pleaser by way of familiarity (even if you don't know the film, you know its pop culture resonance); but familiarity delivered in a first class package.
The very concept of If/Then creates its dividing line, and not just because the story itself embodies dividing lines. It concerns an “average” upardly mobile woman (Idina Menzel) in the city and the various directions her life might take. If she says yes to dating the returning military veteran (James Snyder) who asks her out impulsively, her life and relationships will go one way; if she doesn’t, they’ll go another. Without geting too bogged down in intricate variation—If/Then sticks to the broad strokes—authors Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music)—the team that created Next to Normal—bounce the story and the audience from path to path without segue (expecting you to make the intuitive leap, which most do, and certainly I did, fairly easily; though I’ve heard-tell of those who are completely bewildered), dramatizing the possibilities.
But with the heroine being a “typical” modern woman, her friends and colleagues are also typical whatevers. They can only be archetypes, familiar character tropes serving familiar function without the idiosyncrasy that defines larger-than-life characters…because if they were larger-than-life, that would work against the intended points of identification, i.e Might these lives and choices be yours? Whatever singular definition If/Then's roster of characters have comes only from singular actors filling them out; and different actors would provide different definition. The very notion of highly idiosyncratic characters fights the premise of multiple choice, for idiosyncratic characters tend to be driven to follow a specific path—that’s what makes them unique.
And here’s the dividing line—come to think of it, the If/Then dividing line.
If the game of following generic characters on multiple “Choose Your Destiny” trajectories affords you the vicarious mixed emotions that resonate with your own potential alternate universes, then the musical will appeal hugely. If the game sounds like following a bunch of average civilians who can’t figure out what Lifetime or Oxygen movie plot they’re supposed to be a part of, then you’re likely to grow impatient. Of all the musicals discussed here, this is the one with the boldest dividing line and the one debated most passionately.
So far as I’m aware, as indicated above, I have no particular conflict of interest where reviewing The Bridges of Madison County is concerned, but it so neatly falls under the umbrella topic of Musicals with a Dividing Line that I might as well include it here too.
Adapted from the novel by Robert James Waller, set in 1965, it tells the story of Francesca (Kelli O’Hara) an Italian immigrant who, having become the wife of Bud (Hunter Foster) an Iowa farmer, finds that her life has settled into a numbiung routine; that her youthful dreams of seeing the world and its wonders will never be realized; that while loving the home and family she helped build around herself is significant, it can’t quell the restlessness. And then when Bud and the kids go off to a farm fair to enter a competition, a romantic stranger, Robert (Steven Pasquale), a journalist-photographer surveying the area, just happens to show up. And one thing leads to another…
Though love stories and romances are almost always key elemens of musicals, they’re rarely terribly effective when they’re the primary, central focus of a musical. That’s because a musical bespeaks a heightened, compressed storytelling form that usually requires a certain amount of narrative muscle and movement to sustain interest and tension…and love stories that are only love stories have relatively little narrative muscle, as a result of having very little actual plot beyond will-they/won’t-they/when-will-they sleep together and what might the consequences be? The lion’s share of focus goes to the innerjourney, to how people are feeling, and since there’s a limit to how much you can sing about that without wallowing in the same waters for a protracted period of time, the only other stuff to sing about is backstory: How I got to be the person I am now. And sure enough, The Bridges of Madison County plays in that extremely limited sandbox.
I’m not sure what to say about Marsha Norman’s libretto: it’s facile and proficient but doesn’t bear up under much scrutiny. (For example: Initially, Robert dutifully resists Francesca’s advances; the next night, just before succumbing, he declares that he understands the moral gray area, which is why when such situations come up in his itinerant life, he opts not to stay. He reminds her that he left, the night before. This is supposed to be his moment of nobility, but it only begs the question, “Are you saying you’re constitutionally predisposed to screw farmer’s wives? Are you saying that having left the night before legitimizes showing up today?”) But in that regard it’s no more credibility-challenged than many a chick-lit popular romance. No, the compensation comes from the music and lyrics of Jason Robert Brown. He has imbued the characters' lyrics with a higher-than-average intelligence, perception and sense of introspecton; and he has likewise imbued the music they sing to with a harmonic and rhythmic sophistication that evokes the setting without being anchored to the simple pop-music tropes that are its identifyiung clichés. In other words, even when he’s treading water, he’s ruminating interestingly—at the very least providing interesting melodies and wordplay to hold your attention and keep you concentrating. This is no easy trick to pull off.
And here’s the dividing line: If you can ride with the show’s high craftsmanship (and highly theatrical staging by director Bartlett Sher) and find your pleasures there, The Bridges of Madison County will unequivocally cast its spell. If on the other hand you can’t make yourself unaware of it featuring prosaic, familiar characters and about two inches worth of plot, its intelligence will come as scant compensation.
I also, to the best of my knowledge, have no conflicts regarding Bullets Over Broadway, but that too has split audiences down the middle.
There’s no question that everything about the delivery of Woody Allen’s adaptation of his own film—a comedy about a young dramatist’s first Broadway play, which isn’t getting on without a gangster backer’s girlfriend having one of the leads—is delivered in first class style. If you don’t know the film going in—and I didn’t—the storytelling is brisk, the casting is impeccable, Susan Stroman’s direction is clean, her choreography is (as always) insanely inventive…
But there’s that score.
A compilation—some might say a jukebox—score of popular tunes from the 20s. As all new shows with inadequately literate (or no) living composers must these days, Bullets Over Broadway has employed the redoubtable “music supervisor” Glen Kelly to give the songs context appropriate arrangements and—uniquely, in this case—to fiddle with the lyrics here and there to keep them from straying afield of the dramatic point.
Between the selection of the songs and the treatment they’re given, the score is far better integrated than such things have any right to be. But even so, because the songs are standards of the period and some of them very familiar ones at that, the integration weirdly makes you even more aware of the parlor trick. No sooner does a song start to land, when you wonder if it will sustain its entire length and you begin listening for anomalies or changes. And though strictly speaking, the songs aren’t “all the same,” there’s a near-constant upbeat pulse to most of them, with the result that on aggregate, they seem (to many ears) to come over in a general wash. My ears didn’t find it so precisely, but there was a point at which I stopped expecting variations in energy level to be significant.
And here’s the dividing line:
If you’re happy enough to just give over (which ironically takes a certain effort of will), you’ll have a fine time. If you’re not that lenient…you’re likely to still have an okay time? But you won’t be that satisfied when it’s over.
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