AISLE SAY New York
HAPPY DAYS: THE MUSICAL
Book by Garry Marshall
Music and Lyrics by Paul Williams
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
Paper Mill Playhouse / Millburn NJ
Reviewed by David Spencer
Not to toot my own horn, which makes some readers a little impatient with me, but because it seems relevant: In an article for the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop Newsletter that morphed into a chapter on adaptation in my book The Musical Theatre Writer's Survival Guide, I wrote this:
If you're adapting from the pop culture iconography of licensed, trademarked or series characters ... you have perhaps the hardest adaptive challenge of all. Because it allows almost no margin for error, and precious little for re-invention. Think about it:
Traditionally, in musicals, main characters go on some kind of quest, or have some over-arcing goal which propels them through a rite-of-passage. They emerge at the end somehow changed for the experience. Usually for the better.
However, the two most cherished qualities of classic [franchise] characters are their familiarity—and their consistency. They can become richer and more complex on the page or the screen, as lore gets added to canon, and story builds upon story—but 98 percent of the time they do not fundamentally change!
Musicals about Sherlock Holmes have always been ill-advised because despite all the great detective's signature peccadilloes, he is at core an enigma, which defies singing from the heart and expressing true emotion. Indeed, his ability to obfuscate is key to his brilliance as an investigator. Violate any of this and you invoke the impatience—even the wrath—of an audience whose expectations have been, likewise, violated. Who begin to think (correctly) that they know the characters better than you do. (More recently, Nick and Nora—about the married sleuths from The Thin Man series—fell into this same trap. The Charleses having serious marital problems??? Sacrilege!!!)
One of the reasons why the original 1968 off-Broadway version of You're a Good Man Charlie Brown was so stunningly successful was that it was only marginally a book musical. Really it was a revue of songs and sketches that took Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang through two typical days, one per act. Author-composer Clark Gesner's light, subtle touch was an ideal match for the gentle humor of Charles Schulz's strip, and the vignettes were themselves the theatrical equivalents of strips. By the same token, the 1999 Broadway revival of the show failed—just as stunningly—because it refused to honor the strip's gentility and subtlety. The score was reworked (not by Gesner, who had no control or say in the matter), the characters grossly exaggerated and the humor rendered loud-fast-broad in a way that vulgarized and cheapened the franchise. With the exception of children, who took some solace and delight in the show's bright design and silliness, most audience members new to the show couldn't understand why anyone would want to revive anything so aggressively childish—and those who knew the show well tended to be irritated at the desecration.
Characters whose personalities and official mythos have been absorbed into the public consciousness are very powerful without you—affection for them, even intimacy with them, walks in the door with your audience—and the universal, emblematic popularity of these creations exists for good reason.
If you can't present them authentically, tread not on their ground.
And I now have to add: it almost doesn't matter if the book's structure isn't completely sound, or if the score is even theatrically savvy or well-conceived, so long as both are presented with polish and at least a base level professional competence.
Almost. Hold that word in your minds, I'll return to it.
For Happy Days: The Musical, kicking off a 40-plus city tour with its current engagement at the Paper Mill Playhouse, seems to be making its audiences deliriously happy. Surprisingly, despite iconic, mold-creating performances by the stars of that bygone sitcom, most conspicuously and importantly Ron Howard (as Richie), Henry Winkler (as Arthur "the Fonz/Fonzie" Fonzarelli), Tom Bosley (as Howard Cunningham) and Marion Ross (as his wife, the similarly named Marion), the templates for their archetypes are so well conceived that they do, in fact, support the performances of other actors. Part of this, of course, has to do with all the original actors being too old now to recreate their roles in anything resembling the original context; so the audience makes allowances for a live stage show. But the rest of it has to do with simply understanding and honoring certain mannerisms, inflections and behaviors that come with the territory. Does this involve imitation? For the more extreme roles (like Richie and Fonzie) yes, in the sense that both William Devane and decades later Bruce Greenwood had to achieve a certain verisimilitude to portray John F. Kennedy; and that numerous actors including Frank Langella, George S. Irving and Anthony Hopkins have had their whack at Nixon, on stage and screen likewise had to sell it, with some recognizable nod to the historical record of voice, posture and demeanor. But does this mean imitation so slavish that Joey Sorge's Fonz and Rory O'Malley's Richie aren't admirable performances in their own right? Not at all. The characters not only survive—they thrive. And the characters less needful of trademark tics (i.e. Ron Most's Ralph and Anson Williams' Pottsie were always bland, you couldn't imitate them meaningfully if you wanted to) give over easily to new personae (ie. Todd Buonopane and Christopher Ruth), so long as their functions, relationships and the overall mythos are preserved. And both Cynthia Ferrer's Marion and Felicia Finley's Pinky Tuscadero even manage to carve out their own individualistic swath.
Of course, this is all achievable because the book is by series creator Garry Marshall, who oversaw all 11 seasons of the hit sitcom and understands it—and its fan base—intimately. And knows how to write comedy for live audiences. He might have reached for an "epic" or "special" storyline that would have been "too big" for the series to contain, but essentially he's created three plots, each of which would sustain for a 22 minute episode (which is what they boil down to, minus commercials) and lightly interwoven them so that none can be completely finished without resolving the others, this coming up with a standard, albeit evening length episode. If it's less unique than something riskier, it's also a helluva lot more comfortable and familiar. It's a promise to the audience that these Happy Days are indeed, yours and mine, as we remember them. Likewise, director Gordon Greenberg has perfectly pastiched the "feel" of a Happy Days episode—except of course when the show breaks out into song, at which points he matches the tone of the show by pastiching 1950s-style musical theatre staging.
As to the score by Paul Williams...(*sigh*) Once again, an all-too-typical case of one Hollywood guy (Marshall) asking another Hollywood guy (Williams) to "go musical" with him, because they're friends and colleagues, and because he's written a lot of popular songs. As we all know, the ability to write popular songs has nothing much to do with the ability to write theatre songs, and while Mr. Williams's grasp of the craft is far better than most of his ilk, he is still also a far cry from the basic skill-set that would allow him to understand and troubleshoot dramatic function and architecture; and the difference between writing for character from within the character's drives and needs—and the bag of tricks that includes imposing facile musical styles to match a character's surface archetype, and having the character summarize things about him/her-self that have already been made apparent in the book. To Williams's credit though—ironically—the score isn't offensive, distracting or inappropriate to the overall cause; so while it's dramatically irrelevant, it provides pleasant enough respites, a high energy the audience likes, and a harmless sonic wallpaper between story points. The spirit, tone and characters of Happy Days are not violated, so the audience is pleased enough.
And this should make Happy Days a big winner on tour. As well it should be, for what it is. I'm a big TV fanboy, I was quite fond of the series, more power to the musical, Why not? As to its Broadway aspirations...well, here's where that almost comes in...
Alas, I just don't think the show will fly in New York (unless by some stunning inspiration of marketing, it can be aimed at a hot tourist trade almost immediately and exclusively; a trick which has eluded other populist "recreations" too, such as Footloose, Saturday Night Fever, Urban Cowboy and others.) I don't mean this to sound snooty or snobby or elitist, but the fact is, musical theatre audiences in the Apple hold the form to a higher standard, most of the time; if not always a standard of quality then at least a standard of uniqueness (there will always be novelty hits). And Happy Days, perhaps even by the very nature of the TV series that spawned it, let alone the theatrical lapses of its creative team, assiduously heads down a middle-brow path at every turn. As an homage to the TV series, it hits its mark. But as a musical on its own terms, it leaves a mild impression at best. And those are the terms by which audiences decide whether or not to shell out Broadway prices.
Unless I'm wr...
Unless I'm wrugh...
Unless I'm wrrrr...
Naw, not me. Aaaayyyy...