Archive | April, 2014

Tony Awards, 1983, Cats

30 Apr

cats

Cats was the behemoth of 80’s Broadway until Andrew Lloyd Weber one-upped himself with Phantom of the Opera.   However, there’s a quote from Angels in America that really fits this show:  “Cats.  It’s about cats.  Singing cats.  You’ll love it.”

I don’t love Cats, but I find the show interesting.  The best way to consider this show is as the best theater for children ever made.   For children, this show is clever, fun, not too challenging, but with a little smidgen of thought that your average ice capades wouldn’t include.   As a Tony Award winning Broadway show—I think it’s a little bit weak.   Not that it shouldn’t have won, this show was one of the biggest of that era, It’s just very very simple, and not always in the good way, a bit too darling for my tastes, and the book could have been written by Spielberg when he was coming off of E.T.   And the whole thing just screams 80’s.    The costuming–how they look like if Kiss had made themselves some cat costumes by way of an 80’s mall.  (I mean look at this group up here and compare them to the USA in Africa group a few years later.)   And each one is just slightly different, so you can buy all the figures!!!!!   Talk about marketing!

This does have the huge song Memory in it–which deservedly is the breakaway song, however much it doesn’t really fit with all the other songs we hear.   Lots of feline dancing, a big junkyard, a tractor tire space ship to reincarnation.   Characters named Rum-Tum-Tugger, and Teacozy and I don’t know what.

Again, like all the other mega-musicals, the star is a thing–here it’s the dancers’ makeup.   There’s no progression, just song after song after song, which get samey after a bit.   Gotta say one thing–Andrew Lloyd Weber certainly knows what to bank on.   This show was HUUGE.

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Tony Awards 1982, Nine

28 Apr

nine

Nine is a completely left of field show to win amidst a decade of big budget behemoths.  I have very little to say about it, which is why I’ve been procrastinating on this post.  I’ve listened to the soundtrack many times, and still, very few of the songs stick (other than Be On Your Own)–in fact the music sounds entirely incidental.

On the other hand, I’m very happy whenever anything experimental gets on Broadway in the first place, and nine certainly is that.     It’s mid-life crisis storyline has a very theatre-ish tone to it.   The women in Guido’s head coming to life around him, and him finding it hard to create without a new flame to inspire him.

It’s really set up as a problem play, showing a situation and all the good and bad parts, then not resolving the situation.   Because of that, it’s a hard show to love, and the music is hard to love with it.  However I can’t help but respect it.

Tony Awards 1981, 42nd Street

20 Apr

42nd street

One thing that you’ll hear a lot with discussing 42nd Street is how it’s the end of an era.   David Merrick was one of the last big producers on Broadway, and this was his last effort to bring an old style Broadway show like it used to be.

Never trust anybody who claims to be putting on a show the way Broadway “used to be.”   And most especially don’t trust David Merrick who probably wrote all this copy himself.   David Merrick was a combination of Jack Warner and a publicity hound who would stop at nothing to not only have his shows succeed but become cultural phenomenons.   He was not very nice, not many people liked him, but damn–the man got stuff done yo.   No, 42nd Street has nothing to do with Broadway in the days of yore–and more has to do with the upcoming flavor of musicals in the 80’s and 90s–this is the rise of the mega-musical.

Now, I’m not claiming that this is the first mega-musical exactly, there have been many shows before this that have had long runs, but this is the first show that I know of that was intentionally trying to have a long run–before 42nd street a show lasting more than one season was (generally) considered a success.   Now we’ve got shows (hello Spiderman!) that have to run for at least 5 years before earning a dime.   So instead of my normal review, I’m going to lay out all the aspects of the mega-musical, and how 42nd street fills the bill.

1.  An expectation of a long run.

2.  Big sets, big casts, big big big–the idea is to overwhelm the audience, which leads to…

3.  An emphasis on pageantry rather than storytelling.

4.  A conversation piece happening that bring people out of the show talking about to build word of mouth.  Here it’s the huge cast of tap-dancers practically overflowing from the stage, but a more famous one would be the chandelier in Phantom of the Opera.

5.  Broad Characters–42nd street has a bunch of characters we already know–the up and coming star, the jaded old star that’s on her way out, the tricky producers, the director who’s committed to his art, mobsters, stage-door johnnies, the love interest with a heart of gold.  You are told exactly who to root for from the very beginning.

6.  Simple plot–The good people are good, the bad people are bad.    At the end everyone gets their deserved reward.

7.  Songs that are set-pieces rather than pushing forward the story–this is a 180 degree turn from the direction that Broadway shows have been generally developing since the 40’s.

8.   Family-friendliness–While not kiddie fare, 42nd street is primarily an unthreatening landscape–there’s no attempt to connect the actions on the stage to the real world whatsoever.   No current events please.

9.   Connection to a subject that people are familiar with, but is not canonized.  42nd Street is perfect because it’s familiar, you know all the songs already, but the story isn’t one where its fans would start saying but in the original movie she didn’t do that….

10.  Emphasis away from its central stars.  Mega-musicals could have a star in them if it was convenient, but mostly they shied away from that–they wanted the sort of show that you could endlessly replace people and the audience wouldn’t really care.  In fact, this sort of musical actively resisted having an individual actor place their stamp on it too heavily.

11.  An easily recognizable theme.    Here I mean more like a dress up party theme than anything else.  Here we have the 30’s, bright lights, chlorines, pork-pie hats, tap-dancing, sparkly outfits, coat and cane, the whole nine yards.

You probably can tell I’m not a big fan of this sort of show.  Yes, they’re impressive, but they run so slickly, so like a well oiled machine, they more remind me of a carnival ride than a show that really gets to you.  You’re supposed to watch these with your brains firmly off, and your wonderment scanners on high.   The reason I don’t really review this show is there’s nothing here to really review.  It’s very professionally done, but it’s not really all that interesting (to me), in fact the production values here completely erase all the edges and interesting parts this story originally had.   The whole point of it is to make something as familiar and unchallenging as possible so that the widest possible audience would pour in.  And boy did they.

However, as a harbinger of things to come, this show was extremely accurate and thus deserved the Tony.

Tony Awards, 1980, Evita

17 Apr

evita

Well, 1980 was the year that Andrew Lloyd Weber broke open the door and claimed the rest of the decade for himself.   What surprised me about Evita was how close to Jesus Christ Superstar it was.   I always looked at Jesus Christ Superstar as an anomaly–after all, it’s the only one where Andrew Lloyd Weber really rocks, it’s the only one that has raw emotions, it’s the only one that even approaches edginess.   However, if you listen to the two back to back, you’ve got a lot in common, more in common than Evita and any of his works afterwords.

In a way this makes sense.   Weber has always been fascinated by the martyr figure, and while Jesus was certainly the world’s best known martyr, Weber couldn’t really go all out there in terms of him as a public personality, because he had to be sensitive about people’s religious beliefs (and even then, I might add, people still got offended by it.)   Evita, by comparison, is a much safer bet.   She was someone who was loved by the public, but also someone who wasn’t exactly a sanctimonious figure,  nobody claimed that she was entirely pure of heart.   And there’s a couple of interesting things that Weber brings out about these cults of personality–they almost have nothing to do with whatever the person stands for, or is actually doing.

Patti Lupone really knocked this out of the park, because believe me, if you’ve got a weak Evita, the rest of this show just goes straight down the drain no matter how good everyone else is.   The music is–sorta ok I guess.  It’s extremely repetitive, and while Jesus Christ Superstar certainly had its repeating themes, the ones here are much simpler.  However they vary it enough so that it doesn’t make your ears bleed or anything.   Also, this marks the transition of Andrew Lloyd Weber from shows that are about something, to shows that are largely pageantry.   Here the pageantry is largely part of the story, so it’s forgivable I guess, but later–oooooh later, style would definitely trump substance in every single manner.

Oh well, the only other show that year that came close was the unfairly forgotten Barnum.  Nobody really denies Evita its win.

Tony Awards, 1979, Sweeney Todd

15 Apr

sweeney todd

There was never any doubt on this one.  Not only is Sondheim the Meryl Streep of the Tony’s getting nominated for any musical urp he lets out, this movie was the trendsetter of that season.

Sondheim switched gears here, and honestly he never made anything like this since–moving away from his character studies, he embraces the dark musical, completely undermining the toothy smiles and tap dancing that Broadway always had in large abundance.  (Want to know what bi-polar feels like?  Just chase this with Annie and you’ve just about got it.)   I wonder if the success of Annie allowed for this to have such an impact–because we’ve got quite another story of an impish redhead living in poverty right here.

We start with a dark undertone, and the darkness never relents.   I’m amazed at how well this play works, by breaking all the rules–by following such a penny dreadful pattern, by having all the characters being ghastly exaggerations.  It’s like watching a funhouse mirror.   The Phantom of the Opera’s ersatz darkness can’t hold a candle to this story.

Oh well, we’re done with the seventies.   Andrew Lloyd Weber is about to bust the door down and start things over again.

 

Tony Awards 1978, Ain’t Misbehavin’

14 Apr

ain

One person who, if remembered at all, simply does not get enough credit is Ms. Nell Carter.   By the time the 80’s were over, she was a sit-com walk on, but in Ain’t Misbehavin’ she was a powerhouse vocalist who went a long way to giving this show its boozy piano-rag flavor.   The whole cast is great, bringing back an era gone by–but wisely, not pretending these times were better than the times they were in.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ is often considered the first example of (gasp!) the Jukebox Musical.   Unfortunately The Jukebox Musical has been done in such a manner since then, that it’s not complimentary anymore.   At the time, with all the care and creativity that this show had thrown into it, and also with the point of bringing Fats Waller so that everyone can hear his genius.  At the time, the Jukebox idea was refreshing–because this was seen as a sort of homage, rather than the more cynical Jukebox musicals that have come since, which basically throw together a bunch of songs that people are nostalgic for, whether they work well on the stage or not.

In any case, this was the great Tony Award winner of its time, and well deserved it.

Tony Awards, 1977: Annie

13 Apr

annie

 

Many of the musicals I have revisited, I grew to like a lot more than I remembered.   Annie, however, is not one of them.  At first, while listening to this soundtrack I almost thought my mind would have changed, but unfortunately no.   Not to say it didn’t deserve a Tony–this musical was an outright smash, and brought the family musical to Broadway (which I have mixed feelings about, but attests to its influence if nothing else.)  Not to mention that Annie laid out the template for Disney which carried all the way through the Disney renaissance (outside of not being an orphan, how is The Little Mermaid all that different?)

Let’s start with the positives–Hard Knock Life, Maybe, Tomorrow, and We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover are all great songs, and quite enjoyable to listen to.   The Herbert Hoover song in particular gives a wonderful view of depression era life which gives Annie a smidge more grounding than it otherwise would have.   Also its sarcastic tone is refreshing against the rest of the score.

Now for the downside–it might be appropriate for Annie’s characters to all be cartoonish–it was based off a comic strip after all–but these characters are really really annoying.   Miss Hannigan is a screeching harpy, the orphans are all cute and winsome, Daddy Warbucks is the grouch with the heart of gold, and Annie is so gosh-darned optimistic and spunky you’ll want to side with Miss Hannigan now and then.

The worst comes in when you get the screechy orphans coming in to sing songs being cute–other than Hard Knock life–their voices are just too shouty and shrill.   Oh and what about the shmaltzy stuff with FDR?   Ugh.