Magical Movies Tour: The Lion King

My brother Mike and I have this weird game we play, where we try to explain the arc of any artist’s (or in the case of Disney Animation, a large group of artists) work into the same frame as Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen is our monomyth, our artist hero with a thousand faces, and the thing is, his career does fit a good arc for most.

So, if we’re talking Springsteen, Oliver And Company is Greetings From Asbury Park, the first gasp of breath, the promise of something beautiful and special. The Little Mermaid is The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle, the formula is there for the first time, the people who are paying attention know that there is something special here, but it isn’t getting the attention it deserves yet, Beauty And The Beast is Born To Run, the breakthrough to the mainstream, something beautiful, unique, special and once in a lifetime. Aladdin is Darkness On The Edge Of Town something different and yet of a piece, and The Lion King is The River, a monumental and untouchable piece of pop art that stands on it’s own beyond what came before. The Rescuers: Down Under is The Promise, the weird not an album of songs Bruce recorded in this time but the record company wouldn’t let him put out that are all really good. And after that, things went downhill for a little bit and picked up again in a decade. (Pocahontas to Meet The Robinsons is Nebraska to Lucky Town, The Princess And The Frog is The Rising. We’ve put a LOT of thought into this.)

I love The Lion King, I love the movie, I love the Broadway musical and I never got around to the new version, but I’m sure I’ll love that too whenever I watch it. I actually burst into tears during the opening on this viewing, which was new. (I hadn’t even been drinking much, I was on my first glass of wine) There’s also a lot of affection for the Elton John songs, and again that fabulous voice cast. (Jeremy Irons! Nathan Lane! Whoopi Goldberg! Matthew Broderick! James Earl Jones! Moira Kelly, although to be fair, when Nala is scolding Simba I can now only hear, “I raised you to be a better man than this Luke!”) And the English major in me loves all the Shakespeare. Sure, it has the bones of Hamlet, but Simba himself has much more in common with Prince Hal of the Henry cycle than the Melancholy Dane, which makes for a much more triumphant story.

I love The Lion King so much that instead of pressing on the night that I watched it (which was the same day I watched Beauty And The Beast and Aladdin) I called out to Alexa to play the Broadway cast album. (Part of why I didn’t rush out to the remake was because they’d gone for new songs instead of giving me Beyonce and Donald Glover versions of “Shadowland” and “Endless Night” or just bypassing it entirely with a  John Oliver version  of “The Morning Report”)

Next year we start to climb down the mountain of great to the just good with Pocahontas.

 

Thank You, Jonathan Larson

One of my arbitrary rules for myself is that I don’t seek out Rent on purpose. This isn’t because I don’t like Rent, it’s because I love and obsess about Rent so completely that all other thoughts, interests and delights become moot.

Rent is perfect. Rent is a trashfire. Rent is a phenomenon. Rent is overrated. Rent was a revolution. Rent was a mainstream sanitizing of the queer experience by a straight white dude. The thing that’s infuriating, I think, to non Rent-heads, is that the show is all of these things at once. It’s a mess. But as was made abundantly clear if you were anywhere near social media Sunday night, Rent is our mess, and we’ve all got a lot to say about it.

For me, Rent: Live (which wound up being mostly the taped dress rehearsal due to Brennin Hunt breaking his foot the night before.) was just a reminder of something very visceral, this show tatooed itself on my heart when I was 15, and so I will love it forever. (Not without criticism. It isn’t Les Mis which I refuse to examine critically.) But there’s too much emotion tied into it for me to turn my back completely. There’s too many late night diner renditions of “La Vie Boheme,” with friends. (We were a delight!) Too many karaoke duets to “Take Me Or Leave Me,” and “Another Day.” To many doodled “No Day But Today”‘s scrawled in notebooks. To many hours spent arguing whether OBC Mark and Roger, Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal were better than long time mainstays in the roles like Matt Caplan and Jeremy Kushnier. (I actually prefer Matt, who I’ve always called, “My Mark,” to Anthony, I saw Rent on Broadway 4 times, 3 of those, Matt was Mark. I prefer Adam to everyone though.)

There were plenty of moments in Sunday night’s broadcast that landed like a thud. When you know the show backwards and forwards, changes are jarring. Some of those really soared though. I’m madly in love with the ways, “Will I,” and “Seasons Of Love,” were redone. Especially “Seasons,” which is about remembering the good things in life in the face of imminent death, but has become a kind of treacly, feel good catch all out of context. Jordan Fisher’s Mark was adorable, Vanessa Hudgens continues to remind us all that Kenny Ortega did a really good job picking some top tier musical theater talent back in the day for High School Musical, and of course Brandon Victor Dixon brought the house down as Collins. (They were the MVPs, but also Keala Settle as the “Seasons” soloist and the rest of the cast was uniformly good.)

But the real kicker came with the finale. Finally moving into live mode, after the new cast sang through “Finale B,” (the overlapping of “Without You,” and “Life Support” reaching it’s breathtaking energetic conclusion with a projection of Jonathan Larson’s smiling face blessing the whole enterprise.) the chords of “Seasons Of Love” began anew, and the original Broadway cast ran onstage and my heart burst.

Even that raised my hackles in places. Idina sings the female solo? Why? (I know why! But seriously, world, she’s amazing and I love her, but we need to Let It Go!) Daphne and Fredi got to riff on the final, “measure your life,” but only Jesse got to sing out of the boys.  (Mostly I’d like to see Adam and Anthony, but also Wilson and Taye!) (Also, though, Jesse and Brandon singing together should be illegal. Nothing that beautiful should exist.)

As I meditated on this beautiful, perfect, stupid, problematic mess, I realized, that the thing about Rent, and why theater nerd kids love it so much, is that it is us. It’s an unlikely creature, optimistic and nihilistic, heartbreaking and silly, and refusing to be tamped down and shut up. The universe doesn’t seem to want Rent but we don’t care. Jonathan Larson died before he could really finish it. The movie crackles with possibility despite iffy choices all around. Rent: Live almost didn’t happen because of a star injury. People continue to take it apart and say it’s dated, but it persists.

So, Thank You, Jonathan Larson. Your last breaths have given a couple of generations of kids a way to articulate something that’s inside of them and that’s really worthwhile.

The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation! 

1+1=3

There’s a moment towards the end of Springsteen On Broadway where The Boss, after talking about the darkness of our times, the difficulties of absorbing the world as it is right now after making a study of the American soul over the course of his life, and his hope in the youth of our country, plays the mournful Grapes Of Wrath themed masterpiece of a ballad “The Ghost Of Tom Joad,” and the lights go out, as he finishes, and they turn blue as they switch back on, and he plays, “The Rising.” It’s a moment of art and wonder, symbolising the fall and rebirth of the American dream, the inevitability of each generation. It’s a beautifully artistic moment bringing you into the end of an evening where things that were infinitely familiar to me, were stripped down, re contextualized and elevated.

I was born, and I was a Bruce Springsteen fan. I was baptized twice, once with water and Chrism and once in the surf of The Jersey Shore (which, Bruce assures us, he invented, pretty much.) (He also assures us, several times throughout the evening that he’s full of shit.) At fifteen I stood before a bishop and took a new name, confirming my place as an adult in the church, but the year before I’d heard Clarence whale the sax on “Thunder Road,” confirming my life long love of this music.

Springsteen On Broadway is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and that includes the ten or so times I’ve seen the man perform live before. The stripped down arrangements of the music, the sheer raw intimacy of the thing, is beyond compare. It’s uplifting and emotionally exhausting, and a singularly illuminating look into a mind of artist, who’s work has meant so much to me.

Anyway, the show goes onto Netflix in 10 days, and I’m immensely grateful for the chance to see it live. (Even if my credit card company isn’t.) I’m sure I’ll watch it many more times, because it’s deeply moving and truly special, an essential entry for any Springsteen fan.

I Could Have Danced All Night

Sometimes I just wind up going to see Broadway shows all the time.

Seriously, I’ve had a very good theater year, and I’m planning on taking the summer off, mostly, because of my wallet.  And I’m doing a bunch of concerts instead!

So, on Sunday, after the ultimate theatrical binge watch the was Angels In America, I went for something completely different and took my dad to see My Fair Lady at The Lincoln Center Theater.

My Fair Lady is easily my father’s favorite musical so this was a no brainer. I’m also a fan, and genuinely love all of the music. Also, as a bonus, the cast featured Dame Diana Rigg (YESSS) and Norbert Leo Butz (Widely considered by people who are related to me as the greatest musical theater actor of  his generation.)

The production is beautiful, as one would expect from Lincoln Center, with firm beautiful music direction, strong comedic acting performances, particularly Lauren Ambrose and Harry Hadden-Patten, both of whom I’ve enjoyed in various 90’s teen comedies and X-Files Episodes (Ambrose) and favorite British TV period dramas (Hadden-Patten). They were electric together, as Eliza and Higgins should be, and she hit Eliza’s Julie Andrews Mandated high notes with ease, while he infused actually melody and range into Higgins’s Rex Harrison Mandated talk-sing patter.

The set was beautifully constructed, especially 27A Whimpole Street being on a turntable, which allowed us to move between the study, hall, and front stoop with ease. A directorial choice makes the ending a bit less questionable from a modern sexual politics angle. I loved the details of the costumes, and in general the show was played very naturalistic-ally which with visual gags throughout with the ensemble. (As a frequent flier of the chorus back in my performing days, I always appreciate that kind of thing)

I was happy to see the show and of the big budget revivals currently running, I’m glad a chose this one over the one with the wife beating and carnival. (Carousel sucks!) And in general, I’m happy about my theater in take for the first half of the year. I don’t feel as blindsided by the Tony’s as I did last year. (Though I haven’t seen any of the new musicals. I’m cool with it. I’d like to see The Band’s Visit but Spongebob and Mean Girls can wait…) and I’ve fallen in love with seeing straight plays, something that I used to avoid like the plague. (Turns out all it took was comped tickets, former teen idols and you know, arguably the greatest American play ever written! WHO KNEW!)

 

The Great Work Begins

Probably the best thing about my 2017 New Year’s resolution of “be me more social” was having a regular routine of seeing a show, or concert or whatever that I’m interested in and checking in with Crystan to see if she wants to go and then the weeks long back and forth about when we’ll be going. (OK, that last one is just for theater!)

So when she texted me on Friday asking if we could finally get our dates for going to see Angels In America set, I gave her a few, only to twenty minutes later be told that she won the lotto and we were going I scrambled a bit but I was very excited.

love Angels In America. I completely adore the play on it’s own, and had seen Part 1 of this production when it was live broadcast as a Fathom Event from England last year. There were a few tweaks for Broadway (staging changes, and the character of Joe was played by Lee Pace rather than Russell Tovie, an upgrade, as far as I’m concerned. Tovie’s an excellent actor but I just don’t see him as Joe, where as Pace is damn near perfect casting for everyone’s favorite tortured hot gay Mormon Republican…)

Angels In America is just an exceptional piece of theatrical art. It’s absurdly long, packed to the gills with inspirational power, full of deep thoughts about the nature of faith, democracy, national character, humanity, and disease, and surprisingly, if you’re unfamiliar with it, riotously funny. To be fair, it’s a dark gallowsy humor, but it’s there, and an aspect that’s played down in the big budget HBO mini series that most people think of first for the work.

This production aside from having a stellar impossible to beat cast,  lead by a transformative and blindingly strong performance by Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter, and a career high for Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, is deeply funny, and dirty and gritty and terrifying in places. Making the Angel herself (theirself?) a monstrous, gritty bird of prey, as diseased and confused as the play’s protagonists (Even though only two characters have AIDS, all are sick.) is a production decision that then shapes everything else. There’s a creeping despair that is only banished when Prior refuses his prophecy, gives back the doom visited upon him and insists, that no, he will live. Millenium Approaches, apocalypse and destruction, we have to stay put, but the world only spins forward so we have to accept Perestroika, the thaw, and live, and thrive.

This play gets me thinking whenever I revisit it. (I’ve read it four or five times, and was actually planning to again before this production showed up, and decided to wait until I could see it.) I find something new in it each time, something grounding and profound. This time, I was happy to see a rejection of cynicism and doom in it. The final act of Angels In America is about hope in the face of darkness. And I’ve been carrying that with me for the past few days.

“The great work begins.”

[title of show], Killing My Vampires and remembering to be “Nine People’s Favorite Thing”

When I lose inspiration or the drive to create, there are lots of things I do. I watch Julie And Julia, or listen to Kevin Smith talk on one of his podcasts or specials, or sometimes I just take a break from creating and consume because I’m tired.

But in the past few months, I’ve found a new one to add to the rotation. And that’s [title of show] which I had vague memories of from my college fading theatrical obsession days (it opened on Broadway in 2008, I for sure watched a few you tube clips of it, but never saw it) and it came roaring back to me as something I needed in my life when the podcast that is my soul This Is Rad did an episode about it and I listened through the cast album.

[title of show] is a musical about writing a musical, and it’s whacky and silly and perfect and lovely and everything about it is great.

But it wasn’t until I posted a video of the particularly funny and insightful “Die Vampire Die” on a friend’s blog post about feeling creatively blocked that I realized how much in the past few months I’ve come to rely on [title of show]’s viewpoint to keep myself moving creatively.

Particularly I’ve been thinking about “Air Freshener Vampires” and the “Vampires of Self Doubt” which require you to sanitize your work and remind you that you’re not good enough anyway so just give up. (And to fight them, remember that if you clean up too much you’ll wind up with a tight paragraph about kittens that your grandmother will just love, and that if a stranger said those kinds of things to you, you’d think they were a mentally ill asshole)

I’m pouring a lot of my heart and soul into The Marina Chroniclemore than I even thought I would previously. That said, it’s not necessarily yielding the kind of returns I’d hoped for. (But that all of my closest friends are reading it totally warms my heart. Love you girls to bits!) And that was discouraging until I remembered that I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than ninety nine people’s ninth favorite thing.

That is, I’d rather my original vision speak to only a few people than water it down or change it to make more people like it.

I wanted to write One Tree Hill in Westeros (not exactly, but that’s the gist!). I wanted to focus on the myriad of complicated threads that hold teenage girls who love one another deeply together. I wanted to talk about family, and heartbreak and getting what you want and realizing that it wasn’t what you wanted after all.

Most of all I wanted to create these girls. These infuriating, beautiful, powerful girls who are in control of their own lives and fates. These girls realizing that they have to forge their own path, because the carefully laid out plans of their lives don’t make sense to them, or are gone for whatever reason. That’s who Marina and Annalise are to me, and I won’t compromise on that, not for a minute.

And when that doesn’t work and I still have writers block, I remind myself that writing should be easy, like a monkey driving a speedboat.

Also! Read my thing. Next week is going to start an excellent jumping on point! (And a reprieve if Marina’s boy whining and Daddy worrying is not your thing!)

Come What May

You know what folks? I love a theme, and it appears that this week, I just so happened to fall into one.

Since I was 16 I’ve hoped to hear about Moulin Rogue! coming to Broadway and as news of it happening has been slowly rolling out over the past few months, I’ve been cautiously optimistic.

I’m not sure how this very kinetic film will translate to the stage or whether the peculiar moment in pop culture, with the sunset of MTV and the rebirth of lavish film musicals both in view, was really what gives the movie it’s power.

But with some news that came a few days ago, it will be clear, that for the lead vocal performances alone this will probably be worth it to me, since Satine and Christian are going to be played by Karen Olivo and Aaron Tviet.

Again, on Wednesday night, as Crystan and I discussed this, we just sighed dreamily over the idea of Karen Olivo singing “One Day I’ll Fly Away,” and even more over the two dueting on “Come What May.” That’ll make the whole thing worth it.

Also, Karen has great hair, and Satine needs to have great hair.

Sorry there isn’t a lot to say here, but I liked the idea that I had two weeks in the row of publishing every day! It’s been a while since I did that!

Somewhere In Between

I’m having a theatery week, you guys. Last night Crystan, Laura and I took in the Roundabout Theatre’s production of Children Of A Lesser God, mainly because there was a today’s tix deal, and because you know Joshua Jackson was in it.

We weren’t going to skip that.

I don’t know the play well. I for sure watched the movie in high school but remember very little about it. I don’t even remember what class it was for, I just remember we needed a permission slip signed because Marlee Matlin shows her boobs in it. Anyway, it’s a very powerful play and story about disability and communication and love.

The production here is fairly stripped down, using music in interesting ways and hinging largely on Jackson, who plays James Leeds, a teacher who falls for a maid in residence at a school for the deaf, Sarah Norman, played masterfully by Lauren Ridloff. Unlike many of the other students at the school, Sarah refuses to lip read or attempt speech, she’s known as “pure deaf.”

It’s sometimes hard to watch an actor you love stretch himself, because you see them in a certain way, what’s good is that James is a role that really plays to Jackson’s strengths. He’s deeply hurt, a little bit selfish, and always quick to mask his pain with a joke. As I rolled my eyes to Crystan at one point, “Always with the daddy issues, Josh!” But watching as he learns to sign, slowly at first and then furiously and fluently by the end of act 2, is incredible to behold.

Ridloff, on the other hand, is a complete revelation. The moment where Sarah finally shouts, is heartbreaking, but made more so by Ridloff’s incredible heartbreaking and often very funny performance as a woman who’s finally being understood for the first time in her life.

And as their romance falls apart, it’s clear it’s because neither James nor Sarah are willing to bridge the gap between them in communication. There’s nothing more heartbreaking to me than a love story that’s made impossible by both people refusing to bend.

It’s a beautiful production of a very good play, in the end, and it’s two leads perform admirably. This isn’t really world shaker, but solid, classic theater is important, and messages of inclusion and communities speaking for themselves are always vital.

Too Much Heaven On Their Minds

In the past five years the wave of TV musicals have ranged from “DEAR GOD WHY?” (The Sound Of Music Live, Dirty Dancing) to “That Was Adequate I Guess,” (Peter Pan Live, Hairspray Live) to “Quite Good With Moments Of Greatness” (A Christmas Story Live, Grease Live, The Wiz Live)

On that spectrum, Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert hits in the “Quite Good With Moments of Greatness” and from a personal standpoint it’s my favorite so far. Mostly because I like JCS more than I like Grease, so while I think from a critical and technical standpoint they were on par, I was going to enjoy this more.

Let’s start with the not as great stuff so that I can gush later:

  • We need to stop casting pop stars who can’t act as major acting roles in these things. John Legend is a talented and charismatic dude, with a lovely and hilarious spouse, who was hopelessly outclassed by all of his scene partners. Not, by the way, that being outclassed by Brandon Victor Dixon, Norm Lewis and Ben Daniels is anything to be ashamed of, but they were so much better than he was that it was distracting. Also, I felt bad for him as he struggled through “Gethsemane,” kind of. That’s a really difficult song, but also, if you can’t take Andrew Lloyd Webber’s heat, get out of that particular musical theater kitchen, ya know? (Words I also wish someone had once said to Madonna)
  • Alice Cooper’s performance as King Herod was kinda meh. I was thrilled to see him (and he’s a member of my favorite version, the 1996 studio cast, also with Peter Gallagher!) but the execution here left me underwhelmed.
  • There were both tech issues and vocal blowouts galore. Which means that this was badly rehearsed. NO musical director worth their salt should let both their Pilate and Jesus push so hard that they struggle through Act 2. And no sound tech with adequate preparation should be dropping mic ques on a production at this level.
  • OMG WE GET IT WITH THE SCAFFOLDING! I know, I know, this musical has a lot of electric guitar in it, so we need to have scaffolding in the set because Rent said so, but this has become such a lazy and cliche design choice, I’d rather not see it used again for a while. (You’ll notice about a year ago, I had this same complaint with The Lighting Theif)

Now onto The Stuff I Liked (A LOT)

  • Brandon. Victor. Dixon. While to the uninitiated it might seem odd that Judas is better than Jesus, this is not even remotely unusual for this show. It’s the better, more dramatically important role. He gets three great songs to Jesus’s one. (“Heaven On Their Minds,” “Damned For All Time,” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Granted, the one for Jesus is a doozy…but still) And Dixon is, you know, incredible. After seeing and loving him in Shuffle Along and being blown away by him in Hamilton I loved seeing him play this role, which he just ran away with. Seriously, I hope this serves as his mainstream coming out party because it was just so good.
  • Sarah Barielles as Mary Magdalene. I’m protective of this role. It’s songs served as audition pieces for me throughout high school. Sarah did very well, and I loved the directing and costuming choice of making her a flower child in a sea of punks. It made her stand out among the followers and is a more organic fit for both Barielles’s energy and Mary’s songs.
  • Pretty much all of the supporting roles were great, but I really loved what Ben Daniels did with Pilate. As Mary exclaimed, “HE LOOKS LIKE 80’s BOWIE! THAT’S PERFECT!”
  • Pretty much all of the staging and costuming? Like, nothing was revolutionary, but it all worked. And the Crucifixion was a technical marvel. And I couldn’t help but giggle at the ensemble taking Wayne and Garth style “We’re not worthy” stances as Alice Cooper entered.
  • The band and orchestra: Because Webber is a beautiful weirdo who doesn’t believe in genre lines JCS requires both a rock band and a traditional orchestra. Some production only pick one and they usually go with the band. We got both here! Yay! But also, the fact that this show requires three guitars players to do it justice is one of my favorite things about it.
  • I want to specifically call out Jason Tam and Erik Gronwall who played Peter and Simon Zealotes because Simon sings my favorite song in the show, and Tam was so adorable that he made me give a crap about Peter which I never have before in this show.
  • BRANDON VICTOR DIXON

I was overall really impressed. Have watched the thing twice. My greatest joy with it was that it didn’t feel neutered, which I was afraid it might. No, it was as weird and challenging and beautiful as ever. As Katie (who is not a fan of this show BTW) once said, “if nothing else, Jesus Chris Superstar has a point of view, and if that gets lost, well, there’s nothing there.” This production had a point of view.

Our next one is Fox attempting Rent next January.

You can be sure that I’ll have opinions about that.

Our Lives Become The Stories That We Weave

“There is an island, where rivers run deep. Where the sea sparkling in the sun earns it the name, ‘jewel of the Antilles…'”

There are few lines that make my hair stand on end the way that that one does. When the chimes go and I’m transported from whatever theater I’m in to a beach in Haiti and told my favorite story.

love Once On This Island. It’s my second favorite musical after Les Mis. I love the heart at this show, which is about tales spun and hearts healed and it has music that propels you from moment to moment.

OOTI was also the second show I produced and the one of my “babies” that’s dearest to my heart. (I know we’re not supposed to pick favorites…but well…) And, I’ve found it’s a kind of secret handshake for theater kids. We all did it, in high school or college, or have friends who did. We passed it around. We sang it’s songs in choirs and voice recitals. It’s ours in a way that few mainstream musicals are. The wider world never found it and watered it down.

What does this all mean for the rootsy new production hanging out on Broadway now? It means that I was going to enjoy myself immensely, and that if it wasn’t good, though I’d probably like it anyway, I’d have been disappointed.

It’s a beautiful production. Intimate, and intense in ways I never expected, and lovingly performed by an ensemble of actors you just know currently refer to themselves as “family.” Due to a story of our own (involving misread tickets and an ill-advised second round of drinks) we were seeing the Saturday evening performance rather than our planned matinee (which meant understudies for Erzulie and Asaka…which just means I have to go back to see Lea Solanga and Alex Newell.) And while I cried through a lot of it, I also couldn’t imagine a better moment than seat dancing and whooping it up with my brother and sister. (At appropriate moments, obviously!)

Stay tuned for more musical theater gushing this week when I write about Jesus Christ Superstar Live on Wednesday. (Spoiler alet: WELL SHIT)