Bittersweet And Strange: Howard Shines a Bright Light on The Voice Of My Childhood

It is absolutely impossible to calculate the depth of Howard Ashman’s influence on me, and countless other people like me, who fell in love with musicals as a medium because of his work with Disney.

The new documentary on Disney+, directed by Don Hahn, who produced Beauty And The Beast is of a piece with Hahn’s equally wonderful, Waking Sleeping Beauty, chronicles Ashman’s life, from his working class Baltimore roots, to his tragic death from complications from AIDS in 1991.

The movie deals with his early work and relationships sensitively before settling into his life long partnerships, creatively with Alan Menken and his life partner Bill Pausch, both of whom tell some of the most touching stories about him.

What I like so much about Hahn’s approach here, and why I think it surpasses Waking Sleeping Beauty (which I happen to really like a lot) is that here Hahn doesn’t have an axe to grind. He wants to share his friends life and work, especially his work, with people. And the work so often speaks for itself.

Old footage of Ellen Greene singing “Somewhere That’s Green,” or Jodi Benson recording “Part Of Your World,” or an incredible demo of Ashman singing “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” or the joyous look on Jerry Orbach’s face as he listens back to “Be Our Guest” for the first time, this man wrote such wonderful, perfect, musical theater songs. There are no talking heads, narration is provided by Hahn himself, or by stories told over old photographs, which makes it much more intimate. Occasionally an old interview with Ashman will pop up, and listening to him talk about his work is transfixing.

Thinking about AIDS is something I do, and have done A LOT, in my life. I was too young for the most dangerous time of this disease, but I live in the New York area and love art, so pretty much every bit of the art I love was shaped by the disease, by the generation of men who were lost.

Watch this one with tissues, y’all. It’s going to break your heart. And be prepared for one final punch in the gut over the credits.

Third Time’s A Charm – Be Our Guest NYC

The incredible Captain Awkward,an advice writer who I’ve been following for the past few years, has stated that when attempting to meet new friends as an adult you should find a recurring event that sparks your interest and go three times, no matter what. Three times, decide if it’s right for you, if you fit in.

Back in June, I got a Facebook notification, in the “events near you” section for “Be Our Guest: A Disney DJ Night,” the even was taking place that Friday, and the event description appealed to me, an evening where a bunch of people wore costumes and drank and sang along and danced to Disney music.

Yes, I couldn’t have designed a better evening myself. I texted Aless and asked if she wanted to come, she gave a hearty “OF COURSE” and we went. We had an absolute ball, talked to some great people, haunted a diner until 5 am and stumbled back to Aless’s apartment at 6 giggling.

It was incredible. In September, I went back. Aless was back in Colombia visiting her mother, but I thought about that 3 times thing, and I bought the ticket and went by myself this time. It was, again, unreal. I was immediately surrounded by people I felt connected to. I sang and danced and again, found myself in a diner at five in the morning laughing about everything and nothing.

This past weekend, I got my third shot. I laced myself into my black Ariel As A Human Corset, I hopped on a late train, and walked into the Gramercy Theater on 23rd Street and danced and sang my face off and had just, the absolute best time. (Aless came again this round).

Trying to explain why this event has gotten so inside of me is tough. It’s just a strange intersection of things that I really love. The cosplay and Disney songs are nice trappings, but what I really love about it is communal. It’s the part that gets me sitting in a diner talking to new friends until 5 in the morning. The part that I lost a lot of when I outgrew a group of friends. Getting a taste of that, even if it’s only one night every few months is nourishing. 

So anyway, I’m in on this event now, I’ve found people I care for very much there, and I hope to be as much of a regular there as I can. I’m also going to try to hang out with the people I’ve met there in other spaces. But even if those friendships never quite make it past the late night disco fries and milk shakes stage, I’m grateful for it.

Because I Want To Get Better

Rocketman was billed as “A True Musical Fantasy” in all of it’s marketing. What was not highlighted nearly enough in that was musical. I went in expecting a rock and roll bio pic, in the vein of Ray and Walk The Line and yes, Bohemian Rhapsody. I think most people did.

Rocketman isn’t a rock and roll biopic. Well, technically it is. But it’s mostly a musical. Like a real deal, the characters can’t contain their emotions with dialog so they burst into song musical. It’s a musical that tells the life story of Elton John (well, the first half) with his songs, which is why it’s gotten miscategorized, but from about two minutes in, wehn Elton, in full devil drag, sits in a rehab circle and begins talking about his life, he visualizes preteen Reggie Dwight, and adult Elton and Young Reggie go through a verse of “The Bitch Is Back,” to introduce the stifling middle class suburb where he grew up, I realized, “Ohhhh, this is different.”

It’s different in a way that’s pretty well attuned to my taste. I’m a big Elton John fan, and even at their hackiest I love a rock bio (I think it comes from all those lazy Saturday mornings watching Behind The Music on VH1.) and I of course love musicals. (There were a couple of moments, especially the “Benny And Jets” orgy sequence where I was having trouble not thinking of the Fosse of it all.)

Rocketman is flawed, but even it’s flaws are hugely entertaining. Taran Edgerton is perfect, taking John from a wide eyed wunderkind to a sneering petulant spiraling superstar. It’s a powerhouse performance fueled less by physical resemblance than vocal and pure energy. Richard Madden plays John Reid as a kind of swoony devil on John’s shoulder, but it’s also great, because who could say no to anything let alone rock star decadence, when you have Richard Madden making bedroom eyes at you? (Also, it’s weird that Reid has been played on screen by both Petyr Baelish and Robb Stark in the past 2 years, yeah?) If Reid is John’s devil, then the movie casts Bernie Taupin as the voice of his better angels. Jamie Bell makes Taupin a stalwart figure, really the embodiment of the cinematic cowboys he idolized. It’s telling that the script has Bernie code switch between calling his friend “Reg” and “Elton,” and is the only one to do so. (He’s Reggie to his family for the most part, and Elton to Reid.)

The music numbers really make the whole thing worthwhile. “Honky Cat,” was probably my favorite, for it’s sheer MGM Musical on cocaine audacity, though I mentioned the Fosse feeling of “Benny And The Jets,” and Bernie finally walking away to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” is prettily done as well. I’m listening through the soundtrack now, and I’m not sure many of them work as standalone covers, but that’s not the point. (Also the only bio-pic soundtrack versions that I think do are Walk The Line, because Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon were doing something very specific vocally there.)

Memory is also a major theme in this movie, and frankly I could write a whole other review just about the ways it deals with memory. I’m going to be thinking about and talking about this movie a lot I think.

  1. Avengers: Endgame
  2. Rocketman
  3. Detective Pikachu

Trailers

21 Bridges: This movie looks so dumb. If I still had cable I’d probably watch it 1000 times on TNT or whatever.

MIB International: SO SOON.

Yesterday: I can’t wait for this. It really does look wholly delightful.

Downton Abbey: SADHFUIFSHGNIRNBHIVNHGIDLSJLFGHIUFHGNRFJNRI. I am so excited for Downton Abbey. It’s embarrassing. No one should be this excited for the fucking Downton Abbey movie, but I AM. I can live with a disappointing GOT finale, I’ll even survive if The Rise Of Skywalker flounders but if Downton Abbey isn’t FAN FREAKING TASTIC, I will be quite put out, and I may even go to the garden to cry silently and miss the dressing gong.

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!)

 

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)

Top 5 Disney Duets

Guys! I’m leaving tomorrow. With a collective 10 hours of holding for cast members (all of whom were super courteous and helpful, and frankly a lot of folks are dealing with bigger fall out from Irma than having to wait a week to ride Flight of Passage) and tonight I’m going to see War Paint, so I though it was a good time to talk about duets.

A duet is, quite simply, a song sung between two people. They are often, but not always, romantic in nature (all of the ones on this list are…) and often they take place in the climax of Act II. Some of classic Broadway duets include, “People Will Say We’re In Love” from Oklahoma, “Friendship” from assorted Cole Porter projects but mostly Anything Goes, “For Good” from Wicked, “What You Own,” from Rent, and the ultimate Act II duet “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors.

5. “I See The Light” from Rapunzel

I see the light

I remember the first time I heard this song, when Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi sang it at the Oscars. I was already deep into crush land with Zach, because I’d been watching Chuck and learning that he could sing, whoo baby. Anyway, the song, it’s beautiful and illuminates (ha!) the relationship between Rapunzel and Flynn so perfectly, as well as walking through their journey. This is the fulfillment of what they both want more than anything before. And those lanterns.

4. “Once Upon A Dream” from Sleeping Beauty

Once Upon a Dream

There are few things in the world I love the way I love the moment where Aurora and Phillip waltz through the woods together. It’s so lovely, and this perfect little song about feeling like you know some one and being connected by fate and love. Ugh, it’s so beautiful.

3. “Something There” from Beauty And The Beast

Something There

I have deep affection for the music from Beauty And The Beast and “Something There” is certainly up there in the “songs that sometimes get forgotten.” A big function of the duet is often to move us emotionally from one place to another with characters. This does that, almost as clearly as anything.

2. “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters Inc.

Monsters Inc

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how much I love Billy Crystal, and I also love John Goodman, and I love the sort of old school-ness of both of them, which is captured in this delightful bff duet between Mike and Sulley from Monsters Inc.

1. “A Whole New World” from Aladdin

A_Whole_New_World.png

In the intro I described “Suddenly Seymour” as the ultimate Act II duet. It is. It is the best one ever written in my very very unexpert opinion, however, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken also wrote the second best Act II duet ever for Aladdin and it’s “A Whole New World.” Aladdin and Jasmine’s magic carpet ride around the world is delightful, romantic and soaring. Also, Lea Solanga.

Runners Up: “Love is An Open Door” from Frozen, “If I Never Knew You” from Pocohontas

 

No Day But Today

Sometimes I have to make myself very strict rules, when it comes to my media consumption. It’s usually for my own good, sometimes it’s completely arbitrary and it’s often for a reason that would seem nonsensical to an outsider.

A big one, that some people might think is very strange, started a few years ago. “I’m not ever going to encounter Rent on purpose.”

I won’t listen to it.

I won’t watch the movie. (Not that I’d want to, ugh, it’s so awful)

I won’t watch the filmed closing night performance. (Much better than the movie and still includes Tracy Thoms’s transcendent Joanne. With JV Elphaba Eden Espinosa as Maureen no less!)

This rule is in place for a few reasons. It keeps me from swirling down a bizarre hole of nostalgia, disappointment and obsession. It keeps me from poking holes in a piece of art that meant a lot to me once, means less to me now and which I know is DEEPLY, DEEPLY flawed. And mostly, it keeps me from boring the people around me with conversation about Rent. Because, and I mean this kindly, most normal humans ran out of things to say about Rent in either 1998, or when they turned 19. Whichever came first.

I could talk about Rent forever. I could talk about the original cast and how I still clap with raucous joy every time I see any of them in anything. (Remember on Smash when Daphne Ruben Vega and Jesse L. Martin were on it?) I could talk about how the replacement casts shaped Broadway talent for a generation and are still shaping it in certain ways. (Not least of all because of Hamilton and Lin-Manuel’s admitted affection for the show and it’s style.) I could talk about Jonathan Larson, the stranger than fiction circumstances of his death, the good work done by his family in his name, and speculate about what theater would look like if he’d lived. (My guess? A lot fewer revivals & movie adaptations. A lot more rock operas about gay people.)

Anyway, this is all by way of saying that on Friday, I half broke the rule. I was listening to my Spotify “Weekly Discovery Playlist” and the first track off of Anthony Rapp’s Without You: A Musical Memoir, his recreation of his audition for Rent came on. I then spent my lunch hour listening through Without You, something I’ve been meaning to do for ages, since the book Without You is one of my all time favorite memoirs. (It’s about his mom dying as much as it’s about Rent and it.is.stunning.) And as Anthony recreated his memories of the show, my own came rushing back and I knew that I needed to at the very least listen to the OBC again.

Since I had a 2 hour drive to Juli’s that night, I had the perfect opportunity.

It’s funny, the things that come back to you with music. Seeing Rent for the first time with my brother. Parking lot and diner renditions of “La Vie Boheme,” with my summer stock friends after rehearsals. Learning the alto line to “Seasons of Love” with at least 3 different choir directors. Screaming with joy as my name got called for the front lottery when Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp were back in the show for a few weeks. My friend Ali and I dressing in our bohemian best to go see the movie on opening night. (Cannot reiterate it enough, DO NOT WATCH THE MOVIE. Do however, listen to the movie versions of “Seasons of Love,” “Out Tonight,” and “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” Jesse Martin, Tracy Thoms and Rosario Dawson make those songs worthwhile.)

And then there’s the show and the album itself. The beauty of the music, the emotions of the story, and the urgency and earnestness of the whole thing. Looking at it as an adult, “One Song Glory,” and both versions of “I’ll Cover You,” feel much more at the heart of the whole thing than “La Vie Boheme” and “Seasons,” though as an adult, I’ve also come around on “Seasons of Love,” which while overused and misused as it has been, is just a beautifully composed choral number and achingly melancholy in a way that a teenager could never in a hundred years understand.

But there’s also an oddness to the show now. It was written when Idina Menzel’s wailing belt was trangressive and edgy, when thinking about Angel’s gender identity was taboo and confusing, when the New York I know didn’t exist, and gentrification wasn’t yet a foregone conclusion. That gives it a time capsule quality that makes it hard to evaluate outside of it’s moment.

Idina’s probably the most interesting case of the original cast. Rent made her a star theatrically, and Wicked cemented it, and while I love that I now live in a world where she and Lin-Manuel Miranda are household names, it’s weird, and half the time when people talk about Frozen, I really really want them to listen to “Over The Moon.” Not just because making people listen to “Over The Moon” out of context is hilarious, but because the image of Elsa shouting, “NOT IN MY BACKYARD UTENSILS GO BACK TO CHINA!” breaks a lot of people’s brains. The rest of the casts’ evolution makes more sense. Adam Pascal is still a theater guy, Anthony Rapp and Daphne Ruben Vega became working character actors, who it is always a joy to see. Jesse Martin became everyone’s favorite cop/dad (Sometimes both!). Taye Diggs was swallowed into Shondaland. (I actually think Taye should be a much bigger star than he is, but you know…whatever.) But Idina as Disney Supernova still baffling to me, in a very good way.

As you can see, I could keep babbling for ages about this. Which is why I have the don’t listen to Rent rule.

 

If I Were A Rich Ock

So, around this time last year, I wrote about the connection between my two favorite art forms in a very vague and conceptual way. This post is a little bit more specific. It’s mostly about the fact that the longest running superhero actor and one of the greatest actor’s to portray a supervillain are both huge Musical Theatre Guys.

I’m of course talking about Hugh Jackman and Alfred Molina.

Hugh Curly
Alfred Molina Fiddler
Now, I should note, that I don’t particularly care for either Oklahoma or Fiddler On The Roof as shows, but both Hugh Jackman and Alfred Molina totally owned the roles of Curly and Tevye respectively and made both of those show watchable.

And it should be noted that around the same time, they both played other iconic roles.

Alfred Molina Doc Ock Hugh Jackman Wolverine

Um, they also played Wolverine and Doctor Octopus, in case you weren’t paying attention to life for about fifteen years. Anyway, I’ve always found Hugh’s double appeal deeply interesting (and thought that it would bode better for Les Mis, frankly) and the idea of Molina doing the “If I Were A Rich Man” Shimmy’s with Doc Ock’s multiple arms has created many mind giggles for me.

But tonight after seeing Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Which was amazing, and stars Jake Epstein from Degrassi: The Next Generation) Mary, my mom and I headed to Tony de Napoli’s, a restaurant near the theater, where we’ve gone before. One of the thing’s that’s fun about the restaurant is that they have different characatures of various Broadway shows and actors around the restaurant. Here are the pictures of Jackman and Molina:

IMG_1609 photo (1)

Please note how Tevye has Doc Ock arms and Peter Allen has Wolverine claws. Also note how this is the greatest thing to ever happen to me.

I’ve had too much wine to be analytical, but this is super fun for me.

MY FANDOMS ARE TOUCHING (And I’m afraid it might be Icky)

So, it was widely reported this week that Matt Smith will be playing Patrick Bateman in the musical version of American Psycho. Theatre people have been talking about American Psycho for a while. I think I heard about it the first time back in high school.

The music will be written by Duncan Sheik, who you probably know from his super 90’s song “Barely Breathing,” and who theatre people know for writing Spring Awakening, which gave the world Lea Michele. So, thanks Duncan.

Anyway, while I was hoping that one Jeremy Jordan would play Bateman, for reasons of hilarity and CSD (Jordan played Jack Kelly in the broadway version of Newsies, thus he will be the stage version of Christian Bale in my head forever), I’m actually intrigued with Smith as a choice, and fascinated by how the show is going to work at all.

Here’s why I’m not super psyched:

I don’t want to (if and probably when the show moves from London to New York, with Smith), save for a weeks, buy a ticket, wait for weeks, put on a dress, go to the theater and spend the entire night being inundated with “ZOMG, he’s soooooo hot. I loved Doctor Who, but I don’t like it now with that old guy.”

I’m afraid that now, this show I’ve waited years for will be completely ruined by the wrong kind of fangirls, which is terribly unfeminist of me, but hear me out.

I’m not saying that fangirling doesn’t belong on Broadway, obviously, that’s not what I think, at all. but I don’t want a bunch of stupid Whovian girls, who don’t know Sondheim from a hole in the wall, and who’ve probably never heard of Brett Easton Ellis, let alone read any of his books, coming in and ruining what could be a landmark theatrical moment.

You want to squee over Matt Smith chasing hookers with a chainsaw, do so. But do it with the right foundation.

I’m not saying that newbies shouldn’t experience theatre. I think everyone should try out musical theatre as entertainment, because whenever people say they don’t like musicals, I figure they probably just haven’t seen the right one yet. And if some squeeling fangirl comes to American Psycho for Matt Smith, and leaves having fallen for the art form I’ve loved since I was prenatal, that’s fantastic.

But just, be cool, and don’t ruin it for the rest of us, like The Potterheads and Gleeks did for How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.