Best Not-So-Secrets of the Theater District

Everyone loves those tours that offer glimpses into NYC’s “hidden” side, the stuff that tourists can’t tell you about. These are often called local secrets…even though, thanks to social media and the like, many of them are badly-kept. This week, I thought it would be fun (for both my readers and me!) to put together my own list of hidden gems.

In keeping with the code of honor for Puccini’s Chronicles, all secrets will center on the performing arts (of course). I apologize in advance if you already know some of these, but I’ve never claimed to be an exclusive source. Either way- here we go!

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The Hidden Mermaid: Disney’s The Little Mermaid may have closed on Broadway quite some time ago, but Ariel seems to be sticking around! If you sneak toward the other side of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (where the show played) near 46th Street, you can see its one marquee that was never taken down. A timeless reminder of how sometimes a “sure thing” on Broadway, doesn’t turn out to be!

One Singular Sensation: Seeing Hello Dolly at the Shubert Theatre? Lucky you! But while you’re there, you shouldn’t forget to check out the bronze plaque in the lobby. What plaque, you ask? The one dedicated to A Chorus Line, honoring its status as one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history. Caught up in the excitement of Bette Midler fans, this can be easy to miss!

Imperially Miserable: While we’re talking about bronze plaques, there’s another one embedded in the pavement in front of the Imperial Theatre. This circular emblem pays homage to the legendary Les Miserables, which played the majority of its astounding Broadway run at this venue.

Poster Pandemonium: Are you missing your favorite show’s window-card from your merch haul? Consider stopping by Triton Gallery, inconspicuously located in a building on 8th Ave between 43rd and 44th Streets. Nick, the owner, is always happy to help you find the poster of your dreams in his inventory. Prices vary.

Theatre Hall of Fame: This place is easier-to-find than the others on my list, but there’s a catch. You must be seeing the Gershwin Theatre’s current production (Wicked) to access it! That’s right- the Theatre Hall of Fame is housed within the walls of the largest house on Broadway, and they won’t let you in unless you’ve got show tickets. I was only 13 when I saw Wicked, so unfortunately, I only have a faint memory of the performing legends who are immortalized on the walls.

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L.A.M.B. Album Appreciation Post

Is it just me, or does one of these “guilty pleasure music Appreciation Posts” pop up on my blog every year? First it was for Teenage Dream, then Spiceworld, and now…2004’s Love Angel Music Baby, the solo debut for Gwen Stefani. Can I start by saying that this album has one of the weirdest covers ever…and that it’s totally awesome?

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I would probably like this artwork more, though, if the shapes/colors weren’t morphed and gel-like. But what can you do.

Anyway, my first exposure to the record was actually from hearing my mom’s favorite track on the radio. Since then, that song- “What You Waiting For?”- has become one of my favorites as well. With Gwen’s signature vocals and a pounding electro-beat, it has an energizing effect on the listener. Mom wound up purchasing the CD for herself, but I basically stole it, and I don’t believe she’s noticed. It’s been over a decade.

I guess you could describe the underlying theme of the music as…megalomaniacal? Almost all of them are about love, fashion, money, or any combination of the three. So hey, it may not be great art, but sometimes you need that level of fun.

What makes L.A.M.B. unique is the fact that it spawned an entire franchise here in the United States. Gwen Stefani has a notorious fascination with Japanese street culture, so she used this album to share her love with us. Clothing, perfumes, and (really cute) fashion dolls were just some of the paraphernalia.

Unfortunately, that created quite a bit of controversy related to cultural appropriation…particularly when she went on tour. You see, Gwen had four backup performers at the L.A.M.B. concerts: young Japanese women she called her “Harajuku Girls.” This dynamic generated many ill feelings, as the girls were referred to as “modern day Geisha” by critics. I’m not looking to generate a discourse here; I will only say that their concerns are pretty valid.

Nevertheless, Love Angel Music Baby‘s controversial elements don’t prevent me from enjoying the record itself. If you feel like indulging in some “Bubble Pop” sound or acting like a “Rich Girl,” this is how you do it. So “what you waiting for?” Go B-A-N-A-N-A-S!

A Bronx Tale Vs. Diner: Old America onscreen and onstage

When we hear the phrase “period piece,” our minds tend to conjure up an image of a lady wearing multiple petticoats having romantic problems in Britain. And that would indeed fit the bill. But at the same time, a story about a kid growing up with the mob in 1960s NYC…or one about 20something friends navigating love in 1950s Baltimore…would also fall into this category. The classic films A Bronx Tale and Diner are both pieces of Americana during decades that were quite different from the one we live in. Perhaps that is what can take credit for their lasting appeal; we are fascinated by this somewhat foreign climate, as it stands in stark contrast to the country we have become, for better and for worse. For those who did live through those prior decades, the movies can also be a great source of nostalgia for “a simpler time.”

But how much simpler was it, really?

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At their cores, these two films are about a certain social issue: Diner focuses on male coming-of-age and A Bronx Tale deals with racial strife and Mafia politics. In these eras, it was perfectly acceptable for boys to catcall their girls, and the decimation of black people’s property was a fairly regular occurrence. Both of these movies were made some 20 years after the fact, so it’s clear that such behavior was not necessarily condoned. Rather, the pieces served as portraits of the ever-changing times. And this “snapshot” status is part of what solidified them as classics of cinema.

However, within the last five years, both stories have also found their way onto the stage. And suddenly, they’ve lost their classic status and must be looked at through fresh eyes once more. But live theatre is an entirely different animal than the silver screen.

Seen through today’s progressive filters, and in the flesh, both of these musical adaptations have come under heavy criticism. They’ve been called “dated,” “offensive,” and “no longer relevant.” Granted, A Bronx Tale has found much better commercial footing on Broadway; Diner never even made it out of regional theatre. (I have no good explanation for such a discrepancy.)

But the fact remains- does today’s America need to be reminded of its past imperfections (some of which persist to a degree) in a musical? Or, with the advent of groundbreakers like Hamilton or War Paint, should Broadway only be looking ahead?

Further food for thought: A forum thread on A Bronx Tale‘s adaptation and an interesting article on why Diner really shouldn’t be a musical. What do you think?

Film Challenge 3: THE PEANUTS MOVIE (2015)

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Promo materials for The Peanuts Movie bill Violet as being “the original Mean Girl,” and I think that’s brilliant. As an aside, I’d like to apologize for how dark this blog has gotten over the past few weeks. So many heavy emotions. But never fear, my dear dilettantes- I’m making a point of staying optimistic and being hopeful for the future. With any luck, you won’t be seeing any cathartic poems on here for a while.

But back to that round-headed kid and his friends. If I’m correct, The Peanuts Movie represents the first major Hollywood adaptation of Charles Schultz’s comic strip since its debut in the 60s. What I liked most about the movie was that the filmmakers CLEARLY had a true love and respect for the source material. They included nods to Schultz’s comic and the old TV specials wherever they could. In addition, a friend of mine told me that his son played a major role in the film’s production, which probably helped with this!

The plot is fairly simple: Charlie Brown is trying to win the heart of the new kid in school, known only as “The Little Red-Haired Girl.” (I was hoping they’d use her given name, Heather, at some point.) Along the way, he goes on misadventures with his friends and learns some valuable lessons. A sub-plot of the movie surrounds his beagle, Snoopy, writing a book about the World War I Flying Ace; actually, the line between Snoopy’s novel and reality gets quite blurred.

All your favorite characters are here including lesser-known ones like Frieda and Franklin. In keeping with the spirit of the piece, they purposely cast voice actors that sounded very similar to the folks from the original TV specials. For Snoopy, they even used old sound bytes of Bill Melendez, who voiced man’s best friend way back in the 1970s. The musical score was done by Christophe Beck of Frozen fame, but they also included the original compositions, providing a very nostalgic feel. There’s one great song written just for the film, “Better When I’m Dancing,” sung by Meghan Trainor.

The bottom line? Having grown up with both the comic strip and the holiday programs, I grinned like an idiot for the entirety of The Peanuts Movie. Despite the throwbacks, the piece still managed to feel fresh and funny, taking on a life of its own. I laughed out loud several times, especially for Snoopy and Peppermint Patty…and even got teary-eyed once or twice. I highly recommend this little gem for people looking for wholesome, feel-good entertainment…and for anyone who was once a kid, when flying kites and kicking a football were your biggest problems.

SPICEWORLD Appreciation Post

Oh, how the childhood feels flood every cell of my body.

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I know what you’re all thinking. “It’s crap!” “The Spice Girls sucked!” “Is she kidding me with that fluff?!” But that’s okay. Imma block out all you haters. Because this album defined me between the ages of 5 and 8. The Spice Girls were to me what One Direction is to most pre-tweens of today. Back then (wow I feel old), I only had cassette tapes, and I listened to the Spiceworld one religiously. I can still hear every track in my head. There wasn’t a bad piece of fluff to be found.

Oh, my fandom went far beyond the music. I had Spice Girls action figures. I bought bubblegum lollipops simply because their pictures were inside the wrappers. I watched the movie of this album, widely considered one of the worst flicks ever made, several times a week. Posh Spice (Victoria Beckham) was always my favorite, but I really liked Sporty Spice (Melanie Chisholm) too. Looking back and rehearing songs as an adult, I especially have an appreciation for Melanie/Sporty’s gorgeous harmonies and token descant. My favorite example of this (and probably my favorite Spice Girls song overall) appears in the ballad “Too Much.”

But the thing is, you can never have too much of something that reminds you of a simpler time. No matter how much my taste in music has grown, nothing can replace the love I have for the sound of Spiceworld. Is it Stephen Sondheim greatness? No way. But does it make me feel super happy? Oh hail to the yeah. And I think that’s ultimately what propels it to “artistic viability.” It’s meant to be feel-good music, the kind that you gotta dance to…and it’s got plenty of that energy. Many years after the fact, actually, I found this album at a yard sale- as a CD! Needless to say, it is now part of my music library. And a proud part, at that.

I really have zero shame that I always “shake it to the right” when “Spice Up Your Life” plays on my iPad.

Spotlight: Happy 5th Anniversary to TEENAGE DREAM

Okay folks, I need to make a confession. Despite my love of the “classic” sound and adherence to a strict diet of no EDM, I’m not without my guilty pleasures. And I have to say that a massively musical guilty pleasure of mine is the second studio album by Katy Perry, Teenage Dream. This sparkling pop confection was released today, five years ago. Wow! At that point in time, I WAS a teenager, so the energy-infused jams and fun themes particularly spoke to me. But what I like most about the record, to this day, is its positive vibes. I hear the title number and dream of the adrenaline rush that comes with love. I hear “The One That Got Away” and smile as I remember my own experience with the song. And, of course, “Firework” inspires me to have confidence and never give up on myself. Tastes and trends will come and go, but some things just click forever. Teenage Dream continues to be one of my greatest sources of nostalgia. Happy 5th Anniversary!

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What is your favorite song from this CD? Are there any albums in your collection that take you back to a special time in your life? Share in the comments!