Theatre

Eight Musicals That No High School Should Be Doing

And select community theatre groups, also. (An unrelated note: this blog has almost reached 4000 visits!)

Let’s face it, friends: as good as high school productions can be, they have their limits. Most of those limits have to do with budget, while others involve the talent pool at hand. That being said, there are some shows that could make even the LaGuardia School look like a ragtag troupe performing in a basement.

Brief disclaimer: I am not writing this post to bash anybody’s productions or act like the elitists I despise. Rather, I’m doing this as a calm smackdown, a warning to directors who both overestimate and underestimate their own power. It is strictly based on personal experience and what I know about theatre. The purpose of a non-professional director is twofold: you’ll want to showcase your fellow thespians as well as produce quality material…with respect. And, barring a miracle, selecting one of the following shows can fast plunge you into a world of trouble.

  1. Boublil and Schonberg’s Miss Saigon…This is one of those shows in which budget and talent pool both play an important role. The helicopter scene alone should bankrupt any school’s theatrical finances. In addition, unless you’ve got a bunch of Asian-American actors in your drama club, you’re going to commit “yellowface.” And ain’t nobody got time for that.
  2. Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures…See above about Asian-American actors. But the second reason this show is a bad choice for amateur theatre groups is because- wait for it- all the roles are played by men! We’ve all heard the old cliche about no guys in the school play. Finally, this piece also caters to a very specific audience; that means that even successfully producing it doesn’t guarantee an emotionally invested audience. Leave the bowler hats and chrysanthemum tea to the pros!
  3. Sheik’s Spring Awakening…Despite my general distaste for this show, I do have a legitimate reason for including it on my list. As you probably know, the piece is replete with explicit content, and not many schools are liberal enough to be 100% cool with that. As a result, putting it on will force directors to bowdlerize the material and sap any of its impact (or, as I call it, shock value) right out.
  4. Menken and Schwartz’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame…I will never forgive Disney or whoever for not allowing the stage adaptation of the masterful animated movie to grow more. Alan Menken himself may not have wanted this to get to Broadway, but I did. It needs to be there. And in a similar vein, the lavish visuals and complex choral arrangements that the show calls for are simply too demanding for the average amateur producers. Maybe someone will prove me wrong on this one.
  5. Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat…It pains me to include this one, but I respect the importance and beauty of the show too much to let it be done poorly. Although the score and period sets are elaborate, I actually think a good amateur group could handle them. The problem here lies in the ethnically diverse cast. Attempt the work without that, and you’re gonna commit some blackface- uncalled for in the modern theatrical world.
  6. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I…I’m probably going to get some flack for this one. Again, it would appear (sadly) that there is an even greater dearth of Asian performers in most American talent pools. Even the definitive King of Siam, Yul Brynner, was not Asian. However, the fact that the most recent Broadway revival of the show was able to fill every ethnic role proves that it can be done. It’s just more likely to be done when casting is done professionally.
  7. Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George…Oh boy. This is probably Sondheim’s most difficult score, both for the orchestra and the singers. As a result, I’d hate to see East High’s band kids struggle their way through “Putting It Together” for four performances while a pubescent Georges cracks on the final note of “Sunday.” Don’t torture your students. Pick a tamer Sondheim show.
  8. Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera…Yes, folks, outside of the NYC area, high schools and community theatres are permitted to stage the grandest mega-musical ever spawned. That, of course, doesn’t mean they should. Between leading ladies who must sing an E6, an enormous chorus in period costume, and a falling chandelier, this work will bleed seasoned novices (oxymoron?) bone-dry on many levels. Worse yet: young performers not ready to hit Christine or the Phantom’s notes risk doing permanent damage to their voice.

 

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Film and Television

Musical Movies of the Millennium- Take the Poll!

Theatre

What is It with These Broadway Kids Today?

Listen well, my younger readers. One of the most important pieces of advice I can give you if you’re searching for your place in the industry is to BROADEN YOUR HORIZONS. Look beyond the Tveit. Peer through the Emerald Curtain. Swap the Newsies cap for a turn-of-the-century hat, complete with feathers. And really explore the world you long to see beyond the barricade.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I’m concerned that I’m reading stuff from you kids about the same ten shows/actors all the time. Spring Awakening, Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera, Laura Osnes, Sierra Boggess, Aaron Tveit, Idina Menzel, etc. Now I totally get that different shows speak to you in different ways; there’s absolutely nothing wrong with loving any of the shows you love. But you cannot fairly praise them as the best thing since sliced bread if they’re the only shows you’ve really heard. Take a chance and listen to that obscure show that ran for less than 10 performances on Broadway (*cough* Anyone Can Whistle *cough*) and you just may find some brilliant music there. And that’s another way a piece of art will have done its job in touching your heart.

Or you may find a new performer that blows you away with their interpretation of this new music. And then hopefully we’ll see some appreciation posts of them on your social media channels! And then more people will see them and want to learn about them! And so it continues infinitely! Okay, I’m getting a little too enthusiastic. But you get my drift. Here are some performers and shows I think you guys will love based on the current trends I’m seeing on various blog tags:

  • If you like Wicked…try Into the WoodsPippin, and Thoroughly Modern Millie.
  • If you like Hamilton…try Pacific Overtures and An American in Paris.
  • If you like Les Miserables or Phantom…try Carousel and Miss Saigon.
  • If you like First Date…try Company and She Loves Me.
  • If you like Laura Osnes or Sierra Boggess…check out Barbara Cook, Victoria Mallory, and Julie Andrews.

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Pictured: Victoria Mallory’s daughter, Ramona, in the same role her mom once played on Broadway! What are your favorite “lesser-known-but-still-amazing” stars of the stage and screen?

Film and Television

Spotlight: Movie Musical Casting Couch Catastrophes

Have you ever watched a movie and thought to yourself, “Why on Earth did they pick that actor for this part?” Well, if you have, I want you to picture it: a film studio meeting room, circa whenever. A bunch of studio executives are tossing ideas around a table. They are all heavily drunk…okay, maybe not. But the fact remains that the musical film performances I’m about to share were birthed from poor decisions. Granted, the ones at the top of this list are far worse than those down below. Nevertheless, all the casting directors here had us scratching our heads. Or my head, at the very least. Let’s begin.

7. Shirley Jones in Carousel

Okay, this one isn’t all that bad. As I said, the ones at this end of my countdown aren’t as egregious as those to come. But Jones’s performance as the leading lady of Carousel just pales in comparison- in two ways. It pales in comparison to other musical performances she’s given, like Marian in The Music Man. But it also doesn’t measure up to that of other actresses who have played Julie Jordan: Kelli O’Hara, Laura Osnes, and Alexandra Silber, just to name a few. Jones’s soprano still makes the Rodgers and Hammerstein score sound great, but the level of acting required to pack an emotional punch with Julie just was not there.

6. Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia!

Sure, 007 looks right for the role of Donna Sheridan’s true love. His acting wasn’t even too ghastly. However, all that went south very quickly when “Sam Carmichael” opened his mouth while music played. He’s not a singer in any universe, especially not one where people sing ABBA in front of panoramic views of Greece. Earth to Brosnan- there’s a reason Meryl built a wall between you guys for this number.

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5. Liz Taylor in A Little Night Music

Well, this whole debacle isn’t entirely Taylor’s fault. After all, as I established in a previous blog post, the film adaptation of Sondheim’s masterwork is a disaster in general. But if we’re to focus solely on Liz Taylor as the fading diva Desiree- you’d think that such a casting choice would be perfect. Sadly, critics tore apart her “fluctuating weight” (according to Wikipedia) between scenes, and her rendition of “Send in the Clowns” ended up being flat and soulless. The original stage score of A Little Night Music had already been butchered in this movie, and if its most famous song can’t even hold water, well…there’s the last nail in the coffin.

4. Minnie Driver in The Phantom of the Opera

All right- from this point forward, the miscasting is going to get so terrible that it’ll be hard to distinguish what’s more awful. I’m doing my best. Anybody can tell you that the meatiest, most fun role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom is that of the Prima Donna herself, Carlotta. Unfortunately, Minnie Driver’s portrayal of the character is neither fun nor meaty. Second of all, you need one helluva singer as Carlotta, and the fact that Driver was 100% dubbed is just inexcusable. I could forgive this dubbing if she’d given a dazzling performance in the movie, but she did not even do that; why, then, couldn’t they have chosen an actress who actually had some operatic training? Friends, I have no decent answer…only the memory of one of my favorite musical characters preserved on film in a cringe-inducing way.

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3. Lucille Ball in Mame

This casting blunder is a perfect example of how no matter who you are as a performer, there can still be a wrong role for you. We may love Lucy, and granted, she could have been a terrific Mame Dennis if the movie had been made 20 years earlier. But Mame is supposed to start off in her 30s or 40s…not her 60s. I really hate saying that someone is too old or even too young for a role, but in this case, it matters because Mame’s story spans a few decades. Therefore, the actress must age believably. What makes this tale even more egregious is that most of the original Broadway cast got to reprise their parts. But not Angela Lansbury, who was deemed to not be a big enough “name.” And so we got this cinematic shame. “Maaaaaame…!” (P.S. Do you guys believe the rumor that they put gauze over the camera lens to mask Lucille Ball’s age?)

2. Cameron Diaz in Annie

‘Scuse me for a minute; I need to drink some Pepto to ensure that I don’t lose my lunch while typing this. When I heard that Diaz had been cast as the formidably fabulous Miss Hannigan in the second screen remake of Annie, I knew it could not end well. Hannigan is a theatre character who is very near and dear to my heart, so perhaps I’m pickier than most. But still…you can’t walk into a role like hers with a wimpy singing voice, awkward comedic timing, and a sympathetic characterization. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: Miss Hannigan is not meant to be humanized. She’s a classic villain archetype and that is what makes her so awesome. Not to mention that Cameron Diaz’s interpretation of “Little Girls” is one of the worst songs I’ve ever had to listen to.

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1. Russell Crowe in Les Miserables

I actually think Cameron Diaz’s Hannigan is worse than Russell Crowe’s Javert. However, he took the top spot because the situation suffers from “Minnie Driver in Phantom syndrome” as well as “Lucille Ball in Mame disorder.” Crowe had the wrong voice for Javert (though at least he wasn’t dubbed). However, he is also a megastar, so choosing him for the role over a richer baritone (i.e. my beloved late Alan Rickman) must have seemed like good business sense. In my opinion, the performance of the Inspector anchors Les Mis just as much as Valjean’s, so the project as a whole suffered. This differs from Diaz’s scenario, since Annie turned out to just be a lousy film; Les Miserables could’ve been truly spectacular if every lead role were cast correctly. Oh well, as the French would say…c’est la vie.

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Theatre

Two Minutes with…Valerie Ferris

She’s danced for the robe, been thrown into an oven, and donned a mustache as a member of the “Barnabaes.” No, it’s not Jefferson Mays as Salome D’Ysquith- it’s Valerie Ferris, one of the most well-known teen dancers on Staten Island. She’s currently enrolled at the University of Rhode Island and fast approaching triple threat status, having played Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd and a principal dancer in both Aida and Hello, Dolly! This weekend, Miss Ferris and I conversed on Facebook. Our Puccini thanks go out to her for being this week’s TWO MINUTES subject.

~Your birthday: April 4th

~Coffee or tea: Coffee

~Favorite Sondheim showSweeney Todd


~Favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein showCinderella


~Favorite Lady Gaga song: “You and I”


~Favorite operaAida


~Favorite playwright: Arthur Miller


~An underrated showOn the Town


~The dream role to end them all: Veronica Sawyer from Heathers


~Last movie you sawInside Out


~Was it any good: Yes (and she cried)


~The best ice cream flavor: Mint chocolate chip

Music

Il Divo has 99 Problems but Variety Ain’t One

Good afternoon, dilettantes! I know this week I’m due to put up the next episode of the Podcast, and I will- but I’m also featuring this entry to tide you over in the meantime.

As you know, crossover artists are a hot topic of conversation here on Puccini’s Chronicles. We are continually examining the many forms it can take and whether or not it’s done effectively. And here is Il Divo: Simon Cowell’s baby, so to speak, and his contribution to the phenomenon that includes Susan Boyle and Jackie Evancho. The quartet is made up of four men from four different countries: France, America, Spain, and Switzerland. It can easily be argued that these “operatic pop stars” are a watered down Hollywoodization (pardon the phrase) of true opera singers, but they certainly have the pipes and tend to branch out into other genres of music as well.

That’s where their CD A Musical Affair comes in. On this record, Il Divo pays tribute to what they call great songs of musical theatre. While browsing Target one afternoon, I almost bought it- until I saw the track listing. Most of the songs themselves were indeed very good, but that’s just it…they were the most cliche numbers you could include on a musical theatre album, and done to death by other performers. I was very discouraged at the lack of variety. Bottom line, folks: when FOUR tracks on your “compilation” came from the Andrew Lloyd Webber songbook and NONE were written by Cole Porter, there’s a problem.

If I were in charge of this album, this is the roster I would put together. I’ve kept the same number of tracks as the actual record and even the same featured duet partners. I have just changed the songs…

  1. “Memory” feat. Nicole Scherzinger
  2. “All Through the Night” feat. Kristin Chenoweth
  3. “Some Enchanted Evening”
  4. “Maria”
  5. “Bring Him Home”
  6. “But Not for Me”
  7. “If Ever I Would Leave You”
  8. “Nine (Reprise)”
  9. “Circle of Life” feat. Heather Headley
  10. “Being Alive”
  11. “Luck Be a Lady” feat. Michael Ball
  12. “The Music of the Night” feat. Barbra Streisand

I think this is a much more well-balanced roster in terms of represented composers. As it stands, the actual CD feels like a missed opportunity to me. What do you think of Il Divo’s A Musical Affair?

Theatre

For Your Consideration: K-Chen Comes Home

It’s a two-for-one entry day, everyone! I am only a bit late to the bandwagon with this review; a week or two ago, PBS’s Great Performances broadcast Kristin Chenoweth’s live concert, “Coming Home,” in her hometown of Broken Arrow, OK. And she performed in an arts center named after her, no less! Before I begin critiquing Kristin’s interpretation of this show’s repertoire, allow me to say this- I’m more than a little obsessed with the blue dress she wore in the second half. Furthermore- as with the Annie soundtrack review, this one will be done on a (mostly) song-by-song basis. I say “mostly” because I watched the concert on my DVR last night and do not remember every number clearly. I may have to watch it again and take notes, but for now, I’ll be sharing my initial ideas.

“I Could Have Danced All Night” This My Fair Lady classic opened the performance, and Kristin sounded great- unfortunately, her hand gestures were out of control. She also opted for an extra-high note at the end, which isn’t written in the original score. However, I can overlook it because Kristin’s ridiculously wide range is her trump card. If I could hit a C6, I’d want to take advantage of that, too.

“Maybe This Time” This famous song is from the Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret. Again, Kristin’s problem lies in her inexperience with “serious” roles. It’s not really her fault- she is trained as a comedienne- and it is nice to see her step out of her comfort zone. However, she’ll need to get her feet wet in the dramatic arena before she can effectively tackle a song as dark as this one.

“My Coloring Book” Now here is a dramatic song that Kristin can pull off- it’s not as dark as “Maybe This Time,” and its subdued lyrics are offset by a certain kind of charm. According to the story Kristin told before she did the number, this was a song she was asked by a voice teacher to not sing until she understood it better. That voice teacher was in the audience, and she gave her two thumbs up!

“Bring Him Home” Boy, is it weird to hear a woman singing this. The song, in context, is supposed to portray a father figure asking the Lord to protect “the son he might have had.” Nevertheless, it did sound really lovely, and thankfully Kristin was accordingly taking on a prayerful mood.

“Over the Rainbow” I had no idea this song had a first verse before the portion we hear Judy Garland do. I should note that this is the part where Kristin started wearing the killer blue dress. Anyway, this song reminded me of “My Coloring Book” (ironic!) in terms of how she carried it. It was wistful and expressive, with just the right amount of serenity to get the job done. Fittingly, this number led right into…

“Popular” This is one of Kristin’s signature songs, and one of my favorite moments in the concert. I should hope she’d do well with a song that she originated- however, this version had an amazing twist. She sang each verse in a different language, five total! This interesting aspect turned an otherwise done-to-death song into something fresh and just as fun as the first time I saw it live (with Kendra Kassebaum in 2006).

“For Good” This was another highlight of the evening. How’s this for a dream come true- Kristin selected a teenager from Broken Arrow, Axel, to sing the Elphaba section of the piece. The girl had a good voice, although you could tell that she (understandably!) was shaking in her boots (in the best way!) to be up there.

“Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” And a quick change from the wonderful (pun intended) Wicked tribute means that this was EASILY the weakest moment. If you know The Phantom of the Opera, you know that this is a lament over a deceased loved one. It’s a beautiful, sad song. And this was the ultimate kick in the head- I could have sworn Kristin was SMILING at certain points as she sang. No, no, and no. If you can smile during this number, you’re clearly not feeling its emotions at all. Christine Daae she ain’t.

“All the Things You Are” Who is Kristin Chenoweth’s favorite composer? Is it Stephen Schwartz? Nope. Leonard Bernstein? Almost! Indeed, her favorite composer turned out to be Jerome Kern! So this song, one of Kern’s signatures, was great to hear. It’s neither comic nor dramatic, so Kristin’s vocal ability was really able to take center stage. Her pipes are especially suited to music from the Golden Age of Broadway.

“I Was Here” When I first saw the title of the finale, I thought she was going to tackle the Beyonce song of the same name that was covered on gLee. But I had never heard this song. Nonetheless, it was a great way to end the show, and there was even a youth gospel choir singing backup- an exhilarating, hopeful conclusion to an evening of marvelous music and a lot of heart from the one, the only- Kristin Chenoweth.

(Catch Kristin live in NYC when she portrays Lily Garland in the upcoming Broadway revival of On the 20th Century at the American Airlines Theatre.)

Film and Television

Spotlight: The Top 10 Red-Hot Fictional Chanteuses in Pop Culture

And now, a fun entry! In celebration of National Opera Week, Puccini’s Chronicles is counting down some of the coolest female singers ever to grace the stage and screen. From a cartoon vixen to a dying French girl, these beautifully portrayed characters will bring tears to your eyes and a fabulous song into your heart. So it begins…with SPOILERS…

Jessica and Roger Rabbit Figure

10. Satine (Moulin Rouge!) In an Oscar nominated turn by Nicole Kidman, French courtesan Satine found love while working as the star of the Moulin Rouge. Though technically an archetypal “hooker with a heart of gold,” it is perhaps her radiant energy and commitment till the end that sets her apart and makes her demise ever the more sad.

9. Sally Bowles (Cabaret) One of the great female broads in musical theatre, we learn over the course of Sally’s story that she is just as vulnerable as she is brassy. Her big number, the show’s title song, has become part of many a singer’s repertoire, but it is only in context that we get the full emotional blow.

8. Julie Lavern (Show Boat) Boy, is this woman’s story a hard one to swallow. We love Julie from the first moment we hear her sing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” We feel for her when her mulatto heritage is discovered and she is evicted from the show boat. And when she makes her sacrifice for Magnolia, we cry a million tears.

7. Ivy Lynn (SMASH) And a quick jump to the other end of the spectrum brings us to this Broadway performer, whose immense talent belies a devilish heart determined to become a star- no matter what the cost. Portrayed on television by Megan Hilty, Ivy Lynn is one of those femme fatales you just love to hate.

6. Christine Daae and Carlotta Guidicelli (The Phantom of the Opera) You’ve seen the other things written here on the blog. Did you really think I could choose which of these two would make it on the list? Undeniably, Carlotta is a stronger force to be reckoned with- but it’s also easy to see why the Phantom loves Christine so much.

5. Vera Charles (MAME) With Vera Charles comes one of the greatest lines in theatre history: “I was never in the chorus.” In a Tony-winning explosion of brilliance from the late Beatrice Arthur, “the world’s greatest lush” drank alcohol and performed badly straight into the hearts of audiences everywhere.

4. High Summoner Yuna (Final Fantasy X-2) Hey, I didn’t say we were limited to stage productions and films! After saving the world, emotional Yuna is at last able to come out of her shell- and we find that she is a wonderful singer and dancer! Possessing both a strong heart and some kick-butt fighting techniques, she’s earned her place on this list.

3. Velma Kelly (Chicago) Not unlike Ivy, Velma and her cohort/rival Roxie Hart are stars-to-be that we love to hate. And why shouldn’t we? They are literally murderers, after all. And yet, as we follow her story and listen to one showstopper after the next, we realize we’re applauding her acquittal. Wait, what?

2. Jessica Rabbit (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) “Why don’tcha do right” and recognize the importance of this alluring performer in animation history? Despite her, ahem, glittery assets and dramatic makeup, Jessica Rabbit has many facets to her personality. Not least of them is her devotion to husband Roger and bravery in the face of true badness.

1. Floria Tosca (Tosca) Well, this IS a performing arts blog, so it only makes sense that we crown the heroine of a controversial Puccini opera as the most interesting fictional chanteuse of them all. Seemingly doomed from the start, Tosca still manages to captivate us with music guaranteed to knock your socks off.

Fine Arts

PCS Special Edition: The Many Looks of Carlotta Guidicelli

In a departure from our usual Puccini’s Chronicles STYLE article, this month we will be focusing on the fashions of a particular character who must be played by an operatic soprano: Carlotta Guidicelli from The Phantom of the Opera.

I despise the Andrew Lloyd Webber crapfest Love Never Dies for more reasons than I care to list, and one of its (MANY) problems is the lack of the most interesting character from the original: the Prima Donna. Originated in London by Rosemary Ashe, boasting a Tony-award winning Broadway turn by Judy Kaye, and captured onscreen by a lip-syncing Minnie Driver, Carlotta Guidicelli is infinitely cooler than Christine Daae and arguably has more swagger as well.

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Pictured: Patricia Phillips and Evan Harrington in the Broadway show, Minnie Driver in the movie, and Judy Kaye in the original Broadway production. Look at that swagger.

Phillips is wearing Carlotta’s first outfit, a sparkling gladiator-like costume for the fictional Hannibal opera. Dangling the head of an unlucky person from her fingertips and producing High Cs like nobody’s business alongside the tenor Piangi, we instantly get a strong first impression of this character from her gold-adorned head to her glittering red bodice. She is commanding, a powerhouse, and unafraid to be bold for her art.

Driver sports the costume Carlotta wears in the fictional Il Muto opera before disaster strikes. This is probably one of my favorite looks in the show, next to Christine’s “All I Ask of You” dress. Anyway, while she is playing a role, this little number still says a lot about Carlotta herself. It is draping and gaudy, a physical manifestation of the character’s vanity and pride, and the wig immediately tells you what period this ensemble is from- the Mozart era. The shades of pink in the dress and wig are also gorgeous to look at.

Finally, Kaye is rocking the more subdued garb that Carlotta is seen with during the “Notes” sequence. Though the colors of this outfit are not as bright as the other two, the style of the garment makes just as profound a statement about her. A black parasol in hand and fur wrapped around her shoulders indicates that although Carlotta is belligerent and not a force to be messed with, she’s a lady first and foremost. The layered draping on the skirt is particularly beautiful, and I also really like the elegant cap atop her head.

What do you think of Carlotta’s costumes in Phantom? How does the clothing of the other characters in the show measure up?