Forgotten Musicals Friday: THE JUNGLE BOOK Look

Akash Chopra and Kevin Carolan in THE JUNGLE BOOK. Photo credit: Liz Lauren.
Akash Chopra and Kevin Carolan in The Jungle Book.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren.

We’re almost through The Jungle Book, having covered the chapters on the show’s origins, the book and the score and the staging of the 2013 production that has been the focus of this month’s Forgotten Musicals Friday. This week, we’re taking a look at The Jungle Book “look” and how the show came to life through its scenic design and costumes.

One idea that came to the foreground in last week’s column was the stylisation of the production in its combination of influences from Rudyard Kipling’s original book, through its Indian setting to Disney’s film adaptation. The stylisation required to marry these elements is also an element that Dan Ostling picked up in the production’s scenic design. Ostling’s set evoked a Victorian toy theatre, its shifting drops decorated with stylised paintings of trees, shrubbery and flowers. The colours and patterns are reminiscent of the Indian painting style the creative team must have observed on their research trip to India. As individual pieces, the set pieces were all gorgeous. 

When it came together, the scenic design missed the all-important sense of achieving a coup de théâtre. The transition from the Victorian drawing room, in which Mowgli dozes off while reading The Jungle Book as part of a framework that Zimmerman added to the material, to the jungles of India should have been breathtaking. Instead, the mechanism was apparent rather than its effect. The same is true of another crucial new moment in the show, the death of Shere Khan by fire. The aim was for the design and staging to come together with T. J. Gerckens’s lighting design to create a striking transition from the physical plane of life into the spiritual one. The idea is clear, but the execution lacks absolute clarity and a true sense of wonder in such a significant moment.

Another significant factor in creating the visual world of The Jungle Book is Mara Blumenfeld’s costume design. Blumenfeld’s designs abstract an easily identifiable visual feature of each animal, and she then builds the costume around it. Her approach reinforces Mary Zimmerman’s concept of the material as something that takes place within a child’s imagination. The audience remains aware of the actors playing animals; their imagination fills in the gaps, so they are complicit in constructing Mowgli’s world of fantasy. 

In the show’s design, it is clear that there was more The Jungle Book could have done. While one certainly wouldn’t want a duplication of the kind of theatricality that Julie Taymor infused into The Lion King, I think something that aims for the same level of mastery is what this show needed to take it to the next level. It is one thing that could have transformed the audience’s response into something that would have twisted Thomas Schumacher’s arm to make The Jungle Book another Newsies instead of another The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

In the final chapter of our The Jungle Book series, we’ll consider the legacy of the show, also looking at some of the challenges of creating a show with such a complex cultural history.

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The Saturday List: The Crown Julies

Julie Andrews in THE BOY FRIEND, MY FAIR LADY and CAMELOT
Julie Andrews in The Boy Friend, My Fair Lady and Camelot

Oh baby, won’t you play me
Le Julie, maybe –
And don’t ever let it end!

In today’s Saturday List, we’re looking at “The Crown Julies,” the five Broadway and off-Broadway stage appearances of Julie Andrews. While her successes encompass far more than these five musicals, sometimes it’s delightful to celebrate ‘the simple joys of maidenhood’ and think about where it all began for Andrews: the stage! Of course, Andrews had already had a long career as a singer before touching down in New York in 1954 – but we’ll save the rest of her incomparable career for another day!

5. Putting it Together (1993)

Running for 59 performances following 37 previews, Putting it Together was Andrews’s shortest New York season. Her return to a New York stage in a musical after more than three decades caused a frenzy for tickets at the time. The show is a mixed bag no matter who is in the cast due to its flimsy retelling of the plot of the masterful Follies. On the other hand, the album captures some classic Andrews performances of Stephen Sondheim songs, including her impeccable take on “Not Getting Married Today” and a heart-rending reading of “Like It Was.” And, of course, one simply can’t pass up the opportunity of hearing the actress who brought Mary Poppins to life exclaim, “Oh, fuck it, let’s do it!” It is a real pity we never were able to see Andrews in a full-scale Sondheim production. What a memorable Desiree she would have made!

4. The Boy Friend (1954)

The Boy Friend was Andrews’s Broadway debut. A camped-up version of Sandy Wilson’s long-running West End success (in which Andrews did not appear), the show ran for 485 performances. In a story of a quintet of young women looking for love, Andrews played the central part of Polly Browne, who is that little bit more sentimental than her frantic roommates at Mme Dubonnet’s School for Young Ladies. It is super to have the cast recording from this show as a snapshot of Andrews at this stage of her career. Everything we love about Andrews is in place in the sheer exuberance of the title song and the sweet romance of “I Could Be Happy with You” and “A Room in Bloomsbury.” While the piece isn’t as demanding as future projects like My Fair Lady or Camelot, the joy of The Boy Friend has always been in its simplicity, and Andrews is just pitch perfect in this valentine to the 1920s.

3. Victor/Victoria (1995)

Andrews’s third longest-running musical in New York was Victor/Victoria, an adaptation of the much better 1982 film in which she starred as a woman who takes on the persona of a man who takes Paris by storm as a virtuoso drag artist. If this list were to be ranked qualitatively, Victor/Victoria would end up last on the merits of “Paris Makes Me Horny” alone. While Blake Edwards’s adaptation fails to capture the magic of his original film, the pro-shot reveals that there were some high points, like the production numbers staged by Rob Marshall to “Le Jazz Hot” and “Louis Says.” Frank Wildhorn scored that latter song, teaming up with Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse to augment the film’s roster of musical numbers for Broadway. Musical theatre fans probably remember the show most for its Tony Awards controversy. When Andrews earned the only nomination given to the show, she declined it, saying that she preferred ‘to stand instead with the egregiously overlooked’ members of her Victor/Victoria family. What a fabulous moment of integrity for this stage and screen legend!

2. Camelot (1960)

Camelot reunited Andrews with Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe to tell the story of how Queen Guenevere’s love for Lancelot, King Arthur’s most trusted knight, dismantled the fabled British kingdom and its legend of justice. Andrews was joined on stage by Richard Burton and Robert Goulet. Audiences were expecting the show to repeat the success of My Fair Lady, but the famously troubled rehearsal process saw a show open that was not as good as it could have been. Despite some fantastic writing, the book creaks along from one song to the next, almost all of which are glorious Golden Age pieces. Andrews did most of the heavy lifting when it came to the score. One hears her singing more carefully on the cast recording than after years of performing in My Fair Lady, which doesn’t make “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” “The Lusty Month of May,” “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” or “I Loved You Once in Silence.” Camelot captures Andrews’s incredible wit as a performer alongside her ability to interpret a romantic lyric in her glorious soprano most brilliantly.

1. My Fair Lady (1956)

While Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Cinderella and the miracle of television first placed Julie Andrews front and centre in American pop culture in the 1950s, another Cinderella role, Eliza Doolittle, in My Fair Lady was her most significant success on stage. While Eliza transforms from a Cockney flower girl into a lady under the tutelage of Henry Higgins, Andrews had to work backwards and learn how to speak in a Cockney accent with a real-life tutor. Two cast recordings preserve the original production show, the Broadway album and the later stereo album recorded in London. Everyone has their favourite of the two, many preferring the second album, but it is interesting to hear how Andrews grew in the role over her long run with the show. On both albums, she puts her definitive stamp on the numbers she introduced, including “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?,” “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “Just You Wait,” the last of which is played with abandon each twentieth of May in celebration of Andrews’s most memorable stage heroine!

Want to share your thoughts about Julie Andrews? Head on to the comment box at any time, dear reader!

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Forgotten Musicals Friday: THE JUNGLE BOOK’s Jungle Rhythm

Govind Kumar, Ed Kross, Nehal Joshi, Geoff Packard and Akash Chopra in THE JUNGLE BOOK. Photo credit: Liz Lauren.
Govind Kumar, Ed Kross, Nehal Joshi, Geoff Packard and Akash Chopra in The Jungle Book.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren.

This July, the focus of our Forgotten Musicals Friday series is The Jungle Book, a 2013 adaptation of the beloved Disney film. So far, we’ve looked at the show’s origins and delved a little deeper into the book and the score. This week, we’re examining the staging of the show, with a particular focus on its choreography.

Joining the production team of the show’s director and librettist, Mary Zimmerman, and musical director, Doug Peck, was its choreographer, Christopher Gattelli. To create the show’s dances, Gatelli worked with Hema Rajagopalan, a teacher of Bharata Natyam, who the producers credited as the show’s Indian Dance Consultant. The result was a marriage between the kinds of dance styles we see in conventional Broadway musicals and Indian dance, with the musicians sometimes making a welcome appearance in the numbers too. Often, the dance styles blended seamlessly, which must have been the intention, although there are moments when one sees the baton passed as one dance style picks up where another leaves off.

All things told, The Jungle Book isn’t a musical with a wealth of dance opportunities besides those you might expect. The wild dance break in “I Wanna Be Like You” and the stylised marching of “Colonel Hathi’s March” are there, as fans of the film would expect them to be. “The Bare Necessities” was opened up well in this production with a trio of dancing butterflies that used movement to punctuate and comment on Baloo’s philosophy. Moments like these are so delightful that one wishes the show had built on them even more.

Setting the dance to one side, The Jungle Book is infused with opportunities for movement to create the illusion of a living jungle on stage. In this production, the actors used gestures derived from Indian dance to articulate their animal characters. Underneath it all, their bodies undulated with life. This approach is mesmerising to watch, while the stylisation reinforces Zimmerman’s concept that Mowgli is living in a fantastical world of play.

Next week, we’ll take a look at how Dan Ostling and Mara Blumenfeld manifested the world of The Jungle Book in their respective scenic and costume designs: it’s time to jump into The Jungle Book look!

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The Saturday List: Celebrating Ethel Merman

Ethel Merman in ANYTHING GOES, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN and GYPSY
Ethel Merman in Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy

I had a dream!
A dream about you, Ethel!
It’s gonna come true, Ethel!
They think that we’re through,
But Ethel

On this day in 1930, Variety gave Ethel Merman a breakthrough review ahead of what would become a breathtaking musical theatre career: ‘She is a good looking girl with a fair enough voice that might carry much further with special stuff. This is her first stage appearance. She’s out of cabaret so probably has plenty to learn.’ Merman learned what she needed to learn pretty quickly, making her Broadway debut in Girl Crazy just three months later, beginning a career that spanned decades and earned her the title “the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage.” Let’s take a look at her ten biggest Broadway successes.

10. Girl Crazy (1930)

Merman’s Broadway debut was in a musical that was typical of the late 1920s and early 1930s, something that allowed her to showcase her unique star quality. With music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and a book by Guy Bolton and John McGowan, Girl Crazy introduced several standards to the musical theatre canon, including “Embraceable You” and “But Not For Me.” Playing a singer at the dude ranch that the show’s lead, Danny Churchill, dreams up in response to his father’s instructions to take life more seriously, Merman put her unmistakable stamp on “Sam and Delilah,” “Boy! What Love Has Done to Me!” and – most significantly – “I Got Rhythm.” Roger Edens, who was on the piano for the show and would go on to become a major player in the music department at MGM, suggested that Merman belt out a single note for several bars during the second chorus of the song. She did, and a legend was born, prompting George Gershwin to warn her never to take a singing lesson.

9. DuBarry Was A Lady (1939)

Herbert Fields and Buddy DeSylva crafted the nonsensical romantic romp that was DuBarry Was a Lady around songs written for the show by Cole Porter, which included classics like “Well, Did You Evah!,” “Katie Went to Haiti” and “Friendship.” The latter two were performed by Merman, who introduced “Friendship” alongside Bert Lahr. Lahr played Louie, a washroom attendant who wins the lottery and hopes this will enable him to marry May, a nightclub singer, who is in love with Alex, her friend, Alice’s bother, who is unhappily married to Ann. Louie drinks a Mickey Finn and hallucinates that he is King Louis XV and that May is his mistress, Madame du Barry. The other characters all have counterparts in the dream, which eventually makes Louie realise that May and Alex are meant to be together. When he awakes, he uses his winnings to pay for Alex’s divorce and then returns to his old job. This was Merman’s third Porter show and reviews of the time said she was in top form, although the notices for the show weren’t as good as those for its stars.

8. Happy Hunting (1956)

Ethel Merman was not a fan of Happy Hunting. She was forced into the show by her third husband, an airline executive who wanted to use Merman’s fame to drum up some publicity. So while she tolerated the reunion with Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, she had very little time for the unknown songwriting team of Harold Karr and Matt Dubey. Merman thought their songs were weak and even showed open disdain for her old pals’ book about a society hostess trying to one-up Grace Kelly by marrying off her daughter to a duke. In the biggest flex of her Broadway career, Merman had two of the shows’ songs replaced with new ones by Roger Edens and Kay Thompson five months into the run.

7. Anything Goes (1934)

Anything Goes was Merman’s biggest hit of the 1930s, introducing the hits “Anything Goes,” “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” “You’re the Top,” and “Blow Gabriel Blow” into the singer’s repertoire. With a score by Cole Porter and a book that was first written by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse and then revised by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, Anything Goes is a rom-com that served The Love Boat realness before that classic series came along. Billy Crocker, Reno Sweeney, Hope Harcourt and Evelyn Oakleigh board the SS American and like dozens of musical comedy couples before them do what it takes to end up with the right person. As in many musicals of the period, madcap antics ensue, making it a perfect entertainment for Depression-era America. While three revisals of the show have followed, Merman laid the foundation for every Reno that has followed in her footsteps, including Elaine Paige, Patti LuPone and Sutton Foster.

6. Something for the Boys (1943)

Something for the Boys, which had a book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields, was Merman’s fifth show with Cole Porter. You really get the sense that they know each other by know, with Porter crafting a set of songs that allowed Merman to dominate the show, while Merman did what Irving Berlin said she did best: ‘Give her a bad song, and she’ll make it sound good. Give her a good song, and she’ll make it sound great.’ The musical tells the tale of three cousins who set up a boarding house for soldiers’ wives on a ranch next to a military base. It’s all perfectly serviceable, without being a definitive show in the careers of anyone involved. Perhaps a comment like this appears to be damning the show with faint praise, but is there another show in Merman’s body of work that is better at getting on with the business of simply being a musical of its time?

Ethel Merman in PANAMA HATTIE, CALL ME MADAM and HELLO DOLLY!
Ethel Merman in Panama Hattie, Call Me Madam and Hello, Dolly!

5. Panama Hattie (1940)

Merman kicked off the new decade with a show that showed just how much she could bring to even the most routine material. Panama Hattie. Merman went from being a nightclub singer in her previous show, DuBarry was a Lady, to being a nightclub owner and along with the promotion, a change of setting came along with the deal. The Panama Canal served as a suitably exotic backdrop against which Herbert Fields and Buddy DeSylva’s tale of sailors, singers and spies could play out. Lots of plotting adds up to very little, but the show did add two great Cole Porter songs to Merman’s repertoire: “I’ve Still Got My Health” and “Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please.”

4. Call Me Madam (1950)

The role of Sally Adams aka “The Hostess With the Mostes’ on the Ball” is often cited as being one of any Mermaniac’s favourites, and it is one of only two roles that Merman originated that she would also play on film. (The other was in the 1936 film adaptation of Anything Goes.) The show reunited the star with Irving Berlin following the smash success of Annie Get Your Gun, as well as with Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, who had retooled the script of one of her early hits, Anything Goes. The ebullient joy that is so often linked with Merman is on ample display here, manifesting itself in the aforementioned number as well as bops like “You’re Just In Love.” Surely nobody was surprised when Merman was awarded the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for this role, her only win in this category, although she was nominated for every role she originated during the part of her career that coincided with the Tony Awards’ existence.

3. Gypsy (1959)

Gypsy, the Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim show about Rose Hovick and her daughter, Gypsy Rose Lee, gave Merman the last role she would originate on Broadway. ‘You can’t buck a nun,’ she quipped when she lost the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her electrifying performance to Mary Martin, who had played Maria in The Sound of Music. While there is a tendency for people to be patronising about Merman’s acting in the role, all the more so given that she was followed by the likes of the incomparable Angela Lansbury as well as Tyne Daly and Patti LuPone, listening to live audio recordings of Merman performing the show, particularly her performance of “Rose’s Turn,” certainly makes one respect Merman’s Rose more. It’s a pity she wasn’t able to preserve her take on the role on film, which unfortunately went to Rosalind Russell in a turn of events that Merman called ‘the greatest professional disappointment of (her) life.’

2. Annie Get Your Gun (1946)

While Herbert and Dorothy Fields’s book falls into the trap of shuffling the plot along from one song to the next, the score of Annie Get Your Gun is jam-packed with hit songs by Irving Berlin. “I’m An Indian Too” aside, just about every other song ‘sparkle(s) like a crystal’ and Broadway was treated to two outings of the show with Merman as the titular Annie Oakley. She’s even better on the cast album from the 1960s, whether she’s tackling “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” or “I Got Lost in His Arms.” Is there a better Annie Oakley on record? I don’t think so. Merman is definitive here and there’s not much more to say about it.

1. Hello Dolly (1970)

Hello, Dolly! was the only show in which Ethel Merman would serve as a replacement, six years into the run of a show that was originally conceived with her in mind. To mark the occasion, two Jerry Herman songs that were cut from the show before it opened were reincorporated especially for Merman. “World, Take Me Back” outstays its welcome, perhaps, but “Love, Look in My Window” is just a fantastic piece of Herman exuberance. Merman would win a Drama Desk Award for her performance and the show would become the longest-running Broadway musical during her tenure, after which the show would close. While the show was not Merman’s greatest personal success, it was the most successful show in which she performed on Broadway and the last time she would grace the Main Stem in a role.

On Broadway, Merman also performed in Take a Chance, George White’s Scandals, Red, Hot and Blue! and Stars in Your Eyes in addition to the shows we’ve discussed here. To take stock of her legendary status, we might ask whether she was definitive in the roles she originated and whether the legacy she left behind represented everything that she was.

During the 1930s and early 1940s, there is no doubt that Merman was definitely “it.” One can see her wrestling with the shifting landscape of musical theatre changing in the late 1940s and 1950s, a time when musicals started being built more and more around the characters rather than exclusively on the merits of its stars. If nothing else did, Gypsy proved that she could make the shift successfully, even though Rose was a role that made use of her strong points – even if she did eventually sink back into old habits like moving so far upstage when she performed that the rest of the cast ended up with their backs to the audience.

There are, of course, times in the later years of her career when Merman strutted into the territory high camp. Take The Ethel Merman Disco Album, for example, which should be required listening for every serious musical theatre fan. Several of Merman’s hits are set to some fabulously tacky disco arrangements and while it’s hardly something one might expect to rack up a record number of plays on Spotify, this novelty record is worth the occasional spin.

In the final analysis, though, Merman was indisputably a legend. Even in her last appearances, like her performance of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” in That’s Singing – her voice still had its power, clarity and range. Even when some might have said she was past her time, the lady still had it! Right until the end, she followed her credo, ‘I just stand up and holler and hope that my voice holds out.’

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Forgotten Musicals Friday: Adapting Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK

Thomas Derrah and Larry Yando in THE JUNGLE BOOK.  Photo credit: Liz Lauren.
Thomas Derrah and Larry Yando in The Jungle Book.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren.

For July’s Forgotten Musicals Friday series, we’re taking a look at the 2013 adaptation of Disney’s The Jungle Book. In last week’s first column, we set the scene for this Goodman Theatre-Huntington Theatre Company collaboration and this week, we’ll take a deeper dive into how the show was adapted by librettist Mary Zimmerman and the show’s musical team, which included one of the film’s songwriters, Richard M. Sherman, and the production’s musical director, Doug Peck.

In approaching the book, Zimmerman followed the process of starting her work on adapting the film’s screenplay at the first rehearsal and working on the piece through opening night. This method allowed her to investigate every moment of the piece and to consider how to restore elements of Rudyard Kipling’s original book, which served as the movie’s inspiration. While originally planning to make much greater use of Kipling’s original work, the tone of the Disney adaptation, particularly its score, made this untenable.

For Zimmerman, the key that unlocked the world of The Jungle Book was an understanding that this was a fantastical story about a boy who befriended wild animals in his imagination. Indeed, she framed the show with the image of a small boy in a Victorian sitting room. He holds a copy of The Jungle Book in his hands as he dozes off. A peafowl, one of the new female characters in the piece, guides him through a door into the story’s main setting, where the child sees himself as Mowgli, but is also privy to interactions in which he is not directly involved. In Zimmerman’s jungle, some of the characters have been fleshed out more and the currency of fire in the setting has been strengthened. The focus on fire and its potential to shift, destroy and transform leads to a key moment in the show, Shere Khan’s death, in which the audience is shown the tiger’s soul transitioning from one plane of reality into the next – probably the most significant addition to the piece. Before the final curtain falls, the young boy is returned to his chair. This strategy allows Zimmerman to blend the Indian, English and American strands of the tale into one cohesive whole, but it also makes the story a dream that has no impact on the real world.

The thing that is missing from this adaptation is the very thing that Zimmerman indicates as being at the heart of the story, which is, in her words, ‘a world of imagination – a paradise you’re going to lose.’ Just what is at stake here, in the world outside of this boy’s imagination? What threatens his world of imagination? Zimmerman’s libretto never grapples with this idea. While she finds a form that can be viewed more comfortably today than the original film, the stage musical relies on its resonance with an audience’s potential nostalgia for the film rather than engaging their minds and hearts on what this story might mean in our contemporary world.

The score of this new version of The Jungle Book included the favourites from the film like Terry Gilkyson’s “The Bare Necessities” and the Sherman Brothers’ “I Wanna Be Like You” and “Trust in Me.” It is augmented with material like the plaintive “Baloo’s Blues,” which was written for a read-along album that followed the film, More Jungle Book, as well as some of Kipling’s own lyrics in pieces like “Road Song of the Bandar-Log” and a completely new song by Richard Sherman called “An Unexpected Friend.” Even a song written for one of Disney’s regrettable direct-to-video sequels, “Jungle Rhythm” by Lorraine Feather, Paul Grabowsky and Joel McNeely, found its way into the show. Peck’s vision for the score’s sound was to marry the distinctly jazzy sound of Disney’s score with Indian musical styles. The pit included jazz musicians and classical Indian instrumentalists, juxtaposing saxophone with sitar, clarinet with Carnatic violin. Peck also incorporated a variety of authentic percussion instruments into his arrangements. While this approach could be incredibly superficial, a cosmetic and patronising reinvention of the score, Peck’s work on the songs and underscoring reduces everything to its fundamental harmonic and melodic components, after which he builds up everything the audience hears. The result is a score that sounds like something new, its diverse individual elements unified as a sum greater than its very substantial parts. It is a pity that no cast recording exists to showcase this version of the score.

That’s it for today. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at the staging of the show, its design and its legacy. See you next week for Forgotten Musicals Friday!

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The Saturday List: SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and Other Screen-to-Stage Floparoos

Don Correia as Don, Mary D'Arcy as Kathy and Peter Slutsker as Cosmo in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN; the cast of Broadway's MEET ME IN ST LOUIS; and Debby Boone in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS.
Don Correia as Don, Mary D’Arcy as Kathy and Peter Slutsker as Cosmo in Singin’ in the Rain; the cast of Broadway’s Meet Me in St Louis; and Debby Boone in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

If it was a smash on screen, why wouldn’t it be a smash on stage? The answer to this question seems to have evaded many a musical theatre producer, including the team that brought one of the greatest movie musicals, Singin’ in the Rain, to the stage for its Broadway debut 37 years ago today in 1985. Happy anniversary! Let’s take a look at a couple of the biggest screen-to-stage floparoos of the 1980s, three from Broadway and one from the touring circuit.

4. Gigi

Let’s start with the show that flopped on tour. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Gigi had already flopped on Broadway in 1973 and was destined to flop again in 2015. It would also fail on the West End in 1985, a year after this revival with the original film’s Gaston, Louis Jourdan, lip-syncing his way through the role of Honoré. Let’s face it: Gigi is not destined to be a stage success. Whatever charm was perceived in the tale of the titular teenage girl being trained up as a high-society courtesan in the 1950s had already become creepy by the 1970s. For discerning contemporary audiences, it is all just too much to bear, not because – as those who defend this sort of thing will attest – the world is too politically correct, but because Gigi, as it stands, has little to say to the world today.

3. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

The first attempt to bring Seven Brides for Seven Brothers to Broadway stalled on tour. It was 1978 and Howard Keel and Jane Powell reprised the roles they had played on film almost a quarter-century earlier. Creative differences between the stars and the production team shut down the production and it would be another four years before the show would have its chance to flop on Broadway too. Lawrence Kasha and David Landay wrote the book for the show, with Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn augmenting Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer’s song score from the film. When the show closed after five performances, critic Frank Rich (who called the show a ‘threadbare touring package that [was] mistakenly unpacked on Broadway’ with additions to the film’s score that ‘might benefit by being left unmiked’) was blamed by the company, who staged a protest outside the offices of The New York Times. Their objections didn’t make the show any better.

2. Meet Me in St Louis

Meet Me in St Louis closed out the decade with a 252-performance run. Very few people, it seems, wanted to meet the Smith family at the fair. Although ties to the film that inspired the show were strong, with Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin still around to augment their score, which of course owed a great deal to the work that Roger Edens had done back in the 1940s, Hugh Wheeler did not succeed in his attempts to focus the book more on the entire family instead of mostly on Esther and, one supposes, dilute memories of Judy Garland’s iconic performances of “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It’s as though he was handed a fool’s errand instead of a contract. Despite considerable polish in the aesthetic and staging, the show never caught fire and wrestled, as many shows of this kind do, with the feeling of being a copy of a copy of a copy.

1. Singin’ in the Rain

Singin’ in the Rain has had a fair deal of international success in newer touring productions, but this was not something written in the stars for the original Broadway production, which followed a West End bow two years earlier. The approach of the stage show was to mimic the film as closely as possible, thus we see a book credited to Betty Comden and Adolph Green and the expected score by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown. Twyla Tharp reproduced the film’s choreography for the stage. All of the key moments from the film were brought to life in three dimensions. And while everything had a professional sheen to it, there was, by all accounts, no spark to speak of. Live theatre needs more than a mock show popping out of a mock cake. In the words of Frank Rich, ‘what is most likely to be remembered about this Singin’ in the Rain is the rain.’

Of the splashy adaptations of movie musicals to hit Broadway in that decade, only one was a success: 42nd Street. Why? Perhaps it was just that bit farther back in the public’s memory. More likely, it was because the show retold the film’s story in its own way rather than simply trying to capture something of what made the original so magical in the first place.

Do you have any special memories of the shows we’ve listed today? Head on to the comments below. We’d love to hear from you.

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Forgotten Musicals Friday: Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK on Stage

Usman Ally and Akash Chopra in THE JUNGLE BOOK. Photo credit: Liz Lauren.
Usman Ally and Akash Chopra in The Jungle Book.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren.

Jumping into July’s Forgotten Musicals Friday series, we thought it might be worthwhile to look back at a more recent forgotten musical: Goodman Theatre and Huntington Theatre Company collaboration, The Jungle Book. Over the course of the month, we’ll take a look at the background of the show, its book and score, its staging and design and finally, the show’s legacy. Today, we’ll take a look at how the show came to be.

Based on the 1967 Disney film and its source material, Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 collection of stories, this 2013 adaptation of The Jungle Book was not actively being developed for a Broadway run, although its producers were looking for business doing regional tours in the USA and in possible international runs. The lure of another licensable commodity must also have been strong for Disney Theatricals, which did not actively produce the show despite the company’s financial investment in it. Despite a great deal of press coverage, this widely marketed presentation has largely sunk into memory since its debut. In part, this is due to the mixed notices it received from the critics. But perhaps its disappearance is also a sign of just how difficult it is to develop new theatrical pieces based on pieces that were born in problematic histories. The conservative argument will always be that such pieces are products of their time and should be viewed as such; the problem is that we aren’t watching a new piece of live theatre then – but now.

The “now” of 2013 saw director Mary Zimmerman, musical director Doug Peck and choreographer Christopher Gattelli heading up the team that would bring The Jungle Book to life. Zimmerman herself wrote the book for the musical, while one member of the original songwriting team, Richard M. Sherman also worked on the show, providing new lyrics as well as access to unused songs that he and his late brother, Robert, had written for the film.

A contemporary stage production of The Jungle Book has some interesting territory to navigate. Marrying the original narrative’s British colonial perspective with Disney’s distinctly American take on the material is one thing, but allowing an authentic Indian voice that doesn’t simply appropriate the so-called exoticism of the setting or reproduce a perceived aesthetic to emerge as an equal player is quite another. We’ll be delving into the identity politics of the show in a little more depth in the further installations over the course of the month.

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The Saturday List: The Kelli O’Hara Countdown!

Kelli O'Hara in THE KING AND I (with Ken Watanabe), THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA and SOUTH PACIFIC (with Paulo Szot)
Kelli O’Hara in The King and I (with Ken Watanabe), The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific (with Paulo Szot)

Today is Broadway darling Kelli O’Hara’s birthday. To celebrate we’re counting down five of her greatest stage appearances. Of course, O’Hara’s repertoire extends far beyond these five musicals – she’s also appeared in Follies, Kiss Me, Kate and more – and indeed beyond the reaches of the genre, with appearances in pieces like The Merry Widow and The Magic Flute.

5. The Bridges of Madison County

Marsha Norman and Jason Robert Brown’s adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County is a show that has a great deal to admire. At the top of that list is O’Hara’s performance as Francesca, showing a side of her that reveals her versatility as an actor. What she was able to preserve of her performance on the cast recording is hypnotically beautiful.

4. The Pajama Game

If there is one show that proves that O’Hara can cut loose and have a blast on stage, it is George Abbott, Richard Bissell, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s The Pajama Game. While the show certainly reflects the context of workers’ and women’s rights as they were in the 1950s, this show’s infectious spirit still lets it land today. O’ Hara’s work in this show is pure joy. Take a listen to her rendition of “There Once Was a Man” (an uncredited Frank Loesser addition to the score) if you need any evidence of the fact!

3. The King and I

There is only so much that can be done with The King and I today without rebuilding completely. Part of the problem is that it’s told from a white colonial viewpoint like the title’s “I,” but presented as though it’s an objective reading of this chapter from history. That said, what O’Hara does as Mrs Anna is magical, delivering a radiant rendition of the classic score by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. How fortunate audiences across the world were to be able to view a recording of this production on the big screen.

2. The Light in the Piazza

The Light in the Piazza is pure melodrama, the kind that is based on a big secret, from start to finish. It is almost surprising that there was no breakthrough musical adaptation until Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel’s retelling of Elizabeth Spencer’s novella in the first decade of this century. O’Hara makes the most of Guettel’s lush and layered legit score, which is as delightful as it is dramatic.

1. South Pacific

Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, only South Pacific resonates with a similar resonance in terms of its socio-political commentary today as it did in its original run. With Joshua Logan on board when it came to the book, the show tackles learned racial prejudice with observations about how racism is perpetuated that are still shockingly relevant today. O’Hara ramps up the conflict in her Nellie Forbush, offering a template for how the role is universally approached today – a white woman who at first doesn’t realise there’s work to do, but who is woken up by her experiences in World War II. Although we leave her as she begins to act on what she’s learned, O’Hara’s overthinking ingenue gives us a hint at what needs to happen after her reconciliation with Emile as the final curtain falls.

What’s your favourite performance by Kelli O’Hara? Sound off in the comments block below!

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The Saturday List: Top Five Musicals of 2019!

The top 3 musicals of 2019: HADESTOWN, BEETLEJUICE and MOULIN ROUGE
The top three musicals of 2019, as voted by you: Hadestown, Beetlejuice and Moulin Rouge

During March, we ran something of an experiment on our Instagram account and hosted a couple of polls asking our followers to choose between the various musicals that opened on Broadway in 2019. What you’re going to read below includes some brief thoughts on the shows in the order they were ranked by you, dear readers. Yes, the placement of the shows on this Saturday List is all you! So let’s get started….

The four musicals that missed the vote boat were Tina, The Lighting Thief, Jagged Little Pill and Tootsie. Tina is the one that rises to the status of being an honourable mention. The show earned its original Tina, Adrienne Warren, both a Tony Award and a Drama Desk and it shows all signs of picking up steam as it heads towards becoming an international juggernaut. The Lighting Thief may be a casualty because it’s probably just not the kind of show that can find an audience on Broadway and so it pales in comparison with its peers. Jagged Little Pill and Tootsie are two shows that found themselves embroiled in the middle of fairly controversial discussions, the former around the erasure of a nonbinary character and the subsequent management of that situation by the show’s producers and the latter using various aspects of gender identity as pretty poor punchlines and cliched plot devices. As such, it’s understandable that they didn’t receive major support from the majority of the Musical Cyberspace readers who took part in our polls. On to the top five!

5. Ain’t Too Proud

Ain’t Too Proud is the story of The Temptations, a bio-musical that uses the music made popular by the group and a couple of other artists who were their contemporaries to tell their story. A huge number of hits – from “Shout” and “Ball of Confusion” through “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and “War” – punctuate the evening, sometimes in very inventive ways, although overall the show tends to fall a little into the pattern of “and then…”, “and then..”, “and then…”. Although it is probably most interesting to fans of The Temptations, there is a deeply human element that book-writer Dominique Morisseau to the stories of the individual members of the group which gives it a wider appeal.

4. Be More Chill

This is a show that a lot of people wanted to do well as the buzz of its opening drew near. Despite a long run-up on the road to Broadway via a regional premiere and an off-Broadway run though, it lasted only 177 performances in its main stem run. Adapted from a YA sci-fi novel by Ned Vizzini by Joe Tracz with a score by Joe Iconis, it does seem like something of a long shot and is probably destined to be a cult show. The score pulses with energy as it lights up key moments in the fairly high-concept plot and it yielded a couple of good bops like “More Than Survive” and “I Love Play Rehearsal” and one really great song, “Michael in the Bathroom.” With a West End run coming up in June and a film in development, perhaps Be More Chill will yet find its stride.

3. Moulin Rouge

People have wanted an official stage adaptation of Moulin Rouge for a long time. The original Baz Luhrman film was released in 2001 and the adaptation duties insofar as the book is concerned fell to Josh Logan. The show was a big winner at the 74th Tony Awards, winning 10 awards out of 14 nominations, and is the first of two “Best Musicals” on this list. Like the film, the approach is something that stimulates something of a sensory overload, but the specifics of the stage show are its own, including the interpolation of many new pop songs into Logan’s restructured storyline. It is certainly the kind of celebration of performance that feels apt coming out of the COVID19 pandemic.

2. Beetlejuice

Someone must have said “Beetlejuice” three times because following its closure after 366 performances in 2020, the production is set to reopen on Broadway later this month. Based on the 1988 Tim Burton, the stage show has a book by Scott Brown and Anthony King with a score by Eddie Perfect. Perhaps the best thing that could happen in this adaptation was the throughline given to Lydia, a character who observes and rather hovers around the edges of the film’s narrative, which runs out of steam in its third act, as many of Burton’s films do. On the other hand, not everything in the same show works at the same level – but it moves so fast, that there’s barely any time to notice.

1. Hadestown

Shows with one person behind the book, music and lyrics are relatively rare and Hadestown is one of them, with folk singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell being the mastermind behind the show. Having first premiered what would eventually hit Broadway in 2006, Mitchell has chipped away at her artwork bit by bit – an approach that saw the show take home eight awards – including Best Musical and Best Original Score – at the 73rd Tony Awards. There’s only one way to describe Hadestown and that is as an experience. As a storytelling vehicle, it is just totally immersive and draws you into the tale of Orpheus, Euridice, Hades, Persephone, Hermes and The Fates fully. Emerging from that experience, you really feel like you’ve been through something transformative. It’s magical.

Well, that’s that! Would you have ranked the musicals of 2019 in this order? Head to the comment box and sound off!

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Forgotten Musicals Friday: LOST IN THE STARS

Chuck Cooper and Sharon Washington in a 2011 production of “Lost in the Stars”

In 1949 Broadway saw the premier of ‘Lost in the Stars’ a musical with it’s book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson and music by Kurt Weill. This musical has largely been left in the back shelves of the Broadway musical library, but what caught my eye was it’s basis; Cry The Beloved Country by Alan Paton. As a South African, the idea of American creatives staging this inherently African story in the late 1940’s, piqued my interest to say the least.

The musical follows a very similar plot to that of the novel it’s based on. Set in South Africa at the very beginnings of what would become Apartheid, Paton’s novel tells a rich and endearing story of a Zulu Reverend, Stephen Kumalo, who travels to Johannesburg from his small Natal village, Ndotsheni, to go find his son, Absalom. Absalom has gotten caught up in a life of petty crime which eventually leads to the murder of Arthur Jarvis, a renowned fighter of racial injustice. Kumalo finally finds his son in jail and asks him about his actions. Absalom confesses to the crimes, but also states that he had two accomplices and that he didn’t intend to kill Arthur. At the trial Kumalo meets Arthur’s farther, James who owns a farm near the village that Kumalo is from. Absalom tells the truth but is found guilty and sentenced to death while his accomplices are acquitted. While his son is on death-row, Kumalo returns to Ndotsheni with his faith shaken. Kumalo then meets James Jarvis’ younger son and they soon become acquainted. James becomes increasingly involved in the village helping them with food and their agriculture. On the day of Absalom’s execution, Kumalo goes into the mountains to observe this this time in peace. On his way though, he finds James and the two men speak about the village, faith, the loss of their sons, but also the bright future of James’ youngest son. Alone, Kumalo falls into prayer and starts weeping, mourning the loss of his son.

Reading Cry the Beloved Country, you clearly see the South African names, context and cultures shine through. This, with some plot points and characters, was ineffectively translated to the stage by Weill and Anderson. The New York Times stating that they clearly had some ‘difficulty’ transforming ‘so thoroughly a work of literary art’ into a theatre piece and that the musical was at times ‘skimming and literal where the novel is rich and allusive.’ Even Paton himself had his qualms with the piece saying that Anderson strayed away from the fact that Christianity and faith has a huge focus in the novel.

On the positive end, the reviews praised Weill’s composition saying that it complimented Paton’s writing and enhanced the narrative. ‘The music is deep, dramatic and beautiful.’ The show also had a fair run of 281 performances and has had some revivals and was turned into motion picture. One of the biggest reasons that this musical hasn’t been completely forgotten is the title song, Lost in the Stars, which has been performed by many legends such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennet and Judy Garland to name a few.

All this being said, I have to say I completely disagree with the fact that Weill’s music complemented the story. I actually disagree with the musical in general. The story of Cry The Beloved Country was completely ‘Americanized’ by Anderson and Weill. Having American actors portray people of Zulu and South African heritage is one thing, but having them do it in a general American accent throughout the show completely threw me off. With several mispronunciations of names and not even mentioning some very problematic lyrics, I kept asking “Who thought this was a good idea?” Another point is that of Weill’s music- Looking at it as a separate entity, I can admit it is a good composition. The problem for me lies again in the ‘Americanization’ of it. The score comes across much more African-American, than anything else. Yes, listing to inherently African music and comparing it to African-American music there are definite similarities, but for me Weill failed in setting the musical sound in Southern Africa rather than the United States.

Now, I realize, of course, that I am writing out of a modern context, with a societal lens that has completely shifted since the 1940’s. Yes, Anderson and Weill were Americans, so it makes sense that the show would naturally gravitate to American-isms. Back then they didn’t care as much about appropriation or the idea of authenticity when it comes to representation of different cultures. In modern times we have seen shows like The Lion King, which had a creative team who invested a lot of time in bringing the cultures, languages and feel of Africa into the piece using research and the help of actual people from African countries.

This, however, brings me to the point of this post- there are some musicals that are better left ‘forgotten’ and I feel Lost in the Stars is one of them. As a South African I am clearly more sensitive to this story in particular, but then we must not forget about the musical giants who stole their stories from other cultures to be displayed in an Westernized fashion for Western audiences *cough* The Mikado, Mulan, Pocahontas…*cough*

What would really make this blogpost end in a happy note would be an announcement that Cry the Beloved Country will be RE-adapted to stage as a musical with a fully South African creative team. I do think the novel has a lot of merit to be turned into a musical theatre production and can definitely be story that has weight in today’s society.

Do you think a new and improved adaption of Cry the Beloved Country could work? Or do you think one was enough? Let us know your thoughts down below.

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