The “Happy Birthday, MISS SAIGON” Quiz

Simon Bowman and Lea Salonga in the original production of MISS SAIGON

Simon Bowman and Lea Salonga in the original production of MISS SAIGON

Today in 1989, Miss Saigon had its world premiere in London. Here’s a little quiz to celebrate. I’ve answered the questions in the body of this body, and I’ve love to see yours in the comments! Feel free to copy and paste the questions if you need to.

1. What do you like about this show? Or, if you’re not a fan, what makes it unmemorable for you? I’ve always liked Miss Saigon. I really love the epic feel of it, the sweeping melodrama, the romance at the core of it all. I think it’s all just wonderful. But you have to buy into it at the start – or you never will.

2. Pick your favourite song in the show and tell us why it’s your favourite? “I’d Give My Life for You”. I think the song is simple and direct, a moment where I think you see exactly who Kim is. I think it might be melodramatic and over-the-top in something a little drier, but I think it’s perfect for the kind of musical that Miss Saigon is.

What is your favourite song in Miss Saigon? Easy. “I’d Give My Life for You” is one of the things that really makes Miss Saigon so effective as an emotional experience: it is a beautiful character piece married to a haunting melody. I cannot believe it has not appeared on more favourite lists in this thread

3. What is your favourite lyric? I really like “Sun and Moon”, particularly the line ‘How in the light of one night did we come so far?’ I also really like the verses in “It’s Her or Me”/”Now That I’ve Seen Her”. But see below for more on this….

Jonathan Pryce and Lea Salonga in the original production of MISS SAIGON

Jonathan Pryce and Lea Salonga in the original production of MISS SAIGON

4. Got a number you just can’t stand? Tell us why. Where Miss Saigon falls down for me is in the details. There’s not a number as a whole that I can’t stand, but there are lyrics that just don’t work. My least favourite by a long shot was “What is this bug up my ass? You tell me, I don’t know”. Thankfully, that one’s been replaced in the years since the show’s premiere in London. One of the changes I dislike is the rewritten opening of the chorus for “It’s Her or Me”, which became “Now That I’ve Seen Her”. I understand the thinking behind the change, but the change itself is sloppy and doesn’t match the musical phrases of the song.

5. Who’s your favorite character? Kim. I think it’s a fantastic role.

6. Who is your favourite Miss Saigon-related performer? Lea Salonga.

7. Got a favourite production or cast recording? What makes it so special? Nope. But I reckon that anyone who got to see Lea Salonga in the role got to see something pretty special.

8. What do you think of the show as an adaptation of Madama Butterfly? I think it works and I think it works better. The characters are less one-note than in Madama Butterfly. Kim, as I’ve said, I think is fantastically written. Chris is a huge improvement on Pinkerton, a character that holds little appeal and who deserves no sympathy. And I like the other shifts too – Suzuki’s transformation into Mimi, Goro’s retooling as the Engineer, Prince Yamadori’s now politically motivated Thuy. Also, the building up of the Kate Pinkerton role into Ellen gives the piece an added dimension. And the context given to the piece of the war in Viet-Nam works perfectly. Character, situation and narrative come together really well in this adaptation.

Simon Bowman and Lea Salonga as Chris and Kim in the original production of MISS SAIGON

Simon Bowman and Lea Salonga as Chris and Kim in the original production of MISS SAIGON

9. A film…. What would you like to see if one was made? I’d love to see a film. I think the only way to cast Kim would be to go the same route that the producers went to find Lea Salonga – to look for a complete unknown who has what it takes to hold the film together. In terms of the screenplay, I’d like to see the fall of Saigon restored to it’s chronological place in the action. Without the act divisions, I think the second act material is strong enough to carry a film through to the ending. And I would like to see “The Sacred Bird” restored. And I think a big budget Hollywood epic would be the only way to do. With Miss Saigon, it has to be all or nothing.

So there you go! Scroll down and send us your answers. Happy birthday, Miss Saigon!

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The Saturday List: Lights, Camera, Action! Ten Movie Musicals on the Way to the Silver Screen

Emma Watson as Belle in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Emma Watson as Belle in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Who doesn’t love a great movie musical? OK, there are loads of people who don’t. But I do, and it’s devastating when one doesn’t live up to its potential. On this week’s Saturday List, I’m taking a look at five upcoming movie musicals to which I’m looking forward. Some of these are nowhere near opening day, but here’s hoping!

1. Let’s get Beauty and the Beast out of the way first, mainly because it has a release date that is less than a year away. When this live action remake of the 1991 animated classic was first announced, my first reaction was that Disney should have produced a live television special of their stage adaptation rather than trying, once again, to reinvent the wheel. At that point, I think we all presumed that the new film would be an adaptation of the stage show, but it turned out that this was not to be the case. The new film, with a screenplay by Stephen Chbosky, would incorporate songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman from the original film and new songs with lyrics by Tim Rice, who augmented Ashman’s lyrics for the stage show, but none of the material from the stage show itself would be used. Although the teaser trailer was something of a non-starter, we’re all waiting in anticipation to see what the film is like, with its cast led by Emma Watson and Dan Stevens.

Audra McDonald on set in HELLO AGAIN

Audra McDonald on set in HELLO AGAIN

2. Nobody who knows me will be surprised that I’ve placed Hello Again second: I’m a huge Michael John LaChiusa fan and make no apologies for it. I’m also a huge fan of the play upon which the musical is based, La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler, and its various incarnations such as David Hare’s The Blue Room. So when news arrived about a film version of one of my favourite LaChiusa shows starring Audra McDonald (who will get a new song in the film), Cheyenne Jackson, T.R. Knight, Martha Plimpton, I was in seventh heaven. Directed by Tom Gustafson with a screeplay by Cory Krueckeberg, Hello Again is currently being filmed. Everytime LaChiusa posts something on Facebook or the film updates its Instagram or Twitter account, the excitment builds. I simply cannot wait for this one.

Simon Bowman and Lea Salonga in the original production of MISS SAIGON

Simon Bowman and Lea Salonga in the original production of MISS SAIGON

3. Miss Saigon is a musical I’ve always wanted to see make the jump to the big screen. The popular musical retelling of Madama Butterfly that transfers the action to the fall of Saigon in 1975 is already incredibly cinematic and lends itself to the kind of visual expression that a cinema experience can provide. Back in 2009, I loved hearing industry buzz that ex-United Artists CEO Paula Wagner was gearing up to produce a screen version of Miss Saigon with Lee Daniels at the helm. That film was to be a co-production with Cameron Mackintosh with a 2011 release date. That never happened. Then, in 2012, Les Misérables hit in the big screen. Although both Mackintosh and Daniels hoped that the success of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s first musical theatre classic would spur on a film adaptation of their second, it was not until the closing night of the West End revival earlier this year that Mackintosh indicated that things were on track. In March, it was announched that Danny Boyle might direct the film. All along, it has been said that the film will remain faithful to its source material, although I still wonder what changes we’ll see to the show as we know it. No doubt Ellen will get yet another song to try and solve a moment in the show that has never quite gelled. I know I’ve always thought the fall of Saigon – the infamous helicopter scene – could be shifted to its chronological place because the last half of the piece is strong enough both emotionally and dramatically without it. But we’ll have to wait and see, I guess. It took 32 years for Les Misérables to go from its first production as a Parisian spectacular to the premiere of the film. Miss Saigon opened in London in 1989. 1989 + 32 years = 2021. The clock’s ticking, Mr Mackintosh…

Joshua Park as Pippin the the 2006 Goodspeed Opera House's produciton of PIPPIN

Joshua Park as Pippin the the 2006 Goodspeed Opera House’s produciton of PIPPIN

4. Pippin has been in development since 2003 when Miramax acquired the film rights for the musical penned by Stephen Schwartz, Roger O. Hirson and (the uncredited) Bob Fosse. A decade later, The Weinstein Company – who I guess took the rights along when Bob and Harvey Weinstein broke away from Miramax – named James Ponsoldt as a screenwriter for the project, which was subsequently confirmed as Craig Zadan and Neil Meron’s next project. This was around the time of the much-loved Broadway revival of the show, but things have been pretty quiet since then. Perhaps this team is still struggling to find a way to make this very theatrical musical work in the medium of film. Maybe they should recruit Rob Marshall: Pippin seems like the kind of thing that would suit him and his style of musical film-making, one with a framework that offers a plausible excuse for the stylistic features of the genre. Or… why not take inspiration from the anime-inspired hip-hop version that played Los Angeles in 2008? Animation might be an inspired choice of medium for this adaptation.

IN THE HEIGHTS as it appeared on Broadway

IN THE HEIGHTS as it appeared on Broadway

5. It’s been five long years since Universal withdrew from the production of a film based on Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights. Back then Miranda, the show’s original Usnavi, would have been directed by Kenny Ortega, who would have had the opportunity to redeem himself for his tacky work on the High School Musical franchise following the promising work he did in staging the numbers for Newsies. Miranda said that he would try to get another studio interested in making the film, but many – including myself – feared that this stumbling block would be the end of the road for a film adaptation of this show. Last month, The Weinstein Company announced a $15 million production, which would have a new screenwriter working on Marc Klein’s existing treatment of the material. In the wake of the success of Hamilton, Miranda will be involved, but not as Usnavi, as he has aged out of the role.

Honourable Mention

Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle in MY FAIR LADY

Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle in MY FAIR LADY

For all intents and purposes, My Fair Lady is dead in the water. That’s why it’s in last place here, but it did attract enough buzz over its time in development to merit an inclusion  – and given the change in circumstances for In the Heights, why not? There are those who have no desire to see a remake of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s classic musical, believing that the original film is brilliant. While I don’t think a new My Fair Lady film is a necessity, the original film is by no means untouchable. It’s a solid film, and a faithful one, but it’s not perfect. Rex Harrison is fantastic, but…. In any case, new films don’t supplant old ones. Nobody who doesn’t want to watch the remake has to and the old film will always be there for anyone to see whenever they like. The one consistent factor in the saga of bringing a new Eliza Doolittle to the screen: a screenplay by Emma Thompson. At one point, Danny Boyle was on board to direct the remake. I didn’t think it a great loss when he dropped out. Then it was rumoured that Keira Knightly would play Eliza, with Joe Wright, who directed her in the tepid Pride and Prejudice remake and Atonement. Knightly and Wright obviously enjoy working together, but the idea of the two of them and this material seemed to be something of a mismatch and they went on to make Anna Karenina instead. When Knightley backed out, Carey Mulligan’s name was tossed about as an option, with George Clooney and Brad Pitt both being bandied about as potential Higginses. At that point, John Madden also had his eye on the director’s chair. For a while, Sony Pictures tried keep the buzz about the remake going, but Mulligan shattered all hopes of it moving forward in a statement she made at Cannes. Since then, no further information about the project has been forthcoming. Not yet, anyway.

So there you go… My favourite five movie musicals to be. What movie musicals are you anticipating with glee? Head over to the comments section and let’s hear!

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The Saturday List: “Joseph’s Coat” – or a List of Colourful Songs, Part 2

Promotional artwork for Pieter Toerien's production of JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT

Promotional artwork for Pieter Toerien’s production of JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT

Last week, Musical Cyberspace ran the first of a three-part series of Saturday Lists celebrating the brand new South African revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat from Pieter Toerien Productions and the Really Useful Group. Having played a week of previews prior to its official opening, the show is currently running in Johannesburg. The South African revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is directed by Paul Warwick Griffin, with musical supervision by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, musical direction by Louis Zurnamer and choreography by Duane Alexander. Earl Gregory stars as Joseph, with Bianca le Grange as the Narrator and Jonathan Roxmouth as the Pharaoh. (Bookings are through Computicket.)

Last week, I looked at the first dozen colours that appear in “Joseph’s Coat”, the song in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that sees Tim Rice listing a series of colours to a bouncy tune from Andrew Lloyd Webber. For each colour, I attempted to find a song title of a show tune that referenced the colour in one way or another. This week I’m working my way from lilac to rose, bringing the tally of colours to twenty.

‘And lilac and gold and chocolate  and mauve…’

Lilac and nostalgia go hand in hand when it comes to musical theatre, it seems. Whether you listen to Lilac Time or Nunsense, chances are that things are going to turn sentimental. That said, my choice of song is Ivor Novello’s parlour duet from Perchance to Dream, “We’ll Gather Lilacs.” Of course, the best reference to lilac comes from Bea Arthur, quoting Tallulah Bankhead: ‘There’s a touch of homosexual in all of us.  It’s not the cock.  And it’s not the twat.  It’s the eyes, don’t you know, and sometimes, the smell of lilac.’

“Gold” from Once is soul music. One of the couple of songs not written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová for the score of the show, “Gold” was composed by Fergus O’Farrell. In this song, which closes the first act of the show and is reprised later in a stunning a cappella arrangement, Guy sings about loving a woman and, for the first time, it’s a song all about Girl and not the ex-girlfriend for whom he has been pining throughout the showuntil that point.

“The Chocolate Soldier”, from the operetta of the same name by Oscar Straus, Rudolf Bernauer and Leopold Jacobson, takes us back to yesteryear. This little charm song plays on the joke that Bumerli, who has arrived in Nadina’s bedroom, uses his ammunition pouch to carry chocolates, which renders his revolver useless. The operetta was based on Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, who famously despised this adaptation of his play.

When I read through the list of colours I would tackle, I thought mauve would stump me. It has. Anyone know a show tune with “mauve” in the title?

‘And cream and crimson and silver and rose…’

There’s only one defendable choice here: “Ice Cream” from Joe Masteroff, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s She Loves Me, which is currently enjoying a revival on Broadway and racked up eight Tony Award nominatons this past week. At this point in the story, Georg has just visited Amalia, who is ill, and given her a gift of vanilla ice cream. Amalia tries to write a letter to a pen pal with whom she trades romantic letters, who is – unbeknownst to her – also Georg. Instead, she finds herself thinking of Georg, whose kindness towards her represents a clear shift in their real-life relationship.

Get ready for your third dose of operetta. Blame crimson, which offers only one option: “The Colonel of the Crimson Hussars” from Sybill by Victor Jacobi, Ferenc Martos and Miksa Bródy. The English-language version, in which the titular singer lost an ‘l’, featured lyrics by Harry Graham. The number is performed Sybil, the object of Russian officier Petrov’s affections, and a chorus of officers that she, at this point, likes better. Guess what’s different by the time the curtain falls.

“Look for the Silver Lining” by Jerome Kern and B.G. DeSylva was written for the Zip, Goes a Million, which flopped, and reused in Sally, which didn’t. In the show, the song is sung by Blair Farquar, the son of a millionaire to ‘Sally of the Alley’, a dishwasher in need of some cheering. She cheers up considerably, becoming a star of the Ziegfeld Follies and the wife of an heir to a fortune.

There is a story told by Stephen Sondheim that Jerome Robbins’s first reaction to “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” was to wonder whether the audiences of Gypsy would be left wondering, “Everything’s coming up Rose’s what?” That story alone is worth the inclusion of the Rose to end all Roses in this list and might leave you rosy cheeked as you think about the song that Jule Styne wrote with Sondheim to close the first act of the show. Look, I know that this pick is something of a cheat, but did you really want me to pick something dreadful like “Spanish Rose” from Bye Bye Birdie?

So… what do you think of part two? Which songs would you have picked for these colours? Any suggestions for the final week? While you think about that, enjoy this playlist of the songs mentioned in this column, and then head on to the comments section below!

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The Saturday List: “Joseph’s Coat” – or a List of Colourful Songs, Part 1

Promotional artwork for Pieter Toerien's production of JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT

Promotional artwork for Pieter Toerien’s production of JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT

With Pieter Toerien Productions and the Really Useful Group presenting a South African revival of  Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and that revival having had its first performance yesterday in Johannesburg, where it will run until August before transferring to Cape Town, I thought it might be appropriate to run through the famous list of colours that Tim Rice set to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music to create the first of three Saturday Lists, the following two of which will appear in the next two weeks.

The creative team of this production is headed by Paul Warwick Griffin, who will direct, with musical supervision by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and musical direction by Louis Zurnamer. Choreography will be by Duane Alexander. Earl Gregory stars as Joseph, with Bianca le Grange as the Narrator and Jonathan Roxmouth as the Pharaoh. (Bookings, by the way, are through Computicket.)

Here’s a list of songs from musicals which feature the first 12 colours of “Joseph’s Coat” as per the lyrics of the song. Actually, it’s only ten, because there are two colours that have me stumped. Any suggestions? Sometimes, the reference is to the colour itself, but at other times it’s a name or a fruit or something else completely.

‘It was red and yellow and green and brown…’

Our first song is “Red and Black” from Les Misérables. This song, with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil (French) and Herbert Kretzmer (English), is sung at the ABC Café during a political meeting between a group of students who are preparing for a revolution that they are sure will follow once General Lamarque is dead. Red symbolises both ‘the blood of angry men’ and ‘a world about to dawn’ in this song.

Next up is “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” from The Wizard of Oz. Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg’s short number is a prelude to “You’re Off to See the Wizard” and is head when the Munchkins send Dorothy off to the Emerald City. There are several real-life yellow brick roads, two of which may have inspired Oz author L. Frank Baum. One is at a military academy in New Work and the other is near Holland, Michigan.

“Green Finch and Linnet Bird”, by Stephen Sondheim, comes from Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This song introduces the character of Johanna, who is kept in seeming captivity by Judge Turpin. “If I cannot fly,” the girl wishes, “let me sing.” The European greenfinch is a beloved songbird, commonly bred as pets in Malta, while the common linnet is declining in numbers and is protected as a priority species in the UK.

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s “Sarah Brown Eyes” from Ragtime gives the character mentioned in the title of the song an unexpected appearance in the second act of the show. With Sarah having died at the end of the first act, her beloved, Coalhouse Walker Jr, recalls their first meeting. It’s a tender moment before the musical kicks back into high gear, with Coalhouse planning to blow up J.P. Morgan’s library.

‘And scarlet and black and ochre and peach…’

Frank Wildhorn and Nan Knighton wrote a title number for The Scarlet Pimpernel, a patter song for Percy Blakeney, Marguerite St Just, Marie, Armand St Just, Lady Digby, Lady Llewellyn and the servants. In the song, they all debate the identity of this eighteenth-century superhero who saved innocents from facing the guillotine during the French Revolution.

In, Hair, James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot wrote a song for three white women of the tribe to express their love for “Black Boys”. The response? Three black women of the tribe explain their love for “White Boys”. While this was an exuberant deconstruction of miscegenation which had been lgeally dismantled in the year of the show’s premiere, Hair tackled other issues about race with a more serious intent.

Ochre has me stumped. I can’t think of a musical theatre song that mentions this colour in its title.

No, No Nanette first hit stages in 1924, opening on Broadway and in the West End the year later. Three film adaptations followed, but it was a revival in 1971 that set in stone the legacy of this show and its score, which was penned by Irving Caesar, Otto Harbach and Vincent Youmans. At the top of the second act, Nanette goes to Atlantic City and quickly becomes the most popular girl in town, the “Peach on the Beach”.

‘And ruby and olive and violet and fawn…’

Some people might consider listing Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Ruby Baby” a cheat. But this song comes from one of my favourite revues, Smokey Joe’s Café, and I prefer it to any of the other options. (There aren’t that many.) This song about a girl called Ruby who doesn’t return the affections of the singer has been recorded by, amongst others, The Drifters, The Beach Boys, Bobby Darin and Michael Park with the original Broadway cast.

In Kismet, Robert Wright and George Forrest asked, using the music of Alexander Borodin, ‘Why be content with an olive when you could have the tree? / Why be content to be nothing, when there’s nothing you couldn’t be?’ Who would have thought that such profound thoughts could be set to the third act trio from Prince Igor? They also told us, ‘If you have heard and do not heed / There is a word for what you are / … Fool!’

I’m glad that I am able to include a song by Jeanine Tesori on this list. This one is called “Promise Me Violet” and has lyrics by Brian Crawley. The situation is this. Monty asks Violet, who is on her way to Tulsa, to meet him when she returns to Fort Smith, where he says he’ll be waiting for her. It’s so seductive. I’d probably succumb. Violet, on the other hand, promises no such thing before the bus pulls away. Rats…

Fawn is another colour that has me stumped. I thought I might find something in The Yearling, but it was not to be…

So… what do you think of the list so far? Which songs would you have picked for these colours? Any suggestions for the upcoming weeks? While you think about that, enjoy this playlist of the songs mentioned in this column, and then head on to the comments section below!

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The Saturday List: Go GREASE(d) Lightnin’ / No GREASE(d) Lightnin’

The cast of GREASE: LIVE

The cast of GREASE: LIVE

It may be almost a week since the much-hyped Grease: Live hit the small screen, but that’s given the dust (and the fankids) a little time to settle. This week’s Saturday List takes a looks at some of the strengths and weaknesses that have revealed themselves since last Sunday. For those of you who need reminding, Grease: Live was a live television event written by Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins based on both the stage musical, Grease, and its film adaptation, directed by Thomas Kail and Alex Rudzinski for Fox. Without any further ado, let’s take a look at the five best and five worst things about Grease Live!

Go GREASE(d) Lightnin’

Let’s face it: Sandy is a relatively thankless, yet deceptively difficult, role. Play it too sweet, and everyone’s going to hate you. Too tough, and you lose the arc of the character. I think it’s pretty safe to say that Julianne Hough finds her way in the role, navigating through thin backstory infested waters too. In an adaptation that leans heavily on the film, it’s almost certainly a blessing that Hough didn’t have to adopt Olivia Newton-John’s Australian accent, even she did have to done close reproductions of some of the costumes. Of the leads, Hough best manages not only to make the role her own, but to make her own take on Sandy work.

A huge part of the teenage experience is fantasy. It’s why “Greased Lightnin'” never fails to please: besides the rhythm of the song, the audience is really rooting for those boys because so many of us drove a beat-up old car that we wished was something better. And it’s just one reason that “Freddy My Love” works so well in Grease: Live. It’s one of the few moments in which this adaptation finds its own voice. Imagine what approaching the rest of the score with that same sense of spontaneity might have yielded.

Noah Robbins as Eugene

Noah Robbins as Eugene

There are some gems in the supporting cast of Grease: Live, especially Noah Robbins as Eugene and Kether Donohue as Jan. Robbins works well in his expanded role, nailing Eugene’s role in the halls of Rydell. He plays Eugene as a young man on the way up and builds his character scene by scene. When he arrives to help the T-Birds in a key scene added to this adaptation, it doesn’t ring false because Robbins has developed the character scene by scene. His Eugene is more than dispensible comedy relief. It works. Donohue has it easier in a role that is already an audience favourite, but she hits the mark in each of her scenes. It’s a pity she doesn’t get her moment in “Mooning”.

There are two great cameos by Didi Conn and Barry Pearl in Grease: Live. Both starred in the film adaptation of the show. It was especially fun to see Conn play the reverse side of her scenes from the film. (Has anyone made a YouTube clip of Didi as Frenchy opposite Did as Vi yet?) Was there room for more cameo work here or would that have been overkill? Either way, this was the best of the bunch when it came to stunt casting in this adaptation.

Amidst some pretty uneven work as Danny, Aaron Tveit delivers an exemplary “Sandy”. Written by Louis St. Louis and Scott Simon for the film, “the song replaced the clunky “Alone at a Drive-in Movie”. I must admit I’m not a huge fan of Tveit’s; generally I find his performances lacking in colour. But every now and then he brings it home, and he does that here in spades. This was his most riveting performance in the show.

No GREASE(d) Lightnin’

Jessie J records the title song of GREASE

Jessie J records the title song of GREASE

First things first: the opening number. The inclusion of the title song written by Barry Gibb always causes a bit of a debate. It’s too much for the old guard, who saw and loved the original production, to endure. “It’s not a period song!” the proclaim – and they have a point. Given how associated the song has become with the property, including “Grease” is a compromise I can cope with – if the staging of the number works. The golden standard in this regard, as far as I’m concerned, is the 1993 revival, where the staging of the number establishes the various strata of life at Rydell High School. A pop star walking around behind the soundstages and the backlot with the cast joining in here and there is not good enough. Period. To add insult to injury, Jessie J’s delivery of the song wasn’t exactly first rate either.

While some of the supporting cast members are fantastic, others leave a great deal to be desired. The chief offender here is Elle McLemore, who played Patty Simcox. Sure, the character is grating – but McLemore’s Patty is so annoying that she gives the sidekicks on the Disney Channel’s teen sitcoms a run for their money. Don’t get me wrong – The Wizards of Waverly Place has its, well, place, but nobody wants to see Harper Finkle in Downton Abbey. McLemore’s Patty falters in failing to provide a vital foil for both Sandy and Rizzo, which means that the directors of Grease: Live must share some of the blame. In their push for manic energy, everyone seems to have forgotten who Patty is in the world of Rydell High School and why the character is there in the first place. Close on McLemore’s heels is Haneefah Wood in the comparatively minor role of Blanche.

Carly Rae Jepsen as Frenchy

Carly Rae Jepsen as Frenchy

Sometimes a new song adds something to a musical. “I Have Confidence” added a giddy, character-specific transition piece to The Sound of Music. In Cabaret, “Money” helped to communicate that Sally Bowles on film was a different creature in comparison with her stage counterpart, a singer who was capable of far more than performing at dingy cabaret, able to keep her job and who was thus there by choice rather than necessity – get it? Grease: Live added “All I Need Is an Angel” – a generic pop ballad by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. Besides its failure to capture any sense of the show’s period, it fails even in setting up the number it introduces, in which Grease: Live presented a trio of Teen Angels – not just the one that Frenchy repeatedly asks for in this number.

“All I Need Is an Angel” segues neatly to the next big problem with Grease: Live: Boyz II Men. Who thought it would be a good idea to hire a smooth R&B vocal group, known for singing ballads and kick-ass harmonies, to put across a comedy number? Vocal riffs and group singing get in the way of punchlines – and this song is all about its punchlines. This was a textbook case of stunt casting gone wrong.

Finally, a question: what do you do with an iconic musical theatre number that just happens to be the closing of your show? Picture that production meeting where it was suggested that “We Go Together” would involve the cast running from a soundstage, mugging at the camera, hopping onto an elongated golf cart and finally arriving to perform some perfunctory choreography on the backlot. Now picture everyone involved thinking that’s a good idea. It’s pretty tough to imagine, isn’t it? What were they thinking?

That’s all that I’m putting on the list for today. What were your highs and lows of Grease: Live? Share them in the comments box below. It’ll be great to hear what you think as we count the days till the next live television musical.

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The Saturday List: The Marvin Hamlisch Musicals Countdown

Sharon Spiegel-Wagner and Jonathan Roxmouth in I'M PLAYING YOUR SONG

Sharon Spiegel-Wagner and Jonathan Roxmouth

The Marvin Hamlisch story is the subject of a brand new show, I’m Playing Your Song, which will be performed during the festive season and through the new year at Montecasino and Theatre on the Bay in Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa, respectively. Written by Jonathan Roxmouth and directed by Alan Swerdlow, the production stars Roxmouth alongside Sharon Spiegel-Wagner. Hamlisch is lauded as being one of the greatest songwriters of his time, an EGOT winner who has written tunes that have delighted theatre audiences, moviegoers and radio listeners for the past fifty years. In today’s “Saturday List”, Musical Cyberspace takes celebrates the first performances of I’m Playing Your Song with a look at Hamlisch’s five greatest musicals, with a brief look at their best songs, major productions and some suggestions for South African revivals of each of them. So without further ado, let the countdown begin!

5. The Goodbye Girl

When Hamlisch joined forces with Neil Simon and David Zippel to adapt Simon’s film The Goodbye Girl into a stage musical, expectations of what they would deliver must have been pretty high. With Bernadette Peters and Martin Short leading the cast, as incompatible roommates that fall in love over the course of the show, in a staging by Michael Kidd’s, the pedigree of the show was second to none. Imagine everyone’s disappointment when the show shuttered on Broadway after five months in 1993. A revised version of the show opened in Illinois the following year and a production with even further revisions – including new lyrics by Don Black – opened in 1997. With Black’s lyrics – perhaps typically – landing with a dull thud, the licensed version of the show remains the 1994 iteration of the material. Listening to the original cast album of the Hamlisch-Zippel version of the score offers some insight to the mixed reception the show had in its first run. The score is overwhelmingly bombastic at times, particularly in its ballads, but there’s some fun to be had in numbers like “Elliot Garfield Grant,” “Good News, Bad News” and “Don’t Follow in my Footsteps”. In fact, trimmed of its fat, The Goodbye Girl could probably make a snappy one-act musical comedy. Although a major South African production of the show seems unlikely, although it could be a great vehicle to pair up Bianca le Grange and Sne Dladla, who could certainly sell audiences on the material. Maybe their Blood Brothers and Orpheus in Africa director, David Kramer, could head up the show.

4. Smile

A 48-performance flop, Smile was the result of Hamlisch’s collaboration with Howard Ashman, who had had great success with Little Shop of Horrors. Chronicling the search for the ideal Young American Miss, the only record of Smile was a demo recording made for Samuel French to use in promoting the show to potential producers. This recording reflected some changes that had been made to the Broadway version of the show, some of which were reinstatements of earlier drafts of the material. Some of the songs – “Disneyland,” “Smile,” “In Our Hands,” and “Maria’s Song” surfaced in the Unsung Musicals recordings, with the first of those songs finding particular favour in the hands of original cast member, Jodi Benson. Songs from the musical also appear on the recording Howard Sings Ashman, where the composer and lyricist perform their own material. Although Smile has developed something of a minor cult following since its premiere, no major South African production of the musical has been produced. Perhaps Mixing Bowl Productions, who have been working hard to market the “new musical theatre” brand in their revues and concerts, could tackle this one. While Smile is certainly not recent enough to typically be considered “new musical theatre”, the approach is there in the material, and it is time for this fledgling company to start dealing with the complexities of narrative in musical theatre storytelling.

3. Sweet Smell of Success

Although Sweet Smell of Success only ran for 109 performances on Broadway in 2002, the show still represents Hamlisch’s best work for the stage since A Chorus Line in 1976. While critics at the time were less than complimentary about the Bob Crowley’s design, Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography and Nicholas Hytner’s direction, Hamlish and the lyricist who crafted a literate set of lyrics for the show, Craig Carnelia, were nominated for a Tony Award and separate Drama Desk Awards for their score. John Guare also received a nomination for his book, which told the tale of 1950s Broadway gossip columnist, J. J. Hunsecker, who uses his influence, with the help of a struggling press agent, to interfere with his sister’s relationship with a hot young piano player. The cast recording is a testament to a score that is by turns jazzy, witty and touching, including the expository “The Column”, the soul-searching “At The Fountain”, the tender “Don’t Know Where You Leave Off” and the sharp-as-nails “One Track Mind”. There are plenty of other rewards to be had to upon listening to this recording. In fact, with another round of revisions and a different production team, I am convinced that Sweet Smell of Success could truly hit its stride as a first class musical comedy. With no South African production having taken place, the man to head up the job would have to be Steven Stead, whose KickstArt Theatre Company has seen him helm productions like Sweeney Todd, Shrek and Cabaret. Add the unstoppable Roxmouth himself into the mix as the struggling press agent, put him alongside his Sunset Boulevard co-star Bethany Dickson as the woman around whom the entire plot revolves, cast her Singin’ in the Rain leading man, Grant Almirall, as her lover and put his fellow Chicago cast member, Craig Urbani, in the role of J. J. Hunsecker, and you’d be all set for a killer night’s entertainment.

2. They’re Playing Our Song

Hamlisch collaborated with legendary pop lyricist Carole Bayer Sager to create They’re Playing Our Song, which was based on their own romantic relationship, bringing to life at the same time the dynamics in the relationship between a composer and lyricist. Although the score failed to nab a Tony Award nomination, Hamlisch was nominated for the Outstanding Music Drama Desk Award. Highlights of the score includes a couple of toe-tapping numbers in the title song and “Working It Out”, but also more tender pieces for each of the lead characters, namely “Fallin’” (for him) and “I Still Believe in Love” (for her). Following a 1978 world premiere in Los Angeles, They’re Playing Our Song opened on Broadway the following year and transferred to London in 1980, with a UK revival being staged in 2008. Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke produced the South African premiere of the show in 1980, with Mike Huff and Marloe Scott-Wilson playing the two leads. I wonder what Janice Honeyman could do with a revival of this show. How about putting her at the helm of a revival with Toni Jean Erasmus, who was a wonderful Sister Mary Robert in Honeyman’s production of Sister Act this year, and Dean Balie, who is currently one of the featured actors in Orpheus in Africa? It could be a fantastic prospect for Honeyman and her often-time Joburg Theatre producer, Bernard Jay.

1. A Chorus Line

Hamlisch’s most enduring stage work is the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, A Chorus Line. Following a stint of 101 performances Off-Broadway in 1975, the show transferred to Broadway where it ran for a record-breaking 6,137 performances. Marvin Hamlisch won (along with the show’s lyricist, Edward Kleban) the Tony Award for Best Original Score as well as the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music for the show. The score features several unforgettable numbers, including the haunting “At the Ballet”, which Hamlisch described as the song that set the shape and color of the entire musical. There’s also the catchy “I Can Do That”, the hilarious “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” and the thrilling “The Music and the Mirror; each is a number that brilliantly delineates the character that sings the song. The masterful “Montage” juxtaposes the teenage experiences of all 17 dancers on the line. And that’s not even mentioning the show’s two biggest takeaway numbers, “One” and “What I Did for Love”, or the extensive underscoring that pulsates throughout the show. At present, the sixth longest-running Broadway show ever, A Chorus Line opened in the West End in 1976 and was adapted into an almost universally disliked film in 1985 before being revived in New York in 2006 (the casting for the revival being the subject of a documentary, Every Little Step) and in London in 2013. In between, A Chorus Line had its South African premiere in Cape Town in 1992, with Troy Garza restaging the original direction and choreography. Maybe when Pieter Toerien Productions is done with Singin’ in the Rain, the theatre mogul can cast a thought towards reviving this classic piece of musical theatre with our current generation of musical theatre performers – but only if it means we get to see Michael Bennett’s unbeatable original staging of the work.

Besides these five musicals, Hamlisch has also composed scores for the musicals Jean Seberg (1983, featuring the beautiful song, “Dreamers”) and The Nutty Professor (2012), as well as the many hit songs he wrote for films like The Way We Were (1973), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). If you’d like to hear which of Hamlisch’s songs Roxmouth and Spiegel-Wagner sing in I’m Playing Your Song, book your tickets for the show at Montecasino (where it runs until 10 January) or Theatre on the Bay (where it runs from 13 January – 6 February). Bookings are through Computicket.

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Monday Meditation: I am Not Over the Old Masters

Sheet music from Victor Herbert's BABES IN TOYLAND

Sheet music from Victor Herbert’s BABES IN TOYLAND

Hamilton may be breaking new ground in musical theatre, with Lin-Manuel Miranda consolidating breakthroughs in mainstream musical theatre production that may or may not redefine the form, but while I enjoy keeping up to date with new developments in musical theatre, I find myself continually returning to the works of the book-writers, lyricists and composers who laid the foundations of the form as it know it today. Sometimes its easy to forget just how far musicals have come; it’s also easy to dismiss how much the ground-breakers were doing at the time.

I don’t know why I have such an intense obsession with musical theatre history. I guess I like to see the origins of things and to imagine what making and seeing theatre might have been like prior to the 1930s.

What was it like to hear Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” for the first time in 1928? What must it have been like for Herbert Fields, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart to create Dearest Enemy in 1925? How do the “new” Gershwin musicals really compare with the their originals? When Irving Berlin saw his debut musical, Watch Your Step, staged, did the audiences of 1914 anticipate a full score by the writer of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” the same way that the audiences of today anticipate the full score of Waitress from “Love Song” songwriter Sara Bareilles? How much do Disney’s new fairy-tale musicals on stage owe to Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough’s Babes in Toyland and The Wizard of Oz, with its The Lion King-like – in length – list of contributors.

There were of course many more – including Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II and others who came before them – who crafted and influenced the musical in its formative years and some of these theatre-makers were still making musicals decades later, reacting to later developments in the form and – in some cases – innovating these developments themselves. When you’re downloading Hamilton later this week, why not pick up a recording of Fifty Million Frenchmen, Oh, Kay!, The Red Mill or Sunny and see what you think?

In the meantime, tell us who your favourite “old master” of musical theatre is in the comment block below. Any recommendations of recordings or books to read would be great too!

This post is inspired by and a response to “I Am Not Over the Founding Fathers” in Shirley MacLaine’s I’m Over All That and Other Confessions.

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