THE SATURDAY LIST: My 5 Current Musical Theatre Obsessions

Ethel Merman in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN

Ethel Merman in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN

For today’s edition of the “Saturday List” on Musical Cyberspace, I thought I would share my 5 current musical theatre obsessions, the things that I am finding most fascinating in the world of musical theatre – right here, right now. This might be a bit fanboy-ish, but I think that musical theatre fans sharing the aspects of musicals in which they’re interested at any given time is a great way of opening up discussions, finding out about new musicals and interrogating old favourites. Here we go!

1. Fixing Annie Get Your Gun

This might be a presumptuous foot on which to to start off, but I’ve been thinking a great deal about Annie Get Your Gun this past week and the way that the most recent Broadway mounting of the show tried to shift the show to satisfy our current socio-political norms. Along with many others, I don’t think that Peter Stone achieved what he set out to do in his revised book and I think that there is a way to shift the problematic parts of the show without gutting the piece entirely. For those who need a fact check, Annie Get Your Gun is a 1946 musical with a score by Irving Berlin and a book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields. What’s interesting about the show is that the 1999 revival wasn’t the first time the material was revised. The 1966 revival cut a couple of characters (the secondary romantic pair, Tommy and Winnie) and numbers (the charming “Who Do You Love, I Hope” and the more easily forgotten “I’ll Share it All With You”) to create a version of the show that focused more clearly on Annie and Frank, including also a new duet for the pair, “An Old Fashioned Wedding”. The focus of the 1999 revisions was political correctness, so although Tommy and Winnie’s numbers were reinstated, “I’m an Indian Too” and “Colonel Buffalo Bill” got the chop, along with “I’m a Bad, Bad Man”. The show was also framed as a show-within-a-show, with “There’s No Business Like Show Business” being used as the device that pulled everything together. At the end of the day it just doesn’t work. It feels like a hack job done on material that has a lot more going for it than that for which Stone gave it credit. What are my thoughts? Well, I do agree that there is no place in Annie Get Your Gun for a number like “I’m an Indian Too”. In fact, the only tweaks that need to be made to Annie Get Your Gun have to do with the way that Native Americans are represented in the piece – so I guess there are a couple of edits in the book that would go along with the excision of the song, and the way that the ceremonial dances that come towards the end of the first act would have to be interrogated too. Why isn’t “Colonel Buffalo Bill” a problem for me? Well, it’s not a number that represents Native American people: it’s a number that represents the way that Native American people were represented by showmen at the turn of the century. Yes, the way that shows like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West presented Native Americans was patronizing and racist – but that’s the way it was. No amount of revisionist editing can change that. But I think there is a responsibility to shift the way that Native American characters are represented in the show. As for the feminists who dislike Annie’s throwing of her final competition with Frank to win his affections – well, it’s your job to comment on that if you desire. Personally, I think it shows that she is smarter than him and knowing how to use her head around Frank after they’re married is going to do her a whole lot more good than a broken heart would, plus it reflects the attitudes of the time period in which the show is set.

2. The Wild Party

I just can’t get enough of Michael John LaChiusa’s masterpiece, and especially of the song that for me is at the deep, dark centre of the show, “People Like Us”. First off, let’s not discuss for too long the other adaptation of Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 poem, which might as well be called The Wild Party Jr based on the level of its intellectual approach to the material, even if the material itself is far too provocative for the “jr” treatment. Sorry, Andrew Lippa, but that’s just the way it is. LaChiusa’s version of The Wild Party is just the best. Love it. Love it. Love it. Secondly, although the Best Musical prize at the Tony Awards was completely hijacked by Contact, which – despite being a fantastic dance show – simply was not a musical at all and should never have been nominated for the award in the first place. Thirdly, the show’s detractors will wail that one can’t sympathise with the characters and that the show shuts you out cold as a result. Wrong. The characters are fascinating – that’s what counts – and they draw you in. Fourth, let’s get back to “People Like Us”. It is a fantastic song that manages to capture the characters in the moment and the decay of the period as well as being a zeitgeist moment. I could go on for ages about this show, but then I’d never get to my next obsession. Let’s leave things with an appreciation of the incredible layers LaChiusa’s work has. Pure brilliance.

3. I Remember Mama

This is a passing obsession, I know, but the last musical of Richard Rodgers (with lyrics by Martin Charnin and Raymond Jessel and a book by Thomas Meehan) is one that I find very interesting at the moment. Nobody says it was brilliant, but those who don’t say it was a complete failure say that it was a sweet show that came along thirty years too late. It does kind of remind me of Meet Me in St Louis and it certainly is an old-fashioned show. I think the show’s heart is in the right place. I also think that the comedy songs are handled poorly. The two songs written for Uncle Chris are clunkers. Charnin and Meehan are both still with us. I wouldn’t mind seeing them take another pass at the material to see what they can come up with. But one rule, please – only use music written by Rodgers for the show. “Boys and Girls Like You and Me” and “The Sweetest Sounds” don’t need to be shoehorned into another show.

4. Michelle Williams in Cabaret

I’ve become obsessed with trying to find footage of Michelle Williams in Cabaret. Tumblr has yielded a couple of audios, but other than that I’ve had no luck. I’ve loved Williams since her Dawson’s Creek days and I am dying to see (something of) her take on Sally Bowles, particularly seeing how great an actress she’s become. (Start by watching Brokeback Mountain if you don’t believe me.)

5. “They Just Keep Moving the Line”

All right, this isn’t strictly musical theatre, but it’s close enough. I keep on finding this song, written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman for the TV series, Smash, making its way into my mind. It’s so wonderfully Kander and Ebb-ish, Megan Hilty kills it, and it is great to belt out in the car. Or in the shower. Or at the mall. Anytime, actually. Just do it. You won’t regret it.

And that’s it for this week. What are your current musical theatre obsessions? How about heading down to the comments below and letting me know – perhaps your obsessions of today will be my obsessions tomorrow.

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