One Song Glory: Howard Ashman and Story Arcs

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Sierra Boggess stars as Ariel in 2008’s The Little Mermaid on Broadway. Image courtesy BroadwayWorld.com.

I was sitting in my Creative Writing class this week when the idea we were discussing in class stuck me. My instructor was talking about the story arc and how most stories begin with a catalyst. Soon after, the reader learns what the protagonist wants.

This struck me because I remembered a quote I had heard years ago in a short documentary (titled Waking Sleeping Beauty and I highly recommend it) I watched about the making of The Little Mermaid. Disney was broke. They had been evicted from their animation studios in Burbank and were working out of trailers in Arizona. They were pumping out movies like The Black Cauldron that weren’t popular with audiences. They had one chance left to save their legacy. They decided to make Mermaid. They brought in the writing team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken — both of whom would go on to make more music for Disney. Ashman had penned Little Shop of Horrors on Broadway and had a background writing musicals. In this documentary I watched, he said that in every musical, there is a moment in the show where the heroine is featured, usually sits down, and sings about what she wants. This is the moment where the audience falls in love with her. Then he wrote “Part of Your World.”

I started thinking about all the musicals in which this happens — which is most of them, even if it’s not the heroine that sits. Sometimes it’s the hero. In the first three or four songs of a show, you’ll hear about what your protagonist wants and you’ll be cheering for them from that point on. “The Wizard and I” reveals that Elphaba wants to be remembered. “In My Own Little Corner” tells that Cinderella wants adventure. In RENT, the AIDS-ridden Roger only wants “One Song Glory” before he dies.

Musicals follow story arcs like any other short story or novel does. What gets us hooked is that we love living vicariously through a character’s adventure. That’s the whole point of storytelling.

Next time you watch a Disney animated classic that was released after 1989, think about Howard Ashman and the way he transformed the story. Post-Ashman heroines and heroes fight for themselves. They sing their own songs. They write their own stories. Then go watch the musicals that do the same.

Ashman tragically died at the age of 40 from complications due to AIDS in 1991. He died before the release of Beauty and The Beast, which is dedicated to his memory. You can visit his official website here, which is maintained by his sister, Sarah. 

Gentleman’s Guide and the Death of the Original Musical

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Lisa O’Hare, Bryce Pinkham, and Catherine Walker star in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder on Broadway. Image courtesy GGLAM website.

I should begin this post by saying yes, I am aware that Gentleman’s Guide was adapted from a book. Now we may continue.

There’s a reason that there’s no separate categories for Best Original Book and Best Adapted Book at the Tony Awards — that is, it is very rare that a fully original musical makes it to the stage (for you musical newbies, a “book” is the actual dialogue spoken and script, as opposed to the “score,” which is music and lyrics).

Recently, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder announced that the Best Musical-winning show will be closing its doors on January 17. The show has been suffering financially (you can view its grosses on Playbill Vault), bringing in the most dough during and after 2014 Tony season. For those not familiar with the show, it follows Monty Navarro as he discovers that he is an heir to the Earldom of Highurst and there are only a few measly family members standing in his way. So he decides to murder them (this is not a spoiler, it’s in the title). As heavy as the content may seem, it’s a lighthearted comedy and a fun, original story. It’s a musical lover’s delight, but unfortunately, the industry of Broadway does not revolve around musical lovers. It revolves around tourists who want to see Phantom of the Opera.

If/Then, which opened the same season as Gentleman’s Guide, was an original musical which ran for a year on Broadway. It was nominated for original score and its star, Idina Menzel, got an acting nom as well. It won neither. Something Rotten! is the only original musical currently running. Though it was nominated for ten Tonys, it only won one — Christian Borle won Featured Actor for playing Shakespeare in a show about hating Shakespeare.

Shows like The Book of Mormon, released four years ago, could mark the end of an era — even innovative shows, like Hamilton, are adapted from nonfiction works.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that revivals or adaptations are bad musicals. Sometimes revivals can even give new life to a story. Take Chicago for example. The original Broadway production ran for only two years, but the revival has been running for almost two decades. It means that we’ll have to rethink how we analyze and how we watch shows. We have to decide: does the originality of a work make it more valuable than recycled material?

Gentleman’s Guide has a North American tour starting September 19. You can view the dates and purchase tickets here. If you are planning a trip to New York, you can buy tickets for the remaining Broadway dates here.

Hedwig and My Infinite Sadness

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Co-author John Cameron Mitchell stars in the 2001 Hedwig movie. Image courtesy The Dissolve.

One of my favourite shows, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, closed its doors on Broadway yesterday after a year and a half on the Great White Way.

Shows close all the time on Broadway. Mamma Mia! ended its fourteen-year run this Saturday, September 12. On The Town closed this month too. I never even saw Hedwig live. Why is it that I feel such a connection to shows I’ve never seen?

I realized a while ago that the thing that people need most is other people. We love hearing stories about other people — that’s why the best ones are called “human interest.” Humans of New York is a smashing success. None of the people featured on HONY impact the lives of most of us, and yet the page has millions of likes. We love seeing those photos.

Going to see a musical is like going to see a movie — except it’s better. It’s life, live on stage in front of you and anything could happen. You see people screaming and crying and singing and dancing and it’s all real. Hedwig is an incredibly personal story — it’s 90 minutes long with no intermission and the actors are on stage almost all of the time. You go on an emotional journey with the actors over that time as you listen to Hedwig tell you her stories. What else could be better?

Hedwig is going on tour, starting in San Francisco, and there are also plans for a West End run. Until then, 44th Street will be lonely without the largest East German personality this side of the wall.

Watch Neil Patrick Harris kill “Sugar Daddy” at the 2014 Tony Awards:

5 People Who Should Never, Ever Be in Movie Musicals Again

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Everyone’s favourite disco Bond. Image courtesy Google Images.

Clearly, I love musicals. I love movie musicals too. Some of the best musicals are originally adapted from movies, such as Heathers, Matilda, and Wicked (which is great, because it’s actually musical based on a book based on a movie based on a book). But sometimes, casting directors and producers choose to stunt cast these movies instead of casting actors who can actually play the part properly. I understand, believe me. The seats need to get sold and as much as I would have liked to have the original Broadway cast reprise each of their roles, it can’t always happen, especially if the movie adaptation is being made years after its premiere. Some people cannot be taught to sing and these actors should probably stick to their day jobs.

Minnie Driver
I have nothing personal to hold against Minnie here, but in the 2004 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, she didn’t even sing. No, the voice of prima donna Carlotta was sung by Margaret Preece. She has played Carlotta in the stage version of Phantom as well as Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. If you aren’t even singing, why are you in a musical? There are lots of sopranos waiting for this role. Let them have it.
Listen to Margaret Preece sing “Prima Donna”out of Minnie Driver’s lips: 

Russell Crowe
I owe a lot to the Les Miserables movie since it was my gateway into musical hell, but now, after seeing the show live and listening to many versions of Javert, it is very clear to me that this was not the best casting decision. You can tell he’s not trained enough because he doesn’t have vibrato where it should be. I love Mr. Crowe’s acting in this role, however, and so he’s higher up on this list. He is rigid, yet compassionate when he needs to be, but unfortunately, his voice doesn’t follow him there. Plus, no sideburns? What?
Watch “Stars,” now with extra foreshadowing: 

Gerard Butler
Do I hate the Phantom movie? A little bit. Check out the 25th Anniversary concert on Netflix instead. This man also cannot sing. Phantom came out before his breakthrough role in 300, so perhaps the director thought that casting a more unknown actor would be better than casting a star who can’t sing. Wrong. His Phantom under the mask is not terribly ugly either — some Phantoms have swollen lips and parts of their brain showing through their skull, but Gerard looks like he’s experienced some hair loss. He sounds a lot like Russell Crowe, honestly (and looks like him too). He hasn’t been in a musical before or since, so hopefully he’s learned his lesson.
Watch “Music of the Night”: 

Pierce Brosnan
I think the Mamma Mia! movie is a lot of fun, which is what the story is about — it’s full of ABBA music, for God’s sake. It’s full of actors who have musical backgrounds, including Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, and Christine Baranski. Pierce is not one of those actors. His version of “SOS” is laughable and he takes himself far too seriously — Colin Firth almost made this list, but he’s able to make fun of himself (search the clip from The Actor’s Studio where he says when he dies, he’d like God to say “I thought you were quite good in Mamma Mia!”). With rumours of a movie sequel floating around, let’s hope it doesn’t focus around Sophie’s dads.
Here’s “SOS” if you dare: 

Johnny Depp
I don’t know why people continue to cast Johnny Depp in musicals — his voice is absolutely terrible. I watched the PBS Great Performances recording of Sweeney Todd as my introduction to the show and I’m glad I did. Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson make an excellent Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett (Thompson scored an Emmy nomination for the role). But, when a movie is made by Tim Burton, who is apparently the high school drama teacher with favourite students, who else will be in the lead roles? Personally, I don’t think his singing voice is deep enough to carry the role properly (check out the aforementioned PBS special or clips of Norm Lewis as Todd). I love Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, but he’s had made some questionable acting decisions. Don’t get me started on the costume for The Wolf in Into The Woods (in 2014 we can’t do an actual CGI wolf and instead have Depp in a hat with ears on it?) or how all of the chorus songs were cut from Sweeney. Time for a break, Johnny.
Listen to “My Friends” as sung as a pop ballad: 

Do you agree or disagree? What’s your least favourite casting in a musical, stage or screen?

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables: Les Miserables and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

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Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche in the 2012 film adaptation of Les Miserables. Image courtesy Les Mis Wiki.

Sometimes art imitates life. Sometimes life imitates art. Sometimes this is pleasant and even occasionally fun. But sometimes, the things we find in life that remind us of art aren’t the things that we like about that piece of art. This week, a photo surfaced of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on the shore after attempting to escape his war-torn hometown with his family. Three-quarters of the family did not survive the trip. We are bombarded with images every day, including some very explicit images. Some people even choose to play violent video games or watch gory movies and voluntarily expose themselves to those messages. Some people may not even bat an eye at images of corpses on crime-based television shows or even find detailed stories of serial killer victims interesting. But when the image is of a child, the epitome of innocence, the story changes. There is nothing fascinating or exciting about this event — there is only sadness. There is only fear.

In Les Miserables, many people die. People die of old age, disease, suicide, even as a product of gunfire. There is one death that stands out more than the others, though. In the heat of battle, the young Gavroche (often played by charming actors as young as ten) volunteers to go out in no man’s land to gather bullets for his band of older brothers. He doesn’t make it back over the barricade. This is the moment in the show when the audience goes silent — no more recognizable songs, no more sing-a-longs about shady innkeepers, no more camaraderie. The other students at the barricade realize that they are doomed at this moment. The National Guard has killed a child.

There is a touching moment in the 2012 movie adaptation of Les Mis in which the bodies of the dead students are lined up in the cafe where they used to spend their days. Javert walks along them and places his own Medal of Honour on Gavroche’s jacket. Alan Kurdi didn’t live long enough to receive a medal, but he will be remembered. Both the Kurdi family and the students of the 1832 rebellion died fighting for a better life. His memory will live on in the shocking image on the cover of every newspaper. That photo inspires change. It must. It has to. The people of Paris, suffering in the streets, sing the lines: “When’s it gonna end? When we gonna live? Something’s gotta happen now, something’s gotta give. It’ll come, it’ll come…”

Another Story Must Begin: Re-Introduction & Rebranding

Like Jean Valjean tearing his ticket of leave, the content of this blog will now have a new life. Instead of being a general blog, it will now focus on theatre reviews, news, and how the stories told on the stage relate to life.

My name is Diana Chabai and I am a first-year Creative Communications student at Red River College. In my spare time, I’m probably talking about theatre or singing (horrifically, I should add) a showtune. You can follow me on Twitter (see my sidebar) if you’d like more of that sort of thing. See you at the box office!