Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Theatre: Assassins

It takes effort to embrace some of the works of Stephen Sondheim, since his themes, concepts, musical scores and lyrics are sometimes too sophisticated, different or just down-right weird to be appreciated by the general audience.  One thing that can definitely be said about the extremely prolific composer is that he is never repetitive and he does not settle for the normal tropes of musical theatre.  Very seldom is the typical romantic "boy meets girl" storyline used as the central plot of a Sondheim musical, and "Happily Ever After" rarely seems to be part of his vocabulary.  Instead Sondheim is always searching for the next new twist.  His eclectic body of work includes an operatic kabuki-styled show set in 19th century Japan, a story that is told backwards chronologically, a story-less series of vignettes about relationships and commitment that brought the "concept musical" into the mainstream, and a musical inspired by a famous 19th century painting where the first half of the show magically brings the painting to life.

Sondheim's 1990 musical Assassins is no less ambitious in terms of theme or music.  The titular characters are nine would-be assassins of US Presidents spanning over 100 years from John Wilkes Booth who assassinated Abraham Lincoln in 1865 for political reasons to John Hinkley Jr. who tried to kill Ronald Reagan in 1981 in order to appear important to then child actress Jodie Foster.  In addition to Booth, three others successfully accomplished their goalsCharles Guiteau killed James Garfield in 1881, Leon Czolgosz shot William McKinley in 1901 and of course, Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated John F. Kennedy in 1963.  The show also features four other unsuccessful assassination attempts, made by Giuseppe Zangara (Franklin D. Roosevelt 1933), Samuel Byck (Richard Nixon 1974), and the pair of Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, who each made separate attempts on Gerald Ford in 1975.  Assassins the Musical explores the back-stories of these down-and-out losers  and the motivations that propelled them to commit these brazen and heinous acts, all in warped pursuit of the "American Dream".  In an interesting twist, all these assassins from different time periods interact throughout the show, goading, commiserating with and feeding off of each other.

We watched a production of Assassins put on by U of T's Victoria College Drama Society.  The musical opens to the backdrop of a carnival scene, where a red and white pin-striped barker encourages passersby to "C'mon and shoot a President" to win a prize. The prize could be recognition and infamy, a regained sense of purpose or accomplishment, revenge or justice depending on the perpetrator.  One by one, the assassins enter the scene and the barker provides a gun to each of Czolgosz, Hinkley, Guiteau, Byck, Zangara, Fromme and Moore.  Then John Wilkes Booth arrives and is revered as the "pioneer" who set the precedence for everyone else by being the first to successfully kill a President.  By the end of the song, the entire group is singing the titular line of the song "Everybody's Got the Right to Dream".

The show proceeds to delve deeper into the psyche and motivations of the assassins.  In particular, the three successful ones (Booth, Czologosz, and Guiteau) each gets his own ballad, sung in story-telling fashion by an anonymous "balladeer".  Sondheim made a point of writing each of these songs as a pastiche, mimicking the music of the era of each assassin.  Hinkley and Fromme sing a duet "Not Worthy of Your Love" each declaring devotion to the object of his/her obsession--Jodie Foster and Charles Manson respectively.  Based on just to the melody, this sounds like a traditional romantic love song contradicted by lyrics that convey a chilling psychotic infatuation"Tell me how I can earn your love".  Zangara's song is interesting because it is not told from his point of view and it does not describe the attempted shooting of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Eschewing exposition, Sondheim instead writes a song about the reactions and aftermath of the shooting, sung by five witnesses who each claimed to have played a part in "saving" Roosevelt by interrupting or distracting him as he stood on a chair in a crowd aiming his gun at the President.  Sara Jane Moore's character is played mostly for comedic effect with her bravado and bumbling clumsiness with her gun.  Dressed like a suburban soccer mom, she even brings her child and dog to an attempted assassination.  Byck spends the show dressed like Santa Claus in reference to an outfit that he wore during a political protest.  Instead of a song, he is given several verbal rants reflecting actual attempts that he made to contact public figures including Leonard Bernstein.  Watching this show really gives you a great lesson in a sordid part of American History.

By now the show is almost over and we were wondering what happened to the most infamous assassin of recent history, Lee Harvey Oswald?  Apparently this was a deliberate and debated choice by Sondheim and his co-creators.  Originally Oswald was to appear in the opening with the others but it was suggested to Sondheim that it would be more impactful to save him for the finale.   The musical has undergone a few iterations since its inception.  While it was not originally the case, in the version that we watched, the innocent, fresh-faced looking balladeer turned into the character of Lee Harvey Oswald.  It was a bit shocking and maybe points to the adage that you can't really judge a book by its cover.  Oswald appears as a depressed and confused young man who originally intended to kill himself.  Instead he is urged by the other assassins to shoot JFK as a means of validating their joint purpose—"With your act, we are revived and given meaning... People will hate you with a passion.  Imagine people having passionate feelings about Lee Harvey Oswald!! ..".  The powerful song "Something Just Broke" again does not directly refer to the assassination but instead soulfully portrays the feelings of the Nation after losing their President.


When we first saw the group of young actors who would play these historic roles in Assassins, I was worried about whether or not they could pull it off and make me forget that they were students acting in a musical.  In particular, the two performers who played Zangara and Guiteau looked like they were barely out of grade school with Guiteau wearing the most obviously fake beard that I have ever seen.  But once the show started, this talented group sucked you into the story with strong acting and singing abilities. I particularly enjoyed the comedic timing of the actress playing Sara Jane Moore, who was goofy, endearing and hilarious.  I was very impressed with the quality of the show, especially with the sound system and musical accompaniment.  Often in these community-theatre type performances, the sound quality is poor and you cannot hear what is being said.  In this case, it was actually the opposite where it sometimes felt like the performers were shouting and the volume got too loud. 

As usual, Stephen Sondheim created an innovative musical unique not only from what any other composer has written, but also different from any of his own works.  His creative songs span many styles within the same show and integrate in an interesting fashion with John Weidman's book.  Even though it took a bit of historical homework for me to fully appreciate the musical Assassins, this was an enjoyable experience for me.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Theatre: The Bodyguard The Musical

When a mediocre "B-movie" known more for its phenomenal soundtrack than its plot or acting is turned into a live musical, it is not surprising that the resultant stage show exhibits similar traits.  The Bodyguard Musical, which originated in London's West End follows a similar story-line to the 1992 Kevin Costner/Whitney Houston film with a few minor changes.  Former secret service agent Frank Farmer reluctantly agrees to become the personal bodyguard for superstar singing diva Rachel Marron, who is being harassed with threatening notes from an unknown stalker.  Following the typical romantic movie cliches, Frank and Rachel initially dislike each other but eventually fall in love, only to be torn apart by their different worlds and Frank's need to stay detached in order to effectively protect Rachel and her young son Fletcher.

As expected, the musical features stellar singing from the two female leads who play Rachel and her sister Nicki, doing justice to the slew of movie soundtrack songs such as "Run to You", "I Have Nothing", and the signature "I Will Always Love You", augmented with other Whitney Houston hits including "Saving All My Love For You" and "I Want to Dance With Somebody".  But for me, this was not a true musical but rather a melodrama interspersed with various characters singing Whitney Houston songs for a variety of reasons.  I much prefer the sung-through musical where all "dialogue" is sung as opposed to spoken, or at very least, a musical where songs are written specifically for the show and the lyrics advance the plot.

I felt very little chemistry between Frank and Rachel, making their sudden romance abrupt and unbelievable.  There seemed to be a stronger connection between Frank and Nicki, making me wonder for a moment whether the plot intended to stray completely from the movie.  That might actually have been interesting, but no such luck.  Even so, the excellent voices of the female stars would have made this musical sufficiently entertaining for me, had it not been for the extremely cheesy staging.  This included the use of strobe lighting, smoke and fog, and clumsy use of slo-motion with sound effects reminiscent of the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man.  The climatic scene in the first act where Frank rescues Rachel from a mob scene by sweeping her up in his arms was done in such a corny fashion that I actually gasped and then laughed out loud.  And the final climatic scene in the last act happened so quickly (even though the goofy slo-mo effect was used once again) that I almost missed it.  Each dramatic sequence seemed almost incidental other than being used as a bridge between another Whitney Houston song.  A final onscreen video showing flashback scenes from Frank and Rachel's "romance" felt cringe-inducingly awkward.  It was obviously added in order to allow the Rachel character enough time to make a costume change in preparation for her eleven O'Clock number "I Will Aways Love You", which she sang while covered with swirling fog(?!?)

If you are a big fan of Houston's music or The Bodyguard movie or just want to appreciate this show for the singing, then you may love it, as many people actually do.  For me, I prefer to watch a real musical with non-generic songs written so as to be integral to a good story.  I guess others agreed with me, since there were many empty seats on the night that we attended this show (which is part of our Mirvish subscription series).  In fact, a special "sing-a-long" event featuring the cast of The Bodyguard was hosted as a marketing promotion that gave away free tickets to the show for each attendee.  You don't see such gimmicks needed for Come From Away.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Theatre: Come From Away

It's difficult to imagine a "feel-good" story coming out of the horrors of the September 11th, 2001 attacks, let alone being able to create a musical out of such events.  Come From Away is this unlikely musical, dealing with the aftermath of 38 planes containing over 6700 passengers that were diverted to and grounded in Gander, Newfoundland when the North American airspace was closed.  The people of Gander (at the time with a population just over 9000) opened their hearts to the stranded travelers, providing them with food, change of clothing, shelter, compassion and friendship.  Impromptu sleeping areas were created in schools, town halls, churches, community centres and even in townspeople's  homes. Attending the 10th anniversary reunion in Gander, Canadian husband and wife composing duo David Hein and Irene Sankoff  (who also wrote the autobiographical "My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding") interviewed passengers, flight crew and locals to gather their stories and experiences.

The result is a heart-warming tale that perfectly captures the feelings of initial confusion and fear from the plane people and the daunting but determined call to action from the residents of Gander. The same 12 actors play all the roles with chameleon-like ease, using on-stage quick change of simple wardrobes as well as accents, lingo and mannerisms to portray both the locals and the ones who have "come from away", as they say in Newfoundland.  The songs and dialogue in the show include the perfect mix of humour and emotion to illustrate how two disparate groups of strangers bonded and made the best out of very traumatic circumstances.  Stranded indefinitely in a foreign land without access to their luggage, most of the people on the plane had no idea where they were or what to expect.  The unconditional warm welcome that they received must have been overwhelming and lasting friendships have developed as a result.  Hein and Sankoff heard so many wonderful stories about the 5 days that the planes remained grounded in Gander that their initial draft was over 5 hours long before distilling a manageable subset to represent the overall experiences.  

A gay couple is concerned that they will be persecuted for their sexual preferences but find that it is no big deal.  A Muslim chef who was aboard one of the grounded flights feels the fear and suspicions from his fellow passengers. A mother worries as she is unable to contact her fire fighter son based in New York.  One of the locals is an animal lover with the SPCA who works tirelessly to try to rescue the pets on the flight who are trapped with the checked luggage on the planes, including dogs, cats and even some rare monkeys headed for a zoo.   Amongst the crew is the first female captain to fly for American Airlines and she sings about her beginnings when she was shunned by male pilots and female stewardesses alike.  Perhaps the sweetest story is the one of the Texan woman and British man who fell in love during their time in Gander and eventually got married.

A running joke involves a passenger who is convinced that he will be robbed or shot but is instead constantly offered a cup of tea by everyone he meets.  This reminds me of when Toronto had the great blackout in 2003 that took out all the power the Eastern seaboard for up to 3 days.  My husband was walking up Yonge Street with a colleague from Los Angeles and they witnessed shop owners handing out free bottles of water and businessmen in suits standing in the middle of busy streets directing traffic.  The American was amazed at these actions and asked why no one was looting the stores, as he would have expected back home.  This is just another example of how people pull together in midst of crisis.

In addition to a stellar story and good songs, I was particularly impressed by the choreography and set design.  Simply by rearranging chairs and tables, the actors are able to create scenes within the airplanes, buses, the local Tim Hortons, in the town hall and out and about in Gander.  In one particular scene, through the constant movement of boxes, the actors simulated climbing the trail leading to the Dover Fault Lookout for a breathtaking view of Bonavista Bay.  I visited this province known as "The Rock" years ago and remember having trouble understanding the heavy accents and local slangI therefore was a bit concerned about whether it would be difficult to catch what was being said in the show, but I needn't have worried.  There were just enough use of accents and jargon as well as Celtic-based Newfoundland folk music to set the tone of the locale, but not so much that it was beyond comprehension.

The cast is often accompanied on stage by musicians playing regional instruments including an accordion, fiddle, acoustic guitar, mandolin, bazooka, a bodhram, which is a round Irish hand drum and an "ugly stick", which is a traditional Newfoundland instrument made out of household materials such as a mop handle, bottle caps, tin cans, small bells and other noise makers and played with a drum stick.  Towards the end of the show, a traditional Newfoundland party is held including singing, Celtic dancing, telling stories, and the "screeching in ceremony" which makes one an honorary Newfoundlaner.  This involves dressing up in yellow rain slickers and hat, kissing a cod on the lips and drinking screech, which is a horrible tasting local rum.

After playing to sold-out crowds in La Jolla, Seattle, Washington, Gander and Toronto, this wonderful show is now debuting on Broadway.  A musical with so much heart and the message that love can triumph over hate is just what is needed right now in our turbulent political climate, so hopefully the show continues to be a smashing success.  It makes me proud to be a Canadian.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Art: Kent Monkman - Shame and Prejudice Exhibit

Kent Monkman is a half Cree, half Irish painter, sculptor and performance artist from Winnipeg, known for creating powerful, provocative works that force the viewer to reflect upon the plight of the Indigenous people throughout Canada's history.  Monkman’s alter-ego Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle, a gay drag icon, often appears in his visual arts and the occasional film, video or live performance.  The use of a homonym (“Share”) to pop star Cher is fully intentional.  Portrayed with long flowing black hair, full-faced makeup, often scantily clad while rockin’ a pair of fiery-red platform heels or hip-length "kinky boots" and a feathered headdress, Miss Chief channels Cher in both look and attitude.  Also carefully calculated in this name are puns on the words "mischief" and "egotistical" as well as not-so-veiled reference to "testicle", alluding to Miss Chief's (and the bisexual Monkman’s) duality of sexuality and spirit as well as her penchant for being a rabble-rouser, trickster, freedom-fighter and provocateur.  Kent Monkman’s paintings are on permanent display at major art galleries such as the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto and the National Gallery in Ottawa.  He has also taken part in many museum shows including the 2012 Fashionality: Dress and Identity exhibition at McMichael Art Gallery where we were first exposed to his work including a sculpture of Miss Chief dressed in pink, and a pair of his high-heeled “moccasins”.  We also attended the 2015 exhibition The Rise and Fall of Civilization at the Gardiner Ceramics Museum where Miss Chief made another appearance in a diorama depicting the near extinction of the American bison at the hands of the Europeans.

When Kent Monkman was asked to curate a new show in honour of Canada's sesquicentennial birthday, he decided to reflect upon the key events that occurred in Canada's history over the past 150 years from the perspective of the Indigenous people, as opposed to the Colonial perspective depicted by artists like Paul Kane.  The result is a massive show named Shame and Prejudice, on display at the University of Toronto Art Museum until March 4 before touring across Canada.  Monkman has produced a series of paintings and several large-scale sculptural installations, as well as borrowing relevant historic artifacts from museums across the country.  The show is divided up into 9 sections, moving in reverse chronological order from present day back to the arrival of the Europeans and creation of New France.  Dealing with historic themes including the fur trade, building the railway, signing of the treaties, Indian reserve systems, residential schools, Christianity, as well as generic themes of incarceration and violence towards women, each section of the exhibit is narrated in the voice of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle.  We barely made it into the over-capacity artist/curator talk for this show, which resulted in the largest crowd that the Art Museum ever experienced.  Monkman is extremely well-spoken and gave great insights into the deeper meanings and messages behind his works.

Major sculptural installations bookend the beginning and end of the show.  The opening installation depicts Monkman's version of a "Nativity Scene" with Indigenous figures standing in for Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus who is lying on a Hudson's Bay blanket. The tight, squalid quarters, and processed foods including SPAM, Kraft dinner, canned soup and bottled water highlight the poor housing and living conditions of the Indigenous people, and how far removed they are from their initial state of living freely off the land.  The ironic wearing of the Chicago Blackhawks hockey jersey by one of the figures brings to mind the whole recent debate about whether these sports teams names and logos are racist.  Look closely and you will see that each figure, including the baby, has been given Monkman's own face.  This is in reaction to his experiences visiting other museums where he noticed that all Native Indian images were portrayed with the same face.

Accordingly, every sculptural figure within the exhibition, be it man, woman or child, is adorned with Monkman's face.  The final installation of the show, called "Scent of a Beaver", depicts the power struggle between the British and the French in their attempts to woo the Native people and dominate the fur trade.  Taking inspiration from Jean-HonorĂ© Fragonard's 1767 painting The Swing, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle sits on a swing while Generals Wolfe and Montcalm vie for her attention.  Wearing moccasins and a fur-lined dress, Miss Chief swings back and forth between the two.  Each of the trio again sports Monkman's face. 

The works in the next few rooms depict Main Street, Winnipeg where many Indigenous people have gathered after being dispossessed of their lands.  The paintings "Le Petit Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe" and "Struggle for Balance" incorporate Picassoesque forms of female nudes into the urban scenes.  Monkman draws parallels between the influence of Modern art styles like Cubism that flatten and distort images, with the way Indigenous people have been squeezed out of their lands and stripped of their language and culture.  The twisted, deformed female nudes also allude to misogyny (which Monkman accuses Picasso of) and violence against women, highlighting the issue of the numerous missing and murdered Indigenous women.  There are also renderings of winged angels that look ambiguous in nature.  Are they spiritual and good or menacing and ominous?  One of the angels even sports a tattoo on his forearm.  This same ambivalence reflects the impact of Christianity upon the native people.

The piece "Death of a Virgin, After Caravaggio", reimagines the Italian Baroque painter's 1606 masterpiece, replacing the figures of the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdeline and the Apostles with Indigenous tribe members.  Monkman's version comments on the new illnesses and diseases that the North American Indians were exposed to after coming in contact with the Europeans.  The natives had no resistance to smallpox, measles, influenza and many died.  I find it interesting that Caravaggio dressed his Virgin and Mary Magdeline in red while Monkman chose to clothe his corresponding figures in blue, as both these colours are highly symbolic in Christian iconography, representing humanity vs the divine. Next to the painting is a display containing a Nurses bag, scalpels and medicines that once again exude an ambiguous tone... Should these "strange Western treatments" be seen as foreign and threatening, or helpful salvation for the sick?

As much as the "Death of a Virgin, After Caravaggio" painting references physical illness, it also relates to what Monkman terms as "sickness of the soul".  Centuries of suffering loss of lands, possessions, identity, language, culture, and finally hope, pride and spirit have led to broken homes, high rates of suicide, addictions, mental illness, violence and incarceration in prisons.  Monkman calls the Indian Reserve Systems the first form of incarceration, corralling the Indigenous people and restricting their freedom.  It is no wonder under these circumstances that Aboriginal inmates account for a disproportionate percentage of growth within the Prairies Correctional facilities.  Monkman's works "Cash for Souls" and "Seeing Red" allude to these statistics, with imagery of fighting, burning, helicopters flying, inmates in orange jumpsuits attacking women, and again the semi-ominous angels.  The positions of the central figures in "Cash for Souls" mimic various renderings of "The Rape of the Sabine Women", in particular the marble sculpture by Giambologna in Florence.  "Seeing Red" features a semi-nude, stiletto-wearing Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, acting as matador with a Hudson's Bay blanket as a cape, confronting a Picasso-like bull, the ultimate symbol of male dominance, in a classic fight against homophobia.

One of the most poignant pieces in the show deals with the travesty of the Residential School System policy, which ripped Indigenous children away from their homes and families in order to instill in them "proper Western education and culture".  Titling the painting after Edvuard Munch's "The Scream", Monkman gives a whole new horrific meaning to the designation.  His work depicts a screaming mother being held back as her child (and others) are being dragged away by priests, nuns and Mounties. The trauma caused by this callous and misguided practice has resonated through the generations.
 
An accompanying installation consists of two walls of beautifully decorated cradleboards, which are  traditional Native American Indian baby carriers where the infant is swaddled and strapped to a flat board.  But nothing in this exhibition is shown for aesthetics alone without an underlying message. After admiring the craftsmanship of the artifacts, you notice that some of the boards are stark and barren while others are missing all together, represented only by a chalk outline. These are in reference to the missing children who were taken away.

In another room is a long table that seems to be displaying historic examples of European Rococo dinnerware and the lavish meals served in that era.  But as you walk along the table, the food becomes more meager and scarce until the final plates are empty except for a few bison bones.  At one end is the opulent lifestyle of the Europeans while the other end represents the Indigenous people who were starved into submission.  A "Sharps Model 1874" Military Rifle sitting in a glass case against a totally blank wall is an example of the guns used by European soldiers to deliberately thin out the buffalo herd, which was a main source of food, clothing and shelter for the Natives.  The blank wall is symbolic of the near extinction of the American bison.

Kent Monkman often uses cheeky humour (pun intended) to soften the tone but not the message when highlighting some very painful topics in Canadian history. His painting "Subjugation of Truth" alludes to Cree Chiefs Poundmaker and Big Bear being forced to sign treaties giving up their lands in order to save their tribes from starving.  The iron chains attached to their legs and the firm hand of the Mountie grasping Poundmaker's shoulder leave little doubt that this was a coerced signing.  To lighten this serious subject matter, Monkman adds a portrait on the wall of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle in the guise of Queen Victoria.  When describing the impact of the railway on the Indigenous people, his work "Iron Horse", he depicts the railway as a Trojan Horse, outwardly seeming to bare gifts and bounty for the Indigenous people, but instead leading to their downfall.  In "The Daddies", Monkman painstakingly recreates Robert Harris' 1883 painting "Fathers of Confederation" depicting the Charlottetown Conference of September 1864 which set Confederation in motion, but then adds a nude Miss Chief to the mix.  The painting raises the question of why First Nations representatives were not at this meeting.

In the early days of New France and the fur trade, beaver pelts were considered trade currency and beavers were slaughtered in huge numbers.  Naming his piece "Massacre of the Innocents", Monkman compares the slaughter of the beavers to Ruben's masterpiece of the same name, depicting the Biblical account of King Herod's infanticide.  Monkman even recreates the iconic segment of Ruben's painting where a guard has lifted a baby overhead and is in midst of slamming him to the ground.  The most irreverent work in the exhibition is titled "Bears of Confederation".  It depicts
a group of white men in various stages of undress, some wearing only kinky bondage harnesses, being raped and ravaged by bears and whipped by Miss Chief.   Bears are considered to be spiritual by the Indigenous people but feared by the White Man.  Could these men be some of the Fathers of Confederation from "The Daddies" and "Subjugation of Truth" paintings, finally getting their comeuppance?

Hearing Kent Monkman talk about the meanings behind his various pieces of art allowed us to appreciate the poignancy of the messages that he was trying to convey.  It is too bad the Shame and Prejudice exhibition will not be on display for longer, and that there is not more curatory notes for those who were not lucky enough to attend the curator talk.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Theatre: Disenchanted



 *Photo by Dahlia Katz
The hilarious off-Broadway musical Disenchanted gives a modern, feminist spin to the storybook princess tropes perpetuated by classic fairy tales and animated Disney movies.  Rather than being damsels in distress awaiting rescue from their princes, familiar characters like Snow White, Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, and Mulan, are portrayed as bold, brassy, independent women who want their real stories to be told.  The original idea for the show came to former history teacher turned composer Dennis Giacino while he was teaching the history of Jamestown Virginia and the Native Indian "princess" Pocahontas, who was actually a child and a tomboy when she first came in contact with English colonist John Smith. Giacino marveled at how these facts were distorted in the historically inaccurate portrayal of Pocahontas in the Disney cartoon, where she became a buxom young woman with long, flowing black hair.  This thought led to his first song Honestly with lines like "I was only ten but now I'm Double D .. why wasn't my story told honestly?" ¹

That first song spawned a collection of musical stories where each princess bemoans her on-screen portrayal.  Mulan ponders whether she might be lesbian since she wears pants in the movie and doesn't get the guy.  Jasmine from Aladdin complains that she is just a "secondary" princess with no plot of her own other than to support the hero. Belle is being driven insane by all the talking kitchenware.  The Little Mermaid regrets giving up her home in the sea in exchange for a pair of legs. Rapunzel laments that the images of the princesses have been commercialized and merchandised but they don't see "One Red Cent" of the profits.  Tiana, the first black princess from the 2009 Disney movie "The Princess and the Frog" demands to know why "it took so long to give a sista a song?" ¹

While each of these princesses gets her cameo moment, most of the musical is carried by the dynamic trio of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.  Together, they sing about female empowerment, not requiring a man for their "happily ever after", overcoming body issues ("I'm Perfect", "Big Tits") and eating disorders ("All I want to do is eat.. a Cheetos .. a Doritos .. Haagen Daaz!!!").¹

Disenchanted is a sassy, irreverent, laugh-out-loud musical that champions girl power and sends an important message to female tweens and teenagers. Yet despite the Disney princess references, the show is not appropriate for young children.  Mature topics are discussed (like the prince slipping Sleeping Beauty the tongue while she was asleep).  There are occurrences of swearing both spoken and implied.  In the song "Happy Tune", a kazoo and musical triangle are sounded in lieu of a curse word as Snow White vocalizes her displeasure at being told to stay home to cook and clean.

The show has played to rave reviews across the USA and in Toronto.  It is back by popular demand for one encore performance on Feb.14, 2017 at the Great Hall.  Discount tickets can be found on line.  For a really good time, this show should not be missed.


¹ Lyrics quoted from songs of Disenchanted by Dennis Giacino

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Theatre: Carrie the Musical, Merrily We Row Along

Recently I had the occasion to watch a live performance of Carrie the Musical based on the Stephen King horror novel, and a documentary about the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along.  These two shows each have the dubious distinction of being a huge flop in the 1980s, playing for only 5 and 16 Broadway performances respectively.  Subsequently, both shows have developed a bit of a cult following, resulting in revivals and re-stagings of new adaptations in Off-Broadway and smaller community theatres.  These new productions produced slightly better results but still were not considered to be hits.  For each musical, it is interesting to reflect upon what made it such a resounding failure in its first production, and what improved in subsequent adaptations.

Most people know the premise of Stephen King's 1974 novel Carrie, about a socially awkward, telekinetic girl with the oppressive, religious fanatic mother.  Relentlessly bullied at school, Carrie is pushed to the point where she loses control and uses her powers to wreak death and destruction at her high school prom.  The story was adapted into an iconic movie starring Sissy Spacek in the titular role in 1976, then less successfully turned into a musical in 1988.

With its dark subject matter, Carrie the Musical might have done better Off-Broadway. Instead, it was thrust into the mainstream during the heyday of the mega-musical where productions had to be big, bold and technologically challenging spectacles.  The initial production focused more on hydraulic lifts, strobe lighting, fireball and laser beam effects, and less on character or plot development.  It was plagued with script issues from the start, prompting incessant rewrites of dialogue and songs.  This resulted in campy, confused scenes not aided in the least by bizarre costumes (toga-like gym uniforms, leather jackets and tight body suits) that did not reflect the adolescent characters or the high school setting.  The second act opens with the song "Out for Blood", which some argue may be the worst song ever written, with lines like "Chop! Kill the pig!  Pig, pig! Kill, kill! ... We’ll make ’em bleed!" ¹ as the bullies Chris and her boyfriend Billy butcher a pig and smear blood on themselves in a ritual dance.

There were technical challenges as well.  The climatic bucket scene at the prom had to be scaled back when the overhead drenching of Carrie with "pig-blood" caused the actress' microphone to malfunction right before her big song.  Instead, Billy runs out with a small bucket and tosses a small amount of red goop over Carrie's head.  So after all the buildup, rather than a spectacle, the central moment fizzled.  The audience did not know whether they should laugh or boo or leave in disgust at the mess of a show, which closed after 5 performances, lost $8 million dollars and is still considered the most infamous Broadway flop to date.

But there were some good songs and the potential of a better musical to be salvaged.  The opening song "In" about the pressures of all students (not just Carrie) to fit in has some poignant lyrics ("life just doesn't begin until you're in" ¹) and a good melody but just fell flat with the original staging and costumes.  Carrie the Musical continued to be rewritten. Half the original songs were jettisoned including the awful "Out For Blood" and new songs were added to provide a more cohesive story that down-played the horror aspects and focused on the theme of high school bullying.   The song "The World According to Chris" replaced "Out For Blood" and gave insight into why Chris had become such a vicious bully with lyrics like "My daddy taught me you get nowhere being nice .. Better to strike than get struck ... Better to screw than get screwed" ¹.  There is also the implication that Chris is in an abusive relationship with Billy, and these glimpses into her character humanize her slightly and give her more depth.  Similarly the new song "Stay Here Instead" sung by Carrie's mother Margaret shows that in her own crazy way, she does love and is trying to protect Carrie.  By amping down the fanaticism and showing real concern for her daughter, Margaret gains a bit of sympathy, making the fatalistic finale all the more tragic.

An off-Broadway revival featuring the latest rewrites ran for 46 performances (almost 10-fold longer than the original run) in 2012.  Learning from past mistakes, the new production reduced the camp, dressed the cast like actual high school students and tried to make the anti-bullying plot more relevant in the Internet age by incorporating the concept of selfies, social media and online bullying with the use of video.  Since then, community theatre groups have been encouraged to put their own spin on the musical, continuing the search for a workable version.  

I recently attended a production of Carrie the Musical performed by University of Toronto's Hart House Theatre, which seems to have adopted the most recently revised libretto.  Being what I consider a "semi-pro" production by a community theatre, there was the expected mix of singers ranging from OK to fantastic.  Unfortunately the poor sound quality in the Hart House Theatre did not do any favours for those with weaker voices.  The two stand-out performers with amazing voices were the actresses playing Carrie and Margaret, who also had the most powerful songs to sing and did them justice.

I actually enjoyed this production up until the last scenes.  For the most part, I thought the songs were interesting and did a good job of telling the story and conveying the motivations and feelings of the various characters.  That is what I look for most in a musical.  However I thought the climax and finale were poorly staged and therefore felt limpid and disappointing. The small drizzle of "blood" that fell on Carrie did not seem to warrant all that fury and her "Destruction" scene involved her waving her arms around while people seemed to faint around her.  The ineffective use of strobe lighting made it so dark that it was difficult to see the various characters meet their demise.  Then after the penultimate scene between Carrie and Margaret, an epilogue with Sue and Carrie tried to bring healing and closure to the events but didn't quite make sense.

In the post show talk, the cast discussed how to some degree, "we are all Carrie" or at least fear that we could become the target of bullying if we don't succumb to peer pressure and join the mob and partake in the bullying--echoing the sentiments that Chris sings about in her song.

The musical "Merrily We Roll Along", written by Stephen Sondheim and directed by Harold Prince, seemed like it would be a sure-fire hit on paper, based on the pedigree and previous successes of the collaborators.  The issues leading to the failure of the show are examined in a documentary called "The Best Worse Thing that Ever Could Have Happened", directed by Lonny Price, one of the leads in the original 1981 Broadway production.

Although I have not had the opportunity to watch a live performance of Merrily, I did watch the documentary as well as video highlights from the musical.  I have also listened to the entire soundtrack while following along with the lyrics and commentary written by Sondheim in his autobiographical book "Finishing the Hat".  From what I heard and saw, I can understand why the show did not succeed, and it was not due to a lack of some great songs.

Based on a 1934 play of the same name, the musical Merrily We Roll Along deals with the same basic plot line and uses the same gimmick of telling the story backwards.  We meet Franklin Shepard, a successful movie producer and former composer.  Despite his financial success, Frank lives an empty, meaningless life, having tossed aside old friendships with childhood friends Charley and Mary, and lost the love of his first wife Beth and son, all in pursuit of his climb to the top.  As the show progresses, we move backwards in time, stopping at various key moments that led Frank to his eventual fate, until we reach the beginning when the young friends first meet, full of hope, dreams and ambition.

The story spans over two decades, following the characters from their mid 40s back to early 20s.  For some reason, it was decided that the cast should be made up of young actors between the of ages 16-25, who would play roles significantly older than themselves in the beginning, but would eventually reach their actual ages by the end of the show.  This concept just did not work. Although all extremely talented singers, dancers and actors, the members of the young cast were not mature nor experienced enough to pull off the cynicism and gravity of the show's initial numbers and just appeared like youngsters playing dress-up.  This did not help an already confusing plot that was difficult to follow with its backwards timeline.  When the audience could not tell the characters apart, it was decided to forgo the wardrobe and put all the actors in sweatshirts with their character's name or role emblazoned on the front.  This merely accentuated the already amateurish feel of the show.  During the 6 weeks of 52 preview performances, changes were made to the script and songs after just about every show.  Add this to the fact that Sondheim works usually require more effort and attention to fully appreciate with complicated lyrics, intricate scores and multiple people singing at the same time and it was all just too many conceits for an audience to overcome at once.  In subsequent revivals of the show, adult actors were chosen for the parts, the wardrobe was resurrected, several songs and parts of the book were re-written in order to make the story flow better.

Lonny Price's documentary The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened deals with the making of Merrily We Roll Along, using archive footage of the audition process, rehearsals, previews and performances including interviews with the cast, director and composer about what this show meant to them.  Now over 30 years after the show closed, Price interviews some of the main cast members to discuss how the experience of being on the show and then enduring its failure has affected their lives.  Lonny Price (Charley), went on to have a very successful career as a theatre actor, producer and director. Jim Watson, who at the last minute replaced the original actor cast as Frank, also continued successfully on Broadway.  We all know what happened to Jason Alexander (Broadway producer Joe) after his first theatrical role, as he went on to fame and fortune playing George Costanza on Seinfeld.  But most of the other young cast members were not able to parlay this experience into a career and have left the show business scene. 

When I first listened to the Merrily soundtrack, it came across as a cacophony of sounds with not enough exposition in the lyrics to guide me in understanding what the story was about.  Even when I listened to it again, this time reading along with the lyrics and stage directions, it still took some effort to follow what was happening.  So I could just imagine how the audience felt coming in cold to see this show.  But something happened as I listened to the songs more and more.  Unconsciously, I found myself infectiously humming the first few lines of the opening title song .. "Yesterday is gone .. see the pretty countryside" ².

The songs slowly came to life for me and I started to appreciate what Sondheim was trying to do.
The beautiful, haunting tune "Not A Day Goes By" is sung twice, once as a tender ballad between Frank and Beth as they declare their love for each other that gets "better and stronger and deeper and nearer and simpler and freer and richer and clearer" ² and then as a Beth's bitter admonishment at the end of their marriage after Frank cheats on her, where the words to the same tune become "cursing and crying and turning and reaching and waking and dying .." ².  But because the story is told backwards, what is usually the bitter reprise is actually sung first and then the hopeful love song later on.  Sondheim delights in turning an old musical trope upside-down by creating the "reverse-reprise".  He does the same with the catchy song "Old Friends", where a snippet of the song is sung at the beginning of the show and then the full song sung later, revealing its full meaning.  One of my favourite songs of the show is Charley's manic, out-of-control delivery of "Franklin, Shepard Inc." in which he lambasts Frank for selling out and giving up on their dreams of writing musicals together.  I had to listen to it a few times before I fully grasped the genius of this song, but now I'm fully on board.  It was incredible to learn that this was a last minute song substitution that Lonny Price had only several days to learn on the fly before performing it live.  Finally in last part of the song "Opening Doors" which Sondheim has claimed to be his most autobiographical song, Frank and Charley are just starting out and trying to get musical producer Joe to take on their show.  Sondheim spoofs his own personal experiences when Joe's reaction to Frank and Charley's song is "That's not a tune you can hum.  There's not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum .. give me some melody". ² Knowing Sondheim's eclectic and often weird body of work, one wonders how many times he has heard sentiments like that directed at him?

The metamorphosis of my opinion regarding Merrily We Row Along reinforces the idea that appreciating and understanding Sondheim requires effort and dedication, but the rewards are worth it.  Therefore it is equally clear why the show was universally panned when it first came out, but is still frequently revived today.

Despite initially being huge Broadway failures, Carrie the Musical and Merrily We Row Along have each found semi-redemption in smaller-scaled revivals.  In each case, once you look beyond the show's surface flaws, you can find elements of an entertaining musical.  You just have to care enough to look.


¹ Lyrics quoted from Carrie the Musical by Dean Pitchford
² Lyrics quoted from Merrily We Row Along by Stephen Sondheim