Advice for Incoming Musical Theatre and Theatre Majors

Advice for Incoming Musical Theatre and Theatre Majors

Going to college for the performing arts can seem all-consuming, but it is not nor should it be treated as such. It is crucial that your training in music, dance, acting, design, etc. be accompanied by a true college experience, so you don’t end up like the characters in the musical Avenue Q, who wish they could go back.

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Children Will Listen

Aaron Netsky

  • OnStage New York Columnist

Advice to all you writers out there: know the market, know the history, know the lineage. Know what’s been written before, whose act you are following, because you are following someone’s. Even if what you’ve written is a young adult novel about musical theatre, there is a track record of musical theatre in children’s literature. It’s not a long one, but it’s there, and it will come up. It was therefore my professional responsibility to read Tim Federle’s Better Nate Than Ever, although I probably would have made my way to it eventually, since in real life the movie E. T.: The Extra Terrestrial is my favorite movie, and in Federle’s book, it’s a new Broadway musical. I mean, how could I resist? But since I’m looking to follow in Federle’s footsteps bringing musical theatre to young readers (something I’ve written about previously), it is important for me to know what he and Nate Foster bring to the table.

The story is of Nate Foster’s escape (without parental knowledge) from Jankburg, Pennsylvania, his grayscale hometown, to New York City to audition for the afore-mentioned science-fiction musical. When I first learned that the book featured a musical based on my favorite movie, I had the reaction I often scoff at when I see other people have it: that’s ridiculous, it could never be a musical, why even contemplate it? But I believe anything could be a musical if handled properly, and besides, Federle isn’t writing the musical itself (though there are snippets of dialogue and a cast breakdown; the best detail is a hinted tap dance number for the finale), he is writing about it. The point of the novel is not that the musical makes sense, it’s what it inspires in young Nate, which is a kind of recklessness that I’ve only seen in John Green novels, and which, as when I read those novels, I rather wish I had had when I was Nate’s age.

Federle’s descriptions of Nate’s first moments in New York City are perfect, as he captures the intimidating size, the disorientation one feels emerging onto a street corner (even after living here for five years) about which way is north, which south, and the people who aren’t necessarily being mean to you, but aren’t going out of their way to be particularly helpful, either. Everyone is just trying to get by, including Nate, who gets just enough help to reach his cattle-call audition, the semi-haphazard nature of which is also a good reflection of the real thing. The story takes place over the course of only a few days, and nearly every minute is accounted for in the text. Some of the ups and downs of the plot seem as convenient to the drama of the story as whether or not Khaleesi’s dragons are in the mood to listen to her in any given episode of Game of Thrones, but it is a children’s novel, carefully constructed, like so many musicals, to be a ride, and a ride it most certainly is.

A blurb on the cover of my copy of the book compares it to Judy Blume, with whom I have some experience and I can see the similarities, but frankly it reminded me more of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, so chaotic were some of Nate’s adventures and escapes. Nate is an appealing protagonist, though as sometimes happens, a supporting player, his best friend Libby, stole quite a few scenes for me, including the chapter from the sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate, included in the back of the book. The story of her cancer stricken mother, and the way she skillfully stage manages Nate’s adventure even when it goes off the rails, combined with her impressive knowledge of musical theatre (greater, seemingly, than Nate’s, as she is his teacher), made me more interested in her story and development. Also intriguing, though not enough so to take the spotlight off of Nate, was Nate’s NYC-based actress/waitress aunt, Heidi, who, along with her roommate, brings some down-to-Earth truth-telling to a wild and somewhat fantastical story.

Musical theatre, for kids, is a team sport in which there’s really no winning, except by way of those high school-level Tony Awards knock-offs that keep springing up. Maybe one day it will be more about winning even at that level, but I’d like to think it is still more about team cohesion without that added pressure. There’s a lot for kids to take away from it, from the fascinating stories that populate the musical theatre canon to the elocution skills that come out of a childhood of performing, whether or not one pursues it as a career. It is also, even now, a more accepting circle at that age than most other areas of kid-life, a place for freak flags to fly free. Its presence in children’s literature is, therefore, important, and I hope to see more of it, not just for selfish reasons.

According to Federle’s bio at the back of the book, he (at least) once had an adventure like Nate’s, and I’m curious about the details of that. He has done pretty well for himself since, not only as an author, but as a performer on Broadway (I probably saw him in Gypsy in 2003) and a librettist this past season, co-writing the book for the musical adaptation of another children’s novel, Tuck Everlasting. Children’s books becoming musical theatre is already an industry unto itself. Musical theatre becoming children’s books? I think I see a glimmer.

 

Aaron Netsky writes about musicals (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) as well as books, politics, and culture (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com). In addition to his personal blogs, he has also been published on StageLightMagazine.com, TheHumanist.com, AtlasObscura.com, and ThoughtCatalog.com. He has had various jobs off-Broadway. 

10 American History Musicals That Are Not Hamilton

Aaron Netsky

  • OnStage New York Columnist

If you, like me, have yet to see Hamilton, you may, like me, also be reluctant to listen to the cast recording, wanting to experience as much of the score as possible for the first time in person. But if you are like me in these ways, you probably also want to play relevant showtunes as part of your 4th of July weekend celebrations, and so you find yourself conflicted about whether or not to crack open that cast recording a bit early.

But did you, like me, know that Hamilton is not the only musical based on American history? Sometimes, coverage of Hamilton has made it seem as though it is the only musical that has ever existed, but there are, in fact, other musicals about times in America’s past, times that we should be proud of, and times that we should look to for guidance about what not to do in the future. Here are ten musicals that are not Hamilton that draw inspiration from American history:

10: To start off, one of the most prolific writers of musical theatre, Frank Wildhorn, wrote The Civil War with lyricist Jack Murphy and librettist Gregory Boyd. It is a musical that, like America after the Civil War, has been through a lot of changes over time. For instance, it now goes by the name Freedom’s Song and has a significantly smaller cast. Not a traditional book musical, it has more in common with themed song cycles, having actors singing about the war between the states from various perspectives, specifically the Union side, the Confederate side, and the point of view of the slaves. It employs a number of musical styles, including gospel, folk, and country, and a studio cast album in 1999, after the brief Broadway run the previous year, included musical theatre stars like Linda Eder and Betty Buckley, but also artists from other fields, like poet Maya Angelou and the rock band Hootie & the Blowfish.

9: History teachers around the country have found Hamilton to be a convenient teaching tool for getting students interested in history, but employing musical theatre in the classroom is not new. Take Adventures of Lewis and Clark: Roger Emerson and John Jacobson’s educational little show is only 40 minutes long (some other musicals could take a lesson from this classroom show), and tells the story of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who set out in 1804 to explore the territory President Thomas Jefferson had recently purchased from the French (There is a musical called Louisiana Purchase, but it has nothing to do with this part of American history). The necessary inclusion of their guide Sacajawea puts Adventures of Lewis and Clark in that very short list of American musicals that actually have Native American characters, and it probably does the most respectful job of depicting them.

8: Benjamin Franklin loved France and the French. During the American War of Independence, Franklin sought the support of the French against the British, which was needed, but not easily gotten. Mark Sandrich, Jr., and Sidney Michael’s Ben Franklin in Paris (with songs contributed by Jerry Herman) somewhat fictionalizes one diplomatic trip he took to the French capital, during which he enlisted the help of a confidante of King Louis XVI and dealt with his own son’s betrayal of the cause back home. Which actor had the charm to pull off such a feat as making the iconic Benjamin Franklin a musical comedy hero in the original production? None other than the Music Man himself, Robert Preston.

7: Leonard Bernstein’s last original score to make it to Broadway, which he wrote with Alan Jay Lerner, told the story of the White House in its first hundred years. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue featured Ken Howard playing every president represented in the musical, including Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and Andrew Johnson. The musical concentrated on events having to do with slavery and race, including Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave, Sally Hemmings, since confirmed with DNA evidence, but at the time still only an allegation. Though the score was always well regarded, Bernstein would not allow a cast recording to be made at the time, so upset was he by the critical response to the musical. It was later reworked, after Bernstein’s death, as a classical piece called A White House Cantata, which was recorded.

6: Pacific Overtures uses the fictional characters of Kayama Yesaemon, an inconsequential samurai, and Manjiro, a fisherman who gets lost at sea and learns to appreciate the culture of the Americans who rescue him, to tell the story of the westernization of Japan. On July 8th, 1853, an American, Commodore Matthew Perry, docked in Uraga Harbor, demanding to speak with Japanese leaders. The first act shows how his reception in Japan was delicately arranged, deals were made with him, and he left peacefully. The second act begins with Japan being bombarded with diplomats from the rest of the western world, including England, Russia, and France, and America comes back, wanting more. Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures score is one of the most interesting in musical theatre, featuring beautiful, haunting ballads like “Poems” and “Pretty Lady,” and delightfully fun up-tempo numbers like “Someone in a Tree” and “Please Hello.” Though it takes place entirely in Japan, it is included here as a depiction of how our then young country was perceived as it began to interact with the wider world.

5: Musicals, like all art, serve to remind America of those moments to be proud of and those moments it should not repeat. Allegiance, by Jay Kuo, Marc Acito, and Lorenzo Thione, inspired by George Takei’s story of when he and his family were removed from their home in 1942 to live in a Japanese American internment camp, serves the latter purpose. And while the story’s central characters are fictional, based on Takei’s family and other Japanese Americans in the camp, a background plotline follows Mika Masaoka, a real life figure who, having previously been part of the Japanese American Citizens League’s decision to allow Japanese internment in the first place, is depicted during his efforts to create military regiments in which Japanese Americans, like Telly Leung’s character Sammy, could fight during World War II. He’s a minor character in the musical, and a complicated one in American history, but crucial to the patriotism at the heart of Allegiance.

4: The omnipresent hip-hop musical Hamilton managed to save its namesake, Alexander Hamilton, from being booted off the ten-dollar bill. Andrew Jackson’s emo-rock musical was not as effective at saving him from losing his place on the twenty. Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson uses emo-rock to bring out the tortured and, in some cases, whiny sides of its characters. The title character, and seventh president of the United States, gets more of the tortured tunes (“I’m Not That Guy,” “The Saddest Song”), and other historical figures, like John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay, are portrayed as whiny, entitled, and conniving (“The Corrupt Bargain”). The pairing of Jackson with this kind of music is fitting. He was captured and tortured by the British when he was 13, during the American Revolution, and rose to prominence as a military leader who, among other things, organized the forcible removal of Native American tribes from the south eastern United States, an action echoed later when he was president, with the Indian Removal Act. That first aggression toward Native Americans is represented by a demented cousin-song of the children’s rhyme “Ten Little Indians,” with the same name. Noted Jackson biographer Jon Meacham is a fan of this musical.

3: Harriet Tubman, who will replace Andrew Jackson as the face of the twenty-dollar bill (though he will still be on the back, apparently) doesn’t exactly have a musical of her own, but lines between musicals, operas, and oratorios are blurring more and more, and her oratorio is Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman. Based on a book of the same name by Kate Clifford Larson, Marcus Shelby’s oratorio for jazz orchestra and chorus tells of Tubman’s astonishing life working on the Underground Railroad to free slaves, working as a nurse during the Civil War, and working for women’s suffrage after the war. Tubman is definitely someone worthy of appearing on American currency as well as the musical stage.

2: Assassins began its life at Playwrights Horizons in 1990, a creation of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, based on an older script by Charles Gilbert, Jr. Gathering from across time, various men and women who tried to and/or succeeded at killing presidents, line up to play a carnival shooting game. Some hit, some miss, all ultimately lose. The musical does not go in chronological order, beginning as it does with John Wilkes Booth, the “pioneer” presidential assassin, and ending with Lee Harvey Oswald, the last “successful” assassin, whose act, according to the musical, struck the country in a way no other attempt on a president’s life had or would. Sondheim’s score is a kind of pastiche of demented Americana, with Dixie tunes and triumphal marches and even pop songs that don’t sound quite right, more cynical in tone than traditionally optimistic American music. It’s a great primer on this particular corner of American history, as is Sarah Vowell’s book Assassination Vacation.

1: 1776 tells the slightly altered and abridged story of the writing, voting on, and signing of the Declaration of Independence, a move driven by the musical’s central character, John Adams. This musical boasts the longest passage of time between the use of music to tell the story in musical theatre history, more than half an hour without a song, and often uses passages from the real letters Adams and his wife Abigail wrote to each other while Adams was leading this charge for lyrics and dialogue. Depicted are such famous historical figures as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and some less well known figures, like Richard Henry Lee, whose “The Lees of Old Virginia” is a comic highlight, and Edward Rutledge, whose “Molasses to Rum” is a haunting reminder that all was not sunshine and rainbows at the Continental Congress, and that the founding documents were far from perfect. In fact the whole musical is about the kind of disarray the founders found themselves in trying to figure out America. One of the best songs, though, is “Is Anybody There,” sung by Adams as he reads dispatches from George Washington’s military campaign. Composer/lyricist Sherman Edwards's music is triumphant and determined, and Adams’s description of parades and fireworks one day being employed to celebrate what he and his companions are doing has got to be one of the most 4th of July songs in the musical theatre cannon.

Happy Independence Day.

Aaron Netsky writes about musicals on tumblr (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and books, politics, and culture on his personal blog (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com). His writing has been published on AtlasObscura.com, TheHumanist.com, ThoughtCatalog.com, and StageLightMagazine.com. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.

*This article originally said that the composer of 1776 had made up John Adams's prediction about how Independence Day would be celebrated. The lyrics are based on a letter Adams wrote to his wife, as so many of the lyrics are.

Looking Forward to Replacement Casts

Aaron Netsky

  • OnStage New York Columnist

I was pretty much resigned to the idea that I would not be seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda in his musical Hamilton on Broadway before it even opened unless I won the lottery (either lottery). It was more disappointing because I’d been looking forward to this musical since he performed a segment of it at the White House in 2009 and my inability to see it stemmed from everyone in the world suddenly catching up with me all at once than because of any attachment to seeing him play the title character. Sure, that would have been nice, but I had seen his understudy in In the Heights (I don’t have the insert, but I suppose it was Javier Munoz), and lost nothing by it. I’ve had two encounters with Miranda, during one of which he very enthusiastically answered a question I had asked a panel he was part of, and in all likelihood will have plenty more, probably including seeing finally him in something he wrote (or something someone else wrote). The point is, the announcement that he would be leaving Hamilton after July 9th did not hit me like it seems to have hit so many. So I want to reassure everyone: replacements are awesome.

First of all, they are usually at least as talented as original cast members, sometimes more so (no names, not that I can think of any). Often, replacements in one show were original cast members of others. The very first Broadway show I saw had a cast filled with replacements, and for the most part I’m glad I saw those people instead of the originals. Carolee Carmello is the power behind the music on the original cast recording of Parade, but I barely knew what a musical was when she was in Parade, so her being part of my first Broadway show, the revival of Kiss Me, Kate (and really, even original casts of revivals are replacements when you think about it) is a special detail for me, even if I didn’t know it at the time. What I did know at the time was that the secondary female lead, Lois Lane/Bianca, was played by Janine LaManna, not only the original star of the musical that turned my attentions to Broadway, Seussical, but a native of my own hometown, Rochester, NY. I don’t know the name of the person she replaced, but I’m glad I saw it when I did.

Beyond the equality of performances, another way to look at it is that everyone will flock (as the have with Hamilton) to get a look at the originals, whose performances will be immortalized on the cast recording and on various television performances, not to mention at the Lincoln Center performing arts library, at which people will be seeing the original cast performances for years to come. The replacements in a hit may get as many viewers, but so far as I have seen with hits since I’ve been paying attention, not as much attention or discussion, as the musical ages and becomes part of the Broadway background. Occasionally a star will step in and get press attention, but mostly their performances are only for those who come to see the show. More and more, I am interested in seeing those performances, the other interpretations, not the ones stamped in the cultural memory. One of the pleasures of being an usher was seeing not only just about every understudy performance in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but two replacements that came along toward the end of the run, who had very distinct performances to offer that were not filmed or recorded, except maybe illegally, though not on my watch. One in particular (again, no names, even though this time I have one) I actually liked better than the original performance, and I had previously seen this person as a replacement in another musical. This person has also headed up original casts.

Then there are the confirmations that the replacement you saw was as worth seeing as the star you missed. Again, these confirmations are not necessary, do not in any way reflect the relative qualities of one replacement or another, or the replacement over the original or vice versa, but replacements rarely get reviews in The New York Times. About a week after I saw the revival of The King and I currently playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, I was surprised to see a review of this musical, which had been running for nearly a year, in the Times. The reviewer said he had been inspired to re-review the show by the man who replaced Ken Watanabe, Hoon Lee. Civilians seeing the production had written to Ben Brantley to say how great Lee was, and Brantley had decided to use his platform to bring attention to this relative unknown who had taken over from a movie star. Nothing against Watanabe, but I had never had much interest in seeing him as the King of Siam, and according to the reviews it was hard to understand his line readings because of his accent. Lee, on the other hand, is an American with a musical theatre track record, and hearing his very clear deliveries of the Rodgers and Hammerstein material made me feel the way I imagine the British feel when they hear their own perform Shakespeare. I knew I’d seen something great, but it was nice to have Brantley confirm it.

Hamilton is going to be around, and I’ll see it when I see it. This season I was much more interested in less sure things, like Allegiance and School of Rock and Disaster!, two of which I managed to see. Perhaps by the time I see Hamilton, some in the cast will have been born after it opened on Broadway, as is now happening with The Phantom of the Opera cast replacements. I hope it doesn’t take that long, but it’s not as important to me as it would have been some years ago. I want to see musicals and I want to see performers, but they don’t have to be in the exact combination originally ordained by producers and directors. I’ve seen great performances that will be forever immortalized on video and audio recordings and great performances that will be mere statistics in Broadway encyclopedias. I don’t distinguish between them, I cherish them equally, as everyone should. 

Everyone Wants to Write a Musical Vol. 2: Prince and Bowie

Aaron Netsky

  • OnStage New York Columnist
  • @AaronNetsky

A little more than a year ago, I wrote an article called “Everyone Wants to Write a Musical.” It was exactly what it claimed to be, an exploration of non-musical-theatre people who have made their way to musical theatre. Not every singer/songwriter directs a movie. Not every playwright writes an opera. But everyone seems to find their way to musical theater. And since everyone does, one article could not possibly contain all of the people who have come from different walks of life to join our merry revels. So it has become necessary to write a sequel to my article of yesteryear, with the promise that it probably won’t be the last. I’m steeped in this stuff, and always finding new and interesting connections.

First of all, the musicals of this past Broadway season. I mentioned in the last article about Sara Bareilles making her Broadway debut as the songstress behind Waitress, based on the 2007 movie of the same name, with the history making all-woman production team. Many of the other musicals of this season are also by, or at least involve people from other areas of entertainment. George Takei is not credited as one of the writers of Allegiance, but it is based on the time of his life when he and his family were forced to live in a Japanese-American internment camp. He, a star of television and movies, was the driving force behind the musical, inspired to tell his story in that form by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights.

Steve Martin, of Saturday Night Live and countless classic comedy movies, not to mention the stand-up and bluegrass concerts (he was kind enough to finally write us atheists a song), brought a musical to Broadway this year, Bright Star, with the help of his recent collaborator, singer/songwriter Edie Brickell (who, by the way, is married to Paul Simon, of Simon and Garfunkel, another singer/songwriter who wrote a musical, 1998’s The Capeman, about convicted murderer Salvador Agrón). Bright Star grew out of their songwriting collaboration. Disaster! was co-written by Seth Rudetsky, and while I’m sure him writing a musical surprised no one, it is still the first time in his wide-ranging musical theatre career that he has written a musical. Actor Jack Plotnick’s involvement as co-writer may have been less expected. And then there’s Tim Federle, who also has a background in musical theatre, but is better known as the author of Better Nate Than Ever, about a young boy auditioning for E.T: The Musical. Who better, really, to help adapt the children’s classic Tuck Everlasting for the stage than a musical theatre children’s novel author?

There are a few, in addition to Paul Simon, who I left out of my last article, much to my embarrassment. First of all, Trey Anastasio, lead singer of the band Phish, wrote one of my favorite musicals of the past few years, Hands on a Hardbody, with Broadway musical theatre veterans Amanda Green and Doug Wright. When Wright and Green invited him to join them on the project, it was natural for Anastasio to say yes, because he had been taken to musicals as a kid and has regularly taken his own kids to musicals. Kathie Lee Gifford, best known as a talk show host, has also been an actress and a singer/songwriter in her life, and so it was also natural for her to arrive at musical theatre. With composers David Pomeranz and David Friedman, Gifford wrote the Broadway musical Scandalous. She also wrote a coming-of-age musical called Key Pin It Real with Friedman, and is working on a musical adaptation of It’s A Wonderful Life with John McDaniel, a man I first heard of when I was watching him as musical director of The Rosie O’Donnell Show. Speaking of Rosie, who has performed in and produced musicals, I’m calling it now: she’s going to write one one day.

Now to the real reason I brought this back up. For all of the names above, only two in the past few months have really made me stop and think, “Wow, everyone really does want to write a musical.” Those names are David Bowie and Prince. Both men, of course, died earlier this year, and left such huge careers behind that their musicals were largely overlooked, even though Bowie’s had just recently debuted. Lazarus, which shared its title song with a song on Bowie’s last album, Blackstar, was conceived as a sequel to the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, by Walter Tevis, in the movie adaptation of which Bowie had starred. It ran from November 2015 through mid-January 2016 at the New York Theatre Workshop. It was co-written by Enda Walsh, and directed by Ivo van Hove, represented on Broadway this year by two hard-hitting Arthur Miller revivals.

In 1993, Prince wrote a musical based on Homer’s Odyssey called Glam Slam Ulysses, and it was performed for only a few weeks at Prince’s own nightclub. It told the classic story of Odysseus’s ten-year journey back to Ithaca after the Trojan War, and all of the trials he went through, through Prince’s signature brand of music and dance. Many of the songs went on to appear in future Prince albums, but while a big, glamorous Prince-themed musical is almost certainly being plotted somewhere by someone, this musical was small and intimate, and never resurfaced, never went beyond what was essentially an off-off-off-Broadway run.

Just filling in a few blanks here, making a few predictions. I didn’t plan to write a sequel to a blog post, but it just built up until I couldn’t avoid it. Maybe there will be a volume three, if people keep migrating to Broadway from their corners of culture. Nothing wrong with it; it brings diversity: George Takei’s musical has a mostly Asian-American cast, Steve Martin’s has a bluegrass score, and Prince and Bowie’s musicals surely went places most musicals dare not go, as the men themselves went where few before them had dared. How many names will I remember that I should have included after this article is posted? Why, just now Michel Legrand’s name has occurred to me. He’d been scoring movies for nearly a half a century and had won three Oscars, one of them for Yentl, when he arrived on Broadway in 2002 with the musical Amour at the age of seventy. You see? Everyone.

 

Aaron Netsky writes about musicals on tumblr (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com), and writes about books and politics on his personal blog, Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com). His writing has also appeared on StageLightMagazine.com, ThoughtCatalog.com, TheHumanist.com, and AtlasObscura.com. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.

100 Theatre Performers To See Before You Die

Aaron Netsky

  • OnStage New York Columnist
  • @AaronNetsky

Seems like every day on facebook there’s a new list by which to measure how culturally informed you are, whether it’s some form of “100 Books You Must Read Before You Die” or “100 Movies Your Must See Before You Die” or, more rarely, “100 Musicals To See Before You Die” or, even more rarely, “100 Plays To See Before You Die.”

My list is less judgmental, and in fact is more a measure of how much fun you have had or could have before you die. It is a list of performers you should see live, whether on Broadway or in concert, or in a small off-off Broadway space or cabaret room. It’s also arguably harder to complete, since unlike books and movies, which are there for you to pick up or put on at your leisure, some of these people may not give you the opportunity to see them perform live, although you might be surprised. Even the oldest among them are still quite active.

For the record, I’ve seen sixty-seven of them, mostly in big musicals with ensemble casts, but sometimes in significantly smaller settings. I don’t know how many more of them I will manage to see before I die, and then there are the people not listed, and then there are the stars of tomorrow…like any list, it’s really far larger than any blog post can convey, and always growing, but here, at least, is a start:

1)             Chita Rivera

2)             Bernadette Peters

3)             Kristen Chenoweth

4)             Audra McDonald

5)             Joel Grey

6)             John McMartin

7)             Patti LuPone

8)             Idina Menzel

9)             Norm Lewis

10)          Raúl Esparza

11)          Brian Stokes Mitchell

12)          Laura Benanti

13)          Jane Krakowski

14)          Sutton Foster

15)          Hunter Foster

16)          John Cullum

17)          George Hearn

18)          Carolee Carmello

19)          Greg Edelman

20)          Terrence Mann

21)          Rebecca Luker

22)          Melissa Errico

23)          Linda Eder

24)          Judy Kuhn

25)          Will Chase

26)          Robert Cuccioli

27)          Michael Crawford

28)          Jessie Mueller

29)          Andy Karl

30)          Andrew Samonsky

31)          Lea Salonga

32)          Stephanie J. Block

33)          Faith Prince

34)          Kevin Chamberlin

35)          Nathan Lane

36)          Matthew Broderick

37)          Bebe Neuwirth

38)          Jackie Hoffman

39)          Angela Lansbury

40)          James Earl Jones

41)          Seth Rudetsky

42)          Billy Porter

43)          Christian Borle

44)          Andrew Rannells

45)          Norbert Leo Butz

46)          Hugh Jackman

47)          Neil Patrick Harris

48)          Peter Benson

49)          Robert Creighton

50)          Jill Paice

51)          Maria Friedman

52)          Michael Ball

53)          John Barrowman

54)          Joshua Henry

55)          Tonya Pinkins

56)          Anika Noni Rose

57)          Tom Hewitt

58)          Michael Cerveris

59)          Donna Murphy

60)          Lillias White

61)          Kerry Butler

62)          Adam Pascal

63)          Anthony Rapp

64)          Nikki M. James

65)          Michael Park

66)          Kelli O’Hara

67)          B. D. Wong

68)          Roger Bart

69)          Michael K. Lee

70)          Lin-Manuel Miranda

71)          Christopher Jackson

72)          Ruthie Ann Miles

73)          Victoria Clark

74)          Patina Miller

75)          Matthew Morrison

76)          Brian d’Arcy James

77)          Laura Osnes

78)          Renée Elise Goldsberry

79)          Phillipa Soo

80)          Ann Harada

81)          Robin de Jesús

82)          Douglas Hodge

83)          Priscilla Lopez

84)          Celia Keenan-Bolger

85)          Andrew Keenan-Bolger

86)          Sierra Boggess

87)          Keala Settle

88)          Jason Danieley

89)          Marin Mazzie

90)          Rob Bartlett

91)          Jesse Tyler Ferguson

92)          Tracee Chimo

93)          Jessica Hecht

94)          Danny Burstein

95)          Darryl Winslow

96)          Jim Norton

97)          Lily Rabe

98)          Michael McCormick

99)          Jefferson Mays

100)       Mandy Patinkin

 Aaron Netsky writes the 366 Days/366 Musicals blog on tumblr (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com), now in it's final month of daily posts, and he writes about culture and politics on his personal blog (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com). His writing has been published on ThoughtCatalog.com and TheHumanist.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.

"Where Did the Rock Go?" : Andrew Lloyd Webber's Saddest Song?

Aaron Netsky

OnStage New York Critic

~~~~~~~~

I went into the new musical adaptation of School of Rock very skeptical. Skeptical that it could be as good as the movie, skeptical that Jack Black’s shadow could be thrown off, skeptical that Andrew Lloyd Webber should be doing a musical that seemed so trendy, being filled with children. I rarely go into a new musical with such reservations, and I admit it clouded my judgment the first time through (I was very lucky to get a second chance to appreciate it). There was one part, though, that got me even with the wall of skepticism I put up during that first viewing. It was the part when Sierra Boggess, as Principal Rosalie Mullins, stood up and lamented the loss of the music that used to drive her life. Upon her completion of “Where Did The Rock Go?” I very annoyingly turned to my theatrical companion and expressed my immediate excitement for the song. I hadn’t so loved a Webber song in years, and I love Webber songs. As I thought more about it, I began to think that it might be the saddest song he’s ever written.

If you recognize my name from the byline, you may recall that I once wrote an article for On Stage about what seemed to be a Holocaust song in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and if you made that connection, you might question why I think a principal singing about her more carefree days might be sadder than a Holocaust song. “Close Every Door” resembles but is not actually a Holocaust song, and in fact is ultimately a hopeful song, “for [he knows he] will find [his] own piece of mind.”

Thinking back on all of the Webber I know, which is pretty much all of it, I don’t really think he has very many songs that might be sadder. “Memory” springs immediately to mind, and is admittedly similar in theme to “Where Did The Rock Go?” Songs about lost or unrequited love, like “Nothing Like You’ve Ever Known,” might be as universal, but the feelings expressed in them are easier to get over than considering lost youth and opportunity. Those feelings don’t go away with a new love interest. In a show like Jesus Christ Superstar, there’s plenty of sadness, especially toward the end, but the songs themselves, including the title song sung as Jesus takes his final walk, are of a more radical, revolutionary tone, mocking and angry and looking for change.

The sad parts of Webber musicals are found more in moments than in songs. “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” is beautiful, but if you want a punch to the gut from The Phantom of the Opera, consider these few lines from toward the end: “This face which earned a mother’s fear and loathing, a mask my first unfeeling scrap of clothing.” His mother covered his face before she swaddled him. I don’t care how jealous you are of Phantom’s success, that hurts. But it’s not a song. Part of the reason for this is that Webber’s musicals tend to be about determined, unstoppable people, like Eva Peron or Marian Halcombe, or people too delusional to feel real, relatable sadness, like Norma Desmond. The Phantom has had a terrible existence, but we don’t feel bad for him because he kills people.

Now, using a superlative to describe anything is a risky game, and when I do it here I’m not objective. I can’t relate to a cat or a messiah or a phantom the way I can relate to Rosalie Mullins, which may be why her song gets to me more than their plights. I’m no one’s principal, but I have reached that point in life where the colors are not as bright, the music not as seductive, and I’m really noticing and wishing I’d done a few things differently that might have preserved those tones. “Somehow I got older, year by busy year. Yes, the songs kept playing, but I didn’t stop to hear.” She sings of “youth and swagger” being replaced by “grown-up doubt,” which I not only experience but see all over my facebook feed, from friends in all different walks of life but somehow at the same stage I am in that sense. Many lyrics express a very specific kind of loss: “Where do last year’s one hit wonders go to?” “The music faded out” “When did all the static fill the airwaves” “Now the only thing I’m hearing are the echoes disappearing.” It’s like “the day the music died” was Groundhog Day.

But the lyric that kills me is one of the last: “If you flip the record and start over, does it sound the way it did before?” No, Rosalie, it doesn’t. If you replay a CD or a sound file, something digital, it will sound exactly the same, but by playing a record you have worn it down just a little bit, and it will never sound exactly the same again. I don’t know how deliberate the imagery was, but major kudos to Glen Slater for that line in particular. After the climax of the song, she apologizes for getting all nostalgic and regretful, not knowing that her companion at the table, Dewey Finn, knows only too well what she’s going through, as do we all. School of Rock looks like its about kids, which was part of my reluctance to embrace it in the wake of musicals like Billy Elliot, Matilda, and Finding Neverland, and maybe the kid factor is a major contributor to financial success, but as in those musicals, the kids have their stories, but they are also means to adults’ ends. School of Rock is about exactly that sad reality of replaying records, that most tangible and earthy of listening experiences: it won’t sound the same, you can’t go back and re-do life. But you can keep listening, and find more to love upon future listenings (as I do whenever I re-listen to a Webber cast recording), and go forward in a positive new direction.

One of the drawbacks of writing about songs is I can only really quote the lyrics, which in this case are by Glen Slater, but I referred to the song as possibly the saddest by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who writes the music. So while I can’t quote the music, I want to finish up by describing it and its importance to my appreciation as best I can, and also write a word or two about Sierra Boggess’s voice for this song. First the voice: she’s an operatic singer, she was in Master Class and Phantom and Love Never Dies, and even in School of Rock sings everyone’s favorite operatic lick from the Queen of the Night’s aria in The Magic Flute.

But whereas you can’t really create operatic power from a light voice, you can focus operatic power into a light touch, and even though I know she can reach the top note in the arpeggio on the word “where” in the refrain of this song, the delicate way that she sings that word, seemingly almost breaking at the top, brings so much feeling to the song. And I don’t know enough about rock history to know who Webber was trying to emulate with “Where Did the Rock Go?” though my instinct tells me Stevie Nicks, since the characters bond over her music just before the song starts, but from the kind of folk-rock feel of the solo guitar at the beginning to the almost Jesus Christ Superstar-like passion at the climax, I cannot imagine such a song sounding any other way. There’s a simple yearning in the music that represents how collected and organized Rosalie Mullins and her feelings about music are, with a hint of the freedom they so desire that nearly breaks through. Makes me want to learn guitar just so I can perform this song.

 

Aaron Netsky writes the 366 Days/366 Musicals blog on tumblr (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and writes about culture and politics at Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com). He has also been published on ThoughtCatalog.com and TheHumanist.com. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky. 

Who Will Be Lin-Manuel Miranda's Andrew Lloyd Webber?

Aaron Netsky

OnStage New York Columnist

~~~~~~

The first time, but not the last, that I got in trouble in the world of musical theatre was for saying I was a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Must have been one of those summers in musical theatre camp, spending time with people who really cared. I was wrong, apparently; Stephen Sondheim, with whom I was not yet familiar, was where it was at. But I loved Webber, I thought. After all, singing the medley of songs from The Phantom of the Opera and sitting back “stage” as part of the crew when my middle school put on Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (which was put on in a gym) were why I’d gotten into musical theatre in the first place. They seemed adamant though, and over the years I have found the same attitude in many people. But I’ve also met people who love Webber and dislike Sondheim. And it’s always those two, the two giants of the last sixty years of musical theatre history. Now I’m not trying to usher them out the door, but these days musical theatre has an exciting new giant in Lin-Manuel Miranda. What I wonder is who will be his Webber?

You may ask, why isn’t Miranda Webber, what with Hamilton currently the most likely musical to break Phantom’s record for years running on Broadway? Well, sure, he could be. These are arbitrary designations designed to bring a childish tradition of arguing over who is better to the next generation of theatre geeks, anyone could be anyone. But I make him the Sondheim figure for a few reasons. First, like Sondheim, Miranda writes both music and lyrics in his sharp and clever word-centric scores that can twist the tongue of an inexperienced singer. And if you’re looking for a deeper, more symbolic reason, how about the fact that Miranda literally rewrote Sondheim’s first musical for Broadway, translating the lyrics and dialogue of West Side Story for the 2009 revival, so that the Puerto Rican characters would speak and sing in Spanish when interacting only with each other.

So I’m not taking into account levels of success or critical acclaim, nor am I trying to start a feud between Miranda and some composer. After all, Webber and Sondheim themselves never actually feuded; they didn’t care about the rivalry, only their fans did. Their birthday was last week (they share one), and I saw a video on social media that I haven’t seen in years, the two of them honoring Cameron Mackintosh with parodies of “Send in the Clowns” and “Music of the Night.” This is more about someone who gets fans so riled up, they would go so far as to say, “Hamilton’s ok, but wait until you hear this musical by this person.” Who is that going to be? Will it be someone who, like Webber, only writes music, and works with a variety of lyricists?

I like the idea of it being Jeanine Tesori, the composer of such diverse works as Fun Home, Shrek, Violet, Caroline, or Change, and Thoroughly Modern Millie. Then again, there’s always Frank Wildhorn, who, like Webber, has adapted some pretty dark material for the musical stage. I’m talking Jekyll & Hyde and Dracula, but he’s also responsible for recent musicals based on the escapades of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole. Tom Kitt’s been doing some important work, with Next to Normal and If/Then, and collaborated with Miranda on Bring it On, which would add some spice to the debate. These people have all been around since before Miranda’s earliest success, but so was Sondheim writing musicals long before Webber.

Perhaps it could be someone who writes the lyrics, the book, or both. Alex Timbers, Brian Yorkey, Jeff Whitty, Douglas Carter Beane, Lisa Kron: all worthy competition. Maybe, especially in this day and age, it is destined to be another composer/lyricist. Two in the running, Amanda Green and Adam Guettel, are descendents of Broadway musical greats Adolph Green and Richard Rodgers, respectively. Green worked with Miranda on Bring it On, and Guettel’s style contrasts nicely with Miranda’s for the purposes of debate. The same goes for the styles of John Bucchino and Jason Robert Brown. Robert Lopez has some major hits under his belt, and is the youngest and quickest recipient of the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony). Well, Miranda’s got a MacArthur Genius Grant. Or perhaps Miranda’s great rival has not been represented on Broadway yet. I hear great things about Joe Iconis and Georgia Stitt.

By the way, I love Sondheim now, too, even if he’ll never have the sentimental value Webber does for me personally. And they’re both still going: Webber’s got maybe the second biggest hit of this Broadway season with School of Rock, and Sondheim is working on a new musical with David Ives. Those two might yet compete for more Tonys. And I don’t mean to diminish the importance of other historic writers of musicals, but Rodgers and Hammerstein were in a category of their own, and I doubt many people have gotten into arguments about whether Kander and Ebb were better than Bock and Harnick. Some artists just bring out more competitive nature than others. Miranda needs competition, and musical theatre needs balance and diversity (which, depending on the musical, may or may not involve white people). There is, of course, only one way to determine this: go out there, see musicals, and talk up your favorite composers, lyricists, and book writers. Future disagreements at musical theatre camp depend on it.

 

Aaron Netsky writes the 366 Days/366 Musicals blog (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and writes about literature and politics at http://cantonaut.blogspot.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.

Broadway Baubles

Aaron Netsky

A couple of years ago, I was walking along Broadway in the fall and saw that a theatre had a marquee up for a musical announcing that previews would begin the following spring. I forget the exact span of time, but I remember thinking what a waste. There could be a show running for a few months in this house, providing jobs for actors and backstage workers, delighting audiences, and perhaps making profits for producers that could be put toward developing future shows. What kind of show could do all of these things? Specifically, a Christmas musical or play would fit the bill.

I used to be a snob about many things that don’t bother me so much anymore, and one of those things was the musical-based-on-a-popular-Christmas-movie. This happened to be at a time at which there was one of those every year, or so it seemed, and few that I knew of up to that point. It seemed to have evolved from the jukebox musical trend and the influx of Disney musicals. It seemed cynical. Funny how moving to New York and joining the theatre community changes one’s views. Now, far from cynical money grabs, these shows provided work opportunities for people I knew. It wasn’t just about my selfish desire for real creativity and artistic integrity on the most widely known stages in the world that I had just recently taken notice of; it was about guaranteed paychecks in an uncertain world. And as these musicals proved, it didn’t matter what snobs like me thought of their existence: those paychecks were guaranteed.

So, more of them seems like a good idea. There is certainly no shortage of source material, they only have to run for two or three months, and they are likely to be successful, which allows for certain freedoms that careful producers might not normally allow. Why not assign a fresh songwriting team, an up and coming young book writer or playwright to these sure things, giving them exposure and not risking as much as those artists’ passion projects would risk? Then, being able to put “from the creators of this smash hit Christmas musical” on the ads, maybe produce their passion projects. Make the shows big and splashy, like Radio City’s Christmas show, and hire a huge chorus to fill the stage with songs and dances to get audiences in the spirit of Christmas. Christmas being the star of any one of these shows, producers can also save money on not hiring huge stars to ensure audience attendance.

Community theatres do this often. Whether the Christmas musicals I scoffed at in my younger days or older plays or revamped versions of other kinds of entertainments, I know a lot of people who participate in holiday-themed theatre this time of year. It’s all over my facebook feed. And some years Broadway is busier than other years, and most theatres are have shows running. That’s great. But if you’re going to have an empty house for six months, why not get into the spirit? I’m not a money person, I don’t know the science behind it. Maybe it’s impractical. Since the musicals that bothered me so much either got revived the next year or played Madison Square Garden the next year or toured the country for a few years following their initial runs on Broadway, I think there is probably something to it. I’ve got one that I want to write. I won’t tell you what it is. You may steal my idea. The point is, a few baubles on the Broadway tree around this time of year didn’t hurt me then and might do some annual good, creating jobs and opportunities, and more than likely turning a profit. If someone wants to write a response to this explaining why it’s a bad idea financially, I’m always open to learning new things, but don’t be a Grinch about artistic merit and too much commercialism on Broadway as it is. I’ve been there and done that, and this is a much nicer way to look at theatre.

Aaron Netsky writes the 366 Days/366 Musicals blog on tumblr (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com). He’s doing Jewish-themed musicals this week for Chanukah, and then on to Christmas and Christmas-adjacent musicals. Also, with almost six months still to go, there is still time to include your musical or your favorite obscure musical, but no promises if you don’t use the e-mail address on the site to make them known. Happy Holidays.

What "Allegiance" Means For Broadway

Aaron Netsky

 “In the spring of 1942, soldiers with bayonets marched up to our home in Los Angeles, and ordered our family out. Our only crime was looking like the people who had bombed Pearl Harbor only months before.” These words are spoken by Geroge Takei over a tumultuous piece of music on the second to last track of the Allegiance cast recording, which only has six tracks in all. He had only recently turned five when this happened, but he knew something big was going on, and, as he goes on to say, it has been his “life’s mission” to ensure that no one ever forgets what it was. With its opening on Broadway, mission accomplished. 

Matthew Murphy

A while back, The New York Times ran an article about a similarly under-discussed aspect of World War II history, concerning the liberation of concentration camps in Europe. According to Eric Lichtblau’s article, “Surviving the Nazis, Only to Be Jailed by America,” the Nazi guards were removed from power, but were sometimes bunked with Jewish prisoners, who remained prisoners even under General George Patton’s leadership, because the Americans were “overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of refugees.” America is one of the big, reluctant heroes of World War II, and as such, our major contributions to bringing about the war’s end tend to overshadow the things we should have handled a lot better, like deciding whether or not to imprison over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps.

Allegiance, inspired by Takei with a book by Marc Acito and a score by Jay Kuo, tells of the plight of the Japanese Americans, serving an important function of art, which is to keep such stories alive. Takei was five when it happened and is seventy-seven now, as are many of the youngest victims of that chapter of our history. First hand accounts of these events are important to have, and that musical theatre was chosen as the form for this one to take is an honor for musical theatre, which can often ease the swallowing of such bitter pills, but in which, at least these days, comedy tends to rule.

Musical theatre does have a bit of a history when it comes to stories of Asian and American cultures meeting and clashing, and Broadway’s biggest names tend to be involved. Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II adapted C. Y. Lee’s novel The Flower Drum Song, about the Chinese immigrant experience, into a musical, which David Henry Hwang re-wrote in the early 2000s for a more authentic revival. Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, written with book writer John Weidman, is about America making (well, forcing) contact with Japan in 1853, and the changes in Japanese culture that ensued. A kind of musical montage at the end of the show, “Next,” sometimes updated for new productions, speeds through Japan’s increasingly successful interactions with the western world, though while it includes the dropping of the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, there is no mention of America’s internment camps.

Jay Kuo’s involvement is also of note, since these stories about Chinese immigrants and historical Japanese have been musicalized by white men, a piece of trivia skewered wonderfully in The Drowsy Chaperone. Robert Lopez is the only person of Asian decent to win the Tony Award for Best Score, for Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. In another Times piece from this weekend, an interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda and his fellow actors in his musical, Hamilton, Miranda is says of the non-white founding fathers in his cast, “That’ll be the note that goes with the school productions: If this show ends up looking like the actual founding fathers, you messed up.” And why should it? 1776 already did that.

Here’s hoping the Broadway musical is having a diversity moment. The King and I , Hamilton, The Gin Game are some of the most popular tickets right now and all star ethnically diverse casts. This spring Miss Saigon will also make its way back to New York only adding to the opportunities for actors of color to be cast. 

It all adds up, and Allegiance is an important part of the equation, because in addition to reminding us of the past, art must be a measure of the present and a guide for the future. There is no predicting how Allegiance’s Broadway life will go, but that it's here at all, is something to be proud of.