Monday, June 11, 2007

Tinseltown to Times Square, New Musicals Face Vexing Odds

A Showbiz David Essay

from early 2006

For a town at the epi-center of entertainment that turns out new movies, songs and sit-coms as fast almost as Pink's produces hot dogs, why do virtually none of the original musicals it puts up year after year on local stages ever make it on the Great White Way?

A curse? The long-argued east-west rivalry? Gotham's revenge for every one of its classic song and dance hits that got turned by this town into celluloid mush? Or is it just plain hometown myopia supported by a cast of undemanding critics who give the local talent pool delusions of sufficiency?

The latest reality check reveals that in recent seasons a quartet of locally acclaimed darlings made the trek into New York's smaller off-Broadway houses, where, low and behold, some critical respect did show up -- if not the long ticket lines that spell commercial success: Despite two Drama Desk nominations, one for outstanding lyrics, Reefer Madness did not last a month. Bat Boy: The Musical landed a soaring array of upbeat notices, nominations and awards including Best Off Broadway Musical for 2001 from the Outer Critics Circle. Eight months later, this offbeat romp that some have likened to Little Shop of Horrors and that has gained a certain cult following, was history. Trolls, with a subtitle that asks the question “Is life gay after 40?,” opened on May 19 at the Actor's Playhouse in the Village, was pounced on mercilessly by most of the reviewers, and departed two days short of two months later.

There was one high-flying exception to this not surprisingly dismal outcome: Naked Boys Singing became a bona fide box office survivor. First produced by Celebration Theatre, when it went east, the Manhattan crowd smiled upon a mixed-bag revue of ample charms, albeit with a seductive hook -- "contemporary 'Oh! Calcutta'," pronounced the Daily News. "Hardly brilliant," reported the New York Times, "but it should please its target audience, and the rest of us who can, in the right mood appreciate slightly prurient songs about circumcision." And it took 23 writers to bring off a 90-minute revue in the natural.

Hey, it's a hit, and still running after six glorious seasons — although now down to a mere sixty minutes, presented late Friday and Saturday evenings.

Another musical recently launched at Celebration, also enlisting a panel of composers (nine in all) is the sporadically engaging jazz-centric PlayitCool, which does a better job setting the scene in a moody, repressed 1950s Hollywood gay bar than in fleshing out a tale of lesbian betrayal at the intersection of closeted love and tinseltown casting. At least PlayitCool casts its stock characters against a more realistic heterosexual background that will eventually doom them in dramatically interesting second-act turns — unlike the new Bluebonnet Court up the street at the Hudson, where hidden homosexual desires simmer citywide in wartime Austin Texas, where men are raping opportunists or latently gay. Enter, just in time, a hip female Jewish reporter from New York en route to L.A., stranded in Austin while her busted automobile awaits repairs, who goes to work repairing the beaten-down psyche of a smart black maid in Bluebonnet Court, turning her into a new true love. Of course.

Male nudity and lesbian fairy tales aside, not since the days of Edwin Lester's Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, which turned box office profits on Broadway with three of the originals it sent that way (Song of Norway, Kismet and Peter Pan), has the road from tinseltown to Times Square been a happy one. Gordon Davidson found only grief at the Winter Garden in 1979, when, after 41 performances, his Zoot Suit was 86d out the door. To this day, the show's avid defenders claim that the critics were out to get it. Meaning, of course, out to get L.A.

Since Mr. Lester's luckier times, nothing. Now, shows that are born in Los Angeles, if they go east at all, tip toe onto smaller stages off Broadway, where, to be sure, some of the best work is produced. There you can find breath-taking satisfaction in masterfully wrought gems like Forbidden Broadway and Altar Boyz — shows that make you shout, “Yes, New York! You still know how to do it! And nobody can do it like you do!” Want to lay odds on the chances for a Like Jazz or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir holding their own against these singular sensations?

Even San Diego (Tommy; Big River) does better -- well, at least at the ticket windows. Of course, cities don't produce popular musicals, do they, and many places -- including New York on a regular basis -- turn out failed Broadway dreams just like L.A. And some of the workhorses that do make it big, it could be argued, conned their way into respectability with lots of up-front money and marketing savvy. Has anybody out there sat through Disney's Aida?

When it comes to celebrated, well-regarded work, though, people with a particular gift -- or drive -- create the legendary shows, and for many years the greatest concentration of those people was centered in New York city. Maybe this is once again the case now that the Brits seem to have lost a certain touch for turning terse tales of history and heartache into rock operas that hang around for decades.

So why not L.A., which may house the largest pool of theatrical talent in the world? Let us count the ways, beginning with Bat Boy The Musical, which seems to be enjoying a promising afterlife out in regional theatre land. Is this the Big One? As it looked on the stage of San Francisco's New Victoria where Ray of Light Theatre (a cool community operation) produced it, the superficially appealing result strained to juggle horror and camp through a convoluted book crammed with too many songs (20 of them) competing against too many heavy handed plot turns.

Second act problems? Bat Boys's tediously detailed last hour takes an anti-climactic detour into belated exposition to cover our hero's bizarre birth. What a wow of an opening that might have made. Now, it all seems so gratuitous as we sit there wondering, will it ever end?

To its redeeming credit, Bat Boy is chock full of terrifically talented song writing, for which Laurence O'Keefe deserves kudos. There is just too much of it in too many dispirit forms to fuel a cohesive narrative. What sort of a ride are we supposed to be on, guys? Yes, yes, the show's growing legion of fans will point to all those neat numbers taking satiric aim at old-line Broadway composers. Might that not have been enough? Maybe the show did not take itself so full-scale seriously when the Actors' Gang first produced Bat Boy in 1997 on Santa Monica Boulevard. Maybe it just needs the “right cast.”

You would think that the city of angels and angles had what it takes to create musicals good enough for Broadway's bigger boards. Alas, the talent out here waiting on tables or standing in lines at photocopy machines with new scripts to duplicate and pitch did not go west to break into musical theatre. Thus, what you are likely to get when you check out the latest new "musical" are feel-good showcases for songwriters and actors put up on the cheap for talent agents.

Humdrum example: Radio Show, a threadbare excuse, with lackluster songs, last spring at Art/Works Performance Space for two labored one-acts separated by an intermission and a lone old-time radio mike standing around, presumably to lend an air of thematic unity. Sure. And did anybody in the company land representation, I hope?

Thinking back over some of the better evenings I've spent in past years at shows like the much-loved Back Home or the noncommitally formless Like Jazz (which jumped here and there to a hot handful of great new numbers by the late Cy Coleman supplying melodies, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, lyrics), what they all offered were winning scores and likable performers -- and little else. I remember leaving the Cast theatre after Back Home and wondering to myself, what do those characters do in real life? The show about them didn't tell me much. Maybe they lived at the Cast.
(A humble confession: I also have suffered from delusions of the big Broadway transfer; during the 80s, while a resident, two of my own musicals went up on friendly waiver boards to reviews that ran the gamut from delight to derision.)

At its best these days, L.A. knows how to give us a cracking good bark without the bite. Yes, my lead in to that raucous little darling at the Coast Playhouse with a running time of about 75 minutes -- Bark! Compared to the laboriously overreaching Bat Boy, this modestly focused work about a pack of pampered mutts in "doggie day care" utterly ingratiates with show-stopping ditties turned out by composer and musical director David Troy Rancis and his gallery of on-target collaborators. They include the prolifically gifted Robert Schrock, who also had a key hand in Naked Boys Singing and, long ago, Back Home. Their ingenuity in giving voice to how these creatures feel about life in general and their masters in particular is remarkable.

A Critic's Choice at the Los Angeles Times, which cheered its "practically perfect staging," yes Bark! is a joy worth the price of a ticket -- as far as it goes. If only there was more bark to this puppet-show sized party. If only the authors had extended their valentine to doggiedom by a few meaner, more vicious bites, to dramatize the darker realities out there in the real world where killer canines bark up a whole different kind of music. Only a mile or so from the Coast back in the 80s, once while walking down North Orange towards DeLongpree, I was bitten by a real-life non-singing dog. For an encore, a doctor gave me a rabies shot.

On the boards for over a year at two shows a week, that gives Bark! the aura of a "hit." And when I saw it, there were maybe 65 people in the audience. And maybe none were audience extras.

So many good songs. So many winning personalities. And so little dramatic depth or discipline. That's your typical L.A. original. Is "librettist" a dirty word in this town? Perhaps what L.A. could use is a John Simon. About the best scripting advice I ever got was from Smitty, one early Friday evening while he was sweeping out the kitchen at his east Hollywood DeJa Vu Coffeehouse, where writers used to try out new work which they themselves usually funded. Smitty was trying to get a handle on a play I had submitted, pressing me on what, in academic circles, they call "narrative arc." The coffeehouse man made it at once understandable when he put it to me this way: "What is the event?"

Yes, Smitty. And where are the larger-than-life characters that can give a musical dramatic shape, meaning and propulsion? A good musical, first and foremost, revolves around and is driven by one or two compelling figures, usually ensnared in at least the semblance of a conflict. Think Eliza or Evita, Roxie or the Phantom, Jean Valjean or Jud Fry.

James J. Mellon's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir at NoHo Arts Center had its heart in a distant world where Lerner and Loewe ruled the stage, when shows like One Touch of Venus took audiences on fantasy rides. Alas, Mellon seems not up to such a daunting task. For one thing, the improbably romantic relationship between the two central characters, played by James Barbour and Lynee Winterseller, both Broadway veterans, failed to light sparks. Against Winterseller's ever-so-sweet innocence, Barbour's brooding one-note persona -- alternating between a smirk and a sneer -- came close to claiming the scenery. And what we got up there in the valley felt more like Assassins meets A Grand Night for Singing.

We also got a lopsided libretto that spills most of its story out into the first act. How to fill up the remaining time? Mellon's second half, among other diversions, slides off course into an ersatz Danny Kaye silly movie-musical production sequence. Hello?

What Mrs. Muir does have in fair supply is a winning set of quirky secondary players of the old English school sort, and it contains some wonderfully inventive novelty numbers composed by Scott DeTurk and Bill Francoeur. Trouble is, what it doesn't have -- two engaging lead characters -- may render all the other assets mute.

Last spring, while sampling the best of what off-Broadway has to offer, the comparison between it and Trolls did not flatter locally produced work. This eager-to-please tuner about aging gay men did deliver another dandy score full of older-fashioned melody and fun, even if, as Anita Gates in the New York Times remarked, it was "at times too derivative for comfort." The show was inhabited by more L.A. likable characters and it had the adoring Gates half way on its side; She called it "an intriguing, thoroughly good-natured little musical with tons of potential." Oh, yes, potential ...

The sewing basket of a libretto that straddled the meandering Trolls should have been sent back to Drama 1A for rehab. Just what was this show supposed to be about? Men upon turning 40 no longer being able to score in a bar? An ex-hustler trying to turn an old one-night stand into lasting love? Homage to the departed Boomie, loved by all the men who attend a party in his honor? Or a late-breaking squabble over who will inherit Boomie's possessions, his prudishly straight sister or his gay buddies? Pardon me for screaming: is there a dramaturg in the house? Smitty!

Have another nice day, yes.

What a wonderful evening-long illusion I lucked into at the Actor's Ark a year ago last April, believing I was watching a brand new musical produced in L.A., marveling over the thought that finally somebody had got it right in this town. And so far off the beaten path down there on unglamorous South La Cienega in a storefront among other faceless storefronts and warehouses. About three dozen souls in this great big town had convened on a Saturday night to share an intimate experience in a small theatre. Inside the funky facilities, the cast broke down the fourth wall in order to make us feel in our seats like patrons hanging out in their kinky cabaret on Planet Frottage III, "somewhere on the outer rim of the galaxy." Welcome to Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens.

Ark's actors -- only two of them from Equity -- obviously dug this subversity, and they had the grit to give it bohemian wings. Jack was played that night by Rob MacMullan, Jubilee by Julie Hogan, and Dr. Whackoff by scene-stealer Chairman Barnes. "All I Need is Disco," "Tortured Plaything," "Glitter Boots Saved my Life" and "Living in Hell." were some of the out-there songs. After it was over, my preconceptions were dashed. No, this unflinchingly tough satire, I learned, had first been produced in Edinburgh 10 years ago.

Okay, L.A., back to your feel-good tickets. So you took your clothes off and took Manhattan. Can you put them back on and still make it big in the Big Apple?

I’m waiting.

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