On the Ringling Midway, 1898

On the Ringling Midway, 1898
and on their way to guilt-free amusement. They did not enter the big top with "issues."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Broadway, Bloody Broadway: "Spider-Man" Spins Cautionary Cobwebs; Big Egos, Beware ...


Oscar Hammerstein II, standing, and Richard Rodgers, listened to audiences, critics and colleagues in working on new shows headed for Broadway. Hammerstein sat out in the seats and counted the coughs -- one sign of flagging interest.

Takes talent to get there, usually. Mostly. Takes guts and perseverance, the capacity to endure cold-hearted rejections, one after another, sometimes nasty -- until the Big Break, which, for most, will never arrive.

Takes a touch of ruthless indifference to the plight of those against whom you are competing. Those who break through develop an over-night talent for savoring every new flop that comes along, as long as they are not in it.

My brother, Dick, possessed lyric-writing talent, so much so that Victor Young called him once in response to some verse Dick had sent him. Dick was away at the time, I took the call excitedly, passed along the message, but nothing came of it. This may have contributed to Dick's ultimately deciding at an early age that the New York thing was not for him. He sensed darker sides to the Great White Way without ever going there, and withdrew his ambitions, settling for the community theatre scene. Now he just loves watching musicals musicals musicals; Last year, he took in 51 shows!

Laboring across some local stages myself, I've crossed paths with dancers who made it into New York chorus lines, and told me about how socially vicious the atmosphere can be. Hoofer eat hoofer.

Not a problem for the driven: Some will practically die for that elusive Opening Night in a Gotham show. Thousands comb casting offices in vain, line up for demeaning cattle-call auditions. Work day jobs waiting for the Big Break. And when they, who are lucky, land on Big Boards, they suffer more humbling days and nights, fighting for a bigger piece of fame and rejection in another show that may never come. Fighting, if they make it Big, to stay Big.

One-hit wonderland strikes many. And the party never comes their way again. Still, they chase the Big Return, like a spurned lover unable to let go. There was Henry David Hwang, famous for his M. Butterfly, making futile return visits, the most audacious being a virtual sabotage of the fine Rodgers and Hammerstein hit, Flower Drum Song by way of his rewriting it totally away from what it was in the beginning in the spirit of a Broadway "revival" (which flopped out).

And now, yet another prospective member to the club of One-Hit Wonders is Julie Taymor, ex-director of Spider-Man: Turn Out the Dark, who has been credited beyond sense and reason for having practically invented The Lion King, that slick manufactured Disney blockbuster that may live to rival Phantom of the Opera.

Those who defer to Ms. Taymor's great success fail, most of them, to note that she, yes, directed King, but did not, no did not write it. Remember the word writer, anybody? King is built upon a very viable book based upon a very viable movie, the book written not by the director, Ms. Taymor, but by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, adapting the screenplay, itself the product of three scripters, one of them Mecchi.

"Book problems," which seem to plague the aerial-centric Spider-Man, are the most common reason shouted high and wide when a new musical is in trouble, and most new musicals are in trouble at some perilous point or another (whether they really are or not), in trouble out of town, as was once the custom, or in previews as is now. Arguably the most critical element in any tuner is the libretto, for without a clear narrative path of engaging characters caught up in empathetic conflicts, audiences have little to grasp. Many musicals have succeeded with ill-distinguished scores; many bearing great scores have failed for the lack of an effective book.

Countless are the tales of a show having been "saved" by feverish late night brainstorming sessions involving writers, composers, directors, producers -- maybe even press agents and mop ladies, all together addressing what seems to be working with the audience as opposed to what is not working. The greatest lights of Broadway, among them Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, all subjected themselves to this humbling rewrite ritual -- they knew that musical theatre is not just a collaborative art form, but, ultimately, a confrontation between product and patron.

When it came to such meetings, or collisions, of the minds at the Foxwoods theatre, seems that Ms. Taymor, Spider-Man's director, regularly did not allow such a circle to tell her what to do. In particular, how to fix embarrassingly inept second-act scripting. A thousand times more amazing considering that she holds absolutely no other book-writing credits attached to any successful Broadway venture. Her only claim to libretto know-how would be the book she co-wrote for Juan Darien, a puppet show of hers which lasted all of 49 nights at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. Her co-librettist, Glen Berger, has no other Broadway credits, and is virtually never mentioned in coverage of behind-the-scenes turmoil.

From well-placed insider reports, Ms. Taymor even ignored the pleas of cast members urging her to address the mystifying nonsense that followed intermission. The scathing reviews that New York critics have filed did not help any; Ms. Taymor was shown the door last week. A new director and writer are headed for the Foxwoods. To save a show in trouble? Don't count Spider-Man down at the count of 10 yet.

Oscar Hammerstein labored through six consecutive flops in the 1930s, and kept coming back. And then came his Big Return in Oklahoma! in 1943. This gentle giant took out a full-page ad in Variety: "Ive done it before, and I can do it again."

Now nursing a huge hissy fit, Ms. Taymore is said to be demanding a big payout and threatening (would this not be a blessing?) to take her script with her.

According to New York Post critic, Michael Riedel, a revamped libretto now in the works will junk a character created by Taymor and "largely based upon herself," the "egotistical" villainous Arachine. One of that characters most memorable lines is: "I am the only real artist working today."

Ego? On Broadway, never ever just a little.

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