Monday, February 10, 2014

Rant: Enough is Enough Already

A Night with Janis Joplin closed yesterday
So, I know in previous blogs I've written of my New Year's resolution to be more positive.  But sometimes I have to write about what I think, and I think being honest, even when it is negative, is even more important than positivity.  Which brings me to today's rant.  Enough already with these so-called "Baby Boomer Bio-Musicals!"

Before you write, I applaud any attempt at getting a new show up on the Broadway stage.  And I am not criticizing the actors and actresses in these shows, nor am I wishing unemployment on the dozens involved with each new show.  But at some point, these talented folk need, no, deserve better material, and we, the audience, deserve a little more art with our shows.

Now, I'm not saying it can't work.  After all, the granddaddy of them all, Jersey Boys, is a phenomenon.  While I personally don't care for the show - that they rarely sing an entire song all the way through drives me nuts - I do recognize that everyone involved has worked hard to make it more than a live "VH1 Behind-the-Music" documentary. They've made the show into four season-themed segments (get it?) that at least try to make the group's rise and fall into a tale that goes beyond the life story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  How successful that is, I'll let you decide.

Jersey Boys
But then there are the other shows that seem to think that telling the life story of various pop icons is enough to make compelling drama.  This is where I've just had enough: if these people's lives are worth examining in a musical, the fact that they come with a ready-made score simply can not be enough to satisfy.  Those songs should be what get us in the door; their story and how their story is part of the larger human experience is what should make us stay... and return several times.

Missed opportunities are what really plague these shows ultimately, and savvy Broadway audiences - the ones that will keep a show running after the Baby Boomer bus trips run out - know this.  Look at the just-closed A Night with Janis Joplin. The performances of the entire company were superlative.  Mary Bridget Davies not only did an uncanny impression of Joplin, she sang with a passion that blasted off the stage.  But aside from finding out that classic blues singers influenced Janis' decision to be a rock star, the show presented little reason for her life to be made into a musical.  It might have worked had the show delved into her rise as the Queen of Rock and Roll that paralleled her descent into a personal Hell filled with sex and the drugs that led to her untimely death.

Motown: The Musical
Or how about Motown: The Musical, which inexplicably continues to draw big crowds at the Lunt-Fontanne? Again, there's the maddening incomplete songs, and the approximation of impressions of actual persons.  But the book is laughable.  It is a self-indulgent self-tribute by Barry Gordy, that only a few times hints at the larger story.  The truer Motown story needed to really get deeply into the social issues that informed Hitsville USA's catalog, and, in turn its influence on that same society.  Instead, it is a nearly three hour trip down memory lane - a really long pity party where Gordy examines why he couldn't get it up for Diana Ross all his friends left him feeling alone and unappreciated.  Boo hoo.  Beautiful is hardly any better.  It is very slick and the cast is amazing.  But surely, the great Carole King's life must have something more interesting to say, beyond her being smart and a hurt, scorned woman.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Baby It's You!
And finally, there is the single show that alone should have brought this trend to an end: Baby It's You!  The best thing about it is the exclamation point in the title.  As usual, the performers were great, and the songs were a reminder that they just don't write'em like that anymore.  But the staging was boring; the production looked cheap.  And when Beth Leavel can't make it work, that says something.  There was a lot that could have made this show rise above.  A woman in a man's world starts her own business.  A Jew makes it big in the world of soul and rock and roll.  And there are the racial implications...

This is not to say a really good bio-musical isn't out there waiting to happen.  The personal drama of The Carpenters juxtaposed with their squeaky-clean image succeeding in an era of edgy psychedelia and political strife could really be compelling.  But Broadway really shouldn't/doesn't need to be in the rock-star-impersonation-show business.  Leave it Vegas and - gulp - Branson, where they can make a show big and splashy AND and empty-headed trip down memory lane for all those beloved Baby Boomers.



  1. I agree with you, Jeff - but a Carpenters musical would be difficult to resist.

  2. Exactly! I think that would be awesome... love me some Karen and Richard!



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