Friday, September 29, 2023

40 Years of Broadway: Big Trends: The Mega Musical Era

 40 Years of Broadway: Big Trends
The Mega Musical Era

I came upon the Broadway scene as the Mega Musical Era was just ramping up. While Evita was a harbinger for things to come a few years earlier, it was really Cats that got this particular ball rolling. It makes sense, really, that the 80s through mid-90s was the time for this. It was the Decade of Excess, after all. 

I'm referring to Cats (1982), Starlight Express (1987), Les Mis√©rables (1987), The Phantom of the Opera (1988), Miss Saigon (1991), and Sunset Boulevard (1994).

Today, it seems quaint, pass√© and really kinda silly (depending on your feelings about these relics). I mean, singing cats? Trains that sing and dance on roller skates? But they were all the rage, trust me. Their hallmarks were mostly sung (even completely) scores with belt your face off power ballads, 
very presentational staging, huge sets that were characters in the show by themselves, and iconic set pieces that people left talking about (usually more than the show itself). Loud volume = brilliant music. People stopping dead in their tracks and singing in loud unison = standing ovation guarantee. Opulence = ticket price justification. As I write this, I am beginning to see some similarities between them and now...



These were the days before social media and internet searches. And yet, even people who knew nothing about theater knew these shows. I'm talking world-wide. They made their rounds on late night talk shows, and rarely on daytime TV (not like today), and, of course, they did the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. But what really got this out to the masses was their incredible word of mouth, punctuated by genius marketing and merchandising. Everyone instantly recognized their logo iconography, and I do mean everyone* knew what these symbols meant. (* = My dad, who never stepped foot in a professional theater not only knew about Phantom, he actually took us to see it as a family!) Wearing one of those show shirts around college campuses gained the wearer instant status. And it wasn't just shirts - posters, backpack buttons and coffee mugs permeated the suburbs from coast to coast. 

It also helped that, except for the train show, the national touring companies were nearly exact duplicates of Broadway, so you didn't have to live on a coast to see the real thing. 

So much of all of this continues to this day, and we have these shows to thank for it. (Again this may depend on how you feel about this kind of show today.) I still enjoy them, and have some very fond memories. And I still wrap myself up in my (now vintage) show shirts. I had them incorporated into a great quilt!

Where do you stand on the Mega Musical front? Love it? Hate it? Or does it depend on the show? More importantly, do you still have any original merch from these shows? Let us know!

Contest Question #10:
4 of the above Mega Musicals have music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Which two did not have music by him?

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

40 Years of Broadway: 2003 - 2013: Top Flops, Revivals and New Shows

40 Years of Broadway: 2003 - 2013:
Top Flops, Revivals and New Shows

When you see my list of my Top 10 favorite Broadway shows from August 20, 2003 - August 19, 2013, you'll probably be more surprised at what is on it, than what isn't. Some thirty years later, my tastes have changed, and some shows I appreciate more now than I did then, and vice versa. The result is that what made my list are those shows that (for me) have really stood the test of time. There are flops, blockbusters and award winners on that list. (The flops on my Top 10 list don't appear on my Flops list.) Each list below could have been double in size (and I even added lists and doubled one!), and I still would have more I could have added. And it was still tough - and getting tougher with each decade.

This time around, these lists include only those shows I actually saw on Broadway, and are arranged in New York Times Theater Directory order. (Trying to rank them would require constant editing!) All things considered, I was lucky enough to see most of the biggest shows of the time.

Top 10 Flops: 2003 - 2013

For the record, for these articles I consider unexpectedly short run shows and/or critically panned &/or failed to gain an audience as "flops." (Sometimes all three at once!) 

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Probably too edgy for Broadway, I loved everything about it. From the horse hanging over the orchestra seats to rock tinged score, and all the sexy in between, it was a feast for the senses. And a cautionary tale, ahead of its time. And it introduced me to some of my favorite talents: Benjamin Walker, Bryce Pinkham and Kristine Nielson...and a new young director, Alex Timbers.

Bonnie and Clyde
Truly one of my all-time favorite shows - it had it all for me: a catchy score, a superb cast, creative, stylized staging, and a challenging story. I have feelings about Laura Osnes as a person, but there is no denying she and Jeremy Jordan were electric together. Also, I don't get why Frank Wildhorn, who supplied only the music for this, gets all of the blame for its failure. The world might not remember this show, but I will.

Catch Me If You Can
I loved the staging and choreography of this show - thank you, Jack O'Brien and Jerry Mitchell. A lot of the score is delightful, and you can't beat the cast. Let's face it, anything after Hairspray by this bunch would pale in comparison.

This is when I developed my crush on both Rob McClure and Jenn Colella. I knew they were both going to be much bigger Broadway stars and I was not wrong. But what I remember with the most admiration is the staging and lighting effects - creative, cinematic, and true to life, it looked like a sepia tone silent movie.

Ghost: The Musical
I'm the first to admit that this show was way over produced (the completely projected scenery was...uncomfortable, and the video that played during the overture literally gave me motion sickness). But the underrated score, and the simply hot chemistry between the two leads more than made up for it. And there were some cool effects. Will always be a Caissie Levy fan, even if the vehicle isn't as great as she is.

Hands on a Hardbody
You know, I'm still not sure why this show wasn't more popular. It was charming, tuneful and had a compelling story; even if it was small, it conveyed much larger themes about American life. It also had a boffo cast including several members I very much admire: Keala Settle, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Jon Rua, Hunter Foster, Allison Case, and, of course, Keith Carradine. Loved it so much, I saw it twice!

Lysistrata Jones
Although I think I preferred it downtown, where it took place in a gym's basketball court, the move uptown deserved much more attention than it got. The creative team added all the best bells and whistles for Broadway (when was the last time it was done so appropriately?). And the company! Led by Patti Murin and Josh Segarra, they were all aces - including two of my all-time favorites, Alex Wyse and Jason Tam. I would love to see this take hold regionally.

To date, the single most thrilling opening number of any Broadway musical I have ever seen happened at this show. While there might have been some other design choices that were less effective, all in all, this show was spectacular, but not at the expense of the story. And Phil Collins' score is amazing, expanding the film score brilliantly, and definitely improving it. Josh Strickland, Jenn Gambatese, Shuler Hensley and Merle Dandridge were terrific.

The Story of My Life
It only ran for 5 performances, and I am so glad I didn't miss it. A gorgeous, emotional story about two childhood best friends, with a dud-free score, I was not prepared for the ending. I sobbed - an embarrassing, noisy cry (thank you anonymous lady next to me who silently handed me a tissue and patted my knee). "The Butterfly" is one of the best Broadway songs of the 21st Century, and Malcolm Getz and Will Chase have never been better.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
My only regret was that I didn't have the chance to see this more than once. We saw what turned out to be a very early preview, but what was there was pretty damned good. Yazbek's score is perfection, and the cast was incredible. I'll admit Sherie Rene Scott wasn't my cup of tea, the rest of this diva-heavy company was thrilling (Danny Burstein, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Justin Guarini were really terrific, too). Laura Benanti's Solo Number is the stuff of legend, and Patti LuPone felating a lollipop while hanging over the stage is an image I'll never forget.

Top Play and Musical Revivals: 2003 - 2013
This decade was a cornucopia of amazing looks back at classic plays and musicals. Some were thrilling revisions, others more understated, but all of them offered modern perspectives.

A Chorus Line
Although it will be interesting the first time Broadway hosts this masterpiece with a original direction and choreography, this reproduction of Michael Bennett's work was a study in how to stage a musical. It remained as fresh as ever, and introduced a whole new generation of dancer-actors to fans.

A Little Night Music
Though presented with a minimalist approach, the design (particularly the costumes) helped focus the story. But the real headline here was the excellent casting, including a brilliant star-turn by Catherine Zeta-Jones (her troubling Tony performance notwithstanding) and a sublimely elegant Angela Lansbury, who capped off her Broadway musical career with a brilliant "Liaisons."

All My Sons
One of my favorite Arthur Miller plays, I adored this revival. Simple staging, for its time terrific projections, and a brilliant cast of principals made this a revival I won't forget. Oh, how I loved Dianne Wiest and John Lithgow! And Patrick Wilson and Katie Holmes (in her debut) didn't disappoint, either.

Blithe Spirit (2009): Angela Lansbury. Sweet, kooky. A treasure. The rest of the principals were great too, especially Jayne Atkinson, who brought something golden to a sometimes thankless role.

As sleek and sexy as a Pan Am jet, this 60s romp was great fun, made all the better by Matthew Warchus' pointed direction and his fully committed all-star cast: Mark Rylance, Christine Baranski, Mary McCormack, Bradley Whitford, Gina Gershon and Kathryn Hahn.

I loved this John Doyle version. Somehow, the actors-playing-instruments-on-a-nearly-bare-stage thing really worked with this piece. Of course, it really helps to have an amazing Bobby, and boy, was Raul Esparza fantastic. The whole cast was great, but Barbara Walsh and Elizabeth Stanley threatened to steal the show.

Before this revival, I appreciated Follies. After finally seeing the whole thing, I consider it among my favorite Sondheim shows. I was mesmerized, and don't really remember breathing either time I saw it. I was overwhelmed. How wonderful to see Jan Maxwell at her sassy peak, Bernadette Peters at her heartbreaking best, and the exuberance of Danny Burstein's showmanship.

Watching this was like opening a time capsule; its exuberance, raw energy and politics was thrilling. Whiffs of Patchouli floated on the sound waves of psychedelic rock; colorful lights punctuated the now-quaint lyrics, though their message was no less impactful. Jay Armstrong Johnson, who was on for Gavin Creel, Will Swensen, Caissie Levy, Kacie Sheik and Allison Case, among many others, brought the hippie vibe to new mellow heights. Trippy and terrific.

One of my favorite shows ever, this Diane Paulus helmed production was exciting and sexy, intense and emotional. Just enough tips of the bowler hat to Bob Fosse to please purists, this version was next level. A heady mix of Broadway veterans, current talent and exciting circus performers, everything about this production was perfectly executed. Standouts for me included Patina Miller, Rachel Bay Jones, Matthew James Thomas, Erik Altemus, Charlotte d'Amboise, Terrence Mann and Tony-winner Andrea Martin.

Promises, Promises
What a revelation Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth were. Both playing against expected type, they dove in head first and left it all on the stage. The score was beautifully sung and the dancing was spectacular.

South Pacific
One of the greatest musicals of all time, this classic got the respect it deserved and then some. An epic production (I mean, a plane, for God's sake!) that was visually stunning with sweeping scenes and production numbers, that never lost its sense of intimacy when it was needed. I've been a Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot fan ever since.

Steel Magnolias
This is one of my favorite plays (and movies) ever, so I had to see it. And the who's who of actresses that was the cast made it all the better. Great to see Delta Burke in person, and to finally see Marsha Mason in her comedic glory!

Sweeney Todd
I loved the concept of this chamber version, and the elevated level of creepy/scary made this a real thriller. Not a weak link in the cast, LuPone and Cerveris gave us a unique Lovett and Todd. I still have dreams about the buckets of blood...

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
As a top 3 favorite show of all time, there was no way I'd miss this. How good this show is depends a lot on the casting, and Roundabout outdid themselves. Stephanie J. Block won my heart, Will Chase earned his jeers, Betsy Wolf was a crafty ingenue, and Chita Rivera was a delightful scenery chewer.

The Normal Heart
As someone who lived through the early years of the AIDS crisis, this important work had special resonance for me. It was powerful and empowering. One play I'm so glad I didn't miss.

Top New Productions: 2003 - 2013
Getting this list down to just ten productions was a real challenge. Actually, it was impossible. So here are my 15 favorite new productions from this decade - 10 musicals and 5 plays. All of these shows represent a gamut of things I love about live theater - from traditional to cutting edge, from minimal to spectacle, all of them exemplifying exactly why there is really nothing better than live theatre.

American Idiot
I'm, a little, surprised that this one made the cut. You see, the first time I saw it, I didn't really like it. But my pal, Mike, loved it. We rarely disagree, so I figured I had to give it another try. So glad I did. The energy, the message, the imagery. Not since Tommy (at the same theater), has a rock album been so fully, beautifully realized as a stage musical.

Billy Elliot
 Part history lesson and totally British, this really brings out the anglophile in me. But as a boy who was different growing up (though I have two left feet), I totally related to little Billy and his rough relationship with his family. But those dance numbers were musical theater Heaven. Electricity, indeed.

In the Heights
Thinking about this show now, and realizing how far its author and star has come since then, makes it all the more poignant. I've come to cherish those discoveries of new talent over the years, and here was probably the biggest to date. It was a breath of fresh air, deepened by the heartfelt emotion of personal experience as art. More of this, Lin-Manuel. Please.

Legally Blonde
What made this popular film such a success as a stage musical, for me, was that while the story was familiar, the ways in which they expanded the story and key plot moments with song made it fresh. It was funny, and sweet and delightfully sincere. I was invested and smiling from start to finish. 

It wouldn't matter what decade I saw this in, this show would make my list of favorites. As I said before, I love all things British, and this is really British. It is witty and razor sharp. It is happy and infectious. I wish I had the energy and determination of Matilda. She is an inspiration. By far the best musical of that season.

Next to Normal
The first and only musical I ever left, and stopped dead in my tracks (in this case, Shubert Alley) and called friends to insist they come with me to see it again. I felt every emotion - the full gamut - during this tight, taut, unforgiving experience. Truly a brilliant piece of art.

I have yet to see the film upon which this show is based, and I'm not sure I want to. My experience with this musical felt intensely personal, and I know I wasn't the only one overcome by this unlikely love story. The two stars, Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti were so incredible together, their chemistry permeated the entire theater.

Other Desert Cities
This is that rarest of plays for me. I saw it twice! A riveting drama about family and politics and family politics. The original cast and their replacements were each wonderful, and provided me with an important lesson. At the very end of the play, the daughter has a line that is the key to the whole play. Rachel Griffiths said that line one way, leading to one conclusion. Elizabeth Marvel said the exact same lines with a different inflection and a pause. For me, the entire play turned out a completely different way. So good!

Spring Awakening
I knew this musical was going to haunt me from the moment the cast took their bow at the Atlantic Theater. It was dark, romantic, sexually charged, and, well, profound. And I knew I had to see it again. And again. All the really great shows require multiple views just to get it all. The poetry of Sater's lyrics dare you to think; Sheik's music dares you to listen even closer; Mayer's staging dares you to look away. I was helpless in its artistic grip.

The Little Dog Laughed
Here was a hilarious and pointed look at Hollywood and its obsession with image. Julie White took home a much deserved Tony for her, um, candid take on an agent for a celebrity who is closeted. Tom Everett Scott and Johnny Galecki were terrific, too. And very brave for going Full Monty for extended periods!

The Scottsboro Boys
This is probably the greatest musical of the 21st century so far. A difficult subject matter didn't stop Kander and Ebb from using their signature razzle dazzle to deftly handle dark themes, and Susan Stroman gave us some of her best high concept work. The cast, lead by Joshua Henry, was superb.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
I finally got why Christopher Durang is so highly regarded after seeing this sharp comedy. And seeing his muse, Sigourney Weaver, made it all the better. Fastest two plus hours of my life!

Venus in Fur
I was on the edge of my seat from start to finish, and was completely captivated by the pair of actors who took the stage. Nina Arianda was a force of nature, and Hugh Dancy was the perfect man to handle it. Sexy and thrilling, it kept me guessing until its oh so satisfying conclusion.

War Horse
This epic extravaganza of a play was a feast for the senses. Gorgeously staged by Marianne Elliott, the stage at the Vivian Beaumont hasn't been as effectively used since. The Handspring Puppet Company brought stunning animals to life, and the cast brought a whole war torn world to harrowing life. Tears were definitely shed.

I'm a bit ashamed to admit that the first time I went to see this, it was mostly for a chance to laugh at it. Well, the joke was on me! I laughed alright, but with the game cast, who knew that it was all silly fun. I always loved the score to the film, and I love how it translated to the stage. I am forever a Kerry Butler, Cheyenne Jackson, Mary Testa, Jackie Hoffman fan because of this truly delightful musical confection. Magic and then some.

Contest Question #9:
How many of all the above listed shows played at the Vivian Beaumont Theater?
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