Musical Theatre: January 2005 Archives

The Los Angeles Reprise! Broadway's Best series, which presents classic musicals in a semi-staged concert setting, will offer mountings of On the Town, City of Angels and Zorba next season.

Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's On the Town will kick off the new season at Reprise! at the UCLA Freud Playhouse. Previews begin Sept. 20 with an official opening Sept. 21. The musical love letter to Manhattan will run through Oct. 5.

Cy Coleman's City of Angels will follow. The detective-themed musical, which features music by the late Coleman, lyrics by David Zippel and a book by Larry Gelbart, will begin previews Jan. 24, 2006, and open Jan. 25, 2006. Featuring such songs as "You're Nothing Without Me" and "You Can Always Count on Me," City of Angels will play through Feb. 5.

The Reprise! season is set to conclude with Kander and Ebb's Zorba. The life-affirming musical will preview May 2, open May 3 and run through May 14, 2006.

The Reprise! series is currently presenting Stephen Schwartz's Pippin through Feb. 6. The production, featuring direction by Gordon Hunt, musical direction by Gerald Sternbach and choreography by Dan Mojica, stars Michael Arden as Pippin with Sam Harris (Leading Player), Jean Louisa Kelly (Catherine), Luba Mason (Fastrada), Mimi Hines (Berthe), Graham Phillips, Conrad John Schuck and Abe Sylvia. The current Reprise! season will conclude with Applause (May 10-22).
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In today's National Post (Video Reveals Different Kind Of Pajama Game, National Post Friday January 28, 2005 for a crappy register-blocked version, or the orginal story from the BBC here courtesy ofBoingBoing) there is an article about an eldery British, devout Christian couple who discovered a topless woman speaking Italian on their Pajama Game DVD! Instead of the classic musical comedy starring Doris Day and John Raitt the couple found themselves watching Tettone che Passione, orBreasts, What a Passion!

My favorite quote from the article was the husband who said:

"It was a pretty raunchy, explicit film -- it certainly pulled no punches. My wife and I were very shocked but we watched it until the end because we couldn't believe what we were seeing".
That's his story and he's sticking to it! Hey, maybe it was their "Once A Year Day" so they decided to indulge! And maybe they didn't get "Steam Heat" but sounds like they sure got Steamy and Hot!

This is why musicals need to be workshopped first!

Now I can't wait to go out and buy a DVD of Pal Joey! Yeehah!
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Canadian Flag Superman

I had the absolutely funnest (yes funnest!) time last night. My producer friend Michael Rubinoff invited me (and I in turn invited Mitchell Kitz) to a Sing and Tell hosted by ScriptLab's Artistic Director and musical theatre writer, Jim Betts. It was held at Gerald Isaac's warm and inviting new studio. Jim has agreed to become ScriptLab's Artistic Director for the next three years, on the understanding that those three years will be exclusively devoted to the development of Canadian Musical Theatre. As you can tell by Jim'sWebsite, Canadian Musical Theatre is something he holds very near and dear.

Jim stated that the purpose of the labs is to get together with writers, performers, directors and producers etc and catch up on what everyone else is doing, as well as to bring some of the more "senior" writers together (ie. legends like Leslie Arden, David Warrack) with some of the "newer" writers (ie. me, Mitchell Kitz). Jim wants to not only help develop new material, but archive existing Canadian musical theatre shows of which there is plenty but which has been sadly neglected. As David Warrack put it, when a regional theatre wants to do one of his shows (eg. All Stressed Up and Nowhere to Go) he has to go down to the basement and look through the Dominion bags full of old shows! I certainly had my eyes opened to the wealth of shows that have been written and produced all across Canada, but notably not in Toronto (which would explain, but not forgive, my ignorance).

So we all sat around the piano chatting and took turns singing a song from a Canadian musical -- past, present or future. We heard songs from favorite Canadian musicals, shows-in-progress and shows that were produced but not-fully-appreciated. I sang "Listen To My Heart" from Plane Crazy! It was one of the most friendly, supportive and interesting get-togethers to which I'd ever been.

Jim talked about an old show done in 1957 that he is trying to archive called My Fur Lady. Check it out -- the poster is to die for!

I also was lucky enough to buy a CD from Charlotte Moore (daughter of Mavor Moore). Charlotte is an incredibly talented singer who recorded a CD of all Canadian musical theatre songs (maybe Plane Crazy will make it onto Volume 2!). It is just fabulous!

I can't wait until next week's meeting!
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Lucky Horseshoe

Well I finally did it. I finally put in my application for the Toronto Fringe Festival! Over the past few years I've enjoyed Fringe shows to varying degrees (Top Gun, Sleepless, The Church of Dad, Ouch My Toe) but always admired the people who just went ahead and did it! Unlike the New York Musical Theater Festival, the Toronto Fringe is unjuried. This means shows are picked by lottery. Of course, my inside sources claim it's all politics, it's all who you know, it's all fixed. I would like to believe that I stand as little chance as everyone else, so I'm sticking with the "lottery story". I submitted Plane Crazy for the regular venue, and my kids musicalBecky and The Booger for KidsVenue.

The draw is at Februrary 8 at 8pm! Wish me luck!
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Great review from the Chicago Tribune on changes to Spamalot since I saw it last week. I agree that the cuts mentioned in the review below from today's Chicago Tribune aren't missed. The whole witch burning number was lame. And maybe that's why Hank Azaria seemed bored to me, since he just stands there in his pseudo Peter Allen number...

And yes, I did feel mildly uncomfortable with a bunch of Anglo-Saxons singing "You Won't Succeed on Broadway If You Don't Have Any Jews", especially with the large neon Star of David hanging down...and it wasn't even funny...

Oh, one more thing. unlike Michael Phillips, I really did NOT like the Vegas bit...

"By trimming the fat, Spamalot adds flavor

By Michael Phillips
Tribune theater critic
Published January 23, 2005

Five of my favorite words in show business are "out-of-town musical try-out," and one of the reasons is this: With an out-of-town musical tryout, audiences seeing the show mid-run often get a better version than the first-nighters. Having seen the substantially revised and improved Spamalot the other day, 10 days after the musical opened its pre-Broadway tryout at Chicago's Shubert Theatre, I'm here to tell you: Nobody misses the witch-burning number. Nobody misses the singing cow. Nobody misses the missing 15 minutes.

Director Mike Nichols, composer John Du Prez and librettist, lyricist and co-composer Eric Idle haven't been twiddling their respective thumbs, or anyone else's. It was a good time opening night, but as of the Jan. 19 matinee the stage version ofMonty Python and the Holy Grail is no longer a good time. It is closer to a very good time -- close enough, I think, to transcend its larger, nagging questions of satiric intent and focus.

Helming his first stage musical since LBJ was in office, Nichols realizes he has a popular hit on his highly compensated hands. The national press, at least as represented by the New York Post and Newsweek, has already determined the probable smashdom of Spamalot. Broadway is hungry. Spamalot, which owes so much of its spirit (and too many of its jokes) to The Producers, is likely to become the biggest just-for-laughs Broadway musical since Mel Brooks made crossover hay.

Not only that: The Python musical is a less star-dependent lark than The Producers, a show that owed more of its initial buzz to Nathan Lane than Brooks would care to admit. Spamalot, which may (and should) turn out to be a full 40 minutes shorter than The Producers, is more of an ensemble piece. It requires a few good comics who can sing, and who can "do" Python without being slavish geeks about it.

Paradoxically, however, the cuts in Act 1 have done a helpful thing: They have given King Arthur (Tim Curry) a natural authority over the proceedings. The writers and Nichols haven't beefed up the Arthur role; they've merely cut away the dead wood not involving Arthur. Now, when Curry and the extremely valuable Michael McGrath (Patsy) sing "I'm All Alone," the number registers more strongly. It's the one song that gets at what Nichols, somewhat optimistically, discussed in pre-opening interviews as the class conflict theme -- and it's the right kind of funny, tinged with rue.

Sara Ramirez, who kills, kills, kills as the Lady of the Lake, no longer appears as the witch or the cow. It's better this way. It's too bad the funniest song in the polyglot Spamalot score comes so early: The song called "The Song That Goes Like This," at once a parody of Andrew Lloyd Webber's brand of bathetic balladry and, as delivered by Ramirez and Christopher Sieber, wonderful on its own terms. Ramirez's other big number, "The Diva's Lament," is more conventional, though Ramirez could sell the Spamalot audience just about anything. And that includes the special limited-edition "Golden Honey Grail" flavor of Spam, made possible by the good people of Hormel.

Opening night, Act 1 was the act with the biggest dead spots. No more. On the recent Wednesday matinee Act 1 clocked in at a supermodel-skinny 49 minutes, Act 2, about an hour. Idle and Du Prez may yet replace "Burn Her!," the late, unlamented witch number, with something else (and this time, something funny?) to introduce Sir Bedevere. As is, though, the revised Act 1 -- even with a blurry, halfhearted "run away!" scene at the French castle -- played like an act with a mission, holy or otherwise.

Then comes Act 2, which hasn't changed much, and which asks the question: DoesSpamalot give too many regards to Broadway?

At one point in what we'll call the "plot," King Arthur meets up with the Knights Who Say Ni, who have more on their minds than merely securing a shrubbery. The king and his men, says the head Ni Knight, must stage a musical on Broadway. (In print two weeks ago I misstated that the put-on-a-musical idea came from Almighty God, not the Knight of Ni. Here is a correction. "In the Jan. 11 review of Spamalot, Almighty God was credited with the notion of King Arthur's knights doing a musical on Broadway. In fact, the idea came from the Knight Who Says Ni. The Tribune regrets the error.")

The best bits of Spamalot don't come entirely from the movie, and they don't come entirely from Brooks or "Forbidden Broadway." Like comic dybbuks, they come from somewhere in between two worlds. In Act 1, when the song "Knights of the Round Table" turns into a jazz-inflected Vegas spectacular, it's hilarious. It's worth it just to watch Ramirez do Liza Minnelli with a side order of Lorna Luft. And ifSpamalot doesn't end up playing the Excalibur Hotel someday -- the Vegas resort gets enormous product placement here -- I'm the Chicken of Bristol.

But when Sir Robin (David Hyde Pierce) sings "You Won't Succeed on Broadway (If You Haven't Any Jews)," the joke is tired at best, wince-worthy at worst. I'm sure Idle means to be the right kind of offensive with this one. But the Anglo-Saxon comic perspective leaves the sight gags (a huge Star of David in lights, aFiddler chorus line of grail dancers instead of bottle dancers) wanting, patronizing, pandering or all three. Similarly, when Sir Lancelot (Hank Azaria) offers a stirring defense of the castle-bound homosexual Prince Herbert (Christian Borle), it's pretty soggy writing. Lancelot's subsequent big coming-out number, "His Name Is Lancelot," is treated as a Peter Allen/Village People tropical bash. That's a start, but Azaria doesn't do much of anything in it. Les boys do all the work.

Now: How much of these issues are, in fact, issues? Idle and company settle for increasingly familiar showbiz targets, especially in Act 2, in terms of its spoofing. Yet Spamalot has too much else in its corner to thwart its lust for Broadway glory. Nichols, Idle, Du Prez and the rest of the company aren't resting on their laurels. The cuts and changes have already made it all more fun.

Meantime, in London, Idle's fellow Python founder Michael Palin recently told a journalist that Life of Brian might make a good comic opera. At this rate, the song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" -- written for Life of Brian, but very comfortably interpolated into the Spamalot score -- may become the cheer-up number for the early 21st Century."
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Oh Calcutta

Seriously, why hasn't there been an all-nude revival of Oh! Calcutta!?

There have been similar attempts, including The First Nudie Musical (1976) and the more recent Debbie Does Dallas (2002), but nothing has come close to the overall cultural impact. Oh! Calcutta! was a bold, innovative landmark in theater. It included the involvement of luminaries such as John Lennon and Jules Feiffer in its composition.

Called the "The World's Longest Running Erotic Stage Musical!", This famously bawdy review opened Off-Broadway in 1969 before moving to Broadway and then to a revival which ran for a record-setting 13 years. Lyrics and music written by The Open Window (Robert Dennis, Peter Schickele (a.k.a. PDQ Bach), Stanley Walden) who also as the pit band performed and sang most of the music. One of the original actors wasBill Macy, who subsequently hit it big on TV as Beatrice Arthur's malleable hubby on the popular feminist sitcom Maude, and who recently appeared in this year's Surviving Christmas (whoops). Ironically, he also played an uncredited juror in the original 1968 Mel Brooks movie of The Producers starring Zero Mostel (b. 1915 / d. 1977).

It's amazing how much things have changed since the '70s. Back then, Oh! Calcutta!was mainstream, and now points to a skanky pr0n site. Although, ironically, points to a what looks like a tasty Indian restaurant in Australia. Bit of a dodgy play by the restaurant on setting their URL to virtually the identically address as a pr0n site, but whatever.

I remember this show being advertised in all the newspapers. It's amazing how much more conservative our society has become...when a nipple can cause a ripple, and where sex has now become dirty.

How did this happen? How did we go backwards in our cultural acceptance of sexuality? One theory, which is interesting, is that the overwhelming mass of Internet pr0n has changed our conceptions of sexuality. Pr0n, as a business requirement, has become increasingly segmented into fetishes. Is pr0n's fetish focus forcing sexuality into the closet, as it appeals to our darker desires, while leaving healthy sexuality behind on the side of the road?

Maybe Oh! Calcutta! could revive the Toronto theater scene, taking advantage of our more relaxed Canadian moral values. Plus it'd be fun to appear naked on stage...
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Mary Poppins

According to the Globe & Mail, Mary Poppins The Musical has garnered the most Olivier nominations (British version of theTony) EVER.

From what I've heard from my inside sources, it is a show worth seeing. When I first heard about this Disney project I was afraid that despite loving the movie, the stage version might be a tad saccharine and tired (a criticism that has been thrown atChitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Musical). However, the buzz is that it is a lot darker, a lot truer to the original book, than was the movie. We get to know a bit o' the darker side of Mary (why is she still single?). It sounds how are they going to get those penguins to dance in 8 shows a week?

As for The Woman in White? Well I haven't seen it. I only know one person who saw it and how shall I say this...he loathed it.

London -- Mary Poppins and The Producers led the nominations yesterday for this year's Laurence Olivier Awards, honouring achievement in London theatre, opera, and dance during 2004.

Mary Poppins had nine nominations including best new musical, best actress in a musical for the show's star Laura Michelle Kelly and best actor in a musical for Gavin Lee, who plays Bert the chimneysweep.

The Producers received eight nominations. Co-stars Lee Evans and Nathan Lane are up for best actor in a musical. Leigh Zimmerman, who plays Swedish secretary Ulla, is a nominee in the best-actress category.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest West End show The Woman in White, which has been less well-received, had five Olivier nods."
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Harvey Fierstein

Further to my previous post on the new cast for Fiddler on the Roof, it looks like the re-opening was a triumph, according to Playbill:

"Looking as if he could step in for Harvey Fierstein at a moment's notice, Ron Orbach hit the Minskoff lobby at intermission of Fiddler on the Roof Jan. 20 with a decidedly contented look on his puss. "I feel like the show's back," he said. "It went away for a bit."

In that feeling, the actor was not alone. A fair share of the "re-opening night audience" wore a similar expression, and their ovation at the end of the revival's 377th performance seconded the pervading notion that the Joseph Stein-Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick classic was now closer to its heart, humor and roots than what British director David Leveaux opened Feb. 26 with Alfred Molina.

The feeling was mutual on the other side of the footlights, too. "You feel the love coming from the audience," Fierstein admitted at the post-play party, held within the Zhivago-red walls of The Firebird, an elegant Russian eatery a few short blocks west of the Minskoff.

"I know it's a cliche, but it was a dream, and it has come true. To have the audience go insane like that -- and they've done that from the very first performance -- is incredible."
There's no question that they've taken a big gamble with Fierstein and everyone is waiting to see just how hardy Fiddler really is: Can it stand a revolving cast, and sit down permanently like Phantom et al?

"Credit for the off-beat casting director Leveaux passes on to Susan Bristow, who produced the show for The Nederlanders. "I was in Japan at the time this came up," he recalled. "Susan called me and said, 'Look, I'm thinking about life beyond Fred [Alfred Molina]. What do you think about Harvey? He has always been in the back of my mind as somebody who ought to play this.' The instant she said it, I thought, 'Yes, that's it. That's exactly where we need to go.' Harvey touches territory that perhaps was last seen in Fiddler when Zero Mostel played it, meaning you got a great clown on that stage. Fred came at it from the other end of the spectrum. The truth is you gotta be able to do both."
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When my daughter Myrna came home from rehearsals forJudy and David's musical Pigmania (she plays a foxette) she told me that Mark Terene will be the director (as it turns out he directed last year's Judy and David March break show, Goldirocks).

Mark Terene is a well-known Toronto actor, having originated the role of Pumbaa in The Lion King and also playing Cogsworth in Beauty and The Beast, amongst many other roles. However, I first saw Mark perform inPirates of Penzance when he was in high school at Earl Haig in the early '70s. He played "the very model of a modern major general" and I still remember that performance and how good and funny he was. I must have been only 10 or so at the time so it made a big impression. I became a staunch Gilbert and Sullivan fan thereafter.

It's interesting how theater experiences when you are young can stick with you for a lifetime. They become seared into your brain in a way that rarely happens when you're older. The other formative theater viewing experience I had was also a show at Earl Haig in the '70s. I remember seeing Jane Johanson, Tom Knowlton and one other guy, whose name I cannot remember, dance Steam Heat in The Pajama Game.

From that moment on I decided I had to play Gladys Hotchkiss at some point in my life. That goal was to be finally and fully realized at university in the Queen's Musical Theatre production of The Pajama Game in 1984.

It really is too bad they've cut so much of the theater arts programs out of the public schools...
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All Shook Up

Well, no wonder it is so cold: Hell has frozen over! I like a jukebox musical!

Yes folks, I went to see All Shook Up at the Cadillac Palace Theater in Chicago. I was able to get first row balcony one hour before show time, but the place was pretty much sold out. I didn't likeMamma Mia at all, mostly because they had force-fit my favorite ABBA tunes into a stupid story. Now understand, I'm a HUGE ABBA fan. I was big time into ABBA since I had a Swedish friend in high school, and I went through labor with my first daughter with ABBA tunes pumping out on the stereo.

But in Mamma Mia, every time somebody sang an ABBA tune, I longed to hear ABBA's original version. ABBA wrote goofy songs (and I love 'em), but made awesome recordings. So naturally I assumed I would feel the same way about the Elvis songs used in this musical.

How wrong I was.

This is a charming, funny, musical that is quite happy, thank you very much, just to be a musical comedy. The songs are definitely better integrated into the story (bits of songs are used throughout sometimes) than was the case with Mamma Mia. It's a simple story of a "wild one" aka "roustabout" who motorcycles into a small town in the 1950s and suddenly everyone is falling in love left, right, and center.

The music is fifties so it works with the story. The story has a predictable ending, but who cares? The journey is fun! The cast is just dynamite: To hear those great songs sung by amazing voices, with interesting arrangements was a pleasure. The only disapointment for me was the choreography which I expected to be spectacular, given the music, but wasn't.

And yes, 15 minutes into the show I thought: "I wish I could be in this show!". If they had sold a cast CD I would have bought it. They had some expensive-looking set surprises, but the show could have worked without them.

According to my inside sources, the actors were complaining to the union about some of the raked set pieces (they did look a bit dangerous to me) that the women had to navigate in pumps. However, you'd never know it, the actors were giving 150% all through the show.

The show is a crowd pleaser. The audience loved it, but the people next to me were surprised at how much they enjoyed the whole piece, not just the music, surprised at how much they laughed.

Hmmm, mabye I should give Good Vibrations the benefit of the doubt after all.

On the other hand, here's my hypothesis as to why I didn't like Mamma Mia, why I liked All Shook Up, and why I don't think I'll like Good Vibrations...

Both ABBA and The Beach Boys had goofy songs, but a very distinctive recording technique. All The Beach Boy songs (I'm also a big fan) sound a lot alike, but wow, what a great, unique sound they had. So when I hear them sung on stage, I yearn for the original.

Elvis, on the other hand, sang songs written by a variety of songwriters, and although he sang like no one else, the songs can be sung by other artists. It's like the classic songs that Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby or Rosemary Clooney all sang -- they could be covered by many (competent) artists and still be great. So when I heard those Elvis songs sung by great theater voices, I was satisfied.

And of course, they were better integrated into the story...

It's one of those things that makes you go hmmm...
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Idina Menzel Wicked

Idina Menzel: You can't keep a Wicked girl down!

From Playbill, January 9, 2005

"Tony Award winner Idina Menzel, who was to play her final performance in Wicked Jan. 9, was injured during the Jan. 8 matinee of the hit Stephen Schwartz musical.

Shoshana Bean, Menzel's standby who was slated to officially take over the role of Elphaba beginning Jan. 11, played the Sunday, Jan. 9 performance.

It had been announced prior to the matinee that Menzel would make an appearance during the musical's final curtain call. The Tony-winning actress, however, surprised the sold-out crowd when she came onstage —- dressed in a red track suit -— to complete the final scene of the musical.

During the curtain call, Menzel was again brought onto the stage so she could take her final bow at what was to be her last performance as the misunderstood Elphaba. Menzel, according to the Associated Press, told the audience, "I love you all. It's been the best year of my life. Thank you."
Let's hope her ribs heal asap so she can begin shooting the movie musical Rent where she will reprise her role as Maureen.

Now, there's a super trooper!
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I saw Spamalot on Friday night in Chicago. As you may note from my previous post, I was really, really looking forward to this musical, and I desperately wanted to LOVE it.

If the Chicago crowds enthusiastic love-in reaction is any indication, Spamalot is going to be a huge hit. And if the crowd in the "Shopalot" merchandise store (next door to the Shubert theater) is any indication, Eric Idle won't need to go out on another Greedy Bastard tour for a very long time.

The Chicago Shubert Theater feels like a tall rectangular box with four levels -- an orchestra, balcony, mezzanine and oxygen mask level, all piled on top of each other. My limited visibility ticket wasn't as bad as I feared. Although I was quite far away (last row of mezzanine) I had an aisle seat and unobstructed view. However, the floor of the level above me hung down low and cut of the very top of the set -- those Monty Python clouds. They do come down during the show so I saw them then. I'll admit the energy you get from a show is lessened when you are far away. Having said that...

Was I entertained? Uh huh. Did I laugh? Sure. Was I satisfied with the production values? Of course. Did I absolutely adore it, can't wait to see it again, can't wait to buy the CD and the sheet music, and most importantly did I want to be in it (that is my litmus test for a musical)? No. And I so wanted to love it. I love Monty Python, both the TV shows and movies. But I didn't love the musical.

The sets, and production are fun. The execution of special effects was fun. Not overdone, but just nicely done in keeping with the Monty Python spirit. A lot of the book was lifted straight from the film. But as well delivered as the bits were, I kept wishing I could hear Michael Palin or Eric Idle say the lines. Maybe part of the charm of Python humour are the Pythons themselves [Ed: Duh!]. The changed ending was a bit dodgy (nobody gets arrested) and a bit cheesy. Not Python cheesy-maker, but just cheesy. I won't give away details but the Grail quest takes on a different meaning.

I guess my three biggest bones to pick were as follows:

1. MUSIC: The best song was "Always Look on The Bright Side of Life" which was lifted from the Life of Brian. The other songs had clever lyrics, but pretty forgettable tunes, especially the uptempo ones. "Knights of the Round Table" always had funnylyrics but not the greatest tune. As one song in a film, that was fine. But in a musical they all sort of sounded the same.

2. MUSICAL PARODY: Okay, okay, enough already. Urinetown sort of did it, that whole breaking the fourth wall thing, (go and pee at intermission: Spamalot actually copies that line!) and quite frankly I'm a little tired of musicals that make fun of musicals (especially if it doesn't have the musical chops to back it up). Spamalot felt like it was spending a lot of time making fun of Andrew Lloyd Webber (complete with chandelier), making fun of the big Broadway ballad, making fun of breaking into song. That might have been fresh back when the movie came out in 1975, but it has grown stale in 2005. I for one have never had a problem of people breaking into a song, in a musical. For heaven's sake, I do it all the time just walking down the street! Musicals can/should make fun of society, and morals and stuff, but if you don't like the genre don't do a musical.

3. THE STARS: Tim Curry was great, sounded great and looked like he was having fun. David Hyde Pierce and Hank Azaria looked like they were phoning it in on their cell phones. They looked bored. Don't get me wrong I love those guys. Maybe 11 years of Frasier just sucked live theater right out of David. The Broadway regulars had much more energy.

I'm sure I'm in the minority. After all, I didn't like Phantom either, and it did OK at the box office...

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John Varley

I'm not usually a big SF fan (except for the fabulous works of Cory Doctorow, of course), and I was shocked when I read The Golden Globe by John Varley. From the jacket:

"All the universe is a stage...and Sparky Valentine is its itinerant thespian. He makes his way from planet to planet as part of a motley theater troupe, bringing Shakespeare--a version of it anyway--to the outer reaches of Earth's solar system. Sparky can transform himself from young to old, fat to thin, even male to female, by altering magnetic implants beneath his skin. Indespensible hardware for a career actor--and an interstellar con man wanted for murder..."
This is simply one of the best books on musical theater that I have ever read. The number of inside references to some of the classics of musical theater are simply too numerous too mention. I kept wondering why this book was published: How many SF fans are into musical theater? I would honestly read a chapter, and quickly flip to the front cover to make sure it was SF. God, what a great book. Go out and buy a copy today.
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Lion King on Broadway

Gosh, everyone sure loves to critique the "Disneyfication" of Broadway. Their two big shows: Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, (Aida closed in 2004), have changed the face of Broadway, and in mostly positive ways.

Their most important contribution, long-term, is that the "Disneyfication" of Broadway has cleaned up Times Square and made it "family-friendly". With the burst of construction of hotels and restaurants over the last decade, Times Square is now firmly "cleaned up" and should remain safe at night for many years to come.

I certainly wouldn't want to take my kids to Times Square circa 1980. By cleaning up the area, NY has made Times Square acceptable to families, and it helps make Broadway accessible to everyone.

Of course, everything comes with a mixed blessing.

Although I've seen The Lion King 4 times, and Beauty and the Beast 3 times, this is more a reflection of the fact that I have two Broadway-lovin' kids. These are great starter musicals, and they put on a good show. They've done a wonderful job of restoring two historic theaters. But darn it, they sit down FOREVER...

Broadway's not a theme park, and in order to remain vital there has to be a constant infusion of new major shows. I appreciate everything that Disney's done, but couldn't they rotate the shows a bit more, and create more vibrancy in the line-up? There is a great shot in Broadway: The Golden Age where they scan over the theater listings in the late '50s and it's literally one classic show after another.

Disney perfected the "limited time" marketing technique with their videos (they regularly put classic movies "on moratorium" so that they increase sales in the available period). Do the same on Broadway. Mount more shows, more often, and limit the runs so that each show becomes an event.

Oh yeah, and do The Little Mermaid on Broadway too.
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Sondheim II

One of my favorite theater DVDs is the documentary of the recording of the cast album for Company.

Called a "monumental achievement" by the Los Angeles Times, Original Cast Album: Company is the "extraordinary documentary of the explosive recording session for Stephen Sondheim's Tony Award winning landmark musical."

The DVD is filmed on May 3, 1970, a few days after opening night. The documentary records an grueling 18.5 hour session, and Elaine Stritch is just too perfect. She is so, gee, Elaine Stritch-y...

Equity rules for cast albums is that the cast gets paid a week for each day of the recording session. If I didn't know better, ol' Stritchy pushes the session to a second day so that the whole cast gets another week. Or maybe not. You take a look and decide.

The documentary is filmed by D.A. Pennebaker, who is most famous for The War Room (the inside story of Bill Clinton's 1992 election campaign), but he also did another mind-blowing Broadway documentary called Moon Over Broadway that I'll talk about in the future.

Stephen Sondheim is wonderful in this documentary. He is such a dramatic genius, and so incredibly gifted. It's great to see him in action, at his prime.
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Chorus Line

When I started reading Making It On Broadway (Actors' Tales of Climbing to the Top) by David Wienir and Jodie Langel, I thought "Oh, I've heard this all before". Well let me tell you I hadn't! This book should be required reading for every theater student. There are the ususal "the first time I went to the theatre I was hooked" stories. But there are a lot scary stalking stories (It doesn't seem fair for Broadway actors to be stalked -- if you are going to be stalked and attacked, at least you should be making a ton of money!!), lots of insight into the McShow mentality of today's Broadway, and yes, some incredible emotionally-stirring stories that remind them why they went into the business in the first place.

I hear a lot of "old timers" talk about how hard they worked, never missing a performance, even if they were in a coma, and how lazy young performers are today. I wonder if the lack of the "hard work" attitude that performers from the "Golden Age" talk about might be fostered by the environment that performers must work in now -- rundown theatres that are basically disintegrating and hazards to health; the revolving door treatment of talent for long running shows like McCats, McMiz, and McPhantom, where the cast coming in don't ever get to work with the Director but are shown their blocking (if they're lucky) by the Stage Manager or the Janitor; the skyrocketing cost of theater even when the talent still can't survive in NYC on what they're paid.

Maybe the "hostile" corporate takeover of Broadway has fostered this demotivated employee mentality. Maybe young performers today are not inherently lazy, as is often suggested. As in most things in life, it usually comes down to mismanagement, not bad raw materials. The fish always rots from the head.
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Black Knight, No Arm-1

I watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail a couple of nights ago to refresh my memory in anticipation of seeing Spamalot this Friday in Chicago. Not only did I laugh my face off, but I also wondered about the transformation of the piece onto the stage.

The movie really lends itself to musicalization, which much isn't a stretch, but what about the special effects? How will the Black Knight lose all four limbs and still tap dance in a big Broadway dance number?

How will they handle the killer bunny darting from throat-to-throat and ripping off the heads of Arthur's knights? Is a flying bunny the next chandelier? How will the knights be ejected when they fail to answer the three questions? Perhaps they will just disappear through a trap door: I mean if they can make a witch fly and melt, anything is possible! Actually I don't really care. I'm just so excited to see Tim Curry on stage (another "must see" crossed off my list ).

Spamalot has turned into the hot ticket in Chicago, but I acted early so I only paid $55 for my ticket! Awesome! However, it's a limited visibility ticket. Dude! On the other hand, even the LV tickets are going for $250 now. Awesome! But I might be parking cars and listening through a drive-in movie speaker. Dude! Or maybe it will be "Suzy Conn, price check, aisle three..."

Hmmm I just got a sudden craving for coconuts...
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Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

The wonderfully talented and hilarious actress/singer Joanna Gleason, who won a Tony for Into the Woods and starred on many TV sitcoms (the cancelled Bette Midler Show was her latest, I believe), is Monty Hall's daughter!

Of course, everyone knows Monty Hall is the famous emcee of Let's Make A Deal which ran from 1968 to 1986, and then further in the late '80s and early '90s as a syndicated show. It now runs on the classic TV channels as nostalgia programming. I watched it all the time...

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels The Musical is now waiting for her behind door number three!

Dame Judi Dench starred as Sally Bowles in the first London production of Cabaret in 1968? Take that, 007!

Now you do!
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Under the Bridge

So here's the early word on Under the Bridge, which I blogged about a couple of days ago. Sounds OK...the reviewer is clearly uncomfortable heaping praise on Kathy Lee Gifford, but this could be alright...

"Given that the new musical Under the Bridge is based on a children's book and features book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford, it comes as no surprise that it's unapologetically wholesome and heartwarming. In fact, the show is so wholesome and heartwarming that it will appeal primarily to girls under the age of 10. On the plus side, the musical offers some pleasant songs by composer David Pomeranz and Gifford, as well as fine performances by Broadway veterans Ed Dixon and Florence Lacey.

Dixon plays Armand, a quintessential Parisian hobo who wears ratty clothes and lives, yes, under a bridge. After Armand and the rest of the company sing about the glories of Paris, his gypsy friend Mireli (Lacey) predicts new developments in his life in the song "You Will Meet With Adventure Today." Sure enough, Armand finds three redheaded urchins camped out under his bridge. Their father recently died, and their mother, Madame Calcet (Jacquelyn Piro), can't afford a room.

Best known as Regis Philbin's former co-host, Gifford does prove to be a capable lyricist. And Pomeranz--a successful pop composer who has written for Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, and others--contributes catchy tunes, some of which bring to mind Les Miz. Besides the lively 'This Is the Gypsy Life,' I enjoyed 'The Marriage of Lady Tartine' (sung by the three children), 'This House Where We Live' (sung by the oldest child, played by Maggie Watts), 'He Is With You' (sung by Lacey), and 'A Clean Start' (sung by Dixon).

With 19 numbers packed into 130 minutes, the show moves right along. Director Eric Schaeffer clearly made pacing a priority. He also maneuvers the 13 singing-and-dancing actors around the tiny stage with aplomb."
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Fiddler on the Roof

Although I loved the movie musical and listened to the Broadway recording and played the piano vocal selections ad nauseum as a child, why wasn't I more motivated to see Fiddler On The Roof with Alfred Molina? Not to mention my oldest daughter Myrna saw it as part of Camp Broadway last August and raved. I just couldn't work up the enthusiasm.

Well, well, well. I'm motivated now!

Harvey Feinstein and Andrea Martin take over as Tevye and Golde this month. I mean, think about it! I really want to see it now. Hopefully Harvey will be wearing the pants and Andrea the dress...I just can't get the image of Edith Prickley singing "Do you Love Me" out of my head...
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I am a nymphomaniac

No, no, I'm not divulging any nasty secrets! In this case NYMF stands for theNew York Musical Theater Festival. This past September, I attended the very first New York Musical Theater Festival, the brain child of Kris Stewart (another Aussie related to Broadway...hmmm...) and many other theater visionaries.

I went down for the last week of the three week festival to volunteer and help out, see shows and shmooze in hopes of helping Plane Crazy be part of the 2005 festival. I staffed the AMC movie theater on 42nd Street, selling t-shirts, giving out information about the festival, setting up for receptions, and directing people to the washroom, and directing people to the theater where the preview ofLadder 49 was playing (the last two were not in my job description). I had a blast, met some great people and saw some great and not so great shows - which is the point of a new musical festival. Get stuff up and see if it works...or not.

Tickets were only $15 and I got in free a lot since I was a staffer. My absolute favorite was Title of Show, a brilliant show (Book by Hunter Bell, Music by Jeff Bowen, Lyrics by Jeff Bowen) about, wait for it, writing a show for the festival! I laughed until I cried and fell off my wooden bench (the venues were small, grungy and wonderfully artsy.)

Kendra Bator, a friend of mine from Toronto who is now taking her Masters In Theater Production at Columbia, was helping out on a show by Bob and Jim Walton called The Eyes Are The First Thing To Go. I got to meet the cast and go backstage which was really underground in this eeiry, damp tunnel with what appeared to be stalactites hanging from the ceiling. The dressing room had flooded and the props were floating away...ah, the thea-tuh!

Anyhoo, I just received a note from Kris Stewart and I thought I'd share his good news with you:

"I wanted to drop a note to folks in my address book, as we recently heard that we are receiving the 2004 Jujamcyn Theaters Award, an amazing achievement, considering how young an organization we still are.

Created in 1984, the Jujamcyn Theaters Award is a $100,000 prize given annually to a theater organization that has made an outstanding contribution to the development of creative talent for the theater. Previous recipients have been The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, American Repertory Theatre, Long Wharf Theatre, The Mark Taper Forum, Second Stage, The Foundation of the Dramatists Guild Young Playwrights Festival, The Guthrie Theater, The New York Shakespeare Festival, Yale School of Drama/Yale Repertory Theatre, The Alliance For New American Musicals,The Market Theatre in South Africa, New York Stage and Film Company, American Conservatory Theatre, City Center Encores!, Atlantic Theater Company, Penumbra Theatre Company, Manhattan Theatre Club, Labyrinth Theater Company, and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.

Now entering its second year, The New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) presented over 141 events in 26 performance venues across the city during its 2004 Festival, surpassing all expectations and becoming the largest musical theatre event in American history. Aspiring to invigorate the musical theater community by stimulating the production of new and innovative work, NYMF garnered strong reviews and sold-out houses that have led to commercial options for at least seven of its 31 productions. In addition to full productions of new musicals, the festival included improvised musicals, panel discussions, readings, concerts, and cabaret performances, as well as a 39-film new movie musical series."
Canada helped give NYMF an international flair, with showings from Top Gun The Musical andFrankenstein, Do You Dream. I'm hoping that Plane Crazy will continue the tradition next September!
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Boy from Oz

Not too long ago I learned a valuable lesson -- never prejudge. When I was in New York last April attending the Commercial Theater Institute's 3-day producer conference, I could have gone to see The Boy From Oz for $50 - half off at the TKTS booth in Times Square. And great seats to boot. However, I was too skeptical about the star casting: Hugh Jackman as Peter Allen.

Due to my own ignorance, I only knew Hugh as Wolverine and the occasional romantic lead (Kate & Leopold). Don't get me wrong, he was great in X-Men, but I never knew of his musical theater background. So I thought "tsk tsk, I'm sure he is awful...".

By the time I saw him perform on the Tonys it was too late. The tickets were at a premium and hard to get. When I was in New York on holiday with my family in August of last year my husband had to jump through hoops and pay through the nose (sounds like a Cirque du Soleil act...) for tickets for my 10 year old daughter and I to see it. Well, we were blown away, thrilled, entranced, entertained and besotted. Hugh Jackman was amazing.

Not just "good for a movie star". But totally Broadway worthy! The whole cast was phenomenal, but Hugh was thrilling. Although I was a teensy weensy bit weirded out that my daughter and I had a crush on the same guy...It was so great that when I was back in NYC in September I had to see it again, so my husband had to do the same contortions (at even a higher premium) to get me a ticket. But it was well worth it. My only regret was I couldn't be there closing night to see Hugh pull Matt Damon and Barbara Walters onstage for some shenanigans.

Long story short, I have since learned to suspend disbelief, give the benefit of the get the idea. So when I heard about the following, I thought, well they could be great. Now I will only pass judgement once I've seen them:

1. Under The Bridge: A new musical with book and lyrics by none other than Kathy Lee Gifford (music by David Pomeranz) that just opened at the Zipper Theater. The Zipper Theater is a way-cool small theater converted from a zipper manufacturer. The seats are old car seats! I was lucky enough to see Bebe Neuwirth in Here Lies Jenny there and had my very own bucket seat -- very comfy. Kathy's musical is based on the book The Family Under The Bridge. It's about a family that has to live under a bridge in 1950s Paris with a helpful bum "Armand". The old me would have scoffed and laughed but the new me will wait and see for myself. It also stars Ed Dixon as Armand, who I saw in Here Lies Jenny and who wrote the musical Fanny Hill.

2. Christina Applegate in Sweet Charity: The buzz on Christina (from my inside sources...) is good. Apparently she has been dancing since she was a mere tot. And she has good comedic timing, my favorite example being when she was a "baby stylist" on Friends. Again, I'll see for myself when it previews in Chicago.

3. Ewan McGregor in Guys and Dolls: He has been cast as Sky Masterson for a West End production. First of all I love Ewan big time in films ranging from Star Wars to Brassed Off to Down With Love. He is gorgeous, romantic, funny, musically inclined etc.(Sorry I didn't mention Moulin Rouge, but I did see that, so I can judge) But can he do a big musical role on stage?? Will luck be a lady for Ewan???

Well, don't look at me for a prejudgement, I've learned my lesson.
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Harry Connick Junior

Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes, here I start on the countdown to the revival of The Pajama Game. This is, without question, my mostest favorite musical in the world, ever since I saw Steam Heat with Jane Johansen and Tom Knowlton in the Earl Haig production in 197?, after which I was hooked. In fact, my musical Plane Crazy is, in many respects, an homage to The Pajama Game.

Now they've made the surprise announcement that Harry Connick Jr.will star. I've got Steam mostest favorite movie in the world isWhen Harry Met Sally.

So can it be true? The crooner from my favorite movie, starring in the revival of my favorite musical? Who can say "center orchestra, fourth row"...

Here's a bit from the article on BTW, I saw Wonderful Town twice (my husband three times) and it was awesome. Of course, the running joke is that Comden, Green, and Bernstein wroteWonderful Town in a month, which is about the amount of time that Donna Murphy appeared on stage in the first year of the show...

Modern day crooner Harry Connick, Jr., is the ususual choice to star in a long-planned and often-delaying Broadway revival of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross' musical, The Pajama Game, the New York Times reported Jan. 8.

The show will be directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, whose Wonderful Town is scheduled to close at the the end of this month after a rocky, one-year-plus run. Pajama Game will open in November.

The announcement is something of a surprise. The production was announced some time ago and has repeatedly pushed back its start date, and producer Jeffrey Richards has been silent on the subject, suggesting to many in the theatre community that the project had stalled for good.

Connick, Jr., who enjoyed his peak fame in the late '80s and early '90s, thanks largely to the success of the soundtrack of "When Harry Met Sally," has never starred in a Broadway musical, though he wrote the score to the short-lived musical Thou Shalt Not. He has also taken occasional film roles. He will play the part of Sid. No one has been announced for the female lead.
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Phantom of the Opera

Well, I'll be damned. The phans of Phantom have pushed thesoundtrack to the top of the charts, on the heels of the critically panned, but phan-loved movie musical of Phantom of the Opera. I must admit to really mixed feelings here. On one hand, pleased as punch to see movie musicals getting made again. On the other...yuck. I really don't like Phantom.

I thought that Eric Idle summed up my perspective perfectly in the Dec 20/27 issue of The New Yorker. He was being interviewed about the upcoming Spamalot, which I'll be seeing in Chicago next week (although the only ticket I could get was "limited visibility", so I may not have many observations on the set...). Here's a bit of the interview:

A prevailing theory among many of those involved in "Spamalot" is that the success of a string of offbeat musicals--"The Producers,""Urinetown,""Avenue Q"--bodes well for a Python extravaganza. It's difficult to imagine investors lining up a decade ago, with "Cats" and "Les Miserables" dominating Broadway.

"To me, 'The Producers' is the punch-back of the comedy musical," Idle said. "For years, there was nothing to laugh at, just Andrew Lloyd Webber and the plates on people's faces. I refuse to believe people really enjoyed it, though they would say, 'Oh, it's wonderful--all that fog!'"

Anyway, everyone I know who's seen the Phantom movie has hated it...but it'll be good for musicals if it does well at the box office. On the other hand, this movie could finally kill Phantom on Broadway, and that'd be a good thing. Put McPhantom out of its McMisery!

Sony Classical and Really Useful Records original motion picture soundtrack recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera is #1 on Billboard's Soundtrack Chart and #44 on the Top 200 according to today's Soundscan report. The soundtrack continues to grow in sales as its competition drops significantly after the holiday selling period. The soundtrack is also charting at #2 on and #4 on itunes.
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sondheim young

Stephen Sondheim is arguably the greatest lyricist of our generation. He has created two lyrical masterpieces: West Side Story (1957), and Gypsy (1959).

But he was never happy as a lyricist (why is no one happy at what they're best at? Barbra Streisand a Director? Really?!? Sing Barbra, sing!).

Stephen has gone on to create some of the best critically reviewed musicals in the history of Broadway. They've been mixed with audiences, which the elite write off as "too challenging for the masses" and others say "people like happy musicals..."

Anyway, one of Sondheim's master strokes is that he taped most of his shows while they were in preview. So, one of the only archives of live theater from the last 20 years are Sondheim shows...brilliant!

My favorites are Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd -- The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
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children's letters to god

Based on the international-best selling book

A New Musical Book by Stuart Hample
Music by David Evans
Lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen

A good friend of mine and producer extraordinaire,Michael Rubinoff, was kind enough to lend me his Children's Letters To God: A New Musical CD that he bought when he was in New York this past December.

In exchange I lent him my copy of Colored Lights, the Kander and Ebb recollections, a gem of a book which I will discuss in a later post. I recalled having walked by the theater that was playing Children's Letters to God (across from the now closed Dracula, The Musical that really bites. I take that back. I haven't seen Dracula or heard the CD so what the heck do I know??) last August and thinking "Nah, probably too much of a saccharine-sweet, Barney-like show".

Unlike me, Michael was smart enough to see Children's Letter To God when he had the chance, and gave it a thumbs up. I listened to the CD and loved it right away! It is completely cast with kids/tweens and the talent of this group, the original off-Broadway cast, is phenomenal! I recognized a lot of the faces and names from a reading of Steven Schwartz's Captain Louie which I had the pleasure of seeing last September during the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

The topics covered are not wildly controversial, but pretty standard kid stuff: Pet turtles dying, divorce, you know the typical angst of growing up. But it is presented in a really catchy, innocent and true way that makes it endearing and charming, not boring and smarmy. I particulary liked "Arnold" (the aforementioned doomed turtle), "Questions for the rain" and "A Simple Holiday Song". I'd love to see this show done here in Toronto (starring my ten year old daughter (and singer/actress) Myrna.

Myrna and her sister Trinity listened to it and loved it, and they are pretty sophisticated musical theater critics. Some shows are too simple and babyish for some kids, or too adult in theme for others, but Children's Letters to God would have, I think, a great mass kid appeal.
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Singin In The Rain

For collective discussion and debate:

10: An American in Paris / Gigi because France in the '50s is irrestible;
9: There's No Business Like Show Businessbecause of Ethel Merman...'nuff said?;
8: West Side Story, because even though they dubbed Natalie Wood they retained the energy of the original staging;
7: Guys and Dolls, and not everyone likes this one because of Brando's singing, but I just love the sets, the times, and Frank is simply perfect;
6: Flying Down to Rio / Gay Divorcee / Roberta / Top Hat / Follow the Fleet and Swing Time / Shall We Dance / Carefree / The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle / The Barkleys of Broadwaybecause this list wouldn't be complete without Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who kept me company afternoons that I used to skip out of school to watch these musicals on TV;
5: Oliver! because it had a huge impact on me as a child: It was the first time that I'd seen someone get killed in a musical. And each time I see it, I still think there's a chance she'll get away;
4: Funny Girl because of two words: Barbra Streisand;
3: Jesus Christ Superstar because of Norman Jewison's incredibly inventive filmography, the energy, the '70s...the closest thing I've ever had to a religious experience;
2: It's a tie between White Christmas because of "Sisters": One of the most important songs in my life and Holiday Inn because despite the cringe-worthy blackface routines and racist stereotyping, it has one of the best dance numbers ever with Fred Astaire and a pocketful of firecrackers;

...and most importantly...

1: Singin' in the Rain because of Donald O'Connor's "Make 'em Laugh" (even though it was blatantly ripped off of Cole Porter's "Be A Clown") and "Good Morning", our daily refrain in the Conn household.
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I divide my time between Toronto, New York, and Chicago, where I am enrolled in the Theatre Building Chicago, Musical Theatre Writer's Workshop. I am also in the workshop and fundraising process with my musical Plane Crazy, which is a fun, upbeat musical about feminism set against the backdrop of glamour and innocent sex appeal of the swinging '60s jet age: A time when the stews were sexy and the world was sexist.

I was drawn to the stories of flight attendants in the early 1960s ("stewardesses" or "stews" in the parlance of the time).

I realized that these stewardesses were the first "lipstick feminists", and they represented the first wave in a changing world. This was an exclusive sorority of women who, for one of the first times in history, had freedom. Freedom to travel (transatlantic jet travel was introduced in 1958); freedom to have sex (the Pill was introduced in 1962); and the freedom to have a career without needing the support of a man.

At the same time, these women were portrayed as "mistresses" in the airline advertising of the time, with Braniff asking "Does your wife know you're flying with us?" and United proudly announcing "Every [passenger] gets warmth, friendliness and extra care. And someone may get a wife." They were dressed in mini-skirts and bodysuits. Daily weigh-ins were mandatory. It's no wonder that many of the leaders of the Women's Movement, including NOW President (1991 to 1997) Patricia Ireland, came from the ranks of stewardesses: It was an explosive combination of opportunity and exploitation.

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The Scorpio Entertainment/Richard Frankel Productions group is using a unique venture capital-style approach to fund Broadway musicals that allows very small investors ($5K to $10K) to participate in shows likeHairspray and The Producers.

My husband met with Steve Baruch a couple of weeks ago, and came away very impressed. Mr. Baruch has some great perspective on Broadway today (off-Broadway plays are dead) and on the future (they produced Sound of Music, which bombed in NYC, but is doing boffo business in China...the export market for Broadway is shaping up to be HUGE).

This group is similar to Stage One in the UK, which allows small investors to participate in West End musicals. But, differently from the Frankel group, they are run more as a non-profit. Nonetheless, they have some interesting data on the success and grosses of musicals from the West End (which they say is bigger than Broadway).
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