How I Spent My Summer Vacation – Part I

Even though I’ve been out of school for a long time, the beginning of a new school year gives me a feeling of starting fresh. Time to get to work, time to start new writing projects, time to make a huge to-do list and dive right in. Anyone else feel this way?

Before I close the door on another summer, I usually like to recap it. I have so much to say that I’m splitting my thoughts into two posts. So here goes:

Part 1 – Pop Culture

One thing I love about summers is the blockbuster movies. Say what you will about sequels, reboots, and overloaded action flicks, but I love going to a huge tent pole movie with ridiculously high expectations. Unfortunately, a lot of movies this summer left me cold. My two favorites were the new Ghostbusters and Captain American: Civil War. I wasn’t sure how much I’d like Ghostbusters, because I’m a huge fan of the original, and reboots don’t always work for me, but I found it very entertaining. Interestingly enough, my husband, who has never liked the original Ghostbusters (hard to believe, right?), enjoyed this version of the movie. We saw it in a packed theater full of people who cheered for all the cameos (loved Annie Potts as the hotel receptionist!)

As far as Captain America: Civil War goes, it was very enjoyable and I came out of the movie solidly #TeamCap. Yes, RDJ is snarky and delicious, but he has been annoying me since Avengers 2 with his self-righteous delusions, and this time he went over the edge. So, I’m sticking with Captain America until Iron Man redeems himself (My only real complaint about this movie was the lack of Thor, but since Chris Helmsworth was in Ghostbusters, I got my fair dose of him!).

HelmsworthSpeaking of Marvel movies, my two kids decided, toward the end of the summer, that they would attempt a Marvel movie marathon. For reasons of sanity, they opted not to include all the TV shows, like Agents of Shield, Agent Carter, or Jessica Jones. But even so, we’re talking 11 movies, which came out to about 24 hours viewing time! Being the geeky/enabling Mom that I am, I requested all the movies from the library, bought the kids a tub of snacks, and said “Have at it.” They watched the movies, non-stop, with breaks in between. I think both kids hit the wall and dozed off during parts of Thor 2 and Iron Man 3, but they got a second wind during Guardians of the Galaxy. Speaking of marathons, my son and I wanted to do a 6-movie Hobbit/Lord of the Rings marathon, but we didn’t get the chance. There’s always next summer!

Otherwise, my favorite entertainment this summer wasn’t from a movie – it was from the TV show Stranger Things, which is on Netflix as an 8-episode series. I was drawn to it because of the 1980s nostalgia factor, but I got hooked by the creepy plot and intersecting stories. Interestingly enough, the show is set in 1983, a time when I was about Nancy and Barb’s age, and my brother was the exact same age as the D & D players (and he played D & D too – we had dozens of multi-sided die and character sheets all over the house!). A few people have said the show doesn’t have much appeal beyond the nostalgia factor, but I disagree. My 15-year-old son watched it with me, and he loved it. We both agreed that it would have been a totally different story if the characters had cell phones and the Internet.

strangerthingsWhat about you? Any good pop culture summer fixes?

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Musical Monday: Jesus Christ Superstar

JCSName: Jesus Christ Superstar

 Credits: Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by Tim Rice.

Summary: A “rock opera” that depicts the last days of Jesus’s life, from his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday leading up to his crucifixion on Good Friday, as told from the perspective of the apostle Judas Iscariot.

Dates:
Jesus Christ Superstar had its start as a concept album, recorded in London in 1970. Although the album was hugely popular, the Broadway production which followed (in 1971) only ran for 711 performances. The show was better received in London, where it opened in 1972 and ran for eight years. A movie version came out in 1973, directed by Norman Jewison (who also directed the movie of Fiddler on the Roof). Since then, JSC has become a global phenomenon, performed in over 40 countries and grossing more than $190 million dollars!

Awards: Nominated for five Tony Awards in 1972, but it didn’t win any.

Rating: PG

Why This Musical: Although Jesus Christ Superstar can seem dated today, in the 1970s, it was ground-breaking. Unlike most musicals of the time, it was sung-through, with no dialogue, and it mixed a rock score and modern lyrics with an age-old story. As one might expect, a musical based on the Passion of Jesus sparked quite a bit of controversy. Many Christians objected to Judas, who functions as the show’s narrator, because they thought he was portrayed too sympathetically. Others felt the musical was anti-Semitic, given that the villains of the piece included a group of Jewish priests. The Broadway production was such an overblown spectacle that it received scathing reviews; even Andrew Lloyd Webber, who composed the show, called it a “vulgar travesty.” However, the London version of the show, which was scaled down, was very popular and ran for years. JCS eventually went on to become a part of the musical theatre canon, sparking numerous revivals, touring shows, and arena-style productions.

The 1973 movie was critically well-received, although it also sparked protests from various religious groups. The framing device – a troupe of actors who arrive in Israel via bus – was unique, and it allowed for low-key costumes and a bare-bones set. The decision to shoot the movie on location, in the Israeli dessert, also gave it an authentic feel.

My Connection: In my post on Wicked, I mentioned “gateway musicals,”—a term for certain shows that spark a lifelong passion for musical theatre. For my nineteen-year-old daughter’s generation, that musical was Rent. For today’s younger theatre-goers, it might be Hamilton. But my gateway musical was Jesus Christ Superstar. Although I grew up listening to musicals (particularly the works of Rodgers & Hammerstein), and I often sang along with them, my 14-year-old reaction to JCS was more like an obsession. I listened to the record non-stop, put on mini “performances” of the entire soundtrack with my brother, and often lapsed into daydreams in which our community theatre decided to do the show and cast me in the role of Mary Magdalene. It didn’t hurt that all the kids in my high school theatre class were equally obsessed, and we frequently sang the songs and choreographed the dance numbers in class.

When the revival movie house in my town offered a double bill of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar during Easter break, I was beside myself with excitement. Despite the great score and cool NYC setting, Godspell was a little too weird for me, but I loved JCS. I was a little disappointed at the casting of Jesus; to me, Ted Neeley seemed whiny compared to Ian Gillian, who sang the role on the London concept album. I thought the rest of the casting was marvelous, though. Carl Anderson was powerful and sympathetic as Judas, and Josh Mostel was a perfect, over-the-top King Herod.

Over the years, my passion for JCS has faded somewhat, although I usually try to watch the movie once a year, right before Easter. I had a chance to see a community theatre version of the show in 1996, and it was decent, but by no means memorable. If I’d had the chance, I would have loved to have seen the 2012 Broadway revival, just to see JCS reinterpreted for a 21st century audience.

Where to See It: The movie version is available on DVD (I found it listed at Wal-Mart and Target) and Google Play has it available for streaming. The show is performed a lot by professional and amateur theatre groups, so it’s not hard to find a local production.

Favorite Songs:
“Heaven on Their Minds”
“I Don’t Know How to Love Him”
 “Gethsemane”
 “King Herod’s Song”

Final Thoughts: Even though Jesus Christ Superstar doesn’t have the same impact now as it did in the 1970s and 80s, it’s a great example of musical theatre from that era. Definitely give the soundtrack a listen or catch the movie if you have the chance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Musical Monday: Hair

CCI03142016Name: Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical

Credits: Music by Galt McDermot. Lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado. Book by Gerome Ragni and James Rado.

Summary: Set during the turbulent protests of the 1960s, Hair follows a “tribe” of young, politically active hippies living in New York City, whose search for love and sexual freedom is threatened when one of their group is drafted into the Vietnam War.

Dates:
Broadway: Opened on Broadway in 1968 and ran for 1,750 performances between 1968 and 1972.
Revivals/Tours: Hair has spawned numerous productions around the world, and there have been two major Broadway revivals to date (1977 and 2009).
Movie: A movie version of Hair was released in 1979, directed by Milos Forman.

 Awards: Nominated for two Tonys in 1969, including Best Musical (it lost to 1776). The 2009 Revival was nominated for eight Tonys and won Best Revival of a Musical.

Rating: PG-13/R (for language, nudity, drug use)

 Why This Musical: Hair is probably one of the most ground-breaking shows in musical theatre history. Created at a time when 1960s America was divided over the Vietnam War, it channeled the spirit of the hippie generation—a generation that refused to conform to the notion they should be drafted to fight in a war overseas. The original production stemmed from an experimental work that was created as a Vietnam protest show. When the show opened on Broadway, it marked one of the first times that a mainstream theatre production was so racially integrated. The inclusion of on-stage nudity, profanity, drug-taking, homosexuality, and disrespect for the American flag led to angry protests from the public. Conservative theatre-goers were shocked and upset by the production, and veteran Broadway composers such as Leonard Bernstein and Richard Rodgers were highly critical of the score. However, many critics praised the show for being fresh, young, and defiant. Since then, Hair has been widely acknowledged as a classic, and is performed all over the world. Interestingly enough, the plot and structure of the stage show are fluid and often change, depending on the individual production. When the movie version was released, it differed quite a bit from the show, in that it had a more straightforward plot and the main characters were given more backstory.

My Connection: My connection with this musical goes all the way back, to the 1980s, when my mother brought home a record from Goodwill that contained the greatest hits from Jesus, Christ Superstar on one side and Hair on the other. I fell in love with both musicals, and bought the full cast recordings of each, in order to hear all the songs. I own the movie version of Hair on DVD, and I’ve seen it quite a few times, but I didn’t have a chance to see the musical live until 2011, when a national tour came to Milwaukee. Having grown accustomed to the movie version, I was surprised at how different the stage show was, and how little actual plot it contained. However, even if the show was confusing at times, this didn’t detract from the great performances, the fantastic score, or the powerful ending. As promised, there was full nudity on-stage during the song “Be-In,” but it was partly obscured by fog machine which covered the stage in a smoky haze.

Where to See It: The movie is available on DVD (I found it listed at Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Barnes & Noble). The show is often performed by professional and amateur theatre groups, so it’s not hard to find a local production. Milwaukee has hosted two different productions (Skylight Music Theatre and Broadway in Milwaukee) in the last five years.

Favorite Songs:
“Aquarius”
“Hair”
“Three-Five-Zero-Zero”
“The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)”

Final Thoughts: The movie version of Hair is a lot of fun, with great music, but try to see the stage show if you have the chance, as it’s a very different experience from the movie.

 

 

 

 

 

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Musical Monday: Avenue Q

avenueQpostcardName: Avenue Q

Credits: Music & Lyrics by Robert Lopez & Jeff Marx. Book by Jeff Whitty.

Summary: What if the puppets from Sesame Street had to grow up and deal with adult life? That’s the premise behind Avenue Q, a musical focused on a group of 20-something puppets, all searching for purpose, while struggling to make a go of it in an “outer-outer” borough of New York City.

Dates:
Broadway: Opened on Broadway in July 2003 and ran for six years, then re-opened Off-Broadway at the New World Stages theater complex in 2009, where it is still running.
Tours: Avenue Q also had a limited run in Las Vegas and the West End in London, as well as numerous tours in the U.S. and abroad.

Awards: Nominated for six Tony Awards. Won 3, including Best Book and Best Musical (beating out Wicked, which was favored to win).

Rating: R (for language, puppet nudity & puppet sex)

Why This Musical: When Avenue Q opened, it was praised for its fresh, satirical content and its ground-breaking format. Conceived as a parody of children’s TV shows like Sesame Street, the musical not only presented a dead-on spoof of genre, but also gave the audience a story with a lot of heart. The plot centers on a naïve college grad who moves to a low-rent apartment on Avenue Q and struggles to find his purpose. Along the way, he meets a diverse cast of characters; together they tackle issues like pornography, homelessness, racism, and homosexuality through witty musical numbers. As with Sesame Street, the cast is made up of puppets, but the puppeteers remain on stage throughout the show, clearly visible to the audience. Not only does Avenue Q parody Sesame Street, but four of the puppeteers from the original cast worked on the TV show. Characters such as roommates Rod and Nicky (Bert and Ernie) and Trekkie Monster (who favors online porn, rather than cookies) are clearly modeled on the Sesame Street muppets. The show was so well-received that it made numerous “Best Of” lists for 2003 and won the Tony Award for Best Musical.

My Connection: I discovered the Cast Recording for Avenue Q about five years ago and loved it. In 2012, I was fortunate enough to see a local production in Milwaukee, performed by the marvelous Skylight Music Theatre. At first, I was afraid I might be distracted by the presence of the human puppeteers, but about fifteen minutes in, I stopped noticing them. The cast did an amazing job, and the funky, colorful set was fantastic.

Where to See It: At the moment, Avenue Q is still playing Off-Broadway, and tickets are often discounted through TKTS. It has also performed by professional theater groups, and there’s even a PG-13 version that has been licensed for high school productions.

Favorite Songs:
“It Sucks To Be Me”
“There’s a Fine, Fine Line”
“Schadenfreude”
“For Now”

Final Thoughts: If you’re not offended by the subject matter or the language, then this is a very enjoyable musical, with a lot of heart and humor. The original Cast Recording is available on iTunes.

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Musical Monday: Pippin

Pippin_300Name: Pippin

Credits: Music & Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Book by Roger O. Hirson. Directed by Bob Fosse.

Summary: A musical based on the fictitious life of Pippin, the son of King Charlemagne, as he searches for meaning.

Dates:
Broadway: Opened in 1972 and ran for 1,944 performances; closed in 1977.
Revival: Opened in 2013 and played through 2015. The revival spawned a National Tour, which began in 2014 and is still ongoing.
Film: A stage production of Pippin was videotaped in Toronto in 1981; it can be found on YouTube. In 2003, after the success of the film version of Chicago, Miramax acquired the rights to Pippin, but did nothing with them. Then, in late 2014, it was announced that TV and film producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (known for Chicago, The Sound of Music Live, and Hairspray) would produce the move with the Weinstein company, with a release date TBA.

Awards:
Broadway: Nominated for 11 Tony Awards in 1973, including Best Musical (it lost to A Little Night Music). It won 5 including Best Direction of a Musical, Best Choreography (Bob Fosse) and Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (Ben Vereen as The Leading Player).
Revival: Nominated for 10 Tony Awards in 2013. It won 4, including Best Revival of a Musical, Best Direction, and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Patina Miller, as The Leading Player).

Rating: PG

Why This Musical: Pippin is one of those shows that feels like it has been around forever—at least for me—because numerous high schools and community theaters performed it in the 1980s. The music, which is heavy on pop ballads, definitely has a 1970s vibe, and the choreography features Bob Fosse’s famous “jazz hands.” The story doesn’t have much of a plot—Pippin wanders the countryside, looking for meaning, engaging in warfare, one-night stands, patricide, and romance. Throughout the play, a mysterious figure, known as The Leading Player, directs the action, accompanied by a bizarre circus troupe. The musical opened a year after Godspell (also written by Stephen Schwartz) and it’s not hard to see the similarities between the two shows. The 2013 Broadway revival breathed new life into Pippin, updating it with circus-inspired staging that incorporated the acrobatics of the Montreal-based circus company Les 7 doigts de la main (7 Fingers). The new show opened to rave reviews, particularly for the choreography and the casting of Patina Miller as the Leading Player.

My Connection: For years, I dismissed this as a slightly cheesy 1970s musical without much of a story. Watching the 1981 version online, which meanders endlessly, didn’t improve my opinion. However, I heard great buzz about the Broadway revival, and I was impressed by the clip of “Magic To Do” shown at the 2013 Tony Awards. When my daughter’s high school performed the show, they took their cues from the revival, and the result was marvelous. After listening to the soundtrack on repeat, I’ve been converted. The songs are catchy and fun, and “Corner of the Sky,” in particular, is one my favorite “I want” songs in musical theater.

Where to See It: You can find the videotaped 1981 performance on YouTube, but it’s not that good. The revival is currently on tour, so I’m hoping to catch it when it comes to Chicago or Milwaukee. If you’re interested in the soundtrack, make sure to look for the New Broadway Cast Recording.

Favorite Songs:
“Magic to Do”
“Corner of the Sky”
“No Time at All”
“Morning Glow”

Final Thoughts: Give the cast recording a listen, and see if it doesn’t grow on you!

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Musical Monday: Next to Normal

215px-Next_to_NormalName: Next to Normal

Credits: Book & Lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Music by Tom Kitt.

Summary: A rock musical about a mother, still grieving the loss of her son, who struggles with bipolar disorder and the effects her illness have on her suburban family.

Dates: Opened on Broadway in April, 2009, where it ran until 2011. The first National Tour our launched in 2010, followed by international productions in Europe, Asia, Australia, Israel, and South America.

 Awards: Nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical (it lost to Billy Elliott). Won 3 Tony Awards: Best Original Score, Best Orchestration, and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Alice Ripley). Next To Normal also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010. Interestingly enough, the last musical to win the Pulitzer was Rent (1996), which had the same director (Michael Greif).

Rating: PG-13/R

Why This Musical: As the summary would suggest, this is a musical that covers some serious topics—suicide, mental illness, drug use, grief, and questionable psychiatric practices. There are songs about medication (“My Psychopharmacologist & I”), electric shock therapy (“Didn’t I See This Movie”), and memory loss (“Better Than Before”). The main character suffers throughout the show, and her family suffers with her. But it’s a powerful story, with brilliant songs that pack an emotional wallop. On stage, it’s a barebones show—the set is a series of interlocking “cubes,” representing different rooms, and the cast is limited to six characters–but this makes the individual performances really stand out. When Next to Normal opened on Broadway, the critical response was favorable, and it made the list for the year’s “10 Best Shows” by the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

My Connection: I had the chance to see a local production of Next to Normal, put on by the marvelous Greendale Community Theatre. This is a tough musical to perform, because it has such a small cast, which means they all have to be excellent. Fortunately, this cast was up to the job. One of the features I liked about the production was that the band (guitarist, bassist, and keyboard player) played right on stage, as an integral part of the show, rather than being hidden in the pit. By the end of the night, my daughter and I were in tears from the musical’s devastating finale.

Where to See It: Next to Normal is often performed by community theatre groups. Otherwise, the Original Broadway Cast Recording is available on iTunes and Spotify.

Favorite Songs:
“I Am the One”
“I’m Alive”
“A Light in the Dark”
“Wish I Were Here”

Final Thoughts: If you want a musical with an emotional heft, Next to Normal fits the bill. The Broadway cast recording is excellent, particularly Alice Ripley as Diana and Aaron Tveit as Gabe.

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Musical Monday: Oliver!

180px-Oliver222Name: Oliver!

Credits: Music & Lyrics by Lionel Bart. Book by Lionel Bart.

Summary: A musical based on Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, about an orphan in Victorian England who runs away from an orphanage and joins up with a gang of pickpockets.

Dates:
West End: Opened in 1960 and ran for 2,618 performances.
Broadway: Opened in 1962 and ran for 774 performances.
Revivals: There have been numerous revivals of Oliver! on the West End (1997, 1994, 2009) and on Broadway (1984), as well as an Australian Tour and two National Tours in the U.S. (in 2003 and 2009).
Movie: Released in 1968. A possible remake of the movie is set for 2016, by the same production team that created the 2012 film version of Les Misérables.

Awards:
Broadway: Nominated for 9 Tony Awards in 1963. Won 3, including Best Original Score. (It lost Best Musical to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum)
Movie: Nominated for 11 Academy Awards. Won 6, including Best Picture.

Rating: G (movie rating)

Why This Musical: Oliver! is one of those musicals that feels like it has been around forever. Since it opened in the 1960s, there have been numerous revivals and tours, and it has been performed in over 20 languages around the world. It’s a continual favorite among community theatre groups, because the cast includes a lot of roles for children. The songs are regularly used for auditions and musical theatre classes, and I’d be hard pressed to think of a theatre geek who doesn’t know the words to at least one of the songs! In terms of its source material, the musical isn’t that faithful an adaptation of Dickens’ original work—it simplifies the story, takes out an entire sub-plot, and gives the audience a happier ending than the book. However, the musical was well-received by critics and audience members when it first premiered, and it got a lot of praise for its exuberant score and lively choreography.

The 1968 movie also received positive reviews; Roger Ebert put it on a par with The Wizard of Oz as a movie musical that stands the test of time. It’s a fun movie (if a little long), enhanced by the stand-out performances of Ron Moody as Fagin and Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger. I will say that the Victorian England portrayed in the film seems overly bright and cheerful–a place in which everyone happily sings about their lot in life, including butchers, fish-mongers, milkmaids, and flower sellers!

My Connection: Oliver! and I go way back. I first saw the movie on TV when I was 11, and I was immediately smitten with the Artful Dodger, who was smarter, craftier, and more fun than the whiny Oliver Twist. I watched the movie numerous times over the next 30 years, and eventually bought a copy of the DVD, but I’d never seen a live version until 2012, when my daughter was cast as one of Fagin’s gang in a community theatre production. Because I often stayed for the rehearsals, I became very familiar with all the songs, especially “Food, Glorious Food,” which the director made the kids practice over and over again! I was surprised to learn that a couple of great songs from the musical (“That’s Your Funeral” and “My Name”) were left out of the movie version. I ended up seeing the community theatre version in its entirety five times. By now I should be sick of the show, but I still enjoy listening to the songs every now and then.

Where to See It: Oliver! is often performed by community groups and high schools, so it’s not hard to find a live version somewhere. The 1968 movie is available on DVD and on Amazon (streaming).

 Favorite Songs:
“Consider Yourself”
“You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two”
“Be Back Soon”
“Oom-Pah-Pah”

Final Thoughts: Though not a groundbreaking show by any means, Oliver! is an enjoyable musical with songs that have been in the canon for over fifty years. It’s worth seeing as a live production or watching the 1968 movie.

 

 

 

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Musical Monday: Heathers: The Musical

Heathers PlaybillName: Heathers: The Musical

Credits: Music, Lyrics, and Book by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy.

Summary: A musical version of the 1988 movie “Heathers,” a dark comedy in which a brainy teenage misfit teams up with a rebellious outsider to take on the popular clique at a high school (all of whom are named “Heather”). Mayhem and murder ensue.

Dates: The show debuted in Los Angeles for a limited engagement in the fall of 2013. The Off-Broadway production opened in March 2014 and ran until August. Other performances include limited-run regional productions in San Francisco, Vancouver and Australia. There have been rumors that the show might make its way to Broadway, but nothing has been confirmed.

Rating: R (Based on the original movie – for swearing, violence & sexual content)

Heathers_The_Musical_Off-Broadway_PosterWhy This Musical: Why spotlight a musical that played Off-Broadway for less than six months? First of all, it’s based on a dark, but hilarious, 1980s cult movie that holds up after repeated viewings. Second, because the songs are fabulous—a mixture of snark, heartfelt emotion, and teen angst, with clever lyrics and sharp dialogue. Lots of great moments from the original movie are retained in the show, including key phrases, corn nuts, and croquet. The musical does deviate from the movie’s plot on certain points (in the musical, Veronica and Martha are best friends, rather than acquaintances), but it keeps true to the spirit of the movie. Best of all for someone like me, who’s “a sucker for happy endings,” the final song shines a ray of hope on life at Westerberg High, despite all that’s happened.

My Connection: I first saw the movie in the theatre when it came out in 1988, and since then, I’ve watched numerous times. It’s one of those classic 1980s films where certain phrases have become a part of pop culture. I had a chance to see the musical Off-Broadway at the New Stages Theatre when I was in New York City in 2014 with my daughter for a series of college tours. We had intended on seeing something else, but the lure of discounted tickets from TKTS swayed us. Choosing to see Heathers: the Musical was a gamble, as the reviews were mixed, but it paid off because my daughter and I loved the show. The small cast did a wonderful job and thoroughly engaged the audience. The cast recording came out in June 2014, and it’s been a regular fixture on my musicals playlist ever since.

Where to See It: Sadly, the show isn’t playing at any theatres right now, but the awesome cast recording is available on iTunes.

Favorite Songs:
“Candy Store”
“Dead Girl Walking”
“Seventeen”

Final Thoughts: If you’re a fan of the movie, and you aren’t offended by R-rated language, check out the cast recording!

 

 

 

 

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Musical Monday: Les Misérables

Les MisName: Les Misérables

Credits: Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg. Lyrics by Alain Boublil & Jean-Marc Natel. Book by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil.

Summary: Based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, Les Misérables is set in 19th century France and centers on the life of French peasant Jean Valjean. Recently released from prison, Valjean (Convict 24601) breaks parole to create a new life for himself but has to evade the grip of the relentless Inspector Javert. The story reaches its climax against the background of the June Rebellion of 1832 in Paris (not the French Revolution, as some have mistakenly believed!).

Dates:
West End:
The musical opened at London’s West End in 1985, after an initial run at the Palais du Sports in Paris in 1980 and is still running (30 years later!). 
Broadway:
Opened in 1987 and ran until 2003. The first U.S. tour began in late 1987, followed by two more tours in 1988. Since then, there have been numerous international productions, as well as live concerts and broadcasts.
Broadway Revivals:
There have been two revivals—one in 2006, and one in 2014. 
Movie:
Released in 2012, the movie starred Hugh Jackman as Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert, and Anne Hathaway as Fantine.

Awards:
Broadway:
Nominated for 12 Tony Awards in 1987. Won 2, including Best Musical and Best Score.
Movie:
Nominated for 8 Academy Awards. Won 3, including Best Supporting Actress.

Rating: PG-13

Why This Musical: When Les Misérables originally opened on London’s West End, the critical reviews were dismal, but the show was so popular that its three-month run was sold out. Since then, it has run continuously in London for over thirty years! (The show celebrated its 30-year anniversary in October). The Broadway show ran for a solid 6,680 performances, making it one of the longest-running shows on in Broadway history. According to the UK website, the musical has been seen by over 70 million people in 44 countries and in 22 languages! Les Misérables is considered one of the “mega-musicals” of the 1980s—shows like Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon—that became global phenomena, selling millions of tickets and playing for years. Critics have blamed these shows for creating a “blockbuster” mentality in musical theatre which makes it difficult for smaller productions to get funded. However, there’s a reason Les Misérables has been so popular in around the world, and it’s not just about marketing and big budget sets. The musical is a powerful show with great songs and a cast of memorable characters, like Jean Valjean, Javert, Eponine, and the Thernadiers. The story forges strong emotional connections on numerous levels, and it puts the audience through the ringer in terms of character deaths.

 My Connection: I saw first saw this musical in 1988 when it came to Los Angeles as part of the national tour. I went with a group of friends from graduate school, and I distinctly remember asking a few of them to switch seats, so I could sit next to Mike—a guy I had a crush on at the time (and who I ended up marrying, six years later). Shortly after that, Mike and I started dating, but I had to work at a field school camp that summer. As a going-away present, he gave me a cassette tape with the Broadway cast recording of Les Misérables, and I listened to it every night at camp. Even now, over 25 years later, I still haven’t gotten tired of songs like “One Day More,” and “On My Own.” Mike and I went to see it again in 2005 as part of “Broadway in Milwaukee,” and then in 2011, when our local high school did a fantastic production.

As far as the movie version goes….I know there are people who loved it, but I had issues. Visually, it was stunning, and I enjoyed the scenes with the revolutionaries (probably because one of them was played by Aaron Tveit), but some of the main characters left me cold. After listening to the Broadway recording for years, I couldn’t embrace Hugh Jackman’s singing voice as Valjean. And don’t even get me started on Russell Crowe as Javert. The high school actor who played him in the local production I saw did a much better job.

Where to See It: Les Misérables is often performed by community groups and high schools, so it’s not hard to find a live version somewhere. The 25th Anniversary Concert is available on DVD, as is the 2012 movie.

Favorite Songs: 
“Stars”
“Do You Hear the People Sing?”
“On My Own”
“One Day More”

Final Thoughts: This is an incredible show, but the movie doesn’t do it justice. Watch it live if you can, or catch one of the recorded performances.

 

 

 

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Musical Monday: West Side Story

West Side Story playbillName: West Side Story

Credits: Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Arthur Laurents.

Summary: Inspired by Shakespeare’s play “Romeo & Juliet,” West Side Story is a musical set in the Upper West Side neighborhood of New York City in the 1950s, centered around the rivalry between two teenage street gangs–the Sharks and the Jets.

Dates:
Broadway Premiere: Opened in 1957 and ran for 700+ performances before going on tour. The musical has spawned several national tours, performances by various opera companies, and dozens of international productions.
Broadway Revivals: There have been two Broadway revivals of West Side Story, in 1980 and 2009. The 2009 revival was notable for the inclusion of Spanish lyrics and dialogue in the libretto, with translation provided by Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights, Hamilton).
Movie: Released in 1961, starring Natalie Wood, Richard Breymer, and Rita Moreno.

Awards:
Broadway: Nominated for 6 Tony Awards in 1958. Won 2, including Best Choreography, which went to Jerome Robbins. It lost Best Musical to The Music Man, which was hugely popular at the time.
Movie: Nominated for 11 Academy Awards. Won 10, including Best Picture.

Rating: PG

Why This Musical: The score is marvelous, with heart-tugging love songs (“Somewhere,” “Tonight”) and rousing group numbers (“America,” “Gee, Officer Krupke”). The choreography is stunning and the iconic opening number has been copied–and parodied–in theatre and pop culture. It’s hard not to get swept up in a tale of two star-crossed lovers, whether it’s set in 16th century Verona or 1950s New York. In terms of the musical’s importance in theatre history, West Side Story marks Sondheim’s Broadway debut as a lyricist. The director/choreographer, Jerome Robbins, also broke with tradition in that he did not hire two separate choruses for the musical (one to sing and one to dance). Instead all the actors–the gang members and their girlfriends–had to sing, dance, and act. Viewed through today’s eyes, the musical may seem dated, but at the time, it was considered innovative. Critics called the show’s choreography, music, and theatrical style bold and exciting. In their opinion, the musical successfully channeled the growing undercurrent of rebellion that was also seen in 1950s films like Rebel Without a Cause.

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My Connection: Like many people, my first memory of this musical is the movie version, which was periodically shown on TV. Over the years, I watched it whenever it happened to be on, and eventually I bought the DVD version. I remember viewing it with my daughter when she had to do a paper on “Romeo & Juliet” for a middle-school English class. Although I love the songs, the dancing, and the great cinematography, the movie has a few issues. Much of the acting seems stilted by today’s standards, the gang members are laughably clean-cut (not a tattoo in sight!), and the casting of Natalie Wood as a Puerto Rican character is questionable. In 2010, I was lucky enough to see the Broadway revival–the one which wove Spanish lyrics and dialogue into the story. It was a powerful show, with a great cast, and I couldn’t help crying during the final scene, even though I knew how it would end.

Where to See It: For years, West Side Story has been a popular musical for high schools to produce, because it features teenaged characters and it’s so well known. If there isn’t a local production available, the movie can be found on DVD; a 50th Anniversary Blu-Ray edition was also released in 2011 with a bunch of extras, including a discussion with Stephen Sondheim, in which he discusses the musical’s lyrics.

Favorite Songs: “Tonight,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Somewhere”

Final Thoughts: Even if the movie seems dated, it’s worth seeing for the songs and the choreography. And it’s usually not hard to find a local performance, although (spoiler alert), you’ll need to bring tissues for the final scene.

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