There Are Giants in the Sky

You should see my nectarines. “Into the Woods” is a film people have been anticipating with either glee or dread. On the one hand, it’s an adaptation of a relatively beloved musical–at the very least, one of the most well-known of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals–with an all-star cast that doesn’t leave one largely wondering who thought it was a good idea to cast that actor or actress. On the other hand, it’s produced by Disney and is directed by Rob Marshall, who did the delightful “Chicago”–which along with “Moulin Rouge!” helped resurrect movie musicals–and the bizarre and barely tolerable “Nine,” among other films. (He also did the made for TV movie of “Annie” with Victor Garber, Kathy Bates, Audra McDonald and Alan Cumming, which I truly enjoyed and is the only time I’ve enjoyed “Annie.”)

As “Chicago” is fun, but not astounding, and maybe the best movie he had made, there was a bit of concern, especially after “Nine.” “Into the Woods,” however, is a faithful adaptation although not incredibly inventive. It will at the very least satisfy most musical theater nerds and provide a good introduction to the show for the uninitiated.

“Into the Woods” follows the familiar fairy tale characters of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), who we know from “Jack and the Beanstalk.” We are also introduced to a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who are childless. They find out from their neighbor, a witch (Meryl Streep), that she placed a curse on the baker’s family that they would not have any children after the baker’s father stole magic beans from the witch’s garden. The witch tells the baker and his wife they can have the curse reversed if they bring her the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slippers as pure as gold and the cow as white as milk. The baker sets off on a quest, with his wife following closely behind, while Cinderella tries to go to the festival, Little Red goes to granny’s house and Jack sets off to sell his cow, Milky White, and the character’s paths cross throughout the film. Eventually Cinderella gets her prince (Chris Pine), the baker and his wife get a child and everyone gets their happy ending…until a giant (Frances de la Tour) begins terrorizing the kingdom in search of Jack, who killed her husband when he chopped down the beanstalk.

I should first say “Into the Woods” is not my favorite Sondheim musical–that would be “Sunday in the Park With George”–although I have found as I get older I enjoy “Into the Woods” more. I do not have as much of an emotional stake in this as some people may, but “Into the Woods” still got a lot of play on my iPod in high school and I had a habit in college of watching the PBS film of the original Broadway production. Ultimately, I enjoyed this film possibly more than the musical and found myself getting choked up in some parts.

There are some numbers that are eliminated from the musical, although I only found myself missing “No More,” whose absence is handled well. The movie also tones down the sexual nature of the interaction between the wolf (Johnny Depp, giving what is one of his more restrained performances in the past decade) and Little Red Riding Hood, the brutality of some of the deaths and completely eliminates another character’s death. These changes work in this adaptation since Little Red Riding Hood is played by a girl rather than a teenage girl, although that doesn’t stop “Hello, Little Girl” from still being creepy. The death of both characters are still tragic, although the elimination of the death of Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) does lower the emotional stakes of the witch a bit. (The witch kidnapped Rapunzel from the baker’s parents as payback for the baker’s father taking her greens.)

The musical also isn’t incredibly inspired with how it’s staged. In a way, this works because it avoids from being too inventive and also acts like the characters just sometimes burst into song rather than that they go off into a fantasy world where they sing on stages, as was the case in “Chicago” and “Nine.” The musical numbers largely occur on set pieces where the characters run into each other and sing in the woods, which works and feels safe. There is little in this musical to offend most musical theater fans–I say most because the most ardent will be upset about something. Moments of cleverness in this film arrive with the staging of “Agony,” a comedic self-pitying number from the prince and his brother (Billy Magnussen); and “On the Steps of the Palace,” where time actually stops as Cinderella contemplates her situation.

However, this film is gorgeous to watch and feels natural. It avoids being too chaotic and has performers who never feel stiff. It may have one of the best casts assembled for a movie musical in years where the weakest performance given by one of the lead actors is from Corden, who still gives a good performance, just not as good as the other leads.

Streep’s performance will either be read as another over-the-top performance given by her or one that works well. She twists and contorts prior to her transformation from an old hag to a glamorous blue-haired woman, which is gone post transformation. Her witch sells that she is to be feared and will have revenge without blinking an eye. Once transformed into her younger self, she spends much of the remainder of her on-screen time walking around looking like she’s sick of everyone’s shit, but when she is left by Rapunzel she shows her heartbreak very subtly. During “Last Midnight” her performance builds from the admonishment of everyone to the ache and fury from a woman who is alone, angrily singing the last half of the song. It helps that a furious storm appears, whipping up the leaves, which swirl around her before she disappears, but she breathes new life into the song, making it hers.

Streep doesn’t even give the the best performance in the film, which is divided between Kendrick and Blunt. Kendrick plays Cinderella as clever and caring providing the character with depth. Blunt fills her character with warmth and nervousness where it’s needed while also having a good singing voice. Both her and Kendrick inhabit their characters fully, bringing them to a new life. Every second they’re on screen is a delight.

Crawford manages to provide great sarcasm when it’s needed without it being forced and Huttlestone brings a fantastic eagerness to his role. Elsewhere, Tracey Ullman keeps Jack’s exasperated mother from being too one-note and Christine Baranski tends to steal every scene she’s in as Cinderella’s stepmother.

The film also has lush orchestrations of Sondheim’s score that never feel canned and generally amazing costume designs, although I’m still not sure what to think of Depp’s zoot suit. The film is well-paced, never lagging at all. It even manages to remove parts in Act One of the musical that I felt always dragged the show down a bit.

It is however not a feel-good family film or really even a movie for the whole family. Even if it is not nearly as bleak as the musical, it is still very dark and not something I would take a young child to. If children are taken to see “Into the Woods” the content and themes of the film are worth discussing.

In the end it is one of the better film adaptations of theater to occur in recent years and Marshall’s best film to date*. Although it has some faults, it is enjoyable and manages to simultaneously have a cast of stars–Corden gets to be a star since he won a Tony and is taking over The Late Late Show now that Craig Ferguson is leaving–and a good cast of stars who do not feel miscast. It does not disservice Sondheim’s work and hopefully introduces a new generation to an excellent introduction to a good musical.

*”Chicago” was fun, but not a great film and “Memoirs of a Geisha” was beautiful to look at, but dull as hell.

AIDS and the Theater: “Rent”

This is the second part in a series of blog posts examining major works of theater that handled AIDS. The previous parts looked at “Angels in America” and “Falsettos.” The final blog post will examine “The Normal Heart.”

“Rent” opened in 1996 and after the death of its writer, Jonathan Larson, it became a quickly praised work of theater.

The musical shows 1989 New York as a bizarre, almost sanitized museum piece. Look, attacks in Alphabet City! Squatters! Squeegee men! New York City is dangerous because Giuliani hasn’t done his crusade to clean up the city! It lacks the authenticity of being a window into the past you get with “Angels in America” or any of Eric Bogosian’s monologues in the ’80s.

But the biggest problem with the musical is it assembles the largest cast of despicable, self-righteous assholes in the theater. The majority of the characters we’re told to feel sorry for you find yourself as a rational adult thinking, “Good lord, they’re childish.” In fact the antagonist of this musical is one of the characters I often find myself sympathizing with because he’s one of the few characters to act maturely.

“Ah, Monica, you love ‘Falsettos’ and freely admit the main character, Marvin, is incredibly immature. How can you dislike the immaturity of the characters in ‘Rent’,” you ask. Well, the thing is that Marvin changes as a character in a very natural way as the musical progresses. The Marvin who sings “What Would I Do?” is very different from the Marvin who sings “A Tight-Knit Family” at the beginning of the musical. None of the characters in “Rent” make that journey and growth.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Larson’s musical is a modern version of “La Boheme” and tells the story of a group of friends living in the Alphabet City neighborhood of New York City in 1989. Mark and Roger live together in a loft where they don’t pay rent, much to the chagrin of their landlord and former friend, Benny, who is possibly the nicest landlord ever. Their friend Collins is a professor back in town after leaving MIT and he falls in love with Angel, a performer who helps him after the attack. Then, their neighbor, Mimi, walks in during a power outage to ask Roger to “light her candle.” At that time, Mark is off helping his ex-girlfriend’s girlfriend set up a performance his ex-girlfriend is putting on. Drama ensues, some incoherent babbling occurs at a protest and then people order food and don’t pay for it. More drama.

Seriously, the action in this musical is one massive drama bomb.

Four of the characters in this musical are HIV positive and two of them have developed AIDS. This musical occurs much later in the ’80s than any of the other work I’m looking at. AZT has been approved by the FDA and two of the characters do take the medication. Although some of the characters are aware of the graveness of their diagnosis and one of the few good musical numbers, “Will I?” does involve the fear of the disease, overwhelmingly the characters take the attitude of, “We have each other and let’s live each day to the fullest. Yay!”

But there are so many problems with this musical it’s difficult to know where to begin. How about I start with the characters all being archetypes? Angel is, well, an angel, a saintly figure with the kindest heart other than that Angel drives an animal to suicide, but it was a pet owned by Benny so it’s okay in the world of this musical. Mimi is the drug addict stripper with the heart of gold. Roger is the recovering bitter drug addict with what we’re led to believe is a heart of gold, but I’ll get to the problem with him later. Collins is the professor sticking it to the man, Mark is the noble filmmaker afraid of selling out, Maureen is the hot lesbian performance artist, Benny is the jerk landlord and Joanne is the butch lesbian serious lawyer.

There’s also the issue with how bad the musical is. There are very strong flaws, such as lyrics like “Everything is rent!”, having underdeveloped characters, someone saying they’re on hold on 911 which doesn’t even make sense and having a character die in such a way that to those who don’t read between the lines they might think Angel dies from having really awesome sex.

Another issue is the musical could be accused of committing bisexual erasure because Maureen is always referred to as being a lesbian even though the lyrics of the musical imply that Maureen has had sex with men and women and she even states she loves how men and women flirt with her. But, no, Maureen cannot be bisexual. Maureen is a lesbian because the show says this and consistently refers to her as a lesbian.

Meanwhile, “Falsettos” refers to Marvin quite a bit as being “queer” and only “My Father’s a Homo” explicitly calls Marvin gay and that song is sung by a character who is 10. (There is a lyric in act two that introduces the act as having “homosexuals,” but it is worth noting there are three characters who are gay.)

And then there’s the fact that Roger is a pretty abusive jerk. After he start dating Mimi he becomes very controlling of her, telling her she can’t spend time around Benny. As is well-established, Roger dislikes Benny but that doesn’t give him the right to tell her to not spend time around him because he gets jealous easily. As a rational adult, I would rather root for Mimi to be with Benny, even though he’s cheating on his wife with Mimi, because Benny doesn’t treat her poorly. He even remarks in “La Vie Boheme” that she is a “bright and charming girl” while Roger is basically, “You’re pretty and remind me of my ex.”

The biggest sin committed by the show is how it ends. Mimi momentarily dies at the end of the show and then Roger sings a song he wrote for her. This brings her back from the dead because Angel told her to turn around.

What could be a very touching moment in the musical, everyone sad about Mimi’s death, Roger singing his great song he spent an entire year writing. And then maybe a reflection on the importance of them being together and working on the art because fuck selling out. Perhaps there would be a reflection on how them staying together and not having so much drama would be what Angel would have wanted. That would be a great ending. But no, this emotional moment is killed because God forbid a musical end on a depressing note.

I will admit it would be awkward for them to watch Mark’s video of random happy moments after Mimi dying, but then we could maybe go without seeing his movie. Which, by the way, the musical acts like Mark’s movie is this breathtaking documentary about life in Alphabet City. Yet in the movie it certainly looks more like a montage of random moments. It feels more like a lot of Vine videos people post than a groundbreaking documentary that would cause someone to feel the need to quit their job in order to finish it.

The thing about “Rent” is that it ended up having maybe more of an impact on people than “Angels in America,” which is the second most influential work I’m writing about. “Rent” ultimately is a more accessible work because it isn’t six-to-seven hours long and it’s a musical. It also ran on Broadway for more than 10 years and has gone on to be produced by various theater companies, as well as the “school edition” being done in high schools. Also, if you’re a 14-year-old in the Midwest, you will probably think this musical is awesome. I certainly did when I was 14, but then when I was 17 I went off to The Theatre School at DePaul University and I took what I learned there to discover the musical is very flawed.

Which brings me to the next question: If a musical is really not that good, is it worth overlooking the flaws because it brings awareness to issues? Possibly, but even when the musical opened on Broadway the world of the musical felt a bit distant because of the efforts done to clean up Manhattan. There is also the issue of the situation the characters find themselves in seeming a bit romanticized. However, people in this musical still die because of AIDS-related complications and face grave illness from drug addiction, which although not incredibly gritty, it still shows how things aren’t that sunny.

But honestly, this is not a great musical.

AIDS and the Theater: “Falsettos”

This is the second part in a series of blog posts examining major works of theater that handled AIDS. The previous part looked at “Angels in America.” Other blog posts will examine “The Normal Heart” and “Rent.”

Something bad is happening.
Something very bad is happening.
Something that kills.
Something contagious.
Something that spreads
From one man to another.

-“Something Bad is Happening (Reprise)”

Some spoilers for the musical ahead

A musical by William Finn entitled “March of the Falsettos” opened in 1981 off-Broadway and told the story Marvin, a man who leaves his wife to be with his lover, Whizzer. In 1990, a follow-up entitled “Falsettoland” opened off-Broadway completing the story of Marvin and all of the other people in his life. In 1992, both musicals were put together to create “Falsettos,” which opened on Broadway to a rave review from Frank Rich in The New York Times.

In the context of Broadway history, “Falsettos” is interesting in that it follows “La Cage Aux Folles,” which is generally viewed of the first time a musical with two openly gay characters appeared. However, “La Cage Aux Folles” presented a butch/femme relationship–Albin fits the stereotype of the screaming, hysterical queen–that is very tame, as if not to offend anyone. “Falsettos” uses the word “dykeish,” has a character sing a song entitled “My Father’s a Homo” and features two male characters in post-coital bliss. (The phrase “homo baroque” is also employed at one point and I wish I could use that at some point in my life.) Additionally, none of the same-sex relationships are overtly butch/femme.

It’s also worth noting when the two acts of “Falsettos” take place. The first act takes place in 1979, before the horror of AIDS starts emerging and act two takes place in 1981 when cases begin emerging, but before anyone knows what it is.

The threat of the new disease is brought in the number “Something Bad is Happening,” where Charlotte, an internist and lesbian from next door, sings about a mysterious disease affecting bachelors that has no name. Then Whizzer collapses and is rushed to the hospital where everyone feigns not being worried. They tell Whizzer he’s looking better, but only Jason, Marvin’s son, has the guts to say the truth.

Still everyone, even though they are afraid of what will happen to Whizzer, tries to put on an optimistic mask. The idea that Whizzer could die is presented to us when Jason asks to wait to hold his Bar Mitzvah until after his father’s lover gets better. Mendel replies “We can’t be sure when/he’ll get better,/when or if/he’ll ever get better.” At this point the audience and the characters are actually presented with the idea that one of the characters is probably going to die. Then, in an excellent number, Whizzer accepts this and sings “You Gotta Die Sometime.”

But “You Gotta Die Sometime” is not a cheery, cheesy song about how it’s important to live life to its fullest because you’ll die soon. “You Gotta Die Sometime” is an almost acerbic and sardonic song that is still incredibly moving.

Ultimately, “Falsettos” is not a musical about AIDS or about gay people; it is a musical about a family dealing with various forms of turmoil. The main form of turmoil comes from Marvin leaving his wife and son for a male lover, but still wanting to have a “tight-knit family.” Marvin is perpetually self-absorbed and childish, something he is aware of at the beginning of act two when he sings about wishing to be as mature as his son, Jason.

Even today, the idea of a family where the mother remarries while the father is off with his male lover seems a bit odd, so imagine it back in the early ’90s and how odd it seemed. Ultimately, “La Cage Aux Folles” presented gay couples in a way people could maybe feel comfortable with. “Falsettos” does not do so and that and the fact that it’s ultimately a depressing musical might be why it hasn’t been revived on Broadway.

The musical also presents characters who are not archetypes. Yes, all but two of the characters are neurotic Jews, but they’re all fully realized characters with complex feelings. What’s more incredible is even though for a majority of the play he’s selfish and childish, Marvin does evolve as a character and by the end of the musical is not a schmuck. Unfortunately by the end of the musical it almost seems too late, which is one of the most sad aspects of the musical.

Marvin finally manages to be a man and he loses someone he can’t imagine not being in his life. And so the musical ends on a down note without a glimmer of hope because the audience can only begin to assume what fate will occur to Marvin.

(This and “The Normal Heart” are possibly the two most depressing works I’m writing about.)

“Falsettos,” although very moving and well-written is not a perfect musical. (My vote for the perfect musical goes to “My Fair Lady.”) The lyrical content would probably offend a lot of people today and some people would probably argue the lyrics just aren’t very good. I personally have a lot of feelings about the lyric “People might think/I’m very dykish,” but that’s another blog post. Still, it’s an effective musical that isn’t hokey about talking about AIDS or gay characters. In fact, how Marvin’s sexuality is treated still seems oddly revolutionary today.

Someone please do a production of this.

AIDS and the Theater: “Angels in America”

This is the first part in a series of blog posts examining major works of theater that handled AIDS. Other blog posts will examine “The Normal Heart,” “Rent” and “Falsettos.”

Tony Kushner’s epic two-part play “Angels in America” is easily one of the best known American plays, largely because it’s in two parts and it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Spanning about seven-hours, depending on the production you see, and a time period of less than a year as the characters are in the middle of a turbulent time in America–the ’80s.

There are many themes addressed in the play as it is subtitled “A gay fantasia on national themes,” but for the purposes of this post I will largely focus on the role of AIDS in the play.

Two of the main characters in this play, Roy Cohn and Prior, are infected with HIV and have been diagnosed with AIDS. Prior, in the fourth scene of the play, admits this is a death sentence and accepts that he is going to die. Roy, a few scenes later, listens to his doctor give him the diagnosis of AIDS and tells him he can’t have AIDS because he is not a gay man*. The almighty Roy Cohn has liver cancer, because that looks much better than having AIDS.

What then comes from this how these two characters end up dealing with trying to survive. Prior takes his pills, goes to the doctor and deals with the dreams he has of an angel telling him he’s a prophet. Roy, while in the hospital, gets in on his own private stash of AZT, at that point still in trials. As he admits, he was never good on tests and prefers cheating.

While Roy hides in the shadows with his diagnosis, Prior accepts it and deals with the awfulness, such as his boyfriend, Louis, leaving him, that comes with it. This is a flipside to “Rent” which almost seems to cheerfully deal with the disease. Prior gets mad, bitchy and sardonic about his disease. He’s dying and it’s ravaging his body.

What’s interesting about the play is even though it deals with political issues, largely in the form of monologues from Louis, it never is didactic. The play makes you care about the characters and even feel sympathetic to some of them, including Roy Cohn. Unlike another play I’ll look at later, it isn’t a polemic. It’s a play that explores various themes while also looking at the drama surrounding the characters, which is not an easy task.

Finally, while there is a bit of hope at the end of the play, but it isn’t forced. It comes naturally and leaves the audience feeling good at the end. While two of the other works I’ll look at end on rather dour notes, one does have a cheery ending that feels very forced. “Angels in America” is a perfect play that handled a major point in our country’s history excellently.

(Okay, I’m being concise here because so many people have written about this play I felt like I should kick things off by writing about it here, but I thought, “What could I say that hasn’t been said already?”)

Next: “Falsettos”

*Roy Cohn’s speech about how him having clout means he isn’t homosexual is one of my favorite speeches in theater

“Red Angel” Versus “The Blue Angel”

My two main activities this weekend are reading plays and reading about Jane Byrne for a play I’m writing. Among the plays I checked out was “Red Angel” by Eric Bogosian. I first started reading it while sitting on the fountain outside of Michigan State’s main library, but then walked to run some errands in Downtown East Lansing. I then sat down in a coffee shop and finished the play while sipping on some tea.

My immediate reaction to the script was that it was well-written and less angry than the Bogosian plays I’ve previously read, although the tone of later Bogosian is much different from “Drinking in America.” I was also impressed because thanks to reading too many plays I expected the premise of a writer and professor sleeping with a student at the college to end up being very cliche or maybe ending with the woman going to great lengths to ruin the life of the professor who is her lover.

After finishing the play, I then looked at the back of the script and noticed Dramatists Play Service included the following sentence with the synopsis:

“Bogosian’s riff on Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel.”

This caused me to pause and suddenly try to reevaluate my opinion of the play because I’m very familiar with “The Blue Angel.” That evening, after having dinner, I reread the play and tried to see if my opinion changed at all.

“The Blue Angel” is a 1930 film that catapulted the career of Marlene Dietrich*, who stared as cabaret performer Lola-Lola. The film focuses on teacher Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings), who goes to the cabaret Lola-Lola performs at hoping to catch students who have been circulating photographs of Lola-Lola. He becomes immediately smitten with her. He eventually becomes consumed with his infatuation with Lola, eventually marrying her. Due to resigning from his job as a teacher, he becomes a clown performing with Lola and his life continues to slip away.

The plot of “Red Angel” is that one evening a writer and professor, David Blau, has three graduate students over after a reception. Two of his students leave and the third student, Leena, stays with him and they talk at great length before deciding to have sex. She spends the night, they have more sex and he discovers she is very familiar with his work. He becomes instantly smitten with her and grows jealous as he finds out there is another man in her life.

There are some similarities and even some possible allusions. One is that the both David and Immanuel are educators, another is that David’s last name is Blau, which is the German word for “blue.” There is also the similarity of the male character in both works becoming jealous regarding his lover.

However the stakes are much different in the two works. Rath is a very respected educator and loses everything because of his infatuation with Lola. Blau is a moderately successful writer who doesn’t really lose anything. There is an emotional change during the course of both works as Rath eventually goes crazy from his jealousy and Blau is significantly weakened by his feelings for Leena.

As for Leena compared to Lola, the strong difference I see is that we see Lola is a woman men go gaga for while I can’t tell how men other than David feel about Leena. Both are strong confident women in creative careers.

The main difference between the two to me is the tone. For me, “The Blue Angel” is very much like a tragedy as we see the fall from grace Rath experiences and his eventual realization that he screwed up before his life comes to a sad end. “Red Angel” feels more like a common drama, although with conflict seems less contrived than in other plays I’ve seen involving romantic relationships. The play, at least on paper, doesn’t seem to be emotionally devastating**, but it ends on a rather lugubrious note.

So after analyzing the similarities, “Red Angel” does feel like a riff that is distant enough from the other material to make you really think about the two different works. Even without comparing “The Blue Angel” to “Red Angel,” the play is very good because it doesn’t devolve into “Women are bitches,” which is what I was afraid of when reading the play because of other plays I’ve read throughout my life.

(I think I just wrote a blog post to discuss my feelings on a play. Sorry, everyone.)

*Marlene Dietrich is a German treasure.

**Emotionally devastating Bogosian would be his novel “Wasted Beauty,” which I enjoyed.

“Kinky Boots” or “Matilda”?

The Tony Awards are a week away and I’m more excited than usual for the Tony Awards because something I saw is nominated. (Well, I saw it in Chicago) As people who watch the Tony Awards know, the big award is the award for Best Musical. This is also the award responsible for a good number of the performances on the show as all of the nominees usually perform.

This year the nominees for Best Musical are Bring It On: The Musical, A Christmas Story, the Musical, Kinky Boots and Matilda the Musical, which all show us the different ways you can punctuate titles that include “the musical.” The interesting thing to watch on June 9 will be if Kinky Boots or Matilda will win. Honestly, I’m still scratching my head over the other two nominees.

Both have a good shot of winning the award because they’ve gotten critical acclaim and are doing fairly well at the box office. I also have a feeling that both will run fairly long because one is based on a familiar source and the other is a feel-good musical.

Based on the cast recordings for both musicals, they’re both very well-crafted musicals. The difference is Kinky Boots puts a smile on my face and I start crying during the song “When I Grow Up” from Matilda.

So when making a prediction, this could be framed with the argument of which one will do better on the road. Matilda could arguably do better because it’s a more familiar title and is probably viewed as family-friendly. However, people could also view Kinky Boots as being more likely to tour well because it’s a cheerier musical and less dark. There could also be the argument that Matilda is too British or Kinky Boots is too gay, but that didn’t stop La Cage Aux Folles from being a successful musical. (Coincidentally, both La Cage Aux Folles and Kinky Boots have the same book writer.)

It will be interesting to see who wins, and either way I’ll be happy for the show that does win. Both seem to be very good musicals, although I now regret not seeing Kinky Boots when it was in Chicago.

Musicals That Move You (But Not in a Fosse Sort of Way)

Good theater moves you.

When I was a theater critic I always asked myself if the play moved me emotionally. (The last play to move me emotionally was “The Birthday Party” at Steppenwolf, which both me and my companion enjoyed. Prior to that, “Othello” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.) The greatest failure a piece of theater can make is make me feel numb for the entire thing.

Musical theater is a genre that I have mixed feelings for. When it works, it works astoundingly well. When it doesn’t work, it is really bad or very silly. The best musicals for me either make me cry or make me feel incredibly happy after watching them, as is the case with my favorite musical, “My Fair Lady.”

But let’s focus on musicals where you cry.

I can think of every musical I’ve cried during. “Into the Woods” at the Waterloo Community Playhouse, the first two times I saw “Wicked,” “Company” and three-fourths of “Next to Normal” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Then there are the cast recordings I’ve cried while listening to. I can no longer listen to “Sunday in the Park with George” on my commute because I’ll start sobbing in the car at numerous points in the music.

Today I was listening to the music for “Falsettos” in an attempt to relax after a very busy week. This was successful on that front, but I also burst into tears in the car while listening to certain songs.

This rarely happens. It’s not like how I know that every other week I’ll cry while listening to “Hello Helicopter” by Motion City Soundtrack. The last time I wanted to cry while listening to the music for “Falsettos”–which is split into “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland” because that’s the only way it’s been released–was while riding a Metra train to Kenosha. I was reading the paper on the quiet car and found I was the only person left on the car. As I got to the song “You’ve Got To Die Sometime,” I found myself wanting to cry.

But here I was, a 21-year-old woman driving around East Lansing crying to a musical that is best known as being a musical written by the guy who wrote “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” (I like to think of it as “The Other Musical from the 1990s Involving AIDS.”)

To quickly inform you of what the musical is about, it’s about a man named Marvin who has recently left his wife, Trina, and son, Jason, to be with his male lover, Whizzer. As Marvin strives for a “tight-knit family,” his psychiatrist, Mendel, falls in love with Trina. Relationships form and disintegrate. Lesbians from next door are introduced, bar mitzvahs planned. As all of this is going on, a mysterious disease in the early 1980s appears in normally healthy men and Whizzer is victim to this disease. (The audience knows this is AIDS, but the characters do not.)

That very brief plot summary has either enticed you or terrified you because this probably sounds like the weirdest musical to appear on Broadway. It ends on a down note. No one comes back to life because their friend tells them to turn around from the light at the end of the tunnel. But it’s realistic, which is probably why I like it.

There are three specific moments in this musical where I’m prone to feeling the most moved. Two are in Act One and are the songs “The Games I Play” and “I Never Wanted to Love You.” The other comes in Act Two when a character accepts that death is approaching him and he sings “You’ve Got to Die Sometime.” A couple of numbers prior to this, my favorite lyric appears:

Let’s be scared together.
Let’s pretend that nothing is awful.
There’s nothing to fear.
There’s nothing to fear.
Just stay right here.
I love you.

The lyrics aren’t as complex or subtle as Sondheim, but there’s still a great truth that strikes one as you listen to them, which is why I find it to be endlessly listenable.

For me the musicals that work the best are the ones which are incredibly realistic even when dealing with fantasy themes, such as “Into the Woods.” They move me and are the ones I’m left breathless after seeing. So whether it’s a musical about an incredibly immature Jewish man who wants a close family or a painter struggling to complete his masterpiece, I celebrate the musicals that make me cry and not even in a silent way.

What do you think makes a good musical? And what musicals move you?

(By the way, I’m not sure why I was mostly unmoved by the most recent time I saw “Wicked.” I attribute it to me being more cynical than I was in the past, but I was also cheering for Galinda throughout the entire musical, which I don’t think I’m supposed to do.)

On Paying for Theater Reviews

I love Charles Isherwood’s theater reviews.

I don’t always agree with him and there are moments where I do think, “No, Charles. That was not a good move,” but overall, he is my favorite theater critic currently writing in America.

Isherwood, as it turns out, writes for the The New York Times, which allows for ten free articles before you hit the paywall. If you were to read just Isherwood’s reviews, not even Ben Brantley’s reviews, you would quickly hit the paywall, particularly in April when everything seems to opens on Broadway. I have a digital subscription to the Times as well as grab a physical copy on campus sometimes, so I don’t really have to panic about not getting to read every delightfully pithy thought Isherwood pens.

But I don’t have a digital subscription to the Times just for Isherwood’s reviews. For a long time, the Times has been my favorite newspaper in America and as a result I feel like it’s an essential read every morning. Additionally I have a digital subscription to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which is called JS Everywhere. Even though I don’t live in Milwaukee, I feel like the Journal Sentinel is an essential read if you want to know what’s going on in Wisconsin, particularly with politics for the past year. Additionally, I can’t think of a newspaper that has consistently done investigative pieces that are as moving and brilliant as the ones done by the Journal Sentinel. Giving Journal Communications $4.99 a month is a price I don’t mind paying for all of the great content they turn out.

So when the Chicago Tribune announced they would put columnists and theater critics behind a paywall, I understood the reason why.

Admittedly, I am part of the reason why the Tribune probably decided to put its columnists behind a paywall. I got an account with my email address just so I could read columns written by Eric Zorn, Mary Schmich, and Rick Kogan as well as reviews by Phil Vettel, Greg Kot, Michael Phillips and sometimes Chris Jones. I have met Tribune reporters, editors and members of the Editorial Board, and as a result, I reverence and respect for the staff and the publication. I will not stop reading the Tribune until it ceases publication.

When the paid “digitalPLUS” was announced I looked into what it included. According to the Tribune‘s website, paying $14.99 a month includes:

-“Unlimited breaking news stories.”
-“Exclusive reporting, including insider sports coverage of Chicago’s teams and access to premium stories from sources like Forbes, The Economist and Variety.”
-Tribune e-books
-Digital version of the paper.
-Free access to Tribune apps, such as the RedEye for iPad, which is $1.99 a month if you don’t have digitalPLUS.
-“VIP access to Tribune event tickets”

If you think about that, that would be worth $14.99. You’re getting more than just the content in the paper. And, ultimately, $14.99 is less than what you’d pay to pick up the Tribune everyday. And while some people will disagree with me, the Chicago Tribune has some pretty terrific writers.

But the people are upset over the Tribune charging people to read Chris Jones’ reviews! Theater artist Coya Paz did a piece at The Paper Machette (where I did a piece on science back in March) about the paywall and pointing out that she really didn’t read the Tribune when it was free, except for the reviews. (Overall, it’s worth a listen.)

However, Howard Sherman, former executive director of the American Theatre Wing, wrote on his blog:

I urge those who have or would have paywalls to continue to treat the arts as a loss leader and maintain that coverage online for free or almost free, outside of local and national news, business coverage and sports. You’ll keep America’s arts healthy by providing the raw material of national conversation and you’ll make sure that we’re talking about you, too. Because you want to remain part of the conversation too, don’t you?

Hold the phone.

As someone who has written about both the arts in Chicago as well as non-arts things in Chicago, I’ll throw this out: What is going on in Chicago that isn’t related to the arts is infinitely more important to the more than 3 million people in the city than Chris Jones’ opinion on the latest non-Equity tour that is playing a Broadway in Chicago house.

In the past year in Chicago, the amount of people who have been murdered has increased, libraries have been closed for one day out of the week and then reopened, a U.S. representative has mysteriously disappeared before disclosing health problems, a state representative has been accused of corruption, a historic building’s fate has been in limbo, and a teacher’s union strike occurred. And those are just the highlights.

When a crime occurs, people can learn about it from the news. It was from the Tribune, which I read online, that I learned that a local business owner in my old neighborhood had been killed in a shooting not far from where I used to live. Ultimately, keeping the breaking news free, which the Tribune is doing, helps keep Chicago informed and it is the basic duty of a journalist to inform their audience. Sure, when Chris Jones reviews a show, he informs people of if a show is worth seeing. Same thing when Phil Vettel reviews a restaurant or Greg Kot reviews an album. But the value of that information is not nearly as valuable as the information that is disseminated through local coverage.

And while Chris Jones is the most influential critic in Chicago, he is not the only critic. You can still read Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss for free before hitting a limit. (People did not complain about access to her reviews being diminished by a paywall, but I think I know why.) The theater reviews for Time Out Chicago and the Chicago Reader are free to read without any limit that would cause a reader to hit a paywall.

I can see for someone like Coya Paz, who really only read the Tribune for theater coverage, that everything one gets for the price is not really worth it just to read the theater reviews. As for someone like Howard Sherman, I can see that someone who maybe isn’t interested in everything else going on in Chicago that the price is hard to justify just for theater reviews. But to suggest that arts coverage is maybe more important than local coverage or even business coverage takes cajones the size of Texas.

When the Journal Sentinel or Tribune run an investigative story into things that truly endanger the lives of hundreds, thousands of people it is to say, “This is wrong” and initiate change in how things are. A greater case could be made that an investigative story should never be put behind a paywall than arts reviews because investigations can get people to want to change the status quo.

So if you want to read theater reviews on newspapers with paywalls, pay up, let the paper know you disagree with what they’re doing by emailing them, or read someone else. There are plenty of print critics in Chicago that can be read for free to keep the conversation on arts going.

What is “Chicago-style” Theater?

I realize it might be my ignorance because I stopped seeing four plays a week more than a year-and-a-half ago, but I have no clue what the term “Chicago-style” theater means. I know what Chicago-style pizza and Chicago-style hotdogs are, but “Chicago-style” theater is beyond my comprehension.

The term started appearing in press releases I received a few months ago and I recently noticed it in some reviews. So after a question asked by Denise Schneider, publicity director of the Goodman, I thought I’d try to explore this phrase.

I do see a lot of theater compared to the average person, even though I went a few months without seeing a play this year. While I’m also now seeing theater in Milwaukee and have spent most of my life seeing theater in Iowa, I still see a lot of theater in Chicago compared to the average person. I have seen Broadway musicals getting their out-of-town tryout, plays performed in spaces smaller than my apartment, plays and musicals at the largest theaters in the city, shows at well established and fairly new off-Loop theaters. Maybe this is why I’m confused by the term, not to mention that my mind immediately thinks of food.

Does Chicago-style refer to a certain aesthetic seen in Chicago theater? This doesn’t make sense to me since aesthetic can change depending on what the play is and where it’s being performed, mostly due to space. Does it mean a play with a Chicago director and a cast made up entirely of Chicago actors? It would be nice if all theaters could use local actors, but that doesn’t happen in Chicago. Furthermore, it wouldn’t make sense since the phrase was used in a review of Chicago Shakespeare’s Follies, which did not use an all-Chicago cast. Since “Chicago-style” has been applied to large Equity productions, it couldn’t be a synonym for “small” or “storefront.” The best I can come up with on my own is ensemble-driven or based theater, but then that doesn’t make sense since some of the press releases I’ve seen have not been for theater companies with ensembles.

The closest thing I’ve gotten to a close idea of what a Chicago-style production is came from a tweet Schneider sent me last night after I was kvetching over the use of the term. She tweeted “Couldn’t Mamet be a singular exception?” This in many ways makes sense to me since Mamet has a distinct way of writing and directing style, not to mention I think he’s associated with Chicago theater, but I could be wrong about this.

Does anyone have any suggestions for what Chicago-style theater means? Or is this a term as confusing to others as it is to me?

“You Go Alone to Have the Evening of Your Life”

La Cage Aux Folles, is coming to Chicago at the end of the month for a run from Dec. 20—Jan. 1. I will miss it since I will be in Milwaukee for a much-needed vacation, even though it is one of my favorite musicals.

So how is it that a far-from-perfect musical is one of my favorites? To be fair, very few musicals are perfect and yet some of my favorites have flaws*. So why does La Cage manage to be beloved by many, including myself?

The show has a wonderful score by Jerry Herman. There’s the simultaneously peppy and sad “A Little More Mascara” about Albin’s transformation into Zaza, the beautiful “Song On the Sand,” the amusing “Masculinity,” the rousing numbers “I Am What I Am” and “The Best of Times,” and the thoroughly delightful “La Cage Aux Folles.”

But the interesting aspect about La Cage Aux Folles is that it was written in the 1980s and portrays a homosexual relationship as normal, particularly one where a child is raised. While it still has a standard stereotypical gay relationship—Georges is masculine while Albin is a screaming queen—the main characters are really no different from a heterosexual relationship.

The reason why La Cage Aux Folles always seems to survive is because it is in many ways a tradition musical with classic sounding numbers. Is it the greatest musical ever? No, especially since the son seem despicable with his treatment of Albin, but it’s ultimately a fun musical with a great score. This is a world where the titular place is where people meet their boyfriend, mistress and wife, where a duchess can get pregnant at a bar and one can sip their Dubonnet in the nude. It is a place many of us couldn’t imagine. The score and a decent production is fun and provides an escape for the evening.

Assuming the tour is as delightful as the Original Cast Recording always proves to be, then seeing the tour when it comes to Chicago might be a good idea. It runs from Dec. 20-Jan. 1 at the Bank of America Theatre and is sadly not coming to Milwaukee anytime soon.

*Seriously, William Finn, the lyric “People might think I’m very dykish” is simultaneously the most awesome and awkward lyric ever.