A Kiwi in NYC [by James Wenley]
Where can you find Harry Potter leading a dance number, Samuel L Jackson acting as a civil rights Mofo, and Spiderman trying not to fall into the audience? The Great White Way, the Capital of the Musical: Broadway Baby. New York, New York.
Last month I travelled to New York in pursuit of a dream: To see a real live, all singing, all dancing Broadway show. I’ve always been a big fan of the Musical experience, so where better to go? But I didn’t want to see just one singular sensation. Oh no. My mission was thirteen shows in ten days. Every night, and some afternoons too, I’d be seeing a new Broadway show.
Many thought I was crazy. Some asked how I could possibly remember them all. Others feared for my wallet. Worth it? You betcha.
I stayed at literally the cheapest hotel in New York. The reviews were burning. But you can’t always trust reviews can you (cough)? Luckily, it was pretty decent, and the bed even quite large. It was on a street right near the heart of Time Square – Spiderman was playing right next door (a gentleman’s club was our other neighbour…). It proved an excellent base to check out the theatres, galleries and the odd Occupy Wall Street protest (a theatrical triumph in its own right).
And the shows? Ah, the shows.
THE BEST MUSICAL
An obvious choice since it won this year’s TONY AWARD™, but I can’t say enough how shockingly good The Book of Mormon was. It’s filthy, offensive, sacrilegious, but in the best spirit of the old-fashioned good time musicals. The creative team is headed by Robert Lopez of Avenue Q (the puppet musical that satirised Sesame Street and its ilk) and Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park (which takes the piss out of everyone and their prophet). Trey and Matt jumping to Broadway isn’t that surprising, they’ve always snuck songs into their work, and the South Park big screen film was of course a Musical.
What is surprising, out of everything they could have chosen, is that they created a new musical about the Mormon faith. They’d already done a South Park episode skewering the story of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith (Dum Dum Dum Dum). What more was there to say about it? A lot more.
Star Mormon graduate Elder Price and slacker Elder Cuningham are sent to Uganda as missionaries to convert the locals to their faith. Mormon’s masterstroke is that it is upfront about the issues of poverty, violence and disease in Africa, and doesn’t sugarcoat it (including the myth that sleeping with virgins is the cure for AIDS). When they meet their tribe, there’s a great Hakuna Matata-like song and dance number (“having a saying makes it all better”), Hasa Diga Eebowai which the Mormons enthusiastically sing along with, until they learn the phrase means “F*** you God”.
The Mormons get nowhere in their preaching, that is until Elder Cuningham (who its turns out never actually finished reading the Book of Mormon) starts ‘making things up’ about the Mormon faith to make it more directly relevant to the tribe’s lives (eg: Joseph Smith had AIDS). The funniest extended sequence is when the tribe performs their own version of the Mormon story (Joseph Smith American Moses).
The Mormon faith gets more than its fare share of satire, but it remains affectionate. Elder Price’s song I Believe consists entirely of statements that Mormon’s actually believe. (I believe that the Lord, God, created the universe. /I believe that He sent His only Son to die for my sins. /And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America).
The musical’s message asks what makes one religious story less believable than another – they all require faith.
It pushes the boundaries of a Musical theatre show, and is probably the most consistently funny show I’ve seen. There are rumours of a movie down the track, and I’m sure an Australision version will be fast-tracked.
Even former Prime Minister Helen Clark tweeted “Just saw multiple Tony Award-winning show #TheBookOfMormon on #Broadway – irreverent & comical!”
And what makes Mormon even sweeter is that it’s an ORIGINAL idea, something all too rare these days.
Which brings us to:
EVERYTHING’S A MUSICAL
Everything moderately successful gets turned into a musical these days. Case in point: Rocky the Musical has just been announced. Musicals are increasing just another way to sell people the same things, to make more money off established properties.
Sometimes a musical adaption can stand-alone on its own merits. Sometimes you get, well, Spiderman the Musical…
Sister Act the Musical does it right. It takes a story that already has the makings of a Broadway musical (could you imagine Sylvester Stallone breaking into song half-way through a match?), gives it an entirely new score by Alen Menken (of Little Shop of Horrors & Beauty and the Beast fame), and remains faithful without being slavishly so. Patina Miller in the Whoopi Goldberg role (Whoopi produces) is a star and the Nun’s are rousing. I even bought the Soundtrack.
The Addams Family Musical however wasn’t as successful, and was my least favourite show. While the Addam’s ‘living’ house has many nice tricks, the story – of Wednesday inviting her boyfriend’s family to meet her folks – is rather forgettable. When the most memorable parts of the musical are the already famous finger click (the score never getting close to meeting this) and Brooke Shield’s cleavage, you know you have a problem. My enjoyment was also marred by two women sitting next to me, in the first row too, who talked throughout the show. When I politely requested them to be quiet, they glared at me and talked loudly about how rude I was asking them to be quiet. Yikes!
Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical, adapted from Stephan Elliott’s cult film, has been a real success story for Australian Musical Theatre. Ignore for a moment that the score consists almost entirely of American pop anthems, the story – three Drag Queens travelling to Alice Springs – celebrates Australia with camp flair (Didgeridoos in I will Survive and all). I caught the show in its original season in Sydney, and it’s kept developing ever since. It broke NZ box office records, went to Toronto, the West End and finally Broadway. There are differences – some songs are changed for the US market, Priscilla the bus has even more tricks up her hubcap, and Aussie accents from American cast are awkward – but the show keeps its heart that has made it so popular with audiences around the world. Original star Tony Sheldon who plays Bernadette, has been with the production from the beginning, and is still kicking ass in high-heels.
The Lion King has long been lavished as one of the most successful film to musical adaptations. It’s a moving and universal story of course (not to mention that Elton John score), but Julie Taymor’s stunning design work, sees the animal kingdom come to life onstage through puppetry, costume, and impressive performers. It’s a great theatrical experience, but with character actors actively mimicking their film counterparts, it did make me long for the movie, a foundation film for my generation.
And then there’s Spiderman Turn off the Dark, which Lion King director Julie Taymor also had a hand in making (before being fired). Controversial for accidents, and long period of previews, it’s now one of the consistent box office performers on Broadway (but as the most expensive Broadway musical ever, it has an awful lot of bills to pay). U2’s Bono and The Edge’s music is tepid, and the story is another going over of the well-worn Spiderman origin story (of which we are about to see yet another version). With its inclusion of Greek Myth’s Arachne, it feels like there are hints of something different and deeper, and I suspect the whole show was neutered after Taymor left the project and the show re-written.
The high-flying Spiderman wire work however, is a stunning spectacle, with a huge crew of Spider-stunties soaring over the audience’s heads and even landing centimeters in front of them.
FAMOUS PEOPLE SO CLOSE YOU CAN SMELL THEM
If you want to see famous people up close, Broadway’s a good place to go (just be prepared to pay for premium tickets!). Hollywood actors often like to go act on Broadway to prove their cred, in a ‘look at me, I’m a real actor’ sort of way.
Daniel Radcliffe aka the Boy who lived, is one who has looked to Broadway to prove that he can do more than wand waving. After appearing in the nude for Equus, he’s taken on arguably an even balls-ier proposition – a Broadway musical. That musical is a How to Succeed in Business (Without really trying), a fairly traditional 1961 musical comedy about big business and ambition charting a window washer’s rise through the company ranks, timely revived for today’s’ economic climate and accusations of Wall Street greed. Oh, and John Larroquette is in it too.
So, can Daniel Radcliffe, you know… sing? The answer is no. He really can’t. He holds a tune okay, but his voice is weak. It’s not painful, but not particularly pleasant either. The thing is… it doesn’t really matter. Radcliffe possesses enough star power and onstage charisma, a flash of his smile enough to get us over his vocals. Impressively, he completely plunges himself into the many dance numbers required of his character, and comes out on top. He puts so much into it; he’s even visibly puffing and sweating as he slides into final position. His coming timing, especially against Larroquette proves exceptionally good, and I reckon he could carve himself a good post-Potter career in comedy if he wanted to.
Samuel L Jackson was the other star I was lucky to see on Broadway, playing Martin Luther King Jr on the night before his death in the play The Mountaintop. It’s a two hander, played for the most part in a small motel room, so Jackson was really able to get stuck into the role. He looks and sounds uncannily like King, but the production is very conscious of undercutting our assumptions of the man, playing him not as an icon but a flawed man. We even are treated to hearing King going to the toilet! The script’s uneven, but Jackson is a powerful presence.
AND THE REST…
Last year’s Tony Winner Memphis has some excellent original songs, but suffers for being Hairspray for Adults. Hairspray is more fun.
War Horse, about the horses that went to the Front during WWI, is an incredibly moving show. Three puppeteers bring each life-sized puppet horse to life. Steven Spielberg, who’s made a film about the story, rightly complained that he couldn’t get his real horses to emote quite like these stage ones.
Rock of Ages is silly fun for fans of 80s rock. Tom Cruise is going to be in the movie musical version. Could be a train wreck, or completely revive his career.
The Phantom of the Opera, the longest running show in Broadway History, still has people queuing and hasn’t lost its luster.
Stephen Sondheim’s Follies is a real masterpiece and Bernadette Peters a goddess.
FINAL LESSONS FROM BROADWAY
- Daniel Radcliffe is even shorter than real life than he seems on screen. Next to the towering John Laroquette, it’s even worse.
- Even the biggest Broadway star has a small b/w photo next to their bios in the program. Kiwi stars get full page colour shots. When did we become so self-aggrandising?
- Broadway foyers are tiny. Audiences have to queue around the block to get into the theatre. You’d never get that sort of dedication here.
- On that note, Auckland’s Civic has far more bar staff than any Broadway theatre. Great customer service, or great big drinking problem?
Even a month later, I still have snatches of songs and moments playing in my head. I had gone to Broadway. And I was really glad to learn that what we get in New Zealand, at least the Australian productions that cross the ditch, compare very well. You can be assured that some of these shows will eventually make it here (I’m picking Sister Act, and eventually Mormon), but until then I dream of Broadway…