31 March 2009

From Spidey to Thriller: Innovative New Musicals Receive Approval for 2009-2010 Season

As I have previously discussed, the world of theatre was recently introduced to a new genre: musical political productions. The stories surrounding both ex-Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and President Obama inspired the creation of theatrical performances around the world. Now, the music industry and comic book world are working to find their way into the theatrical stage in the coming year. With the help of Bono and the Edge of U2, the punk band Green Day, and the “King of Pop” Michael Jackson, three new musicals have been announced for the upcoming season. All three plays will tackle extremely different themes, characters, and plot lines because of the varied backgrounds, musically and production-wise. Along with these differences, I believe that each will aid in genre innovation and the evolution of the musical. On the contrast, I am unsure if these upcoming unique performances will be successful in the current theatrical world both economically and thematically.

According to the New York Times, The Nederlander Organization made a statement in mid-January announcing “that it had acquired the rights to produce a musical based on the Michael Jackson album Thriller and its groundbreaking video, in which the King of Pop transforms into a werewolf while he’s on a date.” While a similar show celebrating Jackson’s career is currently running in London’s West End, its US counterpart will instead focus specifically on the plot of the famous music video, which is said to be “horror film spoof in which a young couple are out on a date on a beautiful full moon evening, when suddenly the young man, played by Jackson, turns into a werewolf.” Though a creative team, Jackson’s participation, and theatre have not been officially announced, those already involved are excited about the performance. Unlike American Idiot with its politically driven message, Thriller will attempt to bank on the popular culture reference. As the producers focus on ideas to draw in crowds, fans will be happy to know that the “Thriller” album will not be the only one used in the production. The musical will also include songs from “Off the Wall”, including “Billie Jean” and its infamous sidewalk. Extremely intrigued by the idea of a music video musical, I wonder if fan support alone will be enough to keep this idea afloat. Similarly to the Obama musicals, I think that plays heavy in popular cultural references are attempting to latch on to the coattails of, and profit from, someone who already successful on their own.

Broadway is also gearing up for a musical about one of its most famous fictional residents: Spider Man. Though rumors circulated for a while, the official word on the production was finalized at the end of February. This is the first time a comic book character has found its way to a potentially successful run on the Broadway stage, though many have found their way to both the silver and television screens over the years. Because the show is still in much of the working creative stages, like American Idiot, many of the specific details about the superhero’s musical are still unknown. However, it has been announced that Julie Taymor, of Lion King fame, will direct as U2’s Bono (see right) and The Edge write the music and lyrics. The performance, titled Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark, will “retell the superhero’s origin story, about a nerdy teen bitten by a radioactive spider… [and] include mythical elements not seen in the Sam Raimi pics” according to Variety. Though still officially un-cast and in the process of open audtions, rumors say that Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess will come together again to play Peter Parker and his love interest, Mary Jane Watson. The pair previously worked together, as well as with Taymor, in the 2007 film Across the Universe. While the idea of an action-driven superhero musical could open up a new genre of “guy musicals” to the theatrical community, I believe the innovation may not be enough to save the production financially. With the current economic situation being what it is, many of the larger, classic shows in production, such as Gypsy, have found themselves facing final curtains already. New productions are also suffering, many offering discounts before the show even opens. Because of these financial factors, I believe that the tentative $35 million dollar budget for the web-slinging superhero may cause more problems at the box office when the show finally opens in February of 2010.

On the other side of the country however, yet another musical phenomenon has found its way to the theatrical stage. The New York Times recently announced plans for Green Day to team up with Berkeley Repertory Theater in California to create a musical, which will open the company's 2009-2010 season. Based on the band’s 2004 Grammy-winning album American Idiot(see left), the musical will also include songs from their upcoming album 21st Century Breakdown. Titled American Idiot, it will tell the nihilistic coming-of-age story of two teenagers. Specifically Variety announced that the show will follow “disaffected contemporary American Everykid Jesus of Suburbia as he morphs into violent, drug-dealing alter-ego St. Jimmy and falls for anarchist girlfriend Whatsername.” While the creative team, which includes Spring Awakening’s Michael Mayer, is extremely quiet about the exact plot, Billie Joe Armstrong has said that the narrative is “not the most linear story in the world.” This musical is viewed by much of the dramatic world, including myself, as a new innovation to the theatrical community, combining popular music with political themes. Many articles on the production, such as the one written by Daniel Krips of Rolling Stone, cite “the Tony Award-winning success of the rocking Spring Awakening — and the past triumphs of the Who’s Tommy musical” as the reason behind the opportunity being available to the California-based band. Personally, I believe that the success of the play will rely on many factors. The popularity of 2004 album will be a factor in selling tickets, however I also believe the "politically charged eipc" may outdate itself considering the recent presidential cabinet change. The decision to open the play in a smaller venue will also be a driving factor in the popularity of the musical, perhaps pushing it to Broadway. Though there are no definite plans for such a move to the New York stage yet, the creative team has not nixed the option, instead focusing on the west coast this fall.

Despite the innovative creativity surrounding all three musicals, the biggest aspect of all is the relevance of their underlying themes. I agree that it would be interesting to see a revision of the infamous music video, to see Spider Man sling his way around a Broadway theatre, or to be able to put faces to characters mentioned on the Grammy-winning album. However, the various innovations each new production is attempting to bring to the stage may not be enough to keep them afloat long. If the economic crisis is closing famous classics, hurting extremely popular shows, and devistating the lesser-known new shows, where will these creative musicals fit? When the curtain goes up and the performances begin, will entertainment value alone be able to save all three of these endeavors?

09 March 2009

Take It or Leave It: High School Controversy Surrounds Production of "Rent"

With the popularity of the original musical and the 2005 film version of Jonathan Larson’s Rent, it is no surprise that Music Theatre International has decided to administer the rights to an edited version of the musical for high school production. The 2008-2009 school year is the first year in which “Rent: School Edition” is available, having just been approved by the author’s estate. However, the edited version is receiving as much criticism, if not more, than the original production. While MTI’s website lists 63 upcoming productions, many of the theatre groups who wish to perform the show are unable to. Much of the concern for the show comes from the outside community, many of whom are concerned with the adult themes addressed in the production. While many who advocate continuing the productions emphasize the themes of love and acceptance, others are concerned with drug use, homosexuality, and the HIV/AIDS virus. Recently, the controversy revolving around this show has become international news with articles from the New York Times, Playbill, the Los Angeles Times, and the International Herald discussing the off-again, on-again production at Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach, California. The major issue in this specific case is differences in the reason behind the original cancellation of the show. In an attempt to explore the issue further, I looked at the arguments of my fellow bloggers regarding the cancellation and “he-said-she-said” blame game between the director and the principal. While Barenaked Joe makes an interesting argument providing paraphrasing from both sides of the argument, GottaLaff of the Political Carnival provides insight and comparison to her own personal experiences regarding producing high school theatre. My comments to both can be found on the respective blogs, as well as below.

“High School un-cancels production of 'Rent'”

I was really impressed with your original post regarding the cancellation of the Corona del Mar production of “Rent” this past month. It was interesting to see the original source not only incorporated into your argument, but to also see your personal experiences with theatrical censorship. With the wide availability and easy access to various types of media today, I agree that it is a bit absurd to attempt to censor something that many, if not all, of the students involved have already had access to.

However, I do not necessarily agree with the point you make about how the reading of a production versus viewing the performance “skew(s) one’s perception and focus.” As a theatre student, I have on numerous occasions read plays specifically for their tone and themes, which are often very easily distinguishable. While it is possible to happen, I believe that the communities surrounding the production are perhaps closer attributed to many cancellations. Patrick Healy emphasizes in his article the reasons other school administrators have cited for denying the continuation of the productions. Susan Collins, the superintendent of a school in West Virginia who canceled a production this past winter emphasized the community effect, as the district has “alumni who come back [and] bus in children for [the school shows.]” While she personally said she had no problems with the themes of the play, she did not think the school district would find the content appealing. Similar concerns were also raised in Rowlett, Texas, where the director canceled the show after a heated community debate during a school board meeting. Though community was not directly a cause of the original cancellation, Martin was quoted saying that he chose the “show for the high school because [he] had an agenda,” in which he hoped to counter some homophobia that seemed to be creeping into the Newport Beach campus. Now that the production will continue, do you think that thematic censorship really was the underlying issue of this controversy, or perhaps were people simply “crying homophobic wolf” because that is was a major concern surrounding the original production?

“Who do you believe in the ‘Rent’ controversy? Why?”

Your post about the “Rent” controversy at the Corona del Mar high school is a very interesting way to look at the various arguments. It’s great to see someone attempting to take a neutral view in the discussion over who was in the wrong. However, I think there’s a big issue that is rarely addressed in articles and blogs, including your own. According to the Los Angeles Times, the principal had never asked to review a script before this production, regardless of “adult content,” which is what she seems to be trying to push as the reason for the analysis. Shows portraying controversial themes, like prostitution in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and alcoholism in “A Streetcar Named Desire”, were approved “without raising administrator’s eyebrows.” Though I agree that perhaps “crying homophobia” was not the best solution for those involved in the cancellation, I understand the school’s reluctance at expressing that as a concern. As one of the producers of the national tour, Jeffery Seller, said, “Like it or not, we’re right smack in the middle of an enormous cultural shift right now, and that shift will give way to acceptance of homosexuality and acceptance of gay characters… but it’s a process, it’s a messy process, and it makes sense to me that we’ll take steps forward and hit a pothole and take a step backward.” This shift has many people in power walking on egg shells when it comes to controversial topics; however, it also makes groups look weak when they are divided. The inability for the school administrators and the drama teacher to come to an agreement between their statements is possibly the biggest rift within this controversy. As you suggested, the principal’s statement is lacking detail, which I think causes many people, including myself to question: What does the administration of Corona del Mar have to hide from their community?

03 March 2009

Political Productions Pave the Way: A New Genre is Inspired by Current Events

With the state of Illinois taking center stage in a significant portion of the political news recently, I chose this week to explore the state’s influence on the theatrical community, both within the state as well as around the world. Chicago is said to be the “most vibrant dramatic capital after New York.” Nevertheless it has seen its fair share of off stage political drama and scandals as well, and the current champions of the spotlight are related to each other in more ways than one. Not only is President Obama linked to former Governor Rod Blagojevich (see left) through the on-going scandal involving the vacant Senate seat, but the two political figures now share a new genre of theatre: the biographical political musical. While other presidents, like Nixon, have already made their way to the Broadway stage, and famous figures are working toward getting their life story in marquee lights, there has yet to be a musical based on political triumph or scandal. However, the two pieces of theatre differ as significantly as the men they are written about. Whether the performance is about the beloved new president bringing change to the people of the United States, or the power hungry ex-governor bringing shame to his state, each story continues to emphasize the views already presented by the media about their situations.

According to an article in the Chicago Sun-Times, the musically comedic musings of the former governor of Illinois titled Rod Blagojevich Superstar! has found itself one of the most well-received, last minute productions to date. Written in less than a month, the main goal is that the play “is connecting with Illinoisans [who are] amused yet appalled” at the governor’s actions. Having completely sold out all of the performances since the grand opening February 10th, Second City is looking to expand the original six-week production to a theatre available for weekend shows elsewhere in the city. The cast, however, believes that some of the success of the play is “people[s] need to laugh at this thing.” Because of the nature of the current event-based show, the improv-trained actors are willing to be extremely flexible with the script. Not only have they added to the play as the Blagojevich saga changes, but many of the characters have also taken cues from former staffers who, despite being parodied in the performance, have still attended and been more than willing to comment on the realistic mannerisms of Blagojevich, portrayed by Joey Bland. In spite of the accurate depiction, the production simply highlights and reinforces the negative views surrounding the scandal of the vacant Senate seat left by Obama in a comical way. While this is innovative for the performing arts, in that the cast is constantly changing and updating the script, the fact that Illinoisan audiences are letting the character get away with so much may attribute to the length of the Blagojevich scandal. Many reviews on the production suggest that this performance was the perfect way to spoof the outrageous musings of the former governor, bringing light to a somewhat somber and pathetic situation. However, I truly believe that, though innovative in its construction, the potential of the production was lost in the comedy. As the cast had the ability to shed new light on the situation, they instead chose to rely on Saturday Night Live! antics to spoof the state politics, as well as classic show tune songs.

On the other end of the spectrum, two musicals have found their way into existence due to the popularity of the new President of the United States, Barack Obama (see right). The first of these was created in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, where Obama is considered a national hero, and premiered just days before the elections in November. In an article from BBC news about the performance, simply titled Obama, The Musical, the sympathies of the people involved in the production are very much out in the open. Even the actor playing the “chief villain” Senator John McCain was quoted saying “Obama is more fun to portray… I hope he will win [the election].” While this play used the life and rise to political fame of the famous figure as an example for people learn about “the virtues or hard work, selflessness, democracy and public service,” it was also widely viewed as an important message to the feuding country. Having dealt with post-election violence sparked by opposing views of various communities on Kenyan leadership, it is clearly one sided in its views, casting major Republican figures as enemies whose sole purpose is to stand in Obama’s way. The use of such classic "vice and virtue" stock characters originated during the medieval cycle plays, and often inspired many Shakespearean plots. Though these types of characters and plots worked for creating many timeless classics we know today, I believe that the empahsis on the ever-changing political sphere will limit reproductions in the future. The second musical in the works, Obama on my Mind, set to being its preview performances today at Islington’s Hen and Chickens theatre in London, uses a variety of types of music to take “a look at the weird and wonderful world behind the scenes of a small Obama campaign office, and the larger than life characters who make the wheels turn” according to press materials on the musical. However, based on the vague and limited press coverage, I agree with Lyn Gardner's review from the Guardian that this production has perhaps "by jumping on the Obama bandwagon, has guaranteed itself more attention than it deserves or is good for it."

Though all three of these productions work toward opening yet another genre of theatre to the public, I cannot help but question the motives behind each of the playwrights. While many beloved stories have inherently evil villains that the audience loves to hate, perhaps dehumanizing certain popular figures to create an antagonist is not the most creative decision for a playwright. Despite the fact that many people believe entertaining story lines cannot exists without opposition to the protagonist, placing all the blame on a few sources seems like an outdated and simplistic method of creating one’s characters. Instead, I believe that these plays may have done an even better job creating realistic characters had they taken a cue from Partick Marber's Closer (While I understand Wikipedia is not a reputable source, this is the best summary available.) Regardless of the lack of "happy ending," the play is full of real characters, who are all flawed in their own ways, but each have a redeaming quality as well. Even as I look into the potential that plays like the ones I have mentioned have created in the theatrical world, I can only hope that the future of the genre does not depend on the divisions created when the fictional world becomes black and white. Sometimes, the stories with a majority of grey area are the most interesting.
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