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No Good Can Come From Bad by Matthew Murray

  • MormonZarkana.jpgThose of us operating on more or less the fringes of the theatre journalism world covet jobs at The New York Times, as you can well imagine. After all, it's difficult—insanely so—to make money writing about theatre, and more challenging still to make a living at it. For an example of why those of us "in the trenches" slaver so at the thought of slaving away at the Times, check out Patrick Healy's recent article, "Struggling to Keep Up With Those Mormons." Who wouldn't love a job that includes writing a 1,258-word piece that says absolutely nothing of value, because making the obvious and useful point might upset some of the poor producers involved? Sign me up! But until the Arts desk comes a-knockin', I'm going to have to content myself with doing what Healy doesn't and explain that the reason bad shows are losing audiences to The Book of Mormon and Cirque du Soleil's Zarkana is, well, because they're bad.

    The shows that Healy runs through in his piece are Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Sister Act, and Catch Me If You Can, all of which opened last season; and Billy Elliot, which opened in 2008. The first three have producers who are whining because audiences apparently aren't stampeding to their productions, whereas the last one has producers who are whining that audiences aren't making their hit mega. Each of these shows, however, provides a valuable object lesson about some of the problems that are currently afflicting Broadway artistically—and, thus, afflicting it commercially. (We'll get to the specifics of this astonishing-to-contemplate connection in no time, don't worry!)

    CatchMeMontage.jpgLet's begin with Catch Me If You Can, which is in the direst straits given that it's closing Sunday after a run of less than five months. This is a show that was supposed to be a sure thing. It was based on the popular 2002 Leonardo DiCaprio film of the same name. It starred Norbert Leo Butz, a theatre-freak favorite who has legit Main Stem street cred for his Tony-winning turn in 2005's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and the white-hot up-and-comer Aaron Tveit (well known for Wicked and especially Next to Normal). And, perhaps most importantly, it was assembled by almost the entire team responsible for the 2002 smash hit musical Hairspray: Marc Shaiman (music), Scott Wittman (lyrics), Jack O'Brien (direction), Jerry Mitchell (choreography), and designers David Rockwell (sets), William Ivey Long (costumes), and Kenneth Posner (lights). (Only librettist Terrence McNally wasn't involved in the earlier show.) Who wouldn't have invested blindly in a show that had such lofty names attached?

    Unfortunately, no one involved ever figured out (a) what the show was about, or (b) how to tell its story in a useful way. Catch Me If You Can's fate was sealed on Tony night, when its one winner was pretty much the last person who should have taken home a trophy: Butz. As he was playing Carl Hanratty, the sad-sack FBI agent who spends years tracking down flim-flam artist extraordinaire Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Tveit), he was supposed to be the character you rooted against. The whole point of the show, like that of The Music Man, is that the audience is the victim of the leading man's most daring con: You fall in love with the guy who does nothing but terrible things from the minute the curtain goes up. DiCaprio walked a fine line in the movie, but accomplished exactly this, helped in no small part by the Hanratty of Tom Hanks, who was just broken enough to not be quite as endearing as Frank.

    But the musical swapped the polarity, to devastating effect. A small part of the "problem" was Butz, who was ridiculously likable and funny as Hanratty and had the sole musical number ("Don't Break the Rules") that let you establish an enduring bond with someone onstage. More damaging was the fact that Tveit, a good-looking and talented young performer who had been magnetic in other shows, here looked scrawny and overwhelmed by having to shoulder the weight of this musical without a drop of real charisma to help him. But the real death blow was that the show was terribly structured and even more poorly written.

    The whole thing was conceived within the framing device of a 1960s variety show. This ostensibly let the writers side-step the wrinkle of having Frank's (literal) crimes seem "real"—hey, they could argue, you're not actually seeing any of this, so you can't really hate Frank! (Funny that The Music Man managed without this, but no matter.) But this had the opposite effect: By relegating practically every minute of the action to a cheesy, dated framework, Shaiman and Wittman were in reality telling you that you shouldn't take seriously anything they were presenting. Whereas the movie traded on a fun, party-like atmosphere punctuated by scenes of borderline-grotesque darkness that reminded you of the forces Frank was toying with, the candy-colored musical just wanted to divert your attention from everything that was happening on its fringes, hoping to sell you a good time rather than a good story. That gambit, alas, rarely works, particularly when the score has nothing original in it and is just a swirl of '60s pastiche but, unlike Hairspray (of which that was also true), contains no wit, humor, or genuine feeling. I'd also like to suggest it's possible that Shaiman and Wittman did the variety-show thing in part because it would let them write the one-dimensional '60s stuff again and thus take no real risks—something that doesn't fly in a more serious story like this the way it can in something more whimsically bubble gum like Hairspray.

    But the imbalance between the two characters is the clearest evidence McNally, Shaiman, and Wittman were playing outside their league. I'd love to take credit for this explanation, but it really came from Michael Reynolds, the New York editor of Talkin' Broadway, in explaining why he didn't respond at all to the Abagnale-Hanratty relationship. Successful shows that need the audience to adore the bad guy only reach that conclusion after a meticulous process: They constantly dangle something in front of the anti-hero and then yank it away, over and over, until he gets what he wants only at the very end, uniting him and the audience in the catharsis of having seen him accomplish what everyone thought impossible. Catch Me If You Can does that—but with Hanratty, the good-guy cop, and not bad-guy swindler Abagnale. When Hanratty gets his man, you end up cheering not for the guy who's the centerpiece of every scene and almost every song, but for the supporting character who's striven to stop him at every step along the way. Ergo, the show fails. Ergo, Catch Me If You Can closes Sunday, September 4, after 168 performances.

    PriscillaSisterAct.jpgPriscilla Queen of the Desert and Sister Act don't have a great deal in common, besides both being based on 1990s movies: The former is about Australian drag queens, the latter about nuns mingling with organized crime. But both shows treat their source material similarly, and thus it's not surprising that audiences aren't storming the doors at either the Palace or the Broadway. The original films are earnest; the musicals made from them are, to be charitable, camp schlock.

    The movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is really a plea for tolerance as much as a story, sketching out the journey of three lip-sync artists journeying into the sticks and discovering that acceptance is not the rule everywhere. It's not much to go on, but writer-director Stephan Elliot made it emotionally acute and relevant in part because of an excellent cast (Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, and Terence Stamp) that perfectly balanced their characters' pain and flamboyance, but also because he took their plight seriously from start to finish. You really became involved in the question of whether these out-of-their-element men would survive the trip, which elevated a standard story to something special. And because the characters underwent a major change—one fell in romantic love with an unexpected person, another fell in familial love with the child he hardly knew, one came to better love (or at least understand) himself—you felt the journey had been worth it. And never once did the glitter of their show-biz world intrude on the grit of the real world.

    The musical turns this completely around. The entire thing is now one glitzy joke, with undue focus placed on other drag performers, including one named Miss Understanding and a scene set at a funeral full of absurdly dressed cross-dressers; and pinkness, swishiness, and silliness permeating every pore of the story. There's no way to make anything affecting when director-developer Simon Phillips and (unthinkably) librettist Elliot turn the vandalism of the trio's bus into an excuse to have the cast sing "Color My World," the closest thing to an interpersonal relationship is capped with a stage full of cupcakes dancing and singing "MacArthur Park," and the intermission is bookended by "I Will Survive" (in full disco regalia) on one end and, for no reason I've yet been able to determine, "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" on the other.

    Sister Act isn't much different. Its movie may have been a comedy, but it had harsh edges and an underlying drama that made it work. Set in the then-present of 1992, it centered on a Reno lounge "singer" who got her job only because of her casino-owning boyfriend (who also happened to be married). So when she sees him order and witness the murder of one of his underlings, she's in big trouble in more ways than one. She runs to the cops and talks with a whip-smart lieutenant, Eddie Souther, who comes up with the brilliant idea of hiding her in a convent in far-off San Francisco. While there, Deloris tilts with the authoritarian Mother Superior and ends up making a national sensation of the convent's struggling choir. This, of course, puts Deloris in greater danger, but it teaches her the value of faith and the Mother Superior the value of (limited) compromise in a world that's often too quick to discard old messages.

    In the stage Sister Act, nothing works, and nothing makes sense. Okay, rewinding the time period to 1977, so the story is a more direct response to Vatican II, is not a bad idea. But everything else is. Deloris is now super talented, and just waiting for her big break, which is boring and conventional; Eddie is now an incompetent, bumbling sergeant who consistently puts Deloris in danger because of his stupidity, and who hides her in a convent within the same city (Pittsburgh, where the story has been reset); and the moral of the show is now that the rickety old church needs to change its ways in every way because it's completely useless to young people, and the belief and reverence its most devotional participants practice is ripe for parody. By the time the monsignor starts introducing the choir in a Barry White voice and every visible surface (including the statue of the Virgin Mary) is swathed in thousands of Swarovski crystals, it's clear that the writers—Cheri and Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane (book), Alan Menken (music), Glenn Slater (music)—didn't care a whit about conveying honest feelings. That Menken and Slater, like Shaiman and Wittman, just used the setting of the show to power take-offs on various musical genres (albeit of a different decade) similarly shows how little telling the story really mattered to them.

    The original movies stressed the importance of values, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert focusing on family and self and Sister Act on the importance of the past and the present learning to respect each other. But they wanted their audiences to come away with positive feelings and an improved outlook on dealing with other people, wrapped up in tales that, despite being silly, were ultimately truthful and relatable. The musicals are interested in nothing but making fun of those values. Is it really any wonder that audiences craving the same deep connections they got from the movies are ignoring the shows that refuse to provide them?

    BillyElliotMontage.jpgAdmittedly, Billy Elliot is a bit of a tough fit in this group. Unlike the other shows here, it earned mostly rapturous reviews; it also won 10 Tony Awards, and as of this writing has run for almost 1,200 performances. By any sensible measure it's a success. Yet because it's not a runaway success, like The Producers was once upon a time or The Book of Mormon is now, it merits inclusion in Healy's article. This outcome, I would argue, is also not surprising.

    It's partially because of the same disease that infected Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Sister Act: theatre-itis, the notion that being in a theater means a show shouldn't (or can't) also exist in the real world. Billy Elliot, to its credit, comes closer. Librettist-lyricist Lee Hall, in adapting his own 2000 movie screenplay, has kept most of what mattered in terms of plot and character, and the show basically holds together from a dramatic standpoint (something that can't be said of most of the other musicals for which Elton John provided the music).

    What it's missing is what made the film work so well: ambiguity. In the movie, Billy, a young boy from a mining town, is caught between his yearning for ballet and his family and community's insistence he follow in his father and brother's mining footsteps. Hanging over his head is the issue of his sexuality. He's really too young for it to be fully formed, but that's irrelevant to those around him: His community is ravaged by the stigma that anyone interested in the arts must be gay, which is a demon too imposing for Billy to fight. You see him surrounded by obviously straight people on one side and not-so-obviously straight people on the other (not just the dancers he admires, but also his friend, who's taken to cross-dressing), which makes his conflict real and his overcoming it—by learning that it doesn't matter—potent.

    The musical's aims, on the other hand, prevent it from being as cohesive. First is that it really piles on Billy, so much so that you're left with the impression he must be gay (the first-act song, "Expressing Yourself," practically drowns Billy in women's clothing, which he desperately enjoys); this ruins the uncertainty that drove the movie's plot. The curtain-call finale, in which everyone—male and female alike—is clad in a tutu, not only mocking the notion that straight folks might benefit from the arts as well but ignoring the real and important distinctions that exist between male and female ballet dancers, only makes things worse. Then there's the matter of the dancing itself: There's almost no actual ballet. Yes, "Solidarity" (set against a brutal mine strike) involves Billy learning how to pirouette. But "Shine" is a bunch of little girls running around the stage; the aforementioned "Expressing Yourself," as well as the first act closer and the curtain call, are tap extravaganzas; Billy's Swan Lake duet with his older self is primarily more about the boy being attached to a wire and flown around above the stage; the "Electricity" audition scene is disturbingly nonspecific modernity rather than any germane attempt at classicism; and, most cringeworthy of all, the number in which Billy most acutely explores his love for ballet is nonsensically called "Born to Boogie." Then there's the matter of the show's greasy, one-sided approach to its political content, which is distracting and incendiary in a way it's not in the movie; I'll let The Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout explain the problems that causes.

    Billy Elliot, in short, is a musical that not only doesn't know what it is, but keeps wanting to pretend it's something it isn't. It's hardly shocking, then, that it feels it needs to "adjust" itself to make itself more palatable to the broader ticket-buying public. Healy wrote that the show will be scrubbed of some of its profanity "and that other language would be tweaked to 'make scenes easier to comprehend and perhaps make the show even easier to sell to groups.'" When's the last time you heard of a good, tight, honest show needing to change itself? Maybe it isn't that people are too dumb or stuffy to get Billy Elliot, as Healy's sources suggest. Maybe it's just that the people who wanted to get Billy Elliot already have, and that there's not a bottomless well of others who want to pay hundreds of dollars to be condescended to or laughed at.

    Though I had some issues with both The Book of Mormon and Zarkana, I bear no ill will toward them for their success. These are shows that are what they are unapologetically, and understand something that used to be common knowledge, but has been forgotten by all the fly-by-night investors, producers, and theatre reporters who are more interested in placing blame than learning from history: Success derives from principles. It doesn't matter what they are, if you don't have them and/or don't adhere to them, you're either going to fail or you're not going to have the roof-raising success you may think you deserve.

    The shows that have become legendary in modern theatre history have done so because they didn't compromise when it came to what mattered most. We speak reverently of Show Boat, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, Follies, and others today because they had the courage of their convictions—and that's something that's unlikely to change in the years and even decades to come. Is there any doubt that Catch Me If You Can, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Sister Act, and Billy Elliot, musicals based on emphatic movies that became wishy-washy musicals, will never command the same degree of respect?

    Photo credits (top to bottom):

    Top: Nikki M. James, Andrew Rannells, Josh Gad, and the ensemble in The Book of Mormon; photo by Joan Marcus. Bottom: The Zarkana finale, photo by Jeremy Daniel.

    Catch Me If You Can photos by Joan Marcus. Top: Aaron Tveit and Norbert Leo Butz. Middle: Aaron Tveit and the ensemble. Bottom: Norbert Leo Butz and the ensemble.

    Top: Will Swenson, Tony Sheldon, Nick Adams, and the ensemble in Priscilla Queen of the Desert; photo by Joan Marcus. Bottom: Patina Miller, Victoria Clark, and the cast of Sister Act; photo by Joan Marcus.

    Billy Elliot photos by Carol Rosegg. Top: Tade Biesinger and the company. Bottom: Peter Mazurowski and the company.

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