In London, one of the shows that’s opening this summer seems to be getting most of the attention.  That show is a musical version of the hit film GHOST with a book and lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin who won an Oscar for his original film screenplay and music and additional lyrics by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard who have been fixtures in the music world for quite some time.  Word of mouth is that it’s excellent and will no doubt follow in the footsteps of BILLY ELLIOT, SISTER ACT, and PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT and will be seen on American shores soon.  When I heard about this show, I began to realize that there has been a trend, a somewhat unsettling trend if one thinks about it, in musical theatre lately.  Although there are still totally original shows, there are far more musicals, especially in London, that spring from non-musical films.

This is not a new phenomenon – over the past few years Broadway has seen it in shows such as DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRALS, LEGALLY BLONDE – THE MUSICAL, and SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, but there just seems to be more of them now.  Not only are there shows based on live action films, but stage musicals based on animated features like SHREK – THE MUSICAL and THE LION KING are popping up with more frequency.

While I was thinking of this, I realized that a recent trend that is fortunately dying out was the “and then we wrote” musical where a show was cobbled together about a singer or group using their music.  Shows like BUDDY and JERSEY BOYS have been around for a while, but this type of show was generally in a revue format.   Often, when a story is imposed on a group of songs like this, it is either extremely weak or superfluous; It’s only there to frame the songs.  Since people are basically going to hear the music anyway, audiences don’t seem to miss plot.  BUDDY is one such musical, the brief story only linked songs by The Crickets and people like Richie Valens and the Big Bopper.  It ran for 13 years in London while other, much better musicals failed.  Many audience members made annual pilgrimages to see the show because they loved the music so much.  It wasn’t so much a “musical” as it was a concert, often with the audience singing along – obscuring the “show” for anyone who was there for the joy of a book show.  JERSEY BOYS is a better for us “traditionalists,” but it is still not a “musical” in the truest sense.  Here, the show is only a reason to hear the songs.

MAMMA MIA! is different.  The music ABBA made famous has been interestingly interpolated into an existing story.   This story was adapted from a 1968 film and a failed 1979 musical.  The original film, BUONA SERA, MRS. CAMPBELL, was written by Melvin Frank, Denis Norden, and Sheldon Keller and was then taken by Alan Jay Lerner and Joseph Stein for CARMELINA, a Broadway musical that ran for only 17 performances.  They got it right with MAMMA MIA!, and the show is currently playing in eight cities around the world and touring on three continents.  Here, a way has been found for the ABBA music to be a part of the story, and it works beautifully.  Of course, it is wonderful music, and that doesn’t hurt.

…But I digress.

Now, we’re facing more movies being adapted for the stage as musicals.  This is moderately risky since even film musicals adapted for the stage haven’t always worked.  Productions of SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, STATE FAIR, GIGI, and CALAMITY JANE all failed at the box office although they sometimes do well touring.  However, adaptations such as BILLY ELLIOT and SISTER ACT are mostly intelligently done, so they work.  ELLIOT is the more successful of the two from an artistic standpoint because all aspects of the music (with the excepting of one number that is cheap in comparison – a song and dance done with large dresses that just doesn’t fit with the rest of the show) are more intrinsically combined.  The nuns in SISTER ACT are sublime as is their music by Alan Menken and Glen Slater; however, the music for the secondary characters, especially the “thugs” gets tiring and is just too silly and trite.  On the whole, however, the show is joyous and leaves one’s face sore from smiling so much.

The other films to musicals that started in Britain include: DIRTY DANCING (which is closing soon in London and has no new music, just rehashed “classics.”), MARY POPPINS (which seems a little long but is still fun and wonderfully staged – especially Burt tap dancing around the proscenium.), and PRISCILLA.   The United States has added its share with THE LION KING (currently in seven cities around the world.), LEGALLY BLONDE, SHREK: THE MUSICAL, and XANADU (which was more of a nostalgic comment on the trendy elements of an era – sweat bands, roller disco, and leg warmers) than it was an attempt to retell the original film’s story), and the latest film to musical on Broadway which is receiving good notices, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN.  Terrence McNally based his book on the 2002 film and Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman of HAIRSPRAY (Oh, wait… I forgot about that well adapted John Waters film to musical – There are far more than I first thought!  IT’S AN INVASION!) fame did the songs.  It’s received five Tony nominations and mixed reviews.

Oh, in London, there is also an upcoming production of a musical based on Roald Dahl’s MATILDA which started at the RSC in Stratford and has a score by Tim Minchin, an Australian comedic musician.  The show got excellent reviews, and it will be interesting to see how it travels.  Currently, on stage in London is BETTY BLUE EYES, a musical by Dave Stiles and Anthony Drewe (of HONK! fame) that has also received excellent notices.  I hope to see that show soon, and I’ll let you know what it’s like.  Oh, I failed to mention that it’s based the quirky 1984 film starring Maggie Smith and Michael Palin, A PRIVATE FUNCTION, that has to deal with 1947 Britain and a pig that isn’t quite up “to code.”

One last show that has come to mind is THE WIZARD OF OZ.  This has been kicking around as a stage musical with varying degrees of success for generations.  About twenty years ago, the RSC did a charming production featuring Imelda Staunton as Dorothy.  I only wish they had recorded her instead of the following year’s cast.  Now, Andrew Lloyd Webber has used this iconic film as his latest reality program to find a “star.”  Previous musicals subjected to the public voting for leads were OLIVER, JOSEPH, and THE SOUND OF MUSIC.  Webber drums up publicity for the show by having an extremely nasty competition for leading parts where the TV audience gets to “vote” for the winner(s).  The TV shows draw huge watcher shares, and millions of Brits vote. I was told that the next one up is JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.  Is there really a need for a revival of SUPERSTAR?  The last one in London was chaotic and seemed very dated even though they tried to modernize it.

In any event, my issue with OZ is that Webber did not leave this score alone.  He’s cut some of the Arlen / Harburg songs and replaced them with his own.  I’ve not seen this one either, but to remove “If I Were King of the Forest” is tantamount to sacrilege in my book.  Also, the Wicked Witch of the West has been given a song.  There was good reason why she didn’t get one in the first place.  She’s the bad “person”; we don’t want to care for her.  I was also told, and I will see this for myself, I hope, that the song given to her is not particularly good.  One friend said it sounded more like something one would expect to hear the orphans singing in ANNIE.  I think I’d like to see this.

As they say on those “as seen on TV ads,” “But wait!  There’s more.”  Broadway also saw some other film to musicals that only hat short stays in recent years.  Shows like ELF with a book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, lyrics by Chad Beguelin and music by Matthew Sklar lasted only for 57 performances.  Dolly Parton’s 9 TO 5 seemed to be a hit with audiences, but it still only ran for 148 performances.  Finally, WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN based on the film by Almodovar might have seemed an odd choice for a musical, and the show with a book by Jeffrey Lane and music and lyrics by David Yazbek played only 69 performances.  The film itself seems to have been forgotten, and it looks like the musical will soon be forgotten too even though it boasted a cast headed by Sherie Rene Scott, Patty LuPone, and Brian Stokes Mitchell.

Are/were there new, new musicals?  Yes, and many have been good according to reports.  (I really must get out more.)  I think I’ll just list these:

  • THRILL ME, which is currently making the rounds In London and around the world it seems, is a “two-hander” about Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb with music and lyrics by Stephen Dolginoff – a disturbing story that is well told.
  • BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON got some very interesting word of mouth notices, but the show with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman only lasted 94 performances.
  • NEXT TO NORMAL ran for 733 performances in New York and won the Pulitzer Prize.  The book by Brian Yorkey deals with the trials of a disjointed family as the mother loses her battle with bi-polar disorder.  The lyrics are by Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt.
  • THE BOOK OF MORMON is wowing audiences in typical Trey Parker and Matt Stone fashion, and it garnered 14 Tony nominations.  The book by Robert Lopez, Matt Stone, and Trey Parker deals with two young Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda, and they try to bring scripture to a people who are more concerned with staying alive in a world run by a brutal warlord and are overwhelmed by extreme poverty and diseases like AIDS.  The missionaries aren’t the brightest pair, but they somehow survive.  Robert Lopaz of AVENUE Q fame joins Parker and Stone in creating the music and lyrics.
  • THE PEOPLE IN THE PICTURE stars Donna Murphy as a grandmother who looks back at her life in a resilient Yiddish theatre troupe and the horrific events of the Holocaust.  Murphy is also up for a Tony.
  • THE STORY OF MY LIFE ran for only five performances.  Neil Bartram’s and Brian Hill’s musical followed two friends from the age of six to thirty-five.  It was described by some as a “sweet little show” and, as such, was derided by many critics.  It’s difficult for a two-hander to survive on Broadway with negative to dismissive reviews.  Many, however, thought it an incredibly moving show.
  • THE SCOTSBORO BOYS was the last collaboration for Broadway legends John Kander and Fred Ebb.  The book by David Thompson deals with the infamous trial and injustices done to the nine young black men in Alabama.  As with many musicals and shows that deal with sensitive issues, audiences and critics were divided.  Some thought it brought the issues into new light; others thought it trivialized a horrible event and period in American history.  As a result, the show ran for only 49 performances.
  • I don’t think I have to go on about WICKED based on Gregory Maguire’s novel with a book by Winnie Holzman and songs by Stephen Schwartz which continues to do well on Broadway and in England and Australia.  There are also two touring companies in the United States and two in Canada.  Is there anyone remotely interested in musicals who doesn’t know that the leading character, Elphaba (a.k.a. The Wicked Witch of the West), got her name from the name of her creator, L. Frank Baum? However, shouldn’t it have been Elphraba?

My little tirade is over.  Don’t get me wrong; I love most of these shows, and I love musicals in general.  It just scares me to think that this may be the trend, and we’ll see fewer original shows on Broadway or in the West End.  I just finished an argument with someone regarding these being “original” shows, but this just doesn’t ring true somehow.  I know it takes the same amount of effort to write these shows as it does those with original books, but I’ve seen these stories already.  I think audiences deserve more than the same stories with songs added.

I know I’ve missed some, and for “re-hashed music,” I didn’t mention WE WILL ROCK YOU which has defied the odds and played for ten years at London’s Dominion Theatre.  It’s a futuristic story with some of Queen’s best known and loved songs woven into it much like MAMMA MIA! but with a little more difficulty.  It’s still great fun.

I’ll get off of my soapbox now – for a little while.

The best performances do not always have to occur on a stage, and I had the joy of watching a true “pro” at work in Disney’s Hollywood Studios.  Her name is Evie Starlight, and from her incredible magenta heels to her feathered hat, she is a rare bird indeed.

For me, since it seems that I can no longer go on roller coasters and since they have increased the drop on Tower of Terror to continually go up and down in a nauseating frenzy, there is little that I generally expect to do at the Studios.  It was a hot day when we were there last month, so we did a great deal of sitting.  During one of those sits, we met and were accosted by Evie and had the most enjoyable twenty minutes in the park.

Evie has a back story; I am sure that she has several.  In one, she was valedictorian of her high school where she was voted “most likely to win the Nobel Peace Prize.”  While she was bird watching – because she could not get a date with any boys – she was hit by an albatross and fell out of a tree onto her head.  Unfortunately, this rendered her useless for her chosen profession in rocket science, but from then on, she walked with a “wiggle” which proved to be highly profitable.   One could really love a woman like that.

Evie is so committed to being “Evie” that she handles any situation effortlessly – at least, those situations we were fortunate enough to see.  With a voice that ranged from a gurgling, shrill nails-on-blackboard mania to a husky baritone, Evie dealt with a blushing young man who was celebrating his twenty-first birthday – he blushed more when Evie was through with him – to a group of giggling pre-teen girls where she managed to make each one “special” for a few seconds.   I absolutely adored it when she told a woman who wanted a picture with her about her latest film.  When the woman tried to explain that she did not “speak English,” Evie immediately countered, “That’s alright honey, neither do I!” which she followed with an uproarious cackle.

Her memory is incredible.  She stopped in the middle of the street to size me up, and when she saw my “anniversary” button, she congratulated me and asked me how many years I was celebrating.  When I told her it was twenty-seven, she screamed and very loudly exclaimed, “Twenty-seven?  That sure ain’t a Hollywood marriage.  They don’t last a year!”  She kept this going for the next twenty minutes or so by stopping in the middle of a conversation with someone else to look over at me and scream, “Twenty-seven?”   Her timing is impeccable.

Apparently, I’m not the only Evie fan as there are videos of her all over the internet, so her vocal talents can be appreciated as well as her improvisational skills.

Unless one is born to it, improve can be deadly, and there are varying degrees of successfulness in the park inhabited by Evie and the other citizens of Hollywood with some of them being forced and unconvincing.   I don’t know how much of Evie is a background given to her and how much is her creation, but the result is joyful and not to be missed.  I hope that I don’t ever meet a real person like her,  but I will happily look for this creation the next time I visit the park.