I’m emerging from a five-day musicals binge — the premiere of Sleepless in Seattle, the first LA appearances of The Scottsboro Boys and Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the first indigenous LA production of Next to Normal (our only previous glimpse of it was the Broadway-inspired version that played the Ahmanson in 2010).
Yet oddly enough, it was a non-musical I just saw that set off a train of thought about how the presentational nature of most musicals differs from the more realistic nature of so many non-musicals. I’m referring to Antaeus Company’s version of The Crucible, which I saw on the one night (out of those five) when I wasn’t at a musical.
The Antaeus production of Arthur Miller’s great play has been arousing commentary for its own presentational nature. Directors Armin Shimerman and Geoffrey Wade blocked it so that most of the lines are delivered straight to the audience, as opposed to the more realistic choice of having the actors looking at each other when they’re speaking to each other.
Of course, this breaking of the fourth wall is hardly unprecedented among non-musicals. Thornton Wilder’s use of the Stage Manager in Our Town has had considerable influence, which could seemingly be discerned this spring in plays as different as Smokefall at South Coast Repertory and Son of Semele’s Our Class at Atwater Village Theatre. Brecht was big on direct address. It’s even part of the signature style of the Actors’ Gang, and of course it’s standard in most solo shows.
But it stands out at Antaeus’ Crucible largely because it isn’t common at Antaeus — or in most productions of Miller’s plays. Getting used to it takes a little period of adjustment for most audience members, but I think Miller might have enjoyed hearing his words leaving these actors’ mouths and piercing straight into the audiences’ hearts and brains. He was, of course, trying to make a very specific point about the anti-Communist witch hunts of his own era. He wasn’t trying to give us a fly-on-the-wall perspective on life in 17th century Massachusetts. Having the actors speak directly to the audience, as ministers themselves did in colonial times and still do today, might very well make their words penetrate more deeply.
Still, this kind of staging seems the exception instead of the rule for non-musicals. In musicals, on the other hand, it’s usually assumed to be part of the package.
When Mama Rose in Gypsy tells her daughter to “sing out, Louise!,” she isn’t asking only for more volume. She’s directing her daughter to sing outward, in the direction of the audience. Not that soloists in musicals try to look directly at certain members of the audience — they usually are still asked to look slightly over the audience’s heads. But the point is that they spend more stage time looking out than they spend looking over at the other actors.
Some very practical reasons support this practice. Unfortunately, singers on a stage sometimes seem to be competing with the instrumentalists in an effort to make sure the lyrics are understood. These singers have better odds if they “sing out.” Even if they’re massively miked in big theaters, it still helps the audience figure out who’s singing if the actors are visible enough for us to see their mouths moving.
The phenomenon goes beyond singing solos. It’s a common convention in musicals, probably derived from opera, to present several characters’ viewpoints and feelings simultaneously, but with each singer detached somewhat from the others — and all of them singing directly to the audience.
And if we look back at the American musical entertainments that preceded book musicals, the presentational aspects are even more pronounced. Music hall, minstrel shows, vaudeville, burlesque — all of these are sets of “acts” making direct appeals to the audience. For that matter, this perspective has long been used in the television variety genre, from Ed Sullivan to American Idol and its imitators, but of course the connection between a screen image and the masses usually isn’t nearly as intense as the red-hot connection that can exist between a performer and spectators who are in the same room.
The most successful John Kander/Fred Ebb musicals, Cabaret and Chicago, are presented at least partially in the forms of “shows” with an acute awareness of the audience. And the team’s latest production to hit LA follows in their footsteps by presenting the saga of the Scottsboro Boys — the young African American men who were railroaded into an Alabama prison in 1931 and became a civil rights cause for decades — in the form of a minstrel show. Yes, Kander and Ebb and book writer David Thompson use the racist genre of the minstrel show to critically examine the racism that hijacked these young men’s lives. It’s a savvy way to subvert the assumptions of the genre.
And, of course, it’s more entertaining than most non-musical plays about the Scottsboro Boys would be. This didn’t prevent The Scottsboro Boys from folding rather quickly on Broadway, but that’s to the discredit of Broadway, not The Scottsboro Boys. With productions at theaters with built-in subscription audiences, such as Center Theatre Group’s at the Ahmanson, the show is likely to find its way to a much broader audience.
Fortunately, the Ahmanson production has the Broadway director, Susan Stroman, and star, Joshua Henry, who plays Haywood Patterson, the most resolute of the “Boys.” At one point, Haywood is offered parole if he’ll only admit guilt — in other words, he’s being asked to lie in order to get out of jail. Henry refuses. Does this moment remind you of any other famous moment in a play currently on the LA stage?
Of course it does. Haywood, in this scene, reminded me of John Proctor in The Crucible. And the judicial systems depicted in both The Crucible and The Scottsboro Boys appear almost equally insane, to the point of absurdity. I’m not going to feel guilty that I laughed while watching the saga of The Scottsboro Boys, and I even laughed a little while I watched The Crucible, as the authorities display such an obsession with the supposedly shattering significance of the “poppets” found in the Proctor home. When confronted with kangaroo courts on these levels, it’s important to try to laugh as well as to cry.
By the way, if you’d like to see a sample of the direct-to-the-audience style of The Scottsboro Boys, as well as one of the moments in it where you might find the tears welling up instead of the laughs, try this YouTube excerpt from the song “Go Back Home”, from the Broadway production featuring Henry.
The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave, LA. Tues-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. Thursday matinees on June 20 and 27, 2 pm. No Sunday evening performances June 23 and 30. Closes at the June 30 matinee. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-972-4400.
The Crucible, Antaeus Company, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. www.Antaeus.org. 818-506-1983.
Now on to the only brand-new show in the pack — Sleepless in Seattle, staged by Sheldon Epps at the Pasadena Playhouse.
It is, of course, based on the popular 1993 movie of the same name. But it momentarily looks as if it’s trying to declare its independence from screen imagery early in the show, when Annie (Chandra Lee Schwartz here, Meg Ryan in the movie) sings “Not Like the Movies,” about how her romance with stolid Walter (Robert Mammana) doesn’t have to be all that romantic.
Of course it’s just a fake-out. Annie eventually decides she does want more romance, after all, and she allows herself to fall for and pursue a man across the country, whom she doesn’t even meet until the final scene at the Empire State Building (I’m assuming that the movie is so familiar that I don’t have to worry about issuing spoiler alerts). That man, of course, is the widower Sam (Tim Martin Gleason here, Tom Hanks in the movie), who’s raising his son Jonah (Joe West) in Seattle and who is roped by Jonah into appearing on a radio talk show on Christmas Eve.
In short, after selling the show largely on the basis of the audience’s memories of the movie, the makers of the stage musical aren’t about to change the story to any great extent.
This, of course, raises the question of whether there is any real point to doing the show on stage, apart from potentially making a lot more money off a proven title.
Of course, the main difference between the two is that the stage musical has music by Ben Toth, lyrics by Sam Forman and a book by Jeff Arch, the man who thought up the idea of the movie and co-wrote its screenplay. But turning it into a musical is a mixed blessing.
Sure, I’d probably rather watch a stage version with songs, instead of one without songs, just for the sake of variety. But when the material is already verging on over-the-top sentimentality, as the movie is, the extra sentiment provided by an overblown score almost literally jumps out at us (as the cast does several times in Spencer Liff’s choreography) and feels excessive.
And so we get a whole chorus singing about their destinies and their magic and even some matters that are very extraneous to the story. Do we really need an entire welcome-to-New-York number when Jonah arrives in the Big Apple? No, we don’t, although we could have used an explanation of how a 10-year-old is able to board a plane and fly across the country without anyone asking about parental permission (the movie, in fact, provided a better explanation). Do we really need a sizzling-singles chorus when Sam goes on his first date? No.
Of course, besides the moviemakers’ better instincts on not gilding the lily, the movie also had Hanks. I’d hate to be the actor forced to compete with Hanks’ performance, with its effortless combination of everyday appeal and star power. Gleason sings well, but he’s trapped by the fact that many theatergoers, drawn to buy tickets because of their memories of the movie, will also have memories of Hanks and will inevitably make comparisons that won’t be in Gleason’s favor.
In short, when we have The Scottsboro Boys and Next to Normal currently playing in LA, Sleepless in Seattle looks awfully shallow and artless. For that matter, so does Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Pantages. It’s primarily a fashion show and scenic spectacle, with a bare-bones book. The father-son relationship that provides the hinge of the Priscilla story has no heft or surprises at all, making the argumentative relationship between father and son in Sleepless in Seattle look positively textured and substantive.
Of course the Pulitzer-winning Next to Normal, by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, is a far more substantive musical than Sleepless or Priscilla. Yet here’s a strange little footnote — in Next to Normal, a woman has been told her new psychiatrist is a “rock star” in his field, which leads her to imagine him as an actual rock star while she listens to his song “Doctor Rock.” In Sleepless, father and son imagine themselves as rock stars in the world of fathers and sons and sing a song about it, “Rock Stars.” Thank you, Kander and Ebb, for not having the Scottsboro boys imagine themselves as “rock stars” within the celebrity prisoner world.
Nick DeGruccio’s staging of Next to Normal at La Mirada Theatre features the husky-voiced Bets Malone oozing vulnerability as Diana, the bipolar woman at the musical’s heart. Robert Townsend plays her husband, Tessa Egan their daughter, and Eddie Egan their shadowy son — all are first-rate. While, like most musicals, Next to Normal features a lot of direct address, I’ve got to say that at one moment, late in the second act, I felt too distant from it. Diana had her back to me (I was sitting in the far left side of the audience) as she confronted her daughter. Sing out, Diana!
Sleepless in Seattle, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 4 and 8 pm. Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes June 23. www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org. 626-356-7529.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. Closes June 16. www.HollywoodPantages.com. 800- 982-2787.
Next to Normal, La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Wed-Thu 7:30 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes June 23. www.lamiradatheatre.com. 562-944-9801.