Monday, July 28, 2014

TOM SAWYER: The Other Mark Twain Musical

Original The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
musical playbill
Photo courtesy:
In 1985, the musical that swept the Tony Awards was Big River, a musical adaptation of the classic Mark Twain novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

This show won seven out of the ten Tony Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Musical, though it could have only won a maximum of 8 Tonys, because three of the cast members were nominated in the same category (and Ron Richardson, as Jim, did win). Famous country singer Roger Miller's score won a Tony Award as well. It also swept the Drama Desk Awards, with an unheard of 13 nominations and 7 wins (again, they could have only won 10, because four cast members were nominated for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical, and RenĂ© Auberjonois won as The Duke). It ran a respectable two and a half years.

I think anyone would say that a natural next step was for Mark Twain's other famous classic, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, to become a musical too. I suppose it makes sense: if it's great material for a classic adventure story and movie, it should make a good musical too. So The Adventures of Tom Sawyer the musical opened at the Minskoff Theatre (while The Lion King was still at the New Amsterdam) in 2001 and ended up having more previews than performances, closing in less than three weeks.

But what intrigued me most was the cast. Most recognizable today (at least vocally) was the 20-year-old girl who was making her Broadway debut as Becky Thatcher, Frozen's Kristen Bell. Yes, "Princess Anna"! And can we talk about her precious headshot? Also making his Broadway debut was Joshua Park in the title role, for which he won a Theatre World Award. The other young lead, Huckleberry Finn, was played by Jim Poulos, who had just made his Broadway debut in Rent, eventually taking over as Mark (opposite Norbert Leo Butz as Roger).

The only Tony nominations the show received were lighting design (the first Tony nomination in Kenneth Posner's career, though he has only won one of the 10 Tonys for which he has been nominated) and sound design (by Heidi Ettinger, who ironically won her first Tony for the sound design of Big River). Besides Joshua Park's award, the show went home empty-handed from all of the award ceremonies that year.

So check out this video of Kristen Bell and Joshua Park singing "To Hear You Say My Name," on- what else?- The Rosie O'Donnell Show, my favorite source of Broadway performance videos.

Also, in 1973, MGM released a musical adaptation of Tom Sawyer with music and lyrics by the Disney songwriting team, the Sherman Brothers, of Mary Poppins fame, among others. Every forgotten musical movie seems required to have surprising cast members, and this is no exception. This one featured Celeste Holm (as Aunt Polly), Jeff East (as Huck Finn), and Becky was played by an adorable 11-year-old Jodie Foster. Despite this cast, a widespread love for this movie has not survived.

It seems ironic that probably the most famous of Mark Twain's novels (I'm sure we could make a case for Huck Finn being more famous, but whatever) is doomed to never be a successful musical in any form, but certainly a jumping-off point for young actors.

Sally Henry // Twitter: // Facebook:

Monday, July 21, 2014

The 5 Most Adorable Broadway Star Appearances on The Muppet Show

Old Muppet Show poster
Photo courtesy:
Last week, reported that Disney might be bringing the timeless and incredibly odd television stars, the Muppets, to Broadway. The details are very vague and preliminary, but the article cited the recent success of family-friendly Disney Broadway shows like Lion King, Mary Poppins, and Aladdin, and said that it's only a matter of time until the singing puppets (who have just recently come back into the limelight through their recent movies) will take the Great White Way stage eight times a week.

Now all this talk of the Muppets being on Broadway brings to mind the times during the late '70s/early '80s that Broadway actors visited the Muppets' variety show and performed their most famous songs in whimsical new ways. There were about 15 guest stars through the years that I would consider to be Broadway stars, and all of them made great appearances. So in chronological order, here are my five favorite performances by Broadway actors on the Muppet Show.
1. Joel Grey- "Wilkommen" (Season 1, Episode 3, aired October 1976*)
The first big Broadway star they pulled in to guest star on The Muppet Show was recent Tony Award-winner (for Cabaret, 1966) of the time, Joel Grey. Check out one of the performances from the episode: a kid-appropriate version of Cabaret's iconic opener "Willkommen," sung by Grey with help from the Muppets, of course.

2. Ethel Merman- Broadway medley (S1, E22, aired February 1977) 
The woman with possibly the most iconic voice in Broadway history joined the Muppets in their first season. They had to perform "There's No Business Like Show Business," but since they didn't have time to fit all of the Tony Award-winner's famous songs in the episode, they performed a cute medley on the show. Check it out below!

3. Bernadette Peters- "Take a Little One Step" (S2, E12, aired November 1977)
Yet another now Broadway legend appeared on The Muppet Show back in the day. My favorite thing about this, though, is that this was clearly before Bernadette Peters became known for her curly red hair. She's a blonde in this episode! Of course, at that time, she wasn't the star she is now, but she already had seven Broadway shows under her belt. Check out this adorable clip of her teaching awkwardly large monsters of some kind to dance!

4. Julie Andrews- "I Whistle a Happy Tune" (S2, E17, aired February 1978)
I'm assuming it's a given that we all know that Julie Andrews is perfect. So it makes total sense that following her Academy Award for Mary Poppins, famous portrayal of Maria in The Sound of Music, not to mention her three starring roles in successful Broadway shows, she would be in high demand. To my knowledge, she is not particularly famous for singing "I Whistle a Happy Tune," but here's one of her performances from the night.

 5. Carol Burnett- (S5, E15, aired December 1980)
Though she is known as one of the queens of American comedic television, Carol Burnett did have a few Broadway credits to her name. She was most famous for Once Upon a Mattress, which she starred in before she landed a great starring role on the screen (the first of which may have been the movie adaptation of the musical). Here is the first part of her Muppet episode. In this one, you get to hear her sing, see those hilarious facial expressions, and of course, that iconic, elaborate scream that she does best. Fun fact: Carol Burnett is also known as one of Julie Andrews' best friends.

Though these days, stars of all kinds appear on Sesame Street, there is nothing like The Muppet Show with its variety show style and of course the guest stars, many of whom went from famous modern actors to now being considered some of the best actors of all time.

Sally Henry // Twitter: // Facebook:

*dates are from, but some of them don't quite make sense...

Monday, July 14, 2014

'Wild Party' of Two: Broadway vs. Off-Broadway

The Wild Parties
Left: Wild Party Broadway Poster
Right: Wild Party Off-Bway Poster
...That awkward moment when you find the perfect source material for a musical, and two months after it opens Off-Broadway, another musical based on the same source material, with the same title, opens on Broadway. That's approximately what happened back in 2000 with the musicals called, The Wild Party.

As a fan of Idina Menzel and Brian d'Arcy James, I have known about The Wild Party for a long time, but never realized that the Off-Broadway and Broadway versions were totally different shows. So a couple weeks ago, when I was writing about BDJ in honor of his birthday (in which I included a clip from The Wild Party), I discovered this peculiar situation and had to explore it further.

While I don't know who actually started writing his version first, I do know that composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa (You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, The Addams Family, Big Fish) loosely adapted Joseph Moncure March's long poem of 1926, "The Wild Party" into a musical which opened Off-Broadway in February, 2000. Meanwhile Michael John LaChiusa (Marie ChristineGiant) had also written a musical adaptation which opened on Broadway a few weeks later.

Oh, and to add insult to injury, both shows' opening numbers had the same title, "Queenie was a Blonde," and since each track was based on the opening of the poem, the lyrics were ridiculously alike. The only other similarly-titled songs are, not surprisingly, each show's title song, which in Lippa's is called, "A Wild, Wild Party," but LaChiusa's is simply "Wild Party."

The original poem is about a romance-type situation between a violent clown, Burrs, and the beautiful, thrill-seeking dancer Queenie, who for some reason thought such a relationship would work. Spoiler: it doesn't. They host a party in which they invite the sketchiest people they can find (aka: their friends), and debauchery ensues, ending in many hurt feelings accompanied by overreactions involving gunshots. It was fairly depressing and shocking, especially for the time it was written, so much so, that it was banned from publication for a few years.

According to Patrick Pacheo of The LA Times, both LaChiusa and Lippa were attracted to the dark, vulgar prohibition-era poem because of the first two lines, "Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still / And she danced twice a day in vaudeville." But whereas Lippa talked about being influenced by a variety of classic pop writers and valuing a melodic score above all else, LaChiusa said his priority was to be edgy and test boundaries. It seems that each composer wanted his tunes to reflect the erotic nature of the story, as evidenced through the desperate undertones of many of their songs.

Check out this clip of the Biblical allusion number, "Wild, Wild, Party" from Lippa's Off-Broadway show, featuring Julia Murney (Wicked) as Queenie and Brian d'Arcy James (Shrek, Next to Normal) as Burrs. Bonus points if you spot Taye Diggs (Rent) as Mr. Black and Idina Menzel as Kate amid the partiers.

So what are the big differences? The writers, fortunately, took very diverse approaches to the poem, focusing on separate aspects. Looking at the original casts of each show could tell you that the shows must be pretty different, considering Brian d'Arcy James and Mandy Patinkin, two men whose talents I would never compare, played the same role in their respective shows. Lippa's has a 19-person cast, as opposed to LaChiusa's which has 15. In addition, according to an article in Dance Magazine, LaChiusa's was about five times as expensive as Lippa's.

Both casts were fairly star-studded (at least in hindsight), with Lippa's starring BDJ, Taye Diggs, Julia Murney, and Idina Menzel, and LaChiusa's starring Patinkin, Toni Collette, Yancey Arias, and Eartha Kitt (whom good '90s kids know as Madame Zeroni in Holes), among others.

Since both musicals channel the '20s-style music, the scores are fairly similar at times (the similarities could also be attributed to the fact that shows written in the same year often have a few of the same musical influences), though as Lippa's score has an obviously dark and foreboding tone, LaChiusa pulls a Cabaret. That is, he lures the audience in with a fun '20s score, setting up for a fun time, but contrasting it with the ensuing plot, which reveals that everyone involved is really messed up. Think Great Gatsby. While Lippa's songs can be used out of context fairly easily (take, for example, Lippa's showstopper, "Life of the Party"), LaChiusa's songs are more connected to the plot and have specific lyrics that make them less conducive to individual performances.

So watch the Tony Awards performance of LaChiusa's The Wild Party featuring Toni Colette, Mandy Patinkin, and Eartha Kitt below!

Probably the biggest disappointment for Lippa's musical was the fact that having a Wild Party musical on Broadway at all made the chances for a Broadway transfer for Lippa's show (which were rumored) very doubtful. Sure enough, it did not get a Broadway run.

In the end, the shows even fared similarly. LaChiusa's musical ran for 68 performances (following 36 previews), won only one award, a Theatre World Award, which went to Toni Colette, of the 12 awards for which it was nominated (across four award organizations). Off-Broadway, Lippa's show ran for 54 performances (whether the run was a predetermined length or not, I don't know) and was nominated for about 18 awards (across four award organizations) and won 6. Fortunately, both shows got an original cast recording, which are both on Spotify, so be sure to look those up! As far as the future of the productions, it does appear that Lippa's musical is the one that is more widely performed, due in part to its simpler cast, which makes it conducive to community theatres and such.

I did not get to see either show, but I would be interested to hear from people who did and find out how they really compared to each other and what kind of headaches such a situation produced for those involved in the shows. I can't even imagine how that would go down if it happened today! What do you think? Should this be allowed to happen?

Sally Henry // Twitter: // Facebook:

Read More: (yeah, this is basically a bibliography this time)
Wild Party Off-Broadway
Wild Party on Broadway
Wild Party Off-Broadway Review (Ben Brantley, NY Times)
Wild Party Broadway Review (Ben Brantley, NY Times)
"Two's a Party and a Crowd" (Broadway vs. Off-Bway analysis, LA Times)
The Wild Party Review (at Schoenberg Hall, 2003) by Variety
"Two-Party System" by Hilary Ostlere in Dance Magazine. Side note about this piece: it began as a look at both Wild Party musicals, focusing a little on the choreography, but digressed into a random fangirling sesh over Audra McDonald. Understandable. Those are always important. So, if it weren't for the fact that she misspelled Idina Menzel's name, I'd feel like this author and I should be best friends.
Outer Critics Circle Awards 2000
Drama Desk Awards 2000

Monday, July 7, 2014

3 Classic Broadway Musicals that Need to Return to Broadway... Yesterday

As casting announcements of the spring '15 Broadway revival* of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I keep trickling in, I can't help but realize that 1. Kelli O'Hara is the Mary Martin of today (aka: go-to R&H actress), and 2. It's about time The King and I was revived on Broadway. The last time it was on Broadway was in 1998, when it closed after almost two years. Just to give you some perspective, in 1998, two of the boys who won the Tony Award for Best Actor for Billy Elliot were only 4 years old. The other Billy was just 3. Now that we all feel old... It turns out there are a few other classic shows that you have probably seen performed locally, but have been distinctly absent from the Great White Way for too long. Here are my top 3:

Original 1945 playbill
Image courtesy:
3. Carousel
Broadway debut: 1945
Most recent time it was on Broadway: 1995
Number of Broadway revivals: 4
This R&H classic opened before the Tony Awards were around, so the show's awards were few, but since then, it has had four revivals, three of which were before 1960. The first four Broadway installments only got three total awards across the board, and never ran for more than two years. The most recent revival (1994) finally seemed to get the awards recognition it deserved, with five Tony Awards/nominations, including Best Revival of a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, and of course Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Audra McDonald. Lesson: Put Audra McDonald in your show, and you'll win all the things, even if you only run for 11 months. #AudraWinsEveryTime #ButForReal

Watch this clip of Shirley Verett and the cast of the 1994 revival of Carousel (including Audra... Can you spot her?) sing "You'll Never Walk Alone" at the 1994 Tony Awards.

Original 1956 playbill
Image courtesy:
2. My Fair Lady
Broadway debut: 1956
Most recent time it was on Broadway: 1994
Number of Broadway revivals: 3
Lerner and Loewe's first big multi-award-winning Broadway hit won six of the ten Tony Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Musical and Actor. Running for six years, the original production has been the most successful version of My Fair Lady to date. Unfortunately, the revivals had only three Tony Award nominations combined, and none ran for even as long as a year. So I think it's definitely time to put another hit version of this show on Broadway! Casting suggestions?

Check out this wonderful video of Julie Andrews and the original Broadway cast of My Fair Lady performing "Wouldn't it Be Loverly" on the Ed Sullivan Show... Not sure what year, but circa 1960 I imagine. She is completely perfect. Oh my goodness this clip is a gem!!

Second Oliver! playbill
Image courtesy:
1. Oliver!
Broadway debut: 1963
Most recent time it was on Broadway: 1984
Number of Broadway revivals: 2
The last time this show was on Broadway was before Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables were thought of by anyone besides the creative teams. That's forever, y'all. Of course, I will give credit to the West End (ahem, Cameron Mackintosh) for reviving Oliver! in London back in 2009, starring the incredible Samantha Barks (now of Les Mis movie fame) as Nancy. But anyway, the original version of Lionel Bart's one-hit-wonder musical based on the Dickens novel, Oliver Twist, was a bit of a disappointment in terms of Tonys, garnering 10 nominations, but taking home only three. Then the only revival that received a nomination was in 1984. Despite the fact that Broadway legend Patti Lupone was playing Nancy (having already appeared in tons of Broadway shows, including her big break, Evita), it played 13 previews and a whopping 17 performances, receiving only one Tony nomination (not for Patti), which it lost. (Read an in-depth look at the Broadway productions of Oliver! here)

Watch this performance clip of Patti LuPone singing Nancy's showstopper, "As Long as He Needs Me," in 1984. She's just flawless, y'all!

So be looking out for headlines about these revivals, because I'm sure I'm not the only person who has noticed that these timeless hits need to be presented for the 21st century audiences. Though, I will say that I slightly shudder to think what changes might be made to these to make them suit the modern theatre-goer. We'll see.

Sally Henry // Twitter: // Facebook:

*a Broadway revival is a new production of a Broadway play or musical that has already been on Broadway in the past. This is as opposed to a Broadway production of a brand new show that has not been on Broadway before. Often, the point of revivals is to tweak a few things and give it a fresh look. Changes could include rearranging songs, changing lyrics, or in the case of West Side Story's most recent revival, changing some of the characterization and interpretation of the entire story.

Read More:
Oliver! on Broadway
My Fair Lady on Broadway
Carousel on Broadway