Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A Visit to a Mean and Frozen SpongeBob

June 10 is date of 2018’s Tony Awards ceremony, Broadway’s answer to the Oscars. As usual  Hollywood will doubtless gets its due. Such familiar TV and movie folks as Amy Schumer, Andrew Garfield, Tony Shalhoub, Michael Cera, and Denzel Washington (who’s earned raves for a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s classic The Iceman Cometh) all earned acting nominations. But I was especially struck by the entries in the Best Musical category. Though the musical revivals being honored this year (My Fair Lady, Carousel, Once On This Island) all began life on a stage, every single new musical on the 2018 list of nominees is an adaptation of a film property. It feels as though no one dares to launch a musical these days unless its basic premise and characters have been vetted by movie audiences. Given the cost of putting on a Broadway musical, I guess that makes some sort of sense. But for those who love discovering new musical stories, it’s disheartening that originality seems to be dead.

So what are these candidates for Best New Musical? Inevitably, there’s a stage adaptation of the Disney mega-hit, Frozen, with writer/lyricists Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez enhancing their Oscar-winning film score (“Let it Go”) with additional songs. In recent years, Disney has added to its coffers by turning its film successes into Broadway extravaganzas (see The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, etc. etc.), and so a stage version of Frozen—a story beloved by little girls everywhere—was an easy sell. Surprisingly, Frozen will not be a big winner on Tony night. It is only nominated in three categories.

A very different kind of film adaptation is up for 11 awards. This is The Band’s Visit, a stage adaptation of a small, charming Israeli film about an Egyptian troupe of amateur musicians who find themselves stuck in a small desert town in the Negev, reliant on the hospitality of Israeli locals. The good-hearted film hints at the power of music, which gives its transformation into a stage musical a kind of artistic logic. Serious Broadway pros are involved on the production end, and critics feel this is a class act – and the show to beat. 

But wait! Two other new musicals have racked up 12 nominations apiece. Decidedly NOT good-hearted is Tina Fey’s stage adaptation of her own 2004 hit, Mean Girls. I’m told the musical, like the film, has a wonderful sardonic edge, as well as a point to make: both are based on Fey’s reading of a genuine how-to book, Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boys, and the New Realities of Girl World. Like most things Fey touches, this show is golden, and could well take home the top prize. (Its lyricist, Neil Benjamin, was responsible for both music and lyrics on what might be the epitome of the movie-to-Broadway musical, the perky and forgettable Legally Blonde.)

And, yes, there’s SpongeBob SquarePants, a big-budget musical that borrows characters and settings from the Nickelodeon cartoon series, which itself became a 2015 film. The always acerbic L.A. Times drama critic calls SpongeBob a play “spun from pop cultural pabulum.” And there’s no question that a show about the happy denizens of Bikini Bottom is going to be bright and cheerful, instead of intellectually challenging, Still, it obviously has its partisans.

But as someone with a close relative who hopes to make his career writing musical theatre, I trust there’s still room for projects unconnected to movies past and present. Here’s hoping audiences can still be surprised and delighted by a brand-new stage experience.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Of Mail and the Male Gaze (A Post-Mothers Day Post)

The U.S. Postal Service, looking for ways to convince us to buy stamps, has of late become focused on American popular culture. Flipping through a recent catalogue, I find the ever-popular Love stamps (suitable for wedding invitations and the like), as well as stamps celebrating American heroes, natural wonders, and holidays. I felt a pang upon spotting a stamp (first issued on January 30 of this year) dedicated to the great Lena Horne. Not only was she (as the catalogue puts it) “a trailblazer in Hollywood for women of color,” but she was also a sultry, sexy, powerful singer whom my parents adored. As they frequently reminded me, her musical numbers were featured in many a big-studio musical (like Ziegfeld Follies and Till the Clouds Roll By) in such a way that they could easily be snipped out when the films were shown in the Deep South. But Horne got an actual role as the femme fatale in one of my parents’ movie favorites: Vincente Minnelli’s all-black musical from 1943, Cabin in the Sky.

To be featured on a U.S. postage stamp, you need to be dead. But it’s also OK if you were never actually alive. The category of fictional characters on postage stamps now includes an assortment of Disney villains. Yes, villains! Here’s how the catalogue explains their presence:  “The Disney villains were a little scary when we first met them in the movies, but we learned that they couldn’t hurt the good guys. So now, children can enjoy sharing them with friends . . . .” Aha! It’s a ploy to convince kids to pen letters (and also send the USPS’s Disney-themed-postcards) instead of just texting. Far be it from me to discourage little ones from mailing off letters to their grandmas. In an era when letter-writing has become a lost art, I’m all in favor of a gentle nudge in the direction of the mailbox.

In studying my sheet of Disney Villains stamps, I found myself thinking back to classic films I still remember fondly: Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Pinocchio. And of course there was Snow White, the landmark 1937 film that was the world’s very first full-length animated feature. Naturally, each of these movies boasts an evil character who’s part of the postal service stamp array. The other villains on my sheet come from more recent Disney: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King. But here’s the thing: of the ten Disney Villains represented: fully six are female. And of these six, most are mother figures Like the beautiful but deadly stepmother in Snow White, as well as the conniving stepmother who favors her own daughters over the heroine in Cinderella. I’ve read Bruno Bettelheim and others who’ve commented on the secret meanings of fairy tales, so I know it makes sense for children to see their own moms as sometimes morphing into wicked witches when their tempers are aroused. Still, it’s dismaying that there are so many evil women out there in the world of animation. Count them: Malificent, the Mistress of All Evil who dooms the Sleeping Beauty. Cruella de Vil, who makes puppy dogs into coats in The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Ursula the Sea Witch  who tricks Ariel into giving up her tail in The Little Mermaid.

I guess all this feminine evil is an effective counterpart to the sticky-sweet Disney princesses. But in the #MeToo era, I’m noticing there’s only one potentially lecherous Disney male, the chauvinistic Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. Otherwise, leave it to Hollywood to make the women the bad guys.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Beverly Hills Ballot-Box Ballyhoo

Growing up in the West Los Angeles subdivision known as Beverlywood, I developed a certain perspective on Beverly Hills.  (For the record, I was called Beverly long before I moved into the area, though I’m sure my parents were not ignorant of the name’s associations with ritzy SoCal enclaves.)  As an L.A. girl who lived just a few short blocks from the Beverly Hills border, I developed mixed emotions about the little city to the north. Yes, it was fun to stroll up Beverwil Drive and find myself among charming cafes and chic boutiques. I remember star-sightings over lunch at the Hamburger Hamlet and yummy ice cream cones at Wil Wright’s.

On the other hand, kids like me had to deal with the snobbery of our north-of-the-border peers. They told us in no uncertain terms that their public schools were much better than ours. I was informed that the A’s I earned at LA.’s Canfield Elementary School would be mere B’s and C’s in Beverly Hills, since their standards were so much higher. Those memories have shaped my feelings about Beverly Hills ever since.

Still, I liked seeing Donald O’Connor pushing his cart in the supermarket, Zsa Zsa Gabor nibbling on pastry at Blum’s, and Sammy Davis Jr. driving his Excalibur through the tree-lined streets of Beverly Hills. And I remember the day in 1960 the city celebrated the installation of an odd little sculpture at the intersection of Olympic Blvd. and Beverly Drive. This so-called Celluloid Monument honors Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, Will Rogers, and other Hollywood personalities who fought  to preserve the autonomy of Beverly Hills when it was on the brink of being swallowed up by the city of Los Angeles.

One big issue at the time was the allocation of drinking water, always a major concern in dusty, drought-prone Southern California. Another, of course, was power politics. Nancie Clare’s engaging The Battle for Beverly Hills lays it all out for us, making clear why the survival of one small California city has lessons for us today. Her subtitle, “A City’s Independence and the Birth of Celebrity Politics,” points to the impact of Hollywood stardom—something brand-new when the annexation vote was taken back in 1923—on the general public. Clare’s book told me a lot about the evolution of Southern California as a result of the burgeoning film industry. In particular, it clued me in to the power wielded by Mary Pickford, a woman determined to make her own way, both artistically and financially. Pickford fought hard to preserve the new little city as a garden spot populated by the wealthy and the famous. It was she who enlisted noteworthy actor and director friends to go door to door, appealing to Beverly Hills residents to vote against being annexed by Los Angeles. (The nearby city of Hollywood had knuckled under to its much-bigger neighbor back in 1910.)

 Pickford’s posse—which also included cowboy star Tom Mix, funny-man Harold Lloyd, and Fred Niblo, director of the original Ben-Hur—liked the privacy that living in Beverly Hills afforded. Clare explains that matinee idol Conrad Nagel, another of Pickford’s eight campaigners,  would one day even “head up a movement to build a wall around Beverly Hills to keep the outer world at bay.” This talk of a wall can’t fail to remind us of other public figures with showbiz roots who have used their fame as a political stepping stone. There’s Ronald Reagan, of course, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a certain reality-show host who has parlayed his celebrity all the way to the White House.