Friday, May 17, 2019

Not So Pretty Woman

I’ve been griping for quite a while about how Broadway has taken to musicalizing hit movies in hopes of luring in tourists trolling for entertainment on the Great White Way. Legally Blonde, which ran on Broadway for almost 600 performances and was nominated for 7 Tonys in 2007, has always been my go-to example, but I don’t claim to have seen it. Possibly it’s a deft translation of a breezy cinematic hit into a tuneful Broadway delight, but I wouldn’t know. I do know this—the new Broadway version of  the 1990 Julia Roberts-Richard Gere hit, Pretty Woman, is a giant dud. (Funny thing, though: the audience doesn’t seem to notice.)

Pretty Woman, of course, is a classic updated Cinderella fable (hooker marries prince). Though it is set in the seamy world of corporate raiders and Hollywood Boulevard sex workers, its characters manage to appear squeaky clean, to the point where I’m told that some little girls aspire to grow up to be a streetwalker-turned-princess like Roberts’ Vivian (ugh). But setting aside the unseemliness of the concept, it’s possible to enjoy the confluence of Roberts’ exuberance and Gere’s cool intellect as they break down one another’s emotional barriers. I don’t fault the stage actors who have taken on these roles. Samantha Barks, who played the tragic Eponine in the filmed Les Misérables, and Andy Karl, a Broadway favorite for such shows as Groundhog Day, are strong singers, and they’re clearly trying hard to sell their characters to the audience. One  problem is that Karl is given little to work with; he’s nothing more than a good-looking cipher. And Barks simply is not Julia Roberts. In fact, the two performances that really give this show a lift are much-expanded versions of movie characters. Eric Anderson scores in the dual role of the twinkle-toed hotel manager (think of  a singing and dancing Hector Elizondo) and the so-called Happy Man welcoming us all to dream big on Hollywood Boulevard. And the single-named Orfeh has appeal in a raucous turn as Vivian’s hooker pal.

I’ve mentioned singing and dancing, and of course any Broadway musical depends on the potency of its music. Here’s where Pretty Woman: The Musical really sags. Its score is by Canadian rocker Bryan Adams and his longtime writing partner, and I frankly can’t hum a single tune. Most egregious for me were clunky ballads dependent on June/moon kinds of rhymes; there’s precious little wit, but lots of power-balladeering about not being happy in your world and needing to find out where you really belong. The big finale song is called “Together Forever,” and contains every musical cliché you can think of. There are a lot of talented songwriters out there, but Adams and partner Jim Vallance (despite Adams’ three Oscar nominations) hardly belong on this list.

Maybe the reason that audiences (though not Tony voters) are happy with this show is that it does its best to be a carbon copy of the movie original. Remember Julia Roberts, in blonde wig, short shorts, and thigh-high vinyl boots, introduced while shimmying down a fire escape to avoid her Hollywood landlord? The musical has this identical scene. Ditto fun in a Jacuzzi, sex on a grand piano, a quarrel on a polo field, a fabulous red gown for a night at the opera.  Movie fans still talk about a moment wherein Gere snaps shut a jewel case containing a fabulous necklace, prompting from Roberts a delighted guffaw. I’m told this was a spontaneous reaction from Roberts; it’s not so much fun when reproduced nightly on the Nederlander stage. 

The Broadway version 

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

And Here’s to You, Doris Day: The Woman who Didn’t Become Mrs. Robinson

The tributes pouring in for Doris Day (who left us Monday morning at age 97) do not mention one tidbit I find unforgettable. Day was the first choice of producer Larry Turman and director Mike Nichols to play the predatory Mrs. Robinson in their film adaptation of The Graduate. Forget the fact that Day’s image was that of a virginal –or at least a prim and proper—young woman with a sunny disposition and a great capacity for love, as opposed to sex. In such mid-century comedies as Teacher’s Pet, Pillow Talk, and Lover Come Back, she’s the perky innocent who lands the hunky guy because of her winning combo of smarts, sass, and sheer unadulterated goodness. Which is why Turman and Nichols, who enjoyed casting against type, loved the idea of her playing the scheming adulteress who lures Benjamin Braddock into the sack

My Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation tells the tale. Back when The Graduate was just a modestly-selling novel waiting to be made into a screenplay, Turman sent the book to Day to ascertain her interest in the project. (It was clear to the production team that the Mrs. Robinson role was the one that required an established star, someone who could fill the seats of movie houses.), Turman has said the idea was to subvert Day’s wholesome, bubbly image by showing her in rebellion against the social rules that governed her earlier films. Day long maintained, in her memoir and elsewhere, that she refused the part because it offended her values. But Turman insists that when he sent her Charles Webb’s novel, it was withheld from Day by her husband and manager, Martin Melcher. Fittingly for a woman whose onscreen persona defines the fifties, Day’s course of action was predetermined, in this and other matters, by the domineering man she married.

Which shouldn’t imply that Doris Day was not a rule-breaker in her own right. Though her roles bought into 1950s standards of sexual conservatism, she was not  portrayed as being without libido. In Lover Come Back, for instance, her character (a New York ad exec) comes very close to succumbing to the seductive moves of arch-rival Rock Hudson, but (phew!) her honor is saved by a timely phonecall.  And Molly Haskell, whose From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies is the essential work on the subject, informed me that as a young woman growing up in Richmond, Virginia, she admired Day not for her sexual standards but because, in an era that exalted the happy housewife, Day was generally portrayed as a working woman—a writer, an executive, a college prof--making it on her own in the big city.

It’s a mistake to underestimate Doris Day’s professionalism. As a big band singer, she idolized Ella Fitzgerald, whose exuberant style resembles Day’s own. As an untrained but potent actress, she starred in thrillers (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Midnight Lace) and a schmaltzy musical biopic (Love Me or Leave Me) as well as romantic comedies. And of course her 1945  performance, along with Les Brown’s Band of Renown, of one of my favorite songs, “Sentimental Journey,” will never be equaled.

Romantically speaking, Day knew what it was like to suffer. She was married four times, and the mismanagement of her assets by her abrasive third husband, Melcher, nearly brought her career to a halt. In later years she seemed to prefer animals to people, and her charitable work on behalf of her furry friends is one more reason we’ll remember her fondly.