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.

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