Tuesday, January 6, 2015

My Top Three Favorite Musicals: Stage To Screen

With the recent release of the film version of Into the Woods, I thought it might be fun to share my top three favorite film versions of musicals that originated on the stage.

A number of adapted musicals have enjoyed big box office success and some are quite good; both for their stand alone entertainment value and in their homage to their source material. My Fair Lady and Grease are two good examples.

For me, there are three that stand above the rest for a variety of reasons. In two of the three cases, I think the film adaptations are actually better than the original stage versions.

marquee number - 3Dreamgirls (2006) Directed by Bill Condon and adapted from the Tony Award-winning original 1981 Broadway musical directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett. Dreamgirls was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning two Oscars: Sound Mixing and Best Supporting Actress for Jennifer Hudson.

Dreamgirls (2006)
Dreamgirls (2006)
Suggested by the rise of The Supremes, Dreamgirls is an exuberant tribute to the sights and sounds of the 50's & 60's.

I find the film version superior to the stage production because of the visual, on location advantages and smoother scene/time transitions. The screenplay (by Condon) stays true to the original.

4500-number2Chicago (2002) Directed by Rob Marshall (Into the Woods). Screenplay by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls).

Chicago (2002)
Chicago (2002)
Based on the 1975 Bob Fosse, Kander & Ebb musical, whose stripped-down 1996 revival, far exceeded the success of the original. Still running on Broadway after 18 years.

I'm not a fan of the stage version. I find it drab and dull. On screen though, Chicago is an exciting, vibrant song and dance masterpiece. By far, the best example of a film adaptation being much better than the original.

Fire Letters A-ZWest Side Story (1961) Based on the classic 1957 stage musical, the film is a true representation of the original stage material and by far, my favorite movie musical of all time.
West Side Story is a contemporary re-telling of the Romeo and Juliet love story, told against the backdrop of the gang-controlled streets of New York.

West Side Story (1961)
West Side Story (1961)
Ground breaking in so many ways with some of the best choreography ever created, West Side Story is perfection.

The result was honored with a record 10 Academy Awards-- the most of any other movie musical and the fourth biggest winner, overall in Oscar history.

I've loved West Side Story since I was a kid. When I finally saw it live on stage for the first time, I was completely blown away. It's one of the few works that I wouldn't say one version is better than the other. The film and stage versions are equally brilliant.

I'm always shocked when someone says they've never seen West Side Story. If you've honestly never seen it. Put it on the top of your list now.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Why I Liked But Didn’t Love The INTO THE WOODS Movie

The good news is that Into the Woods was the second highest grossing film on Christmas Day and it finished third overall for the weekend.
The bad news is that I didn't love it.
Let me compare Into the Woods to a piece of chocolate cake. Right off, you may either love or hate it because  you might like or dislike chocolate, cake, or both. If you've never had chocolate cake before-- this may be the most delicious thing you ever tasted. If you like chocolate cake-- this may be satisfying; but if you love chocolate cake, this may be underwhelming or a complete disappointment. There are still others that will find-- good or bad, dry or moist-- they are just grateful to have a slice of cake.
For me, this version of ITW is missing key ingredients. Or to draw from the script-- the potion is missing it's hair as yellow as corn. It didn't work for me.
The original Into the Woods clearly explores the price that comes with wishes, what is really happily ever after; and the importance of teaching children, wishes as children  and the hope that exists in children themselves. Much of this is lost or brushed aside in the film. Instead of a film using fairy tales to tell a bigger story, it's just a film telling fairy tales with a slightly different ending.

The movie is beautifully filmed and features an outstanding cast. BUT-- I found it visually too dark; and with the major plot changes, I was never drawn in or emotional involved.
I have some pretty strong opinions about this particular film because I've had a long personal attachment to the stage version of Into the Woods.

Poster for the original Broadway production of Into the Woods.
I saw the original 1987 Broadway production-- twice, the 1988 first national tour, worked the theater where the second national tour began in Chicago (non-equity), saw the 2002 Broadway revival, designed the set and costumes for a local high school production; and have seen literally dozens of professional and amateur productions over the years.

The stage version of Into the Woods is visually a combination of light (colorful) and dark images, where the movie was visually dark from start to finish. The village and castle scenes in the movie all had a dingy, dirty feel as opposed to embodying color, light or any fairy tale magic. Emotionally, the movie is pretty much gray from start to finish. I didn't feel the passion of the dreams and wishes from the major characters; which is problematic because it leaves no real reason for them to go into the woods to begin with. We never truly see even a glimpse of the happy ever after they are so desperate to achieve.

Even in the worst productions I've seen, no matter how badly acted or staged-- I've always been moved by No One Is Alone. Except in the film. To borrow from another musical, I felt nothing.

Some might feel that it is to Disney and director Rob Marshall's credit that they didn't Disneyfy the look of the film. I see it as a missed opportunity to enhance the story. I really would have appreciated seeing some of the beauty and opulence of the castle, for example. Instead, it was dark and drab, as was the brief wedding imagery.

In adapting for the film, the writers chose to edit and whitewash the deeper, meaningful moments of the story. Combining that with the lack of passion, it left very little to get emotionally involved in.

Without Rapunzel's demise, we lose the witch's profound grief that propels her into a frenzied Last Midnight. Without a larger presence of the Baker's Father (Mysterious Man, or not) and the cut song No More, we lose what is the cathartic moment that leads to the Baker's return to his new family. As a result, the intensity and the pure, desperate passion is lost from characters' motivations.

Cast of Disney's film, Into the Woods.
Cast of Disney's film, Into the Woods.
One of the early moments in the film set the tone for me. Jack's Mother, played by the incredible Tracey Ullman, was directed to be purely a serviceable character on screen. (In the stage version, she is a warm, witty and lovable character.) I believe this was done to lessen the audiences' attachment and thus, later in the film: the reaction to her death; which also seemed somewhat muddled. Jack didn't seem terribly upset when he found out his mother was gone, nor did Little Red over her Granny. (And did it bother anyone else that Little Red suddenly looked like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz for the remainder of the picture?)

The character of the Witch and Meryl Streep's performance have to be looked at separately. First, I didn't feel like the other characters really feared the Witch and her power as much as they saw her as a means to get what they wanted, or as an obstacle in doing so. Second, since the film chose to let Rapunzel ride off with the Prince, future unknown-- instead of becoming a victim of the giant; it lessened the Witch's loss. These two points affect the whole dynamic of the Witch's antagonistic role in the story, as well as her motivations.

Meryl Streep, easily the greatest American actress of our time, fully embodied what the film set out to portray. Though I hoped for a much more powerful performance, Streep filled the bill the way the story has been adapted, perfectly. One thing I noticed, having listened to the soundtrack since; you don't really grasp the incredible technique and emotion Streep brought to the character-- vocally, in one viewing in a theater. Meryl Streep doesn't just sing musical roles-- her vocalization is a well-crafted extension of her character's development and expression. Every word, phrase and guttural sound is perfection.

I liked the introduction of the blue moon to the story, opposed to just the passing midnights of the stage version. I thought it gave a clearer understanding of why the spell had to be broken now.

For me, the best and only perfect moment in the film was Agony. It was beautifully acted and staged. If the entire film had this energy and attention to detail, it could have been the best stage musical-to-film ever made.
Composer/Lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

I remember thinking about two-thirds of the way through: Where is all the music? A substantial amount was cut and occasionally reduced to underscoring. This is composer Stephen Sondheim’s baby. Though he and original book writer James Lapine were actively involved in the film, I feel they caved in to the studio pressures, too much, just to get this film made.
From all that I read leading up to the film's release, Disney was concerned about the original version being too dark (plot-wise), too many main character deaths and wanted to make it more family-friendly. The result is a watered down story that still, in my opinion, is not a family movie.

Into the Woods, on screen, felt like it was too long. This is ironic since it was 20 minutes shorter than the stage version, not including an intermission. It was more than a little slow and disjointed at times.

I'm sure people completely unfamiliar with ITW will have a completely different reaction to the film. And that's okay. I just hope it's a positive experience. The very best thing that could come out of the film is that it might encourage a new audience for the stage version. The film versions of other more recent movie musicals have done a great service to building and keeping audience interest in live theatre.

I can only hope that this film will contribute to that trend.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Rebooting Creativity: Finding Your Way Back Home

Are You Feeling You've Lost Your Creative Direction? Has Life Gotten in Your Way? Stop Making Excuses and Find Your Way Home. Create.


Life gets in the way. It happens to most of us. There are all kind of distractions (and some necessities) that can prevent us from creating art. No matter what the excuse-- it's just that... an excuse. The life choices we make don't have to be a roadblock to creativity.

Here are some thoughts to get you out of that slump and help get those creative juices flowing:

1) No regrets.
Don't think too much. Many of us create unneeded baggage over what we haven't done, or didn't do; and allow that to prevent us from doing what we love. The past is gone... get over it. Do everything you can now with the time you have-- even if it's only for a few minutes.  Don't regret what you can't change and change what you can.
2) See everything as an opportunity, not a roadblock.
That job you hate but desperately need to pay the bills... can be a source of inspiration if you look for it. Look around you, network with coworkers, share your passion-- you never know what you might find.
The project you took for someone else to make a little cash or get your foot in the door... don't waste that opportunity. Learn, connect, try new things... open your mind.
3) Every path leads somewhere.
Is your art or career headed in a direction, far from where you wanted to go? Can you see where it's leading? Is it a dead end?
Sometimes we find ourselves getting too far off track or even traveling completely away from our original destination. We have to be willing to adapt, change, or reverse directions sometimes.
Always keep sight of your goals. Don't go on for so long, convincing yourself that you have to do something-- that in reality is preventing you from realizing your full creativity.  At the same time, try to be open and experience the journey as it happens. Some paths unexpectedly lead to rewarding destinations. Just make sure you keep moving on.
4) Creativity is not the same as productivity.
No matter what form of art you create, it takes time, skill and connections to make it happen. A project could take you days, weeks, years or even a lifetime to complete. It may take time before you actually produce something worthwhile. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that quantity is as important, or more important than the quality of your work.
Lots of projects under your belt may make you feel productive-- but are you proud of them as well? Do they represent who you are as an artist?  Are you learning, growing and really stretching your creative muscles?
5) Stop making excuses.
We're all guilty of this. After awhile it becomes more of a habit. The only honest excuse for not creating art-- is not wanting to create art. There will never be enough time, money or resources-- these are not good excuses.
Think about this-- The excuses you give yourself are always worse than the ones you give to others.
6) Set goals.
Set goals for yourself. Give yourself some benchmarks for achievement. Goals give you a direction and should help motive your progress. Don't allow the failure to meet those goals to discourage you. Reassess and set new ones.
7) Do something.
Do something. Anything. Even for five minutes.
If you're a writer or painter -- put something down on paper, don't just think about it in your head. Scribbled notes or sketches can be great triggers and motivators even if they're incomplete.
If you're a performing artist, sing or dance-- whatever you do. Sing in the car or the shower, if nothing else. Dance a quick step in the empty hall at work or in your living room.
The longer you go without writing, or dancing, or ... creating-- the harder it is to get started again. You'll be glad you did. Even for an audience of one (you).
8) Success comes from failure.
 Lots of cliches could go here and the topic of failure could be pretty broad. I want to stick to your own personal measure of failure.
There is no better way to learn and grow than to try and fail at something. Failure can open up new doors and ideas, leading you to successes you never dreamed about.  Don't shy away from trying something that you might not get right the first time around.
Art is a process. It develops with time and experience and needs to be constantly molded and reshaped. 
Success the first time around? Great! Did you learn anything? And who is measuring the success? You or someone else?
I believe truly creative, artistic people are never completely satisfied with their work but learn when to stop and let it live. It can always be better, clearer, brighter, deeper... but sometimes-- what it is, is just right.
9) Don't give into fear.
Some artists fear failure. Others fear success. Don't let your fears rule your passion. Create and live your passion!
The bottom line is:
If you're a writer- write!
If you're a sculpter- sculpt!
If you're a dancer- dance!

The only one stopping you is you.