The Guilty Pleasure Round- Musicals I Love Against All Reason

They’re not the most critically-acclaimed. They can’t claim many awards. But they’re unapologetically delightful. Weeping through a musical has its merits (oh, hey Aurora’s upcoming production of HUNCHBACK), but sometimes going to a musical means learning nothing except how long you can smile before your mouth loses all feeling. So today, let’s just have a feel-good listening party, ok? This is kind of my way of saying some musicals are better out of context. And heard rather than seen.

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  1. The Story of My Life, music and lyrics by Neil Bartram

The recipient of Ben Brantley’s most fantastic collection of zingers in the form of a review, this two-man show is indeed uncategorizable, absurd, and incredibly cheesy. It even has this weirdly dark rabbit-hole parallel to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE while unashamedly plagiarizing all of WIND BENEATH MY WINGS (the movie). In all of its unoriginal glory, listening to THE STORY OF MY LIFE is a solid hour of joy. There’s something incredibly meta about writing blog posts while listening to a musical about a writer trying to find inspiration.

Smiliest song: “The Butterfly”

Fast-track to smiles line: When you flap your wings to stretch yourself, it might seem small to you, but you change the world with everything you do.

Cringe-worthiest line: And with snow on the back of our pants, we’d wait for our angels to dance.

Image result for legally blonde the musical2. Legally Blonde, music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin

Eyerolls always accompany mention of LEGALLY BLONDE in industry circles- followed of course by one brave soul sheepishly uttering, “…but actually I really like it.” Everyone in the circle subsequently concurs and giggles with relief.

OMG you guys, a bubble-gum pop, screlt-laiden musical version of the quintessential fluffy chick flick? It’s disrespectful to everyone from Antoinette Perry to the actress playing the Star-to-Be in [name that local production of] ANNIE. In spite of it all, “So Much Better” skyrockets my confidence upon every listen. And I believe I’ve never listened to Kate Shindle sing “…best friggin shooooeeess!!” without lip syncing and believing I can conquer the world.

Smiliest song: “Legally Blonde Remix”

Fast-track to smiles line: And soon all y’all gonna know much better! I am so much better than before! [as a Southerner, I relate to the “all y’all” phrase on a spiritual level]

Cringe-worthiest line: I’m not a fool, and as a rule I do not ‘bond.’ [I’m sorry what? What the what does that even mean?]

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3. A Little Princess, music by Andrew Lippa, lyrics by Brian Crawley

The second-worst professional musical I have ever seen with my eyes- second only to a B-level tour of a knock-off Cirque du Soleil- I’d advise listening to the album, but you can skip watching it live. Without having any real clue what’s happening in the show, you find yourself happily botching the pronunciation of the African words as you dance to “Good Luck, Bonne Chance” and mirror-belting the “I want song”‘s staunch, yet never-revisited theme, “I want to live out loud.”

Smiliest song: “Let Your Heart be Your Compass”

Fast-track to smiles line: If that makes me headstrong, fine! That’s a fault I’m glad is mine!

Cringe-worthiest line: That moment Lippa rhymed “lucky” with a forced “plucky.” And the irrationally mean but secretly jealous bad guy, played by Julia Murney says it all with a straight face.

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4. Chess, music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, lyrics by Tim Rice

Speaking of NYT zingers, theatre critic-at-large of the ’80s-00s Frank Rich cuts CHESS no slack, with unsparing highlights like, “characters onstage at the Imperial yell at one another to rock music,” referring to the score as “a suite of temper tantrums,” with the “theatrical consistency of quicksand.” Speed-round, because we’re having so much fun: “drab,” “pompous pretensions,” “incoherent,” “jerry-built,” “sketchy.”

Rich’s opinions aside, I can go for the in-concert recording from 2009 in a heartbeat. Soaring duet between Idina Menzel and Josh Groban? Yes please! Even its painfully ’80s pop hit, “Bangkok” brings a smile to my face every time. Unlike some of the unabashedly feel-good aforementioned shows, this one is packed with overdramatic wannabe LES MIS tune after another. I think the smiling comes in the nostalgia created therein. And giggling ensues because it’s borderline nonsensical in every way.

Smiliest song: “Nobody’s Side”

Fast-track to smiles line: How could I leave her? Where would I go? I cross over boarders, but I’m still [something? I actually have no clue what word he says there. I’m sure it’s inspirational]

Cringe-worthiest line: And now let us dedicate ourselves to the spirit of chess:
We are one united family,
Black and white.
The game–
Our one true guiding light,
Sweeping through
The darkest corners
To express
Countries, classes,
Creeds as one,
In love of chess. [yes this is literally a hymn to chess. What is it, a game or a god?!]

How to Converse with Theatre Nerds (and Survive a Tony Awards Party)

The Tony Awards night is Christmas for theatre people (or actually Hanukkah would be more fitting, wouldn’t it?).
It’s the magical June night when a group of the best people in the world (theatre kids) pile on the couch to unashamedly geek out and fangirl for a solid 3 hours. Public Tonys viewing parties are some of few places where you can bet a group of 100+ strangers will think it totally natural to discuss the worst Tony Awards tragedies of all time, and instead of giving you weird looks when you burst into some Broadway tunes, they’ll pick up the harmony alongside you. And then BOOM! BFFs for the evening.
But it is possible that some run-of-the-mill fans step foot into such a gathering without a full breadth of Tony knowledge and love for obscure Sondheim shows. My heart goes out to those who receive incredulous looks for not knowing who Patti LuPone is or the number of minutes in a year. So to rescue those people, I have compiled a simple cheat sheet to surviving any conversation with a hardcore theatre nerd. And coming out of a Tonys party without looking like a fool.
  1. Eight times a week. This refers to the Broadway performance schedule. And you will hear this phrase every five and a half seconds during the Tonys. Please note that when someone says it, it’s bound to be part of what they consider a really profound statement. Practice your adequately awed face in the mirror.
  2. THEATRE. Because theatre nerds are anglophiles, it’s “theatre,” not “theater.” To answer your question, yes they can tell from your voice how you’re spelling the word in your head.
  3. OBC. This stands for “Original Broadway Cast” and is a vital step in understanding nerd-speak. Theatre nerds will repeatedly remind you that the original actors to play [name that role] on Broadway were the best, though hipster nerds prefer the original out-of-town tryout understudy.
  4. Ensemble. No one refers to the “chorus.” The cool kids say “ensemble” instead, because chorus sounds as though the members of the company are less important. Tiny, laughable distinction, really. But seriously, don’t say chorus.
  5. Colm Wilkinson. Aka, “Mr. Les Mis.” This brilliant guy was the original Jean Valjean in Les Miserables on the West End and Broadway in the ‘80s. He fittingly played the bishop in the Les Mis movie as well. Because he’s perfect.
  6. Idina Menzel. I dearly hope anyone who steps foot in a Tonys party now knows her name, but what’s a cheat sheet for if not to save the day? She originated the role of Elphaba in Wicked, for which she won a Tony Award. And oh yeah, she voiced Elsa in Frozen. And she’s perfect.
  7. Aaron Tveit. He’ll honestly never stop being a relevant, gorgeous leading man, having made himself known through his appearance as Gabe in Next to Normal, Enjorlas in the Les Miserables movie, and of course Danny in the recent Grease Live. But get in line, because everyone and their mother is in love with him.
  8. Andrew Lloyd Webber. British composer who wrote many, many award-winning musicals including the currently running Sunset Boulevard, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. His works are constantly produced on and off Broadway, and you could say they will never die (with the exception, of course, of The Phantom of the Opera 2: Love Never Dies).
  9. Broadway is always better. If you tell a theatre nerd that you loved Les Mis after only seeing the movie, you’ll get the death stare. Even worse would be if you let it slip that you actually liked a movie soundtrack better than an OBC recording. Rule of thumb: Terrence Mann beats Russell Crowe any day.
  10. Lin-Manuel MirandaOk, if you don’t know him, I’m not helping you.

Follow @BwayGinger on Twitter for more Broadway love, Atlanta theatre news, and sassy live-tweets. And then let’s be best friends, ok?

A version of this piece was originally published as part of the KCACTF Region IV Institute for Theatre Journalism Advocacy. You can read the dated, pre-Hamilton version from February 2014 here.

Musical Swap! Become Obsessed with 7 New Musical Albums this Summer

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Is there anything quite like the thrill of consuming a new musical? It’s that insatiable need only quenched by the blessed “repeat all” button.

After a decade or so of nonstop musical consumption, new musical obsessions seem a far-gone delight as formerly novel shows now sit overplayed in the music library. But take heart! New (or previously unknown) albums are as endless as the INTO THE WOODS prologue. So let’s have a good old-fashioned musical-swap.

Using seven musicals probably long past the looped listening stage, I’ve extrapolated- sometimes liberally- parallel shows possessing similar characteristics. But mostly it’s an excuse to promote some of my favorite shows. Let’s kick off the summer by diving into some new musical obsessions!

Worn out Les Miserables? Check out Ragtime.
1998. Music and lyrics by Lyn Ahrens and Charles Flaherty.

Packed with rousing number after (over)dramatic ballad, RAGTIME possesses the heart of LES MIS sprinkled with the musical sound of turn of the century America. Throw in Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell and just try listening to anything else for the next month.

Best hit: “Wheels of a Dream”

Recommended recording: RAGTIME Studio Cast Recording (also check out the Original Broadway Cast recording’s version of “Sarah Brown Eyes” which was written after the studio cast recording)

Worn out Dear Evan Hansen? Check out Next to Normal.
2009. Music and Lyrics by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey

It’s the modern rock musical style that so defined early 2000s Broadway. There’s angst. There’s mental illness. There’s a pole-dancing hallucination (WHAT? Yes, kinda). Like this season’s Tony Awards ringer, N2N dives into the values of friendship and family, ultimately resting on the value of life over happiness.

Best Hit: “You Don’t Know/I am the One”

Worn out Newsies? Check out The Scarlet Pimpernel.
1998. Music and Lyrics by Frank Wildhorn.

You know that musical that defined your childhood, but apparently no one else’s, and you’re lucky if you discover anyone who has even heard of it? Oh hey, THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. This underappreciated adaptation of the classic novel stars a post-LES MIS Terrence Mann and includes- if you listen closely enough to group numbers- a pre-legendary Sutton Foster. Like NEWSIES, inspirational male underdog choruses centered around an adventure to take down the bad guys dominate this 25-song album.

Best Hit: “Into the Fire”

Worn out Wicked? Check out The Wild Party (Off-Broadway)
2000. Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa.

Idina Menzel’s showstopping “Life of the Party” is the electrifying “Defying Gravity 2.0” we didn’t know we needed. This addictive prohibition-era musical depicts a disintegrating night in the life of a clown named Burrs (a sinister Brian d’Arcy James at his best), a vaudeville performer named Queenie (an on-edge Julia Murney), and their unbalanced friends (including Menzel and her then-husband, the always-smooth Taye Diggs). Note: as odd Broadway trivia would have it, another composer penned a musical of the same title using the same subject material. It’s inferior.

Best Hit: “Life of the Party”

Worn out The Book of Mormon? Check out The Fantasticks (Off-Broadway)
1960. Music and lyrics by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones.

It’s Pyramus and Thisbe without a lion and with some crazy parents, a semi-trustworthy narrator, and a comical song about fake rape. You wouldn’t recognize the voice of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’s Lumiere- Jerry Orbach- as he croons the sentimental opener, “Try to Remember,” and maybe classic Broadway seems in no way to resemble modern hits. But with the same parodied flavor as THE BOOK OF MORMON, THE FANTASTICKS compiles outlandish circumstances atop a solid ’60s musical theatre platform.

Best hit: “It Depends on What You Pay”

Worn out Into the Woods? Check out A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
1962. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

“Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone, a comedy tonight!” Honest. Simple. This opener leaves no question about what we’re getting into. Before Zero Mostel biddy-biddy-bum-ed as Tevye in Anatevka, he won a Tony Award as the clever slave Pseudolus in ancient Rome. Like Sondheim’s later hit INTO THE WOODS, FORUM has a whimsical, yesteryear setting. But with fewer fairy tale characters and more Roman guards. And tragical courtesans.

Best hit: “Comedy Tonight”

Worn out Hamilton? Check out Gypsy
1959. Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

No, GYPSY is nothing like HAMILTON. But the entertainment industry-centric GYPSY is a must for all theatre fans, ranked by some as the best musical of all time (and I’m not just saying that because theatre people are egotistical and love shows about themselves). Just as Rodgers and Hammerstein is a prerequisite for the entire musical canon, the best work of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s chief inspiration must precede anything Miranda. Lyrically, it’s hard to beat good old Steve.

Best hit: “Everything’s Coming up Roses”