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Rant #532: Lions and Tigers and New Movie Musicals…Oh My!?

Can anyone tell me why musicals (or movies with music) are suddenly all the rage in Hollywood? Or why so many of the ones in production or heading that way are remakes, re-treads, re-imaginings? Just in the past week I’ve heard that Clint Eastwood wants to direct Beyonce in a remake of A Star is Born. And Bryan Singer wants to make a biopic of legendary Broadway and film director/choreographer Bob Fosse. And last but not least, Will Smith and Jay-Z want to co-produce a new version of Annie starring Willow Smith. (I wonder how Daddy Warbucks feels about all that hair-whipping, considering his bald state of affairs.) Is it the success of American Idol that’s created this musical interest? Is it the success of GLEE? High School Musical? What has made the musical such a newly popular form? When did all these musical fans (if they are fans that is, and not just cynical showmen trying to get on a bandwagon—see what I did there?) come out of the closet? I mean, I remember when the movie musical was anathema in Hollywood, other than maybe Blake Edwards letting his wife Julie Andrews sing in a coupla flicks (and of course, if you’re gonna put the bell-toned Julie in a movie, you damn well better let her sing and create something as entertaining as Victor/Victoria!) or Disney churning out animated musicals (not that we knew most of them would turn up on Broadway in a reverse-maneuver of the old days when a hit show got the big studio treatment). Even if they seemed to be sorta successful again after the success of Chicago (an over-rated, dazzingly miscast version of a brilliant Broadway musical in my opinion), the versions of Rent, The Producers, and Dreamgirls alone should have educated Hollywood that you just can’t give over production/direction of a musical to just anybody! I mean, what in Clint Eastwood’s arguably great directorial history speaks to his ability to direct a big soapy melodramatic music film? Bird? I think not. This choice sorta reminds me of Sidney Lumet directing The Wiz: as great a director as Lumet was, he had a leaden hand creating the magic and suspension of disbelief needed to create the world of that show. And as for a biopic of the late Bob Fosse, who’s seen a return to popularity (if he ever lost it, that is) after so much of his choreographic style has turned up in music videos: he doesn’t need a biopic after the lasting images and sounds of All the Jazz, his brilliant, darkly cynical, semi-autobiographical rumination of sex, death, love and jazz hands. Not even directed by the talented Singer, unless he wants to do something way outré like perhaps making Fosse a superhero or the second coming of Keyser Söze.  I also think finding contemporary talent to represent all the great entertainers who populated Fosse’s life—Leland Palmer, Liza Minnelli (amazing here in Cabaret), Ben Vereen (working it here in All That Jazz), Ann Reinking, Gwen Verdon (stunning here as Lola in Damn Yankees), Chita Rivera, among them—would be next to impossible today. The new Annie might be the closest thing to a good idea in this mix, as Annie’s a sorta timelessly adaptable story that might benefit from an urbanizing like the original Broadway Wiz or the updating I hear Debbie Allen gave to Oliver Twist, but the idea of Jay-Z potentially adding to or writing new music for Annie’s beautifully theatrical score. I won’t even touch that…Okay I will, and I’ll be quick: Jay’s talented but sampling “Hard Knock Life” does not a musical make.

Here’s the thing: to make a musical, one needs first a sense of rhythm, the kind of rhythm that understands that the heightened reality of bursting into song and dance to express inchoate emotion demands imagination in the combining of elements like music, movement and narrative momentum. And none of these directors/producers seem to me to be prepared to dance that tango or name that tune. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe I shouldn’t complain until I see the work on the screen. But I do know this: if any of these musicals feel as stiff as Dreamgirls or as inert as Rent or as silly as The Producers, I’ll always blame the rise of Rob Marshall: how he managed to make Nine, a play about film, even more boring on film that it was on stage is beyond me.

That said: here are some of my favorite movie musicals, adapted from Broadway or created from scratch, in no particular order…some of them are flawed yes, but none of them fail on the level of musical/dramatic/narrative integration (scenes from a few of them are below, too; compare any of that Fosse staging or Jerome Robbins choreography to Rob Marshall’s work in Chicago. Or Gene Kelly’s tap dancing to Richard Gere’s in the same flick. Or the narrative work done by the music and staging to Chris Columbus’s Rent):

Cabaret


Singin’ in the Rain

West Side Story


The Bandwagon

On the Town

Funny Girl

Grease

Cabin in the Sky

An American In Paris

The Wizard of Oz

Fame

The Sound of Music

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The Blacker the Broadway, The Sweeter the Theater…or the Box Office?

Will & Jada as Stanley & Stella???

The last few seasons in New York legit theater has seen a large number of African American actors and playwrights as well as productions either based on racially-specific source material or presenting black actors in non-traditional (read: not all white) casting. There’s even a bit of hiphop culture building brands on the Broadway stage, with Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith among the producing team of the hit show and multi-Tony nominee Fela.

There’ve always been hit black shows on Broadway—the ones created by African-Americans, like The Wiz and such reviews as Bubbling Brown Sugar, as well as the all-black shows like Dreamgirls, written by white composers or created by white showmen who appreciated the musical brilliance of a people who have almost always been allowed to sing and dance their way into the public consciousness. But as for drama?  It’s been 50 years since Lorraine Hansberry’s ceiling- (and ground-) breaking A Raisin in the Sun, and though there’ve been a few lucky and talented African American playwrights represented with Broadway productions since then, only August Wilson had a sustained career there of late (not that playwrights of any race—Mamet? Neil Simon? Shakespeare?—can be said to have sustained Broadway careers these days!) Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks’ Top Dog/Underdog, in fact, was the only new African American play presented on Broadway in the past 10 years. Even then, roles by Adriane Lenox, for example, in Doubt, or the sometime arrival of a Denzel Washington or James Earl Jones sometimes kept black faces in the Broadway mix.

Now, after recent dramatic—and financially successful—seasons have showcased all-black renderings of On Golden Pond and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Color Purple adaptation, Diddy’s revival of A Raisin in the Sun, David Mamet’s fiery Race, Denzel back in an August Wilson revival—producers have noticed that when black faces appear on Broadway, black wallets seem to open up for them.

And perhaps that’s why there’s news about Samuel L. Jackson and Halle Berry bringing their Hollywood stardom to Broadway (like Denzel and Julia and Hugh and Nicole before them) in a production of Katori Hall’s celebrated new play The Mountaintop next season. There are also rumors abounding that Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith may be coming to Broadway as Stanley and Stella in an Emily Mann-directed (!) revivial of A Streetcar Named Desire, produced by Stephen Byrd, who also produced the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof revival with James Earl Jones and Terrence Howard and Anika Noni Rose a coupla seasons back. (I’d argue that Nicki Micheaux might make a more grounded and nuanced Stella, but that’s just me.) And I really wonder who they’d cast as Blanche DuBois…any suggestions? (Angela Bassett? Viola Davis? Audra McDonald?) All this news comes on the heels of the announcement that James Earl Jones will join Vanessa Redgrave in the upcoming Broadway production of Driving Miss Daisy (its first Broadway production!) And people are saying that Patti LaBelle may step into the shoes of Tony nominee Liliias White as Fela’s mother when White takes a break to tour her own show. Suzan-Lori Parks is also the book writer of an upcoming new Broadway musical detailing the life and times of superstar Ray Charles.

Black may be beautiful but apparently it’s pretty profitable too.

Playbill.com has more info about Will and Jada’s Streetcar, Patti LaBelle or Halle and Samuel L.

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