Better a Witty Fool than a Foolish Wit

Inner Workings of My Twisted Mind.

Try To Remember the Time in September When Life Was Slow and Oh So Mellow.

So a few weeks ago I talked about wicked and then about rent. And
yes, I’m a big fan of musicals. And yes, this email will be about
musicals, but movie musicals rather than theatre musicals.

Now, I love a good movie musical, but like all things in the
entertainment biz, the movie musical trends are cyclical. Sometimes
musicals are hits and one after another are produced. Sometimes it’s
impossible to get a movie musical made.

So what’s so freaking interesting about that that I felt the need to
write a whole email about it. Well, it seems to me there’s a bit more
to it. I was thinking today about the trends for when musicals are,
well…Trendy. Broadway musicals will always make money, they’ll
always be popular, but movie musicals don’t always make money. Now,
it’s my opinion that it is usually the crappy musicals that don’t make
money, but who cares about that?

The thing is there have been three major periods for movie musicals,
the 1930’s and ’40’s, the 1960’s and right now. Starting in 2002,
with the release of Moulin Rouge, the movie musical is experiencing a
bit of a revival itself. Of course, Moulin Rouge (and it’s oscar nom
for Nicole Kidman) was followed the next year by Chicago (and it’s
Best Picture oscar) and then a string of others, including The
Producers, Dreamgirls, Rent and as of Friday, Hairspray. This revival
of musicals is reminiscent, with its lavish sets and saturated colors,
of the Fred Astaire Ginger Rogers musicals of the 1930’s and ’40’s.

So, with the release of Hairspray imminent, I was doing a bit of
thinking (as I was listening to the soundtrack to the play in my car
on the way to work), and I thought that maybe my initial judgement of
the remake of Hairspray was a little rash. Now, this is not to say
that I’m not amazingly skeptical of this new version of hairspray, but
it’s saving grace will be that the original was not a musical. Even
still, I maintain, that John Travolta was probably the wrong casting
choice and will never live up to the genius that was Divine. But John
Waters (and I’ve heard rumblings, Ricky Lake) makes a cameo and so I’m
willing to give it a shot.

But I digress. Think back to the beginning of this email when I
mentioned the approximate time frame for the popularity of movie
musicals. It was the 1930’s and 40’s, the 1960’s and now. So I guess
I didn’t digress too much. Here’s my train of thought. Hairspray is
about, among other things, black/white relations. And I was thinking
about social and political unrest. Getting my thinking now, maybe?
A little bit? Isn’t it interesting that the times when movie musicals
regain popularity are when there is some sort of social upheaval? The
Depression and the War, The movements of the ’60’s, and now. I don’t
really know how to define now, in terms of social movements, and I
don’t know that any historian has properly labeled this age yet. The
age of the chimpanzee? The age of idiocy? Perhaps, the age where
people started thinking again? Because I truly believe that we’re on
the verge of a huge breakthrough in people actually being involved in
the political system. I think G.W.’s finally done it. He’s so bad,
he’s made us all wake up and take notice of what’s going on.

Interesting isn’t it? That musicals come around in times of woe.
Well, in the ’30’s and ’40’s it was actually the government that
implored the movie studios to make happy, upbeat films to try to keep
up the morale of the american public. Though the government didn’t
implore the studios in the 1960’s, the studios insistence on
continuing to make musicals, even when the times, they were a changin’
nearly bankrupted each and every one of the major motion picture
studios. Perhaps it was their way of trying to maintain some sort of
semblance of tradition, or order, in any case, those musicals gave
rise to the likes of The Graduate, Love Story, Easy Rider, and The
Godfather, which saved the studios from bankruptcy.

But even more interesting is this new influx of musicals right now.
They don’t seem to be trying to keep the status quo. In fact, they
seem to be challenging it. Think about it. Moulin Rouge is about
artists who buck social norms to live how they want to live. Chicago
is about murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery
and treachery – all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts.
The Producers is about cheating the system (and let’s not for get the
hilarious ‘springtime for hitler’ musical number), Dreamgirls deals
with backstabbing and race relations, among other things, and
Hairspray is about race relations, and seeing past image to what
people really are.

I mean, these aren’t your Fred Astaire, Gene Kelley, Ginger Rogers
type musicals. These are racy Chita Rivera musicals. They’re
subversive musicals. It seems like an oxymoron, but when you look at
the facts, that’s exactly what they are.

The general theme seems to be that the musicals support the needs (or
sometimes desires) of the times. In the 30’s we wanted to forget our
troubles, c’mon get happy. In the ’60’s we wanted to avoid the fact
that things were changing, and now, well now, we’re pushing the limits
with musicals. We’re not gonna take it, and we’re going to sing about
the fact that we’re not gonna take it anymore.

So when you go see hairspray on Friday (and I’ll promise I’ll give my
report on it soon), look past the big hair and the bright colors, look
past the fat suit and the big hair, look at the real message of the
movie…I assure you it’s not just the big hair. And think real hard
about how a musical can be a protest.

Peace, Love, and Good Morning Baltimore,


July 19, 2007 Posted by | Hollywood, Movies, Musicals, Rent, Wicked | Leave a comment

The Wizard and I

Fellow Ozians,
I do so apologize for the lack of an email last week, but my schedule has been surprisingly more hectic than usual. You see, I’m doing the production design (sets, props, etc.) for a short film, I was asked to write a kids movie that a friend of mine is producing, and I’m still working three jobs (plus, my mom was in town all weekend, so I actually got to have fun).

So those of you who know me well, and even those who know me not so well, probably know that I’m a total theatre junkie. And you may know that I’m definitely a musical theatre junkie (though really, I’ll see any theatre whether or not people will be spontaneously bursting into song and dance). Though I would love to write you the equivalent of a dissertation on how awesome musical theatre is, this will be focusing solely on one show that I’ve seen twice in the past three weeks, and am madly in love with.

The show is one that I’m sure the majority of you have heard of, and a few of you have even seen it. It’s called WICKED. God, it gives me goosebumps to even say that (or actually write it). In fact, that’s how I judge how great a musical is: if it gives me goosebumps it’s good. If it gives me goosebumps multiple times and makes me choke up a little just because it’s so good, that’s a phenomenal musical. But the true, true test is: Does the soundtrack give me goosebumps? There are very few musicals (and operas) that can give me goosebumps just by listening to the soundtrack. La Boheme, La Traviata, parts of Carmen (in the genre of opera). Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Rent (of course) and Wicked are all in that category also.

Cut to Flashback: June 2003. I was three months away from moving to England for a year. Wicked had just started its preview in San Francisco and my mother and I decided to go. Little did we know it would be a new musical phenomenon. It will be in the canon of Great American Musicals forever. When the Wicked Witch of the West came out and sang her first song, I tore open my program, and, with what little light I had I furiously read. I knew I had heard that voice before. I’ve sung along at the top of my lungs with that voice before. That was Idina Menzel. That was Maureen from Rent.

For those of you who don’t know, my favorite musical of all time is Rent. Nothing will ever take it’s place. I saw it at the exact right time in my life (when I was in a serious downward spiral in life, and needed a musical that hoped in a modern way…Rent was it), and have seen it at least six times since then. It never gets old, it never gets less pertinent, in never gets less heartbreaking, and I love it. I still cry every time the line of people singing Seasons of Love has a hole in it. I still cheer when that hole is filled at the end of the show. I still blast the music in the car as I’m driving to work. I absolutely love it. And one of the biggest disappointments in my life is the fact that I was in New York City when the original cast was there and I didn’t get to see it (given, I had no idea what it was at the time) but still…

Now, we all grew up with the Wizard of Oz. The cute as a button, sixteen year old, pre-pill popping Judy Garland and her little dog Toto. That is such a classic good vs. evil story. And Ms. Judy in her light blue and white checked dress was good. Even when she kills the wicked witch of the west she’s still good. It’s almost as if by accident, she throws a bucket of water on her and melts her to the ground. And Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West was, as a little kid, one of the scariest villains out there.
(It’s funny because I just had a conversation with one of my friends about how kids villains are kind of weak now. They’re not nearly as scary as they used to be. I mean, think about it. Maleficent or even Ursula, Stromboli, the Scar and the Hyenas, they we’re freakin’ frigtening. I’m sure there was one bad guy scene that your parents had to fast forward through because they freaked you out so much. But now villains aren’t as scary. It’s disappointing to say the least). Even Margaret Hamilton not in Green makeup was absolutely terrifying.

The thing about the Wizard of Oz is that it’s so ingrained into our culture that everyone gets it. Very few people have read the actual book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but everyone has seen the movie. And it seems that if you’ve been living in a cave for the last seventy years (as of 2009), you would still get the references. On a pretty much daily basis (on my tour) I give the line, ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.’ It’s one of the few jokes that everyone gets. Think about it though, just sit back for a second and really think about how many different references to the Wizard of Oz there are. Saying ‘there’s no place like home’ even in a mocking way, is referring to it. Think about Ruby Slippers, or ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’. How many times have you stated, ‘I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.’ If anyone was an Ally McBeal fan, remember Lyng’s entrance music. It was the Wicked Witch of the West music. And still, when your ass of a boss, or your least favorite teacher comes in, tell me you don’t hear it in your head.

In Literature classes, we called it intertextuality, and actually, if I ever have to write a dissertation (let’s be honest…when I write my dissertation), that will be a major part of it. In fact, for my senior seminar final essay in literature I wrote about intertextuality in the canon of Carmen (the opera, novella, movies, music, etc.). I think it’s the most fascinating thing in the world. The fact that there is this set of cultural references that you just somehow acquire in your childhood and it helps you to describe the world. When you say ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore, toto,’ not only are you referring to the Wizard of Oz, you’re also referring to the fact that you feel like Dorothy…in awe of a new land, in technicolor. But you don’t blatantly say that. Just by saying those six words, you evoke all of the feeling of Dorothy opening the door and looking onto the world of color, the world of wonder. Think about that next time you refer to a pair of ruby slippers or a dog named toto.

So now let’s cut to a writer named Gregory Maguire. I’ve not read anything by him, but his premise is awesome. He takes classic stories and tells them from a different angle. In The Ugly Stepsister, he takes Cinderella from the point of view of the ugly stepsister. And in Wicked, he tells the story of Glinda and Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West). Basically, he asks the question, What happened before Dorothy came to Oz?

I said earlier that The Wizard of Oz is a classic good vs. evil story. Now that we’re all adults, though, we know that there’s really no such thing as classic good vs. evil. No one is purely good and no one is purely evil. Do people make bad decisions? Yes. Do people do things to intentionally harm others? Yes. There are always motivating factors for these behaviors and whether we approve or not, those are the circumstances. There’s ALWAYS a grey area. The thing that’s interesting about Wicked is it makes us rethink a character that has always been so black and white, or green, as it were.

Alright, so cut back to San Francisco in June 2003 (I never could write a linear plot line). So there I am outside the Orpheum, all excited to see Wicked. And as we sit down, I see the spectacular stage and Kristen Chenoweth comes down in a freaking bubble. I mean, this is live theatre, and Glinda arrives on a bubble. Wicked is a spectacle to say the least. It won much deserved Tonys for Production Design and Costume Design. Visually, it’s as shocking and awe-inspring as the first time you see Oz after dull, dreary Kansas in the movie.

Even though the spectacle is amazing, the thing that really gets you is the story between Glinda the Good Witch and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. You see these two as friends, as enemies, and as real multi-dimensional people. The nature of kids movies is to paint everything in black and white (which I’m not arguing is wrong, and am, in fact, writing a movie that has a black and white sort of villain), but as an adult, exploring the circumstances leading up to the events of the Wizard of Oz is an extraordinarily gratifying experience. We see how the Wizard came to be, how the Lion came to be cowardly, how the tin man lost his heart, why the scarecrow was made to be a scarecrow. But mostly, we see that Glinda the good is not always good and Elphaba the wicked is not always wicked…there were extenuating circumstances.

The way all the little details are woven into the plot is a work of sheer brilliance. Everything from learning where the Ruby Slippers came from (and why she wanted them so badly) to how those monkeys came to fly to why the wicked witch is green. It’s all explained, and in not glaringly obvious ways.

So I saw the preview in San Francisco and then Wicked went to Broadway where everyone flipped out about it. It’s still sold out every single night in New York (and in L.A.) But, as I heard, they made a couple of changes. When I found out it was coming to Los Angeles for an open-ended run, I freaked out and made my mom buy tickets. She went online the day they went on sale and couldn’t get weekend tickets until last friday (June 15…tickets went on sale in November). As of right now, Wicked is sold out on weekends until next May (weekday tickets are possible, though difficult, to get). In any case, two weeks ago, my walking buddy gave a tour at Paramount to a group of high school kids. His tour happened to have three extra tickets to see Wicked that night. I got to go for free. It was great.

As I settled into my seat and the show started, I realized, as great as it had been at the San Francisco preview, it was even better now. Oh. My. God. It was tight, it was even more of a spectacle, it was even more intricately laced with references to the movie and the book. It’s no wonder it won a bunch of Tonys because it truly is one of the most amazing broadway shows there is.

On Friday night I got to see it again, and I have to say, I could watch it a million more times…and I just might.

So we’ve established the story and the costumes and the sets are awesome, but possibly the most amazing thing about this musical is the singing (and the songs). Most of the songs are not light, we’re off to see the wizard, type of music. They’re real, complex, and amazing songs. And at one point Elphaba is suspended a good thirty to forty feet in the air belting Defying Gravity out at the top of her lungs. Now, that’s not an easy thing to do, singing while suspended in the air.

While Defying Gravity is a huge number that rounds out act one, the other numbers are so different. They all have their own sort of feel and according to Kristin Chenoweth they are all in different registers and are extremely challenging. Glinda sings the cute traditional musical number Popular, which is quite possibly the funniest part of the whole play. And the last number the two Witches sing together where they sing about how much each has changed because of each other. For Good is a love song between two friends. Two friends who may never see each other again. It’s a really moving song.

It’s my opinion that the most amazing shows have everything from really high energy, belt-it-out type songs to slow beautiful ballads. Rent has everything from rock to pop to gospel to traditional musical songs. And Wicked, though not quite as diverse as Rent has the spectrum.

A great musical captures you heart, mind, body and soul. Wicked takes what has already been captured by the Wizard of Oz and captures it again and again and again.

If you haven’t seen it. Go. If you have. Go again. And if anyone wants to come to L.A. and take me to Wicked, I’d be more than happy to accompany you.

Plus, I’m pretty sure they’re making a movie starring Kristin and Idina so we can all see the original cast. Hopefully they’ll do a better job on the movie than they did with the Rent movie (but that’s best saved for another rant).

Peace, Love, and Emerald Cities,

P.S. I finally created a blog as many of you have been asking me to do so if you want to look up any of these go to and you can see everything I’ve written.

June 20, 2007 Posted by | Los Angeles, Movies, Music, Musicals, Wicked | 1 Comment