Now running on Broadway: musicals

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I grew up on musicals. My sibs and I used to sing selections from Broadway and Off-Broadway shows in the car when we were on trips. When we get together, we still sing the same songs. All of them have children, at least three of whom have had parts in high school productions of musicals. So those of us approaching codgerdom have learned plenty of new songs.

In the years since learning all of those great musicals by Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, Irving Berlin, and others, I have read so much about the death of the American musical that I frankly stopped paying attention. Then I heard excerpts of some current shows on the radio. I would enjoy learning and singing some of those tunes.

This year there are 47 musicals running on Broadway. Here are a few of the most popular:

The Lion King

The three most popular musicals, as listed by Broadway.com, are adapted from movies. Back in my day (I groan to say), movie musicals were based on successful Broadway plays. The first musical play adapted from a move that I ever saw that was Singing in the Rain.

I went with more than a little skepticism, thinking it would never work. It did. Brilliantly. If someone can stage the scene where Gene Kelly sings the title song, anything is possible.

The Lion King is based not only on a movie, but an animation at that. Human actors must therefore portray already familiar lions and other animals. Traveling to New York so I can actually see these musicals is way out of my research budget, but this play won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It has recently passed Phantom of the Opera as the highest grossing show on Broadway and is now its sixth-longest running show.

Elton John provided the music to lyrics by Tim Rice. Their “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” won an Oscar. Some scenes may be disturbing to young children. Parent will be able to predict their childrens’ reaction based on how they responded to the movie. With that caveat, The Lion King is family friendly.

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Wicked

Wicked, number four on Broadway.com’s list by popularity (as viewed May 12, 2012), is the most popular running musical not based on a movie. Even at that, it functions as a prequel to The Wizard of Oz.

Before Dorothy’s house fell on her, the Wicked Witch of the West was a powerful figure in Oz. Wicked gives her the name Elphaba. The story revolves around her life and includes her friendship with Glinda, whom it does not exactly portray as good.

Many people nowadays might not realize that The Wizard of Oz was the first of a whole series of books by L. Frank Baum about Oz and Dorothy. How Elphaba, the passionate crusader against injustice, became known as wicked and the spoiled rich girl Glinda became known as good is not found in Baum’s works.

The whole series, however does provide plenty of hints about a much darker side of Oz than appears in the movie. In particular, the Wizard of Oz is a self-confessed humbug whose actions were not all meritorious. The all-powerful but somewhat bumbling Wizard of the movie appears as a much more troubled man.

There is a vogue nowadays for retelling old fairy tales, etc. and turning them on their ear. Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is one well known musical example of challenging the standard take on goodness and wickedness. Wicked represents the same tradition.

Steven Schwartz wrote the music and lyrics. He also did the same for previous hits Godspell and Pippin. Wicked is every bit as family friendly as The Wizard of Oz. For example, children scared of the flying monkeys in the movie won’t like them any better on stage. By third grade, I suppose, no one will find any of it scary.

The Book of Mormon

I generally steer clear of topical satires. I find modern ones too eager to offend and seldom either thoughtful or funny. The only reason I even considered describing The Book of Mormon in this list is that I heard an interview with creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone on the radio.

Predictably, neither are Mormon. I gather neither are Christian, either, but instead of using Mormons as the hapless butt of some kind of anti-religious diatribe, they made a great effort to understand Mormon culture and deal with it sympathetically. They said that not only were most Mormons not offended by the play, but that they hear laughter from the audience at inside jokes that non-Mormons would never get.

The music played as part of that interview does not resemble rock or any other current pop style. While no one would mistake it for the musicals of fifty years ago, it has all of the tunefulness and compositional sophistication of the best of the Broadway tradition. I found it very refreshing.

The story involves two young missionaries as they go through their training, become cocky about how well they’ll succeed, and then find themselves in the middle of Uganda’s AIDS epidemic and squalor. One of the young men has a great talent for getting in trouble. All of that allows the musical to spoof not only religion, but issues of race, poverty, and the developing sexual attitudes of young men raised in strict households.

Parker and Stone also created South Park. They added Robert Lopez of Avenue Q to their creative team for The Book of Mormon. The show’s language is often crude. I suppose if it were a movie it would have a PG-13 rating. I doubt if I’d go see it, but it did win nine Tony Awards.

Mary Poppins

My family sang songs from this old favorite movie in the car. They have since been supplanted in the family repertoire by newer stuff, but I still love them and sing them at home.

I wonder how the umbrella scene, the tea party on the ceiling, or popping in and out of chalk pavement pictures could possibly work on stage. But then if a midwestern repertory company can stage a downpour while someone with an umbrella does a song and dance, I’m sure those scenes are wonderful.

One common fault of all of the plays I saw at that theater was that, if I knew the movie, the production stayed too close to it. Didn’t movie adaptations of Broadway musicals always include new songs?

Anyway, the Broadway Mary Poppins will make it as difficult as possible for any other theater merely to imitate the movie. In addition to songs from the film by Richard and Robert Sherman, it has new ones by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Hmm. Maybe they punted on some of the more spectacular movie special effects and cut the scenes.

This definitely G rated show has been running on Broadway now for five years.

Chicago

Chicago has a long history of gangsters and corruption. Chicago the musical is set in the roaring ’20s. The place must have roared like not quite anywhere else. Two young women both killed men in 1924. Both were acquitted of murder after spectacular trials.

The reporter who covered the trials wrote a play about it, called Chicago, which ran on Broadway for 172 performances beginning in 1926. Cecil B. DeMille’s silent film version appeared in 1927. The 1942 Ginger Rogers movie Roxie Hart is loosely based on the same play.

In the 1960s, Gwen Verdon wanted her husband Bob Fosse to make a musical on the 1926 play, but they couldn’t get the rights until the author’s death. Once they did, Fosse enlisted Fred Ebb to write the book and lyrics and John Kander to provide the music.

This version of Chicago opened on Broadway in 1975 and had a run of 936 performances. What’s running on Broadway now is actually the 1996 revival.

Many Broadway musicals depend on elaborate scenery and huge production numbers. This one is simple to the point of minimal scenery and mostly black costumes. Lots of skin, too. It’s a funny take on adultery and violence, and the bad girls get away with murder. Even so, it’s more family friendly than lots of what the networks offer on prime time TV.


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Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Peter Vanderheyden.


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