The Heights Of It (Film Thoughts: In The Heights)

A couple of weeks back, I was invited to an advanced screening of the movie version of ‘In The Heights,’ and I was overjoyed. I had been so looking forward to its release even before the pandemic. It held such promise – Tony award winner, Lin Manuel, directed by john Chu – and I wanted it to be a five star musical. It was going to be my first trip back to the cinemas after more than a year and I wanted it to be monumental. Sadly, I was disappointed. It’s nowhere near a train wreck. As a matter of fact, there are great things in it, and some elements amazed me. It has fantastic performances, and Anthony Ramos will probably be a huge star because of it. But I felt it was too long, and I couldn’t help but edit some parts of it in my mind.

But let’s start with the good. The film is a visual delight, and it starts of magnificently – the opening number sets the mood effectively, and it’s so great to look at you don’t know where to start staring. The cinematography is bursting with colors, and each explosion is a treat for the eye. The score – even though it is not my cup of tea – is orchestrated beautifully, and it sure sounds full-bodied. And yes, I would say most of the performances are great, starting with Ramos’ star-making Usnavi. Melissa Barrera, who I know from Vida, is a striking presence here (I didn’t know she could sing!) and for the most part, everyone gave justice to their roles (even Lin Manuel in a role specifically made for him)

Yet, there is a hollowness in there I could not shake. Some of the songs just don’t work for me, and I felt like it’s the same song over and over. Its plot was never its strongest, and the additions and subtractions in the screenplay did not help. And I do think some judicious cuts would have been welcome. I mean, if I got a little bored, can you imagine the average moviegoer?

I didn’t like that I felt that way, so I wanted to watch it a second time before writing my thoughts. And yes, for the most part I felt the same, though I do think that I enjoyed it maybe a tad more the second time around. Maybe I was more relaxed – I had a little bit of anxious energy when I was at the movie theater. And I must also add …what do I know? The crowd I saw it that night gave the film thunderous applause that night. And sure, while I wanted the film to be truly fantastic, it being good is still an achievement. 

Up On the Roof (Film Thoughts: Fiddler A Miracle Of Miracles)

MV5BMDIxMzEwZjEtMmExMS00OTZkLTljOTktYmJjYTQ2Mzg4Nzg2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODAzODU1NDQ@._V1_I knew the songs from ‘Fiddler On The Roof’ before I knew the show. I was very aware of the popular songs out of context, and to be honest, I kind of did not like them, from the vantage point of their 60’s pop arrangements. When I met Sheldon Harnick, I told him I loved ‘Fiddler,’ everyone in our circle kept on telling him how much they loved ‘Fiddler.’ (I was the non-conformist who told him my favorite was ‘The Rothchilds’)  It was only when I started getting deep into musical theater research   that I truly appreciated “Fiddler,’ the show, and, really, I hadn’t seen any production of it since the 1990 revival. (I hadn’t really grasped the depth of ‘Matchmaker Matchmaker’ as a aong until I saw it on stage) When I started collecting cast recordings, I was amazed by how many recordings the show had and I devoured each one.

So it was wonderful to finally see Max Lewkowicz’s ‘Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles,’  as I had been looking forward to seeing it for weeks. A friend of mine saw it and couldn’t contain his raves.  And he is right, this film delivered for me in so many ways, a rare treat for a theater geek like me. It certainly showed how the musical became so beloved, and how it connected with a lot of people (Someone described it as ‘very Japanese,’)  I loved how Lewkowicz traced the musical’s origins:  Sholem Aleichem’s short stories and Chagall’s paintings,  to its troubled out-of-town tryouts that made director Jerome Robbins ‘bludgeon’ the show to to the version that ran on Broadway for eight years. The documentary also touched upon how Robbins was a terror director, although the Master himself Stephen Sondheim in here also says doesn’t know a more creative person than Robbins. These are the kinds of anecdotes that make me live life better. I wish there were more, even as the film packs a lot of them.

After seeing the film, it inspired me to play the original Cast Recording again, and it even gives these songs more texture for me. I know all theater lovers will see this film, but I hope it casts a wider net pulling in people into rediscovering the show.

Have Yourself A Zombie Little Christmas (Movie Thoughts: Anna and The Apocalypse)

nyccposteraataA Christmas Zombie Movie Musical? What a fun idea. That’s exactly what John McPhail’s ‘Anna and the Apocalypse is,’ wherein a teenager (Ella Hunt as Anna) is just trying to live her life, getting ready to go to Australia for her gap year, when she wakes up and find zombies have invaded her town and has started killing people. And it’s Christmas to boot. It’s a cute idea, and of course, I will pay attention because it is a musical. For me, though, it is more a great idea than a good executed one. It’s not bad, and I bet you it will get some kind of cult following (I can see young musical theater kids lapping this up) but the music here doesn’t really fit the definition of a musical. I would call this more a movie with songs, and actually the songs (by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly) aren’t bad, in the vein of songs-with-mostly-hook-and-no-melodies structure. And the kids sell them – Hunt and the gang give it proper conviction. I wish I connected to it more, but horror-tinged hings, even if comedic, just do not appeal to me. More power to it, though, and hope this inspires others to do more movie musicals.

Love Begins With One Hello (Film Thoughts: Hello Again)

helllo_1507045388I remember seeing ‘Hello Again’ off-Broadway at Lincoln Center many years ago, and I remember disliking it. Even though I liked the performances (Donna Murphy! John Cameron Mitchell!) I really was put off by Michael John LaChiusa’s score. I have always been a purist when it comes to musical theater – I’m old fashioned, please don’t mind me – and it took me a long while to get adjusted to the ‘modern’ composers whose themes are more discordant, and tuneless.

So maybe it’s that maturity that made me appreciate the score now, more than twenty years later, and actually, it really has grown on me, and I even like it a lot now. Or perhaps it’s the MTV effect. Paired with the great visuals in the film, the music resonated more. The show was inspired by Arthur Shnitzler’s La Ronda, and features vignettes of people engaging in sexual acts, all done elegantly, so there’s nothing smutty here.

s592I loved this movie, and I had reservations. It was perfectly cast with a cast with blazing screen presences, voices that life the score, and sensuality that is needed to essay the score. I cannot think of anyone who is a weak link – everyone was perfect. To my eyes, the male cast was perfection – starting with Gerald Nolan Funk and Al Calderone. And has Cheyenne Jackson ever been sexier on film? I was mesmerized by Tyler Blackburn (Where has he been all my life?) and thought T R Knight was best with his scene from the Titanic.

And of course, Audra McDonald. She sizzles on screen as she does on stage. You cannot take your eyes off her, and when she sings, angels would take notes. I hadn’t known that Rumer Willis (of Demi and Bruce) was good like this good, and Martha Plimpton always delivers.

The vignettes, to me, played like music videos, and probably better suited for this medium. Some of the sexuality seems tempered, but I guess that wasn’t really the point of the film. But to me, the whole was very enjoyable, and when the credits started to roll, I wanted more.

Beauty Is Beauty (Music Thoughts: Beauty And The Beast Original Motion Picture Soundtrack 2017)

XVCOMBO18Whenever someone asks me what my favorite Disney cartoon is, I always say ‘Beauty And The Beast,’ and when asked why, I always say that it is because I think it is the most romantic of all the titles. So of course I have been interested in the ‘live action’ version of it that’s coming up, although really, there’s a part of me that thinks the original must be preserved (and I am not even the biggest animated film fan)  But Disney will always be the money hungry Disney, so recycle recycle, recycle!

But, for me anyway, the score is the real star of the film. Alan Menken’s music and Howard Ashman’s words are perfect together, and whenever I hear the title track, I am reminded of the rumour that Ashman wrote that as an AIDS allegory (they say the same thing about ‘Part Of Your World’ from ‘The Little Mermaid’) That core is in perfect hands based on the soundtrack – all the principals sing the songs well, and give textured aural performances. Emma Watson is great as Belle, in ‘Something There,’ and ‘Belle,’ and Emma Thompson gives a wise reading of Mrs. Pott’s version of the title track. Based on this recording, the movie is perfectly cast. The additional songs here, written by Menken with Tim Rice, are fine, although I suspect they will fare better after seeing the movie, which i am, now more than ever, desiring to see.

The Movie In My Mind (Movie Thoughts: Miss Saigon 25th Anniversary Presentation, Fathom Events)

14354958_539173059613102_3258299395576722054_nI am a Broadway super fan, everyone knows that. But I am a Miss Saigon duper duper fan, if such a thing exists. It is one show I truly love – I know every word of its score, and it is the one musical I have seen probably close to fifty times. I am at that age now when I see a show that gets a revival,  I can say “I saw that when it first came out’  But yes, I did see Miss Saigon in 19189 with the Original London Cast, and in 1991, with its original Broadway cast. So yeah, the show and I have major history.

When I saw the London Revival Cast in 2014, I was, again, awed by the show, though if I must be honest, the scaled-down production seemed just a tad cheap compared to its earlier production. But, it worked well with what it got. There were some changes that annoyed me, but all in all, I think it got right everything that needed to be improved from the original.

So here we are, and that production has been filmed for theatrical cinema release. This performance was from September 22, 2014, and I realized that I saw the show three days before they filmed this. (I found out that the film version was culled from a couple of performances)  The big ‘get’ from this release is that it was filmed on its 25th Anniversary, and on that night, original cast members Jonathan Pryce, Lea Salonga, and Simon Bowman show up to ‘celebrate.’

But first, the show. I was kind of skeptical about this film, because, really, one can never capture the energy and heart of a live performance on film. But about five minutes into a film, I realized that this was thought of as a film, and it is astonishingly brilliant. We get closeups, and strategic camera angles that draw us in vividly into the story. The staging, frankly, is almost non-existent, and the frame is brought out enough to make the show cinematic. You never feel caged in, and you will notice details you never would have thought of if you were watching this on stage. (Did you know Kim holds Chris’s name plate while they sing ‘Sun And Moon?’)  And the performances feel even more intimate – Eva Noblezada is a wonder – her subtlety here is even more powerful – and the pain in her eyes is more piercing. Alistair Brammer is photogenic, and their love is bigger, more brilliant, so it consequence is more painful. The engineer’s role is a stage conceit, and Jon Jon Briones’ big performance is dwarfed here, and suffers, but you still get it. This is still the show, and I even told myself, after all these years, after all these performances, this is still a piece that never fails to make me cry. Again, I wept. When Pryce and Salonga show up after the curtain, you get swept into a fine air of nostalgia.

In a lot of cases, the film is even bigger than the show. On screen, its flaws are masked by the medium’s slickness. This ‘capture’ is excellent, and I suspect, will be a template for future stage-to-screen transitions.

When Hope is Gone, Gaman (Stage Thoughts: Allegiance, The Longacre Theater)

allegianceToday, the musical ‘Allegiance’ marks its 111th, and final, performance at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway. Touted as the first ever Broadway musical created, directed, and performed by Asian Americans, one may be asking, where did it go wrong? But I want to start by stating where it went right.

I first saw this show at its pre-Bradway tryout in September 2012 (I wrote about it here ) and I had a lot of problems with the show then. The good news is, this production is much improved. The story, which I felt was convoluted then, is much streamlined now, and is more focused. The cast is uniformly superb, with great performances from Lea Salonga (Kei Kimura), Terry Leung (Sammy Kimura), and George Takei (who was underused in the previous production) And the Broadway production, in my opinion, packs a more emotional punch. Even Lin Manuel Miranda has stated that the show left him in tears. (For the record, I got choked up here a couple of times as well)

16314_show_portrait_largeBut there are still problematic aspects. The book, by Jay Kuo, Marc Acito, and Lorenzo Thione, more times than not feels more a history lesson than entertainment. It tries to do so much, much of it unnecessary. (And even then, Japanese American scholars raises some troublesome inaccuracies ) I always felt Salonga’s character felt shoehorned into the story and while that’s less obvious now, it still sometimes feels like an awkward fit. And it could be my imagination, but I felt a lot less Sammy in this version. And the score, with music and lyrics by Jay Kuo, veers more towards the 90s pop opera scores of Les Miserablé and Miss Saigon, with songs that employ generic Oprah-isms that rarely move the story forward (Look at some song titles: “Higher,” “Stronger Than Before,” “Resist”)  You hear a little it of Japanese flutes that give some songs a generic Asian flavor, and there are songs like “Ishi Kara Ishi” and “Gaman” that tries to mine the Asian experience, but most of this is generic, and unfortunately forgettable. (I have to admit that repeated listenings of the cast recording have made me appreciate the score more, maybe because of the spirited singing of the cast)

I’ll go back to the good things: Leung and Katie Rose Clarke have a cute low energy chemistry, and Takei is affecting. Salonga sings her heart out, and in her much anticipated Broadway return, shows you her golden pipes – she leads most of the numbers and her 9:15 number, ‘Higher’ becomes epic only because of her. (Someone give this girl a better show!)  I wish ‘Allegiance’ was better, and it had found an audience, but I think it went as far as it could.


The Last Five Tears (Movie Thoughts: The Last Five Years)

I didn’t like “The Last Five Years” Off-Broadway years ago, and the score I thought was particularly un-tuneful. (I was very surprised when I found out that the musical had a cult following) But I was younger, bitchier, and, admittedly, with musicals I can be a bit old-fashioned. Nowadays, Jason Robert Brown’s score appears more conventional, though if I were to be honest, the whole thing still sounds like one long tuneless song. But there’s two great things to love in the movie version of “The Last Five Years,” and those two things are Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. This movie really works because of them, as they are so appealing on screen – pretty to look at, so talented, so engaging that I was able to overcome all the problems I had with the movie. The structure can be a bit confusing (her story is told backwards, his is forward) but director Richard LaGravenese presents them in such a clean straightforward manner that you get it right away. Even the corny songs, like Jamie’s “story” songs work because Jordan is on top of his game that you believe, you just believe. Jordan is one of those performers that rises above his character even if they are badly written and one dimensional (see NBC’s SMASH) But oh my, Anna Kendrick is a star, isn’t she? If she isn’t already one, her performance here is of the megastar-making kind. She is funny, she sings like a tuna, and she broke my heart. This is a great romantic drama – realistic, poignant, heart smashing. It was finally released for Valentine’s Day, and give it as a gift to yourself.