AIDS decimated a generation of great artists, and Howard Ashman is one of its biggest casualties. He died at age 40, and what he accomplished – which is a lot – is just the tip of the iceberg of what he is capable of, artistically. I think he is probably the best of the modern day lyricists – there is wit and charm in his words and they sound always sophisticated and erudite. This fine documentary by Don Hahn shows us just that.
My first introduction to Ashman’s work, ironically, is his 1986 flop musical ‘Smile.’ I remember seeing ti and loving it, but at that time I was young and I loved everything I saw. I remember what attracted me to the show was Marvin Hamlisch – he wrote the music and of course, I knew every word and breath of ‘A Chorus Line.’ I didn’t see ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ until later, and while I admire that show, if is not really my cup of tea. Years later, and even though I am not a Disney cartoon fan, I loved the ‘musicals’ aspect of ‘The Beauty and teh Beast,’ and ‘Alladin,’ of course.
The documentary takes us chronologically through his life and work. Hahn uses mostly voice overs from interviews, and we get a lot of archival footage and cassette recordings of Ashman working. I obviously love the ‘musicals’ section, the segment with Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury recording ‘Be Our Guest’ made my spine tingle. It was harrowing to see how AIDS was teated at that time – Ashman had concerns that Disney would fire him if they found out he had the disease so he had to hide it. His legacy is safe and sound and solid – the three movies he worked on at Disney are modern classics, and we see the studio regurgitating the material in different ways, and they all work. I personally think Alan Menken’s later work with different collaborators pale in comparison to hi work with Ashman. For lovers of musicals, and Disney musicals, this film is a treat.
Covid 19 has instilled some artistic inspiration from some artists, and I understand why – the whole pandemic instills emotion, and I imagine that could be a powerful way to express artistry. Melissa Errico has released a two song EP, titled ‘Two Spring Songs For Summer,’ and she picks two songs that give some meaning to the times we live in. First she sings Alec Wilder’s ‘Blackberry Winter’ and it speaks to how the pandemic has surpised us, halting our lives. On the second song, ‘You Must Believe In Spring,’ the Bergmans add additional lyrics to update for our times now, but the message of hope is still there, conveyed, that if we just believe, everything will be alright. Errico sings with tenderness and hope in both, and it soothes.
There’s a sub-genre of musical theater related recordings that I particularly love – albums by female theater artists. I think Spotify knows that as well (based on my listening habits) because they recently recommended an album” ‘A Piece of Lisa,’ by someone named Lisa Stokke. ( I learn later that album is from 2006) I have no idea who she is, so I googled her. Ahh – she is Norweigan singer/actress, and was in the original London Cast of Mamma Mia. She also sang the official Norwegian version of ‘Let It Go,’ so I know she can definitely sing. And she has a great theater repertoire: ‘Cabaret,’ ‘Someone Like You,’ ‘The Sound of Music,’ among others. She sings them capably well, though at times, I wish she would out her own stamp in them. I still think it’s kind of weird for an adult to sing both ‘Maybe/Tomorrow’ from Annie, but hey, whatever crumbles your cookie. And I am kinda glad she sings ‘Macavity’ here because not a lot of people do (but should she?) All in all, I can listen to this with no guilt.
I am liking this trend of Broadway shows being filmed for posterity, and Disney Theatricals has embarked on it as well by presenting a film version of ‘Newsies,’ the Broadway musical. I saw this show at the Nederlander in 2012 with its original cast and liked the production a lot. And surely, I thought the original cast, particularly Jeremy Jordan (as Jack Kelly) was fantastic. The show has been touring but for this ‘event programming’ they reunited the four principals: Jordan, Kara Lindsay, Ben Fankhauser, Andrew Keenan-Bolger. That made this filmed production even more special.
This show was based on a 1992 Disney movie starring Christian Bale, and had music by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman. For this production, they added seven new songs and the book was written by Harvey Fierstein. The production, in 2012 was nominated for a slew of Tony’s, and the choreography by Christopher Gattelli was mostly lauded. That choreography is preserved here, with a cast of talented and robust dancers. Seeing them is really a treat, and you will definitely be wowed by the leaps and dexterity of these dancers. But just like anything Disney, you ask yourself, why did that just happen? But we shouldn’t second guess, as these scenes are absolute crowd pleasers, and you will find yourself jumping for joy. Jordan is fantastic here, and the big screen just magnifies his star quality. Lindsay is a beautiful romantic lead with a sweet voice. The well-cast ensemble is its biggest asset, and I loved that in their bows, their names were highlighted one by one. The film direction is a bit too busy, as I wish the action was photographed more from afar, so we can see the depth and breadth of the show. The frequent closeups added more intimacy tot he experience, though. This is still very Disney, for better or worse, and I appreciate it for what it is.
Cute and adorable. Those are the two best words to describe “Jack & Louisa Act 1,’ by Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Kate Wetherhead. They are Broadway veterans (He is on the boards right now as the lead in ‘Tuck Everlasting’) who wrote this children’s book aimed at kids aged 8-12. But it’s probably really made for theater aficionados like myself. This is a story of Jack, who is a young actor who starred on Broadway. He moves to Shaker Heights Ohio with his family and meets his neighbour Louisa, who is his kindred spirit when it comes to Broadway shows. They are obsessed with it, listening to original cast recordings day in and day out. I mean, kind of like me. Isn’t it wonderful that kids nowadays have a book like this to relate to, making them feel a little less weird about who they are? Needless to say, I totally loved the book, and the two characters’ exploits, even if the theater snob in me would probably think the theater choices here are a little too ‘popular.’ (If I were going to choose a Sondheim show to get obsessed about, it would probably be ‘Pacific Overtures’) But the real theater lover in me is madly in love with this book, and even as I type, will be starting its sequel.