Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Filtering by Tag: Broadway

Springsteen on Broadway

You gotta hand it to Bruce Springsteen.  The guy can compose a great tune, his stage performances are unparalleled, his autobiography is one of the best I’ve read by a musician, and now he’s completed a sort of companion piece with his autobiographic Broadway stage show, no small feat for this aging rocker.  I looked forward to checking out the Springsteen on Broadway release on Netflix a few weeks ago, and while I enjoyed aspects of it, I’m thankful I didn’t shell out $500 to see it in person, and it’s unlikely that I’ll view it again.

Pulling off a two and a half hour stage show with extensive narration is impressive, and the sheer volume of prose Springsteen had to memorize and deliver with conviction is to me no less admirable than, say, the one-man show on Hemingway that I saw Stacy Keach perform last summer at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.  I couldn’t tell by watching the film whether or not Springsteen used a teleprompter, but it wasn’t apparent, and aside from some initial narration that seemed a bit canned and rehearsed, he does a fine job of delivering the material as if for the first time.

It’s the first hour or so of the show that’s particularly hard to watch for me, and I found myself ready to press fast forward through some of the moments that felt routine and self-serving, as of course an autobiographical show must be.  It takes a tremendous ego to think people want to hear your story, but it takes skill to mask that ego enough to appear relatable, and there are times when Springsteen fails at this tightrope act.  Fortunately things begin to turn about mid-way through the show, as if the Boss needed a little time to gain his footing and truly immerse himself in the material, and I found his soliloquies on Vietnam, his father and mother, and the current political climate to be the strongest parts of the show.

His narration would hardly be a matter of critique if Springsteen’s musical performances – there are something like sixteen songs in all – provided their usual redemptive force, but absent the E Street Band, Springsteen’s pedestrian musicianship is glaringly obvious.  Bruce is not an accomplished guitar player, even less so as a pianist, and it’s woefully apparent throughout the show, as his three-chord songs provide no variation or upward lift in the hands of a limited instrumentalist.  Like Melissa Etheridge who I saw perform in Waukegan last month, Springsteen is a great songwriter and gifted lyricist whose music is bolstered by the skills of surrounding musicians, but alone is a strum and hum performer with a limited musical palette.  The Boss also sabotages his own works by reinventing the melodies in uninspiring ways, pausing and slowing things down at times when the song requires lift and momentum, and insisting on singing in his faux-western voice that he’s grown accustomed to using during the past decade and a half or so, summoning his inner Arlo Guthrie that some may find endearing and heartfelt, but I find to be as artificial as his blue-collar lyrics, which he refreshingly admits early in his show, “I made it all up.  That’s how good I am.”

Three songs do rise to the occasion: his stripped-down, dour take of ”Born in the U.S.A.” and the two songs performed with wife Patti Scialfa: “Tougher than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.”  Having a partner to harmonize with and – perhaps more importantly – to play off of, is exactly what the show needs.  Springsteen has made a career out of interacting with his fellow musicians – the joy and sweat shared between his comrades on stages is half the fun of watching him perform – and it’s lacking for most of this Broadway show. 

Still, I can’t think of many artists who could pull off a relatively sincere theatrical show for 236 performances, sell the hell out of it, and still have demand to showcase it on Netflix.  I’m glad it exists, and it isn’t a bad legacy for the old man to leave behind – that of a great storyteller with love for his country and its people, and concern for its future.  I wish there were more artists – and hell, more people  - like the Boss.  Check out the entire show on demand on Netlfix.

The Sorry State of Broadway

Waiting among thousands for the Broadway in Chicago Summer Concert at Millennium Park last week, I scanned the ten shows that were to be reviewed that evening and couldn’t believe how utterly lame Broadway has become.  Of the ten shows, there wasn’t one fully original production.  Not one.  Instead, we were treated to the equivalent of a classic rock band, feeding on the familiar, with not one surprise in the lot.

Here’s the breakdown:

Continuing the trend that was perfected in the 90s, five of the musicals are based on movies: Once, Ghost, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Elf and Flashdance.

Three shows are showcases of already-familiar music: We Will Rock You, Motown and Million Dollar Quartet.

Two of the shows are productions of shows that are at least ten years old: Wicked and Evita.

There you have it. 

This is hardly a new phenomenon on Broadway.  For over twenty years now, the high cost of musical flops have spurred producers to rely on a built-in audience, spawning shows such as the Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Big, The Producers, Spamalot, Billy Elliot, The Adam’s Family, etc.  This year, all four nominees for best musical were based on movies: winner Kinky Boots, Matilda, A Christmas Story and Bring it On.  But hey, at least these musicals had some original music.  More and more, there are the jukebox musicals, showcasing music the audience is already familiar with.  Building off the success of Mama Mia and Jersey Boys, musical lovers have been bombarded with these types of productions in recent years: Movin’ Out, All Shook Up, Ring of Fire, Rock of Ages, etc.

As for Evita and Wicked, both are both original shows that were phenomenally successful.  Kudos to Stephen Schwartz and the writing due of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.  Can you write something new now?

I wondered if perhaps the city of Chicago didn’t compare to the originality showcased in New York, but shows currently running (or soon to be running) in the Big Apple are the following:

Annie, Big Fish, The Bridges of Madison County, Bullets over Broadway, Cinderella, Chicago, Jersey Boys, Kinky Boots, Les Miserables, The Lion King, Mama Mia, Matilda, Motown, Newsies, Once, The Phantom of the Opera, Rock of Ages, Rocky (seriously) and Wicked.

Shows like this year’s best musical winner, Kinky Boots, and Big Fish, should perhaps get a free pass, because they’re not based on a blockbuster movie, and therefore are produced not with a built-in audience in mind, but with the thought that the musical will be more successful than the film.  In a sense, this is no different than if the musical had been based on a book.  I saw Big Fish last spring in Chicago, and am hopeful that it generates an interest in Manhattan (see my review).   But the likes of 2011 winner The Book of Mormon and 2008 winner In the Heights are all too rare.  

When will Broadway begin to wag the dog of Hollywood instead of dutifully following its master?

Big Fish - The Musical

Producing a musical based on a movie based on a book, the 2003 film having only grossed $66 million domestically, ranking 43rd for that year, takes some serious chutzpah.  The producers must have been sold on a huge leap of faith: that Big Fish is going to translate so well on stage compared to the film, it won’t need to rely on a built-in audience the way other musicals have (Dirty Dancing, The Lion King, The Addams Family, etc.).  Watching one of the final performances of Big Fish’s pre-Broadway run in Chicago last evening in a mostly empty balcony, I got the sense that the show will need to be tweaked in order to fulfill its promise, and even that might not be enough.  I actually enjoyed the show a great deal and was happy to have spent the money to see it.  But spectacular stage sets with creative use of multimedia, superb acting and singing by the three leads, and some fine melodies aside, there are three improvements the musical needs to make before it debuts in New York in September.

First, the show could benefit from a few reprises to help ingrain the finer of composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa’s melodies into the audience’s minds.  Some tunes are one-offs, pleasant little ditties that serve their purpose in one take (both ”I Know what you Want” and “Bigger” hit the mark beautifully), but others, most notably “This River Between Us” and “Daffodils,” could have benefitted from a reprisal, even if just in passing within a different tune.  Motifs are important in musicals or in any other extended work, and Big Fish suffers without them. 

Second, the ending of the first act, “Daffodils,” aims very high but falls just a bit flat.  I could tell what they were going to do minutes before it arrived, and I sensed that they were attempted to hit the high mark set by musicals such as Wicked’s “Defying Gravity” or, more probable, Sunday in the Park with George, when Georges Seurat’s masterpiece is displayed in all its radiant glory, but the field of Daffodils didn’t provide the lift they were meant to.  The result certainly can’t be classified as a Spinal Tap moment (when a miniature Stonehenge arrives on stage to the embarrassment of the band), but it should have made a bigger impact.  This will need to be rectified in New York.

Third is most problematic.  Like the film, the stage production of Big Fish lacks a plot.  There is nothing particularly dramatic to move the story forward.  A father with a penchant to tell tall takes and a son who wants to see the real man behind the stories don’t see eye to eye.  Big deal.  Additional conflict is required to keep the audience engaged.  There is a reveal at the end of Act One that’s meant to advance the plot, but to me, it wasn’t terribly important or interesting.  Suspected infidelity?  From a son who already doesn’t respect his father?  That’s hardly enough to fill a second act.

I’m not suggesting that the story be something it isn’t.  For me, fictional works of realistic people in realistic situations are always more interesting than fanciful creations, so why not throw some additional tension into the story?  Both of the wives, Sandra Bloom and Josephine Bloom, are left to play the role of supportive, one-dimensional characters: never bothered, always understanding, unrealistically wise.  How about making them human?  One or two additional scenes – a conflict between the son and his new bride, or between the son and his mother – would likely be enough to keep Big Fish from feeling like a day of casting on a calm lake.

Big Fish is clearly a labor of love for writer John August, Andrew Lippa and director Susan Stroman.  A few more waves, or even a white cap or two, might be enough to turn this beautifully done production into a sustainable Broadway musical.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved