REVIEW: NBC’s “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Musical!”

Everyone is familiar with Dr. Seuss’ classic Christmas story, How The Grinch Stole Christmas. It’s been adapted multiple times for the screen—an animated special, a live-action film starring Jim Carrey, and a full length animated film starring Benedict Cumberbatch. In the mid-2000s, it was also adapted for the Broadway stage by Timothy Mason and Mel Marvin. That production starred Patrick Page (of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark and Hadestown fame) and quickly became a go-to favorite for regional and community theaters. And now, NBC is giving it the primetime TV treatment. Similar to their ongoing tradition of staging live musicals during the holiday season, NBC has decided to broadcast a newly-filmed production of Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Musical straight from London—this time starring Matthew Morrison as the Grinch. While it isn’t live, like the other NBC musicals, it’s still a fully staged production. And, to be honest, it’s so much worse than I expected it to be. Unlike most of the NBC live musicals, which have been plagued by technical problems and questionable casting choices, The Grinch Musical is plagued by a bafflingly bad script, woefully miscast lead actors, and a score that is almost uniformly boring. (1.5 out of 5 wands.)

Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Musical! (written by Simon Nye and Mel Marvin; composed by Timothy Mason, Albert Hague, and Dr. Seuss; directed by Max Webster and Julia Knowles)
Dr. Seuss’ beloved book tells the story of a reclusive Grinch (Matthew Morrison) who plotted from his cave atop snowy Mt. Crumpit to steal Christmas from the Whos in Who-ville. Then on Christmas Eve, disguised as Santa Claus and enlisting his loyal dog Max (Denis O’Hare as Adult Max, Booboo Stewart as Young Max) as a reindeer, the Grinch traveled to Who-ville to scoop up the Whos’ gifts and decorations. Much to his surprise on Christmas morning, the Whos were unfazed and celebrated the holiday with a heartwarming display of joy and love.

This musical version, with book and lyrics by Tim Mason and music by Mel Marvin and featuring the hit songs “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome Christmas” (by Albert Hague & Dr. Seuss), breathes new life into this timeless story. The lush and whimsical staging by award-winning director Max Webster, directed for television by BAFTA winner Julia Knowles, with additional script material by BAFTA-winning writer Simon Nye and featuring sets by acclaimed designer Peter Bingemann, will set the mood for a beautiful holiday celebration.

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REVIEW: “Song of Spider-Man” by Glen Berger

It has been a decade since Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark first began previews, accompanied by endless reports about injured actors and workplace safety hazards. With a budget exceeding sixty million dollars, an endless barrage of reported injuries, and suggestions that the plot was nigh incoherent, the musical had all the makings of a colossal train wreck. And, for a while, it delivered on that promise, with continued reports of technical mistakes and feuding creatives. But, eventually, it just fizzled out. After months and months of previews, the ousting of its director, and endless lousy press, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark opened on June 14, 2011. But what happened? Glen Berger, co-writer of the musical’s script, seeks to answer this in his account of the musical’s creation, Song of Spider-Man. While reading as more of a gossipy, biased memoir than an objective, neutral account, Song of Spider-Man is an entertaining and revealing look at how Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark went from being an anticipated Broadway spectacle to a “sixty-five million dollar circus tragedy.” (4 out of 5 wands.)

Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History (by Glen Berger)
As you might imagine, writing a Broadway musical has its challenges. But it turns out there are challenges one can’t begin to imagine when collaborating with two rock legends and a superstar director to stage the biggest, most expensive production in theater history. Renowned director Julie Taymor picked playwright Glen Berger to cowrite the book for a $25 million Spider-Man musical. Together—along with U2’s Bono and Edge—they would shape a work that was technically daring and emotionally profound, with a story fueled by the hero’s quest for love…and the villains’ quest for revenge. Or at least, that’s what they’d hoped for.

But when charismatic producer Tony Adams died suddenly, the show began to lose its footing. Soon the budget was ballooning, financing was evaporating, and producers were jumping ship or getting demoted. And then came the injuries. And then came word-of-mouth about the show itself. What followed was a pageant of foul-ups, falling-outs, ever-more harrowing mishaps, and a whole lot of malfunctioning spider legs. This “circus-rock-and-roll-drama,” with its $65 million price tag, had become more of a spectacle than its creators ever wished for. During the show’s unprecedented seven months of previews, the company’s struggles to reach opening night inspired breathless tabloid coverage and garnered international notoriety. Through it all, Berger observed the chaos with his signature mix of big ambition and self-deprecating humor.

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REVIEW: “Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway” by Michael Riedel

There’s nothing quite like Broadway drama. Between the divas who star in shows and the even bigger ones who write and produce them, there is never a dull moment behind the scenes of a Broadway show. This was especially true during the 1990s and early 2000s—the era of Broadway’s resurgence in American popular culture, which makes this time period the perfect topic for Michael Riedel, longtime theatre columnist for the New York Post, to write about. His latest book, Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway, often reads like more of a gossip column than a historical account, but is a quick, devilishly entertaining read for all Broadway lovers. (4 out of 5 wands.)

(Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher and NetGalley. All opinions are my own.)

Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway by Michael Riedel
The 1990s was a decade of profound change on Broadway. At the dawn of the nineties, the British invasion of Broadway was in full swing, as musical spectacles like Les MiserablesCats, and The Phantom of the Opera dominated the box office. But Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard soon spelled the end of this era and ushered in a new wave of American musicals, beginning with the ascendance of an unlikely show by a struggling writer who reimagined Puccini’s opera La Bohème as the smash Broadway show Rent. American musical comedy made its grand return, culminating in The Producers, while plays, always an endangered species on Broadway, staged a powerful comeback with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. A different breed of producers rose up to challenge the grip theater owners had long held on Broadway, and corporations began to see how much money could be made from live theater.

And just as Broadway had clawed its way back into the mainstream of American popular culture, the September 11 attacks struck fear into the heart of Americans who thought Times Square might be the next target. But Broadway was back in business just two days later, buoyed by talented theater people intent on bringing New Yorkers together and supporting the economics of an injured city.

Michael Riedel presents the drama behind every mega-hit or shocking flop, bringing readers into high-stakes premieres, fraught rehearsals, tough contract negotiations, intense Tony Award battles, and more. From the bitter feuds to the surprising collaborations, all the intrigue of a revolutionary era in the Theater District is packed into Singular Sensation. Broadway has triumphs and disasters, but the show always goes on.

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REVIEW: “Working on a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown” by Anaïs Mitchell

Hadestown is one of my favorite musicals from the last few years. It moved me in a way that many musicals fail to do. I found the whole thing utterly captivating and gorgeous. It’s one of those rare musicals where the entirety of the show is delivered through its music and lyrics. Sure, the staging plays a large part in the deliverance of the story, but there is no spoken dialogue. Everything that’s said on stage comes from the music – all of which came from the mind of Anaïs Mitchell. And that’s what makes Working on a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown so appealing. It’s widely known how difficult writing musicals is. So, when it was announced that a book exploring the lyrics of Hadestown was due to be published, along with extensive commentary from Mitchell, I was immediately curious to see what all she’d talk about in the book. And, man, if you’re looking for insight into how composers and lyricists craft musical, this is the book for you. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)

In this book, Anaïs Mitchell takes readers inside her more than decade’s-long process of building the musical from the ground up—detailing her inspiration, breaking down the lyrics, and opening up the process of creation that gave birth to Hadestown. Fans and newcomers alike will love this deeply thoughtful, revealing look at how the songs from “the underground” evolved, and became the songs we sing again and again.

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REVIEW: “Hamilton” on Disney+

Anyone who knows me knows that I went through a pretty hardcore Hamilton phase when that musical first hit Broadway. I played the album all the time, I knew the vast majority of the lyrics. I adored that show. And I still do, even if I think In the Heights is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s superior show. So, naturally, when the news broke that Disney+ would be debuting the live capture of the show, recorded just before the original cast departed, over a year earlier than expected, I was devilishly excited. I’d only seen bits and pieces of the show, having never had a chance to see it in person, and I was so ready to finally see this show that I loved. Well, now that I’ve seen the film, how do I feel? I mean, it’s Hamilton and I love Hamilton. But, to be honest, this capture is a bit of a mixed bag. (4 out of 5 wands.)

Hamilton (directed by Thomas Kail, written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda)
An unforgettable cinematic stage performance, the filmed version of the original Broadway production of “Hamilton” combines the best elements of live theater, film and streaming to bring the cultural phenomenon to homes around the world for a thrilling, once-in-a-lifetime experience. “Hamilton” is the story of America then, told by America now. Featuring a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, R&B and Broadway, “Hamilton” has taken the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton and created a revolutionary moment in theatre—a musical that has had a profound impact on culture, politics, and education. Filmed at The Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway in June of 2016, the film transports its audience into the world of the Broadway show in a uniquely intimate way.

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Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Should Get; or How to Update the Women of “Damn Yankees” – An Editorial

gwen1955’s Damn Yankees, with a libretto by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, music by Richard Adler, and lyrics by Jerry Ross, is iconic in its own right. It is a retelling of the classic Faust story, with Joe Boyd selling his soul to Mr. Applegate in order to play for his favorite baseball team – the Washington Senators. It marked the first collaboration between Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, leading to their multi-decade relationship and partnership. It ran for 1,019 performances on Broadway and spawned a reasonably successful film adaptation in 1958. So, why is Damn Yankees revived so rarely? Aside from a short, but successful, run in 2008 as part of the City Center Encores! Series, the last major American production of the show was its 1994 revival – a revival that ran for over two years, itself. If the show is as popular as it seems, why is it so rarely done outside of schools and other smaller theatres? Perhaps it has something to do with its subject matter and how well it has stood the test of time? That is certainly true for other Golden Age musicals. But is it true for Damn Yankees? Maybe not. In fact, Damn Yankees is one of the rare Golden Age musicals that holds up relatively well. However, there are certainly things that can be done to make it more appealing for a modern audience – most notably an update in its depiction of women. Continue reading

REVIEW: “Bandstand: The Broadway Musical”

bandstandAmong the artistic industries suffering the hardest during the COVID-19 crisis is the Broadway community. Unlike with film and TV, Broadway has nearly nothing “in the can” that they can roll out to fill the time all of their theatres are shut down. No shows can be performed while all the theatres are closed and nobody can gather to see them. So, what is Broadway to do? Answer: release some of the musicals they’ve professionally filmed over the years. Which is where Bandstand enters. Directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler and featuring a book and lyrics by Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor and music by Richard Oberacker, Bandstand tells the story of a group of PTSD-suffering World War II veterans who, after returning home from the war, form a band and compete in a nationwide songwriting competition. The show opened on April 26, 2017, and closed on September 17, 2017, playing only 166 performances. The musical was filmed towards the end of its run and shown in movie theaters in November 2018. Yet most of the public, even the theatre-going public, probably haven’t heard of it. With its early closure, its mixed reviews, and its lack of any major Tony nominations, Bandstand would seem to the definition of a flop destined to rot in obscurity. But does it deserve that reputation? From a financial standpoint, sure. But from a creative one? I’d argue the opposite. I’d argue that Bandstand is one of those forgotten treasures that hit Broadway at exactly the wrong time. It’s a show filled with captivating characterizations and excellent music and is well worth a watch. (Spoilers for Bandstand follow.)

Bandstand (directed by Andy Blankenbuehler, lyrics by  Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor and music by Richard Oberacker)
1945; as America’s soldiers come home to ticker-tape parades and overjoyed families, Private First Class Donny Novitski, singer and songwriter, returns to rebuild his life with only the shirt on his back and a dream in his heart. When NBC announces a national competition to find the nation’s next great musical superstars, inspiration strikes! Donny joins forces with a motley group of fellow veterans, forming a band unlike any the nation has ever seen. Along the way, they discover the power of music to face the impossible, find their voice and finally feel like they have a place to call home.

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REVIEW: “The Prince of Egypt – Original Cast Recording”

prince of egyptAs I say every time I review an album, I don’t consider myself a music reviewer. I know the basics of what makes a song work, but I do know what I like and I mostly know why I like it. I do consider myself someone who can review musicals, though, which is why I’ll occasionally review the cast album for a musical. A good cast album should be able to stand on its own as a wholly complete piece of music but should also be a good representation of the musical and its plot. This is where The Prince of Egypt enters. I grew up watching the film and absolutely adore it. It’s once of my favorite animated musicals of all time and I’ve long wanted it to be adapted for the stage, much like Disney does with their animated films. And it’s finally happened. A big, grande adaptation opened in London’s West End earlier this year, and its cast album dropped today. Featuring all-but-one of the film’s songs and a whole host of new songs by original lyricist and composer, Stephen Schwartz, can this new musical hold a candle to its iconic source material? In short: more or less.

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REVIEW: “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – The Journey” by Jody Revenson

hpcursedI am one of the (seemingly) few people who really liked the script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but I felt it had a lot of really interesting ideas and it explored some themes that I thought were worthwhile to explore in a Harry Potter story. But more than that, it seemed like the kind of story that could only work on stage; the kind of production that would have taken countless amounts of people and manhours to pull off. As someone who is literally in university studying theatre, the making of a play as huge as this one was always going to be of interest to me, especially as there’s little chance I’ll be able to make it to Broadway anytime soon to actually see this show staged. So, when Scholastic decided to publish this book all about how the play was created and initially staged, I jumped at the chance to read it. It’s exactly up my wheelhouse, and I have to say that the book does prove to be a really interesting and informative look at the making of this show – even if I do wish it went into a bit more depth.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: The Journey by Jody Revenson
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is one of the most celebrated stage productions of the past decade. Opening in London’s West End in 2016, on Broadway in 2018, in Melbourne in 2019 — and with more productions worldwide still to come (including San Francisco later this year) — the play has smashed records, collected countless rave reviews and awards, and captivated audiences night after night. Now readers are invited behind the scenes to experience the show’s journey to the stage — from the earliest phases of development with producers Sonia Friedman and Colin Callender, to the crafting of the eighth Harry Potter story with J.K. Rowling, director John Tiffany, and playwright Jack Thorne, to the gathering of an extraordinary team of artists and actors together to bring this new part of Harry Potter’s story to life.

With stunning photography, insightful interviews, and never-before-seen sketches, notes, candid backstage photos, and more, this full-color deluxe edition offers readers unparalleled access to this unique production, and is a beautiful gift for Harry Potter fans and theater lovers alike.

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REVIEW: “An Act of God” (Play & Audio Drama) by David Javerbaum

an act of godI read this play, and the “memoir” it was based on, a few years ago, when the Sean Hayes production was making its way (back) to Broadway. It was a delightfully charming play; short, effective, hilarious. As is often the case when I read a good play, I found myself longing for it to be filmed and released in some manner – just so I could see and hear Sean Hayes reading this engaging dialogue. Imagine my surprise when, three years later, I heard Audible was going to turn it into one of their Audible Originals, bringing Sean Hayes back into the fold and finally recording this fantastic play so those who couldn’t make it to Broadway (or LA, where Hayes had previously done the show) could hear his take on it. And, I gotta say, it’s so nice getting to hear these words read aloud. (This review will cover both the script itself and the Audible adaptation.)

An Act of God (by David Javerbaum)
The One with the first and last word on everything has finally arrived to set the record straight. After many millennia, and in just 90 minutes, God (assisted by his devoted angels) answers some of the deepest questions that have plagued mankind since Creation.

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