What Once Was Lost by Matthew Murray

    GoneXanadu0120-2.jpgReclamation as a subject or raison d'être for musicals is pretty uncommon, unless what's being recovered is someone's heart or soul. You know, boring stuff. But two musicals that made big splashes last summer and have recently released cast recordings exist for no other artistic reason than to prove that something you think is absent forever was merely only waiting for rediscovery.

    Of the two, Gone Missing is the more obvious application of this idea. A product of the Off-Broadway company The Civilians, the musical became a surprise hit when it opened at the Barrow Street Theatre early this past summer and ran until just a couple of weeks ago. As its title suggests, Gone Missing, constructed by Steven Cosson from interviews conducted by members of the company, focused on things we consider valuable but nonetheless lose: shoes, body parts, hearts, and sanity among them. In the theater, the show was a sweet tribute to the evanesence of life, performed by a game cast of unknowns and staged by Cosson as an often engrossing example of the anti-musical musical theatre so popular with today's cutting-edge troupes.

    Michael Friedman's score is lively and varied, counting post-modern pop, Spanish, country, and German lieder among its styles, and it comes across broadly and well on the Ghostlight disc. But it was the spoken stories even more than the musical numbers that gave Gone Missing its unusual contemplative weight. Without them—and the cast recording features only the sparest fragments of dialogue—the recording plays far more sedately than the show itself did, coming across more as a lighthearted revue than a clear-eyed look at problems everyone can relate to. Few who hear the recording without seeing the show will be able to imagine how something that sounds so conventional was in fact one of the more daring musicals to hit New York stages in several seasons.

    In contast, Xanadu is daring only by dint of its very existence: The idea that anyone, much less a respected playwright like Douglas Carter Beane (As Bees in Honey Drown, The Little Dog Laughed), would waste his or her time (or investors money) bringing to the Broadway stage one of the most catastrophic of cinematic flops, is too outrageously implausible to be believed. Yet because magic often happens where and when you least expect it, Xanadu turned out to be an avalanche of entertainment, with good reviews, respectable audiences, and now an invigorating PS Classics cast recording to prove it.

    As with Gone Missing, you'll hear precious little dialogue. But the songs, by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar of Electric Light Orchestra, and the cast singing them, carry themselves so well that you won't feel you're missing out on even a second of the fun. With liquidy, disco-infused songs like "I'm Alive," "All Over the World," "Suspended in Time," and the title track, you'll find yourself transported back (whether you want to be or not) to the early 1980s, while still enjoying the vocal versatility of star Kerry Butler (in the role made infamous by Olivia Newton-John), the dopey Valley Boy of Cheyenne Jackson, the giddy grumpiness of Tony Roberts, and the magnificent mugging of villainous Muses Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman. One of the few current cast recordings that's as great for parties as for solo listening, Xanadu is over the top, out of its league, and pointless to the extreme. But the show proves that an original-thinking playwright and Broadway's best performing talent can transform a failed experiment into a musical-comedy triumph.


    HowDoes0120.jpgCan something be a lost opportunity if it succeeds mightily at what it attempts, but fails in the grander scheme of things? That's the burning question left by the gorgeous and often-thrilling new book How Does the Show Go On?: An Introduction to the Theater.

    On one hand, it's as extravagant a tour through today's professional theatre as anyone could hope for. Its nearly 130 pages are packed with photos of productions onstage and off, dozens of performers and show-biz personnel from designers and stage managers to box-office workers and publicity folk. It also includes such above-and-beyond feelies like an actual Broadway ticket, the full show-listing section of a Playbill, costume sketches, detailed before-and-after demonstrations of stage makeup, and script and prompt-book pages. Awash in color, action, and insider information, it's quite simply the best-looking and most useful primer on the theatre for children I've seen in years—maybe ever. And it's priced at an astonishingly low $19.95.

    The problem? Because it was written by Jeff Kurtti and Thomas Schumacher, the latter the president of Disney Theatrical Productions Ltd. and producer of The Lion King, and published by Disney Editions, it's not just mostly Disney—it's all Disney. Oh, if you search very carefully, you can find a few infrequent mentions of nonthreatening titles like Peter Pan, iconic talents like Cole Porter, and photos of a young Schumacher in South Pacific and Hello, Dolly!. Otherwise, the book focuses exclusively on Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aida, On the Record, Tarzan, and Mary Poppins, with precious few acknowledgements that theatre exists if Disney doesn't have a white-gloved hand in it.

    Of course, no one would expect Disney (or any production company) to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars of free advertising to its rivals. But by focusing on shows where budgetary concerns are essentially nonexistent and which are generally more concerned with extending brands than telling stories, How Does the Show Go On? spends so much time on the craft of theatre it has nearly no time left to discuss the art. (One of the few tidbits of note about writing concerns frequent Disney librettist David Henry Hwang: Since he apparently writes best horizontally, the producers provided him with a yoga mat so he could script new scenes during Tarzan rehearsals. If you saw Tarzan, insert your own joke here.) This does little more than perpetuate the kind of stunningly appointed but meaning-free theatre that has essentially been Disney's trademark for well over a decade.

    This point of view is so intensely limited, and the stable of shows from which to draw so small, that How Does the Show Go On? ultimately seems like a crass attempt to produce more theatregoers for whom only the empty excesses of Disney shows will suffice. That makes this book, which on the surface is so beautiful, so informative, and so ceaseless positive, too dangerous to automatically recommend for the theatregoers of tomorrow. This razor-edged marketing tool should be handled with extreme caution by parents, and only bestowed upon their children if they've already learned the importance of substance over style—a lesson too often forgotten by the Disney musicals this book so loudly trumpets.

    Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 12:01 AM | Item Link

    The last five columns written by Matthew Murray:

    09/01/2008: By the Book

    06/27/2008: An Uncomfortable Visit to the Boundaries of Show Business

    05/29/2008: Revisiting Life on that Wicked—and Wonderful—Stage

    05/10/2008: Ticky Ticky Tock... Please Make it Stop!

    05/06/2008: Welcome Playbill Radio listeners!

    For a listing of all features written by Matthew, click here.