I Wouldn't Change a Thing About It

I recently read an interesting column by Alexus Soloski on the Guardian website about pop stars in musical theatre. Her primary argument focused on Ricky Martin in the current revival of Evita on Broadway:
Ricky Martin has jaunty hair, shockingly white teeth, flexible limbs, shakeable hips, and a voice as smooth as oiled leather. Remarkable though it may seem, he makes an undershirt and suspenders seem a credible fashion choice. And yet, as many who have seen the recent Broadway revival of Evita know, he's just a little bit dreadful onstage. Yes, he hits every mark and every note, sneers when called to, smiles when needed, but he does it all with the air of a talented trained dog. In saying this, I do not mean to cast aspersions on Martin's intelligence – interviews and album sales confirm his savvy – or his looks, which seemed much admired by many people in the audience. But his Che offered no interiority, no immersion into character. He did exactly what was asked of him externally, but couldn't conjure any sense of inner life. Writing in the New York Times, Ben Brantley called his performance, "polite, vaguely charming and forgettable. You could add "tail-wagging," too.

And that takes the argument beyond pop stars on Broadway to one of the things that concerns and animates me most when it comes to musicals – the considerable difference between performing and acting.

In my opinion, Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin are performers more than actors. Go to YouTube and watch them perform the Act I finale of Evita on the Tony Awards, and you'll see what I mean. There's no character there, nothing behind the eyes; it's all vocal pyrotechnics, posing, and indicating. LuPone is not inside her character and neither is Patinkin. Having worked on Evita myself, I've seen firsthand how complex and nuanced those characters are, but you'd never guess that from these performances. And they look even worse next to Bob Gunton's rich, subtle, textured portrayal of Peron. I guess no one told LuPone that Eva's successes didn't come from volume; they came from charm, warmth, manipulation, sincerity, political savvy. She was complicated. This isn't a cold story; it's a passionate, emotional, fiery story. But you'd never know that from two of the three leads. I had the same problem with Patinkin in Sunday in the Park with George – no inner character life, just that creepy mixed-voice tenor of his...

Hitting the notes isn't the only goal in a musical. Music takes precedence over all else in opera, but it's story that rules the artistic roost in musical theatre.

And quite honestly, far too often I see actors in local musical theatre and in national tours at the Fox performing rather than acting, giving us all the right moves and facial expressions, good singing and/or dancing, but with absolutely nothing underneath. These actors cross the stage because they were blocked that way, because it balances the stage picture, but not because their character wants to get up in the grille of the character on the other side of the stage. And this disconnect between actor and character is indirectly the reason New Line was one of the companies last year that walked away from the Kevin Kline Awards and its citizen judges who base their acting awards for musicals on singing and dancing but almost never on acting. The Kline process just wasn't meant for a company that works like we do.

And all this makes me even more adamant that we New Liners never fall into that trap. There are many elements that make up a piece of musical theatre – story, character, acting, singing, the band, movement, sets, lights, costumes, sound – but we think story is always most important. Always. No exceptions. Which is why we'll never produce [title of show], Evil Dead, or Silence! So when we're casting a show, we will always cast a great actor with a decent singing voice over an amazing singer who can't act very well.

And what we understand about High Fidelity that its Broadway creative staff did not understand is that High Fidelity is a show about one man's internal emotional life. Nothing matters more in this show than that we believe in Rob's internal journey, and that's why we have cast an exceptionally honest actor like Jeff Wright in the role. (Twice.) I insist on truthful acting in all our shows, even the wacky ones, like Return to the Forbidden Planet, Spelling Bee, Two Gents, Urinetown, Bat Boy, and Cry-Baby; but it's even more important in High Fidelity than just about any other show I've ever worked on.

People like musical theatre and buy tickets to musicals specifically (though not necessarily consciously) because it's the most intensely emotional kind of storytelling humans do. To me, producing a musical with phony emotions and superficial characters and relationships is akin to a jeweler selling someone a fake diamond without telling them. People come to musicals for the emotion, so to give them fake emotions for their money is fraud.

And it's a fraud perpetrated so widely, especially in commercial musical theatre, that audiences generally accept it without complaint. Or they think musicals are just inherently shallow and phony. Which they're not. But then people come see a New Line show and they're stunned and thrilled at the intensity and rawness of emotion roaring across the footlights at them, even in our wackiest shows. It's one of the big reasons our 2008 run of High Fidelity sold out, why the show's lyricist Amanda Green loved our production (especially Jeff) so much, why we earned such rave reviews for it, why people came to see the show multiple times, and why we're bringing it back.

We have such a brilliant, honest piece of writing in front of us, and a truly gifted, fearless cast ready to bring it to life. In a few weeks we'll bring on board our kick-ass New Line Band, all the design work will be made reality, and we'll have an unbelievably wonderful, truthful story to share with our magnificent, adventurous audiences.

What a joy to return to this show!

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

3 comments:

Royce Hawley | April 18, 2012 at 12:16 PM

You had me right with you up until you implied that [title of show], Evil Dead, and Silence! have no story. Now, I've never seen or listened to Silence!, but I've seen Evil Dead, and seen multiple productions of [title of show]. Sure, Evil Dead may be fluff, but [title of show] has a compelling story that resonates with a large number of people. So you kind of lost me after that.

Scott Miller | April 18, 2012 at 12:30 PM

Yes, technically [title of show] has a story, but like the other shows I mentioned in that list, [tos] is really not much more than a single extended joke played out for way too long. I found it awfully hard to care about these self-congratulatory, trivia-spouting characters and their un-original musical. I find self-reference for its own sake both lazy and boring.

Scott Miller | April 18, 2012 at 12:34 PM

And to be fair, I did not say [tos] has no story. I just said that at New Line, story must be the most important element. With [tos], punchlines and self-reference are the most important elements.