Archive for musicals

movies, musicals

Movie Musicals

I seem to have gone on a movie musical kick lately, and they were all relatively recent (21st century, not the 50s and 60s when Hollywood musicals were a big thing).

First, one I hadn’t heard of and stumbled across on Amazon, Walking on Sunshine. This is basically Mamma Mia, but set in Italy instead of Greece and using 80s pop music instead of ABBA music. A young Englishwoman travels to Italy to join her sister on vacation and learns that her madcap sister is about to get married, and the groom is the man our heroine fell for during a previous vacation to this place. The Mamma Mia influence is really obvious, with a lot of character and situation parallels. You can tell that someone was trying to cash in on that. And I have to admit that I might actually like the story in this movie better than Mamma Mia. It’s less creepy than “one of these men who slept with my mom around the same time might be my dad” and the ending is more satisfying. It’s fun, fluffy, extremely lightweight entertainment with catchy music, and if you grew up in the 80s there’s a bonus nostalgia factor with the music. It’s fun guessing which pop song they’ll use for each situation. It’s amusing to consider that there’s also an element of E.M. Forster a century or so later to this story, since it’s about English people going to Italy and finding themselves and learning to loosen up. It’s like moving Where Angels Fear to Tread to the 21st century, removing the tragedy, and adding pop music.

Under other (non-pandemic) circumstances, I would have gone to see the latest musical version of Cyrano at the theater on opening day because this sort of thing is totally my jam. But it showed up on Prime Video and I may be watching it repeatedly (I’ve already been listening to the songs on YouTube so often that they keep popping up in “listen again” for me). This is the classic story of the brilliant and witty but physically unattractive man who helps the handsome but inarticulate man woo the woman they both love by ghostwriting love letters to her, but with some twists. There’s the music, for one thing. The other is that instead of him having a big nose, as Cyrano is usually portrayed, he’s a little person (since he’s played by Peter Dinklage). That adds some nuance, since Dinklage is a very handsome man, but his stature might be harder to get past than a big nose, especially in that time period (the adaptation was written by his real-life wife, so I’m sure there was some thought put into that). It’s a romantic story, but not a genre romance. I’d say the vibe is kind of Moulin Rouge meets Les Mis. There are occasionally some surreal anachronisms (like breakdancing in the historical setting), but then a lot of it is very grounded, so that it goes into this dreamlike place when the musical numbers kick in. “Dreamlike” is a good description of this film. I find myself wondering if I really saw it or if I dreamed it. The music is kind of ear-wormy and the actress playing Roxane is utterly incandescent. This gives you an idea of what it’s like:

Then last weekend I rewatched La La Land. I watched it on HBO when it first showed up there after release, and I recall liking it, but it didn’t make a strong impression and didn’t give it much thought until a few months ago, when I was listening to a radio show on musical theater and movie musicals. It was an episode on “to dub or not to dub,” looking at movie musicals that had the singing dubbed by professional singers, those that maybe should have, and those in which the actors were able to sing for themselves. As an example in the category of “it may not be the best singing, but it’s about the acting of the song and the emotional impact” they played this song:

That’s probably what won her the Oscar for this role, and it’s more impressive when you know that this was sung live, not lip synced to a studio recording, and it’s one continuous take with no edits, so she had to get the whole thing right. Anyway, this song hit me at that time on a tender spot emotionally. I was pondering whether I’d made the right choices in my life and trying to decide whether I should keep trying with writing or give up and get a regular job so I’d have more financial security, and this idea of the world needing dreamers was what I needed to hear. At that time, the movie wasn’t streaming on anything I had access to, but it recently showed up on Prime, so I rewatched it, and I think because of what I’ve been pondering, it had a much bigger impact.

The story is about an aspiring actress and an aspiring jazz musician who meet when they’re both at pivotal points in pursuing their respective dreams, when they’re going to have to decide whether or not to give up and try something else. It looks and feels a lot like an old Hollywood musical while at the same time being somewhat realistic about how hard it is to make it, how rare and difficult those big breaks can be, and what compromises and choices you might have to make in pursuit of your dream. I think one reason it worked better for me the second time was I had my expectations set better. Because it feels like an old Hollywood musical, you’re expecting it to be a romance and to work out that way, but it’s really a love story about a dream, not a person. If you’re expecting it to be a romance, it feels like a bait and switch, but if you know it’s about the dream, it works a lot better.

It reminds me that what I’ve always wanted to do was bring stories to life. I wanted to go into film or television, either as a writer or as someone who puts together the pieces to bring it all together. I didn’t know enough about the business to even know what, exactly, it was I wanted to do. Now I know I was looking at being either a development executive or being a TV staff writer who might eventually work up to showrunner/executive producer. But I knew I didn’t want to live in LA. Even when it’s heavily romanticized, like in this movie, it holds zero appeal for me. If I were to list the things I want in a place to live, it would be the polar opposite of every one of them. So I didn’t pursue it, since there’s no point in training to do something that would require you to live in a place you’d hate while also having to struggle to break in. When I actually visited LA, my impressions of what it was like were confirmed — and my first visit was even pure Hollywood, going to a red-carpet movie premiere.

So, anyway, that movie gives me a lot of feelings. I’m still not sure what choices I’d make if I could go back in time and have a do-over, knowing what I know now. Back when I would have been studying TV and film, it was before the Internet and Zoom meetings, before you could make a decent movie on your iPhone and post it to YouTube, where it might go viral and get you a break. If I could be 18 again but now, I might make different choices, but I’m not sure I would pursue that dream if I had to be 18 again back when I was 18. Now I just have to hope that one of my books gets made into a series and I get to be involved somehow.

I do think I could suck it up and move to California if I got a chance to work on one of the Star Wars series. Just putting that out there.

Speaking of Star Wars, I think after my sidetrack into rom-coms and musicals I’ll get back to my Star Wars rewatch. I’m just about through rewatching Andor, so I think I’ll go for a Rogue One/A New Hope double feature this weekend. I haven’t watched them back-to-back, though I’ll have to do it on subsequent nights since I don’t have the stamina for watching two movies in one evening.


Catching up with Hamilton

Now that I’ve finished the movie portion of my Marvel catch-up project, I’ve turned to other things I need to catch up on, and last weekend I finally caught up with the rest of the world and watched Hamilton.

It’s a little odd that I haven’t seen it yet or even heard the cast album, given that I’m a big musical theater fan. I used to have season tickets to the touring production series, and I usually try to see a show on every trip to New York. I grew up listening to cast albums of shows I hadn’t seen. But I haven’t had the budget for live theater for the past few years, so I haven’t had those season tickets in ages, and I haven’t been to New York in a long time (not that I’d have been able to get tickets to that show). I think I was also wary of the hype, and I had a mistaken impression of what the show was. I tend to like the semi-operatic shows (Les Miserables is my favorite), and I thought this was more of a very modern hip-hop/rap thing.

But the show’s on Disney+, and I figured I needed to see it to have any musical theater nerd credibility — and I learned that I’ve been totally wrong about the show. It actually reminds me more of Les Mis than just about any other show. There are rap and hip-hop elements, but they mostly seem to function in the same way the recitative bits in Les Mis (or other semi-operatic, sung-through shows) do, as a replacement for dialogue. The staging reminds me a lot of Les Mis, with the fairly bare stage with some architecture that serves a variety of functions, then there’s the turntable, comic relief numbers mixed in with the serious dramatic monologue type songs, a basis in history, and an ending that’s tragic but with a hopeful spin.

I absolutely loved this show. I’m going to have to watch it again with subtitles to catch all the clever wordplay. The words come fast and furious at times, packing so much information in and doing it somehow with rhyme and meter. The cast album is on Prime Music, so I listened to it the next day. Supposedly, it would be my background music for housework, but I ended up just standing there and listening.

Oddly enough, of all the big, dramatic songs that I loved, the one that’s stuck in my head on a loop is King George’s song. I’m walking around the house singing that one to myself.

Anyway, I love that they have a staged version of the original cast on film like this. I wish we could have had this sort of thing for the original cast of Les Mis. Some of these shows work better in the more abstract world of the stage than they do in a more “realistic” framework as most movies are done.

So, I’m late to the game, but I did eventually make it, and it reminds me of how much I love musical theater. It may be a while before I can go to live shows (they are expensive), and it’s nice to be able to get the experience at home.


Lockdown Theater

I actually got some work done the past few days, re-reading and doing some revising on the last book I wrote. It’s still going to need work. I can tell just about where the world started getting weird as I was drafting because my writing changed. The ending is going to have to be fleshed out more, but right now I can’t seem to do anything with it. There’s a big difference between wanting to be at home and being stuck at home (and worrying, during allergy season, that each cough could be something serious), and that’s messing with my frame of mind.

Fortunately, a lot of talented people are doing what they can to help those of us stuck at home. I’ve been enjoying John Krasinski’s (from The Office and Jack Ryan) “Some Good News” newscasts. In his latest one, he had a fun surprise for a little girl who was missing out on seeing Hamilton for her birthday. (That link goes to just the song, but the whole newscast is fun viewing.)

Then there was this very clever and creative family doing a lockdown version of “One Day More” from Les Mis.

On a more serious note, some former Les Mis cast members did this absolutely lovely version of “Bring Him Home” as a tribute to the health workers. (Having had to record myself singing to a track to have it edited into a piece for choir for Easter, I have new respect for what these guys did here.)

I may not try to make myself write much. I’ll keep posting my serial, and I may do some research, brainstorming, and planning. If I feel like writing, then I’ll go for it, but the main thing right now is to stay safe, stay healthy, and stay sane.


The Hills Are Alive

This weekend I finally got to something I’d had sitting on my DVR for months: The PBS airing of the “live” (in the UK, we got it years later) TV production of The Sound of Music — the one they did in the UK, not the US one that I understand was pretty painful.

I have to confess that I’m a huge Sound of Music fan. We had the original cast recording of the stage version when I was a kid, and then I got to see the movie on the big screen when they must have done either a revival showing or a special event (it was at an old theater downtown, as I recall, so it may have been a special event), and I was blown away. When we lived in Germany, one of our summer vacations included going to Salzburg and seeing a lot of the settings for both the movie and the real story. In seventh grade, one of the options for our social studies semester project was reading Maria von Trapp’s autobiography and putting together a presentation using a pie chart about it.

Plus, the music is lovely and catchy and fun to sing, and most of the songs are the sort of thing that are good when you’re feeling down and want to make yourself feel better.

Being in a production of this show was one of my dreams as I was growing up. For the longest time, I desperately wanted to play Liesl and do the “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” number. Then I aged out of that and figured I could do Maria. And then I aged out of that and thought doing the Baroness would be fun (she gets a lot more to do in the stage version than in the movie). Now I figure I might make it as one of the nuns.

I may even have killed my chances of being a Rhodes Scholar over this show. I made the cut to be interviewed as one of the candidates from my university, and I’d mentioned musical theater as one of my interests. They asked me my favorite show and when I said this one, they all got that look on their faces, and I knew I’d bombed it. Later, I realized I should have explained about having read the real history and visited the real place, but I was just kind of frozen at the time. There’s that popular perception of the show as being sickeningly sweet, and maybe the movie is, but if you really pay attention to it, there’s some weight to it, since one of the central issues is whether or not to collaborate with Nazis, and they end up leaving everything behind rather than go along (though their escape wasn’t nearly as dramatic in real life. Climbing over the mountain wouldn’t have done them much good because it would have just sent them into Germany. They took a train in real life).

I have to say, I loved this TV production, maybe even more than the movie (aside from the scenery because it’s fun to spot places I’ve been). It’s a film of the more recent stage version, not a remake of the movie, so there are different songs and some of the songs are in different places. The issue of whether or not to collaborate is much bigger. And it fixes one of my main issues with the movie: the costumes. Even though the story is pinned to a specific time, everything else about it is basically the early 1960, especially the hair and costumes. In this version, it looks like the 1930s. The sets even look like pictures I’ve seen of the actual house, and they look like the 1930s (the events depicted in the musical actually happened during the 1920s, and they’d been married for a while and had a couple of kids before they left Austria, but that’s another issue). Plus, Maria’s songs are set for an alto, which is what the real Maria von Trapp was (I think that’s also the case for the original stage version. It was just changed for soprano Julie Andrews in the movie).

Alas, I haven’t seen where any local theaters are planning to do productions of this anytime soon, so I can’t go cross this one off the bucket list by playing a background nun.


Sequels that Do Not Exist

One of the reasons I seldom actually take vacations is that I get most of my pleasure from the planning part, and then I no longer really want to take the trip. I guess it’s like that visualization thing I mentioned earlier from that book I read, where if you visualize something, your brain decides you’ve already done it, so you’re no longer motivated to do it. While researching possibilities, I imagine rather vividly exactly how it would be, and it’s almost as good as going on the actual trip.

And sometimes, all the overpreparing and research pays off in helping me decide what to do and what not to do. As I mentioned earlier, I spent a lot of the weekend researching a possible birthday trip, and one of the factors was that there was a show at the performance hall. Since the tickets were very expensive and it wasn’t something I was familiar with, I checked Amazon Prime Music to see if they had the soundtrack so I could decide if seeing it was worth it.

And, boy, was I glad I did. The show I was considering was Love Never Dies, the sequel to Phantom of the Opera. I didn’t even get through the entire first act. It was so very not good. The story was even worse when I looked up a plot summary. Basically, it’s your classic rationalizing the choice of the bad boy fan fiction, the kind of thing people write when in the actual story the heroine doesn’t end up with the murderer but the fans think the murderer is so sexy and misunderstood and the good guy the heroine does end up with is boring. In the fan versions, the good guy turns out to actually be terrible, so the heroine ends up with the misunderstood villain.

I was very Team Raoul, since I like the childhood sweethearts finding each other again story, plus the Phantom was a creepy, manipulative stalker and murderer. The sequel reveals that Christine and the Phantom actually slept together while she was in his lair, and so the son she has after she marries Raoul is actually the Phantom’s. Meanwhile, Raoul has drunk and gambled away all their money.

So, yeah, let’s ruin all the characters. And the music wasn’t even good enough to paper over the terrible story.

Which means I will not be factoring this show into my birthday plans. Maybe I’ll do the spa trip to the other hotel, after all. I can do a trip to see something at the performance hall some other time.

And this is going on the list of Sequels That Do Not Exist, like any Alien movie after Aliens.