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    Monday, November 05, 2007

    I saw Wicked yesterday with my folks and really enjoyed it. I tend to have strong feelings about most modern musicals (meaning: I don't like them), but I did like this show very much. The writing is clever, there is a strong storyline and the acting and singing by the cast were quite good. The sets and effects are amazing, but it was a pleasant surprise to see a play that didn't rely on pyrotechnic special effects to sell itself.

    I first realized the musical as an art form was in serious trouble about fifteen years ago when I saw City of Angels (and yes, I know that's a pretentious sentence; bear with me). In case you don't know, City of Angels is a musical about a mystery writer struggling with the task of turning one of his books into a movie script; the plot shifts back and forth between the writer's real life and the plot of his film, and the "film" side of the stage is in black and white. The concept, and the set, were great. The songs and the actors' singing were astoundingly disappointing. This was a musical I'd really been looking forward to seeing, and I walked out of the theater thinking This thing won awards? Why?

    Then I saw Cats. There's three hours of my life I'll never get back. As for Les Miz, the only decent song in it was "Master of the House"; the rest of it left me cold. In every case my problem with the shows was the Big Concept idea they were all based on - that, and the lousy songs. Why is it that nobody can write a catchy tune anymore? By way of contrast, last summer I saw that old warhorse Oliver! for the first time and loved it. The reason: the songs. I knew the standards "Consider Yourself" and "As Long as He Needs Me" were from the show but I had no idea that "Food, Glorious Food" and "Oom-Pa-Pa" were, too. These are standout songs, with great tunes and good lyrics. Yes, the plot is silly - Dickens relies too much on coincidence anyway, but the musical adaptation even more so since they had to compress it into a two-hour show - but it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter because you're sitting there waiting for the next song, the next great song.

    The choreography helps too. Let's face it, there's a big difference between good old-fashioned chorus dancing and the vague leaping and twirling that passes for choreography these days. This goes back, once again, to the songs as the source of the problem because if you have a strong tune and good rhythm it helps the choreographer immensely. Otherwise you just have to settle for looking arty, and let's face it, nobody goes to a musical for the intellectual experience. Well, okay, I'll give you Sondheim. His stuff is usually enjoyable and the books and plots are always good (I loved Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods). But there's only one Sondheim, and a surplus of Adam Guettels. Don't get me started about Light in the Piazza.




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