This song was originally the establishing solo for Wilfred Shadbolt, the Head Jailer and Assistant Tormentor at the Tower of London and unwanted suitor to secondary female lead Phoebe Merrill. Had this song actually been included, it would have made Wilfred, who in the final version is little more than a comic stooge, a much more intimidating and frightening character. It is one of the most daring and disturbing songs Gilbert and Sullivan ever wrote, as perverse and kinky as you could conceivably get away with on the Victorian-era stage, which presumably had something to do with why it was cut. It revels in Wilfred’s frustrated lust for Phoebe and his obsession with pain and torment in a way that suggests the two are not entirely unrelated, which is particularly unnerving given that by the operetta’s end, he has succeeded in forcing her to marry him. The fact that they even considered including this song just shows how different Yeomen really is from their other operettas, and how much more serious and ambitious they really meant this material to be.
Archives for January 2016
While this movie is generally very highly regarded and even considered to be a classic, I am mystified by the small but vocal minority that actually manage to not like this film. For this reason, despite the fact that the majority of the people who read this will feel I’m preaching to the choir, I feel the need to make the case for its merits.
Much has been made of the salacious nature of the film’s choreography, but what the people who view it only as a poor man’s substitute for porn are missing is that, quite apart from its supposedly scandalous nature, this is some of the best choreography seen in a musical film since the Fifties. Kenny Ortega’s later musicals, like Newsies and the High School Musical franchise, would not distantly approach this film in quality, but his choreography would continue to be one of the best things about them.
And while Patrick Swayze may not have been a Shakespearean-level actor, he was probably, next to John Travolta, the best dancer that Hollywood had at that time. Jennifer Grey wasn’t quite his equal as a dancer, but that made sense in-movie, since she was supposed to be his pupil, and her heartrending performance and impressive ability to convey character through her imperfect dancing more than made up for it.
The film also has one of the greatest soundtracks of the Eighties, no small achievement considering that the decade produced far more great movie soundtracks than successful musical films. A common complaint from the film’s detractors is that the six Eighties Pop songs mixed in with the collection of Sixties classics breaks the mood of the film. And while the best of the Eighties songs, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” and “Hungry Eyes”, seem to inexplicably blend in with the older stuff, I’ll admit that some of the other songs, particularly the risque “Yes”, feel a little out of place at times. But simply as a collection of music, the soundtrack is phenomenal; the period hits chosen here are all glorious classics that have aged beautifully.
And I’d argue the film’s attempt at romance-as-class-war was successful…certainly more successful than the myriad of other films that have used the same device without ever thinking about it as deeply as this film does. The class struggle is implicitly bound into the plot, not just by the usual rich-girl-falls-for-poor-boy concept, but because the entire reason the heroine gets mixed up in the plot is her idealistic belief that all people are the same and her compassion that refuses to condescend.
Also, when the characters call each other out for their behavior, it consistently seems justified, whether it’s the heroine pointing out her father’s hypocrisy or the leading man seriously questioning whether she ever really intended to tell her father about their relationship, avoiding a common problem with movies of this type.
The film even, unlike so many rich-girl-poor-boy plots, ends on a couple that do seem to have a possible future together. The plot of the movie was apparently semi-autobiographical on the part of the screenwriter, and it really does have a feeling of reality that most versions of this stock plot lack.
There really is substance to this movie beyond the music and the dancing, and it actually deserves a greater level of respect than even its fans generally give it. Along with Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Fame, this was one of the only Pop-style musical movies of the era to constitute a complete success, and like those movies, even people who love this film rarely look beyond its surface glitz to see the genuine level of depth underneath.
Among fans of the musical version of Les Miserables, one of the many ongoing disputes is the one over which was the best Javert of all time, the candidates usually being Terrence Mann and Phillip Quast. Quast was a more imposing Javert, emphasizing the inexorable and unyielding qualities of the character, but he arguably came across as too strong in his portrayal. Let’s face it—Javert is ultimately weak enough that when faced with the reality of moral ambiguity and complexity that he had shut out all his life, he couldn’t bear to go on living and drowned himself. It’s hard to imagine the iron symbol of the law that Quast portrays doing that. But as one commentator once said of Mann, “This guy makes Javert sound…human!”. It’s worth remembering that what makes Javert the villain of the piece is not what he does…as a policeman, he would have had to do essentially the same thing even if he hadn’t considered Valjean guilty…but what he believes. Like Willie Loman, he took the great lie of his job home with him…in this case, that the law and the legal system were infallible and that everyone punished by them completely deserved their fate. Mann brings out this conflict, usually sounding more belligerent than commanding, constantly lashing out against the world for failing to reflect his stubbornly-held belief system. Even his version of “Stars” was less serene and more self-righteously angry than most versions, and his suicide aria captures his broken inability to accept the truth perfectly. Mann has a somewhat higher-pitched baritone than the deeper voices usually favored for the role, which might be the reason some prefer Quast in the part, but I’d argue that the higher voice is ideally suited for a character who is ultimately more a petulant, deluded fanatic than the intimidating soldier of the law he seems on the surface. And oddly, Mann’s more honest portrayal of the character’s weakness makes him much more sympathetic than any other portrayal I’ve encountered, because, as stated above, he seems like a human rather than a symbolic stand-in for the legal system as a whole as some production of the musical tend to make him.
This movie has gained most of its notoriety less from its obviously low quality, and more from its questionable methods of securing its funding. Essentially, this was a real-life example of a ‘Springtime For Hitler’ scheme—raise a lot of money by fraudulent means, create a low-budget failure and abscond with the difference.
But just for the record, ‘Springtime For Hitler’ schemes are not particularly rare in the real world—Mel Brooks himself may have been inspired by the Broadway cult flop Oh, Captain, which was actually a pretty decent show, but is rumored to have closed before its time because one of the producers was selling phony shares of the show and pocketing the resulting cash.
And even if you analyze this movie purely from an artistic perspective, it isn’t exactly a new thing. There was a Seventies b-list animated film called Journey Back To Oz based on almost exactly the same concept, and it suffered many of the same flaws, such as an uninspired retread of the original Wizard of Oz plot, exaggerating the characteristics of the companions from the first movie, and some exceptionally weak musical numbers.
That said, at least Journey Back To Oz drew its inspiration from the later books in L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, which, as strange as they would become in the later installments, still had genuine creativity and the stamp of authentic Baum. Legends of Oz, on the other hand, is based on the work of Roger S. Baum, a great-grandson of the elder Baum who tried to cash in on his connection to a great author by writing a series of subpar children’s novels based on the Oz franchise that would have gone completely unnoticed had they not been written by someone bearing the Baum name.
I’ve read the novel that inspired this film, Dorothy of Oz, and it’s arguably even worse than the movie itself. The plot is just an uninspired retread of Baum’s original storytelling style, and the prose is not only written in an extremely simple, juvenile style designed to pander to young children (who never seemed to have a problem comprehending the elder Baum’s more sophisticated prose), but is flat and lifeless even by the standards of books aimed at the beginning reader set.
The movie took the book’s uncreative retread of the original story, and added a good deal of weak humor, particularly for the film’s embarrassing attempt at a comic villain, the Jester (who manages to be off-puttingly humorless and impossible to take seriously at the same time), and some of the weakest songs heard in a theatrical movie musical in some time. The score is largely by Bryan Adams, whose last attempt at scoring an animated film, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, featured some of the best work of his career, but here he puts as little effort into his work as anyone else involved in the project. While instrumental film music is certainly a legitimate genre, in a vocal musical it’s generally considered a bad sign when the instrumental title sequence is the best music in the film.
Apart from one mildly enjoyable operetta pastiche for the China Princess, the songs are pretty dire, from the utterly underwhelming attempt at an “Over the Rainbow”-style wanting song for Dorothy, “One Day”, to the grotesque pseudo-psychedelia of “Candy, Candy”, to the soppy ballad “Even Then”, to the Jester’s tuneless villain song, to “Work With Me”, which is a blatant rip-off of “Happy Working Song” from Enchanted, a song that was already a pastiche of a well-worn genre cliché to begin with.
The one thing that indicates some hint of an actual budget is a collection of slightly-less-than-A-list celebrity voices, and they provide the closest thing the movie has to a redeeming feature: while most of the performers are either phoning it in or hamming it up (with Kelsey Grammer and Martin Short making particularly memorable asses of themselves), Bernadette Peters as Glinda, Megan Hilty as the China Princess, and Lea Michele as Dorothy really seem to be trying, and do as well as can be expected with this material (Michele apparently took the part because she had always dreamed of playing Dorothy, which is kind of sad if you think about it).
The secret to successfully pulling off a ‘Springtime For Hitler’ scheme in real life is to aim for forgettable mediocrity rather than legendary awfulness, thus not drawing attention to your crimes and avoiding the pitfalls portrayed in The Producers— and indeed, while it is totally without merit, this movie is by no means as unbearable as the absolute worst of the Disney DTV sequels. Don’t get me wrong, it’s bad, but it’s not really memorably bad. Still, this is one film where not only is the end result a soulless piece of sellout product with no actual artistic merit, but we actually have fairly clear confirmation that this was the creators’ intent from the very beginning, so the special outrage it seems to draw is perfectly understandable.
This film got some flack for its lack of fidelity from the Sondheim fanbase, but I found it to be a rather interesting, if not entirely successful, stylistic experiment. Director Tim Burton was basically allowed to impose his own vision onto the material, and he certainly did so—the story and score are more or less intact, but the tone of the movie is far more like a typical modern Burton movie than it is like the original stage musical. The film takes a much more serious approach than the stage show, deleting the prologue and other lightening elements and closing on a perverse romantic fadeout as Sweeney bleeds his life out over his wife’s corpse.
The film’s main problem is that the more comic numbers in the show, like “A Little Priest”, tend to play awkwardly, as they break the film’s otherwise consistent tone and the performers seem unsure whether they’re trying to get a laugh or not. The other problem is that Burton cast his wife, Helena Bonham Carter, as Mrs. Lovett. Don’t get me wrong—Carter is a wonderful actress and even a fine singer, but she is completely the wrong type for the part, and given that her part is extremely large and important, her presence does do a lot of damage.
In contrast, Johnny Depp is one of the best Sweeneys of all time, arguably right behind Len Cariou and George Hearn. When he was cast, and especially when it was announced he would not be dubbed, the show’s fans panicked, but it turns out he not only gave a brilliant and chilling acting performance but proved to be a strong and compelling singer. Alan Rickman was equally superb as Judge Turpin, giving a fascinating portrait of a remorseless sociopath, and the supporting players, including Jayne Wisener as Joanna, Jamie Campbell Bower as Anthony, and Ed Sanders as Tobias, sang the score beautifully.
I admit that, while the film is worth watching for Depp and Rickman’s performances alone, it is, on the whole, inferior to the original stage musical. Still, when you consider that Sondheim’s last film musical, A Little Night Music, had been both an ultra-faithful stage adaptation and a total disaster, and also that there were already two excellent video versions of Sweeney Todd, one can understand why Sondheim felt the need to experiment with reworking his material to fit the film medium, and the things he learned would be put to much more successful use in his next film adaptation, Into the Woods.
This clearly was Jason Robert Brown’s attempt to make a more legit, sophisticated work in the vein of Disney’s wildly successful High School Musical franchise. The score, while not up to Brown’s usual standards, was better than that of the HSM movies. Sure, the title-song might be a pretty direct ripoff of “Hello, Twelve” from A Chorus Line, “What It Means to Be a Friend” might be a little sugary, and the climactic anthem “A Little More Homework” might be a bit too pat, but the tunes are sophisticated and appealing, especially the winning “The Lamest Place In the World”, the spoofy “Hey Kendra” and the r&b-flavored “It Can’t Be True”.
But what made the High School Musical franchise so charming was its refusal to pretend to be anything more than it was: lightweight, carefree musical-comedy formula with an updated musical sound. 13 doesn’t seem to know who its target market is…it doesn’t seem sure if it’s supposed to be aimed at preteens or adults. The story is too downbeat and pessimistic for a teen-oriented Musical Comedy like HSM, but too trivial and lightweight for a serious coming-of-age story, and the script is loaded with sophisticated quips that, while often genuinely funny, don’t really sound like anything the preteen characters would ever be likely to say.
Worse, the show combines old-fashioned wholesomeness in the HSM vein with some ill-advised attempts to be edgy, the most unfortunate of which involves a supporting player with a terminal illness that is played for what may be the most awkward laughs of the decade. This not only results in general discomfort and provides the show’s worst song, the guilt-trip ballad “(No-One Says No to a Boy With a) Terminal Illness”, but it makes it hard to care about the generic teenage problems of the protagonist when one of his friends devolves from crutches to a wheelchair with the prospect of early death ahead in the background.
Compounding this confusion is a basic misjudgment in the show’s chosen medium—due to the $100+ ticket prices, the ‘tween’ audience Brown was (for the most part) going for isn’t really a Broadway-going crowd. There’s a reason the gigantically successful franchise that inspired him began on television and not the Broadway stage. That same reason also probably accounts for why, while the show was a quick flop on Broadway, it has achieved a surprising degree of success in regional theater, becoming, like the 9 to 5 musical, one of that new breed of show that achieves its success not on Broadway but in local productions.
Ultimately, this show was a mistake on several levels, and while it had its merits, its failure was not exactly undeserved. That said, given its success in the regional market, audiences must be seeing something in it, and frankly between the delightful score and the awkward but nonetheless often funny book, I can see it making for a highly enjoyable evening for a not-too-discriminating audience.
This is one of the cleverest songs from this score, which has a reputation for being inconsistent and uneven (slightly more of one than it deserves, actually), despite the show’s undeniably brilliant book. And while I feel the score as a whole is rather underrated, this is undoubtedly one of very few songs in it to approach the cleverness of the book. It consists of a minuet for the Loyalists (read: conservatives) in the Continental Congress, and draws viciously satirical parallels between them and modern conservatives. With a melody that repeatedly quotes “The Star-Spangled Banner” and cries of “Hosanna! Hosanna!”, it thus mocks the patriotic and religious trapping modern American conservatives like to surround themselves with. As witty as the lyrics are, the sharpest moment comes in a dialogue break, when villain John Dickenson sums up the reason that many lower-class people vote for conservative politicians…”Most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor”. The most probable reason it was cut from the show’s film version is the obvious one…that the accompanying visuals of portly gentlemen in wigs and frock coats dancing stiffly with one another around the Congress’ meeting-room, which is already the song’s one major liability on stage, looked so ridiculous on film that they didn’t think people would even notice the song itself. But there is a persistent rumor among Broadway and Hollywood conspiracy buffs that then-President Richard Nixon strong-armed the studio into cutting it for political reasons. This seems a bit far-fetched, but the rumors persist, probably because it doesn’t sound all that out-of-character for most people’s image of Nixon (although in reality, Nixon was reportedly rather a fan of the play). In any case, the film got by without it, and frankly I imagine that’s for the best: as sharp and clever as the number was, I tend to agree that it would just look giggle-inducing on film, and masterpiece though that film is, the visual components of it are awkward enough as it is.
At the time that this score came out, a wave of vitriol erupted from Sondheim’s most devoted fans, many of them openly proclaiming that Sondheim had finally lost his touch. But flash forward less than a decade, and the show, somehow, without anyone really noticing, is being treated as a perfectly valid and admirable cult flop.
There’s really not a lot of dispute over the fact that the show itself, a picaresque retelling of the lives of famed historical brothers Wilson and Addison Mizner, is an absolute train wreck, and none of the countless revisions it’s undergone have really changed that. The basic, self-defeating problem with the show, in all its incarnations, is that while Sondheim had two genuinely fascinating lead characters…one a sensitive architectural savant and one a sophisticated rogue somewhere between Jesse James and Dorothy Parker…he didn’t have an actual story to tell about them. The show just rambled interminably with a go-nowhere series of picaresque ‘adventures’ that were never really exciting or entertaining.
The show also had the mother of all dud openings—it tried to strike a tone of optimism and adventure, but the first two scenes featured three onstage deaths between them. I can see what drew Sondheim to this material…the colorful main characters and their important parts in American history must have made the show seem irresistible on paper…but ultimately, all we got were these two extremely interesting characters who never actually got to do anything interesting.
The only reason this show has actual fans is because it has a score by Sondheim, and while the truth is that this is probably Sondheim’s least interesting score, even third-rate Sondheim really does hold up surprisingly well. Granted, “Opportunity”, the inappropriate comedy number sung at the leads’ father’s deathbed, is pretty dire. True also, “What’s Your Rush?” is basically a recycled version of the song Michelle Pawk sang in Merrily We Roll Along, “Growing Up”, the busy but empty sequence “I Love This Town” seems to have been released half-finished, and the sweet ballad “You” does get sort of buried under a bunch of unnecessary dialogue.
But the title-song is quite catchy, and the leads also share the clever contrapuntal number “Gold”, and a soaring, moving final duet, “Get Out of My Life”. Wilson gets to express his personal philosophy in the stirring “The Game”, while “Addison’s Trip”, with its catchy “I’m on my way” refrain, details Addison’s personal journey of self-discovery. In this version of the material, Wilson and Michele Pawk’s Nellie also share the attractive duet “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened”.
The boys’ mother was played in the Broadway-bound production by famed Hollywood singing star Jane Powell, and Sondheim provided her with some of the best material, such as the beautiful waltz “My Two Young Men” and the exquisite “Isn’t He Something?” Addison’s love interest Hollis, played by Gavin Creel, also gets a strong number in the striking character piece “Talent”. The show also made impressive use of complex musical scenes, particularly in the climactic “Boca Raton” sequence.
And because the characters themselves were so interesting, the show gave marvelous performing opportunities to its leads. The original choices for the roles had been Nathan Lane and Victor Garber, but they could hardly have done a better job than Richard Kind, whose singing voice is iffy but who gave a beautifully honest and touching performance as Addison, or Howard McGillin, who played Wilson not as an opportunist, but a committed idealist whose ideal is seizing opportunity. I can think of any number of hits with weaker scores than this, and whatever the flaws of the actual show, the Bounce cast album is highly collectible and should be snapped up by any devoted Sondheim fan.
The revised edition of the show that played off-Broadway a few years later, entitled Road Show, took a much more bitter and negative overall approach. Apparently Sondheim thought embracing the show’s darker and more cynical qualities would fix all its problems, but while Road Show is tighter and neater than Bounce, it’s also gratuitously unpleasant, with the earlier version’s adventurous optimism replaced with depression and self-hatred. It also transformed Bounce’s title-song into the much more downbeat “Waste”, and in spite of its catchy melody, the fact remains that the show now opens and closes with the sentiment, “God, what a waste”, which is probably an unwise way to bookend your show.
On the other hand, it did make some improvements to the score, replacing its one outright dud, “Opportunity”, with the impressive “It’s In Your Hands Now”, adding a touching duet called “Brotherly Love”, and fleshing out the unfulfilled “I Love This Town” sequence into the much more satisfying “That Was a Year”. It also gave “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened” to Addison and Hollis instead of Wilson and the no-longer-appearing-in-this-show Nellie, and the number somehow seemed to play better for it.
Road Show featured leads as strong as those in Bounce in Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani, although their supporting cast was much less interesting. Still, the show was if anything even more unwatchable than before, and it’s rather unfortunate that Sondheim has concluded that he’s done all the re-writing he needs to, although frankly I have my doubts that the show is really fixable at this point. In any case, the score lives on, especially on the superior Bounce cast album, and if vindication as a cult flop is all that the show will ever receive, I for one can live with that.