This was an additional song written by the team of Bock and Harnick for the 2004 Broadway revival of their most famous show, Fiddler on the Roof. And while that production certainly had no shortage of other problems, this one was probably the most baffling. The most obvious problem with this song is that it doesn’t remotely live up to the rest of the score. Even with one of Broadway funniest comediennes, Nancy Opel, on hand to perform it, it’s still a thoroughly mediocre song, and when you surround a mediocre song with one of the great theater scores of all time, you make it sound even worse than it actually is. The song it replaced, “The Rumor”, wasn’t one of the Fiddler score’s highlights to begin with, but it was a genuinely amusing comedy number that made an insightful (if well-worn) point about the way gossip travels, and it was certainly a hell of a lot more interesting than this. But even more annoying than this song’s mere presence in the show is the rationale for why it was added; Bock and Harnick’s statement on the matter is that this song was added ‘to clarify the show’s themes’. Please note that this is Fiddler on the Roof, the show that had been an international smash hit for forty years when this song was added, the show that, although its creators expected it to appeal primarily to the Jewish culture that was its subject matter, has wound up resonating just as deeply with virtually every culture on the planet. This is the show of which the producer of the first Japanese production famously asked, “Do they understand this show in America? It’s so Japanese!”. I think it’s pretty obvious that everyone already understands the show’s themes pretty well, and this is thus one of the most unnecessary additions to a classic show since the Annie Get Your Gun revival reinserted “Who Do You Love, I Hope?”. Granted, a lot of aging theatrical legends have unnecessarily tinkered with their past masterpieces in revivals, but even when, say, Sondheim got Lin-Manuel Miranda to translate half of West Side Story into Spanish, we could at least understand the theoretical logic behind his bad decision. This, on the other hand, is an attempt to fix a problem literally no-one had, and I’m just grateful that, like most of these dithering revisions of classic shows, it has vanished without a trace from any future productions.
This song is cut from nearly every modern production and is today regarded by many as an offensive caricature almost on the level of the Minstrel-Show “coon songs”, only aimed at another minority. But while there are certain undeniable pressures to not perform it anymore, its negative reputation, like most politically correct overreactions, is something of an oversimplified exaggeration. Unlike the numbers for the “Indians” in Peter Pan, which were completely innocent and unironic and thus are far more uncomfortable to watch today, this song was already intended as a tongue-in-cheek sendup of stereotypes when it was written. Remember that the proudly ignorant and dangerously naive Annie has no real knowledge or understanding of what Native American culture really entails, so she substitutes a laundry list of cliche cultural trappings associated with them…and from the very beginning, that was intended to be the joke. The reason this song tends to make modern listeners uncomfortable is that this satire is delivered far more bluntly and heavy-handedly than anyone would dare to attempt today on such a topic. So while the show has admittedly dated enough that certain corrective revisions are needed for most productions, this song, like the rest of the show’s portrayal of Native Americans (including the character of Chief Sitting Bull), isn’t as straightforwardly offensive as it seems to some modern ears, and in fact contains several subtly subversive elements that were actually quite progressive for the era in which the show was written. I understand why it can’t be in the show anymore, but it was an effective and even subtly progressive joke in its day, and even now it doesn’t deserved to be pilloried as “racist” the way it generally is these days.
I had heard very mixed reports about this show when I went to see it a little less than a year ago. A couple of the prominent critics had said some very nice things about it, but the word of mouth in the Broadway fan community was just short of poisonous. And while the combination of a classic movie, composer David Yazbek’s credentials, and what I had already seen of leading man Santino Fontana’s abilities seemed to provide the theoretical ingredients for a hit, the utterly underwhelming number from the show performed on the Tonys broadcast the year before wasn’t exactly an encouraging sign.
Still, plenty of shows have made a poor choice of their Tony showcase numbers (Curtains and Bandstand are two examples that immediately spring to mind), and as anyone who knows reads this site regularly knows, I find polarizing shows, songs or albums absolutely fascinating as material for my reviews. So I went to see for myself what had caused all these wildly different reactions.
The fact that it took me almost a year to actually finish the review is mostly the product of depression-induced writer’s block stemming from the current world situation, but I won’t pretend the show’s quality and level of overall importance didn’t contribute to it being somewhat low on my list of priorities. Make of that what you will.
Truth to tell, both the show’s adherents and its detractors were essentially right. The thing that everyone who liked it praised about it is certainly true…this was an extremely funny evening. The movie had been more of a character comedy, but the musical’s book was a raucous farce with hilarious dialogue, superb physical comedy and a marvelous comic star turn by Santino Fontana in the lead. Fontana hasn’t garnered the stardom he deserves (and this show’s failure probably isn’t going to help), but you’re most likely to recognize him as the voice of Prince Hans in Frozen, and he also had a major role on the cult musical sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Some people, including the authors of the book Musical Misfires (a disappointing would-be successor to Ken Mandelbaum’s iconic Not Since Carrie), have insinuated that this show closed primarily because of the outrage of Transgender rights activists who misinterpreted its premise (presumably without actually having seen either it or the movie on which it’s based). Indeed, in the musical, it is specifically pointed out that Michael faking a gender purely to salvage his acting career is at least as offensive to actual Transwomen as it is to all other women (which is a hard point to dispute, actually).
But while it’s true that misguided politically-fueled outrage on social media platforms is capable of closing a Broadway show under the right circumstances (Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet being the obvious example), I still think, the effective comedy elements notwithstanding, that there were enough holes in this particular craft that it probably would have sunk notwithstanding any bad press it may have gotten on Twitter.
What really did the show in was its relentlessly mediocre score. That Tony number had been no fluke, which is surprising given that composer David Yazbek’s most recent work for Broadway prior to this had been the best of his career. Not only does this score not remotely approach the level of Yazbek’s ravishing score to The Band’s Visit, it isn’t even comparable to his earlier scores for The Full Monty or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Granted, this isn’t Yazbek’s first weak score, but even its predecessor in that field, the musical version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, was if nothing else memorably terrible. By contrast, on the night I saw Tootsie, I could not remember a single individual song by the time I got home from the theater.
From listening to the cast album, that result is not really all that surprising. Michael’s two introspective solos, “Whaddaya Do” and “Talk to Me, Dorothy”, are effective enough as character material, but they both sound more like sung monologues than actual songs (there’s a reason most major numbers in musicals that deviate from the standard song form usually go for showstopper-level intensity, which these two definitely do not). The rest of the score vacillates between tolerable but bland ballads (the best of them, “There Was John”, sounds like a B-list imitation of Cathy’s numbers from The Last 5 Years), big, empty production numbers that fill the stage with noise and motion but ultimately accomplish nothing, and comedy songs that don’t remotely match the humor level of the dialogue and are generally either heavy-handed (“Jeff Sums It Up”, “This Thing”) or annoying (“What’s Gonna Happen”). I appreciate that they didn’t interpolate the hit Pop song written for the film, “It Might Be You” (that tactic tends to reek of desperation, as it did in the otherwise admirable Rocky musical), but frankly, in this case it might have been an improvement: at least then the show would have featured one memorable song.
There were, admittedly, some other minor flaws…the feminist message, regardless of its validity, was poorly handled and frequently came off as heavy-handed and preachy, and the ambiguous ending, while probably more honest than that of the film, was still not entirely satisfying.
Also, there was a sort of hole in the show’s central proposition. There are, without question, many, many fields where the best jobs go to men, and women are at a professional disadvantage: Broadway acting is not one of them. On some behind-the-scenes jobs like composing and directing, the narrative of a male-dominated field that women are prevented from breaking into holds sadly true, but in the acting pool, at least since Broadway switched most of its focus from straight plays to musicals, women are if anything at an advantage. Moving the story from Hollywood to Broadway certainly didn’t eliminate the core issues of sexism the show deals with, but it did make the primary stated reason that Michael’s impersonation was supposed to be reprehensible (that he was taking jobs away from real women in a supposedly male-dominated field) seem rather absurd.
Indeed, the heavy changes made to the setting and characters from the original movie, while probably the right choice in theory (Yazbek made much of this in the pre-Broadway promotion stages, pointing out—not without accuracy—how excessive fidelity and perceived redundancy had done a number of stage adaptations of iconic movies), may have alienated fans of the film, thus depriving the show of its most obvious built-in audience. Again, I admire their integrity, but in practice, they may have wound up choosing their principles over success or even actual quality.
But I suspect the show was funny enough to overcome those secondary problems if the music had been stronger. With a first-rate score, Tootsie might well have been a hit. But a musical with a truly weak score has to have an absolutely genius-level book to achieve any long-term success. Look at 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee…apart from two or three standout numbers, its score was only marginally better than Tootsie’s, but it was a one-of-a-kind stroke of inspiration and utterly hilarious (not one or the other, which might explain why Be More Chill, which had a similarly weak score, didn’t last long on Broadway despite its significant cult following). Hell, even momentary success with a weak score usually depends on a presold fanbase (Spamalot, The Addams Family) or a star so big that people will pay for a theater ticket purely for the privilege of seeing them in person (Applause).
This was definitely a missed opportunity, a disappointing treatment of an idea with not-insignificant potential, but it still doesn’t qualify as one of the sublime heartbreaker flops of recent years in the way that, say, Big Fish or Groundhog Day or Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical do. For all its laughs, its forgettable score ultimately renders it little more than a pleasant mediocrity, and I can’t really see it succeeding even at a more economically prosperous time for Broadway (or indeed, with or without any of the controversy it may or may not have stirred up being a factor).
Of all the shows to win the Tony Award for Best Musical in the current century so far, this is easily the weakest…even such unworthy recipients as Thoroughly Modern Millie, Spamalot, Jersey Boys and Kinky Boots were all more respectable than this. This is another second-rank show to rip off Hairspray, only this one rips off the serious elements of Hairspray and was probably inspired more by the mediocre film version than the Broadway show.
It’s the story of a white radio DJ, a black female singer, and their forbidden romance during the dawn of rock’n’roll. The book plays like a Lifetime movie-of-the-week, an appallingly melodramatic cliché with stock characters and shallow treatment of the issues it tries to address. Also, the leading man is the most annoying and unappealing main character we had seen in a Broadway show since The Drowsy Chaperone‘s ‘Man in Chair’. He’s portrayed as an ignorant, juvenile and hypocritical redneck stereotype, complete with some incredibly irritating verbal tics that are offered as a subsitute for actual personality, and we’re expected to forgive all of that just because he’s not racist. This show contributes yet more to the mounting pile of evidence that Joe DiPietro really shouldn’t be allowed to write Book Musicals.
The songs, including the emotional ballads “The Music of My Soul” and “Memphis Lives In Me” for the leading man, the proto-Motown pastiche “Someday”, the lively “Everybody Wants To Be Black on Saturday Night”, the bluesy power ballad “Love Will Stand When All Else Falls”, and the stirring finale “Steal Your Rock ‘N’ Roll”, are pleasant enough, but they’re also quite generic, not really showing us anything we haven’t seen before in a hundred other shows. The music was written by the keyboard player from Bon Jovi, and beneath its thin veneer of period pastiche, it pretty much sounds like a Bon Jovi album…lively, melodic, and emotional, but also conventional and kind of trite. The thing is, that formula actually works really well for middle-of-the-road Rock music, but it isn’t nearly as effective for expressing the emotions of an ostensibly serious story, and just makes the book seem even more shallow.
Also, apart from one genuinely dramatic number in “Colored Woman”, they’re essentially Pop tunes, often only loosely integrated into the story and offering little or no real dramatic resonance. If this inane potboiler melodrama was really to be told as a musical, it needed music powerful and honest enough to give the whole thing some actual depth, and this assemblage of vaguely pastiche-flavored Pop-Rock cliches just doesn’t cut it.
Also, as someone who actually knows something about the music of the time, I have to point out that the show misrepresents music history to reinforce the point it’s trying to make. It takes place in the mid-fifties, but it suggests that the music of the era consisted only of R&B by black singers and white Easy Listening acts in the vein of Perry Como. Seriously? This was the era of Frank Sinatra’s Capitol albums—trust me, there was plenty of great jazz, real jazz, being sung by white singers at the time. This arbitrary dichotemy of “old music” and “new music” comes across as false and annoying at the best of times, but in combination with the authors’ dishonest presentation of music history and complacent confidence that their audience would be ignorant enough to swallow it, the result becomes downright reprehensible.
I suppose I can understand how this show got to be a hit, even if it didn’t deserve to be. After all, the fact that those Lifetime TV movies are still being made indicates that there is an audience for this kind of melodramatic drivel. And I suppose the score is enjoyable enough for what it is…frankly, it had better and more consistent music than Rock of Ages the year before, and every song in that show had already been a popular hit. Also, I will admit that the dancing in this show is legitimately terrific—it really is the best thing about the show, and all the numbers play much better in performance than they sound on the cast album. What really enrages me is that this piece of pandering trash won the Best Musical Tony that year. Granted, there was less competition that year than there would have been in most of the surrounding seasons, but even so, Fela! and American Idiot were both twenty times the show Memphis was, and it was a slap to the face that they both lost to this exercise in stifling mediocrity.
As far as I know (and when it comes to musicals and their ilk, I think my knowledge is reasonably extensive), there have been only two serious attempts made at a full-scale musicalization of the iconic comic book superhero Batman and his equally familiar cast of supporting characters. The first was a plotted Concept Album by Soul/Rock virtuoso Prince that was originally intended as a full-scale soundtrack to Tim Burton’s 1989 film based on the franchise. Very little of the music heard on the album actually got used in the film, and the songs are rarely heard today because of licensing issues, but it did produce a Number One hit on the Billboard charts at the time (albeit with its weakest track, the nonsensical embarrassment “Batdance”). Still, like pretty much everything else Prince wrote in the Eighties, his Batman album is fantastic as music, and it follows the Burton film extremely closely, often to the point of its songs corresponding to specific scenes in the movie.
The second was a Broadway-bound Rock Musical that wound up as even less than a road-closer…an abortive composition that never even made it to an actual public stage. That said, it was announced for Broadway at one point, and it did get a recording, and an official one at that…like the rest of composer Jim Steinman’s demos, it was not a bootleg item, but an authorized release by the man himself on his own website. Based on these demos, we can infer that this musical was also heavily drawn from Burton’s film franchise, although it resembles more a combination of the first two Burton films, with the character of Catwoman brought in as a tragic love interest for the hero.
Of course, comic book fans saw the idea as absurd, with one of the animated Batman television series even mocking it openly in-show; but the writers of that parody seem to have an idea of what a musical is that stopped around 1955. The truth is, judging from the demos, Steinman’s show was not the utter catastrophe that legend has made it out to be. Many people have wondered how anyone could possibly sign off on such a project, but I honestly think the general consensus was, “If anyone can do a Batman musical, Jim Steinman can”. And indeed, Steinman’s score, or at least the portions he completed, has quite a bit to be said for it. Steinman’s dark, melodramatic, over-the-top composing style is about the most convincing match for the tone of the material they were likely to find. Moreover, he seemed to have a genuine feel for these archetypical characters, doing a surprisingly suitable job of establishing and capturing them in song.
Granted, there are times when Prince’s slicker, more stylized approach serves the material better. The first track on Prince’s album, “The Future”, actually establishes Batman’s motivations much more effectively than the more straightforward “Graveyard Shift” on Steinman’s demo. The latter, while correct in terms of dramatic content, comes across as rather earthbound, cribbing lines from other Steinman songs while struggling to express sentiments that don’t really lend themselves to being sung. Prince’s more abstract, laconic take on the character’s credo comes off as far less heavy-handed, as well as sounding significantly more like something a character as charismatic and formidable as Batman would actually say.
And while it isn’t as bad as “Batdance”, the Steinman version also has one outright embarrassing song, the sappy ballad “Not Allowed to Love”. This song would work much better when it was used in Bat Out of Hell: The Musical nearly a decade later, but its extremely sentimental lyrics just don’t sound right coming out of the mouths of Batman and Catwoman. Prince’s serenely gorgeous “The Arms of Orion”, on the other hand, makes for an infinitely better central love duet.
However, Steinman’s opening “Gotham City” sequence, including fragments of the songs “Angels Arise” (later incorporated into the Broadway version of Dance of the Vampires) and “Cry to Heaven”, is a marvelously atmospheric opening. And “In the Land of the Pig, the Butcher is King” (later included on Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell III album) is a suitably terrifying villain song, even if the version on the Batman demos does feel a little bit like a first draft. These songs draw the entire city into the story, which is fitting given that Gotham City is practically a character in itself in both the comics and especially the Burton films. Prince’s songs tend to focus almost exclusively on the individual leads, at the expense of the atmosphere and social background.
Also, on Prince’s album, Vicki Vale’s only musical expression beyond her duet with Batman in “The Arms of Orion” is “Lemon Crush”, which has a typically great Prince beat but sounds more like a generic sex jam of the kind Prince was infamous for than any kind of actual character song. Meanwhile, Steinman’s Catwoman is treated as the full equal to Batman and The Joker with an equally intense establishing number to set up her motivations. “I Need All the Love I Can Get”, a reworking of the Steinman-penned Sisters Of Mercy hit “More”, is a fine Rock ballad, with a particularly ravishing introductory section where the singer weighs the concepts of life and death against each other.
In addition, the songs used by Prince to represent the Joker, while they may be better as pure music, do not approach the creativity of Steinman’s “Wonderful Toys”, a gloriously insane piece of violent randomness that is the perfect character number for an embodiment of destructive chaos like the Joker. While Prince’s “Partyman”, “Electric Chair” and “Trust” do strike a reasonably appropriate note of mingled cheerfulness and menace, all of them are far too conventional and “normal” for a character whose defining trait is his utter insanity.
Also, as an “Eleven-O’Clock” love ballad, Prince’s “Scandalous”, ravishing as it is, doesn’t approach the emotional impact or thematic appropriateness of the planned climactic number of Steinman’s show, “We’re Still the Children We Once Were”. While not exactly subtle in its emotionalism even by Jim Steinman standards, it nonetheless provokes a devastating emotional response, and its evocation of primal childhood fears seems appropriate for the story of Batman, a man who lost his parents when he was eight years old and never managed to move on from it.
It’s also worth remembering that Prince’s album was very specifically based on a film version, and throughout, it retains a distinctly cinematic ambiance. The songs on Steinman’s demos sound far more like they were actually based on a comic book…not only more so than Prince’s album, but also far more so than such other comic book musicals as It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman or Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
On the whole, Prince’s album is admittedly far more cohesive and effective as a composition than Steinman’s demo material…but then again, it is also an actual finished product, and the musical might have come much closer to that level of effectiveness had it actually been completed. Even so, the material in the demos, while still clearly flawed, demonstrates that there was more potential in the project than most people gave it credit for, and if Steinman and his collaborators hadn’t gotten discouraged by the negativity and given up the project, they might, just possibly, have found a way to make it work on stage.
When the ‘Musical Play’ was first introduced as a genre, in works like Show Boat and the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, while it proved musicals could be serious, deep and even profound, it still dealt with relatively straightforward themes and concepts compared to much of the so-called ‘legitimate’ theater it shared the stage with. But with the emergence of My Fair Lady, an unprecedented success and instant classic based on a play by the densest of all theater writers, George Bernard Shaw, musicals of the late Fifties and early Sixties gradually began to deal with more complicated philosophical themes, such as the passing of longstanding cultural traditions in the wake of social change (Fiddler on the Roof), the moral compromises necessary to effect historical change (1776), or the very nature and definition of sanity vs. insanity (Man of La Mancha). These progressions would later be picked up and carried even further by auteurs like Sondheim, proving that the Musical Play was capable of everything the ‘straight’ play was and more.
Camelot, the follow-up show by the authors of My Fair Lady, fell squarely into the middle of that progress. Like another hit show from around that time, Lionel Bart’s Oliver, it is based on a lengthy, complex English novel from the high literary canon, and as a result, is so stuffed full of plot, character and content that it seems to be bursting at the seams. T.H. White’s The Once and Future King is loaded with dozens of secondary characters and subplots relating to them, but the musical has so much to deal with just regarding the central story of Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and Mordred, and conveying the show’s high-minded ideals about civilization, that it was initially four hours long during its first tryouts.
To be able to tell T.H. White’s story in a reasonable time frame, more than just the subplots had to be sacrificed. In the musical, Arthur and Guenivere’s characters are more or less the same as they are in the novel…Guenivere even gets to keep her rather violent and sexual streak from the book, in songs like the twisted gloss on a standard Wanting Song “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”, the merrily carnal “The Lusty Month of May”, and the scheming, playfully sadistic “Then You May Take Me to the Fair”. Unfortunately, Lancelot and Mordred are not so lucky, as both are significantly flattened out in the musical. For one thing, the Lancelot in the novel is extremely complex, a kind of self-loathing living saint (not the mention the ugliest man in the kingdom), and the character of the same name in the musical, a handsome braggart who happens to be unusually pious, would be almost unrecognizable to anyone who had actually read the book.
Meanwhile, Mordred, while still an entertaining villain, is little more than a stereotypical moustache-twirler in Camelot, complete with a villain song, “The Seven Deadly Virtues”, where he philosophizes on just how evil he is. The Mordred of the novel, on the other hand, is more of an avenging angel, at least at first. He’s the villain only because he’s willing to tear down a civilization to get revenge on one person: he has every justifiable reason to hate his father (who, in the novel, point-blank tried to murder him when he was a baby). It’s only when his half-brothers, whom he clearly loves in spite of his brusque behavior toward them, start getting killed as a result of his plans that he begins to go genuinely insane. By the end of the novel, he is something of a midieval Hitler analogue, but it’s also made clear by that point that he no longer comprehends the reality of his actions.
Even more irksome, in a way, is Arthur’s comment in the musical that “He is my son, and yet I feel nothing for him”. On the contrary, in the novel Arthur has a crippling Absolom Complex regarding Mordred, and that, combined with Arthur’s keenly developed sense of justice and his full knowledge that he does in fact deserve what he’s getting, leads him to essentially craft his own doom. In fact, the entire final tragedy could have been avoided if Lancelot had just killed Mordred when he was ambushed in Guenivere’s chambers, but Arthur had asked Lancelot not to hurt his son and Lancelot honored his request, even though it ultimately doomed them all.
I understand that these were necessary concessions…no musical, even if it was four hours long, could have contained even the four central characters of White’s novel and their story in a stage production. But it can be frustrating to fans of the book to see so much of Lancelot and Mordred’s very selves stripped away, especially when so many audience know these characters primarily through the musical alone. It also strips several layers of moral ambiguity from a show that is entirely about moral gray areas to begin with, which is especiall regrettable.
The show is an odd mix of genre elements that plays like something of an extremely intellectual Romantic Operetta (as opposed to the extremely intellectual Comic Operetta represented by something like Candide). While the book is certainly flawed, with some rather stodgy attempts at ceremony, some pacing issues, and some of the attempted humor falling flat (not to mention the tone radically shifting between the two acts), the show still plays wonderfully in performance, immensely charming and with a monumental emotional impact.
It certainly helps that the score is one of the all-time classic ones, and does a great deal to carry the show. There are a few duds among the minor numbers, particularly “The Persuasion”, an idiotic duet for Mordred and Morgan le Fay, a character from the novel brought on here purely as a plot device, where he bribes her with candy to build an invisible wall around Arthur so the plot-necessary ambush of Lancelot and Guenivere can happen without his interference (the movie, for all its problems, improved this part greatly by eliminating Morgan and the song altogether, and having Mordred instead trap the King with his own moral convictions as he does throughout the rest of the show).
But the major songs are all magnificent, especially the hilarious opening, “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight”, the ravishing siren call “Follow Me”, Lancelot’s introductory showstopper “C’est Moi” and his soaring hit ballad “If Ever I Would Leave You”, Arthur’s deeply touching “How To Handle a Woman”, the quirkily brilliant villain song “Fie on Goodness”, and the title-song, which receives a memorable reprise at one of the most moving final curtains in Musical Theater history.
The score also has an oversized richness that almost rivals that of Candide, with even several of a minor numbers being extremely ambitious. For example, the aforementioned “Follow Me”, while generally featured very prominently on recordings, is little more than glorified underscoring as used in the actual show. And there is a brief but exquisite madrigal in the scene leading up to “If Ever I Would Leave You” that could easily have been expanded into a hit ballad itself, and probably would have been in any other show.
There is endless debate among the show’s fans about whether the stage draft of the material or the movie version represents the ultimate fufillment of the show’s concept. The stage version is musically richer (the film adaptation cuts almost half the score), and the Broadway production was certainly better performed than the movie (although that hardly seems relevant to the question today, as the original Broadway leads are all dead or retired and their performance was never formally filmed). But the movie screenplay is tighter and more consistent in tone, and it makes several improvements to the story like the one I mentioned earlier. For my part, I think the film, and especially Richard Harris’ interpretation of the leading role, are both rather underrated, but I also hate to lose all of that wonderful music (even if many stage productions, including the Broadway one by the time it closed, already cut two fairly key songs, “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” and “Fie on Goodness”, the latter of which is actually quite crucial to the show’s message).
As for the show’s historical associations, such as they are, with the John F. Kennedy administration, I’m not concerned with them (even if they’ve managed to dominate the show’s legacy to a rather ridiculous degree). For one thing, while I certainly have nothing against President Kennedy, comparing him with King Arthur just because of his status as a martyr frankly seems to be a considerable reach. In any case, Alan Jay Lerner certainly never intended this show to be an ode to the then-current President (even if they did know each other in College), and I find the way nostalgic baby boomers have hijacked this show’s entire perceived meaning by conflating the “Camelot” the title speaks of with their speculations on what Kennedy might have done as President if he had lived rather annoying, to be honest.
But as for the show itself, it walked an impressive balancing act. A show this flawed and unwieldy could easily have ended up as just another Heartbreaker Flop in spite of all its glorious qualities, but between the charming comedy of the first act, the emotional and inspirational impact of its second, and its enthralling score, it managed to outweigh all its problems and emerge as one of the foremost classic titles of its era. Given al the shows I’ve covered that simply collapsed under this level of ambition, that almost seems like a miracle. I suppose Arthur’s speech at the end of the show was right…some of the drops do sparkle.
This 2004 Broadway flop has a very interesting and frankly rather inspirational story behind its creation that can best be described as a real-life cross between Once and The Fisher King. Sadly, that inspirational quality is undercut by the fact that this backstory is a hundred times more interesting than the story of the actual musical. The authors claim to have based this story on their own experiences, but frankly they would have been far better off simply writing a straightforward stage memoir about the musical’s own writing process and setting it to the same music (which frankly, would have for the most part fit that story just fine).
This is a shame, because the show was in many ways a meritorious and even beautiful achievement. The visual designs were extremely creative, with sets and costumes literally made out of trash, and the original Broadway cast featured some very strong and emotive singers, particularly Eden Espinosa as the title character and Ramona Keller as the villain. The show drew on the experience of its author as a homeless street musician, with a gritty and honest ambience that seemed to really capture the experience of the lifestyles portrayed in the musical.
There was a lot of pre-Broadway buzz about how interesting the music was supposed to be, but when the show actually reached Broadway, the critics unanimously dismissed the score. In reality, the score is a fascinating one, with lovely melodies that show off the singers’ voices beautifully, surprisingly penetrating lyrics, and an extremely distinctive sound rather reminiscent of the more accessible portions of Elizabeth Swados’ scores.
Especially interesting is “Raven” for the show’s villainous diva Miss Paradice, which offers perhaps the most insightful look at how it feels to be the villain since The Who recorded “Behind Blue Eyes” (the chorus runs “I’ll fly like a raven/in a sky of doves/I’ll make you love to hate me/but that’s still love, that’s still love”). But because its relentless belting and overwrought emotionalism bore a superficial resemblance to the standard, American Idol-influenced ballad-pop of the early 2000s, the critics rejected it almost violently, a move that only really makes sense if you fully grasp how paranoid Broadway was at the time about being taken over by the Pop world.
But the show’s poor reception as a whole can’t really be blamed on the critics’ reaction to the score. Unfortunately, all these strong elements I’ve described are hamstrung by the insularity of the story. The narrative was apparently supposed to be a modern commentary on fairy tales, but it wound up playing more like a very depressing version of a children’s bedtime story. The plot is a hoary old ‘orphan looking for her real father’ cliché, and even uses the ‘unfinished melody’ device most famously associated with Naughty Marietta…a plot device that was already shorthand for uninspired and outdated writing when Anya used it back in the Sixties. The book wasn’t exactly badly written…some of the dialogue is surprisingly sharp, especially the biting satirical speeches for Ramona Keller’s Miss Paradice about the downfall of the American Dream (most of which are even more relevant now than they were at the time)…but the tiresome and saccharine cliches on which the story was built ultimately proved insurmountable.
Due to its Cinderella-esque backstory, everyone, critics and audiences alike, wanted to like this show, but in spite of that estimable advantage, the show pretty much disappeared after the critics dismissed it as a monotonous exercise in saccharine sentimentality. And while I don’t think that out-of-hand dismissal was remotely deserved…it should have been acknowledged as the flawed but fascinating artistic showpiece it was, instead of being treated like a bottom-dwelling catastrophe like In My Life or the Wildhorn Dracula…I can’t really argue that it deserved to be a hit either. The show was, in spirit, a direct descendents of Swados’ Runaways, but that show was wise enough not to attempt a linear plot. This show had all the ingrediants neeeded for a brilliant Conceptual concert, which is why the 15th Anniversary Reunion concert, which cut all the dialogue except a few of Miss Paradice’s speeches, played vastly better than the original Broadway production.
This show is what we in the theater business refer to as a “Heartbreaker Flop”, a fascinating and ambitious failure that scales glorious heights in its better moments. But the fact remains that, for all its beautiful qualities, the show simply didn’t work, at least in its Broadway incarnation, and even the inspirational circumstances of its creation can’t really change that fact. That said, it was something special and unique on Broadway at the time, and it doesn’t get nearly the level of praise it deserves within the category of beloved cult flops, with even its cast album getting little to no attention (as Eden Espinosa observed at the reunion concert, it isn’t currently available on any streaming service or digital platform). So I encourage you to call attention to this gem of a score, because whatever may have been wrong with the original show on stage, the show’s cast album, like so many recordings of great cult flops, makes it sounds indistinguishable from a masterpiece.
Well, I finally saw Bat Out of Hell, right at the end of its New York run. I know there have been some conflicting reports as to its quality, so let me set the record straight. This show is campy and cheesy and raucous and vulgar and insanely over-the-top…in other words, it’s exactly what Jim Steinman always intended it to be. And it’s glorious.
For one thing, the music itself is so incredible that it outweighs any problems the show might have. And it’s fascinating to see the songs in this context because (for those who don’t know), while the score to Bat Out of Hell: the Musical consists almost entirely of familiar hit songs, this isn’t really a Jukebox Musical in the traditional sense of the term . It’s a work-in-progress Rock Opera that Steinman has been writing songs for since the Seventies, and this is the culmination of his ambitions.
You see, during all his forty years of writing hit songs for Meat Loaf, Bonnie Tyler and myriad other popular singers, Steinman had on some level intended every song he wrote (or at least every one not intended as part of some other musical, as he’d already written at least two) as part of a nebulous, never-finished Rock Opera that he had dubbed Neverland. The concept of this piece was a new spin on the Peter Pan mythos, swapping out eternal children with eternal teenage rebels, and indeed, nearly all of Steinman’s work had been easily compatible with that concept.
Well, in the last couple of years this long-term project has finally culminated in an actual stage musical, named after Steinman’s most famous collaboration with his long-time collaborator Meat Loaf, the album Bat Out of Hell. It features a kind of highlights collection of the songs Steinman has written for various artists over the years, and a lot of these songs make sense in the context of the musical in a way they’ve never quite made sense before.
The story had to disguise some of its references to the Peter Pan mythos, apparently because J.M. Barrie’s estate had some problems with the show’s content. But it’s still pretty transparently based on the classic story, with little more than the title, the setting (now a post-apocalyptic wasteland called Obsidian) and the names changed. The Lost Boys are now “The Lost”, a tribe of mutated outcasts with their age forever frozen at eighteen. Peter is Strat, the leader of the Lost, Captain Hook is Falco, the dictatorial leader of Obsidian, and Wendy is Raven, Falco’s restless teenage daughter. In place of Tinkerbell, we have Tink, the youngest member of the Lost and Strat’s best friend, who carries a secret torch for him.
Steinman has always one of the most gloriously over-the-top songwriters in all of Rock music. His hardest Rockers, like “All Revved Up and No Place to Go” and “Everything Louder Than Everything Else” (both of which are combined to form this musical’s opening number), are some of the most intense Rock music in the history of the genre, dancing right up to the edge of full-on sensory abuse. In reality, he’s basically working in the same idiom as Queen, who predated him by a few years. But since it never occurred to Queen to give their blend of heavy Arena Rock, theatrical camp and Operatic intensity a name, it fell to Steinman to name the genre: he dubbed it ‘Wagner-Rock’.
For a few examples of how Steinman took the conventions of Rock to their most insane logical limits, the title song of Bat Out of Hell, his take on a teenage-rebel death song like “Leader of the Pack”, climaxes with the narrator’s still-beating heart flying out of his body. His take on the teenage drive-in hook-up song, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”, was a Prog-Rock-esque multipart suite that ended with its protagonist stuck in the marriage from hell and “praying for the end of time”. When he decided to write a Rock love ballad modeled on Elvis’ “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”, he flipped it into the narrator saying “I want you/I need you/But there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you”, and advising their would-be significant other to be happy with the situation because “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”.
But that’s not to say Steinman was incapable or unwilling to write a straight love song. On the contrary, “For Crying Out Loud”, “Making Love Out of Nothing at All”, “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”, and “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)”, all of which made it into the final musical, are some of the most passionately hyperromantic love songs in all of Rock. And while Steinman definitely had a cynical streak, he could also be immensely inspirational when he wanted to be, as in the gentle ballad “Heaven Can Wait” or the defiantly optimistic “Rock’n’Roll Dreams Come Through”, sung in the show at Tink’s funeral. And the vocalists in this production were doing him full justice…there was a lot of that “break into an ovation during the music because you can’t believe the performer can actually do that with their voice” phenomenon that I’m sure you’re all familiar with.
There’s even a little overlap with Steinman’s other Musical-Theater projects here. The heartbreaking narrative ballad “Objects in the Rear-View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are”, which had been adapted into “The Insatiable Appetite” in Tanz de Vampire, shows up in its original form here. Also, two of the songs from the aborted Batman musical, “Not Allowed to Love” and “In the Land of the Pig, the Butcher is King”, were salvaged for this project. “Not Allowed to Love” in particular works much better here than it did in the Batman demos, mostly because its ultra-sentimental lyrics sound much more natural coming from the childlike Tink than they did when they were being sung by Batman and Catwoman.
If the show has a flaw, it’s the book portions. Steinman does well when the book drifts into free-verse poetry, as in the spoken prologue “Love and Death and an American Guitar”, but he’s not a librettist by trade, and he isn’t entirely comfortable writing naturalistic conversations. After his previous experiences with his past collaborators, I can understand why he didn’t want to let anyone else touch his baby at that point, but hiring an experienced co-librettist would have been extremely helpful.
Still, despite the occasional stupid joke or cliched villain speech, the show works on its own terms. I’ve seen at least one of my fellow online critics try to claim that this was a bastardization of Steinman’s original work, but that seems unlikely, given that Steinman wrote every word and every note of this show. You can like it or not, but don’t try to claim it’s a betrayal of Steinman’s intentions…this is exactly what he had in mind for these songs from the very beginning.
I think you might have to be a Steinman fanatic like me to fully appreciate this show. If you’re the kind of person who describes this as “a Meat Loaf Jukebox Musical”, you’re probably not going to like it. It’s aimed at a very specific demographic, which might explain its limited commercial success so far. But as for me, I am beyond thrilled that after more than forty years, Steinman finally made his dream a reality.