Friday, December 5, 2014

FIVE MUSICALS THAT SHOULD TAKE FLIGHT AFTER NBC'S VERSION OF "PETER PAN LIVE!"


With great fanfare and a ton of ad dollars hawking it, NBC’s PETER PAN LIVE! finally was broadcast last night and – surprise, surprise! – it wasn’t the disaster that many had predicted and even wanted it to be. Twitter stood by, anxious to live tweet its demise, but from the moment Allison Williams flew in the window in an impressive bit of wire work, we all knew it wasn’t going to be the train wreck that last year’s THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE! was. The second Carrie Underwood started singing about the hills being alive, we knew that her lackluster star turn would render the mountainous journey DOA.

If there were any problems with NBC's live take on PETER PAN they were evident the moment the cast was announced. It may be tradition to cast a female in the role of the boy who never grows up, but in this modern age that decision seemed sexist and silly. What? Weren’t Chris Colfer or Justin Bieber available? Is there no young actor in Hollywood who can sing and dance? Is Peter Pan that unplayable?


The casting of Allison Williams struck many as wrong from the get-go. She was too pretty, too feminine, too untested as a musical comedy star. Those all may be true, but she did a very good job as Peter, showing off a terrific singing voice and a mischievous take on the role. She was expert at the physical parts, and she sure sold all that flying, particularly during the final battle with Captain Hook. Her spinning and spinning was something to see, for sure!

She may not have been as plucky as Sandy Duncan or as elfin as Mary Martin, but she conveyed a danger that those two did not. When Williams stares, she is a little scary. (Someone will cast her as a villain some day and it will be a sublime turn, I’m sure.) Her only real handicap was that she’s simply too attractive a woman. By casting her, the show brought a subtext of lesbianism to the forefront, and it was a little too sexy for what is supposed to be a family musical. Still, that’s more of the casting’s fault than hers as a performer.


And those who bitched and moaned on Twitter all night long, and at the water cooler today, about Christopher Walken’s take on Hook, I ask, “What did you expect?” If you’ve ever seen him perform in say, the last 30 years, you know he’s eccentric to a fault with his halted line readings and thousand-mile stare. If you’ve ever seen him host SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, you know he relies on the cue cards like he’s reading the script off of them for the first time. And has he been truly scary in any material since he shot Dennis Hopper in TRUE ROMANCE back in 1993? Ah no. And arguably, as written, Hook isn't frightening at all in this frothy bubble of a musical.

Actually, Walken was quite a hoot throughout despite not really singing his role. He did give his Hook an appropriate world-weariness that added to the show's themes of of maturity vs. youth. And it seemed at times that he was trying to show Johnny Depp how a real eccentric buccaneer walks and talks. His make-up was as gay as anything this side of Gary Beach, and outside of say, Gary Beach, I can’t think of an actor who could’ve camped it up as well. And if you've ever seen the estimable Cyril Ritchard's performance as Hook in the 1960 TV production, Walken did his legacy proud.  

The real problem with this production of  PETER PAN wasn’t the casting of the two leads, or the way-too-old Lost Boys, or the limits of wires and sets on a soundstage. The true issue is that it’s simply not a great musical. It’s got a few wonderful songs, and that soaring number where the Darling children first fly, but other than that, it’s a creaky old chestnut that hasn’t particularly aged well. And it's really quite inferior to the superior Disney animated take on J. M. Barrie's classic story.


THE SOUND OF MUSIC had a similar problem last year as they brought the stage version to the screen, and it's far inferior to the movie version we all know and love. The original Broadway production had many problems - too much Baroness, too much Max, too little time with the children - and all those issues were eradicated by a shrewd screenplay by Ernest Lehman. If only he'd have adapted PETER PAN. 

Some musicals on stage, despite their reputation, aren't that great to begin with, or they haven't stood the test of time all that well. PETER PAN is one of those shows that is both. And here's hoping that next time out, NBC picks a truly wonderful show to adapt for the TV screen. There are some great musicals out there whose screen versions could easily be bettered. Here are five that could stand a more exemplary and definitive version that echoed their stage greatness. 


1776

The 1972 big screen version of the Tony award-winning 1969 Broadway show isn’t terrible, but it’s not great either. What it mostly is…is loud. Sure, director Peter Hunt brought most of his original New York stage cast with him for the movie, but too many of them played things as if they were still on the stage. Every joke, note, and facial expression seemed absurdly big. It’s rather garish, and this exceedingly clever and moving show could use a new screen version. 

And TV would be perfect for it as most of the show takes place in the Continental Congress hall in Philadelphia. The sets of both THE SOUND OF MUSIC and PETER PAN were simply too limited by soundstages, but that wouldn’t be a problem for this single setting show. And think of the actors you could get to play our Founding Fathers! How about Jason Alexander or Kelsey Grammar for John Adams to start with? Filling that hall of men with TV’s great male stars could make for an all-star extravaganza. And it would give Hollywood’s rather bereft supply of Fourth of July entertainments a network perennial that could return year after year.


HELLO, DOLLY

Here's another film version that isn't bad at all. It’s just that this 1969 version of the great Broadway musical has a too young Barbra Streisand playing the aging matchmaker Dolly Levi. Babs is actually quite a good Bubala in the role, but she was only 27 at the time. And watching her chase after the curmudgeonly Walter Matthau, who was an old 50 then, seems incongruous. Thus, the key romance in the piece isn’t believable. 

HELLO, DOLLY is one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time, but it’s shocking that something of its stature hasn’t been revived on Broadway more often, and doesn't have a better filmed version. Perhaps TV can get there with a comedic actress like the 46 year-old Debra Messing or Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who's 53. And let's face it, the show is certainly relevant to our modern times what with the saturation of dating sites like Match.com, eHarmony and J-Date. Oy vey! 


MAME

Here's another Jerry Herman classic, and it’s one that's never been revived on Broadway, and a TV version would be ripe for the picking. This story of a ‘live for the moment’ aunt taking her young nephew on a journey through nonconformity is wholly right for today’s anti-one percent sentiments, and Herman’s score is one of the best ever written. The 1973 film version with Lucille Ball again wasn’t a disaster, but the senior citizen Ball was simply too old for the verve needed for this 40ish bachelorette. What about someone like Megan Mullally or Julie Bowen cutting loose in this role? Heck, Cameron Diaz would be better for this role than that of Miss Hannigan in ANNIE. (Something tells me that film is going to make me wish that tomorrow came sooner!)


A CHORUS LINE

Another stage-bound musical that would seem to be tailor-made for TV is A CHORUS LINE. It’s all about the cast and the dancing, and if television can do wonders with those two elements on SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE why couldn’t the same thing be done with this 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning musical that Sir Richard Attenborough turned into one of cinema’s biggest musical turkeys in 1985. Today, this story couldn’t be more of-the-moment with everyone and their brother clamoring to become a star in one reality competition after another. 

And with GLEE ending this coming year, there’s half your cast for this show already. This searing and soaring stage musical deserves a more honorable tribute on screen than the wincingly bad one that exists. God, I hope NBC gets it...I hope they get it!


GUYS AND DOLLS


If it’s good enough to perform at every high school from Boise to Baltimore each year, than it sure would be worthy of a definitive screen version. The 1955 movie of the Frank Loesser classic may star  Frank Sinatra but he's playing Nathan Detroit, not Sky Masterson. Detroit only has a few songs, while Sky gets to sing "Luck Be A Lady". And who plays Sky in the film adaptation? Marlon Brando. He may have been the actor of his generation, but he was no singer. Thus, the picture was doomed before it even began. 

NBC shouldn't try to better Robert Preston in a new version of THE MUSIC MAN next year, but rather try to find a proper Sky to do GUYS AND DOLLS proud. How about Chris Pine? He's about to sing the part of Prince Charming in INTO THE WOODS that opens Christmas Day, and the word is he's spectacular. Doesn't a great musical deserve that? 

NBC, are you listening? 

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