Tuesday, 19 January 2010

George, Rosie And Some Dodgy Theatre Choices

Euan Morton as Boy George

As a post exam treat, I finally got round to buying the London cast DVD of Taboo. Please, no mocking. Although it became known as "The Boy George Musical" it was not a jukebox musical, instead Boy George wrote an entire new score (and boy can that man write a mean ballad) and book writer Mark Davies centred his story not only around George but around his contemporaries of the times and also fictional characters. This combination of fact and fiction allowed the viewer to enter this strange world much more easily as it was seen through the eyes of Billy, a normal teenager from Bromley that was more relatable to than say Phillip Salon or Leigh Bowery. The interesting twist was that by the end of play you found yourself more able to identify with these sexually ambiguous self confessed freaks than with the morally ruined Billy who has sold himself out to get ahead in life and taken advantage of everyone he comes in contact with. As good as this outline is, the book itself was quite convoluted with Davies trying to pack too many storylines into one show leading to the audience never really knowing where they are as we flit from Leigh Bowery's art exhibition to Boy George's destructive relationship with Marilyn to Billy's mother going into business with Salon's sister Kim. The show did well and suited the small venue it played at, providing the opportunity for audience to become part of the action (and Paul Baker as Salon to try out some of his one liners).

'Cos everyone loves a urinating man

And then Rosie O Donnell appeared on the scene. (I really should get some sound effects for this- dun dun dun!) This is where things get a little hairy. O'Donnell decided that because she had all the money she could do what she liked with Taboo and so hired book writer Charles Busch to adjust certain things and make the focus of the play the real stories of Bowery, Boy George, Marilyn and so on. This is fair enough; the book needed tightening and Busch obliged. A few bad songs were replaced with better songs and things were generally rejigged. Having seen many a youtube clip of the Broadway production this was mainly for the best; a clear narrative now ran through the piece and superfluous characters had been cut (although I do miss Petal, he was decidedly creepy).

Rosie also decided that if this was her show, it deserved to be on Broadway. Yeah Rosie that's great, lets take a show based in a tiny hall to a giant Broadway sized theatre. It just didn't sit right; the ensemble was bumped up to Broadway type numbers turning intimate club-based songs into large song and dance numbers that didn't particularly fit with the type of music. It also meant that the audience were separated from the performers and so there was a feeling of isolation from the eighties atmosphere. The publicity was also a mess- who puts a giant poster of a guy urinating in Times Square? That was a rhetorical question until I remembered Rosie O' Donnell. Timing was not ideal either, she had just entered into a huge court case which, in hindsight, could have been a blessing as it kept her away from the production. Instead O' Donnell decided to use the case a cheap publicity stunt, plugging the show whenever possible. Not the greatest thing to do when you may end up losing your reputation and lots of money.

Not everything was Rosie's fault; the critics had it in for Taboo right from the start (as shown on Show business: The Road To Broadway- damn you Ben Brantley et al!) and timing was not great- the show was up against Avenue Q and Wicked.

This got me thinking about two things: making changes to shows post opening and the impact the theatre you choose has on the success of your show. Two shows spring to mind: Batboy and Footloose. Batboy was originally played off-Broadway and did really well, I believe it was meant to go to Broadway but 9/11 put a stop to that. Instead it was taken to the Shaftsbury Theatre in the West End. Until recently the Shaftsbury was known as a place where shows go to die and this is what happened to my beloved Batboy. Two songs were replaced in the move but actually the replacement songs were better than the originals and the show even retained its title star, Devin May as Batboy. Yet it still played to weak audiences and did not receive the acclaim it got off-Broadway. This proves that, although we like things to be as big as possible in order to get the most coverage, sometimes things just work better on a smaller scale. For instance, for ages I had dreamed of Zanna Don't receiving a big revival on Broadway or the West End but after seeing it in the tiny Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre I realised it just wouldn't work on a big stage. The intimacy works with the subtly bittersweet storyline and the small cast would just get lost on a big stage. Plus there aren't that many people who would want to see a gay fairytale no matter how good it is.

Seriously, this was the only picture I could find of the Broadway cast

Footloose is a tale of where changing a show can make it a perennial hit. On Broadway, it did alright but not amazingly- fair enough. When it came to the West End it was a pretty big hit, staying around for ages, going on tour, coming back, going on tour again...you get the picture. Only small changes had been made but I think they just made the production more like the film that people know and love and more coherent as a piece of storytelling. The writers realised that, although musicals are renowned for people singing rather than talking, sometimes dialogue can be more effective than song. The pretty dire excuse for a rap "Dancing is Not A Crime" was replaced by a speech by Ren to the town council, much like that in the film. Another song was also removed to allow for an emotional scene between Reverend Shaw and Ren.

Again, the choice of theatre also had a part to play in Footloose's English success. Instead of heading straight to the West End where it could get chewed up in the sheer number of film based shows on offer, Footloose toured Britain. This works twofold- first, the general public who would not normally bother going to London to see a show could see something new and exciting rather than a tired rehash of a West End show. Secondly, tours are cheaper to run and do not have to rely so heavily on star names to sell them so more risks can be taken without losing so much money. When it did finally hit the West End, there was a premade audience of those who had heard from friends who had seen it on tour. Perfect.

My beloved Title of Show

So there we have it, the cautionary Tale of Two Theatres. Other examples that prove the choice of theatre can really affect the success of a show include Next To Normal and Title of Show. Next to Normal started off-Broadway, played out of town and then finally went to Broadway. The key in its success on Broadway was its choice of the Booth Theatre. Originally destined for another theatre, the producers snapped up the Booth as soon as The Story Of My Life flopped. The Booth is one of the more intimate spaces on Broadway which suited this intimate show. Title of Show followed a similar route; originally conceived for the New York Musical Theatre Festival, it was snapped up by producers and put on at The Vineyard before playing a commercial off-Broadway run to rave reviews. I personally love the little show- its full of so much heart and hope of following your dreams yet is sassy and sarcastic at the same time. What followed was a huge campaign by Hunter, Jeff, Heidi and Susan to get the show to Broadway. And it worked! Unfortunately their dreams were dashed by the choice of the Lyceum theatre- it was just too big for only four chairs and a keyboard and so, again, the intimacy of the piece was lost and [TOS] closed after a few months.

Well back to the Chemistry for me, I'll try and update this blog a bit more regularly although this term is looking even busier than last. Oops.

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