Thursday, 1 September 2011

Finding Wonderland

So the theatre season has been over for a few months now, Book of Mormon has swept the awards boards and the losing shows have posted their closing notices. But this post isn't about any of those shows; it's about a show that never really had a chance. Wonderland (A New Alice, A New Musical) opened with some somewhat dubious publicity from the New York critics and closed pretty soon after. I recently watched a filming of the musical and feel that I can now have some sort of opinion on this year's biggest flop. Frank Wildhorn has never had a "comfortable" relationship with theatre critics, being synonymous with writing long, ballad-heavy period pieces such as Jekyll and Hyde, Wonderland appeared to be something different; a lighter, pastiche-ridden fluffy take on Alice in Wonderland. Please note, I really don't like the use of sub titles in musicals, do we really need the "A New Alice, A New Musical"? Just as do we really need "A New Mel Brooks Musical" alongside everything Mel Brooks has ever hummed into a tape recorder?

Alice and Friends. That would be a great title for a sitcom.

The show wasn't as bad as many would be led to believe- the costumes were awesome, the songs were catchy and, on the whole, the actors did their best with some rather cheesy dialogue. But I've never seen a show where is faults are so obvious and easy to rectify. The main issue is the book, in particular the structure of the book. I know that a) the show has already closed, b) I'm not a theatre script doctor (unfortunately) and c) Frank Wildhorn doesn't really listen to anyone but himself but I'm going to have a little dissection of the play and examine how it could easily be improved. This also requires the following warning-  *SPOILER ALERT*.

My first issue was with the placement of the Mad Hatter's big showstopper "I Will Prevail", having heard the song on AccuBroadway I assumed it was the big eleven o'clock number yet it appeared at the beginning of act two. The phrase eleven o'clock number refers to when shows used to start later with the penultimate song occuring at eleven clock; a big showy number to keep the audience awake! Famous examples include "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat" from Guys and Dolls and (more recently) "No Good Deed" from Wicked. So step one in reorganising Wonderland is to move "I Will Prevail" to the eleven o' clock position which leaves an act two opening slot. My second issue was the use of "Through the Looking Glass" as the ending to act one; it was a good song but far too poppy and happy to conclude the act. There just wasn't enough tension or build up for an ending number, I'd instead move it to the beginning of act two. The act two opening is intended to bring the audience back into the show with something fun and buzzy to bring them back up to speed, which I think "Through the Looking Glass" does very well.  

What does this do to the entire storyline of act two? I hear you ask (well only if you know the show). The capture of Alice's four companions has always appeared to me as being too early in the plot leaving a long time for Alice to journey around the land beyond the mirror by herself with very little reason for it. I understand that many of Alice's songs in the second act are by herself or with characters she encounters, it would be easy to split herself and her companions' endeavour; the four friends off to save the brainless soldiers and Alice to find her daughter. This would also solve our act one finale dilemma- have Chloe being taken by the Mad Hatter as the ending to act one with her mother and she singing a duet about being apart, or even giving the Mad Hatter another song (please do, she's great!). Now the story is starting to sound a lot like The Wizard of Oz which is probably a good thing as it is 'one of the best musicals ever' and therefore must have done something right. Even the use of the same actors playing different characters in and out of Alice's dreamworld echoes that great film, I feel that this concept could have been used to greater effect, placing her other friends El Gato and Caterpillar within her real world. I also liked the concept of the Mad Hatter as Alice's alter ego, created because she didn't come to Wonderland as a child but it needed to be more defined or made more of a big deal to really drive the idea home. 

See Chloe, I told them what would happen if they didn't give me an Act One finale of my own...
As I've previously said a bad book doesn't always lead to an unpopular musical, there are plenty of shows lacking in the storyline department that have done really well. For Wonderland I don't believe it was the bad structure that really paved the way to failure but the steely determination of the top critics to let it fail. As I mentioned above, Frank Wildhorn has never really been liked by the critics with very few of shows his shows doing well on Broadway, he's not the only one. A very nicely documented account of a similiar occurance is the launch of "Taboo" on Broadway shown on "Showbusiness: The Road To Broadway". One scene I distinctively remember is of the leading New York critics having a good old giggle about a Boy George musical coming to Broadway and thinking the idea is absolutely hilarious.  Another case closer to home was the critics' opinions on "Imagine This", the musical based in the Warsaw Ghetton. Having done my own article on the show, my Dad sent me a rather more derigatory and unresearched piece mocking the use of a serious storyline in a musical. From the Guardian no less!

This is nothing new though, my History of Twentieth Century Technology characterised me as the person who always blames the media for the downfall of anything new. The electric car is a great example, the media didn't like it so wrote articles about how unreliable and costly it was, next thing you know the New York electric taxi company has gone bust and the plans to roll out electric recharging stations in America have been stopped. Oops

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