Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Smash of Ages: The Musicals of 2012

I've used a few days of sickness to curl up in bed and watch DVDs and TV. One particular program that I have plowed on through is Smash, NBC's drama series about the creation of an original Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. It's a fascinating show in many regards, if not a perfect one by any means. Much like, say, Glee, it has moments of wonderfully done television followed by moments of dunderheaded madness, but unlike Glee it hasn't completely died on the vine and doesn't suffer from multiple cases of jumping the shark per episode. But, hey, it's early days yet! While I question Smash's Glee-inspired musical moments of vaguely connected pop jukebox moments, where it truly shines is when it sticks to its initial premise of showing a Broadway show being formed from the ground up. Realistic it surely is not, but watching creative people create is such a great joy to watch that I'm able to forgive the questionable follies of its creators (we'll just pretend episode eight, "The Coup", never happened, what with its ridiculous Fame-esque bowling alley sequence and Ryan Tedder "moment").

When Smash is good it's incredible. I've watched episode five's "Let's Be Bad" number so many times now that it is bordering on obscene. "Let Me Be Your Star" from episode one is a more dramatically big moment, but the "Bad" sequence was so fantastically staged in full costume and make-up (even if the art direction was a tad too Rob Marshall's Chicago) that it surely ranks as the show's finest moment so far. That I can easily see the production working on stage and on film proves as much, and if Megan Hilty doesn't submit that episode as her award season For Your Consideration choice (at least of the episodes that we've seen) then maybe she's as deranged as the Smash writers who think we still want to see Ellis faux-prancing about as some villainous sideshow. Elsewhere it has been so great to see Debra Messing dig into her role, even if the material given to her isn't always up to scratch. Who knew she could burrow in so deep with a character that could have been so easily to play as simply as Grace 2.0? She and Anjelica Huston, whose delicate and finely-tuned tightrope walk between brittle and brawn is a delight to see in such frequent doses, wage a weekly battle for Best In Show honours. Loved seeing Messing kick up her heels during the "I Never Met A Wolf Who Didn't Love to Howl" number of the sublime episode four, "The Cost of Art", and then be able to show such fleeting, sexy vulnerability in episode six. Similarly, one of the series' biggest surprise writing wins has been Huston's new love for $7 martini's at a dive bar. It's askew character developments like that that make a show like Smash worth investing in. And, of course, moments like this.

In fact, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are surely the greatest assets for Smash ("Gershwin is the cat's pajamas", hello!) since all of the original numbers so far have been home runs - that pun will only work for people who have been watching Smash; those who haven't can replace one pun with another. How about "all of the original numbers so far have been smash hits"? - which is why I keep wanting more of those and less of the jukebox musical stuff that just gets in the way (I'm looking at you Katharine McPhee singing "It's a Man's World"). I mean, if these were actual songs from a real Broadway show then I probably wouldn't be leaving the theatre disappointed, but then again my knowledge of stage scores is still sadly limited so maybe they're not actually that good?

Bring on the vices!
Don't care what the price is!
I'll add the right spices,
When the stand-up bass slaps you in the face,
Well, it ain't my husband I'll embrace.

I can't see the use in waiting.
Your lips are intoxicating
Do my hips need some translating?
Let's be bad.
Here's the key for my ignition,
Hit the gas to my transmission!
When you hear the things I'm wishin'
You won't offer opposition!
Let's prohibit Prohibition!
Let's be bad!

Still, while Smash will have to try very hard in order to beat the pulse-pounding, Fosse-esque chutzpah of "Let's Be Bad" (an upcoming five-episode arc for Uma Thurman is sure to add DRAMA!), I got to thinking that 2012 is actually going to be quite a fine year for fans of musicals on screen. With eight episodes of Smash behind us and many more to come (it has been renewed for a second season, but I worry this news will force them to stretch things out to breaking point) the year has certainly gotten off to an appropriately red-hued start, but what else is there? America has already seen the release of Joyful Noise, a choir musical starring Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton, which is apparently still getting a local release at some point, but I wouldn't be surprised if it went direct-to-DVD just to punish me. I mean, hello, Australia made Burlesque into a mini-hit so why shouldn't we get Joyful Noise on the big screen?

Elsewhere there is more entries in the ever-expanding teen dance subgenre with Step Up: Revolution and Streetdance 2 3D (awkward movie title alert!) and there is apparently musical enjoyment to be had in Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress and the Lebanaese Where Do We Go Now?, which won the audience award at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. Animated Dorothy of Oz will be trying to cross over as a mainstream musical and there there is that Katy Perry live documentary, too. The Australian film industry is getting in on the act as well, with the late 2012 release of The Sapphires, a musical telling the tale of four aboriginal women who form a soul outfit and tour for the troops in Vietnam. Australian audiences love a good musical and one the biggest local hits of recent years was Bran Nue Dae so I don't see why Wayne Blair's film, which will star Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy and Chris O'Dowd (yes, the cute Irish bloke from Bridesmaids), can't replicate that success if its any good. Following similar territory will be Salim Alki's Sparkle, a remake of Joel Schumacher's cult classic from 1976. Noteworthy for being the last work of Whitney Houston and set to feature original songs from Houston and her castmembers, a lot of attention will surely circle this tale that predates the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls.

The two big musical titles of the year, however, are adaptations of hit Broadway shows. Before Les Misérables comes Rock of Ages, which is set for an American summer release and I secretly hold out hope for it. Despite looking for a glorified, big budget, big screen version of Glee (Wow, need to stop using that show as a reference point for bad jukebox musicals, don't I?), it is directed by Adam Shankman who has directed just one great movie in his life, but that one great movie is Hairspray. Plus, any excuse to see Catherine Zeta-Jones hoofing it up on screen is already doing a good job of getting me interested. Furthermore, that Julianne Hough was very nice in last year's wonderful Footloose remake. I do worry about Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin and the rest of the cast, but a big screen musical needs little incentive from me to get my bum in a seat. The trailer (below) raised a few eyebrows for its taste levels, but I hope it's as stylishly fun as Hairspray proved to be.

As for Les Misérables... well, that one will be very interesting to see play out. It's being directed by recently Oscar minted Tom Hooper of The King's Speech and John Adams, it's been given a plumb December release date and it stars some of the finest silver screen actors who have thus far never been given the chance to belt out of a number or two. Starring Hugh Jackman as Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert and Anne Hathaway as Fantine alongside a cast of Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne and newcomer (and proposed breakout star) Samantha Banks. The words "Oscar bait" feel tailor made for a project like this, and yet projects that get labelled as such rarely go off as planned when it comes to awards season.
No doubt everybody expects this production to do better than the Bille August non-musical version from 1998, but time will tell. I'm not as familiar with the show as others so I'm unsure as to how the musical version could play, but the haunting echo of Alan Parker's Evita must surely hangs low over expectations. Still, fans of film musicals rarely get projects like this that occupy so much advance hype so it will be fun while it lasts. I can only imagine what will happen if that Barbra Streisand led remake of Gypsy officially moves into production.

Have I forgotten any? Which ones are you most excited for (if any)? I won't hear of any anti-musical nonsense though, okay? Good.

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