FLASH FRIDAY: Mega Musical Memories
With this week's hottest Broadway news centering on the shady financial dealings of the backers - or lack thereof, as the case may be - for the still supposedly forthcoming Broadway production of European hit REBECCA, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier - the marquee is lit and cast signed, after all, with rehearsals still set to start on Monday - the mega-musical has fleetingly returned to the centerstage for, well, one day more, spurring on a remembrance of mega-musicals passed. Let's look at the top ten of all time - CATS to PHANTOM to LES MIZ to MISS SAIGON, CHESS, and, of course, the surreptitious leading lady of REBECCA - as we look to the future for the form, as well as some special surprises along the way, as we remember a very unique fifteen-year period of theatrical history.
The Mega Music Of The Night
The 1980s and early 1990s were dominated by a particular phenomenon that has yet to be repeated: the almost complete domination of Broadway by the British, largely with lavishly produced, oftentimes almost near-anonymously cast spectacles that were often appropriate for audiences of every age, 8 to 80, and featured soaring, then-contemporary-inflected scores more often than not based on well-known, classic properties - the mega musical. The most obvious and prevalent examples of this theatrical form are undoubtedly CATS, The Phantom of THE OPERA, LES MISERABLES, MISS SAIGON and CHESS. While the latter pop opera (another term for the form) failed to find success on Broadway, it epitomized the mega musical in many ways and ultimately acts as an intriguing example of the unusual nature of these productions that ultimately came off to many audience members as born-to-be-blockbusters, albeit with many coming from bizarre births all the same if we care to look at the behind-the-scenes goings-on. None were sure bets. Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh and the French songwriters Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg are the most ubiquitous names when discussing this particular era, and rightly so: Mackintosh produced all of the biggest hit mega musicals and Lloyd Webber was responsible for writing the scores for CATS, STARLIGHT EXPRESS and PHANTOM - that latter of which, by the way, is still running on Broadway and in The West End to this very day, currently the longest-running Broadway show ever and showing no signs of stopping anytime soon - whereas Boublil & Schonberg penned LES MIZ, MISS SAIGON, and, one of the very last of the lot, the Olivier Award-winning Best MusicAl Martin GUERRE. Besides the Mackintosh, Webber and Boublil & Schonberg dynasties, many other musical theatre mavericks, new and old, chanced a roll of the dice with their own spectacles, pop operas, rock operas, concept musicals or whatever they chose to call them - with most ending up failing spectacularly. The mere titles alone of some of the huge flops of this era still provoke titters and smirks among more corrosive Broadway babies when mentioned, even in mixed company - CARRIE (a modern pop-flecked adaptation of the Stephen King novel, horrifically mis-directed), TIME (a space odyssey featuring a hologram of Laurence Olivier), SHOGUN (based on the epic Japanese-themed James Clavell novel), METROPOLIS (Joe "You Light Up My Life" Brooks taking on Fritz Lang), MATADOR (John Barrowman and Stefanie Powers doing their best in a Spanish mess) and many even less-mentionable properties among them. The wild card of all mega musicals is the USSR vs. US-themed political romance rock opera CHESS, composed by ABBA Bs Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, with a libretto by none other than former Andrew Lloyd Webber collaborator Sir Tim Rice. What could have been... especially based on the promise of the material and its proven success as a hit worlwide concept album before it even hit the stage.
In my recent InDepth InterView with Broadway superstar and original Judas in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR Ben Vereen, he cited that specific show as truly the signaling of the first wave of the so-called Broadway British Invasion, which then continued with Webber and Rice (and director Hal Prince) on EVITA and ultimately led to the first full-out, spectacle-over-everything-else otherworldly charms of Lloyd Webber's musical and theatrical musings on the frisky feline poems of TS Eliot, CATS - which, incidentally, starred original Eva Elaine Paige as Grizabella, The Glamour Cat; an eleventh-hour replacement for Dame Judi Dench who had sprained her ankle in late rehearsals. Paige would later play another pivotal role in the mega musical's development when she would star in CHESS, and, later, as a replacement in Lloyd Webber's SUNSET BOULEVARD, which many consider the very last mega musical of all (and a good note to end on, indeed). Of course, Broadway's own Patti LuPone moved from EVITA to an Olivier-winning portrayal of Fantine in LES MIZ to, finally, a starring role in SUNSET BLVD, but that's a story for another column if there ever was one! With CATS, LES MIZ and PHANTOM all running on Broadway, The West End and in many locations around the world and each, with the exception of PHANTOM, eventually finding its own special sunset after a long run, the era fizzled out around the time of Lloyd Webber's SUNSET BLVD, which was perhaps the most adult of all mega musicals - and, though Webber wrote another big mega musical winner with his railroad-themed roller-skating train musical STARLIGHT EXPRESS, his more grown-up ASPECTS OF LOVE sputtered out - it being a natural next step from the Vietnam-themed tragedy of Boublil & Schonberg's MISS SAIGON a few years before (at the tail end of the eighties). With MARTIN GUERRE never making it to Broadway and SUNSET BOULEVARD's success d'estime, it was evidently the end of an age - though what a dazzling, dynamic and epic time for the theatre, not only on Broadway and in The West End, but all around the world. Never to be forgotten, it was with the mega musicals that the branding of iconic imagery of a show - not unlike what Hollywood has done for eons - really took off and made a global mark, and, as a direct result, it seems that long after these shows have closed and the spectacular sets are struck for the last time, you still may be able to spot those yellow cat's eyes on a black T-shirt or a dirty-faced Cosette on the back of a jacket from time to time - and, in moments like that we can be swept up in the magic of the mega musical all over again.
The Top Ten Most Memorable Mega Musicals
Now, let's take a look at this carefully considered list of the top ten mega musicals of all time - kicking off with the three Cs of the mega musical ABCs, followed by a few anomalies and then the best of the best (and maybe a bonus, too).
First up, check out Richard Burton introducing the 1983 Best Musical winner CATS, featuring Tony Award-winner Betty Buckley belting the Lloyd Webber mega ballad "Memory" to the rafters, remaining to refrain from joining the frivolous fun the rest of the furry assortment of the jellicle cats - Ken Page, Terrance Mann and the rest - as the prepare for the big ball. Who will be chosen to go to the Heavyside Layer at night's end? Let the memory live again.
Click below for the Tony Awards performance clip from CATS.
Containing the only top ten pop crossover hit of any musical from the last thirty years, "One Night In Bangkok" cemented the relative success of CHESS from the very start - before it even hit the stage, actually (the rap-infused single was taken from the concept recording, though Murray Head, Elaine Paige and Tommy Korberg all went on to the original West End Cast in their concept album roles). The subsequent Broadway fiasco of a vastly rewritten version unavoidably has cast a pallor on the show's legacy a bit in the intervening years - and, we all will always be left wondering what it would have been with super-director Michael Bennett at the helm, as had been planned before he succombed to a very early AIDS death.
Here is the original music video for "One Night In Bangkok".
With one of the most inexplicable scenic designs in Broadway and West End history, the both bad and brilliant CARRIE seemed almost doomed from the get-go - losing leading lady Barbara Cook in the transfer to Broadway (replaced by none other than Betty Buckley) was the least of the show's problems, as a matter of fact. Nonetheless, the score possesses some stupefying musical material amidst the more mundane and stultifying stuff - especially the big barn burners for mother and daughter.
See what the TV critics at the time thought below.
While many may claim SUNSET BOULEVARD was the true cap of the mega musical era, MARTIN GUERRE showed the clear exhaustion of the audience for mega musicals by the time it premiered in the early 1990s in The West End. While it won Best Musical at the Oliviers, it never even managed to make it to Broadway, yet the many different versions of the romantic French tale each boast some tuneful and tear-inducing drama as good as any of the best entries on this list. Maybe the show will be re-evaluated some season soon. Who knows?
Now, enjoy this performance of a medley by the original London cast at that year's Royal Variety Performance.
Though it never made it to Broadway, Dave Clark's futuristic rock space musical TIME boasted perhaps the most complex and undoubtedly the most sophisticated scenery of any of the mega musicals of the era - and that is really saying something - with acting legend Laurence Olivier himself even appearing in a 3D hologram throughout the strange show. Mega musicals were often too dependant on the set over all else, as was clear to hear in the middling score and experience in the muddy plot for TIME.
Experience the far-out effects featured in the original West End production of TIME in the news clip below.
Based on Billy Wilder's 1950 obsidian black Hollywood paean (of sorts) of the same name, SUNSET BOULEVARD is one of the finest screen-to-stage adaptations and features one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's most sophisticated and alluring scores to date. The ladies who walked the grand John Napier staircase ranged from Patti LuPone to Glenn Close to Betty Buckley, Rita Moreno, Diahann Carroll and Petula Clark to Elaine Paige; all of them memorable in their own ways. More than many on this list, SUNSET BLVD seems especially ready for revival although it happens to be the most recent musical in our clip consideration. Hard to believe it's been almost twenty years since Norma made her grand return.
Sample Glenn Close's Norma Desmond in this chill-inspiring clip from Andrew Lloyd Webber'S 50TH BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION.
Roller-skating choreography and theatrical excess both reached their absolute apotheosis with Andrew Lloyd Webber's mid-eighties family-friendly super-spectacle STARLIGHT EXPRESS. Featuring real-time races on a specially-constructed set (Napier, once again) that enveloped the entire theater, STARLIGHT brought the audiences into the experience in a way few other entertainments dared to do, giving the Hollywood blockbuster a run for its money as only the mega musical when done by a master like Lloyd Webber or Mackintosh really could.
Angela Lansbury introduces the original Broadway cast of STARLIGHT EXPRESS on the 1987 Tony Awards below.
Maybe the most sweeping and enlivening of all on today's countdown, LES MISERABLES is based on the classic Victor Hugo novel of war, redemption, remembrance and romance, telling a sprawling, decades-spanning tale comprising an assortment of beloved and iconic characters - chief among them Jean Valjean. With the film version opening Christmas Day, a whole new audience will now be exposed to the dreams dreamed in LES MIZ very soon.
The original Broadway cast performs a medley from the show, ending with what many would argue is The Musical embodiment of the mega musical era, the spine-tingling "One Day More".
Producer Cameron Mackintosh and the songwriting team of Boublil & Schonberg followed up the gargantuan worldwide smash hit LES MIZ with a much edgier and more confrontational piece, the MADAME BUTTERFLY-inspired, Vietnam War-centered musical tragedy MISS SAIGON. Showcasing an Asian and rock-influenced score, MISS SAIGON is the most adult and contemporary of any property on our countdown, with perhaps the exception of SUNSET BOULEVARD - it was far from a feel-good night at the theatre. Cameron Mackintosh recently stated he will pursue a film adaptation of MISS SAIGON should the LES MIZ film strike a chord with the public, so perhaps we will be hearing more of that solo saxophone from a far off land once again sooner than we may assume.
Jonathan Pryce performs "The American Dream" in this showstopping Tony Awards performance capture.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
The mega musical of mega musicals, The Phantom of THE OPERA is the most successful entertainment of all time - more than any film, TV show, stage show or concert act. That says it all, really, doesn't it? The combination of romance and horror, opera and pop and blockbuster entertainment married to top-of-the-line theatre was never felt more fully and more pleasingly that in Hal Prince's superb original staging of the Gaston Leroux-based thriller. Yes, more than any other composer of the era, the music of the night is unquestionably owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber, having penned not one, not two, not three, but four major mega musicals that are featured on this countdown, as well as virtually starting the British Broadway Invasion with his work alongside Tim Rice on JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and EVITA, and, then, signaling the start of the movie adaptation fever (that continues to this day) and the conclusion of the mega musical era with SUNSET BLVD. He is always ahead of the curve.
Relive THE MYSTERY of the man behind the mask and revisit the unmistakable magic of Michael Crawford's commanding "The Music Of The Night" - as well as the inspiration for the show herself, Sarah Brightman - in the 1988 Tony Awards clip below. This is truly the most iconic and most celebrated theatrical sequence of all the many marvelous clips collected here, no doubt - and for good reason. PHANTOM has a power all its own and is the undisputed king of mega musicals.
Now, as a special bonus, check out the splashy commercial for Broadway's REBECCA. Shall she signal the start of a mega musical renaissance on the Great White Way, do you think?
One Day More
So, with the feature film adaptation of Mackintosh's mega-successful LES MISERABLES gearing up to hit movie theaters on Christmas Day (with a new Boublil & Schonberg tune, to boot), as well as the purported plans of REBECCA to finally appear on Broadway and open - it being the first truly classifiable mega musical as they once were on Broadway and in The West End since the disastrous THE WOMAN IN WHITE and DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES earlier in the 00s - perhaps we are at the precipice of a mega musical renaissance just beginning. Honestly, couldn't we use a little more romance and music in the world today? I think so.
This time, though, they can lose the synthesizers.
What mega musicals would you like to see revived next? Which ones deserve to make the leap to the big screen following LES MISERABLES in December, in your humble estimation? Does a big screen MISS SAIGON sound ideal for this time next year to you? One more dawn, one more day… one mega musical more.