Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Baffling Broadway

I grew up in a Northern Californian suburb where cow tipping was considered a viable Saturday night out, so we didn't hit a lot of Broadway shows. But everyone in our cul-de-sac had numerous Broadway and movie-adaptation soundtrack albums in their record collections and we listened to them a lot. Then in high school, when most drama geeks were traipsing about, awkwardly performing most of this stuff, I had the one drama teacher in the country who hated musicals (and for complicated and unpleasant reasons, didn't get along with our school's excellent music teacher). We did Shakespeare and Neil Simon plays instead.

Since I didn't see many of these musicals until years later, some of these songs remained a real mystery to me. What was their purpose and how did they come to be? Like this one: Buddy Hackett sings "Shipoopi" from The Music Man. On record, this really blew my mind. What was up with Buddy's helium-induced voice? What was "shipoopi" anyway? What made him sing it with such conviction? Looking at the film clip--why are these dancers going so crazy during this number? It's not even that fully orchestrated to induce this kind of town-square frenzy. Still, despite everything, I like it.

West Side Story's "Prologue." I walked into the family room while my parents were watching this on TV and I stopped in my tracks, mesmerized. A musical filmed outside in an urban environment? With finger-snapping, dancing gang members threatening each other to a sinister tune? It was so dark yet everyone was so snappily dressed. Who knew you could get away with this kind of stuff? TV: not always evil.

"Turn Back O Man" from Godspell (at 4:37). I don't remember if we got the record to "Godspell" or if I saw the movie on HBO first. All I know is that Godspell was the shit. I mean--I loved it. I got the piano sheet music and played every song, especially this one. I thought the thrift-store fashion sense was the ultimate. I thought John the Baptist was hot. I thought Victor Garber as a stick-thin Jesus in a Superman shirt was adorable and mime-like.

Because I was a child, the hippie playfulness of the cast was appealing and not questionable to me in any way. Especially because everyone in the film initially casts off their worldly goods, quits their day jobs and follows a gentle storyteller while traipsing around a strangely unpopulated New York City. Every budding drama geek's fantasy! Now it's dated and looks really low budget and precious, but then, it was like Sesame Street for Christian grown-ups with the apostles as muppets.

This is the "sexy" number where Sonia the sultry apostle tries to tempt Jesus with worldly goods and maybe even some sex. It's kind of implied in a vaudeville manner. Anyway, it confused me: who would try to tempt Jesus? That's just WRONG. Let him tell his parables in peace. It does inject a necessary shot of animal magnetism in an otherwise chaste theatrical endeavor. And that's probably why everyone digs this number.

"The Book Report" from You're a Good Man Charlie Brown. A big show-stopping number about children stressed out about homework. I didn't know you could make drama from this, but apparently it works for a lot of people. This show also features manic-depressive odes to suppertime and songs of bullying and low self-esteem. Like the comic strip it's based upon, it's very uplifting!

"Anything You Can Do" from Annie Get Your Gun. My friend Jill and I LOVED this song so much we actually lip-synced it for the school talent show. I had to play Howard Keel to her Betty Hutton because she was blond and starting to get buxom. Had we watched the film, we would have noted that Hutton's Annie was actually more butch than Keel's Frank. That's what makes the song great: competitiveness between the sexes with tons of gender blending traits throughout. Plus it's hostile, funny and clever all at once. Here's the Ethel Mermen Broadway version set to Batman because the film version can't be embedded. Baffling, yet it definitely works.

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