Friday, November 16, 2018

Stripped Down For Action

By the 1950s, logos and marketing campaigns for Broadway musicals had become increasingly sophisticated. Poster art for shows like My Fair Lady and The Music Man featured unforgettable images evocative of the show's story.

Poster art for 1959's Pulitzer Prize-winning Fiorello!

Poster art for 1961's Carnival

Poster art for 1961's Pulitzer Prize-winning
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

One of the most curious failures of 1964 was a musical starring Chita Rivera, Herschel Bernardi, and Nancy Dussault about a band of gypsies bilking gullible Caucasians out of their money. Soon after Bajour opened on Broadway on November 23, 1964 to less than enthusiastic reviews, it changed the artwork for its marketing materials from its pre-opening drawing to something that might help boost sales of the original cast recording (which arrived in stores just before Christmas). The new artwork did little to either boost sales at the box office or sell records.



1972's Pippin became the first Broadway musical to create a 60-second television spot aimed at suburban audiences. The happy result? The original Broadway production ran for 1,944 performances.


One need not be a lawyer specializing in intellectual property to understand that if a musical opens on Broadway and achieves a certain amount of success (ranging from paying off its investors during its initial run to becoming a long-running cash cow like A Chorus Line, The Phantom of the Opera, Mamma Mia!, Wicked, or Hamilton) it could run for years. Careful planning during the production's pre-tryout phase can help to develop a show's brand, which can then become the cornerstone of marketing campaigns as well as opportunities for product licensing.

In April of 2016, a group of Hamilton's original cast members lobbied for a share of the show's net profits and won 1% of net Broadway profits (to be shared among the group) as well as a 0.33% stake in future productions of the award-winning musical (original cast members of The Book of Mormon have also been allowed to participate in profit sharing). What other steps can be taken to maximize the return on investment for a show's original backers as well as those members of its creative team who are entitled to a percentage of its profits? Standardizing the brand's image across billboards, print and web advertising, merchandise, and the original Broadway cast album are basic moves. Using the same image to promote touring and international productions continues to build the show's legend.

If a famous choreographer such as Jerome Robbins, Agnes DeMille, or Bob Fosse has been involved in a musical's creation, insisting that the original choreography be retained helps to solidify a production's claim to authenticity (as well as beef up the choreographer's royalties). While the sale of film rights is more difficult to achieve, long-lasting revenue streams from licensing production rights to regional theatres, community theatre groups, high schools and universities can also help to generate increased profits.

Two small Bay area theatre companies are currently staging musicals which enjoyed highly successful Broadway runs. Each company can only allot a minuscule fraction of the show's original investment to its production, thus reducing the financial outlay for costumes, sets, and musicians. Because these two companies perform in much smaller venues than the 1,400-seat theatres which housed the Broadway premieres for these shows (the Custom Made Theatre Company seats approximately 100 people while the Alcazar Theatre seats 511), whatever their stripped-down productions sacrifice with regard to visual spectacle and aural splendor is often compensated for by the physical intimacy felt by their artists and audiences.

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Bay Area Musicals is currently presenting Crazy For You, a slap-happy, tap-heavy show that opened at the Shubert Theatre on February 19, 1992, ran for 1,622 performances, and won the 1992 Drama Desk and Tony Awards for Best Musical. That year, Susan Stroman took home the Drama Desk and Tony Awards for Best Choreography.

Connor DeVoe leads a tap-dancing female
chorus in a scene from Crazy For You
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

The show has an impressive theatrical lineage, having been based on George and Ira Gershwin's 1930 hit musical, Girl Crazy (which made overnight stars out of Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman). In 1943 a film adaptation of the Gershwin musical starred Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Crazy For You is essentially a screen-to-stage reworking of a Broadway musical that was remade for Hollywood.

A chorus of cowboys sings "Bidin' My Time" in a scene
from Crazy For You (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

The original Broadway cast of Crazy For You starred Harry Groener (who attended San Francisco's Mission High School and was an apprentice with the San Francisco Ballet) as Billy Childs. As part of its Great Performances series, PBS broadcast the Paper Mill Playhouse's production of Crazy For You (available for viewing on YouTube) on October 20, 1999.

While the Bay Area Musicals production aims to give its audience a good time (and delivers in spades), as a nonprofit, the company's mission statement is quite different from the original Broadway production. As its director-choreographer, Matthew McCoy, explains:
“At face value, Crazy For You may seem like any other song and dance routine. With co-choreographer Danielle Cheiken, we have remounted the original Tony-winning choreography by Susan Stroman, with her ingenious use of props and storytelling through dance. Stroman said that Crazy For You is about 'how art and culture can make a town be reborn again. About the power of art, really. All across America, we see these little towns that have faded away either because their theater is gone, their museum is gone, or their cultural center is gone. In the world we live in now, there’s a threat to the arts and there’s a threat to budgets being cut for cultural institutions. Once that happens, there’s death in that community. So it’s important to remind people that art and culture keep a town alive, keep people alive.'”
Connor Devoe as Bobby Child with Mary Gibboney as
his mother, Lottie, in a scene from Crazy For You
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)
McCoy continues:
“In a city such as San Francisco, thriving with the theater and the arts, it is hard to imagine a life without the performing arts. However, the arts are often the first to go in the school system. A quick Google search unveils a long, heart-wrenching list of performing arts theaters that have closed throughout the country due to lack of ticket sales and funding. I was lucky enough to have great educators and mentors who encouraged my love for the theater. Their encouragement is what inspired me to found Bay Area Musicals. This company has brought together students, educators, and working professionals from all over the United States, all with different backgrounds, to work on the same stage in harmony and create a story that has a deeper meaning than just entertainment. Here at Bay Area Musicals we believe that theater can bring community together, encourage leadership, build confidence in our youth, form unbreakable bonds and friendships, and create unforgettable memories.”
With scenery designed by Kuo-Hao Lo, costumes by Brooke Jennings, lighting by Eric Johnson, and Jon Gallo as Musical Director, BAM's production certainly doesn't lack for energy. Conor Devoe is a happy hoofer as Bobby Child, the stagestruck, spoiled rich boy who falls in love with Deadrock, Nevada's no-nonsense Polly Baker (Danielle Altizio). As Irene Roth (Bobby's man-hungry fiancée), Morgan Peters draws belly laughs from the audience when she discovers the carnal delights of comic villain Lank Hawkins (Sean McGrory), the selfish and dimwitted owner of Deadrock's hotel and saloon.

Morgan Peters (Irene Roth) and Sean McGrory
(Lank Hawkins) in a scene from Crazy For You
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

The revised book by Ken Ludwig (who co-conceived Crazy For You with Mike Ockrent) delivers plenty of laughs which are gleefully lobbed out into the audience by Mary Gibboney (doubling as Bobby's mother and Patricia Fodor), Tony Michaels as Bela Zangler (a send-up of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.), and Danielle Cheiken as Tess (the object of Zangler's affection).

The addition of several popular Gershwin songs to the original score of Girl Crazy helps turn the second act into a mini-Gershwin musical revue as the show nears its end. But as someone who is always happy to see performers tap dancing, I'm easily won over by any chance to spend a night with Crazy For You. With one notable exception.

Connor DeVoe (Bobby Child) and Danielle Altizio
(Polly Baker) in a scene from Crazy For You
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Apparently, due to complaints from some members of the preview audiences who had trouble hearing Ira Gershwin's lyrics, sound designer Anton Hedman cranked up the volume to a decibel level just short of the pain threshold. I wish more sound designers understood that overamplifying a show is not going to make people understand the words better. It's only going to distort some of the sound and detract from the experience. When the going gets tough, you want people to "lean in" rather than grit their teeth in response to their physical discomfort.

Morgan Peters (Irene Roth) and Sean McGrory
(Lank Hawkins) in a scene from Crazy For You
(Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Performances of Crazy For You continue through December 16 at the Alcazar Theatre (click here for tickets).

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With music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, In The Heights opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on March 9, 2008 and recouped its $10 million investment within 10 months. During its 1,184-performance run on Broadway, the show won four Tony Awards (including Best Musical), a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A documentary entitled In The Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams aired on the PBS series Great Performances on May 27, 2009 and, in May 2018, Warner Brothers Pictures purchased the film rights for $50 million. The release date for the musical's screen adaptation (starring Anthony Ramos) is currently scheduled for June 26, 2020.

Julio Chavez stars as Usnavi de la Vega in a scene
from In The Heights (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Custom Made Theatre is presenting a dramatically scaled down production of Miranda's musical with arrangements by Brian Allan Hobbs and musical direction by Louis Lagalante. Rather than trying to capture the scope of street life in Washington Heights (with the George Washington Bridge in the background), Mara Ishihara Zinky's set design focuses on the bodega run by the genial Usnavi de la Vega (Julio Chavez) and his cousin, Sonny (Edwin Jacobs). A door at the extreme side of the stage leads to the home of Abuela Claudia (Michelle Navarrete), an older woman who has helped raise many of the neighborhood's children.

Edwin Jacobs (Sonny) and Julio Chavez (Usnavi) in
a scene from In The Heights (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

While the shelves in Usnavi's bodega are filled with chips and snacks, the protagonist of In The Heights (like its creator) has a heart bursting with love for his Puerto Rican heritage, his friends and customers, and all of Washington Heights.

Tongue-tied by the beauty of Vanessa (Nora Fernandez Doane) and unclear about how to interpret her mixed messages, Usnavi is a fixture in the neighborhood, much like the community's beloved Piragua Guy (Ernie Tovar). Other familiar faces include Graffiti Pete (Jepoy Ramos) and Vanessa's friends who run the local hair salon -- the full-throated Daniela (Mia Romero) and Carla (Elena Ester).

Ernie Tovar as the friendly Piragua Guy in a scene from
In The Heights (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

While much of the musical revolves around Usnavi's crush on Vanessa and the financial challenges facing his bodega, a critical subplot focuses on the Rosario family. Kevin (Sergio Lobito) and Camila (Bidalia Albanese) have spent years running a small cab company that they built from scratch. As immigrant parents, they are extremely proud of their daughter, Nina (Carla Gallardo), who received a scholarship to attend Stanford University.

Bidalia Albanese (Camila), Sergio Lobito (Kevin), and
Carla Gallardo (Nina) struggle with a family crisis in a
scene from In The Heights (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

When a defeated and depressed Nina returns to Washington Heights, she bears the sad news that she has dropped out of Stanford as a result of her poor grades and insecurities. Though Camila tries to reassure her that her parents are always rooting for her, Nina's failure is a blow to Kevin's machismo. Even worse is the fact that Nina and her father's long-time employee, Benny (Dedrick Weathersby), share an obvious romantic attraction which horrifies Kevin (who feels that the bright, young African American will never be good enough for his daughter).

Dedrick Weathersby (Benny) tries his hand as a
dispatcher in a scene from In The Heights
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

When I first saw In The Heights, I had a lot of difficulty hearing the lyrics to some of the hip hop musical numbers (because, as they rap, the actors must spit them out at a rapid clip and the Curran has some pockets where the acoustics can be a real challenge). Experiencing Miranda's score in the intimacy of a 100-seat theatre immensely changes the dynamic and makes a person feel as if everyone onstage is performing in the cozy confines of a living room. Although Miranda's score suffers a bit due to the reduced orchestrations, the costumes by Marisely Cortes, lighting by Chris Lundahl, and sound design by Ella Cooley help to bring the microcosm in which Usnavi lives to life.

Mia Romero (Daniela) and Carla Gallardo (Nina) in a
scene from In The Heights (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Directed by Nikki Meñez, this production brings a refreshing soundscape to the Custom Made Theatre along with a cast of bright, new talents who are eagerly embraced by the audience. Performances of In The Heights continue through December 16 at the Custom Made Theatre (click here for tickets).