Why is it that some of the best pieces created for the stage and screen are those which focus on the backstage elements of show business? Could it be that the authors are writing about what they know best? Or that such shows, by definition, are true labors of love? To my mind, most of the scripts in which show business feeds on itself for inspiration succeed because the core of each plot captures the public's fascination for what really happens behind the scenes. Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and Donizetti's Viva La Mamma all depend on a brilliant use of theatrical conventions mixed in with the added spice of backstage intrigue. Why does the backstage intrigue add to their success? Because audiences love to discover who's been sleeping around just as much as they want to know whether the ingenue who arrived at Port Authority Bus Terminal with a pair of tap shoes in her suitcase will go on to become a star.
If you don't believe me, just look at some of the classics in which show-biz has told its own story. From Hollywood we have such legendary films as Sunset Boulevard, A Star Is Born, All About Eve and, more recently, Cotton Club. Broadway musicals which thrive on backstage intrigue include 42nd Street, Fade-out, Fade-in and Carnival! (not to mention Follies, Kiss Me Kate, Annie Get Your Gun, Funny Girl and Gypsy).
The success of these works has, in many ways, led to a blurring of previously-held definitions about what constitutes opera and/or musical theatre. What I find particularly interesting is how -- in the course of telling their respective tales -- many dramas have become musicals; several musicals have become operas and certain operas are now emerging as an advanced form of the American musical theatre. Two recent productions, though non-operatic, add to my suspicion that those works which have been written about the theatre, for the theatre, and by theatre people form a curiously amorphous literature which defies categorization.
HARDILY HOPEFUL HOOFERS
Last fall, when I attended the Oregon Shakespearean Festival, the first play I saw performed was an old chestnut entitled Broadway. Written by Philip Dunning and George Abbott, this comedy/melodrama revolved around a poor hoofer's love for a chorus girl who was simultaneously being wooed by a slick gangster. The Oregon Shakespearean Festival is famous for its ensemble work but this production offered much more than I expected. With a combination of delightful songs, tap-dancing interludes and backstage intrigue neatly framed by William Bloodgood's unit set, the show took on a life of its own.
Although Broadway's plot contains every corny stereotype known to show-biz and Mafia melodramas, this production benefitted in particular from Jeanne Paulsen's portrayal of the aging chanteuse, Lil, and Richard Elmore's characterization of Porky Thompson (the lead gangster's chubby-chasing henchman who insists that he likes "the kind of gal who can sit in a Morris chair -- and fill it"). As the romantic leads, Brian Tyrrell and Terri McMahon were wonderfully appealing. And, while Penny Metropulos's Pearl and John Castellanos' romantic gangster were superbly-etched characterizations, it was the slickness and sensitive pacing of Pat Patton's direction which really took my breath away.
BABY, DREAM YOUR DREAM
When Michael Bennett's production of Dreamgirls first premiered on Broadway, the show moved with such dizzying speed that it was hard to take it all in at once. Even at subsequent performances, the attention focused on Jennifer Holliday tended to up-end the show, throwing several portions of it severely out of balance. I remember once discussing Dreamgirls with Beverly Sills, who told me that as far as she was concerned, the show was really an opera. Today, I'd tend to agree with her, although I doubt many opera singers exist who could move as fast or work as hard as the cast of Dreamgirls without totally ruining their voices.
Recently, when a bus-and-truck version of Dreamgirls performed at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre, I was able to examine the show anew. Although some of the stage machinery which contributed to the success of the Broadway production had obviously been eliminated for budgetary reasons, the show still raced around the stage with breathtaking speed and a driving pulse. Perhaps even more than the Broadway cast, this bus-and-truck version gave the impression of a solid ensemble effort which, despite a crucial substitution at the performance I attended, was slickly mounted and smoothly performed.
Having become more familiar with Tom Eyen's lyrics and Henry Krieger's score in recent years, I must confess that I was quite startled to realize just how much of Dreamgirls consists of operatic recitative (there can't be more than ten minutes of spoken dialogue in the entire evening). Indeed, Dreamgirls strikes me as being much closer to a genuine pop-opera than any of Andrew Lloyd Webber's shows.
Alisa Gyse's transition from innocent back-up to the self-determined Deena Jones was well-handled while Sharon Brown's powerhouse voice gave a new dimension to the character of Effie White. Weyman Thompson's Curtis, Brenda Braxton's Lorrell, and Susan Beaubian's Michelle rounded out the leads with grace and style. Although the cast for this production was uniformly excellent, special mention should be given to Herbert L. Rawlings, Jr., for his animated portrayal of the crazed James Thunder Early.
Among its many blessings, Dreamgirls gives its audiences new insights into the price of success, for the goals one has when starting out may not always match the goals one aspires to after reaching the top. The moral of what happened to the Dreams, the Supremes and other show business legends might best be summed up by the old warning: "Beware your fantasy -- it might just come true!"
What impressed me the most, however, was the way in which Dreamgirls itself has survived its initial success. The work is a classic piece of music theatre. Perhaps the story is more poignant than some others because so many in the audience can relate to the segment of the pop music industry whose growth is chronicled in this show. No matter how you look at it, it's a winner!
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on February 19, 1987.