Saturday, September 26, 2015

Not Throwing Away Its Shot: Hamilton on Broadway

Hamilton at the Richard Rodgers Theatre (photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times).

It’s hard to separate the new Broadway musical Hamilton from the hype surrounding it. Its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has been performing versions of its songs since early 2009, when he presented an early draft of the show’s opening number at the White House. It has garnered breathless praise since it opened Off-Broadway at the Public Theater at the beginning of this year. On August 6, it officially opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway.

It’s not hard to see where the hype comes from: Hamilton is one of the freshest, most energetic productions I can remember seeing on Broadway. It’s especially surprising that this should be the case, because its plot is a fairly comprehensive chronicle of Alexander Hamilton’s (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda) life, adapted from Ron Chernow’s approximately 800-page biography. The plot hits every major episode of Hamilton’s life: his brutal early childhood in the Caribbean, his service as George Washington’s (Christopher Jackson) right-hand man during the Revolutionary War, his marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), his role in shaping the Constitution and the nation’s financial system, the sex scandal that ruined his career, and ultimately his death at the hands of Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.). It doesn’t exactly sound like a blockbuster premise for a musical.

Friday, September 25, 2015

So Much Pun: The Muppets on ABC

The cast of The Muppets, now airing on Tuesday nights on ABC.

When your online profile says 'passionate bear looking for love,' you get a lot of wrong responses. Well, not wrong… just wrong for me.
– Fozzie Bear, The Muppets on ABC.
Reboots of beloved shows are often approached with deep ambivalence by their most fervent fans: as eager as we are to see favourite characters in new situations, the risks make us wary of the rewards. Can our cherished memories survive in the bright light of contemporary sensibilities? Will the new creative voices share our love for the source material, and if they do, will we agree on the reasons for that affection? Like many 70s kids, I grew up on the Muppets. I've never felt especially addressed by most popular characterizations of so-called Generation X, but had Douglas Coupland titled his landmark 1991 novel "Generation Muppet" even a unrelenting non-joiner like myself would have had to jump on board. The Muppet Show wasn't just my first favourite television show, it was my entry into 70s culture. Kermit and company introduced me to Ethel Merman, Elton John, Harry Belafonte, and Johnny Cash (the latter of which, fed by way of father's old LP collection and later by Rick Rubin, has turned into a lifelong love), and to this day I cannot hear Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" without thinking, poignantly, of defenceless woodland creatures.

On Tuesday, ABC premiered The Muppets, bringing Jim Henson's beloved felt characters back to prime time – almost twenty years after ABC's Muppets Tonight bowed out, and almost four decades after The Muppet Show premiered back in 1976. In the meanwhile, of course, it isn't like we've been experiencing any Kermit-related drought. There was CBS's long-running Saturday morning cartoon Muppet Babies, as well as no fewer than eight theatrical films – including 1992's The Muppet Christmas Carol (which I will here proclaim, without irony, as one of the finest film adaptations of Dickens' tale ever produced) and Jason Segel's 2011 hit The Muppets. Our favourite characters – Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Animal, and dozens of others – have had careers that any Hollywood actor would envy, starring in content of varying quality but also of remarkable breadth in tone and content. All of this to say that even though the new ABC series easily made my "Most Anticipated" list for the new fall season, I could approach the series premiere with very little anxiety. The Muppets certainly marks a new chapter in the Muppet corpus, but whether it succeeds or fails, The Muppets aren't going to disappear any time soon.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Out of This World: John Coltrane in Seattle (1965)

John Coltrane and Elvin Jones (drums) at the Half Note in 1965.

For twenty years, between 1947 and 1967, John Coltrane (whose birthday was yesterday) played saxophone while engrossed with the desire to reach a place unheard, never before felt, and spiritually solvent. Beginning his career with an equal longing to be "consumed" by the spirit of Charlie Parker, in actuality, he was consumed (like Parker had been himself) with drugs and alcohol. One day, though, Coltrane had a spiritual awakening through vegetarianism and eastern religion which lead him on a quest "to make others happy through music." Who knew then that this sojourn would take him to the furthest edges of what many would call listenable music? And it would leave some people less than pleased let alone happy.

His career had begun with Dizzy Gillespie's band in the late Forties, but when Coltrane hooked up with Miles Davis in the mid-Fifties, he began to hone a virtuosity in improvisation.They were an audacious contrast in styles. Where Davis was a master of spareness, Coltrane could never seem to cram enough notes into a bar of music. His heroin problems got him kicked out of Davis's group, but then he began a short term with pianist Thelonious Monk before kicking his habit permanently. Coltrane had found a mentor in Monk. Monk taught him methods of creating complex harmonic structures within his sax solos, which in time would be long, difficult excursions into abstract blues. Coltrane could take a pop standard such as Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favourite Things" in 1960 and enlarge the melody on the soprano saxophone by building an extended solo overtop the basic chords of the theme. Within a year, though, in a series of concerts at the Village Vanguard, Coltrane used melody as merely a starting place for epic solos that built in intensity like a chainsaw cutting through a tornado. Sometimes they would last for close to an hour. "Chasin' the Trane," for instance, featured over eighty choruses that were built upon a twelve-bar blues. That intensity would reach a spiritual epiphany in 1964 with the luxuriant devotional suite A Love Supreme.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A New Twist on the Twist: M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit

We are very pleased to welcome a new critic, Danny McMurray, to our group.

Note: There are spoilers ahead.

M. Night Shyamalan, in spite of all the totally valid criticism he receives, has always managed to entertain me. For that reason (and partially also because of the very Hansel and Gretel-esque teaser which, I swear, played approximately twice every commercial break this month on MTV), I was all too eager to catch his latest horror/comedy film, The Visit  naively eager, perhaps. On the matter of entertainment, I can report that it delivered, but not without its share of problems.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Retro Fever: Kung Fury vs. Turbo Kid

Triceracop and David Sandberg in Kung Fury.

Get ready for the understatement of the week: popular media sure loves the 1980s right now. When studios aren’t scrambling to remake anything from the Reagan era with even the barest semblance of name recognition (I’m still holding out for the gritty reboot of Teddy Ruxpin, personally), everyone from video game developers to fashion designers to amateur filmmakers are appropriating the loud, garish, neon-and-pastel synthpop aesthetic of the late 80s and early 90s, because people seem to be lapping it up, so why not? This is a strange phenomenon whose causes have doubtless been explicated elsewhere far more expertly than I ever could – all I know is, I look around at popular media these days and it’s one of the most common tropes I recognize. Films like Kung Fury and Turbo Kid almost seem like inevitabilities in this climate.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Waitress: Lowest Common Denominator

Jessie Mueller (right) & Dakin Matthews in Waitress, at the American Repertory Theatre. (All photos by Evgenia Eliseeva)

Waitress is the latest in a series of new musicals and revivals that American Repertory Theatre’s artistic director, Diane Paulus, has been shepherding through the tryout phase in Cambridge with an eye on opening them in New York, and nearly all of them have made the move successfully. I have decidedly mixed feelings about Paulus’ using A.R.T. as a clearing house for New York-bound projects – it’s not as if A.R.T. was such a great place in the days when it housed allegedly cutting-edge productions by prestigious guest directors – but I might feel less ornery about these shows if they seemed to be working toward some balance of art and commerce. But last season’s Finding Neverland was a bald attempt (mostly on the part of hands-on producer Harvey Weinstein) to home in on the audience for Disney stage musicals, and Waitress is aimed at the crowd that goes wild at down-home musicals like The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and 9 to 5.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Neglected Gem #83: Paper Mask (1990)

Paul McGann and Amanda Donohoe in Paper Mask (1990).

The perceived arrogance and hubris of doctors, which is how so many patients see and are intimidated by them, is the inside dark joke in the tense and pleasingly twisty British thriller Paper Mask. Directed by veteran Christopher Morahan and written by John Collee, a doctor who adapted his own novel to the screen, the movie begins with a literal bang as Matthew Harris (Paul McGann), an amoral orderly in a London hospital, chances upon a fatal car accident outside his local pub. Sensing an opportunity, he steals the ID of the victim, a doctor from his own hospital named Simon Hennessey, and when he learns that Hennessey had just applied for a residency in a hospital in Bristol follows though and goes for the job which, astoundingly, he gets. The frightening conceit here is that merely perusing a few textbooks and observing some procedures where he works is enough for Matthew to fool anyone at his new job. It’s not as farfetched as it might sound since Paper Mask is careful to keep things real and smartly focused, which is what makes this "it could happen" tale so scary.