Six and Context Collapse

Six, the smash West End hit currently in its North American premiere in Chicago, is not your average musical. Yes, it’s all pop music, but that’s not even what I’m talking about—it’s 2019, we’re pretty used to the idea of contemporary music styles in theater. However, the format of Six is highly unusual, even for modern musicals.

Mean Girls has contemporary music but it’s still a traditional musical in that plot happens, the characters sing what’s going on, and then the story continues through time. As with almost every show in Broadway, the music is non-diegetic, meaning that the characters don’t know they’re singing and don’t acknowledge the music as happening in their world.

In Six, the plot has already happened. The conceit of the show is that the six wives of Henry XIII (as ghosts? Zombies? Vampires?) have returned for a live concert tour and one song at a time share their stories with the audience. You learn things about each character as the show goes on, but it’s less of a musical and more of a storytime YouTube video with extremely high production value. As such, the characters are fully aware that they’re singing, and in the canon of the show all of these songs are pre-written to be performed for you tonight.

The thing about Six that really gives people pause is that the soundtrack has only nine songs, with a total runtime of only 90 minutes. I recently had a conversation with a friend who asked me what I thought about the show, say that he heard it was a “Hamilton copycat” and expressing his surprise at how short it was.

Now I, having seen the show and done a minimal amount of research into the history behind its development, rushed to defend it. Truthfully I think the Hamilton comparisons are definitely overstating it—it’s another show with contemporary music about historical events, but the similarities for the most part stop there (although I did say that one song in particular had “big Eliza Hamilton energy”). More pressing, however, was my need to tell him that this was developed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and so wasn’t written to be a traditional stage musical. That’s why it’s short and weird and different! If you understand the context you’ll understand the show and won’t judge it unfairly.

That’s when I realized what the inherent conflict of Six is: context collapse. Context collapse is a term in the social sciences referring to when something intended to reach a limited audience ends up reaching far beyond it, removed from its original context and placed into infinite variations of contexts for each person who experiences it. Context collapse is not the absence of context. The very issue is that everything you experience has context, but the context you bring to a piece of media may be far outside the intended audience.

In the case of Six, the context is an understanding of what most musicals are like. They have plot that progresses more or less linearly, the music is mostly non-diegetic, and (on the Broadway level) they’re almost all more than two hours long. There are exceptions to all these rules, but one show violating all of them puts it in a strange spot as it traverses from an experimental festival to mainstream theater audiences.

Its next production will be staged at the American Repertory Theater, which will presumably develop the show further and attempt to transfer it to Broadway. The ART has mounted many recent Broadway productions, including Waitress and the upcoming Jagged Little Pill, and its work with Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 proves that they’re not afraid to bring unconventional stagings to the Great White Way. Will the ART lengthen the show and add more songs? Expand the onstage plot rather than keeping the conceit that everything was prepared ahead of time? I think that it will need to at least be longer in order to make it to Broadway.

None of this is to say that Six is bad. On the contrary, I loved it. The music is incredibly fun, and all six queens I saw absolutely sung their faces off. The plot is a little shallow and I hope it’ll be developed further, but the dialogue is so witty that it makes up for it. I certainly can’t get any of the songs out of my head.

I simply think that as it stands now, Six will be judged harshly because audiences will expect one thing (a full stage musical) and get another (a pop concert with dialogue). I’m not sure if the answer is to change how Six is perceived, or to change what it is. Whatever happens, I’ll be very interested to see how the story unfolds.

P.S. The most popular song from the Six London recording is Anne Boleyn’s song. Catherine of Aragon must be fuming in her grave.

2019 Tony Nominations

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This is how I started my morning on Tuesday: sitting on the couch sipping a mug of tea and refreshing the live Tony nomination updates. I sent this text about thirty seconds after Joe Iconis was nominated for Best Score, because my friend Roberto and I have had a joint Be More Chill obsession for nearly a full year now. In fact, we recorded a podcast about it…

Yikes. I usually love being right but not this time. I’ll dive more into the distress of Be More Chill’s snubs (featuring more texts with Roberto—you know, once he gets out of his final), but let’s cover some more cheerful topics first. As you may expect, I will be talking exclusively about the musicals, not plays.

Hadestown

This is the year of Hadestown. This adaptation of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth snagged 14 nominations, close to the all-time record of 16 (a coup that has only been achieved by Hamilton, due to almost every major cast member getting nominated). Only two other shows (Producers and Billy Elliot) have gotten 15 nominations, so the incredibly impressive 14 puts Hadestown in elite company. They were nominated in every single category except for Lead Actor. All I can say to that is… sorry, Reeve Carney. But a huge congratulations to what is by all accounts a phenomenal and creative show. I can’t wait to scream with joy at my TV when the extraordinary people who worked on Hadestown win their deserved Tonys.

Interestingly, Hadestown is also a show that received a fervent fan base from an early cast recording—this one a live concert of the Off-Broadway workshop in 2017. If you don’t know why I said “also” in that sentence, we will get to Be More Chill LATER.

Originality

The “Best (new) Musical” category is always interesting because the only qualification is that it has not been staged on Broadway before. Adapted from a book, a movie, a tv show? Still counts. Transfer from London? Still counts. Jukebox musical with no new music? Still counts. That leads to some hilarious “Best Musical” nominations, like last year when all four nominations were adapted from existing movies or television shows. But musicals are such a singular medium that adapting a movie into a musical, or writing an original script to fit existing music, can be incredibly creative and original in itself. Therefore, the ranking no one asked for: Quinn Rose’s Scale of Musical Theater Originality, Featuring Every Show That Qualified For The “Best Musical” Category This Year. (star indicates that they were nominated)

1: Purely Original

The plot and music of this musical did not exist in any previous form.

*The Prom

Gettin’ the Band Back Together

2. Original Adaptation

This category is for shows that are adapted from existing material, but that material had little to no box office push. It’s not a popular Disney movie, it’s something very few people know OR it’s material that’s so old it doesn’t have mainstream pop culture draw.

Be More Chill

*Hadestown

*Tootsie (this could certainly be put in category 3 as well, but I put it here for now because I didn’t know Tootsie before the musical—I think its mainstream appeal faded years ago)

3. Mainstream Adaptations

Adaptations of popular pieces of pop culture, the title on the marquee will ring a bell with the general public.

Pretty Woman

King Kong

*Beetlejuice

4. Jukebox Musicals

This is not to say that all jukebox musicals are the same level of original, because some certainly have much more work put into creative plots and reimagined arrangements, but that analysis is so individual that I just need one category for all.

Head Over Heels

The Cher Show

*Ain’t Too Proud

Diversity & Representation

Hadestown is only the second show in Broadway history to have an all-female creative team: Anaïs Mitchell as score and book writer and Rachel Chavkin as director. The first was Waitress in 2016. Chavkin is the only woman nominated for best director of a musical. She was also the only woman who directed a musical on Broadway this year. Mitchell is one of only two women nominated in the writing categories—Dominique Morisseau is also nominated for writing the book for Ain’t Too Proud. Again, they were the only women who wrote book or score for any musicals this year. Morisseau is also the only person of color in any of those categories, and thus the only person nominated.

Diversity on Broadway is fine, y’all. Definitely no issues to examine here.

These numbers are not an anomaly, they are the norm. It somehow feels especially egregious this year because of the number of shows that pull from pretty gross source material and market themselves as “feminist” reimaginings… while having an all-white, all-male creative team. Tootsie and Pretty Woman are the standouts in that particular category, but I don’t recall the King Kong movie being a feminist masterpiece either. I haven’t seen Pretty Woman or King Kong so I can’t comment on their transformations, but I have not heard great things. I did see Tootsie in Chicago, and while it was delightful in many ways, I would not describe it as a feminist achievement.

It’s a shame, because there were some great shows this year for onstage representation. Hadestown and Ain’t Too Proud are obvious entries here, but there’s also shows like Oklahoma! with its reimagined race dynamics—and my eternal love for Ali Stroker, who just became the first wheelchair user to be nominated for a Tony. The Prom is one of the few shows in Broadway history to center a lesbian couple (much of the show is more about the Broadway performers than the couple in question, but I’m going to give it to them). Be More Chill and Head Over Heels have exciting representation in race and gender… and were almost 100% ignored by the Tony nominations. Oops. We’re almost to that conversation, but first:

A Special Note on Jeremy Pope

Jeremy Pope originated two different roles on Broadway this year, a serious accomplishment in itself, and was nominated for both roles—best featured actor in a musical for Ain’t Too Proud and best lead actor in a play for Choir Boy. He’s only the sixth person to be nominated in two performance categories ever, and if all of that wasn’t impressive enough, Choir Boy was his Broadway debut. I’m not saying Pope is going to become a Broadway superstar… actually yes, I am saying that.

Alright, Now We’re Talking About Be More Chill

For those unfamiliar with the show, Be More Chill is unusual because it got to Broadway through a young, online fanbase. After a New Jersey run in 2015, the show died and was never expected to be revived. Then years later, the musical theater teens of the internet found the cast recording and became completely obsessed with it. Their passion for the show drove it to Off-Broadway and then a Broadway premiere in March. It’s a strange science-fiction musical about teenagers, featuring a creative score imbued with electronic music. It received exactly one Tony nomination, best score for Joe Iconis.

Let me start by saying that I personally think the score is best part of Be More Chill, so if there was only nomination for them, I’m glad it was for score. That said, I will go to my grave convinced that George Salazar deserved a Best Featured Actor nomination. He does not have a panic attack in a bathroom eight times a week for this kind of disrespect!

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So if Be More Chill had so much buzz and opened in the spring awards season, why was it so overlooked? There are two options here: one, it didn’t deserve any nominations. Two, the Tony nominating committee is full of old dudes who don’t appreciate art aimed at younger audiences.

I think it’s a mix of both… kind of. I haven’t seen it in person (although I have tickets for July!) so I can’t comment on if it deserved any of the production categories, but I can see how some of the book and acting can be considered awkward and over the top.

Counterpoint: that is, in fact, the point. Be More Chill is an awkward show. It’s over the top. It’s a bit cringey. So are teenagers. It was created for people going through puberty, not people dining at Michelin starred restaurants. There’s a difference between being cringey and out of touch and being cringey because you are completely in touch, and the young people this show is aimed at absolutely love it. They love the music, they love the characters, they love the actors playing those characters, they can quote the show by heart and create music and memes to share their love with others.

I don’t think Be More Chill is “objectively” worse than the shows that were nominated. I think it’s worse at achieving what the Tony nominating committee is looking for. Does that matter? Maybe. Awards can significantly impact the longevity of a show. Maybe not. It already has a strong and dedicated fan base, which hopefully will be enough to propel it to a long Broadway career anyway.

No matter what happens with Be More Chill, no matter what happens to all the nominated shows on June 9, my sincerest congratulations to everyone that was nominated. I’ll leave you with two thoughts: musicals are incredible and I love them so much, and young people are amazing and I believe in them over everything else.

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Narrative Playlists

I don’t know if I’m a hopeless romantic or just a big nerd, but I am very into making mixtape style playlists. Even though they only exist digitally on Spotify, I curate lists of songs intended to tell a narrative when listened to in order, usually inspired by and named after the content of one song in the playlist. Today I’m reviewing the process I use for putting together a playlist and highlighting some of my favorite playlists on my Spotify profile.

1: Personal Inspiration

Like I mentioned, I often start with a particular song, but of course I almost always choose that song because it personally resonates with something I’m thinking about. When I was packing to move, I started listening to “Goodbye” from “Catch Me If You Can” a lot, specifically the version from Aaron Tveit’s live show at 54 Below (I should have put a musical theater warning at the top of this post, but if you know anything about me, are you surprised?). My first step was to pull that song and any songs I already had in my head associated with my hometown and moving.

2: Choosing an Arc

One of my favorite things about playlists is a sense of narrative structure, so I didn’t want to the songs to be a jumble of moving-themed music. Instead I decided that the songs would start with songs about being in a small town and excited to leave, then some bittersweet tunes that tell a more complicated story, and finally resolve with acceptance—the original song, Goodbye.

3: Filling in the Gaps

I had some songs that sprung into mind immediately, largely pulled from musical theater because “wanting to move” is not an uncommon theme. Since this playlist is so short I didn’t have to pull in too much outside of what I already had in mind, but that’s not always true—for other playlists I’ve resorted to googling “best songs about __” to fill in the gaps. I also keep a playlist called “Songs I Could Kinda Be Into” of new songs that I like listening to but haven’t added to a full playlist yet where I can look for potential inspiration.

A really helpful tool for this as well is the Spotify suggested songs that show up underneath a playlist once you’ve added a few. That’s more helpful for lists that focus on a mood, like my “Good As Hell” female empowerment playlist, rather than a more tight narrative playlist like “Goodbye,” but there can be some real gems in there matching theme and tone.

This gets more complicated when you use a lot of songs from musicals, which generally have their own specific narratives attached to them. I have to make a judgment call about what I feel applies and what does. Sure, I’m not moving to Paris, but I do feel the same push-and-pull between dreams and reality that Amelie feels in “Times Are Hard for Dreamers.” Therefore, it goes in. In contrast, I made a playlist called “Bad Ideas” but still didn’t add the song “Bad Idea” from Waitress—while that song slaps, I don’t think that the intense “forbidden romance” aspect of the song resonates with the rest of the vibe of that playlist. I’m also not cheating on my husband with my doctor, but that’s not the true dealbreaker—it’s about if the feeling makes sense, not if the literal plot matches the narrative. There’s room to make it fit.

4: Tightening & Reordering

I listen a playlist all the way through a few times and often will move songs around to strengthen the narrative threads. Often a few more songs will be thrown in at this stage and necessitate extra adjustments to fit them in. While I can always go back and add more songs later, I usually don’t past this point. I like having a set story in place and it’s rare that I find another song later that I feel fits in perfectly.

Everyone should make more narrative playlists. They’re a really fun creative exercise and immensely satisfying to listen to. And to finish this out, here are a few of my favorites:

Goodbye: moving away from a small town

Forget About the Boy: an upbeat breakup playlist from the perspective of a woman getting over a man

Bad Ideas: a relationship that you knew was a bad idea from the beginning

Make Me Feel: good old-fashioned infatuation, from crush to true love

And You Don’t Even Know It: 100% musical theater, 100% motivation

Questions for "The Eddy"

Damien Chazelle, the Oscar-winning director of “La La Land” and “Whiplash,” is executive producing an eight-episode series for Netflix titled “The Eddy.” Chazelle will also be directing two of the episodes, which will be written by Jack Thorne of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” fame. “The Eddy” will be set in contemporary Paris, focusing on the owner and house band of a club, as well as the city around them; the show intends to hire primarily French cast and crew. Interestingly, it will feature dialogue in English, French, and Arabic, exploring the multiculturalism of modern Paris. Oh, and the best part? It’ll be a musical.

I’m not sure how to feel about this project yet. On one hand, it’s a multicultural musical exploring (hopefully) interesting relationships in a vibrant city. On the other hand, it’s Damien Chazelle. While “La La Land” is beloved by many, it didn’t strike the right chord with me. I was disappointed by its focus on spectacle over story, slow pacing, and casting decisions. The music itself I liked, but I only discovered that through cover versions from singers that had more skill and energy than the original versions.

“La La Land” has also been criticized, rightfully so, for both its self-obsession and extraordinary whiteness. It’s a love story about Hollywood, is it any wonder that Hollywood rewarded it with so many accolades? Beyond that, however, it takes on an almost absurd level of nostalgia as both white leads yearn for a time past: classic Hollywood for Mia (coincidentally, a totally white Hollywood) and “real” jazz for Sebastian. While the movie features some performances from Black jazz musicians, the focus on a white man on a mission to “save” jazz without any real discussion of the racial history of the art form feels decided tone-deaf, and even deliberately brushed over.

All of this is to say, I have concerns about “The Eddy.” The inclusion of different cultures and languages seems promising, but will it be the story of a white man and how his personal life and journey are affected by his relationships with people of color, or will it reach out to fully tell the stories of different kinds of people? Will it remain a production team of all white men, or will they include Arab people in crafting these stories? Will they actually cast people who are trained in musical performance, or will we be stuck with another Ryan Gosling?

I’ll be watching the show when it’s released to find the answer to all of these questions, but seriously: don’t give us another Ryan Gosling.

Musical Movie Adaptations

Adapting stage musicals for the big screen evokes a similar reaction to me as book adaptations: you know, “the book is better.”

Movie musicals are different and more subtle than the differences between books and their film adaptations, however. Generally speaking, when a book is adapted for the screen, it is (sometimes significantly) cut down and decisions are made about how to visually portray characters and sets. I think book-to-movie adaptations often seem inferior because reading book is entirely too different from watching a movie. Different people experience books differently, but for me, I get certain feelings from different characters. I don’t visualize what they look like, but I can feel how they look and sound. If an actor doesn’t match that feeling-- and they rarely do-- it’s jarring. This is escapable if they movie is done very well, staying true to the books while making the necessary changes to translate to a visual medium (for example, I think Hunger Games is a great movie series). It also works if the movie series is so prolific that the actors feel like the characters with time, even if they originally didn’t (hello, Harry Potter). Finally, and most simply, it works if I haven’t read the book.

Musicals, however, are already a visual medium, and they’re designed for different actors to take the same role as time goes on. It seems like they would be easy to adapt for the big screen, but it seems like they often have huge problems. Musicals are visual, yes, but they’re also designed to be performed on a set in front of an audience. If the actors need to be in a car, they can sit in a fake car and pretend to drive, and no one cares or questions it. One set can represent several different locations as actors move around the stage, and that’s fine too. Some shows, like Pippin, are entirely dependent on the live stage setting. A movie adaptation has to take the story of the musical and make all of the sets and locations look real. I find that even when movies manage to capture a musical’s spirit and translate the difficulty of the stage onto the screen, it is impossible to capture the joy of live theater. Even watched a professional recording of a musical can’t compare: there’s something lovely and magical about live theater that can’t be reproduced in a movie.

So, these are our problems with musical movies. How do different musicals deal with these problems? I’ve seen quite a few stage musicals, and even more movie musicals. Here are some of my thoughts on a few of the shows that I’ve seen both the stage and movie versions. (Minor spoiler warnings for all three!)

Rock of Ages: Ohhh boy. I saw a touring production of Rock of Ages a few months before I watched the movie. I am VERY glad I saw the stage version first, because the movie was awful. Don’t get me wrong, the stage version wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of modern theater either, but it was a ton of fun and a thoroughly enjoyable show. However, none of the fun carried over into the movie. They kept the main plotline surrounding the central couple (for the most part… they even made some frankly unnecessary changes to that), but removed a lot of the rest of the show. Unfortunately, this was a show that wasn’t easy to make into a movie. A lot of the best laughs would have been impossible to pull off on screen. At one point the club owners walk onstage and start talking about how they’ve cleaned out the building. One then turns to a wall of the set, which is still covered in pictures, and says “...Except for all that shit over there.” He then turns to the band, which have been in the back wall of the set for the entire show, in apparent amazement. “And you guys! Have you been here the whole time?!” On stage, it was hilarious. In the movie, it was nonexistent, because how could they have pulled that off? The best character in the entire show, a flamboyant German man named Hans, didn’t appear in the movie. Goodbye, half of the fun. Also, to be clear: it wasn’t just a bad adaptation, it was also a terrible movie in general. Stage: B/Movie: F

 

Chicago: I saw the movie version of Chicago first, which may have helped my perception how good it was compared to the Broadway production. However, I thought that both the stage and movie versions were very good, and that the movie managed to preserve an impressive amount of the appeal of stage musicals. In the show, the full band is right in the middle of the stage, and the characters interact with them. Music and theatricality is a huge part of the show’s plot, so the presence of the band and the casual fourth-wall breaking fits seamlessly into the show. The movie handled this in what I thought was a surprisingly effective tactic: they had all the musical numbers be hallucinations/fantasies of the performance-obsessed main character. They get to keep the glamour of stage sets, the appeal of fourth-wall breaking, and made it plausible by keeping it all inside a woman’s mind. It was a little strange at first, but the performances were excellent and the movie sucked you in quickly. Stage: A-/Movie: B+

 

Les Miserables: Les Mis is a classic musical for a reason. It’s an epic story, entirely sung through, historically featuring some of the most powerful singers on Broadway. Try to listen to “On My Own” and not weep. You can’t. (I once had the joy of watching two of my theater-nerd friends simultaneously sing “On My Own” in two different languages: one in English, one in France. Another friend indicated which one should sing by placing his hand on their head, switching between the two at random enough intervals for it to be both beautiful and hilarious.)

The first version of Les Mis I saw was the televised 25th anniversary. It wasn’t really staged, it was just sung through by the actors. Still, it was an incredible show. Soon after, I watched a touring production live and loved it.

In my opinion, the movie version was… alright. Some of the cast members were perfect in their roles (Aaron Tveit and Samantha Bark, obviously. On a related note, I would like to marry both of them). Others… I love Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Amanda Seyfried in other movies. I just don’t think they worked in these roles, considering what I’ve come to expect from Les Mis performers. (Don’t even get me started on Russell Crowe. Whoever cast Russell Crowe can fight me.)

The movie itself is pretty good, it’s just not the kind of musical that works well on a movie screen. The director was trying way too hard to be “big musical epic” in a way that didn’t translate to a screen. Also, watching completely sung-through movies is a little disconcerting. Stage: A/Movie: B

Am I too harsh on theater adaptations? Perhaps. That doesn’t mean I don’t love them, especially for shows that I really enjoy. In The Heights and Wicked, the first two shows I ever saw on Broadway (I saw them both in the same day #bestmomever) and two of my all-time favorites, are both in the early stages of movie adaptations and I am SO excited. I’ve seen the movie version of Rent approximately seven thousand and twelve times. Live theater will always be my favorite form of entertainment, but movie musicals can be pretty incredible too.

 

Theater Motivation Playlist

I love musical theater.

I really really really love musical theater.

This is the first of what will probably be an infinite number of blog posts relating somehow to musicals. I was raised by a musical-loving mother and spent family road trips singing along to “Broadway’s Best Hits.” I’ve seen nearly a dozen Broadway productions, either on Broadway or on tour. I joined a singing group on campus that exclusively sings musical theater (despite the fact that I can barely sing). Don’t even mention Hamilton to me, or I will sing every single song at you.

Recently I’ve been pumping myself up with a great “Theater Motivation” playlist that I thought I would share here. It includes songs from several of my favorite musicals, and I’ve been playing it while exercising/walking to class/doing laundry/anything else I need to make a little more epic. I hope you can find a little inspiration in it as well.

Prologue: Into the Woods // Into the Woods

Wait For It // Hamilton

The Room Where It Happens // Hamilton

One Short Day //  Wicked

I’ve Decided to Marry You // A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

My Shot (NSFW) // Hamilton

It Won’t Be Long Now //  In The Heights

Rent // Rent

Run and Tell That // Hairspray

Right Hand Man (NSFW) // Hamilton

Dancing Queen // Mamma Mia

96,000 (NSFW) // In The Heights

The Bitch of Living (NSFW) // Spring Awakening

Mamma Mia // Mamma Mia

La Vie Boheme (NSFW) // Rent

You Can’t Stop the Beat // Hairspray

Guns and Ships // Hamilton

I Believe (NSFW) // Book of Mormon

Totally F*cked (NSFW, duh) // Spring Awakening

One Day More // Les Miserables

Defying Gravity // Wicked