Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Thoughts on Zarkana and Cirque du Soleil's Not-quite Musical Theatre

A week ago, I was invited to see a performance of Cirque du Soleil's latest offering at Radio City Music Hall, Zarkana.

Cirque du Soleil? you say. But this is a musical blog! Talking about this show here makes no sense and it makes me angry!!

Whoa, it's all good, I says. Just hear me out...

I have very limited experience with Cirque du Soleil, but I do remember my parents going to a performance in Vegas on a vacation when I was small. I flipped through the program when they got back to the hotel room and was shocked at (and honestly kind of scared of) some of the images in there. There was something about the aesthetic that was so out there -- colorful, at times grotesque, shapely like a reflection in a funhouse mirror -- that was captivating. And when my mom told me those things were actually doing crazy stunts and getting all up in the audiences' business, I actually got a little concerned.

Fast-forward another 12 years or so to this past fall, when my grandparents surprised my parents and I with tickets to Cirque du Soleil's Ka on a vacation in Vegas (full circle! -- and I just realized this makes it sound like the ONLY place I ever go to is Vegas). I had no idea what I was in for, which now when I think about it, was a good thing. Because once the lights dimmed and some of the creepy looking clown things stopped doing the pre-show audience thing (which made me incredibly uncomfortable), I was completely riveted until the lights came up again. Everything about it was enthralling -- the story, of a separated brother and sister trying to flee the enemies who killed their parents and find one another again, was simple but exciting, the stunts and acrobatics were like a video game with every "level" posing as some kind of stunt that they must defeat, and the set was stunning. I remember seeing the stage rotating, a giant ship appearing out of nowhere or a giant sandbox seeming to form out of nothing, and I was so inspired that someone would invest the time, space, and money to create something so theatrical and physically mammoth.

My experience seeing Zarkana last week was a little more mixed. While the acrobatics were still dizzyingly impressive and the aesthetic was still breathtaking, there was something keeping it from being as jaw-dropping as I remembered Ka being.

And what it was lacking was a strong narrative.

From my limited knowledge of Cirque du Soleil, Zarkana, in some ways, is more traditional musical theatre than its other shows. There is a protagonist, Zark, who has a simple problem: he is looking for his lost love amidst a bunch of crazy, tempting creatures. Or something like that. The show also featured full-fledged operatic-rock songs that Zark sang to tell his story of despair and longing, though the lyrics left something to be desired.

This past week on Crazytown, I wrote a post about being able to incorporate more visual elements into a more language/dialogue-heavy show. But how do you approach the challenge of doing it the other way around -- building a story and music around physical stunts?

There were moments of great beauty that came from Zarkana. I was particularly fixated on a dance/gymnastics routine that seemed to flow with the music quite seamlessly, and I heard multiple oohs and ahhs from the audience when a sand artist both recapped and foreshadowed the story through beautiful temporal pictures. Those fleeting segments especially worked because they embraced the storytelling aspects of theatre, fusing spectacle with story and song. I'm not calling Cirque du Soleil outright (or even great) musical theatre, but with all its resources and talents, if it truly aspired to be, it could be one badass show.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Perks of Debuting a Musical: An Interview with Tom Diggs

The pilot episode of Perks, formerly known as The Perks of Writing a Musical, premiered on Youtube this past Sunday, marking the exciting beginning of a new musical webseries. Sporting a cast and creative team that should look familiar to followers of Emerging Musical Theatre, this is going to be a show worth keeping up with. I’ve written about the Perks blog before, which is regularly updated by Perks creator/writer/producer Tom Diggs. Amidst the series’ debut, Tom took some time to answer some questions about the process of putting on a webseries, using social media, and the future of the series.

(The pilot of Perks)

Me: Where did the idea for Perks come from? How did you decide to make it a webseries?

Tom Diggs: Perks came out of a writer’s group I’m in where we went from playwriting to TV writing to web series writing. I had been at BMI for a few years and I love the world of musical theatre. And Glee’s success inspired me to think about a web musical. I studied the fanboy world and came up with a story – which my writer’s group encouraged me to write. As I get older, I’m aware of how fast forms keep changing! The web seems to be the last great frontier for dramatic writing. And I want to be a part of it. The computer is currently in the process of replacing the television. There was a lot of emphasis on short forms in grad school – short films, ten-minute plays – so I thought this would be a great way to bring all these elements together in a current, relevant way.

Me: Having experience as a playwright, how has the experience been working on a musical screenplay, not to mention a series?

Tom: Plays can include language flourishes to a certain degree. The musical libretto, on the other hand, is a very unforgiving form when it comes to over-writing. One extra line and you can feel it. The songs and musical score do a lot of the heavy lifting. Add the visual element and it’s really “less is more” time for the words. Cutting the dialogue to the bone is the name of the game. It’s interesting how, the less there is, the more it breathes and comes to life.

Me: How did you connect with Jason Michael Snow and Mishaela Faucher for the music and lyrics?

Tom: I was in their BMI composer/lyricists group. I never got paired with either of them during our time together, but I always deeply admired their work – and love them very much as people. When I started thinking about approaching songwriting teams for this project, they were the first team I thought of. Their energy and talent is a perfect fit for this project.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Ode to Intimations of Mortality

Young Jean Lee is known for her incredibly daring, if not divisive theatrical voice and insistence on tackling difficult subject matters in her plays like The Shipment or Lear. It was especially because of the structures of her last plays that I was so intrigued when it was announced that she would be premiering her 13P show, We're Gonna Die, at Joe's Pub last April. And it would have music in it. And she would star in it.

While perhaps less of a musical, per se, and more of a cabaret, this show still manages to blend story and music (played by band Future Wife) in an incredibly affecting, personal way. By turns winning and almost gleeful while still dealing with painfully personal anecdotes about loneliness, the show manages to hit a lot of raw nerves without being gratuitous or manipulative. Instead, it's a strangely intimate but safely withheld performance bearing simple but truthful lyrics, dreamy music, and relatable stories about glimpses into our own mortality.

While the show ended its run a couple of months ago, you can (and should!) watch the entirety of the show through Joe's Pub's Livestream channel or in the video below:

joespub on Broadcast Live Free

Friday, June 10, 2011

"The girls are the thing that's gonna save you"

Still thinking about The Shaggs, which officially opened this past Tuesday at Playwrights Horizons. And while reviews have been mixed, there have been a lot of great write-ups that hit the nail on the head of why I love this dark, quirky, and surprising show. Two of the biggest criticisms seem to be that it's depressing and the music isn't memorable, but I dare you to watch this trailer and not be intrigued:

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ricky Ian Gordon's Orpheus & Euridice

If you're in the mood for a really unique theatre experience, look no further than Ricky Ian Gordon's operatic song cycle Orpheus & Euridice, now playing at the DUO Multicultural Arts Center. Though the production elements are minimal, the transformative music is lush and all-encompassing. Through the gorgeous score, Orpheus & Euridice has a soaring soprano narrate a dream-like Orpheus myth, transporting the audience to experience the inexplicable joy of love with just a piano, a clarinet, and one voice leading the story along. The whole show had me transfixed, and I honestly could have listened to the score all day. It was my first time seeing a theatre piece that so fluidly played with movement and storytelling, taking theatrical elements and making them evocative.

Seeing some of the videos on Youtube that are associated with this piece, it's also pretty amazing how creatively people have staged the show, from Long Beach Opera's poolside production:

And this dance routine by MDT dancers Melanie Verna and Sam Feipel:

To this video featuring Celeste Church with Elizabeth Wallace at the piano and Stephen Goacher playing clarinet:

But to really experience the show, you have to see it live in full. This Collaborative Stages and Orpheus Project production will play until this Sunday, and you can purchase tickets here.