Unfortunately, Required Reading- Episode 47: The Phantom of the Opera

In this episode, hosts Tori and Amanda talk Gaston Leroux’s pulpy novel The Phantom of the Opera, talk orientalism and mention the world’s greatest movie: Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge.

Unfortunately, Required Reading: Episode 38- RENT

Happy It’s Still Pride! Join your hosts as we drink Stoli, mostly complain about RENT and talk about what it really mans to be an ally and the merits of getting a real job.

Why I Still Love “Les Mis” (The Musical)

Whenever I am asked about my favorite musical, I usually answer with one of three options: RENT, Sweeney Todd or Les Miserables.

And since I’ve defended two of those already…I believe it’s time I bear my soul and explain my love of this French melodrama.

Now, if you’ve heard me in the real world, you know how much I love the French Bad Boys of poetry and prose and Victor Hugo was one of them. Hugo may be more famous for The Hunchback of Notre Dame and a bunch of poetry about being sad but my introduction to Vic Hugo was in Les Miserables and I met the corpus first as a screenplay not even as a book. I didn’t read the book until college when I took the most me class humanly possible: The French Revolution and Literature. The book is…well, we’ll discuss the plot and then discuss the book/musical (yes, I know there are differences but I’m not here to discuss those yet).

The plot happens in three parts essentially. First part is about Jean Valjean who did a bad and is in jail for a really really long time where he is tormented by his not-boyfriend Javert who has a particular hard-on for Valjean even though he sees literally hundreds of prisons all the damn time. Valjean is released from prison and he tries to rejoin human society, he does another bad because R E A S O N S and is forgiven by Jesus himself, I mean a very kindly priest.

Second part focuses on Fantine who is a poor innocent waif who has a daughter who is the mascot of the whole damn production, Cosette and Fantine has lots of problems. She works in a factory and everyone is mean to her because R E A S O N S and eventually due to women being awful she is fired from her job and has to become a prostitute where she then dies really quickly after singing the best song in the musical. We shift to her daughter, Cosette, who is raised by the awful Thenardier family who are actually just kind of fun but still awful but fun. Valjean feels responsible for Fantine’s death because…plot and he goes to raise Cosette which means taking her away from the Thenardier family. They sing another great song and time moves forward.  

Valjean and Cosette are doing pretty okay, we meet Marius the most useless f*ckboy who has ideas of grandeur about revolution even though he’s rich and the useless lamp Eponine who loves him even though he does not seem interested in her at all. Marius and his friends plan to do a very small French Revolution in the streets even though they are all rich for some reason and things go horribly wrong. The actual mascot character Gavroche is shot and killed and it’s all bad and lots of people die in this part of the musical/book.

More sadness, more complaining, more ennui and Marius and Cosette decide they truly are in love and plan to run away together even though Valjean is like “Nah, fam, we gotta bounce outta France.” and more plot happens to get them to be in love. Valjean accepts that his daughter is no longer a child, the breeding pair go off and the music swells and curtain falls.

With that description, I’m sure you can see why as a book this doesn’t work. The novel is entirely too long and is boring because Hugo isn’t the strongest writer on his own. He needs an editor to tell him “Maybe don’t spend 50 pages on this.” But as a musical, it works very well. There’s a vague goal, a ton of characters and there’s someone for everyone to root for. If you’re awful, you probably enjoy “Master of the House” a little too much (I know I do). If you think you’re going to save the world by doing absolutely nothing you probably sing a little too loudly to “Red and Black” and if you’re like me and are incredibly melodramatic and have F E E L I N G S you probably have belted out “I Dreamed a Dream” or “On My Own” a little too loudly while shower crying.

The musical was penned in the 70s and it showed. There’s a lot of focus on the revolution part and that part, I will say, ages the least well. Mostly because the revolution is not lead by any of the people who actually stand to be hurt by increased industrialization and gentrification, it’s mostly rich white boys who are bored and have some vague ideas about what it is to be right and free.

The romance also ages terribly. Cosette and Marius get no time together so it just doesn’t feel like they belong together all despite the flowery language or many songs dedicated to their love. But most musicals have a hard time talking about romance in a way that makes any sense.

So I’ve said a lot of negative things…isn’t this supposed to be a defense of a work?

It is.

Upon the maybe 200th listen to the very very good London Symphony Orchestra’s version of Les Mis I am reminded of all the reasons I love this musical. Namely, Javert. Now, he has no arc as a character. He starts with a hard-on for Valjean and dies that way but to see someone so shaken to his core by another is powerful. There’s a reason “Stars” and “Javert’s Soliloquy/Suicide” get the most play on my mp3 player. The idea that one person can shake another so much that they see no other point in their morals than death is powerful. It’s dangerous, but power.

I may have poked fun at Fantine but her songs are amazing and heartbreaking. “I Dreamed a Dream” makes me think of every romance I’ve ever had and even though I have never found myself removed of my hair and in a gutter after being sold into prostitution, I feel her pain. And as someone with a strained history with men “Lovely Ladies” is a great if not blunt way to explain how sometimes men see women as just another purchasable good or service.

I may hate the Thenardiers are people but their song is raunchy, hilarious and so vulgar, I won’t how and why we read this in high school.  And even though I dislike how Eponine is written, I feel every drop of emotion in “On My Own”.

The music helps the themes of justice, love and honestly, the biggest theme of consequences to actions. One thing that is glossed over in the book is how Marius and his friends suffer after their failed rebellion. In the musical we get “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” which is tragic and the staging helps sell that pain. His friends are gone, their ideas were fatal and their dreams are dashed. Now Marius sits alone and miserable and wounded surrounded by shattered glass, empty chairs and empty tables as he mourns his friends and his cause.

I’ll pause here to talk about the movie musical starring mostly Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe and it’s um…a mess? Again, many of the things that make the musical work on the stage do not work in film and the only nice thing I have to say is the thing everyone says which is Anne Hathaway as Fantine is inspired and amazing so I will not praise her more for it, she’s been praised enough. It isn’t the worst movie musical but it’s mostly just flat. Many of the actors they chose for the production cannot sing and thus songs that are meant to carry a ton of emotion mostly sound like they’re being extruded through a pasta machine while under torture. It just doesn’t work as a narrative film. As a stage musical where time and space are all condensed and strange, it’s easy to ignore when logic seems to exit stage left pursued by a bear.

But when the music swells through my headphones in the early morning hours of my commute, I cannot help but feel something. I cannot help but sing along when “Red and Black” plays. I cannot help but laugh at the places where language is quite fun like the little rhyme scheme before “Red and Black” starts:

I am agog!

I am aghast!

Is Marius in love at last?

I’ve never heard him ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’

You talk of battles to be won

And here he comes like Don Juan

It’s better than an opera!

It’s a fun musical filled with mostly misguided people. Valjean as Christ allegory is heavy handed but emotional. Javert as a bitter ex-boyfriend who is on a revenge mission to prove the fact that one a criminal always a criminal works. Cosette as innocent waif works and Gavroche as the best damn character with the most bravery works. It all works on stage and depending on the cast, it can be damn near inspiring.

Does it have its flaws? Of course it does but no matter what, when I find myself faced with a song from this storied musical, I join the ranks, I join the chorus and I sing along.

That’s why I still love Les Mis.

Avenue Q- Review

I recently went to the Woodlawn Theater’s performance of the acclaimed Broadway musical Avenue Q and was pleasantly surprised with how well the show was put on in such a space. I personally love the Broadway performance and was very afraid to be disappointed in a non-Broadway attempt of such a huge production. My friends and I spent the entire time laughing and enjoying ourselves, singing in our chairs and occasionally averting our eyes when things got a little steamy, despite it being in the end, puppets.

I was impressed with how similar many of the actors looked to their puppet counterparts and seemed to simply use the puppets as an extension of themselves and not really as their own separate creatures. I wondered if it was intentional how similar the actors looked to their puppet co-stars. The acting between puppet actors and human actors was perfect. Eye contact was great not just with the other actors but with the audience. The characterization was spot on and the characters were very relatable.

Now, I admit there were a few flubs in the singing especially by the part of Rod whose part of the soundtrack I learned very extensively. A few mess ups during key songs and lines that vanished somehow and though I expected this with the transition from Broadway to the small stage but these were pretty key mistakes that not only were caught by me but by my friends even one that had a non-theater background. But the actor did recover well from the mistake.

There was a great use of multimedia in the form of two televisions on either side of the stage and were the same media images and such used in the original Broadway performance and served as a functional piece for the audience and also a launching point for the actors and the actors would interact with the screens reading off of them at times.

The sound system was sensitive and had a few problems with feedback throughout the production which was later blamed on cell phone usage. But the issues with the loud cracking noises did not affect the actors at all but it was a bit annoying to hear in the audience. The microphones were great and the songs could be heard well, I had no issue hearing the characters or any of the songs.

The costume design was very realistic not just on the puppets but on the human actors, the clothing was set pretty modern, jeans t-shirts, skirts and dresses that easily seemed to be purchased at any one of the name brand stores of the day. I was impressed how easily the actors were able to bring personality to the puppets and how natural that movement was.

The lighting was bright and there were flashing bulbs on the side, similar to a large Broadway performance that flashed and blinked during some of the musical numbers of to illustrate high or low points. Also the lighting was very dynamic, lots of different colors used and several filters used which added brightness to the set but the flashing bulbs on the side did seem a little excessive at times since the theater is so dark it seemed very bright and a tad unnecessary.

The set design was the functional apartment building and that served as the main backdrop and other functional pieces would be moved onto the set to provide differentiation for other scenes for instance beds would be rolled out, or a giant version of Kate Monster draped over the building or it becoming the Empire State Building.

The audience was very tuned in to the performance not a lot of fidgeting at all, it was a very engaging show and interactive with the characters often breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience and some lines were changed to make it relevant to the audience and the current social climate including mentioning Rick Perry in their final song “For Now”. This adaptation got a pretty big response out of the audience and was very funny to me and my friends.

I love Avenue Q and think the Woodlawn Theater did a wonderful rendition of the performance I believe the direction’s intention and vision was met and it was nearly impossible not to laugh during this show. It is by no means for children and the concern of how to make a show with puppets more adult did arise in my mind for a moment but any trepidation was quickly dispelled. But the show was witty, funny and contemporary. Overall a hilarious experience well worth the wait and the cost. We sang the soundtrack the entire way home and plan to see it again since it has been extended one more week at the Woodlawn.

Why I Still Love “Sweeney Todd”

Have charity towards the world, my petYes, yes, I know, my loveWe'll take the customers that we can getHigh-born and low, my loveWe'll not discriminate great from smallNo, we'll serve anyoneMeaning anyoneAnd to anyo (3).png

It’s a surprise to a lot of folks when I say that I’m not the biggest fan of Tim Burton. I don’t dislike him as a director but I think most of his film jaunts are mostly style over substance. I think Nightmare Before Christmas is fine but as someone who worked in a Hot Topic, I find it intensely overrated. And don’t get me started on his current run with the Alice in Wonderland franchise…but on a whole, I don’t think he’s bad or good. He’s perfectly serviceable and I understand that to the niche he proudly represents: his work is important.

That changed however, when I first saw Sweeney Todd. This movie came out when I was in high school and at peak edgelord. And really, at first the movie was way too violent for me. But in my later years, I’ve come to appreciate the soundtrack, the visuals and more. But this movie does have flaws and not just the lead actor (we’ll get to that…) but despite all of those flaws, here are the reasons I still love Sweeney Todd.

As a musical, Sweeney Todd has a tone problem. The musical centers around the eponymous Sweeney Todd (formerly Benjamin Barker and known barber) and his return back to vaguely Victorian London. Todd is a barber and was sent away by the evil Judge Turpin so the bad bad judge could seize Mr. Todd’s wife and family. Todd returns to find an odd woman living in his house and occupying his shop that he used to own. Her name is Mrs. Lovett and she’s a strange lady with poor cooking skills who despite those factors, still owns a pie shop. Together they devise a long-con plan to murder Judge Turpin after Mr. Todd discovers in his time away that Turpin had his wife killed and is holding his daughter hostage. Murder adventures ensure and the musical ends in a bloodbath of gore, puns and pie.

Most of the stage productions before the Burton version have a difficult problem of balancing the humor written into the screenplay and the immense gore that comes with a blood-thirsty barber and his pie-making lady friend. And oftentimes the stage show ends up choosing humor over drama and that’s difficult to handle a joke about a woman’s bust comes after an intensely bloody scene.

The movie does a better job of handling that. Burton’s distinct style manages the dark themes of a murder-barber. The movie is dark, brooding, mechanical and maze-like in its depiction of London. The overbearing score feels more at home in the dank, twisted London of a Burton movie.

The casting of the film is full of Burton standbys and they are all perfect in the film. Helena Bonham Carter is compelling, dead-eyed and brilliant. Alan Rickman, the treasure he was, is just fantastic and…well, let’s jump this shark early.

Johnny Depp is a garbage human. He’s a horrible human being and not just for the allegations (which I believe) that have surfaced. He’s a lazy actor now and what I assume is the human embodiment of Hollywood excess. We now have a difficult media environment where the sins of the past affect the things we loved now. We all have tough choices to make regarding the properties we love. And truthfully, I struggle with this as I struggle with many other beloved properties. And I respect anyone who is uncomfortable with me even mentioning Depp as a human person.

That unfortunately does not take away all of the things I loved about his performance in this film. He’s apathetic, listless and dammit almost asexual. Some of my favorite parts are the fact that he seems to be almost entirely disinterested in Carter.  Depp plays Todd as a man still wholly devoted to his wife and thus is almost put off by Mrs. Lovett.

In By the Sea, you get to witness a man who is broken but has to admit he somewhat owes the woman he is attached to. You see a mad, obsessive woman in love and a man who realistically would rather be anywhere else but with her.

And he is half of one of my favorite scene studies of all time. Pretty Women is a delicate dance of rising tension, intense chemistry between two actors and in each escalating moment of tension, you feel as though you are in the room with Depp and Rickman.

They both disappear into the role and end up providing form to a song that is sometimes played for laughs.  If you ever want to study how to properly film or depict tension: this scene, over and over again.

Speaking of chemistry, Depp’s relationship with Carter in the film is fascinating to me. It’s the most platonic I’ve seen in a depiction of Sweeney Todd. We see a mostly one-sided obsession and a broken man who is willing to appease the woman who is abundantly wanting to give him the time of day. And in the moments where there is more tension are wonderful.

A Little Priest is blocked, framed and shot beautifully and paced wonderfully. And I love that, if there is any relationship between Todd and Lovett, that it’s platonic. They have a respect for each other, even if it’s a twisted one.

Aside from Depp, this film does have other issues. It’s way too long for a movie. As a musical, with breaks,the length is perfectly fine. As a movie, it’s a bit of a slog that gets weighed down around the middle. You’ll notice I’ve ignored literally half the cast because Johanna is a wet dishrag. She is most of the versions of the musical but the movie makes it even worse. Her little boyfriend is also a wet dishrag and I can’t stand him. Sasha Baron Cohen irked me in this movie even though he wasn’t in the film for long. He’s fine for the role but I was not at all sad when a horrible death befell him. Additionally, the movie is gory as hell. While stage show versions vary depending on the actor and producer and director, the movie version earns its R-rating. I’ve seen less blood in Gladiator.

And the movie, due to its desire to be more serious, also have a serious framing problem. I’m a cosplayer. I see tons of folks saying that Todd and Lovett are Harley Quinn and Joker-like “relationship goals” and that’s troubling. During the musical, most adaptations play more with humor so their outrageous behavior made it easier to see them as foppish and silly albeit terrifying serial killers. The movie plays their arc as dead serious and important and almost romantic and people flock to that. And that’s scary. There’s a certain easy to relate to nihilism that oozes from A Little Priest and No Place Like London. Many of us have felt like this. Many of us have felt like we are owed something because the world is cruel but that just isn’t the case. But that’s not how reality works and many, (younger me included) romanticize Sweeney Todd as a tragic Jesus-like figure rather than the murderer he is. Yes, tragedy befell him. That does not give him the right to seek vigilante murder-justice out on the streets of London yet along to let his partner-close friend turn folks into pies. Forcing cannibalism on people is not a fair penance for an unfortunate circumstance.

Now, before we get too lost, I don’t want to ignore Burton’s distinct…style, let’s call it. Normally all those things play against him. He’s a surprisingly safe director. Hence why he sticks with the same trio of actors in almost every movie and almost the exact same themes. But here, as mentioned before, it does work. A cast very comfortable with their roles, so comfortable in fact, that many of them have been playing the same role now for years.

Sweeney Todd as a movie ages better for some more than others. For me, the movie aged better as I grew older and could more easily respect the themes. Those themes include ones that I find interesting in other beloved pieces of media. The film also features humans that are flawed but there is occasionally light in a person even after they have dealt with the slings and arrows that are a flawed past. And the most important lesson, horrible people are not to be rewarded. There is no redemption for Mr. Todd, Mrs. Lovett or Judge Turpin. They all die. They all earn their horrible deaths. There is no romance at the end. And that particular nihilism, vengeance and darkness may just be what makes the film so great.

 

Why I Still Love “Rent”

I can't control my destinyI trust my soul, my only goalIs just to be.pngI have a complicated love affair with the musical Rent. It’s one part a wonderful romp through complex social and political issues with fantastic uses of music, rhyme, rhythm and harmony. On the other hand, it’s also a shallow and socially insensitive stage show using outdated terms and phrasing to illustrate the complicated AIDS crisis with the minimal amount of effort and using horribly unrelatable characters to float such a powerful message by. As an LGBT-affiliated creative and mostly just musical angsty teenage: Rent was perfect for me during my rebellious teen years. It brought together artists, creatives, people who were on the fringes of society and made their lives and struggles not just relatable but also glorified them. Never in more recent memory has a woman addicted to crack been so deified as a saintly woman under the thumb of vile cruel addiction. The musical was a little before my time, but the movie, oh the movie; that was part of my consciousness as a teen and I loved it. My friends loved it. We did line readings and performances in school and we had nearly the entire discography memorized from Seasons of Love to La Vie Boheme. Now, the movie has problems, but so does the musical and I’m not here to defend either one. What I am here to do is talk about why even though the musical is divisive I choose to still love Rent.

Amber and I recently saw Rent live at the Majestic: a 20th anniversary show bringing together as many of the original cast members as possible. It was the closest we’d ever come to seeing the show on opening night. I came into the performance with mixed feelings. A few videos online brought up some serious issues with the musical and movie and their valid points began to shade some of the nostalgia I had for the musical. One commented on how little the characters in the musical/movie actually do to help any of their respective conditions or situations and the other takes serious issue with the editing, framing and how writing and camera work make some characters look like saints while others sinners despite what the script and logic dictate. They made points I couldn’t argue against and seeing the show live actually only deepened some of those feelings of indignation from the standpoint of the audience. I’ve lost family members to the AIDS crisis and being creative, LGBT leaning and of color only made my blood pressure rise when it came to the serious failings in the telling of actual compelling stories in place of pop culture references that were dated even for opening night 20 years ago and characters with motivations are paper thin as a play bill.

The musical makes even more of the storytelling issues in Rent forward. Mimi has almost no agency and it at the hands of an evil and shadowy omnipresent drug dealer. Roger’s emotional and moody and seems to have no validation for his feelings and no one seems to realize that he has very valid feelings and is often the most right in situations. Angel is the purest martyr form of the word. And Mark, oh sweet Mark, has almost no issues of his own but continues to revel in misery and commiseration with all of those around him with real and actual problems. Maureen continues to perpetuate stereotypes about bisexuality that still haunt the LGBT community and Mimi is less a young lady with addiction problems as she is a saintly woman who no agency and is just a product of her difficult life and circumstances. No one tries to better themselves. No one tries to get out of their situations. And the ones that do are vilified for not living in the moment.

And while we’re on the topic of “not living in the moment”: let’s talk about No Day But Today. This is an example cited in both videos as an utter failure of visual storytelling and it’s no different in the musical. Roger, who does not want to go out with Mimi, is framed via lighting and refrain as the dark one in the scene. He’s the miserly bad guy who is trying to put out Mimi’s damn candle. Mimi is a known drug user and stripper who engages in risky behavior to say the least. This risky behavior took the life of Roger’s girlfriend ,April, and is the reason that he is now living with AIDS. But Mimi; she’s framed as fun, light and bright. She just wants him to live for today. She wants him to do drugs with her in an alley and engage in risky behaviors that I won’t list because I think my family still reads this humble little blog. And to her side come the rest of the cast and try to coax Roger from his ivory tower of self-isolation. When did he become the bad guy? When did wanting to stay inside and stay sober and not sleep with a stripper become criteria for villainy? Because if that’s the case, then I might as well be a Dick Dasterdly-level bad guy. 

By now, you may be asking where the defending part’s gonna come in. We’re getting there and I haven’t even covered the wax philosophic of the social “commentary” on the nature of the struggling artist and capitalizing on poverty while simultaneously capitalizing on poverty.

Now, despite all the issues that I listed and could probably go on about for more: I do still love the musical and movie Rent.

I still believe in the idea of what Rent is trying to say. That a year can be so much time and yet so little in the grand scheme of things. That friends can form into families and be more supportive than the guardians or parents we were sometimes born into. I believe in the idea that being an artist and creative is one of the best ways to help ease the pain of a difficult life. I still believe in the message that life itself is hard: everything is rent. I still admire the things Rent was trying to do. To try to bring to light how serious the AIDS crisis was and in places still is. That it tried to further the ties that bind: community, art, love and life.

And that’s the legacy of Rent. Community. I was able to see this musical with a friend and leave singing and dancing to the songs long after they had finished. My friends have read this piece forwards and backwards and if you started us off on Today 4 U, we’d certainly finish it. Will I became my rosary, my meditation and those serious questions about legacy, mortality and what people will think of my life and my choices helped me cope with the complicated emotions I had as a teen. Community brought us together and it was the power of community helped overcome some of the obstacles that perpetuated the AIDS crisis in America.

So while Rent has its problems, I can’t help but love the musical and the movie. The movie does give Mimi back some of her agency as opposed to the nearly magical drug dealer that seems to stalk her and it makes Angel an even more sympathetic and tragic character. Collins is great in any version (except for the part about stealing in some strange cyber-Robin Hood bit). Benny’s a more one-sided bad guy in the musical and in the movie he’s actually just sort of…right (he’s just a businessman who rather likes having a roof over his head and likes expensive food: there’s nothing wrong with that) so that makes him more relatable in the movie vs. the musical.  

So if you’ve never seen Rent, I can’t force it on you. It’s an acquired taste. It’s the musical theater fan’s musical. If you have seen it and think it’s the best depiction of anything ever then there’s lots of blog posts I have to point in your direction. If you think Rent like most things has a complicated legacy and did its best with what it had during the time since it first ran and is really when you think about it just a musical? Then you’re on the right track.