Sunday, July 15, 2007

What to See on Broadway?

I am consistently asked for recommendations on what Broadway musical to see. Friends, co-workers, relatives, acquaintances all seek my advice since I have seen just about every current musical now playing in New York and, since I bill myself as a hard-nosed critic, they think I know what I’m talking about. I am always happy to oblige, especially when the high cost of tickets are forcing occasional theatergoers and families to limit their excursions to the New York musical stage.

So, what are my top suggestions? I have broken them down into five categories;
Tikes – ages 6-9
Tweens – ages 10-13
Teen – ages 14-17
Young Adults – 18+ years

When I make a recommendation it is usually with the understanding that an individual or family has not been to the Broadway stage very often. Therefore, most of the shows on my lists are the tried and true. However, this is all an inexact science with numerous variables to consider. Is one seeking a musical comedy or more serious production? What might appeal to two or three age groups at the same time? My daughter is a mature eleven year old. What do we do about her?

I have not included “Wicked” or “Jersey Boys” as any of the primary choices since these shows are always sold out and you would have to pay a king’s ransom to acquire decent seats. Wait a few years for their sheen to wear thin, then procure tickets. Foul language can be sprinkled throughout a show which might limit your choices. Look at “Spring Awakening” where one song title is ‘Totally F*****.’ I try to make a note of excessive inappropriate language.

Within the listings there is considerable overlap. For example, “A Chorus Line” could enthrall everyone except, maybe, the Tikes. The age ranges of each category can be flexible at either end of the spectrum so a Tween may in fact be quite comfortable in a Young Adult show. You may scratch your head about why I left a certain production off a category. For example, “Chicago” is not listed in the top five of any category even though it has been playing for years and continues to do well at the box office. But “Chicago” is getting a bit old in the tooth and there are more worthy shows to plop down your money for. Finally, just because a musical is not on my lists does not mean it is undeserving of your patronage. Also, with new shows opening each year the rankings could change overnight. So, without further ado…drum roll please…

TIKES (6-9 years old)
Disney has this category all to itself. No matter what your feelings are about Disney’s theatrical presence you have to admit they know how to deliver the goods.
1. Beauty and the Beast – the first Disney show and a crowd-pleaser for the very young. Fun, entertaining, yet still scary, “Beauty and the Beast” is very faithful to its movie source. Hurry, the musical closes on July 29th.
2. The Lion King – Director Julie Taymor took a two-dimensional movie and turned it into a tour de force Broadway musical. The opening number is still one of the best in recent Broadway history (I won’t reveal why). Her use of puppetry brings to life the assorted characters in The Pride, inspiring awe and wonder among theatergoers, both young and old.
3. Mary Poppins – When I saw the show there was a bevy of very young children directly in front of me. They didn’t make a peep. Enough said.

TWEENS (10-13 years old)
There are a couple of shows for the older Tweens mixed in with the Tike choices from above.
1. A Chorus Line – Still the singular sensation. Some of the language may be inappropriate, but the dancing and stories of each hopeful is mesmerizing.
2. Lion King – see under TIKES.
3. Phantom of the Opera – Like the Energizer Bunny this Andrew Lloyd Webber warhorse goes on and on and on. Very theatrical with one of Webber’s most melodic and recognizable scores. And where else would you find a crashing chandelier.
4. Mary Poppins – see under TIKES. Might be a tad childish for this group, but the production values, special effects and music should keep them interested.
5. Hairspray – Pure family enjoyment with frenetic dancing and a first-rate, tuneful score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

TEENS (14-17 years old)
1. Spring Awakening – One of the seminal rock musicals with one of the best scores in years. Youthful, energetic cast makes this a must see. Language issues—one song is titled “Totally F*****” and there is a simulated rape scene.
2. Rent – Along with “Hair” and “Spring Awakening” one of the great Broadway rock musicals. Based on Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” “Rent” packs an emotional wallop along with a near perfect Jonathan Larson score.
3. Hairspray – see under TWEENS.
3. Legally Blonde – Personally, I’m not a great fan of the show, but if you have girls, especially if they have seen the movie, they will love it. Boys, see something else with dad.
4. A Chorus Line – see under TWEENS.
5. 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – The funniest musical on Broadway. Period. Also, every seat at Circle-in-the-Square is splendid so you don’t have to fret over location.

YOUNG ADULTS (18+ years old)
1. Spring Awakening – see under TEENS.
2. Rent – see under TEENS.
3. A Chorus Line – see under TWEENS.
3. Spamalot – Funny and silly. More for diehard Monty Python fans.
4. 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – see under TEENS.
5. Phantom of the Opera – see under TWEENS.
5. Legally Blonde – see under TEENS.
5. Hairspray – see under TWEENS.

1. Spring Awakening – see under TEENS.
2. 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – see under TEENS.
3. A Chorus Line – see under TWEENS.
4. Phantom of the Opera – see under TWEENS.
5. Rent – see under TEENS.
5. Mama Mia – Mindless fun. If you like the music of ABBA, a must. If not, there are always other shows to see.
5. Hairspray – see under TWEENS.
5. Spamalot – see under YOUNG ADULTS.

Still unsure? Email me at with your specific situation and I can see what I can recommend.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Rock 'n Roll on Broadway

Rock ‘n Roll! Is the multi-Tony Award winning musical, “Spring Awakening,” with its high energy, rock-infused score, the wave of the future on Broadway? Or, to put it another way, is The Great White Way, possibly, a fertile breeding ground for rockers looking to stretch their artistic muscles? This was one of the themes in a June 24, 2007 column by Charles Isherwood in The New York Times (“On This Rock, Build a Future For Musicals”). The success of “Spring Awakening” could, according to Isherwood, “encourage more refugees from the rock and pop worlds to venture into theater.” This may occur but, historically speaking, Broadway has never attracted a considerable number of pop or rock composers to the musical stage even when the next influential rock musical opened to critical and popular success. This has been the pattern when the three seminal rock musicals—“Hair,” in 1968; “Rent,” in 1996; and now “Spring Awakening”—have opened. (I am not counting jukebox musicals or The Who’s “Tommy” and the Andrew Lloyd Weber-Tim Rice musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” since these are not what I would term ‘defining rock productions.’) The years following the openings of the three aforementioned shows has seen musicals more in the Tin Pan Alley tradition than in the rock ‘n roll vein.

There have been some notable forays by pop and rock artists on Broadway—the 1968 Burt Bacharach-Hal David smash, “Promises, Promises;” Roger Miller’s acclaimed 1985 score for “Big River;” Paul Simon’s 1996 Broadway flop, “The Capeman;” Phil Collins’ “Tarzan;” as well as Elton John’s incursion into legitimate theater with four shows to his credit—hits with “The Lion King,” “Aida,” and “Billy Elliott,” and a bomb with the recent “Lestat.”

What is intriguing about Isherwood’s argument is how the Internet may begin to finally change how pop and rock artists view the Broadway landscape. As with anything related to music today, selective downloading of songs could be the catalyst. People, like myself, visit iTunes to purchase, primarily, individual songs as opposed to whole albums. “If albums are soon to become all but obsolete,” Isherwood writes, “what are the ambitious artists to do with the more expansively conceived statements once known as concept albums?” One answer could be the Broadway musical stage.

Who do I think would have the ability, fortitude and gumption to carry out such an assignment? Well, considering my tastes and knowledge base are woefully stuck in the late 1970’s and 1980’s I would nominate:

  • Paul Simon. His score was the best part of the skewered, “The Capeman.” He should dust himself off, surround him with theater veterans and have a go at it one more time.

  • Paul McCartney. He’s already written one musical—the failed 1984 movie, “Give My Regards to Broad Street.” The former Beatle is so versatile, why not set out to conquer Broadway?

  • Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook of the English rock group “Squeeze.” In their heyday the twosome were known as the Lennon-McCartney of New Wave.

  • Andy Partridge of the English group, “XTC.” Prolific songwriter who could almost certainly translate his artistic prowess to the musical stage.

  • Elvis Costello. Superior talent who could easily extend his intelligence and flair to Broadway.

  • Billy Joel. The piano man, in another era, would have been the toast of Broadway. Hey, he’s already won a Tony Award for Best Orchestration. Why stop there?

  • Elton John. Keep it up. Still batting .750!

The future of rock’s encroachment onto Broadway may not be too far off. The just announced stage musical of “Spider-Man” will have a score by Bono and The Edge of the supergroup, “U2.” Who’ll be next to step up to the plate?

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Rest in Peace, Footlight Records

[PLEASE NOTE -- this post was originally uploaded on July 1, 2007. Since that time Footlight Records ended up not closing their Internet operations. On their website,, they just posted the following: We are proud to announce that Footlight Records will be relaunching on Friday, February 6, 2009 after being purchased by Bruce Yeko and Original Cast Records]

For weeks after the Tony Award ceremony, poorly performing shows shutter their doors and extinguish their glittering marquees. This year it seemed an unusually high number of Broadway productions ended their runs during this time. But there is one closing that is more heartbreaking than all the others combined. On July 4th Footlight Records, the quintessential record store for musical theater enthusiasts, will close its cyber-doors. Long a fixture in the East Village on 12th Street, then moving to Brooklyn, and finally becoming an Internet-only company, Footlight Records was THE place for aficionados of original cast recordings, especially rare and hard-to-find vinyl LPs.

A number of factors went into the decision by ownership. Astronomical rent increases, according to the store’s website, pushed the company further into debt. There was also the problem “that many smaller companies that produce cast recordings pre-sell their recordings at a discount price,” again as stated on their website. “This has probably cut into about 40% of our sales in cast CDs.” But maybe the most significant factor is the reality of today’s marketplace—more and more music is downloaded. CD sales are off which makes it harder for all types of record stores to keep their doors open. Even the giants are not immune. Look at Tower Records, once the mecca for the music buying public in New York City—gone!

Yet the seeds of Footlight’s demise began years ago and has affected all record stores with significant vinyl inventory. Simply, those outlets that traffic in used and/or virgin vinyl are a vanishing breed. Those of us that could think of nothing better to do than wile away the time browsing through racks and racks of undiscovered treasures are of a bygone era. There just aren’t enough of us to keep these places in business. Which is too bad. I have unearthed many original cast recordings in these environs, a number from musicals I had never heard of before which, for someone with over 800 cast recordings and other show-related music and CDs in their collection, is no small feat. For example, there was the little known Harold Rome show, “The Zulu and the Zayda” that appeared in a discount bin one day. Another time I found an odd duck—Jim “Gomer Pyle” Nabors singing songs from “Man of LaMancha,” perfect when I spotlight the cast album of the show and its many incarnations for one of my radio programs.

At Footlight Records—when they were a brick and mortar site--I spent countless hours rummaging through the used LPs and CDs. I marveled at the out-of-print and rare vinyl discs displayed on the walls. It truly was heaven…For the next few weeks the staff will be tying up loose ends. After that, the remaining stock will be on under the name Rest in Peace, Footlight Records.