Tuesday, August 28, 2007

What the '70s Called a Hit Musical

I noticed that someone has uploaded excerpts from the biggest hit musical of 1970, Applause, a musical version of All About Eve starring Lauren Bacall. This is probably my least favorite hit musical, certainly my least favorite from before the '80s. (And even Cats doesn't annoy me as much.) The Broadway musical was on life support by 1970, with the collapse of Broadway-style music in the pop market -- which meant that most musicals, even successful ones, didn't have hit songs to help market them. And so a lot of shows were increasingly coming to rely on production gimmicks. Some directors, like Hal Prince, went for big conceptual ideas, and others, like Applause director-choreographer Ron Field, just tried to throw everything at the audience to keep them entertained.

When this worked, it worked fine; it had worked in Cabaret -- a Prince production that Field had choreographed -- where Field's imaginative, movement-filled musical numbers were a highlight. (Everyone who saw the original version of Cabaret -- which is, by the way, far superior to the movie or any of the revised versions -- recalls that Field's "The Telephone Number" was the hit of the whole show.) But it was an approach that could make a show more about the staging than about the songs or performances. And what bugs me about Applause is that Field seems to have so busy coming up with gimmicks that he let the show fall apart creatively.

The talent was there: Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (Bye Bye Birdie) wrote the songs, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green were brought in to write the book (after an earlier script was thrown out). But Comden and Green's book doesn't have a funny line in it. (They were not able to use the All About Eve lines, because they didn't initially have the rights to the movie script, but their dialogue is shockingly witless for the people who wrote Singin' in the Rain.) And many of Strouse and Adams' songs are mediocre -- like a really stupid song called "Fasten Your Seat Belts" -- and the ones that are good are wrecked by the bad pseudo-hip orchestrations of the veteran Philip J. Lang.

So it was a good idea for a musical that was turned into a really poorly written musical, and nobody seemed to care because of a) Lauren Bacall, who overplayed entertainingly, and b) Field's relentless staging, which sort of beat the audience into submission. But the performances were basically terrible; everybody was encouraged to overact and oversell every single line or bit of business. It's the kind of loud, annoying, cartoonish faux-entertainment that gives Broadway musicals a bad name.

Here's an example of how Applause wrecked what is actually a pretty good song -- the title song, which could have been a rather sweet tribute to the joy of performing and instead becomes a monstrous thing led by a vocally-overstretched Bonnie Franklin (One Day at a Time).

Making a slightly better case for the show, from a TV version (there never was a movie), is Bacall's number "But Alive." The staging is kind of wearying too, and the arrangement is early-'70s crass, but at least it's entertaining. Bacall didn't have much of a voice, but she did know how to make the most of a number.


Anonymous said...

Love your posts about musicals. Applause disappointed me because I loved the previous Strouse & Adams scores so much.

And I hope it's OK to mention here that I've written a Serious Musical Comedy that's opening September 28 in The New York Musical Theatre Festival. It's called Such Good Friends, stars Liz Larsen, Brad Oscar and Lynne Wintersteller, and includes more than one "sweet tribute to the joy of performing." (Click my name for details.)

Anonymous said...

Argh. Mostly, in that Bonnie Franklin-led version, I found the costume design completely distracting. The prints were just too much, especially those striped pants, the granny-square poncho, and that horrible print skirt in something heavy that moves like drapery fabric (and also, it looks like it's exactly the right length for a dancer to get her heel caught in the hem and trip). And all of that against the red-and-white-checked tablecloths. Solid colors, or even just bigger, bolder prints would have accomplished the same effect without being so distracting.

But then, I've never liked Applause anyway. The title song is an example of the kind of musical theater number I hate: lots of self-referential Broadway jokes, way too long and involved, and also completely forgettable except for about two bars of the chorus. It's the kind of song that makes people think they don't like musical theater.

Jenny Lerew said...

I can't play the vdeo clip at work, but oh, my does that bring back hilarious memories of Bonnie stabbing out that line:
"WHY. DO. WE. WORK. OUR. ASSES. OFF/What-IS-IT-FOOOOOOR?!" Yikes! My BF had the soundtrack album(don't ask!)and we'd howl at the hamminess of it.