November 20, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
In my fifty years of theatre going, I have seen a number of out of town tryouts of Broadway plays and musicals. During the three decades I lived in Los Angeles, the city played host to a steady flow of shows that New York producers brought in. This was a smart choice, taking advantage of the solid subscription bases of some institutional theatres that had their homes there. Some shows I saw were presented in great shape and went on to eventual critical acclaim (and Tony Awards), like Clybourne Park and The Drowsy Chaperone. Others like Durante, a 1989 musical based on the life of Jimmy “the Shnozzola” Durante, played the now-demolished Shubert Theatre in hopes of proving a launch to New York, but failed to make it out of L.A. Some tried out and are still trying, like Minsky’s, a musical version of the 1968 film The Night They Raided Minsky’s that played the Ahmanson Theatre in 2009. It’s creative team of Charles Strouse, Bob Martin and Susan Birkenhead continue to work on the show in the hopes of mounting another production out of town so that they can then bring in to New York.
But in Los Angeles, a city where driving is a daily effort (and when I say effort, I mean effort), the commitment to take to the freeways to see a show was something I took seriously. I drove south to La Jolla and San Diego on many occasions, as well as up north to San Francisco, forever curious to find out if the wishes and prayers of its supporters were pipe dreams — or based in reality. The large number of road trips I took over the years go back to 1986, when I traveled to San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre to see what Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine were cooking up for their new show; the one that followed their innovative and beautiful crafting of Sunday in the Park With George. The idea of a show based on Grimm’s fairy tales was certainly intriguing and though it had a few kinks to iron out, I was delighted by Into the Woods overall. And when I caught up with it again a year later on Broadway, the multiple changes instituted turned it into a much better show. The road trip I most distinctly recall, was when in 2003, I drove 5 1/2 hours up to San Francisco to see a little musical called Wicked at the Curran Theatre. This was more than six months before it came to the Gershwin on West 50th Street (where it has settled in for a long and cozy spell). That trip was mainly due to a personal investment (though I sure wish it had been a financial one). As a friend of its book writer Winnie Holzman, I had been included in all of its early workshops. I was taken on Day One of rehearsal by its catchy score and clever plotting, and can still sing today most of the cut songs I was lucky enough to hear then —even though it’s fourteen years later.
So until this past weekend, it’s been a long while since I took another out of town trip to see a show. But ever since it was announced that Tina Fey and her husband Jeff Richmond were preparing a musical version of her 2003 hit film comedy Mean Girls, I was excited in anticipation of what they would come up with. Richmond, who has written all the clever pastiche music for the shows Fey has produced and created, like 30 Rock and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, was to share the chores with Nell Benjamin, who co-wrote the witty lyrics for the musical version of another early-2000s film comedy, Legally Blonde. Naturally, Fey would adapt her Mean Girls screenplay for the stage, which even though is a different animal entirely, boded well since she had already successfully taken what was a rather dry and academic bestselling primer for moms and dads titled Queen Bees and Wannabes, and turned it into the hilarious Mean Girls in the first place. No easy task.
Which shouldn’t imply I am deaf and blind to the numerous stories I have heard and read about. As has been proven time and again, when working on the creation of Broadway musical, some of the most talented people in the world have found themselves hurtling down the rabbit hole; falling like Alice without any guarantee of landing softly (or safely) when they hit bottom. For many there is post-traumatic-stress that lasts for years after a show, which has taken so long to mount — and cost millions to produce — folds in a weekend; its expensive scenery tossed in the garbage and torched to embers somewhere out in New Jersey. Even a noble failure can sting and cause many to never try again (just ask Paul Simon, for whom a ten-year process of writing and producing The Cape Man ended in an enormous disappointment for all concerned).
So it was with eyes wide open that I drove to D.C. with my daughter (for whom the film of Mean Girls was a seminal part of her childhood) to the National Theatre there for what was being advertised as the musical’s “World Premiere Prior To Broadway.” Seeing it as we did at the end of its third week of public performances, I don’t want to jump the gun by reviewing it in any great detail. What I will say is that from my own personal experience, it is in very good shape for a show so early in the process. Casey Nicholaw, who directed and choreographed, has proven over and again that he knows where the funny is, which has happily translated to there probably being no better choice to have guided this production. I fully expect that it will be a total crowd pleaser when it opens on Broadway in April, and will generate good word of mouth, regardless if the critics find flaws (as they almost always feel relegated to pointing out). Certainly the audience I saw it with had a fantastic time. The woman seated next to me could barely contain her excitement when she heard familiar lines from the film, or saw things done in a new way that took her by delighted surprise.
Which brought me to thinking a lot about last season’s Groundhog Day, another musicalization of a well-known film comedy, that played this past winter at the August Wilson, the same theatre where Mean Girls is headed. When I saw how that show’s original screenwriter Danny Rubin, failed to find new ways to tell his story, I was disappointed that so little had been done to shake up its well-known plot. Perhaps the best film comedy ever turned into a musical that managed the near-impossible task of improving upon its original screenplay, was what Mel Brooks (aided immeasurably by the late Thomas Meehan) did to The Producers. All the changes they made (and there were many) grounded its wild story in a firmer reality, while simultaneously raising the stakes. They even eliminated one of the funniest characters from the film, the drugged out rocker “L.S.D.,” played memorably by Dick Shawn. That takes a certain amount of courage; something the Groundhog Day team wasn’t interested (or inspired) to do.
If you’ve never seen a show out of town before its scheduled Broadway opening, there’s still time left this season to get in a car, board a bus or train, or even take a plane. London is hosting the new Tina Turner musical (called — what else? — Tina), and Jimmy Buffett’s Escape to Margaritaville just opened at the La Jolla Playhouse and runs through December 3rd before its opening at Marquis Theatre in March. December 3rd is also the same date Mean Girls ends in D.C. If you can, why not give this try out a try? — even though tickets are hard to get. I bought mine six months ago.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.