Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: The Sound of Music

Okay, I jumped the gun a little.  I was going to wait to review classic musicals after I finished with the most notable musicals from the past 20 years.  However, the recent Carrie Underwood take, plus the movie's annual pre-Christmas airing, left The Sound of Music (1965) fresh in my mind.  So what the hell?  Why not write about my favorite movie musical while it is still fresh?

The Sound of Music was adapted from the 1959 stage musical of the same name, which itself was (loosely) based on real life events.  In real life, 18-year-old Maria Augusta Kutschera entered Salzberg's Nonnberg Abbey as a postulant, hoping to become a nun.  Having trained as a school teacher, she accepted an assignment to teach one of Captain Georg von Trapp's seven children.  Captain von Trapp fell in love with Maria, and Maria married him more out of love for his children than for him.  They eventually had a few more children of their own.  Captain von Trapp then lost most of the family fortune in 1935 when he placed it in a friend's unstable bank.  Then the Nazis took over Austria and drafted Captain von Trapp into their navy, and the family fled... by taking a train to Italy.  From there, the family von Trapp emigrated to the United States, eventually running a resort in Vermont.  Frequently known as "the Trapp family," they sang in public to earn money.

Their story eventually became a film in 1956 called The Trapp Family, which was followed by the 1958 The Trapp Family in America.  Both caught the attention of Vincent Donehue, a stage director, who the collaborated with Rodgers and Hammerstein to create a stage musical.  That musical opened in 1959, starring Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel.  It received good reviews and was made a movie directed by Robert Wise, starring the incomparable Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.

Note that I say The Sound of Music is my favorite movie musical, rather than my favorite musical.  The stage musical has problems that make it much less lovable.  The movie not only fixed those, but went above and beyond, creating an unforgettable movie experience. 

The Good

Everything!  No really, this movie is not only dramatically better than the stage version, but stands out as one of the best movie musical adaptations ever.  But it would probably be easier to break down the things I like best.

Fantastic Acting.  That only becomes clearer when comparing this to the televised stage version.  Julie Andrews walks a tightrope in a role that could have easily been cloying, making Maria effervescent, yet also toned down and dignified.  Likewise, Christopher Plummer's snarky wit saves his role from being too treacly.  The supporting players are excellent, particularly Eleanor Parker as Baroness Schrader, Richard Haydn as Max Detweiler, and Peggy Wood as the Mother Abbess.  While the children can get a bit too cutesy at times, they still feel like real children and have great chemistry with Andrews.  Charmian Carr shines as Liesl, the only Von Trapp child to have her own subplot.
Christopher Plummer as Captain von Trapp

The Hills Are Alive!  Perhaps the best decision (apart from casting Andrews) was to film The Sound of Music on location in Austria.  From those opening aerial shots of the hills, the scenery becomes as much of a character as anyone cast.  Even "Do-Re-Mi," the most cloying song of the bunch, seems fresher and more energetic when set against this natural backdrop and Salzburg monuments.

Song Reordering.  There are substantial differences between the movie and stage musical, and nearly all of them work in the movie's favor.  For starters, the movie's Powers That Be realized that "My Favorite Things" was a much more compelling song than "Lonely Goatherd," and therefore it would make more sense for Maria to sing the former to the Von Trapp children during a thunderstorm.  Meanwhile, "Goatherd" is saved for later, perked up through the use of clever puppetry.

But it isn't just that -- the movie is restructured so that everything flows better and makes much more sense.  For example, when Maria arrives at the Von Trapp home, she doesn't just teach the children to sing "Do-Re-Mi" five minutes later, the way she does in the stage version.  No, first she has to endure the Von Trapp children's pranks, including a pine cone on her chair that leads to an embarrassing outburst.  Only after she cleverly turns the prank around on them, and sings to them during the thunderstorm, do they start to trust her.  Then she teaches them how to sing.

In addition to changing the song order, the movie added and removed some songs.  Gone were "How Can Love Survive?", "No Way to Stop It," and "An Ordinary Couple."  Added were "I Have Confidence" and "Something Good."  While I wish that the movie had kept "How Can Love Survive?" or "No Way to Stop It," I don't think it hurts to have them both absent.  Meanwhile, though "An Ordinary Couple" is a perfectly nice song, "Something Good" seems to fit the situation much better.  In "An Ordinary Couple," Maria and Captain von Trapp are already anticipating their future marriage, while in "Something Good," they are just confirming that they are in love.  "Something Good" was so, well, good, that even the televised stage version, which was otherwise faithful to the stage musical, kept it in place of "An Ordinary Couple."

Better Drama.  One underrated aspect of the movie is how much dignity the adult roles receive.  That has the effect of ratcheting up the stakes of the Maria-Captain-Baroness love triangle.  One genius change was to have the Baroness, not Brigitta, tell Maria that the Captain was in love with her.  While it seems a little odd for the Baroness to admit this so openly, it does show what the Baroness is willing to do to keep her man -- mess with the head of a poor, innocent would-be nun.

The dignity of the adult roles also allows the viewer to take Captain von Trapp's convictions seriously, so that the family's efforts to flee the Nazis are understood, even if that final hour is still problematic (see below).         

Oh Yes, and the Singing.  Marni Nixon sings in this movie... but this time, not as the dubbed-in voice for the lead character.  That is because Julie Andrews does pretty well for herself, thank you very much.

The Bad

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Captain Von Trapp?  The transformation of Captain von Trapp from a distant father who summons his children with a whistle to a loving father who sings with them is a challenge, which the movie does not entirely meet.  The recent televised stage version sought to meet it by having Stephen Moyer's Von Trapp be stiff and awkward with them, until Maria showed him how to behave more naturally.  The movie attempts to solve the problem by suggesting that Captain von Trapp is, well, a dick.

As played by Christopher Plummer, Captain von Trapp is suave and cold.  It is far more believable that he would take sadistic pleasure in summoning his children with a whistle than that he would sing with them.  To the movie's credit, it never suggests that Von Trapp completely transforms: even after he starts singing with them, he never interacts with them in a meaningful way.  One moment where he caresses Liesl's cheek looks stiff and unnatural, almost like the gesture is foreign to him.  The only reason he seems interested in the children is because he knows that Maria loves them, and since he has fallen for Maria, it would look wrong to keep ignoring them.  

The Baroness Gets the Short Shrift.  While it did not register with me when I was younger, I now see the extent to which Baroness Schrader is ill treated.  Here Captain von Trapp credits her for saving his life, visits her for weeks at a time in Vienna, and then drops her because he becomes hot for his governess.  It is the classic case of Sophisticated Woman losing to the Homemaker -- one that also appears in Mad Men's Season Four and is even more obvious in the stage musical, where Baroness Schrader is merely Elsa Schrader, a successful business woman.  She may be witty, intelligent, and a good fit with your personality, but if she can't raise kids, she's worthless.

And say what you will, but Plummer's Von Trapp meshes with the Baroness very well.  I could easily see the two sophisticates roaming Vienna, trading bon mots.  His falling for Maria is forgiven because, well, it's Julie Andrews and how can you not fall for Julie Andrews?  It's like falling in love with sunlight itself.  I suppose it could be argued that Von Trapp is just being rational: while he might sincerely love the Baroness, and might be distant from his children, he is not quite heartless enough to ship them off to boarding school.  Maria knows how to relate to them, much like his late wife, so rather than try something completely new, why not stick with what works?

It could also be argued that Maria was more the type of wife who would support Von Trapp's moral convictions when it comes to the Third Reich -- something driven home in the stage musical, where Elsa tries to convince Captain von Trapp to accept the Nazi invasion.  Still, his dumping of the Baroness was a pretty shitty thing to do to a decent woman who loved him.

That Final Hour.  No matter how well crafted the movie, it cannot prevent everything after the wedding from feeling tacked on.  Basically, from the moment we hear the big bell, we are watching a different movie.  The first one was about a spirited woman learning to be a governess and falling in love with her employer.  The second movie is a suspense thriller.  Will the Von Trapp family escape from the Nazis in time?!  Although the first movie provides hints of political conflict (the Austrian flag at the ball, for example), it in no way prepares the audience for what is to come.

While the final hour provides some good moments (such as Captain von Trapp choking up at the festival), there is a flatness to it.  Suddenly Rolf is nasty to Liesl without cause.  Suddenly Maria is the flawless mother and helpmate.  The only concern now is that the Von Trapps get out of Austria so that Captain von Trapp doesn't have to serve in the German navy, which... yawn.  It's especially annoying once you learn that their escape from Austria wasn't nearly as melodramatic in real life.

The incongruity of the final hour is why so many viewers turn off the movie after Maria and Captain von Trapp marry -- because for most people, that is the end of the movie. 


The Sound of Music is not the best of Rodger and Hammerstein's musicals, and it could have easily been a subpar movie experience like some of the duo's other adaptations to the screen.  Instead, everyone involved reached inside themselves and took it to a higher level, making it the best movie musical adaptation yet.  The story is well paced and the songs are well staged.  The acting is great and the scenery is fantastic.  Another musical may one day exceed what The Sound of Music accomplished, but that day has not yet come.

Other Movie Musicals That Got It Right: DreamgirlsLes Miserables, Chicago, Mamma Mia!, Sweeney Todd, Moulin Rouge

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the OperaEvitaRENTAcross the UniverseRock of AgesHairspray

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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Les Miserables the Movie: Nearly One Year Anniversary

Ah Les Miz, it seems like only yesterday I was anticipating you the way I once anticipated gifts from Santa.  Then you arrived and all was well.  Then you came out on DVD, and I watched you more times than was probably good for me.

Since then, things have been a little quiet.  A new Broadway production of the stage play is set to open in 2014, and I hope to be able to see it.  However, there has been no mention of an extended cut.  Hopefully Hooper and company will produce one for the 30th Anniversary just two years away.

So in honor of Les Miz's release a year ago, and to relive the excitement of those days, have a look at the series that chronicled the film's journey:

Les Miz Is Coming!  Les Miz Is Coming!  "Yet for years, it remained a mystery as to whether the musical could ever be made into a decent screen adaptation.  After several aborted attempts, it looks as though they have finally succeeded."

Les Miserables the Movie Part One: Rumors "While it is true that another staple of the British Mega Musicals, Phantom of the Opera, premiered in 2004, its failure at the box office just made me less inclined to believe that Les Miz would ever reach the big screen." 

Les Miserables the Movie Part Two: But Can They Sing?! "So with that in mind, Les Miz entered the February 2012 rehearsal period with quite a tall order.  The actors would need to nail down their roles in rehearsal before entering a very tight three-month shooting schedule."

Les Miserables the Movie: In the Beginning, There Was a Concept Album "The concept album featured several tunes that are familiar to us today.  Some were so like their future versions that the English-language songs seem like mere translations; others were altered thematically and given to other characters; some were fleshed out, while others were dropped entirely."

Les Miserables the Movie: London Calling "The English-language version of Les Miserables opened at the RSC Barbican Theatre in 1985, then moved to the Palace Theatre a little more than two months later, where it would remain until 2004.  While the musical received tepid reviews, it was widely embraced by theatre goers, and the rest is musical juggernaut history."

Les Miserables the Movie: The Neon Lights of Broadway "The production then moved to Broadway in March of 1987.  It's not clear to me exactly when they occurred, but by the time Les Miz arrived on Broadway, it had undergone several changes."

Les Miserables the Movie: The Most Complete Recording, But the Best? "Overall, the Complete Symphonic Recording is a bit of a mixed bag.  The bag contains mostly treats, but now and then, you come across a lump of coal.  Most of this is due to the singers cast in the roles."

Les Miserables the Movie: And We Have Trailer! "Overall, I really liked it, and it's making me more excited to see the movie (if that were even possible)."

Les Miserables the Movie: Maguire v. Warlow and the Role of Enjolras "How did this unofficial rivalry between Maguire and Warlow spring up?  Part of it could be because they were both a smash in the role, but you could say that about other performers as well."

Les Miserables the Movie: The 10th Anniversary "Dream Cast" "The lighting was mostly a somber, dignified blue, and even the projection screens in back seemed modest.  And yet despite its limitations, the 10th Anniversary Concert, alternately known as the "Dream Cast," ranks as many people's favorite recording."

Les Miserables the Movie: A New Tour and a New Look "While the Tour CD is hardly flawless, it still has a lot of positives and deserves to be viewed on its own terms.  Since the 25th Anniversary Tour predates the concert, having launched in December 2009, I will look at it first."

Les Miserables the Movie: The Concert That Launched a Thousand Careers! "The 25th Anniversary Concert was meant to be "cinematic" from the start.  Instead of one concert, there were two, with the evening concert being aired in cinemas all over the world.  Those who attended the live event were part of a sellout crowd of 32,000."

Les Miserables the Movie: All I Want for Christmas Is... "But the biggest problem is that the combined information release has made it really difficult to make a "Ten Things I Really Want to See in the Les Miz Movie" list.  But here goes anyway."

Les Miserables the Movie: Finally, the Big Show! "I will confess, though, that the journey to "This was great!" was not a smooth one.  In the first half hour, I found myself wincing and cringing quite a lot, wondering if maybe the critical naysayers had a point."

Les Miserables the Movie: Five Things They Should Have Left Alone, and the Five Best Cuts "I still think that "The Attack on the Rue Plumet" is horribly butchered.  I also didn't warm to Russell Crowe's vocals, but the only parts where I would say he's really bad are the introduction scene with Valjean/Monsieur Madeleine and the "Runaway Cart" scene."

Les Miserables the Movie: Why the Hate?  "Yet those who hate the movie have been very vocal about their hatred.  From their outbursts, you would have thought that watching cats get vivisected for two hours was more worth their while."

Les Miserables the Movie: Notes on the Oscars "Anyone think the only reason the "movie musical medley" was formed was so there would be an excuse for the Les Miz cast to sing "One Day More"?  They wouldn't have been able to otherwise, since "One Day More" would never qualify for best original song.  Man, if it did, though, it would have blown "Skyfall" out of the water."

Les Miserables the Movie: Impressions of the DVD Release "In some ways, I wish that Universal had waited a little longer, because the movie was still doing pretty well at the box office (better than expected) and given another month or two, it might have overtaken Chicago and even Grease to become the highest-grossing musical in the United States."

Happy holidays, everyone!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Impressions of Carrie Underwood's The Sound of Music

Since I have been weighing in on modern movie musicals, I could not resist the opportunity to comment on Carrie Underwood's version of The Sound of Music, which was aired last Thursday to big ratings and will be airing again tonight.  True, it is not exactly the same thing -- it is not a movie musical, but a televised version of the original stage musical of The Sound of Music.  Yet it stands in the long, deep shadow of the 1965 movie The Sound of Music starring Julie Andrews, with every note destined to be compared.  (Though I have not yet reviewed movies older than 20 years, let me just say that this movie will not appear on the Wrong list.)

Really, this was a can't win situation from the get-go.  Underwood and the brain trust behind the televised version deserve credit for chutzpah alone.  Beyond that, was this a successful musical on its own terms?  Well... kind of.  To the extent that it wasn't, it can't all be blamed on Underwood's performance.

1.  Acting vs. Singing.  As many have noted, there is a sizable gap between Underwood's singing and her acting ability.  Her singing was actually quite good for the most part; expecting more of a limited vocal range, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Underwood hit the highest notes without noticeable struggle.  She never matches the silvery, floating tones of Andrews, but still does well enough to be perfectly adequate in a stage production.  That is, if only her acting were up to par.  Most of Underwood's line readings would be at home in a high school production.  Though at least she appears to have all of her lines memorized.

2.  Change Is Good.  Even more jarring than Underwood in the lead role are the differences between the movie musical and the stage musical.  With the exception of one song, the televised version follows the stage musical, which most of us have never seen.  I didn't even know that there were lyrics before "The hills are alive!" until I listened to Mary Martin's "The Sound of Music" on YouTube.  However, that is the least of the differences.

Most of the differences favor the movie, and I'm not just saying that because I grew up with it.  The movie improves the pacing considerably, ups the tension, and delivers emotional moments much more effectively.  Some key differences include:

  • In the stage version, "My Favorite Things" is sung at the abbey before Maria leaves to go live with the Von Trapps, whereas in the movie, Maria sings it to the Von Trapp children during a thunder storm.  In the stage version, "The Lonely Goatherd" is sung during the thunder storm, with no Captain Von Trapp bursting in at the end.  
  • In the movie version, Maria spends some time gaining the Von Trapp children's favor before she teaches them to sing "Do-Re-Mi."  In the stage version, within minutes of meeting them, she has her guitar out and the Von Trapp children are singing.  It is possible that the televised stage version needed to be shortened, cutting some getting-to-know-you sequences, but regardless, Maria seems to gain the children's trust very quickly.
  • In the stage version, Captain Von Trapp doesn't sing "Edelweiss" until the music festival, whereas in the movie, he sings it once earlier.
  • In the stage version, Elsa Schrader and Max Detweiler have a rather amusing song called "How Can Love Survive?" about love between two rich people, as well as a song about accepting the inevitability of German invasion.  In the movie version, both songs are cut, as Baroness Schrader's dry humor is delivered by dialogue only.  "How Can Love Survive?" is one of the few songs I wish the movie version had kept.   
  • In the stage version, Brigitta tells Maria that Captain Von Trapp is in love with her, whereas in the movie version, the Baroness does it to get Maria out of the picture.  I always thought it was a bit odd that the Baroness would openly acknowledge that her fiance was lusting after someone else, so it makes sense that originally she was not the one who told Maria.
As noted, most of the changes vastly improve the musical.  Especially the moving of "My Favorite Things" to later -- "Goatherd" is far from a great song, and in the televised stage version, "My Favorite Things" leads to awkward moments like Maria sitting on a desk with the Mother Abbess, kicking their legs in unison.

The iconic Maria, Julie Andrews.
Without the changes, The Sound of Music feels a lot slower and with lower stakes.  For instance, instead of the thunder storm scene being one that leads to Maria winning over the Von Trapp children, it's just a throw-away scene that lets Maria practice her yodeling while the Von Trapp children sing under the bed.

3.  Supporting Players.  The surrounding cast is mostly okay.  They range from standouts like Laura Benati (Elsa Schrader), Audra McDonald (Mother Abbess), and Christian Borle (Max Detweiler) to decent (Ariane Rinart as Liesl and Michael Campayno as Rolf) to pretty unmemorable (the rest of the Von Trapp children) to stiff and awful (Stephen Moyer as Captain Von Trapp).

Moyer in particular is a disappointment.  Though he can sing, he does not project much of a personality and has no chemistry with Carrie Underwood.  I will give him this, though: he does seem to genuinely love his children, which is more than I could say for Christopher Plummer's Captain Von Trapp.

4.  Once More With Feeling.  Between the poor pacing of the stage version and the uneven cast, the televised version lacks energy.  Part of that can also be attributed to the choice to film in a studio rather than on stage in front of an audience.  I'm not sure a limp, bored audience would have improved things, but surely the cast would have worked harder to get their energy up.

So overall, this version of The Sound of Music is not horrible, but it is pretty forgettable.  The two biggest positives are that its ratings will likely pave the way for more televised live musicals, and that it resurrected the original stage version, which had mostly lain dormant since the movie came out.  Mostly for good reason, although it is at least interesting to see the origins of one of the most beloved musicals of all time.


Above clip was embedded with the permission of NBC (see website) and the above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Game of Thrones: Is Daenerys Targaryen Really Such a Bad Ruler?

For those who have only watched the television show or those who have not read A Dance With Dragons, spoilers for the series are below!!!

After Season Four, Game of Thrones the television series will have a tough task: making A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons into a compelling viewing experience.  While A Feast for Crows is criticized for focusing too much on side characters and subplots, A Dance With Dragons may be more frustrating -- it promises series progression and largely fails to deliver.

In Dance we are finally reunited with Daenerys and Tyrion Lannister -- the former of whom is trying to rule Meereen, a conquered slave city, and the latter of whom is traveling to serve her.  Readers know that after 1,000 or so pages, Tyrion never actually meets Daenerys.  However, the biggest source of disappointment may be Daenerys herself.

The Situation

Many critics believe that Daenerys is simply a poor ruler.  During her reign, Meereen steadily descends into chaos, culminating with a war with Yunkai, another slave city that Daenerys conquered and abandoned.  Rather than stay and fight, Daenerys takes off -- literally -- on one of her dragons and ends up in the midst of the Dothraki sea.  While Daenerys's escape was not planned, it gives the sense of her taking the easy way out, at least for now.

I think fans' biggest source of dissatisfaction isn't Daenerys's actual rule of Meereen, but that she's still in Meereen at all -- and not in Westeros.  Throughout the first three books of the A Song of Ice and Fire Series, Daenerys's rise was meteoric: from a timid, abused girl to a confident leader of a large, hungry army.  With her three dragons growing rapidly, it seemed like only a short time before Dany finally had enough fire power (pun intended) to make her voyage to Westeros, where she would win back her kingdom from the Lannisters.

Then something happened: Dany decided to stay in Essos and rule one of the cities that she had conquered.  Until then, her army had been burning a path through Slaver's Bay -- first Astapor, then Yunkai, then finally Meereen.  Each time, Dany freed the countless slaves and set up a new government that she trusted would be wiser than the old one.  Yet once she learned that the provisional government of Astapor had fallen apart, she realized that she needed to stay and clean up her own mess, so to speak.  So Dany decided to rule Meereen, to create a stable government and get some practice with ruling before she went after the bigger prize of Westeros.  That was a wise decision, except for three things:

1.  Fans do not care about Meereen.

2.  George RR Martin does not appear to care about Meereen.

3.  Daenerys does not really care about Meereen.

The awkwardness of the situation came about due to George RR Martin's decision to scrap a planned five-year jump.  The five-year jump would have provided enough time for Dany to become a wise ruler and also for her dragons to grow to a mighty size.  However, since Martin likes to portray the minutiae of events, he didn't want to lose so much eventful material in the time jump, so he created A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons to help untie the "Meereenese knot."  A Dance With Dragons almost did it, but there is still quite a bit of Meereen left in The Winds of Winter, unfortunately. 

Critical Assessment

Because Martin did not intend to stay in Meereen so long, his indifference toward the city is telling.  Meereen never feels like a real place; its people are presented in the sort of shady, two-dimensional fashion that one would expect from films about Arabs from the 1950s (or, let's face it, today).  There is no one to empathize with -- only people to mistrust.  Their names sound like they were pulled from a Scrabble bag: Hizdahr zo Loraq, Reznak mo Reznak, Skahaz mo Kandaq.  Or like they belong to comic book villains -- the Green Grace.  So we wonder why Dany would put so much effort into placating these people, ruling those who clearly hold her in contempt.

That said, her actual decisions as a ruler aren't all that bad.  Let's look at what she's done:

1.  Locked up the dragons after learning that one killed a child.

2.  Took the children of several prominent Meereenese hostage, then refused to kill them.

3.  Attempted to install new forms of trade since Meereen's previous commodity -- slaves -- was no longer available.

4.  Married a prominent Meereen citizen to keep internal peace and to prevent a war with the Yunkai.

Can anyone say that the above decisions were unequivocally bad?  Of course we don't want to see Dany lock away her dragons for the sake of a people we hardly care about, because we know that they represent her power source, what she needs to get back to Westeros.  But you can't blame her for recognizing their danger and being quick to remove them as a threat when one of her subjects is harmed.  Locking the dragons away would never work as a long-term solution, but for the short term it is sufficient enough.

No!  Not your power source!  Damn you, Meereen!
Refusing to kill her hostages might make Dany seem weak and less of a threat, but from the late chapters of Dance and the early chapters of Winds of Winter, it looks as though her act of mercy could pay off.  Which would be rare and refreshing since thus far, almost every kind act in the series has been smothered by acts of unrelenting brutality.  It might signal a shift in the wind (pun intended) if a ruler's mercy becomes a strength.

Dany's attempt to create new sources of trade is admirable, only hindered by the fact that her last conquered people, the Yunkai, steadily undermine them.  Finally, while we might think that Dany made a poor personal decision in marrying a prominent Meereenese citizen whom she did not love, it was at least a decent attempt to bring peace to her city, which was slowly being undermined by shadow killers.

If anything, Dany's greatest weakness as a ruler was the fact that she conquered so easily -- if she had not blazed a path through Slaver's Bay, immediately freeing the slaves and punishing their rulers, then she would not face such a mess in Meereen.  Much of A Dance With Dragons involves Dany coming to terms with the fact that the "right" decision is not always the "easy" decision, and even good, moral decisions can have repercussions.

Perhaps if Dany's decisions relating to Meereen are fairly understandable, her more personal decisions are less so.  

1.  She had lots and lots of sex with Daario Naharis.

2.  She made no attempt to learn her family's true history in Westeros and brushed off Barristan Selmy's attempts to make her see reality.

3.  She refused Quentin Martel's marriage proposal.

Of the three, the first tends to get the most outrage.  Oh my God, she's such a stupid girl!  The reasoning is that Dany can't possibly make cautious decisions in one area if she's being so reckless in another.  Clearly the boy is making her lose her brain.  But if that were the case, wouldn't it be more likely that Dany would marry Daario instead of someone for whom she feels nothing?  Dany's problem may be that, in fact, she's thinking too much with her head and not enough with her heart.  Only belatedly does she realize that she will never see Meereen as her own people.

The third is understandable.  Some boy from Dorne whom she's never met is proposing marriage and she is supposed to just drop everything?  Yes, a little too much of Dany's decision is based on Quentin's plainness compared to Daario's hotness, but she is correct in being cautious with him.  The main problem for many readers is that Dany does not express greater interest in Dorne, or current politics in Westeros.

That brings us to her second decision, the most troubling.  Despite knowing her family's downfall, Dany never once questions her brother Viserys's version of events -- that those bad, bad Starks and Baratheons were jus' jealous and wanted the throne for themselves.  When Selmy gently tries to tell her that Ned Stark was not a bad man and actually spoke against her assassination, Dany brushes him off angrily.  If conquering Westeros is her ultimate objective, Dany needs to understand history so as not to repeat it.  While she seems much kinder and more merciful than her crazy father, if she goes into Westeros preparing to destroy those who hated her father and raise those who loved him, she could find herself with few allies.  It's enough to make me hope that my Arya speculation is true and Dany gets some schoolin' before her voyage west.


So those are Dany's major decisions in A Dance With Dragons.  She also makes several more minor decisions, such as opening up the fighting pits -- a practice that she hated -- to appease some prominent Meereenese.  Dany gets criticized for her weakness and compromises, but her decisions seem mostly sound.  Her problem is that she is trying to clean up a mess that she created, and there is no easy way to do it -- especially since the consequences of her past conquests have followed her in the form of Astapori suffering from pale mare and vengeful Yunkish troops.

Despite the grimness of Dany's situation, it is an experience that she can learn from before she blows into Westeros.  Maybe there is a better way than just cutting down the bad guys and issuing declarations.  That is, if Dany chooses to learn that lesson.

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Moulin Rouge

Last time, I was talking about how I was running out of musicals made in the last 20 years to review, and that I would soon be stuck reviewing musicals that I dread.  But lo and behold, I remembered that there were still some good musicals out there!  How could I have forgotten the musical that got modern musicals rolling?

Moulin Rouge (2001) is less a traditional musical than an amped-up, psychedelic jukebox musical sprung from  the mind of director Baz Luhrmann.  Although set in Paris at the fin de siecle, it contains songs like "Roxanne" (the Police), "Like a Virgin" (Madonna), and "Your Song" (Elton John).  The actors sing with their own voices, but no doubt there was some Auto-Tune sweetener along the way.

Almost everything about Moulin Rouge is secondary to the visuals -- the kaleidoscope of colors and constant swirling motion expressed through quick-cutting, fast zooms, and pans.  The visual craziness is a Baz Luhrmann trademark, though it would never be as giddy as it is here.  Trying to take it all in leaves you disoriented, though thankfully after the first half-hour or so, it calms down.

Moulin Rouge feels like an attempt to see the musical in a whole new way.  In so doing, it succeeds just slightly more than it fails.  Indeed, Moulin Rouge hovers close to Across the Universe, another visually inventive movie with a story that could not quite keep up.  But Moulin Rouge is in the Right column because it manages to be a little quirkier and more clever, and the pacing is a little better -- though over two hours, the movie never sags.

That said, I was very tempted to put this movie in the Wrong column because something about it grates on me.  Its boastful "look at me, I'm so outrageous!" tone; its attitude that the modern viewer will only watch a musical if it is edited for the shortest of attention spans; and the fact that when all is said and done, it really isn't that unique.  The basics of the story have been frequently told: Poor Boy wins Beautiful Woman, nearly loses Beautiful Woman to Rich Evil Man, thinks that Beautiful Woman does not love him, learns that she does love him, and then cries as she drops dead of a 19th Century disease.

In this case, a poor writer, Christian (Ewan McGregor), moves to the Montmartre district in Paris, where he learns that his neighbors are writing a musical that they hope to sell to the famous nightclub, the Moulin Rouge.  Impressed with Christian's impromptu lyrics (from The Sound of Music), they smuggle him into the Moulin Rouge to persuade Satine (Nicole Kidman), the nightclub's premiere couretsan.  Satine mistakes him for a duke that she is supposed to sleep with and falls in love, only to learn that the real duke, a sneering fop, is waiting outside.  After he demands to know why Christian (and the other writers) is in the room, they quickly create a storyline for the musical and persuade the duke to finance it.  From there, Christian woos Satine and tries to win her love.  Because love is all you need... unless you have a 19th Century disease that you choose to ignore to your own folly.

Again, while the story has a "been there, done that" feel, its energy and visual excitement largely make up for it.  Without further ado:

The Good

1.  Holds the Eye.  To say the least.  As I said, candy colors and manic camera movement are Luhrmann trademarks.  For much of the time, the screen is filled with so much activity that it threatens to exhaust you.  Due to the use of quick, jerky editing, a lot of group numbers have the appearance of a picture book being flipped rapidly to show a character's movement.  Fortunately, the more serious scenes dial back the mania, though not always enough.  During the "Roxanne" scene, I had trouble following exactly what happened with Satine and the duke in the end, and the pivotal final sequence was also somewhat confusing.  Yet this is no doubt Luhrmann's intent -- to make you dizzy, disoriented, exhilarated.  One scene that captures this very well is the introduction to the Moulin Rouge.  Even if the effect can get annoying, it is for the most part enjoyable, and at least at the time felt like something new.

2.  Good Use of Music.  I don't just mean use of the songs themselves, although many of the songs are used in ways that help you hear them anew.  I'm thinking in particular of "Roxanne," a tight, tense dance sequence during a pivotal scene, or "Like a Virgin" as a comic relief highlight.  But I am also thinking of the musical montages, the use of mash-ups, and just the way music is used in general to create a soundscape and highlight emotion.

3.  It's a Trite Formula, But Damned If It Doesn't Work!  I did not so much buy the "instant love" aspect as I did Satine's struggle to cope with her situation.  Maybe because I like Nicole Kidman better in this movie than Ewan McGregor (whom I've only ever really liked in Trainspotting), but I actually found her "doomed Victorian prostitute with a heart of gold" portrayal to be rather touching.  Satine is clever, vivacious, and ambitious, and in the course of a few days learns (1) that she is in love possibly for the first time and (2) that she is dying.  What will she do with this knowledge?  The best that she can do.    

4.  Has a Sense of Humor About Itself.  Even though Moulin Rouge's story has a sentimental core, it still knows enough to poke fun at itself.  Christian's opening story is injected with random shots of his stern father condemning his choice of the Bohemian lifestyle.  Then when Satine learns Christian's identity, she sighs: "You're not another talented, impoverished writer?", or something of the like.  The movie knows, at its bottom, that it has a silly premise, and despite its wholehearted embrace of said premise, it is willing to sometimes let the audience know.    

The Bad

1.  Derivative.  Despite the color and mania that the movie brings, there is something moldy around the edges.  My problem is not that the story is derivative, but that the music is.  I realize that's part of the premise -- "look at how our banal modern ballads are used in a completely different setting!" -- but it leaves me feeling like the movie missed out on the chance to be truly original.  Why go for the easily identifiable pop music when you could install some unique indie music instead?  It seems like (though that may be because I've been fairly out of touch with what's current over the past five years) Luhrmann experiments more with music in The Great Gatsby than he does here.  Here, it's: "We need songs about love!  How about 'All You Need Is Love'?"  Or something by Elton John... or U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)"... or...  Though I will give Luhrmann credit for featuring Nat King Cole's melancholy "Nature's Boy" from 1948.

Ironically, the one original number in the movie, "Come What May," sounds as much like a derivative pop ballad as anything else in the catalogue.

2.  Empty.  Earlier, I said that despite its rehashed nature, I sympathized with Satine regarding her predicament.  I wish I could say the same about the love story itself.  Part of the problem is that Ewan McGregor oozes such cheesiness in this role, I am almost repelled by him, and I don't buy that he and Satine are ever really in love.  If they say that they are in love, it is because the story requires them to be.  Because I don't buy the love story, what should be exhilarating feels, at times, empty.    


Moulin Rouge could have been a failure, but instead is a flashy, visually splendid, and mostly entertaining film.  While the sum of its parts do not quite add up to a whole, there is still enough to make it a must-watch movie and likely a classic.  It is credited with making musicals popular once more... though personally, I think they never should have gone out of style to begin with.       

Other Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Dreamgirls, Les Miserables, Chicago, Mamma Mia!, Sweeney Todd

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the OperaEvitaRENTAcross the UniverseRock of AgesHairspray        

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

'Twas the Update Before Thanksgiving

I don't have a whole lot to report.  I've been busy for both good and bad reasons... recently bad, but I won't go into it.

First, What's New With the Blog?  Well this month and next month will likely be quiet, or at least not unusual.  However, I'm toying with the thought of expanding it to three times a week -- two posts short, less than 500 words, and one post my standard long one.

You may have noticed that I changed my tag at the top.  While mainly keeping the content unchanged, I want to skew the focus on this blog a bit more in the introvert and introverted section.

That said, an old and welcome piece of business will soon be back: Downton Abbey recaps!  I'm sure no one will know what happened and everyone will be super surprised, right?!

Second, What's New With the Novel?  I know you want to hear, right?  Well the selling part remains stalled mainly because it's the holidays.  I still have that query letter and synopsis hovering on the edge of being ready to send, but not quite (agh!) and need to research specific agents rather than just randomly sending them out.  At the same time, I have begun outlining the second novel in the series.  A lot of awesome stuff happens... just like in the first one!  I will start querying again full force in January.

Meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving my American brethren and Happy Some Other Day to everyone else!      

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Unpopular Opinion: The Problem Isn't That There Aren't Enough Special People in the World -- It's That There Are Too Many!

There is a mocking term for people who have an unearned sense of their own importance: "snowflake."

"You're such a special snowflake!" the taunt goes.  "You got trophies just for showing up in kindergarten.  Your mommy and daddy told you every day how wonderful you are and no one else is like you.  You think you shit gold.  Only now do you understand that no one else gives a shit about you."

This taunt is usually aimed at today's youth, up to about the age of 30, though technically it could be aimed at anyone.  The taunter aims to knock a sense of humility into the recipient, reduce the recipient's confidence, remind him or her that the world is hard and unforgiving.  People get used and chewed up and spit out, and only a few truly get to wear the "special" mantle.

But what if this is the wrong message?

What if the problem is that this person is special?  That there are not too few special people in this world, but too many?

Too many, that is, for our society to utilize their skills properly, so that they are able to be their best selves?

Think about it: you hear a lot about the supposed abundant mediocrity that exists everywhere in our society.  Yet what else do you see?  Stories about thousands of highly skilled, overqualified people fighting for just a few jobs that may not even use their skills.  Except for certain fields, these stories seem to affect everyone, from artists to scientists.

Those of us in creative fields are probably the most familiar with this sort of crapshoot.  When I was trying to be a television writer, I looked at two roads: production assistant on a television show who would then rise through the ranks, or staffed via an agent.  Either one was absolutely stuffed with people trying to do the same thing.  While I'm sure countless hacks traveled those roads, the other occupants were talented, smart, and driven people trying to win one job.

Sometimes it makes sense for opportunities to be so limited.  You can't, for instance, have 2,000 successful electric car companies, even though there might be enough people to create and run such companies.  You can't have 1,000 ballerinas in a performance, or five people serving as one lead character in a musical.  There might have been 20 brilliant choices, but There Can Only Be One.

And yet, do options need to be so restricted in other cases?  Must any aspiring writer only go through the channels created by Hollywood, or the publishing industry, to gain success?  Why can't a television writer job be like an engineering job -- no matter where you live, there are companies that hire television writers to produce their scripted shows?  Those that are hired would go to their office five days a week, where they would brainstorm or write a script.  Why are these positions treated like a holy grail kept just out of reach?  Why do there seem to be plenty of engineering jobs, but so few television writing jobs?

For a long time, it was supposedly because people would only watch content produced by Hollywood, especially the big networks.  There were no other options, or if there were, no one would take them seriously, and they would not be profitable.  People's attention spans were only so great.

Countless dreams and productions died because of these assumptions.  Yet as Internet television becomes more popular, we are learning that, in fact, people are willing to check out content not produced by Hollywood, and that there is an audience available for just about every type of show.  Yes, not every show will succeed, but many more will succeed than would have been the case 20 years ago.

Yet even so, people chosen to work in these competitive fields are treated as though they have something special, an "it" factor that others lacked.  Often that "it" factor is a relative in the industry, but I digress.  In all likelihood, these people are not more special than their competitors for the role -- it's just that the producer may have had a biased toward a particular type, and he or she fit that type on that particular day.  Treating "winners" in the creative field like they have uniquely endowed gifts only serves to justify the stifling, cut-throat nature of the industry.  The system MUST work because the best people were chosen, right?

It used to be that these situations were largely restricted to creative fields.  But now they seem to be everywhere -- teaching, bio chemistry, nursing.  Each person who gets a highly competitive job in this bleak economy is the "best," a "winner."

In reality, what this shows is that our society -- and I am referring specifically to the United States, though other countries could apply as well -- does a lousy job developing and rewarding talent.

Make no mistake -- there are a lot of people with great skills and talent out there.  Ignore the laments of employers who claim that Americans don't do X or don't know Y -- half of the time, it is just an excuse to bring in cheaper replacements.  While our society encourages the development of skills in certain occupations -- such as the tech industry -- other valuable skills are pushed to the wayside.

Never mind those "English major" skills of writing and analyzing -- who needs those? -- what about science?  What about biotechnology, which paves the way for so many promising treatments?  Hiring prospects are bleak, and have not improved much since this paper was written.  Fairly recently, many of those with biotech degrees were encouraged to switch from their "riskier, more exploratory fields" to the more nuts-and-bolts computer science, which is in demand.

Some skills and talent being more in demand than others is nothing new.  And some would defend the cut-throat competition that currently pervades everything as a way of sharpening skills and thickening skins.  That would be a good point as long as those who were the "losers" still had a place to use their talents.  So Big Company A didn't hire you?  At least you can work for Medium-Sized Company B.

Instead, what is often the case is that Big Company A is the only ticket in town.  If you can't work for Big Company A, it's time to put your dream, talents, and skill aside and choose something safe and money making.  To do anything else means that you are a perpetual loser, since if you were a winner, you would be making money from your dreams.

Yet who is the loser -- the thousands of smart, talented, motivated people who can't find employment suitable for their talents, or a society that is not flexible enough to develop areas where these people could thrive?

I realize that full employment -- much less full employment in the job of one's choice -- is pretty much a dream.  But how about thinking outside the box a little bit more?  How about deciding that not every job opening has to be like an audition for American Idol?  How about not forcing people to waste so much energy looking for work instead of being at work?

Yeah, yeah, bad economy, I know.  But this was a problem even when the economy was technically "good" -- from 2001 to 2009, slightly over one million jobs were created.  And half of them seemed to be in finance.

The solution likely won't be easy, but surely there has to be something better than letting so much talent rot?  So how about it, folks?  How about we put our heads together and try to think of a world that's better for all of us?  

The above photo comes from Stock Xchng and is free to use.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Hunger Games: In Defense of the Third Novel, Mockingjay

With novels like The Chocolate Wars, A Separate Peace, and Lord of the Flies under its banner, Young Adult literature was never a bastion of sweetness and optimism.  Rather, Young Adult literature (or "YA," as it is fashionably called) is used frequently to explore dark themes about ourselves and our society.  In fact, one could even argue that YA novels are often darker than adult novels, not only because the events are happening to kids, but also because authors can take advantage of the "kids' novels are safe" misconception to push the envelope.

Certainly The Hunger Games trilogy does not shy from darkness.  It's a post-Apocalyptic world where North America has been separated into 13 districts, each with its own specialty, while an oppressive Capitol rules over all of them.  If you have not read The Hunger Games, or you have only seen the first movie, stop reading now because I will be discussing the first and second novel along with the third installment.


Although The Hunger Games was about kids killing each other in a ritual series of games, the author was clear about its true intention: to expose the ugliness of a society that would turn children on one another.  Even though Katniss successfully killed kids from other districts, she knew that the true enemy was the Capitol, headed by the cruel President Snow.  While she was technically the "winner" of the 74th Hunger Game, she knew that there were no true winners while the Capitol kept the districts and its citizens oppressed.

This was made quite clear in the second novel, Catching Fire.  Katniss and Peeta's fleeting displays of solidarity with the other districts were met with a harsh crackdown -- they and all of the previous Hunger Games winners were forced to compete in the 75th Hunger Game.  At first Katniss's chances of survival looked grim, until it became clear that the other players were protecting her because she was the Mockingjay, a symbol of hope for the growing resistance.  Yet even though Katniss was spared, her district, District 12, experienced a much grimmer fate: it was bombed into rubble, killing most of its people (including some significant minor characters).      

That is where the third novel, Mockingjay, comes in.  Katniss is taken from the 75th Hunger Game to District 13, the mining and science district that was thought to be destroyed.  Instead, its people have gone underground -- literally.  The citizens of District 13 live in a network of underground caverns, designed like bunkers to withstand enemy bombing.  Led by President Alma Coin, they have been plotting to enlist the other districts in a great rebellion and bring down the Capitol.  For that, they need Katniss to present herself as the Mockingjay, around whom the masses can rally.

Criticisms and Defense of Mockingjay

Mockingjay, in many ways, seems like the inevitable final chapter of such a saga.  Where else can a story about citizenry abused by their powerful overlords lead except violence and death?  Yet many people object to Mockingjay as being too dark.  Katniss suffers grim tragedy upon grim tragedy -- first her home is obliterated, and then her sister Prim, the good-hearted person for whom she volunteered to be in the 74th Hunger Game, is killed during a bombing that seems to occur as an afterthought.

Prim's death is the sickening conclusion of what looks like the most satisfying portion of the novel: Katniss leading a band of rebels through the Capitol in order to take out President Snow.  The entire sequence feels like yet another Hunger Game, as it turns out the entire Capitol is boobie-trapped, much to the surprise and horror of Capitol citizens.  Katniss overcomes great obstacles, as one after another of her team succumbs, and then just as she reaches President Snow's mansion... nothing.  Defeat.  Even when Katniss gets another chance to kill President Snow, she instead redirects her fire and kills President Coin.  Katniss does get a happy ending of sorts, but it doesn't seem to even remotely make up for what she lost.  Maybe it would have been naive to expect a truly cathartic ending, but damn.

I can understand the frustration of readers who went into Mockingjay thinking that Katniss would finally settle scores with the Capitol.  If anything, Katniss is more helpless in Mockingjay than she ever was -- a pawn of President Coin, used in propaganda films and kept out of actual combat until she is forced to go it alone.  Even the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale is unsatisfying, with Peeta brainwashed by the Capitol and Gale becoming a hardened combat soldier.

At seventeen, she's seen enough for a lifetime.
At the same time, I like that the author, Suzanne Collins, chose that direction.  Mockingjay is an inversion of the usual trope that has the hero in a final battle with the Big Bad, after which everyone lives happily ever after.  Real life isn't like that, and young adults will get a taste.  Mockingjay shows us that the line between "good guys" and "bad guys" is not always clear; that even after the Big Bad is finally killed, society can still be in ruins with little hope of an easy fix.  The Capitol ruled with an iron fist for generations; that can't just be undone overnight.  Victories are small scale, such as Katniss and Peeta's cautious efforts to build a new life and raise their children without fear.  Their entire world could fall to pieces again at any moment, but for now, it is holding up.  What is wrong with exposing young adult readers to that different sort of ending?

The Flaws of Mockingjay

I find Mockingjay to be a fairly courageous book, as Collins had to know that she would receive some criticism.  At the same time, it is not perfect.  Prim's death happens "off screen," as it were, and is too sudden and random to have the desired impact.  Also, Prim herself is not a well-defined character, so I didn't feel anything from her death except sadness for Katniss, knowing what Prim meant to her.

Likewise, Katniss's murder of President Coin does not resonate as much as it could have because Coin is not that distinct a character.  She is cold, no-nonsense, and calculating, but otherwise decent enough until Katniss learns that she was behind the attack that resulted in Prim's death.  I felt like Katniss was too quick to side with President Snow against her based on his claim that he would never lie.  Of course he would never lie, the murderous sociopath who had no qualms about pitting children against one another in combat.  Even if President Snow is telling the truth about Coin, what makes him less horrible, less deserving of death?  "Sure I'm evil, but at least I'm upfront about it"?  Coin might be ruthless, and her idea of putting Capitol children in their own Hunger Games pretty horrible, but I just don't feel her enough as an evil person.  Her revealed evil just feels too plot driven, like "we're in the final third and there needs to be a twist, so here you go."  It would have worked better if Coin had a more fleshed-out personality.  Where we had come to trust her, only to realize, with a chill, that her evil was there all along.

Otherwise, I can't fault Mockingjay for the twist.  Sometimes the good guys can be bad -- for understandable reasons -- in different ways.  Interestingly, Gale appears to be on his way to becoming one of the "bad guys," but in his case, we understand his journey, why he would choose that path.  Maybe the final twist should have been Katniss realizing that Gale purposely orchestrated the attack that killed Prim, and then killing him instead of Coin.  Katniss killing her childhood friend?  Heartbreaking.


So there you have it -- my defense of Mockingjay.  Not the perfect book, but a challenging one, and better for having chosen a bleak ending over the happy shiny one.  So many adult novels, let alone young adult, fail to do this, so thank heaven for the ones that do.

The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Sweeney Todd (Revisited)

I don't normally do this, but I figured it was appropriate for the musical that many regard as Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece.  Prior to my review, I had listened to some of the songs and watched part of the stage musical, but I wanted to post the review while the movie was still fresh in my mind.

Since then, I have watched the entire stage production on YouTube with George Hearn and Angela Lansbury, purchased the 2005 Broadway version with Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris, and watched the 2001 Sweeney Todd concert in front of the San Francisco Symphony, starring LuPone, Hearn, and Neil Patrick Harris as Toby.  While I feel as certain as before that Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd was a very good musical adaptation, I am able to approach the transition with a more nuanced perspective.

And durn it, if I can go on and on about the changes to Les Miserables over the years, I can at least give some attention to the American Mozart's masterwork, can't I?

After watching/listening to the various versions of Sweeney Todd, I had a greater appreciation for the various performers in the role (including Len Cariou, the original Sweeney), and for several of the songs in this dense production.  Without further ado... another list!

1.  Songs That the Movie Should Have Left Intact.  The one that comes to mind first and foremost is "God, That's Good!"  Though the movie leaves in a lot of good parts ("Bless my eyes... fresh supplies!"), it really does not begin to convey the complexity of that song.  Never has such a song (or most of the musical, for that matter) left me in such awe of the singers' (1) abilities to memorize and (2) elocution.  How many times did the singers need to practice before they perfected their delivery?  How often did they lie awake at night, terrified that they would forget a line?  

The other song I would have liked to see a little of, at least, is the title song.  It's just so deliciously menacing, the movie does not seem quite the same without it.  Burton could have just had the singing over the beginning credits -- there didn't need to be an actual chorus standing and singing.  For such an artistic man, it seems like a failure of creativity.

2.  Songs That the Movie Was Right to Cut.  "Kiss Me" is as complex and layered as any of the Sweeney Todd songs, and boy was Burton right to cut it.  First, the scenario -- Anthony and Johanna sneaking around behind Judge Turpin's back -- seems like something out of a sitcom, directly at odds with the musical's dark tone.  Second, it makes Johanna seem like a ninny, which undercuts the bittersweetness of moments where Anthony or Sweeney pine for her.  Then again, maybe that was the point.

I am also glad that Burton substantially reduced the Beggar Woman's role, because I think if it were larger, it would be much easier to spot the twist.  At the same time, the movie loses the darkly comic situation where his wife is the very first person to greet Sweeney Todd in London, yet he doesn't recognize her because he is so wrapped up in the Victorian purity image of her.  

Another song I wouldn't have minded axing is "By the Sea," which sounds like it belongs in a '60s B-movie starring Frankie Avalon.  But at least it doesn't turn Mrs. Lovett into an unlikeable ninny.

3.  Songs That Sound Better in the Stage Version.  It would be tempting to say "all of them," but that's not necessarily the case.  I actually think that Johnny Depp sounds just as good singing "No Place Like London" as George Hearn (in his own way, of course), and that Ed Sanders doesn't sound much worse singing "Not While I'm Around" than his older counterparts.  However, it is only through listening to the stage versions that I noticed the particular beauty of certain songs.

Take, for example, "Pretty Women."  What seemed like a silly, passable duet between Alan Rickman and Johnny Depp becomes a delicate layering of voices in the stage version, the aural equivalent of watching a flower bloom (I'm especially partial to the 2005 version).

Another stage version that is markedly better than the movie version is "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir."  While I think that Burton made a wise decision casting a kid as Toby, and that Ed Sanders was strong in the role, his singing can't match those of the adult Tobys when it comes to the more complex numbers.  With the adult performers, you get a much better sense of the songs' humor, and the many great lines pop out more, such as:

See that chap with
Hair like Shelley's?
You can tell he
Used Pirelli's!          

Likewise, without Helena Bonham Carter's soft, monotone singing, "Poor Thing" becomes a buoyant, tragic tale:

Of course when she goes there
Poor thing, poor thing
They're having this ball all in masks.
There's no one she knows there
Poor dear, poor thing.
She wanders tormented and drinks, poor thing!
The judge has repented, she thinks, poor thing!
"Oh where is Judge Turpin?" she asks.
He was there all right
Only not so contrite!

Finally, one song that really shines on stage is "A Little Priest."  Though I'm just as glad that Burton shortened it -- like Todd and Mrs. Lovett as they exchange puns, Sondheim seemed a little too pleased with his cleverness in this song, and just let it go on and on.

4.  The Best Actors in the Roles?  I think it's accurate to say that everyone brings a little something different to the Sweeney Todd role.  Johnny Depp is soft-spoken and morose.  Michael Cerveris is probably his closest stage equivalent, his voice cracking with fatigue and sadness.  Whereas George Hearn is more of an energetic, maniacal Sweeney Todd.  I haven't seen enough of Len Cariou or Michael Ball in the role, but from what I gather, Cariou is more of a straight belter, with less menace in his tone than some of the later Todds.  Ball seems to fall in between the "sad Sweeney" and "maniacal Sweeney" in his portrayal.

I don't know if there is a "best" Sweeney Todd, but rather each one seems to have strengths and weaknesses.  As I mentioned, I love Cerveris's version of "Pretty Women," but his voice lacks power in songs like "Johanna Quartet" or "Epiphany."  Whereas I really like George Hearn's "Epiphany," bristling with rage and madness, and I am also quite partial to Michael Ball's version.  Meanwhile, I think that Len Cariou's voice may be best suited for "Johanna Quartet."  Johnny Depp sounds moving in "The Barber and His Wife," as does Cerveris, and perhaps surprisingly, Hearn.  Hearn's portrayal can be too over-the-top at times, but in "The Barber and His Wife," his voice sounds delicate and real feeling cracks through.    

As for Mrs. Lovett, between Bonham Carter, Angela Lansbury, and Patti LuPone, I prefer Angela Lansbury.  However, you can't really say that the other two are bad.  Bonham Carter offers an interesting portrayal of a woman too burnt-out by life to care about the consequences of her actions.  LuPone is similarly cynical, but zestier, while Angela Lansbury plays the role as zany, yet sympathetic.  With only Beauty and the Beast to inform me, I was amazed to learn that Lansbury could really sing.  Even more amazing, while normally I criticize LuPone for her monotone singing and slurry diction, I could actually understand her much better than I could Lansbury.  The two strikes against LuPone are her accent (she's Cockney like I'm Cockney) and the slightly obnoxious edge she gives to the role.  That makes her probably my least favorite of the three.

Regarding Toby, the only one I dislike is the actor from 1982, who displays a great number of annoying ticks.  The other Tobys seem to tone it down a bit more, and of the adults, I am most partial to Neil Patrick Harris's portrayal.

5.  Stage Version I Most Wish to Have Seen.  I would love to see the Michael Ball version if it ever comes to this side of the pond.  Otherwise, the 2005 version sounded fantastic -- all involved not only did the singing, but played all of the instruments!   


Like any great musical, Sweeney Todd grows on you after a viewing.  The mind itches to master the complex lyrics, and songs that did not register the first time become stuck in your head after another listen.  Overall, I still think that Burton's movie does the musical justice, and let us hope that the same can be said of the upcoming Into the Woods.

On that note, I think I may have run out of actual good musicals to review within the past 10 to 20 years.  There remains, however, a highly well-known musical series out there that, try as I might, I cannot ignore.  At some point, I will need to do a review.  Oh the horror...

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