Nota Bene: ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in Japan

Fiddler On The Roof Playbill.jpg

Fiddler on the Roof premiered on Broadway in 1964, proving that an nontraditional musical about an Eastern European shtetl family being wrenched apart by the struggle over tradition and fears of the next pogrom could play to massive audiences. It still does today.

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of its first production in Japan. Since then it has become that country’s most popular American musical.

Joseph Stein, who wrote the book for Fiddler—stitching together the musical’s characters and themes from the work of Sholem Aleichem—remembered bringing the show to Japan in 1967. He had this incredible exchange about the universality of some works of art:

Japan was the first non-English production and I was very nervous about how it would be received in a completely foreign environment. I got there just during the rehearsal period and the Japanese producer asked me, “Do they understand this show in America?” And I said, “Yes, of course, we wrote it for America. Why do you ask?” And he said, “Because it’s so Japanese”…

Screening Room: ‘One Sings, the Other Doesn’t’

A new restoration of Agnes Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t from 1977 is in limited release now. Check it out while you have the chance. There’s absolutely nothing else like it playing at any theater anywhere near you.

My review is at The Playlist:

When Agnès Varda’s delightfully gonzo song-studded paean to sisterhood “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” opened the 1977 New York Film Festival, it landed in the middle of a differently fraught world for women’s rights issues. Abortion, which is a recurring theme in this newly restored and re-released classic, had only been legal in the United States for five years and in Varda’s native France, for just two. The campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment was grinding to a halt in the face of conservative opposition. Female directors were still essentially unheard of in the movie industry. Expectations were high…

Writer’s Desk: Stay Excited

Roughly ten years ago, novelist Michael Cunningham (The Hours) received one of those calls very few of us civilians ever receive: “This is David Bowie. I hope I’m not calling at an inconvenient time.”

davisbowiealaddinsaneThe collaboration that followed was for a never-realized musical about an alien marooned on Earth. Cunningham was to write the book and Bowie the songs. Given that Cunningham was a somewhat obsessed fan and Bowie a little sketchy on the details of what he wanted to do, things started off a little slowly, but their relationship grew.

For Cunningham, as he describes in this piece for GQ, to work with Bowie, he needed to humanize him. That became very simple for him after something great happened:

How starstruck, after all, can anybody feel after the object of one’s veneration says, early on, without a trace of irony, that he was excited to start a new project because: “Now I get to do one of my favorite things. Go to a stationery store and get Sharpies and Post-its!” Yes, the Space Oddity, the Thin White Duke, was excited about picking up a few things at Staples.

If you’re a writer these days, there isn’t much in the way of office supplies one needs to start a new article, story, essay, or book.

But, there is still that tingle one gets one first embarking on something new, the thrill of exploring new territory and knowing you could find great success or utter failure but wouldn’t know which until it was far too late to turn back.

If you don’t feel that sense of excitement the next time you’re sitting at the keyboard, maybe try Staples. Get a new notebook and some nice pens (the good ones that have some heft, nothing that says Bic). Open it up. Look at that expanse of empty pages. Get started.

Screening Room: ‘La La Land’

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling kick up their heels in 'La La Land'
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling kick up their heels in ‘La La Land’
Damien Chazelle’s first film, Whiplash, was a taut and vicious melodrama about perfectionism. His second is a giddy musical about hopes, dreams, and Hollywood. Somehow they make sense together.

La La Land is opening this week, and it’s just about the best thing in theaters right now. My review is at PopMatters:

It starts on a car-choked overpass and ends in a kind of heartbreak. But in between those moments, Damien Chazelle’s giddy La La Land conjures up much the same exuberant yet melancholic fizz evoked by the Golden Era musicals it harkens back to. Fortunately, it doesn’t feel constricted by the rules of those old studio vehicles…

Here’s the trailer.

Screening Room: ‘Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened’

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In 1981, Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince were the kings of Broadway. After a decade of shows from Company to Sweeney Todd that reinvented the American musical form, they were embarking on another venture: Merrily We Roll Along. Things didn’t go as planned.

Directed by Lonny Price, one of the original cast members, Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened is the up-close account of one of Broadway’s most infamous flops. It’s opening this week in limited release and will probably show up on PBS soon. My review from the New York Film Festival is at PopMatters:

At first, Price makes Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened something of a personal essay, describing with enthusiastic panache his obsessive love of the form in general and these practitioners in specific. Then he broadens the circle, marrying rehearsal footage of other cast members like Tonya Pinkins and Jason Alexander (eight years before he won a Tony and nine before appearing in Seinfeld) with new interviews. One actor remembers, “You felt like you were witnessing history.” That about sums up the type of enthusiasm that Price delivers here…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Sing Street’

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The newest musical from John Carney (Once) is an ’80s-set romance set in (of course) Dublin. Sing Street is playing now. My review is at PopMatters:

When first glimpsed in John Carney’s newest musical confection, ruddy-cheeked teenager Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) looks like the kind of kid who’s set to be chewed up and spit out by the music industry, not to mention life itself. The setting for Sing Street is Dublin, circa 1985, where the black-robed authority of the Church still rules all and the ferry to England carries more dreamers and strivers to London each day.

As the meager middle class trappings of Conor’s life are stripped away, he’s left facing a future without much in the way of armor, or security. It’s the kind of situation that pop songs were made to cure…

Here’s the trailer:

 

New in Theaters: It’s Time to Go ‘Into the Woods’

Emily Blunt and James Corden go 'Into the Woods' (Walt Disney)
Emily Blunt and James Corden go ‘Into the Woods’ (Walt Disney)

intothewoods-posterStephen Sondheim’s 1987 musical Into the Woods threw a couple Shrek ‘s worth of fairytales into the mix (Rapunzel to Cinderella and Red Riding Hood) and used them for a musically soaring but lyrically cynical story about the dangers of dreams granted. Rob Marshall’s lavish Disney adaptation is quite faithful to the original and comes packed with performances ranging from the unsurprisingly good (Meryl Streep’s Witch) to the revelatory (Chris Pine as the Prince).

Into the Woods opens on Christmas Day. My review is at PopMatters:

This narrative begins with a Baker and his Wife who are cursed with infertility by their witch neighbor. They can only break the curse by gathering up four talismans that helpfully bring all the other characters into play: “The cow as white as milk / The cape as red as blood / The hair as yellow as corn / The slipper as pure as gold”. The prologue includes an undertone as well, when the Baker adds, “I wish we had a child,” the juxtaposition typical of Sondheim’s best work, layered like so many fairy tales. Some 25 years ago, however, such layering was not the sort of thing that Disney’s heroes and gamines sang about. But the play’s reassessing of fairy tale tropes, its reinvigorating them with old Grimm’s blood and thunder, looked forward to the spunky heroines and broad-chested prince-villains who later cropped up in everything from Beauty and the Beast to Frozen…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Begin Again’ Sings

Keira Knightley (left), Mark Ruffalo (right), and a passel of ready-for-anything musicians in 'Begin Again' (Weinstein Company)
Keira Knightley (left), Mark Ruffalo (right), and a passel of ready-for-anything musicians in ‘Begin Again’ (Weinstein Company)

When John Carney made the incomparable Dublin street-musical Once, he ginned up magic from the mundane. With the glitzier and slightly more stock Begin Again, he uses the same starry-eyed formula for almost equally wonderful results.

Begin_Again1Begin Again is playing now around the country. My review is at Film Racket:

Nothing in Begin Again, a grin-machine Roman candle of a film, should work. It features more cliches than should be legally allowed. A starry-eyed and uncompromising songwriter. A bum music producer needing one last shot. A rising star who just dumped the songwriter to get busy losing his soul. The comic relief guy. A fractured family that just needs their dad to get his act together. A basket full of dreams. Some beautiful songs that just need to be heard. New. York. City. But writer/director John Carney gets away with it, whipping through the stock situations with a hummingbird-light grace….

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: The Non-Musical ‘Jersey Boys’

The 'Jersey Boys' sing, sing, sing (Warner Bros.)
The ‘Jersey Boys’ sing, sing, sing (Warner Bros.)

jerseyboys-poster1If the touring production hasn’t played at a downtown theater near you yet, it soon will. The story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Jersey Boys was already one of the most successful of the jukebox musicals that have plagued enriched Broadway over the past few years; and that was before Clint Eastwood (having a week or two off, apparently) decided to make it into a movie. One point for his unaccountably dull and strangely non-musical version: It has Christopher Walken.

Jersey Boys opened wide on Friday. My review is at PopMatters:

When Rob Marshall filmed Chicago, he didn’t try to jam Bob Fosse’s meta-narrative into a standard dramatic structure. Marshall understood that film viewers can accept, just as theatergoers do, that the characters will occasionally start belting out a song with full-band accompaniment against an instantaneously-appearing backdrop; reality be damned. Certainly he tarted up the whole thing with quick edits and spotlight razzle-dazzle, but it stayed true to the original show’s spirit. This is not the case in Jersey Boys

Here’s the trailer:

New on DVD: ‘Les Miserables’

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lesmiserables-dvdEvery few years, Hollywood decides to go back and see whether it’s worth reviving the musical. Generally it’s well received, but then instead of getting back into the genre, they wait a few more years for the next one. So it was with 2012’s Les Miserables, an adaptation of a musical that trends ponderous on stage but comes alive under Tom Hooper’s deft direction. 

It’s available now on DVD and Blu-ray. My full review is at Film Racket; here’s part of it:

Some stories are so bulletproof that even a tuneless Russell Crowe can’t deliver a mortal wound. There are also some so prone to overwrought pathos that even a fearsomely committed Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, working every creative muscle in their bodies, can’t quite elevate to greatness. In Tom Hooper’s labor-of-love adaptation of the workhorse musical Les Miserables, nearly all the story’s strongest and most crowd-pleasing elements are passionately brought to the fore…

You can watch the trailer here: