The Greatest Showman’s Misleading Trailers

‘The Greatest Showman’ is one of the most anticipated films of the festive period. A host of huge name stars is topped by Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron and Michelle Williams. Bill Condon has co-written the screenplay, following successful involvement in the films ‘Chicago’ and ‘Gods and Monsters’, getting an Oscar nomination for one and a win for the other. Seamus McGarvey is involved as cinematographer, a man whose successes are so great its hard to list.

One thing is distracting me when watching the trailers though. For all the brilliant theatrics, set pieces, costumes and star power, there appears to be no mention of the fact this is a musical. Well, that’s not strictly true. There’s a brief mention right at the end of each trailer to “music from Academy Award and Tony Award winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul”. Not much of a way to sing the praises of the central crux of the film.

My question is: why? In 2017 we’ve already had proven to us that cinema-goers love musicals. ‘La La Land’ achieved a global box office of $445,669,679 (as of 25th November 2017), based on a budget of $30m. Admittedly, this may be an exceptional and unexpected success, but it sets a precedent that there is certainly an appetite for a well-delivered musical.

It’s not as if this hasn’t bitten other films before. When Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd was released in 2008, cinema-goers in the UK were seen to walk out of screenings due to the misleading nature of the trailers. Complaints were made to the Advertising Standards Authority. It looked like a horror film but turned out not only to be a musical, but a faithful version of a Sondheim musical. Guess what? Sondheim famously makes his musicals extremely musical-y, with seemingly the entire film being delivered in song form.

It just feels incredible that a studio would make the same mistakes again. The craziest thing is that the music is absolutely brilliant and should be being trumpeted to help sell the film. The lead cast are all seasoned musical professionals – a huge improvement on the likes of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘The Jungle Book’, which featured the more experienced musical performers in minor roles.

You can listen to a couple of tracks below and make your mind up yourself.

I’m a great believer that audiences are intelligent enough to make their own decisions. We hate to be lured into an auditorium under false pretences.

I guess we’ll find out if there’s any backlash this Christmas.

Theatre Review – Hello, Dolly! (Jerry Zaks, Sam S. Shubert Theater, 17th March 2017)

Note: This is a review of a preview of Hello, Dolly! Out of respect for the performance I only published it after the opening night. 

The first time I saw Hello, Dolly! was when I was 27 and preparing for an amateur production of the great musical in England. I had been cast in the role of Cornelius Hackl, the employee of Horace Vandergelder who has just been promoted from impertinent fool to chief clerk. Popping out of the store room box in the opening scene is exciting for all Cornelius-portrayers the world over – for two reasons. Firstly, you get to deliver your hotly-anticipated opening line in the show and finally get a glimpse of the audience. Secondly, it means you can breathe properly for the first time since lights down – you’ve been trapped with your assistant Barnaby in a tiny box for the last 15 minutes as the rest of the characters are introduced to the audience at a seemingly excruciatingly slow pace.

I was relaying this information to the perfectly lovely gentleman who was stood next to me at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre on Friday night when I asked him “So are you involved in this production at all?”. “Why yes,” he responded, “I’m the director.”

That would be four-time Tony Award-winning director Jerry Zaks. [1]

Outside the theatre

His production of Hello, Dolly!, set to run at the Sam S. Shubert Theater from 20th April, is exactly what you would hope to see from a Broadway version of a musical that has been around for the last 50 years. It simply oozes quality and class.

The opening number “Call On Dolly” is full of bright and wonderful costumes with perfectly-precise movement from the ensemble. Warren Carlyle’s choreography at this point is nothing too complicated, but there’s a certain beauty in its simplicity – a matter counterbalanced with “The Waiters’ Gallop” in the second half.

The real star of the show, inevitably, is Bette Midler. As the titular character she is able to sweep from playful to heartbroken in the space of a song. Done correctly, it is a surprisingly nuanced character. She is larger than life when she’s entertaining guests, putting on a show for the cast and the audience in equal measures. However, when she is alone she reveals what drives her throughout the story – her lost love and former husband Ephram Levi. Midler may have the audience in stitches when she’s slowly eating a delicious chicken dinner, but they’re eating the palm of her hand when she’s speaking from her heart.

David Hyde Pierce is a great counterpoint for Midler as the angry shop owner and “half-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder. He is a seasoned Broadway star, winning a Tony Award in 2008 for his role in Curtains. It was great to finally see “Penny in my Pocket” restored and performed in front of the curtain at the start of the second act. It’s a song that’s great for someone like Pierce – full of characterisation and expression. It was cut from previous Broadway runs to shorten the second half.

Gavin Creel (Cornelius Hackl), Kate Baldwin (Irene Molloy), Taylor Trensch (Barnaby Tucker) and Beanie Feldstein (Minnie Fay) are all brilliant in their Horace-avoiding storyline, with “Elegance” a particular highlight in the second half. Creel’s rendition of “It Only Takes A Moment” with Baldwin was simply beautiful; a clear sign that musical director Andy Einhorn can get the best out of his performers.

The tickets for this production may well sell because Bette Midler is such a huge star and is massively popular on Broadway, with David Hyde Pierce also offering added interest. However, what audiences will find is a musical that is excellent across the board, from the back row of the ensemble to the lead star, with not a thread on a costume out of place.

To think that what I saw was supposed to be a preview, I only wish I could see it when it hits the full run.

It will be a smash.

[1] It was to my shame that I didn’t recognise Jerry Zaks. He was the perfect gentleman. By the time we had started chatting he had already noticed that we hadn’t got a Playbill and found an usher to retrieve a couple for us. What kind of director does that?! He seemed genuinely interested in whether we were enjoying the show, seeking us out at the end to garner our opinion before signing our programme. Great job sir and thank you for finding the time to talk to us.

Theatre Review – ‘Hikosan Gongen Chikai No Sukedachi’ at the Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo,02/04/2016

The Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo is the primary theatre in Tokyo to watch traditional kabuki theatre. The theatre is stunning both inside and out, designed in a traditional manner despite the many reconstructions over the years. Seeing a show there is a must for anyone visiting Tokyo wanting to see traditional Japanese theatre done properly.

What is kabuki theatre?

Kabuki is a traditional form of Japanese entertainment. The name literally means sing-dance-skill. It was allegedly first performed in the 17th century and has continued to be popular throughout the intervening period.

Theatrical productions in the kabuki style tend to be in five acts. They are typified by stark make-up and fanciful costumes, with performers striking “mie” (kabuki-style picturesque poses) as they deliver their lines. Audience members will shout out the actors’ Yagō (house name) to show their appreciation.

The stage consists of a typical framed stage as you’d expect in any Western-style play. Uniquely, however, kabuki theatre stages have a hanamichi – a walkway protruding out of the stage on which performers make dramatic entrances and exits from the stage.

How do I get tickets?

Each month a new programme of single act shows is performed, making up approximately four hours of performances in the afternoon and four hours of performances in the evening. Multi-act tickets for either the afternoon or evening performances can be bought in advance either at the box office or online, though those only wanting to see a single act can turn up at pre-determined time slots to buy cheap single-act tickets from the box office. This is the option we chose.

A word of warning on this – they operate a queuing system and only 150 tickets are available for each act, with only the first 90 getting seats. The remaining 60 stand behind the seats. It is also almost impossible to get tickets in this way for consecutive acts as the timeslot for the next set of tickets usually lands in the middle of the prior performance. Basically, if you want to see the whole show you need to buy in advance, though for newcomers one act is usually enough.

For 1000 JPY you can also rent an English subtitle box. This is essential for your enjoyment of the show and can’t be recommended enough.

Where is it?

The Kabukiza Theatre is located in the Ginza area of Tokyo. The best subway stop to reach it is at Higashi-Ginza station on the Toei Asakusa Line. The main box-office is located in the subway station along with a small market and several coffee shops and restaurants. Single-act tickets must be purchased upstairs at the dedicated box office outside the theatre.

Review – ‘Hikosan Gongen Chikai No Sukedachi’

‘Hikosan Gongen Chikai No Sukedachi’ is a single-act play that is showing at the Kabukiza Theatre throughout April. It makes up half of the evening performance, with a second unrelated story following.

The storyline centres around Keyamura Rokusuke (Kataoka Nizaemon), a farmer and master swordsman living at the base of Mt. Hiko, who we are introduced to shortly after the death of his mother. A proclamation has been made that any man who can defeat Rokusuke in a sword fight will be put into immediate employment by the ruler of Kokura. One night, when Rokusuke is praying for his mother, Mijin Danjo (Nakamura Karoku) a masterless samurai passes by with his old mother. Danjo asks Rokusuke to let him win the sword match under the premise that it will show him to be a good son to his mother, who is close to death. Rokusuke is touched by this suggestion and immediately promises to throw the fight. However, once the fight is thrown, Rokusuke discovers that Danjo isn’t as trustworthy and honorable as he first thought.

At one hour and thirty-five minutes, the play was a perfect length for someone new to kabuki theatre. As an English speaker who couldn’t really pick up most of what was being said in Japanese, the subtitles worked perfectly well. 

It is a uniquely Japanese experience that doesn’t, in truth, compare to anything I’ve seen anywhere else. However, that doesn’t mean it’s difficult to access and within a few minutes I was completely engrossed in what was going on on stage.

Kataoka Nizaemon XV is a popular kabuki actor and his nuances were well received by the audience. He was recently awarded with the title of National Living Treasure in Japan. This is really a one-man-show and he carries it perfectly, utilising moments of real sorrow for a man missing his mother and juxtoposing them with tremendous comedy as he deals with the various women residing at his home as well as an adopted son.

If you enjoy surprises it is advised that you don’t read the synopsis before you go in as it very much reveals everything you will see performed, including the conclusion of the final act. Indeed, this is a play that ends on a cliffhanger without playing out the story to a defined conclusion, leaving the audience to take the story on in their own heads to wonder and assume what happens to the featured characters further down the line. This may come as a surprise to those expecting a satisfyingly concise ending, but this is a performance that sticks to the original script rather than tinkering to please modern audiences.

As an art form, kabuki is more accessible than most would expect and the opportunity to see it in Japan should be seized, especially with great seats available at such reasonable prices. It’s something I hope to enjoy again in the future and hope you do too.

 

Memphis (Shaftesbury Theatre, London)

Performance Date: 27th May 2015
Location: Shaftesbury Theatre, London
Cast: Rachel John as Felicia Farrell, Jon Robyns as Huey Calhoun

After a poor choice of show last time my wife and I visited the West End (see my review of the stale Thriller), we were desperate to get it right this time. Visiting the West End is not a cheap experience, no matter where your seats are, and we wanted a feel-good show that would lift our spirits for the rest of the day. Memphis was the perfect choice and delivered on every promise the hype gave us.

The musical, set in 1955 Memphis, was written Joe DiPietro (book) and David Bryan (score). Huey Calhoun, a young white man from a poor family, is trying to make headway in the Memphis Beale Street clubs. He quickly becomes entranced by a young black singer named Felicia and they start a relationship, despite the protests from his mother and her brother. As his career leads him into being a DJ on a mainstream Memphis radio station, he becomes a champion of black R&B music and helps break it into the subconscious of the white masses. All is going well until their romance is halted by the devestating racial segregation rules of the state of Tennessee.

The plot itself feels slightly reminiscent of Hairspray, albeit from a more mature viewpoint. It elevates it above being a simple romantic tale by adding an element of period-based controversy in a way that just couldn’t be dealt with at the time. It’s a powerful piece of theatre and it was delivered perfectly by everyone involved.

In a way, this is all merely a platform for a huge amount of extremely powerful songs that blew me away throughout. The performance I saw was a Wednesday afternoon, meaning we didn’t see Beverley Knight. Instead, I was treated to the understudy Rachel John, who is destined to grow in popularity if the performance I saw and standing ovation are anything to go be. She has an amazing voice and, to be honest, I feel lucky to have seen her as she’s a perfect fit for the part. The usual male lead Killian Donnelly was also not present (he is soon to be replaced by Matt Cardle anyway), so we were able to catch Jon Robyns as the lead instead. Jon is, in my opinion, one of the West End’s most talented performers and he’s a perfect fit for this role. It’s a shame he’s slightly underused as an understudy but if you can work out when he’s on and get to see him you’ll understand why I’m singing his praises so much.

If you are yet to see Memphis, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a tough battle in the West End to get the tickets sold, but this should be on your “to watch” list if it isn’t already.