As promised, I’ve been seeing shows before I leave New York. Most have them have been Broadway shows. I actually saw one that I liked. It wasn’t Once, a show which had some elements I really liked but overall left me shrugging. No, the show I enjoyed is already the laughing stock of the season: Ghost. Yes. You read that right: GHOST. Is this show about the afterlife dead on arrival?
MONKEY BUSINESS by Tony Asaro (Composer/Librettist)
Isherwood panned Ghost. He urinated on it.
His review floated around my Facebook wall with many “LOL” and “HAHA” comments attached. I read the review, and thought "Ugh. Another movie musical. Yuck." And while I typically can't stand Isherwood and his penchant for musicals that don't feel like musicals, I was happy to let him beat this movie musical (as a stand in for ALL movie musicals) to a pulp with his brass-knuckled vitriol.
I went in to Ghost ready to roll my eyes. But...my eyes never rolled. I <gulp> enjoyed it. Actually, I really enjoyed it. I'm not supposed to, I know. I hate movie musicals. I hate when pop song writers try to write musical theatre scores. And frankly, I usually hate just about everything I see on Broadway for no real reason. This show surprised me.
Below is the text from Isherwood's review in Times New Roman, and my responses.
Generally speaking, I don’t believe in ghosts.
So far, we agree.
But I’m convinced that the spirits of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne have taken up temporary residence in the wings of the Broadway theater that bears their names, where the new musical adapted from the popular movie “Ghost” opened on Monday night.
Toward the close of Thursday night’s performance of this thrill-free singing theme-park ride, the sound of grinding metal echoed through the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. The complicated machinery of the moving sets stopped moving, and the curtain was brought down for almost a half-hour while a technical glitch was solved.
Unfortunate. The mechanized set, which transforms like a robot from the Michael Bay movie, moved seamlessly. Sad that the one big malfunction happened in front of Isherwood.
Surely the ghosts of the foremost acting couple of the Broadway theater in the 20th century…
Yes, Charles. We are all aware that you know a lot about theatre. But chances are, if we’re reading this, we ALSO know who Lunt and Fontanne were.
…had been roused from their posthumous slumbers to make a little mischief, aghast at the dreary digital spectacle taking place on the boards they once nobly trod.
Dreary…? “Dreary” means “dull, bleak”. That’s not the show I saw. Not even close. The show I saw could be criticized for TOO MUCH visual stimulus and overwrought spectacle for sure, but not for being “dreary”.
And in fact, this trailer doesn't show any of the show's color palette--there are times when it is frankly garish, borrowing a page from the Women of the Verge production at Lincoln Center. There are magenta and yellow and cyan silhouettes of dancers, and a hot pink metalic dress with crystal blue sequins shoes. There's a neon green subway train animation.
“Ghost,” with a book and lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin, who (unbelievably) won an Oscar for the movie’s screenplay; and music and lyrics by Dave Stewart (of the fab 1980s synth-pop duo the Eurithmics — say it ain’t so!) and Glen Ballard, may not be the very worst musical ever made from a movie. I might give that palm to either “Dirty Dancing” or “Fame,” neither of which has yet made it to Broadway. (Thank the theater gods for small blessings.) But it is just as flavorless and lacking in dramatic vitality as many that have come before.
I won’t argue that this piece is dramatically vital, but I will say that I cared much more about the characters in this show than in Leap of Faith or Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark.
Directed by the gifted Matthew Warchus, presumably in search of the big money that only big musicals can provide, the show relies mostly on elaborate video imagery, modestly ingenious special effects and the familiarity of its ectoplasmic romance to entertain.
OK. That’s fair.
There is also, of course, the comic relief provided by the brash, sassy Da'Vine Joy Randolph in the role of the brash, sassy psychic played in the movie by Whoopi Goldberg, who also (unbelievably) won an Oscar for her performance.
That Isherwood found neither Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s performance (is that her REAL name?!) nor Whoopi’s performance entertaining proves that he has no heart.
Then Isherwood summarizes the plot, which we’ll skip here for brevity’s sake. He gets a few points for the word “erstwhile”, though. Then he continues:
Well, you probably know the story, anyway. It is embroidered in the musical by a series of innocuous, forgettable pop songs, mostly love ballads in which Sam and Molly exchange endearments while they are both alive, and yearn for each other when death splits them apart.
OK, so the score isn’t fantastic. And yes, I agree that it’s a bit of a let down from Dave Stewart. However, the music is FAR better than the music in Spiderman.
The lyrics are rudimentary: “How can it be/It must be true/This thing I feel/I know it’s you,” Molly sings when she is convinced that Sam’s spirit is still hovering around. The melodies are pleasant but just as bland.
OK, the lyrics are probably the worst thing about the evening. But bad lyrics haven’t ever stopped a show’s success before. A lot of great shows have bad lyrics. Like anything famous that Tim Rice has written. Or Leslie Bricusse. Or...
I will disagree with him about the music. I thought the music in Ghost was actually quite complicated. Certainly the chord progressions and modulations are not bland (and frankly, often not “pleasant”. There is quite a bit of dissonance.) Yes, the melodies are singable, but to me, that's a good thing, and the incidental music and underscoring was harmonically daring.
The musical highlights, at least in terms of audience-rousing energy, belong to Ms. Randolph’s Oda Mae, who is given the boilerplate Generic Gospel Number in Act I, as she and two assistants raise the roof to scam a potential client. She also gets a splashy disco anthem in Act II, when she finds herself briefly in possession of a $10 million check and cavorts atop a stack of Louis Vuitton-ish luggage, as cartoon images of luxury living dance across the video wallpaper of the set.
Was it boilerplate? Sure. Certainly it walks a familiar well-tread path. But why point the finger at Ghost? These black-actor tropes have been around forever. Writers will stop writing them when audiences stop applauding them. And when a performer like Da’Vine (really? Her name is Da’Vine?!) is singing the shit out of it, who in their right mind wouldn’t applaud.
That video wallpaper plays a major role in the production, with Sam and Molly’s love scene blown up to Times Square billboard scale, and images of busy New Yorkers caroming around the streets amplifying the formless gyrations of Ashley Wallen’s choreography.
The video wallpaper is a lot sometimes, it’s true. But other times, it’s used very effectively, and even elegantly. Certainly it’s impressive. I feel like Isherwood is trying really hard to NOT be impressed by it. I remember when I saw Dracula. That show was pure nonsense, but the technical theatre was unbelievable. In Ghost, there are a lot of set effects, and a TON of projection, but it’s all very well done. To me, it all felt well designed and executed.
Nifty special effects by Paul Kieve are used to show how Sam learns (from a rapping ghost he meets in the subway, in the show’s one truly risible number) to break through the life-death barrier and make objects move.
Risible? Again, I have a problem with Isherwood’s choice of words. “Risible” means “provoking laughter”. It was not a funny song at all. The sequence was violent, harsh, and filled with objects flying in slow motion, with strobe light cues. People were gasping, not laughing. And “Nifty”? Even his compliments are insults.
These high-tech flourishes lend the show the feel of one of those sensory-bath, movie-inspired rides at the Universal Studios and Disney theme parks. But the thrill is fairly minimal, since the seats in the Lunt-Fontanne can’t make like a roller coaster and jolt us around, addling our brains to the point of forgetting the plodding apparatus of the story.
Hmmm. Have you seen Times Square lately, Mr. Isherwood? This IS Universal Studios. Maybe once, Broadway used to be the place to see artful drama. But actually, when I think about it, even early Broadway thrived on over choreographed production numbers, and moving set pieces, and pure unapologetic spectacle. While Lunt and Fontanne were playing Arms and the Man, just down the street, ol’ Flo Z. was paying Will Rogers to do rope tricks, and a bevy of scantily clad women were singing in harmony as they descended from the rigging in plywood clouds.
As the cranky Oda Mae, half-disgusted to discover that she actually possesses the psychic powers she has been faking, Ms. Randolph provides some real pleasure with her tart delivery of a few laugh lines lifted straight from the movie. Ms. Levy has a strong, appealing pop voice, as does Mr. Fleeshman, who also looks quite fetching in the blue spotlight that follows him around to signal his otherworldliness.
He also has his shirt “Ricky Martin-style” open to his navel for the entire show, and a few times gets shirtless. That’s enough to make you enjoy it right there.
Let's get real Charles, it's not the blue spotlight you were impressed with.
But you quickly grow weary of Sam’s obtuseness about the rules of the post-mortem game. Long after a friendly fellow ghost (Lance Roberts) has laid down the law about the separation between the living and the dead, Sam can’t seem to get it into his head that people can’t hear him. He keeps angrily chasing around the stage, shouting things like, “Molly, get out!” and “Molly, don’t listen to him!” Clearly death does not do much to improve I.Q. We can only hope there are no SATs in heaven.
So we’re going to discredit the show because of the main character’s obtuseness? Like Tony in West Side? Or ‘Enry ‘Iggins? Or the King of Siam? Or Don Quixote? Isn’t that uncompromising stubbornness, that inability to adapt to the situation before them, exactly what we love in our male main characters? So Sam shouts at people who can’t hear him. I would too. He’s naïve, desperate, and in love. Sounds like a musical to me…
Look, Isherwood isn’t way off base with his criticism. I agree with many of his points. But I walked away from the show tonight a satisfied theatre-goer. Maybe I was distracted by the special effects, the moving set, the illusions, and projections. Is that wrong? Why are the technical theatre geniuses that put together the spectacular parts not worthy of praise? So it’s spectacle. So what? It’s not the first time spectacle has delighted a Broadway audience. One only needs to walk two blocks down to find a crashing chandelier that has been titillating audiences for over 25 years.
Perhaps I enjoyed myself because I had such low expectations, like when I saw "Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones". I saw Once and found it half really engaging, and half totally unnecessary. It was being heralded as an amazing show by so many people, that the bar was set high when I went. It didn’t live up to my expectations. I enjoyed it, and it sounds amazing, but I don’t think it deserves all the raves.
Ghost is the opposite. It’s being shit talked a lot right now, and it really doesn’t deserve it. Ghost is the show that Spiderman should have been, and they managed to do it for less, I'm assuming. I’m OK with it being an audience friendly spectacle. Well done spectacle IS artistry, just of a different kind.
TONY ASARO is a composer/librettist currently working on various musical theatre and opera projects including the award winning Our Country. To learn more about Tony's writing, please visit unrelentingmonkey.com. NEVER STOP SWINGING!