Tag Archives: Musicals

Hamilton: Is it Really That Good?

After three years of waiting, I finally saw Hamilton this month. It was a touring production, sure, but that didn’t matter. It’s the pinnacle of the American musical art-form.

But it’s only been out for three years, you say? Perhaps it won’t age well, you predict? Can it really be that good?

Not all art ages well. The number of forgettable films that have won Oscars are the foremost example. Musical theater isn’t like that, however. A show has to be good enough to get on Broadway and stay there in order to get any accolades whatsoever. In other words, a musical has to be great already to stay in the conversation for more than a season.

That’s not to say some musicals don’t lose their luster over time. Tastes change and topics are no longer as relevant. While Rent seemed urgent in the 90’s and Oklahoma! was groundbreaking in the 40’s, the perception of those shows has changed over time.

Even so, to prove my point if you told a room full of musical theater scholars that Rent and Oklahoma! are two of the top ten musicals ever, few would disagree. Even musicals which lose their urgency or innovative feel with age don’t lose those aspects all that much.

Many the innovations of Hamilton might be so widely adapted that they disappear into commonplace like Oklahoma!, but its subject matter is practically evergreen. As long as there is an America, there will always be interest in the American Revolution.

That said, three years is more than enough time to assess Hamilton as one of the greatest musicals. But could it be the greatest? To assess that, you have to compare it to its fellow “greatest musicals.”

Before Oklahoma!, musicals didn’t exactly tell very robust stories. For example, Showboat is a series of vignettes, and Anything Goes! is a comic farce. Porgy and Bess is usually thought of as an opera. In any event the epic scale of Hamilton places it in a different category than early Broadway shows.

Most mid-century shows just aren’t as innovative as Hamilton, and many of the popular late-20th Century shows just don’t have its cultural impact. The 2000’s have been cluttered with jukebox musicals and adaptations of existing popular culture.

To cut to the chase, there are only a few shows with the scope, innovation, urgency, and quality of Hamilton: Oklahoma!, West Side Story, Les Miserables, and Rent.

We can eliminate Oklahoma! first. It is an important show with great songs. But let’s face it, it is a cheesy story.

Rent can be eliminated next. Don’t get me wrong, I love Rent, but it’s very much a creature of its time and place. Also the second act is kind of a mess.

It’s hard to rank Hamilton ahead of the last two, but they aren’t insurmountable obstacles. As great as West Side Story is, it suffers some of the same drawbacks as Rent. It isn’t as topical, but it is definitely a creature of the 1950’s in the same way that Rent is a creature of the 1990’s.

Les Miserables is based on what might be the greatest novel in the world, and that’s its greatest strength. How innovative is Les Mis, really, though? Its greatest innovative aspect is its success as an adaptation. Structurally and musically, it isn’t that distinguishable from other top musicals of its day, it’s just a better story. Besides, “One Day More” is basically “Tonight” from West Side Story.

Hamilton has a story anchored in history with staying power. It has great music, but also innovative music in how it blends new genres into the musical theater artform to tackle the scope of that story. Hip hop uses a lot of words, and you need those words to tell a story like Alexander Hamilton’s. Finally, it compares favorably with the other contenders for greatest musical.

So yes, Hamilton really is that good.

(C) 2018 D.G. McCabe

La-La Land (2016) (Review)

I recently watched La-La Land (2016), the favorite of this past year’s Award Season cycle.  The film ultimately lost to “Moonlight” (2016) for the Best Picture Oscar.  After seeing both movies, the result was warranted – Moonlight is an objectively better film that La-La Land.  But why?

La-La Land is a good movie.  It isn’t a great movie, but it could have been one.  The main issue I had with it was that it begins as an homage to better things.  Remember in The Return of the King (2003) Extended Edition when Saruman taunts Theoden King by calling him “the lesser son of greater sires?”  The first half of La-La Land made me remember that line, so much so that for the first forty-five minutes my main thought was “I’d rather be watching “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952).”

La-La Land gets much better in the second half, when it gets out of its own way and becomes its own movie.  That isn’t nothing.  Homage films like “The Artist” (2011) never go beyond their initial tribute to the classics.  The question becomes, then, why did La-La Land have to start as such a blatant homage to begin with?

One could argue that La-La Land has to set itself up this way – it needs to build up the Old Hollywood musical in order to tear it down.  The problem is that it never builds up the concept of the Golden Age musical enough to really subvert it.  Part of this has to do with the skill sets of the actors.  Ryan Gosling, for example, puts in a yeoman’s effort, but he ultimately can’t dance or sing well enough to really sell his role as a Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly type.  The other part, and probably the more important, is that after the opening couple of numbers the movie abandons the nostalgia aspect pretty abruptly.  The homage to Old Hollywood feels more like an abandoned concept than a theme the film is trying to comment on.

In the end, La-La Land is a strange animal of a film.  It didn’t successfully explore the themes it wanted to explore, but that doesn’t make it a bad film either.  It is exceptionally well made and entertaining after all.  It just missed the mark a bit.

You might like La-La Land if: You’re looking for a well made, original musical film that isn’t based on a preexisting property.

You might not like La-La Land if: You think about it too much.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe

Into the Woods

Directed by Rob Marshall, U.S., 2014

It seems that Hollywood has two or three big budget musical adaptations in them a year these days.  Into the Woods is the third such film in 2014, and a far superior effort to Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys (which I saw but couldn’t be bothered to review – what does that tell you?) and by all accounts (I haven’t seen it) the remake of Annie.

It should be noted that Into the Woods should be looked at with an understanding of what musical films are today.  To compare a film like Into the Woods to, say, West Side Story (1961) is unfair and not very helpful.  It doesn’t quite reach the heights of 2002’s Chicago but it’s certainly up there with 2007’s Sweeney Todd in the top percentile of recent musical films.

Into the Woods is certainly faithful to its source material, and the performances are quite effective.  Meryl Streep got another Oscar nod for her role as the witch. Emily Blunt, James Corden and Anna Kendrick are compelling as the co-leads. Finally, Chris Pine does his best J. Peterman impression as Prince Charming.

Into the Woods is a fun movie if you like musicals, especially Stephen Sondheim’s.  What I suppose I’m struggling with is what this adaptation adds to the stage production.  The production design is conservative enough that it could be easily matched by a modern, Broadway revival.  Then again, this isn’t necessarily a knock on the film itself, depending on your perspective.

Even if it doesn’t seem to have much purpose beyond what a stage production would provide, Into the Woods is the equal to modern theatrical production without the modern theatrical prices.  The fact that it doesn’t add to or comment on its source material is quite irrelevant to enjoying this version of the story if you liked the stage production.

You might like Into the Woods if: You love Sondheim and haven’t been to a revival showing in quite some time.

You might not like Into the Woods if: You prefer that your Hollywood musical adaptation add to or comment on their source material.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

Frozen (2013)


Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, 2013, U.S.

The other of day’s two back-reviews is Frozen (2013).  Let’s consider this my first Oscar preview article, since Frozen is the lead candidate for Best Animated Film.  In fact, in my opinion it could have been nominated for Best Picture in general, joining Beauty and Beast (1991), Up (2009), and Toy Story 3 (2010) as the only animated films nominated for Best Picture.

How good is Frozen?  It’s certainly up there with Disney’s best animated films, and is an unexpected callback to what is now called “The Disney Renaissance.”  The Disney Renaissance generally refers to Disney’s winning streak between The Little Mermaid (1989) and Tarzan (1999), or more specifically before the main Disney animation studio handed the baton to Pixar as the main focus of Disney’s animation efforts.

Frozen’s success comes from its ability to challenge well established Disney conventions, but flawlessly execute some of those conventions when it needs to.  Like many classic Disney fare, it is loosely based on a classic story, in this case Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” The dark, heavily religious story is completely transformed.  What sets this apart other Disney films that “Disneyfy” dark fairy tales is that the changes don’t feel forced.

This is mainly due to the film’s focus on the relationship between Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) and Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) as sisters rather than it being a romantic love story in the conventional sense.  There is a romantic subplot, but it stays as a subplot instead of overtaking the entire film.  The focus of the film, and its ending, change what could have been a standard, someday-my-prince-will-come, Disney-phoning-it-in, story into something that deeply connects with its target audience.

As noted above, Frozen’s other strength is that it doesn’t throw the mouse out with the bathwater.  Like the classic or renaissance Disney films, the music is fantastic.  There is also the obligatory fantasy creature for comic relief, and what could easily have been a cheesy or juvenile element hits on all cylinders.  Olaf, the talking snowman (Josh Gad), is one of the funniest characters in this or any film.

Frozen is the unlikeliest of films, in that it takes a well worn shoe and makes it new again.  Or in this case, two large, yellow well worn shoes.

You might like Frozen if: You ever liked any classic or renaissance Disney film, you have kids, you like animation, or you like comedies.

You might not like Frozen if: The only films you want to see about Scandinavia are bleak and existential.  In this case I would recommend “Let the Right One In” (2004), where the real vampire is the vampire within.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

Snap Reviews – Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 and Cabaret

By D.G. McCabe

I saw a couple of movies this past week, but neither is worthy of a full write-up.

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (2008)

What do you get when you combine three of America’s greatest obsessions (college, football, and 1960’s social change)?  Let’s find out.

In 1968, the annual Yale-Harvard football game ended in a 29-29 tie.  Forty years later, documentarian Kevin Rafferty (best known for “The Atomic Cafe” (1982) and “Radio Bikini” (1988))  interviewed the men who played in that game (including actor Tommy Lee Jones) to talk about their time in college.  The interviews are inter-cut with broadcast footage of the game itself.

Now, most people who went to college love talking about it, even four decades later, and the conversations turn to interesting topics (the genesis of the comic Doonesbury, sit-in protests at Harvard, and Al Gore’s musical prowess on the touch-tone phone).  It isn’t the most thrilling film ever conceived, but it’s an interesting piece of social history especially if you like college football and you don’t know how a team could “win” a tie game.

You might like Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 if: You like to learn about the history of college football, especially Ivy League college football.

You might not like Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 if: You could care less about college football and have no interest in hearing middle-age men reminisce about it.

Cabaret (1972)

Caution – some films bear limited resemblance to their source material.  Obviously Bob Fosse thought that you – the film audience – are dumber than the theater audience.  While I could be forgiven for not necessarily expecting more from the man who invented “jazz hands,” I do expect that the so-called “academy” of motion picture arts and sciences would recognize the director of the greatest American film over the creator of a watered down stage show (Fosse beat out Francis Ford Coppolla for Best Director in 1972).

Cabaret the musical is the first hand account of Clifford Bradshaw, a young writer making his way through Berlin.  He meets an unstable singer at the seedy Kit Kat Klub who he eventually falls in love with.  The story is one of increasing tension and external, unspoken terror, highlighted by the increasingly fascist songs being played at the Kit Kat Klub.  This is accentuated by the set used in the stage play, since no matter where the action takes us, we are never far from the club or what it represents – the rise of Nazi Germany.

The film is much different and does not do justice to the musical’s enclosed, suffocating environs.  A tacked-on subplot doesn’t really work and the open spaces detract from the story’s dark undertones.  While Liza Minnelli and the rest of the cast provide yeoman’s performances, the film feels like a disjointed and watered down shadow of the intense stage play.

You might like Cabaret if: You can’t get enough of 1970’s Hollywood musicals or Liza Minnelli.

You might not like Cabaret if: You are expecting the film to capture the tension, suffocation, and symbolism of the stage show.

(c) 2013 D.G.McCabe

The 1960’s and Les Miserables – The Rise and Fall of the Hollywood Musical

On Christmas Day this year I went to see Les Miserables. Knowing full well that it’s one of those films that it’s futile to write a review for, all I could really say was that I enjoyed it and everyone who enjoyed the stage show seems to have enjoyed it as well. What interests me more than the film itself is the fact that every once in a while there is a big “event” musical coming out of Hollywood (Sweeney Todd (2007), Chicago (2002), Evita (1996) come to mind), but little else as to serious film productions of popular musicals.  While this may seem like the normal state of affairs, for most of the history of film, at least since the late 1920’s, musicals have made up a large proportion of the most popular Hollywood productions.

Take the 1960’s for an example.  Four of the ten movies that won best picture in the 1960’s were musicals.  While these are not the most important movies released from that period, they remain some of the most popular.  If you look at the list of highest grossing films between 1927 and 1970, musicals make up a large percentage.

The question becomes – so what happened?

It is a well known historical fact that a large number of talented performers from Broadway started moving out west to California after the first major “talkie” success, 1927’s “The Jazz Singer.”  Hollywood saw an opportunity in showcasing the best talents of the stage on the screen.  While people could listen to these performers on the radio, or if they were fortunate enough on Gramophones, they could not see them perform on a regular basis unless the show happened to come to town or they were to take a trip to New York.  Likewise, many musicals, such as “White Christmas” (1954) were developed solely for the screen (although that particular film has been turned into a successful musical).

Starting in the 1960’s, the influence of several important film “realism” movements started to impact Hollywood.  At the same time, Broadway was declining as the generator of popular music in the United States.  It is not a coincidence that the last Broadway style film musical to earn the most money for a year was 1965’s “The Sound of Music,” and that show-tunes started disappearing from the top of the music charts during the same period.

I would posit that if the story of popular entertainment in the first half of the twentieth century was the story of the integration of song and film the story since the 1960’s has been the decoupling of popular music from most other forms of entertainment.  While a popular song may appear on a film’s soundtrack or in a popular television show, the songs are no longer integrated into the plots of these other artforms.

This has a lot to do with the way we consume music, which may be the most widely available form of art in the world.  We no longer expect music to be necessarily associated with anything other than the music itself.  Likewise, we expect a certain level of realism in our films (with some notable exceptions of course, especially comedies), and musicals are the antethesis of realism.  This concept has even crept into the medium of animation, where popular movies from Pixar and Dreamworks are no longer musicals like Disney animation films were well into the late 1990’s.  While musicals still obviously maintain an important place in our popular culture, their form is no longer preferred as we now like our music to be able to stand on its own and our movies to have a certain level of believability that musicals by their very nature cannot provide.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe


Why We Love Bad Movies – Part Three: Genre Cliches

Sometimes we go to the movies not to be challenged, but to be entertained and comforted.  Genre cliches, movies that are about the same no matter what, that meet our expectations but never exceed them, are the comfort food of movies.  We know that they are not particularly good, but we go back to them anyway.  They are familiar, predictable, and we know exactly what we’re getting.  Observe:

Salisbury Steak (Romantic Comedies)

e.g. New Year’s Eve (2011), You’ve Got Mail (1998)

There are plenty of great romantic comedies, but it seems like most of them are cobbled together from hamburger to resemble a superior product.  For example, New Year’s Eve is a cheap copy of a better movie (Love, Actually (2003)).  You’ve Got Mail has the same leading actors and same plot of a better movie (Sleepless in Seattle (1993)).  Here’s the clincher – everyone knew this going in, and both of these films made a ton of money at the box office.

Twinkees (Musicals)

e.g. Spiceworld (1997), From Justin to Kelly (2003)

The Musical is a genre that has fallen out of favor in modern Hollywood.  Before the days of television (music videos especially), they were frequently either star vehicles or showcases for Vaudeville style acts.  While some musicals remain popular for various reasons (Singin’ in the Rain (1952), West Side Story (1961), White Christmas (1954), The Wizard of Oz (1939)), many feel dated – like someone cobbled something edible together from sponge cake and filling.

But pre-television musicals have an excuse.  Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) for instance seems dated now but it served its purpose as a showcase for Judy Garland’s talent and brought it to a wide audience during an era when people needed an escape.  Poorly thought-out modern musicals have no excuse, and serve as long, ill conceived, music videos for flash in the pan artists (Spiceworld) or popular televisions shows (From Justin to Kelly).

Kung Pow Chicken (Action Movies)

e.g. Faster (2010), Battlefield Earth (2000)

Sometimes we like something a little spicier.  Yeah it’s fried and bad for us, but it’s so cheap, tasty, and here in twenty minutes.  Yes we’ll be hungry again in half an hour, but it’s great while it lasts.  While there have been excellent, popular, purely escapist action films, some are filled with terrible dialogue, boring car chases, and plots that make absolutely no logical sense.  Watch Faster and you’ll see what I mean.

Watch Battlefield Earth and you’ll see even worse.  It makes Faster look like Citizen Kane (1941).

Jello (Comedies)

e.g. Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo (2005), Every “____ Movie” after the original Scary Movie (2000)

Want something kind of light and a little gross?  The gross-out comedy genre has what you’re looking for.  It’s too bad that whenever Hollywood has a decent idea for an R-rated comedy, they dump a horrendous sequel on us.  Sometimes the sequels have at least some redeeming value, but sometimes the first movie wasn’t that good to begin with (Deuce Bigalow) or it’s another of a seemingly endless parade of “Scary Movie” style parody films.

Vodka (Horror)

e.g. The Saw Films (2004-2010), Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)

Horror movies are the empty calorie, escapist, cash-cow of the movies always have been, and probably always will be.  They’re cheap to make (Saw), easy to pump our sequel after sequel (Saw), and always end up making a decent amount of money (Saw).

The problem is that the horror movie genre ends up looking far easier than it is.  This is what inspired a New Mexico insurance salesman to create a “horror movie” that may be the worst film every released in a movie theater – Manos: The Hands of Fate.

Next time: Epilogue – Movies with No Redeeming Value

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe