Sunday Nibble #94: Me encantó Encanto

Another amazing movie from Disney: Encanto knocks it out of the park.

Every so often, a movie comes along that has a message so moving and engaging, combined with strong characters we all feel for, that by the time the third act starts, you’ve already dissolved in tears of empathy, compassion and, ultimately, joy that don’t end until the closing credits.

Encanto is one of those films. Yeah, I was crying my face off from a particular moment near the end and couldn’t stop. You will, too, if you have a heart.

I knew that it was coming to Disney+ eventually but took my time before I watched it because I was hoping that they’d do what they did with Coco and do a Spanish dubbed version of the film, but that’s apparently not happening. (They did do a dub for the foreign market, but it didn’t screen here like Coco did.)

Oh — and it does feel like Encanto could be one of a trilogy of films that started with Coco. Here’s to a third.

Both films deal with familias latinas — Coco in Mexico and Encanto in Colombia. Both stories concern grandmothers who are trying to control their families, either openly or not, although Coco covers a few more generations than Encanto; five generations in the former and three generations in the latter.

So in Coco, it’s our lead character’s great-great grandmother who suffers a loss that leads to everything else, while in Encanto, it’s the lead’s grandmother. This makes sense, though, because Coco’s back story plausibly begins in the 1930s or and while Encanto isn’t set in a specific year, we do know that the miracle that kicked things off for the family Madrigal happened fifty years ago.

Honestly, given Colombia’s history of conflict, it could have been any time in the 20th century, but given some modern references by the children in the film that may or may not just be Easter Eggs for adults, I’m going to assume that it takes place now, with the clock starting in the 1970s. The people in the encanto seem to be from another time because they’re been cut off from the outside world.

The era of the 1970s is not at all insignificant in Central and South American history, of course, and while it’s never clearly stated or hinted at until the end, our lead family, the Madrigals, got caught up in the endless guerrilla fighting alternately backed by the U.S. or USSR, depending on whether the rebels were capitalists or commies.

In the case of Colombia, the U.S. was backing the government, although the USSR may not have been that directly involved because the whole thing had started as a civil war.

Some grownups may carry this baggage into the film while kids won’t, of course, but they will get the idea of a refugee family in danger that is given sanctuary thanks to a miracle (the milagro) that will create a Valley surrounded by tall mountains that keeps away whatever unpleasantness is going on outside.

This is the Madrigal family’s personal Encanto, and it soon becomes clear that their house, known as Casita, is the center of the miracle. Every member of the family, starting with Abuela’s three children, goes through a ceremony in turn where they are taken to one of the upstairs doors. Once the kid takes hold of the doorknob, they gain a special power and the room beyond that now-glowing door becomes their sanctuary — some of which (as one character inadvertently references Doctor Who) are bigger on the inside.

Maribel’s immediate ancestors include mother Julieta, who has the power to heal people with her cooking; aunt Pepa who is overly emotional and can control the weather when it’s not controlling her; and uncle Bruno who… well, we don’t talk about Bruno.

Antagonist Maribel’s two oldest sisters, Isabela and Luísa, have the powers of being pretty while creating roses everywhere and super-strength, respectively, and Luísa is an amazing bit of inclusion and representation.

The character, as animated, has very muscular arms, which is in keeping with her miracle power that allows her to casually carry five donkeys at once, juggle boulders, and even lift buildings. Apparently, Disney didn’t want her to be so muscular but the animators refused to make changes.

Disney relented when Luísa merch began flying off the shelves because people were drawn to the character as, well, originally drawn. In fact, she quickly outsold both Isabela and Dolores merchandise, which were intended as the “pretty princess” options.

Apparently, girls nowadays don’t want the pretty princess. They want the strong princess, and that message is coming through loud and clear.

Another very subtle bit of representation in the film is in the character of Camilo Madrigal, our lead Maribel’s cousin, who is also fifteen. As his parents say, “He doesn’t know who he is yet,” and his special power is the ability to shapeshift — and it’s not limited by gender.

It’s actually not limited by anything (except that he can only change into human form), and so he jumps around between male and female, young and old, and so on. He’s the theatre kid of the family, which is also a bit more code. Camilo’s magical power, really, is being totally non-binary.

Luísa and Camilo are two of the more engaging and interesting characters in the film. The third is ostensibly the villain, the not-talked about Tío Bruno, one of Abuela Alma’s triplets — but there is a lot more to his character than meets the eye, and he is brilliantly brought to life by the animators and especially his voice actor, the always amazing John Leguizamo.

The less said about Bruno is actually the better, because he is a character worth being slowly discovered. One thing I will say about him, though — he is another example of representation and is pretty much coded as the stereotypical gay uncle. Look at the clues: Only boy with two sisters, never married, withdrew and hid his magical gift from the family when it was rejected by them, lived in basically a closet for years while still trying to keep the family together, and really needed to be accepted by his mother.

Reading him like this really adds depth to the character. It also helps make sense of everyone else depicting him as some kind of scary green-eyed monster (especially Camilo, who should know better), which is not at all like an entire generation of gay uncles experienced.

The songs throughout are amazing, but that’s because Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the eight numbers in the film, with Germain Franco, who also scored Coco, providing the non-singing soundtrack. While We Don’t Talk About Bruno ensemble staging has become the runaway hit from the show, sister Luísa’s solo number Surface Pressure, which she performs while also carrying out her literal heavy-lifting duties for the townsfolk, really exposes her character.

So let’s look at every possible way that Encanto is not a big Hollywood movie: Almost entirely latine voice cast, except for white guy Alan Tudyk, who plays a clueless tucán: check. Main cast are all women, with the men mostly in the supporting roles: check. Set entirely in a foreign country most Americans are not familiar with: check. Heavily into magical realism, abetted by musical and artistic styles from the region: double check.

In other words, it’s not a film about white guys in armor saving the world, and it’s all the better for that. It has something to inspire and encourage kids who might see themselves as different or left out in their families, and even has lots of reminders and encouragement for adults who may once have been those kids.

The design of everything is jaw-droppingly amazing, with the use of color, lighting, and character design feeding into every part of the narrative. The animated characters in particular are incredible. They are so well delineated that we know who each one of them is at a glance, but none of them are shallow stereotypes, either.

This is a great family night film, especially if your family doesn’t always get along, and I dare you all to not have the last act go by without it turning into a silently, sniffly cuddle-fest on the couch, during which time everyone will have put their devices down.

There will be hugging it out when the lights come up.

Even if you’re just streaming it alone, this film will talk to you and then sing to you, and it’s very much worth the time to watch it. Hell, watch it a few times.

If you’re a music nerd and have seen the film or don’t mind spoiler-ish material, check out the video below. It’s a deep-dive into the song We Don’t Talk About Bruno, which explains how much is going on not only in what we experience on the surface, but in the musical structure behind it.

Talky Tuesday: Un poco Coco

The first time I saw the Spanish version of Coco 4 years ago, I think I got about 60% of it. Watching it a second time now surprised me.

Inspired by Hallowe’en, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day last week, I’d been thinking about watching Coco again, but then seeing it pop up on Disney+ as Coco (In Spanish) just clinched it, so last Friday night I had to give what I consider to be the “real” version a second look.

Of course, for reasons known only to… nobody, maybe?… when I started up the Spanish version on Disney+, I was greeted with a soundtrack in English, which was doubly ridiculous because I knew that a Spanish-language version of the film existed. I’d seen it in a theater, so it was not an hallucination.

It turns out that I had to manually switch the spoken language from English to Spanish, which makes no sense at all. I mean, considering that they have the English and Spanish versions right next to each other as separate choices, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for the Spanish version to not start up in Spanish.

No reason other than, you know — white, Anglo bias.

When the film came out originally four years ago, as soon as I read that Disney/Pixar were going to be releasing a version that had specifically been rescripted and dubbed in Spanish, I knew that it was the one I wanted to see.

Firstly because it seemed like the only appropriate language to tell the story in, but secondly because, as a student of Spanish, it seemed like a good time to take a real-world test.

So I found the Spanish language screening at a theatre in North Hollywood, went to the box office to buy a ticket from the pale, red-headed woman at the counter who looked at my Irish-Nordic ass and immediately said, “This screening is only in Spanish.”

It didn’t sound like it was confirming my decision. Rather it came off as, “You’re not going to understand a word.”

I just smiled, said, “That’s why I’m here,” and gave her my money.

That was almost exactly four years ago. I slipped into the theater, found a seat on the center aisle away from the other audience members — all Hispanic families — and sat down to watch.

I loved the film from the first frames and cried more than a few times during its run time. As for the dialogue, I’d have to say that, at that time, I understood maybe about 60% of what was said, more in some parts and less in others.

Still, I got the basic gist of the story if not the exact relationships between the protagonist Miguel and his deceased family members and couldn’t understand most of what Gael García Bernal’s character Hector said.

The reasons for the latter became evident this time around.

Anyway, it was a turning point in my long, ongoing self-education in Spanish, which I think has been going for about nine years now. Having not really had much opportunity for practicing conversation for complicated reasons, I had at least been working on comprehension, largely through immersion.

My car radio, for example, had been set on a local Spanish language station since I got it in late 2013, and I spent many a commute listening to the morning and evening shows and gradually understanding more and more.

Ironically, since I’ve been told that it’s harder to understand sung lyrics than spoken words, I found the opposite to be true, and at one point had a karaoke collection in my head of at least half a dozen songs in Spanish I could have belted out at a moment’s notice, if only the opportunity had ever come up.

Narrator’s Voice: “But it never did.”

Still… in watching the film in late 2017, I pretty much only got it in broad strokes: Music was banned in Miguel’s family because of something that happened in the past; his great-great grandfather was a famous musician and actor, no doubt modelled on several Mexican movie idols of the 1930s and 40s, Miguel winds up in the Land of the Dead, where he meets up with his defunct ancestors, one of whom — Mamá Imelda — is clearly the matriarch of the deceased members of the Rivera clan, although I was never sure whether she was Miguel’s grandmother, great-grandmother, or however many steps above that, and I certainly had no idea how all of the various tío/as and papás fit into it.

Yeah, terms for specific family members tend to be one of those things terribly specific to any given language and culture and also something that native speakers grow up with, but which learners are rarely exposed to in school because, why?

So, yeah. I had no idea at that time what nieto/a, yerno, suegra, bisabuelo/a, or tatarabuelo/a meant.

Between then and now, I watched the film in the English language version (which I consider to be the dubbed one) and it was still fun, but just seemed somehow off.

Which brings me back to last weekend and my second viewing of the Spanish version, and I really don’t consider it a cheat having watched it twice previously, because I let myself pretty much forget the specifics (that I hadn’t forgotten already) and just go with it and… wow.

What a difference four more years of immersion and practice make. I found myself understanding almost every spoken word this time around, and also getting most of the jokes, which had just flown over my head previously.

Of course, having long since passed the point of translating to English in my head — which hadn’t been the case in 2017 — also made it lightyears easier.

I understood why the Rivera family under Imelda had rejected music long ago to become shoemakers (it’s all in the opening) and followed everything else as Miguel tries to sneak out from his Grandmother and her vengeful chancla to go play guitar in Mariachi Plaza.

Then, when he’s suddenly sucked into the land of the dead, not only was I able to understand the exact relationships as he described them, but I finally knew why Mamá Imelda did not make the trip across the Marigold Bridge with the rest of the family this time.

Her photo was not on the family ofrenda, and it was not there because Miguel had inadvertently taken it. Photos on ofrendas for remembrance, in the film, are basically passports for the dead to visit the living.

Another joke I’d missed originally — one of the dead with amazing teeth gets to come back because his photo is on the ofrenda maintained by his dentist.

So far so good, and I’m following it all, and then we meet Gael García Bernal’s Hector for the second time. Previously, he had tried to run the border disguised as Frida Kahlo, but was caught when he sank into the Marigold Bridge (yes, it’s definitely a visual metaphor for crossing the Rio Grande), and winds up in the office of an emigration official.

And suddenly this scene became very incomprehensible, driven by the kinetic energy of Bernal’s vocal performance combined with the animation in which he keeps disassembling and reassembling his skeleton in order to keep his interviewer off-guard.

He ultimately fails to convince the officer, and I only understood his exit line, as he asked whether he could take his Frida costume with him, only to be told “No.”

—¿Puedo traer mi disfraz?


Still… everything is clear until Miguel and Hector finally meet up and, yet again, it suddenly gets murky on Hector’s part until he starts calling Miguel “chamaco,” and then it hits me.

My god — Bernal is slanging it up Mexican style, so of course I can’t understand him. And, of course, I don’t know enough to know whether it’s puro chilango (Mexico City slang) or just Mexican slang in general, but it does remind me of a very delightful biopic about another Mexican film icon.

This would be from the Spanish-language film Cantinflas, the biopic of the man who was basically the Charles Chaplin of Mexico and who almost but not quite made it to international superstardom via the epic film Around the World in 80 Days. Anyway, early on in the film, Mario Moreno (Cantinflas) has met his future wife, Valentina Ivanova, a Russian woman who lives in Mexico but who is otherwise fluent in Spanish.

While they’re walking together in Mexico City while he’s on tour, he runs across a friend in the street, and they proceed to have a rapid-fire conversation which, if you weren’t born and raised in Mexico City, you probably won’t get at all. (Dog knows that I didn’t.)

At the end of it, Valentina looks at him and says, “What language was that, Spanish?”

His reply: “No. Puro mexicano.”

And he’s not wrong.

Probably the closest English equivalent to this that I can think of is something like Cockney, which involves obscure rhyming slang, and you just either know it or you don’t.

And the incomprehensibility transcends the cockney accent. Even spoken in British RP or American Newscaster English, it would not make sense without the key.

“Butcher them Bristols, Ken.”

“I know, Mark. Them scotches ain’t bad, neither.”

“Yeah, but boat like a bottle, sadly.”

“You’d have to be right Brahms’d to fire up your orchestras over that one.”

Even if you do speak English, you probably didn’t understand that at all. Now imagine how extra difficult it would be for a non-native English speaker. Here’s the translation from Cockney to real English.

“Look at those tits, Ken!” (Butcher’s hook = “look”; Bristol cities = “titties”.)

“I know, Mark. Those legs aren’t bad, either.” (Scotch eggs = “legs”)

“Yes, but face like an ass, sadly.” (Boat race = “face”; bottle and glass = “ass”)

“You’d have to be really pissed (drunk) to work up your balls over that one.” (Brahms and Liszt = “pissed”; orchestra stalls = “balls”)

Oops. I think I was discussing a family film. The other complication in Cockney slang, of course, is that sometimes they leave both words in and sometimes they only take the first word from the rhyming pair.

Of course, you don’t have to be Cockney or from Mexico City to come up with colorful slang all on your own, and the British author Marjorie Allingham, who wrote a series of detective novels featuring Albert Campion. His assistant, Lugg, once came up with this doozy: “It’s crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide.”

Apparently, it meant, “It’s crazy to bribe a cop with worthless money,” but in the 1950s, a writer for MAD Magazine saw it and all the writers began slipping it into the magazine in various places. Kids saw it and, while they had no idea what it meant either, they started using it, frequently as a nonsense answer to their parents.

Basically, it went viral by word of mouth and a comic popular with teenagers.

But, even though eight out of ten words in the quote are perfectly understandable English, the two that aren’t throw everything off and make the entire thing a mystery.

That was kind of like the first time I saw Coco in Spanish. I knew most of the words in the sentences, but then one or two would pop up and suddenly I wasn’t so sure. This time around, though, a lot of those mystery words are part of my vocabulary, and suddenly there was no mystery.

That’s how language learning works. Be persistent, practice or study a little bit every day, and immerse yourself when possible. You’ll be surprised how your brain will pick up on and retain things.

Just remember: When you first learned your native language before you ever went to school, you just picked it up by listening to the other people around you. You may have just been approximating things at first — “Me, juice now?” — but eventually moved to more complete sentences and chances are, short of developmental challenges, you could at least hold a very simple conversation with an adult by the time you started school.

It’s the same thing learning a language as an adult. Don’t let them lie to you and tell you it’s impossible. It isn’t. You just have to put yourself in the same place you were as a child, listen, repeat, and learn from your mistakes.

Good luck!

Sunday nibble #82: Talk of the town

I really knew nothing about Everyone’s Talking about Jamie before I saw a trailer on Instagram, but I was intrigued immediately. It promised the story of a high school student in England who was already openly gay, but was about to go through a second coming out, revealing his desire to be a drag queen.

Take a look at that trailer here:

The comments on the post were mostly positive with, of course, the obligatory homophobic and transphobic jabs tossed in — although maybe someday people will realize that drag queens/kings and transwomen and transmen are not the same thing.

Anyway, the trailer got me really excited about seeing the film, which I did over last weekend, and I was not disappointed. Based on a musical that premiered in Sheffield, Yorkshire, the setting of the story, eventually transferring to London’s West End (aka British Broadway), it tells the true story of Jamie Campbell — who played himself when the show premiered — a kid from a working class neighborhood in Sheffield who had dreams of being a drag queen.

It was an instant hit in Sheffield, and a production company approached the producers about turning it into a film after representatives had come to the tenth performance. Like most projects from 2020, the film’s release was delayed due to COVID, finally receiving a limited theatrical release in September 2021 before debuting on Amazon Prime.

The stage version will be appearing in Los Angeles as part of Center Theatre Group’s 2021-22 season, premiering in January 2022.

As for the film version — it won me over from the opening moments, largely due to the sheer charisma and likeability of newcomer Max Harwood, who embodies Jamie with an enthusiastic and positive energy, whether he’s setting off on his early morning paper-route in the rain, greeting his mom as he comes home while she’s heading off to work, or appreciating the little messages she’s left for him.

Oh, right. One important detail is that today is Jamie’s 16th birthday, and everyone seems to know that — his mom, obviously, and his bestie Pritti Pasha (Lauren Patel), the half-Muslim, half-Hindi girl who lives in her own world of not fitting in.

After Jamie’s mom gives him a very special birthday gift that lets us know she is 100% accepting of her son no matter who he is, Jamie comes out to Pritti to reveal his deepest desire — to be a drag queen.

Throughout, the film is full of amazing and colorful musical numbers that spring out of nowhere but not without motivation — largely a lot of Jamie’s fantasies, but not always, especially after he meets his mentor, retired drag queen Loco Chanelle, aka Hugo Battersby (Richard E. Grant), who becomes Jamie’s mentor after the boy wanders into Hugo’s costume/clothing shop.

Of course, Jamie’s journey could not be without setbacks and adversaries, the biggest one being a single moment in his childhood when his father Wayne (Ralph Ineson; now his mother’s ex) caught him playing dress-up and called him “disgusting,” a wound that has yet to heel, but he also has to contend with Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan), the Year 11 practical teacher — i.e. the one who is supposed to talk them out of dreams of being social media influencers and into dead-end jobs in Sheffield, and Dean Paxton (Samuel Bottomley), the somewhat homophobic school bully who is considered a cool kid by some.

I do find the casting of an actor named “Bottomley” as the homophobic bully to be hilarious, by the way — but he, like everyone else on screen, is just amazing in their role.

As is typical of British actors, everyone commits and everyone nails it, and every single performer absolutely embodies their roles from start to finish, which is what makes the film so damn engaging.

The real standouts are Harwood, whose vulnerability turned fierceness makes us root for him from the first instant; the amazing Sarah Lancashire as his mother, Margaret, who will do anything for her boy, including lying about his father Wayne showing up for the party but having to leave; Richard E. Grant, who’s practically a British institution by now, but comes on with all of the gravitas and camp necessary to make his role a show-stopper; Horgan’s Miss Hedge, who toes that always fine line of making us hate her character without playing into the stereotype, so we understand her even as we want to throw rotten tomatoes; and Bottomley, who torments Jamie throughout and yet finally reaches a détente with him.

The big pre-prom scene between the two of them in particular skates a really fine line and, like most of the movie, avoids the stereotyped and obvious conclusion.

Reportedly, the film version cut seven songs from the stage version — not a surprise — so I can’t give a full report on the music, other than to say that it does suffer from one of the great drawbacks of a lot of early 2000s musicals written by people not named Lin-Manuel: the music gets poppy and repetitious, with no really strong themes or melodies, so that nothing stands out.

It is fun while it’s happening, but you won’t be humming it on the way to your car unlike a show like, e.g. Chicago or Evita.

On the other hand, you will be enjoying it while you’re watching it. Bonus points: If you grew LGBTQ+, there are several points during the film where you will just bawl your eyes out, guaranteed.

Bonus points: During the later credits, we get to see the real Jamie and his mother Margaret, and it is absolutely striking how closely Max Harwood resembles Jamie Campbell while Lancashire and Mom… not so much. It’s not just the physical resemblance in casting. It’s quite clear that Max just absorbed and embodied Jamie 100% — which makes me think that this kid is going places.

Theatre Thursday: Sometimes, the movie is better: part 2

Hey — today was Rosa Parks’s birthday! And Ida Lupino’s! And mine! Show some love, whether it’s by commenting, subscribing, or dropping by that tip jar up there.

Last week’s post was all about how the film version of Cabaret was much better than the original stage musical, although that musical was based on a play that was based on a book.

This time around, the derivative work started out as an off-Broadway musical that went to Broadway and then to film, so there aren’t any other layers to unpack. The stage show premiered in 1967 and hit Broadway the next year. It took just over a decade for it to make it to film, directed by a Czech immigrant to America, Miloš Forman. And, honestly, there’s a really good reason that he can relate to political protests in 1968.

Or, in other words, he showed how an immigrant can get a better handle on life in America than most Americans can and in this film, he nailed it.

But back up a bit. The original stage show was a pretty shallow review that only ever got attention because the cast got nude, they sang dirty words, and explicitly mentioned issues of race and vaguely protested the Vietnam War. That was pretty much it, and the thing really didn’t have any kind of plot beyond that, nor much of a real relationship between the characters.

Honestly, the script is a hot mess, more interested in abstract symbolism than in anything else.

But when this whole thing becomes a movie at the end of the ‘70s, Miloš gets what was going on in the ‘60s, and, bonus points, decides to take the approach of staging all of the musical numbers in real life. In other words, he’s going throwback old school — the exact opposite of the Cabaret approach — and, oddly enough, he makes it work.

Oh. Did I mention that part where the original stage show really didn’t have any coherent story? Right, I did.

This was the other big thing that this version brought to the table through two simple tweaks: Take the Lead Couple (a musical tradition), remove them from the hippie tribe, and make them the fish out of water (Claude and Sheila), then eliminate the concept of secondary couple entirely, and replace it with the rest of the core Tribe: Berger, Woof, Hud, and Jeannie — any one of whom could have been in a couple with any of the others.

In case you’re wondering, this is the show I’m writing about.

Hair (1979)

Much like the film adaptation of Pink Floyd — The Wall would three years later, Hair begins in relative silence as our lead character, Claude Hooper Bukowski (John Savage), leaves his house in Oklahoma. It’s a foggy and probably very early morning. Sound and colors are subdued and muted as Claude’s father drives him to a roadside bus stop in the middle of nowhere.

We won’t know for sure until almost the last shot of the film, but this is most likely the summer of 1967, which tells us something else: Claude is no poor boy from the sticks, as his father insists on giving him $50 cash, in case of emergencies.

Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $390 now.

Claude hops onto the bus and sets off for New York City, and this is where the music begins as he gets closer to his destination. By the way, Forman makes the very interesting choice to have the camera track from right to left instead of the other direction. I don’t know whether he was just confused about American geography, but the tradition in film here is that right to left means going west, while left to right means going east.

So, in other words, to an American audience, the instinct is to feel like Claude is heading to California.

On the other hand, having come from Czechoslovakia, this may have been a very conscious choice on Forman’s part, representing a metaphorical journey to the west, from an oppressive, gray place to the land of freedom and color.

As soon as we hit Central Park and the opening number Age of Aquarius fully kicks in, we definitely explode in a riot of color in more ways than one. The entire cast of the movie was about as diverse as possible, and we pretty much have every ethnic group represented in the opening, with several interracial couples included.

Here, the costuming (and, naturally, hair) also manages to be spot-on, avoiding any of the usual media screw-ups when it comes to portraying the look of a fairly recent youth culture a decade after the fact.

There’s a lot to unpack in these opening six minutes, and they’re worth watching.

We’re a witness with Claude as he stumbles into this be-in in the park, and we also meet The Tribe — Berger (Treat Williams), Hud (Dorsey Wright), Woof (Don Dacus), and Jeannie (Annie Golden) — who will become that all-important collective secondary couple.

Here, Claude also has his first vision of Sheila (Beverly D’Angelo), clearly a member of the patrician class, as she rides with two chaperones. She and Claude spot each other, and both are clearly smitten.

There’s also a lot of magic going on, and one particularly delightful moment comes when two mounted policemen approach the group. Most of the flee, but a brave duo of dancers remains, and their movements seemingly control the horses, making the cops powerless. It’s a really nice touch along with everything else.

The choreography here and throughout is stunning, and I have to give a big nod to Twyla Tharp, who does remarkable work, and pops up onscreen several times. This was her first of five film credits, a small part of a very long and illustrious career.

It’s very interesting to contrast her choreography with Bob Fosse’s in anything he did, but particularly Cabaret. Fosse was all about control through the concept of isolation. What this means in choreography is that a dancer should have precise control of any particular part of their body at any time, right down to a fingertip or a toe.

This is why a lot of Fosse’s moves seem to be intentionally robotic or jerky, with emphasis frequently being given to, say, just the hands, or the way a dancer tilts their head. Compare the choreography in the clip above to this bit featuring Fosse himself, with Gwen Verdon, in the film adaptation of Damn Yankees.

On the surface, it may seem like those are loose movements, especially given the tempo and tune, but if you watch closely, they are anything but. And you can also see the emphasis of ballet in Fosse’s work.

Tharp’s work in Hair, in contrast, seems to defy gravity, and clearly combines influences from tai chi and gymnastics. The dancer’s bodies are loose and limber, and rather than clearly controlling themselves, they seem to be drawn along by external forces.

It’s a perfect visual metaphor for the film, in fact.

Now one thing about the original is that it has a bunch of character intro songs at the beginning that don’t really introduce the characters. Sure, they give an actor something fun to sing, but they didn’t really have any greater meaning. Here, they become background to the more important thing happening, which is actual character development.

One of the first and most important of these is right after Claude meets The Tribe. They ask him for change, and he wonders why he should give it to them. At first unmoved by their claim that Jeannie is pregnant and they haven’t eaten for two days, he finally tosses them what’s probably half a buck — about $3.90 now.

Now, one of the things that happens in the opening is that The Tribe comes across Sheila and company on their horses, and Woof sincerely asks if he can ride for just five minutes, because he’s never done it and he’s always wanted to. Naturally, they refuse.

But as soon as Berger realizes they have enough money, what does he do? He makes sure that his friend gets his wish. They rent a horse and go for a ride and, when they catch up again with Sheila and her chaperones, Forman puts Woof’s intro number to perfect use.

It’s a little ditty that I like to use as an audition piece and it’s called Sodomy. It has exactly 23 words in its lyrics. Five of them are references to sex acts, none of them involving missionary sex, and two of them refer to basically the Indian Big Book of Sex.

Naturally it scandalizes the two older women with Sheila, although it’s not clear whether she’s so upset. Still, the trio rides off, passing Claude. Moments later, the horse that Berger and Woof were on runs by rider-less, and the Tribe implores Claude to catch.

Remember: Claude is from Oklahoma, so he does, and takes the opportunity to show off some trick riding skills to Sheila, only to have them go one way at a fork in the trail while he goes the other. Another potentially intentional move by Forman: Sheila and company go right. Claude goes left.

The other intro numbers, which do have some powerful political content, come together during Claude’s first night in New York, after the Tribe has convinced him to hang out with him, then get him higher than fuck. In short order, the titles of these numbers are Colored Spade, Manchester, and I’m Black/Ain’t Got No.

The first one, performed by Hud and the people of color in the cast is basically a litany that throws just about every racist slur about black people right back at the white people, and Hud owns it here — clearly the original intention of the number.

It may seem un-PC now, but in reality it’s a clear and early example of “taking back the words.”

As if to emphasize that, Manchest is Berger introducing (and speaking for) Claude, and significantly all of the people of color vanish. Poof, instant erasure, as Berger describes Claude as being from Manchester, “England, England, across the Atlantic Sea.” It’s the American Empire in a nutshell.

Everyone returns and launches into the number Ain’t Got No, which is a litany worth repeating now, because it describes the true struggle that was going on at the time. It wasn’t about black vs. white. It was, and is, about have vs. have not.

After all, in this song, it’s all of the Tribe and hippies singing together.

Then morning comes, Claude wakes up, and starts to head off on his own. He’s about to leave when Berger notices a newspaper on the ground identifying Sheila, who is having her debutante party that very afternoon.

Side note: This means that she is probably sixteen. Since Claude comes to New York in response to being drafted, he’s probably not that much older. Pay no attention to the casting of actors who were 28 and 30 at the time the film was made.

But, again, Berger ignores logic and reason to help give a friend their dream. When Claude balks at crashing because he wasn’t invited, Berger replies, “Do you want to go to a party with me?”

And that’s the end of just the first act, which has already packed in a lot more character development, relationship, and meaning than the source material did in its entire length.

I could continue the deep-dive through the rest of it but that could easily turn into a 10,000 word post so, instead, I’d just urge you to see it. It’s currently available on Amazon Prime — I’ll leave you to search it yourselves because I’m not trying to monetize.

But the message of this film, which comes through much more clearly than it did in the stage show, is far from dated. The struggle we’re in is one of greed vs. community, fear vs. love, and hatred vs. hope.

Just substitute the concept of forcing people to go fight in the Vietnam War with the concept of forcing them to go back to work during a pandemic because, economically, they have no choice.

The rich could always wiggle their way out of the draft, whether it was via student deferments, daddy knowing Congressmen (they were all men then), or bone spurs.

The poor, not so much, unless they were willing to do things that would ruin their lives in other ways, like pretend to be homosexual, or insane, or flee to Canada — although one of Jimmy Carter’s first acts when he took office was to pardon the so-called “draft dodgers.”

Kind of seems familiar now, though, right? Hole up in your well-stocked mansion with no worries about where the money is coming from, lobby your Congressperson, Senator, or Governor to end the lockdown — for the people who work for you and earn you your money — or fly off to your private island.

Or… go back to work without proper PPE, maybe via public transportation, without health insurance, while you’re taking care of your kids and your elderly parent, and take your chances.

Watch Hair, listen to the message, and then do something. And remember: in the film version, Berger goes full on Jesus mode in order to help his friends.

Theatre Thursday: Sometimes, the movie is better part 1

In the cases of adaptation, a frequent lament of fans of the original is that the movie version just wasn’t as good. We most often hear this about adaptations of novels, both graphic and non, but the same is true of plays, particularly musicals.

The big trick in adapting live theatre to cinema is that the latter is a lot more literal whereas the former has no need to be literal or realistic at all. This is why some shows that work so well on stage fall kind of flat on film. The Fantasticks is a really good example. Being a sort of reverse fairy tale — in which a pair of neighboring fathers conspire to have their children fall in love by forbidding them from seeing each other only to succeed in that to see the relationship go sour — the less literal and, well, more fantastic, the staging is, the better.

A more recent and spectacular example of how film’s need for realism can destroy an adaptation is Cats. Not that that show works on stage at all. In my humble opinion, it commits the cardinal sin of being boring, with no one to really root for. It’s my second least favorite musical, right after the mess that is Rent.

As with any adaptation, changes in the plot or other elements may be necessary for various reasons. When novels are adapted, this often means combining characters and dropping subplots, since a full-length novel is really enough material for a mini-series rather than a single film. (Novellas fare better at more direct adaptations.)

While stage works may more often than not follow a similar structure to film, there are still cases where storylines are dropped — or added — and there’s also the issue of changing times. For example, the original stage version of The Fantasticks, which premiered in 1960, includes a number called “The Rape Ballet.”

Now, it’s explained in the song that this is “rape” in the ancient sense of abduction, and since the character who leads in it has been hired by the two fathers to fake the abduction of the daughter in order to allow the son to be the hero and end the “feud” between the fathers, and he explains that he’s using the word in that sense, that’s how it was originally justified.

Yeah, that fell by the wayside eventually. By the time the movie came out in 1995, the number had been replaced with “The Abduction Ballet,” with none of the connotations of the earlier version.

(Oddly enough, I was involved with a theatre company in the ‘00s that produced the show, premiered it on September 11, 2002, and used the “rape” version of the number. And the artistic director was an old hippie woman. Go figure.)

A lot of the time, the original is better. But, every so often, the changes, particularly when they involve story or focus, can make an okay stage musical into an amazing film. Here are some of my favorite examples.

Cabaret (1972)

The film version of Cabaret is actually a fourth generation adaptation. It was based on the Broadway musical of the same name, which was based on the legit play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, which was in turn based on the short novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood.

Oddly enough, Isherwood played the character based on himself in the original Broadway run of the play in 1951. And while there’s a gay couple in his original novel, his character is apparently not and he pursues a relationship with Sally Bowles — who is British. There’s also not a hint of gay in the first film adaptation of the non-musical stage adaptation, and certainly not in the Broadway version.

The whole thing gets pink-washed, although Isherwood bears some of the blame for that. So it’s kind of a surprise that when notorious heterosexual womanizer Bob Fosse gets the project, one of his big innovations is restoring the homosexuality of the male lead. The other is making all of the songs in it diegetic. That is, the musical numbers are moved into the Kit Kat Club, where Sally Bowles (now American) performs, with the two exceptions being a record that Sally puts on in her room and a sudden nationalistic Biergarten rallying song begun by a member of the Nazi Youth.

The other big changes are in the treatment of the secondary couple, and the relationship between Brian (aka Isherwood), Sally, and Max — a character dropped from the stage musical, but brought back.

In the stage musical, the secondary couple is largely played for comedy and are cast as much older. The woman is Sally’s landlady and her suitor is also an older gentleman. A lot of the numbers that got dumped in the transition were theirs. Oh — a word about “secondary couple,” for those not up on musical theatre conventions.

Quite often, although not as much in the modern era, every musical would have two couples, the leading couple and the secondary couple. Both of them would fall in love, with one couple’s story mirroring the other. Usually, one half of each couple would be connected. Most often, it was divided into the boys and the girls. The most common relationships would be either siblings or best friends, with either set being one or the other or a combination of both.

Of course, there are other ways to mix and match. In Cabaret, the film, the couple are Fritz and Natalia, and Natalia is an English student of Brian’s. She’s a member of a wealthy Jewish family. Fritz is apparently a Protestant, so Natalia’s parents won’t allow them to marry. This leads to one of the most poignant moments in the film when Fritz shows up on Natalia’s doorstep at night, then hesitantly announces “I am a Jew.”

As for the other relationship in the film between Brian, Sally, and Max, who is a wealthy Baron, it turns out that Brian and Sally are both… as Natalia asks in a language question and Sally answers to Brian’s horror, “How do you say ‘screwing?’” Bumsen.

I’ll be polite and translate that into Yiddish instead of English: Max was shtupping both Brian and Sally, although neither of them knows that up until a confrontation between the two that has one of the most darkly funny dialogue exchanges in film in three sentences.

All the while, by placing the musical numbers in the club, some performed by Sally but a lot of them headlined by our Emcee, who serves as a Greek chorus, those songs entertain and distract the in-film audience while commenting directly on what’s going on in the film.

One of my favorite numbers in the whole film speaks directly to Max’s attraction to Brian and Sally: He’s rich.

Some interesting notes on this number: First, it’s the only one in the film that Joel Grey and Liza Minelli really have together, because there had to be that star moment, and it replaced a number that, in the stage show, is performed only by the Emcee and Kit Kat Girls.

Second, there is a strong hint that the Emcee is creeping on Sally Bowles and, while she doesn’t appreciate it, she kind of has no choice, so the more intimate moments in the choreography here are colored by that and add an extra layer to the whole thing. If she doesn’t perform with him, then she’s not going to make any money.

Finally, note that a lot of the Emcee’s choreography here is based on traditional dancing that would have been done by Jewish men during things like weddings, especially during the silhouette part behind the scrim at the end. Nothing is ever said about the Emcee’s religion in the film and, in fact, there’s the strong implication that he’s a staunch supporter of the Nazis, but this idea will color later adaptations, more on which below.

This diegetic music idea is one that the film adaptation of Chicago will pick up in 2002 and, while the film and stage versions of that show are equally good, Chicago won the Oscar for Best Picture along with five others. Cabaret won eight Oscars total, but not Best Picture. The only reason I won’t insist that it should have is that it lost to The Godfather.

By this point, full disclosure. I discovered Cabaret as a tween because my paternal grandfather liked to collect records by buying up lots from garage sales and antique and thrift stores and the like, but he was only looking for jazz music from the 1950s and before.

So anything else — which included rock, pop, and musical soundtracks — went into boxes that were fair game to me and my three cousins whenever we visited. My oldest cousin (seven months younger than me) was only into hard rock and that kind of crap, which I never was.

The other two were really too young to care. So that left me to dive into all the weird shit — meaning musicals and stand-up and so on. Grandpa also apparently didn’t like big band, swing, and classical. Score!

So I found the original Broadway soundtrack of Cabaret, gave it a listen and immediately wanted to play the Emcee. This was long after the film had come out, actually, but I eventually learned that it existed, although I didn’t actually see it until a screening in a college class on film musicals.

When I finally saw the stage show, a year after I graduated from college, I realized, “Wow. The movie was so much better.”

Flash forward. When Cabaret was restaged by Sam Mendes in 1993, it picked up elements from the film, made Brian/Cliff’s bisexuality even more explicit, and hypersexualized the emcee, now played by Alan Cumming. And the biggest change to that character also makes for a really chilling ending.

In text and song, not much different from the original. In context… hang onto your socks.

I can’t help but think that this update was informed by the movie musical and Fosse’s choreography of his Emcee, which Mendes and Cumming ran with. And the last little bit here takes it on to a whole other level, just like the movie did in the 1970s.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment

Image author IsarSteve, licensed under (CC BY-SA 3.0), used unaltered.

Theatre Thursday: Life is a…

One of the earliest things I can remember, oddly enough, is the soundtrack to the musical “Cabaret,” specifically the title track as sung by Liza Minelli, but also the opening number, “Wilkommen,” which may have inspired my love for languages, and the song “Money,” which probably introduced me to the idea that you could have two different melodies going on at the same time. Ironically, I would not see the entire movie in a theater until I was in a film class in college despite home video and all that, but this was probably for the best. It’s really something that needs to be seen on the big screen first. (And yes, this was also the film that basically screamed at me “Being bisexual is a thing!”)

But… prior to all of that, this was probably the show that infested my baby brain with the idea of Musical Theater Is Amazing, and made me want to perform. And the title tune, of course, features the very famous line “Life is a cabaret.” Well… duh.

Life is a performance. Life is art. Life is dance. Life is creation. If you don’t think that it is, then you aren’t living life. You’re just going through the motions. But if you take charge of your own movements and emotions, and then take every step in your day as if you’re onstage and entertaining the masses, then you are going to have a really good time. And this is what taking those early lessons to heart and going on to make life a performance has taught me. You can either be the show or the audience. But being the audience is boring as hell.

Life sure as hell is a cabaret, ol’ chum. Life is performance. Life without performance is not life at all. So consider this when you go into the muggle world (if you must), but I know that you know it if you’re an actor, singer, artist, writer, performer, whatever. It’s what Saint Shakespeare told us. All the world’s a stage. And we are but mere players on it. But play we must, and play we should and shall, because in taking up our roles we can make this planet a better place.

The only people who don’t play are the ones who are afraid of life and living. And they avoid playing by lying and not being themselves and blaming everyone else. Improv is about “Yes, and?” Guess what? The people who aren’t improving themselves are all about, “No, not.”

Nothing will stop the fun faster than “No, not.” Nothing will make the fun more amazing than “Yes, and?” So choose wisely. But keep in mind: Life is a cabaret, old chum. Life is a cabaret.

Theatre Thursday: The ghost light is still burning

I haven’t performed on a stage in public for one year, three months, a week, and a day now and at this point I don’t know when I will again. Except for the main company, the rest of the improv troupes that used to be part of the whole have disbanded and although our Monday night Rec League group has met and practiced via Zoom the whole time, it’s just not the same.

As I see live theatre start to sneak back into reality, it just reminds me of how much I miss the experience of performing — and the great irony of that is that I never set out to be an actor or improviser in the first place. My goal was always to be a writer. I just fell into the acting accidentally.

Like probably everyone, I’d done a couple of elementary school plays, but didn’t really think of those as acting. In my first, I was one out of six lumberjacks with construction paper axes and no, I have no idea what the play was, except that I don’t think it was Little Red Riding Hood but it was staged right in the classroom.

In my last year of elementary school, we did do a production of The Pied Piper of Hamlin and we did it on the actual stage in the auditorium. I actually had a fairly featured part — a young boy named Obi. Since he was lame, he wasn’t able to follow the piper with the rest of the children, so he was the only one who knew what could happen and was able to tell the adults.

I had a big speech and everything, although we had a glitch. There was a student who transferred to the school a fairly short time before the performance but, in the interest of having everyone participate, the teacher cast him in a speaking part. Not having had enough time to prepare and rehearse, he totally forgot his lines — which were all in the same scene that was my big one.

Since none of us were particularly good at ad-libbing, the production sort of slid off the rails until someone finally ran on and handed him the book — although he did wind up repeating the speech that was my cue, which got awkward, since the only thing I knew to do was to repeat my scene as well.

When I did get into drama class in middle school, I really sucked at it, so that made me performance shy except for playing piano and keyboards for a couple of musicals. In college, I had no intention of pursuing theatre, except that the music thing came up to lure me back in.

One of the theatre professors heard from one of my friends that I owned a synthesizer, so she contacted me to ask if I wanted to play in the combo for the musical she was directing that fall, which was my first semester of freshman year.

It sounded like fun, so I figured, “Okay, what the hell,” and did it, and it was a game-changer. There were four of us in the combo — piano, bass, drums, and synth. The musical was an odd little show called Philemon, originally produced off-Broadway in 1975, although it never really went on to become a hit, more on why in a moment.

What’s most notable about it, though is that it was created by the same team that had created The Fantasticks fifteen years earlier, and that show still holds the record for longest continuous run of any show in the U.S. The off-Broadway premiere was in 1960 and it didn’t close until 2002.

It could be argued that San Francisco’s Beach Blanket Babylon had a longer run, premiering in 1974 and not closing until 2020. However, it did change venues and it was also a very topical review, so the numbers, performers, subject matter, and lyrics were changing constantly, so it could just as rightly be argued that it wasn’t really the same show or in the same category.

But I was talking about meeee! Back to Philemon: It’s actually a very dark show. Set in third century C.E. Antioch during the Roman occupation, the premise is simple. The location is a Roman prison (concentration camp, perhaps?) holding arrested dissidents, Christians among them.

The rumor is that a famous Christian leader, Philemon, is coming to liberate them. The Romans would really like to figure out who the Christians are but in order to do it, they need a fake Philemon. It just so happens that an amoral street performer and clown, Cockian, has just been arrested, but the head of the camp has an offer for him.

You’ve probably figured out that the offer is to pretend to be Philemon and flush out the Christians, and the story goes from there. The songs were actually surprisingly good and fun to play, and since we were sitting behind the set which was covered with scrims, we could see everything onstage while the audience could not see us — at least not until our curtain call moment, when a change of lighting revealed us.

One of my favorite stories from that play involves a number in which I played a single note as undertone during a monologue, slowly bending the pitch down. I quickly figured out the trick of putting a pencil under the key so I could just focus on the pitch bend, but noticed something else during the course of the run.

This monologue was a speech given by a character who had been discovered to be Christian and sentenced to be flogged to death, and the actor in the role convinced the director to let him do the scene nude — which actually made sense in context. Of course, they kept it tasteful for the audience and most of the rest of the cast was sitting under the upper level of the set at that time, so they couldn’t see anything.

The band, however, had front row seats for Liam’s backstage entrance and butt-ass naked climb up the ladder to that platform, so we got to see everything. But that’s not the interesting part.

No — it’s that I started to time how long I had to play that single note while we were in dress rehearsals, and it started out at about two and a half minutes. But then, once the audience came in, Liam’s performance got more and more dramatic and emotional every night. By the time we closed, that note was almost six and a half minutes.

That’s called milking it.

The next semester, my friends from Philemon talked me into going to the theatre department’s first meeting, then egged me into auditioning for the next play. Figuring that there’d be no way in hell I’d get cast, since I wasn’t even a theatre major, I auditioned — and got cast in a fairly prominent speaking role.

Well, damn. And then I became a theatre minor, did a bunch of shows in college with both the theatre department and the school’s student drama club, and enjoyed it all immensely. But after graduation, I hung up my performing hats for a while and just focused on writing.

I think, by that point, I’d taken to just performing in real life, so didn’t really need an artificial stage. Plus the format of the writing workshop I belonged to consisted of all the writers getting together weekly and then doing dramatic reads of each other’s pages, and I got quite a lot of practice at cold reading and acting, not to mention a chance to perform. I was involved with various groups like that for years, right up until I made the switch to improv.

Of course, writing would eventually bring me back to performing, and this happened after I had joined the writing arm of a theatre company that was on the verge of collapsing. That would have been Actors Alley at the El Portal Theatre, and once it did blow up, somebody else created The Company Rep from its ashes.

At first, I just stuck with the writing group, but after they had moved to a larger theater and announced that they were doing Camino Real, I just had to jump back in again, and so I did. I auditioned, got a really great part that was mostly non-speaking, so very physical, and although I’m sure that show was sheer torture for the audience, it popped me right back on that performing horse again.

The Company Rep didn’t last too long, but I did manage a few really fun roles as well as tech gigs during that time. And then, the biggest irony was that when I got into improv, it was with the company that occupied exactly the same 99-seat space within the El Portal Theatre that Actors Alley had died in and The Company Rep had been born in.

Full circle, then, when the improv company shut down in 2020.

“We’re actors. We’re the opposite of people!” That’s perhaps my favorite line from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which is a wonderfully loopy meta take on Hamlet. Indeed, the whole Stoppard masterpiece is just one of Shakespeare’s most renowned plays as seen from the POV of two minor characters who are summarily dispatched by the melancholy Dane when he turns the tables and alters a letter.

But it’s true. It’s probably the case for a lot of actors, but when we’re not onstage, we can be introverted, awkward, and shy. Throw us on stage, though, with or without a script, and that’s when we’re given permission to come alive.

If only theatre weren’t still dead right now. But, as I said in the title, the ghost light is still burning, so there is still hope that we’ll be back, bigger and better than ever. Hey — a little plague couldn’t stop Shakespeare, right? It’s not going to stop us.

Theatre Thursday: So put another dime in the jukebox, baby

June 18, 1815: “My my, At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender

April 6, 1974: ABBA wins the Eurovision Song Contest for their song Waterloo, which has nothing to do with Napoleon, really.

April 6, 1999: the jukebox musical Mamma Mia! premieres in London’s West End. The date, obviously, is not a coincidence.

But now the theme of this piece probably makes sense, since it is Theatre Thursday. So I’m not writing about Napoleon, famous battles, or Swedish pop groups. This is about the concept of a jukebox musical, which I have to say I find somewhat abhorrent with a few exceptions.

If you’re not familiar with the term, here’s what it is. A jukebox musical is a show that takes existing musical works, either a collection of popular tunes or sometimes the collected works of a particular band or artist, and then uses them to create a story, although one that’s generally not about that band or artist — with exceptions, more on which later.

Note that concept albums that became musicals, like Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita are not jukebox musicals since they were created like traditional musicals, just released as soundtracks first.

No — a jukebox musical is a collage made out of pre-existing material. And the problem with this sort of backwards creation is that it forces the story into the music, rather than letting the music flow from the story. And, of course, if you’re working with a group like ABBA, with a lot of hits, there’s the need to jam every one of them in there, even if it includes Waterloo, whether it fits the story or not.

Another big danger is that it just turns into a concert loosely wrapped around a story — q.v. 2005’s Jersey Boys, documenting Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and infamous for the number of fistfights that would start in the audience every single night at intermission.

The concept of jukebox musicals really started in America with film rather than stage, and some of them are quite famous and actually good — Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, and An American in Paris being just three examples.

But the granddaddy of jukebox musicals is arguably John Gay’s 1728 opus The Beggar’s Opera, which took popular ballads of the day as the soundtrack of its story, which was stylized as a parody of Italian opera of the time.

Ultimately, it gave us the decidedly non-jukebox musical The Three Penny Opera by Brecht and Weill, which gave us the song Mack the Knife, which you probably still know from the linked version despite Bobby Darin having made it a hit in the late 50s and having last performed it just before his death in 1973.

Ironically, Darin’s music was used in the 2016 stage musical Dream Lover: The Bobby Darin Musical as well as the ambitious but incredibly miscast 2004 biopic Beyond the Sea, in which Kevin Spacey, already in his 40s, tried to play Darin at all stages in his life, keeping in mind that the singer started his career very young, basically getting into songwriting at 19 before dying at only 37.

Though they not always successful — hits like Mamma Mia! are the exception, not the rule — the number of jukebox musicals has exploded in each decade since the 1980s, with nearly 50 produced in the 2010s and three already planned for 2021, although there’s no telling whether they’ll happen now.

So what’s the appeal of the genre? Sadly, a vast majority of audiences prefer the familiar over the novel. Also, from the producer’s side of it, if they’re a large company that already owns a bunch of intellectual property (IP), like a huge star’s song catalog, then they don’t have to pay extra to use it, so they save a lot on material.

Not that they might not still spend the money, but Mega Studio Pictures paying hundreds of thousands to license music owned by Mega Studio Music Group is just an accounting trick that allows the former to deduct the cost and the latter to use the income to appear profitable. It’s no different than you or I transferring money from checking to savings.

With major companies like Disney and other studios getting more involved in Broadway productions, because the shows have just gotten so expensive, it was an inevitable move, really.

But, again, this leads right back to the big ho-hum drawback of large venue jukebox musicals focusing on a single artist or group. They can easily come across (and do) as nothing but overblown concerts with fancy sets, an attempt at a story, but with none of the original stars.

Yes, Sting did appear in productions of his musical The Last Ship — but that wasn’t a jukebox musical. It was all original material he wrote.

I’m trying to think of a single stage jukebox musical that I’ve liked, and I can’t. Okay, I can think of one series of such shows but it’s a specific sub-genre, in that they use the jukebox format to create mash-ups between particular artists and authors.

Officially known as the Troubadour Theater Company but usually referred to as the Troubies, they do shows that take text from authors like Dickens or Shakespeare, combine this with the music of a specific artist or group, and give us musicals like A Christmas Carole King or Julius Weezer.

They work because they were never supposed to be serious in the first place while still presenting a distillation of the original stage story that is accessible to all audiences.

Oddly enough, though, the format seems to work a lot better on film than it does on stage — maybe because the need for film to make things literal works against everything just looking like a concert.

One very notable example is Moulin Rouge!, which used modern pop and rock songs in a story set in 1901 Paris, but part of the reason this worked so well is that the script was written first with the songs very carefully chosen, and nothing proceeded until Baz Luhrmann had acquired the rights to every last one of them. There’s only one original song in the film, the haunting Come What May, but this is common for every Hollywood jukebox musical. You can’t get an Oscar nod if the song wasn’t written for the movie, after all.

Another great example of one that works is the Elton John biopic Rocketman, but that’s because it brilliantly relates the songs to the life of the composer rather than putting them in the context of performance. There are only one or two moments where we actually see the Elton character performing one of his songs for an audience, but those bits are frequently parts of a bigger fantasy sequence.

And, of course, there’s the classic 1952 film Singin’ in the Rain, which happened because producer Arthur Freed wanted a vehicle to pimp out songs he and Nacio Herb Brown had written during the early talkie period (1929-39). It was all about owning that IP again. Fortunately, the result was a film that is still funny and timeless to this day.

In case you haven’t seen it, it takes place in the late 1920s, right as movies went from being silent to “talking pictures,” something which caused huge turmoil in the real-life industry. A key plot point is that one of the biggest starlets of the era looks beautiful, but has an accent and a voice that would make a chainsaw sound like James Earl Jones.

It’s an early 50s parody of the world of about 25 years previously — which seems to actually be the standard human parody cycle. Think about it. If you were going to make a film today about people struggling with a huge change in how things are done when it comes to media, wouldn’t the rise of the internet and mid-90s be the ideal target?

And if you haven’t seen Singin’ in the Rain, that’s even more of a surprise, because it happens to be what I like to call one of the Warner Bros. ATMs.

I worked for Warner Home Video just after the turn of the century, and loved it, but the marketing people behind it sometimes did… questionable things in search of a buck. Hence, the Five ATMs: Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Singin’ in the Rain.

Why ATMs? Simple. Warner Bros. owned the rights to all of them and, whenever it looked like the company was going to have a bad quarter because some property had crashed and burned — which happened a lot back then (The Adventures of Pluto Nash? Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever?) — they would quickly whip out yet another special edition boxed set of any or all of those films, either adding more bonus material, special booklets, or collectibles (especially with Oz), or just going all whiz-bang on the packaging, calling it a limited edition #th anniversary set, and charging a premium.

By the way, I think I still have original, rolled theatrical posters for Pluto and Ballistic, in case anyone is interested in buying one or both.

As for all of those special releases, people bought them hand over fist. Oz was particularly egregious. Sell the exact same special edition box set as last time three months later, only now it comes with a special Tin Man ornament instead of Scarecrow. Whoosh — product out, money in.

It’s that lure of the familiar once again. But that was exactly how a jukebox worked: If you wanted to hear that song you liked one more time, you had to pay for it. Again, and again, and again.

Hm. Maybe that remake of Singin’ in the Rain, called Torrentin’ on the Net, should be all about how piracy came about, as people got tired of having to pay over and over for slightly shinier but not always better versions of the same old shit.

Image (CC BY-SA 2.0), used unmodified, Vintage Jukebox by Mark Sebastian.

How to create a conspiracy theory

The human mind has a great capacity for pattern recognition. It’s hard wired into us because, at the time that we were a prey animal, it was very useful to be able to recognize a lurking predator, whether it was really there or not.

It also taught us to recognize human faces, and to this day, more likely than not, if you see a pattern of two circles or dots (“eyes”) somewhere above a curve, line, or circle (“mouth”) you will see a face. Sometimes, there may even be a vertical line making up the nose.

This is the entire basis of all the text-based smiley face emoticons that preceded modern, more literal emojis.

The phenomenon is called pareidolia, and it covers more than just seeing faces. Jesus on toast, animals in the clouds, the face (or rabbit) on the Moon are all examples of this.

But humans don’t just see visual patterns. They are good at connecting dots that are not there as well. We have a tendency to create meaningful patterns from random data.

Sometimes, it can be harmless, like noticing that you always hear your neighbor leave their apartment around six in the evening, then only hear them come back after two in the morning when you’re up late on weekends, so assume that they’re a server or bartender. They also only seem to go out during the day on Mondays, the same day they never go out at night.

You could have nailed it completely, or you could be right in general and wrong in specifics — for example, they work the swing-shift in retail, or they’re on-staff at a theatre either backstage or in the house.

Yes, these are all pre-COVID assumptions. But the point is, in this case, if you create a pattern from random data, it doesn’t really hurt anyone. Well, at least not until you start to assume darker things about your neighbor and then start to intentionally gather data to “prove”  that they are involved in something really shady.

When someone goes too far in seeing those meaningful patterns in random data, they go off into full-on conspiracy theories, all of which are quite unhinged. Some are perennial and have been around forever. Others are uniquely 2020.

So, how does it happen that people can wind up believing conspiracy theories? As noted in one of the links above, it comes down to three things: A need for understanding and consistency, a need for control, and a need to belong or feel special.

“I can’t comprehend this thing, so I want to control the situation, and by saying I understand, I feel special or that I’m part of a like-minded group.”

Let’s make up a conspiracy right now! Not that none of this is intended to be taken seriously. Rather, it’s just my effort to walk you through the mental gymnastics that a typical creator of conspiracies goes through. Ready? Let’s begin.

I’ll start with today’s date: 01/11. It doesn’t look like much, but if you take 0111 in binary and convert it to decimal, you get 7. And if you take the British style date, 1101, converting it to decimal gives you 13.

Hm. Two prime numbers that also happen to be very important in all matters religious and occult. Now let’s look at three particular years, and how their digits add up:

1755: 8+10 = 18; 1+8 = 9

1906: 10+6 = 16; 1+6 = 7

1930: 10+3 = 13; 1+3 = 4

So we find a 7 and a thirteen in there again, and the two leftovers are also important numbers in mathematics, but what do you get when you add 9 and 4? That’s right. 13 again!

Ooh. What’s going on? Well, here’s the really interesting part. Those three years above, when combined with January 11, are the birthdates of these three people, in order: Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founders of the U.S. and musical subject; Albert Hofmann, chemist and discoverer of LSD; and Rod Taylor, actor most known for appearing in the original film version of The Time Machine.

Now, besides the birthdays, the connection between the two Als should be obvious: They have the same initials, AH. A is the 1st letter of the alphabet, while H is the 8th. Add that up and you get… 9 again. And counting the syllables, “Alexander Hamilton” has 7, while “Albert Hofmann” has 4.

So there’s another 974 hiding in plain sight.

Now where I’m going with this is how the musical Hamilton came to be created, and I believe it was because Lin-Manuel Miranda is actually a front for an ancient Hamiltonian conspiracy. And we get that by adding one more date to the list.

January 16, 1980. This is the day that Miranda was allegedly born, and I say allegedly because I’ve never seen his birth certificate, so it could be one of two things. He was also actually born on the 11th, but that would have been too big of a giveaway, so it was officially changed.

Or… he was actually born on the 16th via induced labor with the intention of making his birthday come 5 days after the others, and 5 is a sacred number to (wait for it) the Illuminati.

Hamilton would have been very familiar with them, if not a member himself. In fact, George Washington almost certainly was, and some people even think that he was the group’s founder, Adam Weishaupt, in disguise.

Let’s see what shakes out of Miranda’s official birthdate. January 16 gives us 1+16=17, and 1+7=8. Meanwhile, the year gives us 10+8, which is 18, meaning 1+8, for 9.

So we get the 9 again, but a new number, 8, which is considered very lucky in Asia. And if we add 9 and 8, we get 17, which adds up again to 8. This means that Miranda was engineered to be extremely lucky.

But he had to get the idea somehow in the first place, which no doubt came from Hamilton himself. So… how did that happen? Hofmann was the stage-setter, while Taylor’s character functioned as a message to the modern-day Illuminati. Well, at least the ones who were around when Miranda’s future parents were young.

Hofmann’s invention of LSD was key, because it spread into the arts community from the 1940s through mid-60s, at which point it was made illegal but was still very prevalent, and it had one pretty huge effect.

It changed the way people created art and perceived history big time. In fact, “time” is kind of the key. This was the era when stories started to be told out of chronological order, which was almost everything that directors like Nicolas Roeg did.

It was also when people started treating history a lot less reverently, which gave us shows like 1776, which told the story of the founding of America, but through decidedly modern lens.

It was also a time when People of Color started pulling a reverse on the theft of their culture (think Ragtime, Jazz, and Rock, etc.) and started creating their own versions of white classics, The Wiz being just the most prominent, but not only, example.

And none of this would have happened if Hofmann’s wonder drug hadn’t shook things up and shown people how to perceive time and the universe in entirely new ways.

Meanwhile… nearly 20 years before Miranda was born, the Illuminati of 1960 were sent their signal via Rod Taylor in the Time Machine. And how did they do it? Simple. The dates he stops on in the film. Keep in mind that the Hollywood elites who created the movie’s screenplay were no doubt Illuminati, too.

I’ll add the month and day separate from the digits of the year, and then combine both, but it all works out the same.

9/13/1917: 22 + 18 = 4 + 9 = 13 = 4

6/19/1940: 25 + 14 = 7 + 5 = 12 = 3

8/18/1966: 26 + 22 = 8 + 4 = 12 = 3

10/12/802701:  22 + 18 = 4 + 9 = 13

And let’s look at that 1940 date in particular, because it’s nearly 40 years before Miranda was born, which was about 40 years ago now. Hm. Interesting symmetry, eh? So maybe this is another Illuminati message.

Hm. 1940 gives us 5 if we add up the digits. 1980 gives us 9. Put those together, and it adds up to 14, which comes back to 5, which all points back to both the Illuminati in the past and Miranda in the future.

And how did we get from one to the other? Well, artsy folk weren’t the only one who took acid in the 60s. Plenty of scientists did, and a lot of their projects from the 60s to the 80s were off the hook.

I mean, come on — we put people on the moon, we created the internet, we created the basis for GPS and cell phones and, well, pretty much modern life now, and all that heavy pipe was laid from the 60s onward.

So don’t you think that somewhere in there a heavily insulated cabal wasn’t able to create time travel and keep it secret?

Then, at some point after 1999, the Illuminati hooked up with the brilliant creator of In the Heights, brought him back in time to meet the actual Alexander Hamilton, and this was the point when Lin-Manuel Miranda suddenly realized, “Holy crap, this dude was born in St. Kitts and Nevis, and he is clearly not white, despite the paintings, so I am going to write this thing.”

And there is your fake conspiracy theory, which I don’t believe for a second. But… keep this in mind because far too many people go through this many backflips in order to justify their pet theories.

You can make numbers do anything, really, depending on how you manipulate them. For example, notice how many numbers I ignored because they weren’t convenient, and how I’d add extra steps to get a new number that was.

Also, like a lot of conspiracy theories, I built this one backwards. I was looking for a famous person born on this day in history to profile but when I saw the combination of those three, it just hit me as a funny idea to try to figure out how Hofmann’s invention of LSD might have led to Miranda writing Hamilton, with working Taylor in there just a bonus.

It’s easy to “prove” a conspiracy theory if you design it to fit what you already believe, after all.

The saddest part is how hard it is to pry these painfully stupid ideas out of the heads or hardcore believers. And I‘m not sure that this is even possible yet. Sigh.

Image Source: bust of Alexander Hamilton by Ethan Taliesin, (CC) BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A little cure for the Monday Blues

As might be obvious from some of my posts, I do have a day job — in the field of Medicare insurance — and from October 15 to December 7 every year, it’s the annual enrollment period, or what we like to refer to as our tax season.

So… I’ve been working seven days a week, plus overtime most days, and it’s not going to let up for a while, and this can have an effect on keeping up with the regular publishing schedule.

Don’t worry — The Saturday Morning Post installments of The Rêves are written and scheduled well into March, and the Friday Free-for-All questions are actually easy to do because they’re prompted.

But I might be doing more recycling or shorter mid-week posts up to Thanksgiving, at which point I’ll have a special treat as I bring back a month-long feature from last year’s holidays.

Meanwhile, I wanted to give a shout-out and a plug to an incredibly talented young actor, comedian, singer, writer, dancer, improviser, Disney park super-fan, and all-around swell guy I know: Zach Timson.

Some of you might even know him from a little online thing called the Who Was? Show. (In that clip, he shows up briefly as Henry VIII.)

Anyway, I’m fortunate enough to know him IRL through ComedySportz, and his talent, despite his youth, never ceases to blow me away. Here’s just one sample.

His big ambition is to one day be a cast member on SNL, and if it’s still around, I have no doubt that he would be if he makes the right connections. If you liked the clip above, do yourself a favor and go browse around his other videos.

Oh. Did I mention that he is one of the most amazing voice impressionists I have ever heard? If he doesn’t make it on SNL, he could still be the Rich Little, Billy Crystal, (insert famous impressionist here) of his generation.

I was fortunate, in the days before the lockdown, to meet a wide range of people via ComedySportz, from our College League on up to senior members of the company and those I played with in Rec League.

But the most important thing it taught me was that you should never discount someone’s ability to teach you just because of outer appearances like age (lack of or too much), physical ability or disability, or experience or ability in actually doing improv.

That last one might seem paradoxical, but sometimes it takes seeing something done… I don’t want to say “wrong,” so maybe I’ll just say “not well,” in order to make you understand how to do it better.

I certainly learned that one in trying to help beginning writers improve their work over many years. The ones who taught me the most were, again paradoxically, the ones who seemed to learn the least from me.

Of course, when a master of their craft walks into the room and starts teaching, it’s obvious in a second, and I have also learned over the years from many brilliant mentors, like the late Jerry Fey, who guided me from being a novice writer to a produced and award-winning playwright in a very prestigious regional theatre, or Rick Steadman, who got me into and then made me reasonably good at improv.

Which is the long way around of saying that Zach — and all of his teammates on the college league — have taught me a lot (as mentors) about doing improv, how to be funny, how to relax and just have fun on stage. But if I’d ever looked at any of them and thought, “Yeah, they’re just kids. What do they know?” I never would have learned a thing.

Listen always to the generations above and below yours. The elders have experience, while the youth have passion. Unite the two of those in yourself, and oh, the places you’ll go.

Image courtesy of Pixy#Org via CC0 1.0 license.

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