Wednesday, November 17, 2004

I'll show you a thing or two

Bat Boy - probably my favourite new musical of the past few years - is becoming a movie. I would really love to know how they're going to pull off "Comfort and Joy," the show-stopper of a first act finale. I've never seen an actual performance of the show itself - only near-memorized the original cast recording - so I don't even know how it's handled in the stage version. I hope it's as emotional and energetic as I've always imagined. That's the trouble with falling in love with a show based only on the soundtrack. It's never going to be quite the same in the mind's eye as in the director's vision. I rediscovered Evita this past summer, devouring first the public library's copy of the 1975 concept album, the 1979 Broadway cast album, and finally the 1996 film soundtrack. (The OBC is best; Patti LuPone is sublime as the alternately rich-bitchy and sympathetic Eva.) It had been more than a decade since I'd last listened to any version, and I soon realized that what I'd previously heard was only a single-CD highlights album, which does no service to the story at all. Nor were the 'hit' songs featured - "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" and "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" in particular - anywhere near being the best of the show. In any event, after about a month of listening to these at work, I'd formed a definite (if vague in areas) mental image of the probable stage directions, and rented the DVD of the film to find out how close my guess was. It wasn't in the slightest. That's both the blessing and the curse of the stage musical adapted to film: greater realism is possible, though at the cost of emotional impact. "The Lady's Got Potential" is a prime example. It appears on the original concept album and in the film, though not on the Broadway album. Consider the content and the difference between the concept version: The lady's got potential, she ought to go far She always knows exactly who her best friends are The greatest social climber since Cinderella But Eva's not the only one who's getting the breaks I'm a research chemist who's got what it takes And my insecticide's gonna be a best-seller Hey, just one blast and the insects fall like flies, kapow, die They haven't a chance In the fly-killing world, it's a major advance In my world, it'll mean finance I'm shaping-up, successful, capitalist-wise But getting back to Eva, she just saw all those guys As steps on the ladder to the ultimate prize And he goes by the name of Colonel Peron He began in career in the army overseas, Teaching all the other officers all he knew about skis When others took a tumble, he would always stay on Hey, sure, Peron could ski, but who needs a snowman? He said: Great men don't grow on trees I'm one, I ain't gonna freeze Dictators don't grow on skis Peron would be no number two to no man He married in the meantime but the poor girl died Imagine if she hadn't, we'd have been denied The heart-warming, tear-jerking rise to fame of Eva Now, my insecticide contains no dangerous drugs It can't harm humans, but it's curtains for bugs If you've got six legs, I ain't doing you no favours Yeah, just one blast and the insects fall like flies, kapow, die They don't have a chance In the fly-killing world, it's a major advance In my world, it'll mean finance I'm shaping-up, successful, capitalist-wise Kapow, die They don't have a chance In the fly-killing world, it's a major advance In my world, it'll mean finance I'm shaping-up, successful, capitalist-wise Yes, Peron, he joined a faction called the G.O.U. G, government O, order U, unity They were the gang behind a military coup, So Peron was a heartbeat away from control of the nation They thought that Hitler had the war as good as won They were slightly to the right of Attila the Hun And Eva set her sights on Peron and his situation And Eva set her sights on Peron and his situation And its film counterpart: In June of forty-three there was a military coup Behind it was a gang called the G.O.U. Who did not feel the need to be elected They had themselves a party at the point of a gun They were slightly to the right of Atilla the Hun A bomb or two and very few objected Yeah, just one shell and governments fall like flies, kapow, die They stumble and fall, bye bye Backs to the wall, aim high We're having a ball The tank and bullet rule as democracy dies The lady's got potential, she was setting her sights On making it in movies with her name in lights The greatest social climber since Cinderella Okay, she couldn't act, but she had the right friends And we all know a career depends On knowing the right fella to be stellar Yeah, just one shell and governments lose their nerve, kapow, die They stumble and fall, bye bye Backs to the wall, aim high We're having a ball That's how we get the government we deserve Now the man behind the President calling the shots Involved so discreetly in a lot of their plots Was Colonel Juan Peron, a would-be dictator He began in the army out in Italy so Saw Mussolini's rise from the very front row And reckoned he'd do likewise sooner or later Yeah, just one blast and the tear gas falls like rain, kapow, die They haven't a chance, bye bye The terrorists advance But one guy doesn't dirty his hands Peron was biding time out in the slow lane Yeah, suddenly an earthquake hit the town of San Juan, kapow, die They stumble and fall, bye bye Keep away from the wall But one guy was having a ball The tragedy, a golden chance for Peron He organized a concert with incredible flair In aid of all the victims, such a grand affair Politicians, actors, stars of every flavor It was January twenty-second, 1944 A night to remember, yeah, that's for sure For that's the night that Peron first met Eva For that's the night that Peron first met Eva The oddball idea of the Greek chorus-slash-narrator character of Che (not that Che, you understand, just one remarkably similar in demeanour) being a cash-strapped research scientist was wisely dropped, as the complete lack of inexplicable references to insecticides in the second version shows; instead, he became merely the ubiquitous everyman observer. I'm guessing that original conceit was partially to give Che some kind of stage business to perform during this number; something involving an old-fashioned aerosol can, perhaps. I've obviously never seen any performance of the show involving that, the concept album predating my birth by several years and all, so I don't really know. What's certain is that any direction based on these lyrics would have to rely on the deeply figurative imagery of stage acting. However, in the film, "The Lady's Got Potential" takes place against a backdrop of Che walking through rioting crowds being dispersed by soldiers and tanks. It's effective, to an extent; the tank guns fire in closeup on each line that ends "kapow, die," and the rest has some nice choreographing of the crowd's movement with the rhythm of each verse. But it still feels like a copout; the lyrics are describing Peron's rise to power, and all we're seeing is Antonio Banderas dodging bullets in the streets. That's a valid visual representation, but it's excessively literal: this is the coup, this is the terror and violence of the coup. There's some great representative visuals that could have been used instead: cutting to Peron making back-room deals, swanning about Buenos Aires in his dress uniform, and so on. That's the kind of thing that could be portrayed by a few actors in upstage vignettes behind the narrator, too, which makes me think it's all the more likely to be the best interpretation for the lyrics. Musical theatre requires the perception of a profound personal connection between the singer and the song to be effective; the emotion should be palpable. In the film, Banderas manages to carry the number through the sheer charisma and heft of his performance, overcoming the weak and muddled visuals. City streets add nothing to the story; if anything, they distract. In the same way, "Comfort and Joy" reveals Dr. Parker tormented by the voices in his head, eventually deciding in the midst of this schizophrenic episode to kill Bat Boy. Again, going only from the cast recording, it sounds like a great opportunity for a powerful performance. The best way I can imagine to film this would be with little light on a minimalist set; the surreality of his lyrical soliloquy seems to demand it. The worst way, conversely, would be the excessively literal one - showing Dr. Parker in his living room, with the mentioned spade and burlap sack in hand, and the personified voices around him. Showing too much is less helpful than showing nothing at all. It seems to be a trend, however. The upcoming film version of Phantom of the Opera suffers similarly: For example, in the show the Phantom is able to mysteriously make the resident diva Carlotta croak while singing, ensuring that his muse Christine will take over. Schumacher takes it a step further and shows the Phantom secretly exchanging a bottle of throat spray with Carlotta's. Whenever he pulls a disappearing act, we see exactly where he goes. Did the audience really need to see that, or could we have wondered how he did it? It's kind of like watching a David Copperfield show in Vegas from backstage. It's interesting, but I'd rather see the trick and be mystified as to how he did it. Of course, there's going too far the other way, as well - see, for a recent example, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Someone needs to get on the job of increasing film production in the genre; without a greater amount of practice and experience in the field, how can an average director be expected to hit the Moulin Rouge or Chicago sweet spot?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just saw a production of Evita and in wondering what happened to "The Lady's Got Potential" (featured in the original soundtrack) I stumbled upon your blog.

I do agree with your main point about film vs musical. The power of a good musical is often in the duality of the lyrics, and the haunting reminders placed in the music. Sweeney Todd, for example, was a bitter disappointment for that reason. It was stylized according to the director's personal style, and not to the style as defined already in the music.

I think that film gives directors too much control over the characters in this way and they lose something. In the movie, Evita comes out looking like a saint, when there is supposed to be a question hovering in the back of the viewers mind constantly - is she a guardian angel of the poor or a corrupt politician or... as hinted in the waltz with Che, both?

The literal interpretation of these scenes shows too much, answers these questions.

Just one point re Che... it is the Che. Evita says in above mentioned waltz: "Go if you're able to somewhere unstable and stay there, whip up your hate in some tottering state but not here dear, is that clear, dear?" - a kind of tongue in cheek reference to going off to Cuba - which the actual Che did.

The insecticide thing is not literal, but sarcastic. Being a communist, Che is mocking both the politics of Argentina and the capitalist system. It's an analogy: Both Peron and Evita are killing off the opposition, those weaker than them, and profiting off others (capitalist idea). When they meet this is reflected again in the convo: "But when you act" and the duality of "act" - she uses the radio and he uses war to get ahead in life. They recognise this shared ambition and that's what brings (and keeps) them together. :)

8/26/2010 05:32:00 AM  

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