“There’s only now, there’s only here– “No Day But Today” – Vocals by Idina Menzel and Lyrics by Jonathan D. Larson
Give in to love or live in fear
No other path, No other way
No day but today”
One year ago, for New Year’s Eve, my wife and I drove into Cambridge, MA, for a live performance of Moby-Dick, A Musical Reckoning at the American Repertory Theater. We had bought these tickets a couple of months before, mainly because on the one hand we wanted to see more live performances in the new year and, on the other hand, I love everything related to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. It was a fantastic night, and the play was brilliant, unique, and the songs were memorable. What we didn’t expect was that this performance would be our last live event of the year. With the pandemic shuttering the doors of Broadway theaters and theaters around the country, we had that previous event as a powerful reminder of the things we lost out on in 2020.
Today’s post is my 30th since mid-July, which was when I started this blog. Next week, my post will explore a travel adventure in Central America, so this week, and since tomorrow is New Year’s Eve, I decided to reflect on that Moby-Dick musical and think back to those times I took in a play either on Broadway or closer to home. Each live theater experience provided a wonderful experience that I deeply miss. I know these theaters will open their doors again. Still, in the meantime, l am going to get my memory ticket punched and head back in time to reflect on those amazing musical performances.
I Missed My Shot, “What Comes Next?”
“Oceans rise– “What Comes Next?” – Vocals by Jonathan Groff and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
It’s much harder when it’s all your call
All alone, across the sea
When your people say they hate you
Don’t come crawling back to me”
I have always been fascinated by musicals, but mainly those in cinema, not movies solely with great songs, Jackie Brown, or musical components, A Star is Born. Instead, these are films with an entire plot centered around musical numbers that both entertain and move the story forward. Movies like Grease, Little Shop of Horrors, Les Miserables, Rent, The Greatest Showman, and Disney films like Beauty and the Beast, Frozen, Lion King, and my favorite Moana, which has some of the best music of any Disney film. Anna and the Apocalypse, which I discussed in last week’s post, is a perfect example of a cinematic musical, and one I enjoyed tremendously. Now, these are not, like Hamilton, filmings of a live Broadway production. Sometimes, these films were adapted from Broadway plays, or vice versa, or even inspired me to dream when the film was turned into a Broadway production – looking at you, Anna and the Apocalypse!
Still, while I love musicals, my early life was lacking proper musical education. This ignorance was apparent when, in 2013, my mother-in-law Mary asked me if I was interested in seeing a new play that was on “workshop” at Vassar College. She could quickly get me tickets and described the show to me by illustrating that it was about Alexander Hamilton and had a unique mixture of rap, pop, and other Broadway musical components. Unfortunately, I, without any ability to see the future, or sense an ounce of culture, declined her invitation. A couple of years later, when Hamilton was premiering on Broadway, I watched Sunday Morning on CBS, and they had a segment about Lin-Manuel Miranda and the production, and I told my wife, “wow, this looks good. We should get tickets.” Then she said, “this is the play that my mother wanted to bring us to at Vassar!” All I could muster at this point was, “shit!” So, I watched as the play I missed out on at Vassar turned into a Broadway masterpiece and worldwide phenomenon. I only had myself to blame, but in 2013 I was still uninformed of what types of plays I wanted to see. No matter, watching it on Disney + has made me… even angrier at me! Unlike Hamilton himself, I missed my shot.
As I said above, my only real adult understanding of musicals where those I watched on television or at the cinema, not as a live production. I must admit that while I had seen a play or two before my twenties, my understanding of Broadway was limited. When I thought of Broadway as a kid, it was one theater, right? Like my wife’s cousin Taylor, I didn’t know that different theaters housed each production. I had no visual perspective. I had to wait for a learned understanding. Still, in my younger years, those plays I did see were never of high quality or “new,” usually Little Shop of Horrors, put on as a local community theater production in New Hampshire. I am not saying that it isn’t good, actually the opposite. I applaud all forms of live theater. I enjoyed those productions as an adolescent and young adult, but I never sought out live theater because I was more at home in front of a small screen watching constructed cinema. In the end, I wrongly measured what I saw on stage against the cinematic copy.
As I got older and eventually met my wife, I started, through her, to gain more interest in seeing live theater, and yes, by this time, I had learned that there were multiple theaters on Broadway. I must preface this by illustrating that she is a New Yorker. Going to the theater, especially those in NYC on Broadway, was a birthright, an obligation growing up only an hour upstate from one of the most amazing cities on earth. She considers herself a “Renthead” and went to see Rent on Broadway in its first iteration with all the original cast members. The same can be said of my sister-in-law Kaitlyn and mother-in-law Mary, who, before the pandemic, was regularly taking in a Broadway play of some sort every couple of months. They never discriminate against a type of production. Comedy or drama, musical or not, they see anything and everything. So, as the novice welcomed into this Broadway centric family, their love of this cultural powerhouse rubbed off on me. Still, I am not an expert. My thoughts are my own, loud musings on a personal amusement.
Flying High in Hawaii, “Defying Gravity”
“Tell them how I am defying gravity!– “Defying Gravity” – Vocals by Idina Menzel and Lyrics by Stephen Lawrence Schwartz
I’m flying high, defying gravity!
And soon, I’ll match them in renown
And nobody in all of Oz
No wizard that there is or was
Is ever gonna bring me down!”
The first live professional play I saw was in 2011 when my wife and I went to see Wicked in Honolulu, HI, at the Neal S. Blaisdell Concert Hall. Wicked first premiered at the Gershwin Theater on Broadway in 2003, shortly after its “workshop” at the Curran Theater in San Francisco. A musical from Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman, Wicked is based on the 1995 novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. This book is, in all ways, a retelling of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, seemingly as a prequel. This post is not an opportunity to summarize the play. I could never do it justice. Instead, I want to explain how this first Broadway production left me feeling. You see, in 2003, when Wicked premiered, I had no idea what it was or about. You see, while I am the “Wicked” Traveled Historian, we are talking about two different “wicked.” My wicked is Boston slang. The Broadway musical Wicked is pure magic.
When I first met my wife, it was sometime after Wicked premiered. I remember her mother and sister talking about their experience seeing it during its initial run. They loved Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel’s performances, and when they told me about the play, it seemed interesting. I was familiar with Chenoweth, by this point, from one of my favorite shows, Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies, but had no clue that she was a Broadway star. Again I am a Broadway newbie. I was slightly familiar with Menzel since she had been on Rent, my wife’s favorite Broadway play, and had listened to the original cast recording on road trips several times. Years later, when living in Hawaii, I heard Wicked was coming to town as a traveling Broadway company; I bought us tickets. Dressed to impress in our Hawaiian best, and after eating at Wahoo’s Fish Tacos, we were ready for musical entertainment.
I was genuinely excited for my first Broadway-caliber production. It did not disappoint. Sure, I was more knowledgeable of the play than some since it had been several years since Wicked premiered. While I enjoyed the film version of The Wizard of Oz and even the sequel Return to Oz, I was excited about this musical interpretation. It was magnificent. The set, costumes, songs, emotional drama emitted by the actors was unworldly. I barely sat still the entire first act, and when “Defying Gravity” brought us to intermission, I was in a state of shock. I mean, I am not exaggerating. I kind of wish I was, though. I was motionless when the number ended and ready for the second act. Overall, the entire play was a game-changer. I wanted to see more musical productions, and I wanted to see a show on Broadway.
Once we moved back to the Northeast and finally settled in Massachusetts, time went by fast, and I didn’t get to the city as often as I liked. Usually, when there, it was to visit my sister-in-law, see a NY Yankees game, or participate in a half marathon in Brooklyn—while all of those were ample reasons to be in the city, going to a play on Broadway seemed to be set aside, delayed, or avoided. I mean, I still have not been to the Bronx Zoo! A fact my mother-in-law reminds me of regularly. But, finally, it happened. As a holiday gift, my wife bought us tickets to a Broadway play. In 2017, this historian traveled to Broadway for the first time as a ticket-holding patron to see a history-based musical comedy. If that sounds perfect for me, you are right, and while it’s not Wicked, nothing is; it was Something Rotten.
“Welcome to the Renaissance,” which is 100% Not the Middle Ages
“War of the roses, Chaucer’s tale– Welcome to the Renaissance” – Vocals by Michael James Scott and Lyrics by Wayne & Karey Kirkpatrick
The brutal feudal system
Holy crusade, Bubonic plague
Can’t say that we’ve really missed ‘em
So dark and barbaric, So dull and mundane
That was so Middle Ages
That was so – Charlemagne”
Something Rotten is a “book by John O’Farrell and Karey Kirkpatrick and music and lyrics by Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick. Set in 1595, the story follows the Bottom brothers, Nick and Nigel, who struggle to find success in the theatrical world, as they compete with the wild popularity of their contemporary William Shakespeare.” Viewing this play was a wonderful experience, especially for someone who has begrudgingly taught this era of history before. From the opening song “Welcome to the Renaissance” until the end, I found this play entertaining, informative, and the music inviting and uniquely styled. The comedy, mixed with the music, was lovely, and I felt like I had a different experience observing this than I had watching Wicked. Our seats were similarly positioned to when we saw Wicked, the far back, almost the last row, but our viewing experience was sufficient. Again, it was an eye-opening event initiated by a heart-pounding performance at the St. James Theater.
After the play, we met up with Kaitlyn, had a fabulous dinner at Bobby Flay’s Midtown West American bistro Bar Americain, which has since closed, and enjoyed walking around NYC, something I deeply miss this holiday season. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that to cap off the night, we visited Dear Irving, a speakeasy with an elegant, stylish, and upscale design with a cocktail bar where the drinks flowed marvelously. It was a perfect night in NYC. Broadway, family time, dinner, and drinks – what more could one need?
If Wicked lite the match inspiring me to see more musicals, Something Rotten on Broadway stoked the fire. Almost as soon as the play ended, I was eager to see another. I told my mother-in-law that if she ever wanted to get my tickets to Broadway as a gift, I would not be displeased. She smiled, and it would not be long until I had my second Broadway experience. This time, the production I planned to see added a dose of nostalgia to the musical comedy style. For my third high-level theater production, I went to see Beetlejuice. It would be another opportunity to see my in-laws, drive into NYC, get dressed up, and have a delicious dinner, but this time at Becco, our favorite Italian eatery in the theater district.
“The Whole ‘Being Dead’ Thing” Looks Good, but I Miss Geena Davis
“Hey, folks! Begging your pardon– “The Whole ‘Being Dead’ Thing” – Vocals by Alex Brightman and Lyrics by Eddie Thomas Perfect
‘Scuse me, sorry to barge in
Now let’s skip the tears and start on the whole
Being dead thing”
As a fan of the Tim Burton movie, you better believe I was in fantastic seats to see this performance in the first month of its premiere. The tickets were a birthday gift from my mother-in-law. She knew my love of the 1988 film starring Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin, and Michael Keaton, with Winona Ryder and Catherine O’Hare, as substantial compliments. The Broadway production premiered in April 2019, after its “workshop” at the National Theater in Washington, D.C., in October 2018. It is a musical with music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect and a book by Scott Brown and Anthony King. As a fan of the film, I will say that the Broadway play was impressive and the music delightful. I thoroughly enjoyed my time seeing this production, especially Alexander Brightman as Beetlejuice, a role I had assumed only Michael Keaton could own. Brightman was fantastic and brought such a unique interpretation to it, which allowed a nostalgic viewer, like me, to see the film and play through different lenses.
Beetlejuice helped to pique my curiosity about Broadway plays that thoughtfully connected with me. I already had a preconceived understanding of this topic, but the production was unique and took a fresh approach to such an iconic and perfectly 80s cinematic film. Even though I knew this story, the play changed essential parts, and it had fun with the set, dialogue, costumes, and musical numbers. I liked that it took a film, which was not inherently a musical, and somehow successfully crafted a fantastic catchy musical component for this insanely fun Burton film. With my third significant theater experience behind me, I waited for another play to spark my curiosity.
Beetlejuice, the musical, reminded me of how much I love music and movies. It took one of my most nostalgic films and added a musical component that made it more enjoyable. I watched Burton’s Beetlejuice shortly after seeing the play, and I wished it included the musical numbers. It made me think, how do I feel about films with musical scores, and do those films rise to the occasion musically. But, these films are not those that Broadway shows rebranded as a film. Instead, a movie with its plot both centered around and moved by the musical numbers. While I enjoyed Rent, I loved Hamilton and see Grease and The Sound of Music as classics. With Little Shop of Horrors as my first introduction to the theater on stage and cinema, I wanted to think about musical films that inspired my musical interests.
A World of “Pure Imagination” is a World of My Creation
“Come with me and you’ll be– “Pure Imagination” – Vocals by Gene Wilder and Lyrics by Anthony Newley & Leslie Bricusse
In a world of pure imagination
Take a look and you’ll see
Into your imagination
We’ll begin with a spin
Travelling in the world of my creation
What we’ll see will defy explanation”
Movies like the Greatest Showman and Anna and the Apocalypse are confined to cinematic rules, but whose narrative is promoted and moved forward by the musical numbers, as if they are seemingly a part of this constructed world. When it comes to the Greatest Showman, songs like “The Other Side” and “Rewrite The Stars” are designed fabulously and illustrate significant plot developments, where dialogue is unnecessary. The music maintains simplistic yet artistic normalcy that offers hours of listening. This replayability is true for Anna and the Apocalypse, which I discussed last week, with songs like “Break Away” and “Hollywood Ending,” allowing you to connect to the film, actor performances, and your own life and circumstances. There is a lot of dialogue in these films, with emotionally impactful and exciting songs and dancing, or performances, woven to build a brilliant musical display.
Disney has been doing this for years in both live-action and animated forms. Pixar has achieved greatness with this as of late, with films like Coco, using music to tell the story in a way that some dialogue cannot on its own. Like myself, who has created “Musicals Playlist” on their music steamer, I think most people have at least one or two songs that link back to Disney. I am not referring to films with music, like Pitch Perfect, A Star is Born, Labyrinth, or La Bamba, but rather films where music numbers move the story forward rather than including a song and acknowledging it. One of my favorite movies to have musical numbers in this way, but did so with a little more obviousness, is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
The vital part about Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is that the film has way more dialogue than songs. The musical numbers appear to be evident to the other characters. In Grease, “Beauty School Drop-Out” and “Greased Lightnin’” are interwoven into the plot smoothly. Everyone is in on it, and the music is natural. The same goes for The Greatest Showman, Fiddler on the Roof, Les Misérables, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and films already mentioned. The songs in those movies progress the plot. The pieces in Willy Wonka do the same thing but in a more casual, less frequent way. With “Pure Imagination,” Gene Wilder, as Willy Wonka, introduced the golden ticket holders to the chocolate room and goes from conversational speech to singing in one smooth flowing manner. The song moves the narrative. It is not abundantly clear whether the characters recognize Wonka’s singing, which they do in “The Wondrous Boat Ride.” Therefore “Pure Imagination” does what most songs in cinematic musicals do, illustrate a plot point with great singing, stunning visuals, and is awarded a permanent place on my list of best cinematic musical moments.
That detour to cinematic musicals is not comprehensive, rather an example of a couple of films, and production companies, that regularly take what occurs in live theater productions and transpose it in screens, both large and small. Some are ultimately successful, while others are not. Again, with Hamilton and Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway (2009), both films were not cinematically redone, although Rent (2005) was with most of the original cast. In this example, both Broadway performances were filmed in unique and beautiful ways and then given briefer attention either at the cinema, Rent, which I saw at an AMC in Boston or steaming, like Hamilton on Disney +. It is a way to bring what can be a challenging show to see to your community or living room. Unlike movie musicals, Broadway is in NYC, unless the play is out of town, which takes time and still may result in expensive tickets, which limits many from seeing them. Filming of a theater performance, rather than rebuilding the play as a movie, which Rent also did, semi-successfully, allow for more to observe what had always been a “high culture” entertainment, but now finds itself squarely in the POP! Culture arena.
Heading to Sea to See “The Honour and Glory of Whaling”
“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”– Ahab in Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Since Beetlejuice, I could not see another Broadway play before the pandemic, justifiably canceled all live performances throughout the country. But my last live theater experience, which I introduced at the start of this post, was closer to home. In October of 2019, my mother-in-law Mary, who I speak of often, and my father-in-law Pat, who joined me for my Trollhunter movie blog post, visited us after moving into an apartment after the sale of our home. The hotel they stayed at was superb because it was within walking distance from our new place. After joining them for breakfast, I noticed a reddish sign with a large whale when walking back from the hotel. As I got closer, I observed that it said: “Moby-Dick, A Musical Reckoning, coming December 2019 at ART.” I thought it was a joke at first. Moby-Dick, as a musical, how the hell would that work?
When I got home, I googled it, and sure enough, it was a live production that was going through its “workshop” period at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA. The set design, the music, the concept – all of it looked remarkably and exhilarating. It would have a limited run, and I thought, “we have to go to this!” I missed Hamilton, and while not in the same league, I couldn’t miss this. After conversing with my wife, we decided what better way to celebrate New Year’s Eve than to take in a play in Cambridge. I quickly booked the tickets, away from the “splatter zone,” yes, that’s a thing, and we were all set for a musical reckoning.
December 31, 2019, was a beautiful day and night. My wife and I had tickets for the 7 pm show of Moby-Dick, A Musical Reckoning. The show’s run time was over three hours, so we planned to go to Cambridge, walk around the area, traverse into some shops, and then get something to eat close to the theater. It was fun to get dressed up for the theater, and I am kind of into everything whales. Since this was a play feature of one of the most well-known whales in all of American literature, or in any form for that matter, I decided to wear my sweater with little whales on it, and sure enough, the compliments flowed in that evening.
I grew up near the City of New Bedford, MA, the whaling capital of the world. At one point in the 1840s, the city was one of the wealthiest places on earth. All of this wealth was from the oil extracted from the whaling trade. While not a whaling supporter, I love history, and I enjoy the city’s history that gave my passion and professional pursuits life. This city is all about the cobblestone streets, the Whaling Museum, and of course, the literary greatness of Herman Melville, and the mythic leviathan Moby Dick, and the revenged plagued Captain Ahab. It was one of the first literary works I read. I think you have to when you grow up with New Bedford at your side. I have often called upon Melville in my historical research and when teaching about early US History. As you can see, when allowed to pay tremendous respect to Melville, Moby-Dick, and the literary work that holds such nostalgia and emotional connections to my past, you better believe I would be there, and sure enough, I was.
After a nice meal at Flour Bakery, my wife and I went to the theater, checked in, and walked around the set before taking our seats for what would be the lengthiest play either of us had ever seen. That’s not a criticism, just a fact. It was pleasant walking around the amazingly inspired and designed set, which resembled the novel’s famous whaling ship, the Pequod, architecture, but with so much detail and intricacies that made the viewing experience fantastic and yet totally different, no matter where you sat. The seating design was like an old New England Quaker Meeting House, which built a more community feel. It was so distinctive. Simple, yet classic, with a modern flair that illustrated that the set was as much a character in the play as Ahab, Starbuck, Pip, or Moby Dick. Right before we took our seat, we noticed a bust of Herman Melville, front and center on the stage, and of course, I took a picture with my literary hero. As the play began, I found the play’s narrative structure, with Ishmael, played by Manik Choksi, as the narrator, a perfect homage to Melville and his novel.
Thinking back now to our time watching the performance, I can’t help but be sad. This play was excellent, so unique and original, and the music beautifully constructed. I enjoyed seeing a cast that, like Hamilton, resembles America today through the lens of what we wished America looked like then. While Ahab and Ishmael resembled Melville’s portrait, Starbuck, Pip, Father Mapple, and Stubb were not white men but women. The rest of the cast/crew is comprised of male and female actors who are Black, Hispanic, Asian, and of various races and ethnicities. An allegory of an America we are, always were, with the wistful glance of an America stifled, and therefore denied during Melville’s time. While Tom Nelis’s presence enthralled me as Ahab, I was moved by the vocals of Father Mapple, played by Dawn Troupe, the overall performance of Starr Busby as Starbuck, and the gentle presence of Morgan Siobhan Green as Pip.
It was a fantastic show. The lyrics, music, and book for the musical were by Dave Mallory, with an obvious adaptation from Melville’s 1851 masterpiece, Moby-Dick. The director of the production was Rachel Chavkin, who was hot off her Tony Award nominations, and wins for Hadestown (2019) and Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 (2017). She did win the Elliot Norton Award for her directing of this Moby-Dick musical. Sadly, Moby Dick never made it to Broadway in NYC, although I am sure it would have with some edits, and who knows, maybe it still will. The pandemic halted the production, and its future was delayed, like all theater life. I hope that it will breathe life again and be booked at a famous theater with a Broadway Marquee with the words, “Moby-Dick, A Musical Reckoning.” I might be biased, but I loved it, and it’s an original retelling of such an essential masterpiece of American literature.
Feeling Erased from the Narrative
“Love doesn’t discriminate– “Wait For It” – Vocals by Leslie Odom Jr. and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Between the sinners and the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep loving anyway
We laugh and we cry and we break
And we make our mistakes
And if there’s a reason I’m by her side
When so many have tried
Then I’m willing to wait for it
I’m willing to wait for it”
It does feel as though I’ve been erased from the narrative for the last year. I think many of us probably think that way. Although it’s been a tough year, it feels as though we have to go a little further before things get back to normal. What a difference a year makes. One year ago, tomorrow, my wife and I went to see a significant theater production of a topic that I find, ultimately, personally and professionally meaningful. It ended 2019, a year that had caused us considerable stress. We looked forward to a year made up of more theater performances, more live concerts, and more of what made us feel whole. As they say, stuff happens, and 2020 busted with tragic consequences.
Rather than focusing on the past year, as New Year’s Eve approaches, it’s vital to look to the coming year and all the hope in store. A vaccine, the inauguration of a new President, and a hopeful return to some normalcy. I know, when it’s safe, and the opportunity allows, I will be in the audience of another live theater performance. For now, I think back to those I saw, those I stupidly missed, and those performances that left me with several songs I listen to daily. While I can put in a movie with musical numbers, like Hamilton for the tenth time or Moana for the twentieth, or a cinematic musical of any sort, I will be ready when the theaters reopen their doors. When that happens, I will build more memories. I have to keep my fingers crossed that Moby-Dick the musical makes a comeback. If Moby-Dick, Melville’s novel, and Mallory’s music in Moby-Dick taught me anything, it’s that 2021 will have its revenge.