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The Musicals in Your Mind

Filichia's readers tell him which shows were better in their imaginations than on stage. logo
A couple of weeks ago, I expressed a bit of disappointment with the production of Sweeney Todd that recently opened on Broadway to raves. It's quite wonderful in many ways, but the production I directed in my head beforehand seemed more exciting to me than the one that wound up on stage. So I asked if you ever had the same experience, and Paul Mendenhall immediately answered, "When did a stage production fail to live up to what was in my mind? When has one NOT? That ALWAYS happens to me."

It's happened to others, too. Bob Gutowski wrote: "Having owned The Phantom of the Opera LP for some time before the show opened here, I listened to Andrew Lloyd Webber's score over and over and imagined a show I still play in my head -- which included the speedy falling of the chandelier being cut off by the house being plunged into darkness, with sound effects of its landing with glass shattering and screams ending the first act. The way I'd envisioned it, they'd need extra insurance to cover the heart attacks. And then I went to see it, and saw it s-l-o-w-l-y come down from the ceiling. Not nearly as effective as what I'd anticipated. " Ah, Bob, how well, I understand! I've been told many times that the chandelier's tortoise pace is the best the designers, techies, and management could do; but, under the circumstances, I'm surprised that director Hal Prince didn't think of an idea that would compensate. Why not have the actors on stage move in slow motion to match the speed of the chandelier?

Vaughn Trapp wrote: "When I got the original Off-Broadway cast album of Hair in late 1967, I really liked it. Such nice folk-rock music! My favorite song was 'Aquarius,' which was in the middle of the second side. When I heard the show was going to Broadway -- and that it would open with 'Aquarius' -- I had an image of a curtain going up on a group of folksingers looking like Peter, Paul, and Mary. Well, imagine my surprise when I walked into the Biltmore and the curtain was already up (pretty rare then) on a set full of junk (not unlike today's Rent) and people began pouring through the house (rare then, too), and sang a heavier-rock version of the score. I can't say I was exactly disappointed by the new Hair, but I sure had a different impression of what it was going to be from that gentle first album."

Brigadude wrote, "I've always been a big fan of A Raisin in the Sun, which I think is one of the best American plays. I always cry when I see it, because watching those people struggle to be happy in their run-down apartment is just terrible and heartbreaking to me. While I had my doubts about a musical version, I changed my mind after hearing the cast album of Raisin and couldn't wait to get to New York and see it. But what a bad decision the people made in conceiving this show. There was no set at all, so Ruth Younger mimed her cooking and cleaning. But you need a set to see their poverty. Lots of people said there was something nice about watching Ruth miming, but I say it made the play's situation lose a lot of power." I agree, Brigadude. But I assure you that Raisin looked better -- by that, I mean more run-down -- in New York than it did when I first saw it during its tryout run at Arena Stage in Washington. On Broadway, there was at least a dingy backdrop, while in the District of Columbia's square-staged theater, the backdrop was simply that part of the well-dressed audience that sat behind the action.

CambridgeGuy had a problem with sets, too: "The production of Lorelei that I had in my head was better because it had sets. When I saw the actual show, there were just lots of black flats for too many of the scenes." Say, CambridgeGuy, you must come from Cambridge, Massachusetts -- for I saw Lorelei with black velvet instead of sets, too, at the Shubert in Boston on the final leg of its pre-Broadway tryout. I was told at the time that most of the sets had already been shipped to New York for refurbishment. Lorelei, you see, had played about a year on the road (and had changed enough to yield not one but TWO cast albums), and its going from city to city had apparently roughed up the sets so much that they desperately needed to be spruced up before meeting Broadway critics and audiences. When I heard this explanation, I was furious, because Lorelei was charging more for an orchestra seat than had ever before been dared in Boston: $9.90.

On the other hand, Jay Irwin wrote: "I was excited to hear about The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Vox Lumiere at the Ford Amphitheater in Los Angeles. The original Lon Chaney silent movie would be played in its entirety while a live rock band and a 12 to 15 member cast performed a rock opera in front of the screens. Once I heard the music and loved it, I rented the movie, watched it, got super-excited -- and found that the show EXCEEDED my hopes. The combination of the movie and the live show blended into an exciting spectacle that I simply COULDN'T have envisioned. The power and timing of the live performers augmented the plot and experience of the movie in ways not possible to imagine without actually being there."

Donald Butchko admitted, "I've never gone to a show and have been disappointed because my imagined version was better, but I've frequently been disappointed when the production closely resembled the show in my head." And the last word goes to Duane: "Envisioning a production in my head that turned out to be better than the one on stage has happened to me many times. Unfortunately, these often were the shows I was appearing in."


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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