Sunday, June 6, 2010

What Makes a Musical Work? Or Not Work?

Often we authors and readers wonder what makes a book "work," or not "work." This weekend my husband and I were in New York City. We saw two musicals on Broadway, The Addams Family and Memphis. That generated a lot of discussion between David and me as we wondered why one “worked” and one didn’t.

Sad to say, The Addams Family stunk. The opening with the fabulous Addams Family theme--"They're creepy and they're kookie/Mysterious and spooky"--was actually the highpoint of the play as the we all sang along and snapped our fingers. Nathan Lane is a superb actor, an incredibly talented man with wonderful comic timing.

Why did The Addams Family stink? Here's what David and I came up with:

1. There was no internal logic to the show.
In one scene Morticia and Gomez wanted their daughter to be happy. But the Addams find “happiness” in misery. So which was it? Would they be happy if Wednesday was miserable? So, the "universe" that we were viewing was confusing!

2. The characters were inconsistent from their iconic selves. On the TV show, Morticia and Gomez loved each other so much that the world could fall apart around them and they wouldn't notice, which made for all sorts of complications. Not so in the play. When you are dealing with icons, it's best to stick to the originals or have a darn good reason for making changes!

3. There was nothing at stake and nothing significant changed. As a result, there was no real conflict. Here’s the plot: Wednesday Addams has fallen in love and wants to bring her boyfriend home to meet her parents. She wants Morticia and Gomez’s blessing…except that early on, she’s willing to run away without their blessing.

It gets worse. The boyfriend’s father connects with his inner macho-man through an encounter with a giant squid.

You read that right.

Not with Thing. Or Cousin Fester. Or Itt. But a Squid.

I can only imagine the desperation it must have taken to conjure up a giant squid to save a faltering plot. On second thought, I'd rather NOT think of the desperation it took.

By contrast, Memphis is the story of a white guy (Huey Calhoun) who falls in love with a young black singer, Felicia, who is singing at a bar owned by her brother. Huey wants to make Felicia a star, so he takes up the challenge of introducing black music (rock and roll) to the (white) world. But Felicia is convinced that Memphis will never accept him or be a big enough venue for her dreams.

Can you see all the inherent conflict? And the huge stakes? Trust me, it's a fabulous musical, one I'd love to see again! Of course, the music in Memphis was also just flat-out incredible.

I'm curious...if you have seen The Addams Family, what did you think of it? If you haven't, would might you expect? Did you enjoy the TV program? Have any of you seen Memphis? Doesn't the plot sound delicious?


Jill said...

Interesting. I wanted to see Addams when I was in NYC last month and the very negative reviews (esp. the one in the NY Times) talked me out of it. What a shame, because it sounds like it had so much potential (and talented actors... alas they can only work with the script they're given).

I saw Memphis too and it was good - all around: acting, music, story. Glad to hear you enjoyed it as well.

Dru said...

I was so excited when I heard The Addams Family was coming to Broadway. Like you, I was disappointed in the show. The producers had to realized that people wanted to see what they saw on TV, not the book version.

I haven't seen Memphis yet, but I heard rave reviews about it.

Linda O. Johnston said...

That's too bad, Joanna. The idea of an Addams Family musical sounds great. I hadn't heard about Memphis but will keep it in mind for my planned NYC trip later this year. Thanks for the reviews!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Like all of you, I have such fond memories of the Addams family. They had so much good material to work with! David and I spent lots of time noodling around ideas of how the plot should have worked. His was good: The city should have tried to take away the Addams' home to make way for a new theme park. Just think of uprooting all those dead and living ghouls!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

After I wrote my post, I checked on the NYT review. They, too, mentioned the inconsistencies. And of course the squid, well, you didn't need to read a review to guess that a giant squid can be a real buzz kill, the equivalent to the previously-unmentioned-identical-psychotic twin in a mystery.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Here's a thought, Betty. Next time you propose a book to your editor, throw in the giant squid idea.

Let us know how that works. I'll do the same. (I'm betting...NOT!)