Lysistrata Jones is one of those peculiar shows that has a premise without which it probably wouldn’t exist, but which it would have done far better without.
I had the good fortune to see it on Broadway in the brief window before it closed and thought it was a thorough delight. I was scarcely surprised that it closed, mind you; a show on the small scale of Lysistrata Jones tends to be easily swallowed by even a slightly too-large space, and the Walter Kerr Theatre was substantially too large.
Even though I can’t remember a single song from the show, I certainly do remember the score going down easy. This is hardly a flaw, mind you – who, other than sad nerds like us, remember any song from A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum other than “Comedy Tonight” and maybe “Lovely,” at a stretch? The songs in a farce are there to give us a brief and pleasant respite from the madcap antics, and the score of Lysistrata Jones managed that just as Forum did. And the madcap antics themselves are both funny and satisfying, with Douglas Carter Beane bringing his taste for drawing-room comedy to bear on a modern setting.
Lysistrata Jones was a show of small ambition that made good on that ambition. For what it wanted to do, it executed as well as one could reasonably hope.
There was only one problem: the premise of the show.
The Movie Musical Project is a roughly bi-weekly essay series exploring the best and worst of movie musical filmmaking, with an eye to deriving principles from them that can be applied to a new wave of movie musicals. Join us. We brought wine.
The musical Evita is arguably the most accomplished show that either of its writers ever managed to produce. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s previous shows had often evinced a charmingly enthusiastic sloppiness that sometimes mars one’s enjoyment of them, while their work post-Evita (and, tellingly, post-each other) gradually slips into an apathetic funk with only a handful of bright spots creatively. Evita, then, sits at a singular and rarified point where the artists involved had acquired enough discipline and craft to tackle something ambitious, but were still young and hungry enough that they gave their all to these ambitions, sense occasionally be damned.
The idea of song in storytelling is a fundamental absurdity. That’s not intended as an insult, to be sure – a life without that sort of extravagant absurdity would be a life scarcely worth living – but it does point us toward a fundamental challenge of musical theater writing: making the absurd feel palpably true.
It helps that this is just the sort of deception that people dearly want to buy into. We want our feelings to have the grand sweep of a song, and that want can – under the right circumstances – persuade our knowledge to stand slightly aside for a while.
But how can we, as artists, deliberately induce this? Here, fortunately, we have an indispensable ally in the form of the theatre format. We can talk endlessly about how much more visceral and present live theatre feels, but maybe its greatest creative asset is precisely the distance it creates as its initial affordance.
Whether you’ve come here from the old blog or are visiting for the first time, welcome to The Discerning Lyricist, a blog focusing on the craft of making songs and musicals!
Articles and essays will be posted semi-regularly, as usual; some will be in the traditional notes-on-writing format, alternating with essays from a brand new series, the Movie Musical Project.
Every two weeks or so I will post a long-form essay covering a specific movie musical with an eye to how movie musicals are filmed and what lessons they can teach us (good and bad) about how to do it right in the future. The first movie musical covered will be Evita (1996), directed by Alan Parker, which I think sums up my evil intentions quite admirably.
Thank you for reading, and may all your lines scan perfectly!
A little over a year ago, I wrote an article called “Rap In Musicals, And How We‘ve Been Getting It Wrong.“ In it, I made two major arguments: one, that rap was as well-suited to musicals as pen to page, and two, that most uses of rap in the musical theatre thus far had largely failed to realize the extraordinary synergistic potential of these two forms. I then went on to list techniques in the musical theatre that rap would complement perfectly.
I could reiterate all of my points here, but I no longer have to. I can now just point to Hamilton and say, “yeah, basically that.“ Nonetheless, let‘s briefly run through these ideas and examine them in the context of Broadway‘s latest runaway smash.
I don‘t usually post my Cinemibus videos on this blog anymore, but this one is musical-related, so there.
1. Can‘t Feel My Face by The Weeknd
The drug metaphor this works through
Is not fundamentally new.
But while it never thrills,
Between this and The Hills,
It‘s by far the better of the two.
I’m going to do a bit of dramaturgy on a work you might never have given more than half a thought to: Shrek, The Musical.
There are plenty of complaints you might feel tempted to make about the show, many of them no doubt valid, but there is one element that I love, and confidently call an unqualified improvement on the original movie: the characterization of Princess Fiona.
I typically consume my pop songs online these days, and it‘s from online consumption that I derive material sufficient for my roughly monthly pop song limericks. Of late, I‘ve made more of an effort to listen to pop music on the radio when I can, which gives me a very odd impression of what‘s popular at any given moment. Maybe it‘s just the stations I listen to, but the week after “Want To Want Me“ by Jason DeRulo seemed to me to be in its heaviest rotation, it dropped out of the top ten. I hear “Talking Body“ by Tove Lo all the time, but if it was ever in the top ten for long enough to get well and truly limericked by me, I must have missed it.
I say this to preface an account of my initial reaction to this song when I first heard it on the radio a few weeks ago: “Oh. Wouldn‘t it be nice if this became a hit?“
And now, there it is just behind Taylor Swift in a comfortable #3 slot. This pleases me.
1. See You Again by Wiz Khalifa feat. Charlie Puth
While I no longer find this one fun,
I‘m glad that it‘s had a good run.
It‘s sweet and it‘s mild,
And behind “Young & Wild,“
It‘s the best thing Wiz has ever done.