Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Guest Post: Ashley Griffin on Physical Comedy in Musical Theater

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I am pleased to be able to introduce a new contributor to this blog who, like my other guest writers, knows a lot of stuff that I don't. Ashley Griffin is a writer, actor, singer, and dancer whose expertise is in the area of musical theatre, the history of which she has taught at New York University. She has performed on- and off-Broadway as well as in Los Angeles, Chicago, and London. Her plays have been produced off-Broadway, in L.A, and Chicago, and she is most well known as the creator of the pop-culture phenomenon Twilight: The Unauthorized Musical Parody. Ashley has a long-time interest in circus, clowning, and physical comedy, and one of her current projects is a collaboration with Joel Jeske on a physical comedy version of Alice in Wonderland. — jt

Donald O'Connor in Singing in the Rain
When John asked me to write a guest post about physical comedy in musical theatre, I instantly started brainstorming on all the wonderful performers and shows I would reference, all the great examples I would pull out like….um…well…that one thing in…no…wait…um…uh…shoot. Wait, that’s not right! Musical theater was, at least partly, founded with physical comedy as one of its main elements. It’s a staple, right? Let's go back a bit....

In essence, the American musical was created out of two very different art forms that were popular in the early 1900s: operetta, and ethnic theatre. As I discussed in my blog entry Changed For Good – or The Famous Thesis, operetta, a lighter version of traditional opera (think Babes in Toyland) was considered sophisticated entertainment.

Operetta was the basis for the traditional musical theatre form – a narrative story told through song, occasionally employing dialogue in between numbers. Ethnic theater – especially Yiddish and Jewish theater — was thriving in America at the same time as operetta, and was hugely popular. It was, however, often looked down upon as “low” theater, and not respected the same way operetta was.

This dichotomy has found its way into contemporary musical theater, where it seems all shows are either delegated to the “high art” category (think The Light in the Piazza, or anything Sondheim) or the “popular, financially successful” category (think Mamma Mia! and Cats.) It seems that as far as the critics are concerned, never the twain shall meet, although there have been some rare “grey area” shows that might fall into both categories.

Though physical comedy was not a huge staple of operetta, it was all but mandatory in ethnic theater, which in general was far more comedy-based. It was this type of theater that eventually developed into vaudeville in the 1920s and 30s. In fact, physical comedy was such a staple that almost all the famous silent movie comedians began their careers in vaudeville. Vaudeville was not what we would currently term “musical theater.” There was not a single narrative — in fact it was made up of a collection of “acts.” Some of these acts, however, did have mini-narratives, and might even use music to tell their story.  Some of these sketches became so popular; they eventually evolved into full-length pieces.

The most famous example of this was the Marx Brothers, who began their career in vaudeville, pairing their natural comic talent with their adept musical skill. They became so famous that in the early 1920s they were asked to create a full length review, I’ll Say She Is, which was followed by The Cocoanuts and then Animal Crackers – both Broadway musicals (with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, no less) that went on to become classic films.

The physical comedy genius of the Marx brothers has been brilliantly analyzed by writers far more knowledgeable of the subject then me. But what is unusual in terms of the musical form is how much they rely on physicality not for gags (though they do that) but to advance the story, create the world, and develop character. They almost use a comic physicality to replace dance — which traditionally has been the third component of the “integrated musical” — the “physical” component along with singing, and acting.  Harpo, for example, never speaks a word.

After that, the waters get a bit murky. While the “first” musical is generally agreed to have been The Black Crook, it was Show Boat that truly began paving the way to what we now consider the classical musical. Show Boat was every inch an operetta and, indeed, that’s the direction musicals have been heading ever since. In fact, quite a bit of the comedy in the late 20s / early 30s on Broadway was found in review shows like The Garrick Gaieties – the SNL of their day (though there were certainly comic musicals, for example Good News in the 1920s, and Babes in Arms in the 1930s.) But there was a strong trend in the 30s towards verbal comedy, and parody as opposed to physical. While film saw the rise of screwball comedies, in general American entertainment reacted to the Depression with a desire for glamor and escapism.

The 40s and 50s ushered in the “Golden Age of Broadway,” largely heralded by the collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Although their shows were landmarks, none could really be described as funny, although South Pacific (which won the Pulitzer Prize) does open act two with a holiday performance put on by the nurses and Seabees, which includes a drag performance of “Honey Bun” with nurse Nellie dressed as a sailor, and one of the sailors dressed as the “honey bun” of the song — complete with coconut bra and grass skirt.

Another gender-reversed comic moment occurred around the same time in the musical White Christmas, which was a film musical first, long before it was recently adapted for the stage. In White Christmas, the male leads first encounter the female leads when the two girls perform a song called “Sisters” as part of their nightclub routine. Later, in order to help the girls escape from the police, the guys wind up taking their places in the act — creating comic hilarity when they begrudgingly perform the girl’s number to the “t.”

There is also of course the classic number “Make ‘em Laugh” from Singing in the Rain, which was also a film long before it was on the stage.

“Make ‘em Laugh” was in itself a deliberate reference to “Be a Clown” from The Pirate – also a movie, never a stage musical.

 Are we noticing a pattern here? Film has a great history of physical comedy. Theater…well…kind of stumbled along the way.  Or at least, we don’t have hard evidence to the contrary.

Part of the difficulty of commenting on physical comedy in musical theater, especially during this time period, is in a lack of recorded performance. Most physical comedy is not written down. Even when an entire sketch is nothing but physical comedy, it is usually written as a simple outline meant to help the performers remember the order of actions. A talented physical comedian could turn the stage direction “he goes to the mirror and shaves” into a half-hour, riotous routine.

The original Ado Annie (Celeste Holm) from Oklahoma
Film is forever — and we can easily find the physical comedy in films from the beginning of the medium onwards. We have almost no visual record of most live musical theater shows written before the 1970s — and therefore only have the scripts to go by. And the scripts are not much help. For example, “classic” musicals are somewhat characterized by their character structure of having two principle “romantic leads” and the secondary “comic leads.” In Oklahoma, Laurie and Curly are the romantic leads, and Will and Ado Annie are the comic leads. I’ve seen Ado Annie played completely deadpan, and with raucous physicality – and both are hysterical. However, one is physical comedy, and the other is not. It’s up to the performer, and not dictated by the material. And we don’t have records of a lot of performances.

The further we get away from vaudeville, the further the musical gets away from physical comedy. We get comic moments, certainly, but nothing groundbreaking, or revolutionary or, sadly, hardly ever relevant to the plot. Ado Annie can certainly be played by a physical comedian; but if it’s not, it won’t devastate the show. This of course leads me to ask: why is this so? Well, my personal experience leads me to conclude this:

Being a musical theater performer requires an immense amount of training in many different fields. First you have to sing. And especially today, you can’t just sing – if you’re a girl you have to belt, and sing legit. Then you have to act. And you have to dance — that includes at bare minimum tap, jazz, and ballet. Each of those elements could take up a lifetime of study. As it is in most musical theater training programs, acting seems to fall by the wayside. Nowadays you practically have to play an instrument too. (You can’t audition for Once or, well, any John Doyle production if you don’t.) And it helps to know aerial acrobatics and gymnastics. You know, for Spiderman, Wicked, Peter Pan, The Pirate Queen, and every vampire musical. Learning physical comedy is not a casual skill you can just “pick up.” The amount of work required to be really good at it is one reason it’s probably not emphasized, at least in training programs.

Then there’s also the issue of musical theater and “high art.” Physical comedy is a vocabulary in and of itself that, to be truly incorporated into a musical, would not only have to have performers capable of doing it, but writers who are adept at writing it. All musical theater writers have to be incredibly well trained in music theory, composition, etc. Book writers analyze structure. To truly incorporate physical comedy means being fluent in it. That’s much easier in a traditional physical comedy show where the performer almost always has a hand in creating a piece. In musical theater, a team of people write a show, then give it to actors who are expected to, yes, bring themselves to a role, but most importantly translate the vision of the writer(s) and director(s). Either the writers have to write a piece with physical comedy clearly in it, then find performers who can sing, act, dance, and do physical comedy, or else an actor might find one or two small moments to bring in some physical comedy, but it’s never going to completely define the role, or the show.

from the original off-Broadway production of Peter and the Starcatcher
This seems to be at least slightly different with plays as opposed to musicals – we all know and love Noises Off – but that was written as a farce. Robin Williams, Steve Martin, and Bill Irwin did a Broadway revival of Waiting for Godot that used quite extensive physical comedy — but those were adept physical comedians who were allowed to reinterpret a text. Most recently, Peter and the Starcatcher on Broadway utilized great physical comedy, and was a rare exception where both the writer and cast understood the vocabulary. But that was also in essence a play, not a musical.

There is of course the amazing Bill Irwin — and his Broadway work — but those were physical comedy plays that happened to go to Broadway. Not to mention the fact that musicals are so expensive to produce now that they must run several years just to make their money back. That means living through far more than the original cast. Can you imagine if they had to hold auditions to recast Bill Irwin in Regard of Flight? I doubt it would continue running for very long. And one of the reasons is that what’s funny on one person may not be funny on another.

The original production of Pippin
In the 1970s, some experimental theater techniques began to make their way into mainstream musical theater – most notably (and I emphasize him because of his physicality) with Bob Fosse. The 70s, following upon the work of the amazing Jerome Robbins, became a time when physicality began to become more of a storytelling device. Pippin for example, uses an ensemble of highly stylized “players” (complete with white face) who lead an innocent (Pippin) down a path searching for ultimate fulfillment. While this is certainly not a physical comedy show, it is arguably a physical show, and therefore moments of physical comedy do come in to it.

In the early 2000s, Broadway saw a return to the “good old fashioned musical comedy” with The Producers. This was truly a landmark show in many ways, partly because there literally hadn’t been an original, traditional musical comedy in a very long time. The Producers featured great moments of physical comedy, such as this one that was featured on the Tony awards. Notice the use of the walkers, not to mention the beautiful physicality of the performers. Those are guys and  girls playing the little old ladies.

Jeffry Denman
I have to take a moment to reference one of the best resources when it comes to physical comedy in musical theater (and there aren’t a ton.) The wonderful book A Year With The Producers by Jeffry Denman is a must read for anyone interested in theater, comedy, or being entertained/educated in any way. It chronicles Jeffry’s year auditioning for/being cast in/performing with The Producers on Broadway in which he played/created a myriad of hysterical characters His description of both his process, and the inner workings of musical theater (which would be greatly enlightening to any physical comedians who aren’t as familiar with the world of musical theater) are genius.

Here's Jeffry's piece "A Drop in the Bucket" from his choreography demo reel.

I also mention Jeffry for another reason – I had the great fortune to get to work with him on Twilight: The Unauthorized Musical Parody and got to see first-hand his genius at creating brilliant characters and comedy moments. We were very fortunate that all of our Twilight cast members were fantastic comedians, and I especially noticed in how many different shows Jeff was able to introduce brilliant elements of physical comedy, so I highly recommend checking out Jeff’s book and looking at his process.

The following year, Broadway and musical theater were shaken up by the truly genius musical Urinetown. Part of what made this show feel so fresh and original was that it was created by the experimental theater group the Neo Futurists — who used many of their experimental conceits and techniques within a traditional musical theater structure. Check out this clip of their Tony awards performance (yes, they were winners that night.)

I particularly love their unusual use of physical humor in this number. The physical comedy “gag” is not the focus of the piece – it is the elephant in the room. Notice the lovely young girl bound up and gagged who proceeds to do all the choreography, even though she is tied up for the whole number. And notice how the fact that there is a dancing hostage is never acknowledged. Brilliance. Even more so when you know the show and realize how much this moment is actually advancing the plot.

Another shout out also has to go to the incomparable Lauren Lopez, who first gained notoriety for her performance as Draco Malfoy in the youTube sensation, A Very Potter Musical. Though this is not a Broadway show, Ms. Lopez wonderfully created physical comedy moments within the musical as a way to define Draco’s character, and his relationships with other characters. Here’s a highlights reel. It’s a great example of some of the “underground” work being done in musical theater. Physicality really starts around :44

As with Mr. Denman, I’ve seen Ms. Lopez’s work in many projects, and she always brings a unique physical comedy element to whatever she’s doing. I wish everyone reading could watch her live performing as the spastic child Renesmee in Twilight. Her talent as a physical comedian, as well as a musical theater performer is one of the reasons I work with her so often.

Then there are moments of physical comedy in musical theater that don’t relate to a specific show. My favorite is Bill Irwin and Karen Ziemba’s interpretation of Sondheim’s song “Sooner or Later” for “Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall.” The song was originally written for the film Dick Tracy.

What is the future of physical comedy in musical theater? It’s hard to say. With the advent of the rock musical (Rent, American Idiot, Next To Normal), original comedies in general on Broadway seem to be diminishing. Then again the recent show Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson managed to incorporate elements of physical comedy into a rock musical. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was highly physical, but it was more a use of funny physicality than actual physical comedy. The Book of Mormon also has moments of physical comedy; one of my favorites, and one of the most subtle, is at the end of the song “I Believe.” See how hopeful Mormon Elder Price and evil warlord “Butt-Fucking-Naked” (yes, that’s his name) relate to each other. It’s at the very end of the song:

However, and I may get some flack for this, I think most of the humor in Book of Mormon is based on verbal and musical jokes, how people look, and the situations they are put in — which is not true-blue physical comedy, although there are certainly elements of that in the show as well most notably in the song “Turn It Off.”

Truly incorporating physical comedy into musical theater is tricky. Musical theater is by nature narrative-driven, and is largely verbal. It has to be. The performers are singing more than half the show, not to mention the fact that it would be near impossible to perform comic physical moments while singing for purely technical reasons. In film, on the other hand, you have multiple takes, not to mention usually having a playback recording. Physical comedy is by nature episodic and non-verbal. I think in some ways the decline of physical comedy in musical theater can be linked to the decline of dance in musical theater. The fact that almost no new shows use dance to advance the story is a real sore spot in the musical theater community. I think that if there were a way to open a dialogue between the two schools something revolutionary would take place. But there needs to be a sharing of vocabulary. In the words of Elder Price: "I believe!"


Click here for Ashley's blog, visit her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, view her youTube channel, and read her Guide to Collaboration.

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