Wink, Wink; Nudge, Nudge

Broadway offers a passel of snortingly good times with its unending parade of parodies. The latest on our roster of roastables is Spamilton: An American Parody, which opened last week and runs until May 12.

Behind every iconic work of entertainment lurks a laughing matter waiting to be born. Whether those matters manifest as films like Airplane! or stage productions like our current hit Spamilton, a nothing-but-love full-length jibe at Lin-Manuel Miranda’s magnum opus, the parody stands as an art form all its own—and one that has seen a spike in popularity since the shocking success of Evil Dead: The Musical.

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The cast of DISENCHANTED in Tampa, 2014. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

At The Straz, we’ve hosted quite a few of these side-splitting skewerings. Maybe you saw 50 Shades! The Musical Parody, or its distant cousin, Spank!. We produced DISENCHANTED, a peppy, adults-only side-eye of a show geared towards examining the princess culture of a certain animation company. This list also includes the one-or-two-man-complete-works-of spin-off parodies like Potted Potter (all the book plots performed by two guys), and Charles Ross, who launched One-Man Star Wars and One-Man Dark Knight, both of which played in the Jaeb. Ross also created One-Man Lord of the Rings and performs all the shows under the One-Man Trilogy package, which manages to heroically blaspheme the major fantasy canons of the 20th and 21st century in one fell swoop. (Batman pun intended.)

The general rule seems to be that if something is really popular, then someone should probably make fun of it. Ergo, Off-Broadway has seen shows riffing on Friends (Friends!: The Musical), Back to the Future (That 80’s Time Travel Movie), Harry Potter (Puffs: Seven Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic about the Hufflepuff house) and Game of Thrones (Shame of Thrones: The Rock Musical—An Unauthorized Parody).

 

Of course, we return to that parody of parodies, the old chestnut Forbidden Broadway, which takes uproarious pot shots at our beloved blockbusters from the Big Apple. We love the show—most Broadway buffs do—so much we’ve brought it to Tampa several times over the years and had the show here last in 2017.

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Despite its rib-poking and raspberry-blowing nature, the parody must, to some extent, be a love letter to the source in order to hit the right notes with the audience. You’re having fun at the original’s expense without hurting anyone’s feelings. The parody is like the annoying little brother, chasing after the big sibling he admires so much. With no genuine respect for the source, a parody transforms into a vicious satire, which may be funny, but satires generally leave us feeling smug whereas the parody leave us feeling a little happier about things in general.

To wit, LMM blessed Spamilton just as Sam Raimi, director of the titular film, blessed Evil Dead: The Musical.

So, it’s okay laugh; although, with a parody, you never need permission. And, that, dear readers, is part of what makes them so much fun.

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The Seuss Is Loose

Approaching 30 years since his death, Dr. Seuss sits poised to publish a new book from his perennial throne on the bestseller lists (WHAT.). Meanwhile, the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory musical theater department rehearses Seussical, Jr. down stairs from the blog office for its run in the TECO theater April 25-28. Why do we love this whimsical rhyme-every-time mastermind?

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Theodor Seuss Geisel, “Dr. Seuss,” working on a drawing for How The Grinch Stole Christmas, 1957.

Okay, so first we’re going to call out a line from Dr. Seuss and then you say what book it’s from (answers at the bottom, no cheating!)

“Don’t give up! I believe in you all. A person’s a person no matter how small.”

“I will not eat them in a house. I will not eat them with a mouse.”

“From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.”

“And then something went BUMP! How that bump made us jump!”

How’d you do? We’re willing to bet you know you got at least three of them right without even having to check.

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If you were ever a toddler in America, some grown up introduced you to the world of Theodor Seuss Geisel, “Dr. Seuss,” partially to build your reading comprehension skills and keep you entertained but, also, that adult wanted a socially acceptable reason to be reading The Cat in the Hat. We spend a lot of time in the world of Dr. Seuss, as children, students, teachers, parents … chances are—if you’re a parent of small children reading this blog at home—you can look up and see Geisel’s early childhood canon littered along the floor.

Seuss gave us the Lorax, Things 1 and 2, Mulberry Street, Horton, Daisy-Head Mayzie, Yertle, a fox in socks and a wocket in a pocket. He helped us discover the joys of feet, sleeping, learning our ABCs and the myriad ways to hop on Pop. Seuss extolled the places we would go and taught us the very valuable adage regarding those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.

Seuss’s first success, like many creative folks of his era, was in advertising. He won a big contract for Flit, an insecticide. His tag line, “Quick, Henry, get the Flit!” went viral, becoming a popular phrase at the time. He entered the waters of children’s lit with And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, a story he invented on a cruise ship as he started writing in his head to the sound of the engine.

What happened next in Who-ville was nothing less than a carefully calibrated literary coup de grace overthrowing insipid Dick-and-Jane primers for more imaginative, more important teaching texts. In 1955, the book Why Johnny Can’t Read debuted, exposing the scandalous data that European children outpaced and outperformed their American cohort at alarming rates. In the United States, schools used Dick and Jane readers that were, as noted in Why Johnny Can’t Read, “horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, [and] tasteless” pictograms of unnaturally clean white children experiencing “dozens and dozens of totally unexciting middle-class, middle-income, middle-IQ activities.”

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Why Johnny Can’t Read explained the fundamental problem: America believed children learned language through memorization only. Incorrect. Children needed phonics—the ability to group and comprehend words built on common sounds. That way, when a new reader encountered an unfamiliar word, she could draw on contextual knowledge of like-sounding words to memorize meaning faster than memorizing in a vacuum.

After all, this was Cold War 1955, and there was no way in hell American children were going to be dumber than the Russians, especially with the launch of Sputnik on the horizon and threats to democracy everywhere. Not gonna happen. American kids needed to get smarter, like, now.

Houghton Mifflin publisher William Spalding directed their education division when Why Johnny Can’t Read made headlines. Spalding invited Geisel to dinner, gave him several of the first-grader word lists printed in the back of Why Johnny Can’t Read and begged Geisel to give him a page-turner for a seven-year-old. Keep in mind that Dr. Seuss already had the two Horton books and a few notable others under his belt by this working dinner with Spalding. However, he’d never been issued such a challenge before: Spalding wanted him to write a whole kid’s book only using limited words from the lists. Spalding planned to sell the book to school systems as a reading textbook—a reader that would enthrall first graders and rocket boost their intellect.

Geisel chose 199 words, realized he couldn’t get an entire story out of the ones he chose, so he added twenty-one others of his own. The tasked proved almost too much for the great Dr. Seuss. Flummoxed, frustrated and on the verge of quitting, Geisel decided he’d make the title out of the first two words he saw that rhymed.

“Cat” was first. Then, “hat.”

As New Yorker writer Louis Menand noted in his excellent 2002 article on this subject, “The Cat in the Hat is 1,702 words long, but it uses only 220 different words. … Geisel put the whole thing into rhymed anapestic dimeter. It was a tour de force.” Most notable, Menand concludes, “it killed Dick and Jane.”

The takeaway here, people, is that Dr. Seuss not only wove us into his psychedelic world of trippy trees and loveably drawn cat-people with socially conscious messaging, but he obliterated a reading method that did not work. He tried, using all the gifts he possessed and then some, to give us the opportunity to make ourselves better by being smarter, more caring of ourselves and our environment (social and natural) and rhyming like our lives depended on it.

Audrey Siegler, the theater managing director working on the Patel Conservatory’s production of Seussical, Jr. says, “Dr. Seuss’s works speak to a vast audience ranging over all ages and backgrounds. His stories promote social and educational skills while challenging readers to expand their imaginations and explore a world of new possibilities. Some sad, some nonsensical, some inspirational; Seuss integrates emotion with language through unique characters and invites readers to learn through play. Producing Seussical, Jr. is a complete joy.”

The other egg about to hatch (Horton reference) in Seuss-land is Dr. Seuss’s Horse Museum, the next in a series of seven Dr. Seuss books published posthumously. The original but incomplete manuscript was found in Geisel’s La Jolla home in 2011 and features the illustrations of Andrew Joyner, who used Geisel’s sketches to bring the book to life. Random House plans to release Dr. Seuss’s Horse Museum on Sept. 3, 2019.

Let’s hope the rhymes center around “horse” and not “museum,” yes?

Answers:
1) Horton Hears a Who; 2) Green Eggs and Ham; 3) One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish; 4) The Cat in the Hat

One More Time from the Top

The explosive partnership of Broadway star Gwen Verdon and choreographer/director Bob Fosse finally goes mainstream in a new miniseries from F/X starting Tues., April 9.

Even if you know absolutely NOTHING about Broadway, you know about “jazz hands.” And if you know a little about Broadway, you know the man responsible for crystallizing the impact of jazz hands in a musical is Bob Fosse. If you know A LOT about Broadway, especially Broadway dance, you know that Fosse is kind of a god, kind of a sad sack of a boy-man, and completely credited with inventing the modern musical on stage and screen.

And if you really, really know a lot about Broadway dance, you know Fosse’s jazz hand style came straight from Al Jolson and the Nicolas Brothers and his ascension into mythical status wouldn’t have happened without Gwen Verdon. (Or dancer Joan McCracken, but that’s another miniseries for another time.) In other words, Fosse didn’t happen in a vacuum, and there’s a lot more to his legacy than the man himself.

Around here, we don’t care how much or how little you know about Broadway history, but we do get excited to see such an important story in the evolution of American art get the royal treatment from a major network—and a gigantic advertising budget to ensure the word’s getting around.

On the off chance you’ve been distracted by other news lately, we’ll bring you up to speed: Sam Rockwell (Charlie’s Angels; The Green Mile; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri among a million others) plays the cigarette-booze-pill-and-sex-addicted mercurial, enchanting and inspiring Bob Fosse. Tony-winning evergreen ingenue Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain, The Greatest Showman and the play Blackbird) stars as redheaded triple threat and saving-grace-guiding-light-hard-as-nails-showgirl Gwen Verdon. The series, Fosse/Verdon, starts on Tuesday, April 9. The series plays out over eight episodes, taking audiences through fifty years—thirty of which center around the Verdon-Fosse creative collaboration that overtook their lives and changed the American entertainment landscape forever.

Verdon and Fosse were colleagues (she was a huge Broadway star when he was an up-and-coming choreographer with only The Pajama Game under his belt), then lovers, then spouses, then parents, then separated. During that time, the combined force of Bob’s visionary genius and Gwen’s dancing/comedic/technical/personal brilliance delivered Damn Yankees, Redhead, Sweet Charity, Chicago and Cabaret to name a few. Their daughter, Nicole Fosse, co-executive produced the miniseries and guided much of the artistic interpretation of the source material, Sam Wasson’s metaphorically and physically heavy biography, Fosse.

The Fosse/Verdon production involves current Broadway game changers. Lin Manuel-Miranda also produces the show, and Dear Evan Hansen writer Steven Levenson penned the teleplay. Seasoned fave Norbert Leo Butz stars as Fosse’s intellectual pal, the playwright Paddy Chayefsky, and previous Chicago stars Susan Misner (a.k.a. Stan Beeman’s Wife from The Americans) and Bianca Marroquin play McCracken and Chita Rivera, respectively. Newcomer Kelli Barrett (Getting’ the Band Back Together) landed the choice role of Liza Minelli, and we’ll get to see Ethan Slater (SpongeBob in the selfsame musical) tackle Joel Grey. A few newly-minted recognizable faces from hit television shows also make an appearance, namely the lithe and lovely Margaret Qualley as Ann Reinking, Fosse’s ultimate girlfriend-of-girlfriends after the split with Verdon.

In all, it’s a heck of a cast, a dynamite production team and a timely moment in entertainment history to attempt a more authentic look at the disturbing behaviors that drove such a towering creative partnership. It’s also time for Gwen Verdon to get her due for the living generations of Broadway fans who know Fosse but say “Gwen who?”

Another note, since we’re talking Fosse, is that we decided to name our Straz Center coffee shop after the very dance that made Bob Fosse a Broadway name—Steam Heat, from the eponymous dance number everyone loves in The Pajama Game. It’s also worth noting that one of Ann Reinking’s students, Kelly King, now directs our Patel Conservatory Popular Dance Program.

Students posing with Ann Reinking at the Patel Conservatory’s ground breaking in 2004.

So, grab your ultra-sheer black tights, garter belts and French cut leotards for what we hope to be a *fingers crossed* riveting immersion into all that jazz.