You have to wonder why the wrong people are cast in major roles on in musicals. It isn’t new and it has always raised eyebrows but doesn’t go away.
On Broadway, Sarah Jessica Parker (famous and powerful person of diminutive stature) played Winnifred the Woebegone in Once Upon A Mattress. This role was written for the young Carol Burnett. It asks for someone who is gawky, awkward, homely and just generally not very appealing. Ms. Burnett was known for being funny and although not unattractive, she was certainly not a cover girl. So, what sense did it make when the petite and glamorous SJP (who later became famous for her role on SITC) played this part? It killed the inherent funniness of having Winnifred being the lost cause that she was and made the ending pointless. Of course someone that delicate would feel a pea under 20 mattresses! It didn’t have a long run.
Here’s another one. Bernadette Peters as Mama Rose in Gypsy. Everyone was thinking, “What?” Bernadette is just about the size of SJP — 90 pounds soaking wet. She is no more a big bruising truck driver than the woman in the moon. Even though her performance was excellent, her voice just didn’t have the power in it to do the role justice. Ethel Merman was a truck driver in both voice and body. Rose suited her. Patty Lupone, although not much bigger than Ms. Peters in height, and about the same age, is bigger boned and has a much more powerful presence overall. When she played Rose, it fit. Both Peters (Lazara) and Lupone are Italian and both are excellent Broadway stars with a lot of experience, but Bernadette as Rose alongside Patty as Rose — no comparison.
And what about Marc Kudisch as the gigolo Jeff Moss in the revival of Bells Are Ringing? Mr. Kudisch is also a fine Broadway actor/singer with many credits to his name but he is more like Carl-Magnus in A Little Night Music than Jeff Moss, a drinking, schmoozing skirt chaser. Dean Martin played the role in the movie. You just couldn’t believe that the straight-laced Mr. Kudisch was a boorish lout. In this revival, with Faith Prince in the title role of Ella Peterson, the show was directed to be more like Ibsen than a musical comedy. It didn’t have a long run either.
I saw Rosie ODonnell as Rizzo in Grease. I’m serious. Rizzo. She was, as you can image, quite awful. But there she was anyway. She didn’t dance, she just stood there and moved her arms! No kidding. What gall!
I saw Melanie Griffiths in Chicago. She didn’t dance but they taught her to move her feet and wave her hands. You could see that she was thrilled. “Look, Ma, I’m DANCIN’!” The performance, acting wise, was good, but OMG, her dancing in this show that has DANCERS, was so bad. People, Bob Fosse choreography! He must have been doing back flips in his grave.
I’ve already written about Deborah Voigt as Annie Oakley (groan) and Carrie Underwood (a different kind of groan) as Maria. It’s too bad someone didn’t think to reverse these two in their respective musical debuts. A true belter as Annie and a real soprano as Maria would have made sense. Instead, what we got was two women who are rich and powerful doing roles they wanted to do because they could. (……….)
As long as show business is controlled by investors who make their money in real estate, oil, mining, and other corporate endeavors, and as long as most of these people invest because of the thrill it gives them, even though they know they could lose all their money along the way, and as long as they know absolutely nothing about any of the performing arts, we will have decisions made that are not about art at all but about either money or politics or both. When you have people making decisions based on “what will make the most money” instead of “what will have the greatest artistic truth” you can’t have good results. That doesn’t mean, however, that the audience knows the difference or cares. Most people who are watching “popular culture” entertainment are bombarded by violence of the most extreme kind, and they not only like it, they love it. Live shows are drenched in loud flashy everything, and electronic help of all kinds is available to make even the most banal performer look and sound “great”. Audiences eat it up like candy, oblivious to the lack of any real value in the product and the people who want to make money, mostly do.
This isn’t new, as I said, and it isn’t going to go away, so there is nothing to do about it except see it for what it is. Who knows, maybe one day, music education in public schools will come back, music will be seen as a necessity instead of a disposable waste of time, and things will turn around. In the meantime, however, those of us old enough to have been around the block and seen a few things still know and care and can still point out the old standards. They may be disappearing, but as long as we are still around, they ain’t dead yet.