Oh, right. Yesterday was Valentine’s Day.
My wife and I have never made that big a deal about Valentine’s. It’s a greeting card holiday, right? It’s not something real, like our anniversary. Or birthdays. Or Christmas. Right?
Except that I usually do a better job of remembering. It’s not that I ever forget that Valentine’s is Feb. 14. I just forget, constantly, what day it is right now. And what month. My brain is still in January. So why would I be thinking of Valentine’s Day?
So sorry, O thou generous and lovely woman who hast tied thy life to mine for all these 41 years. I am blessed far beyond my deserving. I actually have a couple of valentines that I meant to send thee. And wouldn’t flowers have been nice? But thou art surely not surprised. Thou knowest whom thou marriedst.
I know, elegant apology and archaic language don’t make up for not having anything there at the house for her on Valentine’s Day. If I hadn’t been in Lexington, Virginia, I could have done something excellent and last-minute in person on the actual day. But I am in Lexington, and she’s in Greensboro. Bummer.
I did get her a box of her favorite blue-ink pens (Uniball Signo 0.038mm). But there’s no way I could count that as a Valentine’s gift. It’s just too useful.
I got Valentine’s chocolates for my students. But unlike my wife, they have not sworn off chocolate. Kind of limits my options.
When Robert Crais started writing the Elvis Cole detective novels, he sometimes tried a little too hard to make Elvis laid-back and cool. Now he trusts his characters to be themselves without needing him, as a writer, to jack up their dialogue in order to be entertaining.
Elvis Cole has a sidekick, Joe Pike – his Hawk (Spenser) or Mouse (Easy Rawlins) — the guy who will do the dangerous and terrible things that the hero can’t do because then we’d lose sympathy with him.
The readers know that the ugly jobs need to be done. Just can’t stand having the hero get his hands dirty. So a lot of mystery writers have that violent sidekick. Kind of like a scarier Tonto, he usually doesn’t talk all that much, but when you need somebody to pick off a bad guy just when he’s about to kill the hero, well, there he is.
So here we are, umpteen years later, and Robert Crais is a better writer than ever. Therefore both Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are at the peak of their form, in a novel called The Wanted. I listened to it as narrated by Luke Daniels, who does a superb job of representing a wide variety of characters.
Elvis Cole is hired by a woman, Devon Connor, to find out how her son, Tyson, got hold of a really expensive Rolex watch. Cole quickly learns that Tyson is part of a three-person burglary ring that has hit 18 houses of very, very rich people in the Los Angeles area.
But when Devon confronts her son and tries to get him to turn himself in to the police in exchange for a lesser sentence, he takes off and goes to hide out with the girl in the burglary ring, Amber, who lives in her sister Jazzy’s house.
Meanwhile, the third member of the ring, Alec, realizes that a car is tailing him on the freeway. Trying to evade the car, he spins out on a tight off-ramp, and the two guys from the car park close by, drag him out of the car and put a couple of bullets in him. Then they burn the car and his body.
Because, you see, these two thugs are also searching for the burglary ring, and so far they’re a couple of steps ahead of the cops. They don’t know who the other two members of the burglary ring are, but they’re getting there. Meanwhile, they’re leaving a bunch of corpses behind them, because whenever they get useful information from somebody, they kill the informant and dump the body somewhere hard to find.
That way nobody else can get the information, or find out what kinds of things they were asking about.
It takes a while before Elvis Cole realizes that these guys exist – or how dangerous they are. Now he’s in a three-way race between the cops, who are last in line for information, these two thugs (the description: “one big, the other bigger”), who pass themselves off as detectives, and Cole himself.
Cole has the huge advantage that he started out knowing who one of the burglars was – his client’s son, Tyson.
This is a pretty standard detective novel situation, but Robert Crais makes it work as if you’d never seen it before.
And some things are way more interesting than usual. Because in this novel we spend a lot of time in the car with the two thugs, who turn out to be interesting human beings. “We’re bad people,” says one to the other, after they killed a very helpful informant. But over the course of the novel, we learn a few things. Like one of them is a masterful violinist, besides being a stone-cold killer. And as the story moves towards its close, we also learn that their partnership in thuggery is also a deep and emotional friendship.
That’s why, at the end, while we know that Elvis Cole has to win, has to save the two burglars who aren’t already dead, we also kind of hate it that the only way he can do that is if the bad guys are, you know, killed.
And here and there, in the cracks of the story, Elvis Cole is trying to have a life, the kind with people who love him in it. Good luck.
But for a noir detective story, this one has a lot of heart. Way more Ross Macdonald than Dashiell Hammett.
If you’ve never read any Robert Crais before, it doesn’t matter. The Wanted is completely self-contained. Anything you need to know from previous volumes is included in this one.
So climb aboard now. Start with The Wanted. You’ll go back and read the others because when you find a mystery writer this good, you run his whole catalogue. You’ll thank me.
The Greatest Showman should have been a big winner. High production values. Amazing choreography. The life of P.T. Barnum, more or less faithfully rendered in a couple of hours. An absolutely amazing cast of singing, dancing actors, including Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson – and a bunch of outstanding performers you may not have seen before, especially Keala Settle, who is amazing.
Oh, and didn’t I mention? It has Hugh Jackman. And not just any Hugh Jackman. This is Hugh Jackman at the peak of his powers. A Hugh Jackman who can stand on an empty set and, singing or talking, hold your attention as if he owned several of your internal organs and was in the process of giving them back to you.
I didn’t know what the word “charisma” actually meant until Hugh Jackman existed in order to define it.
Sure, yeah, paste on some massive claws and call him Wolverine. But let him play P.T. Barnum, and he actually has something he can use to go full tilt, to use all his skills.
The Greatest Showman is turning a profit, domestically and worldwide. Nobody’s losing money on it, because it has almost everything. A solid, entertaining script. Memorable, likeable characters. And even the Social Justice Warrior material is justified well enough that it doesn’t feel like it was inserted just to prove the filmmakers’ sincerity in The Cause.
But with all that it has going for it, there’s one thing that The Greatest Showman doesn’t have.
It doesn’t have any songs.
Oh, there’s music and the actors move their mouths and sing, though the filmmakers attempted no pretense that they were really singing at the moment – too much of the choreography makes such physical demands on the actors that they could not possibly produce musical notes, yet the songs continue with interruption.
Hey, it’s a musical. We know that in the real world, people don’t simply burst into song. (Well, I do, but it’s annoying to everyone, because I’m not Hugh Jackman.)
But the songs are completely unmemorable. You forget the lyrics before they sing them. The tunes could be anything – they’re impossible to remember. Except for the first number, which gets reprised about nine times in a row in the first 15 minutes, so you remember it because it hasn’t actually stopped yet.
I started to wonder: Is this Umbrellas of Cherbourg, where the Michel LeGrand score had constant singing, but exactly one song?
This is the great weakness of movie musicals. Broadway shows get to try out in advance performances, so that if a musical number isn’t working, you can retool them, replace them or reorder the show.
During out of town tryouts, if it becomes clear that your songwriters don’t understand what a song is, you have time to replace them. Some serious money might have to change hands in order to keep them from suing, but at least you can give yourself a chance to have working songs when the show opens on Broadway.
Movie musicals get none of that. So you get some beloved screen musicals, like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, La La Land, Singin’ in the Rain. Brides and Rain were composed by really experienced Broadway and Tin Pan Alley songsmiths. They wouldn’t put a song up on the screen without knowing it was going to be a hit.
But La La Land had to drift into its music, so there’s a little too much repetition of various themes, and not all the songs work as songs.
Still, compared to The Greatest Showman, La La Land had an amazing score.
Because the singers are good, and the orchestration is good, and the actors are wonderfully likable, and the choreography is dazzling, audiences don’t realize that the reason they feel disconnected from the movie is that the songs are bad. They sound “fine,” everybody’s on pitch, so what’s not to love?
My wife said the songs all sounded like recitative – the semi-musical filler and expository singing between arias and choruses in opera.
To me, the songs all sounded like “the verse.” In the Tin Pan Alley era, there was almost always an opening verse, completely forgettable stuff that set up the “chorus,” which is the part of the song that you actually remember. The part that becomes a hit.
Think of the Christmas song “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Everybody knows the chorus: “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town.”
But how many people remember the verse – the intro? “I just got back from a lovely trip across the milky way. I stopped off at the North Pole just to spend a holiday. I called on dear old Santa Claus to see what I could see. He took me to his workshop and told his plans to me.”
Remember that? Remember the tune to the verse?
Well, I do. In fact, I made it a point to recite it here from memory, without looking up the correct words, because I learned it when I was 7 years old, and if some of these words aren’t the original ones, they’re my words to the song.
So I know that melody. But few people do, compared to the numbers who know the chorus.
Another old song starts “Sometimes when I feel bad and things look blue, I wish a girl I had, say one like you. Someone deep in my heart to build a throne. Someone who’d never part, to call my own.” Remember that? Did the tune pop into mind?
Well, you probably don’t know the chorus either, on this one – not a monster hit, but it was popular in our house. It goes, “If you were the only girl in the world, and I were the only boy,” and it was as memorable and singable as the verse was forgettable.
My point is simple. Musical comedies don’t have to have songs that would be hits on the radio. But the songs have to be hits inside the show. When it’s reprised, the audience needs to remember that they heard it before; they need to be glad to recognize it and realize they’re hearing it again.
The only song in Greatest Showman that comes close is Keala Settle’s big number, the politically correct anthem “This Is Me.” As hackneyed as the theme is, as uninspired as the words are, Settle’s performance, along with the staging and choreography and the singing of the other “freaks” from Barnum’s show, turns it into something amazing.
Most audiences don’t have any idea that they’re hearing bad songs, though, because everything else about the musical works so well. Especially the choreography, by Ashley Wallen.
Let me say that name again: Ashley Wallen. Because I still can’t find it in the credits for The Greatest Showman in IMDBpro.
Jackman and Wallen first worked together on a Lipton Iced Tea commercial filmed in Tokyo. Since Jackman had almost as much control here as Tom Cruise has on Mission Impossible films, that connection took root and Ashley Wallen ended up making The Greatest Showman into one of the best choreographed movie musicals of all time.
The recent trend has been to have really crappy choreography, while cameras do all the “dancing.” Remember that wretched musical Moulin Rouge? The choreography was one of the worst things about a laughably bad show. It consisted entirely of having a lot of people strut. Then the film’s editor cut between shots of strutting “dancers” to give the illusion of energy and movement.
The “choreography” in the film version of Chicago was almost as bad, using the same technique of trying to make nondancing seem like dance.
I remember how awful it was when, during So You Think You Can Dance, the camera people and the director started trying to make the camera part of the choreography. The difference was that on SYTYCD, the dancers were dancing, and the best thing the camera could do was hold still and let us watch them move their amazing bodies and amaze us amazingly.
In The Greatest Showman, they spent a lot of money on gorgeous sets and CGI animals (best elephants you’ll ever see in a movie, because they could be huge and weren’t tormented in order to get them to perform), so the choreography needed to move the characters through the sets and take us from one place to another.
But it wasn’t done with dancing cameras. The dancers moved their actual bodies through the space and the cameras simply showed us what they were doing. There were steps – you know, footwork! – and some exciting stunts.
The best dance number has to be the acrobatic pas de deux between Zac Efron and Zendaya — the Dance of the Zs! They both sang wonderfully, and their swooping, soaring moves were wonderful.
To say they did it with wires, removed afterward using CGI, does not detract from their artistry. Working on wires isn’t cheating – it’s hard. You have to be so physically fit that you can hold your body in postures that deny the fact that you’re suspended from cables. Zac and Zendaya were both wonderful at this.
The little Barnum girl who danced, and the company surrounding her, were wonderful with ballet, too. So apparently dancing was something that the filmmakers put their hearts into.
Which makes the bad songs all the more heartbreaking. Because I haven’t talked about the worst singing decision.
In a way, Swede Rebecca Ferguson was the perfect choice to play Jenny Lind, the Swedish soprano who was the most famous singer in the world. Barnum hocks everything to pay to bring her to America, and he promotes her tour all across America.
In the real history, Jenny Lind blew everybody away. After a meteoric rise, her voice was almost destroyed, but a great singing teacher helped her to recover. She dominated European opera, and had a relationship with composer Felix Mendelssohn that he wanted to turn into a love affair, threatening suicide because she would not comply. He was writing an opera for her when he died.
Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah has a high F# because Lind was supposed to sing the part. That information alone should tell you something about her voice. She was a true high soprano, with the strength of her range in the upper end of her voice. You don’t get nicknamed “the Swedish nightingale” unless you can sing high, high, high notes effortlessly.
If you were going to choose any voice in the history of recording to sing like Jenny Lind, it might have to be Kiri Te Kanawa, singing the amazing arias that broke our hearts in the score of A Room with a View.
Alas, for The Greatest Showman, instead of using any of the great classical music that Lind sang – including the songs and arias that were written for her – the filmmakers decided to have their inept songwriters create a new song for her to sing. Yeah, they can do way better than Whoozitz Mendelssohn.
When they had children do ballet, they did actual ballet, not hip-hop and not traditional Broadway dance. They never showed jazz hands. So with the children’s performances, the choreography remained true to the period.
Not so with the very forgettable, mediocre song they wrote for Jenny Lind. Not only was there not a memorable phrase in the whole thing, it was a low-voiced song, designed to be belted.
You who know about singing will understand exactly why that was a horrifying decision. This is Jenny Lind! And they have her singing a song in Ethel Merman’s range.
Now, in the movie Rebecca Ferguson does not do her own singing. Instead, a singer named Loren Allred provides the gorgeous belting Broadway voice that we hear. Let’s make one thing clear: There is nothing wrong with the singing. I would happily own an album of Loren Allred’s voice.
But her head tones (high notes) are noticeably weaker than her belting voice. Whether she used to be a soprano or not, she has trained her voice to have all its strength in her chest tones. That’s what belting is, and she’s a belter.
Her amazing voice makes it all the more ridiculous that she wasn’t given anything worthwhile to sing. Once they had made the horrible decision to give Jenny Lind a low voice, they needed to give her a showstopping, heartbreaking number. Like “My Man” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” in Funny Girl. (It’s no coincidence that I chose two Barbra Streisand numbers to exemplify the showstopping heartbreaker.)
They could have chosen a true soprano to do Jenny Lind’s voice, and had her sing songs that were really in Jenny Lind’s repertoire. American audiences are perfectly capable of listening to a kind of singing that was authentic to another time and place. Especially because they didn’t need to make us sit through a whole aria. We just had to hear the voice of the Swedish nightingale and be impressed enough to believe the standing ovations and sold-out houses.
Instead, we got a fine performance of a sad, lackluster tune. The only thing that helped us believe the audience response was the shots of Hugh Jackman listening to her sing. He sold the brilliance of the performance just by having his face light up with pride and wonder at what he was pretending to hear.
Look, I know that I’ve gone on and on about how bad the songwriting is in The Greatest Showman, and especially the horrible choices surrounding the character of Jenny Lind.
And these are serious failures. A musical with bad songs isn’t very likely to succeed.
But this movie does succeed because of other elements. Because much of this movie is the sets, both in and out of the circus, and the sets are wonderful. And while all the dumb songs are being sung, the actors are acting their hearts out and selling songs that are very, very hard to sell. The dancing is amazing, in the league of Seven Brides and West Side Story. (Yes, I said that, because it’s true.)
And did I mention Hugh Jackman?
There is only one drawback to having Hugh Jackman at the heart of this movie. He absolutely dominates is, he pulls it along through sheer talent and charisma.
But whenever anyone is onscreen with Jackman, they almost disappear. Jackman is a masterful actor; he tones down his performance so that they don’t completely disappear. But it’s no criticism of the other actors to say that they simply cannot compete with the life Hugh Jackman puts in his character.
Zac Efron is an amazingly talented guy. If he had been playing Barnum (i.e., just before filming, Jackman was hospitalized and so Efron had to fill in), we would have bought him completely in that part. We would have believed him because Efron has charisma of his own. And because without Jackman ever onscreen with him, Efron would rule.
This is an unavoidable “problem.” You can’t not cast Jackman merely because he’s too strong in the role. In fact, he was involved in every step of the development of this musical. He was the one indispensable element in this production.
And it’s not any weakness in the other performers that keeps them from keeping up with him. It’s simply that no matter how bright your little LED flashlight is, if you hold it up in the noonday sun and turn it on, you won’t be able to see much light coming from it.
About the script. It’s a little jumpy and skippy. They have to cover a lot of territory.
And they put years of story into the movie, yet during those years, the Barnum daughters don’t age five minutes. This can’t be helped – you have to keep the same child actors in the roles, so the audience will recognize them every time we see them. So they never say how long anything takes.
I enjoyed the whole movie. Yes, I got impatient with the songs when I wasn’t just disappointed. But there’s so much more working for this movie that I recommend it highly – especially to people who already know and love musicals. If you’re in that category, you should see this just to put into your memory one of the great performances in movie musical history.
Line up the great male musical stars – Howard Keel, Gordon MacRae, Harve Presnell, Robert Preston, Russ Tamblyn, Topol, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Gene Wilder, Yul Brynner, Rex Harrison, Frank Sinatra, Robert Morse, Bing Crosby, Tommy Steele, Ben Vereen, Mickey Rooney – and, despite my great love for some of them, they never reached Hugh Jackman’s combination of acting, singing, dancing and sheer magnetism.
Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire could outdance him – they outdanced everybody except each other – but neither could have held their own with Jackman as actor or singer. Howard Keel was the best all-around actor-singer, yet Jackman – oh, how I’d love to see Jackman in remakes of all of Howard Keel’s greatest roles. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with Hugh Jackman in the lead and Zac Efron in the Russ Tamblyn part!
And someday we have to see Jackman as Fagin in Oliver! Just sayin’.
As for the script, here’s the touch that won me over completely. Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon wrote the part of Broadway critic James Gordon Bennett, who at first panned Barnum’s show as humbug (most of it was). In short scenes throughout the movie, Bennett, played with brilliant strength and understatement by Paul Sparks, keeps coming back until we realize that even though Barnum never wins the critic over, the two of them have become friends. It’s a lovely progression that was never overplayed by the writers.
So, see The Greatest Showman, so you can experience great performances, fine writing, gorgeous sets, clear and powerful cinematography, astonishing choreography and dancing, wonderful singing, strong casting.
All but the songs. It’s got everything but the songs.
Come on and see it in the theaters. The more money it makes, the more likely it is for a studio to invest in another musical.
As for the next Hugh Jackman musical – not The Music Man, because he’s already done his movie about a charismatic con man. Not something like My Fair Lady or Camelot where the mature male lead doesn’t actually have to be able to sing.
And not some wretched new idea like a musical version of Julius Caesar or Lost Horizon. (Yes, I know; Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote the songs for the worst original movie musical of all time, Lost Horizon. But since we have all resolved to blot it from our memory, along with the second worst movie musical, The Slipper and the Rose, somebody is bound to think of it again.)
The Slipper and the Rose is especially painful to me because my wife and I were forced to sit through the entire film. My parents gave my wife and me tickets to a particular performance of the movie, the day after our wedding. It was to be part of our honeymoon. So we drive down from the canyon cabin, walk into the theater, and there is my family.
That’s right, a present for our honeymoon was set up so my parents were in the theater, too. This made it impossible for us to walk out of the theater, which we were desperate to do because of the deep, impermeable awfulness of this adaptation of Cinderella, with songs by the Sherman Brothers on Sominex or Serutan … not sure which.
(And when we finally were able to leave and drive back up to the cabin, it had been broken into and robbed. We ended up driving home to our apartment and spending the remaining day of our honeymoon visiting Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City. The monkeys and the hippos were all more musical and more entertaining than The Slipper and the Rose. But Lost Horizon was worse.)
My wife and I are still married. Those are still the two worst movie musicals I’ve actually seen – and I saw Moulin Rouge.
It’s worth saying that I have seen one other male musical comedy star who might rival Hugh Jackman: Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen. But they can’t really be compared because we haven’t yet seen what Platt might do in a film musical. On stage, though, I’ve never seen a comparable performance. I’m still coasting on Ben Platt’s adrenalin, and it’s been almost a year since I saw the show.
I suspect that Platt may be the one actor who could share the screen with Jackman and not come close to disappearing. But we’ll probably never find out, since film musicals are so rare, and actors keep aging no matter which films they do.
Since I’ve spent most of this column talking about musical theatre, let me close by recommending the Great Courses’ Great American Music: Broadway Musicals. Taught by Professor Bill Messenger, who has actually worked with Broadway musicals and who plays the piano and even sings some of the unrecorded gems from the past, this course was a pleasure from beginning to end.
It was also an eye-opener. For excellent reasons, the era of the Minstrel Show is treated now as a shameful period in our past, since the genre began with white actors doing fake black dialect while wearing black makeup. These shows weren’t racist. They were racism.
And yet. When the slaves were freed after the Civil War, the minstrel shows began to hire them. The weird thing was that audiences in the North were disappointed with the genuinely black actors because they were literally not black enough. They had to start wearing the same black makeup as the white actors.
The result was that on the stage, you couldn’t tell who was black and who was white. And a good number of black performers got good money for exploiting racial stereotypes on stage.
What I hadn’t known at all was that these minstrel shows were American musical theatre for half a century. I had always vaguely assumed that minstrel shows existed alongside musical comedy, but no. While operettas by such Europeans as Sigmund Romberg and Victor Herbert brought light opera – essentially, musical theatre – to America, the real American musical began with the minstrel shows.
I hadn’t realized how shallow my knowledge of musical theatre history really was. I took theatre history during my undergraduate days as a drama major, but while they taught me about Gammer Gurton’s Needle; Racine, Corneille and Moliere; Sturm und Drang; the Well-Made Play; romanticism, realism and naturalism; and the Theatre of the Absurd (Hey, Godot! We’ve been waitin’ such a long time!), musical theatre was treated as if it began with musical revues barely held together with a sketchy plot and then blossomed into life with Rodgers and Hammerstein.
There’s so much more to it than that.
And while you can still buy it on DVD or CD or download directly from The Great Courses on their own website, you can also buy the course for less money from Amazon (CD) or Audible (audio download).
I listened to it as an Audible.com download, but there were times I wished I could have been watching on DVD. So if you have time to sit and watch the whole thing, that might be the better investment. On the other hand, while listening to the audio version of the course, I did a little soft shoe in the aisles of Harris Teeter because, you know, dancing.
It’s a good course either way.
And years after I gave her some Great Courses for Christmas, a good friend of mine actually started watching some of them and now joins me in loving them. The Great Courses are everything that’s worthwhile about education, without any of the distracting garbage. No tests, no grades, no deadlines: Just learning for the love of it, when you feel like it. It’s how grownups improve their education.
You don’t end up getting a diploma for it. You just know more stuff and learn to bring a more educated mind to every situation. You can get on the Great Courses mailing list and buy courses whenever they’re on sale. Or you can see which courses are available on Audible or Amazon and buy them even more cheaply.
The best university professors, teaching you fascinating stuff on your own schedule. Come on, you only hated school because of its relentlessness and your lack of freedom. Taking courses for the sake of learning – it won’t get you a raise at work, but it might make your life just a little happier.
Last week I wrote as if Olivia de Havilland had left this life, and now I learn that at age 101 she is still alive. Longevity, however randomly distributed, still gives hope to us all.