CHICAGO – ‘Cell Block Tango’ (2002)

Every six months or so I become absolutely infatuated with a filmed musical number and will endlessly play it on repeat for days. Prior offenders include: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR’s ’Superstar’, CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND’s ‘You Stupid Bitch’, just about any song from JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS, LIZZIE’s ‘House of Borden’, SWEET CHARITY’s ‘The Aloof/The Heavyweight/The Big Finish’, and even The View’s performance of the Broadway adaptation of FROZEN’s ‘Let It Go’.

Right now, it’s CHICAGO’s ‘Cell Block Tango’, a number from a film that I saw when it first ran in theaters, groused about how it swept the Oscars that year, and now I won’t shut up about.

To be fair, I watched it before I really started to understand musicals and accept them for what they are, instead of finding them to be overly dramatic venues for big showtunes and elaborate dance scenes.

Please understand that I’m (mostly) only discussing the ‘Cell Block Tango’ here, not the film at large because, otherwise, this piece would run at least four thousand words. (Trust me, I’ll spill the rest of those words some day, especially concerning the backstory of the play!)

One last matter worth noting: I moved to Chicago — the city, not the musical — right around the time of the theatrical revival, several years before the release of the film adaptation. So, well beforehand, I had already soaked in the look and feel of the revival’s fishnet-adorned El stop ads and billboards.

And with that, I’ll say that, twenty years later, this piece is better than ever. I was deadly wrong about dismissing it.

Taken out of context, it plays like a fever dream, a blurring of fact-and-fiction, of glamor fantasy and hardened reality, and I love it.

Women scorned, unafraid to exact vengeance. Legs as shotguns; wrists as daggers.

The secret weapon here is Catherine Zeta-Jones, who most folks at the time wrote off as a pair of versatile hips for Sean Connery, but reveals herself as one hell of a torch singer, while also throwing herself at you with a fire in her eyes.

This is a musical adaptation that a lot of folks complain about because it breaks the mould of film musicals; it relies on a lot of rapid shots and whiplash choreography, but that’s a good thing! CHICAGO (2002) is all about punc-u-a-tion and what better way to emphasize that than scissor legs and quick cuts? It’s all about the kinetic movement, even utilizing some frame-skipping to give it extra POP, and it turns CHICAGO from a leering stage production into immensely compelling cinema.

This is seven minutes of tales of abuse, anger, and unrepentant payback, tales told from a century ago via the original author Maurine Dallas Watkins, but are also a tale as old as time.

“Then he ran into my knife. He ran into my knife TEN TIMES.”

I could go on about the work’s fidelity to Fosse and his faceless, mute men, fetish wear and so on, but really, the piece speaks for itself. Go ahead, listen, and watch, and don’t disregard it like I did before:

Lastly, the entire history of this film’s production is astounding, and it’s all detailed here. Trust me, read it — you will not be disappointed.

Favorites of 2021: TV

I didn’t write as much about TV as I’d like to this year, so some of these entries will unfortunately be perfunctory capsule reviews:

A.P. BIO

“[A] gag machine firing on all cylinders.”

IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA

Not gonna lie; IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA runs hot-or-cold for folks. It’s an extremely acerbic show that you either love or hate, and I happen to fucking love it. While it’s often extremely distasteful, it also has a surprisingly sweet side.

The latest season was a bit off-kilter, but the trip to Ireland was chef kiss and, while it was shorter than I would have liked, it did lean into a bit more emotion and sensitivity, which PHILLY has become surprisingly good at for a show that’s so unabashedly unapologetic for how awful their characters are.

GIRLS5EVA

“[One] of the few shows I had to relegate to only watching during the daytime and while I wasn’t working, because it was so fucking hilarious that it was distracting and my laughter was prone to waking folks up.”

THE GREAT

Hilariously filthy and horny on Tverskaya, while still being emotionally and historically insightful, while still being completely irreverent. Completely unlike anything else on the air right now.

HACKS

While the Jean Smart-renaissance contines, I’m far more interested in Hannah Einbinder and her journey. A fantastic scrutinization on women in comedy and their personal endeavors.

JOE PERA TALKS WITH YOU

“[G]oddamn hilarious when it’s not pulling at your heartstrings.”

HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON

“[F]unny, warm, smart, and occasionally scary. The season one finale, which saw him documenting the spread of COVID-19 via his Greek landlord was so heartwarming, while also being heartbreaking.”

ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING

“It’s a legitimately thrillingly suspenseful tale that, honestly? Didn’t need to be.“

RESERVATION DOGS

An astounding work of the trials and tribulations indigenous folks have to live with in America, while still being amazingly funny.

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY S3 (one ep in 2021, so I’m counting it.)

““This is my kind of STAR TREK!” [I exclaimed,] as there were more than a few eps that focused on discovering new worlds with kind intent, recreating the wonder that drew me into the STAR TREK universe in the first place. While not all of the characters are terribly complex, their motives and Federation-centric willfulness to be as helpful as they can be was refreshing, comforting, and familiar. It felt like the show realized what it needed to do to recapture the original series’ magic, all while gamely moving matters forward.”

https://mediaclature.com/2021/08/27/star-trek-discovery-season-three-2020/

SUCCESSION

“Catching up with SUCCESSION. Just how many layers was Adrian Brody wearing on that walk? 15? 20? searches Oh look, Vanity Fair asked him about it: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2021/11/adrien-brody-succession-still-watching

WE ARE LADY PARTS

“A confused mix of hash anthems and sour girl power. […] It was kind of like therapy, but with a lot of screaming.”

“I’m the lamb, by the way.”

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS S3

While S3 didn’t hit the highs of Jackie Daytona, it was still far more hilarious and heartfelt and inventive than practically any other high-concept comedy out there.

THE WHITE LOTUS

Mike White is exceptional at not only writing the plights of privileged white folks, but also in managing your expectations when it comes to those set-pieces. This is his case of having his cake and eating it too.

WYNONNA EARP

WYONNA EARP was caught in Canadian finance limbo for far too long, but the final season delivered. It was always an underrated genre show, and sadly it appears that it’ll remain that way.

YELLOWJACKETS

YELLOWJACKETS’ pilot is perhaps the best genre pilot since LOST, and you can watch it for free!

YELLOWJACKETS is best described as teen girl LORD OF THE FLIES meets LOST, but frankly, it’s better, at least so far. The characters are more complex, the circumstances more interesting, and they (so far) aren’t drawing out paranatural circumstances.

Missed:

  • DICKENSON S3 (missed S2, too)
  • EVIL S2
  • THE FLIGHT ATTENDENT
  • IN THE DARK S2
  • I THINK YOU SHOULD LEAVE
  • MAID
  • MYTHIC QUEST (S2, but need to watch S1 first)
  • THE OTHER TWO S2
  • PEN15 S2
  • POSE S3
  • THE SEX LIVES OF COLLEGE GIRLS
  • SQUID GAME
  • THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
  • YOU S3

LIZZIE: THE MUSICAL (2010+)

(Theatre/YouTube) Another theatre production, but this one is far more accessible, as there’s an original cast album and a number of clips and performances available on YouTube. As you might surmise from the title, it’s a rock opera with a different take on the legend of Lizzie Borden, authored by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner, and Alan Stevens Hewitt. The official website describes it as so:

“LIZZIE is four women fronting a six-piece rock band.

“LIZZIE is Rage! Sex! Betrayal! BLOODY MURDER!

“LIZZIE is American mythology set to a blistering rock score with a sound owing less to Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber than to BIKINI KILL, the RUNAWAYS, and HEART.”

So, yeah, that ticks all of my boxes, and hopefully yours too.

The production I saw was executed by Chicago’s Firebrand Theatre who are an “equity musical theatre company committed to employing and empowering women on and off the stage” and it was a goddamn blast. I can’t wait to see another of their offerings, but definitely jump at the chance to catch any production of it, if it hits your area.

HOUSE OF BORDEN (one of my favorite renditions of my favorite number, but I’m not sure why they had one of them play two parts):

What may be my new favorite YouTube theatre trailer, for what looks to have been a brilliant Canadian production (although it does untether the actors from their mics, which is not in line with prior productions):

Lastly, every time I rediscover this musical, I can’t help but endlessly re-listen to it.

GIRLS5EVA (2021+)

GIRLS5EVA, from the gut-busting mind of Meredith Scardino, is one of the few shows I had to relegate to only watching during the daytime, and while I wasn’t working, because it’s so fucking hilarious that it was distracting and my laughter was prone to waking folks up. This tale, of a girl pop group making a resurgence 20 years later, is a gag-a-minute, and every performance is pitch-perfect. It’s well-worth the peacock subscription solely for it. Don’t believe me? Here, enjoy this litany of jokes:

“So, I dug up our old agreement with Larry and I think he used an old Ringling Bros. contract. Not even for humans; for bears!”

“Well, I’ve always admired that work ethic in the bedroom — it’s bananas — but otherwise it’s too much!”

“Assembly requires four men or nine daughters.”

“Wait, did you make the MAXIM HOT list?”

“Oh, yeah. Oh my god, we got this swag bag from the women’s empowerment luncheon at the Victoria’s Secret Trampoline Park.

“Oh, a temporary tramp stamp. ‘October Sky’, now on VHS.”

“YOU HUMAN B-SIDE!”

“Why am I never the one profiting off of me?”

“You’re all in my will. I have a parrot I haven’t told you about that won’t die.”

“Guess it’s just you and me, Ash.”

“Honestly, too many people left for this to be fun. Now that it’s just the two of us, it’s feeling kind of weird.”

“Don’t quote your sex tape at me!”

“Sorry, the guy from ‘Smallville’.”

“It’s pointless, but it’s what I’m doing!”

What a perfect summation of my pandemic life.

BRING IT ON: THE MUSICAL ‘It’s All Happening’ (2012)

(YouTube) For whatever reason, people have seemingly collectively forgotten about this musical, which was quite well-received at the time (or so I’ve read). The music for the work was partially provided by Lin-Manuel Miranda — penned in-between IN THE HEIGHTS and HAMILTON — and you can definitely tell. There’s a part in the middle of “It’s All Happening” that feels lifted from IN THE HEIGHTS and one near the end that is -very- evocative of a certain HAMILTON number.

I’ve never seen a proper production of the show, but I have the original Broadway cast recording, and I do endlessly rewatch their Tony Awards performance. It is very much a standard Broadway adaptation of a beloved film, but the buildup and energy really thrills me.

CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND: -You Stupid Bitch- (2016)

(CW/YouTube) There are a lot of highlights to CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND — it’s wall-to-wall amazing, apart from the off-putting title — and despite the fact that I’m not quite the target audience for this song, or show for that matter, I think about this song. A lot. If pressed, I’d argue it’s my favorite song from the show. While it’s not subtle or as elaborately staged as other numbers, it perfectly encapsulates the show and I love the closing shot.* If you don’t have the time for another full series of TV, I think this video would be a satisfying watch and you could leave it there.However, if you want to know more: the show is about Rebecca Bunch (actor/writer/co-creator Rachel Bloom, previously best known for quality nerd-specific YouTube videos such as FUCK ME, RAY BRADBURY) who upends her life as a high-powered NYC real-estate lawyer to pursue bro-y slacker Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), her teen boyfriend from summer camp, who lives in West Covina, California.**

What follows over four seasons is a musical dramedy about Rebecca trying to navigate life, cope with mental illness, and become a better person with a little help from her friends. It manages to skillfully do so by packing several songs into each hour-long ep, all of which are exceptionally written and staged. Many of the songs were co-written by the recently deceased Adam Schlesinger — fuck COVID — who also worked on the original numbers in previously recommended JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS, but is obviously best known for founding FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE.

Adam aside, CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND was certainly the collective vision of Bloom and co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna (who adapted THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA and co-wrote CRUELLA). It’s singularly focused, and everyone involved gave their all. The show stumbled from time to time but, as a whole, it was one of the most consistently entertaining and emotional TV shows I’ve seen aired within the past decade.

“Yes, I deserve this!”

** It’s all spelled out in the very catchy opening song but the show ditches its Broadway spectacle sheen pretty quickly because, well, it was on the CW. They didn’t have GALAVANT money.

ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE (2018)

(Pluto/VOD) There are movies that have musical moments, there are musical movies, and then there are film musicals. I find that differences are somewhat slight: musical moments are films that have a handful of scenes where the characters burst into song, usually to a well-recognized pop culture song, to underpin whatever emotional state they’re feeling. (Think the jukebox moment in SOUTHLAND TALES when Justin Timberlake lip synced to THE KILLERS’ -I Got Soul- which I both love and hate that I love.) Musical movies are adaptations gussied up to conform to the needs of the film viewer. (I’m trying to keep to modern references, so: Tom Hooper’s LES MISERABLES or, uh, CATS* but also previously recommended, and non-modern, THE MUSIC MAN.)

Then there are film musicals, which aren’t adaptations, and often are labeled as ’rock opera’, despite often being neither. They follow the scripted structure of a musical, and then they just film it. It’s too grandiose to fit within the required guidelines of a Broadway music, but the creators -love- traditional musical narrative structure, and are dead-set on realizing their creation. They’re rarer because they’re often fan efforts. For every ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, we also get five REPO! THE GENETIC OPERAs**.

ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE definitely falls in the latter camp, and emphasis on camp. It’s based on the short film ZOMBIE MUSICAL (but I’ll warn you that it’s definitely an early draft of a feature film) — and it toys with the format, including one musical number well-worth the price of admission where lead Anna (a very elastic DICKENSON’s Ella Hunt) and her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) obliviously sing through zombie anarchy due to a transformative evening which, yes, cribs from SHAUN OF THE DEAD and Zack Synder’s DAWN OF THE DEAD but manages to do its own thing. I do wish the music was stronger though — the songs are fine but, apart from a few exceptions, they’re mostly forgettable — but it’s a fun time, especially if you’re into both comical horror and musicals.

Lastly, if you’re interested in musical narrative storytelling, Jack Viertel’s THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL is a revelation. He does an amazing job of deconstructing how musical narratives work in ways that will blow your mind.

Trailer:

* Sorry not sorry, but I find the film far more watchable than the stage production, even though Tom Hooper should never have been given this project.

** For what it’s worth, I do admire the hard-scrabble pluck of REPO!. I sat in on a Q&A where the writer and director went into detail as to how they finagled specific SAW sequel scenes just so they could film specific REPO! scenes for free, and good for them for realizing their vision through whatever means necessary!

THE MUSIC MAN (1962)

(VOD) Lest my prior JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR recommendation confuse matters, I was a reluctant musical fan. It wasn’t until I saw the film adaptation of THE MUSIC MAN that musicals really struck me, partially because I suddenly realized: ‘Oh, that’s what Conan O’Brien was riffing on in the monorail episode of THE SIMPSONS! You mean I can have both thieving, scheming hucksters and quippy, clever songs?!’

If you aren’t familiar with THE MUSIC MAN, I’ll briefly summarize: Harold Hill (Robert Preston) is a con-artist who frequents towns to sell musical instruments and lessons to all of the children, then plans to leave said town after receiving the cash but before the town realizes they have instruments but no instructor. However, this time he falls in love with Marian (Shirley Jones), the local librarian, as well as the town.

In case you doubt my love for the source material, my wife bought tickets to see a live production of it at the Goodman Theater for my birthday two years ago. We even trekked to downtown Chicago to join in a 76 Trombone march as part of the premiere festivities. (I still have my hand flag!) We had plans to see the perfectly cast Broadway revival with Hugh Jackman as Harold Hill and Sutton Foster as Marian last year, but …COVID. Fingers crossed for, uh, 2022?

I’ve watched Morton DaCosta’s adaptation of THE MUSIC MAN too many time to count. Whenever I see it in passing on Turner Classic Movies, I always take a moment to enjoy it. Sometimes two or even three moments.

I’ll freely admit this is a film that coasts by on its songs, Meredith Willson’s love of language, Robert Preston’s charm, and a cast chock-full of amazing character actors (including Buddy Hackett!). While DaCosta’s film adaptation of his production of AUNTIE MAME hits the spot, I can’t quite say the same for THE MUSIC MAN, even though I love it so. It feels rather slapdash at times and, while that may be due to the film needing a bit of a restorative love, I tend to doubt it as the props often look hastily cobbled together, plus the poor sound mixing, lazy framing and staging, and dull colors. That said, it succeeds as an enthralling musical adaptation despite all of those marks against it.

On the other hand, there’s a 2003 TV adaptation of THE MUSIC MAN which was part of THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY and, while it has a similarly stellar (but woefully miscast) Broadway line-up including Matthew Broderick as Harold Hil, Kristen Chenoweth as Marian the Librarian, and Victor Garber as The Mayor, it’s sadly over-produced. While it looks more expensive than DaCosta’s adaptation, it’s poorly paced due to over-zealous editing and over-cramped camerawork (which feels like it might be the result of cropping it down to a 1.33 aspect for TV, but I could be wrong), resulting in the best numbers limping along without any charisma — partially because Broderick’s performance is too slight and tempered for Harold Hill, and THE MUSIC MAN without charisma is an empty rig.

In short, I’ll take a hastily assembled adaptation with the proper talent over an expensive, well-meaning but poorly cast adaptation any day of the week.

THE MUSIC MAN (1962) trailer:

Rock Island Opening (1962), just for fun:

Rock Island Opening (2003), just to be cruel:

THE SIMPSONS: Monorail (A far shorter song than I recall):

Ya Got Trouble (1962):

THE MUSIC MAN (2003):

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973)

(VOD) I’ll be blunt: I’ve never been an Andrew Lloyd Weber fan. While I respect him and his work, a lot of it comes down to my high school years as a cellist, having to play the mind-numbing Phantom theme over-and-over-and-over again, as well as filling in at pit orchestra during our production of JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT. Also, seeing an ad for CATS during every commercial break while I was watching STAR TREK or THE BOB NEWHART SHOW in syndication didn’t help.

Despite all of that, and despite the fact that I am not religious, I unabashedly love the original JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR score/film adaptation. It’s exactly the sort of coke-fueled crazy big swing I love from the 70s and, while I’ve seen a few other adaptations of it, as well as one stage production — there’s one stage production I really wanted to hatewatch that one of my favorite theater critics, Emma Couling, ripped apart, but I missed it — I keep coming back to the 1973 production and I think we all know why:

Carl Anderson as Judas is amazing. Yeah, Ted Neeley is pretty good, but Anderson completely outclasses him. Every number without him leaves you asking: ‘When’s Judas coming back?’

Secondly, the goddamn shimmy in Superstar! All of the choreography in the penultimate number is amazing, but perhaps nothing more than the arm shimmy.

I can watch this musical all day. It’s worth noting that it’s directed by Norman Jewison who, despite his surname and directing this and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, is not Jewish , but always knew exactly what sort of flourish to bring to his adaptations.

Superstar:

2015’s production of King Herod’s Song, featuring THE YOUNG ONE’s Rik Mayall (RIP):

I’d be remiss to mention that I definitely watched MR. SHOW’s -Jeepers Creepers Semi-Star- parody well before I watched any proper version of JESUS CHRIST SUPER STAR, but it still holds up as a great parody, and with an astounding cast of extras!

Trailer:

GALAVANT (2015-2016)

(DVD/VOD) While at first blush, this fantasy musical TV series from ABC (owned by Disney) may look like it’s solely for musical theater nerds and, while I may qualify for that moniker — I admit to spending some time in high school pit orchestra, and I did willfully throw away good money to see CATS on stage two years ago — it’s smart and clever and fun enough for everyone.

Created by Dan Fogelman (who penned the similarly subversive princess film TANGLED, but is probably best known now as the creator of THIS IS US), it’s a gleefully self-aware gaggle of fairy tale male savior tropes turned on its ear, all to the tune of Alan Menken songs. Even better, every single one of the characters are interesting and very human, all fleshed out and given their own quirks, despite the fact that the show could have coasted along on caricatures.

The cast is phenomenal and includes Timothy Omundson as the idiotic king (handsomely unrecognizable from his days on MONK), Vinnie Jones as the king’s heavy hand (yes, he does sing, and he’s hilarious), Mallory Jansen as Galavant’s ‘stolen’ love, Luke Youngblood (COMMUNITY’s Magnitude) as a plucky sidekick, not to mention an astounding guest cast including: Rutger Hauer, Weird Al, John Stamos, Hugh Bonneville, Kylie Minogue, Nick Frost, and Anthony Head.

It’s utterly delightful but inexplicably unavailable via Disney+. That said, it’s well-worth hunting down a digital copy or the DVD set.

There’s a very long trailer for the first season, but it amplifies the drama and downplays the music and comedy. I recommend the German trailer instead, which is just the intro of the pilot but with German subtitles.

Disney Germany S1 opener:

American S1 trailer:

If you still aren’t sold, check out these S2 trailers/openers, because that’s really when the show doubled-down on its very specific brand of nonsense:

S2 opener:

S2’s penultimate episode’s opener (don’t be afraid of spoilers!):

I’m very grateful to my wife for boosting this show to me, even though I bluntly said ‘I don’t think I need that’ when she first recommended it to me.