A few weeks ago, Chaplin opened on Broadway to middling reviews. Ben Brantley described the portrayal of the Little Tramp as “devoured by a swarm of man-eating cliches” and The Chicago Tribune proclaimed that “its impossible to believe that [Charlie Chaplin] would express himself in such prosaic, cliched terms.” All of this heat over the reduction of a beloved icon to a simmering pot of bland stew got me thinking – why do some biomusicals sail, while others arrive virtually DOA?
The history of the biomusical, while not prolific in its output, traces back generations and has born a few hits and a volume of flops. Marilyn: An American Fable infamously tanked amongst a chorus of dancing plumbers showering attention on a bathing Ms. Monroe. Coco, starring Katherine Hepburn as the mother of contemporary fashion, was a critical disaster despite moderate financial success (because of the marquee star’s fanbase). And Rosie O’Donell’s Boy George and Leigh Bowery megaflop Taboo received disparaging pre-press rivaled only in recent memory by Spiderman: Turn of the Dark.
On the other hand, the genre has had its share of successes as well, most notably Annie Get Your Gun, a musical riff on Wild West sharpshooter Annie Oakley; The Boy from Oz, based on real life Australian superstar Peter Allen; and arguably one of the greatest musicals of all time, Gypsy. So why do some biomusicals stand the test of showtune history while others become prime examples of why historical figures and the Great White Way are not meant to cross-pollinate?
There is no doubt that composition, book writing, and concept play a role in any show’s success or failure. But looking at which biomusicals have gone on to become the stuff of legend indicates another important qualifier: the public’s previous knowledge of the titular character.
Marilyn, Chanel and Boy George are all iconic figures and any audience member would enter the theatre with a sense of what they should do, say and think. On the other hand, Annie Oakley lived in the time before recorded media; Allen, while certainly well-known, operated often in the shadow of his more famous counterparts; and Mama Rose was launched into the Broadway subconscious because of Arthur Laurents’ fictionalization of her life story. It would seem that the most successful biomusicals are ones which portray protagonists who are not precious to us, people who can be interpreted based on the creators’ desires without the need to appease a previous sensibility of what makes them tick.
Scandalous: The Life and Times of Aimee Semple McPherson (the other major biomusical of the 12/13 season) opens on Broadway on November 15, and I have a feeling it may just be a hit. After all, what portion of the NYC populace has even heard of the infamous Evanglical preacher and media celebrity? Plus, add in some diva chops in the form of Carolee Carmello’s portrayal of her, and it just might sore.
What do you think? Are there Biomusicals centred on iconic figures which have worked for you?