BetteBack: Bette Midler Ushers The Musical Back Into Hollywood

Article from:Albany Times Union (Albany, NY) Article date:May 7, 1992
Byline: Diane Haithman Los Angeles Times

When there’s music in the air in Hollywood, one of the first places you will hear it is Julie McDonald’s office at Joseph Heldfond & Rix talent agency. McDonald is one of only three Hollywood talent agents who exclusively represent dancers and choreographers, the movie industry’s most chronically underworked and underpaid contingent.

So when rumors of new musical film and TV production begin leaking from Hollywood executive suites, this lean and hungry group is the first to know. And there is definitely music – or more accurately, musicals – in the air at JHR.

Over the past few months, the Los Angeles dancers’ network hummed about Walt Disney Productions’ “Newsies,” a traditional musical about the New York City newsboys’ strike of 1899, as the movie neared its April 10 release. Now here was a dancer’s dream: The director was Kenny Ortega, who choreographed the hit movie “Dirty Dancing,” and whose work has generated heat in live tours (he staged and performed five international tours with the rock group Tubes), music videos and a host of other feature films.

And there were more movie musicals in the works: Modern dance choreographer Twyla Tharp has a top-secret, untitled new project for James L. Brooks; auditions took place in recent weeks, and the New York-based Tharp and her company will return to Los Angeles Friday to begin workshops for the dancers. Brooks also reportedly is working on a musical to star Nick Nolte. Barry Levinson’s upcoming musical “Toys,” also shrouded in secrecy, stars Robin Williams as a toy maker who tries to save his father’s business.

Riding high on the success of “Beauty and the Beast,” the first animated film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar, Disney had more projects in the works, including the already completed “Swing Kids” (about teenage rebels who danced to American swing music in Hitler-era Germany) and the animated “Aladdin,” as well as a not-yet- produced sequel to “Mary Poppins” and a musical version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s novel “The Little Princess.”

The Broadway-to-screen adaptation pipeline bulged with new possibilities: Along with “Miss Saigon,” “Les Miserables,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Evita,” which went into development as early as 1990 at various studios, newer Broadway-connected films include “Sweeney Todd,” to be directed for Columbia by “Batman” director Tim Burton, and movie versions of Stephen Sondheim‘s “Singing Out Loud,” from Castle Rock Entertainment, and “Into the Woods,” to be produced for Columbia by Storyline Productions in association with Jim Henson Productions, which will design the creatures.

It seemed, as veteran theatrical, TV and film dancer-choreographer Grover Dale put it, that “every studio in town was poised for a musical.” Even television seemed to have caught the musical bug; news leaked in a recent Liz Smith column that CBS is in final negotiations with Bette Midler‘s All Girl Productions and Storyline Productions to produce a three-hour TV version of “Gypsy,” to star Midler.

After “Newsies” opened, the tune changed. The $25 million film grossed only $1.2 million in 1,223 theaters that weekend and a mere $1.1 million the following week. Disney executives who were eager to discuss the revival of the musical before “Newsies” opened offered a blanket “no comment” the Monday after.

And suddenly, at McDonald’s office, people began to talk about whether a cold reception for “Newsies” would put a chill on Hollywood’s latest musical boom before it ever hit the screen.

“We were talking about that this morning; God, I hope not,” McDonald said a few days after “Newsies” opened. “Unfortunately, I’m afraid it will. It’s a damn good movie. … I think the quality is on the screen, but for some reason people are not going into the theater. I guess people just haven’t seen a traditional musical in so long, it’s awkward.”

Storyline Productions’ Craig Zadan, who with partner Neil Meron is at work on the “Gypsy” project, predicted that a skittish Hollywood would take any box-office failure as a death knell for the musical.

The Hollywood musical seems to die quite often, Zadan said. “Musicals are the only form that is punished for the failure of any particular one. When ‘A Chorus Line‘ failed,” he said, referring to the 1985 movie version, “everyone said for a while that nobody wants to see musicals.”

Zadan believes that the apparent failure of “Newsies” may not end the musical trend, because it was not triggered by “Newsies” in the first place. “I think ‘The Little Mermaid’ may have kicked (the musical boom) into gear,” he said, referring to the Disney hit of 1989. “A lot of that development began around the time of ‘Little Mermaid.’ I think ‘Little Mermaid’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ helped enormously. They are animated, but they are musicals.”

Though unavailable for comment after “Newsies” struck out, Walt Disney Pictures Vice President David Vogel and Donald De Line, executive vice president of Touchstone Pictures, another arm of the Disney film conglomerate, both sang the praises of the musical before it opened. Vogel said the studio was discussing a number of projects, both musical and non- musical, with Ortega.

A source close to “Newsies” and the studio said that the movie’s poor performance had not halted any musical projects in the works. “We just have to keep singing and dancing,” the source said.

“We have said this over and over:’The musical is dead,’ ‘the Western is dead.’ I think nothing is dead when the movie delivers.”

Otis Sallid, the choreographer on “Swing Kids,” takes a more pessimistic view of Hollywood’s musical attempts. “There is no trend – there’s nothing,” he said. “Studios are not really reaching out to people who know musicals. They still do weird things, like hire people from England to direct American musicals (referring to “Chorus Line’s” Richard Attenborough); they hire people who can’t dance to have big dance roles. It’s stupid.”

As the musical projects wait in the wings, Hollywood continues to debate the formula for a successful movie musical, and the question is whether America wants a revival of the old-fashioned musical – or something completely different. The slate of upcoming projects ranges from an apparent attempt to re- create the tried-and-true with a long list of Broadway adaptations, to daring stabs at musical innovation such as Levinson’s “Toys” and the Tharp-Brooks project.

“Toys,” for example, employed as its choreographer Anthony Thomas, the man responsible for Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” tour; he calls both the story and the musical numbers definitely out of the ordinary. “It’s a comedy, it’s something I’ve never seen before, and it’s wild,” he said.

And though its producers call the Tharp-Brooks project a traditional book musical, in her search for dancers Tharp ventured into the worlds of aerobics and gymnastics rather than rely on veterans of musical theater, said one of its executive producers, Penney Finkelman Coxcq.

“I do know that there are a lot of musicals happening,” Cox said. “The success of a musical can only encourage more.”

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
Share A little Divinity

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Verified by MonsterInsights