Tag Archives: Robert Lopez

South Park meets Broadway

Cartoon Central aired a new episode of South Park called Broadway Bro Down last week

We got some great advice in the television viewing department when our three children, now college students, were young. When in doubt, watch shows yourself before letting your children see them. The same goes for movies and other fare that might have content you’d deem inappropriate.

Parents who thought it’d be keen to watch last week’s new episode of “South Park” with their kids who love Broadway got a rude (and well-deserved) awakening if they took to the couch together without screening the content. Show creators hyped the Broadway theme, but failed to mention the other “B-word” that dominates the episode’s dialogue.

The premise of the episode is simple enough — men who take women to Broadway musicals fare better in the bedroom department. Hence the decision by South Park father Randy to take wife Sharon to New York for an entire weekend of musical theater. And more than two dozen local performances of “Wicked.”

The concept isn’t new, of course. When Broadway legend Betty Buckley was just 21-years-old, she performed one of only two female roles in the musical “1776.” She was Martha Jefferson to Ken Howard’s Thomas Jefferson, singing a piece called “He Plays the Violin.” Apparently musicians were deemed sexier than most even then. Still, the show’s creators left more to the imagination.

The “South Park” meets Broadway episode is entertaining enough, with all its scenes of popular musicals, but the addition of a mature-theme plotline dubbed “filthy” by an arts blogger for The New York Times added nothing to the episode’s charm. Instead, it left only minutes of content suitable for young viewers — and left adults craving a shower (of the solo variety) more than a show.

When Randy decides to write his own musical, for anything but artistic reasons, he lacks a certain sophistication in creating subtext — which four members of the musical theater pantheon attempt to help him rectify. Enter the four fabulously-drawn cartoon renderings of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Elton John, Stephen Schwartz and Stephen Sondheim.

Just a single line from the episode is “LOL” funny — despite the predictability of its subject matter. The musical created by South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, as well as Robert Lopez, gets only a brief flash of shameless promotion as the episode draws to a close. Let’s hope a future episode of “South Park” parodies the musical titled “The Book of Mormon” in all its glory.

Just be sure the kids are tucked in tighly before you watch it.

— Lynn

Note: Actor Ken Howard, president of the Screen Actors Guild, will be speaking today at Arizona State University in Tempe. Click here to read details noted in a previous post.

Coming up: Shakespeare meets conspiracy theory

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“Winnie the Pooh” meets “Avenue Q”

A scene from Walt Disney Picture's Winnie the Pooh--which is full of playful letters and words

Lizabeth suggested at about 12:45pm Saturday afternoon that we hit a 1pm showing of Disney’s new “Winnie the Pooh” film, which gave us little time to transition from Eeyore to Tigger mode. But we made it, and enjoyed every second of nostalgia nirvana in the short 73 minute film.

“Winnie the Pooh” is a literature lover’s dream — filled with images of books, letters and punctuation marks that come alive (as muses, not monsters), and scenes of Pooh characters bouncing, stumbling and flying through the pages of a “Winnie the Pooh” storybook.

Tigger doesn’t text or tweet. Kanga and Roo get letters the old-fashioned way — in their mailbox. Friends work together to solve problems. They’re creative. They cheer each other on. And they accept one another, foibles and all. Pull out the Pooh books before heading to the theater — you’ll want to extend the movie magic with a few good reads when you get home.

Robert Lopez wrote music and lyrics for both Avenue Q and Winnie the Pooh

“Winnie the Pooh” is a lovely musical jaunt, full of classical music in various tempos and styles. The movie features an original score by Henry Jackman and original songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, a married couple with impressive joint and individual credits.

Lizabeth spotted Robert Lopez’s name in the credits — because she’s familiar with his work on “The Book of Mormon” and “Avenue Q.” The couple share music and lyric credits for seven songs in the film. Anderson-Lopez voices Kanga and Playbill.com reports that Lopez makes the rumbling sound for Pooh’s tummy. It’s a gift, I suppose.

A careful review of the movie’s credits — which roll as some of the movie’s funniest antics unfold — reveals plenty of familiar names. There’s Zooey Deschanel, who contributes an original song and vocal performance for the film. And Craig Ferguson (the voice of Owl) of late-night fame.

Also actors who’ve voiced characters for Toy Story 3, Phineas & Ferb and SpongeBob SquarePants. Most endearing is the voice of Christopher Robin. It’s that of Jack Boulter, and it’s his first-ever voiceover role. I may have to enjoy the movie a second time just to relish all the voiceover talent — including narration by John Cleese, co-founder of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

A single line in the credits reads “Dan Read-In Memorium” — in honor of a longtime background and visual development artist for Disney Animation films who died in May of 2010 after battling melanoma. I read that donations to local SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) chapters were requested in lieu of flowers.

Film credits mention “caffeination by Carlos Benavides” and thank three museums, including Britain’s Victoria and Albert Museum, where film directors Stephen Anderson and Don Hall studied original “Winnie the Pooh” illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard. The original stuffed animals that inspired Milne’s stories for his son Christopher Robin Milne are housed at the New York Public Library.

Disney's Winnie the Pooh opens with pages from this 1961 book by A.A. Milne

Children and their grown-ups giggled throughout the film as Tigger pounced atop a downtrodden Eeyore, Owl recited his lengthy memoir, Roo braved the forrest in his tea cup helmet, Rabbit found comfort in a checklist and Pooh raced to escape angry bees. There were no angry birds back in author A.A. Milne’s day (1882-1956).

When characters ponder knotting a rope to rescue friends who’ve fallen into a pit, Eeyore suggest that “it’s all for naught.” Later he’s convinced that “we’re all gonna die.” Roo offers a deadpan “Send the pig” (Lizabeth’s favorite line) when scary noises loom, and Tigger spends a lot of time saying “it’s gonna be great.” Pooh dreams of honey, meeting frustrations with a simple “Oh, bother!”

Disney’s “Winnie the Pooh” website offers a “100 Acre Wood Personality quiz” for those of you who’ve yet to identify with a particular character, and there are plenty of games, activities and facts for younger “Pooh” fans. As other folks flock to Harry Potter’s Forbidden Forrest, I’m perfectly content to linger in the 100 Acre Wood.

— Lynn

Note: Lizabeth found a cool “10 Questions” interview of Robert Lopez by Belinda Luscombe of TIME Magazine in which he talks about his “personal connection with Pooh.” Click here to watch the video from TIME.com.

Coming up: Pardon my Pygmalion

Musings on “The Book of Mormon”

The Book of Mormon sign on the Eugene O'Neill Theatre marquee in New York

My first love was a Mormon. His name was Donny Osmond, and though I never met him, I loved everything about him — from his bright purple socks to his pearly white smile. 

Shades of The Lion King as Elders Price (Andrew Rannells) and Cunningham (Josh Gad) arrive in northern African for their Mormon mission (Photo: Joan Marcus)

My latest love is a musical called “The Book of Mormon,” which I saw at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway while visiting NYC last month. I stalked the tickets online and by phone day and night until a single seat popped up for the week of my visit.

“The Book of Mormon” stars Josh Gad (Elder Cunningham) and Andrew Rannells (Elder Price) — plus Nikki M. James (Nabalungi), winner of the 2011 Tony Award for best performance by an actress in a featured role (musical). Also Rory O’Malley (Elder McKinley) and Michael Potts (Mafala Hatimbi).

Crowds gathering before a recent performance of The Book of Mormon on Broadway

I sat in a center seat of the seventh row in the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, a small venue jammed packed with people who’d been clever enough to buy tickets before the reviews made headlines, paid dearly for tickets via the secondary market, or gotten lucky in the daily ticket raffle or standing room only line.

To my left was an actor well-known to “Law & Order” viewers, who was perfectly charming until I stepped on his feet making a run for my seat. A father and his teenage son, also visiting from out of state, sat to my right — and shared that they’ve long been fans of the television series “South Park.”

“The Book of Mormon” is the brainchild of Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone — who wrote the musical’s book, music and lyrics after meeting one night when Parker and Stone (creators of “South Park”) went to see “Avenue Q” (which Lopez co-wrote and conceived).

This doorbell that marks the Eugene O'Neill Theatre stage door is part of the show's impressive marketing campaign

His bio in “The Book of Mormon” playbill notes that “Lopez sang in church choirs throughout college and always suspected he’d return to sacred music.” Parker and Trey are best known for the profane. The show’s playbill notes that “It has been a long-time dream of Parker’s to write a musical for Broadway.”

The “South Park” duo hails from Colorado — Parker from Conifer and Stone from Littleton, a Denver suburb best known to some as the site of Columbine High School, where a tragic school shooting took place in 1999. If you’ve seen “South Park” or “Avenue Q,” you know what you’re getting into with “The Book of Mormon.”

Josh Gad and other cast members signed autographs after the show last Wednesday night

Apparently, at least one person in the audience came unprepared. Folks who waited in the autograph line after the show told me they’d heard a women protesting the show’s crude content — saying something like “You just don’t use the F-word on Broadway.” True enough for a time, but that time has clearly passed. And the “F-word” is mild compared to some of the show’s other language.

A truer test of this trio’s musical theater muster might be creating a show with less offensive fare. I’d have taken just as much pleasure from “The Book of Mormon” story were it told without colorful gestures, language and props — though it was clear from the steady hum of the audience that they were thrilled with every minute of it.

Andrew Rannells lights up the stage, and more than a few hearts, with his sparking smile and spectacular talent

“The Book of Mormon” pokes fun at American culture. The opening scene, which features a set full of signs for retail and fast food giants like Walmart, registers a high score on the mock-o-meter. The bright-eyed character with a pristine white smile, Elder Price, longs to live in a Disney-created paradise he simply calls “Orlando.”

The mock-o-meter also registers jabs at Americans who romanticize Africa — including obvious hits to “The Lion King” and celebrities who champion causes in other countries ala “We Are the World.” Changing the world, it seems, is easier than changing oneself. And here be the rub: For all its offense, this musical speaks the truth. The greater your ability to laugh at yourself, the less it hurts.

Tony Award winner Nikki M. James greets fans after a recent performance of The Book of Mormon

If an actual mock-o-meter existed, the needle would spin wildly out of control during depictions of the Mormon religion, known more formally as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. While Utah has the country’s highest population of Mormons, I’m told that Mesa — home to a beautiful temple and visitors center –ranks second.

The Mormon church has been relatively quiet, wisely I think, in their objections to portrayals of their faith in “The Book of Mormon.” The musical conveys all sorts of stereotypes about the religion’s founders, tenets and followers — but still manages to capture the earnestness of a people who desperately want to do right by God and each other.

“The Book of Mormon” is a powerful reminder of the ease with which we make assumptions. That God favors us over others. That others see us the way we see ourselves. That the afterlife trumps the everyday. That easy is good, and good is easy.

Nikki M. James, Andrew Rannells, Josh Gad and the cast of The Book of Mormon (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The show drew thunderous applause and a lengthy standing ovation. I didn’t want the experience to end, and was delighted when cast members shared in the audience afterglow by signing autographs and talking with fans. They’re a gracious bunch who seem genuinely grateful for their own “The Book of Mormon” experiences and those of us who travel from far and wide to see the show.

This sign reminds theater-goers that Mormons are more than musical theater fodder

Before jumping on the subway back to our hotel in lower Manhattan, I veered in and out of the crowds taking in all the noise and neon of Times Square. I stopped at Starbucks (which also registers on “The Book of Mormon” mock-o-meter), looking up at nearby signs while I waited for my drink.

I spied a giant sign featuring dozens of diverse faces and the words “I’m a Mormon” next to the mormons.org website. A fitting reminder that judging a person based on religious (or secular) beliefs might make for an outrageously funny piece of theater. But it’s never a good idea in real life.

— Lynn

Note: “The Book of Mormon” won the 2011 Tony Award for best musical, as well as several other awards

Coming up: Lynn & Liz see “War Horse” at Lincoln Center

From Sondheim to South Park

South Park Elementary School Musical episode - Photo courtesy of Comedy Central

I worried as a young parent that irreverent television shows like the animated series “South Park” on Comedy Central might serve as a sort of gateway drug to all sorts of bad behavior. I suppose it was the foul language factor that scared me the most. There’s nothing pretty about cruising the bathroom cleanser aisle of the local mommy mart with a potty-mouth child in tow.

South Park The F Word episode - Photo courtesy of Comedy Central

Yet musicals laced with colorful language have never felt all that threatening. I didn’t even realize “Les Miserables” contained a four-letter word until I saw it, just yesterday, for the umpteenth time. My daughter, Lizabeth, has been joining me at the theater for more than half her lifetime. Most of our favorite shows are peppered with language that’s plenty spicy. Think “Spring Awakening,” “Avenue Q,” and “Next to Normal.”

South Park All About Mormons episode - Photo courtesy of Comedy Central

As “The Book of Mormon,” a new musical with book, music and lyrics by “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and “Avenue Q” co-creator Robert Lopez, creates a stir on Broadway, I suspect part of its popularity stems from the “South Park” as gateway drug factor. How lovely to have a built-in following that already rocks it in the world of cynicism and absurdity.

I’m all for the gateway drug approach, assuming we’re talking about ideas rather than injectables — but my starter drug isn’t “South Park.” It’s Sondheim. Because my love of musical theater is fueling a new appreciation of all things “South Park.” I don’t do much in the way of “appointment television.” Few series are intriguing enough to demand regular viewing. But tonight I sat glued to the latest episode of “South Park” — in which Stan, who’s celebrating his 10th birthday, gets an official diagnosis of cynicism (and makes generous use of the word I was shocked to hear just once during “Les Mis”).

South Park You're Getting Old episode - Photo courtesy of Comedy Central

I’ll never be a fan of humor favored by adolescent boys — barf jokes, poop gags and such. But I’m eager to encounter the genius of Parker and Stone outside my frequent encounters with the CD for “The Book of Mormon” and the nifty little paperback featuring the complete book and lyrics of the musical. One day I hope to land a ticket to see the show on Broadway.

South Park Super Best Friends episode - Photo courtesy of Comedy Central

People asked, after I chose to pursue graduate studies in religion, what I planned to do with my degree. With three years of doctoral study in the philosophy of religion in the bag, I feel uniquely equipped to experience “The Book of Mormon” in all its splendor. Whether all that Kant and Camus will help me grasp the machinations of Stan, Kyle, Eric, Kenny and Butters remains to be seen. Stay tuned.

— Lynn

Note: Click here for “The Book of Mormon” show and ticket information

Coming up: Musings on the 2011 Tony Awards®, The Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards

Musings on “The Book of Mormon”

I headed out with my daughter Lizabeth Tuesday evening for opening night of “Les Miserables” at ASU Gammage in Tempe.

It’d been 24 hours since my last “Les Mis” fix — enjoyed Monday night thanks to another PBS broadcast of the 25th anniversary concert.

One can never have enough “Les Miserables” — as evidenced by the tear-strewn faces and standing ovation in Tuesday night’s packed house.

I feel the same way about a new musical titled “The Book of Mormon,” which I’ve adored since I first learned of its existence — long before it shot to the top of every critic’s list and became the toughest ticket to land on Broadway. We pre-ordered the CD, a birthday gift for Lizabeth, and I’m working my way through the complete book and lyrics for the show now.

By the time we snag tickets to the show, I’ll have memorized it a million times over. For now, the best I can do is experience it vicariously through Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, executive director for ASU Gammage and Arizona’s sole Tony Awards® voter. We chatted about the show by phone on Monday as she readied for a busy week of business in New York City.

I started by asking whether she’s a big fan of “South Park” despite suspecting her time for television viewing is nearly nil. “I have a 20-year-old daughter,” she reminded me. Seems she felt a bit saddened after Isaac Hayes left the show — reportedly a reaction to an episode about his religion, Scientology.

But she sounds like a serious convert to “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway — which features book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez. Parker and Stone created “South Park” and Lopez is best known to many for his work on the musical “Avenue Q.” Parker serves as the show’s co-director, along with Casey Nicholaw (also its choreographer).

“The Book of Mormon” is nominated for 14 Tony Awards®, and Jennings-Roggensack expects it’ll “walk away” with ten awards. “There’s no way ‘The Book of Mormon’ isn’t going to win best musical,” she says. So I asked her why. “It’s a really well-crafted musical,” shares Jennings-Roggensack — describing it as “a musical on steroids.”

“Both directors did an amazing job,” shares Jennings-Roggensack. She’s also wowed by the show’s impressive dance numbers, describing the first two numbers in “The Book of Mormon” as “Disney-esque.” Still, the musical contains some seriously explicit material, so parents need to check age-restrictions and recommendations before attending.

The youngest of my three children — all shielded from “South Park” with the best of intentions — turns 18 on Wednesday. So we have lots of time to make up for in the explicit lyrics department, and I’ll share more thoughts in tomorrow’s post on my own journey “from Sondheim to South Park.”

So what does the popularity of “The Book of Mormon” signal for the wider world of musical theater? “There’s a lot of different territory for new musicals,” reflects Jennings-Roggensack. She’s seeing “a growing focus on new works” with “less emphasis on the re-creation of existing musicals.”

Jennings-Roggensack hails the “big multiracial cast” of “The Book of Mormon” — reminding theater goers that there’s more to the storyline than the lives of two young Mormon missionaries. Their travels take them to Uganda, and “there’s the whole issue of Uganda and Africans — and the delicateness of that whole topic.”

Lizabeth’s great fear is that the original cast will leave the show before we get to see it. Our one chance for a while will be the last week of June, when we’re there for college orientation. But even single tickets are hard to come by for shows before August, and I’m pretty sure James would frown on me staying in NYC that long.

Conversations with “The Book of Mormon” cast members during a Tony Awards®-related luncheon presented by MTV Networks lead Jennings-Roggensack to believe that they’re committed to staying with the show at least through the end of the year. She even suggested that Josh Gad (Elder Cunningham) — nominated for a best actor Tony Award® — seems open to joining the show on the road.

But how likely, really, is an Arizona stop for such a controversial show? Arizona is second only to Utah in number of Mormon citizens, obesrves Jennings-Roggensack. Still, she thinks “The Book of Mormon” could succeed here — assuming enough community outreach took place ahead of time.

When “Angels in America,” a controversial work set during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, was touring the country, it enjoyed a well-received run at ASU Gammage — after Jennings-Roggensack and her colleagues had 68 different conversations with community groups sensitive to some of its content.

The more folks know about “The Book of Mormon,” the less concerned they may be, suggests Jennings-Roggensack. Though she describes the musical as “wickedly funny” and “very irreverant,” she says that “in the end it’s all about faith, finding your faith and faith sustaining you.”

— Lynn

Note: While Lizabeth celebrates her 18th birthday on Wednesday, the character “Stan” from “South Park” will be celebrating his 10th birthday. Tune in to Comedy Central for the new “South Park” episode titled “You’re Getting Old,” which promises to “change everything” for Stan and the South Park gang.

Coming up: From Sondheim to South Park

It’s only for now

Phoenix Theatre presents Avenue Q, directed by Robert Kolby Harper, through this weekend

As the musical “Avenue Q” draws to a close, the cast comes together for a resounding chorus of a song called “For Now.” In between phrases, they throw in little teasers about current events or other things most of us hope will pass in a hurry.

Lizabeth recalls that when we saw a touring production of “Avenue Q” at ASU Gammage last season, the buzzword was “John McCain.” Other times it’s been “George Bush.”

We’ve seen several shows that use this device and it’s sometimes difficult to recall every political punchline. But Phoenix Theatre jabs in a different direction — taking aim at actor Charlie Sheen.

There are other differences too, including puppets who get a tad more enthusiastic during a sex scene that feels a bit longer than its touring counterpart. This is one puppet show that’s not even close to being appropriate for children. Since when do puppets read the Kama Sutra?

Emily Mulligan-Ferry plays the sweet Kate Monster and the saucy Lucy (pictured here)

Still, the adults in the crowd — mostly my age and above — loved it. It’s a far cry from the more classic, traditional Broadway fare we typically enjoy at Phoenix Theatre. A risky venture on their part, perhaps — but one that appears to be paying off.

I’m plenty entertained by everything I see at Phoenix Theatre — but uproarious laughter of the magnitude that greeted “Avenue Q” can be elusive for any theater company.

I worried, quite frankly, upon learning “Avenue Q” was being mounted by a regional theater company. It’s a show what can go wrong in so many ways if not tackled by a stellar cast and creative team.

But the stars aligned for “Avenue Q” in Phoenix — with each and every element executed masterfully.

In the vocal powerhouse department, three performers stood out during last Saturday’s matinee performance — David Errigio, Jr. (Nicky/Trekkie Monster/Bad Idea Bear), Emily Mulligan-Ferry (Kate Monster/Lucy) and Toby Yatso (Princeton/Rod). They also rocked in acting and puppetry world.

We always feel the love for Yatso, because he’s a longtime talent at Phoenix Theatre, and one of Lizabeth’s many amazing theater teachers at Arizona School for the Arts. But I’m adding Errigo to my list of must-see actors in all future roles. He’s fresh and espressive with impeccable comedic timing.

The “Gary Coleman” moments felt unnecessary and annoying during my first “Avenue Q” encounter — but it’s a brilliant bit when performed by Yolanda London, best known to Valley families for her work with Childsplay in Tempe.

L to R: Emily Mulligan-Ferry (Kate Monster), David Errigo, Jr. (Trekkie Monster) and Toby Yatso (Princeton)

In many ways, I prefer the Phoenix Theatre production — directed by Robert Kolby Harper — over the touring production of “Avenue Q.”

If you’re up for the sexual content, subtle and otherwise — and you’re not afraid of four-letter words beginning with letters other than “Q” — this is a “not to be missed” show. It’s some of the finest work I’ve ever seen at Phoenix Theatre, and I applaud them for bringing it to Valley audiences with such finesse and flair.

— Lynn

Note: “Avenue Q” is based on an original concept by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. It features book by Jeff Whitty and music/lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. Click here to learn about “American Theatre” magazine — which features “20 Questions for Robert Lopez” in its current issue.

Coming up: Art contests and freebies, Puppet shows for children