This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
A bad musical is not inherently worse than a bad play. Tickets for bad musicals are usually not much more expensive than bad plays, and usually they don’t take much more of your time.
And yet, most of the time, bad musicals feel so much worse than bad plays. Maybe it’s the singing and dancing? Maybe it’s the fact that musicals require bigger casts and crews, and it’s sad to see so many people wasting their time? I don’t know…Whatever the reason, it seems that a play that bombs, tends to be simply boring—whereas a musical that bombs, tends to explode spectacularly.
L.A. has seen a slew of bad musicals lately but most of them haven’t received as much attention as LA’s newest World Premiere, Octomom! The Musical. Yes, that’s right: Octomom! The Musical…and in case you couldn’t hear it in my voice, there’s an exclamation point after Octomom. So it’s Octomom -- exclamation point -- The Musical.
The story of one La Habra woman’s love affair with In vitro fertilization could — and arguably should be — fertile material for satirical songs and humorous dancing. And for a few brief moments early on during the opening night performance, I thought Octomom! The Musical might be the rambunctious treat it so clearly wants to be. Rachel Laurence’s opening chorus belts out the funny title of the show in a way that spoofs the prologue of Sweeney Todd. The actress who plays the Octomom (Molly McCook) looks like Nadya Suleman — and her imitation of the Octomom’s gestures, the way she neurotically strokes her hair, is dead on. In an early scene, we watch as McCook’s Octo (as she’s referred to throughout, probably for legal reasons) has a conversation with a life-size Angelina Jolie cutout. Later, Octo’s eight babies are played by sock puppets.
These amusing touches are about as clever as Octomom! The Musical gets. Sadly, Chris Voltaire’s songs possess little wit or innovative use of music to tell the story. The rest of Ms. Lawrence’s score riffs on power ballads and hip-hop — the music has the right vibe; but without a live band, the recorded tracks feel like an afterthought. (On opening night, it sounded like the audio went out completely during one number, with the cast bravely finishing the song a cappella. When are producers going to learn? Musicals - Live Musicians = karaoke.)
The show’s book and lyrics are the real problem—and not just because they have little that’s new to say about the Octomom, America’s fetishization of motherhood, or even celebrity. Octomom! is just a title slapped on what is a Forbidden Broadway-style revue of recent tabloid headlines. Half of the show is devoted to Bernie Madoff — another excellent target for musical satire, but Mr. Voltaire never successfully connects the two, either in song or in any thematic way.
The show officially jumped the shark for me when the Sham-Wow guy, Vince Shlomi, showed up as a character in the Octomom’s delivery room. At that point, the difference between a show making fun of people who will do anything for attention and people making a show that will do anything for attention disappeared completely.
One of the most infamous bad, LA musicals I endured a few years back was an unfortunate concoction titled Like Jazz. The composer of that show, Cy Coleman, was a Broadway legend. (The winner of three Tony awards, Coleman was most famous for his scores to the shows Sweet Charity, Barnum & City of Angels) It’s a shame that Like Jazz, which possessed little to like — and even less jazz — turned out to be his final musical.
Five years after Coleman’s death, the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura is staging a revue of the composer’s songs that is a proper showcase of his work. It’s not really a traditional book musical, just six singers, a big band and a bunch of Coleman’s memorable songs. But good musicals (whatever their form) are all about songs — you don’t leave the theater whistling the story, the gags, or a marketable title.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Images from The Best Is Yet to Come: Rod Lathim