Review: ‘West Side Story’ (2021), starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Brian d’Arcy James and Rita Moreno

December 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler in “West Side Story” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“West Side Story” (2021)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Some language in Spanish with no subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1957 in New York City, the musical drama remake “West Side Story” features a cast of white and Latino people representing the working-class.

Culture Clash: A young Puerto Rican woman and a young Polish American man fall in love with each other, despite having people close to them who are in rival, warring gangs that are opposed to this romance.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of fans of the original “West Side Story” movie musical, this 2021 version of “West Side Story” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of director Steven Spielberg and movie adaptations of Broadway musicals.

Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez in “West Side Story” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

The 2021 remake of “West Side Story” is exactly the glossy spectacle that you might expect from director Steven Spielberg. The movie is a bonafide crowd-pleasing epic that makes some interesting changes from the 1961’s “West Side Story” movie, a classic that was directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. In the 2021 version of “West Side Story,” some of these changes work better than other revisions to the original movie. The original “West Side Story” movie was based on a Tony-winning musical that debuted on Broadway in 1957. The Broadway musical was written by Arthur Laurents, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Ernest Lehman wrote the screenplay to the 1961 “West Side Story,” while Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay to the 2021 “West Side Story.”

The original “West Side Story” movie starred Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris as four young people in New York City who are caught in the middle of gang warfare, ethnic bigotry and risky romance. Moreno and Chakiris won Oscars for their supporting roles in the movie, which won a total of 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. (Moreno’s Oscar victory was groundbreaking, as she became the first Latina to win an Academy Award.) Is the 2021 version of “West Side Story” worthy of 10 Academy Awards? No, but there are some standout performances that should bring more attention to some very talented cast members. They do all their own singing, unlike some of the stars of the original “West Side Story” movie.

Most fans of musicals already know the basic premise of “West Side Story,” which is set in New York City (specifically, in a working-class area of Manhattan’s West Side) in 1957. It’s a story inspired by William Shakeapeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” In “West Side Story,” a sweet and innocent Puerto Rican woman named Maria, who’s in her late teens, falls in love with a slightly older, streetwise Polish American man named Tony, who is an ex-con trying to start a new and reformed life away from an all-white gang that he used to lead called the Jets. Maria’s domineering older brother Bernardo is the leader of an all-Puerto Rican rival gang called the Sharks. Bernardo is dating Maria’s sassy best friend Anita. Needless to say, the romance of Maria and Tony sparks a war between the Jets and the Sharks.

In the original “West Side Story” movie, Wood was Maria, Beymer was Tony, Moreno was Anita and Chakiris was Bernardo. In the 2021 “West Side Story” remake (which also takes place in 1957), Rachel Zegler is María, Ansel Elgort is Tony, Ariana DeBose is Anita and David Alvarez is Bernardo. Unlike the original “West Side Story” movie, Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake avoids any criticism of “whitewashing” racial casting, by casting the people of color characters with actors who are also people of color. Zegler is a Latina of Colombian heritage. DeBose is multiracial; in interviews, she sometimes identifies herself as African American. (DeBose’s father is Afro-Latino, and her mother is white.)

Perhaps the biggest and best change to the “West Side Story” remake is the clever idea to cast original “West Side Story” movie co-star Moreno in the role of a new character: Valentina, the no-nonsense but kind-hearted owner of a drugstore called Doc’s Chemists, where Tony works. In this version of “West Side Story,” Valentina is the widow of Doc, the store’s owner in the original “West Side Story” movie. (Doc was played by Ned Glass.) Considering all the racial discord in the story, the Valentina character gives the movie added poignancy because a Latina woman has given Tony a chance to redeem himself and start a new life.

Valentina represents the bridge between the divides caused by racism and xenophobia in the community that’s depicted in the movie. And there’s an extra layer of female empowerment/solidarity in a pivotal scene in the movie, when Anita defends herself from being attacked in the store by members of the Jets, and Valentina intervenes to put a stop to the assault. This scene has a greater impact than in the original “West Side Story,” when the upstanding but somewhat wishy-washy Doc was the one who stopped the attack.

Rather than putting the scene in a stereotypical context of a man coming to the rescue of a woman, this “West Side Story” movie has a woman in charge (Valentina), who is the unflinching moral compass in a maelstrom of hate and chaos. The scene is also symbolic of all the racism and sexism that women of color have had to experience and what happens when women help each other in moments of distress and pain. Moreno has talked extensively in interviews about how this scene was the most emotionally difficult one for her to film in the original “West Side Story,” and she has said it was a surreal experience to film it again in the “West Side Story” remake—this time, as the rescuer instead of the one being attacked.

Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake stays true to the main elements of the story. The movie opens with the Jets in a rubble-filled area that’s undergoing reconstruction to make way for higher-priced homes. The Jets, led by Tony’s best friend Riff (played by Mike Faist), are hoodlums who come from dysfunctional families and are hostile toward non-white immigrants whom they feel are taking over the city. Since 1917, Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory, and people born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. But that doesn’t stop people like the Jets (and many other xenophobic and racist people) from thinking that Puerto Ricans aren’t “real Americans.” If Tony had any past racism when he was in the Jets, it’s not directly mentioned in the movie. What’s clear is that Tony is now a reformed person and very much against racism.

Meanwhile, many of the Sharks, including Bernardo, dislike white people, whom they see as racist oppressors. Puerto Ricans such as Bernardo, María and Anita are U.S. citizens but feel like immigrants in the United States, where English is the dominant language and there’s open hatred and discrimination against people who aren’t white. Bernardo feels that the Sharks are superior to the Jets because, as he tells Riff in one of their many confrontations, at least most of the Sharks have jobs. The Jets—who are U.S.-born, mostly unemployed descendants of white European immigrants—are fueled by anger in their perception that the American Dream has been ripped away from them.

María, Bernardo, and Anita (who all pay rent and share the same apartment in this “West Side Story” remake) represent the American Dream of people whose first language is not English, which they’ve had to learn in order to get certain opportunities. María, Bernardo and Anita also represent Puerto Ricans who come to the United States in search of a better life while the majority of their families still live in Puerto Rico. Coming to a place like New York City—where the cost of living and is higher and the living spaces are smaller than most other U.S. cities—can be a rude awakening that can be handled with optimism or pessimism. This dichotomy is represented in one of the musical’s most famous song-and-dance numbers: “America,” with Anita taking the lead for the optimistic side, and Bernardo taking the lead for the pessimistic side.

A noticeable difference in this “West Side Story” remake is that the Puerto Ricans speak a lot more Spanish—and there are no subtitles. It’s a clear indication that Spielberg (who is one of the movie’s producers) wanted this version of “West Side Story” to be more inclusive to Spanish-speaking audiences and present a more realistic depiction of people who speak more than one language. Although the 2021 version of “West Side Story” has no subtitles for the Spanish-language dialogue, it’s easy for people who don’t know Spanish to figure out what what’s being said, based on the cast members’ tones of voice, body language and facial expressions.

In this movie remake, the Puerto Rican characters are less concerned about assimilating in English-speaking America than their counterparts were in the 1961 version of “West Side Story.” Valentina even says so, when she makes this comment about her interracial marriage: “I married a gringo. He thinks that makes me a gringo. I ain’t.”

“West Side Story” was ahead of its time for having the androgynous Anybodys character, who is presented in both movies as a young transgender man, during an era when the word “transgender” did not exist. In the “West Side Story” remake, Anybodys (played by Iris Menas) is a lookout for the Jets. Anybodys is sometimes referred to as a “girl,” but Anybodys would rather be just one of the guys.

There’s a point in the movie where people start using male pronouns to describe Anybodys—and that makes Anybodys very happy. In the 2021 “West Side Story” remake, Anybodys has less screen time than the Anybodys in the first “West Side Story” movie. The character is depicted with more subtlety and less-exaggerated mannerisms in the remake.

Just like in the original “West Side Story,” the movie begins with the introduction of the Jets, followed by the Sharks, and the tensions between the two gangs. The Jets are first seen emerging from the rubble with paint cans, which they use to commit vandalism on an outdoor wall mural of the Puerto Rican flag. (This vandalism of a Puerto Rican flag mural is new to the remake.) The Sharks see this vandalism, are offended, and a brawl ensues between the two gangs until police arrive to break up the fight.

On the scene is Officer Krupke (played by Brian d’Arcy James), a “regular Joe” cop who would like nothing more than for the Jets and the Sharks to stop fighting each other, even though he knows that’s not very realistic. Krupke’s swaggering boss is Lieutenant Schrank (played by Corey Stoll), who’s even more impatient with these rival gangs than Krupke is. Schrank gruffly insults the Jets by calling them “the last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians,” and he barks this order: “Evict yourself from my crime scene, Bernardo!”

The Jets and the Sharks don’t trust each other, but both gangs have even less trust of the police. It’s why no one in either gang will snitch when the police try to find out who started the violent fight. No one is arrested this time, but the fight’s not over. As soon as the cops leave, Riff and Bernardo agree that there should be a rumble to decide which gang will come out on top. Anita and María openly express their disapproval of Bernardo’s gang activities, but he doesn’t pay attention to them, and there’s not much María and Anita can do to stop him.

Riff is somewhat of a reluctant chief of the Jets because he became the default leader when Tony was sent to prison for attempted murder of a young man during a gang fight. Now on parole, Tony is keeping his distance from the Jets because he truly wants to turn his life around and no longer be a criminal. Tony will not rejoin the Jets, despite Riff’s constant pleas.

Faist’s version of Riff has an insecure scrappiness to how he handles his gang leadership, indicating that Riff craves and fears power. He looks like he’s got a more fascinating and harrowing story to tell than Russ Tamblyn’s version of Riff in the first “West Side Story” movie. Tamblyn’s Riff looks like a frat boy gone bad. Faist’s version of Riff looks like a real street survivor who’s had a rough life and has the facial scars to prove it.

Riff has a platinum-blonde girlfriend named Velma (played by Maddie Ziegler), who is loyal and loving to him, but she disapproves of him getting involved in violent crimes. It’s a change from the Velma in the first “West Side Story” movie, where Velma was much more of a gang moll who looked the other way or encouraged Riff to be a violent thug. Ziegler became an actress after years as a professional dancer. Her dance expertise shows in Velma’s feisty and eye-catching dance moves.

In this “West Side Story” remake, Tony goes into more details about his life in prison in ways that weren’t in the original “West Side Story” movie. He still talks more about how prison changed him and made him determined to lead a law-abiding and productive life, but he expresses more guilt about the crime and more remorse about how he hurt the victim. After he was released from prison, Valentina gave Tony a job and a place to stay. (He lives in the store’s basement.) Valentina has known the members of the Jets since they were children. She has become a mother figure to Tony, who is estranged from his parents.

Just like in the original “West Side Story,” Tony and María meet and have a “love at first sight” encounter at a dance attended by local young people, including the members of the Jets and the Sharks. The dance’s chaperone announces at the dance that it’s a “social experiment” to better integrate white people and Latinos who live in the area. “And then you can all go back to your feral lives,” the chaperone cynically adds. However, racial segregation is still a fact of life that the attendees find difficult to change at this dance. They still congregate in groups according to race, including the inevitable dance-off where Anita and Bernardo outshine everyone else.

As an example of how much slicker this version of “West Side Story” is, the dance is held at a shiny-looking, well-lit school gymnasium, compared to the somewhat dark and grimy-looking dancehall in the original “West Side Story” movie. It’s a setting that looks a little too polished and well-kept for an area that’s supposed to be populated by people who are struggling financially and has public schools that are more run-down than they should be.

Tony has come to this dance reluctantly, after much persuasion from Riff, who wants to use the dance as away for Tony to see all of his former gang pals again. But once Tony and María lock eyes, meet cute behind the gym bleachers, and exchange some smitten dialogue, Tony can’t think of anything else but being with María. Tony and María couple up immediately by dancing together and having their first kiss just a few minutes after meeting that night. They agree to meet the next day at a museum.

Tony and María’s attraction to each other doesn’t go unnoticed. Bernardo orders Tony to stay away from María . Bernardo would rather that María date someone who’s Puerto Rican, such as his mild-mannered best friend Chino (played by Josh Andrés Rivera), who is not a member of the Sharks, although Chino would like to be. Chino was sort of Maria’s date at this dance, but Chino and María’s relationship has always been about platonic friendship only.

At the dance, Bernardo gets a little rough by pushing Tony away when he sees that Tony is interested in María. Riff and the rest of the Jets come to Tony’s defense, which leads the Sharks to get in on the dispute. María and Anita are disgusted with all of this seemingly never-ending fighting between the Sharks and the Jets, so they leave the dance. However, Tony doesn’t join his former gang cronies in this fight and instead runs out of the dance to look for María , but she is long gone.

The next day at Doc’s store, Tony has told Valentina about this new romance. He asks Valentina how to say, “I want to be with you forever” in Spanish, so that he can make this declaration of love to María on their first date. These kids move fast. Even Valentina notices how quickly Tony wants to commit to María, by cracking this joke: “You sure you don’t want to ask her out for coffee first?” Because this movie is set in the 1950s, when it was more common for people in the U.S. to get married in their late teens and early 20s, this swift courtship is easier to believe than if the movie had been set in the present day.

María and Tony are blissfully happy together in the short time that they’ve known each other, but their romance is threatened by the growing hatred between the Jets and the Sharks. The “West Side Story” remake keeps the sentiment that María and Tony have a pure love for each other. It’s a love that borders on obsession, especially in a scene where María gets some very bad news about something Tony did to hurt one of María’s loved ones, and her priority is to comfort Tony. However, there’s a slight but noticeable difference in how the remake presents this scene, which is in a better way than the first “West Side Story” movie.

The “West Side Story” remake has no drastic revisions to the songs’ tempos or arrangements. The movie also doesn’t add any original songs that were written specifically for this remake, in an attempt to get awards for new and original movie music. The song placements mostly stay true to the original, with some notable exceptions.

“I Feel Pretty,” Maria’s joyous ode to romance and self-confidence, has a different setting. In the original “West Side Story” movie, Maria sang “I Feel Pretty” in a private room with three seamstresses. In the “West Side Story” remake makes this musical number a much more public spectacle.

María works as a cleaning woman at a boutique. She sings “I Feel Pretty” while dancing through the rooms of the boutique with several other cleaning women during after-hours. This setting gives the scene a more aspirational tone to what the characters do, as they let loose in a boutique where they work but probably can’t afford the clothes that are sold in the boutique.

Fans of Moreno will have to wait until the last third of the movie for Valentina’s big musical moment: the show-stopping tune “Somewhere,” which she performs solo. It’s an absolute exquisite rendition that might make some viewers more than a little misty-eyed. All of the cast members rise to the occasion to make this “West Side Story” very entertaining and emotion-filled. There isn’t a mediocre performer in the movie’s principal cast.

Zegler carries her scenes as María with an eager-to-please demeanor. She doesn’t have the star power of Wood, but Zegler and Elgort have nice chemistry together as María and Tony. Elgort doesn’t always sound like the working-class New Yorker that he’s supposed to be as Tony when he speaks, but Elgort gives Tony the type of heartthrob charm that makes it easy to see why María falls so hard and fast for him. Elgort and Zegler have singing voices that are very good, but not particularly distinctive.

DeBose lights up every scene that she’s in and is the breakout star of the movie. Her version of Anita has a commanding presence and the flashiest dance movies. Debose’s larger-than-life portrayal of Anita is ideal for this type of splashy movie musical. Anita has a big personality, but she also has a more realistic view of life and love than starry-eyed María. And that’s why, for adults with enough life experience, Anita is a more relatable character than María.

Alvarez’s Bernardo has more machismo, as well as a little more emotional depth, than the Bernardo of the original “West Side Story” movie. Bernardo uses his arrogance to cover up his insecurities over feeling like he’s someone who’s “not good enough,” so he over-compensates. What he sees as being over-protective of María is really being over-controlling. What he sees as pride in being a Shark is really an endorsement of violent racism.

In the original “West Side Story,” Anita and Bernardo were an attractive couple, but you never got the impression that they had much romantic passion for each other. There’s more believable sexual heat with Anita and Bernardo in this “West Side Story” remake. DeBose and Alvarez seem to have natural chemistry with each other as Anita and Bernardo, who sees himself as the ultimate alpha male. Sex in the movie is hinted at but not explicitly shown. For example, Anita and Bernardo kiss passionately before slamming a bedroom door behind them; María and Tony wake up together half-dressed in bed.

As for the dazzling dance numbers, “West Side Story” movie remake choreographer Justin Peck brings his ballet background to the movie, with dance moves that are more complicated but a little more graceful, enhancing the stellar work by choreographer/director Robbins for the first “West Side Story” movie. DeBose is a standout in the dance scenes, which have a more sensuous and unbridled energy than the original “West Side Story” movie. (And that’s probably because depictions of sexuality in movies had more restrictions in movies released in 1961, compared to 2021.)

For the “West Side Story” remake, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and production design make things look bigger and more over-the-top in scale. An overcast night can’t just be an overcast night. It looks like a fog-filled, full-moon scene out of a horror movie. A crumbling slum area can’t look like a crumbling slum area. It looks like a bombed-out war zone. It’s all very impressive, in terms of visuals.

And yet somehow, this more ambitious, bigger-budget version of “West Side Story” loses some of the neighborhood intimacy that the original “West Side Story” movie had. Everything looks professionally done in the remake, but just a little too staged and calculated. And maybe that’s because the movie was filmed and built on soundstages. (The “West Side Story” remake was filmed at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn.) Sometimes bigger isn’t always better.

The ending of the “West Side Story” remake doesn’t end as abruptly as the first “West Side Story” does. Without giving away too many details, it’s enough to say that the remake has a more melodramatic ending with some preachiness. It’s a revision that some “West Side Story” fans might like, while others won’t. This slightly new ending doesn’t take away from the overall spirit of “West Side Story,” which is a celebration of life and love, with the knowledge that both can be precious, fleeting and experienced with a lot of heartache.

20th Century Studios will release “West Side Story” in U.S. cinemas on December 10, 2021.

Review: ‘Tick, Tick…Boom!,’ starring Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Joshua Henry, Judith Light and Vanessa Hudgens

November 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Andrew Garfield and Alexandra Shipp in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” (Photo by Macall Polay/Netflix) 

“Tick, Tick…Boom!”

Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in 1990 in New York City, the musical biopic “Tick, Tick…Boom!” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American, Latino and multiracial) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Aspiring playwright/composer Jonathan Larson, who’s frustrated that he hasn’t reached his goals by the age of 30, struggles to complete his first musical, which he hopes will end up on Broadway.

Culture Audience: “Tick, Tick…Boom!” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of movie musicals, Broadway musicals, Lin-Manuel Miranda and star Andrew Garfield.

Robin de Jesús, Mj Rodriguez and Ben Levi Ross in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” (Photo by Macall Polay/Netflix)

It’s very fitting that Pulitzer prize-winning Broadway musical mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”) makes his feature-film directorial debut with an emotionally stirring and ambitious musical celebrating another Pulitzer prize-winning Broadway musical mastermind: “Rent” creator Jonathan Larson. In 1996, Larson tragically and unexpectedly died at the age 35 of an aortic dissection. A brief period of Larson’s life (mostly in 1990) is recreated with a winning blend of exuberance and gravitas in the Miranda-directed musical “Tick, Tick…Boom!,” based on Larson’s solo artist show that featured a book and biographical original songs written by Larson. After Larson’s death, “Tick, Tick…Boom!” was reworked as a three-actor show and premiered off-Broadway in 1996. For a while, Miranda portrayed Larson during the off-Broadway stint of “Tick, Tick…Boom!”

In the “Tick, Tick…Boom!” movie role of Larson, Andrew Garfield gives a stunning and heartfelt performance that perfectly captures the highs, lows and everything in between of what it means to be a passionate but struggling artist. Miranda and “Tick, Tick…Boom!” screenwriter Steven Levenson crafted a story that does cinematic justice to the musical genre, with elements that combine gritty drama with whimsical fantasy. This blend mostly works well, although some viewers who are unfamiliar with Larson’s story might be confused by the timeline jumping in the movie. Most other people will simply be enthralled by the journey.

Larson was born in White Plains, New York, on February 4, 1960. In the beginning of the “Tick, Tick…Boom!,” Jonathan is living in New York City and is a few days away from turning 30. And he’s not happy about it. Why?

Jonathan, who writes and performs pop/rock music, hasn’t achieved his goal of writing a musical that’s gone to Broadway. He’s beginning to question if he made the right decision to be a playwriter/composer. He’s so financially broke, he hasn’t been paying his utility bills. And he’s worried that eviction from his apartment might be in his future.

Things aren’t completely bleak for Jonathan. He and his girlfriend Susan (played by Alexandra Shipp) are in love. She is completely supportive of his goals, even if it means Jonathan gets so immersed in these goals that he doesn’t pay enough attention to her. Jonathan is also proud and supportive of Susan’s chosen career. Susan contemplated being a doctor, but she chose instead to have a career in modern dance, and she overcame a setback of fracturing her ankle. She’s been more successful than Jonathan in actually getting paid as a professional artist, although Jonathan is quick to point on in a movie voiceover that Susan doesn’t care about becoming rich and famous.

Jonathan also has three other special people in his life, who are all close friends of his: Michael (played by Robin de Jesús), his opinionated gay best friend from childhood; Carolyn (played by Mj Rodriguez, also known as Michaela Jaé Rodriguez), a sassy co-worker at the Moondance Diner, where she and Jonathan work as servers; and sweet-natured Freddy (played by Ben Levi Ross), who’s also a Moondance Diner server. Michael used to be a struggling actor and Jonathan’s roommate, but he gave up this lifestyle to have a steady income as an advertising agency executive.

Jonathan has been working on a musical called “Superbia,” which he describes as an “original dystopian musical that I’ve been writing and rewriting.” It’s the “rewriting” part that has got Jonathan anxious, because he currently has writer’s block in finishing the musical. Another problem is that Jonathan has a hard time describing the plot of the musical, because he doesn’t quite know where the plot is going.

Jonathan throws a 30th birthday party for himself at his apartment. Michael, who is more financially practical than Jonathan, gently chides Jonathan for spending money on the party when Jonathan hasn’t been paying his bills. Jonathan and Susan still have romantic sparks between them, but something has shifted in their relationship: Jonathan turning 30 has given him a new restlessness and insecurity about his career goals, while Susan wants a sign that Jonathan is ready to make a more solid commitment to her.

Susan and Jonathan don’t live together, and they’re not in a rush to get married. However, Susan wants to eventually live with Jonathan, who doesn’t really want to commit to a “yes” or “no” answer in contemplating taking their relationship to the “live-in partner” level. Jonathan and Susan’s relationship is tested in a big way when Susan gets a job offer to be a dancer and dance instructor in the Berkshires, a rural part of Massachusetts.

The news about this job offer comes around the same time that Jonathan gets a big opportunity for his musical theater dreams: He’s been asked to present “Superbia” as a workshop at Playwright Horizons. The director of Playwright Horizons is Ira Weitzman (played by Jonathan Marc Sherman), an experienced, middle-aged theater benefactor who is encouraging to Jonathan but is skeptical that Jonathan can be focused enough to finish “Superbia.”

Invitations have gone out for the “Superbia” workshop, but few people have responded so far. Still, Jonathan is under immense pressure to finish his musical by the deadline. He’s too embarrassed to tell Ira the biggest problem: He hasn’t written a single song for the musical yet.

“Tick, Tick…Boom!” has two parallel countdowns: (1) The more explicitly stated countdown to Jonathan finishing his “Superbia” musical on time, and (2) Jonathan’s own internal and implicit countdown to write a musical that ends up on Broadway before he thinks he’s too old. The title of “Tick, Tick…Boom!” comes from Jonathan’s description of how he feels like his life is a ticking time bomb where his dreams will explode into disappointment if he doesn’t reach his career goals by the deadlines that he sets for himself.

During these intense scenes of Jonathan rushing to finish “Superbia” on time, he encounters some other problems: Susan is pressuring Jonathan to set aside time to talk with her about the decision she’ll make on whether or not she’ll take the dance job in the Berkshires. He avoids Susan because he wants to work on “Superbia.” Jonathan, who uses a computer for writing the musical’s book, experiences a major setback when his electricity is suddenly turned off the night before the workshop, and he still hasn’t finished the musical.

Jonathan’s fast-talking agent Rosa Stevens (played by Judith Light) does the best she can to get him work, but she’s blunt in telling him that it’s difficult when he hasn’t had any work produced on Broadway. At this point in time, Jonathan’s best shot of getting investors for “Superbia” is through this upcoming workshop, which could lead to “Superbia” going to Broadway, if everything goes according to Jonathan’s plan. As far as he’s concerned, this workshop for “Superbia” is a “make it or break it” moment in his career.

But now for the moments in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” that might turn off or confuse some viewers: This entire tension-filled story telling what happened to Jonathan and his race to finish “Superbia” on time is told within a flashback context where Jonathan is describing this part of his life in a solo-artist rock concert musical called “Tick, Tick…Boom!” During this concert, he sings and narrates the story (often while playing piano), while he’s backed up by a band and two other singers who sing lead vocals the songs: Karessa (played by Vanessa Hudgens) and Roger (played by Joshua Henry).

In real life, Larson began performing “Tick, Tick…Boom!” (originally titled “Boho Days”) in an off-Broadway show, beginning in 1990, just a few years before completing “Rent.” “Tick, Tick…Boom!” essentially keeps the same premise as the stage version, except that Larson’s flashback storytelling is acted out in scenes on screen. What happened to “Superbia”? That’s revealed in “Tick, Tick…Boom!,” which has plenty of vibrant musical numbers, although some of the narrative aspects of the screenplay are a little clunky.

For example, there’s a scene in the movie where Jonathan, while performing his “Tick, Tick…Boom!” show on stage, has a flashback to several years earlier, when he met legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim (played by Bradley Whitford) at a musical theater workshop. At the time, Jonathan was presenting an unnamed project that ultimately never made it to Broadway and possibly never even got produced.

Jonathan describes this workshop for aspiring playwrights and composers as having a rotating number of guest panelists who evaluate each musical presented. The panelists are usually professional Broadway writers. Stephen was one of the two panelists evaluating Jonathan’s musical. It’s an amusing scene where Stephen and a fictional character named Walter Bloom (played by Richard Kind) is the other panelist.

After Jonathan presents songs from his musical, Walter immediately gives an insulting rant, including saying that the musical has no identity. Walter also says that the musical style doesn’t know if it wants to be more like rock music or more like Broadway show tune music. Meanwhile, Stephen (who’s the most famous person in the room) gives a positive review: He says the musical knows exactly what it is, but the songs need more work. Walter, who is clearly intimidated by Stephen’s clout, quickly changes his mind and agrees with everything that Stephen says.

At one point, Stephen praises one of the songs as having “first-rate lyric and tune.” In a voiceover, Jonathan says, with awe still in his voice, that those words from one of his theater idols gave Jonathan the type of encouragement that he carried for years. As part of this flashback, Jonathan and Stephen are then shown having a one-on-one evaluation session, where Stephen gives Jonathan some more helpful advice.

This flashback scene, although very well-acted, is one of the drawbacks to the movie’s back-and-forth timeline structure. If viewers aren’t paying attention, they can mistake the scene of Jonathan meeting Stephen for the first time as something that took place in or close to 1990, not years earlier, as Jonathan quickly mentions in describing this flashback.

At any rate, even though Jonathan and Stephen have not been in contact for years, Stephen is one of the people whom Jonathan invites (by leaving a message with Stephen’s manager) to Jonathan’s “Superbia” workshop. There’s a scene where Jonathan somewhat desperately calls several people in an attempt to boost attendance at his workshop just a few days before it takes place.

Most of the criticism that “Tick, Tick…Boom!” might get is how it packs in a lot of issues within what’s supposed to be a very short timeline. There’s a point in the movie where Jonathan literally has less than 12 hours before the workshop and he still hasn’t written most of the “Suburbia” songs and he’s still struggling with the book for the musical. Whether someone is familiar with musical theater or not, the movie still has a timeline that’s kind of messy.

For example, it’s not adequately explained how Jonathan could be doing such a last-minute scramble to finish the musical’s songs the night before the workshop rehearsals. Certain scenes muddle the timeline on how much he needs to get done before the actual workshop. Certain parts of the movie go to great lengths to repeat that Jonathan hasn’t finished any songs for “Superbia” yet. And then, he talks about the one last song he really needs to finish is a pivotal song for the musical’s second act. But these deadline worries aren’t really shown in chronological order.

That’s why the workshop rehearsal scenes seem a little off-kilter. These brief rehearsals are hastily explained in the movie by having Jonathan showing up with sheet music for songs that might or might not be half-finished. Everyone in the group is expected to magically start playing and singing, as if they can easily learn this music and act like within minutes, they already know this music by heart. It’s a big leap and stretch of the imagination for the movie’s audience to take.

Instead of showing how he crafted these songs, the movie goes on a path of subplots and other tangents. You still won’t really know what “Superbia” is about by the end of the movie. If Jonathan doesn’t care enough about “Superbia” for it to be ready for the workshop, why should this movie’s viewers care? And maybe that’s the point, because the subplots are context to what ended up inspiring “Rent,” the real-life Larson’s best-known work.

One of the biggest themes in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is the decisions that aspiring artists have to make between pursuing their artistic passion when it pays little or nothing, or giving it up to work full-time at a job that pays a steady income. Many artists who haven’t “made it” find a way to compromise, by having a day job to pay the bills and pursuing their artistic passion in their free time.

Jonathan is in that “in-between” zone, but he wonders out loud how much of a loser he might be if he keeps being a restaurant server well into his 30s. He likes his co-workers, but he knows the job doesn’t pay enough to get him out of his financial hole. However, working at the Moondance Diner is one of the few jobs he can get with the flexibility of work hours that can give him the time to work on his musicals.

Michael has already made his own decision on how he’s going to make living, and he’s at peace with giving up acting, because he considered himself to be a mediocre actor. Michael makes enough money at his ad agency job to move into an upscale apartment building and buy a BMW. Jonathan thinks Michael is being a sellout, because he thinks Michael gave up his real passion: being an actor.

Meanwhile, Michael thinks Jonathan should not give up his passion to be a musical theater writer because Michael thinks that Jonathan has extraordinary talent that should not be squandered. However, Michael thinks Jonathan needs to stop having a self-righteous attitude about being a starving artist and find a way to make more money so that Jonathan can be more financially responsible in paying basic bills. Jonathan and Michael have an argument about it, because in their own separate ways, Michael and Jonathan feel like the other one is being somewhat of a hypocrite in their career decisions.

In the “race against time” aspect of the “Superbia” workshop, Jonathan finds out that Ira won’t pay for the number of band musicians that Jonathan says he needs for the “Superbia” workshop. And so, there are scenes where Jonathan has to rush to find a way to come up with the money. As a last resort, he accepts Michael’s offer to be part of a paid focus group for the ad agency.

Jonathan’s participation in the focus group is one of the movie’s funnier scenes. He’s only in this focus group for the money. Jonathan has a deeply cynical attitude toward ad agencies, which he thinks are in the business of lying to “sell shit to people that they don’t need.” Laura Benanti portrays Judy, the ad agency’s slightly uptight leader of the focus group. Utkarsh Ambudkar has a comedic cameo as Todd, one of the gullible focus group participants. (In real life, Ambudkar and Miranda are two of the members of the performance group Freestyle Love Supreme.)

There are other issues in Jonathan’s life. He’s terrified of being considered a failure. Jonathan’s parents Nan (played by Judy Kuhn) and Al (played by Danny Burstein), who appear briefly in the movie, are emotionally supportive and not far from his mind, because he doesn’t want to be a disappointment to them. (In real life, Larson had a sister named Julie, but she’s not mentioned in the movie.) And then, certain people in the story have a health crisis that deeply affects many people.

It’s a lot to pack in a movie that’s a musical within a musical. Despite having a timeline that could’ve been been presented better, “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is able to rise above its flaws, thanks to stellar performances from the cast members. Garfield is the obvious standout. He’s able to convey genuine emotions without falling into the musical actor trap of over-emoting.

Shipp, Hudgens and de Jesus also have moments where they shine in the film. “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is not one of those musicals where only the musical numbers are the highlights. There are plenty of spoken-word-only dramatic moments that are among the best in the movie, particularly those that involve the friendship between Jonathan and Michael. As Jonathan’s jaded agent Rosa Stevens, Light plays her role for laughs, and it comes very close to being a parody of real-life agents.

And because “In the Heights” and “Hamilton” creator Miranda is considered Broadway royalty, it’s no surprise that several Broadway stars signed up for cameos in Miranda’s feature-film directorial debut. The most memorable, star-studded scene in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is for the tune “Sunday,” which takes place at the Moondance Diner. It’s a fantasy sequence where Jonathan lifts up his hands, the front of the diner’s walls fall away, and the diner’s customers join in song.

And what a bunch of customers they are. It’s like a who’s who of Broadway: Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Joel Grey, Phylicia Rashad, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Bebe Neuwirth, André Robin De Shields, Beth Malone and Howard McGillin. Also in this scene are “Hamilton” co-stars Renée Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo, as well as original “Rent” Broadway co-stars Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Wilson Jermaine Heredia. Miranda has a cameo in this scene as a Moondance Diner cook.

An early highlight of the film is “No More,” performed by Garfield and de Jesús in an energetic song-and-dance duet about Jonathan and Michael expressing how they don’t want to be struggling artists anymore. Another standout is a cast rendition of “Boho Days,” performed at Jonathan’s birthday party and with Garfield on lead vocals. Shipp and Hudgens have their best moment in “Come to Your Senses” a powerful timeline-jumping duet that shows the characters of Susan and Karessa trading off lines of the song. And de Jesús will probably bring some viewers to tears with Michael’s heartbreaking performance of “Real Life.”

Other songs written or co-written by Larson that make it into the movie include “30/90,” “Out of My Dreams,” “Green Green Dress,” “Sugar,” “LCD Readout,” “Swimming,” Johnny Can’t Decide,” “Sextet,” “Therapy,” “Ever After,” “Debtor Club,” “Why,” “Come to Your Senses,” “Louder Than Words” and “Only Takes a Few.” “Play Game” is presented in the style of 1990s-styled rap video clip, with real-life rapper Tariq Trotter as the fictional rapper H.A.W.K. Smooth. The screenplay could have benefited from an improved structuring of its narrative, but the movie’s songs, performances and direction combine to create an enjoyable experience where the movie’s two-hour running time seems to fly by effortlessly.

Netflix released “Tick, Tick…Boom!” in select U.S. cinemas on November 12, 2021. The move premiered on Netflix on November 19, 2021.

2021 Tony Awards: ‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’ is the top winner

September 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tony Awards logo

With 10 prizes, including Best Musical, “Moulin Rouge!” was the top winner at the 74th annual Tony Awards, which took place at the Winter Garden Theater in New York City on September 26, 2021. “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” which is based on the 2001 original musical movie, had 14 Tony nominations. The ceremony, which handed out most of the award categories, was streamed on Paramount+ and was hosted by Audra McDonald.

The biggest Tony Award categories were presented in a companion show titled “The Tony Awards Present: Broadway’s Back!,” which was hosted by Leslie Odom Jr. and had more emphasis live performances than on giving awards. CBS had the U.S. telecast of “The Tony Awards Present: Broadway’s Back!,” which Paramount+ had also available for streaming. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 74th annual Tony Awards ceremony was postponed from its original date of June 7, 2020. The Tony Awards are presented by the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League.

“The Inheritance,” which had 11 nominations, won four Tony Awards: Best Play; Best Direction of a Play (for Stephen Daldry); Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play (for Andrew Burnap); and Best Performances by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play (for Lois Smith).

“Jagged Little Pill” was the top contender going into the ceremony, with 15 nods. In the end, “Jagged Little Pill” won two Tony Awards: Best Book of a Musical for Diablo Cody) and Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical (for Lauren Patten). The musical features songs from Alanis Morissette’s Grammy-winning 1995 multiplatinum album “Jagged Little Pill.”

“A Christmas Carol” won all five Tony Awards for which it was nominated: Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre; Best Scenic Design of a Play; Best Costume Design of a Play; Best Sound Design of a Play; and Best Lighting Design of a Play.

“A Soldier’s Play” won two of its seven nominations: Best Revival of a Play and Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play (for David Alan Grier). “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical” had 12 nominations and won one: Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical (for Adrienne Warren). Meanwhile, Mary-Louise Parker of “The Sound Inside” won the Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play, which was the only Tony Award won of the show’s six nominations.

On March 12, 2020, all Broadway shows were shut down due to the pandemic. The re-opening for Broadway shows was tentatively set for May 2021, but was eventually changed to September 2021. The traditional eligibility period for the 2021 Tony Awards (June 2020 to May 2021) has now been completely wiped out, since there were no Broadway shows playing during this eligibility period. However, the next Tony Awards is expected to take place sometime in 2022.

Because of the COVID-19 shutdown of Broadway shows, many of the Tony Awards categories for the 74th ceremony had less nominees than usual. Some categories (including Best Musical and Best Revival of a Play) that normally had five nominations each have three or less nominations for the category this year. In the category for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical, there was only one nominee: Aaron Tveit of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” which made him the default winner.

Prizes in non-competitive categories are also handed out at each Tony Awards ceremony. Choreographer/dancer/theater director Garciela Daniele received the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. The Broadway Advocacy Coalition, “David Byrne’s American Utopia” and Freestyle Love Supreme were the recipients of the Special Tony Award. The Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award went to actress Julie Halston, for her work in battling pulmonary fibrosis. The recipients of the Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre were director Fred Gallo, producer Irene Gandy, stage manager Beverly Jenkins, and New Federal Theatre and its founder Woodie King Jr.

Presenters at the 74th annual Tony Awards and “The Tony Awards Present: Broadway’s Back!” included Annaleigh Ashford, Jon Batiste, Stephanie J. Block, Wayne Brady, Tituss Burgess, Kristin Chenoweth, Darren Criss, André De Shields, Robbie Fairchild, Beanie Feldstein, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jordan Fisher, Santino Fontana, Andrew Garfield, Jared Grimes, Josh Groban, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jennifer Holliday, Christopher Jackson, Nikki M. James, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Ron Cephas Jones, Cyndi Lauper, Norm Lewis, John Lithgow, Lindsay Mendez, Tony Awards host McDonald, Idina Menzel, Ruthie Ann Miles, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Jennifer Nettles, Lynn Nottage, Bebe Neuwirth, Odom, Kelli O’Hara, Adam Pascal, Bernadette Peters, Ben Platt, Jeremy Pope, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Andrew Rannells, Anthony Rapp, Chita Rivera, Anika Noni Rose, Daphne Rubin-Vega Lea Salonga, Ali Stroker, Black Thought, Courtney B. Vance, Daniel J. Watts, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and BD Wong.

Performers included David Byrne and the cast of “American Utopia”; John Legend and the cast of “Ain’t Too Proud”; Odom and Groban, who prefaced the performance with talking about how they are both alumni of Carnegie Mellon University’s arts program; and a reunion of the cast members of “Hairspray,” including Marissa Jaret Winokur, Matthew Morrison, Kerry Butler, Chester Gregory and Darlene Love. The ceremony ended with a performance by Freestyle Love Supreme, featuring Miranda, James Monroe Iglehart, Christopher Jackson, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Wayne Brady, Anthony Veneziale, Chris Sullivan, Kiala Mullady, Aneesa Folds, Bill Sherman, Arthur Lewis, Tarik Davis, Andrew Bancroft, Ashley P. Flanagan and Ian Weinberger.

Here is the complete list of winners and nominations for the 2021 Tony Awards:

*=winner

Best Play

Grand Horizons

Author: Bess Wohl
Producers: Second Stage Theater, Carole Rothman, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Mandy Greenfield

The Inheritance*

Author: Matthew López
Producers: Tom Kirdahy, Sonia Friedman Productions, Hunter Arnold, Elizabeth Dewberry & Ali Ahmet Kocabiyik, 1001 Nights Productions, Robert Greenblatt, Mark Lee, Peter May, Scott Rudin, Richard Winkler, Bruce Cohen, Mara Isaacs, Greg Berlanti & Robbie Rogers, Brad Blume, Burnt Umber Productions, Shane Ewen, Greenleaf Productions, Marguerite Hoffman, Oliver Roth, Joseph Baker/Drew Hodges, Stephanie P. McClelland, Broadway Strategic Return Fund, Caiola Productions, Mary J. Davis, Kayla Greenspan, Fakston Productions, FBK Productions, Sally Cade Holmes, Benjamin Lowy, MWM Live, Lee & Alec Seymour, Lorenzo Thione, Sing Out, Louise! Productions, AB Company/Julie Boardman, Adam Zell & Co/ZKM Media, Jamie deRoy/Catherine Adler, DeSantis-Baugh Productions/Adam Hyndman, Gary DiMauro/Meredith Lynsey Schade, John Goldwyn/Silva Theatrical Group, Deborah Green/Christina Mattsson, Cliff Hopkins/George Scarles, Invisible Wall Productions/Lauren Stein, Sharon Karmazin/Broadway Factor NYC, Brian Spector/Madeleine Foster Bersin, Undivided Productions/Hysell Dohr Group, Ushkowitzlatimer Productions/Tyler Mount, The Young Vic

Sea Wall/A Life

Author: Simon Stephens & Nick Payne
Producers: Nine Stories, Ambassador Theatre Group, Seaview Productions, Benjamin Lowy Productions, LFG Theatrical, Audible, Gavin Kalin Productions, Glass Half Full Productions, Jacob Langfelder, Brian Moreland, Roth-Manella Productions, Salman Vienn Al-Rashid Friends, SLSM Theatricals, Teresa Tsai, Dunetz Restieri Productions, Morwin Schmookler, Jane & Mark Wilf, The Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, Patrick Willingham, Mandy Hackett

Slave Play

Author: Jeremy O. Harris
Producers: Seaview Productions, Troy Carter, Level Forward, Nine Stories, Sing Out, Louise! Productions, Shooting Star Productions, Roth-Manella Productions, Carlin Katler Productions, Cohen Hopkins Productions, Thomas Laub, Blair Russell, WEB Productions, Salman Al-Rashid, Jeremy O. Harris, Mark Shacket, New York Theatre Workshop

The Sound Inside

Author: Adam Rapp
Producers: Jeffrey Richards, Lincoln Center Theater, Rebecca Gold, Evamere Entertainment, Eric Falkenstein, Salman Vienn Al-Rashid, Spencer Ross, FilmNation Entertainment/Faliro House, Iris Smith, Jane Bergère, Caiola Productions, Mark S. Golub and David S. Golub, Ken Greiner, Gemini Theatrical Investors, Scott H. Mauro, Jayne Baron Sherman, CZEKAJ Productions, Wendy Morgan-Hunter, Kristin Foster, Brian Moreland, Sonia Mudbhatkal, Jacob Soroken Porter, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Mandy Greenfield


Best Musical

Jagged Little Pill

Producers: Vivek J. Tiwary, Arvind Ethan David, Eva Price, Caiola Productions, Level Forward & Abigail Disney, Geffen Playhouse-Tenenbaum-Feinberg, James L. Nederlander, Dean Borell Moravis Silver, Stephen G. Johnson, Concord Theatricals, Bard Theatricals, M. Kilburg Reedy, 42nd.club, Betsy Dollinger, Sundowners, The Araca Group, Jana Bezdek, Len Blavatnik, BSL Enterprises, Burnt Umber Productions, Darren DeVerna & Jeremiah Harris, Daryl Roth, Susan Edelstein, FG Productions, Sue Gilad & Larry Rogowsky, Harmonia, John Gore Theatrical Group, Melissa M. Jones & Barbara H. Freitag, Stephanie Kramer, Lamplighter Projects, Christina Isaly Liceaga, David Mirvish, Spencer B. Ross, Bellanca Smigel Rutter, Iris Smith, Jason Taylor & Sydney Suiter, Rachel Weinstein, W.I.T. Productions/Gabriel Creative Partners, Independent Presenters Network, Universal Music Publishing Group, Jujamcyn Theaters, Tamar Climan, American Repertory Theater

Moulin Rouge! The Musical*

Producers: Carmen Pavlovic, Gerry Ryan, Global Creatures, Bill Damaschke, Aaron Lustbader, Hunter Arnold, Darren Bagert, Erica Lynn Schwartz/Matt Picheny/Stephanie Rosenberg, Adam Blanshay Productions/Nicolas & Charles Talar, Iris Smith, Aleri Entertainment, CJ ENM, Sophie Qi/Harmonia Holdings, Baz & Co./Len Blavatnik, AF Creative Media/International Theatre Fund, Endeavor Content, Tom & Pam Faludy, Gilad-Rogowsky/Instone Productions, John Gore Organization, MEHR-BB Entertainment GmbH, Spencer Ross, Nederlander Presentations/IPN, Eric Falkenstein/Suzanne Grant, Jennifer Fischer, Peter May/Sandy Robertson, Triptyk Studios, Carl Daikeler/Sandi Moran, DeSantis-Baugh Productions, Red Mountain Theatre Company/42nd.club, Candy Spelling/Tulchin Bartner, Roy Furman, Jujamcyn Theaters

Tina — The Tina Turner Musical

Producers: Stage Entertainment, James L. Nederlander, Tali Pelman, Feste Investments B.V., David Mirvish, Nattering Way, TEG Dainty, Katori Hall, Mark Rubinstein LTD, Warner Chappell, Peter May, Eva Price, No Guarantees, Caiola Productions, Jamie deRoy, Wendy Federman, Roy Furman, Independent Presenters Network, John Gore Organization, Marc Levine, Carl Moellenberg, Al Nocciolino, Catherine Adler, Tom Perakos, Iris Smith, Candy Spelling, Anita Waxman, Daryl Roth, Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Universal Music Publishing Group, Tina Turner


Best Revival of a Play

Betrayal

Producers: Ambassador Theatre Group Productions, Benjamin Lowy Productions, Gavin Kalin Productions, Glass Half Full Productions, AnnaPurna Theatre, Hunter Arnold, Burnt Umber Productions, Rashad V. Chambers, Eilene Davidson Productions, KFF Productions, Dominick LaRuffa, Jr., Stephanie P. McClelland, Richard Winkler/Alan Shorr, The Jamie Lloyd Company

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune

Author: Terrence McNally
Producers: Hunter Arnold, Debbie Bisno, Tom Kirdahy, Elizabeth Dewberry & Ali Ahmet Kocabiyik, Broadway Strategic Return Fund, Caiola Productions, FedermanGold Productions, Invisible Wall Productions, John Gore Organization, Mike Karns, Kilimanjaro Theatricals, Peter May, Tyler Mount, Seriff Productions, Silva Theatrical Group, Cliff Bleszinski/GetterLazarDaly, Jamie deRoy/Gary DiMauro, Suzi Dietz & Lenny Beer/Sally Cade Holmes, Barbara H. Freitag/Ken Davenport, Barry & Kimberly Gowdy/Mabee Family Office, Kayla Greenspan/Jamie Joeyen-Waldorf, John Joseph/Broadway Factor, Tilted Windmills/John Paterakis, The Shubert Organization

A Soldier’s Play*

Author: Charles Fuller
Producers: Roundabout Theatre Company, Todd Haimes, Julia C. Levy, Sydney Beers, Steve Dow


Best Book of a Musical

Jagged Little Pill*

Diablo Cody

Moulin Rouge! The Musical

John Logan

Tina — The Tina Turner Musical

Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins


Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre

A Christmas Carol*

Music: Christopher Nightingale

The Inheritance

Music: Paul Englishby

The Rose Tattoo

Music: Fitz Patton and Jason Michael Webb

Slave Play

Music: Lindsay Jones

The Sound Inside

Music: Daniel Kluger


Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play

Ian Barford, Linda Vista
Andrew Burnap, The Inheritance*
Jake Gyllenhaal, Sea Wall/A Life
Tom Hiddleston, Betrayal
Tom Sturridge, Sea Wall/A Life
Blair Underwood, A Soldier’s Play


Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play

Joaquina Kalukango, Slave Play
Laura Linney, My Name is Lucy Barton
Audra McDonald, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
Mary-Louise Parker, The Sound Inside*


Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical

Aaron Tveit, Moulin Rouge! The Musical*


Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical

Karen Olivo, Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Elizabeth Stanley, Jagged Little Pill
Adrienne Warren, Tina — The Tina Turner Musical*


Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play

Ato Blankson-Wood, Slave Play
James Cusati-Moyer, Slave Play
David Alan Grier, A Soldier’s Play*
John Benjamin Hickey, The Inheritance
Paul Hilton, The Inheritance


Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play

Jane Alexander, Grand Horizons
Chalia La Tour, Slave Play
Annie McNamara, Slave Play
Lois Smith, The Inheritance*
Cora Vander Broek, Linda Vista


Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical

Danny Burstein, Moulin Rouge! The Musical*
Derek Klena, Jagged Little Pill
Sean Allan Krill, Jagged Little Pill
Sahr Ngaujah, Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Daniel J. Watts, Tina — The Tina Turner Musical


Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical

Kathryn Gallagher, Jagged Little Pill
Celia Rose Gooding, Jagged Little Pill
Robyn Hurder, Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Lauren Patten, Jagged Little Pill*
Myra Lucretia Taylor, Tina — The Tina Turner Musical


Best Scenic Design of a Play

Bob Crowley, The Inheritance
Soutra Gilmour, Betrayal
Rob Howell, A Christmas Carol*
Derek McLane, A Soldier’s Play
Clint Ramos, Slave Play


Best Scenic Design of a Musical

Riccardo Hernández and Lucy Mackinnon, Jagged Little Pill
Derek McLane, Moulin Rouge! The Musical*
Mark Thompson and Jeff Sugg, Tina — The Tina Turner Musical


Best Costume Design of a Play

Dede Ayite, Slave Play
Dede Ayite, A Soldier’s Play
Bob Crowley, The Inheritance
Rob Howell, A Christmas Carol*
Clint Ramos, The Rose Tattoo


Best Costume Design of a Musical

Emily Rebholz, Jagged Little Pill
Mark Thompson, Tina — The Tina Turner Musical
Catherine Zuber, Moulin Rouge! The Musical*


Best Lighting Design of a Play

Jiyoun Chang, Slave Play
Jon Clark, The Inheritance
Heather Gilbert, The Sound Inside
Allen Lee Hughes, A Soldier’s Play
Hugh Vanstone, A Christmas Carol*


Best Lighting Design of a Musical

Bruno Poet, Tina — The Tina Turner Musical
Justin Townsend, Jagged Little Pill
Justin Townsend, Moulin Rouge! The Musical*

Best Sound Design of a Play

Paul Arditti & Christopher Reid, The Inheritance
Simon Baker, A Christmas Carol*
Lindsay Jones, Slave Play
Daniel Kluger, Sea Wall/A Life
Daniel Kluger, The Sound Inside

Best Sound Design of a Musical

Jonathan Deans, Jagged Little Pill
Peter Hylenski, Moulin Rouge! The Musical*
Nevin Steinberg, Tina — The Tina Turner Musical


Best Direction of a Play

David Cromer, The Sound Inside
Stephen Daldry, The Inheritance*
Kenny Leon, A Soldier’s Play
Jamie Lloyd, Betrayal
Robert O’Hara, Slave Play


Best Direction of a Musical

Phyllida Lloyd, Tina — The Tina Turner Musical
Diane Paulus, Jagged Little Pill
Alex Timbers, Moulin Rouge! The Musical*


Best Choreography

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Jagged Little Pill
Sonya Tayeh, Moulin Rouge! The Musical*
Anthony Van Laast, Tina – The Tina Turner Musical


Best Orchestrations

Tom Kitt, Jagged Little Pill
Katie Kresek, Charlie Rosen, Matt Stine and Justin Levine, Moulin Rouge! The Musical*
Ethan Popp, Tina — The Tina Turner Musical

Review: ‘On Broadway’ (2021), starring Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, George C. Wolfe, Hugh Jackman, Tommy Tune, John Lithgow and Alexandra Billings

September 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ian McKellen in “On Broadway” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“On Broadway” (2021)

Directed by Oren Jacoby

Culture Representation: The documentary “On Broadway” features a nearly all-white group of people (with one African American, one mixed-race person and one Asian) discussing the history of Broadway theater productions, from the 1950s to the 2010s.

Culture Clash: Broadway has weathered its share of ups and downs, including theater shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ibeing in crime-ridden areas; the AIDS crisis devastating the Broadway community; and criticism that Broadway shows are too elitist and too expensive.

Culture Audience: “On Broadway” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a documentary that presents a very optimistic view of Broadway without delving too deeply into controversial subject matter.

Broadway theaters in New York City in “On Broadway” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“On Broadway” is everything that you might expect a documentary to be that celebrates the history of Broadway shows from the 1950s to the 2010s. Expect to hear stories about Broadway’s highs and lows, but don’t expect to hear anything too scandalous. Directed by Oren Jacoby (an Oscar-nominated documentarian), “On Broadway” probably won’t be revealing enough for people who are Broadway trivia fanatics. This documentary is for people who want to see a selective history of Broadway, presented like a love letter instead of a scathing exposé of the dark sides of the business.

It’s a traditionally made documentary that mixes archival footage with exclusive documentary interviews. It looks like some of these interviews happened about 10 to 15 years before this 2021 documentary was released, while other interviews took place in or close to 2018/early 2019, when this documentary was completed. And a few of the people who were interviewed for the film have since passed away. For example, the documentary has exclusive interviews with celebrated playwright August Wilson (who died in 2005, at the age of 60) and Broadway producer/director extraordinaire Hal Prince, who died in 2019, at the age of 91.

“On Broadway” had its world premiere at the 2019 DOC NYC film festival, so this movie does not include any extensive coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on Broadway, when theaters were shut down from March 2020 to August 2021. However, the movie’s epilogue does have a brief mention of the pandemic shutdowns and New York City’s long-delayed plans to re-open Broadway theaters in September 2021. It fits the tone and messaging of the rest of the documentary: Broadway, also known as Great White Way, is also the Great Comeback Kid.

“On Broadway” begins with testimonials from actors and other creators who’ve made their marks on Broadway, which consists of a cluster of designated theaters in New York City’s midtown Manhattan. Tony-winning actress Helen Mirren (“The Audience”) says that the first time that she went to New York City to rehearse for her Broadway debut (a 1994 production of “A Month in the Country”), she remembers looking at the Manhattan skyline and thinking: “‘Will I conquer New York? Will I survive it, even?’ The whole concept of Broadway has this very romantic, very heroic, very legendary kind of feel to it.”

Alec Baldwin (who earned a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in the 1992 Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”) has this to say about Broadway: “New York is a place that when 8 o’clock at night rolls around, the curtain is opening on some of the greatest performances around the world, in one city. It is almost incomprehensible the amount of talent that is on display at that one moment.”

Tony-winning actor Hugh Jackman (“The Boy From Oz”), who has also won an Emmy Award for hosting the 2005 Tony Awards ceremony, comments: “As a performer, Broadway is different from anywhere else on the planet. You feel the audience are leaning in, they’re wanting to have a great time, they’re ready to enjoy it. It’s the most palpable I’ve ever felt—that connection with an audience.”

The documentary includes the expected footage and commentary about how influential Broadway is to actors and actresses. Tony-winning actress Christine Baranski (“The Real Thing,” “Rumors”) says with great fondness: “‘Company’ was the first musical I saw on Broadway. And I just thought, ‘Okay, this is the New York theater!” The documentary has brief archival clips of several stars who starred in Broadway shows before they became famous for their work in movies, such as Lithgow, McKellen, Mirren, Viola Davis and Courtney B. Vance.

Tony-winning director George C. Wolfe (“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” and “Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk”) says that Broadway is more than just a bunch of buildings. “Something that ends up resonating with people ends up inhabiting those buildings. And it creates a kind of strange, odd, wonderful energy.”

Wolfe continues, “And all of a sudden, those buildings become kind of a church that attracts these devotees who become empowered by what’s on that stage. But at the same time, it’s a commercial landscape. And every day, you have to pay your rent. That’s the key to Broadway.”

The debate over art versus commerce certainly applies to Broadway, which is a tough business for a production to make a profit. Most Broadway productions end up being money-losing investments. The Broadway shows that run for years are the ones that are like winning the lottery.

In addition to having a narrative history of Broadway, the documentary includes an all-access profile of “The Nap,” a British imported play about snooker players that debuted on Broadway during the 2018-2019 season. “The Nap” (which had a limited run from September to November 2018) was considered financially riskier than a typical Broadway show, since it didn’t have any big-name stars and because snooker is a game that’s largely unfamiliar to American audiences. “On Broadway” followed the Broadway production of “The Nap” from its rehearsals to opening night.

The documentary includes interviews with “The Nap” playwright Richard Bean, “The Nap” Broadway director Daniel Sullivan and “The Nap” co-star Alexandra Billings, who made her Broadway debut in the show. As one of the first transgender actors to portray a transgender character on Broadway, Billings expresses gratitude and amazement at how far she’s come in overcoming personal setbacks (including drug addiction and homelessness) to end up starring in a Broadway show. She says, “The Broadway journey: There’s so much history attached. We need to remember our history.”

“On Broadway” takes viewers through a chronological history of Broadway with an impressive array of archival footage and various commentaries from Broadway insiders. The 1950s through the mid-1960s are described as the Golden Age of Broadway. Business was booming, and Broadway shows often influenced pop culture in music and in movies.

However, by the late 1960s, with the counterculture movement becoming a major force in society, Broadway was considered old-fashioned and out-of-touch by many people. In addition, the streets of midtown Manhattan’s Times Square, where almost all Broadway theaters are located, became increasingly crime-infested. As a result, by the mid-1970s, many Broadway theaters were shut down, and Broadway experienced a major slump. New York City was also on the verge of declaring bankruptcy.

Tony-winning actor John Lithgow (“The Changing Room” and “The Sweet Smell of Success”) remembers, “The theater district in those days: You can’t believe how different it was. It was so down on its luck.” The documentary mentions that Broadway attendance dropped from 10 million people in 1969 to 4.8 million people in 1972.

However, during this economically depressed period of time for Broadway, new talent emerged that pushed Broadway to new levels of creativity. Musical composer Stephen Sondheim and the aforementioned groundbreaking producer/director Prince are named as the two luminaries who had the most influence on the new and original Broadway shows that emerged from the late 1960s through the 1970s.

Prince and Sondheim worked separately for most of ther projects. However, their collaborations included “Company” and “Pacific Overtures,” which are named as examples of Broadway musicals that were reactions to criticism that Broadway was outdated and playing it too safe. Plays and musicals began to include topics that were once considered taboo on Broadway, including war protests, the feminist movement, LGBTQ rights and abortion.

The documentary notes how the majority of the theaters were dominated by three theater owners in the 1970s: The Shubert Organization, the Nederlander Organization and Jujamcyn Theaters. Out of financial desperation, the Shubert family let attorneys Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard B. Jacobs take over the Shubert Organization in 1972.

The leadership change at the Shubert Organization led to a rethinking of investment strategies, by doing something that was groundbreaking at the time: Giving more freedom to the artistic people in Broadway, such as allowing them to spend time workshopping a production instead of just rehearsing. Broadway icons such as director/choreographer Bob Fosse and choreographer Michael Bennett were among those who benefited from this strategy.

Nederlander Organization managing director Elizabeth McCann says of this period of time when Broadway was in an economic decline: “They were all desperate for product.” One of the first new productions that Shubert invested in was Fosse’s “Pippin,” because the company believed in him.

New York City’s slow but eventual clean-up of Times Square led to closures of strip clubs and porn theaters and the arrival of more family-friendly businesses. In 1995, the Walt Disney Company began leasing the New Amsterdam Theater in a deal that’s considered a game changer in Broadway. In collaboration with the 42nd Street Development Project, Disney agreed to renovate the theater, which re-opened in 1997. As part of the deal, the New Amsterdam Theater is the exclusive home of Broadway productions that are based on Disney intellectual property.

The documentary singles out several Broadway productions as groundbreaking in their own ways. In the 1970s, “A Chorus Line” broke Broadway box-office records at the time and was the first Broadway show to be owned by a nonprofit group: the Public Theater. “Ain’t Misbehavin'” broke racial barriers on Broadway for having African Americans as a majority of its cast. “Annie” broke the stereotype that a Broadway show needed a rave review from the New York Times to be a long-running hit. The smash hit “Nicholas Nickleby,” with its eight-hour running time, broke the conventional practice of limiting a Broadway show’s running time to two or three hours.

By the late 1970s, Broadway was in full comeback mode, aided by the “I Love New York” ad campaign that featured Broadway shows. Popular shows on Broadway, such as “Grease” and “The Wiz,” were made into movies. Broadway in the 1970s and the 1980s had a British invasion, led by composer/producer Andrew Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh. Separately and together, Webber and Mackintosh brought numerous hits to Broadway, such as their collaborations on “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” (The documentary includes brief clips of an interview with Mackintosh.) The 1980s also saw a rise of acclaimed Broadway plays by and about LGBTQ people, most notably Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy.”

The 1990s ushered in a resurgence in Broadway’s popularity with young people, thanks largely to Jonathan Larson’s “Rent.” “Angels in America” (from playwright Tony Kushner) and “Rent” also brought frank depictions of the AIDS crisis into major storylines for Broadway shows. The 1990s was also the decade where the Disney-fication of Broadway began to take hold in the trend of turning movies into long-running Broadway musicals. The smash hit “The Lion King” was an obvious standout. Also in the 1990s, a Broadway trend began that isn’t going away anytime soon: jukebox musicals built around the hit songs of famous music artists. “Mamma Mia!,” based on ABBA songs, is considered the first blockbuster in this jukebox musical trend.

Even with several Broadway hits being churned out that are based on pre-existing entertainment, the phenomenal success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” proves that Broadway audiences are still hungry for completely original productions. In the documentary, “Hamilton” is credited with bringing more multiracial audiences than ever before to Broadway. “Hamilton’s” race-swapping of historical figures and incorporation of rap/hip-hop are also cited as groundbreaking for a Broadway show.

“On Broadway” wants to have such a relentlessly “cheerleader” attitude about the Broadway industry that it tends to ignore some uncomfortable topics, such as racism. Instead, the movie’s way of discussing Broadway’s race relations is to focus more on the accomplishments of Broadway’s prolific people of color (such as Wolfe, Wilson and Miranda) who were able to break racial barriers in the world of Broadway. Sexism and the #MeToo movement aren’t mentioned at all. The movie’s epilogue acts as if the abuse scandals that led to the 2021 downfall of Broadway mega-producer Scott Rudin just didn’t exist. The documentary gives no acknowledgement that Rudin’s fall from grace was big news that shook the Broadway industry.

Although the documentary does acknowledge the devastation that the AIDS crisis inflicted on the Broadway community, one of the movie’s flaws is that it could have had more coverage on what the Broadway community has done in response to the AIDS crisis. The documentary gives more screen time to Broadway people protesting and crying over the 1982 demolishment of the Morosco Theater, the Helen Hayes Theater and the Bijou (to make way for the Marriott Marquis in Times Square) than it gives to Broadway people doing something about the AIDS crisis. For example, “On Broadway” could have had a segment about the work of the nonprofit group Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. It’s a glaring omission.

Although “On Broadway” overlooks several social justice issues that directly impact Broadway, the documentary gives some recognition to the fact that Broadway gets a lot of criticism for being overpriced and elitist. At the same time, Broadway has also gotten backlash from the other end of the spectrum: Some people think that Broadway is catering too much to unsophisticated audiences, by relying heavily on movie adaptations and jukebox musicals for new Broadway shows.

Broadway producer Robert Fox comments on overpriced Broadway tickets: “I find gouging people unappealing. And I think people are being gouged. The amounts of money that people ar being asked to see things are insane. But it’s not called ‘show charity.’ It’s called ‘show business.'”

“The Nap” Broadway director Sullivan says that the high cost of putting on a Broadway show and the high risk of the show being a money-losing failure are aspects of the business that won’t change anytime soon: “Paying the kind of money you have to pay to put anything on a Broadway stage is almost foolhardy. But the excitement can’t be about the money. The excitement is about finding fascinating new work and taking that chance of putting it before the public.”

While “old school” Broadway people might gripe about the increasing number of movie adaptations and jukebox musicals that end up on Broadway, the general consensus by people interviewed in the documentary is that these adapted Broadway shows won’t replace the need for original content. Tony-winning actor James Corden (“One Man, Two Guvnors”) comments: “You’ve just always got to keep an eye on what’s new, what’s fresh, what’s going to inspire the next kid who thinks, ‘Oh my God. I’m going to write a play.'”

“On Broadway” includes interviews with people representing a cross-section of various jobs in Broadway—mostly people who are actors, producers, directors and theater officials. Among those interviewed are director/producer Lynne Meadow, director Jack O’Brien, the Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, producer Manny Azenberg, director Nicholas Hytner, producer Sonia Friedman, producer Albert Poland and producer Nelle Nugent. Other people interviewed include playwright David Henry Hwang, theatrical ad agency director Nancy Coyne, city planner Carl Weisbrod, lighting designer Natasha Katz, former Jujamcyn Theaters president Rocco Landesman, The New 42nd Street founding president Cora Cahan, Sardi’s maître d’ Gianni Felidi, and theater journalists Michael Riedel, Jeremy Gerard and Michael Paulson.

Even though “On Broadway” glosses over many of the ongoing problems in the business of Broadway, the documentary is entertaining and can be informative to people who have limited or average knowledge of this great American platform of performing arts. Broadway has been written off as “dead” many times, but the message of the documentary is that when Broadway is in a rut, Broadway should not be underestimated to climb out of that rut to thrive once again.

Tony-winning actor/director/choreographer Tommy Tune sums up the resilience of Broadway by saying: “Broadway is like some old 42nd Street hooker. She just keeps plugging. And sometimes, she has new shoes on. And sometimes, she has old, broken-down shoes.”

Kino Lorber released “On Broadway” in select U.S. cinemas and in virtual cinemas on August 20, 2021. The movie’s release date on digital and DVD is on October 19, 2021.

Review: ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ starring Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Colton Ryan, Danny Pino, Julianne Moore and Amy Adams

September 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ben Platt and Julianne Moore in “Dear Evan Hansen” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Dear Evan Hansen”

Directed by Stephen Chbosky

Culture Representation: Taking place in Bethesda, Maryland, the musical film “Dear Evan Hansen” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Due to a misunderstanding over a typed letter, a lonely teenager in his last year of high school pretends that he was the secret best friend of a fellow student who committed suicide. 

Culture Audience: “Dear Evan Hansen” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Tony-winning musical on which this movie is based, but the movie fails to capture the spirit of the stage version.

Danny Pino, Amy Adams and Kaitlyn Dever in “Dear Evan Hansen” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

On paper, the movie musical “Dear Evan Hansen” seems like it would be guaranteed to have the same appeal as the Tony-winning musical on which it’s based. However, the movie’s talented cast can’t redeem this misguided mush that clumsily handles serious issues such as mental illness and suicide. Sometimes, it isn’t enough to have members of a Broadway musical’s Tony-winning team reprise the same roles for the movie. The “Dear Evan Hansen” movie had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

Several of the principal team members who won Tony Awards for the “Dear Evan Hansen” stage musical came on board for the movie version of “Dear Evan Hansen.” Ben Platt returns in his starring role as Evan Hansen. Steven Levenson wrote the musical’s book and the movie’s screenplay. Marc Platt (Ben Platt’s father) is a producer. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote the musical score and songs. The movie version has most of the same songs from the stage musical, except for the original songs “A Little Closer” and “The Anonymous Ones,” which were both written for the movie.

Stephen Chbosky, who earned rave reviews for writing and directing his 2012 movie adaptation of his novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” misses the mark in directing “Dear Evan Hansen,” another story about a teenage boy who’s struggling with mental illness. (Chobsky was not involved in the “Dear Evan Hansen” stage musical, whose original Broadway production was directed by Michael Greif.) In “Dear Evan Hansen,” Evan Hansen is a socially awkward loner, who is in therapy for anxiety and depression. In the “Dear Evan Hansen” movie, these issues are treated like “disease of the week” plot points. The movie also callously fails, until the last few scenes, to have much regard for the inner life of the person who committed suicide in the story, because the movie is all about Evan Hansen’s angst over keeping secrets about lies that Evan Hansen created.

Unfortunately, the movie missed some opportunities to have more exploration and sensitivity about what led to the suicide that becomes the catalyst for the entire story. Instead, the emphasis is on trying to make viewers feel sorry for a teenager who lies to people about being the suicide victim’s best friend. The movie doesn’t make him an anti-hero but someone who should be admired for coping with his mental health issues while under the stress of concocting elaborate lies.

In the beginning of “Dear Evan Hansen” (which takes place in Bethesda, Maryland), Evan is shown doing a therapy exercise required by his psychiatrist Dr. Sherman: writing a diary-like letter to himself. It’s an assignment that Evan has to do on a regular basis in order to ease some of his anxiety and hopefully boost his confidence. Dr. Sherman is never seen or heard in the movie, which is one of the reasons why parts of this movie look very phony and off-kilter. The self-addressed letter writing becomes the reason why Evan becomes entangled in a misunderstanding and a complicated deception that end up getting out of control.

Evan, who is in his last year at the fictional Westview High School, is the only child of divorcée Heidi Hansen (played by Julianne Moore), a nurse who works the night shift at a local hospital. Evan’s father abandoned Evan and Heidi when Evan was very young and has not been in their lives since then. More recently, Evan has been recovering from a broken left arm, which is in a cast, because he fell out of a tree.

The early scenes of Evan at high school embody a lot stereotypes of teenagers who are social pariahs. He’s ignored in the hallways and in classrooms. No one wants to have lunch with him in the cafeteria. Evan is afraid to talk to people, and when he does, he often stutters and stammers. And people usually don’t talk to him either, because he keeps mostly to himself.

There’s no indication of what type of academic student Evan is because the movie mostly cares about the web of lies that Evan ends up spinning. At home, Evan’s mother Heidi constantly reminds him to write the self-affirming letters, because she doesn’t want him to “go back to how it was last year,” which implies that Evan had some kind of breakdown back then.

As is typical for a story about a male nerd in high school, he has a crush on a girl whom he thinks is out of his league, and he’s too shy to even talk to her. Evan’s crush is Zoe Murphy (played by Kaitlyn Dever), who is two years younger than he is. Zoe, who is artistic and introverted, plays guitar in the school’s marching band.

Evan’s only “friend” at school is someone who often acts embarrassed to be around Evan. His name is Jared Kalvani (played by Nik Dodani), who makes a lot of cruel remarks to Evan, but Jared think he’s being witty and funny when he says these awful things to Evan. For example, Jared tells Evan that they are not “real friends,” because Jared feels obligated to hang out with Evan only because their mothers are friends. Jared also calls Evan a “total disaster” when it comes to dating. Jared tells Evan that he won’t sign Evan’s arm cast because Jared doesn’t want people to think that he and Evan are friends.

It’s the beginning of the school year, and Jared (who is openly gay) brags to Evan that he spent his summer vacation at a camp where he gained muscle weight and hooked up with a Brazilian hunk who’s a model. Jared is a motormouth who seems like the type to exaggerate things about himself in order to boost his own ego. Viewers will get the impression that Jared hangs out with Evan so Jared can feel socially superior to Evan.

One day in the school hallway, Evan has a run-in with a school bully named Connor Murphy (played by Colton Ryan), who is in Evan’s graduating class. Connor also happens to be Zoe’s older brother. Connor sees Evan looking at Connor while Evan gives a small nervous laugh. Connor’s temper explodes and he yells at Evan for laughing at him.

Zoe is among the people who saw this outburst, so shortly afterward, she approaches Evan and says she’s sorry for the way that Connor was so rude to Evan. Zoe introduces herself, but bashful Evan is tongue-tied and almost having a panic attack. Evan stammers something that Zoe can’t understand and then he runs away from her.

One day, Evan is in the school library, where he has printed out another letter to himself. The letter reads: “Dear Evan Hansen: Turns out this wasn’t an amazing day after all. This isn’t going to be an amazing year because why would it be? Oh, I know, because there’s Zoe, who I don’t even know and who doesn’t know me, but maybe if I talk to her, maybe things will be better. Or maybe nothing will be different at all. I wish everything was different. Would anyone notice if I just disappeared tomorrow? Sincerely, your best and dearest friend. Me.”

Just as he is about to leave the library, Evan runs into Connor again. To Evan’s surprise, Connor is even-tempered and asks to signs Evan’s arm cast. After Connor signs it, he smirks and says, “Now we can pretend to be friends.” However, Connor sees the letter that Evan wrote to himself, Connor reads it, and he has another angry tantrum. Connor is upset about Evan’s letter, which Connor calls a “creepy letter” about Zoe. Connor is so incensed that he takes the letter from Evan.

A few days later, Evan finds out about something tragic that happened the night before: Connor committed suicide. Word quickly spreads throughout the school. Evan is called into the school principal’s office because two people want to talk to Evan: Connor’s mother Cynthia Murphy (played by Amy Adams) and Connor’s stepfather Larry Mora (played by Danny Pino), who helped raise Zoe since she was a 1-year-old and since Connor was 3.

Cynthia and Larry found Evan’s letter among Connor’s possessions and assumed that Connor wrote the letter. Larry and Cynthia are surprised by the letter because they didn’t think Connor had any friends. At first, Evan tries to tell these grieving parents that he didn’t know Connor and he wrote the letter to himself. But when Cynthia and Larry see Connor’s signature on Evan’s arm cast, Cynthia is convinced that Connor and Evan must’ve had a secret friendship.

Cynthia in particular seems desperate to want answers about Connor’s suicide. She’s trying to find anyone who was close to Connor to help her understand things that she didn’t know about Connor. It’s at this point in the story that you have to wonder why Cynthia would think that Connor would write a letter saying that he doesn’t know his own sister Zoe, but the movie wants viewers to think that Cynthia is so overcome with grief that she isn’t thinking logically.

The more Evan tries to explain that he was never Connor’s friend, the more upset Cynthia gets. She thinks that Connor had secret email addresses and fake social media accounts to hide his “friendship” with Evan. Cynthia also asks a lot of leading questions that make it easy for Evan to give answers that she wants to hear. And so, with Evan’s anxiety starting to kick in as he faces these parents who want answers, he makes up a huge lie in this meeting, by saying that he and Connor were secret best friends. (It’s not spoiler information, because it’s in the movie’s trailers.)

The rest of the movie shows how Evan’s lies get more elaborate and how he desperately tries to cover up these lies. First, he tells Jared his secret and convinces computer whiz Jared to create fake email messages to and from Connor, so that Evan can forward these messages to the Murphy family. It makes Jared a willing accomplice to this deceit, but the movie badly handles the consequences that Jared would realistically have to face if the secret is revealed.

Cynthia and Larry want to know more about Connor from Evan. And so, it isn’t long before Evan is invited over to the Murphy home for dinner. During this dinner, Evan finds out that Zoe despised Connor, whom she calls a “bad person.” She has nothing good to say about her dead brother, and it naturally upsets Larry and Cynthia every time they hear Zoe insult Connor.

Later, in a private conversation between Zoe and Evan, she expresses some skepticism that Evan was ever really Connor’s friend. Although she and Connor weren’t close, Zoe finds it hard to believe that Evan and Connor were friends because she never saw them hanging out together. The only time that she saw Evan and Connor interacting with each other was when Connor yelled at Evan in the school hallway. Despite these major doubts, Evan is able to convince Zoe that he and Connor just had a minor argument in that school hallway and that they were really friends.

“Dear Evan Hansen” ignores the larger questions of what kind of emotional support Connor was or was not getting at home. It’s revealed that he was shipped off to rehab on multiple occasions for his substance abuse problems. And it’s obvious that Cynthia doesn’t want to talk about Connor’s worst flaws, so her denial about his problems might have made things worse.

However, viewers are only left to guess what went on inside Connor’s home and what was inside his head to make him commit suicide. To put it bluntly: Evan’s mental health problems are given all the importance in the movie, while the suicide victim’s problems are mostly ignored. This discrepancy defeats the movie’s supposed intention to bring more understanding and compassion for people who have suicidal thoughts.

The movie also goes off on a brief and unnecessary tangent that Jared gleefully participates in Evan’s deception because Jared likes the idea of making people think that Connor and Evan were secret gay lovers. It’s an idea that falls by the wayside when Evan and Zoe become closer and eventually start dating each other. Evan and Zoe becoming romantically involved is not spoiler information either, because it’s shown in the movie’s trailers.

Zoe opens up to Evan about why she and Connor never got along with each other. Connor had a long and troubled history of being a violent bully. For example, when Connor was 7 years old, he threw a printer at a teacher. He was also cruel to Zoe on many occasions. And mental illness apparently runs in the family. Zoe and Connor’s biological father died when she was a 1-year-old. His cause of death will not surprise viewers when it’s eventually revealed in the story.

At school, a concerned student named Alana Beck (played by Amandla Stenberg), who didn’t know Connor, decides to form a support group called the Connor Project to help create student awareness for mental health. She asks for Evan’s help in launching this project, but he avoids going to the student meetings about the project. Alana finds it difficult to get anyone to attend these meetings because Connor was not well-liked, so she’s surprised and disappointed that Connor’s “best friend” doesn’t want to attend these meetings either.

And when Evan tells a lie that Connor was the one who rescued Evan after he fell out of the tree, Alana gets the idea to launch a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to rebuild the defunct orchard where the tree is located. She wants to name it the Connor Murphy Memorial Orchard. Alana tries to enlist Evan’s help for this campaign too. And so, now Evan knows that this fundraising campaign was created as a direct result of his deceit. Can you say “financial fraud”?

Why is Alana going to all this trouble for Connor, someone she didn’t even know? It turns out that Alana has a personal reason for wanting to launch the Connor Project: Just like Evan, she’s on medication for anxiety and depression. Alana thinks that Connor also had a mental illness that could’ve been better treated if he felt that he had a support system at school. And therefore, Alana has a lot of empathy for anyone who is going through these struggles.

One of the reasons why the “Dear Evan Hansen” movie will turn off some viewers is that the movie tries to make Evan look sympathetic because he’s a social outcast, but he actually comes across as very selfish. Would he have continued lying to the Murphy family if he didn’t think it was a convenient way to get closer to Zoe? Probably not. Would he have kept up the charade of being sympathetic to Connor’s emotional problems if this fake sympathy hadn’t raised his social status at school? Probably not.

Evan also doesn’t seem to care to understand who Connor was as a human being until something happens in the story that forces Evan to look like he’s curious about what Connor’s interests were when Connor was alive. Throughout most of the movie, Alana is more inquisitive about Connor than Evan is. Of course, in real life, this discrepancy would have set off red flags very early on—not just with Connor’s family but also with teachers and students who would know best what the friendship cliques are at the school. It’s a reality that’s mostly ignored in this movie, which makes the students and teachers look extremely gullible to Evan’s lies, which aren’t even that clever.

And there’s an icky subtext that Evan is enjoying the attention and approval he’s getting for coming forward as Connor’s “best friend,” even though Evan is supposed to feel guilty about his lies. He does feel guilty, but mainly when he comes close to getting caught and other people get backlash that Evan didn’t expect. This backlash is rushed into the story as a way to force an inevitable plot development.

It’s possible that this movie could’ve been more convincing if it had been set in a time before the Internet and social media existed. However, no one ever asks Evan for more proof that he knew Connor as a best friend, such as things Connor would’ve told a best friend about himself. Everyone just accepts the superficial and vague email as “evidence” of the friendship.

Evan claims that his friendship with Connor was mostly online, by email. However, except for saying that Evan rescued him after the tree fall, Evan never provides the dates and times of when he and Evan supposedly hung out in person together. Viewers are supposed to believe that Evan thinks he can get away with this scam with his mother, who knows pretty much everything about him and is skeptical that he had a secret best friend. But somehow, Evan convinces her too. It’s a very flimsy part of the story.

The cast members capably handle the acting and song performances. However, the way the songs are placed in the movie don’t come off as well on screen as they would on stage. There’s a very cringeworthy fantasy sequence where Evan and Connor frolic, dance and sing in a carefree manner together, as if they were best friends. Ben Platt vacillates between portraying Evan as a pitiful wimp and a troubled opportunist. Dever does quite well in her scenes as Zoe, especially when she depicts Zoe’s conflicting love/hate emotions about Connor.

The songs from the stage musical that are in the movie are “Waving Through a Window,” “Good for You,” “Anybody Have a Map?,” “For Forever,” “Sincerely, Me,” “Requiem,” “If I Could Tell Her,” “Only Us.” “Words Fail,” “So Big, So Small” and the musical’s most well-known anthem “You Will Be Found.” The original songs “A Little Closer” (performed by Ryan) and “The Anonymous Ones” (performed by Stenberg, who co-wrote the music and lyrics) are serviceable but aren’t that outstanding. In addition, the soundtrack has Sam Smith doing a version of “You Will Be Found” and SZA performing “The Anonymous Ones.”

Mostly, the overall cloying tone of the movie is off-putting because it tries so hard to get viewers to root for Evan while he’s doing a lot of despicable lying about someone who committed suicide. Just because Evan has anxiety and depression shouldn’t be used as an excuse, which is what this movie does in a way that’s insulting to people with these mental health issues who would never stoop to the pathetic levels of what Evan does in this movie.

And it’s made even worse when it’s wrapped up in bombastic musical numbers that are intended to make people shed tears for Evan more than anyone else in the story—even though he’s not the one who lost a loved one to suicide and he’s causing more pain with his lies. This gross spectacle of a movie amplifies the deep-rooted flaws of the entire story, which might have been more acceptable to theater audiences who are more accustomed to seeing song-and-dance numbers about suicidal thoughts and other mental health issues. “Dear Evan Hansen” has a lot of deluded worship of Evan, who’s got a bland abyss of a personality and who isn’t even creative with his lies.

Universal Pictures will release “Dear Evan Hansen” in U.S. cinemas on September 24, 2021.

Review: ‘Annette,’ starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Helberg

August 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in “Annette” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“Annette”

Directed by Leos Carax

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and various other parts of the world, the musical “Annette” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the wealthy and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A seemingly mismatched stand-up comedian and an opera singer have a passionate romance, get married, and have a daughter named Annette, but then a major tragedy changes their lives forever.

Culture Audience: “Annette” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Sparks, Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, as well as people who like to indulge in pretentious musicals with a weak plot.

Cast members of “Annette,” including front row, from left to right, Simon Helberg, Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver; and second row, Russell Mael (behind Cotillard) and Ron Mael, pictured at far right. (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Don’t believe the hype. The musical “Annette” is one of those annoying, self-indulgent movies that some people will automatically praise just because it looks European and artsy. Underneath the pretentious sheen is a boring and ludicrous story with forgettable songs and a baby that’s really an animatronic doll that looks like a cleaned-up sister of Chucky from the “Child’s Play” horror franchise.

Directed by Leos Carax, “Annette” has an abysmal screenplay and disappointing music written by brothers Russell Mael and Ron Mael, also known as the experimental pop duo Sparks. The Mael brothers have brief cameos in the movie because they’re not very good actors. Visually, the movie looks better than the actual material because the filmmakers had the budget to build some elaborate set pieces and film the movie in Los Angeles, Belgium and Germany.

Here’s how you know if a musical is good or not: Are at least half of the songs memorable? Do the songs fit well with the story? And do the actors look convincing when they perform the songs? If the answer is no to any of these questions, then the musical isn’t very good and could be downright lousy. A lot of people who don’t care about going along with pseudo-hipster groupthink are going to say “no” to “Annette.”

Some credit should be given to Carax for directing “Annette” with gusto and for choosing some noteworthy designs in production and costumes. But so much of “Annette” looks and sounds like a tacky regional theater production that ended up being made into a movie because the filmmakers convinced people with deep pockets to throw money at this train wreck. Just because a movie tries very hard to be “avant-garde” doesn’t automatically mean it’s supposed to be good art.

“Annette” starts out promising in the first half of the movie when it’s about the romance between edgy stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (played by Adam Driver) and elegant opera diva Ann Defrasnoux (played by Marion Cotillard), who live in Los Angeles and are both big stars in their respective careers. But it all goes downhill in the second half of the movie, when themes of death and greed are monotonously repeated until “Annette” ends with a whimper instead of a bang. Simon Helberg, who looks very uncomfortable and out-of-place in this musical, depicts an unnamed supporting character who goes from being an accompanist for Ann to being the conductor of an orchestra.

The best parts of “Annette” are seeing Henry perform on stage. Henry’s stand-up act can best be described as if Mitch Hedberg and the late David Foster Wallace decided to collaborate on a stand-up comedy routine and hire some backup singers. Henry’s material is both self-deprecating and condescending to the audience members, who do group chants and or indivdual shouting in response to what Henry says during his act. However, he has full command of the stage and is utterly fascinating to watch. Ann (who is French, just like Cotillard is in real life) is somewhat of a generic opera singer. No one will be be winning any major awards for acting or singing in this movie.

Henry and Ann’s relationship is breathlessly followed by the tabloid media. Ann and Henry get engaged, then married, and then they become parents to a daughter named Annette. And seriously: This baby-turned-toddler is depicted by a creepy-looking animatronic doll with terrible visual effects. It will get some laughs at first, but after a while, this unnatural-looking doll is just an awful distraction.

The last half of the movie has too much spoiler information to describe, but it’s enough to say that the movie gets a lot worse and reaches the point of no return from stupidity when Henry quits stand-up comedy to become a “stage dad” manager to Annette. There are some tragic crimes and a continual pile-on of horrifically bad dialogue. Not even the acting talent of Driver and Cotillard can save this overrated mess of a movie. Driver is also one of the producers of “Annette,” so he bears more responsibility than the other cast members for how this move turned out to be a disappointing slog of irritating and egocentric posturing.

During the latter half of the movie, Driver and Helberg barely even sing. What a ripoff. By the end of the movie, most viewers might remember one or two songs. There are some musicals that have plots and conversations that are mediocre, but the music is so great, it transcends the dialogue and resonates with audiences to the point where people are recommending the soundtrack to others. That’s not the case with “Annette,” which will find a specific audience, but none of the songs from this movie will have a major cultural impact.

You know a musical is bad when the two lead actors (Driver and Cotillard) are respected talents who should elevate the material, but hardly anyone in pop culture is raving about the songs in “Annette,” except the predictable niche audience of Sparks fans. None of the “Annette” filmmakers should pretend that they didn’t want this musical movie to be popular. If they wanted this movie to be underground, they wouldn’t have had corporate behemoth Amazon pay for it, and they wouldn’t have had a splashy world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Simply put: “Annette” looks and sounds like a musical experiment that ultimately stumbles artistically, but some people will still love it because they’re star-struck by the famous people involved in making this movie.

Amazon Studios released “Annette” in select U.S. cinemas on August 6, 2021. Amazon Prime Video premiered the movie on August 20, 2021.

Review: ‘In the Heights,’ starring Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Jimmy Smits

May 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera (center) in “In the Heights” (Photo by Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“In the Heights” 

Directed by Jon M. Chu

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, this movie version of the Tony-winning musical “In the Heights” features a predominantly Hispanic group of characters (with some African Americans and white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young Dominican American man living in New York City’s Washington Heights is torn between staying in the neghborhood or moving to his family’s native Dominican Republic to re-open his late father’s tiki bar.

Culture Audience: “In the Heights” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in Broadway musicals with contemporary music and movies about Hispanic American culture.

Corey Hawkins and Melissa Grace in “In the Heights” (Photo by Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical “In the Heights” brings a cinematic vibrancy that makes it a joy to watch on screen and an instant crowd-pleaser. The movie keeps the main storyline and themes intact from the Broadway show but adds some memorable set designs, eye-popping choreography and impressive visual effects that couldn’t be done in a theater stage production. And this well-cast movie also has standout performances that will be sure to charm fans of the Broadway show as well as win over new fans. The “In the Heights” movie is set to have its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Directed by Jon M. Chu, “In the Heights” has an adapted screenplay written by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for Broadway’s “In the Heights,” which takes place in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. The movie version of “In the Heights” keeps the same songs from the stage musical, whose music and lyrics were written by Miranda. The movie is updated to include more social-awareness themes related to Dreamers, the nickname for undocumented children of undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

The “In the Heights” movie, just like the stage musical, combines several character storylines in a tale that ultimately adds up to love in many different forms. There’s the love that 29-year-old protagonist/bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega (played by Anthony Ramos) has for his family, his Washington Heights neighborhood and his family’s native Dominican Republic. During the course of the story, he also falls in love with aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (played by Melissa Barrera), who also lives in Washington Heights. Usnavi is somewhat shy around assertive Vanessa, who plays hard to get, but eventually Vanessa falls for Usnavi too.

Romance is also in the air for car dispatch operator Benny (played by Corey Hawkins) and college student Nina Rosario (played by Leslie Grace), who has come home to Washington Heights while on a break from her studies at California’s Stanford University. Benny is easygoing and respectful, while Nina is intelligent and compassionate. Nina’s strong-willed and doting father also happens to be Benny’s boss: Rosario’s Car Service owner Kevin Rosario (played by Jimmy Smits), who is immensely proud that his daughter is a Stanford student, and he will do what it takes to pay her university tuition.

The beloved “grandmother” of the neighborhood is Abuela Claudia (played by Olga Merediz), who doesn’t have kids of her own, but she has a nuturing, maternal attitude toward many people in Washington Heights. Claudia is particularly close to Usnavi, whose parents are deceased. Usnavi, who is an only child, moved to the U.S. with his parents when he was 8 years old. And since his parents’ death, Usnavi has become even closer to Claudia. Meanwhile, Usnavi has also known Nina for several years, and he treats Nina like she’s his younger sister.

Usnavi is a mentor to his smart and wisecracking teenage cousin Sonny (played by Gregory Diaz IV), who works part-time in Usnavi’s bodega. Sonny needs a mentor because he has an alcoholic father named Gapo (played by Marc Anthony), who is the brother of Usnavi’s father. A local attorney named Alejandro (played by Mateo Gomez) plays a key role in facilitating what becomes Usnavi’s dream: to move back to the Dominican Republic and re-open a beachfront tiki bar called El Suenito that used to be owned by Usnavi’s late father.

Rounding out the story’s main characters are “The Salon Ladies,” a trio of sassy and opinionated beauty salon workers: Daniela (played by Daphne Rubin-Vega), who is the salon’s owner; Carla (played by Stephanie Beatriz), who is Daniela’s much-younger live-in lover; and Cuca (played by Dascha Polanco), who is their loyal sidekick friend. Vanessa works in the salon too, but she’d rather be a fashion designer. A graffiti artist named Graffiti Pete (played by Noah Catala) is one of Usnavi’s friends. There’s also a character named Pike Phillips (played by Patrick Page), who owns a dry cleaning business next door to Rosario’s Car Service, and he plays a role that affects the fate of a few of the characters’ fortunes.

“In the Heights” creator Miranda has a small role in the movie as a sarcastic street vendor named Piragüero, who sells piragua/shaved ice. Keep watching through the movie’s ending credits to see a comical scene of Miranda’s Piragüero getting into a spat with a Mr. Softee ice cream truck driver, played by Christopher Jackson, who is Miranda’s best friend and longtime Broadway co-star. It’s an example of the touches of humor in an otherwise dramatic story.

The movie begins with Usnavi in a tropical beach setting, telling four kids (about 4 to 6 years old) the story about his life in Washington Heights. The four children are Iris (played by Olivia Perez), Rosa (played by Analia Gomez), Sedo (played by Dean Vazquez) and Migo (played by Mason Vazquez). The kids are very attentive and adorable. But it’s clear that Iris is the most intelligent and inquisitive out of all of them.

Usnavi’s story is about the sweltering summer when he decided he was going to move back to the Dominican Republic and re-open El Suenito. What follows is an immersive, rollercoaster ride of a story, with plenty of joy, heartbreak, fear and love. It begins with various cast members performing “In the Heights,” in an epic sequence where viewers are introduced to Usnavi’s life in Washington Heights and all the people he’s close to in the neighborhood.

Other tunes performed by cast members in the movie are “Benny’s Dispatch,” “Breathe,” “You’ll Be Back” “No Me Diga,” “It Won’t Be Long Now,” “Cuando Llega el Tren,” “96,000,” “Piragua,” “Always,” “When You’re Home,” “The Club,” “Blackout,” “Paciencia Y Fe,” “Carnaval Del Barrio,” “Alabanza,” “Champagne,” “When the Sun Goes Down,” “Home All Summer” and “Finale.” Some of set designs for “In the Heights” are a visual treat and enhance these musical numbers. Two examples that are highlights are the massive synchronized swimming scene in a public swimming pool for “96,000,” and when Benny and Nina (with the help of visual effects) duet on “When You’re Home” with some gymnast-like moves on the side of an apartment building.

An electrical blackout happens in the middle of this summer heatwave. The movie has a timetable of events before and after the blackout. It’s a blackout that changes the lives of the characters, some more dramatically than others.

“In the Heights” is rich with Hispanic culture and doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics. Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans and people from Central and South America are celebrated in some way in the movie. And Usnavi’s desire to move back to the Dominican Republic is indicative of not only honoring his family but also reconnecting with his Dominican roots.

Nina represents the experience of people from Hispanic families who are the first to get a chance to graduate from a prestigious university in the United States. On the one hand, Nina is considered an exalted role model for the community and has all the pressures that come with it. On the other hand, Nina describes the pain of racism and not feeling like she fits in a privileged, predominantly white setting such as Stanford.

During a few of the movie’s more poignant scenes, Nina describes how her Stanford experience isn’t as glamorous as people in Washington Heights might think it is. Nina talks about how she was wrongfully accused of theft by her white Stanford roommate. And on another occasion, Nina attended a diversity dinner at Stanford, and someone wrongfully assumed that she was one of the servers.

All of the cast members are admirable in their roles, but the standouts are Ramos, Grace and Merediz, whose characters go through the biggest emotional arcs in the movie. Merediz’s performance of “Paciencia Y Fe” will simply give people chills. It’s the type of scene that will have audiences moved to applaud and cheer loudly. Grace is also a very talented singer/actress who can convincingly portray feelings without over-emoting like someone performing on a theater stage.

And as the story’s protagonist/narrator Usnavi, Ramos carries the movie with charm and vulnerability. He’s not super-confident when courting Vanessa, and he’s often teased about his insecurities by his observant cousin Sonny. For the two big romances in the movie (Usnavi and Vanessa; Benny and Nina), it isn’t about whether or not these two couples will get together. It’s more about if they can stay together, considering that they have long-distance issues that could wreck their relationships.

Whether or not people got a chance to see “In the Heights” on stage, the movie is a lively celebration in its own right. It’s a story with universal and relevant themes that can be understood by people of any generation. And the movie brings new dimensions and nuances to the story that will inspire people to see it multiple times, preferably on the biggest screen possible.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “In the Heights” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on June 10, 2021. The release date was moved up from June 11, 2021.

2020 Tony Awards: ‘Jagged Little Pill’ is the top nominee

October 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

Tony Awards logo

 

With 15 nods, including Best Musical, “Jagged Little Pill” is the top nominee for the 74th annual Tony Awards, which will be webcast in a virtual ceremony on a date and time to be announced. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Tony Awards (which are traditionally held in June) were postponed from its original date of June 7. CBS, which usually telecasts the Tony Awards in the U.S., is not going to be involved in the Tony Awards this year. It has not been announced yet if there will be a host for the ceremony. The Tony Awards are presented by the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League.

As of March 12, 2020, all Broadway shows have been shut down until further notice. The re-opening date for Broadway shows has been tentatively set for May 31, 2021, but that date could change. One thing is clear: The traditional eligibility period for the 2021 Tony Awards (June 2020 to May 2021) has now been completely wiped out, since there will be no Broadway shows playing during this eligibility period.*

*[June 1, 2021 UPDATE: CBS has announced that it will televise the 2021 Tony Awards on September 26, 2021. Paramount+ will have the ceremony available for streaming.]

Tony-winning “Aladdin” musical star James Monroe Iglehart announced the nominations for the 2020 Tony Awards on a webcast on October 15, 2020. Even before the shutdowns, “Jagged Little Pill” had been expected to be a top contender. The critically acclaimed musical, which opened on Broadway in December 2019, features songs from Alanis Morissette’s Grammy-winning 1995 multiplatinum album “Jagged Little Pill.” The “Jagged Little Pill” musical is about a suburban family with serious personal problems, such as addiction and sexual assault.

Following close behind in nominations, with 14 nods, is “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” which is based on the 2001 original musical movie. Earning 12 nominations each are “Slave Play” and “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical.” Rounding out the top five nominated shows is the play “The Inheritance,” which has 11 nominations.

Because of the COVID-19 shutdown of Broadway shows, many of the 2020 Tony Awards categories have less nominees than usual. Some categories (including Best Musical and Best Revival of a Play) that normally have five nominations each have three or less nominations for the category this year. In the category for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical, there is only one nominee: Aaron Tveit of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” which makes him the default winner.

This year’s three Tony Award nominations for Best Musical are all “jukebox musicals” adapted from previous work: In addition to “Jagged Little Pill,” the other nominations in the category are “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” and “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical,” which features a catalogue of well-known Tina Turner songs. Therefore, these three musicals are not eligible for Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre.

However, “Jagged Little Pill,” “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” and “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical” are competing against each other in nine categories: Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical, Best Scenic Design of a Musical, Best Costume Design of a Musical, Best Lighting Design of a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations.

“Slave Play,” the play with the most Tony nominations in 2020, is competing in several categories with “The Inheritance,” “A Soldier’s Play” (which garnered seven nominations), “The Sound Inside” (which has six nods) and “A Christmas Carol,” which scored five nominations.

Here is the complete list of nominations for the 2020 Tony Awards:

Best Play

Grand Horizons

Author: Bess Wohl
Producers: Second Stage Theater, Carole Rothman, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Mandy Greenfield

The Inheritance

Author: Matthew López
Producers: Tom Kirdahy, Sonia Friedman Productions, Hunter Arnold, Elizabeth Dewberry & Ali Ahmet Kocabiyik, 1001 Nights Productions, Robert Greenblatt, Mark Lee, Peter May, Scott Rudin, Richard Winkler, Bruce Cohen, Mara Isaacs, Greg Berlanti & Robbie Rogers, Brad Blume, Burnt Umber Productions, Shane Ewen, Greenleaf Productions, Marguerite Hoffman, Oliver Roth, Joseph Baker/Drew Hodges, Stephanie P. McClelland, Broadway Strategic Return Fund, Caiola Productions, Mary J. Davis, Kayla Greenspan, Fakston Productions, FBK Productions, Sally Cade Holmes, Benjamin Lowy, MWM Live, Lee & Alec Seymour, Lorenzo Thione, Sing Out, Louise! Productions, AB Company/Julie Boardman, Adam Zell & Co/ZKM Media, Jamie deRoy/Catherine Adler, DeSantis-Baugh Productions/Adam Hyndman, Gary DiMauro/Meredith Lynsey Schade, John Goldwyn/Silva Theatrical Group, Deborah Green/Christina Mattsson, Cliff Hopkins/George Scarles, Invisible Wall Productions/Lauren Stein, Sharon Karmazin/Broadway Factor NYC, Brian Spector/Madeleine Foster Bersin, Undivided Productions/Hysell Dohr Group, Ushkowitzlatimer Productions/Tyler Mount, The Young Vic

Sea Wall/A Life

Author: Simon Stephens & Nick Payne
Producers: Nine Stories, Ambassador Theatre Group, Seaview Productions, Benjamin Lowy Productions, LFG Theatrical, Audible, Gavin Kalin Productions, Glass Half Full Productions, Jacob Langfelder, Brian Moreland, Roth-Manella Productions, Salman Vienn Al-Rashid Friends, SLSM Theatricals, Teresa Tsai, Dunetz Restieri Productions, Morwin Schmookler, Jane & Mark Wilf, The Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, Patrick Willingham, Mandy Hackett

Slave Play

Author: Jeremy O. Harris
Producers: Seaview Productions, Troy Carter, Level Forward, Nine Stories, Sing Out, Louise! Productions, Shooting Star Productions, Roth-Manella Productions, Carlin Katler Productions, Cohen Hopkins Productions, Thomas Laub, Blair Russell, WEB Productions, Salman Al-Rashid, Jeremy O. Harris, Mark Shacket, New York Theatre Workshop

The Sound Inside

Author: Adam Rapp
Producers: Jeffrey Richards, Lincoln Center Theater, Rebecca Gold, Evamere Entertainment, Eric Falkenstein, Salman Vienn Al-Rashid, Spencer Ross, FilmNation Entertainment/Faliro House, Iris Smith, Jane Bergère, Caiola Productions, Mark S. Golub and David S. Golub, Ken Greiner, Gemini Theatrical Investors, Scott H. Mauro, Jayne Baron Sherman, CZEKAJ Productions, Wendy Morgan-Hunter, Kristin Foster, Brian Moreland, Sonia Mudbhatkal, Jacob Soroken Porter, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Mandy Greenfield


Best Musical

Jagged Little Pill

Producers: Vivek J. Tiwary, Arvind Ethan David, Eva Price, Caiola Productions, Level Forward & Abigail Disney, Geffen Playhouse-Tenenbaum-Feinberg, James L. Nederlander, Dean Borell Moravis Silver, Stephen G. Johnson, Concord Theatricals, Bard Theatricals, M. Kilburg Reedy, 42nd.club, Betsy Dollinger, Sundowners, The Araca Group, Jana Bezdek, Len Blavatnik, BSL Enterprises, Burnt Umber Productions, Darren DeVerna & Jeremiah Harris, Daryl Roth, Susan Edelstein, FG Productions, Sue Gilad & Larry Rogowsky, Harmonia, John Gore Theatrical Group, Melissa M. Jones & Barbara H. Freitag, Stephanie Kramer, Lamplighter Projects, Christina Isaly Liceaga, David Mirvish, Spencer B. Ross, Bellanca Smigel Rutter, Iris Smith, Jason Taylor & Sydney Suiter, Rachel Weinstein, W.I.T. Productions/Gabriel Creative Partners, Independent Presenters Network, Universal Music Publishing Group, Jujamcyn Theaters, Tamar Climan, American Repertory Theater

Moulin Rouge! The Musical

Producers: Carmen Pavlovic, Gerry Ryan, Global Creatures, Bill Damaschke, Aaron Lustbader, Hunter Arnold, Darren Bagert, Erica Lynn Schwartz/Matt Picheny/Stephanie Rosenberg, Adam Blanshay Productions/Nicolas & Charles Talar, Iris Smith, Aleri Entertainment, CJ ENM, Sophie Qi/Harmonia Holdings, Baz & Co./Len Blavatnik, AF Creative Media/International Theatre Fund, Endeavor Content, Tom & Pam Faludy, Gilad-Rogowsky/Instone Productions, John Gore Organization, MEHR-BB Entertainment GmbH, Spencer Ross, Nederlander Presentations/IPN, Eric Falkenstein/Suzanne Grant, Jennifer Fischer, Peter May/Sandy Robertson, Triptyk Studios, Carl Daikeler/Sandi Moran, DeSantis-Baugh Productions, Red Mountain Theatre Company/42nd.club, Candy Spelling/Tulchin Bartner, Roy Furman, Jujamcyn Theaters

Tina — The Tina Turner Musical

Producers: Stage Entertainment, James L. Nederlander, Tali Pelman, Feste Investments B.V., David Mirvish, Nattering Way, TEG Dainty, Katori Hall, Mark Rubinstein LTD, Warner Chappell, Peter May, Eva Price, No Guarantees, Caiola Productions, Jamie deRoy, Wendy Federman, Roy Furman, Independent Presenters Network, John Gore Organization, Marc Levine, Carl Moellenberg, Al Nocciolino, Catherine Adler, Tom Perakos, Iris Smith, Candy Spelling, Anita Waxman, Daryl Roth, Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Universal Music Publishing Group, Tina Turner


Best Revival of a Play

Betrayal

Producers: Ambassador Theatre Group Productions, Benjamin Lowy Productions, Gavin Kalin Productions, Glass Half Full Productions, AnnaPurna Theatre, Hunter Arnold, Burnt Umber Productions, Rashad V. Chambers, Eilene Davidson Productions, KFF Productions, Dominick LaRuffa, Jr., Stephanie P. McClelland, Richard Winkler/Alan Shorr, The Jamie Lloyd Company

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune

Author: Terrence McNally
Producers: Hunter Arnold, Debbie Bisno, Tom Kirdahy, Elizabeth Dewberry & Ali Ahmet Kocabiyik, Broadway Strategic Return Fund, Caiola Productions, FedermanGold Productions, Invisible Wall Productions, John Gore Organization, Mike Karns, Kilimanjaro Theatricals, Peter May, Tyler Mount, Seriff Productions, Silva Theatrical Group, Cliff Bleszinski/GetterLazarDaly, Jamie deRoy/Gary DiMauro, Suzi Dietz & Lenny Beer/Sally Cade Holmes, Barbara H. Freitag/Ken Davenport, Barry & Kimberly Gowdy/Mabee Family Office, Kayla Greenspan/Jamie Joeyen-Waldorf, John Joseph/Broadway Factor, Tilted Windmills/John Paterakis, The Shubert Organization

A Soldier’s Play

Author: Charles Fuller
Producers: Roundabout Theatre Company, Todd Haimes, Julia C. Levy, Sydney Beers, Steve Dow


Best Book of a Musical

Jagged Little Pill

Diablo Cody

Moulin Rouge! The Musical

John Logan

Tina — The Tina Turner Musical

Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins


Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre

A Christmas Carol

Music: Christopher Nightingale

The Inheritance

Music: Paul Englishby

The Rose Tattoo

Music: Fitz Patton and Jason Michael Webb

Slave Play

Music: Lindsay Jones

The Sound Inside

Music: Daniel Kluger


Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play

Ian Barford, Linda Vista
Andrew Burnap, The Inheritance
Jake Gyllenhaal, Sea Wall/A Life
Tom Hiddleston, Betrayal
Tom Sturridge, Sea Wall/A Life
Blair Underwood, A Soldier’s Play


Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play

Joaquina Kalukango, Slave Play
Laura Linney, My Name is Lucy Barton
Audra McDonald, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
Mary-Louise Parker, The Sound Inside


Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical

Aaron Tveit, Moulin Rouge! The Musical


Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical

Karen Olivo, Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Elizabeth Stanley, Jagged Little Pill
Adrienne Warren, Tina — The Tina Turner Musical


Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play

Ato Blankson-Wood, Slave Play
James Cusati-Moyer, Slave Play
David Alan Grier, A Soldier’s Play
John Benjamin Hickey, The Inheritance
Paul Hilton, The Inheritance


Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play

Jane Alexander, Grand Horizons
Chalia La Tour, Slave Play
Annie McNamara, Slave Play
Lois Smith, The Inheritance
Cora Vander Broek, Linda Vista


Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical

Danny Burstein, Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Derek Klena, Jagged Little Pill
Sean Allan Krill, Jagged Little Pill
Sahr Ngaujah, Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Daniel J. Watts, Tina — The Tina Turner Musical


Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical

Kathryn Gallagher, Jagged Little Pill
Celia Rose Gooding, Jagged Little Pill
Robyn Hurder, Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Lauren Patten, Jagged Little Pill
Myra Lucretia Taylor, Tina — The Tina Turner Musical


Best Scenic Design of a Play

Bob Crowley, The Inheritance
Soutra Gilmour, Betrayal
Rob Howell, A Christmas Carol
Derek McLane, A Soldier’s Play
Clint Ramos, Slave Play


Best Scenic Design of a Musical

Riccardo Hernández and Lucy Mackinnon, Jagged Little Pill
Derek McLane, Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Mark Thompson and Jeff Sugg, Tina — The Tina Turner Musical


Best Costume Design of a Play

Dede Ayite, Slave Play
Dede Ayite, A Soldier’s Play
Bob Crowley, The Inheritance
Rob Howell, A Christmas Carol
Clint Ramos, The Rose Tattoo


Best Costume Design of a Musical

Emily Rebholz, Jagged Little Pill
Mark Thompson, Tina — The Tina Turner Musical
Catherine Zuber, Moulin Rouge! The Musical


Best Lighting Design of a Play

Jiyoun Chang, Slave Play
Jon Clark, The Inheritance
Heather Gilbert, The Sound Inside
Allen Lee Hughes, A Soldier’s Play
Hugh Vanstone, A Christmas Carol


Best Lighting Design of a Musical

Bruno Poet, Tina — The Tina Turner Musical
Justin Townsend, Jagged Little Pill
Justin Townsend, Moulin Rouge! The Musical

Best Sound Design of a Play

Paul Arditti & Christopher Reid, The Inheritance
Simon Baker, A Christmas Carol
Lindsay Jones, Slave Play
Daniel Kluger, Sea Wall/A Life
Daniel Kluger, The Sound Inside

Best Sound Design of a Musical

Jonathan Deans, Jagged Little Pill
Peter Hylenski, Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Nevin Steinberg, Tina — The Tina Turner Musical


Best Direction of a Play

David Cromer, The Sound Inside
Stephen Daldry, The Inheritance
Kenny Leon, A Soldier’s Play
Jamie Lloyd, Betrayal
Robert O’Hara, Slave Play


Best Direction of a Musical

Phyllida Lloyd, Tina — The Tina Turner Musical
Diane Paulus, Jagged Little Pill
Alex Timbers, Moulin Rouge! The Musical


Best Choreography

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Jagged Little Pill
Sonya Tayeh, Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Anthony Van Laast, Tina – The Tina Turner Musical


Best Orchestrations

Tom Kitt, Jagged Little Pill
Katie Kresek, Charlie Rosen, Matt Stine and Justin Levine, Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Ethan Popp, Tina — The Tina Turner Musical

*   *   *


Tony Nominations by Production

Jagged Little Pill – 15

Moulin Rouge! The Musical – 14

Slave Play – 12

Tina – The Tina Turner Musical – 12

The Inheritance – 11

A Soldier’s Play – 7

The Sound Inside – 6

A Christmas Carol – 5

Betrayal – 4

Sea Wall/A Life – 4

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune – 2

Grand Horizons – 2

Linda Vista – 2

The Rose Tattoo – 2

My Name is Lucy Barton – 1

Review: ‘Black Is King,’ starring Beyoncé

July 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Beyoncé in “Black Is King” (Photo courtesy of Disney+/Parkwood Entertainment)

“Black Is King” 

Directed by Beyoncé, Kwasi Fordjour, Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Pierre Debusschere, Jenn Nkiru, Ibra Ake, Dikayl Rimmasch and Jake Nava

Culture Representation: This visual album of Beyoncé’s original songs for the 2019 “The Lion King: The Gift” soundtrack features a predominantly black cast (with a few white people, Asians and Latinos) primarily representing life in Africa in a musical format.

Culture Clash:  Many of the songs’ lyrics and the movie’s narration are about pushing back against fear, bigotry and self-doubt.

Culture Audience: Beyoncé fans are the obvious target audience for this movie, but “Black Is King” should also appeal to people who like to see visually stunning musical numbers set to contemporary R&B music.

Beyoncé (center) in “Black Is King” (Photo courtesy of Disney+/Parkwood Entertainment)

People already know that Beyoncé is capable of making a collection of memorable an impactful music videos, so it’s not too much a surprise that she has done it again with “Black Is King,” a visually intoxicating and emotionally empowering movie that celebrates self-confidence and Afro-centric culture.

Whereas Beyoncé’s visual collection for her critically acclaimed 2016 album “Lemonade” was her feminist response to issues going on in her personal life at the time, “Black Is King” is more of a rousing anthem directed at generations of people, especially those whose ethnic roots are in Africa. There are no conversations in “Black Is King,” but the messages are loud and clear.

Because “Black Is King” is a visual representation of Beyoncé’s 2019 soundtrack album “The Lion King: The Gift,” the songs themselves (and some of the music videos) were made available a year before the full “Black Is King” movie was released. But seeing all of these songs together as musical numbers in “Black Is King” puts the soundtrack in a whole new light.

“Black Is King” is not a traditional movie, since there is no real plot. Rather, it’s an atmospheric journey of eye-catching sights, sounds and philosophical thoughts. The choreography? Spectacular. The hair and makeup? Gorgeous.  The costumes? Unforgettable.

Folajomi “FJ” Akinmurele portrays Beyoncé’s fictional son Little Simba throughout “Black Is King.” At the end of the film, this dedication appears on screen: “Dedicated to my son Sir Carter. And to all our sons and daughters, the sun and the moon bow for you. You are the keys to the kingdom.”

The movie has narration that includes lines from the 2019 “The Lion King” movie, which had Beyoncé as the voice of warrior lioness Nala. But the most intriguing narration comes from a script whose credited writers are Beyoncé, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope and Andrew Morrow, featuring poetry by Warsan Shire.

James Earl Jones provides the opening voice narration as he intones in “Balance (Mufasa Interlude)”: “Everything that you see exists together in a delicate balance. You need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling creatures to the leaping antelope. We are all connected in the circle of life.”

Beyoncé also voices several messages of Afro-centric pride, including “Black is the color of my true love’s skin” and “Let black be synonymous with glory” and “Black is king. We were beauty before they knew what beauty was.”

There are also calls of empowerment, such as “Life is a set of choices. Lead or be led astray. Follow your light or lose it.” And she also speaks about the importance of representation: “To live without reflection for so long might make you wonder if you even truly exist.”

It wouldn’t be a Beyoncé visual album without cameos. They include members of her immediate family: husband Jay-Z (real name: Shawn Carter); their children Blue Ivy, Sir and Rumi; and Beyoncé’s mother Tina Knowles Lawson. “Brown Skin Girl,” with Saint Jhn and Wizkid featuring Blue Ivy Carter, celebrates inner and outer beauty and includes visual appearances by Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o and Kelly Rowland, who is one of the original members of Destiny’s Child with Beyoncé. Jay-Z, Knowles Lawson and Rowland can also be seen in “Mood 4 Eva.”

And several artists on the audio soundtrack can be seen in “Black Is King,” including Jessie Reyez (“Scar)”; Nija, Busiswa, Yemi Alade, Tierra Whack and Moonchild Sanelly (“My Power” ); Shatta Wale (“Already”); Tiwa Savage and Mr Eazi (“Keys to the Kingdom”); and Salatiel and Pharrell Williams (“Water”).  Meanwhile, Beyoncé hands over the spotlight to Lord Afrixana, Yemi Alade and Mr Eazi, who perform “Don’t Jealous Me.”

Noticeably absent from “Black Is King” are Kendrick Lamar, Major Lazer and Childish Gambino (also known as Donald Glover, the voice of adult Simba in 2019’s “The Lion King”), who are featured artists on the audio soundtrack’s songs but don’t make visual appearances in the “Black Is King” movie. Lamar can be heard on the duet track “Nile,” while Major Lazer is featured on “Already.” Childish Gambino/Glover is a featured artist on “Mood 4 Eva.”

Speaking of “Mood 4 Eva,” it’s one of the highlights of “Black Is King” and it has explosion of beauty that’s both raw and luxurious. (And there’s also a scene of Beyoncé and Jay-Z holding hands that’s reminiscent of their famous 2018 “Apeshit” video that was filmed in the Louvre Museum.) “Don’t Jealous Me,” another standout segment, conjures up African tribal imageries that includes giant yellow python around the neck of certain people, including Beyoncé. “Water” is pure glam, with Beyoncé in outfits ranging from a stunning magenta gown to flared ’70s-styled denim with Rapunzel-length hair.

Although “The Lion King” takes place in Africa, and “Black Is King” is very Afro-centric, “Black Is King” was actually filmed around the world: Africa, New York, Los Angeles, London and Belgium. However, the movie prominently several African actors in the story segments, including Folajomi Akinmurele, Connie Chiume, Nyaniso Ntsikelelo Dzedze, Nandi Madida, Warren Masemola, Sibusiso Mbeje, Fumi Odede, Stephen Ojo and Mary Twala.

Not everyone likes Beyoncé’s music. Not everyone likes the 2019 movie version of “The Lion King.” However, “Black Is King” is a perfect example of why Beyoncé is a superb entertainer who’s a major influence on pop culture while speaking out on issues that are important to her.

Disney+ premiered “Black Is King” in July 31, 2020.

Review: ‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,’ starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

Culture Representation: Taking place in Iceland and Scotland, the musical comedy “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” has a predominantly white cast (with some black people, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An Icelandic male/female pop-music duo called Fire Saga aspire to on the annual Eurovision Song Contest, but they come up against naysayers in their home country as well as competitors from other countries.

Culture Audience: “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” will appeal primarily to fans of stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, as well as to people who like good-natured satires of fame seekers and hokey TV talent contests.

Dan Stevens in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” is an entertaining parody of the famous annual Eurovision Song Contest that feels retro and contemporary at the same time. The contest, which began in 1956 and is televised in numerous countries, has singers (usually performing pop music) competing from different countries around the world, as a sort of an Olympics for aspiring music stars. Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams portray the earnest but naïve Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir, a musical duo from Iceland who perform under the stage name Fire Saga. Ferrell, who co-wrote the original screenplay with Andrew Steele, is one of the producers of this comedy. And it’s one of Ferrell’s best movies in years.

Although “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (directed by David Dobkin) takes place in the present day, a lot of the musical sensibilities and costumes seem to be stuck in a previous decade, especially the 1980s or 1990s. The movie’s running joke, although not explicitly stated, is that certain parts of Europe are “behind the times” in pop music, because these countries rarely produce groundbreaking pop superstars on a worldwide level. Therefore, the performers who represent these countries at Eurovision are often ridiculed by Eurovision haters for looking and sounding outdated.

The trailer for “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” already shows that Fire Saga made it to the contest. Therefore, the first third of this 123-minute movie has no suspense, since it’s all about the obstacles that Fire Saga encounters in the quest to make it to Eurovision. Iceland has never had a Eurovision winner, so that immediately makes Fire Saga the ultimate underdog act.

The movie begins in Húsavík, Iceland, on April 6, 1974, when a pre-teen Lars (played by Alfie Melia), his stern widower father Erick (played by Pierce Brosnan) and other members of the family are watching Eurovision in the living room. The Swedish pop group ABBA is performing “Waterloo,” and Lars is transfixed. (ABBA won Eurovision that year and has remained Eurovision’s most famous winning act.)

As Lars dances along to ABBA performing on TV, he announces to his family that someday, he’s going to be a contestant on Eurovision. Several people scoff at the idea, including Erick, who says he’d rather be dead than to have his son sing and dance on Eurovision. Well, you know what that means.

About 45 years later, Lars is still living with his father, who makes a living as a fisherman, while Lars has a job giving parking tickets. Lars and his musical partner Sigrit (who is a music teacher) are longtime friends. They are singers and multi-instrumentalists, but they’ve been floundering in the dead-end local music scene. Fire Saga’s music “career” consists of rehearsing in the basement of Erick’s house and performing at a small local bar.

A running joke in the movie is that the patrons of this bar don’t want to hear any Fire Saga original songs (such as the trash-tastic “Volcano Man”) and would rather hear Fire Saga perform a very childish, nonsensical tune called “Jaja Ding Dong.” The audience is so fanatical about “Jaja Ding Dong” that they will often demand that Fire Saga perform it more than once in a single set. Is it any wonder that Lars and Sigrit think Eurovision will be their ticket out of this backwards town?

Erick isn’t the only one who thinks Lars is a loser and that it’s a delusional lost cause for Fire Saga to be on Eurovision. Sigrit’s single mother Helka (played by Elin Petersdottir) vehemently disapproves of Sigrit chasing this dream and tells Sigrit that she’s wasting her time with Lars. Although it’s not shown in the movie, it’s mentioned that Sigrit used to be mute as a child, until she met Lars and he helped her find her voice through music. And Lars and Sigrit have been friends ever since.

But now that they’re adults, Sigrit wants to be more than friends with Lars, because she’s secretly in love with him. Lars has the maturity level of a teenager (like most characters Farrell tends to play), so Lars is completely oblivious to Sigrit’s true feelings for him. As if to make the point that Lars and Sigrit don’t exude sexual chemistry with each other, throughout the movie, people who meet Lars and Sigrit for the first time mistakenly assume that Lars and Sigrit are brother and sister. Later in the story, when Sigrit and Lars almost kiss romantically, he stops it from happening because he says they can’t ruin their work relationship with a romance, and they have to stay focused on winning Eurovision.

But getting to Eurovision won’t be so easy. First, Fire Saga has to win the Icelandic Song Contest. Neils Brongus (played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), the president of Icelandic Public Television, leads a committee in charge of deciding who will be contestants in the Icelandic Song Contest. And he already has a favorite to win: Katiana Lindsdottir (played by Demi Lovato), from Kefalvik, a ready-made pop star with a powerful singing voice.

Neils tells his assembled team after watching Katiana’s audition video: “Without being dramatic, I think it might be the best audition tape we ever had in the history of the Icelandic Song Contest.”  (In the movie, Lovato sings the original song “In the Mirror.”) Compared to Katiana, Fire Saga looks like a bad joke.

Meanwhile, Victor Karlsson (played by Mikael Persbrandt), governor of Central Bank of Iceland, is worried about a contestant from Iceland winning Eurovision, which has a tradition of the winning contestant’s country hosting the contest in the following year. Victor fears that Iceland doesn’t have the infrastructure to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of people who would come to Iceland for Eurovision. And  he thinks that all those visitors during a short period of time could bankrupt Iceland.

Therefore, Victor is not enthusiastic about Katiana or anyone from Iceland winning Eurovision. When Victor expresses his concerns to Neils and the team at Icelandic Public Television, the rest of the group immediately shoots down Victor’s pessimistic prediction, because they think Eurovision coming to Iceland would be great for the Icelandic economy.

Lars’ dream of wining Eurovision becomes even more desperate when he finds himself homeless. His father Erick is having serious financial problems and has a choice to sell his house or sell his boat. Since Erick needs his boat for his fisherman income, he decides to sell the house.

Meanwhile, Sigrit has a quirk that Lars finds a little irritating: She believes in elves and thinks that elves can grant wishes. A recurring joke in the movie is that she visits a group of tiny houses built for elves and offers food and other gifts to the unseen creatures, as a way to entice them to grant her wishes. Two of her biggest wishes are to win Eurovision and to get together with Lars and start a family with him.

Through a series of unpredictable events, Fire Saga ends up representing Iceland at Eurovision, which is being held in Edinburgh, Scotland. How the usually hapless Fire Saga got to Eurovision wasn’t necessarily because Fire Saga was voted the best act, so Iceland’s support is lukewarm at best. Still, Iceland has given Fire Saga enough support that the country has hired a creative team to help Fire Saga win with Fire Saga’s chosen song “Double Trouble.”

The artistic director of this creative team is the very fussy and flamboyant Kevin Swain (played by Jamie Demetriou, in a scene-stealing performance), who sometimes clashes with the creative vision that Lars and Sigrit have for Fire Saga. During Eurovision rehearsals, Lars and Sirgit also meet another flamboyant character: Russian contestant Alexander Lemtov (played by Dan Stevens), a singer who flaunts his wealth and gives the impression that he will sleep with anyone to get them to do what he wants. Alexander’s Eurovision song is called “Lion of Love,” and his bombastic performance of the song includes a homoerotic choreography with male backup dancers wearing skintight gold lamé pants.

Alexander (whose frosted 1980s hairdo is reminiscent of George Michael in his Wham! days) immediately sets his sights on Sigrit to target as a sexual conquest. Meanwhile, Lars attracts the amorous attention of Greek contestant Mita Xenakis (played by Melissanthi Mahut), a singer who’s like a cross between Ariana Grande and Cher. Not surprisingly, some jealousy situations ensue.

In between all of the backstage drama and hilariously tacky performances, the movie has a standout musical ensemble number that takes place at a contestant party thrown by Alexander. In this scene, numerous contestants (including Lars, Sigrit, Alexander and Mita) do an extravagant medley of Cher’s “Believe,” Madonna’s “Ray of Light,” ABBA’s “Waterloo” and the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.”

Savan Kotecha, the musical director for this movie, assembled the team that wrote the film’s original songs that were deliberately kitschy. His background in writing and producing hits for real-life pop stars serves this movie very well. Among the hits that Kotecha co-written and co-produced include The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” Grande’s “God Is a Woman,” One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” and Lovato’s “Confident.” The musical score by Atli Örvarsson complements the pop tunes without being overbearing.

The movie’s Eurovision performance scenes, which includes footage from real Eurovision arena shows, are among the comedic highlights of the film. Just when you think an act couldn’t get campier or more pompous, another one comes along to surpass it. Graham Norton (portraying himself) adds an element of satirical realism with his cameo as the sardonic TV commentator for Eurovision.

For “Eurovision Song Contest,” McAdams and Ferrell have reunited with their “Wedding Crashers” director Dobkin, whose previous experience as a music-video director is an asset for this musical movie. As for the singing in the movie, Lovato and Mahut are professional singers in real life, so they did their own vocals. Adams’ vocals were either her own or a combination of McAdams and those of Swedish singer Molly Sandé. Alexander’s operatic singing vocals were provided by Erik Mjönes.

“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” has plenty of lowbrow jokes that are actually laugh-out-loud funny. For example, there are several penis jokes and jokes about naked men in the movie. The jokes are crude but not offensive. In one scene, Lars comments: “I think of my penis like a Volvo—solid, sturdy, dependable, but not going to turn any heads.” Comedy is all about delivery, and Ferrell delivers the line in such a good natured, self-deprecating way, that it will make people laugh.

The movie doesn’t just poke fun at tacky aspiring pop stars from Europe. Americans are also the butt of many jokes in the film. During the course of the movie, Lars and Sigrit keep encountering the same group of college-age American tourists. Lars makes it known that he dislikes Americans, by taunting the tourists with the worst “ugly American” stereotypes. His insults aren’t too far off from how many non-Americans perceive Americans.

Make no mistake: “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” is by no means an Oscar-worthy movie. (Ferrell has never starred in that type of movie anyway.) But it is a cut above some of the stinkers that Ferrell has been headlining in recent years. At its heart, “Eurovision Song Contest” has a sentimentality to it that just might win people over in the way that Fire Saga earnestly tries to charm audiences—not by being the most talented but by being their unapologetically corny selves.

Netflix premiered “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” on June 26, 2020.