Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bad Theatre / Good Film

Every now and then I see a piece of theatre that I wish was a movie, solely because then I could own it on DVD.

Such is ATLANTA: THE MUSICAL, opening this weekend at the Geffen in Los Angeles.

Wait, I am afraid my opening may be misleading. You see, I often teach writing classes, and am on constant look out for examples to show my students.

And ATLANTA is a near perfect sample of not doing a single thing right when writing a musical. And negative examples are a priceless learning tool.

For those of you who are not writers, here is the most basic thing that any writer learns in Story 101: Every story needs to start with three basic ingredients:

1. A main character who

2. Has a want (which drives the story), and

3. An obstacle to that want (which gives the story “drama”)

Dorothy Gale wants to get home, but the witch is in the way.

John McClane wants to save his wife, but the robber posing as a terrorist is in his way. (My shout out for the Christmas season…)

Little Miss Muffet wants to eat her curds & whey, but that pesky spider keeps scaring her off her tuffet.

As I was leaving ATLANTA, an elderly woman was angrily announcing about the creators: “They didn’t even know who the story was about!”

To be fair, at the end of Act One it is revealed who the main character of the story is – and his major story arc takes up about ten minutes total of a two hour play.

And none of the characters have a want that drives the action. And of course, if you don’t want anything, there really is no obstacle. Hence no drama.

Which is too bad – because the idea is rife with dramatic possibilities.

The story is ostensibly about a Yankee soldier, who kills a Reb then hides from the Confederacy by stealing the Reb’s uniform. In the dead man’s pocket is a packet of love letters – and through the missives, the Yank falls in love with his enemy’s lover.

Sound good? Yeah, to me to.

But the creators of this show ignored that the guy in the southern uniform is a Yankee; ignored the conflict of loving the girl of someone you killed; ignored the conflict of false identity (SPOILER ALERT: the Yank and the Girl never meet, and she never finds out he has taken her lover’s identity); and on and on.

And the music – yikes! In the program notes the writer talks about what he learned from Stephen Soundheim – how every song is a play of its own, progressing through three acts.

If only the writer chose to use what he learned! I can think of only one song in the whole show that even remotely has a progression.

On the other hand, I also saw ENCHANTED this weekend, which showcases a song with the first line “How will she know you love her?” and ends with the line “That’s how she’ll know you love her!”


Yeah, a simple Disney fairy tale ends up running dramatic circles around a highly publicized Civil War drama.

I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed ENCHANTED. I had a few things going for me:

1. I knew nothing about it going in, other than Susan Sarandon was in the cast, and Amy Adams was rumored to be delightful in it.

Okay, I only had one thing going for me. But it was enough. I saw no commercials, read no articles, really had no interest in seeing the flick.

Yet giggled my way gleefully through the whole thing.

So, take my advice: go see it knowing as little as possible about the show.

Then write to me about it, and let’s discuss why Amy Adams deserves a best actress Oscar nom (and why she won’t get it).

Just my thoughts,


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