Love, All Ways: Mandy Gonzalez at 54 Below – December 4, 2013

Best known for her roles in In the Heights and Wicked, Mandy Gonzalez is a Broadway singer/actress with a considerable vocal range who recently made her cabaret debut at 54 Below singing an eclectic mix of songs from her various stage roles and pop/rock songs. She is also a quasi-acquaintance of mine (somewhere between being a fan and a friend), as I had first met her when she was in the short-lived Dance of the Vampires and was blown away by her impressive vocals (and probably one of the few actors that I have seen on stage who could match the vocal intensity to share the stage with Michael Crawford as they had when they sung “Total Eclipse of the Heart”). When I had first met her at the stage door all those years ago, I recall telling her that she’d be a Broadway star, and sure enough, she has fulfilled that prophesy.

 Mandy Gonzalez at 54 Below

54 Below is a perfect venue for her to make her cabaret debut, as that space is intimate as well as infamous – its location (as the venue name suggests) was where the famed Studio 54 was located, not too far from the Times Square area. The venue itself is relatively new, having opened in June 2012, and has quickly become a hub for theatre cabaret shows, with the likes of Patti LuPone, Norbert Leo Butz, Aaron Tveit, Sherie Rene Scott (to name but a few) taking to the stage to perform to an audience that are at arm’s length from the stage.

54 Below

Dressed in a black sequin top and black leather pants, Mandy started the show with a bit of “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, exuding lots of spunk and sass before segueing into a brief fit of nerves from doing her first solo show, to which the musical director advised her to just “Breathe” (a reference to one of her songs from In the Heights). She didn’t sing all of “Defying Gravity”, as she wanted us to “get to know her better” before she went on to belt that song out (which garnered some laughs).Among the non-theatrical songs she proceeded to sing (and belt) were “A Little Less Conversation”, originally sung by Elvis Presley, Prince’s “Kiss”, and the Queen song “Crazy Thing Called Love”; she also sang The Temptations’ song “Get Ready” both with an upbeat tempo and also as a haunting torch song – in between these two renditions she spoke of her family and their influence on her life and career. She then spoke of her parents and the love letters they had written to one another early in their courtship and remarked how her father would sign his letters “Love always” but spelling it “wrong” so that it read “love all ways”, which no doubt was the inspiration behind her naming her first cabaret show “Love, All Ways”. She then sang “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (the longer version of the song with its original lyrics), which was greeted with much applause and cheering, especially as she belted out and riffed the final notes as she had done at the final performance of Dance of the Vampires. There was also a portion of the show dedicated to her experiences in In the Heights, including a confession that she never really learned how to speak Spanish growing up, and how there had been several different songs for her character Nina’s first song in the show – she sang one of those songs (I can’t remember the exact title) then sang “Breathe”, the song that ended up in the show. At the end, she finally sang the entirety of “Defying Gravity” which earned her a standing ovation from the audience. For an encore, she sang “The Best in the World” from A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine as a tribute to Priscilla Lopez, her co-star in In the Heights, who had originally sung; Ms. Lopez was in the audience, and Mandy had acknowledged her as being a valued friend and inspiration.

Mandy Gonzalez

She lingered about after the show, greeting friends and fans alike, posing for photos and such, conversant and personable as she always is. Though she only performed for one night, there has been talk of future shows (including a return engagement at 54 Below some time in 2014!) and I sincerely hope there will be more opportunities for those in New York City (and perhaps elsewhere) to hear her amazing voice and experience her vivacious personality.

Me and Mandy

A Good Nightmare Comes So Rarely, While Ordinary Dreams Are So Easy To Find: Ruminations on Dance of the Vampires

Vampires and vampire hunters have always been a ubiquitous and (for the most part) successful presence in popular culture – in movies, on television, in video games and of course, in literature; the one genre where this kind of achievement has proven to be elusive is on stage, particularly in the realm of musical theatre (at least on Broadway). Ten years ago tonight, Dance of the Vampires started its previews at the Minskoff Theatre (after a two-day postponement due to technical issues), and had been (at the time) the most expensive musical to be produced on Broadway. The show was an English adaptation of the German musical Tanz Der Vampire, which was, in turn, based on the Roman Polanski film The Fearless Vampire Killers and boasted a score by Jim Steinman, most noted for epic rock songs for Meat Loaf. The show also heralded the return of Michael Crawford to the Broadway stage since his definitive performance in Phantom of the Opera. There were great expectations for the show, and on the surface it seemed that it was destined to be a sure-fire success – sadly, the reality fell far short of the expectations.

[Disclaimer: Once again, in the spirit of full disclosure, my interest in Dance of the Vampires began when it had been announced that Michael Crawford would be returning to Broadway as Count von Krolock. I’ve already mentioned previously that Mr. Crawford is one of my favorite theatre actors, and I was greatly looking forward to seeing him live on stage – so this is advanced warning that parts of this blog will come across as highly emotional and quite possibly end up just being one quasi-coherent long rant. Also, as this blog is about Dance and not Tanz, there will not be any overt comparisons/criticisms between the two productions; again this blog, as with all my previous and future blogs, is of my own opinion and should be respected as such.]

I have already mentioned in a previous blog, the fact that Dance of the Vampires was slated to play at the Minskoff Theatre (which at the time was still “cursed”) did not bode well in my mind; added to the fact that there were substantial changes from its source material, Tanz der Vampire, to make Dance less dark and more comical was probably not a good sign either. I will not speculate on hearsay on the reasons behind these changes or other rumors on the goings on during rehearsals and such; I’ve never put too much stock in that kind of gossip and repeating them all these years late would perpetuate the initial incident, which could or could not have been something totally different. Needless to say, the changes were made, songs were dropped and other songs were added – would Dance have had a longer run had the plot and score been just like Tanz? Maybe, but then again maybe not; there’s no point in wondering what could have been, but to reflect on what did happen.

The plot of Dance of the Vampires revolves around the highly logical vampire hunter Professor Abronsius and his former theology student turned factotum Alfred arriving in the village of Lower Belabartovich in Transylvania to slay the last of the vampires, the charismatic Count Giovanni von Krolock. The Count, in turn, has his sights set on seducing Sarah, the innkeeper’s daughter, who is destined to fulfill an ancient prophesy that “vampires will dance in the light of the sun”. My initial and everlasting impression of the show was that it was highly entertaining, with a fantastic score, which included “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (which was always received with applause and laughter, mostly due to recognition). The set design was spectacular and the visual effects astounding, though I will admit that some of the early preview costumes for Count von Krolock were far too outlandish and unbelievable – thankfully the Count’s costumes were changed to be more in the same vein (pun intended) of the traditional image of vampires. Also I found it highly ironic for a show with vampires to have so much bright white light in it – artistically done, but it was all far too much.

The entire cast was astounding – having missed seeing Michael Crawford in Phantom of the Opera, I was delighted to have been able to see and hear him on stage in character (I had only seen and hear him sing in concert several years prior); he has a knack for comedy along with a flair for drama as the charming yet conflicted Count von Krolock. As Professor Abronsius, René Auberjonois, best known for his TV and movie roles, was equally brilliant; other standout performances came from Mandy Gonzalez and Max von Essen, as Sarah and Alfred, both of whom were vocal powerhouses destined for greatness. Also,  given the show’s title, I was amused and delighted that every cast member, at one point or another, did dance on stage.

Again, as stated in a previous blog, Dance of the Vampires had received the most hateful, negative “reviews” I have ever read, most of which were not so much reviews for the production itself, but seemed to be personal attacks on Crawford himself, and barely mentioned any of the other cast. All the print reviews were so similar to one another that I could almost believe that one critic had written the review and the other critics had used that as their template. I felt (and still feel) that this was deliberate, uncalled for, and most certainly contrary to what a critical review should be; I could understand (though not agree) that had these personal attacks been limited to newspaper gossip columns or internet message boards and forums, I would have considered them to be opinions of whomever had written them – everyone is entitled to an opinion, after all. I may not agree with them, but they have a right to them, as do I have a right to my own opinions.

The production ran a little over three months, and I was fortunate to have seen the show nine times within that time frame. This show was also the first show for which I had attended both the matinee and evening performance – the final two performances, which were highly emotional and enthusiastically received (if memory serves). I even recall overhearing some departing theater-goers question why such an entertaining show was closing, which was in stark contrast to an incident that happened to me shortly after the “reviews” came out. I had been outside the Minskoff Theatre waiting to enter the theater, when I stuck a conversation with some passersby looking to see a show; when I had recommended they see Dance I can recall the haughty tone of one of the passersby, who had accused me of being a shill for the show. When I had responded that I wasn’t, I was looked upon with suspicion and disbelief. Needless to say the incident startled me immensely and gave me some insight on how persuasive press reviews can be to the average theatergoer, as well as a sober lesson that even if “everyone” dislikes a show, there are some who love that same show, and their adoration should not be dismissed.

I can recall the stage door area being swarmed with theater-goers that final night, which was astounding not only for their appreciation for the hard work the cast and crew gave, but also due to the fact that it had been  quite a cold and windy winter evening (though it did not snow). Looking back at the show ten years after it started, despite the negative reviews, I thoroughly enjoyed the Dance of the Vampires and saw it for what it was – an evening of fun entertainment with great songs, brilliant staging and a fantastic cast. It’s a shame that an official cast recording was never made (if there is one, it’s never been released).

So it would seem the moral of this story is that singing vampires apparently do not and/or cannot succeed on Broadway – subsequent to Dance, two other vampire-centric musicals open and quickly closed – Frank Wildhorn’s Dracula: The Musical and Elton John’s Lestat. Though with the rise in popularity of vampires on film and TV these days, maybe there’s hope that Dance could possibly have a second life (or at least perhaps a concert version).

Michael Crawford as the Count von Krolock – his final (albeit blurry) appearance

Early Morning Madness and the Magic in the Making: Explaining How My Love for Sunset Boulevard Created the Minskoff Theatre Curse

Speaking the actual name of the Scottish Play in a theater when not performing it. The presence of ghost lights on stage. Not wishing someone “good luck” before a performance. Over the course of theatrical history, there have been superstitions and stories of strange, inexplicable occurrences that have defied logic. Some may dismiss them as coincidence, while others may believe them to be fabricated or embellished; then there are those few who wholeheartedly believe in such things and adhere to the rules around how to ward off bad luck, to appease the ghostly figures that inhabit several Broadway theatres and also the Gods of the Theatre. I never really believed in all that, I thought it had to be sheer coincidence or just mischief-making to propel the veracity of such stories. The evoking of the Minskoff Curse, and the subsequent events that happened made me realize how wrong I was, and even though fifteen (!) years has passed since the Curse was first uttered, its lingering presence remains intact (albeit altered), making its home at the Marquis Theatre.

Before I impart the tale of the Minskoff Theatre Curse, a bit of exposition is required. First of all, for any of this to make any sense, I must mention that Sunset Boulevard is one my favorite musicals, and is in fact ranked third in my list of all-time favorite [excluding revivals] musicals that I have seen live on stage, (after Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera). I would listen to the cast recordings constantly, and talk about so much to the point that my nickname amongst my high school friends was (and still is) Norma. Sunset Boulevard was the first Andrew Lloyd Webber musical I aware of and followed in its development from the West End to Los Angeles to Broadway (I became aware of Phantom after the show already arrived on Broadway, and Aspects of Love seemed to have opened and closed relatively in short order) and I had also seen and enjoyed the 1950 Billy Wilder film. I still hold out hope that the musical will be made into a movie musical, but considering the recent Hollywood movies based on musicals, most with pretty, young bankable movie stars for the most part can’t do justice to the source material, I should know better. But then again the upcoming movie musical of Les Miserables gives me hope that casting of such projects should have trained actors who have some theatre experience.

But I digress.

Sunset certainly had its share of (presumably) unintended drama off-stage, particularly with its leading ladies. Glenn Close, having played faded movie star Norma Desmond in the American premiere production in Los Angeles, being slated to star on Broadway, despite the fact that Patti LuPone had been promised that honor (LuPone subsequently sued Lloyd Webber over this breach of promise); Faye Dunaway, who was to replace Close in the Los Angeles production was basically fired from the production for not being up to snuff to play the part (she also sued Lloyd Webber). So, even before the show reached Broadway, there was trouble brewing. Nevertheless, Sunset reached Broadway in 1994 with the largest advance tickets sales at the time, the critical reviews were for the most part favorable, and won the appropriate awards. Despite these accolades, the show was not a financial success, considering the production costs associated with the exorbitant sets and lavish costumes, which were amazing. I was only able to see the Broadway production three times (and the second US tour production once), as I was still in high school at the time of the production with little disposable income of my own, and there were not as many discounts for young theater-goers as there are now (had there been the programs and discounts for teens they have now back then, I would certainly have seen the show and many others…).

But I digress.

Again.

While I was unable to see Glenn Close as Norma Desmond, I did see Betty Buckley (twice) and Elaine Paige, who were both astounding. Most likely due to the high weekly production costs of the show, Sunset was also the first Lloyd Webber show of which I was aware to close (Phantom was and is still running, and Cats was still around). I was absolutely livid and quite distressed when I read the news of its closing on March 22, 1997 adding insult to injury, in my opinion, since that day is also Lloyd Webber’s birthday. I soon organized a group outing with a bunch of my friends to see the show one last time on February 20, 1997 (I was unable to attend the final performance due to a school-related activity that required my attendance, which ended up not happening, but by the time I knew that it was too late to get to the final performance). Anyway, my friends and I were seated in the rear mezzanine of the theater, and I was cheering quite enthusiastically, to the point that my voice was quite hoarse by intermission and just about gone altogether by the end of the show, which was not particularly a good thing; that evening was also the very first time I waited at stage door for the actors (Elaine Paige in particular) to emerge. While we waited, we spotted Julie Andrews leaving the Marquis Theatre stage door across the street (she was in Victor/Victoria at the time) and waved at her (and she waved back!) and I organized my friends to be standing in the area between where the stage door and Ms. Paige’s car (yes, I was that determined to meet her). When she did emerge from the stage door and signed our playbills, I had to have one my friends tell her how I enjoyed her performance and ask her if I could have a photo with her, as I literally could not speak to her, which I found pretty embarrassing. Thankfully, I got to meet her again years later at a book signing for her memoir Memories and finally got to speak with her.

My Sunset playbill, signed by Elaine Paige

Me and Elaine Paige, February 20, 1997 (I have no idea who the couple behind me were, but at least they’re smiling too!)

By the time we left the stage door, it was already past midnight, so we all headed to the subway to get home. If memory serves, it was during this subway ride home when I thought up of what will later be known as the Minskoff Theatre Curse, and a complex and specific curse it was. Here’s how it went: I had evoked that no musical that went into the Minskoff Theatre after Sunset that had the letter “S” in its title (either upper or lower case) would last more than three years there, as Sunset ran for just about two and a half years (don’t bother asking me how I did it – that is knowledge that can be dangerous if placed in the wrong hands). Now here’s where things get uncanny and made think that it was more than coincidence:

  • The next musical to play at the Minskoff Theatre was The Scarlet Pimpernel, which had problems of its own – the production played for about a year and a half (two different versions were presented) before closing briefly and moving to the Neil Simon Theatre, where it played under a year before the show closed for good.
  • The next musical to play at the Minskoff Theatre was Saturday Night Fever, which ultimately played a little over a year before closing.
  • The next musical to play at the Minskoff Theatre was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which only played less than a month, and interestingly enough, the marquee for that production stayed up longer than the production was open.

The Minskoff Theatre remained vacant for several months after The Adventures of Tom Sawyer closed, and it is at this point in time I’m convinced that the mythical Gods of the Theatre took offense at my curse-making and decided to take punitive action. That they did and on a grand scale, for the next musical to play at the Minskoff Theatre was Dance of the Vampires, which marked the Broadway return of Michael Crawford, of whom (as mentioned in a previous blog) I have an avid fan. When I had read about this, I was both overjoyed and worried: delighted at the prospect of seeing Crawford act and sing on stage in a musical (I had seen him in concert a few years prior) and also anxious about that “s” in the show’s title and where the theatre in which the show was to reside. Needless to say, the Gods of the Theatre had relished their machinations, as Dance of the Vampires received the most hateful, negative reviews I have ever read, to the point that the “reviews” were more like personal attacks on Crawford himself rather than on the qualities of the production (or about the other actors). Despite these hateful critiques, the production ran for three months (nearly two of which were in previews) – I managed to see the show nine times: twice in previews and the rest after it opened, and was the first show I saw both the matinée and evening performance, albeit they were the final two performances. The show was (and still is) one of the best musical scores I’ve heard, and was thoroughly entertaining; and to see and hear Crawford onstage in character was a thrilling experience.

After Dance of the Vampires closed, I sought out a way to rescind the Curse and make things right again with the Gods of the Theatre. The opportunity came out roughly a year later, when the next musical to play at the Minskoff was a revival of Fiddler on the Roof, which, while has no “s” in its title, just so happened to be the very first Broadway musical I ever saw (as a school field trip in 1990). I took this as a sign and my opportunity to show my sincerity and remove the Curse. So I then made plans to book tickets for February 20, 2004 and to also to attend the performance with one of the friends who had also gone to see Sunset that night. The Curse was lifted that night (again, don’t ask what I had to do to lift the Curse – it’s not something that can be shared). Suffice to say it worked – Fiddler ran for roughly another year, and the next (and current) show to play at the Minskoff Theatre? The Lion King, which is destined to have a long, long run.

Normally, this would be where the story ends, but another curious thing happened: after the expulsion of the Minskoff Curse, it seems to have regrouped, dropped “the letter‘s’ in the title” component and moved into the closest theater from its prior home: the Marquis Theatre. For the musicals that have played at the Marquis Theatre that were not limited or seasonal productions ran less than two years:

  • La Cage aux Folles: November 2004 – June 2005
  • Woman In White: October 2005 – February 2006
  • The Drowsy Chaperone: April 2006 – December 2007
  • Cry Baby:  March 2008 – June 2008
  • 9 to 5: April 2009 – September 2009
  • Come Fly Away: March 2010 – September 2010
  • Wonderland: March 2011 – May 2011

Currently at the Marquis Theatre is a revival production of Evita, which started its run in March 2012, so I’ll be closely watching to see how long this production runs, though there’s not too much I can do about this, as the phenomenon that currently occupies the Marquis is not the same Curse I had evicted from Minskoff. So I ask you, is this all purely coincidence or is there perhaps something other-worldly that exists in the world of the Theatre? Well, believe what you will; needless to say I’m now more careful with my critiques and thoughts about the theatre and equally careful not to anger the Gods of the Theatre, lest I incur their wrath again. I’ve learned my lesson the hard way.

Update: I know I should have updated this sooner, as it has already been announced that Evita will be closing on January 26, 2013, which (interestingly enough) is also the same date as the 25th Anniversary of Phantom of the Opera. The next production to play the Marquis is the revival of Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll & Hyde, though that production is (as far as it has been reported) scheduled to be a limited run, so it’s safe from this “curse”.