Tripping Backwards in High Heels

Bloggified by Jake on Monday, October 25, 2010

At intermission of Backwards in High Heels, I struggled to recall how long it had been since I'd seen anything quite as terrible on stage. The show's script should be taught in writing classes as an prime example of what not to do. I worked backstage on the show for three weeks and even during the closing performance, I was still discovering new problems that had slipped past my radar the first 24 times.

Credit where it's due, the talent of the cast deserves some recognition for keeping the audience from walking out at intermission. That it took me days to recognize so many of the flaws in the script is a testament to the actors' ability to bury some of the show's worst aspects beneath a layer of quality singing and dancing.

The play's script manages to miss the mark so thoroughly and so often that it's difficult to decide where to begin the dissection. It says a lot that the biggest laugh of the night is for the recorded announcement asking people to turn off their cellphones and "if you're going to eat any hard candy, please unwrap it now." From poor use of music to lazy research to expository writing to scenes that defy description, there is not a single redeemable aspect of this script. The only enjoyment audience members will have is if they manage to completely ignore the dialogue and plot and treat it like a revue of old Astaire and Rogers numbers--and that's what the play's producers should have set out to create in the first place.

The essence of drama is conflict, and Backwards in High Heels has none. We know who Ginger Rogers is, so there is no question whether she'll make it to the top. Instead, we anticipate the hurdles she'll have to clear along the way, but there aren't any. Whatever problems arise are all dealt with in a matter of minutes without any real tension. When Ginger marries a drunk against her mother's wishes and watches her career suffer for it, she leaves him two minutes later and returns home, where her mother has a script for the Broadway play "Girl Crazy" waiting for her. When her contract is up at RKO Pictures, it takes all of twenty seconds and the threat that she'll go talk to Fox or Paramount before she gets everything that she requested without any further negotiation.

Interpersonal conflict is all handled in "tell-don't-show" style. When Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are first paired, it's clear she doesn't like him, but we don't know why. Finally, she says something about "that night in the backseat of your Studebaker." Wait, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers worked together on the vaudeville circuit? And they dated? Why didn't we see that? Given that the play is also telling (and not showing) us that Ginger's mom was overbearing and made it difficult for any man to date her, how did she wind up in the backseat of Fred Astaire's car?

The tension between Ginger and her mother is supposed to be the heart of the show, but it never really works since the writer refuses to ever put either character in the wrong. They butt heads over issues--Mom is too overbearing because she doesn't want her 17 year old daughter dating an old drunk chorus dancer, yet Ginger dates and marries him, as well as four other guys, without Mom getting in the way; Ginger doesn't listen when her mother tells her to keep making movies with Fred Astaire and not to do Kitty Foyle, but Ginger does and wins a Best Actress Oscar for it--but there is never a sense that a rift has formed between the two.

There are moments where Ginger's mother is nitpicky about Ginger--for example--missing a turn during a dance number, but where the scene is supposed to make Lela Rogers come off as cold and calculating, instead we know that she tried to talk Ginger out of pursuing a career in show business, warned her about how difficult it would be to succeed, and ultimately relented to her pestering daughter's wishes. So her "There is no second place in show business. You either win or you're out of the game," comes off less as an impersonal disappointment than it does as a legitimate reminder to an impetuous teenager who expects to take Broadway and Hollywood by storm.

At intermission, the elderly woman beside me--who was from Dallas and grew up her whole life loving Ginger Rogers because she was from Fort Worth--asked what I thought so far and I reluctantly told her it was "the worst thing I've seen in years." She dismissed my review because I didn't "know the music." "I know all these songs. I can sing them all," she told me. I had to explain that I knew all the songs because they were all clichés. Who has grown up in America and never heard "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," or "Baby Face," or "I've Got Rhythm"? When a lazy director wants to establish "It's the 1930's" in a movie, TV show, or play, he plugs in a scratchy, monotone version of "We're in the Money" and moves forward.

However, while I might be familiar with the songs, they do not transport me back to my childhood and remind me of a time that I didn't have to hobble around on a walker while wearing an adult diaper and find ways to fill my afternoons by being bussed to terrible matinées while I awaited the inevitable release of death. And that is the the essence of the greatest failure of Backwards in High Heels. Producers are relying on audiences to have such inherent interest in Ginger Rogers and old-timey songs that they'll overlook the convoluted story.

In fact, I felt the music was another stumbling block. Musicals that rely on non-original music are handcuffed by having to shoehorn the narrative of the song into the narrative of the story. This is why the writers of Across the Universe, the musical based on Beatles songs, had to name their characters Jude, Lucy, Maxwell, Prudence, and Jo-Jo and were desperately looking from the start for a place to fit in a lovely metermaid.

(On a side note, I was shocked to find that there is no one in Mamma Mia! named Fernando.)

Backwards in High Heels makes no attempt to have the songs connect with the plot. It's like a musical for dogs. Don't listen to what the actors are singing, just how they sing it.

The opening number, "Fascinating Rhythm," has Ginger Rogers declaring "Oh, how I long to be the girl I used to be!" despite the fact that the entire show is about how much she doesn't want to be that girl and wants to always be growing as a dancer, singer, and actress, expanding her stardom. During the scene where she needs to negotiate a new contract with RKO Pictures, the writers opted to have a janitor outside her dressing room sing "Face the Music." Why? Because they thought if would set a mood of tension with the opening line of "There may be trouble ahead..." Please overlook the fact that the rest of the song is about enjoying moonlight and romance and dancing.

But the worst use of any song is in what is also the most baffling scene of all. A flashback explaining why Ginger Rogers didn't know her father is done in the style of a silent film--although the characters talk and sing--with her father portrayed as a mustache-twirling villain who kidnaps infant Ginger out of her cradle while singing "Babyface." It's clear that the writers gave no more thought to the scene than saying, "There's a baby. This song has 'baby' in the title. Go with it."

The so-called biography also plays loose with facts and timelines. I understand that "based on a true story" stories always are heavier on the "based" than the "true," but in this case, it seems like the writer just took as many "underdog defies the odds" tropes as he could and molded Ginger's life around them instead of using the biography as his starting point. After all, Ginger was offered a movie contract when she was six years old, so it's hard to think of her as an underdog defying the odds.

For example, when Ginger Rogers made her Broadway debut in "Girl Crazy," she wasn't a chorus girl, but had a starring role. She also had already made movies at that point, including one with Ethel Merman, who was also an up-and-coming star at the time, so why write the scene to make Ginger a virtual unknown who would be intimidated and starstruck by meeting Merman for the first time?

In real life, when Ginger married Jack Pepper, he was 26 years old; in the play, he is repeatedly referred to as "an old drunk." In real life, the couple were married for just over two years and had an act on vaudeville; in the play, they are married for a few weeks before she leaves him because of his excessive drinking and womanizing and the negative impact having to care for a house is having on her career. In real life, the couple remained cordial, never said a bad thing about one another, and Pepper continued to work regularly for the next 40 years, often with Bob Hope; in the play, Ginger leaves him and we are left to assume he drank himself out of show business within a week.

Bear in mind that everything I've described above is based on five minutes of free time and the combined resources of Wikipedia and IMDB. That implies that the writer of Ginger Rogers's biographical musical spent less time and effort than that. Moreso, it implies that the writer was more interested in having a "Ginger holds her own against a major star and proves she's as talented as anyone" scene and a "Ginger nearly throws away her entire career on a stupid mistake" scene than in telling the true story of her life.

I understand that I am being hypercritical, but as a writer I found it particularly grueling, realizing that the books I write for ten year olds about superheroes are more closely scrutinized than this play. My editor wouldn't hesitate to point out that a character who enters then two minutes later calls out another character for being "a half hour late" was, himself, twenty-eight minutes late. The scene on the set of Kitty Foyle has Ginger Rogers exasperatedly telling lighting technicians that they've done their job wrong, rewriting the script, and explaining to a costumer that she can't wear a fur coat to play a poor shopgirl. My editor would probably point out that the scene implies that everyone in Hollywood other than Ginger Rogers is an idiot who doesn't know how to do his job. And her Oscar acceptance speech would never get past a first draft.

I assumed that her Oscar acceptance speech, which ends the show and brings the entire story full circle by repeating several lines from the play's introduction, was a transcript of her actual 1941 speech. It rambles and stutters and stops, and I got the impression that possibly Rogers, knowing that she was at best the fourth horse in a three-horse race between Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Joan Fontaine, didn't bother to prepare a speech and was caught flat-footed when she actually won. While I haven't been able to find a transcript online, someone on the show who'd seen the archival footage informed me that no, the speech is entirely the work of the playwright.

Overall, the script to Backwards in High Heels feels like it was rushed into production to beat another Ginger Rogers musical to the box office, which apparently it was. Around the same time, Ginger and Me was also being worked on. Considering the only traces of it on the internet any more are two articles from a Cape Cod news website, it's safe to say Backwards in High Heels won the race.

But it's hard to consider this a victory.

1 sarcastic replies:

Chris said...

Pull quote:

"Backwards in High Heels is... a victory"

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