Ok. I’ve seen the show and I’ve completely changed my mind. Hey, I would fully admit if I didn’t like it. I didn't really like Mama Mia. I really didn't like Burlesque. Didn't even find it to be lighthearted fun. But I liked this musical. Not only that, but the people I took with me liked it too, and one was a serious non-Cher-fan going in.
What I Experienced
At intermission I turned to my friends and said, "I actually like this" and then I bought some wine from a wine vendor, (to be honest, for the Cher cup it came in), and he asked me if I was enjoying the show. I responded with an enthusiastic “yeah” and asked him if audiences were liking it. His eyes went wide and he said “Oh yeah, people love it!”
We saw the show on the day of the Women's Marches in NYC. One of my friend's reviews: "I really enjoyed the Cher show. I thought it was quite feminist and a good bookend to the day that began with the women's march. I liked the device of 3 Chers at different ages having dialogue with herself and they did a good job showing her journey to becoming independent from Sonny. I liked the way they wove the songs from different eras out of order by matching them to the story line."
I also listened to comments as we excited the theater that night and the day after when we were taking pictures of the Neil Simon Theater when the matinee let out. Our evening crowd had been typical, elderly theater go-ers with a sprinkle of Cher fans. The matinee was almost solely young and middle-aged New York women. I overheard some great comments, my favorite being the very Brooklyn sounding, “It was better than Donnah Summah!”
And I personally didn’t enjoy it because it was light fun. I cried four times. That’s not fun. The complexity of its structure made me a little anxious because I wouldn’t be able to watch it over again to dissect it. The transitions were very interesting, the thread of the story unconventional and fluid, and the stage sets very creative. Mr. Cher Scholar and I talked about those things for hours the next day. A former playwright himself, he called the gaggle of Cher’s conferring with each other (which, alone, ranks the show high on a Bechdel Test) "psychologically sophisticated.”
And any Broadway show will have the best singers you’ll ever see so hearing Cher songs re-envisioned with these big voices was quite amazing, to hear an in-tune Sonny, and an even larger-note Cher! And unlike many impersonations of Cher, this time I didn’t miss her because these actresses weren’t trying to reproduce Big Cher. They were trying to unveil a Little Cher. And that was news. That was why I wasn’t bored hearing the 'same ole, same ole' plot points about her life.
Was it all about her boyfriends? Not really. It was about her love and her navigation around love and career, her struggles to be assertive in work and love. Her relationship with Sonny was given revealing nuance and exposure unlike we’ve ever seen. Worth the price right there.
It was creative and thoughtful and useful in the present #metoo moment.
So W.T.F. with these reviews? As I reconsider them, and I was so inclined to agree with their ideas, they seem oddly harsh compared to the reality of the show. At best they want the show to be more Cher-like-bigness and yet more realism...at the same time.
Cher herself said there was no theme she could think of beyond having a good time. In retrospect I find this statement highly disingenuous. The theme was argued loud and clear and stated a handful of times by our "Old Cher" M.C. Don't give up gals when it gets tough or scary. Keep going. Walk through the great fear. If Cher can do it, you can do it.
What I Was Anticipating
I was prepared for a big spectacle, a Cher spectacle. I was prepared to be off putt by too much glitz. And I like glitz but I also like substance. The stage was smaller than every other Broadway show I’ve ever seen with less emphasis on a blingy set, with a much more modest cast. And the costumes were a notch below Cher-bling, I thought. Reviewers made the outfits a bigger deal than they were. Not to say that there weren't a lot of them. The non-Cher fan asked me if she really wore all those outfits and I had to admit, yes...but her versions are even more outlandish.
I was prepared for bad jokes. What can I say? The audience laughed at all the jokes, which were Broadway-level jokes IMHO, not cutting-edge comedy club jokes. They landed. People clapped throughout the show and even stood up at the end.
I was prepared for a bad Sonny: and when I say nobody gets Sonny right, this one comes pretty close. They made him less of a boob and emphasized his creativity, but gave him a dash of meanness. And yes, the audience did applaud when Jarrod Spector first captured that Sonny kind of nasal-twang while also singing very well.
I was prepared for oddly used songs but they were all creatively re-purposed. Come on: Gregg Allman and Sonny Bono singing "Dark Lady" to each other. I really love the balls it took to do that, on many levels.
I was prepared for dissatisfaction with three Chers: Seeing "Young Cher" weave in and out of the story was very powerful. It explored what makes a person feel small and feel out of control.
I was prepared for a dull Festival of Brand and what kept it from being a total brand-fest was how self-deprecating the Chers were and how exposed they let themselves be.
Point-by-Point Response to Bad Reviews
The New York Post claimed the show was full of "dopey dialogue" and "skin-deep dramatization" and that it wouldn't "surprise those with even a passing knowledge of Cher. Or access to Wikipedia.”
Ahem. I have more than a passing knowledge and have read Cher's Wikipedia page. I've seen more Cher documentaries than you, reviewer-guy. And since this show held "more than a passing interest" to me, I'm assuming you've been practicing that line ever since Funny Girl.
And speaking of Funny Girl, Mr. Cher Scholar and I saw a few parallels: little girl not being taken seriously, trouble with husbands, struggle with fame and love. Did Funny Girl delve too deeply into Nicky Arnstein's gambling problem? No. Because it's a freakin' musical.
The first review of the New York Times called the show a "maddening mishmash...all gesture, no craft...dramatically threadbare, trying to solve the puzzle of its own concept, whitewash[ing] her most interesting problems."
Which problems were these? Nicky Arnstein's gambling problems again? I hope this isn't a double standard.
But then NYT says there were "too many character arcs and agendas to serve — three Chers, several careers, 35 songs or parts thereof — the show’s creators can serve none well."
Again, I was skeptical about a plot covering a 70-year life myself. But this show was more a weave of feelings and fears than it was a hero conquering a task. If they couldn't pick an emblematic episode of her life, than at least they did a good job pulling emotion through a series of life scenes.
Variety said the show "lands as flat as the jokes."
Neither seemed to be the case at the show I saw. Shit was landing.
They go on to say, "the script never quite finds a satisfying style — or a genuine hear...rarely does is get real, despite the tell-it-like-it-is attitude of its subject. It only takes itself semi-seriously, keeping genuine emotion at arm’s length."
I couldn't disagree more wholeheartedly. I found it much more revealing than Cher herself has historically ever been. She's a magician of straight-talking in interviews but never emotionally revealing. True, this wasn't a gush-fest but who wants that?
Variety sensed a "cool aloofness of its protagonist"
...and self-deprecation is what I saw.
Entertainment Weekly disparaged "thin plotting" and "costumes changes subbing for character development."
This is a bell-ringing charge against Cher. She's a clothes hanger, she's all costume. Blah. Blah. Blah. There were a lot of clothes, don't be fooled. Don't be fooled. Or don't be unwilling to look deeper.
They wondered "why not go see Real Cher who, at 72, looks and sounds at least as much like her younger self..."
Yes, it's hard to argue with this one except that the show was not about Big Cher. This is about Little Cher. They are not the same. That's exactly what the show is revealing, the difference. It's like you're saying the normal-person-Cher isn't big enough for you?
Rolling Stone said "at times it feels like glitzy Las Vegas revue"
First of all, have you been to Vegas? It feels ridiculous to compare this to that. But in a way, that's not an unfair comparison either. Cher is not unlike a glitzy Las Vegas revue sometimes.
...they go on to say, "if you were to squint, could easily be the best drag show of all time — although it lacks any actual drag queens."
There’s so much going on culturally in a drag show, this oversimplification now strikes me as off and offensive.
The Guardian said the show "highlights the lack of imagination elsewhere and the show’s need to gloss over – sequin over, brilliantine over – anything too uncomfortable or hard.”
Again, we're overstating the sequins by many yards and what hard stuff was missing? Going into what’s hard was the show's freakin' theme!
Vulture called the show "a garish, obvious pastiche, such an unabashedly soulless explosion of wigs and trite memoir wisdom."
This isn’t a biography. It’s a Broadway show. What wisdom do you get from them that is deeper than memoir wisdom? This isn't Samuel Beckett but than neither is it Rodgers and Hammerstein or Les Miserables (which I totally love).
And then this: "I’ve gotten more real enjoyment out of watching old Cher videos as research than I did in the theater."
Well, duh. Big Cher is a joy to behold. But this is not that. Again, do you want exposure of the real person or the spectacle. These reviews argue for both at the same time.
The show is claimed to be "disappointingly guarded"
Again, I just didn’t see this. Maybe I'm so used to a guarded Cher, this felt spectacularly unguarded to me.
...and was a "directionless attempt to squeeze Cher’s many lives into a bordered, formulaic dramatization of her career."
Point taken. Cher has had too many lives for the Aristotle arc. I don’t know how to solve that and neither do you.
Broadway musicals often remind me of silent films; the level of exaggeration demands actors play it big and simple. This is not a dramatic movie of realism or a documentary. Singing and dancing loosen up the energy. Not that you can't go deeper with song but a jukebox musical just isn't an intimate format. There is no original book of music where emotive themes could be created and carried through. And you either accept the form or you don't. Why send a reviewer who hates the horror genre to review the latest horror film?
And here’s the real irony to this thing: here we have a show with a sub-theme about not being taken seriously, (...even the Robert Altman character explains in the show how he’s going to be skewered by reviewers of his first play, especially if he picks Cher to be in it. And he does; the man had balls) and critics fall right into their same-old complaints, failing to even acknowledge how the show self-references them. Cher has consistently been receiving bad reviews for reasons beyond the product (Stars, Believe, Sonny & Cher as a whole), getting snubbed for good, early performances (Silkwood, Mask), getting laughed at in movie trailers, all before breaking records, gathering swarms of fans and maintaining longevity. Another set of bad reviews about a show about getting bad reviews becomes a loop of absurdity. Like it’s still f*%king happening!
It’s fascinating to see time rolling up on itself right now, Cher continuing to create new interesting things, while music and film historians are re-evaluating her past things. See Rolling Stones' own review of her cover of "Mr. Soul."
What a crazy phenomenon it all is. And I'll be talking more about frustrations around Cher's perceived authenticity and credibility in my next post about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In The Meantime
I talked to the merch vendor and he said a cast recording might be coming soon.
Stephanie Block’s website has a great news feed on the show: https://www.stephaniejblock.com/news
And my mom sent me this article about how Cher stalked Rick Elice until he would work with her.
Anyway, I know what fluff is. I hate fluff. Cher stuff is not fluff. Stop saying that it is. I loved this and can’t wait to see it again.