Streaming Musicals: No One Called Ahead

If No One Called Ahead was just another direct-to-streaming release, I would have probably tried to talk my editors at Midwest Film Journal into retroactively ignoring my request to write about it.

I’ll get to why in a minute.

However, I think there’s so much potential in its fledgling production company, Streaming Musicals, that I don’t want to dismiss this misstep too quickly.

Let me tell you about the company first.

Musicals, as a rule, are expensive cinematic propositions. As such, the ones that get made by the studios tend to be based on established hit properties (i.e. Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera and the upcoming Cats). Occasionally a smaller musical slips in, but how much attention was paid to Hello Again and Lucky Stiff?

(Side note: Have you ever even heard of Hello Again or Lucky Stiff?“ Unsurprising if you haven’t, but if you happen to want to track them down, the former features a steamy turn from multiple-Tony-Award-winner Audra McDonald and an interesting number with Rumer Willis. If you’re watching the latter, just skip to Nikki M. James singing “Times Like This” and you’ll be fine.  The rest is negligible.)   

Back to Streaming Musicals.

The company’s unique concept is a hybrid it’s calling “soundstage musicals.” The idea is to take an original musical and stage it in a theater or on a soundstage. But rather than bring in an audience and sell tickets, Streaming Musicals shoots it like a film, with three cameras in what at least appears to be real time. The actors sing live and the music is filled in during post-production.

Watching it is an interesting experience, somewhat akin to the live-for-TV musicals that have come back into fashion but without the screaming audience and known material. Clearly the fourth wall is missing. You know the set is a set. You might see a lighting unit or flare in the corner of a scene. Sometimes the camera movements are unsteady and the angles inexplicable.

No question, though: There’s a you-are-there quality about it — an urgency and a continuity to what’s happening.

Compounding that urgency: The company’s latest production was shot in seven days.

That’s No One Called Ahead, a musical by Paul Gordon, who has had some regional success with his Daddy Long Legs and a brief run on Broadway with his adaptation of Jane Eyre. Streaming Musicals is committed to developing such new work and should be applauded for that. It’s tough to get an original musical off the ground, and having a video to show could help lead to future productions of these musicals.

So this is me applauding the concept.

I wish I could do the same for No One Called Ahead.

The musical / comedy / drama / mystery concerns an artist (Justin Matthew Sargent) facing a creative block who sequesters himself in a getaway cottage where, in theory, his only companion is a John Lennon poster to whom he sings the opening number.

Mercifully, the poster never sings back.

He’s not alone for long, though. Soon he’s visited by a parade of women, most of whom are dead or angels or spirits or something (one is the sister of Joan of Arc, for no clear reason).

Each has a song with a lesson or guidance or something.

Along the way we find out that the artist has been poisoned by his ex-girlfriend. Or current girlfriend. Or something.

The performers — primarily regional stage vets — gamely attack the material. But they never transcend the sense that they are doing the producers a favor by appearing. Trapped in a one-set piece with no real choreography to speak of and with lyrics that don’t move the plot or enrich our understanding of the characters, every number outstays its welcome, easily passing the cringe point.

On top of that, Gordon commits a cardinal sin in theater: His lead character doesn’t do anything to impact the ending. And since we’ve been given no reason to care about him, there’s no reason to care about what happens to him.

Musicals are hard. New musicals are even harder. Musicals that don’t have a solid story to tell or a good reason to tell the story through song face an even tougher battle. That’s why many a Broadway musical takes years to develop, often including workshops and out-of-town tryouts in front of live audiences.

I wish I could say there’s a glimmer of something in No One Called Ahead that would make watching it akin to sitting in on a promising workshop.

No such luck.

But the genre seems ripe for exploring. I’ve treasured the shot-from-the-stage work presented by the Stratford Festival, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Shakespeare Company, WNET with its Theatre Close-Up series of off-Broadway productions, PBS’s Great Performances and more. More stage musicals are hitting the move to theaters, including recent one-nighters for Kinky Boots and Allegiance.

This new concept could complement those bigger-budget projects by creating greater access to smaller shows that are worthy of attention. Here’s hoping that Streaming Musicals can find them.


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About

Lou Harry’s more than 40 books include Creative Block, The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures, the upcoming Little Book of Misquotations, and the novelization of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. His produced plays include Midwestern Hemisphere and Popular Monsters and his podcast, Lou Harry Gets Real, can be heard via iTunes or Spotify. A board member for the American Theatre Critics Association, he also serves as editor of Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists. Follow him @louharry and/or visit www.louharry.com


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