OCTOBER SKY: A Launch with No Landing

80% of all Broadway musicals fail to make money, which is only a fraction of the total number of musicals that fail to even make it to Broadway at all.

This statistic has absolutely nothing to do with the new musical adaptation of October Sky, currently playing a self-labeled pre-Broadway tryout at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, one of the most prestigious regional theatres in the world that has shepherded such recent fare as Bright Star, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to the Great White Way. Even so, I feel the need to open this review with this little factoid because it’s essential to understanding why October Sky exists, because almost nothing that audiences can actually see and hear on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage in this tolerable-at-best musical justifies its excessively familiar existence.

The gorgeous exterior of the Old Globe

Given the aforementioned bloodbath that is the current state of commercial musical theatre, conservative Broadway producers have mindlessly followed sheep-like the predominant trend of the 21st century: instead of taking a risk on unproven new material, why not simply adapt beloved pre-existing material that has already proven to be financially viable? Take what’s previously worked, add new elements, and presto – you have yourself a sure-fire musical winner!

At least in theory. The rub, you see, lies in those pesky new elements.

With the rare exception, most people won’t shell out hundreds of dollars for a carbon copy adaptation of a work that they’ve already paid to enjoy in another form, be it a book, movie, or both. As such, any new musical that attempts to recycle familiar material in a new package needs to bring enough innovation to the material to convince potential ticket buyers that they’ll be buying something more than can just be provided by re-reading the book, popping in the DVD (or I guess streaming it nowadays), or simply revisiting the story through memory alone.

When it comes to fare like October Sky, these new elements need to be as enticing as possible to overcome the general ambivalence that a majority of the world feels for the source material. The musical’s advertising of course labels the original book as world-renowned, but if it’s sooooooo famous, then please tell me its name without using the Google machine. No seriously, I’ll wait…

Exactly. You can’t. Want to know why? Because though Rocket Boys may have been renowned in its day, no one really remembers the novel today. We may have positive memories of the movie, but even those are mostly due to the flick beginning our career-long love affair with a young Jake Gyllenhaal. Homer Hickman’s autobiographical story definitely garners respect from those familiar with it, but that doesn’t mean we’re all clamoring to revisit his life sight unseen.

Luckily, the phrase ‘new musical’ contains therein the solution to reversing this widespread apathy: new music. Musicals will never be able to deliver the detailed specificity of prose, nor the infinitely expansive world-creation of film; instead, they should always play to their greatest strength, the characteristic that distinguishes them from every other art form: their musical score. It might sound obvious, but a new musical’s best asset will always be its new music.

People may think October Sky the musical sounds like an idea worth pursuing because musical scores can uniquely convey the universal depth of individual human emotion latent in this story of a group of ragtag young boys attempting to figuratively and literally launch out of the confines of their families and small town by forming a grassroots rocket ship-making movement in the infancy of America’s space race. Though the name October Sky will never set the boards on fire, the promise of great new score to unearth new emotionality in a fondly remembered, though not cherished old story could be enough to persuade audiences to part with their hard-earned dough.

Unfortunately, a great new score is ACTUALLY needed to finish this equation, which is always easier said than done, as is the case with this iteration of October Sky.

Don’t get me wrong – relative unknown Chicago native Michael Mahler’s music and lyrics are by no means insufferable. In fact, some of his tunes are actually pleasant (at best). But the same problem plagues his contributions that also negatively affects almost every aspect of this production: blatant unoriginality that ultimately proves too tired to create a well-defined identity for this musical version of the story.

Though I always like to see widely unrecognized composers given a shot at recognizable properties – especially when they’re funded by such consistently mindless corporate conglomerates as Universal Stage Productions, the lead producing entity of this venture – Mahler simply does not have the musical chops (yet…hopefully) to add a requisitely alluring new layer to this known story. Even so, I’ll be the first to admit that he was presented with a fairly herculean task, as is almost every composer – regardless of their experience – when they set out to put an old story to new music. These criminally underrated artistic practitioners must stay true to the original vibe of the material while simultaneously creating a distinct identity to set their adaptation apart from previous versions.

Sadly, Mahler seems to have paid waaaaay too much attention to the former, to the detriment of the latter. His music is distractingly derivative, and his lyrics fail to sufficiently excavate the emotional lives and relationships of his characters to allow them to widely resonate with audiences in a way that only music, and thus musicals can. This October Sky definitely sounds like October Sky, but in the least creative fashion possible. If you closed your eyes and tried to imagine what a musical of October Sky would be, you’d hear Mahler’s score…mostly because you’ve already heard better versions of it in countless other period musicals. He wears his wide range of musical influences so prominently on his sleeve that they transform from harmless homages into unappealing derivations.

Though I respected his attempt to dictate a different genre of music for each of his characters’ songs to capture their identities’ similarities with the hallmarks of those chosen genres, he really didn’t do much more than mindlessly borrow the superior past work of other composers. I quite literally spent a far too large amount of my time in the theatre trying to place where I had heard certain melodies before, from the David Yasbek-ian/Full Monty-esque show tune rock of the young upstart group of guys to the Steve Martin-ian/Edie Brickell-ian/Old Globe alum but Broadway failure Bright Star-esque bluegrass of the more conservative, traditional characters, to the Jason Robert Brown-ian/ ‘male writing for a female’-esque introspective ballads of the ladies.

Heck, even the foundational structure of the musical often feels predictable. Homer’s first solo – “Look to the Stars,” one of the best songs in the show, which isn’t saying much – launches (pun intended) his individual character arc by revealing his hopes and desires to the audience. Wait…a young man singing alone on stage about how he feels something unknown but special coming that he’ll pursue once he finds it – doesn’t that ring a bell or two thousand?! Of course it does! Because Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, and a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young lyricist by the name of Stephen Sondheim basically invented this musical trademark with Tony’s “Something’s Coming” in West Side Story, which has since been imitated so many times that Avenue Q even spoofed it with their song “Purpose.”

Though ‘never trying to pull off something un-ironically that’s so common it’s already been satirized’ is always a good artistic rule to follow, sincere homages can of course work…as long as you have enough talent at the helm. Mahler’s lyrical abilities pale in comparison to those of Sondheim (but really, whose doesn’t?) AND every other popular composer who’ve tried their hands at this now-iconic type of number. Static musicality can be overcome as long as the lyrics are specific enough to cut through the generality of the notes on the page. This music may sound like a generic version of October Sky, but October Sky the musical requires more than just pedestrian rhymes and superficial words to convey the emotional nuances that would allow this show to take flight (puns on puns on puns) in its own right.

Mahler’s failure to forge a unique identity for October Sky pervades every contribution made by the rest of the creative team as well, starting at the top with the equally obscure Chicago director/choreographer Rachel Rockwell. Though I always love to see more members of the better gender get a crack at the big leagues, she fails to bring any discernable style to the table. In an attempt to keep the proceedings moving along at a steady clip (you know, because a story about rocket ships and holed-up kids trying to break free of their current atmosphere is ALL about movement), she obnoxiously blocks random members of the cast to dance in front of the scene transitions behind them. Like other, far more famous choreographers turned directors – think Kathleen Marshall, Casey Nicholaw, Susan Stroman, etc. etc. etc. – her insatiable desire to dance, dance, dance hinders her ability to communicate a streamlined story. How do these choreographed set changes add to the narrative in any way that isn’t needlessly distracting?!

Even worse, unlike the aforementioned directorial double-threats before her, Rockwell’s choreography does not look fresh enough to justify her dancing excursions. The show’s signature dance move, the pose that adorns many of its advertising materials, the image that we’re supposed to always associate with October Sky the musical…is a group of four white guys each thrusting one fist into the air like a quasi-black power salute. Really? THAT’s the best you could come up with?!

The hideously generic poster design

Rockwell applies this same lack of thinking outside of the conventional musical box to all of the other technical design characteristics that a director is supposed to oversee. From Kevin Depinet’s minimalist, seemingly handmade wooden set design to Linda Cho’s bland costume design to Japhy Weideman’s unnoticeable lighting design to Shawn Sagady’s admittedly beautiful but unremarkable projection design (when my favorite part of a creative team’s work is the projection design – a modern trend I borderline despise due to its artificial simplicity – you know there’s not much to write home about) – all of these basically mooch the entire style of previous theatrical depictions of similarly small town American life, from Bridges of Madison County to Bright Star (Weideman lit that one as well). At best, Rockwell keeps all of these disparate elements consistent with each other…consistently trite that is.

And yet, a solid production doesn’t necessarily require the design team to reinvent the wheel. It of course would’ve been preferable for October Sky the musical to feel like nothing besides October Sky the musical, but creativity isn’t necessarily theatre’s strong suit. At the end of the day, all these technical attributes really need to do is serve the words, all of the words, and nothing but the words.

Though Mahler’s words by no means soar, they’re practically the Wright Brothers compared to Brian Hill and Aaron Thielen’s book, which succumbs to the same main problem that infects almost every musical theatre book: shallow caricatures instead of complex characters. Musical adaptations are almost always longer than their cinematic counterparts because they have to tell the same story with far less tools at their disposable. Insightful book writers know that musicals simply cannot have as wide a lens as movies, and as such, they need to decide what to really focus on given their limited means. If these writers try to simply relocate a film to a stage, they’ll be left with a severe drought of depth that quickly becomes superficial caricature.

And that’s exactly what happened with October Sky, and so many other musicals nowadays. By trying to recreate everything that worked about the movie, they’re left with almost nothing that works on its own. Note how I haven’t even mentioned any of the performers – that’s because though I was once again reminded of just how many phenomenal voices sing eight times per week on regional stages across the country, they were basically given nothing to work with here except throwaway fluff. There isn’t a single fleshed out character in the bunch; even our finest thespians would be left in the lurch with this one.

A simple dramatic condensation and recalibration would’ve rectified the cripplingly caricature nature of the piece. At its core, this is a story about a son attempting to win the adult approval of his father by successfully joining the space race. The predominant focus of the narrative should be his quest to build a rocket to win the national science fair, and the predominant emotional focus should be his universally relevant quest to connect with his father. Though their trial-and-error attempts to launch a rocket into the sky is staged with impressive technical aplomb, they spend basically the entire show perfecting their craft before far-too-quickly and un-excitedly whizzing through the actual science fairs, which should be the narrative climax.

Instead, the show seems much more concerned with depicting the emotional climax between father and son, which would’ve been the move if their relationship had actually been properly developed leading up to this moment. Instead, we waste far too much time on other inessential storylines that the movie had time to explore but here hinders the entire proceeding and its pace. Though I appreciated the tad-too transparent goal of anachronistically featuring three strong female characters, only Homer’s mother really influences his arc. As such, his teacher and especially his girlfriend should have hit the cutting room floor; his madre could easily fulfill all of their dramatic functions, while simultaneously opening up much-needed time to flesh out the more important aspects of the story without adding to the show’s already excessive length.

The official ‘Playbill’ – definitely better than the artwork above!

Truthfully, these changes would probably be akin to putting a Band-Aid over an all-too-familiar amputated limb, though that probably makes October Sky sound more unbearable than it actually is. I tend to value newness more than most, but I’m still capable of at least moderately enjoying a show that feels intimately reminiscent of so many other past productions as long as they’re successful in their copycatting. Though there’s nothing reeeeeally to phone home about (PUN!!!!) regarding this iteration of October Sky, everything in it nonetheless feels professional enough for a regional theatre.

So perhaps I’m being unfair to October Sky by evaluating it through my snobby, New York City theatre intelligentsia perspective. Big Apple art connoisseurs tend to believe that the whole world revolves around their city – if you can’t make it there, then why bother trying to make it anywhere else? But regional theatres are truly the backbone of the American drama scene due to how they introduce and sustain so many lifelong fans’ love for this wonderful art form far away from the marquee lights of the Great White Way. Even though voracious Broadway crows would pick apart the carcass of October Sky if this version ever made it to the east coast – which it almost surely won’t, especially in this current state – who am I to declare that everyone involved in the musical shouldn’t be patting themselves on the back simply for making it to a theatre as prestigious as the Old Globe? And based on the audience’s palpably positive reaction, perhaps October Sky was always meant to appease the less experientially refined tastes of regional audiences, and no one else. If that’s the case, then it has definitely succeeded. Not an overwhelming success, but an enjoyable evening for many nonetheless…

But I still have one major gripe, which has less to do with those who actually created October Sky and more to do with those who funded it: why should not-for-profit theatrical safe havens far away from the critical eye of New York waste their resources on such uninspired gambles? I honestly have a hard time faulting the creative team for the show’s shortcomings because I suspect this production is very close to what the uninventive, moneygrubbing lead producers commissioned them to create. Its ‘been there, done that’ tone is exactly what innovative-allergic ‘artistic’ corporations such as Universal Stage Productions often strive to achieve; the artists are only present to help them translate their imagined $$$$$ into bank account reality. For some inane reason, these producers seem to still believe that giving the audience exactly what they expect and are familiar with is a guaranteed recipe for success. But as has been almost unanimously proven over and over and over and over and over again, unless you have one of those rare properties that will ALWAYS bring people to the yard regardless of what form they take – a category that October Sky does not fall into – a new musical needs to offer some degree of ingenuity to spark the interest of potential consumers.

Broadway producers definitely feel more comfortable raising money for a known commodity, but that’s a complete fallacy: two of the three biggest musical successes of the 21st century – The Book of Mormon and Hamilton – were 100% original ideas (the third – The Producers – was not). Further, of the 17 shows that won the Tony Award for Best Musical in the 21st century – which is the best way to ensure financial success on the Great White Way – more than half were not based on any pre-existing property. Why, then, must we be forced to endure so many thoughtless adaptations? If a few artists feel compelled to turn one of their favorite works of art into a musical – please do! Organic artistic inspiration consistently leads to quality results. But when those writing the checks are the ones coming up with the big money ideas, we’re often left with instantly forgettable fare such as October Sky.

So I beg you, Broadway producers, please start taking risks on new material above the developmental safety net that regional theatres provide. Who knows, the next Lin-Manuel Miranda may be walking around Balboa Park right now figuratively waiting in the wings for her shot to create a new room where new ‘its’ happen – you’ll never know unless you take the type of insured chances that regional theatres afford. The next thing you know, you may find yourself in the rare air of the top 20% of the Great White Way.

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