TTwo classic New York musicals open with aerial images of the city. West Side Story comes with an abstract title sequence by Saul Bass and a glorious overture by Leonard Bernstein. The Muppets Take Manhattan features a happy, carefree frog that sings scat. But Kermit and his gang similarly encounter a grimy concrete jungle that can be unpredictable and cruel as they strive to make it big on Broadway.
The theater has inspired arthouse classics from Cassavetes, Bergman, and Rivette, but I’ll end this series with the Muppets. Before Statler and Waldorf intervene, let me lay out the case for Frank Oz’s underrated 1984 comedy. This is a movie bursting with exuberant hope; just listen to the wonder with which Miss Piggy says the word “Broadway.” – but it also has the bittersweet taste of flashbacks. I love the montage that accompanies You can’t take no for an answer, sung by the indefatigable jazz messenger Dr. Teeth, in which the Muppets spend the summer shuffling talent agencies and producers’ offices, Kermit wielding his script for a musical and Fozzy grabbing a copy of Variety, only to be teased. . It ends with the rare sight of Kermit losing him to his friends and accepting defeat, before rediscovering his troop spirit.
The story follows Kermit and company as they graduate from their liberal arts course (Vassar College in Poughkeepsie was used as the location) and decide to bring their school’s production, Manhattan Melodies, to New York. Hey, it worked for Godspell. Full of dreams but no cash, they end up sleeping in lockers at the train station. When the others give up and leave town, Kermit joins the ranks of the city’s musical theater wannabes who work in restaurants. He gets a job washing dishes in a rat-infested kitchen, though these rodents are actually hired helpers, skating on blocks of melted butter in the pan and swimming in the coffee.
The film is both a theatrical twist on The Muppet Movie’s plot, in which the gang takes on Hollywood, and an extended riff from the average TV episode Muppets, which came with its own weekly backstage dramas. The Muppet Show featured a who’s who of America’s entertainment stars in guest roles; there are cameos here for Brooke Shields, Elliott Gould, and Gregory Hines. At one point, even Laurence Olivier had lined up, along with Dustin Hoffman, who was going to outwit movie producer Robert Evans. Instead, we have John Landis as a high-powered agent, Frances Bergen as his receptionist, and Joan Rivers giving Miss Piggy a makeover (both in pink trim) in a scene supposedly fueled by a few damn marys.
Filmed with extensive use of New York locations, there are appearances by then-city mayor Ed Koch and the unofficial mayor of Broadway. Vincent Sardi Jr, who founded the late night theater restaurant Sardi’s. It is here that Kermit, with a fake mustache and tie, poses as a producer and unleashes a team of rats to start a “whispering campaign” promoting his show. She trades a portrait of Liza Minnelli on the wall of fame for her own image, much to the chagrin of Minnelli herself (another cameo).
There are some nice jokes about the Variety badge. “language“Which Kermit borrows to talk about his boffo socko script, and the film amuses itself with the art of selling a show much like The Band Wagon did. He also shares a deep awareness of the absurdities of the industry. “Just because this is all ridiculous doesn’t mean it won’t make it to Broadway,” observes the producer who presents Kermit’s show as a favor to his son. That line of satire extends to Madison Avenue advertisers and how the entire city sells their image.
Nominated for an Oscar for the score to the song by Jeff Moss (won an award for Purple Rain), the film switches between musical styles that include metallic jazz, lush melodies and, in Always love You, doo wop and rock’n’roll for a fantasy sequence that featured the Muppet babies and led to their television spin-off. Jim Henson had always dreamed of a theatrical career alongside his television and film success, and since his death in 1990, the Muppets have “taken over” London’s Hollywood Bowl and O2 Arena, if not even the West End and Broadway. It was hard for me to watch the movie without thinking about the Bad Idea Bears, Trekkie Monster, and other residents of Avenue Q, the dirty puppet-driven theatrical musical that was a hit in the US and UK. But it also has a lot in common with the brilliant animated film Sing, in which a koala holds a talent show to save his playhouse from a playhouse he doesn’t love.
The musical within this musical, bought by Kermit in the city, is about life in New York City. “Cops, shootings, car chases?” Dabney Coleman assumes when it is thrown at him. “More like songs and dances,” explains Kermit. “Songs Y dances? Coleman responds, as if the two are subject to rationing. After months of theater closings, audiences might also receive that prospect with disbelief. The Oz film intertwines the idealism of Kermit’s show with the optimism inherent in the musical genre and that essentially drives whatever production has ever come before audiences, now more than ever. Theater is a collective act of imagination, uniting those who do it and those who look at it with a sense of hope. As the frog says: “The program is not dead … as long as I believe in it.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism