NEW YORK — In 1917, a man named Max Fleischer invented rotoscoping, a combination projector and glass drawing board that allowed animators to trace over live-action film one frame at a time. Fleischer’s machine was revolutionary.
Cartoon characters in Fleischer Studios cartoons could suddenly sway and sway like Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, or Betty Boop instead of doing stiff movements; It was an affectionate caricature of the big-headed, curious-browed, maybe Jewish, definitely New York, Jazz Age. , big eyes, a four-inch waist, a low-cut bodice, a short skirt, a Gotham-like baby voice coming out of Mae Questel’s mouth.
And a ridiculous catchphrase that will cause confusion for decades: “Boop-Oop-a-Doop.”
This character (a sort of proto-Jessica Rabbit, only much kinder, sweeter and playful) is pretty much the entire actress. Jasmine Amy Rogers He knew Betty Boop before he landed a prized gig starring in a new show: “Boop! Betty Boop the Musical, which auteur-director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell first brought to life in Chicago and performed at the iconic New 42nd Street Studios in New York It is now the latest in a long line of pre-Broadway musicals that he has rehearsed in .
Mitchell’s Chicago-based oeuvre now includes the Gloria Estefan musical “On Your Feet!”, “Pretty Woman the Musical” and the smash hit “Kinky Boots.”
Rogers’ level of Boop awareness is fairly typical of Americans in general; character is everything. “Betty Boop is a graphic that people attach meaning to,” says Bob Martin, the program’s book author.
A regular visitor to a rehearsal directed by Mitchell quickly realizes that the relative emptiness of the Boop roster presents an opportunity for Mitchell, Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”), lyricist Susan Birkenhead (“Jelly’s Last Jam”), and the composer. David Foster is a prolific Canadian songwriter who composed or co-composed many hits including “After the Love Has Gone”, “Forever”, “You’re the Inspiration” and Kenny Loggins, Earth, Wind & Fire. Celine Dion and the band Chicago.
Despite her 16 Grammy awards and decades of work in Hollywood, Foster is working on her first Broadway musical. “No one had ever asked me before,” he says.
Mitchell enjoys working with famous pop composers who are new to musical theatre. He helped Broadway newbie Cyndi Lauper create a live score for “Kinky Boots” in the same rehearsal room.
So together Martin and Mitchell created a completely new story; is one of several stories the project tried out during a workshop period that was extended due to the pandemic. In fact, Betty Boop declares herself tired of all the cartoon shenanigans, and with the help of a machine developed by Professor Grampy (Stephen DeRosa), a familiar comic figure from the Boop works, Betty leaves the world of black-and-white cartoons and sneaks into the modern world and New York City for a vacation. He escapes to his city. Love is waiting for him.
If you’re Betty Boop, it’s an experience that’s been elusive ever since. “In all the cartoons, she never had a boyfriend,” Martin says.
This is true. Betty was definitely a girl who wanted to have some Gotham-style fun, but always in the short format. Unlike, say, the Tribune’s famous Annie Warbucks, whose readers follow a cute (albeit broken) path toward happiness, dog ownership, and Daddy Warbucks, Betty didn’t specialize in continuous narratives, but in the 10-minute disparate stories she got stuck in the middle of. specialized. a wide variety of conditions.
There were some 90 Fleischer Studios “Betty Boop” cartoons and various later versions released theatrically between 1930 and 1939. The position of Betty’s skirt depended on whether the cartoon in question was published before or after the establishment of the infamous Production Code of 1934, but almost all involved Betty being chased by a man, but never caught.
Typically, “Is My Palm Being Read?” (1933), a fortune teller takes Betty to a tropical island, where she appears in a grass version of her short skirt. In “Hot Air Salesman” (1937), a more demure Betty is the only person in her neighborhood who is nice to a door-to-door salesman; Wiffle Piffle can only try her front door, side door and back door. He is eventually invited to her living room, where he proves that he is unworthy of such a woman.
“If you were a cartoon character entering the modern world in the 1930s and you didn’t want to be recognized, where would you go?” Mitchell asks rhetorically as his performers prepare to rehearse a large piece.
His face breaks into a grin. (Mitchell loves his job).
Yes, the series features a disguised Betty among the cartoon superfans at the Javits Center, where Hillary Clinton once supposedly rode to victory in the 2016 presidential race and where the unbroken glass ceiling really fits.
But Mitchell’s rehearsal soon reveals that Betty is neither worried about this date nor confining herself to the banks of the Hudson. Betty and her white cartoon dog (a puppet, its tongue gaining color in the modern world) also head to Times Square, where a much more sinister lurk of off-brand comic book characters looking for tips. A key dance number takes place in the Technicolor New York anonymity of Betty and her love Dwayne (Australian artist Ainsley Melham) on the red staircase next to the TKTS booth in Duffy Square on the north side of Times Square. from their black and white world. There’s also a late-life love story between Professor Grampy and modern-day belle Valentina, played by longtime Broadway star Faith Prince.
This stranger-in-a-stranger-land story, or the idea that a fictional piece of someone’s intellectual property is now struggling with life in the real, modern world, brings to mind “Enchanted,” “Elf” and, most recently, “Barbie,” Such comparisons are not entirely deterrent.
“If you liked ‘Barbie,’ you’ll love ‘Boop!’” It’s both a pretty good description and positioning strategy for a commercial musical with original plot and music.
“I want to do a family musical,” Mitchell says, emphasizing that Betty’s monochromatic vampiness is not the main focus here. “This series says that your life can never be colorful until it is filled with love.”
And frankly, this isn’t just a slogan for him. He says that since the epidemic, he decided that he wanted to focus entirely on series about love.
So Betty’s sensuality isn’t the dominant gestalt, but Boop hasn’t lost her Oop-a-Doop: “Betty is unapologetically sexy,” Mitchell says as she watches her actors with one eye, “and that’s one of the strengths of her character. She’s sexy enough. All he wants is to be allowed to be himself.”
The project’s New York setting has a certain symmetry with Betty’s creators: Max Fleischer and his brother Dave stayed in New York to make their animated feature, while even the studio’s first rival, Disney (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”), used this method. Fleischer rotoscope), became completely Californian.
All of Disney’s fairy tales, Mickey Mouse and princesses are gone. For the most part, Fleischer Studios remained the gritty, sexy, edgy, and mostly adult side of the East Coast.
Disney won, of course, as Fleischer Studios went bankrupt while Walt Disney built family theme parks for the newly wealthy suburbs. But Mitchell and Martin openly say “Boop!” finding a sweet spot that would appeal to families while paying homage to the classic Fleischer shorts.
In the rehearsal room conversation, Prince, who currently lives in California, waxes poetic about how happy he is to be back in New York. “Honey,” she says, “if it’s in you, it’s in you. You are more yourself on stage than you are in real life. It’s like I’m coming home.”
Famous for her stunning performance as Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls,” Prince offers a reliable name to Broadway fans. But the star of the show will be Rogers, who worked with Mitchell on the “Mean Girls” tour and hails from Texas. Although the rehearsal reveals an intriguing take on the famous Betty Oop-a-Doop, she’s already unknown at this level.
“I’m not trying to imitate him,” he says. “I have my own vocal cords. I pay my respects.”
The key to playing Betty, Rogers says, is “her love for people. She accepts everyone as they are.” In fact, that’s exactly what Betty does in every cartoon. And as writer Martin points out, this may explain why Betty is still such a recognizable cartoon figure, so to speak, especially in Japan. among young people in China and elsewhere in Asia, but indeed in much of the world.
Graphic awareness has its advantages, and such appeal requires a relatively simple story that exploits live theater’s ability to move from a simple, analog, black-and-white world to today’s Times Square, a giant collection of paintings. outdoor projections that can be replicated on stage.
History shows that Mitchell is adept at making affordable musicals; That means a show that doesn’t cost $1.1 million to air every week; this is a rare asset in an industry where operating costs have spiraled out of control over the past year. It caused many still-popular musicals to close prematurely and return nothing to their investors. As produced by Bill Haber, “Boop!” It’s a big musical, with a budget currently in the typical $20 million range, but it’s a weak musical that Mitchell expects to get slimmer as he works through changes in Chicago.
“Bop!” They also took a long time to come together; This isn’t uncommon in the post-pandemic Broadway era; Both Andrew Lippa and Jason Robert Brown were attached to the project at one point, as was writer David Lindsay-Abaire. Working with songwriter Birkenhead, Foster says he has composed and already released around 30 different songs. “I tried to steal as much of the 1930s cartoons as I could,” he says, “but my ear can’t quite adjust to that sound, and I’m trying to stay in my wheelhouse and not apologize for it.”
This is, of course, a successful wheelhouse. And Foster (married to “Smash” star Katharine McPhee) says he’s ready to come to Chicago, sit in a hotel room, hang out with Birkenhead and maybe create a new hit for Betty if Mr. Mitchell and Miss are up for the project. Boop, I demand a lot.
“I wanted to write music that really transcended a certain time period, but I’m excited to learn what works and what doesn’t,” Foster says. “I know Broadway can be very special.”
So is Betty Boop, a woman who has never been in love.
Well. Until the show’s first preview performance at the colorful CIBC Theater in Chicago.
“Boop! The Musical” runs Nov. 19 through Dec. 24 at CIBC Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.; 800-775-2000 and www.broadwayinchicago.com
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.