The Playgoer: June 2008

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Monday, June 30, 2008

The Ibsen is Out There

X-Files geeks take note: Gillian Anderson is Nora Helmer. And this time it's personal...

But only in London, sorry.

Anyone ever seen her on stage over there? Does she still exude that Scully no-nonsense charm in three-dimensions? And will she not only slam the door but kick it down? (I hope so!)

Ragtime: Too Hot for Wilmette?

Via Steve on Broadway, we hear of a cancellation of an outdoor production of the musical Ragtime, due to a fear of the word "nigger" (which is stipulated in the script--uh, which is about racism in Gilded Age America, by the way) being blared out of their park-wide sound-system before "a festival crowd," if you will.

Wilmette Park District Executive Director Tom Grisamore tells the Sun-Times:

I can tell you that this is not something that was done easily and this is not something we did lightly. My heart really goes out to all of the cast and crew that have worked on this for the last couple of months...This is something we very honestly should have known about and hopefully we could have acted on this sooner, but we did as soon as we found out what was there.

In other words: yes, we probably should have read the script sooner--like months ago--to find out what indeed "was there."

Well, ridicule aside, I guess I can understand the concern that even when the show's context makes clear the word "nigger" is being used by clearly bad men against a good black man--and, again that the show is about racism--perhaps innocent passer-by's in the park (in the suburbs of Chicago, a racially tense city at times) might be traumatized by the hearing the word out of context. Back to Grisamore:

"We had grave concerns that people would take the language they heard over the amplified sound system out of context from a performance that was being held in the bowl."
Yet another reason to ban amplification in the theatre, I tell ya.

Man, isn't this specific form of censorship so old, already? I mean, since Huckleberry Finn? And why is it that the censors have almost always not been African Americans themselves, but insecure panicky whites? (And historically, racist white school boards, at that. Do they feel that, heck if we can't say it, no one can!)

Funny that the Wilmette series--apparently more of a "concert" venue than a proper theatre--has previously "booked for the outdoor venue...mostly upbeat and lighthearted, such as 'Hello Dolly,' 'Showboat' and 'State Fair.'"

Showboat, eh? I take it they didn't opt for Hammerstein's original curtain-raising lyrics: "Niggers all work on the Mississippi..."? The now-preferred, authorized version now opens with the much more cheerful "Here we all work on the Mississippi..." The context is different, with black men saying it about themselves so I imagine it could be more troublesome today (especially from a piece by white writers) in raising the debate about the use of the word within the black community itself.

Still, it makes it a lot less of a "chestnut" musical.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The New Musicals

Until recently I imagined the Broadway musical locked inside a museum, at which a superannuated curator in a seersucker suit, bow tie and horn-rimmed glasses politely welcomed guests to the tea party. But not anymore. Once that curator extended a trembling hand to eager new faces, fresh air wafted in; the tea and cucumber sandwiches were supplanted by beer and pizza, and the music blasted all night.
From Stephen Holden's expert musical analysis--and appreciation--of a slew of new cast albums now being released of musicals both new (In the Heights, Passing Strange) and revived/old (South Pacific). Interesting for its perspective so firmly rooted in the classic musical. But while a traditionalist, Holden digs the new stuff, with some notable observations. Such as:
The influence of rap is the underlying story of the past Broadway musical season. Words, either rapped or sung in variations of the traditional patter song, are loosening the grip of traditional melody on Broadway. Lament it if you will, but stand-alone songs have a way of interrupting the narrative. Even in musicals without hip-hop, recitative and songs flow into each other more smoothly nowadays; the story is the thing, and language the vehicle.
I like the connection of rap to the "patter song." Of course, Grandmaster Flash, I'm sure, couldn't have cared less about Rex Harrison's renditions of My Fair Lady songs. But once rap struts onto a Broadway stage, it encounters and merges with that tradition nonetheless, consciously or not. (Especially in the mind of the older B'way audience.)

But it's also worth noting how rap has crept into the musical for a few years now--in David Yazbek's scores, for instance. But I think it's still been white dudes doing it until now, no?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

All Good Things Must Come to an End...

...and so must the reign of Max & Laura, the TV-anointed stars of the current Broadway product known as Grease.

But guess who's replacing them? Two other kids from that same tv talent-show.

Finalists Ashley Spencer and Derek Keeling of the reality TV audition series "Grease: You're the One That I Want" will be the new Sandy and Danny of Broadway's Grease beginning July 22... following the departure of original stars Max Crumm and Laura Osnes...[who] will offer their final performances July 20.
Well at least these kids have been accruing more professional credits since.
Keeling was most recently seen in the West Coast premiere of All Shook Up and also played Danny Zuko in a national tour of Grease. Spencer was recently on Broadway playing Amber von Tussle in the Tony-winning musical Hairspray.
The only thing that interests me about this is how the attachment of the TV show is apparently so important to this production's success (which is considerable) that even the replacement actors need to be linked to it. Here I was assuming director Kathleen Marshall couldn't wait for Max and Laura to leave the show so she could cast really good people. (Perhaps some well deserving Broadway gypsies who needed a break.)

Instead, I suspect Marshall was offered a pick of all the runners-up. Which for her is at least better than submitting to an NBC plebiscite.

Oh, and you know that American Idol Taylor Hicks is also now in the show, right?

UPDATE 6/27: According to Riedel on Friday, Hicks has actually been a financial godsend to the production, claiming, " An insider says Hicks is worth at least $150,000 in extra ticket sales a week." Even better: "the "Grease" megamix at the end of the show - this is where the critics ran screaming from the theater - now runs 10 minutes, with Hicks singing the title song and then playing it on his harmonica."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Headlines

Some assorted theatrical news from around the web...

-You thought that low dollar was a boon to Broadway, attracting record ticket sales to Euro-tourists? Maybe so, but there's a downside. Especially or US theatre org's in the business of importing foreign shows and artists. Among other problems: "Past transfers could exploit cost-saving measures like having costumes or scenery built abroad for lower prices. Now, with the dollar worth less, those savings are largely eliminated." Gordon Cox in Variety crunches the numbers.

-Bon Voyage, Campbell Robertson. The intrepid NYT theatre beat reporter (and a fine one, imho) is moving onto another beat. Would you believe...Iraq? (Fill in Broadway-crazier/ scarier-than-Iraq joke here.) Gosh, good luck, Campbell! Hope the Malaki government feeds you less propaganda than the Shuberts. (Ha! got one in anyway.)...In related news, another Times theatre writer Jesse Greene is leaving the paper entirely. As he disclosed on a "Theatre Talk" episode lately, he'll be going to New York Magazine. Two good reporters/writers. Let's see what becomes of NYT coverage now. (Hat tip: commenter June, on both stories.)

-TKTS comes to Brooklyn. That's right, hipsters. You, too, can now score $50 balcony seats to Cry Baby!...According to Crain's, "Only 13% of residents living in boroughs outside Manhattan attended a Broadway show during the 2006-2007 season." So I guess they're looking to change that. They (by they I mean TDF) tried a booth in the borough before, back in '93. And no one came. But now that everyone who could once afford to live in Manhattan lives there, I guess it's worth another shot. It'll be at the corner of Jay and Myrtle, near Borough Hall.

-Provincetown Playhouse update. This from Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation:

I regret to inform you that [on June 19] the Community Board voted to approve NYU's plan for demolishing 133-139 MacDougal Street, the Provincetown Playhouse and Apartments. Thanks to all of our efforts, NYU has agreed to preserve the four walls of the theater, as well as its entry facade, but nothing else of the building will be preserved....The one ray of hope is that with the ruling by the State on the building's eligibility for the Register of Historic Places, NYU cannot use any state or federal money for this project without subjecting it to a historic preservation review process, which could end up disqualifying use of those funds.
Seems like the NYU compromise to retain at least the external appearance of the site (of some of the site) was enough to get the proposal past the Board and local officials....You know, one final word on this. While some of us were debating this last month, some argued what was the point of preserving Provincetown if so many important sites like Cafe Cino disappeared long ago. To which I say--well damn that, too! Just because we lost one doesn't mean we have to lose them all!

Or to quote Woody Allen on a similar bruhaha, the fate of the Marx Brothers' childhood tenement:
“In countries that place a high value on cultural contributions as opposed to simply bulldozing things in the name of progress, the Marx Brothers home would remain standing and affixed with a plaque.”
No, buildings are not the art itself. But aren't they at least a nice visual reminder that we once had some great artists?....And forget the artists, even. Isn't it nice to retain just some of the older look of this city, before it becomes all soulless glass highrises and nouveau-malls?


My Night With Daisey

Yes, it was a few nights ago now, but I did indeed want to follow up on my experience both watching and panel-ing Sunday at Mike Daisey's last performance (for now) of How Theater Failed America.

First, the show. As I often admit, I'm not the biggest fan of monologues. And this runs close to two hours! But luckily Daisey is an incredibly charismatic and engaging performer/storyteller. This is the first show, indeed, I have seen of his live. (Not counting the video excerpts of one particular famous performance last year that at the time cause some controversy between us....but no matter now.)

It helps that he has an important story to tell. At least for anyone who does theatre for a living, or once dreamed of such. Actually it's two stories: One a current-day polemic against the blood-sucking corporate management ethic of our nonprofit institutions. The other, the story of How Theatre Saved Mike Daisey--once upon a time, that is. Alternating between the current critique and flashbacks to memoir-like recountings of his youthful adventures in various low/no budget theatricals, Daisey's strategy is to critique the current system not just through diatribe but by example--example of its opposite. At the risk of sometimes getting nostalgic for the good old days of poor theatre (a nostalgia he fesses up to and tries to contain) these reminiscences serve to point up what's missing in our overly-managed theatres--the sheer spirit and desire to create art. The new fancy buildings some lucky theatres have been able to build, Daisey reminds us, are built for administrators, not artists.

It's a deft balance he achieves in the monologue, since the connection between the two strands remains unspoken. It's up to the audience to contrast in their own minds the thrill of creating theatre "by any means necessary" and the deadness we encounter so much in our larger nonprofits. The solution of course is NOT necessarily to return to Daisey's 5-person college rep-company adventure "Theatre on the Pond". But to find some medium in between, one could say. Allow for a company to have the energy and purpose of Theatre on the Pond with just a little more budget, and audience. But one without the other just won't do it anymore.

It's the reminiscences that take up most of the running time in the piece. But there's two or three of them that are so hilarious I'd say they're worth the wait. (I will never get the image of the rotund Daisey being caught in a shoebox Seattle theatre quite literally with his pants down in what must have been the worst production of The Balcony ever.) In the audience Sunday night--packed with actors--there was a constant laughter of recognition. We've all been there with these stories. But Daisey succeeds in lifting them beyond merely the anecdotal (beyond good post-show bar talk) by pitting them against the larger context of "what's happened" to American theatre in general.

And on that score, there are many acute observations and refreshingly blunt (even when overstated) one-liners. I especially enjoyed his bathroom stall ruminations about visiting one of these shiny new theatre buildings, and realizing that one of its greatest boasts is that was designed to literally recycle shit. Quite a metaphor.

Again, Daisey's folding up this show for now. He tells me he intends to keep it in his rep and may tour it to other cities in the near future. Meanwhile, I also hope he publishes it. Even as just an extended essay--without the aid of his oversize facial expressions and booming voice--it could make a real impact on our continuing national debate on all this.


Anyway, after the performance, I was amazed the audience stayed for nearly another two hours for the panel discussion. Which ranged from a obscure critic-blogger (guess who) to the head of the Public Theatre! Also: Aaron Landsman of Elevator Repair Service, John Eisner of The Lark, and playwright Richard Nelson, who has been a major voice as of late in corralling opinion against "Development Hell" and other failings of our current system. (He also is quoted in Daisey's program from an essay essentially making the same argument as the monologue--a quarter-century ago!). Lastly, I had the pleasure of sitting next to the fine veteran actress Jayne Houdyshell, who gave such wonderful performances in Well and The Receptionist.

Perhaps some of you who were there can fill in more about what was actually said. Among what I found most interesting myself was the continued support of Oskar Eustis for Nelson's campaign for playwright ownership of "subsidiary rights." (This came to the fore a few months ago when Craig Lucas withdrew a play from the Roundabout rather than give them any percentage of future productions. Eustis clearly doesn't want to get on the wrong side of that issue!) It was also refreshing to hear Nelson tell a questioner, a hard working actress, who was complaining about Katie Holmes getting a Broadway part for just being Katie Holmes, something like: "Forget about that! What's going on there, on Broadway, has nothing to do with the art you want to do!"

Other topics included the need to reach out to children and younger audiences by not turning our noses up at "children's theatre"; whether young theatre visionaries should be overturning the old behemoth institutions and everything they stand for, or "take them over!" as Eustis cried; and, not least, how long it took Jayne Houdyshell to buy her own home (hint: pretty recently in her 35 year career).

It was a pleasure just to sit back and listen to these interesting exchanges, and for that I think Mike Daisey for including me. I wish him luck on his grueling summer schedule developing his new show If You See Something, Say Something, which plays the Public in the fall.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Warning: Naked People

Page Six sounds the alarm:

WARNING to prudes: The Public Theater will become the Pubic Theater when it stages "Hair" in Central Park this August. We're told the revival of the famed hippie musical is faithful to the 1968 Broadway smash and contains full-frontal male and female nudity. The Public's rep, Candi Adams, confirmed to us that there will indeed be naked performers and that signs will be posted outside the Delacorte Theater to warn patrons. The Delacorte has gone bare before, once hosting "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with female fairies prancing stark naked.
Ha, "pubic theater"! That's why I'll never be good enough to write for Page Six.

Hmm, do you think it was the "male and female" nudity that necessitates the signs?

I'm glad they're warning folks. Cause we don't want people running around exposing themselves in Central Park. That would be just too 70s...

Monday, June 23, 2008

Jeune Lune (1978-2008)

How sad on the heels of Mike Daisey's sobering survey of the regional theatre landscape last night to find this news in my inbox this morning about one of our country's real gems:

With the organization burdened by mounting and unmanageable debt, the Board of Directors has voted to put Jeune Lune's home up for sale. After much soul searching and extensive fundraising and debt management efforts, we have determined it to be the only prudent and fiscally responsible choice. What has been acclaimed, as one of the most striking and unique theatre spaces in the country will go dark. It is a huge loss, a loss for us, for all of the artists who work with us, for our audience and for the community at large, both locally and nationally.

And with the building, we have decided that the time has come to bid adieu to the theatre ensemble we have all known as Jeune Lune.
So says Artistic Director and co-founder Dominique Serrand on their website today.

I regret never having seen them in their home space. And the only thing of theirs I did see was a so-so Hamlet they brought to New Victory here in NYC. But their reputation sure is legendary.

I know they toured the country often as guest artists at various regional theatres. So I hope that tradition at least may continue? (hint, hint to AD's out there)

As a tribute, please post comments on fond Jeune Lune memories, if you have them.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

REVIEW: Hamlet (Public Theatre)

Stuhlbarg as Hamlet.
photo: Sara Krulwich

Hamlet

starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Sam Waterston, Lauren Ambrose, Andre Braugher
directed by Oskar Eustis

Delacorte Theatre, Central Park
through June 29
tickets free, at the
Delacorte or via online lottery

After years of misfire celebrity stunt-casting, irrelevant scenic “spectaculars,” and half-hearted updating gimmicks, would you understand me if I said how refreshing it is to see a Public Theatre Shakespeare in the Park production that actually felt like seeing a serious production of…Shakespeare? The (so far) much-maligned Hamlet currently at the Central Park Delacorte certainly has problems—but they are by and large the failings that curse most Hamlet productions: a weak Gertrude and Claudius, an interminable Act IV, a general petering out of everyone’s energy by the end. But these flaws, as I said, are common—in fact, so common I’m beginning to wonder if they’re built into the play itself.

But if there’s one thing director Oskar Eustis got right, it’s the most important thing—he got the right Hamlet. Or at least the right Hamlet for this production. If Eustis’ staging and conceptualization of the play is less dynamic, less visually dazzling, and, yes, longer than others, these qualities suit the quiet, thoughtful sensibility of his star, Michael Stuhlbarg.

I remember a directing mentor of mine once declaring, “You have to decide who is your Hamlet? Is he a warrior? A lover? A manic depressive?” Well Eustis and Stuhlbarg remind us of one key identity of the characters’ that so often gets lost in legend: Hamlet the Scholar. Or, dare I say: the nerd?

When you think about it, casting Hamlet as a swashbuckling traditional leading-man (what I’ll call the Olivier/Mel Gibson/Liev Schreiber route) goes against some key plot points of the play. After all, if he were such a brave he-man from the get-go, wouldn’t he just take down Claudius by Act II and spare us all another two hours? Sure there’s all that “conscience” talk, but when the man before us seems more concerned with his profile and pecs than the judgment upon his soul, these are just “words, words, words.” While an actor like Kevin Kline (who essayed the part twice at the Public) was as capable as any at combining both personality types, in general the leading man type is generally pretty unconvincing as the poet-philosopher cursed by “the pale cast of thought” who’s always “thinking too precisely on the event.” When Ophelia swoons over his madness, it is not to his bravery or physical prowess she appeals but “what a noble mind is here o’erthrown.”

That Stuhlbarg—a Juilliard grad who played Richard II at the Public at 25—has a fine classical instrument and impressive verse-speaking skills no one has denied. Cast so effectively recently as the younger brother in Pillowman and the priggish idealist in The Voysey Inheritance—he has also carved out a unique niche on the New York stage for “loveable loser” roles. (Or at least these performances finally gained him overdue recognition above 14th Street.) But these very qualities are probably what will make his Hamlet hard to swallow for many. His is very much an anti-heroic performance, both in the sense of rebutting a certain clich├ęd style of playing Hamlet, but also in playing him as anti-hero—a boyish prince of 30 (and even at 39, Stuhlbarg remains quite boyish), who’s been called away from his true love—school—to the much more difficult task of what is effectively resolving a family inheritance dispute. (Any allusion here to August: Osage County is purely accidental.) The compelling drama of Stuhlbarg’s Hamlet is that of watching an unlikely hero tackle a task that at first seems beyond his abilities. In short, never before has the line, “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite/ that ever I was born to set it right,” landed so movingly. Not as a testosterone-driven rallying cry, but almost a prayer, with not a little trepidation and disbelief. (And even a hint of “What, me???”)

Eustis’ overall production benefits from a similar modesty, I feel, and in this way generously supports Stuhlbarg’s performance. (Which is probably one of the reasons it suffers most when he is not onstage.) The setting is vaguely modern, without being intrusively so. (What I’d call a practical, not conceptual updating.) David Korins’ white-metal prison backdrop—recalling at once both a submarine and a mental institution—has come in for much ridicule, I gather; but while not pretty to look at, it makes a simple strong statement that always supports and never obstructs the play. (“Denmark is a prison,” after all.)

While the world of Elsinore does not crystallize as specifically as I would like, Eustis does flesh out—through wonderful performances—the Polonius family better than most productions I have seen. Sam Waterston’s well-meaning dotty dad seems to be the critics’ favorite. But it is as part of a family unit that I appreciate him, Lauren Ambrose’s Ophelia, and David Harbour’s Laertes most, more than as individuals. In a wonderful touch in the opening court scene, Habour plays Laertes against type from the beginning; rather than the bland, loyal son he seems an outright hedonist, drink in hand, begging Claudius to just let him go back to France for god’s sake!

(The clues are all there, of course for this interpretation. Ophelia reminds him not to lecture her on morality until he “recks his own rede” and even Polonius sends a spy after him to report back on his libertine ways. Just like Hamlet is usually cast as a traditional manly hero, there’s a tradition of Laertes being Hamlet’s double—and the actor is often even his understudy! Many recent American Hamlets—including Schreiber and Michael Cumpsty—have gotten their start playing Laertes.)

The payoff for this, at first, comical choice, is the stark contrast to Laertes’ later “maturation,” if you want to call it that, from careless boy to single-minded avenger. But rather than being merely Hamlet’s mirror, Eustis and Harbour (a big man whose physical contrast to Stuhlbarg is striking) mark him as in every way more conventional than the prince—fratboy on one end, violent aggressor on the other. When Stuhlbarg dances with glee at his few “palpable hits” in the climactic swordplay with Laertes, the cheer of the underdog is delightful. And doubly tragic given our foreknowledge of how short-lived it is to be.

Ambrose—whose much-praised Juliet last year in the park I missed, but can now believe—achieves that rare balance for a modern Ophelia: to convey innocence without weakness. Far too many readings of late have tried to insist on Polonius’ puppet daughter as a worldly independent agent from Act I, but this robs her story of all its tragic arc in this man’s world of a play. Plus, only the spirit of innocent can convincingly sell the crestfallen moment of her rejection by Hamlet—the onset of the disillusionment that will lead to her death. Both Ambrose and Stuhlbarg manage to bring a purity and freshness to these overly familiar roles. In her mad scene (part of that always interminable Hamlet-less Act IV) I’m afraid she still falls into the rambling obscurity and overly-obvious sexuality that actors and directors seem to inevitably resort to in this scene. (Does no one take seriously the line “incapable of her own distress”?) But her “punk” look was kind of original and Ambrose never veers into falseness. Who knew one of our finest classical actresses needed “Six Feet Under” to get noticed?

(I cannot neglect to mention here the wonderful work in the production by another underrated American classical actor, Jay O. Sanders, heretefore known for movies, but finally getting some well-deserved meaty stage roles. As he did with Alfred P. Doolittle in the Roundabout revival of Pygmalian last season, here he brings an utterly authentic and recognizable, and effortlessly natural, middle-American working class sensibility to a European-classic role like the Gravedigger. He's not bad as the Player King and the Ghost, either.)

As for the Gertrude and Claudius problem, Margaret Colin and Andre Braugher seem to be playing it awfully safe. Braugher is a stage actor capable of real power. But perhaps he and Eustis are so afraid of unleashing the character’s clear menace, that they “nice” him out of the conflict altogether. With such an unthreatening Claudius, we again have to wonder: “what’s the problem Hamlet? Take him!” (Even Stuhlbarg could, I felt!) Other avenues to make the royal couple interesting—like hedonistic decadence or crippling paranoia—sadly go unexplored.

Amidst such challenges, the pressure on Hamlet himself to deliver is pretty high. But again, Stuhlbarg does. Through nothing other than ceaseless intelligence, persistent calm and focus, and an ingratiating relationship with the audience. Some critics have called him cerebral or unaffecting. But I—albeit already a Stuhlbarg fan—was deeply moved. (When was the last time you were actually sorry to see Hamlet die?) So reactions to him on a personal/empathic level seem pretty subjective, to say the least.

By taking his cue from the spirit and energy of his lead actor, then, Eustis provides a production that is similarly leisurely, thoughtful, and thorough. I have never, never felt before in the Delacorte Theater the luxury of sitting there on a midsummer’s night and simply listening to and experiencing THE PLAY. Normally in Hamlet I start checking my watch during The Mousetrap. (Which is here, by the way, rendered vibrantly by some Basil Twist uber-marionettes, a terrific choice.) But this time I could finally appreciate the luxury of—and it truly is a luxury in today’s world—of setting aside time to encounter such a text in performance. That it takes more than three hours in this case…all the more of a treat, surprisingly. Provided the weather agrees.

Whatever one thinks of Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance here, ponder this: here’s an actor who typifies the hard-working stage artist of his generation. Years devoted to training, to gigs far and wide in regional theatre. Occasional triumphs in great roles that no one sees. Only a handful of Broadway credits (with only Pillowman getting him notice) and even fewer bona fide movies (on IMDB at least). This is not the name you headline your Hamlet with in the commercialized theatre of the day. In doing so, Eusitis has honored not only a fine actor, but by extension, the American stage acting profession.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Tony Lowlight

"The theater lovers who tuned in to the telecast might also have been puzzled to see Julie Chen introducing a segment devoted to the season’s straight plays. They might have wondered, as I did, who Ms. Chen is, and what her connection to the theater could possibly be. Ms. Chen may have popped into the celebrity spin cycle that is “Chicago” at some point, but if she did, I missed it. I also missed her introduction, so only the next morning, when I read news coverage of the ceremony, did I learn that Ms. Chen is a “television personality” associated with CBS shows like 'Big Brother' and 'The Early Show.'

I also learned that she happens to be married to Leslie Moonves, president and chief executive of CBS. It is hard to avoid concluding that Ms. Chen’s presence was primarily a way of currying favor with the man who can snap his fingers and exile the Tony Awards to the Siberian wasteland of PBS.

But, really, would that be such a bad thing?"

-Charles Isherwood, in his bemused reaction to last week's Tony Awards.

So, so right on that last point. I mean, with broadcast "rabbit-ear" tv being practically outlawed next year...who needs CBS.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Mike Daisey + Playgoer + Eustis & more!

I feel very honored to have been invited by monologist Mike Daisey to appear on his last post-show panel at his last performance of How Theatre Failed America at the Barrow St.

So if you haven't seen it yet, you should (since everyone's talking about it) and you should go this Sunday, June 22. After Mike's hilarious and heartfelt rant, you can stay and hear this illustrious line-up: Oscar Eustis, Gregory Mosher, playwright Richard Nelson, Paige Evans (Director, Lincoln Center's new LCT3 program), Aaron Landesman (Elevator Repair Service). And me!

The title of this panel will be "Theater in 2033". So I'm glad we'll be forward-looking, and not settling old scores from the past with my host and Mr. Public. Expect much reasoned disagreement, I'm sure, but not fisticuffs.

For more info and tickets: here

Thursday, June 19, 2008

REVIEW: another Doll's House

Yes, unfortunately that's how I felt at this show. Another Doll's House....

Read about it in this week's Time Out.

And, hey, I do like the play. But not a great pick for a routine showcase production...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Why Steve didn't Show

...and other Post-Tony tidbits from Riedel today.

On Sondheim's surprising no-show for his own lifetime achievement award (not to mention the feting of various shows of his):

Sondheim wasn't at the Tonys because he was traipsing through Europe.

I hear he found out about the award only when it was announced in the press. Nobody from the Tonys bothered to tell him beforehand, so he didn't change his travel plans.

Also, about that bumping of play-revival and musical-book awards to pre-show:

"The theater is an art form which is driven by writers," says [John Weidman, Dramatists Guild prez]. "Nothing exists before the script. So when theater awards are given out, it's appropriate that the writing awards should take first position.

"Even acknowledging the enormous time pressures on the producers of the Tony Award broadcast, Best Book of a Musical and Best Revival of a Play belong live, on the air."

Primacy of the written word? What industry do you think you're in, Dramatists Guild?

REVIEW: Brick Film Fest

I was happy the Voice wanted to devote enough space for me to review not one, but three shows at another of the Brick's quixotic summer festivals--this one is The Film Festival: A Theatre Festival.

Read all about it. I'm just sorry I wasn't able to see more shows there before they closed (like Ian Hill's staged "reconstruction" of Magnificent Ambersons), but the festival goes on till end of June, and all three titles I review have at least one more showing (or "doing," in the case of Suspicious Package: Interactive Noir) between now and then.

The other two I cover are the expressionist puppet tale Tod and I by the Piehole company, and Eric Bland's Death at Film Forum--which, unfortunately, is not about my attempt to get a seat for the latest Godard festival. But it's fun nonetheless.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tonys 08 debriefing

Madman & Madwoman:
Tony winners
Rylance & Dunagan
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Gotta feel sorry for all those folks now motivated to see that amazing Tony-winning Steppenwolf cast in August:Osage County:
While the producers are starting a road tour and are in discussions about a production at the National Theater in London, five members of the 13-person Broadway cast will be new at the first post-Tony performance on Tuesday night. Sunday — the day of the awards — was the last day of in the original-cast members’ contracts, an extension made several months ago to keep everybody on board through the Tonys.

Among those who have left the production are the two actresses, Rondi Reed and Deanna Dunagan, who won Tony Awards.

That's right, five new actors starting tonight. Including Estelle Parsons stepping into Dunagan's role as the matriarch. Parsons is a fine actress with a great history--but I just hope she's up to it, given her advanced age and having not been on stage for a while, I believe. But overall the replacements I know of are fine, fine actors, including Frank Wood and Steppenwolf vet (and Wire player) Jim True-Frost.

This and more from Campbell Robertson's definitive NYT Tony post-mortem, including some crucial stats. "The Tony ceremony’s ratings were just as good as last year’s," for instance. Do you hear a "but" coming...?
...but last year’s were the lowest in Tony broadcast history. According to preliminary Nielsen ratings, the ceremony drew around 6.2 million viewers, leaving CBS in third place among the networks for the night. While the record set last year was the result in part of the broadcast’s unusually stiff competition — the last episode of “The Sopranos” on HBO — stuff seems to always happen on Tony night. This time the ceremony was competing in its first hour with one of the more exciting United States Open golf tournaments in recent years, and in its second and third hours with a Lakers-Celtics slugfest in the N.B.A. finals.
You hear it here: Golf, more exciting than theatre. Sadly, so true in America today.

Oh, and in the category of "in case you were wondering":

Finally we come to the strange case of Mark Rylance, who won the Tony for best actor in a play for his performance in “Boeing-Boeing.” Mr. Rylance’s acceptance speech began thus: “When you are in town, wearing some kind of uniform is helpful, policeman, priest, etc. Driving a tank is very impressive, or a car with official lettering on the side.”

The whole speech was like that, eliciting some rather entertaining reaction shots. As it turns out, the speech was a prose poem by a Minnesota writer named Lewis Jenkins. Mr. Rylance also quoted Mr. Jenkins at the Drama Desk Awards last month. Mr. Rylance told the show’s press agent that he was not going to be answering the telephone on Monday.

This ain't going to help win more time for acceptance speeches next year, unfortunately.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Quote of the Day

What do you think is your own best novel? I don’t answer questions like that. Ever. And you ought not to ask them.

Well, it was a great pleasure talking to you. I doubt that.

-Novelist, Essayist, Troublemaker and occasional Playwright Gore Vidal, keeping it real in his turn at one of the annoying NYT Sunday Magazine "Questions for" page.

Well at least they kept that in there.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Tonys 2008: The Blogcast

Welcome to the 4th Annual Playgoer Live Tony Blogcast!

By now I fancy myself quite the jaded Tony viewer/critic. But I must say, every year they find new ways to shock me with their callousness. (And by "they," I suppose I mean some combination of CBS, the American Theatre Wing, and the Broadway league.)

Every year, for the last decade, we've gotten used to the ghettoization of the less flashy award categories to an off-air pre-show. As criminal as it is, I had just adjusted myself to the placement of design awards to the Tony no man's land of 7-8pm.

Well look who's there this year: Book of a Musical. Choreography(!). Surprised yet? How about: Best Revival: Play!

I know, I know, there wasn't even any Revival category before the 90s. But it's there to acknowledge the reality that most of the best productions on Broadway are revivals.

And in what was supposed to be the "year of the play" what a nice way to honor that then to shift four of the nominees out of sight. (Boeing, Boeing won, btw, beating The Homecoming and Macbeth.)

I'd say this reflects an anti-play bias...but Choreography, in the modern American musical theatre, at least, is pretty, pretty darn important, no? Ruthless.

(Andy Blankenbuehler won for In The Heights.)

(You can follow the winners all night, by the way, at the Tony website here.)

Before the big opener, one last random pre-show observation: I just saw a CBS Tony commercial which ran about 1.5 seconds of a clip-montage from "the exciting shows you'll see" or something like that. I was amused that one moment of obscure B'way dud "Is He Dead" flitted by. Probably just because of the fancy period costumes. Joke is, it went by so fast no one could tell the actor in the hoop dress was Norbert Leo Butz!

8:20
"Circle of Life" indeed. What is it, 1998 again? No doubt they'll drag out Lion King ten years from now to "revive" this tranquilized poor animal of a tv show again.

Seriously, Julie Taymor's triumphant opening number still looks as beautiful as ever. But seeing her beaming in the audience did make me consider: Has Lion King enabled Julie Taymor to do better theatre work? I don't think so. Sure, she can make movies now, but such is the conundrum of the modern American theatre artist: the goal is to get a hit SO big... that you don't need to do theatre anymore. (Like in Seinfeld when Elaine dates a med student on the hopes that she'll be hitched to a doctor, only to get dumped by him after his exams when he explains the only reason to become a doctor is to date other women.)

And did Whoopi Goldberg just say "Thank you to The Lion King for bringing families back to Broadway for ten years"? I guess the League is writing all the copy themselves tonight.

Rondi Reed's win for Featured Actress in August signals an August sweep. As expected.

And while I'm prognosticating, I'd say the In The Heights win for chroreography--over the rumored favorite Cry Baby's Rob Ashford--bodes well for that show tonight.

Ashford's work, displayed in the mock-Jailhouse Rock number just shown, is as virtuosoic as ever. But it's heartening to know--that like the Democratic party--the Tony voters went for something a little different from the standard playbook. (And the dancing in In The Heights is undeniably amazing.)

8:40
Hey, is anyone watching this show? Anyone? If so, let me know. Just curious if I'm alone.

Was that someone from Counting Crows on the Tonys??? Well, to introduce Passing Strange, a good choice, no doubt. But having seen Stew rock the house at the Obies with "Welcome to Amsterdam" already, I have a feeling it got lost in the 3000-seat house of Radio City. His added grovelly sign-off of "This is how Passing Strange does it" seems to have met with...nonplussed response.

Not gonna win, I think. Not at this gig.

Hm, so I guess what the Tony producers thought was needed to boost the ratings is more backstage wackiness with the host? Just think of how many awards could have been handed out in that time...

9:04
I realize now in my futile call for readers out there watching the Tonys right now that I'm asking too much. Watching the Tonys is in itself enough of an effort of theatre geekdom. Watching while reading a theatre blog...you're far gone.

Of course if you are watching while reading this theatre blog, I love you very much.

First anti-climax of the night: stepping right on the heels of LuPone's immediate classic rendition of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" with something from "Phantom of the Opera." No matter that it turned out to be a Whoopi parody...

3-minute pre-filmed segment:"The Year in Plays!" More like the year in posters. Then somewhere between 1 and 5 seconds of video from various productions. If lucky, one line of dialogue. I'm sorry , I know it's an obvious point, but the fact that they can't show scenes from plays (even if more slickly filmed) is an insult to the whole idea of American theatre as something distinct from just musicals.

"In the Heights" sweep continues, with Best Score for Mr. Miranda. Holy Shit, he really is rapping his speech! Guess he figures he won't win Best Actor and the producers get the mike for Best Musical...so why save it! Good for him. They really, really, better not cut him off...

(Nice of Duncan Sheik, before presenting the award, to remind the audience that Stew did win Best Book, but not on television.)

Back to LuPone and the Gypsy excerpt--first, kudos for getting Jack Klugman, the original Herbie to introduce. Brave man for acting for over ten years without a voice box. (Respect, always, for Oscar Madison!) Now many will question the choice of "Roses" over "Rose's Turn" as LuPone's big number. Just remember, though, that Bernadette Peters did that as her number on the Tonys five years ago. So maybe Patti wanted to avoid comparisons? But also, this was a wise choice because it highlighted the importance of the whole triumverate of that Gypsy cast (Laura Bernati as Gypsy and Boyd Gaines as Herbie.) Plus, LuPone told Michael Riedel, I think, that she really wanted to be able to do a song on the Tonys with the lead-in dialogue. You know, acting. So note how they were able to do that with this number.

9:19
Obviously with Whoopi the strategy is: Billy Crystal. Yet another attempt in the bankrupt ambition of this shows to emulate the Oscars.

"Grease" excerpt: little Max & Laura, back where they belong: on television. (Funny how they're barely, barely featured in the number!)

Voiceover of the Night: "Cadillac congratulates the winner of the Tony award for Featured Actress in a Musical." That's how the Tonys survive. Selling sponsorships to one award at a time.

That's the best Cadillac could do???

10:00
You know what's clever about this Whoopi business--under the guise of "parody" she's actually helping to promote yet more musicals that are not even nominated for anything this year. Phantom, Spamalot, Mary Poppins...Just "classics" you say? Well, they're still running.

Plus, did you notice that a bunch of other "classic" musicals (who happen to be still running) like Hairspray, Mama Mia, Chicago get plugged, too, through these random "behind-the-scenes" clips.

The Broadway agenda is in full force tonight.

Speaking of which, did you notice when Marisa Tomei said (something like) "and now let us see some of the fine theatrical work other than those nominated for best musicals or musical revivals." And now The Little Mermaid!

Thank you , Mark Rylance, for volunteering to be the weirdest man on television for a night. (And nice handshake between him and rival Patrick Stewart--who reportedly wanted it bad. Wonder if he was saying to himself behind that smile, "I can't believe I lost to that freak!" Seriously, I'm second to none in Mark Rylance fans. Huzzah!)

Now I'm no fashion expert, but...did Gabriel Byrne just inaugurate the trend of the intentionally loosened tie? And did Mary Louise Parker steal a miniskirt from Legally Blond?

Ok, I owe the Tonys an apology. I earlier lamented the exclusion of play excerpts. Well here they are. 10 seconds each, or was that 5? And what does it say that Whoopi's intros were much longer than the clips themselves? Don't tell me there's just no time.

"In the Heights" number--I wished they hadn't cut & pasted this one. There's so many good numbers that stand alone. And it surprises me they seem to be highlighting the more hiphop excerpts from the score, when most of it is salsa and meringue. And that would probably be more widely appealing to the Tony broadcast audience.

Nice to know that all the design awards were brought to us by Hilton. They couldn't even get on the air! (And the voiceover can't even pronounce "Les Liasons Dangerooo")

10: 30
For the record: first ever Tonys for sound design goes to Scott Lehrer, South Pacific (musical) and Mic Pool, 39 Steps (play).

Here comes Best Play--bring out the Brits! Which of course means Harry Potter. And nice moment where Richard Griffiths mocks young Radcliffe

Oh my god, look at how many producers are on stage for August. "I don't know all these people but they must have had something to do with the show," said playwright Tracy Letts. He's on a roll, actually, this long hard working, actor-playwright"This is a hell of a lot better than auditioning for JAG." "Thanks to these producers for daring to put a new American play on Broadway. With theatre actors."

To cut off Tracy Letts is bad enough (especially before he gets to thanks his, uh, father? Who acted in the play and died during the run? And it's Father's Day???)...but to cut him off with "On Broadway"...priceless.

Did the Tony peeps know Sondheim wouldn't show up when they voted him a lifetime achievement award. Ha, busted!

It's a shame that the Sunday in the Park with George number couldn't show off the amazing video design more. But since the shows have to "remount" their numbers (at their own expense, I believe?) in Radio City Music Hall, then maybe more display was impossible--not to mention, more of the cast.

Whoopi in Spring Awakening. Are you laughing yet?

10:45
Best Veiled Insult of the night: Andre Bishop paying tribute to the "couple of other major revivals of classic musicals." Translation: not Grease.

I haven't seen Xanadu, but that Tony Roberts singing from his seat in the audience bit was actually a surprisingly wonderful bit of television. How rare.

Looks like they will at least be on time tonight. Stay tuned for The Coronation of LuPone and the Best Musical award to In the What???

11:00
Paulo Szot: "I was proud to play Emile DeBecq, a man who opposed war and fights for love. That simple." Only political statement of the night. Leave it to a foreigner.

Ok, apologies to Cadillac--they apparently could indeed afford to thank the winner of every category (at least those awarded right before commercial break.)

Patti LuPone, to band beginning those ominous notes of "On Broadway": "Shut up, I've been waiting for this 29 years!"

And, just in time, indeed. In the Heights wins at 10:59 exactly. I don't know what producer Jill Furman said since my DVR cut her off seconds later.

Good night!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

What Happened to "Previews"

A member of the ill-fated Gone With the Wind cast in London offers a pre-postmortem.

Previews are meant to be the point in a production's life where a show can be tried out before an audience, to see what works and what doesn't. They used to be an intimate affair, and there was a certain bond of trust between the performers and an audience who had paid less to see the unpolished version. But in the internet age, those days are over.

Before we had even left the theatre on the night of our first preview, our fate was sealed. I went home that night to read damning comments on a blog called the West End Whingers: the knives were already out, sharp and bloody.
I sympathize. Really, I do. And this blog tries to make a point of not publishing a review of a show till it officially opens. (Even if I could only see it in previews. In which case I do note that's what I saw.)

Anyway, we all know he's really talking about "chatrooms" not criticism blogs.

But on behalf of the internets at large, let me propose a treaty, theatre producers and companies: You don't charge full price for "previews" and we won't review them. How's that?

It's amazing when you think about it, the gradual practice over the years of raising preview prices up to par. With that--and the practice of "press nights" pre-opening anyway--isn't the term close to meaningless?

And the chutzpah of asking audiences to pay full price for what is sometimes very much a work in progress? Priceless.

NEA Steps Up!

To the tune of 280 Grand.

The NEA New Play Development Program has $90,000 each available for two scripts; they must be already written and attached to theater companies planning to stage their world premieres by the end of 2010.

And there's $20,000 each for five shows that are at a more germinal stage, where a writer and theater company need money to work on an idea, without a full commitment yet to a production.

The playwrights must be American citizens or permanent U.S. residents; the theaters must be nonprofit...

The NEA says that almost any theatrical style is eligible..."Ensemble plays, solo plays, plays with music, plays with puppets, plays with movement, plays with multimedia -- the theater in America is a 'big tent,' " the application guidelines say.
That last bit is a big step, methinks. Theatre is not just "written" by loners in garrets anymore.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Timely Words from B.B.

"In my opinion, and it is the opinion of a serious, hard-working businessman, we do not have the right people at the head of the state. They all belong to some party or other, and parties are egotistical. Their point of view is one-sided. We need men who stand above the parties, as we businessmen do. We sell our goods to rich and poor alike. We sell everyone, without regard for persons...

The government of the state is a moral task. We have to reach a point where the employers are good employers, the employees good employees, in brief: where the rich are good rich and the poor good poor. I am convinced that the day of such a regime will come."
Which independent businessman said this? Mike Bloomberg? Mitt Romney? Ross Perot? Silvio Berlusconi???

Try one Mackie Messer, aka Macheath, aka Mack the Knife. By way of Bertolt Brecht in his Threepenny Novel--a 1934 reworking in prose of his Dreigroschenoper of 1928. (A "novelization," if you will!)

The easier it becomes for people to buy their way into office on the wave of some "post-partisan," "get things done!" appeal, I fear such a regime will come indeed.

(Threepenny Novel is indeed quite a revision, with a completely different last act. Ironically the plot--with its digression into the ways of banking--more closely resembles the allegedly "botched" adaptation of GW Pabst's 1931 movie, over which Brecht sued. Might BB have been more involved than he let on...?)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Tepid "Tuners" still Triumph at Tonys

Well, might as well throw any last pretense of the Tonys saluting "excellence" out the window now.

In a break from Tonycast tradition, eleven of the season’s new tuners will perform Sunday during the 62nd annual Tony Awards ceremony on CBS.

Usually only the musicals nominated for the top tuner trophies get a performance slot, which comes with the marketing benefits of a segment on national network television.

This year, however, “The Little Mermaid,” “Young Frankenstein” and “A Catered Affair” -- all of which received Tony nods, but not in the best musical category -- will join the lineup of nominated new tuners (“In the Heights,” “Passing Strange”) and revivals (“South Pacific,” “Gypsy”) doing numbers during the ceremony.

(From Variety, of course.)

One might also add the low, low esteem in which Mermaid, Frankenstein, and Catered are held in the artistic/critical community. (Okay, maybe some grudging respect toward Catered Affair for at least not being just a cynical theme-park enterprise.)

Then again, in the adding insult to injury category...

Only musical offering from the 2007-08 season to go missing is “Glory Days,” the short-lived flop that closed last month on the same day it opened.

I hardly interpret this as a sudden bout of taste. It was just Glory Days' misfortune not to have powerful producers.

Expect Mr. Riedel to have a fit tomorrow!


"The Search for Elle Woods"

The Times' Mike Hale watches MTV's new casting-by-reality-show ordeal for Legally Blond, so I don't have to.

Will it help or hurt 25-year-old Emma that she looks like Reese Witherspoon, the original Elle Woods, and that her father, the director Jerry Zaks, has won four Tony Awards? Will Lauren, the 18-year-old with the dead eyes and the forked tongue, become the designated villain? Is blond hair — natural or otherwise — an advantage?

[...]

[Current star Laura Bell Bundy] is a legitimate star at the center of a grueling production, and she’s currently giving theatergoers as much singing-and-dancing value for their $120 as anyone on Broadway. Based on the first episode the gulf between the 27-year-old Ms. Bundy and the 10 fresh-faced, likable, lightweight hopefuls in “The Search for Elle Woods” — average age 22 — is so vast that we seem to be watching two different musical-theater species.

But that’s just kvetching. (Especially when the original musical filled only 63 percent of the seats at the Palace Theater in the week ending May 25.) These young hopefuls are better suited than Ms. Bundy for one thing, of course, and that’s getting women their own age to watch a reality television show. They give the impression that they were plucked from the sidewalk outside the MTV studios and haven’t stopped squealing since.

Anyone out there brave enough to watch it yet?

(Didn't know about the Jerry Zaks factor!)

Onstage Smoking Bans: A Hovering Cloud?

Yet more reportage on the increasingly dangerous activity of smoking while acting. This time from the AP.

We've heard about the outright bans in some cities, like Denver. New York is safe, for now.

Ever since 2003 when New York City banned smoking in enclosed public spaces, theater directors have been walking a thin line between artistic freedom and legal necessity. Under a special exemption for the arts, theaters are allowed to use tobacco-free cigarettes -- usually sweet-smelling herbal cigarettes....

[...]

But while herbal smoke generally doesn't linger on the audience as much as the tobacco equivalent, theater staff admit that some audience members see it as an intrusion from a less socially aware time.

"In a small theater, or where the audience surrounds the stage, the audience is always out of control as soon as a cigarette is pulled out," says [stage manager Barclay Stiff].

"Some people really do get worked up," reports Bartlett Sher, the director of Tony-nominated South Pacific.

"You will hear people coughing their lungs out on purpose as soon as an actor lights a single cigarette."
Geez, I know! If only they knew they were doing their own lungs more harm with their "protest-coughing" than any herbal whiff could ever do. (I actually have a theory these people just don't know they're herbals! They tend to be old and/or not very theatre savvy.)

But before I get too down on the anti-smokers (and I'm not even a smoker myself)...isn't it wild to think of the days--not too long ago, mind you--when you could have everyone on stage smoking, real cigarettes, and in the audience?

Does anyone out there know when smoking in the house was banned on Broadway?

Monday, June 09, 2008

Anna Shapiro

Nice NY Sun profile of Steppenwolf director Anna Shapiro by Joy Goodwin.

Ten years ago no female director had ever won a Tony award. If Shapiro wins for August: Osage County this year (as predicted) she will be the 5th.

Tiny bit of newsbreaking in the piece: confirmation that Shapiro did indeed turn down the ART job.

photo: Heuichul Kim

Props to NYT

Or to their charitable Foundation, at least.

Twenty-five not-for-profit theatres received a total of $82,000 in grant money awarded by The New York Times Company Foundation Fund for Mid-Size Theatres.

The Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York (A.R.T./New York) administered the awards, which were given to companies with annual operating budgets between $500,000 and $5 million.

Interesting that a $5 million dollar budget still only counts as "mid-size" in this town.

In case you're wondering, a "small" theatre would be one with an annual budget between $100,000 and $500,000. Less than $100,000? Don't ask. Luckily ART/NY runs a separate fund for the "small" group of $150,000 grants, to which the Times Foundation is also contributing, along with its main sponsor, Chase.

And I wonder how many "large"--i.e. over $5 million budgeted--nonprofit theatres there could even be in this city? Lincoln Center, Roundabout, that's two. MTC? Do they count BAM???

Anyway, thankfully the "mid-size" list is impressively inclusive and even extends beyond Manhattan, where those 82 G's will go much further:
  • Atlantic Theater Company, Inc.
  • Brooklyn Arts Exchange - BAX
  • Black Spectrum Theatre Company, Inc.
  • Classical Theatre of Harlem, Inc.
  • Coney Island USA
  • CSC Repertory, LTD
  • DiCapo Opera Theatre
  • Ensemble Studio Theatre
  • The Flea Theater
  • HERE Arts Center
  • The Irish Repertory Theatre, Inc.
  • La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, Inc.
  • Mabou Mines Development Foundation, Inc.
  • Ma-Yi Theatre Ensemble, Inc.
  • MCC Theater
  • Mint Theater Company, Inc.
  • Ping Chong and Company
  • Pregones Theater
  • Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre Co.
  • Queens Theatre in the Park, Inc.
  • Repertorio Espanol
  • Thalia Spanish Theatre, Inc.
  • Women's Project and Productions
  • Wooster Group, Inc.
  • Young Playwrights, Inc.
Use it well "middle" children. Use it well.

Friday, June 06, 2008

On B'way Plays Profit?

What do these five titles from this Broadway season have in common: "August: Osage County," "A Bronx Tale," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Cyrano de Bergerac," and "Macbeth."

If you said, they're all great evenings in the theatre--you'd be wrong, since I hear Bronx Tale was really lame. (Ok, I didn't see it.)

No, the answer is: they all recouped their initial capitalizing investment. Meaning they made money.

More unbelievably...they're the only shows of those that opened this past season that made money.

And not one of them is a musical.

Plus--aside from the one-man vanity project Bronx Tale (where I imagine the only people they had to pay were Chaz Palmentieri, a director and a stage manager), these are not shows with particularly low overheads. August, Cyrano, Macbeth, Cat...them's some big casts! And in all but August, you even had some genuine stars (Kevin Kline, Patrick Stewart, James Earl Jones, Terence Howard, and don't forget Jennifer Garner) getting above the AEA minimum salary, if you can believe it.

So while I'm hardly one to buy the over-enthusiastic meme that "the straight play on Broadway is back!" I guess these successes do prove something. Perhaps just that the combination of a classic title and a celebrity actor will probably still take you far in this business.

Of course, August is a brand new play by an author new to Broadway, whose name the audience probably still doesn't know. But what potential income it lost for that was probably made up for by the lack of any celebrity actor to pay!

As for the lessons of Bronx Tale... low overhead, baby. Low overhead.

Friday Riedel

"For a company whose latest show, 'The Little Mermaid,' received very few Tony nominations, Disney sure is getting a lot of time on the telecast."

-Michael Riedel, in today's Post, referring to all the "extras" in store for the CBS Tony broadcast this year, including homages to Lion King and Mary Poppins. To be fair, the non-Disney Rent is also getting a spot.

Again, repeat after me, it's not an awards show. It's an infomercial.

(And not even as entertaining as the Chuck Norris infomercials.)

Also in the column--Young Frankenstein's latest strategy to keep the monster alive after its Tony near-shutout is cutting the stars' salaries in half. As one outside observer is quoted as saying, "I've never heard of trying to get your stars to renew their contract by offering them half their salary...It's innovative. But everything they've done on this show is innovative."

Thursday, June 05, 2008

When Harold met Charlie

Pinter and Rose, that is.

Pinter's been on Charlie Rose a few times, the last, with the playwright being in ill health, being by far the most...cordial. I prefer this session from summer 2001, during the big Lincoln Center Pinterfest. He's still in top form, impressively healthy and robust. (He was acting in one of the shows, after all.) And doesn't shrink from a fight, especially when Charlie starts in with some jingoistic politics, including--explicitly--"American exceptionalism." ("Ugh, one more European beating us to death about the death penalty...")

Warning: this is a rough, often hard-to-watch interview. So if awkward pauses and barely veiled hostility makes you flinch, viewer discretion advised. Then again, if that's you, you probably haven't sat through a Pinter play, either.

One welcome respite from the proceedings is a meaty clip from the criminally unavailable 1981 Ben Kingsley-Jeremy Irons film of Betrayal. (Release the DVD!)

Enjoy. And assume the cringing position.




It's just the first 40 minutes. You can stay tuned for Mitch Albom after.

(Tuesdays with Harold--probably not coming to a theatre near you soon.)

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Cheek by Jowl

poster for Cheek by Jowl's Troilus and Cressida

One of my favorite classical troupes, Cheek By Jowl, gets a nice profile in the Guardian, giving a rare glimpse into the quarter-century collaboration between director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Omerod--partners offstage as well.

A primer:
Founded in 1981, the company sprang into being during one of British theatre's periodic bouts of obesity - a time when Lloyd Webber showstoppers were all the rage and massive, concept-obsessed productions dominated the subsidised sector. Donnellan and Ormerod, aspiring young director and designer respectively (and partners in real life), wanted to turn things around. Their company would be small, supple, and cheap to run. It would travel incessantly. And it would offer an eclectic repertoire, small-scale, boutique versions of core English plays alongside big European scripts - Sophocles through to Corneille and Racine. Somehow, it all worked: with Ormerod's clean, lean designs and Donnellan's irreverent yet subtle direction, they developed a reputation for teasing the intricacies from classic texts while skewering the pieties that surround them.
Also linked to the article, an audio supplement behind the scenes of their Troilus and Cressida. A must-listen for all Troilus fans. (I know you're out there!)

(More on the production, and more audio, at the Cheek By Jowl site.)

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

All Hail the Sound Designer!

It took a new Tony category, but the Times finally ran an article (penned by Mark Blankenship) on Sound Design in the theatre.

Given it was pegged to Sunday's Tony-rama promotion, though, the only designers profiled are the ones nominated. For Broadway shows.

Those parameters are a shame, since it's really Off and Off-Off B'way that sound design in NYC has really come into its own over the last decade, partially as a relatively low-budget design solution in a struggling showcase-code economy. (Think about how increasingly effective sound as been in lieu of stage scenery, for instance, to signify location.)

And of course there is the art of the "soundscape" as pioneered by directors like Richard Foreman (still running his cues old-style off some old Casio thingamajig) and Robert Woodruff, where sound is an equal design element in the total gesamkunstwerk, not just function, not just atmospheric, but a virtual character in the piece.

So let's hope they do an article on that, too, one day.

Paul Sills

Second City co-founder Paul Sills died yesterday, a very influential teacher and mentor for contemporary American theatre and entertainment. If the rise of improv as an aesthetic in late 20th century US performance can be traced anywhere, it is to him.

Here's an obit from Variety. And from the Trib's Chris Jones in Chicago, the city that Sills arguably put on the map as a theatre/comedy town.

Anyone out there study/work with him?

Monday, June 02, 2008

HERE @ YouTube

Downtown NY mecca HERE Arts Center has gotten themselves a YouTube channel. How enterprising!

If your theatre company or others you know of have one, too, let us know!

Such a "Loser" She'll "Do Anything"?

Lord Lloyd Webber's latest casting-by-reality show has a winner! Or is that, "loser":

After 12 weeks of competition, the future London production of “Oliver!” has found its Nancy. Jodie Prenger, 28, won Britain’s “I’d Do Anything” television talent contest on Saturday night...in a decision determined by public call-in voting, the BBC and The Daily Mail reported. For Ms. Prenger, right, of Blackpool, this is the second television competition victory in two years: she also won the British version of “The Biggest Loser” in 2006.
Not enough they're invading the theatre, the "reality shows" are cannibalizing each other!

And lest you think it's still a UK phenomenon, "The Search for Elle Woods" premieres on MTV tonight!
Filmed in New York City, the search will pull back the curtain on the audition process and show you exactly what it takes to become a Broadway star. The 10 lucky finalists will live together in a NYC loft while working their butts off with some of Broadway's biggest names, including choreographer Denis Jones, vocal coach Seth Rudetsky and some of the cast members of Legally Blonde. Plus, they'll be mentored by singer/actress Haylie Duff, who had her own starring role in the Broadway musical, Hairspray.

It's going to take a lot of hard work, dedication and determination to be the next blonde on Broadway, and the competing girls will be given a crash course in singing, dancing and acting. Each week, the Elle Woods wannabes will step onstage in front of a panel of judges that includes: Broadway actor Paul Canaan, casting director Bernard Telsey and Legally Blonde: The Musical writer Heather Hach. They'll critique the girls' performances, and each week someone's dreams of becoming a Broadway star will come crashing down. When it's down to the final two, Tony Award winning director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell will help determine who's got what it takes to be the next Elle Woods. The last girl standing will land the starring role in the blockbuster Broadway musical!
Hey, Hailey Duff!!!

What's this about "hard work," huh?

And do they even know, by the way, that being a "wannabe" is a bad thing?

Okay, well at least they're not leaving it up to viewer call-in's. (Pro's like Jerry Mitchell have obviously learned from the "Grease" fiasco--I'm sorry did I say fiasco? I meant financial juggernaut.) And adopting what's known as the "America's Top Model" model (with a little Real World thrown in) as opposed to the American Idol "amateur hour" template does at least increase the level of the talent pool, theoretically.

You also just gotta admire how the "Legally Blonde" brand has now found its footing thanks to MTV. Last year they got the show broadcast there, reaching a whole new audience of tweeny girls. Now those girls will be hooked on the reality show--those who didn't already audition for it!

What's actually happening is the show is slowly becoming an outright MTV property. Perhaps the only way left to sponsor mega-musicals. Meet the new corporate patrons of Broadway.

(By the way, back to the "Oliver" story, here's an interesting qualification from the actual show's producers: "the winning Nancy is scheduled to perform on Monday and Tuesday evenings, Wednesday matinees and Friday evenings. Until the show opens in December we cannot make a final decision on any additional performances.")