May 8, 2015

Catching Up Before Summer

Dakin Matthews and Helen Mirren in "The Audience." (Photo by Joan Marcus)
The Broadway season has come to an end, and while much of the exciting work this past year was Off-Broadway (and there's more to come, particularly Off-Broadway), the annual rush of intense theatregoing on all fronts has abated at last, for the time being. For both the NY Times and America magazine I had the pleasure of covering some of the biggest non-Broadway shows of the year so far: the hip-hop/history phenom Hamilton (feature, review), the near-perfect The Iceman Cometh from Chicago's Goodman Theatre (feature, review). Also Off-Broadway, I recently reviewed George Brant's unsettling solo show Grounded, starring the woman named for Shakespeare's wife:
If the notion of the military industrial complex once referred to the economy of armaments, and to their development and manufacturing as a disproportionately powerful political interest, what “Grounded” reminds us with blistering clarity is that warmaking itself can now be run on an industrial model. Not only our weapons are drones; our warriors are drones, too.

To this moral nightmare Brant adds another contemporary complication: His play’s protagonist is a woman, a former fighter pilot first grounded by an unexpected pregnancy, then by her country’s growing preference for conducting war by remote control. “No one ever comes back from the Chair Force,” she complains to the superior reassigning her to desk duty, but she soon takes a liking to the job’s unique mix of narrow, concentrated effort and risk-free firepower. Sitting at a simple chair but surrounded by Peter Nigrini’s immersive projection design, Hathaway’s desk-bound pilot stares into the sights of an omniscient screen and scans the frame for “military age males,” a.k.a. “the guilty.” Occasionally, though not as often she’d like, she gets to pull the virtual trigger and watch a silent grey explosion bloom.
I also had the chance to weigh in for America on a series of Broadway contenders. First, the unlikely puppet comedy Hand to God:
There will be blood by the denouement of Robert Askins’s play, now improbably but gratifyingly running on Broadway after two popular Off-Broadway productions, though the gore is ultimately more silly/gross than truly mortifying. This is still a species of comedy, after all, albeit one shot through with grief, mental illness and sexual predation. Perhaps what’s most touching about the show, and makes it much more than simply an exercise in bratty blasphemy, is its authentically teen-eyed view of Jason’s struggles with his mother and his own budding if stunted manhood. This vein of empathy is not only to the playwright’s credit but also due to the astounding lead performance of Steven Boyer, who’s about twice the age of his role but is utterly convincing as a sort of frail, inward-directed, not fully formed Charlie Brown type.

That’s only half of what Boyer does, of course: In a tour de force that is certain to catch the attention of Tony Award voters, he also acts out the aggressive actions and speech of his potty-mouthed id, Tyrone.
And I wrote about the cozy Anglophilia of Peter Morgan's The Audience:
Fame is both a prime subject and an intrinsic element of “The Audience,” directed with assurance by Stephen Daldry. Perhaps the most bewitching thing about Morgan’s play, which might otherwise be a stodgy slog, is the way Mirren’s and the queen’s very different kinds of fame reflect back and forth on each other, as in a hall of mirrors. The effect is both humanizing, since Mirren can’t help but bring shades of life and even mischief to the sovereign, whom she plays in her 20s through her present late 80s, as well as regalizing, if that’s a word. You come away with a sense of the woman’s stature, at least as Morgan conceives it—of the way that Elizabeth bestrides the world stage, albeit from a sidelong posture.

This large-as-life queen makes the politicians who promenade through her palace look small and craven by comparison, and that is also Morgan’s point.
Finally, I surveyed the season's musicals, both new and old, and declared the form in fine fettle:
If jazz and the blues are America’s essential native musics, the Broadway musical is arguably our country’s great indigenous narrative form, with roots in minstrelsy, vaudeville and operetta. While its purported Golden Age was roughly between the 1930s and the ’50s, and its Dark Ages were the British-dominated 1980s of “Cats” and “Les Miserables,” the American musical is currently in the pink of health, if we measure by the current Broadway season (and it shows plenty of vital signs beyond Broadway, as well).
Meanwhile, at my day job at American Theatre, I haven't been idle. I recently revisited an interview subject I'd first sized up for the Times, Center Stage's Kwame Kwei-Armah, who's written a new Bob Marley bio-musical. And I've covered the L.A. 99-seat wars from a few new angles, in Q&As with Equity's executive director, Mary McColl, and with actor Dakin Matthews. I chatted with former L.A. theater actor Silas Weir Mitchell, with the remarkable Anna Deavere Smith about her new project, and--bringing it all back to musicals--with Robert Schenkkan about his new New Testament-themed rock musical, The 12.

I also had the pleasure to review two new books about composer Leonard Bernstein, about whom I wrote:
Like a great playwright whose output must alternate with a demanding directing schedule, Lenny felt torn and increasingly worried—in a self-critique echoed by colleagues, both sympathetically and otherwise—that he had squandered one or the other of his great talents.

There was, of course, a third space, a middle ground, where Bernstein’s contradictions were assets, multipliers rather than dividers: the musical theatre, particularly as it was practiced during its purported Golden Age of the 1940s and ’50s. Here the composer’s intensely gregarious spirit found an ideal metier, both in the rough and tumble of collaboration with such colleagues as Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, Adolph Green and Betty Comden, and in the form’s omnivorous cultural sampling, where ballet was as at home as the blues. Bernstein wrote just four musicals, but the scores of three of them—On the Town, West Side Story and Candide—tower at the top of the field and remain his best-known legacy.
As I used to say to my Back Stage West readers: Read on, and tell me what you think.

Apr 9, 2015

The Way Is Clear, the Light Is Good, But It's Not Into the Woods

My review of the Disney film of Into the Woods is in the current issue of The Sondheim Review, and the editors have graciously allowed me to publish it in full here; it should be said that the magazine has also published a more upbeat counterpoint by my colleague Robert Faires. You can order an issue here.

“A thicket’s no trick./Is it thick?” one prince sings to another, in an inspired bit of fairy-tale shoptalk in the stage musical Into the Woods. His brother replies: “It’s the thickest.” The first prince delivers his advice matter-of-factly, as if from under the hood of a jalopy: “The quickest/Is pick it/Apart with a stick.”

One of the best things that can be said about Disney’s diverting but disappointing new film adaptation of Into the Woods is that, for all the violence it has wrought on the original stage version in the name of cinematic clarity, it has not picked apart Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 masterwork with a stick — or chain-sawed it or deforested it or whatever image of wanton destruction you prefer. The film has pruned and reshaped the original material with evident care and intention, if sometimes arguable taste. Lapine’s screenplay, in particular, does yeoman’s work in re-sorting and re-braiding the tangled strands of his original play script; I’ve never seen a stage version put his clever, interlocking plot elements across as cleanly and clearly. This pays rich dividends in the penultimate “Your Fault” number, in which the show’s characters engage in a Mexican standoff of entirely plausible cross-accusation.

On the other hand, reduced to its plot, Into the Woods can come off as a somewhat tame, preachy riff on the Brothers Grimm, at least in an age of Frozen and TV’s Once Upon a Time. What sets the original Into the Woods apart, with all due respect to Lapine, is Sondheim: his dense, sharp, propulsive score and his witty, aphoristic, shape-shifting lyrics. Probably the simplest way to sum up my criticism of the film is to say that there’s just not enough Sondheim in it, and his voice — both lyrically and musically — is sorely missed. It’s not just the cut songs and mostly absent full-chorus numbers, some of which survive in part but in oddly truncated forms; it’s that the film doesn’t sound scored by Sondheim in the way the stage version does (despite orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, who orchestrated the original musical). Arranger David Krane — credited with the musical score adaptation — has repurposed some of the unsung songs into instrumental accompaniments (and even tossed in a nice, if jarring, quote from A Little Night Music), but he’s also conjured some conventional film music out of what sound to me like generic, distinctly un-Sondheimian materials. I’ve never been a special fan of the Baker’s father-son number, “No More,” but it serves a crucial function in the show that is now covered by a perfunctory scene of James Corden’s Baker chatting with his dad’s ghost, then crying alone over some sad music. In a purported musical, it feels decidedly odd to have such a big emotional moment go by without a song.

This points to the central problem with director Rob Marshall’s film: If you simply reduce the quantity of singing or try to trim this nearly through-composed piece into a series of dialogue scenes and numbers, then the instances in which characters do sing rather than speak take on overloaded significance. It’s a testament to the formal daring of the original show that many of its songs just don’t hold up that way; they’re not big standalone numbers, but are instead woven into the fabric of the score’s near-recitative repetition and thematic development. Too much of the Into the Woods film plays like a relatively conventional fairy-tale remix punctuated with the occasional much-less-conventional song; both of these elements are reasonably strong and earn their keep, but this kind of divided vision is arguably no longer Into the Woods, nor does it work all that well on its own terms.

How does it fare as a movie musical adaptation? It’s better than most (nearly all of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon fared worse, in my opinion), but not as good as the best (Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof and Hedwig and the Angry Inch would go on my shortlist of best film musicals adapted from the stage, though it should be said that Marshall’s snappy film of Chicago deserves kudos, as well). And while the material resists conventional song-and-scene adaptation, songs that are more self-contained fare quite well here: “Moments in the Woods,” “On the Steps of the Palace” and “Last Midnight.”

The casting is more variable in quality than might be wished, but thankfully the women are strong all around, especially Meryl Streep’s capacious, rangy Witch — there are few, if any, performers who could give such an outsized character so many wrinkles of nuance — and Emily Blunt’s limpid, nervy Baker’s Wife. If Anna Kendrick seems overly chirpy as Cinderella, it’s of a piece with her performance, which feels authentically youthful, guileless and distracted.

Speaking of youth, the casting of actual youngsters (Daniel Huttlestone and Lilla Crawford) as Jack and Little Red Riding Hood makes obvious filmic sense as the fictive, grief-stricken band of survivors assembles around the story’s climactic giant crisis — children in jeopardy and all that — but that’s about the best I can say about their presence here.

I wish I could say good things about Johnny Depp’s weirdly dandy-ish wolf — he was much better in Tim Burton’s sinuous Gothic film of Sweeney Todd — but unfortunately he’s the least of the film’s male casting problems. The princes (Chris Pine, Billy Magnussen) are, in a word, terrible; parodies of stock heroes, these roles wither when played winkingly, but Marshall has encouraged Pine and Magnussen to camp it up from their first entrance, with immediately diminishing returns. (It’s probably a mercy that the reprise of “Agony,” which contains the above exchange about picking through a thicket, was axed.)

Corden is not so much miscast as the Baker as underused. Deprived of his big 11 o’clock number, he’s left to caper about the woods empathetically and good-naturedly, clambering from one story point to another. He epitomizes the film of Into the Woods, really: He’s game, he’s competent, he’s a softy at heart, and though he can sing a bit, he’s all about the story. Fine and well, as far as it goes. But if the film version proves anything, it’s that with the original Into the Woods score — probably Sondheim’s thickest thicket — the trick is that it can’t really be picked apart, neither with a stick nor with the deftest of screenplays.

Mar 1, 2015

Sweating Equity

The last thing I wrote about the controversy over L.A.’s Equity 99-Seat Plan, for American Theatre magazine, was more personal than the typical news report; I felt I couldn’t help but inject my own experience into a debate I’ve watched for most of my professional life. But now, after several more Facebook back-and-forths, private chats, and a thoughtful podcast with my friend Isaac Butler (which, based on the retweets and shares it’s gotten, is being perceived as more pro-Equity’s position than not), I feel the need to get even more personal about the possible end of the plan as we’ve known it--as essentially a way for union actors to lend their talent for peanuts to small theater productions in L.A.

In the podcast, Isaac spoke sympathetically about how painful it must be for Equity actors who’ve built decades of work, and forged much of their artistic identities, via this largely non-remunerative-workaround scene to have their own union now come along and say, “Oh, that work you’ve been doing all these years? Sorry--not real work, illegitimate amateur vanity bullshit, shouldn’t have happened, won’t happen again.” If I'm honest, though I myself only ever appeared in three 99-seat productions in my two decades in L.A. (as a musician and/or music director), I can't help taking this diss personally, as well. I have a lot more skin in the game than may seem clear at first glance (even to me).

Yes, I’ve written about how formative the small theaters of L.A. were to my theatergoing taste and sensibility, but I don’t think I’ve put it strongly enough. Los Angeles theater basically created me as an arts/theater journalist, and the vast majority of that theater was produced under the 99-seat plan. And so much of the best of it would either not have happened at all or would have looked a lot, lot different minus the union actors allowed to work in it by the 99-seat plan. In my AT piece I compared the feeling of watching Equity actors and small theaters ready to split over this issue to a divorce, but it’s starting to feel like something closer to deep-seated existential dread--like, did I dream all that great theater? Was it all a mistake? Was I the unwitting stooge of a theatrical sweatshop regime I should have fought to end? Has my professional theatergoing life been based on a fraud?

To give you some idea what I’m talking about: I saw my first Beckett in small L.A. theater (and my second). My first Pinter (and second). Most of Sondheim. Chuck Mee. Caryl Churchill, Sheila Callaghan, Maria Irene Fornes. Dael Orlandersmith, Erik Ehn, Thornton Wilder, Michael John LaChiusa, David Edgar, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Chekhov. Miller, Balzac, Coward, SchillerPirandello, Ionesco. Mary Zimmerman. G.B. Shaw, Strindberg. OyamO. Paula Vogel. Mike Leigh. Athol Fugard, who did the world premiere of Exits and Entrances at the Fountain. Lorca. Charles Ludlam. Conor McPherson. A bunch of Shakespeare, Brecht, some of the Greeks. Freaking City of Angels and Candide! Cabaret. And Shopping and Fucking and Orson’s Shadow. I could go on...

I wasn’t checking the asterisks in the program, but trust me--the best of these productions weren’t acted by non-union kids straight out of school; just making a list off the top of my head of actors you may have heard of who worked in 99-seat theater in my time, some of them before they made their name in film and TV, others after, I came up with Alfred Molina, Ian McShane, Anna Gunn, Philip Baker Hall, Orson Bean, Phil LaMarr, Jack Black, David Dukes, Robert Foxworth, Harry Groener, Zachary Quinto, Jessica Hecht, Brian Cox, Nick Offerman, Patricia Heaton, John C. Reilly, Holly Hunter, Greg Itzin, Gregory Jbara, Megan Mullally, Byron Jennings, Carol Kane, Richard Kind, Amy Landecker, Sharon Lawrence, Tim Robbins, Kyra Sedgwick, Jeffrey Tambor. Justin Tanner’s extraordinary repertory of kitchen-sink comedies, which remains among the high points of my theatergoing lifetime, could conceivably have happened in a non-Equity context, but they probably wouldn’t have been able to cast Mark Ruffalo, Laurie Metcalf, French Stewart or Pamela Segall.

These and countless other great, great actors, union and non-, essentially gave their work away for a pittance, and I count myself among the prime beneficiaries. What I gained was a theater education, without which I wouldn’t know what I'm talking about, or care enough to. In a sense, I owe them my career.

So what’s eating at me now is: How do I best pay that gift back? By throwing my support behind those who want that scene to continue, more or less unchanged? Or by saying to the artists who’ve made L.A.’s small theater scene one of most vibrant in the world, and certainly in my experience: Thank you, but you shouldn’t have changed my life for so little money? And all who come after you shouldn't have the chance to do the same under the same or similar terms?

"The terms" are, of course, the rub; they're the axis on which the whole debate turns. And it’s not as if this is the first time I’ve noted the dysfunction and bad incentives built into this shadow economy. Back Stage West was an actor’s trade, after all, so we didn’t just review theater and give it awards; we also regularly looked under the hood of how it was getting made. I had many conversations over the years with Michael Van Duzer, Equity's patient, tireless 99-seat liaison, who had the thankless job of policing a non-contract that his union only grudgingly recognized. (A lot more about the history here and here; Van Duzer was reportedly fired last year as part of Equity's new push to crack down on the plan.)

And I remember standing on the construction site of Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena with the architect, John Sergio Fisher, and thinking: They’re spending $5 million to build a beautiful new performing arts center with a 99-seat theater in it, and they can’t find more money for actors? (I wondered as much in print at the time.) That theater, of course, has grown into a new-play incubator of national significance, and its largish budget (north of $1 million) may make it better positioned than many in L.A. to weather Equity’s proposed changes, but it’s hard for me to see how it would have risen to that position as quickly without the 99-seat plan.

I can reconcile myself intellectually to the union argument, to the laws of supply and demand, the marketplace, etc. It’s true that L.A.’s small theaters haven’t done a great job of developing a market for their work, and that has a lot to do with the self-defeating incentive structure of the 99-seat plan; you don’t need to create much of an audience to keep scraping by, nor do you need to shore up enough to build serious infrastructure; it's much to easy to just pour the money back into another show (which, to address a recent objection by Isaac, is where those seemingly midsized theaters with six-digit-and-more incomes are spending most of that money; you can argue that it’s a bug, not a feature, that the plan incentivizes the creation of so much work without paying actors wages, but those doing the creating--many of them actors themselves--see it differently.)

Bottom line, if you’re doing art for art’s sake, by definition you are outside the market, so it’s almost inevitable that your encounters with market forces--in this case, union workers, but in a larger sense any kind of real-world economic pressure--will create headaches somewhere down the line, particularly if you start doing that art-for-its-own-sake so regularly that you begin to quasi-institutionalize it, form boards, gather donations--professionalize it, pay-wise, in every department but the actors' compensation. (A professionalization that, by the way, has well-served L.A.'s theater patrons, who can mostly expect pleasant, air-conditioned theaters with decent seats and amenities--niceties that may not be as highly prioritized under Equity's proposal to allow "self-produced" non-contract projects as long as they aren't professionalized in any other way.)

So it's become hard for me to listen to folks who pretend that there's no conflict at all between having a union card and working for free in that union's jurisdiction, some of whom even go so far as to posit that artists shouldn't expect to be paid anyway if it's art, and certainly not in the theater, where there's "no money." There self-evidently is money there, just not enough to sustain all the artists who want to work in it. And the huge, pent-up desire of actors to do more fulfilling stage work than is on offer--a desire that still burns in them after they've gotten their union card, often even moreso--is what led to the 99-seat plan in the first place, and to the great, apparently fleeting 30-year interregnum of theater for which I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat (or good seats, at least).

That desire to get onstage will be much, much harder to slake in L.A. if Equity's proposals go through; maybe the new restrictions, though they will feel punitive to many, will be good for some union actors; maybe a few more will be able to sustain themselves doing exclusively or mostly theater work in L.A. It won't be good, though, for folks like me, or for the younger versions of myself who are coming up in the theater journalism racket, and will have to satisfy their curiosity about theater by reading scripts and reviews of far-off productions of the above playwrights.

This post is really more a eulogy than an argument; I concede much of the union's logic on principle, even if I find their tactics misguided and hamhanded. I just feel the need to express that I still feel like hell about this potential impending loss; it’s literally keeping me up at night. And if I, who built a career mostly at secondhand to L.A.’s vibrant small-theater scene and now live and work in New York City, am feeling this torn up about the possibility of the coming changes, what must it be like to be a theater artist faced with this unappetizing Hobson’s choice?

Feb 24, 2015

American (and L.A.) Revolutions

The rest of 2015 will have a lot to live up to: In quick succession, I've already seen/written about/considered two of the best productions I'll probably see in years, let alone this calendar year. First was Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's great new musical--which today is apparently likely to announce a transfer to Broadway, though whether before the Tony deadline or after is anyone's guess (smart money seems to be on the former; I'm holding out hope for the latter, because I think the Public, and the public, deserves the rest of that Off-Broadway run). I chatted with Miranda and fellow founding-father players at the Fraunces Tavern for the Times, then had the good fortune to review the show for America:
As surehanded a piece of musical storytelling as has been seen onstage in many a season, “Hamilton” is all the more impressive for tackling a supremely unlikely subject: the founding of the United States as seen through the eventful life of one its less lionized figures, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. But creator Lin-Manuel Miranda—who wrote the music, lyrics and book, and stars in the title role—makes a convincing case for Hamilton, the “ten-dollar founding father without a father,” as the first of a distinctly American type: the immigrant outsider of humble beginnings who remakes, and ultimately undoes, himself with sheer chutzpah and hustle.

It is an angle on the nation’s creation myth that, like Hamilton’s, is both expansive and pragmatic: This is a country where freedom would have a chance to reign like never before, but only if the heavy lifting of governance was met with the same fervor as revolution had been. “Dying is easy, young man/ Living is harder,” Gen. George Washington (Christopher Jackson) tells the impetuous, battle-hungry Hamilton when he enlists him as his wartime consigliere. Later, amid the squabbling of his cabinet, President Washington echoes the line: “Fighting is easy/ Governing is harder.” It is a timely message for our age of gridlock and retrenchment, in which debates over the size and role of government have if anything only intensified.
Then cameth Iceman, in a definitive production from the Goodman Theatre. I had the rare privilege of watching an entire run-through at the Goodman's Chicago rehearsal space for this Times preview; I worried that seeing the show onstage at BAM couldn't possibly live up to the intimacy of that run-through. It more than did. Again, for America:
Alternately affectionate and withering about its characters’ fatal insignificance, “Iceman” is unmistakably infused with O’Neill’s native emotion, which is a sort of existential survivor’s guilt; and here, amid the play’s toasts and revels, he goes well beyond callow thoughts of suicide to the bleak, Sophoclean notion that it would have been better never to have been born at all. That cheery takeaway message, in addition to the play’s nearly-five-hour length and large cast size, are among the reasons the play is seldom done; though considered a masterwork, “Iceman” has cometh to New York only four times since its 1946 debut.

The play has just returned in a rousingly thoughtful new production from Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, encamped through Mar. 15 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The musical association is apropos, for what director Robert Falls’s production demonstrates, among many other things, is that “Iceman” works best as a kind of symphony, with both its large-scaled form and its multi-vocal parts given orchestral heft and balance. Perhaps not coincidentally, at the helm of the cast is a musical theater pro, Nathan Lane, who plays the glad-handing salesman Hickey with his full range of cockeyed charm, sardonic wit and little-boy-lost pathos.
In other recent writing, I ventured back into the fray of the L.A. 99-seat wars for American Theatre, and this time it got personal. If it is a curse to live in interesting times, then I can count myself very cursed of late. (There's more of my thinking/arguing on the topic here.)

Feb 18, 2015

The Afterlife of Theater

Mercedes Reuhl and Bill Pullman in The Goat
(photo by Sara Krulwich/NY Times)
Bill Pullman said something really interesting in this interview--and it wasn't the fact that he's playing Othello in Norway (an odd, possibly troubling notion that got some intelligent pushback from at least one reader). It was instead this bracing, almost entirely counterintuitive statement about theater vs. film. I asked him about all the lucrative film and TV work he must be ducking to slip off to Norway and do a play, and he replied:
This is so important to my life. I'll tell you, all the film and television things—you do them, and everyone gets so excited about them, and then they disappear so fast. Whereas I’m always amazed about the shelf life of a theatre piece. The Goat was on Broadway, the longest run I had ever done, I think it was seven months, and 600,000 people saw that. That’s a bad night for a movie or a TV show, where if you get 10 million, that’s a disappointment. But people always come up to talk to me about The Goat, and that TV show I did shortly before? Twelve years later, no one has mentioned it. The theatre has more staying power than you think. Maybe it’s a smaller pool of people, but the integrity of the experience stays with them.
I've never thought of it quite that way; I'm in the enviable/terrible position of taking too many of my theater experiences for granted (occupational hazard). But he's got a point, and it's going to stick with me.

Feb 5, 2015

Hamilton's New York Moment

From left, Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. from the cast of “Hamilton.” CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times
One of the most infectious sentiments in Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's great new musical about our country's founding fathers, is voiced by the women. The socialite Schuyler sisters, one of whom Alexander Hamilton actually married, the other of whom he loved at least as much as his wife, have a song about how lucky they feel to be living in New York City at the moment they are--that it's the most exciting place in the world to be right now. Among the many ways Hamilton viscerally connects musty old Colonial history to today (reminding us that the revolution was a protest movement led by young, ambitious, often hotheaded men of all classes who agreed about very little; that gun violence has always been a key part of the American character, and so on), the notion that New York City is where it's at--a self-perpetuating myth that keeps young people pouring into it, even in our vastly unequal post-Bloomberg age--feels very moving and immediate for me right now.

Because whenever my enthusiasm for my profession or for the state of contemporary theater flags--and to be honest, it does on occasion--something like Hamilton comes along, whacks me upside the head, and lets me know: Oh yeah, this is why I do it; this is why I'm in New York City right now. To be sure, the intrinsic merits of Hamilton transcend its specific provenance as a hip-hop/pop musical written by a talented Nuyorican and performed at the Public Theater by the best multiracial cast on a New York stage at present--it seems clear already that this show is going be with us for as long as there are stages in America. But just for the moment I feel like basking in the glow of not only the show's brilliance but its specific, irreducible New York-ness, and the fact that I'm around to see it, rave about it, and--luckiest of all--report on it for the paper of record.

Last week, as the city was about to shut down for a blizzard, I sat and talked with Miranda, who plays Hamilton, and with the actors who play George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr, at Fraunces Tavern, where all those real historical figures hung out. It was historic.

In conversation and on social media, I've compared the show to Sweeney Todd, and that's not hyperbole--it has some of densest yet sharpest lyrics I've ever heard in a musical, and as such gives almost tactile pleasure just in the hearing of them, in a way that tracks with my experience of Sweeney. It's a comparison, I hasten to add, that I would not have expected to make about a show by the songwriter of the very pleasant, competent In the Heights. With this sophomore effort, though, it is as if Sondheim skipped directly from Saturday Night to Sweeney. Seriously. I think Lin gives a clue as to why here, taking a cue from the Sondheimian motto, "Anything you do/Let it come from you":
“With ‘Heights,’ we took great care to make sure everyone felt very taken care of: ‘We’re gonna be rapping, and you’re gonna get a lot of information at the same time,’ ” Mr. Miranda said. “I wanted to be a little more selfish with this — I wanted the lyrics to have the density that my favorite hip-hop albums have.” That’s why Mr. Miranda initially billed the project as “The Alexander Hamilton Mixtape”: “It was easier to think of it as a hip-hop album, because then I could really just pack the lyrics.” He soon realized, he said with a laugh, “I only know how to write musicals.”
I will close in saying that today happens to be my birthday, and I can't think of a better way to spend it...than seeing Hamilton again tonight.

Feb 2, 2015

Primed for The Iceman

Stephen Ouimette and cast in an "Iceman" rehearsal. (Photo by Liz Lauren)
I had the great privilege recently of sitting in a Chicago rehearsal room and watching the 18-person cast of the Goodman's production of The Iceman Cometh run through the entire five-hour show. They were in street clothes with makeshift set elements and some props, but I will long hold the intimate, lived-in frisson of that room with me. It will be a tough act to top, for this or any other play.

The occasion for my visit was this piece in the Times, which focuses on the seemingly unorthodox casting of Nathan Lane--both in the production's original 2012 run in Chicago, and its upcoming run at BAM--as Hickey, the salesman who's arrived at Harry Hope's bar to crush its patrons' hopes. As I wrote:
Mr. Lane’s casting may signal a departure from the popular conception of Hickey, fixed by Jason Robards’s 1956 Off Broadway turn in the role, which was featured in a TV film in 1960 and on Broadway in 1985. Mr. Robards set the tone for Hickey as a cynical, diabolical harbinger of doom, a tone that was picked up in later New York revivals: James Earl Jones’s in 1974, Kevin Spacey’s in 1999.

But casting a comic actor in the role is not such a radical idea. A former vaudevillian, James Barton, originated the role on Broadway in 1946, in a production few considered a success. And the notion is supported by O’Neill’s stage directions: Hickey is described as “a stout, roly-poly figure” with a “round and smooth and big-boyish” face, “a button nose, a small, pursed mouth” and eyes that “have the twinkle of a humor which delights in kidding others but can also enjoy equally a joke on himself.” In short, “he exudes a friendly, generous personality that makes everyone like him on sight.”

“It’s sort of shocking how O’Neill describes Nathan Lane,” [the director, Robert] Falls said. “He doesn’t really describe Jason Robards.”
A few things I wasn't able to find room for into my Times piece: For one thing, though I haven't yet seen Falls's production, I could tell from that run in the room that it was an extraordinary one, and not just because of the star casting; indeed the entire company, from John Douglas Thompson to Kate Arrington to Stephen Ouimette to Lee Willkof to Salvatore Inzerillo, is comprised actors who could each carry their own shows (and have). Also apparent, even in the rehearsal room, was that Falls has staged each of the play's four acts on a different set--and he assured me in a later interview that this is indeed a departure from how Iceman is usually staged, on a single barroom set. (That "usually" is probably an overstatement, as this behemoth of a work is not frequently mounted at all. It's been on Broadway just four times since its 1946 premiere, and in New York more or less the same number; the famous Jason Robards Jr. production of 1956 ran Off-Broadway but later came to Broadway in 1985.)

One other detail that would seem to bespeak Falls' authority as an O'Neill specialist--he has staged most of the playwright's major works, a few more than once--is that he's trimmed a whole character, the retired cop Pat McGloin. He did the same cosmetic trim in his 1990 production of Iceman, with Brian Dennehy as Hickey, but told me that no critic then, and no critic of the Goodman's 2012 production, has mentioned it. Duly noted here.

Finally, while both Dennehy and Falls recommended I check out Stephen A. Black's book Beyond Mourning and Tragedy, as well as the indispensable bio by the Gelbs, both also said I should look up an essay by Tony Kushner about O'Neill. I did, but could only find it as an entry in academic journals; I read it via a jstor hookup, and felt the world should have more access to it--it is a beautifully written essay, a definitive defense of one great American dramatist by another. So I reached out to the author, and now you can read Kushner's "The Genius of O'Neill" on the American Theatre website. Key insight:
I can make no claim for O’Neill as one of the great writers, only as one of the greatest playwrights; for these two things, writing and playwriting, are not the same, and O’Neill’s work makes that clearer than any other’s.
Honestly, I went into this assignment an O'Neill agnostic--to be fair, I haven't yet seen his greatest plays in the greatest of productions--but I couldn't have been better prepared, in reporting this piece, to become a believer.

Now, to line up child care for a five-hour play.