Jun 3, 2016

The Stew Files

I first saw Stew performing in the mid-1990s with a band improbably named Crazy Sound All-Stars at a place called Onyx Echo in Los Feliz; I was invited by a college friend, Carey Fosse, who was playing guitar with the band. I distinctly remember a few things about the set: There was a song in 7/4; there was a song, as Stew explained in a bit of signature preamble patter, about an ex-girlfriend's attempt to make him stick around by using an old hoodoo spell that included her putting her menstrual blood in his food; and there was Stew's strong, unmistakeable but lightly worn trickster presence.

I didn't actively follow his and Heidi Rodewald's band, the Negro Problem, in subsequent years, but I almost didn't have to; his raised-eyebrow visage and the band's signature post-Beatles power pop were all over L.A. in the late '90s/early aughts. By the time Passing Strange came around, he and Rodewald were no longer Angelenos, but that city's suburban smog and sunshine still seemed to pulse through their music, and that give me a common frame of reference with them; add in the rock reference points and theatre reference points, and you have a recipe for a long, deep affinity that culminated with my recent piece for the Times about Stew & Heidi's current Public Theatre show The Total Bent.

That's just the latest in a string of pieces I've scribbled about Stew and his work over the years. It began when I was writing for TDF, for whom I interviewed Heidi on the eve of Passing Strange's opening on Broadway, who told me "We're at this point because we didn't think of Broadway," and one of the show's sensational stars, de'Adre Aziza, who said she identified "more as a musician than as an actor" (which sells her talent a bit short---she's great at both). Around the same time I mused in this space about the surprisingly logical convergence of "indie" rock and nonprofit theatre.

Then at American Theatre I wrote this big, honkin' cover story about "band musicals,", in which Stew and Heidi were primary sources, naturally. My conversation with them was so rich, in fact, that I later serialized it in its near-entirety in this space, kicking it off with one of my most popular posts ever, "Drinking With Stew (and Heidi)." The following summer they were preparing an original musical for Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Family Album, and I had the chance to write a lengthy piece about that for the OSF subscribers' magazine Illuminations; none of that material is online except for this taste (click the "more information" line).

For the piece about The Total Bent for the paper of record, I had more long, searching talks with Stew about rock, theatre, and religion. In the Times piece I closed this way:
Another pet topic of Stew’s that gets a workout is the intersection of rock and religion, the ostensible battle between God and the devil that’s long been a blues trope. Stew said he “never really got the whole sacred/profane duality. I connected church to rock ’n’ roll so early. There wasn’t like one side or the other.” As one character says in “The Total Bent,” “Blues is just gospel’s last name.”

This is more than simple music criticism; the metaphor is reciprocal. To Stew, the notion of “going into a place completely clean, and coming out all sweaty and filled with the Holy Spirit” aptly describes both a sanctuary and a rock club.

“That makes it impossible for me to criticize believers,” he said, “because I, too, believe in this invisible thing that I can’t point to or explain but I know is there. I can’t point to the chord that made me a better person. It’s not that different.”
The full exchange that was taken from went as follows. Stew explained that the church he grew up in, Messiah Baptist on Adams Blvd. in Los Angeles, was the kind of place where "the Holy Spirit visited; he checked in, but not every Sunday. I think the Holy Ghost spent more time at the storefront church." Messiah's more chilled-out Christianity ("All the questioning, all the gender stuff, the healings---those didn’t happen at my church") meant that's Stew main takeaway was
this idea that I’m going into this place completely clean, and coming out all sweaty and filled with the Holy Spirit. So I never really got the whole scared/profane duality. I connected church to rock 'n' roll so early. There wasn’t like one side or the other. The music was always rockin' in my church. I learned to sing in church, I learned to play guitar. All my church friends were black rock geeks; on the surface, they were good boys, but they were smoking pot and listening to white rock music. I mean, my first joint was passed to me in the basement of that church. I had a little church band for a minute where we were seeing how much we could get away with. One time we did the Velvets' "Sunday Morning." We wrote some of original songs. We weren’t heretics.
That rang with me for a lot of reasons, the most immediate being that the Sunday after Lou Reed died, I sang both "Sunday Morning" and "I'll Be Your Mirror" with my own little church band in Brooklyn. As LP records taught us, it all comes full circle.

Apr 11, 2016

Dangerous Nerves: Laurie Metcalf

This interview originally appeared in the April 12, 2001 issue of Back Stage West.

"How's my light?" asked Laurie Metcalf as the cover photo for this story was being taken, and then she realized aloud: "That's the first time I've asked that in my career. My characters are never the kind who worry about their light."

That's a double-edged testament to the niche this brilliant fortysomething actress has carved out for herself, first at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, of which she was an original member, then on New York stages, in film, and in series TV, most notably Roseanne and currently Norm. On screen, her barely contained manic energy gets her cast consistently as the sister, the co-worker, the sidekick, the nutty lady next door—she's made her career as a character actor, in other words. And like most great character actors, Metcalf honed her talent on the stage, so that even when she's cast essentially as "herself"—as so many actors are in TV—she delivers more than a bundle of quirks and nerves. Her acting conveys a strong point of view, a perspective on human striving and failing, that comes through whether the role is a big departure from her personality.

That strong point of view would seem to have been with her from the start, and it could emerge in the most unlikely ways: Her Steppenwolf colleague Glenne Headly told Back Stage West last fall that she first saw Metcalf do one line as a maid in Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound: "All she had to do was say, 'Black or white, madam?'" recalled Headly. "She conveyed so much about that character with that one line. She was a very hateful maid, and it was so funny. I thought to myself, This person has comic genius. And I hadn't really ever seen it in person, onstage. I got scared for a second because I thought, She's that good—and on just one line."

Indeed, while Metcalf won three Emmys for playing Jackie, Roseanne's comically neurotic sibling on that long-running sitcom, there's a sense that folks without regular access to a Chicago stage over the past two decades haven't seen her best work. We've read about her take on Laura in The Glass Menagerie (as a clumping, slightly deranged cripple), about her searing portrayal of the young hooker in Balm in Gilead, and about her legendary double-casting in Libra as both Lee Harvey Oswald's mother, Marguerite, and Oswald's frightening associate, David Ferrie. However, L.A. theatre audiences have only seen her sympathetic turn in Garry Marshall's Wrong Turn at Lungfish and in a handful of unlikely roles in Justin Tanner's stoned screwball comedies at the Cast Theatre.

Now, at last, we get the chance to see Metcalf assay a meaty role in a world premiere at one of L.A.'s major resident theatres: She'll appear in Jane Anderson's Looking for Normal, starting this week at the Geffen Playhouse, as Irma, the wife of a man (played by Beau Bridges) who undergoes a sex-change operation. "It has a chance of being a really, really interesting production," she told me, early in the rehearsal process under director Ron Lagomorsino. And, while the roles of Jackie and of Laurie Freeman (on Norm) are essentially versions of the real Metcalf, Irma, though Midwestern, has qualities and views "that are very hard for me to identify with, so that's interesting to work on."

Interesting to work on—this could be the phrase that sums up this Midwestern former secretary's work ethic and questing intelligence. When we met with her recently at the Geffen, where her Steppenwolf colleagues Randall Arney and Stephen Eich serve as artistic director and managing director, respectively, we mentioned another Steppenwolfer, John Mahoney, who recently appeared at the Geffen in The Weir. She mentioned the many projects Mahoney has going and called him good-naturedly "a workaholic." That seemed as good a place to start as any.

Back Stage West: Are you a workaholic, too?
Laurie Metcalf: Yeah, I am. I'm getting away from it now, though. I guess it started coming straight from college, when we all formed the company and had tons of energy. We just weren't happy unless we were rehearsing a play during the day and performing a different one that night, overlapping constantly. We didn't know what to do with ourselves when we weren't doing that. It probably comes from that. But as I've gotten older, I've mellowed a little in my workaholicism. I'm able to enjoy some time off, y'know?

BSW: I've read that you started acting when you were young, putting on plays with neighborhood kids.
Metcalf: They weren't even plays; I'd never been to a play. They were sort of lip-synching to records. The choice of records was very limited. For some reason we had an album of the musical Gypsy, and so I learned the songs from there and would lip-synch them and charge money.

BSW: So you've felt the urge to perform since you were young?
Metcalf: It is odd that I was doing that at such a young age—under 10—because I was so shy. When I went to high school, there was a drama club, and I was too shy and horrified to audition for anything, but I did, finally, in my junior year, work up the nerve to audition. I got in a play. I found the auditioning was the hard part. The play—I just sort of had a connection to it. It was very broad, the character, which I guess sort of colored how I still go about things. It was a comedy. I got a couple of laughs in a very small part in, I think, Auntie Mame.

I wouldn't say I was hooked, though, because I went to college as a German major, not knowing what the hell I was going to do with that. Being as practical as I am, I thought that I would never, ever major in theatre, because it was a dead-end street financially. I knew what the odds were. When I did hook up with my fellow Steppenwolf actors in college, I was in my junior year. We all formed the company in Highland Park, and I ended up majoring in theatre sort of by default.

BSW: Was that when you got hooked?
Metcalf: By then I was. My daughter is 17, and she's looking at colleges, and she's sort of flirted with the idea of being an actress. I know she could do it if she wanted to, but she wants to find if she likes something better. I sometimes imagine that I was hooked on acting from the beginning—but then I look back and realize, no, in high school it was really a take-it-or-leave-it kind of thing, because I was focused on what I should major in to make a living.

BSW: Are you encouraging your daughter's interest in acting?
Metcalf: Well, I had a pretty cushy ride. I wouldn't have done it on my own. I did it with a group of people who had all the ambition as a group; there was someone holding my hand the whole way. I know that I would be a secretary in St. Louis right now if it weren't for Steppenwolf. I'm absolutely sure of it. In fact, I did enjoy being a secretary very much. That was my day job when we were starting the company. I could type really fast. If my daughter Zoe does end up acting at all, it'll probably be the same way, just dabbling in it; then if she dabbles in it, she might get hooked.

BSW: You mentioned your broad approach to roles, and I think of the production of The Glass Menagerie I've read about. I wish I could have seen that.
Metcalf: I'd love to see that, too. It fit us to a tee when we did it. I remember my character, Laura, saying, "I'm going to be 23 in June," and that was me. I didn't just play her with the physical defect—we went all the way with it. There was something mentally very, very wrong with her. Sometimes when you see the show done, Laura is very pretty, and maybe if she parted her hair on the other side she'd have a boyfriend. This Laura, when you saw her from the very beginning, had no hope at all. It made it more devastating for everybody.

BSW: But can you talk about your approach to roles? You call it broad, Gary Sinise calls it "wacky."
Metcalf: I do attack roles 100 percent. When I do that, I have a lot of energy. Usually, onstage is when I have the most energy in my life. The rest of the time, I'm pretty… I don't know, I have pent-up energy in me all the time, and when I'm onstage, boom, it comes out. Having all that energy and trying to rein it in a little and making sure that it's at least real, the performance becomes, I guess, in a drama sort of aggressive, or in a comedy pretty out there. I don't know how to do any role I have unless it's just full force. A character like the lead in Pot Mom—y'know, she's all doped up, so physically, in some scenes, I had to be more relaxed than others. But usually I can find some point where all of that physical energy comes out. I like to, technique-wise, put a spin on things, do an odd line reading somewhere—do something when you least expect it.

BSW: It sounds like that would make you a strong auditioner—in terms of making strong choices about a part and committing to them.
Metcalf: Commitment—it's true. If you commit to something, you show the people you're auditioning for how that part should be played sometimes. You change people's minds.

I became a very weak auditioner, actually. I'd been doing theatre with my own company for I don't know how many years before I auditioned for a job outside that actually paid money. We were in New York, doing Balm in Gilead, and I had an audition for my first movie. I didn't have an agent. It was for Desperately Seeking Susan, and it was a fun audition; we had to improv a little. I was relaxed. I'd never had to audition in the 10 years prior because we just cast ourselves. I got the part; that was great. Then I got an agent, and he told me how much the part paid, and it was a staggering amount to me at the time because it was movie money, not theatre money. From then on, I would choke in auditions because I knew what was riding on it. I was a single mom at the time, and it became too important. That importance outweighed the fun of the actual audition. Ever since then, I've had a mental block about auditioning.

BSW: Because of the stakes?
Metcalf: Even though they don't matter to me anymore, something got a little tainted for me back then, and I've never been as loose as I had been before.

BSW: Did you ever have a career plan as an actor—theatre, then film, then TV?
Metcalf: No. I never had a plan.

BSW: So you moved to L.A. when you got Roseanne?
Metcalf: No, I moved out here without anything. I moved out here, granted, not just to do theatre but thinking maybe options would be better for movies than in Chicago. By that time, I had done a couple of small movie parts. The only reason I went in on Roseanne was because it was being cast by two CDs, Risa Bramon and Billy Hopkins, who cast me in Desperately Seeking Susan, and I really love their casting because they really get out there and see a ton of people and use fresh faces. They said, "I think you'll like this role." But they hadn't even really written the sister's part yet, so I had to audition with Roseanne's material for the show.

TV hadn't crossed my mind. I don't know why. I never had a plan or had my eye on something. I got the part and I didn't really know what I had. Billy and Risa sat me down and said, "This is a great opportunity for you; you're not realizing it right now, but you will. You need to take this job." So I did. I had this stigma in my head about getting locked into one character for five years that you would be typecast in forever. Not that that's a bad thing; it's not a bad thing at all. I would just hear other people say it was a bad thing.

BSW: So how was it?
Metcalf: It was the best job I ever had. It was with a group that was kind of like a little theatre group—kind of raunchy, kind of incestuous, just like the one I was coming out of. We had fun every day. I liked everything about working in TV except for the tape day.

BSW: Why?
Metcalf: I learned to realize that I don't like cameras. I still don't. So, even though we had nine seasons on Roseanne and we've had two and a half on Norm, Fridays for me are just a tiny bit traumatic. I don't like the pressure of it. I love the rest of the week, the rehearsing and the hanging out with people. But tape day. It's just knowing, I guess, that this one take that you're doing is the one they're going to use and it's permanent. That's why I like theatre, I guess. I'll always prefer theatre over anything else. That's just a fact. I think it's because it's where I started and I feel more comfortable in it. I feel more in control in it. I feel more prepared when I do it. I like the instant feedback. I like everything about theatre.

BSW: We interviewed Glenne Headly last fall, and one thing she said about you was, "The funny thing is, Laurie says that she's always really scared. But she seems, definitely, to have the most at-ease performances."
Metcalf: I am actually at ease in a play. She knows I'm ill at ease in movies and TV; I'm doing everything I can to cover up my being totally self-aware, monitoring myself. It becomes not fun. The performance is all about covering up that other thing. I can be free and loose during rehearsals, and then on Friday, half of me shuts down and it becomes a task to copy what I did on those days when I was feeling more confident, and it's all because there's a camera staring at me. After all these years, I can't get past it.

BSW: Even with single-camera work? In features?
Metcalf: Well, a movie is so out of sequence and you probably haven't rehearsed anyway, and if you can't figure out why your character would say a line, they just change it for you. You're like, "Wait, wait, wait! I could figure it out if we maybe could do it in sequence once. But OK, you want to change it, that'd be easier." I guess I also feel more free onstage, more confident onstage, because it's just a one-time-only shared experience between about 500 people and then it doesn't exist again. I can do anything onstage. I can be nude onstage. I can be mean and cruel and anything the part demands, because that's where I feel it's really not me.

Almost everything I've done, at least on TV, which is where I've worked the most, it's kind of just me. I have nothing to hide behind. Jackie dressed like me, looked like me, talked like me; they would tinker with myriad different jobs, and whatever they would see where I had strengths in comedy, they would just accentuate that. But basically it was just me. Same thing on Norm. It's more like having to stand for a portrait. It's you. There's nothing to hide behind like there is, for me, in theatre.

BSW: Glenne Headly also said she felt we hadn't seen the best of Laurie Metcalf—that you're more versatile than we know. Do you think you're too versatile for your own good?
Metcalf: I think I'm probably thought of in film and TV as actually very limited—the comic relief. I've been lucky to do a few small parts that have been dramatic in a couple of movies. Internal Affairs was straight. JFK. But I'm wrapping up my movie career.

BSW: Really?
Metcalf: My God, the competition now for roles everywhere is so strong because there isn't that stigma about TV anymore, so there's major film people coming to work on TV, and jobs are so few and far between, anyway. If I do happen to get offered some small film role, I do think twice about it, because I don't really enjoy the process. What I do enjoy is working with somebody I wouldn't necessarily have the opportunity to work with anywhere else, like Laurence Fishburne [Always Outnumbered]. That becomes the interest to me now, rather than the part.

BSW: How did your association with playwright Justin Tanner start?
Metcalf: I read a little blurb about a play called Pot Mom that sounded funny. I took my daughter and a friend. I love little tiny, 50-seat houses. We liked it so much. And there's one part in the play where the characters are watching TV, and I heard my own voice. They had used a clip of Roseanne and Jackie talking back and forth on TV. I thought, "Now, they didn't do that just because I'm here. That must be part of the play." And it was. In fact, Justin told me later he was thinking maybe he should cut it, seeing that I was in the audience, thinking I'd think it was sucking up or something.

Anyway, we liked it so much that we waited out front to see the actors. I told one of the actors, "I love this little tiny space. Tell the playwright if he ever needs anybody to fill in, any time…" and she said, "Well, he's right here." And there he was; he's so shy. He was like a nervous wreck. We talked for a while. And he took me up on it: He called me, this was a lot later, he was going to remount Pot Mom and would I play the friend, and I said, "Of course." It's a great style, with the overlaps a mile a minute, especially in that small space. I had to work really hard to get up to speed with the rest of the cast.

BSW: Then you took the play to Chicago. How did it fare at Steppenwolf?
Metcalf: Not well. It was kind of an experiment to see if his style could translate to a bigger theatre. It was 200 seats, a big old empty black box, a difficult space. The style is tougher to duplicate in a larger space. The other experiment was to cast kids in the roles of the kids, rather than 30-year-olds. It becomes not as funny. It's a little bothersome. It really changes the tone.

BSW: Do you have any advice to young actors? What do you tell Zoe?
Metcalf: Dabble in it. Get a boyfriend in it. Make a group. Have the group lead you to the next step. I'm not a good person to ask for advice, because I did it the haphazard, cushy, accidental way. No plan, no aggressiveness. Because we were that little incestuous group for so long up in a suburb of Chicago where nobody knew us or came to see us except for relatives for quite a while, we would play parts that we wouldn't get cast in in any other place. And we did get better because of that. I owe a great deal of credit for that to our audiences, for allowing us to play 13-year-olds and 80-year-olds and sort of going along with us, humoring us, in those kind of stabs in the dark. We got to stretch; I played the mom in True West. That did make us all better.

We had a connection through a shared sense of humor and a big willingness to give 100 percent, not knowing what was going to come of it. It was just going to be for the summer. That's another reason I'm a bad person to ask for advice. Who knows if we'd be further along—the company, the theatre itself as it exists in Chicago right now, with its millions-of-dollars budget and great, fabulous, state-of-the-art theatre that we built from the ground up, and the type of directors that we attract to come in and the fact that it's got a worldwide reputation—who knows if we'd be further along if we had, right out of college, planned for all that? I kind of doubt it. We would've busted apart.

BSW: Are there still great roles you want to play?
Metcalf: I've never read a part that I didn't want to play. I want to play them all!

Jan 14, 2016

From the Review Vaults: Mother Courage and Her Children

Mother Courage and Her Children: Alexandria Wailes, Streep, Geoffrey Arend, and Frederick Weller. (photo by Michal Daniel)
Improbably, Brecht's Mother Courage is in the news--the theatre news, at least. If you put a gun to my head to name my favorite plays, this complicated, sprawling, funny, bleak play about the business of war would be near or at the top. So I had a rooting interest as I read about the battle over Classic Stage Company's current production, which Tonya Pinkins departed very publicly (Kecia Lewis has taken her place)--my agenda being that this great play get done, well, and that the discourse around it might reflect what I know and love about the play and about Brecht.

So for American Theatre I tried to contribute to the conversation by talking to composer Duncan Sheik, by publishing a thoughtful piece by McFeely Sam Goodman about the issues raised by Pinkins's protest, and then by speaking to Pinkins herself for our podcast. Whether the discourse has been elevated by these contributions or not, I leave to you.

What's come up often in all these conversations, and in my mind, is the last time Mother Courage rolled her cart around Manhattan (in a major production): In 2006, at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, for the Public's starry Kushner/Tesori adaptation. I reviewed it for Broadway.com (back when they had a critic--I was the last of them--long story there), and recently dredged it up from the Internet swamps. Let's just say it brings back fond memories, though I was a bit of an outlier (most critics were much cooler to it than I). (And while I'm backlinking, I will note again here my hearty disappointment with the documentary about the making of the Public's Mother Courage, Theater of War.)

Without further ado...my review, from August 2006.

Will Mother Courage and Her Children ever get a better English-language production than the one now at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park? I doubt it—and after this deluxe, definitive rendition of Brecht's much-revered but little-revived masterpiece, it may not need one. But the best news is that a mounting this engrossingly, almost embarrassingly excellent may finally, 50 years after Brecht's death, make the works of the prickly German theatrical revolutionary hot properties on American stages as they really never have been, apart from his musicals with Kurt Weill. 
What this sweeping, impassioned Courage does better than any Brecht revival I've ever seen is to give the author's vision, and his vaunted epic-theater style, its full due, without either mummifying it in purported Brechtian orthodoxy or saucing it up with extra-contemporary seasoning. Just staging a play as rich and rangy as this ought to be enough, but there's an awful temptation for left-leaning artists to use Brecht—and especially this, his most stinging indictment of the link between war and capitalism—as a cudgel against today's ever-sobering headlines. But playwright Tony Kushner, whose new English version has all the bark and bite we could wish and then some, and director George C. Wolfe understand that this towering play resonates backward as much as forward, from the now-arcane Catholic/Protestant/Habsburg skirmishes of the 17th century's Thirty Years War that are its backdrop to the bloodbaths of the 20th century, some of which Brecht knew intimately, up to today's uneasy wartime footing. At its bleak, unflinching best, Mother Courage gives us a sense of war as a state of being, almost a state of nature—a condition much of the world knows far better than we oblivious, forgetful Americans, but for how long? 
For the craven, troop-following entrepreneur nicknamed Courage (Meryl Streep), the war can never go on long enough. Though she shows us heartrending traces of the less jaded firebrand she might once have been, the Courage we meet is every bit the "hyena of the battlefield" one character uncharitably labels her: a cackling scavenger who subsists, barely, on what scraps of opportunity she can find. The children who haul her along in her horseless supply wagon are a sadder, unluckier lot: The strapping brute Eilif (Frederick Weller), the daft Swiss Cheese (Geoffrey Arend), and the mute Kattrin (Alexandria Wailes) have not been endowed by nature, nor by Courage's fitfully protective nurture, with the wit or wisdom to survive. Pulled into Courage's arm's-length orbit are a sensitive chaplain (Austin Pendleton) and a cynical cook (Kevin Kline), who compete slyly for her attentions. A wizened prostitute (Jenifer Lewis) with her own well-honed survival skills flits into the tableau at key moments.
The play's vast, near-Shakespearean scope of years and locations (and three-hour running time) belies the fact that it's really just a series of hard-nosed negotiations with ever-diminishing returns. The only respites from this relentless downhill trajectory are Brecht's slashing humor, here given a fresh zing in Kushner's deft translation, and a handful of songs, reset here in Jeanine Tesori's jauntily accomplished new score, which builds on the folksy modernism of Brecht collaborators Eisler and Weill but adds its own special strains of blues grit and melodic grandeur. Tesori does especially well by the jagged rhythms of the lyrics, with terse meters as spiky as barbed wire, particularly in the magisterial first-act closer, "The Song of the Great Capitulation," and its bitter sequel, delivered with fierce precision by Kline, "The Song of Solomon." 
Streep's performance is worthy of its own lengthy treatise. Suffice to say here that she climbs the heights of this complicated, paradoxical role with restless urgency and intelligence, bringing her bottomless reservoir of physical, vocal and emotional shades to bear. It's a virtuoso turn of the best kind—entirely in service to the play's vision and in tune with its rough music. And this is not the Meryl Show; her costars shine in their own right, not only in her reflected light. Pendleton makes his pathetic cleric a crashing bundle of nerves, surprisingly volatile despite his benign mien. Lewis owns her scenes as a whore with a heart of tin, particularly a haunting wrong-note blues number that recalls the wrenching power of Tesori's score for Caroline, or Change. Kline exudes his usual coolly virile presence, but with a starker, more desperate edge. Weller, Arend, and Wailes each etch distinct variations on the theme of pitiably stunted, misdirected youth.
The production's aesthetic is firmly and redolently last-century, with Riccardo Hernández's distressed-wood set suggesting Courage's wagon writ large and Marina Draghici's costumes evoking the sort of makeshift ensembles that could be bought off the same cart. There's a single-mindedness of purpose in this production, in other words, but it's never monotonous because it so fully renders the mottled poetry of rage, irony and defeat that is Brecht's special métier. It's a voice that our increasingly sensation-addled, endlessly self-referential American theater has missed or misheard for too long, and that desperately belongs on our stages in serious times.

Dec 18, 2015

From the Review Vaults: "Fiddler" with Harvey & Rosie

photo by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times
This excellent piece by my colleague Eric Grode, looking back at 50 years of Fiddler memories as the musical's newest revival readies for its opening, reminded me that I was sent to review it a little more than 10 years ago by Broadway.com. It didn't hurt that Eric's story opens with a shot of one of the more derided pairings in director David Leveaux's unjustly maligned revival, Rosie O'Donnell and Harvey Fierstein. That in fact was the pair I was sent to review, in fact, some months after the show opened with Alfred Molina and Randy Graff; and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed not only them but Leveaux's sobered-up staging.

So, as I and many thousands of theatergoers prepare to return once again to Anatevka (with the estimable Danny Burstein as Tevye), I offer a reprint of my (since web-scrubbed) Broadway.com review. L'chaim!

Fiddler on the Roof
Reviewed by Rob Kendt
Oct. 13, 2005

Rosie O'Donnell gets no star's entrance in Fiddler on the Roof, the cast of which she recently joined in the supporting role of Golde, Tevye's stoical wife. Instead, the stocky, voluble television icon trots out dutifully in half-light with the chorus at show's opening and takes her place in the opening tableau of "Tradition." It is only when O'Donnell steps out, as part of a small group of mothers, to trumpet her role in making a "proper home" that we recognize that familiar cherubic visage under the kerchief and apron.

This is not exactly Rosie's turn, in other words. And audiences who've already written off director David Leveaux's stark, wintry production are unlikely to rush to see, or revisit, this Fiddler, which has struggled at the box office despite a brief surge early this year when croaky, endearing Harvey Fierstein took over the role of Tevye. (The show has announced a January closing.) That's a pity, because this much-dismissed revival merits a serious reevaluation and a wider audience. If it was originally deplored for lacking warmth and humor, it has them now in O'Donnell and Fierstein, respectively. More importantly, though, the tensile strength of Leveaux's conception remains as clear and taut as a violin string.

Leveaux has successfully reimagined this classic as a hardscrabble folk operetta, closer in feeling to Brecht and Weill than to Rodgers and Hammerstein. For all the sweet-tempered ballads and that leaven the minor scales of Jerry Bock's poignant score, the poor Jews of the Anatevka shtetl are more like the Joads than the Von Trapps. And even with Fierstein lightly invoking the winking, shrugging posture of the American Jewish comic tradition, this is still a show with a haunted heart--a pogrom nipping at its heels and a dream of a homeland disturbing its sleep.

In this context, O'Donnell is admirably restrained, even tight-lipped. It's a performance defined and determined more by physicality than personality, mostly to its benefit. Her stout frame matter-of-factly unflattered by costumer Vicki Mortimer's house dresses, O'Donnell has a blunt economy of movement that's both matronly and self-possessed. It doesn't hurt that she looks like she could kick Fierstein's Tevye up and down the stairs; Fierstein is accordingly, and amusingly, cowed. This shifted balance of power gives a bittersweet sting to their second-act duet, "Do You Love Me?" It's one of Golde's few moments in the spotlight, and O'Donnell's emphatic gesticulating betrays her eagerness to make it count. But it remains a lovely, ambivalent consideration of middle-aged marriage in a show otherwise touchingly besotted with its young lovers.

In the latter department, a few new performers bring welcome freshness to the suitors of Tevye's daughters: Michael Therriault makes an ardent and intensely sunny Motel the tailor, while Paul Anthony Stewart smartly plays against the heartthrob factor with the rebel student Perchik, which of course makes him all the more appealingly swoony, particularly with the fine, yearning ballad "Now I Have Everything."

Kevin Stites' onstage band sounds marvelous, like a dream café orchestra, and Jonathan Butterell's musical staging, which liberally references the original Jerome Robbins choreography, retains its folksy force. It may be that Tom Pye's woodsy, homespun set, lit in often harsh whites by Brian MacDevitt, goes one step too far in that it gives the game away: This is a temporary resting place for harried nomads, the set says. What's worse, it's twilight in these woods. That may also be true of this underappreciated, foreshortened Fiddler. But like the villagers who snatch what joy they can from an unforgiving world, this Fiddler is making the most of its stop here while it lasts.

Fiddler on the Roof
Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, Book by Joseph Stein
Directed by David Leveaux
Minskoff Theatre

Jul 13, 2015

How Bent Made Gay History

Tom Bell and Ian McKellen in the London premiere of Bent, 1979.
A major revival of Martin Sherman's play Bent begins performances on July 15 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, directed by Moises Kaufman. I contributed this piece to the show's program, learned a lot in writing it, and thought it was worth sharing with a wider audience.

It was a passing reference to “pink triangles” in As Time Goes By, a 1976 play about a century of gay life, that caught Martin Sherman’s attention. As he put it recently, “It was one of those awful cliches--you could see the light bulb going off over my head.” That eureka moment led to Bent, Sherman’s path-breaking 1979 drama about the Third Reich’s persecution of homosexuals, and that in turn led to the widespread adoption of the pink triangle--a sewn-on badge of shame for gay men in the Nazi concentration camps--as a gay rights logo during the AIDS-ravaged 1980s and beyond.

The reclamation of that hated symbol as a token of pride is just one of the legacies of Sherman’s play, which premiered on London’s West End in a production starring Ian McKellen and on Broadway in late 1979, with Richard Gere in the lead. Life has changed rapidly and radically for gay people in the West since then, as much or more than it had changed between World War II and the dawn of AIDS. What’s easy to forget amid the inexorable march of history is not only how far forward gay liberation has moved but also how little was popularly known in the mid-’70s about gay life under the Nazis. Indeed, even the mere fact that they were among the minority groups rounded up and sent to Nazi detention and death camps--alongside Jews, gypsies, and communists--was not then widely known.

It certainly wasn’t known to Sherman, a Jewish American who lost family members in the Holocaust. He was in London in the mid-’70s working with a small company called the Gay Sweatshop, whose production of his play Passing By had “renewed my determination to continue writing for the theater,” when he sat in on a rehearsal of Noel Greig and Drew Griffiths’s As Time Goes By.

“It was in three parts, showing gay life in three historical eras: one was in Victorian England, the second was in Germany before the war, and the third was at the time of Stonewall,” Sherman recounted in a phone call from a writing workshop he was leading in Austria (“Hugely ironic,” he noted). The mention of “pink triangles” was, in his recollection, no more than “one sentence” in the play. He asked Griffiths and Greig about it; they said they’d done some research on the subject. Sherman later caught an article in Christopher Street, a gay magazine in New York City, titled “The Men With the Pink Triangles,” that would further inform the writing of Bent (the article’s author, Richard Plant, had written a book on the subject, The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals, but couldn’t find a publisher until after Sherman’s play premiered). In the absence of a detailed English-language history on the subject, then, Sherman found himself doing research at London’s Wiener Library, a comprehensive collection of literature about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

“I spoke to an old librarian there and asked her, ‘Are there books that talk about homosexuals in Nazi Germany?’ She was very homophobic; she asked me, ‘Do you mean the Nazis as homosexuals?’ I said, ‘No, I mean the Nazi treatment of homosexuals.’

Whatever her attitudes on the subject, Sherman recalled, “She was an excellent librarian--she remembered everything. She would show me one paragraph in one book here, a sentence in another there, and so I was able to piece together a mosaic of certain facts.”

Sherman said he also found Bruno Bettelheim’s 1960 memoir of his time at Dachau, The Informed Heart, “hugely influential in my writing,” particularly about “the psychology of being in the camps.”

Sherman’s play follows Max, a gay man in Berlin rounded up with his lover, a dancer named Rudy, after the infamous Night of the Long Knives in 1934. This purge, one of many turning points in Hitler’s consolidation of power, targeted one of his allies and potential rivals, Ernst Rohm, the openly gay leader of the Nazis’ paramilitary wing, the brownshirts. Political differences, not Rohm’s sexuality, were the real reason he was killed and the brownshirts decimated, but homosexual “decadence” became one of many convenient Nazi scapegoats.

Bent dramatizes not only the way gay men got caught in this crossfire but, in the compromised character of Max, the terrible means by which some fought to survive. Only in the play’s second act, set at Dachau, does Max--who forms an intimate friendship with another man, Horst--grasp the futility of mere survival, sans dignity and love.

Sherman said he’d initially intended Bent for the Sweatshop, “which meant that I thought it was going to be performed in a small little fringe theater somewhere.” That may account for the play’s sexual frankness and formal ambition, not to mention its unflinching depiction of Nazi sadism. But Griffiths immediately recognized its larger potential and told Sherman, “‘We can’t do this. You have to send this out into the world.’"

"It was an act of enormous generosity,” Sherman recalled. And prescience, it turns out: “I wrote it for a small theater, about a subject that hadn’t been talked about. I never in a million years dreamed that it would be in a position to make that known throughout the world.”

But while Bent is clearly a play about a particular moment in history, it is also a play inspired by gay life in the late 1970s.

“In some ways, you could argue that gay life was peaking, in terms of what it became in the ’70s, and was going to stop being once the specter of AIDS arrived,” recalled David Marshall Grant, who appeared in the play’s first reading at the O’Neill Playwrights Center in 1978, and later in its Broadway premiere. The play’s first scene--in which Max and Rudy wake up together in an apartment, and Max can’t recall how he spent the previous wild night--was for its time a disarmingly casual portrait of what we might today call a “monogamish” gay relationship. As Grant recalled, “You might have thought you were in Greenwich Village in the ’70s--that’s how it played when it was first read. Until the Nazis came in.”

Sherman agreed: As any good playwright does, he wrote the play for his time as much as for the ages.

“The gay world then was somewhat brutalized--it was enormously sexualized,” Sherman recalled. “New York was absolutely wild. People were just [having sex] all over the place, literally. But nobody was actually free; it was all an illusion. The laws were terrible. I did not see a society that was progressing. It was extremely commercial; people were making a lot of money out of it. It was in its way not dissimilar, I thought, to what Germany was like in the Weimar era.”

If Bent was groundbreaking for its delineation of a little-known historical period, and for its blunt depiction of same-sex sexuality--in its most famous scene, Max and Horst make love without touching, or even moving very much--it was prescient in another way which may explain its wide appeal and longevity.

“It was ahead of its time in that it showed that the prize wasn’t sexual liberation--ultimately the prize was love,” said Grant, who noted that this theme would later resonate through Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart, in which he also starred. “Sexual liberation was an absolutely necessary step toward understanding; you can’t love until you understand your sexuality. But Martin was already beyond that. The play is very clearly about somebody who learns how to love, and I don’t think love was in any way a priority for gay life in the ’70s.”

Sherman agreed: “Love didn’t seem to enter the picture on a visible level then. Of course it existed. But the play is as much about internal repression as external.”

Moises Kaufman, who is directing the revival at the Taper, called Bent “a much richer, deeper, more complicated play than just a play about gays in the Holocaust,” though he admitted that its function as an historical marker is still urgently necessary. “When I tell young gay men and lesbians that I’m doing the play, they are shocked to learn that gays were persecuted in the Holocaust.”

For Kaufman, who grew up in Jewish and gay in Venezuela, the demimonde of Weimar Berlin represents an important pivot for gay identity. “There were 100 gay bars in Berlin in the 1930s, and 40 gay publications,” Kaufman said, pointing also to Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Studies and his activism on behalf of legalizing gay relationships. He cited the thesis of Robert Beachy’s 2014 book Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity. 

“In Victorian times, male-male relationships were only about sex,” said Kaufman, whose breakthrough work was 1997’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. “Only in the 20th century did the notion of love between men emerge, and Beachy’s book shows that Berlin in the ’30s is where that conversation began to occur.”

That conversation was cut short, obviously, and has since often been interrupted, if never entirely silenced. As Sherman was quick to point out, “The Nazis aren’t coming for us, but this is going on in a lot of cultures--in Russia, for instance.”

For Kaufman, Bent is not just a postcard from a more repressive era; it’s also a crucial alternative history.

“Gay relationships have, for better or worse, entered the mainstream,” said Kaufman, who’s been with his husband for 26 years. “Gay people today are going to grow up with marriage as an option, but there were no norms, no models at the time for Max. So this play becomes even more relevant: The people in the play are showing a relationship that is very intimate but doesn’t follow the morality that is in vogue.”

If Greig and Griffiths were to add a chapter to As Time Goes By, they might include one in which gays have claimed their rightful place in two conservative institutions--marriage and the military--and still wonder what’s missing. Bent reminds us that what we can still miss now, as then, is the only thing that will save us. As W.H. Auden put it, “We must love one another or die.”

Jul 8, 2015

Up With Hamilton

I was recently contracted to write a preview of the Broadway transfer of Hamilton for Time Out NY, but the piece was spiked in favor of a no-doubt-excellent preview by the estimable Adam Feldman. Below is the piece I submitted. (My previous writings on the show are here, here, and here; I've also assigned two pieces about it for American Theatre, one by hip-hop theatre pioneer Danny Hoch, the other by National Review editor Reihan Salam.)
I’ve had an ongoing argument with fellow theater critics and observers ever since Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s knockout hip-hop musical about our nation’s founding, caused a sensation earlier this year at the Public Theater, selling out before its opening and extending for months, and announced its move to Broadway (performances begin July 13). The argument has never been about the show’s intrinsic merits: Most of us who were lucky enough to see it agree it’s a great show, maybe even a canonical musical, and it’s already a favorite for next year’s drama Pulitzer.

But can Hamilton survive a transplant from the Public’s intimate 232-seat Newman Theatre to Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, which seats 1,319? Should it have moved to Broadway earlier, before the recent Tony nominations deadline, while the show’s buzz was stratospheric, and stolen some trophies from another Public-bred show, Fun Home? More to the point: Is a hip-hop musical about American history with no stars a slam-dunk commercial prospect, or a huge gamble?

I’m on Team Slam Dunk, and I don’t think it’s just my heart talking. Yes, I already count Hamilton among my favorite musicals, and I heartily look forward to the day when my six-year-old stars in a high school production. But you don’t have to like the show to imagine this scenario: Tourists from the Midwest are in Times Square deciding which show to see, and the kids are all, “Holy shit, a hip-hop musical!” And the parents are like, “Hmm, it’s about the Founding Fathers? Interesting.”

Cha-ching! Take this family’s Hamiltons. It’s a reductive picture, of course--Miranda’s catchy pop score has nearly as much singing as rapping--and there’s an uncomfortable truth behind its appeal. Miranda’s previous Broadway musical, In the Heights, had a respectable run, won all the important Tonys, and is now part of the musical-theatre repertoire, but some think it would still be running on Broadway if it weren’t seen as an “ethnic” show full of hip-hop and Latin music. And while 1994’s Rent was a breakthrough for a generation of young theatergoers (and theatermakers, as Miranda himself has attested), its sexual frankness and multi-culti cast may explain why it hasn’t been a Phantom or Les Miz-style juggernaut.

But hey, Middle America! What’s not to like about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and that guy who got popped by Aaron Burr? White dudes kicking British butt; that’s some Tea Party shizzle, right?

Not so fast. It’s true that Dick Cheney and Peggy Noonan loved the show at the Public as much as the Clintons and Paul McCartney and Busta Rhymes, and that it would be entirely fair to call Hamilton a patriotic show--if your notion of patriotism has room not only for the country’s checkered past but for its contested, multiracial present. This is where Hamilton will sneakily give those Midwestern tourists both just what they came for and something more: There’s nary a white face in the company, save for the actor playing a prissy, Britpop-singing King George (a role tailored for a show-stealing cameo, and as yet unannounced for Broadway). This isn’t simply a matter of colorblind casting: It’s integral to the show’s populist conception, and key to its force as something more than an epic-rap-battles stunt. By casting young people of color in these iconic roles, and pitting them against each other in a struggle for the reins of a new republic, Hamilton achieves what the best historical fictions do: It gives us a sense of possibility, of roads not taken, of something that was settled long ago being up for grabs.

It’s still up for grabs, isn’t it? As we enter another presidential election cycle and brace ourselves for fresh battles over immigration, foreign policy, and the size and scope of the federal state, Hamilton reminds us that we’d barely got this country started before we began squabbling and shooting each other dead. In one of the show’s most incisive numbers, Aaron Burr stands outside the famous private meeting at which Hamilton dined with political foes Jefferson and Madison and cut arguably the most momentous backroom deal in American history: Hamilton got to found a national bank headquartered in New York City, and in return Jefferson got to stick the nation’s capital in a slave-owning Southern swamp. But Burr is less worried about the implications of that historic faultline, which reverberated through the Civil War and sends out aftershocks even today; instead, in a typically American posture, he simply envies, and one day hopes to join, the movers and shakers who plot and scheme in “The Room Where It Happens.”

That kind of multilayered observational detail may give some idea why it’s not just the up-to-the-minute pop score that makes Hamilton ring with contemporary relevance. The show has enough political machinations, alliances, and betrayals to fill a season of House of Cards; it’s also got a sex scandal, a cover-up, and a shootout, not to mention the 18th-century version of texting (letters) and tweeting (pamphlets and broadsides).

In short, it’s a safe bet that Hamilton will be huge--huge enough that that imaginary scene, in which a Midwestern family nabs tickets at the TKTS booth, is an unlikely one for the foreseeable future.

May 28, 2015

The 11 O'Clock Matrix

So the Times just had me contemplate the tradition of the Broadway musical's "11 o'clock number," and specifically, whether the great new musical Fun Home has one in the stunning "Days and Days." You can read all about that here.

The initial question that spurred the story was: Is it rare or common for the 11 o'clock number to be handed to a non-central character, as it is with "Days and Days"? Examples immediately started to come to mind (with the help of several Facebook friends), and it became clear that there were several different ways this near-ending song slot is used, depending on the kind of show. Musical comedies, for instance, seemed to use 11 o'clock slot differently from dramas.

So an earlier draft of the Times piece actually included a more detailed taxonomy of these kinds of numbers; there was talk of doing an infographic or chart, and I used my limited graphic abilities to construct a mockup (above).

Without further ado, I present to you the journalistic equivalent of songs cut out of town:

If “Days and Days” stands out from “Fun Home,” it’s because, while it’s close to the traditional 11 o’clock number slot for a drama, it is not delivered by one of the show’s main leads. But is that so rare? To get at the answer, here’s a non-scientific taxonomy of the song type:

  1. Central catharsis. In this classic definition of the 11 o’clock number, the lead character in a musical drama reaches a wrenching final realization. Examples would include “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy,” the title song of “Cabaret,” and the searing “Lot’s Wife” from “Caroline, or Change.”
  2. Downpour from the side. “Days and Days” is in good company here alongside “The Ladies Who Lunch”  from “Company,” “What I Did for Love” from “A Chorus Line,” even “Memory” from “Cats”--all of them, like “Fun Home,” ensemble-driven shows that make room for a big near-closing number from a not-quite-leading character. Another example from an otherwise comic show is Motormouth Maybelle’s “I Know Where I’ve Been” in “Hairspray.”
  3. Diversion. Musical comedies tend to use the 11 o’clock slot differently, as their leading characters are typically headed for romantic clinches, not nervous breakdowns. The idea of songs like “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” from “Guys and Dolls” or “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from “Kiss Me, Kate” is to give a comic lift to their shows’ second acts. Something slightly different happens in the satirical “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” in which the penultimate number, “Brotherhood of Man,” has the entire ensemble join in hammering home the show’s ironic point before tying up the plot.
  4. In summation. Similar to “Brotherhood of Man,” the penultimate song in “Chicago,” “Nowadays,” encapsulates the show’s smiling cynicism, but in this case it’s sung by the show’s female leads. There aren’t a lot in this category, for reasons indicated above; even “Gimme Gimme,” from Ms. Tesori’s otherwise comic “Thoroughly Modern Millie” score, has the lead character reaching a veritable fever pitch of desire, and it’s not played for laughs. It may be in a different time zone from the dark night of the soul depicted in “Days and Days,” but emotionally speaking, the clock still says 11.