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.

May 26, 2015

"A Free-Ranging, Even Frenetic Power"

A striking number of people involved in the May 2006 production of columbinus at New York Theatre Workshop went on to have careers I've followed, and/or I've gotten to know: actors Anna Camp, Bobby Steggert, Will Rogers, and Karl Miller, and cowriter Stephen Karam, for instance. Karam's cowriter and the piece's director, PJ Paparelli, is someone I've only "followed" from a distance, as a theater journalist interested in the national scene, because his work since then has been at Chicago's American Theater Company. (If memory serves, Paparelli himself cold-called me at my American Theatre desk to pitch a story about his "original Grease," in which he purportedly reclaimed it as a gritty Chicago tale, in 2011.) Most recently I published this piece about Paparelli's current ATC show, The Project(s)--and then, sadly, last night, I posted this memorial tribute by Karam, as Paparelli was killed in a car accident last week at age 40. My Broadway.com review of columbinus isn't available online, so I thought, as my own small gesture to his memory, that I'd repost it here. It ran May 22, 2006.

The rubber soles squeaking on the gym floor, the chalk dust, the pent-up, displaced hormones—with a few simple gestures, columbinus conjures a collective memory of high school that feels eerily, almost skin-crawlingly immediate. Even the restless, bubbling energy of the show's youthful eight-member cast suggests a pep rally, albeit one with a less exuberant subject than team spirit.

As if this shared time travel weren't hair-raising enough, this production by the United States Theatre Project, now at the New York Theatre Workshop, inexorably grows more specific. The show's Anyschool, USA becomes the site of the 20th century's last homegrown horror story, the Columbine High School massacre of April 20, 1999. Though the script by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli unerringly, almost slavishly follows the multivoiced docu-theater outline of such antecedents as The Laramie Project or Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Paparelli's direction has a free-ranging, even frenetic power that feels authentically and painfully young. Even the show's less inspired moments—a random sampling of unrevealing postmortem commentary from residents of Littleton, Colorado, for instance—betray a touching, irresistible eagerness to get to the bottom of the mystery of why two seemingly average teenage boys would plot their own personal "judgment day." Crucially, columbinus also has the adult integrity to let this question hang in the smoky aftermath.

The show's creators seem to have calculated that the inevitable climax—a chilling recreation of the infamous school library bloodbath that is mostly narrated rather than explicitly staged—would be so harrowing and somber that the rest of the play, particularly the opening, should be pitched at perky peaks of adolescent fever. And so we get quick-cut, full-cast scenes that swarm through hallways, classrooms, cafeteria; we witness curt, tetchy dialogues with disembodied offstage voices of guidance counselors and teachers; we're privy to furious instant-messaging exchanges between Dylan (Will Rogers) and Eric (Karl Miller).

The show is also admirably unafraid of sweeping, iconic generalizations, dubious as they may be. One wordless early sequence, scored to the same aching rendition of "Mad World" that figured prominently in Donnie Darko, has the cast choosing, almost arbitrarily, talismans from suspended trays—a makeup case, dark-rimmed spectacles, a pack of cigarettes, a silver crucifix, a jock's cap that will define their roles in the high school hierarchy. The self-styled outcasts Dylan and Eric pointedly don't partake in this unnatural selection. The first-act break revisits this identity parade at a more advanced, less innocent stage, as the cast sings along with the chorus of "Bittersweet Symphony": "I'm a million different people from one day to the next." If only.

The characters that emerge in black trench coats as Dylan and Eric don't make for easy viewing—not only because they're a hair's breadth away from the excitable, angry teens we've known or once were, but because the actors positively savor their sociopathic excesses. Rogers, a likeable beanpole who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real-life Dylan Klebold, comes off as an easily impressionable sad sack spurred on by his partner's uncontainable rage. As Eric Harris, the short-fused military brat who was the massacre's main plotter, the haunting Miller has spiky blond hair and a ravaged look that's closer to heroin chic than cold-blooded jarhead fury. Amid the plotting and execution of the massacre, the show subtly strikes its most disturbing notes. These media-savvy teens obsessively documented their plans and their ever-growing arsenal, even speculating that one day "the world will be studying these videos" for clues, and, more, that directors will vie for the rights to film their story. It's a chastening moment for even the most scrupulous documentarians when their subjects turn and essentially thank them for the memories. Karam and Paparelli stare down this challenge without flinching, memorializing both the massacre's makers and its victims without blurring the lines between them.

For all its youthful questioning and empathy, this is the most grown-up thing about columbinus: It holds up a mirror to evil and reflects not only the pathologies we can all too readily recognize in ourselves and in our violence-fixated culture, but also the inexplicable terrors that haunt our darkest nightmares. That's a bigger and deeper inquiry than a mere high school social study.

By the United States Theatre Project
Written by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli
Directed by P.J. Paparelli
New York Theatre Workshop

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?