Aug 31, 2008

Sams Club

Jeremy Sams may not be the first person you'd think of to direct Jason Robert Brown's new musical about and starring tweens, 13 (Todd Graff, of Camp semi-fame, directed the show in its L.A. bow a few years back). I know Sams' name primarily from Indiscretions, which he directed on Broadway way back in the '90s, and from his crackerjack English (very English) translation of Threepenny Opera (which I relished at the Open Fist Theatre in L.A. some years back, but which has yet to play in NY).

But Sams is a great interview, and after I was done chatting about 13-year-olds (Sams has one himself, in fact, with his wife Maria Friedman) for Time Out Kids, we nerded out on Sondheim, Weill, and the craft of musical theater. Incidentally, 13 happens to be competing for the teenage theater audience (such as it is) up against two big Brit imports, Billy Elliott and Equus (unlikely, I know, but trust me--the appearance of Harry Potter on Broadway is all that's on some teens' minds this fall).

Aug 28, 2008

Kitten Vs. Newborn

Co-created by a friend (and former Back Stage West colleague), Scott Chernoff.

Aug 27, 2008

The Costello Show

About the only useful information in the glossy Fashion supplement that came bundled with my New Yorker yesterday (not that I didn't look at it, of course): Elvis Costello will host his own talk show, called Spectacle, on the Sundance Channel, starting on Dec. 3. It's mostly going to feature musicians, though Bill Clinton has apparently taped an episode (in which, we can only hope, he will finally be held accountable for one of the great scandals of his public career--his reported love for Kenny G). A commenter on the Sundance site says the Smokey Robinson show is one to watch for. I'll be watching them all, natch.

The Fringe in Full

I have to confess I missed the Fringe entirely this year, but it's nice to know that Time Out didn't miss a single show.

Their top picks, fyi, are (the linkable ones are still running as part of the Fringe Encore series):

Be Brave, Anna!
Blanche Survives Katrina in a FEMA Trailer Named Desire
The Permanent Night
There Will Come Soft Rains
waiting: a play in phases

52 Man Pickup
All Hail The Great Serpent!
The Amish Project
Ariel View

Beast: A Parable
Behold, the Bowery!
Big Thick Rod
The Boy in the Basement
But for the Grace...
Bye Bye Bombay
China - The Whole Enchilada
Choke City
The Chronicles of Steve: The Bossy Bottom
The Death of the Bell Turret Gunner
A December Eve's Visit with Frederick Demuth
The Disappearance of Jonah
Down Around Brown Town
Extraordinary Rendition
For Reasons Unknown
Forteez Bluntz Chickenhedz 'N' Uva Necessateez
Gargoyle Garden
A Gathering of Eagles
GEM! A Truly Outrageous Parody
Good Pictures
Gratuitous Novelty: A locked away cabaret
The Grecian Formula
Heaven Forbid(s)!
Hidden Fees*
The Home for Wayward Girls and Fallen Women
Hot Cripple
How To Fold A Shirt

johnpaulgeorgeringo - an Intimate Experience with the Fab Four
Julius Caesar
Keep Your Eyes Open

Krapp, 39
Life...Death...and Entertainment
The Longest Running Joke of the Twentieth Century
Love is Dead: A NecRomantic Musical Comedy
A Man, a Magic, a Music
Mare Cognitum
Meanwhile, in Baghdad...
Missing Man
Monsters In the Wood
Mourn the Living Hector
My Salvation Has a First Name: A Wienermobile Journey
Nudists in Love : A New Musical
O! Balletto
Operation Adelmo
Perez Hilton Saves the Universe (or at least the greater Los Angeles area): The Musical
Piccola Cosi
Psalms Of A Questionable Nature
R U Prime?
Raised by Lesbians
The Refugee Girls Revue: A Musical Parody
Sailor Man
Sandy the Dandy and Charlie McGee: A Case Study in Harsh Realities
See How Beautiful I Am: The Return of Jackie Susann
The Sound of One Hanna Clapping
Stars In a Dark Sky
That Dorothy Parker
Thoroughly Stupid Things (or the Continuous Importance of Being Earnest)
Tim Gunn's Podcast (a reality chamber opera)
Tiny Feats of Cowardice
Too Much Memory
Tough Guys Don't Shoot Blanks
The Umbrella Plays
Underwear: A Space Musical
Untitled Masterpiece
Velvet Scratch—Voyage of No Return
The Vajayjay Monologues
Wish We Were Here
Woodhull: A Play About the Woman Who Ran for President

The whole shebang here.


My preview piece on Bill T. Jones' new bio-musical Fela! is interesting for several reasons, but on a personal note as the public debut of my new byline.

Aug 26, 2008

My Story, By Me, Starring Me

Has anyone else noticed this mini-trendlet among newish Broadway musicals, in which the author or authors star in a version of their own story? I'm talking about Passing Strange, In the Heights, and now [title of show], all of them hailed as form-breaking musicals in one sense of another (ITH the least so), and all starring their author in a role that's close to autobiographical, or at the very least spun from their own experience.

Two things strike me about this: the aesthetics and the economics. Obviously there's something bracing and authentic, even intimate, in the experience of sharing the story with its originators; one might uncharitably that something about our culture's current fetishization of the "real," from reality TV to the fury over unreliable memoirs, though I think it has just as much to do with the perennial difficulty of generating the otherworldliness of musical theater--the rationale for people breaking into song between stretches of dialogue is always and ever a theatrical challenge, even on Broadway, and I'd posit that the injection of the "real," the personal, is one solution to this problem (teens breaking into pop songs in the midst of a period play is another; setting a musical backstage at a theatre is another, and so on--though this is the subject for another post). People may be more likely to swallow a guy telling a story in song if it's his story, in much the same way we'll suspend disbelief and follow a solo performer as he or she recreates a world onstage.

When I spoke to Jeff Bowen recently for a TDF piece, he more or less agreed with the hunger-for-reality thesis. He also mentioned an economic angle I hadn't thought of: that it takes so long to get a musical off the ground, it's just easier (and cheaper) to get up and play the role yourself through the various workshops and readings and backers' auditions. The economic angle that had occurred to me, though, is how long can a show run when the authors are in it? Would these shows keep selling without the authors in the leads, given that their being in it seems to be a big part of the shows' hook, and presumably a draw? (This is moot with Passing Strange, of course, which never had the problem of selling too much--though Stew did have an understudy, I'm told, and was thoroughly tripped out by it.) Can these shows look forward to a rich life in the regions, or are they Broadway-boutique phenoms?

It's hard to say. A few decades ago, some wondered similarly about the future and durability of Sondheim's musicals, which seldom sold well and in many cases seemed very closely associated with their original productions and casts (including the flops). They still don't burn up the box office, exactly, but Sondheim's legacy is secure. We'll have to wait and see if the same can be said of the reps of newcomers like Stew, Miranda, and Bell/Bowen.

Aug 21, 2008

Too Much Bun

Just got a release from D.C.'s Arena Stage touting Carrie Fisher's purportedly Broadway-bound one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, which premiered to mostly nice-to-mixed reviews in L.A. a few years back. What even the Geffen Theatre didn't do (as far as I know) to promote the show, though, was to offer free tickets to the theatergoer who sends in the best Princess Leia lookalike photo. The Arena staff has already had some fun with the buns. Well, it beats forking over hard-earned scratch for the latest Lucas abomination.

Aug 19, 2008

Cage as Theater

No, you haven't accidentally stumbled onto George Hunka's blog, but as if to fill in the blanks of the musings I concluded with below--about music as a universal language, and how that might apply to theater--my wife and I took in a free outdoor performance by members of the Orchestre Français des Jeunes, basically a training ground for newbie French musicians, in Aix-en-Provence, and the penultimate piece was a rousing performance of John Cage's "Living Room Music." This 1940 "percussion" quartet calls for its players to come up with instruments that are everyday objects, and almost invites a theatricalized staging.

True to form, three young musicians in household clothes--one in nothing but a towel--convened around a table as if on the bleary morning after a party, and a fourth entered from the audience with a suitcase, like a couch-surfing tourist. Soon, quite casually, the piece began, and the instruments employed included empty pop cans, wooden spoons, and balled-up newspapers. The fellow with the suitcase soon opened it up, extracted a pillow, and mimed sleep under the table. Another man in evening dress went to a podium and began to read repetitive English words. At one point, another player went to a vibraphone and played actual notes.

As you might imagine, this meta-musical extravaganza woke the audience up, after a somewhat dreary recital of languid chamber music that was heavy on the harp (I'm a sucker for that kind of stuff, but still). What struck me, as I'm sure was Cage's intention, is how live it felt--in the sense that every step on the stage, creak of a chair, shared look among the musicians, giggle from an onlooker, felt like part of the piece. I wrote in my pad "every step is percussion...or 'business,' " meaning that this piece, as much as any I've witnessed, didn't just straddle the line between music and theater--it obliterated it.

What does that mean for theater? It struck me when I saw Quatuor Atrium's brilliant string quartet performance in Mons the previous week that music communicates so immediately not only because it transcends a language barrier but because the content is not intellectual or situational--we don't have to buy into any fictitious reality or relationships onstage for the piece to work on us. But a musical performance does create a reality, and a matrix of relationships between audience, and between performers--as if a piece of music is enacting a drama, a competition, an idyll. Some of this is in the score, much of it in the interpretation and the space.

It seems to me that theater can be most alive when it pierces through verisimilitude, when it brushes past or transcends an inevitably awkward attempt at representing life and relationships and even story, and works on and with the players, the room, the music of its language and its choreography. Of course, having said that, I realize I've seen a lot of bad theater that aspired to do exactly that, and that I'm under-rating the very real craft of dramatic structure and storytelling. (I also realize, and maybe this ought to go without saying, that these thoughts are so not new as to be banal.) But I do think there's something about the live theatrical moment, the frisson we seek as theater-makers and theatergoers, that has nothing to do with story or character or theme per se but is closer to music's universality and immediacy, which is at the root of why there is theater at all.

Not that I was working on the honeymoon, mind you.

Aug 6, 2008

Honeymoon Blogging

Yes, folks, blogging has been light around here for a very good reason (see name change at left). I'm in Southern France, mostly chilling out on a diet of wine and sunshine; I've missed most of the big theater festivals around here (Avignon in particular), not by design but thankfully so, on balance.

What my better half and I have been doing for entertainment has happily included the old European standby of finding the odd chamber music concert in a village church or museum (I still have fond memories of witnessing the Talich Quartet blaze through some Suk at a convent in Prague some 12 years ago or more). The pickings have been inordinately strong on this trip, and incidentally Russian: the irresistible Soviet kitsch of the Silver Strings, filling a 12th-century church in Mons with a surprisingly rich and lyrical sound (surprising given that the orchestra is made up of two accordions, a few woodwinds, about 10 xylophones, and a quadrillion balalaikas), and, on a far more serious note, an almost unbearably intense and really quite exquisite string quartet concert tonight at the church in the eerily Sedona-like red-rock town of Roussillon (postcards are en route to Arizona family to prove it), given by a young foursome, Quatuor Atrium, also out of St. Petersburg (the program included a fierce Beethoven 59, a searing Shostakovich 3, and a vigorous, haunting quartet "in memory of Indira Gandhy" by a Turkish composer, Chary Nurymov).

Lots of thoughts occur about the unique power of music to organize and model relationships between voices, people, cultures, and centuries (partly under the slow-burning influence of Christopher Small's maddening but powerful Musicking, which I read, slowly, many months ago), and about the implications of such musings on how I think about the separate but parallel art of the theater...but I will leave them to ripen for a later time. The wine and sunshine, and the better half, beckon. More anon!