Nov 30, 2010

A 24-Pack of Schubert


I missed the wine-fueled theatrical song recycle Three Pianos the first time around, but won't make the mistake again. I had a chance to sit down for a festive chat about song craft with the show's three creators a few weeks ago for Time Out. Probably my fave bit, in which Rick Burkhardt addresses the appeal of Schubert's incredibly bleak song cycle Winterreise:
“It’s a paradox, and no one really knows why this is, but sad people don’t like listening to happy music,” Burkhardt notes. “You’d think that if you could fix your emotions by listening to happy tunes, you would just do it, but there are a lot of studies that show that when you’re sad, the thing that you want is something that fits that, and expresses those feelings. It can be really exhilarating: ‘Oh, I’m in a terrible mood, and Schubert just nailed it!’ ”
Amen to that.

Nov 29, 2010

From Bat Boy to Pee-wee

It gave me great pleasure a few weeks ago to meet up at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre during my lunch hour with Ann Closs-Farley, costume designer extraordinaire for countless shows at the Actors' Gang, the Evidence Room, the Bootleg, and countless other L.A. theaters, who took me around the set of the latest show she's draped, in what constitutes her Broadway debut: The Pee-wee Herman Show. I even had an official reason to do it: A piece on Ann for TDF Stages. Ann even insisted on snapping a few fan pics on my camera phone.

Nov 27, 2010

Wingless


I had a nosebleed seat at a matinee of Millennium Approaches back in the sweltering summer of 1994, which sufficiently hooked me that I rushed afterwards to grab a standing-room ticket for that night's performance of Perestroika. To call that day a high point in my theatergoing experience would be an understatement. I was swept away by Tony Kushner's range, wit, imagination, craft, and fierce moral vision, and by director George C. Wolfe's uncannily surehanded production. Subsequent readings of the play impressed me further. Though I actually saw F. Murray Abraham rather than Ron Leibman as Roy Cohn, I cherish an unrelated interview I did with Leibman around that time in which he attributed the plays' success as much to their Jewish rhythms as to their gay essence. I embraced it all, in any case, and felt by evening's end that I could have stood for four more hours.

So why was the Signature Theater's intimate new Angels revival, for which I had a good and comfortable seat throughout a similar all-day marathon last week, so hard on my butt and on my soul? I can't put my finger on any one problem, except to say that so much of it felt queasy and sub-par, and with a work of this scope and ambition, half-measures are deadly. Like many critics, I was struck by Zachary Quinto's Louis and Bill Heck's Joe (though not so much by their faltering chemistry); the rest of the cast, to a person, felt either miscast or misdirected or both. I never felt that director Michael Greif decided how to handle the plays' unclassifiable blend of reality and fantasy, and most of all I missed the humor. The comic rhythms just didn't feel tight; this is also a problem I had with the heavy-spirited HBO miniseries, in which Justin Kirk's somber, strapping Prior and Al Pacino's unsmiling Roy Cohn almost invariably squashed the lacerating comedy both of these AIDS-stricken characters find in their extremity; at the Signature, I felt much the same about Christian Borle's play-acty Prior and Frank Wood's dispirited Cohn.

If I had reviewed the show, I feel that my take would have been closest to Charles McNulty's. Though I think I can still discern a great American play for the ages in there, the Signature version made me worry that between it and the HBO movie, Angels in America is not getting the productions it deserves--the kind of productions that will ensure its reintroduction to new generations of theater lovers who will pay their last dollar to stand in the back of the house.

Nov 20, 2010

Babies Who Lunch

I recently had the privilege of writing about my first "play date" with my young son Oliver, alongside two other theater critic-dads and their babies, for the paper of record.

Even Stephen


You've got to hand it to Elisabeth Vincentelli: Of New York's daily critics, she's the only one out there truly blogging. I do admire the Times' Theater Talkback idea, which forces Ben and Charles to muse and extemporize in a quasi-bloggy way and invite readers' feedback. But EV actually has a dedicated blog and the temperament for honest-to-God thinking (or ranting) out loud. (So do the folks at Time Out, but they're not daily, and so does the Times' Jason Zinoman, but he throws it all down on Facebook.)

One of her latest, a screed called "Officially Sondheim'ed Out," is a classic from-the-hip salvo:
I've had it with Sondheim--or rather with Sondheimania. There's been so many events celebrating his 80th birthday this year that the cumulative effect is now the opposite of the desired one.
She's got a point. The press when the Sweeney Todd movie came out a few years back was similarly, um, thorough, and even for those of who follow the guy, the hagiography does cloy. (Full disclosure: I contacted him around the same time about an interview, related to some other project, if I recall, and he very graciously declined, citing his own fatigue with interviews and his need to get back to actual work.) Vincentelli deplores the amount of ink the Times spills on him: "Every week that paper finds a new way to talk about 'Steve,' " she says, which is overblown--she knows it's about product, and he's got a thick and expensive hard-cover book to sell (more on that in a sec).

Then EV puts the boot in:
Meanwhile, perhaps it's also time to say that he may be a better lyricist than a composer and that he's benefited from working with brilliant arrangers.
Yeah, see here's where I part company with what has become conventional wisdom about Sondheim: Great lyrics, but where are the tunes? In part because I just devoured the excellent second edition of Mark Eden Horowitz's indispensable Sondheim on Music, in which the master goes over his scores in illuminating detail (and offers a million other juicy bits along the way), and because I'm just cracking the tendentious doorstopper Finishing the Hat, the press for which has been full-court and frustrating (more on that in a moment), I've been refreshing my thoughts on this favorite subject recently.

And my thesis would be: The man is as great a musical dramatist as any who's ever lived. Maybe as good as Mozart or Wagner, certainly as good as Puccini or Verdi, definitely as good as Janacek or Britten or Weill (not faint praise in my book), and head and shoulders over just about anyone in the American musical theater that he's worked in, with the exception of Loesser at his best or the Gershwin of Porgy and Bess. And he's got a distinct advantage as a musical dramatist, shared in this company only by Loesser: He's also a brilliant lyricist, so that the extraordinary music he crafts is married inexorably to his own well-chosen lyrics. His vision is all of a piece, and its best it truly towers. Which is why I'd put his best scores near the top of any list of the 20th century's best: You may not be able to hum "Someone in a Tree," but Pacific Overtures is going to be with us longer than, say, A Chorus Line (yeah, I really think so).

Here's the thing, though: Sondheim may write song/scenes like almost no one before him and no one since, but he doesn't write his librettos, and I think more than anything this has been his downfall, not just in aesthetic but in commercial terms. He's done his incomparable musical dramatizing in interesting shows with deathless scores, but not many, if any, bona fide Broadway warhorses; his one masterpiece, Sweeney Todd, is never going to be a Chicago or a Fiddler; it occupies a realm somewhere closer to Threepenny Opera, which may never be a Broadway hit, nor does it ever need to be. Indeed, of his generation of post-Hammerstein composers, Sondheim hasn't really turned out a crowd pleaser since Forum. True, some of his shows get reevaluated and liked a little more (Assassins, for instance), but that curve is not steep enough to build a blockbuster on. And even among the handful of shows he's written that do really hold together (a list that includes Sweeney, Forum, Company, arguably Into the Woods and Pacific Overtures, a soft spot of mine), none has proven, or I think is likely ever to prove, a Broadway or West End juggernaut.

The current Little Night Music offers a fine illustration: It's close to a great musical in many ways, but not close enough to be canonical; in the many times I've seen it, Hugh Wheeler's book and Sondheim's songs never quite come together onstage the way they seem to promise they will. Whereas I've seen Sweeney in community theater productions, not to mention the problematic movie version, and Wheeler's book and Sondheim's score still work like gangbusters. Night Music is a semi-hit on Broadway right now largely because of the stars that have festooned it, and possibly also because it's one of the lighter, more "romantic" Sondheims. But to my mind its tiny orchestra and somber tone point to the likely and not at all unhappy future of Sondheim's work: In smaller venues, in "chamber" stagings, where his brand of challenging, complicated musical drama really fares best, and where his work will never starve for an avid and discerning audience. I know, because I'm a proud part of that audience, and it just happened to be in small Los Angeles theaters, not big Broadway houses, that I really became sold on his work.

One more thing to address in EV's blog post. She makes a further charge:
I would even go as far as saying that he (unwittingly) contributed to the decline of the musical by making his emulators think all songs must be "integrated" in the book. No more catchy stand-alone numbers for us rubes! Unfortunately, 99% of said emulators aren't as gifted as their hero -- not to mention that Sondheim has written quite a few stand-alone standards himself.
Actually, it was Sondheim's mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, who pioneered "integrating" songs with dialogue, but I understand some of her beef. The idea that song and script should flow together seamlessly has proven to be a dead-end in either direction: one way lies dreadful through-sung pop-opera, and the other way quiet or quirky "small" shows where the music almost apologizes for even being there. I wouldn't blame Sondheim for this, or even his emulators (does she mean LaChiusa? Frankel/Korie?). Like Hammerstein, he writes musical dramas, not musical comedies, and I think what EV is talking about is big showstoppers like "Hernando's Hideaway" or "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat." I just think that musical tastes, let alone theatrical tastes, no longer smile on the gleam and bounce of musical comedy, unless it's used ironically a la Scottsboro Boys. I would point to David Yazbek as a fine counter-example, but alas, his latest project hasn't worked out so well.

There is one item amid this recent deluge that stuck in my craw, and which I do think is worth calling out. Though I haven't read Finishing the Hat, I've read and heard enough interviews with Sondheim over the years to know who's on his nice and naughty lists, and I look forward to delving at length into his careful eviscerations of Noel Coward, Ira Gershwin, and other imperfectionists. But while I would be the first to agree with Sondheim that Larry Hart was a sloppy lyricist, I cringed when I read this in New York:
On Hart's “My Funny Valentine," which includes the lyric, "Your looks are laughable / Unphotographable / But you’re my favorite work of art": “Unless the object of the singer’s affection is a vampire, surely what Hart means is unphotogenic. Only vampires are unphotographable, but affectionate '-enic' rhymes are hard to come by.”
Does Stephen Sondheim really think this primly and literally? He actually can't discern the knowingly playful coinage behind "unphotographable," and actually thinks Hart is trying to pull one over on us? Almost for that couplet alone, "My Funny Valentine" has one of the sexiest, toughest, warmest yet passive-aggressive lyrics ever penned--it's the love song of someone who is clearly telling her partner that he couldn't be loved by anyone but her, but the love is no less sincere for that--and I'm not sure Sondheim has ever done better. I generally share his aversion to false rhymes and mis-accents, but a little of this kind of frosty pedanticism goes a long way. (Note: I'm sure I'll have more to say once I dip more deeply into the book; as for Horowitz's book, I've got a review of it in the next Sondheim Review.)

Nov 19, 2010

A Photo That Made My Day


Particularly as another New York winter is starting to bare its teeth, and I spent a bit of the morning listening to Schubert's chilly "Winterreise" (in prep to talk the guys behind this), I loved seeing this Beckett-goes-to-beach cover (months late, I guess) over a co-worker's desk today.

Nov 15, 2010

The Way of the Turtles


God bless Sherie Rene Scott. (h/t Branden Huldeen)

Nov 12, 2010

Talking About Criticism


photo by Martha Wade Steketee
That panel I did a few weeks ago--on the state of criticism in the Internet and such--got written up by an industrious blogger, Martha Wade Steketee. So we posted her report on the TCG blog here. Some choice reading, particularly Zinoman's thoughts.

The Dread Aughts


I StageGraded Lisa Kron's In the Wake as well as previewing it for Time Out, so I was kind of rooting for it as well as dreading it when I finally saw it this week. I found myself instead intensely with it, almost 100 percent of the way--just beautiful, beautiful writing, exquisitely directed and acted. Maybe I felt it so strongly because, like the show's well-meaning but cross-purposed characters, I also happened to go through my own huge personal and professional upheavals throughout the aughts, meanwhile participating in as many painful political arguments as I avoided, and I too somehow felt a weird synchronistic, symbiotic connection between the two. So this is the time I'm living through, I often thought--and it's quite a bit worse, and considerably weirder, than what I expected. And when will I either hit bottom or turn the corner?

I do agree with some critics who felt the air leak out of the second act; on a story level, the relationships that lead character Ellen sabotages take too much stage time to disintegrate, and the ultimate impact on her is ultimately so internal as to be almost imperceptible, even with the heroically riveting Marin Ireland acting the hell out of it. Still, I can think of few writers who could make a political argument as nitty-gritty as the penultimate one between Ellen and her wizened relief-worker friend Judy work so well, and play on so many emotional levels, because Kron has made us invest in just this kind of argument over aspiration vs. desperation, which is of course not irrelevant in the age of Obama.

In short, it's the kind of play that goes badly wrong more often than not, and gives political theater, or "theater of ideas," a bad name; that In the Wake works as well as it does feels to me, at least, like a triumph. And I can't wait to see Kron's next play.

Nov 9, 2010

The Roots of Hair


My friend and colleague Eric Grode has a new book out today about the creation and history of the musical Hair, which is a remarkably rich story of theatrical will and happenstance, art and commerce, experimentation and error--I should know, we're printing a long excerpt from the book in the January issue of American Theatre, and it was very hard to choose a section to pull out, it's all so good. As Eric explained in a recent email, he didn't just talk to all the surviving creators and contributors:
I even tracked down one of the Apollo 13 astronauts who walked out of the show at intermission. There are all sorts of incredible anecdotes--including a few that are relatively damning for an authorized history.
It's all true. This is one coffee table book that you won't be able to keep on the coffee table.

The Other Texas


Holland Taylor as late Texas Gov. Ann Richards, in a one-person show she debuted at the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston last May. Then it was titled Money, Marbles & Chalk (a Texas expression that was a favorite of LBJ's, meaning "I'm all in!"). But for its May, 2011 run at the Paramount in Austin, it's called simply Ann - An Affectionate Portrait of Ann Richards. I wrote about the Galveston bow for the May/June issue of American Theatre:
When Richards died in 2006 of cancer, Taylor found herself “unnaturally sad,” and almost immediately started planning a one-woman show about Richards. “The idea really grabbed me by the scruff of the neck—I’d never done anything like this before,” Taylor says. Welcomed by Richards’s family and inner circle, Taylor conducted three years of interviews and research...

How does it feel for Taylor, a native Philadelphian, to portray Richards in front of her fellow Texans? “I’m kind of wild-eyed—my eyes snap open in the morning and I think, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ ” Taylor, who will wear a body suit and wig to portray Richards, has been training with a dialect coach and studying video of the late Guv. She trusts that her audience will appreciate how hard she’s worked: “Texans are so generous and willing to accept you on your own terms. I’ve never been treated so affectionately, and I can’t figure out why: Here’s this Yankee, trying to do a play about their darling daughter.”

Free-Purposing


Interesting Onion AV Club interview with Mike Birbiglia, who's putting out a book called Sleepwalk With Me that's based on his one-person show, which in turn contained material he's previously offered on a blog and performed on This American Life. I thought being a journalist in the age of blogs and social media was confusing, but consider the life of a comic/storyteller. Birbiglia:
It actually is a weird and complicated media landscape that we’re in now, where you blog and then you write about something that happened that week, and then you refine it, and it becomes funnier and funnier and better and stronger, and you do it onstage, and people are like, “Yeah, but we knew that from your blog.” It’s like, “What do you want from me? I’m writing my fucking ass off.” I write like crazy. I’m putting out as much new material as I can of a caliber that people will be happy with, and then I’ve done pieces on This American Life, and some of those pieces are integrated in my forthcoming one-man show which I’m opening in New York this winter, and it’s actually what I’m touring with right now...People go, “Yeah, I heard that on This American Life. It’s like, “Okay. You heard that story on a free podcast, and I’m sorry about that.”
In the days when a comic would tour with the same set and buff it to a fine sheen until he got his cable special or album or sitcom deal, this was less of an issue, of course. As Birbiglia points out later in the interview, Twitter has perhaps made comics too accessible, and in a world where your niche fans follow everything you do, where can you go to try out and develop material? The parallels with music and journalism may be tenuous, but the general theme holds: that the media landscape seems to continue its long warp into a kind of click-through, on-demand meritocracy with dubious returns for the creators of the media itself, except to the extent that we can all share the pleasant illusion that somehow we're all collaboratively creating this media soup we swim in, and at a relatively low cost--with accordingly low financial returns.

As someone who snipped my cable TV subscription earlier this year because the Web can deliver more than enough of the content my household requires, and who not only does a large majority of my reading online but also increasingly writes with an online readership in mind, I'm as uncertain as the next guy how long this can possibly continue. On the other hand, precisely when and where have the performing arts, let alone writing about them, ever offered the kind of stable and lucrative careers our parents would have wished for us?

Nov 3, 2010

Another Strike Against Memphis


By almost any metric except quality, the Broadway hit Memphis is an inspiring success story: the years on the road building support in regional theaters, the leads (particularly Montego Glover) who bring down the house every night, the Tony validation. As I've noted in this space before, this Memphis wasn't built in a day but painstakingly reached out and found its appreciative audience. More power to that. I just wish the show were better.

But now I've got a brand new reason to deplore the Joe DiPietro/David Bryan tuner. My colleague Isaac Butler alerted me last month to this quote from a Sarah Ruhl interview in Playbill, which seemed damning but not conclusive:
I heard somewhere that you might be writing a musical. Is that still happening?
SR: I had been working on a musical, and then there were so many musicals about Memphis in the '60s that we just had to abandon ship. It had been a musical about a woman's radio station in Memphis in the '60s, and it just kind of fell apart because of the zeitgeist. [The 2010 Tony Award-winning Memphis, coincidentally, is about a disc jockey in Memphis in the Civil Rights era.]

Who was your collaborator?
SR:
It was Elvis Costello, who I love and adore and worship! It was sad not to continue working with him. And he wrote three songs … [Hopefully we'll work together] another time! [Laughs.]
But then, in Nick Paumgarten's intriguing if problematic New Yorker feature on Costello, the voluble tunesmith touches on it briefly:
"Sarah wrote some scenes, I wrote some songs," he said. But all for naught. "Turns out someone else had a Memphis musical. Two Memphis musicals--what are the odds?"
Grrrr.

Today, incidentally, is a holiday in the Weinert-Kendt household, as it is whenever Declan releases new product (National Ransom is his 26th studio album, give or take). I'm one of those fans who will follow this pop polymath down just about any side alley he cares to go (love that string quartet record, for instance, though I'm less sold on North), and I remain hopeful that he'll harness his talent to the stage sooner or later. If Stew can rock Broadway, I think Costello has it in him, though I have to admit the feminist/fabulist Ruhl is a rather exotic pairing for the author of "Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind?"

Best. Halloween. Costume. Ever.


I thought my son's skunk outfit was pretty cute, but this, from my friend Dave and his daughter Amalia, really takes the (bloody) cake.

Nov 2, 2010

Quick Hit Tuesday


Apologies, this blog might as well be a Twitter feed these days...
  • The November issue of American Theatre is out, and it's got a cover story about Cornerstone (a favorite company) by Steven Leigh Morris (indispensable), with a cover photo by Gary Leonard (a national treasure). Wish I could say I had something to do with all of these, but it's actually more a case of having found a place to work where other people actually get how important these folks are.
  • If there's a better profile writer than Jesse Green, I haven't read him. His Kushner exegesis for New York is a work of genius.
  • If you haven't checked in at StageGrade lately, the season is heating up (most recently graded: In the Wake and The Scottsboro Boys).
  • Voice more or less rested, I plan to rock the Path Cafe with (mostly) other people's music this coming Sat. night.

Nov 1, 2010

Two Trends Worth Noting

1. Isherwood and Brantley seem to have switched places at the Times; for the second time in a week, the day's paper has Isherwood on the Broadway beat (Scottsboro Boys) and Brantley Off-Broadway (Merry Wives); last Wednesday Isherwood caught Rain on Broadway and Brantley Penelope at St. Ann's Warehouse. It's not unprecedented, but it does seem notable.

2. See anything missing from this roster of "Arts + Culture" options on Time Out NY's newly redesigned site?