Jan 31, 2011

Eason Down the Road

For American Theatre, it was my great pleasure to write a big, juicy, in-depth profile of Laura Eason, a multidisciplinary artist forged by Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company who has, seemingly suddenly, become a real playwriting force.

For another venue, I also happen to be working on another feature about a fabulous playwright emerging, like Laura, from the Chicago scene; more on that anon. Both features were seeded by last year's TCG conference, obviously. I hope to be similarly inspired by the next one, in my old stomping grounds, this coming June.

Jan 26, 2011

Thursday Tidbits

Rocco Landesman is not mincing words about the state of the American nonprofit theater (money quote, paraphrased by Scott Walters: "If theatres were deer we'd have to shoot much of the herd").

Michael Sommers finds a precedent for the Spider-man juggernaut.

Nice subhead.

All Weill All the Time

I don't think I'm objective about this--heck, I know I'm not, I've been living with this man's music for the better part of my life--but I have to say that as odd and lumpy as Max Anderson's intermittenly charming book proves to be, the chance to hear Knickerbocker Holiday brought to life in toto last night at Alice Tully was a personal landmark for me. Not long after the early love duet "It Never Was You" began, and Ben Davis' baritone started to swim in a swirling orchestral accompaniment, I was transported, and by the time the priceless Kelli O'Hara chimed in, I was somewhere in the stratosphere (is this what "over the moon" means?). I think the last time I was as transported by a song performed live, it was "J'attends un navire," also by Mr. Weill, sung by the operatic mezzo Stephanie Vlahos about a foot from my ear at the Gardenia in L.A. about 15 years ago. The rest of the evening, including Victor Garber's well-turned rendition of "September Song" and the on-point performance of Bryce Pinkham, was a joy, though, as my companion pointed out, the star of the evening was Weill's orchestration (he famously did them all himself), performed to the letter under the baton of James Bagwell. Weill's overstuffed, operetta-ish score, heavy on the chorus (hence the participation of the Collegiate Chorale), gave Bagwell's band a lot of chances to shine, and gleam they did. (My colleague Matthew Murray liked the score, too, though unsurprisingly he especially appreciated Anderson's muted anti-FDR message, while Andy Propst was less impressed.)

So, for what it's worth, there's one more performance tonight, and the show's being recorded, which will give the world its first recording of the whole score. This may all be white noise for non-Weillheads, but as I said, I can't pretend to be objective about a body of work that feels practically like a member of my family. As such, this Knickerbocker concert--and next week's Lost in the Stars, no doubt--felt like a reunion party.

Jan 21, 2011

Weill and Anderson, Together Again

photo by Hugelemeyer
In some sort of eerie coincidence, both of the musicals that Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson wrote more than 60 years ago are being revived in semi-staged and/or concert readings in the next few weeks: Knickerbocker Holiday, which gave us "September Song," and Lost in the Stars, which gave us the title tune among other priceless gems. And I should just say here that I've enjoyed few privileges like the chance to write about my favorite composer for the paper of record. My last chance to geek out on Weill was in Back Stage West many years ago.

Jan 14, 2011

Do Yourself a Favor...

...and enjoy this lip-smacking Sardi's meal of theater chat in which the pressing question of "greatest American musical" is weightily weighed and argued (hint: there's a three-way tie at the top). The panel includes Nora Ephron, Frank Rich, George C. Wolfe, Jonathan Tunick, and Jesse Green, moderating but hardly withholding his opinion. There are too many gems to mention them all, but I think this is a key insight, which I flatter myself I was lucky to reach at a slightly earlier age (in a college class on the film musical, but I digress):
Ephron: I was thinking about why I didn’t love She Loves Me when I first saw it, but then fell so deeply in love with it later on. And its partly that at a certain point in your life you don’t have the intelligence to know that the sentimental show is also great, because you’re so busy being hip and loving the dark shows. And then you get older and you love the ones that are—whatever you want to call them—romantic.
The whole thing is Grade-A show-queen catnip.

Jan 11, 2011

What Does Horatio Want?

Over at Gus's blog, there's a talkback from hell, nicely rendered by Liz Duffy Adams (author of the smart, sexy Or,). My favorite bit of spot-on stream-of-consciousness:
Talkbacker 4: There’s so much great stuff in this play, Bill, some of it is just brilliant. Really, very poetic, very powerful. But right now it’s really kind of a mess, you know, it’s all over the place. Like in the, what is it, the fourth act, when he comes back and tells us all that mishigas about switching the letters and being captured by pirates? Well, that’s just poor craft, poor playwriting; I’m sorry, but it just is. First of all, it’s ridiculous, I mean, pirates? And plus you just shove it in there, it’s so over-determined, you need him to come back for the play to keep going so you just have him pop up, say, oh, yeah, switched the letters, Guildencranz and Rosenstern are dead, rescued by pirates, la la la, let’s move on. It just doesn’t work, the audience will never buy that. It took me right out of the play.

Jan 10, 2011

Just Doing His Job

David Barbour, in his review of Jomama Jones: Radiate at Soho Rep, does us the valuable service of reporting:
Picking out three different audience members, [Jones] uses them to divide all of male humanity into three categories: workhorses, race horses, and show ponies - categories I'm sure you don't need me to explain. (Amusingly, at the performance I attended, Joseph Melillo, executive producer of Brooklyn Academy of Music, was categorized as a show pony.)
And of remembering:
She's also capable of playing the great lady and the philosophe, regretting American materialism and expressing her own personal philosophy, which comes down to the idea that if everyone in the audience embraced the person next to him or her, we'd have world peace right now; it's enough to make you remember when Richard Nixon named Pearl Bailey America's Ambassador of Love to the World.
In all seriousness, among the lesser-known critics whose work we follow over at StageGrade, Barbour is a genuine find.

Reader Response Theory

The Times unfurls what seems to be a new feature, billed as a "curated snapshot of online reactions" to recent news and reviews in the Times. Alas, this seems to mean just responses sent to the Times, not a trawl through the wilds of the blogosphere or Allthatchat.

Still, garnering the most responses in the comments to the feature itself are the reports of the possible Babs Gypsy. My favorite so far:
We've started calling that ubiquitous photo of Barbra Streisand with her head covered as MEET THE FOCKER MOTHER WITH THE HAT?

Jan 5, 2011

The Meta Top 10

At StageGrade, we just crunched theater critics' year-end Top 10 lists and came up with a Meta-Top 10 list. The full post, with oodles of helpful links, is here...but for now here's just the list:
1. A View From the Bridge
2. The Merchant of Venice
3. The Scottsboro Boys
4. Clybourne Park
5. The Little Foxes
6. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (the Broadway version)
7. Gatz
8. Angels in America
9. La Cage Aux Folles
10. Red
Interpret away!

Quote of the Day

"There is nothing that concentrates the mind so much as the realization that you've been wrong." -Lisa D'Amour, quoting fellow playwright Sherry Kramer

A Swing, A Miss

The ever-delightful Thomas Garvey tries to score a point against the Elevator Repair Service's Gatz (which he graciously reviewed after seeing half of it) by implying that they stole the idea from Andy Kaufman. In this case, Garvey's trollery has inadvertently done us a service, for with the elementary use of teh Google, we discover that ERS director John Collins has acknowledged the debt:
"We had done a piece about Andy Kaufman, and one of his stunts was to take out The Great Gatsby and just read it," Collins says. At the suggestion of another ERS director, Steve Bodow '89, the company began to discuss making a piece about Gatsby.
That's linked, by the way, on ERS' own site. (Other obscure sources have noted the similarity.)

Jan 3, 2011

Feingold Rallies

As Isaac pointed out last week, many saw 2010 as a grim year they're glad to be rid of. Like Isaac, I didn't happen to have a bad year; as anyone with a small child might attest, as they grow up it's the best of times (and sometimes the toughest, though you wouldn't trade them for anything). But, given the grim mood all around, I was heartened to read Michael Feingold's reflective piece on his four-decade career at the Village Voice, in which he confesses that, flanked by 92-year-old Judith Malina and 85-year-old Edward Albee on the stage of the reopened Provincetown Playhouse for a special event last December, the 65-year-old Feingold felt like "the oldest person onstage" given his interlocutors' forward-looking optimism. Then he plumbs the depths of his all-too-familiar (not only to his readers but to any who, like me, share a roughly adjacent career) despair:
Why shouldn't I think about retiring? Four decades of slotting a set number of words on the same topic into a set space should be enough. And over those decades, the New York theater's spirit has manifestly shrunk. I don't mean that the theater's gotten worse: Our art form is a resourceful beast genetically, spawning in every generation both imperishable masterpieces and ineradicable disasters. But the context in which these exceptions thrive has steadily narrowed.
This is the kind of thing that Isaac has continually pegged as Feingold's "it was better in my day" grumpiness (which hardly explains this recent effusion). But Feingold goes on, and he's always worth reading to the end (emphasis mine):
These three extraordinary figures bowled me over with their optimistic energy. I've been reviewing the actualities: those convenient, low-ceilinged plays that, too often today, constitute institutional Off-Broadway's only response to Broadway's stream of junk. My fellow panelists, meanwhile, have been contemplating what theater could still be, could still become, in this new century. Theatergoing continues to give me pleasure. I don't insist that innovation automatically equals good; I know what limitations we face. But I fret, often, over our theater's lack of reach. The desires to risk, to connect, to be worthy of the great past, have been stunted by the need to survive in this hectic electronified world.

Thought and feeling, which are of the theater's essence, find little place in that world's increasing quest for instant gratification. If I stay on, I want the kids under 30 to match the kids over 80 in ambition and hope.
That seems a fair challenge, and from where I sit, one we all might take to heart, on both sides of the footlights, and well outside the theater, too.