Mar 30, 2012

Quick Links, Friday Music Edition

The criminally underrated Charlotte Hatherley.
  • This spring's Menken vs. Webber showdown (each has three musicals running on Broadway, and when's the last time that was true of even one composer?) just heated up.
  • Congresswoman and arts advocate Louise Slaughter (D-NY) on her past life as a blues singer: "I loved every second of it."
  • I semi-enjoyed the new Broadway revival, but my favorite Superstar is still this one.
  • I've tried but I can't think of any other artist who reinterpreted his own work as wholeheartedly as Dylan did here (and with often stunning results).
  • One of the main reasons I go to church.

Mar 27, 2012

The Conviction of Kelli

Today's best, most versatile musical theater performers have one thing in common, as different as they are: the uncanny ability to bring utter conviction and vitality to a form too often seen even by as some of its fans as outmoded, artificial, irrelevant. It's true of the best work of Sutton Foster, Audra McDonald, Raul Esparza, and in particular Kelli O'Hara, who is earnest to a fault, even in comic roles (and I don't mean she's not funny—on the contrary, her dead-seriousness can be used to hilarious effect).

I chatted with her a few years ago, after Pajama Game but before her career-defining turn in South Pacific. On the occasion of her return to Broadway, in a light role in the Gershwin romp Nice Work If You Can Get It, I had a chance to revisit her relatively charmed career for this week's Time Out. Key quote:
“I was never going to do Rent; I don’t sing that way,” she says. It goes deeper than vocal style, though. “Maybe I was reborn from some 1940s person,” she muses. “I don’t know if I believe that, I just know that I came out of the womb feeling like I wanted to dress up in clothes from the ’40s and ’50s and sing with Nelson Riddle arrangements.”
Read the whole thing here.

Mar 26, 2012

Quickie Links

Busy busy with deadlines galore but recent readings have turned up a few items of interest...

Mar 21, 2012

For Those Musicals About To Rock

I've got an essay in the program for the Ahmanson Theatre's West Coast premiere of American Idiot, a show I quite like. A sample:
Blame it on Rodgers and Hammerstein...The match between rock and the musical would most certainly have been easier if the likes of Oklahoma! and South Pacific had never come along. Consider the state of Broadway musicals in the 1920s and ’30s: With few exceptions, they were dashed-off diversions with featherweight scripts and dozens of interchangeable songs. Unsurprisingly, the songs are all that survives most of those shows—and not just because they happen to include some of the best songs ever crafted, by the likes of the Gershwins, Kern, Berlin, Porter, and Rodgers & Hart, but also because they were made expressly to be lifted, repurposed, sold separately.

In short, they were pop tunes, the Hit Parade or Hot 100 of their day; indeed, for a time between the wars, Broadway was, for all intents and purposes, America’s music capital...

Rock ’n’ roll, a merger of white rockabilly and black rhythm-and-blues that transfixed the world’s youth from roughly 1954 to the present, might have been pressed into service as the soundtrack for another series of forgettable Broadway musicals, along the lines of all those disposable Elvis Presley movies (Kissin’ Cousins, anyone?). But by 1954, the year of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” Broadway was the home of both South Pacific and King and I, not to mention revivals of Show Boat and Carousel. Musicals had reached aesthetic maturity, but the price for growing up, particularly in a youth-oriented culture, is eventual obsolescence and irrelevance.
It's fairly well-trod territory, admittedly, but I'm happy with how the piece turned out. At the least, I think it's a useful summary of how the American musical got from Carousel to Spring Awakening, and why it took so damn long. You can read the whole thing in PDF form here.

Mar 20, 2012

A Few Last Words (For Now) on Daisey

The onslaught from all quarters has become tedious, I know, but I want to direct attention to three thoughtful pieces by folks who actually know Mike Daisey's work in the theater, whose views on this I privilege over the gajillion other tech and media pundits, not to mention assorted armchair outrage peddlers, who feel they duty-bound to weigh in.

First, the reliable Jason Zinoman, who's followed Daisey's work with admiration for years, and even sniffed out the problems with Agony and Ecstasy while it was still on the road to New York. Jason nails what went right, then wrong, with Daisey's storytelling art:
If there is one thread that ties together all of his solo shows, it would be this: His work locates the human spirit at the heart of institutions that are inevitably dehumanizing. By focusing on the sacrifices of the poorly-paid actor in a theater system that puts its resources elsewhere, or on how innovators like Nicola Tesla or the woman who made the prototype of the board game Monopoly were eventually marginalized, Daisey reminded us of how essential—and disposable—one life can be...

[With Agony and Ectasy,] Daisey didn’t just take a journalistically unethical shortcut. By inventing events that audiences thought were real, Daisey turned Chinese workers into abstractions, means to an end. He became a dehumanizing storyteller. Daisey doesn’t contextualize these people historically or socially. He doesn’t portray them at home, or show us their other employment options. They were described in just enough detail to send the audience home outraged. This was my main problem with the show when I finally saw it, that its portrait of Chinese workers seemed remote. Now I understand why.
Alli Houseworth, the p.r. maven who flacked the show when it was "birthed" at D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth (where it's set to return this summer), is much blunter:
We are at a crucial moment in theatre history...The battle to bring in new audiences and retain them is becoming harder and harder to fight. And though I can’t speak for my colleagues in Seattle, or Berkeley or New York – that’s what my staff and I did for you, Mike. We collaborated. We listened to you, the artist. Not a single piece of material left my office without your approval. We, all of us, we brought new people to the theatre, who perhaps have never been to the theatre before. And they – and all of our audiences – paid money, and they sat in seats and their listened to you, and then they took home a piece of paper urging them to take action on this matter. And all along a playbill sat in their laps that said, “This is a work of non-fiction.”

So to the producers of the American theatre, I urge you to boycott this work. Boycott Mike’s gorgeous, amazing piece of theatre that is based on a true story. Boycott it until you get the apology that you deserve and do not ever, ever re-mount it or produce a work of his again until you know for sure what is true and what is not so your audiences are never ever mislead again. Stand by your desire to uphold the truth and value of art, of what you work so enormously hard for day in and day out, until you get an apology from the man who calls himself one of you, who is our field’s “leading man” in the fight for theatre as truth and activism. He let us down and we deserve better. Now is not a time for us to lay down and take this, to pretend “oh, it’s just theatre,” to coddle an artist because he brings in big box office bucks and “sparks dialogues.” It is absolutely crucial that we remain relevant in the world as art-makers. And art doesn’t always have to mean untruth. And if we are going to put this on our stages for our audiences then we need to trust the artist who creates the work in the first place. Until then, don’t do it. Do not produce his work until you get an apology.
Finally, turning inward is Polly Carl, the American theater's conscience, with a ruminative post on HowlRound:
Daisey’s undoing is all of our undoing. He was the theater artist we could bring into our spaces and assuage our liberal guilt, cover over our own activism gone dormant. We could live vicariously through his citizen/artist persona. We could take cover behind his truth, make it our truth, and feel we had done our part.

I’ve been undone by this. I’ve been exposed as a complacent passenger on his lying train. I handed over my own responsibility as citizen/artist. I was happy to let Daisey do the hard work of responsible citizenship for me. In exposing himself, he’s also exposed all of his supporters. We all have some blood on our hands.

Race, Racier

Above, the poster image for Artist Repertory Theatre's current production of Race, which certainly ups the ante on the original Broadway art, below:

Mar 17, 2012

Daisey, Pro and Con

Mike Daisey, right, with his wife and director Jean-Michele Gregory

The swirling meta-drama around Mike Daisey's solo show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs has often competed with the show itself, from the eerie coincidence of Jobs' death during the show's opening weekend at the Public Theater last fall to the jostling dissension among the critics, from the apparent way in which his show sparked enough interest among influential people to spur fresh investigative pieces, public outrage, and even action on the part of Apple and its manufacturing partners to redress working conditions in Chinese electronics factories, to the (not unrelated) soapbox the show earned Daisey on cable news and, most fatefully, on the storytelling anthology radio show "This American Life."

We all know the rest of the story by now—and I do mean "we all." It's a little disconcerting, in fact, how widely this error-retraction story has blown up; people who'd never heard of Daisey, let alone seen his show, and even folks who are only dimly aware of "This American Life," now understand the thumbnail sketch: Chubby Apple gadfly in hoity-toity theater show bent facts about Chinese labor practices to make dear departed St. Steve look bad. Nothing to see here; back to our collective orgasm over the new iPad.

Sigh. The two things I can say unequivocally in Daisey's favor are that he crafted a great evening of theater, equal parts unsettling and entertaining, and that this is no small feat; attention must be paid to such talent. In this respect, the groundswell of interest his show sparked and the influence it has had were duly and painstakingly earned, performance by performance. What's more, such is the integrity and liveness of his work that he, perhaps inevitably but not necessarily, addressed the controversy in the show's final performance tonight.

But if the thumbnail sketch I alluded to above does him and his work a huge disservice, we who enjoyed and defended Agony and Ecstasy have good reason for feeling betrayed. Not just because it may count as a setback for the very cause Daisey set out to advance, which is no small thing; but because it counts as a setback for the theater, and for the possibility that a politically engaged piece of theater could actually have a voice in, and even drive, a national dialogue. That notion has always sounded like an overly romanticized shibboleth to me—I'm not sure that even in 1949, when Death of a Salesman bowed on Broadway, that it cast the kind of national shadow we imagine it did (I'd argue that decades of being taught as The Great American Play gave us that impression). Still, a hyper-relevant, unashamedly pointed play like Daisey's seemed to offer a bracing and hopeful exception. Here was a piece of art that spoke directly to our time, and directly to power, and seemed to possess a power of its own to move people to action.

I guess it should have seemed to good to be true. But what's more troubling is that the moments Daisey admits to concocting—particularly the encounter with a worker who touches a working iPad for the first time, after losing the use of one arm to a metal press* used in making iPads, and pronounces it "a kind of magic"—are the show's most gripping and uncomfortable. It pains me to realize, as well, that these concoctions play all too well into a line of criticism that has been dogging the show for years, and which I (and other defenders) essentially brushed off. You can find versions of it near the bottom of this post, below all the raves, but it was put most strongly by the Stranger's Brendan Kiley. It sounded overly harsh to me at the time (when the show played in Seattle last May), but reads as eerily prescient now:
When a storyteller moves from memoir to reporting, he incurs a new set of responsibilities: the responsibilities of verifiable fact. And as a reporter as well as a theater critic, I'll admit that facts are a bitch. They're messy, they screw up your well-calibrated plotlines, and they'll leave you in a ditch without a second thought. But facts matter. And if you start faking some of them, you put everything you say in peril. The real casualties of Daisey's fibbing aren't him or the audience—screw him and screw us. The real casualties of his fibbing are the Chinese people (probably real, but who knows?) on the production lines whom Daisey says he interviewed. The man whose hand was ruined, the child worker, the people whose backbones were fused together by standing for hours at a time: They deserve an advocate who will be scrupulously honest.
I can't disagree with that, knowing all we know now. For my part, I haven't written off Mike Daisey's unique and considerable talent—I will eagerly see his next show and follow his work with interest—but I do lament the great damage this controversy may have done to that poor player, the theater, on our national stage.

*This post initially stated that he'd lost the use of his arm due to exposure to the chemical n-hexane. My bad.

Mar 11, 2012

Further Adventures of "Further Adventures"

I've been hearing good things about Jeff Whitty's The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, a camp fantasia imagining Ibsen's heroine in a kind of post-suicide purgatory with a number of other iconic figures, since at least this interview with director Bill Rauch, where he talks about working on it for its South Coast Rep premiere in January 2006. Rauch subsequently mounted it again at Oregon Shakes when he took over there. Since then, as far as I can tell from a thorough glance at Jeff's bio, the play has languished, with no New York or regional productions to follow. That's weird, because you'd think that Whitty—Tony-winning librettist of Avenue Q, Tales of the City, and Bring It On—would have the juice to open doors at Playwrights Horizons, Second Stage, MTC, the Public, etc., and that a play favorably reviewed at South Coast (well, not universally favorably) would get a shot on a New York stage.

No dice—until now, except that the show isn't on a New York stage per se. It's being staged at director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar's West Side apartment for a limited run Mar. 1-19, in a free (suggested-donation) "lab" production by a troupe called Exit Pursued by a Bear. A colleague of mine saw it this past week and gushed about the play—compared it to Stoppard, but for our generation—and about the at-home intimacy of the staging. Apartment theater does seem to be something of a trend in New York these days, often but not always at an "undisclosed location" or by invitation only (Soho Rep's Elective Affinities, for one, or the Chashama Balm in Gilead in Brooklyn, or Woodshed Collective's The Tenant, for starters). Though this quasi-review likens the experience to a speakeasy, it's not all that under-the-radar; you can request an invite to this "theatre party" here (and I do hope they extend, as I'll be out of town next week).

I'm not sure what it says about the health of our theater scene that an artist of Whitty's caliber is doing an ambitious, well-received play for free in a New York apartment; but if I look at the glass-half-full side, this does seem like a unique, inimitable way to experience his work, a true gift in a commodified age. People just don't do such things.

Mar 9, 2012

Quote for the Day*

"Don't forget that there are people in this audience tonight who are seeing live theatre for the first time...there are also some who are seeing it for the last." -Emily Anderson, a theater administrator in Michigan, in response to today's American Theatre Facebook question asking for "best backstage pep talk you've ever heard"

*(Actually, I'll be vacating in a different time zone most of next week, so let's make this a "Quote for the Week.")

Talking Big, Staying Small

I don't endorse everything rural-arts gadfly Scott Walters has to say, but I am grateful that he persists in making his case for arts funding redistribution, because frankly, who else is doing it, at least in his terms? A lot of the conversation around these topics revolves around how the bigger theaters can/should be better at what they do; this is quite rightly the concern of people who take seriously the mission of large nonprofits in major urban centers and want to hold them to account. Scott's critique is different; he'd like to see the major nonprofits stop hogging the entirety of the conversation about the state of the theatrical arts, not to mention getting the lion's share of the funding. I'm sympathetic to the redistributive impulse, albeit from a different angle—I tend to see smaller, more flexible theater companies in large urban centers as valuable alternatives/foils to the big kahunas, and that's where the majority of my focus has been.

All of which is preamble to say that I'm chuffed to see Scott take his work in two complementary directions: First, as a columnist for Huffington Post, where he has the chance to bring this discussion to a more national platform, and to more non-theater-junkie-readers, than ever before; and second, as director of a new NEA-funded "Our Town" pilot arts program in Bakersville, North Carolina (pop 464). I don't know when he finds time to teach. But more power to him; I look forward to hearing and seeing more from the feisty professor.

Mar 6, 2012

Things to Cherish

Today on American Theatre's Facebook page I asked what sorts of souvenirs folks take away from productions they've been involved with. Apart from the usual programs, postcards, and bits of sets, I was struck by this entry, from set designer and pirate lookalike David Gallo:
There was a time I liked to take certain small objects away from a production. I have the actual dice Al Pacino used as his gambler character in my Broadaway debut Hughie. I also cherish the small written note our dearly departed Bruno Kirby created on stage while portraying "Alan" in the Off-Broadway production of Bunny Bunny. The note was written to honor the late Gilda Radner as portrayed beautifully by Paula Kale. Small things but they mean a lot to me.
For my part, I've got a handful of T-shirts from my high school shows (Anything Goes, JC Superstar, Birdie, Forum), at which point my stage career all but ended, save a few musical appearance in the early aughts, from which I mostly have memories (and some recordings).

Mar 2, 2012

Mar 1, 2012

Hanging Specters

"The word 'Africa' is not uttered until deep in the second act of Hurt Village, but the continent hangs like a specter over Katori Hall's new play at the Signature Center. The African-American Memphis ghetto that gives the work its title is, if anything, a satellite colony, where the inhabitants have formed their own warring tribes and are united by customs and music the outside world simply cannot understand."
-Matthew Murray's review at Talkin' Broadway

This kind of deep insight into a work's dramatic heritage opens up whole new vistas of critical consideration that hadn't even occurred to me. Like:
"The word 'Israel' is not uttered at all in Glengarry Glen Ross, but that long-contested homeland hangs like a specter over David Mamet's play. The real estate office where aging salesman Shelley Levene struggles to survive is, if anything, a battleground where land takes on symbolic, even spiritual value in ways the outside the world simply cannot understand."
"The word 'Ireland' is not uttered at all in The House of Blue Leaves, but that mythic isle hangs like a specter over John Guare's play. The Queens suburb where the Shaughnessys play out their dangerously dysfunctional marriage, against a backdrop of Catholic shame and a terrorist bombing, is, if anything, a satellite of old Erin, a land of absurd poetry and deep-seated conflict the outside world simply cannot understand."
It's almost like every playwright's ancestral country of origin provides a readymade cultural/dramatic template with which to view their work.

Mind accordingly blown.

Play at home!