Jun 26, 2013

Some Strange Music Drags Me In

Robby in New Orleans: a large spirit and a sense of wonder.
In the summer of 2002, I was heading into what would be, in retrospect, a really rough patch of my life. My mom had died suddenly the previous fall, and also that year I'd broken up my longtime band, Millhouse, though not before recording what would be my first solo record, i hope it's me. A year later both my job as editor of Back Stage West and my first marriage at the time would fall apart. Into the breach came an old friend from film school, Susan Lambert, and an idea I resisted like hell at first: a staging of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night set in Depression-era Appalachia, for which I would put together a live band and write/supervise a score. Thank the gods Susan persisted with me; and indeed I later found out that she had been similarly coaxed over her initial skepticism by the piece's conceiver/adaptor, the large-spirited, childlike-in-wonder Robert L. Williams.

I'm not sure if I first met Robby on the Disney lot in Burbank, but I do remember that because both he and Susan worked for the Mouse, our initial rehearsals took place in one corner of the Disney commissary after hours, from which we cleared out tables and chairs and did our hillbilly Shakespeare thing. The cast, like many an L.A. theater cast, was an extraordinary mix of diverse talents of all levels and backgrounds, though there was a strong contingent of folks acquainted with Robby and/or Susan from their respective theater backgrounds in the South (Robbie, a Gulfport, Miss. native, had worked all over the South, including at Alabama Shakes and Southern Rep).

Robby, in addition to writing the adaptation, played a boisterous but sweet Sir Toby Belch, and his boyfriend Sean Galuszka would play Feste as a flinty, soulful, guitar-toting hobo. Susan and in particular Robby also clued me in to a number of the traditional songs we'd use in the show: We fitted a few of the classics, "Come Away Death" and "O Mistress Mine," to existing blues or folk templates, but otherwise interpolated period songs where appropriate: The show opened with a veritable hootenanny by the little bluegrass/old-time band I'd assembled, into which the Duke, in our rendition a coal mining foreman played by Gerald Hopkins, wandered with his opening lines about the food of love; the drinking song that awakens Malvolio's ire was Uncle Dave Macon's irresistible "Old Plank Road"; and our closer, replacing the "wind and the rain" number, was the Carter family classic "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?"

I still have some of the CDs Robby eagerly pressed on me for my research: the Harry Smith collection, The Music of Kentucky, and a number of special mixes he made. I'd gone through something of folk phase in high school, but this was a whole 'nother level of steeping in Americana, and its bittersweet grit has never quite worn off. I can hold my own when our little church band goes Southern, for instance, and I've introduced my share of the old, weird America into our services, mostly courtesy of this amazing compilation; and without this string-picking precedent, I doubt very much that I'd have had the skill set or the affinity for another folk-infused musical adaptation, The Devil and Tom Walker, I later did here in New York.

When An Appalachian Twelfth Night opened near the end of the year, it got great reviews--I'd almost forgotten how good until I recently revisited them. Folks really got what we were trying to do--that underneath the play's usual sport and romance, we'd infused a dusty, melancholy, sepia twang. We owe that all to Robby, whose passion for the project inspired Susan and Sean, and in turn me and the whole company. And I especially owe Robby the personal debt of providing me, via this great, quixotic project, an island of joyful and deeply satisfying creative work amid of the shoals of my own gathering troubles--a period I can truly say that was among my happiest as a musician and an artist, and, since those two things mean a lot to me, as a human being.

I recall all this now because of the crushing news, just received yesterday, that Robby died after a week in the hospital following a terrible car accident (he's the 50-year-old West Hollywood man in this harrowing story). I regret that I didn't get to know him well outside that show and a few subsequent gatherings; we never collaborated again, though I've jammed a few times with Sean since, and I'm working on a record of Shakespeare-inspired tunes for kids with Susan.

But Robby and I were in touch occasionally, and just months ago he expressed the wish that there might be some sort of Appalachian Twelfth Night reunion the next time I came back to L.A. Now, in the wake of his hospitalization and passing, Facebook is hosting a kind of virtual reunion, not only of that show's company but of people from all the walks of the wide-ranging life Robby lived. This is hardly the reunion he intended, of course, but it's a reminder of how many lives he touched, and changed, with his humor, his passion, and his love. He certainly touched and changed mine, and I will think of him every time I pick up my Martin and start idly picking "Wildwood Flower" or "The Cuckoo."

Below I've embedded a recording from the cast album I put together, with Robby's boyfriend Sean leading the show's closer, a classic about community mourning and resurrection. But before that, I I'll quote a few lines of Shakespeare's play that weren't said onstage in our Twelfth Night. For Robby:

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut the gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.
UPDATE: Robby's official obit.

Jun 21, 2013

No Time Like the Present

It's great to see Michael Feingold writing about theater again (kudos to TheaterMania for snapping him up), and with his own self-directed topics. And I love that he starts up his new column with a thread he began in the Voice three years ago, which posited that were are in a "hidden Golden Age" of New York theater; or as he rephrases it here, "A happy subject that has left me more than a little troubled." Essentially, though you wouldn't know it if you caught him in a bad mood or a high dudgeon about a specific play, Feingold is surprisingly sanguine about the quality of work, both in writing and production, at New York's nonprofit theaters, and he feels lonely beating this drum:
Unquestionably, we are lucky. The troubling point is that we don't seem to realize how lucky we are. If anyone other than me has been writing articles full of praise for the batch of exciting new American plays that our nonprofits spawned this year, I haven't come across them. 
Well, I'd argue that he wasn't entirely alone, but that's not my main argument with where Feingold then takes his thoughts. Essentially, he goes on to defend two well-reviewed Playwrights Horizons productions of the past season, Amy Herzog's The Great God Pan and Annie Baker's The Flick, from the reactions of some audiences and critics who, he feels, didn't appreciate the work, or the challenges they presented, with the kind of open, contemplative spirit he feels they deserved.

A fair enough topic, but it feels like small ball. Where I thought Feingold was taking his column was to double down on that lonely-voice-of-optimism angle: Not only will you seldom catch any of Feingold's critical colleagues saying things like, "There were a lot of good plays this season," largely because they very seldom zoom out to look at a whole season's worth of work except in the obligatory year's-end lists or the endless Tony speculation b.s. Instead, you will most often hear critics and miscellaneous theater observers lamenting the state of playwriting today, the trouble new voices have in gaining a foothold, the irrelevance of theater to the larger culture, etc.

I can't deny that there are grains of truth in all these familiar complaints, and I hardly think it's the business of critics to continually pat theatermakers on the back for doing great work. But I guess one reason that the constant calls for revolution and remaking the broken American theater (like this one, say), and the constant laments about how good new plays aren't getting produced, don't resonate with me is because I fundamentally agree with Feingold: I'm a reasonably happy theatergoer and theater observer as long as theaters are producing new work by living playwrights like Baker and Herzog and Sam Hunter and Lynn Nottage and Ayad Akhtar and Lisa D'Amour and Jackie Sibblies Drury and Stephen Gurgis and Stephen Karam and Tarrell MCraney and Lisa Kron and Itamar Moses and Sheila Callaghan and Lydia Diamond and Laura Eason and Robbie Baitz and Melissa Gibson and Yussef el Guindi and Chuck Mee and Liz Duffy Adams and Young Jean Lee and Chris Durang and Robert Schenkkan and David Ives and Bill Cain and Tracy Letts and Rebecca Gilman and Taylor Mac and Culture Clash and Nathan Jackson and Stew and Sarah Ruhl and Qui Nguyen and Dominique Morisseau and Rajiv Joseph and Regina Taylor and Mac Rogers and Gina Gionfriddo and Bruce Norris and Quiara Alegria Hudes and Laura Marks and Mike Daisey and Kirsten Greenidge and David Henry Hwang and Luis Alfaro and Dave Malloy and Jordan Harrison and Kate Fodor and Sean Graney and Katori Hall and Tanya Saracho and Nicky Silver...Do I need to go on? I could. And you probably have a list of your own.

My bottom line: If we don't live in a fertile and exciting time for new American playwriting, what would such a time look like?

Jun 20, 2013

Disney, Old Vs. New

It's easy to forget that there are different generations of Disney films, and hence Disney fans. As I was born at the end of the '60s, it was the films Uncle Walt made in that decade, and that his studio churned out for a few years after his death in 1966, that loom largest for me: Mary Poppins, Robin Hood, The Aristocats, 101 Dalmations, and of course The Jungle Book. I also got a healthy dose of the studio's classics from the '30s, '40s, and '50s, of course, all in re-release in actual theaters (they were not very freely or ever shown on TV, if I recall correctly) and dutifully followed its late '70s efforts (Pete's Dragon, anyone?).

For millennials and younger, of course, it's the second wave of Disney animated musicals, starting with The Little Mermaid and cresting with The Lion King, that loom largest, which is one reason that post-1990 catalogue is what Disney Theatrical Group has seemed most intent on turning into stage musicals (Aladdin will be flying its carpet to Broadway sometime next year), and the older stuff not so much, apart from Mary Poppins, which was already a fully realized live-action musical on film. (The Pixar films are arguably an even bigger deal for many millennials and after, and in fact there is a Toy Story musical with tunes by Groovelily, out roaming the high seas on Disney Cruise Lines, that may one day make it to land).

So that's one reason that Mary Zimmerman's new adaptation of The Jungle Book at the Goodman and Huntington Theatres is such a big deal. There are a host of other reasons, too, most of which I hope I covered in my new feature for the New York Times.

But in my reporting for that piece I was fascinated to learn that the Disney folks, while they're excited by and open to the possibilities of these older "properties," don't quite view them with the reverence or sanctimony you might expect.

"We can love it, but I defy you to sit here and tell me the story [of The Jungle Book]," said Tom Schumacher, head of Disney Theatricals, when I interviewed him. "They're all these vignetted stories that, in this picaresque way, become the story of Mowgli, and because of that, kids bond with it. The movie has a very clever trick, by the way: They say the character's names all the time: 'Where are you going, Baloo?' 'Come with me, Mowgli.' Which is good, because who could remember them?"

When I mentioned that the two Disney films that loomed largest in my childhood, largely thanks to LP records with songs and dialogue excerpts (this is how we endlessly replayed our movie experiences before we had VCRs, let alone Netflix), were Robin Hood and Jungle Book, Tom said bluntly, "Robin Hood is not a good movie." When I began to stammer in protest, Tom helpfully offered, "I have nostalgia for 'Quick Draw McGraw,' but it's not good animation." (Fair enough, though what I chiefly love about Robin Hood is Roger Miller's laconic score; Tom challenged me to sing some of it, and I haltingly obliged with a little "Oo-De-Lally.")

The good news, though, is that in the age of on-demand video, Tom said, "The kids don't know what order they came out in, unless they're technically savvy about animation." I can vouch for that, having a four-year-old who toggles happily between Cinderella and The Princess and the Frog. And here Tom couldn't resist one last dig at my childhood favorite; viewed in this freshly leveled landscape of old mixed with new, he said, "Your beloved Robin Hood looks like crap."

And I guess Roger Miller already has a Broadway musical.

Related: A sidebar on other Disney adaptations that may be in the theatrical pipeline.

Jun 18, 2013

Twin Powers, Activate

It's been a few years in the making, and it's still not ready to roll out just yet, but with a few other songwriters I've been putting together O Baby Mine, an album of Shakespeare-inspired tunes for kids--some with text directly from the Bard, some commenting on his work, and some, like the one above, inspired by his plots. I share it now because the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park's fine new Comedy of Errors opens tonight. Enjoy!

Jun 17, 2013


Insert obligatory apology for light posting here. The slowdown has been mainly due to my being out of town to report a big story on the Goodman Theatre's new Jungle Book. You may have heard about the show last week when a controversy over director/adapator Mary Zimmerman's alleged cultural insensitivity exploded on the Internet, a few days after I'd returned from reporting in Chicago (the post most worth reading is the kerfuffle's civil, and hopefully definitive, denouement). In the hours I spent with her, as well as watching rehearsals and talking to songwriter Richard M. Sherman, music director Doug Peck, performer Andre De Shields, and others, the issues of both Rudyard Kipling's colonialism and the Disney film's perceived racism definitely came up, and not trivially. I would argue that it's not the main thing worth talking about with this relatively lighthearted family musical, but it's not negligible, either, and I was convinced from my interviews that Zimmerman and the entire company had given these issues considerable thought and care.

So maybe that's why, when I read her explaining her approach to these issues, I immediately understood the context of her comments, particularly the most infamous one: In trying to debunk the common perception that the Disney film's singing orangutan, voiced by an Italian jazz singer, is somehow a racist caricature, she said, "It's something I think where the racism is in the eye of the beholder." If you lop off the words "It's something I think where the," as even usually circumspect Thomas Cott sloppily did, then you do indeed have an inflammatory and sweepingly dismissive statement--just not one the Mary Zimmerman happened to say or mean. Even her comment about the British imperial period in India ("No one is sitting around moping about the raj"), while it certainly sounds flippant and dismissive, I understood to mean--in the context of a show in which Zimmerman, her designers, and music director Doug Peck are paying tribute to the story's Indian setting in a fascinating, and to my ears and eyes, joyous way--that Indian culture is not ultimately confined to or defined by its interactions with the West.

In any case, I'm glad that Jamil Khoury, whose initial anti-Mary Zimmerman post reads more like a full-career slam than a "conversation starter," was gracious enough to let her explain herself at length on the same site. My story will be out this week, and you can read more then.

In the meantime, the Tonys happened and proved the StageGrade critics' poll wrong on some big categories. I caught the best-play winner Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and liked it enough that I'm going back this week, not least to ponder why I liked it so much (it seems upon reflection to be a flimsy, self-congratulatory, even reactionary little sitcom, but it also happens to have been the most fun I've had at a big Broadway "boulevard" comedy since, well, ever). Speaking of comedies, Shakespeare in the Park's new Comedy of Errors is also strong and supply done, with Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson playing the piece's absurd, confounded comic mechanics blessedly straight. They do something that is all too seldom achieved with Shakespeare, and most particularly his comedies: They make it funny on its own terms, without the sort of mugging, winking, or interpolated shtick that nervous directors and actors typically graft onto the action to make Shakespeare seem funny.

I was less taken with The Nance, which I had hoped from the reviews would be a solid, old-fashioned comedy/drama. Well, it's old-fashioned, at least, leading to an experience that's not unlike catching a third-string feature on AMC late at night. Nathan Lane is, no surprise, extraordinary, and there's a great, wrenching scene in Act Two that's all the better because it's the kind of obligatory confrontation--between Lane's older, closeted gay man and a young lover poignantly unable to make claims on, let alone name their relationship--that the whole play's been building to, and which we approach with dread, fearing that Douglas Carter Beane is not going to handle it in anything like an original fashion (given the alternately hamhanded and muddled way he handles a lot of the rest of the show). Instead, the scene is searching, emotionally honest, painful in the best way, and on the strength of that--not to mention Jack O'Brien's sparkling direction--I'd say The Nance is worth a look.

While in Chicago, I caught Othello: The Remix, by the Q Brothers of Bombitty of Errors fame. Though I never caught that hit, I was duly impressed with this all-rapped four-man (plus DJ) update of the Shakespeare play (performed at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, no less). In fact, with its mix of geeky wordplay and free-flowing, spot-on presentational style, it may be the best piece of hip-hop theater I've seen. (Guess I should at check out Venice here in town for a point of comparison.)

Finally, I found Caucasian Chalk Circle at Classic Stage Company a dispiriting slog, not least because of Duncan Sheik's somnabulent songs. (It might also have been that the play itself didn't register very strongly; it strikes me that the best versions of this play I've seen have been major overhauls/updates, including Lynn Manning's The Central Ave. Chalk Circle and Chuck Mee's The Berlin Circle, the latter of which deals with the thorny post-communist question head-on, and brilliantly so.) I was surprised, then, to see that CSC has doubled down on the Sheik/Brecht alliance, announcing that they'll do A Man's a Man next season with music by the Spring Awakening tunesmith. I know that Sheik has it in him to make music that's spikier and punchier than the contemplative pastels of his Circle score; may I suggest that he give a spin to Dave Van Ronk and Frankie Armstrong's extraordinary record of Brecht songs, Let No One Deceive You? A version of the song "A Man's a Man" is included but not embeddable here, so I'll close this catch-up post with this shattering rendition of a Brecht/Weill classic.

Jun 11, 2013

Quote for the Day

At the end of an illuminating interview about her new adaptation of The Jungle Book for the Goodman Theater, Mary Zimmerman gives a snappish but, I think, profound answer to a commonplace interview question:
What do you hope the audience in general takes away from the musical?That’s a capitalist question. I feel like it’s enough for shows to be experiences. There is no object that you take. I hope what audiences have at the end is a sense of the incredible wonderment of being a child. Children have one foot in reality and one foot somewhere else.

Jun 6, 2013

StageGrade Tony Poll 2013

Cross-posted at StageGrade.

We're sensing a trend with our StageGrade Tony Poll: Critical dissatisfaction with shows themselves, coupled with huge love for the performers and directors of the self-same shows. In the new-play category this year, for example, while we sensed affection for the odds-on winner, Chris Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, critics largely term it a weak season for plays—even as they declare most of the performance and direction categories of the very same plays "unusually strong."

As with last year, this means that most of the real competitive action is in the performance categories, while the big-ticket production awards are all but faits accomplis. One big exception to this rough rule (as with last year, actually) might be in the hotly contested new-musical category: Where last year critics were dead even on whether Once or Newsies would get the nod (Once pulled it out), this year there's a comparable if smaller Kinky Boots insurgency to counter the seeming inevitability of the puckish import Matilda. And while last year's musical revival category was surprisingly competitive—most critics predicted and wished for a win for Follies, but the award instead went to Diane Paulus' Porgy and Bess—this year all bow before the march of Paulus' newest revival, the almighty Pippin.

The categories to watch, based on previous experience, are Lead Actor in a Play, with Lucky Guy's Tom Hanks all but assured the former (but critics said the same thing last year about Philip Seymour Hoffman's sad-sack Salesman, and One Man, Two Guvnors' James Corden waltzed away with the statue); the Lead Actress in a Play category, in which Cicely Tyson's beatific The Trip to Bountiful is similarly overwhelmingly favored (but critics last year were similarly sure that The Lyons's Linda Lavin or End of the Rainbow's Tracie Bennett would win, and Venus in Fur's Nina Arianda pulled an upset). Likewise, the Play Direction category, with a lot of strong contenders, looks like it's up for grabs; Lucky Guy's George C. Wolfe is only very narrowly favored to pick up the award over Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'s Pam MacKinnon, but there are plenty of votes for Vanya and Sonia's Nicholas Martin, as well.

In short, the Tonys this year won't be without their drama, and that's what we all tune in for, isn't it? Without further ado, here's how our critics think the Tonys will play out on Sunday, June 9—and how they wish they would play out. This year's participating critics, our biggest group yet, include David Barbour (Lighting & Sound America), Aaron Botwick (Scribicide), Ben Brantley (The New York Times), David Cote (Time Out New York), Michael Dale (Broadwayworld.com), Suzy Evans (Backstage), Adam Feldman (Time Out New York), David Finkle (Huffington Post), David Gordon (TheaterMania), Jesse Green (New York), Erik Haagensen (Backstage), Charles Isherwood (The New York Times), Jonathan Mandell (New York Theater), Peter Marks (The Washington Post), David Rooney (The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Times), Frank Scheck (New York Post), David Sheward (ArtsinNY.com, Theaterlife.com), Raven Snook (Time Out New York), Michael Sommers (New Jersey Newsroom), Marilyn Stasio (Variety), Doug Strassler (New York Press), and Linda Winer (Newsday).

The Assembled Parties (Richard Greenberg), Lucky Guy (Nora Ephron), The Testament of Mary (Colm Toibin), Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Christopher Durang)
Will Win: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Should Win: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Chris Durang should make room on his shelf for his first Tony, most critics agree—and most think deservedly so. There are a few votes in the "should win" column for Greenberg's genteel Assembled Parties, but most agree with David Rooney, who writes that while "it's a toss-up for me between Vanya and Assembled Parties," he finds "the elegance with which Durang applies his trademark absurdist humor to issues that plague many of us in reflective middle age" gives his play the advantage. A number of critics who are less sold on the play think Durang will win because of the weakness of the rest of the field.

Bring It On, A Christmas Story, Kinky Boots, Matilda
Will Win: Matilda
Should Win: Matilda

The Kinky Boots/Matilda showdown may be overblown: Critics think the RSC's Dahl adaptation both will and should win by a margin of 2-to-1. Still, that doesn't stop them from dishing about the shows' respective prospects. Says David Finkle: "If Matilda doesn't win, the loss can be attributed to the inexplicable backlash. Apparently, some detractors think it's too cruel and/or too English." Maybe, but summing up the critical backlash, Doug Strassler says, "Plenty of hype has shrouded the fact that Matilda is a loud, unfocused mess of a show." Less harsh is Raven Snook, who gives Boots the edge because "it shouldn't be as good as it is...It's done with genuine feeling, humor, nuance and really catchy songs." A few critics, including Jonathan Mandell and David Barbour, even offer that they'd prefer to see A Christmas Story win. Pish-posh, say many of their colleagues, with Peter Marks pithily calling Matilda "the winner by a country mile, the country being Britain," and David Rooney opining, ""In terms of Matilda's inventive stagecraft there's no contest." Marilyn Stasio goes so far as to label the "campaign against Matilda" a "disgrace to the industry," adding, "Why the hell wasn't Hands on a Hardbody nominated?"

A Christmas Story (Joseph Robinette), Kinky Boots (Harvey Fierstein), Matilda (Dennis Kelly), Cinderella (Douglas Carter Beane)
Will Win: Matilda
Should Win: Matilda

There's a flicker of critical love for Robinette's holiday adaptation, but this is considered a lock for Matilda's Dennis Kelly. Says Erik Haagensen: "Neophyte book writer Kelly's inventive, tonally adept adaptation of Roald Dahl's story is the best thing about Matilda, while none of the competition comes close." Giving the likely win a political spin, David Barbour says, "This may be the voters' place to honor Matilda without going all the way to a Best Musical nod." Jonathan Mandell, summing up a general feeling that this is a weak category, snarks, "Each year, the Tony nominating committee seems to select for this category at least a couple of musicals in which the worst thing about them is their book. This year is no exception."

A Christmas Story (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), Hands on a Hardbody (Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green), Kinky Boots (Cyndi Lauper), Matilda (Tim Minchin)
Will Win: Kinky Boots
Should Win: Kinky Boots

Critics may have deplored this year's musical books, but they largely liked the scores—which is reflected in the fact that while nearly all think that "hometown girl" Lauper, as David Barbour calls her, will take home the trophy, Boots' lead in the "should win" column is a lot weaker. Minchin's "genuinely subversive talent" (David Rooney) gets some love, as does Pasek & Paul's score, which Suzy Evans hails as "the most original, while remaining the most story-driven." But the lion's share of plaudits go to pop princess Lauper for writing a "surprisingly good" score (Peter Marks), one in which "the musical styles were varied and the lyrics illuminated the characters' inner lives" (Raven Snook). Raves Doug Strassler, "I found myself sad every time a number ended in Kinky Boots, which I haven't been able to say in my last few years of musical attendance." Marilyn Stasio, meanwhile, wishes Hardbody had been given a better shake, while Erik Haagensen thinks Pasek & Paul's score for the Off-Broadway Dogfight trumps all the nominees here.

Golden Boy, Orphans, The Trip to Bountiful, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Will Win: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Should Win: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
or Golden Boy
Most critics think Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has this sewn up, and most are fine with that, but David Rooney sums up the critical ambivalence when he says, "The [Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?] revival was a revelation above all for Tracy Letts' ferocious take on George. But Bartlett Sher's masterful touch with dated material made the Odets revival a greater challenge." That led Mandell to offer "an almost-philosophical" quandary: "Does a production deserve more credit for making the most of an outdated or otherwise inferior script or are we duty-bound to honor the best script? The production of the creaky Golden Boy was wonderful; there is much as well to recommend The Trip to Bountiful with its 'non-traditional' high-quality cast. But the 50-year-old Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? holds up wonderfully." Still, counters Peter Marks, "How many times can Salesman and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? win?"

Annie, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Pippin, Cinderella
Will Win: Pippin
Should Win: Pippin

Take this one to the bank, say critics: Diane Paulus' circus-y take on this Stephen Schwartz quasi-classic was, as Doug Strassler puts it, "the musical event of the season." Even those who find the musical subpar agree with Erik Haagensen that Paulus' production "has found its heart, spectacularly demonstrating why it has been such a popular show for more than 40 years." There is scattered love for the shuttered Drood, and Aaron Botwick makes a quixotic case that the much-ridiculed Jekyll & Hyde belonged on this list ("Audiences are oddly unwilling to enjoy camp on Broadway," he muses), but as Peter Marks succinctly puts it: Shows that aren't Pippin "have a better chance of winning the next Mega Millions."

Tom Hanks, Lucky Guy; Nathan Lane, The Nance; Tracy Letts, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; David Hyde Pierce, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; Tom Sturridge, Orphans
Will Win: Tom Hanks
Should Win: Tracy Letts

The critical near-unanimity here is striking: Almost all the critics think the statue will go to "Hollywood royalty" Hanks, not least because he's "charmed the entire Broadway community" (Frank Scheck), and also because, as David Sheward puts it, "The majority of Tony voters (producers) want to see more big-name movie stars on Broadway, and a Tony for Hanks will encourage that trend." But almost all of the critics wish the Tony would go to Letts, in his Main Stem debut as a "bizarrely playful and bitter George" (Jonathan Mandell). There are a few votes for Lane's versatile turn in The Nance; as Raven Snook writes, he "got to flex all of his talented muscles—high and low-brow, drama and comedy, even singing and hoofing." Doug Strassler wishes that Douglas Hodge (Cyrano de Bergerac) and Seth Numrich (Golden Boy) were on this list. But the award for counterintuiveness must go to David Barbour, who offers, "You heard it here first; Tom Hanks will go away empty-handed. Not his fault really, but the part isn't that interesting. This is going to come down to a horse race between Pierce and Lane." That sounds a little nutso to us, but still, this race may be more of a toss-up than the near-unanimity suggests: When critics find all the actors deserving, as they do here, so might Tony voters.

Laurie Metcalf, The Other Place; Amy Morton, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Kristine Nielsen, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; Holland Taylor, Ann; Cicely Tyson, The Trip to Bountiful
Will Win: Cicely Tyson
Should Win: Laurie Metcalf

This one is even more competitive than Lead Actor, at least in critics' "should win" category. Many echo David Barbour, who says, "This is the toughest category, because all of the ladies are deserving." Indeed, many think there were other performances that should have been nominated, as well: Ben Brantley, for one, thinks Assembled Parties's Jessica Hecht, I'll Eat You Last's Bette Midler, and Testament of Mary's Fiona Shaw also belong on the list. Still, all but one of our voting critics think the statue will go to 88-year-old Tyson for her "luminous, richly idiosyncratic take on Carrie Watts" in Bountiful (Erik Haagensen), though a few grumble that it's a "maudlin vote" (Marilyn Stasio) given for sentimental reasons to a "lively old dame" (Barbour again). Many hail Metcalf's challenging turn as a brain scientist with a brian tumor: As Raven Snook put it, "I could use the cliché that it was a master class in acting except you never felt like she was acting." Agreed Doug Strasser: "Metcalf dug deeper than anyone in a show that sadly ran too short." But getting almost as much love, in addition to Tyson, is Neilsen for her "brilliant comic turn" (Barbour) in Vanya and Sonia.

Bertie Carvel, Matilda; Santino Fontana, Cinderella; Rob McClure, Chaplin; Billy Porter, Kinky Boots; Stark Stands, Kinky Boots
Will Win: Bertie Carvel
Should Win: Bertie Carvel

Many see this as another Matilda/Kinky Boots proxy battle. Though the huge majority say they favor Bertie Carvel's menacing drag turn as Miss Trunchbull, most gripe that he's in the wrong category—that Trunchbull is a supporting role. Still, many agree with David Rooney, who calls Carvel's turn "one of the most astonishingly full-bodied theatrical creations in recent memory." And while Porter's turn as Boots' drag queen gets a fair amount of critical love—Raven Snook calls his Lola "a beautiful and original creation," while Jonathan Mandell says he "does a wonderful job with a hackneyed character"—several critics take this opportunity to recall McClure's resourceful take on Chaplin. Doug Strassler raves that McClure "carried Chaplin in an astonishing amalgam of physical, musical, and emotional specificity that bore new insight into an icon." Agrees David Barbour: "McClure's uncanny replication of Chaplin's technique might have won if the show was still running."

Stephanie J. Block, The Mystery of Edwin Drood; Carolee Carmello, Scandalous; Valisia LeKae, Motown, the Musical; Patina Miller, Pippin; Laura Osnes, Cinderella
Will Win: Patina Miller
Should Win: Laura Osnes

Many agree with Jonathan Mandell's assessment that "this is a difficult category, not just because the talent is so plentiful, but because the shows are so beneath them." There are a lot of passionate defenses of Carmello's turn in Kathie Lee Gifford's misbegotten religious bio-musical, and a few who feel Valisia LaKae's roof-raising performance in Motown should get some Tony love, but most feel that Osnes deserves the nod for, as Raven Snook puts it, "[creating] a Cinderella little girls can look up to without their moms rolling their eyes." Still, most critics agree that Patina Miller will take home the trophy for her slick Leading Player in the popular Pippin, and some think this is as it should be: as Frank Scheck says, "Anyone who can erase memories of Ben Vereen's indelible original turn deserves the award."

Danny Burstein, Golden Boy; Richard Kind, The Big Knife; Billy Magnussen, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; Tony Shalhoub, Golden Boy; Courtney B. Vance, Lucky Guy
Will Win: Richard Kind
Should Win: Richard Kind

Another over-qualified field, with the edge going to Kind, best known for his comic roles, who surprised critics with what Aaron Botwick calls "a terrifying performance" in Odets' Hollywood morality tale. Another Odets revival, Golden Boy, split critical votes, with some favoring Tony Shalhoub, as a reticent immigrant patriarch ("heart-rending," says David Sheward), and some Danny Burstein, as a taciturn trainer. And a number of critics would give their vote to Vance, as a cantankerous editor; says Raven Snook, "Vance was hands-down the best thing in Lucky Guy (sorry, Tom)." A few, like Barbour, wish that Magnussen's "original and bizarrely funny" performance might take the win, and both Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood wish that Madison Dirks' virile turn as Nick in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was on this list. Most are happy with Kind, though; as Jonathan Mandell observes, "Those who've been able to catch the 1955 movie of The Big Knife, with Rod Steiger's absurdly over-the-top portrayal of the thug-like movie studio head, can even more appreciate Kind's performance, which is modulated and credible before it becomes explosive; he seems to inhabit the role." Next he may inhabit the role of Tony winner.

Carrie Coon, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Shalita Grant, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; Judith Ivey, The Heiress; Judith Light, The Assembled Parties; Condola Rashad, The Trip to Bountiful
Will Win: Judith Light
Should Win: Judith Light

Though Light took home the same award last year for Other Desert Cities, as David Finkle says, "Here's a recent winner who's just too good in this meaty part not to prevail." Most critics agree; writes David Rooney, "Light's spiky yet infinitely compassionate performance...was the perfect complement to Jessica Hecht's luminous work." (Observes Raven Snook: "So funny that the ultimate sitcom WASP in the '80s is now the go-to Jewish character actress.") But don't mistake this lovefest for a lock: Critics' "should win" votes are more divided than they look, with a fair number plumping for "up-and-coming star" Rashad (Peter Marks), still others for Coon's flailing Honey in Woolf, and others for Ivey's interfering Heiress aunt. It was, in short, a good year for acting in plays, if all these split votes are to be believed.

Charl Brown, Motown, the Musical; Keith Carradine, Hands on a Hardbody; Will Chase, The Mystery of Edwin Drood; Gabriel Ebert, Matilda; Terrence Mann, Pippin
Will Win: Terrence Mann
Should Win: Gabriel Ebert

Critics think Terrence Mann's Charlemagne will take home the crown because, as David Sheward explains, he's a Broadway veteran (Cats, the original Les Miz, Beauty and the Beast) without a Tony on his shelf—a dangerous competitor in any year. Besides, says Raven Snook: "I was impressed that Mann learned how to unicycle." There a few "should win" votes for Chase's turn in Drood and Brown's in Motown, but most critics are swept away by Ebert's crass, lanky dad in Matilda, not least because of its contrast with a previous role: "Never in a million years," writes David Rooney, "would I have recognized the plaid-suited anti-intellectual crook in Matilda as the troubled twentysomething from 4000 Miles."

Annaleigh Ashford, Kinky Boots; Victoria Clark, Cinderella; Andrea Martin, Pippin; Keala Settle, Hands on a Hardbody; Lauren Ward, Matilda
Will Win: Andrea Martin
Should Win: Andrea Martin
"This is what they call a lock, folks," says Raven Snook. Indeed, though there's a smattering of support for Kinky Boots's charming Ashford, Martin is hailed for a showstopping number that David Rooney calls "probably the most delightful five minutes of stage time of any production currently on Broadway." Quips David Sheward: "Lesson #1: If you're over 60, learn a trapeze act and the Tony is yours." Adds Erik Haagensen: "It's not just the acrobatics; it's also Martin's rich humanity that puts her over the top." Bottom line, says Barbour: "The other ladies may as well stay at home."

Pam MacKinnon, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Nicholas Martin, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; Bartlett Sher, Golden Boy; George C. Wolfe, Lucky Guy
Will Win: George C. Wolfe
Should Win: Pam MacKinnon

It's Wolfe vs. Woolf in this category: Lucky Guy's helmer gets the will-win nod—in a very close vote—for, as David Rooney puts it, "giving dynamic life to an unfinished play with way more tell than show." But MacKinnon gets the should-win vote for taking "a great play we've all seen multiple times and [making] it feel fresh," says Raven Snook. But both Sher and Martin have their partisans, too, with Barbour noting of Martin that he is "undervalued because he is such an assured director of comedy." Few would dispute Jesse Green's verdict that, like the above play-performance races, this is "another unusually strong category."

Scott Ellis, The Mystery of Edwin Drood; Jerry Mitchell, Kinky Boots; Diane Paulus, Pippin; Matthew Warchus, Matilda
Will Win: Diane Paulus
Should Win: Diane Paulus
Critics give their due to Paulus' achievement here, even if many seem to chafe at it. Giving the most full-throated defense of Paulus' vision is Raven Snook, who writes, "The circus conceit could have felt forced or flat if done wrong. But Paulus did it right. She integrated the tricks beautifully so that the actors were part of the action, even when they were kind of faking it. And yet she still managed to coax vibrant performances from them." Sure, but many critics say they prefer Warchus' work on Matilda; as Peter Marks snappily puts it, "Matilda is an achievement, Pippin a mere spectacle." And Jesse Green quips, "Perhaps the category should be 'Best Distraction from a Musical.' " David Barbour tries to put Paulus' work in perspective: "Let's face it–Pippin was not a likely or easy prospect for revival. (A London staging last year got some of the worst reviews I've ever seen.) It's not a great musical, but Paulus found a way to make it work for audiences in 2013; that's not a small achievement." That, plus Paulus not taking the directing trophy for her otherwise Tony-bedecked productions of Hair and Porgy and Bess, make her the favorite.

Andy Blankenbuehler, Bring It On; Peter Darling, Matilda; Jerry Mitchell, Kinky Boots; Chet Walker, Pippin
Will Win: Chet Walker
Should Win: Peter Darling
Critics agree that Walker, a dancer from the original Bob Fosse company of Pippin who partly recreated some of Fosse's work for the revival, will take home the win, but most fault the nominating committee for not including Gypsy Snider, the show's acrobatics/circus choreographer, alongside him. Many favor Darling's Matilda dances, and think they may even pull an upset; David Finkle calls Darling's work "awe-inspiring," and Frank Scheck points out that "it isn't easy to make kids look like great dancers." Some critics would cast their vote for Mitchell's Boots work, while still others credit Blankenbuehler for "the most original dance sequences all year." Hmm, that sounds like a more competitive race than it may appear. Which, if we're lucky, just might sum up the 2013 Tonys.

This Is Not Our Youth Anymore

I was just kvetching to someone yesterday about how Kenneth Lonergan's 1996 watershed This Is Our Youth is almost never revived (a subject I covered at more length for Isaac last year), and today she sent me this postcard:
Of course I'll be out of town, wouldn't you know?

God, Tonys, and the Jungle

Apologies for light posting lately, but I hope I can compensate with a few tidbits. I recently had the pleasure of looking back over the theater season with Kerry Weber, culture editor at America magazine, for their weekly podcast. I think I rambled on a bit, but I do feel like things get interesting in re: The Testament of Mary (roughly at the 12-minute mark). America is a Jesuit-run magazine, and one thing I recall fondly about going to a Jesuit high school was that it really was animated by a spirit of inquiry; I felt that anything was open for discussion, even God and spirituality should the subjects come up, and not for mere obeisance in an anodyne or dutifully orthodox way; these were up for debate in a robust, thoroughgoing way. When we read Cat's Cradle or Grendel, to give just two examples that come to mind, I felt like we were able to give those books' challenges to religion and heroism full due because we could talk about religion at all, and a full spectrum of views, including that of the unapologetically faithful, were represented. A number of my classmates there were atheists, and not a few were Jews; and I'm sure I'm overrating or idealizing what felt to me at the time like a bracing free flow of ideas, but that's exactly how it felt. As I wrote in my piece about Mary, it raised in me a confident faith that essentially said: God's got this, so how is a little doubt and argument going to hurt? I feel that same spirit of inquiry, of being open to the world in all its challenges and complexity, at America, and it's gratifying to continue that thread of my life, and to write about theater there with spirituality as a given, a lens--and as a theme that can be broached and fully engaged, but must never be merely genuflected to.

Another strong thread, at least in more recent years, has been StageGrade, the review-reviewing site I founded with Isaac Butler years ago. Isaac is no longer involved and in fact Davenport Theatrical now owns it, but that hasn't slowed its momentum. Each year we survey critics for their Tony predictions, and this year's survey has the highest number of critics participating, with some surprising and unsurprisingly readable results here. An excerpt:
The categories to watch, based on previous experience, are Lead Actor in a Play, with Lucky Guy's Tom Hanks all but assured the former (but critics said the same thing last year about Philip Seymour Hoffman's sad-sack Salesman, and One Man, Two Guvnors' James Corden waltzed away with the statue); the Lead Actress in a Play category, in which Cicely Tyson's beatific The Trip to Bountiful is similarly overwhelmingly favored (but critics last year were similarly sure that The Lyons's Linda Lavin or End of the Rainbow's Tracie Bennett would win, and Venus in Fur's Nina Arianda pulled an upset). Likewise, the Play Direction category, with a lot of strong contenders, looks like it's up for grabs; Lucky Guy's George C. Wolfe is only very narrowly favored to pick up the award over Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'s Pam MacKinnon, but there are plenty of votes for Vanya and Sonia's Nicholas Martin, as well.
Finally, blogging will be light in the coming week because I'm headed to cover Mary Zimmerman and Goodman Theater's take on a touchstone work of my childhood, seen at the top.

Trust in me; there will be more to report.

Jun 3, 2013

Fresh Dirt

From this space, four years ago today, I hailed Rocco Landesman's ascent to the helm of the NEA with an anecdote from playwright Oliver Mayer, who used to work in Rocco's office and described it as a colorful place. Over to Oliver:
Jujamcyn Theatres was the bastard child of Broadway. We did M Butterfly, and that changed everything. We did Carrie the Musical, and oh, it was bad. They were so much fun to be with, because Rocco is an inveterate gambler—horses, particularly, and he would have his bookies come in. There was a guy who came in called Mr. Dirt.
Funny thing: If you Google "mr. dirt rocco landesman," you get this:
Posted by mr dirt on May 20, 2001 at 11:18:20:
congratulations Rocco Landesman long time
Ragozin-only user,for your nearly one million
and a quarter score on 5/5/o1.Looks like
"The Producers" isn't your only goldmine!
Looks like bookies can be e-bookies, too.