Dec 23, 2014

Tops of 2014

It's been a spotty year of blogging here, got to admit, and only partly due to the October debut of this. And it's hard not to find it sobering that my two most-read post were essentially obituaries. But here, in order, were my most popular 2014 posts (last year's are here):
1. What Happened to StageGrade. The theatre-review-aggregating site I made with Isaac Butler and the chaps from PlayScripts died this year. Read it and weep.

2. The Word Word. I loved the strange, beautiful writing of Dennis Miles, an L.A.-based poet and playwright whose work I first caught at the tiny Theatre of NOTE, and with whom I had a cordial correspondence in the years since (and a few fleeting stabs at collaboration). It's heartening to see that this "In Memoriam" post for Dennis, who died in August, has been so popular.

3. Too Much Freedom to Fail. As L.A.'s "99-seat wars" began to heat up this year, I remembered a speech I gave at a theater conference in 2003, which seemed to sum up my thoughts on the artistic economy of small L.A. theater; I felt it held up pretty well and so I reposted it in this space. It was taken up and linked by the indispensable gadfly Colin Mitchell, and the rest is history.

4. FoS, Bonus Track 1: The Subtle Distinctions. There was too much to say about The Fortress of Solitude, the long-awaited (by some) musical adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's sprawling but intimate coming-of-age-and-beyond novel at the Public Theater. One nugget I mentioned in my NY Times preview piece: that Lethem had made a two-CD compilation of supplementary listening for his pop-music-steeped book. Lethem did not discourage me from seeking out the playlist online, and the rest was linkin'. I'm glad I did it; there are some great, great songs on this list.

5. Once More Into the Breach. In response to a breezy, ill-informed piece in Vanity Fair online, which posited that some kind of celebrity reading series in L.A. could be the savior of the town's moribund theater scene (huh?), I wrote this well-received response, also for VF, based on my erstwhile rovings through what I still consider my theatergoing hometown.

6. Hall Monitor. Speaking of celebrity, I have to chalk up the popularity of this post--essentially just a cue-up to a link of my Times profile of Michael C. Hall, then starring in The Realistic Joneses--to sheer name value. It probably didn't hurt that I dug up of a photo of him as the white-powdered, shirtless Emcee from Cabaret (a role in which I can claim the pleasure of seeing him, alongside Susan Egan, still my favorite Sally Bowles next to Julie Harris).

7. I Could Laugh Out Loud. Happy to see that this non-review of the still-running Broadway revival of a perfect piece of WWII-era fluff has been so popular. I've since revisited it with my wife, and confirmed that 1) I married the right woman (she loved it possibly even more than I), and 2) This exuberant production, flaws and all, is one of my favorite things ever.

8. Newman's Own. On the occasion of Randy Newman bringing back Faust--his sole, quixotic stab at a stage musical, which I saw and admired in its original La Jolla run two decades ago--I sold a piece to Slate musing on the might-have-beens represented by the show's never catching fire (a fate sealed, alas, by its one-night resurrection).

9. Stuck on Hitch. As with No. 6 above, this post's popularity is possibly another case of name recognition trumping all--in this case, the title subject of David Rudkin's play The Love Song of Alfred J. Hitchcock, about which I wrote a Times preview and which gave me the great pleasure of talking/writing about a favorite and formative artist.

10. Fortress Goes Public. My Times preview piece, cited above, generated a lot of positive buzz for a show that divided critics--though I ended up loving it, I could understand some of the misgivings about its odd, lopsided narrative. To bring things full circle, I would love to have seen what StageGrade would have made of it, since alongside Ben Brantley's disappointed review at the Times there were some passionate advocates.

So that's a snapshot of my year online. Not included: the time a review of mine was linked on the Daily Dish (and on my birthday, no less), or my 11th most popular post: a plug for my new Shakespeare-for-kids CD, which is still available and makes a great last-minute gift, if I may say so.

May the NewYear prove as interesting.

The 99-Seat Plan and Its Discontents

Most of the theater I've seen in my lifetime, and much of the best of it, has been in Los Angeles. And the great majority of that great theater was produced under what's now called the 99-Seat Plan; when I was coming up was still often called "Equity Waiver"--essentially, a showcase code that allows union actors to work for no actual wages but for some modest reimbursement and under a certain (modest) list of regulations. While I've had mixed feelings over the years about whether that plan is really a wise or fair one for the artists and institutions of L.A., I can't deny that much of that great theater I saw probably wouldn't exist at all but for the plan's low barrier of entry. (Near the end of my time in L.A., I gave a speech to the theatermakers I love lamenting the mixed blessings of that very freedom.)

Truth be told, I didn't give the 99-Seat Plan or its origins a great deal of rigorous thought until Douglas Clayton, then an editor at the now-defunct L.A. Stage Times, commissioned me to write a two-part history of the plan in 2009 (here's part one, here part two). Now, with revisions to the plan under serious consideration, thanks in large part to a movement spearheaded by Clayton and others, and with Equity putting a new emphasis on serving its West Coast members, the time seemed ripe for me to weigh in about the plan and its future at my day job at American Theatre. Money quote:
The debate over L.A.’s 99-seat plan may seem so stark because it dramatizes a fundamental conflict—one the arts face in every sector in our late-capitalist American moment. One side essentially asks, quite reasonably: Do arts workers deserve better compensation, even middle-class lives? Why is there seemingly only funding for new buildings, for infrastructure, for a handful of committee-approved geniuses, but not for the field’s rank-and-file workers?
The other side responds, passionately, that such talk is inimical to the creative instinct, to freedom of expression and association, and that we need look no further than the cautious programming and piecemeal hiring at major institutional theatres to see how little such bottom-line thinking has done for actors and the field.
RTWT here.

Dec 11, 2014

Staged Albums & Ensemble/Bands

When I wrote this cover story for American Theatre, about how the presence of composer/musicians within their own theater pieces showed hope of changing and revivifying musical theater, I was thinking of largely narrative pieces like Passing Strange or Striking 12 or Futurity or even Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812--most of which could be done, and some of which have been done, without their songwriters/creators at the center of them. (I was also thinking about the way Once seemed to blur the exegetic/diegetic musical-theater lines--its creators weren't literally onstage performing the songs, but its actor/musician hybrid was built into the show's DNA, not grafted on a la John Doyle.)

What I didn't foresee was that some of the form's most venturesome songwriters would go even further and deeper into the notion of the rock-album-as-theater, musicians-as-performers. I've just seen two that will stay with me in two very different ways, though their surface similarities are striking. First was Dave Malloy's transporting chamber show at the Bushwick Starr, Ghost Quartet, which confirmed his status as a sui generis--I don't even know what label to apply to him. Event-maker? Music-theater-sound-space artist? Maybe "theater composer" comes close, as what Dave seems to be doing is composing the entire theatrical experience as he would a piece of music--which it also is. Indeed, though I had my quibbles with some of it, Ghost Quartet worked the margins of indie rock and indie theater, of what makes a concert and what makes a play, in a way I've never felt a piece do before--and I emphasize felt, as it was a deeply sensory experience, with the band members arrayed around the space, at one point memorably in total darkness. (The director was Annie Tippe.) Though the work cited Poe and Monk, photojournalism and taxidermy, its unique spectral glow put me in mind of W.G. Sebald's haunted, ruminative novel Austerlitz, in which the present is an endless, unentangle-able palimpsest of past sins and missteps, an accordion of grief wheezing backward and forward. It makes some lovely music as it resonates, but it still squeezes and pinches. (UPDATE: I just learned that Ghost Quartet will return to the McKittrick Hotel, the NY home of Sleep No More, next. Jan. 5-18. Tickets here.)

Then last night I saw Gabriel Kahane's The Ambassador at BAM. The show is based on his album of the same name, although it may be just as accurate to say that the album was shaped to support the show. In any case, like Ghost Quartet, The Ambassador has been staged as a kind of performative meditation for (in this case) seven musicians, not including the impish, barefooted composer/lyricist Kahane, arrayed around a pack-rat set of stacked books, LP records, videocassettes and other 20th-century detritus, as if Krapp's basement exploded. As with Malloy's piece, there wasn't a piece of sheet music in sight--no small feat, given that Kahane's work is complicated, infinitesimally shaded, almost prog-rock-ish neo-classical pop/rock--and all of the musicians were, if not quite equally involved, then universally called on to perform non-musical movement and gestures as well as the daunting score. (The director is John Tiffany, who brought in his usual movement-director sidekick, Steven Hoggett, for an assist.) In all, it's a gorgeous, elegantly humanized piece of music-theater that entirely transcends the notion of concert. It certainly doesn't hurt that it happens to be a piece about the complexities of a city I consider my adult hometown, Los Angeles, and that, eerily, it was the second piece I'd seen on the same Brooklyn block in a week about L.A. that made the shooting death of Latasha Harlins a dramatic centerpiece (the other was Roger Guenveur Smith's beautiful, unsettling Rodney King at BRIC Arts).

Though Kahane's is more lavishly appointed than Malloy's work, both were lovingly crafted, with an eye for detail, sonic as well as visual and mimetic. And both feel entirely of a piece with what looks to me like a newish and entirely welcome trend, even a new form: staged albums, conceived by music-theater artists as full performance pieces rather than simply as adjuncts of recordings (though with albums as their dramaturgical template, if you will), and performed not by jobbed-in hired hands at music stands but by fully committed musician/actors who convincingly straddle the line between theater ensemble and band.

More, please.