Jul 7, 2014

Tough Deal

My heart sank early and often last week at the City Center concert rendition of Randy Newman’s Faust, but never so low as when Newman muffed one of his own best lines. That he was onstage at all, half-playing the piano, half-playing the role of the Devil, and generally serving as the evening’s impish emcee, was the evening’s signature mistake. While his droll presence is usually entirely welcome--his solo live shows are some of my favorites in memory--having him at the piano to guide us through the alternately brilliant and flimsy score, and even more flimsy book, of his 1995 musical Faust, while some over-qualified actor/singers did their thing around and opposite him, leached the show of any drama.

Or rather, musical comedy, which is what the show was when I saw it in La Jolla. There, having David Garrison’s Devil slither about in a sharkskin suit opposite Ken Page’s cuddly God made all the difference; and Michael Greif’s staging for some of the slighter, stuntier songs (“Damn Fine Day,” “Bless the Children,” “March of the Protestants”) at least gave them a theatrical point. At City Center, there was very little book to speak of, and almost zero staging; the result was that too many of the show’s songs, unable to stand alone, just sat there, well performed but unmoored from any frame of reference.

A few songs in the score really do have dramaturgical heft, though; one is the achingly beautiful “Gainesville,” whose old-time harmonies and sweetly insistent, clear-eyed innocence found an ideal match in Laura Osnes. But perhaps the most striking sequence in the original show--one that sharply summarizes the critique of pure faith that was clearly Newman’s main interest in writing the show in the first place, certainly moreso than the central Faustian bargain--comes when the Devil, down in the dumps, stops by Heaven to kvetch about the thankless challenges of his job. God takes a break from leading a swarm of child angels on a nature hike to offer the Devil a saccharine entreaty to “Relax, Enjoy Yourself”:

Then a little angel breaks from the crowd and approaches the Devil; she wonders aloud if he’s gone bad because of a lack of love in his childhood. At City Center, this part was sung by Brooklyn Shuck of Annie fame; her exchange with a quizzical Newman was one of the evening’s high points.

It must be very trying to be bad all the time
Vicious and cruel and mean
When there's so much beauty
All around us to be seen
And so very little time in which to see it all
And feel it all
So little time
Perhaps when you were little
No one held you in their arms
And told you that they loved you very much
Perhaps you were embittered
By your fall from grace

How long have you been dead?

Two months.

Do you miss your friends?

Yes, I miss them,
I've tried to make friends here, but it's hard

You were a good girl
Cut down in your prime


Newman, trading the mike with Shuck, pulled off that exchange just fine. But then comes maybe the most scalding moment in the show, and I have to wonder if the concert’s director, Thomas Kail, lost his nerve here--he didn’t want the Devil to sing these harsh words directly to a sweet little girl, and let Shuck run to join the angel choir. When Newman turned back to the piano, he got a little lost and didn’t punch his pickup to the next section. And while last week’s concertgoers more-or-less heard much of the following, I’d be surprised if anyone who didn’t already know the original score actually took in the first three lines, and hence the entire import, of this clarifying bit of theodicy in song:

The man who shot you in the head
In that Burger King in Tucson
Well, he never will be punished, you know
He will move to Big Pine, California
Become the richest man in Inyo County
While that may not be much, it's enough
When he dies
Sixty-five years from today
With his loved ones all around him
He'll be whisked right up to heaven
He won't pass go or have to wait
He'll just march right through the Goddamned gate
And why, you may ask yourself why
For thousands and thousands of years
I have asked myself why

Faith. Contrition. Sincere contrition.
Confession. Sincere confession.

Yes, Lord! Yes, Lord!

Redemption. Absolution.
Those who seek Me shall find Me
In the case of this man,

My ways are mysterious
Sometimes even to myself
My ways are mysterious

Relax, old chum, relax
It's only a glorious game that we're playing
And in a few more years
When I move up here
Things will never be the same

Even at its best, Faust has too few truly theatrical turns like that. But in its weird hybrid of Randy Newman concert and fully acted reading, last week’s Faust didn’t even present the best of Faust all that well. If, as I wrote for Slate, the failure of Faust and Newman to be Broadway contenders 20 years ago represents a great missed opportunity, last week’s concert only served to seal that fate.

Jul 3, 2014

Familiar Strangers

One challenge of my job trying to cover theater with a national perspective, both at American Theatre and, to a certain degree, at the NY Times, is how to keep tabs on work I can't actually see. With few exceptions (On the Boards, or this amazing Einstein on the Beach video, available for free viewing only through July 7, I've been informed), I can't look at a screener of plays outside the boroughs of New York, and my professional travel budget--well, let's just say it's non-lavish. So I do a lot of play reading and review reading, relying on buzz I hear around the halls of TCG; from the folks on the American Theatre play selection committee (whose ranks I only recently joined); and from contacts in the field, many of which I made in my long time on the West Coast, others here in New York, and some at the annual TCG conferences.

The conference in Chicago a few years back was a particularly fertile one on that score, leading me to discover two Windy City-bred talents in particular, both of whom I wrote features on: Tanya Saracho and Laura Eason. Both writers were more or less immediately snatched up by TV (Eason by House of Cards, where she's written some of the juiciest Claire Underwood material, and Saracho by a slate of shows including Devious Maids, Looking, and now Girls), and both writers have continued their theatrical careers apace. Now, this summer happily marks the Off-Broadway debuts of two of their signature works. Saracho's Mala Hierba, a thorny, steamy play about class and sex that bowled me over on the page, and has reportedly been a great calling card for Saracho's TV career but has never gotten a full staging, starts previews on July 14 at Second Stage's uptown space.

Meanwhile, at Second Stage's midtown space, Eason's prickly two-hander Sex With Strangers marks the splashy Gotham bow of a play that, as I learned in a recent interview with her for the paper of record, also opened doors for Eason, including landing her the House of Cards gig. SWS was staged before, in 2011 at Steppenwolf, in a production I thought didn't live up to the play's promise on the page (and my happening to catch that show onstage was a fluke--I've literally seen about three shows in Chicago in my life). Here's hoping that the new SWS, which has an inspired cast in Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen, does better by the play.

In my Times piece on Eason, I went further into a theme she'd mentioned to me before: that she has an easier time writing male characters than female ones. The one exception she's found has been House of Cards's leading lady:
“Claire has been very exciting to me and felt very easy to write, which is a little strange,” said Ms. Eason, who was quick to credit [Robin] Wright and the creator of the series, Beau Willimon, for the character’s essence. “It’s been thrilling to work on a female character so unapologetically strong, bold, ambitious. We’ve never, ever had a conversation about, ‘Is she likable?’”
You can read the whole piece here.

Jul 1, 2014

Newman's Own

I'll be at tonight's one-night-only concert reading of Randy Newman's Faust with bells on. (How 'bout you, George Hunka?) I'd noted the possibility that the show would finally get a hearing in New York when I talked to Jeanine Tesori about her Encores! Off Center series last summer. I put my review of the La Jolla production up in this space a few months ago, but I had some more thoughts about what a missed opportunity Faust represented for the American musical, some of which I touched on here, but more of which I thought were worth sharing with the world, particularly a world that seems to need regular reminding that Newman was/is stone-cold songwriting genius, not just Pixar's grandfatherly piano man (I partly blame Seth McFarlane, not to mention Will Sass's resoundingly clueless parodies). I managed to hawk some of these thoughts to Slate, where I can preach it to a wider choir. Nut graf:
But for all the soft smiles and hard cash he’s generated with his latter career as the Irving Berlin of family films, the animated-movie racket has been its own kind of Faustian bargain for Newman. His studio-album output, for one, has slowed to a once-a-decade crawl, while his game stab at an old-fashioned Disney animated musical, The Princess and the Frog, was mostly a factory job. When Faust reappears on Tuesday for a one-night-only concert at New York's City Center, with Newman himself as the Devil, it is likely to be both a festive and a sad occasion, a New Orleans funeral march for a brilliant musical theater career that never was. Faust, which I was lucky to catch at La Jolla, was a jokey, imperfect vehicle, but what it carried was a fresh, fecund theatrical voice. Newman could’ve been a real presence on Broadway in the past 20 years.
You can read the rest here.