May 28, 2015

The 11 O'Clock Matrix

So the Times just had me contemplate the tradition of the Broadway musical's "11 o'clock number," and specifically, whether the great new musical Fun Home has one in the stunning "Days and Days." You can read all about that here.

The initial question that spurred the story was: Is it rare or common for the 11 o'clock number to be handed to a non-central character, as it is with "Days and Days"? Examples immediately started to come to mind (with the help of several Facebook friends), and it became clear that there were several different ways this near-ending song slot is used, depending on the kind of show. Musical comedies, for instance, seemed to use 11 o'clock slot differently from dramas.

So an earlier draft of the Times piece actually included a more detailed taxonomy of these kinds of numbers; there was talk of doing an infographic or chart, and I used my limited graphic abilities to construct a mockup (above).

Without further ado, I present to you the journalistic equivalent of songs cut out of town:

If “Days and Days” stands out from “Fun Home,” it’s because, while it’s close to the traditional 11 o’clock number slot for a drama, it is not delivered by one of the show’s main leads. But is that so rare? To get at the answer, here’s a non-scientific taxonomy of the song type:

  1. Central catharsis. In this classic definition of the 11 o’clock number, the lead character in a musical drama reaches a wrenching final realization. Examples would include “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy,” the title song of “Cabaret,” and the searing “Lot’s Wife” from “Caroline, or Change.”
  2. Downpour from the side. “Days and Days” is in good company here alongside “The Ladies Who Lunch”  from “Company,” “What I Did for Love” from “A Chorus Line,” even “Memory” from “Cats”--all of them, like “Fun Home,” ensemble-driven shows that make room for a big near-closing number from a not-quite-leading character. Another example from an otherwise comic show is Motormouth Maybelle’s “I Know Where I’ve Been” in “Hairspray.”
  3. Diversion. Musical comedies tend to use the 11 o’clock slot differently, as their leading characters are typically headed for romantic clinches, not nervous breakdowns. The idea of songs like “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” from “Guys and Dolls” or “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from “Kiss Me, Kate” is to give a comic lift to their shows’ second acts. Something slightly different happens in the satirical “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” in which the penultimate number, “Brotherhood of Man,” has the entire ensemble join in hammering home the show’s ironic point before tying up the plot.
  4. In summation. Similar to “Brotherhood of Man,” the penultimate song in “Chicago,” “Nowadays,” encapsulates the show’s smiling cynicism, but in this case it’s sung by the show’s female leads. There aren’t a lot in this category, for reasons indicated above; even “Gimme Gimme,” from Ms. Tesori’s otherwise comic “Thoroughly Modern Millie” score, has the lead character reaching a veritable fever pitch of desire, and it’s not played for laughs. It may be in a different time zone from the dark night of the soul depicted in “Days and Days,” but emotionally speaking, the clock still says 11.

May 26, 2015

"A Free-Ranging, Even Frenetic Power"

A striking number of people involved in the May 2006 production of columbinus at New York Theatre Workshop went on to have careers I've followed, and/or I've gotten to know: actors Anna Camp, Bobby Steggert, Will Rogers, and Karl Miller, and cowriter Stephen Karam, for instance. Karam's cowriter and the piece's director, PJ Paparelli, is someone I've only "followed" from a distance, as a theater journalist interested in the national scene, because his work since then has been at Chicago's American Theater Company. (If memory serves, Paparelli himself cold-called me at my American Theatre desk to pitch a story about his "original Grease," in which he purportedly reclaimed it as a gritty Chicago tale, in 2011.) Most recently I published this piece about Paparelli's current ATC show, The Project(s)--and then, sadly, last night, I posted this memorial tribute by Karam, as Paparelli was killed in a car accident last week at age 40. My review of columbinus isn't available online, so I thought, as my own small gesture to his memory, that I'd repost it here. It ran May 22, 2006.

The rubber soles squeaking on the gym floor, the chalk dust, the pent-up, displaced hormones—with a few simple gestures, columbinus conjures a collective memory of high school that feels eerily, almost skin-crawlingly immediate. Even the restless, bubbling energy of the show's youthful eight-member cast suggests a pep rally, albeit one with a less exuberant subject than team spirit.

As if this shared time travel weren't hair-raising enough, this production by the United States Theatre Project, now at the New York Theatre Workshop, inexorably grows more specific. The show's Anyschool, USA becomes the site of the 20th century's last homegrown horror story, the Columbine High School massacre of April 20, 1999. Though the script by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli unerringly, almost slavishly follows the multivoiced docu-theater outline of such antecedents as The Laramie Project or Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Paparelli's direction has a free-ranging, even frenetic power that feels authentically and painfully young. Even the show's less inspired moments—a random sampling of unrevealing postmortem commentary from residents of Littleton, Colorado, for instance—betray a touching, irresistible eagerness to get to the bottom of the mystery of why two seemingly average teenage boys would plot their own personal "judgment day." Crucially, columbinus also has the adult integrity to let this question hang in the smoky aftermath.

The show's creators seem to have calculated that the inevitable climax—a chilling recreation of the infamous school library bloodbath that is mostly narrated rather than explicitly staged—would be so harrowing and somber that the rest of the play, particularly the opening, should be pitched at perky peaks of adolescent fever. And so we get quick-cut, full-cast scenes that swarm through hallways, classrooms, cafeteria; we witness curt, tetchy dialogues with disembodied offstage voices of guidance counselors and teachers; we're privy to furious instant-messaging exchanges between Dylan (Will Rogers) and Eric (Karl Miller).

The show is also admirably unafraid of sweeping, iconic generalizations, dubious as they may be. One wordless early sequence, scored to the same aching rendition of "Mad World" that figured prominently in Donnie Darko, has the cast choosing, almost arbitrarily, talismans from suspended trays—a makeup case, dark-rimmed spectacles, a pack of cigarettes, a silver crucifix, a jock's cap that will define their roles in the high school hierarchy. The self-styled outcasts Dylan and Eric pointedly don't partake in this unnatural selection. The first-act break revisits this identity parade at a more advanced, less innocent stage, as the cast sings along with the chorus of "Bittersweet Symphony": "I'm a million different people from one day to the next." If only.

The characters that emerge in black trench coats as Dylan and Eric don't make for easy viewing—not only because they're a hair's breadth away from the excitable, angry teens we've known or once were, but because the actors positively savor their sociopathic excesses. Rogers, a likeable beanpole who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real-life Dylan Klebold, comes off as an easily impressionable sad sack spurred on by his partner's uncontainable rage. As Eric Harris, the short-fused military brat who was the massacre's main plotter, the haunting Miller has spiky blond hair and a ravaged look that's closer to heroin chic than cold-blooded jarhead fury. Amid the plotting and execution of the massacre, the show subtly strikes its most disturbing notes. These media-savvy teens obsessively documented their plans and their ever-growing arsenal, even speculating that one day "the world will be studying these videos" for clues, and, more, that directors will vie for the rights to film their story. It's a chastening moment for even the most scrupulous documentarians when their subjects turn and essentially thank them for the memories. Karam and Paparelli stare down this challenge without flinching, memorializing both the massacre's makers and its victims without blurring the lines between them.

For all its youthful questioning and empathy, this is the most grown-up thing about columbinus: It holds up a mirror to evil and reflects not only the pathologies we can all too readily recognize in ourselves and in our violence-fixated culture, but also the inexplicable terrors that haunt our darkest nightmares. That's a bigger and deeper inquiry than a mere high school social study.

By the United States Theatre Project
Written by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli
Directed by P.J. Paparelli
New York Theatre Workshop

May 8, 2015

Catching Up Before Summer

Dakin Matthews and Helen Mirren in "The Audience." (Photo by Joan Marcus)
The Broadway season has come to an end, and while much of the exciting work this past year was Off-Broadway (and there's more to come, particularly Off-Broadway), the annual rush of intense theatregoing on all fronts has abated at last, for the time being. For both the NY Times and America magazine I had the pleasure of covering some of the biggest non-Broadway shows of the year so far: the hip-hop/history phenom Hamilton (feature, review), the near-perfect The Iceman Cometh from Chicago's Goodman Theatre (feature, review). Also Off-Broadway, I recently reviewed George Brant's unsettling solo show Grounded, starring the woman named for Shakespeare's wife:
If the notion of the military industrial complex once referred to the economy of armaments, and to their development and manufacturing as a disproportionately powerful political interest, what “Grounded” reminds us with blistering clarity is that warmaking itself can now be run on an industrial model. Not only our weapons are drones; our warriors are drones, too.

To this moral nightmare Brant adds another contemporary complication: His play’s protagonist is a woman, a former fighter pilot first grounded by an unexpected pregnancy, then by her country’s growing preference for conducting war by remote control. “No one ever comes back from the Chair Force,” she complains to the superior reassigning her to desk duty, but she soon takes a liking to the job’s unique mix of narrow, concentrated effort and risk-free firepower. Sitting at a simple chair but surrounded by Peter Nigrini’s immersive projection design, Hathaway’s desk-bound pilot stares into the sights of an omniscient screen and scans the frame for “military age males,” a.k.a. “the guilty.” Occasionally, though not as often she’d like, she gets to pull the virtual trigger and watch a silent grey explosion bloom.
I also had the chance to weigh in for America on a series of Broadway contenders. First, the unlikely puppet comedy Hand to God:
There will be blood by the denouement of Robert Askins’s play, now improbably but gratifyingly running on Broadway after two popular Off-Broadway productions, though the gore is ultimately more silly/gross than truly mortifying. This is still a species of comedy, after all, albeit one shot through with grief, mental illness and sexual predation. Perhaps what’s most touching about the show, and makes it much more than simply an exercise in bratty blasphemy, is its authentically teen-eyed view of Jason’s struggles with his mother and his own budding if stunted manhood. This vein of empathy is not only to the playwright’s credit but also due to the astounding lead performance of Steven Boyer, who’s about twice the age of his role but is utterly convincing as a sort of frail, inward-directed, not fully formed Charlie Brown type.

That’s only half of what Boyer does, of course: In a tour de force that is certain to catch the attention of Tony Award voters, he also acts out the aggressive actions and speech of his potty-mouthed id, Tyrone.
And I wrote about the cozy Anglophilia of Peter Morgan's The Audience:
Fame is both a prime subject and an intrinsic element of “The Audience,” directed with assurance by Stephen Daldry. Perhaps the most bewitching thing about Morgan’s play, which might otherwise be a stodgy slog, is the way Mirren’s and the queen’s very different kinds of fame reflect back and forth on each other, as in a hall of mirrors. The effect is both humanizing, since Mirren can’t help but bring shades of life and even mischief to the sovereign, whom she plays in her 20s through her present late 80s, as well as regalizing, if that’s a word. You come away with a sense of the woman’s stature, at least as Morgan conceives it—of the way that Elizabeth bestrides the world stage, albeit from a sidelong posture.

This large-as-life queen makes the politicians who promenade through her palace look small and craven by comparison, and that is also Morgan’s point.
Finally, I surveyed the season's musicals, both new and old, and declared the form in fine fettle:
If jazz and the blues are America’s essential native musics, the Broadway musical is arguably our country’s great indigenous narrative form, with roots in minstrelsy, vaudeville and operetta. While its purported Golden Age was roughly between the 1930s and the ’50s, and its Dark Ages were the British-dominated 1980s of “Cats” and “Les Miserables,” the American musical is currently in the pink of health, if we measure by the current Broadway season (and it shows plenty of vital signs beyond Broadway, as well).
Meanwhile, at my day job at American Theatre, I haven't been idle. I recently revisited an interview subject I'd first sized up for the Times, Center Stage's Kwame Kwei-Armah, who's written a new Bob Marley bio-musical. And I've covered the L.A. 99-seat wars from a few new angles, in Q&As with Equity's executive director, Mary McColl, and with actor Dakin Matthews. I chatted with former L.A. theater actor Silas Weir Mitchell, with the remarkable Anna Deavere Smith about her new project, and--bringing it all back to musicals--with Robert Schenkkan about his new New Testament-themed rock musical, The 12.

I also had the pleasure to review two new books about composer Leonard Bernstein, about whom I wrote:
Like a great playwright whose output must alternate with a demanding directing schedule, Lenny felt torn and increasingly worried—in a self-critique echoed by colleagues, both sympathetically and otherwise—that he had squandered one or the other of his great talents.

There was, of course, a third space, a middle ground, where Bernstein’s contradictions were assets, multipliers rather than dividers: the musical theatre, particularly as it was practiced during its purported Golden Age of the 1940s and ’50s. Here the composer’s intensely gregarious spirit found an ideal metier, both in the rough and tumble of collaboration with such colleagues as Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, Adolph Green and Betty Comden, and in the form’s omnivorous cultural sampling, where ballet was as at home as the blues. Bernstein wrote just four musicals, but the scores of three of them—On the Town, West Side Story and Candide—tower at the top of the field and remain his best-known legacy.
As I used to say to my Back Stage West readers: Read on, and tell me what you think.