Apr 30, 2007

Best New Yorker Ever?

I'm exaggerating, but last week's was an embarrassment of riches: John Lahr on Peter Morgan, Anthony Lane on Barbara Stanwyck, Alex Ross on Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Updike on Aimee Semple McPherson. All that's missing is Sasha Frere-Jones on Midlake or Calexico or Panda Bear (I guess this will do).

Apr 29, 2007

The Wilson Variorum

Interviewing Harry Lennix for the LA Times was a pleasure, not least because he taught me a word I'm ashamed to say I didn't know: a "variorum," or scholarly edition of a much-changed and/or much-commented-on text, particularly Shakespeare. One detail I didn't get a chance to include: that the recent L.A. production of Macbeth that Lennix headlined set the play in "Dred Scott-land," an alternate world reflecting the full scope of the African diaspora.

Apr 28, 2007

"Legally" Brilliant

This confection is a surprising, smiling delight—maybe not such a surprise, given the composer and lyricist are Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin. Still, it's hard to make a box full of bon-bons and not make your audience sick, even if your audience thinks it wants just candy. Larry and Nell, not to mention librettist Heather Hach and director Jerry Mitchell, have pulled it off. It may be inherently condescending to the show's teen demographic to say it's much smarter than it "needs" to be, but that's precisely how I felt. The Hello Kitty set and the Hello Dolly set, in short, should each find plenty to love here, as should those like me who are firmly in neither camp.

Apr 27, 2007


I know you've all been waiting with baited breath, but I've finally updated my blogroll (new additions include Back Stage theater editor Leonard Jacobs, critic and all-around pal Diane Snyder, and playwright Erik Patterson, where you can find hopeful news about Uma), as well as my ever-influential Recommended page. Onward and upward.

Apr 26, 2007

Going Coastal

Great anecdote from the front lines of the TDF Discount Booth: Theatergoers asking for tickets to The Coast of Jewtopia and, needless to say, not getting what they bargained for.

Apr 23, 2007

On the Weill Side

A nice bit of counter-intuitive hopefulness from Variety's Gordon Cox on Manhattan Theatre Club's LoveMusik, the upcoming "new" Weill musical with Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy as Weill and Lenya (and David Pittu as a viciously, hilariously caricatured Brecht, based on a reading of Alfred Uhry's script). As an inveterate Weillophile, I can only join Cox in the wishin' and hopin'.

Apr 20, 2007

A Spidey Musical?

Ouch, what a bad, bad idea. Not that I won't want to see it, but still.

Apr 19, 2007

Luck With an "F"

Stumbled upon this cheerful compendium of witty put-downs from Elvis Costello songs, which includes my favorite (from "Opportunity," "The chairman of this boredom is a compliment collector/I'd like to be his funeral director"), but which also begs for a separate category: put-downs of actual people, named or not. The bespectacled one either names or nearly names the folks he slags off in these choice nuggets:
Was it a millionaire who said imagine no possessions
A poor little schoolboy who said we don't need no lessons
The Other Side of Summer

There's already one spaceman in the White House
What you want another one for?
Peace in Our Time (from 1986)

So there he was on a waterbed
Drinking a cola of a mystery brand
Reading an airport novelette, listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Requiem"
He said, before it had really begun, "I prefer the one about my son
I've been wading through all this unbelievable
junk and wondering if I should have given the world to the monkeys"
God's Comic

And of course, "Tramp the Dirt Down," his intemperate mash-note to Thatcher, contains such gems as:
When England was the whore of the world
Margeret was her madam
And the future looked as bright and as clear as
The black tarmacadam

Though I find this acid reference, in "Little Palaces," a bitter song about justifiable if misdirected working-class anger toward royalty, much sharper:
It's like shouting in a matchbox filled with plasterboard and hope
Like a picture of Prince William in the arms of John the Pope
There's a world of good intentions and pity in their eyes
The sedated homes of England are theirs to vandalize

An angry man, that Mr. McManus. I have one bone to pick with him, though: Why, for his upcoming gig at the Nokia Theatre in Times Square, has he restricted ticket sales to Visa card holders only (at least online)? Thanks to a friend with a Visa card, I'll be going, but I really hate the stink of this sweetheart deal. C'mon, Elvis, you can do better by your fans than this.

Short Review of "Frost/Nixon"

A bit like Stuff Happens, only with less stuff happening. Langella is magnificent, though.

Apr 18, 2007

A Pox on All Their Houses

Look, I've staged awards shows, so I know what I'm talking about here: Awards in the arts are invariably political, relative, conditional, blinkered, and by their nature inherently unfair. So why is everyone so upset about how David Lindsay-Abaire's empty Rabbit Hole got the Pulitzer? Makes good copy, but please--righteous indignation is a little off the mark. (And to make myself clear, it's not like I'd turn down an award myself.)

Shinn's Twins

I was very worried that Christopher Shinn's Dying City had been overrated. I shouldn't have fretted; I loved it, and in a particularly immediate way I haven't loved, let alone responded to, a play in many a moon. The climactic moment, which turns on one manipulative but needy character reading aloud an email from a U.S. soldier serving in Iraq to another damaged, somewhat compromised character, felt like someone was opening a wound I didn't know I had and pouring...not salt on it, exactly, but not comfort either. It was a mind- and soul-bending squirm of self-recognition that immediately made me think of the thesis of Walter Davis' tendentious book Art & Politics (which I've had some trouble getting through, truth be told): that theater is uniquely suited to this sort of skin-crawlingly intimate communion, that it can expose and transform our shared pain in ways no other medium can. I remain skeptical that only theater can do this, but Dying City makes as strong a case as anything I've seen in a long time that art can speak to us where we live now without shouting, preaching, or cheating.

Speaking of which, I had the pleasure of speaking to Dying City star Pablo Schreiber for this piece, to the L.A. homeboys doing a bangup job at 59E59 in Athol Fugard's Exits and Entrances, and to the delightful John Glover, stepping in as the show-queen lead of Drowsy Chaperone.

(p.s. Looking for production pictures, I googled the words "dying city photos" and like the 10th entry was, soberingly, this.)

Apr 11, 2007

Reading Reid

I didn't realize how much I missed it: Kerry Reid used to review plays in San Francisco for Back Stage West when she and I were, respectively, there and there. And she was always fun to read, fiesty without being overly snarky (she may have been the first writer I read who used that word, in fact), and, above all, deeply insightful and pointed. She's now in Chicago writing for PerformInk and The Reader, and occasionally turns up in comments on this blog.

I just came across her again, entirely thanks to Isaac Butler's recent posts on class in the theater, and Kerry's recent piece on the same issue rang a lot a bells for me, not just the how-great-to-read-her-distinctive-voice-again bell. To wit:
I spend most of my time writing about theatre for newspapers, so I’m two-for-two in the endangered-workplace derby. Occasionally, I’m asked to speak to college classes about what it’s like being a theatre critic. I always start by asking the students how often they attend theatre. The answer is usually in the vicinity of “never.” Then I ask them how often they pick up a newspaper, rather than read it online or watch television news, and the answer isn’t much more encouraging. This is the point at which I wonder if what I’m about to talk about will be as fascinating for them as a tutorial on churning butter or carding wool.

Ouch! Hits close to home. As does...
I make more in a year writing about theatre than most theatre artists will make creating theatre.

But then Kerry twists the knife brilliantly, and brings it all home. Discussing the Urinetown rights controversy, she notes:
The fact that this stink (pun intended) is being raised over one of the few original shows in recent years to address, however puckishly, issues of economic injustice and environmental scarcity is almost painfully ironic, and it will be near-tragic if the overall effect is to make regional producers even more loathe to bring in new shows, rather than those penned by dead white guys who can’t sue.

And finally:
So what I want this year is the courage for theatre companies and theatre artists to look calmly and clearly at the bottom line, to take an X-ray, if you will, of the underlying structures. I want board members to start asking if the money paid to actors (and designers, and stagehands, and musicians, and front-of-house staff) is fair, and how it measures up to the money spent on, say, patron amenities. I want corporations to stop setting up false dichotomies between donating to the arts and other social goods, like living wages and health benefits, especially when they have no problem paying eight-figure salaries with exorbitant stock options to their top executives. I want to never hear the phrase “unpaid internship” again--particularly if it’s coming from well-heeled cultural institutions that then wring their hands over how hard it is to build diverse audiences. And I want to see a few plays that suggest that maybe, just maybe, what we do to earn our living matters, because it has some effect on who we are, how we live, how we feel about the world, and how we contribute to the greater community good.

Amen. Doesn't Kerry 2008 have a nice ring to it?

Apr 9, 2007

Bell Busks

Great story about a classical music stunt in Washington:
No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made.

Read it all, and watch a video documenting the painfully oblivious passersby, here.

Apr 5, 2007

Semi-Bum Rapp

Saw Essential Self-Defense and felt a lot closer to Linda Winer's take than Charles Isherwood's. In short, Winer pegged the work's "junky and silly smartness," while Isherwood deplored it as a "self-conscious exercise in stagy attitudinizing." (David Cote mostly dismissed it as a "quirky-glum" aberration from Rapp's best work; Eric Grode seemed to want to admire its "anarchic, undisciplined" qualities more than he could.)

Self-indulgent it is, but no moreso, in my opinion, than the works of, say, David Lynch or Tom Waits or R. Crumb, to cite a few acquired-taste auteurs from various media without whom our world would be much, much duller. I don't think Essential Self-Defense belongs in the ranks of anyone's best works, let alone Rapp's, and I utterly understand gut-level revulsion to self-styled "bad-boy" attitudinizing, as I've felt that particular twinge myself. It's all too true that so-called "alternative" voices are very often overpraised just for existing. On the other hand, I think the persistence of certain independent-minded oddballs against our culture's steep odds is all too easy to take for granted and become cynical about, as if the middle finger is just another marketing gesture. Sometimes it is, I guess, but I don't get that from Rapp's work. He may flaunt his punk-rock aesthetics a little too proudly, and I'm not sure he's earned the right to be considered indispensable, exactly; but I'm glad we have him. (My brief thoughts on Red Light Winter are here, and my LA Times review of Finer Noble Gases is here.)

And, though it somehow kept reminding me how much richer Tracy Letts' work is, in a similar paranoid vein, I'm glad I saw Essential Self-Defense, not least for the definitive lead performances of Paul Sparks and Heather Goldenhersh, and for the inventive set by David Korins. Some non-essential works are still defensible.

(Meanwhile, Isaac at Parabasis traces the finer points of edginess and hype, takes issue with cynicism about same, and heaps the ritual abuse on Isherwood. And the passionate Rocco goes crazy for the play.)

PS: On the topic of the Times' much-loved critic, a gentleman in the men's room at intermission blared to all within earshot: "What was wrong with Christopher Isherwood?" I wanted to reply, "I don't know, I kind of admire his Vedanta phase," but I held off.

A Potpourri of Obloquy

From a friend; can't resist posting 'em.


"He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."
Winston Churchill

"A modest little person, with much to be modest about."
Winston Churchill

"I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure."
Clarence Darrow

"Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I'll waste no time reading it."
Moses Hadas

"He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know."
Abraham Lincoln

"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it."
Groucho Marx

"I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it."
Mark Twain

"He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends."
Oscar Wilde

"I feel so miserable without you; it's almost like having you here."
Stephen Bishop

"He is a self-made man and worships his creator."
John Bright

"I've just learned about his illness. Let's hope it's nothing trivial."
Irvin S. Cobb

"He is not only dull himself, he is the cause of dullness in others."
Samuel Johnson

"He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up."
Paul Keating

"He had delusions of adequacy."
Walter Kerr

"They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge."
Thomas Brackett Reed

"He inherited some good instincts from his Quaker forebears, but by diligent hard work, he overcame them."
James Reston, about Richard Nixon

"In order to avoid being called a flirt, she always yielded easily."
Charles, Count Talleyrand

"He loves nature in spite of what it did to him."
Forrest Tucker

"His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork."
Mae West

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go."
Oscar Wilde

"He has Van Gogh's ear for music."
Billy Wilder


George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill: "I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend, if you have one."
Churchill's reply: "Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second if there is one."

William Faulkner on Ernest Hemingway: "He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."
Hemingway's response: "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"

Gladstone to Disraeli: "You will die either on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease."
Disraeli's reply: "That depends upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress."

Lady Astor to Winston Churchill: "If you were my husband, I'd put poison in your coffee."
Churchill's reply: "If I were your husband, I'd drink it."

Apr 4, 2007

Plugging My Horns

So I just found out that the brilliant Maria McKee will be the guest on this Easter Sunday's edition of the Steve Earle Show on Air America, and that among the songs she'll spin is a ditty by my pals Hail the Size called "I Can't Die in L.A.," for which I was privileged to arrange the mariachi-Dixieland horn part. (Listen close and you'll also hear Maria herself playing piano on the track.) I'll be in Jersey on business but I'm going to try to tune in...hope you can too. In NY, it's on at 10 p.m. on WWRL 1600 AM.

Such an Important Message

A new sitcom about hapless losers trying to break into NY theatre, created by the non-losers who brought us White Noise (and have much more up their sleeves, I hear tell)? The debut episode of Breaking In shows promise (I have to know: Is it true what they say about Stephen Sondheim and opening nights?), and I've just heard that Episode 2 will feature Robert Cuccioli teaching an intensive workshop on auditioning for Jekyll & Hyde, and Episode 3 will showcase Max von Essen’s flying trapeze skills. Of course, what I'm really waiting for are scenes (and songs) from the promised musical of The Lost Boys.

Faux-Naif Charm

Miranda July has too much fun promoting her new book of short stories.

Day Job

Some of the pieces I've done for TDF recently: Denis O'Hare, Karen Ziemba, Robert Falls, Priscilla Lopez, Kathleen Russo (Spalding Gray's widow), and Paul Taylor. And a round-up of a recent red-letter day for TDF.

Apr 3, 2007

Pause-Giving Thought for the Day

Courtesy of Salman Rushdie, as quoted by the inspiring Irshad Manji in the L Magazine:
At an especially dark time, I asked Salman Rushdie why I should write a book that might endanger my life. I’ll never forget his answer: “A book is more important than a life. Once you put out a thought, it can be disagreed with vigorously, vehemently, even violently. But it cannot be un-thought. This is the great permanent gift that a writer gives to the world.”

Beat Box Kitchen

This guy clearly has too much time on his hands, and he seriously needs a new wig. But it's still a pretty impressive demonstration.