Dec 28, 2010

Snow Love

No, my title doesn't refer to the blizzard that just hit my hometown while I sit in sunny California (a neighbor just told me our Brooklyn street hasn't even been plowed), but to this NY Times story from just before Christmas:
It closed a month after it opened Off Broadway. Entertainment Weekly selected it as one of the worst shows of 2006. Most New Yorkers don’t even remember it. Yet John Cariani’s “Almost, Maine,” an earnest 19-character play about the romantic happenings one cold night in northern Maine, has since been produced around the world, including in Australia, Dubai and South Korea. A Spanish-language version will be presented this spring in Mexico City. More than 600 companies, amateur and professional, have put it on in the United States and Canada.
As I recall, I was one of the few critics working at the time who actually liked the show, so count me warmed this holiday season, and not just by the West Coast sun.

Dec 22, 2010

Dec 21, 2010

The New York TMZ

To me the surprising news about the latest Spider-man injury isn't that an actor got hurt, but that the Times' coverage includes, to my knowledge, a first: an embedded video of the fall, taken by "a New York Times reader" who apparently ignored the no-recording-at-the-theater rule. This, more than the Times' reporting from the first preview, strikes me as the crossing of a media Rubicon. I guess the widely reposted Hugh Jackman cellphone video from a few years back semi-qualifies. But this video posting, combined with the rubbernecking-at-a-Broadway-train-wreck aspect of the coverage, is a pause-giving moment for arts journalism.

Dec 17, 2010


Not to pile onto the troubled new Spider-man musical, but I can't resist repeating the quote of a waggish colleague who saw a preview last week:
"The show stopped once because of a technical problem, and stopped several other times for songs."
I should add that though my friend didn't much care for the show, he did feel that its combination of pop and spectacle may actually be a box-office winner.

Dec 16, 2010

Safety Nets

The indispensable Matt Yglesias, riffing off David Leonhardt's point about how a welfare state's safety net can actually be a spur to entrepreneurship and innovation (a point I've highlighted before), comes up with this clarifying analogy:
Typically when you see a safety net in place, you’re not really looking at someone who’s trying to be safe. You’re looking at someone who’s trying to do something dangerous. Because it’s dangerous, there’s a safety net in place. But the main point of the net is to facilitate risk-taking behavior not to make you safer than the average person.

Dec 15, 2010

A Lyric You Won't Find in Finishing the Hat

Sorry, can't resist another Sondheim post today. As a huge admirer of both him and Kurt Weill, I've been pained to hear Sondheim, over the years, vehemently dis Brecht and Weill. (The man who wrote Sweeney Todd, really?) So it's nice to see him on the record as preferring Weill's American scores to his German and French ones, though he apparently makes an exception for Threepenny, which he says he loves. Fair enough, there's no accounting for tastes, etc. I was also just tipped off that Sondheim happened to write this parody lyric for Leonard Bernstein's 70th birthday in 1988 to the tune of Weill and Gershwin's "The Saga of Jenny," from the 1940 show The Lady in the Dark. Choice lyric from "The Saga of Lenny":
Lenny made his mind up When he was three, He'd write a show, a ballet, And a symphony. But once the winds were tootled And the first strings plucked, He decided it was terrible-- He'd have to conduct.
It's cutting but loving, and I'm not 100 percent sure, but I think Sondheim slips in a reference to Lenny's bisexuality (if "Schlemozzle" is supposed to be a bottom). In any case, musical theater nerds, enjoy this unlikely marriage of words and music, and just think--if Weill hadn't died in 1950 (at age 50), he might have lived to be among the illustrious slate of composers for whom the Hammerstein-schooled wunderkind from the San Remo wrote lyrics.

A Guy Who Feels Music

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Stephen Sondheim
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>March to Keep Fear Alive

From one Steve to another. Nice "Day Off" quote at the end.

Dec 14, 2010

Whenever I Get Down About Theater...

...I'm reminded that it can still be a lovably freaky place.

To wit:

Dec 10, 2010

Quote of the Week

"One of the differences between the movie business and the theater is that movie business is very social. You always have to smile and shake hands. In the movie business, it's always the first day of school. Over time, I have gotten better, but truly I am not comfortable. In the theater, you can be off in a room as your own weird self. There is acceptance in the theater that everybody is like that."
-Tracy Letts in a Los Angeles Times story that also blows the lid off the unknown (to me) Albee/Steppenwolf impasse (this is the company's first production of his work), in which the ever-quotable Albee offers this gem: "I can only hold a grudge for no more than 25 years."

Dec 9, 2010

The Thaddeus Bristol Files

A scathing review of a community theater production of Oliver! in Oklahoma City provides some choice rubbernecking. The critic, Larry Laneer, minces no words:
It’s hard to understand what director Deborah Draheim is trying to do with the show. First, she has cast 12 children — mostly girls, some very young — as Fagin’s gang. When all 12 were onstage at the reviewed performance, parents in the audience whipped out flash cameras and snapped away. This rude behavior continued for most of the first act. It was worse than a PTA talent show. Where were the announcements about no photos and the ushers to enforce it?

Second, a 30-member cast is way more than needed in the Freede Little Theater, and the actors are mostly untrained and inexperienced. What little dancing is in this production comes from the hop-skip-and-a-jump school of choreography.
His biggest issue is with the canned orchestra, a fair gripe--but I don't know if quoting Edward Albee is going to persuade any of his readers. To wit: the volatile comments section. And you thought Spider-man was controversial!

Dec 7, 2010

Theatre on Screen

I think it's great news that the Broadway phenom Fela! (which I enjoyed) is getting a London production, and good news that it will be broadcast to American movie theaters as part of NT Live, a successful new program that bowed earlier this year with Helen Mirren in Phedre and has continued apace. But given that Fela! is the first Broadway export to get this kind of platform, and given that the Metropolitan Opera has a similar program, I have to wonder: Why doesn't this happen more often with theater? PBS used to broadcast the occasional Lincoln Center show--I still remember trying to watch the Helen Hunt/Paul Rudd/Nick Hytner Twelfth Night back in the late '90s through a fog of bad-reception TV static--and there was that odd MTV airing of Legally Blonde a few years back. But why haven't the likes of Shakespeare in the Park, Lincoln Center, MTC, or Roundabout--or while we're dreaming, the Guthrie, Oregon Shakes, Stratford Ontario, Berkeley Rep, the Taper--struck a similar deal? I'm sure it's no small undertaking, and I'm sure the National Theatre's state support doesn't hurt. And I have to imagine that it might raise hackles with Actors Equity, and engender the usual fears of jurisdictional conflicts with its sister screen actors' unions.

It reminded me of this piece in the current American Theatre about Seattle's On the Boards, which delivers plays and dance or performance pieces online on an Amazon rent-or-buy, with good terms for the artists. Their roster so far includes Radiohole's Whatever, Heaven Allows and Young Jean Lee's The Shipment, both apparently considered non-union productions for the purposes of broadcast (I'd imagine they were both produced under Equity's Showcase Code). An Equity rep is quoted in the piece as saying that without an "industry standard compensation" for such filmed ventures, Equity can't get behind them.

The economics would probably have to shift so strongly in favor of broadcast or filmed performances as a supplementary income stream for theaters (and, presumably, Equity members) for Equity to give some ground, but it would nice to think that American producers and unions could get out in front of this. Especially now that the Brits are showing us up.

Dec 6, 2010

Most Unexpected Angels Resonance

No, it's not Martin Heller's talk of a permanent Republican majority or the "we will be citizens" stuff, which I already remembered going in to the recent Angels revival. It was this tossed-off comment, the blurb that no show wants given the source:
ROY COHN: You've seen La Cage Aux Folles? Ah, fabulous. It's the best thing on Broadway, maybe ever.
And now with original flavor.

Nov 30, 2010

A 24-Pack of Schubert

I missed the wine-fueled theatrical song recycle Three Pianos the first time around, but won't make the mistake again. I had a chance to sit down for a festive chat about song craft with the show's three creators a few weeks ago for Time Out. Probably my fave bit, in which Rick Burkhardt addresses the appeal of Schubert's incredibly bleak song cycle Winterreise:
“It’s a paradox, and no one really knows why this is, but sad people don’t like listening to happy music,” Burkhardt notes. “You’d think that if you could fix your emotions by listening to happy tunes, you would just do it, but there are a lot of studies that show that when you’re sad, the thing that you want is something that fits that, and expresses those feelings. It can be really exhilarating: ‘Oh, I’m in a terrible mood, and Schubert just nailed it!’ ”
Amen to that.

Nov 29, 2010

From Bat Boy to Pee-wee

It gave me great pleasure a few weeks ago to meet up at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre during my lunch hour with Ann Closs-Farley, costume designer extraordinaire for countless shows at the Actors' Gang, the Evidence Room, the Bootleg, and countless other L.A. theaters, who took me around the set of the latest show she's draped, in what constitutes her Broadway debut: The Pee-wee Herman Show. I even had an official reason to do it: A piece on Ann for TDF Stages. Ann even insisted on snapping a few fan pics on my camera phone.

Nov 27, 2010


I had a nosebleed seat at a matinee of Millennium Approaches back in the sweltering summer of 1994, which sufficiently hooked me that I rushed afterwards to grab a standing-room ticket for that night's performance of Perestroika. To call that day a high point in my theatergoing experience would be an understatement. I was swept away by Tony Kushner's range, wit, imagination, craft, and fierce moral vision, and by director George C. Wolfe's uncannily surehanded production. Subsequent readings of the play impressed me further. Though I actually saw F. Murray Abraham rather than Ron Leibman as Roy Cohn, I cherish an unrelated interview I did with Leibman around that time in which he attributed the plays' success as much to their Jewish rhythms as to their gay essence. I embraced it all, in any case, and felt by evening's end that I could have stood for four more hours.

So why was the Signature Theater's intimate new Angels revival, for which I had a good and comfortable seat throughout a similar all-day marathon last week, so hard on my butt and on my soul? I can't put my finger on any one problem, except to say that so much of it felt queasy and sub-par, and with a work of this scope and ambition, half-measures are deadly. Like many critics, I was struck by Zachary Quinto's Louis and Bill Heck's Joe (though not so much by their faltering chemistry); the rest of the cast, to a person, felt either miscast or misdirected or both. I never felt that director Michael Greif decided how to handle the plays' unclassifiable blend of reality and fantasy, and most of all I missed the humor. The comic rhythms just didn't feel tight; this is also a problem I had with the heavy-spirited HBO miniseries, in which Justin Kirk's somber, strapping Prior and Al Pacino's unsmiling Roy Cohn almost invariably squashed the lacerating comedy both of these AIDS-stricken characters find in their extremity; at the Signature, I felt much the same about Christian Borle's play-acty Prior and Frank Wood's dispirited Cohn.

If I had reviewed the show, I feel that my take would have been closest to Charles McNulty's. Though I think I can still discern a great American play for the ages in there, the Signature version made me worry that between it and the HBO movie, Angels in America is not getting the productions it deserves--the kind of productions that will ensure its reintroduction to new generations of theater lovers who will pay their last dollar to stand in the back of the house.

Nov 20, 2010

Babies Who Lunch

I recently had the privilege of writing about my first "play date" with my young son Oliver, alongside two other theater critic-dads and their babies, for the paper of record.

Even Stephen

You've got to hand it to Elisabeth Vincentelli: Of New York's daily critics, she's the only one out there truly blogging. I do admire the Times' Theater Talkback idea, which forces Ben and Charles to muse and extemporize in a quasi-bloggy way and invite readers' feedback. But EV actually has a dedicated blog and the temperament for honest-to-God thinking (or ranting) out loud. (So do the folks at Time Out, but they're not daily, and so does the Times' Jason Zinoman, but he throws it all down on Facebook.) One of her latest, a screed called "Officially Sondheim'ed Out," is a classic from-the-hip salvo:
I've had it with Sondheim--or rather with Sondheimania. There's been so many events celebrating his 80th birthday this year that the cumulative effect is now the opposite of the desired one.
She's got a point. The press when the Sweeney Todd movie came out a few years back was similarly, um, thorough, and even for those of who follow the guy, the hagiography does cloy. (Full disclosure: I contacted him around the same time about an interview, related to some other project, if I recall, and he very graciously declined, citing his own fatigue with interviews and his need to get back to actual work.) Vincentelli deplores the amount of ink the Times spills on him: "Every week that paper finds a new way to talk about 'Steve,' " she says, which is overblown--she knows it's about product, and he's got a thick and expensive hard-cover book to sell (more on that in a sec). Then EV puts the boot in:
Meanwhile, perhaps it's also time to say that he may be a better lyricist than a composer and that he's benefited from working with brilliant arrangers.
Yeah, see here's where I part company with what has become conventional wisdom about Sondheim: Great lyrics, but where are the tunes? In part because I just devoured the excellent second edition of Mark Eden Horowitz's indispensable Sondheim on Music, in which the master goes over his scores in illuminating detail (and offers a million other juicy bits along the way), and because I'm just cracking the tendentious doorstopper Finishing the Hat, the press for which has been full-court and frustrating (more on that in a moment), I've been refreshing my thoughts on this favorite subject recently. And my thesis would be: The man is as great a musical dramatist as any who's ever lived. Maybe as good as Mozart or Wagner, certainly as good as Puccini or Verdi, definitely as good as Janacek or Britten or Weill (not faint praise in my book), and head and shoulders over just about anyone in the American musical theater that he's worked in, with the exception of Loesser at his best or the Gershwin of Porgy and Bess. And he's got a distinct advantage as a musical dramatist, shared in this company only by Loesser: He's also a brilliant lyricist, so that the extraordinary music he crafts is married inexorably to his own well-chosen lyrics. His vision is all of a piece, and its best it truly towers. Which is why I'd put his best scores near the top of any list of the 20th century's best: You may not be able to hum "Someone in a Tree," but Pacific Overtures is going to be with us longer than, say, A Chorus Line (yeah, I really think so).

Here's the thing, though: Sondheim may write song/scenes like almost no one before him and no one since, but he doesn't write his librettos, and I think more than anything this has been his downfall, not just in aesthetic but in commercial terms. He's done his incomparable musical dramatizing in interesting shows with deathless scores, but not many, if any, bona fide Broadway warhorses; his one masterpiece, Sweeney Todd, is never going to be a Chicago or a Fiddler; it occupies a realm somewhere closer to Threepenny Opera, which may never be a Broadway hit, nor does it ever need to be. Indeed, of his generation of post-Hammerstein composers, Sondheim hasn't really turned out a crowd pleaser since Forum. True, some of his shows get reevaluated and liked a little more (Assassins, for instance), but that curve is not steep enough to build a blockbuster on. And even among the handful of shows he's written that do really hold together (a list that includes Sweeney, Forum, Company, arguably Into the Woods and Pacific Overtures, a soft spot of mine), none has proven, or I think is likely ever to prove, a Broadway or West End juggernaut. The current Little Night Music offers a fine illustration: It's close to a great musical in many ways, but not close enough to be canonical; in the many times I've seen it, Hugh Wheeler's book and Sondheim's songs never quite come together onstage the way they seem to promise they will. Whereas I've seen Sweeney in community theater productions, not to mention the problematic movie version, and Wheeler's book and Sondheim's score still work like gangbusters. Night Music is a semi-hit on Broadway right now largely because of the stars that have festooned it, and possibly also because it's one of the lighter, more "romantic" Sondheims. But to my mind its tiny orchestra and somber tone point to the likely and not at all unhappy future of Sondheim's work: In smaller venues, in "chamber" stagings, where his brand of challenging, complicated musical drama really fares best, and where his work will never starve for an avid and discerning audience. I know, because I'm a proud part of that audience, and it just happened to be in small Los Angeles theaters, not big Broadway houses, that I really became sold on his work. One more thing to address in EV's blog post. She makes a further charge:
I would even go as far as saying that he (unwittingly) contributed to the decline of the musical by making his emulators think all songs must be "integrated" in the book. No more catchy stand-alone numbers for us rubes! Unfortunately, 99% of said emulators aren't as gifted as their hero -- not to mention that Sondheim has written quite a few stand-alone standards himself.
Actually, it was Sondheim's mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, who pioneered "integrating" songs with dialogue, but I understand some of her beef. The idea that song and script should flow together seamlessly has proven to be a dead-end in either direction: one way lies dreadful through-sung pop-opera, and the other way quiet or quirky "small" shows where the music almost apologizes for even being there. I wouldn't blame Sondheim for this, or even his emulators (does she mean LaChiusa? Frankel/Korie?). Like Hammerstein, he writes musical dramas, not musical comedies, and I think what EV is talking about is big showstoppers like "Hernando's Hideaway" or "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat." I just think that musical tastes, let alone theatrical tastes, no longer smile on the gleam and bounce of musical comedy, unless it's used ironically a la Scottsboro Boys. I would point to David Yazbek as a fine counter-example, but alas, his latest project hasn't worked out so well.

There is one item amid this recent deluge that stuck in my craw, and which I do think is worth calling out. Though I haven't read Finishing the Hat, I've read and heard enough interviews with Sondheim over the years to know who's on his nice and naughty lists, and I look forward to delving at length into his careful eviscerations of Noel Coward, Ira Gershwin, and other imperfectionists. But while I would be the first to agree with Sondheim that Larry Hart was an occasionally sloppy lyricist, I cringed when I read this in New York:
On Hart's “My Funny Valentine," which includes the lyric, "Your looks are laughable / Unphotographable / But you’re my favorite work of art": “Unless the object of the singer’s affection is a vampire, surely what Hart means is unphotogenic. Only vampires are unphotographable, but affectionate '-enic' rhymes are hard to come by.”
Does Stephen Sondheim really think this primly and literally? He actually can't discern the knowingly playful coinage behind "unphotographable," and actually thinks Hart is trying to pull one over on us? Almost for that couplet alone, "My Funny Valentine" has one of the sexiest, toughest, warmest yet passive-aggressive lyrics ever penned--it's the love song of someone who is clearly telling her partner that he couldn't be loved by anyone but her, but the love is no less sincere for that--and I'm not sure Sondheim has ever done better. I generally share his aversion to false rhymes and mis-accents, but a little of this kind of frosty pedanticism goes a long way. (Note: I'm sure I'll have more to say once I dip more deeply into the book; as for Horowitz's book, I've got a review of it in the next Sondheim Review.)

Nov 19, 2010

A Photo That Made My Day

Particularly as another New York winter is starting to bare its teeth, and I spent a bit of the morning listening to Schubert's chilly "Winterreise" (in prep to talk the guys behind this), I loved seeing this Beckett-goes-to-beach cover (months late, I guess) over a co-worker's desk today.

Nov 15, 2010

The Way of the Turtles

God bless Sherie Rene Scott. (h/t Branden Huldeen)

Nov 12, 2010

Talking About Criticism

photo by Martha Wade Steketee
That panel I did a few weeks ago--on the state of criticism in the Internet and such--got written up by an industrious blogger, Martha Wade Steketee. So we posted her report on the TCG blog here. Some choice reading, particularly Zinoman's thoughts.

The Dread Aughts

I StageGraded Lisa Kron's In the Wake as well as previewing it for Time Out, so I was kind of rooting for it as well as dreading it when I finally saw it this week. I found myself instead intensely with it, almost 100 percent of the way--just beautiful, beautiful writing, exquisitely directed and acted. Maybe I felt it so strongly because, like the show's well-meaning but cross-purposed characters, I also happened to go through my own huge personal and professional upheavals throughout the aughts, meanwhile participating in as many painful political arguments as I avoided, and I too somehow felt a weird synchronistic, symbiotic connection between the two. So this is the time I'm living through, I often thought--and it's quite a bit worse, and considerably weirder, than what I expected. And when will I either hit bottom or turn the corner?

I do agree with some critics who felt the air leak out of the second act; on a story level, the relationships that lead character Ellen sabotages take too much stage time to disintegrate, and the ultimate impact on her is ultimately so internal as to be almost imperceptible, even with the heroically riveting Marin Ireland acting the hell out of it. Still, I can think of few writers who could make a political argument as nitty-gritty as the penultimate one between Ellen and her wizened relief-worker friend Judy work so well, and play on so many emotional levels, because Kron has made us invest in just this kind of argument over aspiration vs. desperation, which is of course not irrelevant in the age of Obama.

In short, it's the kind of play that goes badly wrong more often than not, and gives political theater, or "theater of ideas," a bad name; that In the Wake works as well as it does feels to me, at least, like a triumph. And I can't wait to see Kron's next play.

Nov 9, 2010

The Roots of Hair

My friend and colleague Eric Grode has a new book out today about the creation and history of the musical Hair, which is a remarkably rich story of theatrical will and happenstance, art and commerce, experimentation and error--I should know, we're printing a long excerpt from the book in the January issue of American Theatre, and it was very hard to choose a section to pull out, it's all so good. As Eric explained in a recent email, he didn't just talk to all the surviving creators and contributors:
I even tracked down one of the Apollo 13 astronauts who walked out of the show at intermission. There are all sorts of incredible anecdotes--including a few that are relatively damning for an authorized history.
It's all true. This is one coffee table book that you won't be able to keep on the coffee table.

The Other Texas

Holland Taylor as late Texas Gov. Ann Richards, in a one-person show she debuted at the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston last May. Then it was titled Money, Marbles & Chalk (a Texas expression that was a favorite of LBJ's, meaning "I'm all in!"). But for its May, 2011 run at the Paramount in Austin, it's called simply Ann - An Affectionate Portrait of Ann Richards. I wrote about the Galveston bow for the May/June issue of American Theatre:
When Richards died in 2006 of cancer, Taylor found herself “unnaturally sad,” and almost immediately started planning a one-woman show about Richards. “The idea really grabbed me by the scruff of the neck—I’d never done anything like this before,” Taylor says. Welcomed by Richards’s family and inner circle, Taylor conducted three years of interviews and research...

How does it feel for Taylor, a native Philadelphian, to portray Richards in front of her fellow Texans? “I’m kind of wild-eyed—my eyes snap open in the morning and I think, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ ” Taylor, who will wear a body suit and wig to portray Richards, has been training with a dialect coach and studying video of the late Guv. She trusts that her audience will appreciate how hard she’s worked: “Texans are so generous and willing to accept you on your own terms. I’ve never been treated so affectionately, and I can’t figure out why: Here’s this Yankee, trying to do a play about their darling daughter.”


Interesting Onion AV Club interview with Mike Birbiglia, who's putting out a book called Sleepwalk With Me that's based on his one-person show, which in turn contained material he's previously offered on a blog and performed on This American Life. I thought being a journalist in the age of blogs and social media was confusing, but consider the life of a comic/storyteller. Birbiglia:
It actually is a weird and complicated media landscape that we’re in now, where you blog and then you write about something that happened that week, and then you refine it, and it becomes funnier and funnier and better and stronger, and you do it onstage, and people are like, “Yeah, but we knew that from your blog.” It’s like, “What do you want from me? I’m writing my fucking ass off.” I write like crazy. I’m putting out as much new material as I can of a caliber that people will be happy with, and then I’ve done pieces on This American Life, and some of those pieces are integrated in my forthcoming one-man show which I’m opening in New York this winter, and it’s actually what I’m touring with right now...People go, “Yeah, I heard that on This American Life. It’s like, “Okay. You heard that story on a free podcast, and I’m sorry about that.”
In the days when a comic would tour with the same set and buff it to a fine sheen until he got his cable special or album or sitcom deal, this was less of an issue, of course. As Birbiglia points out later in the interview, Twitter has perhaps made comics too accessible, and in a world where your niche fans follow everything you do, where can you go to try out and develop material? The parallels with music and journalism may be tenuous, but the general theme holds: that the media landscape seems to continue its long warp into a kind of click-through, on-demand meritocracy with dubious returns for the creators of the media itself, except to the extent that we can all share the pleasant illusion that somehow we're all collaboratively creating this media soup we swim in, and at a relatively low cost--with accordingly low financial returns.

As someone who snipped my cable TV subscription earlier this year because the Web can deliver more than enough of the content my household requires, and who not only does a large majority of my reading online but also increasingly writes with an online readership in mind, I'm as uncertain as the next guy how long this can possibly continue. On the other hand, precisely when and where have the performing arts, let alone writing about them, ever offered the kind of stable and lucrative careers our parents would have wished for us?

Nov 3, 2010

Another Strike Against Memphis

By almost any metric except quality, the Broadway hit Memphis is an inspiring success story: the years on the road building support in regional theaters, the leads (particularly Montego Glover) who bring down the house every night, the Tony validation. As I've noted in this space before, this Memphis wasn't built in a day but painstakingly reached out and found its appreciative audience. More power to that. I just wish the show were better.

But now I've got a brand new reason to deplore the Joe DiPietro/David Bryan tuner. My colleague Isaac Butler alerted me last month to this quote from a Sarah Ruhl interview in Playbill, which seemed damning but not conclusive:
I heard somewhere that you might be writing a musical. Is that still happening?
SR: I had been working on a musical, and then there were so many musicals about Memphis in the '60s that we just had to abandon ship. It had been a musical about a woman's radio station in Memphis in the '60s, and it just kind of fell apart because of the zeitgeist. [The 2010 Tony Award-winning Memphis, coincidentally, is about a disc jockey in Memphis in the Civil Rights era.]

Who was your collaborator?
It was Elvis Costello, who I love and adore and worship! It was sad not to continue working with him. And he wrote three songs … [Hopefully we'll work together] another time! [Laughs.]
But then, in Nick Paumgarten's intriguing if problematic New Yorker feature on Costello, the voluble tunesmith touches on it briefly:
"Sarah wrote some scenes, I wrote some songs," he said. But all for naught. "Turns out someone else had a Memphis musical. Two Memphis musicals--what are the odds?"

Today, incidentally, is a holiday in the Weinert-Kendt household, as it is whenever Declan releases new product (National Ransom is his 26th studio album, give or take). I'm one of those fans who will follow this pop polymath down just about any side alley he cares to go (love that string quartet record, for instance, though I'm less sold on North), and I remain hopeful that he'll harness his talent to the stage sooner or later. If Stew can rock Broadway, I think Costello has it in him, though I have to admit the feminist/fabulist Ruhl is a rather exotic pairing for the author of "Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind?"

Best. Halloween. Costume. Ever.

I thought my son's skunk outfit was pretty cute, but this, from my friend Dave and his daughter Amalia, really takes the (bloody) cake.

Nov 2, 2010

Quick Hit Tuesday

Apologies, this blog might as well be a Twitter feed these days...
  • The November issue of American Theatre is out, and it's got a cover story about Cornerstone (a favorite company) by Steven Leigh Morris (indispensable), with a cover photo by Gary Leonard (a national treasure). Wish I could say I had something to do with all of these, but it's actually more a case of having found a place to work where other people actually get how important these folks are.
  • If there's a better profile writer than Jesse Green, I haven't read him. His Kushner exegesis for New York is a work of genius.
  • If you haven't checked in at StageGrade lately, the season is heating up (most recently graded: In the Wake and The Scottsboro Boys).
  • Voice more or less rested, I plan to rock the Path Cafe with (mostly) other people's music this coming Sat. night.

Nov 1, 2010

Two Trends Worth Noting

1. Isherwood and Brantley seem to have switched places at the Times; for the second time in a week, the day's paper has Isherwood on the Broadway beat (Scottsboro Boys) and Brantley Off-Broadway (Merry Wives); last Wednesday Isherwood caught Rain on Broadway and Brantley Penelope at St. Ann's Warehouse. It's not unprecedented, but it does seem notable.

2. See anything missing from this roster of "Arts + Culture" options on Time Out NY's newly redesigned site?

Oct 28, 2010

Thursday Time Capsule

This kind of blew me away--it's like two epochs colliding, but with a civility that's almost hard to believe now.

Oct 27, 2010

Stepping In It

As the Chicago theater scene's hometown booster, it's pretty much Chris Jones' job to be outraged by something like this (h/t Isaac):

The first scene of Tuesday's episode [of The Good Wife]...was set at a fundraiser in a hotel ballroom. "And now as dinner is served," says the hostess, "Steppenwolf Theatre will entertain us with scenes from their hit play, 'The Cow With No Country.'"

Yeah, that's credible. Steppenwolf does bits of its shows in hotel ballrooms all the time. Just as the beef is served.

And with that introduction, a motley and pathetic little group of ragamuffin actors popped out, replete with their crude puppet-cow and all, and do some kind of whacked-out performance that lands somewhere between moronic Medieval drama, pantomime, Bertolt Brecht, "War Horse" and "Jack and the Beanstalk."

English accents and all. We kid you not. What has that got to do with Steppenwolf?

Isaac's right that it's probably wrong to blame the actors. But Jones' post made me think of a few other instances of light mockery directed toward the company: the inspired epilogue of Being John Malkovich, for instance, in which we learn, PBS docu-style, about how the title character, possessed by John Cusack's seedy puppeteer, goes on to turn his acclaimed theater company in a new, puppet-oriented direction.

Jones' piece, in which he concedes that Steppenwolf can leave itself open to parody at times, also reminded me of something Austin Pendleton told me about his first impression of the troupe some years ago:
An outside producer saw a play Pendleton directed Off-Broadway in 1979, Ralph Pape's Say Goodnight, Gracie, and wanted to take it to Chicago. But there were catches on both sides: The play's New York producer would only let the play move only if Pendleton was kept on as the director, and the Chicago producer would only accept that condition if his own special terms were met.

"He said, 'OK, but you have to use the members of this new company called Steppenwolf,' " Pendleton recalls. "At the time, I thought: 'There's a group that actually calls themselves "the Steppenwolf"? That's pathetic. Either they're trying to borrow the energy of a rock group, or, even worse, they've named themselves after the Herman Hesse novel.' I wasn't interested, but the producer insisted.

"So, grumpily I went off to Chicago, and as soon as I began to work with the company, I got swept away by them."

Oct 26, 2010

Kron's Sextet

I had the pleasure recently of sitting down with Lisa Kron to talk about her new play In the Wake--known in its L.A. incarnation earlier this year as The Wake, which sounds perhaps too Irish. (Most of her best friends, Kron told me, are Irish Catholics, actually, so maybe that helps account for the original title.) The play's a politically themed comedy about liberal discontent during the Bush years, and from what I've heard there are plenty of laughs and a little sex, but in person Kron--at least on the day I talked to her--was strikingly serious, even somber. It was a meaty interview, in other words. The result is here.

I probably shouldn't have been too surprised by her soberness of purpose, or rather by the way in which a serious-minded playfulness infuses all her work, since in doing research I came across this forceful, moving testimony she gave on marriage equality at the 2007 Stonewall Seder. Definitely worth a look:

Oct 25, 2010

Let Down and Hanging Around

I can pinpoint almost exactly where La Bete went off the rails for me, down to the line. The current Broadway revival, duly praised for its performances and the sharp, bright direction of Matthew Warchus, was my first acqaintance with the play, and having StageGraded the mixed reviews, I was prepared to be underwhelmed, or worse. On the contrary, I found myself enchanted and intrigued, and not only by the legend-in-the-making opening marathon monologue by Mark Rylance as the title boor; I felt for almost the play's entire running time that playwright David Hirson was brilliantly rehearsing a subtle and multilayered argument between high and low, vulgarian and snob, theatrical immediacy and literary distance, in the conflict between the emptyheaded but full-throated clown Valere (Rylance) and the dyspeptic aesthete Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), with a suitably majestic patron (Joanna Lumley) as a crucial catalyst and pivot point.

I was with the play even up through the performance of Valere's lame anti-vanity allegory "The Parable of Two Boys From Cadiz," and I was especially taken with the moments following it, in which the Princess seems finally to have seen through the charlatan, and Elomire, sensing that she's come around, takes the opportunity to speak frankly, letting loose an impressively nuanced jeremiad against his rival's pretensions:
Decrying France's vulgar predilection
For cheap and undistinguished works of art,
His play, ironically, is from the start
As bad as any work that it decries!
This bleak phenomenon itself implies
A danger to our nation more malign
Than so-called facts of cultural decline!
It represents a much more lethal trend:
The language used by artists to defend
Against the rule of mediocrity
Has been appropriated to a 'T'
By just those mediocrities who rule!
It's dangerous to be governed by a fool,
But worse when fools bemoan the sad decline
Of standards which their efforts undermine!
To mourn decaying values in a play
Which only reinforces the decay
Devalues the idea that it expresses!
This amounts to a more complicated thesis than I'd seen critics discern in the play--I can't count how many claimed that Hirson's play deplores our culture's preference for senseless vulgarians, and that that urgent message has become "even more relevant today" (two extremely wearying tropes, the first being precisely the kind of elitism well-read blue-state theater folks are frequently accused of, and the second an encomium I've been tired of since I first heard it applied to every significant revival of a bona fide classic since, I don't know, roughly the Reagan Administration).

Unfortunately, those critics turn out to be largely correct: The Princess responds to Elomire's tirade by chiding him for not seeing the entertainment value of Valere's work. Though we never get to see Elomire's work to compare, this judgment makes the Princess look a blind fool, since the "Cadiz" play is pretty pallid stuff, neither very good on its own merits or so-bad-it's-good fun. Elomire concludes the play vowing to continue his lonely quest for artistic excellence--in all, an extremely disappointing ending to what seemed until just a few minutes before a rich verbal fugue on taste, talent, and meaning.

And while I'm expressing disappointment with Broadway shows, I have to say that one reason Elomire's speech hit me so strongly is that it's a nearly perfect description of my feelings about Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which entertained me more or less in the way decent sketch comedy or a middling episode of South Park might, but left me glaringly aware of the many things it is not: especially funny, apt, uniquely insightful. As a contribution to the never-quite-right genre of the Broadway "rock musical," it mainly made me appreciate Passing Strange--a show I liked and admired more than outright loved--all the more.

BBAJ has its inspired moments, no question, and I think there's a smart idea operating behind its coarse playfulness--the one you've read about, about how American exceptionalism feeds American ignorance and self-involvement. I just think a show that demands our attention as brashly as this one does should have more than one idea.

Oct 24, 2010

Out of the Dark

In Patrick Pacheco's interview with Tony Kushner--in which Pacheco has the chutzpah to quote longtime nemesis Andrew Sullivan to the voluble playwright--I was struck most by the conclusion, in response to the inevitable question of whether Kushner feels he's "preaching to the converted":
"A great preacher starts with the doubt and uncertainty and skepticism that are the necessary concomitants of faith," he says. "He starts in the scary places, in the places where God is silent, in the places where God seems cruel, in the places where the world is not just and where people are ground to dust by monstrous, even satanic, forces where God doesn't intervene. Or where you ceaselessly betray God in your heart and your actions. You start there and progress toward whatever hope for change and light you can find. It's true of the prophets, it's true of John Donne, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King. And it's true of artists."

Oct 20, 2010

Quote of the Day

"The mind can only absorb what the butt can endure."
-Patricia Milton on the American Theatre Facebook page, where this morning's topic is play length

Flashback to the Future

With the announcement that both Robin Williams and Donny & Marie are slated to make Broadway debuts in the coming months, that makes stars of two of my favorite childhood TV shows trodding the Main Stem boards (Tom Wopat is already a fixture). If somebody decides to put Muppets, Sleestak, or the cast of Hee Haw on the Great White Way, this is going to get downright eerie.

Oct 19, 2010

Tuesday Quick Links

A busy week, again, so this will have to suffice for a while:
  • Scott Walters hears Tony Kushner, and righteous anger ensues. A must read (and not for the reasons you may think).
  • An excellent point about the irrelevance of spoilers.
  • Tiny Boston Court beats mighty Center Theatre Group in L.A. Ovation noms--this is historic.
  • What Jonah Lehrer said at the TCG conference, more or less.
  • I've got to cancel/postpone my Path Cafe solo gig this coming Friday--a cold has slain my already meager singing voice, and it doesn't recover as quickly as it once did.

Oct 18, 2010

The Gang's All High

Tim Robbins' Actors' Gang has announced the "Axis Mundi" series, an extracurricular series of off-night talks and screenings and events around the Gang's Culver City location. I have a lot of respect for Robbins and his company, but I can't help but read a lot of "Ray" in the press release ("Ray" being the ponytailed pomp peddler Robbins played so eerily well in High Fidelity).

"It's time to stir things up and gather community in a public forum that allows for illumination, dissection, and discussion of contemporary issues," Robbins is quoted as saying in the press release I got. "Nothing is out of bounds." The release goes on to inform us, "Axis mundi is a term representing the center point of the compass, a symbol that crosses human cultures, expressing a point of connection between the sky, the earth and the four directions."

A key sign that this is still the Gang we love, though, is that amid the planned panels on corporate corruption and earnest satire of the "institutionalized ignorance infecting America," there's this:
Tues., Nov. 9: Dark Side of Oz - A visual/audio mash up of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz. BYOW

Oct 15, 2010

Busy Days

Apologies for the light posting. I reappear briefly to announce two public appearances in the coming week or so:

On Friday, Oct. 22, at 8:30 p.m., I'll be playing some tunes at the Path Cafe.

On Monday, Oct. 25, 6:30 p.m. at the Martin E. Segal Theater, I'll join Time Out NY editor David Cote and a few other esteemed colleagues on a panel about the state of criticism in the age of Twitter.

Only one will feature a piano, but both are free.

Oct 10, 2010

Too-Convenient Parking

David Byrne says this is an oft-reproduced image of the Michigan Theatre in Detroit, but I'd never seen it till I checked in with his bleakly illuminating traveblogue (h/t Createquity). At American Theatre we're cooking up a story about the state of the lively arts in this desolate former auto capital, and I'm looking forward to it all the more keenly.

Oct 9, 2010

Best. Office. Ever.

My favorite bit: When Daryl shushes Michael with these wise words: "We have to listen to the overture, otherwise we won't recognize the themes when they come up later."

Oct 6, 2010

A New Low for Riedel

The Post's resident scourge has already pronounced himself bored in advance by this season's star-starved Broadway offerings, so he goes looking for fresh targets in the supposedly Broadway-bound, reportedly somewhat troubled musical Leap of Faith at the Ahmanson in L.A. So there's been some backstage sniping, and Brooke Shields can't sing; that much is fair game (though that doesn't explain why a show that's gotten mixed reviews is flatly labeled "bad" in the headline).

But check out Riedel's take on the director/choreographer, Rob Ashford:
Last year, powerful behind-the-scenes players were touting Ashford as the next Michael Bennett. But then "Promises, Promises" opened and "the next Michael Bennett" became the next Roger De Bris.

"Promises" is a hit at the box office. But Ashford's direction and choreography are swishier than anything Roger De Bris came up with for "Springtime for Hitler."
Huh? I guess in the Post, swishy = sucky? Now, I didn't see it, but I understand that Ashford's production of Jason Robert Brown's cheerful lynching musical Parade, originally produced at the Donmar Warehouse but also seen at the Ahmanson last year, was nothing to sneeze at. Suitably manful, too, I would imagine.

Seriously, I love good dish as much as the next culture vulture, and I'm more or less down with Rebecca West's call to " our geniuses in a disrespectful manner." But Riedel defines decadence down; he regularly goes beyond the call of doody.

Oct 4, 2010

Left Cold by Brits

photo by Tristram Kenton
As an inveterate Anglophile weaned on Doctor Who, the Pythons, and Merchant Ivory, I still found last week's Broadway season openers, Brief Encounter and The Pitmen Painters, impressive but largely unsatisfying. The first is an alternately lavish and impish production of a very attenuated romance that wears out its narrative welcome pretty quickly, despite some moments of pure theater magic involving a ukulele and an overturned rowboat; the latter, despite the efforts of a lovely ensemble cast, falls into the dodgy genre of art-as-vehicle-of-social-uplift. I'm often a sucker for this kind of story when it involves a backstage, let's-put-on-a-show element (like Lee Hall's other Broadway show), but I find it insufferable when it features characters who are walking mouthpieces for half-baked ideas about the meaning of "art"--a noun which should almost never be the named subject of any play.

In short, these two new offerings, if not quite the dog's breakfast, aren't exactly the dog's dinner, either.

Oct 1, 2010

The Season's Top 10

Along with the nifty new October season preview issue of American Theatre is the much-anticipated Top 10 list of plays slated for the most productions in the coming season* , reprinted here in full:

The 39 Steps (23)
adapted by Patrick Barlow from Alfred Hitchcock

Circle Mirror Transformation (15)
by Annie Baker

Superior Donuts (10)
by Tracy Letts

Ruined (10)
by Lynn Nottage

August: Osage County (9)
by Tracy Letts

God of Carnage (8)
by Yasmina Reza

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play (8)
by Sarah Ruhl

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (8)
by Rachel Sheinkin (book) and William Finn (music and lyrics)

To Kill a Mockingbird (7)
adapted by Christopher Sergel from Harper Lee

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (7)
by August Wilson

A few surprises there (Ma Rainey?). And sorry to say, this is as strong a representation of female playwrights as we've seen since we've been doing the Top 10 list. Take it away, Playgoer.

*The usual caveats must be mentioned: This list reflects only TCG member theaters who got us their season lists by our deadline.

Sep 30, 2010

El Gato Con Botas

photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Moises Kaufman directs a puppet opera this weekend. I had the pleasure of writing it up for the paper of record.

Sep 28, 2010

Płeć Farsy

My mom was part Polish, but apart from the pastries, I don't have a lot in common with my Polish neighbors in Greenpoint. Then one night last week, my wife and I were walking home and someone handed us this postcard:

This Polish version of the stewardess sex farce that played on Broadway last season (and will now play at every regional theater in America, by law, in the coming season--I exaggerate slightly) will play in Montclair, NJ, on Nov. 20 and the Tribeca Performing Arts Center on Nov. 21. I'm almost tempted to go.

A free online translator tells me that
"Boeing Boeing" story Maks, whose life emotional and erotic shall be governed by the international flight timetable...Max has as many as three fiancees, all of them are stewardesses, and each of them think of course, that it is the only. The precise organisation aid and reliable, although not avoiding from sarcastic comments, serving Maksowi always goes to coordinate visits subsequent fiancess, which also, he says he loves equally...What will become but when the minor changes to the air traffic, all of them will appear at Maks almost the same time? What role will play in the history of years of their youth friend Maks Paweł? And what the most important, whether it is found that the Max so well coping with women, whether or not it is they deal with him?

Sep 27, 2010

St. Billie

So Billie Joe himself is going to jump off the Broadway bridge in his American Idiot for a limited run starting tomorrow. Playbill calls it a "rare" instance of a pop star doing this on Broadway, but honestly I can't think of it ever happening with a rock musical on Broadway. Pete Townshend couldn't have jumped into Tommy to save his life. Could Frankie Valli fill in at Jersey Boys? I'm among the fans of Idiot who's not a huge fan of Green Day, so I don't feel the need to rush out and see this. But if this is a box-office stunt (and of course in showbiz, what isn't?), it's certainly a case of the creator putting himself on the line for his creation.

Sep 25, 2010

A Church of Art

photo by Yana Peskova for the NY Times

I've been attending Chris Wells' secular art church, the Secret City, on and off for the past few years (he even had me pinch-hit on guitar one service two summers ago). And I've been watching and loving Chris' work on stage since the mid-1990s (a review of one of his last shows in L.A. before he moved east is here). So it's really gratifying to have the privilege of writing up him and his church-performance thing for the paper of record. Even better, there's this web-only slideshow. Go in peace.

Sep 21, 2010

Sidewalk Story

Down the street from my apartment last weekend:

"Whoever took the plant from this bench on 09-16-10 at 5:30, please return it. It was not thrown out, it was purposely put out for rain, please return to Theresa."

Looks like a happy ending, unless this isn't the same plant.

Early Hamm

Jon Hamm as Czolgosz in Assassins? Pretty interesting to contemplate. Hamm as Selig in Joe Turner? Harder to picture, except that here it is, from his college days in Missouri:


What Ever Happened to Laughs?

Last week my mother got groped at Mass
What ever happened to class?
-cut lyric from Kander & Ebb's "Class"

Being funny in song is one of the hardest things a writer can do. If comedy is about timing, think about how hard it is to make a joke's rhythm work when the time is mapped out as rigidly as in song. Lots of songs make us smile at their cleverness or quirkiness, but laugh out loud? That's a high bar. In the BMI Workshop, they've talked about how the punchlines have got to always be in the same spot metrically--except when they're not, and you want to give the gift of surprise.

The above lyric was cut from the song "Class" when it was met with a "deafening silence" in a preview, according to John Kander, who did a BMI master class a few years back. "It drove my late partner crazy," Kander said then of Fred Ebb. "He never knew what was going to be funny. The only way to know is get it up in front of an audience." David Yazbek, who was on hand for the same master class, said that "Chimp in a Suit" from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is one of his own personal favorite songs he's written, even though he admitted that he "never thought it totally worked" with audiences.

I'm actually at a loss to think of songs, in musical theater or otherwise, that have actually made me laugh. A well-performed "A Little Priest" has done the trick, if I recall right. Beck's "Hollywood Freaks" almost always makes me chuckle. On a good day, Allan Sherman still gets me. As far as musical theater goes, Marx and Lopez are fine craftsmen, of course (and Lopez's work with the South Park boys is, of course, duly anticipated).

I welcome other examples, dear readers.

Sep 20, 2010

Almost English

This headline on a newspaper in my hood caught eye:

Before I Babelfish it, anyone speak Polish?

The Other Scott Brown

New York magazine has officially named Scott Brown its lead theater critic. No, not the centerfield-turned-Senator from Massachusetts but the guy who's been freelancing there for the last two years, ever since Jeremy McCarter left to become Newsweek's own junior Frank Rich. For a sample of his reviews, look here.

Sep 18, 2010

Quote for the Weekend

My method is to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity.

— George Bernard Shaw


Sep 16, 2010

The Only "King Kong" Music I Want To Hear

In 1928, a banjo player named Chubby Parker recorded his own odd, totally mesmerizing variation on the chestnut "Froggy Went a-Courting." His title was an inspired bit of nonsense he repeated throughout: "King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O." That's a five full years before the groundbreaking 1933 monster film that may now, improbably, become a Broadway musical. I'm much less excited about that, frankly, than about this flimsy excuse to share one of my favorite recordings.

From Barlow to Shaw

This year's Top 10 Playwrights list, as I promised, is here.

Sep 15, 2010


Well, it doesn't look like Tyler Perry is taking the period-piece route. (h/t David Ng)

Got Robot Milk?

photo by Scott Beale
My old neighborhood gets odder and odder as it gentrifies, and who would have it any other way? When I first lived in Echo Park in the mid-1990s, there were still drive-bys and stray gunfire at night. Now there's a place called the Allston Yacht Club next to the beloved House of Spirits, and even odder, there's this: something called the Echo Park Time Travel Mart. Turns out it's a storefront for the nonprofit tutoring program 826LA, and I guess there's also a storefront in Brooklyn I should check out.

Sep 14, 2010

Torey "South Side" Malatia

If you follow This American Life or Sound Opinions, as I do, you can't miss the hosts' de rigeuer gently mocking shout-outs to producer Torey Malatia. I happened to grow up hearing Malatia as a DJ himself, and in an entirely un-humorous context: During the early 1980s he was the voice of KHEP, the classical music station in Phoenix, where I was such a junior-high nerd that I actually taped some of his broadcasts by placing my cassette player on top of my clock radio. I have no idea what Malatia is like to work with, but when I think of him on KHEP, announcing Mozart concerti in dulcet tones to Reagan-era retirees tooling around the desert in air-conditioned towncars, gentle mockery seems only fair.