Apr 26, 2011

A Little Bunch of Heather

As I mentioned before, Lynn Nottage's new play, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, imagines a fictional African-American star of pre- and post-Code Hollywood, and to fill out the fiction there's a fan website ostensibly hosted by the film buff/scholar Herb Forrester (Daniel Breaker).

As Lynn promised in our interview, there's now a short documentary on the site about Vera's legacy featuring director Peter Bogdanovich, scholar Mia Mask, and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, all playing along admirably (Dryburgh, truth be told, is the one responsible for the lustrous look of the movie-within-the-play, The Belle of New Orleans). Duly noted: the repurposing of the infamous drain-the-pool story (which I had previously heard in reference to Nat King Cole), and the Russian-underwear anecdote whose provenance I can't place (but which I know I've heard before). Oh, and Bogdanovich's deadpan invocation of mythology at about the 6:30 mark.


Apr 25, 2011

The Madness of Not Fixing

The Associated Press' Mark Kennedy gets an exclusive with Spider-man producers Michael Cohl (above) and Jere Harris. Here's where they set the bar for the new-and-improved show they're now giving themselves roughly a month to prep, according to Cohl:
"We — Jere, Michael, Bono, Edge, Julie — we set out to do something that's neigh on impossible...It just didn't quite hit the mark as well as it needed to. And so it needs to be fixed because it has to set that new standard. Otherwise, it will be a failure."
About the new version, we learn that the Geek Chorus is gone (as previously reported), and that Arachne's role has been trimmed, with the result, says Cohl, that "the reorganization makes it feel really good." So what's still in the show? "The flying, the special effects, the beauty of the show, the Julie atmosphere and attitude—it's all staying." They may be keeping the "atmosphere and attitude" of the show's deposed auteur, but the producers now acknowledge that the book she co-wrote with Glen Berger—now being reworked by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and shepherded by director Philip William McKinley—was the core problem. Cohl: "It was muddled. It was difficult to follow...It lacked emotion. It lacked spirit and sincerity."

The article offers a fair amount of such frank talk—Cohl admits that he was "in denial" about the show's problems through much of last December—though it finally puts the best possible construction on why the show's problems weren't dealt with sooner: It was a case of too much loyalty to the creators' vision, particularly Taymor's. This revealingly plaintive quote alone from Cohl is a fitting explanation of why the show hasn't yet closed:
"It was only a matter of letting it play or fixing it...Fixing it isn't mad, is it? There's madness to walk away, don't you think?"
If you're wondering why the producers have decided to be so candid now with the AP, the answer is found in a single sentence, tucked at the end of a paragraph explaining how critics who reviewed the show in February without being invited to do so committed "a violation of the established agreement by reviewers to wait for opening night":
The AP has not reviewed the show.
Meanwhile, in other Spider-man news, Daniel Mendelsohn trains his sights on the show's aesthetic problems in NYRB, but his main service is reminding us of an interview Taymor did with Richard Schechner in TDR back in 1998, in which she says things like:
The most successful stuff is the stuff I've done my whole life, which didn't cost anything.
I never had theatre producers run after me. Some people want to make more Broadway shows out of movies. But Elliot [Goldenthal] and I aren't going to do Batman: The Musical.
Please, don't give them any more ideas!

Apr 22, 2011

May Day for Uma

I wrote in this space four years ago about the aneurysm and stroke suffered by Uma Nithapalian, a fierce actor whose work I'd admired on L.A. stages for some time. In the years since then, Uma--initially given little prospect of surviving the trauma at all--has made a lot of outward progress in speaking and walking. But the brain injury she suffered in 2007, still insufficiently treated, is threatening that progress, and she is currently undergoing some expensive neurological therapy. Her husband, composer John Ballinger, depicts her condition starkly:
She knows who she used to be. And she knows that she is not that person now. But her cognitive deficits prevent her from taking action independently to improve her life or even her mood or attitude...

At one of her speech therapist's offices I participated in a family assignment: tie my right hand to my pants and attempt to complete certain basic tasks....and the tasks were written on paper the way a person suffering from aphasia (alexia, agraphia) might see them....i.e. mixed-up letters, words where the ink fades midway through, directions in German, Mandarin, huge blank spots etc. After about 20 minutes of that it became much easier to imagine what Uma's constant level of frustration might be.
Uma's already in Texas at CORE Health, and apparently money to pay for a few months of her care has already been raised. More is needed, and to that end a benefit show is planned on May 1 at the Bootleg in L.A. (formerly the site of the Evidence Room, where I saw Uma play the Sri Lankan, Tunu, in Pentecost).

If you're there, I urge you to go and show your support; if you're not, do give what you can.

Apr 20, 2011

The Sweat and Spit of Life

Michael Shannon and Shannon Cochran in Bug

George Hunka speaks eloquently to some truths in a post titled "Theatre as sanctuary," though I'm not prepared to follow him as far as he goes here:
For theatre to be considered as a sanctuary for metaphysical speculation, it is necessary to repudiate that outside world once again, and this time, because the Culture Industry has infested nearly every aspect of our lives, with keen uncompromising energy. Theatre then becomes a spiritual exercise and not a form of entertainment as defined by that Industry. This will be difficult — every element of the theatrical economy, from playwright to producer to reviewer to spectator, conspires against such an approach to drama and theatre. It is not “fun.” No, it is not. And theatre should make no apology for that. Some things should not be fun — and this is a statement that, in this urban culture, trespasses into the terrain of the criminal. Fun can always be sought elsewhere; there are outlets enough for it.
This is so baldly stated as to verge on self-parody, except that I know George is entirely in earnest, and, after all, to each his own aesthetic. He backs this up with a list of recommendations or actions that presumably would make theater more sanctuary-like, and his last tip has a personal bite to it, given our entwined history: "Critics and reviewers, because they have no place in a church, have no place in a theatrical sanctuary either, and should be driven like moneychangers from the temple."

As a Jesuit-educated liberal Protestant (who belongs to one of those "sects" that has allowed pop culture to infest our worship, as my church band has been known to cover U2, Prince, and the Melodians), and as someone who in fact doesn't check my critical faculties at the door of either the church or the theater, I have a different perspective. For one thing, the Jesuits introduced me to the concept of "sacramentality," which I've taken to mean, essentially, that if we believe the divine underpins and shapes our world and our lives, then it's not confined to any particular room, or any particular set of rituals or moods. I can celebrate, contemplate, even wrestle with God when I play the guitar, when I make a meal for my family, when watching a Broadway musical; each of these ostensible pleasures can also feel like a grind, as certainly as churchgoing can; the difference is all in the seeing and the believing.

Which is why, for me, theater as it exists now--in its imperfect, often nerve-jangled, Culture Industry-infested form, as well as in the small, quiet form George prefers--is already a spiritual practice, and in fact theatergoing (and occasional theatermaking) has been my main spiritual practice as much as it's been a vocation. So I was particularly happy to be asked to write on the subject for the Catholic magazine America, by Fr. Jim Martin, a Jesuit who happens to be a member of LAByrinth as well as frequent Colbert guest. My nut graf:
Theater’s spirituality is contained in its very essence, and I understand that essence in a deeply Christian way. In simple terms, theater is an arena where narrative is incarnated. When a story is made flesh before us on stage, by actual people with whom we share breathing space, it is no longer just information, mere plot points. It is metaphor with the sweat and spit of life in it, and that makes all the difference.
I dare say there's room for us all in the tent, or, to use Tom Waits' (literally) moving metaphor, down there by the train.

A Fine Piece of Talent

As I mentioned yesterday, I found Joel Grey's performance in Anything Goes dubious (and not only because I played Moonface, albeit pretty poorly, in Brophy Prep's 1986 production). Grey's slow-like-a-fox performance reminded me at times of one of Martin Short's dimwit characters (Lawrence Orbach, in particular). My theatergoing companion felt similarly, and then helpfully uncovered this vintage clip of Grey in embryo–before his prime, certainly, but well primed for a break (he wouldn't get a real one until 1961's Come Blow Your Horn, and his defining role in Cabaret would come in 1966). The energy alone is something to behold, particularly in contrast to his appearance in the Porter show.

Apr 19, 2011

Pushing Up Daisey

A rave review for Mike Daisey's new show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs in an unlikely, but entirely fitting, venue: Dave Weigel's Slate blog. The piece will next play in Bill Gates' backyard (it's already played near Silicon Valley, though still not yet in NYC).

One for the Tykes, One Not

A few weekends ago the three critic-dads and their progeny regrouped at the New Victory Theater for the latest toddler-theater offering from the U.K., Shona Reppe's Potato Needs a Bath, which I (and my just-less-than-two-year-old) enjoyed even more than last year's Egg and Spoon. If you've got a pre-K child in your care, I can't recommend this sly little vegetarian romp highly enough (the photo above gives some small indication of the piece's low-tech charms).

I can also heartily recommend Stephen Adly Guirgis' The Motherfucker With the Hat (though obviously not for your toddler). It's a beguiling comedy of manners, bad and otherwise, that burrows much deeper, and fires on more cylinders, than most new dramas do, and with startling dispatch; Guirgis' previous efforts have always had flashes of brilliance and extra-large helpings of heart, but they've also frequently been rambly-pants and gassy. For its part, TMWTH does have a few glaring missed beats and blind spots (the writing for the women is thin, to put it charitably, and a drunken, ostensibly violent confrontation scene late in the show is staged so half-heartedly it's actually confusing; it's the only lapse in Anna D. Shapiro's otherwise razor-sharp direction), but I wouldn't join with some of my colleagues in declaring Chris Rock's performance one of them; yes, I can imagine other actors "doing more" with the role of Ralph, an unctuous, self-justifying 12-stepper, but to Rock's credit, the role's jagged contours fit him snugly enough that he's made it his own. And to Guirgis' immense credit, there's real surprise and heat in his exchanges with Bobby Cannavale's sympathetic, spiritually questing lug, Jackie. And Yul Vazquez offers a matter-of-fact master class in playing an oddball without winking or condescension.

I'd also like to add that Anything Goes is a fine enough diversion, but the raves baffle me a little (what the f. is Joel Grey doing up there?), while both The Book of Mormon and Catch Me If You Can struck me pretty much precisely as the consensus would have it: The first is a giddy cartoon as smilingly sweet and even soulful as it is coarse, while the second is a lavish but frustratingly remote across-the-board near-miss (though I loved the out-of-nowhere big number "Breaking All the Rules," and I'm haunted by the self-canceling lyric: "Don't be a stranger/Tell him that for me").

Nottage Goes Hollywood

No, I'm not talking about the Ruined film that's in the works with Oprah as Mama Nadi. I'm referring to Lynn Nottage's new play about old Hollywood, By the Way, Meet Very Stark, in which the Pulitzer winner depicts a slightly fictionalized African-American actress' career from the 1930s to the '70s, when roles for performers of color were circumscribed by everything from the Hays Code to the Red Scare. Oh, and it's a comedy. From my Time Out piece this week:
“I wrote Ruined and Vera Stark at the same time,” Nottage recalls. “That’s just how my brain functions—when I’m dwelling someplace very heavy, I need a release. The great thing about Vera Stark is that my research was watching movies, screwball comedies, so I could literally sit back and relax.”
There's even an alternative-universe website, meetverastark.com, which, I've been told, will soon feature an interview with Peter Bogdanovich about Maximilian Von Oster, the director of Vera's memorable (and entirely fictional) 1933 film The Belle of New Orleans. A sizeable excerpt from that film has been created for the Second Stage run of Vera Stark, which stars Sanaa Lathan and Daniel Breaker, but personally I'm curious about Vera's much later work God's Fitful Chilluns.

Apr 18, 2011

Ockie's Way

I mostly know Oscar Hammerstein lore via his relationship to Sondheim, though I did fill in some gaps in my knowledge recently when I reviewed The Hammersteins, a reasonably fascinating new family biography by his grandson, Oscar III, for The Sondheim Review. Now another relation, his nephew John Steele Gordon, chimes in with a rambling but illuminating memoir-essay. One weirdly telling observation:
The way Oscar responded to autograph seekers offers a powerful glimpse into his essential character. My mother could imitate his signature perfectly and did so on most letters and even on his checks. But when he responded to fan letters or to people who wanted an autographed photograph or asked him to autograph a book or record album—a not infrequent occurrence—he always signed them himself. He simply felt that if a person wanted his autograph, that person was entitled to a real one, not an expert forgery. So, ironically, while letters to strangers bear authentic autographs, many typewritten letters to friends and business associates do not. I was impressed by that fastidiousness then and frankly still am.
That's...odd. But this is the money story, worth retelling:
[Oscar] was playing a very informal game of bridge with two of his collaborators, the composers Jerome Kern and Sigmund Romberg, and someone else one afternoon. During one hand, Oscar was dummy and he got up to look into the other hands. He saw immediately that the only way his partner, Romberg, would be able to make the hand was if he knew that Kern held a singleton spade. He began to whistle the song “One Alone,” from the Romberg/Hammerstein 1920s hit The Desert Song. Romberg paid no attention and went down.

“Goddamn it!” Oscar said. “Didn’t you hear me whistling ‘One Alone’?”

“I recognized the music,” Romberg deadpanned, “but who remembers the words?"

Apr 15, 2011

Spidey vs. "The Fly"

At the intermission of Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark a few weeks ago, I was marvelling (not in a good way) at the lyrics, which are arguably not the worst ingredient in this historic bomb but which, are from the point of an unreconstructed U2 fan like myself, exceedingly dispiriting. I wasn't writing them down, alas, and I can't locate them online, so I can't cite them here. But they struck me as an effortful hash of warmed-over Tim Rice (which is already pretty stale when served fresh, in my book), and it was the effort--the obvious attempt by Bono and The Edge to construct clever rhymes and catchphrases and hooks over their mostly generic music--that depressed me more than anything. My companion at the show said something like, "Well, their lyrics have always been bad," a piece of received wisdom with which I must disagree. Yes, they can can seem quite silly and bloated on the page, and even occasionally from the concert stage, but I think that at their best ("Gone," "Running To Stand Still," much of Achtung Baby), Bono's lyrics are quite strong and evocative as pop/rock lyrics. I think of a song like "The Fly," which also happens to have one of the band's strongest guitar vamps:
A man will beg
A man will crawl
On the sheer face of love
Like a fly on a wall
It's no secret at all

It's no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest
It's no secret ambition bites the nails of success
Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief
All kill their inspiration and sing about their grief
It ain't Dylan; it ain't even Jagger. But that's good stuff (there's a lot of other dross in that lyric, admittedly--what's a "burning star"?). Note, though, that the titular insect is a metaphor for human insignificance and abjectness; it's not a song about an actual arachnid or radioactivity or literal superpowers, or, as in one notorious Spider-man number, choosing just the right shoes for you're a femme fatale with, ahem, eight feet. To me, the gulf between prickly metaphor and sci-fi zoology is as good an index as any of why U2 never seemed like a good fit for this show, despite their best efforts.

As for the Taymor portion of the evening, there are about five to ten minutes of Spider-man as it currently stands--or rather hangs--that visually and spatially thrilled me (or, perhaps more precisely, scared the shit out of me), and I found one early song, with the hook "anywhere but here" (I guess the Playbill calls it "No More"), musically intriguing. The rest is best laid to rest along with the execrable lyrics.

The Brits vs. Big Ben

photo by Paul Kolnik/AP

Just fyi, the two best-reviewed shows in NYC at the moment are form-breaking Brit imports. I mean, of course, War Horse and Sleep No More.

And when I say best-reviewed, I don't mean that Brantley loved them; at StageGrade, I read his equivocal reviews of both as Bs.

For what it's worth!

Apr 14, 2011

The Myth of the Broadway Voice

Sam Levene and Vivian Blaine in the original Guys and Dolls
Charles Isherwood has penned a seemingly plausible bit of AllThatChat bait lamenting a supposed trend of non-singing celebrities in Broadway musicals, but his examples--the current How To Succeed in Business, last season's A Little Night Music, the recent stunt-cast concert staging of Company--not only strike me as weak examples of an incipient trend, the whole lament itself is ahistorical. While he concedes such infamous instances of Broadway non-singing as Lauren Bacall and Kate Hepburn, and mentions that My Fair Lady was built around Rex Harrison's sprechstimme, the examples are in fact much more plentiful. Zeta-Jones' Desiree, for instance, which I'll agree was no great shakes--but it shouldn't be forgotten that the original Desiree, Glynis Johns, had such limited range and breath that Sondheim specifically wrote her big ballad, "Send in the Clowns," in short phrases. Sam Levene, the original Nathan Detroit, was so tone-deaf that Frank Loesser had to write a number introducing the character in which everyone but Nathan sings ("The Oldest Established"), and for the one song Nathan does sing, "Sue Me," Loesser generously included a series of lead-in notes ("Call a lawyer and...") so Levene could work up to the pitch on the downbeat. Kurt Weill wrote the standard "September Song" for that great operatic baritone Walter Huston. Cy Coleman, the one time I interviewed him, recounted that his first musical was the Lucille Ball vehicle Wildcat; Ball, he said, "had a range of five notes. Then my reward was Little Me, for Sid Caesar--who had a range of four notes." And need I mention Fred Astaire--a great song interpreter, in fact, but with just about as thin a voice as could be brought to the task? The bottom line is that the American musical theater, though often treated with concert-hall reverence, has always been a thing of mottled, mongrel glory. For every Julie Andrews or Ethel Merman or Howard Keel, there has always been a Zero Mostel, a Jack Klugman, an Elaine Stritch. The great songbook is full of standards that were first introduced, and tailored to the talents of, opera singers, clowns, faded vaudevilleans, Hollywood stars trying their hand at Broadway (cf. much of the score of Follies). Admittedly, this last category may have proliferated in recent years, in both musicals and straight plays, but judging by the evidence of musicals currently on Broadway--from Anything Goes to Book of Mormon--the pipes are all right.

Apr 11, 2011

Sometimes, Sometimes Completely Confused

One of my favorite so-bad-it's-good songs is Tom T. Hall's "I Love." Favorite non-rhyme: "And onions."

But recently, on a Stax collection, I stumbled across another oldie whose guileless, almost naked directness really blew me away: Calvin Scott Sr.'s "A Sadness for Things." It's not only closer to the bone, but it's a fascinating piece of music (that disorienting chord under "have" in "I have...a sadness for things"), the fadeout mid-lyric (a la the Heads' "Life During Wartime"). Indeed, my love for this tune is far less ironic than my devotion to Hall's:

A Sadness for Things

I couldn't decipher all the lyrics but the ones I can, I love:
I have a sadness for things
For houses with children
Where no one sings
For acres of wheat fields
When cupboards are bare
For love being spoken
And no one to care
For trains that are empty
And tables for one
For books seldom opened
And clocks that don't run
And songs soon forgotten
And paths never crossed
For wars that are fought
And all that is lost

I have a sadness for things
For every [indecipherable]
Whose phone never rings
For intelligent parents
That are sometimes, sometimes completely confused
For words in the Bible
Just said and never used
For [indecipherable]
And birds that can't fly
Stray dogs and lost kittens
Old people that cry
For the tired and the weary
With a little to show
For those who don't listen
And for those who don't know

I have a sadness for things
For houses with children
And nobody there can never sing
For lonely girls
Whose phone never rings
Like Weill and Anderson's "Lost in the Stars," it's a great, melancholy gospel song for nonbelievers.

Inspiring Lists

If the point of the Arena's new-play blog HowlRound is to stimulate controversy and conversation, it's done a pretty good job of it so far. But editor Polly Carl clearly has something more encompassing in mind than mere provocation, as she proves with a thoughtful post today. Partly inspired by the untimely of death of her former colleague Tom Proehl, her "Notes on Generosity in the Theater" has some keeper insights for both artists and administrators. Talking about the "scarcity mindset" of many theater practitioners (and lovers/advocates):
I, too, am prone to the scarcity approach to the work, the ominous sense that there is only so much opportunity out there and that the circumference of the pie is finite and the pieces we divide among ourselves limited. As artists we compete for gigs, attention, recognition, patronage, and opportunities. As organizations we compete for funding, contributions, and audience. As a field we compete to be relevant. We are competing for credit, position, and power, even if we’re uncomfortable admitting it, even if we have no taste for blood sports, we are all playing the game. And this competition for our piece of the action can make us all feel victimized by a poverty of the imagination that there just isn’t enough to go around.

The scarcity mentality relies on victims to flourish. Certain stories that we tell ourselves over and over rely on the idea that there isn’t enough. These are some scarcity narratives in the theater: The story that plays are developed to death rather than produced. The story that artists are at odds with institutions. The story that nonprofit theater is beginning to merge with commercial theater. The story that pits playwrights against directors and directors against dramaturgs and everyone against artistic directors. These are all narratives driven by a feeling of lack—lack of respect, lack of understanding, lack of appreciation. How do we cross a new threshold? How can start to re-imagine new stories?
Carl doesn't wish away the problem but instead hones in on one reason why a sense of scarcity recurs, with reference to Lewis Hyde's book The Gift:
If art is, as I believe it to be, a gift that transforms our lives and transports us from death to life, then the transactional nature of making art will always be an ill fit. It’s why we bristle at high-priced theater tickets and huge disparities between the lowest and highest paid staff in arts institutions. We’re products of a market-driven culture but gifts in moments of transformation supersede the forces of the market. Making art falls somewhere in between commerce and transformation.
She then goes on to give some practicable, care-of-the-collective-soul steps toward a more generous and healthy theater.

Which reminded me of this great list forwarded (and later preached on) by one of the pastors at my great little church in Greenpoint, which addresses a different--but, to me at least, strongly correlated--struggle between scarcity and generosity. If both the theater and the church (the kind of liberal Protestant church I belong to, anyway) seem ever endangered, out of step, out of the mainstream, against the cultural grain--feel like "lost causes," in other words--it's helpful to be reminded that in large part that's how these enterprises are bound to feel in a pluralist, capitalist culture, and that we ought to embrace their critical function in that system rather than feel like perpetual redheaded stepchildren.

And, in a related point, it's good to remember that such self-selecting activities and group affiliations, while not intrinsically a good in themselves, can be extraordinary social goods without which our lives would be infinitely poorer. I mean, frankly, when the indignities and exigencies of life in New York City inevitably wear me down, the two things that most make me feel like I belong here are the theater and my church (the Met and the High Line are close on that list, too).

Apr 4, 2011

Brantley the Outlier

One reason Isaac and I created StageGrade was for situations like this: Ben Brantley had by far the meanest review of the new revival of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Though he certainly isn't the only critic who thinks that first-time musical theater star Daniel Radcliffe isn't up to the task of carrying the show, he's the only critic who compared the result to "Dancing With the Stars." As I point out in my summary at StageGrade (where the vast majority of reviews of the show are in the B range, with enough high marks above that to make the median a solid B+):
Critics fall into roughly three camps: Those who think that Radcliffe's innocent eagerness, even his slightly cipher-like quality, perfectly suit the material; those who think that Rob Ashford's similarly effortful production mostly succeeds despite the lead's forgivable shortcomings, particularly in the vocal department; and those, like the Times' Ben Brantley, who essentially view the show as a strenuous vanity project.
I have no brief for this revival, which I haven't even seen (though the reviews, on balance, make me more interested than not). But I was at Humana this past weekend, and when the talk turned to Broadway (as it does, even at Humana), people almost invariably referred to How To Succeed with that damaged-goods look, as if to say, "Yeah, I heard it's terrible," when what they really meant was: I read Brantley's review.

In short, for people who only take the trouble and time to read one review, whosever it is, we're hoping they spend a few extra minutes clicking over to StageGrade for a more comprehensive overview of a how shows are actually faring with the press (and the community, which seems to share the consensus on How To Succeed).

Long Live the Live

Stefany Anne Golberg has a thoughtful piece on the death of live performance:
It’s never been easy to argue for the value of live performance. How much do you pay for an experience, for something completely intangible: human interaction? A magic trick is not a can of peas. A pirouette is not a product. A performance is just a person, creating an experience for other people, making them laugh, making them gasp, annoying them, delighting them. If the performance no longer brings us pleasure, it will not have a paying audience. Without an audience, live performers cannot, do not, exist.
And though I agree with the substance of Goldberg's subsuquent argument, I'm not sure how persuasive it is as a defense of value:
It might be hard for us to decide whether a video game is more valuable than a clown. But you will get a definitive answer if you ask a clown. For no one is more entertained by a performance than the performer.
In a related post, Matt Freeman links to Howard Sherman's defense of theater, which resonates pretty with me:
But I do believe that in its simplicity, its foundation in the human connection of people telling, of people enacting stories for other groups of people, live and alive, theatre will go on precisely because we cannot be reduced to a series of zeroes and ones, packed for sale at the local warehouse superstore, or streamed into homes. The very things that make theatre hard to sustain are what insures its survival.

Is L.A. the Place?

Steven Leigh Morris' latest survey of the state of Los Angeles theater is a compelling, panoramic sprawl of decades and districts; he does one of these pieces every year in the run-up to the LA Weekly awards, but this time out his piece is both more personal and more upbeat (and more timely: This June marks a huge convergence of theater festivals and convenings in L.A., not least one staged by my employer).

There really is no one else still writing regularly who knows and understands L.A.'s weird, wonderful, underrated theater beat as well as Morris does, but here he wears that knowledge lightly and bequeathes it as a gift, a trove, a prism, rather than as a scourge or a scold (not that he hasn't occasionally struck that tone in the past). Indeed, I was concerned after I spoke to him for his story that I would come off sounding a bit scourge-like myself, but I'm very happy with the resulting piece--and even hopeful about L.A.'s oft-benighted culture.

I relished in particular one dead-on observation, not intrinsically theater-related but with a huge impact on how theater fares in Lotusland (and how good or bad an impression TCG conference attendees will be able to get in June):
Nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live here? No, it's more like a horrible place to visit, but you need to live here to appreciate its many virtues.
A bittersweet truth I've never seen put better, which also happens to put a finger on why, when I occasionally miss the place, it is from a safe enough distance of years and miles that I don't feel torn about it anymore.

Apr 1, 2011

The Story of His Life

I think it's fair to call this Q&A with Stephen Sondheim, the cover story of April's American Theatre, a career and personal highlight for me. The encounter/story grew out of my reporting for this piece about Weill's collaborations with Maxwell Anderson. In asking my learned sources for examples of how Weill's ambitious, hard-to-classify Broadway work of the 1940s may have influenced musical theater since, so many mentioned Sondheim that I thought: Well, if I'm going to cite them, why not just ask the man himself? It turns out that, as I'd suspected, Sondheim revealed himself (again) as essentially a non-fan of Weill's, and thus didn't have much to say on the scores in question (he was able to confirm that he saw the original Lost in the Stars on Broadway, and that his favorite tunes from it are "Big Mole" and "Train to Johannesburg"). I didn't end up exploring that angle in my Times piece anyway (though my digging around on this topic did inspire a blog post).

But Sondheim was so gracious and cordial in his response that I felt encouraged to continue the correspondence. Since I was still working my way through his epic and essential Finishing the Hat, and had lots of questions about it (and knew I wasn't alone, from the conversations I'd been having with colleagues), I decided to approach him about a cover story in AT. When he said yes, I prepared by devouring not only his book but Meryle Secrest's biography and Steve Swayne's dense but invaluable How Sondheim Found His Sound, and rereading several other piecees that had influenced my thinking (including Mark Eden Horowitz's Sondheim on Music, this definitive analysis and, of course, this Q&A from our own AT archives).

To say that I relished the hour I spent at the famous Turtle Bay townhouse, sitting and talking by the Baldwin that was a gift from Bernstein, is a huge understatement. I don't think there's another living artist save Elvis Costello whose work I know and love more than Sondheim's. That he was as gracious and forthcoming as he was was just gravy. I only got the stink eye from him once, and it was at the very top of the interview: I started by thanking him for writing Finishing the Hat and its much-anticipated sequel, Look, I Made a Hat, adding that my only misgiving about these books is that they might affirm the unfortunate received wisdom that he's more valuable as a lyricist than a composer. That's not his favorite point of view, to say the least.

But as I've written before, and as I try to bring home in my interview, to focus on his brilliance either as a composer or a lyricist misses the boat: He's a dramatist in music, as surely as Puccini was, and he's been saying as much for years now, including in his own book (minus the Puccini comparison). To draw him out on this point was my favorite part of the interview, although this exchange was possibly the most revealing:
One story that intrigues me is that when you played the score of Sweeney Todd for Hal Prince's wife, Judy, she told you, "Oh my God, that's you—that's the story of your life." In the Secrest biography you say, "No one's ever asked me about that or gone deeper into that." I don't know if I should. It's hard to say exactly what Judy meant by that. Maybe she meant it was about somebody who'd been wronged early on in life, which in a sense I was, and that creativity, me making shows, in a way there's an analogy to be made with Sweeney killing everybody. It's a form of expression, isn't it? I have to think about it. Instinctively—because very often what she says is insightful—I smell that there was a rightness about that comment. In fact, though I'd seen Christopher Bond's Sweeney at Stratford East, what I did with it was very different. By the time I got through with his play it was not the jolly romp that he meant it to be. It was more passionate and—I'm avoiding the word "dark," but certainly it was darker than he intended. He wrote that thing as a Christmas show; the legend of Sweeney Todd is as traditional over there as Puss in Boots. So, yeah—I have to think about it, but instinctively, I think her observation was correct.
No masterpiece, it seems, is made without pain. I kind of can't wait to see a production of Sweeney Todd again.