May 31, 2013

May 28, 2013

Sacre It To Me

Tomorrow, May 29, marks the 100th anniversary of the debut of Le sacre du printemps, the ballet by Igor Stravinsky that revolutionized modern music, or so legend has it (this piece by Matthew Sigman doesn't quite debunk the legend, but it does put it in perspective). I don't recall exactly when I became a fan, but I recently revisited it in its entirety (for a short-lived formative-album-replay project on my other blog) and was stunned anew:
Heard nearly a century after its premiere, Rite still shudders and snarls and seethes; it is music's great Primitivist ur-text, the orchestral equivalent of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. But much as Picasso's once-jarring pictorial gestures have been domesticated by familiarity, the explosive dissonances of Rite, while still imposing and effective when heard in context, have become nearly a film-score lingua franca; their power to jolt is unabated, their power to shock is not.
Two things, though, struck me this time around: The metrical and rhythmic irregularities are arguably far more unsettling than the dissonances. This piece never really settles down, even when it slows down, and the few times it does amble into a comfortable 4/4 groove, watch out—it's almost always the calm before another storm of whoop-ass. Along these lines, it's telling that the percussion largely doesn't drive this rhythmic free-for-all; until the final few movements, the drums and cymbals are followers, not leaders. Indeed, I think what's ultimately so deeply disconcerting and powerful—in other words, irreducibly badass—about Rite is that it often sounds like Stravinsky is playing the whole orchestra like a drum kit, and he's using it to play a wild, unpredictable drum solo, not lay down a toe-tapping beat.
But that image may sell short the other great achievement I noticed this time around: how different, even alien the orchestra sounds from its 19th-century antecedent. The strings may be the least altered, and the horns mostly fill a familiarly forbidding, foreboding role, but Stravinsky's writing for the winds--the bassoons and oboes in particular, but also the clarinets and flutes--still sounds fresh and raw, writhing and slippery and profoundly exotic, like the music of no earthly place at any time in history. Except, of course, his own and our own, and we're all the richer and stranger for it.
Years ago, while noodling on the guitar, I discovered that the opening bassoon melody of Rite can stand alone quite nicely, and be reharmonized into a catchy tune, and there are a few other snippets that can play nicely with others. I worked up an arrangement for my band at the time (and even sprung it on the little church band I play with a few years back). But then I thought to add lyrics. And so, today, for your delectation, and in the spirit of such Spike Jones classical-deflating novelties as "Pal-Yat-Chee," I offer a little tune I call, with as much apology to "Laugh-In" as to old Igor, "Sacre It To Me." Long may the revolution roll in its grave.

May 23, 2013

The Real Malloy

I first heard about musical Renaissance man Dave Malloy when I graded the reviews for Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage for Critic-O-Meter back in 2009; the repeated comparisons of his rocking score for the show to Tom Waits piqued my interest. I finally met him doing this preview of Three Pianos, the oddball Schubert party he concocted with Alec Duffy and Rick Burkhardt, and we've exchanged our views about the state of musical both in person and online. Along the way somewhere he mentioned an opera based on War and Peace.

And now, in a scandalously short amount of time for a musical, it's here: As you no doubt have heard by now, a little show called Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which was a sensation last fall at Ars Nova, is now an even bigger sensation in a custom-built tent under the High Line (and not just because of l'affaire de telephone). I interviewed Dave at length some months ago for my epic overview about band-performed musicals for American Theatre, a trend piece I included him in because, like Stew or the Lisps, he largely performs in what he writes, and I'd argue that that gives his shows a special frisson (and the Waits comparison is apt, by the way, though vocally I hear as much Elvis Costello croak as Waits gravel), not to mention a literal immediacy (more on that in a second). Here's how he replied when I marveled at how quickly his show had gone from page to stage:

Q: How long have you worked on the show?
Dave: I’ve been working on it about a year and half between writing the first song and opening night. 
Q: That is so quick.
Dave: That’s what people say. But, for me, coming from a jazz world, especially, we would write songs in a day. Sgt. Pepper was done in a couple of months.
Q: I think this has something to do with the professionalization of musical theatre, or what Cesar Alvarez calls "over-curation."
Dave: I very much came from the mindset of the devised theater company where you go, "OK, this is our next show, and here’s the show date, so we have these six months to develop this show and create it from start to finish." It’s only in recent years that I’ve started working on pieces that don’t have firm commitments from theaters to produce them, and they go on and on, and it’s awful because you lose that immediacy.
There are those who may point out that the comparative speed shows in the final product—that Natasha, Pierre's libretto and lyrics don't work the way a traditional book musical does, that there aren't all that many song-songs with identifiable hooks; perhaps the best and fullest expression of this dissent is this well-considered review of the original Ars Nova run by David Barbour. But I would argue that what is gained from this immediacy—from literally removing obstacles from the process and allowing an artist's impulses and affinities to spring more directly from his musical/theatrical brain to the stage—is a quality of musical fluency and pungency that is as akin to a rock 'n' roll experience as theater (or at least musical theater) gets. Indeed, I was surprised, given how little of Natasha, Pierre is conventionally hummable, how much of the music kept buzzing in my head the next day and beyond; I guess I'd have to guess that it makes a palpable difference when music feels like it came from the gut and hasn't been overthought, and no amount of dramaturgical fussing or "development" can layer that viseral feeling into a work (I felt much the same about Here Lies Love).

The direct and full realization of all of his and director Rachel Chavkin's ideas is one theme I pick up in my new Times feature on Malloy. There's a sense in which writing about theater is a job, of course, but I'd kid myself if I didn't also see it as a privilege, and I must say I feel grateful for the chance to write about Dave and his work—to nerd out about orchestrations in the paper of record, for one, and more importantly to note the arrival of a major musical-theatrical talent.

Lee Melville, R.I.P.

One of the subtexts of the recent news that Backstage would discontinue theater reviews altogether is that it was never inevitable that an actors' trade paper would review theater. Clearly Backstage's corporate overlords had looked at the metrics and at their readership—basically, beginning actors—and asked the common-sense question, Why are we covering all this theater?

This anomaly could be particularly glaring in film- and TV-dominated Los Angeles, where the local theater scene gets about as much respect as head lice. But when I started up Back Stage West in 1994, it was simply understood: We would write about film and TV casting opportunities...and write theater reviews and features. I never thought to wonder why, even if, in later years, my publishers certainly seemed to wonder why I, as editor, had become so singularly focused on L.A. theater, founding an awards show to honor it and even crossing the footlights on occasion.

The reason Back Stage West was on the theater beat, of course, was because Drama-Logue had paved the way, and we were competing with them. Drama-Logue, a scrappy mom-and-pop casting paper, founded in 1972, had grown up along with the rise of the "Equity Waiver" theater movement in L.A., and though I don't know the exact date that Lee Melville began as Drama-Logue's editor in chief, by all accounts it was he who made covering that burgeoning theater scene a priority and a mission for Bill Bordy's little paper. In 1977 he founded the (in)famously generous Drama-Logue Awards and headed a stable of critics that covered the scene with a thoroughness unmatched by any other publication.

I didn't know about this pre-history when I started at Back Stage West, as Lee was no longer editor of Drama-Logue by then. But by the time we founded our own awards to compete with Drama-Logue's, and soon after bought out Drama-Logue, the lore had reached my hearing (the late, great critic Polly Warfield, one of Lee's close associates, who came to write for Back Stage West after the merger, certainly had something to do with that). I can't claim in any real sense that Lee passed a torch to me; when we did eventually meet, he was gracious and pleasant and advisory, and after I left Back Stage West, he had me write a fair amount for the magazine LA Stage, which he had founded. But the environment in which it was simply taken for granted that L.A.'s actors' trades would cover the local theater scene with thoroughness and respect, and with the great honor of honest criticism—in short, the critical environment that largely shaped me and my sensibilities, and gave me a career—was to a large extent Lee's creation. So, though we didn't know each other well, I owe a great debt of gratitude to the late Mr. Melville.

For a more personal recollection, I turn playwright Luis Alfaro, who offered these lovely recollections on Facebook:
A few years ago I was invited to speak at a Grantsmakers in the Arts conference and Lee pulled me aside to interview me. He said, "I have a lot of questions, but I guess I am just wondering, what's in your heart?..." He just had a lovely way of being in the world. Another time we were taking the elevator up at the Getty Villa to see a performance and he introduced me to his friend saying, "This is one of those people that make the things that make me most happy." What a lovely spirit and it was always a pleasure to see him at opening nights with his pad and pen. Rest in peace, sweet man.

May 22, 2013

The Mamet Q&A: The Customer Isn't Always Right

Remember when the most blazing controversy about David Mamet was his heterodox approach to acting training? The publication in 1999 of his terse, contrarian True and False, which posited, in essence, that 20th century acting training's emphasis on interiority and emotional truth had led actors astray, was the one occasion I had to interview him, for a piece in Back Stage West. I hadn't looked back on the entire Q&A until recently, and I think it's worth revisiting in full. I started by asking the obvious question about the acting school and theater Mamet co-founded, which, last I checked, is still charging students to learn to act.

Q: Has the Atlantic been a place where you’ve observed some of the problems you inveigh against in True and False--the students not wanting ever to graduate from school, or seeking something that training can’t really give them?

Mamet: Well, this is not a plague I’m talking about in the book. Rather, it’s the condition of students. First off, the ideas in the book aren’t just mine; they’re simply opinions. They happen to be opinions which I firmly believe in, and to which I trust for, among other things, my livelihood, but at the end of the day, they’re my opinions. Whatever articulateness or concision that is involved in the expression of those opinions comes from many, many years of thought about them. A student, by definition, is someone who hasn’t had the benefit of those years of thought and experience. Therefore, they’re going to be a little bit confused, and they’re going to be subject to a lot of countervailing influences. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have to study, they wouldn’t have to wonder, they wouldn’t have to work, they wouldn’t have to read this or any other book. In a long way, roundabout, responding to your question: It’s the condition of students to be confused, and to be searching for an answer.

Q: Did you write this book more to correct the bad acting you see onstage and in films, or more to address what you see actors put themselves through in rehearsal?

Mamet: Both. First off, I always wanted to write a book about acting. I grew up reading many, many books about acting, and that was always an ambition of mine, to add to that canon. Then, I think it’s in the nature of people as they age, if they have insufficient control over themselves, to become garrulous, and to say, “Oh, things were much better when I was a youth.” That may or may not be true. I think it may also be coincidentally true is that, as I mention in the book, is that something rather drastic has changed, which is that actors now do not as a rule come up through the fiery furnace of the theatre. Spending your time in trying to earn your living in the theatre will teach you a lot of lessons pretty quickly, because you’re working with an audience. The people working exclusively in movies and television, or in a studio, for that matter, don’t get the opportunity.

Q: I wonder, though, if saying that actors can learn only from the audience is a bit like saying, The customer is always right. I mean, it’s been pointed out that before the Stanislavski system, acting was very stagey, and there are still actors who seem to have learned from an audience only to be hams.

Mamet: That’s a very good point, but I disagree with you. It’s not saying the customer is always right. Learning from the audience does not mean learning necessarily to placate the audience. Many times, one has to make the decision that one is correct and the audience is wrong. But the point is, when you’re working with a paying audience, you’ve gotta be pretty goddamn sure you’re right, because your livelihood depends on it. In weak people, it may build subservience, but in people who are other than weak, who are building strength, it builds character.

Q: In your criticisms of the Method in the book, you seem to avoid naming names, other than Stanislavski. Essentially, you say that a lot of the techniques associated with Lee Strasberg, Uta Hagen, Stella Adler are hogwash and don’t work--but without naming their names, it seems that you’re pulling the punch a bit.

Mamet: It’s not my place--it would be impolite of me to name people’s names. But I’ve spoken very, very specifically about the practices which I think are deleterious, which I think are beside the point, and anyone who is interested can recognize those practices and determine for him or herself whether they think I’m right or not.

Q: Whenever there’s controversy about these issues, actors always say, “Whatever works,” and always stress that it’s important to respect the process of the actors they’re working with.

Mamet: Of course.

Q: But you’re putting out a strong point of view about what works and what doesn’t.

Mamet: No book is going to teach people to act, and frankly, no class is going to teach people to act. What the book concerns itself with is a way of thinking about acting, and I wrote it to express my opinions, certainly, but also, I hope, to help student actors with whom I work quite a bit, and of which company I was at one time, to think about acting, to enable them to profit from the application of observations of mine, which I hope are simply common-sensical.

Q: Your point about a lot of preparation--sensory techniques, historical research--seems to be that they’re ways for actors to hide, to shield themselves from the spontaneous. But aren’t some actors into preparation simply because they love it, and it’s their life--I think of someone like Kevin Spacey, or of Uta Hagen’s exercises, which were developed mainly to fill her time between acting jobs.

Mamet: Well, I’ve yet to see it make any difference for good. I mention my observation that a lot of people use the exercises--sense memory, emotional memory, and so on--as kind of a talisman, as magic to ward off fear. I think it’s very possible that some people do, as you say, use them as if they were a word-search puzzle to fill an idle hour. I’ve yet to see them do anything good. I think that good actors may act well in spite of them--once in a while, and perhaps more than once in a while. But I’ve yet to see--again, from my final prejudice as a member of the audience, and a director and playwright--anyone profit from it, and I have definitely seen quite a bit of harm from it.

Listen, finally, it’s not my business how anybody prepares to do what they do. Finally, I think, either as an audience or as a teacher, I’ve got no axe to grind that they’ve got to prepare a certain way; as an audience member, I love to be delighted by the fresh, the unusual, the intuitive, the spontaneous. It’s been my experience when I saw what was going on, working with actors, it generally does not come from the methods of preparation that I enumerate in the book, which is why I don’t employ them. But on the other hand, I go to the theatre, just like you, to be delighted. I don’t care how anybody prepares.

Q: How would you respond to the criticism that yours is very much a playwright’s perspective--that all this about simplicity and getting out the way is just a playwright’s way of protesting, “Just say my damn lines.”

Mamet: Yeah, well, Blah, blah, blah, I respond to that. I’m writing the book for actors, and people who may find my words and my ideas inappropriate certainly aren’t going to use them. Why should they? On the other hand, someone who might have been confused and/or shamed by a technique which he or she did not understand may garner hope from my observation that of course they were confused because, as far as I can see, it’s a bunch of gibberish.

Q: I also wonder if you think there may now be an audience for what you might call Method performance?

Mamet: Hey, listen, there’s an audience for network television.

Q: Point well taken. One of the points my critic, Matthew Surrence, makes in his review of your book, which I’m printing along with this interview, is that it doesn’t seem all that heretical to bash the Method--that the notion that the Method is bankrupt or hogwash is not a new point.

Mamet: If that’s a not a new point, then I’m thrilled, and I would suggest that the critic who’s taking me to task take a big Magic Marker and cross out the part of the subtitle where it mentions "heresy." I couldn’t be happier it’s supererogatory.

I guess you might say that one of the people it was written for was me 30 years ago, who studied and went to all these goddamn classes, could never understand a word they were talking about, and felt like a complete fool and a failure because of it. It took me many years of constantly working with actors as a director and as a teacher, much more than as a writer, to come the conclusions, through trial and error and a great deal of observation, that are in the book.

Q: The quote on the back from Alec Baldwin--""I agree with almost nothing Mr. Mamet says in this book and encourage you to devour every word"--is classic. Have you spoken to him about his disagreements with you? Is there a story behind that?

Mamet: Well, we seem to work very well together. I love to have him do my stuff; he seems to like doing it a lot. I’m thrilled that he enjoyed the book, and I’m thrilled that he likes my work. Listen, I have a friend, Donald Sultan, who’s a painter, and we were in the Louvre, looking at some magnificent paintings, and I said, “Oh my God, how did they do that?” And he said, “They didn’t know either.” And the same is true of actors. Not to say that actors are anti-intellectual, but that with any art--the only art I know anything about is writing--you strive and you work, bat your head against the brick wall, and sometimes something happens that makes you say, “My God, did I do that? Where the hell did that come from?” And I think that the same is true of acting--that the art of actor, which is a great, great art, is finally a mystery. Again, what I’m suggesting in the book is that my experience is that it’s easier to approach this mystery from the standpoint of simplicity, coupled with a certain humility, an acceptance of fear--rather than saying, "If I work hard enough, everything’s in my control, there’s nothing which I can’t influence."

Q: You compare acting in the book to athletics, music, dance, and obviously, athletes and musicians and dancers have to go train a great deal, and go through a lot of coaching. They’re not always in the arena, learning in the arena.

Mamet: So your question is, Shouldn’t people get into studios? I’ve spent a lot of time in every aspect of this business; I started as a child actor in the 1950s. And I’ve never seen an idea more terrifying than a group of mutual criticism; it brings out the worst in people. In the theatre, we should be colleagues and supporters to each other, we shouldn’t be each other’s critics. And we shouldn’t be performing for each other. It brings out not only the worst in us as actors, it brings out the worst in us as an audience. So what I suggest, as was my very fortunate experience as a young man, is: Get out of those goddamn studios and start a theatre company, write your own plays, put on your own plays, and do something for an audience.

Q: The mutual-critique model, though, is contrasted with the masterclass model, in which the teacher does all the criticism.

Mamet: But also you have to understand, and I make the point in the book, you have to really use your common sense and look at who that teacher is. That teacher, with a few exceptions, is not someone who’s successful at their profession, but is successful in getting a job as a teacher in a school which he or she did not work to found. At the beginning, whether it was Lee Strasberg or Sanford Meisner or Vakhtangov or Joan Littlewood--those people attracted colleagues to themselves and their way of thinking through a great deal of energy, inventiveness, and some degree of charisma, and through the ability of having their tenets put into application. Most people who are teaching in schools nowadays--and God bless ’em, I spent a lot of time out of work myself--have joined ongoing institutions that have the imprimatur of longevity about them. And that’s a different kind of person than the first group I mentioned.

Again, what the book is about is, I’m not trying to damn anyone to hell, or be holier than thou. The book is written for actors, and I hope one of the things I’m doing is suggesting an alternative, and further suggesting that to embrace such an alternative is not foolish, but is, not only laudable but probably more geared to individual success than devoting oneself to the institutional model.

And the other thing you find out when you start working with a real theatre company, which is to say a theatre company made up of actors, directors, and writers, is that they cross-pollinate. The wonderful of the last couple of years have all come out of theatre companies, and most of them started out as actors. And that’s as it should be: It’s not only how you learn to act, it’s how you learn to write.

See also: "Mamet Vs. Brecht: The Wrong Fight."

May 21, 2013

Breaking Silence!

Jenn Harris and Paul Kandel in Silence! (photo by Dixie Sheridan)

Last week I got a news release that Silence! The Musical just clocked its 500th performance, and I couldn't be happier for the show, albeit for weird reasons. Let's call it reverse (or perverse) vindication.

When I was sent to review the original production of this unauthorized parody of The Silence of the Lambs at the New York Fringe Festival in 2005, I had just arrived in Brooklyn from L.A., and had begun freelancing for the New York Times. I didn't much care for the show, and I think my review lays out my case fairly well (basically, I thought the show's one joke—they're singing! and dancing!—wore thin quickly).

There was one glaring and painful exception, though. While I've been mostly happy with how the Times editors have handled my prose in the years since, the way one of my early points was edited made me sound like a bluestocking, and I still wince when I read it:

"Silence! The Musical" winks so hard it's nearly blind. Taking large swatches of Ted Tally's film script for the Oscar-winning 1991 thriller "The Silence of the Lambs" and weaving in intentionally cheesy songs and dishy asides, the librettist Hunter Bell and songwriters Jon and Al Kaplan miss as many opportunities for laughs as they hit.
The targets that they do aim for are dubious. The diabolical psychiatrist/killer Hannibal Lecter (Paul Kandel) delivers a terrible (and vulgar) power ballad about the scent of a woman. 

Yes, it's the infamous "If I could smell her cunt" song, and I think I understand why the Times trimmed my description of it—I made it too clear what the offending word was, right up to supplying a rhyming adjective. I wrote:

The diabolical psychiatrist/killer Hannibal Lecter (Paul Kandel) delivers a terrible power ballad about the scent of a woman, employing a blunt four-letter word for the female anatomy that loses it meager punch with each repetition.
Maybe the difference seems petty—the editor cut my all-but-spelling-out-the-word description, then tried to tuck it all into that parenthetical "and vulgar." But that's the phrase that sticks in my craw. It's not a word I typically use, at least not to describe profanity, and that turn of phrase is among the few things that have appeared under my byline I don't recognize as my own writing. My not liking the show was one thing, but coming off like a clueless fuddy-duddy stung. As did this comment:
“Silence!” is a brilliant pop culture spoof that appeals to everyone’s lewd, crude and prurient interests. Too bad Mr. Kendt couldn’t have embraced his inner sociopath to come out and play with the rest of us. Someone should buy him a “South Park” box set for Christmas.

I'm not sure how I stumbled onto the website of Silence! songwriters Jon and Al Kaplan, but some time later I noticed, on the show's press page, that they included a tiny squib of my Times review and followed it with a telling comment:

"Terrible (and vulgar)." —Rob Kendt, The New York Times"A negative review in The New York Times is the kiss of death." —Buddy Thomas, ICM, in his final correspondence with us

Critics are not (all) bitter parasites who wish ill on their art form, and it pained me a little to see my own dubiously edited words thrown back at me as what seemed at the time like the show's sure death knell. So I was strangely heartened to see that my review didn't kill Silence! after all, and that it in fact returned for an Off-Broadway run in 2011, got great reviews (an A- on StageGrade), and is still packing 'em in.

There have been shows I've hated enough to heartily wish they would die, but Silence! was never one of those, and I'm glad it's found its audiencethough I also had to smile in noting that my colleague Jason Zinoman greeted the show's return with yet another lukewarm Times review. What the hey, if that can further the show's meta-narrativeit's the musical that's a hit despite the Times!more power to them.

And while I'm sharing original drafts that the Times editors redacted, I can't resist recalling another one from the same Fringe Festival that they were probably wise to change. At the end of my review of the Neo-Futurists' delightful The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen, I reached for a terrible pun:
Would Ibsen approve? I think the Norwegian would.
John Lennon's ironic tale of infidelity and mod apartment design had nothing to do with this show, of course, so the pun was cut to simply, "Would Ibsen approve? I think he would." Now that I look back on that unambiguous affirmation of a show I sincerely liked, I do, too.

May 20, 2013

Ann vs. Imelda

For America magazine I've done a combined review of two entertaining and popular shows about iconic women leaders at either end of New York's nonprofit stage spectrum: The Public Theater's Here Lies Love, the dance-party musical about Imelda Marcos (which I already posted briefly about here), and Lincoln Center Theater's Ann, the old-school solo show about Texas guv Ann Richards. The links between the these two women, it turns out, go beyond shoulder pads and immovable hair:
Neither show is entirely successful, even on its own terms; but both are worthy efforts with their share of entertainment value and food for thought, in varying proportions. Both depict women who at first reluctantly, then wholeheartedly, seize the reins of power with all its gratifications and complications and discover their mission (or their self-justifying rationale, as the case may be) only in the doing of it. This is not just a matter of biographical coincidence; in this shared motion from second fiddle to first-chair violin, the lives of both women dramatize a huge generational shift.

Born just four years apart, they were both transitional figures, straddling the pre- and post-feminist generations. They began life assuming, as Ann puts it, that “taking care of my husband and my children was my profession,” but soon enough realized not only that they could do anything men could do but that they were needed at the wheel after feckless male leadership had driven their governments into a ditch. As Imelda (Ruthie Ann Miles) defiantly sings, her decrepit, philandering husband Ferdinand (Jose Llana) cedes her more and more power, “It takes a woman to do a man’s job.
Read the whole thing here. Oh, and there's also a review of Here Lies Love in an unexpected place: HowlRound, which officially dips its toes into review-style, show-specific criticism with W.M. Akers' very fine inaugural effort. W.M. raises some of the same issues I had with the show (basically, that it's too much fun for a show about a brutal dictatorship), but I especially loved this bit about David Byrne:
In the last decade, Byrne has dabbled in conceptual art, producing work like 2008’s Playing the Building, a pleasant-enough art installation in southern Manhattan that probably did not deserve the attention drawn by its creator’s name. In his eagerness to cross genres, Byrne is like a much more talented, much less irritating James Franco. Conceptual art is best left to the professionals, but rock is Byrne's beat, and Here Lies Love is a sparkling reminder of why he became a downtown icon in the first place. His name may get them in the door, but the music will make them stay.
I rather liked Playing the Building, but the overall point sticks. Read that whole thing here.

May 17, 2013

To Text or To Hurl

On Wednesday night I attended Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, the immersive Russian-indie-rock musical fashioned from a section of War and Peace; I'm reporting on the piece's gestation in the fertile musical/theatrical mind of Dave Malloy and its birthing in the capable hands of director Rachel Chavkin and assorted producers, or something like that—and I was witness to the now-infamous spectacle, in the midst of the show's second act, of a thirtysomething woman, an audience member, purposefully crossing the entire supper-club space, literally in the midst of the performance, flinging open the huge double doors that constitute the theater entrance, and being summarily whisked out of sight.

Only the next morning did I find out what spurred her exit: a particularly bold move by the New Criterion's theater critic, Kevin D. Williamson—also a spiky, occasionally reasonable columnist at National Review. Williamson reported on the incident at NRO, to the huzzahs of many. He liked the show, in short, but hated the audience. The women near him were, he says,

talking, using their phones, and making a general nuisance of themselves. It was bad enough that I seriously considered leaving during the intermission, something I’ve not done before. The main offenders were two parties of women of a certain age, the sad sort with too much makeup and too-high heels, and insufficient attention span for following a two-hour musical. But my date spoke with the theater management during the intermission, and they apologetically assured us that the situation would be remedied. 
It was not. The lady seated to my immediate right (very close quarters on bench seating) was fairly insistent about using her phone. I asked her to turn it off. She answered: “So don’t look.” I asked her whether I had missed something during the very pointed announcements to please turn off your phones, perhaps a special exemption granted for her. She suggested that I should mind my own business. 
So I minded my own business by utilizing my famously feline agility to deftly snatch the phone out of her hand and toss it across the room, where it would do no more damage. She slapped me and stormed away to seek managerial succor. Eventually, I was visited by a black-suited agent of order, who asked whether he might have a word.
Two things: The immersive club environs that are unique to NP&TGCO1812, in which the audience is served a meal and drinks (albeit by waiters who are only present before the show and during intermission, never during the show) constitute precisely the kind of space in which theatergoing rules seem sufficiently bendy that it's not surprising that someone might feel it was OK to check their phone...and maybe check it again. But it's also the kind of intimate space—my wife and I were seated at a small table sharing plates of food with three strangers, and not talking to them was not an option—in which such breaches would be even more annoying than usual.

Annoying enough to justify throwing a phone? I'm not sure. I spoke to Williamson yesterday and he counted himself "proud" of his action, in particular its speed. And though he reiterated that he quite liked the show, he neither expected to write a review ("I guess that would be unprofessional, to review a show I haven’t seen all the way through") nor to return to see it to the end ("I don't know if they'll let me in again—their security guard was pretty annoyed with me"). He conceded that the boundary-blurring environment was likely to lead to mishaps ("I knocked over a glass myself before the show started"), but drew the line at the woman's behavior: "People just need to learn to behave."

The show's producers, perhaps understandably, see this a little differently. While making no excuses for the texting woman, producer Howard Kagan, one of the show's lead producers with his wife Janet Kagan, told me he was astonished that Williamson "hurled the cell phone it across a dark room; he could have killed someone." (In Williamson's slight defense, he told me, as he did the awed Gothamist, that he was aiming for a door on the theater's south wall—fair enough, except that that door also served, as did all the doors, as an entrance/exit for fast-moving performers.) And Randy Weiner, also a producer on the show, who knows a thing or two about immersive theater (he's also one of the forces behind the unstoppable choose-your-own-adventure hit Sleep No More), told me, "If it’s bad to text in a show, it strikes me as 10 times worse to take someone's phone and throw it across the room."

Meanwhile, on American Theatre's Facebook page, as on Twitter and on Gothamist and elsewhere, Williamson is being hailed as a folk hero. The impulse is understandablehe acted out a fantasy many of us have hadbut in the cold light of day, it's fair to say that Williamson probably overreacted, and his gloating looks a little unseemly. I might be in favor of a solution like mandatory cellphone checking-at-the-door, except that iPhones are now default timepieces (did I look at my phone during the show to check the time? I might have). And I'm not sure more vigilant ushers are the answer, in this case at least—that would surely render the show's all-around staging untenably crowded.

One silver lining here is that the show itself is no shrinking violet, and the thick-skinned cast and band have been working with audiences as essentially their co-stars since the show's original staging at Ars Nova, so this kerfuffle neither shook their performance nor ruffled the audience for more than a few seconds, at least from where I sat. The woman's exit, in fact, was so matter-of-fact and purposeful that I almost thought for a moment that it was staged.

And it's not like this issue hasn't come up before. In an interview I conducted before that night's performance, director Rachel Chavkin told me about her conversations with producers:

It's been a lot of me shouting, "People can't expect to be coming to a club." They will be sorely disappointed when a 2-and-a-half-hour opera unfolds before them, and we will be disappointed when they want to text during the 2-and-a-half-hour opera.
Arguably, this may have been a previews issue; reviews like this rave from the Times' Charles Isherwood may help define (and refine) expectations of audiences coming in. Still, while this kind of behavior may be deplorable, I would expect to see more of it, not less, at shows like this, where the lines between staging and seating are blurred, and the show is designed to effectively close ranks and withstand it. "Immersive," after all, doesn't just mean intermingling audience with performers; a big part of what we're immersing ourselves in with such a show is each other's space. And in 21st century New York City—as in a genuine Russian supper club, I'd wager—that's not always a pretty or a comfortable arrangement.

May 16, 2013

The Other Imelda Musical

The Public's new dance-club sensation Here Lies Love is pretty much as great as it's been cracked up to be (no. 2 on StageGrade, no less!), even if its retelling of the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos falters a bit in the "fall" portion; after the show's persistent party vibe has gotten under our skin, all the stuff about martial law and crushed dissent feels like a hectoring buzzkill (though, on the other hand, the show boasts a very rare asset: a near-perfect ending). Its great cast and inspired Alex Timbers staging aside, its biggest asset is David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's joyous score; though I'm not one to over-value the arrival of pop and rock stars into the theater (indie bands can be another matter), there is undeniably something special about music that's had to earn its living outside the theater being retrofitted so snugly into a theater experience. At the risk of dissing my colleagues in the musical theater trenches, there is something about great pop music that's just qualitatively more vibrant, more attractive, just all-around better than most music written expressly for theater.

My fuller review of Here Lies Love will be out soon in America, but in the meantime I got to thinking about the other Imelda musical, which began in 2005 at East West Players in Los Angeles and was staged in 2009 in an indifferently received production at New York's Pan Asian Rep. Its Los Angeles production was among the last shows I reviewed there before moving to New York:
It's just too easy to make fun of Imelda Marcos, the Filipino fashion plate whose shoe fetish and highly developed sense of personal entitlement dominated her nation's political and pop culture through more than two decades of de facto dictatorship and decadence. 
It's also pretty easy to make fun of Imelda, A New Musical, which just opened at East West Players. Like its title character, the show has an unquestionable, even endearing eagerness to please - and some pretty odd ideas about how to go about that. 
Constructed roughly on an Evita template, Imelda is a historical pageant buttressed by musical theater conventions as old as the Chocolate Hills. There are decision anthems, wish songs, makeover montages, debate duets and flashback lullabies. There are dutiful second-act reprises to remind us how far our story has come, from the needy ambitions of 1950s-era beauty queen Imelda (Liza Del Mundo) to her later incarnation as an international symbol of obscene ostentation at the side of her increasingly decrepit husband Ferdinand (Giovanni Ortega)...
Imelda, it seems, wants us to laugh at and revel in its subject's excesses - as in "Imeldific," a spirited disco breakdown in Act Two that celebrates an extravagant New York shopping excursion - while at the same time illustrating the gritty history behind the glitter.
More about the musical's gestation here.

May 15, 2013

Flashback: Als v. August

On this day in 2007, I posted the following review excerpt:
“Radio Golf” is a formulaic work that illustrates why [August] Wilson was not, in the end, a great artist: his approach to examining the lives of black Americans was traditional, often cliché-ridden, and comfortably middlebrow...Barely thirty minutes into the action, we’re already on familiar ground: it’s Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” meets Lifetime TV...Wilson is the worst kind of moralist. He uses black people—which is to say, “real” or poor black people—as the barometer by which all others must be judged; anyone who doesn’t fit the bill is just plain evil...This essentially Puritan strain in Wilson’s thinking makes his characters reductive, simple silhouettes projected onto an even simpler backdrop....For Wilson, all blacks are brothers, whether clad in rags or Armani suits. But life doesn’t work this way—at least no lives spent under the yoke of this country’s astonishing and still prevalent racism. In the nineteen-sixties, academic philosophers and sociologists alike tried to address “the Negro problem”—the economic and racial disadvantages inherent in black life. Wilson came of age in that era, and was clearly influenced by the sanctimonious air of their reasoning. With his own lyrical-sounding agitprop, he, unfortunately, adopted the belief structure of the “concerned” oppressor, while claiming to speak for the oppressed.
The author: the New Yorker's resident crazy person, Hilton Als. I repost this as a reminder, in case anyone wondered, why Als is more scourge than truth-teller. (And to be clear, I don't think Wilson or his work are above criticism, even along some of the lines Als pursues, but what was perhaps most galling about the review was that it evidenced no familiarity with, and certainly did not cite, any other single work by the late playwright.)

May 14, 2013

Well, Albee

Seeing it all before him (@Bettman/CORBIS)
Among the theatrical heavyweights I've had the pleasure to interview is America's greatest living playwright, Edward Albee. It was in 2008, and the occasion was a double bill at Cherry Lane of his early one-acts The American Dream and The Sandbox. But there are enough juicy bits in the interview, which I did for TDF, that I think it's worth revisiting in full.

Q: These two plays have a shared history, don't they?

Albee: Yes, they've been done together several times. In fact, I was writing American Dream when I got a commission from the Spoleto Festival to write a 15-minute play. So I took the characters of American Dream and put them in a different setting—sort of, 'The Further Adventures of the American Dream People.' It's nice to have them together, since it's mostly the same characters and the story just continues.

Q: Regarding his season at the Signature Theatre some years ago, John Guare said that it was a little unnerving—that seeing those old plays took him back to the person he was when he wrote them. Does that happen to you, too?

Albee: No, not really. Of course, I remember the experience of writing them. I remember the good times and the bad times, and you have both if you work in the theatre—more bad than good, if you consider what audiences like vs. what they should like. But I never write about me, so my investment is more intellectual than personal.

Incidentally, my own Signature Theatre season (1993) was terribly valuable for me. It was in the middle of that time when nobody would produce my work. I'd had three big commercial flops in New York, and no one even wanted to say hello to me. The Signature season let people see plays that I'd been writing all along, and brought interest back to me.

Q: Do you prefer to direct your own work?

Albee: Well, it took me a while to be a halfway decent director. I started with a production of Zoo Story, which was fortunately done in deep Pennsylvania; it was the worst production of my work I've ever seen. But I learned since then. I ended up winning my first Pulitzer Prize for Seascape, which I directed. So I'm not a bad director. It's just an awful lot of work. But even when I work with other directors, I have a very clear vision of what I want to see and hear.

Q: The American Dream and The Sandbox are about the family. Now that you've lived a few years since you wrote them, do you look at them now and think, "Yeah, I got the family right."

Albee: I'm still working on it. I'm still trying to get my craft under control, for heaven's sake.

Q: So you feel with every new play as if you're starting from scratch?

Albee: Yes, and that's what I tell my students: Every time you write a play it should be your first play. Not only that, it should be the first play that's ever been written by anybody. That's the only way for it to be spontaneous. I don't let any other voices from any other play in, including my own. You can't.

There's a new piece I'm working on that's even greater than real life. I'm upstairs working with all these characters, and then I walk outside and have to interact with all these people who claim to be real people, but they seem totally unreal to me.

Q: Do you hear the characters in the room with you?

Albee: Yes, I see it and I hear it as a play being performed in front of me. That's why I can be so specific as a director. I don't how anybody can write a play if they don't see it that way. It seems that some can.

Q: You don't seem like a playwright who uses humor…

Albee: You mean my plays aren't funny?

Q: No, they're very funny, but it doesn't seem like you use the humor the way some playwrights do: consciously, to disarm the audience.

Albee: No, you don't stick jokes in like raisins in cereal. Like, "Oh, I have a whole bunch of jokes—maybe I can find a play to put these jokes into." It has to be organic to the character. It's the same way I feel about profanity and obscenity; if it's organic to the character, there's nothing offensive about it.

Q: You have a fond history with the Cherry Lane Theatre, don't you?

Albee: I've spent a lot of happy hours there. In the early '40s, when I was 15 or so, I saw a play there by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, The Dog Beneath the Skin. It was a wonderful experience.

Q: Wasn't it Auden who read your poetry and told you you should consider playwrighting?

Albee: No, that was Thornton Wilder. Wystan told me I should write pornography.

Q: It's a good thing you didn't take his advice.

Albee: Who says I didn't?

Q: It's intriguing how writers—Beckett, August Wilson, yourselfstart out writing one thing and end up writing for theatre.

Albee: You know, one of the most wonderful experiences I've ever had in a theatre was when I was teaching up at Brandeis University, and August Wilson came up to do a reading of his own work. Nobody spoke August's lines better than he did, and the poetry in his writing came out better than I'd ever heard it before. You'll often find that playwrights are the best readers of their own work, but August was the best I've ever heard.

Q: Do you ever read your work publicly, outside of rehearsals?

Albee: Just last night at the Cherry Lane there was a big benefit; people were supposed to see a preview of Sandbox, but it had been postponed. So I got up there for a hour and a half and did readings from several of my plays. I recite my own plays very well. That's because I hear when I write, and I retain what I hear.

May 13, 2013

The Shinn Files

He's only had one other L.A. production previously (Four at Celebration Theatre), and one high-profile premiere at nearby South Coast Rep (On the Mountain), both in 2005. But now Christopher Shinn's lean, searing Dying City, which I saw and loved at Lincoln Center in 2007, will get its L.A. premiere with the estimable Rogue Machine Theatre. This gave me a great excuse both to revisit Dying City on the page, where it struck me anew, and to talk to Shinn (on the phone) for the first time for a piece in the Los Angeles Times. He was in good spirits despite his current fight with cancer* (on the subject of which, he sent me two minor corrections to the Times piece: 1. It's his left leg from which he's had a part amputated, not his right, and 2. Though Ewing's sarcoma often appears in bones, in his case it's turned up in his soft tissue).

One quote that didn't make it into the story was about his writing process. I wondered if his finely chiseled, often jagged dialogue, in which what characters don't say is at least as important, if not moreso, than what they do say, was the product of an actual chiseling process—whether he ever overwrote his characters' gut-spilling, then pared that away so their true thoughts would remain mostly subtext. His reply:
It’s pretty rare that I do that. Usually by the time I begin writing, even if it’s not conscious, some structure is very clear in my mind. That’s sort of how I know when to begin. One reason for that is that I tend to keep the plays in my mind for a very, very long time before I begin writing. It begins with dialogue, characters, an image. If I did begin writing sooner, I would have a lot of scenes I wouldn't use. I hear enough about what the characters saying, and then I know who they are as people. I’ve created them internally enough that what they say comes very easily when I begin writing. They’re inside of me, they exist as human beings inside of me.

What I always do is, I open a new file next to the old one, and retype it all from the beginning. I’m able to move very quickly, almost in real time, through the play that way. Then because I’m in that rhythm, I can usually keep going. When I used to start working on an old draft, I end up just reading through it over and over and I'd get stuck.
That process tip reminded me of an outtake of an interview I did with Tracy Letts (and Sarah Ruhl) last year. Letts was talking about how he'd moved off the computer to work an actual old-fashioned typewriter, but even before that drastic step he'd already begun a regimen akin to Shinn's:
What I had been doing with the computer was writing the thing on the computer, printing it out, then deleting it completely off the computer. Because the actual physical act—I would rewrite stuff that I would not have rewritten if it were just on the screen. So I was doing that already; now I’m retyping them from scratch.
I learned to type on a manual back in fourth grade, if memory serves. I don't miss much about that laborious process, to be frank...except the ding at the end of a line, which was like a little reward for getting to the end of another line. (Is there an app for that now?)

May 10, 2013

Loud Quiet Loud

My old friend and boss at the Downtown News, Jack Skelley, used to insist that classical music should be played loud, and I took him to mean not only that he has a taste, as I do, for noisy 20th-century fare but that, no matter the era or aesthetic, orchestral music, played by large ensembles or small, wasn't, and shouldn't be relegated to becoming, soothing background music. I'm afraid that's the role too often played by "classical" music in our culture, and it's a deficit I've struggled with as a listener and a musician myself. But this background status is more than just a function of middlebrow snobbery, Mozart-is-good-for-your-baby classism, or our distracted iPod Shuffle listening habits; it's built into the dynamic range of orchestral music itself. As loud as the fortissimos get, the pianissimos need the breathing room to be as quiet as, well, breathing.

This is especially true of orchestral music written since the late 19th century, in which form and sound are as much a part of the content as harmony and melody were, roughly speaking, for 18th century music. The sound worlds of the post-Wagner orchestra aren't just riddled with dissonance, which is the bum rap that contemporary music has gotten for more than a century now, but by slippery textures, jagged effects, unsettling shifts and swells and surprises, and what I would call sonic scope. There's a good reason that the even tempos and relatively untroubling loud-soft dynamics of Bach or Mozart function so well as the equivalent of musical wallpaper; it's not just the nice tunes and consonant harmonies; it's that you can set the volume on one level and not be jarred. You can even put it on Shuffle with pop music and it doesn't interrupt the flow!

All of which is another way of sharing my recent revelation (or rediscovery, more likely) of one thing that 20th-century orchestral music, from Stravinsky to Adams, shares with live theater: Yes, it can be recorded and read, but it really only lives in performance. That was the point made by my wife's uncle, William Weinert, about Britten's War Requiem, which he conducted masterfully last weekend at the Eastman School of Music, where he's the professor of conducting and choral director; and his advocacy on this point was part of the reason our family made the trek to Rochester (the other part being, of course, family). As an intermittent Britten-head, I'm ashamed to say I had no familiarity with the piece; it is, to state the obvious, a stunning, emotionally riveting work, whose intertwining of the Latin Mass with Wilfred Owen's stark, graphic, but circumspect anti-war poems, and whose rattling, reverberant sound and fury, gave me the sensation of a cracking-open, a painful, raw exposure to the wounds of war, even as the music bound them up with a kind of fierce, defiant dignity. (I will pause to note here, as well, that the work shares one harmonic characteristic I would argue is emblematic of 20th-century music, as a reading of Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise demonstrated: the tritone.)

Apart from the Requiem's extraordinary content and impact, the bittersweetness I felt in registering both the work's hugeness (it employs a large orchestra, a small chamber ensemble within that, a huge adult choir, and a children's choir) and its intricate intimacy (there are three vocal soloists, sometimes accompanied by no more than a violin or two, or not at all) had all to do with its sense of immediacy, its unrepeatability, its complexity of feeling and means of expression, and again that issue of wide dynamic range, from booming to flickering—all things that are hard to register via headphones on my work commute, which, there's no use denying, is now the main way I experience music I don't otherwise play myself.

I felt similarly about the recent Gospel According to the Other Mary: I would like to own that on record, as I would the Britten, while realizing full well that, as with musical cast albums or operas, these will best be experienced in toto, and in relative quiet, all the better to register their range. Or, as Uncle Bill has retaught me, in person. With our whole selves and our whole attention, after all, is the best way to honor not only the dead but the living arts, as well.

Cross-posted at Train My Ear.

May 9, 2013

Breaking Theater's Code: The Final Installment With The Lisps' César Alvarez

The Lisps et al in an earlier incarnation of Futurity

In this final installment of my three-part interview with César Alvarez (here are part 1 and part 2), we talk about the future of musical theater and where its next leaders might be found.

Q: This might be a matter of generations—that there are more of these band-driven musicals now because there are more people like you looking for this form of expression outside of just being the rock band. The problem, as you’ve noted, is finding the right venue and support.

César: That really is the problem. For the first two years of the development of Futurity I was the actor, the musical director, the composer, the book writer—and the producer! For whatever reason and mostly from the help I got, we were able to piece it together in this outsider way. My dream would be to start and indie Brooklyn musical theater festival, where you have two stages and two nights and there’s 15 musicals that are put on by these bands on shoestring budgets, with two hours of tech. That would be so cool! How many amazing musicals would you see? As opposed to having them go through their normal workshop process, which is basically impossible unless you get major theater people to help you do it. And once you do that, you start working under theater’s agenda, which is tricky. ART is incredible, and they’re a very unique space because they really booked us because of our hybrid nature and not in spite of it.

Q: What do you mean by theater’s agenda?

César: Every form of art has its own morality and orthodoxy; it’s the same in music. And people spend their entire lifetime figuring out how to navigate those orthodoxies. It’s like with the Pope—you can’t be the Pope until you’re 80 because you have to work your way up, but what would it be like if the Pope was 45? You know what I mean? It’s like this fact of life that the people with the power are the people who are inventing the status quo, so trying to find that entrance point where you can still be working in a challenging way and also get the support you need to create audiences--I mean, that’s the whole thing about being an artist.

Q: But as you say, places like ART are looking for work like this—they seem to recognize that something’s going on they should be part of.

César: That’s what Philip Bither said, too. He wrote on the Walker Center website about our piece, and he said that one of the great things about the Walker Center is not just that they have the opportunity there to really challenge their audience and the orthodoxy of the organization but that they are required to by their mission. Phillip was like, “We’re going to book a musical on our performance calendar,” which is radically unheard of. He was mildly terrified, and rightfully so, in the same way ART would be if they booked a piece of conceptual performance on their calendar. But he stuck his neck out and saw that what we make is contemporary and it should be considered as such.

Q: How did it go over there?

César: The Walker audience was thrilled. They have thick skin; they come to see a Walker show and have no idea what they’re in for—it could be one person sitting for an hour and a half, and it could be incredibly dense and abstract. They came to our show and they got a musical! They were like, “Whoa, everything is rhyming!” But it still worked in the context of their season. And the fact that we got Walker and ART working together was so cool. What if every regional theater had to collaborate with a contemporary art venue somewhere? What kind of theater would come out of that?

Q: Was there anything about working in theater that you especially learned from or appreciated?

César: Well, it’s what everyone loves about theater, that there’s such a code of collaboration, a code of working together, and even people who don’t know each other can immediately access this code together and create functional working relationships—and sometimes dysfunctional working relationships—but there’s just such an ethic and a code of honor of how you work with people. In bands, there’s not a code, and all the drama in bands is treated with such horror, and it breaks them up—there’s a lot more blindness about how you manage collaboration. We as a band have stayed together for 7 years because we know how to fight; we know how to beat each other up and not take it personally and to move forward the next day.

Q: You teach, also. What and where?

César: I taught at Bloomfield College in New Jersey for four years, music technology and songwriting, but now I’m a visiting artist at Sarah Lawrence. I work with one class there called the new musical theater lab, which is essentially a bunch of people working on new musicals. It’s a dream come true; I’m basically helping them turn all their work into music.

Q: So what’s the next generation doing?

César: I have a very small sample size, with just 12 students, but I think that what I’m seeing is that you can’t have a play that doesn’t have music. It’s not just about having a sound designer, it’s like with Lear deBessonet—she never has no music in her plays. There’s music in everything she does, and I think that’s really smart and that’s really emergent.

Q: I’m just surprised there hasn’t been like a giant country or hip-hop musical, because they’re such narrative forms.

César: There have been hip-hop musicals, they just haven’t made it to Broadway. In the Heights is more like a salsa musical, a Latin musical. And there was a bluegrass musical at 59E59. But they’re genre-fied, that’s what I’m trying to say. You take a show like Once; that’s an example of a show that’s stepping out of the form and it has been a success. Or Sleep No More: a commercial venture, with an extended run, completely out of the world of Broadway, a show that’s in a site-specific place and it’s, like, Wow, maybe we can start to get a new theater district, one that’s actually around the art galleries in Chelsea that’s going to embrace real hybridization and a different kind of cultural ethic; maybe this is gonna be the space where musicals can start. Like Hedwig, which started in some abandoned space over there...

Q: It started in a club but then played in a hotel ballroom, never in an actual theater.

César: Right. And I think that’s because the real theater is not a place for us, for whatever reason. We need Broadway to come to us. We can’t beat that, we can’t break the walls down. But I think it’s possible that there are a lot of ideas out there, and a lot of talent to create things like Sleep no More that are gonna be viably commercial.

You know, we all sit down for our jobs in front of computers. All of us: Composers, writers, every job now is sitting down in front of a computer. And theatre’s job, especially now, is a reminder to get us up, rather than to give us a rest and keep us sitting which is what historically has worked. That’s what I hope, that we start seeing a lot more new opportunities for this type of hybrid work.

Q: One question about these band shows is if they can have a life beyond the original version. So far Futurity hasn’t existed without The Lisps, but can you see a day when it might be licensed for other productions?

César: My dream is to go to Grimsley High School, which is in Greensboro, North Carolina, which is where I went to high school, and see a production of Futurity. I think it’s a show everyone should be able to do. So I’m not like “Only Lisps can do Futurity,” but I do think I want to do a more definitive version of it, which I don’t think we’ve done yet. I think that when the show goes up in New York, I’m hoping that’s what’s gonna be the definitive version of Futurity and I’ll be in it.

May 8, 2013

De-genre-ifying the Musical: Part 2 of My Chat With The Lisps' César Alvarez

Part 1 of my interview with The Lisps’ César Alvarez went into some detail about his bands’ show Futurity, which originated in 2009, played at ART and at the Walker Center last year, and is headed for a New York production at some point in 2014, as well as about the band’s music for The Good Person of Szechwan, a hit at LaMama earlier this year that will be part of the Public Theater’s next season.

In this second part of our interview, we get down to more widely applicable notions about the gap between rock and theater, and between the traditional musical and band-created narratives, that were the animating ideas behind my April cover story in American Theatre and my recent chat with Stew & Heidi.

César Alvarez: I feel like musicals, because they’re so complicated, have over the years been overcurated. And the idea of a DIY musical is much more difficult than a DIY album or a DIY theater performance, right? Because there are so many elements and because there’s this complexity. When you wrote me and you were like, “I’m writing an article about bands and band-driven musicals,” I started thinking: Are bands writing more musicals now than they ever have been, and why? And I think it’s got everything to do with the MP3 revolution. Musicians have always wanted to tell stories with their music. They’ve just started to notice that there’s been a new interest in spectacle. It’s not enough to go into the studio and record the music; you also need to create a whole world around your piece in order to really stand out and to articulate who you are as an artist.

So actually I think this interest in bands writing musicals is really about bands distinguishing themselves and giving in to the natural impulse of every musician of how to tell each story, how to create a world. Whatever sort of upsurge of this thing that we’re seeing has everything to do with where we are culturally and technologically.

Q: I was speaking to Shanta Thake at Joe’s Pub, and she said they are consciously looking at musicians and the music business, now that income from recording has collapsed, and seeing that one way they can support musicians is to help them theatricalize their shows. Obviously you weren’t someone that Joe’s Pub had to introduce to the idea--you came to them with this thing already conceived.

César: Right, but the fact that Joe’s Pub said, “Yeah, we’ll give you four Saturday Nights in May” completely transformed our ability to get our work out there. Shanta specifically saw from a very early point what we were doing and how it made sense for their mission and how we really connected. We had a great run there. And there are venues that have to start letting their musicians think that way.

Q: Obviously, there are some venues, like Oberon at ART, where you did Futurity, and Joe’s Pub and Ars Nova, who are thinking this way, but not many.

César: Here’s the thing that I find fascinating. Even one step before that: Where do you rehearse a rock musical? We can’t even figure it out, it’s so hard. Like, just for Good Person actually, what would have been great was to have the band sing for weeks with everyone rehearsing. It was so difficult to even do that; we got three days before tech with the band. The reason is that the theatre world isn’t set up to allow bands to come into the rehearsal room and leave their gear set up, and music rehearsal spaces are these tiny, dingy, basement closets full of mold. So every time we think about this, a major, major consideration goes to,Where are we going to rehearse? We’ve ended up rehearsing in art studios, in big open spaces that our visual artist friends have, who say, “Yeah, you can use my studio,” and we can leave stuff set up there. There’s just not a lot of space to do what you really need to do. I think we’ve been creative about figuring it out. There’s all these instances where you see how hard it is to do the thing that we’re trying to do.

One of the things that was so exciting was that we never put on the musical without our band; you never had to hear Futurity with just like the piano or a guitar, which is very hard for people because they don’t have the musical imagination to know really what it would sound like with everyone. So by the time we got to Joe’s Pub for our second workshop the band was so tight, and we killed it. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing between the songs, but the songs were great. I think that really helped to propel us.

Q: Now, as much as the theater world may not be ready for rock bands, are rock bands ready for the rigors of rehearsals, of an eight-show week, etc.?

César: For musicians, it’s crazy, but I feel like my band has really felt the benefits from it. I mean, working at ART and on this Good Person are the biggest gigs we’ve ever had as a band, by orders of magnitude, in terms of the length, in terms of the support we got and the opportunities that opened up. Most of the reactions of our musicians have been, “This is so cool.” Especially our drummer, Eric Farber, who built his whole drum set to be this handmade mechanical percussion machine which was a musical instrument, a storytelling device, and an interactive set piece that is so intertwined in the way we’re telling the story. It was the most radical, transformative experience of his life. He’s been a professional drummer in New York for 10 years and this came to be so far above and beyond anything he’s ever done creatively. It was an absolute revelation. So we all got back from ART thinking, “Let’s do that some more; how do we figure out how to do that more?” Which is why Good Person has been really awesome.

Q: Do you ever feel, though, that the musician in you is saying, “Enough of this waiting around and playing the same show, let’s make a record and just play it for an audience”?

César: We’ve actually put out four records, and that’s easy! We do want to keep putting out records. But I think what we really want to do is put on these big shows and perform for tons and tons of people and innovate. It’s more exciting to feel like we’re really pushing the format rather than just putting out records. I think a lot of artists have felt the fatigue, that what used to work doesn’t work anymore. There was this incredible article I read online about the band Grizzly Bear, about how they’re an incredibly successful band and basically they can’t quite get over the hump where they’re really supporting themselves; they’re as successful as an indie band could ever get without going majorly mainstream, and they’re still living in their Bushwick apartments and don’t feel like they’re gonna go out and have kids or start a family—it was very eye-opening to me. Because I’m in an indie band, and it’s very easy to look at Grizzly Bear and think, “See if we just could get on the Warped Tour or open for Arcade Fire, then we’ll be set!” But actually the way this industry works, that’s not true. And we’re looking for, in a way, an escape hatch that will allow us to be artists to the fullest degree than we’ve ever been able to, and also get involved in something that’s more sustainable and more kind to our art, you know?

One of the most interesting facts about our band is that in 2009, when we did that first Zipper Factory show of Futurity, we had been a band for four years. We had fans and a couple albums. We were like a little Brooklyn band who could draw some people to a show if we booked it. Then we did our musical in two nights, and both nights basically sold out, so about 450 people came and saw it, which was so far beyond anything we had ever done. We thought it was a big risk, but in a way the best way thing we ever did for our audience was writing this musical. The minute we announced it our audiences were like, “Oh, crazy!!” which was great. Of course there were others who were like, “What the…? I thought this band was cool, now they’re pretty lame.” But for the most part that was not the response.

There’s a band in Philadelphia called The Extraordinares, and they haven’t gotten a big production in the way that Futurity has, but all their work is really concept-driven and they have written a musical and produced it. They’re a really good example of the complete DIY ethic of a band writing a musical and they’re doing it in an incredible way. There are other bands that are laboring in this way. And there are so many bands that are “theatrical,” but there’s a real leap, and it’s really about venue and about the structure of the performance. When a band says they’re theatrical, it usually means they have video and costumes and they might choreograph some moves and do some gags. But with the Extraordinaires it was a musical--it was like 16 songs and costumes and they put it on in a loft for 150 friends and videotaped it and then they sell the DVDs.

The other thing that’s incredible is that whenever we have a gig and we say, “You know, we wrote a musical,” and then we play a couple songs from it, so often bands come up to us afterwards and say, “We wrote a musical, too! We just don’t know how to do it,” or, “We have this idea for a musical, we just don’t know how to write it.” Everyone wants to write a concept album, and then everyone wants to put it onstage. Everybody’s concept album could work as a musical. I think it would be really cool to see more support for that type of creativity.

Q: Did you look at traditional musicals at all as a model, or did you intentionally try not to copy that form?

César: When we started Futurity, I was a grad student/composer looking at musical theater for the first time. I went to a conservatory and was always an experimental musician, a jazz musician, a computer musician, but never a theatrical musician. So I started listening to all these musicals and reading up on musical theater and I realized that musicals are an indigenous American form, just like jazz. It had never even occurred to me. And the musical is a form in the way a novel is a form. However because of the evolution and the power of people like Rogers and Hammerstein and the way the dominated Broadway for so many years, musical theatre became a genre, but it’s not a genre! The analogy I use--you hear from musicians all the time, “Oh, I hate musicals,” which is actually like saying, “Oh, I hate novels.” It would be like somebody invented the novel and then for hundreds of years the only one that became popularized was the mystery novel—so you read all these mystery novels and you think “Well, I hate novels!” So I say musical theatre has been genre-fied in a way that is a complete disservice to the form, which is indigenously American and is a brilliant open form which basically says: music, dialogue, and narrative on a stage, telling a story. And that’s it. It doesn’t say how to sing or what kind of music.

So that’s what we’re trying to do--I think we’re basically re-claiming the form from a specific genre, which is incredible--look at the classic musicals, they’re classics, but they don’t encompass the entire spectrum of what musical theater can be. Film, for instance, has just blossomed into all these branches, but for some reason musical theater never got the full treatment that film did in blossoming, and I think it’s our responsibility as theater artists to give it that and keep pushing for it and to make our field as thoroughly explored as film has been, or as straight theater has been.

Q: What you’re doing isn’t really reinventing the wheel; it’s actually going back to the roots of telling a story and singing songs, and going a different direction from traditional musical theater. And the most obvious difference with a band musical is that the writers are also the performers, which you typically only see in theater with solo shows or ensemble-devised work.

César: I mean, it’s really amazing to hear Frank Sinatra do a Cole Porter song, but it’s also just as amazing to hear The Beatles play The Beatles. That was the big revolution that happened in pop music, and I honestly think there’s a thing happening in musical theater which is: It’s incredible to watch the people who made the thing do the thing. And that’s what you get when you see a band perform a musical. You see that with Stew; it’s so exciting to see someone telling their own story on a Broadway stage.

Q: Yeah, it’s odd that that doesn’t happen more often, and that’s it’s someone like Stew, who’s not a huge superstar, who did it. But I guess it makes sense, because giant rock stars are on tour all the time and can’t afford to sit in a rehearsal room for weeks making a show.

César: But then you have someone like Ricky Martin who spent eight months in Evita.

Q: That’s true, I didn’t think about that. I guess I’m just saying that I think theater is a good match for bands more than rock stars, because bands are used to being more flexible and changing in small dressing rooms and—

César: Dressing rooms? More like “behind the bar.” That’s what’s so good to read about from Brecht in his essay about music and theatre: The main thing is that music should be its own thing. You should be able to take the music out of the show and the music is still interesting, which in a lot of cases, it doesn’t really stand up. It’s more powerful in a lot of cases to have like an autonomous and ensemble-driven musical force inside of a theatrical work rather than a few hired guns that are playing some underscoring. It would be so much fun to see more of that.

In the next and final installment: What theater gets wrong and what it gets right, and what about a Brooklyn indie-rock-musical festival?

UPDATE:  A comment from Facebook by Joe Drymala: I really love this series, Rob. (And I've been having the same thought about bands turning to theater for income streams.) If nothing else, the "sound" of theater is going through an enormous upheaval right now, and I think that even the traditionally trained musical theater composers are going to be forced to take more care with the actual sound of their music (as opposed to hiring a slick professional arranger to make their material sound slick and professional and soulless). A band doesn't have that luxury--they have to think about the music as a final product, and listen to it as the audience member would experience it, so they're much more self-conscious about creating a unique "sound". Btw, it was kind of a bummer to see Hands on a Hardbody, if only because I thought the music was made to sound so bland, which sort of defeats the purpose of having a pop musician write the score. The best thing that pop musicians know how to do is use specific sounds that evoke certain moods and images in people's minds (think of the Beatles wandering through genre after genre and fusing them together, often in a single song, knowing full well the emotions and associations those genres will conjure in the listener's ear--and of course the great theater composers--Bernstein, Sondheim, Gershwin, Rodgers--could do this as well). I could go on and on about this subject, so I'll stop here, but please keep this series going.