Jul 30, 2013

The Turntable Cranks Up Again

I've slowly but surely restarted my formative-album replay project over at my other blog, Train My Ear, and though many of the records aren't theater-related, today's is a beloved collection of Brecht and Weill songs in French:
It's not an exaggeration to say that hearing these gutsy, iconic German classics in the language and chanson idiom of Brel and Piaf and Gainsbourg is a revelation--it even sounds a bit like a homecoming. Franck Aussman's orchestra, clearly taking a cue from the Lewis Ruth Band arrangements, plays this catalogue in a way that's both loose and jaunty, almost casual, but also spikier, more syncopated than we're used to hearing it; the banjo and rickety saloon piano feel like part of the percussion section, and the percussion in turn feels like a crucial partner in the accompaniment. The vocals, mostly handled by the unflappable contralto Catherine Sauvage, have that distinctly Gallic sigh, edging easily into a sneer, that locates passion and resignation, the embrace and the shrug, closer together on the dynamic/dramatic spectrum than we Americans (and most definitely than the Germans) do. And the Francophone setting implicitly places Weill's signature harmonic language within an early-mid-century Continental context, alongside Milhaud and Satie (or his teacher Busoni) as much as Hindemith or Eisler.
I'll return to theater blogging proper soonish. For now--maybe this is a summer thing--the record collection beckons.

Jul 20, 2013

The Critic Sleeps Tonight

As I write this, my four-year-old son is at a matinee of The Lion King with my wife. (Ah, seems like only yesterday he was going to toddler theatre...) They've never seen it; I saw it twice at the Pantages in Los Angeles, and my review in 2000 was decidedly mixed:
They say you can't argue with success, but here goes. Disney's Tony-winning stage adaptation of its hit animated film The Lion King, now onstage in Hollywood's newly sumptuous Pantages Theatre, is really two shows for the price of one: The first is a captivating, haunting, endlessly inventive visual and aural feast, with South African choral-and-drum music by Lebo M, sinuous choreography by Garth Fagan, almost edibly gorgeous lighting by Donald Holder, and the ingenious puppetry of Michael Curry. As shaped by director Julie Taymor, this first show is indeed as groundbreaking and replete with theatrical wonders as the hype has promised. The second show, which shares the stage uncomfortably with the first, is a tacky rehash of the animated film, complete with Elton John and Tim Rice's unprepossessing songs, and Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi's flat characterizations and vapid dialogue; blame for the clunky lyrics to the new music is spread among five writers. While much of the design ingenuity of the aforementioned masters is also evident in this other show, its key elements--book, lyrics, and music--range from mildly diverting to appalling.
So why did we just spend full price for two house seats, using some birthday money from my dad to help cover just one of the tickets? (Face value these days is--gulp!--$170, which I'm ashamed to say was a rude shock to me.) It's not like there aren't other, and much cheaper family entertainment options in New York. But as much as I like to think that kids' entertainment need not be overly pandering or cloying, and that there need not be a category of film and theater and music tailored specifically to young attention spans and unformed tastes--there is, and it's huge, and much of it that's available to us, from Pixar to New Victory to Music Together, is at a pretty high level (though Blue Man Group, which we took our oldest son to a month ago, was a bit too much for his tender age). So I'm willing to draw lines, and admit that while there is plenty of un-nourishing crap out there that it's best to steer my kids away from, there's also a lot of solid, well-made entertainment I don't personally care for that isn't going to rot their brains.

It's the reason I don't mind too much when my wife shows our sons The Sound of Music, a film whose charms I'm largely allergic to; I'd prefer a regular rotation of Singin' in the Rain, or if it must be a Julie Andrews film, Mary Poppins, but a little "Do Re Mi" isn't going to kill them.

Likewise, I guess, "Hakuna Matata."

Jul 18, 2013

Two Characters

Most good actors, in my experience, manage a delicate balancing act between being vulnerable, emotionally available, with feelings closer to the surface than seems altogether healthy on the one hand, and on the other hand being pragmatic, protective, even businesslike about their uniquely individual craft. It's genuinely hard, I think, for actors worth their salt not to take things personally, because their personnot only their body and voice and face but in some real sense their very spirit, their essenceis literally their working canvas, their toolbox, their workshop, in a way that few of the rest of us can begin to understand.

So I tend to cut actors a lot of slack for behavior that may seem to others narcissistic, paranoid, oddly out of tune with social cues, or downright standoffish or arrogant. I can report that my recent lunch at Joe Allen's with Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif, who star in the current Off-Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' nearly impenetrable The Two-Character Play, did not disappoint in the oddness department. Plummer, for one, was dressed in a biker's cap and a mismatched, pajama-like combo of long striped coat, plaid top, and striped pants; at one point she asked me to repeat a line from the play back to her just to hear me say it; at another point she got up and walked around the lunch table and delivered a somewhat inscrutable monologue about the impact of the Carol Reed film Odd Man Out on her life (some of the monologue, at least, made it into my Q&A in the New York Times). And Dourif, though dressed conservatively and less prone to non-sequiturs, still manages to give off the look of a very serious and slightly scared man-childan actor one Guardian critic compared, I think aptly, to Tony Perkins.

But if I was expecting them to be defensive or strange or mistrustfuland I'll confess it may have crossed my mind that things might get weirdI was proven wrong. These two seasoned eccentrics were gracious and expansive to a fault. And they gave me lots of gems I couldn't fit into my Times piece, which I'm happy to share here.
  • Sanford Meisner forbade Dourif from appearing in Lanford Wilson's The Hot L Baltimore, though Dourif was a Circle Rep founding member. (Dourif also happened to note that Hot L was clearly structured as a kind of symphony without music; hmmm, where have I heard that before?)
  • That Amanda Plummer infamously dropped out of the Off-Broadway premiere of Bug because she and director Dexter Bullard couldn't stand each other: "I adore Tracy Letts, and I wanted to do that play like crazy. On the record, the director didn't get along with me, and I not with him. And it was really evident."
  • Dourif ruthlessly treats acting as a business, and is often the one telling his agent to take the higher-paying gig over the prestige role. It's one reason he almost turned down a brilliant role on Deadwood: "The original offer was awful, and I wasn't going to do it. My girlfriend got on the phone and called up the agent and said, 'I've been praying for this for him, don't fuck this up. You go and make this work.' He called [David] Milch and they straightened everything out. HBO doesn't pay a whole lot, but it got really doable. And I was really happy I did." Yeah, so are we.
  • Plummer participated in a workshop of Waiting for Godot with Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave at the Ulysses Theatre in Croatia in 2004; of course, the Beckett estate's notorious ban on gender-bent productions prevented it from reaching a paying audience. Oh, and who did Plummer play? Lucky, natch.
And lucky is what I count myself sometimes to bear witness to the lively arts and their wildest and woolliest practitioners.

Jul 17, 2013

Should Plays Be Artist-Proof?

Brad Fleischer and Arian Moayed in Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo (photo by Craig Schwartz)
In the current issue of American Theatre, I've got an interview with playwright Rajiv Joseph (Gruesome Playground Injuries, The North Pool), and while talking about his Broadway play Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo, he made an interesting confession. He mentioned that one reason Robin Williams was happy to sign on to play the role of the tiger on Broadway is because "the plight of the veterans is a cause that is very dear to him, so he had an investment in the material." And that led to this exchange:

That’s interesting, because the American soldier characters don’t come off that well in the play.
JOSEPH: You know, one of the problems with starting this off with a great director like Moisés [Kaufman] and the great actors I had is that I often don't see some of the weaker parts of the text. And I've seen productions of it since then where the character of Kev [one of the American soldiers] just comes off as cartoonish, and I wish I had written it differently. I see it now but I never saw it before, because Brad Fleischer is a great actor and Moisés is a great director, and they never played it for that cartoonish quality. But what can you do? It's done and gone.

In a recent conversation with Book of Mormon co-author Bobby Lopez, he voiced a similar concern about the way its Ugandan characters' immiseration has been portrayed since the show opened--that while the humanitarian crisis in which the missionaries find themselves was meant mainly to provide hard-edged contrast for the show's comedy, it wasn't meant to be a source of comedy in itself. Lopez admitted that he's seen post-opening casts go for the laughs wherever they can find them.

It raised an issue that came up when I was writing about Annie Baker's Vanya at Soho Rep. She told me she'd seen productions of her own work that made a hash of it (though she wouldn't go on the record to say which ones), and the question of interpretation is ever-present with Chekhov plays, which arguably stand or fall on how well they're done (Sandy Meisner famously discouraged young actors from even attempting Chekhov).

So my question is: Is Rajiv being too hard on himself here? Does a good or great play need to be director- and actor-proof, or is one mark of a great work that it only shines in the finest and subtlest of renderings? I can see a good case to be made on either side here, though with a living form like theater, which truly exists only in the present tense, interpretation is all. Films and recorded performances aside, we can only see Shakespeare done the way artists are doing him now (one reason this bloke says he's done). I'd concede that there are relatively production-proof texts whose glories are nearly impossible to submerge even in a mediocre rendering, but that even those--maybe especially those--benefit from fresh, insightful new stagings that make seemingly familiar and indestructible works seem strange, vital, inexhaustible (last year's cobweb-clearing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? comes to mind). But there are just as many if not more great plays that defy a straightforward, common-sense approach, and that frankly wither without vigorous interpretive engagement (Brecht's, for one).

I can't say yet whether Bengal Tiger and Book of Mormon, both shows I admire enormously, belong in either class of deathless, revivable work, though I can say that I will almost certain have the chance to see them again in new stagings in my lifetime. But, particularly in an age of collaboratively made theater, it's worth wondering about the usefulness of the "artist-proof" measuring stick.

Jul 8, 2013

You Know, For Kids

It's been some time in the works: an album of songs inspired by Shakespeare and intended for kids, titled O Baby Mine: Sing a Song of Shakespeare. And though the actual CD, the brainchild of my USC film school colleague and the director of An Appalachian Twelfth NightSusan Lambert, is still awaiting an official pressing, I'll be premiering several of the songs—not only by yours truly but by Raymond Bokhour and Cinco Paul—with the preternaturally talented Madison Scheckel, who wrote two songs for the record herself, this coming Wed., July 10, at 7 pm at the Signature Cafe inside the Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. Joining Madison and me will be the impossibly versatile Ljova and his longtime percussionist Mathias Kunzli (whom I last saw playing with Regina Spektor).

It will be free, family-friendly, and fun for all. And though the version we bust out on Wednesday night will not sound quite like this, here's a sample from the record, inspired by The Comedy of Errors:

Jul 3, 2013

The Center Will Rock

Jeanine Tesori has long been something of a hero to menot because I've loved every score she's done (did anyone think Shrek was a great fit?) but because I feel a distinct affinity for her aesthetic, her sensibility, which is most clear in her scores with Tony Kushner (not just the agile, eclectic, deeply moving Caroline, or Change but her gravely underrated and still unrecorded score for his adaptation of Mother Courage).

So I was chuffed not only to hear that the old-musical-reviving program Encores! had tapped her to curate a new more-or-less-Off-Broadway version, called Off-Center, but to have that series as an excuse to meet and chat with her for a story in the Times. We had a bite at Apple Jack Diner and talked about one of my favorite topics, and apparently one of hers: the state of the art of the American musical, particularly its more outlying experiments, like her 1996 Violet, which will get a concert reading as part of the Off-Center series on July 17, with Sutton Foster in the lead. I was especially intrigued to hear about her background as a classically trained pianist who also concurrently learned pop musicwhich explains a lot about both the offhanded sophistication of her music and its openhearted affect, its blend of directness and subtlety.

And anyone who could sign up Sam Gold to direct another musical, as he will with next week's The Cradle Will Rock, deserves credit. After all, Gold, though best known for his new-naturalism work with Annie Baker, also directed Nick Jones' Jollyship the Whiz-Bang, not to mention a much-lauded and, from the looks of it, radical Juilliard staging of The Threepenny Opera. And this fall he'll direct Tesori's new musical with Lisa Kron, Fun Home. One thing that's clear about Tesori: If an artist can be measured by the quality of her collaborators, she's top-drawer. Among the playwrights she said she may work with on a musical in the future? Lynn Nottage.

Oh, there's one other scooplet I didn't have room for in my story: Tesori is a huge fan of Randy Newman's Faust (as was I) and may angle to get it into a future Off-Center program. Here's hoping "The March of the Protestants" one day reaches the Shriners' temple.