Nov 2, 2023

L.A. Theater History: The Waiver Wars

The seats of the Elysian Theatre on Riverside Dr., which in my time in L.A. was the home of the Colony Studio Theatre (later Knightsbridge). It was also the theater closest to my home in Echo Park, and I sometimes walked to it.

I often tell people that at least one ventricle of my heart is still in L.A., where I lived from the late 1980s until 2005, and in particular in L.A. theater, which was my main beat there. I had occasion yesterday to meet and chat with Michaela Bulkley, a young theater producer and consultant who worked for a time at the now-defunct L.A. Stage Alliance and has a keen interest not only in promoting L.A. theater in the present and future, but in its history, interests I share.

Of course, not a lot of L.A. theater history is documented, at least not in easily available form. Indeed, when Bulkley told me she'd read some pieces I wrote for L.A. Stage Alliance's old magazine, L.A. Stage, in 2009, about the history of L.A.'s 99-seat, a.k.a. "Equity Waiver," theater scene, I went to look for the stories online and couldn't find them except with reference to the Wayback Machine.

Obviously there's been a lot of water under the L.A. 99-seat theater bridge since then, much of it documented in the pages of American Theatre, but I thought, as a service to the world, and to other current and future L.A. theater lovers like Bulkley with an interest in how we got where we are (and the ways our current moment rhymes with the past), I should repost the articles on this blog. They were released in two parts, so there are few details in the second piece that seem a bit redundant when you read it all back to back. But it's all here. A little background on the assignment itself is here.

Without further ado...

LA StageMay 2, 2009

Part I: Waging the Waiver Wars

By Rob Kendt

If you’re a loyal Los Angeles theatergoer, we might preface the following story by saying: Pay no attention to that plan behind the curtain. After all, if you’re one of those lucky people in the know—those who have seen enough Southland theater to know that the work onstage here is as healthy and vital, and occasionally as disappointing, as anywhere else you might care to name—then you already know firsthand that there’s no qualitative difference between a good show in a 60-seat former tire showroom and good show at the Ahmanson. The alchemy of live performers, and the unique bond they create with and among live audiences, thrives without regard to venue.

It even thrives without regard to the compensation or material conditions of its practitioners—and there’s, as Hamlet might say, the rub. If the stormy 37-year history of Equity Waiver (now known as the Equity 99-Seat Plan) proves anything, it is that when theater artists want to get in front of audiences, however small, they won’t take no for an answer—even from their union. What’s also clear is that the artistic richness, abundance, and diversity of L.A.’s small theater scene, which we’re fortunate enough to take for granted today, simply wouldn’t exist without the stubborn insistence of L.A.’s theater artists on their right to strut and fret their hours upon the stage.

Of course, you don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the next show you see at a small theater in L.A. But if you appreciate a theatrical tale of outsized passions and raging conflicts, the history of the Equity 99-Seat Plan offers plenty of drama.

The Explosion Before the Storm

In the early 1970s, L.A.’s theater landscape was hardly booming. The Pantages was still a movie house; the Pasadena Playhouse, once the home of a prestigious theater school, had had its doors padlocked in a federal tax case; the future Geffen Playhouse was a furniture store. The Music Center’s two new theaters, the mid-sized Mark Taper Forum and the cavernous Ahmanson Theatre, formed a lonely beachhead in Downtown L.A.

“As best as I can remember, my impression as a New York actor coming to L.A. was that the only game in town was the Taper,” says Barbara Beckley, who would go on to become the founding artistic director of Burbank’s Colony Theatre. “I wasn’t aware of much theater going on in town. I do remember being at that meeting where the members voted in Equity Waiver.”

Beckley refers to the historic meeting of July, 1972, at which West Coast members of the actors’ stage union voted to “reconsider” a proposal by the union’s Western Advisory Board to eliminate all Equity rules in theaters with fewer than 100 seats—in other words, to effectively waive Equity’s work and wage rules and allow its members to perform in small theaters without union protections. There were already several dozen such small theaters, mostly in the Hollywood area, at which actors not otherwise occupied with film or television work were getting onstage in unofficial, under-the-radar productions.

As Tom Ormeny, now artistic director of Burbank’s Victory Theatre, recalls: “A group of actors went to Equity and said, ‘We all know this is happening. We think it’s time for you to create a waiver for LA.’ There were so many actors here, and because there was no other theater going on, they wanted to create stuff, and what was between an actor and a producer was none of Equity’s business. They decided work was more important than the money.”

That’s hardly a line of argument to warm the hearts of union leaders, Ormeny concedes, but he says, “It became apparent that there was going to be a major rebellion against Equity if they didn’t change the rules. They’d lose a lot of members.”

Equity bowed to the pressure, issuing a Waiver on an “experimental” basis. But if this sounds like a tentative resolution containing the seeds of further conflict, it was. Take a look back at that verb “reconsider.” What rank-and-file members like Beckley may not have realized when they voted to waive Equity rules in that July meeting was that the proposal had originated in March—and had been soundly rejected by the union’s New York council. This division, between the union’s East Coast theater trade capital and the upstart actor-producers of L.A., would come to haunt L.A.’s small theaters in the decades to come.

In the meantime, though, as Ormeny put it, “There was an explosion of theater.”

Concurs Beckley: “Overnight, 99-seat theaters started springing up all over town.” Soon enough, with some actor friends, Beckley herself caught the self-producing bug, and before long they were running a 99-seat theater in Silverlake, where the Colony Studio Theatre would remain for 25 years.

“What drove it was that there was just nobody in town who had the wherewithal and the passion and the drive to make theatre work on any kind of large scale,” Beckley says, pondering the origins of what could justly be called a Waiver movement. “I don’t know if that was to some degree audience-driven, or culturally driven. I do know that a broad theater community happened in L.A. because Equity Waiver happened in L.A. Looking at it now, it’s clear that its effects were tremendous and far-reaching.”

Indeed, by 1980, according to a study by Scott Henderson, the number of small theaters had increased to 124 theaters and 41 independent production companies from a mere 45 in 1970. Many ensembles and artists that are fixtures on today’s L.A. theater scene trace their beginnings to this first decade, from the Matrix to Colony to the Victory. And a few that had already existed in non-Equity form, such as East West Players, Company of Angels, and the Odyssey, were given new life and legitimacy by the Waiver.

Curiously, L.A.’s midsized theaters—hence theaters offering paying Equity contracts—also began to thrive in the ensuing decades, as the Taper achieved national fame in mid-1970s, the Westwood Playhouse opened in 1975, and the Pasadena Playhouse made a second entrance in 1986.

This concurrent midsize-theatre health is another important fact to keep in mind as one traces the history of Equity Waiver, since the anti-Waiver argument is often made with the zero-sum logic that says that more non-paying theater somehow undercuts or drives away paying theater.

His Least Favorite Year

Though Michael Van Duzer didn’t work at Equity when the Waiver was first ratified, he was on hand when the underlying tensions behind the Waiver erupted, in what would soon be called the “Waiver Wars.”

And he’s lived to tell: Van Duzer is still Equity’s representative to L.A.’s small theaters, and though tempers have cooled, he recalls the 20-year-old battles well.

“It was certainly the worst year of my life,” says Van Duzer of 1988, the year that the Waiver Wars broke out in earnest. They had begun quietly enough in 1985, when Equity took another look at the Waiver and its discontents.

“We had a meeting where we basically had a two-page document that says actors will be paid $5 a performance,” Van Duzer recalls placidly. “That proposal was taken to a membership meeting. At that meeting there was a lot of hysteria, with people saying, ‘The theaters will go out of business,’ ‘We won’t have any place to showcase ourselves.’ And the other side either wanted to curb Waiver or just had a distaste for professional actors getting paid nothing. There were a lot of eloquent speeches and a lot of hysterical screaming, so we went back to the drawing board.”

Though the Colony was among the majority of small theaters with respectful work practices, Beckley concedes that some restrictions on the Waiver were probably in order.

“There was a show, Bleacher Bums at Century City Playhouse, that ran for years, and the actors didn’t make a dime,” Beckley recalls. “Under the Waiver, as long as you could make the rent, there were no rules regarding nudity, rehearsal time—you could do whatever you wanted. On the other hand, the actor owed nothing; he could walk away without penalty at any time if he felt unsafe.”

Of course, without being exploited, an actor may develop strong loyalty to a production he’s invested time in, making such a no-fault bargain less simple in practice. “You can always say, ‘No, dear, you can walk out at any time,’ ” as Beckley puts it, “but who’s going to do that?”

So, while L.A.’s small theater producers reluctantly entered informal talks with Equity to discuss amendments to the Waiver—talks complicated by the fact that many of these producers were also actors and Equity members, creating what the union saw as a conflict of interest—an enterprising young producer named Paula Holt was renovating a West Hollywood movie house called the Tiffany. She wasn’t aware of the brewing Waiver Wars—and had no idea what she was venturing into.

“My original intention was to try to build a midsized house, but my architect told me I didn’t have the footprint or the ceiling height,” says Holt, now an independent producer. “He said, ‘I can’t build a decent 350-seat house, but I can make you the best Equity Waiver theater complex in town.’ ”

By 1987, the new Tiffany was ready to open one of its 99-seat stages with a play about Fatty Arbuckle starring Equity actors Kelly Bishop and Art Metrano. Equity, however, was troubled by the prospect of a state-of-the-art theater, not run by actor-producers, operating under the Waiver.

“I think the union, with directions from New York, was concerned that Off-Broadway shows would transfer from New York to a Waiver space,” says Holt now. So Equity filed an injunction against the actors, on the grounds that Holt had downgraded a midsized house to make her Waiver complex. (The old movie theater had indeed hosted intermittent performances by a satirical troupe, the Committee, but without a glance at Equity.)

“It was a strange climate because of the Waiver Wars,” Holt recalls. “I assumed it was a cooperative environment, but it became very personal.” She says that Equity’s regional director, Edward Weston, told her, “I’m going to make sure nothing ever comes into your theater.” As Holt says, “That’s when I knew I needed a lawyer.”

Holt won her case after six months of wrangling and sleepless nights (and the Tiffany would go on to enjoy an extraordinary 15-year run as one of L.A. preeminent theaters, big or small).

But the battle over L.A.’s small theaters had just begun: In the spring of 1988, a referendum on the Waiver was sent out to West Coast Equity members about the plan. The actor/producers who had been in talks with Equity had not been notified and felt blindsided by the move.

“I remember we were on a plane, and we got the notice that the referendum had gone out,” recalls Maria Gobetti, veteran Waiver warrior and co-founder, with her husband Tom Ormeny, of the Victory Theater. “And I said to Tom, ‘I guess this is war.’ It was very painful.”

LA Stage, June 29, 2009

Part II: Waiver War Weapons

by Rob Kendt

As anyone who follows international relations might tell you, a key weapon in a powerful player’s arsenal is simple recognition, or more importantly, the strategic withholding of same. By deciding which parties, organizations or even small countries it considers legitimate bargaining partners, a nation or bloc of nations can define the acceptable parameters of discourse and in many cases determine the course of a conflict—if indeed it admits there is a conflict at all.

Union organizers know this tactic well from the other side of the barricades, for very often the first obstacle they encounter, and the first battle they must win, is simply to be recognized by management as labor’s legitimate negotiating representative. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Actors’ Equity Association employed a similar hardball approach in the late 1980s when it faced a virtual insurgency of members opposed to the union’s tightening of small-theater rules in Los Angeles. By most accounts, the venerable stage union kept the upper hand over actor/producers by simply ignoring their demands and refusing, until cornered by a lawsuit, to hammer out a deal.

“The huge frustration was that Equity refused to negotiate with us,” recalls Laura Zucker, now executive director of LA County Arts Commission. In the ’80s, Zucker served as producing director of Back Alley Theatre in Sherman Oaks. As such, she co-chaired an ad hoc alliance of 99-seat theater producers, formed in response to Equity’s plan to rein in an unregulated—and very active—small theater scene.

“That was their primary tactic: not to meet, not to talk,” Zucker relates. “That’s why we brought the lawsuit alleging breach of covenant. And the lawsuit worked in the sense that it forced them to talk to us.”

That lawsuit was among the key battlegrounds in the infamous Equity Waiver wars, which raged from 1986 through 1988 and changed LA theater forever. Actors who were once guaranteed nothing for working in theaters under 100 seats would ever after have some basic protections, some limits on work hours, and a small monetary reimbursement for their hard work. Was the fight worth it? And what brought the contenders to the brink?

As we saw in Part One of this two-part history of LA’s 99-Seat Plan, in 1972 Equity had granted its members a “waiver” to work without union protection or remuneration in theaters with fewer than 100 seats. As a result, the quantity of theater productions and companies exploded, with the roster of venues and independent companies roughly tripling within a decade.

This startling growth—glut, some said—of live theater in LA had a dangerous flip side. Equity’s East Coast leadership had been skeptical of the Waiver from the start, allowing it only on the grounds, as 99-Seat Plan administrator Michael Van Duzer puts it, that it provided “a way for our membership to showcase themselves and get other paying work in film, TV or stage.” That actors-showcase rationale happens to be contrary to the impulse that has given rise to some of LA’s best theater. Contrary to its intention, however, the waiver sets up expectations of career advancement that a thousand tiny theaters in a spread-out industry town can meet only sporadically.

Indeed, as Van Duzer notes, the 1980s saw a plethora of alternative showcase opportunities spring up, from casting director workshops to “industry nights,” where agents and casting directors could watch a series of short scenes and enjoy a catered reception, all without having to endure “three hours of bad Shakespeare and then go out to find their cars had been broken into.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, anecdotal evidence also surfaced to suggest the Waiver had opened the door to abuse—including one notorious long-running comedy at a Westside venue where the roaches made out better than the actors. “The Waiver had no rules at all,” Van Duzer points out. “So if somebody had a complaint, like, ‘They made us work for 14 hours,’ we had to say, ‘It’s not a contract—you can leave the show.’ ”

According to Van Duzer, actors who asked to waive union wages and protections started to wonder, “I’m not being seen by the people I want to be seen by, and this set costs how much?”

It was probably inevitable, then, that the Waiver’s no-rules regime would change. In 1985, a two-page document outlining a new plan for LA’s small theaters was presented at an Equity staff meeting, with basic limits on rehearsal and performance times, working conditions and the actor’s tiny honorarium of $5 a performance. When the proposal made it to a member’s meeting in 1986, Van Duzer got a glimpse of the battle royale to come.

“There was a lot of hysteria—people saying theaters would go out of business and actors wouldn’t have any place to showcase themselves,” Van Duzer recounts. “On the other side, people either wanted to curb Waiver or just had distaste for professional actors getting paid nothing, saying this took us right back to the actor/managers that created the need for Equity in the first place. There were a lot of eloquent speeches and a lot of hysterical screaming. This clearly went to an emotional core.” Needless to say, Van Duzer sums up, “We went back to the drawing board.”

It’s On

Clamoring for a place at that drawing board was a large group of theater producers who called themselves the Equity Waiver Theatre Operators Committee (ETWOC). These were the leaders of LA’s large, unruly, oft-acclaimed theater scene, including the Colony Theatre‘s Barbara Beckley, the Victory Theatre‘s Maria Gobetti and Tom Ormeny, the Matrix Theatre‘s Joe Stern, the Odyssey Theatre‘s Ron Sossi, and Back Alley’s Laura Zucker. Many of them, such as Zucker’s husband, actor/director/teacher Allan Miller, also happened to be Equity members-a technical conflict of interest that meant, although Equity was willing to hold non-binding meetings with EWTOC to hear their concerns, the union saw no reason to formally negotiate a new small theater plan with them.

While EWTOC did this wooing dance with Equity, the union had another Waiver fire to put out. In 1987, a producer named Paula Holt opened the Tiffany, a new theater complex on Sunset Blvd., containing two state-of-the-art 99-seat spaces. Equity viewed this as an illegal division of one larger midsized—and hence potentially full-contract—theater in its jurisdiction. More privately, the actors’ union fretted that two sleek, professional-looking theaters operating under the Waiver would set a terrible precedent. Would producers with deeper pockets just exploit the Waiver as a cheap way to open their pet projects or import Off-Broadway hits?

At the time, Holt wasn’t part of EWTOC’s struggle for union recognition and had no stake in the gathering Waiver wars. But when she sued the union successfully and won the right to keep the Tiffany’s doors open, the defeat only seemed to solidify the union’s resolve against the Waiver’s advocates.

At least, that’s one way to explain what happened next. Tom Ormeny recalls a last-ditch attempt to make EWTOC’s case directly to the union’s East Coast brass.

“I flew to New York and went in front of the national committee and said, ‘I don’t want to sue my own union,’ ” Ormeny says. “We left the meeting and we felt pretty strongly they were listening to us.”

Listening or not, Equity unilaterally decided in late March of 1988 to send a referendum directly to West Coast members, who handily voted to instate the new 99-Seat Actors’ Theatre Plan in place of the Waiver. To the folks at EWTOC, this was the last straw.

“We said, ‘OK, this is war,’ and we got a pro bono lawyer,” recalls Gobetti. The lawyer took the case, Ormeny says, because “he thought he could win it on breach of covenant. Without any attempt to negotiate, Equity had shut down the talks.”

In the ensuing volley of threats and counter-threats, newspaper op-ed pieces and contentious overflow meetings, both sides hardened their positions. EWTOC rechristened itself ATLAS (ostensibly an acronym for Associated Theatres of Los Angeles, though where that final “S” comes from is anyone’s guess), which later joined the Producers League of Greater Los Angeles to form Theatre League Alliance, a.k.a. Theatre LA (now LA Stage Alliance, the publisher of this blog). Some of this was mere positioning but most of it was sincere anger.

“When push came to shove, we started ATLAS. We said, ‘Equity is outdated, it’s a rhinoceros,’ ” recalls Odyssey founder Ron Sossi. “We even started doing auditions for our own actor members and we picketed the union.”

By the fall, though, the battles ended with a whimper. A grace period passed and the new 99-Seat Plan went into effect. The Waiver was history and most members of the erstwhile ATLAS, however grudgingly, signed onto the new system.

Not that they lost everything: that restraint-of-trade lawsuit ended in a settlement that included an important concession, as Van Duzer points out.

“The major change was that another committee would be set up with members of the 99-Seat community, which would meet a couple of times a year to discuss the Plan,” says Van Duzer. “And if the 99-Seat committee disagreed with any proposed changes, they would have the option of taking the case to our board. There was now an open path for a dissenting opinion that hadn’t been there before.”

It would be 12 years before the 99-Seat Plan was revisited or revised. “That tells you how deep the hurt was,” says Van Duzer.

L.A. Exceptionalism

There’s been enough healing, however, that most veterans of the Waiver wars now speak of that time philosophically.

“As much as we fought the coming of the Plan in the ’80s, I believe that was the logical next step and evolution,” says the Colony’s Barbara Beckley.

The unanswered question is how the Plan might evolve. Around the turn of the century, the Colony and a handful of other LA area theaters—East West Players, International City Theatre—made the leap to midsized spaces and hence to Equity contracts. It’s been quite a nail-biter, Beckley says, “The chasm between running a theater at a 99-seat level and with a contract—I don’t see how it’s possible now.”

Though Zucker agrees the 99-Seat Plan has been a net benefit for area theater, she doesn’t think it was the best the producers and Equity could have done—or could still do.

“The irony of this whole situation is that both Equity and the producers wanted midsized theaters,” Zucker says. “We were all frustrated by the limitations of Waiver. Part of the dialogue we wanted to have with Equity was; how can we get from here to there without impediment? The leap from a Waiver situation to a full contract is so huge and so many people get lost in there. So part of the proposal we put forward was a way to allow people to tier up from 99 seats. Equity tossed that out and said, ‘We’re not going to create a tiered plan; you each have to talk to us individually.’ That was the greatest mistake they ever made.”

Zucker still sounds frustrated as she recalls the old battles but she’s quick to add, “It’s really not too late. One could sit down with theater operators and come up with a way they could grow, that will incentivize theaters to start adding seats-it would be a progressive, creative plan and it won’t look like any other contract Equity has anywhere else.”

This is a recurring refrain in the story of the Southland’s small theater scene—what might be called Los Angeles Exceptionalism. The litany goes something like this: This sprawling urban mega region has, by some estimates, a few hundred thousand actors vying for a TV walk-on; it’s notoriously stingy with foundation or government support for theater; and though it’s among the top three theatergoing cities in the US, measured in ticket receipts, it is not by any stretch of the imagination a commercial theater capital.

Given the lay of the land, then, is the non-remunerative 99-Seat Plan a clever workaround that allows thousands of talented theater artists to ply their craft with minimal restrictions? Or is it yet another item in that list of reasons for LA theater’s second-class status?

Says Paula Holt, “You can’t understand the plan unless you consider it was established by actors, not by producers or theater owners. There was no need for union protection because there wasn’t anything at stake—you didn’t have the usual split between producer and actor because a lot of the producers were actors.”

Sossi agrees. Like Holt, he’s heard the zero-sum argument that a glut of Waiver has somehow stifled the development of midsized theater—an argument that would have to ignore the relative health of the Taper, the Geffen, and the Pasadena Playhouse—but he’s not persuaded that LA’s actors would want it any other way.

“The alternative might be half a dozen midsize theaters where you still would only make a meager salary,” Sossi speculates. “The actors would rather have 130 theaters where they make gas money than six theaters where they can make crappy money.”

For Joe Stern at the Matrix, the real victory in the Waiver wars has been changing the minds of his foes.

“Their whole thesis for 35 years was that if you don’t get paid, you have no dignity and you’re an amateur,” Stern says of Equity’s East Coast leadership. “But they’ve begun to get it—part of it is just attrition, and part of it is seeing our viewpoint. It’s now better than it ever was; consciousness has been elevated.”

As Equity’s Van Duzer puts it: “Even the most rabidly anti-waiver and anti-99-Seat-Plan people have realized that the way Los Angeles is, some form of this will always have to exist.”

LA theatergoers may not realize what struggles have transpired behind the scenes to keep the shows going on. But the next time you’re in an audience of 60 enjoying a great night of theater for around $25 a ticket, you might think to offer a silent tribute of gratitude (maybe even a spoken one, or a cashable one) to the fighters who’ve helped to keep Los Angeles theater as abundant as it is intimate.

Jun 8, 2023

TBT: Jean Smart & Mary Steenburgen

photo by Gary Leonard

When I was starting up Back Stage West back in late 1993/early 1994, I remember someone suggesting that we do something like Interview magazine—i.e., have one celebrity interview another. Hence was Actors' Dialogue born, though the emphasis wasn't so much on celebrities per se as colleagues who happened to be well known, and most often had a single project to promote together (though we also did our share of matchmaking: Our very first dialogue, between Marion Ross and Charlotte Rae, wasn't tied to any project at all but was put together as a kind of dream date). I've posted a few of these recent years and plan to do more (i.e., Sam Jackson & LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Rupert Everett and Richard E. Grant).

These were always very lightly hosted and coaxed along by a reporter, which is how one memorable day I found myself in the presence of Jean Smart and Mary Steenburgen, who were both appearing in the West Coast premiere of Scott McPherson's Marvin's Room. The brackets in their exchanges below show a few traces of my nudging (I'm sure I asked them to compare notes on their training, for instance), but I think the results hold up well as a time capsule of these two, and of the industry they were part of, in the mid-'90s.

Back Stage West
Oct. 13, 1994


On Confidence, Training, and the Intangible

Two actors best known for film and TV roles met recently at the home of a friend to talk about their return to the stage, in Marvin's Room at the Tiffany Theatre.

Mary Steenburgen's first film role was in Jack Nicholson's Goin’ South, and she won an Oscar in 1980 for Melvin and Howard. Since then, she's appeared in such films as Time After Time, Ragtime, Parenthood, Cross Creek, and What's Eating Gilbert Grape? Jean Smart is best known for her role as sensible Charlene on the long-running CBS series Designing Women. She also played a retarded woman in the TV movie The Yarn Princess, and appeared in the films Mistress and The Incredible Journey: Homeward Bound.

Mar 8, 2023

The First Cut Is the Deepest

Orville Mendoza as Sweeney at the 2014 Sondheimas celebration. (Photo by David Gordon)

When Stephen Sondheim died last year, I reflected that he is probably the single artist I've written the most about, both for hire and otherwise. With the publication of my new preview piece on the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, I have occasion to reflect that I can boast the pleasure of having written about that show, arguably his greatest, more than any other of his pieces.

Like many folks, my first exposure to Sweeney Todd was the recording of the 1981 tour stop with George Hearn and Angela Lansbury, which I confess was too grisly for my 12-year-old self to get through. Around the same time I was more intrigued but not quite won over by the similar video of Sunday in the Park With George. My journey to a full appreciation, then full-on fanhood, as I've said many times (including to the man himself), was in intimate stagings by a number of L.A. theaters: Into the Woods at Actor's Co-op, Company at West Coast Ensemble, Assassins at L.A. Rep, Putting It Together at the Colony, Pacific Overtures at East West Players.

That last venue is also where I saw my first live Sweeney Todd, in 1994, by which time I was not only acclimated to his work's complexities but alert to them, even ardent about them. Amazingly, I learned recently that that production was also Josh Groban's first experience, not only of the show but of Sondheim's work. Josh was then around the age I had been on my first mortified exposure to Sweeney, and obviously he was more mature than I, because that production kindled a lifelong love for the man's work that culminates with him headlining the first full-scale Sweeney revival on Broadway.

Among the great pleasures of writing my preview piece on the new Sweeney was to be able to name check that production and its star, Orville Mendoza, about whom Josh told me: "That performance still resonates; it still haunts me."

I could say a lot more about Sweeney Todd, but it turns out I've already said a lot, in...

A review of the 1994 East West Players production with Orville Mendoza & Freda Foh Shen

A review of a starry Reprise! concert staging with Kelsey Grammer & Christine Baranski in 1999

A review of the 2005 Broadway revival with Michael Cerveris & Patti LuPone

Thoughts in this space on the 2007 film version

A review of the NY Philharmonic production with Emma Thompson & Bryn Terfel in 2014

A review of the 2017 "pie shop" production (joined with a review of Sunday)

I haven't yet been assigned to review the new revival, but if I am, I will consider it yet another chapter in a long critical engagement with the demon barber (and his creator). The chair awaits.

Feb 9, 2023

TBT: Poetry Vs. Hollywood

One of the privileges of my theatergoing in L.A. back in the day was seeing talented actors like David Dukes do some of the best work of their careers in venues both big and small. I also got to interview him a few times, and he was as interesting to talk to as he was to watch (not always true of actors, honestly). Then he died suddenly, at the age I am now, and I got to know his widow, the poet Carol Muske-Dukes, who wrote a book of essays in part about her late husband and the world he occupied. This piece for the paper I ran then brings back fond memories. I hope you enjoy it as well.

Feb 2, 2023

TBT: Randy Newman Can't Afford to Do Theatre

It wasn't a one-on-one, alas, but I well remember the day I was ushered into a South Coast Rep rehearsal room for a sort of four-way interview: myself, another reporter, the press rep (Cristofer Gross), and Randy Newman, dressed in de rigeuer Hawaaian shirt. The occasion was a sort of revue of his work that music director Michael Roth and literary director Jerry Patch had cooked up called, after Henry Adams, The Education of Randy Newman. It ended up being a creditable stage effort but nothing special (nor, by most accounts, was an eerily similar anthology evening at the Mark Taper Forum just 10 years later). But I wasn't going to pass up the chance to talk to a songwriting idol, and after Faust, which I'd enjoyed at La Jolla Playhouse, it still wasn't all the far-fetched a notion that he could write something worthwhile for the theatre. (More on that bittersweet subject here and here.)

Without further ado, this was my cover story for the magazine I ran at the time.

Back Stage West
May 18, 2000

Newman’s Own
Randy Newman writes narrative songs in character. Is it any wonder they're ending up on a stage?

by Rob Kendt

Does Randy Newman have an image problem? We're not talking about his unprepossessing looks, which he has jokingly compared in song to "froggish men, unpleasant to see.”

More damaging to the reputation of America's greatest living songwriter is his recent success as a sort of avuncular troubadour for baby boomers and their tykes, with the charming fluff he's written for such films as Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Babe Il: Pig in the City, and, going back a few years to the beginning of this uncharacteristically benign period in his work, Parenthood’s "I Love To See You Smile." It doesn't help his street cred that his two other biggest pop hits as a singer are "Short People" and "I Love LA." Nuff said.

While no one can begrudge a great artist some success and material comfort, in Newman's case this recent mellowing, which would include his distinguished career as an orchestral film composer, often threatens to overwhelm his enduring contribution to pop music: a 30-year song catalogue unparalleled in its acid wit, its supreme but unpretentious artistry, its unreliable but incisive storytelling.

This, after all, is the same songwriter who wrote "Rednecks,” satiric country anthem for Southern crackers that doesn't let the North off easy, either; "Sail Away," a sweet ballad which just happens to be a colonial slave trader's pitch to the Africans; “Wedding in Cherokee County,” the bluesy lament of an impotent circus freak, and such perverse confections as "Christmas in Capetown,” "Davy the Fat Boy," "I Want You To Hurt Like I Do." Even 10 years ago, the name Randy Newman was still a byword for double-edged character songs that were alternately moving, chilling, and hiarious—whereas now Newman and his patented ragtime shuffle are a family-friendly franchise.

His last album, 1999's Bad Love, even addressed his perceived irrelevance with the corrosively funny "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)" ("Each record that I'm making/ls like a record that I've made/Just not as good").

The mellowing is partly for real, Newman confessed in a recent interview at South Coast Repertory, where a new music-theatre piece has been fashioned from several of his songs, and is set to open June 2. Called The Education of Randy Newman, it's a sung-through musical conceived by SC literary manager Jerry Patch and musical director Michael Roth, with a Newmanesque central character carrying the evening from 1943 to today, employing Newman's character songs along the way to illuminate the personal and political upheavals of the period.

"The arc of it is, I learn that life is not so bad," said Newman of the show. "Which actually is something that I learned. I think I was a lot more unhappy at 24 than I am now. Maybe I'm just not paying attention.”

Not that he's disavowing his body of work—just that he's got more perspective about its rich, unsettling blend of misanthropy and compassion.

"I never had a horrible, bleak view of the world—I always knew that people were kinda decent. The people in the audiences who hear my songs are better than the people in the songs—they're exaggerations, I know that. I know it from talking to individual people—they're just not bad. It isn't like the world is a cesspool.

"I watched, on public TV years ago, Emile Zola's Nana, and it was the bleakest—it was like where you would go when you die. It was the worst, most depressing thing I've ever seen—way worse than life is, way worse. I just sort of knew that. It's that bad if you're a junkie; it's that bad if you're in love with someone who doesn't love you. But basically it's not."

Mixed Revue

The association with South Coast Rep, Costa Mesa's regional theatre powerhouse, began when Michael Roth, who had music-directed a straight revue of Newman’s songs, Maybe I'm Doing It Wrong, in the mid-1980s at the La Jolla Playhouse and Off-Broadway, suggested to SCR artistic directors Martin Benson and David Emmes another Newman revue. They were fans, and so was Jerry Patch—but he saw the possibility of more than a simple evening of tunes.

"I listened to a lot of his songs, and I had the notion that there something bigger than a revue here—that you coud tell a story with this material," said Patch. "Then the question became, How do you do that?"

Patch thought of The Education of Henry Adams, the 1918 classic by the Quincy Adams-descended historian—a droll third-person autobiography about the forces that shaped the 19th century, filtered through the unreliable but witheringly insightful lens of Adams’ experiences. With Newman's approval and editorial input, the South Coast team set out to weave some of his best songs into a narrative thread which, like Adams' biography, would not give an accurate portrayal of his life per se ("the details would be overwhelmingly boring," Newman quipped) but would present his uniquely alert, jaundiced point of view on his times.

His unique sensibility, both musically and thematically, is the product of his upbringing, mostly in Los Angeles but also, for a brief but significant period, in New Orleans, from whence his mother hailed. "I remember the ice cream wagon with the signs marked 'colored'—which was misspelled—and ‘white,’” said Newman. "I only lived there up to age three, but I went back every summer till I was 12." The new show extends this Southern sojourn a bit, in part so some of his Faulknerian songs about racists and con men and working-class anti-heroes can be included, and in part, as Newman explained, "so my character sees things which presumably give me my acute sense of social justice.”

Actor Scott Waara plays this Newmanesque central figure, and the rest of the cast—an illustrious troupe that includes Jordan Bennett, Gregg Henry, Sherry Hursey, John Lathan, Allison Smith, and Jennifer Leigh Warren—plays other characters who embody the personal and political upheavals of the past 50 or so years, in a sung-through evening directed by Myron Johnson.

"In many ways it's the most ambitious show we've ever done,” confessed Patch, who helps maintain SCR's deserved reputation as a bastion of literate new American plays. Indeed, while SCR has previously staged Happy End and Sunday in the Park With George, it is not part of the nonprofit regional theatre's Broadway tryout circuit, like its counterparts to the south, La Jolla and the Old Globe. In the context of SCR's literary bent, then, the collaboration with Newman makes perfect sense.

"Randy really speaks to us, 'cause he's dramatic writer," said Patch. "He brings aspects of theatre to everything he does. He's clever, witty, smart; he's got craft to burn. If we're going to do a musical, he's the guy to do it with."

Play the Playhouses

Indeed, as inevitable as it was that Newman would follow his illustrious uncles Alfred, Lionel, and Emil in the trade of writing and conducting Hollywood film music, it also seems inevitable that this master of character writing and narrative would set his sights on the musical theatre. And so he did, with 1995's Faust, a joyous if ungainly vaudeville pastiche of Goethe's immortal story which premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse and went to the Goodman Theatre in Chicago with a possible Broadway run in mind. (That hasn't yet materialized, and plans for a staging at the Kennedy Center went away with its outgoing president, Lawrence J. Wilker, who apparently still wants to mount it somewhere.)

Newman learned a lot from Faust—giving the audience a reprise or two, and giving songs a big finish so that actors can make a graceful exit, were two big technical lessons. He thinks it was misunderstood: "I believe I got too much credit for the songs and not enough credit for the book. The score wasn’t maybe as good as they said it was, and the book wasn't...I mean, compared to what? We weren't doing Shakespeare; it had a beginning and ending, more or less. And I didn't care: If I wanted to do a Busby Berkeley number—I really did—I did it, even if it didn't pertain to the plot.”

Above all, Newman seems to have learned to trust stage craftsmen with his material, especially the actor/singers who bring his narratives to life.

"| noticed with Faust that the actors made it better than it was on the page,” said Newman. "In Education, a number of the songs—the context and the performance is better than I can do; it's more effective.

"It’s like, movie actors you meet sometimes, they're disippointments somehow. It's not their fault, it's just that they're not 40 feet high and they're not real smart and graceful and everything. But these stage people—they sing, they sing in tune, in five-part harmony, they sight read. They do stuff I can't do. Besides being able to do a backflip and dance."

And he understands the value of working in theatre in an essentially pragmatic way: "One thing I did find out was that Faust, and I think definitely this show, played to people I could not play to. They wouldn't come to see me, and I couldn't keep 'em. Here you've got pretty people to look at, they're dancing around, some nice voices. Mv voice offends some people—music lovers—and once I get past 'You've Got a Friend in Me,’ Bug's Life, ‘Love To See You Smile,' and ‘Short People,’ I'm in trouble. But with Faust in San Diego and Chicago, they had kids, old black ladies, who liked it and sat through it, who I couldn't play for, really."

Of course, he dues play to an even bigger mass audience with his second career as a G-rated bluesman and film composer. But he clearly understands his place as a hired hand: "Every Disney movie I've done, I could have written the same song for: If we all pull together, things will work out." And film scoring lets him obsess on the craft of writing for orchestra, which he learned at the feet of his three composer/conductor uncles in Hollywood.

A show like Education, on the other hand, puts a new frame around some of his best songs for a mostly uninitiated audience. As SCR's Jerry Patch said, "Anyone in the Broadway business, or in music, knows how good this guy is. But to the general public, he's the guy who goes on the Oscars and sings the song from Toy Story. If this show can reintroduce his best songs to our audience—I think it will hit baby boomers right between the eyes."

It's Money That Matters

Still, Newman is not in any rush to write more for the stage. Not because he felt burned by Faust—his joy in that project shone through the score and still shows when he talks about it—but due to a more familiar dilemma.

"It takes years and there's no money—I can't afford it," he said matter-of-factly. "If I could earn a living doing it, it would be a good thing to do, 'cause I could use everything I know: I can write dialogue, I can orchestrate, write songs, write jokes."

The musical theatre might not want him, either, given his frank disdain for it: "It hasn't been the forum the best composers have gone into for quite a while; the best songwriters have been pop songwriters, for the last 30 or 40 years, mostly. Carole King and Paul Simon, people right there from New York, didn't go into it. There's Sondheim, but he's a lonely figure; everyone always has to say, 'Except for Sondheim.’”

His admiration for Sondheim is tempered by a slight but telling disagreement over rhyming.

"He was going to see this workshop of Faust that James Lapine was doing, and he said, ‘I hope you won't be nervous,’ and I said, ‘Well, I hope you don't mind a couple 'girl and 'world' rhymes.’ And he said, 'Well, I do, and you don't come from that [pop] place, either.’ And I said, 'Yes, I do. With the diction I have, I don't have to feel you can't rhyme...well, ‘girl' and world' is particularly egregious, but I've done it. Fats Domino rhymed 'New Orleans’ and 'shoes.' I don't mind that stuff, and Sondheim does. I don't agree with him.

"And sometimes I think he'll rhyme things out of boredom—just to show he can rhyme. He'll do a show about assassins or a murderer just because he has such virtuosity as a lyricist that he can do it. And yet, he's all we've got."

Newman, in person a sharp, funny, youthful personality at 56, stopped himself to realize: "I'll never get to Broadway—I've said so many bad things about things they love. It's like trashing someone's house before you see their house."

Indeed, after Paul Simon's famously contentious mounting of The Capeman in a hostile Broadway environment, Newman's comments may not get him a hero's welcome there. South Coast's world premiere of Education has no co-producers lined up to ensure it further productions; Patch said that the rights to the show remain mutually held by Newman and South Coast.

But while it's unlikely that the entire oeuvre of this songwriter's songwriter will ever get a huge popular embrace, South Coast audiences are likely at least to get a good survey course—an education in Randy Newman, if you will.

Jan 9, 2023

Samuel L. Jackson & La Tanya Richardson, 1994 Edition

Note: Sam Jackson is wearing a hat for the Birmingham Black Barons, a Negro League team that played 1920-1960. 

Tonight I'm headed to the TCG "Our Stories" Gala honoring Samuel L. Jackson and LaTanya Richardson Jackson, whose long and often interconnected careers in theatre, film, and television have culminated in the current Broadway revival of The Piano Lesson, which Richardson Jackson directed and in which Jackson appears as Doaker. It's something of a full circle moment for both of them: Jackson originated the lead role of Boy Willie in the play's Yale Rep production in 1987, then understudied it on Broadway (Charles Dutton starred), and Richardson Jackson has directed a number of plays by August Wilson over the years, though this is her first staging on Broadway.

Nearly 30 years ago, in one of the first issues of the actor's magazine I founded in L.A., we featured a long "actors' dialogue" with the couple, who had only fairly recently settled in L.A., ostensibly for her TV career, though they ended up staying to support his then-about-to-explode film career. This was well after Jackson was a regular presence in films, including in a few memorable roles in Spike Lee films, but about 7 months before Pulp Fiction's release made him a film icon.

As this frank, wide-ranging conversation makes abundantly clear, though, these were at heart two veteran theater artists still figuring out the ropes of Hollywood, with clear eyes and no illusions but a real openness to the next turns in the road. I think it's safe to say these two figured it out, but it's also great to have them both back on the stage (I say both because while Richardson Jackson has been no stranger to the theatres as an actor, both regionally and on Broadway, her husband hasn't trod the boards for more than a decade.)

And btw, if you haven't seen Piano Lesson on Broadway, what are you waiting for? I commend to you Helen Shaw's rave review to get a sense of what you're missing.

Here's the whole dialogue as it appeared in 1994.