The Playgoer: November 2005

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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

False Alarm

According to Michael Riedel...

LOOKS like Britney Spears won't be making her Broadway debut in "Sweet Charity." Production sources say Mr. Britney Spears, Kevin Federline, pressured his wife to decline an offer to replace Christina Applegate in the musical after the first of the year. "The deadbeat husband wants her to stay out in L.A.," says a source.

Of course it was ridiculous for anyone to decry a slacking of standards in the brief Bitney bruhaha, considering she would be replacing Christina Applegate! What a falling off, indeed...

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Scariest Headline of the Day

"Is Britney Spears Charity-Bound?"

Take a deep breath and read on if you dare...

(Then again, Britney & Broadway may be better suited for each other than ever...)

Monday, November 28, 2005

Quote of the Day II

"Both shows [Sweeney Todd and Jersey Boys] want to be perceived as hot tickets because there's a firm belief on Broadway that audiences flock only to shows that are hard to get into.
The late Peter Stone, who wrote the books to 1776, The Will Rogers Follies and Titanic, liked to illustrate this mantra with the following anecdote:
Two ladies sitting at the back of the house where Stone's hit My One and Only was playing noticed that the last row of the orchestra was empty.
One turned to the other and said, 'If I'd known I could have gotten seats, I wouldn't have come.' "

-from Michael Riedel's column in today's Post.

Ticket sales are evidence of what, again?

Quote of the Day

"Those raising ethical questions about the gift [of $100 million] to the Yale School of Music should first put the dollar amount in perspective. Private and corporate donors in America have to compensate for the government's negligible support of the fine arts. In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts gave out grants totaling just over $100 million. In France, in recent years, the state subsidy for the Paris Opera alone has averaged roughly the same amount."

- from Anthony Tommasini's excellent opinion piece about the recent anonymous mega-donation to fully fund all Yale music grad students. Of great import to all areas of arts training and funding.

Another highlight: "Though I live with a doctor, I get tired of hearing people go on about the arduous road medical students tread to their chosen profession: years of training, boot-camp internships, mounds of debt. Yes, yes. But at the end of that road, a definite reward awaits. Compare this with the slog faced by young musicians, who pursue advanced degrees with no guarantee that their schooling will lead to a paying position." Amen.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving

Yes, 'tis true, Playgoer has already been on something of a hiatus this past week (as some have duly noted!). Academic duties have called, and even when I don't pick up they call again. And now some holiday down time is also required. But please do tune back in on December 1 for a resurgence in posting.

Meanwhile, some reading material...

- First, please check out, to your right, Playgoer's new, improved, and long-overdue Blogroll! (See between Theatre Must-Reads and Reviews.) Finally I have put together a list of other theatre/arts bloggers I am indebted to and genuinely enjoy visiting on a near-daily basis. (Hopefully they will be not be taking Thanksgving off!)

- A sobering report on the NY Cultural Affairs office's hearings on non-profit theatre.

- Jason Zinoman's Sunday profile of The Builders Association (see photo above) is a great introduction to the hyper growth of multi-media performance recently.

- The Great Feingold's review of the big revival of Albee's Seascape is probably the best place to start with that.

- For sheer time wasting, there's always plenty of dish at the All That Chat boards.

- And, finally, for the obligatory wacky news item, here's a man who claims to be in possession of fragments of Beethoven's skull.

Safe eating, all....

Friday, November 18, 2005

Chicago off-Loops get a break

One reason the Chicago small-theatre scene is so vibrant is the political work done, like this, to lobby city government and get structural/legal support. In this case, something as nitty-gritty as zoning codes and fire regulations. Of course, the city of Chicago sees theatre as a great cultural attraction. New York sees Broadway as a great commercial attraction, otherwise...

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Quote of the Day

"The emergence of the practitioner-blogger has the highest potential significance for arts journalism. Many, perhaps most, of the greatest critics in history -- George Bernard Shaw, Virgil Thomson, Edwin Denby and Fairfield Porter come immediately to mind -- were also practicing artists. But with the growing tendency of mainstream-media journalists to think of themselves as members of an academically credentialed profession, the practitioner-critic has lately become a comparative rarity in the American print media. Not so on the Web, which is one of the reasons why readers in search of stimulating commentary on the arts are going online to find it."

-Terry Teachout, Dean of Theatre Bloggers

Read his special column on online arts criticism here. Great that even Wall Street Journal readers will see this. Will the Times ever pay attention?

Dolan takes on NYT

Happy to see Jill Dolan also fisking "Arts & Leisure"'s continuing trivilaization of issues important to today's theatre. Here she exposes the assumptions behind a recent profile of playwright Sarah Schulman and its inability to take her gender and sexuality seriously.

Whom to Believe?

Two critics today on Rinne Groff's Ruby Sunrise--one of Oskar Eustis's big premieres as new A.D. of the Public Theatre:

How many times has a movie or play lost you at the ending? Everything is chugging along just fine, and then the director cops out and squanders all the good will built up along the way.... By that logic, Rinne Groff's 'The Ruby Sunrise' should generate great word of mouth. It takes a long time, but the play eventually doubles back - turning two underwhelming plot threads into a knockout of an ending.

Eric Grode, NY Sun.

Rinne Groff's period drama about America's growing pains during the early years of television promises a payoff that doesn't quite arrive.

Charles Isherwood, NY Times

One thing's for sure. If you're a young playwright with a big premiere this week, you don't want Charles Isherwood reviewing your show! He skewered the talented Itamar Moses for his Bach at Leipzig this week and his tone with Groff today is no more encouraging. Of course--it's not the critic's role to be a cheerleader. I'm personally a fan of Bach but have not seen Ruby Sunrise. (Grode's review, truth be told, is hardly a rave either.) Maybe they're not great plays. But in age when we keep asking "where are the new playwrights", doesn't it behoove any reviewer (especially at the New York Times!) to show just a little more...interest in what the next generation is up to? And to give them a review that doesn't seek to taint them for the rest of their careers?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Tomlinson acted "Illegally" at CPB

Yes, the Inspector General has spoken. "Scathing!" says the Times.

Money quote:

...the report said that in the process, Mr. Tomlinson repeatedly crossed statutory boundaries that set up the corporation as a "heat shield" to protect public radio and television from political interference.
The report said he violated federal law by being heavily involved in getting more than $4 million for a program featuring the conservative editorial writers of the Wall Street Journal. It said he imposed a "political test" to recruit a new president. And it said his decision to hire Republican consultants to defeat legislation violated contracting rules.

The full report is here. Hopefully this will subside for a while the GOP's plans for takeover or demolition of PBS.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The New Look of Stage Design

The Times profile of Brit designer William Dudley and his work on Woman in White is a good introduction to what will surely become a more widespread use of "scenic projections." Dudley's work in this area may be new to New York--and it took an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical to bring it here!--but he's been at it for a while. (The Times, as always is behind the times.) I saw his magic at work three years ago in London for the Stoppard "Russian trilogy" The Coast of Utopia. Believe me, it's not just another gimmick. For better or worse, Dudley (and his colleagues in the field) have brought a new cinematic level to stagecraft. In the hands of a great director like Trevor Nunn, the results can be breathtaking and emminently theatrical. Once Disney gets a hold of it, however, who know...

Friday, November 11, 2005

August Wilson bonanza

Check out the latest American Theatre for a wealth of Wilsoniana. Including...

-an interview with Wilson by Suzan Lori-Parks, in a very moving context:
On the day of the interview, just an hour before I was scheduled to talk to him, I got a call from a friend telling me that Mr. Wilson had just announced to the press that he was ill and had been given only a few months to live. An hour later, when we spoke, my heart and mind were clouded with sadness. I could hardly keep from crying, but Mr. Wilson was clear, focused, funny and, as always, brilliant as hell.

- a reprint of his King Hedley II preface, outlining the goals of his entire 10-play project

- and in the print edition only(!), the complete text of the last play, Radio Golf

Also, check out AT's annual Theatre Facts report, on the state of professional non-profit theatre across America. (I hope to post some highlights here when I have a chance to digest.)

"Sweeney" must-reads

Two heavy-hitting reviews of Sweeney now available online:

John Lahr, in the New Yorker (rave)
Michael Feingold, in the Voice (thoughtfully ambivalent)

Thursday, November 10, 2005


Directed by Brian Kulick. Starring Michael Cumpsty.
at Classic Stage Company (in previews)

Hamlet does not strike one as an ideal audience-participation play, but in its wonderfully disorienting opening moments, Brian Kulick's production (at his Classic Stage Company) unexpectedly turns it into just that. Perhaps I'm indulging in a bit of a "spoiler" here (to avoid, skip down to the next paragraph). But, trust me, as soon as you give the usher your ticket and are directed to go not to your seat but to cluster with you fellow playgoers on the small stage area... you'll know something is up. Perhaps, like me, you will begin to fear the worst, based on memories of forced-audience- participations past. ("Let me guess, I'm playing the Norwegian ambassador, right?") But before you can think of an excuse to head back to the lobby--"Crash!" goes the sound and... blackout. Then: "Who's there?" A flashlight up in the seats (yes, the audience) hits the truly frightened face of Francisco, the nightwatchman, and all of a sudden we are in Elsinore. Not just in illusionary, but outside it, on the grounds, in the dark, gazing up at these shadowy figures on their improvised "parapet." The next shocker is when they swing their lights in our direction, seeking the ghost, who, sure enough, turns out not to be some generically "spooky" stage effect, but a grey bearded man of flesh and blood moving among us. Caught in the very same searchlight, we nervously back out of the way for this mysterious yet all too real and corporeal figure to brush past. If you're thinking "it's just an actor" then you'll be surprised at the unique chill you'll feel when you actually feel his overcoat grazing up against your arm. That the "realness" of it all doesn't detract a jot from the imaginary world of the play is, in short, the magic of theatre in action.

I've often felt Kulick is a director of gimmicks. The curious "waterslide" to nowhere in his Twelfth Night in the park and the overly literal "scribes" of his CSC version of the "Mysteries" cycle. But I have to give him credit for a real inventive intelligence in this opening. In this scene of the supernatural, confusion of space is what it's all about, both blocking-wise ("He's here!" "He's there!") and philosophically (how do men and spirits cohabitate the stage convincingly). Kulick, appropriately, solves the problems by messing with our sense of space entirely.

I won't say the inventiveness ends there. (You did sense a "but" coming, didn't you.) But it's telling that Kulick doesn't find a way to carry over that initial thrill and promise, other than turning the house lights back on and having his stage manager give us permission to finally take our seats to become a "proper" audience. How disappointing. Kulick continues throughout the evening to offer penetrating insights through via staging and acting choices here and there. But there is not really a consistent tone.

The tone that prevails the most would be the steady quiet baritone of actor Michael Cumpsty. A consummate Shakespearean craftsman with an expert technical instrument, Cumpsty offers an impeccable "reading" of Hamlet, in the best sense of the word. Nary a nuance is missed in his subdued yet highly specific communication of the play's language. But does he compellingly embody Hamlet? Not really. As to anyone familiar with his perennial appearances in Broadway British comedies, Cumpsty's a bit of a stiff--which serves him well in some roles, but it's not what we want from Hamlet. He gains force from his sheer physical presence; he's taller than almost everyone else on stage, and fills out his crisp modern black suits with imposing gravity. His is definitely an intellectual Hamlet (Hamlet the thinker over Hamlet the romantic hero) but still doesn't let us into his mind the way, say, Simon Russell Beale turned the soliloquies into alluring and highly personal thought experiments. In a word, cold.

In that way he's found his match in Kulick, a defiantly and persistently cold director. (The two have collaborated often, most notably in a well-praised Timon Of Athens in Central Park.) The set is a clinical white box, complete with viewing "windows" on the side walls for audiences on the sides of the CSC "three-quarter" thrust space, as if they were observers at a police interrogation (or a hockey game, depending on how you see it). The costume color scheme is pure black and white all around, too, but where good guys like Hamlet, of course, wear the black and Claudius is a white-suited dandy.

Speaking of Claudius, I'm sure some critics will be horrified by Robert Dorfman's giddily decadent usurper, but I was totally sold. Say what you want about his prancing and mincing (yes, he's a bit...fey) but it's also a fresh and thoroughly thought-through interpretation of a role so often taken for granted. Too often, it seems like Claudius is given to a second-rate "older statesman" journeyman actor who aims for authority but isn't the least bit menacing--prompting questions of why anyone fears or follows this lame "tyrant" to begin with. But Dorfman offers us a portrait in unabashed corruption. This Claudius is having such fun. Posing for the cameras in his opening scene, knocking croquet balls as Polonius vies for his indifferent attention, he exudes that Shakespearean motto by way of Mel Brooks, "Tis good to be the king." The self-satisfaction turns dark, of couse, toward the end, in a pathetic display of Nixonian drunkenness, desperately swallowing the very wine he is about to poison!

For everything Kulick and Cumpsty don't get about Hamlet, (as usual, Ophelia was terrible) I did leave grateful for everything they do get out of it. Or, at least, for the amount of care and thought that have gone into the ideas and text itself. If you sit close in this intimate 200-seat theatre (I definitely recommend the first row) you feel almost privileged, as if at a private performance, where some highly skilled actors are setting this usually distant masterpiece right in your lap. Paring down the cast to nine (and the text to a fluid 2:45) this is definitely a "chamber" Hamlet, a dark thinkingman's melodrama about a very bad royal family. Considering how many bloated snorefest productions I have sat through--full of either dull "importance" or kneejerk iconoclasm--this was in many ways a breath of fresh air, even if that air is as chilly as on those parapets of Elsinore.

Shakespeare Denial Watch

I just caught up with Charles McGrath's NYT review (now firewalled) of the three recent major Shakespeare bios (Greenblatt, Shapiro, and Ackroyd) and, while he is no out-and-out Denier, he does seem to have no problem equating the fringe authhorship-conspiracy with bonafide scholarship:

A lot of Shakespeare commentary issues from the academic garret, where scholars are still fretting over questions of authorship, chronology and textual authenticity. And an almost equal amount emanates from the grassy knoll where the conspiracy theorists -- who believe that William Shakespeare was merely a front for the ''real author'' -- point knowingly to people like Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford and the latest to be unmasked, Sir Henry Neville, a courtier who was actually a distant relative of Shakespeare.

"Almost equal amount"? Of what??? Is McGrath equating the level of scholarship to be found in legitimate textual peer-reviewed studies as in the newsletters and blogs of Oxfordians and
Baconites? Yes, those wacky professors. Studying Shakespeare, denying him, it all goes on in that same "academic garret."... And do note the plug for the "Nevillians"(?) and their latest "candidate."

McGrath, by the way, is no amateur "gentleman-reporter" like Wm. Niederkorn. Charles McGrath is the former editor of The New York Times Book Review.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Quote of the Day

"To find a new Sondheim show that made money on Broadway, you have to reach all the way back to "A Little Night Music" in 1973. 'Forum' and 'Night Music' duly noted, every other Sondheim show since 1973 — among them, 'Merrily We Roll Along,' 'Sunday in the Park With George' and 'Passion' — were financial disappointments on Broadway. The 1979 original, Tony-winning production of 'Sweeney Todd' returned only 50 percent of its $1.5 million investment on Broadway, says its producer, Marty Richards. A Sondheim show 'rarely becomes a marriage between the critics and the audience,' says a theater investor."

-Michael Riedel, in a terrific little survey of Sondheim-economics. Of course, the hook of the piece is how the new Sweeney may finally turn this fate around. Of course, it sure helps that the overhead is low.

Reidel might have also added that this string of commercial "failure" climaxed with Sondheim's only completely new musical of the last decade, Bounce--which could not find backing for a New York production at all! Maybe it's a bad show--but imagine a major American novelist not being able to get published??? At some level we have to support our greatest artists through their middling work. Otherwise they will stop creating.

The underlying question illuminated by this is, as always: why do we continue to entrust one of our most important artforms to an increasingly hostile marketplace?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

PBS liberated!

Kenneth Tomlinson--Bush's man to make PBS "fair and balanced"--has resigned as chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Apparently in anticipation of some damning internal "Inspector General's Report" which may charge him with more wrongdoing than just ideological rigging. (Appropriately, I found the link on Crooks & Liars.)

I wish him an appropriately Gogol-esque end.

Hail the Philanthropist

I'm as happy as anyone for Oregon Shakespeare Fest's windfall of free software courtesy of a Microsoft-connected donor. But I've been puzzled all morning by what the Times angle is in running this story today. Celebrating regional theatre? Great! Educating us about the possibilities of technical advances in lighting on how it unleashes new artistic creativity? Interesting!

But then at the end of the piece you read this:

Mr. Schroeder [the donor], meanwhile, is still making the six-hour trip from the Bay Area every year. (One advantage of driving, he said, is that he and his wife can take their large, heavy espresso machine, set it up in their hotel room and serve coffee and bagels each morning to a group of friends who make the trek with them.)

Yes, this is we need in theatre coverage now: theatre as the enclave of the conspicuous- consumption elite. Thanks again, NYT.

When there's more info about latte's than letters in an article about a theatre company... you know what's up. It is the benevolent microchip millionaire, not the Bard, who is the true hero here. (Mr. Schroeder gets a photo, too.) Almost as if Oregon's--or Microsoft's--pr reps planted this story themselves. The story is basically the reward for the gift. This is what arts coverage is becoming, I fear, an extension of the old "society" page. Google the number of "arts" stories about fundraising & donor tributes and you'll see what I mean.

Monday, November 07, 2005

"Sweeney" up close

Very neat little "Audio Slide Show" on the new Sweeney Todd at the Times online. Just some gab from Lupone and Cerveris, with some interesting tidbits (like Sondheim wrote some new lyrics!). But worth it, most of all, for the vivid up close photos, really giving a sense of this stirring production. Words can only do so much justice.

Try clicking here, but if the javascript is giving you problems just find it on the Times theatre page under "Multimedia."

The Show That Will Not Die

The In My Life saga/trainwreck continues. Much to the glee, I may add, of Broadway-watchers like myself and The New York Times, who continues to offer this show the weirdest kind of non-publicity publicity. (Is Playgoer guilty of the same, you ask?)

Actually the motivation behind today's article seems to be to get back at the show for actually using Ben Brantley's slam in their ad! (Does "jaw-dropping whimsy run amok" sound like a rave to you?) Also, this bit of education on how advertising may not save a turkey like this, but still does make quite a difference:

The advertising blitz may be working, at least to an extent. According to figures provided by Mr. Brooks and Ed Nelson, the show's company manager, "In My
Life" showed markedly increased sales last week, compared with the previous
week, with daily box office totals ranging from about $35,000 (Nov. 1) to a peak
of nearly $85,000 (Nov. 3). By contrast, ticket sales on Oct. 24, just as the
advertising campaign began, were less than $5,000.

In other words, once you're on Broadway, can muster a $1.5 million(!) advertising budget, and attract all the free-media that thus ensues (see NYTimes) really can con people into seeing just about anything. (A retort to those who still equate ticket-sales in the theatre with genuine interest and inherent worth.)

Mike Leigh's latest

That idiosyncratic documentarian of modern British social history is back with two big openings--one in London (Two Thousand Years at the National); one in New York (a stateside premiere of Angela's Party at the New Group.

Read the latest profile of the master in the Guardian.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Q on the rocks?

"The idea that Vegas is Broadway West now seems premature." So says one of Michael Riedel's sources, based on the suprising underperformance so far of Avenue Q at Steve Wynn's Wynn Las Vegas hotel. Read the full story here. Is the material too racy for "real" America? Or just too smart for Vegas? (i.e. too much actual plot!)
Or there's this interesting theory:

One reason the show clicked in New York was that, from the very first preview, it had great word of mouth. But theater people who've looked closely at Vegas say word of mouth is hard to generate in a town made up of people who are just passing through. "There isn't a permanent population," says a Broadway producer.

Hmm. Says a lot for the value of a theatregoing community. But wait--how do you explain Broadway, then? No shortage of "passing-through" tourists there...

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Best of RSC on CD!

Yes, the Royal Shakespeare Company finally had the bright idea to issue commercially some amazing recordings they've been sitting on all these years from some legendary (and some just damn good) Shakespearean performances. The CD's coming out now are really just "highlights".

Some day it would be nice to hear entire productions. No one believes in the visual importance of theatre more than yours truly, but I must admit I'm nostalgic for those old long playing LPs of entire plays. For some drama--Shakespeare, O'Neill--they make perfectly fine listening, as rendered by great actors.

Anyway, I'll highlight the products once they're available on Amazon. Meanwhile--thanks to Webloge--go ahead and click here for a listen.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Wagner, meet Wilson

...Robert Wilson, that is. Read here for the Times' Alan Riding's report from the controversial Paris reception to the first two installments of Wilson's "Ring" cycle there.

Personally, I feel that space aliens make a pretty good analog to the Valkyries. (Ok, so the caption says these are the "Rhinemaidens". Whatever.)

more Odd Couple

Interesting to read two of the heavy hitters of criticism on L'Affair Odd Couple: namely, my two "Deans," Michael Feingold and John Lahr. The former even hints at the end toward my own question about whether the state of Broadway itself may be to blame here...

The Feingold piece is only in the online Voice--one way they continue to reign in their print coverage of theatre. At least the website has given him some more opportunities, but, still, sad news that the cutbacks there are here to stay, and such fine pieces as his A. Wilson and Pinter tributes were not given the print exposure they deserved. Hey, new Voice Theatre editor Jorge Morales--do something about this!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Quote of the Day

Broadway theater ticket prices, breaking through a $100 ceiling established four years ago by "The Producers," are moving 10 percent higher, led by the hits "Monty Python's Spamalot," "Wicked" and "Mamma Mia!," which have pushed the charge for their best seats to $110 in the past month. Historically, price escalation on Broadway begins with the strongest shows and then spreads. Discussing the increase in top ticket prices, Jed Bernstein, the president of the League of American Theaters and Producers, a trade group, pointed out that...the explosion of technology-driven entertainment on the Internet and elsewhere has heightened the expectations of audiences. "Viewers expect a level of sophistication in their entertainment that didn't exist 30 or 40 years ago," he said. He added that the average price of a ticket is slightly above $60.
-from last Wednesday's "Arts, Briefly" column in the NYT. (emphases mine)

While you muddle over the merits of the various justifications, just note: the "average" Broadway ticket is now $60, apparently. And, as any visit to a box office window will show, that's hardly a "median." (Sixty is the very, very low end of the price spectrum. How many seats are actually less???)

So please quote that figure to anyone arguing Broadway is still needed to give plays "greater exposure"