The Playgoer: January 2007

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Menagerie of Two

Theatermania documents Joe Dowling's revisionist Glass Menagerie featuring 2 Tom's--old and young, actor and "narrator".

Sound familiar? Well perhaps--just perhaps--Dowling knows that early play by his countryman Brian Friel, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, with its similarly split protagonist... Oh wait, looks like he directed it!

No matter, interesting idea nonetheless. But clearly not what Williams wanted, which was to make the character continually break the fourth wall and dip in and out of his own memories.

Dowling is right that most productions forget all about the "memory" aspect by casting a conventionally young leading man as Tom. (Even, hilariously, jocky football player types!) I personally have always wanted to see an older Tom, someone more clearly resembling the 30-ish Williams himself at the time of writing the play. Here's a case where the autobiographical elements enrich an already fine play even further. Plus an older, more worn actor could make his presence in the flashback/"memory" scenes more haunting and even creepy (a la Willy Loman) than the nostalgia-fest lazy productions usually end up being.

Next up: when are we going to see an Edmund in Long Day's Journey who actually resembles the quirky, neurotic, and deathly ill O'Neill himself?


A touching tribute by Michael Feingold to the legacy of the late Curt Dempster at his Ensemble Studio Theatre:

The results, for such a small and seemingly offhand enterprise, have been astounding. It's doubtful that any other producer in New York can lay claim to having offered the public 6,000 new plays, but under Dempster's leadership, EST did just that. While giving renewed credibility to the short-form with the theater's annual one-act Marathon, he also led in the exploration of plays based in science, and festivals of plays in development (an area far too many theaters conceal from their audience). Though EST often conveyed a "straight white guy" posture not unlike Dempster's own, it gave constant opportunities to women, gays, and ethnic minorities. Celebrity writers and actors cropped up often, side by side with near-unknowns and outright novices. Up the dusty stairs of that drafty building on that once-desolate block of West 52nd Street, Curt Dempster welcomed, nurtured, and showcased them all.

Note: Despite my headline, no one is talking about EST becoming "RIP" anytime soon notwithstanding the loss of their founder.

"Under the Radar" Festival

I'm late, unfortunately, in writing up my visits to the Public's "Under the Radar" festival last week, but here goes.

First, it was pretty noticeable how packed the place was. The Public succeeded at filling their building for a couple of weeks with a definitely young audience checking out new work. Very encouraging.

Of course, the point of "Under the Radar" is more curatorial than dramaturgical. It showcases work already produced or developed elsewhere. Indeed, the two shows I elected to see happened to be from Canada!

First was the Daniel MacIvor play, a writer I needed to check out ever since Jason Zinoman's glowing NYT tribute last summer. MacIvor's "A Beautiful View" is a spare and elegant three-hander for two women and a boom box. Spanning over an indeterminate number of years, the play traces the women's literally unnameable relationship. MacIvor (who also directed) enjoys playing with lesbian stereotypes as the down-vested close-cropped pair go camping and jam with what can only be described as a ukulele thrash-band. But they resist any labeling of their attachment to each other, no matter how physical it becomes. When one speculates, "We're like a couple, aren't we?" the other--with typical MacIvor deflatedness--comes back with "Coupla what?" The point seems to be to resist society's naming of our relationships and loving of one another.

I found MacIvor's minimalist style (on both the page and the stage) engaging, for about the first 45 minutes. The play's second half just left me more time to regret that he wasn't writing about anything bigger than the minutiae of relationships and that the writing wasn't more unusual. "Beautiful View" left me unsatisfied in itself, but still curious to see more of MacIvor's work.

I enjoyed more the proudly less "human" offering of "Famous Puppet Death Scenes." (Given my time to see only one other Radar show, how could I resist that title.) This NY debut by Alberta's Old Trout Puppet Workshop announced a new force in this underappreciated genre. In fact, I would go so far as to say that with their eerily beautiful tableaux, their stretching of time, their deadpan mordant sense of humor--Old Trout are the Robert Wilson of Puppet Theatre. (Not to be confused with claims for Wilson being the Puppetmaster of Real Life Actors.)

But for all the piece's delightfully mock pretentiousness, it is anything but pretentious. True to its title, the evening presents such "classic" highlights as "Das Bibpsy und Mumu Puppenspiel" and "The Feverish Heart by Nordo Frot" as if they were Hamlet. Employing a team of four puppeteers under the skillful direction of Tim Sutherland, Old Trout resourcefully uses multiple mini-prosceniums, combines elaborate stage business with classic Punch & Judy bopping, all to the accompaniment of terrific antiquated voice-overs and an eclectic score of scratchy lp's. The result is the most hilarious Grand Guignol since "Shockheaded Peter."

A smart producer would import Old Trout right away and install them not in a 499-seat barn (as befell "Shockheaded") but in a downtown warehouse for a series of 10pm shows. It would be a hit for children of all ages.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

News Item of the Day

"When [Playwright Tricia] Walsh-Smith discovered that Smirnoff vodka had underwritten the Jan. 29 benefit reading of her play Addictions — which chronicles the effects of drug and alcohol abuse on three women — the playwright quickly canceled the performance at Los Angeles' Kirk Douglas Theatre."

Read the shocking details at Playbill.

Missouri Arts at Peace

The Missouri standoff of "don't sue the state or we'll kill this dog--ahem, I mean cut your funds" is now over. You could say the Gov has reprieved the Kansas City Symphony.

Why ART dumped Robert Woodruff

You may have heard last month--with surprise--that the Harvard-based American Repertory Theatre declined to rehire (to put it nicely) their Artistic Director Robert Woodruff. Sure, Woodruff is a provocative director who consistently ruffles feathers. But ART is one of the few big theatres known for a "difficult" aesthetic and sometimes difficult personalities. They've thrived on being a true European "directors' theatre" arthouse.

Well, "thrived" is not how the ART board would have put it, I guess. The Globe today has the behind the scenes blow-by-blow. They claim Woodruff had been indicating all systems go for another season. Then:

But in December, something changed. Just before Christmas, the ART's staff learned from an e-mail that Harvard had decided not to renew Woodruff's contract. The statement, and a press release issued a week later, didn't explain why. But interviews conducted this month with members of the eight-person ART/Harvard board of directors, which has the authority to hire and fire the artistic director, revealed that his exit came because of concerns over how Woodruff's artistic approach was affecting the theater's bottom line.

ART/Harvard board members, appointed by the university's president and the Harvard Corporation, said they needed a new leader to send a message to the university. A new Harvard president, who may be named within weeks, would want to see that the ART was taking its fiscal issues seriously, according to Robert James Kiely, a Harvard English professor who was one of the six members of the board who voted unanimously not to bring Woodruff back. Orchard and Woodruff, who are also on the board, did not vote.

"I think the fear, with a new administration coming on at Harvard, was that the ART would not be a high priority," says Kiely. "If it looked too dire financially in the next year or two, we could lose the theater."
Read on, here.

Of the many interesting aspects to this story, theatres housed at universities should especially take note. For many, campuses have provided an oasis of support, a welcome subcategory loophole of the tangled nonprofit system. I've often thought myself that the future of regional theatre depends ultimately on university support--in real estate, finances, and subscriptions. The link to a training program also often helps bring in revenue and provide an in-house company of URTA-approved low wage supernumerary actors.

Well, note the lack of confidence up in Cambridge that the new incoming Harvard Prez--whoever that may be--will not necessarily see things that way.

Monday, January 29, 2007

West End Gives B'way Run for Money?

Turns out Broadway's boom last year may have signalled a phenomenon not unique to New York. London's West End reports similar box office numbers.

Are we experiencing just a general surge in theatre tourism across the globe? Or is it a result of basically the same shows (!) being offered on both sides of the Atlantic? (flowing both ways, of course)

Yet the two commercial arenas still operate under some different economic circumstances. Some revealing stats:

The average price of a West End ticket was £32.43 (around $63.53) in 2006. That's still smaller than Broadway's average of $75.69, according to figures from the League of American Theatres and Producers.

The West End earned less money but sold more tickets than Broadway did. Broadway revenues were $906 million on 11.97 million tickets in 2006, according to the League. Broadway, however, numbers only 39 theatres, while SOLT's West End figures take into account 53 theatres.

The British government received £59 million (around $116 million) in VAT revenues from West End tickets.

NYC Cultural Funding Overhaul: A Review

Kate Taylor in the Sun has an excellent review of the ins and outs of the new arts funding disbursement policies devised by Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council.

Whatever objections one can still raise, it's notable that arts and culture institutions big and small are happy. The main reason, it seems, is it's relieving them of much of the sheer hassle of lobbying! Buzz words like "competitive bidding" and "peer review" are also garnering applause.

Still, it seems to me this is just helping a deeply unsatisfying and compromised system of pseudo state arts-sponsorship work a little less annoyingly.

Note the distinctions in the plan, by the way, between members of the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG) and everyone else. What separates CIG companies is that they are on city-owned property. Not a lot of theatres qualify as that. BAM is mentioned. But is Lincoln Center? (Anyone?)

Saturday, January 27, 2007

NYT Changing of the Guard

Both Rob Kendt and George Hunka are now reporting the Times is changing theatre editors. Rick Lyman is the new man, replacing Patricia Cohen, who is staying on at the paper in other capacities.

Lyman has been a staff reporter for the Times in many, many capacities over the past decade. I remember him beginning as a theatre/arts reporter back in the mid 90s. (I remember him taking studious notes for a never-published piece on a Cicely Berry workshop I assisted on in '97.) He soon switched to a general arts beat, culminating in the "Watching Movies" series (eventually compiled in a book) where he recorded remarks made by great filmmakers as they watched their favorite films. (The most insightful I remember was Soderbergh on "All the President's Men." Woody Allen choosing "Shane" was also a surprisingly revealing session.)

I also recall seing Lyman's byline on a number of straight-news front page stories of late. A journalist's journalist, he seems.

What effect will this have on Grey-Lady theatre coverage? Well, to offer my own journalism 101 insight: "Only time will tell..."

Friday, January 26, 2007

Stanley Wells punk'd?

Eminent literary scholar and historian Stanley Wells tells in the Guardian of a bemused encounter with a Shakespeare-denier.

I have just wasted a long afternoon in allowing myself to be interviewed by a charming television crew from Norway who are making a four-part documentary about a claim by a compatriot that he has identified treasure that for over 20 years has been rumoured to have been buried on an island off the coast of Nova Scotia.

He claims to have decoded messages within printings of Shakespeare's works demonstrating that their author was a Rosicrucian, that he was Francis Bacon, and that a symbol deducible by abstruse mathematical and geometric means leads to stones on the island concealing conclusive evidence in the form of authorial manuscripts proving the thesis....

Like others of his ilk that I have encountered over the years, the claimant, a church organist, is a courteous, highly intelligent, learned and apparently rational man who is nevertheless impervious to reason on the topic that obsesses him and to which he has misguidedly devoted years of intellectual effort.

He ignores the evidence that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare because he wants to prove something different. It might all seem like a harmless if futile game were it not that he has written and had published a long, heavily illustrated book on the topic which, I am told, is to be translated into many languages.

This will follow other books in recent years devoted to demonstrating that, for example, the Earl of Oxford, Sir Henry Neville, and Lady Mary Sidney wrote Shakespeare, and following in the footsteps of 60 or 70 other claimants brought forward over the past 150 or so years.

None of these books has been written by a real Shakespeare scholar, or by anyone who has any demonstrable interest in the plays themselves.

Yet they command media attention, and gullible (or greedy) publishers are willing to invest in volumes that invariably and rapidly end up on the remainder shelves.

Wells puts his learned finger on two really key points about the popularization of the Shakespeare denial craze. One, that bit about the champions always having no real demonstrable interest in or knowledge of the plays. And two, the marketing incentives. I'm always shocked when Barnes and Noble gives prime "table display space" to these conspiracy books, many of which are obviously vanity publications. Basically, booksellers (and newspapers, as we've seen in the NYT) have no problem debasing their own intellectual integrity to promote anything sellable.

Sorry, what a naive statement by me. And did I just use the word "intellectual" in reference to newspapers and bookstores?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Economics of the New Family Musical

From a firewalled article in Crain's NY Business on the new production company, Running Subway, that made a splash with The Grinch this holiday season:

For The Grinch, Running subway cut a deal with the actors union allowing it to present 12 shows a week instead of the usual eight, a first for a Broadway musical. The union made the concession because the show was shorter in length than a normal Broadway musical and had a limited run. That allowed for an 11am show for school groups and four productions a day on weekends to reach families. The large number of weekly showings enabled the production to gross more than $15 million in just 11 weeks. A successful musical typically takes close to a year to break even.
And I thought Disney was a factory.

Arts Funding: Bloomberg-Style

Nice sounding lede in today's Times about Mayor Bloomberg's rollout of a "new & improved" method of grant distribution to NYC arts orgs:

Declaring that they had wearied of their annual dance over arts financing, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the City Council announced yesterday that they would make more money available to arts groups, award it on a merit basis and widen a peer-review process to level the playing field.

Basically they're increasing the pool and reforming the application process so that arts groups no longer have to agreessively lobby city council members piecemeal, as it were.

Sound good, right?

Maybe. And some artsy folks are quoted as saying much.

But why am I disturbed by statements like this:

“What this does is tell groups, ‘You’re going to move forward, or we’re going to take away funding and give it to groups that are moving up,’ ” said Dominic M. Recchia Jr., chairman of the City Council’s Cultural Affairs Committee. “It’s a sign that you have to produce”....

“They’ll have to keep proving themselves,” he said, adding, “It will give the city new ways to discover and reward excellence in our cultural institutions.”

Okay: "move forward," "moving up," excellence"... what does this man mean by these terms. Somehow, I don't feel he's talking about advancing the artform and being ahead of your time.

Bloomberg may sell himself as the "nice Republican." But here we see the ruthless and insulting logic of "No Child Left Behind" applied to the arts. Meet your target numbers (whether your test scores or your ticket sales) or lose your funding. Social Darwinism enshrined as social policy.

To make things worse, take a look at the incentives:
Organizations with large building programs will receive multiyear appropriations, the mayor said; smaller groups will have to apply on an annual basis.
Gee, who does this favor? The storefront theatre trying to finally pay their actors? Or Lincoln Center when they decide to do the next Stoppard Tetralogy?

I've always wondered why so many struggling theatre companies bankrupt themselves further by suddenly buying a new space or announcing a new building complex. Now I see. In grant-world, you have to spend more to get more!

And tell me if I'm wrong, but the $30 million quoted as the increased funding trough for all the arts org's to compete for, sounds like probably what any major European city gives its opera house alone.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

REVIEWS: "Germans in Paris", "Billboard"

A double whammy for me today in print.

Two Off-Off reviews: "The Germans in Paris" in the Voice and "Billboard" in Time Out.

Can I recommend either of them? Alas, not really.

"Germans in Paris" is the more interesting and better written. But the Voice unfortunately, for space reasons, cut an important piece of info. So let me exploit my own space here to amend.

The playwright, Jonathan Leaf has gained some interest as a rare example of that breed, the living conservative playwright. (A brief profile of him appeared in last summer's Time Out spread on downtown playwrights.) Having called before for as much ideological diversity in our theatres as well as other kinds, I want to make clear that my problem with "Germans in Paris" is not tied to the author's moonlighting credits at the Weekly Standard and National Review. But I do think knowing that helps inform a reading of the politics of the play. And I do think a play's politics are fair game engaging with as a critic if you differ with them.

Just as we are sometimes inclined overlook a play's dramaturgical flaws if it agrees with our politics, I also think we are entitled to weigh our response to a play's argument against other literary virtues. That this entails a critic being open about his or her own politics goes without saying.

Also, in my Voice review I also refrained from making an obvious comparison that is still worth making--that is, to Stoppard's "Coast of Utopia." The parallels, though, are not as simple as famous dead white males in tail coats spouting philosophy in exile. The connection is a similarly classically conservative, and skeptical, weltanschauung. For Leaf, Heinrich Heine is a figure very similar to Stoppard's Alexander Herzen--a stoic, disillusioned pragmatist resisting the tide of violent and (in their eyes) unfeeling change. That classic conservative rallying cry (William F Buckley, I think?) of standing athwart the world and yelling "stop!" applies equally to both plays.

And it is aspect of conservatism that is refreshing in both plays, frankly. It's just hard in short-form criticism to express a more complex ambivalence of resepct vs disagreement.

One last point--I would probably be much more welcome to a play by Leaf about today instead of "Old Europe." One problem with Germans in Paris is that it's not provocative enough. I sense that most in the audience received it as pretty safe Masterpiece Theatre stuff, especially in the present unimaginative production. But next time he writes a play about the current day, even skewering liberals like me, I'm there!

(Anyone see Leaf's The Caterers?)

REVIEW: The Country Wife

photo: Sergio Reynoso
The Country Wife
directed by John Ficarra
presented by Vital Theatre Company
& HonkBark productions
at the McGinn/Cazale (through January 27)

A classic Woody Allen standup joke goes something like, "Someone asked me if I think sex is dirty. I said only if it's done right."

So if you ask me if Wycherly's The Country Wife is dirty, what else can I say? "Only if it's done right."

A lot of care has gone into this staging of one of the most well-known (that is, least obscure) Restoration comedies. Elaborate costuming, live music, gestural choreography, lots of fluttery "fan" business. But unfortunately none of that has anything to do with what The Country Wife is about--lust, deception, and hypocrisy.

Often cited as the prime exemplar of early Restoration unhinged ribaldry, Wycherly's 1675 sex farce does not even go through the motions of a comedy of manners. Scene 1- the horny young hero "Horner" enlists his quack doctor to spread false rumors confirming that after a bout of clap in France, his member was so diseased it had to be cut off. The plan is, of course, that the pompous rich burghers of London--too busy with the stock exchange and booming Restoration/early Empire economy anyway--will be more than glad to leave him in the company of their sex-starved wives. Within days, every "desperate housewife" in London is ringing at Horner's door to sample his reputedly inexhaustible supply of "China" in his China closet. At the end, the deception continues to thrive--no hugging, no learning, to quote Sir Larry David. The only lesson is taught by the wives, who turn the tables on Horner to instruct him how women take no second place to men in being "Machiavels of love."

Does this sound like a quaint, polite, wigfest to you? Yet this is what the Vital Company's production ends up doing to the play by making it essentially a museum piece. It made me think how ultimately square so many American theatre artists get when faced with non-Shakespearean European classics. We get distracted by all the surface features and "classy" stuff, but forget about the characters as living, breathing (and, yes, fucking) human beings. Oh, I suppose there's some fucking in this Country Wife, but the comical offstage moans in the China scene just made everything more quaint. Rather, what the play needs is the more adult sensibility of mature sexual desire, like in the great Hollywood screwball comedies. (Lubitsch, for instance, would have the women emerge from the china closet with the sublime and satiated look of an accomplished adultress.)

One doesn't need to dress up these plays in Prada and cell phones to give them a modern sensibility. God knows, the real 1675 people were able to have real emotions and psychologies while wearing all those get ups. While movement coaches labor actors over all the etiquette of sitting and turning and fanning-- we know even Samuel Pepys must have just flopped down on the floor sometimes in full regalia. (Pepys' diaries, of course, show him and others doing much messier things than that, even.)

The costuming of Horner in this production suggests a nod to the decadent look of Johnny Depp as the Earl of Rochester in the recent Libertine film. But it's amazing stage artists have not taken the cue from such Restoration-chic in the popular culture to actually infuse such recognizable emotions and attitudes into text of the play. (By the way, the photo above is very much a publicity shot--not a still from the play.)

Or to put it another way, in this day and age it takes a lot to make The Country Wife dirty again. Not necessarily more dirty stage business, just dirtier minds.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Development Hell Panel: The Cliff Notes

As usual Mr. Excitement has some exciting notes recapping the panel discussion last night on the whole "development hell" debate.

Among the many quotable quotes, this stuck a chord for me:

Madeline George of 13P elaborated on the origins of that group, offering that “emerging playwrights were…anticipating the music stands and the chairs”, leading to 13P’s concern “about what the trend of endless readings and new play development programs is doing to the texture and ambition of new American plays”. Development structures have “lots of implications for people who are writing”, she said, including stage directions, cast size and content...

Reminds me of a joke I used to fall back on as a literary manager when the Artistic Director and I were narrowing down scripts. "What's this one about?" he'd ask. I'd say, "It's about 2 men and 2 women."

Richard Nelson also says some good things, including:
Following the money trail is one way to assess what’s happened, Nelson said. Over the course of his career, he’s seen the new play move from the mainstage to the second stage and now into non-production situations.

Hey, there's always the parking lot.

Showdown in Missouri

The Kansas City Symphony is suing the state for underfunding them. Result? The Governor is threatening to cut funding. For all the arts.

Thus the governor, Republican Matt Blunt, has succeeded in turning the state's other arts org's against the symphony.

Kyna Iman, lobbyist for one of the groups, Missouri Citizens for the Arts, asked the Symphony to drop its lawsuit after a Wednesday conversation with a deputy chief of staff in the governor’s office.

Iman said the argument coming from the governor’s office is simple: Why appropriate funds that may be tied up in litigation for years?

“I wanted the Symphony to know that the message from the governor’s office is loud and clear,” Iman said.

The Symphony’s suit asserts that the General Assembly has underfunded the Missouri Cultural Trust — the Missouri Arts Council’s endowment — by more than $83 million.

Frank Byrne, the Symphony’s executive director, said the requests to drop the suit
would have to be “thoughtfully considered.”

“We take this information that’s been brought to us very seriously but I simply can’t imagine that the governor would cut all funding to the arts … especially in a year when the state is reporting a surplus of $300 million to $500 million,” Byrne said. “I cannot understand why the governor would take a stand that’s so vindictive against all the arts.”

It's called divide and conquer, Frank.

Update here on further measures taken by the MO State Senate.

Monday, January 22, 2007

"A Gymnasium for Playwrights"

Apropros of David Cote's panel tonight (hurry!) it may be instructive to reflect on the legacy of Curt Dempster, the foudner of the EST Theatre here in New York who passed away (at 71) over the weekend.

I've never gotten to know EST--Ensemble Studio Theatre--up close. (Don't even think I've been there! Shame on me.) As with all companies, there are bound to be bad words said about this or that. But standing back from it all, and reading Dempster's obit ("Under Mr. Dempster’s direction, the theater, which he used to describe as a 'gymnasium for playwrights,' produced almost 250 new works a season, ”) it is remarkable that here was a guy who succeeded, relatively, in simply putting up new plays, and lots of them. Yes, a lot of one-act and 10-minute festivals, that don't necessarily build careers. But the EST Marathon miraculously did build careers. And they did their share of full-length premieres as well. Especially the series of sciece-themed plays supported by the Sloan Foundation.

I'm sure the organization rarely was in the black. And they're still stuck with a rickety old space. But they've been committed to using that space not to "develop" new work but produce it in front of paying audiences at a fairly high professional level.

If only there were more.

Chicago House Theatre (no, not Music)

A wonderful example of critic advocacy. Attention must be paid, says the Trib's Chris Jones, to the up and coming off-Loop, Complicite-inspired ensemble, House Theatre.

So far, I'm intrigued.

What do you make of this diagnosis of Jones's about the group's success:

At a time when young audiences demonstrably are rejecting stolid, text-based theater for more eclectic performance styles, the maturation of the House has excellent timing.

Like it or not, I think he's onto something.

Panel Discussion: "Development Hell"

It may be far from summery today, but the folks at Ari Tepper's Summer Play Festival are continuing the interesting discussion series they started back during the last festival.

Tonight! Time Out's David Cote hosts what seems like a good mix of playwright-people on the whole issue of "Development Hell"--i.e. what's going with new plays in this country and why can't more of them get produced beyond a reading.

The guests:

Richard Nelson--prolific writer, now head of playwriting at Yale, and outspoken critic of the current process

Melanie George--"emerging" NY artist and "13P" playwright (the group dedicated to going around said process)

Morgan Jenness--one of the deans of all agents, formerly Joe Papp's dramaturg at the Public

Time: 7:30pm
Place: Studio Theatre, Theatre Row 410 West 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues.

rsvp: info[at]

(seating "limited" as they say)

Saturday, January 20, 2007

"I'd Rather Be Right"

If you're up for something more academic from me this weekend, check out my latest published article in the brand new Studies in Musical Theatre journal, from Intellect Books in the UK.

(Free registration required to read the site's contents.)

It's an analysis of the politics of that mostly forgotten 1937 Rodgers & Hart/ Kaufman & Hart musical "I'd Rather Be Right," with George M. Cohan as FDR. Yes, a Broadway musical lampooning a sitting president.

(I guess we now have plenty of the "Bush is Bad" sort, but all comfortably tucked away in small theatres.)

My argument: the lampooning of the New Deal is far from loving. Welcome to the first--and only--songfest for supply-siders.

Check out the issue's full table of contents, too. Among others, an interesting looking article on the whole issue of David Leveaux's alleged de-jewing of "Fiddler".

Friday, January 19, 2007

Singles' Night on B'way!

Well if this is any indication of the new leadership at League of American Theatres and Producers under Charlotte St. Martin, then... I guess there'll just be more to make fun of!

The League of American Theatres and Producers, Inc. will pilot a new audience development program targeting tri-state area singles. Singles’ Night on Broadway will take place on Wednesday, February 28, 2007. Tickets go on sale on January 19. With the purchase of a ticket to any of the participating Broadway or Off Broadway shows (see list below), theatregoers can attend a free pre-show cocktail party at Madame Tussauds New York, the famed wax attraction at 234 West 42nd Street.

They can also get special offers at an after-show bash at one of three Times Square locations (Trattoria Dopo Teatro, Zanzibar, and T New York)....

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were an estimated 765,000 single people living in New York City in 2005. The League hopes to reach this demographic through audience outreach programs such as Singles’ Night. Aimed at singles, age 21 and older in New York City (and throughout the tri-state area), the new program invites potential Broadway theatre-going singles to “Come by yourself or bring a friend to find a date or meet your mate!”

“Building on the success of the League’s cornerstone audience development program, Kids’ Night on Broadway, we wanted to create a special event to help expand our audience by inviting singles from the tri-state area to get to know other people who share their interest in show-stopping performances,” commented Charlotte St. Martin, Executive Director, The League of American Theatres & Producers, Inc. “With participation from so many remarkable shows and restaurants, we know that Singles’ Night will be a great, unique way to both increase frequency of theatre-going, as well as introduce new audience members to the exciting world of live theatre -- and to each other!”

Ok--I'm all for getting younger people excited about the theatre once again.

But can we do it and still be at least somewhat cool at the same time?

I mean, did the irony of holding your big singles night event in a Wax Musem not occur to anyone?

(Isn't the wax audience the idea we're trying to get away from?)

Personally I think it's funny that there's no upper age limit stated on this, notwithstanding the MTV/LavaLife-aspiring graphic. I fear for these wide eyed young folk that they may discover there's a lot of lonely singles of a lot of ages in this town who love the theatre...

My biggest question of all about this is not why is it so lame (these are Broadway producers after all trying to get hip), but where's the ticket discount! A code is offered but with no mention of price. The only bargains stipulated are on the before and after parties.

And as far as the menu of choices goes, Journey's End may be a great play. But take my advice kids, bleak nihilism in WWI No Man's Land is not prime background for scoring.

And for those who do get turned on by senseless death and destruction... they ain't coming to Singles Night on Broadway.

"Premium" seating

Money quote from Riedel today:

When you factor in all the seats allocated for VIPs (called "house seats," to which only the well-connected, including the press, have access), the bottom line, to quote a veteran producer, is this: "If you don't have an AmEx Gold Card or an expense account or a friend in the show, you can't get a decent seat. We've priced you right out of the market."

The ante has just been raised by the very highbrow-credentialed Moon for the Misbegotten coming from London's Old Vic, with Kevin Spacey.

On weeknights, more than 150 seats at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre - from row AA to row L in the center of the orchestra - will sell for $200, shooting up to $250 on weekends....

On chat sites yesterday, posters complained that when they tried to buy tickets at the regular price ($101 - still pretty steep, if you ask me), the only seats available were up against the wall or at the back of the theater.

Ah, what would O'Neill say....

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Actors & Creative Copyright

Backstage's Andrew Salomon reflects on the repurcussions of the "Urinetown" directorial copyright controversy... for actors.

The controversy has left some actors...wondering what the legal wrangling might mean for a collaborative process that is the backbone of musical theatre — a process that other actors contend is suffering already, from petty backbiting to the reduction of out-of-town tryouts and New York workshop productions.

Furthermore, directors, choreographers, and designers routinely rely on actors' ideas to shape a nascent project; if each member of a creative team begins to codify, copyright, and profit from the visual signature of a show, how eagerly will actors contribute to the artistic process — particularly when there is no guarantee they will even have a role in the production, let alone share in its revenue?

Solomon broadens the topic in some interesting ways, including going back to the Chorus Line story--where the dancers who donated their life stories to the show continue have been shut out of the profit sharing of the big new revival, even though Michael Bennett provided something for them out of the original production.

But why stop there? As our theatre becomes more and more ensemble-based and less playwright-driven, will actors ever be able to claim any rights to content?

Think about even that beloved English genius Mike Leigh, who claims sole credit for all his scripts (both stage and film) even though he admits culling them from extended improv rehearsals. How do collaborative/collective ensembles from the famous (Theatre de Complicite) to the emerging (Nature Theatre of Oklahoma) deal with this.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

REVIEW: As Yet Thou Art Young and Rash

My first review in Time Out. Thanks, Mr. Cote!

This is Target Margin's (I think, intriguing) take on Euripides' Suppliant Maidens. No, not The Suppliants. That's Aeschylus.

Don't you hate getting those two confused?

The One Ain't Nobody Wants

Ok, I even watched episode 2 of the continually embarassing You're The One That I Want. The real sign of lameness this time is that auditioners sucked even in New York!

(My take on episode one here.)

Turns out the real B'way talent may have boycotted. According to Michael Riedel:

One Broadway performer, asked why she didn't audition for the show (the nationwide casting calls were open to members of Actors Equity), put it this way: "You don't work your whole life to get an agent and then have to go stand on some hideous line to audition in front of television cameras."
Indeed. Professional actors get degraded enough. But at least they have a union that helps them get paid for it.

While the show's premiere generated some initial ticket sales for the resultant Broadway "Grease", the buzz, it seems, has not lasted. Quoth Riedel:

The TV reality show "You're the One That I Want" isn't having the wanted effect at the box office for the upcoming Broadway revival.

The only thing sliding faster in the ratings than Katie Couric is "You're the One That I Want."

The NBC reality show about the casting of the upcoming revival of "Grease" attracted just 8 million viewers last Sunday, a drop of more than 3 million from the previous week.

More ominously, the program, which has been trashed by TV critics, finished fourth among 18- to 49-year-olds, the demographic that makes advertisers drool....

"Grease," which opens on Broadway this summer, took in more than $1 million at the box office last week following the debut of "You're the One That I Want."

But there's been no spike at the box office this week, and people involved in the revival are starting to realize they can't rely on the TV show to generate ticket sales.

Get this irony. The TV show may even be weighing the Broadway production down!

In the meantime, people involved in the revival of "Grease" cling to the belief that, even if the TV show flops, there's still a huge audience for the musical itself.

"It's one of the most successful titles of all time," says one. "It won't be tainted by a bad reality TV show."

Despite the reassurances, the way I read that statement is: any "Grease" on Broadway--starring whoever--would have better chance out of the gate than any show promoted by a TV dud.

What a switcheroo!

Riedel makes one more good point that I noticed from the beginning. This show is crueller than American Idol, if you can believe it.

Like all reality shows, "You're the One That I Want" tries to get mileage out of sniggering at grotesque people who would never, under any circumstances, have a shot at playing the sexy leads in a Broadway show.

And so you have fat middle-aged women trying out for the role of 16-year-old Sandy.

At least on Idol, they can vote for a Rueben Stoddard or grey-haired Taylor Hicks. But they're casting two very specific roles in an obviously mainstream production. They've indicated they're "race-blind" about Danny and Sandy... but presumably they're still looking for young and conventionally attractive people. So encouraging thousands of people who don't fit the casting requirements is just plain...cruel.

And, worse, not even funny.

"Final 11 Weeks!"

Have you seen this new ad tactic? They used it for Butley, too, right after it opened.

I don't even think Vertical Hour has yet played 11 weeks!

What's next? They're tearing down the theatre in two years, so buy tickets now...

On a related note, my favorite ad enticement is always "limited seating." Where in the world is this theatre with unlimited seating???

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Royal Court at 50

"In 1956, the Royal Court enjoyed a virtual monopoly on new writing. Today the Bush, the Hampstead, the Tricycle, the Soho are similarly dedicated to new work. The National actively promotes living writers, and Michael Boyd plans to give them equal houseroom with Shakespeare at the RSC. Regional theatres up and down the land are hungry for local writers.

Living dramatists, you might think, have never had it so good. Yet there is a strong opposition that argues that the future lies elsewhere - that young audiences are bored with text-based plays, and crave group-devised work, visual and physical theatre, and site-specific experiments. But, rather than reflecting this hectic eclecticism, I passionately believe that the Court should continue to fulfil its historic role: that of putting the writer at the centre of the theatrical event."

-The Guardian's main man Michael Billington, reflecting on both the past and now the next 50 years of London's haven of new writing.

By extension, of course, he's talking about the future of playwriting itself.

Alex Beam of the Boston Globe tips us off to a site called Guidestar which does something very naughty.

It provides data from the IRS filings of all your favorite nonprofits.


Sunday, January 14, 2007

Journey's End

You may have seen the ads for a new Broadway revival of that old WWI play Journey's End. Go.

I saw the play at the Shaw Festival two years ago--and raved about it here--and though this is a different production in a much bigger theatre, it's basically a remount of the very well-received London revival from a few seasons ago. Plus, looks like a good cast (Boyd Gaines, Jefferson Mays, e.g.)

Don't let the new Broadway tag line "Inspired by a true story of friendship and survival." Unless they ruined it, this bleak and relatively unsentimental trench-drama (written by a veteran) is a close-up of the toll of endless battle on human beings, even on the "winning" side--where "survival," as you'll see is a relative term.

Don't worry about tickets prices. There should be plenty of disounts for this one. (There's already a $36.25 balcony price.) If a depressing anti-war drama with no stars can even run more than a week on today's Broadway. Then again, the English accents may save it!

Friday, January 12, 2007

Philanthropy Dependence, continued...

Even the Brits may be bailing on public subsidy for the arts. At least the rich ones.

Here's millionaire Christopher Ondaatje writing in the New Statesman, advocating a more "American" funding model:

There are enormous differences in culture, structure and attitude between Great Britain and the United States regarding philanthropy. If the government wishes to encourage a more active culture of giving in this country, it should study these differences - particularly as a new generation of wealthy donors in England is now seeking to leave its mark on the public sphere.

At a recent conference organised by the Institute for Philanthropy, the institute's director, Hilary Browne-Wilkinson, argued that Britain's strong tradition of Victorian philanthropy was replaced after the Second World War by the welfare state. The problem has been that, since 1979, voters have refused to countenance high taxation.

As she said, "With diminished government funding, we must turn to other means of supporting public purposes - philanthropy being one; another being the revenue creation of charity itself." She provided some helpful statistics: as a percen tage of GDP, individual charitable giving in the US is more than double that in the UK. In 2002, $183.7bn was given, which represented 1.75 per cent of GDP. Using the same measure for the same year, UK individual giving was £7.3bn, or 0.76 per cent of GDP.

So, why do Americans give more? Theirs is a country where people make money and realise that they have a responsibility to give money away in order to keep the system going. Giving money away helps them to feel part of the community, and this is reflected in the causes to which they give. Religion (including local charities) gets 45 per cent of donations: university and alumni giving only 1.4 per cent. In Britain, on the other hand, 13 per cent goes to religion, while 17 per cent goes to medical research, 14.4 per cent to children and 9.5 per cent to animals. Few UK donations are devoted to the community.

There are also enormous differences between how Americans and British people give: 77 per cent of all collection methods in the UK are spontaneous, looking for loose change. In the United States, there is a culture of "planned giving", which provides 61 per cent of the voluntary income of non-profit organisations.

Dear People of Great Britain: Unless you too want your mailboxes stuffed with junkmail every day from your favorite Arts Org's--not to mention dinnertime phone calls--begging you for money--turn back! Before it's too late. Believe me, you don't want any part of this "planned giving" culture.

(Catch that 45% of US philanthropy going to religion?)

By the way, as Britain and perhaps Europe as a whole weens off the welfare state, don't think the US government is going to get any more excited about arts funding.

Bad signs of things to come. Unless we find our own generation of Enlightened Patrons. Lke the Medicis! So, more rich murderous tyrannical thugs, that's the answer.

Correction. Sorry, I previously incorrectly referred to New Statesman as "conservative," but thanks to June (in Comments) for setting me straight.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Do We Really Need Any More 10-Minute Plays?

From today:

The Tony-winning playwright John Guare is overseeing a national ten-minute play contest for MFA students in ten participating playwriting programs, culminating in a theatre festival in Aspen, CO.

The contest, officially titled The National "Play Right" M.F.A. 10-Minute Play Competition & Program, is run by the Aspen-based theatre company Theater

I fear this is a woefully misguided grant-inspired project, albeit perhaps well intentioned. Once everyone gave up on new funding for full productions of new plays, we settled first for readings, and now for bare bones stagings of 5-page skits.

Such projects, rather than encouraging and nurturing the American Theatre, only reinforce the low expectations and poverty already associated with the field.

What can be more marginal and useless for a playwright's career than a 10-minute play?

Quote of the Day

"The fact is, like a lot of British playwrights, I don't make my living from productions of my plays in this country."

-Mark ("Shopping and Fucking") Ravenhill, grateful in the Guardian for the interest he gets on the Continent, since after the London premiere, second productions elsewhere in the country are hard to come by.

To hear him tell it, the British regionals seem to be getting as squeamish as ours!

Although, arguably--do we have things reversed here? More new plays are premiered regionally, it seems. Is New York more squeamish?

B'way B.O. Watch

Ticket sales, that is. Not Broadway Odor.

In the week starting January 1: Company dipped 17%; Grey Gardens 21%; Little Dog Laughed 17%.

Spring Awakening? Dipped only 1.3%. Down to a still impressive 83% capacity. Pretty odds-defying.

Little Dog Laughed also just posted a closing notice for next month. I weep no tears for it, don't get me wrong. It's a small show that ideally would find a home in a small house playing more comfortably to the 400-500 or so people enjoying it every night now. But along with its two fellow sufferers, it represents what's left of "adult" content on the Rialto.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Perils of Corporate Funding

Kate Taylor has the goods in the Sun about the implications for our NYC arts scene of the imminent breakup of Altria-- AKA parent company of mega-underwriter Philip Morris.

Among the theatre companies whose development offices are biting their nails these days: BAM, Lincoln Center, and the Public's Shakespeare in the Park. And those are just the top recipients.

The Iceman Payeth?

You just may start hearing incredible buzz soon about the Kevin Spacey Moon for the Misbegotten being the must-see event of the season. Not that the prospects aren't good, and the London reception was encouraging. But as Mr. Riedel reports, there just may be some other reason behind all that.

The acclaimed actor is demanding such a hefty paycheck, some people involved in the show worry that there won't be anything left for the backers.

Spacey, who's bringing the show to New York from his theater company in London, is said to be angling for a guaranteed weekly salary of $25,000, plus 10 percent of the weekly gross receipts over $350,000....

The problem for his backers is that "Moon"-which is being produced for $2.5 million - is scheduled to run only 10 weeks at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Factor in all the other production costs, and the show has to sell a lot of seats - many at premium prices of $250 or more - just to break even, production sources say.

"It's insane," says one. "You can't pay him that kind of money for only 10 weeks."

"There is no room for error," adds a veteran producer, who's not involved in the show. "It has to be the hottest thing in town."

Good luck, guys.

Well I suppose if Long Day's Journey could be such a surprise summertime hit a few years ago (not to mention Spacey's 1999 Iceman Cometh) then their recoup chances aren't totally hopeless. But, as Riedel reminds us, didn't Cherry Jones and Gabriel Byrne just do this play?

And Moon is a much more "difficult" play than Journey, which always gets misunderstood as an All-American Family Drama.

Yet another test coming up of just how serious the B'way audience is willing to get these days.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

"You're The One That We Want"

Grease: You're The One That I Want (NBC)
Hopelessly Devoted...

Okay, I watched it.

Now it's hard to muster outrage over anything to do with any production of "Grease." And I actually find myself not worried one bit over the integrity of the American theatre, since who really cares who stars in yet another plastic B'way revival. The people who shell out the bucks for that will deserve what they get, which is to see two famous-for-15-minute nonentities attempt a two-hour singing 'n' dancing stunt.

What is outrageous, though, is how lame a tv show this is.

This is where I should disclose my guilty pleasure enjoyment of "American Idol." What can I say, deluded people proudly exhibiting their flaws to stunned-silent response never fails to crack me up. But watching a cheap imitation like this show makes you realize how good the Fox people really are at this stuff. "Idol" is brilliantly paced, immersing you in the audition room for sometimes long stretches, immediately getting you up close with both judges and contestants. Plus, they make sure you see only the very best, and very worst contestants. In "You're the One" they race through 10 really mediocre auditions, and then break for commercial leaving you in suspense over what will happen to "your favorites." Favorites??? I'm still trying to tell pompador #1 guy from #2.

Also, the desperate stretch of using "You're The One That We Want" as a catchphrase (as in "is that your final answer...") is just puzzlingly ungrammatical. That British mastermind "producer" and faux-Simon David Ian loves to go deadpan and pause for eternity while staring down each candidate so we can all hang on the words after "You're....". You see, either he says "You're the one we want to go to the next round" or "You're not it." But when after the 10th "you're the one" isn't this just weird?

Okay, I'm sure no one else cares about that one.

Actually, what he really says is "You're the one going to Grease Academy." Yes, "Grease Academy" is the next round. Or as I like to call it, Sha-Na-RADA.

Finally, for a theatre lover, it's impossible not to think about what must be going on behind Kathleen Marshall's calm and perky exterior. Not one of the people selected in Episode 1 would make it past the first minute of a real Broadway cattle call. Yet she has to play ball and make nice about their few attributes. Seriously, the talent on display was somewhere between community theatre, karaoke, and prisoner rehabilitation.

Think about this: the American Idol champ gets a prize and record contract, and can then be conviently forgotten once the novelty wears off and we wake up from the show's hangover. With these two winners, America will get to turn off the tv after the big vote. But Marshall will have to live with them for 4-6 weeks, plus the run of the show. Plus, the audience will have to suffer their performances night after night. We're not talking Fantasia or Clay Aiken, folks. There are real consequences here!

Of course, the dirty little secret may be...the ringers. As Campbell Robertson explained in the recent Times article, the rules are not excluding fully pro Equity folks from competing side by side with the "enthusiasts."

Unlike “Idol,” “You’re the One” is not supposed to be exclusively an amateur night. The rules of “Idol” require that contestants not have any current contracts or talent representation; “You’re the One,” on the other hand, is simply an open casting call, for novices as well as active Broadway performers. A prospective Danny in the first episode, for example, has several national tours under his belt.

But that is part of the show’s tricky balancing act. Reality television producers and viewers still love the nobody from nowhere who wins it all; the first episode puts heavy (and at times, teary) emphasis on the contestants’ personal stories. But the winners also have to hold up a $10 million musical eight times a week for at least a year, a demanding feat for a total greenhorn.

“We absolutely would love for a carpenter from Idaho to be Danny,” said Al Edgington, the executive producer of the television show. “But the reality is, they have to be able to perform. If the carpenter from Idaho does end up being Danny, Kathleen may be in trouble.”

This is where David Ian might have an interesting choice to make. As producer of both the TV program and the subsequent Broadway revival, does he go for solid dependable professional chops that will deliver a good show? Or, does he bet on the sheer novelty of "the carpenter" (what was that, some Christ reference???) approach paying off?
What, you say? Could the casting of untalented celebrities (even 15-minute celbrities) really outperform actual quality at the box office? Never.

Of course, the most unsettling thing of all is this guy. Billy Bush. And, yes, he is a Bush Bush. If you thought there was no blander cipher than Ryan Seacrest... you were wrong. Plus, the W resemblance (especially in his "cheerleader days") is the scariest thing about the whole show.
Postscript: According to Variety the show worked. $1.3 mil in instant ticket sales for the Broadway "Grease" after the broadcast.
As they say, you can't buy that kind of advertising. Or, wait a second...

Monday, January 08, 2007

Trivia of the Day

Did you know...

Fox News jefe and Republican political strategist Roger Ailes produced both a Broadway flop and an Obie-winner in the 1970s?

The loser was the short-lived revue "Mother Earth." The hit is even more surprising: Lanford Wilson's "Hot L Baltimore." Yes, that great anti-nostalgic play about hookers, Johns, and lowlifes in a rundown hotel.

Both shows were produced in association with legendary Broadway mogul Kermit Bloomgarden, who bought us "Death of a Salesman," among other pinko classics.

Ailes' whole background before politics in fact was showbiz, specifically tv, producing Mike Douglas' talkshow and (according to his Wikipedia entry) even a documentary about Fellini!

Needless to say, his move from showbiz to politics--as early as the '68 Nixon campaign--was hardly incidental.

Women's Project Woes

It may be no Empty Space situation, but New York's Women's Project is undergoing at least a crossroads of its own, with the departure of A.D. Loretta Greco after differences between her and the board over what direction to take the theatre in. Namely, she was determined to make it a company about production not just an abstract mission.

Kate Taylor's piece in Thursday's Sun gives a revealing backstage look.

[Greco] wanted to reinvigorate the Women's Project by mounting full seasons of productions and promoting new artists. "The big difference was to truly commit to seasons of work, so that there was work on the stage that defined who we were, rather than a missive, or groups of mentorship, or in the classroom," she said, referring to other programs of Women's Project, which include development labs for playwrights, directors, and producers. "All that was wonderful, but the work on the stage had to demonstrate the breadth of the women out there."

Instead, in order to fill the theatre space they're lucky to own ("a blessing and a curse," says Grecco) the company had to rent it out last summer to the politically regressive Shout: The Mod Musical.

Also raised in the piece is the question of whether being labeled a "women's theatre" hurts a company. Some other similar minded groups don't want to be branded any more. New George's Susan Bernfield is quoted as saying, "We've taken the ‘women's' thing out of our publicity and materials, just because it's never worked for us...It puts kind of a medicinal quality on what the work is. No one goes to the theater to serve a social function."

I would have thought having a very specified political or social mission would actually help with grant proposals, and even in distinguishing yourself in a busy marketplace. But is it now considered too limiting to potentially turn off any segment of the ticketbuying audience?

Challenge or defend, anyone?

Saturday, January 06, 2007

REVIEW: Ionesco One-Acts

The Lesson & The Painting
by Eugene Ionesco
presented by Phoenix Theatre Ensemble
through January 6 at the Connelly Theatre

The highlight of this evening of Ionesco one-acts is by far the latter half, The Painting. I had never seen or read the play before, and so was blown away by how much darker and even weirder (if you can believe it) it is from other Ionescos. There was one moment toward the end of Kevin Konfoy's staging when a collision of violence and beauty--all to the accompaniment of snippets of Nino Rota carnival music--seemed downright Formanesque. (Richard Foreman, that is.) And that's as things should be with Ionesco, reminding us of how avant-garde he once was and the debt owed to him by our latter day theatrical bad boys.

The Painting, in its bitter and grotesque depiction of a poor artist and a pretentious businessman patron, also couldn't be more timely. "I can't pay you," says the collector, "but you can leave the painting here, for a small storage fee." It's a wonderful dramatization of biting the hand that feeds you--precisely because that hand ultimately only feeds itself. Phoenix leader Craig Smith (a downtown legend from the "old" Cocteau Rep days, before he and colleagues defected to form this splinter company) brings just the right level of grounded, earthy silliness to the businessman, making even an awkwardly bulbous fat suit work for him. I wished some of his onstage partners displayed the same level of subtlety and deadpan, instead of seeming out of another, more cartoonish play.

The opening half of the bill--the more familiar The Lesson--I found less satisfying, mainly because its forced silliness made the play oddly quaint and "old Europe" instead of fresh and daring. Who says the professor still has to wear old academic robes? Why continue to play the scene in standard-issue "farce" mode when the deeply disturbing themes of education and authority at work here cry out for a more unsettling approach? Director Amy Wagner cartoons it up with cheesy scenery with chalk-drawn accessories and guides her actors with fair enough comic timing. But it all seemed a bit rote to me, personally, and ultimately dragged the play since its "joke" (that "instruction" is a fraud and sucks our souls) deliberately goes on a lot longer than is merely funny.

But exposure to "The Painting" alone makes the evening worthwhile, if you can catch it in its (sorry) last performance tonight.

“You’re the One That I Want"

The US version of casting-by-reality-who starts tomorrow night on NBC. Michael Riedel said yesterday that Kathleen Marshall will become the most famous stage director in America out of this. That's one way to think of it.

Meanwhile, NYT's Campbell Robertson gives us a glimpse of the future this may bring:

Executives involved with the television show said there were discussions about
what to do next, but no one was quick with a suggestion.

“I don’t know what the obvious one is,” Mr. Edgington said. “Maybe there’s a way of recasting ‘Grease’ every year.”

There is always “The Sound of Music,” which also has a movie going for it. In Britain Mr. Lloyd Webber is working on another television show that will cast the leads of a revival of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” (There is also going to be a show, from Simon Cowell’s production company, that will cast Danny and Sandy in a London production of “Grease.” David Ian will be a judge on that show as well.)

And why stop at musicals? "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Medea," anyone?

Friday, January 05, 2007

Bizarro World B'way?

Hat tip to reader June for pointing us to this Mark Shenton piece in the UK The Stage about how the Royal National Theatre has started playing the commercial game, and playing it very well. (Especially with History Boys.) Not only has the producing cadre Shenton speaks of successfully transferred their greatest hits to the West End, but they also formed a unique partnership with Broadway's Bill Haber to bring a select number here each year. My hunch is that B'way savvy Nick Hytner, the new RNT head, has had a hand in this as well.

Call this cynical and shallow if you like. But I for one actually admire them. At least here we find a nonprofit getting the edge on their commercial counterparts. Without watering down their product. (Whatever you think of History Boys.)

Meanwhile, the National Theatre also find themselves embarking on a major new chapter as commercial producers with this production, since it has been brought to the West End entirely on their own dime and time: The National Theatre are the above-the-title producers with their investment arm, National Angels Ltd--a group of shareholders specifically brought together to put money into commercial productions of plays from the National and elsewhere (such as the current transfer of Rock 'n' Roll from the Royal Court to the Duke of York-- and the previous transfers of the National's productions of Jumpers and Democracy to the West End) providing the funding to do so. The executive director for The History Boys at Wyndham's is, in turn, the National's own executive director Nick Starr; associate producer is Tim Levy (who is Assistant Producer on the South Bank); while the PR is the National's own senior press officer, Mary Parker. Their services, I assume, are all aggregated from the salaries they are paid already for their South Bank day (and night) jobs, all of which may help keep the bottom line for the West End season in a healthier state, since it is receiving serdoesn't it doesn't have to directly pay for out of that run.

But this does also, of course, put the National at a distinct advantage over commercial producers who have to cover their own salaries without the benefits of subsidy at a home base elsewhere. A couple of years ago I wrote in The Stage that the National were unduly holding on The History Boys by keeping it in the repertoire there instead of sending it on its way to a commercial life sooner, and Nick Starr took me out to lunch to gently explain it wasn't the role of the National to give commercial opportunities to the West End to exploit, but as a publicly-subsidised body it was incumbent on themselves to maximise its own returns from its work. But now that the National is specifically using the West End to continue to do so on its own account (and from its accounts), the rules of engabeingt are bieng subtly changed forever in the relationship between the commercial and subsidised sectors. At this rate, the dwindling band of commercial producers may be run of town altogether.

The best possible future I see for Broadway--both commercially and artistically--is for it to become more officially a showcase foe the most popular "product" from the US nonprofitLincolnre. Licoln Center and Roundabout already work along similar lines, arguably.simultaneouslymulateously exist in both the Broadway and nonprofit worlds at the same time. What seems most promising about the National's success is that they have developed this effective and smooth means of "transferring" shows, while still developing them in a nonprofit cocoon.

Maybe what I'm saying is: If you're going to try to play in the commercial arena, at least play smart. (Unlike, say, the Public during George Wolfe's ventures. Or MTC buying the Biltmore.)

Yes, I'm being naive and idealistic if I don't argue this can corrupt a theatre into developing only commercial product. But I think if you look at the RNT season, you won't see a season of sell-outs. Having three stages that can run three rep shows each helps, of course...

Quote of the Day

"Prediction: Orchestra sections at hot shows in 2007 will become the equivalent of luxury boxes at the Garden. Almost every seat will be 'premium,' with prices shooting up to between $350 and $400. Broadway audiences will be richer - and whiter - than ever."

- Michael Riedel, stating the inevitable.

I would add just one caveat to that, though. He gives it away when he says, "The orchestra section at 'Mary Poppins' looks like an assembly at Chapin or St. Bernard's." Some shows will always be "whiter" than others. I don't think the "premium" revolution will hit, say, "Color Purple"--or even more populist shows like "Mama Mia" and "Phantom", all of which depend on discount offers.

Not that that makes the forecast any brighter, of course.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

"The Unofficial Mayor of Broadway"

Vincent Sardi--as in "Sardi's" (est. 1921)--died today.

His notice reads like an obituary for the Great White Way itself.

Here's a glimpse of a time gone by:

If Sardi’s was a club, its rules were mysterious. Only Mr. Sardi knew them, in fact, and only he could explain why, for many years, one of the best tables in the restaurant was held for Mr. and Mrs. Ira Katzenberg. The Katzenbergs , who by the early 1950’s had attended virtually every Broadway opening for 30 years, took their seats at Sardi’s at 7:15, placing an order that never varied: a brandy and a bottle of Saratoga water. The bill came to $1.62. Mr. Sardi called them his favorite customers. “People like them keep the theater alive, and the theater is their life,” he said. “The least we can do is give them the best table in the house.”

The closest you can get to that today for pre-theatre convenience is a $2 espresso in a paper cup at the Starbucks stand-up joint on 46th St.

Death of a Theatre Company

Seattle playwright and director John Longenbaugh has a long meaty post-mortem in Seattle Weekly on the recently defunct Empty Space company there. Here's some of the sad inside story:

"When they sent out the press release about the closing, I honestly think the board believed that no one would really care all that much," says Allison Narver, the artistic director of the Empty Space, which was shuttered in October after 36 years.

The company had weathered severe financial problems just two years ago, and had since cut its staff and number of shows in a season, and, most crucially, moved from its longtime Fremont home to a rent-free space on the campus of Seattle University. The company's first two plays of 2006—solo powerhouse Lauren Weedman's Bust and Paul Mullin's Louis Slotin Sonata—seemed to be a sign that the company was back in business, serving up popular provocative stuff as good as anything they'd produced in the past 10 years. Weedman sold out several performances, and while Mullin's show didn't do quite as well, critics were enthusiastic.

But at the Monday, Oct. 23, board meeting, there was an ominous addition to the regular attendees: a bankruptcy lawyer. Two nights later, at a second meeting, the board asked for Narver and her managing director to leave the room, took a vote, and decided to close the theatre. By week's end the press release went out and the Space was officially history....

At the Space, the immediate cause of death appears to be board-assisted suicide. At the time it closed, the theater had a deficit of $75,000—not chump change, but small compared to 2004's crisis, when an emergency fund-raising effort raised $400,000 in a matter of weeks. Most of that money came from almost 3,000 individual donations that averaged just $176.

The trouble this time wasn't just the immediate debt, according to board president Erik Blachford. In projecting the next season's expenses, the Space board saw no sources for the required cash. "We could continue on and accrue debt, and if we were to go down, we would leave a lot of businesses and artists in our community with that debt," Blachford says. "We weren't confident that we were going to pay it off, so we did what we thought was the responsible thing."

The Space's board had only eight people, small for any nonprofit, and had added no new members (with new deep pockets or contacts) since the last crisis. Given this, and the fact that they were facing a substantial debt only two years after a massive fund-raising effort, the decision to let the theater fold instead of fighting is understandable....

Midsized theaters are critical to the health of a theater town, but they're tough to run even during the best of times. A theater like the Space with a mere 150 seats and a budget of, say, $1 million, can lose money even when its shows sell out. And when they try to make up the difference by chasing down another $400,000 or so from corporations or foundations, midsized operations are in competition with the more experienced and better-staffed larger houses.

"If we don't have the expertise of fund-raisers who can raise the big funds, what do
we do?" asks Scott Nolte, artistic director of midsized Taproot Theatre. "Those personnel are increasingly expensive, and so we have to fall back on our board and expect them to do more legwork. If I have to compete with the Rep for a corporate sponsorship, they've got the history, the audience numbers that give them an edge."

Yes, and that's how these Boards end up with the power to shutter the whole enterprise with a closed vote.

According to Longenbaugh, the problem is bigger than this one little theatre. "Our theaters keep closing," he says. Find out who's next.

BBC Radio Play Podcasts

I've just been turned onto the BBC Radio 4 site's Arts & Drama page, with tons of downloadable readings of both literature and drama. The plays range from Stoppard to emerging contemporary writers, all with crackerjack London casts and top rank directors.

A goldmine.

The fact there is no equivalent site in the US arts world is astounding, saddening, and yet not surprising. What further proof do you need of the value of The Word in the two cultures.

Of course, this is eminently do-able here. And probably pretty cheaply. It just takes someone who has the idea. And believes in it.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Broadway's Happy Holiday

In case you're wondering what's really behind the record-setting grosses on Broadway this holiday season, Mr. Riedel informs us:

...tourists were willing to pay top dollar to see shows. Nearly every musical that broke the $1 million mark sold large blocks of tickets at so-called "premium" prices of $250 to $300.

"Every year, we've added more premium price seats at Christmas," said a veteran producer. "As long as we keep doing that, we will keep breaking box office records."

Yup, that's one way to inflate your sales figures.

Sadder yet:
"Jersey Boys" also raised the price of non-premium seats from $110 to $120. Other shows will probably do the same in the New Year.
The post-Christmas week did see an uptick for Grey Gardens and even Company, by the way. And Spring Awakening continues to float on buzz.

But for non-celebrity driven plays, watch out. Little Dog Laughed, which in days of yore might have been a modest hit at reasonable prices, now plays to barely 40% capacity. Which is simply not enough to pay the rent.

As a contrast: Dog got great reviews and features what many call the performance of the season in Julie White. Nathan Lane in Butley got lame reviews, but has now, according to Riedel, recouped its money.

Now remember, 40% in a 1000 seat house is...yes, 400 people. Enough to sell out a large Off Broadway house every night. So once again we see that the audience for even commercial nonprofit nonmusical fare has a strict upper limit.

More: the stats for last week are in on Playbill, and the numbers tell the same story. Quite a week. Even the struggling shows--Grey Gardens, Company, Dog--showed capacity increases of 30%.

more than "Rachel Corrie"

Miri Ben-Shalom of Tel Aviv's "All About Jewish Theatre" journal looks at many of the Israel-themed plays seen in New York lately, mostly in readings at the recent Public Theatre festival. She thinks they're too skewed against Israel and for Palestine. But at least she talks at length with many of the playwrights, including Israelis Josha Sobol ("iWitness") and Motti Lerner ("The Murder of Isaac").

An informative international survey of dramatists on this issue.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Price vs Value

From Lyn Gardner's rant in the Guardian, it appears Londoners are as sick of West End prices as New Yorkers are of Broadway's.

Gardner, though, makes the additional snobby but fair point of: if I'm throwing away this much cash, I might as well be treated right!

As West End prices rise to a point where a ticket becomes a real luxury item, only affordable as a special treat, why does the experience often feel so stressful? If a party of six were spending almost £400 [$800] at a restaurant, you'd certainly be treated very well. You'd expect the staff to take an interest; you'd expect not to have to queue in the cold to get into the building; not to have to then queue for 15 minutes to use a lavatory that doesn't flush; to find adequate bars open and, if you ordered drinks in advance, get to them before the end-of-interval bell sounded.

Not to mention the people behind you kicking the seats, the cell phone going off in front of you, the snorer and heavy breather to your left and right...

And just imagine a four-star restaurant serving the gastronomical equivalent of High Fidelity.

Yes, if anything will finally ruin Broadway, it will have to be pissed off rich people.