The Playgoer: July 2007

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Public talks back

The Q & A with Public Theatre Exec Dir. Mara Manus finally has posted her answers to reader questions re: Shakespeare in the Park productions.

Here's one puzzling sample:

[Q:] How many tickets do you reserve for the students of the NYC public schools?
Ms. Manus: Because Shakespeare in the Park is free for everyone, we don’t set tickets aside for any groups, including students.
Uh, ok. So those corporate funders and "Summer Sponsors" do not a group make, I guess.

She also comments, officially, on the length and timing of lines, the policies toward elderly and disabled audiences, and even "Why is it so difficult to get an audition for your productions?"

Bergman the Stage Director

Bergman's Ghost Sonata

Charles McNulty takes on the mission of adding some theatrical sensibility to the Ingmar Bergman eulogies. And in the LA Times, no less. Right on, Charlie, preach it to the film colony!

It's a perfect summation of Bergman's stage contributions. The famous "Hamlet" from the late 80s, was a highpoint for all who saw it. (Including at BAM in 1988.) I myself have only seen it on video*, but certain moments I remember as if it were live before me now. Here's McNulty's helpful summation:
My introduction to Bergman's stage work was his production of "Hamlet," which was presented in 1988 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and remains the most searing encounter with Shakespeare's masterpiece that I've had to date. It wasn't so much the central performance of Peter Stormare, a Hamlet dressed in leather and sulking like a rock star whose tour has just been canceled, but the way in which heightened theatrical choices liberated the entire cast into a purer realm of aesthetic being.

The fluid audacity of the staging, which refused to be hemmed in by a limiting concept, lent a modern edge to the metaphoric boldness of Shakespeare's poetry. On an encumbered set, Bergman conjured living tableaux that threw into relief the political and spiritual nightmares engulfing not just a peculiarly meditative prince but an entire murderous, power-drunk society.

Village Voice critic Gordon Rogoff described Bergman's "Hamlet" as the "most eloquent reading of Shakespeare since Brook's 'Lear'...
(Yes, that's the same Peter Stormare who went onto "Fargo" and now less auspicious movies and commercials. He was also Bergman's Jean to Lena Olin's Miss Julie. I wonder if he ever thinks of what he left behind in Sweeden for "Nacho Libre"...)

McNulty may be right that Bergman couldn't lay claim to founding his own "school" or body of theatrical theory as a director. But one quality that made him important was how he continued the lineage he inherited of the Scandinavian theatre. I know this sounds knee-jerk, but to see a Bergman production of an Ibsen or Strindberg play was maybe not "authoritative" or "definitive" (who would want that) but it sure felt a few levels deeper than the average American production. Because he owned that material so confidently (it's so influential on his movies, after all--something I'm sure film critics are overlooking this week) he could afford to be quite "unfaithful" at times, yet tangibly true to the deep core of the text. As McNulty says:
No one was better than Bergman at negotiating the physical space in which a play unfolds. Never a slave to stage directions, he would place the forest attic in Ibsen's "The Wild Duck" front and center rather than tucked away upstairs and would allow Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I to appear simultaneously throughout Schiller's "Maria Stuart," even though they only meet once in the play.
So rather than treating his masters as museum pieces, he fully inhabited their plays anew. These productions felt to me not at all like what they "originally" were, but perhaps something like what Ibsen or Strindberg would be doing today, bad boys that they were. I also think only Bergman today had a direct connection--a dark Scandinavian backchannel, if you will--to the wackier dream logic of those writers' later plays. (His "Ghost Sonata" was like David Lynch in frock coats.) As well as sharing an almost sadistic addiction to inner pain. (He rewrote "Ghosts" --at age 85, mind you--with loads of obscenities and drew out the final death scene, as McNulty beautifully describes it, to "near blinding Oedipal apotheosis.")

His repertoire of moods included also a lighter folk sensibility that could open up and make sing even the densest of material--like the insurmountable "Peer Gynt," which he turned into some mixture of rustic ribaldry and magical realism. Then there was his utterly humble approach to that most magical of Shakespeare romances, The Winter's Tale, framed as a private performance at a 19th century Sweedish family banquet (a la Fanny and Alexander), where the "statue" of Hermione (an invitation for theatrical tricks) was played unadorned for what it was: a woman in the flesh, brought out on a chaise lounge.

I was lucky to see so many Bergman touring productions at BAM in the 90s. But I still kick myself for the ones I missed. "Doll's House" (his now-famous stripped down "Nora" adaptation) "Miss Julie," and even "Long Day's Journey into Night"--bringing O'Neill back to his own Scandinavian inspirations.

For yet another Bergman theatrical appraisal see Feingold's 2003 review of Ghosts, in which he brings together the total oeuvre.

*The "Hamlet" video is available for viewing at the Lincoln Center Library TOFT collection, as are many of the other BAM productions, I believe. (You probably still will have to get BAM permission to view, as I did.)

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007

The Times obit is here, naturally prioritizing his films. Hopefully additional articles will now reflect on his career and impact as one of Europe's most innovative and influential stage directors.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Gypsy's "Papa Rose"

Riedel got Gypsy author/auteur Arthur Laurents on the record Friday with what he really thinks about the director of the previous revival, Sam Mendes.

Laurents' "Gypsy" came about because he was deeply unhappy with the 2003 Broadway version starring his friend Bernadette Peters and staged by Oscar-winning British director Sam Mendes.

"There was the Ethel Merman 'Gypsy,' the Angela Lansbury 'Gypsy,' the Tyne Daly 'Gypsy' and the Sam Mendes 'Gypsy,' " Laurents says. "I thought Sam did a terrible disservice to Bernadette and the play, and I wanted a 'Gypsy' seen in New York that was good.

"You have to have musical theater in your bones, and Sam doesn't," Laurents continues, taking, as his wont, no prisoners. "You can't put it there. I know. I tried. I gave Sam many notes, but he just couldn't do it. As they say in 'Gypsy,' 'Either you got it or you don't.' And he don't."


This sent me searching back through the NYT archives, though, for an article I vividly remember of how Laurents marched into Mendes' production at the last minute, not just giving notes but demanding a complete overhaul.

(The article is behind the Times Select fire wall, but if you have access, it's from May 5, 2003, "New Gypsy Struts, Silencing Naysayers" by Jesse McKinley.)

Now I'm a little biased, I suppose, in being a great Sam Mendes fan. I'm not really talking about his movies, actually. I just think the stage productions of his I've seen both here and in London (mostly of classics) have been among the most smart, elegant,and well acted I can remember. Plus I plead completely guilty to loving the big "Cabaret" revival, which originated in much rougher form in London before being spruced up for the Roundabout and Studio 54. (Yes, and Henry Miller's Theatre before that, I know.) Now true, it's perhaps revealing that for Broadway, Mendes had to be paired with a more slick Musical Theatre pro, Rob Marshall. (Who later proved his own inventiveness on the film of "Chicago," of course.) But to me, Mendes stamp was all over "Cabaret": the unromanticized romance, the unvarnished treatment of politics, and a simple ensemble theatre staging that drew attention to itself as a play.

So, I was most interested in the Gypsy article how one of the first things Laurents objected to were "''these brown chairs and nothing else." Yup, I thought, that's my Sam! He loves the simplicity of the wooden chairs on bare floorboards--an almost Brechtian ascetic minimalism. Of course, he was nuts to think he would get away with that in a multi-million dollar Broadway musical. But he kinda did in Cabaret.

But Gypsy--as emotionally dark as it gets sometimes--is no Cabaret, when it comes to a wasteland landscape.

Long story short, the 2003 article also documents how Laurents seems to have approached Mendes to direct in the first place, but also insisted on casting Bernadette Peters, which Mendes resisted. (In Riedel's article, note he's still defending this choice and blaming Mendes for criticisms of her performance.) Upon seeing the final dress (or early previews) Laurents sent a 10-page memo demanding changes--in his capacity as author and basically de facto executor of the Gypsy estate, so these aren't just requests. And the article indicates that many of these notes were indeed followed. He did more than just "tried."

And note the closer of the '03 piece:

For Mr. Laurents, meanwhile, the satisfaction was more gradual, but deeply fulfilling.

''It was slow but sure,'' he said. ''But it got there. Boy, did it get there.''
Sounds satisfied, yes?

Well, cut to [twelve] months later when the show was forced to close in [May] [probably] at a loss[...].* Failure is as fatherless a child as little Rose Louise...

*see "Comments" for corrections on the previous claim here.

I myself was struck in Laurents' current staging by how similar it was in so many details to the "Mendes" version. Which I took to mean, Laurents indeed put his imprint on it and got his notes on stage. (Keep in mind these are not new staging ideas of his. He directed show already in two B'way revivals in the 70s and 80s.)

However, Michael Feingold makes a credible case for why Laurents' current presentation is different, and superior. Maybe he remembers the '03 production better than I do.

My larger interest in this story is how Laurents has basically set himself up as the Samuel Beckett of all things "Gypsy." Yes, I know in most circles that's called "author's rights." But one has to wonder what chances someone has if they really want to reinvent the show. You can say "if it ain't broke don't fix it" about many old shows. But then what would become of our theatre, and our young theatre artists?

It's unfortunate enough with Gypsy that any professional production is contractually locked into Jerome Robbins original choreography, as with so many Robbins shows. Not that Robbins isn't a American dance master whose work shouldn't be preserved. But that's what ballet houses are for.

Of course, freedom of (re)interpretation sounds good in theory. Sam Mendes' problem was there was $8 million riding on his.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

"Grease" in previews

“I’m absolutely happy if people come in with low expectations.”

-Kathleen Marshall, director of Grease.

Yes, like George Bush in debates, the casting-by-reality experiment that is the new Grease revival benefits from the low expectations game.

Three weeks(!) of previews don't hurt either.

Raven Snook has that quote and more in her Time Out sneak peak. She also does some math:

Even though, from a Nielsen perspective, the roughly 6 million who tuned in for the You're The One That I Want March finale was a paltry number, it would take a Broadway run of 15 years with sold-out houses to attract so many people.

Get ready America. If Grease does no more than break even, the phenomenon is here to stay.

Just look at London.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

REVIEW: Bloody Lies (Village Voice)

It's a shame to have to be such a crank about a show at the Midtown International Theatre Festival. But, sorry, this one was truly a waste of time.

Anyone see anything good there?

Candidate Caught Saying "Art"

Bravo to art blogger CultureGrrl for noticing the Presidential campaign's first fleeting mention of the arts, in the Democratic "You Tube" debate:

RICHARDSON: I would have a major federal program of art in the schools...
... music, dancing, sculpture, and the arts.
I guess when you're running 4th, it's safe to say it. And only in the context of education and "the children!"

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Broadway Killing

The latest Broadway grosses are truly staggering, even to me.

Out of the 26 shows currently running, 16 of them were filled to over 90% capacity last week. 7 of those were at 100%.

And we're talking well-worn titles like Phantom and Mamma Mia. And Beauty and the Beast--which outright sucks--closes out its 15-year reign of lameness packing in 1500 customers a night. Many no doubt seeing it for that last nth time before they'll just have to settle for the movie.

But new musicals, too. Spring Awakening has joined the 90% club--and even Curtains!

Out of the remaining 10 shows, another 6 were well above 75%.

The only show under 50% was...Deuce. Not much has been written, surprisingly about how what was once touted as the event of the season--Angela Lansbury's return to the stage--is now officially its one big dud. (The play must be that bad, eh.)

I have no idea what's going on, since apparently the week just before was a downer. One stat from that report, though, that I suspect hasn't changed:

Average paid admission was $79.83 for musicals, $57.77 for plays and $78.01 for all shows.
Huh. That's kind of an odd "average," ain't it? I guess that's what economists would call the Deuce Effect.

"Ask About Shakespeare in the Park"

So for some reason, the has set aside space for a public Q & A with Mara Manus, the Exec. Director of the public, all about the Delacorte. (Part of their "City Room" metro feature.) Does NYT deem it that newsworthy? Or just an innovative way to plug Midsummer Night's Dream.

Appropriately, first question is:

Someone just told me that you can purchase a ticket for Shakespeare in the Park in advance, but I was always under the impression that it is totally free. What’s up with that?

I see the questions in the comments section at the bottom of the screen. But where are the answers? Stay tuned, I guess.

Dana Gioia at Stanford

Bush's NEA chief surprisingly strays more than you might think in this commencement speech from the party line on the state of the arts in America. And at no less a conservative bastion as Stanford University.

And by that I mean he doesn't mention Bush 3 times every page! Not at all, in fact...

But he also at least alludes to the deteriorating effects of the capitalism:

But we must remember that the marketplace does only one thing—it puts a price on everything. The role of culture, however, must go beyond economics. It is not focused on the price of things, but on their value. And, above all, culture should tell us what is beyond price, including what does not belong in the marketplace. A culture should also provide some cogent view of the good life beyond mass accumulation. In this respect, our culture is failing us.
Of course I would differ only in that I don't believe "culture" should just be about "the finer things" and immune to economics, as both an influence and subject matter. At some point, this kind of astheticist appeal only helps reinforce economic injustice....But hey, I hardly expect Gioia to be a Brechtian!

It's also refreshing to see our NEA Chair frankly address not just education, but class as an ever more decisive and divisive factor in the experience of the arts.

At 56, I am just old enough to remember a time when every public high school in this country had a music program with choir and band, usually a jazz band, too, sometimes even orchestra. And every high school offered a drama program, sometimes with dance instruction. And there were writing opportunities in the school paper and literary magazine, as well as studio art training.

I am sorry to say that these programs are no longer widely available to the new generation of Americans. This once visionary and democratic system has been almost entirely dismantled by well-meaning but myopic school boards, county commissioners, and state officials, with the federal government largely indifferent to the issue. Art became an expendable luxury, and 50 million students have paid the price. Today a child's access to arts education is largely a function of his or her parents' income.

Oh, there's other stuff in the speech that's more GOP-friendly, for sure ("surely artists and intellectuals are partly to blame" for being out of touch), but much of this is refreshing.

Now let's see if the man get squeeze any more funding out of a Democratic Congress in these the (presumably) final months of his tenure.

Meanwhile, Canada is putting us to shame in this area, of course. Even under a conservative government, it is assumed that "cultural heritage" gets a healthy increase.

PS. Interesting developing news on the Mayor Bloomberg & NYC School System's about face on arts in school.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Boston Shakespeare has the Shakes?

The Globe's Geoff Edgers has a long meaty exposé on the reversal of fortune of Boston's annual free outdoor Shakespeare fest, the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. Things seemed to be looking up four years ago when the big corporate downtown touring house, The Wang Center, decided to take Commonwealth on as a good deed, increasing its budget and adding all kinds of nice artsy community outreach stuff.

Well now the Wang is the "Citi Center" ("Citi" as in Citibank/Citigroup, I assume?) and looks like they're starting some kind of phasedown.

Struggling to break even, the Citi Performing Arts Center has slashed the budget for Shakespeare on the Common in half and shortened its run to less than a week. Instead of 20 performances, the Center will present seven, starting Tuesday, plus two open dress rehearsals. Even the stage has shrunk, to less than a third the size of last year's.
And thus the Commonwealth artists, who had just gotten used to the corporate largesse, are painfully reminded that they that giveth, taketh away.

"Even Though It's a Play, It Doesn't Suck"

So reads the ad copy for another weird theatre/event/party hybrid, Angry Young Women in Low Rise Jeans with High Class Issues.

The ad campaign is no doubt smart. But still tellingly sad, if that's the only way to attract young audiences.

Then again, they are explicitly pitching to the Bachelorette Party crowd.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Senate as Bad Broadway Show

Daily Show's resident Brit-wit, John Oliver, takes the premise of "political theatre" (the politician kind, not the Brecht kind) and runs with it, doing all hack critics everywhere proud. Hilarious.

Watch for surprise appearance by "Angels Lansbury."

Friday, July 20, 2007

Ashland, Look Out

"The Stratford Festival of Canada is restoring the word Shakespeare to its name in a bid to cement its image as North America's leading classical repertory theatre.

Beginning in November, the theatre festival in the southwestern Ontario town of Stratford will be known as the Stratford Shakespeare Festival."

-CBC News.

CBS: Tonys on warning

Michael Riedel has the scoop of the week: CBS ceo Les Moonves "loves the theatre"! Who knew.

Oh, and that the Tony telecast on said network is now getting extensive review.

He didn't expect high ratings - the man is not an idiot - but he did expect "an entertaining show, and we didn't deliver," says a Tony insider. "Les loves the Tonys and the theater, and he's the only reason we're still on CBS."

This year's bland telecast was the lowest-rated since the Tonys were first televised in the 1960s.

But there's an opportunity here that Riedel seems not to get, based on this closing dig:

If the League and the Wing don't get their act together, they'll find themselves passing out Tony Awards over lunch in the Belasco Room at Sardi's.

Uh, wouldn't that be a much, much better show? Let the nectar of Bacchus flow!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Fringe NYC, 2007

The schedule is now online.

Most eye-catching titles based on a 5 minute skim of the immense listings?

CANCER! The Musical
FARMTRUCKS: A Corporate Coffee Adventure
Leni (as in Riefenstahl)
The Rat King Rock Opera
Rise like a Penis from the Flames - a Phallic Phoenix Story
Theremin just because I'm a theremin fan

All tickets $15.

REVIEW: LuPone/"Gypsy"

by Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, Steven Sondheim
starring Patti LuPone
at City Center, Encores

Yes, in case you're wondering, Ben Brantley must have been on crack when he wrote his by now infamous dissent to what is currently the most talked about performance in New York.

Or make that 'ludes. Maybe it was he who was lethargic and unfocused in his seat, not Patti LuPone.

LuPone has long been a favorite target of Broadway bitchiness due to her unrestrained, sometimes warbling belting, passion over technique, and rumors of offstage divadom. But let's face it: with musical theatre in an age of mechanical reproduction, how refreshing it is to feel a human pulse on stage, for an actress to stare us in the eyes, pour her heart out, and fully inhabit the spotlight of a star.

This is why this true creature of the stage (hence her limited film & tv career) is indeed the perfect fit for Gypsy's Rose, the stage mother from hell. Everyone knew how perfect the casting was going in, the only question is: does she deliver.

I will agree with Brantley that LuPone does seem to take some time warming up. She's not a total battleax from the get-go. But, to be fair, in this Encores staging, the famous "Sing out, Louise" entrance down the aisle is dwarfed by City Center's cavernous 2700-seat hall. (Rather than hearing that voice from the back of the theatre, it comes muffled over the mic, just like everything else. Plus it would tire anyone out just getting onto that stage!) It's also plausible she and director Arthur Laurents (who wrote the thing) agreed on a very gradual "arc" for the character, so she can leave herself somewhere to go. Whatever the reason, I'd say I was tempted to agree with Brantley for the first half hour or so.

But definitely by the point of that Act One finale, "Everything's Coming Up Roses," things got scary. As they should. LuPone's intensity, locking her eyes into Louise, drilling those words "I had a dream...." into her and us, sent audible shivers down some audience spines around me. Sure, she wandered around the stage a bit, sure some words got garbled (perhaps the mics). But the timing and pacing of her energy just nailed the song. It erupted so fully so quickly. At once you sensed both the performer LuPone barely containing her wish to rip into the song along with the desperation of the character, Rose, in getting through to her daughter before she even thinks of giving up.

And the song just happened to end with the most perfectly timed curtain. After a frenzied build- up of those wonderully Sondheimian climactic grasping-at-straws lines ("Honey, everything's coming up roses and daffodils!/ Everything's coming up sunshine and Santa Claus! /Everything's gonna be bright lights and lollipops!") it dropped so fast at the end, with LuPone mid-note ("...for me and for you!") that you almost feared it would hit her in the head. Hard to describe the effect, but it was like the perfect quick cutaway from a great movie line. And the audience just exploded.

This was just the prep for the second great curtain number, the moment the entire audience was waiting for, "Rose's Turn." Funny that Brantley concedes, in passing, "And she brings a harrowing psychological nakedness to the big nervous-breakdown number, 'Rose’s Turn.' " Uh, isn't that kind of the whole show?

If you read the accounts of what the artistic team wanted from that number--to portray the fragmenting of the human mind in musical theatre vocabulary--then it's hard to imagine a more faithful realization than LuPone's. By accounts, Merman's had all the power but lacked depth. I can attest to Bernadette Peters negotiating the many musical challenges with expertise, but without the insanity.

Well "insane" pretty much describes LuPone's "Turn." And while it will confirm all her critics' worst fears of her, I have to say it was pretty magical as a moment in musical theatre. For once the song was dangerous. Not just for the character, but for the audience. And for the performer. It was grotestque, messy, and loud, loud, loud. In short, it was everything your vocal coach would tell you never to do and it was absolutely the raw essence of Gypsy laid bare. The quick moments in the number when Rose fantasizes her own strip-act--aggressively pushing her bust out, taunting men in the front row with gargoylesque winks--were almost painfully unwatchable. LuPone still can be genuinely sexy (as she demonstrates in other numbers) but this was a brave display of foolhardy vulnerability.

That old combination of pity and terror. By pushing the latter to the edge, LuPone achieved the former for this complicated character. And I mean pity as in "pitiful", pathos as in "pathetic".

For better or worse. For at the end of the day, Gypsy is a musical about a mania. Sure there's the cheesy vaudeville numbers, the ascent of sweet Louise into savvy stripper. But what distinguisged it at the time, and makes it historic now, is the devotion of a musical to the dark side of domestic human life.

While I'm not sure even Sondheim is approving of roughness of LuPone's treatment, it certainly points the direction for all the Sondheim "breakdowns" to come. (Let's just say her Mrs. Lovett from last season's Sweeney Todd was very much present on stage.) Watching her I suddenly made the connection--now obvious to me--between "Rose's Turn" and the end of "Follies," so movingly captured by Victor Garber in another Encores staging back in February. That moment when you're not exactly sure whether it's the character losing it or the actor. The way he keeps playing with the layers of performance and what it means to go up on your lines. In a word: stagefright.

As for the rest of "Gypsy"--and I suppose there is a "rest of"--it remains a masterfully constructed, if somewhat maudlin, example of the artform. The last of the tin-pan-alley tuners, the forerunner of the "concept" musicals. Because of the great ambitions of the show in psychological realism, the older conventions don't hold up as well: the silly vaudeville numbers, the obligatory love duet ("All I Need is the Girl") in a show with no love. There's an interesting account in Laurents' memoirs of the tension in rehearsals between his own dramaturgical goals and Jerome Robbins' constant search for more dance numbers. That unresolved bifurcation is still much in evidence, I think.

I'll also add that Laura Benanti is excellent as Louise. Since I didn't quite catch Wedding Singer, I had no idea who she was. But she manages in this still opaque role, to project at once smarts and innocence, as well as a necessary rock solid stability to stand up to LuPone's one-woman maelstrom. It was nice to have the dramatic heft of Boyd Gaines (fresh from "Journey's End") as the lover/agent Herbie, but it still seems a thankless role in a story of manic women.

This "Encores" production is, for once, truly a production, not a reading. An attempt for the little -enterprise-that-could to cash in on their fan base and put up a long run of a familiar show for a change. But it does look like some expense has been spared in the scenic department, and an air of cheapness does pervade the physical production. Plus, having to perform in the Encores venue of City Center does no piece of theatre any good outside of maybe a revival of a "Ziegfeld Follies.

To return to Brantley's complaint. The marvel of watching LuPone is her sheer presence. She has something that Bernadette Peters could never have had, no matter how hard she tried to "act" it: desperation. Specifically the desperation of an outsider. She shoves, she steams, she scours as if it is her natural state. When a performer is just right for a role, they exude more in their body than any dramatist can write into a line. So even when LuPone seems to be coasting a bit, or not totally filling the lines or the songs, to look at her tells you everything you need to know about this character.

Does it help to know how much she really, really has wanted to play this part after years of being essentially banned from it? Does it help to see it on the very night after Mr. Brantley's review came out, when everyone in the house is rooting for her, and egging her on to give a big "fuck you" of a performance? You bet.

But hey, that's all theatre, too.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Welcome to the Blogosphere, Mr. Brantley

Yes, at long last, Ben Brantley blogs.

Albeit on the Times' house blog ArtsBeat. But still.

And a perfect occasion: a London theatre tour. Day 1: Orlando Bloom's West End debut.

Plus--a comments section! Dangerous to let readers answer back to the big bad Mr B?

I just hope they will also get Charles Isherwood to do the same the next time he goes on the road to see American theatre.

" 'Corrie' Fears Unrealized"

Interesting headline, that, from the Washington Post, reporting on the fallout or lack thereof from the staging of "Rachel Corrie" at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Says it all.

Catch this:

[E]arly this year [AD Ed Herendeen] estimated that in a worst-case scenario the festival might lose as much as $50,000 by doing the provocative play. However, ticket sales for the July 6-8 opening weekend were up 3 percent over last summer's opening, Herendeen said, and donations so far are up $21,000 over 2006.
The sky is not falling.

Remember, too, that CATF is also playing blogger Jason Grote's mideast themed 1001, to some acclaim.

Crazy Producers: Vol. XXIII

So have you ever wondered who the ad wizards were who came up with that awful Grey Gardens tabloid-style campaign, that's probably as responsible as anything for this Tony-winning star-turn of a show? The producers, of course.

Riedel today has a hoot documenting the shenanigans of airline magnates The Gondas, Kelly and Lou.

The Gondas fired Serino-Coyne, the veteran Broadway ad agency, because they didn't like their artwork. A source close to the agency says the company presented the Gondas with dozens of ideas but the Gondas "could never make a decision about anything."

Serino-Coyne was replaced by Radical Media, in which the Gondas have a stake. Radical came up with tabloid-style ads that theater insiders said had nothing to do with the musical.

What kind of experience does this ad promise ticketbuyers? Some mix of Batboy and Lipsynka, I'd suspect. Imagine their disappointment upon actually seeing this elegant, utterly serious and "integrated" oldschool musical. Especially since the "scandalous" part--and it ain't the glamorous kind of scandal--doesn't come till Act 2.

And pretty attractive too, ain't it?

Another gem hearkens back to that old saw that, as long as it's not in tights, anyone can be a costume designer.

One day she [Kelly Gonda] decided that a costume worn by the actor playing Joseph Kennedy was all wrong.

"He doesn't look like a Kennedy," she complained.

She pulled the actor out of rehearsal, took him shopping and bought him a heavy cable-knit sweater, which she insisted he wear in a scene set on the beach in July.

The costume designer of "Grey Gardens" is five-time Tony winner William Ivey Long, a close personal friend of Lee Radziwill, Jackie Kennedy's sister.

When producing on Broadway in this economy becomes a fool's errand, don't be surprised if the producers turn out to be fools.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Arabs & Israelis back on the NY Stage

A two-decade old Israeli play "Masked" is receiving a belated New York premiere next week. It deals directly and not unsympathetically with the intifada, albeit not explicitly the present-day one. And, like "Rachel Corrie," it too is being presented by a commercial producer.

Penned in 1990 by a Jewish Israeli, Ilan Hatsor, then a student-playwright, "Masked" is a traditional Greek tragedy, transpiring over several hours in a West Bank butcher shop. Like the controversial New York production of "My Name is Rachel Corrie," it unfolds amid a violent intifada, and its sympathies lie with the Palestinian Arabs it depicts. Yet Mr. Hatsor's play has not sparked the kind of heated debate that preceded the local premiere of "My Name is Rachel Corrie."...

The run-up to "Masked" has been much quieter. After organizing a series of staged readings last fall, director Ami Dayan secured an open-ended [read: commercial] "Masked" run at DR2, an off-Broadway performance space of veteran theater producer Daryl Roth.
Read all about it in today's Sun--itself no friend of Israeli-unfriendly thought.

I like the logic of director Dyan's (and yes, he's related to that Dyan) argument for doing the play at this particular moment:
Mr. Dayan, an Israeli-American, said he was motivated to import "Masked" stateside by Hamas's surprise victory against its rival Fatah in the January 2006 Palestinian legislative elections [s]eeing the play as emblematic of that factional struggle weakening bonds in families and among peoples.
Those January 2006 Hamas elections? Exactly the same event cited by New York Theatre Workshop as a reason not to do "Rachel Corrie." Me, I'm on the side of theatre being relevant.

Speaking of NYTW, their long awaited foray into Arab American drama on the mainstage starts tonight with Betty Shamieh's The Black Eyed.

Whither the Cast Album

As the musical moves underground to short runs in small theatres, who would stake the cash for recording and releasing a cast album in this day and age?

Who would invest in a mainstay of the LP after the death of even the CD?

Time Out's Adam Feldman tell you who.

Monday, July 16, 2007

From Blackbox to Mainstage

"Isn't it time that we had a funding system and a culture encouraging mainstream theatre to make stronger links with experimental?"

So asks Lyn Gardner on her Guardian blog, as well as a new book collection of "case studies for locating experimental theatres."

Money quote from Phelim ("Shockheaded Peter") McDermott:

"It is essential for the mainstream to acknowledge the debt it has to those working outside the traditional structures."


From Brecht to Bunraku, the experimental and radical always filters "up." (Or is that, down?)

Michael Chekhov

Charles Marowitz argues for the legacy of Michael Chekhov, one of the least understood but perhaps most influential 20th century acting teachers.

Nephew of the Chekhov, favorite actor of Stanislavsky's (his Hamlet was hailed as monumental), he ended up an emigre acting coach in Hollywood making cameos as kooky old men in films like Hitchcock's "Spellbound." It's a fascinating life, as recounted in Marowitz's full length biography.

From the article here's some of his provocative conclusion:

The "System," [Stanislavsky's] and its offspring "The Method," had a certain inevitability about it in the late 20th century and inspired some of the best works of psychological realism, viz. Odets, Miller, Williams, Inge, Mamet, etc. But we are now in a new and different millennium and our sense of what is both "true" and "real" has shifted into unexpected areas. We demand more than psychological equivalents to personal and social perceptions, more than dramatic replays of what we are buffeted with from an incessant media that deals in "sound bytes" instead of insights. Though glutted with "information," we are famished for "wisdom." Perhaps the time has come for a theorist, rooted in metaphysics and spirituality, improvisation rather than formulae, inspired hunches rather than dogmatic certainties, to make an appearance.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


I guess I'm the last person to have even heard of the Goldstar ticket service, let alone used it. But Terry Teachout makes it sound sweet--not just for the members, but for the theatre!

Goldstar Events now has 315,000 members, two-thirds of whom are under the age of 45 and go to the movies at least once a month; 75% of them do not buy season tickets or subscriptions to any performing group. Moreover, Goldstar's younger members are far more ethnically diverse than the average big-city fine-arts ticket buyer. "Our venue partners tell us that they always know when they're putting on a Goldstar evening," says Goldstar CEO Jim McCarthy. "All they have to do is look at the audience. More color, and fewer gray heads."

So people, tell me: does it work?

It's free, it's in several cities, and I dig their slogan: "Great Nights Out for About the Price of a Movie."

Friday, July 13, 2007

Robert Wilson Actor Breaks Hip--How Could They Tell?

Speaking of those pretty pictures Robert Wilson makes, looks like they may have taken their toll on one of his Comédie-Française actors. One took a fall before Thursday's show at the big Lincoln Center Festival leading the performance to be canceled.

Ok, no proof the injury was the result of a contorted shrieking Wilsonian pose (the notice refers just to a "hip injury in an accidental fall"). But the good news is a Sunday matinee has been added to the sold-out run, thus possibly freeing up some tix if any of the Thursday patrons choose to go the Hamptons instead.

The kicker to the story is how they found a replacement for the felled "comedienne." Artistic Director Muriel Mayette herself!

Ms. Mayette, an accomplished actress and member of the Comédie-Française since 1985, became the first woman to be named president and artistic director of the revered company in August 2006.
No small task, learning all that RW blocking in one pick-up rehearsal...

Cure Women Playwrights!

UPDATE (2:20pm): Ok, so as some recent comenters have pointed out, I may have this story wrong. The bracelets seem to be for "living American playwrights" not just women. (And not just "living" women either, I guess. Unfortunately I was so turned off by the thing I left mine in my seat and so threw away the evidence. Unlike blogger Mike Mariano, who not only kept his but photographed it.

All I can say is I could have sworn the staffer said "women playwrights" to me. And it never even occurred to me to look for an inscription. So rest assured I have now done what I probably should have done initially--contacted the 2nd Stage marketing dept.

If I'm wrong, then I guess it's not quite as outrageous. Not quite.

Stay tuned.

So as I was waiting to be ushered in to Second Stage for Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice last night, I was accosted by a young woman, seemingly a company stafffer, holding out a pale blue-ish rubber wristband. "Hey, would you mind wearing this to show support for women playwrights?"

I was so perplexed I think my dropped jaw prevented me from uttering any answer. Before I knew it this putty bracelet was in my hand, and I was noticing people all around me in the house wearing them! So I realized it was not a joke.

I know female playwrights have been historically underrepresented on stage. But they're a disease now?

Or disease victim, to take the wristband analogy literally. Sorry, "survivor." While I'm sure Sarah Ruhl would agree she's a survivor of the Development Hell of nonprofit theatreland... I'm sure her hemoglobin count was just fine.

Um, where does one start with what's wrong with this. Offensive to actual cancer victims? Diminishing the quality of your theatre's work by likening it to charity? Unimaginable bullying of your audience to revere your show or else you're...well, evil?

And why am I showing solidarity with a suffering survivor who just got a $500,000 MacArthur "Genius" Award???

Forget what I thought of the play--what's going on at Second Stage?

PS. According to this online disease-wristband catalog, pale blue seems to be already taken: by prostate cancer. Odd choice.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Photo of the Day: Robert Wilson en français

Robert Wilson's Fables de la Fontaine" with the Comédie-Française.
photo: Richard Termine

Love RW or hate him, the man certainly makes some pretty pictures. For more of them, see the NYT "slideshow" available with their review.

The show runs this weekend at the Lincoln Center Summer Festival, at $65-85 a pop. It's sold out. So enjoy the photos. It's as close as most of us will get.

Cleveland's Karamu

Nice story in Backstage last week on the happy turnaround in recent years for a company that claims to be the oldest African American theatre in the country: the Karamu theatre of Cleveland.

Founded as a multicultural arts institution in 1915 by two white social workers, Russell and Rowena Jelliffe, Karamu House flourished through the 1960s. The theatre, whose name is a Swahili word meaning "place of joyful gathering," remained a multicultural enterprise until the 1970s, when it had evolved into an almost exclusively black venue. By the early 1990s, an economically depressed Cleveland became emblematic of Rust Belt America, Karamu's audience eroded, and some of the city's more talented actors began to hone their skills elsewhere.
A nonequity house, but with a $300,000 budget, the new AD seems to have rescued its reputation in the past few seasons, despite the continuing economic troubles and urban flight of the rust-belt midwest. Not to mention being a black theatre not necessarily reaching out to a white audience.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sifton Defends NYT theatre coverage

Ok, promise not to pile on the man every day this week, but he is opening himself up to public scrutiny all week. And here's an eloquent question directly about the theatre coverage--encapsulating many oft-repeated complaints--from a downtown AD.

Over the last 10 years we have seen the elimination of the Sunday theater critic, which took away a second chance for Broadway shows with a second opinion. (Famously, Clive Barnes loved “The Wiz” and loathed “Shenandoah” on Thursday and Walter Kerr loved “Shenandoah” and was mixed on “The Wiz” on Sunday. Both shows thrived — The Times loved them both.)

We have also seen the demise of the “Onstage and Off” column, as well as a drastic reduction in coverage of off and off-off Broadway productions. This was explained at one time by The Times now becoming a national rather than a local newspaper.

It’s The New York Times. New York is the theater capital of America. The Times should cover it fully. At the present time, while the coverage that exists is excellent, it is only a shadow of what the “Gray Lady” was doing in the past. This is detrimental to theater in New York, to say the least.

— Martin Platt, co-director, Perry Street Theater, New York

Good points, to be sure. But I'm happy to report Sifton gives a fair and persuasive answer that the Times is actually reviewing more shows, and more non-Broadway shows than ever before.

[T]he notion that there has been a “drastic reduction in coverage of off- and off-off Broadway productions” at The Times is just wrong, I think.

Looking back to 1997 in our in-house database of articles, I make a rough count of 286 theater reviews for the year, including the work of the Sunday critic. In 2006, by contrast, we published 516. In the past 365 days we published 449. An average season on Broadway is, what — 35 shows? We review a lot of off- and off-off Broadway theater.

And you produce more! We’re trying, and will continue trying, to cover it all.

I have indeed noticed the increased downtown coverage. Seemed like for a while they were experimenting with groups of blurb reviews (a la Voice "Sightlines" style), which are limited in their word count, but can at least expose the reader to more titles. I wouldn't mind seeing more of that, frankly.

In fact I'm seeing many of the same shows reviewed in the Times that I see in Time Out and the Voice. Many, not most. But it's a step.

What I'd like to see more of in the Times--indeed in all the local theatre sections--is an even more pronounced sense of why they're covering what their covering. I like to feel a paper has really sought out the most potentially interesting work in the furthest corners of the city, based on the artists' history, the subject matter, or the venue. Not just the lure of a forgotten TV actor or an unrelenting press rep.

REVIEW: Doppelganger (Village Voice)

My latest in the V.V. Doppelganger, a play with video projection accompaniment presented by the Feed the Herd company at the 3LD Arts Center.

Be like BAM?

Kate Taylor has a nice provocative piece in the Sun today reminding us that BAM has succeeded in one area all New York theatres claim to be aiming at: attracting younger audiences. As Taylor argues, it's not just the programming and the pricing.

The major obstacle is ambience, and whether the many aspects of the evening — the performance, the physical environment, the pre- and post-show activities, the crowd — add up to an appealing experience. When you're in your 20s or 30s and work long hours, you want your evening activity to be socially, as well as intellectually and artistically, gratifying. Even if that gratification is just the vibe in the room, the feeling that you're among peers and sharing an experience, that's enough. It's the same feeling you enjoy at a bar or a club: the sense that you're part of a scene.
This reminded me of something I heard Will Frears at a panel discussion last year about the differences between his theatregoing back home in London and in NYC; here, he looks around and almost never feels like "this is my crowd." I think he meant the older audiences, mostly, but it applies to the surroundings as well.

Taylor spotlights some of the big strategic choices BAM has made in the last decade--the big cafe, the movie theatre--to become a "destination" for 20 & 30-somethings. I had never thought of the significance of the movie theatre, assuming there was no crossover business in getting those audience to the theatrical offerings. But maybe I was wrong. And BAM president Karen Hopkins make a good point:
Ms. Hopkins called the cinema "a built-in marketing bonanza," and said she is surprised that more performing arts centers haven't added one. "The cinema business has the cheapest tickets, the youngest audience, and it puts you in business 365 days a year," she said. Attendance at BAM Rose Cinemas has grown steadily, to 195,000 people in the most recent fiscal year.
Get people--younger people--at least walking in and out of that space on a daily basis. It's something the Public lobby always has tried to do, but never succeeded. I actually feel it more at the London National Theatre, despite the many tourists and pensioners.

(But note to BAM--it would be extra inviting if you at least had some chairs in the lobby to hang out in, even before the show. The Cafe upstairs has now become too expensive and sit-down for casual drop-in. Are you just afraid the local homeless will flock in? (That being the reason for the elimination of most "public seating" in the city.))

But there's another big factor, that Taylor is absolutely right to point out: the 'B' in BAM.
The borough is full of young people and families, émigrés both from Manhattan and from around the world. Over the last 10 years, the proportion of Brooklyn residents in the audience has grown significantly, to more than 40%, from around 25%, BAM's vice president of marketing and communications, Lisa Mallory, said. (About 85% of the audience, in total, comes from New York City.) Ms. Mallory said she attributes this not to a change in BAM's marketing, but to its audience simply moving to Brooklyn from Manhattan.
If you want to attract a certain audience, go to where that audience is--if you're not there already, like BAM. That's just what a couple of companies are doing, like Theatre For A New Audience, whose AD Jeffrey Horowitz reminds us that this will soon appear basic bottom-line common-sense as well:
[H]e sees Brooklyn as the future for his organization and others, because there is still real estate available, and hence room to create a performing arts scene. "In Manhattan, there is no more space," he said. " Joe Papp [the founder of the Public Theater] got the Astor [Library Building] from the City for a dollar, and Ellen Stewart [the founder of La MaMa Experimental Theater Club] got her theater [also for a low price]. That doesn't happen anymore."
Yes. That doesn't happen anymore.

This makes me realize how unfortunate it actually is that the only new theatre spaces in Manhattan end up being in barren industrial neighborhoods impossible to get to. Like the "37 Arts" theatre out by the Hudson, at least a fifteen minute walk from Penn Station and any subway stop. (I can even get to BAM quicker. On a good day, at least.) No wonder the hip new, and Obie-winning, musical "In the Heights" can barely fill its less-than-500 seats. Imagine what business it would do in Brooklyn.

Taylor takes the interesting step of asking Andre Bishop if he would ever put the proposed new Lincoln Center Theatre 3rd Space in Brooklyn. Aside from logistics, he insists:
"I refuse to believe — call me hopeless and naive — that all the youthful action is now taking place outside of Manhattan. I feel we can infuse new energy right here in Manhattan, even in marble-walled Lincoln Center."
But them marble walls may just be the problem, Andre. Some metaphors do write themselves.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Paris Hilton: Cultural Experience?

So glad to see I'm not the only one bewailing NYT's classification of all things Paris Hilton as "arts" worthy. Kudos to one particular questioner in the paper's online Q & A with Sam ("Culture" Editor) Sifton.

Sifton's answer is worth excerpting at length:

Q.Why is anything having to do with Paris Hilton considered to belong under the heading “Arts” or “Culture?” Please extend the question to the topic of celebrity “news” in general. -- Ravenna Taylor

A. [...] The smart-aleck answer to your question is that Ms. Hilton is more than simply a celebrity. She is a veteran actress and occasional recording artist, who has written a memoir. The really smart-aleck response is that she is the preeminent performance artist of our age.
I honestly can't tell if these are jokes or not.

But seriously folks...
But the truth is, you can’t ignore the fact that some large number of Americans are absolutely fascinated by Paris Hilton; the interview she gave Larry King on CNN after she got out of jail in late June drew over 3.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen, or about three times the number of people who usually watch his show. Indeed, the news of Ms. Hilton’s arrest, jailing, release, and re-jailing this summer was almost unavoidable for anyone who consumes any sort of media in America in 2007.
Kinda begs the question of... so, why cover it more?

Oh here's why--to explain it all to us:

We have tried to explain this dissonance in our own way. As Alessandra Stanley, the chief television critic of The Times, put it in her June 29 “TV Watch” column about Ms. Hilton’s appearance on Larry King Live:

There is a bizarre countereffect to the Paris Hilton phenomenon: a little like the children’s taunt, ‘I’m rubber, you're glue,’ the sheer absurdity of her fame ensures that anyone who denigrates it looks even more foolish. It was laughable when Barbara Walters of ABC told the New York Post columnist Cindy Adams that she didn't regret not doing the first post-prison Paris Hilton interview because, as she put it, “The whole thing somehow was beneath me.”

It was delicious to watch Anderson Cooper sneer at the young celebutante's frivolity, then piggyback his show to Mr. King’s and devote an entire hour to Ms. Hilton’s jailhouse conversion. And all week, news media analysts, law professors and image consultants scuffled like paparazzi for the chance to go on television and deconstruct Ms. Hilton's latest escapade.

Love Paris Hilton or hate her, it's interesting what happened to her and around her this summer. And a newspaper ought to explore what's interesting, what's new. You can learn more at the topic page we created for Ms. Hilton here.

[link deleted--why be part of the problem]

The elite media defense dragged out in all tabloid cases--"we're not covering the story, we're covering the coverage!"--is getting tired. (C'mon Sam, that's so O.J.) As long as NYT covers trash "in our own way," I suppose, it's not trash anymore. Personally I see little difference between Stanley's supposed "meta-commentary" and Cooper's only slightly more obvious doublethink. Not to even criticize Stanley personally, it's the assigning to her of the story that immediately compromises the section.

I just want to be clear, what I think is at issue is the devotion of precious space in the paper of record's already stripped down arts section. I would respect NYT more if it simply launched a separate Celebrity or Gossip section like other more transparent publications. But to sneak in tabloid stuff under the heading of "hey, it's on tv!" thus watering down the otherwise fine efforts of your arts critics and reporters is just going to keep on turning off readers who self-identify as arts lovers.

Roundabout Reasoning

Michael Feingold asks the big question hanging over Roundabout's curious revival of John Van Druten's 1940 comedy Old Acquaintance.

Van Druten, a solid craftsman rather than a genius to be rediscovered, wrote better as well as worse plays than this—and maybe the better ones would have been more worth reviving. One of the problems of life in New York these days is that the theaters with the biggest resources seem to have the vaguest artistic policies. The Roundabout has an artistic director who is, by his own admission, a money man (he has put the theater in a solid financial position) with no particular artistic grounding. In the past, theaters like this were run more purposively, and—though Old Acquaintance is charmingly done and quite enjoyable—with considerably better artistic results overall.
Just to clarify, he's referring to one Todd Haimes. Many theatres have a separate Artistic Director (the art person) and Managing Director (the business person). Part of the key to Roundabout's "success," for better or worse, is that Haimes effectively functions as both.

Look, I'm as big a sucker as they come for dusting off the old American repertory. But the question here is not why do Old Acquaintance at all, but why devote the precious and enormous resources of the Roundabout "American Airlines" mainstage to it?

By the way, Harriet Harris fans (who disliked my last post relating to this production) may be more amenable to Feingold's more nuanced appraisal, which is enthusiastic, yet "It's hard to say whether she's wrecking Van Druten's play or transfiguring it."

EOS Awareness Day

Yes, a new disease, according to Valerie Scher of the San Diego Union-Trib: Excessive Ovation Syndrome.

The more people pay for tickets, the more susceptible they are to EOS, because ovations confirm that their money was well spent. Even those in bargain seats can easily catch it from their neighbors. The urge to stand and cheer may be irresistible if everyone around you is doing it.

Alas, EOS has no cure. But awareness is key to treatment.
Read on. Scher is a classical music critic, but I'm sure you'll detect parallel symptoms.

I wonder how many of the standing end up doing so, like me, just to actually see the actors over the heads of the ovationists. Beats clapping in your seat looking at nothing.

I suggest a telethon.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Ask Sam Sifton

NYT Culture Editor Sam Sifton is taking questions again over at all week. So if you care about NYT theatre coverage, email him. Now is your chance to be heard!

If you don't care... then I envy you.

Vegas Update

A must-read for all Vegas-watchers by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Christopher Rawson.

On the one-hand Vegas seems now the more natural place for the slick-spectacular form of live entertainment, out-Broadwaying Broadway.

That's the genius of the New Vegas. No matter what its roots in crass hucksterism and the Bugsy Siegel mob, it has generated fortunes, both individual and corporate, that are willing to take chances on entertainment, even when it calls itself art. As Chris Jones said a few years back in a seminal Chicago Tribune article heralding Vegas as the successor to Broadway, these moneymen have the virtue of their defect. Once they decide to hire a creative force like Cirque (not that much is like Cirque), they pony up whatever's needed and get out of the way.

That's unlike Broadway, where the producers consider themselves collaborators, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. They fight to keep investments modest, by Vegas standards.

On the other hand, the very word "Broadway" itself has turned out to be a kiss of death for some shows, he argues:

It may well be that, while Broadway can generate shows that (repackaged) succeed in Vegas, the Broadway brand is itself a mixed blessing. In the real world I live in, "Broadway" often relates to serious theater as glitz does to substance. But Vegas is already glitz. So there, "Broadway" carries intimations of elitism. After all, the crowds that flood to Vegas are mainly people who don't watch the Tony Awards. What does Broadway mean to them, other than that old city at the other end of the continent?

This gets at what makes Broadway so sad these days. They can't even compete in the boffo department.

Representin' for the 'Sphere

Terry Teachout stands up for us all in the WSJ last week, in a riposte to Richard Schickel's much-circulated rant against bloggers daring to call themselves critics.

Speaking as a veteran newspaper critic who started a blog four years ago, I suspect that Mr. Schickel hasn't looked at very many artblogs. I, on the other hand, read dozens of them each week. In fact, I now spend more time reading art-related blog postings than print-media reviews. Increasingly, they're sharper, livelier and timelier than their old-media competition.

This is why I have mixed feelings about the decline of regional newspaper criticism, much of which is uneven in quality and not a little of which is pointless.

Read on. And feel good.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Stoppard "Rocks" on the Radio

In case you can't wait--or can't afford--to see Stoppard's "Rock and Roll" on Broadway next season, BBC has it for you free online! Starting tonight, and available for the next seven days only. Not the original cast, and not downloadable, alas.

While you're at it, check out the enviable lineup of all the plays on their Drama 3.

Where are you, NPR! Oh right, too busy with wall-to-wall Ira Glass navel-gazing.

Friday, July 06, 2007


Riedel bears the gloomy news for B'way that a stagehand strike may be imminent in the Fall, if negotiations between them and the producers continue as tough as they've been.

Interesting sidebar along the way:

[O]nly one in five shows recoups its production cost.

"Twenty-five years ago, one in four shows recouped, so we've gone backwards," says a veteran producer. "That's not a very bright picture. That's not a very healthy industry to be in.

(Unmoved, a unsympathetic stagehand rep says, "one in five doesn't sound too bad. It's a lot better than the restaurant business.")

One of the hot-button issues is the fees demanded for "load-ins" of shows into Broadway houses. Riedel says the big musicals can cost as much as $1.5 mil--just to move into the theatre!

So don't a couple of "Pirate Queen" size load-ins amount to a small indie film budget?

And I wonder if one-in-five are good odds by Hollywood standards.

Why does anyone produce Broadway shows anymore at all?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

More Criticism, Not Less

"Varied and lively opinionated criticism isn’t necessarily good for individual productions or artists, but it is good for the genre as a whole. If there is no intellectual, aesthetic, political, spiritual, passionate argument about what gets made, then the only arbiters of value are the box office and the phone-in. Bad culture drives out good unless there is someone there to stop it. Look at cinema, which is now virtually critic-proof."

- London Times' A.A. Gill on what he views as the sorry state of dramatic criticism in the UK.

I don't follow the London critics enough to either agree or disagree, but I'm quite taken with at least one part of his argument--that good-quality criticism can help create interest in theatre. He cites the rise in readable food criticism as creating a new interest beyong eating. One might say the same for (if you can believe it) automobile criticism.

Culture without Portfolio

Slate's "Explainer" (always a fun "ever wonder..." section) takes on the question of, What is a Ministry of Culture and why the US doesn't have one. After surveying examples from around the world,

So, why doesn't the United States have a ministry of culture? For one thing, arts in the United States are largely privately funded, and the art world is less dependent on state support. A bunch of federal agencies perform the functions given to ministries of culture in other countries. That's not to say the idea for a ministry of culture—or something like it—hasn't been proposed. In 1859, President James Buchanan appointed a National Arts Commission, but it disbanded after two years. Teddy Roosevelt made a similar attempt 50 years later, and in 1937, during a fit of New Deal-fueled government expansion, a New York congressman introduced legislation to create a Department of Science, Art, and Literature, but the proposal never got beyond committee. Subsequent efforts to create a centralized cultural agency were hampered at least in part by negative associations with Nazi propaganda and "cultural planning" in the USSR.
Um, about that "the art world is less dependent on state support" bit...Let's please remember that's not by choice.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Camp Delacorte

The Times gives the Shakespeare-in-the-Park ticketline the rose-colored glasses view, as part of a feature on all those crazy free summer events New Yorkers have to camp out in the heat for.

Here's Public Exec Dir. Mara Manus on why this humiliating herding is not some unintended consequence but in fact part of the generous company's grand design for New Yorkers:

Ms. Manus said the line has taken on a life of its own, leading to extended interactions that are unusual in the big city. “The line itself is a community,” she said. “It’s part of a total experience of the park. We in fact have a donor — a high-end donor — who took her kids for years to stand in the line, because she thought the experience was unparalleled. She said it was the greatest thing. It’s a way of getting to know your neighborhood or community in a way you don’t in New York, because people don’t have a chance to stop sand say hi, much less talk for hours.”
Ironically, it's only the high-end donor types who can afford to wait on line. The same ones who can afford to buy the scalped tix. Or to just buy them from the Public for $150.

As that modern classicist Jean Anouilh once said: "What you get free costs too much."

Happy 4th!

Raw Numbers: "Company" down, "Grey Gardens" next

Back in November I predicted neither Company, nor Grey Gardens, nor--gulp--even Spring Awakening would last till Valentines Day! Ok, I was really, really off on that.

But at least two of them have finally thrown in the towel five months later. "Company" folded over the past weekend, and "GG" just announced it will retire at the end of the month. (At least from the New York stage. Both a London and national tour--with Christine Ebersole--are supposedly still in the offing.)

As for "Spring Awakening," in case you were wondering about that "Tony bounce," by last count it's playing at 98% capacity.

My argument was never that these shows were not good enough to run long and fill houses. Quite the contrary. Too good. Too serious and adult-oriented (yes, even Spring Awakening) too attract that endless stream of tourists and their huge families that keep the B'way Beast fed. "Spring" finally delivered--after many, many months of uncertainty, to be sure. That team (a huge team!) of dedicated producers stuck with it and may some day, some day see a few pennies profit. (Definitely not yet.)

My impression is that "Company" and "GG" held on for dear life at a big, big loss to its investors. Probably mainly for Tonys. Sure, Tonys for their stars, Esparza and Ebersole. But producing ain't charity. These producers were no doubt hoping for Tonys themselves. At least the "Company" people at least got one (for Best Musical Revival). It's amazing how much cash and credit these people will pour into the Black Hole of the Great White Way in pursuit of that trophy. Cf. "Journey's End," which not coincidentally didn't stay open any longer than it needed to, folding just three hours before the CBS broadcast.

To be sure, both shows have picked up at the end, climbing to over 80%, even. And 80% of a 1000-plus seat house is quite something on a nightly basis....Which leads me to question the assumption that so many--myself included--so often buy into: Namely, that the first question one asks when a Broadway show closes--no matter how long the run!--is inevitably "What went wrong?"

Even "The Producers"--after five years of a mostly strong run--was subject to various grim autopsies. And, yes, there the answer was obvious (the Lane/Broderick factor). But what more can one hope for in a show to play to a thousand people a show, eight shows a week, for over five years???

The "long run" is the gold standard of live show business. Yet it's a relatively modern invention. Not until the mid-19th century--when urban populations so ballooned that actor-managers didn't exhaust potential ticket sales so quickly, and when theatres were prettified and neighborhoods gentrified to attract the respectable middle class and tourists--did it become feasible (and even desirable) for a company to "sit down" with one property and play it exclusively for more than, say, a couple of weeks in a row. Until then, rep ruled the day.

But since then, producers soon became addicted to the lure of the show that keeps on giving. From Tobacco Road, to Oklahoma, to Chorus Line to Phantom (now in its third decade), the bar--the gold bar, that is--gets set higher and higher. Without anyone asking: is this any sane kind of measure of success?

Consider such basic questions as: can the quality of even the finest production withstand more than 300 consecutive performances? Is this what the gods of theatre really wanted?

In such perspective, then. the 247 perf's of Company and over 300 of Grey Gardens are not only "respectable" but downright phenomenal, especially given today's economic biases against anything that doesn't put shallow entertainment first. If they ran any longer, no doubt we would see dispiriting cast changes (Tony Danza as Bobby! Kathy Lee Gifford as Little Edie!) and an audience increasingly stuffed with two-fer toting flip-flop wearers in search of air-conditioning.

So, rest in peace Grey Gardens and Company. Consider it Broadway's equivalent of mercy killing.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Working Actor

Not surprisingly, the most revealing New York Times theatre article of the week is in the Real Estate Section.

Most young actors would assume that if you landed the lead role, on Broadway, in not one but two of the most important American plays of recent years and won two Tonys for these performance you'd have it made in the shade. If those plays happened to be Angels in America parts I and II, you might be, um, doubly envious.

Well such dreamers might be surprised to know that only now--more than a decade after said triumphs--can Stephen Spinella afford to buy his own apartment. In Harlem.

Apparently it was the double-whammy of the Broadway run of Spring Awakening and--more importantly--a recurring gig on "24" that pushed him into the affordability bracket.

(Article notes that Spinella in Hollywood "can earn as much in a day as he can during a 10-week run Off Broadway.")

To me the article seems mainly to treat this as a "happy ending" story--not to mention a primer for all us aspiring nesters in the glories of a Harlem fixer-upper. It is the Real Estate section, after all. But for anyone theatrically inclined, this may be more depressing than anything on NYT front page.

Unless you're one of the many desperate readers running off gold-rush style to claim Spinella's previous unthinkable $168 Avenue B walk-up. (Yes, it took him this long to save up, even at $168 a month. More depressing.)

Malachy Walsh beat me to the punch and the punchline on this one.

REVIEW: Fall Forward

My review from last week's Voice is finally online of the now departed Fall Forward, a site-specific play by Daniel Reitz, that was performed at the charming little United Methodist Church at John Street.

(Photo, at right, is clearly not current, but the only one I could find. In typical austere Methodist fashion, even the church's website bears no images.)

I was interested to see, in the same week, Reitz also singled out in Jason Zinoman's review of the latest EST marathon. Someone to watch?

Seeing a play on John Street, by the way, has a neat extra theatrical significance in the history of this city. The church is just steps away from what was once the John Street Theatre (15-21 John Street), now a small office building. It was here, in 1787, that the play usually considered the first written by a "native" American citizen was performed, The Contrast. The theatre was erected in 1767 and thirty years later, in 1797, it was converted into a feed store. A telling beginning to the new republic.

CATF Fallout

The Baltimore Sun goes behind the scenes of the infighting over the programming of "Rachel Corrie" at West Virginia's Contemporary American Theatre Festival. "Initially, the 27-member board was so split on the wisdom of mounting such a divisive show," reports Mary Carole McCauley, "that the festival hired a mediator."

The biggest protest was from H. Alan Young, a former director of the festival himself who resigned and took his $100,000 donation with him. Young's certainly entitled to his opinion and free to bail on his own festival if he wants. And a couple of his rationalizations--I mean, reasons, hold some water.

Young, who resigned from the festival's board of directors, finds Rachel Corrie's interpretation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be prejudicial and deeply inaccurate.

He also objects to the inclusion of a play that he believes violates the festival's mission to stage new works by American playwrights. (In his opinion, Viner and Rickman, both Britons, and not Corrie, are the play's authors.)

"Unless Rachel Corrie had supernatural powers," Young says, "she could not have written the account of her death with which the play ends. The account of her demise was written by another Englishman who was a colleague of Corrie's, so that account is suspect."
Okay, he seems to be saying all Limeys are somehow "suspect," but put that aside. I would agree "Corrie" is a play out of the British theatre, and so technically any theatre or contest with a strict "US Playwright" stricture could rule it out.

But on the other hand, surely a lot of theatres committed to an exclusively "American" repertory would consider foreigner-penned adaptations of American authors, no? The words of the play indisputably are Corrie's, regardless of the last 5 minutes. (And since when can a mere epilogue quoted from another source throw the whole authorship into question?)

Young goes on to cite other reasons, though, which are even more "suspect" themselves, or at least stretch the credulity of the censorial cover-up:
He also weighed other factors before making his decision: He believed the board was breaching its fiduciary duties to safeguard the festival's financial well-being...."The board should absolutely have superseded the producing director if they knew that putting on a particular play could have a detrimental impact on the festival's financial outcome," he says.
And probably a good reason Boards should have no say in artistic programming at a nonprofit (emphasis on the non) institution.

As the facts have shown, of course, "Corrie" has had quite the opposite of a "detrimental impact" on ticket sales. What a great corrective to the panicked cry of controversy as automatic box office poison.

And check out reason #4. (As Mamet wrote in a recent Unit episode: "When your kid has more than one excuse, you know neither of them are true.")
In addition, he says the play can't be considered "contemporary" because the situation on which it is based no longer exists. Israeli civilians and military forces have since left the Gaza Strip.
Ah, I see. So "contemporary" means D'oh! That was 10 seconds in the past. Okay , how about

Yes, so the Israeli pull out from Gaza marked the end of the Arab Israeli conflict. You heard it here. Ancient history.
Young says he welcomes controversial and thought-provoking plays, "no matter what the subject matter. But I object when the plays are so offensive as to cause loss of significant funds. I also would expect them to present more than one point of view."
So yay to free speech as long as it doesn't lose money and doesn't offend the "other" point of view. Pretty qualifying remarks.

Young would really be better of simply maintaining he hated the play because he loves Ariel Sharon and Bibi Netanyahu so much. That I can respect. But his other theories on what constitutes acceptable drama will simply be proven wrong by the already favorable reception to the play at his former theatre.

Kudos again to his successor Ed Herendeen for weathering the storm.

Mike Leigh: "Two Thousand Years"

Here's something I look forward to next season at The New Group: The US premiere of Mike Leigh's Two Thousand Years.

While the New Group seems to have a cardiograph-worthy sporadic season every year, somehow the combination of Scott Elliott and Mike Leigh (Ecstasy, Abigail's Party) always comes through.


Mike Leigh (Abigail's Party, Smelling a Rat) returns to our stage with his latest play, which was a massive hit in London two years ago. An assimilated Jewish family in suburban London is upset when their 20-something son, who still lives with them, suddenly becomes seriously devout.

The rifts in this close-knit family are a rare look at Jewish life in Britain and shows how lives are affected by emotional connections with the ongoing crisis in Israel.
Intriguing, yes? Especially coming from one of the greatest living Jewish Leftist dramatists. (Okay, a large category.)

January 08. Mark your calendars.