This Beautiful City Photo by Craig Schwartz
By Steven Leigh Morris
A few years ago, reflecting on The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, presented early at the then new Mark Taper Forum, where he was artistic director, Gordon Davidson remarked on the death of the docudrama, that theater couldn't compete with the ability of the video camera to capture the microscopic physical detail and subtext of people being interviewed, and what they reveal behind and beneath their words and gestures. Co-writers Steve Cosson and Jim Lewis, working with song-writer-lyricist Michael Friedman and New York-based The Civilians theatre company, demonstrate that one creative solution to this puzzle is to use musical theater to inflate the scale of the presentation, rather than try to put it under the microscope of videocam naturalism.
This Beautiful City, which opened on Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, is an ode to Colorado Springs, Colorado, and follows multiple views from all sides of the local political and theological equations, as pastor Ted Haggard rolls into town, sets up his mega-church and takes a dive when he's outed and finally confesses to using meth. The six-actor company (Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Herberlee, Stephen Plunkett, Alison Weller, Cosson and Lewis) depicts a range of residents whom the actors interviewed for this piece, from an atheist to religious zealots to one trans-gender “girl”. Mercifully, these are not parodies that load the argument to spoon feed what an audience from Silver Lake or Soho wants to hear, but interpretations reaching for the deepest and most sincere comprehension of the characters, of how life's agonies turn into religious conversions, how God and Jesus become substitutes for a kind of unqualified love and compassion that simply don't exist in Colorado Springs, or anywhere else on Earth.
Some of the interviews are sung – a four-piece band sits perched high, while sermons by evangelists and baptist preachers have their own, innate brand of musicality and choreography. The piece is too long -- the rise and fall of Haggard defines its rhythm, but it keeps going for another 20 minutes, as though it's caught between its commitment to be a musical, docu-dramatic portrait of a city, and the almost classical-Greek study in the hubris of one mega-church leader. Right now, it's trying to be both.
Still, if you want to understand this country and why it's gone off the tracks, Colorado Springs is a pretty good place to start. And if you want to understand Colorado Springs, The Civilians bring it to life with an honesty that gets under your skin, can inspire and scare the crap out of you.
The Man Who Wasn't There
Odgen Nash has a poem that goes like this:
"Yesterday on the stair,
I met a man who wasn't there,
He wasn't there again today,
I wish to God he'd go away."
I write this by way of introducing the grand opening of UCLA Live's Seventh Annual International Theater Festival, and U.S. premier of adapter-director Barry Kosky's staging of Edgar Allen Poe's “The Tell-Tale Heart” -- a one-man performance featuring Austrian actor Martin Niedermair. The show and festival are supposed to open tomorrow (Wednesday), but they won't, because Niedermair isn't coming.
He would like to come, but the Department of Homeland Security has denied his visa.
His visa is being denied because Actors Equity has determined that the role, being recited in English, could, conceivably be played by an American, and Homeland Security routinely checks in with the appropriate labor union in order to make its determination of whether to grant a work-related visa.
Explained Equity spokesperson Maria Somma, the organization subcontracted by UCLA Live to petition for artists' visas, Traffic Control Group, submitted paperwork that said the performance was culturally unique. “We rejected that because we didn't find anything that was culturally unique about it.”
Somma says that Traffic Control Group then changed the paperwork to say that the actor “supports the director,” and that Equity was having none of it. “We believed an American could do this role. We have an exchange program, but there was no exchange offered in this situation.”
So what if Mabou Mines were a German company performing in English. And what if they did A Doll's House in English, which everybody does, but with dwarfs and what have you. Would Equity have denied them the right to perform because American dwarfs were being denied employment?
“Every case is individual,” Somma replied. We look at the totality and the specific situation.”
The totality of the situation is that no American actor is being denied employment; the show is simply not being performed.
That'll show 'em.
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
This Beautiful City Photo by Craig Schwartz
Monday, September 29, 2008
by Abigail Katz
Tarell Alvin McCraney
I read a lot of plays. I go to a lot of plays. I go to a good number of readings. It is rare that I come across a playwright whose work I find so compelling, unique and moving that I make a point of seeing or reading their work whenever there is the opportunity. After I saw Tarell Alvin McCraney's THE BROTHERS SIZE at The Public Theater last year I have actively followed his work and career. He has developed a voice and style that plays with form and language (bringing stage directions into the dialogue and storytelling, for example) and through that brings the audience into a world that he has created. What is so wonderful and satisfying is that his devices are not a gimmick in his writing, and they are not necessarily revolutionary. They are tools to make foreign worlds or situations accessible. These tools help to communicate that regardless of the world or situation, family is always at the core.
Having said that, I encourage you all to go see WIG OUT! at The Vineyard Theatre (click here for tix.) I don't want to say too much about the play, as it officially opens tomorrow. What I can say is that I believe this playwright is becoming a major presence in American theatre, and I find that very exciting. Keep your eye on this one!
Let the Slaughter Begin
In the last few weeks, three Broadway shows have posted their closing notices: [title of show], which closes October 12th, XANADU, which was supposed to close October 12th, but moved up its closing date and actually shuttered yesterday, and LEGALLY BLONDE, which closes October 19th to make way for WEST SIDE STORY this coming spring. So who's next? We're taking bets, submit your titles here folks! Someone's gotta close, considering the ridiculously long list of shows that are supposedly coming to Broadway this season. Since YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN just announced a tour and tickets for the Broadway production are available on TDF, I suspect one green monster will exit the Great White Way as another comes into town. I mean honestly, can you imagine two green monsters and a green witch all on Broadway at the same time? I suppose they could share make-up to cut down on costs, that would be an interesting story. Well we shall see as the season unfolds- it's already been wacky and it's barely gotten started!
Thursday, September 25, 2008
By Steven Leigh Morris
The absurdity of our economic crisis and the way it's affecting the arts came to a head with a report I heard from one of our smaller chain newspapers. With budget cutbacks so dire, the paper has eliminated covering the arts with freelancers (with years of experience and some passion for the field) resorting instead to goading the few, remaining overwhelmed staff writers on the paper (crime-beat reporters, etc) to report on local gallery openings and stage premieres – people who, by their own admission, have little knowledge of, or interest in, the arts.
The policy is as insulting to the freelances and their accrued experience as it is to the arts organizations they once covered. But we live in insulting times.
The policy also raises the questions of who's qualified to be an arts critic, and is arts criticism even necessary. Amidst one of the most surreal election cycles in recent memory, as the snow caps continue to melt, is this just a debate about the need for dinosaurs?
I just returned to L.A. after five days in New York, in order to attend the first couple of rehearsals of my play, Beachwood Drive, that's being presented by Abingdon Theatre Company. It's been an almost three-year process of developing the script, three readings and a workshop, involving extensive rewrites and cuts. A number of emotions swept over me: the enormous privilege of having a play performed in New York (my first), where the intensity and clarity of purpose is like none I've seen elsewhere, and the fierce intelligence of the actors and producers -- yeah I saw Bullets Over Broadway, too, so maybe I just got lucky on this one.
Ten hours before I had to return to my home near Beachwood Drive in Hollywood, where the play is set, the actors were sitting around a table, reading through the play, with the director and some theater staff in the room, stopping for questions to the playwright before I had to head back to JFK on the E train.
In answering their questions, I felt like some PhD candidate defending a dissertation before a committee, and it was exhilarating. They were probing and tugging at the play's ligaments, trying discern the nature of their connections to the muscle. They were questioning time-lines, and the degree to which the reality of the play unfolded empirically or in a dream state.
One actress, responding to a significant cut I had made, presented a written case for restoring the cut. It was three pages and read like a legal document for dramaturgy, building an argument with allusions to the play's own references, its internal logic, its larger purpose and the consequences the cut would have on the play's internal rhythms.
Another actress asked exactly what Beachwood Drive looks like, the neighborhood, the ethnicities, the density of traffic, the quality and architecture of the homes. This was, in short, theater criticism at its best, driven by intense and relentless curiosity, an investigative impulse to open up the world of a play. There was judgment, but that wasn't the driving impulse, which was investigation, which is exactly what the best criticism aims for. That's when I understood how closely interlocked the creative and critical impulses are, intellect and emotion swirling around the room in a kind of dance.
That's when I thought of overworked staff crime reporters at a besieged L.A. newspaper being dragged to a play like this and asked to review it, for the sake of budget cuts.
The actors at Abingdon Theatre Company made a pretty good case for artists being among the most rigorous and qualified arts critics. Of course potential-conflict-of-interest concerns emerge, but are those issues any more dire than the complete elimination of positions at newspapers, or the employment of wildly unqualified and reluctant substitutes?
The snowcaps are melting. Maybe its time to change the rules a bit. Just a thought. We're talking about our survival here.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
by Abigail Katz
By Steven Leigh Morris
Haven't been confronted much lately with the question of what qualifies one as a theater critic, other than in discussions among seething colleagues and on blog postings over the issue of Joe Public posting his/her own review on newspaper websites. That all changed yesterday with a phone call and follow-up emails requesting, pleading and demanding that I print a review in the L.A. Weekly that I had allegedly assigned (being the section editor) of a small-theater production in Hollywood called Reunion in Bartersville.
Questioning my own memory, and then my sanity, I struggled to recall ever assigning a critic to review this play, and whether or not I was guilty of gross administrative incompetence. My doubts were compounded with the tone of one email that came in: (The formatting is largely intact):
“This [the PR] was sent to you in enough Time.... So about this review, will it be in the Paper and also online? . . . . If this is correct Please contact me as to know what we should expect.
Thanks Mr. Morris
The “fondly” seemed a bit over the top, but I let it wash over, before replying that I had no recollection of ever assigning a reviewer to this production. Kirk fondly replied with a copy of a review. It came with with an L.A. Weekly logo embedded in one corner -- an unqualified rave of the production written by somebody named Rachel Stuart. I'd never heard of her.
Here's an excerpt from the review, again with formatting largely intact:
“So many laughs are stitched together seamlessly by the new Cambridge Players cast of professionals directed by the cleverly talented Sherrie Lofton a mentee of Ed Cambridge who was the founder of the original Cambridge Players. The original group included Academy Award nominee Juanita Moore (“Imitation of Life”) and Lynn Hamilton (“Sanford and Son”), Esther Rolle (“Good Times”) and others. . . . The remaining members include Thomas Anthony James, Aloma Wright ("Scubs"), and Amentha Dymally ("Gumbo Paribe"), whose performance especially at the end of the show recalls some of the best performances of Bette Davis.”
Kirk continued pursuing his agenda:
“Could you let us know as to when this will be in the paper. I owe you Big Time... You Rock !!!
Cambridge Players-Next Generation”
I wrote back saying that this was the first time I'd ever seen this review. An hour later, the author replied, hoping that I'd simply “green light” it for publication.
“Thank you for your email. We are independent of LAWEEKLY. I write freelance for 21stCenturyArtists.com. We simply post our reviews on LAWEEKLY's online site for general read. We also post our articles on a number of other sites for general pickup/review and print if a publisher so desires. These articles are then picked up by GOOGLE and other search engines and then we have no idea where they will end up. Our articles and reviews appear around the Internet and are free for publication for anyone, just as long as credit is given to the originator/author of the article. Thank you.
I know this is Old Business, but the L.A. Weekly has only recently installed a “Post Your Review!” on its website, an opportunity for Rachel S. to promote her cottage industry.
It all too clearly illustrates the frivolousness of mere opinions, and how the quality of criticism is determined by the larger frame that encloses those opinions, and gives them perspective. In a commerical culture, the battle, probably a losing one, is to keep distinguishing arts criticism from PR. And that distinction was the source of the clanging, fond missives among Kirk, Rachel and one perplexed theater editor.
Critix Corner: Part 2
Dolly Parton and Patricia Resnick's Gotham-bound 9 to 5: The Musical opened over the weekend at the Ahmanson to mixed reviews. I missed it, being in Gotham myself for a few days. I'll catch up with it in the next week or two. Cautious responses came in from the L.A. Times' Charles McNulty and Variety's Bob Verini.
McNulty remarked that the musical “has only occasional success in switching on the old fluorescent-lit office magic,” while Verini qualified his reservations by acknowledging how the show “rides a swell of good will from the popular 1980 farce.” (He's referring to the movie, of course.) However, he added it substituted “a heavy hand (and considerable bad taste) for the movie's light heart. Judicious streamlining could determine whether this Gotham-bound celebration of workplace women breaks through the glass ceiling separating modest success from long-run hit.”
Much more enthusiasm from TheatrerMania.com and the L.A. Weekly's Neal Weaver, in a review to be posted on Wednesday night, Weaver gushes over Parton's “rollicking score”, Resnick's “clever and fast-paced script,” and Joe Mantello's “spectacular direction.”
Weaver told me that Parton took the stage to croon during a computer glitch involving the set. I'd heard the week before that exactly the same had occurred during a preview performance – a savvy form of suspending disbelief that might be dubbed “planned spontaneity.”
The show is slated to start previews on Broadway March 24.
Monday, September 22, 2008
by Abigail Katz
The Civilians Are Everywhere!
So yesterday The Civilians' THIS BEAUTIFUL CITY had its first performance at The Kirk Douglas Theatre in LA- I'm so proud I could cry. Definitely check them out if you are in the LA area- details on Playbill.com. If not, no worries, the show is coming to The Vineyard in January!
The company also got a nice mention in Variety about BROOKLYN AT EYE LEVEL. This new piece will focus on the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, exploring issues such as gentrification, eminent domain, and neighborhood dynamics. It's timely and makes for good, thought-provoking theatre. Be on the lookout at the piece evolves.
CYCLONE Touches Down Tuesday September 23rd!
CYCLONE (AND THE PIG-FACED LADY) has its first performance at the New York Musical Theatre Festival on Tuesday September 23rd, 8pm at TBG Theatre. For tix and details, go to http://www.nymf.org/.
OK, enough about me and my projects. I'm happy to report after the lively discussion about plays on TV, WNET/13 will broadcast a live-to-tape performance of the Culture Project's production of George Packer's BETRAYED on October 23rd at 9pm. Could this be the begining of a new trend? I was not one of the lucky ones who saw the production, so I will be looking forward to this event. Stay tuned!
One last personal note- a shout out to my friend Raoul. We will miss you!
Saturday, September 20, 2008
The Sun is not the only local paper with a decent arts section staring into oblivion this week. Now (according to Crain's) the Newark Star-Ledger--whose long serving full-time critic is Michael Sommers--"is notifying employees that the newspaper will be sold or closed in early January unless it reaches a contract deal with its drivers union."
What used to be a multi-paper theatre town may even be getting smaller, if you can believe it.
Friday, September 19, 2008
Fans of All My Sons, Arthur Miller's classic tragedy of war profiteering, have always known it still has the potential power to incite controversial passions.
But who knew the current Broadway revival co-starring Mrs. Tom Cruise would lead to these demonstrations:
More than 200 bystanders had gathered across the street to watch Holmes leave the theater as police officers on foot and horseback patrolled the scene.
Not among the observers: the roughly 30 Scientology protesters from a group called Anonymous who demonstrated before the show behind a barricade, loudly chanting ''Scientology kills!'' Some wore masks like in the movie ''V for Vendetta,'' and one poster read: ''FREE KATIE.''
The AP article (featuring the apparently news-breaking headline: "Tom Cruise praises Katie Holmes' B'way Performance") also features some rare pre-opening reviewing from the otherwise reticent Associated Press. Shocking the production would let such scathing criticism be published so early:
"Free Katie" indeed. She'll never get to know if she's truly good in this or not.
If Holmes felt nervous and jittery, she didn't show it. She delivered her lines with confidence and projected her girlish voice so it could be heard loud and clear. She danced around on stage with gusto. She looked lovely in two dresses that highlighted her trim yet shapely figure. She wore a brown shoulder-length hairpiece to hide her trendy pixie cut.And she received a standing ovation afterward.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
by Steven Leigh Morris
The good news is that Dolly Parton has written a musical. It's called 9 to 5: The Musical.
The book is by Patricia Resnick, and Joe Mantello directs the show slated to open September 20 at the Ahmanson Theatre. That would be in L.A.'s Music Center, which bears some resemblance to your Lincoln Center. We've even got a fountain, too. If you gaze south, over Disney Hall, you'll see a smattering of skyscrapers and you could imagine you're in New York. You'd have to squint, severely, to create the optical illusion of the Manhattan skyline. This would include a towel over your head to block out the pervasive sprawl of lower altitude buildings, but you could do it if you were here, and you wanted to.
Re-creating Manhattan in downtown L.A. has been the ambition of urban planners here for the better part of a decade, but the Wall Street crisis will surely put a crimp on those developments, for a while.
Wall Street, however, won't stop Tony nominee Allison Janney from starring as Violet Newstead -- “the super efficient office manager who joins her co-workers to turn the tables on their boss.”
The question is, by the Saturday opening, will anyone be in a mood to care. Or maybe this musical will somehow reflect the kind of folly at the top of the business world that got us into this mess. I hope so.
The L.A. Times reported yesterday that several former and current employees of that newspaper have filed a lawsuit against the newspaper's corporate partner, Tribune Co., and it's chief executive, Sam Zell. The charge: “Reckless management destroying the value of the company.”
I couldn't read this without thinking of 9 to 5: The Musical
“The Los Angeles Times is too important to be left in the hands of corporate raiders,” auto columnist and Pulitzer Prize-recipient Dan Nell was reported as saying.
The plaintiffs want to recover losses to the employee stock option plan, to replace the Tribune board of directors and they want a full accounting of pension plan assets, the article said.
Maybe Dolly's musical will capture the moment. Or it could help vaporize the anxiety of these days by some sweet powers of distraction. We'll see.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
So any thoughts on the Steinberg Charitable Trust's decision to outdo the Pulitzers twentyfold and dole out a $200,000(!) playwriting award--and to give the first to Tony Kushner?
I agree with the stated sentiment: "“We want people to realize the theater is important, and that a playwright who gets the award is important to our society and our culture." But what exactly is this award for? Unless I missed it, Kushner hasn't premiered a play in the past year. More money for theatre artists is a good thing in any form--but I'm not sure what we need right now are more "lifetime achievement" awards. You know, for just being.
The rationale for Kushner: "the committee wanted to pick a person who would be 'universally recognized in the theater community as the right choice.'" Yeah, but talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy!
Thankfully they're balancing this only bi-annual prize with smaller $50,000 grants (still bigger than the Pulizter) to playwrights "just starting out." But let's hope they look beyond the already famous for that, too.
Also, is it churlish to question whether venerating so much capital upon one "genius" individual is really the solution in the arts of the 21st century to restoring theatre to the center of the culture? What about opening it up to a director or an ensemble? The future of theatre in America may not just be in literature.
John Pankow and Kate Burton in The House of Blue Leaves. Photo by Craig Schwartz
The whole world is watching Wall Street today. It's no secret that if the banking system goes into any kind of convulsions, the arts groups that depend on serious funding from corporations and private donors could be up a creek, like almost everyone else.
L.A.'s Center Theatre Group – headed by Michael Ritchie – administers three mid-size theaters out here: The Ahmanson and the Mark Taper Forum, both situated in the Music Center's county-owned downtown plaza, plus the Kirk Douglas Theatre, about ten miles west in Culver City. It would seem CTG got to the bank just in time. On Sunday, the press opening to John Guare's 1971 farce The House of Blue Leaves marked the official reopening of the Mark Taper Forum, after two years of dormancy and a $30 million redesign.
Female patrons were particularly delighted by the opulent new women's bathroom and its 16 stalls, upping the odds that theater-going femmes now stand a chance of making it back on time for Act 2 -- no small accomplishment in days of yore, when there were only four stalls for 750 patrons, presumably half of them women. There was still a small line on opening night, but nothing like before.
The facility now has elevators between the upper loges and parking lot that never existed before. Most of the perks, however, are for the technicians creating the shows. When Gordon Davidson ran the place, the entire set for Tony Kushner's Angels in America had to be cut down to fit through a 4' by 9' loading door, then reconfigured on the other side.
Worse, entry to the backstage required climbing a small flight of steps. That loading door is now a more comfortable now 6' by 9', and the entire backstage floor has been lowered by 2' 9”, accommodating easier access. The lobby floor has also been lowered and expanded, and the lobby now includes a subterranean bar for meeting and greeting. There are two ways of looking at this: the glass-half-full argument is the theater's approach of celebrating the posh reinvention. The other is an amazement no less intense, but in the other direction, wondering how the city's most prestigious regional theater could have been so piss poorly designed to begin with. One less-than-enthralled member of the theater community described the gala as like “the opening of another Robinsons.”
In a thoughtful essay in the L.A. Times, Charles McNulty suggested it would be peevish to respond to this investment with anything other than gratitude.
The Taper has been promoting its facelift with banners running all along major city thoroughfares that proclaim “Act II: The Opening of the New Mark Taper Forum.” The symbolism -- with Mr. Ritchie having now settled comfortably into his difficult post as Gordon Davidson's successor -- is very clear: This is a new era.
Then, the difficult question: A new era representing what?
I don't know, and I'm an avid scene watcher. It struck me as odd that a new era should be launched with the revival of a domestic comedy that was a favorite in the regional theater circuit, and then the college circuit, in the '70s.
Guare's farce looks gorgeous in the newly minted theater. The investment in the building honors the work on the stage. This work, however, doesn't quite reciprocate. It does pack fire on many occasions, and that fire is fueled by the dynamic interactions between John Pankow and Kate Burton, as, respectively, Artie Shaughnessy – a Queens zookeeper who's also a very aspiring songwriter -- and his profoundly medicated wife, Bananas. He shows a cavalier and abusive disregard for his wife – by flaunting his mistress, Bunny Flingus (Jane Kaczmarek), and making no secret of his plan to have Bananas institutionalized while he and Bunny realize their dreams together in California. Burton's Bananas is this production's centerpiece, while the world's vainglorious insanity swirls around her, which is Guare's point.
Burton answers that question of why do this play now with her pained expressions and wry comportment – Bananas has come come through shock treatments and must continue, with as much dignity as she can muster, to endure life's torments and insults to her obvious intelligence at the hands of the maniacs who govern her life. The farce is set in 1965, when the Pope was visiting New York, yet Burton propels its significance forward to the election cycle of 2008. Everyone but Bananas worships fame, but here that's largely beside the point – which is vicious and rabid personal ambition while the world skids off its tracks, stock market included. I shouldn't bring up Sarah Palin, but why not?
Nicholas Martin's production suspends dark blue drapery over Artie's grimy Queens apartment (The set by David Korins.) This frames what's supposed to be an emotionally ribald play with a tempering ornateness, which may be partly responsible for blanketing the farce that's supposed to be literally explosive. Instead, the comedy feels at a remove, more amusing than hysterical, and more sad at play's close than horrific.
Martin's staging of Blue Leaves shows how, in a play largely about grime, the over-abundance of resources can have a smothering effect. Even so, better that CTG, and arts orgs in general, have resources to misplace than the alternative. Out here, the alternative is solo shows and two-handers on bare stages. In mid-size theaters , they can look awfully sad. Necessity is not always the mother of invention, and this is a determination that Wall Street may well influence this week.
Monday, September 15, 2008
by Abigail Katz
And from me, go to the theatre!
Okay, I've tried to hold back. I swore this blog would stay "single-issue" and not drift into election matters.
But that can't stop me from starting another blog. So, introducing: Free Obama Talking Points. Url: http://www.obamafightback.blogspot.com/
Cuz it's getting just that infuriating, ain't it.
So let's this keep this space for theatre. But come vent with me there.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
by Steven Leigh Morris
Any posting about theater in L.A., from L.A., on any 9/11 anniversary seems kind of irrelevant and slightly insulting to the occasion. For this, I apologize. The most respectful idea I can muster circles around a work-in-development related to the direction, the policies, and the actions our country has taken in seven years -- the pending premiere of Joe's Garage, the 1979 rock opera written by Frank Zappa. The work was released as a CD, but never before produced on stage. It's now slated to open September 26, presented by the Open Fist Theatre Company, a warehouse venue on Santa Monica Boulevard.
To backtrack for a moment, and get some sense of why any of this matters on 9/11/08.
In 1985, the U.S. Senate held hearings on a proposal by Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) to put warning labels on rock music CDs and videos. Gore had been offended by the lyrics in Prince’s song, “Darling Nikki”: “I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine . . . .” Children, said the PMRC, needed to be protected from sexually provocative lyrics.
Not surprisingly, Zappa, a satirist, celebrity rock musician and respected avant garde composer, testified as an opposition witness (with John Denver and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider), describing the PMRC proposal as “an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children [and] infringes on the civil liberties of people who are not children.”
The next year, 1986, Zappa appeared on Crossfire with so-called “Leftist” journalist Tom Braden (former employee of the CIA’s International Organizations Division), Robert Novak and the Washington Times' John Lofton. In a contentious conversation, Zappa revealed the prescience that makes Joe’s Garage as relevant as the day it was written.
Lofton: Does the government have any purpose, Frank?
Zappa: Yeah, it has a number of purposes. . . How about national defense.
Lofton: I consider this national defense, pal! Our families are under attack by people like you with these lyrics.
Braden: John, You don’t have to buy them.
Zappa: Can I make a statement about national defense: The biggest threat to America today is not communism, it’s moving America towards a fascist theocracy, and everything that’s happened during the Reagan Administration is steering us right down that pipe.
Novak: . . . Do you really think . . . in this country, with the permissiveness, that we are moving toward a fascist theocracy?
Zappa: You bet we are, buddy.
[Lofton and Novak laugh derisively.]
Braden: One example of a fascist theocracy?
Zappa: When you have a government that prefers a certain moral code derived from a certain religion, and that moral code turns into legislation to suit one certain religious point of view, and if that code happens to be very, very right wing, almost toward Attila the Hun . . .
Lofton: Then you are an anarchist. Every form of civil government is based on some kind of morality, Frank.
Zappa: Morality in terms of behavior, not in terms of theology.
The ideas in this debate form the crux of the ribald cultural satire in Joe’s Garage. The story opens with an Orwellian “Central Scrutinizer,” a large, robotic puppet who speaks through a megaphone and whose job is to enforce laws “that haven’t yet been passed.” A local policeman counsels Joe, a young garage-band guitarist, to drop his music and engage in more church activities, but Joe’s sweet Catholic girlfriend, named Mary (of course), abandons him for a backstage pass to see another band.
After following that band on tour and after being used as a sex toy by the band’s roadies, the exhausted Mary is dumped in Miami, where she enters a wet-T-shirt contest to raise enough money to get home. When Joe learns of this, he goes into a funk of depression, contracts a venereal disease, and seeks religion to pull him back up – L. Ron Hoover and his First Church of Appliantology. By play's end, all music has been banned.
Jennifer Lettelleir's choreography aims to push images of fellatio and sodomy that saturate the story beyond titillation, through parody into the ugly zone of robotics grinding down everything it means to be human, and humane – a dark zone that forms the core of Zappa's take on our culture.
Much of the reason for the long delay in seeing Joe's Garage realized in three dimensions lies with Zappa's widow, Gail, who has run the family trust since her husband's death in 1993 of cancer. She happened to be there when I was checking out an early rehearsal. “It's not easy working for a dead guy,” she said world-wearily, expressing exasperation with impersonators and tribute bands, and “those who write books” about Frank Zappa, “taking a large footprint and shrinking it down to a miniscule size that's not recognizable by anybody.”
Last year, she threatened to file a lawsuit against the German fan club, Arf Society, which -- without the consent of the family trust -- was lobbying to have a street in Berlin renamed Frank Zappa Strasse.
Yet after all these years, she finally released the rights of Joe's Garage to director/producer/co-writer Pat Towne and co-writer/producer Michael Franco. Towne had directed their daughter, Moon Unit Zappa in a local stage production of Waiting for Studio 54. After Gail came to see that show and said she liked it, Towne and Franco put together a proposal for Joe's Garage. The deal was sealed with a handshake, Franco said, because “nobody was pushing papers in her face” -- as had a stream of earlier petitioners for the rights.
Gail's explanation is more difficult to align with her guard-dog protection of her late husband's work: “I said, oh, why not? Why not take a chance.”
The larger gamble is producer Franco's decision to mount a $70,000 to $90,000 production before trying it out in workshop.
“I'm 50 years old,” Franco explained. “I don't have four years to tell one story. There are too many other stories I want to tell.”
There are some people associated with this production who take the other side of the “process versus product” debate of new play development, and are perplexed and bemused by Franco's hubris.
All of which raises the curiosity and suspense around here for what will come of all this.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
by Abigail Katz
"There is a great deal more going on in the play, you know. I'm not writing porn, for God's sake!"
-British playwright Peter Shaffer, commenting on the hubbub surrounding the Broadway revival of his 1973 Equus over its young male star's nude scene. Or, as Michael Riedel classily calls it, "Harry Potter's other wand."
No matter how good this production may be, can't compare to this definitive reinterpretation.
Tuesday, September 09, 2008
by Steven Leigh Morris
Anneliese van der Pol, Sarah Stiles and Lauren Kennedy in the new musical Vanities at the Pasadena Playhouse; Photo by Craig Schwartz
My People, My People:
I write this trying not to patronize Los Angeles – you're perfectly capable of doing that yourself – but as a way of underscoring the unprecedented number of new musicals being developed here – rock musicals, jazz musicals. You can't get out of your car without bumping into a new musical.
To qualify: Like in many of the regions, there was a recent, mercifully bygone era when L.A. glommed onto parodies of bad movies and TV shows, then set them to music, then sent them to New York, where they were understandably crucified for being glib and obvious. Reefer Madness tops that list. There are others, but there's no reason to belabor that point other than to discredit the myth that New York receives the best work from around the country. Not true: It receives the work from the most aggressive producers, which is quite a different matter. There's no shortage here of soulful, explosive, scintilatingly deranged theater that stays here thanks to the surfeit of local producers who specialize in transferring works of aggressive vacuity instead. Producers in Chicago and Seattle and San Diego simply have a better eye, and a better heart, for identifying which shows deserve to travel. Maybe it's the L.A. smog or the aesthetic reach of our entertainment industries that so corrupts sound assessments of which theater warrants a spotlight. Steven Berkoff once referred to an L.A. gene – a strand of DNA that blows in with the Santa Ana winds and then gets absorbed into the bloodstream, creating a subtle mental deficiency – accompanied by the overwhelming desire to sip lattes in sidewalk cafes, and to wish everyone a good day. The downside of this gene is how it conspires against allowing our best theater to receive the credit it deserves.
Coming to a Nederlander theater “yet to be determined” in February, 2009 – Vanities -- Jack Heifner and David Kirshenbaum's new musical. This is an adaptation of Heifner's 1976 off-Broadway hit of the same title, currently at the mid-size Pasadena Playhouse, after having originated in 2006 at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto. There's buzz that the creators have been feverishly changing elements -- for example, dumping the intermission by opening night. This gives the production a chance to dramatize an unbroken sequence of scenes over three decades, showing the coming of age, and aging, of three Texas high school cheerleaders (Lauren Kennedy, Sarah Stiles and Anneliese van der Pol). The action starts in 1963 with a focus on what seem to be monumental concerns to its three teenage cheerleaders; the trio is fused at the hip, incurious about any world larger than their campus while being intoxicated by their own appearance, status and popularity. (When the announcement of JFK's assassination comes over a loudspeaker, one of them, perplexed, can't imagine how the president of the student body could have been shot in Dallas when she just saw him in algebra class.) However, the costs of that insularity are precisely what the work studies, as the women — each buffeted by the shifting eras — individuate and grow apart. The play emerges as a musical chick-flick convergence of Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart and Bernard Slade's Same Time, Next Year — somewhere between a portrait of changing times and a soap opera.
I won't even try to predict the production's odds of success on Broadway. There's some tension in style between the considerable dialog, reflecting the work's stage-play origins, and Kirshenbaum's perfectly pleasant, melodic songs, which bring to mind the gentle pop stylings of Dionne Warwick. The scenes are often so strong that the reason for a character bursting into song appears contrived, though the songs — perfectly executed by the band and actors under Judith Ivey's direction — are lovely on their own terms.
The original play ended its character study in 1974 — two years before it opened off-Broadway at the Chelsea Westside Theater Center. The musical extends that frame to 1990, obviously a strategy to prevent a new musical from being an antique curio at birth — and possibly because we haven't undergone any seismic shift of values since the Reagan era. Heifner's biggest change, however, is an attitude shift from ennui to the romantic gush of three gals enduring the winds of time and betrayal by sticking together. In a recent interview, Heifner said he was no longer cynical. Maybe he had his eye on 42nd Street when he said it.
One great production that's staying here for the time being: Louis and Keeley: Live at the Sahara –Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder's new musical about Louis Prima and Keeley Smith (Sonny and Cher of the 1950s). It opened earlier this year at east Hollywood's Sacred Fools Theater (a troupe created by Seattle ex-pats) and has now transferred to the slightly larger Matrix Theatre on Melrose Avenue.
Smith and Broder perform in their two-hander, accompanied by a jazz band that envelops the 99-seat venue -- it's like being a recording studio. Smith was the “straight-man” woman and long-suffering wife of the hyperactive, philandering Prima, whom Broder conjures by hopping in front of the bandstand like a maniac, throwing his entire body into each beat, a grin plastered across his face. And though Prima's grabbing the spotlight and giving the orders, the newspaper reviews focus on her talents, not his. Prima’s jealousy erupts in the unspoken tensions that escalate on the stage, which everyone can see, and which perversely renders their act more popular. He actually encourages the onstage hostility, for just that reason.
And so, through 16 songs (ranging from “Basin Street Blues,” “That Old Black Magic,”and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to the song that defined Prima’s career, the medley of “Just a Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody”) one passionate love and cruel marriage is played out almost entirely between the lines. If the purpose of musical theater is to express in song what can’t be expressed in mere words, this fits the bill, summing up 80 years of gender relations in 90 minutes. Smith’s desperate words accompany her tortured decision to leave her husband, “Life is happening right in your face and you don’t even notice. You don’t hear anything unless it’s in the key of B flat!”
I walked out of the theater wrenched by a depth of emotion that seemed to make no sense, coming from a musical about the quaint saga of an almost forgotten lounge act. That’s when I realized I’d been punched in the gut and didn’t even know it. It was a delayed reaction to the blow landed in Broder’s reprise of “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” He just kept on singing that refrain, as the band packed up and left him there, until his death bed slowly rolled in. ("Nothing lasts forever" is the show's promo pullquote.) What may first look like a musical comedy is actually a musical tragedy, ancient Greek style: the deluded protagonist who’s undone by hubris and sent into exile. Exile was a bad end for Oedipus, but imagine if Oedipus’ delusions included eternal celebrity from a Las Vegas lounge act.
If this had opened in Chicago, it would be in New York by now.
Monday, September 08, 2008
by Abigail Katz
Nelson Pressley of the Washington Post wrote an article recently about the advent of YouTube and how it affects theatre, particularly Broadway. It raises the issue of new media and the arts- what is legitimate marketing? At what point should actors be compensated? How can illegal footage and its appearance on the web be monitered? Pressley spoke to some members of the industry who said the following:
In terms of using B-roll footage on the web:
"We're there to protect the actors and their images," says Maria Somma, spokeswoman for Actors' Equity Association. Equity monitors online violations and has succeeded in getting YouTube and Google to take down illegal performance footage. But, Somma says, "the problem is, it goes back up."
Should actors be paid for such usage? Should penalties be imposed when such footage mysteriously migrates from official Web sites to less-governed areas of cyberspace This is the frontier, and the contract negotiated between Equity and the Broadway League this summer (scheduled for ratification this week) specifically allows for more marketing flexibility in the brave new world.
League Executive Director Charlotte St. Martin notes that official show Web sites are creating increasingly sophisticated content, and she says the rise in youth-oriented productions is helping to drive the change. In bygone years, St. Martin says, "you didn't have seven, eight, nine shows that appealed to audiences of 12- to 25-year olds. And that [online] is where they find their entertainment."
Pressley also addresses how advertising has changed with new media:
Media corporations are reportedly growing less interested in banning contraband video (shared yuks from TV, for instance) than in milking unplumbed advertising opportunities from whatever arrives online. As it is, much of the theater that's viewable through the virtual window is already legit in the form of commercials- Lane doing 16-second spots as the bombastically profane U.S. president in David Mamet's "November" (recently closed), or teasing montages for such current Tony- winning shows as "In the Heights" and "Boeing-Boeing."
So what is fair in this new age of communication and seemingly unlimited access to almost anything? Even with Equity wrapping up its most recent agreement, new media will most certainly continue to be an issue down the road in future negotiations. And what about authors, directors, and desisgners? Should they be compensated for footage appearing on the web, whether it's illegal or legitimate?
It's true that no new invention can replace live theatre, but that doesn't mean the world of theatre goes unaffected by changing technology. This is a conversation that will no doubt go on for quite a while.
Welcome back. To me, at least. Sort of. Not ready for full time blogging yet, but ramping up there, let's say.
I want to thank the tremendous Chris Mills, Brook Stowe, and that unlicensed physician Dr. Cashmere for their valiant blogging throughout August. I'm very happy that Abigail Katz has agreed to stay on and help me out. And I'd like to introduce a new guest blogger for the month of September: Steven Leigh Morris, who will be able to provide us with more of a bi-coastal perspective as theatre editor of LA Weekly. (He's also premiering a play here in NYC with the Abington company, but I'll let him tell that story.)
So what's been happening in theatreland while I've been gone? Not too much apparently. (All the more impressive were the guest bloggers for keeping us interested here!) FringeNYC continues to be fun--so I hear--but overall not a site of groundbreaking creativity. Lincoln Center Festival continues to import high-snob-appeal content at plutocrat prices. In short, a New York playgoer is better off in summer traveling for his or her theatre fix--something I regrettably did not get to do this year. Any of you hit some cool festivals or dramatic destinations?
Despite the drought, here's some other stories I've been following lately:
-The New York Sun may be going under. Personally, I would bid good riddance to their wacky unrepentant Bushism and paleo-Jewish-Conservative breast-beating. (Remember convicted CEO-embezzler Conrad Black? He's a columnist there--from jail!) In other words--the actual newspaper! But, perhaps as part of their quaint 1950s New Criterion old-fogeyism, they have managed to maintain perhaps the best arts sections of any city paper. Thanks in large part to the pithy straight-talkin' theatre reviews of Eric Grode and the anti-superficial reporting of Kate Taylor. The Sun basically has till October 1st to get its financial act together (they've been running at a loss since inception, apparently), and they're optimistic. But according to Crain's, "Industry observers doubt the six-year-old daily paper will be able to find new backers or a fresh infusion of cash." So, not to be premature but...another msm arts source bites the dust?
-"Title of No-Show!" The little Off-Off show that could (or could it?) closed out the summer at the end of August with an average daily capacity of 49.5%--a significant improvement over the previous week's 45%, but still, not very, uh, profitable. Hey, it's not Journey's End 25% numbers--but then again it's not as good a show. They gambled on a summer opening, hoping to stand out. But over six weeks into the run--despite strong reviews--I can't imagine it's breaking even. No matter how low the overhead....So we have another wonderful downtown piece of creativity bloated up to Broadway size, stuck in a huge barn, and forced to sell its wares to tourists who couldn't get into Hairspray. If they were counting on these audiences being pleasantly surprised and blessing the show through word-of-mouth, that doesn't seem to have happened. I want to be clear: when I critically examine the fate of [title of show] or any other ill-fated uptown transfer (Passing Strange, Well) I mean no disrespect to the work itself, nor to its creators. Simply bafflement at producers who continue to take such a foolhardy chance. And dismay that these fine examples of new American theatre will now be tarnished by the taint of "failure." (And the bad word of mouth from audiences for whom it was not intended.)...Can we hope for a [title of show] "surge"? For their sake, sure. But my bet: they fold by Columbus Day.
-Finally, there's a great old theatre history yarn of a small young theatre troupe kicked out of their space by an avaricious landlord and rising real estate values in an expanding city. At dusk one cold day they surreptitiously break past the padlocked doors and take all their stuff--including the planks of the stage itself--and haul them across the river to a disreputable 'hood in an outer borough, reassembling it all into a new theatre that soon becomes the hotspot of the town....And, yes, That theatre was....The Globe.
That's old news, though. The new bit is they seem to have dug up the original site, Shoreditch, upon which sat Shakespeare's first playhouse, aptly named: The Theatre.
Friday, September 05, 2008
Not quite back up to full speed blogging yet, but hopefully getting there soon...
Meanwhile, two interesting quotes on the decline of the art of producing for the theatre--in both the commercial and nonprofit spheres alike.
First, from Broadway, veteran auteur/impresario Hal Prince:
"The problem is that there are too few creative producers...There are a lot of people who are writing checks - and I'm glad they're making out those checks - but can they honestly say, when they're holding their Tony Award, 'Did I create this show? Or did I just write a check?'"But even in our "art" theatres, Michael Feingold expects more creative programming from those in charge of the house. Not just new plays, of course. But even when you are devoted to "the classics" can't we at least explore the repertory with a more expert sensibility--i.e. going beyond the Drama 101 syllabus?
Worth quoting at length:
One might say that today's producers, among their other failings, don't digress enough. And by "producers," I mean our nonprofit institutions as well as those vast phalanxes of backers whose names now make up a dense paragraph over the show's title on every Broadway playbill. Relying on what they think succeeded once to be successful again, they've become almost fixated on a very small number of play titles as salable. They don't see plays as a wildly varied assortment of choices, or authors as the creators of a substantial body of work. For them, the names to conjure with are the few that have been profitably conjured with before.
The result is a systematic de-education of New York's audiences. Not exactly a dumbing-down—you could hardly say audiences are being dumbed down when they're urged to see Mamet's Speed-the-Plow and American Buffalo, which will shortly be playing a few midtown blocks from each other. But these two excellent plays, though they happen to have been commercial successes, hardly constitute Mamet's entire artistic output. The management that dreams of expanding our audience's Mamet awareness by taking a risk on, say, The Cryptogram or The Shawl—plays that didn't get such rousing receptions the first time around—is an element our theater lacks.....
Ibsen and Williams wrote other plays, which we rarely get to see in major venues, and even their less-than-great works carry a fascination that New York deserves to experience. Our rare glimpses of it tend to come in half-baked tries under shortchanged Off-Off circumstances.
Indeed thank god for the Mint, Keen, Pearl, and Metropolitan companies. But it seems the willingness to expand the repertoire is often in distressingly inverse proportion to the resources and, alas, talent to truly bring those plays to life.
Thursday, September 04, 2008
by Abigail Katz
Wednesday, September 03, 2008
By Dr. Cashmere
Anyone else see the letters to the editor in this month's American Theatre? A shortened version of this one made the cut. And another letter makes complementary points.
Meanwhile, just a few pages away there's a news update about a slew of shiny new theatre buildings, some just starting construction and others reaching completion. And there's a separate report about the collapse of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, which bought a very fancy and attractive building before it went bust.
Tuesday, September 02, 2008
by Abigail Katz