The Playgoer: June 2009

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

NEA Update

House of Representatives has ok'd a nearly-10% increase for NEA funding. (up to a whopping $170 mil.) Now over to the Senate.

Where's Rocco?

And where's Al Franken??? We kinda need that 60th vote now...

Pina Bausch

German choreographer Pina Bausch, one of the world's foremost figures in dance-theatre (and who basically defined that genre over the last quarter-century) has just died at 68.

Critic Sues Actor

But not for any reasons you might guess.

You may recall that New Yorker Magazine critic, and prolific author, John Lahr collaborated with Elaine Stritch a few years back on her Tony-winning one-woman show (or "Special Theatrical Event") At Liberty. His official title was not playwright but, "constructed by...", reflecting, I guess, some unique dramaturgical process. To make matters worse, the final Broadway credit (after the downtown Public Theatre permiere) appended the line: "reconstructed by Elaine Stritch."

Well such vagueness has come back to haunt him, it seems, since Stritch (who is now about 102, I think) has continued to play the show periodically. So Lahr is suing for any unpaid royalties due a regular playwright for these subsequent performances.

Yet another risk of critics collaborating with artists. Still, will be interesting to read the next Lahr review of a Stritch appearance! (Or a super "up close and personal" version of one of his signature extended "profile" essays.)

Further details from NY Post.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Post Mortem

Theatre managers take note. Boston Globe gives the rundown on what went wrong at the now-defunct North Shore Music Theatre.

Seems to me something's wrong when the only thing keeping you afloat is High School Musical 2.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Regionals in the Recession, cont.

AP's Michael Kuchwara takes a look at yet more theaters around the country (yea, the continent--okay, not Mexico) struggling to keep afloat in trying economic times.

One common problem:

"We are finding that people are waiting to make their decisions," says Antoni Cimolino, Stratford's general director. "People are buying later. It's really created an uncertainty in advance..."
Well, duh.

Indeed a problem for subscription-based companies, founded on that principle and who have no other business model. But is this going to work?
At the Utah Shakespeare Festival, there's an "Early Bard" special to entice theatergoers into buying tickets in advance - the farther in the future, the bigger the discount.

Early BARD, get it?

Hanne Hiob

Interesting Brecht footnote...

Hanne Hiob, Brecht's daughter from his first marriage (to Marianne Zoff), just died. She was born in 1923, just as Brecht's career was taking off.

She went on to become an actress herself and, after retirement, a peace activist.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Don't want to read too much into this, but couldn't help noticing two high-profile departures of bigtime nonprofit Managing Directors.

Rob Orchard has been at Boston's ART, like, forever. (30 years) And he's probably been the glue that's held that place together through all the many leadership changes since Robert Brustein left a decade ago. And now he's leaving just as a new Artistic Director, Diane Paulus, comes in. All sounds very amicable, but still, quite a changing of the guard.

And here in NY, Second Stage is losing its Exec Direct. Ellen Richard, just as the small troupe has taken on the burden of occupying a Broadway house! (Soon to be the former Helen Hayes.) Richard previously navigated the Roundabout's rise from quaint little rep company to B'way behemoth, so no doubt she was to be instrumental in this transition. Yet another ominous sign over at 2nd Stage that begs the question: why do this?

Bill Ivey

"The expanding footprint of copyright, an unconstrained arts industry marketplace, and a government unwilling to engage culture as a serious arena for public policy have come together to undermine art, artistry, and cultural heritage--the expressive life of America."

Provocative words from Bill Ivey, NEA Chair under Clinton. (No, not William Ivey Long, the costume designer.)

Douglas McLennan has posted a revealing interview with him about his hopes and fears for the Endowment under Obama. And some behind-the-scenes views of the congressional sausage-making that forever stymies any national arts support.

Meanwhile, take a look, over in France, at a real "culture minister"--a gay activist filmmaker who happens to be the nephew of former President Francois Mitterand!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

As if "In My Life" Wasn't Bad Enough

The world will little note nor long remember the hilariously disastrous vanity musical In My Life that some hack Hollywood songwriter put on Broadway a few years back. (Which didn't prevent NYT Arts & Leisure back then from doing their usual glossy feature.)

Well now one Joseph Brooks is in the news again for quite different reasons, such as 11 counts of rape and/or sexual assault against young actresses he was claiming to be "auditioning."

Sorry, allegedly, of course.

While identifying Brooks as, yes, the Oscar-winning composer of "You Light Up My Life" today's article sadly forgets his onetime contribution to Broadway musical theatre.

Aside from his personal assistant, a young woman herself, being implicated as an accomplice (we all knew those personal assistant jobs could get yucky, still...) the highlight of the police report has got to be:

Lt. Adam Lamboy, the commanding officer of the Police Department’s Manhattan Special Victims Squad...said they [the victims] recounted that Mr. Brooks would have them engage in a role, such as a prostitute, and to enhance their seductive manner, he would ply them with wine.

“At this time, we don’t believe this was an actual movie role he was casting for,” the lieutenant said.
No kidding.

Whatever the outcome of the trial, I wish the victims well in their ongoing recovery and want to remind all young performers out there...please don't answer (let alone fly in for) casting calls on Craigslist.

Review: Axis Company's "Hospital 2009"

Beam me outta here. Axis Company's "Hospital 2009."
Photo: Dixie Sheridan.

I suppose the downtown Axis Company has kind of a cult following, with, among other ventures, their annual "Hospital" staged mini-series. Nice idea. At least I thought until I saw it for this week's Voice.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Patti fights back

Against the NY Times, and against YOU the audience. That is, if you're one of those folks snapping pics of her or texting through her show.

Dear Dave Itzkoff,

Your story about my stopping my concert in Las Vegas on the New York Times ArtsBeat blog was forwarded to me.

I found the tone of your report very snide and feel compelled to write you to ask – what do expect me, or any performer for that matter, to do?

Do we allow our rights to be violated (photography, filming and audio taping of performances is illegal) or tolerate rudeness by members of the audience who feel they have the right to sit in a dark theater, texting or checking their e-mail while the light from their screens distract both performers and the audience alike? Or, should I stand up for my rights as a performer as well as the audiences I perform for?

And do you think I’m alone in this? Ask any performer on Broadway right now about their level of frustration with this issue. Ask the actor in “Hair” who recently grabbed a camera out of an audience member’s hand and threw it across the stage. Or ask the two Queens in “Mary Stuart” (Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer) how they react to it.

Good for her.

And here's some audio of her in action during Gypsy, mid-"Rose's Turn."

A show in itself.

Regionals in the Recession

Leonard Jacobs surveys the health of some regional theatres with some reported financial woes in troubled times.

In short, San Francisco's Magic & Chicago's About Face: still afloat.

But since Leonard's piece...

MA's North Shore Music Fest: kaput.

New Haven's Long Wharf: downsizing.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Off B'way: Bigger than Coney Island!

Kudos to the fledgling "Off-Broadway Alliance" for taking a page out of the Broadway League and advancing the field's interests in the media and lobbying. They have a report out showing just how big an audience does indeed attend non-Tony eligible productions.

The report, released by the Off Broadway Alliance, found that shows produced in theaters with fewer than 500 seats bring more than $461 million in direct and indirect revenue to the Big Apple. During the 2007/2008 season, 5.47 million tickets were sold at off-Broadway theaters worth a total of $173 million. The tallies included data from both commercial and non-profit off-Broadway productions.

The impact is small in comparison with the Great White Way, which contributes $5.1 billion to the economy. But the numbers show that off-Broadway is a greater economic force than a number of other local attractions. Off-Broadway productions were attended by 1.7 million more people than visited the Empire State Building, 1.2 million more than visited the Statue of Liberty, and 2 million more than Coney Island, according to the report.

Let's see, 5 million tickets, divided by x number of 500-seat-or-less houses...that's enough to fill over 10,000* Off-Broadway theaters! On at least one night, that is.

I hope that stat means something. Does it?

*Rob Kendt is right. I suck at math.

"Special Theatrical Events" No Longer So Special

Bad news for Carrie Fisher, the Ballroom Dance extravaganza Burn the Floor ("conceived five years ago at a 50th birthday party for composer Elton John", and any other foreign freakshow or celebrity vanity monologue looking for an easy Tony nomination: there won't be any Special Theatrical Event award category any more.

That's the one Liza Minnelli took away this year from Will Ferrell's grotesque George W., scarily flexible Chinese acrobats, and a sad Russian clown with makeup more frightening than Liza's.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

New NEA Report

The NEA just released a new study of US arts audiences, and the news is pretty much the usual "audiences getting grayer"/"income going down" variety. But I find many of the theatre-related findings surprisingly positive--only in that they show things not getting that much worse yet than they've been the last two decades.

(Full 16-page report is downloadable for free. Or read NEA's quick summary. Note that survey focused on the period May 2007-May 2008. So that's just before the recession really set in.)

For instance:

-Good News/Bad News: As the above graph illustrates, only 20% of Americans went at least once to the theatre in the twelve months before May, 2008. But we sure beat ballet and opera! In fact we're second only to museums in overall "arts attendance."

-Contrary to the general impression, this figure has actually not changed much in the last 25 years. Dividing all their theatre stats (probably wisely) between musicals and plays, NEA looks back at previous surveys going back to 1982 survey and finds that 18% of the population back then reported going to at least one musical (compared with 16% in '08) and only 12%, even back then, to a play (compared with 9.4% now). The percentages say that's a 10% decline in musical attendance and, yes, 20% for plays, but still, when you look at the absolute numbers, it hasn't gotten much worse.

-Age: NEA breaks down these attendance figures by age-group and finds similar modest decline/holding patterns across the board. But wouldn't ya know it the steepest decline is among middle aged folks (45-54) going to plays! From 15.2% in 1982 to only 8.7%. That's almost half. But that was back in '08 and perhaps God of Carnage has redressed that now singlehandedly. (Completely sold out after the Tonys, btw.)

As for how old the audience is NEA looks at "medians" instead of "averages," which, as your middle school math teacher told you, is not the same thing. It's nice to learn that the median theatre attendee back in '82 was just 39. (That is, still in their thirties!) Now it's 45-47, for musicals and plays, respectively. Still younger than we'd guess based on what we hear. However, remember that "median" means just as many in the group below that number as above. (Right, Mr. Hertz?) So, seems to me, we don't necessarily have a healthy bunch of fortysomethings in our theatres. That number could just as well result from 50% senior citizens, 25% tweens and 25% toddlers, right? (Which certainly must be the forumla keeping The Little Mermaid going, I imagine.)

-Class: NEA measures the class makeup of the audience basically by tracking for "Education." Which leads to neatly predictable graphs like this, for overall arts attendance:

But breaking the numbers down more specifically reveals at least one more surprising (and disturbing) trend: a real decline over the years in theatre attendance by the entire "college educated" demographic as a whole. (Including advanced degrees.) In other words: our core demographic, supposedly.

In 1982 40.5% of US college grads attended at least a musical, 30% a play. By the '07-'08 season that was almost down to 32% for musicals (a 20% falloff) and 20% for plays (basically one-third lower). Not. Good. News.

Conclusion? Well here's a radical one: maybe we shouldn't consider upper-class highly-educated our core audience anymore? Problem is, though, they're who tickets are priced for. At the current ticket values, they're the only ones who can afford theatre. And they not coming as much anymore. So...who's got a new business model?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

David Hare: Man of the Moment

Well whatever one might have thought about Stuff Happens or his occasional first-person "monologues" (like the recent--and unreviewed!--Berlin/Wall, which I missed), you gotta give David Hare credit for staying current.

His latest, The Power of Yes: A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis, seems very much along the lines of Stuff Happens in its methodology and is described thusly:

As sub-prime mortgages and toxic securities continued to dominate the headlines,
the National Theatre asked Hare to write an urgent and immediate work to be
staged this autumn that sought to find out what had happened, and why. After meeting with many of the key players from the financial world, he has created this work, which is described as "not so much a play as a jaw-dropping account of how, as the banks went bust, capitalism was replaced by a socialism that bailed out the rich alone."

Actually, maybe the credit should go to the National. They're certainly not shy in using the power of "commissioning." And while it would be nice to give that job to a less overexposed playwright...maybe someone on these shores will take up that idea?

In the Company of Neil LaBute

David Ng at LA Times claims there's more than meets the eye behind MCC's recent cancellation of a new Neil LaBute play next season. Just when many here have been wondering if MCC had any other raison d'etre other than to give Monsieur La B a carte blanche platform for anything he scribbled... it looks like a falling out has ensued over the aftermath of the unsuccessful (and just shuttered) B'way transfer of Reasons to be Pretty.

"The Break of Noon" was set to open the MCC's 2009-10 season after being
bumped from its original spring 2009 slot.... A spokesman for MCC said that the
play is finished but that the theater has decided to cancel its planned
production for September. When asked why the theater has canceled the play, the
spokesman only said, "We have no comment."

Reached by phone, LaBute said that "The Break of Noon" isn't finished yet
and that he plans to write at least one more draft. He said his commitments to
his most recent movie projects and the Broadway run of his drama "reasons to be
pretty" have prevented him from completing the play.

So MCC pulled the plug when they got exasperated with the playwright's tardiness? Or LaBute let the clock run out so he can take the play elsewhere? (He will instead premiere the play, The Break of Noon, in London, another favorite launching pad of his.) Did the small Off B'way company of modest means decide to dump their cash cow out of principle? Or did LaBute--as close to a "star" as American playwrights get these days--get tired of owing anything to such a meager operation.

Not that this answers anything (ahem) but coincidentally today Riedel also reports that LaBute is prepping a new Broadway production of another show MCC first premiered downtown, Fat Pig, starring...Ashton Kutcher.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Jude's Dane

In case you're wondering, here's a handy roundup of what the London critics thought of Jude Law's Hamlet, recently opened in a Donmar Warehouse production.

Most pithy summation goes to David Jays who dubs it the "Hugo Boss Hamlet."

Monday, June 15, 2009

Theatre--Or Your Money Back!

I'm sure it's been tried before, but now some Chicago funder is promoting the idea of "money-back guarantees" as a condition for backing certain "risk taking" productions.

Okay, the "good intentions" are that a "risky" "product" (e.g. a play by or starring an unknown about an unpleasant subject) requires extra incentive and/or reassurance for the audience to buy a ticket. So in order to "enhance" the possibility of "success," the proposal is something like, Sure we believe in your show! We just want to make sure people come see it (and hence not waste OUR investment) and they'll only come if they know they know the ticket is "risk-free."

Well who's against audience incentives, right? (Or free--or potentially free--tickets!) But, um, we do have to wonder what is meant by "satisfaction" in this case, don't we? As well as the implication that if you, the audience member, have any qualm about what you saw (made you question the meaning of your existence, your government's complicity in certain crimes) then the performance you just saw has been rendered literally worthless. Like a defective toy or undercooked entree.

You also gotta wonder: what kind of pathetic crankypants actually takes the management up on the offer of, in this case:

a rep stationed in the lobby or at the box office after each performance, foundation cash in hand. Disgruntled customers would fill out the shortest of forms, explaining why they were dissatisfied, and get their money back on the spot.
Mere embarrassment (not to mention support of the arts) would prevent many of us from even bothering. But sure enough, those same folk who spend the whole show complaining to the usher about their program or yelling at the actors to talk louder....they'd be lining up.

Yes, a ticket to a play is certainly a "commodity" like it or not. And theatre managements have always at least considered refunds for such extenuating circumstances as a star's absence, faulty air conditioning, or falling scenery. But for not being adequately entertained by El Grito del Bronx??? (The Goodman production selected as a test case.)

I also reject another notion reportedly informing this initiative--namely that if critics get to "test" a product--I mean, play--for free...why can't you!
Most media coverage of theater is written as if the author were blissfully ignorant of the fact that normal people have to fork over hard-earned cash to be in the audience. Critics, who usually get the best seats in the house without having to pay for them, aren’t compelled to think about what it means to pony up for a ticket and then have to peer between heads from a seat under the balcony at a show that might turn out to have been overrated.
Lemme tell ya something. I'm no John Simon, but having reviewed professionally for a few years now I can say that there is no correlation between free tickets and enjoyment factor. If anything, I could argue the opposite. Perhaps at some shows I'd be more likely to relax and overlook a performance's shortcomings had I put out a lot of dough for my missus and I to enjoy a nice evening out--not only to rationalize the choice to myself but to convince her! But having paid nothing, I've invested nothing--right, my business-minded friends? As we all know, we're more likely to walk out on comp'd shows, as long as we're not reviewing or don't have friends in it. If we shell out three figures, you sit there at intermission stewing, promising, I'm getting every dollar's worth out of this show if it kills me!)

My point, in brief, is that for a working critic, most of the shows you see are not your choosing, and not even at a time of your choosing. And you have homework to do on it. So--for better or worse for the artists involved--it is hardly the mindset most conducive to fun.

Also, consider this: the majority of reviews, I'd hazard, are negative. Not positive. If free tickets made it easier to like a show, wouldn't most reviews be more...favorable?

(Hat tip: McLennan)

Does Facebook Work?

For promoting your show, that is.

Here's a report on success in, ahem, Mumbai. So surely it must play in Peoria, too.

Or does it?

(Via ArtsJournal.)

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Tonys a "Success"

Okay so maybe they won't be canceled. 'Twas only a modest proposal anyway.

CBS is boasting the ratings for Sunday's Tony broadcast were up nearly 20% from last year. (For an estimated total of 7.45 million viewers. Small for network TV audiences. Big for theatre.)

I will gladly admit Neil Patrick Harris was a fine host, despite my earlier carping. Actually I never doubted his talent for the job, just his celebrity factor. Unfortunately his best bit was at the very very end, after most DVR's & TIVO's stopped taping since the program ran a few minutes over. Since the hilarious parody song he commissioned from March Shaiman & Scott Whitman was cut off, here are the complete lyrics (set to West Side Story's "Tonight"). The verse he was luckiest to get on the air was, in reference to the nominated supporting performance of Shrek's comically diminutive monarch:

Chris Sieber, please
Performing on your knees?
Dude, that only works to win
Golden Globes
Meanwhile, did you know Isherwood blogged the Tonys? (Now I know who sabotaged my DSL this weekend...) Way to go, NYT, getting into the internet age. Unfortunately, the experiment--more of a running "interview" with Isherwood, who apparently would not commit to typing his own thoughts--is not very readable and a good example of how not to blog an event. Maybe if they read some...

While on the television front, the broadcast seems to have exceeded historically low expectations, back at the Broadway box office, the awards themselves are not emerging as much of a game changer. Patrick Healy's story in tomorrow's Times, following on the heels of announced closings for Reasons to be Pretty and Guys and Dolls, begins:
With last Sunday’s Tony Awards unlikely to provide a serious boost at Broadway box offices because the big winners are already hits, producers are counting on word of mouth and discounts to prevent closings and dark theaters this summer.
And by "dark theatres," Healy estimates it could be as many as 10 by late July. (Psst: there are only 39 houses, total. So that's 25%.)

So all in all, I hope the League and the Wing are happy with the show. My dismissive response was due less to individual quality of this year's broadcast over last year's (which was indeed worse). It's just more and more apparent to me that the whole enterprise of putting on one nationally broadcast show a year celebrating only productions (mostly musicals at that) that played in 500-seat-or-more houses between the blocks of West 40th st and West 55th with the occasional exception of Lincoln so out of touch with the art form as currently practiced. By those who consider it an artform, that is.

And did I mention that the opening "medley" attempting to mix & match completely irreconcilable shows and numbers resembled something between Forbidden Broadway and a Wayans Brothers "Scary Movie" installment? (I'm thinking specifically of that weird Stockard Channing/Pal Joey & kid from Next to Normal duet, especially.) I mean, I just kept imagining: if I were just a mild theatre enthusiast from the hustings, without too much knowledge of the current season, and saw Jets & Sharks morphing into "Poison" (who aren't actually in Rock of Ages are they?)morphing into Liza, then over to the theme-park crew from Shrek, then Dolly Parton (who ain't in 9 to 5 either)... I'd wonder what either I or the television set was smoking.

Oh, and not that you need me to make this clip any more viral, but here it is. (Do note the deadly sign does say "Broadway!")

Rocco has the full Brett Michael coverage, btw. Apparently that's the only takeaway the real media got out of whole event.

And rightly so. Damn funny.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Memo to CBS: Cancel the Tonys

Last night proved an all too obvious point. There is no reason outside of either blind fandom or cruel schadenfreude to allow the Tony Awards to continue to be broadcast on national television.

If the theatre itself is a perpetual "invalid", what do you call a slapdash TV special so shoddily produced that it seems the charity case of an already dinosaur broadcast network. From the opening sound gaffes that muted Elton John (not necessarily a bad thing, I know) it seemed like CBS hardly even cares anymore. By the time "Rock of Ages" aged-rocker Brett Michaels was literally crushed by the very word "Broadway" emblazoned on a rapidly falling drop, such living metaphors were quite unnecessary.

(And who can forget those timeless words from Guys and Dolls shouted by that nefarious Runyonesque character I like to call Handheld Mike: "Wait, am I going on? Am I going on? I'm going on!" Actually sounds more like Beckett, come to think of it.)

How the CBS and ceremony producers managed to string an evening of nothing out to over three hours-- even with cutting those mere "Creative Arts" awards of design, choreography, and libretto--amazes me. At this point, when any charade of "celebrating theatrical excellence" has been thoroughly exposed, why bother? Why not just air a merciful 90-minute "highlight reel" Call it "Best of Broadway" or something.

This is clearly where the broadcast is heading, as indicated by ample air time devoted to road company performances of excerpts from shows from two or three seasons ago. So just drop the pretense already of celebrating this particular season. Broadway's only interest in a telecast is selling tickets to what's on Broadway now. (And what's out on the road now.)

I suppose we should be grateful that the sheer mention of dramatic play titles were allowed, and that they didn't cut away from any nonsinging actor's speech (who wasn't Angela Lansbury that is) for a commercial. But as glad as I am for the exposure given, say, Roger Robinson, how much of an impression could he have even made on a national tv audience without any explanation of who he is and what the hell he did to get that award? (Even the Oscars show "Oscar clips.) Yes, they showed clips of each nominated play. But they were literally 5 seconds, and poorly edited and framed excerpts from pre-shot publicity video. (The God of Carnage clip, inexplicably left Gandolfini completely out of frame, for instance.)

So I say enough with your pitying half-gestures, CBS. Put the Tonys out of their misery. And give the Broadway League a pure unadulterated informercial like they want.

And if this happened, you'd see that without television coverage, the Broadway community's actual commitment to any celebration of excellence would shrivel up and die.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Sorry, No Blogcast

Well, given the Tonys' irrelevance, maybe it's time to retire the tradition anyway. But truth be told, it is a faulty Verizon DSL connection that has let Playgoer down this year by thwarting his plans for the 5th--yes, 5th!--annual Live Tony Blogcast. And, sorry, but he ain't moving off his couch and he ain't staying in this Starbucks any longer either.

Still I'll watch, what the hell, and maybe have some "reflections" tomorrow if anything notable happens. And feel free to comment here with your own running commentary. I hereby declare this a Tonys '09 open thread!

And if you get really bored, there's always Blogcasts of Tonys Past....

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Tony Demystification

As the Broadway echo-chamber revs up for Sunday night, here's some needed perspective on what the Tony Awards are and are not.

It's common knowledge that shows still running have a better chance to bag statuettes than those that have closed. But producer/blogger Ken Davenport even claims the data to prove it! His evidence that Spring openings fare better at Tony Time than do their Autumn competitors, I'm sure is no secret to producers. If they really want to vie for the Tonys they aim for a March/April opening from the outset. Just like Hollywood studios know very well when "Oscar season" is and save their "prestige" product for December. But now Academy voters can watch dvd's of "for your consideration" films. And there's still a lot on Broadway that can get in the way of producers' calendar plans--like star's nontheatrical commitments and a finite number of venues!

While I seem to remember the awards for design being banished (or at least rushed) from the telecast for quite a while, Riedel confirms this week that if you don't sing and you don't dance, CBS doesn't want you on camera. The network, reportedly,

the decision to eliminate from Sunday's Tony telecast a bunch of what are patronizingly called "creative awards" and put in their place musical numbers from touring productions of "Jersey Boys," "Mamma Mia!" and -- here's a good reason to switch channels -- "Legally Blonde"?

Tony officials announced this week that the awards for things such as lighting, sets and costumes -- all insignificant components of a Broadway show, as anyone who works in the theater can attest -- will not make the broadcast. And that's not all. Also banned from prime time are the awards for choreography, book of a musical and revival of a play.

The decision to ditch creative awards in favor of more musical numbers comes right from the top -- CBS chief Les Moonves, who, I'm told, decreed that the Tonys should mainly be about singing and dancing. "Les wants more entertainment and fewer speeches," one source says.

Well I'm all for that, actually. But it depends on what you mean by "entertainment," I suppose.

Riedel quotes many decrying the commercialization of the awards. To which I just have to say: really? You do you realize you're talking about Broadway here, right? Because, by definition of their own criteria, the Tonys only give consideration to commercial theatre productions (in venues of 500 seats or more). So I'm not sure what kind of public-service enlightenment anyone ever possibly expected.

Hey, don't forget my annual Blogcast Sunday night!

Monday, June 01, 2009

Barack Obama's Come and Gone

No, autograph hounds, it's not Julia Roberts, ok?
Presidential limo pulls into the Belasco, West 44th St.
(photo: Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

Not since Bill Clinton booked the entire house of The Iceman Cometh for a Democratic fundraiser (and quite a fundraising play that is!), has a sitting president gone on the record attending an evening of serious theatre.

(Okay, I realize that just means "not since the Bush administration." But still, probably rare among all modern presidents.)

(And, yes, I know the obvious joke would be "Not since Lincoln..." But that would be bad taste. Too soon.)

Of course the cheerful and downright cute sight of the young president and his wife actually enjoying an evening to themselves at a New York restaurant and an acclaimed American drama was enough to immediately send the GOP into fax-attack heaven:
The Republican National Committee slammed the outing in an "RNC Research Piece": "As President Obama prepares to wing into Manhattan’s theater district on Air Force One to take in a Broadway show, GM is preparing to file bankruptcy and families across America continue to struggle to pay their bills. ... Have a great Saturday evening – even if you’re not jetting off somewhere at taxpayer expense. ... PUTTING ON A SHOW: Obamas Wing Into The City For An Evening Out While Another Iconic American Company Prepares For Bankruptcy."

The RNC's Gail Gitcho added: "If President Obama wants to go to the theater, isn’t the Presidential box at the Kennedy Center good enough?”

Now do you think a meal at an organic restaurant and a three-hour poetic African-American historical drama is most Americans' idea of some gallivanting "night on the town"? (as the RNC press release went on to say)

Just thank god, for their sake, they didn't call "Joe Turner" a musical.

Meanwhile, I expect the Broadway League will capitalize to the max on the now-famous executive order: "I am taking my wife to New York City because I promised her during the campaign that I would take her to a Broadway show after it was all finished." Guess you couldn't hope for a better endorsement than that. (Take that, "I'm going to Disneyworld"!)

However, while Michelle's dreams may have been framed strictly by commercial theatre logo, consider again what they actually ended up seeing. Not 9 to 5, not Shrek, not Jersey Boys (all of which, by the way, had the extra appeal of satisfying key political demographics and supporters). But Joe Turner's freakin' Come and Gone! One of the least commercially successful plays by an adamant activist black American writer often accused (not unjustifiably) of seperatism and black nationalism. (Sorry, I realize I'm only giving talk radio loudmouths more fodder by pointing that out. But the funny thing is how much more the rightist "culture warriors" would attack Obama's taste here...if they actually understood the references.)

It takes Frank Rizzo of the Hartford Courant(!) to point out another salient point--that in many ways the production isn't even "Broadway" at all:

While we are glad that this President recognizes the value of theater -- and challenging theater at that -- I hope he is also aware that the play is a product not of the commercial theater but of the not-for-profit system, supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. The playwright and the work was first nurtured at the O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford. The play received its world premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre in the mid-'80s, directed by Lloyd Richards, who was a mentor to Wilson as director of the National Playwrights Conference. The Rep production starred Charles S. Dutton, who was in the recent production of "Death of a Salesman" at the Rep.The Broadway revival of "Joe Turner" was directed by Bartlett Sher, who was formerly associate director of Hartford Stage and spent his recent career as artistic director of the Intiman Theater in Seattle. The cast of the production served most of their careers in the not-for-profit theaters.

But forget the pedigree. Even Rizzo fails to mention the more obvious fact that this Joe Turner is a nonprofit production itself! By way of Lincoln Center Theatre.

So, as long as the story is reported accurately, this is potentially a nice presidential imprimatur for nonprofit (and nonmusical) theatre. Not to mention a boost in box office for the hitherto sluggish business at the Belasco:

Miriam Childs, 38, visiting from New Orleans, said the Obamas' theater choice inspired her to buy tickets to the August Wilson show. "Their time is about the most precious time in the world, so if they made time to see it, it must be worth it," she said.

She ordered "Joe Turner" tickets at 6a.m. to make sure she and her husband didn't miss out. "We figured there would be a lot of spur-of-the-moment decisions to come see the play," she said. "[We said,] 'Why don't we get a jump on it and get [tickets] now, because there won't be any later.'"

There were just a few balcony seats remaining for Sunday's matinee. The line for tickets stretched out the door an hour before the 3 p.m. performance. A week ago, an average of just 65% of seats at the show were filled, according to

Other fun facts: Apparently Meryl Streep, coincidentally, was also in the audience, but no one noticed. And even though "POTUS & FLOTUS" pulled up right at 7:55, stage manager had to hold curtain till 8:45 for added security and the massive (surprise!) ovation that greeted them.

I've read nothing yet of his response to the show or whether he went backstage. Did I miss that? Obviously there's a poignant angle to be taken here: what our first African American president has to say about a work that so movingly depicts the black experience. (Especially one set in an industrial Pittsburgh slum not unlike his former hoods in Chicago.)

And here it is, evidence that we have a president not ashamed to take a seat at an honest to god--and pretty damn good--play: