On Monday night, inside the packed auditorium of NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the NYCLU, stood in front of the crowd and celebrated a milestone. Just the day before, thousands of gay and lesbian couples had been married in New York, the first day that they had the legal right to do so. Lieberman beamed about the victory to what was perhaps the most receptive crowd possible — supporters of the Civil Liberties Union who had paid to see top-notch Broadway stars put on a benefit concert. The entire hall felt electrified by the same-sex marriage act, clapping and hollering whenever the new legislation was mentioned. Broadway pianist and gadabout Seth Rudetsky, who has hosted the “Broadway Stands Up for Freedom” event for nearly a decade, seemed especially jovial about the night’s perfect timing. He told backstage gossip tales about Bernadette Peters (she flubbed a line at a benefit for the Broadway strike) and John Gallagher Jr. (he almost didn’t audition for Spring Awakening), and showed absurdly funny footage of Florence Henderson tripping during a vintage variety show, apropos of nothing.
The night was packed with big names: Nikki M. James, Beth Leavel, John Tartaglia, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Nellie McKay, who brought her cynical ukelele skills to a wry ditty about feminists lacking a sense of humor. But the arguable star of the night was Hair’s Gavin Creel, who closed the show with an original rock anthem called “Noise,” exhorting the audience to continue to take action. The underlying theme of the evening was this: The fight for marriage equality is not over until it reaches the federal level, and we are here to sing about it.
Creel is no stranger to activism — he founded the organization Broadway Impact, which draws on theater talent to get the word out about gay rights. News broke just last week that Broadway Impact is working with Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and director Joe Mantello to put on a play based on the Proposition 8 trail, which will premiere in New York in September.
Fourth Wall spoke to Creel about his activist streak (he had it long before playing a hippie) and why the theater community is so energetic about the marriage fight.
Fourth Wall: So, how did you first get started with the whole Broadway-meets-activism movement? It’s been going on for a while now, with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids and Larry Kramer, etc.
Gavin Creel: It kind of started when Prop 8 passed on the same day Obama was elected. I remember thinking, how did that happen under our watch? And I realized I was totally unplugged as a gay man and as a person of power. And it’s so easy to be cynical, like really what can I do? But I know, if you don’t speak you can’t do anything. So we started Broadway Impact in my living room, with my dog panting at my feet. We went to the cast of Mamma Mia, and asked them to write letters to the senate majority leader. That ballooned into 3,000 pieces of mail from the Broadway community. Then we did a rally in Times Square, and there were thousands of people standing on Sixth Avenue, with the governor, the mayor, singing.
And we thought, if we can do that, what’s next? Sutton Foster told me, I’ll give you money and pay for a bus, you put 50 people on to go to march on Washington. And that became 25 buses with 1,500 people going down representing Broadway community in DC.
FW: How did the latest effort — with Dustin Lance Black and Joe Mantello — come about?
We thought about The Vagina Monologues, and all that did for women’s rights. We said, let’s also use our theaters as our home bases and do a premiere in New York. We will raise money for the American Foundation for Equal Rights, and then will take phase 2 and go to colleges and high schools and wherever someone wants to put the play up, and show them how, and give them a curtain speech. With the power of theater spread the word of the Prop 8 trial and all the injustice there.
FW: So do you see yourself as a kind of Ned Weeks from The Normal Heart? A sort of neo-Larry Kramer?
GC: Well, I don’t have the ability nor the desire to be so overt, so polarizing. I need a Ned Weeks out there to cut through. I watched that play and thought, I’m not Larry Kramer, but I do think we have to talk. I was never political. I was raised in Ohio and there were taboo words. You didn’t talk about paychecks, religion or politics. I respect that attitude, but I also know it’s not an activist’s attitude. And I want to be more vocal. I’m going out to help HRC launch a campaign in Salt Lake City in August, this road to equality in a bus, going to all the hard hitting places. We’ll be setting up camp, saying we are here, we have things to say, and there are gay people in your community.
I know people are like, oh Gavin, you’re talking about the gay thing…again! And I’m like, you know what, I am going to keep talking about it. Stand up for the weak ones, let’s make some fucking noise.
FW: How did you feel singing on stage the day after the first gay marriages in New York City?
GC: Donna Lieberman has been fighting this fight for 19 years, and I just can’t believe that it’s done. Due to the effort of so many women and men, it’s like holy crap, it’s done! It’s a law! It’s done! It was a huge clarion call from New York City and the state, and I am so proud to have been a small part of it. Some day someone will show children how the marriage fight was fought in New York and it will be history, but being right in the middle of it it feels like a war. And fuck it, we won this round. It’s law. I dreamt of this world, and it’s coming together around me.
As I sang on Monday, “If you stay quiet, how will he know he’s not alone?” Those kids jumping off bridges, they do that because they do not feel there is a world that has room for them. Silence equals death; that’s everything. If anything, Broadway could be louder about this.
Photo via broadwayimpact.com
Last season brought a lot of exciting new musicals to Broadway, particularly the extremely popular The Book of Mormon and the sadly underrated The Scottsboro Boys (and my personal favorite Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). It was not a big year for revivals, however; the season featured only two – Anything Goes and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. While the production of original shows is undeniably important, it’s just as vital that new audiences experience classic musicals through bold and updated revivals. This upcoming season will feature three revivals (Follies, Godspell, and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever), but surely we can persuade some big Broadway producers to give these other musicals a chance!
Stephen Schwartz and Robert O. Hison’s wacky meta-musical about a Middle Ages prince finding his purpose in life has never had a revival, which is truly a shame. The original 1971 production, directed by Bob Fosse and starring Ben Vereen, Irene Ryan, and John Rubenstein in the title role (and featuring a then-unknown Ann Reinking in the ensemble cast), featured a groovy pop score and included songs popular enough to inspire Motown recording artists like Michael Jackson and The Supremes to record cover versions. While I can’t foresee Beyoncé’s version of “We’ve Got Magic to Do” reaching the top of the pop charts, the show deserves a fresh take for a new generation. The historically anachronistic, surreal style of Fosse’s original production lends itself easily to an updated staging with nods to the original (Ann Reinking could come out of hiding to choreograph the show in Fosse’s signature style – where has she been?!). And recent Tony nominee Lily Rabe, daughter of the late Jill Clayburgh, could fill the role originated by her mother, provided that she can sing a tune or two.
It’s almost time for another presidential election, and with the country still teeming with Tea Party fervor, what better way for Broadway to reach out to the middle American demographics than to reboot a whole musical about our nation’s founding fathers? This might be a long stretch, as 1776 is certainly not a particularly exciting musical (It’s hot and crowded in that room in Philadelphia! That’s about all I remember about it!), and the show doesn’t lend itself to the NASCAR kind of spectacle like Spider-Man (part of that show’s allure, I think, was the excitement of watching something – or someone – crash onto the stage). But a grand finale featuring a massive pyrotechnic display to celebrate The country’s independence might convince audiences to fill those seats; after all, what’s more American than historical re-enactors and fireworks? USA! USA!
The Music Man
If 1776 proves too uneventful or controversial (it’s New York, so there’s a good chance that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams would be played by homosexuals!), perhaps Meredith Wilson’s classic Americana musical would be a bigger hit with the tourist set. After all, the original production beat out the much less white bread and wholesome West Side Story for the Tony for Best Musical back in 1957. Casting this show is important: perhaps Promises, Promises co-stars Sean Hayes and Katie Finneran could step into the roles of Harold Hill and Marion Paroo, respectively. Can you imagine the articles about Hayes playing the part that his Will & Grace co-star Eric McCormick took on (after replacing Craig Bierko) when the show was last revived in 2000? They will write themselves! You’re welcome, critics!
The 1954 musical adaptation of J. M. Barrie’s classic fantasy starred 41-year-old Mary Martin, who won a Tony for her portrayal of a little boy. I’m sure this sounds much more bizarre and a lot less adorable than it did fifty years ago. Setting aside the casual ‘50s racism (not only were the Indians of Neverland portrayed with the usual stereotypes, but Tiger Lily was a blonde), there are some amazing gender politics at play here. Why not revive it with a hard look at those issues? Perhaps we could convince John Cameron Mitchell to return to the theater (and stop making super sad movies about dead kids – even if his adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole was fantastic), and just imagine the sight of performance artist Justin Bond floating above the audience in those green tights! (A somewhat unrelated question: between this show and 1959’s The Sound of Music, do you think Mary Martin really hated kids?)
No jokes: I think a revival production of Cats should be exactly like the original production because it is so perfect in its absolute insanity that there could be no possible way to make it better. How can you improve those costumes? That set? That make-up! Then why, you may ask, should Cats be revived? For the simple fact that seeing Cats on stage is a rite of passage for any kid, and if I had to sit through it when I was twelve, so should everyone else.
For New Yorkers, June welcomes the first waves of sweltering heat in the subway and the drips from AC window units dangling precariously over the sidewalks. But the first month of summer also brings with it a cultural tradition that rewards those intrepid souls willing to face Central Park’s morning dew at the break of dawn with free tickets to see the world’s best actors take on some of the greatest plays in the English language. For over half a century, the Public Theater has produced Shakespeare in the Park, possibly one of the world’s greatest free cultural events. This summer, the Public presents two of the Bard’s lesser-known shows at the stunning Delacorte Theater: Measure for Measure, directed by David Esbjornson, and All’s Well That Ends Well, directed by Daniel Sullivan, with a cast that includes Tonya Pinkins, Annie Parisse, Lorenzo Pisoni, Andre Holland, Reg Rogers, and Michael Hayden.
Fourth Wall spoke via telephone with Michael Hayden, who just last year played the leads in Henry V and Richard II in repertory at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC. Hayden stars as the wicked Angelo in Measure for Measure this summer at Shakespeare in the Park, and has a featured role as the Second Brother Dumaine in All’s Well That Ends Well.
Fourth Wall: This is the first time you’ve performed in Shakespeare in the Park. Have you done anything in an outdoor arena like this before? Is that a new challenge for you?
Michael Hayden: It’s a completely new challenge. I’ve never done anything outside, and I’ve never done Shakespeare in the Park. I’m used to working inside the theater where you project to a house based on the size of the house you’re in. In the park you’re miked, which is necessary because of the way the sound disperses. It’s tricky because if you rely on the mic and speak in such a quiet way that they have to amplify you so much, it’s a very strange experience for an audience. You have to fill the house with your ideas, but you still have to project language and ideas in a way that all the people in the house feel included. That’s a different challenge for me. I’ve always been miked in musicals, and even then in dialogue parts in musicals we were always told, “Work as though you don’t have a mic.” I follow the same rule in the park.
FW: You’re a seasoned Shakespeare performer. Have you done either of these plays before?
MH: It’s ironic — people are now calling me a seasoned Shakespeare performer, but let me clarify that. My first Shakespeare play was Henry IV at Lincoln Center, seven years ago. The next time I did Shakespeare was last year when I did Richard II and Henry V in rep playing the two kings. That was a trial by fire to do those two plays with only one Shakespeare play under my belt. This year, I did Leontes in The Winter’s Tale at the Guthrie, so it’s been a sort of a Shakespeare year. Before this year and a half, I had only done one. I’d be loathe to call myself a seasoned professional, but I’ve done a lot in a short amount of time, and I’ve played neither of these roles before.
FW: All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure are considered to be two of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.”
MH: Not at all. [That] is a very popular term put on [the plays] well after Shakespeare died. I’m sure they weren’t seen as problem plays back then. I think they have unique challenges because… these come under the realm of romantic plays, but not romantic in the modern sense but romantic in the sense that they incorporate… some sense of magic, people being brought back from the death. Helena is supposedly dead, and she’s revealed as being alive again [in All's Well That Ends Well]. Claudio in Measure for Measure is supposed to be dead, and he’s revealed as being alive at the end. Both those occurrences have major impacts on the last scenes in the play. In Measure for Measure, it’s difficult to understand why the Duke goes the machinations that he goes through, and why does Helena go through the machinations that she goes through in All’s Well. There’s the “bed trick” in each one of them that sets up the bad guy — Angelo in Measure and Bertram in All’s Well — to be revealed for what they are in the end. They’re brilliant plays. Measure is certainly incredibly topical, given some of the politicians who hold themselves up as moral icons falling and showing themselves naked online. I do not think the audiences will perceive them as problem plays; I think that’s more fodder for dramaturgs and people who need something to write essays about.
FW: Have you had any roles in the past that have prepared you to take such a dive into Shakespeare in the last couple of years?
MH: I don’t know if there’s a previous role that prepared me. When I got Henry IV at Lincoln Center, I was really terrified. I had no idea if I was going to be able to do it justice. I had no idea what my skill with the language would be. But I did know based on my training and what I know of my own instrument that I like theatrical roles with great passion and great scope and great challenge. I learned by the end of Henry IV that I did have the skill and an enormous amount to learn, but I did have the tools to take on these great parts. I hope I get the chance to do more.
All’s Well That Ends Well opens on Saturday, June 25 and Measure for Measure opens on Thursday, June 30. Both shows will run in repertory through July 30. Ticket information and performance schedules are available at www.shakespeareinthepark.org.
Image courtesy of Joan Marcus / The Public Theater.
On Monday night, outside of Lincoln Center, the limos pulled up. One by one, models and fashion designers spilled out in pairs, the former tottering up to a line of paparazzi on skyscraper heels to mug for five minutes before loping down the red carpet. The CFDA Awards, fashion’s version of the Oscars, brought out movie stars and musicians, all kissing cheeks in thousands of dollars of couture.
Across the street, in a smaller underground theater called the Mitzi Newhouse, something far less glamorous took place, and yet in a way the two events were interconnected. As capital “f” Fame was being celebrated inside Alice Tully, a crop of high schoolers hoping to one day write Broadway hits were preparing to unveil songs they had written for Lincoln Center Theater’s 5th Annual Celebration of Student Songs. This was fame in the making, and it was as endearing as anything in this city gets.
The conceit of the event is a heartening one: Students from five different New York schools, mentored by music teachers and Broadway songwriters, compose songs for the stage. Then bona fide Broadway performers step up to the mike, backed by a live band, and perform the music. It is a professional performance, with voices that smooth over flaws from still-developing songwriting techniques, making the compositions soar. Parents and siblings beamed in the seats as they saw the fruits of the students’ labor. It is a room that feels hallowed, everyone buying into the vision that art is important, and even more fantastical, that composing for Broadway can be an achievable and desirable dream.
As the Tonys zoom towards us, it’s encouraging to see young people just starting out in their careers doing so well. There is a road between first writing a song and being nominated for Best Original Musical, and maybe the students fortunate enough to participate in Lincoln Center Theater’s program will be able to negotiate that path more nimbly than others.
The songs were, as expected, about aspects of teenage life: loving a boy who doesn’t love you back, wanting to be a superhero, feeling like a princess on a really important night (Gramercy Arts’ Danika Bonilla’s “This is Wonderful” felt like an anthem about prom night). But the lyrics weren’t all innocent. The students of Flushing High School YABC churned out the two most moving numbers of the night — Melissa Ovalles “Got to Find A Way” was about healing after the death of a parent, and Marquise Campbell’s rap tune “D-RUGS,” about living with a drug-addicted mother and her abusive lover, left several members of the audience looking around for Campbell himself (the parental impulse to comfort runs strong).
The Broadway performers who donated their time to learning the songs were in high spirits. Charlie Brady, Miguel Cervantes, Janet Dacal, Jose Llana, Kenita Miller, and Alysha Umphress traded off singing duties, but it was really Umphress (American Idiot) who stole the show for the professionals. Her sassy treatment of the love ballad “I’ll Do It Anyway” (by students from the Frank Sinatra School) made the song feel like it was a missing number from any number of rock musicals.
It is possible to lament about the future of Broadway and the death of the great musical (and many articles about and surrounding the Tonys will do this), but in that room, filled with the energy and pride of young songwriters, one got the feeling that the future is in capable hands. And that’s more encouraging than celebrities pulling up in limos anyday.
There are two obvious topics that theatergoers and critics bring up when discussing The Motherf**cker With the Hat, the new play by Stephen Adly Guirgis. The first is obvious: the unprintable title, which one assumes might be a gimmick strong enough to draw in a crowd expecting an edgy, quirky comedy. That has not, apparently, been the case; box office reports have indicated that the play’s title — stylized with asterisks even in the Playbill — has proven to be a liability when it comes to publicity (the TV spots even omit the second half of that dirty word, suggesting that the titular headpiece belongs to an old lady). The other draw then would be stand-up comic Chris Rock, who makes his Broadway debut. But the rest of the show’s cast and creative team truly outshine the top-billing star and the show’s pretentiously gritty title.
Bobby Cannavale stars as Jackie, a newly sober ex-drug dealer recently released from prison. The play opens as Jackie comes home to the apartment he shares with his girlfriend Veronica (played with equal notes of bravado and frailty by Elizabeth Rodriguez), and it is on a table in their room that he discovers the hat of the title, and his immediate accusation of Veronica’s infidelity sparks the first of many emotional shouting matches that take place on stage in the brief span of a hour and a half. The loud, abusive exchanges between Jackie and Veronica are the crux of the play and perhaps the most entertaining, and Cannavale and Rodriguez’s somewhat strained voices are proof of the performances’ physical impact on the cast.
Jackie finds refuge in Rock’s Ralph D., Jackie’s best friend and AA sponsor. Rock plays Ralph as if he were delivering one of his familiar stand-up bits; he is certainly the most comfortable on stage when he is playing Chris Rock, and while his cast mates seamlessly disappear into their characters, he stands out as the movie star on stage, attempting to morph his supporting role into a lead. To Cannavale’s hotheaded Jackie, Rock’s Ralph is a seemingly sensible role model — that is until we learn that he is the owner of the hat and has betrayed his friend’s trust.
Thus begins another slew of verbal assaults, this time between Jackie and Ralph; unlike the fights between Jackie and Veronica, the men’s debates are more ideological. Ralph, who is unapologetic about sleeping with his friend’s girlfriend and cheating on his wife, argues that the necessity of his sober lifestyle is the only rule not worth breaking, and his dismissive attitude toward Veronica (who still uses cocaine) proves that sobriety has become his new addiction and the root for his self-centered behavior. Jackie, who still dabbles in drink and drugs, realizes that the influence other people have on each other might be as grave as that of controlled substances.
Rounding out the cast is Yul Vázquez (co-artistic director and founding member of LAByrinth Theater Company, of which Cannavale, Rodriquez, and Guirgis are also members) as Jackie’s possibly bisexual (it is both unclear and unnecessary) cousin Julio and Annabella Sciorra as Victoria, Ralph’s soon-to-be estranged wife. Sciorra, who makes her Broadway debut, may be shining star of the show; her role is certainly the subtlest, and she has the benefit of playing the most likeable character in the play. Unfortunately Sciorra (along with Rock) were passed over at this year’s Tony Awards, while the deserving Cannavale and Rodriguez both picked up nominations (as well as the surprising nod for Vázquez, whose flat portrayal of Julio serves as a somewhat distracting comic relief in what is already technically a comedy).
Like most character studies of addicts like those in The Motherf**cker With the Hat, Guirgis’s play is a bit overwrought and overwritten. While the turns of phrase coming from Ralph and Victoria’s characters seem believable, the vocabulary and fast-paced deep thoughts thrown about between Bobby and Veronica feel completely unnatural given their assumed levels of education and varied states of sobriety. And while Guirgis’s study of the relationships affected by addiction and narcissism is fascinating, it is the production itself that excels on stage. Superbly directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro (Tony-winner for August: Osage County, a far better play in which drug addicts scream at each other), the play features brilliant scenic design by Todd Rosenthal (who also picked up a Tony for his three-story set in August). Half of the stage includes a revolving kitchen set-up, carefully moving the audience from one New York City apartment to the next in a feat that is much more impressive than gimmicky. The slightly lit scene changes feature furniture flipping up from the floors and out of the walls, creating a subtext of their own: the walls that confine these poor folks as they scream and claw at each other seem to have a mind of their own, and they react to those verbal attacks as often and as frailly as the characters themselves, only sometimes breaking to expose what is beneath the surface.
I was able to catch the Lincoln Center production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown just a few days before it prematurely closed in January. The show, a musical adaptation of Pedro Almodovar’s 1988 film with a book by David Lane and music and lyrics by David Yazbek, was scheduled for a limited run from November to the end of January. With an all-star cast of modern Broadway titans like Sherie Rene Scott, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Laura Benanti, and Patti LuPone, the musical seemed, at least on paper, to be a sure hit. In production, however, it was a bit of a flop: The complicated plot — unwieldy when adapted for the stage — distracted from the brilliant pop-oriented songs and the stellar performances from Scott, Benanti, and LuPone.
When Women on the Verge closed two weeks ahead of schedule, there was much speculation over the possibility for a cast recording. I certainly hoped for one; while I could see that the staging was, to be honest, quite a mess, the show itself was a lot of fun. I left the theater with several songs stuck in my head, including the stand-outs “Model Behavior” (performed by Laura Benanti) and “Invisible” (performed by Patti LuPone). The sign by the merchandise table advertising a pre-order for the recording was promising, but the lack of interest in the show (and the resulting early closure) was not.
The cast recording was released in May after all, not so surprisingly on Ghostlight Records, a imprint of Sh-K-Boom Records, the label co-founded by the show’s star Sherie Rene Scott. Sh-k-Boom and Ghostlight make a point to release cast albums to a wider audience, enabling a life for these more experimental and less mainstream musicals beyond the confines of their original runs. While shows like Wicked and The Lion King have the big-budget spectacle now associated with musical theater and have a longer shelf-life thanks to extended runs on Broadway and national tours, the legacies of recent shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Everyday Rapture, Passing Strange, and In the Heights must rely on a more specific audience to remain as memorable.
While Sh-K-Boom and Ghostlight provide a professional service to ensure these shows are not forgotten, there’s another avenue that Broadway fans have taken to remember such musical experiences.
Bootlegging has been a popular, if ethically ambiguous, practice for years. As cameras have gotten smaller (and come built into cell phones), bootlegging has also become more convenient. The internet has allowed for the easy distribution of videos surreptitiously shot in dark theaters, bringing these bootlegs to a wider (while admittedly still small) audience that would not have the chance to buy films off of the street. But YouTube in particular has made it possible for shows to break free from the confines of the ephemeral nature of the stage. Take Women on the Verge for example; a quick search for the musical’s title will, of course, result in a variety of videos, and a patient user can easily find clips from the show.
The video above, of course, is of questionable quality, but what it does give the viewer is the sense of the audience, which is an important aspect of seeing a live show. While one can experience the madness of the show’s opening number, there’s also the reaction from the audience as stars Laura Benanti and Patti LuPone walk on stage. Official videos posted by Lincoln Center’s YouTube account, which feature shorter (and more professional) clips of the show, do not necessarily have the same power.
While even professional films of stage productions have been popular for years (several of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals, for example, are readily available on Netflix), it certainly cannot rival the emotional power of seeing a show in person. Neither can a soundtrack. But both act as tangible reminders of a theater experience, slightly demolishing the confines of the theater in which a specific production, supposedly closed and finished, can continue to be accessible to any audience member with an iPod or a laptop.
I was warned. Heading into a Sunday matinee of Born Yesterday, the revival of Garson Kanin’s 1946 farce about corruption and dumb blondes in Washington D.C., I remembered the verdict of several theatergoers I trust: Love Nina Arianda; loathe the rest.
I tried not to let my friends’ judgments seep into my brain as I watched the acts unfold (and unfold, and unfold…the two and a half hours felt dipped in syrup), but they were, unfortunately, correct. In this revival of the play, Arianda plays dingbat sexpot Billie Dawn, and she’s one magnetic creampuff up there, well-deserving of her several awards and nominations (Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle) and critical coronation as Broadway’s “New Queen of Comedy.” The other actors merely lope alongside her; Jim Belushi confuses bellicose yelling for humor, and Robert Sean Leonard (who any woman of my generation wants to love if possible) seemed to be sleepwalking his way through the show. To be sure, it’s can’t be easy to play the self-righteous straight man to Arianda’s cooey bombshell (or to be caught in close-range with Belushi’s booming line reads), but you can read the frustration and quiet resentment on Leonard’s face each time he enters the set.
More than anything, all three of the main players on stage looked like the show had taken them captive: Belushi and Leonard were trapped in a play that doesn’t play to either of their strengths, and Arianda is trapped with Belushi and Leonard in a play that allows her to flex her comedic muscles but doesn’t provide her with any real friction to push up against. It’s the kind of mismatch that you don’t often see at the Broadway level, but one that can leave an audience feeling vaguely queasy.
When an actor outshines his or her material, it can sometimes be a great thing. Not all words written for the stage are perfect, and it’s often easier for a great actor to appear in a mediocre play and make it work than for subpar actors to do justice to stellar writing. Especially in the field of revivals (especially the madcap, mid-century works), the audience can expect to find the words sounding tinny and outdated, and it’s up to the actors to modernize them the best they can.
In the case of Born Yesterday, however, Arianda’s attempt to carry the show on her back doesn’t just outshine the script; it outpaces it. Arianda, a relatively new face in New York (this is her first Broadway outing) made a name for herself last year in Venus and Fur at Classic Stage Company, playing the sultry actress Vanda, who arrives on stage in a trenchcoat with bondage-wear underneath. She is aggressive, feline, unstoppable. Arianda oozed through that play and out its edges. For Born Yesterday, it’s as though she’s poured back into the mold of a lesser seductress. Not that Arianda can’t play Billie Dawn — she can and will play a great many roles — it’s that she’s too smart to play so dumb. It is only when the character reaches a mini-enlightenment at the end of play that Arianda seems even slightly challenged by the task at hand.
It’s not the play’s fault. Billie Dawn is one of the great ditzes written for the stage — the 29-year-old mistress of Eddie Brock (Belushi), a junkyard magnate who has come to Washington to bribe a senator. Brock wants his playmate to seem smarter when talking to important people, so he enlists a journalist, Paul Verrall (Leonard) to educate her about books and the news, and as one might predict, she falls in love with her tutor as she wisens up. If some actresses dream of a chance to portray the powerful intelligence of Hedda Gabler, others fantasize about one day getting to wear mink slippers and swan around the confectionary set in Born Yesterday, pretending to not understand the slightest thing about how the world works outside of how to wear a push-up bra. Melanie Griffith was perfect at this in the most recent film version.
It’s Pygmalion, it’s Pretty Woman — and to carry off these plotlines, the Doolittle role needs to be filled by a woman who seems just as content as a sapling before she realizes she can sprout into something bigger. Arianda giddily laughs her way through her daftest lines (all of Act 1), but she doesn’t convincingly embody Billie until the character starts to feel the power of knowledge. It’s clear that she wants Billie to catch up to her, so she laps her, undermining the play’s most endearing arc — the awakening of a loveable dimwit.
The words “Holocaust musical” do not encourage a particularly warm or enthusiastic response, especially when paired with this additional phrase: “written by the author of Beaches.” And while the former is probably an inaccurate description of The People in the Picture, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s new production starring Donna Murphy, the sentiment is the same: the musical is dreadful.
The show centers around Raisel, played by Murphy, who in late ’70s New York is an elderly Yiddish bubbie with an unfortunately unfunny comedy-writer daughter named Red and a precocious granddaughter named Jenny. It’s to Jenny that Raisel recounts the stories of her early adulthood — she was an actress in the Yiddish theatre in Warsaw, Poland just before the war, a scene that comes alive within the walls of the New York apartment shared by the three generations of women. The ghosts of Raisel’s colleagues, played by real-life veterans such as Joyce Van Patten and Chip Zien, follow Raisel (and, for some reason, Jenny) acting out those Warsaw adventures to impart the Yiddish traditions onto the young girl.
There’s a complicated framing device at work here, one that would be better suited for a novel than for a play. Raisel jumps back and forth in time within the same scene, an action that presents a major issue, and one that is hardly resolved by having Murphy, in old-lady make-up and gray wig, cover her head with a scarf when required to portray her character’s younger self. The Playbill lists Murphy as playing two characters (Bubbie and Raisel), which seems like a cop-out; it’s almost as infuriating as the fact that “Bubbie” has a thick Yiddish accent in the “present” scenes whereas Raisel does not.
But the remarkably underrated Murphy manages to shine despite the material and direction; she completely melts into her character(s), seamlessly transitioning from the meek and frail Raisel into the vivacious Raisel. The early scenes features Raisel performing from her repertoire in the Warsaw theatre, playing characters ranging from a dancing dybbuk to — seriously — God Himself. Religion, however, takes a backseat to the play’s generalized treatment of Jewish culture: it’s the traditions that are important — not the meanings — a notion seen in the appropriately titled “Remember Who You Are,” a number that sounds more promising in theory but, in performance, turns out to be an odd Jewish minstrel tune about the difficulties of being a successful Jew in Hollywood.
The music, co-written by pop-music veterans Artie Butler and Mike Stoller, are unremarkable and insipid; in a way, the tunes compliment the schmaltzy nature of the book and lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart. While watching The People in the Picture, I couldn’t help but think, “This is why people hate musicals.” Filled with overly sentimental themes of tradition and motherhood, the show completely eschews all attempts at subtlety — an all-too-common misdeed in musical theatre.
But don’t forget: There’s still a massive genocide to touch on, and I suppose I should devote some space here as the show also went there. The second act begins with an interpretive dance sequence right in the middle of the Warsaw ghetto; it looked like what Debbie Allen would have paired with the score of Life is Beautiful at an Oscars ceremony. While the play avoids any direct action in the death camps, they are certainly mentioned in a last-minute attempt to remind the audience that, despite the fun-loving characters we had previously seen kicking up their legs on stage, Poland in the late ’30s was not full of song-and-dance numbers.
Also tacked onto the plot, in a poor attempt at characterization, is the revelation of a Sophie’s Choice-lite family secret between Raisel and her daughter Red, one that explains within the space of one somber tune the strained relationship between the two women. It comes seemingly out of nowhere much like every other element of this show. It’s also important to note that Red is a writer on a late-night comedy show, but the complete lack of humor in the character we see on stage is somewhat representative of what’s wrong with this show: it’s not fun. It’s a bold move to produce a new, original musical with such dark thematic elements, but one would hope that the folks at the Roundabout would find fresh ways to explore those themes in an equally brave, fresh manner. Instead, The People in the Picture is a mediocre, old-fashioned musical that left me feeling sorry for its cast – especially Donna Murphy, who now has “Holocaust musical” listed on her resume.
So, the Tony nominations are out, and with them, the one week of the year when the theater community gets incredibly chattery about who’s in, who’s out, who got snubbed, and why in the world someone decided to close The Scottsboro Boys back in December, given that it just racked up an impressive 12 nominations. It’s a jealous, self-congratulatory week of insider navel-gazing with a dollop of media cross-examination, and a lot of angry young actresses punching their pillows at home.
And of course we want to be a part of it!
So without further ado, here is our parsing of the five big trends running through this year’s Tony noms — our reading of the theatrical tea leaves. Enjoy the broad sweeping generalizations; we’re just calling it as we see it.
1. The Hollywood Cold-Shoulder: Perhaps its a surge of New York pride taking over, or that (as Scott Brown noted) the Hunter Foster “Give the Tony’s Back!!” Facebook group has finally prevailed). Or maybe it’s just that one too many Tony committee members had to sit through Robin William’s skittish, over-elastic performance in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, but big names got stone-cold snubbed (for the most part) this year. Daniel Radcliffe’s British charms certainly translate on stage in How To Succeed in Business, but do not a nod make. No look for Ben Stiller in House of Blue Leaves; nor for Dan Lauria’s Lombardi moment or Chris Rock in The Mother—— With the Hat. In fact, the names that did get recognized that readers of Us Weekly might also have heard were Hollywood expats with deep roots in the theater world: Edie Falco, Al Pacino, Frances McDormand. Just as we lamented the surging loss of Broadway’s great roles to the reality TV machine, the Tony nominations seem to say that the fight is not completely over. Solidarity!
2. The Return of the Subversive Comic Musical: Remember a time when, beneath all of the theatrics and prop mastery, musical theater used catchy hooks and hummable choruses to spread subtle messages about the darker cracks that run through society? Though recent winners like Billy Elliot and Spring Awakening touched on sinister themes, it has been a long time since a comic musical has been used as a tool for incisive social commentary; that a stage spectacle has approached the acid wit found in The Onion or “The Daily Show.” Then came The Book of Mormon, from the creators of “Southpark,” and with it, a whopping 14 nods (one shy of the record set by The Producers). Even semi-unknowns like Rory O’Malley and Josh Gad were recognized for their work on the show, which is about as controversial in its themes as big-budget musicals get; investors took a leap on a show that skewers an entire religion, and came out looking smarter for their risks. The noms seem to say: dancing kids and bodega owners are nice, but we want something with an edge. Give us a musical that allows us to vent for a few hours, to channel our daily rage and fear into something — even if that thing is a vicious send-up of missionary culture.
3. The Brits Are Still A Big Deal: The nominations honored New York’s homegrown talent (Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti, Patina Miller, Nina Arianda, young Lily Rabe), but as expected, the British invasion extends to awards season. Mark Rylance (who is amazing in Jerusalem; see it if you haven’t) leads the pack, along with Brian Bedford, Hannah Yelland, and playwrights Jez Butterworth and Nick Stafford. The Best Play category is half-American, half-British — a reflection of the increasing presence of West End talent on our shores. The Bridge Project is clearly working.
4. Whoever Made the Decision to Close The Scottsboro Boys in December Is Likely Kicking Him/Herself: Shows don’t always last, but then, they don’t always get 12 nominations months after closing, either. The Kander/Ebb finale may have received nods out of respect for the last collaborative effort of Broadway loyalty, but the fact that it received so many, and after only a two-month run, is surprising. Also surprising: two nominations for Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown, which broke down last fall. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the little-musical-that-could that everyone guessed would sweep the Tonys this year but crashed and burned on the big stage, also got two mentions, if only for the book and the set design.
5. The Best Actor Category is Ridiculous: Pacino. Rylance. Mantello. Cannavale. Bedford. This is fierce competition; young bucks against old timers, New York vs. London, Pacino vs. everybody. It’s impossible to predict. We can almost guarantee you will lose to someone in your office pool over this. But it’s not about winning in the end. And the fact that all of the plays that these five are in are still running is a sign that we have really all won.
See you at the races!
Each Broadway season brings in a crop of new musicals adapted from popular films. Some are massively successful (The Producers, The Lion King, and Hairspray) while others (High Fidelity, The Wedding Singer, Tarzan) have less than stellar legacies. This season brings two new shows based on movies that seemed to be naturally suited for musical adaptations: Sister Act and Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. What is most fascinating is that both of these musicals are based on movies from the early ’90s; one wonders what took the creative teams behind these productions so long to transition the movies to the stage. With that in mind, I came up with five other movies from the ’90s that would surely bring future Broadway audiences to their feet.
The John Hughes-penned holiday classic would be a perfect post-Spider-Man vehicle for Julie Taymor, who desperately needs a rebound after her recent firing. While the technology allowing poor actors to fling across a giant Broadway theatre may still have a few glitches, it would seamlessly transition into Home Alone: The Musical, in which the characters are supposed to fall from the rafters or smack into walls. I’m also imagining Taymor’s imaginative design skills playing a major role in this show — why not have performers represent the booby-traps our hero Kevin lays out for the pair of bumbling burglars, such as trapeze swingers as swinging paint cans? Could you imagine a more action-packed second act? It also gives the chance to bring more irritatingly precocious tweens to Broadway!
Waiting to Exhale
Who doesn’t loves a story about a strong black woman’s self-actualization? Waiting to Exhale has four of those, and 1995′s cultural phenomenon would be the perfect vehicle for a primarily African-American cast, an event that sadly takes place on Broadway only once every few years. Considering the handful of extremely talented African-American actresses (dream cast: Audra McDonald, De’Adre Aziza, Anika Noni Rose, and Tonya Pinkins), it wouldn’t be difficult to keep this show running for years. It’s also the perfect opportunity for Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, who wrote fifteen original songs for the film’s soundtrack, to try his hand at a showtune or two. While I’d definitely be up for a live performance of Mary J. Blige’s “Not Gon’ Cry” while a Mercedes is set ablaze on stage, might I also suggest new tunes like “A White Woman (Can Have You)” and “Remember to Breathe”?
My Cousin Vinny
This might have been the best fish-out-of-water story of the ’90s, and a musical adaptation of My Cousin Vinny makes the most sense if only for the overexaggerated Brooklyn and Alabama accents. And really, are there any other characters more suited for musical theatre than Vinny Gambini and Mona Lisa Vito? It would surely win a Tony for the deliberately tacky leather and animal print costume designs, and the first act-closing number “My Biological Clock (Is Ticking Like This)” would feature expertly timed (ha!) choreography and a massive temporal set-piece. Plus, there’s nothing better than a musical courthouse sequence, and that would account for seventy-five percent of the production! The casting of the main character could be tricky (The Book of Mormon‘s delightfully schlubby Josh Gad is probably too young to play the role), but it would certainly be a travesty if Tony-winner Laura Benanti isn’t cast as the female lead.
Perhaps the biggest crowd-pleasing film of the ’90s, the tale of a simple Southern man making his way through the turbulent ’60s and ’70s would make a great jukebox musical, and just like Priscilla, the film’s soundtrack provides a lot of classic tunes that are already so recognizable to a generation of music fans who are perhaps too old to stand up at a concert or would rather sit in an air-conditioned Broadway house than outside at an amphitheater. Just imagine the possibilities! Jenny would sing a tearful, heartfelt rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Lieutenant Dan could ruminate on the Vietnam conflict with “Fortunate Son,” and Forrest could croon “Running on Empty” as images of the wide open road appear behind him. Forrest Gump‘s complete lack of subtlety would make for a perfect transition to the Broadway stage! And every generation needs its Hair, and why waste that notion on new musicals examining the current cultural zeitgeist when it’s a whole lot easier to take recent musical theatre graduates, put them in period clothing, and make them sing classic rock songs for our parents?
The Shawshank Redemption
OK, this might be sort of a stretch, but people really love this movie so much for reasons I’ve never quite understood (it airs every day on TBS, right? I’m convinced it does). While the subject matter is a little dark (I suggest cutting the prison-rape scene), it’s got that uplifting message that audiences would connect with so easily. Maybe we could convince Tony Kushner to step in and write the book and lyrics, balancing out the deep, introspective themes with some subversive comic elements. Get that man another Pulitzer! And what a return to Broadway this would be for Stephen King, who hasn’t seen his literary work on stage since 1988′s disastrous Carrie: The Musical. Tony-winner Norbert Leo Butz would be perfect in the role originated on screen by Tim Robbins, and what a better way of convincing veteran Ben Vereen to step back into those dancing shoes than offering him the show-stopping number “Get Busy Living (Or Get Busy Dying)!”