Monday, June 30, 2008

Broadway Nights

Sometimes there's a book that's so much fun, you don't want it to end. I just finished Seth Rudetsky's witty and informative novel Broadway Nights: A Romp of Life, Love and Musical Theatre, and it definitely falls into that category. Emily, who writes the blog Pop Culture Book Review, gave it an enthusiastic review, so I picked up a copy at The Drama Book Shop the last time I was in New York.

Unless you follow musical theatre on Broadway, you've probably never heard of Seth Rudetsky. But if you do follow Broadway, well, he's pretty ubiquitous. He hosts Seth's Broadway Chatterbox, a weekly talk show featuring theatre actors. He writes for and he has a show, Seth's Big Fat Broadway, on Sirius Satellite Radio. And that's not even all he does. If he's not already Mr. Broadway, he probably should be.

Broadway Nights is written in the form of a diary that substitute pit musician Stephen Sheerin is keeping at the suggestion of his therapist. So we hear a lot about his complicated love life, with past, current and soon-to-be boyfriends, and about his opera singer mother, who never gave him enough attention growing up. (She's terribly disappointed when her son decides show tunes are his real passion, not classical music.) There's a funny story about how Stephen's babysitter unexpectedly took him to see Annie, his first Broadway show, and he was hooked.

All that was fine, but what I really enjoyed was the insider's look at how a Broadway musical comes together. Stephen has just gotten the big break of his career: he's hired to be the musical director for a new show, Flowerchild. It's kind of a 1960s jukebox musical, about the residents of a hippie commune making the transition to the 1970s. So we get to accompany him all the way through the process. He attends auditions, deals with the parsimonious husband-and-wife producers, works with the cast during rehearsals, and finally, after a bit of drama, (It is the theatre, after all!) arrives at opening night.

All of the details are probably old hat to veteran Broadway fans, but they were new to me. While the story isn't totally autobiographical - I don't think his mother was an opera singer and his father, her accompanist, who left her for his page turner - Rudetsky has drawn on his own life for a wealth of stories. And he does dish up a lot of stories about Broadway shows. (I'm sure someone who knows more about Broadway could figure out the real-life people upon whom he bases his characters).

Rudetsky has a breezy, conversational style, and he tells Stephen's story with a great deal of humor and sympathy. Stephen's a very likable Broadway journeyman - not a star but one of the myriad musicians, actors, dancers, and singers who toil in semi obscurity, entertaining us and waiting for their moment in the spotlight. My only complaint is that near the end of the book there's a plot twist that's resolved so quickly it practically gave me whiplash. And a second twist, involving Stephen's love life, seems a bit unbelievable. But those really are minor points.

Plus, there are lots of cool facts that I didn't know, but now that I do know them, I can sound like a Broadway insider. For example, I didn't realize that "half-hour" is the time actors have to get to the theatre. Now I understand that verse from "Show People" in Curtains - "Our days are tied to curtains, they rise and they fall. We're born every night at half-hour call." Thanks, Seth!

Coming to a computer near you

Writer/director Joss Whedon has released the schedule for his Internet miniseries event Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, featuring Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion and Felicia Day.

Act one will go up Tuesday July 15th.
Act two will go up Thursday July 17th.
Act three will go up Saturday July 19th.
All acts will stay up until midnight on Sunday July 20th.

Then, Whedon says, "they will vanish into the night, like a phantom (but not THE Phantom – that's still playing. Like, everywhere.)" The entire show will be available for download and, eventually on DVD "with the finest and bravest extras in the land."

Whedon, the creator of television series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly, says he came up with the idea for the musical in a moment of frustration at a lack of momentum during last fall's writers' strike.

"I finally decided to do something very ambitious, very exciting, very mid-life-crisisy,'' he said. "Aided only by everyone I had worked with, was related to or had ever met, I single-handedly created this unique little epic. A supervillain musical, of which, as we all know, there are far too few."

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The final curtain

Sure, I love plays but let's face it, when you think of Broadway, what's the first word that comes to mind: musicals, of course! So today is kind of sad because Curtains, a tremendously entertaining backstage murder mystery, and the very first musical I ever saw on Broadway, is closing after 537 performances at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.

I've written before about how this last work from the legendary team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, of Chicago and Cabaret fame, sang and danced its way into my heart on Friday, April 13, 2007.

It was a very lucky day and evening for me - seeing Curtains that night turned out to be the perfect ending to a wonderful, leisurely stroll around Manhattan. I made a big rectangle - I started out at Macy's on 34th Street, walked up to the Museum of Natural History, crossed Central Park, then walked down Fifth Avenue and stopped at Rockefeller Center before making my way to Times Square. Although I love cities, and I've lived in a couple of great ones, New York always intimidated me. But by the end of that day, I felt incredibly comfortable and at ease. You could say that was the day I fell in love with New York City.

My journey to Curtains began four months earlier, when I asked my new friend and soon-to-be brother, Steve on Broadway, which musical I should see during my trip to New York City the following spring. I mentioned some shows I'd read about, but Steve suggested one that I'd never heard of, a musical that he'd seen in Los Angeles in 2006. He described Curtains as "a good old-fashioned musical comedy of the first order," and "everything a Broadway musical should be." He was Steve on Broadway, after all, so I figured he should know.

Since then, I've had a chance to see most of the other musicals that I mentioned to Steve, and while I enjoyed them to varying degrees, Curtains absolutely was the perfect choice for my first musical on Broadway. It was everything I expected a Broadway musical would be - an entertaining story (by Rupert Holmes and the late Peter Stone), terrific choreography (by Rob Ashford), catchy songs (by Holmes, Kander and Ebb), and a wonderful cast that created truly memorable characters. After an evening like that, how could you not fall in love with the Great White Way?

My seat was in the center orchestra, second row, and right from the overture, it was thrilling. I had no idea the conductor would rise up from the orchestra pit at the beginning! I was afraid I'd be too close, but the view was perfect. I was smiling from the first strains of the overture until the final and hilarous last scene - David Hyde Pierce made an entrance that was so funny and inspired, I couldn't remember the last time I laughed so hard. (And I was sitting so close, I could see the sweat on his face!)

And the cast, wow - they were all wonderful. David Hyde Pierce brought such charm and wit to the role 0f 1950s-era Boston Police detective Frank Cioffi. He creates a very likable, sympathetic character. When he's called to the Colonial Theatre to investigate a murder, well the musical theatre fan inside him can barely conceal his excitement. I loved his song-and-dance routein with the ingenue Niki, played so sweetly by Jill Paice, in "A Tough Act to Follow." They looked just like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers! I was so happy when he won the Tony award as Best Actor in a Musical.

And Debra Monk was hilarious as the brash, tough-as-nails Carmen Bernstein, producer of the show-within-a-show. I still crack up when I listen to her on the cast recording singing "It's a Business." I loved watching Noah Racey dance as choreographer and leading man Bobby Pepper. I loved Karen Ziemba and Jason Danieley as the ex-spouses and ex-songwriting team Georgia Hendricks and Aaron Fox, who haven't quite gotten over each other. Really, I could go on and on. I loved the big ensemble numbers, like "Show People," and the tender "Coffee Shop Nights" and "I Miss the Music."

One thing I've learned over the past 18 months is that comedy is hard, and musical comedy is even harder. But Curtains pulled it off with such great style and ease. I think part of it was the awesome cast and part of it was the songs and part of it was simply telling a story really well. Whereas Young Frankenstein, for example, just felt kind of flat and tinny to me, with characters who never totally came alive, (well, with the exception of the monster, I guess) Curtains felt rich and vibrant, with engaging, outsized characters. It was just fun - pure enjoyment from start to finish.

I was a little startled at the end, when David Hyde Pierce broke the fourth wall, stepping out of character to ask for donations to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. It was the first time I'd seen a performer do that. Being David Hyde Pierce, of course he did it in a way that was heartfelt, but also funny and endearing. Watching nearly everyone drop something in the buckets on the way out gave me a sense of the community that exists on Broadway - among actors and between actors and the audience.

At the stage door, everyone in the cast - David Hyde Pierce, Debra Monk, Karen Ziemba, Jason Danieley, Noah Racey, Jill Paice, Edward Hibbert, Megan Sikora, John Bolton, Ernie Sabella, Michael Martin, Michael McCormick and David Loud, among others, - walked down the line of fans, signing autographs, chatting, posing for pictures. I really loved all of them. If you want to get a great sense of the show, pick up the cast recording - it's one of my favorites.

Somehow, I got it into my head that I should tell each and every cast member that it was my first Broadway musical. To a person, they were incredibly gracious and excited for me, and so thrilled that I'd chosen to see their show. I can't say enough about them. They're a talented, hard-working group of actors whose names are largely unknown to the non-theatergoing public, but as Lt. Frank Cioffi says, they're all heroes to me. It was an honor and a privilege to see them on stage.

And meeting David Hyde Pierce was absolutely the best. When I told him that Curtains was my first musical and the night before, I'd seen my first play, he was genuinely interested, asking me what I saw and how I liked it. He posed for a picture, and then, a few months after that, Steve, my dear friend, brother and theatre guide, got me a souvenir book signed by the entire cast.

I wish Curtains had gotten a bigger audience, stayed around for awhile longer. It's sad that so many out-of-town visitors to Broadway passed up a chance to see a terrific show. But I know it'll have a great life on tour and in community productions. Hopefully, I'll get to see it performed somewhere else someday. But nothing will ever replace the thrill of seeing Curtains on Broadway, with its original cast. Here, some of the cast members reminisce about their favorite moments with the show.

I hope I can see David Hyde Pierce next spring, when he returns to Broadway in the play Accent on Youth. And I'll be looking forward to seeing the rest of the Curtains cast on stage again. They definitely made a fan. The Hirschfeld's next tenant will be the musical version of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Let me tell you, Curtains will be a tough act to follow.

Friday, June 27, 2008

My 2008 Broadway playlist

In today's New York Times, Stephen Holden writes enthusiastically about the newest Broadway cast recordings. He looks at In the Heights, Passing Strange, South Pacific, A Catered Affair and off-Broadway's Adding Machine.

Holden also mentions Gypsy in passing, but notes that it won't be released until August. He does say, however, that it will include some never-before-recorded songs. And he gets the winner of the Tony for Best Original Score wrong, giving it to Passing Strange instead of In the Heights. Wishful thinking on his part, perhaps?

It's a very timely story for me, because I've been spending the past month listening to South Pacific, In the Heights and A Catered Affair. (Passing Strange is available on iTunes, but it won't be released on CD until July 15, so I'm holding off until then).

I decided this week to try and put together a playlist for my iPod of my absolute favorite songs from the three shows. I'll add Gypsy and Passing Strange once I've listened to them a few times.

Of course, it's impossible to pick just a few tunes out of these three wonderful scores. They're all terrific and I've enjoyed listening to them repeatedly. I mean, what don't I love about South Pacific? Holden writes that you can't listen to the revival recording "without becoming misty-eyed for an era of cockeyed postwar optimism when all America sang Rodgers and Hammerstein hits and absorbed the moral instruction in their songs."

You'll note that my South Pacific picks are heavily tilted toward Matthew Morrison's Lt. Joseph Cable. The more I listened to South Pacific, the more I was taken with Morrison's voice. While he's not my all-time favorite Lieutenant Cable, he's a close second.

In the Heights
In the Heights
Pacienca Y Fe
Everything I Know

A Catered Affair
Our Only Daughter
Your Children's Happiness
Don't Ever Stop Saying I Love You
I Stayed
Coney Island

South Pacific
My Girl Back Home
Younger Than Springtime
You've Got to Be Carefully Taught
I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair
A Wonderful Guy
A Cockeyed Optimist
There Is Nothing Like A Dame
Some Enchanted Evening
This Nearly Was Mine

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Just a little tease

In March, I wrote about a new project by writer/director Joss Whedon, a musical for the Internet featuring Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion and Felicia Day. Whedon developed it during the writers' strike last year, working with his two brothers and his brother's fiancee. He describes the plot as "the story of a low-rent super-villain, the hero who keeps beating him up, and the cute girl from the laundromat he’s too shy to talk to.”

Well now Whedon, who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has posted a teaser video from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. It's only about a minute long, and there's no singing. In fact, it looks more like an action movie than a musical. But since Harris plays the title role, and he has a gorgeous voice, and he's got a couple of Broadway musicals on his resume, I'm crossing my fingers that he gets a chance to sing. Hey, it's a musical. Somebody's gotta sing, right?

According to the official fan site, Whedon, Harris, Day and Fillion will make a presentation at Comic-Con International in San Diego on July 25, so hopefully there'll be more details. The plan is to release the musical first on the Internet, then on iTunes and then as a dvd. In an interview with SciFi Weekly, Whedon said "It's going to be the finest 40-minute musical since the last one I made."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

It's Miranda at the buzzer!

Just in case you missed it, here's Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tony-winning composer of 2008's Best Musical, In the Heights, ringing the opening bell (or pressing the buzzer that rings the bell) at the New York Stock Exchange this morning.

I think he looked terrific - very casual and confident. He was smiling and bouncing up and down, like he was having a great time, and he seemed to keep his finger on that buzzer for a loooong time! You can watch it here.

Remembering George Carlin

HBO is remembering comedian George Carlin by presenting 11 specials over the next three nights. Here's the schedule:

Tonight (HBO2)
8 p.m. George Carlin at USC (1977)
9 p.m. George Carlin Again! (1978)
11 p.m. Carlin at Carnegie (1983)
12 a.m. Carlin on Campus (1984)
1 a.m. Playin with Your Head (1986)

Thursday (HBO2)
8 p.m. What Am I Doing in New Jersey? (1988)
9 p.m. Doin it Again (1990)
10 p.m. Jammin' in New York (1992)
11 p.m. Back in Town (1996)
12:05 a.m. You Are All Diseased (1999)
1 a.m. It's Bad for Ya (2008)

Friday HBO
9 p.m. It's Bad for Ya (2008)

And on Saturday, from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., NBC has its own tribute planned. The network will rebroadcast the very first episode of Saturday Night Live, which aired on Oct. 11, 1975, and featured Carlin as host, as well as a film by Albert Brooks and an appearance by comedian Andy Kaufman. The musical guests were Janis Ian and Billy Preston.

Carlin does some classic routines on the show: "blue food" and "baseball versus football." What struck me when I watched them again on Monday, after hearing of Carlin's death, is how well they hold up. They're still as funny today as they were more than three decades ago, which is something you can't say about every comedian's work.

I have the first season of Saturday Night Live on dvd. While it's still broadcast from the same studio at Rockefeller Center, the show does have a different look today. In the first season, there were more musical performances, fewer skits. So it's well worth tuning in this weekend. Back then, by the way, it was called NBC's Saturday Night.

I saw the SNL studio last year when I took the NBC tour. (And it's definitely the highlight). The guide stops at two framed photographs - one of the original cast and one from today's cast. While I could name every one of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, I didn't do nearly as well with the current lineup.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

More August trivia

I've written before about two connections between the acclaimed Broadway play August: Osage County and the acclaimed television series Seinfeld. Well if you're keeping score at home, apparently there's a third link that I didn't realize until this weekend.

Both playwright Tracy Letts and actress Kimberly Guerrero, who plays Native American housekeeper Johnna Monevata in August: Osage County, appeared in separate, classic episodes of the sitcom. I was browsing through Tony winner Rondi Reed's list of credits on the Internet Movie Database, and saw that she also was in a Seinfeld episode, in 1995.

Reed appears in Season 6, in an episode titled "The Kiss Hello" that aired on Feb. 16, 1995. In this episode, Kramer decides to post pictures of all the tenants in the lobby of the building where he and Jerry live, so that everyone can get to know their neighbors, because that's the kind of world he wants to live in. Jerry would just as soon remain anonymous.

As Mary, one of those neighbors, Reed is instantly recognizable by her curly red hair. She only has a couple of lines - she asks Jerry to help her with a package at the very end of the episode. But she does get to give him a nice kiss on the cheek, prompting Jerry to tell Elaine, "See, that's just what I need, more kissing." (That plays into another plot strand: a friend of Elaine's loves to "kiss hello" everyone she meets, a practice that Jerry can't stand.)

Guerrero plays a Native American woman, Winona, whom Jerry dates in an episode from Season 5 called "The Cigar Store Indian," which originally aired on Dec. 9, 1993. And Letts has a very small, background role in "The Strike," an episode from Season 9 that aired on Dec. 18, 1997. It looms large in Seinfeld history because it's the famous "Festivus" episode.

So there you have it. Someday, when I write The Big Book of August: Osage County Trivia, this fascinating bit of information will be included. I wonder if Jerry's been to see the play?

From the Heights to Wall Street

The honors just keep pouring in for In the Heights, the 2008 Tony winner for Best Musical.

On Wednesday morning, actor and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda will ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. (No word on whether he's composed a rap for the occasion). A live webcast will be available beginning at 9:29 a.m. (a minute before the event) on I work at night, so I'm normally just getting up at at that time, but I'll be setting my alarm clock and my DVR!

Unfortunately, the honoree doesn't get to ring an actual bell. According to this article from Fast Company, you press a buzzer that rings a bell at 9:30 a.m. to officially start the trading day. The opening bell ceremony is broadcast on two dozen networks worldwide and reaches 110 million viewers a day. Here's some more of the history behind the bell-ringing.

I'm not sure whether this is an annual event, but it should be. I couldn't find anything on the NYSE Web site about whether the cast of Spring Awakening received the honor last year. But the stars of Jersey Boys were invited in 2005. Maybe there's an unwritten rule that your show has to be set in the tri-state area.

Monday, June 23, 2008

More Tony talk, Part II

Ok, I know it's been a week already and we need to move on, but I didn't want to let this article in Saturday's New York Times pass by without comment.

Theatre critic Charles Isherwood decries the state of this year's Tony Awards, which he calls "an infomercial for the generic Broadway brand." He particularly hates the idea of using the show as a platform for Broadway producers such as Disney to - horrors - sell tickets!

Apparently, Isherwood didn't much enjoy a performance by the cast of The Lion King. "The decision to kick off the telecast with the by now familiar opening number from The Lion King sent the viewing audience a message that the best Broadway had to offer this year was a decade-old Disney musical."

(Well, as someone who saw that "decade-old Disney musical" for the first time last month, let me tell you, the opening number is pretty thrilling, and I loved being able to see it again on tv.)

He writes that the pleasure of the Tonys is a chance to see the theatre actors that he admires rewarded for their work. He wants to "see them acting joyous, excited, flustered, grateful, maybe a little foolish — in short, human, divorced from the stage personality." And he ponders whether it would be such a bad thing if they moved from CBS to PBS.

Ok, I guess he wants fewer performances by 10-year-old musicals and more acceptance speeches. I can understand that - they're examples of real human emotion, unrehearsed except perhaps in front of a mirror. It's a chance for viewers to see their favorite performers out of character for once.

But personally, I'd like to see the show stay on a commercial broadcast network. That's the best way to make sure the Tonys are available to as wide a swath of viewers as possible. And theatre needs more exposure, not less.

I understand the point that the pro-PBS group makes: the only people who watch the show are people who already love Broadway, so what's the point of waging a ratings battle that you're never going to win? It's always going to be a niche audience, so why not just give up trying to be commercial and go to a place where it doesn't matter how many viewers you have. That way, you wouldn't have to try and attract viewers who aren't already interested.

I'm not sure how this works exactly, and I could be wrong, but I think PBS stations have a certain amount of latitude about when, or even if, they air a show. So if they were to move to PBS, there's no guarantee that the Tonys would be available to everyone on the same night. Some stations might opt to not show them at all.

Broadway producer and blogger Ken Davenport writes that it can cost a musical $200,000 to $300,000 to put on a performance at the Tonys, when you count up salaries, sets, transportation, stagehands, recording sessions. According to Davenport, cast members get a week's salary! Davenport also makes the point that while the ratings are small, CBS can charge a bundle for advertisers to reach the desirable demographic group that watches the Tony awards each year.

Maybe I'm too cynical, but I just don't know whether Broadway producers would pony up that kind of money for an awards show that airs on PBS. And even if they did, would the content change all that much? Wouldn't it still be pretty much an infomercial for Broadway? And is there anything wrong with that?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

More Tony talk, Part I

I was catching up on the Playbill Radio podcasts while I was working out this morning and I wanted to share some of my favorite quotes from the Tony winners. I know I've said this before, but I'm incredibly happy for Deanna Dunagan and Rondi Reed. I have to admire Patti LuPone, and agree with Lin-Manuel Miranda. And hasn't Anna D. Shapiro just given the definition of a trouper?

"I'm the quintessential late bloomer in my career, I think, and that's been just a ball to experience and hopefully it's not over yet. ... New York has just given me a huge valentine in my career and in my life."
Rondi Reed
Best Featured Actress in a Play
August: Osage County

"The thing that happens on Broadway that you just don't get anywhere else is the enthusiastic reception. Theatergoers leap to their feet after our play, every single performance. They raise their hands over their heads, clapping and cheering. I've never had that happen. Thirty-four years in regional theatre - never."
Deanna Dunagan
Best Actress in a Play
August: Osage County

"Amy Morton is a machine. If she misses a show it's because someone amputated her leg and she's looking for it."
Anna D. Shapiro
Best Director of a Play
August: Osage County

As far as being on stage again, I said to my agent, I don't want to leave the season without knowing when I'm coming back. Because honestly, I'm older and I don't know how long my voice is going to last and I don't want to waste time. I'd rather be on stage and take advantage of theses vocal chords while they're still supple and alive."
Patti LuPone
Best Actress in a Musical

"My job is to write the best possible musical I can and tell the story as well as I know how. On the side, I would like to reintroduce popular music and theater music, which used to be friends a long time ago and I'd like them to be friends again."
Lin-Manuel Miranda
Best Score
In the Heights

Saturday, June 21, 2008

He'll be back

While I'm sad about A Catered Affair closing, as Modern Fabulousity reassures us, Broadway has an infinite number of shiny, beautiful baubles asking for our love. So, I guess it's time to move on and look forward.

When I was in New York last month I had a chance to stop by the stage door of Curtains and say hello to its charming and talented star, David Hyde Pierce. It'd been a year since I'd seen him - when I saw Curtains, in April 2007, so we had some catching up to do. I congratulated him on winning a Tony, thanked him for being so gracious when we first met, told him how sorry I was that Curtains was closing, and said I hoped he'd be back on Broadway again soon.

Well, he is so gracious that even though he probably wanted to take a year off after 16 months of singing and dancing his heart out eight times a week, David Hyde Pierce apparently did not want to disappointment me. Next April, he'll be starring in the Manhattan Theatre Club's revival of the 1934 comedy Accent on Youth at Broadway's Biltmore Theatre.

I'm so excited about the prospect of seeing David Hyde Pierce on stage again. I absolutely love him and I hope this means that the Frasier star has decided to make his new home on stage, in New York. This is officially one of my most anticipated shows of the season - right up there with Billy Elliot. (Yeah I know, I'm excited about a play. What can I say? Sorry, Chris.)

Accent on Youth was written by Samson Raphaelson, a noted playwright and screenwriter. It opened on Broadway on Dec. 25, 1934, at the Plymouth Theatre (now the Schoenfeld) and ran for a total of 229 performances. There have been several movie versions, including one with Bing Crosby, in 1950, called Mr. Music, and But Not for Me, with Clark Gable, in 1959.

There's always the question of how well older comedies stand up, whether the jokes and the characters will seem dated. But the plot sounds promisingly funny. Hyde Pierce's last two Broadway shows, Curtains and Spamalot, have been musicals. His last Broadway play was The Heidi Chronicles, in 1990. In Accent on Youth, he'll portray a playwright who's inspired to write again by his young secretary. His new play makes it to Broadway and then he learns, to his dismay, that the secretary also has been inspiring the leading man.

Meanwhile, Curtains closes on June 29, so there's not much time to see this funny, wonderfully acted, tremendously entertaining show. I know I'd see it again if I could.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The end of the Affair

T.S. Eliot famously wrote that April is the cruelest month, but apparently for struggling Broadway shows, June and July can be pretty nasty, too.

I remember last year around this time - just after the Tony awards - a couple of shows that I wanted to see during my July trip to New York City, the revival of Stephen Sondheim's Company and August Wilson's Radio Golf, posted closing notices. At least this time, I actually had a chance to see A Catered Affair, which will have its last performance on July 27. When the show closes, it will have played 27 previews and 116 regular performances.

It's too bad that this tender slice of life about a 1950s family in the Bronx never really found an audience. It had a plot with a great deal of resonance, as the family faced the question of what to do with the military death benefit they received when their son was killed in Korea - spend it on a lavish catered affair for their daughter's wedding or use it to secure a bigger piece of the American Dream.

I know some reviewers found A Catered Affair somber and slow-moving, but I thought it was very life-affirming. Each of the characters is at a crossroads in life, and it definitely ends on a note of hope. I'm glad I saw the show for many reasons, including John Bucchino's absolutely gorgeous score. This was my introduction to his music, and I loved it. A couple of songs, "Our Only Daughter" and "Coney Island," are among my favorites of the 2008 Broadway season.

I'm also glad I had a chance to see Harvey Fierstein, as the family's live-in "bachelor" uncle. Harvey is such a Broadway legend and it really was great to see him on stage. In fact, I enjoyed all the performances, including Tom Wopat as the solid, working-class husband and father who feels unappreciated, Faith Prince as the wife who wants to give her remaining child the wedding she never had, and Leslie Kritzer as the daughter eager to go off and start her own life.

I didn't think A Catered Affair was doing that badly at the box office either. Last week, it played to 74 percent capacity, with an average ticket price of $68.41, although the audience was down by 3.3 percent from the previous week. I guess the producers didn't see much chance of things picking up over the summer, even though they recently announced the addition of a Thursday matinee, dropping a Wednesday night performance.

It just seems like every year, these exquisitely acted little musicals open up and struggle to find an audience. The stars of Grey Gardens, Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, both won Tony awards last year, and the show still closed in July. I'll happily go to New York for five days and see seven shows, but I know most people won't - they'll see one, or maybe two - if that. And as much as I love Hairspray and Wicked, I'd be the first to tell someone planning a trip to New York that if they're only able to see one show, they should try to see something they can't see in their hometown on tour, something with its original Broadway cast.

In a statement, Fierstein said, "Our team set out to create a new form of musical storytelling. What we achieved was raw, honest, emotionally daring theater. I couldn't be prouder of A Catered Affair. And, from all indications, the show will have a long and prosperous life in every sort of venue around the globe. That ain't chopped liver!"

I guess in a way, it was was daring: a small, quiet musical. I've seen quite a range of musicals this year - lots of dancing, no dancing; elaborate sets, minimal sets; musicals with rock 'n' roll scores, more symphonic scores, along with salsa, pop and hip-hop. I think A Catered Affair's music is among the most beautiful and its story, about the struggles of average, everyday people, left a lasting impression.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

He's a poet and he knows it

I think Lin-Manuel Miranda is my new bicycle. I'll admit that when I saw In the Heights, I was more drawn to college student Nina, played by Mandy Gonzalez, rather than to Miranda's Usnavi, the neighborhood bodega owner. While Usnavi is very funny, In the Heights just seemed to be more Nina's story than his.

But it was the 28-year-old Miranda's vision and tenacity that saw In the Heights through from a student production at Wesleyan University to off-Broadway to the 2008 Tony award for Best Musical. (He says only five notes remain from the original: In Wash-ing-tone Heights!) And Miranda definitely won my heart with his very witty acceptance speech on Sunday night, after winning the award for Best Score.

In every interview I've read or seen or heard he comes across as charming and down to earth and enthusiastic - like a kid who can't believe he's sitting at the adult table. Plus, he's so passionate - and eloquent - about his love for musical theatre. I really enjoyed this video of Miranda giving a tour of his dressing room at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and then taking us onto the stage.

It can get pretty dull listening to award recipients recite a laundry list of thank-yous to their manager, agent and lawyer, but Miranda name-checked everyone while making me laugh. I've been known to write a bit of poetry myself from time to time, and I thought he did a terrific job. Simply reading the words doesn't do them justice, because the genius is in the delivery, so you can watch it here. What struck me listening to it again is how incredibly nervous he sounds, like he's just hoping he can get through it before he collapses from shock!

"I used to dream about this moment, now I'm in it!
Tell the conductor to hold the 'ton a minute
I'll start with Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman
Kevin McCollum, Jeffrey Seller and Jill Furman
Quiara for keeping the pages turning
Tommy Kail for keeping the engine burnin'
For bein' so discernin' through every all nighter
Dr. Herbert for tellin' me "you're a writer"
I have to thank Andy Blank for every spank
Matter fact thank John Bizetti for every drink
Thank the cast and crew for having each other's backs
I don't know about God but I believe in Chris Jackson
I don't know what else I got, I'm off the dome
I know I wrote a little show about home
Mr. Sondheim, look, I made a hat
Where there never was a hat!
It's a Latin hat at that!
Mom, Dad and Cita, I wrote a play,
Y'all came to every play
Thanks for being here today
Vanessa who still makes me breathless
Thanks for lovin' me when I was broke and makin' breakfast
And with that, I want to thank all my Latino people
This is for Abuela Risa in Puerto Rico
Thank you."
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Best Score, In the Heights

Miranda mentioned in an interview after he won his Tony that he's been talking to Dreamworks about writing some music for animated films. He also said that he has a couple of ideas for musicals, but he hasn't secured the rights for them yet. I'm kind of intrigued by that last part. What could he be securing the rights to? I certainly don't want to pigeonhole Miranda as writing only about Latino subjects, but I loved the 1987 movie La Bamba, and I think the life of Ritchie Valens would make an excellent subject for a musical.

I was happy to read about another project - contributing music for a new production in San Diego of the extremely short-lived 1978 Broadway musical Working. Besides Miranda's involvement, I'm interested in this for a couple of other reasons: I met Studs Terkel, the legendary Chicago author of Working, when I was in college, and he signed my copy of the book. Plus, the show was adapted by Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz, and he's one of my personal musical theatre gods.

Between Miranda's success, and that of August: Osage County playwright Tracy Letts, I feel like I've discovered two great new voices in American musical theatre and drama, and I'm excited to see what they'll do in the future. (Ok, I know Letts isn't exactly a new kid on the block, but he's new to me).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

From Broadway to Baghdad

It's pretty common for reporters to change beats after they've been covering the same topic for awhile, but this has to be the mother of all beat changes - Campbell Robertson, who covers Broadway for The New York Times, has a new assignment, in Baghdad.

Robertson, 31, a 1998 graduate of Georgetown University, started at the Times as a clerk, and later wrote the Names column in the paper's metro section. He just covered the Tony awards for the Times. Iraq isn't what comes to mind when I think of the next logical step in his career.

“Look, he’s an untraditional war correspondent the way a lot of us are,” Jim Glanz, the Times' Iraq bureau chief, told the New York Observer newspaper. “He’s coming from a different background and point of view from everyone else there. And right now, we can use some fresh ideas and perspectives.”

Susan Chira, the Times' foreign editor, says the paper is taking a "really strategic approach" to covering Iraq.
“Sure, in 2004 the place was blowing up, and things are calmer now, but there are different stories. We’re completely committed, and we don’t think it’s going away.” She praised Robertson, calling him “a terrific writer and dogged reporter."

Going to Iraq is not a decision you make lightly. It's an important story and I admire Robertson for wanting to take it on. So good luck Campbell, and stay safe.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

This situation is fraught!

Whenever I need to laugh I'm going straight to this video clip from August: Osage County that's on the Tony Awards Web site. Just listening to a few seconds of Rondi Reed's award-winning performance as Aunt Mattie Fae Aiken cracks me up. "I'm havin a cocktail!"

After watching fellow Tony-winner Deanna Dunagan's unforgettable entrance as Violet Weston, and then the hilarious banter between Reed and Francis Guinan, who played her husband, Charlie, I knew I was in for an amazing evening. While their last performance in the show was Sunday, I hope I get to see them on stage again someday.

Also, check out the show's Web site, where the publicity machine has been hard at work since the Tony Awards. August: Osage County is already being touted as "The most celebrated play of the 21st century." Ok, we're still a little early into the century, but at this point, you won't get an argument from me!

Monday, June 16, 2008

My Tony thoughts

Whew, the Tony awards are over! Lots of observations:

Whoppi Goldberg is funny! I'm so happy for Rondi Reed! I love In the Heights! Lin-Manuel Miranda is one classy, talented guy! Patti LuPone is one fierce Mama Rose! Tracy Letts should have been given more time to talk! Paulo Szot is tall! During the musical number for Sunday in the Park with George, I think I saw Daniel Evans' tonsils! Stew has a weird sense of humor!

And a few questions:

What was Boeing Boeing's Mark Rylance talking about in his acceptance speech for Best Actor in a Play? What does Anna Shapiro, who won for best director of a play for August: Osage County, have tattooed on her arm? Why didn't Stephen Sondheim show up to accept his lifetime achievement award? I understand why there's lots of love for musicals, and that was terrific, but couldn't there be a little more love for the plays?

In the Heights was my pick for Best Musical, so I'm ecstatic that it won, and I thought its musical number, "96,000,'' sounded great. I admired and respected Passing Strange but I loved In the Heights. It won my heart and made me want to dance, despite the sad fact that I was apparently born without a sense of rhythm. This is a musical that has a great message in its celebration of a Latino neighborhood at the top of Manhattan: we're a nation of immigrants, and we're better for it.

Plus, Lin-Manuel Miranda's acceptance speech in the form of a rap, when he won the Tony for Best Score for In the Heights, was terrific. And his reference to Stephen Sondheim was so sweet: “Look, Mr. Sondheim, I made a hat where there never was a hat and it’s a Latin hat at that.” Very nice. I hope Miranda stays in musical theatre. The funny thing is, I heard him during the red carpet interviews. He really doesn't talk like a rapper all the time.

Other highlights for me:

I'm thrilled that as expected, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of August: Osage County won for Best Play, Best Director, Best Actress in a Play and Best Featured Actress in a Play. And Todd Rosenthal, winning for Best Scenic Design of a Play, on the Tony preshow, started it all off. Seeing that big old three-story house was the first time I ever had an immediate, visceral reaction to a set on a stage. I was just fascinated by it, by the size and the clutter and the shabbiness, and I'm so happy Rosenthal won.

Rondi Reed winning for Best Featured Actress in a Play was the one I was really, really rooting for, because she's such a wonderful person as well as a great performer. Steve, Doug and I talked to her for at least half an hour after August: Osage County ended one night. She is a warm, funny, gracious, down-to-earth woman. And she is an absolute hoot in this play. (Unfortunately, Sunday was her last performance. She's headed back to Chicago).

The success of August: Osage County, a transplant from Chicago, is truly a testament to the great work being done on stages all over this country. Being on Broadway and winning a Tony must seem like a pipe dream to these actors who toil far from New York. August's Deanna Dunagan, who won for Best Actress in a Play, summed it up perfectly: "After 34 years in regional theater I never even thought about it. I watched it on tv like everyone else."

Hearing from the original cast from Rent was so moving, especially when they were talking about Jonathan Larson and how he came to write the musical at a time when so many people he knew were dying of AIDS, and then his own untimely death. It was cute to see Idina Menzel and her husband, Taye Diggs, who met while they were in Rent, right next to each other. And even though I saw The Lion King, with its incredible parade of animals, on Broadway a month ago, the giraffes are just as thrilling the second time around.

I loved Patti LuPone singing "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from Gypsy. Her standing ovation was well deserved. She is fierce. Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines looked terrified! They also really deserved their Tonys for Best Featured Actress and Actor in a Musical. I've said before that Benanti gave one of the best performances I've ever seen as she transformed from a shy, awkward teenager into a glamorous, confident stripper.

And LuPone, the Best Actress in a Musical, did have a great acceptance speech: "It's been 29 years!" Let the woman talk! I also liked the way she thanked her husband and son right off the bat, instead of going through her list of agents, producers, etc. So many winners at these awards shows end up having to shout out the names of their loved ones just as the music starts up.

Also, I was glad to see The 39 Steps pick up a couple of Tonys: Mic Pool won for Best Sound Design of a Play, and Kevin Adams won for Best Lighting Design of a Play. It is such a fun, inspired 90 minutes of theatre, and I hope the awards give it a little bounce.

There were a few spots where I thought the Tony producers slipped up.

When Lincoln Center's Andre Bishop accepted the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical for South Pacific, the camera should have been ready to turn immediately to Rodgers & Hammerstein's daughters, who were sitting together in the audience, not 20 seconds after Bishop mentioned their names.

Playwright Tracy Letts should have been given a little more time to accept his Tony for writing August: Osage County. I mean, how often do we get a major new American play on the scale of this one? (Perhaps he should have gotten a little assertiveness training from Patti!)

And the segment where they had Daniel Breaker, James Snyder and Kerry Butler do the little spiel about all of the American Theater Wing's educational programs mentioned the Wing's radio shows but failed to mention that they're available as free downloads from its web site, or as podcasts from iTunes. In fact, why not flash the Web site on the screen? Duh! Missed opportunity!

And what's up with taking the Tony for best choreography out of the televised portion of the ceremony? How can the Tonys not recognize the winner of that category on national television? I mean, so much of Broadway is musicals and choreography is such an important part of why we love them. Anyway, I'm glad that Andy Blankenbuehler won for In the Heights.

Apparently, some of the nominees were surprised that their categories were in the preshow, too. Passing Strange's Stew, who won the Tony for Best Book of a Musical, said he was looking in his pocket for some M&Ms when his name was announced. His speech was lame, so maybe he's serious when he says he was unprepared. And Stew turned me off with the funny nose and glasses he wore when they showed the nominees for Best Actor in a Musical. Ugh.

Ok, I may have more to say later, but that's enough for now. Except that I'm glad some of my favorites: In the Heights, South Pacific, Gypsy and August: Osage County did so well and I'm thrilled I was able to see so many amazing Tony-winning performances. I hope I get to see as many next season.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

It's Tony day!

Ok, the big night is finally here! Tonight, 8 p.m., CBS. At Radio City Music Hall. With Whoppi Goldberg and a cast of thousands. I'm so excited. I've actually seen more of the Tony nominees for Best Play and Best Musical this year than I saw Oscar nominees for Best Picture. While I loved some more than others, I'm glad I saw them all.

For the past month, I've read about and watched and listened to a fair share of the Tony nominees. Of course, I'm rooting for all of them, just some more than others. I saw some truly amazing, immensely entertaining performances this year. Not surprisingly, Passing Strange's Stew had the best line. He told BroadwayWorld TV: "I used to think people were lying when they said its great just to be nominated. But they weren't lying, it is great."

I'll be checking out the Tony Awards Web site at 6 p.m. for coverage of all the celebrity arrivals on the red carpet, followed by the Webcast of the creative arts awards at 7:10 p.m., including the presentation of the Tony for best regional theatre to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. (Is Chicago a great theatre city or what? I've got to get there someday). Then, during commercials, I'll check in with Playbill's live blogging of the event. Maybe I'll even offer a few comments of my own after the show. Whew, it's going to be a busy night.

I know there's been a bit of controversy regarding the decision to let shows other than the Best Musical nominees perform, but I say, the more the better. I'm pretty excited about seeing a performance by the cast of The Lion King, which I saw on Broadway last month and loved, and the original cast of Rent. This is all about celebrating everything Broadway has to offer - yes, even the shows I didn't like. I mean, somebody liked them, right? The Lion King has the best opening number ever, and why not give a tip of the top hat to Rent, a landmark musical that wraps up its Broadway run in September?

So of course on a day when we celebrate our love for the stage, leave it to New York Times critic Ben Brantley to strike a discordant note. In a Week in Review article today, Brantley dismisses much of what's new and exciting on the Great White Way this year. The shows that have received the most acclaim, he says, aren't that daring at all. "Even more than Hollywood, Broadway is now in the business of manufacturing — almost exclusively — comfort food, products that soothe and reassure by their familiarity."

Brantley describes Passing Strange and In the Heights as "misty-eyed, animated shrines to the importance of family ties and being faithful to where you come from." Their ethnicities, sexual casualness and electrified music may have seemed daring in the 1950s, he argues, "but the paths their heroes follow to self-discovery, detours included, were well worn even then."

He singles out August: Osage County for particular ire: "this Steppenwolf production allows theatergoers to feel they’ve experienced a Significant Play without being in any way challenged." He also takes a swipe at playwright Tracy Letts, saying that Letts made a "calculated career move" with August, going from "the margins to the mainstream."

Well, I couldn't disagree more but hey, everyone's entitled to their opinion. Brantley, for example, heaped praise on the now-closed Rock 'n' Roll, which I found boring and pretentious. (He also holds up as models The Seafarer and The Homecoming, two plays I missed and which also have closed).

It's Tony day, so no sniping from me. I'm just glad that there's enough on Broadway to excite both of us. And hopefully, someone will be surfing channels tonight, come upon the broadcast, and find something that excites them. That's what it's all about, right Ben?

Friday, June 13, 2008

And the nominees' favorite movie musicals are ...

The Web site Film in Focus asked Tony nominees Kerry Butler, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Heidi Rodewald and Stew, Kelli O'Hara and Adam Schlesinger to name their favorite movie musicals, and make some pithy comments about them.

Adam Schlesinger, Cry-Baby
This is Spinal Tap
Yellow Submarine
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
The Jerk

Kerry Butler, Xanadu
The Little Mermaid
The Sound of Music
Singin in the Rain
West Side Story

Lin-Manuel Miranda, In the Heights
The Band Wagon
South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut
The Little Mermaid
Singin in the Rain

Stew and Heidi Rodewald, Passing Strange
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
Mary Poppins

A Hard Day's Night

My Fair Lady

Kelli O'Hara, South Pacific
The Sound of Music

I'm very happy to see one of my favorites, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, make the list. (Stew and Heidi put it this way: Dark plus chocolate equals a devastatingly wicked confection. They also wrote that Rex Harrison is their favorite rapper.)

In some cases, the choices are based on a personal connection. It makes sense that Oklahoma native O'Hara would put Oklahoma on her list. The Sound of Music was a movie she watched with her family every year at Christmas. And Annie was the first musical that Butler says she ever auditioned for.

The choice that surprised me the most was the South Park movie. While I've heard of it, I don't think I've ever watched it. (I've seen a few episodes of the tv series but I'm not a huge fan.) Miranda describes it as "the best animated musical since Beauty and the Beast." Ok, I guess I'll have to check it out.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Absentee balloting

I've got to agree with Rocco at What's Good/What Blows: the Tony voters should just go see the shows. (Hey, that rhymes!)

Rocco was referring to a Bloomberg News article by Jeremy Gerard about the voters who decide Broadway's best. (The article says there are 797 voters, but the Tony Awards Web site pegs the number at about 750, which is says fluctuates from year to year, and a New York Times article about Tony predictions puts the number at 796.) "The voters' only obligation is to see each of the 36 shows that opened this season. Many of them -- hundreds, in fact -- didn't bother, even though they certify their attendance when casting their ballots."

One example cited in the article happens to be one of my favorite shows from the past year - Laurence Fishburne's mesemerizing one-man performance in Thurgood. A member of Thurgood's production team told Gerard that less than 40 percent of the voters have seen the show, about the civil-rights lawyer and Supreme Court justice. If they haven't seen it, they're not supposed to vote in the category of Best Actor in a Play, in which Fishburne received a nomination. But of course, some of them probably will.

Ok, maybe the article isn't that revelatory. I'm sure similar things happen with the Oscars and the Emmys. There's always a tendency in cases like this to sound like Captain Renault in Casablanca: I'm shocked, shocked!

Like the Tonys, the Oscar ballot clearly indicates that you're not supposed to vote in a category in which you haven't seen every nominee. Remember the controversy in 2006 when several members of the Motion Picture Academy, including Ernest Borgnine and Tony Curtis, said they had no intention of watching Best Picture nominee Brokeback Mountain because of the gay love story at the center of its plot?

And the Academy's documentary branch came under criticism in 1995 when the widely acclaimed Hoop Dreams failed to receive a nominaton. Director Martin Scorsese famously said he heard that the members of the documentary nominating committee switched off his 1978 rock 'n' roll film The Last Waltz after 10 minutes because it was "too loud."

The difference with the Tony Awards is that there are so few voters - and so few shows - that you'd think they'd consider it a personal obligation to see each and every one.

And doesn't it make sense that they would? I mean, they're a Tony voter because they have some affiliation with and love for the theatre, right? There were only 36 shows that opened this year. It's not a herculean task, especially if you live in New York City. (I realize some voters may not live near New York City). They get free tickets, don't they? Wouldn't they want to see each and every show?

What really gets to me is that if I had the opportunity, I'd love to be able to see every show that opens on Broadway. I'd even see some of them more than once.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Listening to In the Heights

With the temperature in the mid-90s, I figure this is the perfect time to send out some love to the Broadway cast recording of In the Heights.

I just finished listening to the two-disc cd, and it has a lot of what I enjoyed about the show: the energy, the humor, the spirit, the mixture of salsa, hip-hop and pop music, the very moving stories of immigrants in a Latino neighborhood at the very top of Manhattan. This is still my pick for the best musical of the year. Of all the musicals I saw this year, it's the one I most want to see a second time.

When I watched In the Heights, I loved the big ensemble numbers, like the opening song, "In the Heights,'' along with "96,000,'' where everyone in the neighborhood fantasizes about what they'd do with the money from a winning lottery ticket, and "Carnaval del Barrio." Aided by Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography, they were so much fun and thrilling to watch.

On stage, I really enjoyed Lin-Manuel Miranda's rapping as Dominican bodega owner Usnavi. (Miranda composed the music and lyrics). But on the cd, there is a certain sameness to it after awhile. A little bit goes a long way. There's a lot of yo, yo, yo if you know what I mean. I still like the songs, but I just think I like watching them better than listening to them on their own.

One of my favorite songs is "Pacienca Y Fe," sung by Olga Merediz, who plays the neighborhood matriarch, Abuela Claudia. It's a beautiful song in which she reminisces about her childhood in Havana, about coming to New York with her mother and their struggle to make a life in America. And I loved Mandy Gonzalez, who plays Nina, the neighborhood's bright hope, in "Breathe," where she sings about returning home after a disappointing year in college.

While the rapping is fun, the songs I like the best on the cast recording, the ones that stick with me, are the slower ones. They're the songs that tell me something about the characters - where they grew up, what their lives are like, their dreams. I love immigrant stories, and while In the Heights may not be the most profound, it's got a lot of heart.

One for the ages

Here are the ages of the characters in August: Osage County. The story takes place in August, 2007. I'm surprised that Violet is only supposed to be 65. Given Barbara's references to the Greatest Generation, I imagined her mother being a little older, growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, not the 1940s and 1950s. But apparently, 65 is the age that playwright Tracy Letts had in mind.

Beverly Weston, 69
Violet Weston, Bev's wife, 65

Barbara Fordham, Bev and Violet's daughter, 46
Bill Fordham, her husband, 49
Jean Fordham, their daughter, 14

Ivy Weston, Bev and Violet's daughter, 44

Karen Weston, Bev and Violet's daughter, 40

Mattie Fae Aiken, Violet's sister, 57
Charlie Aiken, her husband, 60
Little Charles Aiken, their son, 37

Johnna Montevata, housekeeper, 26
Steve Heidbrecht, Karen's fiance, 50
Sherrif Deon Gilbeau, 47

Monday, June 9, 2008

Which iPod am I?

I'm afraid my 20-gigabyte, circa-2004 iPod is on its last legs. Sometimes it works perfectly, other times it freezes when I try to sync it with iTunes. I often have trouble rousing it from a deep slumber. Luckily, my 2-gigabyte nano, which I use as my portable car stereo system, works fine. But I can only fit a tiny fraction of my music, podcasts and audiobooks on it.

Unfortunately, I'm not a big fan of what Apple's done with the shape of the iPod. When I hold them, the Classic, pictured above, seems a little big, the nano seems a little small. And there's nothing in the 20-gigabyte range anymore, which was the perfect size for me. I never really came close to filling it up.

But you can't cry over last year's models, much less the models from four years ago. So, I went to Apple's "Which iPod Are You?" page, to determine which iPod I am. Let's review my choices:

Shuffle: No screen, largest capacity is 2 gigabytes. Forget it.

Nano: Like I said, I'm not crazy about the flat, square shape, and the nano almost seems too tiny to hold. And it only comes in 4- and 8-gigabyte models. Too small.

Classic: An 8-gigabyte Nano is $199. For another $50, I could get an 80-gigabyte Classic, which is plenty big enough for me. Plus, I'd be able to upload movies and tv shows from iTunes. Again, I'm not crazy about what Apple's done to the shape. It doesn't fit as nicely in my hand. Not that I ever actually hold my iPod in my hand for any length of time. When I'm using it, it's either in the cup holder in my car or the bottle holder on the treadmill.

Touch: This is cool because it has Internet access. The drawback is, you're paying a lot of money for not very much capacity. For $299, you only get 8 gigabytes. The most expensive model, which costs $399, only gives you 32 gigabytes. While it would be nice to have Internet access with me 24/7, I don't really need it. I'd much rather have the extra gigabytes for loading up my music and podcasts. I've used the Touch at my local Apple store, and the keyboard is really small. It took me quite a few tries to type in "CNN." I kept hitting the wrong letters because my fingers are too big or something. It was very frustrating.

iPhone: This does everything the Touch does, plus it has a phone. It would have the advantage of allowing me to combine two gadgets currently taking up space in my handbag. And Apple just announced a 3G model: $199 for 8 gigabytes and $299 for 16 gigabytes. (I'm hoping this announcement means a price cut for the nano and Classic). The 8-gigabyte model would be a good choice if I were looking to replace my nano. But I want to replace my main iPod, the one I take to the gym, where I want to have as many entertainment options with me as possible. And what happens if the pod part breaks in a couple of years but the phone part works fine?

I guess it boils down to how much I'd use the Internet and e-mail features in the Touch or iPhone. Right now, I don't think it's very much. The keyboard is too difficult for heavy-duty 'net surfing. And where am I going where I can't check my e-mail for hours? Nowhere. Having the extra space for my rapidly expanding collection of show tunes is more important. So I guess I'm a Classic. Somehow, I just knew.

Reading August: Osage County

I read today that Estelle Parsons will be taking over Deanna Dunagan's role as family matriarch Violet Weston in August: Osage County on June 17. Lots of cast members will be leaving this month - Molly Regan succeeds Rondi Reed as Mattie Fae Aiken, Robert Foxworth takes over the role of Charlie Aiken from Francis Guinan, Jim True-Frost replaces Ian Barford as Little Charles and Frank Wood will play Jeff Perry's role of Bill Fordham.

(Regan and True-Frost will come from the ranks of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. After giving us the wonderful original cast of August: Osage County all I could think of was, does that place have an apparently endless supply of incredible acting talent or what! Hopefully every member of Steppenwolf will have a chance to rotate into this play during what I hope will be a long Broadway run.)

I'm not sure if I'll get a chance to see the play again, but I'd be especially interested in watching another actress tackle the role of Violet. At 81, Academy Award winner Parsons is actually older than what playwright Tracy Letts had in mind. He specifies that Violet is 65, and Dunagan is 68. I've always thought of Violet as someone who grew up during the Great Depression, and Parsons, who was born in 1927, would certainly have a stronger link to that period.

Coincidentally, I read August: Osage County today after having it in my to-read pile for a couple of months. Mostly, it reinforced how I felt when I saw it performed on Broadway last fall: Letts has done an amazing job exploring family relationships, the pressures on women's lives, the divide between baby boomer children and their Greatest Generation parents. There's lots of witty, biting dialog that makes for a quick read, and makes the 3 1/2-hour play go by very quickly on stage. I felt so much sympathy for the Weston daughters, who are facing their own anxieties about growing older.

Normally when I'm reading a novel, I'm creating my own picture of what the characters are like. This time, I couldn't help but think of the actors I saw portraying those characters on stage. Some were pretty similar to the way I would have pictured them even if I'd never seen the play. But where Dunagan summoned Violet from, I can't even imagine. She brought those words to life in a way beyond anything I could have pictured. Her performance was truly remarkable.

August: Osage County is sometimes compared with Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece, Long Day's Journey into Night. I think they do have a lot in common. Both are semi-autobiographical. Although in O'Neill's case, it's a lot more than semi. Both feature a dysfunctional family, including a mother battling addiction. Although Letts' short, snappy dialog seems more modern, more late 20th century.

Both James Tyrone and Violet Weston grew up poor, and there's an intense, visceral fear of being poor again, a fear that their children clearly don't understand, simply dismissing it out of hand. But that fear drives Violet's actions in a very clear way. There's a great scene where she talks about the poverty and deprivation in which she and her husband grew up and pointedly tells her daughters, "You worked as hard as us, you'd all be president."

Violet and Mattie Fae are sisters who never seem to cut their children any slack. Reading the play, I was reminded again how absolutely vicious they are toward their children. They're constantly taunting them. Mattie Fae's son, Little Charles, can't do anything right. Violet does everything she can to make her daughters feel guilty. Yet her criticisms of them - what they wear, how they live their lives, just repel them and drive them further away.

If there's one complaint I have about August: Osage County it's that the male characters get a little shortchanged in terms of character development. I do wish Letts had spent more time with Charlie Aiken. Reading the play reminded me how thrilling and heroic Charlie is when he stands up to his wife and admonishes her for the way she constantly berates their son.

The printed version of August: Osage County has an epigraph, a quote from Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men that talks about how parents are constantly trying to reclaim their adult children. You can certainly see it in the relationship between Violet Weston and her three daughters, in Violet's fear at being left alone. And her daughters are afraid of being the one left to care for their mother.

When we're were born, Warren wrote, our parents lost something of themselves, and they are going to try and get it back. They are desperate to have their child sit in a chair for a couple of hours, then go to bed under the same roof. "They know they can't get it all back but they will get as big a chunk out of you as they can. And the good old family reunion, with picnic dinner under the maples, is very much like diving into the octopus tank at the aquarium." Hmmm, I wonder if Violet is the octopus?