Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Proposition 8 is "mean-spirited''

I missed this editorial in Sunday's New York Times, but it's pretty terrific for the way it gets to the core of the argument in favor of marriage equality.

The Times is urging California residents to vote "No" in November on Proposition 8, which would amend the state Constitution to prevent same-sex couples from marrying. The ballot measure would overturn May's state Supreme Court ruling that enabled gay and lesbian couples to marry.

(The Times also notes that similar discriminatory measures are on the ballot in Arizona and Florida, and says that they also should be rejected.)

Here's the key paragraph from the editorial:

"Opponents of giving gay couples the protections, dignity and respect that come with marriage are working furiously to try to overturn the court ruling through Proposition 8. It is our fervent hope that Californians will reject this mean-spirited attempt to embed second-class treatment of one group of citizens in the State Constitution."

In its news articles, the Times can sometimes be a little dense and wordy. But the editorial gets to the point succinctly: this is about protection, dignity and respect. And the ballot question is mean-spirited. While I don't live in California, as an American, I don't want to see anyone's civil rights taken away or any group of people treated as second-class citizens.

And this part made me smile because it's so matter of fact in the way it states what should be perfectly obvious but needs to be said anyway:

"The proponents of Proposition 8 make the familiar claim that legalizing same-sex marriage undercuts marriage between men and women. But thousands of gay and lesbian couples have been married in California since the May ruling and marriage remains intact."

Although the Times doesn't mention it, just for the record, I'm pretty sure the sky hasn't fallen in California either.

While there have been some high-profile weddings in California, I think what's most interesting, and crucial, is to read the stories of couples who aren't celebrities but just normal, everyday people - your neighbors or friends or coworkers or family members.

So, just in case you're a California voter and you happen to stumble across my blog, please read about these couples who've tied the knot in Massachusetts, where gay marriage has been legal since 2004. (And where heterosexual marriage remains intact!) While you won't recognize their names, I'm sure their stories will resonate.

And at The Wicked Stage, Rob Weinert-Kendt has posted a sweet two-minute anti-anti-gay-marriage proposition video by Dave Barton from Rude Guerrilla Theater Company in Santa Ana, Calif., that also gets to the heart of the matter. (I'll definitely be adding Rude Guerrilla to my list of clever theatre names.)

Can Ebersole lift Broadway's spirits?

The first cast member has been announced for next spring's Broadway revival of Noel Coward's 1941 farce Blithe Spirit, about a socialite haunted by the ghost of his first wife. Christine Ebersole has snagged role of sexy Elvira, who causes all sorts of mischief after a seance summons her from the spirit world. The first preview is scheduled for Feb. 26.

I'm usually pretty excited when I hear about plans for a new Broadway show, but I was pretty indifferent about this one. I saw Blithe Spirit earlier this year at Trinity Rep. While it was a fine production, it left me bored at times. A little witty banter goes a long way, after all. Or perhaps, drawing-room comedies simply aren't my cup of tea.

Now, I like Christine Ebersole and I'm sure she'll be great and her participation piques my curiosity. Maybe she'll bring a spark to the play that I felt was missing in the production that I saw. But what would really put this on my list of must-see shows is that according to Variety, Angela Lansbury (and Rupert Everett) are on the producers' wish list.

No offense to Mr. Everett, but I loved Miss Lansbury's performance in Deuce, not to mention that she's my favorite Mrs. Lovett of the three I've seen on stage and screen. I'd jump at the chance to see her on Broadway again. Although, I thought she said Deuce would be her last Broadway role, so I'm not really holding out any hope.

But the larger question is - why another revival? I wish the producers had found a new play they wanted to bring to Broadway. So far, things are pretty slim: To Be or Not to Be and Dividing the Estate, which begins previews Oct. 23. I checked Playbill's list of upcoming shows, and there's Neil LaBute's Reasons to be Pretty and Michael Jacobs' Impressionism. (With Jeremy Irons!) Am I missing something?

Okay, I understand, it's hard to attract investors - and an audience - for a new play, especially a drama, especially at a time when Wall Street is imploding. Perhaps Blithe Spirit's humor, which helped raise the spirits of the British people during World War II, is just the thing Broadway needs right now.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway

As a first blogoversary present to myself, yesterday I saw Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway. What a treat! Watching the musical unfold on the big screen brought back a lot of the same emotions that I felt when I saw the touring production in January.

Plus, the music is so great. I love what my fellow blogger Chris rightly refers to as the late Jonathan Larson's "kick-ass score." I'm not sure whether Chris would agree, but I think that with "La Vie Boheme" and "Seasons of Love" Rent has one of the best first act closings/second act openings I've ever seen. How can you beat that combination?

Sure, there are some big differences between seeing a musical live and at the movies, even if it's a movie of a live performance. You don't get quite the same adrenaline rush. My screening was only about one-third full and while there seemed to be a lot of Rentheads, the audience was very low key.

Another difference that struck me: When you're watching a show on stage, you decide where your eye goes. With a movie, the camera determines what you see to a great extent - in this case, lots of extreme close-ups.

I liked the jumpy camera work that made even the most energetic and frenetic parts of Rent seem even more energetic and frenetic. But some of the close-ups were a bit distracting - like wow, I can see that person's fillings! Also, for some reason, I was fixated on Roger's painted-black nails and tattooed fingers, which I probably wasn't close enough notice when I saw Rent live on stage.

Some of the relationships that didn't quite work for me last time really clicked this time. Eden Espinosa and Tracie Thoms were sizzling as the tempestuous lovers Maureen and Joanne. Maureen, the free-spirited artist, and Joanne, the button-down lawyer, wouldn't seem to have much in common. But wow, were they on fire together, especially during their duet, "Take Me or Leave Me."

I like Rent's story of struggling artists coping with a life of poverty and illness in a rundown New York City neighborhood. But I've always had a bit of a problem with the characters of Mark and Maureen. To me, they just seem like privileged suburban kids pretending to be something that they're not. But maybe I've mellowed, because I thought Adam Kantor was sweet as Mark. Even Maureen's performance art was funny rather than grating this time around.

Justin Johnston's drag queen Angel was absolutely endearing in a performance that moves from very comical to extremely heartbreaking. What struck me was the contrast. When he's dying of AIDS, his makeup and wig and costumes are gone and he's lying curled up in a ball in pair of thin white pajamas. He looks so small and young, especially when his lover, Michael McElroy's Tom Collins, is carrying him. I was in tears when Collins sings "I'll Cover You."

And I thought Will Chase's Roger and Renee Elise Goldsberry's Mimi, as two people coping with HIV, did a great job of conveying their characters' sense of vulnerability. Goldsberry's Mimi especially just seemed so fragile and spunky at the same time. I loved their flirtatiousness in "Light My Candle." The one thing that disappointed me a bit was "One Song Glory." I just remember it being more dramatic in the touring production, when Roger's shadow is projected larger-than-life on the brick wall behind him.

This movie documents the end of a landmark Broadway show. Rent began previews on April 16, 1996 and closed on Sept. 7, 2008, after 5,123 performances. It would have been nice if there'd been a bit more context, so that we knew we were watching the end of something special. Maybe we could have seen the actors getting ready for the last performance, or some interviews with fans or people associated with Rent, or even more shots of the audience - just to explain to the uninitiated why this was such a landmark musical. But hopefully it'll be released on dvd, and maybe there'll be some extra material.

At the end of the show, when everyone was singing "Seasons of Love," and some of the original cast members come on stage to join them, well that was the most emotional part for me. I doubt I was the only one crying.

All I could of was, before Rent, how many Broadway musicals had this kind of young multiracial, multiethnic cast? And not just as tokens or the butt of jokes or stereotypes, but as real people, completely integrated into the storyline. The same for gay and lesbian characters. Also, at a time when people didn't talk openly about AIDS, you watched people struggling with the disease, expressing fear that they would lose their dignity.

Just looking at all of those actors stage and thinking about their characters really brought home to me why Rent was such a landmark when it opened on Broadway in 1996. Maybe because I could see the actors' faces close up, this time, I just felt it more strongly.

Now, a few other points:
  • The ticket cost $20, the most I've ever paid to see a movie by far. But once I got to my local multiplex, I realized that I could have bought a ticket to any movie - for the $7.50 bargain matinee price - and slipped into see Rent without anyone even noticing. Of course I would never do that because it would be wrong and I'd be too afraid of getting caught. But I wonder how many people did just that?
  • The auditorium itself was only about a third full. I really don't understand why Sony didn't put a little more marketing punch behind this. Rent was included in the theatre's listings, although it was at the bottom. And there was no separate ad the way there was for other movies. Unless you read Playbill or another theatre site regularly you could easily have missed it.
  • Finally, I cannot tell you how many people I saw taking pictures and shooting video with their cell phones. One person way down in the front appeared to record practically the entire second act. Is that even possible on a cell phone? I was tempted to get the management but I was too far away to see who exactly was doing it.
So, after the movie and touring production, this was my third Rent experience. The next Rent tour, with the original Mark and Roger, Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal, begins in January. When it stops in Boston next July, I definitely want to be there.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Blog Turns One!

Happy blogoversary to me! Yes, my blog turns one year old today. I can't believe I've kept it going for an entire year - 328 posts in all and nearly 20,000 page loads from just about every state and many, many foreign countries.

On Sept. 28, 2007, whether the world needed it or not, I added my voice to the crowded blogosphere. (Always room for one more, right?) My very first Gratuitous Violins post was a review of The 39 Steps, which was then in the middle of its pre-Broadway engagement at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company. (I loved it!)

Writing has been an important part of my life ever since I was a little girl. But for the past 10 years, life hasn't afforded me much opportunity to do it - outside of e-mail. So blogging has enabled me to return to something I love, but in a way that I never imagined. I've never done much reviewing, never written about the arts. I don't have a background in theatre. But I've truly loved the challenge of having a new and exciting subject to explore and to write about.

One of the great things that I've discovered about blogging is, it's pretty much a writer's dream. I have a tremendous amount of freedom. I'm not limited to one topic, and I've enjoyed writing about a variety of subjects that are important to me. I can write as much or as little as I want about absolutely anything I want, and I can revise and refine to my heart's content. (Which is probably a curse as well as a blessing!)

Now, none of that would matter if I didn't have an audience. I've never been one of those writers who's content to toil away in obscurity. I love knowing that people are reading what I write. If you've stopped by or added me to your blogroll or left a comment, thank-you so much. I'm grateful whenever anyone reads something I've written. It's been so much fun and so interesting to see where my readers are coming from, to hear from you and to get to know you.

One of the things that's amazed me is, I've gotten hits from all over the United States and all over the world - including from countries with which we don't even have diplomatic relations. Sure, a lot of those hits have come from people looking for violin music, but they still count, don't they?

Another benefit of blogging is that in the past year, I've made some wonderful new friends among my fellow bloggers. I've met many of you at our very enjoyable bloggers brunches, others I only know through e-mail or the comments you've left. Someday soon, I hope I'll get to meet more of you.

And I would never have gone to the theatre so often over the past 18 months if it hadn't been for my theatre-blogging buddies. Thank-you for being so generous and welcoming. Your enthusiasm comes through in everything you write. I wish I could describe what I see on stage with the same level of skill and knowledge and flair.

Finally, I have to give a special thank-you to the one person without whom Gratuitous Violins would not exist. For a long time, I resisted blogging. I didn't think I had anything to say that anyone would want to read. But Steve on Broadway encouraged me to start a blog after I filled up his comments section and inundated him with lengthy e-mails about all of the shows I was seeing and all of my thoughts about the theatre.

One of the hallmarks of a great friend is that the person knows what you want to do even when you don't know it. Steve knew how much I loved to write and he never passed up a chance to encourage me, to tell me he thought it was something I did well. He was gentle, yet persistent. He never gave up because he knew that once I started, I'd love blogging. And he was right. In fact, he even came up with the name for my blog!

Since I first discovered his blog nearly two years ago, Steve has become a treasured friend and indeed a beloved brother, as well as a terrific theatre guide. He's also a terrific writer and comes up with titles for his posts that are way more witty and clever than mine will ever be.

So Steve, thank-you for the gift of friendship and for the gift of blogging. Yours is the first one I check every day.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman: 1925-2008

I've seen lots of Paul Newman movies over the years, but the one that sticks with me the most is 1960's Exodus, which is hokey and overlong and overwrought. But I must have watched it at least a half-dozen times in the months leading up to my first trip to Israel, in August 1995.

I can just picture Newman's Ari Ben-Canaan - tanned, confident and forceful - telling Eva Marie Saint's Kitty Fremont why the boatload of desperate Jewish refugees simply could not give themselves up to the British authorities. Even if, as my Israeli tour guide later told us, the portrait was "a little embarrassing, no one can be that good," it was still a pretty thrilling performance.

I'd read that Newman was seriously ill but the announcement of his death at age 83 still came as a shock. Of course, in addition to his acting, was also famous and beloved for his philanthropic works, most notably, for the Hole in the Wall camps for children fighting cancer and other diseases.

Dalia Lithwick, an editor at Slate.com, worked as a counselor at one of the camps for several years and she's written a very moving tribute to this extraordinary man who loved to visit with the kids and take them fishing. Here's part of what she says:

"Each summer of the four I spent at Newman's flagship Connecticut camp was a living lesson in how one man can change everything. Terrified parents would deliver their wan, weary kid at the start of the session with warnings and cautions and lists of things not to be attempted."

"They'd return 10 days later to find the same kid, tanned and bruisey, halfway up a tree or canon-balling into the deep end of the pool. Their wigs or prosthetic arms—props of years spent trying to fit in—were forgotten in the duffel under the bed. Shame, stigma, fear, worry, all vaporized by a few days of being ordinary."

"In an era in which nearly everyone feels entitled to celebrity and fortune, Newman was always suspicious of both. He used his fame to give away his fortune, and he did that from some unspoken Zen-like conviction that neither had ever really belonged to him in the first place."

1 million free theatre tickets

The more I read about the theatre and the more I go to the theatre, the more I realize that the topic of demographics, i.e., how to get more young people in seats, is a neverending topic of discussion. So I thought this was an interesting story:

Starting in February, the British government is planning to distribute 1 million free theatre tickets over the next two years to people age 26 and under. About 100 publicly financed venues across the country will set aside a certain number of tickets on the same night, available on a first-come, first-served basis.

“A young person attending the theatre can find it an exhilarating experience, and be inspired to explore new horizons. But sometimes people miss out on it because they fear it’s ‘not for them’. It’s time to change this perception,'' says Andy Burnham, Britain's secretary for culture, media and sport. Burnham added, "It will be good for theaters who will see their audience broaden, and it will be good for actors who play at their best when performing to a full house.''

The program's $4.6-million cost is being borne by England's Arts Council, the national development agency for the arts, which gets its money from the government and the United Kingdom's National Lottery.

According to the Council's Web site: "Our aim is for everyone in the country to have the opportunity to develop a rich and varied artistic and creative life. We will ensure that more high quality work reaches a wider range of people – engaging them as both audience and participants. We will support artists and arts organisations to take creative risks and follow new opportunities."

Of course, the plan isn't without its critics. Some say the money would be better spent on more pressing financial needs, or on arts education. They note that many theatres already offer heavily discounted tickets. And some critics fear that it won't necessarily expand the audience, since many of those who will take advantage of the free tickets may already be theatre fans.

Okay, those are all perfectly valid points. But even though I'm way over 26 and I'm not in England, I still think it's a pretty cool idea.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

News from the road

Do touring productions need Broadway? That's the interesting question raised by a Variety article. In between trips to New York City, I've started to see more and more road shows, so I'm always looking for news and trends.

I guess the conventional wisdom is that theatergoers like the cachet of seeing a show that's been on Broadway. If you're trying to build up a base of subscribers for your performing arts center, Broadway is a brand name that consumers recognize. And judging from the size of the audiences at shows I've attended, there's a lot of interest on the part of theatre fans who can't make it to New York City.

In Variety, Chris Jones writes that some shows do a healthy business without ever making a stop on the Great White Way.

(Reading stories in Variety can be particularly challenging sometimes because of the weird terminology it uses. I mean, I get that "prexy" is "president" but who's the "presenter?" I think it's the theatre that presents the touring production.)

Anyway, from what I could figure out, while the big Broadway blockbusters have the name recognition, the road-only shows make a lot of money for the venue operators. As an example Jones cites a show that I've never heard of, Tuna Does Vegas, which is in the midst of a 21-city tour and is apparently very popular. Tickets for Tuna Does Vegas, currently making its way across Texas, range from $20 to $45.

These road-only productions, Jones says, "like the Beatles-themed show Rain or Troika Entertainment's intensely successful Jesus Christ Superstar tour starring Ted Neeley, are also emerging as crucial potential profit centers for presenters squeezed by the terms demanded by the blockbuster titles."

Another example Jones mentions is a new, non-Equity tour of The Wizard of Oz, based on a British production, that fills a niche for family oriented entertainment. "You need some motivating factor for people to know they are getting their money's worth," says producer Ken Gentry. "But when it comes to a title like The Wizard of Oz, you have to remember there is always a new generation of people who have never seen it before."

A second Variety story that caught my eye was about the impending national tour of Young Frankenstein, which kicks off in the fall of 2009. Instead of staying in one city for an extended period of time, producer Robert F.X. Sillerman says the musical will play mostly two- to four-week stints.

The article makes the point that that shorter stays are a way to encourage people to subscribe for an entire season, lest they run the risk of getting shut out of a show that they really want to see. I guess you should always leave them wanting more.

"Even a potential behemoth like Disney's Mary Poppins, which kicks off its national tour in March 2009, does not plan a sit-down production for the road. And more significant, its longest engagement clocks in at 13 weeks, in Chicago, the tour's first city, followed by much shorter stays in St. Louis, Cleveland and Los Angeles."

Disney Theatrical's marketing director, David Schrader, says, "We're being a little conservative and not stretching it out to the max. The way we book is we learn the appetite before we lock into the second season."

Here's something else I learned from Variety: "Traditionally, 15% of all road grosses come from just three shows. Thanks to Wicked, The Lion King and Jersey Boys, that percentage more than doubled in 2007-08 and could approach, according to some producers and bookers, nearly 50% in the current season. Translation: more shows vying for less of the pie."

Finally one of this fall's shows - Spring Awakening - turned out to be a tough sell, both because of its subject matter and the fact that it's not based on a popular movie. Variety raises the question: "If the road found The Producers too edgy, how will Middle America respond to a story of teen pregnancy, abortion and homosexuality?" (The Producers is edgy?)

Simma Levine, president of On the Road Booking, tells Variety that she has tired of presenters telling her, "I don't know how my subscribers will like it. We've got a lot of blue-haired ladies. Right now, most tour theaters are booking Spring Awakening for one week only. But it's a start. As one top-of-the-line presenter put it, 'My subscriber base is old, but this will bring in a younger audience.' ''

Well, I'm much older than the target demographic, but I loved Spring Awakening and I was in tears at the end. The 2007 Tony winner for Best Musical is one of the shows I'm most looking forward to seeing on tour. If you're wondering whether or not it's appropriate for you - or your teenager - there's a special section, Spring Awakening for Parents, on the show's Web site.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tom's Diner

At the risk of sounding totally ignorant musically, I was surprised when a friend told me that there was a song about Tom's Restaurant. I only knew the Upper West Side diner, on the edge of Columbia University, as the exterior of the place where Jerry, George, Elaine and sometimes Kramer hung out in Seinfeld.

I'd never heard of the Suzanne Vega song "Tom's Diner." And I've still never heard the song. But I'm a big Seinfeld fan, so I made a pilgrimage to the diner in May, during a rainy morning in New York City. From the inside, it doesn't look anything like the tv show, but it was a thrill to see it anyway. (Yeah, I like seeing the places that have been used as locations for movies and tv shows.)

In today's New York Times, Vega has nice essay about how she came to write the song. Here's part of what she says:

"I got the idea for “Tom’s Diner” in 1981, but I wrote it in the spring of 1982, making the song 26 years old now. When I was at Barnard College in Manhattan, I used to go to Tom’s Restaurant for coffee, and after I graduated I also ate there before going to work. It was then a cheap, greasy place on 112th and Broadway, and it still is, in spite of its celebrity. ... I had been taking classes at Barnard with titles like 'The Dramatic Monologue.' I was in Tom’s and I thought it would be fun to write a song that was like a little film, where the main character sees all these things but can’t respond to any of it unless it relates to him directly."

I have to admit, the only other Suzanne Vega song I even remember is "Luka," and the subject matter, an abused child, always made it a very difficult song for me to to listen to. But now, I'm really curious to hear "Tom's Diner."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The end is near for Xanadu

Wow, first time I've ever heard of this happening: a Broadway show that's already announced its closing date is moving that date up to close even earlier. Maybe it happens more than I think and I've just never noticed, or it hasn't happened recently. Whatever, it was a surprise to me.

Xanadu had been scheduled to play its last performance at the Helen Hayes Theatre on Oct. 12. But today, the show's producers announced that it will skate off into the sunset this Sunday, two weeks earlier.

The musical began previews on May 23, 2007, and will have played just over 500 performances by the time it closes. It also garnered four Tony nominations. Not too bad!

According to Playbill, "The producers released a statement saying that the decision to close the show early was made to avoid losses in the current economic climate."

Xanadu was at 61 percent capacity last week, with an average ticket price of $55.94. Attendance was down about 2 percent from the previous week.

It's one thing to realize that things aren't going well, but to be in such bad shape that you've got to pull the plug practically immediately? And on a show that's been running for more than a year? This does not sound good for Broadway at all.

Unfortunately, I never got a chance to see Xanadu, although I saw the cast - notably Kerry Butler and Cheyenne Jackson - perform on various tv shows and on the Tony Awards. It always looked like fun.

I know that Cheyenne's impressive physique garnered lots of attention. But as a huge Annie Hall fan, I'm most disappointed that I missed my chance to see Tony Roberts on stage.

A national tour, with Elizabeth Stanley, from Cry-Baby, starts Nov. 11 at California's La Jolla Playhouse, and then moves to Chicago in January. Hopefully, it'll come near me. This is one that will definitely go on my touring calendar.

Sound and light shows

When I filled out my imaginary Tony Awards ballot this spring, I was a little stumped by the sound and lighting categories. (Along with best orchestration. Even though I now know what an orchestrator does, I still don't feel any more qualified to give an opinion, even an imaginary one.)

What made me think about sound and lighting is that the recipients of this year's MacArthur "genius" fellowships have been announced, and there's at least one theatre-related winner of the $500,000 prizes, veteran Broadway lighting designer Jennifer Tipton.

The 71-year-old Tipton won Tony awards in 1977 for The Cherry Orchard and in 1989 for Jerome Robbins' Broadway. Originally a dancer, Tipton also designs lighting for dance and opera. She's taught at Yale and trained many other designers in the craft, including Donald Holder, Tony winner in 1998 for The Lion King and in 2008 for South Pacific, and Howell Binkley, the lighting designer for In the Heights and Gypsy.

The biography at the MacArthur Foundation Web site says, "Best known for her work in dance, Tipton’s painterly lighting evokes mood and defines and sculpts movement. Preferring a small but powerful palette of colors, she pioneered the use of white light in theatre and dance."

"Her subtle, shifting lighting for Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (2005) gave visual support to the play’s delicate balance between vitality and deep sadness; in the final scene, the cleansing warmth of approaching dawn affirms the sense of peace and forgiveness finally achieved by the protagonists."

Sadly, when I'm writing my review, sound and lighting are two areas I tend to forget about, whereas I almost always remember to mention the sets and the costumes. Of course, there are exceptions, like Kevin Adams' very dramatic colored lights that usher in the Berlin phase of Passing Strange, or the blackout that occurs during In the Heights.

Sometimes, I neglect to mention them because I don't realize who deserves the credit for something I really enjoyed. For example, I loved the whole staging of "I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair" in South Pacific. But I didn't realize that it was Scott Lehrer's skillful sound design that allowed Kelli O'Hara to sing and wash her hair at the same time - without getting electrocuted.

So in my effort to become an ever-more perceptive theatergoer, and in recognition of all the designers' great work, I'll try to consider sound and lighting more closely. Maybe next spring when the Tony Awards come around, I can at least venture an opinion.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A little getting to the show drama

It nearly happened to me. Yesterday, when I went to Boston for the matinee of How Shakespeare Won the West, I was almost one of those people who can't get to the theatre on time and are forced to stumble around in the dark to reach their seat, inconveniencing everyone sitting around them. I shudder to think how close I came.

Let me begin at the beginning. I took an 11:30 bus to Boston, which should have gotten me there at 12:30, plenty of time to take the T to the Huntington Theatre, get something to eat and be in my seat by 2 p.m. I've done this before and it's always worked out perfectly. (I could drive, but it's been many, many years since I've driven into Boston and the bus is more relaxing - when it's on time.)

Little did I know that my bus would be 15 minutes late leaving Providence, make an unscheduled stop downtown to pick up more passengers before proceeding to Boston and then encounter highway traffic on a Sunday afternoon. I didn't arrive at Boston's South Station until about 1 p.m. I thought about taking a cab at that point, but what if I got stuck in traffic? I figured the subway was safer.

Okay, fine, if I made my connections promptly, I might still have time for lunch before the show. Wrong! First there was the wait at South Station for a Red Line train to Park Street, then there was a wait at Park Street for an "E" Green Line train to Symphony, the closest stop. (It's some kind of law of nature that the subway line you're waiting for will be the last one to come. I should have remembered that from college.)

As the minutes ticked by, I'd given up hopes for a sandwich and ate my emergency Nature Valley maple granola bar. It would have to do. At this point, the time was closing in on 1:30 and I was getting extremely panicky that I'd miss the beginning of the show, never mind lunch. I hate, absolutely hate, feeling rushed and I hate coming in late to anything - a movie, a tv show, a meeting.

Finally, the train came at about 1:35 and we inch our way to my stop - Boylston, Arlington, Copley, Prudential and finally, Symphony. It was excruciating. I frantically pushed past my fellow riders, then bounded up the steps and out of the station. Luckily, the Huntington is practically across the street. I made it to the theatre at about 1:50 p.m. - 10 minutes to spare and still time to visit the ladies room. Whew, that was a lot closer than I like to cut it.

Now, if you remember, last week I wrote about getting a reduced-price ticket at BosTix, except I wasn't sure where I'd be sitting. Well, it turns out what I suspected was true - I was in the first row of the balcony, on the aisle. And it was fine. I don't think I would have enjoyed the show any more if I'd paid $77.50 for an orchestra seat instead of $32.50 for the balcony. In fact, I think I enjoyed it more knowing that I paid less. Still, I do like being close to the action.

But it wasn't actually the "best available" seat in the house that BosTix promised me. There were entire rows of empty seats in front of me in the mezzanine. I could have moved down but I could see fine, so why bother?

Afterward, I asked a Huntington staff member about my seat assignment was told that "best available" means best available out of the seats that BosTix purchases, not the best available unfilled seat in the entire theatre. Oh, now they tell me.

One other thing bothered me. My ticket stub showed a face value of $26, less than I paid. I checked the Huntington's Web site to see how much the seat would have cost if I'd paid full price, and it would have been $50. So I still saved. But I don't understand the discrepancy. I've e-mailed customer service at BosTix and I'll report back on what I find out.

So, all in all, a good day but not as relaxed as I was expecting. After the show, it was another mad dash back to South Station and a sandwich from Cosi at the food court before heading home.

Now, I have more sympathy for those theatergoers who, through no fault of their own and despite their best - even heroic - efforts, arrive late for the show. I nearly was one of them.

Update 9-23: I got a reply today from customer service at BosTix.

The price on your ticket is the reimbursement price for the theatre, meaning that amount is what the Huntington received for each ticket. The box office uses the tickets for financial purposes and no one paid the price on your ticket for the show.

The seats that you received were the seats allotted to our ArtsBoston patrons. The full price of the seats you sat in were $60. We were only able to sell $60 tickets to our patrons which meant the seats would be in a certain area. Each box office allocates a section for our patrons, which is why on the main show page the text shows: "SEATING: Reserved".

The term "best available" on our site refers to our specific allotment, not the best available in the whole theatre. Our ticketing system only allows us to use the term "best available".

Sunday, September 21, 2008

How Shakespeare Won the West

Gratuitous Violin rating: *** out of ****

Playwright Richard Nelson name checks a lot of Shakespeare in How Shakespeare Won the West. And just like the Bard's works, Nelson gives his audience at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company a little history, a little comedy, a little tragedy - all rolled into one not always tidy package.

How Shakespeare Won the West, directed by Jonathan Moscone, is the first production under the leadership of the Huntington's new artistic director, Peter DuBois, who comes to Boston from New York's Public Theater.

The play follows a ragtag troupe of New York actors as they make their way to California in 1848. They dream of earning fame and making a fortune by putting on Shakespeare before audiences of extremely erudite gold miners. Nelson got the idea after reading an obituary for historian Helene Wickham Koon, who wrote a book called How Shakespeare Won the West, a study of Shakespearean productions during the Gold Rush.

The action opens in a New York City tavern, where Antje Ellerman's simple, unadorned wooden set looks like it could have come out of a Hollywood Western or a production of The Iceman Cometh. Thing start out very slowly. For the first 10 minutes or so, a few actors come on stage and talk to each other quietly or read. I couldn't figure out whether the play had begun or not. But I guess it hadn't, because we still hadn't heard the turn off your cell phone announcement.

Eventually, Buck Buchanan, an aspiring actor, played by Erik Lochtefeld, comes in. He's soon regaling everyone with stories of traveling troupes performing before wildly enthusiastic audiences in California Gold Rush country. The rough-edged miners are so knowledgeable about Shakespeare, they shout out the lines along with the actors and shower them with bags of gold dust in appreciation.

Soon enough, actor-turned-saloon-keeper Thomas Jefferson Calhoun, played by Boston theatre stalwart Will LeBow, his wife Alice, a former actress, played by Mary Beth Fisher, and their daughter Susan, an aspiring ingenue, played very sweetly and eagerly by Sarah Nealis, are putting together a company to bring Shakespeare to the culture-starved masses.

This part - where the Calhouns are searching for the right performers for their troupe - is very funny and it's probably my favorite section of the play. Sure, they're kind of stock types, but they're done well, with great humor - including the alcoholic, philandering leading man, the character actor, the comic relief, the ingenue, the child star.

I liked LeBow and Fisher as journeymen performers who've given up treading the boards but not their dreams of stardom. The rest of the cast is good, too. Jeremiah Kissel starts out very funny as a pretend British thespian, then turns unexpectedly poignant. Kelly Hutchinson is great as the hooker with a heart of gold. Chris Henry Coffey is suitably self-important as the leading man with the drinking problem and Susannah Schulman is affecting as his long-suffering wife, who's also a leading lady. Joe Tapper adds some nice comic relief as a childhood friend of Susan's and a wannabe performer.

Nealis and Schulman have a truly hilarious scene as child actors who perform snippets of Shakespeare. But there are so many characters in this play, no one really gets a chance to stand out. It's one of those love letters to the theatre. And I think the actors in this company should be a bit over the top and larger than life. But too often, they just fade into the background.

My problem with How Shakespeare Won the West actually begins when the troupe leaves New York. I guess I hadn't realized how much of the story would be about the journey, rather than the destination. It takes them almost the whole play to get to California, and I have to admit that at times, my mind began to wander. That's not good in a play that's only 1 hour and 40 minutes long.

Then, there's a point in the action when what had been a very funny play takes a tragic turn. It changes the whole tone and it kind of threw me. I don't mind comedy and tragedy in the same play, but this transition seemed kind of abrupt. Things had been pretty lighthearted until then, but afterward, they become very serious. The play stopped being as funny as it had been. Don't get me wrong, there's still a lot of humor, but it almost seemed like a different play.

All sorts of disasters befall this troupe of actors - and some of them seem like things that would really have happened on the journey west. But some of them seem, well, more unbelievable. For example, Abraham Lincoln and Buffalo Bill show up. (Not at the same time, though.) And in a bizarre scene, the actors are kidnapped by a group of bigoted religious zealots. I don't mind a witty, incisive satire of organized religion, but this just seemed like a bit of a cheap shot.

Nelson is trying to be insightful about the power of theatre in general - and Shakespeare in particular - to speak to disparate audiences. Along the way, he's trying to say something about the resiliency of the pioneers, religious intolerance, homophobia and the treatment of Native Americans. And I might even be leaving something out. To some extent, he succeeds. In one nice scene, a Native American chief is riveted by the group's performance of King Lear.

Unfortunately, while there were some truly comic moments, there weren't enough of them. And the tragedy and history sometimes felt forced. Also, at first the miners don't exactly greet the troupe with open arms, which somewhat undercuts Nelson's premise that they're so eager for high-class entertainment.

I think Nelson has stuffed a lot of ideas and characters into a relatively short amount of time - and that may be why, for me, the journey at the heart of How Shakespeare Won the West wasn't as fulfilling as I'd hoped it would be.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Theatrical comings and goings

I'm so sad that [title of show] will play its last performance on Oct. 12. Another one closes before I see it. I know a lot of people questioned whether it was too insidery to appeal to the Broadway tourist crowd. But from the clips I've watched, this little musical that could was a sweet story about chasing your dream, and it sounded like so much fun.

The Lyceum Theatre, where it's been playing, has 922 seats. I wonder if it would have had more of a chance for a longer run in a smaller theatre, like Circle in the Square, which only has 650 seats? Since it was only playing to 30 percent capacity, probably not.

Sigh. Why don't shows stay open until I have a chance to get to New York City? Is that too much to ask? Would it help if I had a couple million dollars to invest?

I watched an old episode of Theater Talk today with Patrick Stewart and Rupert Goold talking about last spring's production of Macbeth. A clip from the play confirmed how I felt about it: visually stunning but hard to figure out what was going on.

Listening to Goold, the play's director, and Stewart, who got a Tony nomination for the title role, actually made the play sound more interesting and accessible than watching it on stage. Maybe you have to be British and start reading Shakespeare in kindergarten to truly understand it?

More casting has been announced for the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of the comedy Accent on Youth, which begins previews on April 7. This is one I swear I will not miss. David Hyde Pierce, a Gratuitous Violins favorite, will portray a playwright who's about to abandon his latest script when his secretary offers him new inspiration.

He'll be joined by Charles Kimbrough - a Tony nominee for the original production of Company and an Emmy nominee for Murphy Brown - as the butler. I used to watch Murphy Brown all the time, but I have to admit, I don't remember Kimbrough from the show. Apparently he played stuffy anchorman Jim Dial. Maybe it's time for a little review?

Finally, thanks to The Homesteader for pointing me to this story from the Denver Post. The musical Little House on the Prairie, currently playing to packed audiences at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, will come to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts late next year, with Melissa Gilbert reprising her role as Caroline "Ma" Ingalls. The musical will stop in Denver from Dec. 22, 2009 to Jan. 3, 2010.

The producers had announced earlier that Little House would embark on a 40-city tour in the fall of 2009, but this is the first location I've read about. I'm a little surprised that Gilbert is touring, but good for her! She wasn't what I enjoyed most about the production, but it was nice to see her on stage.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Carrie Bradshaw - the early years

After I finished my Sex and the City marathon, one of the things that struck me as a little odd was, we learn very little about the lives of Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha before they came to New York City. Their childhoods and families have always been a bit of a cipher.

I remember reading somewhere that series executive producer Michael Patrick King made the details vague on purpose, almost as if he didn't want the women to have had separate, earlier lives. It was like their lives only began once they got to New York City and met each other.

Sure, there are a few hints here and there if you listen closely. Miranda is from Philadelphia and went to Harvard; Charlotte had a blue-blood Connecticut upbringing and graduated from Smith; Samantha is from a working-class background.

But I was especially curious about Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie. Where did she grow up? Where did she go to college? Why didn't any of her family ever come for a visit? I checked Carrie's Wikipedia entry and she did mention that her father left her mother when she was 5 years old. I guess I wasn't listening closely enough.

So I was pretty intrigued to read this week that it looks as though some of my questions will be answered. HarperCollins announced that Candace Bushnell, whose columns for the New York Observer inspired the television series, is writing two novels about Carrie's teenage years, called The Carrie Diaries, and geared toward teenage readers. The first book will be published in the fall of 2010.

According to the publisher, "The books will take readers back to Carrie Bradshaw's formative years in high school, giving an inside look at Carrie's friendships, romances and how she realized her dream of becoming a writer."

This will be Bushnell's first novel for young adults. "I've always been interested in exploring Carrie's teenage years," she said in a statement. "Carrie in high school did not follow the crowd - she led it. It was there that she began observing and commenting on the social scene."

Bushnell's editor, Alessandra Balzer, tells London's Independent newspaper that she hopes to sidestep such potentially controversial topics as, well, sex. "The kids will be doing what teenagers realistically do, but it's not going to be provocative for the sake of that," she said. "I would never put something in just to put it in. But if it was organic to the story, and if it was something that felt real, then it would need to be in there."

And apparently, Carrie grew up close to New York. A HarperCollins spokesman says while all the details haven't been decided, "I think she'll come [to New York] the way Candace did, with her friends, to hang out in the city on the weekend, and have a lot of social interaction there, and then eventually she'll come to college here, as Candace did."

The HBO series, of course, was geared toward adults. And this summer's movie carried an R rating. (Although an edited version of the series is now shown in syndication.) So it's interesting that the novels will be geared toward teenagers. Bushnell could write them for an adults, after all, and they still would have found an audience - with adults and teenagers.

But maybe this is a genius marketing move. I'm sure the series has lots of fans among teenage girls who love Carrie's sense of style and they'll gobble up the books - along with their mothers and older sisters. And of course, that will help ensure new generations of fans for Sex and the City. Who knows, maybe someday Carrie's early years will become a tv series, too.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Seat selection drama

They say anything can happen on stage - that's one of the thrills of watching a performance unfold live, right in front of you. Well, I decided to add some seat-selection drama to the mix.

I just bought a ticket for the Sunday matinee of How Shakespeare Won the West, at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. Usually, I go online and get the best available seat in the center orchestra. (I like to be as close as possible). But when the best available seat came up in Row A for $77.50, I did pause.

Yeah, I could afford it, and I've spent that much on a couple of shows at the Huntington. Plus, I routinely pay over $100 apiece for Broadway tickets. But I don't go to New York very often and my traveling dates aren't very flexible. When I do go, I know the shows I want to see and I don't want to take any chances on a lottery or just drop by the TKTS booth to see what's available at a reduced price. It's my vacation, you know?

(Not that I'm adverse to getting a discount ticket for a Broadway show, of course, especially as my New York trips become more than a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I did buy a reduced-price ticket once through Playbill. It was for Passing Strange, which, sadly, could have used the full price. I got a great seat for about $60 in the Belasco Theatre's intimate orchestra section.)

But when I see a show in Providence or Boston and my dates are more flexible, I do like to hunt around for a discount. For shows at Trinity Repertory Company, I routinely get the $15 rush ticket, available at the box office a couple hours before the show. It's a great deal - Trinity's two theatres are both pretty small, so you get a good seat no matter where you sit.

And something about that $77.50 just rankled me. I'd noticed a link for BosTix on Hub Arts, a Boston-based arts and culture blog. I decided what the heck, I'll try it. I always thought that you could only buy same-day, half-price tickets and you actually had to go to a BosTix booth to get them. But it turns out that for some shows, you can go online and buy tickets in advance.

So I registered and got a ticket for How Shakespeare Won the West for $32.50 - less than half price! The rub is, I have no idea where I'll be sitting. I guess I have to print out the ticket confirmation e-mail and bring it with me to the theatre.

My ticket is supposed to be "best available." So if there's one seat left in the orchestra section, do I get it? (And really, isn't there always that one seat left?) Or will I be relegated to the "best available" in the mezzanine or balcony? I don't know. It adds a little bit of drama to the drama of the play. I'll report back after the show. The Huntington isn't an especially huge place and I figure my seat can't be that bad.

Not every performance of every show is available at BosTix. I could only find one performance on sale for Follies at Boston's Lyric Stage Company, and it wasn't on a day when I could go. I may have to pay full price for that one.

But I'll keep looking around. I know Theatermania and Goldstar have discount theatre tickets for Boston shows. I haven't used either one of them yet, so I'm not exactly sure how they work. Along with BosTix, they may be a good alternatives to simply logging in online and saying, give me the most expensive ticket you have.

So, I may regret my decision come Sunday, but for today, I feel like a savvy theatre shopper.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

New Kid on the Blog, Part II

Sometimes people add me to their blogrolls and I don't even know it! It's always immensely flattering when I find out and I'm very grateful for the attention. I just realized that I'm on the blogroll at Theatreisms, and blogger Katie Ganem even gave me a nice shoutout. Thanks, Katie!

Since one good turn deserves another, here's a little bit about Katie, in her own words: "I am a senior in high school and more importantly I am an actress "hopeful" who eats, breathes, and worships live theatre, and has done so for most of her life. My blog covers the wonders of small town and regional theatre, as well as the educational aspects. I am currently working as one of the pirate crew with Urban Pirates (based in Baltimore)."

Katie's been blogging since July and she's a good writer. She has a nice, breezy style and her enthusiasm for the theatre definitely comes through - as well as her disappointment at the selection of Grease as her school's spring musical. I'm curious to learn more about the theatre scene in Baltimore and I'm especially intrigued by a link on her blog to the Single Carrot Theatre. (I love unusual theatre names.) I hope she'll continue blogging when she goes off to college, so I can chart her path to Broadway.

Plus, we have something in common. She became hooked on musical theatre at age 4, after watching the concert version of Les Miserables on television. I'm also a big fan of the show, although I was, ummm, considerably older when I first saw it on stage.

Katie has declared that October will be "Musical Month," on her blog, in honor of her birthday and the birthday of Julie Andrews, which is Oct. 1. Her very ambitious goal is to research and listen to a musical a day. In addition to checking out the classics, she also wants to listen to musicals that people haven't liked, to try and figure out why they didn't work.

She's already compiled a list of 17 musicals. But being the friendly, helpful people that we are, I'm hoping some fellow theatre bloggers can stop by and leave her a few suggestions.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Only the Lonely

My friend and colleague Gary Zebrun's second novel, Only the Lonely, has just been published by Alyson Books. And I figure, what's the use of having a blog if you can't give a friend a plug? Gary will be reading from his book tomorrow at 7 p.m. at Books on the Square, 471 Angell St., Providence, and he's got several other appearances lined up over the next couple of months. (See the list below.)

Here's a summary of the plot: Asim, gay and 19, is ready to bust out of his rundown steel town, Lackawanna, N.Y., for the University of Michigan. Even the cherished family business - a movie house called The Bethlehem - and its nightly dose of celluloid dreams no longer captivate him. But the bright future he envisions is turned upside down when his father dies and leaves him with the keys to the theater and the job of caring for the old man's Russian lover. As if he needs another problem, he discovers that his brother Tarik is headed off to some kind of training camp in the Afghanistan desert, and when he returns, he ensnares Asim and others in a dangerous fanaticism that peaks on September 11, 2001.

Only the Lonely has garnered some good reviews. Publishers Weekly says: "With his memorable cast and nicely underplayed big themes, Zebrun delivers a new and worthy perspective on the 9/11 experience."

Gary is a graduate of the Brown University writing program and he's received MacDowell, Yaddo and Breadloaf fellowships. His first book, Someone You Know, was a finalist for the 2005 Lambda Literary Award. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Iowa Review, Sewanee Review, The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, and elsewhere. (And despite that rather serious picture, he's a very sweet, witty person.)

Here's some information on his book tour:

September 17, 7 p.m., Book Launch, Books on the Square, Providence
October 6, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh
October 18, Atlanta Queer Literary Festival, Atlanta
October 28, 7 p.m., Barnes & Noble, 82nd & Broadway, New York
November 6-7, Wordstock, Portland, Oregon
November 10, Elliott Bay Book Co., Seattle

And he was kind enough to answer some questions for me:

Why did you decide to write a novel with a 9/11 theme and what makes yours unique?

Writing any fictional account dealing with that terrifying day, even now years later, taxes the imagination with questions like: How do you not exploit it? How do you avoid clich├ęs?

Once I chose to write a story that included a wannabe Islamic terrorist from Lackawanna, a perspective on 9/11 was unavoidable. For nearly the entire novel, which begins in February 2001, that terrible day remains in the background in the readers’ minds, since the characters don’t find out about it until the last day of the story.

When I did, at the end, write about the events of the day, I tried to recreate them factually as they were presented on television and then I imagined the reactions of the three main characters — the brothers Asim and Tarik Zahid, and the old Russian woman Sonia Markovich — as they watched the events of the day unfold.

Your novel is set in an Arab-American community in Western New York. Why did you choose that community to write about?

I had wanted to write a novel set in Lackawanna, New York, for a long time. My father managed a movie house there, the Abbott Theater, and when I was a kid I used to spend weekends, from the matinee to the last show, watching films. I tried to write about the place, but it never worked.

A year after 9/11, when the six Yemeni Americans were arrested as a suspected terrorist cell, I couldn’t get Lackawanna out of my head. I don’t, however, try to tell their story, even though there are parallels such as the imam who arrives in the city to recruit young men for fundamentalist religious training in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But Tarik, the wannabe terrorist in my novel, is nothing like any of the Lackawanna Six suspects. He’s a loose cannon, a psychotic-loner. The Lackawanna Six, as far as I could gather, were mostly curious about fundamentalist Islam and misguided.

When I got hooked on the idea of writing about two Arab-American brothers — one gay and the other devoted to extreme fundamentalist Islam — I read extensively about young Muslim men. After 9/11, there was a ton of material to go to: books, documentaries, articles in newspapers and magazines, and of course, the Internet.

But I needed a way to turn my research into something personal, a way to get in the heads of these characters whose experiences are so different from mine. Movies were the avenue for me to do that. The three main characters in Only the Lonely all interpret their lives through films: For instance, Asim Zahid loves John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, Sonia Markovich is fascinated by Charlie Chaplin and his Little Tramp, and Tarik nearly becomes Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.

The main character, Asim Zahid, is Arab-American in an American society that increasingly regards him with suspicion and he's a gay man from a culture that does not tolerate being gay or even acknowledge the existence of gay people. How do both of those things shape him?

Because he is an Arab-American in Lackawanna and gay in a religion that for the most part sees his sexuality as an "abomination," he has felt pretty isolated for most of his life. The movie house provides him a kind of sanctuary. Movies can be a transformative experience (and they are for Asim) but sitting in a darkened theater, more or less alone with a story on the screen, is also an isolating experience.

Eventually, Asim realizes that escaping into films is no substitute for a real life. He aches to bust out of Lackawanna and into a world filled with human possibilities, which the University of Michigan represents for him.

Asim's homosexuality was also a way for me to write about the intolerance of religion, not just Islam but nearly all religions. At the time of 9/11, I was reading a lot about how fundamentalist Muslims treat gay men. I was stunned by the cruelty and violence against gays. I think religion is the root of all bigotry. I've gone, in my own life, from being a devout Catholic to an atheist. My feelings about extreme Islam are no different from how I feel about fundamentalist Christianity.

The cover of your book is illustrated with an old movie projector. Are you a big movie buff, and what role do they play in the novel? In your research, did you have to watch a lot of movies you'd never seen before?

The movie theme (or obsession) developed long ago for me, when I was a kid at the Abbott Theater watching the same movie two or three times a night. All of the old films in the novel are ones I loved and saw in the dark in Lackawanna, either as first-runs or revivals.

If there were ever a movie version of Only the Lonely, do you have any actors in mind for any of the characters?

I suppose I'd be happy if a bunch of film students at some obscure college wanted to make a 101-course movie of the book. But even then, there's a better chance of it snowing in the tropics.

This is your second published novel. Was it harder to write than the first one? How long did it take and how many drafts did you write? How did the novel change during that process?

Both my novels swirled around in my head for a long time, as long as a year, before I started to write them. And yes, there are many drafts once the first is finished. With each new one, many things change. Much gets cut; characters get developed further. I actually love the process of revision, even though it's not as surprising imaginatively as the first draft is.

What advice would you give to budding novelists?

Write.

What books or novelists made you want to be a writer?

No one in my family was a reader. I read my first novel, Lord of the Flies, when I was a freshman in high school. I was hooked. Next I read The Red Badge of Courage. I fell in love with the 19-year-old deserter Private Henry Fleming.

After that, I couldn't wait for the next assignment. I had terrific English teachers too, so the books that followed introduced me to writers who not only told engaging stories but wrote beautifully.

I guess reading made me want to be an artist, because artists, I thought, did more with their lives than simply work for a paycheck. I couldn't sing. I couldn't paint. I couldn't dance. I couldn't act. But I thought, maybe, I might be able to write. I've been trying to learn ever since.

What's your next novel going to be about?

Well, it's interesting that the author of Gratuitous Violins should ask this. I just finished a novel about a concert violinist from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. He's married and has twins. But at 35, he has a meltdown and leaves his family and job to search for the priest who molested him for nearly 10 years when he was a kid. Religion, it's hard to escape it.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Spreading some blog love

Los Angeles-based screenwriter and blogger Stella Louise, of Well Above Average, has kindly given a shoutout to my humble little corner of the blogosphere. Thanks, also, to Linz of Linz McC's Completely Pointless Blog, who gave me an honorable mention. And I just want to point out that her blog isn't pointless at all!

Of course, with that recognition comes the obligation to pass along the love.

At first I wasn't sure how to go about doing this. I love all of my theatre-blogging buddies, many of whom I've met, and I'd hate to leave any of them out. But I've mentioned many of them, and you all know who they are. They're all on my blog roll. So just to be different, I thought I'd give shoutouts to blogs that cover some different ground. They're ones I've never mentioned but enjoy reading.

Blog of a Bookslut: Some blogs I love because the personalities of the blogger really shine through. Then there are others I love because they do all the heavy Internet lifting for me. This blog is a great example of the latter category. It's link heavy but they're great links, to stories I wouldn't have found otherwise, like the form letter that the late science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein sent in response to fan mail.

Carolyn Kellogg used to blog as Pinky's Paperhaus, but now she's got her own domain name, as well as a freshly minted MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. And she's the lead blogger for the Los Angeles Times book blog, Jacket Copy. There are lots and lots and lots of book blogs and some of them can be a bit dense and ponderous and make my eyes glaze over and my head hurt. But Carolyn/Pinky never does that. Her blog is lively and fun. When she publishes her first novel, I definitely want to read it.

Gignacery - a Family Frolic: As you can tell from my list, I like blogs that offer up little slices of life. Amanda and Jason write with great warmth, humor and insight about raising their three young sons. I loved following along with the summer of reading, in which the boys each tried to complete 50 books. It was quite an an impressive goal and I was happy to cheer them on when they met it. And now, I know why their home is a soda-free zone. Plus, Amanda and Jason each have their own blogs. I fully expect the boys to follow suit very soon.

Guydads: The dads, who live in the San Francisco Bay area, blog about a variety of subjects, but what drew me to them initially was that they take great vacations, including an annual jaunt to New York City. They squeeze as many Broadway and off-Broadway shows as they can into a much-too-short amount of time. I really enjoy their New York trip reports, especially if we've seen some of the same things. Plus, they've invited me to see a show with them if I'm ever in the neighborhood. And I love the Bay area. Thanks, Guy dads!

Linus the Great: We can all use some cuteness in our lives, can't we? Linus was born at 26 weeks, on May 15, 2007, weighing only 1 pound, 9 ounces. According to his parents, the blog "exists to update his friends and family with the latest on Linus’s march towards world domination, which currently includes: napping, trying to get his toes to his mouth, cracking up to the tune of Yellow Submarine, and charming strangers. " Well, he definitely charmed me. While this blog isn't updated very often, I never get tired of going back and looking at the same pictures again and again. Even though we've never met, I consider him a friend.

Passion of the Dale: I don't know much about Dale except that he's from Canada and he's very nice about leaving comments on my blog. (Reason enough to throw a little love his way.) I don't always understand what he's writing about, but it's very intriguing and I want to know more. He has an unusual and somewhat mystifying cast of recurring characters, like Honeypot and Korean Bagel Lady. Plus, he has the greatest blog post labels I've ever seen, including this one: My head is only pounding slightly from last night and from thinking so hard about this post. I really need to browse through his archives!

The Tin Man: Tin Man, aka Jeff, is a legal editor and former lawyer who lives in Manhattan. Before you think that those two facts might make his blog a bit well, dry, think again. Tin Man's writing is thoughtful, funny at times, moving at other times, and always conversational. Sometimes he blogs about politics, sometimes about theatre or movies or tv or something that's in the news, or sometimes he just writes about slices of life in New York City, where he lives with Matt, his partner of nearly five years. I always enjoy stopping by to check out the conversation.

Finally, this is something I've wanted to mention for quite awhile. My award for the most unappealing blog name has go to The New York Times for its book blog, Paper Cuts. It's a nice blog and I know they were trying to be clever, but ewwww! Was Flesh Wound already taken?

Okay my anointed bloggers, go forth and spread some love of your own!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Little House on the Prairie

Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

Although I'm a pretty emotional person, there have only been a few times over the past 18 months when something in a play or musical has reduced me to tears. Well, it happened again one week ago today, when I saw the new musical Little House on the Prairie at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

There's a point near the end of Act I, after a bout of scarlet fever has left Mary Ingalls blind, when her younger sister Laura sings to her, "I'll be your eyes." It's such a moving scene, a beautiful duet between Kara Lindsay's Laura and Jenn Gambatese's Mary. For me, it was the most memorable part of lyricist Donna Di Novelli and composer Rachel Portman's score, and I was crying pretty much through the whole song.

In fact, it was so powerful, I was certain that "I'll be your eyes" would mark the end of Act I. But the show went on for what seemed like another half hour. As the mood on the McGuire Proscenium Stage became a more lighthearted one, I think some of the impact of that moment passed by a bit too quickly.

That kind of jarring transition sums up how I felt about Little House on the Prairie - there was lots to like, some truly soaring moments and terrific performances. But at the same time, there were a few things about the musical that just struck me as well, a bit out of place. (Although it's been awhile since I've read all the books so for all I know, they may be true to life.)

Beginning in 1932 with Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote nine books about her childhood, describing her family's travels across the Midwest, what it was like to be a girl in the 1870s and 1880s, her career as a schoolteacher and her marriage to Almanzo Wilder.

The musical covers roughly the events of the middle books, beginning with By the Shores of Silver Lake, when Charles and Caroline Ingalls and their four daughters, including 12-year-old Laura, leave Walnut Grove, Minnesota, for a homestead in the Dakota Territory.

In adapting the work for the stage, book writer Rachel Sheinkin has tinkered a bit with the specifics of Wilder's life. For example, in the books, Mary is stricken with scarlet fever and becomes blind in Minnesota, before the family travels to the Dakotas. And there are only three Ingalls girls in the musical: Mary, Laura and Carrie. Baby Grace has been written out entirely.

Now, I loved Sheinkin's previous book of a musical, for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Sheinkin, who won a Tony award, created a wonderful, quirky, distinct group of adolescents. Their stories were funny and moving and they seemed very true to life. So I was really curious to see how she would approach a group of 19th century adolescents.

In Little House on the Prairie, I don't think she's always successful in capturing the essence of Laura's character. Some things just struck me as out of place, a little too 21st century. While some of the dialog was taken right from the books, other lines seemed a little too modern. I think Sheinkin stumbles a bit in trying to capture a 19th-century sensibility.

For example, there's a scene in a schoolhouse when Laura's nemesis Nellie Oleson, a suitably snobbish Sara Jean Ford, makes fun of the Ingalls girls because they're barefoot and they don't have the proper slates to write on. Coming to her sister Carrie's defense, Laura acts up in a way that was so disruptive, it didn't quite seem believable.

First, I simply don't believe that Caroline Ingalls, who, after all, had been a teacher, would have sent her daughters to school without shoes and without the proper supplies. While Laura was high-spirited and headstrong at times, she was at heart a good girl, well brought up, and would never have been that obnoxious and bratty to an authority figure like a teacher.

There's another song, where the homesteaders, going through a difficult winter, sing "Uncle Sam, Where are you?" While I'm glad that the musical doesn't sugarcoat things, I just don't believe that 19th century homesteaders expected a government bailout.

But despite those qualms, there are lots of things Little House on the Prairie, directed by Francesca Zambello, does right - including depicting the harshness and deprivation and isolation of life in the Dakota Territory.

There's a scene in the beginning of the musical when all of the wagons are filled with pioneers heading west, aided by Adrianne Lobel's imaginative set design. You get a great sense of who they were, how they came from different backgrounds - the wagon train includes European immigrants and African-Americans - but they set off with the same great hopes and dreams. (I did chuckle, though, at a bit of Michele Lynch's choreography in that scene that reminded me of Fiddler on the Roof.)

And Kara Lindsay is so appealing, with a strong, soaring voice. Her Laura is spunky and daring, with an independent streak. I especially loved Lindsay's performance in Act II. At that point, the pigtails are gone and she's transformed into a young woman who becomes a teacher in an even more isolated town, to earn money to help send Mary to a college for the blind.

Even though she's grown up, with more adult responsibilities, Laura is still feisty, still a risk-taker, still an independent-minded person right up until the end of the musical. We see her at first rebuffing and then falling in love with Almanzo, played by a very boyish and charming and confident Kevin Massey. I liked the scene between the two of them in Almanzo's wagon, when Laura takes over the reins and wants to drive the horses as fast as they can go.

The rest of the cast is great, too. Maeve Moynihan is sweet as Carrie, Gambatese's more mature and focused Mary provides a nice counterpoint to Laura's impetuousness in Act I. And I loved Steve Blanchard's strong, forceful Pa. You can definitely tell that Laura gets some of her spunk from him. As Ma, I thought Melissa Gilbert hit the right tone but didn't have quite the same presence as some of the other performers, and her voice seemed a bit thin in her big song, "Wild Child." Still, like everyone else, I remember watching her as television's absolutely adorable Laura, aka "half-pint," and it was very cool to see her on stage.

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her books to preserve the stories of her childhood, to show succeeding generations how much America had changed in her lifetime. And the musical does a good job of portraying what the lives of those pioneers were like. But what had the most impact on me were the things that are timeless - Laura's adventurous spirit and independence, her devotion to her family and to a sibling who needed her.