Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Make my Avenue Q super-sized

I bought my ticket yesterday for the tour of Avenue Q, so next month I'll finally get to see whether this cheeky little musical - with full puppet nudity - was worth all the hype. (Did I mention it won the Tony?)

Now I don't mind a little puppet nudity, as long as it's tastefully done and an integral part of the story. But what concerns me a bit is that Avenue Q will be swallowed up in the 3,100-seat Providence Performing Arts Center.

This is a show that played on Broadway for six years at the 805-seat John Golden Theatre, one of the Main Stem's smallest. It closed Sept. 13 after 2,534 performances and will reopen off-Broadway Oct. 9 at the New World Stages complex, in a 499-seat venue.

I don't think the Avenue Q tour is unique. My guess is a lot of touring productions play in theatres much bigger than your average Broadway house, most of which seem to be around 1,500 seats, with quite a few under 1,000. The largest is the 1,933-seat Gershwin, appropriately home to Wicked, one of Broadway's biggest hits.

But in small-sized cities like Providence, there aren't a lot of options for touring Broadway shows to set up shop. They might have one theatre that can handle them. Even if there is a second choice, naturally the producers want to be in the biggest possible space.

For some shows, I don't think it matters as much. I saw Spring Awakening on Broadway at the 1,108-seat O'Neill and in Providence, both times in the orchestra section, and I loved the musical in both places. I saw Wicked sitting in the PPAC mezzanine, and I was captivated.

So I'm looking forward to Avenue Q, the show that snatched the 2004 Tony for Best Musical out from under my beloved Wicked. For comparison purposes, it's fitting that I'll be in the same theatre. In fact, Avenue Q even has an advantage - this time, my seat is in the orchestra.

All I can say is: Puppets, I hope you're up to the challenge. (And I couldn't resist including a poster from the Philippines production. This is not a show for little kids!)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Two from the Banned Books shelf

It's Banned Books Week, that time of year when the American Library Association draws attention to censorship and promotes the freedom to read. The first I'm against and the second I heartily endorse! (Thanks to Amanda at The Zen Leaf for alerting me.)

According to the ALA, 513 challenges were reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2008.

The 10 most "controversial" (scare quotes!) titles include two that I've read: Khaled Hosseini's much-praised The Kite Runner, about his native Afghanistan; and the children's book Uncle Bobby's Wedding, by Sarah S. Brannen, about two male guinea pigs who tie the knot.

The Kite Runner made the list because it contains offensive language, it's sexually explicit and "unsuited to age group." I don't quite understand that last part because as far as I know, the novel's "age group" is adults. This isn't something a young child would be interested in at all.

While there is a scene of sexual violence, it's not done in a titillating way and it's absolutely essential to the story. And I don't remember an excessive amount of profanity.

This is an absorbing, thoughtful novel that a teenager could definitely handle. It's a window into a country and a culture in which Americans ought to have a great deal of interest. It's also an immigrant story, as the main character and his family struggle to make new lives for themselves in the United States.

Uncle Bobby's Wedding made the list because it's "unsuited to age group and homosexuality." I first heard about it in 2008, when Colorado librarian Jamie LaRue wrote about a challenge from a patron.

This is a sweet, beautifully illustrated story about a little girl gerbil named Chloe who's afraid of not being able to spend as much time with her favorite uncle once he gets married.

I can't imagine anyone possibly being offended unless they have a heart of stone. It's about the importance of family and the vocabulary seems totally appropriate for the intended age group. The love between Bobby and Jamie (the two male gerbils) is presented matter-of-factly. There's no big discussion about it.

What offends me are people who find books with gay and lesbian characters offensive, as if it's something we can't talk about "in front of the children." It's just as demeaning and bigoted as banning books with black, Latino or Jewish characters.

Besides, "the children" may already have a classmate with a gay or lesbian parent or family member. Those kids have the right to find books about their families on the shelves, too.

Do parents have a right to pick their children's library books? Absolutely. Do they have a right to pick the library books for other people's children? Absolutely not.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The blog turns two

Happy blogoversary to me!

On Sept. 28, 2007, Gratuitous Violins was born when I pressed "publish" on my first blog post, a review of The 39 Steps. Here's what I wrote on my first anniversary, and all of that still holds true.

For everyone who's added me to their blogroll, left a comment, found me by Googling where Carrie Bradshaw went to college (I still don't know!) or searching for violin music (I don't have any!) or just stopped by to read what I wrote over the past two years, thank-you.

It's great to have a platform to write about issues that are important to me and it's incredibly rewarding to be part of the online theatre community that has been such a welcoming place and led to so many wonderful friendships.

Like actors thrilling at the first reaction they ever receive from an audience, writers can get bitten by the bug, too. It's been a long time since I had my first byline in The Northeastern News but even after all these years, it's still a thrill to know that people are reading something I've written.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

My U2 playlist

I'm watching the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, with musical guest U2! (Speaking of musicals, I'll be on the lookout for any references to Spider-Man.)

In case you're interested, I saw the band once, in Syracuse on Oct. 9, 1987. I remember Bono's arm was in a sling because he'd dislocated his shoulder. It was also the same night as a friend's goodbye party, which I rushed to after the concert.

Here's the playlist, which actually contains most of my favorite U2 songs. (Thanks to James Sims of the Sofa Snark blog for pointing me to the site where I could look it up!)

Carrier Dome, Syracuse University

Opening Act(s): Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul, Los Lobos

Main Set: Where the Streets..., I Will Follow, Trip Through Your Wires, I Still Haven't Found, MLK, The Unforgettable Fire, Exit, In God's Country, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Help, People Get Ready, Bad, October, New Year's Day, Pride

Encore(s): Bullet The Blue Sky, Running To Stand Still, With or Without You, 40

Update: U2 performed four songs on SNL: "Breathe," "Moment of Surrender," "Ultraviolet," and after the show ended, "With or Without You."

Friday, September 25, 2009

Is 90 minutes theatre's holy grail?

In the Chicago Tribune, Chris Jones wonders whether 90 minutes is the right length for a show. He says it depends, and I'd have to agree with him.

I've seen some 90 minute musicals, like 13 and A Catered Affair, for example, that I really loved. I spent about 7 1/2 hours watching all three parts of The Norman Conquests and it was bliss. The 3 hours and 15 minutes of August: Osage County flew by.

But I realize that not everyone is me, and attention spans are shorter these days. If people are seeing an evening performance and they have to get to work the next day, they want to get home at a reasonable hour. If I'm at home and not in New York City on vacation, 90 minutes looks more attractive.

The article reminds me of a Working in the Theatre podcast on the marketing of Broadway that I watched recently. The guests, all experienced at designing campaigns to sell plays and musicals, were talking about the success of God of Carnage, a 90-minute play.

Drew Hodges founder and CEO of the theatrical advertising agency SpotCo, said: "I'm sure we've all asked to put 90 minutes no intermission in the ads. ... A really good show that's short is the holy grail."

(On the other hand, can a show be too short? According to Telecharge, the Broadway revival of David Mamet's Oleanna, with Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles, clocks in at 1 hour and 15 minutes, and rear mezzanine tickets are $76.50.)

Personally, I think the playwright or composer has to know how long their work needs to be. Knowing when to stop is one of the hardest things for any writer to learn. I'm certainly guilty of being long-winded on my blog. (Although no one's paying to read it.)

To attract me as an audience member, the key is an absorbing story and compelling characters. Then I'll stay with you for as long as it takes.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Honeycrisps are here

There are two seasonal foods I look forward to every year: blueberries in the spring and Honeycrisp apples in the fall.

If you've never tried a Honeycrisp, please do your taste buds a favor and head to the nearest market as soon as possible. The harvest season is roughly from mid-September to mid-October and they don't seem to hang around for very long.

I'd never heard of the Honeycrisp until a couple of years ago, when I saw a big pile of them stacked up at Whole Foods, and figured I'd give them a try. Just the name: honey and crisp, sounded appealing.

It's been tough finding the perfect eating apple.

I'd had my fill of Galas and Pink Ladies and Braeburns and McIntoshes. Sometimes they were great, other times they were kind of soft and mushy tasting. A lot of apples raise expectations, only to dash them once you take a bite. (I'm talking about you, Red Delicious.)

But the Honeycrisp was different, right from the start. It was so tasty and absolutely true to its name - firm and crispy and crunchy and sweet and tart. Honestly, I don't think I've ever had a bad one. This is an amazing apple.

And who do I have to thank: researchers at the University of Minnesota. Another reason to love the Land of 10,000 Lakes! They developed the Honeycrisp by cross-pollinating two other varieties, the Macoun and the Honeygold. The new apple made its debut in 1991.

Horticulture Prof. Jim Luby says the Honeycrisp is "the best, most exciting apple we've ever introduced." I would have to agree.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I sure hope there are clowns!

I'm excited about the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury, because, well, everybody else is excited about it!

No, seriously, while the enthusiasm of my fellow theatergoers plays a big part in my desire to see this revival, directed by Trevor Nunn, that's not the only reason.

I've seen several Sondheim musicals on stage. Two were in Boston - Sweeney Todd on tour at the Colonial Theater and Follies at the Lyric Stage. I saw Road Show at New York's Public Theater. (Not to mention West Side Story and Gypsy on Broadway.) Three others I've only seen on dvd - Company, Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George.

I like how Sondheim deals with weighty themes in a way that's entertaining but also makes you think: the injustice of the legal system in Sweeney Todd, the creative process in Sunday in the Park with George, what happens as we age in Follies, our ability to remake ourselves and our desire for riches in Road Show.

I know that A Little Night Music is based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, which I haven't seen. And it has Sondheim's most well-known song, "Send in the Clowns," which for most of my life I didn't know was from a musical.

Other than that, I don't know too much about the plot and I've tried to stay a little in the dark. Usually, I know way too much about a show before I even set foot in the theatre. I think A Little Night Music takes place in the 19th century and there might be a love story involved, and Swedes, or at least Scandinavians.

When I think about Sondheim and relationships, what comes to mind are the bickering couples in Company. Could this a more romantic side? Plus, I'll finally hear "Send in the Clowns" in context, and I'm excited about that. Are there actual clowns? I'm not sure, but there ought to be.

Previews for A Little Night Music begin at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Nov. 24 and it opens on Dec. 13.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The odds catch up with The 39 Steps

Broadway shows come and go but this one is a little more personal for me than most. The 39 Steps is responsible for my becoming a theatre blogger and it was the subject of my very first Gratuitous Violins post.

So when I heard that the play is closing Jan. 10, I was disappointed. I saw the British import at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company in September 2007, during its pre-Broadway run. And I loved it just as much when I saw it on Broadway in July 2009 at the Helen Hayes Theatre.

But nothing lasts forever on Broadway, except possibly The Phantom of the Opera. And I knew that the nonprofit Second Stage Theatre announced in July 2008 that it was acquiring the Helen Hayes as a venue for contemporary American drama.

Plus, this little play, which began previews in January 2008, beat the odds. It changed theatres twice, transferring from a nonprofit to a commercial run to become the longest-running Broadway play in seven years. That's not bad for a production with no recognizable actors, based on a movie few theatergoers have seen.

In July, I got my ticket at the Times Square TKTS booth and apparently a lot of other people went the discount route, too. The 39 Steps was playing to 60.7 percent capacity last week at the 597-seat Helen Hayes, Broadway's smallest house, with an average ticket price of $64.34.

But I have to give the producers credit for trying different ways to get people into the theatre, including hosting talkbacks, an Alfred Hitchcock lookalike contest, a scavenger hunt based on The Amazing Race and posting clues on Twitter about tickets hidden at various spots in midtown Manhattan.

I've written before about how the play, with its four-person cast and a few props, uses wit and inventiveness to retell the story of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie about a man caught up in a spy ring. I've seen far more elaborate shows that didn't thrill me and or make me laugh nearly as much.

For a brief period over the summer, as this New York Times article notes, The 39 Steps was the only play on Broadway. Arnie Burton, who's been with the production since Boston, called it "an homage to the theatre. It's a valentine to that kind of creativity and imagination, of doing so much with so little."

There's still time to see The 39 Steps on Broadway. Discounted tickets are available through

The national tour has already been at the La Jolla Playhouse and moves to the Seattle Repertory Theatre from Sept. 25 to Oct. 24. Although the tour "officially" kicks off in November at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven. Here's the schedule.

In his review from La Jolla, Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty said that the play "sets out to prove that anything movies can do, theater can do less expensively and more hilariously." I definitely agree.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Happy anniversary, Playbill!

Congratulations to Playbill, which celebrates its 125th anniversary today.

Yes, of course I have all of mine, from every Broadway show I've attended. And all my tickets, too. Okay, that's only been since 2007, so it's not a remarkable number, but it's a start!

When I see one discarded on the floor of the theatre at the end of a performance, it makes me a little sad. Why wouldn't you want to take your Playbill home?

Some are covered with signatures I got at the stage door. One got a little wet from the rain but most are in pretty good shape, sitting in brown paper shopping bags from Whole Foods. (Yes, I know I need to get binders.)

And I wish shows would keep their color covers longer. I've written before that the black and white cover for the 9 to 5 Playbill looked a little washed out.

I've never attended a Broadway opening night but I do have two opening night Playbills, gifts from the sweetest SOB I know. One is from the first Broadway show I ever attended, A Moon for the Misbegotten, signed by Kevin Spacey and Eve Best, autographed to me personally!

I try not to obsess too much but I have badgered an usher once or twice when I was handed a Playbill that I considered slightly imperfect. I kept asking for new ones at Hairspray until someone finally pointed out that the smudge on the cover was Tracy Turnblad's nose.

Sorry! Maybe I'm a little obsessed.

Friday, September 18, 2009

An Israeli August: Osage County

Wow, August: Osage County really is spanning the globe. I've read about the productions in London and Australia and Portugal. But somehow I missed this one. In January, there was a production in Tel Aviv, at Habima, Israel's national theatre.

I think Tracy Letts' Tony and Pulitzer-winning play would translate well into Hebrew, or any other language. After all, it's about the interaction between parents and children, husband and wives, siblings. Those are pretty universal themes.

(Except there's no letter "w" in Hebrew, so the "Weston" family of the play would probably sound more like "Veston.")

Gila Almagor, one of Israel's leading actresses, played the acid-tongued, pill-popping, cancer-stricken matriarch Violet Weston. You might remember Almagor from the Steven Spielberg movie Munich, in which she played the mother of Mossad agent Eric Bana.

In this interview, Almagor talks about how her mother's struggle with mental illness informed her portrayal of Violet.

And this is a tv commercial for the play. My Hebrew's extremely rusty but it starts out by describing the plot.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Rest in peace, Mary Travers

Mary Travers passed away Wednesday in Connecticut at age 72, after a lengthy struggle with leukemia.

For some reason, this one hit me harder than some of the other recent celebrity deaths. Maybe it's because I've been listening to Peter, Paul and Mary forever.

I saw them in concert once, in Boston in the 1980s, and they played many of the songs I loved. I mean, who doesn't love "Blowin in the Wind," "If I Had a Hammer," "Puff the Magic Dragon," "I'm Leaving on a Jet Plane." I'm so glad I had a chance to hear them perform live.

I didn't realize this, but Travers appeared on Broadway three times - two of them were concerts with Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1980s, to benefit the New York Coalition for the Homeless. But in 1958, she was part of a short-lived musical comedy revue called The Next President, with Mort Sahl, that played at the Bijou Theatre, where the Marriott Marquis now stands.

As part of the folk trio with Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey, Travers sang the songs that became anthems for the civil rights and antiwar movements. Peter, Paul and Mary performed "If I Had a Hammer" at the 1963 March on Washington, where the picture was taken.

The New York Times obituary notes that the group's politics were somewhat risky for attracting a mass audience.

“There was a real possibility that we would lose the entire Southern market over the issue,” Ms. Travers told Robbie Woliver, the author of Hoot!: A Twenty-Five Year History of the Greenwich Village Music Scene, an oral history. “But we felt that the issue was more important than the Southern market.”

Amen to that. Rest in peace, Mary Travers.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Little Red Truck

I admire anyone who works with young children because it's such a demanding job. The closest I've come was a year I spent living in Israel, where I worked with English teachers in a Tel Aviv elementary school. Sometimes I'd have to handle a dozen or so kids on my own, and that was more than enough.

So I have to hand it to the Missoula Children's Theatre, the subject of a very sweet documentary from 2008 by Rob Whitehair called The Little Red Truck.

For 35 years, this Montana-based company has traveled across the United States and Canada, to communities large and small - some of which don't have a school drama program. Over the course of a week, they cast, rehearse and mount a one-hour musical using about 60 local kids.

The movie combines footage shot in six places, including Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic, to take us through a week of activity, from auditions (sadly, not every kid makes the cut) to rehearsals and finally, the big event.

The tour directors who take the show from city to city don't have an easy task. It's tough to get kids to trust someone they've never met before, who are afraid of being made to "look stupid." But like good teachers, they're patient and energetic and they work hard to build a rapport with the kids.

And it is poignant to hear some of the stories - a 13-year-old caught up in a gang, kids who have to walk to and from rehearsals because their parents can't take them, or whose parents can't make it to their performance, a girl in the throes of stage fright.

Jim Caron, the theater company's cofounder and CEO, says in many of the places that the Missoula Children's Theatre visits it's the school play and community festival rolled into one. But he hopes it's more than that.

"What I hope we're also bringing is an alternative in terms of their own lives. We say to these kids look, here is something you've never tried before and you can do it and you can do it well."

Like the documentary OT: Our Town that I watched last month, The Little Red Truck is a testament to the power of theatre. "Let's put on a show" may be a corny, overused phrase but you know, there's something to be said for it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

To honor Senator Kennedy, repeal DOMA

Today, Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York is expected to introduce a bill repealing the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. If Democrats truly want to honor the memory of Sen. Edward Kennedy, this would be a good place to start.

Reading the obituaries for Kennedy, who died last month of brain cancer at age 77, I was struck by the fact that he was one of only 14 senators to vote against DOMA.

I looked up the Senate roll call on the act, which bars the federal government from recognizing gay unions, and I could not believe some of the people who voted for it, including many Jewish members of Congress.

I don't understand how Jews, especially, could vote for a bill whose sole purpose is to target a minority group that continues to face discrimination. Only one word describes it: shanda. We're supposed to be on the side of protecting civil rights, not taking them away.

I know some of Nadler's colleagues, including Rep. Barney Frank, think introducing a bill to repeal DOMA at this time is a bad idea. And even Nadler's staff acknowledges that there's little chance of the matter coming to a vote anytime soon.

Frank's argument is that there are other, more achievable goals, like repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and passing legislation that would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Of course those things are important and Democrats in Congress should get to work on them. There was an editorial Sunday in The New York Times that noted in 29 states, it's still legal to fire a worker for being gay. That's un-American and unacceptable and disgraceful. It's just as wrong as someone losing their job because of the color of their skin.

But it's also unacceptable that thousands of legally married gay and lesbian couples, many of them with children, are denied their rights under federal law.

Ted Kennedy had an unwavering commitment to equality and often called civil rights "still the unfinished business of America." In 2007, he made this statement regarding the Employment Nondiscrimination Act:

“America stands for justice for all. Congress must make clear that when we say 'all' we mean all. America will never be America until we do.”

I can't think of a better tribute to the Massachusetts senator than making sure that work gets finished.

Monday, September 14, 2009

My 2009 off-Broadway wish list

Twelve slots. If I'm lucky and the weather cooperates, that's the number of performances I'll be able to attend in New York City this fall.

To theatergoers who live a lot farther from Times Square than I do, that might seem heavenly. And it is pretty sweet. Then there are people who want to know, "Haven't you seen everything on Broadway already?" (Uh no, I haven't. But thanks for asking.)

I've written about my most-anticipated Broadway shows but I haven't mentioned off-Broadway yet. Every season there are a few off-Broadway shows I wish I'd seen and a few Broadway shows I definitely could have missed.

So, I pored over the listings in the New York Times' exhaustive fall theatre preview, and here are some of the shows on my off-Broadway wish list:

The Understudy, with Tony-winner Julie White, at the Laura Pels Theatre. I just think Julie White is hilarious. Plus, Theresa Rebeck's play is a "bitingly funny look at the underbelly of the acting world," and I like backstage stories.

Starry Messenger, by Kenneth Lonergan, at The New Group. It features Matthew Broderick and Catalina Sandino Moreno as an astronomer and a single mother. I've loved Broderick ever since the 1983 movie War Games. And Moreno gave a wrenching, Oscar-nominated performance as a young drug mule in the 2004 film Maria Full of Grace.

The Orphans' Home Cycle, by Horton Foote, at the Signature Theatre. Last fall, I saw Foote's Dividing the Estate on Broadway, with a cast that included his daughter, Hallie Foote. She was terrific and I really enjoyed the play. Foote was adapting the nine-play Cycle into three parts when he died in March. It would be great to see more of his work and see his talented daughter on stage again.

A Streetcar Named Desire at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I'd gladly make a trek from Manhattan to see Cate Blanchett as Blanche DuBois in this classic Tennessee Williams play. (Check out those pictures from the BAM Web site. Don't Cate and her Sydney Theatre Company costars Joel Edgerton and Robin McLeavy look intense!)

But the most intriguing plot description in the Times' listings: Romeo and Juliet, presented by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma. "Members of the troupe called people on the phone and asked them to recount from memory the plot of the Shakespearean tragedy of young love gone wrong. This version is the result."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Doctorow on Ragtime, the musical

The Broadway revival of Ragtime will be my first novel to movie to musical adaptation!

I loved the 1975 novel but I don't remember too much about the 1981 movie by Milos Forman, other than it was James Cagney's last film role.

I vaguely recall that E.L. Doctorow didn't like the movie of his novel so I was curious how he felt about the musical, which features a book by Terrence McNally and a score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.

Apparently, he likes it. I found an old interview from the San Francisco Chronicle in which he said that he was "very fond of the musical." (And the reporter confirms my suspicion that Doctorow is not a fan of the movie.)

The musical, he believes, "shows honor and devotion to the book. I was not a collaborator, but I was more than an observer. I fed them notes and think I was fairly useful to them. They were responsive to me.''

Having been promised approval rights over the creative team, been vigilant during the rehearsal process and made a point of seeing new musicals that have since opened, he says he's convinced "it verges on being an American opera. The piece really shines. Most of what you see (in other musicals) is so thin. Or hokey. Or overwrought.''

Now I know! I'm thinking it would be interesting to read the novel again, or at least watch the movie, but maybe I'll wait until after I see the musical, which begins previews Oct. 23 at the Neil Simon Theatre.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Is Alice Ripley's mercury rising?

I'm so glad Downstage Center is back but while the American Theatre Wing podcast was on hiatus, I had a chance to catch up on some of the older interviews.

For example, I hadn't listened to the interview with Alice Ripley, which aired in February 2008. This was before Next to Normal opened on Broadway, when it was at New York's Second Stage Theatre. And she's just as forthcoming as she was when I met her at the stage door.

At one point Ripley is asked about her eating habits. She explains that she's very careful what she puts into her body because it can affect her singing voice. Apparently honey helps her respiratory system.

And then there was this, which truly made me gasp:

"It's always a challenge to figure out what to eat in between shows on a two-show day. Sushi's usually a good thing. But you know you have make sure you eat just the right thing because you don't want to be weighed down by it."

Sushi?! Yikes. Alice, please be careful with that, okay?

Friday, September 11, 2009

At St. Paul's Chapel, remembering 9/11

Last fall, on a walking tour of Lower Manhattan, I stopped inside St. Paul's Chapel, on Broadway. From the churchyard, you can see the construction cranes on the spot where the World Trade Center once stood.

But what's inside the small church is what really got to me. And if you visit New York City and want to understand in a small way the toll of Sept. 11, 2001, this is a beautiful little place to remember and say a prayer.

The chapel, completed in 1766, is Manhattan's oldest public building in continuous use and its only remaining colonial church. It's the place where George Washington worshiped on his inauguration day, April 30, 1789, and you can see Washington's pew.

In the aftermath of the terror attacks, the chapel served as a place of refuge and recovery for those involved in rescue efforts at the World Trade Center site. For eight months, volunteers worked 12-hour shifts around the clock, preparing meals, making beds and offering comfort.

Today, if you walk around the chapel, you can see photos and other mementos of those who lost their lives in the attacks, a huge banner sent to New York City from the people of Oklahoma and something that I found incredibly moving - a pile of teddy bears left for rescue workers.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

My must-see fall shows, Broadway edition

Maybe it's the Obama Effect or just a coincidence but there are five shows opening on Broadway this fall that deal with the subject of race in America - musicals Ragtime, Memphis and Finian's Rainbow and plays Superior Donuts and Race.

Three of them - a revival of Ragtime and two new plays, Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts and David Mamet's Race - are among the shows I'm most looking forward to seeing as the 2009-2010 Broadway season gets under way.

Why those three? Well, I've always been interested in 20th century American history, not so much from the perspective of momentous events but from a social and cultural angle - where we come from and how we get along.

Ragtime, based on E.L. Doctorow's novel, with a score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, focuses on three families - African-American, Jewish immigrant and WASP - at the turn of the century. I loved the book and from listening to the music, I think it does a wonderful job of telling those intertwined stories.

Superior Donuts,
fresh from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, is a contemporary look at a diverse, changing Chicago neighborhood. After seeing so many terrific Chicago actors in August: Osage County, I'm eager for more, including Jon Michael Hill, who's making his Broadway debut. He's won raves for his performance as a teenager who works in a doughnut shop owned by Michael McKean. (From Spinal Tap! Laverne & Shirley!)

And Race - well, no doubt Mamet will have something interesting and incendiary to say. Plus, of all the big-name movie and tv actors who'll be treading the boards this fall, it has the one I'm most excited about - Richard Thomas. Yes, I realize James Spader is in it, and David Alan Grier and Kerry Washington. But c'mon, The Waltons! I grew up pre-VCR, pre-cable. Network tv was all I had. 'Nuff said.

I'm also pretty pumped about seeing A Steady Rain. Yes, I want to see how Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig will transform themselves into Chicago cops in Keith Huff's two-hander play. But no doubt about it, I'm also looking forward to staring dreamily at Hugh Jackman for 90 uninterrupted minutes. (Although the Playbill, which features their melded faces, is creepy beyond words.)

And I simply cannot miss the revivals of two Neil Simon plays, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound. I'm really looking foward to seeing what Chicagoan David Cromer, who directed the amazing Our Town, will do with them.

The plays are thinly veiled accounts of Simon's youth growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s and '40s. Which means, I know, creaky, self-deprecating Jewish humor. What can I say? Lines like this truly make me laugh:

"I hate my name - Eugene Morris Jerome. How am I ever gonna to play for the Yankees with a name like that? All the best Yankees are Italian. My mother makes spaghetti with ketchup. What chance to I have?"

And this:

"And when they saw the Statue of Liberty they started to cry. The women wailing and the men shaking and everyone praying. And you want to know why, because they took one look at that statue and said, 'That's not a Jewish woman, we're gonna have problems again.' ''

Oy, I can't wait!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

My must-see fall shows, regional edition

Fall preview season is just the greatest time of year. Every tv series is a possible hit, every book a potential bestseller and there's no shortage of promising performances on stage and screen. I get kind of giddy anticipating it all.

When it comes to theatre, I want to see everything but sadly, unlike books, movies and tv shows, that's not practical. So here are the plays and musicals in my area that I don't want to miss and have a realistic chance of being able to see. This might not be everyone's list, but it's mine.

I already have my ticket for The Huntington Theatre Company's production of August Wilson's Fences. After loving Joe Turner's Come and Gone, I'm excited about seeing another chapter in Wilson's cycle chronicling African-American life in the 20th century, this one set in the 1950s. (Also, the Huntington has set up a great Web site for the play, with links to podcasts, articles, interviews and sketches for the set design. Every theatre company should do it this way.)

I'm also interested in Shooting Star at Trinity Repertory Company. The two-hander is by Steven Dietz, a new playwright for me. Plus, it's a "smart romantic comedy," one of my favorite genres. And it features Kurt Rhoads and Nance Williamson, husband and wife actors who've won praise for their work with the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. It'll be nice to see some new faces at Trinity Rep.

I never had a chance to see Avenue Q on Broadway and it closes Sunday. But I've certainly heard a lot about this rather raunchy, supposedly hilarious puppet show over the years. I'm looking forward to catching up with the tour at the Providence Performing Arts Center, just to see what snatched the 2004 Best Musical Tony from my beloved Wicked.

On the other hand, Rent isn't new to me. I saw it at PPAC in 2008. But the tour is returning to Providence this fall with Broadway's original Mark and Roger - Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal. Rent was a groundbreaking musical in so many ways and to be able to see it with two of its original actors is a unique opportunity.

Speaking of Wicked, the musical returns to PPAC for a month in December. I saw the show on tour in 2007 and just fell in love with it. So you know I'll be there - and I hope you will, too.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Happy birthday, Steve On Broadway!

This song goes out to Steve on Broadway, with love. Happy birthday my dear friend, and thank-you for always lifting my spirits.

Here are Paula Kelly, Chita Rivera and Shirley MacLaine in the 1969 movie Sweet Charity, singing "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This."

Monday, September 7, 2009

Into the woods - my Yosemite adventure

A new, six-party documentary by Ken Burns, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, will air on PBS beginning Sept. 27. At the series' Web site, you can submit stories and photographs about your national parks experience.

Here's mine:

In 2004, I visited Yosemite National Park with friends who live near San Francisco. Our first day we drove south, to Wawona, to see the giant sequoias and they were mighty impressive.

The next day, I wanted to spend some time in Yosemite Valley, so we split up. I took a bus from our motel to the visitor center and wandered around, went to the Ansel Adams gallery, saw a movie about the park.

Then, feeling energetic, I went to the information desk to get a list of Yosemite Valley day hikes. The park ranger gave me a sheet of paper with eight or nine hikes, a description and their level of difficulty from easy to very strenuous.

She checked off an "easy" one, Mirror Lake/Meadow, which you can do as either a 2-mile or 5-mile loop. I rode the shuttle bus to the starting point and I was ready to go. This particular hike starts with a paved trail, which was no sweat. Then, feeling ambitious, I went off the trail.

Bad idea.

Athough I was a Girl Scout, I must have missed the meeting where they taught us how to find our way around in the woods. Give me a city neighborhood and I'm fine. But what markers do you use in the woods? All the trees and rocks look alike! And there are no helpful signs to point you in the right direction.

While Yosemite does get crowded in the summer, it's easy to find solitude once you leave the paved paths. Every once in awhile other hikers or runners would come through but I was pretty much alone. The woods were beautiful and I kept climbing until I had a spectacular view of the meadow below.

Once I decided to head back down, though, I was in trouble. I could see the gigantic granite monolith of El Capitan in the distance, so I had a vague idea of which way to head, but I couldn't find anything resembling a paved path.

Of course I didn't bring nearly enough water and I was down to my last granola bar. Yosemite isn't like Disney World, where they check at the end of the day to make sure everyone's made their way out safely. I never tried my cell phone but I'm not sure it would have worked.

Up until that point, my new Merrell hiking shoes had kept me steady on my feet. Then, I fell and skinned my knee. Ouch, did it hurt! Luckily, a couple with a baby were behind me and helped me up. I told them to go on ahead, I'd be fine.

From then on, I walked very gingerly, carefully stepping over every rock. I could not believe there were so many of them. Clearly, this was not a path intended for human use. Mountain goats, maybe.

Eventually, I reached the main road and the shuttle bus back to the visitors center. You would not believe the rush of adrenaline I felt at that point. I felt like John Muir!

I could have gone to the first aid station to get a bandage but I didn't want to miss the next bus to the motel and I wanted to hit the gift shop. I weighed the options - Band-aid, souvenirs - and decided the knee could wait.

Now, I have a lovely, framed Yosemite poster on my wall and an adventure I'll never forget.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A dream role for Lea Michele

Now this is one bit of Jewish-related musical theatre trivia that I did not know.

Lea Michele, formerly of Spring Awakening on Broadway and currently in Glee, talks to The Washington Post about the Fox series and her ideal musical role:

"I want to be in Funny Girl. And I want [Glee creator] Ryan Murphy to direct it."

Would she do it on Broadway?

"I would do it in a basement in Brooklyn, if somebody would let me do it! It's the best role ever -- any Jewish girl would want to play Fanny Brice!"

Best role ever? Wow! Although I guess it makes sense - what other musicals are there with a Jewish woman in the lead role?

I don't think I've ever seen Funny Girl, based on the life of comedienne, singer and actress Fanny Brice. (Okay, maybe snippets here and there on tv.) Rest assured I'll be putting the movie in my Netflix queue right away.

The musical ran for three years on Broadway between 1964 and 1967, with Barbra Streisand in the title role, amassing 1,348 performances. Streisand reprised the role for the 1968 movie and won an Oscar, sharing the Best Actress prize with Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter.

And Funny Girl has never been revived on Broadway, although there was a special one-night benefit performance for The Actors Fund in 2002.

With the musical Ragtime and two Neil Simon plays - Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound - on the Great White Way this fall, there'll be more Jewish characters than I can remember. Maybe it's time for a Funny Girl revival?

Here's a great program from 1964 about Funny Girl's opening night on Broadway, featuring interviews with Streisand and others. It's so poignant to hear people talk about her when she was just on the cusp of fame:

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Teaching theatre etiquette

With school starting up that means, hopefully, all students everywhere will take a class trip to see a play during the year (if the money hasn't been chopped from the budget).

I found this guide for teachers on the Trinity Repertory Company Web site. It seems like a good way to start a discussion on proper behavior and what makes going to the theatre unique. (And some adults could use this lesson, too.)


  • Speaking to your students about theatre etiquette is ESSENTIAL. Students should be aware this is a LIVE performance and that they should not talk during the show.
  • If you do nothing else to prepare your students to see the play, please take some time to talk to them about theatre etiquette in an effort to help the students better appreciate their experience. It will enhance their enjoyment of the show and allow other audience members to enjoy the experience.
  • What is the role of the audience in a live performance? How does it differ from attending a movie?
  • Why can’t you chew gum or eat at a live theater performance? Why can’t you talk?
  • What can happen in live theatre that cannot happen in cinema?
  • Reiterate that students may not chew gum, eat, or talk during the performance. Please make sure all cell phones and pagers are turned off. Recording devices and cameras are strictly prohibited.
  • If there is a disturbance, the parties involved will be asked to leave and the class will not be invited back to the theatre. Students will not be able to leave the theatre during intermission unless accompanied by an adult.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Something to makest thou chuckle

I know I'm a little late but last month The Boston Globe's Alex Beam penned a short three-act play about the Gates-gate affair as Shakespeare might have written it. (Thanks to The Playgoer for the tip.)

It's called The Sheriff at the Gates: A Farce in Three Acts, and it's wicked clever. (Or clevah, as they say in Cambridge.) I hope some theatre company puts it on someday!

In the meantime, to whettest thine whistle, (or is it thy whistle?) here's a snippet from Act Three:

(In the garden of the White Palace, GATES, BARACK and CROWLEY are sipping ale, joined by the FOOL.)

FOOL: What? No beer nuts?

BARACK: Silence, Fool! Or back to Delaware with you.

FOOL (sniffing his glass, suspiciously): What beer is this? I smell the filth of Antwerp and Bruges.

BARACK: ’Tis our nation’s finest, lately of St. Louis, now in foreign hands.

FOOL (Aside): ’Tis a light man that drinks a light beer.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Guides to Boston theatre and beyond

The weather's turned a little cooler this week and the college kids are moving back. Soon the leaves will change and it'll be time for another fall theatre season in New England.

So thanks to Joel Brown at Hub Arts for tipping me off to some great sources for news about what's coming up and Art Hennessey of Mirror Up to Nature for compiling a list of this fall's "should see" plays and musicals.

First, there's ArtsBoston, which offers reduced-price tickets and bills itself as a "one-stop shop" for arts and entertainment.

The revamped Web site is a little busy looking but it's pretty comprehensive. And the season preview, which you can download at Hub Arts, includes a blurb from my fellow blogger Chris Caggiano, of Everything I Know I Learned from Musicals. (It's on Page 6.)

A new resource is Explore Boston Theatre, the brainchild of Nicholas Peterson, who has extensive experience in using the Internet to promote the arts and nonprofit organizations.

The mission of the Web site is to connect audiences with excellent theatre productions throughout New England, although it does seem a little Boston-centric right now. Hopefully that'll change as it gets off the ground.

And Peterson has inaugurated Explore Boston Theatre with a nice feature. He's asked artistic directors from throughout the region to consider this question:

The past year has brought changes to the national economy which affect the financial health of theatres. We need theatre now more than ever. It promotes the public dialogue about what matters to all of us. Why?

The first reply comes from Kate Snodgrass, artistic director of Boston Playwrights Theatre, who writes about the importance of new plays. Here's part of what she said:

"New work asks the questions we're afraid to ask, and it does it with respect and in-your-face compassion. New works make us laugh in the face of hopelessness, instruct in the face of ignorance, and call attention to our lives just in the nick of time."