Saturday, February 28, 2009

The craziest place in the world

“It’s the craziest place in the world. Why change it?”
Aphrodite Kalonturos, of Delaware, commenting on a plan to close Broadway around Times Square to vehicles.

Okay, that quote cracks me up. And there is a certain logic to it. After all, honking horns and exhaust fumes, sidewalks so jam-packed you can barely move, are part of what gives Times Square its ambiance - right up there with the news tickers, giant advertising posters and the Naked Cowboy.

The city's plan, according to The New York Times, is to close Broadway between 42nd Street and 47th Street, at Times Square, and from 35th Street to 33rd Street, at Herald Square, starting in late May. The goal is to create vehicle-free plazas with chairs, benches and cafe tables.

At a news conference this week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “People don’t come to look at cars stuck in traffic. They come to look at the lights, the buildings and the excitement, and this is going to have a lot more of it.”

There's quite a bit of negativity in the comments on the Times Web site. Some see it as a way to make the area safer and point out that many European cities have centers that are traffic-free. Others view the plan as the ultimate Disneyfication of Times Square. They wonder how taxis, buses and delivery trucks will be affected and whether it will make other streets even more congested.

As someone who's spent a bit of time walking through Times Square, I'm all in favor of making it friendlier to pedestrians. I like the idea of giving people more room to move around so we're not all packed like sardines on the sidewalk. As one comment said, "The Times Square Area is so congested people walk out on the street anyway. This just makes it official."

On the other hand, I think we have to be realistic. It is what it is - a major thoroughfare, a noisy, sweaty, crowded, urban hub brimming with activity - the crossroads of the world. Maybe that's part of the appeal.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Nine in 2009

I know I'm woefully behind on my 2008 moviegoing but that doesn't mean I can't look ahead to the spring and fall of 2009.

Near the top of my list is the musical Nine, directed by Rob Marshall and featuring a whole stable of Oscar winners, including Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman and Sophia Loren. Whew!

I was thinking about Nine because it showed up as number 20 on The Film Experience blog's list of the year's 20 most anticipated movies, where Nathaniel called it "the rare stage musical that might be improved by bringing it to the screen." Some of the comments are more skeptical. You can check out the discussion for yourself.

I've never seen Nine on stage, never heard any of the songs, by Maury Yeston, but I have heard great things about the show, which won the 1982 Tony Award for Best Musical and the 2003 Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. (I wonder how often that's happened? I'll have to do some research.) And what a cast in the revival: Antonio Banderas, Chita Rivera, Laura Benanti, Jane Krakowski.

Coincidentally, Nine takes place in Venice, which I visited in 1982 and remains one of the most beautiful, unique cities I've ever seen. Plus, I have watched 8 1/2, the 1963 movie from Italian director Federico Fellini about a movie director struggling with problems in his personal and professional life.

The musical is scheduled to open in the United States on Nov. 25. A perfect after-turkey treat.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

For the president, the show is never sold out

"It is a badly kept secret that every theatre around the world holds four tickets even after a show is sold out for the Pope or the President."
Gemma Mulvihill

Broadway in Chicago

Wow, I never knew the real purpose behind house seats. So, does the theatre manager have to call the White House (or the Vatican) a half hour before curtain time to make sure they won't be needed? (I know, I know, house tickets are used for other purposes, too, like when your seats get eaten up by an expanded stage and they need to put you somewhere.)

I read that in a blog post from Mulvihill, executive director of sales for Broadway in Chicago, who recounted some of the Obama family's theatergoing, which apparently wasn't extensive but they did go occasionally.

Then-Senator Obama and his wife, Michelle, attended a performance of The Color Purple, in 2007. The couple have also been to Chicago's Goodman Theatre, to see Regina Taylor's Drowning Crow. Michelle Obama took Sasha and Malia to see Wicked and High School Musical. Here's some more on their cultural outings, from the Los Angeles Times.

Let's hope the Obamas take full advantage of those house seats. As Michael Kahn, artistic director of Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company, told the L.A. Times, "if the first family appreciates and participates in arts events, it’s something that is part of American life. It sends a good message that the arts count.”

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ingalls family is on the movie again

So the musical Little House on the Prairie didn't quite make it to Broadway after its premiere last fall at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis but at least it's coming to the tri-state area. New Jersey's close, right?

A national tour has been booked through June 2010 and these are the venues I've seen announced so far:

Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, N.J., from Sept. 10 to Oct. 10.
Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, in St. Paul, Minn., from Oct. 13-25 (official launch of the tour)
Denver Center for the Performing Arts, from Dec. 15-27

The show is coming to Toronto in early 2010 but no dates or location have been announced yet.

Melissa Gilbert will reprise her role as Caroline "Ma" Ingalls but I don't know whether any of the other Guthrie cast members are joining her. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the musical, which didn't get great reviews but played to sellout audiences, has reportedly been "tweaked and re-designed."

(Update from Playbill: Steve Blanchard will continue as Pa and Kara Lindsay will reprise her role as Laura. Also, a few more cities have been announced, including Houston, Tempe, Ariz., and Sacramento, Calif., but no dates have been set.)

Personally, I thought the musical was kind of a mixed bag - some elements I liked, some I didn't. Maybe part of the appeal was being with friends and making my first visit to Minneapolis, but overall I enjoyed it. And I'm hoping the tour means there'll be a cast recording.

I think this is the kind of show that would do well on the road. It's got a "name" in the cast, the Little House books and television show are so familiar and it'll appeal to all ages. It's a great musical for children or adults who've read Laura Ingalls Wilder's series about life on the prairie in the 19th century.

Sure, I'm a little sad that it wasn't up to Broadway quality but on the bright side, it has the potential to draw a young audience. The more positive experiences you can provide to kids, the greater the chance that they'll grow up to be adult theatergoers. At least I hope so.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Spider-Man the Musical

Okay, might as well keep today's aerial theme going.

According to Playbill, the Spider-Man musical has a theatre - the Hilton; a first preview - Jan. 16, 2010; and a subtitle - Turn off the Dark. (Why don't they just call it Spider-Man the Musical? That's what everybody is going to end up calling it anyway. Oh, I just learned from the New York Times ArtsBeat blog that "Turn Off the Dark" is the title of one of the songs.)

Also, not to be nit-picky so early, but I'm a little concerned about the Hilton. All of those words people used to describe it turned out to be true - cavernous, barnlike. When I saw Young Frankenstein I was on the right orchestra, about two-thirds of the way back. In most Broadway theatres, that would be fine. But in the Hilton, I felt really far away.

I have to admit, I'm not into comic books and I'm not a big fan of superhero stories or Evan Rachel Wood, the only performer who's been announced so far.

But I'm excited about this because Bono and The Edge are writing the songs and Julie Taymor is directing. I like U2 - at least their older songs. And I'm a big fan of Julie Taymor.

When I was watching the fantastic documentary Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About on PBS last week, I tried to think of choreographers working today who would be considered as innovative.

While I know she's not a choreographer, Taymor came to mind for her work on The Lion King. I loved the way she used puppetry and elements of Asian theatre and video projections to make the African landscape come alive. If anyone can put that space at the Hilton to good use, she can.

So I'm hoping this will be an uplifting collaboration.

Man on Wire

I've now seen this year's Oscar winner for Best Documentary, Man on Wire, and it was so intense I swear I got vertigo just sitting on my couch.

The film tells the story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit's attempt to walk on a cable strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center on Aug. 7 1974.

Director James Marsh blends old footage of Petit with current interviews in which he and his accomplices describe the years they spent planning the feat. Marsh also uses some re-creations that add to the drama, giving it a cloak-and-dagger feel.

Petit himself is such an engaging character, talking about his inspiration and why he does what he does. In 1974 he was a 24-year-old street performer in Paris: juggling, riding a unicycle, doing his high-wire act. I especially loved seeing him as a young man: red-haired, scrawny, kind of impish and incredibly determined.

But the documentary certainly doesn't give you the impression that he's a daredevil or foolhardy. Just the opposite. Petit takes great care with his wire walking and he's very meticulous in his preparations. We also see him walking between the pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and across the towers of Notre Dame. He clearly knows what he's doing.

The film doesn't make any reference to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that brought down the twin towers, although you can't help but think of that day as you watch. In hindsight, it seems shocking that it was so easy for Petit and his friends to make their way inside the buildings with hundreds of pounds of equipment.

The most amazing scenes, though, are the ones where we just get to watch Petit in the air - holding a curved pole for balance, placing one foot carefully in front of the other, at times lying down on the cable, with nothing underneath him but the hard, unforgiving pavement.

It truly takes your breath away.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Major league theatre

Frank Vlastnik and Ken Bloom, who wrote Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time, are answering questions at the New York Times ArtsBeat blog. (A second installment, on what makes a great Broadway show, will appear tomorrow.)

The questions and answers cover familiar ground: How do we build the next generation of theatergoers? Why aren't more Broadway plays and musicals available on dvd? Why is there a trend of movies being made into musicals? One that I thought was especially informative: Why is everything so loud to the point of discomfort? The authors get into a discussion about how, before miking, performers had to use their muscles. "Today’s performers hardly have to push sound past their vocal chords and their performances suffer."

And I have to take issue with them on one answer. A reader who lives in the Midwest and sees touring productions for $25 a ticket but has never been to Broadway asks, "Why should I spend my savings to travel to New York and pay five times that to see a show?"

Bloom answers, "For the most part, today’s touring shows have fewer stars, cut-down sets and orchestras, and less rehearsal. Trust me, there’s absolutely no comparison between a touring production and the original Broadway production."

First part, I definitely agree with - on tour the sets won't be as lavish, the orchestra won't be as large, the performers may not be big stars yet. New York is a wonderful place to visit in general and if you're a theatre fan, you should try to get there. Broadway is such a unique, exciting experience and with discounts, it doesn't have to cost $100 a ticket.

I mean, that's a bit like saying why would I ever want to go to a Major League Baseball stadium when I can see my Triple A team right here at home? Sure, it'll cost more, but if you're a baseball fan, you want to attend a major league game at least once. Believe me, I've done both. Same thing with theatre.

But to say that there's "no comparison" is a trifle unfair. Not everyone can get to New York City, just like not everyone lives near a major league baseball team. (Ok, enough with the sports analogies!) Seeing a Broadway show on tour can be powerful and immensely entertaining. I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss it.

The Oscars: A few of my favorite things

Time for a little Oscar postmortem:

I thought Hugh Jackman's opening number was hilarious and wow, he has such a terrific stage presence. It's nice to have a host who looks good in a tux and can do more than tell a few topical jokes. He reminded us that the movies are about glamour. Plus, Anne Hathaway is so funny, so adorable. I've loved her ever since The Princess Diaries and I'm sure she'll get an Oscar someday soon.

Hugh's big musical number, produced by Baz Luhrmann, was ok. It did seem a little strange to give a big wet kiss to movie musicals this year, since there weren't any nominated. But I enjoyed the shoutout to films like West Side Story. Coincidentally, I'd been listening to the Broadway cast recording on my iPod that very afternoon! Anytime I get to see the talented Mr. Jackman singing and dancing, it's a treat.

Honestly, I thought the show dragged a bit - maybe because I'd seen so few of the nominated movies. It was a little hard to get swept up in the all the hoopla for Slumdog Millionaire. From the descriptions I've read, it's much too violent for me. I'll have to wait until it comes out on dvd. As for The Wrestler, I'll probably never see it. Same for The Reader. I read the book, though. Does that count?

But I did like the way they gave out the awards - taking us from the script to the finished product and showing us a little bit about the process along the way. And I liked having winners from previous decades standing in a semicircle to introduce this year's nominated performances.

Seeing all of the little kids on stage when Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture was awfully cute. And watching Phillipe Petit balance an Oscar upside down on his chin when Man on Wire won for Best Documentary was pretty cool.

There were very moving acceptance speeches from Dustin Lance Black for Best Original Screenplay for Milk; Kate Winslet for Best Actress for The Reader, the family of the late Heath Ledger accepting his award for Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight; and Sean Penn for Best Actor for Milk.

Both Black and Winslet were so personal about what the award meant to them. And I can't even imagine how difficult it must have been for Ledger's parents and sister, who aren't in show business, to get up there in front of thousands of people. I would have been like a deer in headlights.

Winslet was so sweet, talking about how she'd dreamed of this moment ever since she was a little girl: "I'd be lying if I hadn't made a version of this speech before, I think I was probably eight years old and staring into the bathroom mirror. And this (holding up her statuette) would've been a shampoo bottle. Well, it's not a shampoo bottle now!"

I got choked up when Black talked about what Harvey Milk's life meant to him as a gay man and the message that Harvey would want him to give to gay and lesbian kids who have been told that they are less than by their families, their church, their government: that "you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value. And that, no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you."

And Penn, who portrayed one of the country's first openly gay elected officials, used his speech to remind the audience plainly and simply what this fight for our gay and lesbian friends and family and neighbors and coworkers is all about: "We've got to have equal rights for everyone."

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Rooting for the home team at the Oscars

Okay, the Oscars are tonight. Two actors with Rhode Island ties and theatre credentials - Viola Davis and Richard Jenkins - have a chance to take home little golden statuettes. So good luck to them both!

Coincidentally, the two films for which they received nominations - Davis for Best Supporting Actress in Doubt and Jenkins for Best Actor in The Visitor - are two of the relatively puny number of Oscar-nominated films I managed to see. And both performances were terrific.

Davis grew up in Central Falls, studied at Rhode Island College and appeared in several productions at Trinity Repertory Company. She left Rhode Island for the bright lights of New York City, where she studied at Juilliard and won a Tony Award in 2001 for her role in the August Wilson play King Hedley II.

Jenkins became a member of Trinity Rep's acting company in 1970, appearing in more than 40 productions and serving as artistic director for four seasons. He's worked steadily in movies and television in recent years, most notably as family patriarch Nathaniel Fisher in the HBO series Six Feet Under.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

On tap - Hugh Jackman

Hugh Jackman preps for the Oscars tomorrow night. Check out the dance moves and the biceps!

Friday, February 20, 2009

At 92, a new stage for Kirk Douglas

I must give props to 92-year-old Kirk Douglas, who's planning four performances of a new one-man show next month at the theatre in Los Angeles that bears his name. Before I Forget will feature the actor, author and philanthropist talking about his life and career.

Michael Ritchie, artistic director of the Center Theatre Group, which includes the Kirk Douglas Theatre, tells the Los Angeles Times Culture Monster blog that it was Douglas's idea. "It’s anecdotes, but there’s also a philosophical thread throughout. It's about being an artist and an actor. It’s his life, told through some of his characters."

Of course, Douglas is best known for movies such as Spartacus, Lust for Life and Paths of Glory but my favorite is a 1966 film set in Israel called Cast A Giant Shadow. I found it when I was channel-surfing late one night and the movie inspired me to make my first trip to Israel, in 1995. I ended up living there for a year, so Kirk Douglas has had quite an impact on my life.

Douglas suffered a stroke in 1996 that partially impaired his speech. The last movie I saw him in was It Runs in the Family in 2003 and it was clearly affecting him. I'm not sure how much stage work he's done since his last Broadway appearance, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in 1964. But I'm sure the audience will be very understanding and hanging on every word.

Maybe he'll even take the show on the road!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Talking about race

In a speech yesterday at the Justice Department to mark Black History Month, our new attorney general, Eric Holder, said that Americans - black and white - simply don't talk to each other enough about race.

While blacks and whites are integrated in many sectors, such as the workplace, we're still too segregated in our free time. "Saturdays and Sundays, America in the year 2009 does not in some ways differ significantly from the country that existed almost 50 years ago," Holder said. "This is truly sad."

He's right, it is sad. And that quote made me think about my experience at A Raisin in the Sun at Trinity Repertory Company on a Sunday afternoon earlier this month.

For most of the play's nearly three hours, we're watching African-American actors tell the story of a working-class black family in Chicago in the 1950s. The lone white actor in the cast is on stage for only two scenes.

I found the play so absorbing that when the lights came on at the end of Act I, it was a little startling to look around and see that the audience in the sold-out theatre was almost entirely white. Once I got to the lobby, I realized that the crowd was more diverse but not by much.

I'm not criticizing anyone. I'm sure Trinity Rep has a community outreach program. I know it offers matinees for school groups through Project Discovery that attract students of all races and backgrounds. And there have probably been other performances that drew a larger percentage of African-Americans.

And it's not that I think black people have an obligation to come support this show. We should all be interested in hearing each other's stories as well as our own.

Unfortunately, I think there's still a misconception that theatre is somehow special - it's not for everyone. In my two years of regular theatergoing I've noticed that audiences tend to skew white and older.

A Raisin in the Sun is so relevant and compelling 50 years after its debut on Broadway and this is a fine production. It's a play about the dreams and struggles of a family that should resonate with everyone. I had hoped it would bring black and white theatergoers together for a shared experience.

Theatre especially is perfect for that role because the actors are right there in front of you. If you're in a small venue, it's a much more intimate experience than watching a movie or sitting on the couch at home watching television. And Trinity Rep has talkbacks for the audience after every performance where a staff member leads a discussion about the show.

That shared experience, as the attorney general said, is one we all need.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Broadway by the numbers

Sadly, Gratuitous Violins did not make Time magazine's list of the 25 Best Blogs of 2009. But I am part of another exclusive club.

The League of American Theatre Producers has released its demographics report for the 2007-2008 Broadway season. Among the findings: Those who saw 15 or more shows comprised 5 percent of the audience, and represented 30 percent of all tickets sold.

Coincidentally, I saw 15 Broadway shows during that time period, putting me in the top 5 percent. It's nice to be above average in something. I feel really, really special. Thanks, Broadway League!

The League also reports that:
  • Forty percent of tickets are now purchased online.
  • The typical playgoer saw 8 shows.
  • The typical musical theatre fan saw 4 shows.
  • The percentage of theatergoers who purchased tickets more than a month in advance rose to 39 percent, from 32 percent.
  • Tourists purchased about 65 percent of the nearly 12.3 million tickets sold.
  • Foreign tourists comprised more than 15 percent of attendees.
  • Word of mouth is the single biggest factor in picking a musical.
  • Critical reviews are most influential in choosing a play.
  • The average age of Broadway theatergoers was 41.5 years old.
  • Those under 18 accounted for 12.5 percent of the audience.
  • 31 percent of theatergoers live in New York state.
  • 19 of the top 25 counties from which theatergoers hail are in New York or New Jersey.
  • Other top areas include counties in Michigan, Florida, California, Maryland and the Washington, D.C., area.
As the report points out, a lot of these figures haven't changed very much over the past few years and I don't think there were any huge surprises. But two things seem significant to me:

Theatergoers under age 18 accounted for a record 1.5 million tickets. "We know that children who attend a Broadway show grow up to be loyal theatergoers,” says Charlotte St. Martin, the League's executive director.

Attendance by international visitors once again well surpasses pre-Sept. 11 levels, totaling 1.88 million tickets. "This audience stays longer and sees more shows than domestic tourists."

One statistic I'd be interested in knowing is, What's the percentage of tourists who come to New York City and don't see a Broadway show?

I know, perish the thought. But I'm sure there are a few. And with tourists playing such a big role in ensuring the health of the Great White Way, I wonder what can be done to get them in a seat?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Setting my DVR to dance

What mazel!

On Sunday, I saw a classic example of Jerome Robbins' choreography in Fiddler on the Roof and now he's the subject of a documentary on PBS airing Wednesday as part of the American Masters series. It's also being released on DVD on March 31.

Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About
is narrated by Ron Rifkin (Uncle Saul on ABC's Brothers and Sisters).

"I think most Broadway choreographers would tell you they owe a debt to Robbins," says producer/director Judy Kinberg. "He was instrumental in elevating the musical to an American art form."

Set those DVRs and as always, check local listings.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Fiddler on the Roof

Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

I didn't come to Fiddler on the Roof in the traditional way: watching the movie or seeing a production in my native language. I first saw it performed in Hebrew in 1998 when I lived in Israel, then I saw the movie and now, 11 years later, I've finally seen the musical on stage in English.

What did I miss the first time around? The humor, mainly. Fiddler on the Roof is a lot funnier than I realized. Even with my limited Hebrew, the poignancy came through and I recognized the songs and the dances didn't need a translation. But if you're seeing a show for the first time in a foreign language, it's hard to get the jokes.

All three of my experiences have one thing in common: Chaim Topol as Tevye, the pious Jewish milkman eking out a living with his wife and five daughters in the village of Anatevka in czarist Russia in 1905. The current tour is billed as the Israeli actor's farewell after 40 years of playing this iconic role.

Topol, at age 73, is terrific and wonderfully expressive: singing, dancing, joking, conniving, arguing, beseeching the almighty. He embodies Tevye so completely - his faith, his love for his family, his wry sense of humor, his bewilderment at a changing world. Really, I can't imagine anyone doing it better.

While Topol is clearly the performer the audience has come to see, Tevye never overwhelms the musical. I think part of the strength of Fiddler on the Roof is that it's much more than a one-man band. It's truly an ensemble.

Joseph Stein's book, based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem, is rich in memorable characters. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick spread around their songs with lyrics and melodies so beautiful they bring tears to your eyes. (Just think about the first few lines of "Sunrise, Sunset.") Jerome Robbins' choreography, reproduced by Sammy Dallas Bayes, is thrilling and it's so well-integrated into the story and music. Together, they evoke the vanished world of Eastern European Jews.

One of the things I love about Fiddler on the Roof is the way we're given the time to get to know these characters as Tevye tries to find husbands for his three oldest daughters. My only quibble is that we get a little more time to watch the first two relationships unfold. By the time we get to the third, and most monumental, it seems to happen rather quickly.

Rena Strober, Jamie Davis and Alison Walla are wonderful as daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava. They're so spirited, so determined to marry for love. I really enjoyed watching the three of them in "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" as they dream of getting married while preparing for the Sabbath. And Davis has a voice that soars in "Far From the Home I Love."

Erik Liberman made a very sweet and timid Motel the tailor and Colby Foytik was great as Perchik, the idealistic student and would-be revolutionary who challenges the Jews of Anatevka to rethink their traditions. Susan Cella was a nice counterpoint to Tevye as his exasperated and long-suffering wife, Golde. Mary Stout as Yente the matchmaker and Bill Nolte as Lazar Wolf the butcher both had nice comic turns.

For years I was reluctant to see Fiddler on the Roof because I was afraid that it would romanticize the poverty-stricken and precarious lives of Russian Jews. But even the sentimental parts - like the lighting of Sabbath candles - were staged in a way that I found incredibly moving.

And the musical doesn't present an all-rosy picture. We get the moments of heartbreak as well as joy. There's no glossing over anti-Semitism. There's also no glossing over the rigid piety and resistance to change among some of the Jews of Anatevka.

Tevye is trying to hold onto the traditions that have sustained the Jewish people for centuries in the face of exile and persecution. He says, "because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do."

Now, those traditions are being questioned and his daughters are pulling away from him in ways that are unfamiliar, heartbreaking even. His response doesn't always make him a very sympathetic character but in the inspired performance of Chaim Topol, it does make him very human.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


This ad from an Israeli newspaper says (reading from right to left): Topol, in his biggest role ever, like Broadway, like London. Kinar al ha gag - Fiddler on the Roof.

I've mentioned before that my introduction to Fiddler on the Roof was seeing it in Tel Aviv, in Hebrew, in 1998, with Chaim Topol playing Tevye. At the time, I'd never even watched the movie.

Today, I'll see this classic musical on stage again, this time in English. And once again with Topol, who is beginning a nationwide farewell tour in the role.

Not many people can say they've seen the same actor play the same role in two different languages - much less on two different continents and in two different centuries. L'chaim!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Her 'Broadway Star'

I was at a bookstore the other day browsing through the fiction and saw Made in the U.S.A. by Billie Letts. The dedication made me smile:
To Dennis, my "Broadway Star,"
who trusted the wonder of love

All I could think was awww, what a sweet tribute to her husband. Dennis Letts passed away one year ago this month. I can still picture him sitting at that desk in the opening scene of August: Osage County.

The last novel of Billie Letts' that I read was Where the Heart Is, and I really enjoyed it. I'm long overdue for a second. I think I'll put this one on my to-read list when the paperback comes out in May.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A win for the arts

The Senate passed the $787-billion economic stimulus bill a few minutes ago. The House approved it earlier in the day. And guess what - money for the arts is back!

In drawing up a compromise bill, House and Senate negotiators dropped an amendment from Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma that excluded assistance for museums, theatres and arts centers.

The bill includes $50 million to support projects in all 50 states that create and preserve jobs in the nonprofit arts sector. The money will be handed out via the National Endowment for the Arts. According to a story in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, 40 percent will be distributed to state and regional organizations and 60 percent to projects selected by competition.

Apparently a grassroots lobbying campaign by Americans for the Arts is partly responsible for the turnaround. It urged people to call and e-mail their representatives and ran ads like the one above.

The group estimates that for every dollar the NEA distributes, another $7 is generated through local, state and private donations, which means $50 million could create $350 million worth of investment.

Everyone wants to be a fiddler

So I was reading the reviews at Critic-o-Meter for Leah's Train. I was kind of curious because I knew it was a play about Russian and American Jews performed by the National Asian American Theatre Company. I wish I could see it - I think this kind of cross-cultural experience can be really interesting.

And actually, I guess it's not so unusual. I couldn't find a list of all the countries where Fiddler on the Roof has been performed, but I'm sure the musical has been done in many different languages since its Broadway debut in 1964. And I'm sure it's been done mostly by people with no connection to Jewish culture. Hey, that's why it's called acting.

Since I'm going to see the national tour of Fiddler this weekend, I thought I'd check up on other productions. The list at Music Theatre International is made up mostly of high schools from around the United States.

I noticed that a lot of Christian high schools do the show, which tells the story of a Jewish village in czarist Russia. Lots of schools like to do musicals and this one is well-known, with a big cast. Plus, I'm sure the plot, centering on people of deep religious faith trying to hang onto their traditions, is very appealing.

And the range of schools is pretty amazing, too, from the very preppy Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire to Inuksuk High School in in the far northern Canadian territory of Nunavut. Now those would be two very interesting shows to see back to back.

Like the description on the MITI Web site says, "Its universal theme of tradition cuts across barriers of race, class, nationality and religion, leaving audiences crying tears of laughter, joy and sadness."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Abraham Lincoln - arts lover

"Michelle and I are so pleased to be here to renew and rededicate this hallowed space. We know that Ford's Theatre will remain a place where Lincoln's legacy thrives, where his love of the humanities and belief in the power of education have a home, and where his generosity of spirit are reflected in all the work that takes place.

It has been a fitting tribute to Abraham Lincoln that we've seen and heard from some of our most celebrated icons of stage and screen. Because Lincoln himself was a great admirer of the arts. It is said he could even quote portions of Hamlet and Macbeth by heart. And so, I somehow think this event captured an essential part of the man whose life we celebrate tonight."

From President Obama's remarks last night at the rededication of Ford's Theatre

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

America's most famous theatre

Ford's Theatre bills itself "as America's most famous theatre" and that's probably true, although certainly not in a way you'd want to be famous. I saw a show there in 1976, during my first visit to Washington, D.C., when I was in high school. It was the gospel-themed musical Your Arm's Too Short to Box With God.

While I don't remember anything about the musical, I do remember looking up at the presidential box more than once. The history buff in me wondered what it must have been like on that fateful night of April 14, 1865, when John Wilkes Booth entered the box, shot President Lincoln, then leaped to the stage to make his getaway.

Tonight, a day before Lincoln's 200th birthday, Ford's Theatre officially reopens after a $25-million renovation. To mark the occasion, there's an invitation-only gala featuring a host of celebrities and the presentation of the Lincoln Medal to George Lucas and Sidney Poitier.

The theatre also plans a makeover of the type of work it presents, according to its director, Paul Tetreault. The emphasis will be on education and the American experience. "I think we're going to be focused on more important work. It might be funny, it might be serious."

A new play about Lincoln, The Heavens Are Hung in Black, by James Still, is playing there until March 8. Starring David Selby as Lincoln, it covers the five months between the death of the president's son Willie and the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. It'll be followed by the musical The Civil War from March 27 to May 24.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

I'm a stimulus package all by myself

Two of my favorite mainstream media blogs that cover theatre - Culture Monster at the Los Angeles Times and Theater Loop, by Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune - have stepped into the debate over whether assistance for the arts should be part of the economic stimulus package.

At Culture Monster, Christopher Knight notes that the Senate passed, with bipartisan support, an amendment submitted by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma "to ensure that taxpayer money is not lost on wasteful and non-stimulative projects." That means excluding "any ... museum, theater [or] art center" from getting aid.

In response, Knight offers "Five Reasons Congress Hates the Arts."
  • The culture industry is cosmopolitan, so flag-waving options are few.
  • The culture industry is pluralistic, but Congress is only marginally so.
  • As corporations, arts institutions are nonprofit, so there's no money to be made via lobbyists.
  • Culture is girlie, not manly.
  • The arts often look at sexual experience -- eek!
And at The Theater Loop, Chris Jones makes a case for why the arts deserve assistance:

"Economic stimulus is dependent on the human spirit. The arts create confidence and self-worth, and those qualities in turn foster fiscal activity. The arts build neighborhoods and can help stem the decline in property values. The current recession is most devastating in inner cities, precisely where the arts are at their best.

The idea that the arts don't create jobs is absurd, Jones argues: "they just fuel different kinds of struggling workers, workers unaccustomed to bonuses. Their role in generating billions of dollars in ancillary economic activity for stores, restaurants and the travel business has been proven in bucketloads of surveys and analyses."

As someone who spent a week in New York City last fall, I can personally attest to all of the economic activity I stimulated:
  • Amtrak, which got me there and back
  • the hotel where I stayed
  • all of the restaurants where I ate
  • all of the stores where I shopped
  • taxi rides and bus and subway fares
  • museum admissions
  • the $5 I paid to a sidewalk vendor for an umbrella
What do all of those things have in common? They provide jobs. Heck, I was practically a one-woman stimulus package. And that's not even counting all the money I spent on theatre tickets. The theatre - you know, an art - is the whole reason why I went.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Raisin in the Sun

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

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of the Broadway debut of A Raisin in the Sun. Watching the play at Trinity Repertory Company, I was struck by how revelatory it must have seemed to audiences in 1959.

Here was a story about a striving, working-class black family at a time when positive depictions of black people were rare on stage or screen, if they were seen at all. It was Broadway's first drama by a black woman, Lorraine Hansberry; and the first with a black director, Lloyd Richards.

As the play opens, five people - three generations of the Younger family - are living in a cramped Chicago apartment in the late 1950s. Walter Lee Younger Sr. has passed away and his widow and children are waiting for a $10,000 death benefit from the insurance company. They have different, conflicting ideas for the money and how it can be spent to help them build a better life.

Trinity Rep veteran Barbara Meek, in her 105th production with the company, is terrific as matriarch Lena Younger. She holds this family together with great deal of courage and common sense and resiliency. She's the keeper of its history and its moral center.

Angela K. Thomas, an M.F.A. candidate at the Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium, is great as her college student daughter Beneatha, a confident, spirited young woman, forging her own identity at the dawn of the civil-rights movement.

I was a little less pleased with Joe Wilson Jr. as her son, Walter Lee Jr., and Lynnette R. Freeman, also a Brown/Trinity student, as his wife, Ruth.

Walter Lee works as a chauffeur and he has this rage that's supposed to be just below the surface. But Wilson was a bit too over the top. And while you can see how Freeman's Ruth has been worn down by her husband's weaknesses, she seemed a little young for the role, simply not as memorable a presence.

I liked the actors who played Beneatha's suitors. Jude Sandy is charming and idealistic as Joseph Asagai, a student from Nigeria who nurtures Beneatha's desire to connect to Africa. Charlie Hudson III hits just the right note as the preppy and well-off George Murchison. Dustin Isom and Nigel Richards alternate as Walter Lee and Ruth's young son, Travis.

The set design by Michael McGarty makes the Youngers' apartment small but extremely neat and tidy. Directed by Brian McEleney, this production also has a lot more humor than I remembered from the 1961 movie or the 2008 television version of the Broadway revival. Sometimes, I think the audience laughed a little too much in places where it veered close to being inappropriate.

The Youngers are a family in transition - proud, industrious, the people who work as housekeepers and chauffeurs and take in laundry and care for other people's children. They will not be intimidated, they will not let racism stand in the way of achieving the American Dream. They are the people that Broadway audiences of 50 years ago probably employed but never really knew.

The title of the play refers to a poem by Langston Hughes that asks, "What happens to a dream deferred?" A Raisin in the Sun is about the American Dream - what does it mean to different people, how do we achieve it and how do we react when it looks as though that dream is about to slip through our fingers.

Lorraine Hansberry died of cancer at age 34, in 1965, leaving a small body of work, including this classic play. Half a century later, A Raisin in the Sun remains a powerful, compelling drama about the importance of family and the dreams we hold in common. At a time when so many families of all backgrounds are struggling, it is every bit as relevant.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

12 Movies Meme

Okay, Vance from Tapeworthy has tagged me to program a movie theatre for 6 nights, with two movies a night. Here are the rules:

1) Choose 12 films to be featured. They could be random selections or part of a greater theme. Whatever you want.
2) Explain why you chose the films.
3) Link back to Lazy Eye Theatre so I can have hundreds of links and I can take those links and spread them all out on the bed and then roll around in them. (I'm not sure what that last part means but a rule's a rule.)

These aren't my 12 all-time favorite films, although a couple of them do make an appearance. And some of my favorite genres, like documentaries, aren't represented at all. But since I always did pretty well on term papers, I decided to go with a theme of compare and contrast. I picked movies that I thought would be interesting to see back to back.

I'm tagging:
The Singleman Party
Theatre Aficionado at Large
Stage Left, House Right
I Can't, I Have Rehearsal
And anyone else who'd like to play along!

Day 1: A cinematic feast - What's Cooking and Alice's Restaurant
Sure, "Thanksgiving movie" doesn't have quite the same ring as "Christmas movie" but it can still serve up a filling cinematic feast. In 2000's What's Cooking, director Gurinder Chadha follows four Los Angeles families - Jewish, Latino, African-American and Vietnamese - as they make preparations for the big holiday meal. They cook, they eat, they squabble. It's a sweet little movie about the foods we love and the ties that bind. I'll admit that Arthur Penn's 1969 film Alice's Restaurant is dated, with its focus on the draft and the counterculture. But Arlo Guthrie is terrific in this adaptation of his song about a Thanksgiving with friends that goes awry.

Day 2: The sincerest form of flattery - The Pursuit of Happyness and The Bicycle Thief
Not every director would have been handed the script of The Pursuit of Happyness and thought, The Bicycle Thief. But Gabriele Muccino clearly and lovingly constructed this 2006 movie starring Will Smith as an homage to Vittorio De Sica's classic 1948 Italian neorealist drama. Some of the scenes are identical, with Smith and his son trudging around the streets of San Francisco in a way that evokes the journey of the Italian father and son in postwar Rome. Both movies are about the struggles of a man in very meager circumstances to provide a better life for his family. Both will tug at your heartstrings as they poignantly and powerfully demonstrate the bond between parent and child.

Day 3: From screen to stage and back - Hairspray and Hairspray
I always liked John Waters' 1988 cult classic Hairspray, about attempts to integrate a Baltimore teen dance show in the early 1960s but I loved it once the story became a musical. For me, this is a screen to stage adaptation that works. Maybe it's not quite as quirky and subversive, maybe it's a little more mainstream, but on stage, with some songs and dance numbers, Hairspray becomes a joyous, energetic celebration. It's still about being true to yourself, a testament to the power of individuals to affect change. I'm very happy that in 2007, Hairspray made the transition back to the movies, this time as a musical.

Day 4: The joy of movement - Billy Elliot and Swan Lake
I love those small British movies about a community banding together in the face of adversity. Billy Elliot, released in 2000 and directed by Stephen Daldry, is set against the backdrop of a miners' strike, so it fits the bill perfectly. And since it's the story of a boy, played by Jamie Bell, who realizes that he loves to dance, what better to pair it with than a ballet? I'm not sure Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake ever made it to movie screens but since you can watch it on a 1996 dvd, that's close enough. I know that traditionally, the swans are portrayed by ballerinas. I'll take Bourne's handsome and agile male swans any day.

Day 5: Leading men - Casablanca and Annie Hall
I would have to say that Annie Hall from 1977, and Casablanca, from 1942, are my two all-time favorite movies. So many memorable scenes, so much quotable dialogue. Sure, it doesn't seem as though Humphrey Bogart's smooth and confident cafe owner Rick Blaine, in World War II Morocco, has much in common with Woody Allen's fumbling and insecure late 20th-century New Yorker Alvy Singer. But both movies are about a man and a woman from very different backgrounds coming together, and the difficulties that arise from those relationships. And in their own way, Bogie and Woody are the perfect leading men for their times.

Day 6: New York, New York - On the Town and Midnight Cowboy
Could there be two more diametrically opposite views of New York City than the ones presented in these two films? On the Town, from 1949, is a lighthearted musical about a trio of sailors (Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin) who do some sightseeing and search for romance during a 24-hour shore leave in Manhattan. John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy, on the other hand, from 1969, is a New York City filled with danger and squalor and places where no tourists venture. We've got Jon Voight and an amazing Dustin Hoffman as two hustlers who become unlikely buddies. Where does the truth lie? Probably someplace in between.

Friday, February 6, 2009

A problem like Blagojevich

Rod Blagojevich Superstar - the title alone makes me laugh.

Chicago's famed Second City comedy troupe has written a rock opera about the disgraced former governor of Illinois, under indictment for allegedly trying to sell President Barack Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder.

I heard about it on NPR yesterday and I loved this quote: "Like all great theatrical ideas, Rod Blagojevich Superstar started with drinking," says Kelly Leonard, one of the show's creators. Well, I'm sure there some great theatrical ideas that didn't start with drinking - at least one or two anyway.

But somehow this seems fitting. Blago does have a flair for the dramatic - the way he jetted off to New York for television interviews while his impeachment trial was under way in Springfield, his comment that he looked to Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi for inspiration because they know the trouble he's seen.

And from Fiorello to Frost/Nixon, politicians have made good theatre.

The show opens on Tuesday but previews have already started. Some of the ex-governor's former staffers have seen it. They loved it so much, they stayed afterward to offer advice to the cast: "apparently our Rod doesn't swear enough."

Leonard told NPR that he's confident Blagojevich will be in the audience at some point. "As weird as that sounds, it feels to us like he's the type of guy who would come to the show, laugh his head off and go backstage for a photo op with the cast."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Kennedy Center asks what it can do

Kudos to the Kennedy Center for a new project designed to help struggling nonprofit arts organizations - which these days probably includes just about all of them. Arts in Crisis will offer free, confidential emergency planning assistance to eligible groups nationwide.

"These are times of economic crisis and as the nation's center for the performing arts, we wish to help," said Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser. "If any arts organization in the United States believes we can assist, the senior staff of the Kennedy Center and I offer our collective skills. We are at your service."

That is so nice to hear. I think it's great that the Kennedy Center sees its mission as promoting and assisting the arts nationwide - not just in its home base of Washington, D.C. I figure a little free advice can't hurt and the Kennedy Center has experience - it helped the Louisiana Phiharmonic recover after Hurricane Katrina, for example.

The initiative's $500,000 budget is being paid for by Miami philanthropist and businesswoman Adrienne Arsht and Kennedy Center trustee Helen Lee Henderson. Kaiser tells The Washington Post that the money will go toward administrative costs, including travel for members of the organization seeking assistance to come to Washington or for Kennedy Center staffers to make an on-site visit.

Organizations - including theatre companies, dance troupes and operas - can apply online to receive advice in fundraising, building a more effective board of trustees, budgeting, marketing and other areas.

Kaiser wants to establish a volunteer corps of arts managers nationwide so that organizations can be matched with mentors in their geographic area. Other help can come through e-mail, by phone or in live Web chats.

He told the Post that his main concern isn't smaller organizations, which have always had to struggle, but with efforts at downsizing that are simply misdirected. "I'm worried that people are cutting the wrong things first, and that makes it much harder to compete for funding," he said. "Those who cut the programming first wouldn't look as attractive to the funders."

Arsht, who gave $30 million last year to help turn around Miami's performing arts center, says ''All the arts organizations are cutting in different ways. The key . . . .is how you cut and [to] not cut back on your artistic quality. . . . In the ballet, if you're doing Swan Lake, you can't say, `OK, this year instead of doing 30 swans, we're doing 15.' ''

According to Kaiser, part of the impetus came from the new administration in Washington. "This is in the spirit of President Obama saying we have to volunteer and get involved.''

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

How high can ticket prices go?

I think I once paid $50 to see Bruce Springsteen in concert but that was as high as I'd ever gone for a ticket to a single entertainment event - until I started going to Broadway shows. Now, I routinely pay twice that much without thinking twice.

I've gotten better at using discount codes from places like Playbill but because I'm from out of town and have a limited amount of time in New York, and because my increasingly arthritic knees crave the extra leg room in the orchestra and I like being close, I've bought plenty of full-price tickets. I've even splurged for premium seats on a couple of occasions. Like most people, I've cut back on my spending a bit over the past few months. But I don't want to cut back on my theatergoing.

I'm not like most tourists. When I go to New York, I see a lot of shows. So New York Gov. David Paterson's proposal to add a 4 percent tax to theatre tickets certainly hits home. I have to agree with Steve on Broadway that theatre owners should think about reducing prices or cutting fees.

Rocco Landesman, the president of Jujamcyn Theatres, which owns five Broadway houses, testified yesterday in Albany. He noted that visitors come to New York to see theatre much more than they do to attend sporting events. Some lawmakers made the point that teams like the Yankees also attract tourists.

Sure, I know people who've come to New York for a Yankees game but I still think Broadway is the biggest draw. There's no doubt that having a thriving theatre district - with all of the ancillary businesses like hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops - plays a big role in the city's economic well being.

Afterward, Landesman said that theatre owners and producers were “going to have to look hard at our cost structure” and try to find ways to lower ticket prices to make theater more accessible. I hope he follows through because I could use a break - and so could a lot of other people.

Theatre is the main reason why I come to New York. I love being able to see a show every night - plus two on weekends. The thought of not having my tickets with me when I get there - of having to take my chances at the TKTS booth or lottery - does not make me happy. Neither does the prospect of seeing fewer shows.

Are there any balconies with leg room?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

For 50 years we've been on our own

"I can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died."
Don McLean
"American Pie"

It's been half a century since the plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959, near Clear Lake, Iowa, that killed J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. Rock 'n' roll veterans gathered in Clear Lake yesterday to remember "the day the music died."

I heard Don McLean sing "American Pie" once, at the New York State Fair. Here's an interesting interpretation of what the song means.

The three musicians have been immortalized in the musical Buddy, which opened originally in London's West End, played for a total of 225 performances at Broadway's Shubert Theatre, from Oct. 23, 1990 to May 19, 1991, and has since been presented around the world.

But Buddy focused mainly on the life and music of Buddy Holly. I'd like to make a pitch for a musical celebrating the life and music of Ritchie Valens. Although he was only 17 when he died, he left a big legacy.

Born Richard Steven Valenzuela in California in 1941, he was the first Chicano rock 'n' roll star and has served as an inspiration to Latino musicians. His story was told in the 1987 movie La Bamba, with Lou Diamond Phillips. I loved the movie and the soundtrack, with music by Los Lobos.

With the success of In the Heights, about a Latino neighborhood in New York City, and the upcoming West Side Story revival, with actors singing and speaking in Spanish, I think this is a great time to develop a West Coast Latino story on Broadway.