Sunday, May 31, 2009

Always something new to do in New York

Okay, I don't actually spend every moment of my New York City trips in Broadway theatres. It's an immensely walkable city with more things to see and do than probably any other city I've ever been in. So here's a rundown on my Memorial Day weekend:

Breaking the curse of the Jacobs Theatre stage door

On my two previous outings to the Jacobs, to see Frost/Nixon and The Country Girl, I was spectacularly unsuccessful in getting my Playbill signed. So I wasn't getting my hopes up for God of Carnage. But surprise - James Gandolfini came out pretty quickly, followed by Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden. They were all very gracious. Gandolfini was quiet but laughed when someone asked about a Sopranos movie. ("I don't think so.") Sadly, I missed out on the Holy Grail of stage-dooring, getting everyone in the original Broadway cast of a show to sign my Playbill. Jeff Daniels made a hasty exit. Hope Davis said he had out-of-town guests. Well, okay. Three out of four is 75 percent.

Sampling eclectic cuisine

Ninth Avenue (aka Hell's Kitchen) is my favorite street for eating in New York. Just a couple streets over from the bustle of Times Square, it's like another world. The sidewalks aren't nearly as packed with tourists and it's more like a regular neighborhood. It also has dozens of tiny and not-so-tiny restaurants serving up every type of food you could possibly imagine. I've eaten at half a dozen different ones and they've all been great. This time, I went with my friend Chris and his entourage to the Zen Palate - my very first Asian vegan restaurant, where I had some delicious whole wheat noodles with stir-fry vegetables. And no one looked at me funny when I asked for a fork - because I am chopstick-impaired.

Walking to Brooklyn

Sarah and Kari invited me to join them on a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge on a beautiful, sunny Memorial Day. Now I can say I've done it in both directions. It was very crowded and you've got to watch out for bicyclists and I should have put on some sunscreen. But it's such a fun walk with great views. As I remarked to Kari, what a photogenic bridge! Look at her pictures and see if you don't agree. That day, we rode the subway, walked, took the water taxi and a land taxi. Just about every mode of transportation except a helicopter ride over Manhattan. Okay, not sure I'm up for that but someday I would like to take one of those horse-drawn carriages around Central Park.

Witnessing literary history

I'm not a huge fan of short stories but I do love two that I remember reading in middle school or high school - The Ransom of Red Chief and The Gift of the Magi. When Sarah led us to lunch at Pete's Tavern, little did I know that I'd be stepping into literary history. New York City's oldest continuously operating bar and restaurant is the very spot where Mr. William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry, wrote The Gift of the Magi in 1905. His booth is set up as a little shrine. Made me want to buy a pocket watch and grow my hair long so I can get some fancy combs! Pete's Tavern, on East 18th Street near Gramercy Park, has been opened since 1864 and it stayed open during Prohibition disguised as a flower shop. If you go, I highly recommend the grilled chicken salad.

Relaxing in a lawn chair in Times Square

I got to New York on Sunday of the holiday weekend, the first day of the city's experiment closing Times Square to traffic. And it was pretty neat to be able to walk down the middle of Broadway. But I had to laugh when I came back from my excursion on Monday and saw people sprawled out on lawn chairs and chaise lounges that had been set up in the street. It looked like a massive installation of performance art. How incongruous! A little bit of suburbia in the heart of the city. I saw a sign inviting other chair manufacturers to display their furniture. I'm hoping when I go back this week, there'll be Barcaloungers.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Obamas do dinner and a Broadway show

Now isn't this sweet:

“I am taking my wife to New York City,” the president said in the statement, “because I promised her during the campaign that I would take her to a Broadway show after it was all finished.”

President and Mrs. Obama are in New York City tonight, where they dined at a restaurant called Blue Hill in Greenwich Village, then traveled to Times Square to take in the 8 p.m. performance of Joe Turner's Come and Gone at Broadway's Belasco Theatre.

How cool is it that of all things, Michelle Obama wanted her husband to promise to take her to a Broadway show after the campaign?! Pretty darn cool, if you ask me.

Of course, there are some naysayers:

"While the Obamas’ visit to New York was considered private, there was some very public criticism of the trip. The Republican National Committee suggested that that the outing was inappropriate and that Mr. Obama was out of touch, especially given the looming bankruptcy of General Motors.

The committee issued a press release on Saturday afternoon that read, “Putting on a show: Obamas wing it into the city for an evening out, while another iconic American company prepares for bankruptcy.”

Oh puh-leeze!

I think the president and first lady are doing more for the economy by traveling to New York City for dinner and a show than they would hunkering down in the White House. They're supporting tourism and the arts, both of which employ a lot of people. And they're drawing attention to the work of August Wilson - a great American playwright.

Besides, what is he supposed to do tonight to prevent General Motors from declaring bankruptcy - require that every American go to their nearest GM dealer Monday morning and buy a new car?

I know we're in a recession but I don't expect the president to walk around in a hair shirt. Isn't his example better than Vice President Joe Biden telling us all to be very afraid?

I'm just sorry that I have lousy timing. I'll be at Joe Turner next Saturday night - missing the first couple by exactly one week. Still, it'll be my first August Wilson play and I'm pretty excited about it - even without the president in the house.

Not all seats are created equal

The higher up and farther back you go in a Broadway theatre, the cheaper the seats get. So what about if you're off to the side?

I sat in the right orchestra for all three shows I saw last weekend: God of Carnage, Hair and Rock of Ages. Most Broadway houses have a fairly cozy orchestra section so it's usually not a problem if I'm not in the dead center. But this time, I definitely felt like I was at a disadvantage.

For God of Carnage, at the Jacobs Theatre, I was fairly close but a few seats from end. There were a few moments where I couldn't see everything that was happening with James Gandolfini's character on the far right side of the stage. It was just outside of my sightline.

Same thing for Rock of Ages, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. I was farther back, three seats from the end. My view of the video projections on the back wall was partially blocked by the set.

I was about six rows from the stage for Hair, at the Hirschfeld Theatre, but one seat from the end. I don't remember missing any of the action onstage, although I wish I'd had a better view of the band.

Now, I'm not too steamed because I don't feel like where I was sitting interfered with how I felt about the shows. It was just frustrating not to be able to see everything. And I paid full price for my tickets to God of Carnage and Hair.

I know producer Ken Davenport has written about variable pricing for Broadway shows. And Steve on Broadway has written about poor sightlines in the orchestra at Studio 54.

Isn't time to admit that not all seats in the same row are created equal and offer a discount for the last two or three on the end?

Friday, May 29, 2009

Rock of Ages

Gratuitous Violins rating: * out of ****

Well, I can't say I wasn't warned. I knew before I bought my (discounted, thankfully) ticket that Rock of Ages was a loud and not very good musical.

But I had a Monday night slot to fill on my trip to New York and I wanted to see something new. I'd seen the cast of Rock of Ages perform on Live with Regis and Kelly, and I listened to them on the Playbill Radio podcast and the show sounded like fun.

You know when you get really excited about seeing a movie based on the trailer and then realize that 2 1/2 minutes was the sum total of all the good parts? That's kind of how I felt with this musical.

The book, by Chris D'Arienzo, certainly had potential: a would-be rock star (Constantine Maroulis) and an aspiring actress (Amy Spanger) fall in love in Los Angeles. At the same time, a fabled Sunset Strip rock club is about to be torn down by an unscrupulous developer, (Paul Schoeffler).

There's an aging, lecherous '80s rock star with big hair (James Carpinello) who's brought in to try and save the day and a wickedly funny narrator (Mitchell Jarvis, who seemed to be doing a Jack Black impression.)

But Rock of Ages just felt kind of flat and crude instead of clever and inspired - more Spamalot than Spinal Tap. (Disliked the former, liked the latter.) This is one of those shows where everyone else around me was laughing and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, while I might have chuckled a few times.

Spanger is spunky and Maroulis is sweet and appealing. And I don't even mind cliches and a predictable plot if I care about the characters. But honestly, I didn't really care all that much about them.

Part of it was, I saw the show stone-cold sober while many of my fellow audience members took advantage of the in-seat drink service. (I think the couple sitting next to me had at least four beers apiece.)

Plus, loud doesn't even begin to describe the decibel level of this musical. Even before the show started, from the moment I walked into the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, the sound was overwhelming.

Now, I'll admit I couldn't name a Whitesnake song to save my life. Still, I was looking forward to hearing some familiar 1980s songs made famous by Journey, Styx, REO Speedwagon and Pat Benatar, among others.

But Rock of Ages doesn't present them in a way that made them all that interesting, just loud. And it seemed like they didn't even play the full version of the songs.

Still, I don't think it was a total waste. If I hadn't gone, I would have wondered whether I was missing something. And like my blogging buddy Chris says, you have to see a lot of shows to separate the wheat from the chaff, to know what works and what doesn't.

I'll just chalk this one up to experience - one of the less-successful chapters in my ongoing musical-theatre education. Judging from the reaction at the performance I saw, Rock of Ages has a fan base. But it wasn't for me.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

God of Carnage

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

Seeing God of Carnage reminded me of the narrator's line at the beginning of the MTV series The Real World: "Find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real."

The play start off politely enough. Alan and Annette, an affluent New York City couple played by Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis, are in the home of another affluent New York City couple, Michael and Veronica, played by James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden.

The four of them have come together because Alan and Annette's son has hit Michael and Veronica's son in the mouth with a stick, breaking two of his teeth. (I think both kids are around 11.) Michael and Alan have a much more "boys will be boys" attitude while Veronica and Annette find it much more upsetting.

Alan is a high-powered lawyer annoyed at being taken away from work; Annette, a wealth manager, is kind of meek and very apologetic. Veronica, a writer, is justifiably angry; and Michael, an importer, is low key and seems a little embarrassed by the fuss his wife is making.

As you can probably guess, things don't stay polite for very long. The characters undergo some surprising personality changes and by the end, it's the adults who need a timeout. I don't think it's a coincidence that set designer Mark Thompson has painted the walls of the Jacobs Theatre stage a fire-engine red. No warm, soothing tones here.

What I found so enthralling to watch is the way events unfold, which I think is a testament to the skill of director Matthew Warchus and this terrific ensemble cast. (Yasmina Reza's 90-minute play has been translated from the original French by Christopher Hampton.)

There's a lot of physical and verbal sparring and it would be easy to let things get out of control. But the actors make such a seamless transition from civility to acrimony that by the end, I couldn't quite remember when things began to go wrong. It all just seemed so inevitable.

And it was so great to see four actors I've loved from movies and television tackle meaty roles onstage, making them so memorable in the process. Harden's meltdown is especially amazing to watch.

It's not terribly difficult to make me cry but making me laugh is another matter. God of Carnage, which had a 2008 run in London with a different cast, is hysterical. At one point, Davis' Annette erupts in a way that you wouldn't think would be funny but all four actors working in concert make it one of the most hilarious moments I've seen on stage.

I'm a big fan of The Soporanos, so I was especially thrilled to see Gandolfini. A few moments, like when he's talking on the phone to his mother, gave me some "Tony" flashbacks. But Michael is a much quieter, less thuggish character and Gandolfini mostly made me forget his larger-than-life tv role.

And Daniels, whom I've loved since Terms of Endearment and The Purple Rose of Cairo - what a treat. He has wonderful body language and facial expressions that show you just how impatient and annoyed he is at having to be at this get-together.

There were parts of Reza's play that didn't work quite as well for me. The subplot involving one of Alan's clients seemed like too much of a coincidence. Still, she makes some good points about humanity's propensity for violence, how adults sometimes act like children. (And we wonder where the kids get it from!)

As civil and well-mannered as most of try to be in our daily lives, we all have our buttons waiting to be pushed. While Reza's characters move to the extreme end on the scale of human emotions, what she does so well in God of Carnage is make us think about how close we are to that breaking point.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


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

I knew there were going to be good vibes from the Broadway revival of Hair the moment I opened up my Playbill and those little white slips of paper fluttered out. Often that means disappointment - an understudy going on in place of a performer I really wanted to see.

This time, just the opposite happened. An actress I was really looking forward to seeing but who only had a small part, Saycon Sengbloh, was going to play a bigger role. In fact, as Dionne, she'd be opening the show, singing "Aquarius."

I was so excited and that bit of good fortune turned out to be only the beginning of an evening that I will never forget. I've seen so many wonderful shows over the past couple of years of theatergoing and this is one of the best - 2 1/2 hours of bliss that culminated in my Broadway debut.

First, there's the music, by Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt McDermot. I've always been hugely interested in the 1960s and I've always loved the music of Hair. Hearing - and watching - those songs performed live - wow, they sounded great. Sometimes, like on "Ain't Got No," the audience joined in and clapped along.

The original production of Hair opened at the Public Theater in 1967, then moved to Broadway a year later. When I watched the PBS documentary Broadway: The American Musical and saw the cast climbing over seats and interacting with the audience at the Biltmore Theatre, I wished I'd been able to see it then. It looked like so much fun.

Well, thanks to director Diane Paulus and choreographer Karole Armitage I got a sense of what that experience must have been like. This is one show where the actors don't simply break the fourth wall, they shatter it completely. They are everywhere in the mezzanine and orchestra of the Hirschfeld Theatre. And it is so much fun.

Hair tells the story of a tribe of hippies, led by a charismatic Will Swenson as Berger, living in New York City's East Village. Really, I enjoyed the whole cast - they are all so likeable, especially Gavin Creel's sweet and conflicted Claude, Bryce Ryness as the Mick Jagger-obsessed Woof and Caissie Levy as the privileged college student Sheila.

I can't even imagine how shocking Hair was in 1968 - and I'm not just talking about the nudity. The hippies are everything that must have outraged their Depression and World War II-era parents. They leave school and grow their hair long and use drugs and sing the praises of interracial love and question authority. Hovering ominously over it all for the young men is the draft and the Vietnam War.

Under Paulus' direction Hair truly evokes the spirit of the decade. The generation gap is on full display. This is funny, joyous musical but it also doesn't gloss over some of the decade's more powerful - and brutal moments.

Paulus saves her most stunning image for the end, which is slightly different from Ragni and Rado's book. But it's absolutely the right choice and it left me choked up. I don't think I'll listen to "The Flesh Failures/Let the Sun Shine In" the same way ever again.

Hair doesn't shy away from presenting a pretty strong criticism of American policy in Southeast Asia. I can't imagine a Broadway show - much less a musical - being so political today.

But this is far from a period piece. I think the message still resonates. Whether there's a draft or an all-volunteer Army, Hair reminds us that we should always exercise the utmost caution before sending American troops into harm's way.

The 1960s was a decade of convulsive change in American society. But it was also a time of celebration - when all sorts of barriers were being broken. Fittingly, Hair ends with the ultimate breaking of the barrier between audience and performer - an invitation to join the tribe onstage.

Despite my nerves, despite my fear that I'd look and feel foolish up there, I leaped at the chance. You know what - it didn't matter that I couldn't carry a tune and had no sense of rhythm. No one was judging me. It was a thrilling experience, an incredible adrenaline rush and it got even better when, to my surprise, Kevin joined me.

For a few moments, I was a member of the tribe. And for the rest of my life I'll be able to say that I did something I never thought I'd have the nerve to do, never thought I'd have a chance to do: I sang and danced on a Broadway stage. Now, where do I get my Equity card?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Back to Broadway

All right, soon I'll be off for my first trip to New York City of 2009. And to coincide with my visit, the city is closing Times Square to traffic. Boy, do I feel special!

Today, it's God of Carnage and Hair. I loved The Sopranos so I'm especially excited about seeing James Gandolfini on stage.

Hair has always been at the top of my list for 2009. I've loved the score for as long as I can remember and I've been interested (obsessed with) the history and culture of the 1960s for as long as I can remember.

On Monday night, I have a ticket for Rock of Ages, which I thought was funny and sweet when I saw the cast on Live with Regis and Kelly, and heard them on the Playbill Radio podcast. Now, I'm not sure.

But love it or hate it, I'll definitely have an opinion on it.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Thank-you Frank

Frank Rich has a great column in the Sunday New York Times taking President Obama to task for his lack of courage in pushing for the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act.

"Despite Barack Obama’s pledges as a candidate and president, there is no discernible movement on repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy or the Defense of Marriage Act. Both seem more cruelly discriminatory by the day."

He's absolutely correct. There's just one line in Rich's column that I'd quibble with: "And yet the changes aren’t coming as fast as many gay Americans would like, and as our Bill of Rights would demand."

It's not just "gay Americans" who want change to come faster - there are plenty of "straight Americans" who want equal rights extended to everyone in this country as soon as possible. Like, today.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Adam Lambert sings a song for peace

Okay, I'll admit I'm not a fan of American Idol. I think I watched it once, a few years ago, just to see what all the fuss was about. So I haven't been following the competition very closely - except that if you're at all interested in pop culture, you can't help but hear something about the show.

Still, it entirely escaped me that Idol runner-up Adam Lambert is Jewish! Why wasn't I informed?! I definitely would have paid more attention. (I'm joking, I'm joking. Kind of.)

And now, I've found a video of Lambert singing "Shir L'Shalom" ("Song for Peace") in Hebrew (and some English).

"Shir L'Shalom" is one of my favorite Israeli songs and one that has a great deal of meaning for me. Written in 1969, it's always been an anthem of the Israeli peace movement. But it took on an even more iconic status in 1995, after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Rabin was singing the song, along with a massive crowd, at a peace rally in Tel Aviv's main square on Nov. 4, 1995, moments before he was killed. His death came about three months after I visited Israel for the first time - and fell in love with the country. Since then, "Shir L'Shalom" has become a staple at memorial services honoring him.

Lambert's version is interesting - a lot slower than some others I've heard, but still very stirring. Here's an English translation if you want to follow along.

John-Boy returns to Broadway

I was already interested in the new David Mamet play just from the title: Race. Then, when it was announced that James Spader, the womanizing lawyer Alan Shore from Boston Legal, would be in the cast, I got even more interested.

Now, my interest has risen to a whole new level because Richard Thomas has also been cast in the play. John-Boy, on Broadway! Okay, I know The Waltons was a long time ago but that's how I'll always think of him.

The 1970s were prime tv-watching years for me and I loved The Waltons, which aired on CBS from 1972 to 1981. It featured a great cast and wonderful storytelling about growing up in rural Virginia during the Depression. John-Boy was my favorite character, maybe because I also viewed myself as a sensitive aspiring-writer type.

Anyway, I know that Thomas, 57, been on Broadway numerous times, starting at age 7 when he played one of Franklin Roosevelt's sons in Sunrise at Campobello. (The play also marked the Broadway debut of James Earl Jones.) But obviously, I've never seen him on stage.

The producers of Race aren't revealing anything about the plot, except to say that it should be self-evident from the title. And they've now revealed cast members for two weeks in a row. Good way to build up interest, I guess. It hooked me, because I can't wait to see who they announce next week.

is scheduled to begin previews Nov. 17 at the Barrymore Theatre and open on Dec. 6. It's definitely one of my most anticipated shows for next season. I can't wait to hear Spader and Thomas take on that rapid-fire Mamet dialog.

Update: David Alan Grier and Kerry Washington, from Ray, have joined the cast.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It's almost Hair!

Have I mentioned I'm going to see Hair on Broadway this weekend? Have I mentioned that I'm just a tiny bit excited?!

Here's Gavin Creel and the Tribe singing "Let the Sunshine In" at Sunday's rally for marriage equality in New York City, organized by Gavin and Broadway Impact.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The kid takes a big step forward

Why didn't somebody tell me about this! I just found the BMI Workshop Songbook Podcast, featuring Broadway notables singing songs from musicals in development. (Okay, maybe somebody did tell me and I forgot.)

I definitely have to go to iTunes and download the entire series even though I already have about 200 podcasts I haven't listened to yet.

I found the podcasts because I was looking for information about the new musical The Kid, based on the book by Dan Savage about his effort to adopt a child with his partner, Terry Miller. While I was following Sarah's tweets Saturday from Wall to Wall Broadway, and wishing I were there, I noticed that she mentioned hearing songs from The Kid, so I did some research.

It turns out the musical, with a book by Michael Zam and music and lyrics by Andy Monroe and Jack Lechner, is going to be presented next spring as part of the 2009-2010 season by The New Group, a New York theatre company that's new to me.

I have to admit I've never heard of any of the people involved with this project. But they won the 2009 BMI Foundation Jerry Bock Award for Best New Musical. That's promising, right?

On the BMI blog, you can listen to an interview with Monroe and hear Cheyenne Jackson sing the title song. Just scroll down to March 14, 2008, and click on the link.

The song is funny in a self-deprecating kind of way and the lyrics definitely embody Savage's wit. It's also interesting to see how passages from the book - Savage's tongue-in-cheek rationale for wanting a child - are turned into song lyrics. Some lines, I think, are pretty much word for word.

As I mentioned before, I was a little skeptical that The Kid would work as a musical. I really liked the book - it's a very heartwarming story and Savage is a terrific writer. But I wondered how some of it, especially the more tension-filled parts, would translate into song.

The more I think about it though, the story is so inherently dramatic. Whether you're gay or straight, the adoption process seems like a journey riddled with frustration and anxiety, marked by moments of great hope and excitement contrasted with sadness and despair.

Savage definitely brings home those contrasting emotions and he handles them with a great deal of humor, compassion and poignancy. Hopefully the musical will do the same.

Monday, May 18, 2009

"This wedding ring means so much to me"

David Hyde Pierce and his husband, Brian Hargrove.

Look at those two men.

How could their commitment to each other, their ability to file a joint tax return and visit each other in the hospital no questions asked, possibly be a threat to anyone? In the debate over same-sex marriage, what could I possibly say that would be more eloquent and to the point than this:

"When we heard the minister say 'Now by the power vested in me by the State of California I pronounce you married,' something happened to us. And we realized, 25 years together, if not us, who? If not now, when?

This wedding ring means so much to me. We've been together so long. It represents all the years since we first met. It represents all the family and friends who supported us all those years. It represents all the family and friends we've lost together. It represents the future that we don't know what it's going to be but we know we're going to face it together until, as they say, death do us part.

On Oct. 24 we got married. At the beginning of November, the people of California got together and took a vote and said no, I'm sorry, that ring means nothing. When we were fighting against Proposition 8 in California, a lot of things have been said about that fight. Maybe we made some mistakes. Maybe the timing wasn't right. But people said we were complacent. I promise you, we were not."

David Hyde Pierce at the rally for marriage equality in New York City, talking about marrying his partner of 25 years, Brian Hargrove. You can watch his speech here.

A front row seat with my laptop

Well, I had fun watching and tweeting the Drama Desk awards last night even though the streaming video kept freezing.

The Drama Desk, made up of theatre critics, writers and editors, puts Broadway and off-Broadway shows in the same categories. It also recognizes Outstanding Ensemble Performances and separates the score category into music and lyrics.

As Tom O'Neil notes in the Los Angeles Times, it's usually the Broadway shows that end up with the lion's share of the honors. This year was no different - Billy Elliot was the big winner. The list is here. It does seem a little unfair to pit Broadway and off-Broadway against each other - especially in categories like set design - were Broadway shows have much bigger budgets.

O'Neil's not exactly a big fan of the awards, referring to their "sagging reputation." Still, I enjoyed watching them and seeing some of my favorite performers give their acceptance speeches.

I know there's been discussion in the past about the Tony awards recognizing ensemble work. But separating music and lyrics seems a little odd to me. Isn't the whole point of musical theatre that the music and lyrics work together?

Tonight, it's the 54th annual Obie Awards, presented by The Village Voice and hosted by Martha Plimpton and Daniel Breaker.

The Obies, honoring excellence off-Broadway, are also being streamed live, beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern Time, and I may check them out. Anne Hathaway is supposed to be among the presenters.

Plus, this is where you'll see the stars of tomorrow. If you check out the story at Playbill, there's a list of some of the previous winners - people like Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman and James Earl Jones. And I always like to get a head start on my stargazing.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Broadway rallies for marriage equality

I wish I could be at 45th Street and 6th Avenue today in New York City for the rally in support of marriage equality but unfortunately, I'll only be there in spirit.

The event is being organized by Broadway Impact, which describes itself as "a community of actors, directors, stage managers, producers and fans - really anyone who's ever been in, worked on or seen a Broadway show." (Hey, that includes me!)

And it's coming at a crucial time.

Last week, New York's Assembly passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage but the state Senate is just short of the votes needed to approve the legislation. Gov. David Paterson has been a vocal supporter of the rights of gay and lesbian couples to marry.

I'm especially thrilled that the cast of the current Broadway revival of Hair, spearheaded by Gavin Creel, is participating. It seems so fitting. The 1960s was a decade in which we expanded our idea of equality to include more Americans and young people were at the forefront of the civil-rights movement.

I like the way New York Times columnist Gail Collins put it last November, right after the election. The baby boom generation, she said, deserves a round of applause.

"The boomers didn’t win any wars and that business about being self-involved was not entirely unfounded. On the other hand, they made the nation get serious about the idea of everybody being created equal."

While we've made a lot of progress regarding equality since the 1960s, we're not done until everyone's rights are protected - and that includes the rights of gay and lesbian Americans.

Speaking of marriage, a belated mazel tov to David Hyde Pierce, who's scheduled to participate today. He married his longtime partner, Brian Hargrove, in California last fall, during the brief window when it was legal, before the state's voters passed Proposition 8.

Interviewed afterward, Hyde Pierce talked about how fundamental civil rights are not negotiable: "We’re not trying to force anything on anyone. We’re trying to go about our lives and live them the best that we can."

Update! Here are some quotes I found from speakers at the rally, via Twitter:

"To those who oppose gay marriage ... This isn't about you any more than a woman's right to vote was about men."

"Our marriages will not diminish you. The only thing that diminishes you is denying us our civil rights."

- Cynthia Nixon

"I came here seeking justice. ... We are not attacking anyone's religious beliefs."

Gov. David Paterson

Saturday, May 16, 2009

"We are the World"

Am I the only one who had an irresistible urge to go to YouTube immediately after watching the 30 Rock season finale?

In 1985, a musical supergroup came together to lend support for famine relief in Africa. Often parodied and often imitated, "We Are the World" remains a classic. Look at how young everyone was!

Friday, May 15, 2009

SpeakEasy Stage 2009-2010

Boston's SpeakEasy Stage is getting some great New England premieres next season. The theatre will present both [title of show] and Adding Machine.

I really wish I'd been able to see [title of show] on Broadway. It only lasted a few months at the Lyceum Theatre. I know there was some discussion about whether this love letter to musical theatre was too insiderish to have wide appeal.

But I've listened to Jeff Bowen's score and it's pretty funny. The book, by Tony-nominated Hunter Bell, about two struggling young writers writing a show about two struggling young writers, is an endearing story. It's about chasing your dream - no matter what that may be.

Since I've watched some of The [title of show] Show videos I kind of feel like I know Bowen, Bell and their castmates, Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell, all of whom play themselves. It'll be strange seeing someone else in those roles.

[Title of show] runs from Jan. 15 - Feb. 13, 2010.

Adding Machine, on the other hand, is a much more somber musical. Based on a 1923 play by Elmer Rice, it's about Mr. Zero, an accountant who, after 25 years with the same company, learns that he's going to be replaced by an adding machine. In a moment of rage, he murders his boss.

The musical features a score by from Joshua Schmidt and a libretto by Schmidt and Jason Loewith. It opened off-Broadway in 2008 at the Minetta Lane Theatre to good reviews. Among those who raved about it was my fellow blogger Chris, at Everything I Know I Learned from Musicals.

Adding Machine runs from March 12 - April 10, 2010.

Other shows at SpeakEasy in 2009-2010 include:

The Savannah Disputation, by Evan Smith, Sept. 18 - Oct. 17, 2009; Reckless, by Craig Lucas, Nov. 13 - Dec. 12, 2009; and The Great American Trailer Park Musical, by David Nehls and Betsy Kelso, April 30 - May 29, 2010.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

And the Tony hosting job goes to ...

Wow, I was very surprised and very happy when I heard that Neil Patrick Harris had been chosen to host the Tony Awards. He's so cute and funny and charming and he has a great voice and he's had several Broadway roles. (Who knows, maybe this experience will lure him back!)

Still, in the grand scheme of things, I'm not so sure the host is that big a draw. Don't get me wrong - I think it's a great choice for theatre fans. But if I weren't already inclined to watch the show I don't know whether NPH - or anyone else - would make me tune in. Well maybe a few fans of How I Met Your Mother might tune in who wouldn't otherwise. (Also on CBS - what an incredible coincidence!)

I was trying to think about what would make me watch something I have absolutely no interest in watching - say the Indianapolis 500. If the cast of Seinfeld were calling the race I might watch for a few minutes but I'm not sure they'd hold my interest for all 500 laps.

Seriously though, I can't believe the American Theatre Wing approached James Gandolfini, Tony-nominated for God of Carnage, about the hosting duties. According to Michael Riedel in The New York Post, Gandolfini replied that he was flattered but politely declined, saying he isn't a song-and-dance man.

Whew, that was a close one. As much as I loved The Sopranos, I don't think Gandolfini has the kind of vibrant, outgoing personality necessary for a good host. Plus, I think singing and dancing is kind of a requirement.

The 63rd annual Tony Awards air live from Radio City Music Hall at 8 p.m. June 7 on CBS.

A Nine sneak peek

Courtesy of Entertainment Tonight, here's a preview of the musical Nine.

The movie, 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, opens Nov. 25.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A theatre guy at the NEA

Okay, I'll admit I don't know much about the National Endowment for the Arts or its mandate. And I don't know very much about Rocco Landesman, the Broadway producer who's been tapped to head the organization. But that's never stopped me from having an opinion before! I've never met Landesman, I've only read interviews and watched him on a couple of Broadway-themed documentaries. But he seems like someone who will use the bully pulpit well, as a forceful advocate for the arts. And I'm excited that someone from the theatre will be running the NEA.

As president of Broadway's Jujamcyn Theaters, Landesman obviously comes from the commercial world. But he's got a doctorate in dramatic literature from Yale, so he's certainly been interested in the theatre from an artistic and intellectual standpoint, not just as a profit center.

Obviously, his mandate with the NEA will be much different than that of a commercial producer. And the role of the NEA is not to be a commercial entity. I think he's smart enough to realize the difference.

Here's a little background about the organization from its Web site:

"The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is a public agency dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government, the Arts Endowment is the largest annual national funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner cities, and military bases."

A couple of my fellow bloggers, Modern Fabulousity and The Playgoer, who have much more knowledge about the theatre and arts world, have weighed in and they make some excellent points, both pro and con. I wish I were smart enough to have thought of them! Update: the Los Angeles Times offers another perspective, here.

Huntington lines up an all-American season

I've been waiting for Boston's Huntington Theatre Company to complete its schedule for next season and the final two shows have been announced: Craig Lucas' Prelude to a Kiss and Arthur Miller's All My Sons.

They join the previously announced productions of August Wilson's Fences; Maureen McGovern's A Long and Winding Road; Paula Vogel's A Civil War Christmas; Lydia Diamond's Stick Fly; and Gina Gionfriddo's Becky Shaw.

Both All My Sons and Prelude to a Kiss have had recent Broadway revivals. Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to see either one, so hopefully I can catch up. (I have seen the movie of Prelude to a Kiss, with Meg Ryan and Alec Baldwin, and I thought it was kind of sweet.)

I know British director Simon McBurney came under some criticism for his interpretation of All My Sons. The Huntington production is being helmed by David Esbjornson, who collaborated with Miller at the end of the playwright's life, so this will probably be a more faithful presentation.

I'm also interested in seeing Fences, because it's a classic. And Becky Shaw, which was directed off Broadway by Peter DuBois, the Huntington's artistic director, garnered rave reviews. It was also a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which described it as "A jarring comedy that examines family and romantic relationships with a lacerating wit while eschewing easy answers and pat resolutions."

Apparently, this is the first season in the Huntington's 27-year history to be comprised entirely of American plays. It does seem like a nice mixture of diverse voices and themes and different periods in American history.

DuBois said, "Arthur Miller and Craig Lucas felt like the right two voices to complete a season designed to reflect a compelling range of American writing. From classics and contemporary masters to new voices, each play explores diverse viewpoints of the American experience."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Shockheaded Peter and the Addams Family

Add me to the list of bloggers excited about The Addams Family musical, which will have a two-month tryout in Chicago starting in November, before opening on Broadway April 8.

The cast does sound impressive, including Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth as Gomez and Morticia Addams.

The score is from Andrew Lippa and the book, based on Charles Addams' ghoulish cartoons, is from Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, of Jersey Boys.

But what's most intriguing to me is that Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch of Improbable, a London-based theatre company, will handle the direction and design duties.

They were part of the team responsible for Shockheaded Peter, a show I'd never heard of before. It's based on a book of children's stories written in Germany in the 19th century that demonstrated, in very extreme ways, the consequences of bad behavior. Shockheaded Peter, with music from the British band Tiger Lillies had an off-Broadway run in 2005.

I found a clip from a British production. Now, I don't normally like scary stories and Shockheaded Peter is bizarre. But it's also visually stunning. And you don't need to watch the whole thing to get a sense of it:

The Addams Family is a very different project. Still, I am curious to see how McDermott and Crouch will put their stamp on it.

Their participation raises an interesting question: How do artists who are known for maybe more experimental, avant-garde work make the transition to mass entertainment? I mean, what's more mainstream than a big-budget Broadway musical?

Whatever they come up with, I'm hoping it'll be fun to watch.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Fun and games on Broadway

In preparation for my upcoming trips to New York I've been scouring Broadway show Web sites:

Coolest download: Virtual Zippo lighter app for your iPhone at Rock of Ages. (Because you can never be too ready for a power ballad.)

Dumbest game: "Shoot your boss," at 9 to 5. I know it fits with the plot and all but isn't it a tad in poor taste?

Best use of video: Vblog entries from the cast of Hair are fun. The Easter Bonnet competition featuring the cast of 33 Variations doesn't tell you much about the show but it's very witty. Shrek's 10-part online video series on bringing the musical to Broadway is the most interesting and provides reasons to keep coming back to the site.

Best marketing slogan playing off a line from a song: Hair - We got merch, brother!

Best e-cards: Shrek, with their funny takeoffs on other Broadway shows.

Most unfortunate video trend: Watching scenes from plays without the sound. You can see a montage from God of Carnage, you just can't hear the actors. Instead, they play some background music. What's the point? At least Exit the King gives you a few lines of dialog before the montage.

Best blog: It's hard to beat Jane Fonda at 33 Variations. Although, strangely, I couldn't find a link to it on the show's site.

But I wish the two queens from Mary Stuart had kept up their blogging. Here's a sample from Mary, Queen of Scots: "I am in rehearsals for my upcoming trial. I am training hard as I suspect it will all be physically hard to endure. I have discovered protein shakes and they are helping me."

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The family that writes together

During my trip to Borders today I picked up a copy of Billie Letts' latest novel, Made in the U.S.A., which just came out in paperback.

(I said on Twitter that 90 percent of the cds and dvds are gone. I think it's more like 99 percent. Fewer reasons to keep my Borders Visa. I hope they can hold on because I don't like buying online. I enjoy leaving my apartment and browsing in an actual bricks-and-morter store. Sigh.)

Anyway, this is the book that Letts dedicated to her late husband, Dennis Letts, whom she called "my Broadway star." Dennis Letts played the role of family patriarch Beverly Weston on Broadway in son Tracy's Pulitzer and Tony-winning August: Osage County until shortly before he passed away, in February 2008.

Made in the U.S.A. tells the story of 15-year-old girl and her 11-year-old brother in Spearfish, South Dakota, who embark on a journey in search of their father after their guardian falls dead in a Wal-Mart. (Oddly, a Wal-Mart also plays a role in one of Letts' previous novels, Where the Heart Is. Hmmm.)

The paperback edition has an interview with the author and Letts is asked whether there are parallels between her novels and her son's plays. Here's what she had to say:

"Yes, in that we tend to write about nontraditional families. In his first two plays I would tease and tell him that the characters in his work ended up naked or dead. (Not too much of a stretch, really.) But in his last three plays, he's strayed away from violence and carnage. Now it seems I've begun working in a darker vein than he is."

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Longest running (time) shows

It's fairly easy to find a list of the longest-running shows on Broadway but finding the shows with the longest running times is another matter.

I was thinking about it because of this story in the Washington Post about the musical Giant, currently in the midst of its world premiere at Virginia's Signature Theatre. The epic tale of a Texas cattle-ranching family, based on the novel by Edna Ferber, clocks in at four hours.

Okay, you may be muttering to yourself, "What difference does it make how long the show runs? The only thing that matters is whether it's any good." Good point. But I am kind of curious. Could a show that long be viable on Broadway today?

I think August: Osage County is the longest show I've seen, and at just under 3 1/2 hours the play didn't seem long at all. The 1999 Broadway revival of The Iceman Cometh, with Kevin Spacey, Paul Giamatti, Michael Emerson (Benjamin Linus from Lost!) and Tony Danza ran for 4 hours and 20 minutes. I'm sure I would have sat there riveted the entire time.

I tried to think of other epic and not-so-epic musicals. The running time for the recent Broadway revival of Les Miserables was 2 hours and 55 minutes. The Producers' running time was 2 hours and 50 minutes.

You can find the running times of most current Broadway shows here. (Not every one lists the information.) A few musicals, like Mary Poppins and Billy Elliot, clock in at at 2 hours and 45 minutes. South Pacific runs approximately 3 hours.

While I haven't heard any of Michael John LaChiusa's score, Vance, from Tapeworthy, raves about the musical. And I really like the 1956 movie version of Giant, which starred Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. I'm also a big fan of sprawling epics and stories that span the generations.

Personally, I would definitely be psyched for a musical as big as Texas. Just make sure there are two Texas-sized bathroom breaks!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Who should host the Tonys?

Okay, it probably doesn't matter all that much who hosts the Tony Awards, which air at 8 p.m. June 7 on CBS. I figure if people are interested in the theatre and in Broadway, they'll watch the show. If they're not, they won't, regardless of who's hosting.

But hey, it's Tony season and the Los Angeles Times blog Culture Monster is engaging in a little fun speculation about who should host. I haven't seen many of the nominated performances this year, so I figure I need something to speculate about.

Some of the names on their wish list are clearly meant to be funny: hunky Cheyenne Jackson, hirsute Jack Black. (He did star in Prop. 8 - The Musical!) The fishy Jeremy Piven. Also, Will Ferrell, Nathan Lane, Jane Fonda and Michelle Obama.

And apparently the New York Post's Michael Riedel is pitching Dolly Parton. (He also has a funny column today on actors supposedly campaigning for the Tony. Really? I'm shocked, shocked.

I'd like to see the cute and talented Neil Patrick Harris. Or, someone in the comments suggested Daniel Radcliffe, to make up for his being snubbed in the Best Actor in a Play category for Equus. And what about Kevin Spacey? The Old Vic Theatre, where Kevin is artistic director, originally produced The Norman Conquests. He'd be great.

I guess former Tony and Oscar host Hugh Jackman is probably busy. Too bad. I wonder if anyone has ever hosted more than one major awards show in the same year?

Thursday, May 7, 2009


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

Annie is definitely a four-star show. The original Broadway production racked up a slew of Tony awards in 1977, including Best Musical, and I can see why. All of the elements that stood out for theatre audiences in the 1970s still stand out - the score, the book, the choreography.

Unfortunately, the touring production I saw with Steve on Broadway at the Providence Performing Arts Center didn't quite seem like a four-star show.

Part of it, as I said in my previous post, was the audience. It's hard to enjoy the action onstage when it's competing with squirming, restless children in front of you. With a different audience, Annie definitely would have received higher marks from me.

It's really a shame because there were so many things I loved about Annie.

I loved the way Thomas Meehan's book, based on the comic strip Little Orphan Annie, creates such larger-than-life characters: the sweet and spunky Annie, played by Madison Kerth, the mean orphanage matron Miss Hannigan, played by Lynn Andrews, and the brusque and preoccupied industrialist Oliver Warbucks, played by David Barton.

And Annie does a great job evoking the 1930s - from references to historical figures such as crime-fighter Elliot Ness to showing us a Hooverville - the shantytowns built by the homeless during the Great Depression. I loved the scene at the White House with Annie, President Roosevelt (played by Jeffrey B. Duncan) and his Cabinet. So that's how the New Deal was created. Who knew?!

Plus, the score, by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin, is incredibly catchy. I can't even think about Annie without starting to sing "Tomorrow, tomorrow!"

And the songs fit the story so well, like the homeless people living under the Brooklyn Bridge facetiously singing "We'd Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover." (Which reminded me of the striking British coal miners in Billy Elliot singing "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher.")

Peter Gennaro's choreography, re-created for the tour by his daughter Liza Gennaro, is just wonderful. How can you not feel for those bedraggled little girls scrubbing the floors of their orphanage in sync to the tune of "It's the Hard-Knock Life?"

Also, this was my first time seeing a dog on stage. (I missed Legally Blonde). I started smiling as soon as I saw Sandy, played by an adorable pooch named Mikey. I don't know what it was or why, but I was captivated. All I could think was, awww!

Still, as much as I enjoyed the story and the music and the choreography, the performances didn't really grab me. Yes, the orphans were cute but with the exception of Andrews as Miss Hannigan, the main characters seemed kind of bland and lacked pizazz, something that would have made them truly memorable.

But I definitely got a great sense of why Annie thrilled my friend Steve when he saw the musical during a high school trip to London 30 years ago. Annie set him on the course of a lifetime of theatergoing and I'm so glad it did.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Taking children to the theatre

Maybe because it was my birthday weekend and because I was sitting next to Steve on Broadway and I knew what a key role the musical Annie played in spurring his love of theatre, I wanted everything to be perfect at the Saturday matinee we attended.

Well, apparently not everyone at the Providence Performing Arts Center got the message.

I've sat through shows before with talkative adults and squirming children but this was without a doubt the worst theatre audience I've ever been in. (The child at the top is used only for illustrative purposes. As far as I know, she was not in the audience.)

The two adorable little girls in front of me, who couldn't have been more than 3 or 4 years old, spent most of the show standing up in their seats and climbing over their mother until I think they collapsed from exhaustion. (Their father, at least I think it was their father, seemed pretty oblivious to his daughters' inability to sit still.)

I don't blame the kids - they were much too young to be there. I saw many other very young children being carried out of the theatre by their parents. Rest assured, if I'd been disruptive in public as a child, my parents would have taken me out of there, too.

At the end of our row there was an older child who every so often would shout something so loudly everyone in the theatre could hear. I think the child had Down Syndrome or another mental disability, so I don't want to be insensitive. I'm not saying people with disabilities should stay home. But perhaps Annie wasn't the right show for this person.

I know what you're thinking: "Esther, what did you expect at the Saturday matinee of a children's show?"

Parents, despite the way Annie is marketed as "a delightful theatrical experience for the entire family" it is not a musical for children under age 5.

It says right on the PPAC Web site that the running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission. It is simply too long and there is not enough action on the stage at all times to engage very young children. (Interestingly, neither the PPAC site nor the tour Web site have a suggested age for the show.)

I know every child has a different attention span. I've been in audiences at Mary Poppins and The Lion King where young children did fine. There were kids in this audience who were fine. But this is something parents have to figure out before they plop down their hard-earned money for tickets.

If you're unsure whether your children have the necessary attention level, pop a 2 1/2-hour movie in the dvd player and see how they do.

Don't get me wrong, I want children to go to the theatre and fall in love with it. I want their first Broadway musical to be a thrilling, enchanting, memorable experience. But it's got to be the right show at the right time.

If your children cannot sit still and remain quiet and focused on the action onstage, please do not bring them to a 2 1/2-hour musical. You are wasting your money, your children will never remember the experience and you're ruining the show for everyone around you. Wait a few years.

In the meantime, take them to Dora the Explorer instead.