Sunday, January 31, 2010

Billy Elliot has plenty of scenery to chew

Interesting article in The New York Times this morning about Broadway productions eschewing lavish sets to save money. But in my opinion, one of the examples that Patrick Healy uses is a little misleading.

Healy mentions the "spartan kitchen" in Billy Elliot, designed by Ian MacNeil. He says the Tony-winning musical "which recouped its $18 million capitalization in 14 months, takes place largely in a community center dance hall, and some of the most critically praised dance scenes involve no more than a chair or an empty stage."

Well it's true that at one point, Billy does use a chair as a prop. But that's hardly all that's happening on stage. For example, the rigging that allows him to "fly" with the aid of an adult male dancer must be pretty complex and expensive.

And the "spartan kitchen" that Healy mentions is built around a mechanical set that's raised and lowered from the Imperial Theatre stage. I believe it required blasting through the floor of the theatre to install, which could not have been cheap. (Unfortunately, I couldn't find a picture.)

Now I'm the first one to admit that I like scenery that gives me something on which to chew. James Schuette's rundown shop in Superior Donuts and John Lee Beatty's opulent Manhattan apartment for The Royal Family were terrific. I also liked David Gallo's basement nightclub in the musical Memphis.

But the scenery isn't always what leaves a lasting impression. Really, it depends on the show.

Healy mentions that the set design by Scott Pask for the current Broadway revival of Hair is somewhat sparse. Between listening to music that I love and watching the hippies run around the theatre interacting with the audience, I hardly thought about the set. Or lack thereof.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A 3-D rock 'n' roll Cleopatra

Ever since seeing her on Broadway in A Little Night Music I cannot get enough of the lovely Catherine Zeta-Jones. So I was catching up with her appearance on The View Friday and she mentioned three interesting things:

Someday she'd love to play Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music, the mother of her character, Desiree, portrayed in the current revival by Angela Lansbury.

She's acquired the rights to Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book and plans to produce and star in a television movie based on the novel.

Then she mentioned an upcoming project that sounded so bizarre I thought she must be joking. But a little Googling revealed that she was serious!

Stephen Soderbergh, who directed Zeta-Jones in Traffic, wants her to star in a 3-D live-action rock 'n' roll musical about Cleopatra. (Will I have to wear my 3-D glasses for the entire movie or just in certain scenes?)

According to this 2008 article in Variety, the music has been written by the 1990s indie rock band Guided by Voices, with a script by James Greer, an author and former bass player for the band.

The imdb page has a release date of 2011 for Cleo, and describes it as a "1920s-set, song-and-dance retelling of the story of Cleopatra, Antony and Caesar. The cast lists Zeta-Jones as Cleo and Ray Winstone as Julius Caesar. (At one point, Hugh Jackman was going to play Marc Antony, but he's dropped out.)

I'm really not that big on ancient Egypt but the 1920s setting makes this sound kind of interesting. Although I don't know why it would have a rock 'n' roll score in the 1920s, or require 3-D for that matter.

Of course Zeta-Jones' last movie musical, Chicago, was also set in that decade and won her an Oscar. (Maybe they could use the same poster!)

In a January 2009 interview with Esquire, Soderbergh explained his attraction to the project:

"I want it to be like an Elvis musical. Fun, not serious. I've always wanted to make a musical, and I've been frustrated by all the recent musicals. I miss the technical proficiency of the long takes of the camera, where you're not disguising the inability of the performers to sing and dance. I miss that. And if there were ever a genre to be ready-made for 3-D, it's the musical."

Friday, January 29, 2010

Don't film The Catcher in the Rye

With the death Thursday of J.D. Salinger, speculation is starting over whether there'll finally be a film version of his 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye.

It's been a long time since I've read the book, so I don't have an opinion on whether it's possible to make a good movie. But I do have sympathy for Salinger's explanation as to why he never sold the film rights.

In a 1957 letter, Salinger wrote that "for me, the weight of the book is in the narrator's voice." He says that any attempt to translate Holden Caulfield's inner thoughts into dialogue would sound labored.

Odds are at some point a movie will be made, and I will find that sad. I'll be sad not solely because it goes against Salinger's wishes but because it takes away some of the imagination and discovery involved in reading the book.

My case in point is Harry Potter.

I started reading J.K. Rowling's books long before the first movie came out. I formed my sense of what the characters were like from their description on the printed page. No one has to do that now. We know what Harry, Hermoine and Ron look and sound like.

Yes, I've enjoyed the movies but not nearly as much as the books. They're just not as rich or absorbing. Perhaps the movies are enticing children to start reading the series, and that's a good thing but it won't be the same.

For 59 years Holden Caulfield, that symbol of teenage rebellion, has lived solely in the imagination of readers of The Catcher in the Rye. It would be nice if we could just leave him there.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Hugh Jackman stops by Sesame Street

Hey, Hugh Jackman was on Sesame Street. How cute! Love that smile! He and Elmo make a great team. But sadly, Elmo gets the only close-up. Maybe Hugh needs a new agent?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A creative look at Memphis

I got an e-mail today from a marketing representative for the Broadway musical Memphis about videos made by the creative team and posted on YouTube.

I saw Memphis in December and really enjoyed it, so I'm happy to pass the message along.

The musical is set in Memphis during the late 1950s and early 1960s, at the dawn of rock 'n' roll. It features terrific performances from Chad Kimball as a white disc jockey and Montego Glover as a talented black singer who wins his heart. The story is a powerful reminder of a time when their romance was scorned and getting married in their home state would have been illegal.

So far, there are videos from: Joe DiPetro, who wrote the book and lyrics, and David Bryan, who wrote the music; director Christopher Ashley, costume designer Paul Tazewell, choreographer Sergio Trujillo, set designer David Gallo, and sound designer Ken Travis.

Here's the interview with Tazewell. He did such a great job telling the audience about Kimball's Huey and Glover's Felicia through their clothes, and I liked learning a little bit about the creative process from his end.

Memphis took a long and winding six-year journey to get to Broadway, as recounted in this New York Times article. In a month when so many Broadway shows are closing, it's nice to recognize a survivor.

Monday, January 25, 2010

How about a real theatre hall of fame?

The Theatre Hall of Fame is holding its annual induction ceremony tonight in the rotunda of Broadway's Gershwin Theatre. It's a fitting location since the Gershwin is home to Wicked and the show's composer, Stephen Schwartz, is among those being honored.

But my first thoughts when I saw that story were, "Where is the Theatre Hall of Fame and can I visit?" Then I vaguely remembered reading names of inductees on the wall at the Gershwin when I saw Wicked on Broadway last month.

So I guess that's it. But shouldn't there be something more to recognize the long and storied history of Broadway?

Personally, I think it would be great if there were more theatre-related things to do in Times Square besides see a show, climb the red steps to the top of the TKTS booth or browse in a few souvenir shops.

We already know the oft-quoted statistic that 63 percent of Broadway tickets are sold to tourists, a good percentage of whom will probably find themselves in and around Times Square with some time to spare.

Other than Wicked's Behind the Emerald Curtain, there isn't much that's theatre-related. You can't take a backstage tour or learn about the history of Broadway in a fun, interactive way. (Before you mention liability issues, I took an awesome tour of the Metropolitan Opera and we went everywhere in that building!)

The Museum of the City of New York does have a theatre collection. The exhibit I saw last year is nice but it's a little spare and outdated. Plus, the Upper East Side location isn't exactly on the tourist track. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, at Lincoln Center, also has theatre exhibits from time to time but they're confined to one room.

Now I realize that space is at a premium in Times Square and expensive. The economy being what it is, the odds of creating a splashy new Museum of American Theatre are nil. Still, it would be a fine addition to a city that already has some of the finest museums in the world.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Taking the kids to a show

I had a conversation with a friend the other day that warmed the cockles (whatever they are!) of my theatre-loving heart.

Her husband took their young daughter to see Wicked and they both enjoyed it immensely.

It made me happy not only because they loved a musical that I love but because she was the right age (she's 8 or 9) for the experience. Someday, when she's a veteran theatergoer with a blog of her own, she'll be able to recall that magical evening with her dad.

Coincidentally, the Hartford Courant's Frank Rizzo has a very informative article on what parents should consider before buying a theatre ticket for their child. There's a helpful list of tips and some great examples of "first shows" for the kids.

He makes an excellent point: while some shows have kid components, "that in itself is not enough to entertain the littlest theater-goers. (The first words that come out of the title character's mouth in Billy Elliot are expletives; The Secret Garden might be a bit dark for small children; there are Nazis in The Sound of Music.)"

And it was encouraging to read that two of the people behind some of the most popular musicals make the point that age recommendations are there for a good reason.

Rizzo interviews Thomas Schumacher, president of the Disney Theatrical Group, who remarks that it's not uncommon to see children as young as 6 at the musicals The Lion King and Mary Poppins, even though they both run about 2 1/2 hours.

"That's kind of pushing it," Schumacher says. "First of all, they can't see very well, even with booster seats. But it's not just that. These shows are not designed to keep their extraordinary minds interested."

I have to agree with Schumacher. The Lion King can be a great choice to introduce your child to the theatre. But when I saw it on Broadway there were definitely children younger than 6 and they definitely had a difficult time staying focused on the action on stage.

I've written about the wrong age to take kids to the theatre - like the two toddlers in front of me at Annie. (I can't really say they sat in front of me because I don't think they ever actually sat in their seats.) I'm thinking this happens a lot, too, where the children are so worn out by curtain time that the musical becomes a rather expensive nap.

I guess my view is in line with David Stone, a producer of Wicked, who advises that 8 and up is a good age to see the musical. He said, "I want [children] to go when they can really enjoy it, when the theater event can be really memorable."

Friday, January 22, 2010

My Broadway celebrity wish list

I have to give credit to James Spader, who's making his Broadway debut in David Mamet's play Race, for something he wrote in his Playbill biography:

"After working in film and television for more than 30 years, it is one of the greatest honors and pleasures of Mr. Spader's career to be back in the theatre performing this play, with these players, on this stage, for you tonight."

Even though I was disappointed with the play I love Spader from Boston Legal and it was great to see him on stage.

Since celebrities are all the rage on Broadway these days, I'm hoping some other actors who've been concentrating on movies and TV will follow his example.

For instance, after the Golden Globes on Sunday night, Meryl Streep told the press that she's ready to return to Broadway.

"I don't have a plan for that, but I would like to. I always said when my children grew up and went to college, I could think about that. And, that happened this year, so I'm looking."

Of course America's greatest living actress is high on my list of people I'd love to see treading the boards. Streep last appeared on Broadway in 1977, in the short-lived Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht musical Happy End.

(Although she did return to New York to great acclaim in Mother Courage and Her Children in Central Park in 2006. I definitely would have waited in line for a chance to see that!)

If Meryl's looking to return, I'm guessing some producer somewhere is thinking up a project for her at this moment. (It would be icing on the cake if she could bring former costars Anne Hathaway and Amy Adams with her.)

It's always cool to know that someone who's moved on to movies or TV got their start on Broadway.

Sometimes they come back, like Emmy winner Kristin Chenoweth who's starring in Promises, Promises, and sometimes, sadly, they don't, like comedian Ben Stiller, who made his first and thus far only Broadway appearance in 1986.

There's another performer who's definitely overdue for a return.

With the final season of the ABC series Lost beginning next month, I'm hoping Michael Emerson will make his way back to Broadway.

In the right role I think Emerson, who plays the creepy Benjamin Linus on Lost, would be a big draw.

He was last on Broadway in a revival of Hedda Gabler in 2002. And before that, he starred with Kevin Spacey and Paul Giamatti in a revival of The Iceman Cometh.

Perhaps there's a play they could all do together?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Some thoughts on American Idol

I watched American Idol last night. I'm not really a fan of the show but Kristin Chenoweth, introduced to the Idol audience as "a darling of the American musical stage," was a guest judge at the auditions in Orlando.

And I do love her!

It seemed like she was having a good time, hitting it off with fellow judge Kara DioGuardi. Sadly, Chenoweth was only on during the first part before rushing back to New York for some unexplained reason.

Maybe it had something to do with what she told People magazine: “It was harder than I thought because you really do have to look into the faces of people and say yes or no. I don’t like to be a bummer and hurt anyone’s feelings.”

Anyway, I watched the rest of the show for maybe the third time in my life. It struck me as a little sad - thousands of people waiting for their brief chance to make an impression and get on TV, hoping for fame and fortune that most likely will never come.

Far be it from me to admit that there's anything underhanded going on but I did find it interesting that three of the contestants picked by DioGuardi, Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell to advance to the next round had compelling background stories.

They were: Seth Rollins, a father struggling to raise an autistic child; Matt Lawrence, a young man who served time for a bank robbery he committed with a bb gun at age 15; and Shelby Dressel, a young woman with a nerve defect that prevents her from smiling on one side of her face.

And they were all highlighted with introductory segments, which I took as a not very subtle hint. Seriously, after that heartwarming buildup, didn't you guess that they were probably going to get the thumbs up from the judges?

It did lead me to wonder: What happens if you're a great singer but you don't have a story of triumphing over adversity?

Then there are couple of performers who are so terrible I can only imagine that they're included for comic relief for the audience of 30 million people.

A young man named Jerrod Norrell became agitated when the judges didn't like his rendition of "Amazing Grace." He had to be removed by security and a few seconds later, we saw him outside the audition room, handcuffed and on the ground.

Seriously, while his behavior was inexcusable, did he really deserve to be humiliated like that on national television? Of course, to the Idol producers it hardly matters - what drama! And for all I know, he could be thrilled at his two minutes of fame.

If the 10,000 screaming Idol hopefuls we see at the beginning of the show are the optimistic, anyone-can-make-it side of the American Dream, the poor guy on the floor in handcuffs is an example of what happens when reality comes crashing down.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Joe Papp on the spiritual life of the city

I'm in the middle of reading Free For All by Kenneth Turan, a terrific oral history of Joe Papp, the founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater.

Turan began the project years ago as a collaboration with Papp, who died in 1991, so there are lots of quotes from him and people who knew him well. I'm clearly getting a sense of how stubborn and obnoxious Papp could be at times.

But what also comes through loud and clear is his devotion, almost with a religious fervor, to the idea that the arts, especially theatre, should be available to everyone, accessible to everyone, that they were an integral part of everyday life in New York City.

And he wasn't at all apologetic about it. Although he was prone to hyperbole: "I always used to say that Shakespeare should be as important as garbage collection."

He also said, proudly, that the Public Theater was the only institution of its size in the city that was started from the bottom by a poor boy and worked its way up. "All the other major, established institutions were started by big money."

I love this quote from Papp, which appears on page 237:

"Whenever I used to ask for money, they'd always raise the question: "The city has only $50,000 and there are kids starving to death and you're putting on Shakespeare. What's more important? What would you do?''

"Oh, shut up with that, already," I'd say. "That's a ridiculous question. In the first place, the city has more than $50,000. And, certainly, the city wastes millions and millions of dollars on things that are not important.

"In the general scale of things, certainly it's important to take care of basic necessities, to take care of the ill and the homeless, to feed children. But part of the spiritual life of the city is its art, its plays, so you are creating a false distinction.''

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Passing Strange - the movie

Sometimes simply filming a musical onstage doesn't really grab me. But in the case of Passing Strange, I think Spike Lee has done a great job capturing what I enjoyed about this show when I saw it on Broadway in 2008 and made me see it in a fresh way.

Passing Strange tells the story of a young black man whose journey of self-discovery takes him from his middle class Los Angeles home to the drugs and sex and radical politics of Amsterdam and Berlin. It's more or less the life of rock musician Stew, who fronts the onstage band and narrates.

I loved the performance by Daniel Breaker as Youth, an aspiring musician and Stew's younger version of himself. (Just to drive the point home, they both wear red T-shirts and sneakers!)

Breaker, who received a Tony nomination, is exciting to watch. He's a wonderfully expressive actor and being able to see him up close - the look on his face and in his eyes - just demonstrates that even more.

Also, Passing Strange is really funny. I'd forgotten how much I laughed.

Stew won a Tony for his book and also wrote the lyrics. (The music was composed with his longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald.) He has some very witty and perceptive things to say about race and politics, as well as about family and being true to yourself as an artist.

This is a musical with quite a few intimate scenes between Youth and the people in his life - including his strict but loving churchgoing mother, played by Eisa Davis. Maybe it was watching them on a small screen but those moments seemed even more poignant this time.

Four actors: Chad Goodridge, Colman Domingo, Rebecca Naomi Jones and De'Adre Aziza, move seamlessly from the teenage Youth's friends in L.A. to Dutch artists to German anarchists. I especially loved Domingo as Franklin, the minister's son and choir director who sets Youth out on a path about which he himself can only dream.

I know Stew has mentioned The Wizard of Oz as an inspiration and I can see that. Youth's adventures reminded me so much of the mix of apprehension and exhilaration that comes from being in a foreign country for the first time.

The only thing that bothered me about the filming of Passing Strange, and I don't know whether this had something to do with the camerawork or my PBS station, but a few times actors on the left side of the stage were cut off, so you could only see half of their bodies. I noticed the credits were the same way.

When I wrote my review, I said that while I admired the show's innovation I missed the elaborate sets and big, choreographed dance numbers that you usually find in a Broadway musical. (Also, while I enjoyed the vibrant mix of rock and punk and gospel, among other sounds, I have to admit it was a bit loud for me at times.)

But the second time around, that really didn't matter. There's something I like even better than big sets and dance numbers - a well-told story. And Stew is a masterful storyteller. I'm so glad we have Passing Strange preserved on film.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The unfinished business of equality

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
Rev. Martin Luther King
Letter from Birmingham Jail
April 16, 1963

I've mentioned before that when I was in high school, I had the honor of briefly meeting Coretta Scott King. It's an experience that I will never forget.

Mrs. King, who passed away in 2006, spoke eloquently on more than one occasion on the connection between the fight for equal rights for African-Americans and for gay and lesbian Americans. Her words are truly inspiring.

“I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people.... But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' ''

Today we honor the life and legacy of her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. While it's important to remember what Dr. King and the civil-rights movement accomplished - making this country a more just and fair place - we can't forget the unfinished business of equality.

This year, Martin Luther King Day falls in the midst of a trial in federal court in California challenging Proposition 8 - the voter initiative that banned same-sex marriage.

The legal team is headed by Republican Theodore Olson, former solicitor general under President George W. Bush, and David Bois, a Democratic trial lawyer who was his adversary in Bush v. Gore.

Some people have questioned whether this is the best time to bring such a case forward, potentially to the Supreme Court. But in Newsweek, Olson makes a compelling, sincere and conservative argument in favor of same-sex marriage.

Like Mrs. King, his words are eloquent and worth repeating.

"When we refuse to accord this status to gays and lesbians, we discourage them from forming the same relationships we encourage for others. And we are also telling them, those who love them, and society as a whole that their relationships are less worthy, less legitimate, less permanent, and less valued. We demean their relationships and we demean them as individuals. I cannot imagine how we benefit as a society by doing so."

Olson reinforces an important point: marriage equality is not a liberal issue or a Democratic issue or a blue state issue. Rather, it's an American issue - how we treat our fellow citizens. He writes, "I have no doubt that we are on the right side of this battle, the right side of the law, and the right side of history."

Last year, Martin Luther King Day fell one day before the inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States - the first African-American president of the United States. It was a day honestly, I thought would never come.

Maureen Dowd wrote in The New York Times on Sunday, "legalizing gay marriage is like electing a black president. Before you do it, it seems inconceivable. Once it’s done, you can’t remember what all the fuss was about."

We know who was on the right side of history in the civil-rights movement: the people who fought to end segregation, to allow African-Americans to vote, to bring down the ban on interracial marriage.

If he had lived, Dr. King would be 81 years old. No doubt he would still be marching, still be speaking out. And I have no doubt which side he would be on in the struggle for marriage equality: the side of justice for his fellow Americans who happen to be gay or lesbian.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A fond farewell to Finian's Rainbow

Another Sunday in January and sadly, the curtain falls on another Broadway show. It's time to say goodbye to the musical revival of Finian's Rainbow, which closes today after 92 performances at the St. James Theatre.

I really thought this one might have a chance.

I had qualms going in about the silliness of the plot - but I ended up being charmed. And it got generally good reviews - in The New York Times, Charles Isherwood called the production "joyous."

True, there were no "stars" to draw the tourists and it's not a classic with the name recognition of say, West Side Story.

But Finian's Rainbow seemed to do the right things to build an audience, including having a very active Twitter and Facebook presence. Also, I thought it had the potential to be a good family show - a love story for adults, magic for the kids.

Just shows how much I know! Guess I'd better stay out of Broadway producing.

There were some terrific performances in Finian's Rainbow. I thought Kate Baldwin was lovely as the feisty Irish lass Sharon McLonergan, especially when she sang "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" And Christopher Fitzgerald was a very funny leprechaun. I hope the Tony nominators remember them.

This was a musical that debuted on Broadway in 1947, when its theme of racial harmony was considered daring. Just having black and white dancers on stage together was controversial. Thankfully, times have changed. And I guess the time for Finian's Rainbow has passed.

There simply was not enough of an audience. With 20-20 hindsight, that's pretty easy to see - a somewhat obscure 63-year-old musical with no stars is going to have trouble, no matter how glowing the reviews. There just isn't enough of a built-in fan base. At least there's a cast recording.

Maybe we're moving to an era of limited-run musicals just like we do for plays.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Theatre from coast to coast

The National Endowment for the Arts announced a new round of grants recently and it's always interesting to read about the theatre projects that received funding.

I couldn't find a breakdown just for theatre, but the NEA awarded a total of $155 million for 2009.

Some of the money goes toward developing new plays. Other times, it's re-imagining a classic. A lot of money is spent on education and outreach efforts.

To me, the list demonstrates how much interesting work is being done all over the country.

These were some that caught my attention:

Indiana Repertory Theatre
Indianapolis, IN
To support the commission and development of April, 4 1968 by playwright-in-residence James Still. The play will be based on Sen. Robert Kennedy's six-minute speech in Indianapolis on the night of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

Irondale Ensemble Project
Brooklyn, NY
To support the development and world premiere of Murrow's Boys and Their Descendants, a documentary play created by Artistic Director Jim Niesen with members of the Irondale Ensemble Project. The play will dramatize the creation of the CBS radio news division under Edward R. Murrow, interwoven with an exploration of the news habits of today's public.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Ashland, OR
To support the development and world premiere production of American Night, a new piece by the theater ensemble Culture Clash to be directed by Jo Bonney. The project will be the first production in the company's American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle, a decade-long public dialogue, commissioning, and production initiative.

Dallas Theater Center
Dallas, TX
To support a revival of It's a Bird. . . It's a Plane. . . It's Superman with music and lyrics by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams. Using original songs from the 1966 Broadway musical, the production will be re-envisioned with a new book by playwright and comic book writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.

Shotgun Players
Berkeley, CA
To support the development of Beardo, a new play by Jason Craig based on the life of Rasputin (1869-1916). Music will be composed by Dave Malloy.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Huntington's less than perfect pitch

Last night I received a call from a very pleasant young woman representing Boston's Huntington Theatre Company. She noted that I'd attended a performance of Fences and asked what I thought. I told her I really enjoyed it.

She said that was great and then proceeded to inform me that the production was going to Broadway, with only one cast change as far as she knew - the addition of Denzel Washington. She encouraged me to try and see the play again in New York.

Then she started to make a pitch for a donation. (Not to finance the "Broadway transfer," which would have been cool, but for the Huntington's very worthy education program.)

I once spent a couple of months selling subscriptions to The Boston Globe over the phone. (Not very successfully, I might add.) I know how hard it is, so I don't blame this person. Maybe she works on commission and isn't a theatre fan and doesn't even live in Massachusetts.

But I haven't seen the Huntington mentioned in association with the Broadway revival that begins previews April 14 at the Cort Theatre. As far as I know, this isn't a transfer but an entirely separate production with different producers and cast, headed by Washington and Viola Davis.

Maybe there's some connection I don't know about but as far as I can tell, the only thing the Boston and New York Fences have in common is that it's the same play and the same director, Kenny Leon.

What bothers me is that the same thing happened the last time I got a call from the Huntington, just a few months ago. The young woman on the phone tried to tell me that Becky Shaw, which the theatre is presenting in the spring, was a Broadway play. I know it's an off-Broadway play.

Now, I love the Huntington. I've seen several shows there and I've enjoyed each one of them and I'll definitely go again.

I know nonprofits are hurting and it's difficult to raise money. Broadway sounds better than off Broadway and Denzel Washington sounds more impressive than John Beasley (who actually was very impressive at the Huntington in the role Washington will be playing.)

But this is getting annoying.

So here's a some advice for any theatre company that might call me in the future: if you want me to consider donating money or becoming a season subscriber, please be honest when you make your pitch. Because I was not born yesterday.

The sad thing is, the Huntington does great work. It doesn't need to embellish its record.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Norman Conquests on television

Nothing brings home the power of theatre like seeing the same play on stage and on television.

Since I loved The Norman Conquests on Broadway I figured I could re-live the experience by watching another version of Alan Ayckbourn's trilogy on the small screen with a different cast. Wrong!

I'm in the middle of the 1978 British television production. (I got the VHS tapes from the library - used copies start at $195 on Amazon.)

Wow, what a difference! These three plays that cover one weekend at a house in the country were so much better live.

Part of it is the quality. The picture on the tapes isn't exactly the sharpest. Plus, I'm watching them at home, so it's easier to get distracted.

And the six-person cast of the Broadway revival was so perfect. I really don't think anyone in this production can compare.

As Norman, Tom Conti is more low-key and annoying, whereas on stage, Stephen Mangan was endearing and a bit manic. I've liked Conti in other roles but as Norman, Mangan gave one of the best performances I've ever seen.

I realize there's a big difference between film/tv and stage acting and you can't really compare them. But there's something thrilling about having the actors right there in front of you.

And on Broadway, director Matthew Warchus ramped things up. The dialogue seemed sharper, the action more hilarious. Whereas on television, it's kind of bland and slow and not all that funny or vibrant.

Most importantly, theatre is a communal activity.

Watching the plays on television makes me realize how much my enjoyment comes from simply being in a room with hundreds of other people, joining in their gasps and laughter and exhilaration.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Saying goodbye to The 39 Steps

I can't believe it's time to say goodbye to The 39 Steps on Broadway.

This plucky little British comedy had a great two-year run, far longer than anyone would have predicted when it began previews on Jan. 4, 2008.

And it's a play that will always occupy a special place in my theatergoing experience because it was the show that launched my blog.

The first Gratuitous Violins post was a review of The 39 Steps at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, where it had a pre-New York engagement.

After Boston, The 39 Steps came to Broadway's American Airlines Theatre under the auspices of the nonprofit Roundabout Theatre Company. The play transferred to the Cort and later the Helen Hayes, its final home, for an open-ended commercial run.

Well, that run ends today after 771 performances, making it the longest-running play on Broadway in seven years.

I had a chance to see The 39 Steps on Broadway last summer, my first time taking it in since Boston. Arnie Burton, one of two actors who plays multiple roles, was still in the cast.

And it was still immensely entertaining - a witty and inventive retelling of Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 movie about a man caught up in an international spy ring. It's hard to believe you could do so much with four actors, a few props and lots of imagination.

There's been talk of moving the show off-Broadway, like the producers of Avenue Q did after the musical closed at the Golden Theatre. But there's no official word yet. Still, The 39 Steps will live on somewhere - if not in New York than on tour and in regional productions.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Tweeting JFK's road to White House

For a week now I've been watching another kind of drama unfold via Twitter. The Kennedy Library in Boston is re-creating John F. Kennedy's race for the White House in 1960 by tweeting events from his daily schedule.

Last Saturday the Massachusetts senator announced his candidacy for president, on Jan. 2, 1960. By today's campaign standards, he was literally a Johnny-come-lately. You can watch a newsreel report here.

Kennedy's campaign-related events during that first week included an appearance on Meet the Press (still on the air!) and lunch on Madison Avenue with the editors of Look magazine (no longer published).

Interestingly, he also met with an Episcopal bishop and Methodist minister from Delaware, perhaps indicating how early in the campaign the Roman Catholic Kennedy was confronting questions about his religion.

For a 1960s buff like myself, this is all pretty interesting stuff - and such a great way to look back, in a half-dozen or so 140-character chunks per day.

There are all kinds of little social and cultural details you can pick up on, too - like the dinner Kennedy attended at the National Women's Press Club on Jan. 6, 1960. The National Press Club was still a male-only bastion. Women weren't admitted until 1971.

I'm looking forward to the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, in September. And speaking of Richard Nixon, the vice president announced his candidacy on Jan. 9, 1960. It would be great if the Nixon Library did something similar on Twitter.

The 1960 presidential campaign was a watershed - the first in which both candidates were born in the 20th century, the closest electoral vote since 1916, the first televised debate, the first election in which Alaska and Hawaii participated.

It's so hard to believe 50 years have passed.

Friday, January 8, 2010

In New Jersey, a setback for equality

Let's go back for a minute to the early 1960s, when the question of civil rights for black Americans was considered a divisive subject in the United States.

Suppose there had been referendums on the ballot or votes in state legislatures to repeal Jim Crow laws, the legal segregation that relegated black people to second-class citizenship. How many legislatures, how many states, would have voted to repeal those laws?

I'll give you the answer: None.

Not the members of one legislature, not the residents of one state would have voted to grant black people equal citizenship, much less allow marriages between blacks and whites. It took the courts, and eventually Congress, to guarantee those rights.

And the opponents of equality? They would have made arguments that sound all too familiar: they would have cited the Bible and warned of threats to children and talked about "tradition" and claimed that separate was equal.

I'm disappointed by yesterday's vote in the New Jersey Senate defeating a bill that would have allowed gay and lesbian couples to marry. But the outcome has nothing to do with justice, with what is right and fair, with the concept of equal treatment under the law.

One remark that particularly infuriated me was from Democratic Sen. Stephen M. Sweeney, who said that voters would look unkindly on the legislature if it pushed for a social issue at a time of economic suffering. (He didn't vote on the same-sex marriage bill.)

A social issue?

What does he think marriage means to gay and lesbian couples? Marriage equality ensures that you can plan every aspect of your life together. It's about health benefits and hospital visitation rights and all of the other protections and benefits that come from being legally joined together.

My friends who happen to be gay or lesbian are not second-class anything and they shouldn't be treated as second-class citizens under the law. Votes in Maine and California and New York and New Jersey don't change that.

Perhaps the courts are where this struggle for civil rights will ultimately be won, just as it was for black Americans in the 1960s. Or perhaps it's just a matter of time. The vote in Maine was close and by all accounts, opposition to same-sex marriage is a generational issue.

In the meantime, I will continue to support my friends as they live life to the fullest, to celebrate their long and loving relationships. Gay and lesbian couples will continue to form families. No ballot measure or legislative vote is going to shove them back in the closet.

And I'm not totally disheartened this week.

Iowa Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal has ruled out any debate in the current session on amending the state Constitution to ban same-sex unions. That means the earliest the matter could be put to a public vote would be 2014.

Senator Gronstal, you are still a hero to me!

By 2014, the first gay and lesbian couples to marry in Iowa will be celebrating their fifth anniversaries. Hopefully their friends and family, neighbors and coworkers will realize that the social fabric did not unravel but rather, was made stronger.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Wintertime theatergoing

The weather outside can be frightful so I'll probably be staying close to home for my theatergoing during the first few months of 2010. But there are shows I'm looking forward to seeing without having to venture too far:

Dead Man's Cell Phone, at Trinity Repertory Company. I saw Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House at Trinity Rep a few years ago and I really enjoyed the quirky characters and story she created. Just from the title, this play sounds intriguing.

The Glass Menagerie, at the Gamm Theatre. I've never seen a Tennessee Williams play on stage and I feel like he's one of those classic American playwrights whose work I should know. So hopefully this will be a good introduction.

Xanadu, at the Providence Performing Arts Center. I missed this musical on Broadway and from everything I've read, it sounded like fun. Plus, the action takes place in a roller disco so the actors will be on skates. Perfect for a winter afternoon.

Comic Potential, at the 2nd Story Theatre. I've never been to this theatre but an Alan Ayckbourn play might just be the push I need. I loved The Norman Conquests on Broadway last year and I'm eager to sample some more of his work.

Becky Shaw, at the Huntington Theatre Company. Gina Gionfriddo's comedy about a blind date that goes awry was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and garnered good reviews in New York, where it was directed by Peter DuBois. He's bringing it to Boston in his capacity as the Huntington's artistic director.

Dreamgirls, at the Colonial Theatre. I liked the movie and now I'm curious to see this musical about the rise of a 1960s Motown girl group on stage, where it began. I'm thinking there's something special about hearing a live version of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going.''

Two musicals I'm probably going to skip are 101 Dalmations and Beauty and the Beast at PPAC. After a performance of Annie in May attended by children who were way too young to be there, I'm really not in the mood.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

My 2009 New York City tourism stats

Sadly, my personal best five trips were not enough to stave off a 3.9-percent drop in the number of visitors to New York City in 2009 - about 2 million fewer tourists. I was 5 of 45.3 million. I will just have to try harder in 2010!

But with other cities, like Orlando, suffering bigger losses, New York regained its spot as the most popular tourist destination in the United States. The leisure and hospitality industry, which provides about 10 percent of the city's private-sector jobs, actually grew last year.

Coincidentally, my December credit card bill came a few days ago with the charges from last month's trip. So I tallied my New York City-related expenses for the year. In 25 days spread over eight months I spent $8,803.88. It's not everything - I used some cash, too. The total is probably closer to $10,000. And I don't regret one penny of it!

Among my expenses were five round-trip train tickets. Usually, I go on the Acela Express but a couple of times I took Amtrak's regional service, which is half the price but it can take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour longer. (There's no way I'm riding a bus for four hours. I don't care how cheap it is.)

I also bought 29 theatre tickets, ranging from $49.50 for Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village to $137 for A Little Night Music on Broadway. I like to sit in the orchestra because a) I want to be close and b) there's more leg room and I have creaky, arthritic knees. I did use Playbill and Broadway Box discounts when possible, though.

I stayed in a hotel for 20 nights that's one area where I've trimmed expenses considerably. I used to stay in a gigantic hotel right in the middle of Times Square but I switched to a smaller, very nice place just down the street. I've saved at least $100 a night, probably more, and it's still convenient for walking back from the theatre. Plus, I get a free continental breakfast!

Speaking of food, I had good meals at, among other restaurants, Pete's Tavern, the Blue Fin, Pigalle, Extra Virgin, Thalia, Cafe Un, Deux, Trois, Chez Josephine, Vynl, Junior's, the Metropolitan Museum of Art cafeteria and the Burger Joint. And don't forget cupcakes from the Magnolia Bakery and Crumbs. (I don't eat much red meat anymore but the beef bourguignon at Pigalle is worth a splurge.)

New York is a great city for exploring on foot and some of my favorite experiences haven't cost me anything: walking through Central Park and across the Brooklyn Bridge, visiting the Museum of Modern Art on a free Friday afternoon, attending a taping of The Late Show with David Letterman, stumbling upon a Paul McCartney concert. (Here's a list of museums with free or pay-what-you-wish hours and other cheap stuff.)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Matthew Bourne double feature

My experience with ballet and modern dance is very limited - when I was in college, I saw the Joffrey Ballet once and I went to The Nutcracker once.

So when I rented a dvd of British choreographer Matthew Bourne's ballet Swan Lake a couple of years ago, I wasn't sure how much I'd enjoy it. I'm not an incredibly visual person - I like having my stories told through words.

Well, Bourne's version isn't traditional - the swans are played by male dancers rather than ballerinas. But the story of a young prince who years for his freedom is powerful. And what swans! Bare-chested, agile and athletic, they were simply mesmerizing. (In fact, I think I need my very own copy!)

Since then, I've seen Mary Poppins on Broadway and enjoyed Bourne's choreography. The tap-dancing chimney sweeps on the rooftops of London in "Step in Time" were especially memorable. If it was his idea to have Bert make his way up one side of the proscenium and down the other, he's a genius.

Last week, Vance at Tapeworthy and Steve On Broadway included another of Bourne's works, The Car Man, on their best of the decade lists. I was wishing I'd seen it when a thought hit me - maybe The Car Man was on dvd, too. And it was!

All I can say is - wow. It was stunning and sizzling. There were also a few scenes of horrific physical and sexual violence. This is film noir translated to ballet. Truthfully, the bloodiness made it tough to watch at times. But I found the story easier to follow than Swan Lake.

From what I've read, Bourne kept most of the music from Bizet's opera Carmen. (I recognized the most familiar part - the habanera.) But the story is an adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

A drifter shows up at diner/garage circa 1960, located in a small American town in the middle of nowhere. He gets a job as a mechanic and catches the eye of the garage owner's wife, a beautiful young woman married to an older man. Well, you can imagine that sparks fly. And the set by Lez Brotherston is terrific, too. He gets the isolation and seediness and greasiness of the place.

Alan Vincent is excellent as Luca, the drifter. He's got a mysterious quality and he doesn't have a dancer's lean body, so you're surprised at how well he moves. In an interview on the dvd, Bourne compares the character to Marlon Brando or James Dean.

I also liked Will Kemp as Angelo, the garage go-fer, a vulnerable young man who's constantly getting picked on by the older, rougher mechanics. (They'd made great gang members in West Side Story.) Saranne Curtin as Lana, the garage owner's wife, was perfectly flirtatious and sexy.

I gather that plans to mount a production of The Car Man on Broadway foundered after the September 11 attacks, which is a shame. I'd love to see it on stage. But there are advantages to watching it on dvd - you can see the expressions on the dancers' faces.

This is one of those works that really changes the way you feel about dance. It tells an absorbing story in a way that's so clear and thrilling to watch and incredibly sensual. You don't need words to know what's going on.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Sondheim, Broderick speak out

Two interesting theatre-related stories:

First, there's an interview in The New York Times with Stephen Sondheim in which he discusses the trend of producing his work with small orchestras, notably the current Broadway revival of A Little Night Music.

Sondheim admits that a part of him misses “the big swells from larger orchestras.” Still, he sounds philosophical. “I’m just pleased that somebody wants to do it, and that it gets a chance to be seen again, especially since some of these shows had very limited runs the very first time out."

I love the sound of a big orchestra as much as the next person but as someone who'd never seen a production of A Little Night Music before, I was captivated. Maybe I don't know what I'm missing but I'd rather see it with a small orchestra than never see it at all.

(Sondheim also did an hourlong interview with the American Theatre Wing's Downstage Center program, which I'm eager to hear.)

Two of my favorite plays of the fall, Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts and the revival of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, didn't get the runs I think they deserved. So this New York Post interview with Matthew Broderick struck a nerve.

"That Brighton Beach Memoirs didn’t run longer frightened a lot of people. It got good reviews, and that’s what was even scarier. Our play [The Starry Messenger] got really good reviews, and we’re having trouble moving to Broadway. I don’t think we will. I guess people want a really sure bet when they spend money on a ticket. With limited funds to go around, I guess they say, “I’ll see Phantom.''

What Broderick says isn't new but that doesn't make it any less sad.

It's interesting that two of the most highly anticipated Broadway plays this spring are contemporary American dramas penned by non-Americans: A Behanding in Spokane by Irishman Martin McDonagh; and Enron by Lucy Prebble, who's British.

On the other hand, I am looking forward to Next Fall by American playwright Geoffrey Nauffts, which received good reviews off-Broadway and begins previews next month at the Helen Hayes Theatre.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Saying goodbye to Superior Donuts

I wish I could be in New York this afternoon for the final performance of Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts. The play, which opened Oct. 1 at Broadway's Music Box Theatre, is closing after 108 performances. It's one of my favorites and it deserved a longer run.

Theatergoing is a communal experience but whether or not a play grabs you is such a personal thing. When I think about all of the plays I've seen over the past three years what it comes down to is this: Don't lecture, tell me a story. And if you can surprise me, that's a plus.

Superior Donuts, the story of a rundown donut shop in a changing Chicago neighborhood, did both of those things for me. I laughed, I got choked up and there was a moment when I truly gasped. Most of all, I was entertained.

I thought Michael McKean as the worn-out shop owner and Jon Michael Hill as the eager young man who comes to work for him had terrific chemistry. They were so much fun to watch together and Hill especially was amazing in his Broadway debut.

Last year, some of the performances I enjoyed on Broadway in November were overlooked by the Tony nominators. So I hope they remember McKean and Hill when spring rolls around. (And James Schuette's set design also deserves a nomination. It was so detailed, down to the gum stuck underneath the tables.)

The cast is made up of mainly Chicago-based actors, all of whom transferred with the play from its premiere at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. In addition to McKean and Hill, they are Jane Alderman, Kate Buddeke, Cliff Chamberlain, Michael Garvey, Robert Maffia, James Vincent Meredith and Yasen Peyankov. I hope I get to see them on stage again.

It's a shame that there isn't room on Broadway for a play like Superior Donuts, a slice of life that's well-acted, with witty dialogue, memorable characters and a story that draws you in. This was a play of sweet, small moments, poignancy and humor from a terrific ensemble.

It's so different from Letts' previous work, the Tony and Pulitzer-winning August: Osage County, an acerbic, multigenerational family story. I love them both and I love the fact that they're so different.

(Although they share Letts' memorable characters and sharp dialogue and like August: Osage County, I think Superior Donuts would make a great movie. Spike Lee would be the perfect director for this gritty urban story.)

In an interview with the American Theatre Wing's Downstage Center program, Letts noted that Superior Donuts was his first play set in his adopted hometown of Chicago. While he didn't start out to write a work that would be smaller in scope, he does like to stretch himself.

"I have an impulse to mix it up. When I finish one thing, the next thing I work on I want to be different. I want to challenge myself in different ways. I want to explore different things, whether it's writing or acting."

I'm so glad Letts did challenge himself and I'm looking forward to his next play.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

First, via the Wayback Machine, here are some of the plays and musicals that will celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2010.

The musicals that opened in 1960 include:

Bye Bye Birdie, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Irma La Douce and Camelot on Broadway; Oliver! in London's West End; and The Fantasticks off-Broadway.

I've never seen The Fantasticks, which is currently playing at the Snapple Theater Center in Times Square. So maybe this will be the year!

Among the plays that opened on Broadway in 1960 were:

A Taste of Honey, by Shelagh Delaney; Becket, by Jean Anouilh, Toys in the Attic, by Lillian Hellman, The Best Man, by Gore Vidal, and All the Way Home, by Tad Mosel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Interestingly, there were two stage adaptations of noteworthy novels that opened on Broadway in 1960: John Hersey's The Wall and Allen Drury's Advise and Consent.

Here's to a happy and healthy 2010! I hope it's a year filled with great theatre. And as always, thank-you so much for stopping by.