Monday, June 28, 2010

Snapping up a ticket to The Addams Family

The Broadway musical The Addams Family received a particularly negative review from New York Times critic Ben Brantley, yet it's doing great at the box office, taking in nearly $1.4 million and playing to 97.4 percent capacity last week.

And from my purely unscientific survey, I don't think that attendance is going to drop off anytime soon.

There's a new feature at Ticketmaster that allows you to select your seat. I've been looking at tickets for late July and great swaths of the orchestra have already been sold. (The regular-priced orchestra, that is. There are still plenty of premium seats.)

Surprising? Not at all.

It's got name recognition from the TV series and movies and the two stars, Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwith, help, too. It's a known quantity, which is comforting when you're shelling out $136.50 apiece for tickets.

But I think there's something even more important.

Every once in awhile I read the travel forums at Lots of people who are coming to New York on vacation, and bringing their kids, want advice about a Broadway show. It has to appeal to mom and dad, teens and preteens, boys and girls.

Well, The Addams Family fits the bill, especially if they've already seen some of the other long-running musicals. Prominently displayed on its Facebook page is: "This show is family friendly and appropriate for children ages 10 and up."

So when it comes to musicals, family friendly can trump Ben Brantley.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Hair today, gone tomorrow

The show in which I made my Broadway debut - Hair - is closing today at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre after 548 performances and a Tony for Best Revival of a Musical.

I wish it could have run longer but one thing I've learned, except for The Phantom of the Opera nothing lasts forever.

I love the songs from Hair, I saw the movie in 1979 and I caught a touring production once in Syracuse, years ago.

But this revival, directed by Diane Paulus, is the one that truly got to me. I love the way it evoked the be-who-you-are spirit of the 1960s while not ignoring the more tumultuous events. Here's my review.

Inviting the audience onstage at the end of the show was a perfect way to celebrate a decade that was all about breaking down barriers. It was a thrilling experience and I'm happy I could share it with Kevin, my friend and fellow blogger.

(And how great was it that the cast of Hair were such strong supporters of marriage equality, bringing forward the decade's commitment to freedom and social justice.)

Paulus could have turned Hair into an exercise in hippie nostalgia - a look back at a time of sexual liberation, when young people dropped out, got stoned, wore tie-dyed shirts and bell bottom trousers and men grew their hair long.

Instead, she made the story relevant and compelling by keeping the focus on the most divisive and politically charged aspect of the decade - the Vietnam War.

Through Gavin Creel's terrific portrayal of the conflicted Claude, the musical brought home the difficult choices young men faced. Young men, that is, who weren't as fortunate as Dick Cheney or Richard Blumenthal.

For me, more than the fashions and hairstyles, Claude's plight was a stark reminder of how much has changed.

There was an article last week in The New York Times that pointed out, America's "all-volunteer military continues to fight two wars that the vast majority of American society pays little or no attention to."

Forty years ago, at the height of protests against Vietnam, that detachment would have been inconceivable.

I saw Hair on Memorial Day weekend in 2009. It's a powerful reminder of the care we should take before sending Americans into harm's way, whether they're draftees or volunteers, our loved ones or someone else's.

While Hair is closing on Broadway, a national tour begins this fall. I am so glad I had a chance to see it.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Tonys and marketing Broadway

Just about everyone else has weighed in on Hunter Foster's Facebook group "Give the Tonys Back to Broadway," so here's my 2 cents.

Like the other major awards shows, there are two sides to the Tony Awards. They're supposed to celebrate the best in terms of artistic achievement and act as a marketing tool.

The producers of the Emmys, Oscars and Grammys have it easy. You watch the ceremony and you want to see the TV show or movie or listen to the song, it's cheap and simple.

The Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing have more of a challenge.

A theatre fan watching far from Broadway faces the prospect of shelling out $1,000 for a weekend in New York City. And with tourists buying 63 percent of the tickets, that's the audience the show has to reach.

(I wonder why more isn't done to promote the Tonys at theatres that present Broadway tours? And don't think about moving the broadcast from CBS to PBS. I bet some stations either won't carry it or would air it at 3 a.m. a week later.)

Before I became a regular theatergoer, one of the few times I remember watching the Tony Awards was in 2005.

I don't know what made me tune in but it may have had something to do with Spamalot being a Best Musical nominee. I'd been a big Monty Python fan as a teenager.

I watched the cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and they were hilarious. I remember Victoria Clark winning for Best Actress in a Musical for The Light in the Piazza and Norbert Leo Butz winning Best Actor for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Sad to say, neither name meant anything to me and nothing compelled me to start looking into tickets and hotel reservations.

That came a couple years later, when I found out Kevin Spacey, one of my favorite actors, was going to be in A Moon for the Misbegotten. I wanted to see him on Broadway more than anything. And I did - twice.

So, I could have done with less Green Day and Glee and more Marian Seldes and Kate Baldwin on the Tony broadcast. I wish more of the awards could be televised, more of my favorite theatre actors serve as presenters and a better job be done showcasing plays.

All I know is, since 2007 I've attended dozens of shows on Broadway, off Broadway and elsewhere. I'm the go-to person for friends who need some advice about visiting New York City and seeing a show. Now, some of my favorite actors are people you've never heard of unless you follow theatre.

Without the draw of Kevin Spacey, a movie star, none of that would have happened.

Believe me, the prospect of seeing a favorite actor onstage is thrilling. Sure, they have to do their part by being up to the job. But when it works, the experience can turn a very casual theatergoer into a passionate fan.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

David Hyde Pierce on theatre and memory

You may recall my bond with Curtains, the first musical I saw on Broadway. Not only did I love the show but I had a great time meeting the gracious cast, including David Hyde Pierce, at the stage door afterward.

So I was thrilled that the American Theatre Wing honored Hyde Pierce with the Isabelle Stevenson Award, bestowed upon an individual from the theatre community who has volunteered time and effort on behalf of a charitable, humanitarian or social service organization.

Hyde Pierce was recognized for his work in the fight against Alzheimer's disease. His grandfather died of the disease and his father suffered from dementia. He's a board member of the Alzheimer's Association and has worked on the local and national level advocating for additional funding for research and care programs.

The award was presented to him during the pre-broadcast portion of the Tonys Sunday night. Here's part of what he said:

"We all say 'I'll never forget' and I think we say it in the theatre more than anyplace else because we're blessed to have so many unforgettable things happen in our world. I'll never forget Marian Seldes' curtain calls. I'll never forget Kelsey Grammer planting a big wet one on Douglas Hodge.

Well I don't use that phrase anymore. My work with the association has taught me that 'I'll never forget' is a phrase, it's a vow, that none of us can honestly make.

But I promise you in honor of my family, the Alzheimer's Association, my grandfather and my dad that I will be grateful for this honor, I will remember this night, as long as memory serves."

The evening at Curtains was one of many unforgettable theatre experiences I've had over the past three years. Rest assured that I will remember it as long as my memory serves.

Here's David Hyde Pierce talking about the award and his latest role, in La Bete, which he's currently rehearsing in London.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Some thoughts on the 2010 Tony Awards

This is going to be a little like the Tony Awards: nothing too edgy or innovative, nothing that other people haven't already said and with more panache. You can find the winners here.

As host, Sean Hayes was charming and funny, terrific at the piano (did anyone else tear up at the first strains of "Give My Regards to Broadway?") and not afraid to put on silly costumes. His drawn-out kiss with Promises, Promises costar Kristin Chenoweth was perfect.

With so many styles of music represented on Broadway: rhythm and blues, pop, rock 'n' roll, Afrobeat, to name a few, why did American Idiot get to perform so many times? And people do realize that Green Day's not in the show, right?

As presenters, Bebe Neuwirth and Nathan Lane from The Addams Family made me laugh. Yes, the Passover line has been used before but what can I say? Perhaps it's programmed in my genetic code but I will laugh every single time.

I thought Catherine Zeta-Jones did a much better job with "Send in the Clowns" when I saw A Little Night Music than she did on the Tonys. Steve on Broadway, as usual, had the perfect quip on Twitter: "Catherine Zeta-Jones inexplicably became a bobble-head."

How glamorous was Scarlett Johansson! I was moved by her acceptance speech: "Ever since I was a little girl, I've wanted to be on Broadway." Sadly, A View From the Bridge closed in April. Johansson is a singer, too. So the 25-year-old may well have an EGOT in her future.

I think Glee is hit or miss, but I loved hearing Lea Michele sing "Don't Rain on My Parade." Although I know it's not likely to happen, I would buy a ticket to see her in a Broadway revival of Funny Girl. I just would.

I wish people would stop ragging on Best Musical winner Memphis. It's an energetic show with terrific performances from Chad Kimball and Montego Glover. At a time when we're still fighting for marriage equality, the story of the romance between a black singer and a white disc jockey in the 1950s resonated with me.

(And Michael Riedel, if you liked Fela! better, that's fine. But please, you're not an expert on what's "authentically black.")

Sunday, June 13, 2010

It's Tony night 2010!

The 64th annual Tony Awards, recognizing the best of Broadway, are tonight!

Despite the exclamation mark, my anticipation level is a little lower this year since I haven't seen any of the shows that opened on Broadway in 2010.

Still, I'll be looking forward to a glimpse of the ones I haven't seen and rooting for the nominees from the first half of the 2009-2010 season.

I enjoyed them all but I'd be especially delighted if Jon Michael Hill wins for Best Featured Actor in a Play for Superior Donuts and Montego Glover for Best Actress in a Musical for Memphis.

And hearing Angela Lansbury sing in A Little Night Music was such a thrill, I'll be cheering if she raises one of those new taller, heavier Tonys over her head in triumph.

What's amazed me in the run-up to the Tonys this year is the coverage - in print and from online sites, in blogs and on Twitter.

While it's been tough to keep up with all of the interviews and predictions and looks back at the Broadway season, what a great feast from which to pick and choose.

Among the absolute best pieces I've read is today's New York Times interview with Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Marian Seldes. I had the great honor of seeing her and Angela Lansbury on Broadway in Deuce in 2007.

Finally, I want to send my congratulations to David Hyde Pierce, recipient of the Isabelle Stevenson Award in recognition of his work with the Alzheimers Association.

One of my favorite Tony moments was jumping up from the couch and cheering three years ago when he won for Best Actor in a Musical for Curtains, the very first musical I saw on Broadway.

The non-televised portion of the Tonys - where awards for design, book of a musical, score and choreography are handed out - will be at 7 p.m. You can watch online at The prime-time portion, hosted by Promises, Promises nominee Sean Hayes, begins at 8 p.m. on CBS.

Farewell, Little Orphan Annie

After 86 years Little Orphan Annie, that spunky redhead who survived all sorts of hardships, disappears from the comics pages along with Daddy Warbucks and her beloved pooch, Sandy.

Today's strip is the final one. Apparently it was running in fewer than 20 newspapers, including The Daily News, which had been carrying the comic since its debut in 1924.

But don't despair. Annie will be around in some fashion, according to Steve Tippie of Tribune Media, which owns the license to the character. Among the possibilities he mentions are TV, games and graphic novels.

And there are plans for a 35th anniversary Broadway revival of the musical Annie in 2012.

I saw a lackluster tour of Annie last year (the audience, filled with young children who were really too young to be there, didn't help).

Still, I love the way the book, by Thomas Meehan, and the score, from Martin Charnin and Charles Strouse, manage to evoke the Depression-era 1930s. I'd definitely see a top-notch production.

And I would like to believe there's some truth in this quote:

"Annie is one of those iconic characters in American culture," Tippie says. "If you stop 10 people on the street, nine of them will drop down on one knee and start singing 'Tomorrow.'"

Friday, June 11, 2010

Should the Tonys invite off-Broadway?

I have to disagree with Bloomberg News writer Jeremy Gerard, who argues that the Tony Awards should expand to include off-Broadway plays and musicals.

I understand his point - the best theatre in New York City doesn't always take place from 41st to 54th Streets, with a quick detour to Lincoln Center. Over the past few years, I've seen terrific off-Broadway productions and some Broadway shows I could have missed.

But the Tonys, in addition to recognizing artistic achievement, are also a marketing tool, just like the Oscars, the Emmys and the Grammys.

People who tune in Sunday to watch the Tonys (8 p.m. CBS), including some of the tourists who buy 65 percent of the tickets to shows, are watching because they want to see "Broadway." No disrespect to the rest of New York theatre but I think that's pretty indisputable.

The Tonys and Broadway are inextricably linked in the public's mind. It's "Broadway's Biggest Night." And Broadway, for better or worse, has name recognition.

The Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing have a stake in protecting the Tony Awards brand. Once the Tonys become a mix of Broadway and off-Broadway, you've diluted the brand in the eyes of the viewing and ticket-buying public.

Besides, even if off-Broadway shows were eligible, it still wouldn't make Gerard's last statement true:

"Off-Broadway has been playing the supporting role for way too long. It’s time for the Tony Awards to invite everyone into the tent and give real meaning to the phrase 'outstanding achievement in the theater.' ''

If you really want the awards to reflect outstanding achievement, then you would have to include all of the great work being done by theatre companies across the United States, not just give out one regional Tony per year.

All you would accomplish by including off-Broadway is to turn the Tony Awards into "outstanding achievement in New York City theatre." And I'm sorry but that doesn't sing quite like "Broadway."

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Remembering Patrick Lee

I only met Patrick Lee once, at our first bloggers brunch in March 2008, when more than a dozen of us, mostly strangers but united by a passion for theatre, gathered at the venerable Broadway hangout Angus McIndoe.

I remember going on about how much I loved The 39 Steps, which had recently moved to Broadway after a stop in Boston. Patrick didn't share my enthusiasm for the play but we had a lively discussion about it.

That was the first of many terrific conversations, many brunches and dinners and shows and adventures with new friends. We don't always agree and that's a good thing. Because for me, the debate is a big part of the fun.

Today Theatermania, where Patrick was a frequent contributor, reported that he passed away earlier this month in Larchmont, N.Y. He's survived by his mother, sisters and other family members.

My theatergoing friends have become a big part of my life and to lose one, so young and so unexpectedly, is incredibly sad and shocking. My condolences go out to Patrick's family and to friends and colleagues who knew him far better than I did.

Even though we only met once, I was a devoted reader of his blog, Just Shows to Go You. We both had an opportunity to see Hairspray before it closed on Broadway. It's one of my favorite musicals and Patrick summed up so well what I loved about it:

"I spent the first act with the wildly enthusiastic audience marveling at how feel-good a well-directed, delightfully choreographed and terrifically scored big Broadway musical can be when everyone is on their game."

As a writer and as an advocate for theatre, Patrick Lee was always on his game. He will be missed.

Monday, June 7, 2010

My colonoscopy - without the gory details

Two weeks ago I had a colonoscopy. I'm happy to report that my colon is in good shape, thank-you very much. And of course, there's a theatre angle.

I knew that once you reach a certain age - which I uh, attained last year - you're supposed to have one. Everyone I talked to said it was no big deal - they put you to sleep and the next thing you know, you're in the recovery room.

I also knew that the preparation, which involves a liquid diet and a thorough cleansing of the system, was going to make me physically uncomfortable. It did. I'll spare you the gory details but even now I shudder just walking past a display of Gatorade at the supermarket.

So, I kept putting it off. I had plenty of time, it wasn't the right time of year, I didn't have a family history of colon cancer, whatever. I'm very good at procrastination, especially when it involves physical discomfort.

Now, here's where the theatre angle comes in.

One of my regular blog reads is Guy Dads, written by Ed and his husband Eddie, who live in Northern California. They have a big, blended family, they're San Francisco Giants fans, opera buffs and they love theatre. I love reading about their marathon theatre trips to New York City.

Well in October, Ed wrote that he had colon cancer. Thankfully, it was caught early and although it's been a harrowing nine months involving multiple surgeries, he's doing great. I'm looking forward to reading about their next theatre trip to New York, whenever that might be.

When Ed was too ill to post, Eddie has kept friends, family and readers informed. One thing he wrote struck me as so important:

I cannot tell you how wonderful it has been to be in a state, city and hospital system where not one person has blinked an eye every time I walk in anywhere with Ed or where I call or show up and say I am his spouse.

The doctors, nurses, receptionists, social worker, medical records clerks, etc. have each and every one treated me with respect and as the person who of course should be monitoring and managing Ed's health care.

I cannot imagine how much more difficult this whole situation would have been in most of the other states of this 'free' country. In many, I would not have been allowed in most of the offices. I certainly would not be called by the doctor, emailed with the test results, or allowed to ask anyone any question and get it answered.

This is why President Obama's April mandate, that hospitals extend visitation rights to the partners of gay and lesbian patients and respect their right to make decisions for their partners, is so important. A new study by the Human Rights Campaign finds 42 percent of the nation's 200 biggest hospitals lack policies to protect gay and lesbian patients.

Ed's cancer diagnosis was certainly a wake-up call for me. Without it, I probably would have put off the colonoscopy even longer. The day before wasn't pleasant but the test was a piece of cake (if only I could have had a piece of cake that morning!) - and it beats the alternative.

Normally I wouldn't get so personal but as the Talmud teaches, if you save one life it's as if you've saved the entire world.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Jersey Boys

Jersey Boys, at the Providence Performing Arts Center.
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

I have now seen - on Broadway or on tour - all 16 Tony nominees for Best Musical from 2006 to 2009. The holdout was Jersey Boys and over the weekend I finally took in the 2006 winner.

My verdict: Jersey Boys is a pretty entertaining 2 1/2 hours. Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice do a good job telling the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. And the musical numbers, with Sergio Trujillo's choreography, are terrific. I wish they'd gone on longer.

I enjoyed learning how four blue-collar kids from New Jersey - Valli, Nick Massi, Tommy DeVito and Bob Gaudio - came together to form a band. It was a time, as one of them explains, when young men from the neighborhood had three choices: join the Army, get mobbed up or become a star.

Brickman (an Oscar winner for co-writing one of my favorite movies, Annie Hall) and Elice make each one memorable - Valli the quiet kid with the sweet falsetto, Massi the group's self-described "Ringo Starr," Gaudio the songwriter who's afraid he won't be able to repeat his early success, and DeVito the one who can't seem to stay out of trouble.

The storytelling in Jersey Boys isn't perfect. For one thing, did people really use the f-word that much in 1960? And after a snappy first act, leading up to The Four Seasons' first hit, "Sherry," I thought the second act dragged a bit. (Also, some of the songs seemed to get cut short.)

But I got a good sense of what kept the four together and the pressures that threatened to split them up. I liked the performances: Ryan Jesse as Gaudio, Matt Bailey as DeVito, Steve Gouveia as Massi and especially the dynamic Joseph Leo Bwarie as Frankie Valli. When they were singing, it was like being at a concert back in the day.

What surprised me about Jersey Boys was how many songs I knew that I didn't even know were Four Seasons songs: "Sherry," "Walk Like A Man," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," "Working My Way Back To You," "December 1963 (Oh What A Night)."

Those songs - many of them written by Gaudio and producer Bob Crewe - are reminders of a time when catchy, 3-minute pop tunes ruled the airwaves. For me, and I think for a lot of other people in the audience, swaying to that music was when Jersey Boys truly came alive.