Thursday, June 28, 2012

Oreo celebrates Gay Pride Month

I'm not surprised that the haters came out in force when Oreo posted a picture on its Facebook page of a rainbow-themed cookie to celebrate Gay Pride Month. (Sadly it's only an illustration, not a real cookie.)

The nasty comments were what you'd expect but there was one that really irritated me. It went something like this: Why would a company risk alienating 97 percent of (presumably straight) consumers to curry favor with the 3 percent who might be gay or lesbian.

That argument is particularly insidious because at first glance, it sounds logical. What business wants to anger 97 percent of the people who might buy its product? But it has the effect of marginalizing the other 3 percent by setting them apart from the rest of America. It's divisive and demeaning.

(I wonder whether this person thinks it's a mistake for supermarkets to cater to Jews with displays of matzo and gefilte fish during Passover? Jews are even less than 3 percent of the population. And you know about the special Coca-Cola we get, right?)

Beyond that, the argument is 100 percent wrong because it ignores just how much American attitudes toward homosexuality have changed. This is not 1960, when gay people were forced to live furtive lives in the shadows of society or pretend that they were straight.

Surveys show an ever-increasing number of straight Americans have someone in their life who's gay or lesbian. And knowing someone who's gay translates into greater acceptance. The younger you are, the more likely that's true. So thinking about what Oreo did in terms of 97 percent versus 3 percent is a total fallacy.

To put it plainly, there are plenty of cookie-eating straight people who support our gay friends. And plenty of cookie-eating gay people as well. They're out, they're proud and we love them year-round. When a company like Kraft, whose Nabisco division makes Oreos, reaches out to them, it makes us want to support that company, too.

A spokesman said that Kraft "has a proud history of celebrating diversity and inclusiveness. We feel the Oreo ad is a fun reflection of our values." Well those are my values, too. So next time I'm at the supermarket, I'll toss a package of Oreos into my cart. (Here's Buzzfeed on what some other snacks would look like showing their pride.)

The anti-gay bigots may think they're the majority in the United States but the percentages - and time - are not on their side.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Playwright Kirsten Greenidge takes on the man who said "Eh."

Clearly, Kirsten Greenidge would like a better calibre of people to come see her plays. You know, the kind who appreciate her talent and would give her the adulation she deserves. At least that's the message I took away from her opinion piece in The Boston Globe.

Here's part of what she wrote:

"Not so long ago I sat in one of my plays, watching the people in the row in front of me. Their hair was indeed a little gray, but just as noteworthy was their attire. The men had heavy, large-faced watches and well-made sport coats. The women had purses that might have cost three times my family’s usual grocery bill. They each looked healthy — the kind of healthy you get when you have health insurance. This country had kept its promise to them. So how would they react to a play about people whose relationship to that promise is more ambiguous than their own?

“What’d you think?” one asked her husband afterward. A Lexus “L” flashed from his key ring. “Eh,” he replied. In his hand was the program, open to my picture. Did he know I was sitting behind him? His displeasure was not malicious or callous; it was dismissive. Why go traipsing through the unfortunate experiences of others? If this play about have-nots were to implicate him in the not-having, it might ruin the effects of the perfectly lovely Malbec he’d had with dinner."

I don't even know where to begin in discussing those paragraphs. The guy with the Lexus key ring didn't like her play? So what? Is that any excuse for Greenidge to project her own stereotypes about who this man is, based on what he was wearing and what kind of car he "might" drive? And where did she develop the ability to read people's minds?

Greenidge seems particularly incensed that someone she views as well off - with health insurance! - didn't love her play. Would the "Eh" have felt better if it had come from someone younger, from a different cultural and socioeconomic background? Someone hipper? Someone who wore torn jeans and an old T-shirt, who carried a knapsack and took the subway and had a minimum-wage job that didn't offer health insurance?

I sympathize with the desire of a young African-American writer to have an audience that may share her cultural sensibilities and background, an audience she believes will appreciate her more and just get her. She yearns for an audience, above all, that cares about the issues and characters she explores in her plays. Nothing wrong with that.

And Greenidge makes valid points about audiences, ones that are apparent to anyone who's ever set foot in a theatre - they do appear older and whiter, more female. Surveys show they also tend to be more affluent. And those facts, she argues, make it more difficult for theatres and playwrights to offer plays that might upset their core patrons.

But like it or not, those are the people who come. They pay full price for tickets and buy season subscriptions. Many of them do support new work. Year in and year out they fork over their money, get dressed up and come out to see a play when it would be easier to stay home and sit on the couch in front of the TV.

Of course I want theatres to stage works that attract a younger, more diverse audience. I want them to experiment and challenge their patrons. Who doesn't want that? But as a middle class white person with health insurance, who's bought a few handbags in her day, I'm hurt by Greenidge's assertion that because I might not like a particular play, it somehow reflects badly on me. It's a sign that I'm not willing to step outside my comfort zone and try to understand experiences different from my own.

It seems to me that she could have made her argument just as strongly without holding the audience she has in such contempt because one person expressed a less than enthusiastic reaction to her play. Whatever you think about the man who said "Eh," he paid for his ticket and sat through to the end.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Some thoughts on the 2012 Tony Awards

Watching the Tony Awards last night made me so happy that I braved a storm to see The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess before it came to Broadway, that Trinity Rep snagged Clybourne Park for a 300-seat theatre and that I set aside my qualms about movie-to-musical adaptations for Once.

In other words, I'm pretty happy about the winners, especially Once, which is the most unique and captivating new musical I've seen in years. It's the one show I've been recommending whenever someone asks me what to see on Broadway.

And the speeches from the winners seemed especially heartfelt and emotional. I was tearing up hearing Tony winner for Once Steve Kazee talk about his mother, who passed away from cancer on Easter Sunday. Anyone who's lost a parent knows how he felt.

I'm not sure whether Stephen Sondheim's angry letter to The New York Times cost the Follies revival a Tony win. I think most voters would be professional enough to judge the show on its merits. But a cast and creative team work so hard and it's such a tough business. I'm sure Sondheim's criticism of a musical he hadn't seen must have stung.

The one show I haven't seen that came across especially well was the British comedy One Man, Two Guvnors. James Corden's acceptance speech was hilarious, even though it was largely recycled from the Drama Desk Awards. And the scene they showed from the play: Who knew someone hitting himself in the head with a trash can lid could be so funny?!

Despite Tony wins for Michael McGrath and Judy Kaye, I'm still not interested in Nice Work If You Can Get It. Maybe if Matthew Broderick hadn't looked so tired and as my friend Tapeworthy said, gotten a better haircut, the musical number from the show would have been more exciting. Where have you gone, Ferris Bueller?

This comment from Alan Menken, who with Jack Feldman won Best Score for Newsies, was interesting: "We really owe it to the generation of kids who adopted this movie and insisted that it be brought to the stage." Before VCRs and cable channels like the Disney Channel, seeing your favorite movie over and over again wouldn't have been possible. And Menken is so close to an EGOT. Get that man an Emmy, stat!

As a show, the Tony Awards were just ok. Host Neil Patrick Harris was his usual charming and witty self. If you're interested and you've seen the plays and musicals, you'll tune in. If not, you won't. For me the best part was tweeting along with my fellow theatre fans. They made watching it at home alone on the couch a lot more enjoyable!

The one misstep was including a snippet of Hairspray performed live from the Royal Caribbean liner Oasis of the Seas. This is supposed to be a night to recognize the best in American theatre and that was underwhelming. Although I was impressed by the enormous size of the ship's theatre.

I'm sure the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League were under a lot of pressure from CBS to include it. I wish they had stood their ground and made Royal Caribbean buy a commercial in a regular commercial slot instead of disguising it as part of the show. Besides, if I were interested in taking a cruise, I'd want to see more of the ship.

And the one thing I hate about all awards shows is how the camera is fixed on the nominees, to get their reaction as a winner is announced. I always avert my eyes. I just can't watch. It seems so cruel.

But regardless of who brought home a Tony, I loved all of the nominated performances I saw this season. You can find the complete list of winners here.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

My picks for the 2012 Tony Awards

The Tony Awards are Sunday night at 8 on CBS, hosted once again by the charming Neil Patrick Harris!

Here are the nominees in (most of) the categories and my picks if I had a vote. I've marked in bold the shows and performances that I've seen. It's so hard to choose because I enjoyed them all!

Best Musical
Nice Work if You Can Get It
Leap of Faith

I saw Newsies and Once on the same day, which was quite an experience. Newsies is a terrific traditional Broadway musical. But Once felt unique and captivating.

Best Revival of a Musical
The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
Jesus Christ Superstar

This production of Follies got to me. Every role was wonderfully cast and hearing the score with a full orchestra was thrilling.

Best Original Score
Bonnie & Clyde
One Man, 2 Guvnors
Peter and the Starcatcher

I love the Newsies score, especially the big ensemble numbers "Seize the Day," "Carry the Banner" and "King of New York." Alan Menken's music and Jack Feldman's lyrics sing "Broadway" to me.

Best Book of a Musical
Lysistrata Jones, Douglas Carter Beane
Newsies, Harvey Fierstein
Nice Work If You Can Get It, Joe DiPietro
*Once, Enda Walsh

I think Enda Walsh did a beautiful job translating Once from the screen to the stage. His adaptation brings out the humor and heart in the story.

Best Actor in a Musical
Danny Burstein, Follies
*Jeremy Jordan, Newsies
Steve Kazee, Once
Norm Lewis, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
Ron Raines, Follies

Every year there's one category where I've seen all the performances, which makes it even harder to pick a favorite! I really did love them all. But Jeremy Jordan's strong vocals, charisma and 1,000-watt smile won me over.

Best Featured Actor in a Musical
*Philip Boykin, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
Michael Cerveris, Evita
David Alan Grier, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
Michael McGrath, Nice Work If You Can Get It
Josh Young, Jesus Christ Superstar

I saw the pre-Broadway Porgy and Bess at the American Repertory Theatre and Philip Boykin was scary terrific as the bullying Crown. I can only imagine how much more terrifying he's gotten.

Best Actress in a Musical
Jan Maxwell, Follies
Audra McDonald, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
*Cristin Milioti, Once
Kelli O'Hara, Nice Work If You Can Get It
Laura Osnes, Bonnie and Clyde

Yes I know the money's on Audra but I'd love to see Cristin Milioti, who simply sparkled in her portrayal of a Czech immigrant in Ireland, walk off with a Tony.

Best Featured Actress in a Musical
Elizabeth A. Davis, Once
*Jayne Houdyshell, Follies
Judy Kaye, Nice Work If You Can Get It
Jesse Mueller, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever
Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Ghost

This one is easy. I've seen Jayne Houdyshell onstage twice and each time she's been a hoot. I loved her belting out "Broadway Baby."

Best Choreography
Rob Ashford, Evita
*Christopher Gattelli, Newsies
Steven Hoggett, Once
Kathleen Marshall, Nice Work If You Can Get It

I'm a longtime fan of Christopher Gattelli's work and his acrobatic, athletic choreography brought such exuberance to Newsies. It was one of the best things about the show.

Best Play
*Clybourne Park
Other Desert Cities
Peter and the Starcatcher
Venus in Fur

I didn't see Clybourne Park on Broadway. But of the three, it's the one I most wanted to talk about afterward, for its examination of race and changing neighborhoods and how America has changed.

Best Revival of a Play
Death of a Salesman
Master Class
*The Best Man

I admired Death of a Salesman and I can see why it's a classic American play. But maybe this is the history and politics junkie in me speaking - I loved The Best Man. The way this 1960 play about a presidential campaign resonates in 2012 is amazing and incredibly entertaining.

Best Actor in a Play
James Corden, One Man, Two Guvnors
*Philip Seymour Hoffman, Death of a Salesman
James Earl Jones, The Best Man
Frank Langella, Man and Boy
John Lithgow, The Columnist

I was enthralled by Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance in Death of Salesman. He's such an expressive actor and he captured Willy Loman's weariness, as well as his exhilaration and confidence in the flashback scenes.

Best Featured Actor in a Play
Christian Borle, Peter and the Starcatcher
Michael Cumpsty, End of the Rainbow
Tom Edden, One Man, Two Guvnors
*Andrew Garfield, Death of a Salesman
Jeremy Shamos, Clybourne Park

He seemed a little too delicate for the role but Andrew Garfield brought such intensity and emotion to the role of Biff in Death of a Salesman, especially in the flashbacks showing him as a teenager.

Best Actress in a Play
Stockard Channing, Other Desert Cities
*Tracie Bennett, End of the Rainbow
Linda Lavin, The Lyons
Nina Arianda, Venus in Fur
Cynthia Nixon, Wit

As Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow, Tracie Bennett was devastating. I just wish that the play had been worthy of her talents.

Best Featured Actress in a Play
Linda Emond, Death of a Salesman
Spencer Kayden, Don't Dress for Dinner
*Celia Keenan-Bolger, Peter and the Starcatcher
Judith Light, Other Desert Cities
Condola Rashad, Stick Fly

As the precocious daughter of a British diplomat, Celia Keenan-Bolger had the voice and mannerisms of a young girl down pat. I adored her character - a spunky and determined heroine.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Best Man

The Best Man, at Broadway's Schoenfeld Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

Usually I know way too much about a show going in, so I'm glad I restrained myself with The Best Man before seeing the Broadway revival. I was amazed at how Gore Vidal's 1960 play about a presidential campaign feels like it could have been written in 2012.

Set on the eve of their party's convention, when the nominee is still in doubt, The Best Man pits John Larroquette's Secretary of State William Russell, a rumpled, cerebral New Englander, against Eric McCormack's Sen. Joseph Cantwell, a handsome, charismatic Southerner.

As a history and politics junkie, I loved every minute of all three acts. What makes The Best Man so fascinating for me is that the play, which premiered on Broadway in March 1960, foreshadows changes that would take place in American politics in the coming months and years. It's uncanny.

Granted, political conventions today are scripted down to the tiniest detail and the nominee is no longer in doubt. But Vidal's writing is witty and his characters are sharply drawn. Fifty-two years later, the candidates are familiar and the issues seem so timely.

The plot involves allegations about each of the two men that could derail their campaigns. No spoilers here but they have parallels in more recent presidential bids. The only difference is that today, there's no way they'd stay private. (Another difference that jumped out at me - neither candidate is wearing an American flag pin on his lapel.)

If Cantwell is the future of presidential campaigns - slick and telegenic - then former President Artie Hockstader, "the last of the hicks" he calls himself, represents the past. James Earl Jones was riveting as the blunt and no-nonsense Hockstader. This was my first time seeing him onstage and I was awestruck by his unmistakable voice and commanding presence.

In fact, the entire cast of The Best Man is terrific - Candice Bergen as Russell's wary estranged wife; a delightful Angela Lansbury as the shrewd head of the party's "women's division"; Michael McKean as Russell's trusted campaign manager. (I saw the play before McKean's injury and I wish him a speedy recovery.) Jefferson Mays is great as a meek and intimidated figure who has some dirt on one of the candidates. And Kerry Butler plays Cantwell's Southern belle wife to the hilt.

The play takes place mostly in the candidates' hotel rooms in Philadelphia but Derek McLane's set design extends to the audience - the Schoenfeld Theatre is decorated with lots of red, white and blue bunting and the signs with state names on them that you see at conventions.

Vidal reportedly modeled Russell on the liberal Illinois governor and two-time Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson. Cantwell is supposedly a combination of John F. Kennedy's charm and Richard Nixon's ruthlessness.

But you don't have to think too hard to come up with contemporary politicians who fit those descriptions. Cantwell, with his populism and emphasis on his working-class roots, reminded me of John Edwards. (He has Edwards' hair but not his particular moral failing.) And Russell's intellectual demeanor reminded me of John Kerry.

My favorite example of how The Best Man resonates occurred when the play ended.

After the curtain call, McCormack came back onstage to make a pitch for donations to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Someone shouted from the mezzanine "I'd vote for you!" McCormack, a look of astonishment on his face, said, "Really?"