Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Location, location, location

I got an e-mail from Broadway Across America today explaining a little bit about how shows go about finding theaters.

For a relative novice like myself, it was pretty interesting. Some things I knew, like most Broadway theaters aren't actually on Broadway. But one thing I didn't realize is that a theater has to have at least 500 seats to be considered a Broadway house. I also hadn't realized the complex process that goes into matching a show with the right space. You have to take into account the size of the set, whether it's a large, technically oriented spectacle or something more intimate, whether it's a play or a musical. Also, in some cases, knowing where a show will play can make it easier to raise money from investors.

It was startling to read that, "For many years in the 1970s and 80s, booking a show into a theater was not difficult. Broadway was littered with empty legit houses, and producers had the choice of any number of vacant theaters." I knew that from watching the PBS documentary "Broadway: The American Musical," still it's amazing to look at what Times Square is like now and realize what it was like before the city cleaned it up in the 1990s.

Today, all 39 Broadway theaters are booked. “The ability to get a theater is at a premium now,'' says Nick Scandalios, executive vice president of the Nederlander Organization, which owns nine theaters. "There is no set process for booking a theater. The fact is most producers know all of the theater owners. Sometimes, it just takes a phone call.”

Scandalios offers some insight into what he calls the "symbiotic dance" between producers and theater owners, especially when a show isn't selling enough tickets to keep it viable. Because of the high demand for theaters, Scandalios explained that “there is an ongoing conversation between theater owners and producers regarding the closing of a show. It is a delicate dance to keep everyone feeling good about the production in question.” Hmmm, I bet that "ongoing conversation" is touchy one when the show isn't doing so well!

I'm going back to New York this weekend and Monday night, I'm seeing "Young Frankenstein," my 16th Broadway show since April. (If you add the second time I saw "A Moon for the Misbegotten," "Gypsy" at City Center and the one off-Broadway show I'm planning to see, it's actually 19 shows in six months). When you add in the money I spent on train tickets, hotel rooms, restaurants, cab rides, the subway and souvenirs, well, you can begin to understand why Broadway plays such a vital role in keeping New York City's economy healthy.

And I think it really does trickle down to the rest of the country. Already this year, I've seen "Hairspray" and "Wicked" on tour. In the next six months, I'll see "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," "Spamalot," "The Wedding Singer," "Rent," and "The Drowsy Chaperone." I don't know how many of those shows would ever have seen the light of day without a vital, vibrant Broadway theater scene.

On tour across the United States, each of those shows helps keep a city alive and safe by filling a downtown performing arts center and nearby restaurants and shops. Hopefully, it also creates interest in other theater offerings in the city that aren't tours of big Broadway shows. I know it did for me.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sammy's Hill

Since the presidential campaign season's been in full swing for about a year and we have another year to go, I figured I'd catch up on some political books I'd been meaning to read.

"Sammy's Hill" was near the top of the list. The Wasington Post describe's Kristin Gore's 2004 debut novel as "A chick-lit romp with a Capitol Hill twist" and that pretty well sums it up. It's a light, fun read with a likable heroine and some keen insight into what life is like in the Washington fishbowl. (Gore has also written a sequel, "Sammy's House," that came out in June.)

I like chick lit and I'm not ashamed to admit it. (I wish I could say I spend my reading time lost in literary classics, but that would be wrong). Still, I'm usually more interested in the world our heroine inhabits than in the ups and downs of her love life. (Have you noticed how these books always end on an up?) Plus, I like reading about politics, so the combination sounded great. I figured that Gore, being Al's daughter, would have some special insight.

Her heroine, Samantha "Sammy" Joyce, is a twentysomething staffer for Ohio senator Robert Gary. Sammy's specialty is health-care policy. She's hard-working, has a boss she truly admires, and, in a hallmark of chick lit, has her share of quirky personality traits.

For one thing, Sammy loves talking to telemarketers: "Over time, I had definitely developed favorites. Zelda from the phone company was one of the stars. I had her personal extension on speed dial and called her up periodically just to check on things."

She's also been a hypochondriac ever since taking a seminar on communicable diseases during her freshman year in college. "Since then, I had dedicated myself to doing the little I could to prepare for the disasters that were sure to befall my relatively defenseless body."

Gore has plenty to say about politicians, the legislative process, the media and the voting public, some of it serious and some of it brimming with satire.

To increase the chances of getting a health-care bill passed, Sammy's boss allies with a colleague whom Sammy considers "arrogant and slimy." (Her love interest is the arrogant, slimy senator's speechwriter). The legislation that she's labored so hard over is changed so dramatically that it ends up doing the opposite of what it was intended to do. "The bill was supposed to be about changing the system for the better, not compromising to the point of irrelevance."

This scene probably came right from conversation around the Gore family dinner table. At one of Senator Gary's town hall meetings back in Ohio, a farmer asks the senator about subsidies, a mother is concerned about overcrowded classrooms. Then, there's an older woman who "talked about how annoying it was that her neighbor had put the mulch pile right up against her fence and could RG call him and ask him to move it."

Gore takes a dig at the television networks' post-debate coverage and the focus on focus groups of ordinary voters. "I found the undecideds' ability to make up their minds incredibly annoying. And I suspected that their prolonged indecision was just a ploy for further attention, since they were such a wanted demographic."

My major criticism, and this seems par for the course in the chick-lit genre, is that for a smart, accomplished young woman, Sammy has a few too many damsel-in-distress moments, a few too many moments that make her appear somewhat flighty.

For me, the best parts of "Sammy's Hill" aren't the "chick" parts that chronicle Sammy's love interests, but Gore's description of the political process, how legislation gets passed, and the compromises that occur along the way.

"Sammy's Hill" is being made into a movie, and in March, producer Doug Wick said "It will do for Washington, D.C., what 'Talladega Nights' did for race car driving. We are going for a bold, subversive comedy."

Monday, October 29, 2007

Not one day more?

I've commented at Man in Chair and Steve on Broadway about my love for "Les Miserables." With today's announcement that the Broadway revival will close in January, I've started to think about why it is I remember this show so fondly nearly 20 years after seeing it on tour in Syracuse, N.Y.

At the time, I wasn't a regular theatergoer. And when you don't go to the theater that often, every time you go it becomes much more of a memorable event. Part of it is, of course, that you're usually spending more money for the evening than, say, a trip to the local multiplex.

I went with some female coworkers and we treated the evening as a big deal. We all got dressed up and had a nice dinner at someone's house beforehand. (I guess times have changed, because we were much more dressed up than I've ever gotten for a Broadway show.)

Recently, I read a comment somewhere that "people like to see their money up on stage," and I suppose that's part of the attraction. "Les Miserables," with the big cast, big ensemble numbers and lavish costumes and elaborate set looks like a big deal. Is it a spectacle? Sure. That's part of the attraction. I love the grand, sweeping, historical epic nature of "Les Miserables." I remember leaving the theater and feeling wowed.

It's a classic story that deals with so many rich, memorable characters and themes, from the unsavory, corrupt Thenardiers, to the saintly, tragic Fantine, to the charismatic, handsome Enjolras. There's a strong protagonist in Jean Valjean, a man sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her children, and a strong antagonist in Javert, the police inspector who pursues him relentlessly.

I'm also attracted to the mix of politics and passion, romance and revolution - Marius' love for Cosette and the idealistic students at the barricades, hoping to change society. (I guess it won't come as a shock to anyone that my favorite movie is "Casablanca," another tale of love and war and a man with a secret past.)

And there are some meaty themes in "Les Miserables," class divisions, a man's attempt to escape his past and remake his life, the struggle against injustice, a mother's love for her child. All of this is reflected beautifully in the score - the stirring, anthemic "Do You Hear the People Sing," the witty and rousing "Master of the House," the tender and poignant "I Dreamed a Dream" and "Castle on a Cloud."

(What can I say? I love "Do You Hear the People Sing." I get the same feeling hearing it that I get during "Casablanca" when when Victor Lazlo tells the band at Rick's to play "La Marseillaise" to drown out the Germans.)

Even in years when I hardly ever went to the theater, I faithfully listened to the original London cast recording of "Les Miserables" from start to finish. The show has stayed with me all these years, along with, I'm not ashamed to admit, my Cosette beach towel.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sweeney Todd

You can't be a serious musical theater fan without a working knowledge of Stephen Sondheim, musical theater's greatest living composer. Until now, my only acquaintance with the maestro had been from afar, through watching his work on DVD or listening to Broadway cast CDs.

Of the three Sondheim shows I've seen on DVD, "Sweeney Todd," with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn in the 1979 Broadway production, is by far my favorite. I love the setting, in a seedier part of 19th-century London, the themes of class division, injustice and the desire for revenge, and the score's mixture of humor and poignancy.

So I was excited about seeing the tour of the 2005-2006 Broadway revival that starred Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone, with the actors doubling as musicians. And I'm so glad I went. I had a great view and a great time from the mezzanine of Boston's Colonial Theatre.

David Hess plays Benjamin Barker, a barber unjustly imprisoned and exiled to Australia by Judge Turpin, who covets his wife. Upon his return, he is told his wife, Lucy, has killed herself and his daughter, Johanna, is now the judge's ward. Adopting the name Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street vows to get his revenge.

Hess, his hair looking slightly disheveled, is convincing as a man driven mad by what he has endured. When Sweeney, reunited with the tools of his trade, sings, "these are my friends, see how they glisten," then raises his straight razor skyward and proclaims, "now my right arm is complete," he is unhinged and scary.

Judy Kaye is Mrs. Lovett, the entrepreneurial maker of meat pies who comes up with a plan for disposing of Sweeney's victims. I loved watching her prance on stage with a tuba, and she has some funny moments. But she lacked the sense of eccentricity and great Cockney accent that makes Lansbury's Tony-winning turn so memorable. Kaye's character somehow seemed less of a character. I didn't find her quite as funny - or as mad - as I thought she should have been.

One of my favorite parts of the show is when Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett sing "A Little Priest," about some of the more unsavory ingredients in the meat pies. While I enjoyed Kaye and Hess, and I did laugh, their duet seemed to lack a little of the over-the-top hilarity that I remember from watching Angela Lansbury and George Hearn. Although the Colonial Theatre audience ate it up.

I didn't get to see Benjamin Magnuson, who played the role of Anthony in the Broadway revival, but his understudy, Edwin Cahill, is great as the young sailor who befriends Sweeney and falls in love with his daughter. Cahill's Anthony is brash and full of youthful enthusiasm and recklessness. Lauren Molina, reprising her role of Johanna from the revival, is wonderful and sings beautifully. She is so sweet as the judge's ward, a teenager frightened and repulsed at the prospect of marrying him.

Keith Buterbaugh as Judge Turpin and Benjamin Eakeley as the beadle wore more modern-looking clothes that almost made it seem as if they were in a different show. Turpin, with his silver mane and nicely tailored suit, is the respectable public servant whose urbane exterior hides something sinister. And the beadle, dressed in a black suit and white tie, comes off as a thug whose purpose in life is to do the judge's bidding, lawful or not.

When Turpin caresses Johanna, telling her that he plans to marry her in order to protect her, it's a truly creepy moment. In some ways, Turpin and the beadle are scarier than Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett. (When I think about it, almost everyone in this show is a little bit mad.)

A lot of the unorthodox elements of John Doyle's production, including having the actors play instruments, worked well. In a way, the instrument seemed to fit the performer, from brassy Mrs. Lovett's tuba to Johanna's delicate, melancholy cello.

I'm more than a little squeamish, so I was a bit concerned that the show might be a little too gory for me. Luckily, I was fine. There's actually less gore in this version than in the original. And the sound and lighting effects when Sweeney does away with another victim are inspired. (Richard G. Jones designed the lighting and Dan Moses Schreier, the sound).

Doyle also is credited as the designer. I think the stripped-down set does cause the production to lose some of its connection to Victorian England. Things weren't quite as grim as I thought they should have been. But the vertical cupboard crammed with every type of knick-knack, photograph, and religious icon does evoke the cluttered, messy existance at Mrs. Lovett's meat pie shop.

I wish I'd been able to see Cerveris and LuPone in the revival (and of course, I would love to have seen Angela Lansbury in the original!) Still, I think this production of "Sweeney Todd" is a great introduction to seeing Sondheim on stage. I definitely got a sense of the menace and the humor that make this such a great piece of musical theater. And I love the score even more after hearing it live.

Sadly, there were plenty of empty seats in the theater. While the orchestra looked fairly full, the mezzanine, where I was sitting, was half empty. And there were even fewer people in the balcony. The Red Sox weren't even playing until the evening, so really what was the excuse?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Hail to the chiefs

The ScreenGrab, a site that offers news, gossip and comment for indie film addicts, has come up with a list of the 13 greatest fictional movie presidents. The impetus for making the list was Jonathan Demme's new documentary, "Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains." Here's Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

ScreenGrab says it's harder than you might think to have the president as a character in your movie. "In contemporary films, there are fewer ways to take your audience out of a movie than to show the President of the United States and have it not be the actual current President of the United States (another reason why Crimson Tide, with its CNN-generated Bill Clinton cameo, is so awesome). In films set in the future, it's hard to show the President and have it not feel like a ham-handed attempt at instant dystopianism. (Funny how those silly people in the future rarely elect somebody halfway decent to the office.)"

Some of the picks, like Peter Sellers' President Merkin Muffley in 1964's "Dr Strangelove," are pretty well known. Others, like Walter Huston as President Judson Hammond in 1933's "Gabriel Over the White House," (pictured above) are more obscure, to say the least.

Huston's character had been content to be a hands-off commander in chief until he miraculously survives a car accident. With a new sense of purpose, he proceeds to solve all of the country's problems, although his methods include "firing his whole cabinet and threatening to impose martial law until Congress lets him do whatever he wants." ScreenGrab says William Randolph Hearst was behind the production, intending it as a message for Franklin Roosevelt about how to bring the United States out of the Depression.

One of my favorites, 1993's "Dave," with Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver isn't included. Neither is 1995's "The American President," with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. And how could they leave off 1964's "Kisses for My President" with Polly Bergen playing the first female president and Fred MacMurray as the first spouse!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Which doctor will be in the house?

One of the thrills of seeing a live performance is the knowledge that anything can happen. That's also one of the drawbacks. I have my ticket to see the new Mel Brooks musical "Young Frankenstein" on Nov. 5, four days before opening night, and I have no idea who will be in the title role.

Roger Bart, probably best known for playing George the murderous pharmacist on "Desperate Housewives" a couple seasons ago, had been Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (that's pronounced Frohn-kun-steen) from the tryout in Seattle this summer through the early Broadway previews. But he's been out all week with a back injury. Broadway newcomer Matthew LaBanca has been filling in.

The New York Post's Michael Riedel says that Bart has a herniated disc. One scenario "has his doctor pumping him with cortisone so he can play the critics' performances and opening night, then take time off to heal." Riedel says word is going around that the producers may have to look for a temporary replacement.

I guess there's no chance that 74-year-old Gene Wilder will be asked to try on Bart's top hat and tails temporarily. Mel Brooks reportedly turned down Cloris Leachman, who wanted to reprise her role as Frau Blucher, because he felt that at 81, she was too old for the job.

The whole understudy thing is a tough one. I went to see "A Moon for the Misbegotten" twice in three days as an insurance policy, in the unlikely event Kevin Spacey missed a performance. I needn't have have worried. He didn't. Still, if he had I would have been extremely disappointed. And I'm not alone in going to a Broadway show to see a specific performer. I saw a long line of fans waiting to get refunds when Fantasia was out of "The Color Purple."

As a big fan of the movie version of "Young Frankenstein," I'm more interested in seeing it translated to the stage, with more singing and dancing and every scene and joke intact. I'm not saying the cast is beside the point, but I'd be excited about seeing this show no matter who was in it. In this case, I think, the show is the star vehicle.

I've seen enough Broadway shows now to know that a little uncertainty goes with the territory. You hope that everyone you want to see will be on stage, but there are no guarantees. That's the flip side of a live performance. Plus, I've had pretty good luck with understudies so far, and I'm favor of always giving a performer a chance to entertain and amaze me.

Saycon Sengbloh was wonderful in "The Color Purple." I was so moved by her portrayal of Celie, watching her grow from an abused, unloved girl into a confident, successful woman, that I was in tears at the end. This is a show that definitely doesn't need a "star" in the starring role.

I was really looking forward to seeing Stephen Spinella, who plays all of the adult male roles in "Spring Awakening." But Spinella, who won a Tony award for "Angels in America," was out at the matinee I attended. Still, I thought his understudy, Ken Marks, was fine, all of the young actors who play the students were there, and I absolutely loved the show's energy, emotion and rock 'n' roll score.

And while Kevin Spacey never missed a performance of "A Moon for the Misbegotten," Colm Meaney was out the second time I saw the play, creating a theatrical chain reaction that gave recent Juilliard graduate Nick Westrate his Broadway debut. When he becomes a big star someday, I'll be able to say I saw him first.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

True stories

I'm a big fan of documentary films. If done well, the characters they portray and the stories they tell are just as varied and compelling and emotionally involving as anything that could come from the mind of a screenwriter.

To commemorate its 25th anniversary, the International Documentary Association has published a list of the top 25 documentaries as chosen by the organization's members, and I've seen almost all of them.

The top honor goes to 1994's "Hoop Dreams," an often-praised film that tells the story of two African-American teenagers from Chicago who have their sights set on careers in professional basketball. This is a film that could easily fall into cliche territory. I was really drawn into the lives of these two young men and angry about the way they were used by some of the adults around them.

"Hoop Dreams" is also noteworthy because of the controversy it caused when it failed to garner an Oscar nomination for best documentary. The omission, which was widely criticized, led to reforms in the way the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences picks the nominees.

The rest of the list isn't really very surprising to documentary fans. It includes lots of classics, like the 1955 film about the Holocaust, "Night and Fog," the 1970 concert film "Woodstock," and legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman's legendary 1967 film about the mentally ill, "Titicut Follies." There are also many well-known, recent titles on the list, like "Super Size Me," "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Spellbound." A short essay accompanies the Top 10 picks.

Here are some more documentaries that aren't on the list, but which I've enjoyed:

"The Agronomist" - A film by Jonathan Demme telling the inspring but ultimately tragic story of a legendary Haitian radio journalist and political activist.
Recording the Producers: A musical romp with Mel Brooks - A glimpse inside the recording studio, with lots of wit from Mel Brooks and company as they make the cast album for the Broadway musical.
CSA: The Confederate States of America - A mockumentary that examines what life would be like in the United States if the South had won the Civil War. It's a cutting satire that makes you laugh even as you cringe.
4 Little Girls - Spike Lee recounts one of one of the most horrific events of the civil-rights movment, the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Ala., and the four young children who were killed.
My Architect: A Son's Journey - Nicholas Kahn's film about his father, architect Louis Kahn, a man who designed beautiful buildings but had a rather messy personal life.
Born Rich - A very funny and surprisingly reflective film about the lives of some wealthy young adults, made by the heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune.
To Be and to Have - A dedicated teacher tends to his young charges in a one-room schoolhouse in rural France.
Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns - The story of the two Johns who make up the quirky two-man alternative rock duo "They Might Be Giants."
Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision - An Academy Award winner about the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the controversy surrounding her selection.
Amandla! A Revolution in Four-part Harmony - How music helped in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Playbill Broadway Yearbook

Over the weekend, I think I crossed the line from fandom to geekdom. Well, maybe I crossed that line months ago.

I bought the 2006-2007 Playbill Broadway Yearbook. I'd been leafing through it at the bookstore for about a month, but with a slight twinge of regret, I always put it back on the shelf. True, it would make a great souvenir to mark my first year of Broadway theatergoing, but did I really need it? I'm rapidly approaching the point where I'll need a new coffee table just for the coffee table books. Still, I figured it was time to stop fighting and just give in.

The Playbill Yearbook actually looks a lot like a high school or college yearbook. It really is everything that happened on Broadway during the past year, and everyone who was involved in the process. There's even a page for autographs, although at 516 glossy pages, it's a pretty hefty volume to lug around.
Every show that played on the Great White Way is included, from "The Apple Tree" to "The Year of Magical Thinking," from long-running hits like "Phantom of the Opera" to shows that barely played a month, like "High Fidelity." Everyone gets their picture taken, not just the actors but everyone behind the scenes who ensures that the show goes on: the ushers, members of the orchestra, the stagehands, the wardrobe department, the doorman. All of the important events from the past theatrical year are covered, including the Tony awards, "Chicago" celebrating the 10th anniversary of its Broadway reivival, Broadway Show League softball and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fundraisers.

Every Broadway show has a correspondent, and it could be anyone connected with the production - an actor or a crew member. They write about everything from famous people who came to see the show to opening night gifts, favorite snacks, favorite hangouts, nicknames, embarrassing moments, ghostly encounters backstage, record number of cell-phone rings. Some of them are pretty hilarious.

Among the things you can learn are:

People are apparently curious about seeing themselves on stage. David Frost came to see Michael Sheen portray him in "Frost/Nixon" and former handyman Jerry Torre came to see himself played by Matt Cavenaugh in "Grey Gardens." Bob Dylan also stopped by the short-lived show based on his songs, "The Times They Are A Changin." And the notoriously tight-lipped Dylan was positively loquacious. He told the cast, "A lot of people have covered my songs but I've never heard 'em sung better than here. I feel like I can retire now."

We also find out who got what on opening night. Frank Langella, who played Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon," gave out finger puppets. Appropriately, the cast of "Inherit the Wind" received a small statue of a monkey sitting on a pile of books. Also appropriately, the cast of "Spring Awakening" got condoms. And Stephen Sondheim created a personalized puzzle for each member of "Company."

Some anecdotes are so wacky, you have to wonder whether there's some dramatic license involved, or if the writer was maybe being a little tongue in cheek.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton took in "The Pirate Queen," and reportedly was so impressed with the title character of Grace O'Malley that she wanted to trace her DNA to see if she might be related to her!

And, under the category of earliest audience arrival, "an entire busload" of patrons showed up a year early for "The Lion King." Apparently, no one thought to check their tickets. "They spent the first act on folding chairs in the lobby waiting for their bus to come back." I think this one might be an urban legend. I mean, can you even buy tickets a year in advance?

As you might expect from actors who have to perform eight shows a week, keeping the voice in shape is a priority, so Ricola cough drops pop up on many lists of favorite snacks. But perhaps most unusual, the favorite snack food for the cast of "Spamalot" is dust: "gotta stay thin."

Also, as you might expect, there are numerous reports of cell phones ringing and audience members text-messaging. But I think this incident from "Rent" tops them all: "Two young girls eating a full takeout dinner in the front row. Their setup included various containers and utensils, and they kept reaching to the floor for another and swapping items back and forth. So odd." I'll say!

Just like a yearbook, it's not all humerous anecdotes and group photos. There's also quite a bit of poignancy about what it means to perform on Broadway.

Krisha Marcano from "The Color Purple" writes movingly about what it was like to meet fans at the stage door: "Sometimes they will actually break down in the arms of the actors. I was witness to somebody breaking down in the arms of Sophia and telling her, It's time for me to say 'Hell no!'''

Bobby Steggert, from "110 in the Shade," writes about the show's colorblind casting. "We've created a community of people where race doesn't come into the picture, and as a result, I think, the audience just accepts it as the reality of the world. In my opinion, I think that's how all shows should be cast."

And Kathy Fitzgerald, from "The Producers," writes about the show's final performance: "What a ride this has been. We've been through births and deaths, 9/11, the musicians' strike, the blackout, and we kept making people laugh all the way through it. How lucky for all of us."

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Stage door stories

In a lifetime of moviegoing, I've never once had a chance to go into the lobby afterward and meet the actors whose performances I've just watched. Sure, in Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo" Jeff Daniels walks off the screen and into Mia Farrow's life. But really, that's an exception.

I know this isn't something a serious-minded theater fan should say, but it's pretty thrilling to go to the stage door after seeing a Broadway show, meet the performers and get my Playbill signed.

There's something exciting about knowing that the Broadway experience doesn't necessarily end when the final bows are taken. I love the sense of anticipation, standing with a crowd of my fellow theater geeks, er, fans, talking about the show, what we saw the day before and what we're going to see next.

My first stage-door experience was at "A Moon for the Misbegotten" in April. I had my camera and my Sharpie ready for Kevin Spacey, but unfortunately, I hadn't yet perfected the dexterity required to get the autograph and the photograph. Still, it was great meeting him for the five seconds we shared. I asked him to sign my name on the Playbill - so he'd know I wasn't going to peddle it on eBay! I managed to blurt out that this was my first time seeing a show on Broadway and I'd come just to see him. "Well, welcome," he responded, and I was in heaven.

I've had many great stage-door experiences since then, including meeting the entire casts of the musicals "Curtains" and "Spring Awakening." (I keep thinking it would be great someday to see the "Spring Awakening" cast perform "Curtains.") Both are wonderful shows with a talented, gracious group of actors. I was lucky enough to get my picture taken with three 2007 Tony winners - David Hyde Pierce from "Curtains," Christine Ebersole from "Grey Gardens" and John Gallagher Jr. from "Spring Awakening."

I think the "Spring Awakening" crowd was the biggest I've seen, three or four people deep, lots young, enthusiastic fans on repeat visits. One woman brought a poster she'd made for the cast to sign. I was really impressed with the amount of time the cast spent talking to people and posing for pictures. This was after a Wednesday matinee - they still had the evening show to do. Lea Michele even brought her own silver-colored Sharpie that showed up especially well on the Playbill.

I learned a lot between "Curtains" and "Spring Awakening." After David Hyde Pierce signed my Playbill, I started to walk away, then saw him pose for a picture. I ran back, asked if I could have my picture taken with him, and thrust my camera into the hands of the person closest to me. By the time I got to "Spring Awakening" three months later, I was better prepared. I struck up a conversation with the woman next to me, and we agreed to take each other's pictures when John Gallagher Jr. came by.

It's startling sometimes to see the actors in their street clothes, sometimes just minutes removed from the costumes, makeup and emotions of their role. In person, wearing a raincoat and glasses with thick frames, Patti LuPone looks much smaller, hardly resembling the strong-willed stage mother in "Gypsy."

Sometimes, you get to have a few words with them. Other times, there's only a chance to to tell them how much you enjoyed their performance. Still other times, the crush of humanity is so great, all you can do is get the autograph and move on so someone else gets a chance to move to the front of the crowd.

I told David Hyde Pierce that I was seeing my first musical on Broadway, and I'd been to my first play the night before. He asked me what I'd seen and how I'd liked it, and seemed genuinely interested. John Gallagher Jr. beamed when I congratulated him on the Tony. After seeing Gavin Lee as Bert in "Mary Poppins," I told him how much I loved watching him walk upside down across the proscenium arch. He told me how much he loved doing it.

I only had a fleeting chance to tell Angela Lansbury that she was wonderful in "Deuce." Talk about troupers, both she and costar Marian Seldes spent quite a while on a cold New York evening signing autographs and talking to their fans. Miss Seldes signed her tiny, delicate signature with a ballpoint pen, and when someone offered her a Sharpie, she said that she couldn't possibly use such a thick marker. When she found out it was someone's birthday, she smiled, gently caressed the woman's face and thanked her for coming.

And it doesn't even matter if I've never heard of the actors before. I stood outside the stage door after "Mamma Mia!" Yes, it was me and three 10 year olds waiting to get autographs from the show's stars, Carolee Carmello and Carey Anderson. It didn't matter to those young girls that they'd never heard of either performer. They were just excited to get their souvenir programs signed. Kudos to their parents for giving them the total Broadway experience. I hope it was one they'll always remember.

Then later that evening, after seeing "110 in the Shade," I stood outside waiting for a chance to meet Audra McDonald and John Cullum. When I told Mr. Cullum that I'd seen him some 20 years earlier at Syracuse Stage, along with his wife and son, in a production of "Look Homeward, Angel" he was genuinely thrilled.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway

I watched "ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway" the other night, and from that first shot of Times Square, I was hooked. I love seeing Broadway at night, all lit up and swirling with activity.

Before I became an avid theatergoer, I'd heard of tryouts, of course, but I didn't realize everything that went into bringing a show from the page to the stage. I had to learn a new vocabulary of readings, workshops, two-handers and tuners, gypsy robes and ghost lights. (Not to mention premium seating!)

There are many striking images in the documentary that deal with the creative process, with the traditions and sense of community that make Broadway unique.

Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner sit by themselves at the piano, working on the music and lyrics for "Caroline or Change". Then, on the day Tony nominations are announced, the marketing team for "Wicked" is gathered around a large conference table. There's an obvious sense of joy and relief when it receives a best-musical nomination. Somehow, each image seems entirely appropriate. You get a sense of how putting on a show is both a solitary and a group process.

Something else I really enjoyed about "ShowBusiness" is the way it conveys the sense of community that exists among performers and between performers and their fans. Whether it's fans of Wicked lining up to buy souvenirs or fans of "Taboo" getting weepy after it was announced that the show would close after only three months, you get a sense of the passion involved.

One comment that really struck a chord with me was from Raul Esparza, who was then starring in "Taboo." He talked about how, at 8 o'clock, a different story is being told in every Broadway theater. The stories, the locations and eras where they take place, are all different. That's one of the things I love best about going to the theater in New York: all of those choices. You can travel to so many places in the space of 10 blocks.

One thing that surprised me was the negative critical reaction toward "Wicked." What didn't the critics get about it? It's so funny and clever and poignant, and the score is wonderful. While I've never seen "Avenue Q," just from the snippets of music I've heard, I can't believe it won the Tony over "Wicked."

One thing that gave me pause was the difficulty "Caroline, or Change" had in finding an audience despite some great critical reception. While I love musicals with a pop sound, like "Mamma Mia!" "Wicked" and "Hairspray," I want there to be a place for shows like "Caroline, or Change." Whether there'll be room for both in the future seems to be an open question.

All Jon Stewart all the time

For you "Daily Show" fans, here are two pieces of good news.

First, according to a report at Broadcasting & Cable, host Jon Stewart has extended his contract until Dec. 31, 2010, which, the article says, coincides with the end of David Letterman's contract at CBS. Of course, that's fueling speculation that the affable Stewart could one day take over from Letterman.

The article also discusses what else might be in store for the late-night television landscape: "With Jay Leno not expected to hang up his microphone if and when Conan O'Brien supplants him on The Tonight Show, rampant speculation about a potential late-night game of musical chairs has been ongoing for months."

And the Los Angeles Times reports that Comedy Central owner Viacom is putting 13,000 video clips of The Daily Show online - every minute of the show since its inception in 1999.

The article goes on to say that the database "is searchable by both date and topic, making it a potential bonanza for students of American pop culture. If you want to see what host Jon Stewart has had to say about former First Lady Barbara Bush or ill-fated Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, you can find the clips and put them in context by seeing what else was featured on the same day."

I like Stewart, and while I'm not a daily watcher of "The Daily Show" I think he'd be a worthy successsor to Letterman. And I am intrigued by what he might do with an hourlong show.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The magic is back

My friend Dan introduced me to Bruce Springsteen's music in college in the late '70s and I grew to love it. I can't quite explain it, but somehow lyrics like "Someday we'll look back on this and it will all seem funny" really spoke to me.

This was the Bruce of "Born to Run," "The River," "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "Born in the U.S.A." In fact, I even had a poster in my dorm room of Bruce in t-shirt and jeans, guitar in hand, against an American flag backdrop. And I saw him in concert twice - in Hartford, Conn., and Syracuse, N.Y.

(Contrary to the totally exaggerated story some of my friends tell, I did not rush the stage in Syracuse. We were seated on the floor, about midway back, and I merely walked up several rows toward the front at one point to get a better view. Honest.)

One of the things I've always liked about Springsteen is the storytelling aspect of his songs, the specific images they evoke. Listen to "Glory Days," or "The River" or "Badlands"and you get a sense that he's writing about real working people, their lives and their frustrations.

But over the years, my passion dissipated and while I still dutifully bought every album, and then CD, as it came out, I did it more out of a sense of obligation than anything else. Somehow, the music stopped meaning what it meant to me in my twenties. It just didn't excite me as much anymore.

So, when Bruce's latest, "Magic," was released earlier this month, I didn't rush out to buy it. But with an older, pensive, somewhat mournful and weathered face staring out at me from the cover, I knew I wouldn't be able to resist for long. And I'm glad I didn't.

I love hearing Bruce rockin' again with The E Street Band. Many of the songs, like "Long Walk Home," sound as if they could have come from those earlier albums that I loved. I'll still have to take this CD out for a few more spins. Maybe it's simply an exercise in nostalgia. But right now, I'm inclined to say that "Magic" reminds me of those glory days.

Monday, October 15, 2007

On the road

I love the PBS series "Broadway: The American Musical," so I'm really looking forward to another, albeit much shorter, Great White Way-themed documentary out on DVD this week, "ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway."

In a behind-the-scenes look, director and Tony-winner Dori Berinstein captures the 2003-2004 theatrical season's hopes, dreams, hits and flops. Artists, producers critics and fans all get a say. She focuses on four musicals: the soon-to-be behemoth "Wicked," adult-themed puppet show "Avenue Q," Tony Kushner's civil-rights era tale "Caroline, or Change," and the Boy George/Rosie O'Donnell collaboration "Taboo."

The film's Web site describes it as "a feature-length documentary that examines the annual influx of ambitious, star-crossed hopefuls, scrambling for the high-board to make their big leap into everlasting limelight. It could be any season, because this phenomenon continues as faithfully and ritualistically as swallows’ return to Capistrano."

The Washington Post's Philip Kennicott reviewed the film in June, saying ShowBusiness is "filled with neurotic people in greasepaint, some of them charming, most of them amusing, and by the time you've spent an hour and a half with them, you're more than invested in their lives and cares." On, Chris Barsanti credits Berinstein with "a good feel for what is the overriding emotion of Broadway at any given time, most especially at the loosely-defined summer start of a new season: fear."

Extras accompanying the 104-minute film include an hour of deleted scenes and a commentary track with Berinstein, actor and coproducer Alan Cumming, and Avenue Q co-creator Jeff Marx.

Berinstein also talks about the making of the documentary, and about her career, in this DownStage Center interview. She's also known as cofounder of the summer program for theatrical-loving kids, Camp Broadway, which, alas, I'm too old to attend.

I know ShowBusiness is at the top of my shopping list for Tuesday!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Across the Universe

Years ago, I boarded a double-decker bus in Liverpool, England, for the Beatles tour. We went down Penny Lane, stopped at Strawberry Field and saw the neighborhoods where John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison grew up.

This afternoon, I took filmmaker Julie Taymor's Beatles tour in "Across the Universe." It begins in the same place as the bus tour, the Liverpool waterfront, where dockworker Jude, played by with Jim Sturgess, is about to say goodbye to his girlfriend and head to America in search of the father he's never met. (Sturgess, with his brown eyes, shaggy hair and cute smile perfectly evokes Paul McCartney's sweetness, with a touch of John Lennon's artistic sensibilities and working class hero).

Jude hooks up with Max, played by Joe Anderson, a soon-to-be college dropout, and Max's sister, Lucy, played by Evan Rachel Wood. They all end up living in Greenwich Village with an assortment of other characters familiar to anyone who's familiar with the Beatles: JoJo, Sadie and Prudence, who comes in through a bathroom window.

The story follows Jude's development as an artist, Max preparing to go to Vietnam, Lucy's growing involvement with the antiwar movement, and JoJo and Sadie's musical careers. It's all set against the backdrop of protest and psychedelia and some imaginative interpretations of Beatles songs that clearly have a lot to do with Taymor's interest in folklore, masks and puppetry.

"Across the Universe" works best when it imbues Beatles classics with poignancy or a bit of wimsy, like Jude's tender "All My Loving" as he says goodbye to his girlfriend before leaving for America, or Max and his frat brothers making their way across campus after a night of carousing to "A Little Help From My Friends." The latter is so artfully choreographed that I thought to myself, "Julie Taymor should direct a Broadway musical!" Of course, she has!

The songs I enjoyed most were the ones grounded in reality. Some of the film's hippie, trippy moments don't work quite as well for me, like Taymor's dreamlike interpretation of "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite." They were interesting to look at, but I was kind of bored by them. And sometimes, in my humble opinion, her imagery can be heavy-handed or flat out wrong, like when "Strawberry Fields" morphs into bloody scenes of war. Sorry, but not everything is a Vietnam allegory.

I'm especially incensed by what Taymor does to "Strawberry Fields." The real Strawberry Field was a Salvation Army children's home where a young John Lennon played and attended a garden party each year. It's also the name of a memorial built in his honor in Central Park. Associating it with violence seems to me an offense to Lennon's memory.

Taymor ties the Beatles music closely to the antiwar movement - the rallies, the student protests, radical groups like the Weathermen. But that's a different movie - requiring a different soundtrack. The Beatles' music was among the least political of the decade. There's nothing from the Fab Four that comes close to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son," Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction" or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Ohio" as a criticism of America's growing involvement in Southeast Asia.

The Beatles wrote catchy pop tunes and intensely personal ballads about love and loss. I enjoyed "Across the Universe" best as a love story between Jude's working-class British lad and Lucy's upper-class American suburban girl. (Kind of like Paul and Linda!) In those tender moments, Taymor makes those songs come alive in a new way, and evokes what they meant in an era when people believed that love is all you need.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Tourism by the book

As someone who loves to play tourist and loves books, this was a Blogger "Blog of Note" pick that really caught my attention.

Larry Portzline, a writer and college instructor, describes himself as the organizer of the "grassroots bookstore tourism movement." He's planning a 10-week tour to visit 200 independent bookstores across the United States. Now this is my kind of tourism. I love visiting well-known independent bookstores, like City Lights in San Francisco.

I still remember the first book I owned: "I Wish That I Had Duck Feet." And one of the biggest regrets of my life is having to sell or give away so many of my books when I made a major move 10 years ago. (It doesn't matter that so many of them sat unread in boxes in my closet for years). When I unloaded a dozen boxes at the used bookstore near me, and the owner offered to give me less than a hundred dollars, I couldn't believe they were worth so little. (Although he did praise my eclectic literary tastes!)

How I wish I still had my well-thumbed and annotated copies of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, Volumes 1 and 2. (There's a used one for sale at Amazon for $29.95). But I shed no tears for the three-volume set of Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past." I got it as a premium for joining the Quality Paperback Book Club, and promptly forgot about it. I ended up giving it away to a friend, and I think he ended up using it as a doorstop. It did make a very nice doorstop.

But I have to admit that despite my love for books and the people who sell them, most of my money these days is spent at my local Borders or Barnes and Noble. I admit I'm torn. Yeah, I still occasionally visit the local indies. I always feel guilty about leaving without buying something, so occasionally I'll make a purchase. I'd hate to think of a world without places like City Lights, a real literary landmark. But it's hard to beat the price and the selection at the superstores.

The Bookstore Tourism blog is a good resource for book news. And the tour sounds intriguing. If it brings some attention to America's independent bookstores, that's a great thing. After all, they're the kinds of small businesses that anchor neighborhoods and keep them lively and unique. I noticed that the tour is schedule to start on April 1, 2008. Hmmm, I hope this is serious!

Update: It is serious! Thanks to Larry Portzline for posting a comment.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Quick Clicks

This is what Ellen DeGeneres had for lunch on Thursday. Every day on her Web site, she posts a picture and a description. It's always very tasty and healthy looking. I didn't know this, but Ellen has a personal chef, Sean, who prepares her midday meal. On this day, she dined on a poached seafood platter of freshly caught fish, accompanied by tartar sauce made from pickle, mayo and a little lemon juice, squeezed by Sergi, her "personal squeezing chef." She also had a salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, almonds and "various sprouted things." There's no picture from Friday. Maybe she skipped lunch, or ate out. Thanks to the USA Today Web site Pop Candy for the link!

Of all the images in "An Inconvenient Truth," one has stayed with me. It's soon-to-be Nobel laureate Al Gore walking by himself, through a practically empty airport terminal, dragging a suitcase behind him. It conjures up an image of the lonely, tireless crusader. Obviously, Gore was not alone. There was probably a retinue of aides out of view of the camera. I'm not accusing the filmmakers of dishonesty, and I liked the movie, although it did get kind of tedious after awhile. It just seems to me an interesting example of how all art tries to manipulate our emotions to some extent.

A column in Time magazine quotes a study that shows 37 percent of Americans over the age of 12 sit on the couch using their computers while watching television. Yep, that's me. The columnist, Bill Tancer, general manager of global research at Hitwise, calls this "couch multitasking," and he's glad to have company: "With the U.S. population exceeding 300 million ... that gives me a potential membership of about 100 million for a computer-television addiction group, should the need arise." Tancer sees new opportunties for interactive television. Personally, I'm hoping to break the addiction. Too often after a night of television/computer multitasking, I can barely remember the movie or television program I watched.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Me and the girls

I'm in the middle of Season 2 in my "Sex and the City" marathon. This is my second go-around with the HBO series. The first time, I quit midway through the first disc. I just couldn't get into the lives of these attractive, accomplished women with their designer clothes, handbags and shoes, whose days and nights seemed to revolve around shopping, partying and the search for Mr. Right.

But I have to admit, this time it's different. Part of the difference, obviously, is that I've spent more time in New York City. I really enjoy seeing the sights and sounds of Manhattan in the background. Maybe sometime I'll even take in the "Sex and the City" tour of Manhattan to see for myself where Carrie and company partied, lived, shopped worked and ate.

And I'm really looking forward to the "Sex and the City" movie scheduled to be released in May. Luckily, they'll all be there - Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie, Kim Cattrall as Samantha, Cynthia Nixon as Miranda, Kristin Davis as Charlotte, and Chris Noth as Mr. Big. I'm also eagerly anticipating Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson's first post-Dreamgirls role as Carrie's assistant.

I've realized that the writing in the series is actually pretty clever, with some great one-liners, like when the group takes in a Yankees game, and Carrie observes: "Miranda was a huge fan of the Yankees. I was a huge fan of being anywhere you could smoke and drink at two in the afternoon without judgment."

Sometimes, the situations the women find themselves in are pretty absurd, like Charlotte falling for a man she meets at a funeral, only to discover that she's not the only one comforting the bereaved, or Miranda being horrified by a man who says with pride that he hasn't left Manhattan in a decade, or Samantha finding herself exiled from the social scene for trying to seduce a "celebutante's" husband, or Carrie ruining a relationship when the guy discovers her prying open a locked box she found in his closet, which was filled with his Boy Scout merit badges.

I like spending time with these women. And somehow, the misadventures just make them seem more human. We've all had moments in our lives that seem absurd, that make us wonder how we got ourselves in the middle of them, and how we will ever get out. And "Sex and the City" doesn't take itself too seriously, at least not yet. Some of the situations are pretty hilarious and the show seems to realize that. It's like the writers are winking at the audience, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Luckily, I have many more witty moments to go, many more scenes of Manhattan, before I get to to the end. I'm just hoping that when I get there, it's not a pat Hollywood ending, with everything neatly packed in a box and tied up with a pretty, pink bow.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

It's not only rock 'n' roll

Tom Stoppard's play "Rock 'n' Roll is set in Czechoslovakia in 1968, a time of political liberalization that ended up being crushed by Soviet tanks. At the same time, the play also takes place in the rarified air of academic life in Cambridge, England.

This month's issue of Vanity Fair has an essay by Stoppard, in which he describes his play as being "partly about Communism, partly about consciousness, slightly about Sappho, and mainly about Czechoslovakia between 1968 and 1990," and a q&a where the playwright discusses, among other things, his fascination with Syd Barrett, the late Pink Floyd frontman.

It's one of the plays I'm most looking forward to seeing on Broadway next month. (If there's no lockout, fingers and toes crossed). I'm interested in how Stoppard deals with a tumultuous time, how he switches between the worlds of Prague and Cambridge, and what he may, or may not, have to say about rock 'n' roll as a force for political and social change.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

My brush with greatness

Sure, I've learned to say with the practiced weariness of a slightly jaded celebrity, I've done Letterman. True, I was in the audience, not up on stage sitting in the chair next to Dave, but if you were watching on April 16 and looked quickly as the camera panned the audience about halfway through the show, you would have spotted me. It was over in a nanosecond, but I was there.

Here's how I got my big break:

It was a chilly, overcast morning in Manhattan as I made my way up Broadway at about 11:30, fully intending to visit the Museum of Modern Art. But a sign outside The Ed Sullivan Theater stopped me in my tracks. Tickets were available for the 4:30 p.m. taping of "The Late Show with David Letterman." The guidebooks I'd read before going to New York advised me not to try for a ticket because they were handed out months in advance. Now, by some quirk of fate, I had what was practically a personal invitation from Dave.

I had to fill out an application and be interviewed by a woman from Dave's production staff. She explained that there'd be a lottery for tickets and I'd receive a phone call between noon and 1:30 if I won. Then she asked me about my favorite part of the show. I said "stupid pet tricks," then I thought to myself, "Oh no, do they even do that anymore?" (Sorry Dave, but I have to admit it's been awhile since I watched you regularly.) Trying not to sound panicky, I asked my interviewer whether they still had that segment. She assured me that they did, but apparently, it's getting increasingly difficult to find pets that do stupid tricks.

About 12:30, I got a call that I won the lottery! I don't usually play the lottery, and I think this is the first time I've ever won something. I went back at 2 to pick up my ticket, which the Letterman staff gave me after checking my driver's license. Then I had to meet my fellow audience members at 3:30 at The Roseland Ballroom on 53rd Street, around the corner from the theater.

At the ballroom, we lined up in numerical order. (The theater seats 400). The young staffers from Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, spent about 45 minutes giving us a pep talk and urging us to use the facilities there, instead of at the theater. We were assured that Dave had a great show planned for us, although we weren't told who the guests would be. (Apparently, this is done on purpose, to keep people from leaving if they don't like the lineup). But I'd checked the Web site, and I knew I'd be seeing Kelly Ripa and British actor Simon Pegg, promoting his new movie, "Hot Fuzz."

We did lots and lots of practice cheering. Dave doesn't use a laugh track - he depends on his audience to provide the real thing. The more we cheer, the more pumped up Dave will get and the better the show will be. We were told that this would be a special show because it was Dave's first since celebrating his 60th birthday. We were told that if something strikes us as funny, but we're not 100 percent sure, we should laugh first and think about it later. We were also told to refrain from making whooping noises and shouting out things like "Bon Jovi rules!" because the microphones are very sensitive.

Finally, around 4:15, we marched over to the Ed Sullivan Theater, the same place where The Beatles performed on Feb. 9, 1964, during the band's first U.S. tour. It was pretty thrilling to be in a place with so much history. Seeing the set from The Late Show in person that I'd seen on television so many times was pretty darned exciting. I noticed that the chairs are a little more worn out than I'd realized. Music was playing and a warmup comedian told some jokes. We were shown a brief, funny video of Dave working at a Taco Bell drive-through. Then Paul Shaffer and the band came out and played for a few minutes. Then, finally, Dave, without his jacket, came out to say hello and take a question from the audience. (A tourist from Vancouver asked him whether he'd be visiting the city for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Dave was noncommittal).

At 4:30, the taping started with announcer Alan Kalter intoning, "From New York, the greatest city in the world! It's The Late Show with Daaaaavvviiiid Letterman"! Wow, I can't even begin to tell you how excited I felt. Now I understand why Oprah's audience always seems to be in perpetual scream mode. (And we weren't even going home with new cars!)

Dave blew a big kiss to the audience. He joked about how it had rained for the past three days in New York. "It was so wet today that Barry Bonds tested positive for mildew. " He joked about Larry King celebrating his 50th anniversary in broadcasting. "Tonight they're opening the program with a montage of his wives." He did a Top 10 list of answers to the question "How rainy is it?" The number-one answer: "It's so rainy, you're stuck inside watching this lame Top 10 list."

By that point, I felt so pumped up that every word out of Dave's mouth was the funniest thing I'd ever heard in my life and I screamed and clapped and cheered like Pavlov's dog. Dave was counting on me, and I did not want to let him down.

It was interesting to see what happens during the commercial breaks, how a bunch of people from Dave's staff crowd around his desk. He gets the props for the next segment of the show and someone touches up his makeup. One thing you don't get by being in the audience is a great view of the show, because the cameras are often blocking your view. It's easier to look up at the monitor above your head.

While I'm glad I did it, I don't think I'd go to a television taping again. It just takes up too much time. Kelly Ripa and Simon Pegg were funny, (Kelly is very small, very tanned and wears very high heels) but the guests were almost beside the point. I was there for the experience. And when the camera swung around to pan the audience, I'm just glad I was ready.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Rock solid

At the Emmys, when "30 Rock" co-producer Tina Fey thanked the show's "dozens and dozens" of fans, she was talking about me. Last fall, I started out watching both "30 Rock" and Aaron Sorkin's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." While I soon gave up "Studio 60," I stuck with "30 Rock" all season.

For me, Sorkin failed at injecting some drama into the behind-the-scenes machinations at a late-night television program, a la Saturday Night Live. Maybe the subject matter, a sketch-comedy show, is just better suited to, well, a comedy. And "30 Rock" is pretty hilarious. Fey succeeded by making her characters, including Alec Baldwin's hard-charging executive and Tracy Morgan's pampered star, outsized and recognizably human at the same time.

While "30 Rock" garnered lots of critical praise last year, it wasn't quite a bona fide hit with viewers. I'm sure NBC is hoping that its Emmy win as best comedy will help. They've also lined up a series of guest stars, including Jerry Seinfeld last night and Edie Falco, in her first post-Sopranos outing, as a love interest for Baldwin.

So far, the critics are generally optimistic about the show's sophomore season.

USA Today's Robert Bianco calls "30 Rock" "a kind of sketch show version of The Mary Tyler Moore Show — one in which everyone's playing Ted. That can be fun for a while, but eventually sitcom viewers tend to want to root for someone. Fey needs to prove she can give the show a central character who can reliably and empathetically anchor the jokes in place, which is one of the requirements that distinguishes a sitcom from a sketch."

The New York Times' Allesandra Stanley believes that the premiere had "many funny moments but strains too hard to meet heightened expectations." While she says there were some "awkward missteps in the show, "30 Rock" deserves viewers' patience.

The Newark Star-Ledger's Alan Sepinwall, noting Jerry Seinfeld's guest-star turn, calls "30 Rock" "arguably the funniest show NBC's aired since "Seinfeld" ended." Sepinwall concludes that while "broadcast TV in general and NBC in particularly aren't nearly as powerful as they were back in the "Seinfeld" glory days, "30 Rock" is a strong reminder that the networks still have some great shows to offer.''

Newsday's Diane Werts compares the show favorably to Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant skewering of television news in the film "Network." She says that "in an era when so many TV comedies lie there limp, waiting for you to figure what could possibly be funny about all this, "30 Rock" moves. It glides, actually, or maybe hops, from crisp scene to crisp scene."

After the premiere, Fey and Jack McBrayer, who plays Kenneth, the NBC page, hosted an online chat where they answered questions from fans. Fey says she won't be replacing Conan O'Brien in 2009. "I would be terrible at that job! I don't like people and you have to talk to people for that job. I am painfully shy." And as for why Kenneth is always so cheerful, McBrayer divulges this secret: "I smile because Lorne Michaels made me get cheek implants, so I have no choice but to smile! It's in my contract." Who knew!

To hear Fey talk about "30 Rock" and about her groundbreaking role as the first female head writer on "Saturday Night Live," check out this 2006 interview on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition."

Thursday, October 4, 2007

From stage to screen - and back

Last night I watched "Private Practice," the spinoff of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy." I've never seen "Grey's Anatomy." I'm not terribly interested in medical shows. And it turns out that this one is pretty forgettable. But Audra McDonald is in it, and that's a big attraction for me.

I saw the four-time Tony winner on Broadway in July in "110 in the Shade." Wow. What an incredible, rich, operatic voice. (Ok, I've never actually been to an opera, but her voice is what I imagine an opera singer's would sound like).

Plus, she's just a great actress. She's a beautiful, confident woman who makes us believe through sheer force of her acting skills that she's awkward, unattractive and insecure. I'd never seen her in anything before, and she totally won me over. Unfortunately, I don't think your average TV-show dialogue really demonstrates the full extent of her talent.

Audra McDonald isn't the only theater veteran I've watched on television this week. I'm at the beginning of a "Sex and the City" marathon, and it was a wonderful surprise to see Marian Seldes playing Mr. Big's mother.

I've seen a few movie and television actors on stage so far. The ever-growing list includes Kevin Spacey, Colm Meaney, David Hyde Pierce and Angela Lansbury. Next month, I'll add Kevin Kline in "Cyrano" to the roster. (Jennifer Garner's in it, too, but I never watched "Alias.")

I have to admit that for me, that's one of the thrills of going to a Broadway show. I enjoy watching an actor whose work I've admired on television or in the movies perform on stage. Now, I'm realizing it works the other way around as well - I enjoy watching an actor I've liked on stage perform on TV or in a movie.

To hear a terrific interview with Audra McDonald, check out this Downstage Center program from 2005. In it, she discusses getting her start at a dinner theater in Fresno, Calif., when she was 16, playing Eva Peron in "Evita," and the relief she felt at finally not winning a Tony Award.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Welcome to the sixties?

I've always said one of my biggest regrets is that although I was alive during the 1960s, I wasn't old enough to enjoy them.

After watching the brilliant AMC television series "Mad Men," about a second-tier advertising agency in Manhattan at the beginning of the decade, let me amend that remark. I have no regrets that I wasn't old enough to be a woman in the work force in 1960. This is the sixties before they became "The Sixties."

I came to "Mad Men" late, after seven episodes had already aired. But through the wonders of a convenience Americans couldn't even fathom in 1960, I got caught up thanks to my DVR and an all-day marathon. And I'm glad I did, even though the blatant predjudice, the womanizing, the ever-present cigarettes and alcohol is almost too difficult to bear. But for some reason, I can't turn away.

I watch in horror as two young children bounce around in the family car like a couple of beach balls, and I think, of course, there were no seat belts back then! Dad forgets to pick up a cake for his daughter's birthday party, so a neighbor brings one over from her freezer. It's stone cold, and of course, you can't nuke it in the microwave! A divorced mother of two moves in down the street and of course, it's a scandal!

Every episode brings new revelations of what life was like in America in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration, before the New Frontier, the women's movement, the civil-rights movement and the Summer of Love. Not to mention before smoke-free workplaces, diversity and anti-harassment policies.

Yes, it was a different world back then, and "Mad Men" brings it to life in exacting detail. And apparently, adultery was as common as the three-martini lunch back then. Who knew?

The plot's interesting, focusing mostly on the senior executive Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm. Draper, clean-shaven and square-jawed, exudes a steely self-confidence. But we know there something mysterious in his background that haunts him.

And the roster of clients, including Richard Nixon and a cigarette manufacturer, touches on some of the era's most contentious events. (It was very cool to watch John Cullum play the tobacco executive a mere two months after I saw him on Broadway in "110 in the Shade" and met him at the stage door!)

Last week's episode showed the ad executives seated around a conference table watching television commercials for Nixon and Kennedy. The Kennedy ad has a theme song and a montage of campaign signs and ends with a photo of the very telegenic JFK, Jackie and Caroline. "It's light, it's catchy and it doesn't cloud your mind with, I don't know, issues," Draper remarks. By contract, Nixon is a talking head, perched on the edge of a desk against a dark background. "The president is a product, don't forget that," says one of Draper's colleagues.

To me, that scene epitomizes what's so compelling about "Mad Men." We're viewing America on the cusp of change, at a time when so many of our modern attitudes were being formed, when ad men were trailblazers and a presidential candidate was simply another product to be packaged and sold to the public.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Return of the Queen?

Now this is intriguing. Variety, via Cinematical, reports that Peter Morgan is writing a sequel to "The Queen," one of my favorite movies of the past year. Michael Sheen is once again expected to play the part of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

I saw Morgan's play "Frost/Nixon" on Broadway in April. It was an interesting portrait of the two men, one trying to salvage his career and the other, his reputation. While Frank Langella's Tony-winning performance as Richard Nixon garnered most of the attention, I was more intrigued by Sheen's David Frost, the down-on-his-luck talk-show host. So I'm excited about seeing him once again play Tony Blair.

I liked "Frost/Nixon," which Ron Howard is making into a movie with Sheen and Langella. But I actually enjoyed "The Queen" more. Morgan's portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and the British people at the time of Princess Diana's death seemed to me a richer and more complex piece of writing.

The article says that the new movie will explore Blair's relationship with Presidents Clinton and Bush, focusing "on Blair's reaction to the handover of power between Clinton, a natural liberal ally, and Bush, who came from the other end of the political spectrum."

There's no word yet on whether Helen Mirren will make a return appearance as Queen Elizabeth II.