Thursday, July 31, 2008

Equal means equal

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick today signed a bill repealing a 1913 law that had been used to prevent out-of-state gay couples from marrying in Massachusetts.

At the signing ceremony, the governor said repealing the law, which was originally designed to deter interracial marriages, shows that "equal means equal" in Massachusetts. Simple, eloquent and to the point. Really, I couldn't have said it any better myself.

He also took note that it's been five years since a ruling by the state's highest court that paved the way for same-sex marriage a year later.

"In five years now ... the sky has not fallen, the earth has not opened to swallow us all up, and more to the point, thousands and thousands of good people — contributing members of our society — are able to make free decisions about their personal future, and we ought to seek to affirm that every chance we can."


From the Battles of Lexington and Concord that signaled the start of the Revolutionary War, to the abolitionist movement of the 19th century that helped end slavery, Massachusetts has always been at the forefront of the struggle for liberty and equality. I'm thrilled that today, the state adds another chapter to that illustrious history.

The repeal takes place immediately, so if you're coming in from out of state to tie the knot in Massachusetts - mazal tov! Here are a few places to help you start planning your wedding.

Give Boston a try(out)

What's happing to Boston as a tryout town for Broadway musicals?

I can't get to New York City nearly as often as I'd like, so I was really excited when I found out that two musicals - the Rob Ashford-helmed Brigadoon and Nice Work if You Can Get It, with Harry Connick Jr., were going to play at Boston's Colonial Theatre before heading to Broadway. That's only an hour away from me.

Well, last week it was announced that the Gershwin-themed Nice Work if You Can Get It is on hold because all of the elements couldn't be put together after director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall left the project. And this week, Brigadoon has been postponed, according to Playbill, because of "the lack of an appropriate Broadway theatre in spring 2009."

I realize that the fate of those two shows had nothing to do with choosing Boston as their tryout city. (At least I don't think it did). Still, it's frustrating, especially when other cities don't seem to have a problem attracting Broadway-bound musicals.

Seattle is getting Shrek, and last year, it had Young Frankenstein. (Oops, I mean The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein. Sorry, Mel!) Before that, Hairspray had its out-of-town tryout in Seattle, and Wicked's was in San Francisco. San Diego got the tryout of A Catered Affair. I could go on.

Of course, before air travel, Boston was a favorite Broadway tryout city, along with other places along the East Coast that were only a train ride or a short drive away, like New Haven, Conn., Philadelphia and Baltimore. The list of musicals that premiered at the Colonial Theatre includes Oklahoma!, Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun, Porgy and Bess and La Cage aux Folles.

So what happened? Is it the desire for a little fun in the sun before the rigors of Broadway? I've been to San Francisco in the summer and let me tell you, while I absolutely love the city and I could ride the cable cars forever, it can get a little chilly there, even in August.

I assume that the migration to the West Coast was designed, in part, to get as far from New York City as possible, allowing a show to be fine-tuned away from the prying eyes of critics. But really, when you can find a review of a show on the Internet within hours after the conclusion of its final dress rehearsal (never mind first preview!) that distance is largely irrelevant.

In addition, I'm betting that production costs are lower in places like Seattle, San Francisco and San Diego than in the Northeast. I'm sure that plays into the producers' decision about where to stage the tryout.

I don't begrudge my fellow theatre fans on the West Coast the thrill of seeing a show with its original Broadway cast. I realize that most of those fans will never make it to New York City to see the musical on Broadway. I just want the producers to spread the joy around.

Hey, I know it's not a lost cause. After all, Boston still gets some tryouts. There was the late and mostly unlamented High Fidelity, which started at the Colonial Theatre in September 2006 and moved to Broadway, where it closed 10 days after it opened. But you can't blame that on Boston, can you?

And we gave a good sendoff to The 39 Steps, which I saw, and loved, during its pre-Broadway stint last fall at the Huntington Theatre Company. Okay, the show started in England, so Boston didn't have a world premiere. But the play is still running in New York, at the Cort Theatre.

Still, in terms of Broadway-bound musicals, it's wait 'til next year.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Muriel's Wedding

So, I was talking to a friend about the plot of the Mamma Mia! movie. I told him it involved a young woman's wedding and ABBA songs, and he asked "Isn't it just a musical version of Muriel's Wedding?" I replied, "What's Muriel's Wedding?"

Okay, maybe back in the farthest recesses of my brain I had heard of the movie, but I'd never seen it, I didn't know who was in it or anything about the plot or where it took place or that it included ABBA songs. (Another movie with an ABBA soundtrack - Who knew?)

Well, I rushed Muriel's Wedding to the top of my Netflix queue, watched it last week and I really enjoyed it. It's definitely a dark comedy. There are laughs, but also some serious themes in this movie. So if you've never seen it, be prepared.

Toni Collette is the title character, a social misfit and ABBA fanatic who lives in the fictional Australian town of Porpoise Spit and dreams of getting married. Muriel doesn't have a lot going for her at the beginning of the movie. She's a high school dropout who's shunned by all the popular girls. She and her grown siblings lounge around the house all day while their mother waits on them and their boorish father. It's the kind of dysfunctional family that would be funny if it weren't so sad. Rachel Griffiths plays Rhonda, a spunky, take-charge friend who helps Muriel turn her life around and follow her dream.

Collette and Griffiths are both great. I can't believe how different they looked in 1994, when the movie came out. I know Collette from Little Miss Sunshine and Griffiths from Brothers and Sisters, one of my favorite tv shows, but I would never have recognized them if I didn't already know they were in Muriel's Wedding.

I've written before about how I love sweet little movies from England, and other parts of the British Commonwealth, that have quirky-but-lovable characters who are going through some kind of life-changing experience. Muriel's Wedding is a terrific addition to that list.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Another vote for equality

I'm very happy to report that the Massachusetts House this afternoon followed the lead of the Senate and voted to repeal a 1913 law that had been used to bar out-of-state gay couples from marrying in the state. Gov. Deval Patrick has said he'll sign the measure.

The 1913 law was originally intended to prevent interracial couples from getting married in Massachusetts if the marriage was illegal in their home states. It was passed at the height of the scandal over black heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson's interracial marriages.

A spokesman for Massachusetts House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi told The Boston Globe: "This, like the protection of same-sex marriage before it, is a matter of basic civil rights and fairness and one the speaker felt was important to get done before formal sessions end."

I know that some opponents say that they're against "redefining" marriage to include gay couples. Well, if you look at the history of the United States over the past century, it's all about "redefinition." We've extended equal protection to people who have been historically disenfranchised, who were once thought undeserving of those rights solely because of the circumstances of their birth.

Two centuries ago women couldn't vote and black people were property in this country. Restrictive covenants that barred Jews from moving into certain neighborhoods were perfectly legal. Who would even have thought that a black person could be a citizen, much less a presidential candidate? The history of this country is about inclusion, about expanding civil rights for everyone. And marriage equality is just as much a civil-rights struggle.

I don't see how allowing gay and lesbian couples to get married threatens anyone. If anything, same-sex marriage strengthens the family simply by creating more, stable families, which adds to the social fabric. That's what we need - more examples of two people who love each other, are committed to each other, care for each other through thick and thin.

As I wrote when the Senate approved the repeal, I'm glad Massachusetts lawmakers, and the general public, realize that the sky hasn't fallen since gay marriage was made legal in 2004. Giving gay and lesbian couples their rights as Americans hasn't taken away rights from anyone else. I believe that the opposite is true - a more just society benefits everyone.

And these are not abstractions we're talking about. These are our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers, our loved ones. They're in loving, committed relationships, and they are entitled to the same rights as any other American citizens. Today, Massachusetts took another step toward ensuring those rights.

Hear America singing

If you're like me and you love to multitask, - or if you hate multitasking but love music - here's something to do while you're sitting at your computer putting the finishing touches on a new blog post.

Around the turn of the 21st century, National Public Radio assembled the NPR 100 - a list of the most important American musical works of the 20th century - and produced a short segment about each one of them.

The ones I've heard have all been pretty fascinating, and thanks to the virtually unlimited capacity of cyberspace, they're still available for your listening pleasure. Unfortunately, you can only listen to them as streaming audio, so you can't download them as MP3s and put them on your iPod.

The music comes from all genres - show tunes, folk, rock 'n' roll, pop, gospel, blues, jazz, classical. I guarantee you'll find something that interests you. Since I'm a history buff, and a bit of a folkie, some of my non-show-tune favorites tell the stories behind "Blowin in the Wind," "We Shall Overcome" and "This Land is Your Land." It was also fun to hear the stories behind some of my favorite albums, like Tapestry and Born to Run.

There are quite a few shows and songs on the list from the world of musical theatre. The ones I've listened to include Oklahoma, Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, My Fair Lady and A Chorus Line. Each segment talks about the show's history and cultural significance.

Here's the description for the Oklahoma segment: The Broadway musical Oklahoma!, premiered in 1943, and was expected to flop. Richard Rodgers wrote it without his long-time lyricist Lorenzo Hart (its librettist, Oscar Hammerstein, was only, at that time, famous for his failures). However, the show did a little better than expected: it launched a revolution in American musical theater and turned a huge profit.

For some background, you can read the transcript of an interview with Murray Horwitz, who was vice president for cultural programming at NPR at the time, talking about how the list was assembled. Also, here are are some related stories, and a list of 300 songs from which the final hundred were picked.

Horwitz says that NPR got input from listeners and from a panel of 18 musicians. The two groups weren't all that far apart. The song "Louie Louie" and Madonna were two cases where listeners rated them higher than the artists. Horwitz says that a lot of people also wanted The Beatles on the list. "We were at pains to point out that they were not American."

When NPR began the project, Horwitz said that some staffers objected, calling it "a bogus millennium gimmick." But he disagreed. "And my argument was if, at the end of the day, a few more people listen to Samuel Barber's "Adagio For Strings" or Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame," this is a good thing. And if we can start some discussion about the real significance of American musical expression, which is one of our country's great gifts to the world, this will be terrific."

Monday, July 28, 2008

Introducing Jason Robert Brown

Composer Jason Robert Brown doesn't need an introduction to most musical theatre fans, but he did for me. He was one of those people whose name I kept reading about a year ago, but I didn't know anything about him.

Then in February 2007, I spotted an interview with Brown on the Jewish literature and culture site Nextbook. I thought, "Hey, this is the guy whose name I've been hearing." I read it and suddenly, I knew a lot about Jason Robert Brown!

Since then, I've listened to The Last Five Years and liked it a lot for its mixture of tenderness and self-deprecating humor - and its unusual structure - as it chronicles a failed marriage. Last year in Boston I saw Parade, about the murder of Mary Phagan in 1913 in Atlanta, and the subsequent trial and lynching of Leo Frank. I thought Brown's music, especially "The Old Red Hills of Home," was hauntingly beautiful. He received the Tony award for Best Score in 1999 for Parade.

Tickets go on sale today for the Brown's newest musical, 13, which begins previews Sept. 16 at Broadway's Jacobs Theatre. The show, which has an all-teenage cast, is about all of the anxieties that come with reaching that age. The main character is a Jewish kid from New York who's forced to move to a small town in Indiana where, apparently, there are no Jews. So I've decided to call it the "gefilte fish out of water musical."

With the new show coming up, I figure it's a good time to share that interview from last year. The article was written by Mollie Wilson, who also blogs about the theatre at Restricted View. It provides a pretty thorough look at Brown's life and career, from his 1995 off-Broadway revue Songs for a New World, through Parade and The Last Five Years, to the disappointment of Urban Cowboy and Brown's relocation to Southern California.

Along the way, Wilson includes kind of a running commentary from Brown. She begins and ends with 13, which had its premiere in Los Angeles last year. "There is a huge demographic of kids that age who love musicals," Brown says. "I wanted to create something that they could feel like they owned."

I also like to check out Brown's own Web site every once in awhile. It's a great resource, full of detailed information about all of his work and it has MP3s available for download. Brown also writes a blog, and his latest entry - The Perils of an Online LIfe - is a very funny story about reaching his limit of "friends" on Facebook.

The limit is 5,000, which would be more than enough for me, but apparently JRB gets requests all the time from people who want to be his friends. As he says, "Five thousand is a lot of people. And I don't even like people." (I'm sure he's just joking, right?) So he's been forced to throw some of his old "friends" overboard (people whose last names start with the letter "A") to make room for new ones.

I guess I'm not much of a joiner. I'm not on Facebook or Myspace or Friendster or digg or or or MyBlogLog or StumbleUpon or any other social-netorking site. Am I leaving anything out? Am I missing anything? Do you think Jason Robert Brown would have me as his friend?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Mad Men, Season 2

Tonight at 10 on AMC, it's the premiere of Season 2 of Mad Men, my most favorite summer television series ever!

If you're of a certain age, doesn't the idea of summer television strike you as, well, odd? When I was kid, back when there were only three channels and a very fuzzy PBS station that you could maybe tune in if you fiddled with the rabbit ears, summer meant only one thing - reruns. Now, there's an entire summer television lineup. Entertainment Weekly even had a summer television preview issue. Progress!

Granted, there's not always a lot of drama in this drama about life at Sterling Cooper, a second-tier Madison Avenue advertising agency, circa 1960. The big secret that ad executive Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, was hiding didn't seem all that interesting when it was finally revealed.

Still, I'm fascinated by Mad Men. It's such a stylish, faithful look at a an era in the not-too-distant past. It's a time that we may even remember a bit of from our own childhood but now look back on in horror - the smoking, the sexism, the racism, the lack of things we take for granted today, like seat belts and microwaves.

I feel almost giddy with anticipation knowing how much the lives of these characters will change over the course of the next decade. How will they cope with the advent of the civil-rights movement, the women's movement, the antiwar movement, affirmative action and free love? We're looking at America on the cusp of change and I wonder who will adapt and thrive, and who will fall off the edge.

Alex Wichtel wrote in the New York Times magazine about spending three days on the set of Mad Men. Creator Matthew Weiner says that he chose advertising as his subject because “it’s a great way to talk about the image we have of ourselves, versus who we really are. And admen were the rock stars of that era, creative, cocky, anti-authority. They made a lot of money, and they lived hard.”

Season 2 takes place in February 1962, 14 months after the Season 1 finale. At the television critics press tour earlier this summer, Weiner said "I honestly felt that picking up the story right after the finale was limiting. It would've really turned it into more of a soap opera than I would want it to be. " Weiner told the critics that he wants the show to be in 1968 by Season 5.

Finally, in a very clever spoof, Advertising Age designed vintage 1960 issue featuring Mad Men. Here's one story that made me smile: Sterling Cooper wins Kodak Projector Account." Apparently, Kodak was getting ready to launch a "revolutionary new technology" in slide projectors dubbed "the wheel," a removable circular tray for holding slides and dropping them into the projector.

Revolutionary new technology? I had no idea! I just happen to have a Kodak projector sitting all-but-forgotten in the back of my closet. I bought it to show off the 700-plus slides I took during my trip to Europe the summer after I graduated from college. Sadly, very few of my friends ever wanted to see them. And if you want one today, you're out of luck. Kodak stopped making slide projectors in 2004.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Break a leg, Little House

The new musical Little House on the Prairie begins previews tonight at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. Because of the high demand for tickets, the Guthrie announced that the show has been extended by two weeks, to Oct. 19.

Here's an interview by Dominic Papatola from the St. Paul Pioneer Press with Kara Lindsay, who will play the teenage Laura. Lindsay says she didn't read Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books as a girl - her tastes ran to scary stories - but caught up with them before beginning rehearsals.

"I love their whole concept of family,'' she said. "It's so different now. We all have our own little lives — even little kids have soccer practice; they already have schedules. Back then, each person was really important; each person had to do something for the family."

When asked whether she saw any similarities between Laura as a girl and her own childhood, Lindsay said:
"When I was 12, I was a tomboy with a unibrow and hairy legs and braces, and I played soccer and basketball. I can really relate to Laura when she goes to that first day of school and she does not fit in but doesn't realize it because she's so far into her own world. So, I'm trying to home in on the little Kara Lindsay that I was."

Little House on the Prairie is directed by Francesca Zambello, with music by Donna di Novelli, lyrics by Oscar-winner Rachel Portman (Emma) and a book by Rachel Sheinkin, Tony winner for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Here's an interview with Sheinkin in which she talks about the challenges of working on the musical. She says that a decision was made to focus on Laura's teenage years in the 1870s and 1880s, living in a prairie community in DeSmet, S.D., to make the story about "personal change and societal change — that's our history. It's not necessarily all to the good — that's not the point of the change."

Sheinkin describes the story as about "a girl who wants to run wild, growing up with her family in a land that also wants in some ways to remain wild. It's about the domestication of a girl alongside the domestication of the prairie, and the ways in which she finds her spirit within that land."

Melissa Gilbert, who starred as Laura in the Little House television series that ran from 1974 to 1983, will play Ma in the stage version. Other cast members include Steven Blanchard as Pa; Jenn Gambatese as Mary, Sara Jean Ford as Nellie, and Kevin Massey as Almanzo Wilder.

Tickets for Little House on the Prairie are priced from $29 to $75, and are available by calling (612) 377-2224 or (877) 44-STAGE or by visiting the Guthrie Web site.

Update 7-28: New York Times reporter Patrick Healey made his way to Minneapolis for a story about Little House on the Prairie. The article also has two pictures from the production.

Related blog posts about Little House on the Prairie:
Little House on Broadway?
Little House on the Internet
Little House casting
A Little sneak preview
Little House, big plans
The Wild(er) West

Happy birthday Kevin Spacey!

If you asked me who first sparked my interest in theatre, I'd have to say that it's Kevin Spacey, who turns 49 years old today.

Way back in 2005, I watched Kevin sing and dance his heart out in Beyond the Sea, the Bobby Darin biopic. While it didn't get great critical acclaim, the movie was a true labor of love for the two-time Oscar winner, who also directed. I loved the movie, too, especially Kevin's singing.

I bought the soundtrack and listened to it pretty much nonstop for months. There was just something about Kevin's voice that really got to me. In fact, I did something I've rarely done in my life - I wrote him a fan letter in care of The Old Vic Theatre in London, where he serves as artistic director. And to my utter surprise, a few months later I received a short but very sweet personal note from Mr. Spacey.

Well, as you can imagine, Kevin pretty much vaulted his way to the top of my list of favorite actors. I caught up on all of his movies and television talk-show appearances, read every interview with him that I could find. In every interview what came through strongly and clearly was Kevin's love for the theatre. You couldn't help but catch some of his enthusiasm.

Here's a small sample of what I mean, from an interview with the British publication The Stage: “You get to come in every day and experiment and then you get a chance to get up every night and work on a different part of your game. I just happen to love the thrill of that - the high-wire act of it and the ritual of it. I love the ritual of coming into the theatre every night and working with the same people, creating a family, because everyone’s up for it."

Even though I hadn't been to a play or musical in years, Kevin's passion for the theatre made me want to give it a try. He made the experience sound positively thrilling. After that gracious note, I figured it was the least I could do for him, especially since there was no chance I'd get to London to see a show at The Old Vic.

I decided to go see the next play that the Trinity Repertory Company was putting on, which happened to be Hamlet. Kind of funny now that I think about it - the last show I saw before Hamlet was Fiddler on the Roof in Israel, in Hebrew. Two classics, both a little difficult to understand, but I had a great time seeing both of them.

And when Kevin announced in November 2006 that he'd be bringing the Old Vic's production of A Moon for the Misbegotten to New York the next spring, I knew I had to make my first trip to Broadway. Soon, I found Steve on Broadway's blog and the rest, as they say, is history.

I watched Kevin last night on The Tonight Show. He was as witty as ever, doing impressions of Bill Clinton and Johnny Carson, talking about his Emmy nominations, his work on the HBO movie Recount and playing opposite Jeff Goldblum in Speed-the-Plow in London.
He told a funny story that I'd heard before, about forgetting his lines one night during a performance of Lost in Yonkers on Broadway, for which he won a Tony award.

So happy birthday, Kevin - and come back to Broadway soon!

Friday, July 25, 2008

The balcony closes

I'm a little sad that At the Movies as we know it is ending. I guess it was inevitable. Roger Ebert's health problems have rendered him unable to speak for the past two years. Ebert and cohost Richard Roeper both announced this week that they're severing ties with the show. Ebert told the Associated Press that Disney-ABC, the distributor, had decided to take At the Movies "in a new direction."

I started watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert (pictured above in their heyday) in 1977, when their movie review program that aired on PBS out of Chicago went national. I was drawn in by their often sharp-edged give and take, and their passion for the movies. Maybe they were unlikely-looking tv stars, but they became a hit. Back then, it was called Sneak Previews, and it was the first show of its kind. In 1982, Siskel and Ebert left Sneak Previews for a new show on commercial television that became At the Movies.

Siskel, a writer for the Chicago Tribune, died in 1999 of complications after surgery for a brain tumor. Eventually Roeper, Ebert's colleague at the Chicago Sun-Times, joined him as a permanent replacement in the balcony. In Ebert's absence, Michael Phillips of the Tribune has been paired with Roeper after a series of fill-in cohosts that included the Tonight Show's Jay Leno, filmmaker Kevin Smith and New York Times critic A.O. Scott.

You can read Ebert's reminiscences about the show here. Chicago magazine has a 2005 profile of Ebert online. Time magazine offers a brief history of At the Movies and the dispute between Ebert and Disney.

Part of the attraction of At the Movies was that Siskel and Ebert made such a great team. They seemed like two regular guys, although maybe a little wittier and more knowledgeable than your average film fan. Their reviews were concise, perceptive, witty and blunt. And it was so much fun to watch them argue. They brought film criticism to the masses in a way that was understandable and enjoyable. They helped make us all critics.

Personally, I think the show lost a lot of its zing after Siskel died. Roeper's a nice enough guy and he does a good job, but after Siskel, At the Movies never again had the same kind of edge. Every pairing since then - Ebert with other hosts, Ebert and Roeper together, Roeper with others, just hasn't had the same quality. They're more like polite conversations than the real, heated discussions between two movie lovers with differing opinions.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Patrick Goldstein argues that Siskel and Ebert's television success was somewhat of a fluke. "Siskel and Ebert, though trained as ink-stained wretch newspaper men, turned out to be a great showbiz buddy team, the film-critic version of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. They had a chemistry on screen that transcended critical heft."

Disney-ABC has already chosen replacements for Ebert and Roeper. Variety reported that E! Entertainment critic Ben Lyons and Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz have been tapped as the new hosts when the program's 23rd season begins the weekend of Sept. 6. Lyons is the son of Jeffrey Lyons, ironically one of the critics who replaced Siskel and Ebert when they left Sneak Previews. Mankiewicz' grandfather, Herman Mankiewicz, was a Hollywood screenwriter who won an Oscar for Citizen Kane.

I have to admit that I've never heard of Ben or Ben. I just hope the show retains its wit, its intelligence, and doesn't degenerate into mindless gushing or cheerleading for Hollywood. But I'm willing to withhold judgment. I'll wait until their debut in September before giving them my own personal thumbs up or thumbs down.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Hairspray - the sequel

Apparently we have not heard the last of Tracy Turnblad. New Line Cinema, which produced the movie version of the Broadway musical Hairspray, has asked John Waters to write a sequel. The plot is supposed to pick up the story of Tracy and her family in Baltimore in 1962, after the resolution of the first movie, in which they help integrate a teen dance program, the Corny Collins Show.

Director Adam Shankman told Variety: "I never thought of musicals as franchises, but it certainly worked with High School Musical, and the idea of working with that cast again, and creating new material and music, is a dream come true."

The first Hairspray, which came out in 2007 and was based on Waters' 1988 movie, did pretty well at the box office, earning more than $200 million worldwide. Sales of the DVD and soundtrack have also been strong. Plus, it got pretty good reviews. Metacritic gave it a total of 81 out of a possible 100 points on the critical acclaim scale. It's nice to see a movie musical be considered a commercial and critical hit.

The studio is aiming for a release in July 2010, and is hoping to snag the same cast, including John Travolta, Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Marsden, Zac Efron, Amanda Bynes, Queen Latifah and newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy. Although according to Variety, none of the actors had a sequel clause in their contracts.

For me, even more important than the cast returning is the news that Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are going to write new songs for the sequel. The score of Hairspray is one of my all-time favorites. (Plus, I was thrilled to actually meet Scott Wittman in New York in May, and he is a very sweet, gracious man).

Writing partners Shaiman and Wittman, who have also been life partners for more than 25 years, created some brilliant, catchy tunes. Songs like "Good Morning Baltimore," "The Nicest Kids in Town," "You Can't Stop the Beat" and "Run and Tell That" perfectly capture the spirit of 1962. Plus, "I Know Where I've Been" is such a great civil-rights anthem, it sounds like it could have been written in the '60s.

Besides the music, of course, two other big reasons for the appeal of Hairspray are its compelling story and its unforgettable characters. Because I love the original so much, I'm really excited about a sequel. But I think that this is uncharted territory. I mean, musicals don't usually have sequels, do they? Will John Waters be able to come up with a plot that's as dramatic? After you've integrated The Corny Collins Show, what can you do for an encore?

Update: One of the cool things about Marc Shaiman is that he keeps in touch with his fans through the Broadway World message boards. (Yes, they're a guilty pleasure. I'm addicted to them). Here's what he had to say today about the prospects for a Hairspray sequel:

"They've simply hired John Waters to write a treatment. That is like a marriage proposal (and an exciting one), but it is not a birth announcement. But, ya' have to admit, it's impressive that the movie studio actually came to the creators (of the film) to do this. That is practically unheard of in Hollywood (think GREASE 2). And Lord knows Scott & I could write songs for these characters (and any new ones John Waters dreams up!) for the rest of our lives."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

And Moss makes three

I love the television series Mad Men, about a New York City advertising agency in the 1960s, so I'm happy to hear that one of its stars, Elisabeth Moss, will make her Broadway debut in this fall's revival of David Mamet's play Speed-the-Plow.

On Mad Men, Moss plays Peggy Olson, the new girl in the secretarial pool at the Sterling Cooper ad agency. Her character is sweet and a little naive, but also ambitious, working her way up to junior copywriter in a very male-dominated world. She's also the source of a very big, and dramatic, surprise in the plot at the end of the show's first sesason.

On Broadway, Moss will be paired with the already announced Jeremy Piven, of HBO's Entourage, who'll also be making his Broadway debut, and Raul Esparza in the three-person play. Hopefully Esparza, being a Broadway veteran, will show them the ropes.

It's kind of interesting that two-thirds of the cast will be making their debut on the Great White Way, although both have off-Broadway credits. Moss made her stage debut in 2002, in Richard Nelson's Franny's Way. And Piven, whose parents founded the Piven Theatre Workshop, in Evanston, Ill., appeared off-Broadway in 2005 in Neil LaBute's play Fat Pig.

While they've made movies, Piven and Moss are probably best known for their television work. Before Mad Men, Moss played the president's daughter in The West Wing. And they're both playing characters in Speed-the-Plow that remind me a little of their current television roles.

In Speed-the-Plow, a caustic, satirical look at the movie business, Piven plays Hollywood production executive Bobby Gould and Esparza will be producer Charlie Fox. Moss will portray Karen, Gould's secretary. She'll be following in the footsteps of Madonna, who played the role on Broadway in 1988.

Here's a description from Playbill: "Speed-the-Plow focuses on two high-powered Hollywood executives, Charlie Fox and Bobby Gould, who have come up from the mailroom together," according to press notes. "Charlie brings Bobbie a surefire hit with a major star attached. Bobby seems certain to give the green light, until his beautiful new secretary gets involved."

I haven't read Speed-the-Plow, but Piven's character sounds like it might bear more than a little resemblance to Ari Gold, the frenetic, ruthless and hilarious Hollywood agent he plays on Entourage. I'm not sure how Moss' character compares with Peggy Olson, but my guess is that she'll be a very different type of secretary than she is on Mad Men. And I think the cast sounds pretty promising.

If you're not familiar with Moss, I highly recommend checking out Season 2 of Mad Men, which starts Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC. If you want to catch up beforehand, Season 1 is available on DVD. Speed-the-Plow begins previews at the Belasco Theatre on Oct. 3.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Mamma Mia!

Okay, I've got to say this up front: I really enjoyed Mamma Mia! It's not a great work of art, but hey, that's not the point for me. I went to be entertained and stay cool on a hot day. And Mamma Mia!, with those very catchy Abba songs, in a movie theatre with the air conditioning cranked way up, definitely fit the bill - on both counts.

Plus, Meryl Streep is my dancing queen. She does a split, slides down a railing and leads a Greek chorus (of real Greeks!) singing and dancing along a path to the sea, to the tune of the title song. The woman turned 59 last month and she's amazing.

I saw Mamma Mia! on Broadway last summer and I thought it was great fun, with lots of humor and moments of real poignancy. The Abba craze must have passed me by, because I wasn't all that familiar with the songs. But they're very addictive. My foot was tapping pretty much the entire time.

It's true, there's not a lot of dramatic tension, and the show's paper-thin plot becomes even thinner on the big screen. But somehow, by actually showing us the picturesque Greek island where the story takes place, Mamma Mia! the movie takes on more of a dreamy, fantasy-like quality than the stage version. So what if it doesn't make complete sense?

Streep plays former pop singer Donna Sheridan, a hotel owner who's raised her daughter Sophie by herself and pretty much given up on love. Sophie (a very sweet Amanda Seyfried), is about to get married to Sky (Dominic Cooper, whose main job when he's on screen is to be awfully cute). She invites three of her mother's former lovers, the suave architect Sam (Pierce Brosnan), button-down banker Harry (Colin Firth) and rugged adventurer Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) to the wedding, in hopes of figuring out which one is her father. Christine Baranski and Julie Walters add great comic touches as Streep's ex-bandmates. Lots of hilarity, singing and dancing ensues.

As much as I liked the movie, I did miss the energy level that you only get from being in a packed house and watching the performers live on stage. You simply don't feel as connected in a movie theatre, where the performers are on a giant screen, larger than life. It's more difficult to totally lose yourself in the action. Still, it was great to hear the songs performed in a vibrant surround sound, and my foot was tapping again.

I loved the way the big musical numbers, like "Mamma Mia," "Money, Money, Money" and "Does Your Mother Know," were staged. Yeah, they were kind of silly, but they got my adrenaline rushing. Just like I did when I saw the show on Broadway, I got a little teary at Seyfried's "I Have A Dream." On the other hand, Brosnan doesn't really have a great voice, which must be why director Phyllida Lloyd had the background music turned up really loud when he was singing.

And I thought some of the shots were gorgeous, like the lighted, winding path up to a church perched on a cliff for the wedding scene, and the way Streep is framed with the sea in the background during "The Winner Takes It All." She's achingly beautiful at that moment and I think she does a great job with the song.

In a summer of animated movies and superhero movies and action movies, it's nice to have a movie for those of us who move to the beat of a different cinematic drummer. My audience was a mix of ages, with lots of young girls. People were laughing and clapping and enjoying themselves. I was pretty much smiling the whole time.

I'm sure I'll be getting my very own copy of Mamma Mia! when it comes out on dvd. On a snowy winter evening or another hot summer day, I'll pop it in the dvd player, fast forward to my favorite parts, and smile again. Maybe, in the privacy of my own home, I'll even sing along. Sadly, I will not be doing a split.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

How Does the Show Go On?

I love this book. I saw it while I was perusing the merchandise during intermission at The Lion King on Broadway. (And Disney is the king of merch). I hesitated because I thought, "Oh, it's for kids." But when I got home, I cashed in some of my Borders bucks and bought it.

Anyway, How Does the Show Go On?, by Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatricals, and Jeff Kurtti, creative director of the Walt Disney Family Museum, is a great book about the theatre for a young audience (or kids at heart, like me). If you're going to take home a souvenir from a Disney show, this is a great one.

What I love is that it's so well put-together and filled with information. The text is written in a very breezy, conversational style - easy to understand without talking down to its audience. The book is printed on heavy paper and lavishly illustrated with pictures from Disney productions. Plus, there are cool extras, like an opening night Playbill, sample ticket and costume sketches from The Lion King. It's a pop-up book for theatre lovers!

Schumacher and Kurtti cover the basics - including the different kinds of theatre - Broadway, off Broadway, regional, summer stock, touring companies - and the kinds of stages - black box, proscenium, thrust, amphitheater. (I didn't know that the Romans built amphitheaters because their bowl shape holds sound so well, but now that I think about it, it does make sense).

They also do a great job of taking the reader through the whole process of creating a show and all of the people it takes to put it on once you get to opening night. And they don't simply focus on the obvious - the actors and musicians - they also go behind the scenes to describe putting together the costumes, sets, makeup, props and special effects. (Personally, I did not know that the flyman was in charge of pulling the ropes to make sure that things go up and down).

True, a lot of the information in How Does the Show Go On? I already knew. But even when the authors are describing the basics, like the dressing room, they find a way to give the reader a little added value. For example, when Yul Brynner toured the United States in The King and I, his dressing room in every city had to be painted a specific color of brown. Who knew?

And I didn't realize that there are four actors inside the elephant that parades down the aisle in The Lion King. (Okay, I guess that should have been obvious. An elephant does have four legs, after all.) After making its exit, the elephant is stored 15 feet in the air over the stage because it's too big to fit anywhere else. I don't know about you, but I love those kinds of details.

Amid all of the details, they spice things up with interesting tidbits about the shows. For example, Stephen Mear, a choreographer for Mary Poppins, has a close friend who's deaf. The idea for choreographing "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" came from his experience with sign language.

You could sit down and read How Does the Show Go On? from cover to cover, but I like just keeping it on my coffee table and picking it up every once in awhile to flip through the pages, look at the pictures and soak up some more theatre lore.

It's easy to read a book like this and think, oh this is something I could never do, so I like the way the authors include plenty of advice on how kids can put on their own backyard productions. I wish I could give a copy to every 12-year-old, and then encourage them to round up some friends and put on a show of their own. I wish I were 12 again so I could do it.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Mamma mia - it's here!

Some cinematic observations:

I don't think I'll be going to see the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight. Maybe I'll catch up with it in a few months, when it comes out on DVD. Maybe. It just looks too intense and violent for me. Plus, I'm not really a comic book fan. And when I see Heath Ledger's scary, twisted face as The Joker it just makes me cringe. I know his final performance is getting tons of praise. But it seems unbearably sad to watch someone so young on the big screen who's recently passed away, and in such tragic circumstances - from an accidental drug overdose.

It's finally here! Mamma Mia! opens nationwide today! I will be going to see the summer 2008 entry in the revitalization of the movie musical. It's only going to be about 95 degrees this weekend. Is there a better way to spend a couple of hours than sitting an air-conditioned movie theatre and being transported to a Greek island - with fun ABBA tunes? Plus, I'm sure there'll be another terrific performance from a singing and dancing Meryl Streep, arguably America's greatest living actress.

In addition to musicals, I'm a huge documentary fan, and I just read about a new blog devoted to the genre called Docsider. It's written by Mark Rabinowitz, one of the founders of Indiewire, which provides news and networking on the subject of independent films. So far, Docsider has only a few posts, but as someone who likes to keep track of what's going on in the documentary world, including upcoming releases, it could be a great resource.

And finally, Marc Shaiman is pretty high up on my list of personal musical theatre gods. There's just something about the catchy pop tunes that he and Scott Wittman wrote for Hairspray, the way they captured America in the early 1960s, that I find irresistible. A few weeks ago I saw South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. It really was hilarious, a great satire, and I loved Marc's songs. So I'm happy to hear that he's writing the score for a new movie, Bob: The Musical, about a thirtysomething self-proclaimed musical theatre hater who wakes up one morning to find out that his whole life has become a musical. Sounds like fun!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Moving to the third stage

As much as I love a Broadway show, and regular readers know how much I do love them, I also enjoy taking in some theatre off Broadway whenever I can. (And sometimes, it's just barely off Broadway). I regularly check out the listings at Playbill of upcoming off-Broadway shows, and a lot of them sound very tempting.

Unfortunately, I haven't had much opportunity to sample the fare off Broadway because my time in New York has been limited. But I have been to a couple of plays - The Receptionist and From Up Here - at the Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center, and in May, I saw Good Boys and True at the Second Stage Theatre.

While Good Boys and True didn't get the best reviews, I found it thought-provoking, with some compelling performances. Plus, it gave me a chance to see a new American play just a block away from Times Square in a theatre where I'd never been before. It's safe to say that most people who visit New York don't realize how much great theatre there is all over the city. I know I really didn't realize it.

I guess before I went to New York, I thought of off-Broadway as something that wouldn't really be worth my time or money. I didn't realize how many Broadway show that I've loved started there. For example, I didn't know that one of my favorite recent musicals, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, was at Second Stage before it moved to Broadway.

So I was very interested when I read yesterday that the nonprofit Second Stage is acquiring the Helen Hayes Theatre, currently home to the musical Xanadu, to use it as a Broadway home beginning in 2010. It'll become the fifth Broadway theatre operated by a nonprofit. The Playgoer has an interesting perspective on the purchase, with a lot of good points that I have to admit I hadn't thought about.

According to its Web site, Second Stage was founded in 1979 by director Carole Rothman and actress Robyn Goodman "to give 'second stagings' to contemporary American plays that originally failed to find an audience due to scheduling problems, inappropriate venues or limited performance runs."

An Associated Press story noted that Second Stage currently leases the two theatres it operates off Broadway. "You can't make plans when you are renting,'' Rothman said. "You have to find a way to really sustain an institution over a long period of time."

Rothman tells The New York Times that Second Stage will raise $35 million to purchase and renovate the 597-seat Helen Hayes, which "will be the only theater company on Broadway dedicated exclusively to the development and presentation of contemporary American drama."

Personally, I think this sounds promising. We all know how difficult it is for any type of play to be successful at a time when Broadway caters mostly to tourists who want to see big, splashy musicals with familiar titles. So I'm in favor of anything that provides a home for homegrown drama. And Rothman was equally emphatic to the Associated Press: "We only do plays by contemporary American writers. We don't do classics or go shopping for plays in London."

Many of the stories about the sale have noted that Helen Hayes' name was on a theatre that was demolished to make way for the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square, and now the name is in danger again, since the rights will most likely be sold. But Ellen Richard, the executive director of Second Stage, tells Bloomberg News that "Helen will definitely have a presence at the theater.''

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Parton my caution

It's been years, maybe decades, since I've seen the 1980 comedy 9 to 5, about three working women who turn the tables on their odious boss. But I remember enough to know that it was smart and hilarious, with great performances from Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton. They made the movie memorable.

Of course I'm excited that the musical version, with songs by Parton, starts previews at Broadway's Marquis Theatre on March 24. I'm excited about every Broadway show, even the ones I know I probably won't get to see, even the ones that are just at the embryonic rumor stage and may never see the light of day.

But after being disappointed by some recent screen to stage efforts - I'm talking about you, Young Frankenstein and Cry-Baby - my optimism is a little tempered with caution this time around. Don't worry, it's not that I'm getting jaded or cynical. I haven't lost my wide-eyed sense of wonder when I walk through Times Square looking up at the giant billboards and posters advertising Broadway shows. And of course if I get the chance, I'd love to see 9 to 5.

It's just that the movie had three terrific actresses with very different personalities and talents playing three very distinct roles. In the musical, Allison Janney will play Tomlin's part, Stephanie J. Block is taking on Fonda's role and Megan Hilty will play Parton's role. I know Janney from the movies, but I wasn't a fan of The West Wing, so I never saw her on that tv series. Marc Kudisch will be their boss, a role played on screen by Dabney Coleman.

While I've heard of Block and Hilty, I've never seen them perform. And that's okay. Broadway is my first exposure to most of the actors I see on stage. I'd never heard of anyone in the cast of Spring Awakening before I saw it. Except for David Hyde Pierce, I'd never heard of anyone in Curtains. And I loved both of them. One of the best parts of seeing a show on Broadway is discovering all of these new performers.

But let's face it, fans of the movie who go see the musical are going to make the comparison. I'm not saying that Janney, Hilty and Block have to deliver cookie-cutter performances of their film counterparts. Of course I don't expect that. I realize the musical will be different, and they absolutely should make those roles their own. I simply don't know enough about the trio to say whether they'll be as funny, as memorable.

So this time around, I'm excited - but with a note of caution.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Repealing a shameful law

The Massachusetts Senate today passed a bill to repeal a 1913 law that effectively barred out-of-state gay and lesbian couples from getting married in Massachusetts. The bill already has the support of the House speaker and Governor Deval Patrick.

"There are very few laws on the books that I can say that I'm ashamed that they're on the books," state Sen. Mark Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat, says in a Boston Globe story. He said he opposed the law because of the "immorality of discrimination."

That was the comment that really struck me. I'm glad that someone stated the matter simply and clearly. Discrimination is immoral.

The 1913 law was originally intended to prevent interracial couples from getting married in Massachusetts if the marriage was illegal in their home states. It was passed at the height of the scandal over black heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson's interracial marriages.

"This is a very simple law, contrived in shame, and it exists in shame and we ought to wipe it off the books," Montigny said.

I'm glad Massachusetts lawmakers, and the general public, realize that the sky hasn't fallen since gay marriage was made legal in 2004. Giving gay and lesbian couples their rights as Americans hasn't taken away rights from anyone else. I believe that the opposite is true - a more just society benefits everyone.

The road to equal rights for all Americans has been a long and tortuous one and progress doesn't happen nearly fast enough. But we're getting there. And today is one of the good days.

Update: At Media Nation, Dan has a great post that points out just how far we've come in the debate over gay marriage.

Little House on Broadway?

In a reversal of Horace Greeley's 19th-century advice to "Go West," the Little on the Prairie musical may be heading to the East.

There's an interesting article in Playbill this morning about a new company, Global Broadway Productions, formed by the backers of the Little House on the Prairie musical that runs from July 26 to Oct. 19 at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. (The show had been scheduled to end on Oct. 5, but it's been extended by two weeks due to high demand for tickets.)

Apparently the company, headed by Ben Sprecher and Louise Forlenza, plans to bring Little House on the Prairie to Broadway in the 2008-2009 season, followed by a national tour. In an interview with Variety, Sprecher pegs the initial development costs for Little House at $1.85 million and the complete capitalization at $8 million.

This news is a little surprising to me because from everything I'd read, the show was supposed to bypass Broadway and simply mount a nationwide tour. I would think there'd be some retooling involved after the Minneapolis run, so aiming for Broadway this season seems unrealistic. But as I noted earlier, the first-day sales of Little House tickets broke a box office record for the Guthrie, so maybe the producers feel it has the legs to get to New York.

Little House on the Prairie will be directed by Francesca Zambello, with music by Donna di Novelli, lyrics by Oscar-winner Rachel Portman (Emma) and a book by Rachel Sheinkin, Tony winner for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Melissa Gilbert, who starred as Laura in the Little House television series that ran from 1974 to 1983, will play Ma in the stage version. Kara Lindsay, a 2007 graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, will portray a teenage Laura. Other cast members include Steven Blanchard as Pa; Jenn Gambatese as Mary, Sara Jean Ford as Nellie, and Kevin Massey as Almanzo Wilder.

Global Broadway's other projections include:

Havana, described as a "politically charged romance is set during the run-up to Castro's takeover of Cuba," with a book by Nilo Cruz, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Anna in the Tropics, and music and lyrics by Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy. The producers are looking for a Broadway debut for fall 2010.

Rebecca, an adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier novel, which had its premiere in Vienna in 2006 and is still playing there. The musical is also playing in Tokyo, and productions are planned for Berlin and Helsinki. Global is looking at a spring 2010 Broadway opening.

Dr. Horrible Live!

The first act of Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, an Internet superhero musical featuring Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion and Felicia Day, is now available for your viewing pleasure.

Whedon describes the plot as "the story of a low-rent super-villain, (Harris) the hero who keeps beating him up, (Fillion) and the cute girl from the laundromat he’s too shy to talk to.” (Day). Act One clocks in at 13:49. It's kind of cute. There's plenty of music, action and humor. Plus, Neil Patrick Harris sure is adorable!

Here's the rest of the schedue:
Act Two will go up Thursday July 17th.
Act Three will go up Saturday July 19th.
All acts will stay up until midnight on Sunday July 20th.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

TV to movies - Yes, No, Maybe

Just as surely as summer follows spring, once a television series ends the inevitable rumors immediately begin about a big-screen version. And until the movie gets made, they never quite die down. With the television critics gathering in California last week for their annual summer confab, there's been an uptick in the chatter. In case you're keeping score at home, here's where we stand with some television-to-movie projects:

Arrested Development - Maybe: In an interview with Parade, Jason Bateman, who played Michael Bluth in the short-lived Fox comedy, was asked about the prospects for an Arrested Development movie. “I think it might happen. I’ve got my fingers crossed. It’s a question of timing. When is it too early? When is it too late? I hope it happens because we all miss each other.” Costar Jeffrey Tambor, who played his father, family patriarch George Bluth, added more grist to the rumor mill last month with an interview at "After months of speculation, I think we have finally figured out for sure that we are indeed doing an Arrested Development movie." However, the Hollywood Reporter says "Fox's official comment remains the same: no project."

Deadwood - No: It's pretty certain there won't be a Deadwood movie. Richard Pepler, the co-president of HBO, said last week: "I think it's safe to report that the likelihood of a Deadwood movie happening is slim to none." I guess that's not surprising, considering that the series, set in a South Dakota frontier town in the 1870s, only lasted for three seasons. It wasn't exactly a megahit on par with other HBO programs, like The Sopranos or Sex and the City. And it hasn't quite attracted the cult following of a series like Arrested Development.

Friends - No: Apparently, after the success of Sex and the City, rumors were flying that another group of fun and attractive New York City pals would be heading to the big screen. Friends, which aired on NBC between 1994 and 2004, has a strong following, so it would make sense. But Jayne Trotman, Warner Bros. U.K. director of publicity, says there is "no truth in the story."

The Sopranos - Fuggedaboutit: Don't expect a movie of The Sopranos, according to Peter Bogdanovich, who played Dr. Elliot Kupferberg in the HBO series, which ended its six-season run in 2007. "I spoke to [creator] David Chase about it a month ago, and he said no. He said he thought about it, and he can't figure out a way to do it. So I don't think it will ever happen. I don't think you can ever say never, but my hunch is it won't happen."

Sex and the City sequel - Highly likely: In an interview with Broadcasting & Cable magazine, HBO executive Michael Lombardo says that a sequel to this spring's Sex and the City movie is a definite possibility. “There is enormous interest by Warner Bros. and New Line to do another Sex and the City,” Lombardo said Thursday. “When that happens, how long away, I can’t say. There is absolutely interest.”

The Wire - No: Creator David Simon tells iF magazine that there are no plans for a movie version of the acclaimed HBO urban drama The Wire. "[There's] no Wire move. Unless somebody came along with the greatest standalone idea, it would be like dragging a flag through the mud. We planned an ending, it's our ending."

I finished watching all three seasons of Arrested Development a couple of months ago, and I thought it was hilarious in a bizarre kind of way, although I can see why it never really caught on with most of the viewing public. It's definitely off the wall, with a dysfunctional family that truly has to be seen to be believed. I'd love to see its extremely quirky cast reunited on the big screen. And as a big fan of The Sopranos, well, that's a no-brainer, too. But unless someone makes David Chase an offer he can't refuse, it doesn't sound very likely.

On the other hand, I've never been a fan of Friends. I guess that's a little surprising, considering how much I love that other New York City show, Seinfeld. But the few times I saw Friends, the writing wasn't very clever and the characters seemed pretty pedestrian. It was like a cookie-cutter sitcom. I tried watching a few episodes of Deadwood and The Wire, but I never felt engaged by the characters or the plot in either one of them.

As for a Sex and the City sequel, I'll be there.