Saturday, January 31, 2009

Never Mind - The Musical

Okay, there isn't really a musical called Never Mind although maybe there should be - a compilation of all of those tuners that were announced but never got off the ground. Or if they did, it was with a cast far different from what we imagined.

For example, now I find out that Kevin Spacey isn't going to take part in a London workshop of A Star is Born that I wrote about last week.

The story in Britain's Daily Mail has dueling versions of what happened. A representative says Spacey never was involved. But the director, Jonathan Butterell, insists that he had been engaged to play the part of washed-up actor Norman Maine.

Instead of a reading at the Old Vic Theatre in the spring, there'll be one in New York City, with a different leading man. Warner Bros. is continuing to develop the show for Broadway but the Daily Mail says don't expect anything anytime soon.

This whole episode brings up another point. It's kind of tough to keep track of all of these proposed new musicals - who's in, who's out, what's still on, what's off. At least once a week someone announces that they're working on a musical version of something.

Sometimes we hear back, like a report this week by the New York Post's Michael Riedel about the good buzz emanating from an invitation-only reading of The Addams Family. Other times, there's the announcement and then - nothing. What's going on with Get Shorty and is Hugh Jackman really practicing his magic tricks for Houdini? I'd like to know, please.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Boston theatre gets a lift

I found a couple of interesting stories in The Boston Globe this week about how the recession is - or isn't - affecting theatre.

First, there's an article by Rich Fahey about the steps community theatre companies in Massachusetts are taking to survive. While they're mostly run by volunteers, they still have bills to pay.

Rent, utilities, maintenance, costumes, sets and rights fees to put on shows are some of the expenses. So they're reusing costumes, trying to get innovative with fundraisers, doing their own repairs if they own their building and adjusting what they offer to the public.

The story says that these troupes are going for what's cheap and familiar - Neil Simon comedies, Agatha Christie mysteries. Productions that don't require lots of scenery, like Thorton Wilder's Our Town, or big casts, like A.B. Gurney's Love Letters, are in. Elaborate musicals or weighty dramas are out. (Although Our Town is hardly escapist.)

"Many of our theaters have changed the way they work," said Robert Hallissey, president of the Eastern Massachusetts Association of Community Theatres. "They're less likely to take a chance on less well-known shows, and concentrate instead on plays guaranteed to bring in an audience."

Well I think there's room for both escapist fare and weighty drama. Sometimes, when things are rough, you want entertainment that speaks to the anxieties in your life. At other times, you want to forget about those things and be transported someplace different for a couple of hours.

That brings me to my second noteworthy story. I've never even seen the 1987 movie, so I can't say why it's so popular. But apparently, Dirty Dancing has lots of fans and they'll be coming by the busload to see the musical version in Boston starting next week. (After reading Vance's review/warning at Tapeworthy, I think I'll steer clear of this one.)

Tickets for the musical, which range from $30 to $132.50, are selling quite well, according to an article by Meredith Goldstein. (Wow, $132.50 for a theatre ticket in Boston? That's unbelievable!) The show was slated to run at the Opera House from Feb. 7 to March 15 and has already been extended, to April 12, due to strong advance sales.

"This is doing by far much, much better than other shows," says Drew Murphy, president of Broadway Across America-Boston. He tells The Globe that 90 percent of seats at weekend performances in February and March have been sold. "It's bringing out a lot of your nontraditional theater audience, the people who normally wouldn't buy a theater ticket."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Daniel Radcliffe, I tip my Sharpie to you

Congratulations to Daniel Radcliffe for getting his caricature unveiled at Sardi's this afternoon. He'll be part of an illustrious tradition and it's a well-deserved honor, in my opinion.

While I had mixed feelings about the play, I thought he was terrific as a very troubled teenager in Equus. And in every interview I've seen he handles himself so well. For a great example, check out what he had to say on Theater Talk about the challenge of keeping his performance fresh.

I think this is a good time to say that I owe Daniel an apology. When I wrote in November about getting his autograph at the stage door I mentioned that he seemed to take an awfully long time to sign his name. I suggested, in what I hope was a lighthearted way, that he practice a quick, illegible scrawl.

I didn't realize until later that he has a condition called dyspraxia, which affects his handwriting. So of course, I feel horrible. He mentioned dyspraxia briefly when he was on Inside the Actors Studio and he talks about it a little more in depth in this interview by Kevin Sessums at The Daily Beast. (Thanks to Rocco at What's Good, What Blows for the link.)

"I have a very mild form of it. I’ve gotten it mostly under control now. I played a lot of videogames as a kid which really helped it. It basically surfaces as bad coordination. Another example of it is how terrible my handwriting is because I can never quite tell when the pen is going to land on the page."

Now I have even more respect for him trying to sign all of those Playbills after a performance. He'd have a perfectly understandable reason for bowing out of the task, but he doesn't. And judging from the number people who find my blog by searching for Daniel Radcliffe, stage door and autographs, I know how much it means to his fans that he makes the effort.

You can catch Daniel on Broadway in Equus at the Broadhurst Theatre through Feb. 8.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Cast of Hair grows longer

Another day, another snowstorm. I might as well be living in Syracuse again, the city that once proudly proclaimed "We're snow king!" Okay, it's not quite that bad. But I do need some good news to cheer me up and keep me thinking about spring.

The producers of Hair have been announcing new cast members for the Broadway revival every day this week. I have to admit that I've never heard of most of them but today's list includes a familiar name: Saycon Sengbloh. I saw Sengbloh as Celie in The Color Purple, when she went on as an understudy for Fantasia. It can't be easy to go on stage in place of a performer you know most people have come to see, but I thought she was wonderful. Her transformation over the course of the musical was absorbing to watch and so moving.

She'll be reprising her role from this summer's production of Hair in Central Park, an event that I could kick myself for missing. She'll play Abraham Lincoln, be part of the White Boys Trio and a member of the tribe.

All of Sengbloh's Broadway credits thus far have replacement or understudy or standby next to them. So I'm glad this gracious and talented actress will be part of a Broadway show's original cast for the first time. (Okay, I know it's a revival, but you know what I mean!)

I'm already excited about Hair because I love the songs and I love the 1960s but this is another reason to look forward to a trip to Broadway in the spring. The musical begins previews March 6 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre and opens March 31.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Prayers for Bobby

You have another chance tonight at 9 to see Prayers for Bobby, a Lifetime movie starring Sigourney Weaver as a deeply religious mother who struggles to accept her gay teenage son, played by Ryan Kelley.

I recorded the movie over the weekend and just had a chance to watch it last night. Well, I was crying. I thought Prayers for Bobby told its story effectively and powerfully. Weaver's performance is especially compelling. Henry Czerny also does a good job as the father in the family.

Prayers for Bobby is based on a true story and there's some really interesting supplemental material at Lifetime's Web site, including an interview with Weaver and with Mary Griffith, the inspiration behind the movie.

Unfortunately, the people most likely to watch this movie aren't the people I'd like to have watch it: those who still think that being gay is a "lifestyle choice," who misinterpret the Bible, who don't understand the fear involved in coming out, who would reject a gay family member.

No one should ever have to worry about whether their family will love and accept them because of the way they were born. It is unconscionable. That's the message behind Prayers for Bobby and at the risk of sounding preachy, it's one a lot of people need to hear.

Monday, January 26, 2009

I'm not thrilled

Okay, I groaned when I read that the Nederlander Organization had bought the rights to develop a musical based on Michael Jackon's Thriller album and 14-minute video.

James Nederlander, the president of the Nederlander Organization, said “I love the idea of making Thriller a musical. Girl meets boy, they fall in love, boy has big secret, now what…”

I liked Jackson when he was a little kid singing and dancing with his brothers. He was so cute! And I liked Thriller when the album came out in 1982, although I haven't listened to it in years. (It is the world's best-selling album of all time.)

Apparently, Mr. Jackson is expected to participate in the musical's creation. Given his rather bizarre public image over the past decade or so, I wonder if that's a good idea? I mean, just mentioning his name makes me cringe.

And seriously, a musical based on the music video? Maybe I'm just not that into werewolves and zombies.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Wicked flies out of Chicago

After 1,500 performances in 3 1/2 years, the city of Chicago bid farewell to its sitdown production of Wicked today.

Chris Jones, of the Chicago Tribune's Theatre Loop blog, says there were some people who thought the city couldn't support a big show for an extended period of time. They questioned the wisdom of spending $10 million to create a Chicago company. But Wicked turned out to be immensely profitable.

Here's part of how they did it:

"[Producer David] Stone and his partners marketed Wicked on freeway billboards in Wisconsin and Indiana, and in airports in Michigan. Unlike most producers, they kept the touring production out of cities that might have impinged on Chicago. They were rewarded with a flood of out-of-state visitors. On Amtrak, a green Wicked bag became almost as common a sight as an American Girl doll."

Well, I guess that's one downside of a sitdown production that I hadn't thought about.

It's great for Chicago and for everyone who could hop on the freeway or a plane or an Amtrak train. But what about the theatergoers in Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana who couldn't make it to the Windy City to see the musical? Maybe now, the tour will come to a closer location and they'll have a chance.

And in the Chicago Sun-Times, Rondi Reed looks back at the experience of portraying Madame Morrible.

Reed left the Chicago production for the role of Mattie Fae Aiken in Steppenwolf's August: Osage County, picked up a Tony award when the play transferred to Broadway, returned to Wicked, then left again to go with the A:OC cast to London, where last week they finished up a sold-out run at the National Theatre. Whew, she's had an exciting couple of years!

Here's part of what she had to say:

"To be a part of that theatrical juggernaut is something that comes along once in a blue moon. I had never done such a long run before, either -- never been asked to be so consistent, so disciplined, have the kind of stamina and heart it takes to play on that level.

"You are responsible not just to yourself, but to the other 125 people who show up for each performance behind the scenes -- in the orchestra pit, the wardrobe room, the sound board, the management office, the ones pulling the ropes, making it all happen and making it seem like magic in the process."

"And oddly enough, doing Wicked in the 2,200-seat Oriental prepared me for August, so that a Broadway theater didn't overwhelm me. It taught me about the size of performance needed to reach the back rows and still maintain integrity."

Interestingly, in August, Jones wrote "don't be surprised if she [Reed] appears as Mme. Morrible on Broadway next year." And Reed's Wikipedia entry says that she's scheduled to reprise her role as Madame Morrible in the Broadway production in early spring. I haven't seen Wicked on Broadway ... yet.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A new star is born

I get home from work a few hours ago after a long day and I'm doing my usual check of my favorite theatre-related sites and what do I see - some totally unexpected Kevin Spacey news at Broadway World!

According to Michael Riedel's column in today's New York Post, Kevin will play Norman Maine, a washed-up matinee idol, in a workshop next month in London of A Star Is Born. Riedel says Hugh Jackman passed on the role. If all goes well, the musical could open in the fall at the Old Vic Theatre, where Kevin is artistic director.

In doing a little Internet research, I found that my fellow blogger Chris, at Everything I Know I Learned from Musicals, wrote about the project in May, when Jackman was still attached to it. (Thanks, Chris. I can always count on you!) And luckily, Hugh is still attached to the Houdini musical.

I'm not that familiar with A Star is Born. I don't think I've ever seen the 1954 version, with Judy Garland and James Mason. I'm pretty sure I saw the 1976 remake, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, a long time ago.

I guess this role wouldn't involve any singing, which is disappointing. I first became a fan of Kevin's after seeing him in the Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea. And in my pre-iPod days, I pretty much wore out a tape I made of the soundtrack. (Yeah, I only have a tape player in my car.)

Still, I can see Kevin in this part. And the best thing about A Star is Born: the young singer his character launches to stardom is named Esther! Hmmm, maybe it's time to get my passport renewed.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The little show that could

I am so proud of The 39 Steps for surviving on Broadway in a tough economic climate. This 90-minute play keeps chugging along without a star cast or name recognition. (Although I imagine Alfred Hitchcock's name on the marquee helps.) It even snagged a couple of Tony awards last year, for the lighting design by Kevin Adams and sound design by Mic Pool.

The British import, which started out in January 2008 at the American Airlines Theatre as a Roundabout production, then moved to the Cort for a commercial run, took up residence yesterday at its third and smallest Broadway venue so far: the 578-seat Helen Hayes. I think it's a great sign of this play's resilience.

I know this isn't a unique development. It probably doesn't happen all that often now because of the cost involved, and most plays are limited runs anyway. But from browsing I've noticed that in the past, lots of well-known, long-running shows switched theatres, sometimes more than once.

I do feel a sense of ownership about The 39 Steps, since I saw the show in September 2007 at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, during its pre-New York tryout. And it was the subject of my first-ever Gratuitous Violins post. Okay, maybe it doesn't have the star power or intellectual heft or impressive pedigree of some other recent transfers from the West End, but I can't think of one that I've enjoyed more.

There's just something so entertaining about the way it lovingly re-creates the story of Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 thriller. It's fun and witty and clever and unlike anything else I've seen on stage. Who knew you could do so much with four actors, a few props and lots of imagination? And while there's only one member of the original cast left, I'm hoping it's just as entertaining.

At the play's Web site, you can watch clips, check out some Hitchcock spoofs and even download a study guide for parents and teachers, because "The 39 Steps is not just funny. It's highly educational!"

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Fashion and other statements

Okay, it's morning in America and as a nation, we still have all of the challenges we had yesterday. But before the glow of yesterday's history-making inauguration wears off, permit me to make a couple more observations:

There's a great story in The New York Times about the interracial, interethnic and interfaith families of Barack and Michelle Robinson Obama. It's quite a mix! This line made me smile:

"Now the Obama-Robinson family’s move to the White House seems like a symbolic end point for the once-firm idea that people of different backgrounds should not date, marry or bear children."

And in a break from all the attention being focused on First Lady Michelle Obama's gown, President Obama, wearing "a white bow tie with a single-vent, notch-collar tuxedo and an American flag pinned to its lapel," looked mighty fine, too.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Obama

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.
President Barack Obama

What a dramatic day in American history. What struck me was his youth - and my age. For the first time, I'm older than the president of the United States. How did that happen?!

Okay, the big screen wasn't quite as big as I thought it would be, but it was still fun to watch the Inauguration in a theatre with a few thousand people. The place was pretty packed. An adorable group of preschoolers walked up the aisle each holding hands with a buddy.

We stood up and cheered at the first sight of Obama. We sat down when the announcer at the Capitol asked us to please take our seats. We applauded during his Inaugural Address. People hugged each other and took pictures. It was just like being there, only we were warmer and had a better view!

I agree with my friend Dan at Media Nation. While I want to listen to it again, I thought Obama's speech was pragmatic rather than soaring. It was very sobering. The emphasis was definitely on how the country is in crisis and the difficult road we have ahead of us as a nation. But we've been in tough situations before and we've persevered and we will once more.

Probably the best comment I've read so far was from former Nixon speechwriter William Gavin in The New York Times:

"The setting — the first African-American standing there in the bright winter sunshine as our new president — had an eloquence all its own. I think we will remember this occasion more for the man who gave it than for the words he said. He could have stood there for 20 minutes of silence and still communicated great things about America."

Still, there were some nice phrases in the speech:

"The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous."
"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."
"We will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waver in its defense."
"For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness."

Lots of work to do and I have confidence. But for today - President Barack Obama. Wow.

Inauguration Day

Historic is an overused term but not today.

This morning, I'll head over to the Providence Performing Arts Center to watch on a giant screen as 47-year-old Barack Hussein Obama take the oath of office to become the first African-American president of the United States.

I've been to one inauguration - Bill Clinton's first, in 1993. It's very exciting to be there and such an honor to see the leader of your country take the oath of office.

I was in the middle of a huge, festive crowd, probably the biggest I've ever been in. I remember it was a clear, cold day. My feet were freezing from standing in the same spot for hours. I still have the inaugural ticket that I got from my congressman but I don't remember that anyone ever checked it. I'm sure things will be much different today.

The Capitol looked beautiful and so timeless - gleaming white, decked out in red-white-and-blue bunting. Maya Angelou recited a poem. Marilyn Horne sang. I was hanging on every word of Clinton's address, trying to remember some line that would live in history. Sadly, it wasn't very memorable. I'm expecting better from Obama.

On NPR yesterday I heard an interview with Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a veteran of the civil-rights movement. Lewis talked about how when he was growing up in Alabama, black people could not register to vote. It is amazing how far we've come.

I'm thrilled that surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen will be in Washington for the inauguration. I was at a dinner once where one of these courageous black World War II veterans spoke and his story was truly inspiring. Members of the Little Rock Nine, who endured jeers and threats to integrate Central High School in 1957, will be there, too.

"The arc of the moral universe is long," Martin Luther King once said, "but it bends toward justice."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Rick Warren and dining with friends

As excited as I am about Barack Obama's inauguration, I have to say something about Rick Warren. When the pastor of California's Saddleback Church was picked to deliver the invocation, I followed the controversy that ensued and one thing he said bewildered me.

In an interview last month on the Web site Beliefnet, Warren said that he's against the redefinition of marriage to include gay and lesbian couples.

"I'm opposed to redefinition of a 5,000 year definition of marriage. I'm opposed to having a brother and sister being together and calling that marriage. I'm opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that marriage. I'm opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage."

Beliefnet's Steven Waldman asked him whether he thought those things were equivalent to gays getting married and Warren replied, "Oh, I do."

Then he added: "Most people know I have many gay friends. I've eaten dinner in gay homes. No church has probably done more for people with AIDS than Saddleback Church. Kay and I have given millions of dollars out of Purpose Driven Life helping people who got AIDS through gay relationships. So they can't accuse me of homophobia."

Okay, this is what I don't understand:

How can you say that you have gay friends, you've eaten in their homes and yet, you compare gay and lesbian relationships to pedophilia, incest and polygamy? How can you go to someone's house, share a meal, consider them a friend and understand so little about who they are? Was there no conversation during dinner?

I guess Warren's comment bewilders me because it's the complete opposite of my experience dining with friends. Personally, I find that when I get to know people, I have greater empathy for them.

How could Warren have dinner with his gay friends and not understand that sexual orientation is something you're born with, that there's no gay lifestyle, that there are, as a friend of mine once said, "many shades of gay" and that gay people who are in loving, committed relationships with a spouse or partner are every bit as ordinary and yes, normal, as any heterosexual couple?

I'm fortunate to have friends with so many different stories, from so many different backgrounds. Eating together was one of the ways we got to know each other. We talked endlessly about our lives, about all the things you're not supposed to discuss - politics, religion, race. I miss those dinners so much.

Perhaps Warren can compartmentalize but I can't. I can't imagine listening to my friends discuss their dreams and struggles and experiences, hearing them talk about the person they love, laugh at their jokes and then refer to them in hateful, vile terms, viewing them as some kind of "other." I think about how much we have in common, how my friends deserve the same respect and rights that I enjoy.

I understand that Obama is trying to reach out to evangelicals and find common ground. And I certainly don't think he's antigay. But I have to agree with what Richard Cohen wrote in The Washington Post about Warren's selection:

"What we do not hold in common is the exaltation of ignorance that has led and will lead to discrimination and violence. Finally, what we do not hold in common is the categorization of a civil rights issue -- the rights of gays to be treated equally -- as some sort of cranky cultural difference. "

In the end, it's more important what Barack Obama does than what Rick Warren says. Warren is entitled to his personal religious beliefs but as far as our country and its laws are concerned, I don't want my friends dehumanized, their rights abridged.

As president, I want Obama to reverse "Don't ask, don't tell," so that anyone who wants to serve their country can do so openly and proudly; I want him to work toward repealing the hurtful and discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act; and I want him to support passage of the Matthew Shepard Act, to strengthen hate-crimes laws.

We have come so far in this country. People talk about "the 5,000 year definition of marriage" as if it's immutable, as if it's never changed in any way - ever. But thankfully, the way we think about things changes all the time. And tomorrow is a perfect example.

Barack Obama will take the oath of office with his hand on the Bible that Abraham Lincoln used when he was sworn in by Chief Justice Roger Taney, who, in 1857, wrote that black people could not be citizens of any state "and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

Different stories, common hopes

At the Lincoln Memorial yesterday Barack Obama said that as president, he'll bring with him to the Oval Office the voices of all the Americans he met on the campaign trail: " the voices of men and women who have different stories but hold common hopes."

Last year on Martin Luther King Day I wrote about Straight for Equality. I mentioned the many occasions on which Coretta Scott King spoke forcefully about the connection between the fight for equal rights for African-Americans and for gay and lesbian Americans.

Today, on Martin Luther King Day 2009, the day before the inauguration of the first African-American president of the United States, her words are especially important to recall:

“I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people.... But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream to make room at the table of brother- and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.”

Different stories, common hopes. Absolutely.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The other Roosevelt

Of course with the inauguration, all the attention is focused on Washington this weekend but don't forget, New York is also a great place to take in some presidential sites.

There's Federal Hall, on Wall Street, where George Washington took the oath of office as the first president of the United States, and St. Paul's Chapel, where he worshiped on Inauguration Day in 1789. I visited both of those places on my Lower Manhattan tour.

Also during that same trip in November, I went to the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, a handsome brownstone on a leafy East 20th Street, near Union Square. (Thanks to Sarah for pointing me to all three!)

If you're visiting New York City, Union Square is a fun place to explore. The birthplace is open Tuesday-Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. I suggest going on a Wednesday, Friday or Saturday, when the Union Square Greenmarket is held. There's a Whole Foods across the street. I've also eaten at Max Brenner's and browsed at the Strand Bookstore.

Okay, the birthplace is not actually the place where Roosevelt was born, on Oct. 27, 1858, and lived until the age of 14. That building was demolished in 1916. But a replica, with five period rooms, galleries and a souvenir shop, has been carefully reconstructed on the same site. If you're an American history buff, it's really a great place to spend a couple of hours.

You can only see the upper floor on a guided tour and I missed that, unfortunately. But I did walk around the galleries and look through the display cases containing hundreds of items relating to the life of our 26th president - beginning with his birth into a wealthy New York family, through his years as an explorer, rancher, soldier and elected official.

I knew a little bit about Roosevelt, that he'd been police commissioner in New York City and governor of New York, he was a conservationist and led the Rough Riders in the charge up San Juan Hill. But there were some things I didn't know - like his efforts as a "trust buster" to break up the big monopolies.

And really, as far as Roosevelts go, Franklin and Eleanor get much more attention from the history books, which is too bad. Maybe TR didn't get us through the Great Depression or win a world war but he was such such a fascinating larger-than-life figure. Under his presidency thousands of acres of land were preserved as national parks and monuments and wildlife refuges, advancements were made in consumer protection and food safety and construction began on the Panama Canal.

The National Park Service has done a a really nice job organizing the exhibits and seeing items relating to every aspect of Roosevelt's eventful life gives you a much better sense of his accomplishments.

Here are some of his presidential firsts:
  • In 1905, he became the first U.S. president to ride in a military submarine
  • He was the first president to coin an internationally recognized trademark with his offhand remark "good to the last drop" about some coffee at the Maxwell House Hotel in Tennessee.
  • He is the only U.S. president to have a famous toy named after him (the Teddy bear, named after a bear cub he refused to shoot during a 1902 hunt in Mississippi.)
  • He was the first U.S. president to travel outside the country, when he visited Panama
  • He was the first president to ride in an automobile.
  • He remains the youngest person ever to hold the office of president. He was 42 when he was sworn in after William McKinley's assassination in 1901.
  • He was responsible for putting Lincoln's profile on the penny.
  • He invited Booker T. Washington as the first African-American guest at a White House dinner.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Some puppy love

The kid in me got pretty excited when I read this - a musical version of 101 Dalmations is going out on tour starting in the fall. Yeah, I know, the grin on that dog's face is a Photoshop special. But still, it's awfully cute.

Released in 1961, 101 Dalmations is one of my favorite animated Disney movies. Why do I love it so? It's set in London, it has romance, a terrific villain and an adorable, floppy-eared supporting cast. Plus, it's got the barking chain!

According to the story at, 101 Dalmations will feature a score by Dennis DeYoung, a founding member of Styx, and a story by director and lyricist B.T. McNicholl. Apparently, they're going back to the original 1957 novel by British writer Dodie Smith for inspiration.

The producers are Magic Arts & Entertainment, Troika Entertainment and Luis Alvarez, who produced a stage version of 101 Dalmations in Spain in 2001. Check this site for more information on the creative team and pictures from the Spanish production, which was quite successful for Alvarez.

And while there's no tour schedule yet, Broadway/San Diego has booked the musical for June 1-6 2010. You can read a brief synopsis of the show on their Web site.

A big question in any stage version of 101 Dalmations is, of course, how do you portray the dogs? I wrote a blog post about this last year, where I suggested the actors could wear abstract wire dalmation heads, like the horses' heads in Equus. But they're going a different route.

The director, Tony-winner Jerry Zaks, says the actors playing humans will be "in a heightened form of dress and scale so as to appear larger than life — as they would seem from a dog's point of view."

And the dalmations will have "no ears, no paws — but, rather, a clever use of costumes in the black-and-white palette that will immediately set them apart from the human characters."

Yeah, I know people running around in dog costumes has the potential to look a bit silly, but I'm still intrigued by this project. It's great to have more theatre choices that all ages can enjoy. This could be kind of fun - hopefully for adults as well as kids.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Where will I hang out now?

I know this was announced months ago, but now that the date is getting closer, let me just say how sad I am that the Virgin Megastore in Times Square is closing in April. It'll be replaced by the clothing store chain Forever 21.

When I'm by myself in New York, the Virgin Megastore is one of my favorite places to hang out in Times Square before or after a show. And at the end of my trip, I'd stock up on some $10 CDs and DVDs. Although I have to admit, the ear-splittingly loud music they played did cut down on my browsing time considerably.

I'm not sure what I'll do the next time I get to Broadway. I love The Drama Bookshop and I always stop there, but it's not as centrally located. I can only spend so much time looking at tchotchkes in the souvenir stores. (Although I always pick up a few Broadway show magnets.)

This reminds me that during my last trip to the city, after seeing Road Show, I looked all over the place for a copy of Stephen Sondheim's Bounce and struck out everywhere. Well, the three places I tried: Virgin, the Barnes & Noble across from Lincoln Center and the Borders at Columbus Circle. And it wasn't a quixotic quest. I know I've seen it in a store somewhere over the past couple of years.

Why did I even bother? Why didn't I just wait until I got home and order it online? Well, I do buy online sometimes, or from iTunes. Call me old fashioned but I like browsing in actual brick-and-mortar stores. I like flipping through bins of CDs and DVDs, the thrill of finding some unexpected, long-sought treasure and the instant gratification of buying it on the spot.

Yeah, I know, sometimes I'm so 20th century.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Live theatre, at the movies

What a great idea: Britain's National Theatre is going to broadcast plays live, in 50 movie theatres across the United Kingdom, beginning in June with Helen Mirren in the classic tragedy Phedre.

Four plays in all will be presented, for one performance only. Tickets will cost 10 pounds apiece, which I think is about $15. And to recoup some of the expense, the National Theatre's director, Nicholas Hytner, says that broadcast rights will be sold to to other countries.

One of the productions he mentioned as a possibility for a future showing is War Horse, which I would love to see. It's about a boy and his beloved horse and takes place against the backdrop of World War I. The horses are puppets operated by three actors, and they look amazingly lifelike. Here's a video that'll give you an idea:

And I like this quote from Hytner: "I keep thinking that if Olivier's National Theatre had been available in a cinema in Manchester when I was a teenager I'd have gone every time and it would have been fantastic."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Double the absurdity

For Theatre of the Absurd fans, it's another reason to rejoice. Not one but two classic examples of the genre will open on Broadway this spring. Who says life has no meaning? (That's a joke! For more background, click here or here.)

Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon will star in a revival of Exit the King, by Eugene Ionesco. Previews begin March 7 at the Barrymore Theatre. And Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, with Bill Irwin, Nathan Lane, David Strathairn and John Goodman, starts previews April 3 at Studio 54.

This production of Exit the King, directed by Neil Armfield, was presented at the Belvoir St. Theatre in Australia in 2007, with Rush in the title role. A review in the Sydney Morning Herald raved about the Oscar-winner's performance.

Now, allow me to indulge in some shameless name-dropping. No, not Sarandon or Rush. I once met Eugene Ionesco. (Yes, I know, my brushes with greatness are rather obscure.)

I heard him speak in Boston when I was in college and I got his autograph afterward. (I went with a cute French boy I'd met in the campus bookstore!) Ionesco was nearly 70 then, and a kindly, formal gentleman from what I remember. He signed my copy of Tueur sans gages (Known in English as The Killer.)

Sadly, it's been a long time since I've used my high school and college French, so I can't read the play in its original language anymore. And I lost touch with the French boy. Quel dommage!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Secretary of the arts

Music producer and songwriter Quincy Jones said in November on the radio program Soundcheck that he'd like to see a Cabinet-level secretary of the arts.

In response, Jaime Austria, who plays bass for the New York City Opera and the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra, created an online petition supporting the idea. So far, it's garnered more than 71,000 signatures. (Thanks to the Los Angeles Times blog Culture Monster for the story.)

Personally, I'm wary of creating another layer of federal bureaucracy. Plus, we've already got a National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities.

I guess they could be folded into a Cabinet-level department but I don't know what would be accomplished by that move. And in the current economic climate, a new department isn't likely to get any additional funding.

I don't know what, if anything, a Department of the Arts would mean for theatre. And honestly, I can't see this being a top priority for President-elect Barack Obama when he takes office next Tuesday.

But a lot of people who left comments on the petition are pretty passionate about it. They make good points about the importance of the arts in our society and in making sure children are exposed to them in school. I certainly agree with those sentiments.

Here's just one: "When financial times are tough, the arts seem to be one of the first areas in danger. But when times are tough, the arts lift our souls and give us hope. It seems to me this is a good idea and an important step."

Monday, January 12, 2009

The purple theatre bus

I needed a photo to accompany my previous post on the decline of reading drama. This wasn't exactly what I had in mind but something about it made me smile. I mean, all of those programs in one small vehicle. Pretty impressive, huh!

At first I thought maybe the Traveling Players were an itinerant troupe of actors who traveled the country in their little purple bus bringing drama to the people. I was intrigued by the combination of Shakespeare and backpacking.

It turns out that the Traveling Players Ensemble, founded in 2003 and based in Great Falls, Va., "strives to link theatrical work to nature by rehearsing and performing outdoors and by producing plays in which nature is a dominant theme."

Apparently my first instinct wasn't too far off. The Players do a lot of work with teenagers and their summer camp "reflects the origins of theatre, when troupes of actors roamed the ancient and medieval countryside, relying on the barest props and boldest imagination to convey their art."

Dramatic decline

For the first time in 25 years, Americans are reading more literature, which is great. According to a report from the National Endowment for the Arts, 50.2 percent of U.S. adults said they read at least one novel, short story, play or poem in 2008.

Sadly, that increased reading isn't coming in poetry or drama. Only 2.6 percent of those readers picked up a play, down from 3.6 percent in 2002. Only 8.3 percent read a book of poetry, down from 12.1 percent in 2002. By comparison, nearly half of all adults read a novel or short story in 2008.

I remember reading quite a few plays in high school. As an adult, I rarely picked one up until recently, when I started going to the theatre more. Now, I routinely read plays I've seen on stage. But I've always had pretty varied reading habits.

I think part of the problem is that drama is segregated in the parts of libraries and bookstores where few readers venture. And plays are simply no longer a part of popular culture. If we don't hear about them, we're not going to read them.

Maybe if Oprah picked August: Osage County for her book club that would help give drama a boost. Or, A Raisin in the Sun, since this is the 50th anniversary of the Broadway premiere of Lorraine Hansberry's play. How about it, Ms. Winfrey?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

You mess with Patti at your peril

There's been quite a bit of talk on the Broadway message boards about an unscripted show-stopping moment at Gypsy last night involving Patti LuPone and an audience member who brazenly took her picture - at least three times! Steve and Sarah were there and provide firsthand accounts.

Personally, as someone who's sat in the audience with people taking pictures all around me during a performance, I can attest to the fact that not only is it rude and distracting to the actors, it's also rude and distracting to everyone who's just trying to enjoy the show.

Let me run down some appalling examples of my own over the past couple of years involving illicit photography:

The people who got up out of their seats and walked down the aisle to the front of the stage, then stood there for a couple of minutes snapping pictures during Mamma Mia!

The women a few rows in front of me taking pictures of Chita Rivera with their cell-phone cameras during Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, in Providence. (This isn't only a problem in New York.)

The practically nonstop picture-taking going on all around me at a performance of The Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

And while this wasn't live, the guy at the movies when I was watching the final performance of Rent, who I swear recorded the entire second act, and probably the first act as well.

It's about time someone stood up to this behavior, which in addition to being rude and distracting can also be dangerous to the actors. Performers - and audience members - shouldn't have to put up with it. Forbidden doesn't mean forbidden unless you can get away with it!

This afternoon marks Gypsy's closing performance on Broadway. I saw it last spring and prior to that, as part of the Encores series at City Center, and I loved it. Tony-winners Patti LuPone, Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti were wonderful, as was the rest of the cast.

So brava, Ms. LuPone, brava, for speaking out and for being an unforgettable Mamma Rose!

Update, Jan. 12. Apparently it was all a misunderstanding. Broadway & Me has the scoop.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The great magical quotient

I bought myself a shiny, silvery 120GB iPod Classic to replace the 20GB model whose hard drive expired. It wasn't easy. I felt like Tom Hanks in The Money Pit. I had to upgrade my operating system so the iPod would run on my PowerBook, and I had to buy a new case to protect the screen.

But it's up and running, with plenty of room for my show tunes and theatre-related podcasts. Now, while I'm waiting for Downstage Center to resume, I can download all of the Working in the Theatre podcasts from the American Theatre Wing and watch them while I walk on the treadmill.

Of course, I have to start with the May 2007 program on leading men, which included Kevin Spacey, who was on Broadway in A Moon for the Misbegotten at the time.

Kevin was the person who first sparked my interest in the theatre. I became a fan around the time he became artistic director of London's Old Vic Theatre, and he was so passionate whenever he talked about being on the stage.

Here's some of what he had to say:

"People come into a theatre and it's the most artificial surrounding you can imagine. There's big curtains, there's exit signs, there's chairs, there's programs. And yet somehow, if the elements have come together right, 20 minutes into a play that entire group of a thousand people or less go to a world that you're asking them to go to and they believe in that world.

And that collective experience, where a thousand strangers come into a building and believe, is what to me is the great magical quotient of when great theatre, great performances, happen. It's almost like a breath. We feel the audience."

Friday, January 9, 2009

Good theatre for less

I don't know how they're able to do it financially, but Providence's Trinity Repertory Company is expanding its discount ticket offerings, making available select seats at every performance - 5,000 in all - for $20 apiece for its four remaining plays of the season.

Here's what Trinity Rep's artistic director, Curt Columbus, said in announcing the program:

“For 45 years, Trinity Rep has been Rhode Island’s theatrical home, and we have always provided great entertainment at a great value. We know that many people in our community are feeling the effects of the economic problems right now, so we created this $20 ticket program to let our friends and neighbors know that an entertaining, enriching night at the theater is still within everyone’s reach."

I'm really hoping that people who haven't been to Trinity for awhile, or maybe have never been, will take advantage of the offer. This is definitely a great time to check out one of the region's finest theatre companies.

Here's the lineup:

A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry, the story of an African-American family struggling for a better life in 1950s Chicago: Jan. 30 to March 8

The Secret Rapture, by David Hare, about two sisters who come together to face their differences after their father dies: Feb. 20 to to March 29

The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde, a comedy of manners and mistaken identities: April 10 to May 10

Shapeshifter, by Laura Schellhardt, a world premiere about the legendary tales of mysterious women who come from the sea: May 1 to May 31

The $20 tickets are available for purchase by phone at 401-351-4242 daily between noon and 8 p.m., online at, and in person at the box office at 201 Washington St. in Providence. You can also check out Trinity Rep's other ticket discounts.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

I want more British coal miners on stage

I like the way Natasha Tripney, who blogs at Interval Drinks, writes about her favorite theatre moments of 2008 for The Guardian. She calls them "a non-linear clutter of the images that have left an impression on me in this 12-month window." What a terrific description!

I also decided to write about some of my favorite moments spent in the theatre in 2008, rather than assemble a list of my favorite shows. And this year, we have one in common - Black Watch - although she chooses a different moment from the play to highlight than I did. (But that's understandable because there are so many great ones.)

But what really caught my eye was a moment she mentions from another play that I'd love to see if it comes to New York: The Pitmen Painters, by Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot. (It also made New Yorker theatre critic John Lahr's list of the top ten plays of 2008.)

The play is currently running at London's National Theatre, and here's a description from the Web site:

"In 1934, a group of Ashington miners hired a professor to teach an art appreciation evening class. Rapidly abandoning theory in favour of practice, the pitmen began to paint."

It sounds really interesting. I'm not sure how it would do with American audiences and I don't know if there are any plans for a Broadway transfer. But I'm hoping that Billy Elliot will whet the appetites of theatergoers for some more drama involving British coal miners, this time of the non-singing and non-dancing variety.

Monday, January 5, 2009


Be forewarned: There are spoilers in this review!

When we first see Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius in Doubt, she's patrolling the aisles of St. Nicholas Church in the Bronx on a Sunday morning in 1964, making sure all of the children are paying attention to Father Flynn's sermon. Dressed in black, her skin pale and her face pinched, she quiets the talkative ones and gives the sleepy a whack on the back of the head.

Streep is a fierce and fearsome presence throughout the entire movie, railing against ballpoint pens and poor penmanship and believes in Catholic tradition to the point where she opposes secular songs in the school's Christmas pageant.

At the same time, Philip Seymour Hoffman is a pink-faced, genial, gregarious and smiling Father Brendan Flynn, the parish priest who wants the church to be a more welcoming, friendlier place for its working class Italian and Irish flock.

The contrast between the two is stark. And it sets up a fascinating question over whom to believe when Sister Aloysius, the school principal, accuses Father Flynn of molesting a 12-year-old student. Is the priest guilty or is he a victim of a witch hunt by a nun who opposes his efforts at a more modern, approachable church?

I think part of the power of this movie version of John Patrick Shanley's Tony and Pulitzer-winning play is that you can have an endless discussion over it. There are good arguments on both sides. While other viewers may come to a different conclusion in the end, I really had no doubt. Although Doubt takes place in 1964, I couldn't help but see it through a 21st-century prism.

Incidents of sexual abuse against children by Roman Catholic priests have been well documented over the past decade. Some have gone to prison and dioceses all over the United States have paid out millions of dollars to hundreds of alleged victims of thousands of priests. From what we learn about Father Flynn over the course of the movie, he certainly seems to fit the pattern of abusive priests. I have no doubt that he was guilty.

What struck me as truly fascinating about Doubt was the cat-and-mouse game between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. She has to tread very carefully because as the priest, he has all the power in their relationship. She knows that he'll be protected by the higher-ups in the church. I suspect that when priests were abusing children, the nuns had their well-founded suspicions, especially nuns like Sister Aloysius, who seems to have eyes in the back of her head.

I never saw the play, but apparently on stage there are only four characters in Doubt: Father Flynn; Sister Aloysius; Sister James, a young nun; and the mother of Donald Miller, the school's first and only black student, whom Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn of abusing. The theatre audience never sees Donald, or any children.

In filming his play Shanley, who wrote the screenplay and directs, shows us the children, in school and in church. I don't want to give too much away but for me, there were a few things that I think stacked the deck against the priest. One of those was, simply, seeing the children. Joseph Foster II plays Donald as just about the quietest, most meek and well-behaved child in the school. As the only black student, he's also the most isolated and vulnerable.

In the end, Sister Aloysius is pretty much out there on a limb with her suspicions. Viola Davis gives a powerful, compelling performance as Donald's mother. She's fearful for her son's future and mostly seems happy to have the priest looking out for him. And Amy Adams plays the young Sister James as sweet and trusting, who definitely feels aligned with Father Flynn's more modern, tolerant views.

At the beginning of Doubt, Streep's Sister Aloysius isn't a very sympathetic character but by the end, I really did respect her. She's stern and tough but she cares about those kids. No matter what she thought of Father Flynn's theology, I don't think there's any way she'd defy him over it. After all, he's a priest and nuns are taught to defer to priests.

But if she thought for an instant that a priest was hurting one of the children in her care, you better believe she'd move heaven and earth to get him out of her school.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Harvey on Hairspray

"Miracles like Hairspray don't happen every day, as we all know. Shows like this just don't come along. And it's been our privilege, those of us on the stage and many more, to participate and gain from this wonderful, wonderful show. But the best part is, no matter what mood we were in coming in the theatre, every one of us knew that we would turn the audience into a swinging bunch. [applause] ... and open up people's hearts and just make them better people for having seen it. And so, I would like to thank everyone on this stage for allowing me to be part of their lives but most of all, for what they created here."

From Harvey Fierstein's speech this afternoon at the final performance of Hairspray on Broadway. He was joined on stage by the creative team and some of those who played roles in the Tony-winning musical during its 6-1/2-year-run at the Neil Simon Theatre.

So long, teenage Baltimore

Of all the shows closing on Broadway this month, including nine that play their final performances today, I think every theatre fan probably has one that they're saddest to see go. For me, it's Hairspray, which ends a 6 1/2-year run at the Neil Simon Theatre this afternoon.

I first saw Hairspray on tour, in May 2007, and I loved the energetic choreography, catchy songs that capture an era and moving story about teenager Tracy Turnblad's effort to integrate a dance show in 1962 Baltimore. For me, Hairspray illuminates American history in way that's never preachy, always entertaining. It's about the possibility of change, a reminder of our struggle to become a more just society.

How much do I love this show? Well, I still have the confetti that dropped from the ceiling at the end of that performance and the Broadway cast recording has been in pretty steady rotation on my iPod ever since that afternoon.

Since then, I've had two terrific Hairspray-related experiences. The first came in May, when I met Scott Wittman who, with Marc Shaiman, his creative and life partner of 30 years, wrote the score. And in November, I had a chance to see the musical on Broadway, with the amazing, wonderful, hilarious Harvey Fierstein reprising his Tony-winning role as Edna Turnblad. As wonderful as it is to see something new, I loved sitting in the audience anticipating every scene, every song, every laugh.

I think my fellow blogger Patrick Lee, of Just Shows to Go You, who paid a visit to Hairspray last month, captures exactly how I felt: "I spent the first act with the wildly enthusiastic audience marveling at how feel-good a well-directed, delightfully choreographed and terrifically scored big Broadway musical can be when everyone is on their game."

In this case, everyone includes, in addition to the composers, choreographer Jerry Mitchell, book writers Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, director Jack O'Brien, costume designer William Ivey Long, set designer David Rockwell, hair and wig designer Paul Huntley, and of course, filmmaker John Waters, who drew on his childhood in Baltimore for the original 1988 movie.

While some movie-to-stage adaptations I've seen have felt a little flat, to me, this one hits the mark. I think it's a combination of music that captures the era, a compelling story and memorable characters. The more shows I see the more I realize that those three things aren't easy to accomplish.

After a tryout in Seattle, Hairspray begin previews on July 18, 2002 and opened on Broadway on Aug. 15. By the time it closes, it will have played 31 previews and 2,641 regular performances. Hairspray won eight Tony awards, including Best Musical and for its score, book, costume design and direction. In addition, Fierstein, Marissa Jaret Winokur and Dick Latessa won Tonys for their performances as Edna, Tracy and Wilber Turnblad.

The musical spawned a 2007 movie and now, there are plans for a sequel, with Shaiman, Wittman and Waters all involved. What I'm hoping for is that Hairspray has long and successful life in high schools and community theatres around the United States.

The specifics of Hairspray's story are fictitious. But I love the way it truly evokes the spirit of the early 1960s, a time of optimism and hope, when Americans confronted the stain of segregation and tried to make this country a more equal and just place for all its citizens. It's about standing up for what you believe in and the power of an individual to effect change.

When I think about the 1960s, the music is one of the things that comes to mind. At it's most basic, Hairspray is about the power of music to break barriers and bring people together. For nearly seven years, the show has brought audiences together on Broadway.

And while I enjoy the original movie and the movie musical, there's nothing like seeing this joyous show live, in a crowded theatre, with an audience laughing and cheering and being moved by the story. The beat stops on Broadway today, but it will go on.