Monday, August 31, 2009

Assigned versus unassigned reading

I've always believed in the joy of reading whatever I want, so I was very interested in this New York Times story yesterday about teaching literature. The question is: Should everyone in the class read the same book or should students choose their own books?

Times reporter Motoko Rich focuses on a middle school teacher in Jonesboro, Ga. Last fall instead of assigning To Kill a Mockingbird, Lorrie McNeill let her seventh- and eighth-grade students pick out their own books.

Some chose challenging titles but if they didn't, McNeill nudged them in that direction. A seventh-grader who started with R&B singer Chaka Khan's memoir moved on to Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Which, actually, is a very cool transition.

(I remember when I was in high school we had to pick a science fiction novel to read, a genre I still don't like very much, and I picked Planet of the Apes.)

The article does a good job of exploring all sides of the issue and of course, it's not an either-or situation. You can assign some books and let students choose others. And there are good points to be made for all sides.

Obviously, the best way to encourage a love of reading is to let kids read what they love. The easiest way to turn them off is to force-feed them a book about which they have absolutely no interest. Reading becomes a chore instead of a pleasure.

(I still have nightmares about trudging through The Brothers Karamazov in high school. Or was it Crime and Punishment? I can't remember. But I think it permanently turned me off from all Russian literature.)

On the other hand, there is something to be said for everyone being on the same page. It fosters discussion and gets students thinking. I have to admit, even though I read a lot most of the classic works of literature I've read were assigned to me when I was in school.

But there was one quote that struck me as kind of sad. Before beginning the project O'Neill felt compelled to warn her very supportive principal: "I am not sure how it’s going to pan out on the standardized tests.”

Even though it's not exactly a revelation that schools today teach to test, statements like that still make me cringe.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Jonathan Salant, in profile

Indulge me while I do a little kvelling. Usually, reporters are the ones writing the profiles but in this case, it's the opposite.

My friend Jonathan Salant, a political reporter for Bloomberg News and former president of the National Press Club, is the subject of a profile in Washington Jewish Week.

The writer touches on the highlights of Jonathan's career, including his cameo in the movie Absence of Malice, as well as his passions - baseball, collecting political buttons and most of all, being a devoted single dad to his son Izzy.

Jonathan and I first met as colleagues in Syracuse, where he was the Albany reporter for the now-defunct Herald-Journal and later, the Syracuse Newspapers' Washington correspondent.

Over the years, he's been a mentor and friend and a gracious host. Jonathan and his late wife, Joan Friedenberg, were always wonderful about putting me up when I visited Washington, which I tried to do as often as I could because it's always been one of my favorite cities.

And without his example, I never would have visited Israel or ended up living there for a year. Talking to Jonathan about what he saw and how he felt after he made his first trip planted the idea in my mind that I should go, too.

Among Jonathan's areas of expertise is campaign finance, although he says in the profile that his favorite story was a feature he wrote on a group of Syracuse-area sixth-graders who lobbied successfully to have the apple muffin named New York State's official muffin.

I've always admired his tenacity and dedication and when Mario Cuomo was governor of New York, his ability to get him on the phone for a quote anytime, almost effortlessly.

Here's Jonathan on why he got into journalism. It says a lot about why he's so good at what he does:

"I grew up during the protests for civil rights and the Vietnam War and I saw what journalists were doing,'' he said, explaining that becoming a journalist was a "chance to make the world a better place."

Friday, August 28, 2009

A noteworthy Ragtime cast

I've written before how excited I am about the Broadway revival of Ragtime. When the cast was announced yesterday, two names caught my attention: Bobby Steggert as Mother's Younger Brother and Stephanie Umoh as Sarah.

Steggert played Jimmy Curry, Audra McDonald's younger brother, in the 2007 Broadway revival of 110 in the Shade. I thought he was terrific in making a supporting part memorable.

He's one of many cast members reprising their roles from last spring's highly praised production of Ragtime at the Kennedy Center.

Umoh, on the other hand, is a newcomer to the cast. (Although she played the part in 2006, with the New Repertory Theatre, in Watertown, Mass. The Boston Globe review called her "a dazzler.")

I've never seen Umoh on stage but you could say I've been following the career of the 2008 Boston Conservatory graduate. She was the subject of a multipart series in The Boston Globe in 2007 that chronicled her senior year.

In the stories, she talked about her background - growing up in Texas the daughter of a white mother and a Nigerian-born father - how she got into musical theatre, the struggles of working her way through school. (While she got some financial aid, Umoh estimates that she owes $130,000, before interest.)

I thought this quote from Conservatory president Richard Ortner was pretty interesting: "None of these students have come to us without years and years of voice lessons and after-school acting lessons, and, for the instrumentalists, private lessons since the age of 5."

Except Umoh, whose training consisted of singing lessons in high school with the leader of her church choir.

Now, all of the hard work pays off in a dream-come-true moment. And how fitting, in an American Dream kind of musical!

She'll make her Broadway debut, in a role created by McDonald, her idol. And hopefully, she'll be able to whittle down some of that crushing debt.

Those are two things worth getting excited about.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

OT: Our Town

From a display case filled with trophies, you can clearly see the attention that Dominiguez High School in Compton, Calif., lavishes on its sports program.

The school's drama program, on the other hand, had apparently been allowed to evaporate. Until a determined English teacher named Catherine Borek came along, Dominiguez students hadn't put on a school play in 20 years. For a comeback, she chose Our Town.

Borek's attempt to put on a show is the subject of the 2002 documentary OT: Our Town, by Scott Hamilton Kennedy. This isn't a perfect documentary - there are spots where the film seems a bit slow. Still, it's a compelling look at how theatre gives teenagers a sense of accomplishment and a battered community a sense of pride.

On the face of it, I can't think of two more dissimilar places than a poor, largely Latino and African-American city plagued by gang violence and the rural, whitebread New Hampshire town in Thorton Wilder's play. And at first, some of the students can't make the connection either.

But Borek, and fellow teacher Karen Greene, persevere. They help them see how this story relates to their lives, how its themes are universal. They use props from the kids' own lives to make it personal. It's clear from listening to the students as they discuss the play and go through rehearsals and finally perform onstage that they "get it."

The same night I watched OT: Our Town, I read an interesting article in The Washington Post about Rocco Landesman, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. What struck me this time wasn't anything Mr. Landesman said but a quote from the ranking Republican on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the NEA:

"You have to show the rest of the country that the arts are a benefit to them," says Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson.

Certainly the drama students at Dominiguez High School, their families and friends understand the benefit of the arts. And I'm pretty sure a lot of other Americans know it, too. But for anyone who still needs convincing, this documentary is a good place to start.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Julie White, jazz hands and Donuts crumbs

Even though it's 90 degrees outside, it's fall preview inside the pages of New York magazine. I've read over all the theatre previews and these are my favorite parts:

The illustrated Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig Show is clever and definitely makes me even more excited to see them as Chicago police officers in A Steady Rain.

Will Daniel Craig loosen up and shed his James Bond persona? Will Hugh Jackman be able to keep his jazz hands in check? I can't wait to find out. Previews begin Sept. 10 at the Schoenfeld Theatre

However, New York magazine, I was a little disappointed in your Q&A with playwright Tracy Letts. I love August: Osage County, too. But it would have been nice to have a couple of questions about Letts' newest transfer from Steppenwolf to Broadway, Superior Donuts, which begins previews at the Music Box Sept. 16.

The play, about the white owner of a decrepit Chicago doughnut shop (Michael McKean) and the black teenage employee who wants to change it for the better (Jon Michael Hill), is one of the shows I'm most excited about seeing this fall. But all I got were a few Donuts crumbs and more about Letts' previous work.

This is as much as we get:

NYMAG: Superior Donuts sounds a lot less personal than August.
Letts: "It was supposed to be an exercise. I thought, I wonder if I can write about people that don’t have any relation to me. But I can’t! I was writing about myself."

Finally, my first taste of how funny Julie White can be came in her Tony acceptance speech for The Little Dog Laughed.

And White is pretty amusing as as well in this interview about her off-Broadway role in The Understudy, which begins previews Oct. 9 at the Laura Pels Theatre. She makes me want to see a play I was on the fence about:

"It’s deep. Death is all over that play. But you know, I’m in it, it’s a Theresa Rebeck show, it’s gonna be funny. We did a reading of it at the Roundabout, and it just went over like a thousand bastards."

I'm assuming that's a good thing, although I can't be sure. I Googled "went over like a thousand bastards" and apparently Julie White is the first person in human history to ever utter it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Neil Simon press non-event

So the promised tweets from today's press event for Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound had me glued to my Twitter account. Sadly they turned out to be less than riveting.

Hey Boneau/Bryan-Brown, if you're going alert twitterdom to "Make sure you follow us this afternoon as we tweet live from The Neil Simon Plays press event starting around 6ish," please try to have something more interesting to say than this:

1.) The photogs are ready for the cast.
2.) Does Neil Simon have a caricature at Sardi's? If not, he should.
3.) They did readings of both plays today. That's a lot of Simon.
4.) Neil Simon is here. Surprise! (And that was a re-tweet from someone else.)
5.) David Cromer says he dresses from the "rumpled genius" line of clothing.
6.) Cromer said the key to these plays is only casting the perfect actors in each part.

No. 5 is kind of funny. As for the rest, meh!

That's okay, I'm still psyched about the revival of these plays, which tell the story of a Jewish family in Brooklyn in the 1930s and '40s and are a thinly veiled account of Simon's life and career.

And of course I can't stay mad for long. Just look at the picture: Noah Robbins, who plays Simon's alter ego Eugene Morris Jerome in Brighton Beach Memoirs, Neil Simon himself, Josh Grisetti, who plays Eugene in Broadway Bound and director David Cromer, of the amazing Our Town off-Broadway.

I'm a little verklempt.

The first preview of Brighton Beach Memoirs is Oct. 2 and it opens Oct. 25. Broadway Bound previews begin Nov. 18 and it opens Dec. 2. They'll play in repertory at the Nederlander Theatre. Preview tickets are only $50 if you order by Sept. 6.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Getting carded at the NYPL

I don't buy a lot of souvenirs when I go to New York. I've got my theatre tickets and my Playbills and I've bought a few Broadway show magnets. But last month I came home with a great one that didn't cost me anything.

The first time I went to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts it was on a very rainy afternoon, so I decided to take advantage of some free Internet access. All I had to do was show my out-of-state driver's license and I got to use a computer.

Well, that was in May 2008. When I went back last month to see the Katharine Hepburn exhibit, the computers across from the circulation desk had been moved to another room.

I was told that while I could still use one, I'd have get a library card. I explained that I didn't live in New York City (although I did once live in New York State.) The helpful person at the circulation desk said no problem, I could get a library card anyway.

Really? Well, as a lifelong library fan and book lover, this was pretty thrilling. I didn't hesitate for a second. I don't think I've been so excited since I got my first library card, back when I was in the second grade.

So I filled out the requisite paperwork, which wasn't too difficult, and within a matter of minutes I had my very own New York Public Library card, entitling me to borrow materials from all NYPL branch libraries and from the Brooklyn Public Library.

Okay, I probably won't be borrowing any books but as you can see, it's a pretty nifty looking card and you know I'll be keeping it in my wallet. It's probably the closest I'll ever get to living in New York City.

By the way, if you're visiting New York, the main library, at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, adjacent to Bryant Park, with the two imposing stone lions in front, is a beautiful building. And it has a great gift shop.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Patti LuPone - definitely not a diva

At the risk of shocking my tens of readers, I'll admit that up until a couple of years ago I was only vaguely aware of Patti LuPone's immense talents as a singer and stage actress.

I knew that she had starred in Evita on Broadway. But I knew and loved her mainly as Libby Thatcher in ABC's Life Goes On, where she coped with the trials and tribulations of being a wife and mother, including raising a child with Down syndrome.

So I've really only started to play catch-up on her career and luckily, I have Ms. LuPone herself to fill me in. Yesterday, in an effort to make a dent in my immense and ever-growing backlog of unlistened-to podcasts, I clicked on her 2008 appearance at Times Talks.

Wow, can she talk! It's a great interview.

She covers her tuba-playing childhood on Long Island and putting that skill to good use in Sweeney Todd, (I wish I could have seen it!) being in the first group of Juilliard drama students, how it felt when Mandy Patinkin got a bigger round of applause at the Evita curtain call. Plus, the sound effects - especially when the conversation turns to Sunset Boulevard - are priceless.

I'm learning all sorts of valuable information that will stand me in good stead should I ever be fortunate enough to meet her. (I did get her autograph after seeing her in Gypsy as part of City Center's Encores but there were so many people we didn't get a chance for quality time.)

This is the kind of thing I'm talking about, her reaction to the word "diva:"

"I think that word should be reserved for the operatic female singer. That's where it originated and that's where it belongs. It should not be relegated to a newscaster or anybody on Broadway or somebody behaving diva-ish. I just think it should stay where it is. I don't like the word diva applied to me, I do not think I am a diva."

I did not know that! And I do not want to incur Ms. LuPone's wrath, as my fellow blogger Robertianish found out with his unfortunate face-to-face encounter.

So Patti, I love your singing and acting and I can't wait to see you on stage again. But you are not now nor have you ever been a diva. Or at least, you didn't hear it from me.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Theatre critics and cheerleaders

Blogger Kris Vire, from Storefront Rebellion and Time Out Chicago, has an interesting discussion going on over at his blog about the role of the critic.

His Chicago colleague, the Tribune's Chris Jones, wrote a review of the musical High Fidelity, presented by the Route 66 Theatre Company, that wasn't entirely complimentary. A reader named Allison took Jones to task for being insufficiently supportive of Chicago theatre.

She said, in part, "theatre in this country is suffering right now. You are a Chicago theatre critic, by your own words "America's hottest theatre city." You are supposed to support and encourage theatre in this town.

Here's my 2 cents, as someone who's never been to Chicago and doesn't know much about the theatre scene there.

Let's suppose Jones, in a desire to be supportive, had written a more forgiving review. How exactly would that help if the show simply isn't very good? How would that accomplish Allison's goal of encouraging theatre? Wouldn't it have the opposite effect, by discouraging audience members who saw it and were disappointed?

I think Jones is supportive of good theatre. I first read about David Cromer's production of Our Town in his blog. His rave is what made me want to see it in New York. It made an impression on me because he doesn't rave about everything. That's why I trust his opinion.

When you praise a show whether or not it deserves the accolade, you lose that trust. You're not doing the audience or the show any favors at a time when there are so many choices for people's limited entertainment dollars.

I think you can best encourage and support theatre by saving your highest praise for what truly is great, what will give people an unforgettable experience and make them want to come back for more. Save it for a show that people simply can't afford to miss.

Cheerleaders are fun but they don't score any points. You've got to win the game on the field.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Gee, Officer Laurents

There's an interesting column by Michael Riedel in the New York Post about director Arthur Laurents supposedly laying down the law to the cast of West Side Story over repeated absences. (Thanks to Steve on Broadway for the tip.)

"His tone, I'm told, was chilling. The 91-year-old told them that professionals don't miss performances, and that they'd better get their acts together or find another line of work."


I think there were five understudies the night I saw West Side Story but luckily, all of the principals were in. And I would have been disappointed if I'd missed seeing Karen Olivo in her Tony-winning role as Anita or Josefina Scaglione making her Broadway debut as Maria.

I'm sure this is a musical that takes a pretty heavy toll on its cast. I've sat close enough to the stage to see the sweat, so I know that some Broadway performers get quite a workout up there, especially in musicals. It's not the type of thing you'd want to do when you're sick or hurt.

The comments from (naturally) anonymous producers struck me as a tad unfair, making generalizations, painting everyone with the same broad brush - "Some of them are more loyal to their gym than they are to their show."

I'm sure there are lots of dedicated young performers on Broadway who go on no matter what. And I have no way of knowing whether the criticism of the West Side Story cast is justified.

Still, maybe there is a bit of a generational divide.

I think 79-year-old John Cullum, who was then in August: Osage County, made an interesting point in a Variety article in June about older actors treading the boards on Broadway:

"The young people are just as good as they ever were. If you work with people my age, though, you're talking about people who really feel terrible if they can't go to a performance. That mentality is really part of their makeup."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The High Line and literary highlights

This weekend I finished the novel Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. For my tastes, the book was just okay, although it's been widely praised.

But what really intrigued me was that the main character, a stock analyst in post-Sept. 11 Manhattan, lives in the Hotel Chelsea. (I later learned that O'Neill also lives in the hotel, with his wife and kids.)

I walked by the Chelsea totally by accident on my trip to New York last month. It's amazing how many great things I come across in Manhattan just through serendipity - landmark buildings, a Paul McCartney concert.

This particular day I started out early by taking the subway to the Meatpacking District to see the High Line park.

(This was my first visit to the Meatpacking District, where high-end boutiques and trendy restaurants have replaced the slaughterhouses and packing plants of the early 20th century.)

The park has been built on an elevated railway on the west side of Manhattan that carried freight to factories and warehouses in the 1930s.

Now, a section of the railway has been landscaped with wildflowers and wooden benches where you can stretch out and relax, look out at the Hudson River. You'll see people strolling, reading, eating, artists drawing on sketchpads.

It was really nice and I could have stayed longer but it was getting hot and parts of the High Line aren't very shaded. So, I decided to walk through Chelsea. I stopped for lunch at a little restaurant called Rafaella, where I had a very tasty salmon panini. (You don't often find salmon on a panini. It was quite a treat.)

Then I walked up 23rd Street to get the No. 1 line subway to Lincoln Center, so I could see the Katharine Hepburn exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. That was when I spotted the sign for the Hotel Chelsea.

I really only knew one thing about the Chelsea - that Nancy Spungen, the girlfriend of Sid Vicious, from the punk rock band the Sex Pistols, was found stabbed to death there in 1978 under mysterious circumstances. So I thought, maybe this is kind of a seedy place.

But I read the bronze plaques attached to columns on both sides of the door, and I was amazed. I hadn't realized the hotel was so historic. And from the lobby, it's quite nice.

The Chelsea opened in 1884 as a cooperative apartment house in what was then New York's theatre district. (I didn't even know the theatre district was ever in a place other than Broadway.)

It became a hotel about 1905 and over the decades, numerous writers, actors, musicians, filmmakers and other artists have passed through, including Thomas Wolfe, Arthur Miller and Dylan Thomas. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Chelsea. Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell both wrote songs that mention the hotel.

I walked into the lobby, which is decorated with some interesting artwork. Unfortunately, I couldn't see a room, but they do give tours of the hotel and I'd love to take one someday, just to bask in the literary glow.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Cast announced for Huntington's Fences

Boston's Huntington Theatre Company opens its 2009-2010 season next month with a production of August Wilson's Fences and I'm really looking forward to it.

I saw my first play by the late Tony and Pulitzer winner in May, the Broadway revival of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, and I loved it. I love how Wilson combines African-American history with a compelling story and characters in a way that never seems forced or preachy.

This week, the Huntington announced the cast for Fences, which begins previews on Sept. 11 and runs through Oct. 11. The play will be directed by Kenny Leon, who's helmed two of Wilson's works on Broadway as well as the recent revival of A Raisin in the Sun.

I'm only familiar with one of the actors - Bill Nunn, whom I've seen in movies. But that's okay, except for Ernie Hudson I didn't know any of the actors in Joe Turner either.

Luckily, I have the Internets to help provide a little background.

The play, which takes place in 1957 in Pittsburgh, tells the story of Troy Maxson, a former Negro League baseball player whose dreams were thwarted by racism. Maxson's frustration with the way his life has turned out impacts his family, especially his son Cory, a budding football star.

Included in the cast are John Beasley as Troy, Crystal Fox as his wife, Rose, Warner Miller as Cory, Bill Nunn as Troy's brother, Gabriel, and Brandon J. Dirden as Lyons, Troy's son by a previous marriage.

Beasley played Troy Maxson in March 2008 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., which held staged readings of all 10 plays in Wilson's Century Cycle chronicling African-American life in the 20th century.

Here's a review from Elyse Gardner in USA Today. Maxson, she writes, "is one of the greatest tragic heroes written for the stage, and John Beasley is marvelous in the part, by turns hilarious, infuriating and heartbreaking."

Update: More background on the cast, from the Huntington's blog.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Yes Rocco, there is theatre in Peoria

This morning I got a very nice comment from Kathy Chitwood, executive director of the Eastlight Theatre in Peoria, Ill. (Okay, to be honest, it's more like a statement than a comment and I don't think I'm the only one who received it. But I do appreciate being included!)

Anyway, after reading a New York Times interview with Rocco Landesman, in which the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts questioned whether there was theatre in Peoria and if so, whether it was any good, she graciously invited him to visit:

"In response to Mr. Landesman’s NY Times interview, Suzette Boulais, executive director of ArtsPartners, and I extended invitations to the new NEA chairman to visit Peoria to attend a production at Eastlight Theatre (one of Peoria's theatres).

He immediately responded by e-mail his gratitude for the invitation and that he will come. Tuesday afternoon on his first day in office, I received a call from Mr. Landesman confirming that he is excited about visiting our community to experience our arts scene.

Our goal is for Peoria to represent all of the smaller communities in the nation that are doing worthy and worthwhile work in the arts.

In homage to the ‘The Beer Summit’, we are lovingly calling this visit, ‘The Lemonade Stand’…not because that is what we drink, but because that is what we do in Peoria – we take lemons and turn them into lemonade."

I agree with Ms. Chitwood - communities of every size across the country are doing worthwhile work in the arts. And wouldn't it be great if The Lemonade Stand attracted as much attention as The Beer Summit?

By the way, if you're in the area, you've got two more chances - tonight and tomorrow night - to check out Eastlight's production of Rent. Here's what the Peoria Journal Star had to say: "Rent is a challenging and perceptive musical, and Eastlight's production a breath of much-needed fresh air."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A medal for Chita Rivera

Congratulations to two-time Tony winner Chita Rivera, among this year's 16 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation's highest civilian honor.

The award will be bestowed today at the White House by President Obama and you can watch the ceremony beginning at 3 p.m. at

And what a great homecoming for the 76-year-old Washington, D.C., native, born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero. Here is what she said when the award was announced:

"When my mother was a child, she rolled Easter eggs on the lawn of the White House. And now, to receive The Medal of Freedom from our President, is truly a dream. I am deeply honored to receive this award and to be in such distinguished company. I only wish my parents were here to share it with...but they are!"

This year's recipients were chosen for being "agents of change," people who have blazed trails and broken down barriers.

Among her accomplishments, Rivera was the first Hispanic woman to receive a Kennedy Center honor. And coincidentally, also visiting the White House today is another Latina groundbreaker: there's a reception this morning for newly sworn-in Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. How fitting!

I've written before about how fortunate I was to see Ms. Rivera in the national tour of Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life. That was in May 2007, when I was just starting to become a regular theatergoer. I knew who she was but I can't say that I knew a lot about her. And I never would have gone without a nudge from a wise friend.

I remember writing to my new e-mail pal Steve on Broadway and running down the list of everyone who was coming to the Providence Performing Arts Center that spring. He told me that if I wanted to see a true Broadway legend, I should make every effort to see Chita Rivera. So of course, I did. And of course, he was right.

What a terrific storyteller as well as a terrific singer and dancer! It was great to hear her talk about how she got her start, about working on shows like West Side Story and Chicago. I wish I could go back and see her again.

Update: Here are the White House comments on all of the Medal of Freedom recipients. The president used the words "sassy" and "electric" to describe Rivera, and I liked this quip: "Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero knows that adversity comes with a difficult name."

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Broadway's Lost Treasures

The four-volume set Broadway's Lost Treasures is the latest addition to my dvd collection and what a welcome addition it is. (Thank-you Theatre Aficionado - I used your gift card!)

I've only watched Volume 1 so far - you have parcel these things out slowly. And I do wish plays were better represented. They're relegated to Volume 4, which I think is also the shortest.

It was great to watch clips of so many classic performances - Patti LuPone in Evita, (I think it's time for a revival!) Robert Preston in The Music Man, Yul Brynner in The King and I, Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof, Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera from Chicago, among others.

Sure, we've got the film versions of some of them with their Broadway stars, but not all. And these days, with fewer musicals getting made and the lag time increasing, I think it's even less likely that you'll see a great stage performance re-created on the silver screen.

I think all of the clips were taken from the Tony awards broadcasts and some aren't the best quality but that's okay. Just being able to watch them whenever I want is great. And I learned so much - Tommy Tune really is very tall! Now I know how to pronounce Len Cariou's last name!)

I especially enjoyed Jerry Orbach singing "Lullaby of Broadway" from 42nd Street. I think I would have loved 42nd Street, too, because it's got a Broadway theme and elaborately choreographed musical numbers.

On the other hand, while "Memory" is a beautiful song, seeing all of those human-sized felines prowling around onstage in Cats was a bit intimidating. I don't have anything against cats, I'm just not much of a cat person. I think that show would give me nightmares.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Julie and Julia

I just loved Julie & Julia. The two hours flew by.

A lot of times, I'm disappointed when I see a movie based on a book I've read but this time, I might even like the movie more. Although it's been a couple years since I read Julie Powell's memoir on working her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, so I can't really compare.

Meryl Streep is such a commanding presence and okay, maybe a tiny bit over the top at times with the high-pitched voice, but she imbues Julia Child with a humanity that makes her more than a caricature.

And Amy Adams is so appealing as Julie Powell, an office worker who feels like she's in a rut. Has she ever given a performance that I didn't like? I don't think so. Maybe her character is a little self-absorbed but aren't we all at times?

One of the things director Nora Ephron does which I really like is make the stories of Julia in Paris in the 1950s writing and cooking and Julie in New York City in the aughts blogging and cooking so parallel. A Julie scene dissolves into a Julia scene so seamlessly.

And it's interesting to see how much they have in common. They're both searching for something meaningful to do, something about which they feel passionate. And they're aided by incredibly supportive spouses, Chris Messina as Eric Powell and Stanley Tucci as Paul Child.

Plus, Paris looks beautiful and everyone in the movie is drinking wine and eating food that looks great - crusty loaves of bread, rich chocolate cake, hearty beef bourguignon. You feel so satisfied when something you've cooked turns out well. It made me want to go home and de-bone a duck.

Finally, how could I not love a movie where one of the main characters is a blogger!

In fact, the movie is kind of like an ode to blogging - the uncertainty when you're first starting out about whether anyone will read it, the excitement when you discover people are reading your words.

I could so relate to those scenes of Powell writing her blog posts, her thrill at getting comments from people she doesn't know, the bond she creates with her readers. (You can read the first Julie/Julia Project post.)

It's like seeing my life up there on the big screen. Or at least it could have been my life if only I'd thought of doing something nearly as clever.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Rocco, this won't play in Peoria

I was one of those people who cheered the selection of Rocco Landesman to be chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. I felt it would be great to have a theatre guy running the NEA, someone who would be a strong advocate for artistic expression but with an eye on today's economic realities.

I noted that as president of Broadway's Jujamcyn Theatres, he comes from a commercial background. But Landesman, 62, has a doctorate in dramatic literature from Yale, so he's certainly been interested in the arts from an intellectual standpoint, not just as a profit center.

Well, on Friday Landesman was confirmed by the Senate and he touched all the right bases in his statement:

"Art is essential to the civic, economic and cultural vitality of our nation. It reflects who we are and what we stand for - freedom of expression, imagination and vision. I am eager to work with our many partners to bring quality arts programs to neighborhoods and communities across the country."

Ok so far, so good.

Then I read this article in The New York Times, Landesman's maiden interview as chairman of the NEA. I liked most of what he said but this comment made me cringe:

"I don't know if there's a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman [in Chicago]. There's going to be some push-back from me about democratizing arts grants to the point where you really have to answer some questions about artistic merit."

Rocco, was it wise in your very first interview to pick a fight with Peoria? Which, as a native Midwesterner yourself, you must know is in Illinois, home state of the president who nominated you to head the NEA.

I don't know whether there's a theater there or not. And if there is, maybe it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman. But that's not the point. The point is introducing more people to the arts. And not everyone can get to Chicago or New York.

The point is, good theatre, music, dance and other art is being made all over this country in communities large and small. As NEA chairman, you should be celebrating that fact and building it up, not tearing it down with a snarky comment.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A talented friend, a worthy cause

This year, as he has for the past several years, my friend Doug Lyon is participating in Ride MS, a two-day motorcycle trip sponsored by the Minnesota chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Doug has been a great fundraiser for this very worthy cause and has also served as the event's ambassador. In his speech he talked about his own personal journey with MS, and the tremendous satisfaction he gets from helping others.

The motorcycle trip takes place Aug. 15-16, but Doug's efforts go beyond that two-day event.

Every spring, he volunteers at a camp for people with multiple sclerosis. Not only does the week provide enjoyment, education and fellowship for people struggling with the disease, it gives a much needed respite to their caregivers and loved ones. As Doug wrote on his blog, My MS:

"I know it is difficult to understand with words how powerful of an experience MS Camp can be. I see people living with this crazy disease, which has devastating effects in how they live. I also see amazing examples of the human spirit in such a different way than I could have imagined. It is amazing to be a part of helping people with MS live their lives. And doing it well."

Volunteering at the camp is an incredibly emotional experience for Doug, but he's helping to make a difference in people's lives and for that, as well as much more, he's definitely a hero to me.

You can read more about Doug's experiences at My MS and watch a special video he made this year at the MS Camp talent show. (I had no idea he was so talented!) And you can help him reach his fundraising goal by making a donation.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Staying in my seat until the bitter end

Earlier this week, SteveOnBroadway posed an interesting question on Twitter about whether or not you've ever walked out of a show. And Chris picked up on it in Everything I Know I Learned from Musicals.

I answered in both of those forums - the answer is no - but I always have more to say!

The simple, easy answer is that I have never walked out of a play or musical or even a movie. Okay, I'll admit The Tempest, with Ian McKellen, is in my DVR, only partly watched. I'll get back to it someday, I promise. But that's the exception. It's even rare for me to not finish a book.

In answering Steve's and Chris' queries, I said that Broadway theatre tickets are so expensive - over $100 unless I can find a discount code, that there's no way I'd ever walk out out of a show until the bitter end.

Monetary considerations aside, I don't get to New York that often and it's still a thrill for me to see a play or musical on Broadway, even if it's one I don't like very much. I came to New York to see a show. If I left, what would I do? Where would I go? And there's always a chance things will improve in Act II.

But even when I'm at home and buying a $15 rush ticket at Trinity Repertory Company, I've still never been tempted. In the midst of all of my responsibilities in life, going to the theatre is a luxury, a chance to sit back and relax and immerse myself in someone else's world for a couple of hours.

As I've said before, I'm a pretty easy theatergoer to please. I can always find something I like in a show. And I've simply never seen anything - on Broadway or elsewhere - that's so bad it would make me want to gather up my belongings and leave. I always want to stay and find out how things end.

Sure, there are times when I've been bored. But unless something is so offensive that I simply can't bear to stay, or unless there's something on stage that's making me physically ill, I can't ever imagine walking out. I'm just happy to be there.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

When in Rome ... go to Curtains

The musical Curtains is being presented next week in upstate New York as part of Rome Capitol Theatre's SummerStage series. I've been eagerly following its progress through updates from my Twitter pal Chris Van Patten.

I used to live in Syracuse, only a short drive away on the New York State Thruway. And Curtains, with the talented and gracious Tony-winner David Hyde Pierce, was the first musical I ever saw on Broadway. It's funny and hugely entertaining and I still love listening to the cast recording.

Set in Boston in 1959 during the tryout of a Broadway musical, it has a backstage murder mystery plot, big production numbers and a memorable cast of characters, including a theatre-loving homicide detective who tries to catch the killer.

I've been hoping for a national tour of Curtains, with a stop in Boston, naturally, ever since the Kander and Ebb tuner closed on Broadway last year. Supposedly one is in the works beginning next March but that's an odd time to start a tour, so who knows!

Still, I'm happy to see that a show I enjoyed so much is finding a new life in regional and community theatre.

Plus, there's something so fitting about a community theatre putting on Curtains. Lt. Frank Cioffi, the detective who tries to solve the murder at the center of the story, lives to tread the boards himself every spring:

"Each year from May twenty-third to the twelfth of June when I turn my life over to the Swallow Street Players, that's more than a vacation for me. That's an overture of hope, it's the curtain rising on the greatest joy of my life."

While I don't miss the winters in Central New York, I am sorry I'll be missing this show. But if you live in the area, definitely go see it. Here's a great video that Chris has put together:

The Rome Capitol Theatre's production of Curtains will be presented Aug. 13-15 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $16 for adults, $15 for senior citizens, $14 for Capitol Theatre members and $12 for students. They're available by phone at (315) 337-6453 or at the door.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

At Stonewall, stepping into history

Sometimes it's nice to go "off the grid" of midtown Manhattan's numerically organized streets, which is why I love walking around Greenwich Village. So on the evening I was seeing Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre, I went early to explore and enjoy a terrific dinner before seeing a great play.

Another thing I love about New York is that I'm always stumbling across someone or something unexpected.

On Christopher Street, I spotted The Stonewall Inn. I knew about its place in the gay-rights movement and I'd read Frank Rich's column in The New York Times on the 40th anniversary of the uprising that followed a police raid on the bar, on June 28, 1969.

I love seeing the places where history was made, so after snapping a few pictures, I went in to look around. (Later I learned that this isn't the original Stonewall, which was a little disappointing. But I think it's close to the original location.)

I made some personal history, too - it was my first time in a gay bar. It's not that I avoided them, I've just never been a big bar-hopper and I never had the opportunity, never had any friends take me to one.

Inside, it's a pretty ordinary place - subdued lighting, a pool table, rainbow-colored decorations hanging from the ceiling. It wasn't crowded on a Thursday afternoon - some men sitting at the bar. I thought about what it must have been like 40 years earlier and how the men in the bar that night could have been my friends, people I love.

I walked around, looking at historic photos and newspaper clippings on the walls, including one from a New York City paper the Sunday after the incident that made Stonewall famous, with the unbelievable headline: "Homo nest raided, queen bees are stinging mad."

I know that raids like the one at Stonewall are far from history. In fact, Texas authorities raided a gay club in Forth Worth in June, on very anniversary of the Stonewall riots, sending one person to the hospital with a head injury.

Coincidentally, I visited Stonewall the same afternoon that President Obama was in New York, speaking to the 100th anniversary gathering of the NAACP. The president talked about how far we've come in dealing with prejudice and discrimination but noted that we're not there yet.

To his credit, he did mention the struggle by gay and lesbian Americans for equal rights. Although I wish the rhetoric would be backed up by action to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act and to push for passage of the Matthew Shepard Act that would authorize the Justice Department to investigate hate crimes based on sexual orientation.

The president also talked about how change in America comes from the people, including the four black college students who sat down at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 and refused to leave until they were served.

While that was an act of nonviolent resistance, being in Stonewall still reminded me of those fearless young men. Sometimes history is made in the most unlikely places, at times when ordinary people who have been discriminated against, oppressed or shut out decide that they've simply had enough.

Of course today, no one would deny that our rights as Americans should include the ability to have a cup of coffee at the lunch counter of our choice. It seems to me that those rights should also include sitting down in a bar and having a drink without fear.

In 1999, when Stonewall and the area around it were added to the National Register of Historic Places, Assistant Interior Secretary M. John Berry said:

''Let it forever be remembered that here -- on this spot -- men and women stood proud, they stood fast, so that we may be who we are, we may work where we will, live where we choose and love whom our hearts desire.''

Monday, August 3, 2009

Drawing the curtain on my theatre season

Barring some miracle, my 2008-2009 New York City theatergoing season is complete. It was a great year as always - I saw so many terrific performances and the plays especially were great - so much absorbing and inventive storytelling.

Now it's time for some end-of-the-season thoughts.

1.) Be flexible. In January, the plays that make up Alan Ayckbourn's trilogy The Norman Conquests weren't even on the list of shows I planned to see, yet they turned out to be one of the best theatre experiences I've ever had. I've never laughed so hard, so consistently. While each of the six actors created a memorable character, in my opinion Stephen Mangan as Norman gave a performance for the ages.

2.) Go off-Broadway more. Every season it seems like there are a few Broadway shows I could have missed and a few off-Broadway I wish I'd seen. Two of the best plays I saw were Black Watch at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, and Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village. And I'm kicking myself that I probably won't make to Ruined.

3.) Luck was with me. Broadway actors are a pretty dedicated bunch but I know sometimes people get sick, go on vacation, etc. West Side Story was apparently hit with a rash of understudies earlier this summer. So I'd like to mention that practically every performer I wanted to see when I bought my ticket was in the show the day I saw it - even some who left soon afterward.

4.) The list grows shorter. I crossed seven more theatres off my list this season, including the adorable 597-seat Helen Hayes, which is so tiny I wish I could have packed it up, put it in my suitcase and taken it home with me! I've now been in 29 of the 40 Broadway theatres - not bad when you consider that in April 2007, I hadn't been to a single one. By the end of the year, I could be down to the single digits.

5.) I saw the light. I exited the Palace after seeing West Side Story and then realized the stage door was on the other side of the building, so I walked back through the theatre. To my surprise, the ghost light had already been put out on stage. I was thrilled! I'd read about that particular theatrical tradition but never seen one. A little thing, but it was cool.

6.) TKTS prices. I used the reduced-price ticket booth in Times Square twice this year but it's not always a great bargain. At about 20 minutes before curtain time on a recent Sunday, TKTS wanted $91 for a partial-view seat at Hair. I couldn't believe it. Sorry, but as much as I wanted to see Hair a second time, that's way too much money for not being able to see the entire stage.

7.) Where's the VIP? My ticket for Our Town cost $49.50, before fees. If I'd wanted to splurge, I could have spent double that amount - and I would have been upset once I saw the size of the theatre. Barrow Street, really, how in good conscience can you charge $95 for "VIP premium" seats in a theatre that's smaller than some living rooms? And where are the premium seats anyway - in David Cromer's lap?

8.) Color me disappointed. I don't buy a lot of souvenirs when I go to New York, but I do keep all of my Playbills. Now I realize when I see shows that have been open for awhile, I'm not going to get one with a nice color cover. But if you're switching to black and white, at least make it decent. I was shocked at how washed-out my black and white 9 to 5 Playbill looked.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

In Tel Aviv, baseless hate and murder

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing, religious Jew three months after I made my first visit to Israel in 1995. I was upset but also deeply shocked. I couldn't believe that one Jew would kill another Jew.

Well since then, I've spent a year living in Israel and I'm not as naive about these things. Most acts of violence in Israel are committed by Jews against other Jews. As horrified as I am by the murder last night of two people at a youth center for gay teens in Tel Aviv, I'm not shocked.

I lived in the city for a year and yes, it's a pretty open, progressive place, especially compared with Jerusalem. It doesn't have the holy sites or large Orthodox population - and the accompanying tension. I loved the people and I loved living there.

I realize we don't know yet who perpetrated this act of terror. A lone gunman dressed in black entered the center Saturday night - a popular time for going out in Israel, at the end of the Sabbath - and started shooting.

But Tel Aviv isn't immune from the deep divisions in Israeli society - between religious and secular Jews, between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. As much as I love Israel, I realize that the same intolerance and homophobia and extremism that exists everywhere exists there.

Coincidentally, last week was Tisha B'Av, the date on the Jewish calendar that commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem. The Talmud teaches that sinat chinam, baseless hatred, led to the destruction of the second temple - and of a Jewish homeland.

My thoughts go out to the injured and the families of the victims. I'm sad that a country I love so much, a city I got to know so well, is once again experiencing the pain of violence fueled by hate.