Sunday, October 31, 2010

NFL to Lombardi: Be Italian

I'm looking forward to seeing Lombardi on Broadway in November and I've read good things about the performance Dan Lauria delivers as the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers.

There's an interesting interview with Lauria in New York magazine about his background and what he did to prepare for the role. I have to admit I was a bit taken aback when he talks about how he got the part:

He says the theatre owners didn't want him - they would have cast Julia Roberts to sell tickets. "The NFL was adamant about having me - they wanted an Italian and they wanted someone who played football."

Lauria goes on to say that he doesn't think Lombardi would have been mounted without the involvement of the National Football League, which is a producer and has put its marketing power behind the show.

Now, I can understand the NFL wanting to read the script before giving its seal of approval to a play about the man whose name is on the Super Bowl trophy. I can even understand the league's desire to want someone in the role who's played the game, although I don't agree with it.

But I think a creative team is on the proverbial slippery slope when it casts an actor based on ethnic background, disregarding those who don't fit the bill. (And does this mean Italian actors can't play non-Italian roles? Because someone should tell Al Pacino.)

I've never seen Lauria in anything - not even The Wonder Years. I'm not disparaging his acting ability. In this case, I guess it was a happy coincidence that he's Italian-American and played football in college and knew the director, Thomas Kail.

Honestly though, none of that will matter when I see Lombardi. All I care about is whether Lauria creates a memorable character onstage.

And I'm not trying to sound naive about how these decisions are made. Casting a Broadway show is probably a lot like making sausage - I don't want to know everything that goes into it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Doonesbury turns 40

I didn't realize Doonesbury was turning 40 this year until I saw a big retrospective in Slate, including an interview with Garry Trudeau.

I haven't read the strip regularly in years but it used to be my favorite. I even have the cast recording of the musical Doonesbury, which lasted about three months on Broadway in the mid-1980s.

I love the way Doonesbury has always been so much a part of its time - skewering politics and culture with a quirky cast of characters. It was always witty and irreverent, tackling serious topics with humor and sensitivity.

I even remember some of the classic lines, like Mark Slackmeyer's controversial "Guilty, Guilty, Guilty," about Nixon's attorney general John Mitchell. And little Ellie's excitement at the daycare center when she finds out she has a sister: "It's a baby woman!"

Uncle Duke, based on journalist Hunter S. Thompson, was in one of my favorites - I had it on my refrigerator for years. He's speaking at a college and a student asks him for advice on a career in journalism. Duke's answer is predictably over the top and the cowered student is possibly rethinking his career choice.

I can't pinpoint exactly when I began to lose interest but looking over this list of the 200 greatest moments, it was probably around the mid 1990s. I don't know why. Maybe there grew to be too many characters and stories. Somewhere along the line it became less of a "must read" for me.

Anyway, it was fun to see a recent Doonesbury on display, topical as ever, when I visited the Newseum. That's former hotshot Washington Post reporter Rick Redfern trying to make a go of it as a blogger after he's laid off.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Joseph Stein, 1912-2010

Tony-winner Joseph Stein, who wrote the book for Fiddler on the Roof as well as many other Broadway musicals, died Sunday in New York at age 98.

As I've mentioned before, I have an unusual history with his most famous work. I saw Fiddler on the Roof for the first time in Israel, in Hebrew, with Chaim Topol as Tevye.

In fact at the time, in 1998, I think I might have been the only Jewish person who'd never even seen the movie, for which Stein wrote the screenplay. (Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration.)

I was always kind of dismissive, believing (wrongly, I admit) that it would be schmalzy, romanticizing the harsh life of Jews who lived in the shtetls of Eastern Europe.

Of course I ended up loving my first experience with Fiddler on the Roof. I knew enough of the plot to follow what was happening, even if I didn't get all the jokes. And I recognized the melodies - even if I didn't understand all the words. It was so poignant that I remember being in tears at the end.

But the richness of the characters and the warmth and humor in Stein's portrait of Jewish life, based on the stories by Sholem Aleichem, didn't truly come through until I saw it on stage a second time - in English - in 2009.

As Tevye would say, may his memory be blessed.

Update: Fiddler on the Roof's composer,
Jerry Bock, passed away Nov. 3 at age 81. He wrote the music for many other shows, including another of my favorites, She Loves Me.

If you're interested in what Bock and Sheldon Harnick's songs sound like in Hebrew, here's a medley from a 2008 production by Tel Aviv's Cameri Theatre:

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A 21st-century Sherlock Holmes

I love a good mystery - they were my favorite books as a kid. I was a big Sherlock Holmes fan and yes, I bought a deerstalker on my first trip to London. (I think I even wore it in public once or twice.)

So I'm looking forward to Sherlock, the three-part British series that begins tonight on PBS. The video makes it look a little more CSI than I'd like but that's okay. It's a modern-day Holmes and I'm not a purist for a Victorian setting.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock Holmes. I don't know much about him although he was in Atonement, which I did see. And Martin Freeman, who was very funny as Tim in the original (and superior IMHO) British version of The Office, is Dr. John Watson.

While the setting is contemporary there's at least one connection to the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories that, sadly, is as plausible today as it was in the 1880s. Watson has recently returned from Army service in Afghanistan.

And he's still chronicling his adventures with the world's most famous consulting detective - on his blog.

For devoted Sherlockians, there'll be a Twitter event from 9 to 10:30 p.m., with mystery experts Scott Monty from The Baker Street Blog, Leslie Klinger, author of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, and Andrew Gulli, editor of The Strand magazine. Just follow the hashtag #sherlock_pbs.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Happy anniversary, Memphis

Happy anniversary to Memphis, which opened one year ago tonight. What a journey and what an interesting example of how long a musical can gestate before it reaches Broadway.

The show was based on a concept by producer George W. George and the first workshop was held at TheatreWorks in California's Silicon Valley in 2002. The premiere took place year later at the North Shore Music Theatre, north of Boston, which closed but has since reopened. George passed away in 2007.

Along the way, changes were made to the story and there was an out-of-town tryout in Seattle prior to the musical's 2009 Broadway debut.

But the two leads - Chad Kimball and Montego Glover - remained in place. And Memphis went on to win the 2010 Tony for Best Musical. Last week, it took in more than $1 million at the box office for the first time.

When I saw Memphis in December I thought it was very entertaining, with terrific choreography by Sergio Trujillo. It's an absorbing story, about a white dj who falls in love with a talented black singer in the segregated South of the 1950s.

Memphis isn't perfect - I had problems with some aspects of Joe DiPetro's book. But Kimball and Glover turn in powerful, memorable performances. And they've just extended their contracts with the show for another year.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Music to benefit The Trevor Project

A cast recording I ordered arrived in the mail today - always a happy occurrence.

This time, it's the 2003 Broadway revival of Nine, a musical that makes me wish I'd become a theatre fan earlier so I could have seen it.

What a cast: legendary dancer Chita Rivera, the very sexy Antonio Banderas, Laura Benanti, from Gypsy, and Jane Krakowski, whom I've gotten to love on 30 Rock. As usual for a PS Classics release, the accompanying booklet has been lovingly assembled with photos, an essay and lyrics.

It's one of those recordings that I'd see every once in awhile when I was thumbing through the Broadway CDs at Borders or Barnes and Noble but never picked up, until now, when I had the perfect reason.

I bought it directly from the label because through December 31, for all CDs purchased through the website, PS Classics is donating half the profits to The Trevor Project, the leading national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts among LGBT youth.

And tomorrow, I'm going to download "It Gets Better" from iTunes, a song written by Jay Kuo and Blair Shepard and recorded by a group of young Broadway performers. All proceeds will benefit The Trevor Project.

Lastly, I've also made a personal donation because it's crucial that kids who are being physically or verbally bullied - or both - have someplace to turn if they can't get help at home or school. They need to know that they will survive and their lives will get better.

And it does get better. I know that from listening to the stories of my friends who happen to be gay or lesbian. I'm so happy that they're here and so blessed to have them as a part of my life.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Opening night for La Bete

La Bete the play
opens tonight on Broadway

and it's a big reason
I'm excited about the fall theatre season.

The story takes place in 17th-century France
with a cast headed by British thesp Mark Rylance.

Also, there's Tony winner for Curtains David Hyde Pierce,
an actor I'll admit I love something fierce.

Plus Joanna Lumley from TV's Ab Fab,
sets and costumes that look anything but drab.

The dialogue is written in rhyming verse,
which could be a blessing or a curse.

In 1991, playwright David Hirson didn't fare so well
as Frank Rich thought La Bete was less than swell.

With the play returning to the Great White Way anew,
here's hoping for a better reception for cast and crew.

Matthew Warchus of the hilarious Norman Conquests is directing
and his skill may help keep audiences connecting.

But whatever the critics say, one thing to remember:
I'll be in my seat at the Music Box come this November!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Rachel and Kurt, Barbra and Judy

I really enjoyed the duets on Glee last night, especially Rachel (Lea Michele) and Kurt (Chris Colfer) singing "Happy Days Are Here Again" and "Get Happy." It was so beautiful. You can watch their performance here.

But clueless me, I had no idea they were paying tribute to an iconic duet by Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland, from Garland's short-lived TV show.

The program was taped on Oct. 4, 1963, and CBS executives were so impressed they edited it quickly and broadcast it two days later. Streisand ended up receiving an Emmy nomination.

In 1991, she recalled:

"Extraordinary talent went into the making of this show. The director was Norman Jewison, the musical director was Mort Lindsey and Mel Torme did special musical material. There's also a brief visit by the wonderful Ethel Merman — but most of all there was Judy Garland. Miraculous ... soulful ... divine ... Singing these duets with her was sheer bliss. I was 21 years old."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Patti LuPone: A Memoir

People write memoirs to talk about their difficult childhoods, tout their accomplishments, describe the obstacles they've overcome in life. I think Patti LuPone wrote Patti LuPone: A Memoir to settle some scores.

The book was penned "with" Digby Diehl, who's worked on several celebrity autobiographies. But I've listened to a few lengthy interviews with LuPone and the tone is all hers. If you're interested in theatre, it's a brisk and entertaining read.

LuPone makes it clear that she hasn't had it easy - from the time she put on tap shoes to make her stage debut at age 4 in Northport, Long Island, in 1953 to winning her second Tony, for Best Actress in a Musical for Gypsy, in 2008.

It's all interesting, from being part of the first class in the Juilliard School's Drama Division, run by the imperious John Houseman, crisscrossing the country with The Acting Company, her long relationship with Kevin Kline, her triumph in Evita, the epic battle with Andrew Lloyd Webber during Sunset Boulevard, and her most recent Broadway runs.

Frankly, I was kind of shocked that she even got cast in Evita. LuPone admits that she was vocally unprepared for the role. Luckily, a member of the chorus helped her with her technique so she could actually sing it. Yikes!

You get a sense from the memoir of the vagabond life of a performer, especially one who's focused her career on the stage. But I have to say, despite having spent her entire adult life as an actress, she hasn't seemed to enjoy it very much.

With the exception of Sweeney Todd and Gypsy, it appears that LuPone has had to put up with incompetent directors, boorish costars or devious producers just about every time she's been on stage, on TV or in a movie.

Now, I love LuPone as a performer - I was a big fan of the TV series Life Goes On, which is where I became aware of her. And seeing her in Gypsy - first at Encores and then on Broadway - was unforgettable. I also got her autograph at the stage door at City Center, so she gets high marks for that.

But I wouldn't want to get on her bad side. She comes across as loyal to her friends and brutal toward anyone who rubs her the wrong way, anyone she feels has slighted her. Sometimes, it's probably justified. But other times, I don't know.

For example, John Berry, director of The Baker's Wife: "was an obnoxious human being with absolutely revolting personal hygiene." As for Bill Smitrovich, who played her husband in Life Goes On: "I faced a seven-year sentence with a thoroughly distasteful man."

Still, there are plenty of people she adores, including Marian Seldes, her Juilliard teacher, who "had an unfailing confidence in my ability. She was also my biggest defender." And Evita costar Mandy Patinkin "is an angel for me; he was heaven-sent. I will love him forever." She also has nice things to say about her husband and son.

Amid all the kvetching (and there's a lot of it) LuPone's love for the theatre, for Broadway, does come through. She's very much taken with the traditions, the rituals of the stage. I like this quote: "What is theatre if it doesn't incite, doesn't move, doesn't change us in some way?"

But here's the most interesting thing I learned from reading her memoir:

When I saw Gypsy at Encores in 2007, Marian Seldes was sitting across the aisle from me. At intermission, I told her how much I'd enjoyed seeing her on Broadway in Deuce.

We talked for a moment about LuPone. Like me, Miss Seldes was enthralled with her performance. At the time, I thought it was simply one actress admiring the work of another. I didn't realize that it was a beloved teacher watching her former student in the role of a lifetime.

Now, I know the rest of the story.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Dan Savage: It gets better

Please, the next time you're about to say "that's so gay," stop for a moment and think about Tyler Clementi, Justin Aaberg, Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas and Asher Brown, driven to suicide by homophobic bullying.

Forget what your mother told you, words do hurt. Name-calling dehumanizes the target and desensitizes the rest of us into believing that it's acceptable. It's not. It's not acceptable to use "gay" as an object of derision.

Unfortunately the Internet has opened up new avenues for the bullies, so it's good to see technology used to help the victims. Writer Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, have started a project on YouTube called It Gets Better, in which gay and lesbian adults share their stories.

Dan and Terry talk about what they went through in high school as gay teens and the abuse they endured, especially Terry, was horrific. But the story doesn't end there. Things did get better. The two describe their lives today: how they met, raising their son, being part of loving, supportive families.

Savage is a very sharp, witty writer - I've read three of his books and watched him on HBO's Real Life with Bill Maher. Here, he shows a sweet, tender side. I mean, just look at him looking at Terry. Adorable!

I know it's impossible to think of things getting better when you're caught in a terrible situation. But hopefully these videos can help closeted teens realize that they will have dignity as open, proud men and women. They can meet their true love, be successful, have a wonderful life filled with people who support them.

While he wasn't a victim of bullying, I still remember the disbelief and sadness I felt when I found out that someone I knew had killed himself. My thoughts are with the friends and families of Tyler, Justin, Seth, Billy and Asher.