Friday, April 30, 2010

The 2009 - 2010 Season: By the Numbers


 Well, here we finally are.  After a crazy fall and winter, and an even busier spring than usual, the 2009 - 2010 season was officially as of yesterday.  Which makes today the first day of the 2010 - 2011 season.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let's take a look back at the season, not by hits and misses, favorites and shows we loathed, but by the shear numbers.

The Tony Awards Committee recognizes that 39 productions opened on Broadway this season, starting with Burn the Floor on August 2, 2009, and ending with Everyday Rapture on April 29, 2010.

I have categorized each show into one of five categories: Play, Musical, Play Revival, Musical Revival, and Special Event.  The Tony Awards will no longer recognize Special Theatrical Events, but such shows will be eligible to compete in appropriate categories.  To that end, after each Special, I put what type of show it would most likely copete as.  It breaks down as follows:

Special Productions (3):
Burn the Floor (musical categories such as Outstanding Choreography)
Wishful Drinking (play categories such as Outstanding Direction)
All About Me (musical categories such as Outstanding Choreography)

New Plays (10):
A Steady Rain
Superior Donuts
In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play
Time Stands Still
A Behanding in Spokane
Next Fall

Play Revivals (11):
The Royal Family
After Miss Julie
Brighton Beach Memoirs*
Present Laughter
A View from the Bridge
The Miracle Worker
Lend Me a Tenor
Collected Stories

New Musicals (8):
Come Fly Away
The Addams Family
Million Dollar Quartet
American Idiot
Sondheim on Sondheim
Everyday Rapture

Musical Revivals (7):
Bye Bye Birdie
Finian's Rainbow
Irving Berlin's White Christmas
A Little Night Music
La Cage aux Folles
Promises, Promises

* - Brighton Beach Memoirs was ruled inelligible for awards consideration due to its short run.

With today's committee decisions, it is pretty clear that they did not want to eliminate the Best Score category, with the rare inclusion of a play's music, in this case Enron by Adam Cork and Lucy Pebble.  I had been hearing rumors that the category might be eliminated because there were so few choices and such tepid critical response to the ones there are.  This is not a first, however.  Back in 1993, The Song of Jacob Zulu was nominated for best score, which caused a bit of a scandal, as an actual musical, The Goodbye Girl, by Tony and Pultizer Prize winner Marvin Hamlisch ( A Chorus Line) and Tony winner David Zippel (City of Angels) was snubbed in that category.  I will assume, though I could be wrong, that since the committee did not specify, that Branford Marsalis' music for Fences is NOT eligible in this category.
* Later editions of the Tony Committee Meeting rulings in fact say that Enron, Fences and The Royal Family are all eligible in the Best Score category.  Will The Addams Family get a Goodbye Girl snub?  My money is still on Memphis  to win, but we shall see. (So much for not commenting!)  And Fela! is NOT eligible.  Was that ever unclear?

So the possibilities for Best Book are all of this season's new musicals!  I laughed out loud at this one: Come Fly Away is eligible for Best Book!  I loved the show, but since no one talks (save for a brief tirade in Spanish)... Best Book!?  It makes American Idiot seem downright chatty!  Still, I think this does officially recognize for all of those, um, idiots, that the show does, in fact, have a plot and multiple storylines at that!

And with Barbara Cook eligible in the Best Featured Actress in a Musical category, it could be a battle of the titans: Cook vs. Lansbury, though I don't think Cook even deserves a nod, freat though she may be, career-wise.  And Katie Finneran could make the whole thing a moot point, anyway.

Like my opinion matters

I haven't seen enough of the plays this season to offer an opinion on any of those categories, though I will be rooting for Next Fall, which I loved, and Lend Me a Tenor, which I will be seeing at the end of May.  And until I see Everyday Rapture, The Addams Family and Promises, Promises, I will offer no opinion on those shows for the musical categories, either.  In other words, don't expect a concrete list of predictions before the nominations come out, or a list of predicted winners until right before the Tonys.

That said, here is a list of shows and performers that I hope make it on the list, based on what I've seen so far.  These performances/contributions really stick out in my memory: 
  • Catherine Zeta-Jones in A Little Night Music (Lead Actress in a Musical)
  • Angela Lansbury in A Little Night Music (Featured Actress in a Musical)
  • John Gallagher, Jr. in American Idiot (Lead Actor in a Musical)
  • Stark Sands in American Idiot (Featured Actor in a Musical)
  • Tom Kitt for American Idiot (Orchestrations)
  • Kevin Adams for American Idiot (Lighting)
  • Twyla Tharp for Come Fly Away (Choreography)
  • Jim Norton in Finian's Rainbow (Lead Actor in a Musical)
  • Kate Baldwin in Finian's Rainbow (Lead Actress in a Musical)
  • Euan Morton in Sondheim on Sondheim (Featured Actor in a Musical)
  • Vanessa Williams in Sondheim on Sondheim (Featured Actress in a Musical)
  • Chad Kimball in Memphis (Lead Actor in a Musical)
  • Montego Glover in Memphis (Lead Actress in a Musical)
  • Sergio Trujillo for Memphis (Choreography)
  • Levi Kreis in Million Dollar Quartet (Featured Actor in a Musical)
  • Elizabeth Stanley in Million Dollar Quartet (Featured Actress in a Musical)
  • Kelsey Grammer in La Cage aux Folles (Lead Actor in a Musical)
  • Next Fall for Best Play

Photos: "Two guys in a show" (top to botttom): Next Fall, Lend Me a Tenor, American Idiot and La Cage aux Folles.

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

CD Review: American Idiot

Easily the most energetic, frenetic and timely musical of the season, Green Day's American Idiot, steamrolled its way onto Broadway earlier this month.  The reviews, predictably, were mixed, just as they have been for every musical this season.  But the critics at least recognized that the envelope was being pushed again, and that perhaps this generation's Hair had found its way to the stage.  The same day the show opened, the Original Broadway Cast Recording was released.  A deluxe 2 disc set, the album is given a treatment that is usually reserved for only the biggest blockbusters.  The show may just become that afterall.

Title: American Idiot
Artist: Original Broadway Cast, featuring Green Day
Label: Reprise Records
Number: 523724-2
Format: Double CD
Case: Standard Jewel Case
Booklet: Full color booklet, with a synopsis, a note from director Michael Mayer, complete lyrics, credits and full color production photos.

The Broadway Company of American Idiot

Of the Show, I Wrote: "The staging and concept is heavy-handed – the opening sound bite montage, the upside down American flags on the screens, the entire 7-11 sequence, and the copious, dangerous and very distracting amounts of trash that litters the floor. I knew we would be in trouble when the first thing you notice is one of the “rebels” hanging upside down watching TV while giving the screen the finger. Anarchy or an excuse for a head rush? I’m betting the idea is the former, but the truth is the latter. And that is much of what ails American Idiot. It wants so bad to be an earnest, important piece, but it can be very hard to take seriously, especially when the watch-cry of the show is 'take a fucking shower!'  But just when I was ready to hate the whole thing, [Michael] Mayer (and [Steven] Hoggett, too) throws me a curve or two, and creates some beautiful and stunning stage images. First, there is the mind-blowing road trip sequence to “Holiday” the catchiest tune in the show.  After that, pretty much all of the up-tempo stuff goes by in a blur, mostly because of the sameness of the staging, but it also points up the other incredible moments – the quiet, introspective numbers: “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” where the three guys sing this anthem from different places, but all together with only their voices and the guitars they play; the equally quiet “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and the powerful full company ballad, “21 Guns,” amazing for its meaning, staging and sound. Finally, there is the entire Army hospital sequence, including “Extraordinary Girl” which has a burka-clad angel float in from above and transform into an “I Dream of Jeannie” fantasy for the figuratively and literally flying morphened Tunny. It is those moments that show us everything American Idiot could have been.
Rebecca Naomi Jones, Tony Vincent and John Gallagher, Jr.

Of the Performances, I Wrote: "The entire 19 member cast of the show is so committed to every single second of the show. No one gives less than 100%, 100% of the time. And the 12 member ensemble goes through dozens of rapid costume changes and comes across like there are at least twice as many of them. The offer amazing support to the equally amazing 7 named main cast members.  As the Extraordinary Girl, Christina Sajous is both mysteriously sexy, and wonderfully down to earth; Rebecca Naomi Jones works the hell out of her character, Whatsername, alternately, sexy, vulnerable and strong. Mary Faber, as the mother-to-be Heather, does the absolute most she can do with the very little she is given to work with. (The three lead females are wondrous in “21 Guns.”) And Tony Vincent does everything that can be expected from such a one dimensional character as St. Jimmy. His voice is thrilling and his presence is unmatched, but he is emblematic of the whole show’s need to take it down a notch or two.  Michael Esper, as couch potato Will, has a nice voice that blends well with the others. Stark Sands, as Tunny, offers a nice counterpoint to the whole show. When he is part of the intensity, his is a detailed, nuanced and quiet performance. Mr. Sands has an excellent voice, and has created a fully realized deep character out of virtually nothing. I hope his name is among those on the Tony nominee list. His performance from “Extraordinary Girl” through to the end is superb in every way.  The biggest draw here, of course, is John Gallagher, Jr., who has reunited with Mayer to create another variation on the angst theme – this time as a 20-something. He has the perfect voice for this show – rock and Broadway all in one, and you really believe him when he wails, 'I don’t wanna be an American Idiot!'”

Green Day

And now the CD Review:  With Green Day themselves playing on the recording, along with the entire onstage band, the sound of the music may just be a little more full than when seen live, but it really also points out three major things.  First, Green Day (and lead Billie Joe Armstrong) has an amazing gift for succinct but profound imagery in the lyrics.  Second, I was so wrong.  Completely.  Totally.  These songs do not all sound the same, nor do they all go by in a blur.  Their catchy riffs and melodies go perfectly with the lyrics, and show terrific range, from the catchy pop-rock of the title song, to the equally catchy pub anthem "Holiday," to the rock anthemic, "We Are the Waiting."  And I stand by what I said about the profundity of the opposite end of the spectrum ballads, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "Wake Me Up Before September Ends," and the stirring and emotionally charged "21 Guns," better here in its fully realized version than the original by the group.

Without all of the sensory overload of the live show and staging, the songs take on a life of their own.  They are clear, the selection of who sings what lines or whole songs becomes more apparent (though worthy of more in depth study as I listen to the album over and over).  I am very relieved that, in fact, despite not being able to understand the words the whole time in the theatre, that I did get all of the plot.  I still think the lack of book and development is an issue for the show as a musical.  And just a little more exposition might have clarified the intention of the character of St. Jimmy, another area where my opinion has not changed from my review of the show.

My very good friend Mike, whose expertise lies more in the music than the presentation, tells me that while he was already a fan of Green Day, this version of American Idiot creates, for him, a whole new appreciation for just how good they are.  His reaction to the stage show was vastly different, centered mostly on the music and the arrangements of the music and vocals.  He, like me, is completely engrossed by the work Tom Kitt did on the score, particularly the addition of strings, and the use of vocals to supplement the rock only arrangements.  He is the one who brought the Irish pub/rally song quality of "Holiday" to my attention, and the "Eleanor Rigby"-esque strings in "Last of the American Girls/She's a Rebel."  (Thanks, Mike, for your input and explanatons!)

Michael Esper, Stark Sands and John Gallagher, Jr.

For me the songs that got my blood pumping in the theatre are still those that excite me the most - "21 Guns," "Holiday," the "Extraordinary Girl" sequence.  And I still maintain that "Whatsername" is an anti-climactic ending, which is completely unnecessary.  So what if it is also the last song on the original album?  I think it would make a great interruption in the "Homecoming" sequence, which could resume and end the show with "We're Coming Home Again."

I'm pretty sure the cast recording has negated a great deal of my original review.  The last time I was this excited by a cast recording was when they released next to normal, and before that, Spring Awakening.  And so I am thrilled that within a few weeks, I'll be returning to the St. James to re-visit American Idiot.  I'll share my thoughts then, and look forward to being completely swept away by Jesus of Suburbia and his pals, Will and Tunny.


(Photos of the Broadway company by Paul Kolnik)

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

2010-2011 Season Preview: The Musicals - MORE!

The very day I posted a similar blog to this one, two more musicals made their intentions for opening in the 2010 - 2011 season known.  And both sound interesting...

Robert Lopez, center, with Lucy the Slut,
Christy Carlson-Romano, Rod, and Howie Michael Smith

  • First, the one that has me most excited... The Book of Mormon.  No, I'm not a Mormon.  I'm not particularly religious, either, but I do respect people of faith.  This musical, narrated by Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, tells the story of Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda, a dangerous part of the world, to help the less fortunate and bring the word of Mormonism to them.  The twist?  It will have a book and score by Robert Lopez, who happened to write one of my favorite musicals, Avenue Q, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who happen to write a little show called South Park.  And though he is not officially attached to the project, Cheyenne Jackson did a workshop of the show and said it was hilarious, cynical and ultimately full of heart.  Right up my alley!  And darned if Cheyenne doesn't look like one of those cute guys in the white shirt and black tie that stop by my door every so often!

Matt Stone and Trey Parker

  • The other show with designs on next season is another show based on a film.  This one is Leap of Faith, a project lonnnnnggg in the making.  It has been announced for several seasons.  But now there seems to be some serious movement on it.  The show, based on the film starring Debra Winger and Steve Martin, will be written by Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast) and Glenn Slater (The Little Mermaid, Love Never Dies).   The project will be directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford, who most recently did the same chores for Promises, Promises to mixed reviews, thoug his most recent London effort, Parade, was a huge critical success.  (He is also due to direct and choreograph the revival of How to Succeed...)  The show will try out at the Ahmanson Theatre in LA this summer, and it is rumored, though not confirmed that Raul Espraza will be taking the Steve Martin role - a travelling tent revival preacher.

Raul Esparza and Rob Ashford

Alan Menken and Glenn Slater

Again, lots of male roles...  this coming season could be very interesting.  And Ashford, Jerry Mitchell and Jack O'Brien look to be three very busy men for the foreseeable future!

(Photos from Playbill Online, Broadway and Getty Images.)

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

THEATRE BOOK REVIEW: Making It on Broadway

Theatre Book Review: Making It on Broadway: Actors' Tales of Climbing to the Top. By David Wiener and Jodie Langel. Forward by Jason Alexander. Published by Allworth Press. Copyright 2004. Paperback. 267 pages.

I was doing a little spring re-organizing this past weekend, though I didn't nearly as much finished as I had hoped to.  The chief reason is that I get distracted so easily.  Case in point:  I was dusting the bottom shelf of my bookcase - removing the books, dusting them, then the shelf, not that cursory dusting of just the shelf that I do most other weekends.  And I came across this great paperback that I hadn't opened in years (no letters about getting rid of old books, please!), and started thumbing through it.  Next thing I know, my butt and right leg are so mub they aren't even tingling.  It had been over an hour since the last time I even looked up at the clock!  Eh.  The dust'll be there next weekend, too.

The book in question is Making It on Broadway: Actors' Tales of Climbing to the Top by David Wiener (a theatrical lawyer!) and Jodie Langel (a Broadway/touring actress).  With a forward by Tony-winner Jason Alexander, and contributions from over 140 theatre actors, this book is an easy read.  Each chapter takes a look at a specific aspect of doing professional theatre, from college, to working odd jobs, to auditions, to making it, losing it, and lots of other things the rest of us with stars in our eyes never really think of.  Within each section, several actors talk about their expectations, dreams and the realities of working on a Broadway show, national touring company, or those periods where you aren't working at all.  It is generally very enlightening.  The stories seem to be stark truths, revelations, joys and disappointments.  All of them are short, and all of them are compelling.  It is also the kind of book that you can skip around and come back to time and time again.

Is the ensemble singing? 
Passing around M and Ms?
Or fondling each other?
Since the book came out in 2004, newer shows and tours aren't discussed, but it is neat to hear from actors who are a bigger deal now than they were then.  Subsequent editions would be nice, if for nothing else than to hear how their feelings may have changed or haven't.  Among the people quoted that are currently or recently on Broadway or on tour are: Roger Bart, Michael Berresse, Michael Berry, Sarah Uriarte Berry, Kerry Butler, Charlotte d'Amboise, Hunter Foster, Ruthie Henshall, Brian d'Arcy James, Marc Kudisch, Terrence Mann, Marin Mazzie, Idina Menzel, Donna Murphy, Faith Prince, Anthony Rapp, Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner, Barbara Walsh, and Karen Ziemba.  There are also some interesting perspectives from some real Brroadway legends like: Andrea McArdle, Chita Rivera, Ann Miller, Donna McKechnie, Colm Wilkinson and Lee Roy Reams.

Some of the more interesting sections include:

  • The glamorous living conditions
  • The part time jobs held while starring on Broadway
  • Anything to do with the audition process
  • Replacing someone in a show
  • Learning "tracks" instead of roles
  • Onstage mishaps
  • How actors really feel about being in long-running corporate hits
  • How actors keep themselves entertained onstage during a performance
  • Gay/Straight biases
  • Sexual harrassment
  • Staying in a show too long
  • Fans, stalkers and other dangers
  • Life on the road: sex, drugs and overspending

What strikes me most is how surprised they all seem when they make the realization that being in a show is a JOB, not play time.  And I love the actors who complain in one chapter about how unprofessionally people behave, then in another describe how they would bring on extra "props" to get people to break up during a performance.  Or the ones that are bitter about how some producers, especially conglomerates run a show like a business, then complain about things "that would never happen if I had a desk job!"  You can't have it both ways, kids.

If you are absolutely in love with Les Miserables, The Lion King, Cats or Mamma Mia!, you might want to avoid this book.   If you are looking for gossip and dish, this isn't the book for you.  If you are looking for backstage doings and the reality of Broadway, get this book!

But generally, even with all of the complaining, you can tell that even though their dreams are at odds with their realities, most of these people love what they do, and only grouse because they wish things were better.  (Side note to a certain replacement hyena: all that bitching about your "year from hell" in The Lion King really paid off, didn't it?  No one knows who you are, and you haven't worked since.)

I hope they update this book.  I'd love to hear what the community thinks about stage door stalkers, show "experts" and message boards on theatre websites...

Grade: A+

Monday, April 26, 2010

Neil's Girls: Fran, Charity and Paula

In honor of yesterday’s opening of the revival of Promises, Promises, I thought I might discuss the three main girls of three musicals with books by Neil Simon. Neil has three musicals where the ladies are front and center: Promises, Promises (Fran), Sweet Charity (Charity) and The Goodbye Girl (Paula).

That they have in common is interesting. They are all New York working girls: Fran is a waitress/hostess at a corporate restaurant, Charity is a hostess of another kind at a dance hall, and Paula is a retired-but-back-in-the game dancer/actress. As such, their digs all seem to be decent but not grand apartments in Manhattan

They all have similar dreams and nightmares: men. Poor Fran keeps getting mixed up with married men – executives at her company, which is a recipe for disaster, even at a time when office affairs were de rigueur, and even expected. But things never turn out well for the “other woman.” Then there is Charity, too na├»ve to fully understand what she is, and too sweet and needy not to be drawn to every single guy who shows her the least bit of attention. And Paula has been on the short end of the stick so many times, there is a name for her – The Goodbye Girl. Every time she’s ready to commit, he leaves town.

Jill O'Hara and Jerry Orbach
in the original Promises, Promises

On the other hand, all three have guys who are actually worthy of them; good matches who are as good as the girls themselves. Fran has Chuck, a nice guy who sees in her a nice girl, despite her affair with his boss. He embraces her quirks, and even rescues her from a suicide attempt. That he sticks around after that just goes to show the quality guy he is. Neither are without their warts, of course, but that is what makes them interesting. We are not sure how they will end up – they agree that “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” but there is reason to be optimistic as the curtain falls.

Gwen Verdon in Sweet Charity

Charity is literally trapped with Mr. Right – Oscar, man of many neuroses. Their hopes and fears are what draw them to each other, and boy do they have fun dates – a stuck Ferris wheel, a religion-of-the-week meeting under a bridge (or garage or nondescript seedy place, depending on which version you are most familiar with). Everything goes well, until Oscar just can’t come to terms with Charity’s job and assumed past. Charity is left high and dry, but stronger for the experience.

Tammy Minoff (Lucy),
Bernadette Peters (Paula) and
Martin Short (Elliott)

Then there is Paula, burned often and on the attack – let her hurt him before he can hurt her. Her latest lover has bid her goodbye, leaving her with no apartment and a young child in tow. Enter Elliott Grant, aspiring actor, who has sublet the apartment Paula must leave. Like oil and water, they immediately are at odds; the only thing that keeps them from killing each other is Lucy, Paula’s daughter. Of course, Lucy, like us, sees all of his charms and none of his faults, and it is obvious to all that they are made for each other. Cut to Paula and Elliott on the roof of the apartment building. He is wooing her like no one has since Romeo and Juliet, and she caves. Then he leaves. The Goodbye Girl again. Only this time, he comes back and she lives happily ever after.

Each ends up differently, but each is stronger for the experience. Add the patented Neil Simon zinger, plus the point of view of their perspective songwriters and directors – the urban-of-the-day Burt Bacharach and Hal David, plus Robert Moore and Michael Bennett for Promises, Promises, the brassy-sexy-edgy Dorothy Fields and Cy Coleman, plus Bob Fosse for Sweet Charity and the light show-bizzy-optimism of David Zippel and Marvin Hamlisch, plus the old school musical comedy-romance style of Michael Kidd for The Goodbye Girl – and it is really easy to see why these gals are among the most interesting, complicated and audience beloved of the mid to late 20th century musical theatre characters.

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bits and Pieces for 04.25.2010

Don't forget to vote in this month's poll!  It closes at noon on Friday, April 30th!

(And it was a lot!)

**The solutions to Broadway Soduko are all the way at the bottom of this blog entry.  If you want to try them before you see the solutions, click on "Broadway Games" above and scroll down until you see the link for Broadway Soduko #1.

Brian d'Arcy James and Alice Ripley in next to normal
While it is always sad to say goodbye to a favorite actor in a show you love, it is always exciting to see who will be the replacement.  Well, in this week's high profile departure/arrival news, we have a return!  On May 16th, J. Robert Spencer will play his final performance as Dan, beleagured father, in next to normal.  On May 17th, Brian d'Arcy James will take over the role.  I wonder how different the show is now from when James departed it.  Now that his "family" - Alice Ripley, Jennifer Damiano,  and "new" son, Kyle Dean Massey are thoroughly deep into their roles, I wonder how he will fit.  Like a glove, I'm betting.  And now I have ANOTHER reason to see n2n again!

(Asa Somers has also rejoined the company - he played the doctors in the off-Broadway version - as an understudy to the roles he originated...)


Charlie Williams - Mr. Memphis

The 4th Annual Broadway Beauty Pageant has been completed and this year's winner is Charlie Williams, Mr. Memphis.  This handsome guy is also one of the poster boys for Broadway Bares 20.  (A full "spread" on that is coming soon to this blog!).  The annual contest has some of the hottest guys currently onstage vying for the title through talent, interview, and, of course, bathing suit competitions.  All of the proceeds from this charity event go to the Ali Forney Center, which is a homeless shelter specifically for LGBT youth.

Other contestants included Wes Hart (Mr. West Side Story), Eddie Pendergraft (Mr. Wicked), Daniel Soto (Mr. Fela) and Rickey Tripp (Mr. In The Heights).  All of these guys, and their cause, are winners in my book!  But in case you needed more urging to finally go see Memphis, isn't Charlie a great reason to go??!!

Wes Hart and Daniel Soto
Rickey Tripp and Eddie Pendergraft

This week, three Broadway-related CDs were announced.  Currently on sale is music inspired by Come Fly Away (or is it the other way around).  I think they should have recorded the actual Broadway band, not compiled them from somewhere else.  And it isn't even complete to the show!  (The best number, "Take Five", isn't on it, either!)


Then the track listing for Fela! due in June was released.  I haven't seen the show, but I do think it is cool that both male leads, who alternate, recorded it.  Apparently both versions will be available for download and at the theatre, but only one will be available in CD across the country.  Get your money ready, collectors!

And finally, they are going to record The Scottsboro Boys.  looks like a Broadway run is a sure thing now...

It worked for next to normal, so why not The Scottsboro Boys?  Both shows have controversial subject matter, traditionally better suited to off-Broadway, so both started there.  Both shows hooked up with great producers, with deep pockets, and faith in the material.  And both will have gone out of town for a "clean up try-out" - normal went to DC's Arena Theatre, and the Boys are going to Minneaoplis' Guthrie Theatre.  Next stop, Broadway!

4: The number of days left in the 2009-2010 season.  Time sure flies!
1: The number of principals still attached to Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark.  His name is Reeve Carney.

Happy Birthday last week to:

4/18: Gavin Creel
4/19: Ashley Judd
4/20: Jessica Lange
4/21: Patti LuPone
4/22: Alan Campbell
4/23: Melina Kanakaredes
4/24: Barbra Streisand


Easy: She's drowsy!  CHAPERONE

Medium: Kander and Ebb's most recent Broadway musical.  CURTAINS  extra letter K

Difficult: He has written the lyrics for three current Broadway shows.   SONDHEIM  extra letter J

Look for more Broadway-themed puzzles soon!

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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Shakespeare: The Musicals

Yesterday, William Shakespeare, the most produced playwright in Broadway history (although he's famous for some other stuff, too), would have celebrated his 446th birthday.  Coincidentally, yesterday also commemorated the 394th anniversary of his death.  Yes, Mr. Shakespeare died on his 52nd birthday.  Or so legend has it...

In honor and memorium of those occasions, I thought we might look at 10 musicals that have something to do with his plays.  (And before you write, I'm sure I missed one or two...)

Alphabetically, here they are!

The Boys from Syracuse based on The Comedy of Errors

  • Opened in 1938 at the Alvin Theatre
  • 235 performances
  • Revival in 2002 at the American Airlines Theatre
  • 73 performances

The Goodbye Girl contained a lengthy sequence of Richard III

  • Opened in 1993 at the Marquis Theatre
  • 188 performances
  • 5 Tony nominations

Kiss Me, Kate based on Taming of the Shrew

  • Opened in 1948 at the New Century Theatre
  • 1077 performances
  • 5 Tony nominations, 5 Tony wins, including Best Musical
  • Revival opened in 1952 at the Broadway Theatre
  • 8 performances
  • Revival opened in 1999 at the Martin Beck Theatre
  • 881 performances
  • 12 Tony nominations, 5 wins, including Best Revival of a Musical

The Lion King based on Hamlet

  • Opened in 1997 at the New Amsterdam Theatre
  • As of April 23, 2010: 5161 performances
  • 11 Tony nominations, 6 wins

Lone Star Love based on The Merry Wives of Windsor

  • Played off-Broadway, very successfully.
  • Broadway Production announced, but cancelled after trouble with lead, Randy Quaid

Oh, Brother! based on The Comedy of Errors

  • Opened in 1981 at the ANTA Theatre
  • 3 performances
  • Starred Judy Kaye and Harry Groener

Play On! based on Twelfth Night

  • Opened in 1997 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre
  • 61 performances
  • 3 Tony nominations

Swingin' the Dream based on A Midsummer Night's Dream

  • Opened in 1939 at the Center Theatre
  • 13 performances
  • Starred Louis Armstrong, Bill Bailey and Dorothy Dandridge, three huge stars and it still flopped!

Two Gentlemen of Verona  based on The Two Gentlemen of Verona

  • Opened in 1972 at the St. James Theatre
  • 614 performances
  • Starred Clifton Davis and Raul Julia
  • Written by Galt McDermott of Hair fame
  • 9 Tony nominations, 2 wins including Best Musical, beating Follies, Grease and Jesus Christ Superstar

West Side Story based on Romeo and Juliet

  • Opened in 1957 at the Winter Garden Theatre
  • 732 performances
  • 6 Tony nominations, 2 wins
  • Return engagement of same production opened in 1960 at the Winter Garden Theatre
  • Revival opened in 1980 at the Minskoff Theatre
  • 333 performances
  • 3 Tony nominations
  • Revival opened in 2009 at the Palace Theatre
  • As of April 23, 2010: 456 performances
  • 4 Tony nominations, 1 win

Happy Birthday, Bill!

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Friday, April 23, 2010

REVIEW: Sondheim on Sondheim

Review of the April 10 matinee preview performance. At Studio 54 on Broadway, New York City. 2 hours, 20 minutes, with an intermission. Starring Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott. Musical staging by Dan Knechtges. Conceived and directed by James Lapine.

In many ways, the new musical revue, Sondheim on Sondheim, currently being presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company is typical of the genre.  Great singers bring a certain catalogue of songs to life, reinterpreting them and taking them out of the context from which they originally came.  There is a certain smooth sophistication, almost detached coolness about the whole affair.  Were the attitude any more heightened, one might knock it, calling it "cruise ship material."  But, under the wise, and vastly knowledgeable direction of James Lapine (and smart musical stager Dan Knechtges), one could hardly compare this to a Love Boat show.  Both Lapine and Knechtges instead are giving a nod to the genre's history, while sweeping us into the 21st century, and allowing us to remember revues past briefly before transporting us into a new age: respectful, but showy, inventive, but grounded, and with a technological flair akin to the first time Broadway saw a huge tire float effortlessly above the stage.  More about that later, though.

The Company

There have been several revues that have tapped into this same catalogue.  Some have eschewed the trappings of "revueishness" by concocting some sort of vague character and story structure to beef up the evening, others have been more museum-like in their recreation of scenes, and others have been a parade of stars singing the hell out of the songs to show us just how brilliantly they work out of the context of the show they came from.  This performance borrows ever so slightly from the latter two types, and thankfully, lets another character put it all together, as it were.  That character is Stephen Sondheim himself. 

Through vintage interviews - intentionally picked, I think, to garner a giggle and to point out that even way back when, the man was a genius - and more current one on one interview footage filmed and edited  to be part of this show specifically, Sondheim guides us through his upbringing as an only child, a child of divorce and the surrogate parenting of no less than Oscar Hammerstein.  All of this is old news to Sondheim fans, but what might be surprising is hearing his voice telling us.  Equal parts humility, self-deprecation and a wink and a smile, Mr. Sondheim is both candid about his life and is squarely where he should be at his young age - fully ok with himself and his accomplishments.  Don't misunderstand.  He has the same regrets, the same wishes, the same "holes" that still need filling that most of us do.  He is candid - to a point - about his romantic life, and lays one hell of a shocker out about his mother.  But all in all, it would appear that he is at least happy with what his life tirned out to be, and is even willing to poke fun at himself. There is a particularly funny set up for intermission and the start of act two (I will not give it away, but it is very cool), and he has written an absolutely brilliant parody of himself and his style in a brand new song for the show which confronts the Newsweek (or is it the New Yorker?) cover that asks, "Is Sondheim a God?"  The song answers, "Yes."  It is hilarious!  (Please let them record this!)

Sondheim with "the co-stars": Euan Morton, Leslie Kritzer,
Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott

Of course, there are many reasons to hope that the show succeeds and makes a recording - ask any Sondheim fan why.  But let me help enumerate them:  Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott.  Even though the first three names are above the title, it would be misleading and a slight to the cast not to say that they are a true company.  All of them have solos.  All of them have distinct moments to shine, and all have times to support the others.  Another key reason to hope for a recording is the quality of the musicians who play the show (orchestrations by Michael Starobin) and the terrific mix of tradtional and unique arrangements of the song selection (music direction and arrangements by David Loud).  There is literally something for everyone in this show.

For those only familiar with Sondheim's better known music, there is "Something's Coming" in a jazzy, but not to far off quartet arrangement for Kritzer, Morton, Mackey and Scott; a traditional "Broadway Baby" delivered by the real thing, Barbara Cook; and a hilarious montage of YouTube footage of everyone from Sinatra to a little girl singing "Send in the Clowns" before Ms. Cook does her own fine version (though the better version is downtown a few blocks, sung by Ms. Zeta-Jones).  For Sondheim appreciators there is a fun glimpse at a Tony nominated turn when Ms. Williams sings "Children Will Listen," as well as a few segments that Sondheim guides us through that shows how songs are written, replaced, rewritten and replaced until we get to what we are used to hearing.  One such case is the genesis of the opening number for Forum..., a well-know story about how the show just didn't work until Jerome Robbins said to write a bawdy low comedy number.  We are then treated to three songs that were tried and thrown out until "Comedy Tonight" stuck for good.  More interesting, mainly because it isn't as commonly known, is the genesis of Bobby's "Being Alive" in Company, including a song that actually used the same lyrics to a different tempo and melody.  Similarly, we get to see what used to be there in place of "Not Getting Married," a far less exciting (though here well sung by Ms. Williams) number called "The Wedding is Off."

"The Girls": Erin Mackey, Vanessa Williams,
Leslie Kritzer and Barbara Cook

There is also plenty of Follies, Sunday in the Park with George, and Company.  You might expect that there would be more Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods.  There is only "Epiphany" from the former, and snippets of songs from the latter.  And "Epiphany" provides the evening's one low point.  Tom Wopat does his best with it, but ultimately fails.  Loud singing and angry pacing back and forth is not what this number needs, and it falls with a loud thud.  I was surprised that Norm Lewis didn't get that number, as he has played the role to some acclaim several times before, and "A Little Priest" with him and Ms. Williams could have been a scream.  There is almost nothing, except a few bars in the "overture" from Pacific Overtures, and only the title number from Anyone Can Whistle, though the way that number is presented is literally a show-stopper, which I will not reveal here.  But it is a wonderful doozy!

Although I wished for more, because it is a personal favorite, what there is of Assassins - "The Gun Song" and "Something Just Broke" is powerfully staged and shows just how brilliant Sondheim's work is both in and out of context.  Smartly, two of Sondheim's least successful shows, but both full of promise - Passion and Merrily We Roll Along - are given longer segments, and are semi- to fully staged.  Merrily has the entire "Opening Doors" sequence and the entire "Franklin Shepard, Inc." number, providing an opportunity to shine for Morton, Scott, Kritzer and fun turns by Wopat, Williams and Mackey.  There are also beautifully sung and nicely arranged versions of "Not a Day Goes By," sung by Ms. Cook and offering us a glimpse of the Cook of yesteryear and full of confidence, and "So Now You Know," cheekily sung by Ms. Kritzer, and of course, "Old Friends" was terrific as well.  The Passion sequences give audiences a real chance at warming up to the piece, with Fosca - again beautifully sung by Cook, and Giorgio - excellently sung by Lewis.  The song "Happiness" is given special attention and a great new arrangement such that without changing a word, the song is sung in duet by man/woman, man/man, woman/woman (and even a threesome at one point) pairings.  The result is not only a wonderfully sung piece, but some tongue and cheek humor that mirrors Mr. Sondheim's narration throughout.

Tom Wopat and Company in "Assassins"

All of the performers are first rate, top to bottom, and again, it really is misleading to think that the three names above the title are somehow grander than the rest.  Though, if I had to name one stand out performance, it would have to be Vanessa Williams.  This woman has a glorious voice, and astounding presence and an instant rapport with both cast and audience.  She, given the right vehicle, could be on par with LuPone and Lansbury.  As it is, she simply commands the stage every time she is on it, and still knows how to give stage when she is not the focus.  Leslie Kritzer continues to be an actress to watch.  She gets bigger and better in every show she's in - she will be a star.  Even though he provides the show's one real misstep, Tom Wopat is still a force to be reckoned with.  And I know I am committing some form of blasphemy here, but overall, I just don't see why Barbara Cook is mentioned often in the same breath with Angela Lansbury (aside from their age being similar, Cook is no Lansbury) or even Mary Martin or Ethel Merman.  She has relatively few theatre credits to her name, and really only one iconic role - if that - playing second fiddle to a real legend, Robert Preston.  Her performance, even this far into previews, is often tentative - she messed up the lyrics to "You Could Drive a Person Crazy", and it was slowed down and she was repeating after Tom Wopat when it happened.  But the cast clearly adores her, gently guiding her from place to place around the set and offstage, and the audience eats her up.  All of that said, she does have impeccable timing in a few comedy bits, and when she is sure of the material, as in the Passion sequences, you can kind of get why she is so beloved.

Vanessa Williams with Norm Lewis,
Matthew Scott and Euan Morton

But the real star of the evening, as it should be, is Sondheim himself.  Literally larger than life, he narrates from giant plasma televisions that connect, pull apart and reconfigure constantly.  Add to that a revolving set that also features more than a dozen plasma televisions set amongst platformed playing areas and steps, and the set adds interest, gives focus, and serves the piece in a brilliantly unobtrusive way.  Kudos to set designer Beowulf Boritt, lighting designer Ken Billington and video and projection designer Peter Flaherty for wrapping this musical theatre gift into such an interesting and smart package.

This is by far the best of the non-traditonal offerings of the season.  It will be interesting to see how the Tony committee decides on where this fits in the spectrum of shows.  How appropriate considering that the man whose life's work is the subject of this show has never really fit any traditional definiton of theatre!  As the song from Road Show says, Mr. Sondheim, you just may be the "best thing that ever has happened" to musical theatre.  Thank you.


(Photos by Richard Termine)

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

On the Radar: Nightmare Alley

I love a dark show, and those one looks pretty dark.  Currently having a regional run ay Geffen Playhouse, Nightmare Alley is set during the Depression, at a traveling circus side-show.  The show is based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham.  It was later turned into a film starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell.

This musical has book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Brielle (above left).  With environmental stage design by John Arnone, this show, from the pictures at least, looks very interesting and creepy cool.

The company is lead by James Barbour, Mary Gordon Murray, Sarah Glendening, Larry Cedar and Michael McCarty.  There is an ensemble of 6 tarot ladies and roustabouts.  Direction is by Gilbert Cates, who is producing director at the Geffen Playhouse.

The Geffen Playhouse show logo.

Nightmare Alley star James Barbour

Mary Gordon Murray with James Barbour

Sarah Glendening and James Barbour

Larry Cedar and James Barbour

The Nightmare Alley Company

The Nightmare Alley set, designed by John Arnone.

The show began previews April 13 and plays through May 23.

For more information on the writer, go to

(Photos by Michael Lamont.)

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