Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019 in Review: Mr. and Ms. Broadway 2019

As you know (we hope), each month we honor two people each month by naming them Mr. Broadway and Ms. Broadway. Now that we are at the end of another year, it is time to name two individuals "of the year." There were many really great possibilities, and it was so hard to pick! And this year, we are adding to our end of the year honors by naming our Broadway Influencer of the Year! And so, without further ado...

Mr. Broadway 2019
Alex Timbers

It has been quite a year for this guy, opening three shows on Broadway in a 12-month period is an amazing feat. He started the year bringing in Beetlejuice from out of town, and despite mixed reviews and a rough go at the box office, it has become a fan favorite and a bit of a financial success (its controversial closing notice not withstanding). His next musical, the extravaganza Moulin Rouge!, is a critical success and routinely brings in $2M+ and over well-over 100% of its gross potential each week. Finally, this fall he helped bring in David Byrne's American Utopia, another critical and financial success. We like to think of Alex Timbers as a boundary pusher, both large and small scale, never afraid to go big, but never forgetting storytelling.

Ms. Broadway 2019
The Women of Hadestown
Anaïs Mitchell, Rachel Hauck & Rachel Chavkin

Women in creative power positions are rare enough, but Hadestown hit the trifecta. Mitchell's years-in-the-making book, lyrics and music is easily one of the great musicals of the 21st Century. Her modern take on a classic myth is playing to SRO crowds and is financial and critical darling. Chavkin, who worked large scale miracles with Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, has simultaneously provided a muscular and intimate staging. Finally Hauck, has designed one of the great unit sets ever devised, complimenting the material and direction with a setting that is just as detailed, intimate, and muscular. There is clearly no reason left for not having women creating and running the show.

Broadway Influencer of the Year
Jeremy O. Harris

Controversy follows those seek change. And so it is with the playwright of the year's most in-the-news play, Slave Play. His play hits conservatives where it hurts (just witness "Talkback Tammy's display), and gives everyone something to think about. He also defies social norms with his lack of concern for start times and texting during his play (just witness the Rihanna kerfuffle). We hope he continues to be a voice for inclusion and change. But perhaps his greatest contribution toward establishment change is his insistence that seats be available at reasonable costs for people of color. Together with producers, he's been behind some inventive discounting, as well as a program where patrons can add to their ticket so less fortunate folks can get a ticket. He's also gotten some of his Broadway friends to follow his example when he purchased premium seats and gave them away to random audience members. Thinking outside of the financial box and adding to the national discourse through his art certainly qualifies him as a Broadway Influencer!


Monday, December 30, 2019

2019 in Review: The 5 Best Shows

As the year comes to a close, we take one last look at the shows we saw in 2019. It was very difficult to narrow it down to just five. Each of these gave me such joy, and all for different reasons. Some pushed boundaries, while others reignited classics. All of them were wonderful reminders that the power of live theater is like no other. Listing them in alphabetical order seemed easier than the challenge of trying to rank them. Here's to even more great theater in 2020!

2019 in Review:
The 5 Best Shows of the Year

New York:

Hadestown (Grade: A++)

WHAT WE SAID: "Helmed by the über-talented Rachel Chavkin (she was also instrumental in the development of the work), Hadestown is so tightly constructed and the staging and choreography (by the equally brilliant David Neumann) so seamlessly blended it feels less like watching a musical and more like watching living, breathing art bloom right before your eyes. 'Come see how the world could be,' indeed. Timely and timeless, Hadestown is a masterpiece." 

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts I and II (Grade: A+)

WHAT WE SAID: "'Are all Broadway plays like this?' That was the question a co-worker of mine asked about a month go, when she saw Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two. It practically drove her crazy not getting an answer from me for weeks, and even more so, not being able to discuss it until after I finally saw it. So, I answered my co-worker, "No. Not all Broadway plays are like Cursed Child." There are so many things I want to write about this extraordinary production and vastly entertaining play. The themes, the portrayals, the surprises...but I won't ruin it for you. Just see it to believe it. And when you do, please #KeepTheSecrets."

Little Shop of Horrors (Grade: A+)

WHAT WE SAID: "What a wonderful thing it is to see a thrilling production of a show you love! Such is the case with the practically perfect off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors. The show is such fun, made even more so by the cast and production that are completely on the same page, and they are all clearly having a ball."

Oklahoma! (Grade: A)

WHAT WE SAID: "Daniel Fish's stunning, often disturbing take on the Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic Oklahoma! is just the kind of show I love. All by itself, this work has been groundbreaking - the original is oft credited as being the first modern musical. But this very modern, highly sexualized and violent version - without changing a word of the original - resonates in a very modern, current way, while making it clear why its first audiences in the early 40's were taken aback. It isn't quaint and charming. Far from it. It is a scathing indictment of both the American West and our country's gun obsessed culture."

To Kill a Mockingbird (Grade: A+)

WHAT WE SAID: "Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece of literature, a masterpiece of film-making, and now, under the power of playwright Aaron Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher, it is a masterpiece of theatricality. The beauty of this piece is that it reveals the material to be both timeless and timely. That it does so as a memory play and courtroom drama only serves as a stark reminder that history seems to be repeating itself over and over again. That it does so with a heady mix of vicious, inflammatory language and a surprising amount of humor and moral heart (sans didactic preaching) makes it remarkably entertaining and gripping."


Fun Home - Baltimore's Center Stage (Grade: A+)

WHAT WE SAID: "Fun Home at Baltimore's Center Stage is wonderful in every respect. It's just that simple. Under Hana S. Sharif's poignant direction, this trip to Pennsylvania is decidedly more robust and intense than any version I've seen before. Think hybrid of the Public Theater premiere and the Broadway version, plus an urgency heretofore un-mined. There were some nice new laughs and some new heartbreaking moments as well."


Friday, December 27, 2019

Remembering Jerry Herman

The passing of Jerry Herman earlier this week hit me pretty hard. As I see it, he is largely responsible for my love of musical theater. It was a revival of Mame that started it all for me, after all. Yes, that hot summer day in August of 1983 changed my life forever. I've seen it a few times since, and I am really hoping for a big splashy revival sooner rather than later. And of course, I've seen Hello, Dolly! too many times to count. But the show of his that has the most personal impact on me has to be La Cage aux Folles.

Seeing the original Broadway just after it won several Tony Awards was its own thrill - it was only my fifth Broadway show, and my first with the original cast. More importantly, it was my first brush with the political possibilities of theater. Inside, I was so excited to see a show about gay people! A closeted teenager from the suburbs during the Reagan years was seeing a new hit show about people just like him! Then we got there (my also closeted friend and I) and stopped dead in our tracks. There were picketers in circling in front of the Palace Theatre, chanting hate messages and carrying placards with various religious and secular sayings condemning all who entered to a certain eternity in Hell. We marched right through them - and getting cursed at - and went into the show. No revival of that show will ever match the original or that experience. Jerry Herman was brave.


What I have really come to appreciate about Herman's work is that he was traditional musical theater royalty. He could be funny and moving, and he knew how to create tunes that really, really stick with you. But what was really great his scores was that while they are old school musical comedy, they also - even to this day - feel so contemporary. There was a smart wit about his lyrics, with an uncanny knack of being both sentimental and biting all at once. One thing is for sure, his legacy will live on for a very long time. He left this world better because he was in it.

Thank you, Mr. Herman. RIP


The Friday 5: 5 Shows We Saw...Again

I see and read on social media of fans who have seen their favorite shows dozens of times. I find myself both shaking my head (why don't they try and expand their horizons and see other shows they can be fans of?) and feeling crazy envy (I wish I was in New York enough - and had the money - to see shows I love over and over). That's not to say that there aren't shows I've seen multiple times. (Cats was my jam for years. Don't judge me.) But since even "cheap tickets" aren't that cheap these days, repeat viewings are fewer and farther between. Oddly, having said that, this year Mike and I managed to see five shows for a second (or more) time. That is the subject of this week's Friday 5.

The Friday 5:
5 Shows We Saw...

Come From Away (2nd trip to the rock)

Why we went again: This is one of those "feel everything" shows - smart, poignant, and surprisingly funny given the subject matter. 

What we got out of it this time around: Able to watch for details that a repeat viewing affords, I particularly enjoyed watching the intricate staging, and tracking how different characters came to life as the actors changed costume pieces, accents and postures.

See it again? Well, as much as I truly love this show, twice is probably enough. I'd hate to lose the fond memories I have to boredom with the piece. Never say never, but not in the foreseeable future.

Dear Evan Hansen (2nd visit, 1st on Broadway)

Why we went again: I just had to give the show another chance. I mean, all those Tonys, SRO business, cultural phenomenon, etc. But I hated it the first time around, particularly the overwrought histrionics of one Ben Platt. But a chance to see someone remotely close to Evan Hansen's age, coupled with cheap front row seats (not lottery) was too good to pass up.

What we got out of it this time around: I loved it! Yes, I still have problems with the plot and some of its themes, but what a difference a less...aggressive... portrayal of Evan Hansen makes. Andrew Barth Feldman was superior in every way, and the company was just as great.

See it again? Oh yeah. I'd like to see different casts' take on the material. Maybe I can like the plot more?

Hamilton (2nd time at the turntable)

Why we went again: It's Hamilton. Seriously, we were hoping that we'd find the show to be more than a triumph of style over substance. Was it?

What we got out of it this time around: I actually thought the replacement cast was mostly better than the original - particularly Michael Luwoye as Hamilton, Denee Benton as Eliza, and understudy Ryan Vasquez as Washington. But a second viewing revealed/clarified the flaws, and yes, fans, there are flaws. While I enjoyed the staging very much, it is also too regimented and specific (not to mention tediously repetitive). The result is that when certain cast members aren't as sharp as others, it comes across as lazy and sloppy.

See it again? Nope. I appreciate it for what it is, and respect its place in musical theater/pop culture history. I just don't think it deserves it.

Moulin Rouge! (2nd time at the Spectacular Spectacular, 1st time on Broadway)

Why we went again: It's simple. We saw and loved the pre-Broadway try-out in Boston the previous summer. We had to see how they worked on it.

What we got out of it this time around: Well, it was fun trying to see what they changed, which turned out to not be much, though it seemed tighter. Still wish they had done more with the Baron (Tam Mutu). But we loved it nonetheless. It's been a long time since we've seen something so theatrical, extravagant, and just plain fun.

See it again? Hell, yeah. But not right away. Maybe see some replacements down the road?

The Phantom of the Opera (3rd time on Broadway)

Why we went again: Funny enough, we went specifically to see Jay Armstrong Johnson, who was out the day we saw it. But still, why not see if Broadway's Longest-Running Show still holds up?

What we got out of it this time around: I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the show is as if it was brand new. Would that shows that are less than a year old look as good. We appreciated the grand scale and opulence of this classic. We also discovered perhaps the best Phantom ever, Ben Crawford, and the glorious orchestra under the baton of the show's original musical director, David Caddick.

See it again? Sure! In another 10 years or so. It'll still be there. 

*****     *****     *****

EXCEPTional Broadway 2019

1. All of the following 2019 shows feature scores made up of pre-existing music EXCEPT:
a. Tina: The Tina Turner Musical
b. The Cher Show
c. Jagged Little Pill
d. Moulin Rouge!
e. Hadestown (Yes, there was a concept album, but the idea was always a show. And it did win the Best Score Tony!)

2. All of the following 2019 shows had off-Broadway runs prior to Broadway EXCEPT:
a. Be More Chill
b. Betrayal (It came from London.)
c. The Lightning Thief
d. Slave Play
e. Oklahoma!

3. All of the following 2019 shows won Tony Awards EXCEPT:
a. Tootsie
b. Choir Boy
c. Ink
d. Beetlejuice
e. The Ferryman

4. All of the following shows featured teenagers playing teenagers in 2019 EXCEPT:
a. Be More Chill
b. Mean Girls
c. Dear Evan Hansen
d. Jagged Little Pill
e. The Cher Show

5. All of the following shows were broadcast or televised in 2019 EXCEPT:
a. Kinky Boots
b. SpongeBob SquarePants
c. Head Over Heels (We would love that, though!)
e. Les Miserables


Thursday, December 26, 2019

Favorite Theater of the Year

Normally, we select a Broadway theater each year where we have had a particularly grand experience for our annual review. This year, we didn't select one whole theater, but rather the upstairs lobbies of two! If you've ever had mezzanine seats at either the Al Hirschfeld Theatre or the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, you probably understand what we mean.

Both exude a sense of history; one can envision the glamour of days gone by, patrons milling about, dressed to the nines, sipping champagne as they wait for the curtain or between acts. Both are spacious and elegantly appointed, and both are much more comfortable than the lobbies where you enter the building.

The Al Hirschfeld Theatre

The Byzantine-Moorish style of the building mandates the terracotta colors and iron-work aesthetic is punctuated with classic stained glass. In keeping with the theater's namesake, the walls up there are lined with Hirschfeld famous Broadway drawings. The spacious comfort is worth mentioning again.

The entrance.
Up the stairs to the spacious mezzanine lobby.

The wall, lined with the legendary drawings of Al Hirschfeld

There's even a fireplace! Can we just move in?

The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

The theater itself is in the Beaux-Arts style, while the interior features 18th century-style appointments. The upstairs lobby is, by New York standards, enormous with room for a lot of people to stand comfortably, with a large bar and (usually) two merchandise booths. My favorite parts of the lobby are the gold leaf ceiling, the theater mural behind red velvet curtains and rope, flanked by metal palm trees. Somehow, it all works.

Up those unassuming stairs is the way to...

...metal palm trees, gold ceiling & chandeliers...

Note the hardwood floors, the mural to the right...

Do you have a favorite theater or part of a theater? Let us know! Maybe your pick will be our pick in 2020!


Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Merry Christmas!

We hope this holiday season brings you joy and time with those you love.

Two things:
1. Yes, this IS a Christmas song! (And it is 50 years old!)
2. Donna McKechnie is made of rubber. My neck hurts just watching her!


Tuesday, December 24, 2019

CD Review: Moulin Rouge!: The Musical

From the minute Moulin Rouge!: The Musical started when we saw the pre-Broadway run in Boston last year, I knew I needed a cast recording. Of course, that desired was tempered by concerns about how they could translate what was onstage onto a disc. Could it sound like that? Would the character and theatrical spin these pop tunes were getting work on a recording without the visual? Mostly, as with any jukebox musical, there's always the worry that the rights wouldn't be granted for a recording, or they'd be so costly songs would need to be trimmed or cut altogether.

Well, just as Moulin Rouge! takes the oft-scoffed (and oft-dismissed) jukebox musical to new heights, so too does its Original Broadway Cast Recording. It isn't just because it's new and fresh that I say this, it is just true: this is one of the most entertaining, high quality cast recordings to come along in ages. It hits all of my "fun Broadway show" buttons in a way that I haven't felt since the previous reigning jukebox champ, Mamma Mia! (Maybe it's the "!"?)

Grade: A+

So, what do I like?

1. The quality of the packaging. 
Like everything else MR!, the media imagery here has such a vivid, coherent aesthetic. What the booklet lacks (understandably) is lyrics, but, really, do you really need them? The booklet makes up for it with the sensuous photo stylings of Matthew Murphy, a full plot summary, and a liner note by Baz Luhrmann. It also gives full credit where credit is due: on the musicians. Not only are they listed in the centerfold, but there are song-by-song producer credits in the booklet, as well as a mini-poster that unfolds to reveal every songwriting credit for every included song. My favorite bonus is the picture of cast members donning the Bohemian ideals as tattoos.

2. The quality of the sound.
In a word: unforgettable. From the pulsating beat and notes that start "Lady Marmalade," all the way through the end of the "More More More" finale, the sound is so vibrant, so present that it feels like you are hearing a live right in front of you performance. One nice thing about hearing this without seeing the show at the same time is the ability to concentrate on the orchestrations (Katie Kresek, Charlie Rosen, Matt Stine, with dance arrangements by Justin Levine, Matt Stine and Cian McCarthy, who also musical directs) which are a character in and of themselves. Every time I listen to it, I get more out of it.

Tam Mutu and Company

3. The quality of the performances.
Each cast member is on fire here, not just the leading roles. In fact, many of the highlights of the disc include the entire company, like "Welcome to the Moulin Rouge" opening sequence, the blistering thrill ride that is "Backstage Romance" (aka the "Bad Romance"/"Toxic" mash-up), and the "More More More" encore. Then there is the character work by Sahr Ngaujeh, Ricky Rojas and the woefully underused (as in the show) Tam Mutu. The presence of Danny Burstein pours out of the speakers; every second of his preserved performance is at once brave, creepy and oddly welcoming. He is the perfect master of ceremonies - decadent and ingratiating. But the stars of the recording, as in the show, are Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit. He has never sounded better, and she tears through her numbers like a supreme diva at the Met. She is utterly brilliant in "Firework," surpassing the original by a mile. And his "Crazy Rolling" mash-up is probably my favorite track.

Christian (Aaron Tveit) and Satine (Karen Olivo)

Like many of you, the jukebox musical genre is wearing a little thin for me. But the plain truth is that Moulin Rouge! has re-invigorated what was once tired. It proves that no matter what, if you craft an entertaining, well-constructed show, the genre doesn't really matter. Spectacular, spectacular indeed!


Monday, December 23, 2019

2019 in Review: The Best Songs & Numbers

Over the past twelve months, we have heard and seen some magnificent singing and dancing on stages all around the East Coast. The gamut is pretty wide, too. Radical reinterpretations of classics, traditional revivals, thrilling modern scores and exciting takes on pop music. Who knew we would be as taken by a Rodgers and Hammerstein gem as we were by the likes of Katy Perry, Adele, Tina Turner and Cher. Although we both agree that we prefer new, original musicals over jukebox musicals (bio or otherwise) we'll admit that if well done, they can be just as good.

Here are our selections for the best songs and numbers from 2019:

Mike's Picks
The Best Songs & Numbers

  • "Days and Days" from Fun Home - The actress playing Helen (Michelle Dawson) practically set the place on fire! She may have given the best performance I've seen of this song, and that's saying something. 
  • "Suddenly Seymour" from Little Shop of Horrors - This is my favorite song from the show, and both amazing lead actors (Jonathan Groff and Chelsea Turbin) exceeded even my high expectations. 
  • “Firework” from Moulin Rouge! - Another powerhouse performance from a brilliant singer/actress. Karen Olivo’s performance transcends even Katy Perry’s original. 
  • “Why We Build the Wall” from Hadestown - Some truly startling vocals from Patrick Page and muscular musical accompaniment make this uncannily relevant song stand out in a wondrous  score. 
  • “Pore Jud is Daid” from Oklahoma! - Some appropriately creepy vocals from Damon Daunno and Patrick Vaill, performed in the dark, prove that this show is much more than singing cowboys and dancing farmers. 

Jeff's Picks
The Best Songs & Numbers

  • "Our Lady of the Underground" from Hadestown - What an Act Two opener! Amber Gray not only owned the song and the stage - she owned the entire city block! 
  • "Crazy Rolling" from Moulin Rouge! - Has Aaron Tveit ever sounded better? This mash-up of "Crazy" and "Rolling in the Deep" not only blends together well and fits the moment perfectly, but he nails the emotion of both songs as one.
  • "The Farmer and the Cowman" from Oklahoma! - I am still haunted by this song and the scene connected to it. Aggressive and unbearably tense, it matched Daniel Fish's radical and spot-on reinterpretation of the piece. Mary Testa was brilliantly blistering throughout. 
  • "River Deep, Mountain High" from Tina: The Tina Turner Musical - One of my favorite songs of all time, powerfully rendered by Nkeke Obi-Melekwe (and I'm sure just as wonderfully by Adrienne Warren). And what a way to showcase it - a practically empty stage with "Tina" front and center.
  • "The Beat Goes On" from The Cher Show - With a few lyric changes, the song actually advanced to story, and the amazing Micaela Diamond led the cast in a routine that was stylish, evocative and delicious fun.
  • Honorable Mention: "The Wand Dance" from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Leave it to Steven Hoggett to put a great dance number in the middle of a play!


Friday, December 20, 2019

The Friday 5 Quiz: EXCEPTional Broadway 2019

A lot of things happened in 2019. It has been a crazy year pretty much any way you look at it, including the theater scene. This week's Friday 5 is about shows that opened on Broadway or were shown in some capacity during the calendar year 2019. They were EXCEPTional !Good luck!

1. All of the following 2019 shows feature scores made up of pre-existing music EXCEPT:
a. Tina: The Tina Turner Musical
b. The Cher Show
c. Jagged Little Pill
d. Moulin Rouge!
e. Hadestown


2. All of the following 2019 shows had off-Broadway runs prior to Broadway EXCEPT:
a. Be More Chill
b. Betrayal
c. The Lightning Thief
d. Slave Play
e. Oklahoma!


3. All of the following 2019 shows won Tony Awards EXCEPT:
a. Tootsie
b. Choir Boy
c. Ink
d. Beetlejuice
e. The Ferryman


4. All of the following shows featured teenagers playing teenagers in 2019 EXCEPT:
a. Be More Chill
b. Mean Girls
c. Dear Evan Hansen
d. Jagged Little Pill
e. The Cher Show


5. All of the following shows were broadcast or televised in 2019 EXCEPT:
a. Kinky Boots
b. SpongeBob SquarePants
c. Head Over Heels
e. Les Miserables

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