Friday, July 31, 2009

Random Thoughts on This and That

I've been looking over the upcoming season and I gotta say I'm most excited this fall for Hamlet with Jude Law as it's my favorite Shakespeare tragedy (and I've never seen it live), Oleanna because I enjoy Bill Pullman, A Little Night Music because of its rumored cast and the Kennedy Center import of Ragtime. Did I fail to mention Superior Donuts? After August: Osage County, I'll see anything Tracy Letts writes. I'm trying to think if there's anything else that I'm forgetting about... Is there anything in particular you are looking forward to?

I'm watching the the 1955 film version of Oklahoma! as I type. For those who don't know, the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein smash was shot twice, once in CinemaScope (an anamorphic lensed widescreen system using an aspect ratio of 2.55:1) and in the brand new Todd-AO, a large format 70mm system developed by Mike Todd. Todd-AO used a wide-angled lens, and a deeply curved screen which was meant to rival the expensive and impractical three camera Cinerama. Todd-AO didn't require anamorphic image compression and displayed a spherical aspect ratio of 2.20:1.

Each scene was shot twice in each process which means there are two versions of the film available. The most notable difference between the two are the opening credits, but there are also differences in line readings and camera angles. When it originally opened in 1955, the Todd-AO format played the major roadshow engagements in NY and other major markets. The traditional CinemaScope version played other theatres throughout the country. The CinemaScope version made the initial video releases, but was supplanted by the restoration of the Todd-AO print, which was marked with superior sound and image quality. In 2005, 20th Century Fox released a 2-disc special edition containing both versions, though for some reason the Todd-AO transfer doesn't improve on the 1999 release, except in making it 16:9 friendly. There's a comprehensive website called the American Widescreen Museum which goes into explicit detail on the history and technological details of these different processes that are for the most part no longer used in filmmaking.

This video of Gloria Grahame singing "I Cain't Say No" gives you an idea of the different versions:



The following year, Carousel was shot twice in CinemaScope and a process called CinemaScope 55 in an attempt to combat Paramount's VistaVision process. The new CinemaScope process was an experimentation with 55 mm film that was heralded in both Carousel and The King and I. The idea of shooting Carousel twice is what led Frank Sinatra to quit the project, since he didn't like the idea of shooting two films for the price of one. Ironically enough, they abandoned the 35mm shoot during filming. CinemaScope 55 was actually never really used: both R&H films were shot in 55mm stock and had their prints reduced onto regular 35mm, since it was more feasible than requiring movie houses to accommodate the unusual film size. From what I understand, the 55mm prints were never even used.

I'm still unable to get The Norman Conquests out of my head. So I decided to watch Table Manners from the 1977 BBC adaptation. It's an entirely different animal from the recent revival, but it is still quite extraordinary. The television version stars Tony-Award winner Tom Conti as Norman. After Stephen Mangan it is seriously difficult to imagine any other actor in the part and unfortunately Mr. Conti's performance suffers (The problem here is he's not nearly as likable in the breakfast scene, in fact he's downright irritating). David Trougham is a bit too stiff for Tom. However, Richard Briers makes for a game Reg, while Fiona Walker scores as Ruth. Penelope Keith won the bulk of the praise and a BAFTA award for her turn as Sarah (deservedly so - she was the only original London cast member to reprise her role onscreen). It was particular fun discovering that Jessica Hynes' fellow Shaun of the Dead actor Penelope Wilton played the same role here in the TV adaptation (and quite well). Will be getting around to Living Together and Round and Round the Garden before long.

Sadly, this is out of print on DVD in the UK and has only been released on VHS in the US. BBC America, get on it! However you can get a sampling of it on youtube. Here are the first ten minutes of Table Manners:



There are two weeks left for you to catch Mary Stuart. If you haven't had the opportunity, run don't walk to the Broadhurst. Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter are giving titanic performances as Mary and Elizabeth I, respectively. It's worth the price of admission for the first scene of the second act alone, which depicts the fictional meeting between the two monarchs. The two leading ladies are breathtaking and deserve to be seen, again and again and again. Plus, there's a fantastic discount code for the rest of the run. This one is not to be missed.

I'm off to Long Island for the weekend. A friend is getting married in Centereach (sadly no East Hampton this trip) and the honor of my presence has been requested, so I will resume my blog perch on Sunday evening. I'll be thinking of my friends spending some quality time with those titans at the Broadhurst tomorrow while enjoying marital libations.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thoroughly Modern Angie

At the Oscars in 1968, Angela Lansbury, who was in town with Mame, was asked to perform the Oscar-nominated title song from Thoroughly Modern Millie. It was customary at the time that the song's originator didn't sing on the telecast, which is why Julie Andrews didn't do the honors. Many consider this performance to be an unofficial audition for the film version of Mame. Now, if someone could post Mitzi Gaynor's showstopping rendition of "Georgy Girl" from the year before (apparently the standing ovation led to a commercial break)...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

He Came, He Saw, and Oh, How He Conquered


"I only wanted to make you happy!"

I kept spouting that line at Roxie all day Sunday in my best (worst) English accent. She didn't really know why I was saying it, but all the same she put up with my antics as usual. For those unfamiliar with The Norman Conquests, or more specifically with Round and Round the Garden, that is the final line of the entire trilogy of plays delivered by Norman at the end of a most hilariously heartbreaking weekend experienced by Norman and his rowdy gang of in-laws.

Truth of the matter is, while Norman drove his family to the brink of exasperation, he and his dysfunctional family (plus one veterinarian) charmed the hell out of audiences in both London and New York. Going back to see it one more time only cemented my initial reaction. If you had the opportunity to spend time at the Circle in the Square this past spring, you know what I mean. If you didn't, I must say you should be kicking yourself right now for missing the best production of the 2008-09 season.

All six actors were exemplary. I was asked the question "Which is your least favorite?" And there was no way I could begin to answer it. Each performer brought so much to their characters, grounding then with brutal honesty that heightened the emotional stakes. The truer the performance, the more hilariously painful it was.

Ben Miles' sad sack Tom was just as slow on the uptake, Paul Ritter, whose ass was the subject of the ITBA acceptance speech was as exasperated with his wife as ever, dropping acerbic quips like hydrogen bombs. Amelia Bullmore's Ruth was more fascinating to watch as she patiently found herself acting more as a mother to Norman rather than a wife. Jessica Hynes is the caregiver of the unseen matriarch, frustrated in her loneliness and seeking an escape even if it is in her brother in law. Amanda Root turned the waspish harridan into an art form with the bossy, high-strung Sarah. Finally, Stephen Mangan was just all childlike innocence, unhappiness and unbridled sexuality rolled into one larger than life star turn. Though Tony voters decided that Roger Robinson gave the performance of the season in Joe Turner, Mr. Mangan, who should have won, gave a performance for the ages.

Roxie and I met up with Kari, who was also returning for a return visit and together we enjoyed our day immersed in the saga of a weekend holiday turned on its ear. The three plays are presented in their suggested order, starting in the morning at 11:30 with Table Manners, taking place in the dining room of the house. The second, Living Together moves the action into the living room (with the infamous rug...). And the final play in the trilogy is Round and Round the Garden that moves the action outdoors. By the time all is said and done that is 7 1/2 hours of theatre over an 11 hour spread.

It's been said that any one of the plays can be seen on its own, or any combination in any order. However, I must stress that while the a la carte option sounds like a good idea, the full course trilogy marathon days truly allow for an audience member to experience the full exhilaration of the works. Table Manners introduced the characters and provides ample exposition for the remainder. It also doesn't hurt that the characters in the first scene talks about the unseen Norman at such length, you cannot wait for him to enter. Living Together is still riotous, but provides something of a breather for the audience. In the middle play, there is more attention paid to the underlying problems souring the marriages, adding to the dramatic weight anchoring the characters in this situation. The last play fills in the final gaps, and is a raucous free for all with some of the funniest and most farcical moments of the series, as well as having the first and last scenes of the trilogy's chronology.

Being the last marathon I had anticipated the entire day being sold out. However, Table Manners was not. Then Kari wisely reminded me it was a Sunday morning in New York City, most people are at church or downing their complimentary mimosas at brunch. Fortunately Roxie and I were seated with some marathon folks, so we had some friendly chatter with them. However there was a couple to our right who I'm almost convinced were apparitions. They didn't crack a smile or show any response at all during the three plays, not once. After each play, they would mysteriously vanish without a trace. I'm surprised they would stick around for the entire day if they were that disinterested. Fortunately it did nothing to detract us from enjoying the actors and production onstage.

The afternoon show was almost sold out and I'm guessing a lot of seats were filled courtesy of TKTS. Part of the marathon experience that makes it so ideal is that you are already familiar with the characters, their quirks, their faults, etc. If you've just seen the earlier play, bits and pieces will be funnier to you than Joe and Jane Smith showing up for the first time. The rows behind us were such people, one even commenting "This must be something to do with the first one." Folks, they were not wrong.

The final play, also the final performance of this entire production, had a house brimming with excitement and energy. Before the start of the play I realized that there was not a single empty seat to be had, and it was a standing room only crowd. This was a performance filled with friends making another trip to that house somewhere near East Grinstead to cheer on superlative acting and direction. Each actor received extensive entrance applause on his or her entrance. And then we were off on one final side-splitting, melancholic ride.

The curtain call was met with an instant standing ovation, as we cheered on this vibrant ensemble brought together in pure alchemy by the theatre gods and under the direction of genius Matthew Warchus (whose Tony should have been for this not God of Carnage). The standbys emerged from the wings to present each with flowers and a stuffed cat (I didn't see if there were bandages on the paws). The actors took an immediate second call as is usually the case after the marathon. The house lights came up, and while some audience members got up and left enough of us stayed firmly planted at our seats applauding. The ovation surged louder than before prompting a third and final call for the actors. Since it was performed in the round, the actors bowed in each direction of the audience. Whenever they turned to another section, the cheers were especially stronger. I am rarely one to be vocal at a curtain call, but I couldn't begin to tell you how many times I called "Bravo!"

I still cannot pick if one play is better than the rest as a stand alone. For me, I still think of the entire trilogy as a mammoth three act play and best experienced as such. You could get away with seeing one, but if you enjoyed it you wouldn't want to just stop there. The entire trilogy weaves together a tapestry of character and pathos in such a clever and unique way that seeing it all in one sitting is the definitive audience experience.

Alan Ayckbourn's preface in the published version of the script talks about how the plays came to be written over the course of a single week (!) and the distinctive tones of each. He ends the foreward with this, which is pretty much in line with what I feel about the Norman trilogy:

"This crosswise way of writing them proved very satisfactory though of course made it quite impossible for me, even today, to really judge their effectiveness downwards or indeed to assess, beyond certain limits, whether the plays stand up independently. This is not, I'm afraid, a problem that one single individual can resolve. As soon as one play is read or seen, the other two plays are automatically coloured and affected by the foreknowledge gained from the first - which may sound like some sort of warning, though, in this case I hope, a little knowledge is a pleasurable thing."

Afterwards we met up with new friends Eden, Lauren and Landice outside as I chose to stage door a production for the first time in over three years. The actors were lovely, gracious, witty and warm (and exhausted) as they signed and posed for pictures with those few of us who waited. It felt nice to be greeted with warm recognition by the three leading ladies, with whom I shared a most memorable elevator ride only a couple weeks before. I don't normally give in to the stage door, but I had to tell them one last time how much I appreciated the performances and the production. Plus, I wanted to wish them well as all six were flying back home to England the following morning.

Norman only wanted to make us happy, and he did. Strike that. They all did.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Entirely Inappropriate Viewing Tips from the Author:



If you are in the process of reading this, the chances are that you are already about to see, are in the midst of seeing, or have already seen, at least one of the plays that form The Norman Conquests. In which case, this advice is not for you. Do not read on.

For those who have seen none of the plays but may be wishing to do so, it is hoped that the following notes may prove useful.

The first thing to remember is, understandably, don't see Table Manners first. This will give you a wrong time sequence and will only confuse you when you come to see, say, Living Together, which, incidentally, you are strongly advised not to see second. Ideally, Round and Round the Garden should not be seen before you have seen Table Manners - but do not, on the other hand, fall into that old trap of seeing Round and Round the Garden after Living Together as this again will confuse the sequences of dramatic events. Do not see Living Together first as this will severely curtail a lot of the pleasure you gain from seeing Table Manners for the first time which latter play, for maximum enjoyment you should try and save till the end.

In short, do try and see all three plays first, or, if you really can't manage this, last. This way you will avoid any disappointment. Like most things in this world, there is a logical progression i.e. parts 1, 3 and finally of course, 2.

-Alan Ayckbourn

This poster was hung in the lobby of the Circle in the Square Theatre for The Norman Conquests revival. Many thanks to Kari for the photo.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Alan Bennett & Patricia Routledge

Since I'm spending my Sunday immersed in the Anglophilia of The Norman Conquests, I figured I would post something very British in honor of the occasion. Alan Bennett considers Patricia Routledge his favorite actress. The British playwright has written a great many things for her to perform over the years, both onstage and on television. Meanwhile here on our side of the pond, I have been talking to a lot of people about the musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and espousing the brilliance of Routledge. I realized there hasn't been a mention of her in quite some time here, so here is a clip of Pat and Alan on a British talk show in 1992 discussing Talking Heads:

Friday, July 24, 2009

"The Norman Conquests" says goodbye

I wasn't the only one who was there the other day to spend time with the cast of The Norman Conquests. Broadway.tv talked to all six about their experience.

This weekend is your final opportunity to see a most brilliant ensemble in one of the most thrilling productions Broadway has seen in quite some time. I'll be at the Sunday trilogy marathon to bid my six favorites a fond farewell. I hope to see you there.

Angela to take Madame Arcati to London?

Well, this is certainly an interesting idea. Will Jayne Atkinson hop over the pond with her? If not, there are two choice roles for Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter to take on...

Here is the article from the Daily Mail:

Angela Lansbury wants to come home to England to make what she believes will be her final stage appearance. The star is eager to bring a production of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit to the West End. She played the phoney old medium, Madame Arcati, with much gusto opposite Rupert Everett on Broadway earlier this year.

But the actress, now in her 84th year, is insistent that the comedy goes to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, and only the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.

The reason? Ms Lansbury's mother Moyna Macgill was also an actress, and performed on the West End stage, including the Haymarket, in the years before World War II.

Angela has told friends and associates that she doesn't need to come to London (she certainly doesn't need the money), but feels it would 'complete the circle' if she did Blithe Spirit at the Haymarket as a way of honouring her mother, and ending her stage career on a high note.

Blithe Spirit is a creaky comedy, but Madame Arcati is a bit of a laugh. Whenever Lansbury's Arcati felt a 'presence', she did a dotty dance that changed nightly. At the Tony Awards, she explained her dance depended on how much energy she had that night.

The Haymarket management said it would love to have Blithe Spirit. 'But it depends on how flexible Miss Lansbury is prepared to be,' a spokesman for the theatre told me.

The Haymarket is busy with Waiting For Godot, starring Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup, which runs until August 9. Anna Friel begins in Breakfast At Tiffany's on September 9 and that's scheduled to run until around next February. And there's talk of The Three Sisters opening some time in 2010.

'If there's a slot, we'll fit Blithe Spirit in. Angela Lansbury would sell a lot of tickets,' added the spokesman.

Mr Everett, meanwhile, begins filming St Trinian's: The Legend Of Fritton's Gold soon and doesn't plan to do Blithe Spirit in London.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mama's Got the Stuff


There are certainly a variety of recordings of Gypsy on the market for discerning cast album collectors. Ethel Merman originated the role of Rose in 1959, Roz Russell scored the 1962 film adaptation. Angela Lansbury breathed life into the original London and first Broadway revival in 1973 & 74, respectively. Tyne Daly starred in the 1989 revival; Bernadette Peters in the 2003 revival and of course Patti LuPone in the recent 2008 production. Oh, and Bette Midler made the 1993 made for television adaptation. So even if you don't count the horrendous Kay Medford studio cast album, that's a lot of Gypsy.

If there is any one argument to be had, it's over which actress is the definitive Rose. Every one of these leading ladies has had their share of vociferous champions as well as detractors. It's just the nature of the beast. When it comes down to it, there are two recordings of Gypsy I listen to repeatedly: the original Broadway and original London albums.

Tyne Daly's album is marred by the powers that be who insisted she record the score while suffering from laryngitis (don't let the album - which Tyne herself has disowned - fool you: a trip to youtube shows you what a marvel she was in the part). I don't feel that the most two recent albums fully captured what made Bernadette and Patti's performances indelible (and the tempo and energy on the latter is surprisingly lacking). The two soundtrack albums offer very little in terms of musical enjoyment, unless you're a fan of Lisa Kirk or Bette Midler.

While I love the London cast album for Angela Lansbury's truly stunning turn as Rose, the recording of Gypsy to end all Gypsy's is the original Broadway cast recording with Miss Ethel Merman. The album was recorded May 24, 1959. As was the tradition for most musicals at the time, it was recorded on the first Sunday after opening. It was released a mere two weeks later and has been a must have for Broadway fans ever since.

The original album is definitive for three reasons: Ethel Merman, Milton Rosenstock and Dick Perry. Merman was a force of nature in the part, and though people have looked back on her performance as lacking, she is electrifying on the album. Rosenstock was the musical director and I've yet to hear a better Gypsy orchestra. Dick Perry was the second trumpet player on the show who became an in demand player for many musicals as a result of the showstopping improvisation during the overture. Styne insisted on Perry for the pits of many of his subsequent musicals and can be heard on the cast albums of Do Re Mi, Subways Are for Sleeping and most prominently in Funny Girl where he was the Cornet Man. Gypsy is widely considered to have the greatest overture in musical theatre, and its first recording has never been bettered.

There is also something about the way Goddard Lieberson recorded these big scores for Columbia records in the late 50s and 60s that is just so satisfying. While Lieberson took liberties with false lead-ins and endings and rarely recording dialogue, his albums are some of the best ever produced. He had a knack for producing and helped make Columbia the leader in original cast recordings, when show music was at the height of popular culture. Once he retired in the 70s, Thomas Shepard, who produced the remastering of this recording, became the leader over at RCA. But in terms of how it was recorded - everyone was in a large room and the performances were big and theatrical, truly capturing what it was like to hear the score in the theatre. There was a kineticism that is lacking on most contemporary cast albums. This energy is especially evident on Lieberson's recordings such as Gypsy and for my money, the greatest cast album of a musical ever made, Mame.

In honor of the show's 50th anniversary, Sony Masterworks has reissued the album in a brand new edition (its third CD release). The new release is pretty much the same as the '99 release, with the noted addition of three tracks: a publisher's demo of "Who Needs Him?" from 1959, Michael Feinstein's brief interview with composer Jule Styne about working on the show and "Gypsy Rose Lee Recalls Burlesque." The latter is one of those novelty items that has to be heard to be fully appreciated. The liner notes are reprinted verbatim from '99, with the addition of a few new paragraphs that comment on the continuing popularity of the show, mentioning Bernadette and Patti in the process.

In lieu of a jewel case, the new release is in one of those trifold cardboard slimline cases, with an insert for the liner note booklet and another for the CD itself. The case itself recreates the original LP artwork, the liner notes recreates the collage of photos used for the LP reissue and first CD release. One in particular that I've never seen before but is a rather fun shot of Paul Wallace recording "All I Need is the Girl" with Sandra Church.

If you already have the '99 Gypsy, the new release isn't really necessary unless you're a purist, such as myself. To those who don't have it, I resist the urge to ask you what you're waiting for and instead offer you links from which you can purchase it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Finian's Coming Soon...

My beloved Sarah just posted this video on Facebook and it had to be shared:

Here is Kate Baldwin singing "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" from the Encores revival of Finian's Rainbow. The production transfers to Broadway on October 8th, making it the 5th Encores concert to do so. The marquee is up and tickets are now on sale. Ms. Baldwin, Jim Norton and Cheyenne Jackson will be reprising their roles. Joining the cast is Christopher Fitzgerald as the leprechaun Og. We'll be dropping back into Rainbow Valley, Missitucky to visit one of our favorite leading ladies.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"The Happy Time" - An Appreciation

I'm not sure why I didn't delve into The Happy Time around the time I was first discovering Cabaret, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Woman of the Year and Chicago. John Kander and Fred Ebb made an indelible mark on Broadway, with a collaboration that spanned almost 40 years, producing some of the most respected musicals this side of the 20th century. Somehow when I was touching on the hits, I overlooked this 1968 gem.

To be honest, The Happy Time isn't a great musical. It suffers from (what else?) a weak libretto by N. Richard Nash that's very loosely adapted from Samuel Taylor's play. But Kander and Ebb wrote a score that is very much unlike any other they wrote. Their musical scores were usually edgier and grittier than most, delving into darker cynicism shaped by directorial concept. However, this one has a romanticism and lightness that if a far cry from a seedy Berlin nightclub, a Windy City or South American jail cell or an ice skating rink.

The story concerns a jet-setting, prodigal son photographer who returns to his French-Canadian hometown St. Pierre to reconnect with his family, turning their lives upside down. His curmudgeonly father continues to criticize - when not looking at his "dirty pictures," while his nephew worships him. Meanwhile, he reconnects with a former love, who has grown into a practical, focus (read: grownup) schoolteacher.

The musical was produced by that Abominable Showman David Merrick and directed and choreographed by Gower Champion, who won Tonys for both assignments. Robert Goulet, who won his Best Actor Tony for his work here, starred alongside David Wayne and newcomer Michael Rupert. Julie Gregg was Goulet's love interest and old pros George S. Irving and Charles Durning played Goulet's brothers. The production opened at the Broadway Theatre on January 28, 1968 to decidedly mixed reviews. Many found favor with the actors, but great fault with the script. It closed after 286 performances and bears the distinction of being the first musical to lose a million dollar investment.

However, the show, though mired in relative obscurity, has found a new life in recent years. Goodspeed Opera House showcased the first revisal in 1980. A production at the Niagara University Theatre in 2002 enlisted Kander and Ebb to help further revise the book and score, restoring cut scenes and songs. The composing team declared this the definitive performance version of the show and was used in the 2007 Musicals in Mufti concert and the 2008 Signature Theatre revival in Virginia.

RCA recorded the original cast album which showcases what was so wonderful about the original production: its music and lyrics. Goulet gets the choicest material, notably the lilting title song that opens the show and the act two opener "Walking Among My Yesterdays," the most beautiful song about nostalgia I have ever heard. Wayne charms with "The Life of the Party" and Rupert makes an auspicious Broadway debut with the charming "Please Stay" and the rousing "Without Me." All three score with the eleven o'clock number "A Certain Girl," which to my ear is about as close to Jerry Herman territory you're likely to find Kander and Ebb. For those who are wondering, Goulet is at a vocal peak here; his confident and assured baritone ringing out quite clearly with none of the Vegas stylings for which he later became quite notorious.

Now, I'm not saying that The Happy Time is their best score, but it certainly ranks as my personal favorite. This original Broadway cast album gets more airplay than any other Kander & Ebb score. A little caveat: here's a clip from the 1968 Tony Awards. Goulet sings the title song, then joins Wayne and Rupert on "A Certain Girl." Ohhh, for the days when Tony performances lasted eight minutes... Enjoy.

Monday, July 20, 2009

"One Rap for Yes...Two Raps For No"

We were there for opening night, we were there for Tony Tuesday so it was inevitable that we would be there for the final performance of Blithe Spirit (some of us went much more often than that). For the record, today marked my fourth and final trip to the Condomine residence.

However, the day got started at Thalia's for some bloggers who brunch action. Steve and Doug, Esther, Chris, Sarah, Kari, Roxie, Jimmy, Alicia and myself gathered for the usual conversation over breakfast concoctions (make mine a mimosa any day). Even with the pleasure of reading everyone's blogs, writing on someone's Facebook wall or communicating via twitter, nothing beats gathering together at a table in a swank NY restaurant for the real thing.

Sarah, Kari, Roxie, Noah and I headed over to the Shubert for a sold-out matinee that featured yet another fizzy champagne afternoon. The crowd was electric, very much into the play and appreciative of the comedy. Some of the lines were rushed/dropped, but that didn't hinder any of the enjoyment. Rupert Everett and Christine Ebersole were still problematic in their characterizations, but not so much to hinder from the experience. Susan Louise O'Connor is a star on the rise. Simon Jones and Deborah Rush gave the Bradman's their final exercise in skepticism. Of course there was that devil-may-care Tony-winning performance of Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, a pro among pros who (if the rumors are true about her involvement in A Little Night Music in the fall) is certainly enjoying a late-career renaissance on Broadway, and deservedly so.

My admiration today, though, is reserved for Jayne Atkinson. Atkinson took the role of waspy Ruth, a stark contrast to the ethereal and immoral Elvira, and turned it into something extraordinary. Ruth usually provides a great comic angle, but mostly as a straight man to the lunacy and farce going on around her. To put it frankly, she's rather bland on paper. Atkinson, though, created an indelible leading lady performance that was one of the most underrated treasures of the theatre season.

Today, especially, Atkinson's Ruth seemed to shine ever-so-brightly. Finding even in the final performance truthful comedy that none of us had ever seen before (a riotous parody of Madame Arcati's earlier trance dance). Droll, clipped, with some of the best listening and reacting I've ever seen in a comedy, she was nothing short of effervescent. For my money, she deserved a Best Actress in a Play nomination. But I do look forward to seeing what she does next. If she's onstage in NY, you know we'll be there.

After the show, the cast received flowers and continued to bow as the curtain came down and the house lights went up. And predictably enough, we went to Angus for post-show dinner and drinks, continuing to enjoy ourselves immensely on what was a most beautiful day in the city.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Quote of the Day: Tony Party Edition

It's rather late to put these out here, but here are some of the choicest quotes from the Lady Iris' Annual Moon Lady Extravaganza, (SarahB's annual Tony party, which is more fun than being in attendance as far as I'm concerned). These were all part of my live-twittering during the summer. There were a lot of other amazing things said, but you'll have to ask the others to remember those...

"If he plays Unskinny Bop' I'll come unglued." - Sarah, on seeing Brett Michaels in the Tony opening number

"Oh that's me! And we're both wearing sparkles!" - Sarah, on seeing her party namesake on the telecast (we were each assigned a Broadway favorite and had to drink upon seeing him or her, or in Kari's case, them)

"I saw Lauren Graham in the ladies room!" - Christine
"I peed next to her!!!" - Roxie

"They had a song off Broadway was that basically all the fuck word." - SarahB on Next to Normal

"Whew, that was too much acting for me." -Roxie, on Next to Normal's Tony performance

"There's a gay smackdown coming." - Kari, on Steve and RivB's differing POVs of Legally Blonde

"Harriet Walter broke our table!" - The Gathered Ensemble, but specifically Sarah & Kari

"I see this role wasn't a stretch for Ripley." - Me, on Alice Ripley geting all JFK on us

"Chandra Wilson? I thought it was Aretha without a hat." - Christine

"What happened to the guy originated this part?" - Me, on Jersey Boys and John Lloyd Young
"He became a mute." - Sarah


"Those boys are underage, Elton... don't try it!" - Sarah, while Billy Elliot collected Best Musical

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Rare glimpse at the original "Chicago"

Here is some rare footage from the original 1975 production of Chicago shot during a dress rehearsal, which includes a couple minutes of "Loopin' the Loop," the original finale that would be replaced by "Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag" (and whose theme remained in the show's overture).

Theatre Trivia about the late Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite, once named the "most trusted man in America," passed away yesterday at the age of 92 leaving behind an incredible legacy as a journalist and news anchor. Many other and more worthy news sites will be eulogizing the broadcasting legend, so I will leave that charge to them, but wanted to touch very briefly on his Broadway connection.

He and his late wife were avid theatregoers in New York; often seen on the red carpet at many opening nights on Broadway. His daughter-in-law is stage and screen actress Deborah Rush, who is currently on the boards as Mrs. Bradman in the revival of Blithe Spirit that closes tomorrow.

But I wanted to share this interesting tidbit from the TCM biography of Mr. Cronkite:

"Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wanted Cronkite to play the Narrator role in their stage production, Into the Woods, but Cronkite declined. In 1995, he provided voice-overs, however, for the musical revival of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, starring Matthew Broderick."

I knew the latter piece of information, as Mr. Cronkite's voice over narration is on the revival cast album, but I never knew the former.

And that's the way it was...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Meet the Press

"I haven't brought you both here just for a tea party..."

Countess Aurelia wasn't kidding! As some of you might be aware, I am part of the Independent Theater Bloggers Association. Some of you might not know that I volunteered to be its membership director. One of my first assignments was to get an acceptance speech from The Norman Conquests which was voted Best Revival of a Play by our organization.

In terms of getting the actual acceptance speech, I was pretty much clueless how to proceed so I dropped a note to the show's press agency (those fantastic folks at Boneau/Bryan-Brown). They invited me down to Sardi's for a brief farewell toast (with tea) for the cast, as the production ends its limited run on July 26 and the company of British actors make their way home.

So here's another series of firsts! It was my first time at any sort of specific press function, which is surreal in itself, let me tell you. People are gathering with their fancy cameras and video equipment. There I am representing the blogosphere with the mighty flipcam, which I have to say is a blogger's best friend. Unlike opening nights and red-carpet events, this one was considerably low-key. Everyone was relaxed and the atmosphere most congenial.

The brilliant and talented cast of six arrived at the fourth floor of Sardi's (another first!) and stood for a quick group shot surrounded by windowcards, then they sat down for a cup of tea and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies (though it was commented that cucumber sandwiches would have been more traditional, SarahB we needed you!!) after which the cast signed several posters for BC/EFA.

Finally, it was time for me to get what I came for. I had traveled 50 miles on a mission to get 30 seconds worth of footage and come hell or high water I was going to get a damned good acceptance speech! Jessica Hynes was elected by the group to accept on their behalf. We moved ourselves to the corner by the bar to quickly film it.

Well it's a wonder the camera wasn't shaking as I stood there suppressing extreme laughter. I had no idea what Hynes was going to say and her speech took me completely by surprise. We got it all in one take and I continued to laugh myself silly. After getting out my fanboy appreciation for the hilarious Shaun of the Dead (she's Yvonne!), the two of us talked for about twenty minutes about The Norman Conquests, the other shows playing (we zeroed in on God of Carnage and Reasons to be Pretty), comparing NY and London theatre and touching on, of all people, Patricia Routledge. She talked about what it was like to work in NY and the genuine appreciation at how the entire cast has been embraced by the Broadway community.

In those brief minutes she talked about the personal fulfillment she gets from performing live in the theatre, involving herself in the process of rehearsal and performance and how it's one of the most satisfying aspects of her career. I asked if she'd like to come back to work onstage in NY and she said, "Oh, yes. Definitely!" I look forward to the opportunity to see all six onstage again.

The event lasted no more than 45 minutes, which gave me a chance to observe diligent press agents at work. Even more surreal were the show's producers in attendance introducing themselves to me. Talk about a moment where I stopped and thought, "Wow, if they could see me now..."

Afterwards, I shared the elevator ride to the street with the three gracious and lovely leading ladies. It was a personal thrill to be able to tell them how much I enjoyed The Norman Conquests and the sort of exhilarating experience the marathon performances were like. I reminded Amelia Bullmore we had met at the Theatre Worlds awards and had had the opportunity to tell her then how much it meant to me (she remembered!) and then turned to Amanda Root and said, "We haven't met yet, but I love you."

I told them that myself and other bloggers were coming back to the last marathon and we discussed how lots of fans like to make a sort of pilgrimage to a final Broadway performance. Root told me I should also come to the second to last marathon, to which I replied, "Don't tempt me." It's a show I would gladly go to again and again if I could.

When we got to the street, I thanked the actors for their excellent work and their time. It was Wednesday, so they were between shows, so I wished them well with their evening performance before heading home, freshly pumped with adrenaline and entirely smitten with the three charming actresses.

It was an invigorating way to spend an afternoon, with some of the most talented people on the boards in NY. And I implore you, if you've not had a chance to see The Norman Conquests at the Circle in the Square, get your tickets now. There are only three marathons left in the run, and that is the best way to experience it.

Meanwhile, here is Jessica Hynes' rather cheeky ITBA acceptance speech:

Thursday, July 16, 2009

"For the Love of Christ"

My good friend Noah is starting a new project, as co-producer of a show in the New York International Fringe Festival! Here are the details:

For the Love of Christ
will begin performances at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street) on Saturday, August 15th at 2:15pm. Additional performances will be held Wednesday, August 19th at 10pm, Friday, August 21st at 5pm, Monday, August 24th at 3pm, Friday, August 28th at 7pm. The musical's book, music, and lyrics are by Ben Knox with additional book by Heather Collins and Karen Weatherwax and additional lyrics and arrangements by Brian J. Nash. For tickets, visit www.fringenyc.com.

In 1979, a French-Canadian airline steward flew into San Francisco and all hell broke loose. This bathhouse brouhaha explores the advent of AIDS while satirizing mankind's extremes--religious mania, gay drama and maniacal monkeys make for an outrageous experience!

Christ features a cast including Kristy Cates (Wicked), Steven Stafford (Spamalot), Jenna Coker Jones, (Evil Dead), Dan Amboyer (Bash'd), Ben Knox, Eric Rubbe, and Jamaal Wilson.

The musical is directed by Holly-Anne Ruggiero (Jersey Boys) with choreography by Holly Cruz (Seussical), sets by Michael Kramer, costumes by DH Withrow, and lights by Christian DeAngelis. For the Love of Christ is presented by Knoxious Productions with co-line producers, Joey Oliva and Noah Himmelstein.

Join us for Christ's Party Like It's 1979 on Monday, July 20th at 9pm at Vlada (331 West 51st St.), hosted by Scott Nevins with special guests, Daniel Reichard (Jersey Boys) and Kristy Cates (Wicked). Free admission with drink specials and man-raffle.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Quote of the Day

'Others feel the outbreak in recent years of bloggers who disregard established professional etiquette by weighing in before a show's official opening has damaged the reputation of the entire critical community. "Anyone in a position to make editorial comment is now regarded as the enemy," one pundit said.'

-Variety, covering the press response to losing Tony voting privileges

So dear reader, have I ever violated so-called professional etiquette...?

It's a Fiasco...

The Tony Awards committee decided to revoke voting privileges from first night press members, meaning all journalists are henceforth unable to participate in the Tony process. As many can guess, this decision is being met with a mostly negative response from bloggers, the chatterati on ATC, and inevitably those writers whose privileges have been revoked.

Citing "conflict of interest" doesn't quite cut it, as the press voters were the most objective parties who had a greater probability of seeing all nominated shows. Remaining voters include producers, actors, writers, union leaders, the Broadway League, et al, et al. You know... the Switzerland of the Broadway community. Anyway, it lowers the number of voters from 800 to 700, a 13% reduction.

When you provoke the media, you're liable to make them angry. Here are some further articles on the matter:

Chris Caggiano: Critics No Longer Tony Voters
Adam Feldman: This Just In: Tony Awards Nix Crix
Patrick Healy: Journalists Will No Longer Be Voting for Tony Awards
Matthew Murray: Reviewing the Tony Situation
Tom O'Neil: Tonys to Press: Drop Dead
Matt Windman: Destroying the Credibility of the Tony Awards: Banning Journalists as Voters

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Actors' Foibles

A feature by Paul Steiner from a 1970 playbill for Company (with Larry Kert as Bobby):

Preparation
Edmund Kean, the famous British thespian, believed that diet was important in preparing a role. Consequently, when he was to play a tyrant he ate pork. If he was to be a murderer, he leaned heavily on raw beef and when he was rehearsing as a lover, he always ordered boiled mutton... Claudette Colbert had a theory that what one wore next to the skin was significant. As a result she chose black lace for her glamorous part and homespun when she was a down-country heroine.

Debuts
Arthur Godfrey broke into vaudeville by trying to sell a cemetery plot to an old trooper, who didn't buy the plot but signed up the salesman... Don Ameche made his stage debut in a grade school Christmas tableau in which he played the part of the Virgin Mary... Danny Kaye's very first public performance was in a PS 149 production in which he played a watermelon seed... Gregory Peck worked as a barker at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair.

Act I, Strike 3
Ethel Barrymore, a rabid baseball fan all her life, used to have an extra come onstage on matinee days when a game was in progress and whisper the Giants' score in her ear.

Close to the Heart
W.C. Fields listed contributions to churches in the Solomon Islands and depreciation on his lawn mower on his income tax forms... Although unable to cook, Joanne Dru has always been an inveterate collector of cook books... The late Gypsy Rose Lee once smuggled her Chinese hairless puppy onto an airline in her bra in order to avoid having her beloved pet ride in the baggage compartment.

Monday, July 13, 2009

"Nurse Jackie"

I have a new favorite TV show.

About three years ago I discovered the Showtime series Weeds starring Mary Louise Parker and Elizabeth Perkins (ooh wouldn't she make a great Barbara in August? sorry, I'll get to the point). Since devouring that first series, I've looked into other cable series with particular favorites among Entourage and Six Feet Under. I have to admit here I've never seen The Sopranos, but was intrigued to hear that its Emmy-winning star Edie Falco would be starring in a brand new series.

Nurse Jackie is an offbeat dark comedy centering around the goings on of All Saints, a fictional hospital in NYC. Falco is the inevitably flawed protagonist, a woman leading two lives; she kisses her husband and children goodbye and takes off her wedding ring before entering her realm: the ER of this hospital. Add to the mix, a pain pill addiction and an affair with the pharmacologist supplying her with drugs. The writing is sharp and shows considerable promise for a long run. Jackie may be the most interesting character on TV since Nancy Botwin, helped considerably by Falco's fully realized performance that is simultaneously hilarious and unnerving. Jackie isn't above eviscerating a doctor for making an inept call or flushing the ear of a UN delegate down the drain after he slashed a prostitute. For all of her problems and questionable choices, she is a compassionate nurse who genuinely cares for her patients and is brilliant in her job as a healer.

The emergency room is chock full of colorful characters. Under Jackie's wing is Zoey, a narive nurse in training played with utter whimsy by Merritt Wever. Tony award nominee Eve Best is delectably droll as Jackie's best friend and confidant, a narcissistic doctor somewhere between Sex and the City and Emma Thompson (give this woman an Emmy already). Peter Facinelli is the new doctor, insufferable yet completely likable (with a unique form of Tourette's). Anna Deavere Smith is the stern hospital administrator; Dominic Fumusa is Jackie's devoted husband. The series is shot in NY and there have been a slew of appearances from theatre actors including Eli Wallach, Swoosie Kurtz, Blythe Danner, Judith Ivey and Erin Dilly.

The show airs Monday nights at 10:30 on Showtime or you can also catch the episodes On Demand. If you don't have Showtime, you can go to their website and watch episodes for free on there. It's a new that's worth checking out, and if you're anything like me, you'll be obsessed in no time.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

And now for something completely Shakespearean...

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Well, the title pretty much says it all. Three actors, as themselves, present (as promised) 37 plays in 97 minutes. The Complete Works was created by the Reduced Shakespeare Company and first performed in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1987. The deconstruction and consolidation of Shakespeare's works would prove a smash hit in England, playing at the Criterion Theatre in London for nine years. The play is currently enjoying a return engagement this summer at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in Boscobel.

After a brief poll of the audience checking to see who has read King John, the play gets things started with that deathless classic Romeo & Juliet, establishing the sort of evening you are in for. There are the actors, some costume pieces, wigs and in this instance, a wheelbarrow full of props (not to mention the sassy prop mistress/actress). They find various ways of distilling the various tragedies: Othello is performed as a rap, Titus Andronicus as a cooking show, Macbeth is reduced to a single duel complete with overzealous Scottish accents, etc. The comedies are combined into one singular play, as most of them are pretty much formulaic. The history plays are presented as a football game. And so on and so forth...

The script allows room for considerable improvisation and there is no third wall to the action, with consistent acknowledgment and awareness of the audience right from the very start. This later devolves into audience participation in the second act, which is entirely devoted to Hamlet, plus three encores. The sonnets receive their moment in the spotlight - on an index card to be passed around the audience from row to tow. Plus, they also manage to sneak in a bit about the Shakespeare Apocrypha. (That professor of mine should be thrilled).

The three actors taking on this mammoth lampoon are Chris Edwards, Jason O'Connell and Kurt Rhoads. Together, they play an immense number of characters from all plays. Think Man #1 and Man #2 from The 39 Steps, a similarly British romp with considerable parallels. It's silly, it's wittty, it's farce. All three work well with one another, a testament also to director and Artistic Director of HVSF, Terry O'Brien. Back when I sat in on rehearsal, I got to see the four of them work on various sections of the piece. They ran various bits again and again, each time becoming more solid and infinitely funnier just from an hour in the rehearsal room.

Edwards particularly shines in his solo moments with the audience, particularly after the other two have run off at the end of Act One. He's also a superb foil to the lunacy of the other two (though he's a riot as Juliet's nurse). Rhoads displays unexpectedly hilarious gravitas in his sly deconstruction of serious Shakespearean actors, running the gamut from Jack Benny to Charlton Heston. O'Connell gets to do the most outrageous aspects, splaying Shakespearean ingenues as dithering, vomit-prone sprites and tapping into an accomplished trunk of celebrity impersonations. (Two of his standouts include Queen Gertrude as played by Carol Channing and King Claudius by way of Jack Nicholson).

The play is for the most part hilarious, though some sketches work better than others. For instance the set-up for Titus is infinitely funnier than the punchline. O'Connell comments at one point that the tragedies are funnier than the comedies, and in this case that is true. The Hamlet portion is funny, but a bit overlong. However, it's worth it for the three encores, each one subsequently more outrageous than the first. In spite of those minor quibbles, it doesn't detract from the overall enjoyment of the sheer lunacy at hand.

During the second act, three things crossed my mind: The 39 Steps, Monty Python and Anna Russell. All three, much like this work, are extracted from an uncanny British sense of humor, reveling in absurdity and steeped in comic tradition and wit. The first two complement Complete Works in its style and structure. Opera parodist Anna Russell popped in my head because she did one of her famed opera analyses on the fictional Verdi opera Hamletto, or Prosciuttino, which itself is a thinly-veiled deconstruction of Hamlet.

I once again brought my friend Dana along, who as an average theatregoer stressed the overwhelming amount of fun she had, especially evidenced at her inability to contain her laughter at Ophelia's drowning. It's a rare crowdpleaser, like the sort of small-scale theatrical events that used to dominate Off-Broadway in the days of yore. If you know someone who hates Shakespeare, bring them to this one. If they really hate it, put them in the front row. If you love Shakespeare, you should already have your tickets.

Meanwhile, I return for one last visit this Thursday for the third and final entry in the HVSF season, Pericles.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Tony Awards Tribute to Robert Preston

The theatre world lost one of its brightest stars in 1987 when two-time Tony winner Robert Preston died of lung cancer. Preston, a character actor who worked steadily in mostly B-pictures was turned into a major star when he originated the part of Harold Hill in The Music Man, leading the 39 year old actor onto a new career path as musical theatre leading man. Not bad for a person who'd never sung before in his life.

The year of his death, the Tony Awards brought two of his leading ladies, Barbara Cook (The Music Man, 1957) and Bernadette Peters (Mack and Mabel, 1974) onstage in a tribute to their leading man, followed by a rendition of "76 Trombones" led by a chorus and an enormous marching band. Incidentally, Angela Lansbury, the host for the evening, costarred with Preston in the 1960 film adaptation of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.

Friday, July 10, 2009

One More Time Round and Round the Garden


So in spite of the recession and being broke as a joke on coke, I decided that for my birthday I would treat myself to the final marathon of The Norman Conquests on July 26. The Tony-winning revival, imported from the Old Vic, ends its limited run on that Sunday, and I will be there to cheer on one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled. The trilogy of plays by Alan Ayckbourn tells the story of a dysfunctionally melancholy family over the course of a single weekend some time in the 1970s. Each successive play takes place in a separate part of the house, creating a gigantic theatrical puzzle of characters and situations, all based in devastating truth yet all utterly hilarious.

As you may recall, I attended a marathon of the show back in May along with Steve on Broadway his partner Doug. Turned out to be one of the greatest theatrical experiences I have ever had (and you couldn't ask for better company). Exhilarating, cathartic, alive - it's everything you would want out of the live theatre experience and then some.

They say you can see any one of the three plays in any particular order (or two, or just one). I gotta tell you: it's worth it to see all three, especially in the marathon setting. The way I look at it, it's not so much three plays as one giant play separated into three acts. And for what it's worth, I would have loved to have sat through a whole other play. The only melancholy I personally felt that day was that it had to end. The characters and the actors playing them are vibrant, fascinating and everything, especially Matthew Warchus' staging, is just brilliant (and his Tony should have been for this).

If you haven't had the privilege of seeing The Norman Conquests, I implore you to do so. There are many discounts available, but believe you me, if there weren't this one would be worth full price. And for those of you have already had the privilege and understand why I have to go back one last time, I hope to see you at the final marathon.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Thinking About "Carnival"


Earlier in the week it was announced that Leslie Caron would be joining Kristin Scott Thomas in the upcoming Paris production of A Little Night Music. If this is at all indicative of my thought processes, I was describing Caron's career to a friend who had never heard of her and it had me thinking about the musical Carnival.

Caron's film career got off to an auspicious start as Gene Kelly's love interest in the 1951 Oscar winning Best Picture, An American in Paris (which has had a musical version in the works for years). She also starred in another Best Picture winner Gigi (later adapted for Broadway), the film version of the musical Fanny (which dropped the songs and adapted Harold Rome's music for underscoring) and also a little gem of a film called Lili.

Lili, which premiered in 1953, was a hit for MGM garnering an Oscar nomination for Caron and co-starring Mel Ferrer, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Kurt Kaznar. Based on a short story by Paul Gallico, it's about an incredibly naive French orphan who is pretty much adopted by a traveling circus troupe. She's in love with a slick magician who dismisses her as a child, all the while finding herself in a tempestuous relationship with a puppeteer who is embittered because war injuries permanently halted his career as a dancer. The film won an Oscar for its musical scoring (by Bronislau Kaper) and featured a hit song "Hi Lili, Hi Lo."

In what was then a rare occurence, Lili was adapted from the screen as a Broadway musical, retitled Carnival (according to some sources it was Carnival!) The stage musical featured an entirely original score by Bob Merrill, quite easily his greatest achievement as a composer, with a book by Michael Stewart. (In lieu of using the hit film song, Merrill wrote an original song, the haunting "Love Makes the World Go Round" to take its place). Gower Champion made his Broadway directing debut under the guidance of producer David Merrick. Anna Maria Alberghetti in her only Broadway appearance played Lili, Jerry Orbach made his Main Stem bow as the puppeteer. Kaye Ballard took on the Zsa Zsa Gabor role.

The show opened at the Imperial Theatre on April 13, 1961 to rave reviews, winning a Tony for Alberghetti (in a tie with Diahann Carroll in No Strings) and its scenic design. It lost out on the big prize to the Pulitzer Prize winning satire How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. An original London production opened in 1963 and failed after 34 performances. But aside from regional productions and a popular Encores! mounting starring Anne Hathaway and Brian Stokes Mitchell in 2002, the musical has not seen a major revival on Broadway or in London, though there was talk of an Encores! transfer (as is usually the case when one of their mountings is considered an artistic success).

The original production had its share of backstage lore. The most famous was the all out feud between Merrick and Alberghetti. One time when she called out for illness, Merrick believed her to be faking it and sent her a dozen dead (or depending on the source, plastic) roses and demanded she take a lie detector test. She hung his picture over the toilet in her bathroom. Merrick later claimed one his greatest achievements was "Making sure that Anna Maria Alberghetti never worked on Broadway again."

Also, Alberghetti was apparently the first actress in a Broadway musical to use a body mike during a performance. During one performance, the actress exited on cue and had two minutes until she reappeared, bee-lining for the ladies room. However, this particular time the actress forgot to turn off her microphone, so during the middle of the show the audience heard the sound of streaming water followed by an unceremonious flush (which in itself was followed by Algerghetti's re-entry). The audience was beside itself with laughter, but that's the beauty of live theatre...

In spite of all this, Alberghetti was the toast of Broadway. Susan Watson, Anita Gillette and Carla Alberghetti (you guessed it, her sister) all played Lili during the Broadway run while Ed Ames replaced Jerry Orbach. Another amusing anecdote, this time from Ms. Gillette, was relayed in the dishy Making it on Broadway. When she took over the role of Lili, she was asked if she wanted her name put above the title. She said yes (I mean, who wouldn't?). A few weeks later she received a bill from the company manager for the cost of the sign. It wasn't in her contract. She took it to Equity and lost.

I think it's high time someone revived the show on Broadway, it has such a beautiful score that deserves to be better known than it is. But until we reach that day, here she is, the Tony-winning original assisted by the company performing the spirited "Yes My Heart" followed by Jerry Orbach's devastating ballad "Her Face" from an appearance on Ed Sullivan:

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Katharine Hepburn: Stage to Screen

The New York Public Library is currently offering an exhibition of all Katharine Hepburn's papers from her extensive theatrical career. "Katharine Hepburn: In Her Own Files" compiles letters, notebooks, sketches, scrapbooks, telegrams, etc. (All of her film related documents have been donated by her estate to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Margaret Hedrick Library in Los Angeles). The exhibit is on display at the Performing Arts Library, situated in Lincoln Center until October 10, 2009 at the Vincent Astor Gallery.

Throughout her career, Hepburn found herself making the film versions of various plays (the Academy responded: out of 12 nominations, 8 were for play adaptations; 3 of her 4 wins were stage-to-screen translations). Two films (The Philadelphia Story & Without Love) found Hepburn recreating roles she originated on Broadway. In honor of the festivities surrounding her display, there will be free screenings of some of these classics every Saturday at 2:30PM the Bruno Walter Auditorium.

For more information on the exhibit and screenings, visit their website. Here's the summer film line-up:

July 11
The Philadelphia Story - b&w, 112 minutes
Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn (Oscar nom), James Stewart (Oscar win)
Directed by George Cukor, 1940. Based on a play by Philip Barry.

July 18
Morning Glory - b&w, 75 minutes
Katharine Hepburn (Oscar win), Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Adolphe Menjou
Directed by Lowell Sherman, 1933. Based on a play by Zoƫ Akins.

July 25
Holiday - b&w, 96 minutes
Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Doris Nolan, Lew Ayres
Directed by George Cukor, 1938. Based on a play by Philip Barry.

Aug. 1
State of the Union - color, 122 minutes
Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Van Johnson, Angela Lansbury
Directed by Frank Capra, 1948. Based on a play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.

Aug. 8
Summertime - color, 98 minutes
Katharine Hepburn (Oscar nom), Rossano Brazzi, Isa Miranda, Darren McGavin
Directed by David Lean, 1955. Based on a play by Arthur Laurents.

Aug. 15
Suddenly, Last Summer - b&w, 115 minutes
Elizabeth Taylor (Oscar nom), Katharine Hepburn (Oscar nom), Montgomery Clift
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959. Based on a play by Tennessee Williams.

Aug. 22
The Trojan Women - color, 105 minutes
Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Genevieve Bujold, Irene Papas
Directed by Michael Cacoyannis, 1971. Based on a play by Euripides.

Aug. 29
A Delicate Balance - color, 132 minutes
Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, Lee Remick, Kate Reid, Joseph Cotten
Directed by Michael Tony Richardson, 1973. Based on a play by Edward Albee.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Mystery of Patricia Neway

Calling all sleuths! We've got ourselves a musical theatre mystery here.

I was talking to my friend Chris, who is working at Glimmerglass Opera this summer, about The Consul by Gian-Carlo Menotti (who was born on this day in 1911, I might add). Glimmerglass, located in Cooperstown, NY, is presenting the opera this summer in repertory with more traditional fare such as La Traviata, La Cenerentola and Dido and Aeneas.

The Consul
fascinates me because it one of the few operas that was composed specifically for Broadway. The original production opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 15, 1950 running for 269 performances (don't let the tally fool you, the show was actually a financial success) before it became a staple of opera companies worldwide. The opera showcased young soprano Patricia Neway in the leading role of the oppressed everywoman Magda Sorel and established her as a force to be reckoned with in the opera and theatre world. Neway would also recreate her role in the original London and Paris productions and in a European tour.

Neway was born in Brooklyn, NY on September 20, 1919. She studied voice at the Mannes College of Music (now part of the New School) and with private coaches, making her debut on Broadway in 1942 in the chorus of Offenbach's La Vie Parisienne. Neway's voice, strong acting ability and striking figure onstage (she stood six feet tall) combined to create a popular presence in the world of opera and musical theatre.

Here is what I had to say about the The Consul on July 21, 2008:

'The three-act opera follows the tragic story (it's an opera about the horrors of dictatorship, this cannot possibly end well) of Magda Sorel, a young wife and mother in a deliberately unnamed totalitarian nation whose husband is a rebel wanted by the secret police. After he is wounded, her husband makes a run to the border to hide while Magda is left to make arrangements to transport the family out of the country safely. Magda's troubles multiply as her mother-in-law and child become seriously ill and she finds herself constantly followed and interrogated by the secret police. Much to her growing frustration finds that the bureaucracy at the consulate is unstoppable, leaving herself and many others stranded vis-a-vis the monikers of red tape and paperwork. When her child dies, she makes another imploring visit to the consulate and when rejected once again by the callous secretary, her emotions and anger explode in this second show-stopping aria "To This We've Come," a release of a leitmotif heard in the recitative between Magda and her husband early in the first act, with one of the few moments of musical assonance experienced in the score.'

The opera won the Pulitzer Prize for Music and the NY Drama Critics Award as Best Musical. Decca recorded an original cast album of musical highlights that has yet to be released on CD. Menotti and Neway would work again in the short-lived Maria Golovin in 1958 at the Broadway Theatre. The following year, Neway would score great success on Broadway opposite Mary Martin as the original Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, winning the 1960 Tony for Best Featured Actress. (I've always been amused that the actress playing Maria was six years older than the actress portraying the Reverend Mother).

That same year, she starred in a revival of The Consul at the City Center. Her performance was taped for an early attempt at pay-per-view television. That taping, considered lost, was discovered in a vault somewhere and released on DVD by VAI and it is an extraordinary document featuring a performance of a lifetime.

The Sound of Music marked Neway's last appearance on Broadway, but she continued her association with Rodgers and Hammerstein by appearing in the 1964 Lincoln Center revival of The King and I as Lady Thiang as well as a 1966 City Center revival and unrelated 1967 TV production of Carousel as Nettie. Neway sang in numerous productions at the NYCO, including the debut of Six Characters in Search of an Author, sharing the stage with the late, great Beverly Sills.

While talking about the excitement and going on up at Glimmerglass, Chris sent me a youtube link of Patricia's performance of "To This We've Come" this evening. In the title it says "Patricia Neway (aka Frances Breeze) in The Consul." At first I didn't know what to make of it, until I decided to google the two names together. What came up in the search was a link to the youtube clip I had just seen as well as one for her Biography page on IMDb. There was this blurb:

"After The Sound of Music, Patricia Neway settled down in Hampton, Virginia and taught voice under her married name "Frances Breeze" until The College of William and Mary recruited her as the head of their singing department. Her last performance was as the mother in Gian Carlo Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors" in 1974, although she taught voice and directed choir until her death in 2003."

I'm forced to take this information with some reticence. There is no date of death listed on her IMDb, IBDb or Wikipedia pages. In searching through various databases and periodicals I've not been able to locate any sort of obituary for her under either name. I know she was married to opera singer and voice teacher Morris Gesell around the time of The Consul, but the NY Times lists nothing in its archives about her past 1966. If Neway has passed away six years ago, it does seem strange that not one single news source picked up on it.

As for Frances Breeze of William and Mary College, it appears she was a highly respected voice teacher, beloved by her students and dedicated to teaching the art of vocal technique as well as instilling her students confidence and determination. She retired from the school for health reasons in 1983, and moved to St. Croix. Breeze returned to the Virginia peninsula where she died in 2003. In her memory, the Alumni Association established an endowment in her memory providing scholarships to vocal students.

However I have been unable to make a connection between the two names aside from the information I've gathered on Youtube and IMDb. Plus, Patricia Neway's signature is present on the 2009 Broadway Bear of the Mother Abbess (decked out in the striking black and red formal habit Lucinda Ballard designed for the original production). I'm not sure that they would keep a bear for six whole years before they placed it on auction, but I am not familiar with how this branch of BC/EFA functions.

The facts are few and far between and I feel there is more to the story than what I've found. I'm going to do further research to find concrete evidence to determine whether or not Frances Breeze and Patricia Neway are one and the same. Unless perhaps any of my regular readers might be able to help?

So until I get to the bottom of this enigma, here is the aforementioned clip of Patricia Neway singing "To This We've Come"

Monday, July 6, 2009

"Stars of the Future"


"Talented ladies the pros think will make it on Broadway"

While browsing through my Playbill for the musical The Girl Who Came to Supper (which ran for 112 performances at the Broadway Theatre from December 8, 1963 to March 14, 1964), I came across this particular feature in which producers picked the actresses they felt were most destined for stardom. This seems like the type of feature that I would prefer to see today, rather than the phony restaurant recommendations.

Let's see if their predictions were correct...

David Merrick:

"If the axiom that stars are born, not made, is true, it is equally true that opportunity and luck are an important part of the picture. There's a 17 year old named Lesley Ann Warren in 110 in the Shade, and if the reactions of the audiences and my associates mean anything, she is headed for stardom. Lesley has the radiance and the special magic about her that, combined with her talent for singing, dancing and acting, insure her a happy future in the theatre. When she first auditioned for me, without benefit of previous stage experience, I knew she would not disappoint me. I was right."

Frederick Brisson:

"Next year's star? I nominate Carolan Daniels, an almost terrifyingly gifted emigree from California who is playing a half-dozen different characters in the fascinating off-Broadway charade called Telemachus Clay. She has incredible grace, delicacy and charm. Young Miss Daniels looks like a Eurasian pixie, which should be no drawback in a business always seeking the new, interesting, off-beat and beautiful in looks and talent. All of these adjectives apply to Carolan. But there is no adjective adequate to describe the personal poetry with which she infuses every line she reads and every character she portrays. It is the stuff that stars are made on, and the stuff that makes stuff. I believe it will make Carolan Daniels."

Theodore Mann:

"I look at an actor's movements and the excitement generated by his performance, when I judge a potential "star." It becomes a matter of personal involvement, what does the actor do to me? Is there variety within their acting ability? And the most essential element... the actor's level of communication with his audience.
With the aforementioned in mind, I submit Miss Cicely Tyson as a potential star. Cicely is unusually attractive, even exciting looking, and moves beautifully. Her performances have generated a great deal of empathy every time I've seen her on stage. She needs only the opportunity to work to further develop her craft to become a complete star, in the true sense of the term.
I firmly believe she will be one of the first in a new wave of Negro stars to emerge within the American theatre. The "Negro problem," robbing America of many fine artists, has consumed us for too long a time, and I truly feel that the climate is such that complete acceptance by all Americans of the outstanding actor, regardless of race, is now within us, insuring Miss Tyson of an honest appraisal, a just critique and an assured acceptance."

Saint Subber:

"Next year's star may very well be a bit of this year's sunshine, named Penny Fuller. She has beauty, she has intelligence, she has great warmth and charm, she has a kind of self-generated incandescence that is simply too big and bright to be confined. Soon, I suspect, it will illuminate entire theatres, marquees included. This little dynamo is currently whirring away pretty much unseen as Elizabeth Ashley's understudy in Barefoot in the Park. But one of these days she is bound to have a good part of her own. Then watch her glow, glow, glow!"

Sunday, July 5, 2009

"Much Ado About Nothing" @ HVSF

"Speak low if you speak love."

Whenever I think about William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, I think of this particular line, mostly because of an encounter I had with a college professor. I was taking a Shakespeare class with a 30 year tenured professor who wore pomposity like a glove and he assigned this as our second play after The Comedy of Errors. His idea of teaching was to read through the text - himself (he probably wanted to be a performer) and discuss the great meaning of each passage, occasionally shooting out questions among the students arbitrarily.

He said this passage and stopped and said, "You know, there is a really beautiful song by George Gershwin written that is based on this one line." Yours truly knew that to be inaccurate and piped up with complete innocence "Actually, I think it was Kurt Weill."

"Kurt Weill, you say? Really? My goodness. I'm amazed you know this song. You're the first student I've ever had who ever did. SING IT!"

That little exchange, for whatever reason, made me a favorite of the teacher and I actually subjected myself to a second semester of Shakespeare with him. The song of course is the enchanting "Speak Low" by Weill & Ogden Nash from their 1943 musical One Touch of Venus.

But aside from all that, Much Ado About Nothing is my favorite Shakespeare comedy. Plot machinations aside, it offers two of Shakespeare's wittiest creations, Beatrice and Benedick. Their repartee is often the high point of the entire evening, and my first exposure was through the 1993 film adaptation with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson going to town on this delicious dialogue.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the chance to sit in on a rehearsal with the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. During those three hours, I got a chance to see the actors and HVSF Artistic Director Terry O'Brien work on scenes from Pericles and Complete Works (Abridged). Last Saturday night I had the unexpected pleasure to be on hand for the opening night performance of their Much Ado on the grounds of the historic Boscobel near Cold Spring, NY.

Words do not do the Boscobel experience justice. The grounds open at 6PM, allowing patrons the chance to picnic on the lawn with a picturesque view of the Hudson River, overlooking Constitution Island, West Point and several miles of the river itself. It's an absolute stunner. I brought my friend Dana up with me and we relaxed on lawn with other patrons, the first clear dry evening in recent memory.

At about 7:30, we are requested to clear the lawn and make our way to the tent for performance. It becomes quite clear as the lawn upon which we were sitting becomes part of the performance space, with the classic scenic design of the Man Upstairs. The tent is set-up in a modified thrust space, with a patch of dirt for the stage. The backdrop is that of the Hudson River, surrounding mountains set against the backdrop of a clear sunset.

After an amusing opening requesting monetary support (presented tongue-in-cheek as a lost 2-page play from Shakespeare's visit to the region with Henry Hudson in 1609), the play began. Things got off to a thrilling start as Don Pedro and his men (and woman, more on that in a bit) made an entrance over the crest of the hill, walking across the lawn to the stage accompanied by pipe and drum. The audience went wild with applause when they were halfway to the stage, and only ceasing once the actors hit their marks under the tent. One of the most electrifying uses of space I have ever seen in all my years of theatregoing.

The company is uniformly excellent. Katie Hartke makes a gamine Hero, with (real-life husband) Ryan Quinn as her impassioned Claudio. The characters generally feel rather maudlin and truth be told, boring compared to the other couple, especially since the others get the best lines. However, these two actors brought enough substance to make them feel more dimensionalized and sensual than usual.

Jason O'Connell as Benedick and Nance Williamson as Beatrice trade those quips and zingers with aplomb. One of the more amusing aspects of the play are the parallel contrivances to bring both couples together; think Hero and Claudio as Sarah Brown and Sky Masterson, with Beatrice and Benedick as Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit. It's a rudimentary comparison, but Much Ado About Nothing feels like a Golden Age musical with its serious legit couple and a secondary comic couple. Like Guys and Dolls, Much Ado's two couples both function in leading capacities. O'Connell embodies Benedick with a physicality and bravado that makes me long for the opportunity to see his Falstaff. Williamson, looking uncannily like Diane Keaton on Oscar night, makes a formidable counterpart, with delicious line delivery and an elegant stage presence.

Michael Borrelli is an audience favorite as the inept, malaprop prone Dogberry, with Prentiss Standridge his comic sidekick (both giving the characters a redneck spin). Wesley Mann is formidable as Leonato. It is an utter thrill to watch Gabra Zackman onstage; here playing Margaret, who becomes a pawn in the plot to destroy Hero and Claudio's impending nuptials.

Director John Christian Plummer has cast actress Maia Guest in the role of the villain Don John, here Dona Johana. Usually such stunt casting is circumspect, but here it works to the play's benefit. Guest finds unexpected layers to what is nothing more than a glorified stock villain, with a feminist angle (and dare I say romantic jealousy angle as well?) Suddenly the conflict of the plot is inherently more interesting and works better than I've seen it before.

I've already credited the Lord with the scenic design, but I wanted to throw a shout out to Dan Scully for his subtle lighting design, that complements the action onstage as well as the action across the lawn. Melissa Schlactmeyer's inventive costume design offers the production a unique look; the ladies look like they've stepped out of Desperately Seeking Susan with a grey and black 80s punk look. The men are a bit more traditional in their get up (and they wear the corsets this time).

As Dana and I were leaving the grounds, we remarked to one another how this particular setting and staging really enhance the story, in its complete pastoralism (and green) staging. She also said something that really hit the nail on the head about the experience. She had read the play and watched the 1993 film, which made her really interested in going with me, but admitted that this production helped her fully comprehended what was happening plotwise.

The other plus? The house is really a proper theatre disguised by a tent. So rain or shine, the show will go on. And be sure to bring a picnic (and wine) and you're guaranteed a classy time.