Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My First Time

Well, at least it was the first time I judged. My earliest show memory is a vague local production of Peter Pan. However, my earliest memory of seeing theatre, processing it and making a discerning opinion about it was a local semi-professional production of Annie when I was nine years old. Or at least I think I was nine. Whenever it was, the details surrounding my seeing said production aren't as important as the impact it had on me.

I spent nine years as a student in Catholic elementary school. I was a pretty good student who was especially taken with music class, something not lost on the music teacher, this terrific nun named Sr. Rose Marie. Had she not been called to the convent, I think she would have been a major Broadway soubrette, standing by for Angela Lansbury in Mame, etc. (If I think of one, I usually think of the other - they both are altos with a similarly inimitable timbre). I later learned that she was also a big fan of musical theatre, having seen the original production of South Pacific among others. She encouraged me to learn about music, watched as I started to play piano by ear and challenged myself to sing Schubert's "Ave Maria." I also joined the school choir of which she was the director. She has had an enormous impact on who I am as a person, and as a student of music and theatre.

Oh, and some fun trivia: Sr. Rose Marie was part of the chorus of monks and nuns that sang for Richard Rodgers when the composer visited Manhattanville College to research liturgical music for The Sound of Music in 1959.

But I digress... Anyway, my first year in the choir we were treated to a Christmas field trip, as a sort of thank you for all the holiday singing we'd been doing (the perennial favorite: the nursing home & senior center circuit) we were taken on an unexpected and impromptu field trip. In fact, where we were going and what we were doing was a well-hidden secret from all of us. We didn't really care much, as you can expect - missing class has always been a joy to students everywhere.

Well, details surrounding the production are sketchy. I was familiar with "Tomorrow" (is anyone not?) and had heard of the comic strip. I'd never seen the movie and was never into the strip (c'mon, those Annie characters are kinda creepy with those dead eyes...) and would rather read Calvin and Hobbes. The musical also explained to me for the first time why Annie was living with Oliver Warbucks.

So, the show got underway. Nice overture - it's still a knock-out with those trumpets. There were orphans, and an earnest redhead girl who couldn't have been much older than myself who came out to sing what I would later learn was "Maybe." Almost immediately I felt this sense of disdain. There was something about this that didn't strike the right chord. She was the heroine, but why didn't I like her? My disdain started to grow to sheer dislike as act one progressed. Perhaps she was too cloying, too sweet for this orphan (if you look at Andrea McArdle's performance, she at least supplied some sass). I cannot explain with clarity what it was about her performance that I disliked so much, the only vivid recollection is the garish wig that shoved on her at the finale (I've seen fake clown wigs that were more effective).

However, I knew the show wasn't a total loss when this slatternly middle-aged woman, clasping a flask, whistle around her neck, entered and started tearing things up. Suddenly I was paying attention. The impression this woman made on me - an actress of whom I have no recollection. (My ticket stub and program are long lost - this was before theatre was an important part of my life). But it was she who single handedly saved the afternoon from being a total bore. She had the best lines, the comic delivery and in the battle of Annie vs. Hannigan, I wanted Hannigan to win. I don't know if that speaks more about this production or myself, but c'est la vie.

When all was said and done, I didn't have much to say about the score, the book, the performances - except for this actress. (Of course, since the show was a surprise and essentially a group Christmas gift, it would have been rude for me to speak up and say I didn't like it). On the bus ride home, I have what is my earliest memory of experiencing a headache. Coincidence...?

So much I disliked the musical overall, I've never seen either film version nor have I seen the show live. However about ten years down the road, the Broadway's Lost Treasures series started airing on PBS and one of the clips was of the original Broadway cast performing on the Tony awards. That was when I first experienced the magic of the late, great Dorothy Loudon, and made it a point to reacclimate myself with the score, which I will admit has grown on me. I've always been so impressed that she took what is a comic supporting role and made it a star turn (not to mention winning the Best Actress Tony over McArdle). That said, I'm still loathe to see a production on stage and I've still not seen either film adaptation, though I have familiarized myself with the show's libretto and it's disastrous sequel Annie 2: Miss Hannigan's Revenge.

If it weren't for Miss Hannigan (and the long-forgotten actress that played her), I may have given up on stage musicals all together. Well, perhaps that's not quite correct... if it weren't for Miss Hannigan and Sr. Rose Marie.

Rebecca Luker: "I'll Tell the Man in the Street"

I first encountered Rebecca Luker in the 2000 revival of The Music Man where she played Marian the Librarian opposite Craig Bierko's Harold Hill. I thought she was merely capable until 'My White Knight' when she bowled my friends and I over, and stopped the show in one of the biggest ovations of many that evening. In 2002 she made an appearance with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops for a centennial celebration of Richard Rodgers. The concert showcased Rodgers' collaborations with Oscar Hammerstein and Lorenz Hart, and was aired in two parts on PBS. Here is Luker singing my favorite rendition of "I'll Tell the Man on the Street" from I Married an Angel (lyric by Hart).

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Little Price Gouging

The American Express exclusive pre-sale for A Little Night Music starts tomorrow and the Telecharge website has listed the prices for the upcoming first-ever Broadway revival of the romantic Sondheim classic. Telecharge has released the ticket price information on the upcoming tuner that stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury.

Tuesday - Thursday
Orchestra: $132.00
Mezzanine (Rows A-F): $132.00
Mezzanine (Rows G-J): $102.00
Balcony: $52.00

Friday - Sunday:
Orchestra: $137.00
Mezzanine (Rows A-F): $137.00
Mezzanine (Rows G-J): $107.00
Balcony: $57.00

Tuesday - Thursday:
Premium Seating: $277.00
Aisle Seating: $157.00 (May only be purchased in pairs.)

Friday, Saturday matinee, Sunday:
Premium Seating: $352.00
Aisle Seating: $162.00 (May only be purchased in pairs.)

Saturday evening:
Premium Seating: $377.00
Aisle Seating: $162.00 (May only be purchased in pairs.)

All prices include a $2.00 facility fee.

Well, I do love me some Night Music and I will get to see this one way or another. However, for a minimalist production (and an orchestra of SEVEN) I do feel that this is rather exorbitant ($102 for rear mezzanine...?) Granted you do have the headline making Broadway debut of Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones, but her career since Chicago has been somewhat lacking. Angela Lansbury was the draw for Blithe Spirit, but that revival wasn't asking for a first born or a kidney in exchange for the privilege. For this sort of money, I expect a lavish set, costumes and the full 26 pieces in the pit. The $52/57 seat at the Walter Kerr is in what my friend Noah terms "that balcony on top of Mount Everest."

Though the "experts" are telling us we are heading out of the recession that doesn't mean we are quite there yet. It's nice to see a plethora of shows opening instead of posting closing notices like they were doing this time last year. However, that doesn't mean that people can necessarily afford those higher prices for shows. Prices do go up, inflation happens, but this latest pricing is rather absurd. And you know what grinds my gears? The whole "aisle pair" thing. What about an individual with special needs who requires a single seat on the aisle? If ticket prices continue along these lines, theatre going for individuals like myself will become more and more of a luxury than a leisure. Discount codes have yet to be released, and no word yet on a student or general rush policy. Also, depending on how it sells it could also end up on TDF, so there's hope yet.

However, while there's the $2 facility fee that's already included in the price there are also handling fees, service charges and in some cases, shipping fees. So add that to the ticket price. If there's two of you, multiply it accordingly. Add dinner, travel fare, babysitter money. A night at the theatre seems to be becoming an increasingly upper class affair. It would be nice if the powers that be remembered us normal middle class folk. In the words of the formidable Madame Armfeldt, "Let us hope this lunacy is just...a trend."

Karen Akers is Luisa Contini...

Back in spring 2004, I received an invitation from Peter Filichia to attend that year's Theatre World Awards at Studio 54. I graciously accepted and gladly attended - and I have been there every year since. I've noted before that it's one of my favorite events of the entire theatre season, filled with warmth and community, welcoming new talents. One of the fun things about the awards ceremony is that they invite past winners to present and occasionally perform.

Karen Akers was the performer that first year. She won the award back in 1982 for playing Luisa Contini in the original production of Nine, singing "My Husband Makes Movies" and "Be On Your Own," her characters two songs. I wish this video didn't cut Akers' comments between them as she talked about what it was like to work with director-choreographer Tommy Tune. She offered insight, especially regarding the latter song and her difficulty in getting what Tune wanted. His insightful direction, having her stand firm, with legs apart was something she wasn't comfortable. He realized that she was fearing that the the audience would hate her because of the song. Tapping into this fear, he helped her to give a masterful, masterful performance that garnered the singing actress a Tony nomination, as well as this award. For the ten minutes or so she was onstage, all I could think was "I am seeing Karen the songs she originated in Nine opposite Raul Julia..."

By the way, in the upcoming film version of Nine, "My Husband Makes Movies" has made the cut. However, for some reason (and I hope it's a good artistic one and not Oscar pandering), "Be On Your Own" has been scuttled in favor of a new solo for Marion Cotillard called "Take It All." Now I know not to judge something that I haven't had the opportunity of hearing, but all I will say is that it better be one hell of a good song to erase memories of the stage original. Enjoy...

Monday, September 28, 2009

The First Cantata

The premiere of A White House Cantata was on July 8, 1997 at the Barbican in England. The concert rearrangement of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was aired on BBC radio a week later. Before each act, the radio announcer talks briefly about what is to be seen (as opposed to the Collegiate Chorale concert in 2008, which ran without intermission). After composer Leonard Bernstein's death in 1990, his estate set out to revise the original failed musical since the music had remained mostly neglected. With both Bernstein and librettist-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner dead, the estate hired Erik Haagensen to restore the original rehearsal script. From what I understand there was a sort of gypsy runthrough that went over well, then a full production was staged at Indiana State University in 1992. The production later played the Kennedy Center, but was abandoned afterward. In 1997, this revision was established which highlighted the historical musical scenes, eliminating almost all of Lerner's script.

German baritone Dietrich Hensel played the Presidents, and sings the role with operatic gusto. However, it's jarring to hear the Presidents of the United States speak in a German accent. American soprano Nancy Gustafson plays the First Ladies. While not quite Patricia Routledge, she's worlds better than June Anderson, who replaced Gustafson on the studio cast recording of the score, and offers an engaging and colorful "Duet for One" (though she doesn't cap it with the D above C). Thomas Young and Jacqueline Miura play Lud and Seena, whose energy makes up for their less than stellar vocals. The London Voices comprise the chorus and Alexander Bernstein, Leonard's son, narrates a dry historical context in between songs.

The live presentation of the score is much better than what was recorded for Deutsch Gramophone the following year. For starters, the musical calls for a 2-disc recording. The musical had about two hours of score when it played in NY, which was trimmed and revised to approximately 90-100 minutes in concert form. The final CD release, listless and wan, runs 80 minutes and becomes highlights of highlights of a musical.

My quibble with the three presentations of this piece that I have encountered is that the powers that be insist on using opera singers. The songs of 1600 call out for theatre actors who can sing with legitimacy. The singers I have seen have serviced the score well, but provide very little color and range in their interpretation. And I'm sorry, but a spoken line in a musical shouldn't be spoken like a spoken line in an opera. Also, musical theatre choruses are more colorful and textually driven than the staid choral groups who generally provide backup. I am still adamant that this shouldn't be the final word on the score.

The BBC narration offered me my first glimpse, albeit small, into that showstopper for the ages, "Duet for One." I've been searching high and low to find a production photo or a sketch or anything to give me an idea how the elaborate number was staged. As per the BBC announcer:

"Then comes a schizophrenic "Duet for One" as two First Ladies, the incumbent Julia Grant and the incoming Lucy Hayes - both sung by the same singer - comment on each other while they're waiting for the election results to come in. Patricia Routledge, who sang it in the original production, described it as a wonderful cliffhanger presented in Busby Berkeley fashion, surrounded by ladies in parasols."

Well, that sounds like fun.

Jackman & Craig vs. Cell Phone

You're sitting there in the theatre, suspension of disbelief in full force as you immerse yourself in the story being told onstage. Then in the darkness comes that familiar sound. A cell phone ring tone unceremoniously rips you out of the moment onstage, challenging the concentration of both the actors and audience. It is without a doubt the most frequently occurring audience faux pas at legitimate theatre. The earliest instance I can recall of an actor stopping a show because of a cell phone was when Brian Dennehy chastised an audience member during the run of Death of a Salesman. Even though cell phones are prohibited by law in NYC theatres, odds are you're likely to hear one.

So last Wednesday, during a matinee of A Steady Rain, a rather intense two-hander starring Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig, a cell phone rang. Not once, but twice. Rather than silence it, the person chose to let it ring lest he or she be found out. Each actor without breaking character (bravo!) broke the fourth wall to address the phone issue. Thankfully someone was upstairs committing another theatre-related crime videotaping the production. TMZ has the footage of what went down:

Once Nearly Was Mine...

Oh dear readers, how I wanted this for my collection of memorabilia. An original window card of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (not a reprint) that I stumbled upon by accident on E-bay a couple of days ago. The show closed in 1976 after a 7 performance run at the Mark Hellinger Theatre, and is a piece that has been well-documented on this site. (My obsession with it is a very well known item of interest). I put in the entry bid at $49.99 and set a small buffer in case I was outbid. Well, I was this evening. And now, the going rate for this piece of musical theatre history is now $500.00, a sum much more than my piggy bank can afford. So we'll hold out until next time...if there is a next time. I'm not Don Pardo and you've not been "Spanning the World."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Stephen Sondheim on "Company"

Sondheim is interviewed by director Sam Mendes for the telecast of the 1996 Donmar revival of Company. Enjoy...

Saturday, September 26, 2009

"Now as the sweet imbecilities tumble so lavishly onto her lap..."

Whenever I listen to the sublime original Broadway cast recording of A Little Night Music, I'm always impressed with how Stephen Sondheim establishes Fredrik Egerman in the musical's first song. Fredrik is a middle-aged lawyer whose eleven month marriage to naive 18 year old Anne has gone unconsummated. During an afternoon nap he, in true lawyerly fashion, lists all the ways he can go about seducing his wife. (His impetuous but staid "Now" is countered in a few minutes by her "Soon"). His son Henrik interjects with "Later" and eventually all three motifs are weaved together in contrapuntal soliloquies. The English major in me has always been amazed at this patter section in which he vents his sexual frustrations by listing the books he can read to get her into the mood...

"Which leaves the suggestive,
But how to proceed?
Although she gets restive,
Perhaps I could read.
In view of her penchant
For something romantic,
De Sade is too trenchant
And Dickens too frantic,
And Stendhal would ruin
The plan of attack,
As there isn't much blue in
The Red and the Black.
De Maupassant's candour
Would cause her dismay,
The Brontes are grander
But not very gay,
Her taste is much blander,
I'm sorry to say,
But is Hans Christian Ander-
Sen ever risque?
Which eliminates A..."

Oh! POTO 2?

The internet has been all abuzz with the new media campaign behind the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, or as we like to call here at Theatre Aficionado at Large, POTO. There is to be a major announcement (by the Phantom himself, no less) next month regarding the new musical. The show has been in gestation for some time, known as Phantom 2, Phantom in Manhattan and now (and presumably forever) known as Love Never Dies, which is poised to make its world debut in 2010.

Meanwhile, POTO continues to break its own record as the longest running show in Broadway history, and there are productions, tours, etc. going on all around the world. The show made headlines when Lloyd Webber's beloved kitten accidentally erased the score from his clavinova (which I find circumspect - you don't write down what you've written?). Anyway, the Really Useful group is gearing a mass media blitz to hype up this new show as the next big thing from the Lloyd Webber franchise. This Phantom is on twitter.

But I'd like to wax prosaic about musical sequels: they fail. I'm not saying that Love Never Dies is going to bomb. George M. Cohan's The Talk of New York, a sequel to Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway, was a success back in 1907. More recently, William Finn has done quite well by his Marvin trilogy - In Trousers, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland (the latter two combined for Broadway in Falsettos). However, I'm just saying the statistics are not in Lloyd Webber's favor. Let's take a look at a few musical sequels from over the years...

Let 'Em Eat Cake - The Gershwin brothers crafted a follow-up to their 1931 Pulitzer Prize winning smash Of Thee I Sing. Figuring lightning would strike, the creative team and some of the original cast reunited with this decidedly darker satire on American government and politics. President Wintergreen has been defeated in his re-election campaign, so and his Vice President, Throttlebottom, plot a Fascist takeover of the United States to get back control. The show ran 89 performances at the Imperial in 1933.

Divorce Me Darling - Sandy Wilson had a monumental success with The Boy Friend, his 1954 musical spoof of the 1920s that played for five years in London and introduced Julie Andrews to Broadway. The show was such a success that in 1965, Wilson wrote a new musical that brought the same characters to the same location (Nice, France) ten years down the road, with relationships on the rocks. However, audiences in London didn't seem to care what Polly, Tony and the gang were up to and the show closed after 91 performances.

Bring Back Birdie -
The curtain of the perennial favorite Bye Bye Birdie comes down on Albert and Rosie moving out West where he's going to be the English teacher she's always wanted him to be. Happily ever after, etc. In 1981, the creative team (with the exception of the late Gower Champion) was brought back together with director-choreographer Joe Layton at the helm, even returning to the Martin Beck Theatre where the original played. The failure was immense - the book was laughable and crass, the score unmemorable and the design was apparently quite hideous. Though original star Chita Rivera was back and giving it her all, her showstopping poise wasn't enough to save the sinking ship around her. The musical closed after 4 performances. (Peter Filichia gives an in depth account of the disastrous first act of the very first preview here).

A Doll's Life -
This sequel is unlike the rest listed here, because it was a musical sequel to a play. Henrik Ibsen's play ends with the character Nora slamming the door on her domestic life, leaving her husband and family in an attempt to find her place in the world. That door slam, once regarded as "the door slam heard round the world," pretty much told you everything you needed to know about the characters. However, Hal Prince, directed a highly conceptual musical that begins where the play leaves off. With music by Larry Grossman and the unusual choice of Comden and Green for book and score, the tuner looked at what happened to Nora after she leaves. A metatheatrical conceit and messy libretto didn't help endear the character to audiences or critics and the show closed after 5 performances, though it features a fascinating musical score.

Annie 2 -
The musical Annie had taken Broadway and the world by storm in the late 1970s, running for 2377 performances and becoming "The musical of Tomorrow." So naturally a sequel would be in order. Right? Of course, right. Well, Annie 2: Miss Hannigan's Revenge turned out to be a disaster. The show brought back Tony-winning Miss Hannigan Dorothy Loudon opposite Harve Presnell as Oliver Warbucks. This time around, Hannigan was out of jail and wanted to kill Annie. Meanwhile Marian Seldes was on hand as a Congresswoman who insisted Warbucks marry within 60 days, or Annie would be taken back to the orphanage. Hannigan posed as Charlotte O'Hara a southern belle, to gain Warbucks attentions. Later she became the prim Frances Riley and was given a morbid, if fun, showstopper "But You Go On." The show closed out of town in Washington DC, and Loudon left the project. After substantial reworking at the Goodspeed, the wholly different Annie Warbucks opened off-Broadway for a 200 performance run.

The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public -
Sex sells. And so did The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a fun and raunchy musical inspired by the actual Chicken Ranch of La Grange, Texas. Miss Mona runs the nicest little whorehouse you ever saw, and by the show's end, the moral majority has seen to shutting it down with the women moving on to the next chapter in their lives. The show was a huge success and there was a film version with Dolly Parton. Well, in the sequel Miss Mona was coaxed out of retirement to run a Las Vegas whorehouse. The show, which opened in 1994, starred Dee Hoty, with Tommy Tune at the helm (assisted by Peter Masterson and Jeff Calhoun). The sequel was closer to a cheap Vegas burlesque than book musical and was universally eviscerated by critics. It folded after 16 performances, and Tommy Tune has yet to direct another Broadway musical.

Friday, September 25, 2009

August: Sydney Harbor

It was Steve on Broadway who first reported about an item regarding a 2010 run of Steppenwolf's production of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County in Sydney, Australia. I had the news corroborated by a Steppenwolf member only a couple weeks later. However, there was no official announcement from the theatre company until today.

The production, with its superlative direction by Anna D. Shapiro and that miraculous set by Todd Rosenthal, will be setting up house at the Sydney Theatre Company for a month-long engagement from August 13-September 12. Official casting has yet to be announced but the press release mentions that original company members from Chicago and Broadway would be trekking Down Under. Much praise is due to Artistic Directors Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton for importing the production, as well as for exporting their own productions (the STC production of A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Blanchett and directed by Liv Ullmann, will play BAM this fall).

This doesn't mark the first production of the Tony and Pulitzer prize winning masterpiece in Australia. This past summer, there was a highly acclaimed production with original staging at the Melbourne Theatre Company this past May directed by Simon Philips and starring Robyn Nevin as Violet Weston. The production received expected raves and proved such a success that it extended its limited engagement.

So far tickets are only available as part of the 2010 season ticket, but information on availability and pricing can be found on the STC website. But if you're in Sydney this fall, Cate is appearing in Streetcar until October 17 and God of Carnage starts performances October 3.

Now here's the big question: anybody up for a field trip to Sydney next summer...?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

"Modern Family"

So I finally checked out the first three episodes of Glee last evening. It's been the talk of many of my fellow bloggers and message board users since it features lots of Broadwayites in leading and recurring roles, as well as ample musical numbers. I'll get to writing about that soon enough; however, there's another new comedy series that just premiered on ABC that has become my favorite new show of the season.

Modern Family is a single camera mockumentary that follows three branches of a wonderfully "normal" (read: dysfunctional) family. The family patriarch, played by Ed O'Neill, is newly remarried to a much younger Hispanic woman (Sofia Vergara) and living with her eleven year old son (already an old soul and romantic). His daughter and her husband (Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell) are struggling in every-day suburbia with their three children (including Grey Gardens' alum Sarah Hyland as their eldest!). Meanwhile his uptight son, played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson (of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) has just adopted a Vietnamese baby with his life-partner (Eric Stonestreet).

What most impressed me about the pilot wasn't only it's unique hilarity (which was practically non-stop), but the strength of the writing. Sitcoms about families have been done since Lucy told Desi that she was having a baby and in all honesty, the genre has been pretty much dead over the last few years. Lately, most of the successful network comedies focus mainly on the workplace (The Office, 30 Rock and Ugly Betty, for example). Much to my surprise and amusement, this series has resuscitated the family comedy.

Most shows usually establish an archetype in the series' pilot and as the writers and actors feel their way through the series, they begin to add emotional layers and depth. However, in this case, they've successfully established realized characters and have cast them with actors with impeccable timing. (Even the youngsters playing the kids!) The writers have taken enough care in building the characters that the humor comes out of every day interaction and their personality flaws. (Especially Ty Burrell's unpredictable and hilarious attempt at being a hipster fatherand who successfully embarrasses everyone around him). They've also managed to show how this dysfunctional unit successfully functions as family. This is especially evident in the touching, albeit hilarious, dinner scene where the two men introduce the baby to everyone.

I don't think I've enjoyed a series pilot this much since Arrested Development came on the air in 2003. And this from the network that dragged out the mindnumbingly unfunny According to Jim for eight seasons, no less! While musing about the pilot with the irrepressible KariG and realized that it was the first series I've liked on ABC since the woefully shortlived The Job, and that was canceled in 2002. Plus, there's something comforting about having Ed O'Neill back on TV as a curmudgeonly father. I have high hopes for the future of the show, and actually am interested in seeing what happens next week.

The series airs Wednesday nights at 9PM on ABC. You can check out the pilot here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

West Coast "Hair" - 1968

Here is an appearance of the original Los Angeles company of Hair, recreating the Broadway staging of 'Aquarius," "Hair," and "The Flesh Failures/Let the Sunshine In" on the "Smothers Brothers" in 1968. Gerome Ragni and James Rado lead the company, which includes future Tony winner Delores Hall as Dionne.

Isn't it rich...?

One of the worst kept secrets in recent months has been the casting of the first-ever Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim & Hugh Wheeler's Tony winning A Little Night Music. Murmurs of Angela Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt have been swirling since the beginning of the summer (if not before) and the rest of the actors' names have been leaked out at one point or another. Then last week, Michael Douglas let it slip on Live with Regis and Kelly that his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones would headlining as Desiree Armfeldt. (He immediately mused whether or not he was supposed to say anything).

Well, it's been announced that the musical will open at the Walter Kerr Theatre on December 13, with previews starting November 24. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury will indeed headline the revival, as well as Aaron Lazar as Carl-Magnus, Erin Davie as Charlotte, Leigh Ann Larkin as Petra and the sole holdout from the Menier revival, Alexander Hanson, will reprise his Olivier-nominated turn as Fredrik for NY audiences.

All due respect to the headlining divas, but the most interesting piece of casting is that of Anne Egerman. The role is being portrayed by Ramona Mallory, who is taking on the role created by her mother, Victoria Mallory, in the original Broadway company. It doesn't stop there: her father is Mark Lambert, who originated the role of Henrik.

I'm always grateful for the chance to see A Little Night Music, but had hoped that the original orchestrations would be reconsidered. The Menier production featured new charts by Jason Carr, who was responsible for eviscerating Sunday in the Park with George to a tinhorn and kazoo. (Hyperbole, yes, but it was the major flaw in that revival). I am loathe to think that Jonathan Tunick's sumptuous orchestrations will be streamlined by a lesser talent for the sake of cost and size. But beggars can't be choosers (though I realize I've personally yet to see a Sondheim revival on Broadway that used the superlative original orchestration). I quibble, but you know I'll be there and how!

Tickets go on sale online starting October 17, the Walter Kerr box office opens on October 19. (And of course those with Amex can get them starting September 30).

Remembering Irving Berlin

Jerome Kern was once quoted saying "Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music." Berlin, a Russian immigrant turned patriotic American, was one of the most indelible songwriters of the 20th century. His first major hit song was "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911, which made him a go-to composer on both Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. He and his partner Sam Harris built the Music Box Theatre in 1925, which is the only Broadway house ever built to accomodate the works of a songwriter. Over the course of 60 years, Berlin wrote so many songs that there is apparently some debate on the actual number (Time magazine cited 1250 as the total in 2001, but some sources put the total at 1,500). Here's a list of 850 from Wikipedia.

The songs themselves are a part of the American fabric. For example there's "Always," "What'll I Do?," "Blue Skies," "Puttin' on the Ritz," Annie Get Your Gun ("There's No Business Like Show Business, etc), Call Me Madam ("You're Just in Love, etc), "Easter Parade," and "Let's Face the Music and Dance" to name only a few. He received the Best Song Oscar in 1943 for "White Christmas," a Tony award for Best Score in 1951 for Call Me Madam (besting that year's Best Musical, Guys and Dolls), a Congressional Gold Medal for "God Bless America," the Presidential Medal of Freedom, lifetime achievement Tony and Grammy Awards, among countless other honors.

Berlin died on this day 20 years ago at the age of 101. As a tribute, here are Bernadette Peters and Peter Allen leading an immense, crowd pleasing production number paying tribute to the songwriter on the 55th Annual Academy Awards in 1983:

Friday, September 18, 2009

Where have you gone, Ken Mandelbaum?

While I first really learning about theatre, I came across a couple of columnists that I began to read regularly because their columns were informative, well-written and endlessly entertaining. They were Peter Filichia and Ken Mandelbaum. I started reading them in early 2001 when I discovered that there were several Broadway sites. Once I read a column by each writer, I went back and devoured their archived writing. I learned more in those hours than I did in any classroom (ask my musical theatre professor, he enjoyed having me there as his fact checker).

Peter Filichia continues his "Diary" on Theatermania Monday, Wednesday and Friday (and I highly recommend checking it out). However, Ken Mandelbaum's column on stopped abruptly in early 2006 and very little has been heard from him. Granted, it's not surprising as he left the website as it was shifting away from promoting news and criticism and becoming more about selling tickets. Ken would offer the latest Broadway gossip, casting rumors as well as review major musicals and cast CDs, DVDs, etc. When he wasn't doing any of the above, he was recalling shows of years past, with laser precision in his detail about everything no matter how obscure. Shortly after Ken's departure, the website came up with its insipid "Word of Mouth" reviewing system.

Aside from his column, he also penned two books: A Chorus Line and the Musicals of Michael Bennett and probably his most substantial contribution to date: Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Musical Flops. The latter covers major flops from 1950 through 1990/91 and manages to be very informative and funny while informing us why these shows failed. Lord knows we've have enough in the last 18 years to warrant an update on his behalf.

When I was discovering Patricia Routledge on the original cast album of Darling of the Day and a live recording I'd heard of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I sent him an email asking him about her career. He sent a detailed reply; practically an entire column's worth of information in the body a simple email. That was a year and a half ago, and he's yet to surface in any format or venue since. His disappearance from, being as abrupt and unannounced (I still recall going back periodically to check to see if he had come back) left a certain void in online theatrical journalism, such that he's even warranted his own place in the All That Chat FAQ. His older columns were archived and available, but they appear to be harder and harder to find as keeps reinventing itself.

Hopefully, he's busy taking care of that update of Not Since Carrie and will be resurfacing soon. So Ken, if you read this, please come back - you're still greatly missed.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Blog Day Afternoon

Last Wednesday afternoon, a group of theater bloggers gathered at the Red Eye Grill on 7th Avenue across from Carnegie Hall for the first ever press event specifically for bloggers, made possible through Broadway's Best Shows. The blogosphere was out in full force to sit around and chat with the cast and creatives behind Superior Donuts, the latest Steppenwolf to Broadway transfer that started previews last evening at the Music Box Theatre. This marks the second consecutive Tracy Letts play to be performed in the venue, following the hit run of his Tony and Pulitzer winning August: Osage County which closed in June.

There were several tables set up on the upper floor of the restaurant. Irene Gandy, one hell of a good press agent as well as one of the great fashionistas of the NY theatre community, told us that the afternoon was to be a bit like speed dating. (I've seen Irene at various openings, closings and other events over the past couple of years and she is always decked out in the most fabulous hats you've ever seen). Anyway, we'd all gather around the round tables and every five minutes, the actors as well as Tracy Letts and director Tina Landau would get up and switch tables.
Much to the delight of SarahB and myself, we found the delightful Kate Buddeke seated to our right. Kate tore up the Shubert Theatre as the brassy Miss Mazeppa (with her revolution in dance) in the excellent 2003 revival of Gypsy with Bernadette Peters, helping to bring down the house with "You Gotta Get a Gimmick." She is a native of Chicago and has spent the last five years doing a great deal of theatre in her hometown where she was one of the original members of the American Theatre Company. I have to say, having met her briefly at Angus a week earlier and getting to chat with her here, she is a real pleasure to know and it is our great pleasure that she is back on Broadway.
Sarah and I found ourselves with our pal Jimmy as well as a correspondent from the Polish American Journal, who asked incisive questions about the importance of ethnicity portrayed within the play. And though I've never speed-dated, I guess it's the same organized chaos of going from table to table. Everyone was excited for the play, and to be on the verge of starting performances in NY. I didn't ask too many questions, but the one I did asked, "How has the play evolved since Steppenwolf?" It turns out that Letts has gone back and made some revisions. I never saw it in Chicago, so I would be curious to compare the frozen version that opens in two weeks with the text the actors were using over a year ago.

With the exception of Buddeke and Michael McKean, the actors in the ensemble are making their Broadway debuts; the excitement was palpable as they discussed what it was like to be working on Broadway. Landau and Letts talked about the differences between theatre in NY and Chicago. There is a different lifestyle, more relaxed and with a greater sense of community that both Letts and Landau said is hard to find in NY. The cost to create theatre in Chicago is also less than in NY, and it really seems that all the elements combined have allowed so many prestigious theatre companies to flourish.Michael McKean was at our table chatting with us after doing a quick interview with NBC's Jeffrey Lyons. All of a sudden a press rep escorts a dapper and unassuming gentleman to our table. Rather stunned, we are all introduced to Michael Feinstein, whose upcoming Broadway venture All About Me, was just announced the day before. He sits down at the table, and the four of us marvel in seeing the two stars meet for the first time. Turns out that McKean and his beautiful wife, Annette O'Toole, had performed at Feinstein's in Chicago and McKean's father once worked at Columbia Records for Goddard Lieberson (yes, boys and girls, the Goddard Lieberson!). Feinstein proved a charming raconteur with fun stories about the Gershwins and Lehman Engel. Hell, he even had an anecdote involving my name.

The event was over within an hour, as the actors were making their way to the invited dress rehearsals of either A Steady Rain, another Chicago import, or Bye Bye Birdie. I only wish we had more time with all of them; they were all so eloquent and passionate about their work I could have listened all night. But I did go home with what was quite possibly the best donut I've ever tasted in my life. No idea where they came from, but Mr. Richards should consider selling them at the Music Box. I know I'd love another one when I see the show.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

We Need a Little Mame

SarahB and I love Mame. Period. It's got a sublime musical theatre score and a fun and funny book with immensely entertaining characters. The show hasn't been seen in NY since a failed revival in 1983, so we often discuss the necessary ingredients to successfully revive this gem of a musical. The title role is such a difficult star turn, because Mame as a character is rather static - the most that changes in the character over the course of the musical play is her wardrobe (and how); however, Mame is the embodiment of an ideal - a philosophy that life is something to celebrated, experienced and most importantly lived. In order to effectively pull off the musical, you need to find a woman who's at least in her late thirties. She needs to sing, dance, act - but she also needs to have the presence to execute Mame's joie d'vivre, while remaining a funny, boozy, lovable, classy, heartfelt, eccentric, bohemian, patrician, progressive madcap. That's no small order.

When the musical opened at the Winter Garden, a mere ten years after the overwhelming success of the original play the character of Mame was once again a unanimous audience favorite. Only this time she was supported by the stellar music and lyrics of Jerry Herman, and with a little more heart and less eroticism. Oh -and they gave Vera some of Mame's more potent zingers (that's what you do when you cast Bea Arthur). Angela Lansbury became the toast of Broadway, defying expectations and odds to come out the unlikely musical theatre star of the decade. Her Tony-winning, two year run in the original Broadway cast of Mame established her as the leading musical theatre diva of her generation, and held onto the title until 1983, when she turned her attentions to some little old TV show , and well, the rest is history.

The original production of Mame, while it didn't run as long as Hello, Dolly!, followed the earlier show's example by bringing in major stars to replace the lead. The part was so good, even Judy Garland auditioned for it (which would have been perfect, if not for the difficulties surrounding her drug and alcohol abuse). Janis Paige, Celeste Holm, Jane Morgan and Ann Miller all played the role in NY, while Angela took the show on tour. Ginger Rogers opened the London company. For as good as the ladies were considered in their roles, the part was still closely identified with Lansbury (the 1974 film need not apply).

So we were thinking that in order to bring Mame successfully into the 21st century, perhaps it was time to think outside of the box. Not update the show or make it "rock and roll" hour with Tilda Swinton. But just find something new to bring to the show to make it something audiences want to see. Broadway doesn't manufacture stars the way it once did, so it's likely that a big name star needs to be attached in order to make a successful commercial venture in NY. (Producers couldn't even get the 2006 Kennedy Center production with Christine Baranski into town for a limited run). Sarah and I have someone in mind for the show, an unlikely choice but one that we think would work gangbusters, but we're keeping a lid on that for right now.

So instead I'll put it to you: who is our Mame?

Oh - and one more thing - I pulled down my copy of the published libretto to look at the text and reread the foreward by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (who not only wrote the musical, but the play upon which it was based) The co-authors touch on the relevancy of the character and what makes Mame Dennis Burnside so indelible. I thought I'd share:

"Although our love affair with Mame spans more than a decade, we approached her as the central figure of this musical as if we were meeting the lady for the first time.

To spark the musical Mame with a life of her own, we did our best to forget we had written the play Auntie Mame. And a very pleasant miracle happened. Usually the conversion of a straight play into a musical means bleeding off the believability when the trumpets start blowing, and the musical tends to be a cartoon of the play on which it was based. But the opposite seems to have happened here.

Many minds have shaped this remarkable lady: Patrick Dennis who created her in his best-selling novel, and now Jerry Herman, who has written a score which underscores the truth and warmth of the people who populate Three Beekman Place.

Mame herself seems to have plunged into the joyful work of making this musical. She is an almost unique figure in modern fiction: Mame refuses to be imaginary! She is not a fondly Remembered Mama or a Matchmaker going back to the gaslights of Fourteenth Street. Mame is more interested in torches along the Ganges and the lightning bugs of Peckerwood. She virtually pole-vaults out of the gaiety of the Twenties into lunar orbit, soaring high above depressions, war and worries, taking with her a wide-eyed little boy.

We always long for what we don't have. This seems to be the Year of the Mole - a time of blindness and confusion, of fuzzy aims and fading faith. Our theater lately has been in a dark age, reflecting only shadows. Mame somehow lifts a flame in that blackness. She has optimism! Zest! Bounce! Even when she isn't quite sure where she's going. Mame knows, by God, she'll get there!

All of us, even the most despondent and disillusioned, would like to be like Mame. Or we wish she would take us up by the hand, as she does Patrick, and convince us that our planet isn't such a shabby place. We want to hear her sing "Open a New Window" in a decade when so many of us are pulling down the blinds and locking the shutters in pretended security. Mame is fun, but not mere escapist fare: she sings out a wish to run toward life, not away from it.

We have seen Mame's indomitable spirit embodied in dozens of stars in dozens of countries. Her battles with Babcock and her romance with Beau have been eloquently expressed in the major languages of the earth. But no translation could be more fortunate than the musical language of Jerry Herman. And no one could lift the flame of Mame higher than Miss Angela Lansbury.

But the audience is always the thermometer of the theater. A blazing conception can sputter out like a match in an ice cube tray unless it sends its singular incandescence across the footlights. The flame of Mame actually comes from everyone who is warmed by her daring and set aglow by her impudent but loving laughter."

-Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee, 1967, Random House

Monday, September 14, 2009

Celebrating Bea Arthur

I have never felt the necessity to attend any memorial service for any celebrity or theatre star. With those actors and creators that I idolize, I usually recall their work and appreciate the legacy that is left behind. In most cases, I have never encountered the person except through their work, so I don't generally feel a personal connection.

However, today was different. This afternoon at the Majestic Theatre, the theatre and TV community gathered to celebrate the life of the one and only Beatrice Arthur. The actress, who died this past April at the age of 86, was more than actress and comedienne; she was an icon. Her statuesque presence, her incisive cutting way with a line or a glare and that baritone voice were part of the unique package that make an unlikely star of the working actor at the age of 50.

As a child I knew who she was. She was that really funny one on The Golden Girls. I think I may have seen an episode or two around the time I was ten, but in all honesty the show didn't hold much ground with me then and I went on with my life. My appreciation for Bea Arthur started around the time I was fifteen years old and TV Land started airing reruns of Maude, the landmark show and ultimately staunch character that propelled the respected New York actress into television stardom.

Watching these reruns of this daring, controversial series, I began to appreciate what it meant to be funny. Bea could be funny without doing much of anything. One lengthy glare was a enough to reduce the studio audience to gales of unstoppable laughter. Maude Findlay was the greatest feminist of Tuckahoe, NY and liberal to a fault. She took on every cause imaginable, with the show tackling alcoholism, drugs, menopause, plastic surgery, infidelity, the difficulties of marriage and homosexuality. Oh, and of course that famous episode where Maude decides to have an abortion. One of the funniest things I've ever seen in my life was Bea Arthur throwing an overcoat at Adrienne Barbeau in the episode "Nostalgia Party." (It has to be seen to be fully appreciated. Unfortunately five seasons of the series remain unreleased on DVD). When I finished with Maude I moved onto The Golden Girls when I was 16 going on 17, for continued hilarity. And of course, there were the cast albums of Mame and Fiddler on the Roof.

My comic sensibilities were shaped by two individuals: my father and Bea Arthur. I learned from Bea that sometimes doing nothing was funnier than a quip and even dared to hold an extra couple of beats for impact, and while I will never be as funny as she I certainly learned how to get a laugh. Upon hearing that there would be a memorial service, I figured that she was such an important part of shaping my interests and my own sense of timing that I would really like to go.

I arrived at the Majestic Theatre around 10AM, mildly surprised to find myself about thirtieth on line. That soon shrunk a bit as it turned out there were several tourists who thought it was the queue to purchase tickets for Phantom (boy would they have been in for a surprise...). We were informed the house would be opening at 12:30. As that time approached, the line for the public stretched from the Phantom marquee to Shubert Alley (possibly farther, but I wasn't about to step out of line to see). After they let in those with invitations, they opened the doors to the public.

We were led down into the lobby and handed a Playbill that sporting a sketch of Bea from Just Between Friends on the front. On the press line, I caught the vivacious Tyne Daly being interviewed. I also caught sight of Karen Akers, Charles Busch, Julie Halston and The seating was general admission, very similar to the Theatre World Awards, with various seats reserved for VIPs and press. I managed to snag a really nice seat in the center orchestra, at about Row M. (One of the most interesting things about the orchestra section at the theatre is the unusual rake in the seating). Onstage was a large projection screen with a large publicity shot of Bea that was seen in the advertising for Bea Arthur on Broadway. There were two podiums on each side of the stage, as well as grand piano center stage. Easy listening favorites of Sinatra were piped into the theatre as people were seated.

The house is abuzz with theatre folk conversing with one another - total strangers around me are sharing their favorite Bea moments. Most talk Golden Girls, but I overhear some talk of Maude and Fiddler. Friends and VIPs are milling about in the front orchestra section. About 1:10PM, the house lights are dimmed and applause starts and builds before anything has happened. (I've officially conquered the Majestic. Take that, POTO!). Suddenly Dame Edna is heard over the PA, as they play the pre-show recording made for the Australian run of Bea's one woman show.

The afternoon's host, Bea's closest friend Angela Lansbury, emerges from the wings in a sophisticated white pantsuit and receives a standing ovation. The five time Tony-winner is very gracious but quickly calms the audience down. After a beat she speaks, "I have a little secret I'd like to impart that I hope doesn't give you too much of a start..." Ms. Lansbury then steps center stage where she proceeds to sing her pal's signature song from Mame while a slideshow of photos is presented on the screen behind her. After a brief introductory, in which she welcomes everyone and jokes how Bea would likely disapprove of the whole event, she presents Norman Lear to the audience.

Lear, the groundbreaking producer of practically every important sitcom of the 1970s, talked about seeing Bea Arthur in the 1955 off-Broadway Shoestring Revue where she sang the song "Garbage." He kept her in mind when he was working on other projects, including The George Gobel Show in the 1960s. He called her and asked her to fly out to guest-star as Archie Bunker's liberal cousin Maude in a one-shot appearance on All in the Family. Well, the rest is history. Lear commented, "I've lost a lot of friends recently, but no one seems less gone and more alive than Bea." He was the first of many to talk about her way with timing and understanding the essence of comedy. Lear maintains that out of all the laugh-makers he's worked with over the years, none have made him laugh like Bea.

Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist for both Shoestring Revue and Fiddler on the Roof was next, and he talked about writing "Garbage," to spoof the dramatic torch songs with inane lyrics, which she performed with "her unerring sense of comedy." Another Shoestring alum, Chita Rivera, emerged to talk about the joy they shared as colleagues and commented, "The one thing I wanted Bea to stop was walking down 9th Avenue in her bare feet." Her disdain for footwear was a running topic throughout the afternoon. Rivera also said, "She would allow you to imagine what she was thinking - now that was really funny."

Angela came back onstage to talk about first getting to know Bea while they prepare for Mame in 1965. She said that while they were always "Bosom Buddies" onstage, they really became bosom friends in later years, after both had successful TV series. They ended up living near each other in California, and their children became friendly. Lansbury got quite emotional as she recalled her husband, Peter Shaw's final illness and how Arthur was there with food, comfort and her friendship during those difficult days.

Next up was Bea's sister, Kay Gray, who talked about Bea's three passions - Cary Grant, show business and animals. She talked about how her big sister was there to advise her, teach her to jitterbug, started chain smoking at 12 and ran away to sing with a band at 13. When Ms. Gray was going to visit the set of Maude, she told her sister to give her a part - that she could play her younger sister. When she arrived on the set, Bea told her in that inimitable style, "When you're on my show, you'll be my OLDER sister." Six weeks before Arthur's passing, her sister was with her in her bed. The two were sharing memories and stories. Arthur turned to her sister and said, "I've had a wonderful life. I've done everything I ever wanted to do." Later, Arthur's two grown sons, Matt and Daniel Saks, spoke fondly of their loving, down-to-earth hands-on mom, who wasn't above flying in a pen pal to be a prom date and who was happiest when throwing their weddings.

Rosie O'Donnell recalled the night she met Bea - at a Manhattan restaurant where she and her brother drunkenly sang the Maude theme song to her. When they finished, she held the trademark beat before bursting out in a gale of laughter, hugging Rosie and the two became friends. She told her "I know you. You're a funny kid." O'Donnell got emotional as she discussed how Bea Arthur's portrayal of Maude Findlay "taught my generation how to be a feminist."

Bea's co-star on Maude, Adrienne Barbeau was next. The actress recalled her total acceptance on the set, with Bea the first to arrive and the last to leave. The up and comer one time asked the star about her acting technique - if there was something that Arthur relied on when she was having difficulty creating a character. Bea said, "Oh shit, darling. You just say the words as though you mean them." Probably the best acting advice I've ever heard. Then Charlie Hauck, one of Maude's writers recalled the actress' spontaneity, down to earth charm and how she saved a dog on Sunset Boulevard for them to find out it was Barbra Streisand's dog.

Zoe Caldwell was neighbors with Bea Arthur when both ladies resided in Pound Ridge, NY. The acclaimed actress tore up the theatre with her distinct, dry deliver turning the mundane into the hilarious as she recalled their relationship She spoke fondly of their friendship, citing that they were in Pound Ridge - they needed each other. Arthur assumed the role of big sister in their friendship and doled out advice and suggestions - often what play or movie to see. Her reasoning: it will be good for you. "Then," said Caldwell, "she'd come along to make sure you got the right thing from it."

One of these suggestions was to go see Kate Hepburn in Coco. Bea opined, "We'll sit front row we can't escape. We will watch her and watch her and watch her." Caldwell said, "And we watched her...and watched her...and watched her... and Bea had to cry. *pause* It wasn't a sad musical...but we cried all throughout. I suppose it was good for us..."

Carol Arthur DeLuise was introduced and she discussed Larry Gelbart, the writer who died this past Friday. Gelbart had been invited to Bea's memorial but had to decline due to his ill-health. However, she did send a letter which Mrs. DeLuise read, that recalled seeing The Threepenny Opera off-Broadway and said "She could do with a punch or a line what Ethel Merman could do with a song." Then Miss Coco Peru, a drag performer and close friend of the star was asked to recreate "A Mother's Ingenuity," a hilarious piece that is included in Bea's one woman show.

Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara came on and honored Bea with their old routine. They jokingly talked about themselves, but kept the audience in stitches for a good ten minutes. The script supervisor of The Golden Girls recalled special moments with Bea, and was in charge of getting the ladies to sign photographs. On one afternoon during the height of Bobby McFerrin's popularity, he successfully dared her to sign "Don't worry, Bea Arthur."

And then there's Rue McClanahan. McClanahan had the opportunity to co-star with Bea in both Maude and The Golden Girls and offered a window into the compassionate, caring maternal woman. When Rue's mother died of a heart attack, McClanahan found herself alone on Thanksgiving the day after the funeral and called Bea. The star had McClanahan come to her house where she put her in bed, fed her and made sure she was comfortable.

While the audience was still dabbing their eyes at this heartfelt remembrance, Rue switched gears and talked about Bea's bawdier side, claiming that she was not quite herself after she'd had a few drinks. At the opening night of Bea Arthur on Broadway, Rue and her husband were invited to the show and after party. Her husband went over to introduce himself to Bea, who was sitting at a corner table with her back to everyone and thanked her for the invitation. Bea turned and looked at him for one of those trademark beats, then grabbed him and drunkenly slurred, "You're Rue's husband! I love Rue... *pause* Betty's a cunt." The anecdote was so unexpected and the laughter so intense that McClanahan (whose impersonation was the best of any of the speakers) could barely restore order.

The afternoon progressed with speakers from PETA and the Ali Forney Center, representing two causes that were near and dear to Bea's heart: animal and gay rights. Dan Matthews, the vice president of PETA, talked of finding himself - a staunch vegan activist - in Arthur's kitchen helping her prepare a meatloaf (after she gave him one of her withering glares). Carl Siciliano, executive director of the AFC talked about how Bea really committed herself to helping the organization, donating money and raising awareness. She even flew to NYC to perform a benefit performance of her one woman show to raise money for them. The Center, which provides shelter for homeless LGBT youth, is naming a residency in her honor. Other speakers included Daryl Roth, who produced Bea on Broadway and Billy Goldenberg, Bea's long-time friend and collaborator.

Interspersed throughout were clips of Bea at her finest: singing "My Way" on Maude (with a line reading that has stayed with Norman Lear for over thirty years: "Better than Fontizou...?") as well as a montage from The Golden Girls, including Bea's favorite when she and Estelle Getty dressed up as Sonny and Cher for a mother-daughter contest. Billy Stritch was on hand to sing her favorite song, Coleman-Leigh's "It Amazes Me" and Angela presented her guest appearance on Malcolm in the Middle.

Finally, Angela introduced Bea herself, in an audio-video montage of her many fine moments, which included "Bosom Buddies" from the 1987 Tony telecast. The afternoon ended with Beatrice singing the elegiac and uplifting "The Chance to Sing," the eleven o'clock number from Goldenberg's musical of Harold and Maude. The audience then rose in standing ovation to salute the star. For the two and a half hours, we were treated to a few tears, some ribaldry and endless laughter - the kind of gathering you would expect when Bea Arthur is involved. And I think she would have approved too.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Quote of the Day: For Now Edition

"Avenue Q is about all of us, so why should it close? People arrive in New York every day hoping to make their dreams come true, so as long as they’re here, we’re here! It’s just one of the funniest, wittiest and wisest musicals ever written and the more you see it, the more you love it."

-Producer Kevin McCollum, on the decision to reopen Avenue Q off-Broadway next month.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

In Her Own Words: Patricia Neway on "The Consul"

While I was aware that the 1960 television production of Gian-Carlo Menotti's opera The Consul was released on DVD by VAI, I didn't know until very recently that they also released a 2-CD soundtrack recording of the telecast. A 2-LP original cast album was made by Decca in 1949 and languished in the vaults for many years. The good news, it's also been made available on CD, in a boxed set including Menotti's two other operas, The Medium and The Telephone. The bad news - they are not officially remastered by the original recording companies and editorial reviews comment on their lack of good sound quality. (Come on, Decca. Get on the ball!)

As I listened to the stirring, haunting score I read through the brief liner notes and found this recollection of the original show by the star Patricia Neway (who as you know has been documented in a rather bizarre mystery here on my blog).

This is what the acclaimed soprano had to say about The Consul:

The experience of preparing and presenting The Consul was unique. The opera was produced on Broadway with the usual schedule of eight performances of a week and was called a musical drama instead of an opera in order not to discourage a broad audience.

After Gian-Carlo chose his singers there were backers' auditions in which several cast members did scenes without sets or costumes. Guests were invited as prospective backers to the homes of prominent people who hosted the evenings. It was exciting and challenging for all of us. I have one vivid memory - Gian-Carlo handing me a penciled musical manuscript and telling me that I was to sing it at the next backers' audition two days later. It happened to be at the home of Virgil Thomson, the composer and formidable critic on the Herald Tribune, at his apartment in New York City's historic Chelsea Hotel. The first line of the manuscript read "To this we've come," Magda's aria at the end of the second act! I didn't have time to absorb all that I was dealing with, but when I finished singing it I was trembling from head to toe. It was my first realization of what a powerfully moving role I had been trusted with and what a remarkable work The Consul was.

When we started regular rehearsals with the whole cast, we had the privilege of working with Gian-Carlo as composer and director. It was inspiring to have his genius guiding us. As we got close to opening, my colleagues and I would discuss what we thought was ahead of us. Many thought that we would have an artistic success but only a moderately successful run considering the seriousness of The Consul's subject matter and its tragic outcome.

On opening night there were no questions anymore. The opera was a phenomenal success - the ovation after Magda's second act aria seemed to go on forever - the reviews were ecstatic - there were awards and accolades - but most of all there were those people from the audience who came backstage with tear-stained faces to thank me for telling their story. The more we performed The Consul the more I realized it was, above all, a work of enormous compassion and depth.

It is impossible for me to express what a rich experience The Consul has been for me through the years, or to thank Gian-Carlo enough for the privilege of creating his first Magda.

To this day I meet people who saw it and tell me how much The Consul moved them. That generation is passing and I am deeply grateful to VAI for releasing this video so that future generations can experience this enduring work.

-Patricia Neway, 2004

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Auntie Maim

Blessed Mother of Maude Adams, what fresh hell is this?

From Variety:

'[Director Luca] Guadagnino said he and Swinton aspire to remake "Auntie Mame" as a "rock-n-roll, super funny, super mainstream movie."

They would set their "Mame," which is about a boy growing up as ward of his dead father's eccentric sister, in the present-day.

"This is an SOS for Warner Bros. to give us the rights for this remake, which only Tilda could do justice to," he added.'

You know I have nothing against a revival of Auntie Mame and/or Mame. Or even a filmed remake of either property. However, this isn't exactly how I pictured a re-emergence of the timeless character. In any incarnation, Mame is a period piece, and continues to work well in said period. Her effusive spirit is something that comes out of the Roaring Twenties, survives the Crash of '29 and continues into the Big Band Era: living life to the fullest and fighting the Establishment and stuffy provincial bigots along the way.

Elements of Auntie Mame could work today, but I hardly consider her "rock-n-roll." Mame Dennis Burnside is more than a character, she's a force of life. A living embodiment of Bohemianism and sophistication that I think most people would love to have in their lives. Not to mention, Tilda Swinton strikes me as all wrong for the part. Swinton is certainly an eccentric personality as attested by her Hefty bag fashion sense on Oscar night, and she leads a rather Bohemian lifestyle as evidenced by her open relationship with both husband and lover. I am pleased that she considers Auntie Mame one of her favorite films, but there is no need for her to reinvent the wheel.

Is there anyone who could bring savvy sophistication like Rosalind Russell, Greer Garson or Angela Lansbury? It's harder to cast the role of Mame because the character for all it's glorious lines and costumes, is static. Mame never changes, which is essential to her Mary Poppins-esque way of popping in and out of her nephew's life. The actress who can successfully play Mame should be patrician, open-hearted and sympathetic. It takes more than a good delivery of a zinger to make a Mame.

I would rather sit through the leaden 1974 film version of Mame with Lucille Ball than see the rape of a classic.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Well, they made a musical...

"Everyone knows how to fix everyone else's show."

Those words were imparted to me after the Wednesday evening performance of 9 to 5 by a journalistic acquaintance. The musical version of the 1980 film of the same name was one of the more anticipated Broadway shows this past season. However, it was met with critical negativity and audience indifference, in spite of a score by Dolly Parton and a leading lady turn by Allison Janney. The show closed yesterday after 148 performances. I decided to take in the show before it closed just because I was curious to see just what went wrong, and also to see Ms. Janney onstage.

The show is a mess, there's no getting past that. However, in the ruins of the musical there lies the promise of what could have been a better production. The fault lies mostly with director Joe Mantello, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and librettist (and co-writer of the original screenplay) Patricia Resnick. The original film is an amusing satiric fantasia of three women (Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton) enacting revenge on their repugnantly chauvinistic boss (a delightfully crass Dabney Coleman). The film holds up as an amusing period piece, even if its Oscar-nominated title song is probably better remembered than the movie itself. The musical tries very hard to be the film, but without making the necessary changes needed for it to be a fully functional musical - namely, a well-structured, clever book and a score that serves the story - it falls considerably short.

As the lights go down, that famous vamp starts up, setting off a series of cheers from the audience. Suddenly I was very innervated as the show curtain (cleverly made up entirely of telephone cords - remember those?) rose for the opening/title song. My disappointment was almost immediate as the first line of the song was sung by... a man? It was clear from the get-go that the show was lacking some sense of focus. "9 to 5" may be a recycled show tune, but it was still the best song in the score (a la "Never on Sunday" in Illya, Darling). The rest of my night was figuring out ways to fix the show to make moments like that actually work. (My idea for the opening? Cut the chorus from the first minute and a half of the song, give the lines to the three ladies as they prepare their mornings and bring the ensemble into the street scene).

In fact, the chorus pretty much sings and dances innocuously throughout. Assisting where they are not needed, including offstage singing back-up during "Backwoods Barbie" or filling out "I'm Gonna Shine Like the Sun" to close the first act. It didn't help that they were given generic "look ma, I'm dancin'" choreography by Tony award winner Andy Blankenbuehler. In fact, most of the dancing was uninspired and at times, rather pathetic. Office scenes aside, the chorus padded out the rest of the musical numbers for the sheer idea of giving them more to do. You could easily streamline the show and cut the chorus without much loss to any of the musical numbers - at most

Onto the most prolific person behind 9 to 5 the Musical, Dolly Parton. What more is there to say about this diminutive titan of the music industry? Composing hundreds of songs for herself and other artists, selling countless records and one of the most recognizable figures in the world, Dolly decided to take on the arduous task of writing a musical theatre score. If the score fails to meet the expectations of a Broadway musical, I am wary of putting the entire blame on Ms Parton. If her lyrics tended to be generic and more than frequently cliched, the melodies were mostly hummable and there was at least some considerable effort on her part as both composer and especially as the show's champion. With the exception of librettist Resnick, Ms. Parton was surrounded by Tony-winning musical theatre professionals who should have known better.

What made the musical entertaining were its three leading ladies. When they were onstage there was some sparkle and excitement in spite of the quality of the show around them. Megan Hilty was all beauty and heart as Doralee Rhodes, taking on the role originated by Parton in the film. While the performance is more impersonation of Parton than an original characterization, the young actress made the most of it especially with "Backwoods Barbie," one of the better numbers.

There is surprisingly very little to the character of Judy who goes from dejected insecure housewife to defiant independent working woman. Part of the problem is that there isn't much of an arc for the most dynamic of the three leading ladies - it's obvious she changes but we never really see how. However, the part was well sung by Stephanie Block, who was given the eleven o'clock number, "Get Out and Stay Out."Judy tosses her husband out halfway through the song, and delivers a powerhouse finish, but I wish the director had thought to keep the character onstage so she would have someone to play to. It's like taking a production of Follies and having Ben walk out on the line "Wait, I'm just beginning" as Phyllis continues 'Could I Leave You?' by herself.

Then we get to the star of the production. Ms. Allison Janney is well known for her four time Emmy winning role of C.J. Cregg on The West Wing, but she also has innumerable film and stage credits to her name. In the months leading up to my visit to the show, I'd read that Ms. Janney can't sing and can't really dance but that it didn't matter. Vocal and dance limitations aside, Ms. Janney can hold a tune and moves well and walks away with the show whenever she is onstage. This is probably the best musical debut debut of a non-musical performer since Lauren Bacall opened in Applause. (By the way, Encores, Janney is your Tess Harding. Now dust off Woman of the Year). In the eleventh hour, Janney stopped the show with a feminist tirade that would have made Dixie Carter proud. On top of that, she also looked like she was having the time of her life singing and dancing and giving one hell of a star turn.

As for the men, well there haven't been such thankless roles for men in a musical since the divas of Mame mopped the floor with them in 1966. Marc Kudisch has the most to do as Franklin Hart, Jr., the boss from hell, a role he performed with gusto. However it seemed redundant to give him not one but two songs expressing his vulgar misogny. Andy Karl is the younger accountant with a romantic interest in Violet. Karl, who was part of Legally Blonde, has little to do aside wear period glasses and duet with Janney on a real dud, "Let Love Grow."

Then there was Kathy Fitzgerald, bless her heart. I first became aware of her in The Producers where she played several bit parts, most notable Shirley Markowitz, the lesbian lighting designer with the basso profundo voice in "Keep it Gay." In 9 to 5, Fitzgerald played Roz, the busybody executive secretary whose unrequited love for the boss has her doing his bidding without question or pause. Ms. Fitzgerald got some of the biggest laughs of the evening, though her first number was too long.

One of the main problems is that there was too much of what was bad and too little of what was good. The main thing about adapting a property to the musical stage is that you want to be able to say something that hasn't been explored in any previous incarnation, whether it's a novel, play or film. One of the major problems with 9 to 5 was a slavish adherence to the film's screenplay, and certain things just didn't adapt well. When The Producers and Hairspray were adapted for Broadway, their great success was in finding a new way to tell the story (and it didn't hurt that both had Thomas Meehan on hand to assist). First-timer Resnick could have used a pro like him to help her with the structure and pinpointing the reason why these characters were bursting out into song. Oh - and not to mention two groan inducing moments: quoting "No good deed goes unpunished" and "I will always love you."

From the opening number onward, and well past midnight after getting home, I couldn't help but play show doctor. I made mental notes and ran the show over and over in my head thinking of ways to fix it and make improvements. The mental results I came up with would make for a sturdier show, but the more I think about it, did 9 to 5 really need to be a musical? However, I hope Dolly doesn't desert Broadway altogether - I think the combination of the two was a nice touch (then again, how can you not like Dolly?!) but I hope if she ever comes to town with a show I only hope she's got a creative team that won't let her down.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

How's about this for Janet McTeer & Harriet Walter...?

Tonight before 9 to 5, SarahB and I were looking at the window cards hanging in the area outside the Marquis Theatre. One of them was for the original Broadway production of Lettice & Lovage starring Maggie Smith & Margaret Tyzack, which won both ladies Tony awards. I thought, why not make this the next vehicle for Janet McTeer & Harriet Walter?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Walking Among My Yesterdays - "Doubt" (1/8/06)

I've decided that I'm going to start a new series discussing the shows and musicals I've seen and/or worked on prior to starting the blog in late 2007. Some of the writing will be reprinted from essays, defunct blogs, etc. The rest I will be writing about for the first time in any forum. Some is critical, some is academic. The new series I am going to call "Walking Among My Yesterdays," in line with my favorite song from The Happy Time and my show call at the right side of the page. First up, I offer my thoughts on Doubt, originally written on January 9, 2006 (after seeing the last performance of the entire original cast of the play):

Doubt, a Parable. What can I say? The play is brilliant. John Patrick Shanley delivers a credible, thought-provoking and intriguing story, and although it takes place in 1964, it (sadly) has relevance today. Cherry Jones' performance as Sister Aloysius is a remarkable tour-de-force. It was hard to recognize her, she was so easily consumed in the habit and the demeanor of a strict pre-Vatican 2 nun. Her stiff physicality and sharp vocal inflection only added to her characterization.

For a show running 90 minutes, not a moment is lost: every word counts and it's taut and gripping. With the traditional ways of the mother superior clashing with the liberal tendencies of the younger priest, it's really hard to delineate the truth on the whole matter. Basically, with nothing more than a suspicion, Sister Aloysius suspects that Father O'Flynn, who is also the phys ed. and religion teacher, is making inappropriate advances on the school's (first and) only black child. The battle of wills is fierce, as both are strong characters with a great deal of resolve. The priest is at an advantage, as Roman Catholic priests have patriarchal authority in the church, which he subtly uses as a fear tactic against Sister Aloysius, but she is firm in her handling of the situation. The problem on her part is that there is no tangible evidence to prove her suspicions correct and refuses to accept what he says. Their confrontation scene towards the end of the play is the stuff rave reviews were made for. It got to the point where they were yelling in each other's faces, neither choosing to stand down - and the audience ate it up. Several keys lines people tried to start applause, but the heat of the moment onstage didn't allow for any breaks and the actors continued pressing forward with such conviction. Finally when the scene did end, it stopped the show. Lengthy explosion of applause from the house.

Jones' Aloysius is a tough nut, but even though dead set in her ways and occasionally off the mark, she is fascinating, intriguing and sometimes funny. Her accomplice, so to speak, is a weak-willed, naive nun named Sister James, whom Aloysius is trying to get to be like her, even though the young girl is more progressively minded. James has a monologue during which she lashes back at the mother superior in a brilliant explosion of pent up emotion. Cherry stopped the show cold with her sharp, cool and authoritative reply of "Sit down." Stunning work on finding some levity in the piece, considering the starched quality of her character. A stunning moment came when Aloysius is tending to plants in the courtyard while conversing with Sister James. James mentions that she thinks the priest has done what Aloysius expects. Cherry is kneeling, facing upstage right. You can't see her face, but you see the comment hit her like a ton of bricks. Her response was a stunned "What...?". What a moment, especially with her back to the audience. The characterization is remarkable, playing off her strengths as equally as her flaws. Her stolid quality was notable in her body language, how she carried herself, walked, every detail she was living the part. I noted the minor point that she was standing up to the second class citizenry nuns found themselves in the Church years ago, as she is not allowed to be in a room alone with him - a rule he breaks during their final battle, as well as not being able to enter the rectory or walk up to a priest, etc. I was intrigued by that, and by the fact that regardless, she had no power outside her principal's office in the parish.

Adriane Lenox plays the mother of the young boy in question and in another brilliant (and brief) scene, interacts with Cherry over the interests of her son. The role is stunning, because in all her 7 or 8 minutes onstage, you know everything about this character and Lenox makes daring choices (the character's reaction is rather shocking to the audience, and out of left field, especially in such a matter).

I cannot praise Shanley enough for writing this play. It deserved all of its awards last spring. The "parable", as the play is referred to, offers no concrete evidence for either side of the argument. The ambiguous ending is perfection - he's crafted it so that the evidence presented puts doubt into the audience as well as the characters onstage. There is no clear-cut truth to the matter and end is startling and effective in its polarizing of the audience. I'm still not sure who to believe, I leaned towards Aloysius at first, but then bounced back when the priest presented his case, but at the end I was completely uncertain. Talk about a success on the part of the author's intent.

The only flaw, I thought, was Heather Goldenhersh, as the younger nun Sister James. I felt that she wasn't even acting (not in the amazing Cherry Jones way, but in the someone handed an unprofessional a script and told her to act-deer in headlights way). Her character was mannered, the acting wasn't sophomoric, it wasn't realistic and had no energy. However, I was impressed with Cherry as a scene partner. She worked magically off of all the actors and even had a good stage rapport with the younger actress (even if I thought she was lacking, the Tony people didn't. Oh well, it's just my opinion).

Between this and The Pillowman, it's been a good year for drama. Doubt, especially, with its purposeful lack of a clear-cut ending, is leaving audience members thinking, talking and debating as they leave the Walter Kerr Theatre. I also think this play would expand well onscreen too. (There is sadly, such relevance in the fears of priests molesting children and in that regard, I sympathized with Aloysius' fear for the safety of her students, even if her character lacked grace in handling the situation. It was also fascinating as a product of parochial elementary education to see it presented on Broadway).

I feel privileged and honored to have seen Cherry Jones act live onstage. I am in a state of awe after having witnessed such genius in the acting and in the writing (and in directing, Doug Hughes, unsung in my comments, has done stellar staging of the text, keeping the pacing tight and always intriguing).

After thinking about it, I think I tended more toward Aloysius' suspicion. I don't necessarily think she did the right thing. But I was fearful for the student's well-being and in this day and age, its a zero-tolerance policy. But evidence is key, we can't just go on gut impulses all the time, even if it feels 100% certain to be the right path.

In retrospect 2004-05 proved to be a stellar theatre season for me: The Light in the Piazza (7 times), Doubt, The Pillowman, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (twice), Purlie & The Apple Tree at Encores!, South Pacific at Carnegie Hall, La Cage Aux Folles (twice) and Spamalot.

And before I stop, I just wanted to include John Patrick Shanley's Playbill bio:

John Patrick Shanley (Playwright) is from the Bronx. He was thrown out of St. Helena's kindergarten. He was banned from St. Anthony's hot lunch program for life. He was expelled from Cardinal Spellman High School. He was placed on academic probation by New York University and instructed to appear before a tribunal if he wished to return. When asked why he had been treated in this way by all these institutions, he burst into tears and said he had no idea. Then he went in the United States Marine Corps. He did fine. He's still doing okay. Mr. Shanley is interested in your reactions. He can be contacted at