Wednesday, June 16, 2010

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Random Thoughts on the Tony Awards

Last night I was very fortunate to be watching the Tony Awards at SarahB's annual Tony party (which I lovingly call "Lady Iris' Annual Moon Lady Extravaganza"). We were in a different suite this year, but the company was the same. While it rained on the NY, up inside 1820, the moon was the full, the gin was in the bathtub and a glorious time was had by all. There was a Twitter corner for those who wished to tweet during the ceremony, but we all had such a marvelous time with one another that no one left the couch!

The greatest acceptance speech of the night belonged to Marian Seldes. The beloved actress was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award which was presented on the pre-show telecast on NY1. There had been some conjecture wondering how long Ms. Seldes' speech would run. However, she trumped all by merely walking to the microphone, taking several glances at the house and merely put her hand to her cheek in astonishment as she walked offstage. I think it will go down as one of the greatest Tony moments ever (and is that now officially the shortest acceptance speech on record...)

I've seen some speculation on web boards and twitter that Ms. Seldes' speech was either disingenuous or indicative of failing health. But the truth of the matter that it is neither. Marian is an animal of the theatre, one who has a unique quality of eccentricity about her. But this eccentricity is pure sincerity. I don't know that there is another person alive or dead who genuinely loves theatre like Marian Seldes, who recently sat through a three hour performance of A Little Night Music, backstage visit and dinner with a smashed shoulder (which would require surgery). She is wholly dedicated to her profession, and I for one say "Brava!"

Last July, the Tony Management Committee released a statement to the press to inform the world that members of the press were to lose their voting privileges in the awards. There was a huge backlash at the time because of the hypocritical statement that removing the press would make the awards more balanced and fair. Bullshit. It was a choice that removed the most impartial members (approx. 100 folks, accounting for 1/8 of the voters). The results of last night's awards were indicative of that choice.

Producers were given far more influence in the voting results, which were reflective of the trends of this weary, underwhelming theatre season where the great financial successes were star driven limited engagements. Stars were given preference; not necessarily saying that their performances weren't meritorious, but it seemed more like a plea on the producers' part to entice other stars to come to Broadway. While I welcome any and all to give it a try onstage... I am weary at the unhealthy trend this could set as more and more producers look to shy away from artistic risks and pander to middling tastes.

There weren't as many sound gaffes as last year, but that didn't help much when it came to Tony performances. Once again they felt rushed and were at extremes. There was no balanced excerpt. Green Day was given two songs while Christiane Noll was given the bridge of "Back to Before." Nominated revival, and the best reviewed show of the season Finian's Rainbow wasn't even represented in song. The television direction once again proved entirely incongruous, giving the audience very little feel for the shows in contention. Matthew Morrison needs to do another musical, but I'm not sold that Lea Michelle is ready for a revival of Funny Girl.

The trouble remains the need for CBS to draw ratings (which it always fails to do) so they limit the performance time for shows and make it impossible to get a sense of the shows currently playing. Also with the show being held in Radio City Music Hall, a cavernous barn fit only for a revival of Jumbo, much intimacy is lost. Radio City Music Hall is not Broadway, nor will it ever be. It's unlikely to change unless the awards are given the boot from network television (and the way it's going, it would probably be better off on PBS), but I wish the tradition of going to a different Broadway house each year would return.

Then there is the legend of Catherine Zeta-Jones. While I am not a big fan of the stage revival currently playing the Walter Kerr, I did think that the star could have been exceptional Desiree Armfeldt with a more nuanced director, such as Bartlett Sher. The performance of "Send in the Clowns" ranks as one of the worst renditions of the song I have ever seen/heard, whether it was the choice to remove Alexander Hanson (who should have been nominated for his exceptional Fredrik Egerman) from the moment so she would have someone to play to or nerves, or projecting to the house at Radio City Music Hall. It heightened what was problematic about her performance to me - the need to oversell, oversing and the overall lack of nuance and balance in her performance. Even folks I know who liked the performance found themselves screaming at the pregnant pauses, jerky head movements and crazy eyes. What seemed mediocre at the Kerr was downright terrifying in HD closeup. Barbara Cook introduced the number, but truth be told I think she should have been the one singing the Sondheim classic last night.

The Best Musical Tony should be renamed "Best Vehicle for Marketing on Tour." It was a weak year for original musicals, very few properties were represented and there were only two eligible nominees for score (with Fences and Enron filling out the rest). Memphis won because it was the most wholly original and traditional musical in the bunch, a diluted and derivative hybrid of Dreamgirls and Hairspray. (I'd have voted for Fela!, one of the great experiences of the year).

Sean Hayes was an exceptional host. Funny, affable, self-deprecating. He was genuinely funny and his one liners and shtick worked very well. His quips as well as his numerous costume bits were very amusing and as the night progressed further and further into tedium, I looked forward to seeing what the Promises, Promises star would come up with next. Also, props on the classical piano skills - I was sort of hoping that he and David Hyde Pierce would engage in a round of dueling pianos.

Angela Lansbury did not break the record for most acting Tony wins last night, but she was still the epitome of class and grace as she was announced the first ever Honorary Chairman of the American Theatre Wing, an announcement which brought the entire crowd at Radio City Music Hall to its feet.

Oh - and one more thing. NY Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was on hand to present the Best Musical performance of Memphis. In his introduction he was touted as a theatre aficionado, to which I said, "That doesn't look like me." It was unexpected, but I think it's nice to see someone from the world of sports taking an interest in Broadway.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Lily Tomlin's Special Tony Acceptance Speech

It's the eve of the Tony Awards. By this time tomorrow, we'll know what the voters decided on and we will Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday morning, afternoon and evening quarterback (and possibly still further... Two Gentlemen of Verona over Follies anyone...?). Twitter, facebook and the blogosphere will be a jumbled mess of opinions, arguments, commentary and 20/20 hindsight. But for now I want to share one of my favorite Tony acceptance speeches -and one of the more unique -in Tony history.

Lily Tomlin has appeared in two solo shows on Broadway, both solo works and has won Tonys for both. The more famous is her 1985 vehicle The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which she revived in 2001. But in 1977, Tomlin made her Broadway debut in a special limited engagement Appearing Nitely, which she directed and cowrote with her partner Jane Wagner. She received a special Tony award for her acclaimed appearance and in turn they made her work for it. Happy Tony watching and may you all win your Tony party pool. In the meanwhile, here's Lily. Enjoy:

Friday, June 11, 2010

Melba Moore sings "I Got Love"

High belting doesn't really excite me as much as it does some others. But, that doesn't mean I don't have some favorites. One of the all time greats is Melba Moore, who made her professional debut as Dionne in the original cast of Hair. Moore came from a musical family (her mother was singer Bonnie Davis and her father Big Band leader Teddy Hill; her stepfather and great influence was jazz pianist Clement Moorman). Moore eventually moved into the role of Sheila, a couple years into the run (replacing none other than Diane Keaton).

In 1970, she opened in a new musical based on Ossie Davis'
Purlie Victorious. A light comedy with satiric edges about race relations in the Deep South, the play was about a charismatic and cunning preacher who returns to his Georgia hometown to save the church and also to get the cotton pickers out of the clutches of the mean old plantation owner (who treats the workers like slaves). The plan is to get an inheritance out of the old racist codger and use the money to help the townspeople, with the help of the plantation owner's liberal son.

The musical starred Cleavon Little as the "new-fangled preacher man Purlie Victorious Judson, and featured Sherman Hemsley, Novella Nelson, Helen Martin and Linda Hopkins. The score was written by Peter Udell and Gary Geld, the book by Udell, Davis & Philip Rose. (Davis had no actual involvement with the musical, but so much of his original work remained that Udell and Rose felt that he deserved credit).

Playing Purlie's love interest, Lutiebelle, Moore created a sensation out of town with the musical when she stopped the show with the show's title song in act one. She went over so well, that Udell and Geld wrote another song for her, which was such a sensation it would bring the show to a complete stop. The song is "I Got Love." It comes towards the middle of the first act, and begins as a quiet, plaintive reflection. But it soon explodes into one of the most joyous musical theatre numbers I've ever heard. It pops out on the original cast album, but the recording doesn't contain the alternate ending that Moore used in the theatre. (For the record, the show has one of my all time favorite opening numbers too).

Melba won the Tony for Best Featured Actress, besting Penny Fuller and Bonnie Franklin in Applause and Melissa Hart in the bomb Georgy. (Little won for Lead Actor, the show was nominated for several others including Best Musical). The success of the musical jumpstarted Moore's career as a recording artist and actress, with several successful albums and some film and TV work.

Moore returned to Broadway in 1978's reboot of Kismet called Timbuktu, but reportedly friction with co-star Eartha Kitt sent Moore packing within a few weeks after opening. She provided music and lyrics and starred in the 1981 play Inacent Black, which lasted 14 performances. Later stage work includes a Broadway stint as Fantine in Les Mis and the national tour of Brooklyn.

Here is "I Got Love" in its show stopping splendor from the 1981 telecast of Purlie, which I think is even better than her high octane performance on the 1970 Tony telecast. Much of the original cast was involved, with the noted addition of Robert Guillaume, who replaced Little on Broadway, in the title role. Oh... and she does her alternate ending here...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

"Follies" - A glimpse of the original

Who's got the budget to recreate this spectacular piece of theatre? Here are fragments of the original cast, in a final dress rehearsal. Watch...marvel...enjoy... (The first part is viewable here).

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Patrick Lee (1959-2010)

Ever since I started blogging, I have been experiencing so many firsts. My first press invite or my first interview. There have been first trips to various theatres, seeing various folks perform and it's been such a joy. However, today with the sobering intensity of a sucker punch, I experienced another first, one that I wasn't exactly prepared for: the death of a fellow theatre blogger.

I first met Patrick Lee a little over a year ago when Ken Davenport had what would be the first meeting of the Independent Theater Bloggers Association. Over the course of the year, as I volunteered to help out I got to spend some time with Patrick as we worked to bring structure to the fledgling group. It was to my great shock and sadness to learn of his death of a heart attack, at 51 years old.

Every so often we would all meet up in Ken's offices for meetings discussion our progress and whatnot. But as is the case with so many of the bloggers, I found myself chatting him up before and after the meetings. There would be times when we would end up talking for a half hour on the sidewalk on 49th Street, catching up on what we have seen. Discussing some of the great flops that interest me (namely 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue), he told me that he used to travel into the city constantly with his father to see theatre when he was a kid, and as a result saw so many shows (such as 1600) that most of the general public would have missed.

I don't know if there is anyone who went to the theatre as often as Patrick did. Last August, we would jest over the amount of Fringe shows he was running off to see. You could catch his reviews, interviews and features for Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off Broadway theatre on Theatermania, his own blog Just Shows to Go You and Show Showdown. He was a member of the Outer Critics Circle and a juror for the GLAAD Media Awards. Just recently, we announced the 2010 winners of the ITBA awards, with Patrick taking charge of an admittedly thankless task and handling everything with aplomb.

The last time I saw Patrick was, of course, at the theatre. We were heading in to see the Encores! revival of Anyone Can Whistle and were able to chat amiably for a couple of minutes. I do wish I had a chance to know him better, but will be grateful for the conversations we had, online and in person. He will be greatly missed among the theatre blog community.

He is survived by his mother, sisters and other family members.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The 2010 Theatre World Awards - Recap

For the first time since I started blogging I made it to the 66th annual Theatre World Awards with considerable ease; no train chasing or train hopping this year! The ceremony was once again held at New World Stages (where it was in 2007), in the theatre which currently houses Avenue Q (seeing the set made me want to see it again).

This year it was very important for me to be there as the awards were handed out, as it's not been the easiest year for the organization. Financial troubles left the future of the awards ceremony in doubt, but thanks to Meryl Streep, Mamie Gummer as well as the Dorothy Loudon Foundation and others, this year's ceremony went on as planned. While still not out of the woods yet, things are looking up (To make a tax deductible donation to the Theatre World Awards, click here).

The afternoon got started with a visit from Jennifer Barnhart and John Tartaglia, who brought along one of the Bad Idea Bears and Rod. After establishing the rules for the afternoon, they introduced Peter Filichia who seemed to get Rod a little...shall we say flustered...? The affable emcee smiled as the smitten musical loving investment banker made his exit.

Filichia, as always, hosts the event and is actively involved with the Theatre World in almost every capacity. He usually starts with a few digs at some of the current shows but got off to a bit of a false start when he quipped that his 12 year old suit was now eligible for a Tony (that remark landed like a lead balloon, esp. since half the Ragtime company was in attendance). However, he eased into his usual form: very brief commentary in between presentations. Peter knows lots of minutiae about almost everyone in show business and usually regales the audience with a "Rest of the Story" anecdote.

The tradition remains: a previous winner is on hand to bestow the award to the newcomer. Whenever possible, the event planners try to pick winners with a connection to the new recipient. There is no script, there is no time limits - the afternoon always progresses in a free-form manner and ends up being the most moving of all ceremonies; often the winners are surprised at how overcome they are. Every year without fail, the presenters speak fondly of the award and its place in their lives.

In order to make her evening performance of Johnny Baseball in Cambridge, MA, the first recipient was Ragtime's Stephanie Umoh, who received her award from original Broadway cast member Brian Stokes Mitchell, who said it was the most magical show he's ever been a part of. The stunning Umoh, overcome with emotion, took a moment and told herself to pull it together.

Michael Cerveris presented to Bill Heck of The Orphans' Homes Cycle. Filichia mentioned that there was a connection between the two of them because of Sweeney Todd, which Cerveris famously revived on Broadway. Heck was cast in a production of the show as Judge Turpin and it was what started him on the path as a professional actor. Heck quipped that the award was "pretty kick-ass" and thanked everyone who sat through all nine hours of the performance.

Heidi Schrek's (Circle Mirror Transformation) proud mother was on hand to accept the award on her behalf, as the young actress is currently at Berkeley Rep. Mrs. Schreck read a statement from her daughter, including the parentheticals (which garnered a bit laugh). Robert LuPone was also on hand to accept for Andrea Riseborough, who won for MCC's (The Pride). Condola Rashad still seemed quite overwhelmed from her win last year as she recalled the moment to moment experience of how the afternoon felt for her. She presented to Keira Keely of The Glass Menagerie, who charmed with her quirky shyness.

Jon Michael Hill received his award, most fittingly, from his Superior Donuts costar Michael McKean, who is one of funniest and most intelligent actors working today (Hill commented on his winning Celebrity Jeopardy). McKean regaled us with a couple of stories about his own career. He attended Carnegie (before the Mellon) and NYU (before the Tisch), figuring they didn't get endowed until after he left. He also talked about his own Theatre World Award acceptance speech. Carol Lynley was his presenter and told him "I haven't a clue who you are." He then told the audience to google Carol Lynley.

Vanessa Williams was on hand to present to her Ugly Betty co-star Michael Urie (The Temperamentals). She claimed to have planned a very extensive presentation with song and video a la Sondheim on Sondheim, but said time just got away from her. Instead, she narrated her idea in between snippets of "Good Thing Going" from Merrily We Roll Along. Urie told the crowd that Williams was entirely responsible for his casting on the hit series, as initially Williams' was supposed to go through a different assistant each week. It was Urie's work on the pilot that made Williams go to bat for the younger actor.

Seated behind us throughout the ceremony was Scarlett Johansson, who was dolled up to the nines (and whose Theatre World snapshots made the style tabloids today). She was presented her award by her A View from the Bridge co-star Michael Cristofer, who - as it turns out - is the only person to have won a Tony, Theatre World Award and Pulitzer. He took a moment to talk about film acting vs. stage acting and proffered that they aren't as different as they seem. His evidence was Ms. Johansson's performance, her first professional stage experience and the seemingly alchemical way she inhabited the character.

Johansson expressed gratitude and was thrilled at her reception by the New York theatre community. She admitted that had she not been welcomed she wouldn't be able to do it again (and even proferred an awkward interview where the reporter asked her what she would do if she got bad reviews). Her wish for the theatre goes back to her childhood, when she pounded the pavement in NY in order to be Cosette in Les Miserables.

Kate Burton was on hand to present two awards. The first was the Dorothy Loudon Foundation's "Starbaby" Award, which was given to Bobby Steggert for his performances in Ragtime and Yank! Loudon's agent Lionel Larner was on hand to talk about the award and mentioned the late actress' fondness for the Theatre World - because it wasn't politically motivated, was non competitive and was run by people who loved theatre. Burton met Steggert only weeks earlier when they started rehearsals for The Grand Manner at Lincoln Center. She mentioned that he one day wants to play Bobby in Company and hopes she can play Joanne (I'd see that) then called him up to the stage with the "Bobby" section of the title song. Steggert met his costar with tears in his eyes (her praise was quite effusive and incredibly heartfelt) and was quite humbled. My only quibble - there was a mention of Dorothy Loudon's "Vodka" but no clip.

Her other presentation was later in the show to Fela! star Sahr Ngaujah. When Burton won, she was awarded for three different shows she did in one season, but felt that Ngaujah did more in his one performance than she did in all three combined. Burton found parallels in their lives. Both Burton and Ngaujah are first generation Americans and faced reticence from their fathers. Burton's father (Richard) knew the business and based his worries in experience. Ngaujah's father, on the other hand questioned what acting could do for the people of Sierra Leone (where Ngaujah's family is from). It was seeing his son in Fela! that changed his mind.

Peter introduced Tovah Feldshuh by commenting that a cartwheel is what kept her employed on her first Broadway show (the failed musical Cyrano). In response, Tovah, dolled up in a vintage looking summer dress (Oh, Eileen..! was the comment I heard) offered to delivery another cartwheel, apologizing in advance for a Tallulah moment. Feldshuh introduced Nina Arianda of Venus in Fur by talking about a rumor that the actress stripped in her audition (which Arianda later put to bed) and then read one of the reviews she got, in the only way Tovah can. Arianda talked about how she was on her sixth callback for As You Like It the day she auditioned for Venus in Fur. She proceeded to get the part five hours later.

One of the most ebullient winners of the afternoon was Chris Chalk of Fences, who received his award from costar Viola Davis, who thought she was too young to be playing his mother (but neither the critics nor her husband agreed). Chalk's high energy and enthusiasm brought roars of laughter, as he confessed to stalking Jon Michael Hill on Facebook after seeing his performance in Superior Donuts. He added that the night he saw that play he and the middle aged white man next to him were holding onto each other. He also got the biggest laugh of the afternoon when he told the audience he didn't have an agent, so he didn't have to thank any of them.

Much to my delight, Peter Filichia introduced Alfred Molina by talking about how he met his wife in the original London production of Harold Rome's Destry Rides Again (which we both later agreed would be a great show for Kate Baldwin). Filichia commented on seeing he and his wife eating and conversing lively - and that nothing makes him happier than watching a married couple still in love after 25 years. Molina entered and quipped "I think that was my agent." He graciously presented to his Red costar Eddie Redmayne, saying that the younger acting is teaching him and helping him grow as an actor, to which Redmayne genially said "Bollocks!" and insisted he was the pupil.

There were, of course, the obligatory performances. Alli Mauzey sang her big number "Screw Loose" from the short-lived, unrecorded Cry-Baby (Peter turned front and said "Gentlemen, turn on your recorders). Loretta Ables-Sayre, who won for her indelible turn in South Pacific (and who is still seriously one of my favorite people ever) sang a wonderfully jazzy rendition of "The Best is Yet to Come," one of the more fitting numbers I've heard at the ceremony. Jonathan Groff was also onhand to sing "Only in New York" from Thoroughly Modern Millie in the eleven o'clock spot.

Every year we've been blessed to have John Willis in attendance. Though frail, the 93 yearold founder of the Theatre World Awards was in high spirits as he was helped to his feet for recognition from the audience. We stood in admiration and appreciation for this gentleman who not only helped found the organization, but kept it running for years.

The first year I attended, I found myself sitting with a couple of Peter's guests. Now, I look forward to my annual meeting with Karen, with whom I sat the very first year. We've ran into each other outside the Theatre Worlds, and we joke about it since we always see each other every spring! It's indicative of the award ceremony's spirit - people gathering to celebrate theatre, greeting one another as old friends. If you need positive energy, this is the place to be.

There was one notable difference this year: the award itself was redesigned. In recent years the winners received a small bronze statue featuring Janus. This year they were replaced with large (and incredibly heavy, as per the winners) slabs of cut glass.

The new season hasn't even started, but I confess I'm already excited for next year's awards.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Karen Morrow sings "I Had a Ball"

"She'll sing the hell out of it."

That, my friends, is Jerry Herman's ringing endorsement for the one and only Karen Morrow, who possesses one of the best belt voices I have ever heard. Morrow got her start in the early 60s with a Theatre World Award for the off-Broadway musical Sing Muse! and several shows at the City Center. Following a tour in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, she found further off-Broadway success in a hit revival of The Boys from Syracuse.

However, Morrow is another great voice cursed by a series of Broadway flops. She made her Main Stem debut in I Had a Ball playing the brassy belter opposite star Buddy Hackett (who thankfully kept his singing to a minimum and is the reason the show closed - check out Not Since Carrie or the original cast recording for details). The plot is convoluted nonsense about romance on Coney Island (gee, where have I heard that recently...?) and gave Morrow the eleven o'clock showstopper: the title song.

The first time I ever listened to the cast album, nothing really grabbed my attention. That is, until I this song popped on. I stopped what I was doing and proceeded to repeat this one song 13 times. It is, without a doubt, one of the most unabashedly joyous pieces of musical theatre ever written. The cast album features only a portion of the dance break, a bit of belly-dance music but it features one of the most brassily orgasmic transitions back into singing. A treat from start to finish.

If Karen Morrow is on the album, I have it. I'm especially grateful that "The Babylove Miracle Show," the absurdly infectious faith healer song cycle from The Grass Harp is recorded in its entirety. Morrow basically entered and sang for 15 minutes non-stop, getting the likes of Barbara Cook, Carol Brice and Russ Thacker to speak in tongues (and "Time to hang the moulah on the washline") - but that's another post for another day.

After I Had a Ball, Morrow was featured in A Joyful Noise in 1966 opposite John Raitt and Susan Watson. This show folded after a mere 12 performances and no cast album, even though Morrow tore things up with "I Love Nashville." I'm Solomon in 1968 which ran for 7 performances (and both played the Mark Hellinger Theatre). The Selling of the President ran even shorter: 5 performances at the Shubert in 1972, a musical in which Morrow didn't sing a single note - which I like to think is one of the main reasons it failed. (During her opening night curtain call, a gentleman near the stage called out, "You should have sang, honey!") Her final Broadway appearance to date was much happier: she replaced Cleo Laine as the Princess Puffer in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

In spite of those flops, Morrow's never wanted for work: performing in concerts, with symphonies around the country, numerous TV appearances (especially Merv Griffin, who adored her) - and she's even won an Emmy. She's one of Jerry Herman's favorites, and whenever there is a concert in his behalf you can count on her being there. She also toured as Parthy in Hal Prince's Show Boat and was involved with White Christmas: the Musical, and is featured on that original cast album.

Anyway, here is Karen Morrow with the dancing company of I Had a Ball. The choreography is by Onna White. Also, take note of what Buddy Hackett does during the song's big finish.