May 4, 2024

A Few Thoughts on an Awards Season Full of News-Worthy and Prize-Worthy Nominations

We’re officially in awards season.  The Outer Critics Circle, on whose nominating committee I sit, announced its choices for the best in the 2023-2024 season last week (click here to see our nominations for shows both on and off Broadway).  And then this week came nominations from the Drama Desk, which celebrate shows on, off and off-off Broadway (click here for its choices) and the Chita Rivera Award nominations for the best in theatrical dance (click here for those nods).  And then, of course, came the Tony Award nominations (click here to see those).

Still to come are the Drama Critics Circle Awards, which will be announced on May 13 and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which is scheduled to be announced on May 8.

But even with all those chances, some worthy contenders always get left out. And that was even more the case this year because there were so many shows13 opening in the last two weeks of the season aloneso many of them boasted award-worthy elements and so many of them featured big casts with lots of talented performances. Which made it all the more difficult to put out a slate of just five to seven names in any category. 

It delighted me when some of my personal favorites got recognized (yay, Mother Play) and made me a little sad when some didn’t (Michael Imperioli really should have been in the mix for his turn in An Enemy of the People). But what I focused on more is what these combined nominations tell us about the current state of Broadway, which is searching for a new identity in this post-pandemic era.

Most attention tends to center around the prizes for musicals because (1) that’s what so many theatergoers think of when they think of a Broadway show and (2) musicals are so damned hard to get right. So I'm going to focus this post on them too. And it makes extra sense to do that because last season saw an influx of new voices and talents into that arena.

More award-winning playwrights than ever are writing the books for musicals. Kristoffer Diaz, a one-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, wrote the book for Hell’s Kitchen, the musical drawn from the songbook of Alicia Keyes and inspired by the singer-songwriter’s coming of age in the ‘90s in the New York City neighborhood that gives the show its title. 

Another former Pulitzer finalist Craig Lucas collaborated with composer Adam Guettel on Days of Wine and Roses, the story of a couple (gloriously played by Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara) whose lives are ruined by alcoholism. 

Meanwhile yet another Pulitzer finalist, Adam Rapp adapted The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton’s now-classic 1967 novel about rival teen gangs divided along social class lines.  

And Jackie Sibblies Drury, who actually won the Pulitzer in 2019 for her audacious play Fairview, created the narrative storyline for Justin Peck’s all-dance show Illinoise, which was inspired by and set to the music of Sufjan Stevens.

But Stevens’ music wasn’t the only score to redefine what a Broadway show now sounds like. Singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson created the pop-rock score for The Notebook; the folk-rock duo Jamestown Revival collaborated with Justin Levine on the music for The Outsiders and the collective of musicians known as the Pigpen Company did the score for Water for Elephants.  

However perhaps most surprisingly, Will Butler, a former member of the indie band Arcade Fire, wrote the songs for Stereophonic, David Adjmi’s play about a rock band working through both artistic and personal issues as it records its sophomore album. 

Shaina Taub’s score for Suffs, a show about the feminist campaign to get women the right to vote, is a bit more traditional but it's attention worthy too because Taub is one of just a handful of women ever to have written the book, score and lyrics for a Broadway show.

Women also broke out in other ways last season. Four of the five Tony nominations for Best Director of a Musical deservedly went to women: Maria Friedman for Merrily We Roll Along, Leigh Silverman for Suffs, Jessica Stone for Water for Elephants and Danya Taymor for The Outsiders.  

All of these writers, composers and directors picked up OCC or Drama Desk nominations too. As did their shows.  And because there is no obvious frontrunner for the Best Musical this year, watching as the nominees and their producers jockey for the top prizes could make this awards season one of the most fun and exciting in recent memory.

Update: Although above the post said the Pulitzer Prize for Drama would be announced on May 8, it was announced on May 6 (and you might think I would have known better since I had the honor of chairing this year's jury; click here for info about the runners-up and the other jury members). The prize went to Eboni Booth's Primary Trust (click here to listen to an interview I did with Booth when the show ran at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre last year).


April 27, 2024

"Mother Play" is a Work of True Compassion

After seeing Mother Play, Paula Vogel’s semi-autobiographical three-hander which opened at the Hayes Theater on the very last day of the 2023-2024 theater season, my friends and I went next door to Sardi’s for a post-show dinner. While we waited for our drinks to arrive, I went to the ladies room. And when I came out of my stall, I found a woman standing in the middle of the room, her eyes brimming with tears. With no prompting from me, she explained that she was still reeling from having just seen “the most remarkable play.” And, of course, that play turned out to be Mother Play

Now as regular readers will know, I am a longstanding Paula Vogel stan but I suspect that even those of you who might be new to her work will, like the woman in the Sardi’s restroom, find yourselves deeply moved by this play.  And that will be especially so if, like Vogel and me, you’re a member of the Baby Boom generation and was raised by one of those mothers who felt thwarted in those days before women’s liberation took root and so poured her ambitions—and her anger—into her children.

The full title of the play is Mother Play: A Play in Five Evictions and it tracks four decades of ejections and rejections in the relationships between Phyllis, a single mother whose husband left her for another woman, and her children Carl and Martha. And as this memory play opens, a middle-aged Martha looks back at the day when the three of them—Phyllis then 37, Carl 13 and she 11—moved into a dingy basement apartment in a D.C. suburb that they could only afford if they took on the building’s janitorial duties.  

Carl, who shares a name with Vogel’s real-life brother who died of AIDS in 1988, is one of those sensitive boys who reads serious literature, listens to classical music and yearns to live in someplace like New York or Paris. Martha, a stand-in for the playwright, is socially inept and just trying to avoid the school bullies who make fun of her. But the main preoccupation for both siblings is Phyllis, which also happens to be the name of Vogel’s mother.

Phyllis is furious about the hand that life has dealt her and she deals with it by guzzling gin, chain smoking and criticizing her kids. The latter intensifies when both of them later come out as gay.  “Was it too much to ask for one normal child? “ she rages.

Tina Landau’s deft direction balances the pathos of the family’s interactions with the humor they employ to survive them. The set and video projections also provide some clever moments of levity. But it’s the performances that drove the show home for me and each of the actors—Jessica Lange as Phyllis (click here to read an interview with her) Jim Parsons as Carl and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Martha—is superb. 

Several critics have compared Mother Play to Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie: a memory play with an absent father, overbearing mother, sensitive son, awkward daughter. But while Glass Menagerie may be the greater play, Mother Play is the more compassionate one.

In his playand throughout the rest of his lifeWilliams struggles to forgive himself for leaving his mother and sister behind. Vogel's play holds onto her anger toward a mother who emotionally abandoned her and her beloved brother but it also tells those of us still trying to understand mothers who were overtly or covertly ambivalent about motherhood that simply acknowledging the past might be the best way to move on from it.





April 23, 2024

HAPPY SHAKESPEARE DAY


The Bard was born 460 years ago today—and died exactly 52 years later in 1616. But of course his works live on even though debates about whether or not he actually wrote them do too (click here to read the latest). I confess that in the past I've declared moratoriums on seeing his work but I keep coming back (my theatergoing buddy Bill and I are scheduled to see a simulcast of Ralph Fiennes in Macbeth next week). So Happy Birthday Will!

April 20, 2024

Their Wobbly Books Cause "Lempicka" and "Suffs" to Stumble More Than They Should


What’s the hardest job in show business?  There are obviously lots of contenders but right now as one musical after another is opening on Broadway, I’ve been thinking that the answer to that question might be writing the book of a musical. In some ways it’s a thankless job. When a show works, the composer usually gets the credit (after all, it is called a musical) and when a show doesn’t work, the book writer often gets the blame. 

I thought a lot about that as I watched two ambitious musicals—Lempicka and Suffs—that opened this week to middling reviews. Although both shows are inspired by the lives of real people, neither is based on pre-existing material like a book, movie or superhero comic. So it was up to their book writers to determine exactly what story they wanted to tell and how to tell it. 

Alas, neither Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould who collaborated on the book for Lempicka; nor Shaina Taub, who not only wrote the book for Suffs but also composed its score, wrote its lyrics and performs as the show’s main character, manage to do this as successfully as I’d hoped.

Lempicka tells the story of the Polish-Jewish artist Tamara Lempicka who rose to fame between the World Wars for the bold art deco nudes she painted. She also had a colorful personal life that included escapes from both the Russian Revolution and the Nazi invasion of Paris as well as a string of affairs with both men and women. 

So Kreitzer and Gould had a lot to work with. The problem is that they worked so hard to cram all of it into two-and-a-half hours that they forgot to include a reason to make us care about any of it. Maybe things got lost in rewrites during the show’s 16-year gestation period.  For example, a too-expensive-not-to-use car that resembles the Batmobile sits on the stage but no longer serves any real purpose in the storytelling.

The current book just slides from one scene in Lempicka’s life to the next, without taking time to develop her character or those of the people around her. And while Eden Espinosa who has been with the show through most of its long development process (click here to read an interview with her) brings the rattle-the-rafters intensity to Lempicka's songs that she honed as an Elphaba in Wicked, she isn’t able to flesh out this character.

And her castmates are similarly hobbled. One minute Lempicka’s husband (played by Andrew Samonsky) is incensed that she’s spending so much time in her studio and the next he’s boasting about her accomplishments. Similarly a female lover quickly switches from being a woman who doesn’t want to be tied down to one who is clingy and can’t bear to be apart from Lempicka. 

That lover, called Rafaela in the play, is supposed to have inspired the painter’s most iconic works but that presents another problem for this production, which clearly wants to use reproductions of those images but is constrained because they all feature white women and Rafaela is played by the black actress Amber Iman. The script calls for viewers to make the instant connection between the paintings and their subject but whenever someone did that it took me right out of Lempicka’s already too-thinly-realized world. 

By comparison Suffs has clear stakes and a fairly straight-forward storyline: the campaign in the early part of the 20th century to get American women the right to vote. Its main character is Alice Paul, the real-life feminist who was one of the main strategist in the suffrage movement, from which the show takes its title. 

But sensitive to the politics of our day, Taub tries to be inclusive, telling the stories of a range of women, including the African-American activists Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell and the working-class labor organizer Ruza Wenclawska. However as good as it is to celebrate these women, we don’t truly to get to know any of them well. And we get to know Paul, who lived to be 92 and a fierce advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, least of all.

Still, the production has improved considerably since its run at the Public Theater two years ago (click here to read my review of that). Taub and director Leigh Silverman have replaced half of the songs, hired a new choreographer, brought in new costume, set and lighting designers and enlisted two high-profile producers: almost-President Hillary Clinton and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai.

They’ve also shuffled around the cast, moving some actors into different roles and getting rid of the well-meaning but confusing colorblind casting that made it difficult to tell if actors of color were playing African-American feminists or white characters.

But what they didn’t do was deepen their characters, give them motivations that made us understand why they were the ones willing to risk so much to empower all women.  Instead the characters justify their actions by occasionally breaking the fourth wall to tell the audience “this really happened.” 

That may be so but what we want—OK, what I want—from shows like this one is an emotional truth, an understanding of why people do things instead of just an accounting of what they did. 

Suffs may now be an entertaining history lesson (it's chocked full of memorable anthems and the row of women seated behind me cheered them all) but I'm not so sure that the show will make it into the musical theater history books.


April 13, 2024

An Uplifting Visit to "Tuesdays with Morrie"

It’s being an unusually busy theater season this spring with a baker’s dozen of Broadway shows still scheduled to open between now and the end of the month. So it’s no surprise that smaller shows—even very good ones— might get lost in the crush. And they don’t come much smaller than Tuesdays with Morrie, a two-hander based on journalist Mitch Albom’s 1997 bestseller about the life lessons Albom drew from a series of weekly visits with Morrie Schwartz, his former college professor who was dying from ALS, the horrible degenerative condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

The memoir topped The New York Times nonfiction list for nearly half a year and, like millions of others, I read it and was deeply moved by the mutually-sustaining friendship between the two men as the older man figured out how to die with grace and the younger how to live with purpose. 

The book was turned into a TV movie in 1999 with Hank Azaria as Mitch and Jack Lemmon as Morrie. A few years later, Albom teamed up with playwright Jeffrey Hatcher for a stage version that ran at the Minetta Lane Theatre for 112 performances with Jon Tenney as Mitch and Alvin Epstein as Morrie. 

I didn’t see either of those versions. But a new company called Sea Dog Theater revived the show last month and I finally caught up with it last week. This time around Mitch is played by Sea Dog's co-founder and artistic director Christopher J. Domig and Morrie is played by the invaluable Broadway vet Len Cariou.

Their production is a bare bones affair. It’s staged in a chapel room at St. George’s Episcopal Church, a lovely old 19th century Romanesque building on East 16th Street. The set consists primarily of a piano (Albom initially set out to be a jazz pianist) and a wheelchair. There isn't much drama; even if you don’t know the book or movie, it’s obvious that Morrie is going to die. Yet, to my surprise, I found myself deeply moved all over again. 

That response wasn't a sure thing because I had all kinds of worries going in to see the show. The first is that although the chapel at St. George’s is beautiful, its acoustics aren’t great, particularly during the early exchanges between the actors. But as they drew nearer to the audience and my ear adjusted that proved less of a problem. 

I also wondered if Cariou was strong enough to make it through such an arduous role. He entered the chapel slowly, leaning heavily on a cane on one side and the arm of a young assistant on the other before grabbing onto the piano for support before the show began. But although Carious, who is now 84, may no longer be as spry as he was when he won the Tony for playing the title character in the original 1979 production of Sweeney Todd, his acting chops are still supple.

Under Erwin Maas’ deft direction, Cariou sidesteps the story's innate sentimentality and makes Morrie a real person, portraying him as cranky sometimes, fearful at others but always determined to live whatever life remains to the fullest. It’s an impressive performance and it’s nicely balanced by Domig's. (click here to read more about their collaboration).

But frankly what I worried about most was seeing re-created the sections in the book that deal in graphic detail with Morrie’s declining physical abilities. But Albom and Hatcher’s text focuses more on the metaphysical: the beauties of love and friendship and art. What I feared might be depressing turned out to be totally uplifting. Tuesdays with Morrie is only running for one more week.  Seek it out if you can.


March 27, 2024

Happy World Theatre Day 2024

Wishing you all the joy and drama and empathy that good theater always brings


 

March 23, 2024

Old Stories—and Old Guys—Get the Spotlight in "The Notebook" and "Water for Elephants"


In the journalism business we say that three occurrences of a thing make it a trend and so right now the hottest trend in theater seems to be musicals centered around the memories of old guys. 

It may have started with A Beautiful Noise, the Neil Diamond jukebox musical that opens with a character called “Neil Now” sitting in a therapist’s office and looking back at the pop singer’s life. His memories unspool in flashback scenes punctuated by musical numbers and occasional observations from the old guy that lead up to an epiphany at the end.  

 A similar framing device is used in two new shows that opened this month: The Notebook and Water for Elephants. Both are based on bestselling novels that were turned into movies that leaned into feel-good nostalgia about the supposedly simpler times of the Great Depression and War years. And now both stories are on Broadway in big productions set to scores soaked in roots music and giving some old Broadway vets another moment in the spotlight.

Both Dorian Harewood in The Notebook (click here to read more about him) and Gregg Edelman in Water for Elephants play old men who, in one way or another, are mourning the loss of wives who were—as always is the case in these stories—their soulmates. 

This is a smart conceit because it gives Baby Boomers, an aging but still reliable audience for Broadway shows, characters to identify with. But at the same time, it keeps the old-timers on the edges of these stories, freeing the main narratives to focus on the young people that usually populate Broadway stages.  

Each of the shows also tries to navigate the challenge of reproducing iconic moments from the book or film (Notebook's embrace in the rain, Elephant's animal stampede) while offering something extra that will lure those fans into the theater instead of their re-reading the book or re-watching the movie at home. 

Playwright Bekah Brunstetter has written a smart book for The Notebook that adds some bits of much need humor to author Nicholas Sparks’ somewhat sappy story. But the primary way that The Notebook sets itself apart from its predecessors is to have three, instead of two, sets of actors play its main characters: the working-class Noah and his great love Allie, a rich girl who in old age has developed dementia that is erasing the memories of their love and the life that, against the odds, they built together. 

Michael Greif and Schele Williams, who co-directed the show, have cast their multiple Noahs and Allies in a self-consciously inclusive way in which actors of different races play the same character in different time periods. They’ve insisted that doing so universalizes the story’s theme of true love conquering all (click here to watch them explain it).

It is great to see actors of color being given such centerstage roles but all the color swapping can also be a little confusing. “Wait,” said the guy sitting behind me during intermission.  “You mean that young white guy is now that old black guy?”

The veteran book writer Rick Elice tackles the adaptation of novelist Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants,” a story about a young guy named Jacob Jankowski who hooks up with a down-on-its-heels traveling circus and falls in love with the ringmaster's wife. 

Elice has gotten rid of a couple of the book’s characters, sanitized others and streamlined the narrative. All of this leaves a lot of plot holes for the audience to fill in. But that may be, at least in part, because Elice had to make room for not only the show’s musical numbers but for its many circus stunts.

For director Jessica Stone (click here to read about her), aided by circus choreographer Shana Carroll, has mixed together traditional stage actors and circus performers. All of them gamely—and fairly competently—take on the skills of the other, with acrobats singing and dancing and actors swinging on trapezes (click here see some of how that's done)

It could just be me but there are moments when there is so much happening onstage that it’s hard to know where to look and too often the meaning of lyrics are missed because you’re too busy gaping at some acrobat doing a handstand on the head of another.

Which brings us to the music. Both shows have brought in composers who are Broadway novices. The singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson, hoping to follow in the footsteps of her friend Waitress composer Sara Bareilles, has written a tuneful score for The Notebook but it’s so heavy on ballads that the production is selling souvenir Kleenex (click here to read about that). 

Meanwhile the Pigpen Theatre Company, a collective of seven singer-songwriters, has come up with a patchwork of songs for Water for Elephants that range from slinky Kander & Ebb-style vamps to hoedown knee-slappers, with a couple of plaintive ballads thrown in for good measure. Some of the tunes are pleasant and they’re all well sung but they don’t add up to a truly cohesive score.

Still, both The Notebook and Water for Elephants have drawn surprisingly positive reviews, with the critics somewhat divided on which of the shows is better. Although Water for Elephants may hold a slight advantage. It’s got a happier ending. And it’s got puppets (the full-sized one for the titular floppy-eared pachyderm really delights the crowd). And it’s got all of that circus stuff. 

As I said earlier, I’m not big on juggling and acrobatics. I’m just too nervous that something or someone will fall. Still even I have to admit that a number in which the aerial artist Antoine Boissereau brings to life the final moments of a dying horse in Water for Elephants was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen in the theater. Plus it was nice to see those old guys again too.