November 26, 2021

Stephen Sondheim, 1930-2021

 Lots of words are going to be written over the next few days by people who knew him, people who admired him and people who have a better way with words than I do.  So although the pleasure his work has given me over the years compels me to mark  the passing of this irreplaceable theatrical giant, I'll just say, Thank you.




November 20, 2021

"The Visitor" May Have Arrived Too Late


Everyone involved with The Public Theater’s new musical The Visitor seems to be walking on eggshells. And who can blame them?  

The week before previews were scheduled to begin, the production shut down for a few days and brought in diversity consultants to help the cast and creative team work through their feelings about the show's story of the relationship between a white college professor and two undocumented immigrants (click here to read about that). 

Two weeks later, one of the show's stars Ari’el Stachel, a Tony winner for The Band’s Visit, left the production, reportedly because he objected to speaking with an accent and to other ways in which his Syrian-born-but-American-raised character was being represented (click here to read more about that).  

And, of course, this was all happening against the backdrop of the theater community’s new struggle to tell stories in a way that is more equitable and inclusive than has been done in the past. The solution to all those problems requires a tricky combination of nuance and boldness that, alas, this show lacks. 

It didn’t start out that way. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, the team behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal, based The Visitor on the 2007 film of the same name that offered a then-fresh look at the lives of two immigrants: Tarek, a musician brought to this country when he was a child; and Zainab, a jewelry designer from Senegal. 

As such stories have traditionally tended to do, the film centered    its tale around the developing social consciousness of a white character. In this case that’s a grieving widower named Walter.    The immigrant couple and Walter meet cute when he turns up at the Manhattan apartment he rarely uses to find that a swindler has rented it to them. 

After some confusion, Walter invites them to stay and even begins taking drumming lessons from Tarek until the musician is arrested for a misdemeanor he didn’t commit and threatened with being deported. Walter tries to help his new friend and begins to fall for Tarek’s mother Mouna when she shows up to look for her son.

The musical, whose book is now credited to Yorkey and the black British theatermaker Kwame Kwei-Armah, follows the film almost beat-for-beat but its dialog strains to be politically correct. It’s low on humor too, as though the writers were afraid they might get their knuckles rapped for making fun of the wrong thing. 

That puts a lot of pressure on the score to save this show but it can’t carry the weight either. Its two dozen songs offer a mix of pop tunes, power ballads and some Middle Eastern-inflected melodies but none are memorable, and some are less than that. You can too often guess the coming rhyme as soon as you hear the final word of a couplet's first line. 

And there’s an almost embarrassing earnestness about some of the other lyrics, especially Walter’s final solo, which is supposed to be a rousing anthem about American values but only made me feel badly for poor David Hyde Pierce as he tried to put it over.

Pierce, always endearing, and the rest of the cast (which includes Jacqueline Antaramian as Mouna, Alysha Deslorieux as Zainab and Ahmad Maksoud, the understudy who stepped in when Stachel left as Tarek) all work hard—and well. As does the show’s appropriately multicultural ensemble.  

But they’re all let down by the somewhat flaccid direction of Daniel Sullivan, who hasn’t staged many musicals before, and by Lorin Latarro’s choreography, which tries to compensate with lots of busy Steven Hoggett-style movements but without any distinctive flair.

Six years ago, a chatty woman sitting next to me at another Public production struck up a conversation before our performance started. She told me she was working on a terrific new show that I had to see. It was, of course, The Visitor. And the show might have worked better if it had been produced back then instead of seeming outdated as it does now in this post-George Floyd era.

Some people will still respond to the still-urgent plight of immigrants in this country that the musical wants to tell.  But others of us will wish it had found a different way to tell it. 


October 23, 2021

"Lackawanna Blues" and Other Laments

Eight plays written by black playwrights are scheduled to open on Broadway this fall. That’s twice the number of all the shows by black playwrights that opened on the too-aptly named Great White Way in the five seasons before the pandemic shutdown. So this is a good development, particularly because we’re talking about straight plays and not musicals where black creators have traditionally been given a little more leeway (although only four of them opened during that five-season period). 

However to my surprise, my response has been somewhat mixed. Of course I’m happy for the playwrights, be they newcomers like Keenan Scott II, the author of the poetry-driven Thoughts of a Colored Man, and Douglas Lyon, who created the family comedy Chicken & Biscuits, or seasoned vets like Ruben Santiago-Hudson, whose wistful memory play Lackawanna Blues I saw this week, and Lynn Nottage, the only female playwright to have won two Pulitzers, who is gearing up three shows for this season (the Michael Jackson musical MJ, an opera version of her 2003 play Intimate Apparel and a brand new work Clyde’s).

But I also feel uncomfortable that these shows are getting their shot at a time when many people are still skittish about the idea of sitting among strangers in an enclosed theater. Producers aren’t releasing grosses this fall but word-of-mouth suggests that the shows aren’t selling out. I worry that this will be misused as evidence that black shows can’t do well on Broadway.

And to be honest, I’m also uncomfortable about sharing some of these stories with people who aren’t black. I haven’t yet seen Thoughts of a Colored Man but I can’t help noticing that while many white critics are praising its insights into black manhood, some black critics have pointed out that its portrayal of black men doesn’t fit at all with their lived experience. “All the talk just adds up to a collection of tropes,” wrote the New Yorker’s critic Vinson Cunningham. “This ‘colored man’ kept thinking, Speak for yourself.”

I didn’t have any trouble identifying with Santiago-Hudson’s tribute to his beloved foster mother and the metaphorical village of people who helped her raise him and who are all commemorated in Lackawanna Blues, a show Santiago-Hudson first performed at the Public Theater in 2001.

Called Nanny by most everyone in the eponymous factory town in upstate New York where she lived, Santiago-Hudson’s foster mother ran a boarding house that catered to and cared for the physically and emotionally crippled, the kind of people who today end up in homeless shelters or on street corners. As Santiago-Hudson tells it, “Nanny was like the government if it really worked.”

A Tony-winner for best featured actor in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars and a Tony-nominated director for the 2017 revival of Wilson’s Jitney (click here to read more about him) Santiago-Hudson has directed himself here and plays all the roles, assisted only by guitarist Junior Mack who provides the blues underscoring. 

The result is a virtuosic performance, with Santiago-Hudson switching effortlessly from one of some 20 characters to another. It's a feat that's all the more impressive because Santiago-Hudson has been plagued by a back injury that caused him to miss some performances early in the run, although there was no trace of that as he nimbly scampered around the stage at my matinee. 

But I particularly appreciated the memories he shared. Like Santiago-Hudson, I grew up in a tight-knit black community in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the unemployment rate hovered around 4% and black men, even those without much education, could find good-paying jobs. Families who had moved north for that work still hung onto the folkways of their southern or Caribbean roots.  

I knew men who, like the characters in the play, went by colorful nicknames like Suitcase, Shoebrush and Little Bill.  My mother hosted off-the-books card games and sold fried chicken dinners and fish sandwiches to make a few extra dollars just like Nanny does in the show. And I often watched neighbors calm violent outbursts by men who had been damaged in war or maltreated in prison or otherwise battered by racism without calling in the police. 

So Lackawanna Blues left me feeling nostalgic but also protective of its characters, be they the malaprop-spewing old guy who complains of  “roaches of the liver” or the hot-tempered boxer who knocks out the teeth of his wife. These are people who can so easily be reduced to stereotypes and I winced a little as the white audience members seated around me laughed at the words of the old guy and shook their heads at the behavior of the boxer.  

This creates a dilemma for me.  I want to urge everyone to see the show, which has just been extended through Nov. 12, because it’s a good one.  And I also want to encourage them to enjoy it because it’s an entertaining show.  

But if you do go, I hope you will take a few minutes to think about the real people who inspired its stories because they weren’t jokes or morality tales or one-dimensional stereotypes but flesh-and-blood people who despite the odds against them came together, supported one another and helped produce the likes of Ruben Santiago-Hudson and me.


October 9, 2021

Going Back to "Pass Over"—and live theater

 

I went to see a show this week.  There was a time when that wouldn’t have been a remarkable statement. I routinely saw 150 shows a year and shared my thoughts about many of them here. But, of course, that was in the before time: before the global Covid pandemic struck, before it killed some 700,000 people in this country and a total of 4.5 million around the world, before the threat of even more infections, hospitalizations and deaths shut down theaters everywhere.  

My husband K and I have social distanced aggressively during the past 19 months, venturing out only for occasional grocery trips and for two memorial services, neither of the deaths caused by the virus. We stayed cautious even last spring when we got vaccinated and at the beginning of this past summer when it looked as though the worst might be behind us and some live performances began popping up. My theatergoing buddy Bill and I even tried one of those outdoor productions. But then, the more insidious delta variant arrived and I scurried back into hibernation, where I tried to scratch my theater itch with productions streamed online.

But over the past month, a dozen shows have opened in Broadway theaters, including such warhorses as Wicked and The Lion King and newbies like Six, which had been scheduled to open March 12, 2020, the night the pandemic forced the lights to go out on Broadway. There have been openings at smaller theaters around the city too. And more are scheduled for the rest of the year.  

There have been some setbacks. Aladdin had to close down for 10 days after the virus insinuated its way through that company. But rigorous testing of cast and crew members, along with additional safety protocols have kept other shows going (click here to read about some of those measures). 

Meanwhile producers and theater owners have tried to woo theatergoers back with such anti-virus protections as limiting entry only to those who show proof of vaccination or negative results from recent testing, insisting on the wearing of masks throughout performances and, in some cases, installing high-powered air purification systems.

Many of my friends jumped at the chance to return. They reported back about tearing up as they walked back into theaters for the first time, cheering the pre-show announcements and joining extended standing ovations.  Finally, nervously, I’ve joined them. 

I went to see Pass Over, before its short seven-week run at the August Wilson Theatre closes this weekend. It's one of the many works by black playwrights scheduled for this fall season, an acknowledgment of the racial reckoning in the theater community and elsewhere in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. 

Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s response to the massacre of black men by white law enforcement officials across the country is also an audacious riff on Waiting for Godot. She sets her play on an urban street corner, populated by a single street lamp and two young black men named Kitch and Moses who, like Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s original, dream of getting off the block but are unable to figure out how to do it. 

Two white characters show up.  One is a seeming do-gooder, dressed in a white suit and eager to share his lunch with Kitch and Moses. The other is a cop, wearing reflector sunglasses and carrying a billy club, who’s determined to humiliate them. The fact that the white men are played by the same actor underscores Nwandu’s message of white duplicity.

At moments during the play, Moses and Kitch are literally paralyzed with fear of what the cops, or po-pos as they call them, can do to black men like them. And yet, like Godot, Pass Over manages to balance both humor and despair.  

I’d seen the show when it played at LCT3 in 2018 and I was knocked out by it. The excellent cast here remains the same as then with John Michael Hill as Moses, Namir Smallwood as Kitch (although understudy Julian Robertson performed at my matinee) and Gabriel Ebert as the white characters. 

But Nwandu, explaining that she no longer wanted to dwell on black pain, has since crafted a different ending for the Broadway production (click here to read more about that). I sympathize with her desire to sidestep that brand of tragedy porn but I found the new ending to be awkward, pedantic and overly long.  

I missed the powerful ending that dared the audience, particularly the white audience, to confront how deeply systemic racism is ingrained in this country. But an earlier Chicago production with that devastating conclusion was preserved on film by Spike Lee and you can find it on Amazon Prime (click here to watch it). 

I know from recent experience, that streaming isn’t the best way to watch theater but like many theater lovers I remain wary of being in crowded indoor spaces (click here for some other views of that.) So I haven’t yet decided if I’m really ready to give up online viewing and return to live theater full-time.  As they say on TV, stay tuned.


September 4, 2021

B&Me's Annual Labor Day Salute This Year Goes to Theater's Frontline Workers: Ushers

What a difference a year makes.                  
Or doesn’t. 

During the spring and summer evenings of 2020 we New Yorkers stood at our windows or out on the sidewalks to applaud, bang on pots and make whatever other noise we could to cheer the essential workers who were caring for the sick, delivering food and otherwise keeping the city going through those early scariest days of the ongoing pandemic. And I devoted my annual Labor Day salute last year to all the performers who appeared in the online concerts, Zoom productions, panel discussions and podcasts that kept us theater lovers going through those days when theaters everywhere were shut down.  

This summer some live performances, particularly those outdoors, came back and nearly all the productions and theaters that were closed have set reopening dates. Hadestown and Waitress returned to their stages just last night and a new play Pass Over kicked off the new season last month. 

But I fear the cheering for all that may be premature. The delta variant of the virus has been pushing infection numbers up again, creating new uncertainties and anxieties. So I’ve decided that my Labor Day tribute this year should celebrate some other essential—and usually unsung—workers of the theater community: ushers.

It was the illness of a Broadway usher that first brought the virus home to the New York theater community and helped prompt the total shutdown on March 12, 2020 (click here to read about that).  And as all of us—casts, crews and audiences—return to the theater, it may be the ushers who will be most at risk again.  

For starters, they’ll have to interact with people coming to see the shows who, even though they now will have to prove they’ve been vaccinated or recently tested (click here to read the guidelines) they may still be carriers of what is turning out to be an insistent and highly infective form of the virus, increasing the chances that the ushers may contract it or unknowingly pass it on to others.

Moreover on top of directing people to their seats, answering their questions and reminding them to turn off their cell phones, the ushers now will have the added responsibility of checking vaccination credentials and making sure that audience members are keeping their masks on. That won’t be easy work.

British theaters, where masks are optional, have found—no surprise—that most people prefer watching a show without their masks. They’ve also found that mask-adamant theatergoers don’t want to sit next to laissez faire mask wearers. And as New York magazine theater critic Helen Shaw pointed out in a tweet last month, a coughing fit by one audience member can paralyze those around him or her with fear. Resolving those issues can transform ushers into referees and wardens. 

On top of all that, there have been lots of stories about how badly people have treated waiters once restaurants and bars reopened (click here to read about that).  The more expensive the place, the worse the behavior in many cases because those customers seem to feel that shoveling out all those dollars entitles them to a certain kind of service and they’ve somehow forgotten that the people providing it are laboring under restrictions imposed by a pandemic. 

Theater tickets cost a lot of money too so similar boorishness could pop up in our venues too. And there are lots of potential triggers. It may take longer to get into the theater or to be seated as ushers check credentials. Intermissions may be cut and bars closed so that people can’t mill around as much. Some seatmates may not be as rigorous about their masks as others. 

Without ushers—the unionized ones on Broadway (click here to listen to a 2016 story about them) and the volunteer ones at off-Broadway venues like Playwrights Horizons and the Irish Rep—the whole experience could disintegrate into chaos.

To be honest, I’m really nervous about the prospect of sitting in a theater alongside a lot of strangers whose health habits and history I don’t know.  But once I do get there, I’m going to try very hard to remember to thank the ushers for the essential work they’re doing and I hope you will too.  In the meantime, Happy Labor Day.


July 3, 2021

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2021

 

After 16 long and scary months, the coronavirus seems to be in retreat. Over half of the country has now gotten at least one vaccination shot. And here in New York City, 60% of all adults are fully vaccinated. So Covid safety restrictions are being eased, a growing number of shows are announcing dates when they’ll open in the fall or earlier and a return to a semblance of normalcy almost seems within reach. Heck, I even went out last week to see my first show since March 2020.

But mainly I’ve been kicking back on my terrace as I usually do each summer, with a cocktail in one hand (I’m going old-school with Cosmos this year) and something good to read in the other—or sometimes a pair of buds in my ear to listen to an audiobook. And, as usual, I’ve put together a list of suggestions for those of you also looking for something theater-related to read over the coming (hopefully) more relaxed weeks of summer. 

And this year, I've got something a little extra for you too: my friend James Marino who heads up BroadwayRadio invited me to record a special episode of “Today on Broadway” to talk about some of the choices I included this year. We also interviewed one of the authors on the list, Eddie Shapiro, to discuss "A Wonderful Guy," his terrific collection of conversations with some of Broadway’s best leading men. You can listen to all of it by clicking here. 

But right now here, in alphabetical order, is this year’s eclectic list of books (half of them novels) that I think will keep just about any theater lover good company through Labor Day.


A is for Audra: Broadway’s Leading Ladies from A to Z by John Robert Allman: This delightful picture book profiles some of Broadway’s top leading ladies with rhymes and colorful drawings.  It’s aimed at young kids but it’s also a treat for us grown-up theater lovers too.

A Bright Ray of Darkness by Ethan Hawke: The undeniable parallels between both the author’s tabloid divorce from his movie-star wife Uma Thurman and his portrayal of Hotspur in Lincoln Center’s starry 2003 production of Henry IV may be what draw readers to this novel but the real delights are the dynamic prose and obvious passion for the craft of acting that Hawke packs into this winner. He also obviously had fun narrating the audiobook version of this roman à clef and listening to him read it puts the cherry on top of a very yummy sundae.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo: Drawn from Evaristo’s experience as the co-founder of Britain’s Theatre of Black Women in the 1980s, these interlocking stories center around 12 characters, many of them actors, directors and playwrights, as they grapple with such societal issues as racism and patriarchy and such intimate ones as friendship and gender identity. Although it won the prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction in 2019, some critics have complained about Evaristo’s unconventional punctuation but once again I listened to the audio version and I was inspired by these stories of women determined to succeed on their own terms.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell: Only the bare facts are known about William Shakespeare’s personal life but this lush, literary novel imagines the love story between him and his wife Anne Hathaway (called Agnes here, as the author says Hathaway’s father called her in his will). At the tale's center is the grief the couple shared over the loss of their only son and the subsequent creation of one of the Bard’s greatest works. Also included is a bravura set-piece tracing the journey of the bubonic plague from an Egyptian port city to the village of Stratford-upon-Avon that eerily echoes our own recent pandemic experience. 

Lilyville: Mother, Daughter and Other Roles I’ve Played by Tovah Feldshuh: Readers looking for backstage gossip about the many theatrical productions, movies and television shows that this four time Tony-nominated actress has done in her five-decade career may be disappointed to find that this memoir is more focused on the relationship that she had with her mother. But as fans who have attended her concerts will attest, Feldshuh is a great raconteur and listeners to the audiobook version will get the extra bonus of hearing her occasionally break out into song. 

Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris: I’m friendly with Harris and so I was predisposed to touting his book but now having read it, I can say that it stands on its own merit. It’s an impressive warts-and-all survey of the life of the remarkable performer and director who was famous for more than six decades and literally (and I mean that in the literal sense) knew everyone who was anyone in show business (and elsewhere). And this bio, based on over 200 interviews with Nichols’ closest friends (from Elaine May and Gloria Steinem to Lorne Michaels and Stephen Sondheim) will make you feel as though you know him too.

Musical Misfires: Three Decades of Broadway Musical Heartbreak by Mark A. Robinson and Thomas S. Hischak: Just about every one of the over 100 shows featured in this survey of musicals that opened between 1989 and 2019 will have its champions (I’m here for you Passion) but none of them caught on with the wider public. As the authors note these shows opened in the era when the old guard who made musicals were passing away and the cost of mounting a show on Broadway was rising into eight figures making the odds of success higher than they had ever been. There are explanations about what went wrong for each of the shows but instead of being depressing, their struggles are evidence of the continuing determination to tell stories with music.  The book is currently only available as a Kindle download but it's good enough to justify downloading that app on your smartphone. 

Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan: If romance novels are your thing, this one which centers around Kay Swift, the great love of George Gershwin’s life, may be for you. It serves up a fictional account of the couple’s 12-year relationship during which Gershwin and his lyricist brother Ira wrote their biggest Broadway hits and their masterpiece Porgy and Bess. Meanwhile Swift, also an accomplished musician, composed four Broadway shows including Fine and Dandy which produced “Can’t We Be Friends,” the breakout song she wrote with her husband the financier James Warburg. The novel also details how Swift eventually divorced Warburg but—80-year spoiler alert—failed to marry Gershwin before his premature death in 1937 at the age of just 38. 

Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls: An amateur production of Romeo and Juliet provides the background for this bittersweet novel that flashes back to the love story between two teens who are trying to figure out who they are and then returns to the present to look at who they’ve become.  Along the way it makes small detours into the lives of their troubled parents as well as those of the eccentrics and misfits who make up the theater company putting on their show. They’re all good company and give good testament to the power of art.

The Understudy by Ellen Tovatt Leary: A former actress who spent most of her career in the 1970s as an understudy, Leary conveniently sets her story in a world before cellphones so that just the right kinds of misunderstanding can happen. With one how-did-this-get-into-the-story exception, this is an amiable fantasy version of what every young actress hopes her life will be and it goes down as easy as a gin and tonic on a hot summer’s day. 

We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman: Part of this gentle satire about the agonies and ecstasies of being an artist take place in Los Angeles but the best parts are set in the New York theater world that Silverman, the author of such provocative plays as The Moors and Collective Rage: A Play In 5 Betties, knows well. And it’s great fun trying to figure out the real-life counterparts to her colorful cast of characters.

A Wonderful Guy: Conversations with the Great Men of Musical Theater by Eddie Shapiro: A companion to Shapiro’s previous book "Nothing Like A Dame," this one focuses on 19 of Broadway’s leading musical male stars ranging from Joel Grey to Jonathan Groff. The men are funny, insightful and sometimes even painfully honest about their profession and their love of it.

Finally, as always, if you’re looking for even more to read, here are the links to my now over 150 suggestions from previous years:

2020:




June 12, 2021

The Pulitzer Prize for Drama: News About This Year's Winner—And About My New Podcast on Winners of Yesteryear

The Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday and the winner for the drama prize was Katori Hall for her terrific play The Hot Wing King.

I had several dogs in this fight. Like most theater lovers, I'm always eager to see which new work will join the pantheon of plays and musicals that epitomize their time. And Hall's dramedy certainly does that. 

Using sensitivity, humor and some Luther Vandross songs, Hall shatters all kinds of stereotypes as she filters the image of Black masculinity through the experiences of a group of gay men preparing for a local barbecue contest while dealing with issues that run the gamut from what it means to be a father to how to cope with overzealous policing (click hear to listen to an interview I did with Hall about the show last spring). The win makes Hall the ninth African-American and the 16th woman to receive the honor.

I was also interested in the outcome of this year's Pulitzers because, for the second time, I had the honor of sitting on the jury that sorted through nearly 90 plays and musicals to recommend the top three finalists to the Pulitzer board. 

The board's members make the ultimate decision about who gets the awards from the one for news (this year Minneapolis’ Star Tribune for its coverage of the death of George Floyd; plus a special commendation for Darnella Frazier who took the video that showed the world how brutality he was killed) to the one for music (Cuban-American composer Tania León's ode to the pioneering feminist Susan B. Anthony) and of course the one for drama.

But I have to confess that my main rooting interest in this year's drama award rests in the fact that I've been working on a new podcast about all the plays and musicals that have won a Pulitzer over the past century. It’s called "All the Drama." 

Each episode will start off with the story of one of the winning shows along with some background on its creator(s) and then I'll talk with someone who's familiar with the show for their thoughts about what made it stand out in its time and how relevant it remains (or not) in ours.

BroadwayRadio had planned to start this monthly series back in April when the Pulitzer announcements were originally scheduled. When they got moved into June so that board members would have more time to get vaccinated—hope you are too—so that they could meet in person, we decided to release the early episodes as a bonus for BroadwayRadio’s Patreon subscribers (you can become one by clicking here)

We'll continue to give the subscribers a jumpstart on future episodes too, including the one for this month on Charles Gordone's No Place to Be Somebody, the first play by an African-American to win the Pulitzer.  

But now that the news about this year's winner is out, I'm delighted that  the first episode of "All The Drama" is now available to the public too. The episode is on Why Marry?, a comedy that was the very first play to win a Pulitzer back in 1918. You can find the episode in the BroadwayRadio feed wherever you listen to podcasts or by clicking here. 

I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it. And I also hope that you'll check back for future episodes including the one that we'll release next month on the 2004 winner I Am My Own Wife that features a great conversation I had with its playwright Doug Wright.