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June 30, 2010

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2010


The hot weather came early this year so I’ve been lolling out on the terrace for weeks now, with a book (well, increasingly a Kindle) in one hand and something cold and pink-colored (I’ve been bouncing back and forth between tangy cosmos and dry rosés) in the other.  But the summer solstice arrived last week and Independence Day is this coming weekend, which means the kick-back-and-relax season is officially here.  And so, below is my fourth annual list of theater-related books to keep you company on your lazy summer days and nights. This year, the list includes four novels and four memoirs:

THE NOVELS:
Night at the Vulcan: by Ngaio Marsh.  Who doesn’t love a good-old fashioned British murder mystery?  This one is set in a London theater run by an Olivier-like actor-manager right after WWII.  Shortly after a mysterious ingénue joins the company, an unpopular actor is killed in his dressing room during a performance.  Only someone in the company could have done it and just about everyone had motive to do it.  Marsh’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn arrives to sort it all out.  But there is plenty of romance, rivalry and other backstage shenanigans to keep you riveted before he reveals the culprit.  

Morality Play by Barry Unsworth. Short-listed for Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize, this Medieval mystery centers around a monk who joins a band of traveling players in 14th century England.  It’s a terrific re-creation of the theater world at the time when some daring actors were beginning to move away from performing Church-sanctioned Bible stories in favor of plays that dealt with more secular concerns.  A film version starring Paul Bettany and Willem Dafoe, and blandly renamed “The Reckoning,” came out in 2003 and is available on DVD.  But the book is far better, especially at conveying the almost religious calling that so many actors feel about their craft.

The Confessions of Edward Day by Valerie Martin.  Novels about the theater tend to divide into two camps:  backstage mysteries or comic romps, the latter often centered around a gay protagonist. This one is something different. It’s a lovely literary novel about a promising young actor trying to break into the New York theater scene in the mid-‘70s when groups like Manhattan Theatre Club and the Roundabout Theatre were just starting up. The plot centers around a romantic triangle but the true love affair here is with the theater itself.

Next Season by Michael Blakemore.  Theater lovers already know that he's a terrific director and now it turns out that Blakemore, whose
stage credits range from City of Angels to the recent revival of Blithe Spirit, is also a wonderful novelist. His story of a moderately talented actor who gets a job in a summer-stock type repertory company focuses not on the above-the-marquee names but on the journeymen who play the character roles and bit parts not for money or glamour but for love of the craft.  It’s one of the best theater novels I’ve ever read.

THE MEMOIRS:
Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage by Richard Seff. Over his 60 years in the business, Seff has been an actor, an agent, a playwright, host of a radio show about the theater and a philanthropist (he funds a lifetime achievement award for character actors).  He tells stories about it all from his discovery of the young Chita Rivera to his writing the book for the cult musical Shine.  Reading this delightful memoir is like having a long gossipy lunch with a friend who knows everybody’s business and just how much of it to tell.

The Gentleman Press Agent: Fifty Years in the Theatrical Trenches with Merle Debuskey by Robert Simonson.   PR guys are usually behind-the-scenes players but Simonson, the former editor of Playbill.com, puts the spotlight on one of the major publicists of Broadway’s Golden Age.  He has interviewed dozens of people who knew and worked with Debuskey, like the actress Ruby Dee and the producer Bernard Gersten, but he tells the story primarily from Debuskey’s perspective and often in his words. Simonson may be a bit too besotted with his subject but that doesn't overshadow the glimpses he offers into the even more dazzling heyday of New York theater.

A Year with The Producers: One Actor's Exhausting (But Worth It) Journey from Cats to Mel Brooks' Mega-Hit by Jeffry Denman.  Whenever I’ve seen him on stage, Denman, a veteran song-and-dance man who also choreographed the recent off-Broadway production of Yank!, radiates so much joy in what he's doing that I thought his book would be just as much fun.  And it almost is. As the subtitle makes clear, this is an account of the year that Denman spent being cast for, rehearsing and appearing in the ensemble of The Producers. It’s kind of a Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern-Are-Dead view of the show, whose star Nathan Lane only makes cameo appearances. No dirty linen is aired.  Denman thinks everyone—writer Mel Brooks, director Susan Stroman, the stage doorman—is great.  But that’s due less to sycophancy than to his—and his book's
innate buoyancy.

Diary of a Mad Playwright: Perilous Adventures on the Road with Mary Martin & Carol Channing by James Kirkwood. The play Legends is legendary for its many-rumored backstage battles and for having toured around the country with two of Broadway's biggest-ever stars but never making it to the Great White Way. In this take-no-prisoners account of how it all happened (really, Kirkwood names names and tells stories about famous people that made me gasp out loud) the show’s playwright, who also wrote the book for A Chorus Line, gives his side of the saga.  If you can find a more naked account of what goes into making a show, email me immediately.

PLUS:
The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway by William Goldman. Yep.  It’s back again. I’ve said it in the past and I know I’ll be saying it in the future, I simply cannot imagine a theater reading list without Goldman’s classic account of the 1967-68 Broadway season.

Now, My husband K and I are going away for the weekend so there’ll be no Saturday post but I’ll be back next Wednesday.  In the meantime, Happy 4th of July and, of course, happy reading.

June 26, 2010

Broadway's Divisive Star Wars

Is there a litmus test that can determine who’s a true Broadway star? I ask because ever since Scarlett Johansson, Denzel Washington, and Catherine Zeta-Jones picked up Tonys earlier this month, some people have been griping that the awards, and spots on the Tony broadcast, should have gone to real Broadway stars.  So I’m trying to figure out what a real Broadway star is.

Does he have to do a certain number of roles on New York stages before he can qualify?  Or have served time in one of the seemingly countless revivals of Grease? Does her primary residence have to be in New York or at least Connecticut?  Does her bank account have to be no higher than the low six-figures?

Hunter Foster clearly has a firm definition in mind. A few days after the Tony Awards were given out, Foster, who’s currently in Million Dollar Quartet, began his Broadway career as a replacement in the original production of Les Misérables back in the early ‘90s and actually lives right in the theater district (I’ve no idea what his bank account is like,) set up a Facebook page called GIVE THE TONYS BACK TO BROADWAY!! 

Over the past two weeks, nearly 9,000 people have signed up and scores have left thoughtful comments (click here to read some of them.) Foster's campaign also has drawn attention from the New York Post, L.A. Times, Village Voice and New York Times. As well as smart commentary from my fellow bloggers Theater Aficionado at Large, Gratuitous Violins and BroadwayGirlNYC.


The subject also has gotten a workout in the theater chatrooms (some wags suggest the campaign may be the result of sour grapes cultivated when Foster and his actress wife Jennifer Cody didn’t get the red carpet treatment they expected at the Tonys). Even Scarlett Johansson has chimed in (click here to read the interview she gave the online gossip monger Perez Hilton).

I usually try to stay out of these identity politics debates, be they about who’s Black enough, authentically gay, a true Jew or, now, a real Broadway star. I figure if you quack like a duck, you get to call yourself a duck with all the rights and privileges thereof. 


But three things about the current dustup annoy me enough to speak out. The first is that it’s such a total diss to the folks who worked hard and won the awards. They may not all have been my first choices but they deserve this time to bask in their success.

That’s particularly true of Washington and his co-star Viola Davis. They may be better known for the movies they’ve appeared in but both cut their teeth on the New York stage and both are giving sensational performances in the current revival of Fences that is playing to sold-out houses at the Cort Theatre until July 11.

Similarly, Johansson may be a stage newcomer but she was singled out for praise in almost every review of the revival of A View From the Bridge that closed after a limited run in April. Don’t we usually celebrate a breakout performance like the one she gave? 

The second thing that’s bothered me about this debate is that no one seems to care much about what the audience might want. People like to see actors they know. It was probably the same back in Sophocles’ day. And what’s wrong with that? 


Yes, Broadway used to mint more of its own stars but it always made room for—and at times rewarded—Hollywood stars like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda when they wanted to do plays. Seeing Fonda in his final Broadway production is still one of my most treasured theater experiences.

The job of the people who make shows is to make ones that audiences want to see. Sometimes they can do it with compelling stories (as with August: Osage County or Next to Normal, neither of which had Hollywood stars.) At other times it will be with familiar titles and tunes (as with the high-grossing The Addams Family and the long-running ABBA show Mamma Mia!.) And sometimes it will mean casting stars. 


Seeing a show today is more expensive than ever and people who buy the tickets shouldn’t be looked down on for how they want to spend their theater dollars.

Finally, how exactly would giving the Tonys back to Broadway work?  Should we start redlining leading roles on Broadway so that anyone with a 90210 zip code has to go to the back of the line until all actors living in New York are cast?  Or should anyone who has an Oscar or who has appeared in a movie that’s made over $100 million be disqualified from Tony nominations or appearances on the Tony broadcast?

“We want the [Tony] evening to be about Broadway and for the fans of Broadway,” says the call to arms on Foster’s Facebook page. Well, I love Broadway too but the populist in me doesn’t believe Broadway should be a private club.

June 23, 2010

"Family Dinner" is Undercooked


Going to the theater is always a crap shot.  But what you’ll get is even less predictable with the shows, often produced on pocket change, that rent space in the theater complex on 42nd Street known as Theatre Row.  That's because lacking the resources of bigger budget shows that can dazzle with high-tech sets, fancy costumes and other diverting stagecraft, all these show can really count on is the play and the players. 

 A couple of weeks ago my husband K and I went there and hit a small jackpot with the final performance of The Glass House, a smart play about art and ambition as refracted through the uneasy relationship between the great modernist architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Harris Yulin, as van der Rohe, lead an excellent cast that worked magic on a simple but elegant set.  And it was extra fun for us to see them all float into the West Bank Café for their closing night party while we were having an after-show dinner there.

A few days later, however, I rolled snake eyes when I saw another show at Theatre Row that was so poorly done that I did something I almost never do:  I left at intermission.  And then, this week, my friend Jesse and I drew another shaky hand when we went to the opening night performance of Family Dinner, a domestic drama that is playing in the Row's Beckett Theatre space through July 3.

Family Dinner focuses on the archetypal Wells family, whose members include a hard-drinking and domineering dad, his repressed wife and their three kids—a nerdy but sensitive older son, an overindulged athlete and a precocious daughter.  The play opens in 1963, months before the Kennedy assassination, and the second act revisits the Wells in 2002, a few months after the 9/11 attacks.

The challenge, of course, is that the disintegration of the white-bread American family and the lingering aftershocks of the upheavals of the ‘60s are now oft-told tales.  So if you’re going to tell them again, you really need to come up with some fresh insights or to burrow deeper into the emotional resonance of that time.  Alas, playwright Michele Willens does neither. Her Family Dinner is composed entirely of leftovers from the families-drive-each-other-crazy-but-love-one-another-anyway buffet.

Director Jamibeth Margolis doesn’t help either. Scenes just lurch along one after the other. And she gets big demerits for giving set designer Josh Zangen the go-ahead for big awkward sets that tell us nothing about the family.  In this case, less definitely would have been more.

The acting is provided by a pack of wild cards.  The relatively large 10-member cast ranges from newbies making their professional stage debut to veteran barnstormers from the regional circuit, with the old timers coming off best, although Lily Corvo, who plays the teen daughter in both time periods, shows promise.

The audience, which seemed largely composed of family and friends (including the actor Patrick Breen who has worked with Willens in the past and whose own under-appreciated show Next Fall just posted a closing notice for July 4) was supportive.  But I left Family Dinner hungry for something a little more filling.

June 19, 2010

In Concert: "Everyday Rapture" and "Sondheim on Sondheim"


A medley of pop songs provided the opening number for last Sunday’s Tony Awards show (click here to see it).  And that made perfect sense to me.  Not just because so many of last season’s song-and-dance shows were jukebox musicals that counted on familiar tunes to draw ticket buyers, but because so many of those shows are little more than pop music concerts.  Only at much higher prices.

As I said in my earlier American Idiot review (click here to read it), there’s not much difference between that show, an onstage recreation of the eponymous Green Day album, and a Green Day concert. Except that you get to see the real band members Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tré Cool at the concert. And it doesn't cost you as much as seeing John Gallagher and the rest of the Broadway gang at the St. James Theatre.  

But American Idiot isn't the only pseudo-musical around. Lots of theater insiders were pulling for Sheri Rene Scott to win an award for her show, Everyday Rapture.  Several handicappers even predicted that she’d win for Best Book of a Musical.  But there wasn't enough book for me. 

The conceit for this semi-autobiographical show is that Scott, a Broadway belter who has played the comic female part in such musicals as Aida, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Little Mermaid and whose mother was Mennonite, grew up, her onstage alter ego says, torn between following Judy (as in Garland) and Jesus (as in Christ).   The show is the story of how she reconciles the two and it wraps in serious subjects like abortion and AIDS along with less weighty ones like Scott’s first starry-eyed visit to New York and her later funny relationship with an online fan.  

Don’t get me wrong. I had a good time at Everyday Rapture. And you probably will too if you make it there before it closes on July 11. It's hard not to like Scott (click here to read an interview she did with Broadway.com) and she works hard to win over the audience.  She sings, supported by two zaftig backup singers who make her look even tinier than she already is.  She cracks self-deprecating jokes. She even does magic tricks. But it all seemed to me more like a cabaret act or one of those TV specials they used to put together for what-do-we-do-with-her-now song-and-dance women like Mitzi Gaynor or Ann-Margret.

And you could say basically the same thing about Sondheim on Sondheim.  Only in this case, the life at the center of the show is Broadway’s reigning composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The master himself appears in a series of video segments that are amusing, if not overly revealing. The music, of course, is great but the connection between what you see and what you hear is tenuous at best. At heart, this show, which is scheduled to close on June 27, is simply another Sondheim revue.  And what musical lover doesn’t already have a bunch of those on LP, CD and iEverything downloads.

The singers performing this time out are all top-shelf and include: Tom Wopat,  Vanessa Williams, Euan Morton, Norm Lewis, and the inestimable Barbara Cook (click here to see a behind-the-scenes photo gallery of the stars) . I’d crawl across broken glass to see a completely new musical showcasing almost any one of them. And I wish the folks who are putting Broadway shows together would give me the chance to do just that.

June 16, 2010

Prophecy: Passion but Unfulfilled Promise

I had trouble sleeping the night before I saw Prophecy, the new political melodrama that is playing at the Fourth Street Theater through June 20. I tell you this because despite seeing the show at the end of a very long day and on less than four hours of sleep, it held my attention throughout its two and a half hours running time.

It’s not really a good play but I’m always grousing about how few plays deal with contemporary politics and this one jumps in with both feet.  It deals with the legacy of the Holocaust, the lingering wounds from Vietnam, and the more recent damages of the Iraq War; with terrorism and the radicalization of young Muslims; with the redemptive power of art, particularly theater, and the responsibility that Americans bear for the problems in the Middle East.  It also throws in references from the Bible and Greek mythology and invokes Freud and maybe Jung too.

And I haven’t even gotten into its domestic traumas.  The play revolves around a middle-aged woman named Sarah. She’s an acting teacher who is drawn to a gifted but troubled male student recently returned from serving in Iraq. At home, she’s having problems with her longtime husband Alan, who runs an organization for refugees. There is an ill-fated affair, an illegitimate child, domestic abuse and expository flashbacks to the 1970s and 1980s.

It’s all too much, of course. My husband K laughed out loud when he read the plot summary in one of the several negative reviews the show has drawn. Playwright Karen Malpede does herself no favor by serving as her own director. Another set of eyes might have helped focus the piece. As it is, the coincidences in the plot strain credulity, some of the dialog creaks and the set was obviously done on the cheap.

And yet, Malpede and her cast, lead by the always reliable Kathleen Chalfant (does any actor working today have a more mellifluous voice) and the young actress Najla Saïd (whose late father Edward was this country’s leading advocate for the Palestinian cause) throw themselves into this production with the fervency of true believers (click here to listen to them talk about the derivation of the play and what it means to them)


I applaud that kind of commitment and passion but they can be an unpredictable mix. They may hold your attention, as Prophecy did mine, but, again as in this case, they often don't know what to with it once they've got it. 

June 14, 2010

The Real Winners and Loser at the Tonys


No, it's not Wednesday or Saturday, my usual posting days, but, like every other theater geek, I want to get in my two cents about last night's Tony ceremony.  So here's who I think came off well last night and, alas, who didn't: 

Winners: The Addams Family may be far from the best show currently playing on Broadway but its stars are the best of what I love about the theater world.  It would have been gracious enough for Bebe Neuwirth and Nathan Lane to show up at the Tony Awards last night since their show was shut out of the Best Musical category.  But troupers that they are, they actually gave out the awards for Best Performance by a Leading Actor (La Cage Aux Folle's Douglas Hodge got it) and Leading Actress in a Musical (Catherine Zeta-Jones for A Little Night Music) even though neither Lane nor Neuwirth had even been nominated.  Plus the repartee between them was actually funny. They’re truly a class act.

Another Winner:  The great Marian Seldes, who won a Lifetime Achievement Award in a pre-show ceremony that was only shown on the local cable channel NY1, gave the most witty acceptance "speech" I've seen on any awards show ever.  It's not up on YouTube yet but keep an eye out for it.

The Loser: I liked Memphis, which won last night’s big prize for Best Musical but I was rooting for Fela! to take home the prize.  Yet I can’t imagine the folks seeing  Fela! for the first time in last night's TV performance would have any idea of what excited me and so many other people about the show.  The musical excerpts on the Tony broadcast are suppose to serve as ads for their productions and Fela!’s—a confusing hodgepodge of moments from the show instead of any one of its terrific show-stopping numbers—sold itself short.  

You can catch up with last night's ceremonies, including photos, videos and, of course, a list of all the winners by clicking here.

June 12, 2010

iBroadway and Me: Going Mobile


The I's have it. The iPad came out in April.  Steve Jobs introduced the new iPhone 4 this week.  And now, comes iBroadway, a new app that offers access to everything you want to know about shows on and off the Great White Way. I’m particularly excited about the latter because among its features are news and reviews from a selected group of theater bloggers that includes me!

iBroadway has been jointly developed by Art Meets Commerce, the advertising and marketing firm that has done work for shows ranging from the current production of Fela! to last seaon’s acclaimed revival of Finian’s Rainbow; and The Zumobi Network, a mobile publishing company whose clients include Better Homes & Gardens, Iron Man Central and msnbc. 

The new app they’ve put together is kind of one-stop shopping for theater lovers. It has all kinds of information on shows playing in New York, including a synopsis of the plot, rundowns of the actors currently performing in the show and the creative team who originally put it together, a list of the awards and nominations the production has gotten and essential info like where the show is playing (you can Google map it) and its running time. 

There are also photos and videos, links for iTunes so that you can download cast recordings right onto your playlist and all kinds of social media hookups so that you can share all this stuff via email, Facebook or Twitter. Plus there’s a handy button that makes it easy to buy tickets right from your mobile device. I mean really easy: ticket prices and available discounts are listed, as are performance times and box office schedules; there are even seating charts and info about wheelchair accessibility.

If you still want to know more—and what theater lover doesn’t—there are links (just click  the “News” tab) to postings by my fellow bloggers Chris Caggiano of Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals and Aaron Riccio of 'Kül: That Sounds Cool and, of course, by me. It’s all available for free on iTunes or you can download the app by clicking here.
 
As you probably can tell, I was thrilled—and still amwhen I got the call asking me if I wanted to be one of the app’s pioneer contributors.  So much so that I decided to celebrate with a new logo that you’ll find at the top of this page.  It was designed for me by a terrific illustrator named Gary Randall and will now appear wherever you find Broadway & Me. 

Which is now a lot of places since I’ve been, as they say, expanding the brand over the last year or so.  You can follow me on Twitter and on Facebook.  You can also read B&Me on your Kindle or you can buy B&Me T-shirts, bags and other goodies at the Broadway & Me store. And now, of course, I’ve gone mobile so you can keep in touch via iBroadway.

June 9, 2010

In Memoriam: Patrick Lee

There have been many tragic losses in the theater world over the past couple of months but the latest cuts very close to home for those of us in the theater blogging community.  The news came today that our fellow blogger Patrick Lee has died. 

I didn’t know Patrick well. We bloggers tend to communicate mainly through what we write and the occasional get together.  But what I knew of him, I liked immensely. And I'm not alone.  Grieving friends are posting tributes on Patrick's Facebook page and they all confirm that he truly was a kind and generous guy.

Patrick loved theater.  He wrote about shows and showmakers for Theatermania and the Theatre Development Fund among other places. And he was one of the earliest theater bloggers, beginning his blog “Just Shows To Go You” in January, 2006.  The following year, he, Aaron Riccio of That Sounds Cool and their buddy David Bell started an online contest to determine who could see and blog about more shows in a year. They posted their reactions to what they’d seen on Show Showdown, which remains one of the best places to get the lowdown on local theater.

But Patrick didn’t just spout off his opinion, he was also a skilled interviewer (“That’s what I really love to do,” he told me just a few weeks ago) and his exchanges with theater folks are incisive and insightful. He posted the last entry on his site, an interview with Joe Calarco, the director of the new musical The Burnt Part Boys, just a week ago.
 

For the past two years, Patrick served as the Awards Director of the Independent Theater Bloggers Association, a thankless job made even more so by all kinds of nitpicking by sideliners like me. But Patrick handled all the second guessing with endless patience and grace.  “Questions like yours are so appreciated and will help us all to make this even better next year,” he replied after a barrage of emails from me during this year’s deliberations.  it's unbelievable to think that he won't be around for next year's.

June 5, 2010

"Restoration" Puts Claudia Shear Back on Top

It’s been nearly 10 years since Claudia Shear last had a new play in New York. But I hadn’t realized how much I missed her singular voice until seeing her latest, Restoration, which is running through June 13 at the New York Theatre Workshop.

Shear likes to write about strong, charismatic women but she’s no raging polemicist.  Her plays are simultaneously level-headed, warm-hearted and laugh-out-loud funny. So it was a no-brainer when my theatergoing buddy Bill asked me if I wanted to  see Restoration with him. 

Shear made a name for herself back in 1994 with the first play she ever wrote, Blown Sideways Through Life, a lightly fictionalized account of the 64 different day jobs she held while waiting for her big break as an actress. Six years later came Dirty Blonde, a multi-layered piece about Mae West. Giulia, the fiercely independent art restorer who is the main character in the new play, fits perfectly into that sisterhood.

At the beginning of Restoration, Giulia is an outcast in the art world. Her maverick and outspoken views on how to clean and repair rare works of arts have gotten her exiled to a job teaching art appreciation courses at Brooklyn College. She’s rescued when her former art professor and mentor helps her win the plum job of restoring Michelangelo’s David for the statue’s 500th anniversary.

With a title like Restoration, the setting in Florence and the presence of a hunky museum guard, the play falls into the category of one of those familiar middle-aged-woman-get-second-chance-at-life stories.  But as my mother used to say, it’s not what you do but how you do it that counts. And Shear does it with aplomb. As in the past, she plays the main role herself and the line between the two blurs.  Neither suffers fools, as I learned first-hand when I interviewed Shear for the website Women’s Voices for Change. 

As you might expect, I tried to direct the conversation towards comparisons with Giulia’s experience and those of other middle-aged women.  But Shear was having none of it. “You know, I’m not big on the grand statements of, like, women in the workplace,” she said at one point during our phone interview.  “I find people are people... I know this is a site about women but that’s not what the play is about.  The play is about passion, art, beauty.”  (Click here to read what else she said.) 

Restoration isn’t a one-woman, or one-person, operation.  Shear’s frequent collaborator director Christopher Ashley has created a production that is leisurely paced but beautifully showcases the play. Kudos also go to Scott Pask who has recreated the gallery at the Accademia where the real statue sits and devised a clever conceit to keep it covered by scaffolding during most of the play so that only bits of the statue are revealed. (Click here to see a video about the making of the set when the show originally appeared at the La Jolla Playhouse last June.)

But the greatest support comes from Shear’s fellow actors, particularly Jonathan Cake, who is slyly charming as the guard and Tina Benko who gives a lovely performance as the museum’s aristocratic head of publicity who often clashes with Giulia. Both admirably avoid falling into stereotype.

Changes occur over the course of the 90-minutes play, although not quite the ones you expect. I left the theater with a rejuvenated belief in the power of part and prowess of Shear.

June 2, 2010

"The Burnt Part Boys" Leaves Me Cold

Is there any harder job in America than writing a decent book for a musical?  I’m beginning to think not. Yeah, I know there’s more at stake in being the president of the country or finding a cure for cancer but at least the folks in those positions seem to know what their job is even when they can’t fulfill it to everyone’s satisfaction.  I’m not sure that’s always the case when it comes to writing the book for a musical. The latest evidence is The Burnt Part Boys, the new show that’s playing at Playwrights Horizons through June 13.

The Burnt Part Boys has been in development for 10 years, dating back to when Chris Miller, who wrote the music; and Nathan Tysen, who wrote the lyrics, were grad students in NYU’s musical theater program. Like so many musicals today their show began with the music—Miller and Tysen wanted to write a score that used the blue grass, gospel and other Americana sounds of their Midwestern and southern childhoods—and so the book kind of got gerrymandered around that. I always thought you started off with a story first.  Otherwise, don't you just have a jukebox musical without any familiar tunes?

The duo knew they wanted their story to be an adventure yarn, a kind of boys-coming-of-age tale in the tradition of the ‘80s-era movies “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies.”  They also thought it would be cool to include a ghost story.  After five years, they brought in Mariana Elder, another NYU grad, and she overhauled the book, drawing on an interest in coal miners she’d developed in an American Studies class and her grief over the then-recent death of her father. 

You can find traces of all those things in The Burnt Part Boys, which is now set in 1962 and centers around the young, and still grieving kids of miners killed in a cave-in 10 years before. But what you won’t find is a compelling narrative, a believable story arc, a book sturdy enough to provide the backbone for a strong musical. Just about every young musical writer today wants to emulate the seriousness of Stephen Sondheim's work. Why aren't more young book writers striving to emulate the book-writing mastery of Arthur Laurents, Joe Masteroff or James Lapine?

About 10 minutes into The Burnt Part Boys, which runs about 100 minutes without intermission, I heard my theatergoing buddy Bill sighing at the thought of having to sit through the rest of it. Five or so minutes later, four people with aisle seats actually jumped up and fled.  And then shortly after that, a woman sitting in the middle of a row crawled over the people between her and the aisle to leave.  I sat still. But I kept checking my watch.

There are some lovely melodies in The Burnt Part Boys but the songs sound so much the same that they’ve all mushed together in my mind. And the lyrics are so heavy on exposition that I gave up trying to follow them.  This is, admittedly, a pet peeve of mine but whatever happened to metaphor in lyric writing?  Or, as Bill said later over dinner across the street at the West Bank Café, couldn’t there be a little subtext?  Does everything have to be spelled out so literally?

As you can probably tell, watching this show made me grumpy.  So much so that during the performance, I had to remind myself that actors feed off the energy of the audience and I had become an enervating black hole. So I sat up and tried to be more supportive. But I kept slipping. 


The backdrops that Brian Prather created to represent the mountains are lovely and beautifully lit by Chris Lee but the use of ladders and chairs to simulate the mountain passages and streams the character trudge and forge as they make their way to the site of the disaster (the “burnt part” of the mountain) is not only cheap-looking but confusing. “What’s that supposed to be?” I had to lean over and ask Bill at one point.

Director Joe Calarco brings some imaginative touches to the staging—the image of the miners that opens the show is as powerful a stage picture as any I’ve seen all year—but he has the actors running into the audience far too much. The cast sings well enough but the acting, perhaps hobbled by the script, is nowhere near involving enough. 

As we left the theater, an usher stood by the door handing out a six-page interview with Miller, Tysen and Elder.  Reading it when I got home made me feel badly about my response to their show. These young folks clearly feel deeply about musicals and they’ve obviously worked long and hard on this one.  Maybe, I told myself, The Burnt Part Boys might fare better as children’s theater.  But maybe not. Kids can be even more demanding of a decently told story.