August 28, 2007

Waging War With "Iphigenia 2.0"

The great ancient Greek playwright Euripides seems to have written, and named, as many of his plays about women as he did about men. Over the years, I've enjoyed watching the tragic passions of Medea and Electra play out on stage. And I've wished that contemporary playwrights wrote such powerful female roles. But I confess I knew nothing about Iphigenia until the Signature Theatre Company announced that Charles Mee's adaptation of Euripedes' Iphigenia in Tauris, called Iphigenia 2.0, was going to open its new season devoted to Mee's work. So I'm not sure why I decided to go see it.

Maybe it was that the Greeks have become so trendy from Princeton professor Robert Fagles' popular translations of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" to Oliver Stone's ill-conceived biopic of Alexander the Great to the recent reopening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's glorious Greek and Roman galleries. Or that I was so taken with Mee's personal story as an artist who came into his own during his 50s and makes the complete text of his plays available online (click here to see
Iphigenia 2.0's and more about Mee). Or that I was intrigued by the parallels between the folly of the Trojan War and the folly of the war in Iraq. Or that I thought it would be fun to see "Star Trek's" Kate Mulgrew bite into the role of the indomitable Clytemnestra. Or that I thought a dose of what we used to call avant-garde theater—Mee is known for his experimental "collages" that juxtapose classical and pop cultural references, while 2.0’s director Tina Landau is celebrated for her mixed media productions that combine theater, dance, music and video—would be good for me.

Whatever the reason, I got both less and more than I bargained for. In Euripedes' telling of the
story, the gods won't send winds to carry the ships bearing Agamemnon and his troops to Troy unless the warrior-king sacrifices his beloved daughter Iphigenia; in Mee's modern-dress reinterpretation, Agamemnon's soldiers refuse to risk their lives until he's willing to suffer a loss of his own by giving up the girl's life. In both versions, Agamemnon agonizes over his decision, Clytemnestra threatens vengeance if he does the deed and Iphigenia, as so many Greek heroines do, takes the weight and steps up to do her duty.

Iphigenia 2.0 is pure theatrical spectacle, which I usually love but this time, there was just too much going on. The performance styles range from the histrionics of Mulgrew's grieving Clytemnestra to the martial gymnastics of Agamemnon's buff soldiers. There are "Zorba The Greek"-style bouzouki music, hip-hop dance numbers and a couple of onstage rapes. They all whir together in a chaotic fantasia that I confess I couldn't keep up with it. At the end of the 90-minute production, the equally befuddled audience at the performance I attended sat silent for about 15 seconds after the final lights dimmed until someone started a tepid and somewhat embarrassed round of applause.

I left the theater thinking that the production was a mess. But then it started haunting me. As I always do, when I'm befuddled, I started reading. I read about Iphigenia, which I advise you to do before you go; the run has been extended until Oct. 7. I read about Mee and his philosophy on theater. And I read the reviews—many, but not all, of them laudatory. The more I read, the more fascinated I became with Mee, if not with this production, which in the end seems too self-conscious and unfocused. But fascinated enough that I intend to go back to the Signature Company's Peter Norton Space to see Mee's other works over the coming months. Sometimes, as a former lover—a painter whose work I didn't appreciate enough—said to me, unsettling you is what art is supposed to do.

August 25, 2007

Hanging Out at 'O'Neals'

New York's theater hangouts are the lynchpins of the theater community. They provide a place where actors and other showmakers can see one another, relax over a drink or hatch a new project. They offer jobs with flexible work hours and a network of contacts for kids breaking into the business. They give theater lovers like me a chance to be part of the scene. Plus, they serve comfort food at comfortable prices (even before I sit down at a table I know I want the meatloaf sandwich when I go to Joe Allen) and no one hurries you along when you linger over a drink. In the old days, Sardi's was the primary hangout; older actors still tell stories of being allowed to run tabs there when they were between jobs. Nowadays, the action has moved to Angus McIndoe, Orso and Joe Allen. Or, if you're seeing a show at Lincoln Center, O'Neals', which goes a step further than its brethren by running showcases in its backroom where undiscovered talents can actually perform. This summer, O'Neals' has been running an opera series and last week, our friend Judd, who sometimes works as a vocal coach, invited my husband K and me to come and hear one of his students.

Judd, who broke into the business as a replacement chorus boy in the original production of West Side Story, loves theater, music and people and so he reserved three big round tables at O'Neals' and there still wasn't enough sitting room for all the friends who turned out; the SRO overflow spilled out into the bar area. But K and I got there early enough to get prime seats and our tablemates included a former board member of the Manhattan Theater Club; a young documentary filmmaker, who as a child had been imprisoned in Liberia; and a first-time theater producer who invited us to a reading for a show she plans to bring to Broadway next year. The talk was lively, the food was tasty, and it was the kind of New York evening I used to fantasize about when I was a kid. But best of all was the singing. Judd’s protégé Ta'u Pupu'a, a native of Tonga who used to be a NFL player and is now a lyric tenor, was a standout [click here to hear his "E lucevan le stelle" from Tosca]. But nearly everyone was sensational, including the singers who came up during the open mike portion of the evening.

I keep so busy trying to see as much theater as I can and opera tickets have gotten so ridiculously expensive that we rarely go. But the evening at O'Neals' made me want to run across the street and sign up for a season's ticket at the Met or City Opera which usually includes a Broadway show and in April will do a Hal Prince production of Leonard Bernstein's Candide. But until the opera season starts, you can enjoy some glorious voices for just the price of a burger at O'Neals'. The conviviality that is the hallmark of a true theater hangout is available there year-round.

August 22, 2007

"Grease" Isn't Slick Enough

There's a reoccurring dream that I have: I'm back in my old high school and no matter what I do or where I go, I can't get out. That's kind of how I've felt the last couple of weeks after seeing the totally sophomoric off-off Broadway show Idol: The Musical, both versions of the Disney Channel’s High School Musical and now the new revival of Grease that opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Sunday. Broadway seems obsessed with high school too. There are the socially conscious high schoolers in Hairspray, the sexually repressed ones in Spring Awakening, the overachieving bunch in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the slightly older sorority sisters of Legally Blonde and those witchy schoolmates in Wicked. Who says Broadway isn't trying to reach out to the youth market?

As anyone who has been to high school knows, popularity is the prime currency for success. And this production of Grease arrives with a built-in clique. Its stars were chosen by viewers who tuned into the NBC reality show, "You're the One That I Want" and phoned in votes for their favorites. "You're the One.." wasn't a big hit, as TV shows go, but it was big enough that the stage show now has a reported $15 million advance. Audience members at the performance my sister, niece and I attended reveled in being part of the in-crowed, mouthing the words to the songs and mobbing the souvenir shop, where T shirts went for $25 a pop—cash only, no credit cards.

The 21 year-olds who won the talent contest—Max Crumm and Laura Osnes—aren't bad. He has a goofy charm that doesn't really fit the character of the sexy greaser Danny Zuko but is nonetheless winning. She is appropriately sweet as goody girl Sandy Dumbrowski and nails her songs. But neither is ready to anchor a show and even though their castmates are more experienced (Kirsten Wyatt as Frenchy, the ditzy beauty-school dropout, and Jeb Brown as the lecherous radio DJ Vince Fontaine are particularly good) and nearly everyone on the creative team headed by director Kathleen Marshall has won, or at least been nominated for, a Tony Award, this Grease has an amateur feel about it. The best part for me was watching conductor Kimberly [not Karen as originally posted] Grigsby lead the onstage orchestra. Grigsby has a lithe swagger that even Rizzo, the show's bad girl, would envy and she danced and rocked her way through the entire evening. My husband K, the pit musician, has never played with Grigsby but some of our friends have and a few have been put off by what they call her show-off antics but she brought a sizzle to Grease that everyone else on stage lacked.

Truth is, I've always been so-so about Grease. But it was the object of my sister Joanne's first crush on Broadway. She saw the original production the fall she turned 16 and couldn't stop talking about it and or singing the songs in the weeks that followed. Good big sister that I was, I gave her the original cast album for Christmas, which she played and played and played. Her passion didn't fade with time; in fact, it revved up with the 1978 movie version starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. And though Joanne has seen scores of Broadway shows over the years, Grease, like all first loves, continues to hold a special place in her heart. She wasn't thrilled by what she saw at the Brooks Atkinson. But my niece—her daughter—Jennifer was. It won't surprise you to learn that Jennifer was a faithful viewer of "You’re the One That I Want". Of course, at 27, she's also one of the ones that Broadway wants. And so, although critics and traditionalists have decried it, this probably won't be the last time American TV viewers get to play casting director for a Broadway show.

August 18, 2007

Extra Credit for "High School Musical"

The most successful musical of the year hasn't appeared on Broadway. It's on TV's Disney Channel. It's a made-for-TV movie called High School Musical and if you're above legal drinking age, you're excused for not having heard about it until maybe a couple of weeks ago when the publicity drums for High School Musical 2 started thumping. The original was the story of Troy, an Anglo teen jock (the winning Zac Efron, who has gone on to co-star in the movie "Hairspray" and is reported to be in negotiations to star in a new version of "Footloose"); and Gabriella, an Hispanic braniac (winsome Vanessa Hudgens) who meet cute at a karaoke sing-along and then break the caste taboos at their New Mexico high school by falling in love with one another and with the idea of singing together in the school's annual musical. Since it first aired 18 months ago, the show has become a bonafide phenomenon: an estimated 200 million TV viewers around the world have seen it, the cast album was last year's top seller, a stage version opened in Chicago earlier this month; a ice show is planned for later this year and HSM has been repackaged as a videogame, a fragrance and a clothing line.

Wanting to see what all the fuss was about, I watched the movie a couple of weeks ago and smiled the whole way through. It's surprisingly charming. At a time when most teen comedies center around raunchy sex jokes, Troy and Gabriella consummate their relationship with a chaste kiss. The supporting characters are diverse: black, white, and Hispanic, overweight, nerdy and apparently gay, rich and working class. The parents aren't dismissively dumb, desperately trying to be cool or too involved with other things to care about their kids. The moral of the tale is that there's more to everyone than meets the eye—one basketball player bakes in his spare time; one geeky girl has a secret passion for hip hop. And there hasn't been a group of kids who've had as good a time singing and dancing since Mickey, Judy and their gang were putting on shows. (There are clips galore on YouTube if you want to take a quick peek; click here to see one of my favorite numbers).

The inevitable sequel that debuted on Friday night isn't as good. The book, about the kids' summer vacation before senior year, is flat-footedly self-conscious. Leave alone the fact that I can't figure out why Disney would wait until late August to air a summer break show. The musical numbers, whose songs again come from assorted writers, simply line up in imitation of their predecessors in the original. Some critics have suggested that High School Musical 2 and future versions need more irony (as though kids are suffering from a lack of exposure to that) but what they have forgotten is that despite the recent adult attention, the show is for kids. And both versions of High School Musical provide a safe haven for their tween fans—youngsters between the ages of 7 and 14 looking for some cool but non-threatening version of what it will be like to be older. But what really delights a theater populist like me is that the shows are also getting a new generation used to the idea that people can express emotions by breaking into song in the middle of a field or a dance in the middle of a basketball court. In other words, they're creating a new audience for Broadway. It's no surprise that the Disney folks are behind this. As a major producer of Broadway musicals, they've a vested interest in stocking the pipeline with future paying customers. Whatever the reason they’re doing it, they, and High School Musical, deserve an A for the effort.

August 15, 2007

The Fall of "Idol: the Musical"

Here's the dilemma: The last thing I want to do is discourage anyone's enthusiasm for the theater— either as a creator or a consumer. And I certainly don't want to dampen the spirits of any young people who are just starting out in the business. But Idol: The Musical, which opened and closed on Sunday night, put both of my resolves to the test.

The show, which called itself “a satirical musical comedy that focuses on the outrageous and delusional fan base of the hit television show” –read "American Idol" –seems to have started out as a student project at Syracuse University; its composer and lyricist Jon Balcourt will be a senior there in the fall and, according to the production notes, this is only the second show he's ever written. Balcourt isn't totally without talent but he isn't anywhere near precocious enough for people to have hiked over to the 45th Street Theatre and forked over $60 a ticket to see his work.

I confess that it was schadenfreude that caused me to see it. I was intrigued by the idea of poking fun at a pop cultural juggernaut like "American Idol" and curious about the show's decision to replace its entire 10-member cast just nine days before opening. But as I sat watching the show, I wondered if the original cast had simply mutinied and abandoned ship. The book, about a group of misunderstood college losers who are brought together by their devotion to "American Idol" runner-up Clay Aiken, was patched together with cannibalized bits from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Spring Awakening and even the Disney Channel’s High School Musical. The direction leaned heavily on having people drop their pants for laughs. And, although I refuse to name to names because they are so young, some of the cast members sang as though they might be closely related to William Hung. I found myself wincing constantly. The man sitting next to me kept sighing heavily until he couldn’t take it any more and bolted for the door about halfway through the 90-minute show. That started a mini-stampede.

I stayed to the end. But there was the smell of a vanity project about the whole production, a strong whiff of parents with money overindulging their wunderkind. Kids deserve better than that. And so I hope that those involved in this production who still need to finish school will do so, that the few truly talented among their number will continue to hone their craft and that in years to come, they all will look back on this experience as just the case of goofy collegiate high jinks that it was and should have stayed.

August 11, 2007

The Political Correctness of "Tings Dey Happen"

It's far too rare these days when you walk out of a theater debating the ideas in the play you've just seen but that's what happened after my friends Lesley, Ed and I saw Tings Dey Happen, the one-man show at the Culture Project's theater in Soho that is scheduled to run through Sept. 23.

The Culture Project prides itself on "documentary theater" that combines opinionated commentary on social and political issues with performance art. Its past productions have included
The Exonerated, soliloquies culled from interviews with former death-row inmates; Guantanamo, a drama about the U.S. detainees in Cuba; Bridge & Tunnel, Sarah Jones's deft dissertation on immigration and assimilation; and My Trip to Al-Qaeda, Lawrence Wright's Spalding Gray-like monologue about the origins of the terrorist group based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Looming Tower."

Tings Dey Happen
, written and performed by the smart, energetic and very talented Dan Hoyle, examines how the exportation and exploitation of its oil resources are threatening to destabilize Nigeria, the region and, inevitably, the rest of the world. Hoyle, 27, traveled around the oil-rich Niger Delta area of the country for 10 months as a Fulbright scholar in 2005 and 2006. He talked to warlords, diplomats, oil company expats and everyday Nigerians and he impersonates all of them in the show. And that's what Lesley, Ed and I were debating. For Hoyle is a young white American and many of the characters he portrays are black Africans.

"Is this going to be a blackface show," my husband K asked when I first told him about
Tings Dey Happen. Well, there's no darkening of skin. But Hoyle does imitate the pidgin English that some Nigerians speak. He bulges his eyes and twists his lips to suggest the way they look. He puffs out his chest, sticks out his butt and adopts a loping walk to mimic their posture. He makes jokes about them. It's all the stuff that minstrel shows used to do. And yet it's clear that Hoyle respects his subjects and is serious about the issues they face (click here to listen to an hour-long interview Hoyle and his director and co-collaborator Charlie Varon did with San Francisco's public radio station KQED). Hoyle, whose dad is the highly respected mime and clown Geoff Hoyle, also uses the same techniques to recreate the whites in his piece. But in his efforts to delineate characters as he switches from one to the other, sometimes in conversations among as many as three or four of them at a time, he strays into caricature and that raises knotty questions like whether people of one race should be able to portray those of another and whether it's OK to laugh when a white person is making fun of black people, even if the jokes are funny.

Once K, who is openly prejudiced against one-person shows, said he wasn't going to break his ban and see this one despite his interest in the subject matter, I thought it would be interesting to see it with Lesley, who’s an artist, and Ed, a documentary filmmaker. They are adventurous in their artistic pursuits and well informed about geopolitics. You may have seen Ed's work on Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan on "Frontline" or the Ted Koppell-era "Nightline." They are both white and Lesley said
Tings Dey Happen made her uncomfortable, especially when the audience at our performance, also, with the exception of me and two other women, white, laughed at the funny way Hoyle depicts so many of his black characters, particularly Sylvanus, a fey stage manager who serves as narrator and comic relief.

I also shifted around uneasily in my seat as I watched him (click here to see him in action) but what really unsettles and ultimately matters is Hoyle's cautionary reminder that the complexities of oil politics and the fragility of African democracy have created a smoldering powder keg that is just a careless spark or two away from full conflagration. That makes for truly explosive theater, worth debating and worth seeing.

Note: special thanks to my buddy Bill for his great blogs while I was away

August 8, 2007

(By guest blogger Bill): All's Right With the World!

Before I went up to Stockbridge, Mass., this week to see the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s production of Paul Osborn’s Morning’s at Seven, I was well aware that the first production of the play was a flop. Though Osborn had had several previous Broadway successes (The Vinegar Tree, On Borrowed Time) and would go on to become a respected screenwriter ("The Yearling", "East of Eden"); and though the 1939 premiere of the play was directed by Josh Logan and starred Dorothy Gish, it lasted only 44 performances. Morning’s at Seven really only entered the American repertory because of the smash-hit revival that the British director Vivian Matalon put together for Broadway in 1980 (Tonys for Best Revival and Best Director; 564 performances; even a TV movie--though, sadly, not with all of the revival’s original cast).

But, you know, even though it’s that 1980 production that was the standout, there’ve been several others in the New York City area (and Lord knows how many elsewhere) that were pretty successful too: a 1955 off-Broadway version ran 125 performances. In 1992, the late Ellis Rabb, a masterly director in all genres but unmatched in his ability to revivify Americana (for instance, Broadway’s 1975 mounting of
The Royal Family and no less than three Broadway productions of You Can’t Take It With You), directed a production at SUNY Purchase (NY). And in 2002, Dan Sullivan, one of our notable directors du jour, helmed a well-received production for the Lincoln Center Theater (nine Tony nominations, though no wins, and a transfer to Los Angeles).

Though the show is a true ensemble piece, it centers on four sisters (one is a spinster), three of whom live literally next door to each other, the fourth not very far away. For the 1980 revival, Matalon (with permission from the then-living author), set the play not in the troubled present of its 1939 original production, but in what Matalon felt was the more innocent, peaceful year of 1922. The plot is set in motion by the arrival of the shy, awkward 40-year-old son of one of the sisters, who is bringing home his fiancee of many, many years to finally meet his parents. Their coming dredges up old insecurities, rivalries and jealousies, most of them comic, but some quite touching. Because the four sisters are, by their own admission, more or less in their late 60s, the play has long been a magnet for actresses of “a certain age,” including some of the best the stage has had to offer. A list would include (in no particular order, and by no means exhaustively) Frances Sternhagen, Elizabeth Franz, Betty Miller, Estelle Parsons, Piper Laurie.

Until this week, I hadn’t seen the play since Mr. Matalon’s first revival (a current interview with him in the Berkshire Eagle says that he’s directed the play three times). That 1980 production was headed by Elizabeth Wilson, Nancy Marchand, Teresa Wright and Maureen O’Sullivan, and they could hardly have been improved upon. Only two things inspired me to go up to Stockbridge to see the current production: I thought it would appeal to my visiting female relative, who had never seen the play; and as it has been directed by Mr. Matalon, I felt that the production would most likely capture the spirit of his earlier version. I was right on both counts. Joyce Van Patten (in the role deliciously played in 1980 by Elizabeth Wilson) and Anita Gillette (in the O’Sullivan role) were warmly funny and touching. An actress whose work was unfamiliar to me, Lucy Martin, was just fine in the Teresa Wright role, playing it with more spine than I remembered Wright performance. Only TV's Debra Jo Rupp ("That '70s Show," "Friends") was a bit of a disappoinment, and she only a bit. Despite wearing a grey wig, she looked not only too young; she also lacked some of the beaten-down quality I expected-- and had long ago gotten from Nancy Marchand-- in a woman who'd had to cope for years with a problem husband and son. As for the rest of the cast, Paul Hecht and Jonathan Hogan were winning as two of the husbands. I did miss, though, the unique eccentricities that David Rounds and Lois de Banzie (both Tony nominees; Rounds a Tony winner) brought to their roles in 1980 as the middle-aged engaged couple.

What surprised me, though, was how much I enjoyed anew the play itself. The meaning of the title remains not altogether clear to me. It’s taken from a poem by Robert Browning that I think is worth quoting:

The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in His heaven--
All’s right with the world!

Coming away from Stockbridge, that's just the way I felt! And I came away feeling, too, that the family that Osborn depicted-- quarrelsome, troubled, petty and deceiving, yet loving and lovable-- resonates with a universality that I hadn't previously completely appreciated. In
Morning's at Seven, I believe Osborn created not only a play that still works. I think he created a play that transcends its time and unidentified place, an American classic.

August 4, 2007

(By guest blogger Bill): High Button Snooze

Just catching sight of the Goodspeed Opera House is enough to make me break into a grin. Perched on the east bank of the Connecticut River, in East Haddam, the gleaming white, 130-year-old Victorian playhouse seems to promise: "You're going to have a good time here today." I was particularly enthusiastic about my trip to the playhouse this week because the show I was going to see, High Button Shoes, was the first "nearly" Broadway production I ever saw. I say "nearly" because it was the national company, which my parents took me to in my hometown of Chicago when I was about eight years old, more years ago than I care to admit. I've long since forgotten everything about the show except that I loved it. Not this time.

has a score by a pair of musical icons-- composer Jule Styne and lyricist Sammy Cahn, frequent collaborators. The book is by the unknown (to me) Stephen Longstreet, based on his own novel, "The Sisters Liked Them Handsome." The Goodspeed program explains that Longstreet's libretto was much rewritten by the show's original director, the legendary George Abbott, and its star, Phil Silvers, who later achieved national fame as TV's Sgt. Bilko. Whoever did what, it worked: High Button Shoes had a Broadway run of 727 performances, quite a hefty number back in 1947-- for that matter, nothing to sneeze at today. For this revival, director Greg Ganakas and his collaborators have given the show a "revitalization" (Goodspeed's word), by tinkering with the book and making a few changes in the song selection and running order-- not unusual when reviving a 70-year-old musical. Unfortunately the Goodspeed Team wasn't able to revive one crucial element: Phil Silvers.

The story is pretty simple... and simple-minded. It's 1913, and two on-the-lam, wise-cracking con men (originally played by Silvers and the burlesque journeyman Joey Faye) have set down in picture-perfect New Brunswick, New Jersey. Their goal is to sell some swamp land (!) to the peaceable, unwary townsfolk, among whom are "Mama," "Papa," a trio of birdwatching biddies, an ingenue (of course) and a football-playing juvenile (New Brunswick is home to Rutgers University). In outline, Shoes is not dissimilar to The Music Man, except that Meredith Willson's music and lyrics are more distinguished in every way and his book is peopled with flesh-blood-characters, not cardboard stereotypes.

Two of Shoes' songs have had a life outside the show, and they just barely: the polka "Papa Won't You Dance with Me" and "I Still Get Jealous" (a precursor to the Hairspray duet "Timeless to Me"). (Jerome Robbins, who won a Tony for choreographing Shoes, included both in his 1989 revue, Jerome Robbins' Broadway.) Performed at Goodspeed by the appealingly low-key William Parry and the hearty, full-voiced Jennifer Allen, they still please. As does much of the rest of Goodspeed's production: Gregory Gale's costumes and Howard Chrisman Jones's sets have period charm, Linda Goodrich's choreography (though not of course up to the level of Robbins) is inventive and the eight-piece orchestra is, well, spiffy.

But without two slam-bang comics, the show doesn't pay off. And director Ganakas didn't find them. In the role that has Phil Silvers' glorious Bilko shtick written all over it, Stephen Bienskie is amiable and works hard-- too hard, really-- but he can't begin to hold-- let alone dominate-- the stage, as he must. As his sidekick, the equally hard-working Ken Jennings is... well, some people just aren't born funny. And that's what this show needs: two larger-than-life, leave-'em-rollin'-in-the-aisles born funnymen. While watching Shoes plod along, I couldn't help mentally trying to recast it: Nathan Lane, Lewis J. Stadlen, Jason Alexander, Nathan Lane... Whoops! There's the problem. There just aren't a lot of big, bold comics around these days. And without vaudeville or burlesque to hone their talents, we probably won't see many coming along.

I also couldn't help thinking: This is a show that not even City Center's Encores! series should do. The score simply doesn't merit it.

Over the past 45 years, Goodspeed Musicals has mounted a remarkable number of rousing productions, some of them original (Man of La Mancha, Shenandoah, Annie), some revivals (Very Good Eddie, She Loves Me, The Most Happy Fella). But High Button Shoes left me low.

August 1, 2007

Summer Viewing

A special note: I'm taking a short vacation break after this post but my good friend Bill has agreed to post the next two entries while I'm away. He loves theater as much as I do and knows a whole lot about it so you'll be in good hands.

The dog days of summer are definitely here. There is only one Broadway show opening between now and Labor Day (Grease) and at least half a dozen closing (Beauty and the Beast, Grey Gardens, and 110 in the Shade went down on Sunday; and Deuce, Frost/Nixon and The Year of Magical Thinking will take their final bows before the end of the month). But you can still treat yourself to some great Broadway performances if you know the right DVDs. Here are a few recommendations to keep you going until the fall season starts:

1. Broadway - The American Musical

This three-disc set, originally a 2004 PBS series, traces the history of the musical through a treasure trove of archival photos, rare film footage and reminiscences from show makers like Ziegfeld showgirl Dana O’Connell, songwriter Jerry Herman and producer Cameron Mackintosh, as well as show lovers like theater historian Robert Kimball, New Yorker critic John Lahr and the late restaurateur and unofficial mayor of Broadway Vincent Sardi Jr. It’s all tied together with perky narration by Julie Andrews and if you still want more, there’s also a companion coffee table book.

2. The Songwriters Collection
You can’t really have a great musical without great music and this four-disc set, taken from a couple of cable shows, puts the spotlight on nine men who have created some of Broadway’s best music. In each nearly hour-length episode, legends like John Kander and Fred Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret, Kiss of the Spider Woman), Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady, Camelot, Brigadoon) and Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello, She Loves Me) talk about how they wrote their songs and, in some cases, even perform them.

3. Broadway's Lost Treasures

This 80 minute DVD is the first in what has grown, so far, into a three-part series of performances culled from Tony telecasts over the years. From Vivian Blaine’s “Adelaide’s Lament” in Guys and Dolls to Zero Mostel’s “If I Were A Rich Man” in Fiddler on the Roof, here’s your chance to see the original showstoppers that anyone who loves Broadway wishes he or she had seen. Or if they did see them back then, longs to see again.

4. Broadway: The Golden Age
Like many theater lovers, TV producer Rick McKay grew up fantasizing about Broadway and lamenting that he was born too late to experience American theater’s Golden Age from the 1940s through the 1960s. But unlike the rest of us, McKay went out and did something about it. He turned five years of interviews with the people who were there into this terrific 111-minute DVD in which legends like Elizabeth Ashley, Barbara Cook, Hume Cronyn, Cy Feuer, Robert Goulet, Jerry Orbach, Mary Rodgers, and Stephen Sondheim reminisce about the first Broadway show they ever saw, the first Broadway job they got, and what they did in their off-hours from eating cheap meals at the Horn & Hardart's Automat to all-night drinking sessions at Sardi’s. It’s the next best thing to having been there.

5. The Best of the Tony Awards: The Plays

Most Broadway collections focus on musicals because it’s easier to showcase a snazzy dance number than it is to show a scene that captures the essence of a play. But this DVD, released just three months ago, features excerpts from 19 Tony-nominated plays that were shown on the awards' telecasts that aired between 1969 and 2001. Most run only two or three minutes but it’s still a treat to see Sam Waterston before his “Law and Order” days, Annette Benning before her Warren Beatty years, Peter Friedman before he lost his hair and James Earl Jones, who appears in two clips including a nearly 10 minute segment from The Great White Hope, before his once-ubiquitous telephone ads and at the top of his truly prodigious powers.

6. Original Cast Album - Company

“Art isn’t easy,” Stephen Sondheim would later write in the lyrics for the song "Putting it Together" in Sunday in the Park With George. He may have learned that lesson while making the cast recording for Company. Documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker recorded the entire session and it is a rare look at some of the greatest talents in the business in the heat of the creative process. There’s also a terrific commentary track that adds recollections 30 years later from Company’s director Hal Prince and co-star Elaine Stritch, whose struggle to record her big number from the show provides the film’s dramatic tension. This one is truly a classic

Now, all you need to do is grab a cold drink, settle back and have a great time. In fact, such a good time that I've packed the discs to take on vacation with my husband K and me. So enjoy and I'll see you when I get back.