May 31, 2008

"Adding Machine" Adds Up to a Great Show

It seems that ever since Stephen Sondheim’s Company changed the way people think about musicals, the generation of musical makers who followed him has struggled to bring ever more serious subjects and complex music to the stage. Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, Jeanine Tesori, and Michael John LaChiusa have all had varying degrees of success with this formula but I still often find myself groaning when someone suggests going to see one of these “new school” musicals. They can be so unrelentingly solemn that I almost expect to find hemlock cocktails waiting at the refreshment bar.

And so even though I was pleasantly surprised (actually totally thrilled) by the dark and complex Spring Awakening last year, I had my doubts about seeing Adding Machine, which is playing through Aug. 31, at the Minetta Lane Theatre. But friends kept talking and blogging about the show. And it recently won Lucille Lortel and Outer Critics Circle awards. So my always-up-for-a-theatrical adventure pal Bill and I agreed that we ought to see it. And now, if you haven’t, I urge you to do so too.

The show seems to be a fairly close adaptation of Elmer Rice’s 1923 play The Adding Machine, which tells the story of an everyman named Mr. Zero, who, after working as a bookkeeper for 25 years, is replaced by an adding machine. The dehumanizing effects of industrial progress was a popular topic of that period (Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal and Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” also tap into that nightmarish side of the American Dream) but no one is more despairing than Rice, who even rules out salvation in the afterlife. I know what you’re thinking: bring on the hemlock.

But what makes Adding Machine work for me is the same thing that made Spring Awakening my favorite show of 2007: the understanding that even a show about the darkest or most complex subject also has to entertain its audience. Josh Schmidt and Jason Loewith’s score for Adding Machine is filled with songs that convey character and emotion (click here to listen to a few samples) and that succeed as artfully crafted show tunes, not the ersatz arias of the kind that weigh down so many of the new school musicals.

David Cromer’s direction, Takeshi Kata’s scene design, Keith Parham’s lighting design and Tony Smolenski IV’s sound design all not only beautifully reinforce the bleak state in which Zero exists but offer enough surprises to keep the audience engaged and, at times, even gratefully amused. The performances work too. Joel Hatch as the seemingly affectless Zero, Cyrilla Baer as his shrewish wife and Amy Warren as the office mate who secretly longs for him are all spot on.

I confess that some of the surrealistic elements seemed a little daffy (according to the New York Times review of the original play they seemed daffy back in 1923 too) but for me Adding Machine adds up to an evening that is bracingly intellectual and stirringly visceral. It’s an original but I hope it won’t be the only one of its kind.

May 28, 2008

Stuck in the '50s with "Cry-Baby"

There weren’t a lot of surprises when the Tony nominations were announced earlier this month. Except maybe that Cry-Baby had won a shot at the Best Musical award. It’s not a terrible show and people who see it will probably have a good enough time (click here to see excerpts from the show). But, with one exception (Rob Ashford’s high energy choreography), it isn’t an award-caliber show either. What it is is simply another homage to the Fifties.

Which raises the following question: hasn’t the time come for Broadway to declare a moratorium on plays and musicals about the Fifties? This past season alone, A Catered Affair; Grease; Come Back, Little Sheba; The Country Girl; Thurgood and, of course, Cry-Baby, were all centered around events that took place in the post-War period between 1946 and 1964 and I’m not even counting leftover shows like Jersey Boys. And then there’s Happy Days, a musical version of the old TV series about life during the Eisenhower era that is currently playing at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut.

Why all this looking back? And why to that period? I can’t believe it’s because people feel that the music back then was so great. Is everyone really all that nostalgic for the supposedly more innocent era of ducktailed bad boys and poodle-skirt wearing good girls? Or is Broadway trying to make up for the fact that it overlooked rock and roll when it first arrived on the scene? Whatever the reason, isn’t it time to move on?

And while I’m making suggestions, it probably isn’t such a good idea either for Broadway to pick up the Hollywood bad habit of trying to make sequels to successful shows. The current thinking seems to be if The Producers or Hairspray sell well, let’s see what other Mel Brooks or John Waters movie we can turn into a cash-cow musical. Well, you didn’t see Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein turning to other states after their Oklahoma was a hit.

suffers in comparison to its predecessors—both the other '50s shows now on stage, and the movie that spawned it. The show’s publicity campaign makes much of the fact that the score is by David Javerbaum, executive producer of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show”, and Adam Schlesinger, a founder of the rock band Fountains of Wayne. And it is great that guys with such hip credentials are interested in working on Broadway but it’s also clear that here, they are simply guns for hire. Even so, several of their songs are clever enough that I’d like to see what they’d do when given free reign.

A more charismatic leading man might have diverted attention away from the show’s shortcomings or given it the kind of edge Johnny Depp did in the movie version. James Snyder, making his Broadway debut, works hard and sings well but his Cry-Baby tends to get lost in the crowd when the ensemble is on stage. I can’t help thinking what someone like Cheyenne Jackson (now starring in Xanadu and in a zillion chatroom complaints about why he didn’t get a Tony nomination for his role as that show’s muse-needy artist Sonny) might have done in the part of Cry-Baby. Although he's probably had his fill of the Fifties too, having already done All Shook Up, the ill-fated juke box musical based on Elvis songs.

May 24, 2008

"Good Boys and True" Isn’t True To Itself

I like a play that wrestles with a knotty problem and, in the process, forces me to take a stand on a difficult issue. In the old days, they used to call such works problem plays. But the biggest problem with Good Boys and True, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s ambitious play about a sex scandal at a boys’ school now running at the Second Stage Theatre through June 1, is that it doesn’t know which problem it wants to deal with. There are enough issues in this play to tie up “The Oprah Winfrey Show” for at least a week.

Sitting over a couple of glasses of wine at the Broadway restaurant Orso's after the show, my pal Bill and I tried to figure out what the play is really about. Was it a coming out saga? Or a cautionary family drama about contemporary parenting? Or a jeremiad against class privilege in American society? Each of these is a worthy subject and one that I'd be happy to see examined on stage. But it’s hard to do all of them justice in just 90 intermissionless minutes.

The eagerness to crowd so much into Good Boys and True plays havoc with its internal logic. One minute we're told that the jocks on the school's football team are so aware of a one-way relationship that one of its members is having with a gay classmate that they joke about getting in on the action; the next moment we hear that a participant in that relationship worries about what will happen when one of those same team members walks in on the pair. Similarly, we’re lead to believe that the parents of one of the boys are intimately involved in their son’s life and yet when a crisis occurs the father never shows up. It’s hard for a playwright who’s dealing with all of this turmoil to keep all the balls in the air (and yes, pun intended). But if there’s no room in the budget for a dramaturge, shouldn’t the director be speaking up?

Good Boys and True reportedly ran two hours in its original production at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre last year (click here to see an excerpt from that production). I don’t know what was cut or why but even the longer production seems to have left some critics as unsatisfied as my pal Bill and I were. “Aguirre-Sacasa's play is wholly contrived, heavy-handed and flatly rendered,” complained the Chicago Sun-Times. Which raises the question of why Second Stage decided to bring the play to New York. One hopes it isn’t because the playwright’s pedigree—he went to the Yale School of Drama, writes award-winning Marvel comic books and his father recently ran for president of Nicaragua—offers the kind of backstory that's a magnet for media coverage.

There are, however, some redeeming qualities about the New York production. The best is Derek McLane’s trophy-laden set, which is not only handsome but quietly eloquent about the values our society places on achievement. But there are lovely acting turns too. Christopher Abbott captures all the awkward pride of a young gay boy who knows who he is, what it costs to be so and willingly makes the decision to pay that price. Betty Gilpin delivers the best scene in the play as a young lower class woman equally aware of how little she is valued in a winner take all society.

And yet, in the end, they weren’t enough. There was silence when the play ended at the performance that Bill and I attended. Not the silence of awe. But the silence of “is that all?” I wanted to like this play. I congratulate Aguirre-Sacasa for taking on such tough stuff. But, as the Latin-speaking students in Good Boys and True might say, simplex sigillum veri: simplicity is the sign of truth.

May 21, 2008

Cutting “Young Frankenstein” Down to Size

When the Tony Award nominations were announced last week, the one thing that practically everyone agreed on was how ridiculous it sounded each time David Hyde Pierce or Sara Ramirez had to say “The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein”. Of course, they only had to say it three times because the show, more familiarly known as Young Frankenstein only got three nominations: Christopher Fitzgerald for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Andrea Martin for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and Robin Wagner for Best Set Design of a Musical.

But that may be the least of the show’s worries. This week, the musical decided to cut five of the seven string players in its orchestra, a sure sign that business ain’t good. You can usually tell what kind of business most Broadway shows are doing because they release their grosses each week but, following their equally boneheaded decision to charge $450 for a premium seat, the producers of Young Frankenstein refused to disclose how many tickets they sell.

Over the past couple of months, however, there have been other hints that the show is in trouble. In March, the producers got rid of the $450 seat and began advertising “All tickets $50 to $120." In April, they started sending out emails offering tickets “starting at $45.”
The cheap seats don’t seem to have wooed theatergoers. Insiders say the producers have been handing out comp tickets for some performances to people in the company so that the cavernous 1800-seat Hilton Theatre won’t look so empty.

"Pamela's First Musical" is a Final Gift From--and Tribute to--Pamela's Aunt Wendy

By all accounts, there was no one more beloved in the theater world than Wendy Wasserstein, who died from cancer in 2006 when she was just 55. She won almost every honor a playwright can win—the Tony, New York Drama Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards and a Pulitzer Prize. But people also just liked Wendy. I refer to her so familiarly because everybody was on a first-name basis with Wendy, including the New York City school kids she introduced to the theater through the Opens Doors Program she founded in typically open-hearted Wendy fashion.

I never had the good fortune to meet her but I was fond of Wendy too. Her plays tracked the lives of women like me—self-consciously smart and ambitious and a little insecure about it all—from the optimistic college girls of her 1977 play Uncommon Women and Others to the more uncertain middle-aged professor in her final
2005 play, Third. And, as it turns out, we both have nieces—mine Jennifer, hers Pamela—with whom we started sharing our passion for the theater when they were just girls. In 1996, Wendy published “Pamela’s First Musical,” a children’s picture-book about introducing her niece to the theater. When I heard that Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS was staging a benefit production of the musical based on that book, I immediately bought a ticket.

“Pamela’s First Musical,” with drawings by the theatrical set designer Andrew Jackness, tells the story of a suburban girl whose eccentric Aunt Louise celebrates her niece's eighth birthday by treating her to a Saturday in Manhattan, complete with lunch at the Russian Tea Room (changed to Sardi’s on stage) and a Broadway matinee. The book is also filled with playful allusions t
o real-life Broadway celebrities—the musical’s writers are a duo called Betty and Cy Songheim; its producer Bernie S. Gerry (punny jokes for theater insiders and geeks).

It was lyricist David Zippel who suggested turning the book into a musical (click here to find the podcast of an interview he did on the history of the show) and he recruited his frequent collaborator Cy Coleman to do the score. But Coleman died in 2004 and Wendy passed 14 months later. A note in the Playbill for Pamela’s First Musical insists “Before Wendy and Cy died, the music, lyrics and book were done.” The finished product suggests otherwise. But it doesn’t matter. Watching Pamela’s First Musical, Wendy’s last gift to the theater, was truly a one-of-a-kind experience.

And everyone lucky enough to be there knew it was something special. When the house manager spotted a friend in the audience, the woman sitting next to me, he asked her to
give him her Playbill. “We’re running out of programs,” he explained, handing the extra copy to the usher, who hid it under her jacket. On the way in, I had seen people taking extras from the stack by the door—either for the keepsake value or maybe for an anticipated eBay sale.

The show was performed in concert style with the 16-member orchestra sitting on stage in front of a starry backdrop and the actors carrying scripts—which they consulted often. The great Donna Murphy played Aunt Louise (ad libbing totally in
character the few times she forgot a line) and Lila Coogan, one of the young actors in Mary Poppins, played Pamela. Gregg Edelman doubled as Pamela’s widowed father and the show-within-a-show’s leading man, Nathan Hines-Klines (more fun), while Carolee Carmello played both the dad’s new fiancée and the faux show’s leading lady, Mary Ethel Bernadette (still more).

Other celebrated Broadway troupers—including Sandy Duncan, Kathie Lee Gifford, Joel Grey, Donna McKechnie, Tommy Tune and Lillias White—had cameos as their own come-to-life portraits on the walls of Sar
di’s (Christine Ebersole was listed in the Playbill but didn't appear). Musical writers Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens played the Songheims and New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel got into the act in the silent role of the dread theater critic Simon Crankley. There was actually a very funny song for Crankley to sing but I don’t know if Riedel chose not to perform it or was asked not to but they finessed it so that the producer character sang it for him. At the curtain call the real-life, and now grown-up, Pamela Wasserstein came on stage to thank everyone for coming.

Walking to the subway after the show, I found myself a few paces ahead of the towering Tommy Tune and the diminutive Joel Gey, on their way to the Sardi’s party and looking like the quintessenial Mutt and Jeff. Several passersby stopped Grey, probably recognizing him as the Wizard in Wicked more so than for his true star turns as the emcee in the original p
roduction of Cabaret or as the cuckolded husband in the original cast of the long-playing revival of Chicago. Tune, passing largely unnoticed despite his distinctive height and equally glittery CV, slowed his long gait until Grey caught up with him. As they strolled, they talked shop. “I’m not as creative when I don’t have a schedule,” I overheard Tune confessing.

The whole thing was a treat for a theater lover like me but I would gladly have traded it to have Wendy still around and chronicling this phase of our lives.

May 17, 2008

"The Bully Pulpit" Wins My Vote

The man sitting behind me at a recent performance of The Bully Pulpit, the new one-man show about Theodore Roosevelt was having second thoughts about the show even before it started. “It’s two acts,” he grumbled to his wife. “I thought there was only one guy in it. How much he could have to say?” His wife tried to reassure him. “Well,” she said. “Teddy Roosevelt was a very interesting man.”

Indeed he was. And The Bully Pulpit, written and performed by Michael O. Smith, is a thorough and thoroughly entertaining look at the life of the nation’s 26th president. The play is set in 1918 on Roosevelt’s 60th birthday and treats the audience as though it were well wishers who had come to celebrate the occasion and listen to the former president, out of office for 10 years by then, reminisce about his past.

The Bully Pulpit bears more than a passing resemblance to Thurgood, the one-man show that pretends to be a lecture the elderly civil rights pioneer and former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall is giving about his life. Both Marshall and Roosevelt are clearly deserving subjects but, except for some mild jibes at the current administration, neither show does much with their admirable stories. It’s up to the actors playing these towering figures to give them heart. In this, both shows have been blessed. Laurence Fishburne got a Tony nomination this past week for his masterful portrayal of Marshall. And now Smith, a dead ringer for Roosevelt, is just as good.

A veteran actor who has earned his living in touring companies and on TV shows, including as the police chief on the Burt Reynolds series “B.L. Stryker,” Smith began working on the show four years ago, premiering it at the Florida Playwrights Festival in 2004 and then taking it around the country before bringing it to the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row and he’s now as comfortable in the role as the trademark rimless glasses resting on TR's nose.
Almost seeming to channel Roosevelt’s charismatic ebullience, Smith banters with the audience, shows off some of TR’s athletic skills and creates an emotionally true character. You can literally feel why even his political foes found it hard to resist TR.

Smith is helped in large part by the wealth of material about the man. Roosevelt was born into one of New York’s oldest and wealthiest families and went on to become a reformist police commissioner of New York City, governor of the state, leader of the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, owner of a cattle ranch in the Dakotas, an author of histories of the Old West, the conservationist champion of the national parks system, a Progressive trust buster, and the first American to win the Nobel Prize for his efforts to end the Russo-Japanese War. He was also passionately devoted to his wife and children, an enthusiastic celebrant of masculine endeavors like boxing and hunting; and the originator of one of perhaps the greatest political aphorism of all times, “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick."

I first became fascinated by TR a few years ago when I read Edmund Morris’ meticulously researched and beautifully written biographies, “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” which traces his early life through the arrival of the news that William McKinley has been fatally shot and Roosevelt, as his vice president, must assume the presidency; and “Theodore Rex,”which covers his White House years. And so I already knew his story but I still enjoyed Smith's winning retelling of it. But you don't have to be a history buff to appreciate this show. About a half dozen high school kids were at the matinee I attended and they seemed to be having just as good a time.

Roosevelt was one of this country’s most dynamic presidents but perhaps because there’s no national holiday for him and his small memorial in Washington is hard to reach and his younger cousin Franklin had a much longer and comparatively more recent stay in the White House, TR has gotten lost in the shuffle.
Bully, a one-man show with James Whitmore, played just seven performances in the fall of 1977 and Teddy & Alice, a musical about the President and his headstrong eldest daughter that starred Len Cariou and Nancy Hume in the title roles, lasted just 77 performances a decade later in 1987. The Bully Pulpit, which is scheduled to run until June 29, deserves a longer term.

May 14, 2008

High Flying with "Boeing-Boeing"

Farce is not my favorite form of theater. The silly gags, the slamming doors, the broad sexual innuendo usually do nothing for me. And yet, I confess I had a laugh-out-loud good time at both the Mark Twain play Is He Dead?, which closed far too soon after just 105 performances in March; and the new British import Boeing-Boeing, which I think will get the chance to play much longer.

Boeing-Boeing is set in the early ‘60s and centers around Bernard, a stereotypical swinging bachelor who is engaged to three beautiful flight attendants and orchestrates his trysts with them according to the airline timetables (which, of course, today are often a farce themselves). When each of the women’s carriers switches to the then-new Boeing super jets, their schedules become unpredictable, they all show up at the same time and hilarious havoc ensues.

The play, written by the late Marc Camoletti, was originally produced in France (appropriately enough since that country is considered the birthplace of the art form that was perfected by Molière and Georges Feydeau). Boeing-Boeing ran for 19 years in France and is, according to the "Guinness Book of Records," still the most performed French play around the world. The Brits have been particularly crazy about it. A production opened in London in 1962 and went on to play 2,035 performances. And last year, a revival opened there and drew a fresh round of raves.

American audiences have been tougher to please. A Broadway production played just 23 performances in 1965 and a movie version later that year with Tony Curtis as Bernard, Jerry Lewis as his naïve best friend Robert and the always-wry Thelma Ritter as the housekeeper who is a reluctant accomplice in keeping the women apart also crashed. But this new production, which opened last week at the Longacre Theatre, seems to have achieved lift-off. Most of the reviews have been filled with lofty praise and yesterday the show won six Tony nominations including Best Revival of a Play, Matthew Warchus for Direction, Rob Howell for Costume Design, Simon Baker for Sound Design, Mary McCormack for Best Featured Actress in a Play, and Mark Rylance for Best Actor.

Rylance, the acclaimed Shakespearean actor who was the artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London for 10 years (click here to see an excerpt from an excellent New Yorker profile of him) is the only import from the British production and his comedically brilliant performance as the unworldly Robert anchors the show. But everyone in the production works hard (click here to see excerpts from the show). Rob Howell’s cartoon-colored and mini-skirted uniforms for the stewardess draw laughs all by themselves and Howell, who also did the set, has create a perfectly modish backdrop for the de rigueur slamming doors. Although McCormack deserved her nomination for the daffy German fiancée, Gina Gershon and Kathryn Hahn as her Italian and American counterparts are also giddy delights. The choreographer Kathleen Marshall was reportedly even brought in to stage the "Laugh-In"- style curtain call; the first time I can remember anyone being credited with that job.

Sometimes the sweat shows. Bradley Whitford of TV’s “The West Wing” literally climbs the walls to get his laughs as Bernard and Christine Baranski summons every ounce of her trademark deadpan drollery to make the role of the housekeeper work even though, as my regular theatergoing buddy Bill observed, she’s far too chic for the part (Rhea Perlman played the role in London). But in the end, the audience—even the farce-adverse like me—is forgiving because everyone on stage seems to be having such a good time and to be so genuinely intent on making us have one too.

Of course I was in a good mood even before I got to the Longacre because Bill and I had dinner at Sardi’s with my fellow bloggers Steve of Steve on Broadway and Esther of Gratuitous Violins, who were in town to catch up on some shows. As you’d expect, much of the conversation was taken up with theater gossip (we were all still scratching out heads about what had convinced its producers to bring the universally panned and instantly closed Glory Days to Broadway) and what we’d recently seen (Steve had just returned from London where he’d seen the much-scorched Gone with the Wind; click here to read his review). It was a few days after Esther’s birthday and so we celebrated that too, complete with a serenade from the Sardi’s waiters.

Then, Steve and Esther went off to see Macbeth (also a multi-Tony nominee) while Bill and I headed for Boeing-Boeing. “I wish we were seeing Boeing-Boeing,” Esther had confided in one of the emails we exchange before meeting. It wasn’t, of course, that she doesn’t appreciate a good tragedy. But anyone who knows actors or even has read deeply about them knows that even the most serious thespians would trade their first born for the challenge of a good comedy role. “Dying is easy,” goes the saying. “Comedy is hard.” The folks in Boeing-Boeing don’t quite make it look easy but they do make it fun to go along for the ride.

May 10, 2008

"Top Girls" is Top-Notch

I was in my early 30s when I first saw the British playwright Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls during its brief American run at the Public Theatre back in 1983. I was proud to call myself a feminist and off to a promising start at the job where I would eventually scale the ranks and become, well, one of its top girls. But at the time, I was struggling to figure out whether I should be investing more in my professional career or my personal life. In short, I should have been an ideal candidate for Churchill’s play about what it costs women to succeed.

But all I remember about that production now is how baffled I was by the play’s famous first act in which a woman named Marlene celebrates a big job promotion with a dinner party whose other guests are historical and fictional women—
Dull Gret, the armored figure who leads an army of women to fight the devils in hell in a 16th century Dutch painting; Lady Nijo, a 13th century courtesan to the Emperor of Japan who later became a Buddhist nun; Isabella Bird, a 19th century Scottish adventurer; Patient Griselda, the obedient wife in Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”; and Pope Joan, who some believe disguised herself as a man and ruled from the throne of St. Peter for two years in the 9th century—all of whom broke gender barriers in one way or another.

The surrealism of that first act, with its frequently overlapping dialog as the women talk about their accomplishments and sacrifices, was so confounding that I left at intermission.
So I was a little hesitant about seeing the Manhattan Theatre Club’s new revival of Top Girls that opened at The Biltmore Theatre this week. But the play is not only a classic of the modern theatrical canon but one of the few written by a woman. And the actors in the current all-female cast—including Martha Plimpton, Marisa Tomei, Mary Beth Hurt and the downtown powerhouse Elizabeth Marvel—are all at the top of their game.
“You’re older now, you might see it differently,” my husband K tried to reassure me.

So I screwed up my courage and went to see it. I don't know if age has anything to do with it, but K turned out to be right about my seeing the play differently. I still think of myself as a feminist but I’m now at the other end of my career, there’s no question that K comes first in my life, and this time around, I found Top Girls not only a mental workout, but an emotional one as well. The play was originally written as a critique of the greed-is-good ethos that thrived when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister in England and Ronald Reagan President of the U.S. but its warnings about unbridled ambition, particularly in how it affects women, still resonate today.

I confess that I’m still trying to sort out that first act (was the dinner all in Marlene’s mind? why those particular women? which top girls would I put on my invite list?) But the more naturalistic second and third acts that follow Marlene into her office at the Top Girls Employment Agency and on a visit to the working class family she left behind in her scramble to succeed hit home. I found myself nodding in recognition at similar experiences I’d had—including having someone suggest I turn down a job because one of the men I was working with would be disappointed that he hadn’t gotten it while a woman had.

All of the actors, except Marvel who brings telling nuance to the central role of Marlene, play multiple roles. They’re all superb (these are the kind of hugely talented women who can't find meaningful roles in contemporary movies—yet another reason to be thankful for the theater) but if the Tony nominators, who are meeting this weekend to determine who should compete for this year’s awards, don’t single Hurt out for a Best Supporting Actress nod for the standout scene in which she portrays a woman finally confronting a lifetime of futile sacrifice, then they might as well suspend that category.

Still, the play isn’t for everyone. Several people at the performance I attended left after the first act. And even many of those who stayed were grumbling at the end. (The lousy acoustics at the Biltmore don't help—I always seem to have a problem hearing plays there.) A video team from the New York Times recorded reactions as the audience left the theater (click here to see and hear some of their comments). I sidestepped the Times interview but I’m glad that I stayed this time. Making a place for yourself at the Top Girls table isn’t easy but it’s the most soul-nourishing night I’ve had at the theater this season.

May 7, 2008

No Glory for "Glory Days"

Update: two hours after this entry was posted, it was announced that this show would close after just 19 previews and only one performance.

Almost every theater geek can think back to some youthful desire to make a show about his or her buddies. Mine was to be called These Are My Friends and centered around a group of precocious kids at an arty college like the one my precocious friends and I attended. It’s been decades since I thought about These Are My Friends but watching the new musical Glory Days not only reminded me of it but also made me deeply grateful that I never did anything with it. For this little show about four young misfits who get together a year after their high school graduation is an unnecessary flop.

The story of how Glory Days got to Broadway became lore even before it opened at Circle in the Square last night. Two friends—the show’s composer Nick Blaemire and book writer James Gardiner—started writing a musical 7 years ago when they were still in high school. They grew up to be actors and while performing in productions at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, persuaded that company’s artistic director Eric Schaeffer to take a look at their script. Apparently impressed by their nascent talent, Schaeffer gave their show a full-fledged production in January.

Peter Marks, the lead theater critic for the Washington Post, saw Glory Days and gave it such an encouraging review (click here to read what he said then and here to read what he says now) that producers John O'Boyle and Ricky Stevens decided to bring it to Broadway and, according to a Variety article (click here to read about them) beat out two other transfer candidates —Next to Normal and [title of show]—to get the space recently vacated by that hit nerd fest, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

I can imagine how Blaemire, 23, and Gardiner, who recently turned 24, must have felt when they got the news. In fact, you can read how they feel in their Playbill bios. “Can’t believe this is happening. Not one bit,” acknowledges Blaemire. But I don’t want to imagine how they must feel reading today’s reviews. The New York Times’ Ben Brantley made every effort to avoid slamming these young guys, diplomatically saying that while the show may “evoke tears of pride and nods of recognition among friends and relatives of the writers. Average theatergoers will probably feel less indulgent.” Others were far less kind. Wrote amNY critic Matt Windman, “After enduring all 90 painful minutes of this undercooked, horribly amateurish show, you'll be wondering how the hell it got to Broadway.”

I do wonder. Although I can’t say I wasn’t warned. My buddy Bill and I try to avoid talking about a show until we’ve both seen it. But over the weekend, I got an email from him that read “Last night I saw the worst show I've seen in, oh, several years. Excruciating. My lips are sealed till I see you and know what you’ve been seeing.” By a process of elimination, I had a pretty good idea which show he meant. Still, I hadn’t expected Glory Days’ book to be so unformed (the boys simply wander around the stage talking about how they have and haven’t changed and then wander off) or the music to be so uninspiring (with just two exceptions, the show’s 15 art-pop songs all sounded the same to me).

The actors playing the friends—Steven Booth, Andrew C. Call, Adam Halpin, Jesse JP Johnson—are full of energy but Schaeffer, who directed the production, doesn’t given them much to do besides running up and down the metal bleachers that, along with reflector lights, constitute scenic designer James Kronzer’s entire set. Bill says that in an effort to keep himself involved, he counted the lights; there are 480.

Even the harshest critics are loathed to blame—or discourage—the show’s young creators. All of us who love Broadway are delighted when young people want to bring their experiences and talent to live theater. But youthful enthusiasm just isn’t enough. I don't know if Glory Days could ever have become glorious but it should never have been brought to Broadway the way it is now.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the vibrant In the Heights, is, at 28, only slightly older than Blaemire and Gardiner but he began working on his show when he was in high school too. Fortunately for him, and for us, he hooked up with Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller, the producing team that also brought Rent and Avenue Q to Broadway and who clearly know how to develop young talent and how not to push it into the big time prematurely. The difference between their shows and Glory Days is a reminder that producing is also an art.

May 3, 2008

"Stalag 17" Has Been Spiked

As regular readers know, I don't usually post twice in one day. And, as I said in my earlier entry, I don't feel that I can pass on the off-the-record anecdotes (a couple quite juicy) that speakers are sharing at the Commercial Theater Institute I'm attending this weekend. But this one is bound to break into the news sooner or later and is just too good to pass up: When producer Ben Sprecher was introduced as the man behind the upcoming production of one of the most intriguing theatrical match-ups in a long time—a first-ever Broadway revival of Stalag 17, the 1951 play about POWs in WWII, and the movie director Spike Lee—he yelled out "Canceled."

The deal had been widely reported last year in part because Lee has never directed a play and probably even more so because he made a point of saying he couldn't remember the last time he'd gone to the theater (click here to read the New York Times story about the deal) although I remember seeing and speaking to Lee in the lobby of the Laura Pels Theater during the intermission of Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel in 2004. But Michael Abbott, who produced the original Broadway production of Stalag 17 when he was just 21 and had brought Lee into the revival project, died in January.
I didn't get a chance to ask Sprecher what had happened but it seems that the project succumbed along with Abbott. It's not the same as seeing it on the stage, of course, but for now we'll have to content ourselves with the classic movie version of "Stalag 17" with William Holden.

A Brief Intermission for Me

With new shows stumbling over one another to open before May 7, the last day that they’ll be eligible for this year’s Tony Awards—The Country Girl, Thurgood and Les Liaisons Dangereuses opened this past week and Boeing-Boeing, Glory Days and Top Girls are scheduled to make their bows this coming week—there’s more than enough for me to blog about. But I’m taking time off from my regular Saturday post because I’m spending this weekend at The Commercial Theater Institute, the three-day workshop that the Broadway League and the Theatre Development Fund run for people who are thinking about becoming producers.

No, I don’t plan to be a producer. But I am interested in everything that has to do with Broadway and so I sent in my $435 registration fee and showed up at the New World Stages theater complex early on Friday morning. I thought there would be around 50 people or so. Instead, there are 350 of us. It’s a fascinating group. There are lawyers and MBAs, actors and directors and I even ran into a woman I know who’s a life coach. People have flown in from all parts of the country. And the group is more racially and age diverse than I’d thought it would be—a definitely good sign for Broadway’s future.

The line-up of speakers is terrific too. They’re not the names that average theatergoers know but they’re the people who make Broadway run. On Friday alone, we got to hear from Producer David Stone, whose shows include The Vagina Monologues, the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Wicked; General Manager Abbie Strassler, who is currently overseeing the budgets of Macbeth and Spring Awakening; the incredibly knowledgeable entertainment lawyer Richard Garmise, who spoke for an hour and a half straight and then drew the most questions from the audience; and Ted Chapin, the head of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization and an all-around mensch who hung around and chatted with folks during the cocktail hour at the end of the eight-hour day.

Jed Bernstein, the former head of the Broadway League when it was called the League of American Theatres and Producers, is running the sessions and asked right at the beginning that everyone treat the comments of the speakers as confidential so that they’d feel free to really talk about things. I’m going to honor that request. But I will say that I had a great time on Friday and can’t wait for the Saturday session when we're scheduled to hear from, among others, the producers Tom Vertiel (the current revival of Gypsy) Randal Wreghitt (Grey Gardens) Jeffrey Richards (August: Osage County) Ben Sprecher (Kevin Spacey's Moon for the Misbegotten) and Steve Traxler (Spamalot).

When I come down from the weekend's high, I’ll get back to blogging about the new shows in Wednesday’s post.