August 31, 2019

An Atypical Labor Day Salute to Producers

Where did the summer go? I usually spend part of it thinking about which group of people in the theater community I want to salute on Labor Day for working so hard to give all of us the shows we so love. But I lost track of time this year and I thought I was going to have to break with that annual tradition until I saw the piece The New York Times recently ran about the growing number of women who are serving as lead producers for some of the most exciting shows on Broadway (click here to read that story) and I decided that I would  salute them.

Now I know that producers are considered “management” when it comes to negotiating contracts in the theater and that Labor Day is supposed to celebrate rank-and-file workers, the kind who might join one of the labor unions I celebrated last year (click here to read that tribute). And, as lots of people have pointed out, the current sorority of female lead producers is sadly all white. But I’m going to pay them tribute anyway because, at least for now, these women seem to be doing things that are helping to redefine what it means to work in the theater.

They’re hiring more female writers and directors than their male counterparts usually do. They’re putting their money and muscle behind fresh voices, as Mara Isaacs and Dale Franzen have done with Anaïs Mitchell, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for the Tony-winning Hadestown. They’re supporting new formats, as Diana DiMenna did with the crowd-pleasing What the Constitution Means to Me. They’re advocating for the LGBT experience as Dori Berinstein did with The Prom. They’re reaching out to younger audiences as Jennifer Ashley Tepper did with Be More Chill.

And without loudly patting themselves on the back for it, these women producers are casting black and brown people in major roles that usually have been reserved for white actors. One example is Eva Price's support for the casting of Rebecca Naomi Jones as the classic ingenue Laurey in Oklahoma! Similarly, Carmen Pavlovic put two women of color in iconic roles with the casting of Karen Olivo as Satine in Moulin Rouge!, the role played by Nicole Kidman in the movie; and Christiani Pitts as Ann Darrow in King Kong, the object of the ape’s affection played by Fay Wray and Jessica Lange in the film versions.

So although they aren’t laborers in the traditional sense, these women and others—including Sonia Friedman, Jill Furman, Stacey Mindich and Daryl Roth—are doing the kind of hard work that portends well for future of Broadway and that I think deserves to be celebrated this Labor Day as we head into the new fall theater season.

August 16, 2019

Shifting into End of the Summer Mode

A whole bunch of shows are closing this weekend (including The Cher Show, King Kong, Pretty Woman on Broadway and Broadway Bounty Hunter, Mojada, Puffs, and The Way She Spoke off-Broadway). Even more are scheduled to close next week and the theater season in general is slowing down as we all savor these final weeks of summertime. So I’m going to do the same and there will be no posts for the next couple of weeks. But the fall season looks to be a busy and promising one so I hope you’ll come back in September and journey through it with me.

August 10, 2019

"Moulin Rogue" Is Both Colorful and Colorless

The new musical Moulin Rouge! stars Broadway faves Karen Olivo, Aaron Tveit and Danny Burstine. It was staged by the go-for-broke director Alex Timbers and has a book by the award-winning playwright John Logan. 

It is also extravagantly outfitted by the Tony winning set designer Derek McLane and costume designer Catherine Zuber. But the show’s true star is Justin Levine, the musical supervisor who put together the patchwork of pop songs that make up Moulin Rouge!’s score (click here to read more about how he did it.) 

For if you love jukebox musicals, this is the ultimate one. It boasts more than 70 songs (or really snippets of most of them) by everyone from the Rolling Stones and the Talking Heads to Beyoncé and Lorde.

And lots of people do seem to be loving it. In the first week after the show opened on July 25, it grossed nearly $2 million, trailing only the box-office juggernauts The Lion King and Hamilton. 

My sister, a connoisseur of jukebox musicals, counted herself among the delighted and as we sat in the Al Hirschfeld Theatre watching the show, she nodded her head and bopped along happily to the parade of familiar tunes.

I’m fond of a lot of those songs too but they didn’t work for me here. As in so many jukebox musicals, they’ve been shoehorned in and strain to say anything meaningful about the characters or to move the plot along. 

Instead, they’ve turned Moulin Rouge! into a gameshow in which audience members compete to acknowledge each tune with audible sighs, chuckles of recognition and even applause, all with little regard for whether they are disrupting the flow of the storytelling.

As you no doubt know, that story is based on the 2001 Baz Luhrmann movie musical that used an anachronistic pop playlist to tell the story of a young writer named Christian who moves to the bohemian section of fin-de-siècle Paris where he hooks up with the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and falls for Satine, a courtesan who headlines the shows at the titular club.

Satine falls for Christian too but their romance is challenged by a wealthy duke whom the club’s owner has persuaded to invest in the place in exchange for having Satine become his mistress, and by an ominous cough that she can’t seem to shake.

Logan’s book sticks close to those plot points (albeit adding a few nice nods to LGBTQ+ concerns) but the film, which earned eight Oscar nominations, had fewer songs and so more room for the emotional beats of the story. In order to get in its full playlist, the stage version just skims the surface of emotion.

Despite some good work by Olivo (click here to read an interview with her) as Satine, Burstine (click here to read more about him) as the club owner Harold Zidler and Sahr Ngaujah, non-traditionally cast as the real-life Toulouse-Lautrec, I never cared about any of the characters or what would happen to them.

Even the spectacle—and there’s plenty of it—failed to excite me. The film won its Oscars for set and costume design and McLane has made sure to include its iconic images of a windmill and a giant blue elephant. He’s even extended the club’s louche bordello-like atmosphere into the theater (click here to read more about him). Instagramming is encouraged before the show starts.

Similarly, Zuber has dressed the cast in period costumes-sexy bustiers and crinoline petticoats for the women, dandyish top hats and tight frockcoats for the men-- that are suitably garish.

And in her Broadway debut Sonya Tayeh, one of the most inventive choreographers on the TV competition show “So You Think You Can Dance,” has put together lots of splashy production numbers that have everyone, men included, doing the can-can. The ethnically diverse and uniformly talented 20-member ensemble work their hearts out.

The problem is that it all seems so paint-by-the-numbers. And at times rushed, as everyone hurries onto the next pop song. Even the story’s inherently melodramatic ending Is undercut by an extended postscript that has everyone, including characters who have died, singing and dancing to the classic LaBelle song “Lady Marmalade.”

The audience at the performance my sister and I attended loved all of it. And the folks onstage seemed to be having a great time too. The reviews have also been forgiving. ("There are certainly worse ways to spend an evening than with a musical so visually gorgeous and vibrantly performed," read one.) 

So who am I to argue with all that? The show seems poised to be the kind of long-running hit that makes theatergoers feel that they're getting their money’s worth and that gives out-of-towners something to brag about when they get home. But alas, for me, it’s too much flash and not nearly enough fire.