April 30, 2022

Four New Shows Try to Answer the Question "What Kind of Show Belongs on Broadway?"

Seventeen shows opened or reopened on Broadway this month and as I bounced from one to the other, I found myself asking what exactly is a Broadway show. The simplest answer to that question is, of course, any show that’s on Broadway. But as the four shows below demonstrate, it isn’t always that simple. 

THE LITTLE PRINCE found that out the hard way. This adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's beloved 1943 novella uses music, dance, fanciful costumes and Cirque du Soleil-style aerial acrobatics to tell the story of the titular character’s metaphysical travels to various planets in search of love and friendship. It’s been a hit in Europe, Australia and the Middle East and was supposed to enjoy a four-month run at the Broadway Theatre as part of its world tour. But the lack of dialog, the heavy reliance on videos and the confusing narrative seemed out of place on Broadway. Critics panned the show and theatergoers didn’t seem to know what to make of it either (about a fifth of the audience left at intermission the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show). So this week,  just two weeks after its April 11 opening, the show’s producers announced that it would close early on May 8.   

On the other hand, some shows seem tailor-made for Broadway. MRS. DOUBTFIRE, a staged version of the 1993 movie that starred Robin Williams as a divorced dad so desperate to be with his kids that he masquerades as a female nanny, fits right into the trend of popular films that have become Broadway shows. Directed by musical-comedy maestro Jerry Zaks, it’s funny and colorful, filled with witty songs by the brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick (click here to read more about them) and features a bravura performance by Rob McClure. The Outer Critics Circle, of which I’m proud to be a member, liked it too and this week we awarded it six nominations (click here to see all of them), including one for Catherine Zuber’s terrific costumes, which allow McClure to quick change from his male to female personas right in front of the audience. This is an old-fashioned show, the kind that used to advertise itself as one the whole family could enjoy.  And I think they actually would.  
A STRANGE LOOP might seem an odd candidate for a Broadway run but this musical about a young would-be musical maker who is black, queer, somewhat overweight and totally insecure has drawn some of the best reviews of the season. The show, whose semi-autobiographical book, score and lyrics were all written by Michael R. Jackson, also won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama, becoming only the 10th musical to be awarded that honor (South Pacific, Rent and Hamilton are among the others). The show boasts a bunch of ear-wormy songs, a narrative that is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking and a slew of terrific performances including one by 23-year-old Jaquel Spivey who just graduated from college last spring and lends the main character a winning vulnerability (click here to learn more about him).  But A Strange Loop also has graphic depictions of sex, some blasphemous representations of religion and lots of profanity, including the n-word. I was a fan when the show played off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons back in 2019 (click here to read my review) but I worry that this is the kind of offbeat show that despite being embraced by the theater cognoscenti might have a harder time drawing in the civilians on whom Broadway depends and is eager to woo back after the long pandemic pause. So I’m curious to see whether it will stick its Broadway landing.

Star vehicles have always found a home on Broadway and Billy Crystal’s MR. SATURDAY NIGHT could be the epitome of that genre. This new musical is based on Crystal’s 1992 movie about a once-famous comic trying to make a comeback. His protagonist Buddy Young Jr. was a big shot in the era of 1950s variety shows but 40 years later, finds himself unhappily doing gigs in nursing homes until he’s given one last shot at the big time. The movie portrayed Buddy as an egoist who mistreated his brother, wife and daughter as he climbed to the top. But Crystal, who grew up in a showbiz family, has long revered those Golden Age comics and he shares their appetite for Borscht Belt humor and their hunger for applause and so he and his collaborators—the Hollywood screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell who worked with him on the book and the Broadway vets Jason Robert Brown and Amanda Green who do the score—have softened the character, allowing Crystal to woo the audience. I had thought his shtick might be outdated and have limited appeal but, if the the two 14-year-old boys sitting next to me who kept doubling over with laughter are any indication, Mr. Saturday Night could play for many nights to come. 

April 22, 2022

Riding High With "How I Learned to Drive"

We’re in the midst of the spring crush when new shows are opening literally every night as they rush in to be considered for the awards that celebrate the end of each theater season. 

So fifteen shows have been scheduled to open on Broadway this month and that doesn’t include the reopening of Mrs. Doubtfire, which Covid concerns shut down twice before, or the resurrection of the previously closed Beetlejuice

Meanwhile at least eight attention-worthy productions have been scheduled for off-Broadway, including the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of Barry Manilow’s Holocaust-themed musical Harmony and the hot new version of Cyrano de Bergerac at BAM with a buff James McAvoy in the title role. 

I’ve been running around to as many of them as I can to prepare for the awards nominating and voting I’m going to be doing over the next few weeks and, to be honest, I’m too exhausted to write about what I’ve seen as deeply as I like to do here. However, one thing has given me so much joy that I’ve had to find a way to share it with you. And that’s been the deservedly rapturous response to the Broadway debut of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. 

Ever since I first saw it at the Vineyard Theatre back in 1997, I have loved this memory play about the complicated relationship between a young girl and the uncle who sexually abused her. Its 2012 revival at Second Stage Theatre was also superb (click read to read my review of it) and caused me to start lobbying for the play to be included in what I call the Mount Rushmore of Great American Plays, right alongside Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Arthur Miller’s Death of  A  Salesman, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and August Wilson’s Fences.            And yes, it really is that good.

This long overdue Broadway production of How I Learned to Drive stars Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse, reprising their roles from the original 1997 production and doing it once again under the direction of Mark Brokaw. 

They, and of course the play, are as splendid as I remember they were and here’s the bottom line of what would have been my review of this revival: If you consider yourself a true theater lover, you should see it if there is any way that you can get to Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theater before its run there is scheduled to end on May 29.

In the meantime, you can also listen to an interview about the show that I had the great privilege of doing with Vogel for "All the Drama," my BroadwayRadio podcast on plays that have won the Pulitzer Prize. You can find it by clicking here.

April 16, 2022

The Missteps of "Paradise Square" and "Suffs"

Making a good musical is hard. Now I don’t consider that statement to be a conceptual scoop that no one has ever considered before. But the thought has been much on my mind after seeing and being somewhat disappointed by two of the big new musicals that have opened this month.

Somewhere near the end of the first act of Paradise Square, the very ambitious Broadway show about the free black people and Irish immigrants who lived in New York’s Five Points neighborhood during the Civil War, my niece Jennifer leaned over and whispered “I am so lost.”  

And somewhere near the end of the first act of Suffs, The Public Theater’s very earnest musical that features a cast of female and non-binary performers re-creating the struggle to get American women the right to vote, I found myself wondering “why aren’t I more into this?” 

I think the problem for both of these shows is that they’re trying to do too much. Each attempts to juggle 10 or more main characters in multiple storylines. And although set in the past, each also aims to cater to modern sensibilities. It’s somewhat distressing to watch as they strain to carry all that weight.

Paradise Square also bears the extra burden of being the comeback vehicle for producer Garth Drabinksy, whose former company Livent produced Ragtime and other hits back in the ‘90s, until he was accused of financial misdoings, convicted of fraud and forgery and eventually served 17 months of a five-year sentence (click here to read more about that). 

But while Ragtime had such veteran show makers as Terrence McNally adapting that musical’s book from the award-winning novel by E.L. Doctorow, Stephen Flaherty composing the score and his partner Lynn Ahrens writing the lyrics, Paradise Square is an original story whose book is credited to three writers, its score to two composers (who the Playbill notes were inspired by a third) and its lyrics to yet two other people. And there are rumors that even more contributors got left off the Playbill title page. 

Reports say the show started off as a musical about the white 19th century songwriter Stephen Foster, who is known for such minstrel tunes as “Camptown Races” and “My Old Kentucky Home". But in the final stage version, the focus has shifted to a fictional African-American saloon keeper named Nelly O’Brien.

Nelly has inherited the Paradise Square bar from her father and it’s become a safe place where the races happily mix and mate (she’s married to an Irish immigrant who has enlisted in the Union Army; her Irish sister-in-law is married to a black preacher who is a station master on the Underground Railroad that helps slaves escape to Canada) and everyone competes in friendly dance-offs that pit the step dancing of the Irish against the Juba dancing of the blacks. 

But all of that is put in jeopardy when growing numbers of poor whites are reluctantly conscripted to become cannon fodder in the war, while blacks who are eager to fight for black emancipation are denied the right to bear arms. 

There’s actually a whole lot more plot (including some stuff about a saintly lesbian couple) but I don’t have the space for it here.  And unfortunately director Moisés Kaufman seems to have been as confused as my niece about how to keep track of all of it. The result is a show filled with sketchily drawn characters and spotty storytelling despite a talented cast lead by Joaquina Kalukango as Nelly (click here to read more about her). 

It’s still rare for a black performer to get top billing in an interracial cast and Kalukango steps up to the challenge. Her powerfully delivered 11 o’clock number literally brought the audience to its feet at the performance Jennifer and I attended.

Alas, the music isn’t as memorable, except for the legacy melodies by Foster (who I forgot to say is still a character in the show).  So the production leans heavily on its dancing, which is credited to the Tony-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones, although the Playbill also gives Alex Sanchez credit for musical staging. 

Whoever did what, the dance numbers are fun at first but become less so as the same movements are repeated again and again. And again. In the end, Paradise Square is a victim of too many cooks (including no doubt Drabinsky too) in its creative kitchen, all trying to satisfy differing tastes, too nervous about offending anyone and so ending up with something that is palatable but a little bland.

Unlike Paradise Square, Suffs is the product of a singular vision. Shaina Taub not only wrote the book, musical and lyrics for her show but took on the role of Alice Paul, one of the main strategists in getting the Nineteenth Amendment passed to give women the right to vote.

Paul may be the show’s central figure but Taub is also determined to recognize as many women as she can, particularly women of color. So such figures as the crusading journalist Ida B. Wells and the civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell are given significant roles—and rousing anthems to sing. 

But incorporating these women into the main narrative isn’t easy because historically white suffragist leaders kept their black and brown sisters at a distance in order to placate white southern feminists. So the Wells and Terrell storylines are sidelined, sometimes literally at stage left. 

Other attempts to be inclusive—the cast includes black women, Asian women, Hispanic women, gender fluid women and one woman who uses a wheel chair—are admirable but occasionally confusing. I couldn’t always tell when the black actors were supposed to be playing African-American feminists or colorblind cast as white characters. And in this play, that matters.

Still, it’s apparent how much it means to Taub to give all her characters their proper place in the American story by viewing history through a different lens, just as Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton did by casting actors of color to play the Founding Fathers (click here to read more about the making of her show). 

But while most of us know the story of the American Revolution (and the names of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and their crew) only a few of us have heard of such feminist Founding Mothers as Carrie Chapman Catt, Inez Milholland or Ruza Wenclawska. So Taub has larded her mostly sung-through text with big chunks of exposition, making her show sometimes come off like a history class pageant or an after school special.

I also have to confess that I was disappointed by the direction of the Tony-winning Leigh Silverman and by the choreography of Raja Feather Kelly, neither of whom has brought their customary creative flair to this production. The one flourish involving a mechanical horse failed to work the night I saw the show, delaying the start of the performance by over half an hour and later stranding the Hamilton vet Phillippa Soo, who had to clamber down from it in sight of the audience.

To be fair, both Paradise Square and Suffs have had to suspend performances or call in standbys and understudies because company members tested positive for Covid. I saw Suffs when two of the actors playing principal roles, including Taub, were out. 

Taub’s presence might have brought a different energy to the evening. But so might have centering the story around just one or two central characters, perhaps showcasing the internecine battles between Alice Paul and the two-decades older Carrie Chapman Catt, especially since Catt is so wonderfully played by Come From Away’s Jenn Collela. 

Neither Paradise Square nor Suffs is truly bad. But neither is as rewarding as it might have been either.  As I said, making a good musical is hard.


April 9, 2022

"Confederates” Surveys Some Common Ground Bridging the Past and the Present

In the opening monologue of Confederates, now running at the Pershing Square Signature Center through April 24, a college professor runs down a list of popular culture centered around slavery. 

“I have,” she says, “seen ‘12 Years a Slave,’ Slave Play, The Slave, another play— not the same, ‘Birth of a Nation,’ ‘The Birth of a Nation’ —very different movies,  Father Comes Home from the Wars, An Octoroon, ‘Harriet,’ ‘Underground,’ ‘Underground Railroad,’ ‘Amistad,’ ‘Sankofa,’ ‘Beloved,’ ‘Unchained Memories,’ ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ ‘Glory,’ and even ‘Django Unchained,’ though there are serious debates to be had over the qualifications of that last one.”

I took this litany to be playwright Dominique Morisseau’s sly way of commenting on how the people who green light movies, TV shows and plays seem to prefer stories about black people that are set in the past. It may also be her way of gently chiding the folks at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions project who, with Penumbra Theater, commissioned her to create a work about the black experience during the Civil War. 

Morisseau is known for such nuanced plays about the contemporary black experience as Pipeline and Skeleton Crew (which just completed a short Broadway run in February) and for being an outspoken advocate for black people to call their own shots (the Playbill for Confederates includes a “Permission of Engagement” that says audience members are “allowed to laugh audibly and give all the ‘urn hmmms’ and ‘uhn uhnnns’ you feel inspired to give”). So it's no surprise that she has refused to be confined by the directive she was given.

Instead of restricting Confederates to the Civil War era, she has set the play in two time periods: the 1860s when an enslaved woman named Sara courageously undertakes the risky assignment of spying for the Union Army and the present when a political science professor named Sandra gamely tries to balance the complex challenges that come with being one of the few tenured black professors at an Ivy League-style college.

The idea, Morisseau has explained, is to show the continuum of the struggle that African-American women have had to wage to break through the restrictions that others impose on them (click here to read an interview with her). 

That's a lot to pack into the play's 90-minute running time but under Stori Ayer’s nimble direction, the play hops back and forth between crisis points in the two women’s lives. And Kristolyn Lloyd as Sara and Michelle Wilson as Sandra, both veterans of previous Morisseau works, do a fine job of showing the grit their characters must summon up to combat oppression in each period.

The other three members of the cast do double duty as characters in both eras, changing costumes right in front of the audience as they move from one narrative to the other, with Sara’s quarrelsome runaway brother becoming one of Sandra’s quarrelsome students, while the high-strung daughter of the white plantation owner morphs into an overly woke white student.

But, alas, all that effort doesn't work as well as one might hope. It’s tough to draw an equivalency between the burdens that enslaved women experienced and the pressures that professional black women confront today. 

Sandra’s frustration over a photograph in which someone has superimposed her head on the body of a slave woman with a white child suckling at her bare breast is understandable but it pales in comparison to the myriad ways in which a slave woman like Sara was routinely dehumanized. 

Plus, Morisseau is clearly more animated by the freshness of the present-day story, which has Sandra grappling with both micro-aggressions from her white students and colleagues and unrealistic expectations from her black ones.

It's not that Morisseau's uninterested in the 1860 segments but she and Ayer depict them more broadly, causing them to come across like scenes from “Due North,” the over-the-top parody slave drama that the characters on the HBO show “Insecure” used to watch. It's as though Morisseau is saying it’s time to move on to other aspects of the black experience.  To which I say, Amen.

April 2, 2022

Some Old-Fashioned Fun with "The Music Man," "MJ The Musical" and "Plaza Suite"

Here’s the dilemma: reviews are usually written by people who see anywhere between 200 and 300 shows a year but the people who read those reviews may see only two or three shows a year, often saving up to see them. So you can understand how those groups might have differing ideas about what makes for a satisfying show.

The critics weren’t crazy about the new revival of The Music Man, finding it to be miscast with leads who are too old for their roles, too eager to please the audience and not up to singing the score. But people are flocking to it because they want to see the much beloved performers Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster onstage in any lead roles (click here to see an interview with him). 

My college roommate who lives in California bought her tickets before previews even began. And she clearly isn’t the only one excited about the show. The gross ticket sales for The Music Man are dwarfing those of all other Broadway shows including such longtime big draws as Hamilton and The Lion King. 

There’s been a similar parting of opinion about MJ The Musical, which has terrific turns from a trio of performers playing the title MJ, Michael Jackson, at various stages in his life but whose real star is the songbook of Jackson’s ever-popular hits. 

And there's also a schism over Plaza Suite, the revival of Neil Simon’s 1968 comedy about three couples that opened this week starring the famous real-life married couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker (click here for an interview with them). 

The critics were ho-hum about those shows too; while regular theatergoers could barely contain their delight. “God, that was fantastic,” a woman exclaimed to no one in particular as she jubilantly made her way out of the MJ performance I saw.

I get where the critics are coming from. They—we—see so much that they long for shows that push theater forward, be it in style or substance. But Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, a story about a con artist whose plan to bilk some townsfolk is upended when he falls in love with the local librarian, is an old-fashioned show that glorifies a white-bread version of small-town America that can’t be rectified simply by colorblind casting the people in the town as this production does.  

Plaza Suite shares a similar obsolescence problem. Sexual mores and gender roles have changed and what was titillating or funny back in the late ‘60s can come off as offensive or just lame today even when the performers are such seasoned—and hardworking—pros as Broderick and Parker. 

MJ, which charts Jackson’s life from his breakout as the lead singer of The Jackson 5 in the 1970s to his reign as the King of Pop preparing for a worldwide tour in the early '90s, is certainly a contemporary story and the music, filled with such head-bopping hits as “Beat It,” “Billie Jean” and “Thriller,” remains irresistible. 

But even though the show ends before the first public accusations of molesting children were made against him in 1993, Jackson was a complicated man and many critics have knocked the show and its book writer Lynn Nottage for failing to get inside his head to reveal what made him tick.

Yet I don’t think the people literally lining up to see these shows care about any of that. They just want to have a good time and to feel that they got their money’s worth. And I think all three shows deliver on those fronts (unless maybe you’re paying $700 for the premium seats at The Music Man or $600 for those at Plaza Suite). Because these are the kind of colorful, star-studded song-and-dance-and-have-a laugh shows that most people think of when they hear the words “a Broadway show.” 

The dance numbers alone in The Music Man and MJ are worth the price of admission. And they’re performed by gifted, almost gravity-defying ensembles (click here to read an interview with Music Man’s choreographer Warren Carlyle and click here for one with MJ’s Christopher Wheeldon). Awards voters are going to have a tough time determining who should take home the award for choreography this year. 

Meanwhile John Lee Beatty's gorgeous set and Jane Greenwood's witty costumes (not to mention the joy of seeing the married stars together onstage for the first time in 25 years) will give Plaza Suite ticket holders something to talk about with friends and neighbors when they get home. 

This split between what the critics want (something that takes a risk) and what most real people want (a sure bet) has already set off a debate this season about whether every show needs to be serious or ground breaking or whether shows can just be fun (click here to read one of those back-and forths). My theatergoing tastes tend to lean toward the serious but right now, I’m going to be speak up for fun. 

Even the Greeks who created modern theater knew that you need both. They required playwrights entering their annual competitions to submit three dramas plus what was known as a Satyr play. The latter were often bawdy and always funny works.  No cultural celebration was considered complete without one.

So we certainly should be able to make room for those kinds of “just entertaining” shows in this season. Besides, there’s more than one way for a show to be meaningful. 

Sitting behind me and my niece Jennifer at the performance of MJ we saw were a father and his daughter who looked to be about 12. The dad clearly knew all the songs and during the intermission he shared stories about them with his kid who hung on to every word. 

And who, be they comped critic or ticker buyer, wouldn't agree that such bonding is precisely the kind of thing that makes theater so meaningful for all of us.