October 25, 2022

In Memoriam: Seymour "Red" Press

My friend Seymour "Red" Press died yesterday. Although to call him a friend doesn’t really describe what he meant to my husband K and me. Red was a longtime musical contractor and K, a trumpet player, met him when Red hired him to play in the orchestra for Sophisticated Ladies. But over the next 40 years, the relationship between them deepened into a kind of loving father-son bond such that whenever we made plans to see Red and his much beloved wife Nona, I told people that I was going to spend time with my in-laws.  

We shared many dinners, sometimes in our homes but more often at a favorite French bistro or Italian restaurant where they knew us and let us linger. We talked about theater of course but also about books, places we'd traveled to or wanted to see, what was going on with our families and politics. Red had fought to strengthen the musicians' union in the 1960s and he was committed to diversity decades before that became trendy, going out of his way to hire black and brown musicians. I adored him.

But K and I weren’t the only ones who loved Red. Almost everybody in the business did. That was evident eight years ago when so many theater folks (actors, directors, composers, conductors, producers, house managers, dancers, musicians and more) crammed into the upstairs room at the Glass House Tavern to surprise him for his 90th birthday. If someone had wanted to they could have put on a full Tony-caliber production just with the people who had gathered in that room to celebrate him.

A woodwind player, Red started out playing the saxophone in big bands, including those lead by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. But in 1957, he got a job playing in the orchestra for the Broadway musical The Body Beautiful. It ran just 60 performances but he made it back to Broadway a year later playing for the original production of Gypsy. And by the 1970s, he began his career as a contractor, hiring the musicians to play in the pit. 

He worked on over 90 Broadway productions. He also helped to create the New York City Center Encores! program, where he worked on another 75 productions. In 2007, he received a Tony Award for Excellence in the Theatre (click here to hear him talk about his career). 

Red never stopped loving theater or working at it. Although he turned 98 last February, he has three new productions in the current 2022-2023 season: Into the Woods, Almost Famous and KPOP. 

But shortly after Nona's death last year, Red decided to move into an assisted living facility to be near his daughter Gwynn and her family. She told K that yesterday morning Red told the workers there that he wanted to go to Broadway. So they put on show tunes and he passed while listening to the music he loved and dedicated his life to sharing with the rest of us. 

I'm going to miss him.  A lot.

October 15, 2022

A Nay for "Baldwin & Buckley at Cambridge"

As a recent story in the online magazine TDF Stages noted, James Baldwin is having a theatrical moment (click here to read more about it). The black writer and intellectual, who died in 1987 at just 63, has appeared as a character in three quasi-documentary plays this year. 

Last spring at the Vineyard Theatre, the theater collective The Commissary re-created the TV interview between the poet Nikki Giovanni and Baldwin in Lessons in Survival: 1971. The theater company the american vicarious is currently touring venues throughout New York City's five boroughs with Debate: Baldwin vs Buckley, a recreation of the 1965 encounter that took place when the Cambridge Union invited Baldwin and the conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr. to argue the question of whether the American Dream had been achieved at the expense of the American Negro.

Meanwhile, Elevator Repair Service is offering Baldwin & Buckley At Cambridge, its version of that Cambridge debate, at the Public Theater through next weekend. That’s the one I caught, tempted by ERS’s reputation for taking famous texts and dramatizing them word-for-word even though I haven’t been as taken with their previous shows as others have been.   

I wish I could say this production had changed my mind about ERS. But although the Cambridge students voted 544 yeas to 164 nays in favor of Baldwin, I'm going to have to vote nay for this barely dramatized and minimally staged version of his debate. At least, unlike ERS's eight-and-a-half hour reading of “The Great Gatsby” (click here to read my review of that), this show lasted just a little more than an hour. Even so, I found that my mind wandered.

The show starts, as the real debate did, with two Cambridge students speaking on either side of the question. Both students were white and so it’s somewhat baffling why director John Collins cast the black actor Christopher-Rashee Stevenson to play the student arguing that the American Dream did not exclude African Americans during their first 350 years in this country when they were subjected to the horrors of slavery, the failures of Reconstruction and the oppression of Jim Crow segregation.

But the production's main problem is that it’s hard to replicate Baldwin’s singular charisma. Greig Sargeant, who conceived the project for ERS, is dark-skinned and small in stature just as Baldwin was but, alas, the similarities end there. It might not be necessary to emulate the distinctive and slightly posh way that Baldwin spoke but anyone playing him needs to be able to radiate both the brilliance and the anger that fueled his words. 

Sargeant clearly cares deeply about this project (click here to hear him talk about it) but there’s a whiny quality about his performance that undercuts the passion of Baldwin's still relevant message.

Ben Jalosa Williams doesn't imitate Buckley’s upper-class drawl either. But nor does he capture the disdain that Buckley often exhibited when he believed he was dealing with intellectual inferiors and that he used in his Cambridge speech as he urged African Americans to just work harder if they wanted to do better. So the portrayal comes off as rather bland. 

The audience is supposed to fill in for the Cambridge students but, polite theatergoers, we were also a poor substitute for the cheering and braying familiar to anyone who has watched episodes of the British Parliament’s raucous Question Time. 

Baldwin & Buckley At Cambridge tries to save itself with a coda that imagines a scene between Baldwin and his good friend the playwright Lorraine Hansberry but it's too little and too late.

The one good thing I can say about Baldwin & Buckley At Cambridge is that it prompted me to watch the real 1965 debate on YouTube (click here to see it). The words, of course, were the same but this time the effect was riveting. It was so good, I watched the entire thing and my mind didn’t wander once.

October 6, 2022

The New "1776" Isn't Revolutionary Enough

Revivals used to be fairly simple. A producer would take a beloved title or maybe even an underappreciated one, cast it with a star or two and voilà, a show. But that’s not how it goes nowadays. Instead of theatergoers greeting revivals with “It’s so great to see you again,” they’re now asking, “Why are you here?” “What do you have to say about the way we live now?”

So that’s how we get a Company with a female Bobbie.  Or A Death of a Salesman with a black Loman family.  Or a 1776 with female, non-binary and trans actors portraying the Founding Fathers. Sometimes these new interpretations work. Sometimes they don’t. And I’m sorry to have to say that for me, the production of 1776 that opened this week at Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre doesn’t.

The story of the contentious days leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 and the shameful compromise that was made to get the job done was always a tough challenge for a musical. It’s basically just a bunch of white guys in breeches, waistcoats and perukes yelling at one another. The entire score consists of just 12 songs, with one reprise.

But somehow composer Sherman Edwards and book writer Peter Stone managed to turn all of that into an entertaining—and surprisingly suspenseful—musical that beat out Hair for the Tony in 1969 and ran for 1,217 performances. 

The show has been one of my favorites since I saw the original production from a seat high in the balcony during a spring break from college. And every Fourth of July, I try to watch at least some of the 1972 movie version, which was filmed with almost the entire original Broadway cast, including the invaluable William Daniels balancing just the right mix of sweet and sour as the right-minded but irascible John Adams.

The new 1776 does start off promisingly. All the members of the ensemble—diverse in terms of age, color, ethnicity, gender identity and size—walk onstage wearing various forms of streetwear and then they put on frock coats, take off their footwear, pull up the kind of white knee-length stockings men wore in the 18th century and step into the buckled shoes that have been waiting along the rim of the stage: a clever and clear statement that they are now stepping into the roles of the men who founded this country. 

Alas, the show goes down from there. And that’s mainly because it’s a concept without a cause, failing to make the argument for why those actors are stepping into those shoes. When Hamilton cast black and brown actors as the Founding Fathers, composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail made the case that this country also belongs to the people who had been previously disenfranchised by it. 

But Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, who co-directed this revival of 1776, just have their actors go through the motions of the musical. Their revival was conceived before the coronavirus pandemic but they’ve recently said that they want it to reflect the racial reckoning set off by the murder of George Floyd in 2020 (click here to read one of those interviews).  

That retrofitting has produced a few on-the-nose gestures: the new character of Jefferson’s body slave has been added but given no lines except for an ironic but-not-me head shake when Jefferson talks about all men being created equal; a dance mimics enslaved Africans in chains during “Molasses to Rum,” without bringing any new insights into that song about the slave trade that has always been part of the musical.  

The sense of suspense about whether the quarreling delegates will ever reach an agreement that usually animates the play is also lost. Hell, even the calendar that has traditionally hung on the wall, counting down the days to July 4, is missing here. It’s been replaced by intermittent video projections of dates but they’re too easily forgotten. 

More damaging is the fact that with a few exceptions (Shawna Hamic appropriately hamming it up as South Carolina’s vain delegate Richard Henry Lee, Patrena Murray’s droll take on Benjamin Franklin) the actors don’t do enough with the characters. Crystal Lucas-Perry, who will be leaving the production at the end of the month to join the upcoming Ain't No' Mo," gives too much honey and too little vinegar to her portrayal of John Adams. 

When you add it all up, the enterprise carries the whiff of a middling community theater production. Even Scott Pask’s bare-bones set looks less like a concept than something that was done on a tight budget. And the video projections toward the end of the second act come off as a Hail Mary pass for relevancy.

So a production that should offer smart commentary instead just seems gimmicky. It’s great to see so many female-identifying actors on a stage but 1776 was composed primarily for men’s voices (there are only two female roles—Martha Jefferson and Abigail Adams—in the piece). And the revival stumbles here too. 

There are few more rousing opening numbers than “Sit Down, John,” in which his fellow delegates to the Continental Congress admonish Adams, the pre-eminent but annoying advocate for separation from the British, to stop heckling them. I had hoped that this production would imbue that number with the passionate roar of the pussyhat-wearing participants in the 2017 Women's March. Instead, the song sounded like a track from the 1970s bubblegum band Josie and the Pussycats. 

All of which left me wondering, Why is this show here?