Dec 23, 2014

Tops of 2014


It's been a spotty year of blogging here, got to admit, and only partly due to the October debut of this. And it's hard not to find it sobering that my two most-read post were essentially obituaries. But here, in order, were my most popular 2014 posts (last year's are here):
  
1. What Happened to StageGrade. The theatre-review-aggregating site I made with Isaac Butler and the chaps from PlayScripts died this year. Read it and weep.

2. The Word Word. I loved the strange, beautiful writing of Dennis Miles, an L.A.-based poet and playwright whose work I first caught at the tiny Theatre of NOTE, and with whom I had a cordial correspondence in the years since (and a few fleeting stabs at collaboration). It's heartening to see that this "In Memoriam" post for Dennis, who died in August, has been so popular.

3. Too Much Freedom to Fail. As L.A.'s "99-seat wars" began to heat up this year, I remembered a speech I gave at a theater conference in 2003, which seemed to sum up my thoughts on the artistic economy of small L.A. theater; I felt it held up pretty well and so I reposted it in this space. It was taken up and linked by the indispensable gadfly Colin Mitchell, and the rest is history.

4. FoS, Bonus Track 1: The Subtle Distinctions. There was too much to say about The Fortress of Solitude, the long-awaited (by some) musical adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's sprawling but intimate coming-of-age-and-beyond novel at the Public Theater. One nugget I mentioned in my NY Times preview piece: that Lethem had made a two-CD compilation of supplementary listening for his pop-music-steeped book. Lethem did not discourage me from seeking out the playlist online, and the rest was linkin'. I'm glad I did it; there are some great, great songs on this list.

5. Once More Into the Breach. In response to a breezy, ill-informed piece in Vanity Fair online, which posited that some kind of celebrity reading series in L.A. could be the savior of the town's moribund theater scene (huh?), I wrote this well-received response, also for VF, based on my erstwhile rovings through what I still consider my theatergoing hometown.

6. Hall Monitor. Speaking of celebrity, I have to chalk up the popularity of this post--essentially just a cue-up to a link of my Times profile of Michael C. Hall, then starring in The Realistic Joneses--to sheer name value. It probably didn't hurt that I dug up of a photo of him as the white-powdered, shirtless Emcee from Cabaret (a role in which I can claim the pleasure of seeing him, alongside Susan Egan, still my favorite Sally Bowles next to Julie Harris).

7. I Could Laugh Out Loud. Happy to see that this non-review of the still-running Broadway revival of a perfect piece of WWII-era fluff has been so popular. I've since revisited it with my wife, and confirmed that 1) I married the right woman (she loved it possibly even more than I), and 2) This exuberant production, flaws and all, is one of my favorite things ever.

8. Newman's Own. On the occasion of Randy Newman bringing back Faust--his sole, quixotic stab at a stage musical, which I saw and admired in its original La Jolla run two decades ago--I sold a piece to Slate musing on the might-have-beens represented by the show's never catching fire (a fate sealed, alas, by its one-night resurrection).

9. Stuck on Hitch. As with No. 6 above, this post's popularity is possibly another case of name recognition trumping all--in this case, the title subject of David Rudkin's play The Love Song of Alfred J. Hitchcock, about which I wrote a Times preview and which gave me the great pleasure of talking/writing about a favorite and formative artist.

10. Fortress Goes Public. My Times preview piece, cited above, generated a lot of positive buzz for a show that divided critics--though I ended up loving it, I could understand some of the misgivings about its odd, lopsided narrative. To bring things full circle, I would love to have seen what StageGrade would have made of it, since alongside Ben Brantley's disappointed review at the Times there were some passionate advocates.

So that's a snapshot of my year online. Not included: the time a review of mine was linked on the Daily Dish (and on my birthday, no less), or my 11th most popular post: a plug for my new Shakespeare-for-kids CD, which is still available and makes a great last-minute gift, if I may say so.

May the NewYear prove as interesting.

The 99-Seat Plan and Its Discontents

Most of the theater I've seen in my lifetime, and much of the best of it, has been in Los Angeles. And the great majority of that great theater was produced under what's now called the 99-Seat Plan; when I was coming up was still often called "Equity Waiver"--essentially, a showcase code that allows union actors to work for no actual wages but for some modest reimbursement and under a certain (modest) list of regulations. While I've had mixed feelings over the years about whether that plan is really a wise or fair one for the artists and institutions of L.A., I can't deny that much of that great theater I saw probably wouldn't exist at all but for the plan's low barrier of entry. (Near the end of my time in L.A., I gave a speech to the theatermakers I love lamenting the mixed blessings of that very freedom.)

Truth be told, I didn't give the 99-Seat Plan or its origins a great deal of rigorous thought until Douglas Clayton, then an editor at the now-defunct L.A. Stage Times, commissioned me to write a two-part history of the plan in 2009 (here's part one, here part two). Now, with revisions to the plan under serious consideration, thanks in large part to a movement spearheaded by Clayton and others, and with Equity putting a new emphasis on serving its West Coast members, the time seemed ripe for me to weigh in about the plan and its future at my day job at American Theatre. Money quote:
The debate over L.A.’s 99-seat plan may seem so stark because it dramatizes a fundamental conflict—one the arts face in every sector in our late-capitalist American moment. One side essentially asks, quite reasonably: Do arts workers deserve better compensation, even middle-class lives? Why is there seemingly only funding for new buildings, for infrastructure, for a handful of committee-approved geniuses, but not for the field’s rank-and-file workers?
The other side responds, passionately, that such talk is inimical to the creative instinct, to freedom of expression and association, and that we need look no further than the cautious programming and piecemeal hiring at major institutional theatres to see how little such bottom-line thinking has done for actors and the field.
RTWT here.

Dec 11, 2014

Staged Albums & Ensemble/Bands



When I wrote this cover story for American Theatre, about how the presence of composer/musicians within their own theater pieces showed hope of changing and revivifying musical theater, I was thinking of largely narrative pieces like Passing Strange or Striking 12 or Futurity or even Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812--most of which could be done, and some of which have been done, without their songwriters/creators at the center of them. (I was also thinking about the way Once seemed to blur the exegetic/diegetic musical-theater lines--its creators weren't literally onstage performing the songs, but its actor/musician hybrid was built into the show's DNA, not grafted on a la John Doyle.)

What I didn't foresee was that some of the form's most venturesome songwriters would go even further and deeper into the notion of the rock-album-as-theater, musicians-as-performers. I've just seen two that will stay with me in two very different ways, though their surface similarities are striking. First was Dave Malloy's transporting chamber show at the Bushwick Starr, Ghost Quartet, which confirmed his status as a sui generis--I don't even know what label to apply to him. Event-maker? Music-theater-sound-space artist? Maybe "theater composer" comes close, as what Dave seems to be doing is composing the entire theatrical experience as he would a piece of music--which it also is. Indeed, though I had my quibbles with some of it, Ghost Quartet worked the margins of indie rock and indie theater, of what makes a concert and what makes a play, in a way I've never felt a piece do before--and I emphasize felt, as it was a deeply sensory experience, with the band members arrayed around the space, at one point memorably in total darkness. (The director was Annie Tippe.) Though the work cited Poe and Monk, photojournalism and taxidermy, its unique spectral glow put me in mind of W.G. Sebald's haunted, ruminative novel Austerlitz, in which the present is an endless, unentangle-able palimpsest of past sins and missteps, an accordion of grief wheezing backward and forward. It makes some lovely music as it resonates, but it still squeezes and pinches. (UPDATE: I just learned that Ghost Quartet will return to the McKittrick Hotel, the NY home of Sleep No More, next. Jan. 5-18. Tickets here.)

Then last night I saw Gabriel Kahane's The Ambassador at BAM. The show is based on his album of the same name, although it may be just as accurate to say that the album was shaped to support the show. In any case, like Ghost Quartet, The Ambassador has been staged as a kind of performative meditation for (in this case) seven musicians, not including the impish, barefooted composer/lyricist Kahane, arrayed around a pack-rat set of stacked books, LP records, videocassettes and other 20th-century detritus, as if Krapp's basement exploded. As with Malloy's piece, there wasn't a piece of sheet music in sight--no small feat, given that Kahane's work is complicated, infinitesimally shaded, almost prog-rock-ish neo-classical pop/rock--and all of the musicians were, if not quite equally involved, then universally called on to perform non-musical movement and gestures as well as the daunting score. (The director is John Tiffany, who brought in his usual movement-director sidekick, Steven Hoggett, for an assist.) In all, it's a gorgeous, elegantly humanized piece of music-theater that entirely transcends the notion of concert. It certainly doesn't hurt that it happens to be a piece about the complexities of a city I consider my adult hometown, Los Angeles, and that, eerily, it was the second piece I'd seen on the same Brooklyn block in a week about L.A. that made the shooting death of Latasha Harlins a dramatic centerpiece (the other was Roger Guenveur Smith's beautiful, unsettling Rodney King at BRIC Arts).

Though Kahane's is more lavishly appointed than Malloy's work, both were lovingly crafted, with an eye for detail, sonic as well as visual and mimetic. And both feel entirely of a piece with what looks to me like a newish and entirely welcome trend, even a new form: staged albums, conceived by music-theater artists as full performance pieces rather than simply as adjuncts of recordings (though with albums as their dramaturgical template, if you will), and performed not by jobbed-in hired hands at music stands but by fully committed musician/actors who convincingly straddle the line between theater ensemble and band.

More, please.

Nov 28, 2014

What Happened to StageGrade

You may have been wondering what happened to the review-aggregating site I created with Isaac Butler in 2010. I can spell out the saga in relatively simple terms, with links to help you connect the dots.

Step 1: Create blog with fellow theater junkie to aggregate all reviews of all New York plays and musicals, assign them grades, and average said grades, a la Metacritic.

Step 2: Turn blog into an actual consumer website, StageGrade.com, with help and investment from existing company in related theatrical field. Change the grading math to median (more reflective of consensus). Add a consumer-review section, a la Yelp. Do this for a few years on a strictly volunteer basis, until…

Step 3: Company partner, no longer up for hosting the site, decides to look for a buyer. Sells it to a theatrical producer/entrepreneur who ostensibly sees, and can help realize, its potential as a money-making business. One possible red flag: Said producer/entrepreneur already has his own site with a similar aim (but quite a different methodology).

Step 4: Watch site crash and lose years of unique data and sweat equity (a loss shared, it should be noted, with several other volunteer graders). Site’s new owner seems oddly uninterested in fixing it, or in selling it back for non-extortionate terms. Coup de grace: The stagegrade.com url now redirects to his own review-aggregating site.

Step 5: Feel heart break.

Oct 27, 2014

The Last Real Thing

I'm not a big fan of the current Broadway revival of Stoppard's Coward-esque romcom, but I had seen and, to my recollection, somewhat enjoyed a production of it about a decade ago in L.A., at International City Theatre. I just dug up my brief review as part of my old Wicked Stage column for Back Stage West, and see that not only did also happen to catch a (lukewarm) production of Cloud 9 around that time featuring Ione Skye (!) but that I actually found The Real Thing somewhat wanting as a play, as again I do on Broadway:
The problem isn't Jules Aaron's direction but, I dare say, the play. This is probably Stoppard's most popular work--with American audiences, at least--and it's easy to see why: It's smart and sexy, and it's teasingly doubtful but ultimately affirmative about the possibility of long-lasting human relationships. I'd say it cheats a bit too much, though, to bring its leads together, finally; Stoppard sloughs off the moral compromise of Henry, a playwright roped into rewriting a terrible political play, a little too easily by having his actress-wife make a confession and then humiliate the play's talentless original author. It's a sour climax that effectively tacks a crude Post-It on all the play's wonderfully pointed exchanges about the high calling of writers. Still, I do love the way Stoppard warmly but unmercifully nails the vulnerabilities of luvvie theatre folk, and these are lushly realized by Laura Wernette, Spencer Garrett, Joseph Sanfelippo, and above all the dusky Michelle Duffy, showing herself a most fetching romantic comedienne. Best of all, the production has Robertson Dean in the lead; Dean perfectly captures the intelligent self-absorption that can make writers simultaneously so attractive and so maddening. Like Chekhov's Professor Serebryakov, he's the sort who always gets the best women but can't relax enough to be satisfied with them. That is, until they beg for his forgiveness.
That sounds about right, though that part of loving the luvvies--maybe not so much anymore. Still, it's nice to recall the performances of Rob Dean and of Michelle Duffy, who I most recently saw as the concerned mom in the Off-Broadway tuner Heathers.

(And at least the Roundabout has one good Stoppard play running now; it's called Indian Ink and I urge you not to miss it.)

Oct 15, 2014

I Could Laugh Out Loud

Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck, Clyde Alves
If I were "officially" reviewing the new Broadway revival of On the Town for hire, I would probably be required to note some of its flaws and excesses; it has both. But I feel bound to record here that I found John Rando and Joshua Bergasse's production glorious top to bottom, and that it captured like no other show I've ever seen on a stage the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed pop fizz of the great mid-period MGM musicals--Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Easter Parade (I don't usually include the just-fine film version of On the Town in my pantheon, though it's worth a spin).

It's all there, from the corny jokes to the tenderly diverted romance, from the anything-for-a-laugh comedy songs to the arguably unnecessary but deliriously sexy 11th-hour dream ballet. Indeed, Leonard Bernstein's score--chock-a-block as it is with fun, tossed-off cabaret novelties--also has his finest collection of sinuous, restless, yearning blues ballets, which provide an emotional undertow that Comden and Green's daffy book doesn't even try for.

In particular, the "Lonely Town" sequence, in which Gaby sings of the acute mutual isolation and anonymity of a crowded, busy city, then dances about it, then is joined by a chorale that director John Rando spreads throughout the Foxwoods Theatre--I won't say I teared up, exactly, but it was a bracing and beautiful moment in the midst of the show's randy comic bustle, like a prayer meeting in a speakeasy. Which pretty much describes my sweet spot.

Don't miss it, in other words.

Oct 9, 2014

FoS, Bonus Track 1: The Subtle Distinctions

As I learned in my reporting on the new musical of Jonathan Lethem's novel The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem made a two-CD "mixtape" for supplementary listening when the book was published in 2003, and he "semi-mass-produced" it for interested friends and colleagues (he estimated he made about 500 copies--enough to catch the attention of, and get a formal review from, no less an eminence than Robert Christgau). He handed over a copy to composer Michael Friedman, director Daniel Aukin, and bookwriter Itamar Moses when they embarked on their unlikely adaptation, which opens at the Public Theater in a few weeks.

With Lethem's encouragement, I tracked down the playlist online, and herewith reconstruct the jam titled "The Subtle Distinctions," after the singing group the fictional soul singer Barrett Rude Junior joined, then left for a challenging solo career. As Lethem put it, this isn't necessarily a soundtrack to the novel--some are the selections are "just intuitive." I'll weigh their relevance below.

Disc One
1. David Ruffin, "No Matter Where" (1974)

Ruffin, a former Temptation who went solo with less than spectacular chart results, is specifically name-checked in the "liner notes" chapter of Fortress as one of a "shadow pantheon" of "singers who just fell short" of the ranks of Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, and Al Green--a group of also-rans which were the inspiration for the novel's fictional soul singer Barrett Rude Junior.

2. The Four Tops, "Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I've Got)" (1972)

Like Ruffin, Phillippe Wynne, the lead singer of the Tops, is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest singers of this era you've never heard of. And, like Marvin Gaye, Wynne was raised in a syncretic faith tradition that combined Jewish and Christian practices--a trait that Lethem also gave the Rude family. As he writes in the liner notes chapters, in a parenthetical: "It's odd to consider that Marvin Gaye, Phillippe Wynne, and Barrett Rude Jr. were all, by choice or upbringing, weird black jews.")

3. Bill Withers, "World Keeps Going Around" (1973)

Withers gets at least one name-check in the novel, though not for this song--which is a scorcher.

4. Randy Newman, "Short People" (1977)


5. Syl Johnson, "Anyone But You" (1971)

Syl Johnson gets a mention late in the novel, but for a different track (see below).

6. The Spinners, "One Of A Kind Love Affair" (1973)


7. Marvin Gaye, "I’m Going Home" (1971)

Gaye and his story hovers behind the novel (particularly in the denouement among the Rude generations), but only explicitly in the last track on this two-CD mix (see below).

8. The Prisonaires, "Just Walkin’ in the Rain" (1953)

The third section of Fortress finds its protagonist, Dylan Ebdus, as a rock critic in his mid-30s, pitching a film idea to someone at Dreamworks. The story is compelling enough that it's hard to believe it hasn't been a film yet: The Prisonaires were an a cappella group that formed in prison and recorded this song on furlough--and at Sun Records, no less.

9. Hot Chocolate, "Brother Louie" (1974)


10. The Manhattans, "Shining Star" (1980)

A band name-checked in hindsight in the novel.

11. Gillian Welch, "My First Lover" (2001)

This out-of-left-field and strictly speaking out-of-period choice would seem to be a nod to the folk music favored by Dylan Ebdus' mom, Rachel--though listening to it in the context of the novel, it's hard not to think of Dylan's recurring reference to Mingus, his black childhood bestie, as "the rejected idol of my entire youth, my best friend, my lover."

12. Marvin Gaye, "Time To Get It Together" (1978)



13. Phil Ochs, "City Boy" (unreleased demo, mid-1960s)

Another nod in Rachel's direction.

14. Billy Paul, "Let ‘Em In" (1976)

A slightly kitschy cover of the Wings hit.

15. Howard Tate, "Get It While You Can" (1967)

Another name in Lethem's "shadow pantheon," and an even more direct inspiration for Barrett Rude in one respect: Unlike Wynne and Ruffin, the group Tate was a member, the Enchanters, was pretty unknown, as was Rude's fictional Subtle Distinctions. This song, which Tate wrote, is best known for Janis Joplin's cover.

16. The Spinners, "Sadie" (1974)


17. Pete Wingfield, "18 With a Bullet" (1975)


18. Marvin Gaye, "You're the Man" (1972)


19. The Last Poets, "Two Little Boys" (1970)


20. Maxine Nightingale, "Right Back Where We Started From" (1976)


Disc Two
1. The Spinners, "Games People Play" (1975)

This song's expansive form, Lethem told me, was part of his inspiration for Barrett Rude Jr.'s fictional No. 1 hit, "Bothered Blue."

2. Syl Johnson, "I Hear the Love Chimes" (1972)


3. Marvin Gaye, "Anger" (1978)


4. Slick Rick, "Children’s Story" (1988)

Hip-hop is not a huge part of the novel, but there's a memorable scene of rival DJ crews squaring off at a nearby schoolyard, and a scene in which a bunch of white kids listen giddily to Grandmaster Flash's "The Message."

5. Langley Schools Music Project, "Desperado" (1977)

One interesting footnote: In his review, Christgau takes a moment to diss Ruffin's solo work but lets this one pass--an interesting omission given his flagrant disdain for Irwin Chusid's nostalgia project.

6. The Main Ingredient, "Work to Do" (1973)


7. David Ruffin, "Walk Away From Love" (1975)


8. Timmy Thomas, "Why Can’t We Live Together?" (1972)


9. The O’Jays, "Use Ta Be My Girl" (1978)

Another band name-checked in hindsight in the novel.

10. Syl Johnson, "Is It Because I’m Black?" (1969)

The adult Dylan has a black girlfriend, Abby, who calls him out for his love of "tragic negritude." This is one of the titles she repeats aloud, and askance, while surveying his CD collection.

11. The Marigolds, "Rollin' Stone" (1955)

Another iteration of the aforementioned Prisonaires.

12. The Originals, "Baby, I’m For Real" (1969)


13. War, "Why Can’t We Be Friends?" (1975)

Explicitly name-checked as the background of a scene in the novel; it's playing in a cab during Dylan's high school years, that liminal CBGBs/early hip-hop days, when he's still sorting out his musical tastes and doesn't know what to do with all the black music he absorbed in his childhood and in Brooklyn.

14. Bill Withers, "Better Off Dead" (1973)


15. The Manhattans, "Kiss and Say Goodbye" (1976)


16. Sly Stone, "Remember Who You Are" (1979)


17. Arthur Alexander, "Anna" (1962)


18. Brian Eno, "Golden Hours" (1975)

The crucial soundtrack of the novel's moving final scene between Dylan and his father: "How can moments go so slowly?" Lethem (mis)quotes the song, and "You'd be surprised at my degree of uncertainty."

19. Marvin Gaye, "Got to Give It Up" (1977)
Another key moment: At a key tween moment, Dylan jumps to catch a spaldeen while wearing an apparently magic ring, and flies a little--while the girls on the street sing this song.