Feb 24, 2015

American (and L.A.) Revolutions

The rest of 2015 will have a lot to live up to: In quick succession, I've already seen/written about/considered two of the best productions I'll probably see in years, let alone this calendar year. First was Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's great new musical--which today is apparently likely to announce a transfer to Broadway, though whether before the Tony deadline or after is anyone's guess (smart money seems to be on the former; I'm holding out hope for the latter, because I think the Public, and the public, deserves the rest of that Off-Broadway run). I chatted with Miranda and fellow founding-father players at the Fraunces Tavern for the Times, then had the good fortune to review the show for America:
As surehanded a piece of musical storytelling as has been seen onstage in many a season, “Hamilton” is all the more impressive for tackling a supremely unlikely subject: the founding of the United States as seen through the eventful life of one its less lionized figures, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. But creator Lin-Manuel Miranda—who wrote the music, lyrics and book, and stars in the title role—makes a convincing case for Hamilton, the “ten-dollar founding father without a father,” as the first of a distinctly American type: the immigrant outsider of humble beginnings who remakes, and ultimately undoes, himself with sheer chutzpah and hustle.

It is an angle on the nation’s creation myth that, like Hamilton’s, is both expansive and pragmatic: This is a country where freedom would have a chance to reign like never before, but only if the heavy lifting of governance was met with the same fervor as revolution had been. “Dying is easy, young man/ Living is harder,” Gen. George Washington (Christopher Jackson) tells the impetuous, battle-hungry Hamilton when he enlists him as his wartime consigliere. Later, amid the squabbling of his cabinet, President Washington echoes the line: “Fighting is easy/ Governing is harder.” It is a timely message for our age of gridlock and retrenchment, in which debates over the size and role of government have if anything only intensified.
Then cameth Iceman, in a definitive production from the Goodman Theatre. I had the rare privilege of watching an entire run-through at the Goodman's Chicago rehearsal space for this Times preview; I worried that seeing the show onstage at BAM couldn't possibly live up to the intimacy of that run-through. It more than did. Again, for America:
Alternately affectionate and withering about its characters’ fatal insignificance, “Iceman” is unmistakably infused with O’Neill’s native emotion, which is a sort of existential survivor’s guilt; and here, amid the play’s toasts and revels, he goes well beyond callow thoughts of suicide to the bleak, Sophoclean notion that it would have been better never to have been born at all. That cheery takeaway message, in addition to the play’s nearly-five-hour length and large cast size, are among the reasons the play is seldom done; though considered a masterwork, “Iceman” has cometh to New York only four times since its 1946 debut.

The play has just returned in a rousingly thoughtful new production from Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, encamped through Mar. 15 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The musical association is apropos, for what director Robert Falls’s production demonstrates, among many other things, is that “Iceman” works best as a kind of symphony, with both its large-scaled form and its multi-vocal parts given orchestral heft and balance. Perhaps not coincidentally, at the helm of the cast is a musical theater pro, Nathan Lane, who plays the glad-handing salesman Hickey with his full range of cockeyed charm, sardonic wit and little-boy-lost pathos.
In other recent writing, I ventured back into the fray of the L.A. 99-seat wars for American Theatre, and this time it got personal. If it is a curse to live in interesting times, then I can count myself very cursed of late. (There's more of my thinking/arguing on the topic here.)

Feb 18, 2015

The Afterlife of Theater

Mercedes Reuhl and Bill Pullman in The Goat
(photo by Sara Krulwich/NY Times)
Bill Pullman said something really interesting in this interview--and it wasn't the fact that he's playing Othello in Norway (an odd, possibly troubling notion that got some intelligent pushback from at least one reader). It was instead this bracing, almost entirely counterintuitive statement about theater vs. film. I asked him about all the lucrative film and TV work he must be ducking to slip off to Norway and do a play, and he replied:
This is so important to my life. I'll tell you, all the film and television things—you do them, and everyone gets so excited about them, and then they disappear so fast. Whereas I’m always amazed about the shelf life of a theatre piece. The Goat was on Broadway, the longest run I had ever done, I think it was seven months, and 600,000 people saw that. That’s a bad night for a movie or a TV show, where if you get 10 million, that’s a disappointment. But people always come up to talk to me about The Goat, and that TV show I did shortly before? Twelve years later, no one has mentioned it. The theatre has more staying power than you think. Maybe it’s a smaller pool of people, but the integrity of the experience stays with them.
I've never thought of it quite that way; I'm in the enviable/terrible position of taking too many of my theater experiences for granted (occupational hazard). But he's got a point, and it's going to stick with me.

Feb 5, 2015

Hamilton's New York Moment

From left, Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. from the cast of “Hamilton.” CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times
One of the most infectious sentiments in Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's great new musical about our country's founding fathers, is voiced by the women. The socialite Schuyler sisters, one of whom Alexander Hamilton actually married, the other of whom he loved at least as much as his wife, have a song about how lucky they feel to be living in New York City at the moment they are--that it's the most exciting place in the world to be right now. Among the many ways Hamilton viscerally connects musty old Colonial history to today (reminding us that the revolution was a protest movement led by young, ambitious, often hotheaded men of all classes who agreed about very little; that gun violence has always been a key part of the American character, and so on), the notion that New York City is where it's at--a self-perpetuating myth that keeps young people pouring into it, even in our vastly unequal post-Bloomberg age--feels very moving and immediate for me right now.

Because whenever my enthusiasm for my profession or for the state of contemporary theater flags--and to be honest, it does on occasion--something like Hamilton comes along, whacks me upside the head, and lets me know: Oh yeah, this is why I do it; this is why I'm in New York City right now. To be sure, the intrinsic merits of Hamilton transcend its specific provenance as a hip-hop/pop musical written by a talented Nuyorican and performed at the Public Theater by the best multiracial cast on a New York stage at present--it seems clear already that this show is going be with us for as long as there are stages in America. But just for the moment I feel like basking in the glow of not only the show's brilliance but its specific, irreducible New York-ness, and the fact that I'm around to see it, rave about it, and--luckiest of all--report on it for the paper of record.

Last week, as the city was about to shut down for a blizzard, I sat and talked with Miranda, who plays Hamilton, and with the actors who play George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr, at Fraunces Tavern, where all those real historical figures hung out. It was historic.

In conversation and on social media, I've compared the show to Sweeney Todd, and that's not hyperbole--it has some of densest yet sharpest lyrics I've ever heard in a musical, and as such gives almost tactile pleasure just in the hearing of them, in a way that tracks with my experience of Sweeney. It's a comparison, I hasten to add, that I would not have expected to make about a show by the songwriter of the very pleasant, competent In the Heights. With this sophomore effort, though, it is as if Sondheim skipped directly from Saturday Night to Sweeney. Seriously. I think Lin gives a clue as to why here, taking a cue from the Sondheimian motto, "Anything you do/Let it come from you":
“With ‘Heights,’ we took great care to make sure everyone felt very taken care of: ‘We’re gonna be rapping, and you’re gonna get a lot of information at the same time,’ ” Mr. Miranda said. “I wanted to be a little more selfish with this — I wanted the lyrics to have the density that my favorite hip-hop albums have.” That’s why Mr. Miranda initially billed the project as “The Alexander Hamilton Mixtape”: “It was easier to think of it as a hip-hop album, because then I could really just pack the lyrics.” He soon realized, he said with a laugh, “I only know how to write musicals.”
I will close in saying that today happens to be my birthday, and I can't think of a better way to spend it...than seeing Hamilton again tonight.

Feb 2, 2015

Primed for The Iceman

Stephen Ouimette and cast in an "Iceman" rehearsal. (Photo by Liz Lauren)
I had the great privilege recently of sitting in a Chicago rehearsal room and watching the 18-person cast of the Goodman's production of The Iceman Cometh run through the entire five-hour show. They were in street clothes with makeshift set elements and some props, but I will long hold the intimate, lived-in frisson of that room with me. It will be a tough act to top, for this or any other play.

The occasion for my visit was this piece in the Times, which focuses on the seemingly unorthodox casting of Nathan Lane--both in the production's original 2012 run in Chicago, and its upcoming run at BAM--as Hickey, the salesman who's arrived at Harry Hope's bar to crush its patrons' hopes. As I wrote:
Mr. Lane’s casting may signal a departure from the popular conception of Hickey, fixed by Jason Robards’s 1956 Off Broadway turn in the role, which was featured in a TV film in 1960 and on Broadway in 1985. Mr. Robards set the tone for Hickey as a cynical, diabolical harbinger of doom, a tone that was picked up in later New York revivals: James Earl Jones’s in 1974, Kevin Spacey’s in 1999.

But casting a comic actor in the role is not such a radical idea. A former vaudevillian, James Barton, originated the role on Broadway in 1946, in a production few considered a success. And the notion is supported by O’Neill’s stage directions: Hickey is described as “a stout, roly-poly figure” with a “round and smooth and big-boyish” face, “a button nose, a small, pursed mouth” and eyes that “have the twinkle of a humor which delights in kidding others but can also enjoy equally a joke on himself.” In short, “he exudes a friendly, generous personality that makes everyone like him on sight.”

“It’s sort of shocking how O’Neill describes Nathan Lane,” [the director, Robert] Falls said. “He doesn’t really describe Jason Robards.”
A few things I wasn't able to find room for into my Times piece: For one thing, though I haven't yet seen Falls's production, I could tell from that run in the room that it was an extraordinary one, and not just because of the star casting; indeed the entire company, from John Douglas Thompson to Kate Arrington to Stephen Ouimette to Lee Willkof to Salvatore Inzerillo, is comprised actors who could each carry their own shows (and have). Also apparent, even in the rehearsal room, was that Falls has staged each of the play's four acts on a different set--and he assured me in a later interview that this is indeed a departure from how Iceman is usually staged, on a single barroom set. (That "usually" is probably an overstatement, as this behemoth of a work is not frequently mounted at all. It's been on Broadway just four times since its 1946 premiere, and in New York more or less the same number; the famous Jason Robards Jr. production of 1956 ran Off-Broadway but later came to Broadway in 1985.)

One other detail that would seem to bespeak Falls' authority as an O'Neill specialist--he has staged most of the playwright's major works, a few more than once--is that he's trimmed a whole character, the retired cop Pat McGloin. He did the same cosmetic trim in his 1990 production of Iceman, with Brian Dennehy as Hickey, but told me that no critic then, and no critic of the Goodman's 2012 production, has mentioned it. Duly noted here.

Finally, while both Dennehy and Falls recommended I check out Stephen A. Black's book Beyond Mourning and Tragedy, as well as the indispensable bio by the Gelbs, both also said I should look up an essay by Tony Kushner about O'Neill. I did, but could only find it as an entry in academic journals; I read it via a jstor hookup, and felt the world should have more access to it--it is a beautifully written essay, a definitive defense of one great American dramatist by another. So I reached out to the author, and now you can read Kushner's "The Genius of O'Neill" on the American Theatre website. Key insight:
I can make no claim for O’Neill as one of the great writers, only as one of the greatest playwrights; for these two things, writing and playwriting, are not the same, and O’Neill’s work makes that clearer than any other’s.
Honestly, I went into this assignment an O'Neill agnostic--to be fair, I haven't yet seen his greatest plays in the greatest of productions--but I couldn't have been better prepared, in reporting this piece, to become a believer.

Now, to line up child care for a five-hour play.

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.