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.

Fortress Goes Public

The cast of The Fortress of Solitude at Dallas Theater Center (photo by Karen Almond)
I've been hearing about this Fortress of Solitude musical for nearly as long as it's been in development. I think Itamar Moses told me about it for this LA Times piece, but I'm pretty sure that Isaac Butler--a huge fan of the novel and a friend of all the musical's creators, including Moses, director Daniel Aukin, and composer Michael Friedman--tipped me off about it earlier. Aukin mentioned it when I spoke to him for the NY Times, too.

In any case, this unlikely project has reached fruition and has is playing at the Public Theater, and for my Times preview on it, I talked to all the creators, and to the novel's original author, Jonathan Lethem. The idea to adapt Lethem's sprawling coming-of-age story, set in the crucible of pre-gentrification Brooklyn, came from the director:
The prominence of music in the novel is one reason Mr. Aukin, the show’s director, had a “gut impulse” that it could be turned into a piece of musical theater, and enlisted Mr. Moses (“Bach at Leipzig,” “Nobody Loves You”) to adapt the book and Mr. Friedman to write the music. Mr. Aukin happened to approach Mr. Lethem at a fortuitous moment: at a time when Hollywood was contemplating but not committing to film adaptations of his novels, including “The Fortress of Solitude,” and the author was getting fed up with film companies’ demands for exclusivity.
“I had to insist that it was O.K. to split off the musical rights,” Mr. Lethem said in a phone interview from Pomona College, where he teaches writing. To the film companies, “I said, ‘You’re not even making these movies, so let these little theater people do this thing.’ It was seen as a diversion, a sport.
“So it’s a beautiful irony that long before any film version comes to the screen, they’re the ones who are getting it done. It vindicates every left-field impulse you could have.” 
The Times piece is almost entirely about Friedman's extraordinary, pop-drenched score, and I have to acknowledge Butler--who's seen several readings and heard demos over the years as the show's evolved--for the inside scoop on that. To report this story I went to my first sitzprobe--a musical-theater ritual in which the full orchestration comes to life for the first time--and I sat in awe of the musicianship of, in particular, barefooted music director Kim Grigsby, a legendary figure who has clearly earned that status.

The full Times story is here; I'm planning to have "bonus tracks" in this space soon, so stay tuned.

Oct 7, 2014

The Annoying Guy at the Party

I've heard from colleagues that sometimes they don't really know what they think until someone asks them--whether in the context of teaching a course explicating what they do, or just in the context of a pointed interview question. I shouldn't be surprised by the notion; I've often said I don't know exactly what I thought of a show until I've written the review. I recently had the occasion to be interviewed by Matt Windman, a theater critic for am New York, for a book about theater criticism, slated to be published next year by McFarland & Company. One answer he got from me so well encapsulated my thinking on a question I'm often asked, and have frequently written about here and elsewhere, that I thought it was worth sharing.
Is a critic part of the theater community or outside of it?

I would say the critic is part of the theater community, but he is that annoying guy at the party who’s telling everybody, “You look like shit.” He’s the kind of person it might be hard to be friends with all the time, but he’s the kind of person you need. You need the truth teller. The problem is confusing him with an authority. He’s not the authority, but he’s the one who’s going to tell you what he really thinks. And I think there’s value in his subjective opinions. He’s not objective. He’s not standing outside, from some mountain looking down. He’s in the mix of everything. Whether you like him or not, whether you or not you trust him, you can trust him to say what he thinks. I think there’s a huge value in that, and the theater community could definitely use more people like that, who will tell the truth, not just to the people in the room, but to everyone.