Aug 12, 2014

Play On

I've mentioned it a few times in this space, but it's official now: Today is the release of a CD I helped make with my old film-school and campus newspaper colleague Susan Lambert: O Baby Mine: Sing a Song of Shakespeare, a collection of songs based on and/or inspired by Will's works and words, geared toward kids but (we hope) also bearable listening for their whole family. I can quote from an actual press release from Ken Werther:
O Baby Mine: Sing A Song of Shakespeare is for anyone who wants to share their love of theatre, music, and the Bard and his language with their families. Featuring eight songwriters and 14 tracks, Shakespeare plays represented include Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, Macbeth, and King Lear. The composers are (in alphabetical order) Raymond Bokhour, Sean Galuszka, Rob Kendt, Susan Lambert, Cinco Paul, Madison Scheckel, and David Tobocman. The project was conceived by Susan Lambert, who also acts as executive producer.
I was happy to contribute a number of originals and semi-originals (a Dixieland take on Shubert's "Who Is Sylvia?" would be in the latter category), but I have to give special props to the versatile, dulcet-voiced Madison Scheckel, who also contributed some lovely originals and played all over a bunch of the tunes; to my old friend Cinco Paul (yes, that Cinco Paul), who came in to play trombone on "Sylvia," and then sat down and played this sparkling new song about the Bard's contributions to the language; to crack drummer/producer Matt North, who added parts from his Nashville studio; and to Raymond Bokhour, who lent his guitar to a couple of his own originals, culled from productions he's appeared in over the years. I'm particularly happy with this expansive take on the closer of As You Like It, "In Springtime":

You can buy the CD here, and you will soon be able to download tracks here. Let the music play on.

Aug 11, 2014

The Word Word

My first exposure to Dennis Miles' work was inauspicious: His one-act Rosa Mundy, about a strange young woman who alternately lusted for and killed visitors to her lonely home, was staged as part of a one-act festival at, if memory serves, Theatre Geo on Highland Ave. It was simpering and soapy, as I recall. But then I happened to see it again at the far edgier Theatre of NOTE on Cahuenga, in a production by director Diane Robinson that brought out the work's odd intensity and intense oddness; I remember in particular the sight of blowzy Elaina McBroom riding dementedly on a tricycle, a dangerous but weirdly endearing girl-child. It was like a work reborn, and I never took Miles--or my first impressions--for granted again.

His plays were not always so outre, but the full range of his work seemed to find an extremely sympathetic home at NOTE, where the actors and directors had (and still do, by most accounts) a shared interpretive nimbleness, and the space itself seems to encourage open-ended experimentation (I wrote roughly as much here). I regret that I didn't see more of Dennis' work, but I remember quite fondly the last play of his I saw, Destronelli, and not simply as an acting vehicle for the late, great Pamela Gordon in all her gritty-pixie glory. In a column for Back Stage West at the time, I called it Miles' "most accessible work yet," and said that its "combination of provocation, puzzlement, perversity, and unsentimental tenderness reminded me of Albee."

I only spoke with Dennis a few times, and he seemed a dear, sweet man. I believe he made his living working at an AIDS research project at UCLA. In the years since I left L.A., we corresponded by email, and he sent me some lovely homemade postcards from his travels. More significantly, he asked me to write music for songs in two of his shows. One was for a song called "Roosterfish" in a play called Sona Tera Roman Hess ("my unintentional version of Phaedra," as he put it to me). Here's my demo of the song, which I sent to the production with sheet music, though I never heard how it sounded sung by the cast:

The other tune was for a show, never produced as far as I know, called Tivoli Tsadik, for which Dennis had written a bitter, digressive song called "Ballad of the Squanderer." He was expressly looking for a Kurt Weill sound, and I was happy to oblige:

Dennis died from lung cancer on Sunday, and with his passing the world lost a truly original voice, a weird and dark and stubbornly lyrical poet/playwright whose work was known by all too few; such are the rewards of playwriting in a film capital. This quote from Dennis' interview at Adam Szymowicz's blog captures his independence, and his utterly unpretentious sense of artistic calling:
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A: I don't have any. I don't listen to advice myself, so I do my best not to tell people what might work for them. Artistic writing is an organic endeavor, it is one's life, there's no advice for living out your life, artistic writing is a natural emanation of one's experiences and one's singular mind.
In one of our back-and-forths about his lyrics, in which I tried to steer him to imitate more standard meters and forms, he confessed, "I really don't think looking at/listening to songs will teach me to write you a good lyric...I don't think that's how I learn. What I do, for whatever it's worth, comes out of some unschooled, unlearned, automatic place, and if I set out to write a sonnet, let's say, I would bollocks it for sure."

And in this quote from a feature on his play Von Lutz, he said this of his work: "I am appalled by the plays I write...I like to blame Antonin Artaud, but no one forced me to read him. There is beauty at that edge between what's funny and what's horrendous." I'd like to celebrate Dennis and his vision with a poem he emailed me in January of 2006, with the subject line, "My version of a happy poem."
WORD

by Dennis Miles

To write just to write.
To write the word word. To write a few words.
To wr.. right a mistake, righten a mistake.
To engage in a rite of writing.
To turn from my right to my
left
right away.
Write away, swift over the page.
To wright a smith over the hearth of earth.
Wratten, wretten, written, wrotten, wrutten
A game hen and a wren.
To write a caged bird to liberate,
To deliberate over the written word.
To be the writer of a word. Of the word word.
To have a written word for supper any day.
Across the room, across the page.
You can’t tell anymore who among us talks alone to himself.
You have never been able to tell who among us writes alone to himself.
A written word spoken as it is said.
It. Word. The written word. It. They. Two words.
To write just to write, because I’m human and I can…
No more meaningless than…
Right now some one plots to obliterate
the innocence that, amidst the deviltry, lives naively in the West.
And don’t forget wrest, which does not rest. An action verb.
Writ of habeas corpus. Written on the wind which is this page.
Written for the future. Written on a carousel.
Who is the king of nothingness: obliterate, literate, liberate, deliberate.
I write the word I wrote. I wrote the word I’ve written. I’ve written the word wrote. I wrote it. I wrought it. I brought it forth like a birth---
Oh, celebrate, I celebrate the word word

Aug 8, 2014

Iceland Follies


I spent a fascinating afternoon a few weeks ago at the Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village talking to some unfailingly gracious Icelanders, and a few slightly baffled American actors, about a strange new musical they're working on called Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter. I learned a bit more about Iceland's acute economic crisis (parallel to ours and everybody's in 2008, but much worse) than I'd known before, and I learned that there are very good reasons Icelanders' names often seem to be interchangeable (patronyms is one reason, a rigorously tight naming regimen is another). And I'm happy with the piece I wrote up for the paper of record. A highlight:
Conceived by Ivar Pall Jonsson, a tall, taciturn former journalist from Reykjavik, the show is unmistakably his take on his nation’s rocky financial fortunes.

"It’s a story about love and deception, and how people get caught in something that’s superficial,” Mr. Jonsson said, perched in the theater’s upstairs lobby on a kidney-shaped couch that had been tried out as part of the show’s set but discarded. “They get carried away, until one day, reality knocks on the door, and they wake up. That’s the story I wanted to tell.”

Why, though, set it inside a man’s elbow? In a conception that suggests “Horton Hears a Who” meets “Fantastic Voyage,” Mr. Jonsson’s musical concerns an apparently tiny race of people living in Elbowville, who dine on lobster fished from their host’s lymphatic channels and keep viruses as household pets.

He chose a “surreal setting,” Mr. Jonsson said, so he could tell the story without reference to “specific details and persons.”

Mr. Jonsson’s brother, Gunnlaugur Jonsson, who is credited with Ivar for the show’s story and serves as its executive producer, added: “If you have a play about something in the financial world, honestly it can become very boring, because you have to explain complicated things. Doing it abstractly in a world that doesn’t exist, you can just get rid of all of that and get to the heart of the story.”
But one thing I didn't talk enough about in the Times piece was Ivar Pall Jonsson's music, which really is quite lovely; a key track is embedded above.

Hope at NOTE

Ballinger and Nithapalan
I had the pleasure of breaking bread (larb, actually) with Erik Patterson yesterday. He's an L.A.-based playwright whose work I admired more than a decade ago at Theatre of NOTE in Hollywood (loved his Yellow Flesh Alabaster Rose, was more mixed on the sequel, Red Light Green Light); he was in town to soak up some N.Y. theater in advance of his birthday (which is today, if memory serves; so happy birthday, Erik!). His newest play at NOTE, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, is not about the Beatles but is based on a personal tragedy I've written about in this space twice before: the brain aneurysm and stroke suffered by the marvelous young L.A. actress Uma Nithapalan in January of 2007. Uma was Erik's best friend and longtime roommate; she was at the time engaged to the composer John Ballinger, and they subsequently were married as soon as Uma was well enough.

That she is indeed relatively well, even seven years later, is something of a miracle. And that she and John came to the opening of Erik's new play roughly based on their harrowing experiences in the ICU is another kind of miracle:
After opening night, both Uma and John told me it had been painful to watch – but painful in a good way, because it reminded them of how far they’ve come. Uma said she’s never seen her struggle with aphasia reflected in a piece of entertainment before. As hard as it was for her to watch, she was grateful that people would leave the play with a better understanding of what she’s been through.
Chalk up another title in the wish-I-was-in-L.A.-to-see-it file. Erik also told me about a group of playwrights he meets with regularly to keep up their chops—including folks like Bridget Carpenter, Jessica Goldberg, Diane Rodriguez, and the indispensable Michael Sargent—and it gave me both a pang of nostalgia and a burst of hope. If those writers are still making plays in L.A.—a place where the relative indifference of the media and audiences, let alone the rest of the theater world (let alone "the industry"), ever threatens the persistence of even the good and great theater that gets done there—then something is still right with the world. As Erik has one his characters say: “The doctors are always warning you not to have false hope. But you’ve gotta have hope.” Amen.

Jul 7, 2014

Tough Deal



My heart sank early and often last week at the City Center concert rendition of Randy Newman’s Faust, but never so low as when Newman muffed one of his own best lines. That he was onstage at all, half-playing the piano, half-playing the role of the Devil, and generally serving as the evening’s impish emcee, was the evening’s signature mistake. While his droll presence is usually entirely welcome--his solo live shows are some of my favorites in memory--having him at the piano to guide us through the alternately brilliant and flimsy score, and even more flimsy book, of his 1995 musical Faust, while some over-qualified actor/singers did their thing around and opposite him, leached the show of any drama.

Or rather, musical comedy, which is what the show was when I saw it in La Jolla. There, having David Garrison’s Devil slither about in a sharkskin suit opposite Ken Page’s cuddly God made all the difference; and Michael Greif’s staging for some of the slighter, stuntier songs (“Damn Fine Day,” “Bless the Children,” “March of the Protestants”) at least gave them a theatrical point. At City Center, there was very little book to speak of, and almost zero staging; the result was that too many of the show’s songs, unable to stand alone, just sat there, well performed but unmoored from any frame of reference.

A few songs in the score really do have dramaturgical heft, though; one is the achingly beautiful “Gainesville,” whose old-time harmonies and sweetly insistent, clear-eyed innocence found an ideal match in Laura Osnes. But perhaps the most striking sequence in the original show--one that sharply summarizes the critique of pure faith that was clearly Newman’s main interest in writing the show in the first place, certainly moreso than the central Faustian bargain--comes when the Devil, down in the dumps, stops by Heaven to kvetch about the thankless challenges of his job. God takes a break from leading a swarm of child angels on a nature hike to offer the Devil a saccharine entreaty to “Relax, Enjoy Yourself”:


Then a little angel breaks from the crowd and approaches the Devil; she wonders aloud if he’s gone bad because of a lack of love in his childhood. At City Center, this part was sung by Brooklyn Shuck of Annie fame; her exchange with a quizzical Newman was one of the evening’s high points.


ANGEL CHILD:
It must be very trying to be bad all the time
Vicious and cruel and mean
When there's so much beauty
All around us to be seen
And so very little time in which to see it all
And feel it all
So little time
Perhaps when you were little
No one held you in their arms
And told you that they loved you very much
Perhaps you were embittered
By your fall from grace

DEVIL:
How long have you been dead?

ANGEL CHILD:
Two months.

DEVIL:
Do you miss your friends?

ANGEL CHILD:
Yes, I miss them,
I've tried to make friends here, but it's hard

DEVIL:
You were a good girl
Cut down in your prime

ANGEL CHILD:
Yes.

Newman, trading the mike with Shuck, pulled off that exchange just fine. But then comes maybe the most scalding moment in the show, and I have to wonder if the concert’s director, Thomas Kail, lost his nerve here--he didn’t want the Devil to sing these harsh words directly to a sweet little girl, and let Shuck run to join the angel choir. When Newman turned back to the piano, he got a little lost and didn’t punch his pickup to the next section. And while last week’s concertgoers more-or-less heard much of the following, I’d be surprised if anyone who didn’t already know the original score actually took in the first three lines, and hence the entire import, of this clarifying bit of theodicy in song:


DEVIL:
The man who shot you in the head
In that Burger King in Tucson
Well, he never will be punished, you know
He will move to Big Pine, California
Become the richest man in Inyo County
While that may not be much, it's enough
When he dies
Sixty-five years from today
With his loved ones all around him
He'll be whisked right up to heaven
He won't pass go or have to wait
He'll just march right through the Goddamned gate
And why, you may ask yourself why
For thousands and thousands of years
I have asked myself why

LORD:
Faith. Contrition. Sincere contrition.
Confession. Sincere confession.

ANGELS:
Yes, Lord! Yes, Lord!

LORD:
Redemption. Absolution.
Those who seek Me shall find Me
In the case of this man,
Predestination.

My ways are mysterious
Sometimes even to myself
My ways are mysterious

DEVIL:
Relax, old chum, relax
It's only a glorious game that we're playing
And in a few more years
When I move up here
Things will never be the same

Even at its best, Faust has too few truly theatrical turns like that. But in its weird hybrid of Randy Newman concert and fully acted reading, last week’s Faust didn’t even present the best of Faust all that well. If, as I wrote for Slate, the failure of Faust and Newman to be Broadway contenders 20 years ago represents a great missed opportunity, last week’s concert only served to seal that fate.

Jul 3, 2014

Familiar Strangers


One challenge of my job trying to cover theater with a national perspective, both at American Theatre and, to a certain degree, at the NY Times, is how to keep tabs on work I can't actually see. With few exceptions (On the Boards, or this amazing Einstein on the Beach video, available for free viewing only through July 7, I've been informed), I can't look at a screener of plays outside the boroughs of New York, and my professional travel budget--well, let's just say it's non-lavish. So I do a lot of play reading and review reading, relying on buzz I hear around the halls of TCG; from the folks on the American Theatre play selection committee (whose ranks I only recently joined); and from contacts in the field, many of which I made in my long time on the West Coast, others here in New York, and some at the annual TCG conferences.

The conference in Chicago a few years back was a particularly fertile one on that score, leading me to discover two Windy City-bred talents in particular, both of whom I wrote features on: Tanya Saracho and Laura Eason. Both writers were more or less immediately snatched up by TV (Eason by House of Cards, where she's written some of the juiciest Claire Underwood material, and Saracho by a slate of shows including Devious Maids, Looking, and now Girls), and both writers have continued their theatrical careers apace. Now, this summer happily marks the Off-Broadway debuts of two of their signature works. Saracho's Mala Hierba, a thorny, steamy play about class and sex that bowled me over on the page, and has reportedly been a great calling card for Saracho's TV career but has never gotten a full staging, starts previews on July 14 at Second Stage's uptown space.

Meanwhile, at Second Stage's midtown space, Eason's prickly two-hander Sex With Strangers marks the splashy Gotham bow of a play that, as I learned in a recent interview with her for the paper of record, also opened doors for Eason, including landing her the House of Cards gig. SWS was staged before, in 2011 at Steppenwolf, in a production I thought didn't live up to the play's promise on the page (and my happening to catch that show onstage was a fluke--I've literally seen about three shows in Chicago in my life). Here's hoping that the new SWS, which has an inspired cast in Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen, does better by the play.

In my Times piece on Eason, I went further into a theme she'd mentioned to me before: that she has an easier time writing male characters than female ones. The one exception she's found has been House of Cards's leading lady:
“Claire has been very exciting to me and felt very easy to write, which is a little strange,” said Ms. Eason, who was quick to credit [Robin] Wright and the creator of the series, Beau Willimon, for the character’s essence. “It’s been thrilling to work on a female character so unapologetically strong, bold, ambitious. We’ve never, ever had a conversation about, ‘Is she likable?’”
You can read the whole piece here.

Jul 1, 2014

Newman's Own


I'll be at tonight's one-night-only concert reading of Randy Newman's Faust with bells on. (How 'bout you, George Hunka?) I'd noted the possibility that the show would finally get a hearing in New York when I talked to Jeanine Tesori about her Encores! Off Center series last summer. I put my review of the La Jolla production up in this space a few months ago, but I had some more thoughts about what a missed opportunity Faust represented for the American musical, some of which I touched on here, but more of which I thought were worth sharing with the world, particularly a world that seems to need regular reminding that Newman was/is stone-cold songwriting genius, not just Pixar's grandfatherly piano man (I partly blame Seth McFarlane, not to mention Will Sass's resoundingly clueless parodies). I managed to hawk some of these thoughts to Slate, where I can preach it to a wider choir. Nut graf:
But for all the soft smiles and hard cash he’s generated with his latter career as the Irving Berlin of family films, the animated-movie racket has been its own kind of Faustian bargain for Newman. His studio-album output, for one, has slowed to a once-a-decade crawl, while his game stab at an old-fashioned Disney animated musical, The Princess and the Frog, was mostly a factory job. When Faust reappears on Tuesday for a one-night-only concert at New York's City Center, with Newman himself as the Devil, it is likely to be both a festive and a sad occasion, a New Orleans funeral march for a brilliant musical theater career that never was. Faust, which I was lucky to catch at La Jolla, was a jokey, imperfect vehicle, but what it carried was a fresh, fecund theatrical voice. Newman could’ve been a real presence on Broadway in the past 20 years.
You can read the rest here.