Jan 14, 2016

From the Review Vaults: Mother Courage and Her Children

Mother Courage and Her Children: Alexandria Wailes, Streep, Geoffrey Arend, and Frederick Weller. (photo by Michal Daniel)
Improbably, Brecht's Mother Courage is in the news--the theatre news, at least. If you put a gun to my head to name my favorite plays, this complicated, sprawling, funny, bleak play about the business of war would be near or at the top. So I had a rooting interest as I read about the battle over Classic Stage Company's current production, which Tonya Pinkins departed very publicly (Kecia Lewis has taken her place)--my agenda being that this great play get done, well, and that the discourse around it might reflect what I know and love about the play and about Brecht.

So for American Theatre I tried to contribute to the conversation by talking to composer Duncan Sheik, by publishing a thoughtful piece by McFeely Sam Goodman about the issues raised by Pinkins's protest, and then by speaking to Pinkins herself for our podcast. Whether the discourse has been elevated by these contributions or not, I leave to you.

What's come up often in all these conversations, and in my mind, is the last time Mother Courage rolled her cart around Manhattan (in a major production): In 2006, at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, for the Public's starry Kushner/Tesori adaptation. I reviewed it for Broadway.com (back when they had a critic--I was the last of them--long story there), and recently dredged it up from the Internet swamps. Let's just say it brings back fond memories, though I was a bit of an outlier (most critics were much cooler to it than I). (And while I'm backlinking, I will note again here my hearty disappointment with the documentary about the making of the Public's Mother Courage, Theater of War.)

Without further ado...my review, from August 2006.

Will Mother Courage and Her Children ever get a better English-language production than the one now at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park? I doubt it—and after this deluxe, definitive rendition of Brecht's much-revered but little-revived masterpiece, it may not need one. But the best news is that a mounting this engrossingly, almost embarrassingly excellent may finally, 50 years after Brecht's death, make the works of the prickly German theatrical revolutionary hot properties on American stages as they really never have been, apart from his musicals with Kurt Weill. 
What this sweeping, impassioned Courage does better than any Brecht revival I've ever seen is to give the author's vision, and his vaunted epic-theater style, its full due, without either mummifying it in purported Brechtian orthodoxy or saucing it up with extra-contemporary seasoning. Just staging a play as rich and rangy as this ought to be enough, but there's an awful temptation for left-leaning artists to use Brecht—and especially this, his most stinging indictment of the link between war and capitalism—as a cudgel against today's ever-sobering headlines. But playwright Tony Kushner, whose new English version has all the bark and bite we could wish and then some, and director George C. Wolfe understand that this towering play resonates backward as much as forward, from the now-arcane Catholic/Protestant/Habsburg skirmishes of the 17th century's Thirty Years War that are its backdrop to the bloodbaths of the 20th century, some of which Brecht knew intimately, up to today's uneasy wartime footing. At its bleak, unflinching best, Mother Courage gives us a sense of war as a state of being, almost a state of nature—a condition much of the world knows far better than we oblivious, forgetful Americans, but for how long? 
For the craven, troop-following entrepreneur nicknamed Courage (Meryl Streep), the war can never go on long enough. Though she shows us heartrending traces of the less jaded firebrand she might once have been, the Courage we meet is every bit the "hyena of the battlefield" one character uncharitably labels her: a cackling scavenger who subsists, barely, on what scraps of opportunity she can find. The children who haul her along in her horseless supply wagon are a sadder, unluckier lot: The strapping brute Eilif (Frederick Weller), the daft Swiss Cheese (Geoffrey Arend), and the mute Kattrin (Alexandria Wailes) have not been endowed by nature, nor by Courage's fitfully protective nurture, with the wit or wisdom to survive. Pulled into Courage's arm's-length orbit are a sensitive chaplain (Austin Pendleton) and a cynical cook (Kevin Kline), who compete slyly for her attentions. A wizened prostitute (Jenifer Lewis) with her own well-honed survival skills flits into the tableau at key moments.
The play's vast, near-Shakespearean scope of years and locations (and three-hour running time) belies the fact that it's really just a series of hard-nosed negotiations with ever-diminishing returns. The only respites from this relentless downhill trajectory are Brecht's slashing humor, here given a fresh zing in Kushner's deft translation, and a handful of songs, reset here in Jeanine Tesori's jauntily accomplished new score, which builds on the folksy modernism of Brecht collaborators Eisler and Weill but adds its own special strains of blues grit and melodic grandeur. Tesori does especially well by the jagged rhythms of the lyrics, with terse meters as spiky as barbed wire, particularly in the magisterial first-act closer, "The Song of the Great Capitulation," and its bitter sequel, delivered with fierce precision by Kline, "The Song of Solomon." 
Streep's performance is worthy of its own lengthy treatise. Suffice to say here that she climbs the heights of this complicated, paradoxical role with restless urgency and intelligence, bringing her bottomless reservoir of physical, vocal and emotional shades to bear. It's a virtuoso turn of the best kind—entirely in service to the play's vision and in tune with its rough music. And this is not the Meryl Show; her costars shine in their own right, not only in her reflected light. Pendleton makes his pathetic cleric a crashing bundle of nerves, surprisingly volatile despite his benign mien. Lewis owns her scenes as a whore with a heart of tin, particularly a haunting wrong-note blues number that recalls the wrenching power of Tesori's score for Caroline, or Change. Kline exudes his usual coolly virile presence, but with a starker, more desperate edge. Weller, Arend, and Wailes each etch distinct variations on the theme of pitiably stunted, misdirected youth.
The production's aesthetic is firmly and redolently last-century, with Riccardo Hernández's distressed-wood set suggesting Courage's wagon writ large and Marina Draghici's costumes evoking the sort of makeshift ensembles that could be bought off the same cart. There's a single-mindedness of purpose in this production, in other words, but it's never monotonous because it so fully renders the mottled poetry of rage, irony and defeat that is Brecht's special métier. It's a voice that our increasingly sensation-addled, endlessly self-referential American theater has missed or misheard for too long, and that desperately belongs on our stages in serious times.

Dec 18, 2015

From the Review Vaults: "Fiddler" with Harvey & Rosie

photo by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times
This excellent piece by my colleague Eric Grode, looking back at 50 years of Fiddler memories as the musical's newest revival readies for its opening, reminded me that I was sent to review it a little more than 10 years ago by Broadway.com. It didn't hurt that Eric's story opens with a shot of one of the more derided pairings in director David Leveaux's unjustly maligned revival, Rosie O'Donnell and Harvey Fierstein. That in fact was the pair I was sent to review, in fact, some months after the show opened with Alfred Molina and Randy Graff; and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed not only them but Leveaux's sobered-up staging.

So, as I and many thousands of theatergoers prepare to return once again to Anatevka (with the estimable Danny Burstein as Tevye), I offer a reprint of my (since web-scrubbed) Broadway.com review. L'chaim!

Fiddler on the Roof
Reviewed by Rob Kendt
Oct. 13, 2005

Rosie O'Donnell gets no star's entrance in Fiddler on the Roof, the cast of which she recently joined in the supporting role of Golde, Tevye's stoical wife. Instead, the stocky, voluble television icon trots out dutifully in half-light with the chorus at show's opening and takes her place in the opening tableau of "Tradition." It is only when O'Donnell steps out, as part of a small group of mothers, to trumpet her role in making a "proper home" that we recognize that familiar cherubic visage under the kerchief and apron.

This is not exactly Rosie's turn, in other words. And audiences who've already written off director David Leveaux's stark, wintry production are unlikely to rush to see, or revisit, this Fiddler, which has struggled at the box office despite a brief surge early this year when croaky, endearing Harvey Fierstein took over the role of Tevye. (The show has announced a January closing.) That's a pity, because this much-dismissed revival merits a serious reevaluation and a wider audience. If it was originally deplored for lacking warmth and humor, it has them now in O'Donnell and Fierstein, respectively. More importantly, though, the tensile strength of Leveaux's conception remains as clear and taut as a violin string.

Leveaux has successfully reimagined this classic as a hardscrabble folk operetta, closer in feeling to Brecht and Weill than to Rodgers and Hammerstein. For all the sweet-tempered ballads and that leaven the minor scales of Jerry Bock's poignant score, the poor Jews of the Anatevka shtetl are more like the Joads than the Von Trapps. And even with Fierstein lightly invoking the winking, shrugging posture of the American Jewish comic tradition, this is still a show with a haunted heart--a pogrom nipping at its heels and a dream of a homeland disturbing its sleep.

In this context, O'Donnell is admirably restrained, even tight-lipped. It's a performance defined and determined more by physicality than personality, mostly to its benefit. Her stout frame matter-of-factly unflattered by costumer Vicki Mortimer's house dresses, O'Donnell has a blunt economy of movement that's both matronly and self-possessed. It doesn't hurt that she looks like she could kick Fierstein's Tevye up and down the stairs; Fierstein is accordingly, and amusingly, cowed. This shifted balance of power gives a bittersweet sting to their second-act duet, "Do You Love Me?" It's one of Golde's few moments in the spotlight, and O'Donnell's emphatic gesticulating betrays her eagerness to make it count. But it remains a lovely, ambivalent consideration of middle-aged marriage in a show otherwise touchingly besotted with its young lovers.

In the latter department, a few new performers bring welcome freshness to the suitors of Tevye's daughters: Michael Therriault makes an ardent and intensely sunny Motel the tailor, while Paul Anthony Stewart smartly plays against the heartthrob factor with the rebel student Perchik, which of course makes him all the more appealingly swoony, particularly with the fine, yearning ballad "Now I Have Everything."

Kevin Stites' onstage band sounds marvelous, like a dream café orchestra, and Jonathan Butterell's musical staging, which liberally references the original Jerome Robbins choreography, retains its folksy force. It may be that Tom Pye's woodsy, homespun set, lit in often harsh whites by Brian MacDevitt, goes one step too far in that it gives the game away: This is a temporary resting place for harried nomads, the set says. What's worse, it's twilight in these woods. That may also be true of this underappreciated, foreshortened Fiddler. But like the villagers who snatch what joy they can from an unforgiving world, this Fiddler is making the most of its stop here while it lasts.

Fiddler on the Roof
Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, Book by Joseph Stein
Directed by David Leveaux
Minskoff Theatre

Jul 13, 2015

How Bent Made Gay History

Tom Bell and Ian McKellen in the London premiere of Bent, 1979.
A major revival of Martin Sherman's play Bent begins performances on July 15 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, directed by Moises Kaufman. I contributed this piece to the show's program, learned a lot in writing it, and thought it was worth sharing with a wider audience.

It was a passing reference to “pink triangles” in As Time Goes By, a 1976 play about a century of gay life, that caught Martin Sherman’s attention. As he put it recently, “It was one of those awful cliches--you could see the light bulb going off over my head.” That eureka moment led to Bent, Sherman’s path-breaking 1979 drama about the Third Reich’s persecution of homosexuals, and that in turn led to the widespread adoption of the pink triangle--a sewn-on badge of shame for gay men in the Nazi concentration camps--as a gay rights logo during the AIDS-ravaged 1980s and beyond.

The reclamation of that hated symbol as a token of pride is just one of the legacies of Sherman’s play, which premiered on London’s West End in a production starring Ian McKellen and on Broadway in late 1979, with Richard Gere in the lead. Life has changed rapidly and radically for gay people in the West since then, as much or more than it had changed between World War II and the dawn of AIDS. What’s easy to forget amid the inexorable march of history is not only how far forward gay liberation has moved but also how little was popularly known in the mid-’70s about gay life under the Nazis. Indeed, even the mere fact that they were among the minority groups rounded up and sent to Nazi detention and death camps--alongside Jews, gypsies, and communists--was not then widely known.

It certainly wasn’t known to Sherman, a Jewish American who lost family members in the Holocaust. He was in London in the mid-’70s working with a small company called the Gay Sweatshop, whose production of his play Passing By had “renewed my determination to continue writing for the theater,” when he sat in on a rehearsal of Noel Greig and Drew Griffiths’s As Time Goes By.

“It was in three parts, showing gay life in three historical eras: one was in Victorian England, the second was in Germany before the war, and the third was at the time of Stonewall,” Sherman recounted in a phone call from a writing workshop he was leading in Austria (“Hugely ironic,” he noted). The mention of “pink triangles” was, in his recollection, no more than “one sentence” in the play. He asked Griffiths and Greig about it; they said they’d done some research on the subject. Sherman later caught an article in Christopher Street, a gay magazine in New York City, titled “The Men With the Pink Triangles,” that would further inform the writing of Bent (the article’s author, Richard Plant, had written a book on the subject, The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals, but couldn’t find a publisher until after Sherman’s play premiered). In the absence of a detailed English-language history on the subject, then, Sherman found himself doing research at London’s Wiener Library, a comprehensive collection of literature about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

“I spoke to an old librarian there and asked her, ‘Are there books that talk about homosexuals in Nazi Germany?’ She was very homophobic; she asked me, ‘Do you mean the Nazis as homosexuals?’ I said, ‘No, I mean the Nazi treatment of homosexuals.’

Whatever her attitudes on the subject, Sherman recalled, “She was an excellent librarian--she remembered everything. She would show me one paragraph in one book here, a sentence in another there, and so I was able to piece together a mosaic of certain facts.”

Sherman said he also found Bruno Bettelheim’s 1960 memoir of his time at Dachau, The Informed Heart, “hugely influential in my writing,” particularly about “the psychology of being in the camps.”

Sherman’s play follows Max, a gay man in Berlin rounded up with his lover, a dancer named Rudy, after the infamous Night of the Long Knives in 1934. This purge, one of many turning points in Hitler’s consolidation of power, targeted one of his allies and potential rivals, Ernst Rohm, the openly gay leader of the Nazis’ paramilitary wing, the brownshirts. Political differences, not Rohm’s sexuality, were the real reason he was killed and the brownshirts decimated, but homosexual “decadence” became one of many convenient Nazi scapegoats.

Bent dramatizes not only the way gay men got caught in this crossfire but, in the compromised character of Max, the terrible means by which some fought to survive. Only in the play’s second act, set at Dachau, does Max--who forms an intimate friendship with another man, Horst--grasp the futility of mere survival, sans dignity and love.

Sherman said he’d initially intended Bent for the Sweatshop, “which meant that I thought it was going to be performed in a small little fringe theater somewhere.” That may account for the play’s sexual frankness and formal ambition, not to mention its unflinching depiction of Nazi sadism. But Griffiths immediately recognized its larger potential and told Sherman, “‘We can’t do this. You have to send this out into the world.’"

"It was an act of enormous generosity,” Sherman recalled. And prescience, it turns out: “I wrote it for a small theater, about a subject that hadn’t been talked about. I never in a million years dreamed that it would be in a position to make that known throughout the world.”

But while Bent is clearly a play about a particular moment in history, it is also a play inspired by gay life in the late 1970s.

“In some ways, you could argue that gay life was peaking, in terms of what it became in the ’70s, and was going to stop being once the specter of AIDS arrived,” recalled David Marshall Grant, who appeared in the play’s first reading at the O’Neill Playwrights Center in 1978, and later in its Broadway premiere. The play’s first scene--in which Max and Rudy wake up together in an apartment, and Max can’t recall how he spent the previous wild night--was for its time a disarmingly casual portrait of what we might today call a “monogamish” gay relationship. As Grant recalled, “You might have thought you were in Greenwich Village in the ’70s--that’s how it played when it was first read. Until the Nazis came in.”

Sherman agreed: As any good playwright does, he wrote the play for his time as much as for the ages.

“The gay world then was somewhat brutalized--it was enormously sexualized,” Sherman recalled. “New York was absolutely wild. People were just [having sex] all over the place, literally. But nobody was actually free; it was all an illusion. The laws were terrible. I did not see a society that was progressing. It was extremely commercial; people were making a lot of money out of it. It was in its way not dissimilar, I thought, to what Germany was like in the Weimar era.”

If Bent was groundbreaking for its delineation of a little-known historical period, and for its blunt depiction of same-sex sexuality--in its most famous scene, Max and Horst make love without touching, or even moving very much--it was prescient in another way which may explain its wide appeal and longevity.

“It was ahead of its time in that it showed that the prize wasn’t sexual liberation--ultimately the prize was love,” said Grant, who noted that this theme would later resonate through Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart, in which he also starred. “Sexual liberation was an absolutely necessary step toward understanding; you can’t love until you understand your sexuality. But Martin was already beyond that. The play is very clearly about somebody who learns how to love, and I don’t think love was in any way a priority for gay life in the ’70s.”

Sherman agreed: “Love didn’t seem to enter the picture on a visible level then. Of course it existed. But the play is as much about internal repression as external.”

Moises Kaufman, who is directing the revival at the Taper, called Bent “a much richer, deeper, more complicated play than just a play about gays in the Holocaust,” though he admitted that its function as an historical marker is still urgently necessary. “When I tell young gay men and lesbians that I’m doing the play, they are shocked to learn that gays were persecuted in the Holocaust.”

For Kaufman, who grew up in Jewish and gay in Venezuela, the demimonde of Weimar Berlin represents an important pivot for gay identity. “There were 100 gay bars in Berlin in the 1930s, and 40 gay publications,” Kaufman said, pointing also to Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Studies and his activism on behalf of legalizing gay relationships. He cited the thesis of Robert Beachy’s 2014 book Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity. 

“In Victorian times, male-male relationships were only about sex,” said Kaufman, whose breakthrough work was 1997’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. “Only in the 20th century did the notion of love between men emerge, and Beachy’s book shows that Berlin in the ’30s is where that conversation began to occur.”

That conversation was cut short, obviously, and has since often been interrupted, if never entirely silenced. As Sherman was quick to point out, “The Nazis aren’t coming for us, but this is going on in a lot of cultures--in Russia, for instance.”

For Kaufman, Bent is not just a postcard from a more repressive era; it’s also a crucial alternative history.

“Gay relationships have, for better or worse, entered the mainstream,” said Kaufman, who’s been with his husband for 26 years. “Gay people today are going to grow up with marriage as an option, but there were no norms, no models at the time for Max. So this play becomes even more relevant: The people in the play are showing a relationship that is very intimate but doesn’t follow the morality that is in vogue.”

If Greig and Griffiths were to add a chapter to As Time Goes By, they might include one in which gays have claimed their rightful place in two conservative institutions--marriage and the military--and still wonder what’s missing. Bent reminds us that what we can still miss now, as then, is the only thing that will save us. As W.H. Auden put it, “We must love one another or die.”

Jul 8, 2015

Up With Hamilton

I was recently contracted to write a preview of the Broadway transfer of Hamilton for Time Out NY, but the piece was spiked in favor of a no-doubt-excellent preview by the estimable Adam Feldman. Below is the piece I submitted. (My previous writings on the show are here, here, and here; I've also assigned two pieces about it for American Theatre, one by hip-hop theatre pioneer Danny Hoch, the other by National Review editor Reihan Salam.)
I’ve had an ongoing argument with fellow theater critics and observers ever since Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s knockout hip-hop musical about our nation’s founding, caused a sensation earlier this year at the Public Theater, selling out before its opening and extending for months, and announced its move to Broadway (performances begin July 13). The argument has never been about the show’s intrinsic merits: Most of us who were lucky enough to see it agree it’s a great show, maybe even a canonical musical, and it’s already a favorite for next year’s drama Pulitzer.

But can Hamilton survive a transplant from the Public’s intimate 232-seat Newman Theatre to Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, which seats 1,319? Should it have moved to Broadway earlier, before the recent Tony nominations deadline, while the show’s buzz was stratospheric, and stolen some trophies from another Public-bred show, Fun Home? More to the point: Is a hip-hop musical about American history with no stars a slam-dunk commercial prospect, or a huge gamble?

I’m on Team Slam Dunk, and I don’t think it’s just my heart talking. Yes, I already count Hamilton among my favorite musicals, and I heartily look forward to the day when my six-year-old stars in a high school production. But you don’t have to like the show to imagine this scenario: Tourists from the Midwest are in Times Square deciding which show to see, and the kids are all, “Holy shit, a hip-hop musical!” And the parents are like, “Hmm, it’s about the Founding Fathers? Interesting.”

Cha-ching! Take this family’s Hamiltons. It’s a reductive picture, of course--Miranda’s catchy pop score has nearly as much singing as rapping--and there’s an uncomfortable truth behind its appeal. Miranda’s previous Broadway musical, In the Heights, had a respectable run, won all the important Tonys, and is now part of the musical-theatre repertoire, but some think it would still be running on Broadway if it weren’t seen as an “ethnic” show full of hip-hop and Latin music. And while 1994’s Rent was a breakthrough for a generation of young theatergoers (and theatermakers, as Miranda himself has attested), its sexual frankness and multi-culti cast may explain why it hasn’t been a Phantom or Les Miz-style juggernaut.

But hey, Middle America! What’s not to like about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and that guy who got popped by Aaron Burr? White dudes kicking British butt; that’s some Tea Party shizzle, right?

Not so fast. It’s true that Dick Cheney and Peggy Noonan loved the show at the Public as much as the Clintons and Paul McCartney and Busta Rhymes, and that it would be entirely fair to call Hamilton a patriotic show--if your notion of patriotism has room not only for the country’s checkered past but for its contested, multiracial present. This is where Hamilton will sneakily give those Midwestern tourists both just what they came for and something more: There’s nary a white face in the company, save for the actor playing a prissy, Britpop-singing King George (a role tailored for a show-stealing cameo, and as yet unannounced for Broadway). This isn’t simply a matter of colorblind casting: It’s integral to the show’s populist conception, and key to its force as something more than an epic-rap-battles stunt. By casting young people of color in these iconic roles, and pitting them against each other in a struggle for the reins of a new republic, Hamilton achieves what the best historical fictions do: It gives us a sense of possibility, of roads not taken, of something that was settled long ago being up for grabs.

It’s still up for grabs, isn’t it? As we enter another presidential election cycle and brace ourselves for fresh battles over immigration, foreign policy, and the size and scope of the federal state, Hamilton reminds us that we’d barely got this country started before we began squabbling and shooting each other dead. In one of the show’s most incisive numbers, Aaron Burr stands outside the famous private meeting at which Hamilton dined with political foes Jefferson and Madison and cut arguably the most momentous backroom deal in American history: Hamilton got to found a national bank headquartered in New York City, and in return Jefferson got to stick the nation’s capital in a slave-owning Southern swamp. But Burr is less worried about the implications of that historic faultline, which reverberated through the Civil War and sends out aftershocks even today; instead, in a typically American posture, he simply envies, and one day hopes to join, the movers and shakers who plot and scheme in “The Room Where It Happens.”

That kind of multilayered observational detail may give some idea why it’s not just the up-to-the-minute pop score that makes Hamilton ring with contemporary relevance. The show has enough political machinations, alliances, and betrayals to fill a season of House of Cards; it’s also got a sex scandal, a cover-up, and a shootout, not to mention the 18th-century version of texting (letters) and tweeting (pamphlets and broadsides).

In short, it’s a safe bet that Hamilton will be huge--huge enough that that imaginary scene, in which a Midwestern family nabs tickets at the TKTS booth, is an unlikely one for the foreseeable future.

May 28, 2015

The 11 O'Clock Matrix

So the Times just had me contemplate the tradition of the Broadway musical's "11 o'clock number," and specifically, whether the great new musical Fun Home has one in the stunning "Days and Days." You can read all about that here.

The initial question that spurred the story was: Is it rare or common for the 11 o'clock number to be handed to a non-central character, as it is with "Days and Days"? Examples immediately started to come to mind (with the help of several Facebook friends), and it became clear that there were several different ways this near-ending song slot is used, depending on the kind of show. Musical comedies, for instance, seemed to use 11 o'clock slot differently from dramas.

So an earlier draft of the Times piece actually included a more detailed taxonomy of these kinds of numbers; there was talk of doing an infographic or chart, and I used my limited graphic abilities to construct a mockup (above).

Without further ado, I present to you the journalistic equivalent of songs cut out of town:

If “Days and Days” stands out from “Fun Home,” it’s because, while it’s close to the traditional 11 o’clock number slot for a drama, it is not delivered by one of the show’s main leads. But is that so rare? To get at the answer, here’s a non-scientific taxonomy of the song type:

  1. Central catharsis. In this classic definition of the 11 o’clock number, the lead character in a musical drama reaches a wrenching final realization. Examples would include “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy,” the title song of “Cabaret,” and the searing “Lot’s Wife” from “Caroline, or Change.”
  2. Downpour from the side. “Days and Days” is in good company here alongside “The Ladies Who Lunch”  from “Company,” “What I Did for Love” from “A Chorus Line,” even “Memory” from “Cats”--all of them, like “Fun Home,” ensemble-driven shows that make room for a big near-closing number from a not-quite-leading character. Another example from an otherwise comic show is Motormouth Maybelle’s “I Know Where I’ve Been” in “Hairspray.”
  3. Diversion. Musical comedies tend to use the 11 o’clock slot differently, as their leading characters are typically headed for romantic clinches, not nervous breakdowns. The idea of songs like “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” from “Guys and Dolls” or “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from “Kiss Me, Kate” is to give a comic lift to their shows’ second acts. Something slightly different happens in the satirical “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” in which the penultimate number, “Brotherhood of Man,” has the entire ensemble join in hammering home the show’s ironic point before tying up the plot.
  4. In summation. Similar to “Brotherhood of Man,” the penultimate song in “Chicago,” “Nowadays,” encapsulates the show’s smiling cynicism, but in this case it’s sung by the show’s female leads. There aren’t a lot in this category, for reasons indicated above; even “Gimme Gimme,” from Ms. Tesori’s otherwise comic “Thoroughly Modern Millie” score, has the lead character reaching a veritable fever pitch of desire, and it’s not played for laughs. It may be in a different time zone from the dark night of the soul depicted in “Days and Days,” but emotionally speaking, the clock still says 11.

May 26, 2015

"A Free-Ranging, Even Frenetic Power"

A striking number of people involved in the May 2006 production of columbinus at New York Theatre Workshop went on to have careers I've followed, and/or I've gotten to know: actors Anna Camp, Bobby Steggert, Will Rogers, and Karl Miller, and cowriter Stephen Karam, for instance. Karam's cowriter and the piece's director, PJ Paparelli, is someone I've only "followed" from a distance, as a theater journalist interested in the national scene, because his work since then has been at Chicago's American Theater Company. (If memory serves, Paparelli himself cold-called me at my American Theatre desk to pitch a story about his "original Grease," in which he purportedly reclaimed it as a gritty Chicago tale, in 2011.) Most recently I published this piece about Paparelli's current ATC show, The Project(s)--and then, sadly, last night, I posted this memorial tribute by Karam, as Paparelli was killed in a car accident last week at age 40. My Broadway.com review of columbinus isn't available online, so I thought, as my own small gesture to his memory, that I'd repost it here. It ran May 22, 2006.

The rubber soles squeaking on the gym floor, the chalk dust, the pent-up, displaced hormones—with a few simple gestures, columbinus conjures a collective memory of high school that feels eerily, almost skin-crawlingly immediate. Even the restless, bubbling energy of the show's youthful eight-member cast suggests a pep rally, albeit one with a less exuberant subject than team spirit.

As if this shared time travel weren't hair-raising enough, this production by the United States Theatre Project, now at the New York Theatre Workshop, inexorably grows more specific. The show's Anyschool, USA becomes the site of the 20th century's last homegrown horror story, the Columbine High School massacre of April 20, 1999. Though the script by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli unerringly, almost slavishly follows the multivoiced docu-theater outline of such antecedents as The Laramie Project or Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Paparelli's direction has a free-ranging, even frenetic power that feels authentically and painfully young. Even the show's less inspired moments—a random sampling of unrevealing postmortem commentary from residents of Littleton, Colorado, for instance—betray a touching, irresistible eagerness to get to the bottom of the mystery of why two seemingly average teenage boys would plot their own personal "judgment day." Crucially, columbinus also has the adult integrity to let this question hang in the smoky aftermath.

The show's creators seem to have calculated that the inevitable climax—a chilling recreation of the infamous school library bloodbath that is mostly narrated rather than explicitly staged—would be so harrowing and somber that the rest of the play, particularly the opening, should be pitched at perky peaks of adolescent fever. And so we get quick-cut, full-cast scenes that swarm through hallways, classrooms, cafeteria; we witness curt, tetchy dialogues with disembodied offstage voices of guidance counselors and teachers; we're privy to furious instant-messaging exchanges between Dylan (Will Rogers) and Eric (Karl Miller).

The show is also admirably unafraid of sweeping, iconic generalizations, dubious as they may be. One wordless early sequence, scored to the same aching rendition of "Mad World" that figured prominently in Donnie Darko, has the cast choosing, almost arbitrarily, talismans from suspended trays—a makeup case, dark-rimmed spectacles, a pack of cigarettes, a silver crucifix, a jock's cap that will define their roles in the high school hierarchy. The self-styled outcasts Dylan and Eric pointedly don't partake in this unnatural selection. The first-act break revisits this identity parade at a more advanced, less innocent stage, as the cast sings along with the chorus of "Bittersweet Symphony": "I'm a million different people from one day to the next." If only.

The characters that emerge in black trench coats as Dylan and Eric don't make for easy viewing—not only because they're a hair's breadth away from the excitable, angry teens we've known or once were, but because the actors positively savor their sociopathic excesses. Rogers, a likeable beanpole who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real-life Dylan Klebold, comes off as an easily impressionable sad sack spurred on by his partner's uncontainable rage. As Eric Harris, the short-fused military brat who was the massacre's main plotter, the haunting Miller has spiky blond hair and a ravaged look that's closer to heroin chic than cold-blooded jarhead fury. Amid the plotting and execution of the massacre, the show subtly strikes its most disturbing notes. These media-savvy teens obsessively documented their plans and their ever-growing arsenal, even speculating that one day "the world will be studying these videos" for clues, and, more, that directors will vie for the rights to film their story. It's a chastening moment for even the most scrupulous documentarians when their subjects turn and essentially thank them for the memories. Karam and Paparelli stare down this challenge without flinching, memorializing both the massacre's makers and its victims without blurring the lines between them.

For all its youthful questioning and empathy, this is the most grown-up thing about columbinus: It holds up a mirror to evil and reflects not only the pathologies we can all too readily recognize in ourselves and in our violence-fixated culture, but also the inexplicable terrors that haunt our darkest nightmares. That's a bigger and deeper inquiry than a mere high school social study.

By the United States Theatre Project
Written by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli
Directed by P.J. Paparelli
New York Theatre Workshop

May 8, 2015

Catching Up Before Summer

Dakin Matthews and Helen Mirren in "The Audience." (Photo by Joan Marcus)
The Broadway season has come to an end, and while much of the exciting work this past year was Off-Broadway (and there's more to come, particularly Off-Broadway), the annual rush of intense theatregoing on all fronts has abated at last, for the time being. For both the NY Times and America magazine I had the pleasure of covering some of the biggest non-Broadway shows of the year so far: the hip-hop/history phenom Hamilton (feature, review), the near-perfect The Iceman Cometh from Chicago's Goodman Theatre (feature, review). Also Off-Broadway, I recently reviewed George Brant's unsettling solo show Grounded, starring the woman named for Shakespeare's wife:
If the notion of the military industrial complex once referred to the economy of armaments, and to their development and manufacturing as a disproportionately powerful political interest, what “Grounded” reminds us with blistering clarity is that warmaking itself can now be run on an industrial model. Not only our weapons are drones; our warriors are drones, too.

To this moral nightmare Brant adds another contemporary complication: His play’s protagonist is a woman, a former fighter pilot first grounded by an unexpected pregnancy, then by her country’s growing preference for conducting war by remote control. “No one ever comes back from the Chair Force,” she complains to the superior reassigning her to desk duty, but she soon takes a liking to the job’s unique mix of narrow, concentrated effort and risk-free firepower. Sitting at a simple chair but surrounded by Peter Nigrini’s immersive projection design, Hathaway’s desk-bound pilot stares into the sights of an omniscient screen and scans the frame for “military age males,” a.k.a. “the guilty.” Occasionally, though not as often she’d like, she gets to pull the virtual trigger and watch a silent grey explosion bloom.
I also had the chance to weigh in for America on a series of Broadway contenders. First, the unlikely puppet comedy Hand to God:
There will be blood by the denouement of Robert Askins’s play, now improbably but gratifyingly running on Broadway after two popular Off-Broadway productions, though the gore is ultimately more silly/gross than truly mortifying. This is still a species of comedy, after all, albeit one shot through with grief, mental illness and sexual predation. Perhaps what’s most touching about the show, and makes it much more than simply an exercise in bratty blasphemy, is its authentically teen-eyed view of Jason’s struggles with his mother and his own budding if stunted manhood. This vein of empathy is not only to the playwright’s credit but also due to the astounding lead performance of Steven Boyer, who’s about twice the age of his role but is utterly convincing as a sort of frail, inward-directed, not fully formed Charlie Brown type.

That’s only half of what Boyer does, of course: In a tour de force that is certain to catch the attention of Tony Award voters, he also acts out the aggressive actions and speech of his potty-mouthed id, Tyrone.
And I wrote about the cozy Anglophilia of Peter Morgan's The Audience:
Fame is both a prime subject and an intrinsic element of “The Audience,” directed with assurance by Stephen Daldry. Perhaps the most bewitching thing about Morgan’s play, which might otherwise be a stodgy slog, is the way Mirren’s and the queen’s very different kinds of fame reflect back and forth on each other, as in a hall of mirrors. The effect is both humanizing, since Mirren can’t help but bring shades of life and even mischief to the sovereign, whom she plays in her 20s through her present late 80s, as well as regalizing, if that’s a word. You come away with a sense of the woman’s stature, at least as Morgan conceives it—of the way that Elizabeth bestrides the world stage, albeit from a sidelong posture.

This large-as-life queen makes the politicians who promenade through her palace look small and craven by comparison, and that is also Morgan’s point.
Finally, I surveyed the season's musicals, both new and old, and declared the form in fine fettle:
If jazz and the blues are America’s essential native musics, the Broadway musical is arguably our country’s great indigenous narrative form, with roots in minstrelsy, vaudeville and operetta. While its purported Golden Age was roughly between the 1930s and the ’50s, and its Dark Ages were the British-dominated 1980s of “Cats” and “Les Miserables,” the American musical is currently in the pink of health, if we measure by the current Broadway season (and it shows plenty of vital signs beyond Broadway, as well).
Meanwhile, at my day job at American Theatre, I haven't been idle. I recently revisited an interview subject I'd first sized up for the Times, Center Stage's Kwame Kwei-Armah, who's written a new Bob Marley bio-musical. And I've covered the L.A. 99-seat wars from a few new angles, in Q&As with Equity's executive director, Mary McColl, and with actor Dakin Matthews. I chatted with former L.A. theater actor Silas Weir Mitchell, with the remarkable Anna Deavere Smith about her new project, and--bringing it all back to musicals--with Robert Schenkkan about his new New Testament-themed rock musical, The 12.

I also had the pleasure to review two new books about composer Leonard Bernstein, about whom I wrote:
Like a great playwright whose output must alternate with a demanding directing schedule, Lenny felt torn and increasingly worried—in a self-critique echoed by colleagues, both sympathetically and otherwise—that he had squandered one or the other of his great talents.

There was, of course, a third space, a middle ground, where Bernstein’s contradictions were assets, multipliers rather than dividers: the musical theatre, particularly as it was practiced during its purported Golden Age of the 1940s and ’50s. Here the composer’s intensely gregarious spirit found an ideal metier, both in the rough and tumble of collaboration with such colleagues as Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, Adolph Green and Betty Comden, and in the form’s omnivorous cultural sampling, where ballet was as at home as the blues. Bernstein wrote just four musicals, but the scores of three of them—On the Town, West Side Story and Candide—tower at the top of the field and remain his best-known legacy.
As I used to say to my Back Stage West readers: Read on, and tell me what you think.