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.

Jun 26, 2014

It Can Be Arranged

photo by Caitlin McNaney
A few years ago, a musical theater colleague of mine told me that someone named "Glen Kelly" was the guy who really wrote the scores of The Producers and Young Frankenstein. I imagined he meant that Mel Brooks, those shows' credited songwriter, was one of those musical savants who doesn't read or really play an instrument but who has a strong melodic ear and structural song sense, and that this Glen Kelly fellow was a sort of harmonizing assistant. By most accounts, this is also how Irving Berlin worked. (And I'll take credit for noticing something like this when I wrote, in a review of the Producers L.A. bow, that Brooks' songs "sound like fully arranged renditions of the first sing-song idea ('High annnnnnnnXI-ety') that popped into his head and out of his mouth.")

I filed Kelly's name away, but it resurfaced in my reporting on director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who works with Kelly as his dance arranger whenever he can. Then, when I saw that Kelly was credited with assembling the Frankenstein monster of a period score for the new Woody Allen musical Bullets Over Broadway, I thought it was time to find out more about him, his work, and the uniquely near-invisible position he occupies as one who typically must "arrange" music in the style of the credited composer or, in the case of Bullets, in the style of the show. "I played the role of the composer in the absence of one," is how he put it to me in an eventual interview for the paper of record. (He also confirmed my assumption about his role in the Brooks musicals.)

Arranging is of composing, he told me, without the hardest part of composing: facing a blank page. But in the case of Bullets--which, for the record, deeply frustrated me in its lack of an original musical score, even I as remain impressed with how deftly Glen was able to knit its old songs and spare parts together--he faced not pages bereft of notation but an entirely empty score book, and he was tasked with helping director Susan Stroman and Allen fill it.

I would only add that my story for the Times constitutes one of those happy instances where I got to write a story not pitched by a press agent before a show's opening--a case where essentially I had the privilege of geeking out about music and theater with someone who knows it far better than me (my recent Scott Miller feature was a similarly diverting self-assignment), and do it for publication. This gig has its satisfactions.

Jun 24, 2014

Catch-Up Catch-All


I'm just back from the TCG Conference in San Diego last week--my fourth ever, and despite (or perhaps because of) the perfectly sunny but cool weather in my beloved, much-missed Southern California, it was a rather discombobulating experience this time out. In part, I think this was because for the first time ever American Theatre staff did our best to cover all the conferences with up-to-the-minute (actually, next-day) online updates, as opposed to writing a big feature for the next available issue (which would be September, when the conference usually already seems years ago). Our updates are here and here, and there are likely to be more to come. We also traded off live-tweeting the whole shebang, which can be quite a hamster wheel. I heard and saw some fascinating things at the conference (some enervating ones, too), and was extremely chuffed to host a breakout session on the theme of new plays and criticism with the LA Times's Charles McNulty, Playwrights Horizons' Tim Sanford, the Goodman Theatre's Tanya Palmer, Theatre @ Boston Court's Jessica Kubzansky, and playwrights Robert O'Hara and Nikkole Salter (whose work together I reviewed very early in my New York career).

I also had a couple of pieces appear in the various publications for which I write, including AT itself:
More features and links to come later in the week.

May 30, 2014

Owe, That's Us

Chris Myers and Danny Wolohan in An Octoroon
"I rarely hope for my writing to have any effect. But I confess that I hope this piece makes people feel a certain kind of way." -Ta-Nehisi Coates, reflecting on his Atlantic case for reparations

"The whole point of this thing was to make you feel something." -a character in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon
What kind of country are we? Is the past, to paraphrase Faulkner, not only not dead but not even past? In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ masterful recent conversation starter in the Atlantic, he ostensibly makes the case for economic reparations to black America not only for slavery but for the systemic injustices visited either uniquely or disproportionately on African Americans (Jim Crow, redlining, block-busting, the “war on drugs") in the 150 years since slavery’s legal end. But apart from the practical and political challenges of such a proposal (to take only the most obvious objection: Should clear, demonstrable cases for economic redress, as in the instructive story of Clyde Ross, by rights take precedence over computing a price tag for the more generalized plunder of all descendants of African slaves?), I take Coates’ mission with the piece to be more about resetting the terms of the discussion than nailing the terms of a settlement. His project, it would seem to me, is nothing more nor less than to make us see ourselves more clearly and honestly: to understand that our ideals of freedom and democracy, not to mention private property and rule of law, have never been impartially or equally granted to all citizens (citizenship itself being a prize that can’t be taken for granted), indeed were never intended to be so; and that to the extent they ever have been, it has been as the result of furious, in fact still-ongoing struggle. It is to coolly grant the nationalist/nativist observation that the country was founded by and for white men, but to insist that those men’s founding ideas require us to do better, to effectively unyoke the country’s promise from its heritage of plunder (to use Coates' evocative word).

But if Coates’ meticulous reporting here (as elsewhere) makes us realize is how far we haven’t come, indeed how recent in our history we can find cases of outright white-on-black theft, his larger point seems more existential and despairing: We are a nation, as he has starkly put it, “defined by white supremacy," in much the same way an alcoholic, no matter how long he’s been clean, will always be an alcoholic (an analogy he makes here). His case for reparations, in essence, is a plea for the U.S. to keep going to meetings and admitting we have a problem. It is not a recipe for closure, for healing, for a final moment when we can say, "That’s over and we’ll err no more," but for a process that will help us routinely and relentlessly face the past that still marks us, and turn away from it to do better. Indeed, though Coates’ project can be reduced (as it has been by his critics) to familiar arguments about redistribution, white guilt, and affirmative action, it is set apart by this insistence on a deeper, dare I say spiritual purging.

I thought of Coates’ piece while watching Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ extraordinary bit of postmodern meta-minstrelsy, An Octoroon, at Soho Rep last night, which, though in grave danger of being vastly overrated, is only slightly so (I found the first act a little dozy, but relished the second act all the way to the end). Like Coates’ piece, Jacobs-Jenkins’ play--essentially an annotated adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama The Octoroon--doesn’t play by now-familiar rules of the race-card game, particularly the shame-the-audience transaction by which we’re made to see how awful American attitudes used to be (oh but not anymore). Instead it shifts and shatters the frame, taking the racist conditions of 19th-century chattel slavery for granted while also taking Boucicault’s characters and their drama disarmingly seriously, give or take a contemporary joke here or a meta-theatrical gambit there. The result plays less like The Scottsboro Boys, about whose schematic ironies I had misgivings similar to Mildly Bitter’s, and feels closer in spirit to George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum, which by connecting dots throughout black history implied continuity more than progress. Similarly, in An Octoroon Jacobs-Jenkins has the past and present hang out, seemingly casually but never less than pointedly, in the same space: a white actor in blackface alongside black actors, or a slave admonishing another, self-help-style, "Don't bring your work home with you." By suggesting these tropes' comfort with each other rather than italicizing their obvious differences, Jacobs-Jenkins is making a point not unlike Coates’: that Boucicault's literature of tragic blackness, of bad vs. good whites struggling for power while black folks get on with their lives as best they can, is who we are culturally, at least as much as or more than we are represented by the ameliorative liberal tradition currently on parade uptown in the great-man-of-history play All the Way.

Ostensibly, the feeling Jacobs-Jenkins hopes to evoke with An Octoroon ultimately has more to do with form than content (though as I think I’ve argued, Coates’ essay also advocates a change on the level of rhetoric as much as policy). The playwright has included some some fourth-wall-breaking footnotes to explain the way melodrama was supposed to affect its audience in Boucicault’s day, and then attempts to recreate something of that for our age of sensory overload (and by the way, the production, by Sarah Benson, is as sharp and unexpected as the play). In a long interview with my colleague Eliza Bent, Jacobs-Jenkins refers to melodrama as "the science part of what we do":
A generation of French guys literally just kept doing things to an audience and refined a codified formula for making an audience feel the way that these French guys thought they should feel at any given moment. This idea that we’re just these animals that are easily manipulated by certain steps or moves or gestures is so profound to me and made me wonder: What is it that we’re doing? Is it ethical? Or are ethics somehow besides the point.
But like Jackie Sibblies Drury’s brilliant We Are Proud to Present a Presentation… a few years ago, also at Soho Rep, Jacobs-Jenkins is using an inquiry of genre to get at thornier issues of agency, responsibility, of what we think we’re doing with our entertainment; weighing a container this loaded is ultimately inseparable from a consideration of what’s in the container. Though Drury's project was a little more explicitly about interrogating our aesthetic response genocide and horror--about questioning the very idea that we should have an aesthetic approach to such things--Jacobs-Jenkins’ approach is more impish, elusive, less visceral, in a sense less universal but also somehow broader. It is as if he’s opened a giant volume titled America, a book that can be read backward and forward, sometimes both at once, and made from certain of its pages a flipbook of disturbingly lovely silhouettes (and no, the reference is not idle).

Not to be too glib about it, but if this is one theatrical form Coates' reparations might take, sign me up.

Stalkers

Blogging has been light for much the same reasons as I noted here, but I feel I should catch readers up with my extra-curricular work.

  • I interviewed Norm Lewis, Broadway's first black Phantom, for the paper of record. A confession: When I was assigned the story (this does still happen occasionally), I thought, "Oh, good idea; he can't possibly be the first, right?" Well, yep; apart from Robert Guillaume's brief turn in the role in the Los Angeles run, a news item I recall from my time there (that's where I saw it, with Davis Gaines in the lead), this is indeed an historic first. Lewis started in the role on May 12 opposite Sierra Boggess (interestingly, he's on a six-month contract and she's only signed up for four--which makes me think that rumors I've heard about a Broadway return of this classic sometime in August may indeed be true), and I've been told that critics might be admitted to re-review at some point.
  • I spent a fascinating hour with Michael Shannon, a true American original whose work I've followed with interest since I caught him in Bug, which I count as one of the best things I've ever seen on a stage. For a piece in Time Out, we talked about his Chicago theater days (including this early appearance with Nick Offerman), about his hilarious "cunt punt" video, about religion and politics and Brooklyn but above all about his love for Ionesco, in whose seldom-performed play The Killer he's starring at Theatre for a New Audience. One gambit I tried was to trade favorite Ionesco quotes, like "I sometimes wonder if I exist myself" from Rhinoceros, or this choice one from Michael Feingold's new Killer translation: "As far as inner light is concerned, my electricity's about to shut off for nonpayment." The exercise foundered on my inability to recall my favorite of all, from Exit the King, which I half-remembered as being about how we should contemplate our own death, the details of our own inevitable physical extinction, for a certain amount of time each day to better prepare for it. A quick Google search for the quote led me to my own review of the 2009 Broadway revival with Geoffrey Rush, in which I helpfully preserved it, and with which I leave you now, as it is a timeless and actually quite useful piece of advice (not that I've followed it). Marguerite tells the dying Berenger: "You are doomed, and you should have thought about it from day one. And then every day after that, five minutes every day. That's not too much to ask. Five minutes a day. Then ten minutes, quarter of an hour, then half. That's the way to train yourself."