Sunday, October 30, 2011

Question of the Week: What Are Your Spookiest Theater Memories?

When I was a kid, growing up in Pittsburgh, I saw what must've been one of the spookiest, most unsettling productions of Ibsen's Ghosts, ever, at Carnegie Mellon University. The audience sat upstage on bleachers facing the performers, who did the show downstage in front of a huge, empty auditorium. The floor of the stage was covered in dirt, which, by the end of the show, covered the actors, too. A life-sized dummy of each castmember was set at stage left, and at various times, actors would address the dummies instead of one another. As they became more unhinged, they became more expressive with one another's dummies than they were with one another. My stomach, which began to twist midway through the show, was in some of the most painful knots I can remember by the curtain call. Ghosts is a weird, creepy show as it is; this double weird, creepy production scared the bejesus out of me, and continues to haunt me every so often.

I don't think that it was until I saw Conor McPherson's Shining City, which ran on Broadway in 2006, that anything in the theater came close to scaring me as much as that CMU production of Ghosts did. But Shining City is not a scary play, per se. It just packs a terrifying, awesome punch at the end--one that that made me scream and my husband pee a little. I loved Shining City and its surprise ending, but Ghosts still takes the cake for me.

How about you? What is the scariest production, or moment, or scene, or character you've ever seen? What continues to haunt you after all these years of theatergoing? What tapped into your deepest, darkest fears? Happy Halloween, all. BOO!

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess

When I first heard the commotion regarding the new Broadway adaptation of Porgy & Bess--directed by Diane Paulus, with a new book by Suzan-Lori Parks and musical adaptations by Deirdre Murray--my mind wandered to a discussion I remembered from my days as an undergraduate studying English Literature. In an Introduction to Literary Theory course, my professor spent a fair amount of time contemplating Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of Frankenstein. Despite the insane amount of liberties he took with the text, Branagh felt compelled to title his film Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, seemingly out of respect for the author and her work. We spent several classes discussing whether Branagh was truly sincere in his choice of title and tribute, or if he was trying to pull one over on his audience and scholars alike. Having since seen the film, and recognizing the glaring, questionable changes Branagh made, I find myself siding with the latter camp.

Similarly, Paulus and company are calling their production The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess, although on paper what they're presenting seems to be anything but. The historical Porgy & Bess is a four-hour, sung through opera that features some of the greatest music in the American canon. Paulus' production is a streamlined adaptation that scales down the work's operatic orchestrations and heavily revises some of the characters. Aside from Audra McDonald, who has operatic training, and Phillip Boykin, a bass-baritone, the cast is comprised of musical theatre performers. Much has been made of dramatic changes Paulus and Parks have made, including the decision to have the crippled Porgy walk with a cane rather than his traditional goat cart. Musical adaptor Murray lowered the familiar high notes in "Summertime," claiming a rationale that the song is a lullaby and high notes would "wake the baby" (a live baby was actually used in the Boston production). Many claimed that Parks and Paulus had also decided to brighten up the play's downbeat ending, although reports from Boston suggest that this plan has been ditched.

While I can understand why Stephen Sondheim found himself angry enough to write The New York Times an open letter airing his grievances about the proposed changes, I do believe that it is unfair to judge a work that you haven't seen. At the time Sondheim was writing, not a single performance had been given, and he (and many others) were responding to comments made by the creative team. I agree that much of what Paulus, Parks, Murray, and McDonald said was boneheaded, but I'm not going to offer an opinion on the adaptation until I've attended a performance. Does this production align exactly with what the Gershwins'--along with Dubose and Dorothy Heyward--envisioned for this American opera in 1935? Probably not, but that doesn't mean that it might not be a powerful piece of music theatre. In his rave review of the Boston tryout, The New Yorker's Hilton Als claims that the production's "great achievement is to cut through Heyward’s muddy folklore and to present us with something more profound." I cannot tell you if I agree with this yet, but I'm not willing to write something off until I've actually seen it. More in December.

Question of the Week—Porgy and Bess: How much revision is too much?

Composer Steven Sondheim really, really hates the idea of the new version of Porgy and Bess on Broadway (opening on January 12, 2012). In summary, he disagrees with the decision to dub it George Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, the new happy ending, the more in-depth character backstory and an assortment of other things (see his piece in the New York Times at vamped-porgy-and-bess/?scp=1&sq=stephen%20sondheim%20porgy&st=cse). But he’s not the only one who takes umbrage at the 1935 opera’s transformation into a commercial Broadway musical. Twenty-four pages of online commentary follow Sondheim’s letter, most agreeing with him to some extent.

So, the question becomes: Is director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks going too far with their reinterpretation? Sondheim thinks so, saying: “I can hear the outraged cries now about stifling creativity and discouraging directors who want to reinterpret plays and musicals in order to bring “fresh perspectives,” as they are wont to say, but there is a difference between reinterpretation and wholesale rewriting.”

To an extent I agree with him. Too much revision dilutes a work, and removes its original intent. And Paulus and Parks’ version offers a vastly changed work. Still, I cannot castigate them for trying. Isn’t that what artists should do? Shouldn’t they bravely venture into uncharted territory, even if many may feel the work is obscene, outlandish or self-indulgent? When I first heard about a Broadway version of The Who’s Tommy in 1993, I believed it was just another attempt to capitalize on a known entity despite its obvious inappropriateness for a stage musical. How wrong I was: sometimes what seems so miscalculated actually works. Another case in point: I love A Chorus Line, yet the 2006 revival felt lackluster and dated. When I saw the show, I wished that someone had really tinkered with it to make it more resonant and relevant.

So, what of Porgy and Bess? So many deviations from the original do feel unreasonable, like the essence of the show may be removed. I will go see it, but my expectations aren’t high. However, I am prepared to concede. Paulus and Parks may be lambasted for their efforts. Or the revivial could be brilliant. We will see.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A French Kiss From Lee Lessack

I discovered Lee Lessack at a performance in the late 90’s, upstairs at Eighty Eights, the best-of-its-generation New York piano bar that didn’t live to see the new millennium. I left enamored with his self-titled CD in hand. He is a master of the story-telling song, as evidenced in my favorite track from that disc, Jonathan Wesley Oliver, Jr. by Tom Brown. A few years later, I decided I wanted to sing the song; but the internet, not being what it is today, turned up no hits on sheet music. I was, however, able to track down a general e-mail address for Lee via his label’s (LML Music) website, a stranger begging for help. He not only sent me the music, he sent me his chart. Turned out, he was as genuine a person as he was an interpreter of song. 

Chanteur, a collection of songs from the French (and French Canadian) songbook, is his latest CD. His voice and style are perfectly suited for the simplicity and vulnerability the songs require. I particularly enjoyed his interpretation of Charles Aznavour’s She and Leonard Cohen’s Song of Bernadette. Consistent with his past generosity, Lee even agreed to answer a few of my annoying questions.

RS: Your base of operation is in California. What's the difference from the East Coast in terms of building and maintaining a career? What took you to California?
LL: I think it depends what area of the entertainment business you are focusing on. I migrated West on a whim and never left. I lived in NY for several years prior to moving to LA and I love NY but I much prefer the space and weather on this coast. I could navigate my career from either coast, as long as I'm close to a major airport.

What was your big break moment that allowed you to go from working in music/cabaret to a career in music?
I'm not sure that I had a big break LOL. I think what grounded my career is that I simultaneously founded the LML Music label.

You launched your own label. What drove that decision and what have been the challenges and benefits?
I started LML Music because I needed a label for my first album. I soon discovered that I had a pretty good head for business and got some great national distribution and press on that recording. Soon, other artists were asking me to release their CDs on LML Music. It's now been 17 years and we distribute over 100 vocalists. There have been challenges due to the economy and the explosion of the digital music world, but all in all it's been a great ride.

How does having your own label change how you approach music?
I think I have learned to produce recordings that are more marketable.

Do you see yourself as having a particular musical point of view? Is there a Lee Lessack type of song or a particular style you are drawn to?
I'm very drawn to lyrically driven music. I like to tell a story when I record.

Looking at your discography chronologically, has the progression been deliberate? If so, how?
I think after my first 2 recordings it has been quite deliberate. For instance, I felt for CD #3 that I wanted to do a LIVE recording and so I recorded my Johnny Mercer concert. My biggest production to date was "In Good Company" which I produced to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of LML Music and it features all newly recorded duets. I had the privilege of recording with some amazing artists such as Michael Feinstein, Maureen McGovern, Ann Hampton Callaway, Stephen Schwartz, Susan Werner etc. Half of the artists were names that I felt would help to elevate distribution and the other half were voices that I just felt needed to be heard. In the end the project was a very "full circle" endeavor. For my latest album, "Chanteur", I went back to square one and created a very simple (piano, guitar, bass and voice) sound. It's all about the lyrics and the journey.

A lot of your work has been in collaboration with other artists, why is that so prominent in your body of work?
Well aside from "In Good Company" I have 2 cast recordings. "An Enchanted Evening: The Music of Broadway" a concert that I perform with Joanne O'Brien and have been touring with since 1998, and "3 Men and a Baby...Grand: Salute The Rat Pack" another LIVE recording of a concert that features Brian Lane Green and Johnny Rodgers. I love working with other artists!

Your most recent collaboration is with the legendary, Amanda McBroom (Chansons d'Amour, an evening of songs from your CD, Chanteur, and her recent CD, Chanson). Tell me more about that: how did it come about, is it a full tour, and where can people see you together?
I've been friends with Amanda for several years. She approached me to distribute her Jacques Brel CD, "Chanson" which I was thrilled to do. When I recorded "Chanteur" I sent a copy to an arts presenter in Austin and he asked if Amanda and I would team up for an evening. That was the beginning of "Chansons d'amour". We just play the Ford Amphitheatre here in LA, which was just a magical night. I'm not sure what the future holds but it's always a pleasure to share the stage with Amanda.

What will you be working on next?
Catching up on sleep! I've got several concerts with Linda Purl and 3 Men plus taking Chanteur on the road.

You have a growing wealth of artists recording on your label (available at, including such well-known artists as Lea Salonga, David Durnham, and Lee Lessack and Amanda McBroom. Can you tell me about a couple of artists with whom we may not be as familiar that we should check out?
Susan Egan has a new CD coming out next month called "The Secret of Happiness" and it's really gorgeous. I also distribute the entire Nancy LaMott catalogue for Midder Music, which I'm very proud of. Nancy was one of the greatest song interpreters of our time and she passed away much too soon.

I couldn’t agree more about Nancy LaMott, pure, delightful, brutal honesty in her interpretation of song with a voice that was always lyrical, beautiful, and moving. She was a master of the cabaret form, and a phenomenally gifted singer. Everyone should own the full catalog of Nancy’s performances. Listen to My Heart is a great option for getting started, if you having been living under a rock and have never heard Nancy’s music. Thanks,

Monday, October 17, 2011

Question of the Week: What's the Deal with the Fall Season?

Is it the fall season, or is it just me? Truly--and I don't mean to be overly dramatic about this, even though arguably this is exactly the place for it--I can't figure out why this season feels so lackluster, and why I can't connect with anything out there. Granted, as evidenced (I hope) in my post from a few weeks back, Follies was well worth the price of admission. And also granted, the season is still relatively young. But last week, I planned to grab some tickets and see a show at the spur of the moment, and and for the first time in, like, forever, I just couldn't muster up the energy to see anything.

So I ask: is this me, or is there something up with this season? Is there in fact too much of the same old shit out there? Is it that all the real drama, down on Wall Street and across the country, is sucking the energy out of the theater at the moment? Are my own admittedly middlebrow, mainstream tendencies causing me to miss out on something fabulous in some small park, abandoned warehouse, or blackbox theater in the further reaches of our huge city? Hae I just tired of the same old gimmicks, the same old family dramas, the same old revivals, even the same old attempts to be avant garde? What am I missing? What must I see? Or are you as down on the season as I am? Please, weigh in!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Michael Holland's Putting a Spell on Broadway: An Interview

Several years ago, a friend insisted I had to see Gashole. I actually misread his e-mail invitation as Gash Ole. Turns out, it was not a Mexican drag act. I was too sick to go to the theatre, sneezing and coughing almost non-stop, spraying more toxic air than a beauty-pageant hairdresser. Sitting in the second row, the performers should have had Haz-Mat suits, and I should have stayed home. I’m glad I didn’t. Gashole (aka Michael Holland and Karen Mack) should be regulated by the FDA—they were good medicine. I became an instant fan and make it a point to catch Hole-O-Matic a few times a year. The premise of the Hole experience involves a fish bowl, harmonious wit, witty harmonies, and several dozen songs you don’t know all the words to (and neither do they) filleted, K-tel style, and reassembled into 2-minute comedic plays. Each mash-up is a complete journey. The mad genius behind each musical Frankenstein is Michael Holland, who commands the keys, the guitar strings, and the snark with equal finesse. But Michael is only a partial Gashole. He has now orchestrated his way into the Broadway revival of Godspell at Circle in the Square. Michael is more than the man behind other people’s music, though. He premiered an original musical, Hurricane, at the NYMT festival in 2009 and has released multiple CDs of original music. And there’s so much more to be heard from Michael Holland.
RS: How many years have you been doing Gashole (Hole-O-Matic)? Tell me about the history of that collaboration with Karen Mack?
MH: Unbelievably, Gashole has been terrorizing audiences for ten years now! The short version is that Karen and I were booked to perform at an arts festival in the legendary showbiz mecca of Indiana. They wanted an hour-long set of about a dozen hits from the 70’s – but we were only able to narrow it down to 34, so we just did bits of those, all mushed together. I had recently moved back to the city from Provincetown, where I’d had a group called Comfortable Shoes… a group, it should be mentioned, that I did not name. Anyway, I’d already been experimenting with the phenomenon of mashups with that project – ‘5th Dementia” is one medley that comes to mind – so I just took the idea a little further for the 70’s gig. The show was a blast, so when we got home we decided to do it at Don’t Tell Mama. Luckily, Sidney Myer, who books the room, decided to let us, and we decided to call it Gashole, for reasons that elude us in retrospect. We planned to run it for three weeks and be done with it, but it proved popular and kept getting extended, so many times that we had to come up with new versions. So we had an 80’s sequel, Ice Gasholes, the seasonally-themed Gashole: Summer Wind (think about it), and our holiday edition, Gasholy Night, among many others. The latest incarnation, Hole-O-Matic, draws on our last decade of mayhem, where the audience designs the show by picking cards from a 130-plus-card Rolodex of mashups, solos and the occasional original tune, and throwing them into a big bowl to be picked at random after we finally show up. It’s all very glamorous.
The two of you have a rapport that is intimate, intuitive, and you seem to entertain one another as much as the audience. Do you think Gas Hole will be an ongoing part of your career regardless of what else happens, and how do you see your collaboration evolving?
Define “career.” We certainly never expected it to last this long, but as long as people keep turning up, who are we to deny them their twisted tastes? From our perspective, the show never gets stale, since it’s different every time, and we’re able to add new material whenever we feel like it, which is fairly often. Besides, the same kinds of things still make us laugh, and we like the same parts of mostly the same songs, so why stop? We’ve been able to develop a loyal if demented following here in New York, but we’ve also had incredible experiences performing in Europe, the Caribbean, and St Paul, Minnesota. Now that’s an itinerary.
You also do solo work. Talk about your solo work and CDs.
I started out on the singer/songwriter track, and was able to release four self-produced CDs on a couple of small labels, from 1993-2003. Most are out of print at the moment, though a couple, Darkness Falls (1999) and Beach Toys Won’t Save You (2003) are available on iTunes and the like. I also arranged and produced Comfortable Shoes’ Happy Joy, not to mention Karen’s disc, Take That. I’ve got enough material in the vaults for another ten albums at least, but lately my fortunes appear to lie elsewhere. I love making the things, and the whole studio process, but I’m not as crazy about the watching-them-trickle-out-of-my-apartment part. Maybe some day I’ll do another, but nothing’s planned for the immediate future….
What was the process of writing Hurricane (your original musical) and getting it produced like?
I got the idea in 2004, while another show I had written music and lyrics for was playing at the New York Fringe Festival. I grew up in Southern New England, and had heard stories about the Great Hurricane of 1938 from relatives all my life. Basically what happened was that a huge hurricane hit the coast of Rhode Island completely unannounced – there was one kid at what was then called the National Weather Bureau who saw it coming, but no one would listen to him. I knew the story, but had never considered musicalizing it till then. As soon as I thought of it, I tried to put it out of my mind as impossible, but the idea kept waking me up in the middle of the night, literally for months, until I caved in and decided to try solving it. Karen had produced the Fringe show, and so with her help, we did a few readings, went through a handful of directors, and eventually wound up with a sold-out NYMF production in 2009.
What is happening with that project?
Well, we made a lot of noise at the festival. A cast of 30 can do that, as well as word that you kill the kids onstage! I mean, come on – 5,6,7,8! So right now I’m in talks with a producing team, trying to map out what’s next. I can’t talk about it much more than that, but stay tuned.
What other original works are you currently working on?
After Godspell opens, I’m supposed to write music and lyrics for a new show, if we can work out the details, but it looks like it’s happening. I’m also writing a new show called Lady, with Eric Bernat, who collaborated with me on the book of Hurricane.
How did your involvement with Godspell come about?
Stephen Schwartz has been a friend for years, and a great supporter of my work. One day I got an email from him, saying something to the effect of “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve submitted your name as a possible orchestrator for the Broadway revival of Godspell.” I mean, the nerve, right? So I had to submit a couple of spec arrangements to the team, and I eventually got the gig.
The show is now in previews. Is your work basically done or are changes being made?
The bulk of it is done, but little tweaks have been happening as all the elements come together. Of course, it’s probable that audience reaction will dictate changes as well, which could mean anything from minor adjustments to full-scale upheaval. But that’s what the preview process is for, and it’s all pretty exciting. The cast is incredible, and they sing their faces off.
With your work in Gashole, you get to play with the best 30 seconds of a song. With Godspell you have to deal with the entire score. What’s that like?
I just take the best 30 seconds of each song, and then repeat 6 times. Actually, these particular songs are as much a part of my musical vocabulary as any of the pop in Gashole. The Godspell cast album was a very important one in my formative years. The main difference between this job and the ‘Hole is that I now have ten voices to play with instead of two, and a whole band of amazing musicians to flesh things out. And I don’t have to be the boss: the musical director is Charlie Alterman, who is brilliant and hilarious – it’s all pretty deluxe. And I have managed to include at least one Gashole-style mashup to the proceedings!...
So, what’s next for you and where can people see you?
Godspell opens at Circle in the Square on November 7, so you can see me there! Gashole will be back up and running shortly thereafter at Don’t Tell Mama (scene of the crime), so check your local listings. Also, I’m hoping in 2012 to put together at least one evening of some of my talented friends singing my songs somewhere; that’s in the planning stages as we speak. And of course, be on the lookout for Hurricane and Lady news… has been under construction since 2002 – sounds like my motto – but it may actually get born now that I have a real, big-boy job!

Saturday, October 01, 2011


I think Liz stole my best lines in her review of Follies last week—my damn procrastination foils me again! Seriously, though, my colleague and I share much of the same impression of the show. The grapevine told us that the newest incarnation (recently extended until January 22nd) couldn’t touch its predecessors. Yet, both of us, as first-time Follies goers, immediately understood the musical’s long-lasting appeal.

Yes, some of the staging needs re-thinking. The wrinkled gray sheets that drape the inside of the Marquis Theater, with their staples and safety pins, seem more reminiscent of a high school theatrical group set rather than a device that invokes a decrepit theater on the brink of destruction. As Liz mentioned, the odd showgirl fluttering and posing in the shadows of an already dimmed stage like lingering specters of a long-gone age never enhances the narrative and seems like forced symbolism. Despite these things, the poignancy of Sondheim’s story about a reunion of show people still soars. The soon-to-be dismantled theater they once performed in serves as an appropriate backdrop as the characters remember their past and reveal the imperfect present.

Most of the storytelling surrounds the relationships of two showgirls Sally (performed with endearing fragility by Bernadette Peters) and Phyllis (a tough-as-nails yet vulnerable Jan Maxwell) and the beaus who court them, Buddy (Danny Burstein) and Ben (Ron Raines). In flashback sequences—shown in a split-screen like effect with the past interrupting the present action—we see their younger selves first portrayed with vibrancy and hope, and later amid the conflicts, which will haunt their future circumstances. This discord infiltrates the show as characters visit and reminisce, lies are uttered and exposed, and the unhappy pine for their youth. The other showgirls also offer the audience bits of their past and what they became, interweaving their stories through the central plot. In this huge cast, some impress more than others. Jayne Houdy Shell (Hattie) knocks out the perennial favorite “Broadway Baby” with a youngster’s gusto despite the eyeglasses that hang from a chain around her neck. Another classic number, “I’m Still Here,” though, suffers in a lackluster rendition by Elaine Paige, arranged with little movement or passion, which probably says more about the staging than the singer. Frankly, much of the song staging needs recalibration—too much relies on a singer standing stage center, moving stiffly side to side as if on a conveyer belt. Other numbers feel too long, such as the second-act “Folly” section, which could benefit from tightening.

Ultimately, the show still compels. Sondheim never shies from showing the despair of unmet desires or the tight-lipped seething of unfulfilled lovers—and, despite the characters’ flaws, all engage and fascinate. Every song reveals insight; I haven’t seen a musical in a long time containing so many layers (Well, maybe Next to Normal). There are no throwaway or spectacle pieces here, shoehorned in just to add glitter or glory. Every big moment offers purpose. To echo Liz’s sentiment: in a world where theater, at least on Broadway, relies on happily-ever-after revivals or familiar tested storylines transported from film and books, this show offers more authenticity and originality in revival than the first-run material currently out there.
(Purchased ticket, orchestra seat)