Thursday, June 26, 2014


Joan Marcus
It's one thing to enter the canon; it's another to do so while simultaneously bucking just about everything the canon dictates in the first place.

I've been thinking a lot about Cabaret since I saw the Mendes revival (of the revival) last week. I've been thinking that a big part of what makes Cabaret such a masterpiece is its central dichotomy: it is an incredibly compelling, brilliantly scored stage musical that goes against everything we have been conditioned to assume we're going to get from a stage musical. Cabaret is the most ingenious, inspired, total bummer of a musical I can think of, and certainly that I have ever seen.

Yeah, I know musicals are varied and that there's no one type and that it's hard to generalize them, and all that. But still, an awful lot of American stage musicals rely on structures and tropes and trajectories that we see over and over and over again: boy meets girl, loses girl, wins girl back. Love saves the day even in times of despair. The community prevails even when terrible things happen. In the saddest musicals I can think of--Carousel, West Side Story, Fiddler, Hedwig and the Angry Inch--people die, love is denied, families and neighborhoods are torn apart, bad things happen to beloved characters. But then, audiences are always left with hope, even if just the teeniest ray of it: Billy gives his lonely, outcast daughter a star, and the whole community sings a song of strength. Maria tells everyone off after Tony dies, and the gangs imply that things will improve, or at least that they heard what she said and will take it seriously. Tevye and his neighbors are driven from their homes, but he grudgingly wishes his intermarried daughter well, and takes his traditions with him to the new world where, we presume, he'll be safe. Hedwig releases Yitzhak from bondage and gets the audience to wave their hands in solidarity with him as he sings a big rock anthem. There's always hope. Always. Even if it's very far off in the distance.

But Cabaret? Not a goddamned glimmer. The musical is set at the dawn of Nazi Germany, for chrissakes, so all there is for the characters is certain misery, angst, and fear. And Totalitarianism. Also, for many of them, suffering, torture, and death. No hope--not even, as Sally Bowles would say, an inkling. Cabaret is a musical that dangles dread in your face from the second the lights go down and the first notes of the opening number sound. Wilkommen? Bienvenue? Welcome, my ass. The music sounds great and the Emcee is beckoning, but we all already know that he's the embodiment of a country gone insane. We're in for two-plus hours with a group of characters who are manically forcing themselves to go gleefully through the motions as the city around them teeters on the brink of hell. Sure, they all get to drink, do drugs and have increasingly unsettling sex while the decline is happening, which is some small comfort for them and for us: It's nice to self-medicate in times of crisis. Anyway, it keeps the terror and the hunger at bay. 

Monday, June 23, 2014


It's easy to see why The Mint might choose to revive Jules Romains' comedy Donogoo. In its sarcastic skewering of business and ambition, it is as pertinent now as it was in the 1920s. However, in its careless sexism and racism, it is badly outdated. I imagine there might be a way to direct Donogoo that enhances its strengths and mitigates its weaknesses--or at least puts them in context. However, director Gus Kaikkonen (who also translated the play from its original French) did not find it. In fact, his direction is cheap, gimmicky, and inconsistent, and the production is mediocre at best.

The show begins with our protagonist Lamendin (the woefully miscast James Riordan) on a bridge considering suicide. A friend sees him, convinces him to stay alive, and sends him to a physician who will cure him--as long as Lamendin does exactly what the physician says. Lamendin does and ends up on a trek that leads him deep into the jungles of South Africa, following a silly scam that has developed a life of its own.

Is Lamendin a passive--and lucky--naif? Is he a born salesman who accidentally finds his calling? Is he a megalomaniac-in-waiting? I suspect that he might be a bit of all three, but his moments of confidence and fear do not add up to a character or an arc.

Along the way, Lamendin meets dozens of people, many with their eyes on the main chance. They are played with various levels of humor and competence by 15 performers, some of whom deserve much better. (It's always a pleasure to see George Morfogen, and I suspect Mitch Greenberg might make a more creditable Lamendin.)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Side Show

Watching the revised version of Side Show (book and lyrics by Bill Russell, music by Henry Krieger) at the Kennedy Center is a multilayered experience to fans of the original, particularly those who know the CD, and even the show, by heart. It's difficult to be totally immersed when part of you is doing a running compare-and-contrast. Hmm, I like the costumes a lot. Hmm, great set. Hmm, they're not Alice and Emily , but they're pretty good. Hmm, interesting to have the "freaks" actually depicted rather than left mostly to the imagination. Oh, wait, great lyric change. Hey, where did that song go? Hmm, that new song is a really good idea.

Emily Padgett, Erin Davie
Photo: Cade Martin
Little by little, however, the show entices you in, and little by little Erin Davie and Emily Padgett win you over on their own terms, and pretty soon, you realize, wow, this is good! Wow, this is very good! And by the time the final curtain goes down, you're completely involved. Bottom line: this revision is pretty darn wonderful.

Side Show is the story of Daisy (Padgett) and Violet (Davie) Hilton, conjoined twins who spent most of their lives on display, from side shows to vaudeville to the movies. They made a great deal of money but ended up working in a supermarket in Charlotte, NC, and died very close to penniless. Side Show follows--and somewhat fictionalizes--their lives from childhood to the beginning of their movie career.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Photo: Yoshi Kametani
The original production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which ran Off Broadway at the Jane Street Theater from February 1998 to April 2000, was a show I followed more closely than any other I can think of. Hedwig opened at around the time I began work on my dissertation, which was on rock musicals (and which later became my book, The Theatre Will Rock). Because I happened to be friendly with the show's press agents, I saw the show a whole bunch of times with a bunch of different people in the title role. I also interviewed people involved with the show, crashed the album release party and an MTV promo shoot, and, in the process, grew very fond of the production, which I thought about, troubled over, and wrote about a lot.
When news broke that Hedwig was being revived on Broadway--with Neil Patrick Harris in the title role, no less--my immediate reaction was to decide not to see it. This was not only because I felt way too connected to the original production to be kind or patient with the revival, but because the original production was sixteen fucking years ago--when, as Hedwig would say, I was in my early late twenties--and I have a long history of falling prey to nostalgia. Where did the time go, and all that. It didn't help matters that, frankly, I can be an oppositional, overly-critical asshole for no good reason. But friends, colleagues, and my grad students all gently told me that my refusal to see the show was absolute bullshit, so I relented and bought tickets. 

As usual, I was wrong and they were right. Of course the show was worth seeing again, not only because the revival is a very good production that has changed (matured?) for the better in some significant ways, but also because seeing Hedwig after all these years was less traumatic than I'd imagined. Yes, the revival made me wistful and a little sad, but then again, I expected that. In the end, even though I've heard all his jokes before, it sure was nice to catch up with such a dear old friend after so many years. Especially since he's grown up to be Neil Patrick Harris.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill

When one monstrously talented person impersonates another monstrously talented person, the desire to resort to cliches doubles in intensity. And since seeing Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill on Tuesday evening, I admit I've been struggling with ways to talk about the show that don't resort to trite blathering about how incredible and heartbreaking Holiday was, or how incredible and heartbreaking McDonald's portrayal of her is.

But believe me when I tell you that every single blathery, trite, cliched superlative I can come up with applies here. At least when it comes to McDonald's performance, which is brilliant, sublime, superb, extraordinary.

The show itself is not quite as superlative, but I don't think that matters, at least not in this case. There have been other productions that I can't speak to: Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill premiered in Atlanta in 1986 and opened Off Broadway at the Vineyard in the same year (S. Epatha Merkerson, later of Law & Order fame, took over for Lonette McKee as Holiday during that year-long run). It has been bouncing around the country in regional productions ever since. I can understand why--Lady Day is small and easily staged, and it allows for black, female actresses to take on a challenging, interesting character.

After all, Billie Holiday is, in the end, just the leading character of this show--a fictionalized one based closely on the real woman. What we see of Holiday in Lady Day is playwright Lanie Robertson's reimagining of a concert she gave to seven audience members at a rundown bar in South Philadelphia in March 1959. A few months later, Holiday would die at 44 of cirrhosis of the liver and heart disease, both the result of excessive drinking and heroin use. It has been pointed out by other critics that at this point in her life, Holiday probably would have been completely unintelligible, totally ravaged, impossible to listen to. It has also been pointed out that the real Holiday was a famously private performer who suffered recurring bouts of stage fright, and that she certainly wouldn't have chatted amicably and at great length between songs as she does here. 

Monday, June 09, 2014

The 68th Annual Tony Awards

See Hugh Jackman hop. See Hugh Jackman hop some more. Watch minutes pass that could have been devoted to a number from Bridges of Madison County. Wonder why Jackman is stealing a not-interesting bit from a movie. Remember last year's fabulous opening number. Wish Neil Patrick Harris could be in two places at one time.

Be really bored by the gay jokes. Wonder why Jackman, a man whose facial hair is possibly not his only beard, would tell quite so many.

Be really glad at the open same-sex affection.

See After Midnight's number be ruined by random camera work. See Aladdin be simultaneously overenergetic and underinteresting. See Rocky be the same. See Les Miz land like a second-rate middle-school production. Feel pummeled when Nikki James sings. See Violet's number fail to express its essential (and wonderful) Violet-ness.

See Hugh Jackman do something annoying. See Hugh Jackman do something else annoying. See Hugh Jackman fail to understand that it is not the Hugh Jackman show.

Post-Tony Snark

The Tony Awards are always my favorite awards ceremony, but this year they really pissed me off. And while I am the first to argue that the Tonys are never an accurate barometer of the broader state of commercial theater in New York or anywhere, I was nevertheless dismayed by the direction last night's broadcast chose to take.

Generally speaking, Broadway has been in a weird place for the past, oh, near-century or so. Once an epicenter for popular culture in this country, Broadway has been struggling to reclaim its legitimacy since at least the 1950s, when rock and roll came along and sent Tin Pan Alley packing. I sympathize--it's tough to be made to feel like you're past your prime. Thus, while I can be snarky and loudly critical sometimes, I'm nevertheless fairly supportive of whatever the theater industry chooses to do to keep musicals alive and relevant, not only because I love and believe in the theater (commercial and otherwise), but because, selfishly, I want to patronize it as much as I possibly can and would have to find something else to do with my life were it to go away.

That being said, last night's ceremony seemed to be imitating the bigger ceremonies--the Academy Awards, specifically--in ways that it shouldn't. I hope that next year's broadcast doesn't think these things were worth revisiting:

Friday, June 06, 2014

Much Ado About Nothing

The many productions of Much Ado About Nothing I have seen boasted wonderful Beatrices or wonderful Benedicks, but not since Sam Waterson and Kathleen Widdoes in the glorious AJ Antoon version (available on DVD) have I seen a wonderful Beatrice-Benedick pair.

Hamish Linklater, Lily Rabe
Photo: Tammy Shell
Last night, I went into the New York Shakespeare Festival production at the Delacorte, starring Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater, with optimism. Both performers are excellent, funny, likeable, and comfortable with Shakespearean language. Would they make the sexy, smart, evenly matched couple I've been hoping for since the 1970s?

Yes! They are everything I hoped for. Add to that smooth direction by Jack O'Brien, gorgeous design by John Lee Beatty, and nice acting by a largely strong cast, and this is a Much Ado to see.

Since I saw the third performance, it would be premature to give a full review, particularly in terms of any weaknesses (which were minimal). But it's not too early to say: get thee to the Delacorte.

And, speaking of the Delacorte--what a magical place it is! I've seen over a dozen shows there, some more than once, and every single time I walk up the stairs and into the theatre, my heart says Wow!

(won tickets in the lottery; row U, extreme audience right)

Song of Spider-Man

Song of Spider-Man--or, as it is more fully know in these post-colon-crazy days: Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History--is a must-read for anyone who is interested in musical theatre. Not because it's brilliant (it isn't) or incredibly insightful (ditto), but because it's engrossing and it exists. (For a long and thoughtful review by Liz Wollman, click here.)

I wish there were "making of" books or documentaries for dozens, if not hundreds, of shows, and I'm always grateful when one appears. In addition, Song of Spider-Man has the great advantage of being straight from one of the horse's mouths. Author Glen Berger cowrote Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark with director-creator Julie Taymor.

On the other hand, the glaring limit of any book like this--any memoir, really--is not knowing whether the writer is a reliable narrator of her or his own life. As recent research on memory has shown, even the most honest writer will still be wrong part of the time. Add to the weakness of human memory the strength of human ego, and all memoirs-autobiographies must be taken with Gibralter-sized grains of salt. My guess, and obviously it's a just a guess, is that Berger works extremely hard to be as honest as possible, and that his stories are nevertheless just as prey to the whims of memory as anybody else's.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

The Tonys are coming! The Tonys are coming!

Oh, my heart is filled with joy!

This year, more than perhaps any other, the race is wide open, just about every Tony award is up for grabs, and no one knows what the hell is going on.  Nevertheless, the good people at Oxford University Press asked me to write about the awards for their blog, so I did. You can link to the post RIGHT HERE. 

And remember what I said: don't give professed experts, futurists, or mind-readers any money, or let them set up a Tony pool for you. Unless it has something to do with NPH winning an award or Hugh Jackman being fabulous. Everybody loves those dudes.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

When it opened in November, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder got some of the best reviews of the season. Which is especially nice because it is a small, old-fashioned musical with no shit blowing other shit up, and no big names associated with it (unless you count Hugh Jackman's wife, who is one of the producers). It is not based on a well-known film, television show or book, and its original score is not even remotely based in contemporary pop song (it pays propers to Gilbert and Sullivan).

I say "especially nice" not because I am particularly partial to small shows in which no shit gets blown up by other shit, but because we are repeatedly being told that there is no longer room on Broadway for small, solid, non-branded, original shows that seem to come out of nowhere. So every time one opens--to raves, no less!--I can't help but cheer for the little guy.

That being said, this little guy has struggled pretty hard since it opened and got raved about in the press. Gentleman's Guide flew under the radar for months, (usually) grossing just enough to stay open. Apparently, through much of the run, there was no small amount of anxiety among performers who couldn't help but notice that they were playing to an awful lot of half-empty houses.

This has all changed in recent weeks. When the Tony nominations came out in April, Gentleman's Guide had been chugging along so quietly and so modestly for so long that there was real surprise about the fact that it got the most nods (ten) of any musical to open all year. Less surprising was the almost immediate box office bump: not 24 hours after the nominations were announced, tickets for the musical, previously abundant on all the discount sites, were suddenly hot and hard to come by. Within a week, Gentleman's Guide was reporting its highest grosses, ever. I know this because I'd assumed I'd just waltz in to see it a week or so before the Tony broadcast this Sunday. Oops.