About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Theatricality

January tends to be a bad time for live theatre in New York City.  The tourist trade dries up after the holiday season, and with maybe some action around President's Day doesn't seriously revive until the warmer weather and the Easter holidays and spring vacations.  Even the locals get out and about a little less during the coldest days of the year.  This year the economy is adding an extra burden.  A full-price seat to a Broadway musical is $120 now, a play a few dollars less.  Even a half-price ticket will run $65 when the TKTS booth surcharge and the "theater restoration fee" are added, and "cheap" seats in the back of the mezzanine $45 or more.  This isn't the best time to hunt down people with $100 or $250 to spend for a couple of seats.  Hence, the usual slate of shows planning to close after New Year's rather than try and wait out the winter for the more profitable spring and summer months is particularly robust.  I decided to spend some of my time this weekend getting in some of the soon to be dearly departed.

My first priority:  Spring Awakening, seen at the matinee on Saturday afternoon Dec. 20, 2008, at the Eugene O'Neill.  4 Slithy Toads.

I had first seen Spring Awakening in 30 months ago just ahead of its off-Broadway opening at the Atlantic Theater.  Sentimentalist pack rat that I am, I save my Playbills and jot down on the cover some notes on when I saw the show, what I thought of it, maybe other interesting notes.  This was what I wrote on my Playbill in 2006:  "The best new musical I've seen since, if not quite as good as, Parade.  It grabs me instantly, doesn't let go.  Establishes a fresh idiom in its staging and its musical style.  It does what a musical should without being cloying or predictable.  Many of the young cast are making off B'way debuts, and they're working so hard and so enthusiastically to sell this.  So SO SO good."  Most reviewers were equally taken with the show.  Behind the good reviews and good audience reaction, the show did a very quick transfer to Broadway, where it was by no means a sure thing because younger audiences are not the core theatregoing crowd.  The show built on good word of mouth, became a contender for the Tony Awards in spring 2007, and won several of them.  I was rooting for it, and I yearned to see the show on Broadway, but what's the rush when it's there every night?  Well, now, the show is going after January 18, so I suddenly had reason to do it instead of thinking about it, and I am still head over heels in love with this wonderful musical.  If you live in NYC, go see it.  Visit Broadway Box for your discount offer, and go.  See the show on tour.  Go, go, go.  The only change I'd make on my second viewing is to say that this may be better than Parade, which was the last musical to excite me as much.  I saw Parade twice and loved it, but I don't know if I'd have happily seen it five or ten times.  Having seen Spring Awakening on Broadway, I want to see it again before January 18, and again and again and again.

Spring Awakening is based on a German play by Frank Wedekind, and is about young people experiencing their sexual awakenings in an era in 19th century Germany when these sorts of things were not supposed to be discussed.  It doesn't sound like a cheerful topic, and I don't suppose that is is, but it's a beautiful story beautifully told by young men in the starchiest and stuffiest school uniforms who whip out handheld microphones to sing their innermost thoughts, and the young women in long dresses who find something stirring but know not what.  The musical score rocks, especially in major group #s like The B***h of Living and Totally F*****, but it's also got songs of remarkable delicacy like "The Word of Your Body," the closing number "The Song of Purple Summer," and the opening song "Mama Who Bore Me."  Some shows take pride in having a variety of musical styles that get to showcase the broad talents of the composers.  Parade is one of them, as is Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  Spring Awakening takes a different approach.  The music by Duncan Sheik is variations on a theme, in which the whole achieves something larger than any one song, while the lyrics by Steven Sater are gently poetic without going for easy rhymes.  In the aforementioned "Word of Your Body," there's a resonance between the long "o" sound in the words wound and bruise.  And I doubt you'd believe me if I said that a song driven by the long "o" in "wound" and "bruise" was a love song, you'd probably be dubious, but yet that's what it is.  It's a gorgeous and tender love song in multiple ways.  Furthermore, moderns musicals tend not to have scores as memorable as those of old classic shows like The Sound of Music, but Spring Awakening manages to achieve some level of resonance.  Not perhaps in a Carol Channing belting show tunes sort of way, but murmuring beneath the surface like blood pulsing just beneath the skin.  I haven't spent the past 30 months singing the songs of Spring Awakening, but when the band struck its music cues the tunes burbled up like water from a spring freshly uncovered.

The production is essentially the same as that which opened at the Atlantic.  The cast I saw at the Atlantic moved pretty much intact to Broadway, though as  I mentioned in an earlier post it was a plus that the role of the adult women in the show was recast.  That replacement Christine Estabrook continues in her role, and she hams up some of her parts a little bit more than I remembered but still nails it emotionally in the darker moments for her role.  Over the past year that original cast has drifted away, part out of necessity since the show requires that the actors not be too old for their parts.  Jonathan Groff and John Gallagher, Jr. have turned their roles into springboards for what should be promising careers.  Groff's lead role as one of the male students is now being played by Hunter Parrish.  I'm not familiar with Parrish, but he's a star of the Showtime series Weeds, and he's made a great career move by showing his chops on stage in Spring Awakening.  I had a very good view of his perch on stage when he wasn't singing (the cast intermixes with some audience members who have seats on stage to either side), and he seemed so happy to be in and part of the show, and he's really quite good when he's on.  But the current cast is good throughout.  Now, many of them are making Broadway debuts instead of off-B'way, but they're all still selling it with joy and verve and enthusiasm and talent to burn.

I'm glad the show had its two-plus years on Broadway, but sorry it isn't going to be more.  

In the evening, the half-price TKTS booth managed to cough up a great 6th row center seat for me at Gypsy, seen Saturday evening Dec. 20, 2008 at the St. James.  2 slithy toads.

Gypsy is considered by some to be one of the great American musicals, and I'd seen an earlier revival just four and some years ago with Bernadette Peters in the lead role, that of a stage mother, Rose, who won't take "no" for an answer as she oversees the vaudeville careers of her two daughters.  The older and more talented, June, eventually leaves her, and with her some of the more talented members of the small act she's formed around them.  The younger and supposedly less talented Louise then becomes the center of her mother's attention, and when she succeeds beyond her mother's imagining as a burlesque show stripper (the show is based on the memoirs of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee), it becomes a hard cross for mama to bear.  Rose is a very brassy character, and unfortunately Bernadette Peters for all her considerable talents (and I've seen her perform masterfully in shows like the original Sunday in the Park with George) does not have a lot of brass.  The production I saw four years ago simply wasn't very good.  One example:  this is considered to be a great American musical and does have some great songs that you may know, without knowing they're from Gypsy.  "May We Entertain You" is a good one that can get trotted out on an award's show at a moment's notice.  Then there's Together Wherever We Go.  "Wherever we go, whatever we do, we're gonna go through it together."  You might know the tune without realizing it, and have it come to mind just by reading the words.  In the Gypsy with Bernadette Peters, this famous number was tossed off with no joy as if an afterthought, when you want to at least have some sense in watching in an "ooooh, a famous song" kind of way.

That production was directed by the young and hip Sam Mendes, who directed the film American Beauty.  This new production is directed by the 90+ year old Arthur Laurents, who wrote the "book" (for those of you not in the know, the script for a musical is called the book, and consists of the spoken parts that aren't part of the music which would be supplied by a lyricist.  In some shows like Spring Awakening, the book and lyrics are by the same person, and in others like Gypsy not) for the production and is still at it now working on a new revival of West Side Story.  He brings more life by far to the material than does Mendes, who is less than half his age.  I'm still not totally satisfied with their approach to "Together Wherever We Go."  Both productions still rely on the choreography of the original by Jerome Robbins, who might not have known at the time which songs would be the keepers, but there's nonetheless more spring in the step of the actors and the orchestra in this song, and really in all of them.  More important, the star of this revival is Patti Lupone who is very much a diva and full of brass and who takes charge of the role and the stage and the audience.  

I don't think personally that Gypsy is a great American musical.  It has a lot of talent behind it, including Laurents and Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, all of whom are icons of the American musical theatre.  But to me, the first act drags on without much happening after a point.  I'm not sure there's enough fondness for either vaudeville or burlesque to make a memorial to them of much interest to my generation, and certainly not for any younger.  I can remember HBO doing some burlesque shows in its earliest years in the late '70s or early '80s and not many people any younger than me will remember.  It's got a lot of plot problems because it's hard to find a rooting interest in the domineering Rose or the mousy young Louise.  I'm happy to have at least seen a production that brings out the strengths of the show, but that the show will close even before Lupone's year long contract is up does say something about the show's ability to move an audience moving forward.  It's the kind of thing where you really probably should see a good production of Gypsy if you consider yourself a serious fan or devotee or acolyte or whatever of the American musical theatre, but we're kind of getting close to the edge of the "great books" debate here, where you're supposed to do it because it's good for you.

And then, Boeing Boeing, another revival, seen at the Longacre at the Sunday matinee, Dec. 21, 2008.  1 slithy toad.

This is a farce.  Comedy is hard, and good farce is very hard.  It's a kind of comedy of the extreme in which an outlandish situation develops and then builds and builds toward a hopefully very fast and very funny finale, often helped by an abundance of doors to make for well-timed entrances and exits to great humorous effect.  The best farce I've ever seen and perhaps the best farce ever is something called Noises Off, in which a British play is seen falling apart during performance from both sides of the stage to ever-increasing heights of hilarity.  I first saw it in my youth and enjoyed the first act immensely and then the second act not so much; when I found myself throwing up a bad meal into a trash can at the Port Authority Bus Terminal while making my way to the Shortline bus home, I had to come to the reluctant but firm conclusion that I may not have been in the best shape for judging the second act.  When the play was revived in late 2001, it was the perfect tonic to the 9/11 blues and I can confirm that the play is in fact quite delightful in all its acts.  An example of good farce is Lend Me a Tenor, in which the star of a Cleveland opera is tranquilized and a replacement must be found on short notice.  An example of the farce that dare not say its name is any episode of Scooby Doo in which Shaggy, Scooby and the villain are going in and out of the rooms in the old mansion.

Boeing Boeing is not a good farce.  It ran very briefly in an original Broadway run a long time ago, and this revival will have lasted less than a year, and that probably several months too long.  There are some laughts in it, so I don't want to be too harsh, but it's not well constructed and it takes way too long to go nowhere.  The premise is far more promising than that of Lend me a Tenor.  It's France, and a man is engaged to be married to a Lufthansa flight attendant.  And a TWA flight attendant.  And an Alitalia flight attendant.  This is set in the heyday of luxurious air travel when it was a glamor job to be an air hostess with a glamor uniform and a glamor tote, and he juggles the three of them by carefully tracking the flight times so that each will be in town for two days of the week.  When bad weather and faster planes arrive, all three of the flight attendants will be in town at the same time, along with an old college friend just visiting.  Alas, it's very slow to get going.  A good farce should establish its premise as quickly as possible and then build upon it.  In this play it takes something like 40 minutes for the third flight attendant to appear.  Why the wait?  We can figure out the idea within ten minutes, so get a move on...  The first two attendants having appeared together, you would expect to have the third coming back to the apartment, and the form dictates this would be a good way to close the first act.  As indeed it does.  But you've got all of those doors.  Have the stewardess walk in a door and surprise the three-timer and then bring the curtain down.  Here, we find out via phone call that the third is on her way.  I'd been wondering how the mechanics of having all three in one room would be handled to  humorous effect because it's a situation that isn't entirely funny and needs to be handled delicately.  Here, the solution is that you never actuall have all three in the apartment at once but just deal with them in different combinations of two, so the play never builds situationally beyond what we've already gotten in the first act.  And then instead of the bad guy having to rise to the occasion of digging himself out of a hole, the stewardesses resolve it for him.  One goes for the best friend, and another turns out to be playing a triple game of her own and finds true love with her boy in another city.  Good farce develops quickly and ascends the heights.  This builds slowly and then goes very flatly.  You have an abundance of doors to the foyer, the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom, the guest bedroom, and more, but the most action you get is at the most basic person A out door 1 right as person B is coming in door 2, never 3 doors at once.  The cast tries very hard and wrings I'm sure as much laughter as there is to be wrung, but it's not a very good play.

Neither is Speed-the-Plow, seen Sun matinee October 14, 2008, at the Barrymore.  .5 slithy toads.  David Mamet has done some great things, but this isn't one of them.  A Hollywood parable of something, act one shows us a smaller big-time Hollywood producer and his acolyte who have the chance to move up a notch with a big action movie.  In act 2, the big guy is seduced by a temp and agrees to spike the action movie for some artsy-fartsy thing.  In act 3, the younger producer can't believe this and restores order to the universe by throwing a hissy fit.  Mamet has explored the male bonding better in Glengarry Glen Ross, the battle of the sexes better in Oleanna, and it's not a very good play.  The role of the secretary is an awful one but nonetheless is a favorite for stunt casting.  Madonna played it in the original Broadway production, here Elisabeth Moss from AMC's "Mad Men."  It's still a bad role, and having actresses unfamiliar with the stage doing it doesn't make it any easier.  I recall Madonna being better.  Jeremy Priven (Entourage) plays the top dog producer.  OK.  Raul Esparza is the highlight.  He's a young Broadway actor who is capable of wonderful things, probably the best Bobby in the history of Sondheim's Company, and he makes the third act his own with a wonderful indelible hissy fit that should live in the annals.  But it's just not a good play.  I knew that from having seen the first time, only went again because it's included in my Atlantic membership, kind of wish I hadn't because of the opportunity cost.

Farragut North, seen Sun. matinee November 16, 2008 at the Atlantic's main stage, 2 slithy toads, was  worthier part of my membership.  Names for the Metro stop in downtown DC where all the K St. types go.  John Gallagher, Jr. from the original Spring Awakening cast now plays a 20-something high up in the press heirarchy of a presidential campaign during the primary season, but he finds out that immorality is still best done morally.  When he is outwitted, outlasted and outplayed in this game of political survivor, the only decision he has left is whether to take a high road or a low road to his next stop.  Gallagher is pleasant to watch and handles his role well, Isiah Whitlock, Jr. is exceptionally good as the wizened old hand at the helm of another campaign's press operations, and the rest of the cast all do what they're supposed to.  A perfectly pleasant way to pass the time.

That, at least, is off Broadway with off B'way pricing.  The problem with the now-deceased Title of Show, seen Thu. evening Sept. 25, 2008 at the Lyceum, 2 slithy toads, is that it's no more pleasant or unpleasant but costs twice as much.  Young creatives create a musical and then see it all the way to Broadway in a very pleasant very amiable more than enjoyable musical within a musical, but there's nowhere near enough meat on the bones to think anyone would pay $100+ for it.  And in fact, I'm not sure if anyone did. I paid half price, and that was more than what Variety reported as the average ticket price for the show most weeks.  But it's hard to make a profit on Broadway when you can only charge an off-Broadway price and still struggle to fill your seats.  

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a beautifully written review! I love Spring Awakening too. Have seen it 10 times and every time, there is something fresh and new to see. It really is that deep and probably the most innovative musical to come to Broadway in years. It's such a shame to see it come to an end on Broadway, but I hope audiences around the country won't miss the national tour.
Thank you, Spring Awakening, for all you've given me!

Lisa Iriarte said...

Your post brought back some memories. I performed in Gypsy as a child - one of the first two musicals I ever did (the other being Roar of the Greasepaint, Smell of the Crowd). In Gypsy, I was one of the news"boys". Not a big role, but a lot of fun for a 12-year-old.