I’m taking a week off from my Wall Street Journal drama column in order to recuperate from the premiere of The Letter. This is the first time I’ve skipped a column since I nearly died in 2005. I think I’ve earned a little holiday, don’t you?
See you next week.
Archives for July 2009
“A comedy is just a tragedy interrupted, I once said. Do you finish with the kiss or when she opens her eyes to tell him she loves him and sees blonde hairs on his collar?”
Alan Ayckbourn, “A Crash Course in Playwriting”
As the house lights went down just before nine o’clock last night in preparation for the second performance of The Letter, lightning crackled in the distance and dark clouds scudded across the moon that shone down on Santa Fe. Paul Moravec pointed up and said, “Look–it’s just like the first scene of the movie!” And sure enough, it was.
Gorgeously theatrical-looking bolts of lightning split the sky throughout the first four scenes of the opera, but nary an unintended sound was heard in the open-air theater until the moment in the sixth scene when Mika Shigematsu handed the fatal letter to Rodell Rosel. “This is the correct document, sir,” Rodell sang to Jim Maddalena. Then an ominous peal of thunder rolled over the mesa. I could almost hear the packed house shuddering. Nature is the best designer, I thought, hugging myself with delight.
Nature got a bit out of hand in the last scene. A gusty wind blew through the theater, knocking several plates and wine glasses off the dinner table at center stage just before Pat Racette started singing her big aria. I was briefly afraid that it would upstage her, but I should have known better. Instead of being intimidated by the wind, Pat used it, striding across the stage with utter self-confidence, and received a well-deserved round of applause for having risen so fearlessly to the occasion.
Alas, the wind kept on blowing, and when I saw the ground cloth billowing beneath the singers’ feet, I felt sure that Patrick Summers, the conductor, would have to stop the show. But everyone kept their heads, and the opera continued all the way to the final blackout without further incident. Paul and I had been asked to take a curtain call, and we burst through the stage door just in time to see the members of the cast laughing as they waited in the wings to take their bows. “You are the greatest trouper who ever lived!” I told Pat.
If you read what I wrote in this space after the opening-night performance of The Letter, you’ll recall that I was unable to hear the applause from the wings on Saturday, nor could I see the audience when Paul and I went on stage for our curtain call. Not so last night! I had no trouble hearing the reassuring sounds of clapping and cheers and seeing the happy people in the first few rows of seats, not to mention the musicians in the pit, all of whom were grinning broadly. By then we were feeling pretty loose, and when Paul and I stepped back from the lip of the stage to join the cast for a group call, I said the only thing possible under the circumstances: “Well, we blew ’em away!” Everyone in the company was hooting as we trotted into the wings. No sooner did I catch sight of Duane Schuler and Paul Horpedahl, the lighting designer and head of production, than I fixed them both with a steely gaze and said, “O.K., guys–keep the lightning, kill the wind!”
So what was it like to watch the rest of the second performance of The Letter? On the whole, I had a lot more fun. Until the wind started blowing, I wasn’t nervous at all, and it felt this time as though I were seeing a show that I’d written. The audience laughed in all the right places and fell silent on cue, an indication that the opera was working the way it was intended to work. The only difference was that on Wednesday, we got applause during the show, after each of the three main arias and (much to Paul’s and my surprise) immediately following the central flashback. Mrs. T told me that the ovation at the end was, if anything, even more fervent than on Saturday.
I’ll be in town until Tuesday, long enough to see the third performance on Monday night, but the pressure is off. It seems clear–gratifyingly, gloriously clear–that Paul and I have succeeded in writing a modern opera that goes over with audiences in a big way, which is what we set out to do. From here on, I’m going to sit back and enjoy myself. Whatever lies in store for The Letter is out of my hands. For now, it’s time to bask in the applause and revel in the moment.
Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
• Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (comedy, G, suitable for bright children, reviewed here)
• Avenue Q * (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, closes Sept. 13, reviewed here)
• The Little Mermaid * (musical, G, entirely suitable for children, closes Aug. 30, reviewed here)
• South Pacific * (musical, G/PG-13, some sexual content, brilliantly staged but unsuitable for viewers acutely allergic to preachiness, reviewed here)
• The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
• Our Town (drama, G, suitable for mature children, reviewed here)
• Ruined (drama, PG-13/R, sexual content and suggestions of extreme violence, closes Sept. 6, reviewed here)
“I am not suggesting that witnessing a spate of appallingly bad plays is a creditable method of learning how to write a good one, but it has its points. Though I had no idea whatever of writing plays at that time–the thought never crossed my mind–I am certain that some of those expository first acts, some of the ineptitudes of those second-act climaxes, and some of the stunning lack of invention in those third acts must somehow have seeped into my inner consciousness. The big ‘hit’ of any season always seems absurdly simple; so effortlessly does it unfold, that it almost seems as though it could not have been written any other way. Watch a failure on the same subject, and you will see by what a slim margin the mistakes have been by-passed, the cul-de-sacs averted in the hit.”
Moss Hart, Act One
If you live within range of KSFR, Santa Fe’s public radio station, I’ll be talking about jazz–and, more than likely, about The Letter–on “Good Morning Jazz,” John Greenspan’s Wednesday-morning jazz program, which airs from nine a.m. to noon MT (that’s eleven a.m. to two p.m. ET). Tune your radio to 101.1 FM, or go here to listen on the Web via streaming audio.
I’m about to head into the studio, so tune in now!
Billie Holiday sings “Fine and Mellow” on The Sound of Jazz, originally telecast on CBS in 1957. The soloists (in order) are Ben Webster on tenor saxophone, Lester Young on tenor saxophone, Vic Dickenson on trombone, Gerry Mulligan on baritone saxophone, Coleman Hawkins on tenor saxophone, and Roy Eldridge on trumpet:
(This is the latest in a weekly series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Wednesday.)
”A man who tells me my play is very bad, is less my enemy than he who lets it die in silence. A man, whose business it is to be talked of, is much helped by being attacked.”
Samuel Johnson (quoted in James Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides
I’m still knocked out from the protracted siege of work that led to the premiere of The Letter in Santa Fe last Saturday. I’ve been doing my best to get some rest, but the aftermath of an opening night can be almost exhausting as the prelude to it. I’ve been inundated with calls and e-mail from friends and colleagues, and I also have a couple of looming deadlines that are keeping me from basking in the echoes of last week’s applause. Mrs. T and I are going to a concert of Paul Moravec’s chamber music tonight, and we’ll be seeing the second performance of The Letter on Wednesday. My guess is that both occasions will be enormously gratifying–not least because I won’t have anything to do but sit and listen.
Needless to say, not everybody liked The Letter as much as the first-nighters who cheered us to the echo. My old colleagues at the Washington Post, for instance, published a scorched-earth pan on Monday, the thrust of which was that Paul and I should take up another line of work. I can’t say I enjoyed reading it, but I believe I can stand the heat. I ought to be able to: after all, I’ve been dishing it out for most of my professional life! Gian Carlo Menotti, a hugely successful opera composer who got more than his share of bad reviews, claimed to be dismissive of critics. “They often spoil my breakfast but never my lunch,” he said. For my part, I’m old enough by now to be reasonably sure of myself, and I plan to have a good lunch today.
Meanwhile, life goes on: I have to finish writing a Commentary essay on Alan Ayckbourn, a task that would be more pleasant if I weren’t so tired but from which I wouldn’t dream of shirking. So excuse me while I get back to work. Writing opera libretti is great fun, but it doesn’t pay the bills.
UPDATE: I just finished the Ayckbourn essay and sent it off. Twenty-eight hundred words, thank you very much! Shall I take a nap now? Or perhaps I should get going on another libretto….
“A newspaper that wishes to make its fortune should never waste its columns and weary its readers by praising anything.”
Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now