Hello, Thornton!

In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I review an important regional revival, Asolo Rep’s production of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker. Here’s an excerpt.

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The best American play, Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” is also the most popular American play. While this is a nice coincidence—if you want to call it that—Wilder’s other full-length plays don’t get done much nowadays, in part because everybody does “Our Town” instead of “The Skin of Our Teeth” or “The Matchmaker,” which ran on Broadway for 486 performances but hasn’t returned there since it closed in 1957.

In both cases, scale is also part of the problem: It takes 16 actors to do “The Matchmaker” and more than two dozen for “The Skin of Our Teeth,” on top of which “The Matchmaker” requires four sets, thus putting it out of the reach of cash-conscious drama companies. In addition, “The Matchmaker” has the further disadvantage of having been turned into a musical, Jerry Herman’s “Hello, Dolly!” The colossal success of Herman’s brassy simplification of Wilder’s play inevitably pushed “The Matchmaker” still further into the wings, where it seemed fated to remain until Sarasota’s Asolo Repertory Theatre came along. Asolo Rep is a professional theater company that is also a drama school, meaning that it can cast student actors in smaller parts. This allows it to produce rarely seen large-cast Broadway plays like “Once in a Lifetime,” which it mounted to splendid effect in 2012. “The Matchmaker” is another natural choice for the company, and I’m overjoyed to report that Asolo has done right by one of the sweetest and smartest romantic farces ever written.

MatchmakerRoeder“The Matchmaker,” like Tom Stoppard’s “On the Razzle,” is freely based on “Einen jux will er sich machen,” an 1842 comedy by the Viennese farceur Johann Nestroy. If you’ve seen “Hello, Dolly!” (and who hasn’t?) then you know the plot, in which Horace Vandergelder (Steve Hendrickson), a grumpy businessman-widower of a certain age, seeks the counsel of Dolly Levi (Peggy Roeder), an impecunious matchmaker of like vintage, and ends up popping the question to her instead of the much younger milliner (Olivia Williamson) with whom Dolly purports to be setting him up. This being a farce, what Dolly really has in mind for the unwitting Horace is—of course—exactly what happens as the curtain falls…

According to Wilder, “The Matchmaker” is a parody of the stock-company farces that he saw as a boy. But it’s also a wholly serious restatement of the theme that he first explored in “Our Town,” which is the importance of making the most of the “world full of wonderful things” in which we live….

Peter Amster, who staged Asolo’s excellent 2013 revival of “You Can’t Take It With You,” another budget-busting Broadway hit, has done comparable justice to “The Matchmaker,” taking Wilder’s script seriously (though always with the lightest of touches) rather than using it as a point of departure for directorial foozling. Mr. Hendrickson, whose booming, raspy voice and hair-trigger irascibility recall George C. Scott, is ideal as Horace, and Ms. Roeder’s no-nonsense Jewish-grandma Dolly is just the woman to awaken his shriveled soul….

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Read the whole thing here.

The theatrical trailer for the 1958 film version of The Matchmaker, directed by Joseph Anthony, adapted from Wilder’s play by John Michael Hayes, and starring Shirley Booth as Dolly Levi:

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So you want to see a show?

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.

Cabaret (musical, PG-13/R, virtually all performances sold out last week, closes Mar. 29, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, reviewed here)
On the Town (musical, G, contains double entendres that will not be intelligible to children, reviewed here)

The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)

The Elephant Man (drama, PG-13, contains partial nudity, all performances sold out last week, closes Feb. 21, reviewed here)

Saint Joan (drama, PG-13, remounting of off-Broadway production, closes Feb. 8, original production reviewed here)

One Slight Hitch (comedy, PG-13, extended through Jan. 31, reviewed here)

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Almanac: George Bernard Shaw on taste

INK BOTTLE“A man of great common sense and good taste—meaning thereby a man without originality or moral courage.”

George Bernard Shaw, “Notes: Julius Caesar,” Caesar and Cleopatra)

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Lookback: Johnny Carson, R.I.P.

LOOKBACKFrom 2005:

Johnny Carson, who died this morning at the age of 79, devoted most of his adult life to that most ephemeral of endeavors, hosting a late-night talk show. I must have seen several hundred episodes of The Tonight Show in my lifetime, and I even went out of my way to watch the last one, yet I doubt I’ve thought of Carson more than once or twice in the thirteen years since he retired, just as I doubt that anyone now alive can quote from memory anything he said on any subject whatsoever….

Read the whole thing here.

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Almanac: T.S. Eliot on modernity and authority

INK BOTTLE“The vast accumulations of knowledge—or at least of information—deposited by the nineteenth century have been responsible for an equally vast ignorance. When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when every one knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not. And when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.”

T.S. Eliot, “The Perfect Critic”

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Wagner, the Jews, and the rest of us

Wagner_Caricature_17_Paris-207x300Mosaic, the online magazine of Jewish thought, recently published an important essay by Nathan Shields called “Wagner and the Jews” that has caused much discussion. The editors invited Ed Rothstein and me to respond to the piece. My response is out today.

Here’s an excerpt:

In one of those grisly juxtapositions that are so characteristic of life under the aspect of postmodernity, my first reading of “Wagner and the Jews” was interrupted by the breaking news of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and its aftermath, a second massacre in a Paris kosher supermarket. The smoke had hardly cleared before a prominent British newspaper was publishing a story that started off like this: “More than half of British Jewish people fear Jews have no future in the UK, according to a new study which also reveals that anti-Semitic sentiments are more prevalent than widely believed.” Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, had already informed the world that “every French Jew I know has either already left or is working out how to leave.” Europe, it would seem, is well on the way to becoming—to use a term favored by Richard Wagner’s most prominent admirer—Judenfrei.

Hence the uncanny timeliness of “Wagner and the Jews,” in which Nathan Shields takes a searching and persuasive look at the ways in which Wagner’s operas embody his anti-Semitic obsessions. The human capacity for self-deception is and will always be infinite, but I cannot imagine that any lover of Wagner’s music who reads Shields’ essay with an open mind will thereafter find it possible to erect a cordon sanitaire separating the composer’s operas from his ideas. They are consubstantial, as he meant them to be, and those who think otherwise are ignoring the self-evident assertions of their creator, who believed his work to be the New Testament of a religion of art…

Especially in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacres, the contemporary parallel with the identically all-encompassing fanaticism of radical Islam is impossible to ignore. The history of the twentieth century, as Shields reminds us, was a history of political Gesamtkunstwerken, a succession of failed totalities, one of which was brought into being by a painter manqué who took care to assure the world that “I became a politician against my will. If someone else had been found, I would never have gone into politics; I would have become an artist or a philosopher.” So, too, is radical Islam just such a totality, a monolith in which both the personal and political are religious. Like Hitler and like Wagner before him, the mullahs are deranged idealists who hate the world as it is and wish to make it over again. They come as saviors and offer us redemption, and in return all we need do is surrender our selves….

Read the whole thing here.

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Just because: Wilhelm Furtwängler conducts Wagner

TV CAMERAWilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic perform Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture in 1942 at a “Strength Through Joy” concert given at a German factory. The performance comes from Zeit im Bild, a Nazi propaganda film:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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