When you say that, smile

CCPL6HlUEAE4eNRMrs. T and I missed the worst of the horrific winter just past, but we were intensely aware at all times of its viciousness. No sooner did we return from Florida at the beginning of March than our noses were rubbed in it, since we had to drive through what amounted to a tunnel of snow to get to our little farmhouse in rural Connecticut. Even now, six weeks later, a substantial patch of not-quite-white snow continues to cling insolently to the ground, and when we drove up to Connecticut last Sunday and saw snowflakes on the windshield of our car as we passed through Hartford, I briefly felt like crying.

The very next morning, though, I saw a crocus poking through the blanket of long-dead leaves that cover our front lawn. I had to forcibly restrain myself from waking Mrs. T up to tell her about it. I didn’t know about crocuses other than in theory before I met my wife, and even then it’s been rare for me to see the ones that she gleefully spies on our lawn each April. It’s customary for me to spend the whole of that month not in Connecticut but New York, covering the overwhelming crush of plays and musicals that open at the very end of the theater season. Hence I usually learn of the arrival of the crocuses of spring not at first hand but on the phone.

CB79i0VUEAAJ3W6To actually see one for myself was not merely a treat but downright therapeutic. Never before have I survived a winter that tested my equanimity so severely. By the end of it, I was wondering whether I had finally reached the time of life when I might need to give serious thought to living somewhere other than New York, not just for a month or two each year but permanently. I was downright desperate for sunlight and warmth.

While the latter has not yet come, there was a fair amount of sunshine to be seen this weekend, and I feel confident that the last bits of snow in our yard will have melted away by the time I go back to Connecticut. No doubt I’ll be complaining shortly thereafter about the cruelty of summer—but when I do, I hope I’ll remember to laugh.

Few human beings, even those who are, like me, inclined to a comfortable evenness of temperament, are capable of enjoying things as they are for very long. We are, it seems, destined to be dissatisfied, and I share as fully as the rest of us in the common dilemma. Indeed, our inability to remember past suffering with any degree of specificity is very likely the only thing that keeps us going. I shall, however, try to recall the winter of 2015 at best as I can for as long as I can, and cling to at least a few shreds of the abject gratitude that I felt when I caught sight of the first crocus of spring.

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The opening of Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony, performed by the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by the composer:

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Satchmo at the Waldorf comes to Colorado

cavanaugh_19satchmo3_artsI’m pleased to announce yet another staging of Satchmo at the Waldorf, my first play, in the upcoming 2015-16 season. Immediately after the show concludes its run at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater next February, the production, a remount of the 2014 off-Broadway staging directed by Gordon Edelstein and starring John Douglas Thompson, will transfer directly to Theatreworks, located on the campus of the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. It will open there on February 18 and run through March 6.

For more information, go here.

To read about other upcoming productions of Satchmo at the Waldorf, go here.

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Just because: Willis Conover appears on To Tell the Truth

TV CAMERAWillis Conover, the Voice of America’s legendary jazz disc jockey, attempts to stump the panel on an episode of To Tell the Truth originally cast on CBS on April 8, 1963. The Voice of America Jazz Hour, Conover’s daily program, was broadcast worldwide via shortwave but was no heard in the United States, for which reason he was largely unknown in this country:

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

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A handful of lust

In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I devote extra space to three newly opened Broadway transfers, Hand to God, Wolf Hall, and Gigi. Here’s an excerpt.

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hand-to-god-300x199Nothing is more exciting than a new play that takes you by surprise, and Robert Askins’ “Hand to God,” which has moved uptown after two successful off-Broadway runs, does so over and over again. It is, at first blush, a raucously foul-mouthed little farce about Jason (Steven Boyer), a timid, sexually inhibited teenage puppeteer from Texas whose sock puppet, an unassuming-looking beastie named Tyrone, appears to be possessed by the Great Anarch Himself. But scratch the surface and you’ll find a dead-serious black comedy in which the disruptive power of lust is dramatized in a manner so outrageous as to recall the ruthlessly funny plays of Joe Orton.

Margery, Jason’s unhappy mother (played by Geneva Carr, who should be much better known than she is), runs a Christian puppet ministry for small-town high-schoolers whose members include the seemingly mousy Jessica (Sarah Stiles) and Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer), a black-clad juvenile delinquent who longs to get into Margery’s panties. The same ambition is shared by the oleaginous Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch), whose hypocrisy unhinges Jason. Suddenly Tyrone starts talking dirty—really, really, really dirty—and all hell, as they say, breaks loose.

The 34-year-old Mr. Askins, who was raised as an evangelical Christian, knows well the milieu of which he writes, slashing at it with a fine satirical frenzy. But except for one too-easy Chick-fil-A joke, there is no cheap condescension to be found in his caricature of faith in Red America…

If Mr. Boyer doesn’t win a Tony Award, there is no God. His two-headed performance is so beautifully exact and specific that it’s almost possible to forget that he is supported by an ideal ensemble cast…

Hilary Mantel has achieved total multi-platform ubiquity. Not only have her best-selling historical novels about intrigue in the court of Henry VIII been turned into a BBC mini-series that is currently showing on PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre,” but Mike Poulton has also adapted them for the stage in a two-part Royal Shakespeare Company extravaganza called “Wolf Hall” that has just transferred to Broadway. All we need now is “The Six Zombies of Henry VIII.”

Ms. Mantel and her theatrical collaborator are working the same turf as Robert Bolt, who first put the tale of King Henry and Thomas More onstage a half-century ago in “A Man for All Seasons.” The difference is that Ms. Mantel, a militantly lapsed Roman Catholic who now declares that “the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people” (harrumph!), has given us a Protestant inversion of “A Man for All Seasons” in which Bolt’s deeply moral martyr-hero (played by Paul Scofield in “A Man for All Seasons” and in “Wolf Hall” by John Ramm) becomes a scourge-wielding, book-burning symbol of Catholic fanaticism….

c8018e34-78a7-11e3-_502543cI haven’t read either of Ms. Mantel’s much-praised novels, nor am I a scholar of 16th-century England. I can, however, assure you that Mr. Poulton’s five-and-a-half-hour stage version of “Wolf Hall,” unlike Bolt’s immaculately crafted, endlessly quotable play, is competent but dullish…

Whenever a new production of a familiar and well-loved work of art is billed as “re-imagined,” you’re almost always right to suspect dirty work at the creative crossroads. That’s what’s happened to “Gigi,” Heidi Thomas’ rewrite of the failed 1973 stage version of the 1958 Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe screen musical about a Parisian teenager whose family is training her to become a courtesan.

Just as Lerner and Loewe romanticized the tart 1944 novella by Colette on which Vincente Minnelli’s movie was based, so has Ms. Thomas, the creator of the soppy British TV series “Call the Midwife,” sanitized the show so as to render it more palatable to 21st-century sensibilities. For openers, Ms. Thomas has made Gigi older—she’s 15 in the novella, 18 onstage—while Gaston, the man-about-town who proposes to take her into his keeping, becomes a decade younger….

While I suppose that some such changes were inevitable, Ms. Thomas’ priggish “Gigi” is no less unfaithful in spirit to Colette’s novel, which is coolly realistic about the sexual realities that are its whole point. And whereas the film version of “Gigi” is full-hearted in its old-fashioned romanticism, the stage version, competently directed by Eric Schaeffer, flawlessly choreographed by Joshua Bergasse (“On the Town”) and featuring drop-dead-gorgeous sets by Derek McLane, is a high-gloss exercise in commodity theater that takes no chances and offers no thrills….

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To read my review of Hand to God, go here.

To read my review of Wolf Hall, go here.

To read my review of Gigi, go here.

The trailer for the original off-Broadway production of Hand to God:

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How not to succeed on Broadway

In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I try to calculate the odds against a straight play’s succeeding on Broadway. Here’s an excerpt.

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The conventional wisdom about Broadway is that it has degenerated into a theme park for commodity musicals, and that the horrifically high cost of producing shows has made it all but impossible to do artistically serious work there. Is that really true? Straight plays, after all, do get produced, some of which are amazingly good—but how often does it happen, and how well do such shows do? In particular, how hard is it for new plays to get to Broadway? Are contemporary playwrights fighting an uphill battle against the malign forces of philistinism, or can they still manage to stay afloat by faithfully plying their trade?

3.160858It’s a byword in the theater world that you can make a killing on Broadway, but not a living. Time was, however, when major plays usually had a decent chance of succeeding there. The original 1947 production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” for example, ran for two years—nothing to brag about next to “The Phantom of the Opera,” but spectacular by any other standard. And as late as 2007, Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” a three-and-a-half-hour play acted by a cast of unknowns from Chicago, ran for a year and a half solely on the strength of its high quality. Once again, though, the conventional wisdom says those days are gone for good. Today’s playgoers, we’re told, prefer fluffier fare and will only pay top dollar to see movie and TV stars onstage.

True or false? I pulled out my calculator the other day and started punching in statistics. Here’s what came out:

How many straight plays now open on Broadway? A total of 108 plays opened in the five seasons preceding the current one.

How many are new? Fifty-six of them were new and the rest revivals—an average of 11 new plays per season. That number, however, has been inching inexorably downward for a half-century. (By way of comparison, 25 new plays by American writers opened on Broadway in the 1964-65 season.)

How long do they run? The average run of those 108 plays was 68 performances each—in other words, less than two months. New plays, by contrast, ran for an average of 88 performances, a bit healthier but not enough so to recoup their investments….

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Read the whole thing here.

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For services rendered

1475924_10201127818183651_1557810313_nKathy Teachout, my sister-in-law, has just retired from the city council of Smalltown, U.S.A., after two consecutive terms. She succeeded David, my brother, who had previously held the same seat on the council for two consecutive terms. It was a natural development for them both: they’d long been deeply involved in a variety of worthy local causes, and so they decided that the time had come to step up to the plate and run for office. My admiration for what they did was—and is—boundless. “I don’t mean to sound pompous,” I told Kathy the other day, “but that’s what democracy is all about.”

Unlike them, I’ve never gone in for community service, perhaps because I’ve never had a real community to serve. But I did spend a very anxious year working the graveyard shift on a suicide hot line in Illinois, and when Dana Gioia asked me to sit on the National Council on the Arts for a six-year term back in 2005, I said yes without thinking twice. I saw his offer, I said at the time, as “an opportunity to give something back to the arts after a lifetime of pleasure and profit.” I meant every word of it. When that kind of opportunity is offered to you, it seems to me that you have something of an obligation to take it. I never regretted having done so.

NewNCAI’m proud of having sat on the NCA, but it doesn’t hold a candle to what David and Kathy did to make the town in which the three of us grew up a better and safer place to live. They took their duties with the utmost seriousness and put in a lot of hard, committed work, and the local citizens showed their appreciation by re-electing them to second terms—for which they both ran unopposed. In a small town where pretty much everybody knows you, there is no higher praise.

Now that they’ve finally returned to private life, Kathy is trying to decide what to do with the one-dollar check that she received the other day in payment for her services. “I don’t know whether to cash it or frame it,” she says. Me, I’d frame it, and hang it over the mantelpiece.

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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.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, nearly all performances sold out, reviewed here)
It’s Only a Play (comedy, PG-13/R, closes June 7, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, all performances sold out, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, many performances sold out, 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)
On the Twentieth Century (musical, G/PG-13, virtually all performances sold out, closes July 5, contains very mild sexual content, reviewed here)

After the Revolution (drama, G/PG-13, unsuitable for children, closes May 17, reviewed here)

The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, closes May 3, reviewed here)
Hamilton (historical musical, PG-13, closes May 3, moves to Broadway Aug. 6, reviewed here)
11081060_884909104900807_1031127023087475328_nTwelfth Night (Shakespeare, PG-13, two different stagings of the same play performed by the same cast in rotating repertory, closes May 2, reviewed here)

The Matchmaker (romantic farce, G, reviewed here)

Both Your Houses (political satire, G/PG-13, reviewed here)

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