Results tagged “Broadway” from Drama Queen
Since I never got around to posting my critique of American Idiot for the Broad Street Review, the show's Best Musical Tony nod and an article by Jon Pareles in today's New York Times seem as good excuses as any to get it up here. But that's not really my purpose today.
Pareles, as a pop music critic, doesn't generally cover theater. And let's face it, it's kind of depressing that a journalist who's been covering rock since the '70s only now feels that the form is reaching a critical mass on the Broadway stage. Seems sort of an exercise in emphasizing how woefully out of touch with popular culture Broadway has become. But to me--and mind you, I love me some Green Day--the less obvious discussion is this: will it take another 40 years before hip-hop makes a dent on Broadway? I guess In the Heights tossed rap into its bag of tricks, but that show's cockeyed optimism only scratched the surface of hip-hop's depth and potential.
It's true commercial hip-hop is in a fallow period right now, with teenybopper pop/rap crossovers dominating the airwaves, but there's certainly no shortage of a back catalog or hungry up-and-comers. With players such as rapper Jay-Z and Jada Pinkett Smith--yeah, her own band favors thrash metal, but c'mon son, her husband's Will Smith, king of populist hip-hop--getting into the producing game (for Fela!) things might soon change. However, if and when they do, Broadway will still be years behind Hollywood, which already mined the genre and its artists for years. I mean, even Vanilla Ice got his own movie way back in 1991.
Eric Rosen and Matt Sax's Venice--a rap version of Othello--is currently bringing some buzz, and its appearance in October at L.A.'s Kirk Douglas Theatre might serve as a launching pad for even wider success. And maybe it will take two white kids assimilating rap into Shakespeare for other producers to be open to that music's inherent potential. But it's just plain astonishing that no one has bothered to dig into the operatic rise and fall of Eazy-E, or built a blow-your-mind jukeboxer around Notorious B.I.G.'s Life After Death (free idea: round out the score with some Li'l Kim), or hired Queen Latifah to do in a jewel box what she does best in arenas, or tapped Lil Wayne or Outkast, or hey, the Jigga man himself, to add their particular musical vision to the American Songbook.
After all this time, I finally saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson again in its current run at the Public Theater. I wanted to see it again so badly I even paid for tickets--Paid. For. Tickets. Believe me, if you're a critic, that's a big deal. If you're a Philly critic, taking money away from a Philly theater and spending it, you know, *there*, it's an even bigger deal--and here are a few reasons why:
- I wanted to see if I thought it had a shot at a Broadway run, because sooner or later, if Broadway ignores Les Freres Corbusier, it will do so at its own peril. I just wasn't sure if this was the show to take them there.
- I wanted to see if this musical that resonated so deeply during W's tenure would have the same cathartic punch under Obama.
- I wanted to see if it lived up to my own hype. After all, I've devoted a lot of blog space to one show I saw almost three years ago. (Below: BBAJ, circa 2008)
- No, I do not think this is the show that will take the boys and their swaggering Jackson, Ben Walker, to Broadway. But it's a lot of fun, and Director/playwright Alex Timbers is a veritable Wallenda when it comes to walking the line between wide-eyed and winking. BBAJ itself rests between Schoolhouse Rock and Drunk History, and doesn't even make you pick a side; enjoy them both, AND walk away with a lesson. That's value for your entertainment dollar. Composer Michael Friedman's musical moments--because they're not whole songs, although they are insanely catchy verses--burst furiously through the script much like the emotions of a bratty adolescent, which is appropriate, considering Timbers' Jackson is portrayed as a wrist-cutting emo rock star. But it's still too messy, and though scenes such as the one in which an actress snarls out a tune about "10 Little Indians" who meet an untimely end, are better integrated this time (at L.A.'s Kirk Douglas Theatre, the song stopped the show dead; here, it's set against a parade of soon-to-be-broken treaties), I just don't think it can--or should--clean up all that well. Oskar Eustis did the right thing by bringing it back for a mainstage run, and that's a pretty great legacy, well deserved. It's not the game-changer I thought it could be, but I'll tell you this much, if I weren't a theater critic, I'd gladly be an investor in whatever project LFC take on next, because I have no doubt a game-changer will emerge from BBAJ's raw material and LFC's momentum.
- No, it's not the same under Obama, although you can't fault Timbers for trying. Imagine, if you can bring yourself to do so, that it's early 2008, George W. Bush is deep into his second term as president, post-Katrina FEMA trailers are exhaling formaldehyde, the Iraq war is still racking up American casualties, and onto the stage struts Andrew Jackson, whining, drinking, indulging his expansionist fantasies, ignoring the collateral damage, singing populism's praises. The parallels are as powerful as your frustrations, and you are grateful to see them both portrayed onstage in this way--those who don't know history are condemned to repeat it, etc. Now it's 2010, and though yes, Obama was swept into the presidency on a wave of popular support, his election was a reaction to Bush's populism, just as Bush's populism was a reaction to Clinton's perceived chardonnay-drinking, Volvo-driving elitism (remember that?). It's just not the same, and aiming Jackson at Obama only serves to untie the show from its moorings. I get it, the people's desire for a hero to swoop in, make decisions and save the country is timeless. But BBAJ's genius lay in the way it equated the mass appeal of bratty, insolent, obdurate Jackson with, well, that of bratty, insolent, obdurate Bush. Now, as a parallel to the Obama presidency, it sends a disappointing mixed message--disappointing especially because its original message was so forceful and dead on (AJ would have wanted it that way!), while the Botox applied to this version seems more like a hedged bet. Maybe if we ended up with a McCain/Palin regime and the show stuck to its roots, it would have blown up Broadway. But honestly, I'm glad we didn't have to find out.
...Because it doesn't look like April 1.
So does that mean this is for real? For really real? Is American Psycho really slated to hit Broadway in 2010?
Didn't anyone learn their lesson from The Fly, the opera? I'm all for Grand Guignol revivalism, and even more for Bennington grads making mad money, but seriously? American Psycho, the jukebox musical? Didn't The Wedding Singer satisfy everyone's '80's cravings when it closed after less than a year? Didn't Glory Days satisfy everyone's thirst for blood?
I'll bet anyone a bloody, bloody Andrew Jackson (I'm not one of those Bennington grads making mad money) that Patrick Bateman's catalogue of murders--assuming it ever makes it to the stage--will rival the Moose Murders for the terror it inspires in its investors.
But, um, if everything does work out, who wants to drive up with me to see it?
Below, Bennington grad Justin Theroux in the film based on Bennington grad Bret Easton Ellis' book.
Finally made it to New York yesterday (first time this season) and saw The 39 Steps. The show, a farcical, campy, reimagining of Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 romance/suspense/thriller, won one of the five Tony Awards for which it was nominated (Best Lighting) and was praised effusively by Ben Brantley in the New York Times. I settled into my seat with high expectations and the lingering frisson of excitement that still hits every time I head into the business end of the Lincoln Tunnel.
So all the greater was my disappointment when the production was halfway as good as it could have been, with a set design halfway as creative as several Philly Fringe shows I'd seen, and with a halfway committed cast running on autopilot. At intermission, my companion (and provider of my ticket) St. Paul Pioneer Press theater critic Dominic Papatola, remarked, "Well, this is a strange little show for Broadway."
Strange indeed, and not in a good, gatecrashing, Passing Strange, kind of way. Rather, it was strange that of all the shows in the English-speaking world to choose to pick up and mount on Broadway, why should this bit of West End escapist fluff that seems plucked from the rounds of regional repertory theaters--an Irma Vep with a bigger cast and less ingenuity--be anointed? Mind you, I have nothing against fluff, even if it arrives during an era ripe for meatier fare (witness August: Osage County's success on that front). But this fluff? Really?
Following the show, we indulged in a discussion of Broadway's current impotence and regional theater's growing virility, which is all well and good, considering we're both covering theater in our respective regions. But while it's nice to be smug about your city's healthy theater scene, the power of the regional theater inferiority complex is such that you still wonder if in the face of the Manhattan machine, your hometown triumphs are merely the result of boosterism and provincial pride.
Well, guess not. In this weekend's announcement of the closing of Forbidden Broadway, its founder, Gerard Alessandrini cited plain old boredom as the reason for shuttering his nearly 30-year-old star-skewering satirical institution.
"When Broadway becomes too theme-park-like, it makes it difficult, and it just looks like it's becoming overly commercial the next couple of years," he said.
When it's not even fun to make fun of Broadway anymore, something is terribly wrong. Visiting New York should be like opening a compendium of the best new American plays and musicals instead of walking down memory lane, or even worse, walking straight down the middle of the road to Broadwayland. A revival here and there is fine, but you don't end up getting a Gypsy or All My Sons in the first place by only banking on the tried and true. One look at the 1956 Tony nominations (or even the 1976 nominations), packed with original productions of original ideas and well, compared to this season's lukewarm musicals and revivals of revivals, perhaps it's best to avert your eyes. Or hey, look elsewhere--like to regional producers--for guidance.
In this Sunday's New York Times "Week in Review" section, Charles Isherwood laments the city's paucity of Shakespeare offerings. I usually agree with Mr. Isherwood wholeheartedly and appreciate his championing of underdog (by which I mean non-revival, non-Disney) Manhattan productions. So it pains me to say this: boo freaking hoo, dude.
A critic who complains about the lack of Shakespeare in the city that's supposed to be "America's theatrical epicenter" is either depressed by the lack of worthwhile new productions or needs to spend a week or two of quiet contemplation in the hinterlands. Or both. I won't presume to know which state of mind applies here, but I will say that someone needs to agitate for progress on the Broadway stage, not for Shakespeare.
I mean, I understand the satisfaction that comes with good Shakespeare. I've even blogged about it. Here in Philly we have an on-season Shakespeare festival as well as an off-season one. We've got a free Shakespeare in the park, a couple of houses that have been throwing in roughly a Shakespeare-a-year, and a few smaller outfits that produce offbeat versions of the classics. Surely, not all are created equal, but if it's Shakespeare you're looking for, you can reliably find him at any point during the season.
And yes, Chicago and D.C. have Shakespeare companies, but even though Chicago's gaining steadily on New York's theatrical dominaton, it has neither the resources nor the cachet of Broadway. At least not yet. But if Broadway continues to nurture the same old safe retreads and turn its back on work that actually bolsters this country's theatrical tradition, well, finding a decent Merry Wives of Windsor will be the least of Mr. Isherwood's worries.
Let the provinces whet their appetites on Shakespeare; it can only benefit New York. When you dine regularly on Kobe beef at home, you're less likely to accept a McDonald's patty when you go out. But you're probably not going to order Kobe again, either. You want something new and mouthwatering, and if you're served the same old Kobe filet, even if it's really good, you'll end up wondering why you didn't just stay home and make it yourself... It's sure a lot cheaper.
I don't mean to pick on Isherwood. A dedicated Shakespeare company in New York City is not the worst idea ever, it's just misguided. Maybe it wouldn't be such a big deal if he suggested placing it in Brooklyn, or somewhere it had a chance to be more than an exercise in showing off one's Elizabethan chops. And perhaps also, I'm naive. I figure New York is what regional theater aspires to be; but maybe we've already caught up, and the ideal of New York's vanguard status is just vestigial at this point.
Despite the critical successes of Passing Strange, In the Heights, and August: Osage County, next season's Broadway roster looks an awful lot like seasons past. In fact, most of it comes from seasons past. In fact, even much of the new stuff--Billy Elliot, Shrek, Nine to Five, Vanities, Nice Work If You Can Get It (which gets its music from the Gershwins)--smells pretty musty.
Rather than grabbing the excitement of last year's out-of-town newbies and burgeoning racial diversity, and adding more seats to the table, it's as though New York's producers collectively donned their blinders, dug in their heels and refused to budge. Taking cues from South Pacific and Sunday in the Park with George, we can expect almost all retreads, all the time. The 2008-09 season features Waiting for Godot, Guys and Dolls, All My Sons, Equus, Speed-the-Plow, Pal Joey, Dancin', Brigadoon, Godspell, somebody please stop me, I feel a flashback coming on...
There are a few ways to fight the revived zombies, even if they're really, truly wonderful zombies. And--high and mighty alert--I believe it's our duty as a theatergoing society to do so. After all, if we allow the zombies to feed unchecked, they will kill all our hopes for the future and spread across the land depositing mouldering revivals in every region. And the new shows? Without our help, they won't stand a chance.
Just look at Passing Strange, which succumbed last week; the show closed after playing to less than half-filled houses for the past few months. Who wanted to play big spender with unpredictable Stew when Sandy and Danny were available? (Well, Spike Lee, for one, who filmed during the show's final week. But clearly he's an exception.)
Ahead of the retrograde pack are a couple of little shows that could--[Title of Show] and 13--which are set to capture some of the glory meant for Glory Days. But diversity? Well, we can look backward for that too, with the revamped West Side Story, and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide (When the Rainbow is Enuf), which may or may not proceed as planned with India.Arie leading the cast. Still, there's Off-Broadway's production of the Bill T. Jones-directed and choreographed Fela!, which opens in previews tomorrow, and sounds like it might have big-time potential. And doubtless, a few surprises will emerge later in the season as well. Let's just hope they get the kind of support they--and we--need in order to survive.
Generally, I'm not a Tony watcher. Yeah, that's a kicker of a confession from a theater critic, particularly one who lives an hour and a half from the Lincoln Tunnel's dirty mouth, but I have my reasons. I'm alright with checking the next-day results, and religiously read NYTimes reviews, but as far as taking the time to plant myself in front of a tv for three hours to cheer on (or grumble about) productions I'll almost certainly never see, forget it. Though the Inquirer reviews Broadway, I don't (please, Howie, give my regards...), and as a parent, I have neither the free time nor the spare change. However, when my city's Barrymore Awards roll around, I'm chewing my fingernails down to the skin until the winners are announced. It's not that I don't care about the Tonys, it's just that generally, for my purposes, they're irrelevant.
But this year was different. Aside from looking forward to next season's Philly productions of The Seafarer and Rock and Roll, I was, for once, fully engaged.
There's change in the Broadway winds, and though I've seen exactly none of the contenders, couldn't wait for this year's ceremony. It was outsiders' night, and just the right tone for Broadway to drum up some outside-the boroughs excitement.
Unfortunately, the Tony Awards' producers weren't in on the vibe. With Whoopi helming an abominable series of skits, the Tonys tried to prove their mass market viability rather than B-Way's rising credibility. The addition of Mario Lopez, the Little Mermaid's ridiculous costume--with its humiliating, scene-hogging tail--or Megan Mullaly's limited effort to divine some of Madeline Kahn's je ne sais quoi, it's little wonder this year's broadcast attracted its lowest audience ever. The Disneyfication of Broadway is what earned it its current lame reputation in the first place.
And yet. Things could have so easily gone the other way, with more of irreverent left-field contender Passing Strange (Stew tried, he really did, with those Groucho glasses and that how-did-I-get-here demeanor); Lin-Manuel Miranda's freestyling and and loose cannon ebullience; scenes from the Fringe-esque 39 Steps.
And how about some acknowledgement that this was the year regional theater flexed its considerable muscle. Chicago graciously bestowed upon us a new, improved David Mamet by way of Edward Albee in the form of Tracy Letts, and when Letts swaggered up to the stage and thanked his producers because "they decided to produce an American play on Broadway with theater actors," it was a swoon-worthy moment. Yeah, he crossed over to film, but he came back, didn't he?
Why wait until the thing was half over to break out Lily Tomlin, Xanadu and Liza? What were they thinking? Still, the array of entertainment was a welcome peek into the tug-of-war for Broadway's soul, and the ephemeral nature of theater being what it is, it's awfully nice to get a taste of what's been going on all season. Since most viewers won't ever get to see Patti LuPone in Gypsy, at least we've been provided with a sample. And since most will never get to the current production of Grease, at least they'll know they're not missing anything.
I don't get the Tonys' Hollywood inferiority complex, and hope that after this season's rejuvenating batch of productions, next year's ceremony won't feel so much like an also-ran to the Oscars. Let "theater actors" (cough, Patti LuPone, cough) host the show. Ditch the crap and bring even more of that stage magic to the stage. This was an exciting year, and it deserved a more exciting framework than this broadcast. Come on, Broadway, you've got a whole lot of writers working for you; next year, use them.
Last week in Manhattan, an organization founded by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, The Coalition of Theaters of Color, called a town meeting to discuss "the issue of sustainability" in small New York state African-American and Latino nonprofit theaters. An article in Backstage highlighted the meeting's focus on media and grantwriters' biases against these companies, and it brought me back to an issue that keeps popping up--why does urban-gospel-chitlin circuit-call-it-what-you-will-theater do so well?
Those for-profit touring companies helmed by Tyler Perry, Je'Caryous Johnson (I wrote this one) and David E. Talbert, among others, develop their own shows from scratch, sell out houses while advertising largely outside major media outlets, without reviews, and attract marquee names. Sure there are quality issues, and for-profits leave little room for experimentation, but on the flipside, if you're successful enough, you can ultimately do all the experimenting you'd like--or start your own nonprofit, for that matter.
On Broadway, The Color Purple has turned a gorgeous profit for its creators, In the Heights is a Tony bonanza, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with its African-American cast, flourished despite mixed reviews. As a reviewer, I've already noticed a recent shift in typically white non-profit houses toward more diverse programming, and can't help but attribute this to their notice of Broadway's multi-culti success stories. Here in Philly, the Arden's production of August Wlson's The Piano Lesson was extended even though Delaware Theatre Company (just a half-hour outside the city) was set to open the same play the following week.
So why can't minority-run non-profits catch the same kind of fire?
Could it be that the nonprofit model just doesn't serve people of color in the same way? If traditionally white channels aren't working, why keep using them? I participated in a roundtable discussion at USC in February where the subject came up, and used the example of the Jews' exclusion from banking and media. Once we stopped banging on their doors and built our own houses, we managed to do okay for ourselves. It's less an issue of "separate but equal" than "money talks." There's certainly a precedent in the African American community: look no farther than Madame C.J. Walker, who took her money and opened a theater that still operates today with a mandate to serve Indianapolis' African American community.
The Coalition would do well to look to the urban circuit's theater entrepreneurs for assistance with marketing and funding. There's may be an issue of snobbery on the part of non-profits toward what is viewed as a lowbrow entertainment, but guess what? Tyler Perry, who used to live in his car, isn't complaining about funding or bad reviews--which at this point, he receives almost as a matter of courtesy.
I'm not suggesting that minority theaters ought to give up the fight against funding inequity and media biases. Obviously, it's a real, frustrating and intolerable situation. But I am suggesting that if things have gotten so bad that the issues the coalition is addressing aren't about programming or education, but about the continuation of their very existence, well, maybe it's time to look elsewhere for answers.
Let us now praise great moments in criticism. Stephen Holden's New York Times review of "Broadway's Greatest Showstoppers," itself contains this showstopping bit of critique:
You haven't really heard "Bring Him Home," the corny, tear-jerking aria from "Les Misérables," until you've savored the grand operatic treatment given it by the tenor J. Mark McVey, sobbing as the strings sighed behind him; it was the aural equivalent of a thick lobster bisque made with heavy cream.
Nicely done, sir. It calls to mind Jay McInerney's evocative wine/Beatles comparisons in Food and Wine magazine, and does the whole profession proud.
I can taste that Les Miserables viscosity all the way from here.