Results tagged “passing strange” from Drama Queen

Stew.jpg
Spike Lee's filmed version of Passing Strange--that dark horse of a rock-musical coming-of-age tale which garnered 7 Tony noms and won one statuette for Best Book (P.S.: the New York Drama Critics Circle voted it Best Musical, which makes one wonder if such a show even stands a chance now that critics are cut out of the Tony Process. But I digress.)--opens LA.'s Downtown Film Festival tonight. And while it's great for Stew and crew to have a permanent record of their Broadway moment--which I missed--is filming a play ever worth the effort? 

After all, the thing about live theater is that it's live, right? That's what makes it special. All those people together in the same room, the energy, the hormones, the chance that it could all go off the rails or converge into an amazing, shining beacon of synchronicity. And then there's acting for the stage, which is a completely different critter than acting for the screen. Whenever live theater is filmed, unless it's filmed as, well, a film, it's like watching Kabuki. But really, really bad Kabuki. 

I often Netflix filmed productions as homework for upcoming shows, and it's always a matter of the ends justifying the means; I watch because it will help the review, not because it gives me much pleasure. The actors' faces emote to the back rows because they're supposed to be life-sized, not 30 feet high or shot in close-up. Onscreen, stage acting can't help looking corny. It's for a different medium where subtleties are in the language or direction, but not so much the face.

Of course, Lee is no stranger to filming staged performance. 2000's The Original Kings of Comedy not only knocked the comedy film genre out of the park, but also mainstreamed the careers of all four featured comedians, and gave some smart producer the entire premise for The Bernie Mac show (R.I.P. to both Mr. Mac and his show), which I, for one, watched every single week. 

Lee filmed two of the Kings' live performances, editing them together for the final product--a method he repeated for Passing Strange. However, to facilitate his vision for its cinematography, he also shot the show once through without an audience, and of the two live shows he filmed, one was the cast's final performance at Broadway's Belasco Theatre. 

So does it work?

Well, I watched the DVD alone in my bedroom and gave it a standing ovation, applause and all. For real. And if that sounds bizarre to you, you either haven't seen it yet, or I wouldn't want to hang out with you anyway. Point is, the effect, both with and without an audience equals a damn fine film of a damn fine show, and its editing is so seamless you never notice the difference anyway. Lee tightens in to get intimate with the characters without making them look like puppets and zooms out to capture their frenzied crescendos. Yeah, sometimes they're miked and flinging sweat, but most of the time they're not playing to the crowd, they're playing to each other, and that's what separates Lee's film from other efforts to capture Broadway magic onscreen. (Plus it's really, really nice to see Daniel Breaker out of that donkey suit and burning up the stage as an actual human being.) It may be ironic that Spike Lee found the real by making it less so, but that was Stew's point anyway. 

If you're not in L.A. and can't catch the film tonight, it will be available on cable On Demand starting August 21, and will air again in 2010 on PBS' "Great Performances" series.

Don't believe the hype: the movie is SO much better than this lame trailer.
August 12, 2009 3:29 PM |
zombies_on_broadway.jpgDespite 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.


July 30, 2008 7:54 AM |
roots picnic.jpg
Spent all day yesterday baking in 10 hours of scorching 96 degree heat at The Roots Picnic here in Philly (Illadelph to Roots fans). For some, the Picnic was this summer's must-see music festival, with a bill featuring, of course, The Roots, and headlined by Gnarls Barkley, as well as newer acts like The Dap-Kings (Amy Winehouse's backup band) with Sharon Jones, Santogold, Deerhoof, The Cool Kids, and DJ Diplo, among others. 

Body Count.jpg
Extreme conditions are believed to trigger transcendence, and while at the concert, I had an epiphany. Before arriving, I expected one sort of crowd, and was surprised to find a completely different audience. Let me insert here that I based my assumptions upon many years of fairly segregated concertgoing. Diversity in live music, to my generation, was the inclusion of a token rapper like Ice-T on an early Lollapalooza tour. (However, he was included not as a rapper, but as "Body Count," his cringe-worthy attempt at a hardcore punk rock band.) 

I assumed this crowd would split maybe 80-20 along racial lines, with, for this hip-hop heavy bill, 80% being African-American, and 20% white/other. Well, it wasn't. In fact, it was flipped in the opposite direction. 

gnarls.jpg
But white kids co-opting a black music scene is nothing new. So, while I was surprised, I wasn't shocked. What really set off my epiphany was that the co-opting of musical forms was now mutual. The Cool Kids, backed by DJ Jazzy Jeff, unabashedly expressed their Beastie Boys idolatry. Santogold (who scratched at the last minute, but was listed on the bill) mixes her M.I.A. galang with Missing Persons-style new wave. The Roots' guitarist indulged in a full-on old-school guitar solo (FYI, their new album, Rising Down, was heavily influenced by a damn near inaccessible William T. Vollman treatise). Gnarls Barkley's odd mix matches hip-hop with a groovy '60s Mellotron aesthetic and soul crooning (lest we forget, the silent half of Gnarls, Danger Mouse, made his name by mashing up Jay-Z's Black album with The Beatles' White Album to create The Grey Album). And for most of the groups onstage, with this interracial mix of influences came an interracial mix of band members. It's also important to note that no one's politics got watered down; they instead became part of the mix.

It's a generational shift that, judging by the crowd's demographics, is probably fairly superficial, but shows a cultural give-and-take that bodes well. As we perch on the cusp of a possible Obama presidency, I'm guessing that shift has the potential to go deep.

So what does this have to do with theater? Well, attention must be paid, in programming, in outreach, in funding. There's a whole new aesthetic growing out there that should be nurtured from every angle. The repertory canon ought to include August Wilson right alongside Arthur Miller, and often does. But a whole generation of kids who grew up used to interracial families and international adoptions, celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. day and reading Toni Morrison in English class, aren't seeing their experiences reflected in the larger culture. Theaters are, for the most part, still operating under segregationist assumptions, sometimes alternating a "black" play with a "white" play, but not seeking out work that fills the spaces in between, let alone ventures into "Asian," or "Latino" territory. It's up to producers to find the next Passing Strange, plays and musicals that take racial, cultural and artistic cross-pollination as a given and run with it. 

Theater, with its ephemeral nature, might just be the medium to draw younger audiences away from their computers. You can't Netflix a play or find it on YouTube, at least not in the same way, which makes the old-fashioned theater, ironically, one of the few creative industries that doesn't have to suffer because of the internet. Build an exciting, relevant and un-self consciously inclusive ethos, and they will come.

Oh, and for the record, the concert was great.



June 8, 2008 8:27 PM | | Comments (2)
Ok, so now we all know that Glory Days opened and closed in one, ahem, glorious day, and by all I seriously mean all. But on this, the day of Tony nominations, it's worth noting there's more to the story than Ben Brantley's power to shut down an entire Broadway enterprise. In fact, Mr. Brantley, in his review of the show, was surprisingly gentle, and noted:

"It's been a season of thinking small for the Broadway musical. Two front-runners for the Tony, "In the Heights" and "Passing Strange," are also intimate, personal shows imported from non-Broadway houses. I can see why the producers of "Glory Days" might have thought this was an auspicious moment for a big-time New York transfer ... I do find it heartening that a pair of enthusiastic and gifted young artists have fallen in love with that beleaguered form, the musical, as a means of self-expression."

However, I think he's completely wrong about "that beleaguered form." The musical is making a comeback, though not the kind fed by producers feverishly bent on re-animating '70s film comedies or '70s music, or regurgitating sure-thing revivals, but by the generation that grew up fetishizing Rent and Moulin Rouge. 
list-1.jpg
The winds seem to have shifted with Avenue Q, the little show that could--and could while leaning heavily on irony and angst. But after last season's massive success of hormonal rocker Spring Awakening, the fact that Glory Days, a musical by 20-something recent college grads, made it to Broadway right alongside In the Heights, also written by a 20-something recent college grad, surely bodes well for those late bloomers still editing away in urban garrets around the nation. It took Stew a little longer than those other boys to create Passing Strange, but judging by today's nominations, it doesn't seem to have affected his accolades any. There's also the baby-faced team of Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, who wowed L.A. with their emo-musical about our seventh president, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. And what do all these brash new musicals have in common? None of them look or sound like a Broadway musical, several aren't even native New Yorkers, but together they all sound like a burgeoning movement.

These might be dark days for the big, bloated Broadway musical, but for the form itself? As they sing in that re-animated '70s film comedy Spamalot, "Keep him off the cart because he's not yet dead." 
 
May 13, 2008 3:41 PM |
Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.