Critical Difference: May 2009 Archives

Starting Monday, Broadway box office and attendance figures should be looking considerably brighter, whether or not there's any real boost to sales or audience size. That's because, as Variety reports, the Broadway League this week adopted a new method of tallying those numbers: one that, barring a substantial decline, will put them in a rosy light.

Sales figures will represent "gross gross" sales as opposed to net gross, which subtracts credit card transaction fees from the total. Attendance will be reported as total attendance rather than paid attendance, which does not count comped ducats.

The League takes over as sole disseminator of those numbers, which used to come from theater owners as well.

The new method of calculation nearly ensures that the 2009-10 season's sales totals will dwarf those from 2008-09, though there's no true parallel between the two sets of numbers. Even more pointless would be any comparison between total-attendance figures in 2009-10 and paid-attendance figures, which the League reported in 2008-09 and previous years. As the industry group well knows, it's far more pleasant to say that a play is packing them in than to admit that a healthy-looking house is heavily papered -- not exactly a rarity on Broadway, where paid attendance has been declining. Given that, it would seem to be in the League's interest to muddle the accounting.

Much of the theatrical press, accustomed to juxtaposing a given week's Broadway totals with the numbers from the same week a year before, probably can be counted on to keep doing exactly what they've been doing. In the process, they'll likely report increases that may or may not be borne out by the facts. The same goes for stories on season-to-season figures.

"Making the switch to gross gross and total attendance would put the Broadway numbers more in line with tallies from the film industry, according to [the League's] Charlotte St. Martin," Variety explains.

That's the same film industry that benefits from a credulous press' faithful weekly reports of ever-bigger box-office earnings -- numbers that are highly likely to grow as long as the industry keeps raising ticket prices, and as long as the population keeps expanding.

But no matter what the film industry does, this switch is a cynical move on the part of Broadway, especially coming off a season whose debatable financial success the League spun so brilliantly. In a tough financial climate that doesn't promise to get easier anytime soon, and at a moment when even the biggest media outlets are devoting ever fewer resources to real reporting, let alone arts reporting, Broadway has made its robustness vastly harder to evaluate. Should the industry fall into trouble, the kind of trouble about which one might wish to alert the media, it may come to regret this brand of obfuscation.
May 28, 2009 1:06 PM |
Forty-three shows opened on Broadway this season, nearly 20 percent more than last season, yet paid attendance was down from 2007-08. That would be the glass-half-empty way of looking at the numbers for this year, and a perfectly legitimate one. But the way much of the media reported the news, one would think the glass was not just full but overflowing.

"Broadway Breaks Box Office Record for 2008-09 Season," reads the New York Times headline on a blog item that mentions the paid-attendance downturn in the eighth paragraph.

A Fox News blog post is positively breathless, trumpeting "some long-awaited positive economic news" under the headline "Broadway's Record-Breaking Year!" Though that item does quickly mention the 1 percent drop in paid attendance -- a decrease substantially larger than the .6 percent increase in gross revenues -- it then skates ahead to Broadway League executive director Charlotte St. Martin's contention that, in the reporter's paraphrase, "other industries could learn some money-making tips from Broadway." (No, St. Martin's advice isn't to make lots more product, keep hiking your prices, and attract fewer paying customers. It's to stay "in touch with what the consumer really wants.")

"Broadway theatres defy recession," a BBC headline announces. That they wouldn't defy it was, of course, the industry's giant, lurking fear, exacerbated by the still-painful memory of tourists scattering in the fall of 2001. So there is understandable relief that, in the words of The Associated Press, "Even during a recession, Broadway managed to hold its own." That's newsworthy.

But did so much of the coverage occasioned by the Broadway League's release of 2008-09's official figures -- grosses of $943.3 million, up from $937.5 million in 2007-08, and paid attendance of 12.15 million, down from 12.27 million last season -- have to follow the lead of that industry group? Did so many journalists have to quote St. Martin so unquestioningly? Are reporters and editors really as math-averse as this would suggest? (Well, yes, they are. Most of them, anyway.)

As Bloomberg's Jeremy Gerard notes with his customary savvy, "The increase in sales represents higher average ticket prices, while the drop in paid attendance suggests that the tightening economy did frighten away some theatergoers. The attendance figures are especially notable because in the 2007-08 season, much of Broadway was shut down during a 19-day strike by unionized stagehands."

That season, unsurprisingly, paid attendance fell .2 percent, from 12.3 million the season before. So 2008-09 continued a downward trend.

Context is everything. When journalists take their cue from a press release, when they don't look hard at the numbers, when they mistake hype for reality, illuminating context has a nasty tendency to be missing in action.
May 27, 2009 4:48 PM | | Comments (1)
But it's awfully topical, given our current obsession with empathy (a subject that, funnily enough, never seized the nation's imagination during the Bush years). It's a quote from Concord Free Press editor-in-chief Stona Fitch, talking to The Washington Post's Ron Charles:

"If you can have empathy for a person made out of words, you can muster up empathy for your three-dimensional community."

As it happens, Fitch is speaking about the philosophy behind the nonprofit Concord Free Press' practice of giving its books away and requesting that readers, in effect, pay it forward. The notion is explained this way on the publisher's website: "All we ask of readers is that they make a voluntary donation to a charity or someone in need. And pass their book along so others can give. It's a new kind of publishing based on generosity."

But even out of context, Fitch's words about empathy are words to live by. There's a particular challenge in them, too, for bookish types who find it easy to feel for people on the page, whether they're fictional or real, yet have trouble translating that warmth into positive interactions with flesh-and-blood human beings. All of us have days like that; some of us lead lives like that, disappearing too entirely down the escape hatch that books open to us.
May 27, 2009 2:31 PM |
It was a throwaway line in Bob Mondello's NPR summer-movie preview yesterday, but it was so devoid of critical thinking that it still grates: "Because young men make up a huge proportion of the summer movie audience, there are always hot-weather, male-centric comedies."

Or could it be that because there are always hot-weather, male-centric comedies, young men make up a huge proportion of the summer movie audience?

Chicken? Egg?

Give young women something to see, and they'll go in droves, too. Just a suggestion.
May 26, 2009 12:06 PM | | Comments (2)
Or, as a friend suggested this morning, best-written play. Whatever the wording might be, the addition of a Tony Award that specifically recognized the playwright's work would right a wrong built into the current system: letting producers eclipse playwrights during their only moment of Tony glory, when the award for best play is announced.

That producers will ever be kept from mobbing the stage -- and hogging the microphone -- is pretty much unimaginable. But there isn't any real reason that the best-play and best-musical awards shouldn't recognize productions as a whole, just as the best-picture Oscar does in film. What's missing from the Tonys is an award for the authors of straight plays, which are especially plentiful on Broadway in these stripped-down times.

Given the direction in which the awards ceremony has been moving, such a change seems unlikely. As Dramatists Guild president Stephen Schwartz pointed out to the New York Post's Michael Riedel, two awards for writers, best book of a musical and best revival of a play, were left out of the broadcast last year. Those should be reinstated.

Might playwrights have an ally in one of the main overseers of the Tonys? American Theatre Wing executive director Howard Sherman was the executive director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut before he moved to New York. The O'Neill is most famous as the home of the National Playwrights Conference, which during Sherman's tenure was run by James Houghton, the founding artistic director of off-Broadway's playwright-centered Signature Theatre Company. Sherman likes playwrights; he's a fan, in fact. Conceivably, he could choose to be a champion for writers on Broadway.

The Tonys' latest move suggests, however, that attention is being paid to exactly the wrong details. Bloomberg's Jeremy Gerard reports that the Tony Awards have dumped Lutz & Carr, the small accounting firm that's tallied their ballots for over half a century, in favor of accounting behemoth KPMG LLP.

The change was made in the hopes of bringing a higher profile to the Tony Awards telecast, according to Alan Wasser, an executive with the awards. ... Asked what difference the change would bring, Wasser said, "It gives the Tonys the imprimatur of credibility."

Uh ... what? That's the kind of move an organization would be smart to make if it had fallen into scandal, but that's not the case here. In a bad economy, when it's even more of a shame for anyone who's doing good work to lose business, particularly to a much larger competitor, it just looks cold. Also wrongheaded. When the aim is to make a show-biz publicity splash, the best game plan almost certainly has nothing to do with getting new accountants to add up the votes.

Writers probably aren't the answer to the question of how to make a splash, either. But if the Tonys are looking to enhance their credibility, they might try giving playwrights their moment in the spotlight.
May 21, 2009 1:18 PM | | Comments (1)
One could be forgiven for thinking, when reading the New York Post's Michael Riedel, that he has it in for the Tony Awards -- or at least for the people who run them. More than once recently, in his usual unrestrained manner, he's called the Broadway League's Charlotte St. Martin and the American Theatre Wing's Howard Sherman "apparatchiks."

But Riedel makes an important and perfectly fair point in his column today: "As Broadway prepares to celebrate itself next month, many theater people are increasingly concerned that writers, especially writers of nonmusical plays, are getting the bum's rush at the Tonys." In great part, that's because when the Tony for best play or best musical is announced, the writers get lost in a swarm of producers -- some of whom are not producers in the true sense but merely backers, people who gave large chunks of cash. At least the writers of musicals have their shot at the spotlight in the best-book and best-score categories, but for writers of straight plays, this is the only recognition they'll get.

"Why doesn't the playwright accept the award by himself?" wonders composer and lyricist Maury Yeston, whose shows include "Nine" and "Grand Hotel."

"The bookwriter does, the lyricist does, the orchestrator does, even the person who runs the sound system does. One would think that the progenitor of an original piece of theater would be the person on whom the award would evolve."

No one with any understanding of what a producer does would suggest that the role is unimportant or undeserving of recognition. Neither is the role of backer. But it's evidence of warped priorities when the writers, without whom no one would be standing there on Tony night, are deemed less important than the money people. Some of them, Riedel suggests, are thinking of the Tony spotlight from the start:

Veteran producers say that many of their biggest investors now have it written into their contracts that if the play wins the Tony, they get to share the stage with the author.

These, no doubt, are the same crass individuals who'd also try to take credit for a playwright's Pulitzer, a prize that has nothing whatsoever to do with producers or backers (though that point is frequently lost on them).

Here's the thing. You can always get another producer; you can always find another investor -- and you'll probably have to, given the crowd it takes to finance a Broadway show these days. Only in the most artistically doomed, too-many-cooks circumstances, however, is switching out a writer even a possibility. That's not going to happen to an original, single-author straight play. In the grand collaboration that is theater, the playwright simply is not expendable.

Playwrights, the most successful of whom earn only a pittance from the stage, are fond of saying they prefer working in the theater to doing more lucrative TV and film writing because the theater treats them with so much more respect. A glaring exception to that rule seems to be the moment at the Tony Awards that ought to be theirs more than anyone else's to celebrate.
May 20, 2009 3:52 PM |
Heather Havrilesky's Salon essay about being a stepmother, which takes as its jumping-off point Wednesday Martin's new book, "Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel and Act the Way We Do," brings to mind the most sympathetic stepmother in the dramatic canon: Rose Stopnick Gellman in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's all-around brilliant "Caroline, or Change."

If you don't know Rose, who was played with heartbreaking nuance by Veanne Cox in the musical's too-short 2004 Broadway run, she's yet another reason to get acquainted with the show. The cast recording is an eloquent introduction.
May 20, 2009 2:45 PM |
The Prince of Wales made nice with the architects this week, but he's really more fun when he's dropping a few culture bombs in a crowded room. This is the address that got him in trouble 25 years ago, at the gala celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects, to whom he was so respectful on Tuesday. But the Mansion House speech, from 1987, is the one I wish I'd been there to hear him give -- not because the prince and I think as one on matters architectural (we don't), but because even on the page the speech is an absolute blast, exclamation points and all.

I came across it yesterday, quite by accident, as I was doing some research in the Art and Architecture Reading Room at the New York Public Library's gorgeous Beaux Arts building on Fifth Avenue. In this utterly civilized room, surely one of the most serene public spaces in Manhattan, and one of which even Charles might approve, I shook with silent laughter as I read his impassioned address, with all its shock at the vulgarity of commerce and urban life, its intermittent sarcasm, and what seemed to me an ill-advised mention of a coach-and-four. But I also found more common ground than I thought I would with this man who insists on the importance of "architectural good manners" and "generosity of vision."

A sample:

One prominent architect recently confessed, airily and with no apparent sign of shame, that some of his earlier buildings have ceased to interest even him, now that the thrill of creativity has worn off.

Well, what kind of creativity is that? To put up a building which other people have to live with, and leave them to live with it while you wander off saying you're tired of it, and then to put up another one which you will presumably get tired of too, leaving yet more people to live with the all-too-durable consequences of your passing fancy. There is a terrible fecklessness to all this, when grown men can get whole towns in the family way, pay nothing towards maintenance, and call it romance.

The prince's outrage can be as comical as his advocacy of architectural regulation is alarming. It's easy to dismiss him wholesale if you read only the highlights in the news. But anyone who bothers to argue for architecture that makes workers feel good -- as Charles, of all people, does -- grasps something important about the way human beings interact with the built environment.
May 14, 2009 12:35 PM | | Comments (1)
Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the director and choreographer of the Kennedy Center's hit revival of "Ragtime," is the hook for Peter Marks' feature in today's Washington Post, but the story's true subject is the paucity of female directors in big-budget musical theater. Dodge -- who, at 54, had been flying beneath the radar for decades before her D.C. breakthrough this spring -- is an excellent case in point. As Marks notes, "She happens to be the first woman to direct a major musical produced by the Kennedy Center." (It opened for business in 1971.)

Marks continues:

It might be surprising that in 2009, women are still having to grope their way to the power seat in an artistic field such as theater. And the helm of a musical, with its complex and expensive working parts, is perhaps the most difficult and challenging position the theater has to offer. Yet for all the successes of a Julie Taymor ("The Lion King") or a Susan Stroman ("The Producers"), women even today only occasionally receive the assignment to direct a big-budget, big-showcase musical.

The irony is stark: In the rest of the culture, almost nothing is perceived as being girlier than musicals. But, again, that women seldom get the high-profile musical directing jobs is only surprising to those who haven't been paying attention. It was just 1998 when Julie Taymor became the first woman to win a best-director Tony Award for a musical ("The Lion King") -- minutes after Garry Hynes became the first woman to win a best-director Tony of any kind, triumphing in the play category, for "The Beauty Queen of Leenane." As The New York Times put it in its next-day coverage, "It took more than half a century for the Tonys to present its first directing award to a woman. It took five minutes to present the second one." (Bizarrely, this news was mentioned in the tenth paragraph.)

The floodgates have not exactly burst open since then. Producer Rocco Landesman, President Obama's surprising nominee to head the National Endowment for the Arts, explained in the Times in 2005, "On Broadway, progress is slow." He added:

But change is coming, however slowly. We'll get used to their styles (Watching Susan Stroman direct ''The Producers'' was a revelation; talk about velvet glove, iron fist!) and certainly, their successes. Nothing changes perceptions like a hit. The women directors I know have proved that they can get everything they want while still being decent to people. The famously bullying Jerome Robbins is just not the role model for them and the Broadway theater is better for it.

Change will come faster if more women are allowed into the directing pipeline, making their presence at the helm of a production less of an aberration, thus nudging producers and artists to envision them there when the list of collaborators is being drawn up. The more work they do, the more work they'll get. And with any luck, the most talented among them won't have to spend decades, like Dodge, building their résumés in relative obscurity.
May 13, 2009 11:18 AM | | Comments (2)
The injured Esa-Pekka Salonen sent his regrets, so it fell to Frank Gehry -- who was to have appeared alongside Salonen on last night's L.A.-comes-to-New York double bill at the New York Public Library -- to carry the show alone.

If only Gehry had been alone onstage, or up there with one rather than three interviewers, and on a program that wasn't quite so determined to proceed with a discussion of Salonen despite his absence. As it was, and through no fault of Gehry, the conversation was a disjointed and disappointing affair.

But in literally the last two minutes of the not-quite-90-minute talk, Gehry gave the audience a sense of what it might have heard all evening, introducing the subject of neuroscientists' recent investigations of creativity.

"They're getting into it. They're trying to get into the act," he said. "But the questions that they're asking are like, they want to know ... the effect of square or round shapes or things like that. And I keep saying, you know, 'Get a life. That's not the issue.' The issue, the real issue ... is why do we do it? Why did Mahler do that stuff? And why do people love it? How does it nurture us? To understand the importance of it in our lives and what it does for our children and our world and our daily existence: That's the issue. Why? We need it. So why deny that? I think these efforts, to whether it's circle or square, is a denial mechanism."
May 12, 2009 2:47 PM |
It's such a hoary cliché that you'd think people would be embarrassed to let it pass their lips, but there it was, coming from the mouth of Alistair Spalding, the artistic director of London contemporary-dance temple Sadler's Wells.

The question put to him was why no female choreographers are among the "raft of commissions" he's just announced for the coming season. His response, according to Charlotte Higgins' piece in The Guardian: "'It is something to do with women not being as assertive in that field,' said Spalding. 'It's not that I don't want to commission them.'"

His disavowal reminded me instantly of the time, back in the mid-'90s, that The New Yorker came out with a women's issue, in which almost none of the cartoons were drawn by women. There were a couple -- three at most -- which was par for the course any other week but striking, and strange, for that issue. So when Lee Lorenz, then the magazine's cartoon editor, popped up on a public-radio show, my then-boyfriend called in and asked why that was. Simple, Lorenz explained: Female cartoonists just aren't interested in the single-panel format.


Sort of like how women aren't wired for science. Or were emotional females just overreacting a few years ago when Larry Summers suggested to a conference on workforce diversification that "issues of intrinsic aptitude" were to blame for the low numbers of women in science and engineering?

Summers' speech is breathtaking for many reasons, but one of them is the sheer accumulated mass of familiar, multipurpose sexist statements cloaked in pseudo-intellectualism. Then the president of Harvard University, he addressed the issue of fairness in hiring by noting that "there's a real question as to how plausible it is to believe that there is anything like half as many people who are qualified to be scientists at top ten schools and who are now not at top ten schools."

That may be true, but it takes an almost willful myopia not to see that myriad, sometimes elusive factors -- such as encouragement, mentoring, and hostility real or perceived -- have a substantial and direct bearing on both an individual's decision to pursue a field and his or her success in it. If a given group faces more obstacles to professional development, it follows that fewer of its members will emerge in the top ranks.

Spalding sounds similarly willing to believe that the level of female representation in choreography is out of his hands.
May 12, 2009 12:13 PM | | Comments (7)
Here's a piece of the puzzle that hadn't yet fallen into place when I wrote on Sunday about texting at the theater. In Tuesday's New York Times, John Tierney discussed the research of M.I.T. neuroscientist Robert Desimone, who "has been tracking the brain waves of macaque monkeys and humans as they stare at video screens looking for certain flashing patterns."

This is the key bit: "When something bright or novel flashes, it tends to automatically win the competition for the brain's attention" -- and even though we can override that impulse, it's a struggle.

"It takes a lot of your prefrontal brain power to force yourself not to process a strong input like a television commercial," said Dr. Desimone, the director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at M.I.T. "If you're trying to read a book at the same time, you may not have the resources left to focus on the words."

Reading a book when a TV set is turned on, watching a play when someone lights up the darkness with a glowing screen: Either way, our attention has just moved from what we want to focus on to something we have to fight hard to ignore.
May 7, 2009 4:16 PM |
For a good chunk of my life, there's been a theater I've particularly cherished for its taste and daring, its embrace of the new, its fervent belief that playwriting and performance are vital to our conversation about the world. It's never been a wealthy operation, but that's part of its charm: that for years it's staged some of the best, smartest, funniest theater I've ever seen, and it's done that on a shoestring.

So when the e-mail announcing its upcoming season arrived a while ago, I opened it eagerly -- and discovered that, for the very first time, there's absolutely nothing this company is staging that I want to see. The season looked, of all things, boring to me.

That's because the artistic director, like many of his peers, is spooked by shrinking budgets and suddenly less-generous patrons. He's playing it safe, or so it would seem: choosing scripts whose track records -- on or off-Broadway, in the West End, regionally -- make them look like sure crowd-pleasers. But the crowd that fills his theater's seats has always been drawn by freshness and edge. What's tried and true elsewhere is probably not going to do the trick.

That sort of common sense may be going by the wayside right about now, as theaters struggle not to lose their foothold in an uncertain economic landscape. An actor friend put it this way in an e-mail, which he's given me permission to quote:

"'This economy' seems to be driving theatres in all sorts of crazy directions and it feels to me as if companies are blindly reacting without taking the time to examine what it is that people really want to see. There is this perceived wisdom that dumbing down or doing more familiar and safer material is the answer to shrinking audiences. I have yet to see the research to back this supposition."
May 6, 2009 2:23 PM | | Comments (3)
Lately, I've been shopping my own bookshelves more than usual, partly because of the general economic cataclysm and partly because of the staggering percentage of books I own but haven't read -- many of them good books, or so I've heard, by authors I love.

One of those authors is Lynda Barry, whose illustrated novel, "Cruddy," really shouldn't have been staring at me unheeded for a full decade. But it was, so I grabbed it out of the bookcase last week and sat down to take it in. Almost immediately, I was under Barry's spell again, conscious only of the story she was telling and the unmistakable realization that I'd missed her voice.

The narrator, Roberta, is 16 years old and grounded, and from the start it's evident that we're in for a bleak tale leavened with humor. Bleakness has always been a presence in Barry's work, where home is on the wrong side of the tracks, and grown-ups aren't necessarily protectors of the children in their care:

Now you need to know the scenery. First the house. The address. 1619 East Crawford. A rental in a row of rentals all the same, all very hideous on a dead-end road between Black Cat Lumber and the illegal dumping ravine. People have been heaving off old mattresses and old stoves and dead dogs ever since I can remember even though there is a huge nailed-up sign that says NO DUMPING! VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED! But in all the time of our living here I have never seen anyone get prosecuted once. I don't think a prosecutor even exists.

A few lines later, reporting on the naked man rumored to lurk in the garbage ravine: "I have never seen Old Red, but I believe in him. There have been nights when I have heard the drifting sound of his lonely yodels."

Roberta is telling us the story of her life, weaving together the distant past, the recent past and the present. None of it is healthy, very little of it is happy, some of it is gruesome, and almost every moment is fraught with danger: Nearly unspeakable things have been done to this girl, by her father most of all, and they haven't let up yet.

At times "Cruddy" was hard to put down, so eager was I to discover what had happened to bring Roberta to this point. But finally, at the top of page 188, I did put it down. The narrative is gripping, the central character beautifully drawn, but the novel's surfeit of ugliness, cruelty and neglect finally defeated me. I couldn't bear to watch anything else befall this child.

Abandoning a book before the end doesn't bother me like it used to, but it bothers me with this one, maybe because I've loved Barry's work for so long. I also feel a little bit like a wuss for turning my gaze away.

Lynda Barry, I think, is tougher than me.
May 5, 2009 2:47 PM |
There are topics we tend to shy from in drama as in life, and abortion is one of them.

The death of Bea Arthur, a little over a week ago, reminded us that this is now -- but wasn't always -- the case with TV series. More than 35 years ago, Arthur's iconic character, Maude Findlay, had "prime time's first abortion, in a two-part episode that aired two months before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal across the country," as Rebecca Traister wrote in Salon. Like mainstream movies, TV prefers not to tell stories like that anymore.

Theater seldom bluntly deals with the issue of abortion, either, even peripherally -- which is odd, when you consider both the strong emotions it incites and how common it is. Or maybe that's not so peculiar, given how seldom women wield the pen that writes the script.

Its scarcity onstage makes all the more striking the fact that two current off-Broadway plays do deal with abortion, their approaches to the topic as unalike as the shows themselves: "Ruined," Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about war and sexual violence in the Congo, and "Everyday Rapture," Sherie Rene Scott's bubbly, autobiographical musical, which she wrote with Dick Scanlan.

Abortion comes only briefly to the fore in each play, a bit ambiguously in one, unequivocally in the other, breath-catchingly in both, and for very different reasons. Both moments left me blinking back tears. 

To say much more than that about them would be a disservice to audiences, who deserve to be surprised.

But audiences deserve, too, to have the fullness of human experience examined honestly onstage. A person doesn't have to be on a particular side of the abortion debate to recognize that abortion is a fact of life, and one that theater would do better to acknowledge.
May 4, 2009 7:56 PM | | Comments (3)
I'm a fan of Sharon Waxman and what she's doing with The Wrap, but I laughed out loud when I read this exchange in her Q&A with "Hairspray" composer and lyricist Marc Shaiman

You wrote something called 'Prop 8: The Musical.' What was that?

May I say 'F--- you' for not having seen it? It's only three minutes. Go watch it. We have 4 million hits.

In fairness to Waxman, asking that question doesn't necessarily mean she hadn't already seen "Prop 8: The Musical," Shaiman's online protest hit, which she embeds in the piece. Like lawyers, journalists often ask questions to which they already know the answer, because they need the response in the subject's own words. That goes double in a Q&A format.

Shaiman does answer the question, then poignantly adds: "The reason for writing it was soul-killing. But the exhiliaration [sic] of writing something for a reason, for fun, for no money, left us all feeling like the purest version of our 15 year old selves."

Shaiman, a terrific interview, also weighs in on where composers stand in the Hollywood pecking order and how music piracy could spell doom for his retirement fund.
May 4, 2009 12:56 PM |
It's the glow that kills the atmosphere: brightness surrounded by a seeping luminescence. In the darkness of the theater, it draws the peripheral vision of even the most determinedly focused spectators.

The source? Some jerk, text-messaging during the show.

Banning texting at the theater is a crucial extension of the prohibition against cell-phone use during performances, but I'd never heard a pre-show announcement forbidding it until last weekend, when I went to see the stageFARM's "The Gingerbread House" at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in the West Village. When I wrote about it the other day on True/Slant, saying that if a device glows in the dark, it shouldn't be turned on during the performance, I didn't expect to hear someone I respect arguing for the other side, let alone suggesting general codes of behavior at the theater need some rethinking. Then I opened my e-mail.

"I'm not sure I care if people are texting or not," wrote a friend who works in theater, adding that he'd once caught students texting each other about the show during a weekday matinee. "That's not a bad thing."

I begged to differ, and thus began our little e-mail brawl, his part of which he's given me permission to quote here.

For my friend, texting has been a recent topic of staff discussions, in which people have been divided about how to deal with it.

"Why are we so precious about the way in which we view theater?" he asked me. "Does it always have to be quietly and in the dark? Why can't theater be more like baseball? I can talk, eat, hear screaming voices, see people moving around and watch the game all at the same time -- and not really miss anything. I think we have to shake things up a bit. Stop demanding human beings -- coughing, fidgeting, farting, eating human beings -- be themselves when watching a play."
May 3, 2009 1:46 PM | | Comments (12)
The appointment of a poet laureate isn't generally synonymous with great fun, but this morning's naming of Carol Ann Duffy to the post in the U.K. turns out to be, somehow.

Of all the charming details -- for example: she's donating her 5,750-pound annual stipend to the Poetry Society to fund a poetry prize, but she'd like the traditional "butt of sack" (600 bottles of sherry) up front, please -- my favorite is this, as reported by The Guardian: Incumbent laureate Andrew Motion "wished her luck in an email exchange earlier this morning."

He wished her luck in an e-mail exchange. Of course he did. Print that out and rush it to the archives!
May 1, 2009 10:45 AM |

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