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ON THE TOWN… with Chip Deffaa… (July 2, 2014)

The City Center Encores production of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM! (directed by Oliver Butler) is the best show I’ve seen anywhere in a good while. And Lin-Manuel Miranda, in the leading role–as the Jonathan Larson surrogate–was a revelation. I would never have thought of casting him in the role, but he was breathtakingly right for the part. (Casting directors Carrie Gardner and Stephen Kopel, “Ya done good!”) I hope producers are wise enough to see the strengths of this limited-engagement production. Some wise theatrical producers–whether commercial producers or a not-for-profit organization (like New York Theatre Workshop or the Public Theater)–ought to find a way to give this production a real run some place. So many shows I see around town feel so synthetic, superficial I don’t even bother commenting upon them. We don’t need more slapdash jukebox musicals filling theaters.

tick tick…BOOM Lin-Manuel Miranda and Karen Olivo – photo by Joan Marcus

But tick tick… BOOM! –written by Jonathan Larson (with a posthumous assist from script consultant David Auburn) is as realistic and moving a portrait of a struggling artist as you can ever hope to see. It has emotional impact. And I’m very glad that Larson’s parents and sister (who were seated immediately in front of me), and his good friend Kevin McGrath got to see the audience’s whole-hearted, thunderous response to this work.

The audience packing City Center–whether applauding or laughing or cheering–certainly showed its enthusiasm throughout. The opening scene of tick, tick…BOOM! is very powerfully and economically written. I admire Larson’s writing. Hearing those ticks (representing the relentless passing of time), and anticipating the coming boom (of an impending disaster that is somehow sensed without being fully understood) … well, that came from a deep place. And it was prescient writing. Larson was about 30 when he wrote this semi-autobiographical show, portraying the anxieties of a creative artist who has not found much commercial success, and fears time is limited. (Larson himself would die suddenly, when he was just 35, of an aneurysm. This show is hauntingly informed by an awareness that we do not know how much time we may have, and we must make the most of what time we do have. It’s as if Jonathan Larson sensed, on some subconscious level, his own time was limited.) I’ve always liked this show. I’d forgotten how richly varied the score is, and how much humor, not just drama, it has.

Jonathan Larson

As a composer, lyricist, and book-writer, Larson had something very special, and this piece deserves more of a life. I liked very much the original 2001 Off-Broadway production (spearheaded by producers Victoria Leacock Hoffman and Robyn Goodman); but this version hit me even harder. The choice of Miranda to play the protagonist, “Jon”–with just the right mix of pathos, strength, charm, and wit–was really inspired casting. (I did not know he had it in him.) I liked Raul Esparza so much in the original Off-Broadway production (and I was also lucky enough to attend the cast-album recording session for that production), I never imagined I would like someone else even more. But I relished Miranda’s very human–while still very driven–interpretation of the role; he was more vulnerable than the innately self-assured Esparza was–more angsty and insecure–and that served this script and score better.

Leslie Odom Jr. was perfect as the prosperous best friend–and in assorted other roles, too, from Jon’s agent to Jon’s father (in his manner of speech, Odom evoked well Jonathan Larson’s real-life father; and I appreciated that homage).

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. in Tick tick… BOOM

Karen Olivo–as Jon’s ambivalent girlfriend, “Susan”–sang strongly and went over big. Playing the girlfriend, she was, at times, harder and tougher than I personally think is ideal. She hasn’t quite found the characterization yet. She was completely on target in scenes where she was talking with Jon about the relationship not working out, about her wanting to leave him (and leave New York). She wasn’t as convincing in scenes where we’re supposed to feel the couple’s passion. The show depicts a relationship that is coming to an end, but both parts of the ambivalence Susan feels–the attraction to Jon and the desire to leave–must be given equal weight. I wished she could have showed me, more convincingly, the part of her that was in love with Jon; she was totally convincing in the scenes in which she made clear she wanted to leave him, and leave the city. (She scored very well playing other characters, as needed, I might add.)

There also were moments when the three actors, singing together, didn’t blend as well as they should. But the Encores productions are staged with minimal rehearsal time. I can overlook such relatively minor flaws because the production has, on balance, such impressive strengths. And with proper rehearsal time, actors can–and will–offer more fully realized performances. Knowing that these Encores productions are put together very quickly, I’m not worried too much about easy-to-fix problems (likes nuances of characterizations, or achieving perfect blends on vocal harmonies). The show, as a whole worked very well. And it generated quite a buzz in its brief run last week. Some credit must be given to an effective publicist (Helene Davis). But the powerful production itself was reaching people.

tick tick.. BOOM

The original production of tick tick BOOM!, back in 2001, felt a bit like it was in the shadow of Rent (which was then still a very potent phenomenon, doing solid business on Broadway). That situation no longer exists. Rent is not playing in New York. And this show stands on its own. Tick tick… BOOM! feels as timely as ever; it includes some superb music; and you have in Miranda a perfect star. Odom and Olivo bring additional assets. And the tight, potent band (music direction by Chris Fenwick, with Matt Gallagher as pianist/conductor, and arrangements by Stephen Oremus) made the music jump. Some producer ought to grab this show.

I felt something similar when I saw Newsies open out of town, a couple of years ago–that producers needed to give the production I saw an open-ended theatrical run in New York. (And they did!) I felt that way, too, when Honeymoon in Vegas premiered in New Jersey–that it deserves to be given a proper shot in New York. (And it will get that, in the Fall.) This is only the third time in the last three years I’ve seen a show I strongly feel deserves greater exposure, deserves a proper theatrical run in New York. City Center Encores has provided a great service by reviving–if just for a week–this unique musical. I hope some producers takes a chance on tick, tick… BOOM!

* * *

In today’s column–and the next one I’ll be writing–I’d like to look back on the 2013-2014 theatrical season, I’d like to start by calling attention to four good shows that did not receive Tony nominations for “best musical”–but were arguably as good as some shows that did receive nominations. These four shows were not perfect–there simply were no perfect (or even near-perfect) new shows this season–and I’ll address their weaknesses, as well as their strengths. But as someone who’s been going to Broadway shows faithfully since seeing My Fair Lady in its original Broadway run (and that’s about as perfect a musical as anyone could ever hope to create), I can tell you that each of these Broadway shows, though flawed, impressed me in some ways; each of these shows offered enough rewards for me to recommend them with reservations. And while only four musicals received Tony nominations this year, had there been five nominations–which I would have welcomed–any of these four shows could have been a credible nominee.

* * *

If/Then‘s
strengths include freshness and originality–certainly a rare enough commodity on the Great White Way these days–and several strong, memorable, largely satisfying performances: Anthony Rapp, LaChanze, Idina Menzel. You’ll get your money’s worth just seeing Rapp, LaChanze, and Menzel perform. These are seasoned pros in peak form. (Director Michael Greif cast this show very well. And Jerry Dixon and James Snyder, in supporting roles, deliver fine performances as well.)

Idina Menzel and the cast of If/Then – photo by Joan Marcus

If/Then–with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt–is a 100% original musical. It is not based on a hit movie or play. (I like that right there.) And it will pique your interest. The show explores how one person’s life might be different, if different choices were made–with seemingly small choices leading to widely divergent outcomes. I liked this premise enormously. I was intrigued. And, for the most part, I really enjoyed the company of the players on the stage. Would I recommend the show? Yes. I had some reservations about the show, which I’ll get to in a minute. But I could see this show reaching people seated near me–see it in their eyes, even before I asked them what they thought of it. And I’ve seen, via comments on Facebook and Twitter, how much some of my friends and acquaintances like this new show. As Brandon Pollinger, an actor and wholehearted admirer of If/Then, so eloquently expressed it: “It takes talent to give a great performance, to remind people why they love art. It takes heart and the willingness to be vulnerable as an actor to give a life-changing experience to people through theater. Only that kind of art can remind someone why they love theater, when they didn’t know they forgot. If/Then captures this better than any show I’ve ever had the honor of seeing.” I applaud any show that can stir people and inspire people to that extent. And I could see If/Then touching some audience members more fully than the show touched me.

Here are my reservations. I wish the storytelling were clearer, at times, and more concise. I was confused a bit, early in the show. Once I fully understood what was going on, things got easier for me. But then, eventually, the show began to feel a bit repetitious. And I could see where it was going. I’m told they did some tightening/trimming/reworking between the show’s tryout run in Washington, DC. (which, alas, I did not get to see) and its opening on Broadway. (I heard they creators shortened the show by about 12 minutes.) I wish they’d done a bit more tightening/trimming. I think this is a show that could have more clarity and impact if it were a bit more tightly focused, and if transitions between alternate realities were sometimes demarcated more clearly. I’m very glad I saw If/Then–it’s unlike any other Broadway musical I’ve seen, and I hope it does well at the box-office–but I also wish the creators could, at some point, take another look at the material. I think it could be made stronger.

Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp in If/Then – photo by Joan Marcus

My own personal favorite moment in the show–and of course this is subjective, simply one person’s reaction to what he witnessed–was seeing/hearing Anthony Rapp sing to Menzel that she did not have to love him; they could make a life together work, even without that. The song was unusual, and it was performed to perfection, with Rapp giving a master class in how to act in singing a song, how to interpret lyrics with utter conviction, how to make a song compelling. (I wish I could tell you the title of that song, but the Playbill I received, oddly enough, did not list titles of any individual songs, the Playbill only indicated that the score was by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey.) It was a quiet, honest moment in the show; for me, it was one of the high points of the whole season; it just felt very human, very real, very beautiful. For me, the best acting in the show occurred while Rapp was singing that song. I’ve always responded to Rapp’s work. He doesn’t always get flashy roles, but whatever roles I’ve seen him in, from the reserved narrator “Mark Cohen” in Rent to the hapless “Charlie Brown” in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, to the loyal gay friend in this show, he’s found moments in which to make an impact.

LaChanze, who’s been an asset to assorted Broadway musicals over the years–including Dreamgirls, Company, Ragtime, The Color Purple–is tremendously appealing here. With her, as with Rapp, the producers are lucky enough to have a star in a supporting role, and she serves the show brilliantly.

As for Menzel, I have mixed feelings. I really like the warmth of her sound when she does not push too hard, and I found much of her performance very agreeable. She’s the star of this show and for the most part likeable. But the first act ended with her belting out long, and loud, and, hard and strong, in a way that I found strident, forced, not dramatically justified. To my ears, her sound, as she closed out the first act, was no longer attractive. This is a very subjective matter, of course; I took a friend–an ardent Menzel fan–who lives for the moments when Menzel can belt to the max. To him, the louder, stronger, and more powerfully she can sing, the better; but to my ears, at the close of the first act, her singing was hinting at screaming–and I would have preferred something more reined-in. Her singing at the end of the first act was, for me, off-putting; I felt I was being pushed away. By contrast, her big singing at the very end of the show felt more appropriate to me; it was more justified dramatically there, and her voice also simply sounded better to me. But to me, her singing at the close of the first act was not pleasant. I’ve seen Menzel in assorted shows over the years, from Rent to Summer of ’42, to Wicked, and so on… and I’ve found her, from time to time, too strident for my own tastes. I can overlook such moments, and appreciate the many parts of her performance that I do enjoy. But for me, she sometimes blares in a way I don’t enjoy…. I know, I know, I will now be getting hot dissenting Emails from diehard Menzel fans who love everything she does; and that’s fine. (Feel free to write me at Footloose518@aol.com. I know that friend I took will be saying: “Let Idina be Idina!”) All I can do I relate honestly my own reactions. She’s a powerhouse, and I’ll always go to see her. I enjoy a lot of what she does. But–so long as we’re being honest here about our reactions–I sure don’t enjoy everything she does.

* * *

Rocky Playbill

Rocky was, for me, the real “sleeper” of the season–the show I least expected to enjoy, whose very real strengths surprised me and quickly won me over. I confess, I was skeptical when I first heard the news that producers intended to develop a Broadway musical based on the Rocky films. A boxing musical? I just couldn’t see it. Nor could I imagine there’d be an audience for this on Broadway. Nor could I imagine that I–who’s never seen a boxing match in my life or had any interest in doing so–would enjoy such a Broadway show. But I was wrong. Thomas Meehan and Sylvester Stallone, who wrote the script (based on Stallone’s famed MGM/United Artists motion picture), have done a terrific job of good old-fashioned storytelling, making us care about the fate of an underdog, a down-on-his-luck boxer. And director Alex Timbers has staged this with enormous flair. The last 20 minutes or so of the show are devoted to a boxing match–and by the that point, I had come to care so much about the hero of the show, I was hanging on every word, and every move, and hoping he would win. It’s a very well-constructed book, and the staging–from start to finish–is first-rate.

Rocky – the Musical

My chief reservation? The score, by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, struck me as serviceable rather than memorable. And that surprised me, because Flaherty & Ahrens are great favorites of mine. There’s much to enjoy in their scores for such shows as My Favorite Year, Once on this Island, and Seussical. And there’s no musical of the last 25 years that I enjoy more–or whose score I admire more–than their show Ragtime. I can’t say that any of the songs in this show has grabbed hold of me the way many songs of theirs from previous shows has. But, to my surprise, I still had a great time watching Rocky. It worked for me as entertainment.

* * *

Bridges of Madison County had, in my judgment, the best original score of any show this season. When I attended the Tony Awards, it made me very happy to see composer Jason Robert Brown presented with his Tony for best score; he deserved it. I’m sorry the show did not survive for more than a hundred performances. I thought the score was first-rate. And Kelli O’Hara gave the finest performance yet in her career, in that show. The cast album is selling well, and I’m glad for that. The show had book problems, which I had vainly hoped they might fix, and it was not marketed well.

Bridges of Madison County Playbill

I’m sorry that no number from Bridges was performed on the Tony Awards telecast. In an ideal world, an awards ceremony celebrating the best of Broadway would find a way to include a song from the year’s best score. (The Drama Desk Awards ceremony managed to include the performance of one song from the show.) I understand that the show had closed. I understand that the producers of Bridges of Madison had run out of money. (And producers have to pay to have numbers from their musicals performed during the Tony Awards broadcast.) But in an ideal world, an awards ceremony promoting the best of Broadway would find a way to let us hear some of the best music to be heard all season on Broadway. Hearing a bit of that score, sung well on TV, might have helped sell a few more copies of the cast albums, might have prompted a few more regional theaters, community theaters, and college theaters to consider doing Bridges of Madison County someday. It just seemed awfully strange to me, to hear no music from the year’s best score on the Tony’s–while we heard some not-very-impressive music from some shows that have not even reached Broadway yet. I wish we could have heard Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale singing something from Bridges of Madison County. You’d think the producers of the Tony Awards would realize that if the best of Broadway is represented on the broadcast, we all win.

* * *

There is so much to enjoy about Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, I’d gladly recommend it to anyone. And I certainly look forward to seeing it again. It is a big, bright production–handsomely mounted, with beautiful sets (by Santo Loquasto) and costumes (by William Ivey Long), for the most part very smartly staged (by Susan Stroman). It has some terrific songs, lots of laughs, and a dream cast. Much of the time it is a delight. The best scenes have a polish and flair that represent Broadway at its best. But there are also, frustratingly, moments that don’t work, some lines that fall flat, some scenes where I was aware of pros working efficiently and conscientiously, but somehow the magic was missing. At night’s end, I left the theater grateful that I’d seen the show and hoping it will enjoy a good long run–it adds needed life and color to Broadway. But I also left vaguely disappointed. Because this musical could have–and should have–been better. How did I feel after seeing this show? The experience was something like going to a fancy restaurant for a seven-course meal, and finding that most of the food was wonderfully prepared–really a treat–but a few items were surprisingly bland or stale, or beginning to go bad. And the shortcomings, which were simply too significant to ignore, took some of the shine off the night.

The cast of Bullets Over Broadway–with such delightful performers as Marin Mazzie, Karen Ziemba, Nick Cordero, Zach Braff, Vincent Pastore, Lenny Wolpe, Brooks Ashmaskas–is extraordinary. You rarely see a musical comedy so wonderfully overstuffed with talent. (That’s reason enough to go see this show. It is a terrific cast.) And Marin Mazzie is giving the best performance of her career.

Bullets Over Broadway photo by Paul Kolnik

As expected, the script by Woody Allen, based on his fondly remembered film of the same name, has plenty of funny lines. And the basic premise–about a gangster helping to write a Broadway show in the 1920s–is inherently intriguing. Director/choreographer Susan Stroman, assisted by associate director Jeff Whiting and associate choreographer James Gray, has given us some really wonderful scenes. I love the way each act of this two-act musical comedy opens.

But every once in a while, alas, the show simply misfires. I’ll give one example. The show is rolling along smoothly, with one hearty laugh following another, and the show feels irresistible–and then Woody Allen has the leading character awkwardly utter a line that breaks the mood entirely: “I wrote my first play at school when I was eight to celebrate Thanksgiving; John Alden is turned down by Pocahontas so he rapes the turkey.” It’s not funny. It doesn’t even fit the character. The guest I went with said: “The last thing I wanted to hear was a joke dealing with a child and rape.” I wish that terrible line could be excised.

At another point, I simply could not see the key players from my orchestra seat. The way the set was designed, the way the scene was blocked, I could hear but not see the key players. The scene could have been staged more wisely, so that the players would have remained in sight. In my many years of theater-going, I’ve never encountered that problem before (except in shows with some seats clearly defined as “obstructed view” seats).

The show has a big cast (nearly 30 players), and they sing and dance with flair. And what a treat it was, I might add, to see such great tap dancing! I haven’t seen tap-dancing gangsters like that since Sugar!

But every member of the cast I saw appeared to be white. In a musical comedy with a really big cast, am I to believe there were no available performers of color who could have sung and danced well? And I must stress, this show’s terrific period score features song after song written back in the 1920s and ’30s by top black songwriters: Jelly Roll Morton, Andy Razaf, Don Redman, Clarence Williams, Perry Bradford, Porter Grainger…. You have to read the small-print music credits to find their names. But this richly melodic show draws heavily from black culture of the 1920s and ’30s; the show would not be half as satisfying without the songs of Morton, Razaf, Redman, Williams et. al –the best black songwriters of .that era. Their contributions are no less crucial to the show’s success than the contributions of Allen and Stroman. Which makes it feel all the more odd to me that the cast does not include any black singers and dancers. I am not saying that every show produced in the US must have a quota of black artists, but in a musical this huge, and featuring so many wonderful songs by great black songwriters, it seems odd to me to have what appears to be an all-white cast.

The score, I should stress, includes some outstanding–and very wisely chosen–vintage musical numbers. Woody Allen deserves a lot of credit–more than he’s gotten anywhere I’ve seen–for the song selection. There are a lot of fun numbers. Some are familiar, some are far-from-familiar.(Woody Allen–besides being a great filmmaker–is an expert on music of this era; his own wonderful New Orleans-style jazz band has been playing tunes from this era, by Jelly Roll Morton, Clarence Williams, and others, in New York City and elsewhere for decades.) Most of the numbers Allen has picked for this show pay off well.

Some critics have said it’s a pity the show does not have a new, original score by contemporary songwriters. I disagree. Allen has selected terrific vintage numbers that are fun in their own right and fit perfectly the tone of the show. I don’t know many contemporary writers who could write 1920s pastiche songs (which a comedy set in the 1920s would require) that would land as well, or evoke the period as well, as most of these songs do. (And Glen Kelly deserves credit, too, for providing additional lyrics for some of the songs, and fresh arrangements, to help them serve the storyline better.)

Some of these great old songs will be unknown to the average theater-goer of today; they are so old they might as well be new. And they are a joy to hear. What a treat it is, for example, to hear Jelly Roll Morton’s “Good Old New York.” This is a superior melody by a major jazz composer. It will be new to most audience-members. It’s done with respect and flair. And it’s a just a pleasure to hear. That number is over all too soon.

Bullets Over Broadway — singing Good Old New York

 

The score includes so much good music, I think it’s a pity the show does not have a proper overture and/or entr’acte. The late master songwriter Jule Styne said it was no accident that Broadway audience members–back in Broadway’s golden age–so often left theaters humming the tunes. Composers made sure the best melodies were showcased well in carefully constructed overtures, introduced and then reprised by singers in the shows, and also used wisely in underscoring. So that by the time audience members left the theater, the best tunes were lodged well in their heads. Bullets Over Broadway boasts such really great songs–from “Runnin’ Wild” to “Good Old New York”–it could, and should, have had a killer overture and entr’acte. I would have loved to have hear a hot cornet or clarinet rising above the band, putting over such great Jazz Age melodies with aplomb in a first-rate overture. (Styne’s musicals, such as Gypsy and Funny Girl, boasted superb overtures; you fell in love with Styne’s best melodies before the show itself really got underway.) If audience members heard a quality song like “Good Old New York” showcased well in an overture, sung and reprised in the show, and used well in underscoring, they’d leave the theater humming it. An opportunity was missed here.

Not every song works perfectly in this show, a couple of the songs have been done definitively by others (such as “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle”–one of Bessie Smith’s signature songs); there’s no need to hear them being done in milder, blander, less effective ways here. But most of the shows work well. And the best moments of Bullets Over Broadway have a kind of razzle-dazzle Broadway sorely needs.

* * *

The four shows I reviewed above are not perfect, but each of them offers enough rewards for me to recommend them, with reservations. This season did not produce any single “must-see” show that was a sure shot to win multiple awards. Some seasons you get shows that are so impressively strong that critics and public agree at once–they are the shows everyone is talking about, everyone seems to be trying to get a ticket to see, everyone knows will sweep the awards. The Book of Mormon, The Producers, Fiddler On the Roof, Hello Dolly! are examples of shows from different years that were clear standouts of their respective seasons. The musicals that received Tony nominations this year (After Midnight, Beautiful, Aladdin, A Gentleman’s Guide…) all have their strengths and weaknesses. None have wholly captured the attention of reviewers and theater-goers. It’s been a year of good-but-not-necessarily great musicals. No show was an overwhelming favorite to sweep the Tony Awards this year (the way, say, Hello Dolly!, The Producers, and Book of Mormon swept the awards in their years). The four nominated shows all offered musical numbers on the Tony Awards broadcast–but I doubt any of those numbers (which tended to be pleasant rather than compelling) sparked any great surge in interest in their respective shows. It’s been a congenial but not exceptional season.

 * * *

Santino Fontana and Tony Shalhoub in Act One photo by Joan Marcus

 As I look back over the season, one play I especially enjoyed was Act One, Lincoln Center’s stage adaptation of Moss Hart’s autobiography of the same name–which was one of the first showbiz autobiographies I was aware of as a child. I loved the book, and I very much loved this faithful dramatization. Oh, it was a bit too long, and a bit repetitious. (Every time the play alluded to Moss Hart and his collaborator, George S. Kaufman, striving to tighten a script they were working on, I was reminded that this play itself needed some tightening.) But the play, splendidly designed and acted, really brought a whole era back to life. And Bob Stillman’s evocative piano underscoring added much to the night.

Santino Fontana and Tony Shalhoub in Act One

Santino Fontana–wide-eyed, and with big dreams–was perfect on stage. He is one of my favorite actors to watch in today’s theater. He is just so present, and just so alive. He’s always had this special quality. (I saw it in him when he was 17!) He was immensely likeable as earnest young Moss Hart. The script, alas, made some of the the same points over and over again. (We repeatedly saw Hart suggesting he did not feel worthy of being associated with the people he was working with, or partying with.) Tony Shalhoub, who is always fun to watch, made the most of the role of George S. Kaufman–a characterization that seemed suspiciously close to the one Shalhoub gave us in his TV series “Monk,” but fun to see again nevertheless. Fontana and Shalhoub were equally effective co-stars, with great chemistry. I really enjoyed seeing them, and the whole show, a lot.

* * *

As I look back over the past year, some of the performance delights I’ll remember came in unexpected places. At the Nutmeg Ballet Company’s final performance of the 2013-2014 season, I got to watch Ben Youngstone perform, once again, the “Variation Gustave Ricaux” (choreographed by Kirk Peterson) from the “Lombardi Variations.” I’ve seen him perform this before and was enchanted all over again; all of the yearning of the human race for artistic fulfillment seemed to be represented in his beautifully arched body. I’ll just retain that image of him–a marvelous dancer–seemingly straining to take flight. Having left Nutmeg, he’ll now be joining choreographer Brian Simerson’s troupe, “Simerson & Co.”

Katherine Lamagdeleine, one of the most promising up-and-coming ballerinas I’ve seen in recent years, has just joined MOMIX. I always enjoy their adventurous shows. And it will be fun watching her continued growth. I love seeing how careers of talented people unfold.

Robbie Fairchild and Tiler Peck photo by Paul Kolnik

Two of my favorite principal dancers with the New York City Ballet, Tiler Peck and Robbie Fairchild, have just gotten married. They may have a bit of time for themselves right now, but not too much. Peck will be going into rehearsals to star in the Broadway-bound musical Little Dancer, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, who discovered her when she was 11. And I’ve enjoyed her work since then. Sometimes talent manifests itself early; it’s just there, and if you have eyes, you see it. Stroman saw it when Peck was 11 (as did I); and I love the fact that now, more than a dozen years later, Stroman will be starring her in a show. The show will be seen first at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Meanwhile, Robbie Fairchild will be starring in the Broadway-bound musical An American in Paris (based on the Oscar-winning film of the same name, with music by the Gershwins) which will have its world premiere in Paris. His co-star will be London Royal Ballet first dancer Leanne Cope. Craig Lucas is writing the book. Christopher Wheeldon will direct and choreograph. (Both Peck and Fairchild, incidentally, have danced to Wheeldon’s choreography with the New York City Ballet.) So two shows starring dancers are headed for Broadway. And not just any dancers, but dancers who’ve often worked together, who’ve been close since they were young teens, and now–in their mid ’20s–are married. I haven’t seen anything quite like that in my lifetime! And I’m glad some dance-driven shows–with dancers in the starring roles–are coming to Broadway. It’s been too long.

The most promising new dancer I’ve seen in the past year just might be Nicholas Gray, whom I’ve seen a few times “live” in the past year, as well as on TV. It’s not just the finesse and grace he’s acquiring, it’s the stage presence he has, and the inner light. He brightens any stage he is on. It’s rare when I spot that quality in someone in auditions. When I see someone who lights up a stage like that, I almost always hire them–even if I have to write a new part for them.

The best new young actors I’ve seen on stage in the past year or two (not counting actors who’ve ever worked with me) would be Will Conard, Martha Epstein, Tommaso DiBlasi. I’ve seen them both in several productions. And I’m noting the names of these standouts for future reference.

* * *

Amanda Green flew to Texas, at her own expense, to attend the opening night of the Theater Under the Stars production of a Broadway musical she co-created, Hands On a Hardbody. To her horror, she found that the director of that Texas production had made extensive changes to her show, without permission–even to the point of changing the order of songs, and changing which characters sang lines. It is a violation of Federal copyright law, as well as standard licensing agreements, to make any changes to a script without permission. Samuel French Inc., which publishes and licenses Hands on a Hardbody, declared that this was the most flagrant violation of a licensing agreement they’d seen in years, and they withdrew the license, forcing Theater Under the Stars to cancel the production. (Howard Sherman, writing about this in his theater column, helped bring this situation to national attention.)

Amanda Green

 

Samuel French Inc. has just announced that from now on, they will require the directors of any productions of their shows–not just the heads of the theater companies–to personally sign licensing agreements, pledging to make no changes to scripts without permission; and they will file copies of those signed agreements with both the Dramatists Guild (representing playwrights) and the Stage Director and Choreographers Society (representing directors and choreographers).

Some directors–who are perhaps wannabe writers–seek to “improve” scripts they have no legal right to rewrite. Amanda Green says the director in Texas tried to pressure her into agreeing with him that he had “improved” her show. She said she wanted to show performed exactly as written; it had been carefully developed and honed over a period of seven years; she had no interest in having some stranger rework the show without permission. As a playwright (published by Samuel French Inc, Bakers Plays and other companies), I’ve experienced things similar to what Amanda Green has experienced. She has my sympathies. And as a reviewer, I’ve witnessed some unauthorized revampings of shows by directors. The worst instance I personally witnessed involved a director in Connecticut who–without permission–changed the running order of songs (and reassigned songs to different characters) when mounting West Side Story. You can’t do that! A script belongs to its creator (or creators); no changes to a script can be made without the permission of the copyright owner (or owners). And all published scripts carry notices to that effect.

Imaginative directors and actors, of course, can find ways to put their own marks on scripts without changing a single line of the script. For example, I’ve seen Carousel–one of my favorite musicals–many times. And every version is unique in some ways. Normally, when the leading male character, Billy Bigelow, dies, we encounter for the first time in the show angels, dealing with him in the afterlife. But at an intriguing production I caught this spring at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, the director, Brian Jennings, had one of the actors, Michael Kasper (playing an angel), silently observing the ongoings from a perch overhead, from the start of the play; without changing one word of the written text, the director was establishing the idea, early on, that our actions are being observed by Heavenly representatives. In this production, when we heard the musical prologue that opens the play, we saw carnival entertainers dancing and such for curious townsfolk; but I once saw another production in Connecticut where the director showed us women toiling in mills, as that very same musical prologue was heard–the director was choosing to show us the humdrum work life that the leading female character, Julie, would be seeking to escape when she fell for carnival-barker Billy Bigelow. There are many ways directors and actors can interpret scripts. I’ve seen Billy Bigelow played as a blustering braggart tough-guy, and I’ve seen him played as a lost soul; and good actors can make us buy different characterizations. The Hartford production I caught this Spring (which I enjoyed) featured a promising newcomer, Tre Frazier as Billy Bigelow–the first African-American I’ve seen in that role; he sang the part beautifully, with far more sensitivity and vulnerability than I’d previously seen in the role, but made that work.

* * *

I had fun attending the Tony Awards ceremony. I always do. I’ve been going to the Tonys in person for over a dozen years (and prior to that, I’ve watched them on TV ever since the first national broadcast). As a social event, it’s great. I enjoyed sharing the night with wonderful company, and feeling part of a terrific community. I sure had excellent seats. (Host Hugh Jackman was right next to me, singing, at one point, and the cameras picked that up.) I have acquaintances in most of the shows; I’m happy for them, too. All of that adds to the fun of the night. And I enjoy some of the acceptance speeches as much as the musical numbers. (I particularly loved Audra McDonald saying she was grateful her parents refused to let her be medicated for Attention Deficit Disorder as a child.)

But the Tonys this year, once again, fell short of properly honoring all who create theater. It saddened me that the awards for the people who write the book, music, and, lyrics of the shows could not be honored on camera. Jason Robert Brown, for example, received his award (for composing the year’s best score ) during a TV commercial. The TV audience got to see a tiny snippet of his acceptance speech. As I kid, I found it inspiring seeing the writers of the shows get proper TV time. I wish we could go back to giving the writers, composers, choreographers, directors their due on TV.

I wish, too, some of the real veterans of Broadway–legendary performers like Carol Channing, Robert Morse, Angela Lansbury who’ve contributed so much to Broadway–might have been included among the presenters. It’s important to remember such older greats, and keep them part of the proceedings.

I also think the awards would be fairer and more credible if critics could be included in the pool of voters (as they were for most of the history of the Tonys). Right now, Tony voters with vested financial interests in certain shows–investors, producers, road-show presenters–can skew results. Including critics in the pool of voters can partially offset such biases. And critics are more likely to have actually seen the shows that have been nominated. Some Tony voters see only a fraction of the show; some voters are more interested in promoting shows they have a financial stake in than in truly judging the season’s best work. There’s no way to make things 100% perfect. But I’d like to see things a little better.

Jason Robert Brown with his Tony Award

 

In closing, I’d like to note that the Tony Awards facilitated one emotional meeting of two notables that the cameras missed catching. At the end of the show, both Jason Robert Brown and Carole King were among those on the stage. By chance, Brown’s late father, Stuart, had grown up in the same brick, two-family house in Sheepshead Bay as Carole King. The Browns lived upstairs in that two-family house; the Kings lived downstairs. When Jason Robert Brown realized he was standing near Carole King (he later wrote on his Facebook page), “I tapped Carole on the shoulder very gently, and when she turned to me, I very quickly told her my name and said, ‘I’m a huge fan, but more importantly, I’m Stuart Brown’s son.’ I suspect, though I can’t be sure, that I started crying when I said my Dad’s name, as I generally do, but then I imagine that Carole’s used to people crying when they meet her. At any rate, she seemed shocked, so amazed to be brought back to a two-story house she left over fifty years ago, while standing on a stage celebrating all the life she’d lived ever since. She turned to the woman standing next to her, who I think worked with her, and said, ‘Oh my God, this is Stuie Brown’s son, his family lived right above us when I was a kid!'” They took a photo together. And then, Brown recalls: “She took my hands and said, ‘Please give all my best to your family … ‘, and, as though she knew something, ‘… wherever they are.’ I smiled gently and thanked her and walked off the stage to where my beautiful wife and mother were waiting for me.”

And that is by far the best story I’ve heard, in connection with the 2014 Tonys.

– CHIP DEFFAA

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