Hedwig and the Battle Between Story and Experience

The drag rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch has been a cult sensation in each of its incarnations – first as a downtown musical, then a film, and now a Broadway show. On a recent night when I saw a performance, I wasn’t surprised to see (and hear) the formidable presence of superfans. No sooner would the intro notes to a song play than the crowd would erupt in cheers, some crooning the opening bars. One woman in my section wore what looked to be a handmade poncho covered in patchwork images of Neil Patrick Harris. Cleary not a first-timer.

I have to confess that when I first watched the film of Hedwig, I couldn’t get past the first 45 minutes. The story was – and I think still is – ridiculously far-fetched. An East-German boy discovers rock music, experiences a botched sex-change operation, moves to America, and becomes a pop singer only to have his songs stolen by his young creative partner (and momentary lover) for whom he babysat. What redeems the show, and what made me want to see it on stage, is the music. Composed and written by Stephen Trask, Hedwig’s score sounds even better live. His songs are catchy, energized, and uplifting all at once. And each is soulful enough to emotionally transport the audience, especially when performed by an actor as talented and magnetic as Neil Patrick Harris. (I had the pleasure of seeing Harris on his last night in the role.) 

The music is so good that, ultimately, it manages to eclipse the narrative missteps throughout the show. (Even within Hedwig's bizarre world, there are several moments and that are off and implausible.) For example, the concept that director Michael Mayer creates for the Broadway production involves Hedwig performing a one-night concert at the Belasco Theatre, the actual theater where the show is playing. But Hedwig is supposed to be a flop who has no fame to speak of. She would never perform at the Belasco, certainly not to the thunderous applause that NPH receives while playing her. So the meta-story in which Mayer couches the plot doesn't hold. And the show gets further derailed from there, culminating in a final scene where it's not clear whether Hedwig transforms into another character or instead if we're suddenly in the presence of that other character. I'm guessing Mayer wants that ambiguity, but why, I couldn’t say.

In any case, the fan-abundant audience didn’t seem thrown by the non-sequitors, I suspect because the themes of self-acceptance spoke louder than the narrative hiccups. More so, the show’s finale is triumphant, with a beautiful star-filled visual and with Harris shedding his wig and makeup. 

Leaving the theater that night, it occurred to me that Hedwig is part of a larger category of musicals: shows that succeed by taking audiences on an emotional trip. These musicals brim with feeling and ensure that the viewer feels something, regardless of whether the plot is meandering or nonexistent. Hair is a classic example. So is A Chorus Line. These are iconic musicals, with memorable runs and multiple revivals. The fact that these musicals encourage the viewer to feel more than think, does not imply that there isn't great ingenuity at work. They are meant to tap into a specific experience that is entertaining to watch and personally meaningful to contemplate. Hedwig manages to fall short as a story but succeed as an experience. It is in many ways the opposite of what a play sets out to do. 

 

Photo credit: Sara Krulwich

Posted on September 11, 2014 .

Danny Burstein talks Cabaret and Jewish Theater

Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall's revival of Cabaret (which opened on Broadway in 1998) imagined the Kander & Ebb musical so inventively that many theatergoers - including those familiar with the film and previous Broadway incarnations - found it to be the definitive production of the musical.

The show is back on Broadway with the same direction but an entirely new cast (save for Alan Cumming as the Emcee, and Kristin Olness as Kit Kat girl Helga). While the look and feel of the show is mostly consistent with its last run, the actors find new dimension, invigorating their characters with unique energy. One to look out for is Danny Burstein, a Broadway regular who plays the endearing Jewish fruit salesman, Herr Schultz. I spoke with Burstein for a profile in The Jewish Week about preparing for this role, mastering a German accent, and the meaning of Jewish Theater. 

Anyone who has seen a version of the musical “Cabaret” will recall the dazzling, provocative world of the Kit Kat Club, a fictional nightclub in pre-World War II Berlin. At the top of the show, a vivacious emcee, originated by Joel Grey, beckons us inside enticingly. “We have no troubles here!” he promises. “Here, life is beautiful.”

The iconic musical, created by Kander and Ebb with book writer Joe Masteroff, offers an intoxicating glimpse into Weimar decadence. The Kit Kat Club’s star performer, Sally Bowles, and her paramour, an American novelist named Cliff, appear to be almost fantastical, offering each other — and the audience — a taste of wish fulfillment. But there is a second narrative in “Cabaret,” a subtler presence that is equally essential to the work. It is the story of a Jewish character, the show’s only one, who personally experiences Germany’s shifting tide.

 

Continue the article at The Jewish Week.

 

photo credit: Joan Marcus

 

 

Posted on May 20, 2014 .

Journalist Lawrence Wright Reimagines the Camp David Accords Onstage

Lawrence Wright has no need for a second career. The veteran journalist writes for the New Yorker, travels regularly, and devotes years to his nonfiction books which reliably become best-sellers – like his 2013 expose of Scientology, Going Clear, and his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Looming Tower, which investigated the history of Al-Qaeda. 

And yet, he stumbled upon playwriting years ago and fell in love. This month, Wright will present his sixth play, Camp David, about the historic Camp David Accords in 1978 that established a lasting peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. (Camp David runs at Arena Stage in Washington DC through May 4th.)

I spoke to the indefatigable writer about historical drama, the Middle East, and the subject of his next book. My article on Lawrence Wright and Camp David is featured in the April issue of American Theatre

(Camp David stars Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter, Hallie Foote as Rosalynn Carter, Ron Rifkin as Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, and Khaled Nabawy as Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. )

  

In your three previous plays, there has been a journalist onstage, either you playing yourself or an actor playing a fictional journalist. In each of these works, the journalist figure has been instrumental in propelling the narrative. Camp David, on the other hand, features four historical figures and no presence of a journalist. How does this represent a new writing experience for you? 

I think that’s a good observation. To some extent my previous work has been a transition into theater. In 1992, I saw Fires in the Mirror at the Public Theater, Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman show. And what was so striking to me was that she married journalism and theater together, and I didn’t know that could be done. I was electrified by that and I thought there’s something there for me. 

After I finished The Looming Tower, I did a one-man show for the New Yorker festival [My Trip to Al-Qaeda]. In that case, I WAS the journalist; I was presenting my experience. And I did the same thing with The Human Scale. And in a way, I did the same thing with Fallaci because there two journalists struggling over the truth. So for me it was a big deal to take that figure out . The journalist had always been my entry into the narrative.  

You’ve spoken previously about the idea of the “donkey” – the figure or character that carries the audience into the story. Does Camp David have one? 

Not exactly, there’s not an outsider in this. The only person who is to some extent the audience’s representative is Rosalynn. Her job is to make peace among the peacemakers. 

When I was reading Rosalynn’s memoir, she mentioned that she kept a diary at Camp David. So when I went to Plains, Georgia, I said, “Mrs. Carter, it would sure help if I could look at it” and I kept pestering Gerald Rafshoon [Carter’s director of communications and current producer of Camp David] to ask President Carter. Then, one day in the mail I got a manila envelope and there was her diary. 

There have been many attempts to broker peace between Israel and surrounding Arab nations. What do you think made Camp David effective? 

That’s an important question because it’s what the play addresses. Camp David was three religious men trying to solve a problem that religion had caused in the first place. 

It’s never been duplicated. It was uniquely successful, and yet it was constantly on the verge of collapse. It’s three leaders leaving their affairs of state behind to solve this problem that’s almost insoluble. Carter was the key to it but he had to become a different person. Within the first few hours of Begin and Sadat meeting, they hated each other so much that Carter had to keep them separated. He had to improvise and create his own plan for peace. 

Do you think he came out of it a changed president? 

Yeah. It was too late to salvage his presidency though.  

What do you think is the collective memory today on Carter’s presidency? 

Carter is perceived as a failed president. I think when he left office he was so unpopular that nobody wanted to give him credit for the great thing he did. And of course he was running against one of the most formidable candidates in modern times. He suffered by comparison. But there are things that got him elected in the first place that people have come to forget. He was a redemptive figure in the south. He had made race relations his signature achievement in Georgia, and he came into the presidency with the same idea. 

Going back to a point you made about the three men being religious, you wrote in The Looming Tower that religious belief is more influential than political belief in affecting people’s actions. 

In the case of Carter, Begin, and Sadat, that was extremely true. Carter and Sadat were both pious men. And Begin was very ethnically oriented toward his Judaism. For Sadat, it was only his religious belief that gave him the courage to break with the Arab world in its rejection of Israel. When Carter got to the White House, making peace in the Middle East was at the top of his political agenda. And in my opinion, it was almost entirely religiously motivated. 

It’s impossible to discuss Camp David without looking at the previous wars between Israel and Egypt. In the Six Day War in 1967, Egypt’s military was decimated in the first day, which was an astounding victory for Israel. And once Egypt’s military failed, the other Arab nations involved in the war quickly followed suit. 

Another thing about that war – both the Arabs and Jews came to similar conclusions [about God]. In Egypt there was the feeling that “God is not on our side.” And the radical element of Islam was empowered by the defeat. You see far more radical groups than the Muslim Brothers begin to emerge. In Israel, there was a sense of jubilation, that “this is God’s will”. And the rise of the ultra-Orthodox began to rise. So the ’67 war was really a seminal event. 

As a Jewish person who has spent time in Israel and lived there for a year, I’ve heard the continual narrative that Israel is simultaneously mighty and mortally susceptible. Maybe it’s the perpetual Jewish narrative. Do you think that Begin went into the peace talks with that dual mindset? 

Oh absolutely. As you observed, Israel at times feels invulnerable and also on the brink of existential loss. In Begin’s experience, a third of the Jewish people had been exterminated. He felt that he had in his hands the future of the Jewish people. Israelis felt invulnerable after the ’67 war, but then came ’73 [the Yom Kippur War], and although with American assistance it recovered, Israel’s faith in itself was shaken and there was a stronger motivation to achieve peace. 

Why was Palestinian statehood unattainable at Camp David? 

The Camp David Accords actually do accommodate the autonomy talks that should have led to some sort of resolution. But they were never completed. And of course there were no Palestinian representatives present at Camp David. The PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] was regarded as a terrorist organization, and there was no other authorized representative of the Palestinian people. So Sadat took it on, but he didn’t have the authority to make peace with the Palestinians. 

The Accords are two separate frameworks – the treaty between Israel and Egypt, and the autonomy talks for the Palestinians. They were supposed to be linked together, but the second portion was never put into practice. At some point it became clear to Carter that he couldn’t get everything, and he put the Palestinian issue aside. Carter thought he had gotten Begin to agree that there would be no more settlements in the West Bank. 

And then Begin promoted new settlements right after. 

Almost immediately. And Carter’s never forgiven him for it. And neither did Begin forgive Carter. The last time Carter went to Israel when Begin was still alive, Begin refused to see him. 

That’s amazing given the experience they went through together. 

And Carter is loathed in Israel as you know. And yet, Ezer Weizman [President of Israel in the 1990s and former commander of the Israeli Air Force] said no American president has given more to Israel than Carter because he gave them peace. 

How do you think the treaty is viewed today by Egyptians? 

Well, on both sides it’s an unloved treaty, and yet essential. In Egypt, there’s been a cold peace with Israel. It’s not a friendly peace, but it’s endured for 36 years now. Egypt was spending an extraordinary amount of its economy on military and since then it has been allowed to develop its economy in a more normal fashion. 

After visiting the Camp David archives and conducting research and interviews, have you incorporated specific quotes into the script? 

Oh yeah. I tried as much as possible to find the language that they used. I always ask, what were the words that they used.  

Your research process for this play has been incredibly thorough. What I find fascinating is that the parts that are invented come from so much immersion in the subject matter that they have the feeling of realness. 

Thank you. I come from the nonfiction world and I’m wedded to the idea that reality is more interesting than fantasy. My challenge as a writer is to take what I know to be real and imagine the rest, to make the connections that put these real bits together. And it’s easier for me to do that when I’m steeped in the material. It’s thrilling to be able to take this canvas and bring something back to life. 

There’s a couple lessons from Camp David: one is that there are no perfect partners for peace. They were just as intransigent and oppositional as our leaders are these days and yet peace was accomplished. And another thing was that it didn’t have anything to do with timing. Oftentimes people will say, “the deal’s not ripe, it’s not ready to be achieved”, but that was just as true then. 

I heard you’re at work on another book. What is this one about?

It’s about Camp David! When I finished the play, I thought that the book I would have based the play on doesn’t exist and I had already done a considerable amount of research. It’s issues that I’ve been interested in as a chronicler of the Middle East, and everything was on the table at Camp David.

 

 Photo credit: Kenny Braun

Posted on April 2, 2014 .

The Bridges of Madison County: Film adaptations make great musicals. No wait, they're bad.

Bridges of Madison County_Broadway Musical.jpg

The Bridges of Madison County opens with a solo. With the exception of Oklahoma!, musicals do not usually do well to begin with one actor singing alone onstage. The structure of musicals (which is surprisingly consistent among vastly different shows) tends to place a solo number as the second or third song, after we’ve had a chance to meet the main characters and become acquainted with the central backstory of the show.

In this work, we are introduced at the start to Francesca, the Italian woman who left her home in Naples to become a housewife to Bud, an ex-soldier from rural Iowa. When we meet her family in the next scene – husband Bud and two teenage kids – we already know about Francesca’s journey to America and how, despite the years past, she doesn’t feel quite at home or quite herself. It isn’t a great dramatic set-up – in other words, there isn’t much at stake – but what it does is orient the story entirely from Francesca’s perspective. And it helps when that character is played by an actress as formidable as Kelli O’Hara.

O’Hara is a director’s dream, as the show’s director, Bartlett Sher, would likely attest. (Sher directed her twice before, in South Pacific and A Light in the Piazza.) O’Hara simply illuminates the stage, due as much to her lovely, expansive voice and physical beauty as to an uncanny ability to radiate sincerity in every scene. There is nary an ironic or subversive note in O’Hara’s performances, which makes her a near perfect choice for the veritable tear-jerker that is Madison County.

When The Bridges of Madison County was published as a novel in 1992, it ignited a passion in readers. Its popularity might be compared to the current captivation with Fifty Shades of Grey, except that Madison County offered a fantasy beyond sexual abandon. Deep, soul-reaching love is just as much the source of passion for its lovers. [After writing this, I noticed that Ben Brantley made the same analogy in his review. Either we’re thinking similarly, or it’s an obvious comparison.] The central relationship in Madison County is between Francesca and a handsome photographer named Robert Kincaid who visits Madison County on an assignment to photograph the area’s historic covered bridges. An immediate spark ignites between them and they begin a brief but intense relationship while Bud and the kids are away at a state fair. A movie adaptation in 1995, starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, was also a huge hit, and it’s not surprising that the next incarnation would be a musical. The grand emotional scale is just right for the heightened form of musicals, not to mention that nowadays every Hollywood production company has a Broadway division, eager to adapt the next high-grossing film.

The Broadway production of Madison County, which ran last summer at Williamstown Theatre Festival, features a score by Jason Robert Brown and a book by Marsha Norman, each a seasoned musical writer. In their partnership, those grand emotions that made the novel and film memorable transfer believably through song and dialogue. Steven Pasquale, imbued with a powerful singing voice and chiseled bone structure, stars as Robert, ensuring that Francesca’s reasons for having an extra-marital affair are well understood if not justified. Pasquale and O’Hara collaborated previously (on the musical Far From Heaven) and their onstage chemistry is authentic and palpable. All of these elements work together and convey a heartfelt love story where it could easily have been contrived or saccharine.

The show also finds room for laughs, very much needed in a work this heart-tugging. One comic moment happens early on in a frenetic family scene. As Bud and the kids get ready to leave the house for their drive to the state fair, Bud spills a package of ice all over the floor. It happens suddenly, making me, and I imagine others in the audience, wonder if it had been an accident. A moment later, in sung conversation, Bud asks how Francesca will spend the upcoming days without him. Francesca mentions a few things, then adds, “Or I might spend three days cleaning up this ice.” Staged, indeed, but delivered cleverly toward a joke. The line also indicates how resigned Francesca has become to a life of housework.

The balance of humor to gravitas owes much to Director Bartlett Sher who does impressive work here. His last Broadway production was Golden Boy, Clifford Odets' beautiful and underrated play about an Italian-American teenager who trades in his violin for boxing gloves. Sher is a master at creating a swell of emotion onstage. Bridges could easily be a schmaltzy sap-fest. But it wasn't. The one change I’d suggest would be to shift the focus toward Robert. He is the traveler in search of purpose, and the experience of meeting Francesca is life-changing for him. Francesca, by contrast, has a rather complete life already – it may not be passion-filled, but it does include a husband and two children who love her. 

There was much to enjoy and even love about this production, and yet, I left the theater wondering, "Why was this made into a musical?" The fact remains that if you put a talented composer, writer, director, and pair of actors in a room together, they'll likely emerge with something beautiful. But there's something about adapting a major motion picture that feels so unnecessary, so redundant. Unless, of course, the vision is vastly different in its use of theatricality. Adaptations of novels are quite different, partly because fewer people read books than see movies, but also because the experience of reading is private and quiet; a staged performance therefore has the opportunity to offer a live interpretation of the written word. In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir that found its musical incarnation at the Public Theater this year, the creative team of Janeane Tesori, Lisa Kron, and Sam Gold envisioned a musical that held the emotional core of the book while depicting the narrative in a completely original way.

Adaptations have for decades been a life force in theater. In fact, most of the long-running, influential Broadway shows have been adaptations, from Cats to Fiddler on the Roof to RENT. But the Hollywood takeover of Broadway has made adaptations – particularly of movies – the norm, unintentionally crowding out new work. Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt are about to debut their second original musical, If/Then, following the success of their first (the Pulitzer-Prize winning Next to Normal). Kitt and Yorkey prove that audiences will embrace new work if the talent is there. Marsha Norman has all but rejected new musicals, asserting that audiences want something they already know. I'll admit that a recognizable movie title may be an easier sell, but I think audiences are just as on board for a great story with beautiful music. Jason Robert Brown does deliver on that front. His powerful duet “One Second and Million Miles” feels as emotionally riveted as the final song of his previous work, The Last Five Years, “Goodbye Until Tomorrow”. His composing talent is undeniable as is his ability to write new musicals. There's no argument that films are great and that some musicals adapted from films are beautiful. But they're overwhelming Broadway. There are great composer and lyricists writing new work right now if we look past the dizzying list of musicals lifted from films we already know.

 

Photo credit: Sara Krulwich

Posted on March 10, 2014 .

Theater Review: Betrayal

Betrayal_Broadway_2.jpg

There is no sex in Betrayal. In other words, the play’s intimate scenes between couples both marital and extramarital include nothing more than a few kisses. Here’s one scene between Emma and her husband Robert: He kisses her, she responds. She breaks away, puts her head on his shoulder, cries quietly. He holds her. And another between Emma and Robert’s closest friend, Jerry, who has become Emma’s lover: Emma and Jerry standing, kissing…he continues to hold her…. And later: she caresses him, they embrace. These are the stage notes written by playwright Harold Pinter in the script of his play, Betrayal. For a play about infidelity, the action is notably more verbal than physical. There’s certainly no clothes ripping or urgency sex between the illicit lovers as one might expect. Unless, of course, the reason for this affair is not primarily sexual. It’s an interesting take. After all, there’s more than one way to cheat on a spouse.

And yet, the affair between Emma and Jerry does not contain much emotional desire either. What represses Pinter’s play is his characters’ self-absorption. By writing them as self-interested partners, Pinter limits the degree to which they might probe substantial ideas about loyalty and love. The absence of that comes as a disappointment. Heartfelt desire – for someone or something – is one of the most compelling emotions to be found in drama and in life. In this play, the characters do not genuinely love or even crave one another. In fact, the only striking aspect is how minimally Emma and Jerry’s affair incorporates physical urges. What it seems to draw from is the need for companionship outside of a marriage that conjures boredom and resentment. The marriage of Robert and Emma is indeed pained. Aside from the moment when he kisses Emma, Robert’s treatment of his wife ranges from cold and removed to disparaging and abusive. Much of that treatment occurs after he learns Emma has cheated on him, but the writing gives the impression that he never cared for her that much at all, so much so that the tender scene where he holds her stands out as an anomaly.

Which brings me to Mike Nichol’s production on Broadway. That scene between Emma and Robert is directed as an aggressive foray into sex. The tender moment detailed in the script lasts but a second, and suddenly Robert is unzipping Emma’s pants. Similarly so, the kiss between Emma and Jerry escalates to unabashed, clothes-still-on fornicating. What’s going on in this production? Does Nichols read the script as conveying more physicality than the words dictate? Or does he want to titillate his audience by having two men make out with the stunningly beautiful Rachel Weisz, who plays Emma? Perhaps disappointingly, the prurient intrigue among viewers to watch Weisz “cheat” on her real-life husband Daniel Craig (Robert) is mitigated by a lack of passion between her and Jerry (Rafe Spall). Their conversations are too nervous to be overturned by the heat of sexuality. There is one scene that delivers true sexual desire however: the moment when Emma and Jerry’s affair begins, also known as, the last scene of the play.

Pinter’s approach in Betrayal is to move backward in time so that we progress from the affair’s end toward its beginning. It’s a clever decision that pays off only if the final scene (the affair’s conception) illuminates something new about these characters. But it’s more like, “Oh, this is the night when the affair started.” There is no discovery, neither in the script, nor in Nichol’s production. Jerry finds Emma attractive, she complies with his advances, and so it goes. 

While it seems like a producer’s dream to have Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig perform Pinter, this is not a play in which one peels back layers to reveal deeper truths. Weisz, Craig, and Spall are all capable actors who do much with limited material. And of course, Weisz and Craig are so physically beautiful, they can hold a viewer’s attention through stage presence alone. The subject matter of Betrayal appears rich with dramatic possibilities. But real emotion needs to be at stake. Nichols adds in sex to convey that feeling. But sex without emotion is empty. The director who so brilliantly brought us The Graduate, Working Girl, and Closer surely knows that.  

photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe

Posted on January 2, 2014 .

Theater Review: Daniel Kitson's Analog.ue

Daniel Kitson_Analog.ue.jpg

This performance marked my first experience seeing the much-acclaimed monologist, Daniel Kitson – a favorite at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO. Except, it wasn’t exactly a performance, and Analog.ue doesn’t quite display Kitson’s talents as a monologist. The script is heard by way of prerecorded audio, projected from twenty-three tape recorders. Each recorder plays a fragment of the story, and it is Kitson’s role in every performance to play them in perfect order so that the story is told seamlessly. It’s clear that Kitson means to say something about how we craft and retell stories. Though, in the show’s opening, he confesses that there is no significance to his using twenty-three recorders. That line made the audience laugh, but it made me wary of the artist for admitting so readily that his artistic process is at least partially accidental. 

Analog.ue opens on an expansive black stage, alit solely by two lamps projected toward the back wall. We see Kitson’s silhouette amidst a cluster of vintage-looking reel-to-reel recorders. The image is striking and rather beautiful. Kitson then begins (and proceeds for the duration of the show) to pick up his recording equipment and either tote it easily or hoist it laboriously depending on its size and weight all the way downstage toward the audience. Finding a desirable location, he sets down each one, unravels the cord, plugs it in, and thus begins the next segment of the story.

The story in question has two parallel characters: one, an old man named Thomas whose memory is fading. His wife Gertie encourages him to record all of his thoughts and memories before they’re lost, which he does on a single fall day in 1977. The second character is Trudy, a modern-day woman fatigued by the mundaneness of her life, whose story travels backward toward her birth, also in 1977. Kitson makes humorous mentions of the quotidian events of Trudy’s life, but they don’t add up to anything bigger. There’s no tension in her life, just boredom. One segment features Trudy’s feelings about yogurt. It’s “fine”, she concludes. Not good or bad, but fine. That expression, sadly, describes my feelings about Kitson’s script. The only anticipation in the story is for the moment when Trudy and Thomas’ worlds might intersect. They do but rather simply and without much consequence.

What impressed me far more than the story was Kitson’s physical work on that stage. The way he methodically organized the speakers and reels across the floor; the precise timing he displayed in switching between reels so that no lapse in storytelling occurred. His hard work was visible. He was creating something in real time. It reminded me of the Israeli production Nalaga’at – a work that explores life for deaf and blind individuals. In the show, the actors – all deaf and blind themselves – bake bread onstage while a voiceover narrates the hardships and poignancies of navigating the world tactically, rather than visually and aurally. The actors mix yeast and flour, knead the dough, and bake the bread in a working oven onstage. It is real and palpable and sensory. Kitson’s work here is quite different but, like Nalaga’at, it offers a new conduit for storytelling. Analog.ue is a live show and it isn’t a live show. It is a story and also the meticulous crafting of a story. I find that approach compelling and original. The only shortcoming was that Kitson’s form greatly eclipsed his content. 

 

Photo credit: Pavel Antonov

Posted on December 24, 2013 .

An Interview with Lisa Kron

Lisa Kron.jpg

When Alison Bechdel published her graphic novel Fun Home, a memoir exploring the complex relationship she had with her enigmatic father, the accolades came in droves. Among those captivated by the book was Lisa Kron, the Tony-nominated writer and performer who is known to weave personal memory into her own work.

Kron is now the book writer and lyricist on her first musical, an adaptation of Fun Home, opening tonight at the Public Theater. I caught a preview performance of the show last week and was amazed by nearly every element: the score (Jeanine Tesori), the staging (Sam Gold), and the rich cast of actors. But what was most brilliant was how creatively the graphic form was reimagined as live theater. Without wanting to place an academic lens on the work, it is, in my view, the highest form of adaptation: completely original yet faithful to the book in every scene.

Below, my conversation with Lisa Kron, on reworking a masterpiece:

Much of your work draws on your own personal and familial experience. How do you compare the experience of adapting someone else’s memoir?

I have never thought of my work as memoir. I’ve used personal material, but I’ve done it in order to explore some idea. Living with Fun Home now for five years, I’m astonished everyday at what a – and I don’t use this term lightly, it’s a masterpiece. [Alison] and I have both exploited personal material in order to give the audience – or in her case, the reader – some kind of experience. We’re making something that we hope will feel like the experience of the book, Fun Home. But in order to do that, we had to do an incredible amount of conflation and invention. And gratifyingly, Alison has said that it feels real to her even when she knows it didn’t happen that way.

That’s a great compliment to receive from her.

Yeah, it was relieving! And it’s true that you cannot be reverent about a thing you’re adapting. You have got to reinvent it. There’s an initial impulse to do a one-for-one substitution. Instead of this thing, we’ll do this thing. And there’s a desire when something is so beautifully made to try to replicate the whole thing. And anybody quickly realizes you can’t do that. I had to read that book for two years before I could dismantle that structure in order to see what was happening. So that I could see the components and put it back together in a different form. The spine has to exist differently in a musical.

Alison had given an interview where she talked about the book being a labyrinth. Musicals, on the other hand, have to be a machine in some ways, with a very specific structure. Did you try to maintain that labyrinth form?

The second time I read it, I thought, there are no scenes in this book. There’s this voice that is key to the book, then there’s a child from age 4 to 19. So how do you cast that? I’ve always loved musicals, but once I started working on this, I started looking at them with a different eye, and it’s absolutely true that if you don’t have that clear engine…. Jeanine and I had a conversation with George Wolfe and he was saying, “You have to be so clear. The person has to want one thing, and it has to be a life and death thing, and you have to say it really clearly, and then you can be as complicated as you want.”

What do you think makes a good book writer?

I guess a sense of structure. And if you’re not writing lyrics, a lot of humility. I have loved working on the lyrics for this.

Alison has said that her images and her text function on two levels of storytelling. How do you transition in storytelling when you’re writing a song from when you’re writing dialogue?

We’re hopeful that this will feel – as the book does – that there’s a straightforward drive to it. The book hinges around these huge life-changing events, but apart from that the characters are leading their lives and they don’t know that these big things are going to happen. They’re also emotionally repressed people. So it’s writing songs for people who don’t know what their emotions are and a book in which there are virtually no events. Like the juxtaposition in her book, we also have juxtaposition: of past and present, of what’s spoken and what’s sung.

It seems that one of the cool things about entering the musical world is that suddenly you’re connected to all of these talented composers and performers.  

Musical theater people are incredible. It makes you feel so remedial as a human being. You know there’s that game people play where they say, if you could choose a superpower, what would it be? I think now I would say music: to be able to sit at the piano and do what Jeanine can do. It’s not just that dialogue is set to music. The music does a whole other thing. And what happens between those two elements is the most thrilling thing I’ve experienced in the theater. The most extraordinary plays will have moments that lift off, but they’ll never do it the way music does.

 

Posted on October 22, 2013 .

An Interview with Greg Pierce

Greg Pierce.jpg

Greg Pierce made waves in 2012 after his play Slowgirl, the inaugural show at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theatre, opened to enthusiastic reviews. Unknown to most theatergoers at the time, Pierce was also at work on a new musical with John Kander, the celebrated composer of Cabaret, Chicago, and The Scottsboro Boys.

That creative partnership may seem surprising at first : Pierce had never worked on a musical before while Kander is a multiple Tony, Grammy, and Emmy winner (one award short of an EGOT). But the two have quietly been in contact for years, beginning with their introduction at an Oberlin alumni event. Pierce, a dedicated fiction writer at the time, began sending Kander his short stories to read, and several years later, after the passing of Kander’s career-long partner Fred Ebb, Pierce received a call from Kander with a proposal: a new musical that they would write together, intimate and narrator-driven. A short story onstage.

I sat down with Greg Pierce to talk about The Landing, his first musical with Kander, currently on stage at the Vineyard Theatre through November 10th. (My article on playwrights who became book writers for musicals – featuring Greg Pierce – is in the October ’13 print issue of American Theatre.)

Tell me a little about The Landing.

The Landing is three one-acts. They’re completely different stories but thematically connected. John and I were interested in narrators that were outside the story, characters who can be simultaneously inside and outside the action. John had just finished The Scottsboro Boys and he wanted to do something really small. He said he wanted to do something that could be done in your living room. He knew my short stories, so he said, “What do you think about doing a musical that feels like a short story onstage?”  

Does the style of music vary from one act to another?

Yeah. John was interested in different kinds of forms where music keeps going underneath speech, and then someone sings part of a song, and then there’s a scene and they finish the song later on. So it’s almost like an operetta. It doesn’t feel like, “Now we’re in a scene, now we’re in a song.” It’s more of a melding of those styles. There’s a ton of music in the show and music almost goes throughout. It’s dictated by what the moment needs for us. It was always: here we are, this character needs this thing, how do we musicalize that.

Was this your first time writing lyrics?

Yeah. John signed on thinking that he’d be writing lyrics or that we’d be writing lyrics together. We started writing Andra [The Landing’s first act] and I had an idea for a song and wrote a bunch of lyrics. And then I wrote the next one, and John said, “Why don’t you just do lyrics.”

I’m so curious about your collaboration with John Kander. Because he’s such a luminary in musical theater, are you able to confidently put forward ideas?

We’ve worked together five years now, and now it’s very easy. We’re candid with each other.

How do you say, “I don’t think that idea works.” Was that a hurdle to get over?

Yeah it completely was. But there’s no ego when you’re working with John. Ideas go out there and they’re the ideas, not related to am-I-good-or-not. He’s an incredibly good listener and he’s really excited about the ideas that will work best, not who’s coming up with them. We’re starting to have a shorthand. If I come up with something and he’s not feeling it, I can tell. We don’t have to go down that alley which takes a lot of time.

The idea of a short story onstage is interesting.

Yeah, that’s totally fascinating to me. To have a narrator who can comment on the action in a literary, novelistic kind of way. I think there’s space for that and I don’t see it a lot.

Marsha Norman often talks about writing from your “stuff”, which essentially means the emotional context a writer has, the issues a writer grapples with. Do you think The Landing brings out your “stuff”?

I think it does. I don’t know if I can say concretely what those things are, but when I’m in rehearsal, I feel like I’m watching a part of John and a part of me, and that’s one of the most satisfying things about the piece. It’s a real melding of who we are. Somebody came up to me after Slowgirl and said, “I saw [the workshop of] The Landing and I saw Slowgirl…you’re spiritual, aren’t you?” Nobody had ever said that. I’m not religious.

You have a mezuzah on your door, though.

That’s not mine, actually. (laughs)  I’m not Jewish. I just got this apartment like six months ago, and that was the former owner’s. But I felt a little funny about it, like, do I take this off? But then I looked down the hallway and there are mezuzahs like every other door, so I’m not quite sure what to do with it.

Well, you can consider your home blessed.

Yeah. Nice, thank you.

Anyway, sorry to interject. So how did you react to that comment? Did that feel flattering?

Totally flattering. But I also don’t want to examine too closely what themes keep appearing [in my work], because I don’t want to be aware of it. I just want to focus on the story.

What are the qualities that you think make someone a good book writer? Are they complementary to the qualities that make someone a good playwright?

I think they’re complementary. It’s a similar scale, which is writing a compelling scene that engages us and leads to the next part of the story. The unsuccessful books that I’ve seen are simply linking songs. I think a great book writer can write a great scene but also knows when to sacrifice that scene to a song.

Since you’re also the lyricist on this project, do you have greater agency to create those emotional highs and lows?

Yeah, if you’re writing the book and lyrics, I think it’s easier to navigate that. And it’s also easier to scrap a scene or to sacrifice the scene because you know you’ll have some hand in that moment.

Do you see book writing as an inherently supportive role?

I’m so interested in book writing, so it doesn’t feel that way to me. I think it’s tricky for those great playwrights [who write the books for musicals] because you have to swallow your ego a bit. And sometimes part of your job is to play the back foot to the music. It has to be a quieter presence. It’s understanding that people might not walk away from a musical thinking, “God, that text was fantastic.”

Can you think of some shows where the book really works?

I love Assassins. Cabaret. West Side Story. But sometimes when I think back on those musicals, if I haven’t seen them in a while, I can’t actually remember if I loved the book itself. I just love the show, the totality. Maybe that’s what makes a musical, that these roles are working in tandem.

I remember [director] Anne Bogart once saying that when you see a great production, you will have no idea what the director did.

Yeah, I think that’s so true. I really do. And sometimes you’ll see a musical with a great book with character moments that sound so specific, and then they start singing and the lyricist could be great with words but not as good with character voices. I think writing lyrics in a character’s voice is very hard. So the story doesn’t carry as well as it does in the book because now we’re in lyric-land where things are clever and there’s intricate rhymes, but they’re not characters anymore.

Pierce and Kander.jpg

Tell me about the writing process. Does the method differ from how John worked with Fred Ebb?

How John and I work together is very different from how he worked with Fred. He and Fred were always in the same room. Fred was improvising lyrics and they’d come out of a work session with a song. John and I don’t write like that, mostly because my brain doesn’t work like that. Whoever has the first impulse for a song, whether a melody or a few lines for a chorus, will write that and we’ll bring it in, and play around with it, then take it back to our separate spaces. Also we both have iPhones now which is so amazing. John lives upstate, so he’ll write a snippet and put it on his voice memo and text it to me. And then I can play it over and over and keep experimenting with it.

The Landing is a new musical. Why do you think adaptations have become so much more common for musicals these days?

I think part of the reason is that musicals are strange. It’s strange when people start singing, so when there’s a story you already know, you have that as an anchor. I wish there more opportunities to do an original musical, especially Off-Broadway. Because I see workshops of them and there are so many people who have great ideas and not enough companies that can afford to do it.

But when you know a story, it can be thrilling to see it interpreted musically. One of the great things about musicals is that you can sort of stop time and be with that person in a very emotional place.

Right, in a straight play it’s harder to have that moment just linger.

Annie Baker is very good at letting those moments linger.

Yes! It’s true, she is. Has this project changed your perspective on musicals? What do you think about the viewpoint that musicals are mostly for entertainment?

When I was younger I thought that plays are for this thing and musicals should do this thing. And as I get older, I see the range and now I think there’s room for everything. I think 42nd Street is amazing. Last night I saw Savion Glover. It was totally mind blowing. So I wouldn’t say that musicals need to do one thing. That said, I really love stories and I really love characters. I think there’s a lot of space to explore.

 

Photo credits: Ben Esner; Robert Caplin 

 

Posted on October 9, 2013 .

Mr. Burns and the Mixed Experience of Weird Theater

Mr Burns_Playwrights Horizons.jpg

Following the mass-scale catastrophe and grid collapse that sets in motion Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, five survivors who find one another in a wooded clearing attempt to grasp what remains of a recognizable world. They compile details to ascertain what happened, read off names of loved ones, and tell funny stories as a healing mechanism. That last act of catharsis is the creative impulse behind Mr. Burns, now running at Playwrights Horizons and extended through October 20th. The play opens with the characters clustered around a camp fire, retelling the narrative of the Simpsons episode, “Cape Feare”, a spoof of the film Cape Fear, which itself was a remake of the earlier film, Cape Fear. The experience of watching these characters retell the episode, complete with uncanny Sideshow Bob impersonations, has obvious appeal for Simpsons fans.  But the scene holds much more symbolism: at its essence, it is an homage to oral storytelling – the oldest of rituals: layered in narrative, varying with each telling, and as meaningful an art form as the stories themselves.

I love what Mr. Burns sets out to do. Playwright and Civilians co-founder Anne Washburn is an exceptional talent, and the first act of Mr. Burns was near perfect, as I saw it. The central character of the first act is played by Matthew Maher – a gifted, hilarious, and touching actor who made The Flick (at Playwrights Horizons last year) one of the most memorable plays of the season. His recollections of detailed plot points and reenactments of Simpsons characters were in fact essential to Washburn’s script development and are wonderful to watch, culminating in a punch line that his character cannot recall. Yet the humor is set off by palpable eeriness, heightened each time the characters remember where they are.

When a stranger stumbles onto the campsite, the group raises found weapons before accepting him as nonthreatening. Laying down their guns, they pick up notebooks and each begins to read a list of names – family members, friends, and neighbors who have gone missing. I found this to be one of the most moving parts of the play, at once a search attempt and a surrogate memorial for those likely already lost. The weight of confusion and sadness is lifted when the newcomer recalls the forgotten Simpsons line. The play could have ended there as a complete work.

Each act of Mr. Burns might actually function as its own play. But the first act, as I saw it, would be the only effective one. I had expected that the show’s subsequent acts would embark on a more theatricalized reenactment of the Simpsons episode narrated in the opening act. But instead, the genius creation of Anne Washburn gets eclipsed by its weirdness. In the second act, the story jumps seven years into the future, wherein the characters attempt to recreate a Simpsons narrative where attention to their target audience through heavily scripted commercials – one oddly dialogue-heavy, the other featuring a campy montage of pop songs – trumps the Simpsons narrative itself. The third act, which leaps ahead 75 more years (for reasons that are unexplained) transforms The Simpsons into a musical and one that completely changes the story from the “Cape Feare” episode. Rather than Sideshow Bob, who plays the villain in that episode, Mr. Burns is now the adversary whom Bart must defeat.

Michael Friedman’s score, which fills the musicalized third act, is affecting and smart, but it doesn’t connect back to the first act in a meaningful way. Why does the musical section of the show eliminate nearly all correlation to the “Cape Feare” episode? It can’t simply be to show how narrative morphs over time. The poignant, clever story introduced in the first act is sadly and frustratingly derailed by the third. All of those threads about how stories heal, how shared laughter can unite strangers, and how narrative grows out of its earlier forms dissolve into an inchoate blur of songs and disturbing Simpsons masks.

Needless to say, it was bewildering to read reviews that lauded the complete show as “brilliant”. And yet, I respect the work for being intrepidly different . It's encouraging that a show like Mr. Burns can sell out an extended run at an Off-Broadway theater. It’s encouraging that Playwrights Horizons, and Wooly Mammoth Theatre before that, took a chance on such a bizarre creation. It’s encouraging that ticket buyers have an appetite for original work. It all means that adventurous plays are worth doing. Even the ones that get seriously weird by Act Three. 

 

Photo credit: Joan Marcus 

 

Posted on October 4, 2013 .

An Interview with Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman

Harmony_Manilow and Sussman.jpg

On September 6th, Barry Manilow and his lyricist partner Bruce Sussman debuted a fully-realized production of a musical 20 years in the making. That show is Harmony, which depicts the rise and fall of the Comedian Harmonists – a six-member male singing group in Germany (half Jewish, half non-Jewish) who reached the height of success in the 1920’s and 30’s by blending complex harmonies with physical comedy.

I wrote about Manilow and Sussman’s creative process for Tablet Magazine. (Please note that I had nothing to do with the headline.) Below is a longer excerpt of my conversation with them. Read on for their remarks about inspiration, Jewish humor, and writing a score that sounds nothing like a Barry Manilow record.

Thinking about this period in Jewish history – Germany in the late 1800s and early 1900s – it’s really a study of the great contributors to science and the arts. It was the age of Kafka and Mahler and Freud. I would love to hear your thoughts about how the setting of Harmony creates the dramatic backdrop for this musical.

Sussman: It was one of the things that appealed to us most. That this is the period of Kurt Weill and Einstein and all of these amazing people who ultimately fled. And here we have this group of Jews and gentiles facing that decision of what to do.

Manilow: Maybe it was in the water or something because they were all at the top of their creativity.

Sussman: It was a petri dish of creativity. We had a [Holocaust] survivor come speak to the group the other night. She survived on the Kindertransport. I had done some homework and I found that on the Kindertransport, a total of 10,000 children, 4 of them went on to win the Nobel Prize. When the normal ratio is 1 out of 200 million. There was something in the zeitgeist that just inspired brilliance. And the irony is, that was antithetical to the whole national, socialist movement.

What I find so interesting is that Jews in pre-war Germany, unlike Jews elsewhere in history, had a real nationalistic pride. They wanted to be German. Do you think that American Jews watching this show get that tension between country and identity?

Sussman: We do have a narrative character whose drive centers on that question. When Ruth, my survivor friend, spoke, we spoke about the Anschluss [the annexation of Austria into Germany.] On March 11, 1938, she was an Austrian, and on March 12th, she was a Jew. So it’s there, it’s in the writing and we’ll see how many people get it.

Is this the first project in both of your careers that has a specific link to Jewish heritage?

Manilow: Yeah. This is one in a million. It’s all about the project. We went after a project that spoke to us.

Sussman: And people had approached us to write scores for their shows. And we went to several meetings and ultimately said, “If it’s gonna be a five year journey, it has to speak to us.”

Manilow: The only one that comes close is Fiddler on the Roof.

Sussman: Fiddler broke the glass ceiling about Jewish themes on Broadway. I remember Sheldon Harnick [the lyricist on Fiddler] said to me, he thought the Jews of the metropolitan area would keep it open for three years. What he didn’t anticipate is that it would speak so universally to Koreans and Italians and Japanese.

Right, it tapped into tradition as a whole ethos.

Sussman: And that was a late discovery on their part. It was Jerome Robbins who said, “Ah, I know what this show is about”, and the show was already up at that point.

Manilow: It’s interesting because Bruce and I need that before we start…what we’re writing about.

Sussman: The first thing we put down was, “This is a show about the quest for harmony in what turned out to be the most discordant chapter in human history.” Everything flows from that.

Had you not been inspired by the documentary [about the Comedian Harmonists], do you think you would have pursued something else about history or Jewish identity?

Sussman: Well, I’m a history buff. So, history – yes. Jewish – if it’s the right story. The Jewish stories tend to appeal to me the most. I was actually exploring another project that I thought wouldn’t have a Jew in it, and I researched and got to a critical point, and suddenly there’s a big old Jewish theme. And I said, ‘Well, I guess it’s just going to be there for me wherever I turn.

Manilow: And you know this is not a Holocaust musical. A lot of writers have gotten that wrong.

Sussman: Right. Obviously there are references and allusions to it, but this takes place in the approaching storm.

It’s interesting that all six members of the Comedian Harmonists survived the war and some went on to really prosperous careers. Does that lend a more bittersweet tone than what might be assumed to be a tragic one?

Sussman: Yeah, the whole narrative is seen through the eyes of one character. We’re looking from the vantage point of the one who lived the longest, Roman Cycowski. He happened to be the most successful in putting the pieces of his life back together, but he also carries a burden, and a fair degree of survivor guilt. So it is that tension that we’re exploring. There’s a bittersweet quality for him about remembering.

I’d love to hear about the score and the musical styles you drew from.

Manilow: I started by studying what they did. They only had about 20 recordings at the time. And they were great, they knocked me out. And they were funny. And they were jumping around and still in tune.

Sussman: I remember vividly when I sent you the first CD, and you were in your car driving down Santa Monica Boulevard, and you flipped out and called me on your car phone.

Manilow: And that’s the thing: how come we didn’t know this? That’s the point of our diving so far in. Because they were the first, they were the architects of the kind of group singing that we love so much today. How come we didn’t know them? So after I studied them, my job was to write an authentic sounding score that didn’t sound like a Barry Manilow record that paid tribute to the time and place. This was a style of music that I had never even thought about let alone written. So, it was about a year before I even put a note down.

Sussman: He immersed himself.

Manilow: I immersed myself so deeply into the 20s and 30s. I actually found the Nazi marching band theme. Creepy as it was, it was brilliant. And Bruce helped me to study the classical music that came out of that world. When I went to Germany to do a concert, I found the Shlagerparade [the hit albums of German pop music]. And I bought all of them. That’s where I began, immersing myself in the style of music that the public was listening to during those years. It’s really quite a score. I’ve never written anything like it. I think that if you didn’t know that I wrote it, my name would be the last name you would think of. It’s great to go that far. I was without a net.

Sussman: Which is the best way to fly when we’re writing.

Thinking beyond the productions coming up in Atlanta and L.A., does Broadway still feel like the destination?

Manilow: All I really care about is to see our play up again. I hope the audience likes it because I like it and Bruce likes it. And…what did Oscar Hammerstein say?

Sussman: Yeah, on the opening night of Oklahoma!, Oscar Hammerstein took a walk with his wife and said to her, “I really hope the audience likes it because this is what I like, and if they like it, I get a chance to write more."

Manilow: So this is where we’re at. I hope they like it, but it wont change my feeling for it. And where it goes, we’re not even thinking about it.

 

Photo courtesy of the Alliance Theatre 

Posted on September 3, 2013 .