An Interview with Kenny Leon: Director of "Hairspray Live!", "The Wiz Live!" and Broadway's "A Raisin in the Sun"

The live televised musical—entertaining, campy, addictive—is a genre that’s rarely applauded for its artistic merits. That began to change last year, however, when Kenny Leon directed NBC’s "The Wiz Live!" a production that managed to be both theatrical and cinematic. And on December 7, Leon will attempt to do it again: his next TV musical production is "Hairspray Live!", a “hybrid of an idea” that Leon calls one of the scariest and most exciting things he’s ever done. “It takes the best of theater, the best of film, the best of television, and creates something completely new,” he tells Vanity Fair.

Read my full article on Vanity Fair and excerpts from my interview with Kenny Leon below.

If you were to sum up the visual experience of watching theater and the visual experience of watching television, what similarities and differences do you notice?

In live theater, you sit next to strangers. With TV, you sit next to friends or family. So that’s a different experience. I direct very cinematically, even if it’s A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway or a TV movie. It means that I’m trying to control where 1200 people in a Broadway theater will look to create emotional feelings in every single moment. So when I direct a play on Broadway, I orchestrate the movement on stage to what I call, “the controlled focus”. It’s done with the movement of the body. You can change the light; you can change the color. When I do television, I have different tools – a dolly or a handheld. I can create a real close up. With this production, it’s a project that needs two directors. So you have Alex Rudzinski who worked on Grease and is working on this with me. He does the handling of the cameras. He does things like Dancing with the Stars and awards shows. And then you have me who’s in charge of the tone of the piece, the staging, the relationship with the actors, the relationships with the designers. Alex and I have to be on the same page. If we have too many close-ups, it’ll weaken the real close-ups. So for instance, I want the viewers to know Tracy’s heart. So from the first song, I want to get in close on her eyes. I want the audience to fall in love with her. She can’t be mistaken for fake acting; she has to be believable. It’s all about how to have television viewers feel that this is the most honest thing they’ve ever witnessed. Theater allows us to be larger. The style is more expressive because you’re trying to reach that back row. You can’t do that on television, but you still have to find the truth that will translate through the camera.

What interests me is that NBC (and Fox with Grease) really emphasize the live element of these televised theater productions. The word Live is in the title with an exclamation point. But, as a director, do you feel like ultimately the show has to satisfy first as a TV experience? In Grease Live! I noticed how many camera angles and different locations it featured.

It’s both. What I think is how to remind the viewer – just like in a sporting event – that it’s happening now. And that we’re watching in real time. So shooting here in LA, it’s important to remind them early on that this is now. So, not to give anything away, but just know that in the first few minutes, I’ll be working hard to have the viewer feel that this is now. It’s no different than when I did A Raisin in the Sun, audiences walking into the theater heard an interview with [the playwright] Lorraine Hansberry. I wanted that so they could feel who Lorraine was. I’m setting them up for what they’re about to receive. I’m doing the same thing for Hairspray. I’m preparing them for how I want them to receive the story. Like, it takes place in 1962, but we’re looking at it through a lens of 2017.

Will this production happen on a single stage or a film set?

With The Wiz, we shot it on a proscenium stage because I wanted the viewer to experience live transitions with the use of LED screens. We just played in that area so it was really theatrical. With Hairspray, this story doesn’t lend itself to that. What it does is allow itself to move to many venues, so we’ll do transitions, but we’ll use exteriors and interiors. When Alex did Grease, maybe 15% of it was exterior [outdoors], for Hairspray, 40% will be exterior. So it’s how to make use of nighttime. If I was shooting a film, I’d be in 200 locations across LA. Here, we’re on the backlot. How can we make it theatrical and cinematic. We got 4 or 5 different areas outside, and then get to the interiors as quickly as we can. 

Some fans of musicals and film feel that the original version of classics are so iconic there’s no point in remaking them. When you direct a classic show, do you feel an impetus to bring a new element to it? 

I’m always trying to bring its truth to a new audience. I never look at it as a revival. I look at everything as a new play. I’ve got guys who did the Broadway musical and guys who did the 2007 film on this, so we can pick the best of it and come up with something different. And I remind everyone of the world we live in now. So the Raisin in the Sun that I did on Broadway in 2004 had nothing to do with the one I did in 2014. I’m looking at Hairspray like Harvey wrote it yesterday. We are divided in terms of racial issues and this is a happy, entertaining musical that reminds us that we are better when we respect each other. 

photo credit: Courtesy of Trae Patton/NBC

Posted on January 5, 2017 .

Familial Culture as Inspiration for the Writers of "The Band's Visit"

When the Israeli film The Band’s Visit premiered at international film festivals in 2007, it was an instant hit, receiving notable awards including the Un Certain Regard - Jury Coup de Coeur at Cannes. What moved critics and audiences was director Eran Kolirin’s quiet, understated depiction of Israeli and Egyptian characters finding shared comfort in loneliness.

The film spans one day in the lives of musicians from the Egyptian police force who travel to an Arab Cultural Center in Israel to perform but confuse their destination city with a similarly named desert town. The nervous and disoriented band members approach a modest café and meet its owner, Dina, who offers to house them for the night, displaying kindness where they expected apathy.

The musical adaptation of The Band’s Visit makes its world premiere Off-Broadway at Atlantic Theatre Company. Opening December 8, the show reframes the narrative through song, externalizing the isolation and longing that each character embodies, and showcasing a blend of languages and musical styles. Like the film, it is a show embracing cultural differences.

Composer/lyricist David Yazbek and book writer Itamar Moses both come to this project with a trove of personal knowledge of each of those cultures. Yazbek has a Lebanese father, several Arabic-speaking relatives and memories of time spent in Lebanon and Egypt; Moses has two Israeli parents, several Hebrew-speaking relatives and memories of time spent in Israel. “If I didn’t have direct connection to the region, I might have felt less authority,” says Moses. “I didn’t worry about if I was allowed to do this adaptation.”

For Yazbek, creating an authentic score had its own process, specifically the inclusion of Middle Eastern instruments and Arabic inflections.

“The stuff that I really love about that music—Arabic classical music—there’s a taste to it, almost like a blend of spices,” he says. “I hear the drum grooves and those instruments, the doumbek, and the riq. I was excited to be able to write for it, knowing that I’d bring my style to that kind of music.” 

As much as The Band’s Visit digs into daily experiences of Israelis and Egyptians, you won’t hear a single political conversation in the show. “One of our favorite things is that it’s political in a gentle way,” says Moses. “In music, if you play a chord, but you leave out the fifth, the audience hears it anyway. This is like the fifth of the show.”

Read the full article on PLAYBILL

photo credit: Ahron R. Foster

 

Posted on January 5, 2017 .

An Interview with Denée Benton

Denée Benton starred in Lifetime’s “UnReal” over the summer and now takes the lead in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.  Below are highlights from my interview with Ms. Benton. Read the full article published in Vanity Fair.

There seems to be two approaches to diverse casting and they come from opposite vantage points. In the first, an actor’s race is essential to her character (like Ruby in “UnReal”) and in the second, an actor’s race is incidental (like Natasha in The Great Comet). Now that you’ve done both in the past year, which type of role speaks to you more as an actress?

The way that this year happened is my dream for the industry in general. To tell a story that is so close to my own and then tell a story that is completely different from my own but that I connect to so strongly. I appreciate the freedom to do both. As far as the diversity question is concerned, I think that white actors have been able to do that for a very long time, to be able to tell stories that are completely written for them and also get to play a trans woman in the next big film. To play someone who shares your ethnic background and your belief system and then to play someone who is from the opposite side of the world. That is the ultimate crux of what diversity means. That’s an opportunity that’s been afforded to straight white men – they’ve have the ability to transform as well as play themselves.

How important is it for a character to be played by an actor with the same background?

Acting is so much about your imagination. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be Pocahontas and Cinderella and the Big Bad Wolf. Like with Natasha – I am by no means a 19th century Russian aristocrat, but I also completely understand Natasha in a different way, her youthful zest for life, her optimism that everything is going to be incredible. When I first heard her big aria, I loved her. I think our essences are very similar. That’s how people get cast; there’s a similar essence between people that’s much deeper and richer than your ethnic DNA. Because the fact of the matter is, as much as I’m not Russian, none of my white cast members are Russian either. It’s just not quite as shocking as looking different. So these conversations happen and they’re beautiful and important, but they’re more about a physical make up and whether that detaches an audience from a story or not.

So with the character Natasha, there’s nothing about her Russian experience that you can’t access from rehearsal or research.

Yeah, I think so. I know War and Peace is such a huge part of Russian history and literature, but it really is a story of archetypes of people making terrible and wonderful decisions. And when stories are that universal, I think everyone should have access to telling them.

In recent years, some notable black actors have played roles on Broadway that are almost always filled by white actors, like Sophie Okonedo as Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible, Forest Whitaker in Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie, Taye Diggs in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Norm Lewis in The Phantom of the Opera. Do you feel your casting as Natasha reflects a similar broader thinking among directors?

Yeah, Rachel is an incredible director. Her world of creation is far less commercial. She didn’t start in the Broadway world or a world where money really matters. She came to this with a broader and freer perspective. My final callback for Natasha was amazing: there was an Asian girl, a Hispanic girl, a white girl and we all had big wide eyes and clearly connected to this character. I think it’s a two-fold thing: allowing roles to be open but every role doesn’t allow for that, and there needs to be more stories that have more room.

Which starts with more writers…

Exactly. Writers, and producers putting money behind those writers. In the film industry, I’m always amazed at how many films there are telling incredibly diverse stories, but if they don’t get the marketing dollars behind them, we have no idea that it exists, and we have an Oscars-so-white situation. And it’s not because those creators don’t exist, it’s the funding behind them, and people deciding that we are marketable enough to have audience members. I think it’s happening, slowly but surely.

In staging an immersive show like this, how does improvisation factor in?

You’ll see at the beginning of the show, everyone comes out and some people get perogies. There we have freedom to be ourselves. But improvisational as it may seem, our paths are pretty clearly set simply for safety reasons. Like you’re singing and also giving someone a gentle pat so you can get across. But it’s cool, you can see the look in everyone’s eyes, like what have we gotten ourselves into! But it’s also very humbling, like you can feel you gave the best performance of your life, and someone’s looking at you like this [makes a bored face], and it’s like, I see you! Or they give you so much love and you feel bolstered by that.

Is there a particular scene that makes you feel most connected to the show?

I think “No One Else” is the song that really locks me in. The lighting design is breathtaking. It’s all these little lightbulbs that look like a sea of stars. And Balaga – it’s a huge chaotic dance number. You get to toast everyone and toast each other. The group of artists on stage is just incredible to me: the actress who plays Princess Mary has her PhD in performance studies, and the actor who plays Balaga has a Masters in composition. That’s the number where I think we’re doing something really awesome. You can’t give it anything less than all of your energy.

photo credit: Chad Batka

Posted on December 12, 2016 .

A Retrospective with Director/Producer Hal Prince

In nearly every show that Harold Prince has directed, there is what he calls “the metaphor,” the central theme or idea on which the story rests. He doesn’t always start the process of a show with this it in mind—in fact, he seldom does—but once he finds it, it becomes his roadmap, leading him through the show’s development and onward to its opening. Prince, who is 88, can still recall with ease the metaphors from musicals he directed decades ago. For instance, Evita: Images misrepresent the true character of a person; Sweeney Todd: A vengeful society grew out of the Industrial Age.

Directing was his singular aspiration all along, but he built his credentials by producing such ambitious, profit-making musicals as West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof, both directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. In retrospect, Prince acknowledges that luck had a lot to do with his ascent—though he quickly adds that he worked incessantly, indefatigably, and fervently to meet those auspicious circumstances. As a rising director, Prince found an avenue to create musicals that addressed serious, often political subject matter, from Cabaret to Parade; he also showed a flair for old-fashioned showmanship with the still-running megahit Phantom of the Opera.

At his desk chair, positioned before a wall of theatre books (the only wall not devoted to photos), Prince semi-reclines, glasses perched above his forehead in their signature way, and holds forth about the state of the theatre. The state of producing still matters greatly to him, and he is unyieldingly emphatic that today’s producers must be more creative, daring—artists, not just businesspeople. Not one rest on old successes, Prince prefers to be at work on something new; he happily shares details about the new musical he’s developing with ongoing collaborator Susan Stroman, an amalgam of his hit Broadway shows, aptly named Prince of Broadway.

Read the full interview with director/producer Hal Prince at American Theatre

 

photo credit: courtesy of Hal Prince.

Posted on December 12, 2016 .

The Broadway Cast of Fiddler on the Roof Raises Funds for Real Refugees

As director Bartlett Sher and his cast dug into Bock and Harnick’s score during the rehearsal process, the parallels between today’s refugees and the townspeople of Anatevka became too apparent to ignore. What distinguishes the villagers in the musical from a majority of refugees today, however, is a detail discussed briefly in the musical’s script: The townspeople of Anatevka leave their home knowing with some degree of certainty where they’ll go.

Sher felt increasingly certain that to tell the Fiddler story truthfully, he would have to access it through a contemporary lens. With that vision, he added a modern-day character who opens and closes the show, a nameless observer whose own refugee status is open to audience interpretation. “The Syrian refugee crisis so directly connects to the plight of the play,” said Jessica Hecht who plays Golde, the matriarch of Fiddler, which will come to a close on Broadway (this time around, at least), on December 31.

It was cast member Jessica Hecht who first proposed a weekly fundraising drive to her cast mates. “The first one we did was [for] MOAS—Migrant Offshore Aid Station—and we raised $700 for them in just a few weeks,” Hecht said. Cast members brought added visibility to refugee relief on Twitter. The cast also agreed to match donations of $20 from anyone who contributed through its Twitter campaign.

Read the full article on Tablet

Posted on December 12, 2016 .

Why "Oslo" is Flawed but Everyone Should See It

When plays (or movies or TV series) depict historical events, their directors often prioritize the need to “get it right” and in doing so, mistake a dramatic event for dramatic storytelling. In those cases, the result can feel too heavy on historical detail, like an in-depth newspaper article whose purpose is to inform rather than stir emotion.

“Oslo” – the world-premiere play at Lincoln Center Theatre that depicts the 1993 Oslo Accords – was solidly in that camp for me. The material itself is fascinating: Oslo was the first, and so far the last, peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. It recognized the legitimacy of Israel as a country and the right of Palestinians to have their own state and government. Both are notions that each side was loathe to acknowledge about the other, so the signing of the agreement had, and still has, great significance even as hostility between Israeli and Palestinian leadership continues to mount.

“Oslo” is the kind of play that I hope thousands of people see, just so they know that a peace agreement happened between these two parties. Given the positive reviews that the show received, including the New York Times’ “Critic’s Pick” stamp, it’s likely “Oslo” will have a healthy run. The rave reviews are also a good sign for director Bart Sher, an extraordinary talent whose new revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” – also running this season and hopefully for years to come – is one of the most perfect productions I’ve ever seen. Every round of good press that Sher receives opens the door for his next opportunity.

In developing “Oslo” for the stage, Sher became friends with the pair of Norwegian diplomats (the married couple Mona Juul and Terje Rod-Larsen) who spearheaded the Oslo Accords, and his love for them is evident in their portrayal onstage. What astonishes about Oslo, beyond the peace treaty itself, is that two diplomats from Norway with no political or personal investment in the Middle East would have the conviction to take on a project of this magnitude.

“Oslo” is not Sher’s best work in my opinion. He lets J.T. Roger’s script go on and on in talky scenes and long character descriptions. The dramatic tension builds but v-e-r-y slowly. Yet, his work with Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays as Mona and Terje is wonderful. Mona clearly runs the peace operation and Terje is comically clumsy, but both maintain the certainty that they’re doing the right thing by encouraging representatives from the Israeli government and from the PLO (the Palestinian leadership at the time) to keep talking until they reach a compromise.

Mona and Terje's most clever idea is to set up a living room space where the representatives would put aside their differences and enjoy food and drinks together. The approach is as simple as it is effective: eating together is a catalyst to creating a shared experience. Shared experiences are the bases of friendship.

“Oslo” has a great deal of overlap with “Camp David” – another play that focuses on an Israeli peace process. In both examples, an outside party brings two opposing sides together and motivates them to keep the conversation going even as each side wants to abandon it. In both examples, the leaders involved are hardly perfect negotiators for peace. It’s essential to remember when thinking about today’s leaders in the Middle East and the seemingly impossible odds of reaching any sort of agreement today.

In one scene, Uri Savir (Michael Aronov) and Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi), Oslo’s key Israeli and Palestinian negotiators take a walk and admit their mutual excitement about reaching a peace agreement. Uri then says something like, “Now you go to Arafat and tell him that I said, ‘Go fuck yourself’ and I’ll tell Rabin that you said the same thing.” Uri and Ahmed acknowledge that their leaders don't want to come across as weak by negotiating. To me, that was the single perfect scene in the play. Though the play drags, it's worth seeing. And it's worth knowing in this devastating time in history that people who fundamentally disagree can share a meal together and begin to see each other as human. 

photo credit: T. Charles Erickson and Sara Krulwich

 

Posted on July 15, 2016 .

"Hadestown" Review: The story of Eurydice in the style of "Natasha Pierre"

A Rachel Chavkin show is always an experience. She is a master at introducing viewer to performer – just interactive enough that you feel totally engaged but never so much that you feel exposed. If you’re lucky enough to catch her current show at New York Theatre Workshop, “Hadestown”, you will enter another realm once the lights dim. A cast member may link eyes with you while in character or meander past your row, inviting you to experience the best kind of immersive theater – palpable, multi-sensory, nonthreatening.

Based on the concept album by music artist Anaïs Mitchell, “Hadestown” uses folk songs to narrate the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, young lovers who find that the cold realities of hunger and poverty have hardened their relationship.

Tempted by Hades, the God of the underworld, Eurydice (Nabiyah Be) followed by Orpheus (Damon Daunno) voyages to Hadestown, a soulless city that promises, falsely, to offer physical sustenance and pleasure. Hades' wife Persephone (Amber Gray), who also finds herself inured to the hazards of love, offers a means of escape, provided that Orpheus and Eurydice place complete trust in one another. It's a proposition weighted with tragic implications. 

Accompanying their journey is a gravel-voiced narrator (Chris Sullivan), leading us underground and back with rollicking, boot-stomping music. The musical style works surprisingly well for the story, and Mitchell’s talent is so immense that while your body sways to the rhythm, your mind stays alerts, contemplating the metaphors and symbolism in her lyrics.   

The forest-like scenery on multi-leveled platforms brings to life the scale of Eurydice and Orpheus’ journey, and the stark brick wall behind it complements the Act I closer when the ensemble sings eerily that walls keep out poverty. The onstage band – horns, violins, and piano among them – fills the space with soulful music, amplified by three actresses who play the fates like backup singers.

The whole ensemble is excellent, and in many ways the layered presence of this large musical cast feels very reminiscent of Chavkin’s last big musical production, “Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”, which will make its transfer to Broadway next season. Both are exciting, sensory shows that focus on a girl trying to find herself in and out of love. Both create picturesque environments (in “Hadestown” it’s the underworld as depicted by a Southern city; in “Natasha Pierre”, it’s upper class Russian society).

In fact, the settings are so vibrant that the characters start to pale in comparison. Where the music is complex and stirring, the characters are uncomplicated, and showmanship – namely remarkable performances, songs, and scenery – regularly upstages dramatic conflict. In one musical, Natasha is naïve about love and swept up by a new man while her husband is at war. In the other, Eurydice is in love but finds that romance doesn’t put food on the table. Both are interesting starting points but, for all the journeying that happens in both musicals, the characters’ emotional arcs don’t keep pace.

What do these characters want and what fundamentally gets in their way? I asked myself that throughout both shows. Orpheus loves Eurydice but lives in a poet's daze; Eurydice wants a relationship that is dependable, not simply romantic. And here they are in Hell. I was never convinced that they're made for each other, so while the actors' performances, especially Nabiyah Be's, are exceptional, there isn't enough at stake in the relationship besides how lovely they look together. Chavkin can create a show, no doubt, and “Hadestown” is an undeniable feast for the senses. But throughout the performance, I had a persistent thought: what a gorgeous world she’s created, but what do I really know about the people who live in it?

photo credit: Joan Marcus

Posted on June 24, 2016 .

An Interview with Mark Rylance

In late February 2016, I caught a performance of "Nice Fish" at St. Ann's Warehouse in Dumbo, Brooklyn. Though I had no personal involvement in the production, I felt invested in it: I had interviewed Mark Rylance twice about it, read a draft of the play, and had researched the poetry of Louis Jenkins (on which "Nice Fish" is based).

The play - which combines Jenkins' poems and Rylance's dialogue - is a portrayal of two friends ice fishing at the end of winter in Minnesota, but it flows like a dream sequence: not quite linear and occasionally implausible, but magnetic in its depiction of loneliness, desire, and aging. It draws you in. After the show, I snapped a photo with Mr. Rylance, and a few nights later watched at home as he accepted his first Oscar award. As godly as Rylance is the theater world, he is still somewhat unknown in Hollywood. But with two new films underway, (one is the title role in the film adaptation of Roald Dahl's "The BFG"), it's probably just a matter of time before film audiences join the Rylance fan club.

Below are excerpts of our conversation. Read the whole thing at AmericanTheatre.com.

 

Rylance’s American background has never been a secret, but in "Nice Fish" it’s front and center in a new way. It isn’t just Jenkins’s perceptiveness about human nature that appeals to the actor; it’s his spot-on depiction of a Midwest he remembers—a world of winter sports and stoicism, where nature has a larger-than-life presence that can be both comforting and forbidding. Between preparing for the East Coast debut of "Nice Fish", starring in the West End run of the Shakespeare’s Globe production of "Farinelli and the King" (written by Rylance's wife, Claire van Kampen), doing press for the film "Bridge of Spies", and sitting down to write a new play, the now three-time Tony winner and two-time Olivier winner took some time to talk from his home in London about Jenkins’s work, his memories of winters back home, and why, for a writer, a frozen lake is fertile ground.

The cold climate of a Minnesota winter sets the tone for the entire play. What do you remember about your childhood winters in Wisconsin? Did you enjoy that time of year?

It was very cold. My father had a bad history with cars, and in the bad weather it was a serious problem if you had a car that could potentially break down. My brother used to just hibernate at a certain point in autumn when it got too cold to play football, so it was me out in the snow and on the ice.

There was a beautiful field behind our house, which was on the edge of the suburbs of Milwaukee, and that field used to freeze and we’d play ice hockey on the frozen lake. It was fiercely cold, but I miss it very much here in England. The spring is beautiful in England, but in the north Midwest, spring is so dramatic—it’s been so long since one’s seen green, and suddenly everything bursts into color.

What I enjoy about Jenkins’s work is that he starts each poem with quotidian habits and everyday exchanges, then builds to moments of wisdom. It fits with the setup of these fishermen going, “Where’s your equipment?” and then building to larger moments of contemplation.

There’s a lot of sitting around when you’re ice fishing, so it’s a good place to think, and for someone to talk while the other person isn’t really listening and thinking about their own thing. That appealed to me. The thing with Louis’s writing is that it’s so dense and particular and funny and serious, and has an almost sonnet-like structure of developing a certain reality and then flipping, the way Shakespeare’s sonnets flip the last two lines. I’ve tried in the new version to have this kind of structure. I did love the Guthrie production, but it was encouraging to see how well the poems worked with only a minimal amount of writing from me.

There’s also affectionate mockery of regional culture, like how it makes no sense that ice hockey players wear shorts. I think even for East Coast audiences, you’ll have people who grew up in the Midwest or know Minnesota culture and will pick up on your wink about life there.

That’s a whole new aspect, how the East Coast will take it. I wonder if the East Coast audience will find it funnier, because in the Midwest it’s all normal. When Louis played a video of the 2008 workshop for his family in Duluth, they didn’t laugh at all, and at the end they said, “We had no idea your poems were funny.” Maybe I’ll someday take it to London; it’ll be such a foreign world for them.

One of my favorite lines from the Guthrie version is when Ron and Erik are talking about seeing their breath in the freezing air. One of them says, “The cold here makes the invisible visible.” It’s such a beautiful line and seems to evoke the play’s larger ideas.

Oh, that’s one of my lines! But I think my writing is for another occasion. The play is really about working with Louis’s material. The idea of making the invisible visible is still true.

photo credit:  Teddy Wolff

 

Posted on March 16, 2016 .

Why Psychological Thrillers are Great for Theater

"Misery", the Broadway play, will close this month after approximately 100 performances. While it wasn't a blockbuster and much of the audience undoubtedly bought tickets to see Bruce Willis, the play has signified a rare feat on Broadway: a straight play adapted from film that is compelling, loyal to its source material, and theatrical. Much of that achievement is due to Will Frears' suspenseful direction and clever use of stage rotation to convey the experience of imprisoned novelist Paul Sheldon (Willis) as well as the sublime casting of Laurie Metcalf as Paul's obsessive fan Annie Wilkes. But the source material, namely a psychological thriller, is equally important.

Increasingly each year, Broadway producers look to the film industry for inspiration in developing the next crowd-pleasing adaptation: “Hairspray”, “The Producers”, and the mother of all film-to-theater transfers, “The Lion King”. The productions that turn big profits are typically musicals, so it's rare that a film is adapted as a straight play. More so, play adaptations can seem as if they're trying too hard to measure up to their films. Simply put, without a creative use of theatricality, they fall flat. Think of “A Time to Kill” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” – both popular films based on beloved novels that were produced on Broadway as straight plays and closed after just a month of performances (both in 2013, coincidentally).

The adaptation of "Misery", written by William Goldman (also the screenwriter for the 1990 film) and based on Stephen King's widely popular novel, works surprisingly well onstage and reminded me that psychological thrillers are well suited to theater. What Frears achieves is reminiscent of memorable stage thrillers like Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and Martin McDonaugh’s “The Pillowman”, specifically:  

1. Getting into the mind of the villain. Bruce Willis is a bigger marquee name than Laurie Metcalf, but "Misery" is Annie's story to own, and watching the progression of her psychosis is thrilling. 
2. Emphasizing set design as a crucial narrative device. Sets do for theater what camera angles do for film. In "Misery", the set shifts eerily as Paul explores the home of his captor.
3. Making the violence bloody and raw. We know that staged violence doesn't come close to the realism of violence on film, but the live element creates a visceral experience.

When it comes to the Hollywood-Broadway relationship, most films - especially the most iconic ones - don't work on a live stage. Action films are nonstarters and romantic comedies are duds without a bankable star. Besides dramas, psychological thrillers may have the most potential. The unfolding of suspenseful events and the attention to a character's demonic psychology are well-suited to the stage: think "Macbeth", "Richard III", and "Othello". I'd love to see Alfred Hitchcock's film "Frenzy" or the original "Manchurian Candidate" as staged plays. I get shivers just thinking about watching those stories unfold in a live space.  

photo credit: Sara Krulwich

Posted on February 2, 2016 .

How Hedwig Redefined Casting

Earlier this week, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" played its final show after 507 performances. The production didn't turn much of a profit, if at all, but it was a culturally significant musical. Yes, it swept up a host of Tonys, but just as importantly, it connected with audiences by depicting - through phenomenal music - an outcast's search for self-acceptance.

Hedwig probably doesn't come to mind when you think of shows that take an expansive approach to casting. But the six starry actors who put on Hedwig's blond wigs, gold boots, and denim skirts varied in race, sexual identity, body type, and age (from mid 20's to early 50's). The actors - Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, Michael C. Hall, John Cameron Mitchell, Darren Criss, and Taye Diggs - each brought his own style to the part: a varying combination of energetic, fierce, comedic, and fragile. And while each had to pull off a pair of unforgiving black booty shorts for the final number, Mitchell's attenuated limbs conveyed a very different visual than Diggs' brawny muscles. 

Diverse casting works well for "Hedwig" because the title character's struggle is inextricable to her discomfort with her body. How she looks is secondary to how she feels. When John Cameron Mitchell (the original "Hedwig" creator and a star in this Broadway run) injured his leg during a show, he performed subsequent shows wearing a crutch and leg brace. It suited the character just fine. 

And for the first time in Hedwig history, the show starred two African American actors, Taye Diggs and Rebecca Naomi Jones, in the lead roles of Hedwig and Yitzhak. It was a rare instance in theater where two black actors carried a story that had nothing to do with black culture, history, or identity. 

The differing appearances of Hedwig and Yitzhak added something to the action onstage. Certainly, they impacted the diverse audiences who flocked to the show, not only to see a celebrity in drag, but also to see a facet of themselves. 

photo credit: Joan Marcus, Joseph Marzullo

 

 

 

Posted on September 19, 2015 .

Annie Baker's "John": A Gathering of Spirits

Just before the lights dimmed at a performance of Annie Baker’s play, “John”, at Signature Theatre, the woman next to me turned and murmured, “So what's the gist of this play? It's about a toilet or what?” I’m not sure if she was joking, but her question was funny apart from the bathroom reference. As fans will attest, there’s no “gist” in an Annie Baker play, no brief synopsis that sums it up (any more than one could sum up a Beckett play). In Baker’s work, and this is as true of “John” as any of her other plays, characters learn about each other as subtly and imprecisely as people do in real life. Their entrances are quotidian and unremarkable, thus making the slow reveal of their identities that much more interesting. Such viewing requires patience but the rewards are many.

“John” situates us in a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Floral patterns in differing colors adorn the lobby's wallpaper, armchair, sofa, and carpet. Decorative attempts at charm tumble into kitsch with myriad displays of figurines, stuffed bears, and dolls. A side area with café seating and pictures of the Eiffel Tower is referred to sweetly and pathetically as "Paris" by the hotel's owner, Mertis (an eccentric but ethereal Georgia Engel).

Into this perfectly cluttered set (designed by Mimi Lien) enters a young couple, Elias and Jenny (Christopher Abbott and Hong Chau), visiting the bed and breakfast at a fragile point in their relationship. Elias is passionate about the Civil War and eager to attend the day-long tours of nearby battlefields with hopes that Jenny will overcome her disinterest and join him. We learn quickly that the two are close to splitting up, having barely recovered from a painful episode a few months back. Through conversation in the lobby, café, and bedroom (in partially muffled voices) we hear them discussing and arguing about the elements of their pasts that haunt them and that subvert their treatment of each other. 

Ghosts and spirits permeate this play more than Baker’s other work. The bed and breakfast, Mertis tells us, was formerly a Civil War hospital, and the ghosts of its patients seem to linger in the guest rooms. The room reserved for Elias and Jenny - the only overnight visitors at the time - behaves oddly, Mertis says, recommending that they move to a different room. Similarly haunting are two men named John who impact Jenny and Genevieve (Mertis' friend, played commandingly by Lois Smith) but are never seen. And there’s Elias’s childhood, which he’d rather not recall let alone discuss.

The mysterious quality of the play similarly rests on what we can't see: the guest rooms at the top of the staircase, the series of mysterious text messages that Jenny declines to share with Elias. The iPhone6 gets a special nod for sound design with its punctuated "DING" every time Jenny receives a message and attempts to evade it. 

In the play’s central relationship, depicted through extraordinary acting and Sam Gold's nearly invisible direction, love has not grown in tandem with understanding. After years together, Elias and Jenny still act in ways that bewilder the other. Contrast that with the feeling of complete recognition that Mertis experienced when meeting her husband George (another character who is invoked but unseen). She identified with him so immediately, “it was like showing me my heart or my liver,” she says. And yet, we’re told that Mertis too had to release a former ghost before she could find happiness. No one in this play is exempt from needing to let go. And Elias and Jenny are not there yet. 

photo credit: Matthew Murphy

Posted on September 4, 2015 .

Film Review: "Montage of Heck" and "Amy"

Musical biopics seem to follow a set formula. They begin with scenes of a famous musician as a child and portray his or her domestic struggles: a negligent parent, an impoverished home, a battle with depression, or some combination of the above. As a young adult, the artist finds an outlet through music and becomes an early success until the demands of the music industry stir up a new pot of troubles: drug addiction, damaging relationships, and intrusive media attention. These story lines, as dramatic as they are, have made the biopic genre predictable. Because the narrative structure offers little surprise, biopics end up resting on the strength of their main performer: Angela Bassett, Jamie Foxx, and Joaquin Phoenix to cite a few.

Music documentaries, by contrast, portray those stories with a clearer lens. Relying on real footage, documentaries render the narrative as complex whereas the biopic counterpart portrays it as melodramatic. Two documentaries have recently emerged that illuminate the rise and fall of music artists: “Montage of Heck” about the life of Kurt Cobain, and “Amy” about Amy Winehouse. 

The revelatory and brilliantly edited “Montage of Heck” depicts Nirvana’s transformation from a punkish trio playing dive bars to an artistic force nearly synonymous with 90s rock. The atonal chords and drum smashing of the band’s early years evolved into a more focused and melodic expression of angst, drawing a template for grunge music.

Nirvana’s trajectory impacts everything in the film, but its central focus is the life of its front man, Kurt Cobain. Using footage released by Frances Bean, Cobain’s daughter, the documentary begins with home videos of Kurt and his parents. Director Brett Morgan goes in deep on Cobain’s early signs of depression, his parents’ disdain, and his first experiences with drug use, delving into Cobain’s psyche and literally onto the pages of his adolescent journals. Morgan displays the journal entries as written in real time as though we were peering over Cobain’s shoulder as he wrote each line.

As a teenager Cobain grew socially inward, quit school, and spent his time working as a janitor and listening to punk music. He made an attempt at suicide by lying down on neighborhood train tracks, a plan that was narrowly avoided when train made a last minute track change. He began to channel more attention toward music and found a natural penchant for song writing, jotting lyrics on notebook paper and dedicating himself to daily practicing.

During his time he lived with a girlfriend who supported him, though both were poor and, without any sort of medical coverage, Cobain began using heroin as a remedy for pain relief. Even as his wealth increased in the following years, Cobain continued to live in a way that could be described as penuriousAs Nirvana amassed a sizable following, Cobain balked at the idea that his music was in any way a commodity for consumers. He hated giving interviews, hated media attention, and hated journalists imposing their perspective on what his songs meant. His passion for connecting with audiences never meshed with the other side of the business – the cameras, the magazine covers, and the implication that his art could be package and purchased. While many journalists wrote about Nirvana with sincere admiration, Cobain seemed to feel that the press intellectualized the music rather than experience it viscerally.

Beyond wealth and fame, Cobain felt the encumbrance of the media’s probing lens into his family life. The most damaging example was a Rolling Stone article by Lynn Hirschberg about Cobain and Courtney Love’s heroin use during Love’s pregnancy with their daughter. The article was not without validity – Love admits in the documentary that she used heroin while pregnant – but the fallout was humiliating. Child services took Frances out of her parents’ custody for the first weeks of her life and Cobain’s depression increased irrevocably. His anger is heavily documented in his journals, and it's worth noting the absence of technology in Cobain's life. The Internet was not yet commonplace. Cobain’s entire creative and emotional world existed onstage and in the pages of spiral notebooks.

Throughout the film, Nirvana’s music permeates, often with new takes on familiar songs like a calm, almost choral version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. There’s a haunting quality to the film and to the reams of journal entries revealed. For Cobain, success could never numb the sting of feeling critiqued, interpreted, and probed. The media and the naysayers were relentless, he thought, drawing blood and seeming to exclaim, in Nirvana’s words, “Here we are now, entertain us.”

Why are we fascinated by the famous artist who wishes to be left alone? Just as there was no incongruity for Cobain in wanting to connect to huge audiences onstage yet avoid conversation offstage, there was no disconnect for the singer Amy Winehouse between performing songs that laid bare a painful relationship and wanting to shrink from visibility after each show.

Like “Montage of Heck”, the beautiful and disturbing documentary “Amy” implicates the public and the media in the self-sabotaging behavior of a talented but fragile artist. Another prodigious song writer who struggled with addiction and died at age 27, Winehouse attempted several times to rehabilitate but was subverted at every turn by the two people she looked to for guidance: her father and her husband.

Winehouse’s musical gifts were obvious at an early age. The film’s opening scene shows an adolescent Amy singing “happy birthday” with the vibrato and stylings of a seasoned performer. As a young teen, she was eager to learn from the great jazz artists, particularly Tony Bennett. She was initially a jazz singer herself and with barely any training showcased the voice and timbre of a singer three times her age.

Like other performers before and since, Winehouse was marketed as a mainstream pop singer though her sound and musical preference were better suited for smaller venues. The frenetic schedule and stadium performances exacerbated her drug use, leaving her with few healing mechanisms.

Winehouse confesses in the film to a history of depression and bulimia. Her father’s extramarital affair and divorce from her mother shook her as a teenager and made her “messed up” about men, even as she continued to look to her father for reinforcement and approval. In video clips with friends, however, her demeanor is charming, upbeat, silly, and playful. Unlike Cobain, she had truly good friends. But her father and Blake loomed larger than anyone. Their names are literally imprinted on her: “Blake” just above her heart, and “Daddy’s girl” on her upper arm.

One is reminded quickly that Blake – a club boy in fedoras and cuffed t-shirts – is a toxic waste dump of a partner who brought heroin to the hospital where Winehouse was detoxing from a drug binge. Most of Winehouse’s album “Back to Black” is about him, primarily her heartache and loneliness in the months after he left her. Her biggest single on the album, “Rehab”, was a nod to her friend (and former manager) Nick’s effort to help her rehabilitate and her father’s dismissal of the intervention. Listening to the lyrics again, the line, “My daddy thinks I’m fine” stands out as heartbreaking. Her father was blind to her wellbeing so Winehouse assured herself that rehab was unnecessary.

“Back to Black” became the tipping point for Winehouse’s career, hurling her faster toward international tours and arena-sized concerts. The grueling schedule – promoted by her father and her profit-hungry manager – escalated at the same time that Blake came back to her, bringing his drug addiction and co-dependency habits back into her life. Against all powers of reason, she married him, and in short time he was arrested for drug possession. After that, Winehouse signed a written agreement to get clean by that year’s Grammy awards. She followed through and scooped up multiple Grammy awards entering a healthy period of musical collaboration with artists like Mos Def, Questlove, and her idol, Tony Bennett. But this upswing came too late, her body already pillaged by the long-term effects of substance abuse. She died in 2011 of alcohol poisoning.

A highlight of “Amy” is seeing her song lyrics superimposed on footage of her performances. Winehouse’s voice is so striking, you almost miss how clever and poetic her lyrics are. Her writing is filled with word play, metaphors, and tactile language alongside stark descriptions of loss and loneliness. From “Wake up alone”:

This face in my dreams seizes my guts
He floods me with dread
Soaked in soul
He swims in my eyes by the bed

Singing was never leisurely for Winehouse; there was a visceral need to unleash the words and get it right tonally. One of the most profound moments in the film is Tony Bennett’s expression of praise that she ought to be named among the great jazz talents like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. What pains is the notion that her image as a drug addict eclipsed that public perception.  

The prevailing idea in both “Montage of Heck” and “Amy” is that fame hurts. It damages, corrupts, and interferes. Musicians thrive on live performance and audience connection, but we shouldn’t assume that because we memorize their lyrics, we know them. They don’t owe us anything, and they never did.

 

photo credit: Jeff Kravitz, Dan Kitwood

Posted on August 26, 2015 .

An Interview with Jason Alexander

When the producers of Broadway’s “Fish in the Dark” announced that Jason Alexander would replace Larry David for an extended run of the show, fans rejoiced. For “Seinfeld” viewers, there is no better actor to play Larry David than Alexander, who spent a decade embodying an incarnation of David in the role of George Costanza. On top of that, Alexander is a theater veteran and a Tony winner for his performance in “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” in 1989. When David left “Fish in the Dark” in June and passed the baton to Alexander, he joked that his cast mates would finally “get to work with a professional.”

I wrote about Alexander in The Jewish Week and soon afterward saw him perform in the play. It came as a surprise to me that the show was more satisfying with David. I thought at first it was because the jokes were less funny the second time around, but I realized later that it was something more: David had played the role exactly according to his character on HBO. Every mannerism was recognizable.  With Alexander, it wasn’t a replica of David nor was it a replica of George. The persona was somewhere in between. More creative but less familiar.

That said, having the opportunity to interview Alexander was a highlight. He was gracious, intelligent, thoughtful, and thankful. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, held backstage at Broadway’s Cort Theatre:

It’s likely that a good portion of the audience at each performance of “Fish in the Dark” is comprised of Larry David fans who aren’t regular theatergoers. What is your take on the nature of the show, which is neither Larry David doing standup nor a typical staged comedy?

When I tell people what it’s like, I say, “It’s a two-hour episode of Curb that has a single storyline." It’s more of a series of events that are happening than what you would think of as a classically constructed play. For the kind of audience that are not typical theatregoers but are big Larry David fans, they go, “This is great!” because they’re getting everything they want. The typical theatregoer will feel the fact that it does not have a classic two-act structure. And a more seasoned playwright would pepper through-lines in…. But Larry never cared about those things. Larry loves the funny and the uncomfortable and he writes to those moments. And he relies on his actors to fill in the connective tissue.

So you would think of this as a show where “funny trumps” as it did on “Seinfeld”?

Absolutely. When people say, “Am I going to have a good time?”, I say, “You’re going to laugh your ass off." At “Seinfeld”, there was a motto over the door that said, “No hugging, no learning.” It’s the same thing here. You come to laugh for two hours.

I do think that Larry knows structure. On “Curb”, he made different threads of narrative come together each episode in surprising ways.

He really understands story. And what a lot of people don’t know about Larry is that his favorite kind of music is classical, so he understands classic structure in all kinds of things: theater, music, art. But when he puts pen to paper, his primary concern has been, “Where are the pools of laughs, where can I create a situation where nobody’s comfortable and force them to tough it out, and when I’m through with that, how quickly can I get to the next one.”

When you think about Norman Drexel [the main character in the play], does it feel like Larry David with different biographical details?

Sure. Because the character that Larry presents to the world has a lot of Norman’s attributes: there’s the neuroses, the quick temper, the unabashed lashing out, the acknowledgment that he’s not as great as he thinks he is. So he’s writing from that well. The challenge for me actually is to do no harm because I cannot separate myself from the process I would use as an actor if this was “Long Day’s Journey into Night”. I have to look at what drives and motivates the character, what physical and emotional conditions is he dealing with. And even though Larry doesn’t necessarily carry of echo of scene A into scene B, I have to explore those tendrils to see what is there. And the thing I have to be aware of – and I rely heavily on Larry and Anna for this – is that the good actor work that makes the character fuller and realer and more impactful doesn’t kill the jokes.

Larry taught me a valuable lesson during "Seinfeld". There was an episode where George thought he was having a heart attack. And I started performing the heart attack and Larry said, “No good!” And I said, “But that’s a heart attack.” And he said, “I know, it’s not funny! I believe you’re having a heart attack.” That’s the danger that I bump into when I do material like Larry’s. The good actor in me does not always serve the good comic in me, and in this case, the good comic has to win. 

When press came out that you were replacing Larry, every article stated that it was perfect casting. Does [director] Anna D. Shapiro ask you to find your own access point to the character separate from Larry's performance? I can’t imagine she asks you to play it like George, right?

No no. My discussions with Anna have been about trying to get a handle on things that really bumped me. For instance, I said, “Is it your understanding that Norman loves his wife...because within a page of her leaving him he’s calling up the girl from the hospital.” We talked about what that moment is trying to be. It’s not about taking advantage of the fact that I’m a bachelor, but that my brother is not cooperating and it will hurt him if I get this girl. So we’ve had discussions about what is not so obvious on the page. The thing we don’t discuss is how to make it funny. 

How about some of the phrases that are quintessentially Larry, like “Pret-ty pret-ty good”. Will you have that line?

I’ve heard he’s gonna change it. I could make an argument for or against it. It could be a fun moment for the audience to go, “I know that you know that I know.” Or he could put in a George reference like, “Serenity Now!”

Since “Seinfeld” ended, there have been various opportunities that have looped you back into the orbit of Larry and Jerry Seinfeld: this show obviously, and the reunion season on “Curb”…

And the super bowl spot…

Right, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”. Do you predict your careers will continue to intersect with theirs? 

Boy, I hope so. You know, the reason we stopped doing Seinfeld – I mean there were a couple of under-the-surface reasons, but the artistic reason was that we felt like we couldn’t do anything to surprise the audience anymore. But if there’s something new to explore, why not? Every time I come together with Larry and Jerry, it’s a great time, and it makes people extremely happy. So I can’t over-intellectualize beyond that. Would I love to come back to Broadway for something that has meat and maybe has music – sure! But this is too good. The minute they said , “Are you interested” I said, “Of course”.

I’m trying to make a shift in my career altogether. Joe Mantello has the career that I would love to have. He spends 80% of his career directing and 20% acting. I would love to do that. These days I find equal and often greater satisfaction with directing than I do with performing. But if I’m gonna perform, I love doing it in a live situation. I love doing theater. My fantasies as a kid were all here.

photo credit: Joan Marcus

 

 

 

 

Posted on July 13, 2015 .

"On the Town": Finding the Tourist in Every Native New Yorker

The posters for “On the Town” partially give the show away. Three chipper-looking sailors pose with wide eyes beneath the words, “New York, New York, it’s a helluva town”. The image and quote – an opening line from the show’s first big number – convey the excitement of docking in New York City. But ten minutes into the performance, a more specific plot emerges: the reason for the sailors’ enthusiasm is that they have 24 hours to get laid. They are literally up all night to get lucky, to paraphrase a more recent lyric.

The central character is the earnest Gabey (Tony Yazbeck) who, soon after arriving, notices a poster of Miss Turnstiles, the NYC subway’s version of a beauty pageant queen, and is immediately drawn to her. With all of the single girls in the city for Gabey to hit on (and what woman would turn down a sailor) it’s a bit implausible that he’d devote his one day in town to finding someone he's never met. His fellow sailors Ozzie and Chip are less exacting in their pickup criteria: anyone with breasts will do. Lucky for them, the ladies they meet are quicker to hop into bed than they are, and the chemistry is good enough to merit a post-coitus evening out. Gabey eventually finds Miss Turnstiles, a girl named Ivy Smith, played by New York City Ballet principal Megan Fairchild. The attraction is mutual, but her demeaning job delays her from a date until Gabey’s final hour in the city. Alas for the sentimental heartthrob of the show, delayed sexual pleasure (or unattained as it turns out) is the price of finding requited love. Yazbeck plays Gabey as being utterly smitten with Ivy, though the quickness of his emotions made me wonder if he “falls in love” at every port where his ship docks. 

Leonard Bernstein’s score is upbeat and playful, especially paired with Adolph Green and Betty Comden’s lyrics, though not as complex or nuanced as “West Side Story” and “Candide”. Director John Rando seizes every opportunity for sexual humor (like one sailor holding a bag of groceries on his lap with a tall breadstick popping up in just the right spot). But the show’s prurience manages to be wholesome and inoffensive. That’s mainly due to the sexual confidence of the women and the romantic tilt of their encounters. Every ogle is well-received, every kiss consensual.

“On the Town” may be the most perfectly touristy musical on Broadway right now. It’s a feel-good show for starters – great numbers, solid performances, and an easy to package narrative – but on another level, it’s a musical that is essentially about tourists experiencing a day and night in New York. To explore the sights with them is to feel the limitless possibilities of the city. As they board the ship at the end of their stay, a new slew of sailors arrive, ready to take the town for a day. The show is lightweight, but the finale resonates. You depart the theater at 42nd street wanting to capture the city as well, even if you've lived here for years. 

photo credit: Joan Marcus

Posted on May 21, 2015 .