Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Hopes -- and a Suggestion -- for the New Year, 2009

New Year's resolutions have never been my style. I instinctively mistrust any decision that is motivated by a change in calendars. However, I am prone to spend the last hours of any year giving some time to reflection on what is past, and on empowering good things for the year to come.

It seems 2008 was a kicker for most everyone, so I cannot say mine was particularly tough. But mine was a year packed with change, some of which was delish, and some of which was hellish. Some friends had it far tougher than I, so I'm not complaining. Still, I cannot say I will regret letting the year slip into the past.

My hopes for 2009 are many, but here are a few:

  • That the worldwide financial crisis will inspire people, companies and nations to re-think the way they do things.
  • That the United States will resign from its self-appointed role as the world's cop, especially when its own moral house is in such disorder.
  • That the professional theatre (musical and otherwise) will survive this rough time and rediscover that talent and wit matter more than money or hydraulics.
  • That contemporary rock and rap music will go back to hell and disappear from the musical stage (yeah, I know -- about as likely as AIDS and cancer spontaneously disappearing from the planet).
  • That the purveyors of political hate draped in the trappings of religion will drown in their hypocrisy, and that voters will realize that denying rights to anyone endangers the rights of all.
  • That America will give it's new president time to get a handle on the chaos it took Bush and his crew eight long years to create and deepen.
  • That Broadway will get a glorious, tuneful ad totally new musical that audiences will still love when it is revived 60 years from now.
  • That your greatest hope for the new year will be fulfilled, and that all of us will know love, health and prosperity.

And along with all the hopes, here's a suggestion: get this new year off to a good karmic start by committing at least one act of spontaneous kindness. Hold a door for a stranger, throw an extra dollar onto a tip, give a harried salesperson a sincere compliment -- whatever comes your way. Not everyone can be nice all of the time, but none of us can do it too often either.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lansbury's Birthday Gift to Broadway

Instead of waiting for the world to give her a gift, she went and gave us one -- how classy can you get?

In my last blog, I innocently mused that if the upcoming revival of Blithe Spirit could come up with an exciting choice for the role of Madame Arcati, “the potential for theatrical magic will be damn near unbearable.” Little did I know that no less than Angela Lansbury would be taking on the role. Lansbury back on Broadway? Suddenly the word “magic” seems inadequate.

It is only just over a years since Lansbury appeared in Deuce, but I think I speak for most of her fans when I say how much we hoped that well-intentioned but unsatisfying play would not be her last Broadway hurrah. Lansbury is one of the most incandescent stars of my theatergoing lifetime. My sincere hope is that she has many years of excellent health ahead, but let’s be honest – few actors have held forth on Broadway through their eighth decade, and the divine Angela is now 83. Madame Acarti is precisely the kind of larger than life character that Lansbury excels at playing, and I can think of no one more suited to make every word of Noel Coward’s dialogue sparkle.

That Lansbury will be sharing the stage with Christine Ebersole and Rupert Everett makes this the sort of exciting, power-packed theatrical event Broadway desperately needs. Sure, a part of me would be happier if that kind of excitement was provided by a new musical – but there are few sweeter prospects in any theatre-lover’s life than a stellar revival of a classic Coward comedy. And with Lansbury as Acarti – wow!

I have long since lost count of the times when I have taken part in an ovation welcoming Angela Lansbury to a stage. It is going to be a great joy to do so again. How nice of her to celebrate her 83rd birthday (Oct. 16th) by giving Broadway the newws that she's coming back -- how fascinational!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Nothing to Dance About

Those who would like to dismiss me as an impossible-to-please curmudgeon are going to love this post, but never let it be said I was afraid to state my honest opinion.

For most of my conscious life, each fall brought the fresh excitement of a new theatre season. But in recent years, that once-reliable excitement has been fading -- and I fear it has finally landed at point zero. I cannot pretend any real interest in the musicals heading to Broadway in the months ahead. The score to Billy Elliot is so tuneless and witless that I have no reason to waste two and a half hours of my life seeing the show attached to it. Every bit of 13 that I have heard so far has left me cringing, and as much as I love classic musical comedies, I see no compelling reason to drag out Guys and Dolls yet again. Oliver Platt as Nathan Detroit? Good grief -- if Nathan Lane were dead, he'd be spinning in his grave . . . as it is, he at least need not fear memories of his brilliant performance in that role being matched, let alone eclipsed. Much as I enjoy anything related to Harry Potter, I have no desire to see Daniel Radcliffe's genitals in a staging of Equus that drew universal critical shrugs. I'll admit that a musical version of 9 to 5 has some comic potential, but I can't help feeling that this project has come along a few decades too late to make much sense. The casting for Pal Joey does not entice me, the very idea of Shrek as a musical leaves me queasy, and I have to wonder at the wisdom of reviving West Side Story with (if rumors prove true) a 30 year old playing Tony.

And speaking of Bernstein musicals, I will attend the Encores production of On the Town with real trepidation. Thanks to the large Encores subscriber base, this concert staging will doubtless be well attended, but I suspect it will merely remind everyone why every New York revival of this show has been a resounding critical and financial failure. The original Jerome Robbins choreography is dazzling to see, but the creaky plot and cliche-ridden characters make for meager theatre.

The one bit of Broadway news that has tweaked my interest so far is the announcement that Noel Coward's sublime comedy Blithe Spirit is coming back with Christine Ebersole and Rupert Everett, helmed by Michael Blakemore. Now THAT is a combination I can get excited about -- all three are perfect choices for this material. If they can come up with an equally interesting actor to play Madame Arcati, the potential for theatrical magic will be damn near unbearable. Bring it on!

I know there will almost certainly be a few surprises between here and next June. Perhaps someone fascinating will follow Lupone in Gypsy (a most unenviable task for whoever might dare it), and a new musical may take off in a non-profit venue and become Broadway's next Urinetown. In the meantime, this will be a great season to catch up on my reading and DVD collecting . . .

Does that make me a curmudgeon? Possibly. But I refuse to believe that it is curmudgeonly to wish for something exciting in a season that promises yawning mediocrity.

Monday, October 6, 2008

It's Better With a Band

In the professional theatre, ticket buyers are voters. The way they spend their dollars has a genuine effect on what producers will bring to Broadway and the road in years to come. After several years where producers assured themselves that audiences didn't give a hoot about smaller orchestras, this past season saw audiences paying happily to see productions with full size orchestras -- and mind you, those musicians were placed in the spotlight for all to see as well as hear. Gypsy brought its full size orchestra straight from its run at the City Center Encores series, with the band on the St. James Theatre stage in all its glory. Uptown at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center actually peels the stage back so the audience can see the thirty pieces packing the expanded pit at South Pacific -- a dramatic gesture that wins cheers at every performance.

Synthesizers have their place, but it seems that musical theatre audiences really do want a full orchestra -- a reasonable desire at $120 a ticket. In recent years, the folks at Roundabout have subjected us to tiny orchestras for revivals of classic Sondheim musicals -- and the results were mediocre. Follies done with a 14 piece band sounded as cheap as it look -- and that was very cheap indeed. The recent revival of Sunday in the Park had much to admire, but with only a handful of musicians shove into a side box, the score simply did not sound right. I was shocked that Sondheim would allow such an embarrassment -- but he did, all in the name of economy.

Well, this past season proves that Broadway's economy requires a full size orchestra in the pit -- and thousands of people are lustily agreeing with me at every performance of Gypsy and South Pacific. Scores that aim for a more pop-based sound are welcome to their rock-sized bands, but real musicals deserve real orchestras, as do the audiences that pay to see them.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Rent: Requiscat in Pacem

Be careful what you wish for. As a kid, I dreamed of being involved with a long running Broadway musical that would not only wo\in a shipload of Tonys, but would make the utimate leap and cop a Pulitzer Prize for Drama . . . like A Chorus Line. My wish came true, but as luck would have it, the show in question was one that I detested.

In the mid-1990s, I was working for a producer who sent me to review workshops. The worst I ever had to sit through was Rent, a self-styled update of La Boheme. I found the score unremarkable (except perhaps for the clever lyric to "La Vie Boheme"), the characters hopelessly mired in self-pity, and the creaky plot device of killing off a gay man downright offensive. After the performance, I rejoiced to a companion that I would never have to sit through that piece of garbage again . . . and at that moment I suspect that somewhere in the ethers, a higher power enjoyed a good giggle.

Theatre jobs (like the shows they are connected with) come and go, and in a matter of months I found myself working for two of the three producers looking to bring a full production of Rent to off-Broadway. For the next two years, I did everything I could to help make Rent a reality. When the budget got tight, I literally wore out my tape deck making copies of the demo. I may not have like the show, but promoting it was part of my job. After the shocking loss of Jonathan Larson, I watched in something like shock as a juggernaught of publicity and blind sentiment turned the project into a Broadway-bound pop culture phenomenon. To this day I firmly believe that Rent would never have attained fame without the unbelieveably tragic timing of Larson's death. The press and public fell for the idea of a young writer dying on the night his show had its dress rehearsal.

Opening night at the Nederlander Theatre, as the audience reacted to the show with a rock concert intensity, I could not help the feeling that I was watching everything that I love and care about in musical theatre dying before my eyes. At the party afterwards (held on a platform covering the skating rink at Chelsea Piers, leaving many guests with numb feet to go wit htheir benumbed ears), a young colleague assured me that Rent would use up its potential audience in a matter of months and quickly fade from the scene. I replied that while I found that viewpoint appealing, I feared it would take five to ten years for this thing to play itself out.

Well, we were both wrong, and now, twelve years later, Rent is finally closing up shop. Did it really change the course of musical theatre? Not really. All that I love in musical theatre has most certainly not died. Of all the musicals that have followed, nothing has really built on what Rent tried to do. Some point to In the Heights as a sort of successor, but in my opinion that is nonsense. In the Heights is a lighthearted bon bon without a memorable tune to its name -- Rent is a tortured, clumsy soap opera with one or two lasting songs. The only similarity is that both have utterly contemporary scores that ultimately bore me. Ironically, the other contemporary scores that have appeared in the last twelve years make Larson's work sound almost palatable to my weary ear. I still think Rent is garbage, but I respect it as the garbage of its generation. The garbage that has followed is often far more reeky.

This day is a personal landmark: the closing of the last Broadway show I worked on. When producer David Merrick announced the closing of Hello Dolly, he said it was "like burying your grandmother." I now fully understand his point. Much as I dislike Rent, I recognize that it was a piece of cultural history, and for whatever it was worth, I was a small part of that history. So tonight, although my heart goes out to the countless people who will have to sit through amateur stagings of this deafening dribble, I will raise a glass to Rent, to Jonathan Larson, to a culture that remains a sucker for empty sentiment, and to my ill-formed dream come true. Rest in peace, Rent.

Friday, September 5, 2008

"Victory" in Iraq?

Writers pay attention to words -- they are the tools of our trade. While watching this week's Republican National Convention, the use of one word in particular struck me as nothing short of nonsensical. John McCain and his supporters insisted time and again that "victory" is in sight in Iraq.

Victory? Just what would a "victory" in Iraq look like? Does anyone seriously think we can impose a democratic form of government on a mideastern nation divided by bitter ethnic rivalries? Anyone suggesting that "victory" in Iraq is possible has long since abandoned any contact with reality. I know that many leading Republicans have a solid financial interest in prolonigng America's presence in Iraq, but that is their problem. There is no justification for the hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives America is pouring into a war where "victory" is not on the list of viable options.

The best that McCain and his fellow Republicans can hope for is for our troops to stay in Iraq indefinitely, propping up a disposable pro-American regime -- much as we have done for the past half century in Korea. Without the supportive presence of US troops, South Korea would long since have disappeared from the map, just as South Vietnam has. The military inductrial establishment in the US may crave yet another endless stationing of US troops, but our natiuon cannot afford it. I am appalled to hear politicians claim that we cannot pay for better schools or the proper care of the sick in the US, while at the same time our nation hurls itself into unthinkable debt to keep Iraq occupied.

I have tremendous respect for McCain's heroism, and understand an old soldier's desire for "victory," but as one refreshingly sane protester pointed out, you cannot win an occupation.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Politics and Poker 1: Convention hoopla

Like the song in Fiorello says, "Shuffle up the cards, and find the joker."

Yes, we should all be paying major attention to the presidential race. It will take someone extraordinary to repair the damage that George Bush has done over the last eight years, pimping our nation's reputation and sending thousands to needless deaths for the sake of corporate profit. Sadly, both parties are working overtime to obfuscate the real issues in this race, and (adding insult to injury) they are spending the last days of summer boring the living hell out of us with their pasturized conventions.

American presidential conventions used to be great fun for a news junkie to watch. As a child growing up in the 1960s, I relished the spectacle of politicos hacking away at one another, with sessions often dragging on into the night as careers rose and fell in full view of the television cameras. Since all this happened in the school-free months of summer, my parents were willing to let me stay up and watch the carnage. The conventions of 1968 and 1972 were particularly colorful and chaotic -- so much so that party bosses resolved to turn these confabs into more orderly tools of candidate promotion.

Now all the bloodshed takes palce before the opening gavel, making conventions little more than a slick, carefully scheduled week-long series informercials with the most important speakers reserved for the primetime hours between 9 and 11 PM, Eastern time. The results are guaranteed boredom for any except those viewers already gung-ho for a particular party or candidate. The media does its best to maximize the occasional planned moment of pseudo-drama, such as trotting out a candidate's spouse, a former prez, or someone in terminal condition enjoying a last hurrah. After the sheer spectacle and stunning physiques of the Beijing Olympics, this nightly tedium is all the more resistible. Thank heaven for classic films on TCM, or the television nights of this late summer would be strictly reserved for reviewing my DVD collections!

It wasn't so long ago that musical stage stars made regular appearances to entertain at these conventions. Ethel Merman was a die-hard Republican and invariably showed up to sing the national anthem for the party faithful. As recently as 2000, the Broadway revival cast of The Music Man made a rousing appearance for the Democrats. Now only the blandest of pop singers appear. But I fear this is all too understandable. Which of the current roster of hits would be even vaguely appropriate for such a venue? Having the kids from Spring Awakening howl about "The Bitch of Living" would merely add to the boredom. The humpy sailors from South Pacific might make the grade in wartime, but regardless of who got the Democratic nomination this time, "There is Nothing Like a Dame" would hardly be a tactful choice!

Mind you, this is the reaction of a longtime registered Democrat to his own party's convention -- I will probably groan when I accidentally brush past the nonsense the Republicans will spew forth next week. Come November, I am definitely voting for Obama -- the thought of four more years of Republican mayhem and mismanagement terrifies me.

But MUST these politicians always bore us along the way?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

When Broadway Looks Like a Bargain

Theatre lovers do a lot of bitching about ticket prices, and with good reason. I paid $14 for a full price orchestra seat to my first Broadway show, Irene at the Minskoff Theatre. If I were to purchase that same seat for the Minskoff’s current tenant The Lion King (as if!), it would cost me $120. But who am I to carp? Older fans wax rhapsodic about paying $6 to see Martin and Pinza in the original South Pacific, so it is easy to understand their frustration with coughing up twenty times as much to see the current revival. Sure, everything is more expensive, but Broadway ticket prices have increased at far more than the general rate of inflation, thanks to the greed of theatre owners, producers and unions.

Now New York’s baseball team owners have managed to make Broadway look like a bargain. Both teams are building new stadiums, and both have recently announced the whopping new prices they will be charging for tickets. The Mets are hiking their prices a whopping 79 percent over this year, with prime seats going for $495. This is a steal compared with the Yankees, who will be charging up to $2500 – and yes, that is for a single ticket to a single game.

The cost of living in New York City is redefining insanity, but even by that ever-climbing standard, these new prices for baseball tix are beyond obscene. The most upsetting aspect of this story is that both the Mets and Yankees claim that advance sales for these overpriced ducats are strong. If the public is stupid enough to go along with this thievery, who has any right to cry foul? And mind you, we are talking about people shelling out $495 to $2500 bucks to attend ballgames that will be available on television.

So Broadway’s $120 top price suddenly looks like a bargain price for an evening’s entertainment. One might even think that Mel Brooks’ vampiric $450 premium seats for Young Frankenstein now seem reasonable. (They aren't -- especially for a second rate rehash like YF.)

What a pity that the ticket buying public is unable or just plain unwilling to stand up for itself and refuse to pay these outrageous prices. Don’t kid yourself – empty seats would swiftly lead to lower ticket prices, both at the stadiums and in theatres. But Americans are no good at denying themselves immediate gratification, and so long as the market will bear this insane ticket pricing, it will continue.

Any guesses on when Little League teams will start charging $50 to see junior strike out?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Not Caring About the Tonys

People have been asking why I have not posted a commentary on the Tony nominations -- something Musicals101 used to do religiously. Well, my reason for not doing so this year was simple. After a truly craptacular season for Broadway musicals, I cannot work up much enthusiasm one way or the other for the current crop of nominees. When the only interesting race of the evening is whether Gypsy or South Pacific will win Best Revival, its a sad commentary on the lack of new musical magic on Broadway. As it is, I will skip watching this Tony telecast.

A long time ago, I wrote on Musicals101 that musical theatre is bound to develop in ways no one can possibly foresee, and it will doubtless evolve in ways some of us are not going to like very much. This year, the Tony committee resolutely overlooked some big-budget traditional musicals of dubious merit (like the bloated Young Frankenstein and the tasteless Little Mermaid) and aimed most of their nominations at musicals that took a more innovative approach. While I applaud this apprach in theory, I cannot pretend to care about the "innovative" shows in question. I found Passing Strange to be deafening example of "sound and fury signifying nothing," a self-indulgent performance piece. In The Heights is a pleasant little show, but I can't say it really moved or delighted me. I will mercifully refrain from commenting on the other nominees, who are more or less on hand to fill out the category.

Am I really itching to see numbersfrom any of the new musicals performed on the Tony telecast? Frankly, no. One hopes we will get great scenes from the revivals, but beyond that, I have no qualms about not watching the Tonys this year. That night happens to be when the York Theatre is closing a weekend-long revival of the 1985 musical Grind. Sure, I will record the broadcast (for clips to show during classroom lectures), but I am not going to rush home that night to view the results.

I miss caring about the Tonys.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

And I Deserve a Toy

Every now and then, I have a Max Bialystock moment, and decide that I deserve a toy. This morning was one of those times. I had just gotten over a punishing case of the flu (so much for the vaccine I endured last October!), hosted Marge Champion at a very successful SRO Musical Conversation at the York Theatre, and got through a marketing meeting with my publishers to discuss a book that is now months past its original publication date. Yup, I've been working very hard, and I deserve a toy.

So I stopped in a video store, whiped out my trusty plastic, and bought the first and second season DVD sets for The Muppet Show. While I would love to tell you that my intentions were purely archival, that would be a lie. I happen to love the Muppets, and have no qualms admitting I was a total fan of this series, which turned these fuzzy-faced characters into the most unlikely variety repertory company of all time. Some were particularly charmed by the inexplicable relationship between soft-hearted Kermit the Frog and the eternally egotistical Miss Piggy, but I loved the whole insane corral.

And who could beat that ongoing parade of guest stars? At a time when variety shows were fading from the scene, the Muppets helped give the genre one final blaze of glittering, family-friendly glory. Such diverse musical theatre and film talents as Juliet Prowse, Joel Grey and Rita Moreno were among the first to make appearances on The Muppet Show, paving the way for a bona fide army of other top line celebrities in years to come. Even such divas as Julie Andrews and Beverly Sills would strut their stuff with Kermit’s crew, creating some rare moments of musical comedy fun. Who could forget one creepy-faced critter crooning “I hear singing and there’s no one there,” only to have Merman dismiss him with a curt, “You would!”

I’ll be relishing these disks for years to come, but will make a point of (you should pardon the expression) pigging out on them a bit in the next few weeks. As my relationship of 20-plus years comes to an end (not my idea, I assure you) and my beloved apartment goes up for sale, some musical comedy distraction is in order. And the nice thing with these DVD sets is that I will still get to relish them after my relationship and apartment fade into the past.

When life start’s singing a sad and blue song, go into your dance . . . and if you have two left feet as I do, you can at least let Miss Piggy hoof it for you.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Don't Almost Revisit a Classic

It is considered poor form to review a workshop, unless of course the review is a rave. So I am not going to post a formal Musicals101 review of the current New York Musical Theatre Festival production of Main Travelled Roads, but I cannot resist offering a thought here on my blog.

If you are going to create any sort of artwork, it is a wise to avoid ideas that echo previous masterworks. Some years ago, the Broadway musical Copperfield had a song where the title character pleaded, “Mama, Don’t Get Married.” Set in 2/4, this charming number led a number of critics to compare it unfavorably to Gypsy’s 3/4 time “If Mama Was Married,” even though the two songs bore no resemblance to one another aside from two common words in the title.

Now imagine a musical that starts out with a farm girl deciding who will take her to a fair – the handsome hunk she loves, or the more aggressive man who won’t take no for an answer. While Main Travelled Roads is no Oklahoma, the vague resemblance was enough to make one person sitting near me audibly ask when the DeMille dream ballet would begin.

My friendly advice to the authors of Main Travelled Roads is to take whatever they have learned from this project and apply it to something else. The inescapable ghosts of Laurey, Curly and Judd (and Eller too) hang over Main Travelled Roads, and I suspect it will be impossible to escape them.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Appearing on PBS

If you love documentaries like I do, you have probably spent more hours than you can count watching PBS. Sure, there are now several cable networks that offer documentaries on various subjects, but from the hard-hitting Frontline to the wonderful brothers Burns, the creme de la creme of documentaries are still found on public television. And because PBS is a public resource, pretty much everyone can access it.

So although I have been a "talking head" in various cable and DVD documentaries over the last decade, it was a special thrill to make my PBS debut in Hollywood Singing and Dancing. The producers contacted me about a year ago, and our filmed interview went exceptionally well, but I had no idea when the show would be aired. Imagine my surprise last Sunday morning when a slew of phone messages and e-mails from friends announced that I had been on the night before! Lucky for me, a rerun was scheduled for that very evening. I am not ashamed to say I spent the entire broadcast on the phone with my Mom, who kvelled over the entire program. Hey, its not every day you get to share the screen with Shirley Jones, Tommy Tune, Debbie Reynolds, Marge Champion and about a dozen other legendary talents. Mom tells me she spent the rest of the week hearing compliments from friends and relatives -- to put it mildly, she was a happy camper.And frankly, so was I.

Appearing on PBS is still something of a landmark for any historian and/or educator. And there is a definite pleasure in having strangers walk up on the street and say, "Hey, I saw you on TV this week!" (Go ahead, call me shallow!) But corny as it sounds, I keep thinking of the potential television has to inspire young viewers. You just know that somewhere, some kid watching that documentary got their first serious taste of musical film -- and with any luck, the torch has been passed on. My passion for musicals has been an animating factor in my life, and I want to give that passion to those that follow me.

As I type this at my desk in the York Theatre, an audience is just across the hall cheering for the songs of lyricist Amanda Green. This talented lady caught her passion for musical theatre from her parents, the legendary writer Adolph Green and the gifted actress Phyllis Newman. Not everyone can be lucky enough to have such a close connection to musicals. Some may catch the theatre bug from teachers or by seeing a show. But at least a few have found their passion by seeing something on PBS. So it is nice to have been a part of that -- very nice, in fact.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Letters from The Master

Just finished devouring The Letters of Noel Coward, edited by Barry Day; easily the most enjoyable read I've had in years. Not only do we get a life's worth of The Master's private correspondence to friends and colleagues, but in many cases we get letters these extraordinary people wrote to Noel. The result is a literal -- and literary -- treasure trove. What Coward fan could fail to enjoy an inside look at his relationships with Marlene Dietrich, Lunt & Fontanne, Gertrude Lawrence, Clifton Webb, and more? I for one reveled in getting the long-awaited scoop on his infamous feud with Mary Martin, which began when she starred in Coward's 1946 London production of Pacific 1860 and ended in time for the duo to co-star in the landmark 1955 American television special Together With Music.

More than one friend of mine has commented on Coward's frequent use of politically incorrect obscenities in these letters. Frankly, this didn't bother me. These letters were never intended for public reading. Noel used strong language, partly to make his letters more amusing, and partly because it can take strong language to express strong feelings.

I think the real issue for some readers is Noel's affection for "the C Word," the one that rhymes with "runt," "stunt" and "bunt"? He uses it rather freely, but not in a particularly misogynistic way. Yes, on occasion it refers to difficult women (such as Beatrice Lillie) but it is also used to refer to men, situations and places, including in one unlikely instance Mexico City. Of course it is one of the rudest words in the language, one my mother condems. I fully understand why many women find this word unacceptable under any circumstances, but truth be told, I have heard more women use that word than men -- and usually in reference to other women. That may not "justify" Coward's use of it, but then who says he needs justification? A rapier tongue was part of the Coward persona; those who don't like it are welcome to read something less potentially controversial. But if you can stand the vocabulary, this book is a rare joy ride.

Actually, I reveled in seeing fresh examples of Coward's linguistic dexterity. He describes the often troublesome Tallulah Bankhead as a "conceited slut" -- a phrase I have never seen before, and one that fits a frightening number of people (of all sexes) that I've contended with over the decades.

Noel's fans and scholars will delight in The Letters of Noel Coward, but I won't be the least surprised if a sequel eventually appears. We get the Master at his best and worst in this book. My one regret is that no correspondence with his longtime companion Graham Payne is included. Mr. Day explains that certain aspects of Noel's private life should remain private. While I certainly respect that position, I can't help hoping that time will lead to the publication of more of Coward's letters, including the occasional love note.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


I make a policy of not reviewing amateur productions on Musicals101. Mind you, I have tremendous respect for such productions -- heck, I can literally say that I wrote the book on them (The Complete Idiot's Guide to Amateur Theatricals). But student and community theatre groups have far different goals than professional theatres, and the pressure of facing reviewers could warp that process. However, every now and then I see an amateur production so stunning that I can't help posting a comment -- and Musicals101's new blog seems the perfect place to do that.

Because I currently teach musical theatre history at NYU's Steinhardt School, I make a point of catching as many of their productions as possible. Last night, I saw their staging of Floyd Collins, a show which has inspired a great deal of analysis since it debuted off-Broadway in 1995. Many were amazed that the true story of the 1925 media circus surrounding a trapped cave explorer could be turned into an effective musical. Composer-lyricist Adem Guettel's score is often beautiful but extremely challenging, both to performers and audiences. It must be performed with precision and style, and few amateur groups can muster the kind of singing actors required to make this material shine.

Well, the Steinhardt production set the stage aglow from first to last. While the entire production (under the gifted direction of John Simpkins) was laudable, three cast members in particular made this a riveting experience. Jeremy Morse brought extraordinary passion to the role of reporter Skeets Miller, Nic Rouleau played Homer Collins with real vocal and dramatic power, and Jay Armstrong Johnson was not merely good in the title role -- he held an audience's attention even while essentially motionless. His singing made the Stravinsky-esque twists of the score sound effortless, and overall displayed genuine star quality. Keep an eye out for all three of these men in years to come -- and you can say you first read about them here.

(Hey, don't laugh -- the last time I wrote a comment like that, it was for an unknown kid named John Lloyd Young, who was acting out in the wilds of New Jersey. As I recall, he picked up a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical a few years later. )

Am I partial because I teach at Steinhardt? Perhaps. But I think I know when I see great talent in action, and that's exactly what I saw last night.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Make Them Hear You (What Was That?)

Caught a preview performance of Passing Strange at the Belasco this past week. Now, I don't believe in reviewing a production before it opens, and am not about to do so here, but I do think it is fair to comment on a trend that seems to be gaining steam on Broadway -- the use of heavy duty amplification. My theatre-going life only stretches back to the 1970s, when Broadway musical casts were already routinely miked, so as much as my heart belongs with such events as Scott Siegel's glorious Broadway Unplugged concerts (long may they reign!), I have to confess that every main stem musical I have ever seen was electronically amplified. So there is no way to call me an old-school reactionary. I like hearing clearly from the last row of the balcony just as much as anyone else does -- an easy thing to do in smaller houses, but heaven help you in the Gershwin, the Minskoff, or the far larger houses on the national touring circuit these days.

However, I fail to see why any Broadway audience should be subjected to amplification that literally makes their clothing vibrate. Several days after seeing Passing Strange, my ear is still ringing -- yeeowch! Some numbers were so over-amplified that the lyrics became unintelligible. This may be an attempt to make rock concert-goers feel more at home in theatres, but I found the effect repelling. And that's a real pity, because (much as I refuse to review the show here) there is much in Passing Strange to enjoy. Like many others, I first noticed the volume increase in Rent, arguably the first Broadway musical where the sound system took up more square footage (and far more budget) than the scenery. Other shows have added more woofer and tweeter power. It certainly kicked up a few decibels higher last year with Spring Awakening, but Passing Strange is far, far louder. We're talking volume for the sake of volume. I wish Stew and company would turn down the racket so the real power of this show can come through.

I was not alone in my reaction, but to be fair, there were clearly many in the house who adored every ear-splitting vibe. If others feel differently about louder sound on Broadway, I invite them to post here. My hearing is still a bit off, but I can still read you loud and clear.

Welcome to Musicals101's New Blog! enters the era of Web 2.0 with this, our new interactive blog. I've long included editorials and opinion pieces on Musicals101, but the only means of reply was via e-mail. Now we're really opening up the discussion. Disagreement is encouraged, so long as it is constructive. Abusive or vulgar posts will be subject to deletion -- this is a family friendly site.

Hope you like the blog, and that you will take the time to add your two cents to the discussions here.
Return to