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February 25, 2007

A Solo Visit to "Journey's End"

You can usually set your watch by my husband and so it surprised us both when a dismayed K said he’d forgotten we were supposed to see a show when I called him from outside the Belasco Theater just five minutes before curtain time. So I went alone into the trenches with the boys and men of Journey’s End. They made excellent company. Especially Boyd Gaines in a devastating performance as the oldest of the officers waiting for a battle to begin in British playwright R.C. Sherriff’s landmark WWI drama. Journey’s End, originally produced as a staged reading in 1928, is famous for having been the first play to accurately portray the frontline horrors of the so-called Great War that claimed some 10 million lives. And also for the fact that an unknown 21 year-old actor named Laurence Olivier starred in a staged reading as the brigade’s young commander, the role now played by Hugh Dancy, an equally dashing British actor who has made his mark, until now, in period TV and film pieces. When a production to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the play's official 1929 opening debuted to great acclaim in London three years ago, it was seen as a comment on Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war. And for weeks now, papers and blogs here have been buzzing about the antiwar implications of the recast New York production that opened on Thursday night.

But I didn’t know any of that when the curtain went up. I try to avoid reading too much about shows before I see them. It’s not that I don't appreciate background information but I’ve been burned too many times by writers who quote too many of the good lines or give away the plot twists, leaving me when I finally see the show with a ho-hum feeling of deja vu instead of the thrilling sense of discovery. And this show is worth discovering on your own. It is an old fashioned play and it’s talky and it’s sometimes difficult to see what is going on because the lighting so well mimics the candlelit dugouts in which the real soldiers lived. The woman on my left sighed loudly and frequently during the first act. And during intermission, I heard a woman behind me grumbling to her companion about not being able to see all of the expressions on the actors’ faces. But when the final curtain fell, I heard both women quietly sobbing.

I was moved too. On the subway ride home, I read director David Grindley’s notes in the Playbill. And later, I went through the clips I regularly put aside for reading after I’ve seen a show and found a terrific piece from the Feb. 11 issue of the New York Times about the history of the play and its place in the literature of war drama from Henry V to Catch 22. Both added insights to my experience of the play but I’m still glad that I got to go through the war on my own, accompanied only by the brave and brilliant men on stage at Journey’s End.

February 23, 2007

A Bullseye for "Slings and Arrows"

My friend Bill is always on the lookout for great theater stuff. Of any ilk. Two years ago, he emailed me about a TV show that he said I had to watch. The show is Slings and Arrows, a Canadian-made series about the travails of a fictional Shakespearean theater festival that airs on the Sundance Channel. One of the show’s creators is Bob Martin, who also co-created and stars as Man in the Chair in the surprise hit musical The Drowsy Chaperone. Martin, it was recently announced, is leaving the Broadway production to do Chaperone on London’s West End starting in May; John Glover will fill his slippers and chair on Broadway. Like his Man in the Chair alter ego, Martin is clearly a guy who is mad about theater. Slings is filled with all the usual suspects—the temperamental stars, the ambitious ingĂ©nues, the priggish business manager, the mad genius director—but it is also filled with knowing wit and genuine affection for theater and its people and for what it takes to make their magic happen. I watched it. I enjoyed it. But when Bill emailed me last year to alert me that the second season was beginning, I told him I just didn’t have time to keep up with it.

Then last week, I saw a blurb about the premiere episode of Season 3 and, on a whim, I set our Tivo to record it. I watched it today and I’m going to make sure that I find the time to keep up with the other five episodes in the series. That’s partly because I’m so amused by the fact that the show’s New Burbage Theater is putting on King Lear this season at the same time that The Public Theater is preparing to open its much anticipated production starring Kevin Kline, directed by James Lapine and featuring music by Stephen Sondheim. I can’t wait to compare the two. But I’ll also be watching Slings because the silent final scene of its first episode is a powerful testament to how the most talented people often do suffer the slings and arrows of the fortunes that come their way. I’ve not only set up the Tivo to record the entire new season, I've now also ordered the one I skipped from Amazon.com.



February 18, 2007

Personal "Follies"

Even if you want to (and, of course, I don’t) it’s hard to avoid show business in New York City. Our neighbor, a shrink, remodeled her apartment and has been throwing parties to show it off. We missed the first two or three and so we—me and K, who often takes weekends off from playing in the pit so that we can keep our marriage in working order—went to one of her get-togethers yesterday. We didn’t know anyone but the hostess and so began the ritual “And how do you know So-and-so” overtures that you make to get a conversation going at these things. As the discussion moved to the “What-do-you-do” phase in a group clustered around the hummus, K said that he had just finished playing the Encores! production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. It was, as you’ve no doubt read—or maybe were lucky enough to see—a heart-wrenching production that drew rave reviews and now has the papers and blogs chirping about a possible move to Broadway. And that would be great although I don’t see how any producer can afford to pay its armada-sized cast lead by Victoria Clark, Christine Baranski, Victor Garber, and Donna Murphy, who is already signed up to star as Lotte Lenya in Lovemusik, which promises (threatens?) to be a kind of upscale jukebox musical based on the songs of Kurt Weill. But I digress.

Right after K finished talking, an elegant, white-haired man in the hummus group piped up, “I played Buddy.” And it turned out that he had played one of the male leads in Follies on its first national tour. He regaled us with funny stories about how soon after he’d moved to New York from Pittsburgh in the ‘40s, a grifter had cheated him out of his savings with a ruse about getting him an ad in Variety and how years later he had challenged and, in his telling, won an argument with Sondheim about how a lyric should be sung. And then at the hostess’ request, he started singing show tunes. His voice was creaky at first, but as the rest of us leaned in to listen, his snapping fingers helped him find his rhythm, his tenor began to lift and the showman emerged. I googled him as soon as we got home. He had said, his actor’s vanity apparently still in tact, that he was 88; the internet, that merciless tattletale, says 92. He hadn’t had a big career—a few third leads on Broadway, some small parts on TV variety shows in the ‘50s, a lot of stuff on the road. But looking at the joy and yearning on his face as he performed those few songs, I felt transported back to a time on Broadway like the one the ghosts of the past in Follies evoke, a time when everything seemed possible if you knew the right melody.

February 16, 2007

Viva "In the Heights"

Everyone who loves theater loves the thrill of seeing something fresh and exciting. So although the musical In the Heights isn’t on Broadway (it’s playing in a now-deserted corner of what used to be Manhattan’s thriving garment district) I agreed to go when my friend Bill, an obsessive reader of theater blogs, websites and chat rooms, said he’d been seeing good things about it. The show, which centers around a group of Hispanic neighbors in the Washington Heights section of the city, isn’t the kind of singular sensation that A Chorus Line or Rent were (although there’s a nice symmetry in the fact that Priscilla Lopez, the original feisty Diana Morales in Chorus Line, plays the feisty mom in Heights). But In the Heights is still exciting because of the way its talented 27 year-old composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda combines the musical idioms of hip-hop, salsa and traditional Broadway. And even more because it’s an encouraging sign that young people are again bringing fresh energy and contemporary flavors to musical theater.

Bill and I weren’t the only ones making the trek to see the show; the audience last night was speckled with insiders like longtime publicist Carol Fineman, sometime leading man Kevin Anderson and the legendary composer John Kander. Bill, a former actor, has at least a nodding acquaintance with seemingly everyone in the theater community and so we nodded at Kander during intermission. I wanted to ask Kander, who with his late partner Fred Ebb wrote Chicago and Cabaret among other great shows, what he thought of Heights but I’m a native New Yorker and, of course, we’re all too cool to do anything like that. As it turns out, I didn’t have to ask. As soon as the final song ended, Kander leapt to his feet to lead the standing ovation. I still don’t know what he really thought of the show, but I do know that his gesture of support was wonderfully gracious. And that kind of enthusiasm for the future of the art form is one more thing I love about the theater. Kander’s last collaboration with Ebb, Curtains, starts previews next week and is scheduled to open on March 22. I’ve always been a fan of their work but I’m looking forward to seeing this one even more now.

February 14, 2007

Curtain-Raiser

If you’ve found this blog, then you already know about Broadway and you probably want to know more about it, like what’s playing, who’s playing, how they’re playing, what’s worth your paying to see, and what people are saying about it all. And now you may want to know a little about me. Well, I saw my first Broadway show over 40 years ago when I was 12. A girl in my class had gotten tickets from someone her mother knew and she invited me. I liked the show, Mary Mary, more than she did. In fact, I loved it. I now know it wasn’t that great a show but I still love it. I’ve seen thousands of shows since then (including a few from the wings and even one from the orchestra pit, a wedding gift from my husband K, a Broadway pit musician) and I love them too. Even the bad ones. I am happiest when I am sitting in a theater. Or when I’m talking about theater. Or reading about theater. Or now blogging about it. If you’re reading this, you love theater too and I hope you’ll keep me company as I blog my way through this Broadway season.