One can dream, can't he? In an ideal world where chocolate is calorie free, peace is found in the Middle East, and Lindsay Lohan graduates from the Institut Villa Pierrefeu, Broadway would see the following over the course of next season.
(1) An Original Star Vehicle Show: Bring back the days where the most popular writers of the day were creating shows around Broadway star talent. If Judd Apatow could write a romantic comedy that paired Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl together, Pasek and Paul should be able to pen a new musical comedy for the ridiculously funny and talented Laura Benanti and James Corden! Jason Robert Brown recently wrote The Bridges of Madison County for Kelli O'Hara (who can do no wrong in my book). But in this case, popular material can often over-shadow the actress (even those delivering the most beautiful of performances, like Kelli did in Bridges) given the public's familiarity with the popular source material and/or film adaptation. Let's give these Broadway talents an opportunity to originate roles and define parts for this generation much in the same way Patti LuPone (Evita), Angela Lansbury (Mame), and Carol Channing (Hello Dolly!) did for our previous generations.
(2) A Musical Book Penned by Rachel Shukert: No one is funnier than Rachel Shukert. And no one has a more earnest love of musicals than she. Her mixture of observational humor, pop culture references, and absurdism has given her an original and refreshing comic voice. I continued to watch NBC's Smash through its second season merely to have the necessary foundation to laugh my a#% off while reading her show recaps on Vulture.com. With her insight into musical theater history and form, she has the knowledge and devotion to write the next great musical comedy. When I referenced this wish in a recent Twitter post, Shukert responded, "From your mouth to God's ears!" Let's make this happen, Rachel!
(3) A New Stephen Sondheim Musical: With his legendary stature, he only needs to write (or not) about what he wants to when he wants to. You know if and when he comes out with something new it will most likely be driven by passion and inspiration. Given this luxury and professional parameters, I can't think of anything I'd be more curious or excited to see.
When producers announced Woody Allen's BULLETS OVER BROADWAY would be hitting the Great White Way, many thought this backstage musical comedy would be the sure-fire hit of 2013-2014. Since then, this musical adaptation has struggled to find an audience after mixed reviews, no love from the TONY Awards, and the rehashing of an old Allen scandal.
While it may currently be unpopular for a seasoned theater-goer like myself to say they loved BULLETS, I will be the first to admit it, I haven't had this much fun at a musical comedy since Mel Brooks and Susan Stroman (BULLETS' director) teamed up for THE PRODUCERS. I should have prefaced this by saying that friends tell me that a musical with showgirls, gangsters, and a Woody Allen script was pretty much written specifically for me.
Simply put, BULLETS is a delight. Allen's book is funny and well-structured (only Allen could incorporate high brow jokes about Nietzsche within five minutes of dancing hot dogs), Stroman's staging/choreography is clever and inventive, the designs are ravishing, and the performances are all-around charming. From knock-out dance numbers, revolving sets, endless one-liners, belting ingenues, and gut-busting novelty songs (I'm still laughing from Helene Yorke's The Hot Dog Song), this show is a crowd-pleaser. Sure - some might argue that the show would have been better with an original score, but these classic tunes (many of which audiences probably have not heard before) fit in perfectly with Allen's oeuvre and are beautifully orchestrated by Doug Besterman. Glen Kelley also does a terrific job providing smart new lyrics for these public domain ditties to make them feel connected to the show.
When I told a friend and Broadway producer that I had a blast at this show, she asked me when I had seen it. When I told her during previews, she said that made perfect sense. She had heard nothing but good things about the production before opening and once the lackluster reviews hit, knowing audiences began to change their tune. Sometimes the critics get it wrong. This, I believe, is one of those instances. Judge it for yourself. If you love a good-old fashioned musical comedy with witty direction, first-rate performances, a contemporary sense of humor, and (did I already mention?) leggy showgirls, catch BULLETS before it is scheduled to close on August 24.
Much to a director's dismay, the show begins the second audiences have their tickets scanned at the theater. Consciously or not, an audience begins to evaluate the theatrical experience as a whole during its first interaction with an usher at the theater. This past spring, I had two drastically different experiences with ushers and they left just enough of an impression on me to write this blog entry.
Let's start with the positive. This past spring, I attended a performance of ROCKY at the Winter Garden. I was fortunate to have been given a seat in the Golden Circle (the section of the audience that is escorted onstage for the final fight). The ushers at the Winter Garden could not have been more gracious offering up a complimentary coat/bag check and escorting me to my seat. While explaining the process of moving from seat to stage for the final fight, they were patient and informative. Overall, my interaction with these ushers left me feeling like I was about to treat myself to something wonderful. Regardless of what I thought of the show in the end, the evening started with the promise of a special night of theater and I was excited even before I heard those familiar opening notes of Eye of the Tiger.
On the flip side, I attended a performance at another theater during this visit where a Disney production was up and running. I won't name the theater or the production - though it rhymes with floozies. I found the ushers at this theater to be unresponsive, impatient and condescending. They felt the need to instruct me (not simply remind me) that I was not allowed to take photos during the production and that I had to turn off my cell phone. I get it. I look young; possibly younger than my actual age. And understandably, I become easily resentful when ushers make the assumption that I lack proper etiquette simply because I am a younger (for theater demographics at least) audience member. I become extra resentful when there are two rows of teeny-boppers in front of me taking selfies every two seconds who are not given then same lecture.
In this particular situation, the pre-show look includes a giant scrim plastered with Disney branding. Having been to Disney World, I know there is no place with better customer service. For lack of a better word, Disney staff creates a magical experience for all who enter their parks and resorts. While these ushers are not Disney employees, Disney, as a producer, should very well make sure that those involved with this experience are living up to the Disney standard of excellence. At the end of the day, their brand's reputation is at risk.
Producers - think of what you are trying to do with your audience. Are you producing a classy revival of an important American play? Is your show a one non-stop party? Is it sexy and slightly scandalous? Do you want to transport your audience back to the Golden Era of Broadway? In many ways, the is the front of house staff that can have the biggest effect on setting the tone of the show. Whether they are the sleeveless ushers at the scintillating CABARET or the classic or the dignified ushers at pitch-perfect OF MICE AND MEN - let's not forget, for better or worse, they are part of the show, too!
Yesterday, I provided readers with six titles to add to their summer reading lists. These additional recommendations serve as an addendum to Playbill.com's recently published list of recommended theater summer beach reads. While yesterday's recommendations were all non-fiction selections, today I would like to offer up a few great plays to be tossed into your beach bag.
Each of the recommendations is set, appropriately enough, at the beach.
1. Seascape by Edward Albee.
On a deserted stretch of beach a middle-aged couple, relaxing after a picnic lunch, talk idly about home, family and their life together. She sketches, he naps, and then, suddenly, they are joined by two sea creatures—lizards who have decided to leave the ocean depths and come ashore. Initial fear, and then suspicion of each other, are soon replaced by curiosity and, before long, the humans and the lizards (who speak admirable English) are engaged in a fascinating dialogue. The lizards, who are at a very advanced stage of evolution, are contemplating the terrifying, yet exciting, possibility of embarking on life out of the water; and the couple, for whom existence has grown flat and routine, holds the answers to their most urgent questions. These answers are given with warmth, humor and poetic eloquence, and with emotional and intellectual reverberations that will linger in the heart and mind long after the play has ended.
2. Lydie Breeze by John Guare
PART ONE: BULFINCH'S MYTHOLOGY. The play begins on a deserted Nantucket beach in 1875 where the young Joshua Hickman awaits the return of his wife, Lydie, who has been off-island on a nursing assignment. She is furious that he has let her cherished gardenia plant wither and die in her absence while he is disheartened that the philosophical magnum opus on which he has labored for years has been rejected for publication. Their discord reflects on the failure of the utopian community they had sought to establish in the house left to Lydie by her whaling captain father, the only other remaining member being Amos Mason, a young man educated by Joshua who now talks of leaving to enroll at Harvard. When another former communard, Dan Grady, returns unexpectedly with an enormous amount of money that can make their dreams come true, the action quickens, as the old passion between Lydie and Dan is revived, and the jealous Joshua kills his rival. In the second act, Joshua, now in prison for murdering Dan, has written a memoir of what they tried to achieve. Amos, now a politically ambitious lawyer, feels his future will be put in danger by publication of Joshua's revelations. He offers Joshua freedom if Joshua will destroy his book.
PART TWO: THE SACREDNESS OF THE NEXT TASK. The hopes of this noble experiment had been destroyed by adultery, murder and suicide, and now those haunted by the tragedy gather to seek its expiation: the patriarch, Joshua Hickman, now pardoned for killing his wife's lover; his young daughter, Lydie, the namesake of her long-dead mother, a suicide; his oldest daughter, Gussie, the secretary-mistress of a U.S. Senator; and Jeremiah Grady, the long-lost son of the murdered lover. Moving from comedy to melodrama to tragic destiny as it untangles the twisted strands of their lives, the play illuminates both the undying optimism that underlies the American ethos and, through the metaphor of syphilis, the endemic corruption that, so often, can reach beyond its own time to subvert the cherished hopes of the future.
3. Psycho Beach Party by Charles Busch
“Gidget”, Frankie and Annette beach party epics. and Hitchcock psychological suspense thrillers such as “Spellbound” and “Marnie” are given a shotgun marriage. Chicklet Forrest, a teenage tomboy, desperately wants to be part of the surf crowd on Malibu Beach in 1962. One thing getting in her way is her unfortunate tendency towards split personalities. Among them is a black check out girl, an elderly radio talk show hostess, a male model named Steve and the accounting firm of Edelman and Edelman. Her most dangerous alter ego is a sexually voracious vixen named Ann Bowman who has nothing less than world domination on her mind.
Playbill.com recently published a list of recommended theater summer beach reads. It is, without doubt, a solid list of books and I definitely recommend you check each of them out. From the romanticism of Moss Hart's Act One to the diva dishing of Patti LuPone's simply titled A Memoir, there really is something for everyone.
For today's blog entry, I thought I would add five more titles to the list that I thought you might enjoy. Below are my picks in no particular order.
1. Drama: An Actor's Education by John Lithgow. Lithgow, possibly best know by mainstream audiences as Dr. Dick Solomon on 3rd Rock from the Son, writes a heartfelt love letter to the theater and the craft of acting. His genuineness and humility is quite refreshing. At the core of this memoir is a beautiful tribute to his father, Arthur Lithgow, who first introduced him to Shakespeare and drama through his work as a producer/director for such regional and summer stock organization as The McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ. Written with simplicity and wit, this memoir is very much a pleasurable read.
2. Colored Lights: Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaborations, and All That Jazz by Fred Ebb and John Kander as told by Greg Lawrence. Through a series of conversations, Kander and Ebb walk you through their illustrious careers. Readers are given a real insider's look into the making of some of the most popular American musicals (Chicago, Cabaret) as well as their several flops. This books is full of surprises even for the the most well-versed musical theater fans. For example, one of my favorite bits of trivia revealed in this book is about the song "I Don't Care Much" which was later inserted into a revival of Cabaret. The revival placed this trunk song at the point in the play where Sally Bowles has decided to give up the opportunity for a conventional life in America with Cliff (and her unborn child) to go back to the dead-end Kit Kat Klub and seek an abortion. While this song packs quite a punch (literally - Cliff is socked outside of the club when he attempts to retrieve Sally), it was originally written as part of a parlor game. When Kander and Ebb were challenged to write a song before dessert was served at a dinner party, one asked the other what he would like to write about, and the other replied, "I don't care." And a new Kander and Ebb classic was born.
3. O'Neill by Arthur and Barbara Gelb. Possibly the greatest biography of America's greatest playwright. With a brilliant frame (O'Neill's life is examined through the plot and themes of his autobiographical and indisputably cathartic masterpiece, Long Day's Journey Into Night. No one delves deeper in terms of both biographical data and literary criticism than the Gelbs. This books proved priceless to me as I explored Freudian themes in the life and selected plays of Eugene O'Neill as part of my undergraduate honors thesis. I couldn't have done it without the Gelbs.
4. Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Story in Broadway History by Glen Berger. The definition of a great beach read. Fast, juicy, and scandalous. This book will not only please those who can't look away from car crashes on the highway, but also those who are fascinated by the process of putting together (with the best of intentions) a commercial Broadway musical.
5. The Commercial Theater Institute Guide to Producing Plays and Musicals by Various Authors and edited by Frederick Vogel and Ben Hodges. The Bible for all aspiring producers. With a collection of essays from Broadway's best and brightest, this book will walk you through every step of the process of producing a show. From new works to revivals and tours - this book addresses it all. If you have the time and resources, I also recommend the more in-depth courses offered by CTI (now run by Tom Viertel) both in person and through online seminars.
You can't spend all of your time on the beach. Make sure you have Stephen Sondheim's companion books: The Hat Box: The Collected Lyric's of Stephen Sondheim sitting on your coffee table at your beach house. Full of trivia and new insights, this collection is a must-have for every musical theater lover. Pop in an original cast recording and let Stephen, himself, walk you through his own works.
Some summer traditions are just so unabashedly American. Apple pie. Fireworks on the Fourth of July. And of course, free Shakespeare in the park.
This past weekend, I caught a college friend performing in an outdoor production of THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR. The term "Shakespeare in the Park" originated in the 1950s with Joe Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival in New York City's Central Park. Since then, cities and towns around the United States and the world have adopted this tradition with outdoor productions of their own. These productions make the classics readily available, and most importantly, affordable, to people of all ages and backgrounds.
This summer, I invite you to find a Festival near you or one worth the road trip. Use Yelp to find a acclaimed local restaurant for a pre-theater meal. We found a wonderfully eclectic pierogi shop. While pierogi is certainly not as American as Apple pie, it was featured on DINERS, DRIVE-INS, AND DIVES. And who can be more American than Guy Fieri? Then stop at a nearby packie (package store for all non-Massachusetts natives) for a bottle of wine for the show. I hear the Bard loved a good Malbec.
Another chance to disapprove;
another brilliant zinger.
Another reason not to move;
another Vodka Stinger!
I’ll drink to that.
~ "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Company, Stephen Sondheim
With the passing of the legendary Ms. Stritch this week, it is time to pour one out for Elaine. And what more appropriate drink is there than a Vodka Stinger. See below for this classic drink recipe.
Her undeniable talent, humor, and brass will be missed. To read more about Elaine Stritch's career, check out this piece from yesterday's The New York Times.
The Vodka Stinger:
This drink is traditionally equal parts vodka and white crème de menthe. Other recipes call for a reduction in crème de menthe.
The Stinger's History:
The earliest mention is in Tom Bullock’s Ideal Bartender, published in 1917. It originated as a digestif, probably a nice nightcap to sip before bed. Rumor has it that Reginald Vanderbilt actually ordered Stingers before dinner and elevated The Stinger to cocktail status making it the rage with New York socialites.
A Hollywood Connection Outside Company:
This classic cocktail does have some Hollywood history. Cary Grant spoke the remembered words, “Stingers, and keep them coming,” in the 1957 film “Kiss Them For Me.” The Stinger is also referenced in “The Bishop’s Wife,” “The Apartment,” and “Gorkey Park.” Seemingly sophisticated and glamorous, The Stinger was the perfect ending to a night out on the town.
As a former MBA student with a concentration in marketing informatics and brand and product management, I love when marketers begin to think outside the box - especially when it comes to promoting Broadway shows. Broadway is an industry with some of the most creative folks around, yet marketing remains very traditional. Billboards in Time Square. full page ads in the New York Times, e-solicitations from Telecharge, etc. As an industry, we are just beginning to tap into the power of social media and viral marketing.
When great marketing happens, you can be sure I will give it its due on this blog.
I was lucky enough to see the terrific revival of ON THE TOWN at Barrington Stage last summer. It certainly is a revival not to be missed - and I won't when it docks at the Lyric this fall!
I am happy to say that its recent promo lives up to the charm of the source material. Last week, ON THE TOWN released this great video showcasing their three leads hitting the town. It is one part music video; one part advertisement; and one part love letter to the Big Apple. This delightful and expansive sketch, now being shared through Facebook, Twitter, and even blogs like this one, helps bring this 1944 classic to 21st century audiences through channels that they interact with daily.
Also, the work of ON THE TOWN choreographer, Joshua Bergasse, was recently showcased on the hit show SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE. See performance below. Producers will offer the winner of the dance competition a role in the revival this spring. Kudos to the producers for getting Broadway on primetime television (outside of the TONY Awards) and reaching a coveted 18-49 demographic that can be elusive for the theater.
While it may be too early to tell if these promos will translate into ticket sales, I applaud the ON THE TOWN team for their efforts to make an old, but still sexy and funny, musical part of the popular zeitgeist.
While it’s been a while since my last blog entry, I want to let you know that I’m back! Moving forward, I plan to post one entry each day with thoughts I have on the current state of the commercial theater or the latest press releases or Broadway news that excite me.
I hope you will follow me along this journey because in the next couple months, I hope to have some exciting news for you regarding my first official project!
Until then…here’s today’s post.
Today’s Broadway Audiences
Have Broadway audiences changed or have 21st century shows changed our Broadway audiences?
This past weekend, I revisited Roundabout’s second revival of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. I was last at The Kit Kat Klub during the production’s first run in 1999. It was my first Broadway show (thanks, Mom and Dad!) and I’ve been hooked on live theater ever since. In the late 90s, this Cabaret felt sexy, slightly dangerous, and adult.
But over the last two decades, Broadway has been taken over by what The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout has astutely coined the commodity musical. Today’s Broadway (for the large part) has audiences humming the tunes before they take their seats. From the dancing in the aisles at Mamma Mia to the inevitable (and unprompted) baby boomer sing-a-longs at Jersey Boys, contemporary audiences come in expecting to have the time of their lives (thank God Dirty Dancing never made it to Broadway).
With this mindset, a show like Cabaret which once left its audiences shocked, now sees its patrons celebrating and interacting with Alan Cumming’s emcee like he’s Hugh Jackman/Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz, applauding Danny Burstein's Herr Schultz’s somber final line like he exited to a Mel Brook’s zinger, and clapping along to the entr’acte (on the heels of the chilling “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”) like it’s a Top 40 Motown hit. The show itself was the same as I remembered it, but the the atmosphere felt different.
While we may love to complain that theater etiquette has gone out the window, we must admit that today’s biggest hits take great pride on promising its audiences a rollicking good time. And these juke box and commodity musicals, earning a top ticket price of $140 or more, often allow if not encourage, behavior that feels strangely out of place at other musicals like Cabaret. Pavlov would have a field day studying the stimulus and response of today’s theater-goers!
The future of Broadway audience behavior is in our hands. Let’s hope we don’t condition tomorrow’s audience to take a selfie with Mary Tyrone in the background coming down those stairs with her wedding dress. #HereComesTheBride