The Guy Next To Me On The Train

July 18, 2014

I was waiting on the platform at the Rhinecliff train station last Monday. I was talking to a newly-made friend who had also just attended Ricky Jay’s magic-appreciation-immersion weekend. The Amtrak train to Penn Station pulled up. I had to say goodbye because, weeks before, just after I’d ponied up the fee for Ricky’s “Congress of Wonders,” I’d also decided to treat myself to business-class seats on the train, up and back. A gentleman in a light brown suit pointed me to the right car. I walked through the “café car” and found only one empty seat, next to a window seat already saved by a small pack. The helpful gentleman returned from the café car; I’d begun to make myself at home without thinking that he might have been ordering a veggieburger and needing to slip past me.

“Do you know Marc Connelly?” he asked, once he’d settled in and gotten his burger situated on his tray table. Startled, I looked straight at him. “No,” I said. “You remind me of him, I thought you might be related.” I was aghast. “Are you in the theater?” “Yes,” he said, with an inimitable side-of-the-mouth grin, at which point I pegged him.

“You look like John Astin,” I said. “I get that all the time,” said he as he dressed his veggieburger. “And,” said I, “you sound like John Astin.” Now he reached for my hand. The next ninety minutes flew by as we plied each other with conversation. It was the final bit of magic from the Congress of Wonders; I’ll never know how Ricky did it.

astinMr. Astin was returning to his Baltimore home from teaching a master class upstate, which he does lots. (His base is Johns Hopkins, but he’s frequently elsewhere.) He knew who Ricky Jay was, and seemed interested in my weekend experience, which I could only describe to him as a series of outré TED Talks, each of which had at least one spoke aimed at the art of magic. He was amused by my inability to communicate, but sensed a fellow mind.

We talked about our upbringings, what brought him into performance, what led me into studying theater in college, the close relationship between theater and magic, how theatrical arts can be taught and what that means (in subsequent real life, I have depended far more on my college theater-major training than on my political-science-major training), one-man shows (he loved learning about the William Faulkner evening I co-wrote and described the opening minutes of his own Edgar Allan Poe piece, which are chillingly cool), and more and more and more.

He even mentioned Gomez Addams. That led to a discussion about fame, or simple notoriety. Chance had sat me next to Ricky Jay the previous night in the back room of a Rhinebeck tavern, and I couldn’t help but watch countless sycophants bring stuff up to Ricky to sign. This natural curmudgeon endured them all and, as I confessed to my new train-bound friend, the jagged line — you think you’re done, then one more person walks up! — actually became tedious to me, and I’m not even Ricky! He reminded me that he’d already enjoyed some tv notoriety before THE ADDAMS FAMILY, and that what you have to do is just be thankful and continue moving on: in truth, there’s nothing to complain about. I assured him that, even to ten-year-olds, it was his show that was the transgressive one, and the other one that was relatively square. He’d probably heard something similar before, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

As we were pulling up to the final stop, he thanked me for entertaining him on the trip. Heck, he’d done the same for me my whole life! As we departed inside the terminal, “See ya later, John!” “I think we just might, Tom!” Man, I hope so. What a well-read, well-spoken guy. I’m a deeper fan than I was before.


Disco Rules! (For One Night)

May 3, 2013

hereliesLike many guys, I’m not much of a dancer. I feel self-conscious. I can’t help it. Intellectually, I know others don’t care, they’re too busy having a good time themselves to stop and stare at my geeky moves, but in that primitive fight-or-flight territory of my brain, dancing in public probably qualifies as a near phobia, what public speaking means to some people. You do it only when you have to. I’ve tried to avoid dances all my life except when it was socially necessary, such as a school prom or a fraternity party. (Not a kegger, a dance!) Dancing in a stage musical, for which you have to memorize and repeat the choreography, is somehow different for me, and I’ve done that several times without any anxiety beyond the normal butterflies. But I still have a little improv-dancing-in-public prob.

So it was that I absorbed many warning signals about the immersive theatrical experience HERE LIES LOVE as it prepared for its world premiere engagement at the Public Theater. You’ll stand for an hour and a half, on a set that’s made to look like a disco (I hate disco). You’ll be encouraged to dance. Wear comfortable shoes. If you really have to sit down, tell us in advance so we can scoosh you into a spot where you can. As the ticket date approached, even despite glowing reviews (I don’t read the details beforehand, just try to suss the general opinion), I was apprehensive enough that I suggested my wife invite another friend in my place. It didn’t work out, so I reluctantly trudged down to Astor Place last night. An hour and a half later, I realized what a close call it was. If I had turned down the chance to see this show, it would have been the most colossal mistake of my theatergoing life.

More indications that this one was Different appeared as we walked up the stairs to the third floor of the Public complex. Signs reading, we really think you should check your coats and bags, trust us. No theater program upon entering; you and I’m guessing 150 others are just in this disco with blinking lights and a pumping beat, a DJ gyrating on a balcony level above your head. There are a few seated people peeking over the edge, but since the action darts around, the only way to see the entire show is to be on the dance floor: there will be occasional obstructions from any balcony seat, just as most of the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE audience, encircling the stage one level above, can’t see everything that’s happening on the Studio 8H floor.

There was a raised horizontal stage in the center of the room, the people milling about all around it. When it came time to start, the DJ pointed out a few stagehands in light orange jumpsuits, standing among us. When they want to move the stage around, he said, they’ll herd you to make room, so go wherever they point you. For a practice run, they rotated the stage as we followed them in a wide circle. From then on, the set crew would work nearly as hard as the actors, transforming the performing space into two room-ending stages, a horizontal walk-through ramp, all the permutations in between, and finally a huge stairway like the one in Duffy Square, where the two-thirds of the audience that had accepted the offer to come up on stage themselves could sit down for the finale. (So it’s no spoiler to say if they invite you on stage, by all means GO.) The DJ also asked us to shut off our cell phones, but anyone dumb enough to ignore him would have been unable to hear their call anyway, and trying to text on an active dance floor is, let’s just say, counterindicated.

The piece itself is a mostly sung-through operetta about the origin and brutal reign of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos from 1965 through 1986 (under martial law beginning in 1972) and its public face, his wife Imelda. It’s also about the spirit and resilience of the Filipino people, who finally took back their country after four days of intense but nonviolent protest. This sounds (a) grim, and (b) kind of like EVITA II, but nope, it’s neither one.

The disco setting is used as a metaphor for the motivating power of celebrity as wielded on the masses, and also because that’s pretty much the kind of life Imelda Marcos lived. You’re swept up in the excitement, which literally, physically, carries you along. One minute you’re in the back of the crowd watching the soloist from forty feet away, the next minute everything has moved around and she’s right in front of you – or even next to you. When Imelda comes down into the audience to meet her adoring public – played now by us — a video camera follows her and the images are projected on all four walls as smitten audience members take her hand and smile beatifically. When her husband first runs for office, he’s surrounded by Men In Black Ray-Banned bodyguard types, who walk down the ramp all the way across the room, leaning down to shake hands and bark, “Vote for Marcos!” One of the goons grabbed my hand, and it was all I could do to keep from saying, “I will!”

David Byrne dreamed all this up and wrote the lyrics, and collaborated with Fatboy Slim on the music. It’s not exactly disco, not that droning metronomic vibe. Not exactly hip-hop, though it feels fresh and new. Not exactly show tunes, either, though several performers get rare quieter belters that garner applause. It’s mostly smart, melodic dance music, but the intimate setting lets the thirteen billed performers – if they’re not all Filipino, they can sure play it – engage the audience more viscerally than anything I’ve seen since the heyday of the Living Theater. And that includes rock stars who numbly order you to “clap yo hands!”

David Byrne is probably the “sell” on the show – that’s certainly why we bought our tickets – but for my money the guy who deserves just as much credit is the genius director, Alex Timbers. He co-wrote and staged the fiercely entertaining BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON a couple years ago; directed PETER & THE STARCATCHER, a charming piece that uses low-tech theatrical effects to beguile its audience with the Peter Pan backstory; and won the Obie a while ago for directing A VERY MERRY UNAUTHORIZED CHILDREN’S SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT. I adored them all. This summer, he’ll be reunited with ANDREW JACKSON collaborator Michael Friedman for a new musical version of LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST as the second Shakespeare in the Park show at the Delacorte. In the dictionary, that’s his picture beside the word “creative.” From now on, if Timbers’s name’s on the show, I’m there. Here, as in STARCATCHER, he uses “hand-rolled” theatrical moves (most big set changes on Broadway are done by computer now, along little tracks just under the stage) to down-tech the show, dunk the audience in it (I’d like to meet the guy who manages to fall asleep!), and lift their heads up while it’s still refreshing. I also want to send props out to sound designers M. L. Dogg and Cody Spencer: even above the dance-club din, we made out more of Byrne’s brainy lyrics than we had during the “state-of-the-art” production of MATILDA (which is a scream, by the way).

The dancing? Oversold. You can stand there like a potted plant if you want to, but the music is just too much to resist, so you’re moving around, there’s that. Then they show you how to jump, clap, left, right, in unison, like Imelda. The moves were pretty easy, but I still sucked, yet I didn’t care, and that went double for everybody else standing near me. How close I came to missing all this. Note to self: listen to wife all the time from now on! We got the Playbill upon leaving, and my one and only beef was with two female dweebs who’d retained their crammed, bloated backpacks despite the quite reasonable pre-show suggestion and, like nearly every other urban backpack carrier on earth, were oblivious to whatever they’re swatting from behind. One Trendora whirled toward me in irritation at feeling a bit of resistance, thus swatting somebody else! A pox on all backpackers who aren’t climbing mountains, on safari, or attending grade school.

After a long time seeing uninspired cookie-cutter musicals, and sadly noting that too often the best dramas on Broadway are revivals, it feels great when something comes up behind you and smacks you with a 2×4. The last time was probably GATZ, also here at the Public. Anyhow, if you can get a ticket, do it. They have held this show over twice, and now it runs through the end of June. It can’t move to a big Broadway theater (as, recently, did the Public’s ANDREW JACKSON and its Central Park productions of HAIR and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE). This piece has to happen in a room just like this one. But if you get the chance – can L.A. be far behind? – DO NOT MISS. Oh, and wear comfortable shoes.

P.S.: If it’s been more than, say, nine months since you’ve been to the Public Theater facility in the historic Astor Library (a New York City Landmark in its own right), you will find it transformed, particularly the gorgeous lobby area, after a $40 million renovation of which we were happy to be a small part. We had a light dinner beforehand in the new lounge The Library, a great addition that helps you cut it much closer to curtain time.

5/31/13: Today the Public announced one final extension, through July 28. This show could probably run forever, only it can’t.

7/24/13: I take it back! Yesterday, the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, announced that they’re looking for a new space in New York to keep the show going, in one of four possible configurations, and mulling productions in other cities.

8/1/13: Damn! It’s raining tonight, so they canceled the pre-show backstage dinner for Public donors, an informal serve-yourself deal where you can eat, meet and schmooze. Tonight we were scheduled to hear from LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST songwriter Michael Friedman (BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON) and director Alex Timbers. I was actually going to be able to walk up to Mr. Timbers and tell him how much I enjoy his work, just as I personally congratulated Oskar on winning the Tony for the Public’s revival of HAIR. Alas, not to be. Damn! We’ll see the show next week instead. Yes, if you gotta have problems, this is a ludicrously lightweight problem to have, but still, I was really looking forward to meeting Alex Timbers.

3/21/14: It’s back, for another run at the Public, beginning in about a month.


With Great Power Comes Great Entertainment

April 5, 2012

Patrick Page, the real star of this show, without his Green Goblin facial prosthetics.

I saw SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK yesterday.

Snicker if you like, but its stagecraft is next-generation: costumes, sets, lighting, sound, actors being where they’re supposed to be in split-second increments. It is old-style Broadway taken to an astonishing new level. Then there is the flying, on top of you, all around you.

Finally, Patrick Page takes Act II into his pocket and walks away with it as the Green Goblin. In potentially scary garb, he manages to charm all children, even the youngest, within :05 of his appearance, and the adults just follow. You want him back on stage the instant he slinks off.

In full regalia.

I saw a Wed-matinee Spidey-sub so new that he wasn’t even listed in the program, and still he frickin killed. So why isn’t this breaking all records everywhere? Um, the score. It blows. There are two or three U2-deserving rockers, but the rest is Bono and The Edge trying to fit square musical pegs into round holes, because they have real problems with the big blasting representative number that is a Broadway musical staple. They try. They fail.

SPIDEY is the ultimate tourist attraction, which puts some snobs off right there, but if you know anything at all about how they actually do this stuff, I say you MUST NOT MISS IT.

11/18/13: The producers hung the closing notice today. Although a family/tourist favorite, it was just too expensive to perform before 3/4-strength crowds. SPIDEY will close in January and then re-open as a Las Vegas attraction in 2015. Patrick Page had long since left the cast; I next saw him in John Grisham’s A TIME TO KILL, which itself sputtered and closed.


Daisey, Changed

March 18, 2012

This has to be the week of progressives calling out their own. (Yes, poor “victimized” right-wing media, it does indeed happen.) First, Bill Maher airs a one-sided view of Mississippi and then compounds the error with an oafish election-night tweet. And Friday, the exemplary THIS AMERICAN LIFE radio program “retracts” the most popular story in its history, a piece by Mike Daisey about working conditions at Foxconn Technology in Shenzhen, China, where iPhones, iPads, and many of our other most prized devices are manufactured – mostly by hand.

The TAL piece was an excerpt from Daisey’s highly successful one-man show THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS, ending its encore run today at the Public Theater (the closing date is a coincidence unrelated to this incident). We saw it down there last December. The heavyset Seattle-based monologist employs a cadence, and dynamics, that remind you of DAILY SHOW contributor Lewis Black: he’ll talk softly for most of a sentence and suddenly SHOUT OUT a word or two, so you tend to pay attention. (I had previously seen his monologue 21 DOG YEARS, about his experiences as an early employee of Amazon.com.)

This time, Daisey’s topic is Apple Inc. First, how wonderful and magical their life-changing products are; and then about the human cost of manufacturing them in China, an aspect that has escaped most Apple customers over the years. (Other companies use Chinese labor as well, but Daisey concentrates on Apple.) I don’t know about you, but I always pictured iPhones and iPods being assembled by robot arms in giant white high-tech clean rooms. Not so. The work is done by hand, with mind-numbing and body-grueling repetition, at places like Foxconn, the mammoth campus which Daisey visited. By Western standards, cheap labor is being sorely misused, and no matter how hip the company – as Nike discovered years ago – its role ought to bring shame and embarrassment, especially if executives in the supply chain are aware of the working conditions, and how could they not be?

But there turns out to be a HUGE problem. Not only can’t Daisey corroborate certain events which happened outside his purview, he also lied to TAL’s fact-checkers regarding the very identity of his Chinese translator who was first to dispute the accuracy of his account – meaning he knew there was something there to be discovered. Here is a detailed look at TAL’s objections. Also note that by Chinese standards, most Foxconn workers, mainly poor migrants, seem happy to have their jobs, even working exhaustingly long shifts for a pittance; instances of abuse and physical harm (such as hexane poisoning) certainly exist but may be rarer than Daisey insinuates; and, most seriously, he can’t possibly have seen everything he says he did in one six-day visit. He is describing something true using a fictional method. Nothing wrong there – most enduring works of art operate that way – but look at his stern assertion in the next paragraph.

Daisey’s halfhearted defense seems to be, yes, but this is theater, I shouldn’t have presented it to TAL as journalism. In response, I’d like to quote two bold-faced lines from the Playbill I was handed as I walked in the theater door (yes, Virginia, there is a straight guy who saves all his Playbills):

THIS IS A WORK OF NONFICTION.
SOME NAMES AND IDENTITIES HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT SOURCES.

If the root issue is real, and Daisey’s heart is in the right place – he has certainly worked and succeeded, through drama, in bringing consumer-electronics labor issues into the public consciousness, and there’s reason to believe things are gradually changing at Foxconn – then why is this so important?

I can trust that Daisey’s basic premise is true not because he says so (though I took him at his word back in December, per that Playbill disclaimer), but because it’s been corroborated by independent news and labor organizations, most notably the New York Times, whose reporters have filed front-page stories about working conditions in China (arguably urged on by people like Daisey).

I can assert that his presentation is at least in part fictional because of those same independent news organizations. In fact, Times reporters in China also questioned specific points in Daisey’s piece as unlikely. Even the one with egg on its face, THIS AMERICAN LIFE, had guts enough to do the right thing retroactively after making one fatal error: they should have never allowed the story on the air after being unable to contact Daisey’s translator.

News and opinion can exist side by side. Away from its editorial pages, which of course are all opinion, The New York Times indicates the difference instantly using typography: each day, any story with a justified-right margin is reporting, truth, accuracy; any story with a “ragged-right” margin, like the one you’re reading right now, is opinion or analysis. TAL itself has a coterie of bright, thought-provoking contributors whose subjective musings are clearly labeled as just that.

But the fact that TAL has fact-checkers at all shows you they’re trying to ensure that what they present as truth actually is. Political blowhards on both sides of the spectrum (world’s most unavailable job: Sean Hannity fact checker!) spout opinion so fast and so loud that some folks probably can’t be blamed for taking it seriously. But if, say, Bill O’Reilly states that something happened today, I’m gonna need corroboration. (He earned my skepticism by inventing or adopting specious news items for his silly “War on Christmas.”)

We need independent news, and thank God we still have some of it amid all the cacophony. Meanwhile, what of the dramatist?

When the lights came up after AGONY/ECSTASY, my wife used an earthier term to say, “He’s a hypocrite.” If he’s so upset, why does he continue to use Foxconn-made gear? And the stars in his eyes during the show’s opening moments, when he’s describing his own happy Apple addiction, are those of somebody who trades in for damn near every new model. We didn’t yet know that what we’d just heard had been juiced for dramatic power. But now I can’t help but wonder if he was telling the truth about Amazon in 21 DOG YEARS. So that’s something that Mike Daisey must share with Bill O’Reilly. No more trust; I now have to verify.


Dead, And Live Too

November 21, 2010

This has definitely been the year for unusual theatrical experiences. First there was GATZ, the unexpurgated eight-hour performance of THE GREAT GATSBY, and now I’ve returned from a much shorter but still relentlessly outre production. Like GATZ, it isn’t exactly a play, but whatever it is, it’s a doggone good one. It’s called PLAY DEAD, and I loved it.

It’s inspired by the “midnight spook show,” a bygone midcentury staple in movie theaters across the country. A magician would book the room, dress up his tricks with ghostly patter, and preside until the finale, when a live monster would burst into the audience just as all the lights went out. You went there so your girlfriend could scream and grab on tight. PLAY DEAD is the best “midnight spook show” there could ever be.

The piece is co-written and directed by Teller, the quieter half of Penn &. His co-writer and on-stage performer is Todd Robbins, an old hand at carny feats and other forms of magic. And they have found the perfect dilapidated theater, the Players on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, the same venue where I saw the Fugs live 43 summers ago. This place looks like it was haunted even before the master illusionists moved in.

Teller and Todd Robbins, the creators of PLAY DEAD.

I can’t go into detail about what happens during PLAY DEAD’s 75 minutes without spoiling surprises – and you might well get your chance to see it, because this is a show which could not only settle in for a long run at the 200-plus-seat Players, but it could also travel anywhere the creators can physically mount their stuff. Let’s just say that not only do spooks visit the theater, they visit you personally. Several times during the show, the house goes black, including exit lights. You can’t see your hand before your face. And in the darkness, something touches you. I have no idea how this effect is achieved. In the prerecorded turn-off-your-phones message, Teller instructs us not to stand up during the blackouts; for safety reasons, “eyes are watching you.” There was absolutely no room behind me the first time a ghost connected, and that’s where it felt like it was coming from.

The meat of this one-man (or is he alone, nyaaa-hahaha) show is close contemplation of death, triggered by grisly true tales of horrible killers, told with immense charm and Hitchcockian morbid humor by Mr. Robbins. He enters, illuminated only by the bare-bulb “ghost light” (which, by long theatrical tradition, remains onstage when nobody else is present), in an immaculate white suit. Beyond that I must not stray, except to tell you that the white suit will be slathered with stage blood before we repair homeward. Audience members – the production swears they are not actors or plants, they learn certain secrets spontaneously as I once did – are chosen to do and/or undergo amazing things, and the Grand Guignol magic is first-rate. As another reviewer noted, if Mr. Robbins ever invites you onstage, say yes!

I was in the second row, one seat from the stage-left wall, and I sussed out the method for one small early gag, but I never would have noticed had I not been situated so close and on that particular side. That’s the only one I won. But that was small change. Later, I beheld the most astonishing magical appearance of a human being I’ve ever seen, from barely fifteen feet away in full theatrical light. Again, and as usual, I had no bloody idea. I have my suspicions, but unfortunately they involve discovering another dimension through which to build a trap door, and these mega-grifters aren’t exactly hanging around in Stockholm waiting for the Nobel ceremony in physics. Mixed together with some tiresome carny moves we’ve long learned to reject, the genuine, unexpected one absolutely floored us. So clever. I still have no bloody idea. As Hitchcock boasted about PSYCHO, these people were playing their audience, like an organ.

I’ll also reveal that PLAY DEAD attempts to top the typical spook-show finale, and it succeeds. The show is one-third laughter, one-third heart palpitation and screaming (oh, believe me, you will exclaim out loud), and one-third amazement at some brilliant, jaw-dropping illusions. Johnny Thompson, a veteran “invisible man” who’s worked with most of the greats, gets a credit for “Magic Design,” though I suspect that role was collaborative — but however it arrived, the magic design is in fine form here. I should emphasize that PLAY DEAD is definitely not for children, and the copious blood is only one reason. The language is mild. Hmmm: what else could there be?

There is even a point to it all, beyond the yelps and yucks. One of the fiends which Mr. Robbins brings back from the grave, the monster who earns his deepest ire, is Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918), a fraudulent “medium” who preyed on the griefstricken by claiming to put them in touch with deceased loved ones. He demonstrates the effect – “it’s easy!” — with audience members, and it is this heartless charlatan for whom he reserves the word “evil.” Con artists who fleece the gullible, taking cruel advantage of such a vulnerable moment, are beneath PLAY DEAD’s contempt. In a nice, safe theater, where things are “fake and fun,” as Mr. Robbins puts it, phony seances can be exhilarating. But in the world outside, sometimes we forget that such “events,” however craftily simulated, are just as fake: always have been, always will be. Thus does a spook show actually conjure the spirit of Houdini.

PLAY DEAD held its workshop production in Las Vegas, Penn & Teller’s home base, establishing that it’s potentially mobile, as I noted above. But the Players is just perfect. I read that the creators have considered hosting special post-show reveal performances in which the lights don’t go off, to show us how the startling “touch” effects are done. That would be a typical Penn & Teller stunt, but don’t do it, boys. I want my spirits to remain mysterious.

P.S., one month later: However, I did manage to take a photo of Mr. Robbins and an ethereal…um…well…in the lobby afterwards. (Penn & Teller also greet their audience personally after each show, a fine tradition which is kept alive here.) The snap was my very first try with my new smartphone and it’s far too shaky to post here, but if you still want to see it, let me know and I’ll email it to you. (It won’t reveal much that you couldn’t already expect.)

3/5/11: For one performance, there was a “plant,” sort of. New York Times obituary writer Bruce Weber tells about his chance to play dead.

7/24/11: PLAY DEAD’s New York run ended with today’s 7pm show. I can’t imagine that this much creativity and covert intelligence will be denied further audiences at other venues. Watch out!

8/30/11: OK, now that the show’s closed, here’s my shaky photo:

I’ve seen worse smartphone snaps, but this was my first. Todd Robbins (l.) and a covert operative.

4/8/13: I read in Variety today that they’re planning a Los Angeles engagement. Don’t miss it!


Fitz Like A Glove

October 25, 2010

We see an office. A bland, vaguely decrepit place; all metallic grays, industrial tans, and accumulated grime. Long fluorescent lights. Standing files on a desktop. An ancient black shoe-sized cordless phone. A haphazardly cluttered bulletin board. Metal storage racks stacked high with deteriorating cardboard boxes, organized only by scrawled words on the sides. There’s no hint as to what the people in this office do, but you know it has to be mind-numbing, the kind of work that makes you dread getting up in the morning.

A man enters and hangs up his overcoat. He’s slim, red-haired, neatly comported, blue shirt and conservative tie. He goes to his work station and tries to turn on his computer. It doesn’t work. He toggles the switch on the tower below his desk. Taps the keys uselessly. Nothing. He leans back in disgust, or maybe just ennui, and idly flips open a monstrous black Rolodex to his left. Stuffed inside is a well-worn paperback copy of THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He opens the book and begins to read it aloud — and he does not stop. Aside from some dialogue provided by colleagues, he reads every single word (except for chapter titles) until there are no more.

The Scribner trade paperback edition of THE GREAT GATSBY, the one used on stage in GATZ.

That’s a bare-bones description of Elevator Repair Service’s astonishing production GATZ, which has finally arrived in New York after years of local producers’ haggling over rights. It takes seven hours and forty-five minutes to reach Fitzgerald’s final line, counting two intermissions and a dinner break. Yet GATZ straddles form and content in a way I’ve never before encountered in a theater – and hurrah for this age-old but undercelebrated art form, for the effect is something I believe I could only experience in a “legit” theater. It’s a triumph, a fully avant-garde piece that actually means something, a seemingly cuckoo idea that explodes like a Roman candle and causes oohs and aahs, only they’re time-released: they occur long afterward.

Just after a glowing review appeared in the New York Times, my friend, the writer Scott Edelman, casually asked online if anyone had caught this piece. It just so happened that we had bought our tickets three months earlier and were headed down to the Public Theater later that very day. Act I began a little after 2 p.m., and we filed out of Act IV not much past 10. When I got back home, I messaged Scott that it wasn’t necessarily the best piece of theatre I’d ever seen, but it was definitely the most remarkable. I’m going to try and explain why I used that particular word, but you should know some things first.

One: I’ve never read THE GREAT GATSBY. My wife Linda has, but it was one of those classics I missed in high school and college – everybody has a few of these lapses – and after I saw the 1974 Jack Clayton film, I basically removed the novel from my personal must list. I had no intention of spending any more time with these snooty, self-absorbed people. It was as if I’d read the Cliffs Notes version: I knew the characters and their relationships, and the basic plot of the story, but I’d never luxuriated in the prose.

Two: If you do not know that basic plot and for some godforsaken reason wish to remain ignorant, you should probably stop reading right now. The story is critical to what I want to say, but I’d rather not spoil it for you if you think there’s any chance you might seek it out in the future. (P.S.: I’ll bet you won’t.)

Three: I’m well aware that Andy Kaufman “read THE GREAT GATSBY” to concert audiences, even performed the bit on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Though this stunt almost certainly inspired GATZ – Elevator Repair Service are serious Kaufman fans and even use the comedian as a character in another of their shows – the purpose here is edification, not stultification. ERS continue with GATSBY until the bitter end, appending to a theoretically nutty premise a startlingly powerful payoff.

The narrator is played to near-perfection by Scott Shepherd. I only noticed one flub, and that was understandable: his concentration had been so intense that he stammered on the word “fifteen” when he broke character to announce the first intermission. He begins reading in a bored monotone befitting the dingy office, stumbling over words, apparently killing time until the IT people can fix his computer. Time itself is malleable here: he looks at a desk clock for the first of perhaps a dozen times, and it never, ever changes. Other office workers trudge in: there’s a receptionist; a strapping handyman with a set of keys; a cute girl who lazily leafs through golfing magazines; and finally the office manager, a gaunt, balding fellow with a permanent near-scowl of utter seriousness. They pantomime office routine as if there’s nothing strange about their colleague reading Fitzgerald aloud. At one particular moment – it’ll be different for every audience member – you notice that the narrator’s interpretation has become far more confident and animated; he’s really into it. Shortly afterward, the handyman steps forward and utters a line of dialogue. He has become Tom Buchanan. From this point on, all dialogue is acted, and the narrator – obviously Nick Carraway, and “Nick” is how he’s listed in the credits – supplies everything else, including “he said”s. The golfer has become Jordan Baker. An elegantly dressed woman is now Daisy Buchanan. And the story displays an utterly new dimension, for the novel is insinuating itself. It’s taking over.

The office manager leaves to run an errand early on, and when he comes back, he’s exchanged his bland “corporate” tie for a hot yellow one, the boldest blast of color on the stage. His first line – “I’m Gatsby” – occurs not quite a third of the way through, and Linda remarked at dinner that she’d forgotten how long it took to bring on the title character. Actors know that the juiciest part in a play can actually be the smallest one – so long as it’s the character everybody else can’t stop talking about, not even after he’s dead. Gatsby seems to have been here the whole time.

By now, another remarkable thing has happened. The novelty of the staged reading has utterly worn off, even turned transparent. Except for one monologue of Jordan’s, Mr. Shepherd never lets the book out of his grasp until he comes to a bravura recital at the end. (On their website, the troupe answers the question “I heard that narrator guy actually knows the whole book by heart. Is that true?” with “Yes.”) The artifice of flipping pages in a paperback book never leaves the stage, yet its constancy allows you to ignore it. Aided by superb lighting and sound design (sound man Ben Williams is on stage and takes some small roles), not only can you forget the fact of reading, you can also forget your very surroundings. Instead, you’re in Gatsby’s Long Island mansion, or Tom’s Manhattan apartment, or a “well-fanned Forty-second Street cellar.” Stephen King has a lovely phrase to describe becoming immersed in a book: you “fall through a hole in the paper.” Well, you do that here. That lost-in-the-story feeling is so powerful that it startles when such a scene is over: Oh yeah, I forgot — we’re really looking at an office set on a stage! And a guy’s reading a book! That’s two levels of reality which have to be sundered for such magic to work, yet this production does it again and again. The “long” running time is no more of an issue than the hours that pass unheeded when you’re really enjoying a book. Except for that grimly stalled desk clock, time passes when we’re not looking.

The notorious party scene.

This is an arresting new way to “read,” to “see a play.” It combines elements of both art forms into something different that could only happen in front of your eyes. As a film, with one’s vision sternly constricted, this conceit would sink like a stone. I do feel that I’ve experienced the novel, like anyone who listens to an audio book; it requires a similar bit of imagination. But this is even better, more vivid and immediate. There are precious few (but a few nonetheless) costume clues to help you picture a scene; the actors by and large do not resemble their physical descriptions in Fitzgerald. Therefore, much of the heavy lifting will be your responsibility. Only one scene, the drunken party at Tom’s New York apartment, calls attention to itself by having the characters fling office files and papers around the stage. It’s a great visual representation of debauchery, but, atypically, it does bring your attention back into the office. The whole boozy mess is then cleaned up while you watch, the restored neatness anticipating the reappearance of Jim Fletcher as the office manager, now transformed into Gatsby.

This tilted angle between literature and theatre does expose some shortcomings. As with THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, a dramatic climax occurs well before the piece is finished. Just as we have lots more play to see once Shylock is foiled in court, so THE GREAT GATSBY deflates dramatically after Gatsby’s murder. The reader remains warmed by Fitzgerald’s luminous phrasing, but his coda, taking up all of the concluding chapter, feels soft and languid to the playgoer, even as Mr. Shepherd finally casts the book aside and concludes from memory, a bit of theatricality that seems calculated to elevate the text. (After all, every stage actor works “off book” every night…) His performance is iconic, brilliant, magical. After it’s over, you find yourself wondering about ephemera. How the hell does he keep his voice? I didn’t see any understudies listed, and it sounded to me as if Victoria Vazquez, as Daisy, was fighting a little huskiness. What happens if Nick takes sick? Does a stage manager crack open the paperback and start reading? We also felt some of the miming in Act I, before the cast took over Fitzgerald’s dialogue, was broad and offputting, particularly Susie Sokol as Jordan (undoubtedly following director John Collins’s instructions). She’s a very gifted physical comedienne, but we didn’t want the tale spinning in that direction, in opposition to the sense of dread and gloom that permeates Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age — and indeed, in Act II Ms. Sokol settled down and absolutely nailed Jordan’s monologue.

You can’t stop thinking and talking about what you’ve just seen, a reaction reserved for the highest level of artistic fireworks. I’ve written before about the virulent tendency to give anything a standing ovation, but this night, everyone in the audience, including us, leapt to their feet. Enthusiastic applause seemed to fall short of what we really wanted to communicate to the cast and crew. This thing is transcendent. It joins my very short list of unforgettable moments in the theatre. If I could, I’d actually go back again and strap in for another eight hours.

1/12/2011: Now I have read the novel, and I found a vital difference between it and the theatrical version, at least for me. The final chapter, the coda after Gatsby’s murder, which felt so drawn-out on stage, doesn’t read that way at all. The obligation of faithfully staging the visit from Gatsby’s aged father, the funeral, and Nick’s gorgeous final summation — which Mr. Shepherd performs without referring to the book — make this sequence run longer than it should, longer than even the author intended. Fascinating: three months after I saw it, GATZ continues to illuminate.

2/28/2012: GATZ is returning to the Public for another New York engagement. Here’s a trailer for the show.

3/8/13: I saw a MoMA preview of Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation tonight, but I still think this theatrical piece is the best GATSBY ever.


Stand Up And (I) Holler

May 31, 2010

I like to read reviews of plays and movies only after I see them. So it was that I found Ben Brantley’s New York Times evisceration of THE ADDAMS FAMILY, a new Broadway musical. He was far too harsh, in my opinion: it’s harmless, it’s for tourists, like PHANTOM, MAMMA MIA or CATS (visitors buy far more Broadway musical tickets than locals do, and I say, keep on comin’, y’all!), but it’s perfectly entertaining, if flawed, and to drag it under a bus is to shoot a fish in a barrel. Yes, cliché fans, I am a cascading fount, a glittering treasure trove.

Nowadays the groundlings can talk back, thanks to the Internet, and lots of them thought Brantley’s review was full of waste matter. Just this past Sunday, the Times’s Charles Isherwood gave a big air-kiss to the show’s star, Nathan Lane, and intimated that he enjoyed THE ADDAMS FAMILY a little better than the first-nighter had. But one particular Brantley reader, whose emailed response came from somewhere in the heartland, caught my eye. (I just tried to retrieve it for you so I could quote directly, but many others have weighed in since, and I can’t bear to sift through them all.) This theatergoer said, in essence, “How can you be so blind? Everybody in the theater loved it. Gosh, it even got a standing ovation!”

Sir or madam, you just hit my hot button. There are too many goddam standing ovations in New York. Next photo, don’t you agree?

Sit the frick down!

I’m old-school. An audience “leaps to its feet” only when it’s just seen something transcendent. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. But the current trend in New York “legit” is to hire movie or TV stars, people you already recognize before you even walk in, and their willingness to be in the same room with you seems to be enough to levitate the backside during curtain call. It’s motivated by personality, not performance. THE ADDAMS FAMILY received a standing O the night I saw it, too, but I’ll hand you a million dollars in pennies if you can prove that either Nathan Lane or Bebe Neuwirth claim this as one of their finest moments on the boards. On the contrary, perversely: if there hadn’t been a standing O, everyone involved would have nervously looked at each other and thought: something went horribly wrong tonight.

I remembered the time a well-meaning friend gave us tickets to the Metropolitan Opera for Zefferelli’s LA BOHEME. It was thrilling to be in the audience for what must be the world’s leading opera company. I was really happy to be there. The stagecraft was beyond anything I’d ever encountered before: mammoth flies that you have to see to believe. But in my life, I have not yet managed to cultivate a taste for classic opera (I do think Gilbert & Sullivan are da bomb), so the constant up-and-down ovations for individual arias, or whatever they are – “Bravo!” and “Brava!” – seemed to me as mundane as the ADDAMS reception. I’ll cop again to the fact that this stuff is clearly over my head. Yet something seems similar: the (presumably sophisticated) audience still needs to validate itself. We’re in the frickin Metropolitan Opera, and damn if this isn’t going to be a spectacular performance!

Besides bestowing unearned praise, the other irritant which this jack-in-the-box response causes is that it prevents me from watching actors take curtain calls, which I enjoy. Actors work very, very hard, frequently under adverse conditions, and the way they acknowledge the audience out of character is a measure of offstage grace. It’s also heartwarming to see a second or third lead, whom you’d never heard of two hours ago, just destroy the role and then come out and get the adulation s/he deserves. But you can’t see it, because by then, there’s a butt literally in your face. Linda and I normally do not rise unless the performance really deserved it, or – to my shame here – if I really want to see a particular actor take hisser curtain call. All too frequently, we turn out to be the only people who have remained seated. It doesn’t mean we didn’t enjoy the show. It only means it didn’t deserve a frickin standing ovation.

Here’s the last one I can remember granting without even thinking (which should be normalcy). We saw the three plays in Tom Stoppard’s THE COAST OF UTOPIA on the same day. They were being performed in repertory at Lincoln Center, but once all three got going, they had a few special “marathon” days in which they’d perform all three plays, one after another. For the first of them, one Saturday in 2006, we sat down at 10 am and left at 10 pm, with breaks for lunch and dinner. Three brilliant, challenging plays about pre-Revolutionary Russia, with a splendid, stageworthy cast directed by the masterful Jack O’Brien. No curtain calls for VOYAGE or SHIPWRECK, the first two, but after the final piece, SALVAGE, everybody who had been on stage the whole day (including some deceased characters) ran on for a mass curtain call. I remember seeing Ethan Hawke lift his fists into the air like a triumphant boxer: we did it! The cast members were applauding us for sticking with them over nine-plus delirious hours. But of course, by then we were already on our feet. Performers and audience had just shared something sublime, which will never happen again. My God: to remain seated would have been an insult.

When I saw the original production of star-bereft AVENUE Q, I felt the same way, as I did for B. D. Wong’s amazing performance in M. BUTTERFLY: for about five minutes he made me forget to swallow. I even leapt to my feet with the rest of the Sundance audience in 2003 for WHALE RIDER, and that’s a frickin movie. Moments that earn a standing ovation do occur, no doubt about it, and thank goodness they do. Just not every night in every show.

It used to be hip to bury your name in an alphabetical listing, especially for musicals, and that’s exactly what Dustin Hoffman did when he played Shylock in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE some years back. He declined an individual curtain call: the entire company came out and bowed en masse. Very classy. No standing O, but very appreciative applause for one and all (Hoffman was good, but he wasn’t the only one!). That’s what you expect. But one day I saw a billboard advertising a particular musical with, “GETS A STANDING OVATION EVERY NIGHT!” And I knew a page had turned.

If you come all the way to New York and you see [STAR’S NAME HERE] in [BIG FANCY SHOW], I can actually appreciate the fact that you want to be able to go back home and say it was beyond belief. These tickets carry obscene price tags, partly to pay for all the glitter that audiences seem to demand these days, stars being only the first line item. And a standing O when [STAR YOU LOVE] shows up for hisser bow is one way to do that. That was beyond belief, right, everybody? Thought so!

But everyone else on stage knows the truth. Standing ovations have been devalued to the point that they’re now nothing but cotton candy. And if you ever really, no kidding, earned one the hard way, how would you know?

5/21/12: The New York Times’s Ben Brantley weighs in, two years after I did.


Down At The Playhouse

October 1, 2009

Guy’s a terrible actor, but somehow he gets cast as Hamlet at his local community theater. Opening night, he finally arrives at the big speech: “To be or not to be…” He’s sliding up and down the scale. “…THAT is the question!” Sawing the air with his hands. “Whether ‘tis NOBLER in the mind…” A couple in the audience has had enough and walks out. “…to suffer the SLINGS and ARROWS…” He’s rolling the Rs mercilessly. A few more people decide to leave. “…of OUTRRRAGEOUS fortune…” Nearly half the audience is trudging out now. Finally he looks up at them and yells, Hey! I didn’t write this shit!

One of my Millsaps College fraternity brothers was taking a directing class – I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a theatre curriculum. As one of the requirements, he decided to direct the coin-tossing scene from Tom Stoppard’s ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, and cast me and another stage newbie. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing: the memorization, the rehearsals, then the illusion of spontanaeity in our one and only performance, which would actually count against his grade! Another directing student liked it too, and cast me as Felix in a scene from THE ODD COUPLE. Same experience. Twice, I’d been up there on the Christian Center Auditorium stage, looking down on the class-taking “audience.” A great new perspective, and fun!

Watching all this from his trademark rocking chair was Lance Goss, instructor of this directing class and, moreover, longtime head of the college’s theatre department. In this capacity, he had bravely introduced Jackson, Mississippi to Tennessee Williams – despite his nickname, a Mississippi native himself — in the Fifties; Lance’s production of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF was almost shut down by the City Council – after all, this was a private school associated with the Methodist Church! He’d proudly saved the copy of the local daily with a screaming headline: ‘CAT’ TOO HOT, SAYS LOCAL COUNCILMAN. (Of course, even back then, the wannabe censors were shooting themselves in the foot: you couldn’t get a ticket shortly after that piece ran.)

Lance walked up and suggested that I audition for the college theatre group, the Millsaps Players. That was very nice to hear, but how could I compete with people who were studying the craft? My next few attempts at getting on stage kind of proved the point: for almost a year, whenever I did audition my services were declined, but when I didn’t audition I got cast anyhow. It’s not just “are you any good?” Just as important, “is there the right part here for you?” Somebody had to drop out of Jean Giraudoux’s TIGER AT THE GATES, so Lance gave me a cameo, my first appearance with the Players. I was a beanpole in college and in college, where everybody is, after all, college-age, “beanpole” equals “old man.” They grayed my late-Sixties-long hair and teased it out into a billowing white Afro, painted age lines on my face, slapped a robe on me and shoved me out onto the stage, where I tried to stoop over and pretend to be crabby. Now the auditorium was full of people, but the only sound I heard on my Millsaps Players debut was my own mother’s involuntary shout of surprise: “Oh, NO!” I remember I had to call a guy a “piece of piecrust,” which killed.

Next, yet another directing student was prepping his major project, a one-act before a real audience, performed in the round. He was doing Tennessee Williams’s seldom-seen-for-good-reason THE PURIFICATION, and it needed a guitar player, which I semi-was. I borrowed a classical guitar (nylon strings, like Segovia’s, to sound more Latin) from my girlfriend, and improvised a minor-key, vaguely south-of-the-border medley. No lines, and only one piece of business: tossing my hat into the center of the stage at the play’s inscrutable end. But hey: I got mentioned favorably in the school paper’s review, the critic correctly noting that I’d cleverly, um, aah, imported some riffs from the Doors’ “Spanish Caravan.” Muchas gracias, amiga!

When I say I was a beanpole in college, I am NOT KIDDING. (That's me at the top.)

When I say I was a beanpole in college, I am NOT KIDDING. (That’s me at the top.)

I got a much bigger role in the first-ever non-professional production of MARAT/SADE (Lance was still on the cutting edge), and had very nice parts in OKLAHOMA!, AFTER THE RAIN, and CAMELOT, plus lots of smaller ones. I played Sir Thomas More! – but in ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS, where the part’s a cameo, not A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, where he’s the lead. Right role, wrong show. Lance was particularly amused that I went from a saint in that show directly to the Devil in the next, DAMN YANKEES. I looked up one day and found I had so many credits in theatre classes, I might as well seek a double major – a couple summer sessions would do the trick. I always expected my political science degree would be more important later in life. But I didn’t become a lawyer, and what I’ve actually used far more frequently is my training in theatre. We all perform every day, don’t we? Dealing with stage fright is quite useful, as well as learning how to accept a compliment gracefully. (I still haven’t figured out the proper response to, “Boy, did you suck!”)

Just *try* and tell me you don’t want to see this dadburn show.

We all knew we were collegiate amateurs, there were no false illusions like in WAITING FOR GUFFMAN (which is my favorite of all the Christopher Guest movies, because I’ve been there!). I’ll never forget Lance’s sober advice, delivered in a sonorous tone which both awakened and informed us: “Adopt acting as a career ONLY…if you can’t imagine doing anything else!” Still, the dilettante pro-wannabes properly dissuaded, Lance demanded that we take our productions seriously. For example, no Millsaps Player seen outside the theater in stage costume or makeup would ever appear again – a chilling but effective way to say, this isn’t high school, don’t play games at Denny’s. Missing an entrance past tech rehearsal had better be accompanied by a damn good reason, or you’re an ex-Player. Rehearsals were as punctual and intense as they would be for a pro. And the college troupe did have a local reputation for excellence; our productions were credible enough to be reviewed in the daily papers. Despite his dire warnings, Lance even sent several Players into the wider entertainment world. In my group alone, one Player had a big part in Robert Altman’s THIEVES LIKE US, and another starred in THE WARRIORS and XANADU and was the audio reader for most of John Grisham’s books. A lighting genius went on to win Emmys, and another Player became one of the original five “veejays” on MTV. But pro or no, working in theatre at Millsaps was a wonderful experience, and Lance was a great teacher and inspiration.

At intermission, two little old ladies head for the theater door. The house manager steps up and says, “Aren’t you enjoying the play, ladies?” “Yes, young man, we LOVE it!” “But don’t you want to see the second act?” “We can’t WAIT to see the second act!” The house manager frowns. “Then why are you leaving?” “You can’t fool us, young man. It says right here in the program: ‘Act II — Two Weeks Later’!” 

Jackson actually had quite a robust theatre community at the time. When I graduated from Millsaps in 1971, there were four troupes presenting full seasons: us, Jackson Little Theatre, a fringe outfit called Theater Center of Mississippi, and the big kahuna, New Stage Theatre. For some reason, Jacksonians had caught the live-theatre bug – and though they couldn’t possibly fill all four sets of seats, there were tons of perfectly fine actors and stage crew hanging around, so nobody embarrassed anybody on stage, and guys like actor/director James Best (all over Fifties/Sixties television, including two TWILIGHT ZONEs!) and director Don Toner were down checking out the talent.

But New Stage was one step beyond. I went several times down to its home, a converted church in a dodgy part of town where the audience sat in pews on pillows, and the level of theatricality was far beyond anything I’d ever encountered. Lance had mastered the art of casting performers from 17 to 21 or so, a rigid age range from which to find every part in the script (or, less frequently, he’d thrown up his hands and decided a college production was impossible). But at New Stage, if the character was forty, then by God, the actor was too! There were great early middle- and middle-aged actors up on stage: Bill Hill, John Maxwell, Dick Brown, Tom Spengler, Jane Petty, and many others. It was a whole new dimension: adults! The artistic director was Ivan Rider, who had sorta been Baylor’s Lance, but now he was personally lifting the level of live in Jackson. New Stage was founded in 1965 – a very volatile time in Mississippi — by a few Little Theatre denizens who were tired of the fiftieth production of OUR TOWN or ridiculous Southerners attempting FLOWER DRUM SONG. Their first production was WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, and they did for Albee what Lance had done for Williams a decade earlier. Their productions were miraculous.

Ivan saw me at Millsaps in DAMN YANKEES, clowning as the devilish Mr. Applegate. There was an unwritten rule that Ivan wouldn’t poach Lance’s players before graduation, but I had a whole summer before moving on to Georgia, graduate school, and marriage. So he asked me if I’d like to appear in New Stage’s summer show, a Neil Simon three-hander called THE STAR-SPANGLED GIRL. Huh? New Stage? And only three in the cast? Lemme think. Um, yeah? So I did the Neil Simon and had a ball. I was the goofy best friend while one of my acting idols, a Redford lookalike named Carl Davis, played one half of a romantic pairing which included…guest star…Nancy Barrett! DARK SHADOWS had been must-watch after classes at my frat house, and now here was the luscious ingénue with the straight blonde hair, actually in my arms! (The goofy best friend falls for her first, then things get straightened out over the next hour and a half and the two gorgeosities ride off together.) “Nanny” had been a student of Ivan’s at Baylor, and now here she was in the flesh! My brother Rick saw the show six, seven times, and not because I was in it, if you get what I’m saying.

I’d heard that his nickname was “Ivan the Terrible,” but I didn’t get that at all. Not in the (non-consecutive) five years or so that I knew Ivan closely, over about ten shows, did I ever hear a cruel word spoken against a local actor (over Cutty, pros were all fair game), and there was no temper at all, except in the occasional impatient moments that every director encounters. He was no more terrible than the next guy. Now I wonder who exactly I heard that from. Anyhow, as everybody knew I would, I said goodbye, got married, and went off to Georgia for four years. Here’s part of what I was doing there.

Guy’s been star-struck all his life, finally gets a spear-carrier cameo in his local theatre company. He has one line: “Hark, the cannon roars!” He tries it out a thousand ways: “Hark, the cannon roars!” Practices it at work: “Hark, the cannon roars!” At night: “Hark, the cannon roars!” On the bus, very softly: “Hark, the cannon roars!” Opening night: he’s dressed, he’s ready. Under his breath: “Hark, the cannon roars!” He walks on stage and his cue comes up. Suddenly a giant flash pot explodes and there’s an earthshaking BOOOOOOOM!!!!!! He ducks to the ground and yells, “WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?

Sporting, sadly, my original marital status, I returned in 1975 to find a different New Stage “gang” when Ivan invited me back to do the Jimmy Cagney part in the Thirties comedy BOY MEETS GIRL. After four years, it still felt great to be up there in that little church, and I did one thing or another for Ivan over the next few years. He told me once that I was the only actor he could call on the phone and say, “I have a part for you in my next show. Wanna?” and I’d say “Sure!” It never occurred to me to ask, “What show? What part?” like I guess others must have done. All I needed to know, besides what block of time to carve out, was that Ivan thought it would be fun for me, and it always, always was, because my director was also my casting director, whose job it is to know what you can and can’t do. He needed me for only a five-minute cameo in Preston Jones’s LU ANN HAMPTON LAVERTY OBERLANDER, but Jones and I stopped the show with it every night. (That means you have to wait for the applause to die down before going on with the next line; for a moment, the show has literally stopped. If you yourself have caused this tumult, it’s one of the best feelings there is. I remembered it from my solo number in DAMN YANKEES.)

An interesting thing happens when you perform a lot in a tiny theater in a small metropolitan area, a measure of sub-celebrity. Real celebrity in such a town is the local news anchor: s/he can headline any store opening you like. But when you’re performing in a theater, guys – especially guys, since everywhere there is a theater, guys are dragged there by their wives and they’re rarely paying attention – will stop you on the street or in a store and say, “Do you remember me?” The first few times it happened, I stood there and pondered with the guy. Wow, I do not remember him at all. See, all the guy knows for sure is that he’s been in the same room with me (he may even have seen me more than once). We must have gone to school together. Maybe church. After a few such occasions, I knew to ask, “Have you ever gone to New Stage?” These encounters are as close as I ever came to meeting a groupie, and they were all guys, or women much older than I. Pathetic.

By now, the outlying theatre companies had by and large dissolved away, and maybe it was just my imagination, but the talent pool in Jackson also seemed to be diminishing. There was film work now, both on and off camera. Talented people like Carl Davis, and Ivan himself, had moved on to larger cities. I did a couple pieces – including a lifelong desire, Tom in THE GLASS MENAGERIE – for a tiny company. Then I got caught up in my advertising work, and when I went independent as a copywriter and producer in 1982, my free time evaporated. I’d already long had the pleasure, early on after my return from Georgia, of watching my future wife perform for Lance in Millsaps’s production of OTHELLO. She’s a much better actor than I am, and although our romantic relationship was still far in the future, I remember saying to myself at the time, damn, that chick’s good! I’ll never forget all the people I got to know, at Millsaps and later, sitting in a greenroom, waiting for a cue to emanate from tinny speakers mounted high on the wall. Or the Italian-restaurant feasts we’d call in early from New Stage at intermission, so they’d be waiting for us when we finished, an hour or so later. A life in the theater? Not really. But a big toe stuck into some warm, sweet water? Oh, man, was it ever bliss.

 “A successful performance? We did Act I, and Act II, in that order, and nobody spat on us.” Lance Goss


Musicals, Schmusicals

August 13, 2009

Last week, we were watching the movie version of HAIRSPRAY, the wonderful musical adaptation of John Waters’s film. The vivacious Nikki Blonsky was belting out the opening number, “Good Morning Baltimore,” when she was almost hit by a garbage truck. One smash cut later, and she was riding on top of it. See, nothing could dull her buzz at being alive in Baltimore: not a flasher (a cameo appearance by Waters himself), not a near-death experience, nothing. My niece, already an seasoned chorus member in several musicals at only 12, was entranced. But something was bothering my 14-year-old nephew: “How’d she get on top of that garbage truck?”

As a theatre major and lifelong fan, I’ve found that musical “reality” separates the men from the boys (or sometimes the boys from the boys, but that’s another story). I have more than one friend who enjoys and appreciates the theatre, but has to draw the line at Broadway musicals, that essential American art form. The complaint is always the same: we have to artificially take ourselves out of the story to give somebody a chance to sing. It’s so unrealistic! I can point out that they have no problem when a “hobbit” puts on a “magic ring” to turn frickin’ invisible, but “that’s different – that’s a fantasy.” As the obligatory “dream ballets” of Forties and Fifties musicals attest, so are they, but forget it: you’ll never get anywhere. Some people just don’t like ‘em, with very few exceptions (HAIR is a very popular exception).

Musicals were fairly silly in the early days of the 20th century. They were usually unconnected revues: dancers, singers, slapstick comics, above all gals with gams, and some of them were even captured on film: BROADWAY MELODY of thus-and-so, GOLDDIGGERS of whatever. My skeptical friends would have had every right to scorn the early Broadway musical.

Then came Rodgers & Hammerstein’s masterpiece in 1943. It was called OKLAHOMA!

My first boss in advertising, the brilliant Gordon Marks, assured me that the exclamation point was the key to the show’s success: it made it look like something special! I was able to look Mr. Marks in the eye because I had appeared in a college revival of the show some six years before, and when you’re in the show, you learn all about the show. Guess what: he may have been right!

OKLAHOMA! broke the mold. Based on Lynn Riggs’s 1931 play “Green Grow The Lilacs,” it was the first Broadway musical in which all the songs directly related to the story being counter-told. The actors didn’t sing because it was time for a song; they sang because they had to! Not all the songs were cheery and happy, either. Watch Act II of OKLAHOMA! and tell me you don’t feel for poor Jud Fry, even as the rest of the Okies are making fun of him. The songs were part of the drama, for the first time ever! No wonder there was an exclamation point!

I mentioned the “dream ballet,” which OKLAHOMA!’s success made so popular that it became part of the copycat rhythm for years to come. (You can see it in full flower in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN…”Gotta dance!”) It helped story-bound musicals blossom. While Rodgers & Hammerstein were exploring this fecund new form, so were Lerner and Loewe, etc., right down to Stephen Sondheim, the Tiger Woods of the genre. THE SOUND OF MUSIC. SOUTH PACIFIC. Even CAMELOT. Then they tumble on down: A CHORUS LINE, CHICAGO, RENT, AVENUE Q, IN THE HEIGHTS. See? FLOYD COLLINS: ever heard of that one? I didn’t think so. BAT BOY? They’re just too clever.

I know, musical productions are very fragile. I saw a musical version of Durrenmatt’s THE VISIT at the Signature Theatre Company in D.C. last year that rocked me back in my seat. If it ever got to Broadway, it would play about two nights, because it’s too dark, but they’d be talking about it for years. Yet Signature received a Tony this year because of what they’re trying to do, which is to preserve the original American musical. Go for it, dudes. We’ll wait for the next work of genius.


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