Stand-Up Tragedy

September 23, 2016

1458047088866It’s even worse.

When I first wrote about standing-ovation creep on this page more than six years ago, it was an irritation, like a skin rash you just have to live with. Since then, it’s become an out-and-out pandemic, infecting more and more theatre audiences in New York — and, I’d be willing to bet, where you live too, because this virus is issuing forth from the heartland.

Let’s restate a few caveats. A performance that brings an audience to its feet with gratitude is a wonderful thing, and once upon a time such a spontaneous eruption swelled the cast and crew with pride precisely because it was so rare. I have witnessed these thrilling occasions — but fewer times than I have fingers. (My most recent was HAMILTON.) However, the days when you could actually reward a magnificent production beyond mere seated applause are long gone, and they have vanished before my very eyes.

I recognize that audience behavior evolves over time. Beatles aside, the loudest sound in an Ed Sullivan or Johnny Carson audience was the ol’ two-fingered whistle. But watch Colbert or Maher today, and you’ll hear people — usually women — shriek where they used to laugh. I’m sure that excited reaction is a bleed-over from pop music concerts, and it’s fine for a talk show where revving the crowd up to paroxysmal frenzy is part of the trick. Thing is, we’re starting to hear the whooooooooos for stage musical numbers, even “this is my way of saying I think that’s funny” in the more raucous comedies. This is a second cousin to stand-up fever.

It’s very expensive to visit New York, even before the theater sticks out its palm for you to cross so lavishly. If you go to a Broadway show, you expect to see transcendence; it had better be better than what your community theater can pull off. Some shows are certainly lesser than others, but they are all of professional caliber, and if you’re not used to that, damn near anything can impress you, especially if it features someone you’ve seen in movies or on tv. I believe that’s where the ubiquitous standing O has come from: visitors from out of town. My latest piece of evidence: I was sitting in a side box for AN AMERICAN IN PARIS a couple weeks ago, so I was able to watch the crowd. The standing ovation that day was definitely led by people in shorts and sandals.

Why should I even care about whether people jump to their feet or not? They’re just being nice, get off their backs! Two reasons. One, as stated above, when it happens every time, the gesture is demeaned: performers will never again be able to earn a legitimate standing O, since they will automatically receive one simply by getting to the end of Act II. Two, I enjoy watching actors take their curtain calls, but unless I stand as well (to my shame, I’ve done it a few times) all I can see is a butt from the previous row. Usually I remain seated anyway. It’s not because I didn’t like the show; it’s because it didn’t deserve a standing ovation!

Here’s how bad it’s gotten. The other night I went down to 59E59, the only off-Broadway theater in rational walking distance from my house, to see a surrealistic farce called BEARS IN SPACE, part of a citywide Irish theatre festival. Delightful show: four young guys using deliberately low-tech theatricality and ratty hand-and-rod puppets, snarky as hell but telling a story that turned out to be very sweet. (One of them was Jack Gleeson, GAME OF THRONES’s sadistic King Joffrey, but in one section he played that notorious imperiousness for laughs.) The audience — couldn’t have been 200 people — were attentive, laughing where they should, etc. They loved the show. (I did too.) The boys wound it up and the applause was vigorous, energetic. As I was joining them in banging my hands together, something was vaguely bothersome. WTF? Finally it struck me. Nobody in the appreciative, giddy audience had risen to their feet! I self-flagellated on the walk home (what, no standing O means you’re missing something, dickweed?) and sat down to write this piece, my first sequel. Dudes and dudettes, standing ovations are WAY WAY WAY too common, but there’s nothing anybody can do. Their function as a meaningful way to communicate back to the stage is all over.

9/27/16: Last night, at the new production of THE FRONT PAGE (it was that or the Clinton-Trump “debate”), before the inevitable tumultuous standing ovation, came some “sitting ovations,” or entrance applause, for everybody the audience recognized: Jefferson Mays, John Slattery, John Goodman, Robert Morse, Nathan Lane, even Holland Taylor. This show is a trifle, an amusing limited run for holiday-season tourists, slathered with stars, and it did make me laugh a few times. But to the adoring audience, it killed. A standing O was locked in the moment they opened their programs, and every comment I overheard afterward reflected a mind duly blown. But I won’t play the snob card: New York needs their money.

The Stage, On The Page

April 12, 2016

The-Secret-Life-of-American-Musicals-by-Jack-ViertelThe Broadway musical is as American an art form as jazz or the blues, and it has patriotically survived the recent British invasion led by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. The term “musical comedy” has become rather archaic, since we find very little humor (but there is some) in bombastic productions like LES MISERABLES or THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Yet troupers are still singing and dancing on the Great White Way, and to record-setting business, too; the New York “legit” theater has never been healthier.

I know a few people who don’t like musicals on principle. It annoys them whenever a character breaks into the story to sing: it’s unnatural, unrealistic, even silly. (Now when a hobbit puts on a magic ring to turn invisible, they’re perfectly happy. But we all have our own contradictions, don’t we?) My niece, one of the most devoted Broadway fans I know, attends nothing but musicals. But to non-aficionados they’re all pretty much the same, distinguishable only by the setting or, more rarely, by the intrusion of a contemporary type of music (HAIR, RENT, HAMILTON). A devotee would certainly disagree, but how many of them have sat down and truly thought it through? Any presentation that demands the attention of an audience for nearly three hours has to lead it on some kind of narrative ride. My biggest takeaway from an eye-opening new book is how much commonality most well-made musicals share, even when very creative people are racking their brains for brand new ways to surprise and delight the folks in the seats.

There are general principles that most of the best, longest-lasting musicals observe, and they are deconstructed for you in THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL by Jack Viertel. It’s packed with anecdotes and lore, authoritative without forgetting to be fun, the best general-audience guide to “how Broadway shows are built” (per the subtitle) that I’ve ever encountered. Mr. Viertel is senior vice president of Jujamcyn Theaters, one of the three big Broadway owner/producers (see more below), and he has also been a dramaturg and newspaper critic. Over a long career he’s worked with both the creators and the landlords, combining an expert’s breadth of knowledge with a fan’s appreciation and enthusiasm. I used to joke that I was the only straight man in New York who saves all his Playbills. Evidently I was mistaken.

“Building” a musical, no matter what kind, requires some basic materials. When the curtain rises, the audience immediately needs to know, Where are we? Who are these people? How can I tell them apart? And why should I care? From there, a remarkable number of classic pieces — including the current hottest ticket in the world, HAMILTON — use similar patterns to create interest and pleasure in their audiences. “It’s only in hindsight that the patterns emerge,” Mr. Viertel writes, and he takes pains to assure us that writers and composers are not working from a cookie-cutter template. But in his hands it’s amazing to compare creative solutions that achieve common goals. Not all hit shows follow these patterns, and not every show contains every single one, but there’s much more agreement on what the author calls the “classic chassis” than you’d expect at first thought.

The book is organized like a two-act show. From the overture to the curtain call, Mr. Viertel illustrates structure with historical examples, trivia, and backstage color told with savvy assuredness. He shows how the “song plot” advances storytelling: despite my friends’ distaste, there are perfectly valid reasons why somebody starts singing. We learn about the “I want” song, which establishes a difficult goal (like “My Shot” in HAMILTON); the conditional love song (there’s a dramatic reason it’s “If I Loved You” in CAROUSEL instead of just “I Love You”); the “noise,” which uses comedy and kinetics to recharge the audience in the third or fourth song slot (“Hasa Diga Eebowai” in THE BOOK OF MORMON); the song which is basically there so a big star can shine; the Main Event, sometimes called the “11 o’clock number”; and lots more. You find yourself nodding your head at aspects of the musical experience that you’ve frequently seen but never really noticed, like the Second Couple (Will Parker and Ado Annie in OKLAHOMA!, Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide in GUYS AND DOLLS) which provides counterpoint to, and frequently comic relief from, the romantic leads. It’s a little like finding out how a magic trick works, but the net effect is to make you appreciate originality even more.

razzleMr. Viertel’s book is about the show. A second one is about the business. RAZZLE DAZZLE by Michael Riedel recounts the colorful, sometimes oddball history of the people who own the Broadway houses and battle each other for the best bookings. Mr. Riedel has been the wildly popular theater columnist for the New York Post for nearly twenty years; he’s probably the second most influential journalist in the field, just behind the lead critic for the New York Times. He is impressively well plugged in, and has either witnessed or heard first-hand accounts of some hair-greying events in a wobbly industry that was almost snuffed out by the slow deterioration of its Times Square neighborhood by the mid-Seventies. Now, of course, Times Square, most notably the formerly notorious 42nd Street, has been transformed into a booming, profitable family destination — and the Broadway theater owners had a great deal to do with it.

A pause for some definitions. Despite how it sounds, the difference between a “Broadway” and “off-Broadway” production is not location, but the number of seats in the theater. Five hundred and above makes it a “Broadway” house, no matter what’s playing there. One hundred to 499, “off-Broadway.” Below 100, “off-off-Broadway.” At Lincoln Center, for example, the Vivian Beaumont Theater, current home to THE KING AND I, is “on Broadway.” Under the same roof, down one flight of stairs, is the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, much more intimate and thus “off-Broadway.” And neither one of them is located in the Times Square “theater district.” So it’s the auditorium, not the address. There are exceptions, like Carnegie Hall, which usually hosts individual musical performances rather than scripted theatre; and the outdoor Delacorte Theater in Central Park, home only to two “free Shakespeare in the Park” shows each summer.

This distinction isn’t simply academic. As you have probably guessed, money is involved. The actors, musicians and backstage crew work under different contracts depending on the producer’s potential gross. Furthermore, some Broadway houses are physically much smaller than others, so they tend to book straight plays, where every cost is more modest, and those productions can certainly yield profitable hits too. But big brassy shows, in the largest theaters, are where the real money is and where the tourists flock. If you’re waiting for discount tickets at the TKTS booth in Duffy Square and you fancy a play, go straight to the far window. Non-musicals only. Nobody’s there. Smaller doesn’t equal worse: much of the most exciting theatre in New York, including a few reduced-scale musicals, is performed off-Broadway. But razzling-dazzling singing and dancing in Broadway-sized houses is what each of these books is overwhelmingly about.

Mr. Riedel chronicles the rise of the Shubert family, Broadway’s biggest landlord, beginning with its hardscrabble upstate origins and finally its brave move into New York City, where a loose consortium actually referred to as “the Syndicate” — its founders were the five largest theater owners at the turn of the century, who controlled the best houses in the biggest cities across America — intimidated its rube competition as surely as Vito Corleone and his boardroom peers. We watch the bold, determined Shuberts buy and build, and suffer its own clan’s fools as must any family-run company. On July 7, 1972, the feckless, drunken surviving Shubert was deposed as head of the Shubert Foundation, which legally owns the theaters, by family lawyers Bernard B. Jacobs and Gerald Schoenfeld. “Bernie and Jerry” then became responsible for the Shubert Organization’s greatest years, and for a notable era were the most powerful producers on Broadway. Mr. Riedel has the most intimate access to these people, and my main beef is that he gives the other players short shrift. But after all, the Shuberts are arguably where the action is. They are far and away the largest landlord, with 17 Broadway theaters. The competing Nederlander organization owns 9, and Jujamcyn (Mr. Viertel’s employer, which is mentioned here only in passing) has 5.

The colorful business story is interspersed with fascinating producers’-eye views of how a few landmark shows (at least in a business sense) made their way to the stage: EQUUS, A CHORUS LINE, DREAMGIRLS, CATS, NINE, CHESS, 42ND STREET, and more. Creative talents like Michael Bennett and Andrew Lloyd Webber deal with both adulation and ignominy before our eyes. And the long slog toward the desperately needed rejuvenation of Times Square — featuring Atlanta architect John Portman, he of the glass elevators, and his mammoth Marriott Marquis Hotel, which plants a gentrifying flag in the seedy district (its lobby is five floors above the hoi polloi at street level, and there’s a Broadway theater inside the hotel) — becomes a life-and-death struggle from the producers’ point of view. (“Where’s Broadway going to go? New Jersey?” asks a skeptical Mayor Ed Koch about the neighborhood.) Again, the book is too Shubertcentric: we also don’t get that close a look at interlopers like the Walt Disney Company, whose seemingly daft 49-year lease of the decrepit New Amsterdam Theater was the key to the revival of 42nd Street.

In the analog era I might have noted that some of the location description might be a little off-putting to people who don’t know New York City that well: I might have complained that there was no theater-district map. But everybody can locate these places on their frickin phones by now, so all you really need for SECRET LIFE and RAZZLE DAZZLE is a love for the American musical, and/or a curiosity about how it’s served to you. One’s for the notes. The other’s for the C-notes. But you can’t have Broadway without both of them.

The Five Biggest Cultural Events Of 2015

December 30, 2015

41199682-fa08-4cca-9691-bfdd5163c812_12731_CUSTOMHAMILTON. Every bit as crowd-pleasing as it is brilliant, this changes everything, as OKLAHOMA!, HAIR and RENT once did, by bringing fresh ideas into the theater just when we needed them. Among the show’s legion of fans is the President of the United States (and he saw the understudy!), who commented, ”I’m pretty sure this is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I have agreed on during my entire political career.” The night Cheney attended, creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote, “He’s the OTHER vice-president who shot a friend while in office.” A hip-hop musical about the Founding Fathers is the toughest ticket in New York: who would have thought? Before HAMILTON wins its inevitable Tony next June, I predict it will have already earned the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

UnknownTRUMP. Talk about a disruptor! The Pub race was always gonna be colorful (Rick Santorum again?), but Jeb! was supposed to be unstoppable: guys like Rubio and Kasich were actually running for vice president, went the wisdom. Then Donald J. Trump shows up with a very simple message for the Pub base: (1) I don’t even HAVE a dog whistle, so I say out loud what you’ve been thinking all along; and (2) I’m so rich that the power brokers can’t buy me off. Add that to a general loathing of professional politicians among the Tea Party set (the wet-eared, anti-governance Freedom Caucus just obtained the scalp of its own party’s Speaker of the House), and Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are promoted as electable not despite, but because of their ignorance. The star chambers which actually run the party have been impotently predicting The Donald’s demise for six months, but now the RNC is making contingency plans to protect its down-ballot candidates against an ever more possible Trump nomination. Absurd, yes. But party bosses have to think about it. Anything less would be malpractice.

Unknown-1ADELE. Recorded music was supposed to be dead to streaming and piracy. Then Adele released her album 25, and to say it was eagerly awaited is the understatement of the 21st century. In its first week, 25 sold more than 3 million copies in the U.S., shattering quarter-century sales records to bits and making it far and away the most lucrative cash cow of the digital era. To put it another way, that week 25 was responsible for 42% of all recorded music sales; the closest competitor in this regard is Taylor Swift’s RED one year ago, and she controlled barely half of Adele’s market share. Her listeners come from all shades of the music spectrum: men and women, old and young, people who barely follow what’s left of the music business. Her single “Hello” became so ingrained in the culture that it was able to serve as the recurring punch line for a SNL sketch, “A Thanksgiving Miracle,” the week she appeared.

tfa_poster_wide_header_adb92fa0STAR WARS. Adele the most fervently anticipated in the year of THE FORCE AWAKENS? I still say yes, because of the utter domination of her business. But I doubt there’s a living being anywhere up the food chain from the unicellular flagellate that wasn’t aware of the coming date of December 18. The hitch was that many devotees had been soured by the ho-hum “prequel” trilogy, so the #1 job of Bob Iger and the marketers at Disney, new owner of Lucasfilm, was to get the fans back on board. I won’t go into detail (see it soon or it’s sure to get spoiled for you), but mission accomplished. And the globe-spanning magnitude of STAR WARS fever was up there in Adele territory. It took THE FORCE AWAKENS just two weeks to become the all-time worldwide #9, and it could even be a notch higher by the time the ball drops in Times Square. Now let’s see if it can rack up a sick amount of multiple viewings like TITANIC or its 1977 predecessor. This is the first STAR WARS picture without George Lucas’s hands on it — he gets a “based on characters by” credit — but J. J. Abrams really performed under pressure, and this makes two iconic space franchises he’s re-energized. We’re starting to see a backlash develop among people who found the flick a little too familiar, but just now Disney is right where it wants to be, armed with the ultimate selling proposition: everybody wants it, and only we have it.

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_WatchmanGO SELL A WATCHMAN. That is not a typo: the event wasn’t really the content of Harper Lee’s second published novel — the critical reaction has been tepid to a story that pales when compared to her inspiring masterpiece TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD — but the circumstances of its discovery and dissemination decades after it was written. After keeping GO SET A WATCHMAN locked away for half a century, was the frail and ailing author honestly willing to approve its publication now? It was the fastest-selling book in HarperCollins’s long history (they published MOBY-DICK, dude), doing 1.1 million units in the first week and a skajillion more as the year wore on. More people wanted it in paper than on a pad — the opposite sales pattern from most works of fiction — and physical booksellers quite understandably rejoiced. Anything that brings in customers is good for everybody, and the book business could really use some good news right now.

4/18/16: And the Pulitzer Prize goes to…HAMILTON.

5/26/16: And the Pub nomination goes to…TRUMP!

10 Things I Learned About London Theater In 3 Days

September 11, 2015
  1. Unknown-1In England, Roald Dahl gets a possessory credit above the title (like the one John Carpenter takes) for CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.
  2. They charge four pounds for a Playbill in London. But it’s bigger than the free US ones, each particular edition has some editorial material about the specific show you’re seeing, and, anyhow, somebody in front of me was somehow able to run down the cast (“Who’s Who”…) on his smartphone.
  3.  TPTGW106-700x325Slapstick works everywhere. THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG, which is basically the disaster act of NOISES OFF quadrupled, or maybe a live version of THE ART OF COARSE ACTING, should come with complimentary pairs of Pampers. Sometimes you can’t even breathe.
  4. When the manager of THE COMMITMENTS yells just before the fourth-wall-breaking encore set, “Is there anybody here from Ireland?”, a London audience can give him a huge response.
  5. UnknownThere are theater-busting assholes everywhere. Just to the right of me at THE COMMITMENTS, two biddies talked to each other using normal conversational tones during the entire show, as if they were home watching telly. Fortunately, whenever the soul band played, you couldn’t hear them any more. They did their best to ruin the show but failed.
  6. You can order “interval” (intermission) drinks before the show. When you get to the bar at halftime, they’re already waiting for you. The interval order taker is the most popular guy as the audience is filing in.
  7. Ice cream is a huge interval favorite, but can be queued for and consumed in the auditorium itself. No biggie. A member of staff will be by just before curtain with a big rubbish bag.
  8. They don’t tell you to turn off your phone or don’t take pictures or don’t bring anything into the theater. People just take all the pre-show pictures they like but know enough to turn everything off when they should. I never heard a cell phone ring or even saw anyone surreptitiously consulting one during the actual performance. The transgressive biddies were, sadly, non-electronic.
  9. maxresdefaultThose oompa loompas (five or six different sly costume-&-lighting gags to make an average-sized person appear to be half hisser actual height) are amazing and worth the CHARLIE ticket alone. The bad news: they don’t appear until Act II.
  10. Understudies and overstudies come out on stage for the final performance. The lead COMMITMENTS role — the asshole singer — was being played by the Sunday man, but his rest-of-the-week counterpart, and all other fill-ins, showed up on stage for the finale of the show’s West End run. Is the musical — book, in the musical theater sense, by Roddy Doyle — any good? Look: all they promise is that you’ll get to see the soul revue known as the Commitments throw down live on stage, and once they kicked the show proper away for a joyous out-of-character series of encores, they bloody blew the roof off the bloody dump. So no, and bloody YES.

The Dynamic Duo In Gotham City

July 10, 2015

thAs Penn & Teller began their limited New York engagement last Tuesday night, it seemed like a valedictory performance, at least to those of us old enough to remember the mid-Eighties off-Broadway run at the Westside Arts that made them national stars. They are now the official longest-running headliners in the history of Las Vegas, which tells you how long it’s been since they’ve played Broadway. But New York still holds a special place in their hearts; you can tell.

th-1When they introduced themselves to the nation from the home base of that Westside engagement, they’d already been honing their act for a decade. They quickly became the hippest ticket in town (the eccentricity was a big draw; their Obie was inscribed “To Penn & Teller for Whatever It’s Called That They Do”) and favored guests on New York’s own Letterman show, which reached just their kind of crowd, all across the country. Back then, before the Internet took over everything, the technologically savvy P&T hosted MOFO, a computer bulletin board that allowed their fans to chat with the boys and each other. (It was named for “MOFO, the Psychic Gorilla,” the star of one of their few bits in which the normally silent Teller spoke, though surreptitiously.) Penn used to lead midnight jaunts through a grimier Times Square and descend with his small posse on an unsuspecting grindhouse for some kung fu or B-movie horror. They’ve always nurtured a personal attachment in their fans, greeting them outside the theater after each show. (Shake Penn’s hand or tell him you loved it, and he’ll probably say, “Thanks, boss.” See, everybody who pays to see him is his…)

th-1I had a strong feeling that this might be my last chance to see Penn & Teller on stage. Not that I sense anything ominous regarding their partnership or their appeal. It’s just that Vegas is so rippin far away. For years to come, I’m sure I can always buy a plane ticket and book a hotel room and schlep myself across the country to the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio. But now, in a rare luxury, they were coming to me: all I had to do was hop a bus and take a short stroll. So I decided to make the most of P&T’s brief NYC residency by also attending their “TimesTalk” at the beautiful New York Times Center the Thursday before they began performing at the Marquis.

At the TimesTalk.

At the TimesTalk.

Before a fraction of the capacity of their Broadway venue, the boys chatted with moderator Erik Piepenburg, did a few tricks, and answered questions from the audience. You’ve heard Penn talk for years now, but Teller in particular is quite well-spoken and astute; he’s spent so much stage and air time in silence — which he views as a more intimate form of communication — that you occasionally find yourself disoriented as the “quiet guy” spews out deftly-considered sentences. They’re both wry and funny (Teller: the difference between the old street-busking days and Broadway is, “Here, you pass the hat first.”), yet dead serious about matters that demand it, including the performance of magic. I’ve probably watched Teller in Houdini’s “East Indian Needles” illusion ten times now, including at this TimesTalk and later at the Broadway show, and even though the method is widely known if you care to dig, it’s still exhilarating to see it nailed perfectly by a master; it’s exactly like watching a beloved song done live by the very singer you wanted to hear. They also presented their legendary take on “Cups & Balls,” an ancient sleight-of-hand routine, using transparent cups. At the end came one I hadn’t seen before: they convinced a blindfolded volunteer that solid rings were passing through her arms using an intricate, delicate series of moves requiring both performers. We, the audience, were watching the method, which was fooling only the blinded subject, and we were still amazed at the clever artistry that spun the illusion. Which was the whole point, after all. For us, it was a great intimate session with two wonderful raconteurs. For them, it was the dinner break from rehearsal.

th-2Five nights later, I was settling in for their first preview at the Marquis. As in Vegas, the Penn & Teller pre-show consists of a jaunty, merry jazz pianist (Mike Jones, “Jonesy,” who’s been with them forever) accompanied by a big guy in a fedora thumping away on an upright bass. They’ve been playing since the house opened. The bassist is Penn, he’s actually a pretty good one-man rhythm section, and he’ll keep picking that tub until about curtain minus :10. On stage, as is also common in their Vegas show, are some props that the arriving audience members are invited to come up and inspect and/or sign.

PENN & TELLER ON BROADWAY had been described by the stars in the TimesTalk as a summation of their career: not “our greatest hits,” but a meaningful selection. For example, “Needles” was the first trick Penn ever saw Teller perform. Historic. It’s in. The boys took command of the theater even before they were announced. Projected onto a big video screen, Penn instructed us to turn our cell phones ON. One lucky audience member was going to be selected for the first trick, and that person would be able to record it from an angle that would reveal the method. Once the mind-blowing bit was over, we all realized: the video inside that guy’s cell phone is the ONLY way you could figure out how that phone possibly got from one place to a jaw-dropping other place. A minicam figured into another hilarious piece as well. Never let it be said that Penn & Teller are old-fashioned.

No. Let it be frickin said. When they first appeared off-Broadway thirty years ago, Teller writes in the program notes, their producers advised them to avoid describing themselves as “magicians.” It, um, conjured the wrong image. So they remained coy about what they did (note the Obie citation). Only while exiting did their audiences realize they’d been persuaded to attend a magic show. Now, on their triumphant return, they’re embracing their inner magicians. Penn promises the audience that they will see nothing less than: (1) a rabbit pulled from a hat! (2) a lady sawed into halves! and (3) the vanishing of an elephant! “What more could you possibly want from a Broadway magic show?” he bellows. But in between, they take humorous but no less effective shots at hated enemies like “mentalists,” unthinking religious fervor (they don’t even like thinking religious fervor), and, science be praised, the imperious rat bastards of the T.S.A.

thMaybe I’m imagining it, but I think I noticed a nod to the duo’s advancing physical age. Don’t get me wrong, they both look great. Penn has lost more than 100 pounds after being diagnosed with high blood pressure and adopting a healthier lifestyle. Teller is as quick and agile as ever, but he’s a couple years older than I, and I have a Medicare card, d00d. What we didn’t see was one of those towering Grand Guignol bits that used to put Teller in jeopardy, whether suspended above spring-loaded bear traps or a row of pointed spikes, “drowned” in a water-escape cell, or madly pulling himself through tubes to appear as impossibly separated body parts. These are all illusions, sure, but they require physical effort too. I suspect that at some point the partners may have decided to pull back a scoche on the stuff that makes you pant. There’s a grisly moment played for laughs — their specialty — and Penn does “risk injury” in a piece with a nail gun, but that aspect of P&T has been refined. They still perform the amazing “Bullet Catch” in Vegas, but that’s as suspenseful as they get nowadays.

th-2No, my two favorite parts of this show were quieter ones. I think Teller has performed the piece they call “Shadows” every time I’ve seen them live, and each time it strikes me with a melancholy I can’t explain. (Same beloved-song analogy as above.) By the end of the illusion I want to cry. I almost did this time, because for me the trick’s innate sadness was stuffed together with, this may be the last time I ever see this. Sniffle. Then the lights went out and Penn began talking softly about carnival acts, the “ten-in-ones,” the freak shows. Then some fire lit him just a tad, and his monologue led us up slowly to a demonstration of fire eating. What he was saying seemed to come from deep inside. He never raised his voice. He said that after thirty years of coming out and greeting the audience after every show, they couldn’t help but eavesdrop on some remarkable comments. “Aw, Teller used candy needles.” (As if anybody would manufacture them.) “It was cold fire.” (WTF?) Everything else we’ve done tonight has been a trick, said Penn. This — meaning the small torch he was about to put into his mouth — is a stunt. They went through a routine that I once saw with a female assistant; tonight, the part was taken by Teller. Finally, in that same calm, earnest tone, Penn uttered the words that have opened and closed every live show I’ve ever seen: “I’m Penn Jillette, this is my partner Teller, we are Penn & Teller.” Now came a tear: the monologue and fire-eating was also how they’d ended their Westside Arts show, all those fun-filled years ago.

And just like that, poof! it was done.


All About The Hamiltons

March 9, 2015

About fifteen minutes into the performance, the hairs on my arms and neck started to tingle. I looked around at the stage, the theater. I wanted a really good mental picture of this place and time, because I knew I was amid something amazing, and so did the cast and crew who were performing it. By the end of the first act, I still had the same unreal fervor. Now it almost felt like guilt, that I was watching something so transgressive that I shouldn’t even be there. As we filed out at show’s end, I realized I’d been clenching my body for the inevitable breaking of the spell, which always, always happens, even to the most promising Act I hopes.

Nope. Not this time. I had just witnessed the most rule-breaking, game-changing, crowd-thrilling piece of theater since the original Broadway production of HAIR — which was realized by this same Public Theater. In other words, HAMILTON punched me harder than anything in nearly fifty years. As we were walking out, Linda said, “I’d go back in there and see it again right now,” and that goes double for me. The last time I felt that way was GATZ, also at this selfsame Public.

th-2More than one friend of mine had been skeptical after the word of mouth and then the reviews were all unrealistically fervid. HAMILTON was the hottest ticket in New York before it even opened. Hey, we sneered, nothing’s that good. Besides, our murky understanding was that this was some kind of “hip-hop musical,” and by me you can keep most hip-hop music: I’m too old and too Caucasian. (I think Eminem’s “Stan” is a compact noir masterpiece, but to me it’s the exception that proves the rule.) Still, knowledgeable people were falling all over themselves trying to explain how miraculous this thing is. Now I’ve seen it, and it’s my turn to try.

After the Tony-winning success of IN THE HEIGHTS (we were lucky enough to attend the ceremony the night Lin-Manuel Miranda won the biggest award, Best Musical), the writer-composer read Ron Chernow’s biography ALEXANDER HAMILTON and made the indelible connections that brought his story to the stage. Here was an illegitimate child, an abandoned orphan, a Caribbean immigrant to whom Revolutionary-era British-American society was as alien as was the slaves’ native Africa to their owners, a guy who pulled himself up by the bootstraps and through courage, smarts and sheer chutzpah insinuated himself into the snobby cabal of the Founding Fathers. Hamilton was no saint — he was hard-headed, loose-lipped and lustily robust; a lurid sex scandal probably prevented any serious run at the Presidency — and one of the great strengths of this piece is that he is presented candidly: at some points you sympathize with his opponents and wish the title character would just shut the hell up.

hamiltonAs for the music, there’s far more variety than I expected. There are ballads, traditional belters, musical winks and nods ranging from Gilbert & Sullivan to Led Zeppelin. But, yes, the beating heart of HAMILTON is that relentless hip-hop groove, an instant behind James Brown’s “the One,” which the best rhymers can cram with truth: here boasting, there spitting with rage. You don’t have to know a thing about Alexander Hamilton when you sit down. All those biographical facts and much more will be taught you with self-asserting lyrics that tear away all anachronism and make the historical characters as relevant as a smartphone.

In a program note, the Public’s Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis, compares the sound of hip-hop to Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter, and I couldn’t shake that feeling. Whenever I sit down for a Shakespeare play, there’s an initial period in which I have to get used to the ornate 16th-century language. After five minutes or so I can “sync in,” relax and enjoy the Bard’s beat. Here, we’re held by the hand as the opening number introduces the hip-hop cadence softly, clearly, the beat defined only by snapping fingers. (The orchestra is silent while we “sync in.”) Hamilton’s pre-Revolutionary backstory is presented as a group of song lyrics — the show is “sung through,” meaning there’s no dialogue — which lets us teach ourselves how to listen. As the orchestration later grows more complex (a superb sound mix never allows it to overpower the lyrics), we retain that comfort level, and even though rhymes will soon be flying by as fast as we can register them, we still feel comfortable within the form because of that early tutelage.

hamilton_public-theaterThis has all been tried before; HAMILTON is simply the most successful at it. BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, billed as an “emo” show, also depicted classic events through a contemporary filter. So did RENT, and even though Jonathan Larson’s songs were a high point of Nineties musical theater, we still got the feeling that the characters were Lower East Side dilettantes roaming through the milieu of LA BOHEME, that they were interpreting Puccini in the light of their own experiences: wow, we’re just like those bohemians. HAMILTON takes things a crucial step farther. Its players inhabit the historical characters. We’re not just like these immigrants, these outcasts mishandled by the plutocrats of their own empire: we ARE them.

HAMILTON is (very nicely) costumed for the period, as was ANDREW JACKSON. The set depends on vaguely period-specific carpentry and director Thomas Kail’s continually clever use of a turntable, which can make the stage appear for dramatic purposes many times larger than it is: 360-degree “camera moves”; a pedestrian approaching from afar, walking past, and disappearing in the distance, etc. What rocks us is the people inside the costumes: they’re all of African, Hispanic, Asian descent. The immigrants have busted open the American creation myth! That Thomas Jefferson…he’s…a black man! (And in Act I, he played Lafayette!) Public Theater founder Joe Papp championed race-(even gender-)neutral casting fifty years ago, which opened the Shakespeare canon to a new generation of actors. HAMILTON says, this isn’t a stunt: the Founding Fathers had more in common with us than you were taught. Then, while we’re busy pondering all that heavy ethnic stuff, a white man walks onstage. Wearing a crown.

thWe were lucky enough to see Brian d’Arcy James on his last day as King George: he left the HAMILTON company to prepare for his starring turn in SOMETHING ROTTEN! (Jonathan Groff, of HAIR and SPRING AWAKENING, took over, so the role is in good hands.) Mr. Miranda has given the British king only three appearances, but they each rock the house so hard — in imperious taunting style until late in the piece, when George joins the hip-hopping others in celebrating the fact that Hamilton will never become president — that we want more of that British royal crimson among HAMILTON’s other colors. The snarky monarch will go down in theater lore as an all-time coveted part when HAMILTON finally descends to community and educational venues.

So much is illuminated through this strange prism. As might be familiar to any follower of Maker Studios’ hilarious Web series EPIC RAP BATTLES OF HISTORY, the fierce debates between Jefferson and Hamilton over our republic’s financial system are presented as hip-hop battles, complete with dropped-microphone swagger. Throughout, it’s amazing how much actual historical info these beats are beating into our minds. (On this issue, Hamilton won: the little orphan bastard devised America’s monetary system as Secretary of the Treasury, battling Jefferson all the way.)

Duels. Hamilton was slain by his career-long rival Aaron Burr in a duel, every schoolchild knows that. There are actually three duels staged in HAMILTON, and the first one gives us the “ten rules” atop a whirring turntable. By the time the climactic Burr-Hamilton shootout arrives, we know how to watch, and as we walk out of the Public’s Newman Theater in pistol range between two life-sized statues of the combatants, they mean much more to us than they did when we entered three hours before.

Nothing’s perfect, of course, and HAMILTON could have benefited from more solid realization of its few female characters: right now, they’re largely window dressing and the higher voices on some pretty duets. But an intricately choreographed chorus of singer/dancers, evenly divided by gender, keep the stage flashing and insert themselves into the story where needed. Don’t stare too hard, though: you need to keep sharp and pay attention.

hamilton-21To my retrospective sorrow, I have not seen IN THE HEIGHTS. (At the Tony afterparty, I literally ran into a still-walking-on-air Mr. Miranda down a long, thin corridor to the restroom: “Sorry.” “Nice going!” “Thanks, man!”) I hate that because I think HAMILTON might be remembered as a keystone in the reinstatement of live theatre to its rightful place as a vital part of popular culture, much the role HAIR served in the late Sixties. (And, in fairness, RENT in the Nineties.) Now I wish I had taken the effort to see its progenitor. HAIR, that Medicare-aged pioneer, really doesn’t date all that well. I saw the recent revival and had tears streaming down my face, but they were chasing the beauty of the melodies, not any particular symbolism that survives. It’s a period piece, nostalgia, even a tad corny by now. But those songs — and on Broadway, no less! By contrast, HAMILTON forces reconsideration of history. It’s not a contemporary record: it’s a bridge between cultures, the first one to span this particular pathway.

I saw HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, HAIR, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, HAMILTON and others in their original “downtown” (or Central Park) engagements. Few (HEDWIG, HAIR) really prospered after their transition to larger Broadway houses. HAMILTON will try its luck when it begins Broadway performances on July 13. I have no idea how the piece will translate to a bigger room, but I’ll tell you this much: when we saw the NYTimes ad, we hustled to find Broadway dates. Yes, we’re clawing for tickets — and homes, we’ve already seen it.

Aaron Burr (l.) and Alexander Hamilton in permanent dueling position at the theater entrance at the Public's Astor Place HQ.

Aaron Burr (l.) and Alexander Hamilton in permanent dueling position at the theater entrance at the Public’s Astor Place HQ.

3/10/15: Thanks to my friend David Morgan of CBS for telling me about the great piece CBS SUNDAY MORNING did on the show last Sunday.

8/7/15: And Ben Brantley welcomes the show’s Broadway transition with one of the most gushing reviews he’s ever written. We’ll be back to see the Broadway production in November, but you can already start inscribing the 2016 Tony plaque, my friend.

11/7/15: The space is bigger on Broadway but the show loses not a whit of power in the larger room. We saw Andrew Rannells, in temporarily so Groff could go do a gig, as King George (he was terrific). So we’ve seen HAMILTON twice now, but never with the original Broadway cast. We’re planning to go back yet again.

Synchin’ ‘n’ The Reign

January 13, 2015
John Epperson at work.

John Epperson at work.

We went downtown to see the final performance of THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD, a show that we just couldn’t miss for two reasons. One, I met the co-star, Steve Cuiffo, last summer at Ricky Jay’s magic immersion weekend. Steve mentioned this piece from the stage and I made the mental note to see it next chance I got, because he then called out the second reason by name-checking the star, an old friend of mine from Mississippi theater days, John Epperson. John’s better known now by another name, as audience after audience screams with laughter and delight at the antics of his alter ego: the fabulous Lypsinka.

Calling Lypsinka a drag act is like calling Segovia a guitar player: it’s technically correct, but man, are you missing the point. What Lypsinka brings onstage tests the limits of a theatrical tradition and then explodes them. John Epperson isn’t just the best at what he does, he has no serious competition. That’s how five, six, ten years can pass between New York Lypsinka shows and her many fans, both gay and straight, will still be clamoring for tickets. Lypsinka rules, like the grande dame she is.

Drag itself is a venerable art form, and not only in gay-oriented places. For many years, “female impersonators” like Jim Bailey have been perfectly welcome in mainstream venues, including big Vegas rooms, the Sunday-night Ed Sullivan Show, even Carnegie Hall. I remember watching Bailey impersonate Garland, Streisand, or Phyllis Diller on Sullivan from my home in Jackson, Mississippi. About thirty miles away in a town called Hazlehurst, perhaps tuned to the same tv station, John Epperson was doing his best to cope.

John Epperson in mufti.

John Epperson in mufti.

John is years younger than I — discretion forbids the exact figure — and for his higher education he moved to Jackson and Belhaven College. I’d long since graduated from Millsaps College, two or three miles away. For years afterward, I used to tell people I had a “conservative-arts” education, bada-boom, but I kid Millsaps College. To a Mississippi just barely emerging from its Klan-ruled era, Millsaps (Methodist) looked, and felt, like Berkeley. Today it features MBAs and its own Phi Beta Kappa chapter. John’s Belhaven (Presbyterian), on the other hand, was the real deal: mandatory chapel, all of that. Not exactly the prime breeding spot for future underground musical comedy stars.

Because of the age difference, I didn’t meet John until after college, when I returned from Georgia and both of us hung around a troupe of local players at Jackson’s New Stage Theatre. I well remember a solo show John put up in the Hewes Room, a small performance space at the Jackson Little Theater. Just him and a piano. It must have been an early stab at what eventually became JOHN EPPERSON: SHOW TRASH (1), the makeup-free portion of LYPSINKA! THE TRILOGY, in which three of his already-established shows recently ran “in rep” for two months in New York. The other day, we saw THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD (2), to which I’ll return in a moment. The third piece was a full-blown Lypsinka show called LYPSINKA! THE BOXED SET (3). My favorite of such amazements is a long-ago production called I COULD GO ON LIP-SYNCHING! This is the uncut stuff that has made Lypsinka (like Cher, she’s fabulous enough to need only one name, but she is actually a scion of the Von Rasputinas) literally world-famous.

Every Lypsinka show requires its creator to produce not just one single miracle, but three of them. The first miraculous step is the prerecorded audio track. John assembles this personally, with an engineer (here, Alex Noyes). A typical Lypsinka piece employs hundreds of cues from radio, movies, tv, records, interviews, anything, all mashed into a bizarre lickety-split throughline that makes sense only in the performance. It’s far beyond simply lip-synching songs; a Lypsinka track is composed of tightly-cued bits of speech that play like music. About half of the CRAWFORD show reproduces the notorious interview conducted at New York’s Town Hall by public relations man John Springer on April 8, 1973, only weeks after Marlon Brando had sent a faux Indian to the stage to decline his Oscar for THE GODFATHER. While generational change is all around her, La Crawford is still living in the Forties, the obsequious audience applauds every mention of any past screen luminary, and this mindless adoration gets ever funnier as it continues. Then we have some shorter audio pieces, such as Miss Crawford reading the cloying but briefly trendy “Desiderata” on a tv appearance. Finally we descend into a major fantasia, with pantomimed telephones alternately ringing into her left and right ears to introduce lurid Crawford snippets wrenched out of potboilers ranging from classics to STRAIGHT JACKET to TROG. This last surreal section is a full-throttle Lypsinka sound assembly, so artfully devised that it might kill all by itself just coming out of an iPod. But then you wouldn’t know where to look.

The second miracle is memorization. I would love to be a fly on the wall at rehearsals for a new Lypsinka piece, especially this one, which uniquely requires TWO lip-synching actors. Last summer at the Ricky Jay weekend, Steve Cuiffo — who plays Springer, every other interrogator, and even that classic announcer Dick Tufeld Speaking — discussed this show in that very sense. He described how lip-synching demands a radically different form of preparation than for a more traditional role. Here, timing is everything and the cues are instinctive. I imagine they must sound something like music, but without the reassurance of countable rhythm. Anybody can learn a play’s worth of dialogue, trust me. But there has to be a certain natural awareness by which John and Steve can memorize the pauses too. For many years John’s day job was as rehearsal pianist for American Ballet Theatre; you can see him in this capacity in a crucial scene in Darren Aronofsky’s film BLACK SWAN. Imagine the innate timekeeping ability required to support a classical dancer’s precision; he has to be more on-the-nose than most drummers. Maybe that’s how he’s managed to limber up that split-second timing. Steve was responsible for queries and pauses for perhaps two-thirds of one show. John performed all thirds of that same show, plus a full-length solo piece requiring the same unflagging concentration, not to mention SHOW TRASH as himself, and all of it in random order as the two-month “rep” engagement continued. No more complaining from any other actors struggling to get off book!

Steve Cuiffo (l.) and Lypsinka performing THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD.

Steve Cuiffo (l.) and Lypsinka performing THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD.

The miraculous trinity is completed in the visual performance. With classic-era diva makeup slathered on, Lypsinka is able to amplify the recorded track with movements so minute and dead-on that it’s possible to occasionally forget she isn’t actually speaking. For CRAWFORD, I was sitting in the stage-right front row, no more than ten feet from the two performers, and I noticed only five, maybe six slight “sync” errors during the entire hour-plus piece. (Those came at points where there was really no way to anticipate the cue, and each time the actors recovered instantly.) That’s all the imperfection I could see, and I was right on top of them! Lypsinka’s addenda are her eyes, lips, coiffure, diva-esque turns, and occasional drop-dead gazes at her interlocutor. Clothes hang nicely on John’s model-thin frame; Lypsinka is born to fashion (and has actually graced some famous runways), not some dragette stuffing himself into a costume. Sitting very close for the first time at a Lypsinka performance, I expected the show to be aimed beyond me, like some Broadway actors will do (Jason Robards Jr., for example, was an inveterate spitter, and some of his downstage histrionics could actually reach the front row). But I noticed some very subtle things between the two actors which might not even have projected. Or maybe I’m wrong about that: the reason you wear makeup on stage in the first place is so the folks in the back row can see your features plainly. Lypsinka’s makeup looks good up close in a maturing-diva sense (in other words, this Crawford’s no longer young enough to try to appear natural), but you can see every overly dramatic lip-tremble from the back row too. You can probably see it from the frickin International Space Station.

After the show, John came out for a very rare curtain talk: I’d never before seen him appear on stage out of character. It was the last night of the run, the final CRAWFORD, and in two hours he would end the entire engagement with a late-show performance of SHOW TRASH. As he thanked us, the soft-spoken Hazlehurst accent appeared, unamplified, and he seemed to lose an inch or two in height, in clear contrast to the over-the-top boisterous razzle-dazzle he’d just presented. Then a sly grin. “If we decided to do this again, maybe in a year or so, would you tell your friends…and come back?” Of course, the place went nuts. What a wonderful body of performance art this talented actor has created. Whenever you’re ready, just say (or sync) the word, man, and you can count on me.

P.S. It’ll take a little longer, because a year from now John is already booked, as we learned in the New York Times.

6/2/15: Jim Bailey, referenced above, left us this year.

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