[Note: For any readers who might have caught an earlier, briefly posted version of this installment, please discard that one and read this one! It’s been further edited, tightened, and considerably trimmed (although it’s still a rather lengthy post). With thanks, the FS]
Although the recently announced Tony Award nominations held few surprises, my recent spate of New York theatre-going allowed me to see some of the performances/productions vying for the upcoming distinctions. Here are my own biased opinions on a few of this season’s shows.
The Drowsy Chaperone
The Drowsy Chaperone is a wonderful confection of a musical (with lyrics written by my several times removed Canadian cousin, Lisa Lambert, who won a 2006 Tony Award for her work). I was too late to see the show with the original cast; Bob Martin, who also wrote the book, has joined the cast of the London production. But John Glover has ably replaced him in the sweetly fey role of the nameless “Man in Chair,” who invites the audience to “listen” with him to an old-fashioned musical from the 20s called The Drowsy Chaperone. He pops in to comment on the plot and the structure and idiosyncrasies of musicals, speaking directly to the audience about the pleasure of being transported by theatre, which should, he says, always entertain and never be a chore. In fact, the show opens in the dark, with his voice announcing, “I hate theatre.” He goes on to qualify, saying before each curtain goes up, he prays that the show will be good, but is often disappointed.
Drowsy works hard not to disappoint. It’s a bonbon of a show, a box of chocolates sent in honor of the very genre in which it works. Its collaborators clearly love musicals; they know enough about them to send them up flawlessly and affectionately. Each of the characters is purposefully two-dimensional, but played to the hilt of their stereotypes by a troupe of game, talented dancers and singers. The two leading characters in the musical-within-the-musical—the romantic leads—are named after the original lead of the framing production of Drowsy (Bob Martin) and his real-life wife, Janet Van de Graaff. This little not-so-inside-joke is part of the show’s amusing and knowing self-reflexivity, and helps to signal the good humor with which it’s meant to be received.
Glover does a wonderful job with the role of the dithering, but happily transported spectator, who at the end of the play-within-the-play is rewarded for his faith in the power of transformation with an invitation into the fantasy musical that’s crowded his living room throughout the short evening. The performers, conjured alive by his vivid imagination, convert his shabby apartment into places of romance and theatricality, using the refrigerator to make grand entrances and his barred apartment windows to hang draperies that elevate the décor’s élan. His Murphy bed goes up and comes down to reveal an assortment of characters in compromising positions, the bedclothes redecorated for each occasion.
Through Drowsy’s amusing pedagogy, Man in Chair instructs us what to listen for and look at, cheerfully and enthusiastically teaching us how to be appreciative spectators for a musical lollipop that gives him enormous (and infectious) pleasure. Occasionally, the actors appear to get stuck or skip, as they would were we really listening to a record (which Man in Chair holds up at the top of the show, proud that it’s not a CD). The convention is fun, if obvious, and the vaudeville shtick sprinkled liberally through the proceedings also offers surprising amusements, given how stale the jokes should by rights feel.
Casey Nicholaw (who most recently choreographed Spamalot) directs the production to fly through its paces without missing a beat. The show is sharp, visually elaborate and imaginative, nicely choreographed, and managed with assurance and appropriate alacrity. It’s also moving to watch this lonely man (about whom we know nothing but his love for musicals, which is all that matters, in a musical) conjure this cast of characters to keep him company and entertain him.
Race and gender stereotypes abound, as they did in musicals of the era. The actors play them to the hilt, enjoying the buffoonery of the ingénue and leading man as much as the ditziness of the soubrette and her foil. Danny Burstein received a 2006 Tony Award nomination for playing the oily Latin lover Adolpho with thick layers of inspired vocal and physical comedy. Drowsy comments as knowingly on its racism as it does on shopworn musical conventions, and escapes offense because it admits to its excesses and historicizes them as conventions of the musical-within-the-musical’s moment.
The Man in Chair’s innocence, faith, and willing suspension of disbelief rewards him with transformation. He leaves the show carried into the flies on the wing of a biplane (which appears from nowhere, flown by an aviatrix who would now, he tells us, be called a lesbian), allowed into the sacred and sacrilegious world of unreality that’s the pleasure of the musical.
Spring Awakening (which lead this year with a total of eleven Tony Award nominations) does more for the musical than offer a valentine to its slightly archaic past. Based on the Wedekind play of almost the same name, the musical—with an urbane, slightly dissonant, but not entirely memorable score by Duncan Sheik and a book and lyrics by Steven Sater, both nominated for Tonys—concerns the angst of a group of high-school boys tightly reined in by teachers and foolish, socially hyperconscious and hypocritical parents. While the story is set in late 1800s in Germany, its contemporary resonances seep through in every moment, as the pop-style music reminds us that students today suffer the same cruel rites of teenage passage.
Spring Awakening clearly means to be the Rent of its generation, and its reviews supported its ambitions. I don’t find the show musically or theatrically revolutionary. Like Rent, Spring Awakening is a coming of age story. But unlike its predecessor, the musical doesn’t divide its situations among a range of contemporary and exemplary bohemian types, but instead focuses more conventionally on the complicated lives of just three of its young characters.
There’s Melchior, the romantic male lead (played with high energy and sweaty passion by Jonathan Groff, who received a Tony nomination for his efforts), and his love object Wendla (Lea Michele), the doomed heroine who doesn’t rise from the dead as Mimi does in Rent, and Moritz (John Gallagher, Jr., also Tony-nominated), an unstable foil for Melchior, whose death is caused by the brutality of his parents and his teachers, who bear responsibility here for everything horrible that befalls the characters.
Played by Christine Estabrook and Stephen Spinella, the adult figures are vile and oppressive, but they’re also comic, especially in Estabrook’s droll renderings. Her schoolmarm quivers with a facial tick that seems to have its own blocking, yet she never appears to be mugging. Likewise, Spinella grounds his vignettes in his characters’ desires and his ultimately good intentions, even if their choices wind up inflicting palpable harm. For instance, he plays Moritz’s father, enforcing the pressure of social norms on a son ill-equipped to acquiesce to them, and feverishly insisting the boy’s failure will blemish the family’s reputation.
Michael Mayer directs Spring Awakening with a powerful attention to emotional detail, crafting moments full of meaning and portent. When Wendla asks Melchior to treat her roughly, so that she’ll feel something deeply, the action builds to a beating that intimately links sexuality and violence.
Propelled by roiling desires they can’t understand, none of the characters are trustworthy, and few are fully known. Instead, they stand for archetypes, generations of Euro-American young people tortured by hormones, social regulations, and existential philosophy that descends on them like lightning with a thunderclap.
The young women are incidental to Spring Awakening. Aside from Wendla and Isla (an enigmatic character whose fate is unclear, although she sings a couple of songs that the actor delivers beautifully), the girls blur into a generic ensemble. They rotate through verses of a chilling song about sexual abuse, but their plaints never sound a major theme or advance the plot.
Mayer handles the production’s brief moment of chaste queer desire with sweet good humor. But that, too, is fleeting and doesn’t forward the characters’ relationships. Unlike Rent, Spring Awakening is more homosocial than queer. Rent’s central intent—however successfully executed—was to imagine new forms of kinship, which included queer and straight couples across a spectrum of race and ethnicity. Here, under cover of Wedekind’s original play and its late 19th century setting, even the all-white schoolboys’ homosociality is muted, while they try to find their way toward the heterosexuality that for the most part seems their destiny.
In Spring Awakening, abortion leads to Wendla’s tragic end, representing a social “problem” that resonates with contemporary politics all too well. Mayer wants Wendla’s plight to echo; he confronts the actors stage left and right with a bank of risers and seats for an on-stage audience, and the small orchestra lines the stage’s bare back wall. The action takes place down stage center, in a relatively small square from which the actors often retreat into the on-stage audience in between their scenes to watch their colleagues perform.
Mayer also plants in the on-stage audience four chorus members wearing everyday (2007) clothing, so that at first, they look like the other spectators. At various moments, however, they pull wireless mics from their shirts or pants, and sing along with the other characters. Then they retreat back into watching the performances from their seats. This rather Brechtian touch brings home the musical’s contemporary resonances.
Spring Awakening’s climax in Wendla’s death by back-alley abortion, in fact, seems prescient after the Supreme Court’s recent upholding of the so-called partial birth abortion ban, which in its very name ideologically manipulates a standard medical procedure to make it sound like murder. In the musical, Wendla has asked her mother to explain where babies come from, but the woman (played with poignant tragicomedy by Estabrook) is woefully inept, her own fear and timidity prohibiting her from finishing the task.
Her stupidity comes home to roost when her daughter gets pregnant, since Wendla has no idea that heterosexual intercourse can produce life. Nonetheless, her mother blames Wendla for her pregnancy, and takes her to an abortionist she surely knows will kill her. The mother’s hypocrisy, and her insistence that social propriety matters more than her daughter, echoes the religious right’s contemporary activism, which insists that parents ignore their children’s budding sexuality, preach abstinence, and force young girls to bear the consequences if they’re unlucky enough to conceive.
I loved Spring Awakening’s calculated informality, which also underlines its relevance. The casually dressed musicians are onstage throughout, watching the action along with the actors when they’re out of character. The stage isn’t dressed; all the décor hangs on the brick walls of the actual stage house. The set resembles the design for I Am My Own Wife—memorabilia tacked up in odd places along with portrait paintings that lend the proceedings a period feel and gravitas, but are mostly decorative.
The lighting design dresses that blank back wall with hanging colored bulbs that move up and down its face, and pinspots that seem to peer out from cracks between the bricks. Lighting effects punctuate moments in sometimes breathtaking ways. For instance, when Melchior crawls onto a platform center stage, it begins to rise, pulled aloft on ropes by the other boys. As Melchior rises, blue light bulbs descend from the flies, making the sky appear to draw closer to the woodsy hideout where he waits for Wendla.
The design creates a sense of space through metaphorical choices like these. Even though young people’s confinement in a soulless, deadening environment sounds Spring Awakening’s major theme, the set makes tangible the freedom they seek, which is always somehow just out of reach.
This showcase for the songbook of Kurt Weill artfully arranges many of his songs and plunders his letters to tell the story of his relationships with Lotte Lenya and Brecht. Tony-nominated Michael Cerveris performs practically unrecognizable, wearing padding and wigs to represent the very talented but pedestrian looking Weill. Tony-nominated Donna Murphy plays the talented Lenya, who was a feminist well before her time, in all her Weimar German skinniness. The show portrays Brecht as a womanizer, a rough man who doesn’t change his clothes frequently and who’s petulant about getting credit for his work while he collaborates with Weill.
The show’s vignettes stitch together a plot that moves through time without creating much crisis, conflict, or resolution, which is, in its way, fairly Brechtian. A projected title locates each scene in geography and time, but doesn’t really historicize the story.
The production takes an inordinate amount of time with clunky set changes that slow it down considerably. The story is fascinating, and the actors sublime, but the way it’s told, with its clunky revolving set and lengthy blackouts, suck the excitement out of what could be a vital, emotionally compelling slice of theatre (and world political) history.
Even though it’s directed by Hal Prince, who should know better, Love Musik isn’t very theatrical, and probably would have worked better as an Encores! style chamber musical instead of an elaborate Broadway show.
Judith Malina first directed The Brig in 1963 for the Living Theatre, just before she and her husband and collaborator Julian Beck were imprisoned for tax evasion and forced to leave the country. In her recent remount, the play remains sadly relevant, addressing the military’s abuse of its own troops in an army prison in some nameless place that could be anywhere (and probably is everywhere).
The play moves through one long day of dehumanizing, demoralizing rituals that 10 men endure at the hands of lazy, brutal guards. The jailers create arbitrary white lines that the prisoners must ask permission to cross, emblematizing the capriciousness and illogic of power.
The evocative set layers barriers between the performers and the audience and, implicitly, between the prisoners and the world. Five iron bunk beds compose the interior space, surrounded by fencing that encages the men’s sleeping area. Outside the cage, the men access an exercise area, gravel drawing its perimeter. Finally, a barbed wire fence marks the membrane between freedom and constraint, and between actors and spectators.
The soldier/prisoners march with mincing steps, with their hands held up beside their chests. They strip to their skivvies and wear black boots with no socks to march to the showers. They dress and dress again, careful to meet all the picayune sartorial requirements of military style. They leave their cage for the toilets, each handed a razor that they carry high over their heads like flags. They repeat menial tasks while the guards bark orders, and they respond with the ubiquitous “Sir, yes sir,” yelled at the top of their lungs without making eye contact.
The guards call the prisoners “maggots,” which today sounds unmistakably like “faggots.” Although the guards’ epithets are surprisingly free of direct race, gender, or sexuality slurs, the production implies that the brig queers these men, breaking down their personalities and their souls, turning them into creatures far removed from the privileges of whiteness, maleness, and heterosexuality.
In the second act, one of the prisoners breaks down, rebelling with hysteria against his victimization; he’s carried out in a straitjacket on a stretcher. Another prisoner soon takes his place, and is quickly initiated into the prison rituals. Unlike the other men, who now follow the rules robotically, this new prisoner shows his fear, breathing erratically, unable to pull his face into the blank mask of abjection that the others wear. For that, the second act is more chilling than the first, as it shows more viscerally how men are changed so easily into animals.
The performers (men, all) playing the prisoners achieve the rote ritualistic, fear-inspired behavior of prisoners trying to survive their degradation, sweating at the callisthenic marching and cleaning and bed-making they’re ordered to do at top speed. While none of the performances stand out (appropriately so), the ensemble persuades the audience of the prisoners’ plight by essentially enacting it, live, for the two hours we watch.
The performers who play the guards, however, appear laconic and quiet in their exercise of power, and are never quite believable as brutes following orders from their own superiors. While the prisoners sweat with the exertion required of them as actors as well as characters, the guards don’t seem scary enough to make the situation authentic. If this is a choice, it could be more nuanced; that is, spectators could somehow be lead to see the prisoners as afraid of something less tangible than those who push them around, as oppressed by ideology instead of the man-to-man contact that’s the brig’s stock in trade. But in this production, the guards’ soft-spoken and physically soft appearances and actions seem a mistake of casting or an oversight of direction rather than a meaningful choice, which takes the edge off an evening that could be even more powerful.
Still, seeing The Brig brought out of the archive and knowing that it remains politically relevant over 40 years later makes for a sobering theatre experience. The Living’s new basement theatre on Clinton Street in the Lower East Side seats perhaps 75, an intimate space in which ushers pull a curtain to separate the house from the small concession area by which it’s flanked. It’s easy to imagine the Living carrying on its important work here, not only resurrecting its history, but propelling new generations of experimental theatre artists and committed audiences into a meaningful future.
At the performance I saw, Judith Malina, the doyenne herself, mingled with spectators lined up in the narrow hallway before the house opened and happily joined the actors onstage at the curtain call. Seeing her up there—her tiny body clad in tight black stretch pants and a bright white oversized shirt that mirrored the contrasting colors of her hair—reminded me that The Living Theatre is itself an institution. To Malina’s credit, the company has yet to lose its importance to ever-new generations of theatre-goers who see performance as a way to make a difference in what we think about the world.
Stairway to Paradise
This season’s City Center’s Encores! closing performance represented a new choice for a company that typically spends its considerable artistic capital on recreating old musicals from the American archive. Instead, Stairway to Paradise, conceived by Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel and director Jerry Zaks, knit together revue songs from 1900 to the 1950s, foregoing thematic links for a tour through American history via its theatrical music. Written by lyricists and composers from Irving Berlin to Comden and Green, Eubie Blake to Yip Harburg, this perfectly pitched and paced production offered an entertaining, affecting few hours of cracker-jack singing, dancing, and star charisma.
The show alternated songs with the occasional comedy sketch for a bit of theatrical relief, and mixed solo ballads and torch songs with chorus numbers and dance routines that expertly shifted mood and tone. Stairway held the audience’s interest not just by whipping up a nostalgic desire to hear what the artistic team chose for us next, but by inciting our desire to see what performers like Kristin Chenoweth, Kevin Chamberlin, Christopher Fitzgerald, and Capathia Jenkins would do with the material.
The three principals’ infectious, appealing chemistry made watching them do comedy as joyful as listening to them put over the more serious songs. Chenoweth is marvelous, a true star whose presence lights up the cavernous City Center. Her smile literally twinkles. Her presence is ingratiating.
Chenoweth’s generosity with her fellow performers creates a palpable community on stage. She shares her energy not just with the audience but with everyone in the theatre, bringing us all together with her enthusiasm, her love for the moment, and for how she plays a song, a joke, a moment with such grace, precision, and spontaneity.
Stairway to Paradise captured the pleasure of old television variety shows as well as the theatre revues from which they stole their structure. The show moved so smoothly from one act to the next, flattered its talent so well, and selected its numbers with such good sense and care, that it was impossible not to be seduced by this kaleidoscope of song, comedy, and dance.
Terrence McNally’s lobbed trifle stars Angela Lansbury and Marion Seldes as veteran doubles partners returning to the U.S. Open to be honored after the current season’s final match. Lansbury and Seldes somehow find nuances in the slight text, and manage to create the semblance of a relationship from a story that gives them only threadbare, stereotypical character impressions.
Lansbury plays the feisty, blue-collar, Pittsburgh-born Leona Mullen, who retired from the game reluctantly when her partner Midge Barker (Seldes) decided she was through. The play intimates there’s been some strife between the two women that’s kept them from seeing one another for the last ten years, but McNally never really details or resolves what’s kept them apart. They’ve weathered the tensions and triumphs of pioneers who played when the Virginia Slims tours that put women on the map of professional tennis were just beginning.
Leona and Midge started on the ground floor of women players’ insistence on being paid equally for their court time (a struggle that continues, as it’s only very recently that Wimbledon and other major tournaments agreed to provide the same prize money for women as for men). They reminisce about wearing make-up and impractical clothing during their matches to persuade fans of their femininity. They remember the lesbian “scare” inflicted on early pros, when any athletic woman was accused of being queer.
The tennis partners speculate aloud about the sexuality of various women on the tour, and express mutual interest in whether or not the other thought she was a lesbian. McNally renders lightly here an issue that nearly rent women’s tennis in two; his characters take the same affectionate, wistful tone to much of women’s tennis history. Midge and Leona recall an exhibition match they played (which turned out to be their last), a battle of the sexes in which they defeated two elderly men 6-0, 6-0, a situation reminiscent of Billie Jean King’s gender-pitched match against Bobby Riggs (which, happily, King won).
The old partners reflect on their respective marriages, their children and grandchildren, and their lives in Maine and Arizona. They reminisce about their careers, choices made and unmade, paths taken and those deferred. Leona regrets that they never won a Grand Slam, in large part because she choked at the Australian Open and double faulted on the match point serve. When the match Midge and Leona watch through the short play ends similarly, with the young player for whom Leona has been rooting double faulting on her own final serve, Leona addresses her publicly during the ceremony, telling her not to hold on to the moment, but to put it behind her, as Leona herself hasn’t quite been able to do. With that benediction delivered to the next generation, Leona seems to come to terms with the failures in her own past.
Two blathering, empty-headed commentators remark on the match and on these much revered doubles partners throughout the play, their scenes of comic relief alternating with Midge and Leona’s fond rememberings. A unnamed narrator lumbers on occasionally like Tom in The Glass Menagerie to create an elegiac tone for the proceedings, but the memorial pitch doesn’t stick because Lansbury and Seldes know they’ll do better playing the sardonic comedy with which McNally, too, seems more comfortable.
Leona remarks at the play’s beginning that she doesn’t “do” wistful. Although McNally tries to help Leona soften her self-critical, crusty edges, Deuce works best as a light comedy of courtside manners than as a poignant meditation on fame and the past.
Watching Angela Lansbury perform provides the evening’s key pleasure. Seldes generously gives Lansbury her due, knowing that she’s onstage mostly to play Lansbury’s straight woman. But the two grand dames work nicely together, with Seldes’s sharp features and prim WASPiness complementing Lansbury’s earthier, more unfettered, foul-mouthed star turn.
Lansbury makes Leona a complicated old broad, unsure what she feels about her own past or her future, ambivalent about growing old, unsettled about her eventual demise. But Leona takes pride in her career as an athlete (aside from that damned double fault), and you can see in Lansbury’s usually regal bearing a new kind of strength, the remains of agility and power, the grace of someone who’s successfully competed in a game that requires mental toughness as well as physical resilience and prowess. She utterly commits to a superficial character. She’s riveting and enormously pleasing to watch, which in turn makes it worth spending an evening with Deuce.
All These Plays, All These Days
I won’t use the occasion of a week in New York to proclaim about the state of mainstream theatre. But it’s worth one final observation. None of these productions cast enough people of color. In roles for which color isn’t necessarily named by theme or plot, it would be easy to select actors across a range of race, ethnicity, and type. Instead, each production presented remarkably, almost uniformly white casts.
The Encores! productions are usually much more racially diverse than Stairway to Paradise, in which Capathia Jenkins and two male dancers were the only obvious people of color onstage. The Brig included one or two men of color, but given the demographics of the U.S. military, could have cast many more. Deuce could have cast a person of color in one of the two commentators’ roles, since the leads were obviously written as star turns for Lansbury and Seldes.
Love Musik, Spring Awakening, and The Drowsy Chaperone could have cast men and women of color in any number of roles, at least adhering to liberal color-blind casting practices, if not to the more ideologically radical cross-casting choices any of these productions could have made. To see Broadway still embody the Great White Way left me bemused and dismayed.
Nourished but queasy,
The Feminist Spectator