The question of how to make Americans listen to things they may not want to hear, especially from the stage, is smartly answered by the Public Theater’s production of George Brant’s Grounded. On its own merits, this cautionary tale about our increasing reliance on drone warfare might too easily be ignored, as there isn’t much exterior drama to it. Rather, an unnamed Air Force major simply delivers an 80-minute monologue recounting her downward trajectory (as she sees it) from fighter pilot to operator of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) after an unplanned pregnancy grounds her. Transferred from forward operating positions in Iraq to Creech AFB in the Mojave — from one desert to another — she experiences a moral trade-off that eventually begins to undo her. Yes, she gets to be with her husband and daughter after her 12-hour shift staring at screens each day, but the act of killing becomes so remote as to almost deprive it of meaning. We are meant to understand that the blank check we offer the military in order to protect us is just a more abstract version of the same trade-off.
Sixteen-year-old Zoe has come to New Orleans with her mother’s boyfriend, Greg, to visit the Hummingbird Motel. When Greg lived there, before he cleaned up his image and moved to Atlanta, he was called Bait Boy and made a marginal living as, among other thing, a karaoke wrangler. In his pressed chinos and tucked-in print shirt, he now looks incongruous among his former cronies: a group that welcomes (as one of them, called Sissy Na Na, explains) anyone down-and-out: “the drunks, the addicts, the ex-addicts, the hos, the super hos, the ex-cons, the soon-to-be cons, the bouncers, the strippers, the street musicians, the faggots, the poets, the activists, the dykes, the trannies, the super trannies — whoop whoop!” Zoe, with a privileged teen’s sense of entitlement, gets out her iPad to take notes as she asks for examples of the ways the members of this “tribe” have survived so much hardship together; she’s writing a sociology paper about subcultures. “An example isn’t the whole picture,” says Tanya, a kindhearted 60ish hooker. Rather more warningly, Sissy Na Na, who is evidently one of those "super trannies," tells Zoe that the “whole picture” is “not yours to get."
Whatever their nominal subjects, musical comedies today are usually about musical comedies. Consider three of the funniest of the last ten years: Spamalot, The Drowsy Chaperone, and The Book of Mormon. In The Drowsy Chaperone, an old Broadway tuner comes to life in the apartment of an obsessive fan; the other two shows draw most of their humor from the contrast between their settings and the musical comedy tropes that forward the action. Indeed, the surprise intrusion of a rap song or kick line into seemingly unrelated contexts is by now so commonplace it may fail to surprise. (Can we call a moratorium on boogying old ladies?) Yet a few savants, including the director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who worked in one or both capacities on all three shows mentioned above, are still able to pull off the trick. Nicholaw’s genius for reducing an audience to helpless giggles is on blazing display in Something Rotten! — a new show so steeped in the tradition that it often seems like a concordance. Anything you’ve ever liked in a musical comedy (and a few things you haven’t) are here, just waiting to sing-and-dance you into submission.
For decades, the French have ranked among the world's most pessimistic people, so it's fitting — in a life-is-a-farce-and maybe-also-merde kind of way — that a Frenchman should write a provocative, possibly even helpful, book about happiness. Frederic Lenoir's Happiness: A Philosopher's Guide was a best seller when it was released in France last fall, and this month, it's been published here, in English, courtesy of Melville House.
Can we please get this straight, Broadway? Sprawling European novels do not make great musicals. Sorry, Les Miz partisans and Phantomaniacs, but whatever the virtues of those shows — and they are probably the best of the genre — they are mere patches on the originals. How could they not be? When you’re adapting a doorstop saga for the stage, you’re obviously going to be making huge cuts. Usually this will mean excising the poetry, philosophy, and psychology in order to preserve a series of action highlights that will then stick out like angry pimples. The result is usually more of a medley than a narrative — Don Quixote’s greatest hits! — and thus unsuited to the musical’s work of grounding song in character and situation. Indeed, when New York convened a panel to come up with a list of the greatest musicals ever, not one of the top ten was based on a thick slab of fiction by Hugo or Stevenson or Cervantes or Tolstoy or Dumas or Dickens or Du Maurier. (Only two were based on novels at all, and both were American.) Original tales, or small-scale works like plays and short stories, generally produce more successful results and give the librettist something better to do than rip out pages and jimmy the segues.
Last spring, Karl Ove Knausgaard came to New York to promote Boyhood Island, the third volume of his six-part series of autobiographical novels, My Struggle. The line to see him interviewed by Zadie Smith at the bookstore McNally Jackson stretched around the block, and there appeared to be a Knausgaard look-alike outside (though he might have been a stray Euro-hippie). One night later, Knausgaard spoke with Jeffrey Eugenides at the New York Public Library. He talked about some of his main themes, the undifferentiated nature of experience (“It’s completely possible to sit at home and read Heidegger and then next moment you go and do the dishes — it’s the same world”) and what happens when the body dies (“For the heart, life is simple: It beats for as long as it can. Then it stops”). Reading from his books, he stood swaying a bit like a folksinger and a bit like a graying, blue-eyed Christ.
It’s not fair to judge a play by its bloopers; almost everything that has ever appeared onstage has had its share of dropped lines, missed entrances, Parkinsonian sets, or plummeting Spider-Men. And yet sometimes the bloopers are too expressive of a play’s overall blooperishness to resist. At a recent preview of Living on Love, a comedy starring Renée Fleming and Douglas Sills, two bottles of Champagne, meant to contribute to the fizzy, farcical atmosphere of a mismatched romantic dinner, turned out, upon uncorking in the second act, to be empty. Symbolic enough, but when the actor Jerry O’Connell, also in the scene, hustled the bottles offstage to be refilled, and Sills then tried to pour a toast, a few glugs of what was evidently tap water was all that fell into his glass. “Flat!” he ad-libbed, to a big laugh.
I already thought that Fun Home was the best new musical of the year in 2013, when it opened at the Public Theater. It’s hard to imagine that its Broadway transfer, and transformation, will not make it the best of this season as well. I say “transformation” even though in most ways it’s nearly a replica: The librettist Lisa Kron has perhaps cut or tightened a few lines of dialogue, and the composer Jeanine Tesori, apart from excising one charming but redundant little song (“Al for Short”), has made only the kind of changes a fanatic would notice. Fun Home is still basically what it was when I reviewed it in 2013: the story, based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic memoir, of a lesbian cartoonist trying in middle age to understand her father, who killed himself shortly after revealing to her that he, too, was gay. Back then I called it “hilarious and crushing,” and it remains so now. Maybe less hilarious and more crushing.
I’ve spent much of my life in and in love with museums. When I was 10 years old, there was no mention of art in my home. But then my mother began driving me from the suburbs to the Art Institute of Chicago. There, she looked at art on her own for hours, leaving me to do the same. At the time, I liked being alone but hated museums. I felt they were old and dead, places where people just stood and stared. But one day, waiting, bored, brooding, I found myself absorbed by two beautifully colored adjacent old paintings. On the left, a pair of men standing outside a jail cell talk to a haloed man, inside the cell, while an incredible leopard guards nearby. After a long time, I looked at the right-hand panel, where the setting was the same but the time was different. In place of the leopard, there is a man returning a huge bloody sword to its sheath; the haloed man inside the cell stoops down, both hands on the sill to support his body, extending his neck, which has been severed, through the bars. His head is on the ground, on a platter, as blood spurts all over. I looked back and forth; left, then right. Then something gigantic hit me. These images were telling a story. The paintings were from the 15th century, just when Renaissance painters were beginning to understand perspective. And yet they were not dead, they were alive, at least when I looked at them. Two paintings from the 1450s, still working their magic on me. Amazed, I looked around the gallery and saw gates open. I thought each work was the same — a voice, yearning or in pain or proud, but speaking to me, in visual tongues, down through history. Maybe everything in this suddenly amazing building was telling a story, I thought, a story I could discern just by looking (and without going to school). I wanted to spend forever in this cacophony, this living catacomb. A few months later, my mother committed suicide. I didn’t return to a museum until I was in my 20s.
There really was a king and there really was an I. The king was Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poramenthra Maha Mongkut Phra Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua, more generally known as Mongkut. The “I” was Anna Leonowens — also something of an alias; after the death of her husband, Thomas Leon Owens, she jammed together his middle and last names, which made her sound Welsh. (She was born in India, probably of mixed race.) This was not, apparently, the only expression of her fabulist nature. Though it’s true she spent six years of her young widowhood in Mongkut’s court, as “scientific” teacher to his many children and wives, the memoir she wrote about it would not pass muster with Oprah, especially the parts that seem to paint her as a kind of moral adviser and cultural attaché. By the time the material came into the hands of Rodgers and Hammerstein — via Margaret Landon’s novelization — its connection to history seemed to be completely severed. Siam wasn’t even Siam anymore; it had changed its name to Thailand in 1949.
Provenance is a concept usually associated with art, not theater. Who, after all, owns a plot — or the history on which it is based? Still, the problem rears up in several ways in Finding Neverland, the new musical starring Matthew Morrison as J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. This is not the first Broadway show to posit a backstory for a beloved work of fantasy. (Hello, Wicked.) It is not even the first to posit a backstory for Peter Pan; just a few years ago we had Peter and the Starcatcher. But that play was itself a fantasy, set within the Pan universe before the arrival of the fictional Darlings. Finding Neverland purports to be historical: the true tale of how Barrie, inspired by his dealings with the family of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, created the boy who wouldn’t grow up. It also purports to be a singing-dancing family entertainment. It winds up being neither.
With its title reminiscent of that very old standard “It Had to Be You,” the new musical It Shoulda Been You sounds like a retread even before it starts. The impression does not abate once you get a whiff of the plot, which recalls dozens of moldy domestic comedies. Watching it, I at various times thought of Take Her, She’s Mine; Mary, Mary; Norman, Is That You?; and the Forest Hills bridezilla section of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite. Those plays, part of a genre that flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, were mostly throwbacks already. With their generation-gap humor and culture-clash antics, their mixed marriages and children gone amok, they harked back at least as far as 1922, to the enormous hit Abie’s Irish Rose, which Robert Benchley described even then as having “the comic spirit of 1876.”
Following the tried-and-tested Hollywood formula of making sequels, Patti Smith will follow up her National Book Award–winning memoir Just Kids with another memoir, M Train, coming in October. Smith says the book is a "roadmap to my life," and will use 18 different "stations" — all of them cafés, it seems — that were important for her creative process. The cover photo below is from EW, and shows Smith at the West Village café 'ino on its last day in business.
German novelist and Nobel Prize–winning author Günter Grass has died, reports the New York Times. Grass, best known for his Danzig Trilogy, died on Monday in a clinic in Lübeck, a city in northern Germany where he'd lived for decades. His first novel, The Tin Drum, was adapted into a film that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1980. In 1999, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He most recently published a controversial poem in 2012 criticizing Israel for its rhetoric on Iran's nuclear program, and in 2006, came under fire after revealing he'd been a Nazi during World War II. He was 87.
The curtain is already up at the Palace as you make your way to your seats for An American in Paris; the stage is empty except for a piano dead center. There’s no overture, and, when the show starts, no dancers either, which is quite a surprise for a production that’s directed by the ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and is nearly two-thirds dance. Instead there is just a brief and startlingly downbeat welcome from a man who wanders out to sit at that piano. (“For four years, the City of Light went dark,” he says. “Violence and swastikas in the street.”) It’s as quiet an opening as big-budget Broadway has seen since Oklahoma! with its butter churn, and it signals the show’s intention to distinguish itself in tone and pace, and in the way it conveys information, from other musical comedies. In that, it completely succeeds: With its odd combination of dour outlook and joyful movement, and its very tasteful corralling of the giddy Gershwin songs from disparate sources that constitute its score, it’s a Broadway unicorn. But whether that success itself succeeds at doing justice to the underlying material — or, more important, at making a coherent stage entertainment — is another matter.
Pretty soon, you'll no longer be able to jam out out to ABBA classics on Broadway. Mamma Mia! will end on September 5 after 14 years on Broadway, the show's creator Judy Grayner announced on Thursday. It'll close up shop after 5,765 performances, making it the eighth-longest-running show ever on Broadway. Start booking your tickets now! (Or you can always just watch the movie. Meryl Streep FTW!)
Last year, Alison Bechdel's comic-book memoir Fun Home became an extraordinarily moving musical at the Public. To mark its transfer uptown to Circle in the Square (where it opens on April 19), we asked Bechdel about seeing herself, her parents, and their difficult relationship portrayed on a Broadway stage. Here’s how she responded.
See Vintage Behind-the-Scenes Images of Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, and Dustin Hoffman on Film SetsBy Christopher Bonanos
Ernst Haas photographed just about everything he could get in front of his lens. When he died in 1986, he left a huge body of work depicting deserts in the Southwest, skyscrapers in New York, pedestrians in Paris, monks in Vietnam. And movie stars — lots of movie stars. Haas looked at a movie set with a documentarian’s eye. The selections here, from the collection Ernst Haas: On Set (out this spring, from Steidl), take visible pleasure in Hollywood’s absurd, arresting artifice. And by the way: That really is Joan Collins’s derrière, next to the HANDS OFF sign.
With more than 1,500 seats, the Winter Garden is generally considered too large for plays: too lacking in intimacy and too hard to fill. In any case, it hasn’t housed a nonmusical since 1982. So it might seem like an odd place for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Wolf Hall, which is not only a play but a historical drama, and an English one at that. Its two parts take almost six hours, plus a dinner break if you see both in one day, to cover eight years in the life of Thomas Cromwell, consigliere and fixer to Henry VIII. There are no stars. (By contrast, The Audience, at the 1,000-seat Schoenfeld, covers 65 years of English history in two swift hours, with Helen Mirren to boot.) How could such a production prosper in the home of Cats? Unless Anne Boleyn was going to sing “Memory,” the play and the place looked like a mismatch.