Aside from Frank Wildhorn, the two words I least want to hear in conjunction with a show I’m about to attend are audience participation. The prospect of being dragooned into awkward dialogue or, worse, public dancing fills me with dread — and a certain amount of resentment. Is it not the playwright’s job to write the story, the cast’s job to tell it? Aside from being an alert and openhearted observer, why should I have to be involved?
“Well, we opened in October,” says Sting, 63, about The Last Ship, the musical he co-wrote and, through January 24, will star in. “And like most of the new musicals on Broadway, we were struggling with ticket sales. And very quickly the producers came to me and said, ‘There’s one thing to do.’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’ ‘You have to go into the play.’ I said no way — I don’t want to. I wrote this for my dear friend Jimmy Nail. ‘Nope, you’ve gotta do it.’ I said they had to ask Jimmy, and Jimmy was wonderfully magnanimous and said, ‘Yep, it’s the right thing to do.’ ‘Well, okay.’ ”
This week, Vulture will be publishing our critics' year-end lists.
1. Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
Not many New York productions this year were great in all dimensions, delivering equally on the full range of theater’s potential expressivity. And those few that were great in their various parts somehow still lacked a comprehensive sense of greatness. Forced to choose, I choose the incomplete excellence of the incomparably moving. Lanie Robertson’s 1986 Billie Holiday bioplay is nobody’s idea of adventurous storytelling; having the main character provide her own context under cover of a “real” late-career performance is a lazy shortcut even when skillfully written, as was not the case here. And Lonny Price’s staging concepts sometimes bordered on tacky. Not so his work with McDonald. She began with an uncanny imitation of Holiday’s eccentric, heartbreaking voice, capturing its pinched tone, side-mouth delivery, precipitous register leaps, and often obscure pitch. Even so, the signs of vocal distress were only sparingly applied, allowing McDonald to sing as if Holiday, in her ruined 44-year-old’s body, still had a young woman’s luscious pipes. Holiday gave her voice to her songs in more ways than one; McDonald, in one of the greatest performances I ever hope to see, returned that voice to her, and also to us.
When you enter the East 4th Street home of New York Theatre Workshop, you can never be sure what you’re going to find. The blank-slate interior has been turned into an amphitheater for Caryl Churchill’s A Number, an Irish bar for Once, a television studio for The Little Foxes, and a multiplex for Scenes From a Marriage. This is not only a radical extension of “form follows function” but a message to playwrights (and audiences) that change is good — even if, on occasion, it fills you with dread.
As Peter Pan is traditionally portrayed by a gamine actress, and Hairspray’s Edna Turnblad by a chunky actor, theatrical tradition dictates that John Merrick, the grotesquely deformed title character of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, be embodied by an extremely handsome, seminude star eager to demonstrate his stage chops. (Among those who have played Merrick on Broadway since Philip Anglim created the role in 1979 are David Bowie, Mark Hamill, and Billy Crudup.) In the new revival, based on the 2012 Williamstown Theatre Festival production, Bradley Cooper more than qualifies: He is extremely handsome, he is seminude (at least part of the time), and not only demonstrates but proves those chops. His concept of Merrick’s physical attributes, meant to be suggestive rather than documentary, is smartly thought out and beautifully rendered: the involuted right hand, the third-position turnout, the strangled French horn of a voice, the watery diction like the slurp of a dentist’s bowl. Within the shell of these characteristics Cooper has also imagined a pearl, or at least an irritant, of a character: clever, sad, eager to be patronized and yet possessing a native skepticism that can only be expressed obliquely. Rarely has a vocabulary of so many monosyllables been made to sound so sarcastic and needling.
There’s a problem with your production of Peter Pan if the excitement level drops nearly to nil upon Pan’s arrival. But that was the case with last night’s broadcast of the inaptly named Peter Pan Live! — NBC’s second experiment in revivifying the once-mighty genre of the live-television musical. The first, aired last December, was The Sound of Music Live!, starring country star Carrie Underwood; it was considered a huge success because it reached a first-night audience of nearly 19 million and did not destroy the underlying property. But even if the second attempt does as well, which hardly seems likely given its lack of a name draw, the product itself suggests it’s time to pause and reexamine the viability of the premise. The Sound of Music Live! was weird and abrupt but had some beautiful moments; Peter Pan Live! was just turgid and awful.
Tonight, Allison Williams will don the green tunic to star in NBC’s Peter Pan Live! Since appearing in 1904, J. M. Barrie’s poignant tale, with its themes of eternal youth and defiled innocence, has inspired everything from Broadway musicals to arty erotica. Here, a timeline of the nostalgic and provocative cultural exploits of Peter, Wendy, Captain Hook, and the Lost Boys.
A Cornish knight, an Irish princess, and the king they both betray by falling in love: For centuries the tale circulated Europe in various forms. But after Wagner’s monumental Tristan und Isolde had its premiere in 1865, his idiosyncratic version seemed to supplant all others. If you know the story today, it’s probably through his music, the epitome of high Romantic sincerity. Still, writes Emma Rice, an artistic director of the Cornish theater company Kneehigh, it was a local story, “asking to be told,” and so she set out to create a less bombastic and more vernacular take, “not an epic tale of grand romantic love held at arm’s length from our own experience, but a tender unraveling of love in all its beautiful and painful forms.” The result, first presented in Cornwall in 2003 and extensively produced on tour since then, is Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult, which has now come to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Sweet and enjoyable, alluding to sad things without being sad itself, it’s hardly what you’d expect from the tale, however you spell it.
More promos from Into the Woods equals more singing. Good! They're certainly pushing Meryl Streep's turn as the Witch, whose "Stay With Me" is as moving as it is flattering to Streep's vocal range. The singing starts at 1:03; the despair is as good as it gets.
If Mike Nichols ever produced anything as banal as a résumé, it would have looked highly suspicious, the humblebrag of a con man. He did too many things, they were too far-flung, and he was too successful at all of them. There was the career in sketch comedy with Elaine May, circa 1958 to 1962; they had three Top 40 albums and a Broadway hit and then broke up. Next came the switch to stage directing, which netted nine Tonys, from 1964 (Barefoot in the Park) to 2012 (Death of a Salesman). When he defected to Hollywood in 1966, it was cover-of-Newsweek news; soon he owned a local subspeciality, the superstar prestige pic, puppeteering everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Cher to (inevitably) Meryl into Oscar-bait performances. Was he also a classical-radio DJ? Yes. A Broadway producer? Yes. (He made a fortune on Annie.) An amateur wigmaster? Certainly — he lost all his hair in a freak childhood reaction to a whooping-cough vaccine. It goes without saying that he was an escape artist, and not just from the Nazis in 1938. He had two countries, three names, four wives, innumerable lives. Well, not quite innumerable; he died yesterday at 83. Or let’s say he reinvented himself again.
Disney’s Tom Schumacher on the Massive Success of The Lion King and How Broadway Has Changed Over 20 YearsBy John Horn
As soon as Frozen became a "Let It Go"–powered hit animated movie, it was obvious that Disney would eventually develop it into a stage musical. While a date has not yet been announced for the Frozen show, it's in early stages of development and will likely be a hit, just like many of the titles that Disney Theatrical president Thomas Schumacher has helped bring to the stage. John Horn, host of Southern California Public Radio's new daily arts and entertainment show "The Frame," talked to Schumacher about a new production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is currently playing in La Jolla, California, and about how Broadway has changed in the two decades Schumacher has held his position. (Listen to part of Horn and Schumacher's interview below, and subscribe to "The Frame" at iTunes or Stitcher.)
In February 1965, Mike Nichols was a rising stage-director best known as half of the comedy team of Nichols & May, the riotous byproduct of his and Elaine May’s collision as early members of the pioneering Chicago improv troupe the Compass Players. He was 33 years old. I was a 15-year-old high-school student working as a part-time ticket-taker at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., then a busy Broadway tryout house in the day when new plays were tweaked or overhauled on the road rather than in previews in New York. The National’s new attraction was The Odd Couple, Neil Simon’s third Broadway play. It had a middling advance sale. The stars were Art Carney, whose luster had faded a bit since his heyday as Jackie Gleason’s sidekick on television’s The Honeymooners in the 1950s, and Walter Matthau, a longtime character actor whose career had never taken off.
John Cameron Mitchell will be donning a bouncy blond wig and mega go-go boots once again to reprise his role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, producers for the current revival announced today. Mitchell will headline an eight-week run beginning January 21, after Michael C. Hall finishes his stint, with Lena Hall continuing in her role as Yitzhak. Dreams do come true, kids! You can go home again, as long as home is a very successful revival of a show you co-created and starred in 25 years ago.
In 1931, Mike Nichols was born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, Germany. Seven years later, his family fled to the United States to avoid the Nazis. There he would grow up to have a legendary career in film, theater, and comedy, eventually becoming a member of the very select group of EGOT winners (the acronym for those who've won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony). Nichols died suddenly from cardiac arrest on Wednesday. He was 83.
With all the larks praying and bird-pairs bursting in song, it’s sometimes hard to hear the real voice of Oscar Hammerstein in his lyrics. But his “poetic,” not to say ornithological, flights, especially as set to Richard Rodgers’s gorgeous ballad tunes, do not represent him well. He was, first of all, an experimental playwright; indeed, his experiments in musical storytelling were so successful they quickly became the standard template for the form. If they now seem passé, think about how they must have seemed then: the attack of Oklahoma!, the surrealism of Carousel, the cross-cutting of South Pacific, the role of dance in The King and I. Think, too, about their deadly serious themes. (A major character dies in each.) Hammerstein was no lightweight; he had grown up in the theater and wanted the musical to share fully in the advances being made by the great American plays of the time. And so when he and Rodgers set out in 1947 to top Oklahoma! and Carousel, surely Our Town and The Glass Menagerie were on his mind. He proposed a contemporary story, told in an epic-theater style, with speaking choruses, minimal sets, and a love story that flatlines. Its theme: the perils of success. “It is a law of our civilization,” he later wrote, explaining himself, “that as soon as a man proves he can contribute to the well-being of the world, there be created an immediate conspiracy to destroy his usefulness, a conspiracy in which he is usually a willing collaborator.” Thus was born Allegro. It flopped.
Despite what seemed like weeks of buzz about its radical transformations, the revival of Side Show that opened on Broadway tonight is not as meaningfully different from the 1997 original as its current creatives would like to think. Now as then, the cult musical about the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton is itself conjoined. (There’s no avoiding the Siamese imagery; many of the songs, and even the title, play on the theme.) The story of the Hiltons’ rise from circus freaks to vaudeville stars in the early 1930s, with all the requisite references to cultural voyeurism and its human costs, is fused to an intimate story of emotional accommodation between sisters as unalike as sisters can be. The problem with Side Show is that these stories can’t be separated, and only one can thrive.
In 2003, when she was not yet 30, Young Jean Lee founded a theater company for the purpose of producing her own work. Call it savvy, or call it hubris, but the move was bold, especially for an artist who is implicitly noncommercial and explicitly experimental. Her company’s goal, she wrote, is “to find ways to get past our audiences’ defenses against uncomfortable subjects … by keeping them disoriented and laughing.” Over the years, those uncomfortable subjects have typically involved sexuality, gender, race, and mortality; the means of disorientation have been likewise diverse. Lee’s Lear was an intervention that left King Lear himself out of the picture. (Before ditching academia, Lee was a Shakespeare scholar.) We’re Gonna Die was less a play than a montage of deadpan monologues and sing-along pop. Untitled Feminist Show, her most recent work in New York, was nearly mute and mostly nude.
What with The Last Ship, Disgraced, and seminude Bradley Cooper all on the boards this fall, Broadway is more testosterony than usual, full of scruff and blowtorches, beefcake and wife-beating. But nothing beats Jez Butterworth’s new play The River for manliness: It’s got Hugh Jackman, Wolverine himself, romancing some ladies and gutting a trout. Whether manliness is next to goodliness is a different question, one the play itself — riveting, troubling, thought-provoking, unsatisfying — struggles to embody and never really answers.
Not that it needs to; the damn thing is already stuffed to the gills for most of its run, with even the $95 “riverbank” benches and the $30 standing room spots at capacity the night I attended. By and large, that’s a good thing, because Jackman, who alternates between camp and murk in his Broadway appearances, is nothing if not ambitious. In choosing to star in The River, a West End hit two years ago, he is promoting the work of a Major Serious Playwright, bringing it to an audience that might be just as happy if he brought them Moose Murders. So all credit to Jackman for making a difficult, highbrow work — the kind that namechecks Ted Hughes, T.S. Eliot, and Yeats but does not name its characters — commercially viable.