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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
What kingdoms were to Elizabethan drama, co-ops are today. In contemporary plays as diverse as Skylight, Belleville, and Between Riverside and Crazy, domestic real estate is not just a setting but an expression of tone and an embodiment of conflict. So it is with Tracey Scott Wilson’s Buzzer, which takes place in the kind of apartment many New Yorkers can only dream of: thick walls, new kitchen, washer-dryer, walk-in closets. It is also, however, in Brownsville, a tough Brooklyn neighborhood that has not jumped on the gentrification bandwagon. Despite a new coffee shop next door, and a gym threatened down the street, trouble comes with the deed.
A note in the Playbill for the new production of Gigi explains that the title character “first burst upon the world” in a novella by “French authoress” Colette. Authoress? It says everything about this misbegotten revisal of the 1973 stage musical adaptation of the 1958 movie musical adaptation of the 1951 stage dramatic adaptation of the 1944 original that the producers could attach such a condescending word to one of France’s greatest writers. There’s nothing diminutive or amateur or fustily feminine about the novella: It may have a happy ending (or maybe not), but it’s hard as nails along the way. The attempt to turn such a property into a girl-power fantasy, in part by casting Disney star Vanessa Hudgens as Gigi — and in part by de-perving it completely — has left it more perverted than ever, and altogether unworthy of its name.
For centuries, theatrical antiheroes have vied for attention by going to extremes, but Tyrone, in Robert Askins’s Hand to God, may be the first, onstage at least, to bite off an ear. He’s as violent and vengeful as Sweeney Todd, and, despite his evangelical upbringing, as comically foul-mouthed as any Mamet mook. (His voice combines the appetitive rumble of Cookie Monster with the sexual bravado of James Brown.) You can’t just write him off as psychotic, though, because that would suggest a framework of sanity from which he has departed. He is, rather, pure, untrammelled id, eternally evil and born that way, and thus psychologically unique in dramatic literature. Unique physically too. He has big, vacant eyes, limbs like linguini, a shock of maraschino hair — and, oh, some guy’s arm up his back.
It feels like Wolf Hall season in America: Six years after Hilary Mantel's historical novel about Thomas Cromwell hit shelves, its BBC adaptation will be introduced to U.S. audiences on PBS this Sunday, and a Broadway version debuts next week. With so much palace intrigue hanging in the balance, we caught up with Mantel at the MoMA during Peggy Siegal’s sneak preview of the first two episodes of Wolf Hall. The Booker Prize–winning author described her novels as "an echo chamber that feels like a hall of mirrors," and revealed some interesting commentary regarding King Henry VIII. It turns out he was not the womanizing lothario that we thought.
It may not at first make sense that two such fundamentally different acting styles as Bill Nighy’s and Carey Mulligan’s should co-exist in — and mutually enhance — one play. And yet here they are in David Hare’s Skylight, a monkey and a moonbeam, somehow bringing the same story to thrilling life. Nighy, as will be obvious to anyone who saw him in Love Actually or as Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, is the monkey, or perhaps better to call him a Catherine wheel of tics and poses and stutters and quirks. “Mannered” is not a strong enough word to describe the way he creates the illusion of character from a million incessant, if apparently spontaneous, affectations. (At several points, he struts across the stage sideways, his long legs pointing into the wings while his face stares down the audience.) Meanwhile, as she did in An Education and in the 2008 Broadway production The Seagull, Mulligan creates the illusion of character with no affectations at all. In fact, she hardly seems to be doing anything — and then suddenly tears will fling themselves from her eyes, or a smile will rise from some depth to the surface and recede again. She is as rivetingly, radically transparent as he is hilariously baroque, but in the end that’s only fitting; the play, one of Hare’s best, is about the gap between what’s reconcilable and what’s not.
What are we going to do when Mad Men breaks up with all of us at the end of May? They say if you love something, you should let it go, and that seems to be what Elisabeth Moss has been trying to do ever since joining the cast of The Heidi Chronicles on Broadway.
At a recent 92Y panel discussion with her Heidi Chronicles cast members Jason Biggs, Bryce Pinkham, producer André Bishop, and playwright Christopher Durang, Moss waxed poetic on what it was like to miss playing Mad Men's Peggy Olson.
The largest Broadway houses have fewer than 2,000 seats; Radio City Music Hall has almost 6,000. So you might expect Radio City’s New York Spring Spectacular, a sticky amalgam of musical theater, corporate masturbation, and high-fructose corn syrup, to be about three times as bad as, say, Mamma Mia! But that would be to underestimate the awesome tackiness of Spring Spectacular, a show assembled largely to extend the Christmas Spectacular brand into a new seasonal niche. (Cue the hip-hop Easter bunny.) Broadway values, such as they are, are mere starting points in a venue that, spreading over 12 acres, resists subtle gestures; indeed, an earlier version of the show, with a book by Pulitzer Prize–winner Doug Wright, was yanked less than a week before it was scheduled to open last year, possibly because it bore too great a resemblance to actual theater. Astonishingly, the thing that opened last night is the improvement.