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.
It’s surprising how much you can remove from a play and still have a play — hell, Beckett lets a pair of disembodied lips yak at you for 15 minutes and it’s riveting theater. But David Auburn, in Lost Lake, now at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off Broadway space beneath City Center, seems to have undertaken a secret challenge to see if he could make do without something even more fundamental than human bodies. Can you build a drama without any dramatics? Turns out, no.
The Band Wagon has been a lot of things. First, it was a groundbreaking musical revue, with sketches by George S. Kaufman and songs by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, including the classic “Dancing in the Dark.” Starring Fred and Adele Astaire and a newfangled double turntable, it debuted on Broadway in 1931, near the end of the line for the genre. Two decades later, The Band Wagon became one of the great MGM musicals, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Astaire again, with Cyd Charisse. The movie grafted a few of the show’s songs, and many others from the Schwartz-Dietz catalogue, into an original story by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It’s a thorough delight, a fantastic dance piece, and (you would think) ripe for re-stagification.
In his 1996 “non-reconsideration” of A Delicate Balance, Edward Albee writes that his play “concerns, as it always has … the rigidity and ultimate paralysis which afflicts those who settle in too easily, waking up one day to discover that all the choices they have avoided no longer give them any freedom of choice, and that what choices they do have left are beside the point.” That’s trademark Albee—straightforward, unsentimental—but things aren’t quite as clear-cut for the actors tasked with inhabiting the world of the play, which opens November 20. Agnes, played by Glenn Close, and Tobias, played by John Lithgow, find their upper-middle-class Wasp equilibrium upended by three guests: their daughter, Julia, and their friends Edna and Harry, the last two driven from their own home by an unspecified “terror.” “Albee teases both the audience and the actors with withheld information,” says Lithgow. There’s also Albee’s language, which veers from meandering mini-monologues to staccato snaps. “It’s very tricky,” says Close—returning to Broadway after a 20-year absence. “We’re all feeling that if you forget one word, it can have a domino effect. It’s not easy dialogue to leap back into. It’s a piece of literature.”
The story goes that the wife of the composer Jerome Kern and the wife of the librettist Oscar Hammerstein II were seated next to each other at a dinner party. An admirer of Show Boat, the two men’s groundbreaking 1927 musical, approached Mrs. Kern and said, “Your husband wrote ‘Ol’ Man River’!” Mrs. Hammerstein, who had heard this a million times before, objected. “Her husband wrote ‘dum-dum-dah-dum,’” she said. “My husband wrote ‘Ol’ Man River.’”
One of the spring’s most enjoyable new comedies was Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss, a big wet smooch on the lips to theatrical narcissism. Raucous and ribald, it fit uncertainly in the trajectory of an author better known for the quietly measured teaspoons of drama in works like The Clean House and Dead Man’s Cell Phone and In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play). Turns out, Stage Kiss was a bit of a blip stylistically. Her new play, The Oldest Boy, at Lincoln Center Theater, finds Ruhl returning to (and thoughtfully extending) her familiar dramaturgy, which involves likable women muddling their way through oddball situations like metaphysical Lucys. Those outré plots are decoys, though: brightly colored attention-getters built to allow her real interests, which are somewhat vaporous and philosophical, to slip by undetected. Which is fine, lovely even, when the plots float. But sometimes a vibrator is only a vibrator. Or, in the case of The Oldest Boy, a lama only a lama.
The great vernacular revolution of the 1960s turned theatrical dialogue from a prancing pony into a workhorse. With realism ascendant, serious drama, and eventually comedy, demanded a perfect facsimile of actual speech, complete with ums and potholes and multiple midcourse corrections. A little rough poetry might be permissible, but witty banter, as it once was called, became immediately suspect under the new regime: as effete as port wine, as cheap as rickrack. So what was a witty banterer to do? Tom Stoppard’s solution, in his 1982 play The Real Thing, was to create a world in which persiflage is the mother tongue. Characters who do not merely employ but juggle words could justify his bent for epigrams. (“Public postures have the configuration of private derangement.”) And who would those characters be? Theater types, of course: playwrights and the actors to whom they feed lines.
Suzan-Lori Parks has a lot of nerve. A few years back she wrote and organized something she called "365 Days/365 Plays," which really was what its name suggested. Before that, in Topdog/Underdog, she put onstage a pair of black brothers who made their livings impersonating Lincoln and Booth, assassination included. (She won the Pulitzer Prize for it.) Her take on The Scarlet Letter, or rather one of her takes, was titled Fucking A. She often writes the songs that accompany her shows. She did something to Porgy and Bess that Stephen Sondheim didn’t like.
One night at the Public Theater last September, Sting arrived onstage to perform some songs he had written for the upcoming musical The Last Ship. As the applause died down, an overenthusiastic, possibly soused fan in the audience yelled out, “You rock!”
“I did,” Sting instantly rejoined. “I did rock.”