She Loves Me Live: What Worked, What Didn’t, and Where to Go From Here

She Loves Me debuted live on the televisions, mobile screens, and hearts of aspiring theatergoers everywhere last week. And despite a few initial technical difficulties, we stalwart viewers trudged on, stuck on our couches in pajamas, with cartons of vanilla ice cream on hand for Act 2, because we really had nothing better to do on a Thursday night than see Laura Benanti hit that high B.

But as interest in live-streamed theater expands from the few pioneering theater companies in England to the Broadway stage, and as major television networks keep adding live musicals to their annual lineup, it’s important to discuss how a successful live performance translates to a successful film, and what that says about each medium’s ability to create engaging narratives. I’ve been working on this question for over a year now, and it would take a couple of subsequent posts to give the topic its due exploration. So for now, let’s talk about She Loves Me Live specifically, what worked and what didn’t, and what the BroadwayHD experiment can show us about the theater experience.

What Worked: The Ballads and Solos

Close-ups were made for moments like Amalia’s somber ballad “Will He Like Me?,” a song which didn’t move me much when I saw it on stage but gained power with a camera framing Laura Benanti’s hopeful, yet troubled expressions. It’s the first solo in the show sung by a character alone, and an intensely personal moment for Amalia, whose fantasies about her dear friend are starting to become real. Film can be the best medium for this: bringing out nuances of emotion, making the imaginative become real.


Same goes for Amalia’s other solo reflections on her love life, “Dear Friend” and “Vanilla Ice Cream,” and Ilona’s “I Resolve.” The camera served to intensify the soul-searching power of these songs and make these women’s journey’s feel so much more intimate

What Didn’t: The Ensemble Pieces and Dances

Large ensemble songs and dances serve a different storytelling purpose. Rather than closing in on intimate character-centric moments, they tend to broaden the brush of the plot with spectacle, environment, relationships, and sometimes pure silliness. The only way for a camera to capture the hugeness of these moments is to cut to different angles of the stage. A wide shot of the entire stage just doesn’t work on film: it’s almost too overwhelming, too theatrical. Thus dance-heavy songs like “Romantic Atmosphere” and even Kodaly’s “Ilona” lose their punch (even if “Romantic Atmosphere” didn’t quite have much punch to begin with) in sacrifice to quick camera changes and ineffective angling. Somehow the human eye works differently watching a live performance in person than the camera’s eye. In person, we resist direction and close-ups, absorbing the entirety of the scene even if it’s a little at a time.

What Worked: The Realistic Performances

Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi are no strangers to television, and it certainly showed by how friendly the camera was to their performances. Benanti’s delivery always struck me as realistic and natural, which is really the preferred modus operandi for great film acting (you could argue that it’s also great for stage acting, but more on that later). Levi’s performance is more animated, but no less perfect for the camera. I’m sure you could find at least ten gif-able Zachary Levi expressions; he’s mastered the art of the manically uncomfortable smile.

Another performance that translated well to camera was Tom McGowan’s understated everyman Cipos. McGowan is a veteran television actor, and his lovable oafish just-trying-to-make-a-buck character feels like a the kind of small gem that needs the close-up framing of a tv screen to help him not be overshadowed by the larger personalities on stage.

What Didn’t: The Unrealistic Performances

Just to clarify: I don’t mean to separate the show’s performers into good or bad actors. Everyone in this cast does a fine job to be honest. But I think more theatrical styles of performance are better for the stage as opposed to film. Take Peter Bartlett’s hilarious turn as the Maître D’. Bartlett uses a lot of clown-like mannerisms and delivers his lines in exaggerated, breathy fashion. It’s fun to watch his meltdown on stage as he dramatically staggers across the stage in anxious anger and scowls for several seconds before recovering his volatile composure. But this extreme theatricality requires a suspension of disbelief, which is never something that translates well on camera.


The same, I’d say, goes for Jane Krakowski as Ilona. Even though her performance isn’t as exaggerated as Bartlett, her deadpan delivery has a vaudevillian streak to it that emphasizes presence and charm over nuance of character. On stage, it’s thrilling. On camera, boring.

What Worked: Set Changes

David Rockwell won a Tony for Maraczek’s Faberge-egg of a set, and the video recording did a great job of framing each set change with the high-definition detail and beauty it deserves.

What Didn’t: Seasons Change

That cute bit where the passing of time is indicated by a stagehand throwing autumn leaves (and then winter snow) on the audience? Seemed sort of lame on television. Again, theatrics don’t translate well.

What Worked: It’s LIVE, People!

I loved seeing the shadows of the back of people’s heads as they watched the performance. It was a great reminder that this whole show was performed live in real time, interrupting the visual determination a camera can produce. It’s also a bit like the moments when cast members on Saturday Night Live slip up during a skit. We love those bits so much because they reveal a bit the reality behind the show. Seeing behind the process of how something is created helps us appreciate the craft that goes into it.

Speaking of slip ups, Laura Benanti dropping ice cream on her bed sheets should be instituted into every performance of the show from now on.

What Didn’t: Misuse of Pre-show, Post-show, and Intermission

Before the show, we got a nice, little interview with Jane Krakowski and the significance of the show on her career and family life. It was worth a soundbite or two. But really? We had a whole 15-minute intermission that could have been spent with more artist interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, discussion on the history of the show, maybe even a special guest or two. Instead we got Justin Guarini counting down the ways Broadway HD is better than seeing the real show. First off, I disagreed with nearly every single point. Second, for an organization who claims to supplement live theater attendance and not replace it, that was definitely not the way to express it. Let’s get a bit more creative with the way we use this precious, precious time, BroadwayHD. I can interview Laura Benanti for you if you want.

What Worked: People all around the country got to see a great work of theater. Broadway became accessible. A stunning show was preserved through technology. And I got to write about this stage-to-screen trend. Let’s do this again sometime, eh? Vanilla ice cream for all!

When Successful Celebrities Play Struggling Artists

They say, “write what you know.” So lots of writers write about failure. They write about what keeps them going amidst failure. They affirm their passions and career through their characters, often thinly-veiled versions of themselves and their colleagues. And usually by the end of the play, there’s a success: the artist finds their voice, or the artist gets their play produced, or gets magically noticed by an industry leader. That glimmer of hope at the end makes the whole artistic journey worthwhile.

There are a number of theatrical works about novice writers or out-of-town actors trying their showbiz luck in the big city, and it’s no wonder why. In such an unstable and fickle industry, artists need all the optimism they can get. The one I tend to reflect on most is Jonathan Larsen’s Tick, Tick…Boom! It’s the ultimate musical about doing what you love: aspiring composer Jon (a stand-in for Larsen) is overcome with anxiety about his career and life choices as he approaches his 30th birthday. Jon nearly gives up his dream when, in the final moments of the show, he listens to a voicemail message left by an admiring Stephen Sondheim. Jon’s work finally gets the recognition it deserves, and he is now filled with hope for the future and gratitude for the challenges that led him to this point.

But Jon didn’t need a magical deus ex machina phone call from Sondheim to validate his career struggle. We already know that Jon aka Larsen is destined for success simply because we are seeing his show. His name is in the playbill. We can retroactively apply our knowledge of the artist’s success onto their work. So when Jon must decide to stay in New York, or move with his girlfriend and give up his theatrical pursuits, we’re rooting for him to stay because we know how the story ends.

Pre-Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. in Tick, Tick…Boom! Photo by Joan Marcus

I first saw Tick, Tick…Boom! at City Center Encores with Lin-Manuel Miranda playing Jon. These were pre-Hamilton times, but even though Barack Obama and J.J. Abrams still didn’t know Lin’s name, we theater devotees certainly did. Miranda’s career has parallels to Larsen’s in many ways: both wrote great, era-defining musicals that were widely different from traditional Broadway fare. They both sky-rocketed to success and gained a vast following. And they’re both chums with Sondheim. Here again, the casting mirrored the actual story in ways that an audience with a working of the theater world could clearly see. Does this distance us from the very real struggles of an up-and-coming artist? Do we more easily dismiss their hardships because we know it’ll turn out alright?

And perhaps more importantly, what message does this give to aspiring artists in similar situations? Jon’s choice to stay in New York might seem like a strong step towards his destiny in retrospect, but in its own isolated moment, it might actually feel rather impractical and neglectful. But that’s not what the show, and many like it, allows us to see. And the playwright is only partially control of that effect–even if Larsen had left Jon’s fate unresolved, we’d still feel optimism about his career because we know that either a) Larsen’s success is Jon’s success, or b) that the famous star of the show has seen himself through the other side of failure.

On a side note, this is probably why I fell in love with the 2013 film, Inside Llewyn Davis —it’s a rare portrayal of a struggling artist who, through a mix of terrible luck and personal weaknesses, never seems to be able to translate his talents and passions into financial gain. Unlike Jon, his own meeting with a record producer shows just how superficial his industry is and how his journey might arrive to its destination.  Can you imagine if  superstar Justin Timberlake changed roles (he plays an up-and-coming musician) and played the title character, instead of a then relatively-unknown Oscar Isaac? The whole heart-wrenching experience would have felt like a contradiction.

I felt this distance again in Fully Committed, a one-man show starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson about a down-on-his-luck actor named Sam who makes ends meet taking reservations for an upscale NYC restaurant. Mentions of Sam’s professional disappointment are scattered throughout the play—a failed HBO pilot, a missed callback for a Shakespeare production, an intense rivalry with a fellow actor friend. It’s clear that Sam’s at his breaking point. Finally, Sam decides to take fate into his own hands, using his powers to secure tables for high-profile guests in order to bribe his way to a callback at Lincoln Center. By the end of the play, Sam’s acting career is back on steady ground, as have his confidence, assertiveness, and self-worth. The title “Fully Committed” refers to the terminology used to say a restaurant is completely book, but it also can refer to the ‘committing’ of a patient to an asylum, as well as to one’s ‘commitment’ to an endeavor. Confused and disappointed at the start, Sam can once again commit himself to his dreams.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson in Fully Committed. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Ferguson began his own acting career in theater, and it’s not a stretch to assume that he was once an aspiring artist working hard at unfulfilling jobs to make ends meet. Now he’s a household name making sweet broadcast television dough. Does the fact that Sam is played by a personality who clearly made the right choice sticking it out overshadow the character’s own say in his decision? We’d really have to jump through some mental hoops to ignore the fact that here we have a character lamenting his acting career while literally on a Broadway stage in a one-man show. It seems like success is in the cards for poor Sam after all. Would we be comfortable considering the opposite?

#GiveElsaAGirlfriend Isn’t Just About the Liberal Agenda

The Frozen sequel was announced over a year ago, and given the typical trajectory of Disney sequels, it’s time for the Arendelle sisters to get married. But let’s give Frozen credit where its due. The first film upended the traditional Disney princess narrative by grounding the story in the sisters’ relationship rather than a romantic one.  Frozen is widely seen as a progressive film for this, as well as for Elsa’s released repression, characterized in “Let It Go,” or that-song-you-only-just-stopped-hearing-everywhere. Because they did so in the first film, we can reasonably expect the writers and producers of the upcoming sequel to approach their characters with sensitivity and integrity, and to approach storytelling with an awareness of their place in pop culture and their responsibility to young fans.

So when the Twitterverse created #GiveElsaAGirlfriend, my first reaction was to determine if this a gay Elsa would be a true Elsa– whether the movement would turn Elsa into a face for a movement instead of honoring her as a living, breathing character.  As someone who analyzes cultural aesthetics for a living, my instinct is to make sure that the story and the character remain intact.

And yet, I think I need to question that instinct. What’s wrong with making Elsa a face of the LGBT movement? (in many ways, she already is) Why can’t lesbian women find representation in characters other than the few provided to them already? (I dunno, Alison Bechdel? Jessica Jones? Willow from a decade ago?) What’s wrong with tying artistic decisions in social justice, even at the risk of feeling too forced or too preachy or too politically correct? We have to allow our art to root itself in the society of its audience, not force it to exist in some sort of aesthetic bubble.

Besides, the more I think about it, the more Elsa seems like a incredibly natural pick for a queer princess. Shamed into hiding her icey powers from an early age, Elsa runs away from the kingdom at her coronation because she is unnatural, just as she nears adulthood. ‘Let It Go’ is widely seen as an LGBT and/or feminist anthem, as Elsa empowers herself by embracing the parts of herself she once repressed. There’s also a clear link between Elsa’s empowerment to her sexuality: the tightly-pulled hair comes loose, her dress transforms to show more chest and thigh, her hips…become some major hips. Elsa’s release feels like a sexually and emotionally transgressive act, clearly against the norms expected of young women, brimming with self-assurance and hope.

Elsa never expresses romantic interest in anyone of any gender, so she’s still a blank slate in that department. For all we know, Elsa might never need or want a lover. But Disney  has a real opportunity here to continue creating a complex, fully-realized character for whom homo- or bisexuality could an option. #GiveElsaAGirlfriend isn’t just a politically correct move. It isn’t about the gay agenda. It is about a clear chance to honor a character’s arc, while also honoring the experiences of fans around the world who identify with her.


Into the Woods’ Nuclear Family Portrait Paints Female Desire as the Enemy

Photo from

Part of Into The Wood‘s enduring influence is its deconstruction of popular fairytales. Audiences are afforded an easy entrance into the world of the play through these timeless, universal stories. We can all identify the sly twists that Sondheim and Lapine impose on the tales, and we can appreciate the complexity they add to these classic characters. We can acknowledge that the purpose of the musical is to turn the fairytales on their heads, to subject them to the realities of love, loss, and strife. Cinderella and Prince Charming don’t live happily ever after, Little Red’s maturity comes at a cost, giants can kill innocent people, wishes have repercussions, and morals never come in neat, simple packages.

However, Into the Woods doesn’t free itself completely of the fairytale mythos: in a way, all stories engage with a discourse whether they realize it or not. The predominant discourse of Into the Woods surrounds the family. Nearly all of the characters are trying to redeem themselves of the judgments and weaknesses of their parents. Most central to the plot is the Witch’s curse on the Baker, making him impotent after his father steals beans from the Witch’s garden. Similarly, Cinderella must escape her stepmother’s tyranny, Rapunzel and Jack free themselves of equally domineering mothers, even the Witch herself is cursed by her mother.

Family is the driving force of conflict.  Wait. More accurately, controlling women are the driving force of conflict, for even the Baker’s father was urged on to steal by his pregnant wife’s “unusual appetite.” And family is also the driving force of the musical’s resolution. Wait. Actually, it’s a family without any controlling or desirous women, since they’re all dead. The ending restores the strong nuclear family structure that controlling women threatened with their desires: there’s the new father who has evolved into a masculine leader and head of household (Baker), the subservient housewife whose proclivity towards wishing has been quelled thanks to a wish gone wrong (Cinderella), and two orphaned children seeking a home (Little Red and Jack). By the end of the film, we’re still in a patriarchal fairytale. The Rob Marshall film underscores this with its closing image of the new nuclear family sitting down together in the woods, listening to the Baker narrate what we’ve just finished watching.

And clearly, it should be the Baker telling the story. Because it’s been his story all along– a story of a kind but emasculated man earning his manhood, first characterized by his ability to have children, then by his heroism and courage. He succeeds at overcoming the generational curse where the female characters don’t, because female desire leads them astray.

Look at the Baker’s wife. Even though she is not the barren one (the Witch makes it clear that the Baker is the one cursed with impotence), she leads the effort to battle the Witch’s curse. Her desire for a child trumps that of the Baker, and his timidity puts her in control of of the plan, which she repeatedly must defend to other characters (Baker, Prince, Cinderella) who ask her why she is alone in the woods. The men of the play hardly ever have to defend their actions to other characters, even when their actions are clearly wrong (like the Princes’ adultery or Jack’s stealing from the Giant). The men’s actions are never put on trial the same way the Witch’s or the Baker’s Wife’s actions are subject to judgment (“Maybe They’re Magic” and “Last Midnight”). The Baker’s Wife is the character who most often blurs the lines of morality, offering beans for Milky White, or pulling Rapunzel’s with the knowledge it might tumble her from out of the tower. Yet, it is her sense of action that furthers the story and the couple’s mission to have a child.  Compare her persistence and action-driven habits with Cinderella’s passivity and indecisiveness. One of these women takes on the role of wife and mother in the ending’s reformed and romanticized family dynamic. The other dies.

While the Baker’s Wife’s death could be interpreted as a random killing (“Your Fault” assumes that imposing logical blame for the death is useless), her death is immediately linked to her adultery and to her new Eve-like understanding of “Moments in the Woods.” Her affair with the Prince is only the last in a series of patriarchy-threatening actions that the Baker’s Wife commits (the others are tied to her role as emasculating leader and moral boundary-breaker). Her death silences her as a threat to the family structure. Plus, it occurs only after “Moments In the Woods” reaffirms her traditional role as loyal wife and mother. The song, meant to exhibit the purpose of and lessons learned in the woods, solidifies the traditional family structure by preaching that those “and” moments that transgress social and moral boundaries reinforce the “or” moments that force women into a dichotomy of good vs. bad, pure vs. slut, seeking to please vs. seeking to be pleased. The Baker’s Wife’s adultery only makes works to silence her desires and put her back in the home, back to lacking desire.

In other words, a woman who acts out her desires realizes that the only good to come from her desires is to passivize her into a non-desirous so as to not act on her desire any more. And then she dies for acting out her desires.

Now, before we start arguing about whether or not she actually died because of her desire, or whether gender actually has anything to do with any of this, let’s look at who else dies and who survives:

Jack, the young boy who is a thief and who inadvertently causes the death of a giant? Alive.

Rapunzel, the young woman who pursues her desire to wed a Prince and escape her mother? Dead.

The Princes, ridiculous and superficial idiots with no concern for their subjects? Alive.

The Witch, clearly the most powerful character who exacts revenge for a likely rape? Dead.

Mrs. Giant, seeking revenge for her dead husband? Dead.

Cinderella, a woman with no clear desires and who likes to clean? Alive.

Jack’s Mother, a demanding and unpleasing woman who hassles her ideal-prone son? Dead.

As much as the musical resists fairytale tropes and fairytale themes, it can’t seem to get away from the classic fairytale trope of “let’s punish a woman for acting in her own interest.”

Let’s talk a bit about the Witch. Witches are traditionally unfeminine figures, and from that they gains their power. She is historically considered to cause barrenness, and she is anti-family, unnatural, and the far opposite of maternal. The Witch in Into the Woods literally takes away the Baker’s manhood and she is the greatest threat to the nuclear family structure and the restoration of masculine leadership. Besides, she’s not the greatest mother to Rapunzel (understatement much).

Photo from Vanity Fair

What better way to neutralize a female threat (besides killing it) than to make it pretty and take away her powers! The Witch starts as a subject with power to an object of desire when she drinks Milky White’s potion, returning to her youthful beauty and losing her magic. Why her magic is lost is never really addressed in the show, but the fact that the loss is linked to her restored femininity insinuates a connection: power is unfeminine.

Now, you might say that we’re supposed to identify with the Witch. She’s actually good! She has the most emotional songs! We sympathize with her! She is the voice of truth in the play! This is only partly true. What does her truth, her experience bring to the play? She is reckless and cruel. Her emotions make her a bad mother and a threat until the very end, where she is all for giving Jack to the giantess. Her truth doesn’t actually reflect the realities of the play (her rape, for example is never explored) and she isn’t really ever right (children will listen). Her ‘truth’ doesn’t make her a heroic subject, she doesn’t lead the characters to victory*. It’s the Baker who leads the way to victory (by killing another threatening woman). It’s the Baker who restores order, order not being very high on the Witch’s list.

The moral of the story? Don’t give into the desires of troubled women. They don’t lead to much good.

*If you want to read a more thorough analysis of female desire in Into the Woods and have access to articles via some kind of academic library, look up “Back(lash) Into the Woods” by Peter C. Woods from Text and Presentation journal. It’s a wonderful, accessible read, and it adds way more context and evidence to these ideas. I used Woods’s article as a sounding board to better shape my own ideas, particularly about the Witch.



NT Live and Young Vic Setting Trends for Modern Audiences

Last month, National Theatre Live, the phenomenal program that streams live tapings of some of the hottest British theatre events to international cinemas, presented the Young Vic’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It starred Gillian Anderson as Blanche and Ben Foster as Stanley. The Young Vic certainly provided Tennessee Williams’ American classic with a modern, innovative lens. Small changes to the script and set allowed for a contemporary setting, as opposed to the its original post-Depression timeframe. Seating was in the round, and the minimalist apartment revolved slowly throughout the entire play, giving the action a bit of a revolving, gyre-like momentum. We’ve seen spinning sets on Broadway before, most recently You Can’t Take It With You, Act One, and Bullets Over Broadway but none that incorporated the motion in the entirety of the piece and played such an enormous influence on the overall tone as this. Also lending a youthful voice to the modern adaptation is a contemporary rock soundtrack that plays in between scenes, as characters race around the apartment swigging alcohol and taking baths to show the passage of time.

Ben Foster and Gillian Anderson as Stanley and Blanche

 But more interesting than th film has been incorporating the theatre world. Film and theatre are two very different mediums, and we could spend a whole ‘nother 2000-word post talking about what type of language each one uses and how adding a close-up shot to a theatre performance can change the mood and message of a scene entirely. My case in point is another NT Live screening of Coriolanus, where a close-up of Tom Hiddleston’s face during Tullus Aufidius’s (Hadley Fraser) bromantic Act 4 speech made the cinema audience erupt in laughter. The actual live stage audience had no such reaction.

There are huge strides being made in marrying film and theatre. NT Live is screening its first American show, Of Mice and Men next month. It’s not the first time a Broadway show has been filmed. In fact, every show is filmed and preserved in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The collection is only open to academics and fancy folks. Ever since learning about the collection in high school, I felt that the collection should be open to the public, or that there should be at least regular screenings from the collection (monthly?), even if they charge a few bucks as an NYPL fundraiser. If they’re worried about people opting to wait for the taping instead of paying the $100 Broadway ticket, fine, put a two-year-after-closing-date waiting period on those beauties. But you’re seriously gonna tell me I need a PhD in theatre to be able to see Patti Lupone in Anything Goes? Or Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods? C’mon, NYPL…

Memphis and Jekyll and Hyde were recently filmed for cinema audiences. Live at Lincoln Center brought us a fantastic Sweeney Todd. This New York Times article reports that the reason why more filmed performances aren’t being made is a hold-back on union negotiations. But where there’s a will there’s a way. And if the packed house at BAM’s ENCORE screening of Streetcar had anything to say, it’s that there’s definitely a will.

Another interesting incorporation of film into theatre comes from the team at The Young Vic, which creates short films directly related to their most popular productions. They’re called YV Shorts, and they explore different sides of the play, usually in the vein of a prologue. They’re not exactly for marketing purposes (they seem to have been released after the productions have ended). Instead they are there to provoke discussion, to promote a relationship between film-making and stage performance, and to explore the characters and themes of the works. They’re already had shorts featuring Patrick Stewart and Jude Law, and Streetcar fans can expect to see Gillian Anderson as Blanche at Belle-reve before arriving at Stella’s apartment in “The Departure”.

From “The Departure”

Dear theatre/film-makers,

More of this please and thank you.

Upcoming NT Live Screenings include Of Mice and Men, Skylight, and an Encore screening of Frankenstein.

That Homeland Poster is Pretty Flipping Racist

About a month ago, Showtime released a new poster for the fourth season of Homeland, which premieres in October. I didn’t see the poster until a few nights ago displayed as a subway platform advertisement. The poster displays a red-hooded, distressed Carrie (Claire Danes) looking lost in a sea of grey, burqa-clad women. I’m shocked that culture commentary websites haven’t picked up on it.

The poster is eye-catching and visually impressive. There’s a fairytale aspect to it– the dazzled, naive Little Red Riding Hood trying to find her way through murky, dangerous forests. Carrie looks like an innocent and vulnerable player in a dark and shadowy game, and she has bitten off more than she can chew. Even though anyone who watches the show, or even saw the trailer, knows that Carrie is hardly an innocent player in the game of international intelligence, the ad is a thrilling and effective visual, especially for those who care about Carrie and her disrupted future.

Showtime’s marketing has never portrayed the show’s Middle Eastern dealings. Past season posters have focused more on the turbulent relationship between Carrie and Brody, the recovered veteran with shady ties to his captors. I don’t think the posters have ever portrayed a Middle Eastern character, even though the Middle East is central to the show’s plot. With Brody out of the picture at this point in the series, the marketing has clearly chosen to put its locale front and center, both in the poster and in the plot, as the trailer shows.

No Arabs? No problem. Each of the show’s white characters are given their own individuality and frame.

Given that so much of the show’s greatness (at least in the early seasons) has been in putting a human face on the effects of war, it’s a sad failure of this poster to dehumanize the women Carrie is surrounded with. True, Middle Eastern women wearing a burqa are consequentially faceless and covered in head to toe. But, each one of them looks exactly the same. They are just landscape to Carrie’s illuminating figure. They are not portrayed as distinct human beings but rather an obscure background. This has never been the way that past posters have portrayed their white, American characters. Carrie, Saul, Brody and even minor characters like other CIA agents and family members have always been distinct parts of their respective advertisements. They stand out from their background. The burqa-wearing women in this photo could easily be replaced by something non-human like trees or bazaar stands and have the same effect of making Carrie look lost and vulnerable in her surroundings.

Now, let’s take the implications of this dehumanizing aspect. First of all, burqas are usually the first thing people mention when discussing feminism/women’s rights in the third world. It used to be a divisive issue, but most feminist scholars with an interest in the third world would now say that it is unjust and naive to decry the evils of the burqa, which for Muslim women has great religious significance. Many of them freely wear it with pride, and to attack it as a sign of oppression is to approach it from a narrow Western, privileged frame of mind with no real knowledge of Middle Eastern practices or Middle Eastern women’s cultural notions. To look at a woman wearing a burqa and see her as an oppressed woman without knowing about her background and her choices is to ignorantly judge her based on your own cultural experiences and not hers. And to look at a woman wearing a burqa and see a frightening, mysterious, or threatening individual is racism on a whole ‘nuther level.

Unfortunately, this Homeland poster does both. It places these shadowy women in Carrie’s background perhaps as a sign that Carrie has come to help them. Bright, white, and illuminating Carrie looks like the Western savior, like the young beautiful white teacher about to set all her minority students straight with her compassion and lofty ideas. It’s dangerous when a minority group is presented as a group to be pitied or saved by a more civilized, knowledgeable party (often the very same civilized party that oppressed them in the first place).


That’s one interpretation. The other is that the shadowy women are there to set up a mysterious, threatening background to Carrie’s illuminating, heroic presence. They are like the dark woods to Carrie’s Little Red Riding Hood, the towering waves to George Clooney’s steamship, the blighted Mordor landscape to a determined Frodo and Sam. Isn’t great, though, that in those examples, the threats are things and in the Homeland poster, they’re the very people Carrie is supposed to protect? Can you imagine how it would feel to be a Muslim woman, with or without burqa, passing by this advertisement on a subway platform or a street corner? Can you feel the hostility and the fear rising from the poster? The sudden pit-in-your-stomach self-awareness it induces? The ignorant attack on your culture, your beliefs, your appearance?


NT Live Presents a Harrowing and Modern ‘Medea’

We first fell in love with the Royal National Theatre about five years ago, when we participated in a month-long study abroad focusing on London theater. The National is such an energetic and progressive space for theater. It present fantastic, on-point productions in a diverse, democratic space, and, since it receives public funds, tickets can be bought for half the price of a regular theater ticket, if not less.

And now, starting in 2009, the National launched NT Live, a program that films some of the National’s most in-demand stage productions and broadcasts them live to cinemas around the world. It’s an innovative program that hopefully will be adopted by other prominent theater companies, not only to further promote and spread excellent theater, but also to preserve it. Theater is a far less accessible medium than film, for reasons of cost, specific location, and specific duration, and any opportunity to enhance the theater’s audience and ensure a production’s longevity should be taken. Since it start, NT Live has increased its accessibility among international audiences, with screenings of noteworthy productions like Frankenstein (starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller), Coriolanus (a Donmar production starring Tom Hiddleston), and soon-to-be Broadway productions like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, The Audience, and Skylight.

Helen McCrory and Danny Sapani in Medea

You’d expect no less from a forward-looking company than this powerful production of Euripedes’ Medea. Using a new translation by Ben Powers, Carrie Cracknell directs Helen McCrory in the title role. McCrory is a powerhouse actress with a knack for playing turbulent and/or conflicted women. She adds a quiet and authentic severity to Medea, and is more than capable of tacking the physical and emotional demands of the role. Unlike most tragic heroes, Medea begins already grief-stricken, with a history of conflict and violence long enough to fill its own Greek tragedy. Out of love for Jason, the Greek adventurer and leader of the Argonauts, Medea again and again saved his life using ancient magic and strategy throughout his quest for the Golden Fleece. She killed and dismembered her own brother in order to provide a distraction for Jason’s escape.

Jason (Danny Sapani) is now Medea’s husband and father to her two children. Her new grief is due to the newly announced marriage of Jason and Glauce, King Kreon’s daughter. Jason rationally argues that this new marriage is a political and economic ploy to ensure the the protection of Medea and his sons. But Medea refuses to see the marriage as anything but betrayal. Historically, rationality has been seen as a male trait and superior to female emotion. Here,  Jason’s emotionally distant logic counteracts Medea’s deeply rooted, instinctual fervor.  She envelopes herself in grief and plans her revenge. To make matters worse, Kreon (Martin Turner) banishes Medea, a threat to the happiness of the kingdom. What struck me about Medea’s eventual decision to murder her children is how she must adopt the same oppressive patriarchal logic in order to execute the plan, abandoning her instincts and alienating her actions from her feelings. It is her mind, not her emotions, that brings about this atrocity. This is clear in Helen McCrory’s beautifully executed soliloquies debating the act, revealing the psychological twists and turns of her motives. For me, this is the triumph of the play, this rationalization of the murders that mirrors the rationalization of the male authority figures. This adoption of male logic, as opposed to her abundance of emotion, is the perpetrator of her actions.

This production is set in a modern home, albeit a crumbling one. The dirty, peeling patterned wallpaper and 70s-style tiled floors give the house a look as if it hadn’t been cared for in years, the result of years of neglect, even though Jason’s marriage to Glauce has only been just announced. It gives one the feeling that this oppressive grief, this anger, is a deep-seated one that has always been latently present, but only recently surfaced. Knowing what we do about Medea’s history with Jason and ancient Greek patriarchy, it is clear that Medea’s betrayal is only one face of female sacrifice, of the abuse of male power, and of a (perhaps unconscious) long-lasting resentment between the sexes and neglect of feminine humanity. This latent anger is further emphasized by the way that the set gives way to a lurking forest in the background. Atop the house is a hall walled with glass, the scene of Glauce and Jason’s wedding party. Structurally, the forest may be like the lurking subconscious, the otherworldliness of Medea’s mysticism and powerful emotions (She is traditionally seen as a representative of the old mystic, uncivilized world of witchery and magic, while Jason ushers in a new structured civilized age). It is the unbridled rawness of human nature, the id, if you will. If Medea’s home is the ego, struggling to balance her emotions with her thoughts, then the glass hall above is the superego, the civilized, the home of rationalism, logic, and ideology. It is the realm of the accepted status quo, that which has been deemed correct by the patriarchal hierarchy of Greece.

The chorus of this production is comprised of the women of Corinth, the bridesmaids at Glauce’s wedding. They comment on Medea’s actions, but they too struggle with the emotional and psychological contradictions of patriarchy. Accompanied by a chilling score written by Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory, the chorus convulsively dances at pivotal points in Medea’s plan, their bodies becoming symbolic incarnations of Medea’s mental state and of the psychological distress that exists in the psyches of oppressed peoples. Sometimes the choreography seemed too much like break-dancing (there were a few giggles in the audience in one scene) but its purpose was clear.

To find local screenings of NT Live’s Medea, as well as upcoming NT Live productions, visit their website here.

TONYS 2014 Recap GIF-xtravaganza

Hugh Jackman and his beard Deborra Lee Furness were out in full force last night. The man hasn’t hosted the Tonys since 2005, and, if you overlook a few minor bumps, it felt like Hugh had never left. Also, winners! Performances! Black people! White people! White people rapping! Black people rapping!  Famous people who owe a favor to CBS! This show had everything (and arguably nothing) and our feelings are so feely, we’ll throw in a few gifs to express our sincerest emotions.

Okay, so the night started with an opening number that had no singing, no dancing, and lots of jumping. My mom made the brilliant connection that because he’s Australian, Hugh was imitating a kangaroo. That was as valid and insightful explanation as any. The real inspiration for the jumping was a number called “Take Me to Broadway” from the 1953 movie musical Small Town Girl, in which Bobby Van jumps around town because that’s what people did before the internet or something. Most viewers didn’t get the reference. Even regular musical-watching folks with a decent Broadway knowledge (us) didn’t get the reference. And even if we did have omniscient musical movie knowledge, the segment seemed like a much better fit for a promotional bit or even as a segment in the middle of the show, not as an opening. However, we do want to give credit where due, and this opening did excel in two ways:

1) It gave a brief spotlight on each of the big shows this season (Rocky’s beef racks made a well-deserved cameo), and

2) Holy crap can that man jump! NPH, you’re awesome and stuff, but you can check your magic tricks and your sexy legs at the door. I mean, seriously Hugh, stop taking Wolverine steroids and get your well-insured posterior to a Broadway musical right now! And none of this dramatic play business anymore!

Leave that Jez Butterworth stuff to Mark Rylance and do a dance number for heaven’s sake! Because this is you:


And this is us:


While we’re mentioning Mark Rylance, he can also check his Shakespeare purism at the door with NPH’s magic rabbit and DanRad’s and Denzel’s missing actor nominations. Because while it sounds great to do Shakespeare in its original context and revive that whole standing-for-three-hours-in-London-rain thing, your all white-male cast is definitely not where we’d like theater to be heading.  Thankfully, the theater gods seemed to be passing that karma around because after Rylance won the first acting award, people of color started winning ‘dem awards.

Audra McDonald made TONY history, becoming not only the first person to win six acting awards, but also the first person to win in every muthaflippin acting category (Best Lead/Featured in a Play/Musical). She also made a beautiful speech honoring her family and black female performers who paved the way for her own success, like Lena Horne, Maya Angelou, Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee, and Billie Holiday.


Kenny Leon wore some badass sneakers on stage when he beat three white male directors with their entirely white-cast plays. Sophie Okonedo and her gorgeous smile won my heart and a gold statue thing.


And James Monroe Iglehart was just… awesome.



Raisin in the Sun and All the Way won in the play categories, and both feature predominantly black casts. AladdinBeautiful, and After Midnight are great productions for people of color, even if A Gentleman’s Guide isn’t. Then, that Music Man rap happened with LL Cool J and TI and it ranked among the best things ever of all time. All you show-tune purists can check your hate at the door along with your Bullets Over Broadway brand umbrella, because this is you:


And this is us:


Last night was also a big night for women.  Sutton, Audra, Kelli, and Idina were all nominated in the same frickin’ year. The competition felt hotter than the nominees were after getting wooed by Hugh.

sutton idina mary kelli

And then relative-newbie Jessie Mueller won and it was all so surprising and awesome and cute!


Lena Hall almost stole the show from NPH as gender-bending Yitzhak with a great acceptance speech and and even better performance.

Women and people of color were largely absent from the writing categories, which was made even more blatantly obvious by forcing having the playwrights speak about their own works. Not only were they all white older men, they also looked anxious as hell to get back to their seats. There’s a reason awkward people become writers and not performers. Even Harvey Fierstein looked uncomfortable, and that man should be used to uncomfortable situations-  he had to play Tevye to Rosie O’Donnell’s Golde.

As usual, the presenters were largely famous people who kind of sort of maybe have some theater experience, or are in a play right now. The TONY Awards occupy this weird liminal space where they’re broadcasting nationally, but honoring shows that all perform within a mile radius of each other. Booking celebs is pretty much the only way to insure that people might actually care enough to watch. Therefore, Jennifer Hudson sings that Neverland song. Otherwise, that combo would have been really awkward or something….

Another result of this weird liminal space thing was the controversial decision to have RuPaul introduce Hedwig given a) his recent transphobic debacle and b) the fact that the producers might be conflating being a drag queen with being transgender.

Jonathan Groff subtly paid homage to John Travolta’s “Adele Dazeem” mistake, which almost makes up for the fact that he is friends with Lea Michele.

Kenny B, you just get better with age. That face. That hair.


Lots of the year’s biggest musicals didn’t get nominated but still performed. Because marketing. Some of the performances worked, some didn’t. There’s no doubt that Idina’s a powerhouse, but when put out of context, “Always Starting Over” falls a bit emotionally flat. The gangster tap dance from Bullets was cool, but we could think of a few more whimsical numbers that would have grabbed more attention. Rocky tried to replicate its stadium sized finale with just a manually-moved boxing ring, and that didn’t really work out as well as they might have hoped. It also doesn’t help the performers’ energy if these highly anticipated shows got zilch in nominations. The season’s surprising frontrunner, A Gentleman’s Guide made the smartest selection: Jefferson Mays introduced the performance in three different characters with chameleon-like prowess, allowing Bryce Pinkham, Lisa O’Hare, and Lauren Worsham the spotlight to duke it out in one of the show’s best numbers (and one that still works out of context).

And while this year’s Tony Awards wasn’t the best, at least we can look forward to more Sting shenanigans for next year.

Establishing the theater cred that Bono and the Edge could not.




Nick Cannon’s Whiteface is not the same as Blackface

Apparently, hosting a talent show and being Mr. Mariah Carey does not a wise man make. Nick Cannon made bad choices this week: 1) dressing up like a white, blonde boy-man whom he named “Connor Smallnut,” 2) posting more than zero photos of this stunt on Instagram to promote his new album White People Party Music, and 3) hashtagging these photos with weird stereotypes like #FarmersMarket and #DogKissing and #CreamCheeseEating. Do people of color not like cream cheese?

Why you hurt me like that?

It’s a silly publicity stunt that reflects what happens when you combine poor judgement and an over-abundance of free time. But it is nothing more.

Lots of people were quick to attack Nick Cannon’s actions as racist. I saw more than a few reactions saying that Nick Cannon should suffer as much repercussion and negative attention for his stunt as celebrities who have worn blackface. Their arguments usually make the following points:

1) How come the media isn’t attacking Nick Cannon the same way they skewered Ted Danson or Julianne Hough?

2) Whiteface is just as racist as blackface and Nick Cannon is teaching his fans to resent white people.

3) These two actions should be treated exactly the same way.

On the surface, this argument sounds rational. Ideally, we should be working towards eliminating resentment between races and Nick Cannon’s certainly irritates that a bit. But this argument ignores the politics of power behind white/blackface. Nick Cannon might be irritating, but his whiteface is not a tool of oppression. And it is not racist.

You see, racism is commonly thought to be like a formula. Prejudice + Power= Racism. In our society, which is still undoubtedly recovering from the historical oppression of people of color, white male Americans hold the reins of socio-economic power. You can point out the exceptions to the rule, but they remain just that, exceptions. Inequality is still rampant in our neighborhoods, in our corporations, in our schools, in our justice system, and in our film and music industry.  This is why there is a difference between a racially-charged comment on white people and a racially-charged comment on people of color. If a black person calls a white person a “cracker” or a “white bitch” on the street, it is insulting and hurtful. But if a white person called a black person “nigger,” not only is it insulting and hurtful, it carries the white person’s privilege as a white person (whether they admit to having privilege or not). It carries the historical use of the word as a tool of oppression. And it perpetuates an image of this black person that weighs heavily on people of color even today and continues to close the doors of opportunity to them.

When Nick Cannon wears whiteface, his action does not carry the same implications as blackface. White people might be insulted, but at the end of the day, they can walk away unscathed with the reassurance that Nick Cannon’s view of white people won’t harm their chances of getting a mortgage or scoring a job promotion. At worst, Nick Cannon’s stereotypes might be used to target certain types of white people (‘oh, those reckless suburban kids!’ ‘oh, those privileged L.A. teens!’).  Black stereotypes, on the other hand, are attributed to an entire race with few exceptions. It’s assumed that they’re ratchet/ghetto. If a black man wants to be taken seriously by his peers (or by Bill O’Reilly), he has to fight extra hard against these stereotypes, prove he’s not like that, and adopt culturally pre-approved characteristics condoned by those in power (ie. white males) such as wear smart glasses and suits, not sag his pants, and trade dialectical resonances in his vocabulary for ‘standard’ English. And when the How I Met Your Mother cast dresses in yellowface and enact Asian stereotypes (especially when they don’t have any people of color in the cast), they too are targeting an entire race with an image of Asian people, who are then held responsible to disprove the stereotype in order to be taken seriously as an employee, a leader, a romantic interest, etc. This is why representation in media is so important, so that the public sees realistic images of people of color as complex, fully-realized individuals i.e. not Rooney Mara’s imitation of them.

Just to reaffirm, by no means is Nick Cannon’s stunt amusing or tasteful. In case you need any more proof that Nick Cannon is a moron, he continues to defend his whiteface by comparing it to blackface and bragging about his yacht.

I personally don’t care if he publicly apologizes or not, but whatever he’s doing, he’s going about it the wrong way.  What I find more interesting, though, is the title of his album, White People Party Music. A subtle jab at white people’s appropriation of hip-hop even though we continue to claim that hip-hop culture is degrading to black society? Given the week Nick Cannon is having, probably not.

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