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The ‘Spring Awakening’ Kickstarter and the Politics of TONY Performances

Yesterday, Deaf West Theatre began a Kickstarter campaign to raise $200,000 to perform at this year’s Tony Awards. Their Broadway production of Spring Awakening garnered a Best Revival of a Musical nomination, as well as a nod for director Michael Arden. The show was critically acclaimed for adapting the original punk-rock musical for a deaf cast and for incorporating sign language into the spoken dialogue and choreography.  The cast also performed at the White House as part of a celebration of inclusion in the arts. The show closed in January after a limited run.

 

 

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Daniel Durant and the cast. Photo by Kevin Parry

The campaign has raised $45k towards its $200k goal, which Deaf West claims will be used to “to fly our cast back to New York, we have to get the costumes and instruments and props out of storage, we have to pay for rehearsal space since we don’t have a theatre…and the actual expense of performing on the broadcast!”

Performing at the Tony Awards means having a nation-wide platform for the latest shows appearing on Broadway. For a currently-running show, this is usually an unquestionably necessary marketing investment for a producer in the hopes of drawing in summer tourists. For a closed show, a Tony Awards performance could mean building hype towards a national tour and other future incarnations of the show, or simply a way to document the show’s successes in front of a (much) wider audience. Spring Awakening falls into the latter category, but already has announced  a national tour in 2017.  Deaf West, its producers, its cast (even those who may not be in the national tour),and creative team will certainly receive more attention from the broadcast.

Then, there’s the more artistic rationale for the broadcast. A televised performance would widely promote Spring Awakening’s message of inclusivity, acceptance, and integrity, especially towards people with disabilities. D.J. Kurs, artistic director of Deaf West, says, “There’s just one night a year that theater gets this platform. Our performance will be an undeniable statement to the world that theater is for everyone.” While this statement is not entirely true (Spring Awakening and other musicals have multiple opportunities nowadays to appeal to nationwide audiences, including performances on morning and late night shows and the livestream of its White House performance), a Tony performance would definitely be a testament to arts inclusion in a year full of discourse on diversity in theater.

But who should really foot this $200K bill? Many closed shows have tried to find funds for a Tony performance and failed. Honeymoon in Vegas, for example, settled on a reunion concert the days after the ceremony after receiving no nominations. Others somehow found the means to perform– Anyone remember that out-of-nowhere performance from Bring It On, co-written by some guy Lin-Manuel Miranda?

Yes, Deaf West is a nonprofit theater organization (as it emphasizes in the Kickstarter description), but the company and its producers will undoubtedly profit from nationwide attention. This isn’t a little-known, struggling theater company hoping for a boost in the right direction. This is a show with a launched tour, with one of the most successful Broadway producers backing its revival, with several nationwide performances under its belt, including one in front of the Obamas. Despite the honorable intentions of its inspiring cast and creative team, despite the advances the show has gained from its inclusive practices, we are dealing with a FOR-PROFIT Broadway show. Again, its producers WILL profit from this televised performance.

Producer Ken Davenport blogged about the campaign, stating “the financial books are just about buttoned up now.  We don’t have $200,000 to spend, no matter how important it is to all of us that this cast get the chance to appear on the show.  And honestly, even if we had the money, it wouldn’t be fiscally responsible for us Producers to ask our investors to foot this bill.”

This language is misleading and unethical.  Davenport is the leading investor of this show. He famously single-handedly decided to transport the show from L.A. to Broadway. He, his co-producers, and his pool of investors almost certainly can get the $200, 000 to spend. In fact, it’s their job to do so. And if they don’t, well, you lose out on an investment opportunity. For your tour, your production’s legacy, and your cast and creative team. It’s a bit like a corporation asking customers to donate food items for their underpaid actors. That’s an extreme comparison, but one similarly rooted in the language of capitalist venture. It places the burden of charity, and a certain guilt, on anyone other than the people who profit from the inequalities being perpetuated. Davenport’s not Sam Walton, and theatre doesn’t make nearly as much money as bully retailers, but Davenport has everything to gain from your support.

So please, keep your money. This Kickstarter promotes the facade of a grassroots campaign when really, it’s something more of a hoax.

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Poems To Read Based on Your Favorite Musical

We’re winding down Poetry Month with recommendations specially tailored for you based on your favorite musical. You’re welcome.

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Matilda

  • Every song in Matilda is a wordsmith’s dream, full of puns and linguistic play. ee cummings is one of the most playful poets out there, working with format, syntax, and suggestion to create provocative and delightful pieces. Here’s Tom Hiddleston reading “May I Feel Said He.”
  • Harryette Mullen is another master wordsmith who explores the resonances and connotations of words in pop culture and politics. See “Elliptical” from her appropriately named book, “Sleeping with the Dictionary.”

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Passing Strange

  • James Baldwin would definitely identify with the young protagonist’s quest to live in a country that reflects his principles, and his struggle to stay true to himself. Baldwin explores the intersections of race, religion, and sexuality in his poems, essays, and novels. Check out “The giver”
  • Claude McKay is a prominent Harlem Renaissance writer whose work exposed the contradictions of the American Dream. Check out “America,” and basically everything else he’s written.
  • Rumi’s poetry is all about self-healing and finding authenticity in the noise of consciousness. See these selections.
  • Also, make sure to check out Muriel Rukeyser’s “Orgy” “…that’s right all three of them”

 

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Hamilton

  • Part of Hamilton’s genius is its blend of history and popular music, making the oft-treated history of American independence feel fresh, accessible, and even subversive. But Lin-Manuel’s not the first wordsmith to put politics and cultural sounds together. See poet/activist Amiri Baraka and Yusek Komunyakaa, both fascinating intellectuals concerned with race, American politics, and its effects on daily life.
  • Puerto Rican writer Martin Espada was a tenant lawyer working with largely immigrant communities. His poetry draws on themes of law and activism, historical Latin American rebellion, and what it means to exists on the fringes of society.
  • Make the Schyuler sisters proud with feminist poetry from Dominican author Julia Alvarez and Puerto Rican Julia de Burgos.

Company

  • On the precipice of marriage and adulthood? Gregory Corso’s “Marriage” probably won’t leave you feeling any wiser, but you’ll definitely get a laugh.

Avenue Q

  • Funny, accessible, sprinkled with deep musings on life? Billy Collins makes it happen.

Next to Normal

  • The Goodman family should really sit down together and read some Sylvia Plath, not only because of Plath’s own struggle with mental illness, but because so much of her writing deals with family problems and finding fortitude in ourselves.
  • Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is one of my personal favorites, a superbly structured meditation on loss that holds no emotional punches.
  • I hear a lot of Muriel Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead”  in many of Kitt’s and Yorkey’s lyrics, particularly in “I Miss the Mountains”

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Sunday in the Park With George

  • Seurat abandoned realism for his signature style of pointillism, preceding even more artistic experimentation in the early 20th century. Check out T.S. Eliot’s “The LoveSong of J Alfred Prufrock,” which is also rife with themes of masculinity, failed relationships, and artistry.
  • Painting complex images with simple dots is similar to what Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and Williams Carlos Williams do with perception in their condensed, haiku-like forms.

Sweeney Todd and/or A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

  • A penchant for the dark side, have you? Satisfy your taste for morbidity with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm
  • Edgar Lee Masters wrote a collection of prose/poems called The Spoon River Anthology. Each poem represents one person in the local cemetery. Cheery stuff.
  • Edwin Arlington Robinson had a similar approach to his poems “Richard Cory” and “Miniver Cheevy,” which whimsically recounts two men’s fateful demise.
  • For a more hopeful look at death, read William Cullen Bryant (what’s with the three-namers in this century?). His “Thanatopsis” got me through many a funeral.

Into the Woods

  • Sondheim’s not the first to love a good, dark, modern take on a classic fantasy. Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallott” is his most well-known, though I tend to go for “Ulysses” more often.
  • More takes on the Ulysses myth: Dorothy Parker’s “Penelope” and Margaret Atwood’s “Siren Song.” Both entrancingly subversive from a woman’s POV.
  • Christabel” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a fantastic fairy tale poem about a young princess who competes for her father’s affection with a young, wild forest woman. It’s full of sexual (queer?) innuendo and lots of speculation.

Rent

  • “La Vie Boheme” is definitely inspired by Walt Whitman’s ode to Americana “Leaves of Grass,” which in turn inspired “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg.
  • Sonia Sanchez’s “Wounded in the House of a Friend” plays out a spat between two lovers. It’s passionate, often hilarious, like watching your favorite soap.
  • Claudia Rankine is writing extraordinary poetry defining the 21st century. First with a multimedia reflection on post-9/11 America “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely,” and recently with the much-lauded “Citizen,” a provocative book on race.

This list could go on indefinitely. Feel free to comment with more suggestions!

 

 

 

 

On David Tennant, ‘Richard II,’ and the Joy of Acting

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David Tennatn as Richard II at BAM. Photo by RSC

Sitting in his prison cell, the deposed king Richard II meditatively reflects on the nature of kingship and his sudden loss of power. He says,

Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king’d again…

Richard II is one of the great chameleon-like figures of Shakespeare’s works, ranking among other hard-to-pin-down royals like Hamlet and Richard III. He’s at once angelically majestic and humanly flawed. When surrounded by his subjects, he invokes divine right with the grace and poise of a saint, but behind closed doors he talks of looting his dying uncle’s property with malevolent glee. He can be warrior-like and masculine, witnessing the wars in Ireland himself, as well as effeminate, enjoying the luxuries of the finest Italian fashions, as well as the love of his cousin Aumerle. Richard can act esoteric and transcendent, seemingly a god among men. But he is simultaneously worldly and deeply flawed.

Richard is able to swiftly ‘play’ many ‘people’ as king, with the keen ability to judge what circumstances call for which ‘person.’ However, this protean strength eventually becomes his great weakness. The cause of his fall lies largely in the court’s suspicion of his inconsistency and his poor judgment. Richard missteps when he arbitrarily banishes two members of the court, then minimizes the sentence of one when the other can exited the scene. Likewise, he allows the court to see his conniving greed and disrespectful attitude at his uncle’s death. Though Richard’s changeability is sometimes to be admired, his followers and flatterers can be just as changeable—in their loyalties. Trust is a thing easily lost and hardly gained back, and people want to know where one stands, even if they themselves prefer to stand for nothing.

When news of his usurpation arrives, he swings wildly between anxious despair and stately calm within the span of a few lines. This is his great moment of decision—to pass the crown peaceably, or to demand his God-given right to it. Perhaps what Richard mourns in handing over the crown is precisely the power to transform, to embody all these selves in one, without worrying about the consequences. Richard invokes divine right constantly (the idea that the king’s place on the throne was sanctioned by God from birth), and divine right is the only ideological guarantee for kings to keep the throne and rule with stability. His usurpation means that Richard (and other kings) have no stability to fall back on. God, essentially, is dead, and fickle man has taken over. In his prison cell, sitting with his arms extended in chains and his flowing brown hair draping his shoulders, Richard’s image invokes the crucified Christ, sacrificed to the human whims of greed and power.

Richard’s transformative powers, however, aren’t nearly as enjoyable or judicious as David Tennant’s. Tennant, who played Richard II in 2013 in London’s Barbican Theater and make his American stage debut with its reprise at BAM, has built his career on an enormous range of roles and genres. Best known for his five-year stint on Doctor Who, Tennant is a regular with the Royal Shakespeare Company, starring in both comedies (Much Ado) and tragedies (Hamlet). He’s also played a superhero villain (Jessica Jones), a washed up Vegas performer (Fright Night), and a disillusioned detective (Broadchurch).

Part of the wonder of good acting is the actor’s ability to make something that has been so carefully plotted on paper seem fresh, spontaneous, and natural. Tennant is a master of this feat. His choices are always enjoyable, often unpredictable, but always deeply rooted in his character. Every gesture is deliberate and insightful. He delivers lines with a novelty and truthfulness, and he always bridges that amazing dialectic space between consistency and surprise. Judging from his interviews, Tennant also seems to be avidly aware of his characters’ places in pop culture and dramatic history. He has hosted and narrated various pieces on Shakespeare’s legacy, and the fact that he was a lifelong fan of Doctor Who before his casting is apparent in how he approaches the role. He is a critical reader, searching into the text for information the way a scholar would, sounding out its depths and applications. He’s the kind of person you’d be desperate to attend your book club. Truly, his excellent performances come from a sheer joy and deep investment in the world of his character.

His turn as Richard II shows yet another side to Tennant’s range. Walking swiftly onstage in the opening scene, as if magically propelled by his divine mission, with his look up to the heavens, Richard seems not of this earth. And yet, Richard is so humanly flawed and so deeply introspective in his moments of peril. Tennant is the perfect choice to bridge these two extremes, every scene illuminating the fascinating paradoxes of his character. Tennant has the magnificent ability to explore Richard’s ‘many people.’ And it’s a pleasure to watch.

Richard II plays at BAM as part of the “King and Country” cycle, featuring Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. Tickets through April 29.

Here’s How NYC Broadway Characters Would Vote

Congrats! You’ve voted and done your civic duty! But these people haven’t! Because they’re fictional, you say? Sure, okay. But really. Now that we’ve made our decisions, ho would these Broadway characters, all New York residents, vote for? Continue reading “Here’s How NYC Broadway Characters Would Vote”

‘Bright Star’ and the Horrible, No Good, Nonspecific Song Lyrics

Good theatrical songwriting is like tailoring a good custom suit. While it may be easier and cheaper to buy a suit off the rack at a department store, the luxury of going to a tailor is to find a perfect match for your tastes and measurements, uniquely proportioned to your every need or desire. It’s the sensation of walking out of a store with a one-of-a-kind object in your possession. The suit is an extension of yourself, created for you with only you in mind. And yet, it’s also made for other to admire as a work of artistry, perhaps even to imitate. Continue reading “‘Bright Star’ and the Horrible, No Good, Nonspecific Song Lyrics”

‘Red Speedo’ at NYTW is Barely Revealing

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Peter Jay Fernandez, Alex Breaux, and Lucas Caleb Rooney. Photo: Joan Marcus

The glowing blue waters of a the swimming pool dance entrancingly on stage at the New York Theater Workshop’s production of Lucas Hnath’s new play, Red Speedo. They remind us of the alluring gleam of fame, success, and redemption. Continue reading “‘Red Speedo’ at NYTW is Barely Revealing”

Why White People Can Dry Their Hamiltears.

An article by Sara on the ‘Non-White’ Hamilton Controversy, published on the media site, Gradient. Read it and weep.

Hamilton has no responsibility to hold colorblind casting. The show itself is not colorblind… it would change a fundamental part of the show’s message. But more importantly, it would show actors of color around the world that white privilege has once again manipulated the industry to feed its own needs.”

 

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