“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.”
We saw the new (new) Roundabout revival of She Loves Me, a classic romantic musical regarded by many as one of the best in the genre. But I’m not going to sit here and gush about its perfect songs (Harnick and Bock might be my favorite songwriting duo), its fantastic cast (Benanti? Levi? Krakowski? Y’all come back now, ya hear?), and its inspired direction (Scott Ellis proving that second chances are not to be wasted). No, you can go read just about any other review of the show for that.
Instead, let’s get deep into this musical’s central questions: What is love? baby don’t hurt me How do we know when we find it? And why can’t we see it even when it is right in front of our faces. There’s a reason why this story has been adapted so many times, why it has gained such a popular fan following despite its short Broadway runs. These are questions we all ask ourselves at some point or another, and our answers can greatly impact how we perceive ourselves in relationship to others as well as to society.
This is part 1 of my 2-part analysis of true love in She Loves Me and how the characters’ workplace impacts their relationships and identities. Here we go, dear friend!
Amalia Bosch is confident that her date tonight will be the love of her life. The only issue is she’s never met the guy. She doesn’t even know his name. She and her ‘dear friend’ have been corresponding anonymously in letters for months, and are finally meeting for the first time. When Ms. Ritter, her colleague at a local perfume shop, questions Amalia’s hasty judgment of the man, Amalia assures her in song, “I don’t know his name or what he looks like/ but I have a much more certain guide:/ I can tell exactly what he looks like inside.” Amalia and her mystery man bond over their views, their reading interests (Amalia includes a long list of authors they both admire including Flaubert, Dumas, Swift, and Tolstoy) and she insists they are perfect for each other.
Ms. Ritter, on the other hand, has the opposite approach towards love. She seems to fall for men on first sight without knowing much about their personalities. This includes Kodaly, a wily salesman who abuses all of Ritter’s second chances. This relationship ends with Ritter vowing never to trust a man so blindly again.
Are we supposed to believe that Amalia’s approach to finding love is better? That her feelings for ‘dear friend’ are more genuine than Ritter’s naïve love for Kodaly? Perhaps when the show was first performed in 1963, this question could have been answered with a more confident ‘yes.’ Amalia faithfully persists in corresponding with dear friend and seems to be rewarded. She puts aside all doubts about his looks or status, and ends up with a great match: Georg, a co-worker she despises in person, but whose true self comes out through his anonymous writing. At the shop, Amalia and Georg are too burdened by their worries, their job status, and their pride to actually connect as real people. But when they write, they can let their true selves shine forth.
We’ve come a long way from the Lonely Heart’s Club, though. Today, our postmodern experience with social media might have us doubt the whole idea of a ‘true self.’ It is apparent now more than ever how people portray different selves in different situations. Our avatars on Facebook or OkCupid or Linkedin are manipulated to display the best possible versions of ourselves to appeal to a certain type of friend, partner, or employer. What books I list on my dating profile might lead viewers to dismiss me as too conventional, too intellectual, or too avant-garde. And does a shared interest in Flaubert ever really equate true romance? If that were the case, online dating would have solved all our romantic issues a decade ago.
And how is it that two people who claim to know each other so well hate each other upon meeting? Are the characters’ personas obliterated in the workplace because of their anxieties and pride? Or does Amalia not really know her ‘dear friend’ as well as she’d like to think?
Take the musical’s most famous number, “Vanilla Ice Cream.” Amalia, who still does not know the identity of her date, calls in sick after being stood up. She decides to send him a letter to clear up any animosity between them. Georg, meanwhile, knows her identity and guiltily brings a pint of ice cream to her home. Amalia’s song starts with her writing voice: an elegant, prosaic, and romanticized tone as if she were writing in the lofty voice of poet. It’s even typically sung with a bit of a lilting accent (in both Benanti’s and Barbara Cook’s versions).
Then her writing is interrupted by her new surprising interest in Georg. When she thinks about Georg, the lyrics become more genuine, more accessible (‘That Georg…/is not like this Georg,/ This is a new Georg/That I don’t know!”). The tempo picks up, reflecting the unpolished, rambling thoughts bouncing happily in her mind. This is the purest version of Amalia we see.
It is in this song that we see how starkly different love-letter Amalia is from the real Amalia. Love-letter Amalia is a cosmetic, manicured version of herself. She edits herself to become like the romantic heroines of her books. Georg, similarly confesses to Sipos that he lies in his letters to make himself more appealing. In order to find love with each other, Amalia and Georg have to disassemble these pretenses and approach each other as they truly are—an amalgam of all their different selves, even if they contradict each other.
1-Lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber were in their twentieswhen they wrote Jesus Christ Superstar. Their inspiration for Superstar grew from the idea of approaching Jesus from Judas’ point of view.
2-They previously wrote Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat together. Their next collaboration would be Evita.
3-They released a record of the music first because producers would not stage it. The pair credit the show’s unique style with its lack of a book and its origins as a record: “… the fact that we made Superstar initially for record meant that we cut out the book,” Rice says. “We hadn’t actually written a book… so it might’ve been ‘Hey, Judas, take a seat,’ or whatever. I mean, it could’ve been awful. It worked so much better and was much less pretentious, if it was a sung-through work.”
4-The record became a hit in the United States. Even the Vatican radio station played it. The play was produced on Broadway in 1971 as a result of its success.
5-Both stage and film versions were met with protests by religious groups. “There’s always somebody standing around with a protest sign saying it’s going to destroy the universe in terms of ‘that rock & roll music,'” says Ted Neeley, who played Jesus in the film.
6-Tim Rice’s comments that he perceived Christ not as God but as the right man in the right place produced even more anger towards the production.
7-Among other controversial aspects of the show are the fact that the Resurrection is not shown, that Judas’s point-of-view is privileged, that Judas blames God for his suicide, and that Mary Magdalene claims Jesus is ‘just a man.’
8-Norman Jewison directed the 1973 film adaptation, framing the musical with the troop of actor arriving by bus in Israel and preparing for the performance. Jewison’s goal was to not have audiences believe that the movie was trying to depict sacred, biblical figures, but rather very human extensions of them, much in the tradition of medieval passion plays.
9-Webber has been quoted as hating the original Broadway production as well as the film.He won a Drama Desk Award for “Most Promising Composer.”
10-Jewison previously directed noteworthy films like In the Heat of the Night and, in my opinion, the best movie-musical ever, The Fiddler on the Roof.
11-Many people see the narrative as essentially a love-triangle between Jesus, Judas, and Mary Magdalene. We are left to wonder if Judas betrayed Jesus out of his claimed disillusionment with the movement, or out of jealousy.
12-Certain productions amp up the homoerotic undertones in Judas’s staging and his refrain of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Because, why wouldn’t you?
13-Another popular interpretation of the musical is that it is a commentary on celebrity status in a culture that doesn’t understand how to embrace Jesus’ authentic message. Scholars see celebrity culture as a symptom of late capitalism, in which consumers’ narcissism is built on a fragile bed of superficial purchases and mass media. Jesus is raised up as a celebrity and then crucified by his own people within a week of events. Critics view superstardom as the last remnants of religiosity in a culture that has rejected traditional deities.*
14-Judas is widely viewed as the tragic hero of the play. In a 1971 Life Magazine article, Rice is quoted as saying: “In the Gospels, Judas is a cardboard figure. Every time he is mentioned there is a snide remark. I believe that Judas was the most intelligent of the Apostles and that is why he got into such a dilemma.”
15-The show has several revivals in the past decade. In 2000, “Great Performances” recorded a film version starring Glenn Carter as Jesus. A Broadway revival starring Paul Alexander Nolan and Josh Young opened in 2013.
16-French actor Jerome Pradon played Judas in the Great Performances film and then went on to play Herod on stage.
17-In 2012, Webber produced a reality show called ‘Superstar’ to find the next Jesus for a new arena tour. Ben Forster won. Musician Tim Minchin, who also composed Matilda the Musical, played Judas, and Melanie C from the Spice Girls was Mary.
18-There is a Chilean heavy metal band called Jesucristo Metalstar that has performed the show for a decade.
19-A Peruvian prison staged the show in 2014 during Holy Week. According to the press release, the production was meant to encourage prisoners in the rehabilitation process.
The death of a family member, particularly that of a parent, is an experience full of difficult transitions. Suddenly, a person with whom you have spent your entire life is gone. How do we best honor their lives? Could we have treated them better? Could we have anticipated their illness or unhappiness with more selfless intuition? How do we healthily move on with such a loss at our core? These are the questions that can either break a family or unite them. Happy Few Theatre Company‘s new production the goodbye room, written and directed by Eric Gilde, aims to uncover what unites us in times of grief, guilt, and uncertainty, and how family bonds are so essential to our identities.
In addition to the loss of their mother Carolyn, sisters Bex and Maggie are experiencing major life transitions of their own. Bex (Ellen Adair) is an accountant living in Chicago whose marriage is on the rocks. Maggie (Sarah Killough) lives closer to her Midwestern family home and is anxious about her demanding work schedule and her static love life. Their relationship is at the center of this quiet, genuine story. When Bex first arrives for her mother’s funeral, she finds her sister’s belongings scattered across her old bed. She reacts angrily, already stressed from her flight and from the circumstances bringing her home, but the stuff on her bed is more than just an annoyance. It’s representative of Bex’s absence in the house and Maggie’s added presence, of Maggie’s resentment and Bex’s guilt, and of their strained adult relationship.
Their father Edgar (Michael Selkirk) has a far calmer disposition and lets his true feelings go largely understated. He masks his grief with dry humor and demands little from those around him.This steady demeanor, however, is tested when the sisters’ easygoing childhood friend, Sebastian (Craig Wesley Divino), tries to help the family settle back into normalcy and reveals a crucial detail about Carolyn’s death.
The goodbye room provides a genuine portrayal of a family dynamic. Each character is deeply sympathetic– I could see my own parents and siblings in their complex needs and conflicting responses to grief. While at times a bit heavy-handed (some scenes go a bit too long, and there’s a supernatural suggestion that this essentially family-centered drama could have done without) Gilde’s script provides insight in what is said as much as in what remains unsaid. The play also moves deftly between sadness, confusion, and joy. It allows for the audience to observe the characters in awkward, silent confrontations as well as in boozy, late-night silliness. The company’s superb acting sets a natural, well-paced tone, as does the excellent sound and set design with an attention to detail (oily pizza plates, a frog-faced mug, a crumb-filled rug) that invests us in this family space.
The goodbye room plays at The Bridge Theatre at Shetler Studios through March 19. Tickets here.
“Don’t write plays about nice days.” This was the mantra of Mr. Moody, who led the after-school acting class at my high school. He taught that every compelling story must have a conflict in its core. At our first session, there were no performance exercises or script readings. No, Mr. Moody wanted to make sure his students understood the elements of drama and how a game of make believe can impact the cast, the audience and society so profoundly. Attending Vineyard Theatre’s production of Dot reminded how essential the cathartic power of identifying yourself on stage is to the best drama.
Colman Domingo’s story centers on Dotty, an elderly black woman struggling with Alzheimer’s disease, and her adult children. The writing is abundant with the joy and humor of this vibrant family but simultaneously plugged into the pain and loss intrinsic to change, especially aging. The exquisite directing of Susan Stroman enhances the tragic and comedic nuances established by Domingo as well as the natural playful dynamic between cast members.
The set is a middle-class home in present-day West Philadelphia, moving from the kitchen to the living room. The curtain is a cool-colored pointillist painting of the outside of several homes, reminiscent of the set in Sunday in the Park with George. It is the evening before Christmas Eve. Tunes by Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland set the festive, yet melancholy. When the play is about to begin the light filled windows gives way to a blackout of the entire theatre, during which the music swells in volume. The play begins abruptly upon a severe, almost blinding, switch to light. It takes a few seconds to change perspective from the blurry pixels of a lived in room to a sharpened recognition of the pictures and magnets on the refrigerator door and Dotty’s daily pillbox laying open on the kitchen table. The jarring use of lighting and sound puts audience members in the position of experiencing the dramatic change Dotty and her family are undergoing, not only due to Dotty’s illness, but also the aging of the siblings and their long time family friend Katie.
The performances are absolutely stellar and bold in their vulnerability. Dotty (Marjorie Johnson) is portrayed with refinement and complex swirls of naughty playfulness. Longtime friend and childhood neighbor of the family, Katie (Sharon Washington, who has worked alongside Domingo in Wild With Happy and Scottsboro Boys) enters the play with secret agitation about how her own life has gone in a direction she never would have predicted. This anxiety is set free in a side-splitting tsunami to Jackie in tandem with a much needed box of Cheez-Its. For a large part of Act II, the middle child Donnie (Stephen Conrad Moore) is only present as a voice mailbox in his sister Jackie’s unanswered calls of help in the caretaking of their mother. Soon after, we meet Donnie attempting to indulge in leftovers in secret. He fears that his husband Adam (Colin Hanlon) is ashamed of him for his changing body, his disengagement with drugs (with “white-girl names like Molly”), and with popular gay culture. Averie (Libya V.Pugh), the youngest child and a stormy force to be reckoned with, is YouTube starlet relentlessly stretching her small phase of fame.
Fidel (Michael Rosen) engages in fearless and gentle rapport as with Dotty as her Kazakhstani home care attendant. After spending Act I in denial of her shortcomings and lashing out at those around her, Dotty reveals she is frightened of her declining quality of life due to Alzheimer’s for the first time. This scene between Fidel and Dotty in Act II is one of the most moving scenes of the play.
But one of the most important characters in the play is someone we never meet: Jason, the young son of Jackie. The family asks themselves what families in real life are forced to ask themselves time and time again: How are we going to survive this change? Is survival even possible? On a tape recorder, Dotty shares her memories and stories she learned in school with hope that her grandson will continue getting to know her and remember he is loved by his grandma after her death, which she knows is coming soon. What does Merry Christmas mean during a time of impending loss? How do these characters, with their particular personalities and individual burdens aside from the shared concern for Dotty, take care of one another and themselves?
Facts and figures show that if you have not experienced or have had a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, it is highly likely that you will in the future. One in three of American seniors die with the disease. Despite its increasing occurrence scientists still don’t yet fully understand its cause. A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can seem like a death sentence to many, an unjust robbery of one’s own mind. And yet, even though death under these (and frankly, all) circumstances is a cruel and unfair process, Dot presents the struggle to live life to the fullest and find joy in the face of our eventual end.
The more I think about Dot, the more I want to drag anyone I like in the slightest by their collars to the box office of the Vineyard Theatre. The performances of the entire cast ignite reflection on the vulnerability required to endure human existence and allow us to rejoice in the mixed sweetness and bitterness in the fruits of family. Dot delivers the catharsis of theatre I first learned about that day in Mr. Moody’s class. I saw myself and my family (everybody’s family!) and all our strengths and weaknesses vividly portrayed on stage with non-judgmental love, generosity, and realism. If Dotty’s family can survive this enormous struggle with grace and love, then we can too.
I first read Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman during one of the most productive and exciting lunch breaks I’ve ever had. I downloaded a PDF on my computer, leaned back in my office swivel chair, and spent the following hour completely engrossed in this teasingly grotesque, entirely unpredictable, and darkly comic play. It was the perfect complement to my 9-to-5, and stimulating enough to keep my mind rampant with reflections and questions through my commute home.
This new production of The Pillowman, produced by The Seeing Place Theater, is running in rep with Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams as part of Seeing Place’s paired thematic exploration of how violent storytellers are dealt with by fearful authorities. The storyteller in this case is Katurian (Artistic Director Brandon Walker), whose violent creations have caught the attention of Detectives Tupolski (John D’Arcangelo) and Ariel (Logan Keeler). The detectives rough him up and make insinuations about Katurian’s socio-political motives—it is clear that the government’s been watching his career closely, as well as the whereabouts of his mentally-disabled brother Michael (Daniel Michael Perez). What you might expect to be a commentary on art and censorship, however, soon becomes something entirely different and far more complex. We learn that a disturbingly large number of Katurian’s stories depict children being brutally mutilated, killed, and even committing suicide, and someone in the town has been copying the murders.
The rest of the play vacillates between these totalitarian interrogation room scenes and Katurian’s storytelling, through which we discover the inspiration for his morbidity—his horrifying childhood—and the unique role his brother plays in his life. The genius of The Pillowman is how its analysis of physical and institutional violence avoids a top-down approach to power. Rather, every character’s power is intricately linked to their victimhood. While the detectives, as representative of the government, may appear to be the main abusers of power, it is actually Katurian and his brother whose actions lead to the most harrowing consequences. Michael’s childlike vulnerability, in particular, is the main means of terror in the story. Because he and his brother were preyed upon as children, they now hold the tools to enact it upon others, even if their actions were unintended. The violence of their childhood is repeated in adulthood in the mere expression of their tales. Is the artist responsible for the actions he inspires in his readers, even as he only tries to grapple with his past? Are we to be trusted with the resolution of our own traumas, or will these traumas repeat themselves in the subconscious of our society?
In the interrogation scenes, Brandon Walker’s Katurian spends a bit too much of his time pinching his nose and sniffling after getting beat up by Detective Ariel for the actors to really allow the dialogue to resonate. There were several points where the play’s absurdly dark humor, a style all McDonagh’s own, failed to come through. More nuanced were the scenes between Katurian and his brother. Perez’s sensitive portrayal of Michael illuminates both his victimhood and his resilience. Their scenes together succeed in giving the play its ultimately flawed heart.
Walker’s intensity was put to better use in Katurian’s storytelling. Here, his grief was steadily mixed with an engaging style. The childlike simplicity of Katurian’s fairytales-gone-awry is strongly contrasted with the savagery of their content (much like Katurian’s own childhood experience) and Waker’s re-telling left me with goosebumps more than once. The storytelling scenes also used computer graphics, musical sound effects, and a three-person ensemble representing Katurian’s family, to enliven the long oral narratives. Some of the scenes would have been just as effective without the visual and sounds effects, though I did think that the presence of Katurian’s family in the background served nicely to remind the audience how the brutality of our cultural myths and legends is not just the stuff fairytales but rather very much alive in our institutions (the state, the family) and our relationships.
A disturbing reflection on violent folktales and the cultures that produce them, The Pillowman is a must-see for anyone who enjoys their theatre with a hearty dose of harrowing surprises, moral dilemmas, and cynical humor.
The Pillowman and Gidion’s Knot, directed by Brandon Walker and Erin Cronican, play in rep at The Clarion Theater through December 20. Visit The Seeing Place Theater for tickets.
We gave thanks for musical theater at the Thanksgiving dinner table yesterday, and now we put words into action with a brand new podcast on Deaf West’s revival of “Spring Awakening.” Listen as we glowingly gush over the production, discuss how the show’s inclusive practices illuminate the characterization and choreography, and how adults are just generally lame.