Sara and Mariaisabel took a roadtrip upstate to Annandale-on-Hudson’s Fisher Center and saw an immersive and modernized production of Oklahoma! We talk about its relevance to modern America, the exciting new staging, all the delicious chili, and more! Yeeow!
Norma and I bought our LincTix for The King and I way back when it was first announced, when our baby podcast was just a gleam in our eyes. We saw the show back in April, in the throes of busy Broadway season. We were covering shows we were contractually obliged to cover (aka they actually let us see them for free), and were pumping our reviews every fricking night, so The King and I stayed on the backburner for a bit.
That being said, this is one of our best episodes thus far, and we’re super excited to finally upload it. In this episode, we cover the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the strange gossip surrounding Madonna’s texting at Hamilton, and cell phone use in general. Then (around 12:45) we totally nerd out on The King and I, with special guest and King and I expert, David, a once total stranger and now our bffl.
Classic literature has been an inspiration for musical theater since the form’s early beginnings. Some of the most well-renowned and unique works of the stage are, in fact, adaptations of novels– Les Mis and Phantom of the Opera, for starters– though some musicals couldn’t manage to translate the book’s success into an audience. This year’s Doctor Zhivago was supposed to thrill audiences with its sweeping epic romance, but instead closed shortly after receiving no Tony nominations. And I’d be remiss to not plug the 2000 adaptation of Jane Eyre, which was successful enough to be represented at the Tony Awards and dig itself into the hearts of Eyreheads like me and Norma.
Now, Jane Austen is receiving the musical treatment with Pride and Prejudice at Theater for the New City. Written by John Taylor Thomas and Lissa Moira, who also directs the show, Pride and Prejudice is a faithful adaptation of Austen’s culture-defining romance. If you don’t already know the plot, it will probably sound familiar from the thousands of stories influenced by it in the past two centuries. The clever and independent Elizabeth Bennet plays a game of “will they, won’t they?” with the equally stubborn though ultimately tender-hearted Mr. Darcy. Meanwhile, Lizzie’s sister Jane seeks out the love of Darcy’s friend Bingley. Together the various romantic relationships in the book explore the ways in which love is complicated and threatened by miscommunication, status, preconceptions, and a lack of self-awareness. However, all is guaranteed to be set right for these deserving lovers and we can walk away with order and happiness restored.
Thomas and Moira follow the novel to a tee and are hindered by their attentive approach. They include many a minor character and scene that could have easily been cut. Even though there have been cuts to the musical since I saw it, it still clocks in at a burdensome three hours: Darcy doesn’t even make his first proposal to Lizzie until Act 2. And despite the detailed adaptation, Austen’s wittiness, subtlety, and humor is lost in the dialogue and you never quite feel like you’re getting much else other than exposition.
The musical numbers, sung admirably by a talented cast, have quite a classic feel to them and could have been the simple romantic ballads of lovesick crooner. Unfortunately, they don’t serve much in the ways of character development. In fact, I would argue that the lyrics, in fact, generalize the characters into tropes instead of providing them with the specificity and depth they so deserve. Darcy’s first song, for example, only reiterates his yearning without providing it with any particularity or context– the song could have been sung by nearly any lovestruck character in any show. Likewise, Jane’s song renders her a silly, infatuated woman, making her into a broad cliche instead of a complex, sympathetic character. For all its run time, the characters hardly find their voice.
There is no doubt that this musical has its work cut out for it and further development to go. Luckily, at its heart, it has a resounding story to guide its efforts.
Sara and Norma are back from radio silence with an unfocused, profanity-filled, takedown and/or lovefest on the 2015 Tony Awards. Sara and Norma swap notes, including lamentations over co-hosts Alan Cumming and Kristin Chenoweth, praises of the musical performances, and deal with some of the broadcast’s problems, including their refusal to show the special Tony Awards speeches and the Tesori/Kron win.
A sweeping musical about a love affair set during a turbulent revolution, Doctor Zhivago has garnered many comparisons to Les Miserables. Its epic tale unravels across the lifetime of its title character who is, quite frankly, the complete package. A doctor AND a poet, he’s got the intelligence, sensitivity, social goodness, income, and good looks (many thanks to leading man Tam Mutu) to attract the attention of every sensible woman in czarist Russia, even the married ones. Lara (Kelli Barrett) first catches the good doctor’s eye when she crashes a party seeking vengeance on a childhood abuser. But the sparks fly some time later, after both are married, when they both work as medics during World War I.
Producers know full well that a large percentage of Broadway audiences are women, and caters to the romantic-minded among us quite well. Zhivago ranks among the greatest romances of all time , and judging from the Broadway production’s marketing materials (Mutu and Barrett in a wintry landscape tightly pressed against each other in luxurious turn-of-the-century garb), the show promises to do the same.
It works for a while. The chemistry between the two leads is palpable, and I felt more than a little anticipation when they finally confess their feelings for each other through a fellow soldier’s letter to his sweetheart, one of the more poignant songs in the show. But the emotional resonance of the second act falls flat. Perhaps the reason for this is its stiff, uninspired staging. For much of the show, the actors stand and sing without much else. Lucy Simon’s lush music and Amy Powers’ and Michael Korie’s poetic lyrics feel heavy and redundant when their presentation is so uninteresting. After two and a half hours, it all starts to feel the same.
Of course, there is more to this story than the romance at its center. Lara and her husband Pasha (a stand-out Paul Alexander Nolan) are socialist idealists at the forefront of the Russian Revolution, which ends the country’s involvement in WWI, but begins decades of civil strife and violent brutality. The musical quite eloquently tracks the evolution of Pasha’s radical ideals into twisted cruelty. When Pasha fires his first fatal shot, you somehow understand this is the first of many to come. Likewise, the show treats the war with surprising vividness. These are the most realistic battle wounds I’ve seen in a Broadway musical, which is equally refreshing and disturbing to see. Zhivago also deals explicitly with topics of sexual abuse, death, and suicide, the latter of which is again graphically shown on stage.
Realism has never been much at home with the musical. Honestly, what can be farther from realism than people breaking out into song every five minutes? But it is telling that a musical like Zhivago, which might otherwise be sanitized as family entertainment, is willing to tackle complicated, dark subject matter with striking vividness. It shows that the form is always finding new ways to mature and evolve.
For more info on Doctor Zhivago.
For more thoughts on the show, listen to our podcast!
Consider Nick and Nigel Bottom our forefathers. Together with a ragtag crew of theater enthusiasts, they overthrow the burdensome British dramatic influence, invent the musical art form, and escape to America to allow the musical to flourish.
Of course, this is a fictive account of Broadway’s birth. But hey, The Aeneid is a fictional version of Rome’s founding and King Arthur probably looked nothing like Clive Owen. And I’m sure no one in the Second Continental Congress sang duets with John Adams. Our founders in Something Rotten! are two theatrical siblings in Elizabethan London looking for their next big hit. Nigel (John Cariani) is the playwright of the family while Nick’s (Brian D’Arcy James) role is similar to that of a producer. Their work, however, only meagerly survives in the shadow of the enormously popular Shakespeare (Christian Borle), a superstar rock god equipped with a metallic designed doublet, eyeliner, and plenty of swagger. Facing financial ruin, Nick visits a relative of Nostradamus (Brad Oscar), asks what the biggest trend in theater will be, and gets to work on the world’s first musical.
And boy what a musical it is! Sorry, I mean Something Rotten!, not Nick’s musical. Nick’s soothsayer predicts that “Omelet” will be Shakespeare’s biggest hit (close enough to Hamlet), so Nick creates “Omelet the Musical.” It goes without saying that “Omelet” is terrible. Nick’s despair and lack of confidence in his and his brother’s creativity cause his failure. But Something Rotten! is the complete opposite of an uninspired, uncreative mess. It is a joyful, laugh-a-minute show, chock full with references to popular contemporary musicals, with a comedic energy we haven’t seen since The Producers and Spamalot first graced our stages.
Oddly enough, these comedic tour-de-forces (Something Rotten, The Producers, and Spamalot) are all meta-theatrical. Both Something Rotten and The Producers are about the making of a musical, while Spamalot is full of self-aware glitz and humor (think “Diva’s Lament”). I’ve written before about the joy inherent in making the audience complicit in theater, and this is certainly an enormous factor in these shows’ successes. These shows cater particularly to a theatregoing crowd, uniting our common Broadway knowledge and experience that make us a dependable fanbase.
But there’s also the fact that these shows are themselves textbook examples of great Broadway musical comedies. Something Rotten not only embraces the musical’s history and form, but it also practices it! There’s the colorful and ostentatiously exaggerated set (Scott Pask) and costume (Gregg Barnes) design, a hilarious and enormously talented cast, huge musical numbers (see “It’s A Musical”), and even an endearing side of romance. It’s the type of production that reveals how the musical is different from every other art form and how it came to occupy such an important and popular place in American culture.
Something Rotten! is something every musical theater lover should get excited about, if not revere. It is hilariously creative, over-the-top, and often heartfelt–everything that uniquely defines the musical form. It restores our faith in this land we call Broadway, may it forever reign.
For more thoughts on the show, click here to listen to our podcast!
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).
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.
The New York Musical Theater Festival is in its final week and one of shows rounding it off is the promising Texan import As We Lie Still, by Patrick Emile (music and lyrics) and Olivia de Guzman Emile (book). As We Lie Still follows a turn-of-the-century magician Avi Leiter in his pursuit for fame at all costs. Using the stage-name The Great Marduk, Avi (Travis Stuebing) hopes to squash his competitors on the vaudeville with a death-defying stunt. Literally. He’s going to kill and revive someone on stage. Think The Prestige without David Bowie. Avi finds an willing test subject in his assistant Josephine (the charmingly talented Olivia de Guzman Emile). Not only does Avi succeed in reviving Josephine, he does it again and again for his act. What he doesn’t know, or doesn’t bother to find out, is that when Josephine’s soul is in limbo, she develops a bond with the Angel of Death (George Michael Ferrie, Jr.) and loses faith in Avi’s success.
All this is told in retrospect by an aged and obscure Avi (Michael A. Robinson), whose career abruptly ends in scandal once his relationship with Josephine fails. It’s a fanciful and entertaining, if not altogether original premise, and provides the possibility of thoughtful reflections on death, love, and ambition. Unfortunately, the narrative jumps around way too much to savor any complexity in the characters or approach their situations with much nuance. I was left wondering about many of the story’s key plot points, some of which felt forced and unbelievable. Why does Josephine so readily offer to risk her life for Avi, and why does she become so disillusioned with him and his act? The relationships between the characters feel too thinly-stretched to substantiate their motivations and the show’s clunky magical elements are not enough to hook the audience in a meaningful way. However, As We Lie Still has some great potential and the capacity for much heart. I can see a future version of the musical with tighter songs and a more developed narrative being extremely effective at presenting a unique and heartfelt story while sending goosebumps down your arms.
As We Lie Still plays at the Pearl Arts Center through July 27th as part of NYMF.
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. Aladdin, Beautiful, 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.
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.