Norma and Sara discuss the shortcomings of It Shoulda Been You and how Living on Love excels by not falling into the same traps. This podcast was recorded before the today’s announcement that Living on Love would close, so there is no mention of it, but we are obviously sad to see it go!
Discussion of Living On Love starts around minute 25:15
Link to a mentioned review of It Shoulda Been You.
An artist, a composer, a nightclub singer, and a ballerina cross paths in post-Vichy Paris as they search for love and inspiration in a city recovering its identity. Based on the award-winning 1951 film of the same name, the new musical An American in Paris doesn’t quite feel like an adaptation, nor derivative in any sense of the word. It feels like a classic Broadway musical, thanks in large part to the recognizably brilliant Gershwin score, but one with the mature clarity and nuanced tonality achieved in opera, ballet, or sophisticated, risk-taking revivals.
After last year’s Tony controversy involving an even greater lack of representation of women in theatre than usual, New York City has really stepped up this season with plays written by, directed by, or starring women in major roles. Both The Heidi Chronicles, playing on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre, and Iowa, a new work that premiered this week at Playwrights Horizons, follow women’s narratives and their personal and societal connections.
The Heidi Chronicles, written by the late and great Wendy Wasserstein, follows Heidi (a stunning Elisabeth Moss) from her adolescence through adulthood as she grapples with her feminist ideals, pursues a career in studying women artists, and maintains relationships with her friends Susan (Ali Ahn) and Peter (Bryce Pinkham), and her ex-boyfriend Scoop (Jason Biggs). Filled with pop culture references, from Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” to John Lennon’s death, The Heidi Chronicles does not shy away from the cultural milestones experienced by the boomer generation–nor does it demure from honest discussions about feminism (which is now often thought of as a dirtyword), an how it has affected Heidi’s life. Still, the play’s content remains as poignant and fresh as it was when it premiered twenty-six years ago. I credit that to Wasserstein’s emotionally rich characters, which have been brilliantly brought to life by the cast and Pam MacKinnon’s direction. Elisabeth Moss brings a constant inner life with Heidi, while Bryce Pinkham wins over the audience with his disarming charm (begin the Tony watch now). And though Heidi’s conflicts still resonate today, I almost wishtheydidn’t.
The Heidi Chronicles originally had its off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons, which is now presenting Iowa, a new musical play written by Jenny Schwartz and Todd Almond. Iowa follows Becca (Jill Shackner), a teenage girl who’s dealing with her crush on her math teacher (Lee Sellars), her not-so-great poetry, and the fact that her mother Sandy (Karyn Quackenbush) is marrying her online boyfriend and moving the two of them to Iowa. That’s about as much plot as I can give you, as Iowa is an absurdist romp that includes Becca’s best friend Amanda’s (Carolina Sanchez) issues with body images and popularity, Sandy’s fixation with the internet and ponies, and a pony actually coming on stage with a musical number of his own.
Iowa was disappointing for a number of reasons. The first was its billing as a “musical play.” While that was an accurate description of the show’s format, it allows for a confusing mishmash of songs. In some ways it’s a proper musical, primarily with, “I Don’t Know,” song by Becca and her mother. Their duet clearly delineated the characters’ conflicts and provided insight into their thoughts and dysfunctionally functional relationship. Sandy’s solo “Fun!” especially delved deep into her neuroses, which was both a terror and a delight. Meanwhile, other numbers, like the Amanda’s observations about cheerleaders and the pony’s thoughts about women (simply titled “Cheerleaders” and “Ponies,” respectively), were entertaining, but seemed to exist more in the realm of surreal sketch comedy. (The surreal nature of the show definitely disconnected with some theatergoers, as a few audience members walked out during the performance I attended.) The final blow for me was the show’s closing number, a song so earnest and hopeful that it completely underwrote everything that had preceded it. While I could see how Iowa actually wanted to disconnect from its audience through its subversive content, the results still left me a little too cold. Tickets and more information for The Heidi Chronicles and Iowa can be found here and here.
Sometimes, Broadway producers decide they need to turn a long forgotten movie into a musical. To do so, they usually rope in talented composers and lyricists to cobble together some songs. And to really seal the deal, they hire someone famous (anyone famous, it seems) to entice ticket buyers and make theatergoers wonder: can so-and-so really pull it off?
Honeymoon in Vegas, now playing at the Nederlander Theatre does all of the above, and succeeds so well you almost forget all the times Broadway has gotten it wrong. Based on the 1992 film, Honeymoon in Vegas has music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (our very own 21st-century Sondheim) and stars American sweetheart Tony Danza. It’s a complex equation, but one that makes a fantastic musical. Let me count the ways:
1) The storyline is perfect for a madcap musical.
Honeymoon in Vegas begins with a silly premise: that Jack (Rob McClure) can’t marry his long-suffering girlfriend Betsy (Brynn O’Malley) because his mother (Nancy Opel) cursed him on her death bed. When Betsy confesses that she isn’t sure if she can stay in the relationship without commitment (“Anywhere But Here”), Jack decides that they’ll elope in Vegas. But when high-rolling gambler Tommy (Tony Danza) sees that Betsy looks just like his deceased wife, he’ll do anything to break up the engagement.
Yes, this is the plot of the show. It relies on weird coincidences, family curses, and some good old-fashioned sexism. (No, Tony Danza, “stealing” a woman from another man like a prize farm animal is bad, and you should feel bad.) But those ridiculous elements make up an excellent farce that would have Moliere laughing in his powdered wig. Not only does Honeymoon in Vegas (with a book by Andrew Bergman and direction by Gary Griffin) have impeccable comedic timing, but it also has well developed characters whose actions always have logical reasons. Even better, they aren’t afraid to point out how wacky things are getting. When Betsy spurns Jack to spend a weekend with Tommy, she does it out of anger for Jack’s continuing hesitance to be married. She also points out to Tommy that this is a “crazy arrangement,” aware of the unusual circumstances she’s experiencing.
What makes Honeymoon in Vegas even more complex and enjoyable is its awareness of the audience. In “I Love Betsy,” Jack sings, “I like Broadway (once a year),” a fun aside for theatergoers. Later in the show, while Tommy is singing and dancing in front of a golden curtain, his henchman (Matthew Saldivar) enters and looks up confusingly at the the glitzy set piece. This doesn’t stop him from joining the number and singing in perfect harmony, though.
2) Jason Robert Brown can do commercial oh-so-well.
Known for writing heart-wrenching musicals like Parade, The Last Five Years, and most recently The Bridges of Madison County, Jason Robert Brown is the widely known as the musical writer who makes you cry.
I had wondered how Jason Robert Brown was going to handle the music and lyrics to Honeymoon in Vegas, a story that doesn’t resemble his usual work. As it turns out, he’s ace at it, from catchy up-tempo numbers like “I Love Betsy” and “Friki-Friki” to sweeter fare like “You Made the Wait Worthwhile.” There’s even a “classic” JRB song in the mix (and of course, it’s my favorite): “Anywhere But Here,” Betsy’s soaring solo where she needs more from her relationship with Jack. Honeymoon in Vegas has one of the best original scores Broadway has seen in a long time, and I look forward to seeing what else Jason Robert Brown has up his composer and lyricist sleeves.
3) Tony Danza and the cast are incredibly charming.
Now an amazingly written and directed musical is all well and good, but you don’t have actors who can sell it, it can still fall flat. Luckily, the cast of Honeymoon in Vegas has talent and charisma for ages. Rob McClure (my new Broadway crush), is adorable as hapless Jack, bringing boundless energy into the role. Brynn O’Malley is definitely enjoying herself as Betsy, and it shows. She tries to be calm throughout the madness, but sometimes she can’t help having fun, downing drinks and trying on wedding dresses in “Betsy’s Getting Married.”
And Tony Danza, the celebrity in our Broadway production equation, is a perfect addition to the show. He can sing. He can act. He also wows the audience in a tap number, and delights them when playing the ukelele. While he does it all, it’s with a knowing smile, the consummate showman throughout his performance.
So if you haven’t seen Honeymoon in Vegas, you totally should. Broadway’s made a gamble that might just pay off.
Broadway revivals are a staple of New York’s theatre tradition. While producers’ motivations are obviously marked by dollar signs, revivals also provide theatergoers with an opportunity to see a beloved production live–and not just subsist on cast recordings, film adaptations, and memories of performances past. This season’s revival of On the Town, now playing at the Lyric Theatre, offers audiences a chance to see a Golden Age classic–and have a rip-roaring good time in the process.
The plot of On the Town is simple: sailors Gabey (Tony Yazbeck), Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson), and Ozzie (Clyde Alves) are on leave in New York City for 24 hours. They all have something they want to accomplish that day. Chip wants to see all the sights. Ozzie wants to see all the girls–and is probably the inspiration for these kind of posters:
Gabey’s goal ends up to be the most pressing, as he wants to meet the latest Miss Turnstiles: Ivy Smith, (Megan Fairchild), whose poster captures Gabey’s imagination and heart. The boys split up to find Ivy, finding romance along the way. Chip meets Hildy (Alysha Umphress), a taxi driver intent on bringing Chip to her place. Meanwhile, Ozzie falls for Claire De Loone (Elizabeth Stanley), an archeologist who is more unhinged than she seems. Though Gabey does find Ivy, it isn’t certain if he will join his dream girl in a musical happy-ever-after.
On the Town is a delightful musical, and this production seems to have no difficulty in bringing that delight to the stage. With John Rando’s perfectly paced direction and Joshua Bergasse’s stunning choreography, On the Town dazzles from start to finish. The musical numbers are brilliant, being both hilarious (“Carried Away,” “I Wish I Was Dead,” and many more) and poignant (“Lonely Town,” “Some Other Time”). And while I’m not the biggest dancing enthusiast, the dream ballet sequences in On the Town (which surprisingly outnumber the ones in West Side Story) are a must see. They are mini-productions in their own right, with gorgeous dancing narratives supported by Leonard Bernstein’s lush score.
On the Town’s cast is another winning element. First off, it is wonderful that a musical revival has a cast more diverse than its original mounting. People of all ages, body types, and ethnicities round out the ensemble, which is something refreshing–and welcoming–to see. There are also standout performances by all: New York City Ballet principal dancer Megan Fairchild is an adorable Ivy, as well as being the reigning queen of dream ballet sequences. Elizabeth Stanley embodies kooky fierceness as Claire De Loone, while Alysha Umphress slays the role of Hildy with her voice alone. The three actors playing our lovable sailors are also fantastic with their roles. Having playful energy and the dancing and singing chops to back it up, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Clyde Alves are the embodiment of musical theatre fun. And Tony Yazbeck, with his beautiful voice and soulful eyes, is the perfect protagonist to root for. He’s also a welcome member of the shirtless men in musical theatre guild.
On the Town is a revival that has energy, focus, and most importantly, has fun. And with a great musical, that’s all you need for a night at the theatre.
New York City Center Encores! struck gold again with their revival of Jonathan Larson’s lesser-known musical tick, tick… BOOM! (If you don’t know his more well-known musical I will moo at you.)
Here are four, totally unbiased reasons why this production needs to move into a Broadway house as soon as possible:
1) The Nederlander is *ahem* open for rent. It’s just been announced that Newsies (the Nederlander’s current high-jumping tenant) will be closing this August. This leaves the theatre free for a fall (or Tony-baiting spring) opening. Not only is it the theatre were Rent played for twelve years, but it’s also filled with good juju from Newsies’ successful run. Even more importantly, the Nederlander is large enough to bring in Broadway audiences, but is still small enough to give the three-person musical an intimate feel. The show doesn’t have to play in the Nederlander, though. Any mid-size Broadway theatre will do very nicely. Just as long as…
2) Jonathan Larson’s less well-known musical can be better known.Much like Hedwig and the Angry Inch (before the Neil Patrick Harris-fueled Broadway mounting), tick, tick… BOOM! is a rich rock musical that, despite its beloved underground status, has not made its Broadway debut.
Granted, it’s understandable why tick, tick… BOOM! has been in the shadows for so long. Why spend more millions producing a smaller, quirkier show when Rent is a constant seat-filler on 41st street? But now that Rent has been closed (and its Off Broadway “modernization” mostly forgotten), audiences can appreciate tick, tick… BOOM!with a mind not clouded by angsty artists with poor financial planning.
3. It’s smarter, more realistic, and more timeless than Rent. Disclaimer: I was one of the most obnoxious Rent-heads living in America at the beginning of the millennium. In lieu of anecdotes of noise polluting the hallways of my high school with “Lia Vie Boheme” lyrics, let me present you with photographic evidence of the author’s musical nerdship:
Despite my fond memories of memorizing Daphne Rubin-Vega’s original “Out Tonight” choreography, grown-up me has become frustrated with Rent‘s black-and-white rendering of what it means to be an artist in New York City, where sell-out is the dirtiest of words.
The struggle of an artist is more nuanced in tick, tick… BOOM!, which follows Jon (Our Lord and Savior Lin-Manuel Miranda), a composer who is edging closer to his thirtieth birthday without much to show for it. He still works as a server in a diner, while his girlfriend Susan (Wepa Vanessa! Karen Olivo) is thinking about settling down somewhere that’s not New York–and having a more fulfilling dance career while she’s at it. Meanwhile, the specter of what could be is present in Michael (new Broadway crush Leslie Odom, Jr.), Jon’s friend who traded in his acting grind for Gucci belts and world-traveling with a high-paying (and potentially soul-sucking) marketing position.
What makes tick, tick… BOOM! so refreshing is that there are no easy answers. Michael isn’t a figure to be totally derided, and Jon admires Michael’s success (resulting in the amazingly hilarious number “No More”). That admiration is mutual, as Michael sees Jon’s musical workshop–and encourages him to keep on writing when the show doesn’t get picked up. Even though Jon is conflicted about his place in the world, he doesn’t villainize Michael for abandoning acting for financial security. Jon and Michael’s friendship in tick, tick… BOOM! makesRent‘s central Benny-as-landlord dilemma look downright juvenile.
4) This production did not feature a single white actor, and nobody died. When I first heard the news about tick, tick… BOOM! I received it with “color-blind” excitement. Lin-Manuel! Karen Olivo! Actors I really enjoy! I didn’t learn until later that tick, tick… BOOM! was a three-person show, and that the third person in the cast, Leslie Odom, Jr. was also a person of color.
I wondered about the implications of that. Diversity, especially regarding representation in the arts, has become a dirty word. Even though Jonathan Larson clearly wrote RENT with a diverse characters, tick, tick… BOOM! has one of those character breakdowns where no ethnicity is listed so casting directors usually go for white leads and a black best friend. One can also argue that since tick, tick… BOOM! is autobiographical, you may want an actor who physically resembles Jonathan Larson.
But Encores! took an inventive approach to this production, and it works. Not just for “diversity’s sake,” but because the cast are all highly-qualified to take on the job. (An argument that is usually used for when white actors are given roles meant for people of color.) Leslie Odom, Jr.’s extensive acting career includes Broadway musicals (including Rent) and a role on the TV-musical-hit-that-could-have-been Smash. Karen Olivo not only has the rock/pop musical artistic experience (In the Heights, Rent, Brooklyn,Murder Ballad), she also has the personal experience to take on the role of Susan. Like Susan, Olivo has wrestled with the choice to leave New York City and bring her passion for art to a new place: after leaving New York City last year, she’s begun a new career of writing and teaching in Wisconsin.
And let’s not forget the teeny-tiny qualifications of Lin-Manuel Miranda. He’s not just an insanely talented actor who wowed us in In the Heights–he also kinda wrote the music and lyrics to the show, which has given him half of his inevitable EGOT. He’s also brought his life experience to the stage before, playing lyricist Charley Kringas in Encores!: Merrily We Roll Along. Not only is Miranda crazy qualified to take on the role, he brings a much-needed sense of humor to the role of Jon, a character who would otherwise be insufferable with his late quarter-life crisis.
The result of this ~nontraditional casting? On opening night, it was a packed house and a standing ovation. One performance doesn’t equal a Broadway run, but it might just speak louder than words.
Hands-down, the true hero of Bullets Over Broadway is Cheech (Nick Cordero), the hitman-turned-playwright assigned to protect Olive Neal (Heléne Yorke), the gangster boss’s girlfriend, while she rehearses for a new Broadway play. Cheech interferes with the script with several suggestions that win favor with the actors and slowly gains sway over the production. And while he proudly professes to burning down his school because he needed a science project, Cheech proves to be an adept writer and understand audiences better than the show’s pretentious and verbose writer/director David Shayne (Zach Braff).
In a way, Cheech becomes a spokesperson for the average theatergoer. He more than any of the other ‘artists’ values the show’s integrity, going so far as to betray his mob boss when Olive’s ridiculous acting efforts put the show in jeopardy. I mean, how many of us yearn to strangle that one terrible actor? Or tell a playwright to just say what s/he actually means? Cheech is our wish-fulfiller, and the result is something much like Bullets Over Broadway itself– a feel-good, bawdy, and wonderfully entertaining show that doesn’t pretend to be deep or complex but rather gives us exactly what we want out of a typical Broadway musical. Go down the successful Broadway musical checklist and it’s all there. The choreography from director Susan Stroman is sexy and surprising. Sets by Santo Loquasto and costumes by William Ivey Long are inventive and whimsical. The revolving wooden stage for the show-within-the-show was especially exciting to watch. Woody Allen’s book and songs (selected from classic era showtunes in public domain) are full of his trademark humor, but also reveal a Cole Porter-esque playfulness (more on Mr. Porter’s influence later). And the musical affords star turns for nearly all its lead actors. Zach Braff holds his own on a stage of veteran Broadway actors, and his David Shayne (like Andy Karl’s Rocky) is much more of an homage to the original than an imitation. The female performances, however, are the biggest treat. Heléne Yorke is simply hilarious as club dancer Olive and Marin Mazzie is superb as aging diva Helen Sinclair. She can control the direction of a scene with a simple nod of her head.
A Broadway musical is the exact opposite of the broody, angsty script David Shayne writes. The standard American musical, the stuff of Cole Porter and his peers, presents a sharp detour from the psychological musings of Eugene O’Neill or the heavy, provocative drama of Arthur Miller. Bullets Over Broadway celebrates the musical that dazzles, the musical that entertains, that simplifies things instead of compounding them. This is without a doubt the reason why Woody Allen and Glen Kelly use old showtunes like “Let’s Misbehave” and “Yes! We Have No Bananas”, in one of the weirdest closing numbers ever. These songs hearken back to a time where the worried and anxious David Shaynes and Woody Allens could just sit back and enjoy the show.
Bullets Over Broadway plays at the St. James Theater. Click here for tickets and info.