In For a Penny: You Won’t be Namin’ no Buildings after Me

Charles Lewis casts his vote from the front row.

US presidents don't have the best history with theatre.

US presidents don’t have the best history with theatre.

“To live means to finesse the processes to which one is subjugated.”
– Bertolt Brecht, On Politics and Society (1941)

I needed a distraction.

It wasn’t just my incessant hunt for a “real people” job, it wasn’t just my putting serious attention towards my Olympians script, it wasn’t just my anger over Alton Sterling and Philando Castile winding up the latest casualties of racist White cops when their only “crime” was being Black in public. It wasn’t just any of those things, it was all of that and more.

I needed something to clear my head yesterday, so my attempt to escape politics lead me to the Playbill site. Incidentally, my eye was caught by a quick mention of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton attending her second performance of the now-Pulitzer-and-Tony-winning musical Hamilton. I’ve still neither seen nor heard the musical and glancing over piece just made me shrug and think “That’s a nice way to earn ‘cool’ points, but her constituency can’t even afford to see the goddamn show.”

Then I started thinking about the history of presidents attending theatre and what it did or didn’t say about them. As is often the case, so much preferential attention is placed on a politician’s film choices (Woodrow Wilson watching Birth of a Nation, Reagan laughing through Back to the Future, Bill Clinton hosting a screening of Three Kings) that their theatre selections often risk being lost to history. The only US presidential theatre trip everyone knows is the one where President Lincoln didn’t come back. (That, and fact that he was killed by an actor, of all things.)

Still, my mind had something on which to focus and began researching.

Unable to procure a copy of Thomas Bogar’s American Presidents Attend Theatre on such short notice (plus the police activity yesterday made travelling into The City next-to-impossible), I still perused the preview pages on Amazon. It was interesting to see that George Washington had a life-changing moment after watching George Lillo’s The London Merchant and then drew great inspiration from Joseph Addison’s Cato about a man who stands up against the tyranny of Julius Caesar. Neither the playwrights, actors, or fellow audience members knew they were inspiring one of the most powerful political revolutions of all time, but every artist dreams of having such a lasting impact.

Just as I’ve never experienced Hamilton – other than knowing of its ubiquitous popularity – so too have I never experienced a play once just as popular: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. At the risk of turning in my lifetime membership to Theatre Geeks United, my only knowledge of the TS Eliot-based musical is just that people hate it. I’ve never even heard “Memory” past the lyrics “…all alone in the moonlight,” so I couldn’t tell you if it’s worthy of Jack Black and Kevin Smith’s scorn (the latter of whom called the musical “the second-worst thing to ever happen to New York”) or if it’s actually a moving piece of musical theatre that’s remained just in my periphery. I know that Cats’ smashing success is attributed to pandering to the populace without actually challenging them intellectually.

I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that Cats was also the favorite musical of George W. Bush, also known for pandering rather than raising the intellectual bar. (His favorite film was said to be Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Make of that what you will.)

Every choice paints an interesting – if only partial – portrait of who each politician is as a person. Although the Kennedy Center galas get live press coverage, there’s something about the artistic choices a president makes out of pure leisure that gives us just a glimpse into the gears that move in their minds. Neither of the aforementioned theatrical excursions will be remembered as much as Lincoln’s infamous trip to Ford’s or Marilyn Monroe singing to JFK in Madison Square Garden, but they give enough of a glimpse to create a picture of how each will be perceived in the years to come. In other words: they give artists something to work with.

Pondering this got me thinkin’ about the guy currently sitting in the Oval Office.

He's the one on the right.

He’s the one on the right.

Before the Clintons saw Hamilton, President Barack Obama and his family caught the show during previews in July of 2015. He then famously hosted the entire cast at the White House earlier this year. The first bi-racial President of the United States hosted the multi-racial cast of a play dramatizing the Founding Fathers. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d ever write.

I can only wonder what said Founders would have thought of the musical, had they seen it. With all the advances in technology and evolution in musical tastes, I dare say the fact that it’s a theatrical production is probably the one element to which they’d directly relate.

So it begs the question as to what sort of plays we’ll see about Barack Obama one day? There’s been at least one major attempt in Germany, but no such high-profile productions in the US. As I began pondering what I expected to see in a play about Barack Obama, I suddenly remember that I’m a playwright and started wondering how I’d write a play about Barack Obama.

It would most likely be about how everyone considers him “not quite” or “not at all”. He’s the first Black man to take office, but his father wasn’t descended from the slaves who spawned the rest of us. Despite conspiracy theories, he was born in the United States, but he’s the first to not be born on the mainland. He was given the Nobel Peace Prize soon after he took office, but also oversaw some of the bloodiest US attacks on foreign citizens. He’s Commander-in-Chief of all US armed forces and law enforcement, but he’s also the first president who could speak first-hand about being the victim of racial profiling and police harassment. Electing him was one of the most progressive acts ever carried out by a first-world nation, yet racial tensions in the US are as high as they’ve been in decades. He passed bold legislative changes despite facing a level of opposition not shown to a sitting president in most of our lifetimes.

Barack: You Can’t Please… well, Anyone, a play by Charles Lewis III. Coming as soon as I finish my Terence adaptations (that part’s actually true).

As I settled my mind down from running in several opposite directions, I thought less about how our presidents are perceived in plays and more about how they feel giving their citizens access to those plays. Obama’s hosting of the cast of Hamilton was to emphasize the importance of arts in America; the paradox being – as my Thursday column predecessor frequently pointed out – that funding for those arts is harder and harder to come by. The way a nation treats the arts is often a reflection of what they think of their citizens: if arts are funded well, it suggests the people have a voice and are encouraged to use it; if the arts are underfunded, it suggests the people are merely cogs in the machine.

That’s what I’d like to see more than anything. No matter what’s eventually about a president in book, film, or even a play, I’d like to know they worked their hardest to ensure future artists had the means and the venues with which to perfect their craft. I’d like to see fewer politicians and dignitaries attending shows they know the public can’t afford and more of them attempting to venture out into the mysterious land of black boxes (we’ll make room for the Secret Service, we promise). I’d like to see them go beyond mere campaign promises and actually prove that art matters.

The catch is that art, like politics, can just as easily split people down the middle as it can bring them together. But hey, “I’d rather be divisive than indecisive,” right?

That’s from a musical, isn’t it?

Charles Lewis III thinks that if you care about art and politics, you should donate to this year’s SF Olympians Fest IndieGoGo. Why? ‘Cause the Greeks invented democracy, Olympians is one of the best theatre fests in Northern Cali, and the plays frequently inspire heated debate.

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In For a Penny: Flex Time

Charles Lewis III, not over yet.

Harry Potter - Fat Lady copy

“Quien canta, sus males espanta. (He who sings frightens away his ills.)”
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

I was recently cast in a musical. This surprised me more than anyone else.

Not because I have anything against musicals – quite the contrary, I love them. That’s why I audition for them so often. But since there isn’t a great demand for baritones, I’m the least likely to be cast – especially not in a lead. (Someday, Sweeney. Someday…) No, this is a world that values an off-key, near-castrato Timberlake over a deeply resonant Vandross.

But that hasn’t stopped me from trying. In fact, I was nearly cast in one several years ago, but I declined the role. The last time I performed in a proper musical was, incidentally, the first-ever Theater Pub musical: 2011’s Devil of a Time. Earlier that same year I was in a staged reading/singing for Cutting Ball Theatre. Other than that, it’s just been far-too-few karaoke sessions and a compliment from an opera singer that just made my day: as a supernumerary, one of the tenors sang a note to me. Without thinking, I sang the note back in my natural baritone. He was taken aback, complimenting me and wondering why I was just a super instead of a chorus member.

As such, when the folks behind Philia said they needed to find a replacement baritone for their soon-to-begin rehearsals, I went to the audition expecting nothing more than a courteous “Thanks for coming in” and to never hear anything more until the show opened. Next thing I knew, I was signing a contract for a month-long run and rescheduling auditions and directing jobs around my new rehearsals. After countless auditions for everything from rock operas to remounts, I find myself once again taking to the stage on the basis of a muscle I rarely use.

And that’s when the worry sets in.

As much as I love musical theatre, I’m not at all surprised when people say they hate it. In fact, the reasons they hate it are often the very reasons I love it. It’s true that most people aren’t likely to break into song during the crucial moments in their lives, but as theatre folk we spend our entire lives playing Make Believe – verisimilitude is our stock and trade. To me, words spoken in harmony are no less believable than those spoken in common prose. Or in verse, for that matter.

But perhaps the feeling comes less from an inability to believe the story turns and more from an inability to properly recreate those skills on their own? Any ham in a torn t-shirt can recreate Stanley Kowalski screaming on the stairs; it’s not a simple to hit the right notes for the song “Maria”. Anyone can fake a Southern accent and plead sex from their closeted-gay-husband-with-the-broken-leg; not as many can pull off “On My Own” in a way that leaves everyone around them in tears. I’m willing to bet a lot of us got into theatre after watching a musical at a young and impressionable age, but swore off musicals forever upon finding out singing is a skill all its own.

Admittedly, this anxiety grips me every time I audition for a musical, let alone be cast in one. Just as I lack a university degree, I also lack proper training as a vocalist. My experience in that area is entirely from mimicry and informal “lessons” by trained musicians. I’d like to think that I’m good enough to hold my own – I must be if I’ve gotten this far – but I have no illusions about how my skills compare to those honed by my co-stars. I imagine the audience leaving the theatre praising the show, humming the songs, and lauding all of the performers, “except for that one guy.”

“Presented without comment.”

“Presented without comment.”

Still, I found it a real confidence-booster to be cast in a musical. Sure, I don’t have proper training in it, but I have very little proper training in… well, anything. As I said, I don’t have a university degree, so I don’t have the professional theatre training of my peers. But the thing about training is that anyone in the world can do it; all it takes is practice. That’s what machines are for. The ability to bring something beyond the rote training means you’ve moved toward, dare I say it, talent. And I may engage in a brief self-indulgence (in place of my usual self-deprecation): it’s quite possible that I’ve been getting by on talent, something I would be the very last person to admit.

And I have been training my voice for this role, primarily with the show’s composer/musical director. I’ve mentioned before how importantly I regard exercise, and vocal exercise is no different. Even when I’m not in a musical, I’ll go through as many pre-show physical and vocal warm-ups as I can in the time allotted. The voice is as much a muscle as any other part of the body. I might not be Paul Robeson in either regard, but I don’t have to be. It was Paul Robeson’s job to be Paul Robeson. How I compare is a decision I leave to you.

Maybe it’s the fact that it’s been so long since I’ve properly flexed this particular muscle that I felt such trepidation about working it again. Eagerness yes, but also trepidation. My voice has always been one of my defining traits in theatre. I was always cast as an orator or some authority figure whose voice was meant to be heard in the back rows. Hell, my role in Pastorella this past Autumn featured a crucial scene in why my character’s voice goes from a mouse’s whisper to a lion’s roar in the space of a single monologue. This role might not be the vocal equivalent of me winning Mr. Olympia, but it’s proven that I’m still in damn-fine shape for someone with a voice like mine.

But seriously, we need more musicals for baritones. I’m dyin’ here, people.

If you’d like to hear Charles Lewis’s voice (amongst many other lovely voices) and see his wicked kazoo skills, watch Devil of a Time on the official Theater Pub YouTube Channel.

The Five: Sorry Kids, No Time

Anthony R. Miller checks in with adventures in educating.

So I’ve been teaching a “History of Musical Theatre” class the last few weeks and you would think three hours would be long enough to give them a pretty solid, if not basic knowledge of the musical theatre, and you would be wrong. I use a lot of video clips for the class, and with over 50 clips; I never get to use them all. There’s a few that kill me to skip, a few that make me feel like I’m doing these kids a disservice but skipping them, so here are my top clips I had to cut, predictably there are five.

Follies-“I’m Still Here”

Ok calm down, I mention it. I bring up that it’s co-directed by Michael Bennett. But there is no playing of the classic song. There is no discussion of how this show is just one part of the death of the Broadway Myth that happens in the 1970’s.

The Will Rogers Follies-“Our Favorite Son”

Again, I mention the show I never really give Tommy Tune his time in the sun. Not only does the show base itself on the Ziegfeld Follies which we discuss at the begging of the class, but it features some musical theatre’s most iconic choreography.

Contact-“Simply Irresistible”

I would have blown minds with tis clip. We would have discussed Susan Stroman’s use of dance and movement to tell her story in the tradition of Jerome Robbins and Agnes Demille. We would have discussed the controversy that followed its 2000 Best New Musical Tony Award win when it had no original or live music.

Gypsy-“Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (As Performed by Patti Lupone)

So Gypsy is discussed in the class, I even show a clip, but I don’t show this one. I feel it is my friggin duty to show them video of Ethel Merman performing it, I wish I had time to show both of them. Patti Lupone burns the friggin house down in it. But I can only choose one and Ethel Merman has to t win.

The Music Man-“Ya Got Trouble”

I have no fucking business teaching the history of American Musical Theatre without showing a clip of this show. Oh sure, I mention it beat West Side Story for the Tony. I discuss its use of rhythmic speak-singing. I mention it took 7 years to make it to Broadway. What I don’t do is show a clip. Maybe I’ll cut the clip from Pippin.

You can check out the entire playlist HERE and see everything I do show, along with everything that got cut for time.

Anthony R. Miller is a doer of many things, keep up with them www.awesometheatre.org.