The Five: Tony Award Snarkdown

Anthony R. Miller checks in (on a different day) with smart ass comments about this year’s Tony Award nominations.

Hey you guys, looks like I didn’t get nominated for a Tony again, although my long-term plan for a regional Tony is still rock solid. In case you didn’t hear (due to the lack of Wi-Fi in the cave you live in) the nominations for the Tony Awards came out on Tuesday. If you haven’t seen ‘em yet, go to www.tonyawards.com and get with it. It’s cool, I’ll wait…

All caught up? Great, now we can dive in to a few of my own observations. And wouldn’t you know it, there are five.

So Apparently Hamilton is Pretty Good

With a record 16 nominations, Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of Hamilton might as well just sit onstage all night. I mean, that’s why we’re all watching right? It’s been about 20 years since a Broadway musical has been such a cultural phenomenon, which is depressing. But I guess we’ll take what we can get. Sure, it might not be fun to be one of the other nominated musicals who will probably not have as triumphant a night, but the fact that a whole crapload of people who would have never watched the Tony Awards are gonna watch is something to celebrate.

I Can’t Hear You

It’s hard for me to be witty when I’m genuinely mad about something. But the fact that there is no longer an award for Sound Design is total garbage. You would think they would bring it back this year just for the sake of giving Hamilton another award. Seriously though, sound designers are artists, and in many cases, friggin’ miracle workers. The art of sound design evolved beyond sound effects and intermission music a long time ago. Maybe I’m spoiled because the Bay Area boasts some brilliant sound designers. So hug a sound designer today, they make your show sound good.

Every Day I’m Shufflin’

Let’s give credit to Shuffle Along. In a Best New Musical category populated by musicals about historical events (Hamilton and Bright Star) and musicals based on movies (Waitress and School of Rock),  Shuffle Along is a musical based on a musical. So there’s that.

Good for You, Arthur Miller

The Best Revival of a Play I Had To Read In College Category features Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Noises Off, Blackbird, and two, count ’em, two Arthur Miller plays (The Crucible and A View from the Bridge). So keep your eye out for that up-and-comer Arthur Miller, he’s going places.

We Love It When Our Casual Acquaintances Become Successful

So if local hero Daveed Diggs wins for Best Performance By An Actor In A Featured Role In A Musical, I will boast not one, BUT TWO Tony award winners on my Facebook friends list. In 1998, I was an ASM for a production of Children of Eden at American Musical Theatre of San Jose. This particular production featured a young fella named James Monroe Inglehart, we became dear, dear friends, OK, not really. But a few years later I served him shitty Chinese food and he totally recognized me. Then he went on to be the Genie in the Broadway production of Aladdin and took home the Tony. Now we have an actor whom I saw once in a production of Six Degrees of Separation, everybody in the Bay Area has been in a play with, someone whom I exchanged 3-4 actual emails with a few years ago about producing a one-man show that never happened. Daveed Diggs is a swell dude (based on our in-depth email correspondence) and it’s always great to see local actors go on to success right after they leave the Bay Area. So here’s to hoping the list of successful people I kinda know just gets bigger. Unless of course they’re a goddamned sound designer.

Don’t forget to watch on June 12th!!!

Anthony R. Miller is Writer, Producer and Theatre Nerd, keep with him at www.awesometheatre.org and on twitter @armiller78

Everything Is Already Something: A Meeting of Producers Who Really Want to Capitalize on the Popularity of ‘Hamilton’

Allison Page, feeding you some low-hanging fruit- just like these producers!

MAN 1: Okay, how about something with one of those other politics guys?

MAN 2: Yeah, yeah, yeah I like that.

MAN 3: The guy with the tub! The tub guy!

WOMAN: Taft? What’s the twist? We need a twist.

MAN 3: We cast someone really buff, but not overly muscular, so he’s also kind of svelte. Or a model.

MAN 1: GET ASHTON KUTCHER ON THE PHONE.

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 8.52.07 AM

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MAN 3: A splashy musical spectacular in the traditional sense — chorus girls and everything — about HARRIET TUBMAN! Except the woman who plays her, and stay with me here, is a white male! Think of the PRESS!

MAN 1: Mmm, sounds too expensive. Can we do it without the chorus girls?

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MAN 2: Okay but what if —guys, this is gonna be great— what if we do a thing about William Henry Harrison?

MAN 3: Who?

WOMAN: The one who died 23 days into his presidency.

MAN 2: YES! The built-in drama! But instead of getting an old guy to do it-

MAN 1: Ewwwwww

MAN 2: Exactly! So instead we get a teen pop star. Is Justin Bieber still relevant?

WOMAN: Oooo, or how old is Rachel’s baby from Friends?

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WOMAN: So scratch the musical idea, because I’m thinking a historical epic like Les Mis without the singing, but there’s no set so it’ll be really cheap. The set is all in the audience’s imaginations. It’s an arty thing.

MAN 2: Who’s it about?

WOMAN: JOE BIDEN! A rags to riches story!

MAN 1: Does he actually have a rags to riches story?

WOMAN: Don’t know. Doesn’t matter! That is the power of art, my friends.

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MAN 1: GEORGE WASHINGTON!

MAN 2: But George Washington is already in ‘Hamilton’.

MAN 3: Oh shit – A SEQUEL.

WOMAN: ‘Hamilton 2: George’s Side’

MAN 1: ‘Hamilton II: A Second Serving of Ham’

MAN 2: ‘George VS Alex: There Can Be Only One’

MAN 3: ‘Sunday in the Park with George’

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WOMAN: You know what else is really popular on Broadway? ‘Phantom of the Opera’

MAN 1: Oh yeah, can we put them together?

MAN 2: Alexander Hamilton falls into a vat of ooze and when he emerges he’s all scarred up.

WOMAN: I think that’s Two Faces’ origin story.

MAN 3: Okay, when Hamilton was shot he didn’t actually die, he faked his own death! And now he walks the earth, immortal, with a mask on part of his face. And sometimes he sings opera, or maybe just R&B, I don’t think people listen to opera. And there are probably some hot chicks. Does Alessandra Ambrosia act? Doesn’t matter, we can teach her.

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MAN 2: Wait, we’re totally missing something. PEOPLE LOVE COMEDY. Take one of the lesser characters from ‘Hamilton’ like, ah…I don’t know, Hercules Mulligan, and show his story, but he’s played by America’s sweetheart: Adam Sandler. We’ll make so much money and then they’ll make a movie out of it and we’ll make so much more money and it doesn’t even have to be good. I mean that’s the nice thing about this idea is it definitely, absolutely, in no way has to be good at all even a little bit. And Hercules Mulligan is a really silly name like Happy Gilmore so it completely makes sense.

WOMAN: Just googled it. Someone’s already doing it.

MAN 2: UGHHHHH ALL THE GOOD ONES ARE TAKEN.

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WOMAN: Kerry Washington.

MAN 1: What about her?

WOMAN: Kerry Washington plays Washington in ‘Washington’.

MAN 2: More Washington?! We’ve already covered this.

WOMAN: Washington on Washington.

MAN 3: I like it.

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MAN 1: The story of Obama as told by Jay-Z and Beyonce.

MAN 2: That’s actually a really good idea.

WOMAN: Does that mean we can bring back Carmen: A Hip Hopera. Can’t we just stage that? God, I love that movie. What ever happened to Mekhi Phifer?

MAN 3: You’re right, let’s just do that instead. Can we convince the writer it somehow slipped into the public domain?

WOMAN: Probably. Writers are idiots.

EVERYONE: hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha I KNOW, RIGHT?

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MAN 1: What if we make one of the characters from Glengarry Glen Ross a congressman and add a little soft shoe in the middle?

MAN 3: I like everything about that except the congressman and the soft shoe.

MAN 2: Great, another round of GGR it is!

WOMAN: What if there’s a woman in it?

MEN: NO.

WOMAN: I was just kidding. Hahahaha…ha…ha.

**********************************************

MAN 1: OH! Why don’t we just produce another run of ‘1776’?

EVERYONE: Oooooh yeah. Okay. Forgot about that. Let’s do it. Haha we’re so silly.

Allison Page is a writer/actor/artistic director of sketch comedy company Killing My Lobster in San Francisco.

The Five: At the Intersection of Art and Politics

Anthony R. Miller checks in to see if he can just turn off his brain and like the dang show.

Hey you guys, so we all know SF is a liberal place, we just had an election where the Democratic mayor did not have a conservative opponent, just more liberal ones. We have naked parades and theatre companies whose ideals and personal politics play a big role in programming. Now, I consider myself a pretty progressive fella, but still a beneficiary of white male privilege. And lately there were some moment where I found myself almost in conflict with my personal politics and my ability to just enjoy the show I was watching. Naturally, I have some thoughts on it, and wouldn’t you know it, there are five.

Dare to Be Traditional

Last Friday, I attended the opening night for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. It was the inaugural production of SF’s newest company, Bay Area Musicals. Without doing anything resembling a review, what really stuck with me was how daring it all felt. I don’t mean it was daring because it applied some greater concept and turned the show on its head to make a stunning new interpretation, I mean the exact opposite. Here we are in SF, a city at war with itself and the looming shadow of large tech companies and corporate culture, and they put on a show about a guy who basically schemes his way to the top and relies on the privilege granted by the corporate patriarchy to get away with all of it. Let’s get something straight, I’m a fan of the show. It’s funny, the music is great, and it’s entertaining and nothing but. But man, is it dated. The female lead aspires to marry up, the boss is cheating on his wife and it’s basically fine, everybody hits on their secretary, and in the end when our hero is seemingly doomed, he simply relies on the notion of “Hey, c’mon, we’re all bros here.” So to put this show on in SF in 2015 felt daring. Because while the play is a fun satire of corporate culture in the early ’60s, it’s a fairly forgiving one. So in light of that, you would think in SF the play would be given some kind of political facelift, some kind of new angle that shows us why the play is still relevant. Nope, they just did the show exactly how it’s always been done; it was big, fun and unapologetic. It had a punk-rock-like defiance. In the cradle of liberalism and progressive politics and artists who strive to make theatre that has its own identity and relevance, they said “fuck it.” Here I was watching a traditional musical comedy performed as it was traditionally intended and apologized for none of it, and that felt non-traditional. To not re-invent the show, felt inventive. Now to be fair, BAM’s season also includes Hair and La Cage Aux Folles which are liberal as fuck, so it all balances out. Where the culture of SF did really sink in, was the exciting diversity of the casting, actors of all sizes and color were used in a show that traditionally would have white people with perfect bodies. Oh, and I really enjoyed it.

Art vs. the Artist

This one is a cheat, but go with me. I’ve been a longtime fan of the band Eagles of Death Metal, the band that was playing in Paris the night of the horrific attacks. With all the newfound attention on them, a dirty little secret (unless you’re an obsessed fan like me who reads everything about them) is that the lead singer is super conservative, like Trump-supporting. Here’s the problem, the band kicks ass, they’re fun, riffy, boogie-down rock and roll. There is no agenda in the music, just a rockin’ beat. So I ask myself, “Can I still like this band when the lead singer holds views I find abhorrent?” It is the notion of choosing the Art over the Artist, does the artist need to be a good person who is in compliance with my politics to create art I can enjoy? If the art has nothing to do with the artist’s political views, am I still allowed to like it? Does the artist need to comply with my personal politics in order for me to like their art?

Giving Tuesday

Ok, this one is a non-sequitur, but hey it’s for a good cause. Apparently we have a name for the 5 days after Thanksgiving, so after Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday, today is Giving Tuesday. Today we can put aside our frothy-mouthed consumerism and give our money to some great causes, and Bay Area Theatre has lots of them. Here’s a few suggestions, SF Sketch Troupe Killing My Lobster, who had an amazing 2015 and are doing some great educational partnerships. SF’s Ray of Light Theatre has begun its Illumination Campaign (speaking of musicals in SF) and the Diablo Regional Art Association, who are giving free theatre tickets to kids. Custom Made Theatre Company, who just moved to a much larger space, is recovering from a robbery, and is one of the Bay Area’s fastest growing companies, is also doing a drive, and will be launching a New Works Development program next year, amongst other exciting changes.

Feeling Bad for Laughing

I’ve been lucky enough to attend several productions that are part of the Curran: Under Construction series at the under-renovation Curran Theatre. It’s pretty awesome; the shows are performed with the audience onstage to create exciting, intimate and interesting new shows. I recently saw Steve Cuiffo is Lenny Bruce, a one-man note-for-note reenactment of the work of Lenny Bruce. And while the guy was incredible and I laughed a great deal, there were uncomfortable moments. There is a whole bit laden with racial epithets, a bit that uses lots of colorful language for homosexuals, and while Bruce’s work was daring, controversial and a brilliant examination of what we find offensive and why, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable at times. And I’m not here to say whether or not it’s OK to reenact this material, personally I enjoyed it for what it was, but MAN I couldn’t help but think that Lenny Bruce would be savaged for his work these days.

The Whyness of it All

A big question we like to ask ourselves in seeing theatre is “Why this show?” Why does it exist? Why is it being performed? Why am I watching it? When I think about all these things, I wonder about the conflict of theatre that exists just to entertain and theatre that is trying to say something. Is one more valid than the other? Is being entertaining enough? I would say yes, escapism is just as important as work that is critical of the world around us. Is it OK to like work that hasn’t kept up with our own progressive attitudes? Am I a bad liberal for appreciating Lenny Bruce or philandering bosses or music written by people I probably would dislike in person? Is it OK to not worry sometimes and just enjoy myself? That’s a lot of questions, and I don’t really have the answers, but if there is one thing that makes me think these plays are still important is that even though I enjoyed myself, I’m also asking myself all these questions. Which may be exactly why they’re important.

Anthony R. Miller is a writer and producer, and enjoys laughing as much as he enjoys thinking. Keep up with him at www.awesometheatre.org

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: What’s Playing at the Roxy?*

Dave Sikula, in which the author begins to dissect his recent trip to New York.

As I start writing this, I’m sitting in my hotel room in New York, fully aware of three things:

1) I really should be in bed, since I have to pack up tomorrow morning.
2) I am going to have one hell of a time packing everything.
3) I really should be working on the work assignment I have that I hope to deal with on the plane tomorrow.

While I’m fully aware that I have what has been described as a negative approach to things, I prefer to think of it as both contrarian and snobbish (see here for my previous post on that issue). Yet, despite that rep (which could be easily proven incorrect by doing one of those stupid “here are the words I use most on Facebook” word clouds – something that just reeks to me of intrusive marketing), I found myself having a great time at eight of the ten shows (or ten of twelve, if one counts seeing Colbert and a cabaret show), and even the two misfires weren’t that bad – well, China Doll was, but that’s something to be dealt with later.

While I’m going to deal with this trip on a broader level later in the year (something I know you’ll all be waiting for … ), I wanted to do a post-mortem on what I saw.
When I plan a trip to New York, I’m lucky enough that I can usually schedule it for a long enough period that I can see pretty much everything I want to. In this case, that meant arriving on a Tuesday and leaving on the Thursday of the next week, giving me the opportunity to take advantage of three matinee/two-for-one days.

The festivities began with Stephan Karam’s The Humans. I’d seen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet a few years ago, so I was interested in seeing this follow-up. It’s a very good production of a very interesting script; that is as much about the Thanksgiving dinner that is its center as the previous play was about being Lebanese-American. The family dynamics are incisive and sharply observed, and it’ll probably get produced all over the country once designers work out how to re-invent its two-story set.

Because set designers need challenges, don't they?

Because set designers need challenges, don’t they?

Wednesday matinee: Robert Askins’s Hand to God. Another one that deserves a long shelf-life, but good luck to the actors who’ll be cast in the central role that combines puppetry with playing off one’s self with possible demonic possession and a bunch of swearing and simulated sex. Of particular interest was Bob Saget, new to the cast as a straight-laced pastor, but really quite good, but who paled – as most actors would – in comparison to Stephen Boyer’s work as the lead.

The next show was David Mamet’s China Doll, which I was starting to write about, but quickly realized that it’s going to take a whole post in itself to deal with – and that’s for next time. Suffice it to say that, when we heard about this one, we jumped at the chance to go. Granted, Mamet hasn’t written a good play since the ‘80s and Pacino isn’t what he once was, but still, the possibilities were there – especially since the notoriously phallocentric Mamet was actually allowing a woman – Pam MacKinnon – to direct. It’s a perfect example, though, of how Broadway in the 21st century isn’t what it was even 20 years ago.

This is not a still photo. This is a live feed of the action.

This is not a still photo. This is a live feed of the action.

Friday: Hamilton. We planned the trip around when we could get tickets. Now, unlike many folks, I wanted to go in cold. I had heard a little of the score (it’s next to impossible to avoid), and knew the basics of the conceit and approach. Now, while I kinda wish I’d exposed myself to the cast album (please note: not a soundtrack … ), I was floored. It was that rare occasion where, going in, my expectations were high, and the product not only met them, they left them in the dust. It’s an utterly phenomenal show and I can’t say enough good things about it. Everything you’ve heard? All true.

I was a little iffy about the next three shows; two because of my growing Anglothropism (that is to say, not buying into the idea that, just because a show has a London pedigree, it’s going to be good), and the third because it’s a dumb musical comedy. All three were brilliant though, starting with Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, directed by Ivo Van Hove (whose production of Hedda Gabler – a play I really dislike – was staggeringly good). This is an amazing production, played as the Greek tragedy Miller alluded to, muscular, tough, and no-holds-barred. The production offers on-stage seating, and I was no more than a couple of feet from the actors, so it was even more intense.

Yeah. It's that kind of a show

Yeah. It’s that kind of a show

The second of the three was by John O’Farrell, Karey Kirkpatrick, and Wayne Kirkpatrick’s musical Something Rotten!, which is that rarest of creatures – an original musical that opened directly on Broadway. I was leery, but had been told (by my wife, no less) that it was hysterically funny – and it is. It’s everything “a Broadway musical comedy” should be: smart, funny, and lively; full of allusions to other musicals and cast with actors who really know how to land the material.

The last of this troika was Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, a “future history” play set during the early days of the reign of the next British monarch, written (mostly) in iambic pentameter and blank verse and doing all it can to take on Shakespeare at his own game. It’s a risk, but pays off mightily, with a towering central performance by Tim Pigott-Smith, but the rest of the cast comes close to matching him. A riveting afternoon.

Next was a pair of disappointments, lacking for similar reasons. The first was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, which I was looking forward to. The director, Bartlett Sher, showed an astonishing ability to wring every ounce of drama out of South Pacific, turning a war horse into a thoroughbred, and I had hopes he’d be able to repeat that magic here. While the production itself is everything one might hope – fine performances, beautiful sets and staging – the show itself just can’t match the production. I don’t expect there could be a better version of the show, but – for better or worse – its dramaturgy is locked into the early ‘50s, and musicals just aren’t written that way anymore. (Where I want numbers that delve into psychology, I got “hit tunes,” and characters who have – justifiably – been speaking in pigeon English all evening suddenly become fluently poetic when singing).

The second was Simon Stephens’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which, despite its many admirable qualities and intentions, just didn’t work for me. It’s an outstanding production, but that was the problem. It’s so overwhelming and facile that it covers up that there’s not much of a play underneath. I can’t imagine how another production of it – that doesn’t have a mammoth budget – will be able to tell the story.

Finally, I like to end my trips with something that will leave me with a glow of some sort; usually – but not necessarily – something uplifting, so I decided on Craig Lucas’s adaptation of An American in Paris, with a score by George and Ira Gershwin. From almost the opening moments, the show packed a particular punch. Given the still-fresh attacks on Paris, its start – detailing the German occupation of France and its aftermath (something the show was criticized for when it opened) – set things in a context that give it an immediacy and power that was shocking. The show itself is, well, lovely. One expects a dancy musical full of tap and “Broadway” dancing, and one gets an evening of breathtaking ballet (okay; there is one tap number … ). It’s moving and human in all the best ways – and couldn’t have been a better finale to my trip.

Boy, howdy.

Boy, howdy.

Next time: the dullness that was China Doll.

(*Nothing, actually. The Roxy was a movie theatre, anyway, and was torn down in 1960.)

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.

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Shoulda Taken That Left Turn at Albuquerque

Dave Sikula outlines his own job description.

I'd like to see Bugs's Falstaff.

I’d like to see Bugs’s Falstaff.

As I’ve mentioned once or twice on these pages, I’m a director. In that role, I feel like I have two jobs. The first is to watch the actors, see what they’re doing, and tailor the action to their strengths (within the context of the script, of course). I’ve long found that if I try to get an actor to do something that isn’t organic to them, whatever it is isn’t going to work. If I can match the action to the actor, though, I find they can do anything.

My other job is to get the hell out of the writer’s way. When I read a script, I have to figure out both what it’s about (both on the surface and underneath) and the best way to get that message/story/metaphor/whatever across. Sometimes it’s by being big and bold, sometimes it’s getting tiny and intimate.

Now, this is not to say that there’s only one way to do any play. My Hamlet or Odd Couple or Sweeney Todd is going to be different from any other director’s, since we see different things in those plays that we’ll want to bring out. Even if I do something a second time, I’m going to do it differently from the way I did it the first time; different actors will bring out different values and moments and I’m an older and different person. The Long Day’s Journey I’d do now would be different from the one I did in 1997. (Though it would still be uncut.)

Even saying that, there may certainly be times where I’d want to deconstruct something or deliberately go against what’s on the page in order to make a statement about its values needing to be questioned or criticized. I have ideas about Chekhov that go against the way his plays are usually performed (though, ironically for this example, completely in line with what I think he intended), and in grad school, I devised a Brechtian deconstruction of You Can’t Take It with You (a play I really like) that highlighted and commented on its theatricality, artificiality, and place in the development of situation comedy.

So while there are obvious exceptions, most scripts intended for the commercial theatre—especially from a certain period—are pretty obvious as to what they’re about, and any attempts to screw around with them are foolhardy, pigheaded, and probably doomed to failure.

My own most notable experience here is when I directed The Fantasticks. I originally wanted to shake some of the rust and dust off of it; to lose some of its fussiness and make it more “relevant” to a modern audience. There was, I thought, a stodginess to it that needed to be lost. Anyone who’s directed the show knows that the licensor includes what is virtually an instruction manual the size of a phone book* on how to (more or less) recreate Word Baker’s 1960 production, right down to where to hang prop and costume pieces in the trunk.

Jerry Orbach is not included in the instructions. Dammit.

Jerry Orbach is not included in the instructions. Dammit.

(*Note to younger readers: a “phone book**” was a thick volume that contained addresses and phone numbers for every person and business in a designated are.)

(**Note to even younger readers: a “book” was a bound collection of paper upon which was printed a made-up story or accounting of factual events.)

When I got this manual, my first reaction was to sniff “Well, I’m not going to do it that way! My production will be my own!” But the more I looked at the script in conjunction with the manual, the more I realized that to make massive changes just for the sake of making changes was an exercise in hubris. There’s a reason the show has played so well for more than half a century. There probably really is a right way and a wrong way to do it, and I opted for the “right” way. It told the story in the way the authors intended. (This isn’t to say we didn’t tweak things or fit it to the actors; but we didn’t stray far from what was on the page.) The results were one of my proudest productions and fondest theatrical memories. It was a beautiful and touching production (if I say so myself), and I never regretted not having deconstructed it just because I could.

What brings this up? Well, we recently saw a production at one of the major houses in town of a show that could be considered a modern classic of sorts. (The production shall go nameless to protect the innocent.) From the moment it started, though, I knew we were in trouble. In the apparent name of shaking things up, the director (with a number of impressive credits nationally) had decided to put his or her stamp on it, despite anything intended by the creators. The changes weren’t done in the name of deconstruction or postmodernism or commenting on the text; they seemed done just because this director either knew better how to tell the story than the people who created it or was just tired of the “old” ways of doing it.

Let me hasten to add here (in case I haven’t made it clear) that I don’t expect directors, designers, or actors to do exactly what was done in the original production of something (if it’s, as in this case, a revival). Each company and production should be unique and bring a flavor or their own to the mix, while (as I mentioned last time) “coloring inside the lines.”

But this production was just a series of wrong-headed moves that kept denying or contradicting the script and its plot points, both major and minor; not for the purpose of commenting on them, but seemingly just for the hell of it. That the poor thinking extended to a good portion of the casting, as well, will go mostly uncommented on. (And, of course, that almost the entire cast was imported from out of town was inexcusable. There are literally dozens of local actors who could have played any of the roles with equal, if not greater, dexterity.)

One actor reminded me of no one so much as Jerry Colonna (seen in the video below). (To again offer clarification to younger readers, Colonna was a comedian in the 1940s known mainly for his big eyes and bigger moustache. Subtlety was not his calling card.) This isn’t necessarily a problem. I’m a fan of Colonna and his brand of overplaying, but for this role, it was like casting Elmer Fudd as Cyrano. It was almost as though the director, when faced with a choice of what to do in any moment, opted for the wrong one, just to see what would happen, then didn’t explore the alternative.

Certain of my friends will no doubt comment that “Well, you don’t like anything.” I’ll (as always) deny that, but some of the very friends who would say that shared these opinions of the production, so it wasn’t just me.

But, of course, at the end of the evening, the audience leapt to its feet to provide a seemingly sincere and hearty standing ovation, so what do I know? Ya pays yer money, and ya takes her cherce. Although in cases like this, I’m reminded of the late humorist Robert Benchley’s assessment of the utterly inexplicable popularity of the execrable Abie’s Irish Rose in the ‘20s: “This is why democracy can never be a success.”

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Performance Anxiety

Dave Sikula… is nervous?

Last Saturday, I went to the San Francisco Silent Movie Festival to see The Donovan Affair, a 1929 movie that was both silent and not. “How is this possible?,” I hear you not asking. The answer is simple. The Donovan Affair was the first talking picture directed by Frank Capra (he of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life fame). While the film itself is intact (unlike so many movies from that period), the problem is that, in the 75 years since it was made, the soundtrack has vanished.

Considering it’s a movie about a murder investigation with an incredibly complicated plot (a ne’er-do-well is murdered when the lights are turned out during a birthday party – a stunt that is repeated twice, leading to both a second murder and the apprehension of the murderer), without dialogue, any viewer of the film is going to be stymied. Being that sound was recent to the movies in 1929, Capra and company packed it to the gills with talk, especially during the scenes where the lights are turned out and all the viewer sees is a black screen.

The Donovan Affair

The Donovan Affair

Bruce Goldstein, the legendary programmer at New York’s Film Forum, wanted to show The Donovan Affair as part of a Capra retrospective and hit upon the idea of taking the script and having a cast live-dub the movie in real time. The problem was that, not only has the screenplay also been lost to the mists of time, so has the script to the stage play the movie was based on.

While some of the dialogue could be intuited though lip reading, there are plenty of scenes with off-stage characters, actors with their backs to the camera, and the aforementioned blacked-out scenes. After a long, long search, Goldstein located a transcript in the by-then-defunct New York State Film Censorship Board’s archives that, while incomplete and obviously wrong in some places, was complete enough to allow him to proceed. The film was presented to great acclaim, and Goldstein had repeated the stunt a few times (I saw it at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2013), the most recent being the screening at the Castro, where, once again, a cast of live actors, a sound-effects man, and a pianist did the work.

The whole experience is great fun. The actors are skilled enough to tread the fine line of playing things deadpan while simultaneously being just over the top enough to acknowledge both the absurdity of the plot and the peculiarities of early sound film acting. (There are few things on the planet with less animation to them than Wheeler Oakman in The Lights of New York, the first all-talking feature. Coincidentally, Oakman appears in Donovan.)

That's not a still. That's Oakman's actual performance.

That’s not a still. That’s Oakman’s actual performance.

And that, at long last, brings me to this week’s topic: the ways in which we’re influenced by the performances of actors who have preceded us. Now, as good as Donovan’s modern-day cast was (and they were very good, indeed), they had to approximate – if not outright duplicate — the rhythms, cadences, and acting styles of their 1929 equivalents. If they did anything else – commenting on the performances, mocking them, sending them up – the whole thing would fall apart. The joke would be good for about 15 minutes before it stopped being funny. It’s the commitment of the voice actors to emulating the originals that makes it work at all.

All that said, it can’t help but be a little frustrating for those voice actors. Rather than having the freedom to pause a little here or emphasize or downplay something a little more, if they’re going to be faithful to the lip movements and actions of the original cast, they have to color within the lines, so to speak. There’s a certain creativity that is sparked for me (maybe even a freedom) when being restricted as to what I can do in a case like that. I don’t want to say I like directing with a small budget (because having an impressive physical production is nice), but when I’m forced to come up with a theatrical equivalent for something we just can’t afford, that’s when the creativity really starts.

I’m also reminded of this because of my current show, Grey Gardens, which I’ll mention again that you really should see (and that tickets are almost gone – even for our recently-announced extension). Anyone who is a fan of musical theatre has collected more than a few cast albums and listened to them over and over until the songs – and, more importantly, the performances of those songs – get locked into our brains. While this provides entertainment, it also provides a template that’s hard to break out of. Not that there’s only “one way” to perform a number (any more than there’s only “one way” to perform Hamlet or Hedda Gabler or Oscar Madison), but we get those voices and rhythms in our heads and it’s sometimes tough to break away. That said, anyone doing The Music Man, My Fair Lady, or Sweeney Todd is going to labor in the shadows of Robert Preston, Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, and Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou or George Hearn.

No, I don't have my lines written on my hand.

No, I don’t have my lines written on my hand.

I should note here that this is really a condition that’s more applicable to musicals than plays; the number of original casts of non-musical plays that have been immortalized on record (or even film) and listened to repeated times is miniscule. And the nature of musical theatre, with numbers written to be performed at certain tempos in more or less the same timespan as the originals kind of limits the options for later performers. I’m currently singing more or less the same notes John McMartin did in more or less the same tempos and times. I’m not duplicating what he did, but I’m working in a pretty tight structure.

Yes, we all want– and need – to bring our own unique qualities to the roles we play, but the originals are always lurking in the backs of our heads somewhere. Even if we specifically decide to not do what was done of the original cast album, that very reaction is a response. “I’m not going to sing ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right out of My Hair’ like Mary Martin; I’m just not.” That very denial of the template is an acknowledgment of it. Am I saying it’s impossible to bring fresh takes to old roles? Of course not. If that were the case, all you’d need to do is put a CD player on stage and save the expense of hiring actors. There are scores of brilliant Evitas and Roses and John Adamses every year doing things Patti LuPone and Ethel Merman and William Daniels never thought of. But, even if we’re working on original material, we’re either working within the frameworks that our predecessors have established or from the people and things we’re observed in our lives, and it’s that unique synthesis that brings new life to even the most tired and familiar material.