Friday, November 22, 2013

Behind the Scenes At Spider-Man on Broadway

If you’ve worked in theater, you have a horror story to share. Personally I’ve worked in a production of Fiddler on the Roof where the house/roof holding the fiddler tumbled over in the middle of the show and the daughters had to sweep it up while singing Matchmaker, Matchmaker. I’ve directed a production of Kiss of the Spider Woman where the theater had no heat and it was dead of winter as my South American prisoners froze to death on stage. And sometimes you have actors that completely question your sanity, vision, and if you know anything when you are directing them in a scene giving you the infamous line ‘what’s my motivation?’ But while I was doing all my shows, I did not have the glare of a national spotlight, millions of dollars piling up in costs, and 6 grueling years to attempt to bring a show to fruition.  

That’s exactly what happened with Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway that has just announced after a two year run, they will be closing January 4th. Co-Book writer Glen Berger has written a very lengthy and detailed account of those six years in his book Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History. And what a controversy it was. From creative team members coming and going; stars being cast and then suddenly gone, debt piling up as the costs grew; no one certain what show they were writing and who was the star (Spider-man or Arachne), numerous injuries due to the technical aspects of the show, and how this particular man left his family upstate to spend all of his time in the city working on this show – it’s all there in his almost 400 page book. He says the original draft was over 1200 pages and thankfully an editor took a pen to it (though it still could use another pass). But if you can skim past the parts where he belabors a certain moment, it is truly a fascinating read.

Berger, Taymor, Edge, Bono during rehearsal
Using references from all sorts of stage shows as well as Greek mythology and Spider-man himself, Berger paints a picture of Julie Taymor and U2’s Bono and The Edge as the most dysfunctional family attempting to create the most amazing piece of work. Never intended to be a Broadway musical, Taymor is reported to have hated the fact the show ever went into a Broadway house. They were creating something different and unique. I will admit that when I saw version 1.0, I said it would have worked better in another venue where it wasn’t held up to certain theater standards. But I was only one blogger of many that shared their views on the never ending saga of the show that would not open. And according to this book, Berger was out there reading every single blog being written.

I read the book in just a few nights and while reliving it with him, I had to occasionally go and watch you tube clips. To see the final opening night when Taymor showed up even though there was a lawsuit going on. To watch firsthand what Berger is recounting. I went back and read my second blog when I returned to see 2.0 now knowing the drama involved where Berger never knew if he was going to be let go along with so many others from version one. It really is a fascinating read for anyone that has ever worked in the theater, created a musical, or worked in any type of collaboration. Much can be taken away from this book. I question if people will ever trust him again to bring him on board a new show. Especially if it were one to be scrutinized the way Spider-man was. But I'm sure Berger thought long and hard about that before going to Simon and Schuster with his vivid account of those long six years. 

But more importantly (and this was the part that stunned me) – Berger made me feel for these people…these characters. It’s a shame the show on stage had such a problem reaching that level of emotion when the script writer was obviously capable of making his audiences feel. Perhaps collaboration should be just that: people listening to each other, especially those hired to do a certain job.

Friday, November 15, 2013

A Home Far From Fun

Have you ever attended a performance of a show that everyone has raved about and you can’t quite put your finger on what doesn’t feel right for you?

Let me start by stating all that I loved about FUN HOME running at the Public Theater in NYC.

I love musicals with heavy subject matters and this fits the bill. Based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, the story is that of a girl raised in a funeral home, growing up as a lesbian and discovers her own father is gay. While in college, her dad committed suicide and at 43 years old, she looks back on her life to attempt to make sense of it all.

Being a memory play, the staging and sets are brilliant. There is a vast open space that revolves and turns and furniture is moved around – all as if moving around inside of Alison’s mind. Jumbled the way we often do our memories. As my friend pointed out, a ‘fun house’ is all about smoke and mirrors and that’s exactly what this feels like. On the surface, the family seems normal, but peel back the layers – look into the fun-house mirror and you’ll see things are not as they appear.

I absolutely love Jennie Tesori’s music (Violet, Carolyn or Change) and the score for this show is pulsating and alive. Playwright/Lyricist is Tony-nominated Lisa Kron (an open lesbian herself) and she aptly captures the young Alison’s internal discovery of changes going on in her mind. Young Alison singing of an older woman’s outfit (including her ring of keys), college Alison singing of changing her major to Joan – all beautifully and smartly done.

The performances are top notch. Three actresses play Alison at different times of her life – all wonderfully. There is young Alison played by Sydney Lucas with so much spunk as she plays with her brothers in the ‘fun home’ – which they’ve dubbed the funeral home in which they live. Her interactions with her father are those that time can change when recalling or maybe they were the truth. This play is all about things not being what they seem. Alexandra Socha plays the college-aged Alison and I found her acting and singing to be so vibrant and engaging as she awkwardly attempts to traverse the halls of Oberlin College, she had me all the way at the back of the house. Beth Malone plays older Alison – always on stage – always remembering every moment as some type of Rachel Madow reporter – commenting on what we are seeing. She has an incredible voice and I loved the song she sang in the car with her father. She goes in and out of the present and past seamless – all aided in the wonderful direction by Sam Gold.

Her father is such a well layered written role. I love everything I’ve ever seen Michael Cerveris do and this is not an exception. Playing a dad who wants things done a certain way (even how the family cleans the house). A closeted man attempting normalcy in the 70s when it was harder to come out of the closet. A man not quite right, something feeling ‘off’ about him and not just his struggle with his sexuality. It has been a long time since I’ve seen a show and thought ‘man, I want to play that role!’

Judy Kuhn plays the mother and while she is a gifted actress, the role is smaller as the story focuses on that of Allison trying to understand her father, but we get a sense of this woman who sacrificed a great deal. Four others round out the cast as siblings, the college girlfriend, and a man that plays the different guys that come in and out of the dad’s life.

With all of that said and the rave reviews the show is getting, I should have leapt to my feet at curtain call. And yet, I felt empty at the show’s end. Perhaps that was what I was meant to feel. In life, things are not always resolved, and in this family drama full of angst and heartache, resolve isn’t always found. And yet – I’m more drawn to the father/son dramaplaying uptown that is closing at the end of December to not as favorable reviews.

Maybe I went in with such high expectations because of the raves and was let down. I wish I could articulate how I feel about this piece. I felt sadness for Alison. It seems as if she has spent her entire adult life attempting to come to terms with something she’d never be able to fix. And in a 100 minute musical with no intermission, perhaps that hole I felt was exactly what this creative team had in mind.  

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Marriage is More Than a Word

13 years together.
5 years in a civil union.
1 day of marriage.

I actually never believed I would see this day. After all, I've known I was gay since I was in the 7th grade. Being a gay teen in Texas, marriage was for my straight friends who would marry their high school sweethearts. This gay man would have to be content sitting in the pews as a witness to others, serving in wedding parties or singing at ceremonies. Skip forward several years when I was in my early 30s, (after I had already had a few relationships in my 20s) and I met a man that changed how I viewed - well, everything. We took it slowly. Even the part of living together. And then when New Jersey allowed for civil unions, we decided to have one on 08/08/08. The closest thing we'd ever have to a marriage - but it worked for us. After all, we felt married at that point even if the rest of the world didn't view it in the same manner. 

We witnessed gay friends marrying in states that allowed it and even though New York was just over a bridge, we decided not to marry in another state until it was available where we lived. And God knows New Jersey kept trying, but governor vetoes would knock it down. We had certain rights with our civil union, but there was still this sense we were not equal. We'd still have to write single on forms and as I've mentioned in other blogs - come out over and over. 

And then all of a sudden a judge declares same-sex couples can marry in our state and the governor says he's no longer going to fight it and I was completely overwhelmed while reading the news. Sitting on a beautiful hill in Puerto Vallarta, reading the new on my phone that it was actually legal now in my own state - I couldn't hold back the tears. Tears because it never occurred to me I would be able to share in what so many others have. And so...there was no proposal. There was no getting down on one knee. After all we've been together for 13 years. We simply looked at each other and decided we wanted to make it legal. No big ceremony. Just paperwork. 11/12/13. At least  it would be a date we'd recall just as we had picked 08/08/08 previously.

We returned from our trip to Mexico and walked up to the immigration/customs counter together in New Jersey - holding our separate declaration forms. The gentleman asked if we were married and again, I had to say "No...but we will be in two weeks." He noticed we had the same address, ripped up one declaration form and said "it's legal in this state, you only need one form." That small gesture felt so huge to me - I can't even describe it. A complete stranger recognized us as a couple and it meant more than I can even say.

For me, that's what marriage is. We are recognized. We are no longer invisible. I do not need to stumble over words describing my partner. He is my husband. He is my best friend. He is the person that makes me happiest in the whole world and like all of my straight friends and family members, I can have the same rights in my relationship that they have. And I didn't need someone else to vote to allow me to marry. But boy, it sure feels sweet that after so much time together, I feel whole with him.

Nothing changes and everything changes.

A new life begins for us...or should I say, the old life just got a little more clear.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Sunny Road Trip Musical

It seems that most of the stage shows I discuss on my blog recently started their life as a film, but that's a trend I don't see changing any time soon. In the case of the well-loved film "Little Miss Sunshine" - one would assume a movie about a road trip would make for a difficult musical. James Lapine and William Finn (with huge credits to both of their names) have attacked that task and given us a fun-filled evening at Second Stage Theatre (in a limited run production that has already been extended). The show had an out-of-town tryout and then if rumors are correct, was almost completely rewritten before finding its way to New York.

I'm a huge fan of William Finn. I've actually performed in several of his musicals including Falsettos, A New Brain, 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee...his is a musical voice that is incredible to my ears. I do know everyone does not completely agree with my assessment of his work. Many feel Finn writes more sung dialogue than songs and at times - that is true. While I hear pieces of earlier works of his in this, I wanted more to turn into full songs so the characters could soar. That said, I still enjoyed what he has done and I'm sure if I saw it again, I'd find myself singing the "Something Better" theme. James Lapine has done a nice job of opening the movie up with his book and direction. Throwing out the idea of having a mini-bus on the stage for this cross-country trek, he instead uses chairs with wonderful chair-ography throughout the show. We also never feel the cast is 'stuck on the bus' in the way he has staged it.

I'm a fan of the small, ensemble musicals and this one falls right in line with the 6 family members on the road and another seven people to fill out other roles. Hannah Nordberg is wonderful as Olive, the little girl that wants to compete so badly in the little miss sunshine beauty contest that this dysfunctional family decides to drive from New Mexico to California. Hannah has great timing on stage and such an adorable quality that I found myself watching her when she wasn't even speaking - yet she was always acting. I'm sure NY will see this California girl again after this show. Her parents (played by the incredibly gifted Stephanie J. Block and the usually charming Will Swenson) are at odds with each other throughout the show, but we get a flashback not written in the movie to give these actors and the audience a connection. I say usually charming Will Swenson because the character of Richard isn't so charming, so putting Mr. Swenson in this role felt like a stretch. Yet sitting directly in front of him in the front row, I watched as he had such nuances in his face when not speaking that he felt every moment happening around him with his family and wore the pain and responsibility in a profound way. When Ms. Block gets a chance to truly I love her voice. 

The actor I was most impressed with was Rory O'Malley playing the role of uncle Frank. I had only seen him in The Book of Mormon and never knew the depth he had an an actor. What a great performance he gives as the gay uncle that has to live with the family because of his attempted suicide. He also has some wonderful vocal moments (I say moments as there was no song list in the playbill for the preview that I saw). The grandfather that has no problem speaking his mind and teaches Olive dance routines is played by David Rasche (though I wish his character's big song had more than one joke in it) and the brother that has taken a vow to stop speaking is served well by Logan Rowland. 

I must also give a shout out to two actors I love to tweet with that play several small roles and bring humor to every moment they are on stage. Wesley Taylor (yes, I love his web series and have written about it on Huffington Post) and Josh Lamon are both hysterical. And Jennifer Sanchez rounds out this great ensemble with four younger pageant girls.

The musical officially opens this week and I'll be watching to see what critics say about this new musical. I'm not certain where the creators plan to go with it. Off-Broadway is certainly the place for it as I don't see it being a Broadway show, but I can certainly see regional theaters grabbing it up as soon as rights become available. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Betrayal and A Court Room Drama

I remember having to read Pinter in theater classes and if truth be told, not enjoying the read. However seeing the revival of Betrayal on Broadway gave me a different appreciation for his work. That's right: I'm not going to say the same things that every review has said. The financially successful production hasn't been as well-received from critics as it is from theater-goers willing to pay big bucks to see Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and Rafe Spall. With Mike Nichols at the helm, this production handles the triangle relationship of a married couple and his best friend in a much different way - adding subtext not found in the play and basically changing the tone of what people believe to be Pinter. 

I've read that Pinter based this play on an affair he had, but that he was unaware the woman's husband knew of the affair. Told in a backwards tale, Betrayal starts in 1977 when Emma (Weisz) tells Jerry (Spall) she and her husband are divorcing and goes back to 1968 when the affair between the two first began. I found the chemistry between the two actors very believable. And I was taken in by the stuttering, disjointed performance of Spall and the sheer beauty of Weisz. Daniel Craig has the smallest of the roles, but his presence is very well felt as everything he does booms up to the mezzanine. The sets were beautiful to watch constantly change and the mood music was haunting. I can see where reviewers felt a letdown (if they have seen other productions of the show) because you never believed for a moment they were pulling a fast one in their deception. No one was truly betrayed because the actors wore it all on their faces - constantly. Plus there were moments where the audience laughed, making me feel as if I was watching a British comedy and I knew that wasn't what they were trying to convey on the stage at the Barrymore Theatre. 

It did spark conversations afterwards though with my fellow theater-goers about affairs, permission granted by spouses and why people would stay in a marriage for so long while continuing something on the outside - especially with someone so close to the couple. All questions that are best left for therapy and now I think I'll need to go back and watch the 1983 film adaptation of this play. 

Two nights later, I attended A Time to Kill - the adapted stage work by Rupert Holmes of the John Grisham novel. The day before I went, it was announced the show will close on November 17 and I must admit I am disappointed that is happening. I was thoroughly enthralled by the courtroom drama - even though I had already seen the 1996 movie based on the same novel. A moving set keeps locales changing and the use of projections are used to fill that 'dead air time' continuously keeping audiences engaged in the action. A story of a small southern town, reactions to a rape, a murder, and how racism plays so heavily in decisions people make are still ringing true in 2013 as much as they were when the novel was written in 1989. It was obvious the audience when I attended was deeply engrossed in the story, even speaking back to the stage at times.

We (the audience) were the jury - and so close to the great performances being displayed by TV favorites such as Tom Skerritt, Fred Dalton Thompson, and Ashley Williams along side some of Broadway's best with Sebastian Arcelus, Patrick Page, John Douglas Thompson, and Tonya Pinkins. All of the performances were wonderful, but it is Patrick Page that stood out mostly for me. Playing the prosecutor, Page creates an evil foe to Arcelus's young DA Jack Brigance without ever going overboard into stereotype. I was completely pulled in by his slimy ways complete with constant lint picking from his suit, fixing his pocket handkerchief and ability to get red-faced in an instant as well as that amazing bass voice. 

It is hard to condense this huge novel down and still keep characterization intact. When the play is concentrating on the trial, it is at it's best. I applaud director Ethan McSweeny and the creative team for taking a chance on an adaptation that would be so closely compared to the film. And for those that were able to catch the play in its short life on Broadway, we were offered a great night of drama.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Thoughts on Aging

When I was a kid, I remember my grandfather showing me a hand full of pills he would take each morning. Recently, I got into a talk with some friends and we were comparing blood pressure, cholesterol and various other medicines we take.

We were officially old.

When it comes to health and the body...aging simply sucks.

About 15 years ago, I lost a great amount of weight and did it in a short amount of time. Now, my body laughs at me for attempting to lose a pound a week.

I got up off the sofa a few night's ago and my other half asked if I farted. Nope. It was my knees cracking.

And then there is family history. My father had his first heart attack at 49 and died ten years later from heart disease. Two weeks ago I had two different friends only a few years older than me have heart attacks. I'm a neurotic mess about my heart because of it. Actually ending up in the ER occasionally thinking I was having one (and yes, that just occurred again recently). Each EKG, stress test, etc says my heart is fine.

And yet, my body knows when something is wrong. Doctors may say everything is okay (and I'm thrilled to know it's not my heart), but something is definitely going on. Turns out while I was busy blaming my dad for his genes, I think it may be my mother's side of the family playing a part. Several of them have found themselves in the hospital (thinking they were having a heart attack) and instead told they have inflammation of the chest. Not to self diagnose, but some online research brings up words like costochondritis and Tietze's Syndrome and I am happy to find others with that issue and not believe I must be crazy due to the elephant sitting on my chest when doctors say I am fine.

The lesson: aging may suck, but listen to your body. It's been with you a long time and can speak to your health often times better than those living outside of it attempting to place a label on it.