Eat, Drink and be MERRILY!

merrily we roll alongIt’s always nerve-wracking to see a production that’s highly acclaimed. “Of course,” you think on the way to your seat, “the show can’t be all that” if “all that” is “extraordinary!” “revelatory!” “thrilling!” or any of the other other adjectives critics love to toss around like their so many cheap breadcrumbs. Very few evenings of theater really are extraordinary, revelatory or thrilling; better to be pleasantly surprised by something than resignedly disappointed.

So it was with an anxious heart I attended a screening of Merrily We Roll Along, the Sondheim/Furth classic recently on the West End, but available to New Yorkers in a one-night-only, video broadcast. This was the production Messers Brantley and Sondheim had crowned perfect; this was the one christened with more stars than an astrology chart. No way it could measure up, I thought.

What bliss is it to be wrong. Merrily, directed by Maria Friedman, is everything you’ve been told and more. The story of a doomed friendship—famously executed in reverse—is magnificently rendered with all the heart and intelligence a musical can muster, and the big themes of dreams, loyalty and regret shine in brilliantly dramatic fashion. This is in large part thanks to the extraordinary performances of Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell and Damian Humbley (my use “extraordinary” here is earned! Believe me!) Despite creating wholly separate, perfectly constructed portraits of their characters, these actors operate in the single, created universe of their friendship, a universe that’s entertaining and heartbreaking to peek into. Umbers strike an ideal balance between swagger and insecurity; Humbley turns the slow burn into something heartbreaking; Jenna Russell is (as in Sunday in the Park With George) incapable of doing anything dishonest. And how classy is it that they take their final bows together? That’s an “old friends” move, there.

Everything else is equally right. A story that shouldn’t add up—and, if you’re a believer of conventional wisdom, never has—comes together perfectly here in this focused production. It somehow manages to have it both ways, being equal parts hopeful and despairing… try and figure that balancing act out if you can, because I can’t!

It’s absolutely criminal this production hasn’t made its way to New York. Perhaps the Gulf Stream can take a cue from Merrily and blow in reverse, with this production safely carried on its back to our shores.

photo by Alastair Muir

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That Time Julie Andrews Spoke at My Brother’s Graduation

Julie Andrews Colorado College Boulder Graduation

Every year or six it’s important to leave New York—one can only stand so much of $7 cereal and the G train, after all. Last week I took one such sojourn to my brother’s college graduation in Boulder, Colorado. Here, I thought, was my chance to leave behind Mr. Man Hattan. To clear the head. To consider—very briefly—matters beyond the footlights. Sure, Sondheim’s “Our Time” might flit through my mind at The Big Event, but that moment would pass, and I would soon be thinking on, well, whatever it is non-theater people think on.

And then I learned that the graduation speaker was to be Julie Andrews.

Not kidding.

At first I thought I was being had. “Right,” I said to myself. “Julie Andrews? Who’s her date, Richard Burton? Rex Harrison?”

But the joke was on me: Apparently Dame Julie had some connection to the University, and, in a remarkable coup, had been roped into delivering the annual basket of “go get ‘em” pleasantries.

(The theater will find you, people, even if you fly four hours to the foothills of the Flatiron Range. It will find you.)

Graduation morning dawned blue and overture-worthy. Walking towards the ceremony, to be held in the football stadium, I glanced up at the mountains that cradled the city and I wondered—was Julie up there, crooning “The Hills Are Alive”? Or, I considered, passing the marijuana shops, was she there, selling loverly “flowers”? In other words, was it a Sound of Music day or a My Fair Lady day? A Victor/Victoria morning or a Boy Friend one? Which Julie were we going to get?

Silly me. An hour later, as Julie ascended to her throne/podium, the answer became clear: Today was a Camelot day, and Julie, oh Julie, was our beloved Guinevere. How could it be otherwise? It was, you see, a cheery morn in this Lusty Month of May.

“I LOVE YOU JULIE,” someone screamed from the crowd as we rose to our feet. We love you, too, our hoots concurred. We love you too!

Who knew the Colorado set was so discerning?

“Thank you,” she said, quieting the crowd, “thank you.” Then—

It’s all a Julie blur. Sorry.

There was something about overcoming adversity (egregiously overlooked! the botched operation!) and the importance of the arts, as well as brilliant lines about “my signature turn” and how “the hills truly are alive with the class of 2013,” but I was too taken with her regal poise and the mere Fact of Julie Andrews to remember much more.

Because here’s the thing about Ms. Andrews: Girl knows how to work a crowd. Seriously. Though you’ll never meet a more gentlewomanly creature on God’s green earth, Julie owned us with the strength of an iron fist—a fist draped in dainty blue satin sashes, but a fist, nonetheless. Never once was our applause allowed to get in the way of her message, never once were we anywhere but the uber-competent palm of her hand.

Such control is a miracle to behold, and renders message almost irrelevant. The way she said what she said was the meaning of what she said. Not to get all modernistic… but it really was.

So thanks, Julie. Thanks for spoiling my theater hiatus. I’m not going to spout that line about the world, and how it’s a stage—not gonna do it—but such, it seems, is the truth. You can’t, it seems, escape the theater.

And if Julie Andrews is involved, it turns out, you won’t want to.

CONTEST! Watch British Theater at Home!

Screen Shot 2013-03-14 at 4.25.42 PMDoes a poster of Judi Dench hang above your bed? Does the “re” spelling of “theatre” send you into a tizzy? Do the words “Royal Court,” “National,” and “Donmar” cause you to break out in Union Jack-shaped hives? Sounds as if you (like me) have a severe case of theatrical Anglophilia. Egads!

But aid is on the way! Like NT Live, the National Theatre’s show-beaming service, the website Digital Theatre has found a way for we far-flung Enland-lovers to get our fix.

Unlike NT Live plays, which are broadcast in movie theaters around the world, Digitial Theatre’s catalog can be seen at home (translation: in bed). You rent or purchase a title, warm up some PG Tips, press play, and by George! There’s David Tennant spouting Shakespeare!

Digital Theatre’s titles come from some of a diverse set of UK theaters such as the Almeida, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakepeare’s Globe, and The Royal Court. I recently caught two of theses productions, Jez Butterworth‘s predecessor to Jerusalem, called Parlour Songand Frantic Assembly’s dance-theater play, Lovesong. Watching these British productions on a laptop in New York was very cool, and although they demanded a level of concentration not typically associated with the computer (thanks very much, Facebook), the payoff is substantial. Sure, the experience isn’t the same as watching a live show, but the camerawork is elegant and the price tag is bearable.

WHICH BRINGS US TO THE CONTEST…

Digital Theatre is offering theater-words readers the chance to win a code to see one of their shows… FOR FREE. Enter to win by emailing THEATERWORDS@GMAIL.COM a blank message with ENTRY in the subject line. You’ll be contacted a week from today if you’re a winner.

In the meantime, check out what they’ve got HERE.

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Richard III and Dem Bones

Britain Richard IIINow is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this hump of torque: Scholars at the University of Leicester have confirmed the above skeleton as that of Shakespeare’s most twisted, twisting villain, Richard III. (Check out the deformed spine! Kevin Spacey and the rest got it right!)

The body’s been missing since its hasty burial, but has finally been located, 500 years after the fact, under a parking lot.

I don’t know about you, but I’m already planning a trip to the grave, where I’ll kneel and whisper sweet nothings like, “Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity,” and “Foul devil, for God’s sake hence and trouble us not!”

P1-BJ998_Richar_G_20130118173846

photos courtesy of the University of Leicester

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Charles Edwards and Eve Best in rehearsal for “Much Ado About Nothing”

Shakespeare is taking to the airwaves…

Not to be outdone by the National’s NTLive, the Globe Theatre in London is inaugurating its own theatrical broadcast season this fall. It’s called “Globe on Screen,” and will feature All’s Well That Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing, and Doctor Faustus, beamed to movie theaters around the world.

NT Live has shown wonderful (if unavoidably watered down) productions, so here’s hoping Globe on Screen follows suit. As for me, I’ll be at Much Ado for Eve Best’s take on Beatrice. (Can I get an “Amen,” “Nurse Jackie” fans?)

It’s interesting how little hang up the Brits have about this theatrical broadcast thing. The National and the Globe aside, they’ve also got DigitalTheatre.com, a kind of iTunes for filmed versions of plays. Producers from the Royal Court to Sonia Friedman have shows available for rent or purchase, and while the venue (your computer screen!) isn’t ideal, it’s better than nothing.

PBS’s “Great Performances” excepted, American theater is much more strictly limited to its in-the-flesh audience. What’s behind the holdup—union craziness? inadequate funding? lack of demand? What do you think?

In the meantime, check out Globe on Screen trailer, below:

Photo by Marc Brenner

Rising to New Hyt[ner]s

Anglophiles rejoice: British theater’s resident badass, The National’s Nicholas Hytner, gets the John Lahr treatment in this week’s New Yorker. The piece—unsurprisingly fun and dishy—is a thrill, but it also confirms the worst second-fiddle insecurities of stage-loving Americans, i.e., that the Brits really do have this whole “theatre” thing figured out. (C’mon—any country that manufactures an institution as endlessly brilliant as The National, not to mention the rest of the London scene, is pretty much unimpeachable.)

Read the full piece to get your theatrical salivary glands going, but here are a few takeaway quotes I took a shine to, as Sir Hytner would say.

Hytner is all about scale. Lahr writes, “To this day, Hytner does not like to stage plays about family situations, he has never directed Pinter or Chekhov and has mostly stayed away from twentieth-century realism. ‘I don’t respond to, and certainly would not like to direct, plays which involve an interior journey only,’ he told me.”

Theater is an alternative to the real family drama Hytner faced as a child: ” ‘What I do now, in part,’ he told me, ‘is to help create (if only temporarily) stable families, which can play happily with the most outlandish forms of emotional anarchy, all the too-hot-to-handle stuff. In the rehearsal room and in the theatre, there is nothing but relish for every kind of craziness, every grief, every danger, every cruelty, every joy. ‘ “

Queen Elizabeth is a War Horse fanatic: After meeting “Joey,” the puppet-star of the show, at a Royal Horse Artillery event, QE2 requested his “company for a private screening of Steven Spielberg’s film version of War Horse at Windsor Palace … The invitation was later rescinded when the event was changed, but the offer itself was news, a victory for the power of the dramatic imagination.”

photo credit: The Guardian

Books + Theater = Heaven

A bookstore in an old theater? It doesn’t get much better than that. Behold, Librería El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Thanks to The Little Design Stall for digging up these gorgeous images.)

 

The Best of 2011!

Lay on the eggnog! Toss the confetti! It’s time for the 2011 superlatives! Huzzah! This year’s winners of the internationally renowned theater-words awards are listed below, roughly in the order they opened.

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BEST CASE FOR THE SURVIVAL OF THE WELL-MADE PLAY:

Good People, MTC/Broadway

Here’s how it goes: There’s an interesting lead character who wants something that she has to fight hard to get. A shocking setup, I know, but we Aristotelians in the audience at David Lindsay-Abaire’s latest were giddy at the elegance and payoff of this perfectly crafted and relevant class drama.

BEST REMINDER THAT TONY KUSHNER ROCKS AND TOTALLY DOESN’T CARE ABOUT NON-COMMERCIAL TITLES:

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, the Public Theater

Mr. Angels in America’s four-hour behemoth stood proudly on its own, complicated terms: Spectacularly performed and directed, it simultaneously made you uncomfortable and blissed out—not exactly an easy combination.

[Read more...]

Posts for American Theatre Mag’s “The Circle”

Yes, theater-words has been depressingly barren for the past two months, but this dearth is not without good reason: I’ve been cutting my teeth in loads of fun, smaller pieces over at the wonderful American Theatre Magazine. Grab the print edition for those stories (it’s found “in fine bookstores everywhere”), or check out these links to pieces I’ve wrote for the Magazine’s blog, TCG Circle:


The Canadian Club
– dance-theatre is gettin’ out of town!

Somewhere That’s Green – art meets sustainability meets programming

A Real Turkey – Arena Stage invites the military to Thanksgiving

Why is the Sequel Never the Equal? – of plays and sequels

Eyring the Dirty Laundry

Richard Eyre’s diaries, titled “National Service,” are a brisk, entertaining ride through the Royal National Theatre. As its Artistic Director from 1987 to 1997, Eyre oversaw his share of hits and misses, and these journals offer up articulate, beautiful, behind-the-scenes dish of that storied public performance forum. (I’ve always called it Disneyland for theater lovers, those Denys Lasdun staircases guiding you from patio to bookshop to cafe to theater to terrace and back around again.)

Eyre is descriptive, emotional, gossipy, and concise. As such “National Service” makes for splendid subway reading: Pick up and leave off at will, and never worry about getting bored, as a new topic is a mere entry away.

Much of the book’s pleasure comes from the way theater superstars wander in and out of the pages. One night it’s dinner with Judi [DENCH!], then a show with Tom [STOPPARD!], and finally drunken pub songs with Fiona [SHAW!]

[Read more...]

Carey Mulligan Back Onstage

photo by Simon Annand, from "The Half"

Brits call it “the half”: that 30-minute stretch before curtain when actors prep for a show. This ritual is the subject of Simon Annand’s photography anthology (“The Half”) documenting the makeup, cigarettes, and shabby glamor of British backstage life.

Annand’s book is a kind of theater-snob’s US Weekly, an artfully shot black and white collection of vulnerable, beautiful stage celebrities. Flitting through the pages is like binging on fine, dark chocolate: it’s glorious.

In the above photo Carey Mulligan preps for a 2007 performance “The Seagull” at the Royal Court. (The photo’s wonderful schism between décor and costume is typical of “The Half.”)

[Read more...]

Poster Implants

London may be theatrical mecca, but British ad firms have a decidedly trashy bent when it comes to marketing shows: shiny, bubbled, or bedazzled lettering. 2D, classy type just doesn’t cut it. If you want to be a populist, West-End hit, you need implants. Examine the evidence.

Here in America, “Rock of Ages” is simple and shiny:

… but in London, it’s gotten the Agelina Jolie treatment:

Keep Reading…

Report from the Capital

Hear ye, hear ye! I come with word from the mainland!

London, that is. New York might flatter itself the center of the universe, but it’s the British First City that can lay true claim to that most exclusive of titles: Play Capitol.

A certain kind of play, that is – one that’s smart, sharp, political, thorough, current, historical (or at least aspires to be), and comes served in plummy, accented tones which cover all manner of sins.

The most exciting, anglophilia-inducing entrée of my recent trip to England was “London Road,” a new, verbatim musical playing the National’s Cottesloe Theatre. Its subject – the murder of five prostitutes – is conventional enough stuff (!), but it’s the telling of this tale that elicits those wonderful shivers signifying the arrival of the New.

Keep Reading…

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