Faves of 2014

The Few Samuel Hunter

Before the deluge of 2015 begins, let’s look at the year just past and note some favorites! I make no claim to “best” (what do you this this is? Buzzfeed?!) but these seven shows spoke and sang to me in ways original, moving, raucous, or surprising.

As for what’s “trending” here, institutional off-Broadway looms large. Though most of these shows didn’t pull in Broadway-sized audiences or paydays, they were no less towering that their Main Stem cousins.

Without further ado, the Faves are…

THE FEW, at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
Sam Hunter’s intensely moving new play proved that love grows best in little playhouses. The story of three sad sacks and the newspaper that brings them together, this oh-so-small production felt like an oh-so-needed sigh: refreshing, humane, and a little teary.

A DOLL’S HOUSE, at BAM via The Young Vic
A perfect classic presented with all the energy and surprise of a new play. Expert underscoring hit home Ibsen’s chilling, inspiring tale—as did the frantically careening turntable set.

AN OCTOROON, at Soho Rep
You know how so many plays are “funny”? (Read: Not funny.) Well, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s latest work about racial history in America actually was funny, not to mention disturbing, affecting, and just the right amount of insane. Lucky us, this whirlwind of a play is coming back to NYC in the spring.

BOOTYCANDY, at Playwrights Horizons
I mean, really—how could you not enjoy a play called BOOTYCANDY? Like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, playwright Robert O’Hara here tackles issues of race and America, but to entirely different and original effect. This work was jaw dropping in the true sense: It amazed, but also shocked.

 ALLEGRO, at Classic Stage Company
Director John Doyle had his masterful way with this famous flop by Rogers and Hammerstein. Staging, music and performances coalesced into an evening that stayed with me long after curtain call.

ON THE TOWN, on Broadway
This explosively energetic revival reminds you just how effective dance can be in a Broadway musical. The glorious score—played by a city of an orchestra—was none too shabby, either.

Who could possible argue with the pure, escapist charm of this perfect comedy? Annaleigh Ashford in particular nails the kooky glee of Kaufman and Hart’s hilarity.


But what do you think? Anything been egregiously overlooked? Comment below—the Internet needs to know!

Photo of THE FEW by Joan Marcus.

I Don’t Know About You, But I’m Feeling 42: The Times Square Theater

DSC03648I recently got a super cool peek inside the Times Square Theater, the last of eight houses on 42nd Street to see rehabilitation since city/state seizure (and Disney) happened in the 1990s. Theater architecture geeks will recall that the seven other spaces on the Deuce have met a variety of ends, some as Broadway theaters, some as converted commercial spaces, but that all of them remain preserved in some essential way – PRAISE BE!


The Times Square is poised for something between legitimacy and conversion: Currently under construction, it’s set to house something called BROADWAY 4D. Described as “a 3D, film-enhanced show incorporating in-theater special effects,” it will showcase “songs from Broadway musicals by the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Weber” to be performed by “stars of Hollywood and the Great White Way.” (All this from the Post –– read more HERE.) As for that fourth dimension, there will also be “scents, climatic changes and extravagant sound.” Oh my!

Before major construction got underway, I snapped some pictures of the wonderful space. Scaffolding mars the view in a major way, but use your imagination so see beyond the metal rods to a house that vibrates with history, spirit, and capital-B BROADWAY!

Here’s a view of the theater from the south side of 42nd Street:

You’re probably under the mistaken impression that you saw Spider-Man at the Times Square –– the theater’s long, beautifully columned exterior sits adjacent to the small façade sported by the Foxwoods (recently home to Spidey and Co.). But the Foxwoods actually sits on 43rd Street; its 42nd Street entrance is really just a hallway that extends halfway up the block where theater proper lives. The Times Square fits cozily into the elbow created by this “neck” entrance. See my hideous, completely not-to-scale drawing if you’re confused.

But why stare at maps when there are real-life gems to see? LET’S GO!

First, check out the wonderful old stage space and the maw of the proscenium, home to the original productions of Noel Coward’s Private Lives and the Gershwins’ Strike Up the Band…

… but be careful not to fall into the trap space!

Back in the day, harried chorus girls scampered their way through this door up to their dressing rooms…

… and beautiful sets hung in this gaping fly space.

Here’s a view from the stage, out at the house. JAZZ HANDS!


A wider view from house right of the orchestra…

Anxious playwrights — now long gone — paced here, at the back of the house…

DSC03618 DSC03621
More delights await upstairs…

… in the mezz!

Lift a small window on the theater’s second level, and you get a closer look at the columns on the facade.

Back downstairs, through the rear-house exit…

…is the facade. That floorspace in the right of the shot is actually 42nd Street sidewalk.


And there you have it. She’s certainly in need of some serious work, but it’s exciting that the ongoing repairs are in service of making the space a theater and not, y’know, a Burger King. (No joke there: The chain was one of several… shall we say interesting tenants… that expressed interest in the Times Square –– read about that saga HERE.)

Fare you, well, Times Square Theater, and we’ll see you on the other side!


Onstage at the Times Square Theater

— Eat wings at the old LIBERTY THEATER — READ! READ! READ!

Best of 2013!


theater-words is a little late to the game here—hello, January 5—but no matter: Let’s do some “best of”-ing! In descending order, the shiniest theatrical jewels of the season were…

1. FUN HOME, Public Theater
Perfection. This Tesori/Kron/Gold masterpiece, an expert adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s glorious memoir, is the kind of musical I’d take to a desert island. Multiple viewings are a must to fully appreciate it. #broadwayismissingout #pulitzermaterial (MORE)

2. MATILDA, Broadway
It’s all been said. The best. (MORE)

3. THE APPLE PLAYS, Public Theater
Taking in these four plays over one cold weekend in December was one of the major highlights of my theatergoing life. Why can’t all shows be this sensitive, wrenching and incredibly acted? (MORE)

4. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, West End via Menier Chocolate Factory
Ok ok, I technically saw a video broadcast of this astonishing production, but who cares: The wonderful actors at the center of this Sondheim classic gave it the richest, most soulful core an audience could ask for. Many tears were shed. (MORE)

5. THE GLASS MENAGERIE, Broadway via American Repertory Theater
A classic play somehow became more itself thanks to an unconventional staging. Everyone involved needs to clear some room on their awards shelves… (MORE)

6. THE FLICK, Playwrights Horizons
The idiot audiences who stormed out of this epically intimate new play should stay out: Annie Baker’s melancholy, spare style is frikkin’ awesome.

7. BETRAYAL, Broadway
The vitriol aimed at this fantastically sexy production was entirely unwarranted. Great play, great actors, great gay subtext.

8. DOMESTICATED, Lincoln Center Theater
A fantastic, no holds barred night at the theater. Bruce Norris’s provocative message went down easy thanks to the sheer entertainment value of the proceedings.

9. HANDS ON A HARDBODY, Broadway via La Jolla Playhouse
The show with the porno title was actually a sweet, tear-jerker of a Broadway musical. Buy the CD—the score is wonderful. Oh, and can I lead up the Alison Case fan club? K thanks.

10. HERE LIES LOVE, Public Theater
David Byrne, Alex Timbers and Annie-B Parson had a kick-ass, disco love child in this killer, environmental show. A musical to convert those who say they hate musicals!

(N.B.: PIPPIN and VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE would’ve definitely made the cut—with Andria Martin and Kristin Nielsen how could they not?!—but I saw them out of town in 2012, and rules are rules!)


A great crop, no? Totally absent, however, are more formally experimental plays. The “riskier” shows I caught this year largely left me cold, and not just because more adventurous companies can’t pay heating bills. Here’s hoping next year’s list has a few cracked-out, crazy entries!


A Scott Rudin, Patrick Healy Kerfluffle

Whoa! Producer Scott Rudin has some fightin’ words for New York Times journalist Patrick Healy in today’s ABCs.

Scott Rudin Patrick Healy Testament of MaryPresumably the tiff has something to do with this interview Healy conducted with Testament of Mary playwright Colm Tobin. Perhaps Rudin chafted at Healy’s contention that The Book of Mormon, another Rudin show, was somehow financing MaryWhat do you think?


From the Chekhov Files

Neva Vanya and Sonia and Masha and SpikeIn a supremely strange synchronicity, two plays that riff on Chekhov opened this past week. One would be occasion enough, but two? Such, apparently, is the power of that old, Russian dramatist. He is a seagull, indeed!

The plays couldn’t be more different. Broadway’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by Christopher Durang, is a belly laugh a minute, while Guillermo Calderon’s Neva, at the Public, is more serious and political. Both, of course, bring up the classic, Chekhovian themes of disaffection, angst, and boredom, but their methods for doing so couldn’t be more different.

Set in the present day, Vanya… follows three middle-aged siblings, each unhappy in his/her own way. Named after Chekhov characters by their professor parents, the siblings (played brilliantly by David Hyde Pierce, Kristine Nielsen, and Sigourney Weaver) spin a hilarious roller coaster of a tale, one where coffee cups are smashed, house cleaners predict the apocalypse, and Snow White costumes are pulled from the closet. All the madcap hilarity kicks into something profound and moving by the end, but the journey there is a smile from ear to ear.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike Broadway Kristine Nielsen Shalita Grant

As for the other corner, you may laugh occasionally at Neva, but that’s not the focus of the evening. What is the focus is Olga Knipper, the widow of Mr. Chekhov. Appearing at a dimly-lit rehearsal room on the eve of the Russian Revolution, Olga spends the play talking with two other actors about her late husband, how he died, what it means to make art, and how she both needs and despises her public. Calderon’s theatrical dish is full of ingredients similar to Durang’s, but his proportions are wholly dissimilar.

Neva Public Theater

Were Messers Durang and Calderon in correspondence as they wrote their plays, making sure they focused on distinct turf? Assuredly not, but seen together, their productions show the singularity of an artistic voice: Two writers can start on similar turf, but they almost certainly will end up somewhere different.

PS– I wrote about Vanya… last fall when it played the McCarter Theater… Check out that post HERE.

First Blush at “Cinderella”

Laura Osnes Cinderella Broadway

For me, the coolest part of Broadway’s Cinderella is its unfamiliarity—after all, how often does one encounter a golden age score for the first time in a full-blown, Main Stem production?

My early memories of other Rogers and Hammerstein classics like The Sound of Music and South Pacific are shrouded by the mists of childhood; I can no more remember the first time I heard “Edelweiss” or “Cockeyed Optimist” than I can remember my first steps.

That kind of familiarity can be comforting, but it also robs you of the exciting moment of first blush, when your ears perk up and you think, “Wait a second—what was that?” (I’m reminded of the quote—was it Roger Ebert who said it?—that the greatest filmgoing experience would be to encounter one’s favorite movie for the first time.)

Cinderella, first produced for live TV in 1957, has never played Broadway. This debut, directed by Mark Brokaw with a new book by Douglas Carter Bean, spices up the well-known story a little bit, but mostly it’s a classic-feeling enterprise.

The centerpiece of that classicism is the R&H score, which, though not as thrilling as R&H’s more well-known works, still yields pleasures. And to hear it fully produced, fully sung, and fully orchestrated—on first listen—counts as a real blessing.

True R&H fanatics surely already know every song, but for the rest of us, Cinderella might as well be a time machine back to an earlier era.

Photo, above, by Carol Rosegg

Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein


Boston, Part I: ART’s Pippin
– A Clearer Day: 
Broadway’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

A Broadway Detour in “Far From the Tree”

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon

Andrew Solomon‘s brilliant, brick-heavy Far From the Tree is a book seemingly far removed from the world of theater. Subtitled “Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity,” it chronicles the pains and triumphs of people who create offspring profoundly different from themselves; Solomon’s categories of dissimilarity include deafness, criminality, transgenderism, and dwarfism, among others. His ultimate message in so much heartbreak is an uplifting one: most people, he says, can love any child, no matter how disabled; indeed, the pain in loving them is made all the greater for being so hard-won. “There is a psychic proximity in desolate times that happiness does not match,” Solomon writes, adding later, “The happy endings of tragedies have a dignity beyond the happy endings of comedies.” The book’s 700 pages demand a significant time investment, but I found it more than worth my while. It is the truest book I have read in quite some time.

But back to the stage—one of Solomon’s chapters is “Prodigies.” It intersects interestingly with the theater by profiling composer Scott Frankel, himself a former child prodigy. You probably know Frankel for his Grey Gardens score, but his work will be back on the boards this summer, when his Far From Heaven opens Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. Frankel’s story of growing up different is fascinating, and I’ve included a few excerpts below. Here’s what Solomon writes:

Scott’s first piano teacher knew that Scott had a remarkable talent; Scott knew, too. “There’s something palpable when your abilities fill you with a divine sense of fate,” he said. “It instantly separates, even alienates you from your schoolmates.” Playing for his parents, “I began to think they liked me for what I could do, perhaps to the exclusion of who I was. The pressure made music an unsafe area. My partner and I had people over for lunch recently, and one asked me to play and I said, ‘No,’ and I sounded really rude, and I felt that rage again. I can’t shake it”…

When he told his parents he was gay, they were livid. “I resented the parochial affection,” he said. “You get the whole package. You can’t pick the shiny bits from the other bits.” In his twenties, Scott became so angry at his parents that he stopped writing music. “Their interest made me want to eat the baby,” he said, “to deprive them of something to pimp and market for their own purposes. Of course, it had the side effect of shooting myself, career-wise and ethos-wise, in the foot. I was completely unmoored, and nothing made sense anymore. All I had was drugs, sex, and therapy.” Scott went ten years without touching a piano. “Yet music kept encroaching. I would be near a piano and feel emotions I couldn’t shut out.” Finally, Scott began composing the musicals that propelled him to Broadway…

Read the whole book for the full story—it’s fascinating, tear-jerking stuff… and it just might offer enough material to bide the time to Far From Heaven‘s May premiere!

photo of Scott Frankel (below) by Zack DeZon

Wendy Wasserstein and Susan Sontag, on the page and onstage
— Billy Elliot, Trojan Horse?


Ye Olde “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”

In honor of the new Scarlett Johansson/Benjamin Walker Cat on a Hot Tin Roof now on Broadway, here’s a blast from the Tennessee past: scans from the original, 1955 Cat Playbill.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill

Already nostalgic for the now-demolished Morosco Theatre, where this Cat prowled? Don’t be—the Marriott Hotel now in its stead is a far more important architectural, artistic, and cultural space than any classic, Broadway house. Definitely.

But enough of that. Turn a few pages and you stumble onto a hilarious diatribe about “real” stars and “parochial” stars—click the image for a better (but not great—sorry!) view. (Mr. Burr thinks that narrow-minded Broadway is rife with the latter kind.)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill

After that little treat comes a reminder of the usefulness of Google, the “What’s What” section.

Scan Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill

The title page is similar to today’s equivalent…

Scan 13033Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill0006

… but cast bios were, without question, more arful and well-crafted. Can we PLEASE lose the laundry-list style now in vogue and return to these entertaining write-ups?

Scan 130330007

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill

On the back cover, of course, is a cigarette ad. Wasn’t it nice back in the days when smoking was good for you?

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof original Playbill

Those were the days…

— The Ghost of Salesman — classic designs by Jo Mielziner
Arcadia and the Grid

Steam Heat: “Picnic”

The hottest line on Broadway is… drumroll please…

Picnic Maggie Grace Sebastian Stan Ellen Burstyn William Inge Sam Gold Roundabout Theatre Company

“We’re not goin’ on no goddam picnic.”


(I think Ellen Burstyn, left, agrees with me.)

photo by Joan Marcus.

I Smell a New Season…

There are few sights quite so tantalizing as that of a Broadway load-in…


Are you salivating yet?


— The 2012 Spring Season: Start Your Engines
— Something’s Coming


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