Billy Elliot, Trojan Horse?

When a favorite, long-running show is about to close up shop, any bona fide theatergoer grabs some lilies, heads to the sickbed and pays a final visit. Decked out it my most respectful digs, I recently made one such jaunt to “Billy Elliot,” which enters the mines for the last time on January 8. How has this British import held up since its grand entrance in 2008? Let’s put it this way: Days later I’m still wiping rivers of coal-tinged tears from my face.

There was a little ruckus when “Billy” posted its closing notice in October. Three years on Broadway is seriously respectable, but with its 10 Tonys, British cred and Elton John score, everyone expected it to pirouette for at least a few more seasons. (Understandably high running costs seem to have done the show in.)

But after my return visit to this emotional and incredibly directed show, I’m actually impressed that it’s stuck around as long as it has. Because for all the glitz and “Broadway” advertised in the show’s press material, “Billy” is still a pretty risky sell with thoroughly non-tourist content.

Here’s what I mean:

Firstly, the musical’s setting, a dying coal town in Northern England, makes for some pretty thick accents and wacky vocabulary. (A primer in the Playbill explains what’s meant by terms like “pasty” and “Geordie,” though no explanation for “poof” is provided—gay slurs, apparently, transcend culture.) Artistically, it makes for a fantastically specific story and group of characters, but this world couldn’t be farther removed from the whitewashed lands of “Bye Bye Birdie” and “The Music Man.” It’s undeniably “Other,” a presumed off-putter for out-of-towners who, we’re told, want something easy on the ears.

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At Liberty to Eat Wings

The Liberty Theater, pre (2009) and post (2011) -op

It was 2003 when British director Deborah Warner first heard of the plans to “renovate” the decaying Liberty Theater on 42nd Street. That gloriously decrepit space––which had played crepuscular host to Warner’s 1996 presentation of TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land”––was to be converted (…wait for it…) into a Cipriani restaurant. Oh joy! At the time, Warner told the Grey Lady, “This is a potential scandal. You [New Yorkers] are very bad. Your lack of preservation is outrageous. You will kick yourself in 10 years. We need these theaters for our souls.”

Well, it’s almost been a decade, so let the kicking begin. While the 2003 deal with Cipriani didn’t work out (thank God––it would’ve castrated the theater of its balconies), that most illustrious of restaurant chains, BBQ, has just opened its doors in this former Broadway house. I recently paid a visit to this newly-opened architectural “improvement” and snapped a few pictures. Compare the new, chipper decor with the eerie beauty I was lucky enough to see (and photograph) in 2009.


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Cruisin’ Town with Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim is on the media circuit, and those of us hoping for a Christmas delivery of “Look, I Made a Hat” have had to whet our appetites by following his tracks around NYC. That’s right—theater-words saw SS live and in person, twice in the past two weeks. Here’s word from the frontlines.

1.  The Colbert Report, 11/30
Although attending a TV taping is like boarding an airplane (Security! Waits! Delays!), it was worth it—briefly. In a very quick interview, SS played the straight man to Colbert’s dominant, ironic persona, and revealed that he was behind Colbert’s participation in the Philharmonic’s production of “Company.” (Before the taping, Colbert told the audience that his favorite Sondheim song is “Finishing the Hat.”)

2. Barnes & Noble, interview with Anna Quindlen, 12/7
Although there was no TV excitement, this conversation was far more satisfying and illuminating than Colbert’s. Sondheim and Quindlen are good friends—as evidenced by the number of times they collectively teared up—which made for a free-associative, infectious enthusiasm. SS gems poured and poured: He said that “movies and TV are set in aspic” compared to live theater, that a “standing ovation disturbs the exuberance” of a great performance, that “those of you who saw [the 2008 Broadway revival of “Sunday”] were lucky” because of its technological artistry. But most interesting was this: Were he stuck on an island with one of his shows performing every night, he’d want it to be “Forum.” (Because it’s funny!) And if a time machine could take him back to a single performance of his, he’d see the Roundabout revival of “Assassins,” excerpted below.

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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.



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.


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.

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No More Focaccia?

In Jordan Harrison’s “Maple and Vine,”

“Here are some things you’ve never heard of:
Baba Ganoush.
Whole grain bread.”

Contemporary New Yorkers Kathy and Ryu, who were “happy in a tranquilized sort of way,” have quit their Manhattan digs for a permanent slice of 1950s heaven. Their new home, the “Society of Dynamic Obsolescence” (SDO), is a willfully backwards re-enactment zone where it’s eternally 1955. Naturally, some sacrifices have had to be made.

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