This is a union musical, through and through. So it's strange to see Billy Elliot, which opened days after Obama's 2008 election, today.
Then, The Wall Street Journal, in a review headlined "Karl Marx in a Tutu," called it "sequin-spangled feel-good socialist kitsch."
The public didn't hear that sour note in the midst of their euphoria at Lee Hall's book and Elton John's score and all the Hope. The production took in $20 million in advance ticket sales, recouping the original $18.8 million investment handily.(1)
In the Wake opened last night on the eve of what has sometimes felt like one of the more neurotic Election Days in recent memory. But not the most neurotic: the play is set in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, and the party-line Democratic voter at the center of the play and its central character, Ellen, is having a harder time enduring the prolonged vote-counting than Al Gore.
The Scottsboro Boys is the new show from the legendary Broadway songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb, and their last show. The duo's 45-year run started with Flora, the Red Menace and included nearly 20 shows—from 70, Girls, 70 to Zorba, Woman of the Year to Steel Pier. And in between, a couple of odd numbers like Cabaret and Chicago.
Ebb, the lyricist, died in 2004 with the score for Scottsboro unfinished; it has taken Kander a few years to complete the show, with the help of writer David Thompson and director Susan Stroman.
If Kander had not finished the show, the last new work from the duo would have been the pleasant, but light, 2007 production Curtains. For a duo known to bring their mordant with and taste for exploring dark subjects, from Nazism to political torture (Kiss of the Spiderwoman) to the distinctly popular form of the Broadway musical, that would have been an unsatisfying exit.
When Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1988, it was considered a play with a lot on its mind. It explored the intersection of racism and anti-Semitism, telling how an elderly Jewish matron and her African American driver come to realize that they are hated by the same people.
Uhry made this bitter pill easier to swallow by wrapping it in a sweet story about how two people who initially seem to have little in common develop a close bond over the years. But what seemed sweet two decades ago has turned syrupy in the current Broadway revival starring Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones. Now it’s not the issues that are hard to take, but the sentimentality of Uhry’s story.(1)
Stephen Sondheim is a tough critic.
If you started his new book, Finishing the Hat, admiring Lorenz Hart’s witty lyrics for such shows as On Your Toes and Pal Joey, you’ll probably end up agreeing with Sondheim that his awkward phrasings qualify him as the “master of mis-stress.” You might also change your mind about Alan Jay Lerner’s polished work on My Fair Lady and decide, with Sondheim, that his narrow range makes him a “chameleon of one color.”
Whether in her brilliant Tony-nominated turn as the sickly mother in Lisa Kron’s Well, or her surprising stint playing a naïve young girl in the quirky off-Broadway musical Coraline, Jane Houdyshell brings a depth and vulnerability and sense of humor to her roles that makes her worth going to see in almost any context. She’s terrific again in Roundabout’s new production, The Language Archive. But unlike Well or Coraline, this time the play fails her.
Engaging an idiot in a battle of wits is risky business: The idiot gains credibility simply by sparring, and if he’s still standing at the end, he wins—in most humbling fashion.
La Bête, a period comedy about an acting troupe in 17th century France that’s currently being revived on Broadway, pits an effete intellectual against one of the stage’s most clownish buffoons in a battle that’s meant to embody the contest between crude populism and rigid elitism that continues to pervade everything from literature to politics. And, as in literature and politics, the contest isn’t as predictable as it seems.
A Life in the Theatre is Mamet searching for his voice, written after such promising early successes asAmerican Buffalo but before masterworks like Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow. The staccato rhythms that propel his best work are already evident, but here they are applied to dialogue that reveals nothing about the characters who deliver it, or lead the action anywhere in particular.
When the play As Is premiered in downtown Manhattan at the Circle Rep in March, 1985, it was the first major play produced about AIDS. Some 10,000 cases had been reported in this country, and 4,000 deaths.
But what’s more remarkable in retrospect is what hadn’t yet happened: The virus hadn’t been named HIV; it was still known as HTLV-III, and a newly licensed blood test hadn’t been widely distributed. President Reagan had never mentioned AIDS in public. Rock Hudson was still alive. ACT UP hadn’t been born. Total number of medications approved to battle the virus? Zero.
Time Stands Still returns to Broadway this week with everyone onboard except Silverstone, whose role is now played by Christina Ricci. Replacing one movie star with another might seem like an even trade, especially since neither has much stage experience. But Ricci proves to be a natural, and her strong presence brings this drama by Donald Margulies into sharper focus.
After playing “an old nun” five years ago in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (and winning the Tony for her efforts), Cherry Jones has said she couldn’t resist taking on the role of “an old whore” in the current revival George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession.
In one sense, the characters couldn’t be more different. Sister Aloysius is a mother superior with a strong sense of propriety and an unwavering belief that the world should live up to her moral code, while Kitty Warren is a madam who defies societal expectations and whose morals are a bit—fluid.
But Jones, at 53 one of Broadway’s most versatile actresses, reveals a surprising similarity between the two.
There’s the semi-secret romance between co-workers. There’s the guy who drinks, the woman who flirts, the person nobody likes but everyone pretends to tolerate. The basic boilerplate. But Michael Frayn adds something novel to Alphabetical Order, set in the research library at a small daily newspaper in England in the days before the Internet: a clash of philosophies.
I remembered Hall speaking of The Pitmen Painters as a bookend or pendant to Billy Elliot, but when I bumped into him outside of the Friedman Theatre before a preview last week, he blue-penciled my recollection. "I think I said a prequel," he said. A musical vs. a straight play. Fantasy vs. documentary. A celebration of individual talent that must break free vs. a lament for a collective that elected to stay true to its roots. In many ways, Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters are polar opposites. Yet the correspondences run deep. "If you’re Billy Elliot or me, you get out and comment on the life you come from from outside," Hall told me in April, "but they stayed miners, never broke rank, and commented on that same life from the inside."
Busch is the center of the show, with his snarling grin, wide-eyed glare, and wobbling incredulous voice that’s reminiscent of a less-butch Katharine Hepburn. He’s brilliant in his turn as Mother Superior, a woman so enamored of the moral rectitude of the “good old days” that she’s written a book called The Middle Ages: So Bad? (“Life is a banquet,” she says, “and most poor suckers haven’t even said Grace.”) He’s even better in a brief flashback as Mother Superior’s younger self, “Susan Appleyard, girl reporter.”
Are her stories true, exaggerated half-truths, or complete fabrications? Are they moral lessons, social commentary, or merely random ramblings? Should you try to figure out what her stories mean, or simply sit back and see where she leads you?
After all these years, most of these questions are still up for debate—except the last. With Anderson, you never end up where you thought you were heading, which is a good thing.
The vignettes that constitute Delusion, alternating with musical interludes and performed against a giant video backdrop, are a mixed lot.(1)