Three from the “Applause Libretto Library Series”

While the American musical was at the peak of its popularity, the publishing industry took notice and would publish libretti, especially Random House. Released in hardcover editions, the books presented the entire text of the musical play (spoken and sung) with simplified stage directions to help maintain the narrative. I have a few of these – and in some cases (Candide, Follies), these editions are the only window original script.

It didn’t seem to matter whether the show was a mammoth or minor success, and in some cases even a failure. I have copies of Gypsy, New Girl in Town and The Apple Tree and whenever I can find these vintage copies I pick them up. When I was in college I got to read Anyone Can Whistle’s hot mess of a book thanks to the published copy sitting in the stacks of our library. Many of my first experiences with a stage musical’s text came from these editions. While I was introduced viscerally through film adaptations, I was curious enough to venture to my library to find the book form. The first libretti I read were The Music Man and The Sound of Music and as someone who was unaware of how a show was adapted (and in some cases bowdlerized and bastardized – I’m looking at you Freed Unit), I was surprised to see how different the shows were in their original stage incarnations. Having not seen some of the productions myself, these texts filled in the gaps between songs on many an original cast album.

As the musical fell out of vogue, it seems that the major publishers lost interest. Where Random House has lost interest (major publishers tend to take on smash musicals in lavish and expensive special coffee table editions), Applause Theatre and Cinema Books and Theatre Communications Group have taken up the effort. Between the two of them, many contemporary musicals have been published in text form. (Dramatist’s Play Service and Samuel French also publish libretti, but those are more detailed copies specifically designated for actors).

Recently Applause released three new editions. Classic Rodgers and Hammerstein shows Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music have rarely been out of print, but receive new trade paperback editions as part of the Applause Libretto Library Series. There are new introductions from R&H’s Ted Chapin, who comments that the text is taken verbatim from the original Random House editions. While Oklahoma! will continue to be performed as it was originally written, it is not the same for The Sound of Music, as all subsequent revivals have been influenced by the immensely popular film adaptation and incorporating those changes. Rereading The Sound of Music, there is one way in which the stage show intrigues me – there is no rivalry between Maria and Elsa. In the stage show, Elsa (not a baroness, but a shrewd, stylish CEO) has far more interesting dimensions and for one thing actually likes Maria. The break-up has more to do with the differences between her and the Captain over the impending Nazi takeover. Both editions contain photos from their various productions, revivals and film adaptations.

The third entry is the recent smash Avenue Q, the little off-Broadway musical that could (and did). The 2004 Best Musical winner was previously published as part of a lavish (by puppet standards) hardcover book, but this new edition is text only and a little easier on the budget.  The tongue is still planted firmly in cheek, even in book form: there’s a Puppet Police warning in lieu of the regular disclaimer about performance rights (which, incidentally, are available from MTI). Librettist Jeff Whitty has written an afterword in which he discusses the changes that have been made since the show’s original off-Broadway run, including those for the London run, the aftermath of Gary Coleman’s untimely death and the famous George Bush shout out in “For Now.” More enigmatically, Whitty mentions that he deleted one word from this published script, but won’t elaborate what it is. (Perhaps there are some Q aficionados out there who could figure out what it is?)

The Libretto series continues with two more contemporary entries: The Last Five Years and Memphis. I can tell you, it makes this musical theatre nerd a happy camper.

“Avenue Q” Blogger Night

There are few activities I enjoy more than catching up with my blogger friends (and meeting new bloggers) and thanks to the folks at Avenue Q we were invited for a special blogger night performance of the show on January 19. The group of us converged on New World Stages, where the little show that could recently played its 500th performance (off-Broadway; all totaled, it’s been open almost 8 years!). The musical surprised everyone in September 2009 when its producer Kevin McCollum announced it would move from Broadway to off-Broadway (where it first ran in 2003) and that’s proved to be a lucrative transfer and shows no signs of slowing down.

The cast is mostly comprised of veterans from the show’s Broadway and national tour companies. Anika Larsen, who was making a return to the show that very evening, is just delightful. She’s a phenomenal performer, but she is someone who is also clearly a teaching artist as evidenced by her clarity and intelligence in the post show q&a. Jonathan Root brings a compelling sincerity to Princeton/Rod that gave both puppets unexpected depth. Jed Resnick was on as Nicky/Trekkie Monster and gave a phenomenally funny performance, showing us that he should be more than the understudy.

The show works on a number of levels, but it is fascinating is how its simplistic portrayal of urban life is so reflective of what many in the audience are currently experiencing, or have experienced in his or her own lifetime. Using a platform similar to Sesame Street and the pastiche of its lesson songs as a starting point, it gives perspective on the various crises that infiltrate adulthood – dream job, money, relationships, etc. There seems to be a little bit of Princeton, Kate, Rod, Nicky et al in every one of us. Plus, I find the subversive puppetry in general to be hilarious. What was most interesting – I still the show quite funny, but on a repeat viewing (and knowing the book) it was the poignant moments that really stood out to me (esp. Larsen’s “Fine, Fine Line” and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College”).

After the show, the bloggers were invited to meet with the cast and ask questions and pose with various puppets. Larsen talked about the rigors of auditioning for the show, which includes a 2 day puppet intensive. The actors gave considerable insight into how much preparation and rehearsal goes into acting with a puppet – it impacts movement, staging and character – and they must be aware of how to present the puppets. I noticed cast member Ruthie Ann Miles who plays Mrs. T and one of the Bad Idea Bears, was manipulating the puppet as an extension of herself; even out of character the muscle memory remains.

The blog event was, in my estimation, a wonderful way for the show to present itself to those of us participating in social media (and I know other shows are following suit), though I have one suggestion for this and other shows looking to do the same: have a pre-show meet and greet so we can meet some of the other bloggers. It’s a thriving atmosphere and there were some people I know only through their tweets and blogs who were in attendance that I would have liked meeting.

This trip to Avenue Q marked another first – I took my non-theatergoing brother to the show with me. He’s never been one for the musicals, but I also thought Q would be a good first show for him (and other bloggers at the event agreed). His brief assessment: he got into it at the beginning, felt the second half of the first act lagged and really picked up steam in the second act.  Overall, he liked it very much.

The show is offering a great discount through May 26, 2011: With the code AQBLOG12, can get tickets as low as $55! You can bring the code to the New World Stages box office, mention it over the phone, or plug it in at Broadway Offers.

"We Will Rock Q"

The folks over at Avenue Q got wind of that Muppets music video turned viral sensation of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Not to be outdone, the gang at New World Stages (including Mrs. T!) have made their own music video using “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions.” This kinda makes me want to go back and visit the Q again. Enjoy.

Auspicious Debuts, 2009

Looking back as my year of theatregoing ends, I wanted to give a shout out to those performers in 2009 whose debut work made me sit up and take notice. Some are unknowns taking their first steps, others are established stars coming into NY theatre for the first time. There is no rhythm or rhyme to the list, just stream of consciousness. Here goes:

Seth Rettberg, Avenue Q: Performing the roles of Princeton and Rod on the national tour, and assuming understudy duties during the final months of the Broadway engagement of this little show that could, Rettberg assumes the mantle of leading man of this motley crew of subversive puppets. Mr. Rettberg gave a high energy performance, complete with offbeat charm and winsome presence, not to mention his pleasant pop tenor voice and stellar comic timing.

Jon Michael Hill, Superior Donuts: This is the Broadway debut this year that will one day give you bragging rights. Mr. Hill, a Steppenwolf Ensemble member, takes this new Tracy Letts play, puts it in his pocket and walks away with it. As Franco, the young, idealistic African American who reinvigorates star Michael McKean, Hill displayed skill and professionalism far more advanced than many of his peers. He has made a name for himself in Chicago, but his NY debut is only the first of what looks to be many great career successes.

Susan Louise O’Connor, Blithe Spirit: Most people don’t walk away from this classic Noel Coward play talking about Edith, the maid. But in this charming, but unevenly cast revival, Ms. O’Connor made many in the audience do just that. As the nervously eager maid in the Condomine household, the young starlet made an indelible comic impression with what little stage time she had, particularly a showstopping sequence in which she cleared a breakfast table. It cannot be easy to be in a play with such star quality, but where Rupert Everett and Christine Ebersole failed in their comic characterizations, Ms. O’Connor picked up their slack and then some.

Geoffrey Rush, Exit the King: He’s a world famous actor and an Oscar winner but that doesn’t stop the excellent Australian actor from making my list. Ionesco isn’t really my cup of tea. That said, I don’t know if I’ve ever been haunted by the memory of a performance more than I have been by Mr. Rush’s auspicious NY theatre debut. I’ll long remember Mr. Rush’s physicality as his King Berenger, fighting to keep his own life up until the very end of the play. I vividly see the actor, decked out in garish makeup and wearing pajamas and a crown, dancing around the stage, leading a march, etc. He was surrounded by choice costars including Susan Sarandon, Lauren Ambrose and the perennial favorite Andrea Martin. While all performed well, the evening belonged to Rush, who ended up taking home every award possible for his comic and tragic work. Those final moments, as Berenger slowly gives in to his mortality, will stay forever etched in my mind.

Amelia Bullmore, Jessica Hynes, Stephen Mangan, Ben Miles, Paul Ritter, Amanda Root, The Norman Conquests: I couldn’t just pick one here, it wouldn’t be fair given that ensemble nature is what made this production so successful. In what is one of the great productions of the decade, this revival of Alan Ayckbourn marked the American debut of this brilliant ensemble, all of whom transferred from the sold out run at the Old Vic late last year. While these six actors are well known for their theatre, TV and film work in London, they are not so well known here. However, the six actors, with director Matthew Warchus created one of the most vibrant and astounding experiences I’ve ever had inside any theatre in my life.

Quentin Earl Darrington, Ragtime. It’s not easy filling the shoes of Brian Stokes Mitchell, especially given the indelible mark the actor left on the role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in the original Broadway production. Mr. Darrington comes to Broadway in the part, after having played it in Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s acclaimed Kennedy Center production and is one of the many strengths in this actor-driven revival of a contemporary classic. Large in stature and voice, Darrington provides a gentle presence in the first act, and his fall into terrorism is all the more devastating as a result.

Alexander Hanson, A Little Night Music. The lone holdover from the original London production of this Trevor Nunn revival, Mr. Hanson strikes all the right notes as Fredrik Egerman. Expecting to be overwhelmed by Catherine Zeta-Jones, I was surprised at her mere adequacy especially when stacked against his superb, nuanced performance. Often the unsung lead of the show (let’s face it, most people talk about the ladies in this musical), Mr. Hanson strikes the right balance as the aging lawyer in search of his remote youth.

Honorable mentions: Noah Robbins, Brighton Beach Memoirs; Jude Law, Hamlet; Donna Migliaccio, Ragtime; Julia Stiles, Oleanna.

"Avenue Q" Rises Again

This may come as a surprise to many of you, but the final preview of the current Off-Broadway transfer of the Tony-winning smash hit Avenue Q was my first time ever seeing the show. There was really no excuse for my not having seen it before, as its been around for six and a half years. But sometimes even the good ones fall through the cracks – I didn’t see Hairspray until its penultimate performance. Anyway, this little musical that could, which famously upset juggernaut blockbuster Wicked for the 2004 Best Musical Tony, played 2,534 performances at the John Golden Theatre and closed up shop on September 13.

However, in the best closing notice coup since Roger Berlind announced the revival of Kiss Me Kate would remain open after 9/11, producer Kevin McCollum stunned all in the audience and onstage with the news that the show would reopen at New World Stages the following month. In this day and age of Twitter, Facebook, et al, it’s stunning that they were able to keep this secret so airtight.

But now the show, a Sesame Street style spoof on post-collegiate life in NY, has reopened at New World Stages 3, comprised of many Avenue Q alumni from the Broadway run and national tour. So while I don’t have much perspective of how the show played on Broadway, but I can’t help but feel that the more intimate the space the better. (I entered the Golden for the first time two weeks ago, and it felt even a trifle too big for even Oleanna and it’s one of the smallest Broadway houses).

So how did I miss this show? Well, I’ll admit. I get very excited for an original cast and try to see a show when it’s fresh and new. My first experiences on Broadway involved tired companies of juggernaut musicals that felt more like death warmed over than exciting live theatre (Miss Saigon and Cats). It wasn’t until my 3rd experience, with the revival of the aforementioned Kiss Me Kate (and its original cast), that I felt this post-show rush that can be best described as floating ten feet in the air. Ever since, I’m wary of any production once the originals leave – particularly in a musical.

Well, I am sorry I waited for so long. The show is what it is – a ribald, irreverent but timely pastiche. Its explorations of life in New York City aren’t exactly going to erase your memories of Company, but the creators use the familiar techniques employed by children’s shows to create an endearingly satiric portrait of adulthood. So instead of learning our ABCs and 123s, we are treated to such Tony-winning musical gems (courtesy of Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez) as “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “The Internet is for Porn,” and “Schadenfreude.” There are the instructional animated films, the requisite marginally older & wiser humans, and inevitably the life lessons (“There’s a Fine, Fine Line” and “For Now”). What truly impressed me was the strength of the Tony-winning book by Jeff Whitty, which is much sharper in focus than many of the other self-referential musicals that have come after Avenue Q.

The engaging cast is comprised of Q alums, many of whom were involved in the final Broadway company. Seth Rettberg leads the charge as Princeton & Rod and illuminates the stage with offbeat charm. I can’t decide which is funnier: his delivery of “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada” or the ensemble’s outrageous pregnant pause that greets it. Sassy beltress Anika Larsen as Kate Monster & Lucy T. Slut is a petite powerhouse, with an especially showstopping delivery of “Special.” Cullen R. Titmas scores big as Trekkie Monster and Nicky. Nicholas Kohn and the irrepressible Sala Iwamatsu comprise the incongruous couple of Brian and Christmas Eve.

However, for whatever reason, my favorite is Maggie Lakis, who mostly provides silent support as an extra puppeteer but scores the biggest laughs of the evening as one of the Bad Idea Bears. Whenever Ms. Lakis is onstage, I couldn’t help but watch her. Not that she steals focus, mind you. She is just that fascinating a presence in a unsung performance ripe with humor and stagecraft.

There were two unexpectedly personal moments for me in the show. One was Princeton’s opening “What Do You Do With a BA in English?” I actually picked up one of those some years back and am still asking myself that question on a regular basis. The other, and one a bit more poignant, was “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” a reflective moment where the ensemble contemplates what were arguably the best years of their lives. I turned to my friend and fellow blogger Jimmy mid-song and said “That was my weekend.” I was at my alma mater for an alumni weekend reception hosted by the Theatre Arts department, my other area of study (talk about a win-win…)

While greeting old friends and faculty, I had the chance to mingle with bright, optimistic and engaged theatre students who were anywhere from five to eight years younger than I am now. (I’m 26). In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago, but we (Roxie and myself) started pondering when did we get so old, and why do these kids look so young? In the six years since the show opened (and closed and reopened), life for the post-bachelor’s student has grown increasingly more difficult and how strange that most of the themes pertaining to the show are still relevant to most of the people I know under the age of 30. This show got me thinking about myself, where I’m going and what I am doing with myself. And all they had to do was use puppets. Not many shows have that sort of effect on me, the most recent I can think of being the short-lived Reasons to Be Pretty.

Kudos to the house staff at New World Stages, who go the extra mile to make sure that there are no cell phone interruptions during the show. (Including reminding someone in the press about the NYC statute against cell phone use inside a theatre). This was also my first experience with the in-seat drink service, something in which I might partake should I go back again (which, yes, I am already considering). Though, I wondered during the audience collection if alcohol was a factor in inspiring an audience member down front to throw a Nutri Grain bar at the cast…

The move to off-Broadway was surprising, but it makes sense. The show is built for intimacy, and it is more cost effective for the producers to run it in a 499 seat house outside of Broadway. (And apparently The 39 Steps may follow suit…? Who knew?) It’s also nice to see that the show is becoming a theatrical institution for the city. As long as there are fresh-faced college grads tackling the world head on, there will always be a place for Avenue Q. Especially in New York.

Quote of the Day: For Now Edition

Avenue Q is about all of us, so why should it close? People arrive in New York every day hoping to make their dreams come true, so as long as they’re here, we’re here! It’s just one of the funniest, wittiest and wisest musicals ever written and the more you see it, the more you love it.”

-Producer Kevin McCollum, on the decision to reopen Avenue Q off-Broadway next month.