Theatrical Highlights of the Year

1. Sunday in the Park With George. January 25, 2008 @ Studio 54. This was the first of three big musical revivals that set fire to the New York stage this year. An import from London, the cast was led by Olivier winners Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell, with able support from Mary Beth Peil (her ability to listen as an actress was a marvel to watch), Michael Cumpsty and Jessica Molaskey and company. The revival featured spectacular scenography, with breathtaking visual design that enhanced the experience. I’ve never seen the second act work so well before. The only complaint was the reduced orchestration.

2. Gypsy. March 27, 2008 @ the St. James Theatre. The superlative City Center Encores! production became the most acclaimed Broadway revival of the show in my lifetime. All but Nancy Opel transferred, bringing something more in depth to the tables as actors, as well as marking the return of Lenora Nemetz to Broadway after an absence of more than two decades. LuPone, Gaines and Benanti won deserved Tonys for their work, with the latter two providing especially definitive interpretations of their roles. Quibbles with the minimalist production, unnecessary edits and kabuki lamb not-with-standing, a stirring, earth-shattering revival of the Great American Musical.

3. A White House Cantata. March 31, 2008 @ Jazz at Lincoln Center. This marked the NY debut of the concert adaptation of Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner’s colossal (and much-loved, by me anyhow) flop 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Though a concert presentation from the Collegiate Chorale, it was important as it was a presentation of an incredibly rare and important Broadway score, one that has long been forgotten because of the embarrassment surrounding its original concept and staging. While I would have preferred theatre actors to opera singers, I was still thrilled for the opportunity to hear many of the favorites of the score performed live with Hershy Kay’s original orchestrations. I still hold out hope that the estates will let Encores! put on the original Broadway 1600 with Victoria Clark giving us the “Duet for One” (and perhaps a chance for the overture to be heard).

4. South Pacific. April 3, 2008 @ the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. One of the most entrancing musical revivals I’ve ever seen. My excitement for the production was high from the first announcement that the show was a go a couple years back. Kelli O’Hara and Paolo Szot oozed sensuality as Nellie and Emile, with his “This Nearly Was Mine” bringing down the house. Matthew Morrison sounded better than I’ve ever heard him sing, and his acting continues to grow more nuanced and polished. Danny Burstein channeled more than a little Bert Lahr into his Luther Billis, but that was okay. And finally, the delightfully gracious Loretta Ables-Sayre made her Broadway debut as Bloody Mary, finding depth and humor from within the character. The staging and its design were flawless, with eye-popping and lush visuals. Plus there was that packed orchestra with that glorious reveal during the Overture. What what was a pleasant surprise was that it quickly became (and still is) one of the hottest tickets in town.

5. La Fille du Regiment. April 18, 2008 @ the Metropolitan Opera House. I had never even heard of Donizetti’s opera comique when Sarah offered me a comp to the open dress rehearsal. Since it was the right price and seemed like a fantastic way to spend an afternoon, I was decidedly game. However, I didn’t expect to be totally overwhelmed by the production. World-renown coloratura Natalie Dessay was playing opposite tenor Juan Diego Florez, with Marian Seldes making her Met debut in a cameo role. I was thoroughly engaged but went into a near frenzy when Florez tackled that Mount Everest of arias, “Ah, mes ami! quel jour de fete!” (aka “Pour mon ame”). The aria demands nine high C’s in a row, and is a challenge for even the most nimble and technically proficient singer. It was one of those rare moments that you watch well aware that you – and everyone around you – is about to go completely wild with enthuiastic applause, which we certainly did. Dessay and Florez’s chemistry is palpable and their vocal blend is top-notch, and I hope to see them together again in La Sonnambula this spring.

6. No, No, Nanette. May 11, 2008 @ the City Center. Hands down, the best thing I’ve ever seen performed at Encores! There was the most polish, the sturdiest direction, the best choreography, costumes to complement stellar casting. The show itself is a wonderful example of the pre-Show Boat crowdpleasing musical comedy with its trite characters and machinations; however, the show, especially as seen in its 1971 revisal (presented here) is nothing but a huge Valentine to the 1920s (Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Drowsy Chaperone are decidedly not). Sandy Duncan tore it up at 62 with the chorines, kicking just as high and twice as energetic as the kids. Charles Kimbrough was charming. Mara Davi was an ingenue delight. Rosie O’Donnell had a blast supporting as the wise-cracking maid. Michael Berresse charmed and danced up a storm (another one who could have been a fantastic Joey Evans). But it was Beth Leavel who walked away with the evening, particularly her devastating eleven o’clock torcher “The Where-Has-My-Hubby-Gone-Blues.” Infectious, endearing and charming, we hummed all the way across the street to Seppi’s. This is one Encores! I wish made a transfer to Broadway.

7. Boeing Boeing. September 3, 2008 @ the Longacre Theatre. What should have been a tired, unfunny exercise in bad farce turned into one of the freshest comedies of the season, winning the Best Play Revival and Best Actor Tony awards. The success is owed in part to Matthew Warchus, who took this English adaptation of a third rate French farce and felt that there was something to work with there. The majority of the success; however, belongs to Tony-winner Mark Rylance in his Broadway debut. Originating the part in Warchus’ original London production in 2007, Rylance’s character was a complete creation of his own, finding succinct choices as an actor which proved uproarious onstage. Bradley Whitford, Christine Baranski, Kathryn Hahn and especially the fearless Mary McCormack provided sturdy support.

8. [title of show]. September 27, 2008 @ the Lyceum Theatre. The one everyone thought I’d hate, but to the surprise of apparently everyone, I absolutely adored it from start to finish. Fresh, effervescent and unyieldingly clever and entertaining, the show might have fared better had it played a smaller Broadway house like the Helen Hayes or the Circle in the Square. Hunter Bell, Jeff Bowen, Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff are all heroes, with special mention of Blackwell’s unique comic sensibility (“Die, Vampire, Die!”) and Blickenstaff’s vocal prowess (“A Way Back to Then”). I hope they all receive Tony nominations this spring. A return visit for the closing performance only cemented my admiration for the show and those who created/starred in it. The final performance of “Nine People’s Favorite Thing” prompted the longest Routledge ever witnessed by this Aficionado – three whole minutes.

9. On the Town. November 23, 2008 @ the City Center. In celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s birthday, the Encores! crowd decided to present his first Broadway musical as the debut of their latest season. The score is superb, the comedy hilarious. The book is a trifle, but with such winning numbers, zany antics and plentiful opportunities for exceptional dancing. Tony Yazbeck is a star on the rise – and I am glad to have seen him in this. Andrea Martin was the comic highlight with her uproarious turn as Madame Dilly. Of course, they rumored a transfer, as seems to be the case for every favorably reviewed Encores! show, but that seems quite unlikely.

What I want to see next year: Blithe Spirit, Billy Elliot, Music in the Air at Encores!, Hedda Gabler, All My Sons, Equus, The Philanthropists, Waiting for Godot, The American Plan, 9 to 5, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Firebrand of Florence (Collegiate Chorale concert), La Sonnambula at the Met, West Side Story, 33 Variations, Mary Stuart, Impressionism, Accent on Youth, Happiness, Mourning Becomes Electra.

Sondheim Responds

Stephen Sondheim responds to Susan Elliot’s New York Times piece about Broadway orchestrations in a letter to the editor:

Orchestrations: Who Writes the Songs?
Re “Off the Stage, What’s Behind the Music” by Susan Elliott [Aug. 17]:

Ms. Elliott, in her piece on Broadway orchestrators, claims that Robert Russell Bennett was responsible for the “shifting harmonies and alternating rhythms” (whatever the latter term means) of Richard Rodgers’s score for “South Pacific.”

I can assure you this is not so, and the implication that orchestrators routinely do it is misleading. True, many composers of musicals can neither read nor write music and merely hum their tunes or pound them out on the piano, forcing orchestrators to supply everything from chords to rhythms, but some of us spend long hours working out harmonies and contrapuntal lines, and Rodgers was one of them, as his distinctive harmonic styles — one for Hart, one for Hammerstein — prove.

For those who, like me, write detailed piano copy, the orchestrator’s chief task is to give the dry monochromatic texture of the piano color and atmosphere, which indeed may involve adding additional lines, but the notion that orchestrators do much of the composing for composers who know what they’re doing is inaccurate.

Like everybody else, as Ms. Elliott reports, I deplore the downsizing of orchestras, but I understand the economics. If I had thought for one minute that Roundabout, a nonprofit company, could afford 11 players for the revival of “Sunday in the Park With George,” I’d have asked for them. After reading in Ms. Elliott’s article that Todd Haimes, the company’s artistic director, would have given them to me, I’ll know better the next time we work together (which, I hasten to add, I hope will be soon).

As for Jason Carr, who won the Drama Desk Award for his deft reduction of Michael Starobin’s thrilling 11-player orchestration to an ensemble of five, I’m happy for him, but the atmosphere and most of the extra instrumental lines and decorations were still Michael’s. Six-elevenths of the award, at the very least, belong to him.

Stephen Sondheim
New York
The writer wrote the music and lyrics for “Sunday in the Park With George.”

Raves for Sunday in the Park

The revival of Sunday in the Park With George officially opened last night to superlative rave reviews from the critics; a far cry from the divisive reactions the original production received in 1984. This time around it seemed as though the critical consensus was more accepting of the second act (which was the problem for many the first time around) and that this particular production allows the show to have heart. Kudos are being given to stars Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell, imperative supporting player Mary Beth Peil, director Sam Buntrock and the scenography by David Farley, Ken Billington and Tim Bird. All names that will be remembered come Tony nomination time.

Ben Brantley ended his review with the following paragraph, which may be the most incredible thing he’s ever written:

“That the second act ends as the first does, in a ravishing epiphany of artistic harmony, now feels more than ever like a loving benediction, bestowed by the show’s creators on its audiences. Every member of those audiences, whether consciously or not, is struggling for such harmony in dealing with the mess of daily reality. How generous of this production — and it is the generosity of all great art — that it allows you, for a breathless few moments, to achieve that exquisite, elusive balance.”

Yes folks, that about sums up the breathtaking experience this revival provides.

Upcoming Excursions

Today was an eventful day. I worked for 8 1/2 hours; drank a lot of green tea and bought a laser printer (thank God for 50% sales), 1500 pages of blank paper, binders and sheet protectors for my latest project; organizing my vocal scores. My first effort was for the score of 1600 Pennylvania Avenue (from the Philadelphia tryout). Now all I need is a piano… The much-loved (by me) “Duet for One” is a whopping 26 pages long. The Bernstein estate will not permit the original Broadway version of the show to be presented; the Cantata is a concertized revisal which eliminates a great deal of the book with some revision among the musical numbers, dropping the original’s “Rehearse” and reinstating the endless “Monroviad.” (Bernstein was so disappointed with the show as it played in NY in 1976, he refused to allow the cast album to be recorded, can you believe that? ARGGH!). Speaking of which, the Collegiate Chorale is giving the Cantata its New York premiere on March 31 at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center (what a curious name for a venue). I really, really want to go. Baritone Dwayne Croft and soprano Emily Pulley will be singing the roles of the President and First Lady. Anyone else interested? The top tickets are $85, but I plan on aiming a bit lower ($65, 55, 45, 35, 20).

Broadway-wise: I’ve got my season ticket to The 39 Steps on February 24th. I will not be lingering in the city that night, since it’s supposed to be Oscar night (oh please, God). Also, I will be attending the March 12th matinee of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Broadhurst. It’s going to be exciting as it will mark the first time I’ve seen James Earl Jones or Phylicia Rashad live in performance. I’m seeing Sunday again as a subscriber on March 9th. But first? Applause this Sunday at the City Center. Hearing how the flu has caused her to miss rehearsal and to lose her singing voice, I hope Christine Ebersole’s health will be much improved by then. This, among all the other festivities is going to make for one hell of an exciting spring season of New York theatre.

PS – My script of August: Osage County arrived in the mail today (along with Auntie Mame, Mister Roberts and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Huzzah!

‘What the eye arranges is what is beautiful…"

It took me years to warm up to Sunday in the Park with George. There I admit it; in fact the first time I saw the taping of the original Broadway production, aside from Bernadette Peters and the end of the first act, I was bored. The jaunty atonal score was initially unmemorable; leaving little to no impression on me. Plus, I have never been a big fan of Mandy Patinkin, so that didn’t help any.

However, the more I matured, the more I kept pushing myself back to the score; I always felt like I was missing something important about it; and was intrigued. It took years of listening, and several attempts at viewing the production; reading about it plus reading the libretto that started the thawing process. Not that every musical should have that laborious nature (indeed, while I have come to respect and admire Passion, I will never love it).

Anyway, the clincher was in 2004 when I was asked to work on my college’s production as dramaturge. I immersed myself in the information around the show: I read all I could on Sondheim and Sunday from varying texts and sources. Reviews, biographies, intricate analyses, you name it. I also auditioned for the show, merely for fun, since I knew that as an outsider who wasn’t a major in the theatre department, I would never be seriously considered for any roles. My audition went very well. I sang the patter section of “It Would Have Been Wonderful” and the last A section of “Love Can’t Happen” (in the show key, to toot my own horn) and did a Nicky Silver monologue. It went much better than I (and I think they) expected. I got a callback. Well, that didn’t go very well. (The confidence I had at the initial audition was thoroughly depleted when met by the condescending glares of the other actors). And I wasn’t cast. So we set about working on the show; I was rarely utilized by the cast and crew for questions throughout the rehearsal period, but was ready to be a source if necessary.

Then I got put into the show (the person playing “Man with Bicycle” and “Man on Shore” opted not to accept his part); mostly to add my voice to the choral numbers, an extra person to hit the high G’s in “Sunday.” However, getting involved in table work and talking about the productions; and even seeing things in the Lincoln Center TOFT archive (which included the original Playwrights Horizons workshop), my eyes were opened to the artistic genius at work. Anyway, I’ve experienced this feeling of protectiveness whenever I’ve been involved with a show where I develop a sort of unconditional love for the work; even if it be a red-headed step child of the theatre.

I came to love Sunday in the Park with George.

And I saw it live as an audience member for the first time last night at the first preview of the Broadway revival playing at Studio 54. It’s an import of the British production that played the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2006 and contains the Olivier-winning stars of that production; Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell (the latter making her Broadway debut). Supporting the two superlative stars are the superb Broadway veterans Michael Cumpsty, Jessica Molaskey, Anne L. Nathan, Ed Dixon and the delightful Mary Beth Peil.

The production affected me in many ways. I was mesmerized by the animation of the scenic design which cleverly altered itself to show a flash of a figure of the painting here and there or even the subtle encroachment of autumn during “Beautiful.” (They even used the animated projections for the multiple George sequence in “Putting it Together”). The twilight effect of the streetlamps on La Grand Jatte 1984 during “Lesson #8 was a sheer marvel of subtlety and of scenography complementing the onstage action.

Evans is particularly stunning as George. Though Mandy has his teeth firmly embedded into the role (which was also aided by the original Broadway cast recording being the only album of the score for 22 years), for the first time I felt I understood George. I saw an artist so dedicated to his work and so close to a breakthrough that he shuns the world and eventually loses the great love of his life as a result. His George wasn’t a cryptic brooding mess of nerves; there was a heart to Evans’ George that took on new and refreshing dynamics, especially driving home “Finishing the Hat” (which received the Peter Filichia applause: the audience response was huge; it started to dissipate only to re-emerge louder and more pronounced than before). The song “Beautiful” is one of the most quietly poignant moments Mr. Sondheim has created; you have juxtaposing opinions of perspective and change between George and his somewhat senile mother. George finds such promise in change; “Pretty is what changes…” while nostalgia and a dislike of change gets the best of her “How I long for the old view.” It’s a moment of remarkable depth; especially hearing George find beauty in all that he sees, whether it be old or new, and his commitment to capturing it as an artist. Russell founds ways of both reinventing Dot and yet at times, coming so close to reminding me of Bernadette. She’s beautiful, she gets the laughs and while she may not be as warm as the famed originator of the part, she does manage to give Dot a loving heart. She scored especially well as Marie in the second act with a devastating “Children and Art.”

What was most surprising was the amount of polish since it was their first performance in front of an audience. The lighting cues are many (the tech rehearsal must have been hell) and so much of the production revolves around the lighting and projections for its full effect. While there could be a little tightening in spots (particularly “Putting it Together” which has always been too long), they have a rich foundation on which they will continue to grow throughout the run.

Speaking of quibbles… the pit. Five pieces, are you kidding me? Why don’t you just get Dick Van Dyke to reprise his one-man band Bert from Mary Poppins and save even more money. The loss of the French horn is the most mournful in the instrumentation; the sax substitute is lackluster. This is not Sunday in the Park with Kenny G. Others had quibbled with the use of British accents in the first act, but I was strangely okay with that; which also got me wondering how well the show would translate to French… Another weak spot: Alexander Gemignani is rather annoying onstage. Didn’t love him in Sweeney Todd and didn’t care for him here as the Boatman.

The show has always been plagued by its second act which is necessary to the authors’ intent, but doesn’t live up to the magic of the first (one review of the original production said act one was the best new musical in town; act two the worst). I have never seen the problematic second act run as smoothly and enjoyably as it did last night. Moment to moment, I was continually impressed; particularly the final 20-30 minutes; rich are the songs “Children and Art” (the lyrics in this song alone are enough to warrant its Pulitzer Prize win, followed by “Lesson #8” and the long-awaited musical release in “Move On” (which no doubt would have brought the house in on itself had it not been directed to move directly into dialogue and leave us without the opportunity to applaud; I’ll be quicker next time). It was ethereal.

The moment that has haunted me through the day the most and will likely continue to do so for a long time was the final moment of the show. There is the reprise of the “Sunday” anthem with 1984 George connecting with Dot and the characters of the painting. In the moment following the exit of the characters from the stage, the projections have reversed themselves and gone back to a pure white stage.

George reads: “White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities…”

My breath was drawn and my heart exploded with emotion when he turned upstage and made his breakthrough; gasping with rapture and openness at the white canvas that lay ahead for him as an artist. The words that I have just written can’t even begin to explain just how stunning this final flourish was as the lights went out. All I know is that it will stay with me always.

The ovation was extraordinary. As the house lights came up, the audience only increased its roar of approval; and it was clear no one was going anywhere until the cast came out one more time, which they did. Both Evans and Russell were visibly overwhelmed by the reception. I love impromptu moments like that.

Not everyone I was with shared my enthusiastic view, but Sondheim interpretations generally tend to polarize than unite. It’s the nature of the beast and that’s all right with me. It was just enough to share the night with a slew of classy friends and acquaintances.

I’m already going back. It can’t be soon enough for me.

Side note: Miles said observed that Sunday is the MILF of musicals; it gets better with age. Not the classiest observation I’ve heard, but he’s actually not far from the truth (though in his favor, he also referred to it as a fine wine, but I found this reference more amusing). Sweeney Todd is the masterpiece, Follies the cult favorite, and Pacific Overtures the most intriguing; Sunday in the Park With George is probably Sondheim’s most fascinating score.

Second side note: I apparently bear a striking resemblance to Georges Seurat (at least the onstage version) as was pointed out to me by two strangers in the lobby at intermission.