A Snowy-Blowy Christmas

Donna McKechnie leads the original cast of Promises Promises in the act one showstopper “Turkey Lurkey Time” on the 1969 Tony awards. The other two lead dancers are Baayork Lee and Margo Sappington. Choreography by Michael Bennett. Yes the lyrics are rather outrageous and the melody is infectiously 60s, but that’s part of the fun (thank you Bacharach and David). And technically, it’s a Christmas song. So in the spirit of the season and with the snow coming tomorrow, sit back and enjoy.

August: Osage County, or the greatest play ever

Okay, maybe not ever, but one of the most extraordinary in recent memory. Last Tuesday night I had the privilege of attending my second Broadway opening night, special thanks to Noah. It was thrilling to be able to attend; especially given the precarious situation the stagehand’s strike thrust upon this unknown play, without a name cast and a recognizable creative team. Thank God, the show is here. And unlikely to ever go away and for that we should be incredibly thankful.

My first ordeal came with the question, “what do I wear?” That was easily assuaged by a trip to the mall, abandoning my usual earth tones for a classier black and charcoal grey combination. Second of all, I had a trimming accident, so off came my beard of four years. Well, regardless, I looked like sex on legs. (Seriously).

Anyway, my point. The opening night was star-studded, much more than I think anyone would have realized: Angela Lansbury, Elaine Stritch, Marian Seldes, Alan Rickman, David Schwimmer, John Krasinski, Anthony Edwards, Christine Ebersole, Tim Daly, Zeljko Ivanek, Duncan Sheik, Ana Gasteyer, Laurie Metcalf, Melina Kanakaredes, Gary Sinise, Kate Walsh, Tom Hulce, Tamara Tunie, Kelli O’Hara, Penny Fuller, Lois Smith, Bobby Cannavale, Marsha Mason, among a slew of others that I’m probably forgetting at this point. Anyway, as exhilarating as it was being a King of the Hill wallflower in the lobby watching the glitterati arrive, the opening night experience itself was overshadowed by the masterwork onstage at the Imperial.

It’s hard to describe what is destined to be a contemporary classic. To see a play that returns to an older form (the first original three act play on Broadway in how long?) yet managed to infuse the drama with such a sense of humor and relatability. Every family has its dysfunctions, yet this one manages to pinpoint them all without ever becoming too absurd for its own good. The plot revolves around a family returning to its homestead in Oklahoma after the patriarch goes missing. The reunion unearths a slew of dirty laundry, grudges and secrets, led by the matriarch Violet, suffering from cancer of the mouth (oh how fitting), and in a stunning breakthrough performance (for a grandmother) by the Chicago-based actress Deanna Dunagan. Violet is constantly shifting between her natural no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is persona and her drug-addled incoherence; a volatile combination that helps her to force out family skeletons and lead them in a rousing cakewalk through the second and third act. It’s hard to describe what it is about her performance; the command of the stage, the ease at which she’s created her character or the fact that Vi is a cross between Mary Tyrone and Martha, with a dash of Regina Giddens thrown in for good measure. Also standing out is Amy Morton as her mother’s daughter, Barbara, who ends up trying to strangle her mother when things get out of hand and is slowly turning into her. Watching the two pitted against each other is one of the theatrical highlights of the year. Dunagan dominated the second; Morton, the third. It really feels though, that Barbara is the lead, but boy is Violet a good time. And in that one wonders if they’ll compete against each other for the Best Actress awards this season. I think Dunagan’s Theatre World award should be engraved today to save the time.

For what it’s worth, the entire ensemble is extraordinary. Never once do you question these actors as a family (all but two veterans of the Steppenwolf production that played earlier this year in Chicago). I don’t want to give plot points away because the entire arc of the play is filled with little surprises and unexpected revelations. (And hell, if you want to know, see the damned thing). I will say this: the second act possesses some of the finest contemporary writing I’ve ever seen. The final line of the second act had a reaction unlike any I’ve ever witnessed at a drama; the audience was still cheering after the lights had come up for intermission. Think of the play as though Eugene O’Neill had been asked to write Arrested Development. (The midwestern setting is more reminiscent of Bill Inge than O’Neill, but that’s besides the point). The put-downs and family arguments and incredibly awkward situations that arise are incredibly humorous, but the work ends with an incredibly sobering punch. There is talk of the awards Pulitzer and Antoinette Perry for this esteemed production (which received practically unanimous raves; the lone hold-out was that out of step Jacques Le Sourd from the Journal News), and is currently only scheduled to run through March 9. If you have brains, get your hands on tickets immediately as you will not want to miss this landmark achievement.

I know I probably should have written some brilliant critical commentary on the piece, but we have eternity to judge the piece with that ethereal lens. For now, just see this magnanimous opus. (The fastest three hours and 20 minutes I’ve spent at a play).

Angela Lansbury is Rose

Here is Miss Angela Lansbury in some incredibly rare footage from her revival of Gypsy from the mid-70s. Often considered the best to interpret the character, Angie here gives us a taste of “Some People,” some rather impressive choreography in “Together” (those kicks!) and the final half of her “Turn.”

Though a question lingers in my mind… If we have these highlights, is there a complete video of her performance out there somewhere….? Something to think about.


IT’S OVER…and other important miscellany

Thank God. It’s over. Finally sometime this evening it was announced (officially) after 19 days that the strike has ended. The producers and stagehands have come to terms that apparently seem fair to everyone. While the pact awaits a ratification in several weeks’ time, all shows on Broadway shall be on tomorrow evening. I reiterate: Thank God. Now I can finally see August: Osage County, among everything else I’d been thinking about seeing this holiday season. Be sure check for discounts if there’s anything you want to see. The megahits have nothing to worry about, but the underdogs, especially the plays, need as much support as we can give them at this time. I’m sure we’ll soon get a notification of new opening dates for August, The Seafarer and The Farnsworth Invention.

In other major news, it’s official. Patti LuPone is going to reprise her performance as Rose in Gypsy for the Tony voters this season. Musically, it’s shaping up to be spectacularly promising; what with Jenna Russell in Sunday in the Park With George (for which she won the Olivier award), Kelli O’Hara in LCT’s South Pacific, Faith Prince in A Catered Affair, among others that I’m sure I’m leaving out at this godawful early morning hour. The entire cast has been offered the opportunity to reprise their roles. Hopefully Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines will also come back aboard. For more opinions on the revival, please see my previously posted open letter to Mr. Laurents, who will once again repeat his direction.

There are clips of Sweeney Todd online. This has done nothing to assuage my anticipation for the upcoming film. The more I see and hear bits and pieces the more I want to plan an elaborate heist to get an early copy. Well, I settled for a mild-mannered countdown on my facebook. What is fascinating are those who are already criticizing the film. The singing is mediocre. It looks like a Tim Burton movie and not Sweeney Todd. Where is that harmony? What about this line? I’ve accepted that this won’t be the Hal Prince Sweeney Todd with which we are so readily familiar while others haven’t. It’s a film adaptation that actually looks to be a promising entry in the year’s films. December 21 cannot come soon enough for me.

To hear some of the score: http://www.sweeneytoddmovie.com


Little Edie to raid London?

As per Liz Smith in Variety:

“THE LONDON production of Grey Gardens is now “on” with a vengeance. Rights reverted from the original Broadway production and came back to the authors and composers. Music man Scott Frankel and star-producer Tony-winner Christine Ebersole took off for London to put little Edie Beale and her adventures on the West End. This musical will be a natural for the Brits who love eccentrics…”

So I guess now that the rights are no longer held by the Gondas, the show can flourish in London as well as on tour (Vicki Clark, are you reading? OK, probably not). It was a shame to see this show fold early, as it was my personal favorite of the 2006-07 season. The score is the best on Broadway since Piazza. The lyrics are outrageously brilliant. The assonance, the diction, the structure and rhyme schemes run the gamut of Cole Porter-Irving Berlin wit in the first act to the sophistication of Sondheim in the second. The care and craft that built this score is beyond mere words I place here in this space. If you look at it, its really a two-hander; each act is its own musical, but together as one emotionally turbulent and ultimately compelling evening.

The first act is fictionalized look at the Beale backstory, trying to give the audience some insight into these two eccentric women and how they ended up in the delapidation documented in the Maysles’ film. Taking cues from the musical icons of the era, we have a lovely pastiche score. “The Five-Fifteen” is one of the greatest opening numbers I’ve heard in years. Particularly it’s insanely catchy vamp (as part of the exit music, I left the theatre humming the rideout). The first act plays out like a Philip Barry dramedy set to music. While not as satisfying as the second act, it’s a clever and inventive way to give the film portion of the musical some context. I can’t imagine many people have seen the brilliant documentary, so it’s necessary for us to learn more about these two ladies than the mere fact that they are Jackie Onassis’ cousin and aunt. Also, in an age when musicals based on films are mere retreads of the films + songs, it was refreshing to see the creative team step back and try something different. (This is, also, the first time a documentary has ever been made into a musical).

The second act is where people have truly been astonished. Christine Ebersole’s performance was astounding. Playing Edith in the first act as a vindictive variation on Auntie Mame (complete with pure, unadulterated soprano tones), she enters the second act set 33 years later as Young Edie, in a complete transformation (to nasal character belt) that in itself usually stopped the show. Following the screenplay from the film, the second act is considerably stronger, even finding a dramatic arc the cinema verite documentary lacks. Ebersole as Edie will one day become synonymous with Martin as Peter Pan and Merman as Rose. It’s the stuff of legend. Mary Louise Wilson as aged Edith is also a marvel. Both actresses inhabit the characters of these women without merely imitating the film (though the physical and aural resemblances are uncanny), finding depth in the scene work and playing off each other (particularly with the delicious insults) like a finely played game of tennis. (After the remarkable critical reception and eventual Tony awards received by these actresses, I really don’t need to expound any further. I also just want to mention William Ivey Long’s indelible award winning costumes here as well).

I saw Grey Gardens three times on Broadway (the second time being the first performance post-Tony where Ebersole got a standing ovation at the top of the second act, something I was unaccustomed to but glad to be a part of). My first experience was through the documentary which, truth be told, stunned me completely. I was left wondering “What happened?” as most people I know feel after watching it. It was alternately hilarious and horrifying. I was first exposed to the score via the Off-Broadway recording. The show premiered at the Walter Kerr shortly afterward in what is the final version. I marveled at how they found the characters through song. “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” is the best list song we’ve had in decades. Not only does it follow the general terms of a list song, it surpasses it through its revelation of character. Little Edie’s philosophies on dress say much more about her opinions and thoughts than almost any other song in the show (save for the devastating “Around the World” and “Another Winter in a Summer Town” later in the second act). It has to be heard to be fully understood and appreciated. (I was thrilled too, to have a final Broadway recording that incorporates the revisions and cast changes made in transferring the show from Off-Broadway to on).

I’m really not going into in depth analysis of the score here, because that in itself would take up several blogs. See the documentary. Listen to the recording. Marvel in the genius. It’s exciting to know that the show will have life past its relatively short-lived and financially disastrous original Broadway run. London, tour, regional? So who cares if the inferior Spring Awakening won Best Musical. Doesn’t mean it was.

Win the revolution with style, kids.

A Brief Musing

As I sit here in front of my computer, I check the time and realize that I should have been settling in to the Imperial Theatre for tonight’s preview of August: Osage County. Obviously, that is not the case. The strike continues and where is the end? Fortunately it could be in sight now as it appears that negotiations will resume on Saturday. The strike needs to end in an effort to reap the benefits of the ever-fruitful holiday season. Too many shows may not reopen, or open at all, if things can’t come to a head. All eyes look to this weekend.

Nothing appears to be happening on the WGA front, though there are now some amusing Youtube videos that have been posted over the past few days.

Darling Illya

Melina Mercouri is probably the sexiest thing to happen to Greece since Helen. There I said it. I first watched Mercouri in the delightful 1964 comic caper film Topkapi, a heist film in that delightfully offbeat early ’60s style. Directed by her husband and frequent collaborator Jules Dassin, the film starred Mercouri, Maximilian Schell and Peter Ustinov, who would win his second Oscar for this outing, as an unwilling, bumbling con man/patsy. Topkapi is based on Eric Ambler‘s novel The Light of Day and tells the unabashedly entertaining story of Elizabeth Lipp, an exotic jewel thief who enlists a former lover (Schell) to help her in an incredibly dangerous and seemingly impossible mission to steal the legendary emerald dagger from the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. At first, I couldn’t really understand a thing that Mercouri was saying, as her Greek accent was incredibly thick, but I couldn’t get over the sensuality of the actress nor the coy way she had of flirting with the camera. (And I also found that after a few minutes, she was speaking English and I could understand it). I won’t go further in the plot of the film, but it’s one to be seen. It directly inspired Mission: Impossible and was even mentioned and homaged in the 1996 film adaptation of the classic TV series. (The scene where Tom Cruise hangs upside down; watch the original for the inspiration). It’s a product of the 1960s; that is for certain, but its charms and incredibly tense climax (the film was also a spoof of Dassin’s own Rififi, a dark and serious film about a heist that ends badly for all involved) make for a pleasant viewing.

Anyway, my fascination with Melina began with Topkapi. It continued when I watched what is considered her signature role, Illya (Ilia according to IMDb, Illia according to the DVD case…oh well) in Never on Sunday. The film centered on an American academic Homer Thrace (Dassin, who also directed) who becomes obsessed with reforming an incredibly popular and vivacious prostitute in the coastal town of Piraeus, just outside of Athens. Illya is unique because not only is she adored by the men in town, she also commands their respect, and she in return, loves them all platonically (and occasionally a little more). She has no pimp, she sets her own prices and only chooses men she likes for consorting. There is a Pygmalion-esque subtext underlying throughout the film, Homer is trying to recreate the Grecian ideal through Illya, though unbeknownst to her, he is financing her education through the local crime boss, who would much prefer to see Illya retired and not influencing his prostitutes to take their independence (as evidenced by an older prostitute played by Despo, who would also have a brief role in Topkapi). She heartily devours the Greek tragedies, always at dramatic festivals to see them and always retelling them to the men in town who adore her. However, her interpretations of said classics make them, how shall we say?, more upbeat. With all of them ending with a picnic by the sea shore. (One of the film’s funniest scenes is her revisionist Medea). The title stems from the fact that on Sunday, Illya takes the day off and has a party in which she invites all of her friends, mostly men, over to apartment. (Nothing of that sort happens). The film was a critical and popular sensation. Not only did the film make Mercouri a world-wide celebrity, it also managed one of the more impressive feats that I find from the film: it made her, at the film industry’s death knell age of 40, an international sex symbol. Her husky purr of a voice, combined with those devilishly enchanting eyes are enough to captivate even today. The film was nominated for five Academy awards, winning one for its incredibly popular bouzouki flavored song “Never on Sunday,” by Manos Hatzidakis. Melina was nominated, but she lost to Elizabeth Taylor’s tracheotomy.

Never on Sunday became a musical in 1967. Again, it starred our Melina. Again Despo played the older prostitute friend. Again it was directed by Dassin. Again the music was from Hatzidakis. The show was called Illya, Darling; an uninspired and rather poor choice, though one can appreciate the early film to stage adaptations trying to make themselves distinct from the original property, much like Carnival! from 1961 and with Promises, Promises a year after Illya opened. I have to admit, for such an incredibly weak score, it’s a guilty pleasure. The overture is a thrilling Grecian piece entitled “Bouzouki Nights” and may be the most thrilling opening to grace a dud of a score. Many of the character numbers lack sound structure and some lack lyrical finesse. (Particularly, Despo’s annoyingly catchy but truly awful “I Never Lay Down Anymore.” When the title of a song says all there is to be said, it shouldn’t be dragged out for another 2 1/2 minutes). It speaks volumes that “Never on Sunday” was interpolated into the score and it remains the strongest piece. But all of the above and Orson Bean‘s irritating nasal whine aren’t enough to make me stop the record. It has Melina. And God bless her, she really put her all into it. Her singing voice isn’t spectacular. It’s rather gravelly and deteriorated due to years of chain smoking (in the two films you rarely see her without and its a pity, Melina died of lung cancer in 1994). But there she is to lead the troupe through what must have been an interesting evening for 320 performances (given that she was basically the sole attraction, who else would want to fill those shoes?). The back of the LP is filled with love letters the critics wrote for her. My favorite being from Walter Kerr of the NY Times:

“Melina is, of course, something to contemplate. She’s a creature you would be happy to take home to Mother if Mother was out. Leggy and luscious as before, clasping a shy sailor to her very warm breast. Melina stripped down to a minibikini. Melina locked in the muscular embrace of a handsome dockworker without a shirt. Melina propped up in bed on her elbows, crying a little through cigarette smoke over three weeks love lost because of her over-indulgence in virtue. The lady’s smile is as broad as the blaze of noon. she moves as though she had been born a dancer.”

And they say Brantley worships Chenoweth. She’s got nothing on Melina.

On the BlueGobo website, there is an extended clip of Melina and the company. First, she performs her opening “Piraeus, My Love”, then men of the ensemble lead the title song and it ends with an encore of “Never on Sunday,” sung in Greek by Melina and assisted by the chorus.

I’m not entirely sure why I felt like writing about her tonight. Just seemed to be on the mind as I’ve been recommending her recently to friends. Now I only know her via these two roles, but I do intend on checking out Phaedra and Stella. I do hope you check out Melina in the two filmes I mentioned. They are incredibly enjoyable, especially to see a star as lustrous as Mercouri make proverbial love to the camera. (Illya Darling is also worth a listen for the curious).

There are plans to remake Topkapi. I wish they wouldn’t.


Right now, at this very moment, Hollywood and Broadway are effectively in a comatose state. On the film & television angle, we have the strike of the Writer’s Guild of America, in an effort to gain profits from internet and DVD aspects of their work, which are being commercially sponsored on the internet and other venues. The writers, In NY, almost all of Broadway (save for the non-profits, huzzah, and a few select non-union theatres), has been effectively shut down as of today as the IATSE stage hands strike over contractual issues involving an increase in wage as well as certain criteria for the hot-spot issue of load-ins. The Local One has been working without a contract since July 31 of this year.

It’s mindblowing to think that right now most television shows have ceased (or will soon cease) production cutting into the fans’ seasonal expectations. It’s mindblowing to think that as the Thanksgiving-Christmas season approaches, most of the Broadway shows are dark, threatening the economic climate of not only the theatre community of NYC, but also of the surrounding businesses and restaurants (and tourist trade). Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the League of American Theatres and Producers, estimates a direct and indiret loss of $17,000,000 per day as a result. Mid-town thrives on the theatre and for this holiday season, its going to be difficult should this strike be prolonged. Hopefully, it will be resolved in a manner similar to that of the musician’s strike of 2003. (Incidentally, I have a parallel experience here: both times I have had theatre tickets for the Wednesday after the commencement of the strike. Last time, things had cleared up in time, but we shall see what happens here…)

I am also incredibly concerned with the Writer’s Guild Strike as I find it an incredible issue of such importance that the outcome will impact the entertainment industry forever (and hopefully in good ways). The outcome of the WGA strike will influence the pending negotiations for SAG and DGA members, as their current contracts will be expiring in the spring. Not that I don’t sympathize with the current situation in NY, but it seems to me that those who write for television and film (not to mention those actors who don’t make the mega-millions) should reap more of the financial benefits of their work. For instance, The Office had 7,000,000 downloads off of itunes last year. That’s 7,000,000 times $1.99. That is what the show raked in. That’s almost $14,000,000 in revenue of which the actual team of the writers saw very little, if any at all – I think it was more the latter. (There was some rumor that Apple wanted to lower the episodes to $.99 which was why NBC pulled the show from itunes, since they wanted it at $4.99 an episode. Who knows the truth?) Residual benefits from these unwarranted corporate leanings would provide financial security especially for those writers who don’t rake in huge amounts of money like Aaron Sorkin or Tina Fey.

I hope situations are resolved so we’re not forced to sit through more reality spawn in our primetime TV (and that my shows return in triumph) and that I can go down and see August: Osage County this coming Wednesday. For the impact on film, we won’t really see that until some lousy rush-jobs are released next summer and fall.

Note: No Off-Broadway shows are impacted by the stagehand strike. There are also eight Broadway shows still running in NY that will not be affected: Cymbeline @ the Vivian Beaumont; Mauritius @ the Biltmore; The Ritz @ Studio 54; Pygmalion @ the American Airlines; The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee @ Circle in the Square; Mary Poppins @ the New Amsterdam; Xanadu @ the Helen Hayes; and Young Frankenstein @ the Hilton. (Mel Brooks should be pleased, this strike will probably overshadow the critical evisceration his new musical received from opening night critics this week). Anyone with tickets for shows darkened by the strike are eligible for refunds and/or exchanges. Playbill has further information on how to get those refunds.

PS: For those fans of The Office, there is only one show left to air this coming Thursday. No new episodes until the strike has ended, kids.

Robert Goulet (1933-2007)

There was a little voice in my mind telling me, “You must go back. You must. You’ve got to see this.” The occasion? Robert Goulet was stepping into the leading role of Georges in La Cage Aux Folles, replacing a fired Daniel Davis in a rather public melee over backstage behavior and nonsense, of which I’m not entirely sure of the truth.

Anyway, the first time I saw the revival happened to be the first Tuesday back after the firing and the understudy, John Hillner, went on and was quite excellent. However, prior to the start of the performance, none other than Mr. Goulet himself exited into the theatre via the side door and proceeded to the rear of the house. And let it be known I said “Oh my God, it’s Robert Goulet!” loud enough to be heard by the actor. I settled in for a phenomenal performance of the show, one that I thought was better than its detractors said, with some of the most joyous choreography to ever stop a show. Just an enjoyable time – and the first time I exited a theatre among people humming the songs. I’ve heard of that notion, but I’d never actually witnessed it before, it was quite a pleasant novelty.

Anyway, I did get back to La Cage for its final performance in June ’05, since it didn’t have the run nor press it deserved it closed within three weeks of winning the Best Revival Tony. All seats were going for the 1983 prices in an effort to fill the theatre for the final weeks of the run, and I jumped at the opportunity mostly because I wanted to say that I saw Robert Goulet live on Broadway. My reasoning being “Who knows if he’ll ever tread these boards again?”

And sadly enough, I was right. The world lost one of the most virile baritones to grace the Broadway stage in the history of recorded musical theatre. His performance as Lancelot in the original Camelot opposite Richard Burton and Julie Andrews is one for the ages, and his original cast performance of “If Ever I Would Leave You” remains and will likely always remain, the most definitive rendition of that soaring ballad.

From his auspicious debut, it took till 1968 when he starred in the Kander and Ebb adaptation of The Happy Time for him to make a return to Broadway, this time winning a Tony award for his performance as Jacques Bonnard opposite David Wayne and a young Michael Rupert.

When I learned that Mr. Goulet had died, this was the album I played. Though I have Camelot, and also the LP’s of his TV musicals Brigadoon, Carousel and Kiss Me Kate, I’ve always felt that this album showed him at the peak of his musical career, before he became a pop culture joke, though a good sport and one he loved to perpetuate. (His cameo on The Simpsons singing ‘Jingle Bells, Batman smells” and his recent commercials come to mind). His voice rings out clarion on such gorgeous melodies, possibly the most beautiful Kander ever composed, as the title song and especially “Walking Among My Yesterdays” and “I Don’t Remember You.”

Mr. Goulet may not have been what one would consider ideal casting for a middle-aged homosexual in St. Tropez (again, Hepburn as Chanel?), but his professionalism and his ease with comic lines were able to help him get through the show without me ever once question his casting. And when he sang – oh that voice could still fill a theatre and I bet without a microphone at that (take that, overamplification). He performed both “Song on the Sand” and “Look Over There” with such voice and charisma, one wishes they had recorded a cast album when he joined the show.

I am so glad I trusted my instincts and decided to go, since I got to see one of the last of the Golden Age legends perform in a book musical on Broadway. Trust me kids, if the chance ever comes up to see a legend in action, don’t take it for granted. Just go, regardless of the cost, it’ll be something you can proudly tell people in later years. There’s nothing quite like being in the presence of a star.