Posted in Broadway Musicals, Theater

Still Rolling Along

Then and Now: Lonny Price (Charley), Ann Morrison (Mary) and Jim Walton (Frank)

What do you do after you’ve achieved your life’s dream at age 20?

“Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” a wonderful documentary available on Netflix, asks and answers this question, among many other classic queries. Although the ostensible subject of the film is the legendary Stephen Sondheim-Hal Prince musical, “Merrily We Roll Along,” equally known for being a legendary flop at its 1981 premiere, it rewards us as much by its insights into life’s paths as it does by its examination of the creative process.

Based on a George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play of the same title, “Merrily” famously mirrors its source material by telling its story in reverse. Each succeeding scene takes place earlier in time so that we can see where and how Franklin Shepard, a successful songwriter turned movie producer, hashed up his life—more precisely, how he left the path of personal fulfillment and promise and lost the love and goodwill of his wife and two closest friends along the way. It should come as no surprise that adultery, divorce, cynicism and chasing the almighty dollar, not to mention the sacrifice of youthful ideals, factor heavily into the equation. By now this plot may seem old hat, but Sondheim blessed it with one of his finest scores, which includes “Good Thing Going,” “Not a Day Goes By” and “Old Friends.” Although the original production lasted only 16 performances, the show has grown enormously in reputation through numerous revisions and revivals. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m a “Merrily” junkie—I own three different cast albums of the show, and wouldn’t part with any of them.

How could a Sondheim-Prince musical flop after a string of shows like “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” and “Sweeney Todd”?”Best Worst Thing” tells us why through footage shot during the rehearsal process by ABC, which began but later abandoned its documentary of the creation of this Broadway show. Ultimately two directorial choices proved problematic. Hal Prince opted to present “Merrily” on a more or less bare stage with costuming consisting of t-shirts and sweatshirts bearing character names and designations (“Mary,” “Best Friend,” “Unemployed Actor”). The effect was to make the setting of the show look like a high school gymnasium, which amplified Prince’s even worse decision: casting very young actors (late teens into early 20’s) to play the characters throughout the piece, even as their middle-aged selves (Remember, we’re going backwards). With very few exceptions, they just didn’t have the acting chops to bring it off, which “Best Worst Thing” makes painfully obvious. At one point in the film we see Sondheim telling Prince he needs more time to write and revise a number of songs, that because kids are telling the story, he needs to “write simpler.” Yet he never completely succeeded in “writing backwards” by toning down the sophistication of his lyrics or modifying the very adult point of view of his work. This is totally evident when we see the original leads, now in their 40’s, playing these roles in footage from a 2002 reunion concert. What appears as a tremendous disconnect in 1981, to hear Sondheim’s razor-sharp, adult-insightful lyrics coming out of kids’ mouths, seems tailor-made as sung by the same people 20 years later. Life’s mileage will do that.

Being cast in a Sondheim-Prince musical in 1981 was a dream come true for all of the young actors in the “Merrily” company. All of those interviewed in the documentary had grown up on original cast albums, and for years had harbored visions of appearing on Broadway. It’s obvious that to a certain degree these people still feel the devastation that ensued when the show took a critical beating and abruptly closed.

We see to what extent their lives came to deviate from their youthful plans. Lonny Price, the original Charley, eventually turned to theatrical directing, and in fact directed “Best Worst Thing.” Others stayed in the business, though several supporting players, like Tonya Pinkens, Liz Callaway and, most prominently, Jason Alexander, eventually enjoyed the greatest post-“Merrily” success. Several, like Abby Pogrebin, later a “60 Minutes” producer and author, went on to entirely different careers. Suffering a monumental setback at age 20 was horrendous, but at least they all had youth and resilience on their side.

“Poignant” is the word most frequently encountered in reviews of “The Best Worst Thing,” and there’s no better reason for the usage of that word than the sight of Lonny Price watching the ABC documentary footage of his 22 year-old self. Referring to his imminent Broadway debut, young Lonny says “Even if I never do anything else, I will have had this,” which reduces older Lonny to tears. It’s not hard to read the adult’s thoughts: how little the young man knew, how much more Price went on to accomplish, what more there is in store in life and career.

Age will do that.

Posted in Theater

Indecent

Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk in INDECENT written by Paula Vogel, created by Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman, directed by Rebecca Taichman. Photo by Carol Rosegg, 2015.
Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk in “Indecent” (Photo by Carol Rosegg, 2015)

One of the joys—or woes—of live theater is its variability. An actor may be slightly off, the audience could be restless or something else may break the mood (Curse those cellphones!). On the other hand if you’re lucky all can fall into place and you’re treated to a wonderful performance. Fortunately that was the case when I saw “Indecent” last weekend at the Vineyard Theater in New York.

Created by Paula Vogel (author) and Rebecca Taichman (director), “Indecent” is a play about another play: Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance,” as well as the actors who perform it in its various incarnations. Written in 1907, “God of Vengeance” is the story of a Jew who runs a brothel in the basement of his home. Married to a former prostitute he seeks redemption through an arranged marriage between his innocent teen-aged daughter and a prized Talmudic scholar. He’s even commissioned a handwritten Torah to present to his future son-in-law as another mitzvah to wash away his sins. All comes to naught when Papa discovers daughter Rivkele has fallen in love with Manke, one of the girls downstairs, with whom she has spent the night. Enraged, he hurls the Torah to the floor and drags his daughter to the basement to work with his other girls. Curtain.

Although the play had been performed to great acclaim in Europe and in Yiddish theater in America, an English translation of “God of Vengeance” that opened on Broadway in 1923 was shut down, its cast and producers arrested and convicted of obscenity. Why? Because of the love scene between Rivkele and Manke, by turns lyrical and erotic, though most of it had been cut so as not to offend American sensibilities (The leading blue nose was a prominent Manhattan rabbi who denounced “God of Vengeance” from the pulpit as “bad for the Jews,” flying as this does in the face of Asch’s stated opinion: “Why must every Jew on stage be a paragon?”). Ultimately the actors’ convictions were overturned on appeal and the producers paid small fines, but not before the trial judge excoriated the play from the bench in a speech quoted in “Indecent” that just drips with the barely veiled antisemitism of that era.

But “Indecent” goes beyond that; it traces “God of Vengeance” from its inception to 1952 when Sholem Asch departed his adopted America for England. It’s not strictly biography or history but a cultural kaleidoscope. Presented by a company of seven actors and three musicians,  “Indecent” sounds some essential themes: the power of theater, the beauty of love, the harshness of censorship, the homogenization of culture and ultimately the survivorship of the human spirit through art. And it does so with a deft touch.

Six of the actors play multiple roles in “Indecent;” the one constant is Lemml (Richard Topol), a Polish tailor drafted to participate in the first reading of “God of Vengeance,” who acts as stage manager for both plays. As is evident from his introductory remarks, the fulcrum of “Indecent” is the love scene in “God of Vengeance” between Rivkele and Manke, referred to as “the rain scene.” One aspect of what makes “Indecent” extraordinary theater is the way Ms. Vogel and Ms. Taichman use this throughout their play and the manner in which it ultimately unfolds—twice. We see bits, pieces and other allusions at various times, but experiencing the rain scene in full is the emotional high point of the evening, as it also is in “God of Vengeance.”

Along the way there’s musical commentary by the actors and musicians: a naughty Berlin cabaret song, klezmer, a “Goodbye, God, I’m off to America” number (in which Orthodox payess, or sidelocks, become a flapper’s curls), some Charleston and—you guessed it—an Andrews Sisters-style “Bei Mir Bist Du Schein” (Yiddish meets ’30’s swing). There’s also a cameo by Eugene O’Neill, who was set to testify in defense of the 1923 production of “God of Vengeance” before the judge disallowed his appearance. It should come as no surprise that his favorite aspect of the play is Asch’s take-down of the selling of religion.

It’s somehow fitting that the full performance of the rain scene is presented by a troupe in hiding from the Nazis in the wartime Lodz Ghetto. As Lemml announces, “We’re performing Act II tonight, and God willing, if we’re still here, Act III next week.” And Katrina Lenk (Manke) and Adina Verson (Rivkele) do so, with a perfect blend of tenderness and sensuality. You think “nothing can top this” until these actors perform the scene once more, this time in Yiddish, after a disillusioned Sholem Asch leaves America. But this time it really rains—on stage—so that Manke’s stated desire, to wash Rivkele’s hair in the May rain, can become as real as Asch intended. It’s a magical sight.

The cast of “Indecent” is uniformly excellent. They’ve stayed with the play through its various stages of development, and their experience shows. Likewise the expertise of Paula Vogel in writing playwright to playwright, as it were. “Indecent” is one remarkable achievement.

Unfortunately the play’s New York run is currently set to end on June 19. Here’s hoping it’s taped by PBS—both play and production have earned it.

Posted in Music, Opera, Theater

All in a Weekend

oldhats1
Bill Irwin and David Shiner in “Old Hats”

There are ups and downs to the freelancing life, and one of the latter is sometimes having to work on holidays. While I did so on Presidents’ Day, I still enjoyed fine theater and music throughout the weekend. Unfortunately, though, I ended with the Metropolitan Opera’s latest dead-on-arrival new production, “Manon Lescaut.” In the immortal words of every baseball manager who ever lived, “You can’t win ’em all.”

Fortunately my weekend kickoff was “Old Hats,” a return engagement of the 2013 show starring Bill Irwin and David Shiner. Although I wasn’t previously familiar with David Shiner’s work, I feel like Bill Irwin and I go way back. I remember him as the mime Enrico Ballati on “Northern Exposure,” and was fortunate to see his Tony-winning performance as George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” opposite Kathleen Turner (the corrosive look those two exchanged after his “get the guests” game will remain with me forever).

“Old Hats” predictably begins with Irwin and Shiner one-upping each other in a hat routine; what follows is one cleverly outlandish sequence after another. What is most striking about the evening’s entertainment is how fresh and spontaneous they made everything seem, even after working together for twenty years. You’d think a routine featuring two politicians engaged in debate would be a yawner, but aside from the timeliness during this election year, how quickly they responded to each other became its own source of delight.

My favorite sequence in “Old Hats” consisted of an act featuring an over-the-hill magician (Shiner) and his blowsy blonde assistant (Irwin in drag). He goes into a disco move every time something goes wrong (which is frequently); she looks daggers at the young female “volunteer” from the audience who’s about to be sawed in half. In short this is a compilation of every bad act that ever appeared on the old Ed Sullivan show, and I could not stop laughing. Equally good is Shiner’s take on silent cowboy movies, featuring a cast recruited from the audience. Whether some or all of these people were plants is immaterial—Shiner’s inventiveness was amazing. I can’t remember the last time I laughed like that.

While Irwin and Shiner are for the most part silent throughout, Shaina Taub and her band who supply the music, songs and occasional sound effects fortunately are not. This is clowning at its finest, and I can’t recommend “Old Hats” highly enough.

Manon Lescaut
Love in Occupied France: “Manon Lescaut”

Had Jonas Kaufmann not cancelled his appearance in the Met’s new production of “Manon Lescaut,” the approach taken by director Richard Eyre might have worked, at least in part. Instead we were left with an ill-conceived staging that did few favors for the spirit of the work. By the end of the opera it seemed apparent that the only heroes of the night were Puccini and conductor Fabio Luisi.

Eyre set this production in Occupied France, ostensibly because he feels “Manon Lescaut” has a noirish tone. Certainly he can’t get this from the music—Act I just pops with youth and springtime. To say it killed the joy to see the stage populated with German soldiers is an understatement. Their presence begged so many questions: How could the crowd at the outdoor cafe get away with taunting them en masse? Why would the Wehrmacht, not the gendarmerie, come to arrest Manon for common theft? Any deportations during World War II would have been to the death camps, not to the swamps of Louisiana envisioned by Puccini, Massenet (composer of the earlier Manon) or even Abbé Prévost, author of the 1731 novel on which both operas are based. While I usually enjoy updated opera—I particularly liked Eyre’s own “Le Nozze di Figaro” set during the “Regle du jeu” 1930’s—the setting has to serve the work and the intentions of the composer and librettist. It did not do so here.

Jonas Kaufmann’s participation would have wall-papered over some of the shortcomings of Eyre’s approach. At least he and Kristine Opalais (Manon) would have had chemistry. Unfortunately with Roberto Alagna as des Grieux, we were stuck with two hard-working professionals who simply didn’t relate to each other. In fact despite the bedroom scene in the second act, there was no discernible heat on stage until Act III, when the lovers’ plight became desperate. I was also bothered by Eyre’s view of Manon. Simply putting Opalais in a Veronica Lake wig and silk negligee does not supply motivation for the character. Mirella Freni was the first Manon Lescaut I ever saw onstage, and though she probably wouldn’t have seen 60 again at that point, she had a firm view of the character that was expressed from within. She let you know in Act II that Manon had her bitchy side, but more than that, the character enjoyed showing it. Opalais could reach that watermark, but in a different production of “Manon Lescaut” that doesn’t saddle her with such a wrong directorial concept.

My advice is to stay home and listen to the radio broadcast on March 5. Fabio Luisi leads a sympathetic reading of the score, the singers tend to the musical side of things in good form and you won’t be distracted by all the nonsense that transpires on stage.

Preludios

 

Every so often it’s refreshing to leave the standard Italian/French/German vocal repertoire for works from other cultural traditions. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard’s recent album “Preludios” presents some wonderfully ear-catching Spanish song, including de Falla’s “Siete canciones populares españolas” and Montsalvatge’s “Cinco canciónes negras”; her performance of the latter is worth the price of the CD alone.

The Catalonian Xavier Montsalvage composed this cycle in 1946, and its reliance on both Spanish and Cuban styles resulted in the composer’s best-known work. I’ve loved this from first hearing via a Victoria de los Angeles song anthology. Her version had symphonic accompaniment; Miss Leonard is partnered by the talented pianist Brian Zeger. The high point of both song cycle and CD is without question her performance of “Canción de cuña para dormir a un negrito.” Leonard takes this work with its unusual sliding chromaticism at a markedly slower tempo than de los Angeles—it’s a lullaby after all. This, in addition to the progressively softer dynamic, serves to underscore the beauty of the alluring melody and the lovely sound of Leonard’s voice. The result is absolutely stunning. The exuberant “Canto negro” follows to end this expressive song cycle.

Brava Isabel!