Posted in Broadway Musicals, Opera, Theater

Corona Interlude

Bottom (Hammed Animashaun), Oberon (Oliver Chris) and Titania (Gwendoline Christie) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Production image: Manuel Harlan for the Bridge Theatre).

God bless the internet.

Weathering the lockdowns of COVID-19 may have robbed us of in-person live performance, but there is so much to see and hear online. The availability of free opera from a variety of sources has been amazing, from the Metropolitan Opera to Salzburg to the Vienna State Opera. I particularly enjoyed Vienna’s production of “Ariadne auf Naxos” featuring a very young Lise Davidsen as Ariadne and the wonderful Zerbinetta of Erin Morley. But what made it special was a particular feature that was so obvious, but which I had never seen done before. In this production which, judging by the costumes in the Prologue, appeared to be set in the early 1920’s, the Composer, sung by the excellent mezzo Rachel Frenkel, was on-stage throughout the opera proper. It makes a great deal of sense—it is the Composer’s opera after all, and while he had nothing to sing or speak, his attentiveness in “cueing” the singers was amusingly apt. The high point came when he “accompanied” Zerbinetta at the piano during her big aria. While the actual music came from the orchestra pit, Ms. Frenkel was so accurate in her keyboard locations throughout this long piece that I’d have to think she’s a pretty skilled pianist offstage. And the ending of the opera, which saw Zerbinetta and the Composer together as the earthly counterpart to Ariadne and Bacchus, was sweet indeed.

I had been thinking I wasn’t the Janacek fan I used to be until I recently saw the San Francisco Opera production of “The Makropoulos Affair.” When I last attended a Met performance a couple of years ago I longed for the opportunity to see the opera in HD. Since the springboard of the plot is a law suit involving an estate, it’s a very “talky” work that demands subtle acting that’s not always visible from the Family Circle. The SFO production certainly delivered with a uniformly excellent cast. While Karita Matilla, as the 337 year-old heroine, was a bit more Norma Desmond-ish than I would have liked, you couldn’t have asked for more musically. Bravi tutti!

Theater is thriving on the internet, and I have enough stockpiled links to performances to keep me busy for the next five decades. Some were especially enlightening—a regional production of “Fun Home” that proved this work loses its necessary intensity when performed on a proscenium stage instead of in the round as I saw it on Broadway, and a British production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” which I particularly enjoyed. I had never seen this musical before though I own three different cast recordings, and it was especially gratifying to finally experience the intended dramatic settings of the songs.

Of course the big event of this COVID-19 interlude was the premiere of the taped performance of “Hamilton” on Disney Plus featuring the show’s original cast. This was my second time around for “Hamilton”—I was fortunate to have seen it live on Broadway about 18 months ago by way of a win in the show’s perpetual ticket lottery. That performance’s strengths differed somewhat from the taped version—I had the benefit of a tall, handsome Hamilton who somewhat outshone the shorter, slighter, balding actor who played Burr, and while the electric give and take between audience and actors is a given in live theater, in “Hamilton” it was off the charts (Yes, the line “Immigrants, we get the job done” brought down the house). However, all bets were off at the juncture of “The Room Where It Happened” when Burr tore into that number like nobody’s business, making it the best performed part of the show. I missed that level of excitement in the taped version as well as a more consistent view of the full stage in order to see how inventively the chorus is used. Nevertheless this was more than compensated for by the superb performances of the original cast, especially that of Leslie Odom, Jr. as Burr. He had me with his melting version of “Dear Theodosia,” and it was easy to see why he, along with Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler and Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson won Tony Awards.

But without a doubt what I’ve most enjoyed during live performance exile was the National Theatre’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” directed by Nicholas Hytner. This was an immersive, anything-goes presentation with aerial stunts, the former Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) as Titania and a quartet of lovers in which the girls seemed more interested in each other than in their interchangeable boyfriends. However, the neatest trick of this production was flipping Oberon’s and Titania’s lines so that he, not she, falls in love with the donkey-fied Bottom. It was so divinely silly, and Hammad Animashaun, braying nicely as Bottom, and especially Oliver Chris as the besotted Oberon, were simply superb. But above all, a special nod goes to whomever came up with the idea of using Beyoncé’s “Love On Top” as “their” song—he or she deserves both a bonus and a raise. Simply wonderful.

Stay safe everyone. Till next time.

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.