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Words and Music

The Yale School of Drama has just announced an $18 million gift.  A gift that substantial (to an arts program!) is newsworthy enough, but this gift is not for a building or other monument to immortality.  The gift is for the creation of new plays and musicals.  Musicals.

Knowing nothing of the details of the gift or of the business dealings that led to such largess (the gift was bequeathed by the late alumnus James Binger) I can only shout “Hurrah!”  Lots of universities, philanthropists and celebrities love to talk about supporting the arts.  (And why not? Who in the world would argue with that sentiment?  It’s right up there with; “children are our future.”)

Financing the development of new works in a university theoretically fosters a purely artistic basis that may not exist in a theatre company.  Even not-for-profit theatre companies have to sell tickets.  The theatre laboratory in a university setting is not entirely novel.  But when is the last time you heard of an Ivy League university investing in musical theatre?  I have nothing but respect for musical theatre.  I am a 100% Sit Down You’re Rockin The Boat, Nothing’s Gonna Harm You, 7 1/2 Cents, If You Could See Me Now, kinda gal.  But in some circles musical theatre is often a punch line.  It’s seen as the goofy cut-up sitting at the grown-up’s table.  Yet, creating an excellent musical is exceedingly difficult and involves collaborations that can only be categorized as alchemic.

During the past decade some truly magical new musical works have made their way to the New York stage.  Spring Awakening and Passing Strange reinvented the concept of book and score to great results.  The Light in the Piazza was a fresh, delicate and beautiful new work in the most traditional of formats.  It is these musicals we must remember when we think of all the movie-to-musical or comic book-to-musical shows dotting the great white way.  (Note: The Light in the Piazza was technically a movie-to-musical but the movie was 50 years old and the musical so self-contained and lovely that aside from the royalty issue, its origins were immaterial.)

Creating a great musical takes a great book, great lyrics, a great score and great choreography.  Collaborations must be created and fostered.  It has been at least a generation since we’ve had a notable musical team.  We still swoon over photos of the creators of West Side Story at work, for that very reason.  Universities (the places that bring us friends for life by virtue of the randomness of roommate assignments or drunken evenings) are the very place to foster these relationships.

Recently we’ve been hearing less than glowing tales of how higher education is serving students.  We know that funds to the arts have been decreasing for some time and we need only take a walk through Times Square to see where innovation in musical theatre stands.  This ($18 million) gift Yale, may in fact be a gift to theatre lovers everywhere.

*Photo: (left to right) Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Hal Prince and Robert Griffith (seated), Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins

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Posted by on April 26, 2012 in Education

 

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And God Created Great Whales – Review

It is rare that a new musical production appears; beautifully crafted and perfectly executed.  And God Created Great Whales is just that.  This two-person play is the story of Nathan (Rinde Eckert) and his muse Olivia (Nora Cole) and their creation of a Moby Dick opera.  Olivia is Nathan’s fantasy, inspiration and musical partner.  She is also often all that is left of his mind.  Nathan is suffering from a rapidly progressing form of memory loss.

The stage is set with several cassette tape recorders, post-it notes, and flashcards.  Evidently, Nathan in the first throes of his illness created effective prompts for the future diminished Nathan.  Through much of the play Nathan wears a recorder around his neck, duct taped to his waist.  Each session at his piano starts with listening to the tape.  He must listen to more and more of these previously recorded reminders as to who he is and what he’s doing as the play progresses.   It would be unbearable to watch if not for the rich bursts of lush operatic score that emerge. The opera is the play within the play and allows for ravishing duets and solos.

There is also much humor in the play.  But its true Amazonian strength is its flawless storytelling.  What could be a depressing and predictably sentimental theme is made beautiful and inspiring.  There is simply no separating the performers from the performance in this production.  Eckert and Cole are mature actors completely immersed in their characters.  They move like trained dancers, in and around each other on the thrust stage.  Eckert is also the creator of the play (and score) as well as the sound designer.  The sound design of this production is worthy of its own review.  It would be overstating to suggest that the sound is a third character in the play.  The lighting (John Torres, Caleb Wertenbaker) and costuming (Clint Ramos) add a great deal to the very exposed and intimate stage.  But it is the fluidity and high production value of the sound that are the most essential.

Directed by David Schweizer, there is a wholeness to this play that is rarely seen on or off-Broadway.  There is not a whiff of anything forced, or a moment that doesn’t exist to propel the story forward.  The structure of the storytelling is very traditional which leaves room for great innovation.  (This alchemy is similar to that of Passing Strange (2008) and Unnatural Acts (2011.))  Both actors are on stage for 90 minutes and at every moment are completely mesmerizing .  My only complaint is I often could not watch both of them at once.  There is much to linger with this play; the fragility and resilience of the mind, the mysteries of the creative process, the many means to an end.  But what will stay with me is a paragon of musical theatre.

Playing at Culture Project until March 25th.

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Who Wants To Be A Producer?

When they offered tickets to Hugh Jackman’s staged concert at $250, I was concerned.  When they raised the price to $350 I felt a spell coming on.  I cast no dispersions on Mr. Jackman.  I have seen him perform live (at the Tony awards) and he is a gem.  I am also a believer in a free economy and can often be spotted muttering; “people will buy whatever you sell them.”  Yet, there is something about the pricing of these tickets that is disturbing me beyond all reason.

I am not an economist (to such an extent, I hear only white noise when people discuss long-term investments,) but I feel in my bones, that there is something “off” about a $350 ticket to a performance of anything.  I will defend Mr. Jackman’s producers’ right to charge whatever people will pay, but I have trepidation.  I’m worried about what this will (continue to) lead to.

For decades, people have paid extraordinary sums to attend concerts.  Even un-scalped tickets have been in the triple digits for quite some time.  I’ve long suspected it is due to the rarity of seeing what you’ve been hearing.  In that vein, Mr. Jackman’s ticket pricing is almost normative, however I’m willing to wager that his audience is thinking; “Broadway show” not “Concert.”  Therein lies the concern.  If in fact we are creating/supporting a theatre audience who will pay $350 for a concert, is this helping or hurting Broadway?

How do we support a rich creative process for producing new theatrical works of art in a world in which a producer can charge $350 for a concert on Broadway?  In 1961 a ticket to see Judy Garland concert (a comparison, no doubt The Boy From Oz would appreciate) was $7.00.  In 1961 the average Broadway theatre ticket was between $5.00 and $9.00.  I don’t pretend that this 1:1 ratio does or should still exist.  I would however, urge us to detect a trend in the amount of offerings (and pricing) of 1961 Broadway and that of 2011.

When jukebox, comic book and made-from-t.v.-or-film musicals, are bringing in millions, is there still room for new book musicals?  Do they even belong on the main-stage any longer?  Every couple of years we are graced with an inspiring wonderful new musical.  The Light In The Piazza (2005,) Spring Awakening (2006) and Passing Strange (2008) come to mind as shocking in their originality and magic.  These shows bubbled up like a tree growing in Brooklyn; defying all odds.  If you are a producer how much are you willing to risk?  A million dollars invested in a Hugh Jackman show or a jukebox musical cast with contest winners will guarantee a healthy return and perhaps a step onto the stage at the Tony awards.  Isn’t that prospect a little more enticing than ponying up a million dollars for something which artistically makes one’s heart sing, but comes with no prospect of a $350 ticket?  Where does this leave/lead us?

 
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Posted by on November 25, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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