Tony Awards 2016

A recap of the Tonys is something of a Show Me Shows tradition, but it’s also a little dangerous. Truth is, I’m not generally very critical about the Tonys. You could even call me a Tony cheerleader. So, fair warning: You may be up for several paragraphs of Julia squealing about how much she likes Broadway.

The other thing, of course, is that it feels a little wrong to post merry Tony ramblings after a national tragedy like the mass murder in Orlando. My sister Elizabeth admitted this morning that she couldn’t even really think about the Tonys in the light of the massacre, and I can understand that.

But I’ve decided to put up a few thoughts for anyone who might like to think about something a little happier for a few minutes.

The Host
James Corden was a really wonderful Tony host: charming, unobtrusive, fun. Hard for me to imagine anyone disliking him, to be honest. And I’d have him back anytime. His variety-show type opening number seemed cute but not memorable. In fact, I feel like I barely remember it even now, and it was only a day ago. But then he brought it up a notch (and I got a lump in my throat) when all the kids onstage transformed into the 2016 musical acting nominees. Bringing the nominees together in that way is one of those ideas that seems so obvious in retrospect, but I don’t remember seeing anything like it before. Such a beautiful idea to bring these talented folks together before ruining all the fun by actually picking favorites.

My only Corden quibble that I can think of: I didn’t quite understand why they showed the Carpool Karaoke segment again. It’s still cute, but we all watched it already five days ago! In a year when the Tonys went 17 minutes over its three hour time slot, it seemed completely unnecessary.

The Numbers
Hamilton and School of Rock were particular highlights in the song department. Since I’ve had little-to-no interest in School of Rock, I was a little surprised at how much fun it was. (So this is the show I’ve been sneering about for all these months. Hmm. Maybe I should rethink my uninformed opinion.) As for the other shows: not bad, for the most part! I generally take an anti-medley stance, but the She Loves Me numbers worked well, probably because they all look like they’re having so much fun. Spring Awakening‘s number was which was a jubilant excerpt, whereas Shuffle Along seemed a little jumbled. (But maybe that’s because everyone watching at Cheryl’s house got distracted trying to figure out how far along Audra McDonald is. Surely no more than four months? Four and a half?)

Some other ones didn’t quite work for me, though: On Your Feet gave me no indication that this was a must-see. Although I believe people tend to like it, so maybe I’m not giving it a shot. Maybe I’ll check it out eventually, but it’s pretty low on my priority list. As for Gloria Estefan, who performed with the cast: my friend Meredith hilariously pointed out how annoying it would be to have to sing and dance next to a decades younger, and far more limber version of yourself. Yikes. But maybe Gloria Estefan isn’t troubled about things like that. (After all, it didn’t seem to bother Carole King back in 2014.) Bright Star was all right, I suppose, because Carmen Cusack really is great, but those lyrics sound worse and worse every time you hear them.

More problematic: I really wish musicals would stop featuring the Big Act Two diva number on the Tonys. I’m referring specifically to Waitress and The Color Purple. Now, as I said in my reviews, I’m a big fan of both Jessie Mueller and Cynthia Erivo, but both of their songs come as the climax after a long build-up through the course of the show. Why not save the big number for the theater, and include something a little more accessible for the Tony viewers? I vividly remember seeing the Caroline or Change Tony number in 2004 and thinking “WHAT is this woman shouting about???” Of course, that song is incredibly powerful in context, but it seemed so incomprehensible without knowing the show itself. I later fell in love with the song — and the show — but only because I was given a free ticket and gave it another chance.

On the other hand, I can admit that Bernadette Peters’s Rose’s Turn, which is exactly the kind of song I usually rail against, was a wonderful documentation of an incredible performance. The same can be said for many others, I’m sure. I generally go for winning over the audience rather than documenting a performance, though, and I tend to think producers are crazy for not agreeing with me.

The Big Winner
I just looked over my Tony recaps from 2014 and 2015, and funnily enough, both of them end with a mention of Hamilton. In 2014 I mentioned the shows I was looking forward to in the year to come:

… And all the exciting Off-Broadway shows we’ll be getting, like Hamilton and who knows what else.

Then in 2015:

In any case, I’m happy to relax and celebrate Fun Home‘s very well deserved win while waiting for Hamilton‘s coronation next year. For once, a Best Musical race won’t be stressful. (I’d say “famous last words” but seriously. No one is beating Hamilton.)

Last night was the culmination of all that. It felt like the end of the road in a sense — I know the show isn’t going anywhere, but I can’t afford another ticket, and Lin-Manuel Miranda is leaving in a month, and I know the CD by heart. What more is there to do, or say here? I’ve even found myself listening to Hamilton a lot less lately. Just feels like time to move on.

Yesterday I spent an embarrassingly large portion of the day watching old highlights of Tony performances. I couldn’t get enough. Seeing those shows again after all these years — shows like like Ragtime, A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park with George, Annie, Cabaret, In the Heights and dozens more — I felt as though I was getting a welcoming hug from an old friend. It brought back so many good memories. So who knows? Maybe in 20 years when Hamilton is well past its prime or long closed, I’ll turn on that clip and see Barack Obama’s introduction, and the youthful and vibrant cast, and Lin-Manuel Miranda performing his own songs and I’ll think. “Oh yes. What a magical time.”

What’s Next?
I’m freely admitting that I’m way behind on plays, and I hope to catch up over my summer blogging sabbatical*. Obviously I’ll have to get to The Humans, but I don’t think I’ll get to The Father before it closes. Intellectually, I’m interested in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but I must say that Cheryl dampened my enthusiasm a bit at her Tony party by reminding me that it’s four hours of people making each other miserable. (Ugh, do I hafta? Sounds like homework.) As for musicals, I’m going to try and catch School of Rock, and everyone at Cheryl’s party felt like Fiddler would be fun to experience again. We may arrange an outing.

As for next year? I missed Dear Evan Hansen at Second Stage, but rumor has it it’s already a strong contender for Best Musical next June. Looking at Playbill’s schedule of upcoming Broadway shows, it looks like we’re in for a lot of play revivals (The Cherry Orchard, The Front Page, The Master Builder, etc). What else is new, though? We have a lot of play revivals every year. But a few of the new musicals (A Bronx Tale, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Bandstand) look intriguing. And I did like Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet a whole lot when I saw it in the tent a few years ago. I will say that nothing on Playbill’s upcoming shows page makes me think we’ll have anything like another Hamilton on our hands. But as a great man once said: “There is one word in America that says it all, and that one word is, ‘You never know.'” So who knows what 2016-2017 will feature? Bring it on!


* – Note: I am not announcing that I am absolutely taking a summer sabbatical from writing blog posts, but it may happen despite all my best intentions. Seems to be a pattern with me.

Tony Nominations 2016

First of all: Happy Tony day, everyone! I’ll be watching the show from my friend Cheryl’s house and playing Tony Bingo. (Aside: You wouldn’t believe the Hamilton-related prize I have for the bingo winner. ) I had been planning to do a full post on a few of the plays and musicals nominated for a Tony. And here it is, Tony Sunday already, so I’d better get something up before I run out of time! I’m a little behind on plays, to be honest, so I’ll just focus on musicals for today.

Hamilton

hamiltonHamilton is, of course, nominated for nearly everything and a lock to win quite a few awards tonight. I haven’t mentioned Hamilton much on this blog since my original review of the Off-Broadway production. (I’ve been telling people to buy tickets since I first saw the show back in February of 2015. This has the effect of making everyone even more annoyed at my I-told-you-sos than they are at Hamilton’s producers for the ticket prices.) I have since seen it twice on Broadway, and am proud to take full responsibility for introducing nearly my entire family to the show. (They all love it. But then so does everyone.)

What’s left to say? It’s a wonderful show, and it deserves much of the hype it has received. And yet. Like many others, I have been feeling a bit of backlash. I mean, Hamilton is a great show, but there are lots of great shows on Broadway. Can’t get a ticket to Hamilton? Go see Fun Home, or The Color Purple, or Waitress, or Shuffle Along, or any one of a dozen other terrific shows currently on Broadway.

Oh, and one more thing: If you do snag tickets to Hamilton, I’d recommend doing what I did when my mom and sister came to see the show: try visiting Hamilton Grange before your performance. It’s a great and quick tour of his uptown home, and seeing it gives a wonderful context to the show’s history. And if you get the same tour guide as I did, you’ll be amused at how hilariously dismissive he is of the musical. (Ask him if he plans to see it, or if he knows the song “It’s Quiet Uptown”, or what he thinks of the cast recording. It will drive him up the wall.)

Bright Star

bright starI’m going to try and be quick about this, because I’m really trying not to get too negative on this blog these days. I mean, I am sometimes of two minds about this blogging thing altogether. These people are working their hardest to put on a Broadway show, and I come in and announce that it’s no good for x, y and z reasons. It just seems hubristic, right? Who the heck am I to say anything about the ultimate quality of a show? Maybe it was always their dream to get to Broadway. And here I’m dismissing it altogether?

On the other hand, I use this blog as a way to engage with the art that I love. And I pay for most of the shows I see, and the box office is very happy to accept my money. So why shouldn’t I express my opinion? Furthermore, this is not a high-trafficked blog, anyway, so I don’t worry about it too much. But I still don’t want to be mean about shows just for the fun of it. Which is why I never blogged about Bright Star, even though I saw it back in February. I hated it, and I hated it so much that I get a little startled when some people tell me they kinda liked it. My honest opinion is that it would never have made it to Broadway if it weren’t written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell.

Why did I hate it? Well, mostly because of the book. It’s a totally ridiculous story about a fortyish book editor (Carmen Cusack, who is actually really great) who meets an aspiring young writer with a surprising connection to her secret past. (Hmm. That doesn’t sound so bad. Well, it would sound awful if I told you the ridiculous plot twists. Let’s just say the show may or may not feature a baby being tossed off a bridge.) And it’s so, uh, white. (I believe they’re calling it “White Star” over on Twitter.) I don’t know. I mean, writers have to tell the stories they want to tell, but here’s the thing. A story set in the post World War II South that doesn’t even mention that black people exist, or portray any onstage, just seems a little tone deaf in a season of musicals like Hamilton and Shuffle Along.

That said, there’s one thing I did like about Bright Star, and that’s the music. Mr. Martin and Ms. Brickell apparently got the idea for the show from their award-winning bluegrass album. So the songs are good, though the lyrics are pretty trite and ridiculous (“If you knew my story, my heaven and my hell, if you knew my story, you’d have a good story to tell”). The voices and the band and the harmonies sound so glorious in the theater that I was occasionally tempted to forgive the show’s flaws and just flow with the music. Other bluegrass lovers may feel the score washes away the show’s problems, for the most part. But I wasn’t able to overcome my distaste for the story. So I can’t recommend this show.

She Loves Me

she loves meI just saw this one ten days ago, actually, and have been too busy with work and travel since then to write a full blog post about it. Critics have been calling this production a nearly perfect restaging of a nearly perfect musical. I don’t know that I’d go so far, to be honest. I’ve only just realized it, but I have some problems with the show’s writing.

But that sounds a bit negative, doesn’t it? Let’s start with the positive: first of all, the music is just as good as it ever was. Everyone else grew up listening to the cd too, right? (If you didn’t: She Loves Me is based on the same story as You’ve Got Mail or The Shop Around the Corner). What fabulous musical theater songs!

The set is so beautiful that I wanted to get a job at Maracek’s Parfumerie myself — imagine working in that jewel box! Scott Ellis’s direction is smooth, perhaps even occasionally overly slick (I could have done with a little less physical comedy, perhaps). But that’s a quibble. Because best of all is the cast: Zachary Levi is completely charming as leading man Georg, and both Jane Krakowski and Gavin Creel are letter-perfect in their featured roles. This is truly an ensemble show, and absolutely everyone does a wonderful job.

Including leading lady Laura Benanti. Let it be said that I totally love Laura Benanti. She’s a great actress, her voice is lovely and she has fantastic comic timing. Basically, she’s a gift to Broadway and has an awesome Twitter feed to boot. I truly don’t think what I’m about to complain about is her fault. But why is everyone calling this a perfect musical when the character of Amalia is a bit of a mess? This is a girl who charges into a parfumerie and gets a job through sheer moxie. She doesn’t seem shy. She seems awesome! But then her lyrics tell a different story:

Will he like me when we meet?
Will the shy and quiet girl he’s going to see
Be the girl that he’s imagined me to be?

Or:

I make believe nothing is wrong
How long can I pretend?
Please make it right, don’t break my heart….

I don’t know. Maybe I’m being unfair. I guess this is supposed to represent the inner life of the character, but I wasn’t convinced. Because Laura Benanti can play a shy and quiet character. (She won a Tony as Louise in Gypsy for crying out loud.) But this role isn’t shy! She’s open, brash, fun, a little klutzy. Why aren’t her songs more reflective of the character we see in the book scenes?

If your big complaint about a show, though, is a nitpick about some a few of the lyrics for the leading lady, you are sitting pretty. She Loves Me is a great pick if you are looking for a show to take your parents, or your date, or if you just want to take your mind off your troubles, or if you just want to see a musical that truly appreciates ice cream.

The Color Purple

color purpleI was in the ticketholders’ line outside the Jacobs a few weeks ago when I heard the news: Cynthia Erivo was out sick that night. (I do believe I moaned in dismay.) I’d heard so many good things about her performance that I decided to rebook. The box office folks switched my ticket with no extra charges, and the next week I tried again.

And wow. Does she ever live up to the hype! Where do I begin describing her performance? Well, let’s start with this: she’s got a voice and a half. I mean, we’re talking Whitney Houston-caliber vocals. The songs sound incredible. And she is onstage for the vast majority of the show. It must be an incredibly physically demanding role. (How on earth did she run a half-marathon and do two shows, all in one day?) But that’s not really what impressed me so much. Her character, Celie, transforms from an abused and downtrodden girl into an independent powerhouse woman, and is totally believable throughout. She nails the comedic moments, and the drama, and the songs as well. Ms. Erivo is a beautiful lady, of course, but her demeanor in the first act of the show even had me believing it when other characters kept calling her ugly. And then by the end of the end of the show, when Celie has made a new start for herself, I thought “Oh my goodness. She radiates joy.” I’ve said before that expressing joy is what musicals do best, and Cynthia Erivo is doing it better than anyone I’ve seen in a long time. For the first time in my life, I burst into tears at the curtain call. Bravo.

As for the rest of the cast — well, they’re all great. And I don’t mean to pick favorites, but Heather Headley (a new arrival to the cast) is fabulous as Shug (Celie’s friend and sometime love interest). Confident, sexy, warm — no wonder everyone onstage loves Shug so much. It is so good to see Heather Headley on Broadway again. And Danielle Brooks lights up the stage as Sophia, Celie’s ballsy friend.

And what did I think of the show itself? Well, I thought that it seemed like a pretty strong musical, actually. The songs were lively, the story propelled along nicely, the characterization was great, and all in all I liked it a lot.

If my description sounds like it’s a new musical, that’s because it was a new musical to me. I had missed the entire original run of The Color Purple (I don’t recall why — perhaps I was busy ushering?). So who can say if I’d have liked it? The critical consensus is that original was not great, whereas this new production is revelatory. I wonder if that’s really true. Don’t get me wrong. I loved the show, and I would certainly vote for it as Best Revival of a Musical. (And I think it will win! Hooray!) But — and I’m just throwing this out there — maybe the fault is a little more with us than we’d like to admit? Could it be that The Color Purple had virtues that few noticed in the original run? I make this suggestion because my friend Vanessa, who has seen both, seemed a little confused about why this production was considered so superior to the original. I think for those who were looking, The Color Purple was always a little better than what it had been given credit for.

Best of luck to all the Tony nominees and congratulations to everyone one such a stellar season. I feel so lucky to have been a witness to it. Cheers to Broadway!

Review: Hamilton

2015-02-10 19.40.51In describing Fun Home I’d have used the word terrific; I’d have called The Book of Mormon gleefully brilliant; Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is adorably delightful. The word that keeps popping into my head for Hamilton: Magnificent. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical about our “ten-dollar founding father” — currently onstage at the Public Theater — is one of the best shows I’ve seen in years. It even tops the three wonderful musicals I just mentioned. It’s the kind of production you would want to travel to New York to see. And all I can say is that I hope this one’s going to be around a long, long time.

Are you taken aback by my hyperbole? Am I laying it on too thick? Then let me try to convince you.

You might be familiar with Alexander Hamilton as our first Treasury Secretary, author of the Federalist papers, adversary of Thomas Jefferson, victim of a duel with Aaron Burr. The show gets into all that, and it’s totally fascinating. But what makes it even more interesting is Mr. Miranda’s modern and joyous approach. He said a few years ago that Alexander Hamilton “embodies hip-hop” because of his immigrant background, illegitimate birth, and passionate belief that his writing could get him anywhere in life. Hamilton, then, is a musical grounded in actual history but using very contemporary urban vernacular. In other words, the founding fathers — here played by actors of many cultures — rap. A lot.

In Mr. Miranda’s earlier shows, hip-hop had been a sort of fun alternative to the traditional sung numbers, giving the shows a vibrant feel but never taking over dramatically. Hamilton is different. It’s sung-through, but the majority of the songs are rapped: A cabinet meeting becomes a rap battle, for example. It’s fantastic stuff. In fact it works so well that I am bit stunned it’s taken so long for me to realize the full dramatic potential of rap in a work of theater. Honestly, the language is so dense and colorful that it feels almost Shakespearian. (Stop rolling your eyes! I said almost. Anyway Oskar Eustis says something along these lines in the show program too.)

2015-02-10 19.31.26And the songs aren’t its only strength. I knew Mr. Miranda could write terrific numbers (In the Heights, of course, but also Bring it On and his Tony raps) but I wasn’t entirely certain that he would be as good when it came to constructing a dramatic arc. That’s because my big complaint about In the Heights was that it involved ridiculous plot twists: a character winning the lottery, for example. (My Puerto Rican friend Cristina, upon hearing this criticism, said, “Julia, you don’t understand Latino culture. The lotto is a part of our daily lives!”) In any case, I have no such reservations with Hamilton. It builds beautifully from Hamilton’s first meeting with Burr — who is the cautious foil to the hotheaded and passionate Hamilton — to their final duel. It’s beautifully structured, and along the way there is a ton of humor, clever callbacks, subtle characterization. This show seems to have simply everything going for it.

Including a fantastic production. Lin-Manuel Miranda plays Hamilton, of course, and is as winning as he ever is, leading a phenomenal cast. Standouts include Daveed Diggs as the Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson and Leslie Odom, Jr. as the doomed Aaron Burr. Brian D’Arcy James was pitch-perfect as the hilariously arrogant King George III. And my favorite of all was Christopher Jackson as George Washington, who embodies incredible dignity and strength. You understand, watching Mr. Jackson, just why George Washington towered over his fellow revolutionaries.

There are other musicals that succeed in doing just what they intend to. Lots, in fact. Hamilton is unusual, though, in that few of the big hits of recent years contain this kind of dramatic weight. To my great surprise, Hamilton had me in tears by the end of the evening. To be honest, in its historical sweep and raw emotional power I kept thinking of Les Miserables. (This morning I read the New Yorker article on Hamilton in which Mr. Miranda says “I really got my Les Miz on in this score,” so I suppose the link was intentional. He’s definitely obsessed with Les Miz, that’s for sure.) Here’s a dramatic musical that earns its emotional payoff without ever being maudlin. Even better is that all of these historical figures are portrayed by such a wonderfully multiethnic cast. They, along with the score, help illustrate that the founding fathers’ story isn’t some remote tale of heroes or dead white guys. We got here because of a bunch of passionate and determined people, who fought for what they believed in and ultimately created something greater than themselves. And that’s an origin story for all of us.

2015-02-10 13.30.09Now that I’ve gotten this far, I feel like I should backpedal. Am I overselling this? I’ve certainly been guilty of buying into hype over new musicals before. But even if that’s true, Hamilton is still quite an achievement. This show is incredibly rich with wit, heart, intelligence, character. It’s beautifully performed. The staging from Thomas Kail is flawless. The choreography from Andy Blankenbuehler perfectly suits the vibrance of the score. The lyrics contain a richness and symbolism that is rare for a musical. I wish I could see it again.

Magnificent.

My Grade: A+
Running Time: 2 Hours, 50 minutes
Ticket price: $50
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes