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!

Tony Awards 2015

Just like last year, I went to my friend Vanessa’s to watch the Tonys, dish on the nominees, and nosh on some lovely vegan food. And just like last year, I’m writing up a few of my post-Tony musings for you.

The Hosts
Alan Cumming and Kristin Chenoweth were cheesy, they mugged too frequently, they worked some pretty lame jokes, and they were given lousy song and dance material. Kristin could hardly walk in those massive heels. Alan looked ludicrous in those shorts. And you know what? I liked ’em anyway. I found them dorky and lovable. There was no pretense that this show was for anyone but theater nerds, and to me they fit much better into the Tonysphere than Hugh Jackman and his Hollywood splash. Of course, they were not any match for Neil Patrick Harris, but come now. They were never going to be any match for Neil Patrick Harris. I don’t care that it wasn’t objectively a very good hosting performance. I liked the silly irreverence a lot more than the bloated grandiosity of the Oscars. They were cute.

The Numbers
Halfway through, I turned to Vanessa and exclaimed: All the show numbers thus far were pretty terrific! Wow! Something Rotten‘s big number translated fairly well, Gigi seemed like old-fashioned fun, An American in Paris looked beautiful. Plus On The Town and The King and I showed that Tony medleys can sometimes work. (I generally hate Tony medleys. Just do one song!) Fun Home sounded wonderful, of course, though I do wonder why they cut the very helpful line from Beth Malone’s Big Allison at the beginning. “She was a delivery woman, an old school butch” is how the song is introduced onstage, and those lines were inexplicably missing. I almost wonder if Sydney Lucas accidentally started too early and cut off that line from Beth Malone. Or maybe the orchestra started too early and she had no choice. Something seemed messed up. In any case, it was a lovely performance once it got going.

Things went pear-shaped later in the telecast, though. The Finding Neverland song was completely ridiculous (“I don’t remember anything like THIS in the movie…” I said, dumbfounded) and On The Twentieth Century medley was frenetic, manic, and confusing. (Again, medleys don’t usually work, producers!) And then there was The Visit. What a mess! As Vanessa, who hadn’t seen the show, exclaimed halfway through the song: “I DON’T UNDERSTAND THESE PEOPLE!” I explained a little bit of the context (“Well, Chita was dancing with her younger self, and those guys are singing like that because they are eunuchs”) but how the show’s producers gave it the green light baffles me. Josh Groban’s In Memoriam was OK, I guess, especially once the stage filled up with Broadway performers and musicians, but the Tommy Tune tribute was simply pathetic. And that closing number: I like Jersey Boys, but enough already! Why is Jersey Boys always on the Tonys?

The Best Actress
I’m going to focus on one Tony winner in particular: Kelli O’Hara. Since I didn’t write about The King and I when I saw it (it was during my fallow period), I thought I’d give a few thoughts on her performance. To get right to it: I was a little surprised that this was the performance that finally won her a Tony. Don’t get me wrong, she was a good Anna Leonowens: She was poised, she was determined, she was in lovely voice, she looks beautiful as ever. But to me she didn’t bring anything revelatory or particularly moving to the role. I didn’t find myself getting choked up during “Hello Young Lovers”, and I wasn’t emotionally drawn into the love story between Anna and the King either.

I have two theories as to why this was the case.

  • Theory One is that’s my fault: I have become so deeply familiar with The King and I that I’m more or less immune to it by this point. How many times have I seen the movie? How many times have I listened to the cast recordings? How many times have I seen the stage show over the years? And this production, though lovely, doesn’t really plumb new depths in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic. It doesn’t matter what kind of performance she is giving, because I’ve exhausted the emotional possibilities of this musical through overexposure.
  • Theory Two puts a little more blame on Ms. O’Hara. A friend made the case that “She has absolutely no warmth!” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I do think she really played to her strengths in Bridges. Her role as Francesca was a little more thoughtful, a little more still, a little more wistful. Two minutes into her performance of the Bridges opening number and I’m ready to give her a dozen Tonys, but as Anna she just didn’t win me over in the same way. Perhaps it’s just not as good of a fit.

In any case, I haven’t seen On the Twentieth Century, so I certainly can’t say Kristin Chenoweth deserved it more. Plus Ms. O’Hara gave an absolutely lovely thank you speech. It’s just wonderful to see an actress who has really focused her career on Broadway finally get her due. I just wish that she’d have gotten the award last year, when I was rooting for her wholeheartedly.

The Big Win
And then of course, there was Fun Home‘s win for Best Musical. The highlight of the night, of course. If you saw my last post (or have spoken to me in the last few weeks) you know that I was simply desperate for this show to get the recognition it deserves. I was full of preemptive woe and irritation. In fact I’ve essentially been throwing a tantrum all week as though An American in Paris had the thing sewn up: “Broadway doesn’t know a good thing when it gets it!” “Why are we so concerned about which show is going to tour better? Can’t we just give the best musical Tony to the actual best musical of the season?” “How is a movie musical adaptation a NEW MUSICAL?” “What is WITH the Gershwin obsession anyway?”

Naturally, I gasped and cheered when Jason Alexander said: “Bravo. Fun Home.” Oh Tony voters. Let’s be friends again. I like you better than ever and that ridiculous win for Kinky Boots is a distant memory. However on my bike ride home I gave it a bit more thought: “Now why am I so thrilled that the Tony voters picked the obvious best musical? WE SHOULD BE EXPECTING THIS!”  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.)

The Shows I Want to See Now
The Tonys left me wanting to see The Curious Incident, of course, but no more than I’d already wanted to see it. No surprise there, as plays are barely featured in the telecast. As for musicals: I’m sure I’ll get to An American in Paris at some point, though to be honest I’m a little reluctant to pay $57 for a balcony ticket. I may wait a few years until it goes back up on TDF. On the Twentieth Century didn’t particularly tempt me, but on the other hand, when will I have a chance to see a high caliber production of that musical again? Maybe I should look into tickets. As for next season: I know I’m going to see Hamilton on Broadway in August; beyond that I know I am interested in American Psycho, School of Rock, and who knows what else. As ever, I can’t wait to see what the next year will bring. Bring it on!

Best Musical Tony Nominees, 2015

First, let me apologize for the unexpected intermission. If Previous Julia (that’s Julia 2014, or PJ as I call her), Future Julia (the me of 2016 — FJ) and me (Jules) had a discussion on why I’ve been so disinterested in blogging over the past few months, it might go something like this:

PJ: So wait, I started this blog in March of 2014 and you have already lost interest by April of 2015?
Me: Well, no, I– I’ve been really busy—
PJ: What on earth happened? Did you come up with another ridiculous, expensive and time-consuming hobby along the lines of boardgaming (2013)/homebrewing (2006)/sewing (2014)/knitting (2009)/whatever?
Me: Erm– Well, yes, but—
FJ: Oh you won’t believe her latest ridiculous hobby. She’s trying to swing dance!
PJ: Oh, hmmm, actually I’ve always wanted to learn to swing dance. Maybe I should take it up. Am I good at it?
FJ: Not remotely good at it. And Jules still hasn’t been doing anything for me either in terms of saving money.
Me: Wait, why are Past and Future Julias both so judgy? Can the three of us talk about something more pleasant? Like my desperate longing for Fun Home to win Best Musical on Sunday?
PJ: Wait, Fun Home MIGHT NOT WIN? It swept all those Drama Desk/Lortel-type awards in 2014!
Me: I know. I’m feeling blindsided too.
FJ: I know who won!
Me: You are always so cagey with your information, FJ.
FJ: Anyway, Jules, can you please buy a subscription to Playwrights Horizons? And start working out more?
Me: I could tell Past Julia the same thing.
PJ: I hate working out.
FJ: Me too.
Me: Me too.
PJ: Anyway, Jules, please start blogging again. You’re embarrassing me.

(Yes, I really do talk about Previous Julia and Future Julia all the time. Usually I’m complaining about PJ failing to do nice things for me. Or sometimes I announce that I’m leaving FJ to deal with my problems later.) Anyway, enough with that nonsense. Shall I get right into it, then? Here are my thoughts on the Best Musical Tony nominees of 2015.

2015-04-09 20.01.05Fun Home
“Now THAT’s a musical!!!” — My first thought when the lights came up after seeing this remarkable show on Broadway.

In fact one of the reasons I’ve felt so inclined to start writing again is that I’ve been unable to stop talking about Fun Home in the runup to the Tonys. It’s a little embarrassing. The #juliaspeeches have really revved up since the Tony nominations came out, because it’s recently come to my attention that this show may not win the Best Musical Tony. Apparently the favorite is actually An American in Paris. (WHAAAAAT? But more on that in a minute.)

What makes it so good? For those of you who don’t know the story, it’s based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel about growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania with a closeted father and the dawning realization that she was gay, too. Fun home is the family’s nickname for their funeral home, the family business.

Has musical theater written all over it, doesn’t it?

Maybe not, but the authors — Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) — have done a phenomenal job of dramatizing the story. Alison is played by three terrific actresses: Beth Malone as our 43-year-old narrator, Emily Skeggs as a college-aged Alison, and Sydney Lucas as a child. The story jumps around quite a bit, but no matter: the storytelling is sharp, crystal-clear and compelling as hell. Despite the seriousness of the show’s themes — you find out early on that Alison’s father committed suicide just a few months after Alison came out in college — it’s not a heavy or preachy show like some I could name (cough cough, The Visit, cough cough); it’s a joy to sit through. That’s because Fun Home handles its coming-of-age themes with wit, creativity, and intelligence. Plus the songs are great! (Is Jeanine Tesori a gift from the Broadway gods, or what?)

And the production is outstanding too: in addition to Three Fantastic Alison Bechdels (or T-fab, as I like to call them), you have Michael Cerveris giving his customary textured, intense, affecting performance as Alison’s miserably closeted father Bruce. And you have the always wonderful Judy Kuhn as Alison’s long-suffering mother Helen. It’s performed in the round at Circle in the Square, and for the most part the staging (by Sam Gold) plays even better than it did at the Public in 2013. (There are a few moments I couldn’t see, but mostly it was fine.)

I told my roommate, who doesn’t care for musicals at all, that this is the type of show I’d take him to see if he’d let me. I don’t think it would sell him on musicals, but if he saw Fun Home, I feel like he’d have a better sense of just what a musical can do. A terrific musical can turn an ordinary moment in life into a magical, joyous, seemingly spontaneous expression of emotion, realization, or connection. It can take a philosophical, thoughtful, deeply personal graphic novel and make it into a coming-of-age story for all of us. And it can make us laugh and cry while doing so.

This is what you call a terrific musical.

2015-04-15 19.51.17The Visit
My wordiness and exuberance come to a screeching halt when I think about The Visit. When people have asked me about it, I can’t get much beyond merely saying: “Well, it’s bleak.” I wasn’t familiar with the play beforehand, but it’s about a rich old lady (Chita Rivera!) who comes back to her hometown to exact revenge on the teenage boyfriend who jilted her.

Already bleak, but then there’s the John Doyle production, full of drab colors and sad faces. It’s heavy-handed too. (For example, there’s a coffin used as a prop throughout.) You do have the wondrous Ms. Rivera onstage, and that accounts for something indeed: at 82 she can still command a stage and win over an audience with just a few words. But no matter how much I liked her (and the rest of the cast, including Jason Danieley and Roger Rees), I couldn’t warm up to the show. I just wish it gave me a little something to hang onto. I constantly felt the Brechtian distancing techniques pushing me away, so much so that I couldn’t feel for any of the characters at all. Even when the show seemed to want me to.

All that said, this is probably the last new Kander and Ebb show on Broadway, and it feels wonderfully unapologetic and uncompromising. It’s far from their best, but it does remind you just why we are so lucky that they decided to write musicals together. Thanks, fellas.

Something Rotten!
This one is fun. I keep thinking of Spamalot as a kind of equivalent show: it was similarly funny, with a terrific cast, an audience-pleasing tone, and a shiny, happy sheen to it. In a weaker year Rotten! might well have won the Best Musical prize (I think it’s quite a lot better than Kinky Boots, for example), and even if it wins this year, it’s a decent choice.

I also think that the book (by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, whose An Utterly Impartial History of Britain is also hilarious) is continually clever, with a ton of great one-liners and an inventive original story. Two brothers in Renaissance England, Nick and Nigel Bottom, want to get out of Shakespeare’s shadow, and set out to write the world’s first musical comedy in order to steal the spotlight. High jinks ensue, as do lots of jokes, as do a truckload of musical theater and Shakespeare references. The songs (by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick) are winning, the cast is great, and it all just… works. Again, it’s a fun, happy, crowd-pleasing show and I hope it keeps all my friends at the St. James employed for several years to come.

On Tony Sunday, Something Rotten! will be performing the big Act One showstopper “A Musical.” The big problem with “A Musical” is that this number is so incredibly good that really nothing else in the show can come close to matching it. (“Oh No!” I thought when I heard that was what they’d be doing for the Tony broadcast. “They’re giving the whole show away!”) But it’s probably the right call, and I would imagine the song will sell a ton of tickets. It’s a big, splashy, clever production number: a soothsayer (Brad Oscar) tries to explain what a musical is to Nick Bottom (Brian D’Arcy James), who has obviously never heard of such a thing. “The crowd goes wild every time,” as they say in the song, and at the James it frequently earns a well-deserved standing ovation. To be honest, I think “A Musical” actually makes a pretty good argument for the musical as an entertainment — sure, it’s not deep, but this number embodies pure glee, technical expertise, dancing, winking humor, and a big ol’ cast. You’ll see what I mean when you see it Sunday.

But after that, the rest of the show was a bit of a letdown. Which is an odd thing to say, because I was giggling throughout. It’s still funny, the audience ate it up, and again, it has a wonderful cast (especially Brian D’Arcy James and John Cariani as the brothers Bottom, Christian Borle as Shakespeare, and Brad Oscar as the soothsayer). It’s a good show. I liked it a lot. It just doesn’t reach the heights I had hoped for in “A Musical”.

An American In Paris
Now I haven’t seen An American in Paris yet. Why not? Well, I don’t particularly care about ballet, or corny, idealized visions of postwar Europe, or another jukebox Gershwin show, or a movie musical from the 1950s, or gamine French girls. But the mere fact that “I haven’t seen it” hasn’t stopped me from unfairly bashing it to anyone who will listen. I hope to go see it soon, so I can either A) eat my words or B) start bashing it fairly. I think it’s just that I always hope the Best Musical Tony goes to a NEW MUSICAL. It’s really nothing against An American in Paris.

I agree with you if you are thinking that I am totally embarrassing myself with my disdain for a show I haven’t seen yet. What will be even more embarrassing is that it’s very possible I’ll end up completely changing my mind on this one. (For an example of this, check out my Rocky review. I totally bashed that one before seeing it too.)


The Winner

Today I found myself wishing Avenue Q had never won the Best Musical Tony over Wicked. Or Gentleman’s Guide over Aladdin and Beautiful, for that matter. Because those two shows winning gives me hope. If it were the case that the more commercial hit always won, it would be one thing. Just as an example, look at just a few recent years when the bigger hit beat what I would consider to be the more deserving show:

  • 2009: Billy Elliot beats Next to Normal
  • 2005: Spamalot beats both The Light in the Piazza and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
  • 2002: Thoroughly Modern Millie beats Urinetown (This one still stings.)

I could go back a lot further, too. It happens a lot. The problem comes when the Tony voters sometimes get it right. And it has a real impact on the life of a show. Because of its win, Gentleman’s Guide has probably lasted a lot longer than it would have otherwise. So I’m crossing every finger and toe that the voters get this one right. But as I keep reminding myself, Fun Home’s artistic accomplishment is not dependent on what happens Sunday.

So I’m going to drink a heck of a lot of champagne and hope that the predictions are wrong. Let’s go Fun Home!

Tony Awards 2014

My roommates told me I’d be expected to write up a post on the Tonys, so I thought I’d do just that. As ever, I had a great time watching them: I went to my friend Vanessa’s house and enjoyed lovely snacks, chitchat and commentary throughout. Between the two of us, Vanessa and I had seen nearly all the nominees, so we had lots of opinions. “I’m having so much fun!” was basically my mantra all evening.

Then as I was biking home, I started thinking. What a strange event the Tonys is! It’s all about the supportive, creative, wonderful Broadway community, but it’s also a three hour commercial for an enormous corporate moneymaking enterprise. All the huge production numbers just reminded me of how much I can’t afford to see. I know that with rush and discount and TDF, it isn’t impossible to get affordable tickets. But it isn’t easy, either, not when you have a 9-5 job. I never thought of myself as someone who would have expensive tastes, but last night I was reminded that theatergoing is really the rich man’s entertainment. Well, at least the Tonys themselves are free.

My own personal Tony awards are as follows:

Most awkward host: True confession: I’ve never really warmed to Hugh Jackman the way most people have. I don’t really like his singing voice. I didn’t like him all that much in Les Miz. Anyway, the word that comes to me when I think of his work last night? Cheesy. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that he’s a committed, balls-out performer. He’s definitely impressive at hopping endurance (WHY was he hopping?) But his audience interaction feels forced, doesn’t it? And his jokes certainly aren’t very funny. (The Bridges of Ashley Madison County, har har. I was just as confused as Kelli O’Hara.) Neil Patrick Harris, please come back next year.

Most bizarro moment: The LL Cool J Music Man rap. My first thought was that “I can’t believe there’s rap on Broadway and Lin-Manuel Miranda isn’t involved! GET HIM ONSTAGE!” Vanessa, meanwhile, said “What are they even DOING?” I didn’t mind it, exactly, but it was just one of those moments in which I felt like the Tonys were trying to appeal to people who are simply never going to be interested. For my part, I’d have much preferred a Bridges performance.

Most irritating omission: The best book and best score Tonys weren’t even televised! This is absolutely insane. I wanted Robert L. Freedman and Jason Robert Brown to have their moments. Honestly. These people would exclude Rodgers and Hammerstein from their telecasts because they aren’t movie stars.

Second most irritating omission: We didn’t get to see Audra McDonald as Billie Holliday.

Most endearing nominee: I’ve said before that I absolutely loved Kelli O’Hara in Bridges of Madison County and have been speechifying for weeks about how much I hoped she would win. That all changed in an instant, when Jessie Mueller (of Beautiful) started dancing with Hugh Jackman. And all the sudden I was completely won over and forgot everything about every other nominee. And I was absolutely delighted when she won, of course. Later on I decided I’m still a bit disappointed that Ms. O’Hara didn’t win after that phenomenal performance, but that doesn’t take away from how adorable Jessie Mueller is.

Best musical number: I’ve said before that I have a soft spot for Gentleman’s Guide, and I’m elated that it won. Well deserved! They also get my award for best performance of the evening with their performance of “I’ve Decided to Marry You”. Here’s the thing. Tony numbers are rarely as good as they are in the theater. Most of the time, that’s because the producers don’t trust the show and try to do too much (there are several obvious examples from last night: Rocky, Violet, After Midnight). For Gentleman’s Guide, we had a delightful single scene, staged beautifully. I’d love to see more of this kind of thing. I understand the producers want to give everyone the chance to perform on the Tonys, but trying to do too much usually backfires. Another great number: “T’aint nobody’s business” from Bullets Over Broadway. It’s the best song from the show, and it looked great. Trust me, it’s even better in the theater.

Best awards show: I don’t watch the Oscars, or the Emmys, or the Golden Globes, or any other stupid awards show. That’s because they’re almost always bloated, ridiculous spectacles. I suppose the Tony show is the same. But anyway even at its worst, it is so much more entertaining than those other shows. Fantastic and talented live performers; wonderful acceptance speeches; a celebration of my favorite art form. This show fails a lot, of course. That’s usually when it’s trying to do something that doesn’t reflect theater’s best attributes. (Don’t try to be the Oscars, Tonys! The Oscars are terrible.)

This morning, my roommate John asked me if I watched the Tony awards every year. I was a bit stunned: I haven’t missed Broadway’s biggest night since 1994. Even when I lived in Ireland! (Who would ask such a question! Does he even KNOW me?) I got to attend the Tonys once, when I worked at the offices of Jujamcyn Theaters. We all got tickets as a perk. It was a thrill, but I honestly prefer to watch from home. I have a date with the sofa every Second Sunday in June for the rest of my life. Here’s to a spectacular 2014-2015 season: I can’t wait to see the battle between Fun Home and Honeymoon in Vegas. And all the other shows I don’t even know about yet. And all the exciting Off-Broadway shows we’ll be getting, like Hamilton and who knows what else. Bring it on!

Tony Nominations 2014

My first thoughts when it comes to Tony nominations and awards are always about the shows I’ve taken “ownership” of for one reason or another. Since I saw all of them before I even started this blog, I thought I’d talk a bit about my reactions to the nominations (or lack thereof) for some of my big favorites of the season.

As a caveat, I haven’t seen three out of the four best musical nominees. (Good grief! That sounds so embarrassing! What kind of Broadway blogger am I?) I do want to see Beautiful and After Midnight in the weeks to come, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to snag a ticket for Aladdin. For the plays, I’ve seen All the Way, Outside Mullingar and Mothers and Sons, but not Casa Valentina or Act One. I’m not convinced I’ll get around to seeing either, so my fairly uninformed pick for Best Play is currently All the Way.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
My pick for best musical of the year (since Fun Home isn’t eligible), and my current go-to selection for those who ask me what show they should see on Broadway. So naturally I was really delighted with all the nominations for this piece. Both actors (Jefferson Mays and Bryce Pinkham) are wonderful and I’d love to see either win (though I know they won’t, not with Neil Patrick Harris in the running). I was happy for Lauren Worsham, though her nomination made me wonder if Lisa O’Hare (who is also terrific) got her feelings hurt a bit. I know I would, if I was the only one of the four major actors in a show not to get a nomination. She’s probably way more professional than I am, though. In any case, I’m rooting for this show to win nearly everything but best score, though the songs are terrific. A friend pointed out that a comedy like Gentleman’s Guide doesn’t even need to have songs that are this good. But it does, and it’s wonderful. I just think the score was bettered, just by a teeny tiny bit.

The Bridges of Madison County
I’ve been pretty apologetic about my regard for this show. When people ask me how it is, I say something along the lines of this:

“Yeah, I really do think it’s great, but then of course I’m a Jason Robert Brown fan and I tend to love his music. And you know, I don’t even care about the love story that much, because Robert Kincaid isn’t even all that interesting of a character*. Mostly I love it for Francesca and her story.”

You know what? The heck with that. I’m going to stop apologizing. It’s a lovely show, full of heart and intelligence. (And oh that music! My favorite score of the year. Again, the caveat is that Fun Home isn’t eligible.) I got really irritated with the New York Times review, which seemed to imply that Kelli O’Hara’s performance was the only real reason to see this show. I agree that she is marvelous, but there’s plenty to like about this show. The writers did a great job of opening up the story, it’s beautifully staged, the sets are evocative, the cast is all-around terrific. Basically, the whole thing is a really strong effort. I agree with Jesse Green, who said “That the musical succeeds in extracting something so smart and powerful from the treacle is little short of miraculous.” It deserved a nomination for best musical, for crying out loud. Tony committee, what’s the matter with you people?

* – I still don’t think Robert Kincaid is nearly as interesting as Francesca is, though. I get that theirs is a Great Love, but geez. He really doesn’t ever experience intimacy except for those four days in Iowa? That’s totally neurotic! I want to see a musical about how nuts that guy is. The gorgeous, heartfelt song “It All Fades Away” doesn’t actually do him any favors in my book, because who wants to live a life like that? I tend to justify it to myself, however, by saying it’s a song basically along the same lines of “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific. Yes, over the top, but since when did Broadway shows shy away from “hearts on sleeves” moments? Still, though, next to Francesca’s lovely and complex “Always Better” immediately afterwards, it’s a bit hard to swallow.

Bullets Over Broadway
Boy can Susan Stroman ever stage a musical. Wow. Every number, every transition is winning and clever and joyous. I just love to watch her dancers move onstage. Particularly during that gangster tap dance number, which is a real old-fashioned showstopper. (Do they get a Tony number? Can they pretty please do the gangster tap number on the Tonys?) Of course, transitions and choreography don’t necessarily make for a wonderful show. To be honest, I prefer the movie. I keep telling people who ask me about it “Well, the whole reason I like musicals is for the new songs and this show doesn’t have any of those.” (Which is why I haven’t gotten around to After Midnight or Beautiful yet.) (I shouldn’t mention my unabashed love for Jersey Boys as it might contradict my point.) But the lack of new songs probably isn’t the real reason. I just wish it was a bit funnier, and that it didn’t take out some of my favorite moments from the movie, like Cheech’s final script suggestion, and the film’s lovely closing scene. I don’t think I would have picked it over Bridges for a nomination, but snubbing both Bridges and Bullets just seems mean. But I’m really happy for Nick Cordero as Cheech, who is just as good as you’ve heard. Marin Mazzie’s lack of a nomination was a bit of a shock, though. What more does the woman have to do? Geez louise.

Twelfth Night
After I saw this, I told all my friends that “Twelfth Night makes SO MUCH SENSE now! It should always be an all-male cast!” Finally, the Viola/Sebastian mixups are just as funny as they were written to be! I never thought the Anne Hathaway Central Park production could be topped, but then I wasn’t accounting for Mark Rylance. Obviously I’d love to see him win for both lead actor (for Richard III) and featured actor (Twelfth Night), just because of the possibility of seeing two of his kooky Tony acceptance speeches in one evening. I didn’t see Richard III, though, so I can’t say for certain that he’s likely to top Bryan Cranston. Anyway, just about everything in this production was delightful, and I’m very happy the Tony committee seems to agree, with nominations for Stephen Fry, Samuel Barnett, and Paul Chahidi.

Best of luck to all the nominees! I look forward to toasting you on Tony night from home, a glass of Prosecco in hand.