Saturday, April 30, 2011

Walking in "Memphis"

Recently attended the premiere screening of the high-definition (HD) recording of the Broadway musical "Memphis." My feature on about the HD recordings of "Memphis" and "The Importance of Being Earnest" is here.

Held at the Regal 14 on Union Square in Manhattan, the "Memphis" screening had a distinctly celebratory air as Bruce Brandwen of Broadway Worldwide (the company that recorded the show) and "Memphis" producer Sue Frost welcomed the audience to a truly historic event. It's the first time a Tony Award-winning Best Musical has been recorded in HD ... with the original cast ... and screened in movie theaters across the country while the show was running in New York and before the stage tour took to the road.  (The tour starts in October, 2011.)

Delightfully, the film (OK, it's not a film, it's a digital recording, but occasionally I'm gonna say "film") opens with an interview with book writer Joe DiPietro and composer-lyricist David Bryan who endearingly relate how they came to each other's professions (DiPietro's a playwright and Bryan plays keyboards for the rock group Bon Jovi). Their story about and reactions to winning Tony Awards within the first 15 minutes of the awards show is definitely worth the price of admission.

"Memphis" itself blazes off the screen. Video director Don Roy King has done a beautiful job. I was especially struck by the extraordinarily skillful editing. The takes aren't too short; they are held just long enough for the maximum emotional impact of the lines, the reaction, the song -- whatever's happening on stage.  For those who are used to the three to five-second takes of the sports world, this work is a revelation. However, my seat companion, a veteran in the world of video, said the sound dubbing wasn't precisely in sync at several points, but when I paid close attention, I didn't see a problem.

Eventually, to tell the truth, I almost forgot I was watching a two-dimensional version of the show, so thoroughly did the filmmakers (that word again) capture the emotion and essence of this story: in the late 1950s, a white disc jockey named Huey Calhoun (played by Chad Kimball), falls in love with a black singer named Felicia Farrell (played by Montego Glover) in segregated Memphis. He plays rhythm and blues for white kids and tries to advance her career; eventually, she moves on and up without him.

I hope this project gets Montego Glover the additional attention she deserves because she is a huge talent (that's her in the photo on the right) - smokin' voice, dynamic presence, engaging actress. While I admire Chad Kimball's passion as Huey, both when I saw the show live and in the film, I still don't understand the odd diction and body language he brought to the character, slouching around a bit like Groucho and drawing out the last syllable of every other word - "Mem-phay-ass-uh."

There was one scene that burned into my consciousness even hotter than it did on stage, and that was J. Bernard Calloway as Felicia's brother, Delray, singing his rage and pain at the South's segregation and racism in "She's My Sister" and that's why I chose a photo featuring Calloway, above.

If you live outside New York and haven't seen "Memphis," go see the movie-theater version or the touring show. Either way, it's an uplifting theatrical experience.  


Friday, April 22, 2011

Robert Alda vs. Marlon Brando

I promised a Sardi's story, and here it is. My mom, syndicated fashion columnist Florence De Santis, was set to interview actor Robert Alda over lunch at Sardi's for one of her celebrity stories. She was a regular at Sardi's and occasionally took me or my brother along to her lunches.

I think I was age 12 or so at this time - mid-Sixties. She carefully prepped me for the meeting, explaining that Mr. Alda had originated the role of Sky Masterson when Guys and Dolls opened in 1950 (four years before I was born). She also said she thought he "wuz robbed" by Hollywood when Marlon Brando was cast in the 1955 film.

I seem to recall that I'd seen the film by the time we went to lunch, but in those pre-VCR/DVD days, it would have had to have been a movie theater revival or on television (the TV rights were sold in 1967).

Well, I was ready and thrilled to meet Mr. Alda, who was in his 50s at the time and very dashing. As the conversation at lunch - I remember it was a table right in the middle of the room, with Broadway people all around us - turned to Guys and Dolls, I was eager to show off my theater knowledge and blurted out, "Oh yes, Mr. Alda, you played Marlon Brando's part!" Of course, I had intended to say exactly the opposite. I really did want the floor to open and swallow me up.

He was kind to a young girl, but the air sort of froze. I can hear his voice yet; it was like brown velvet. "No, dear, he played my part," he said.

And that was the truth.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

War Horse - total theater magic

You hear the words "puppets" and "horses" and you think, "Oh, I'll take the kids."  In the case of War Horse, which opened April 14 at Lincoln Center Theater, be aware that the kids you take should probably be older than 11 or 12.

There's nothing objectionable at all in the sex-drugs-cursing vein in this story of a British boy, his horse and their travails during World War I, but the theatrical magic that has caused this show to be a runaway hit in London's West End and Lincoln Center to declare an open-ended run, translates into very intense battle scenes onstage.

That was what impressed me on this second viewing, accompanied by my 13-year-old daughter - the vivid depiction of the utter, awful, meat-grinding futility of that Great War that opened the 20th century. Soldiers die, horses die and the tank overcomes the last century's cavalry. 

On my first viewing, in London last summer, the justly famous life-size horse puppets (should they be called "constructions"?) entranced me. The feature I wrote for about how the show developed, based on an interview with directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, is here.

South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company created young Albert's bay horse, Joey, and a black steed, Topthorn, both of whom are put to work on the battlefield by the British Army. The story is a beautifully simple journey: teenage Albert is separated from his beloved animal, then enlists to try to find him again. Along the way, the two horses come under the control of a humane German officer and we see the war from both sides.

Elliott and Morris have tightened the show. In London, I remember feeling a little manipulated by the sentiment and believing the show was too long, both of which happen when slow pacing blunts the emotions. Here, the time (clocking in at 2 hours, 45 minutes), flew by and both Flo and I were reaching for the hankies. Gasps and applause greeted the moments when the foal Joey flies apart to become the beautiful, fully-grown horse and the first time Albert leaps on his back.

War Horse is an extraordinarily memorable theatrical event.    

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A show to shake the world

If you were young in the Sixties, the release of a record album was a seismic event. Sergeant Pepper, Beggar's Banquet, Highway 61 Revisited, Are You Experienced?, Pearl, Surrealistic Pillow - they expressed the longings, passions, obsessions of a new generation and, especially, a white-hot outrage at oppression at home and a far-away war in Vietnam that was sending young Americans home in body bags by the day.  But rock and Broadway went separate ways, until Hair.

American Idiot, the album by Green Day and the Broadway show I caught up with late in its run, are worthy successors. Flo and I first saw the show last week and - most unusual for me - went back a second time last night. I was absolutely blown away - by the blazing songs, wall-of-video staging, and the sense that this is America today. There is another war - two! - keeping the casket factories in business and the album was written during the Bush II era, when the hard-asses were in charge and no one seemed to be listening.

But war isn't American Idiot's sole preoccupation. The knock on this show was that it had no book. Now, one version of my business card calls me "narrative wizard" and nothing makes me crazier than a show with a poor story. This doesn't apply to American Idiot. It's a true opera telling its story in music, giving us three friends who take personal journeys (one into the military) and "come home" both literally and to their real selves.

The spoken dialogue (I would almost call it recitative) is white-hot poetry, punctuating the music with extraordinary drama: "Let's start a war, shall we?" "Tell the bishop there is a resistance occuring." "Hang your dark clouds." "The end of the world is over." "Where do all the martyrs go when the virus cures itself?" "Jesus is doing our paperwork now."

The extravagantly talented Billie Joe Armstrong, Green Day's lead singer and lyric writer, is playing St. Jimmy, the lead character's dark side and alter ego, in the last few week's of the show's run and he seems to be a generous man. A huge star in the rock world, he doesn't need to take the lead role or be the constant center of attention on stage. His participation serves the show and afterward, he signed many autographs for the fans on 44th Street outside the St. James Theater.

It's been a while since I bought a rock album. There just seemed to be so many groups and genres and I now had adult concerns - a family, a career. The cast album of American Idiot is sitting on the desk next me and I plan to get Green Day's latest, 21st Century Breakdown. I think I'll head now for the CD player and the big stereo speakers and rock the world.   

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The time of one's life

Realizing that variety is the spice of blogs, I am tearing myself away from Broadway to write about a special theater project in which I participated this week. See that crowd up there? Those are fifth-grade kids and seniors in Flushing, Queens, dramatizing their lives, reaching across decades and oceans to connect through the simple, timeless things - games, memories, teachers, birthdays, moms and dads.

See the elderly gentleman in the baseball cap in the lower left? He's 93 and he was part of a show that told his story of surviving the Holocaust (the date signs). Because of the cultural diversity of the groups, he saw an Asian boy play him as a youngster and an Asian woman lovingly play his mother. In a different scene, another man in his 90s saw his younger self listening to a story told by a memorable kindergarten teacher, and choked up a little as he said one of his lines: "and here I am, 85 years later."

Two older women recalled the games of their youth in the streets of pre-World War II New York and today's kids mimed jumping rope and playing dodgeball as they spoke. Bill, Bennett, Lily, Irving, William, Billie, Joan and the whole cast of about 40 traveled a remarkable journey this school year.

For the performance, I designed and operated the sound. I was involved each Tuesday since my attendance and the paper I'm writing fulfilled the final three credits needed for my NYU Master's degree in Educational Theater. This program, which brought elders and one class of fifth graders from P.S. 24 together every Tuesday morning for an hour at the Self Help Benjamin Rosenthal Senior Center, was sponsored by an agency in Brooklyn called Elders Share the Arts.

My participation was to assist teaching artist Marsha Gildin who ... (deep breath) ... led each Tuesday session's games, lessons and exercises; wrote the script; directed the show; created an enormous number of set pieces and props (like the date signs) and coached, nagged, laughed, instructed and inspired everyone to do his/her best. That's the back of her head at the bottom of the picture.

A different type of theater, for sure, but every bit as meaningful as a party at Sardi's.        

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

You'll be swell; you'll be great!

Ken Davenport is a genius. Danny Goldstein has brilliant ideas for the direction of Godspell. Everyone investing in the show is fascinating, handsome and creative.

This is the kind of hyperbole that can overcome one after two glasses of wine in a private party room at Sardi's. (Wine and beer but no food. I approve. No need to spend our producer dollars on pricey appetizers and just enough alcohol to lubricate the smiles.) Ken drew us together tonight to hear from Danny about the progress of the show - our show, the one we have sunk actual dollars into.

Danny's vision for the show, which he directed at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2006, sounds intimate, heartfelt. "In an age of giant spectacles, this show is a love letter to theater," said Danny. (Ever the reporter, I'm on the job, chief. I was taking notes on a Sardi's napkin.) Of course, given the sweet and earnest nature of Godspell, I'd be a little concerned if he said he was inserting roller coasters and planned to run the show outdoors all over Times Square. Although a Godspell in the summer, in Central Park ... hmm ... but I digress.

Danny's concept includes audience participation, use of the auditorium and he said "someone from the audience might get to play a parable." He also gave us a bit of news - Stephen Schwartz has written "a small bit" of new music for the show.

After his presentation, while we were chatting in a small group, Danny asked one of our number whom she thought should play Jesus. In my newly-minted role as a producer, I have already made a helpful artistic suggestion to Ken that Justin Bieber should be cast. A sure return on my $1k, I think, but Ken replied categorically that M. Bieber will not be playing the Son of God. I'll continue to think of lead possibilities.

Tomorrow: whom I met at Sardi's.  


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Call me Maxine Bialystok

A brand-new theater blog and a brand-new adventure. I've become a producer -- call me Maxine Bialystok. I've taken a thousand-dollar flyer in Ken Davenport's imaginative approach to financing a Broadway show. He calls it "crowd-sourcing" (hello, Internet generation) and has lowered the cost of getting in to ten c-notes as opposed to the five figures-plus usually needed to whittle down Dad's inheritance.

The show is a revival of "Godspell," the venerable 1970 look at the gospels, with the best-known song probably being "Day by Day." This production has taken a while to get rolling and tomorrow we "People of Godspell," as Ken has dubbed our group, get to meet director Danny Goldstein at Sardi's. Well, I practically grew up at Sardi's as my fashion editor mom, Florence De Santis, interviewed celebrities there for her columns and often took me or my brother along. In a future post, I'll tell my Robert Alda story. That's right, Robert Alda, not Alan Alda.

So it'll be truly fine to revisit the caricatures on the wall, meet Danny and find out more about this "crazy fling," as I wrote on the memo line of the check. In future posts, I'll talk about why I'm doing this. Maybe I need to figure it out myself.