Working with my HS students this week on adding more theatricality to our performances. Trying to define what that is and how we make it happen. I decided having a common vocabulary about it was going to help a lot.
I tend to use the word magic a lot, or cool. “At the end of this scene, some magic happens and then we move on.”
Not very helpful.
But what is it? What makes theatre different from television or film. Of course it has to do with the connection the performers have with the audience and even that the audience has with each other. As an audience we are literally bearing witness to what is happening on stage. And it will only happen once that way, no matter how ‘dialed in’ a show gets.
A great anecdote about the elusive power of theatre, attributed to Tom Stoppard, is getting close:
“Years and years ago, there was a production of The Tempest, out of doors, at an Oxford college on a lawn, which was the stage, and the lawn went back towards the lake in the grounds of the college, and the play began in natural light. But as it developed, and as it became time for Ariel to say his farewell to the world of The Tempest, the evening had started to close in and there was some artificial lighting coming on. And as Ariel uttered his last speech, he turned and he ran across the grass, and he got to the edge of the lake and he just kept running across the top of the water — the producer having thoughtfully provided a kind of walkway an inch beneath the water. And you could see and you could hear the plish, plash as he ran away from you across the top of the lake, until the gloom enveloped him and he disappeared from your view.
And as he did so, from the further shore, a firework rocket was ignited, and it went whoosh into the air, and high up there it burst into lots of sparks, and all the sparks went out, and he had gone.
When you look up the stage directions, it says, ‘Exit Ariel.”
-Tom Stoppard, playwright
So we decided to work on a common understanding of the vocabulary – the elements of theatricality. I took these terms from a book called ‘Moment Work’ by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Company , based in Seattle.
A lot of the words themselves were new to the students, but we dealt with what we did know, and started to look for examples of each of them in terms of theatricality – looking at clips from Curious Incident (SENSORY), Miss Saigon (NARRATIVE), Brief Encounter (EVOCATIVE) and Emancipation (VISCERAL). I wanted to show a clip from Angels in America for ‘visceral’ but I probably would have been fired.
Our first production of the year lends itself more to realism than theatricality (Steel Magnolias) though I have some ideas to raise the level of stagecraft.
Our other production are Our Town (which has loads of potential) and Once on This Island (again – lots of potential).
I’m looking forward to digging in with these kids and moving beyond just performance into thoughtful design and stagecraft to make a little…..
It might be a foolish thing to write about Hamilton. It’s been written about enough. Having seen it twice, I’ll try and put a different spin on it. I’ll be lucky enough to see it a third time in October – Hamilton is turning into a very debilitating and expensive addiction I think.
Most Hamilton reviews focus on the ‘hip-hop’ or ‘rap’ style of the show (it’s neither, but there are elements) or the diversity, using actors of color to tell the story of the founding fathers while reflecting how America looks today. Both are interesting topics, but not nearly the most interesting things about the show and both have been written about to death.
No, today, I want to write about the real genius of Lin Manuel Miranda – and it isn’t just his rhyming ability (which is admittedly amazing). I’ve been trying to settle in my brain how describe the intricacies and complexities of what’s going in the show both musically and lyrically (as well as in terms of story-telling) and it is very, very easy to get overwhelmed. With each listen, and if you’re lucky, each viewing, something new reveals itself, connections get made, rhymes leap out, motifs become clearer or show themselves to be deeper than you thought. The best way I can think about describing it is this: spirals.
This show – Hamilton – spirals.
What do I mean? The most obvious examples are musical motifs probably – many characters have a melody that repeats throughout the show for a variety of reasons – even if it is simply their name (e-LIE-za). This isn’t new in musical theatre – it happens all the time, especially with the big mash up of these themes in the first act closing number. “Non-Stop” in Hamilton isn’t too far from “One Day More” from Les Miz in this regard. These repetitions though seem to take on heightened significance as events move forward. My favorite example (spoiler). The number “That Would Be Enough” in the first act shows us the discussion between Alex and Eliza as she begs him to stay home and reveals her pregnancy. It ends with a simple piano melody that isn’t part of the rest of the song. Fast forward to Act Two – Philip (their now grown son) has been killed in a duel. The heartbreaking poignant song “It’s Quiet Uptown” begins, and it begins, and builds upon the EXACT SAME PIANO MELODY dropped sneakily into Act One.
I hate that I know this and think about this.
I could go on all day – the repeated lyrical phrases (Look Around, Look Around), (Wait for it) etc sometimes remain the same throughout – sometimes they morph into something new. Don’t even get me started on ‘un, deux, trois, quatre etc’.
Waiting, by the way – turns out to be a big theme here. Particularly for Aaron Burr. Not Hamilton – Hamilton doesn’t wait for anything. Waiting takes us into the overall theme of time, waiting, history, and legacy.
Time. Legacy. Narrative. Time, Waiting, Urgency, Time.
“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”
“There’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait. Just you wait.”
“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow Creeps in this petty pace from day to day” (with a little help from William Shakespeare)
“I’m willing to wait for it”
“For the first time I’m thinking past tomorrow”
“One last time, we’ll teach them how to say goodbye.”
and on and on….until the final half of the final number, when Eliza explains what she’s done in the last fifty years – the fifty years she outlived her husband. How she told his story, and Washington’s and the soldiers who fought with him. How she used her time. And every instance of Eliza using the word ‘time‘ in this song is supported by the ensemble behind her, and I want to blubber and weep.
I wasn’t lucky enough to see the OBC. We did see the Original London Cast back in March so my only real comparison with them and the OBC Cast Album.
Overall, the cast was very strong with two notable standouts.
Miguel Cervantes as Alexander Hamilton. Amazing. I don’t think anyone, with the exception of LMM, could do this role better.
The other big surprise was Jin Ha as Aaron Burr. The first (to my knowledge) Asian to play Burr, he was outstanding. Better than the Burr we saw in London. Ha really fleshed out this character for me and made me sympathetic to Burr’s arc. How painful to be diligent and careful and smart yet so painfully ordinary when standing in the shadow of Hamilton (shades of Salieri in Amadeus). Ha is so new to the role, I couldn’t even find a photo of him in costume. He was an understudy for several roles previously.
The Angelica and Eliza in Chicago, Montego Glover and Jamila Sabares-Klemm weren’t my favorite. I thought the London cast was superior as well as with the role of Lafayette/Jefferson and George Washington. However, the difference between how much better Hamilton and Burr were compared with their London counterparts was huge.
Another lesson learned – Hamilton is much better seen from slightly above. Front of mezzanine is perfect. We were in the stalls in London (Orchestra) and totally missed out on much of the lighting and turntable effects. There are over 850 lighting cues in this show and they tell the story in their own right.
Now – how many times can I see this? How many different casts? All I know is that I’ll be seeing the London cast again on October 18th – with a bunch of cool high school kids.
Oh – this was a fun one. I ordinarily don’t go in for this sort of thing (immersive theatre), but I’m glad I did. This off-broadway revival of everybody’s favorite Sondheim is unique in many ways. It began in Tooting in South London, where it took over a hundred year old pie shop called Harrington’s. When they moved it, first to the West End and then to the Barrow in NYC, they recreated the pie shop exactly. The space is the pie shop and the immersive performance space, including creatively hidden lights (behind air duct grates) and room for about 150 or 200 audience members.
My ticket also included a pie and mash dinner ahead time, prepared by a former White House pastry chef (great pie – a little heavy on the truffle-y nonsense, but tasty). For those of you not familiar with Sweeney, the pie won’t make any sense. Those of us seated at the long eating tables were warned that the performance would get very immersive.
The performance is intimate and definitely immersive. No mics needed in this space and the score was played by only three musicians. The dynamics were impressive, they really controlled the room. There were only 8 performers – a lot of doubling. Cast members performed throughout the space, including on our tabletops. At one point Sweeney, while in a tousle with Pirelli crashed himself in a bench full of audience members, turned his head and shouted “Move!”, terrifying the poor woman behind me. During the Pirelli’s magical elixir scene, they would liberally douse any bald head in the room with whatever it was they were using. Fortunately, I made it out relatively unscathed, but that razor came awfully close a few times.
I do love Sondheim and I like working hard to like it. Sweeney is a show that rewards hard work on the part of it’s audience, in my opinion. In the midst of such a sinister and menacing plot, we have ‘Johanna’, arguably one of the most beautiful songs in the musical theatre canon.
Overall, it was so clever and engaging – just the right amount of blood, and fantastic performances.
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd
His skin was pale and his eye was odd
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again
He trod a path that few have trod
Did Sweeney Todd
The demon barber of Fleet street
He kept a shop in London Town
Of fancy clients and good renown
And what if none of their souls were saved?
They went to their maker impeccably shaved
By Sweeney Todd
The demon barber of Fleet street
Swing your razor wide, Sweeney
Hold it to the skies
Freely flows the blood of those who moralize
His needs were few, his room was bare
A lavabo and a fancy chair
A mug of suds and a leather strop
An apron, a towel, a pail and a mop
For neatness he deserved a nod
Did Sweeney Todd
The demon barber of Fleet street
Inconspicuous, Sweeney was
Quick and quiet and clean, he was
Back of his smile, under his word
Sweeney heard music that nobody heard
Sweeney pondered and Sweeney planned
Like a perfect machine, he planned
Sweeney was smooth, Sweeney was subtle
Sweeney would blink, and rats would scuttle
So many amazing things to talk about with this one that I will have to narrow it down. This is the show we will be doing in March 2019 at school so I plan on stealing liberally.
Director Michael Arden has set his OOTI in a post-disaster Caribbean village and the design is amazing – debris everywhere, washing hung up around the theatre, a few chickens, a goat, a container truck, a lake and a sand covered performance space. Circle in the Square is a small (900 seater) theater structured for in the round performances. In addition, this is a semi-immersive performance as the cast slowly gathers in the space going about their business as islanders until the performance begins with a crack of thunder. I had a front row seat, feet in the sand and right next to the table with the hot pot where Asaka (Alex Newell) was cooking Chicken and peppers.
Here are some pictures that show off the space and design a little.
Here’s a great video of one of the songs filmed in a 360 format so you can look around the set. (big showstopper sung by Alex Newell). Mama Will Provide
There was so much about this that was so beautifully theatrical, it’s no surprise to me that it won the Tony for best revival. The four Gods slowly build their costumes out of the trash littered around the set (plastic bags, mosquito nets, coke cans, tablecloths etc). Amazing, beautiful little tricks of light and movement and clever staging made this really special. If we can do half as well, I’ll be thrilled.
I loved this show.
Not just because we’re doing it but because it was proof positive of the magic of theatre – great score (90 minutes, sung through, no intermission), amazing performances, creative design. I just wanted to see it over and over and over.
As part of the Broadway Teachers Workshop, we also had a talkback here and to our surprise we actually got two principal performers – Alex Newell and Merle Dandridge, who were very funny and gracious, taking a lot of time with us
See this show.
If you can’t see the broadway version, come see ours in Lagos.
Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, NYC, July 7 2018
Time for that full disclosure thing again. I have a traumatic history with this show. I last saw it in about 2000(?) with Lisa at the Drury Lane theatre. I remember being quite excited because it started Jonathan Pryce as Henry Higgins. We had balcony tickets and within ten minutes the seat back in front of us was digging into my shins.
My Fair Lady is three hours long.
It was agony.
Anyway…I was a little hesitant about it. But this is the latest in a series of Lincoln Center revivals directed by Bartlett Sher. He’s previously done South Pacific and The King and I. This production stars Lauren Ambrose (TVs Six Feet Under), Henry Haden Paton (The Crown, Downton Abbey), Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz, and Dame Diana Rigg (Avengers, Game of Thrones) – yes, Diana Rigg.
This was far better than the previous experience. The Beaumont is a massive theatre, three times as deep upstage behind the curtain as it is up front, allowing for huge sets. We got a talkback with the cast and stage manager after the show and the SM said the production cost millions. By way of example, a reproduction of Higgins smoking jacket needed to be made for the new understudy at a cost of $3300. The show switches back and forth between sparse empty stage for the Ascot race and the pub where we find Alfred Doolittle (With a Little Bit of Luck), medium set pieces on scenery wagons like Covent Garden and the Opera House where Eliza peddles flowers (“Wouldn’t it be Loverly”) and the enormous gargantuan revolving two story 20 foot high Higgins household where many of the scenes take place. Hell, this theatre is so big that they moved the entire 30 piece orchestra up on stage in its own bandstand during the party at the Ambassadors residence. (Though this did cause a significant sound disaster in the second musical number of Act Two, when all the mics failed apart from the snare drum and the harp).
This was an incredibly detailed production that helped me see what a great show this is. Not a dud song in the bunch. Lauren Ambrose was an amazing Eliza despite being an American. Paton was a fantastic Higgins making the role much funnier than I remember. Butz stole the show in Act ll with “Get me to the Church on Time” a raucous roof raising rendition complete with cancan dancers in drag. Diana Rigg was essentially doing what Maggie Smith would do – look impressive and get out some hilarious quips before leaving. Vocals were great, nice to see a diverse ensemble (though the audience wasn’t exactly diverse) and really just a pleasure to behold. In the days of the corporate musical (Frozen, Mean Girls, SpongeBob), it’s worth making the opportunity to see these revivals before they disappear altogether.
“I have often walked down the street before
But the pavement always
Stayed beneath my feet before
All at once am I
Several stories high
Knowing I’m on the street where you live”
Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt.
You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.
Thus begins The Band’s Visit. This is projected across the stage and basically does a good job of summarizing the plot. Except, perhaps, for the part about it being unimportant.
Bias warning again: I love the source material – a quiet Israeli movie from about 2007. I love this show even more. Here’s a really important thing that I think this show proved for me tonight and gives me a chance to bash Mean Girls again. TBV just won the Tony for best new musical. The competition was Mean Girls, Frozen and SpongeBob Squarepants. Yeah. Okay – was there an element of Tony voters that just couldn’t bear to vote for those ridiculous brashly commercial shows – maybe.
What I find interesting though, especially in light of the Mean Girls experience, is that all four of these shows use a movie as their source material.
The Band’s Visitelevates it’s source material and makes a new piece of art. It has a reason to exist. They changed very little from the film, but they used stagecraft to further develop the themes and particularly the tone of the piece.
“I like Chet Baker.”
I probably shouldn’t even try to write about it now….The show takes place over one night in the mistaken, misbegotten town of Bet Hatikva – the Egyptian band was meant to go to Peta Tikva. With no bus until morning the band must wait overnight. Taken in by the locals and enjoying their hospitality. Everyone in the show is, as the opening number suggests, waiting. Waiting – for something to happen, for things to get better, for a bus, and, probably most importantly, waiting for a phone call.
Most of the songs are also … quiet, in a sense. They are almost all solos, with the exception of a full ensemble climax for just a part of ‘Answer Me’. Now that I think about it, quiet isn’t fair because the songs are full of life and energy, but there’s no belting a la Mean Girls. Stylistically, the shows runs through jazz, Arabic music, klezmer and traditional musical theater styles. The cast album is amazing. I’m not going to do this well. The show is phenomenal. The movie was great. It earned its Tony. I want to see it again and again. We had a twenty minute talkback with some of the cast afterwards….here’s a sneaky pic. Here’s some pictures and videos.
Dina: You know what I think?
There’s two kinds of waiting
There’s the kind where you’re expecting something new, or even strange
But this kind of waiting, you keep looking off out into the distance
Even though you know the view is never going to change
For the Tonys, Katrina Lenk performed the song ‘Omar Sharif’. Amazing. Watch it hereHere’s a clip of Welcome to NowhereHere’s a clip of Answer Me. It’s a little weird, performing outside at the Today show. . Wow.
Only you, when the sun and moon and stars are gone what’s left is only you.
To be fair, I wasn’t expecting very much, but Mean Girls just wasn’t very good. The kindest thing I can think to say about it is that it’s … unnecessary.
The best part is easily the book by Tina Fey, which isn’t terribly different from the movie. So, in essence, we have the movie (only not performed as well), with some unremarkable songs thrown in, cheesy repetitive dance numbers (two cafeteria tray dance breaks? Really?) and horrifically overused LED screens and projections. Oh. And a Tina Fey impersonator.
Here’s an example of the lame songs in this show. This video actually makes me laugh as everyone looks like they’re working really hard to perfect this. Apex Predator.
The singing was generally screechy and the mics were way too loud, kind of like how I imagine a Transformers musical would sound. The saving graces we’re probably Barrett Wilbert Reed as Janis (though the level of the mics along with her belting wasn’t pleasant) and Gray Henson as Damian who was easily the funniest person in the show.
breathes deeply, wipes away incessant tears, looks over shoulder to make sure no one saw.
Okay – Dear Evan Hansen. This is a hard one to figure out. On the outside, all the ingredients point to something ‘slight’.
A quiet story which isn’t terribly original.
A pop based score with catchy songs, some of which are also not terribly original.
A lot of teenage girls in the audience.
A cast of 8.
It should be a Chinese food musical – pleasant enough while you watch it, but doesn’t hang around long. A Mamma Mia perhaps.
So why did it land like a gut punch? By intermission, red eyed people wandered around the lobby with used up tissue looking for the bathrooms, and the merch counter. By the end, I felt like I’d been through the wars with these people. Very weird.
I’m going to pose an idea that the answer might lie somewhere in the idea of authenticity.
There are a hundred ways to connect to this story. Lots of people feel outcast ,of course, that’s not new. Others might be parents who can’t connect with their own kid, looking for a map to find their way to being a good parent. Others may identify with the moral, ethical question of the show and others with the constant presence of the social media and the distance it brings. How is it in a world of hyper connectivity, we are growing more and more people unable to connect in any meaningful way?
The simplicity leads to the complexity.
Okay – the synopsis – short version. Awkward teenager Evan Hansen is forced to write letters to himself as an assignment from his therapist. When one is stolen by bully outcast Connor Murphy (who sees a reference to his sister Zoe, the object of Evan’s affection) Evan ignores it until it turns up in Connor’s pocket a few days later after he’s killed himself. Believing it to be a suicide not from Connor to Evan, Connor’s family reaches out to Evan who, in order to make them feel better, fabricates a fake friendship between Connor and himself, writing more secret emails. Inside the Murphy family, Evan finds the attention he’s been seeking, including affection from Zoe.
Unfortunately, his messages of overcoming isolation blow up on social media and Evan is suddenly in too deep to tell the truth until it all comes crashing down.
Evan: But see, the thing is, when I looked up . . . Connor was there. That’s the gift that he gave me. To show me that I wasn’t alone. To show me that I matter. That everybody does. That’s the gift that he gave all of us. I just wish . . . I wish we could have given that to him.
Again – simple but complex. The stage is essentially bare with a few set pieces (beds, tables etc). A combination of vertical rectangular black scrims and video screens fly in and out at as needed to display twitter feeds, snapchat stories, instagrams, facebook timelines and youtube comments, etc. The effect is overwhelming at times. In fact, before the show begins, the stage is set with Evan’s bedroom set and the social media feeds chirping, swishing and bleeping – an ever present background noise as the audience settles in their seats. We are all constantly walking in the oblivion of this mess. (most people were checking their phones during all this)
There was a big elephant in the room with this show. There’s been a lot of talk that this is another one of those shows whose strength lies in its lead performer and not in the show itself. Therefore if you get an understudy, you’re wasting your time and money (this is still a very hard ticket to get cheaply, by the way). Earlier this year, after being with the show from its off-Broadway inception in 2015, Ben Platt moved on from the show. For most people, it seems, Ben Platt is Evan Hansen and there can be no other. Seems unfair to me. I admit though, I would have loved to have seen Platt as well.
Anyway – the current Evan Hansen is Taylor Trensch, and he was in very good form today. Admittedly, it seems some of the unique high edges of these songs were a little out of range for him and he was downright, well – bad, during ‘Words Fail’, but he acted the hell out of this show. I don’t think the show is in any danger, it’s in good hands with Trensch.
There are quite a few Original Cast still in the show including Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe Murphy and Rachel Bay Jones playing Evan’s mother who just floored me on several occasions with a heart wrenching performance of her big second act number ‘So Big/So Small’.
A few last thoughts on this one
Every high school kid, every high school counsellor and teacher needs to see this show. Not as a movie or a YouTube bootleg (which I have seen) but as a live show. The Music Box theatre is one of the smallest on Broadway and I think that’s intentional – the connection with these performers is so important.
Social media is great on many levels – but the subtle idea here is that, like a microphone, social media is an amplification device and not a connection maker like it is so often hailed. It makes everything bigger and louder and faster to spread. Good and bad. It has permanence – the current generation of teens seems blissfully unaware of the fact that our words and images stick around somewhere forever – but in the same breath it is inconstant. What’s important to us in one moment, important enough for us to add an overlay to our profile pictures and avatars, doesn’t hang around long.
Jared: Because pretty soon, there will be some Third World tsunami to raise money for, and Connor will just be that dead kid whose name no one remembers.
There a few good moments of the show captured here (with Ben Platt)
Starting tomorrow, I begin the Broadway Teacher’s workshop. I’ll be in sessions all day and then at shows in the evening. Tomorrow we head to Mean Girls, Wednesday to The Band’s Visit (Yes!!), Saturday we go to My Fair Lady at Lincoln Centre and Once on this Island (Yes!!!). I’ll try to keep up to date.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One and Two
by Jack Thorne
Lyric Theatre, New York, July 2 2018
There’s only so much I can tell you about this one because….well…
Keep The Secrets – maybe not so much in terms of plot, because it is published, but I’ll do that anyway.
Everything I have to say about this show can be related to at least one of these words. This was my second time at HPCC – the first time in London with the family. I’ve told enough people that I made a dumb mistake buying these tickets – I spent double what I thought I was spending and I humbly thank Lisa for not giving me a well deserved raking over the coals.
It was worth it though.
One of the nice things about this show is that you have different experiences in different parts of the theatre (again, can’t tell you exactly why, but trust me). As a singleton, I was able to pull a very sweet seat to this marathon. As in second row.
Here is the difference in view for London (top) and New York (bottom)
So, this is a show about magic. The second row allowed me to see things with a more critical eye. How did they do it? 90% of the magic and effects in this show are practical, not digital. By sitting close, I was able to figure out a couple of things, confirm my suspicions on a few others and am still completely dumbfounded on many others. Sitting this close wouldn’t really spoil anything important if you haven’t seen the show before. I knew what I was looking for. Having said that – 1 or 2 things are less effective from this close. All the magic happens in front of you – flying, dueling, transfiguration, poly-juice potion transformations, curses, and magical creatures – you name it, it’s there.
On Sunday – I get to attend a session on Stage Magic with some of the creative team as part of my design workshop with BTG.
I will say this. In terms of stage magic and mechanics as well as major story themes, this show is ruled by light and darkness. The magic here is very much in the shadows. The most complicated element of tech work here is lighting. This show relies on incredible dramatic and functional lighting. (side note: I was alarmed that many of the lights showed up on my list of available WiFi networks – imagine the chaos someone smarter than me could cause)
“Thank you for being my light in the darkness” – Scorpius Malfoy
There is real darkness in the play, an there is also the scarier figurative darkness of fear and loneliness – once again, friendship is the salvation for the main characters, those who keep us from the darkness. If you get the chance to go, listen for the many many references to darkness.
Time is the other major factor here. Literally of course – this is another marathon, 2 separate plays running 2 1/2 hours each. It’s long (but it flies by). The main focus of the play, however, is also time.
Mild spoilers ahead.
The only (nearly) constant set piece – and in fact the first thing you see upon taking your seat – is a clock. This is no accident. Through dreams, choices, and magic – this story takes place throughout and across time. It deals in inevitabilities, and destiny, and choices that we can’t or should not escape.
“It’s time that time-turning became a thing of the past.” – Scorpius Malfoy
These are great plays. I loved seeing the original cast (they came from London to open the show in Broadway). It isn’t like a Disney show – this is legitimate. It works for Harry Potter fans and theatre fans – bonus for you if. you are both.
This last picture leads me back to a quick mention of Steven Hoggett. This guy.
I mentioned him back on the Angels in America post. I’ve seen him described as a Choreographer, fight choreographer, and movement coordinator. He’s a genius. He brings physical movement into static scenes in a way that lifts a story to new heights. It isn’t dance – it’s story telling. And it’s everywhere in this play.
Last word then – go see this play. See it it NYC, or London, or soon in Melbourne or Sa Francisco. Save up, plan ahead (like – – a year ahead) and go. You won’t regret it.