Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Underpants @ Purdue University

This week I am writing from West Lafayette, Indiana where I am currently music directing a production of Hair for Purdue University's Theatre. Rehearsals just started and I am very excited to be here working on such an awesome show. I may write a little bit about my experience working on the show out here, since I will be away from the New York theatre scene for a few weeks.

But that doesn't mean there isn't any theatre in Indiana. The day before rehearsals started I was able to see closing night for the first show this semester at Purdue, Steve Martin's adaptation of The Underpants by Carle Sternheim. I knew very little of the show, and was excited to see it.

We are introduced to Louise Maske, who has caused a commotion in the small provincial 1910 German town she lives in, when independently of her dress, her underpants accidentally fall down to the ground.

Just the sight of her underpants at her ankles sends the men of the town into a sexually frenzy. She instantly becomes the object of every man's lust. As a result, a number of men come to her house, posing as men interesting in renting a room in her and her husband Theo's house, but are secretly trying to seduce her.

Through a series of crazy events, a couple of men end up sharing the rented room, and try to seduce her, all the while her husband is unaware of what is happening under his nose.

What has the set up for a fun, old-fashioned sex farce, ends up feeling more like a neutered dog trying to hump you leg.

Steve Martin's adaptation is adequate, but one wonders why this story has any relevance. Of course, we still experience "wardrobe malfunctions" today, and the sight of flesh at an inappropriate time can still be shocking and possibly morally offensive. (The University's upcoming productions of Marat/Sade and Hair have both sparked controversy over their planned use of nudity.) But the play's odd mix of modern and classical jokes and structure leave one wondering if it's a modern play masking as an old one, or an old one desperately trying to be relevant.

In most cases, I prefer the latter. And if I'm honest with myself, in the end I was able to see some of today's culture reflected in this early 20th century German town. But this is all for nothing, if the jokes just aren't that funny.

But Steve Martin did throw in an almost prophetic joke. Louise's noisy neighbor announces upon entering that she just saw the new Sternheim comedy at the theatre that night. Louise asks her how she liked it and if it was worth seeing, to which the neighbor replies, "I would wait for the adaptation."

Now having seen the adaptation that she's talking about, I have some advice for Louise: Don't pay full price!

But there were some fine and occasionally funny performances from the cast. Any problems I had with the show, was with the show itself, not with the students performances. I will be lucky enough to work with a handful of them on Hair.

(I was also very careful with the 50 foot rule here, you never know who's Grandma is sitting in front of you! lol)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cheap Tickets

New York City is a crazy/cool place for theatre. Any actor who wants to pursue a career in theatre generally finds them self here at one point or another. And most aspiring actors know how hard it is to have a life in the theatre.

Unfortunately, just the act of going to the theatre (forget acting in it!) can be just as hard because of the price.

But there are a lot of affordable ways to go and see shows. You just have to be able to work a little bit.

Student and General Rush

Most shows out there have rush tickets. Some of these are available only to students or people under 25. To check rush listings I go to a couple of places. The first is Talking Broadway's Board. It has listings for both Broadway and Off and seems to updated the most often. I always double check it against Playbill's Rush Listings. But the Playbill one is only updated every so often, so when in doubt go with the Talking Broadway site.

Usually with rush tickets there are two ways to go about getting them. Either they go on sale when the box office opens (usually 10:00am) or they go on sale two hours before the show starts. They are almost all $25 (plus a mandatory New York ticket fee called a "theatre restoration fee" of $1.25).

For those people who don't like planning their evening plans that morning, most of the new shows opening have either $20 or $25 tickets for the last two or three rows in the balcony. Not the best, but you can reserve a seat in advance which is a perk.

20 @ 20

Every year, Off-Broadway gets together and does a promotion they call 20 at 20. Basically, Off-Broadway shows sell a set amount of tickets at 20 minutes to curtain for $20. There are a few good ones out there to see (at least for $20). Altar Boyz and Forbidden Broadway are both fun, but expect lines at both as they are popular. I've heard good things about Oroonoko and Naked Boys Singing though I haven't seen them. Roundabout's Crimes of the Heart is also included on the list, and worth checking out.

BUT beware that the 20 @ 20 event is for two weeks only! It starts Monday the 25th, and ends Sunday, March 9th. Also, I guess there is a promotion where if you see 5 shows you get a voucher for a free dinner for two!

If this all sounds a little BOGO, well.... it is basically. But it's about time theatre starts to become more accessible. I mean, like Star Jones once said, "doesn't it feel good to pay less?"

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

No Pare! Sigue, Sigue!!!

In the Heights opened last year around this time Off-Broadway. It got pretty rave reviews, and despite not being able to find a strong audience way out in a theatre on 37th and 10th, the producers decided to take it to Broadway, where it started previews on Feb 14th. It opens officially on March 9th.

I saw the production early in it's run Off-Broadway, and instantly fell in love with it. It was exactly the kind of show that I loved. The music was fresh and fun, I laughed and cried, and I felt like a part of a community when I left the show. I urged all my friends to go see it, and even took some friends to see it (mostly so I could see it again myself!)

The show is one of the freshest, coolest things out there right now, and the composer/lyricist, and star of the show, Lin-Manuel Miranda can be considered a major force among young up and coming composers today.

Now, this is the first show that I've seen where I've seen it make the transfer from Off to the Great White Way. So it was exciting for me to see it on Broadway because I heard there were a few changes to the score and book, and of course some costume and set changes.

But what is interesting is, what time will do to the memory of a show.

As I've mentioned before, seeing a show again changes your opinion of it. When I saw Next to Normal a second time, I loved it. Legally Blonde was different for me this time too, and I actually was able to like it more for some reason.

But with this, I had such fond memories of the show, I wonder if it could have lived up to them.

The show follows a group of people in the Upper, Upper West Side neighborhood of Washington Heights. The title In the Heights, takes on different meanings, with the image of flight or being in the sky comes up often and also in referring to the neighborhood name itself.

It uses a mix of Latin beats and melodies, Hip-Hop and Broadway Pop as the basis for the score. Quite simply, this score is one of the best I have heard in a very, very long time. The lyrics are always interesting. Miranda uses rhymes that are simple but come off as unexpected, and often reference other literary or pop culture items. ("You probably never heard my name/Reports of my fame/Are greatly exaggerated")

I think what happened with myself was I hyped it up in my head. It's basically the same show. But I was looking for the same experience on Broadway as I got Off, and it was impossible to get. (For one, sitting in the Mezz of the Richard Rodgers is not the same as the intimate 37ARTS, the theatre where In the Heights played Off-Broadway.) I should have known better then to do this to myself.

I recommended this show like crazy last year, and will continue to do so this year. Despite whatever little dislikes of the show that I have in it's current Broadway incarnation, this show is wonderful, and better then most of the stuff out there! GO!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Three Shows in a weekend...

I know that I recently talked about seeing multiple shows back to back and how I don't like it. Well... I somehow managed to see three shows this past weekend, Debbie Allen's staging of an all African-American production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the new Off-Broadway transfer Passing Strange, and the so-sweet-it'll-give-you-a-cavity, Legally Blonde.

Usually when I see multiple shows in a close amount of time, they always end up, sometimes surprisingly, having themes that somehow reinforce one another. (The similarities of Steppenwolf's epic drama August: Osage County Second Stages' rock musical Next to Normal are remarkable) but I was at a loss at trying to put these three together :)

This revival of Cat is fairly straight forward. The only difference is the use of an all African-American cast. Terrance Howard is making his theatrical debut as Brick. Anika Noni Rose is Maggie, and Phylicia Rashad and James Earl Jones as Big Mama and Big Papa.

So, basically... the cast is great. I went in loving everyone before I even saw it. It was too cool to see all these people live. But as the play went on and I became less star struck, to my surprise, they were all great!

The use of an all African-American cast is an interesting one. The first time this has been done on Broadway, but there have been some all-Black casts at some professional regional productions. What was interesting about it was the fact that it didn't really change anything all that much. I expected possibly some new light to be shed on the characters, but besides a few lines here and their taking on a new meaning, not much changed. I mean... what did I expect? I don't know. And I'm not really complaining. Because just the chance to see these actors do these roles was such a treat.

I hope Terrance Howard comes back to theatre. While his Brick was very good, Brick doesn't do a lot to talking. Mostly listening... It would be nice to see him in a more active role.

After the matinee of Cat, I saw Passing Strange in the evening. I was very excited about seeing this show as I heard really good things about it when it played at the Public last year, but missed it. So I jumped at the chance to see it now on Broadway.

The show is a new rock musical that follows a young singer/songwriter as he finds himself and his voice as he grows up in Los Angeles, then moves to Amsterdam, Berlin and then eventually comes back.

A coming of age story isn't new ground by any means, but what makes this story remarkable is the way that it's told. Half rock concert, half play, the band is on stage surrounding the actors who play around them. There is no set, just a few chairs. (and I realize that the whole no-set-just-chairs-and-band-on-stage thing isn't really new either, but this just feels so fresh!)

The show is oddly postmodern and so groundbreaking, not the kind of thing you expect to see on Broadway. And I don't mean that as an intentional knock at commercial theatre. But the show is so cool and so different then everything else out there! The music is great, and despite my grumblings about rock musicals (see here) it works really well.

The show is narrated by the guitar player and composer, Stew (gotta love anyone with one name), who sometimes steps in for his younger self to sing major songs. It is a convention that turns out to be extremely powerful at times.

This is first show that I'm really excited for this year. I just hope it's able to find an audience. It's not a traditional show, and isn't going to attract a traditional audience. But I'm sure once the reviews come out it'll be packed, as when I saw it Saturday night there were some empty seats.

At Legally Blonde meanwhile, there was hardly an empty seat Sunday night. I've seen Blonde before, (and on MTV) a co-worker's husband got free tickets, and she invited me to come, and I'm not going to pass up a free show!

And the show was fine, not spectacular, but full of energy and bubble gum gusto you can't help but smile at times. If you've only seen it on MTV I will say it's much better in person. Christian Borle is a fantastic actor and I fell in love with him all over again as Emmet (the Luke Wilson character in the movie.) Laura Bell Bundy as Elle Woods was satisfactory, but her voice was so shot by Sunday night (Legally Blonde has a four show weekend) that I just felt bad for her. Take the matinees off girl!

I'm going to see In the Heights this Tuesday. It's no secret to the people who know me, that I love this show. I can only hope that being in a big Broadway house doesn't change the show too much.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Rock Musical...? meh...

Something has been bothering me for the past little while. It started after the huge success that Spring Awakening enjoyed with transferring to Broadway, then winning all these Tony's, including Best Musical. Also, the rock musical Next to Normal just opened at Second Stage. With that the "rock musical" sort of came back into people's theatrical peripheral vision, or at least mine.

As it was fluttering around in mine, I came to the conclusion: I hate rock musicals.

Now that said, there are about a million exceptions to what I just said.

My first cast album was The Who's Tommy (and even as a child opted for the 2 disk complete recording, not the highlights.) And I am a big fan of Rent, Hairspray, Dreamgirls, and countless other shows that use pop or rock music in their scores. But rock musicals are problematic for me.

I ended up seeing Next To Normal again recently. I had to give it another shot. And to my surprise, where before I just kinda liked it, this second time I loved it. But I think I liked it because I was able to listen to it this second time around.

Rock music is designed to do just that, rock. It is all about the 2 and the 4, and throwing down and having a good time to the beat. (And when I say rock, I am generally referring to popular music, including rock, pop, gospel, etc. Basically anything with a beat and not something classified as a "showtune".)

Now when a musical uses rock music to tell it's story, and when the song rocks, I mean truly rocks, it stops telling a story. Because in the end, rock music doesn't serve the show. It's about the beat.

There are countless examples. When you go to a show and a character is singing a song that rocks the house, and people start cheering what is happening? People end up cheering for the song, the beat, not the story.

I remember seeing an advanced screening of Dreamgirls where everyone there was so excited to see it. Basically the kind of crowd where even if the movie turned out to be crap, we were all going to like it no matter what! The audience was abuzz, and you knew that every person in that theatre knew the lyrics to every song.

But a strange thing happened. When Jennifer Hudson was half way through "And I Am Telling You (I'm Not Going)" and she was belting the hell out of it, people started cheering and clapping. And while it can be argued that people are cheering for the character, at the same time, aren't we just cheering the virtuosity of the performer and the music? Should at the end of that scene we think "wow, that poor girl just got dropped by her group" or "dang, that girl can sing!"? (It doesn't help that it was a movie, so why are people even cheering to begin with!?!)

Another example, I played in the pit for a production of Gospel at Colonus. It's a retelling of the Greek Tragedy Oedipus at Colunus, set in a Pentecostal Church. The show uses gospel style music to tell the story of Oedipus' death and redemption. The show is totally thrilling and uplifting, and the music is good, like really good. But so much of the story is in the lyrics and when people in the audience are clapping and stomping and literally dancing in the aisle, whose listening to the story?

The playwright Bertolt Brecht often collaborated with Kurt Weill for songs for his plays. And it's interesting to note that most of Weill's music for Brecht plays is largely overlooked, but Brechts plays live on. Some people have speculated that Brecht, being the self centered person that he was, chose Weill because his songs weren't catchy. Basically, that they weren't going to distract from his lyrics. If this is true or not, I don't know. But it brings up an interesting point about what is more important, the lyrics or the music?

In seeing Next to Normal for a second time, I was able to bypass the beat, and go straight to the lyrics. Of course, I guess it's just a matter of being able to absorb it all in one sitting. I know for me personally, it can be a little much.

So what am I saying? Should rock music not be used? No not all. I just think with a rock score, there needs to be a balance between the lyrics and the music.

It's totally safe to say that rock music isn't going anywhere. Nor is gospel or pop music. And it's continued use in musicals is here to stay. Hip-Hop, which is even more about the beat, is finally making it's way to a legit, family friendly musical In The Heights which begins previews tonight at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. (I'm seeing it on the 19th. I saw it Off Broadway and it's SO good. I can't wait!)

And even though I think rock music is an awkward fit in a musical, I will put Rent in my playlist any day over Light in the Piazza. So, call me a hypocrite, but at the end of the day, I totally forget all the theory and academic stuff about musicals because I am just not going to sit there and listen to all those strings... I need a beat!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The movie was better...

This past weekend I saw two shows. And it's always a little weird because when you see two shows almost back to back, it's like you never have time to digest the first one. (I'm always shocked by the theatre tourist who comes to New York for 8 days and sees like 9 shows! You can't possibly appreciate them all with out some time to think about them...)

I saw the tour of The Wedding Singer and the City Center's Applause concert staging.

Now I had seen Wedding Singer in New York. So it wasn't my first time with the show. And on top of that I have seen the movie a bunch of times (thank you VH1 Movies That Rock!)

It almost goes without saying that The Wedding Singer the musical is hardly ground breaking art, but it's a lot of fun and held my attention for the most part over the course of the evening.

There's not much to say about it, a left at the altar wedding singer falls for an engaged cater waitress and then through a series of events, one including Billy Idol (and some other 80's celebrities) they end up in love. Nothing to crazy, but what makes the show great is all the references to 80's pop culture. Its almost like some one took an episode of I Love the 80's, musicalized it, then got Lisa Frank to design the set.

I really like the show a lot, knowing that it's not very good (for a show about pop culture, to not have real 80's music is sad. But on the flip side... thank gawd it's not a jukebox musical using the Wedding Singer motion picture soundtrack!)

But seeing a non-equity production about 5 months into it's tour, just brought out all the flaws even more. It made me miss the movie...

I could totally see through the flimsy book, the empty energy in the choreography, and the attempt at pastiche with the score. What's more I had to travel to New Jersey to see it! (But don't worry, the ticket was comped. A friend, Joel Abels, is in the show. He by the way, was great, playing all the male "adult" roles, including a hilarious bum and a dead pan Ronald Reagan.)

But good for me, the non-eq tour didn't totally erase the fond memory I have of the original cast led by Stephen Lynch as Robbie Hart (the Adam Sandler character) and Kevin Calhoon as George (the David Arquette, Boy George character) who were able to make the show seem better then it was.

On Sunday I saw the final show of the City Center's concert staging of Applause. It was a star studded evening (Broadway stars mind you... not Hollywood stars so don't get too excited. No Julia Roberts.)

Applause is based on the movie All About Eve. Christine Ebersole plays Margo Channing, a famous film and theatre actress who's life gets hi-jacked and eventually upstaged by her apprentice, Eve, played by Erin Davie. Mario Cantone plays Margo Channing's hair dresser, and the list of stars goes on to include Chip Zien, Kate Burton, and Tom Hewitt.

The show itself if forgetable, and even more the The Wedding Singer, begs to be compared to the movie, which is superior in every way, but was still a pleasant enough night out. Christine Ebersole was fantastic as always, but like the performers in Wedding Singer, one can only transcend so far above mediocre material.

There are so many exciting plays out right now. I don't know when or how I will be able to see them. Come Back Little Sheba, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, TheSeafarer are all on my list... hopefully I'll be able to see them all before they are gone.

Oh, and remember the 50 foot rule. At both of these shows, it was very hard for me to follow my own rule! So I wanted to just encourage everyone to keep up the 50 foot rule :)