Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tale of Two Cities, part xvdci

Or so it feels, but I'm really fascinated with the process of cutting down and changing a Broadway show. Frankly, I'm amazed how much they're still doing after months of previews in Sarasota.

My previous experience with such matters is limited to the Lowell House Opera's premiere of an opera by a Harvard prof, which I produced. It was nothing but cut after cut after cut, as the opera was four hours long, the orchestration was being done literally at the last moment, and nobody could learn the music in time. In retrospect, it was a freaking nightmare.

In nine days, significant changes were made in this musical. Most importantly, one comic relief number was cut. And just as well; it was a scene in a graveyard and dealt with Jerry Cruncher's sideline as a graverobber, and it featured Cruncher and three supporting characters almost never seen again. No plot development except one very tiny point, no character development, not musically memorable, and not very funny. I feel bad for those supporting actors, but it's a fantastic cut and trims the first act considerably.

They're having a terrible time with the opening, though. When I first saw it, Dr. Manette sang his past history, and then little Lucie goes to England and big Lucie pops out to learn that her father has been found. Cue fanfare and the title card thrown up on a scrim, applause. This time, Dr. Manette's song was gone in favor of a tableau. The problem with this is that it leaves big Lucie as the introductory singer, and while she has a sweet voice that she uses well, she's simply not the strongest. If they could chop and change this to get Madame Defarge to sing something about the oppression of the common people, it would be ideal. Natalie Toro is amazing and (I think) the highlight of the show other than Barbour.

They've also added more business, more emoting, and more instrumental cues. Lucie's big number in the second act was pulled earlier so that the ending can flow better. It's coming together.

I'd like to see more cuts still, frankly. The closing number of the first act is not terribly good, and I'd like them to stop earlier with a really strong number, "Out of Sight," that gets a reprise in the second act. Or as I put it to my friend at intermission, "Here's what I would do if I were god," to the great amusement of the people behind us.

It was interesting to get my friend's perspective, because generally you only hear people enthusing; those who are quietly snarking are very hard to eavesdrop on. She thought the first act was way too much like Les Mis; she also thought that Barbour was the best by far and so much the best that it made it uneven. I think that's a bit harsh on the rest of the cast, but they were also clearly playing with sound levels again, and hearing him from further back this time through the speakers, he did sound different. But still unbelievable. I'm convinced that Sydney's big song, "I Can't Recall," is going to become a Broadway standard.

Who knows what else they'll change? I probably won't ever see it after it's 'frozen,' but they definitely have the makings of a fairly good show, and a showcase for some amazing talent.

Stage-door jane

For the first time ever, I stood outside a stage door tonight and waited for autographs. I have eschewed the chance to wait for Roger Federer, Simon Russell Beale, and countless other people whose work I really do follow. But I'm so enjoying watching this Tale of Two Cities go through its growing pains that I decided to go for it.

It's actually a painless, well set up process. Had I known, I might have tried sooner. I did sort of picture screaming teenagers and insane groupies, which I frankly admitted to the happy high school student standing next to me. People in the line were very amused. Maybe that used to happen for Rent, but it wasn't the case tonight; everyone was very nice and pretty mellow, though there were a couple of people determined to make their opinions heard in great detail.

The cast filtered out in what felt like well-staggered timing, most even equipped with Sharpies; I got just about everyone's autograph and had a nice chat with Gregg Edelman, who plays Dr. Manette. I expressed my sympathy that his opening number had been cut --though I think it's a good cut-- and after the "oh, you've seen it before?" etc., he told me that they're madly resetting and reblocking that opening every day, and his number could well be back in tomorrow. They're still putting in 12-hour days fixing things. I can't imagine the exhaustion. And the sitting around. I had a similar chat with Brandi Burkhardt, who plays Lucie; she remarked that a lot has changed since I saw it, including one big number being cut. I assured her it was a good cut, though we both agreed that we're very sorry for those people.

All in all, the cast was surprisingly happy to chat, and really seemed to enjoy it. Only a couple of actors skipped the line. The crowd is not so big it's a huge burden, and these people don't often get recognized, I'm guessing. So they enjoy the genuine enthusiasm and praise of the crowd while they're still on your stage high, people get autographs, it's all good. They're also weirdly intent on eye contact. Whether that's a technique to make the fan feel special, or something they're genuinely interested in (what does our faceless mass of an audience look like?), I couldn't say.

Last out was James Barbour, charming his way down the line. I told him I was enjoying his blog, and he said, slightly taken aback, "Oh." That made me feel rather stalker-y, so I couldn't open my mouth to tell him that I had commented. I also wish I had talked to Aaron Lazar (Darnay), who seemed very nice. The little kid stars and their parents were standing around chatting happily to people, as well. It ended quickly and quietly, as Barbour was whisked away in a car. That in itself bemused me. I suppose the big star gets car service, but everyone else was trotting off with their backpacks. They could have been heading for the 1/2 for all I know.

More on the show itself tomorrow. In agonizing detail, no doubt. But this was a unique experience. I'm glad I did it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What to do?

Two unusually personal posts tonight -- but it's been on my mind what will become of this blog for a while, and it was crystallized when I just left a rather odd and hopefully funny comment on James Barbour's blog about how embarrassing it feels to comment on a stranger's blog. The academic job market starts soon, and conventional wisdom is that when you go on the market, everything comes down: blog, facebook page, etc. etc. (Come to think of it, I may still be on friendster for all I know.) It's just a matter of controlling what job committees look at, and since candidates have so little control in the process, it seems like a good idea. Considering that things like where you went to college -- a decision made at the age of 17 -- factor into the hire, the last thing you want is some friend's drunken post on your Wall to reach their eyes. (By the way, this is as good a time as any to say that I appreciate all posted comments, drunken or not, and all the comments that you shy friends email me.)

However, this blog is reasonably benign, and it's not linked off anything professional, like my listings on department webpages, etc. I can't think how job committees would stumble across it. I do get random hits and even comments, but the odds of them being from a professor on a search committee are astronomically low.

But what's going to happen less than a year from now when, job market willing, I turn from hapless grad student to outwardly dignified and inwardly overworked (junior) professor? Michael Berube, bless his overtalented heart, set an example of academic blogging, but from the lofty heights of crossover fame. He also put sick amounts of time into it and has said that blogging is a kind of public service from academics, not something that should be included professionally. Still, if I were to keep this blog as un-anonymous as it is now, or even link it to myself professionally, I don't think I'd feel free to just spill out on whatever I'm reading, seeing, or listening to.

And I'd have to worry more about grammar.


Packing it in

Very sunburned but very happy after two nights (including my old classmate James Blake last night, and tonight, Roger Federer!) and one afternoon at the US Open. It'll have to continue without me though, since friends and theater are going to fill up the rest of the time I have in NYC. I talked to some theater folks at the Open who recommended Xanadu for a good time. I inquired seriously whether I could take my mother to see it. She's actually pretty unflappable, but I don't think that the 'tits and ass' number in Chorus Line was her favorite thing. Maybe it was, compared to the number about gonorrhea... I think I'll stick to Tale of Two Cities.

Tip for all you potential Broadwaygoers: if eligible, join tdf and get discounted tickets on there. You have to keep a very sharp eye out and be able to buy in advance, so it's much easier if you actually [groan] live in NYC. I made the mistake of not checking last night when I got back from the Open at 2:30am, and by this morning, the Tale tickets for Saturday that went up after I left home at 6pm were gone.

Someday, academic job market willing...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"Is it about Boeing?"

People kept asking me this when I said I was going to see Boeing Boeing. I couldn't answer, since I was only going because I knew it was a comedy and that Bradley Whitford, Christine Baranski, Mark Rylance, and Mary McCormack were in it.

It turns out that it wasn't really; it's about a bachelor in Paris (Whitford) who is juggling three very different stewardess fiancees, helped by his dour Parisian housekeeper (Baranski) and his hapless old schoolmate (Rylance). It ought to have been called Boeing Boeing Boeing. Each stewardess is a wildly over-the-top stereotype: an airheaded bigmouth American, a passionate Italian, and a strapping dictatorial German (McCormack was completely unrecognizable). It's a silly, sexy farce with candy-colored sets and costumes to help it along.

Brilliant acting, especially from Rylance as a stammering, shy Wisconsin man who eventually takes full advantage of his friend's harem situation. Rylance might be best known for directing the Globe Theatre in London for ten productive years, and he recently appeared in The Other Boleyn Girl as the girls' father, Thomas Boleyn. As I said to a friend, how many Shakespeare plays has he been in? how many Shakespearean kings has he played? and I get to see him live on stage riding Bradley Whitford.

I did enjoy the performances very much, but I dearly wish it had been faster paced, especially in the second act. there comes a point at which, when the comedy is all coming from the women popping in and out of doors at (in)opportune times, it gets too predictable. But it ended with a charming conga line from all the stars, which ramped my energy back up.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Two Cities: the network

I've always said that the theater community is amazingly networked online and technologically savvy; YouTube proves this, as does the bootleg recording market, the innumerable personal websites and blogs, and great show sites.

Still, I was surprised to find comments on my posts about A Tale of Two Cities from two such site-keepers. The first one, Reflections on an Epic in the Making, is by a theatre student who has been following the development of the show for five long years. I admire his/her devotion. I've been known to track the progress of film adaptations I'm interested in (Man in the Iron Mask being my most enduring disappointment), and of course the most famous such site for film is, but this is a very complete and fascinating site. It gives a lot of insight into the process. The blog also links to other blogs, like James Barbour's, which I've already mentioned, but it turns out that Aaron Lazar, who plays Charles Darnay, also has a blog, though he hasn't been updating as often.

And then I found another post from a person involved with the development of a different Tale of Two Cities musical. I must say that unless this one flops bigtime, and my gut tells me it won't, they're not getting to Broadway anytime soon. It's so unfortunate. Far worse than two similar movies, like the two Capote movies in the same year.

Finally, a last comment on the musical itself: it's really stayed with me, which is a sign of a keeper. I think the cast is what sold me. You can find workshop snippets on YouTube, like this one of the Defarges (Natalie Toro manages to be both sympathetic and frightening as Madame Defarge, with passionate acting and an amazing voice. Might be a Tony there). There's also one of Barbour singing a number from late in the show which, again disproving my point about excessively short songs, is about two minutes long.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A happy aside

I don't usually blog about sports on here, but I do have to say that I got to attend and participate in the US Open draw ceremony today. Details here. I am cherishing the specially struck coin that I pulled out of the trophy to place Marin Cilic, #30 seed, into the draw.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

In the pleasantly warm light of day

It occurs to me that some of the choppiness I felt in the musical last night might have to do with my seat, because
1) The orchestra was under my nose, and therefore quite loud. A bit jarring to get the speaker in your right ear and the real sound in your left.
2) I could always see everything and everyone moving in the opposite wing, which is a bit distracting and makes you think that nothing ever stops for long enough to have a scene.
3) I often couldn't see people's feet and legs, since I was looking UP at the stage. This sounds stupid, but I think it's true that if you can't really appreciate the blocking, you miss a lot of the continuity and creation of dramatic movement that can help link scenes/numbers.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities!

Just kidding actually, it is just A Tale of Two Cities, though I don't doubt that everyone concerned would like to catch the same lightning in a bottle that hit Oliver! It is a musical, it is based on the Charles Dickens novel, and it just started previews at the Al Hirschfeld Theater on 45th. I watched it from what is surely the worst seat I have ever sat in (first row, last seat on the right), in a fairly distinguished history of bad rush seats. It's not just because I'm getting older that I don't feel like rushing anymore.

So that with my partial view and wildly craned neck, when I tell you that the show firmly held my attention (I won't say enthralled, but quite reasonably close) for its entire 2h45min, you know it means something. Really good music and really good orchestration, wonderful cast, gorgeous costumes, you know the drill. It's Broadway, after all; what show, especially a risky new one, is going to have an awful cast? Music, on the other hand, with a new show, not always a given. I was impressed by the book; it's really quite well adapted, with a couple of plot holes showing where they made changes and then never fixed continuity. The lyrics are not all memorable. But I think it's going to play.

It's not going to escape the comparisons to Les Miserables. Bad enough that it's set largely in Paris during a revolution (this one the real French Revolution), both feature love triangles centered on curly-haired blondes and an ex-con father figure. Throw in the fact that the show uses Cockney accents (for Englishmen at least, not the Thenardiers) and that the musical numbers heavily rely on big, belting ensembles, and you're pretty much doomed. They might as well have thrown in a rotating stage while they were at it.

But they didn't. Tony Walton instead provided two-story scaffolds that get wheeled on and off and combined in creative ways. No glitches there, and they're not loud when moved, either. They work beautifully for creating small spaces within the Hirschfeld's pretty sizable stage and for scattering the ensemble for the big company numbers, like Darnay's trials. Those trials, by the way, are some of the longer numbers in the show, which often feels like a lot of very short songs pasted together. If it's Les Mis, it's Les Mis without "Castle on a Cloud" and "On My Own" and all those other torch songs. Oh yes, "Stars," "I Dreamed a Dream," oh god, it's all coming back.

Really, though, you want a big torch song when you have a male lead as compelling as James Barbour, whose charisma pretty much shone out from his first entrance being wheeled on in a drunken haze behind a desk. It's a good thing, too, since Sydney Carton, the dissolute antihero, is the heart of the novel and here even more critically so with the sentimental pandering to the audience by having him kiss Lucie and have a cutesy prayer scene with little Lucie, etc. (Look, it's a musical.) I freely confess I am not familiar with his work, but he was very funny when he needed to be, and he has a really beautiful voice, best shown off in "I Can't Recall." Two of his other big songs end with falsettos (like Jean Valjean, if you're going there), which is a vague dislike of mine. The other two of the love triangle also have beautiful voices, with a former Miss New York, Brandi Burkhardt, making her Broadway debut as Lucie. I have a feeling it will be a long-running one. Go help them out.

ETA: Forgot to add that Barbour is blogging the preview process. That's interesting in and of itself. It did show tonight -- big lighting miscue, several sound level issues, and most sadly for me, a fallen hat right in my face for the last scene, though that can happen anytime.

Monday, August 18, 2008

I hardly knew ye

The Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan is closed. All right, those of you in the know will say; that's hardly news. Well, it's news to me. The shock waves of its closing, liquidation auction, etc. in 2007 did not reach me in my cozy Chicago home. while the aura of its storied past and, especially, that famous photo of about thirty famous authors posing there which I encountered numerous times while working on the Gore Vidal papers at Harvard, kept it alive in my heart. Last August, I tried to take my uncle there on a broiling hot day, and a little sign on the door merely said that it was closed for inventory. Some inventory--like counting the bones on a corpse. Well, I guess I can go to the Strand if I have to.

Friday, August 15, 2008


Not Michael Phelps, but Laurence Fishburne. I went to see him in the Broadway one-man show Thurgood on Wednesday night, and it was possibly the fastest standing ovation I've ever seen. People didn't even wait for him to walk out.

As you might have guessed, the show is about Thurgood Marshall, who narrates as if giving a lecture on his life and career, from childhood to retirement, at Howard University. It was written by George Stevens, Jr., who also wrote the miniseries about Marshall that I saw when I was very young. It's not an exaggeration to say that that miniseries changed my life. It gave words to a lot of issues, not only about race, that I probably couldn't have articulated myself at this point.

Fishburne is completely convincing as Marshall, salty, scrappy, passionate, and powerful, having fun with plenty of hilarious lines mixed in with the gravity of the landmark cases he tried. The staging was fine; the backdrop, an all-white embossed American flag, serves as a transparency screen. Projection switches from photographs relevant to what he's talking about to the Supreme Court building facade and interior, and there are sometimes even relevant sounds played. The only other speaker, however, is Earl Warren reading the decision in Brown v. Board.

I greatly enjoyed it, much more than the frankly rather over-artful Year of Magical Thinking last year, which was also a one-woman show (Vanessa Redgrave) at the same theater and similar staging. If you're in NYC, get thee to see it before it closes, which is very soon.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

TDS live!

I went to a taping of the Daily Show today! Long story on how I got the ticket, but I did, and it was a "VIP" ticket, which means that you are on a separate line and get seated first. Of course, this doesn't matter a ton in the long run, because you are put in seats by the interns, and have about as good a chance of getting a front row seat by chance if you're on the long line. The first section is closer to Stewart himself; the others probably have better views. I'd say the audience size is around 400, maybe less.

After waiting on line outside forever (you're supposed to be on line by 4:10pm), you go through security (metal detector; guard digs thoroughly around in your purse) and get penned up in a tiny lobby, which is probably great if the weather's bad. There you wait even longer, till we actually got let into the studio well after 5:30pm. Then, of course, you wait for everyone else to be seated, which takes a while because once the lobby is clear, they have to let people through security and then into the studio. A producer comes out to warm you up, which sounds idiotic but the cheering really does get louder as he exhorts the crowd. Then Jon Stewart came out and took a very few questions before taping started.

These questions ranged from the dumb (What's your favorite diner in NJ?) to the weirdly funny. One woman asked about Berlin's longitude on the wall, which reads W rather than E. She thought maybe it was on purpose. Stewart grumbled, "I hate it when the audience is smarter than me," and then deadpanned, "Yeah, it was on purpose. It's a really funny joke we put in for... cartographers."

Great show today, but you can see that just from watching it on TV (Rob Riggle's last Beijing report, Ben Stiller). What you can't see is that before the check-in with the Colbert Report, Jon and Stephen kind of screw around over the satellite link. Today's conversation was mostly about Stephen's little boy, who is coming back from his first summer camp. It's one of those fancy camps where they can look at photos of the kids online, but no cell phones. They are allowed to write home, though "apparently he hasn't," Colbert observed.

Last highlight: one older lady shouted at the end, after the show, "Just elect Obama!" Stewart looked at her and said, "Ma'am, I don't elect people. How would that work? 'I elect you,'" and mimed a magic wand or knighting ceremony gesture.

Taping was very quick, not quite real-time but almost. We were out before 7pm, after Stewart thanked us sincerely for standing outside for "like eleven hours. Really, we should just beat you with clubs when you come in here. Wouldn't that be great?"

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Lots of steel rods

I'm in NYC and enjoying the Olympics on TV. Even if you're quite immune to Olympics fever, the stadium and "water cube" (aquatics center) are more than worth checking out from an architectural point of view. The NY Times had pretty good articles on them here and here. Definitely some of the most interesting Olympic (or other) architecture I've seen in a while. The stadium might be the bigger achievement, but the water cube has my heart. But that might just be because I love swimming.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Not the Hendrix song

Though it does use the Hendrix song, and mentions him by name.

I went to see a play last night by a scrappy startup theater workshop, A-Squared, which is a brand-new Asian American group in Chicago. A welcome addition, though I get copious emails from the East-West theater company all the time. A-Squared's production of The Wind Cries Mary runs through Aug. 24, and I highly recommend it if you're in the area. The A-Squared link will give you info; it's in City Lit Theatre's space in the Edgewater Presbyterian church on Bryn Mawr (a small actual theater on the second floor of the church's massive building). You can get discounted tickets on Goldstar Events, too.

Philip Kan Gotanda is a pretty well-known Asian American playwright whose work I'm totally unfamiliar with, but I'm quite curious about him now. The Wind Cries Mary takes place all in a home in San Francisco or somewhere close (originally San Jose) in 1968 or so, and dramatizes what is happening outside the home: sex, drugs, rock'n'roll, the rapidly changing ethnic activism of the time, the Vietnam War, and all the unrest that it brings to campus. Strongwilled, stifled Eiko (a Hedda Gabler type) has just married a bland white academic, Raymond Penberthy, and in comes trouble in the shape of the smarmy Dr. Nakata, a business professor and her father's nemesis, and the trippin', brilliant, erratic Miles Katayama, who could take Raymond's promised teaching post away from him. It has a somewhat predictable plot arc, especially if you've read Hedda Gabler! but some excellent dialogue (and some cringeworthy lines, I'm not going to lie), and great use of music (which might be scripted or original to this production, I couldn't be sure).

This production is really impressive for a small workshop. Pretty solid acting all around, with the standout performances from Joe Yau (who teaches at Second City) as Nakata and Allen Sermonia as Miles. Those are perhaps the flashiest parts, since Nakata's suppressed anger stemming from his internment in WWII and Miles' crazy hippie mannerisms give them a lot to build on. A very nicely dressed little set -- I loved all the late sixties touches. Don't sit in the front row, by the way, because they work pretty close to the edge of the floor. No doubt it'll get smoother as the run goes on, since this was only the second night, but it went quite well, with only a couple of sound hiccups or misspoken words. Definitely worth checking out.