Wednesday, May 27, 2009

And the Award for Most Amazing Person in New York Goes to . . .

Ken Davenport, producer of Blithe Spirit, Altar Boyz, 13, and a number of other Broadway and Off-Broadway shows.

What makes Davenport amazing? It's not because he held a Broadway blogger social. It's not because he divulges his theatrical heart five days a week in his Producer's Perspective blog. Nor is it because he helped bring a new Jason Robert Brown score to the stage. Though these are all awe-inducing achievements, Davenport is amazing because he has done the daring and unthinkable.

He's accepting play submissions.

Let's take a mome (to quote movie Millie Dillmount) to contemplate this.

In the Broadway/Hollywood industry, people on any level of power carefully erect monumental walls to control the flow of ideas reaching them. In theory, only the best ideas from the smartest people make it over the wall.

In other words, it's who you know. It is not easy to make it over those walls, and only the best of ideas (like Life on a Stick, Brooklyn: The Musical, and Gigli) get through.

What makes this so daring is that there are many, many people like me--aspiring-to-be-produced writers who so passionately want to make it. The problem is, we have an inflated sense of our own talent.

(Potentially Mediocre Talent + Open Access) x Everyone Out There = A Lot of Work

I never fully understood why the barriers were erected until I found myself in a career where I sort through resumes. You get a whole heck of a lot of junk in order to find a useful morsel. Change out a one-page resume and insert a 150-page movie script or a 90-page musical, and someone's assistant is getting overtime.

But the hope is in that phrase--useful morsel. Someone doesn't have to be well-connected to be talented or to have a well-executed idea. Literary agents accept unsolicited query letters all the time, which is how many talented writers get a start in writing fiction and non-fiction. Now, playwrights have the same opportunity.

Just as exciting is the offer you see by scrolling down on the page. For a $49 fee, you can get an analysis of your script. Gasp! That's better than any deal at Wal-Mart.

While this doesn't help me now (no music for my musicals has always been a problem), what hope it brings! Someone needs to submit an amazing idea now so this fluke can become a trend. Remind everyone that you don't need to know the right person to be talented.

the Broadway Mouth
May 27, 2009

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Show Me!: That Bad Boy, Narration

I recently saw Grey Gardens for the first time, and its use of narration (or maybe a better term would be a character addressing the audience) for half the story had me intrigued. Here are some reflections on the choice below:

Narrator: Cody tried everyone he knew. Nobody believed him. He realized that he would have to face his transformation alone. Being alone in your time of need is a terrible feeling, and Cody felt it.

The first play I ever wrote was for my high school creative writing class. In it, I used a narrator to act as glue between the parts of the story, dispensing such nuggets of wisdom as the one above. Yes, it was an intentional line of dialogue, but unnecessary nonetheless. In fact, when I taught creative writing, I saw how easily my students would use narration as crutch in playwriting and finally got to the point where I wouldn’t let them use it.

The use of narration in writing a play is a tricky thing. Sometimes, it’s unavoidable. Stage adaptations of long narratives tend to require narration to condense a 300+ page novel into a two-hour play, though it is a fine line. The first time I learned this was in watching a production of Great Expectations as adapted by Barbara Fields. The production had so much narration that I began to feel like I was having a bedtime story read to me rather than experiencing a compelling production of a great plot. There’s something wrong when the narrator tells you that Pip ran away while you are watching Pip run away.

A great example of the use of narration in a musical is Jane Eyre. In the novel, Jane tells her own story, and she does so in a way that opens up her own emotions to the audience, at times addressing them, such as in the famous, “Reader, I married him” line. The musical adaptation required the narration to help convey the breadth of the storytelling—stretching through Jane’s childhood at Gateshead, her time at Lowood School, her life at Thornfield, her return to Gateshead, her sojourn to Moor House, and her final return to Thornfield. Never is Jane required to spend great lengths addressing the audience, and when there is need for telling of events, the chorus is employed in a way that creates mood and atmosphere, communicating ideas without simply throwing them at the audience.

An example of when narration is superfluous is in the Broadway version of Jekyll and Hyde, where the narration that opens Act I and Act II could be entirely removed without affecting the plot. It was an interesting choice, considering the opening of each act in a musical is considered to be a place to grab the audience’s attention and pull them in, but the use of narration starts things out didn’t work in this case.

In reading the libretto of Big River, the weakness of the show appears to be the extensive use of narration. I’ve never seen Big River in production (a local high school was set to do it, but the school board nixed the idea), but it has entire paragraphs of Huck talking to the audience about what he’s done or is going to do. It reads as if you don’t actually see much happening. Instead, the story is being summarized and the audience is given vignettes to flesh out the most important points. The result is a show with great music holding together a weak book (Though, to be fair, adapting The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the stage would be no easy task. As they say, there but for God, go I . . .)

The danger of narration is resorting to verbalizing a story rather than dramatizing it. One of the writer’s adages is “Show, Don’t Tell.” If the narration acts as a transition into the Show, sometimes it’s needed. But the story is being told to you—particularly when it could easily be shown to you—that’s when it gets to be too much.

the Broadway Mouth
Originally posted May 10, 2008

Saturday, May 16, 2009

An Ode to New York City

Lately I've been having dreams of New York City, reliving the thrill of being in the city of my dreams. My second musical is a ode, of sorts, to the New York I know, the New York of the tourist, the New York depicted below.

I was too excited and couldn’t sleep. Honestly, it was a double-whammy. In the summer of 2006, not only had I planned a trip to New York in a matter of two days, but I was going there to interview for a big job.

Those commercials from the early 80s, the “I Love New York” ads couldn’t say it any better. I love New York. My first trip was in the summer of 2000. I originally had a couple friends who had talked about joining me, but when they fell through, I was determined to do it—my first real vacation ever and the farthest I’d ever been from home—and I never once regretted going it alone.

I did a lot of great things that trip—saw the Statue of Liberty, rode the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel, traipsed through the Bronx Zoo, saw a half-decayed rat carcass by the side of the road in the Bronx, sat next to a drunken man on the subway drinking liquor from a bag. It was all so exciting.

The most exciting of all, though, were the shows. Riding in the Super Shuttle from La Guardia, I drove past all those glorious marquees—Annie Get Your Gun; Jesus Christ Superstar; Miss Saigon; Kiss Me, Kate; Aida . . . At home, when we get the big touring shows, the show’s title is simply spelled out on the marquee in standard letters. How I loved seeing the pictures of the stars plastered all over the theatre doors, big billboards in Times Square, the mark of live theatre everywhere.

The shows I saw that trip: Jekyll and Hyde; Kiss Me, Kate; Aida; Miss Saigon; and The Music Man. I stage-doored for my first time, thrilled to meet Barrie Ingham, Marin Mazzie, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Heather Headley, Rebeca Luker, and a ton of other performers, all of whom where mega-stars in my mind (and still are).

My second trip followed in June 2001. I had planned to head to New York again later that summer—by myself, though never lonely—but when word came that Jane Eyre was finally closing for real, I knew I had to take my chance to see it when I could. In about three days, I planned my trip to New York. My last day of school was Friday; I got my grades done, arrived home late that night to pack, and was flying out on an early morning plane. The shows that trip: Bells are Ringing, Jane Eyre, The Phantom of the Opera, 42nd Street, Follies, and The Music Man (in which I somehow managed to get the exact same seat as before—second row, center orchestra, far right seat).

In 2006, though, things were even more exciting. I hadn’t been to New York in five long, long years. In my attempts to find a new career and/or to free myself up for writing the next great American musical, I had quit two teaching jobs and taken one that was only for one year, not exactly the career path that allows for great vacations.

But this time, it was all coming together. The word came from a nanny agency that they had an interview for me, so in two days, I planned the whole trip. Trying to sleep the night before my trip was a gargantuan task in itself. The very next day, I would be flying into New York City, the best place in the world, and not only would I be in New York and get to see shows, I would be interviewing for the job that would change my life and get me closer to really cool places like the Theatre District, the BMI Workshop, and NYU. I probably slept for almost two hours that night.

I arrived in New York as tired as I was excited, but in taking the Super Shuttle through the city, those marquees and billboards were like caffeine concentrate. Who needs sleep in New York City?

Just getting out and walking those streets, being within the aroma of Broadway . . . What else could I possibly want more? Certainly not sleep!

First show that night—with my discount code in hand—The Wedding Singer. I almost cried during “It’s Your Wedding Day.” It was so beautiful—the choreography, the song, the actors, the energy, the location. As I applauded fiercely, I told myself I couldn’t do that, be away for so long. Now a little older, I chickened out on stage-dooring, but like a powerful electro-magnet, I couldn’t entirely stay away from the Al Hirschfeld stage door, watching quietly as Stephen Lynch, Tina Maddigan, Amy Spanger, Kevin Cahoon, and others exited, visiting with fans. I did work up the nerve to speak to Amy Spanger as she stood quietly outside the barricade, to tell her how amazing I thought she was, how I had missed her in Kiss Me, Kate but had heard her a billion times on the recording and how talented I thought she was because here she was doing another amazing job playing an entirely different character. It was with great reluctance that I left the stage door, leaving all the fun for the kids with their cameras.

I don’t remember what I did after the show. I probably stopped at a deli and picked up some fresh fruit or maybe at a bakery for something chocolate and gooey, then walked around a little . . . The Virgin Megastore was probably a stop. When I returned to my hotel room, now quite late, I could hardly fall asleep. I had an interview with the agency in the morning, but I couldn’t bring myself to close my eyes on the city. I just lied in bed, thinking over and over, “I can’t believe I’m in New York. I can’t believe I’m in New York!”

The next morning I awoke to my alarm bright and early for my interview with the nanny agency. I’m one of those guys who really needs his 8 ½ hours of sleep, minimum (though I rarely get it), but I half-cheerily stumbled my way into the bathroom, gazing at my face in the mirror.

My eyes were bloodshot like Bobby Brown on a Wednesday. Except I wasn’t doing crack. I was going to be interviewing for a job working with children. Bloodshot eyes from severe sleep deprivation . . . And this from a guy who’s never even had a drink of alcohol.

Quickly I dialed my sister. “Kris, my eyes. I’ve hardly slept the past two days, and they’re completely bloodshot. I have that interview and—!”

“Here’s what you do.” How calm she is in times of panic. “Go to the drugstore. There’s a product called Clear Eyes in the pharmacy section, probably next to the contact solution . . .”

Well, thank God not everyone in my family has never had a drink of alcohol.

So the agency liked me, liked my “impressive resume,” sent me on the interview, I did well, and was far on the road to getting the job. But I don’t know . . . There was just something about the job . . . I mean, as great as nannying Rosemary’s babies for eighty hours a week sounded, it seemed like the educated former teacher getting offered the first job he tried out for could maybe get something a little less all-consuming, less unpleasant. Sure, with my sole Mondays off I could see The Phantom of the Opera four times a month, maybe five when the calendar fell right . . .

Alas, I didn’t take the job.

Alas, I got another high-profile interview.

Alas, they didn’t hire me because of my lack of in-home experience. So much for the “impressive resume.”

The shows I saw that trip: The Wedding Singer, Tarzan, The Drowsy Chaperone, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Hairspray, and The Color Purple.

My 2006 trip was also marked by sightseeing. Sightseeing for me, in addition to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was primarily walking around Manhattan. Will I ever get enough of it, walking downtown, midtown, uptown, across the town, through Central Park, into the theatre gift shops, through music stores and book stores, into pizza places, past Sutton Foster? Oh, and how great are those buildings, those beautiful old buildings that remind you of all those classic movies with Maureen O’Hara or Claudette Colbert in those cool 40s hairstyles, slapping the faces of their leading men or throwing witty quips their way.

Not that all my New York memories are as classy. Let’s jump back to my first night in New York City, July 31, 2000. It’s Monday, and I’m having fun experiencing the city for the first time after having arrived around suppertime, getting the hang of how the streets are connected in relation to the Gershwin, my hotel. As I’m walking past the streets numbered in the 60s, I’m finally taking notice that the sky is getting kinda dark. It’s getting dark. It’s getting dark in New York City, and I’m God only knows how far from my hotel, not entirely sure how to get back, and I’m probably going to get mugged or killed or worse because this is New York City and isn’t that the sort of thing that happens late in New York City to gullible Midwesterners even if they do look intimidating themselves. Let’s see now, I’m thinking, my hotel is off Fifth, and I’m on 67th, that’s like a million blocks, but I have to go back the way I got here, which means crossing to Times Square like I did before so I can follow the billboards I used as a marker.

So, I’m walking fast back to my hotel, keeping business-like, trying to blend in with all the other to-be mugging victims around me. I don’t stop for souvenirs. I don’t stop for pizza. I’m just marching back as fast as my size 14s will get me there. As I’m walking, though, I see stillness among the moving bodies. I glance over. Oh look, there’s a nice woman leaning against the pay phones. She’s smiling at me. Yeah, okay, I’m in New York and everything but, you know, does it mean I have to totally act like a New Yorker, and maybe she’ll even think I’m a big racist goon if I don’t respond and . . . And I smiled back, stiffly, but still a smile.

Her smile grew. “Hey Honey,” she said with a sparkle and a New Yawk accent, “got a quate’?”

I don’t think I ever walked so long a distance in such a short time. A few more experiences like that, and I would have qualified for the speed-walking Olympic team.

Where else could you run from a streetwalker and see a Broadway show all in the same day? Where else can you walk past Chuck Wagner while he’s in the city for Kiss Me, Kate tour rehearsals? Where else can you walk past a guy proclaiming, “I’m not afraid to admit it. She gave me crabs.” Where else can you see Christopher Sieber at a Ranch 1? Where else can a theatre person go and not feel out-of-place? Where else do you get energy just by stepping onto a street and seeing masses of people?

I love New York, the city of dreams.

the Broadway Mouth
January 12, 2008

On my second trip to NYC, I was still waiting at the stage door. Here's Marc Kudish, uber-talented actor from Bells are Ringing, and my shoulder. I really loved that show.

August: New York 2000--Only in New York can you see Rent, Saturday Night Fever, and Beauty and the Beast all on the same cow.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Casting Quandaries: The Most Difficult Role to Cast

Here we have a 3 for 1 special:

Casting a play is a little like Christmas as a kid. Growing up, we’d always get the Christmas catalogue from JCPenney and Sears, then page through it, dreaming of all the wonderful toys within our grasp. Casting is the same way. Just replace the toys with talented actors, and you get the picture.

I made a big snafu my first time casting. I was being very practical about it, and after auditions, I knew who I wanted to be my Dolly Levi and Horace Vandergelder. So I didn’t add them to my call back list. It seemed pointless.

There was no greater disappointment than when my two very talented leads saw the callback list. I also have a feeling there was no greater joy then when my two very talented leads saw the final casting notice.

As I write my musicals, I’ll admit to having fun contemplating what beloved Broadway stars might get cast on the day my shows hit the Great White Way. It is, granted, a long shot, but, as the Andrew Sisters would say, I can dream, can’t I?

Casting isn’t always easy, though. I would imagine that in casting big productions of classic shows, you’re always fighting the expectations of the audience (perhaps from prior actors or, worse yet, film versions) while trying to find the actor who will best bring to life a character in a unique but faithful interpretation.

My theory is that one of the most difficult roles to cast in musical theatre has to be Annie. Yes, the plucky little orphan. Because of this, it doesn’t surprise me that the casting problem that plagued the original Broadway production reared its ugly ahead during the last revival. As detailed in the book It Happened on Broadway, the original creators cast a very talented girl in the lead, but they realized that Annie needed to be a tough kid. Out went saccharine Annie, and in came chorus girl Andrea McArdle. In the most recent Broadway revival, the understudy Peggy Sawyered her way to the top as well.

Because of “Tomorrow,” we associate Annie with chipper, cheerful-til-you-puke, pluckiness. As a result, the temptation is to cast the biggest voice or the most expressive kid in the part, which is why so many community theatres get it wrong. There are shades of Annie’s personality that can’t be painted in bright red colors. The song “Tomorrow” is so effective because it is expressed from a place of deep pain. It can’t be oversimplified and be effective, and the one-note chipper Annie simply can’t do justice to the song.

Charlie Brown

As Alice says in Alice in Wonderland:
“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn't be. And what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?”

That about sums up the casting for a couple of musicals. The more apparent one is probably Sally Bowles in Cabaret. She’s not supposed to be a spectacular performer, yet people pay big bucks to see someone who can sing. I believe it was Ken Mendelbaum who identified Susan Egan as the best Sally of the last revival because she was able to perfectly balance those two facets of the character.

Like Annie in “Casting Quandaries I,” there’s another role that’s mysteriously difficult to cast. It’s hard for me to fully comment because I don’t think I’ve seen the definitive production of the show (though I have seen several strong productions). When it comes to Charlie Brown in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the temptation seems to be to take the kid you want to cast because he’s so nice and give him the role. After all, it is good old Chuck; how much stage presence do you need?

I love my Broadway revival cast recording of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown with Anthony Rapp in the title role, a production I never got to see. It’s interesting to hear it because, though the character is . . . well, Charlie Brown . . . Rapp is still giving an endearing, strongly sung, and theatrical performance. He found a way to bring to life a wallflower, a failure, and a self-defeating character without sacrificing stage presence, warmth, and humor.

It seems to me that the best casting of Charlie Brown would be in finding one of your strongest character performers, then casting him in that role. The show is, after all, named for Charlie Brown. He shouldn’t be the least memorable character in the show (just as he was never the least memorable character in the cartoon specials).

The casting of The Sound of Music became infinitely more challenging when Julie Andrews stepped into the role of Maria for the film. It’s interesting to ponder that Mary Martin was cast in the role in the original Broadway production after playing parts like Peter Pan and Annie Oakley. Those aren’t roles you would ever imagine Julie Andrews taking on.

Since the movie, what stage production will ever be able to live down the memory of Julie Andrews in one of the most beloved movies ever made? In the last revival, Rebecca Luker and Laura Benanti were consecutively cast as everyone’s favorite postulant, casting choices that followed the film’s lead (and both are tremendously talented women). But look at the choice—you could never imagine casting either Luker or Benanti as Peter Pan or Annie Oakley.

Casting a movie can be a very different exercise from casting a stage production. Often the integrity of the role is sacrificed for celebrity by casting someone who can’t sing too well, can’t sing the role the way it was written, or is too old for the part. Casting Julie Andrews as Maria was inspired, though it fits a film’s style more than it would probably fit a stage production (particularly in the way that The Sound of Music was reconceived for film). What the film captures in a close-up with Andrews may have been difficult for the stage to have successful communicated. I never saw Mary Martin on stage, but my understanding is that her performances were full of pluck, energy, and charm. I have a feeling her Maria didn’t abandon those traits (and the show was written to play to those strengths as well).

Yet, stage productions of The Sound of Music are always caught chasing after the beauty and charm of Julie Andrews, rather than going for someone with the plucky cow-town charms of a Mary Martin.

It’s interesting to compare this to the casting of Millie Dillmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie. The original Broadway Millie was going to be Erin Dilly, a very talented and versatile actress in the Julie Andrews vein (who played Millie in the original movie), but the show’s creators realized that they needed something different. It seems to me that their final choice—Sutton Foster—has more in common with Mary Martin than she would ever have with Julie Andrews. But then again, the needs of casting for the stage are something altogether different.

So, if I were to cast a stage production of The Sound of Music, I think it would be interesting to expand my horizons in casting Maria. A great role is open to many different interpretations, but I would love to see what a Sutton Foster type would do with the role . . . if I could only escape the movie.

the Broadway Mouth
Originally posted May 3, 2008, May 1, 2008, and April 30, 2008

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Networking: I Hate It. I Need It.

It's been a year since I originally wrote this, and I'm still not great at networking. I'm just now getting the hang of not shutting down when someone wants me to describe a project I'm working on. Some of us are more comfortable at self-promotion then others. We all grow at different stages, right?

In the arts, networking is everything. You can be the next Richard Rodgers, but if you don’t know how to network, you’ll never get anywhere. Just check out producer Ken Davenport’s recommendation on getting your work to a producer—get it into the hands of someone who will act as a go-between. Even submit to NYMF, you have to know the right person.

That’s one of the reasons why getting into this business is a challenge, to say the least. The reality is that if my dad had been Steve Martin’s mailman, I would have a much easier time breaking through than I have had. It’s just the nature of the business.

The bummer is that I hate networking. I love people, but I hate imposing on them or putting myself in a position to feel like I am using them. Real networking isn’t using people, but it can become a fine line, particularly if you’ve run across any power networkers in your past.

In my attempts at networking, I have learned much, and as social networking sites like continue to grow, it’s important to learn a few things about the art of networking.

A few rules I share:

1. Networking is a mutual act. It is not “helping me.” The best piece of networking advice I have ever received is to look at it as helping others. Do what you can to help others because it’s the right thing to do, and when the time comes, they will reciprocate the action.

Several years ago, I spent some time in Los Angeles to scout out the Hollywood scene. While there, I traded business cards with a number of really kind people who were excited to meet me. However, when I emailed them with an idea or to maintain contact, I never got a response. Why? Because they gave me their card so that if I got a show produced, I could call them with a job. That’s using people, not networking.

There was one woman—a propmaster—with whom I did maintain some contact, and she even went as far as to invite me to an industry Halloween party. When my times comes—and come it will if I have to create a project for myself—guess whose card I still have in my wallet.

This means that if you expect people to read your work and comment on it, then you must be willing to read and comment on theirs. Don’t send your MySpace friends a big update about your career and ask for support if you never respond to their calls. If you have a concert, a reading, or a gig, don’t expect anyone to show up if you don’t support them. You haven’t earned it.

2. Cut off the dead weight. If you do find yourself attempting to befriend someone who is clearly using you, delete them from your friends list, don’t respond to their emails, and don’t go out of your way for them. Use your time wisely.

I have cut once-close friends out of my life because I got tired of them never responding to my invitations, never being able to attend my performances without so much as a response to an email, only to then receive minute-by-minute invites to their projects, multiple mailings to raise funds for their causes, and so on.

Everyone is busy, and we have to understand that, but if you really mattered to that person, they wouldn’t treat you like a footnote. Cut them off.

3. It’s all about the work. Talk is cheap, and in the world of the arts, very easy. A great networker is going to get nowhere if he or she doesn’t have work to prove themselves. No one cares about the plans you’re making; they only want to see the result.

To quote myself in my second musical:

There are two kinds of dreamers—those who talk about what they’re going to do and those who do it. It’s in your hands now.

4. Online networking doesn’t replace face-to-face communication. You could literally spend ten hours a day networking online, but what you really need to be doing is getting yourself in a position to meet and work with people.

Online networking is very difficult because the proof is in the pudding, to use a cliché. You might chat with some of the kindest, greatest, nicest people, but in the end, it’s ability that makes the cut, not friendships. Singers and songwriters can post music online, but the rest of us need to get ourselves in a position to have our work read or seen. Nothing will ever replace that.

This is not to say that online networking isn’t valuable. I’ve met some great people online. The Internet is too young to accurately gauge its success in matching people to projects, and perhaps in ten years, we’ll be seeing a string of shows that have grown from online friendships. But don’t neglect the face-to-face kind!

5. Respond. I once tried being part of a Yahoo group called Musical Makers. I was shocked at the lack of professionalism from the people in the group. I would get emails from people wanting to collaborate, and if I knew our styles were not compatible (or if I didn’t care for their work), I gave a speedy reply that was both respectful and personable. If someone reaches out to contact me for that, that’s the least I can offer.

This pansy, no-response thing, I don’t get it. I have had people interested in working with me (actors and songwriters) who just drop off the face of the earth without so much as an email. That’s what you do in tenth grade when the “special” girl in class keeps hitting on you; that’s not how you react as a professional, creative adult (particularly when you initiate the contact). In some ways, for me, it was good when that happens because then you don’t waste time on that person. But if you’re not in the game to play, then go back to the minor leagues.

I once had someone contact me for collaboration, to which I responded promptly with some information. Not only did the songwriter not respond, but he put me on his email list for updates about his career. Yeah, thanks for the spam.

6. Remember the Ten Minute rule. At one point, Idina Menzel was ten minutes away from never being a wedding singer again.

the Broadway Mouth
originally posted April 17, 2008

Thursday, May 7, 2009

From the Mouth of Mary Martin: On the Writing and Selecting of Roles

In her autobiography My Heart Belongs, Mary Martin writes:

A fine libretto, wonderful music, a role full of vitality can make milestones in the careers of entirely different personalities in the theater. Annie [Oakley] was one of those roles. It was one of Ethel Merman’s unforgettable ones; it gave Delores [Gray] her first big break; it afforded me many of my happiest hours onstage.

And that brings up one more thing I have learned: beware of any role which somebody says is "written especially for you." If the role isn’t written so well, so strongly, that any professional can play it, don’t get involved. That, too, is what theater is all about.

Some examples:

Mama Rose: Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone (not to mention the many great regional Roses)

Dolly Levi: Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Pearl Bailey, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye (and that’s the short list)

Charity Hope Valentine: Gwen Verdon, Shirley MacLaine, Debbie Allen, Donna McKechnie, Charlotte d’Amboise, Christina Applegate

Perhaps Martin’s statement rings true because the basis of any production of a show that is either new or used is interpretation. The interpretation is derived from the libretto, which means that a great role can survive many different interpretations, provided they are rooted in the text and supported by the playwright’s intentions. If someone is writing a show for a specific personality, that means that they could be using that actor’s natural charisma, acting style, or personality as a crutch, to cover any gaps in characterization.

As you can imagine, I’m always casting shows as I write them, organizing my dream cast as I go along; however, it’s equally delighting to think of the many different actors who could also play the part. I feel like I’ve done my job if I can imagine people with different appearances, voices, or personas taking on the roles.

the Broadway Mouth
April 2, 2008

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

I'll Forget You

I just saw the Legally Blonde tour (more on that when I'm back into the swing of things) and was thrilled to to see three familiar names in the cast--Coleen Sexton (who I knew was the cast, though I ended up seeing her understudy), Natalie Joy Johnson (from the NET Godspell tour, though I saw her understudy in Godspell), and Kate Rockwell. No, I don't forget easily, I guess.

Nancy Opel in Making It On Broadway:

I had a baby and I left the business for two years. I literally had to move away. I knew that if I didn’t, I would stay in this business. The lure is too strong. I was warned by some people, “If you stay away too long, they will forget who you are.”
Damn it, that’s right. They do forget, and I don’t care. I did the right thing for my family. Do I have regrets about the things I may have missed? Not really. A scrapbook isn’t the same as a healthy, well-adjusted child.

It’s interesting to watch the trends in Broadway casting; people do get quickly forgotten. Watch how new people are quickly cast from one show into another. One minute, they are nobody, and the next, they are in the latest hit show. While the people who did that a mere five years ago are nowhere to be seen.

Take, for example, Tyler Maynard, who was able to move from Altar Boyz into The Little Mermaid. Tony Yazbeck got Gypsy after A Chorus Line, just as Mara Davi got The Drowsy Chaperone.

Everyone gets their breaks in their own ways, and I’m thrilled for anyone who can make a go of acting on Broadway because each role in earned with much blood, sweat, and tears. I’m not saying that Maynard, Yabeck, and Davi haven’t earned their roles—I’m not implying that at all.

But, as Nancy Opel mentions, I wonder of the great talents who have been forgotten along the way. It’s so easy to focus on the big talents who have deservedly managed to get from one show to the next because they are wowing us right now, but as we reflect on who we’d love to see in roles, let’s not forget that there’s a truckload of major talents who are, from reports, still in the business. It’s not atypical for people to enter into the profession of starring on Broadway, only to then tire of it, crave the stability of family, or to choose other avenues for their talents. However, just because we don’t see them doesn’t mean they are not out there, trying to get seen.

The hot tickets of not-too-long ago, I can’t just forget them. I choose not to forget them. I don’t know what reason we haven’t seen them on stage, but it wouldn’t be surprising to know that they simply haven’t been able to get seen.

Let’s all take a moment and remember all the fantastic performers from the past fifteen years who are still out there—the Matt Bogarts, Sandra Allens, Chuck Wagners, Maya Days’—pounding the pavement, trying to a nice man like a Ziegfeld or a Weismann to get them into a great, big Broadway show.

I’ll not forget you.

the Broadway Mouth
Originally Posted March 31, 2008

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Ten Minutes Ago

Ten minutes ago I saw you
I looked up when you came through the door
My head started reeling
You gave me the feeling
The room had no ceiling or floor
--Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella

Ten minutes ago she was a secretary. Ten minutes ago she was a wedding singer. Ten minutes ago she was scooping poop. Ten minutes ago he was fired from TCBY. But now, they are Ethel Merman, Idina Menzel, Laura Benanti, and songwriter Jeff Marx.

Never underestimate people of talent and ambition, even if that ambition seems far-fetched or muted by shyness. That man waiting your table before you head off to Cry-Baby really could be a Broadway star next year. That kid promoting his songs on BroadwaySpace could write the next Hairspray. That girl with the funny voice who keeps calling you about attending her reading could write the next Les Miserables.

Sure, there are a lot of folks out there knocking on doors who really aren’t the best dancers, aren’t that great with their monologue, and maybe don’t even write strong lyrics. But, some day, if you open your eyes, you’ll find someone who really is the undiscovered Heather Headley or Marc Shaiman.

Idina Menzel has my favorite story, told in Making It on Broadway. She was a wedding singer, one of the same that gets pushed to the back of the brain because she sings “while people chew.” Worst of all, the bandleader of her band once had the sound guy turn her mic down so his girlfriend would be louder. Some time after that, she starred in Rent, Lippa’s The Wild Party, Aida, Wicked, See What I Wanna See, and now people are paying $20 a pop to buy Enchanted, where she became the Disney princess and $15 to hear her new solo album.

But it’s no Cinderella story. It takes a lot of hard work, a lot of determination, a lot of faith in yourself to become something. But the truth is that Idina Menzel was always Idina Menzel, and starring in Rent didn’t change that. If she had never gotten the Rent gig, she’d have the same voice, the same talents, even if she was an administrative assistant.

So, the quiz of the day is:

1. Who will the people around you become in ten minutes?

A) Someone I will later regret not taking seriously.
B) Someone who’ll invite me to the opening night party.
C) Someone I’ll be glad for keeping in touch with.
D) Someone who could have made me a ton of money.

2. In ten minutes, who will you become?

A) a Broadway performer
B) a Broadway songwriter
C) a Broadway book-writer
D) a Broadway producer
E) a Broadway director
F) a Broadway set-designer
G) a Broadway costumer
H) a Broadway historian
I) all of the above except A and C
J) all of the above except A-F
K) I’m going to Hollywood.

the Broadway Mouth
Originally posted March 27, 2008

Friday, May 1, 2009

Amazing Discovery: Joseph Kramm’s The Shrike

This was such an awesome find that I'm happy to share it again.

It plays out like a modern movie. A man, in a moment of desperation, attempts suicide. After failing, he finds himself in a mental institution with only his estranged wife to comfort him, not to mention to keep his new girlfriend at bay. With his estranged wife bearing sole legal power to free him from the confines of state custody, he grows increasingly agitated at being a sane man in an institution, as his wife begins to peel away all his connections to the outside world.

Over a year ago, I stumbled upon an old Random House copy of Joseph Kramm’s 1952 Pulitzer Prize-winning play in a used book store on a search for rare musical libretti. Not wanting to leave empty-handed, I grabbed The Shrike on a whim, knowing nothing about it. The play was produced and directed by Jose Ferrer, who also starred as Jim Downs, the man whose life hangs in the balance. According to the book Show Time, Ferrer won the Tony for the role and later brought it to the screen in 1955 opposite June Allyson. The play itself ran for 161 performances and also starred Judith Evelyn as his desperate wife and Isabel Bonner as the female psychologist Dr. Barrow whose feminine perspective inadvertently imprisons him longer.

The story begins as a curious depiction of a man facing a life of broken dreams but emerges as a tense observation of a woman desperate to escape loneliness, despite her mutual consent to the condition. By Act Two, it is unclear exactly why Jim is in the hospital—Is he really, indeed, mentally unstable, or is he being driven there by a system that requires him to give up sanity in order to appear sane. In reading, The Shrike becomes a page-turner.

In all my years of bookstore shopping, in all my years of keeping an eye on plays, I’ve never seen The Shrike before. If you’re into reading plays, particularly in search of something of high interest for your theatre group, check out The Shrike.


shrike (noun)— any of numerous predaceous oscine birds of the family Laniidae, having a strong, hooked, and toothed bill, feeding on insects and sometimes on small birds and other animals: the members of certain species impale their prey on thorns or suspend it from the branches of trees to tear it apart more easily, and are said to kill more than is necessary for them to eat. any of numerous predaceous oscine birds of the family Laniidae, having a strong, hooked, and toothed bill, feeding on insects and sometimes on small birds and other animals: the members of certain species impale their prey on thorns or suspend it from the branches of trees to tear it apart more easily, and are said to kill more than is necessary for them to eat.

the Broadway Mouth
March 20, 2008