Chita Rivera is a Broadway legend and one of the most gracious and prodigious theatrical talents one would want to meet. Richard Ridge is the lead correspondent for Broadway World the go-to place online to find everything you want to know about Broadway, its stars, its happenings. For those who were there on Monday evening, 7 May they received a great treat. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women presented Chita Rivera in conversation with Richard Ridge. After the interview, members discussed with Co-Chairs Pat Addiss and Sophia Romma who produced the event how they appreciated Chita Rivera’s authenticity and great good will, and Richard Ridge’s superbly guided questions.
Much of the evening which was too good to miss is captured here with some edits. I chose to sum up the beginning and conclude on a positive affirmation that strikes me as suffusing all that Chita Rivera has accomplished in her amazing life with her last comment in this piece. It is why she is who she is, after all is said and done!
The interview began with Richard Ridge asking Chita Rivera the “sixty-four thousand dollar question,” how she became a dancer. Chita Rivera’s answer is one for the ages. She said that she was a tomboy. And one day jumping from the chair to the coffee table, she missed her mark. Exasperated her mother said, “That’s it. You’re out of here. You’re going to Doris Jones.” From a time perspective and having raised children, Chita Rivera surmises, “I had no idea my mother was so smart. She wanted to save the house.”
Apparently, her mom who had exquisite legs and the most beautiful turnout, wanted to be a dancer, but chose to raise five children. However, she championed her daughter Chita to do that which she thought might work out to keep her daughter entertained and “the house saved.” What follows is Richard Ridge’s wonderfully knowledgeable and finely researched informal interview with the inimitable Chita Rivera.
So it was Doris Jones who took you to New York for your audition for George Balanchine? What was that like?
Well, we were very obedient in those days to adults and when you have someone wonderful like Miss Jones, it’s easy. Louis Johnson was really the first male, black dancer in the New York City ballet. He was my partner in Ms. Jones’ school. So the two of us won a scholarship to audition that day. I got out of the elevator and saw this gorgeous girl with legs up to my shoulders and so skinny and so beautiful and so calm. I looked at Ms. Jones and said, I’m scared. And Ms. Jones said, “Just stay in your lane.” And I’ve been staying in my lane ever since. You find out who you are by being who you are.
So you accompany a friend to the touring audition to Call Me Madam. What happened when you got there.
Well, Helen (I can’t remember her last name)…approached me in class and said, “Chita, I’m not on scholarship. I have no money. Will you go with me? I’m scared to death.” I said, “Absolutely.” I wasn’t frightened because it didn’t mean anything to me except it was an experience. I got the job but Helen didn’t! I haven’t heard from her since. So if anyone hears from her, let me know. (laughter) So I went home and told my mother, “They’ve offered me $250 dollars a week to go on the road with a woman by the name of Elaine Stritch!” I don’t think at the time I had even seen a Broadway show. But I loved it. It was an exciting time to be doing the choreography. The choreographer’s name was Jerome Robbins. And I got one of the four principal dancers. So I just continued to do what I was told and it was an amazing experience. It was the beginning of everything.
Doris Jones had performances when we were in her school. So I had the opportunity to dance during concerts and on point. But I never got the chance to dance with the New York City Ballet. I’ve thought about that. And I’m just fine about it. (laughter) And Ms. Jones, God love her, she had gorgeous schools. I invited her to see my shows and she never came. And one day, when I was doing Kiss of the Spider Woman, I was in a restaurant and there was Ms. Jones. I said why haven’t you come to see me? Are you ashamed of me? She said, “I’m busy making little Chita Riveras (laughter). I just let you out into the world.” So I give Ms. Jones all the credit. (applause)
You did Guys and Dolls and then Can Can when you started your life-long friendship with Gwen Verdon. What did you learn from her. And that day you were called into her dressing room what did she say to you?
I’ve always said that if I am reincarnated, I’d like to come back as the carriage instead of the horse. I think most dancers would like to be the carriage because the horse pulls and pulls and does the hard work…the carriage gets to carry the amazing people…what was the question? (laughter)
The dressing room when Gwen Verdon called you.
Michael Kidd choreographed the show. She was extraordinary. I lived in the wings of every show I ever did and learned so much that way. She called me into her room. At that time you didn’t cross a star’s threshold, not unless someone asked you to. You didn’t just presume. And so I went in. I remember her clearly saying to me, “Chita, you should be brave enough to go out and look for parts you can create for yourself.” I realized she was giving me courage and making me go out and find out who I am. And shortly after that, I did get a part. The fabulous Gwen Verdon! And the next time I saw her we were behind the amazing Tony Walton set and there we were in top hat and canes and I looked at the back of her head and thought, “Oh my God.” I’m standing next to Gwen Verdon. It was amazing. You don’t realize it until you’re in it and then you go, “Yeah!” And you don’t want to be anywhere else. You want to be there. She was a phenomenal artist and great friend.
Well the role that catapulted you to stardom was Anita in the groundbreaking musical West Side Story. (applause) We just celebrated Jerome Robbins’ 100th Anniversary.
Right and this is the 61st Anniversary of West Side Story. I always say, I’ve been running around living the life of a 35 year-old all these years and I never realized how old I was. So for age? Don’t count it, unless it’s 5, 6, 7, 8 (laughter/applause). We worked hard at the auditions and we didn’t realize we were working hard. We just were because that’s what you do. There were several auditions. It was Kenny Leroy as Bernardo. We had to be matched up with our guys. We didn’t realize we didn’t know how to sing. We were taught on the spot. And of course dancing is acting. And suddenly we had words. It was extraordinary. It was tough but it was good because we learned.
At what point during that process did you realize that the show was a such a phenomenon.
I don’t know if I realized it. I was so busy living it. You don’t have much time to realize it unless you’re looking at a fellow actor and you get those responses. We got to Washington, DC and “America” stopped the show dead. We didn’t know what to do with that. We said to Jerry, “What do we do?” Jerry said go downstairs, change your clothes and get ready for the next scene. That was the first time we got any kind of feeling about the response. But all along it was being built, the value of the words, the excitement. “Cool” was better than “America” but “Cool” came after “America.” “Cool was an extraordinarily choreographed piece. I watched from the wings when I wasn’t onstage.
You went to Leonard Bernstein’s apartment and learned a song at his piano?
I sure did. It’s kind of fun to say, “Lenny” and think that I knew him and that this amazing genius is a kind, giving soul. Well, I rang the buzzer. He escorted me to his music room, and I sat next to him on the piano and was nervous. And I carry little angels with me on my shoulders. One tells me what to do, the other tells me, “Don’t do that.” I remember one of them said to me, “You know you’re sitting next to Leonard Bernstein.” And the other one said, “Do exactly what he says.” So I listened to him and it was then I heard my own voice. He pulled it out. He just had a way of making you find yourself. And making you feel comfortable in your own shoes. He had the excitement for himself and the show. He was directing the quintet and we were all on the set. He was in the pit standing on a chair and he got so enthusiastic that he went straight through the chair. But dancers love to laugh anyhow, so we had a good laugh.
Could you sum up the best part of working with Jerome Robbins, what it was for you?
I don’t know because there are so many things. I used to call him “Big Daddy.” He had all the answers as far as I was concerned. I remember one time I was standing downstage. He was giving us a five minute break which I rarely took. Mickey Calin was gorgeous and several girls were hovering. I saw Jerry looking at Mickey and I got very nervous and I walked past him and said, “Don’t do it.” He was about to kill him, slaughter him. And we had a laugh and he said, “You’re a witch. You’re just a witch.” We had that kind of relationship because we all had respect for each other. And we were working so hard. And there’s nothing better than working hard and finding out that you can do it. What a creator he was. He introduced us to words and music and worlds we never knew. And feelings we never knew we had. That’s how you build your canvas, your life.
You created the role of Rose in the Broadway smash, Bye, Bye Birdie. (applause) You almost turned that show down, didn’t you?
Well, I read the script. Really! Who’s going to sit up there as a parent and let all these kids talk on the telephone? I wouldn’t let my daughter talk on the phone that long. I also learned that we don’t know what we’re talking about. Shut up and do your job. (laughter) Let them do theirs, you do yours. Gower Champion! He brought technicolor, he brought humor, he brought class, he brought Hollywood. And of course, then there was that funny person Dick Van Dyke. I just watched him. I am a great thief and I will steal. I have been around extraordinary people, so I just watched and learned a lot from them. And Dick is one of the funniest, kindest, most giving people in the theater. He’s 92 and he still going strong. He’s still funny. Don’t lose your sense of humor.
You’ve received many great phone calls during your career. Tell us about the phone call you received from Cy Coleman, Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse.
It was from Cy. It is amazing that I know these people. It is wonderful to know them. They asked if I would take the original of Sweet Charity on the road. There was Ben Vereen, Thelma Oliver and the greatest chorus of dancers. So we did it. That was a great phone call.
Then you got to do the film version.
The cherry on the top was that it was a wonderful experience to do the entire show for almost a year and another cherry to be with my buddy Shirley MacLaine. She always had a great sense of humor and we always made fun of her right to her face. Once when we were filming, we were supposed to head up to the rooftops, turn on a dime, run down a ramp. The lineup was Shirley was in the front, less to travel, then I was next, then Paula Kelly who was extraordinary. She had the furthest to travel. I loved to dance with the boys. They had the power, but I couldn’t travel like that. But Paula could. She was amazing. We were pulled aside and told, do exactly what they said for the shoot. So we hit it the first couple of times and on the third time, that was the final take. I said, “Damn.” I knew I wanted to travel further. It would fulfill my faith in myself. (laughter) I knew Paula was flying. I saw her out of the corner of my eye. That’s what the chorus does to you. You can see 360 degrees. Shirley said, “What’s wrong, kid?” I said it just didn’t feel right. She asked the director, “Can we do another take?” So we did it again. That was just great!
You received your second Tony nomination the original for Velma Kelly in Chicago, John Kander and Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. (applause) What happened the first time you heard the vamp to your number?
Well, I knew John Kander wrote great vamps. No one writes great vamps like John Kander. When you hear Liza’s vamp in Cabaret, it’s John Kander’s. When you hear Joel Grey’s vamp, you know John Kander wrote it. I said in my head, “Oh, I want a vamp.” John comes in and says, “Come on I want to play your opening number for you.” We go down to the theater and he started with Dum, dum…and I was so excited. And he said, “Wait Chita, that’s just the vamp. Wait for the song.” (laughter) It was just an amazing song. And when the curtain opens up on Tony Walton’s fabulous set? The theater is just greatest place in the world. (applause) You can go to so many different worlds, see so many different things, tell so many wonderful stories. I remember when my mother passed away. I was in Merlin. It got terrible reviews, but it was a magical show. When she passed, I don’t know what I would have done. But I went to the theater and I was placed in another world and it saved me. It saved me. So I’m very, very grateful.
You were in another world when you played Anna at a roller skating rink in John Kander and Fred Ebb’s The Rink.
They called and said, “We have another show, Chita, and want to know if you’d like to be a part of it?” I said, Well, let me think about it…Yes. They said, “You’ll have a co-star. How would you feel about Liza Minelli?” I said, well, I really have to think about that…(laughter) Of course! We’ve always wanted to play girlfriends. There was silence. They said, “Well, gee. It’s not girlfriends.” I asked what? They said, “It’s mother and daughter.” I asked who plays the mother? (laughter) Keep your sense of humor! But it was great. Every once in a while I found myself standing in front of Liza who was a joy to work with. I had met her mother. Make sure you’re there! Don’t miss the knowledge of those moments.
Your leg was broken during a car accident. It was broken in twelve places which required 18 screws. You were told you’d never dance again. You know many stars have life-threatening things happen to them. What got you through that experience?
I think my mom and my family. And I think of the example of Ms Jones, the way she taught us. I clearly remember going into the Emergency Room in shock. The X ray technician said, “Oh how nice to meet you.” (laughter) She takes the picture and comes out and says, “Oh, you did a good job on yourself.” I clearly remember shifting gears. I remember saying, “Oh shit.” And the climate of my mind totally changed. Then I thought, “What’s next.” Then Gary Chris who is a friend of mine and beautiful dancer talked to me. I realized it’s one of life’s lessons. Every single day, things change. You accept things for what they are and you just keep going. And I don’t think I could have kept going without learning from my teachers. It’s incredible to be recuperating in bed and feeling the healing happening gradually.
You accepted another Tony Award for Aurora in Kander and Ebb’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. (applause) Aurora was difficult to find because she is made up of fragments.
Yes. Fragments. When I finally realized not to become too desperate to find out who she was, to just be patient, one day, I realized that I was in his mind, his imagination. Then I found the character. It was his imagination because he envisioned her. I had the support of the amazing actors and Rob Marshall’s choreography and Hal Prince’s direction. It was so beautiful. The story was extraordinary. It was a story I wanted to make sure was heard. It was beautiful to look at. I wondered how was I going to be in the web? They said, you’ll see. It was a projection and I was standing in the center of the stage and I looked as though I was hanging on this web. I did do a lot of climbing. But my name is Chita. (applause) I’m lucky, really lucky to be around at the time these great shows were created and to work with such amazing people.
You played opposite Antonio Banderas in the stunning revival Nine. Everyone in the audience wants to know what was it like sharing the stage with Antonio Banderas.
I had several people say, you did that tango with Antonio and you did that high kick split. How did you do that? I said, you would be able to do that too if you were with Antonio Banderas. (laughter) Antonio Banderas was so extraordinary in that show and so was Raul Julia in the original. Extraordinary. I loved what Tommy Tune created. Raul? I could have done that split with Raoul. Antonio is the lover we have seen on screen. He was so perfect, so beautiful. So for my audiences, I tell them everything you’ve dreamed about Antonio is true. He was great to work with, sang, never missed a show. You know he’s a wonderful actor.
You received your ninth nomination on Broadway for Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life (book by Terrance McNally) What gave you the great pleasure of performing the show across the country for people who couldn’t get to New York.
First of all there are so many sensational theaters across the country. Those people are theater hungry. So it’s a joy to bring a show that you’re proud of to them. And they really appreciated it. So when someone asked about doing it? I thought, initially, what do I have to offer? You’re so busy, you don’t step back and look at your body of work and yourself because it’s you and you live it. The story is the adventure of my life. It’s God’s way of letting me realize what I have. Four brothers and sisters, music everywhere, my father’s a musician in a white suit, I’m telling it and hearing it at the same time. I think damn! This is interesting. It’s a lot of music when music means so much. We had a great time. Dancing on the kitchen table with a lot of hungry kids and Graciella Danielle’s imagination? Wonderful.
You recived your 10th Tony nomination for your emotionally moving and mesmerizing performance in John Kander, Fred Ebb and Terence McNally’s The Visit.
You know I say, I don’t need any more friends. I have enough friends. It’s a responsibility to return those calls. But Roger Rees who left us is a friend I got to know only a little bit, but I did have some time with him. He was a wonderful man and a wonderful actor. The piece was so dark that people thought the show was about revenge. No. It was about love. Yes, some people died, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t about love. And the truth comes out that they have made mistakes themselves in the “Yellow Shoe” song. My character buys the town up. But she arrives with the casket empty and leaves with him in the casket. But she makes the entire town realize that he did love her. I just loved it. I thought John Doyle did an extraordinary job. And the score that John Kander wrote was wild and wonderful. The production and the characters are really what theater is all about.
What do those three men, John Kander, Fred Ebb and Terrance McNally mean to you?
Well, they knew things about myself that I didn’t know. They allowed me to get to know me. They put words in my mouth I might not have said, but I certainly grew to understand. Freddy knew my sense of humor. John writes the most beautiful music you could ever hope to sing. Terrance, I don’t remember meeting him 60 years ago. I learned so much from him. They made me feel good about myself. They cared and they became like partners in life. Fred is not with us anymore. But in a way he still is.
In 2009 Barack Obama awarded you with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (applause) What was it like to be in the room?
Oh please! Barack and Michelle Obama? I remember watching him when he and Michelle were dancing…he had a little bop. A tiny bop. I said to Michelle, is that a bop? I know that bop! I think it’s just great. And Michelle said, “Yeah. That’s his bop. It’s the only step he’s got.” (laughter) But to be in the same room? I think after a while, you just have to say, “Thank you God!”
Dutch floral artist Daniël Ost is world renowned. No stranger to Europe or Japan, Ost’s large-scale sculptures have been likened to Anish Kapoor, Claes Oldenburg and Andy Goldsworhy. If you google any of these individuals and Ost and check out their websites, you will be astounded at their botanical artistry of beauty, light and grace. Indeed, in Belgium where Ost grew up and initially trained, he has been referred to as “the Picasso of flower arranging.” And France hails him as “the international star of floral decoration.”
While those in the United States may not be familiar with Ost’s brilliance others might because of their network of friends and their extensive travel. However, those in the multi-million dollar flower industry and those staff, botanists, horticulturalists who make their work homes in global botanical gardens know of Ost’s reputation. The New York area is fortunate to witness Ost’s magnificent living floral designs at the New York Botanical Garden Orchid Show until 22 April.. His installations are one-of-a-kind spectaculars that take your breath away.
It is a rare opportunity to see Ost in “living color.” And unfortunately, his botanical showcase at the New York Botanical Garden will only remain until next week. As for Orchid Evenings? There are only three evenings left after tonight.
Whether you see them in the main galleries of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory in the daytime or in the evening, you will note how the changing light impacts the elements used to encapsulate the exotic delicacy of the thousands of orchids Ost and his team selected for the annual Orchid Show displays.
Unlike other designers commissioned for various NYBG shows, Ost took a hands-on approach to his installations. He traveled back and forth to the Nolen Greenhouses to specifically select a multitude of orchids and companion plants based upon their color, size, form, texture, delicacy, hardiness and more. His vision for each of his installations he effected with the assistance of his team Marco and Damien (both from Belgium) and the NYBG staff and Marc Hachadourian.
Marc is the Director of The New York Botanical Garden’s Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections. He is the main orchid curator who assiduously watches over the plants under his care. For Marc to give Ost free reign in the greenhouses indicates the level of respect both men have for each other in their passion and dedication to plants and flowers. During the weeks that Ost and his team spent in the Bronx working labor intensive lengthy days to scale up the thousands of orchids of myriad varieties with their lively companion counterparts (crotons, draceana, ferns, palms, ficus, etc.) they closely bonded with the staff.
On the Press Day I visited, I spoke with Daniel and Damien. And both mentioned that despite the amazing pressure of their schedule, they loved the Garden and were thrilled with the array of plants they were able to employ in their unique installations.
Damien assured me the clear plastic tubing, a trending element of floral design that reflected the light and cohered with the glass of the Enid A. Haupt, was a medium that best suited individualizing each orchid variety and color Daniel selected. One only has to view the monumental and glorious sculpture in the Palms of the World Gallery to understand how. Trained by Noboru Kurisaki, a prominent grand master of Ikebana, Ost learned from him that a single flower used the right way can have more impact than thousands of flowers bound together en masse.
You will not find walls of the same colors or types of orchids clumped together in a wall. Instead, every orchid variety is surrounded by a distinct and particular other orchid variety. What does thread together in minute details is a similitude and harmony of color. And then when you think you have picked out the harmonious hues, you discover that there are multitudes of contrasts.
The orchid selection brought the teams to configure the largest orchid display ever used for any of the NYBG Orchid Shows. That alone is amazing when you understand that Ost and the teams made sure to individualize each orchid from its brothers. What do remain in greater combinations of the same plants are the companion plants. But these have been selected to highlight and emphasize the vast varieties of color, shape and orchid forms.
Phalaenopsis (moth orchid), Vandas, Miltonia, Cymbidium, Cattleya, Dendrobium, Paphiopedilum, Oncidium (dancing-lady), Brassia, Odontoglossum are some of the varieties. The orchids in the show span from those that are rare which you will see in the glass case, the Garden’s permanent collection. Whether shipped in from tropical climes, or raised in the Nolen greenhouses, whether popular pinks and fuschias, or the multi-faceted, multi-hued hybrids, the diversity of plants is amazing.
Thus each orchid in the show has its own defined space, its roots either allowed to hang down or placed within a moss medium so they might thrive as their variety would in the wild. This is especially manifest and clearly seen in the Palms of the World Gallery and in the walkway of the seasonal gallery as one saunters up to the 360 degree showpiece gallery of the conservatory whose permanent plants spiral upward 100 feet or more to the domed ceiling.
In this particular gallery, Ost and his team used green bamboo in a circular round which mirrors the lattice work of the Enid A. Haupt. The bamboo and the tubing are at meet and are employed together in the passageway leading to either domed space.
Thus, at either end the larger galleries of the Enid A. Haupt manifest their own design akin to their structure. Thus, Ost’s vision in employing these implements for the installations represent a celebration of the architecture of the conservatory. Indeed, function and design whimsically become one. And the elements used to reflect Ost’s vision serve as the platforms upon which the orchids shimmer with vibrancy, magnificence, singularity and loveliness.
Words and photos cannot do justice to viewing the theatrical horticultural spectacular in all its vivacity. You must see it for yourself. However, here are more photos which will reveal the amazing installations in the daytime and evening “light” motifs.
There is programming surrounding the 2018 Orchid Show. Saturday, April 14 is an Orchid Evening which begins at 6:30 pm and lasts until 9:30 pm. The Garden is mysterious and exotic in the evenings. The Enid A. Haupt is transformed to an ethereal, romantic tropical setting where anything seems possible.
The show ends on 22nd of April. Next weekend is the last Orchid Evening of the season. Best to get tickets for the weekend immediately. With the nicer weather, the crowds show up and the tickets sell out. You will be glad you didn’t miss Daniël Ost’s splendid vision for orchids at this year’s show. For all programming CLICK HERE.
On Friday 16 March The League of Professional Theatre Women held their awards for outstanding accomplishments of women in the theater. With the #metoo movement in full swing and the entertainment industry highlighting the paltry showing of sterling women who have yet to be represented in parity and equity with men, the LPTW shines a special light on the tremendous capabilities of women in the industry. They have been doing this for years beginning with their pioneering efforts championing women in the theatre since their inception in 1984.
The importance of this organization at this time is not to be underestimated. The pernicious nature of male chauvinism, paternalism and the preeminence of patriarchy is deeply entrenched in the folkways of our culture and has risen its ugly head politically, indicating that only lip service had been given to women’s inclusion in the power game. Indeed, men have been dragged along with the arc of progress and justice continues to be flogged by men in power under cover of darkness. Meanwhile, all is smiles and compliments by men for women when the spotlight is on.
Well, women are bending the arc of progress toward their inclusion. It is enough that they are more than half the population, yet have been relegated to the back of the line when the golden rings of power are bestowed by other men. Indeed it is enough!
For years LPTW members identified the under-representation of women in positions of power and importance in the entertainment/theatre industry. And this ironically was not because women demonstrated a lack of creative talent, leadership abilities or phenomenal skill sets. It was because of surreptitious discrimination and a network of mores supported by men AND women wittingly and unwittingly. The concept that “boys will be boys” and women were less than “all that” reigned supreme in the competition for employment. Outstanding women had to push diligently, subtly and prodigiously to get a “place at the table” where men ultimately dominated. Women compromised their behaviors, attitudes, intelligence and creativity to meld into a preeminent male world of directors, playwrights, and design directors and assistants. Because of these pioneers, progress has been moving forward. But we have a long way to go before reaching parity and equity. Thankfully, “the whole world is watching.”
Thus, The League of Professional Theatre Women cannot be praised or recognized enough because they have been at the forefront of supporting women in the theatre world in the US and globally before there was creditable appreciation for womens’ indelible contributions. Over the years their numbers have grown. Their mission has thrived and gained critical mass especially in the current noxious political atmosphere. Now, more than ever their work, their efforts are a beacon to the international theatre community and entertainment industry because their values indicate there are no inconsequential roles, no “little” players. All are integral and vital if live theatre which makes a difference in the minds and hearts of citizens is to continue in its goal to uplift, instruct, unify and promote understanding between and among global communities.
The theatre community receives strength in its diversity of gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs and international participation. As a maverick organization their force and presence are unmistakable. It should be shouted from the rooftops. Thus, it is with gratitude to this organization for what they have accomplished in solidarity over the years that I enumerate the women and the awards the LPTW bestowed last Friday at The TimesCenter.
Florencia Lozano, Host
Florencia Lozano (@ilovelorca) actor, writer and performance artist with a multitude of TV, theatre and film credits is one of the original members of the LAByrinth Theater company and currently serves as LAB’s literary manager. Host of the LPTW Theatre Awards, Florencia Lozano introduced the presenters who then bestowed the awards.
The Lee Reynolds Award, Co-presented by Marshall Jones III & Wayne Maugans to Rohina Malik
The Lee Reynolds Award is given annually to a woman or women active in any aspect of theatre whose work has helped to illuminate the possibilities for social, cultural or political change. Producing Artistic Director of the Crossroads Theatre Company and theatre professor at Rutgers University Marshall Jones III (#MarshallKJonesIII) and Wayne Maugans (@WayneMaugans) the Founding Artistic Director of Voyage Theater Company presented the Lee Reynolds Award to Rohina Malik (@rohina_malik). Her plays have been produced all over the country at various venues, and globally at two South African Theater festivals. She worked with Marshall Jones III and Wayne Maugans with their companies and has formed vital ongoing connections with them continually spurring on new works.
The Ruth Morely Design Award, Presented to Cricket S. Meyers by Shelley Butler
The Ruth Morley Design Award, established in 1998 to honor leading film and theatre costume designer Ruth Morley, is given to an outstanding female theatre designer of costumes, scenery, lighting, sound or special effects. This year’s winner presented by director Shelley Butler (#ShelleyButler) was given to Cricket S. Myers (@sound_myers) for her award winning efforts in Sound Design.
The LPTW Special Award, Presented by Roma Torre to Linda Winer
A LPTW Special Award, presented to a remarkable theatre woman for her service to the League and to her field was given to award winning Linda Winer (#LindaWiner) by NY 1 theater critic, the award winning Roma Torre (@NY1 #RomaTorreNYC). Linda Winer was Chief Theatre Critic for Newsday from 1987-2017 and she has taught critical writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts since 1992. Both women quipped about the idea that a theater critic might receive an award when in the past, “critics” were looked upon with skepticism and sometimes fear. Certainly, both of these women have provided a wealth of information about productions and have placed them in the historical record revealing the development of theater in this nation.
The Josephine Abady Award, Presented by Karen Kandel to Emily Joy Weiner
The Josephine Abady Award honors the memory of LPTW member Josephine Abady. The award goes to an emerging director, producer or creative director of a work of cultural diversity who has worked in the profession for at least five years. Emily Joy Weiner, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Houses on the Moon Theater Company received the award presented by award winning Karen Kandel, Co-Artistic Director of NYC based theatre company, Mabou Mines. The Houses on the Moon Theater Company was founded in 2001 with the mission of telling untold stories in the interest of social justice. Emily Joy Weiner has been creating developing, performing, producing and directing new works with the Houses on the Moon Theater Company that address the sensitive issues of our time with community organizations and the talented company of artists.
The LPTW Lucille Lortel Award, Presented by Celia Keenan-Bolger to Adrienne Campbell-Holt
The LPTW Lucille Lortel Award is an award from the Lucille Lortel estate endowment to fund an award and grant. The award is given to “an aspiring woman in any discipline of theatre who exemplifies great creative promise and deserves recognition and encouragement.” This year’s award was presented to director Adrienne Campbell-Holt (@adriennecolt, @Colt_Coeur) by award winning actor Celia Keenan-Bolger (@celiakb). The grant was awarded to Ms. Campbell-Holt’s company, Colt Coeur. Adrienne Campbell-Holt inspired the women in the room with her remarks and encouragement to women playwrights to tell women’s stories. Women, above all are storytellers and she suggested that we must continue to push each other and the culture forward into a new day of acceptance and unity.
The Lifetime Achievement Award, Presented by Jocelyn Bioh to Phylicia Rashad
The Lifetime Achievement Award presented to Phylicia Rashad (#PhyliciaRashad) needs no explanation and the honoree needs no introduction. The award was presented by Jocelyn Bioh (a Ghanaian-American writer/performer from NYC). Jocelyn Bioh (@Jjbioh) has carved a path for herself as an actor on Broadway and Off Broadway. She has appeared in film and TV. Jocelyn Bioh is also a playwright and is working as a staff writer on Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have it.
Phylicia Rashad has appeared in all entertainment venues, TV, Broadway and film. She has made lasting contributions throughout her career with her prodigious body of work. An example of this includes performances on Broadway in August Osage County, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cymbeline (Lincoln Center Theater), August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean for which she received a Tony Award nomination, A Raisin in the Sun (Tony and Drama Desk Awards), Into the Woods, Dreamgirls, The Wiz.
Off-Broadway she has appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sunday in the Park with George, Head of Passes for which she won a Lucille Lortel Award, The Story, Helen, Everybody’s Ruby, Blue, The House of Bernarda Alba to name a few. She has performed in Regional Theater and has also directed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Mark Taper Forum to mention two directorial achievements. She has directed many other productions at numerous venues for example, the Goodman Theatre, the Long Wharf Theatre, the McCarter Theatre, Ebony Repertory Theatre, Kirk Douglas Theatre, Westport Country Playhouse, Seattle Repertory Theatre. And she directed Four Little Girls at the Kennedy Center. She is simply sensational, and as Jocelyn Bioh affirmed, she is “regal,” she is “legendary.”
At the end of the evening a champagne toast heralded to celebrate the award winners and their presenters. Until another year! We’re looking forward to our members’ and exploits in 2018-2019. If you are currently a woman working in the theater globally as an actor, playwright, director, designer, consider viewing the LPTW website to check out their online community. This organization will help you network, meet individuals to spur on your career. Above all it encourages inclusion of women before we even were aware to ask for an “inclusion rider” in our contracts in the entertainment and theater industry. JUST DO IT!!! CLICK HERE FOR THE WEBSITE. Tweet @LPTWomen.
Additional celebrities and guests to be announced.
The Festival, a celebration featuring five outstanding high school student productions from the 2017-2018 school year, were selected from over 25 schools across the city by a panel of professional theatre artists and theatre educators. Over the course of the festival’s four-year history, school productions from all 5 boroughs have performed at the event. This year, student presentations from the following schools will present excerpted scenes and musical numbers as follows:
“Theatre instruction teaches students the importance of rehearsing, while building self-confidence and strengthening public speaking skills,” said New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. “These are critical skills that prepare students for college, careers and beyond. That’s why I’m so pleased that we continue to expand access to theatre programs and arts education across the City. In particular, we are committed to leveraging the incredible connections we have to New York City’s rich cultural resources and developing meaningful arts partnerships with organizations like Shubert.”
“We are so proud to have supported this Festival since its inception,” said Philip J. Smith, Chairman of The Shubert Organization. “The extraordinary talents of the students continue to astound year after year upon our Broadway stages.”
Sponsored by The Shubert Foundation, the festival is presented in partnership with the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE). Funding for the Festival and for a range of existing Shubert Foundation programs in New York City public schools comes from a grant of $570,000.
Since 2005, The Shubert Foundation has provided more than $4.9 million to the New York City Department of Education for Theatre/Arts programs.
“How inspiring to have Broadway and the broader theatre community embrace our public school student performers. These impressive teen artists, representing varied NYC neighborhoods, points of view and cultural backgrounds, all worked together to produce inspired plays and musicals for their communities. Through their focus on excellence and collaboration, these student ensembles serve as a wonderful reminder for the power of inclusivity on stage and off,” said Peter Avery, the Festival’s producer and the Director of Theatre for the NYC Department of Education.
The Shubert Foundation, Inc. is the largest institutional funder of theatre education programs throughout NYC public schools and the nation’s largest private foundation dedicated to unrestricted funding of not-for-profit theatres, with a secondary focus on dance. In 2017, the Foundation provided more than $26.8 million to 533 not-for-profit performing arts organizations across the United States. The Shubert Foundation, Inc. was established in 1945 by the legendary team of brothers, Lee and J.J. Shubert, producers of more than 520 plays, musicals and revues, as well as owners and operators of a nationwide network of legitimate theatres. For more information, visit www.shubertfoundation.orgThe New York City Department of Education is the largest system of public schools in the United States, serving about 1.1 million students in more than 1,750 schools. The Department of Education supports universal access to arts education through the ArtsCount initiative, which tracks and reports student participation in arts education and holds schools accountable for meeting New York State Instructional Requirements for the Arts.
On Monday, 12 February the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center presented Baayork Lee in conversation with Robert Viagas. The show was produced in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women’s Betty Corwin, with Pat Addiss and Sophia Romma. It was part of the League of Professional Theatre Women’s Oral History Program.
Baayork Lee is most noted for working with Michael Bennett as his assistant choreographer on A Chorus Line where she created the role of Connie. Throughout her career, she directed and choreographed The King and I, Bombay Dreams, Barnum, Carmen Jones, Porgy and Bess and Jesus Christ Superstar and other shows for many national and international companies. The exhaustive list reveals her impressive energy and exceptional talent.
And that is not all. She is a generous soul. Her intention to give back to the community, her verve and vibrant enthusiasm moved her to create a nonprofit organization, National Asian Artists Project. Through her prodigious efforts the N.A.A.P. has established programs educating, cultivating and stimulating audiences and artists of Asian descent. They have produced classical musical theatre ranging from Oklahoma! to OLIVER! with all Asian-American casts. Baayork Lee, the recipient of the 2017 Isabelle Stevenson Award was honored for her commitment to future generations of artists through her work with the N.A.A.P. and theater education programs around the world.
Interviewed by Robert Viagas, journalist and author with thirty-five years’ experience on Playbill Inc., the Tony Awards and author/editor of 19 books on the performing arts, Robert Viagas has proved his mettle. For The Alchemy of Theatre (Applause Books) he worked with Edward Albee, Wendy Wasserstein, Hal Prince, Chita Rivera and others. His 2009 book, I’m the Greatest Star! (Applause) includes biographies of his A-list genius artists, forty musical stars from George M. Cohan and Fanny Brice to Nathan Lane and Sutton Foster.
Here are excerpts of the enjoyable and lively conversation between Baayork Lee and Robert Viagas
When you were five-years-old you were hired for the original Rogers and Hammerstein’s King and I. Tell us how that happened.
Well, agents came down to Chinatown where I grew up. They went to a school there and my father’s restaurant. And they were looking for kids. We all went uptown and I got the job. (applause)
What was it like working on that show with Yul Brenner and Rogers and Hammerstein?
I learned to sing and dance on the job. I always tell the story of going uptown and getting on the stage at the St. James Theatre. And seeing the chandelier and the red velvet seats. And being on stage for the first time? I just knew that this was where I wanted to be. And I saw the girls warming up backstage. What are they doing? I want to do that. So I knew everybody’s lines and all the songs. I knew the songs for the King and the other parts. I wanted to be in the business.
Even though you were five and even though you didn’t have years of training, you had lines in the show. You were one of the little princesses Ying Yawolak, and they wrote you a speech. Can you tell the story of the speech?
Mrs. Anna is going away and I have a letter I read to her. But I couldn’t read at the time, so my mother helped me and I memorized the lines. “Dear teacher. My goodness gracious. Do not go away…” (audience laughs)
You must have done a great job with that because you were hired for a subsequent musical Flower Drum Song. Tell us the part you played. I’m particularly interested in hearing the story of how you went on in the lead role and you were twelve-years-old.
Well, I was fired at eight-years-old from The King and I because I outgrew my costume. And Rogers and Hammerstein gave us something as a consolation. There were three of us. One girl wanted acting lessons. Another girl wanted piano lessons. And I wanted dance lessons. I got to go to The School of American Ballet and Jerome Robbins helped me get in. I started studying dancing and wanted to be a ballerina. And here comes along Flower Drum Song and Mr. Rogers remembered me and by then a double pirouette was nothing for me now. I was singing and dancing. I got into the show. I was one of the kids in the show. I sang “The Other Generation.” And I don’t know how I got the part. But Anita Ellis was the Fan Tan Fannie girl. She was understudied. And her understudy went on to somebody else and her understudy went on to somebody else. And all of a sudden there wasn’t anyone else but me. And I got to sing F”an Tan Fannie.”
And how did that feel?
At twelve you have no fear, Robert. You have no fear at twelve. You can sing all the songs, do all the lines. You can do everything.
And thanks to N.A.A.P. you’re trying to expand opportunities for Asian-American actors. There was nothing like that in the 1950s, 1960s. Yet you were able to maintain a career through those years. You worked pretty steadily. You got to know certain people and they obviously respected your talent. How were you able to survive and work and succeed as an Asian-American woman in the early 1960s?
First of all I was a kid. So every show is was in I worked as a kid. From Flower Drum Song I went to the Performing Arts High School. And I graduated and I got a phone call from Carol Haney who was a choreographer of Flower Drum Song. She remembered me and said, “I am going to do a show and it’s called Bravo Giovanni.” And we’re going to Broadway. I said I’m going to Julliard. I’m going to become a dancer. And she said “Why don’t you just come and do the show for the summer and then decide.” So that’s what happened. It was a flop. Bravo Giovanni starred Cesare Siepi and it was Michelle Lee’s first show.
But it did win the Tony for Best Score over a Funny Thing Happened…
Oh. You know all the facts, don’t you. So I was sitting on the firescape of the Broadhurst Theatre and I looked and they were putting up a sign for the next musical, Mr. President. So I said, “Hum that looks interesting.” So I auditioned and I got the show. And I played with Nanette Fabray, as Deborah Chakronin and I was a kid in the show. And then there was a knock on my dressing room door. They said, “There’s a man upstairs who wants to see you.” I went upstairs and he gave me his card. He said, “I’m doing a new show. It’s called Here’s Love. I really think you’d be good in the show. Please come and audition.” I said, “Yes, Yes, Yes.” I went downstairs and said this man upstairs? It was Norman Jewison. And so I went over and I auditioned. And I was one of the kids in the show.
That’s a musical based on The Miracle on 34th Street, music with a score by Music Man’s Meredith Wilson. Not as successful.
And so I was a kid. And Michael Bennett was in the show.
You knew him before. What was he like as a kid?
I don’t know. All I can tell you is when I got Flower Drum Song, Michael told me I was so jealous that day at dancing school that you got Flower Drum Song, your second Broadway show and I hadn’t even had one. (audience laughs). But what was he like? I don’t know. Except at that time he said, “I don’t want to dance any more. I want to be a choreographer.” And we all said, “Oh, yeah, yeah. Sure, sure.” But he was very, very serious. I got the call. The musical director was Elliot Lawrence. And he said I’m doing a new show Golden Boy with Sammy Davis Jr. And there’s a part for a shoe shine boy. Would you come and audition? And so I did. And I danced with Sammy Davis.
Michael did manage to choreograph a couple of shows and he did not forget his classmate.
No. So I danced with Sammy in Golden Boy. And Sammy took us to London. My first trip to London. And I got a call from Michael saying he was doing another show. It was A Joyful Noise. And Tommy Tune was in it and Donna McKechnie. And so I came back and I did that show. We came to Broadway. And I got a call for another show when I was in London for Promises Promises and I had to get out of my contract for that. And he helped me get out of my contract and he brought me to do Promises, Promises.
And you were the featured dancer in” Turkey Lurky Time.” I saw you in that show, one of the first shows I saw early on. That is an incredible number. Did you have to wear a neck brace?
We were at the chiropractor at least once a week. All of us. I’d seen the show for three years. I loved being in the chorus. I loved being in the back. I was having a great time. I loved signing in and getting into the theater early. And Michael said you are going to be my dance captain. I said, “Oh, oh.” There were rehearsals and all that, I thought. But he treated me well, so I became his dance captain in Promises Promises.
If you go online and see clips of these songs, you see they are time capsules. You see Joyful Noise, you see Promises, Promises. When you look at all of them you see one Asian-American. What was that like?
I was very lucky. Very happy. My cousin Chester said, “B? You better represent! All Chinatown looking at you!”
Was that a challenge for you? What was it like? Being the One! The One Singular Sensation?
Special. I felt very, very special. I always appreciated being there and representing. Absolutely.
Another special show you did was Seesaw. You were in the chorus of Seesaw, but you did have a featured number in that show. And when they feature that show, they always use the same picture. Tommy Tune who is 6’6’ and they chose you to do a duet with him. And you were attired in masses of balloons and were on point the entire time. I saw you and thought. “Who is this girl?”
I think “Turkey Lurky” may have been bigger. By the time I was in this show I was known and to dance with Tommy Tune was really quite an honor.
I don’t know. With “Turkey Lurky” you were one of three with Donna. But with this number you were next to Tune.
Ah, OK. Michae Bennett was very ahead of his time. We were not the standard kind of, the blonde, 5’5’ you know. But you have Tommy Tune, Baayork Lee and those in the show were all shapes, sizes and colors. And he was very ahead of his time.
Do you remember the conversation or phone call where he mentioned this show he was doing about chorus dancers? Do you remember him discussing the show that became A Chorus Line?
No. But I do remember all through my time working with Michael, he always said, “I want to do a show about dancers.” He’d been saying he wanted to do a show about dancers. Because dancers unlike actors never asked him why. They just did what he told them. (laughter)
He wanted you to be the dance captain on that.
First, he wanted me to be his assistant. At that time in the olden days, you had to have a choreographer or a director or you didn’t work. Jerome Robbins had his dancers. Bob Fosse had his dancers.
Special people that he worked with all the time.
Yes. Because they developed their own style. And they invested in their dancers and their actors. And so Michael Bennett had to get his klan together. And this was very important for me that I finally found a home. Because I danced with Michael Kidd and Peter Gennaro, I had gone from show to show, but I didn’t have an anchor where I would do every commercial, every Broadway show. Anything that that choreographer did, I was part of the plan.
Industrial. Millken Show.
They used to do commercials. Well, Milliken was a fabric manufacturer and the commercials were like shows, lavishly staged.
Yes. They brought in all the choreographers. And you had to be in a Broadway Show. And we got the clothes and at the end of a Broadway run we got a bonus. And when they gave us the checks they used to say, “And here’s one for little Baayork Lee, and one for so and so”…and it was ohhh. money, money, money!
You are not the height of a typical Broadway dancer. That is even written into a Pulitzer Prize winning show. Your height. How did you manage that height issue? Was that a struggle?
Absolutely. I wanted to be Maria Tallchief (renowned ballerina). I wanted to be in the New York City Ballet. I had to throw away my point shoes when I found out I couldn’t be in the company. I was too short. I was competing with Tanaquil Le Clerq (renowned ballerina) and all of his (Balanchine’s) X- wives. (explosive laughter)
On A Chorus Line, initially, I was the assistant. And I would handle the tapes. And then we would go into the workshop with Joseph Papp and I was the assistant. And I would say, “He wants you to line up.” And everybody would line up. And I would say, “He wants you to put your resumes…” Then Michael realized that this wouldn’t work. So he became “The Voice.” So that was the first workshop. And then the second workshop, Michael called me and said, “I would like you to put your life in the show.” And I said “Who wants to know about a short, Asian girl who wanted to be a ballerina?” (someone from the audience answers) That’s exactly what Michael said. And from then on, I was no longer his assistant. I had a role in the show.
Didn’t you have a song that was cut from the show?
Yes. It was called “Confidence.” Back in the old days, Equity wanted to have at least one ethnic person in the show, maybe the orchestra also. So my competition in A Chorus Line was Richie because they could take one ethnic person. And he was African American. So Marvin Hamlisch wrote us a song called “Confidence.” I talked about Flower Drum Song and King and I and he talked about being in Hello Dolly with Pearl Bailey and we had to have confidence because we might not get the part. Only one ethnic person could. And then the song was cut. The show was 5 hours long. And we said, “Michael, we can’t cut the song because people need to know about these issues.” He said “I have bigger fish to fry. I need to put a Paul monologue in the show.”
Robert takes out one of the hats from the finale of A Chorus Line. And the original shoes.
It’s Thommie Walsh’s hat.
Baayork, I and Tommie wrote a book about A Chorus Line called On the Line, about the making of A Chorus Line. It’s on Amazon. When they first brought out that hat what did you think?
Well, we had our dance clothes on. And so that wasn’t special. And they said you’re going to wear the same thing, but in blue. And we were very uncomfortable. And the finale was going to be us working on the show, just us, then blackout working together. That’s the ending that Joseph Papp wanted. Michael Bennett had very different ideas. He wanted pizzazz, he wanted costumes, he wanted everything.
That’s the one moment you see the number of the show they’ve been auditioning for.
So when we saw the costumes we thought wow. I was in high heels, fishnets and the outfit was cut up to there.
Very sadly we lost Michael. And the person who’s been in charge and who’s carried the torch has been Baayork Lee who has directed the production in his place all these years. Is there a difference between Baayork Lee’s Chorus Line and Michael Bennett’s?
It’s always Michael Bennett’s Chorus Line. Opening Night downtown he came backstage and said, “It’s your show. You’re going to direct and choreograph this all over the world. But we were Off Broadway. And we didn’t know what this was. And he’s telling me all these things. Like you’re going around the world and you’ll do this and that. And we’re going, “Oh, yes, Michael. Oh yes.” And now forty-three years later I’m saying, Oh, yes, Michael. (applause) It’s Michael Bennett’s show. But A Chorus Line is about the people in the show. And every actor brings himself into the show. And that’s why we’ve evolved the show over the years because obviously we’ve gone to Chile and to Stockholm and Japan and Korea and the actors bring themselves to the rolls. And that’s what’s exciting about it.
Is it hard to direct the role of Connie Wong?
I just tell them me to watch me for five weeks. (laughter) She has to be feisty and high spirited and all those things.
I wanted to ask you about the Tony Award you won.
The National Asian Artist’s Project. I was thinking about forming a company for Asian artists for years and years. I was talking about it. Every time I did a show, we were doing King and I. And I asked Nina Zoie Lam, “Where are all these talented people going to go?” She said, They take their odds and ends jobs and wait for the next King and I or Miss Saigon.” And we did King and I again. Again, the questions came up. Where will all these people go? Steven, God Bless him he’s teaching tonight and couldn’t be here, said, “Let’s do it.” So finally Steven Eng, and Nina Zoie Lam and I founded the N.A.A.P. to give the talented Asian artists and Asians a platform to show their talents. And also to educate the young kids back in Chinatown where I grew up to go to their schools and give them the opportunity and give them a choice. They don’t have to go to Harvard. They can go to Broadway. (laughter, applause)
I’ve seen some of the shows. They don’t try to do Asian themed shows. They did Hello Dolly. They did Oklahoma. They did Carousel. And the amazing thing about it is that the nearly all Asian actors in it? Well, you’re not seeing Asian actors. You’re seeing Hello Dolly and Carousel.
They are talented, talented actors. And that’s the most important thing. (applause)
Of all the work Baayork has done, that is what she won her Tony for.
The evening closed with audience questions and photographs that Baayork took with friends. Indeed, no one was leaving the Bruno Walter Auditorium before they snatched the opportunity to congratulate and thank Baayork for her entertaining responses, love, enthusiasm and grace. It was a most memorable, uplifting evening. Below is a clip that Robert Viagas referred to as being a time capsule. It’s the rollicking number from Promises, Promises, “Turkey Lurky Time.”
Frances McDormand is a terrific actress. Her body of work encompasses both comedy and drama, both stage and film. Recently, she has been garnering awards for her work in Martin McDonagh’s searing film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Her “in-your-face” portrayal of a mother who stirs the fire under the police department of Ebbing, Missouri to get them to investigate her daughter’s brutal murder is both memorable and humorous. Indeed, in a matrix of powerful characters, who seek redemption and justice, the film is a tour de force between Mildred Hayes (McDormand), Sheriff Willoboughy (Woody Harrelson) and Jason Dixon (played by the brilliant Sam Rockwell. As Willogoughy and Dixon fight for the police department’s integrity and Mildred Hayes’ struggles to bring them to task for not effectively investigating her daughter’s rape and murder, the action deepens into a profound personal drama about redemption, love and solace of shared humanity and grace.
On Monday, April 23, 2012, The League of Professional Theatre Woman hosted an evening with Frances McDormand. Produced by Cheryl D. Raymond and funded by a grant from the Edith Meiser Foundation, the evening was presented in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women as part of their Oral History Series with the Public Library for the Performing Arts. Kudos went to Betty Corwin for producing the program. Mari Lyn Henry, a member of the League who was present at the time transcribed the interview that appears below between Frances McDormand and interviewer Sarah Ruhl. The interview took place at the Bruno Walter Auditorium to an enthusiastic audience. Salient excerpts appear below and give one an understanding of how the amazing McDormand evolved along her journey. We see the tip of the iceberg into how she was able to mine her empathy and emotions to evoke the self-torment and desperate love that Mildred Hayes has for her daughter in her award-winning, intensely human portrayal in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Sarah Ruhl: Tell us about playing Lady Macbeth in high school.
I was 14, not a particularly good student. But I had a really good English teacher in Monessen, Pennsylvania. She said it was time for us to read Shakespeare and she had us read Macbeth out loud. And then we did a scene after school for family and friends. And so I found myself alone on stage doing the sleepwalking scene. And I think it was the power of the words, the power of being 14, alone on stage, and looking out and seeing a lot of adults quiet and attentive.
Today would you ever want to play Lady Macbeth?
I have not done her. I don’t think it’s ever too late. Right now I am concerned about doing it because I don’t want to do a bad production of Macbeth. Maybe because it is a supporting role. I feel like I have been trained for that. I have been playing wives, girlfriends, mothers for years now. So I don’t want to be in a bad production of Macbeth. I (would) want a good director.
What is a good director?
How do you find one Sarah? It is really difficult. By going to see what is out there. I am looking for a director who can serve the work. It is different in the theater than it is in film. Actors are in a better position in film because eventually we get a lot of power. In the theater you are in charge of it once the production is open. That being said my last work was with Daniel Sullivan. I worked with him years ago in Sisters Rosensweig at Lincoln Center and we had a horrible time together and I didn’t want to work with him again and then we did a reading of a play by David Lindsay Abaire. David and Dan had worked together before. We got into the room and it was magic and I adored working with him and I think perhaps because it was a different play, a different time. I was concerned about working at MTC. I haven’t always worked on Broadway and am not really attracted to working on Broadway. Probably more interesting audiences I have worked for have been Off Broadway. My favorite place to work is at St. Ann’s Warehouse (Brooklyn). They have performance art and a lot of different disciplines have been held in that arena. The audiences don’t have expectations. They could be going to the theater or to the circus. I have been so impressed with them.
Explain the value of the ensemble.
That was what I was led to believe I was going to do. That is what I was trained to do, a reason to go into the theater. I went to four years of college. I went to drama school for three years at Yale and I was trained as a classical theater actress.The only choice was to come to New York and start working in the theater. My goal and assumption was to become a member of a theater company. We were on the dying end of a program that had started in our country where drama schools were made to train actors to go into regional theater companies. When I got out of school you could still be a member of the Guthrie Theatre which I eventually worked at. But people went straight from drama school and that’s why drama schools were invented and were funded like in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Theatre. It became like Pillsbury out there. All those companies and sponsors were bringing executives from the west coast and they had to offer them something cultural. So these companies like Seattle Rep, Trinity Playhouse, the theaters in Chicago, all those great repertory theaters had to have cheap labor coming out as trained labor and that is what I chose to do.
I have to say my first job was in Trinidad in a play directed by Liviu Ciulei. Liviu was with the Wooster Group, a theater company which I have been involved in for the past thirty years. We have used the same actors over and over and they also write for us. The Wooster Group has taken me in like a stray little lamb and I now feel like I have a home with them. What is really great about that for me is that Kate Valk, who is the queen of the Wooster Group and premier actress of that company has been honing her craft and working with them for thirty years. We got to work together on To the Birdie, an adaptation of Racine’s Phedre (2002). That was ‘magic’ and what an ensemble should be about.
There is a tremendous humility when you talk about your work and working with other actors and I find that very rare. I have seen your work and it wasn’t the role that attracted me but your interpretation and what you brought to it. Tell us about your process and how you create a character.
When I came to New York, I was fortunate, coming out of a major drama school. I remember a casting agency experience. An older woman said to me, ‘Frances you would be a perfect pioneer woman. Unfortunately they are not making one. Okay, okay, okay,okay! Finding my type I realized at first, I was not very castable. But I had to pay my rent and didn’t want to do anything else. I had jobs like cashier or at restaurants, but I was really bad at all of them. I had to figure out how to make money. So there was a Pabst Blue Ribbon commercial, regional theater jobs and so on, all the things that young actors have to do, but then I started thinking about this.
I was always getting feedback like ‘You’re too this, you’re not enough that. You’re not enough his. You’re not pretty enough, tall enough, young enough, old enough. I started putting all of this together and decided I am going to be the one that is not pretty enough and I worked hard at that. In most storytelling, not as much in the theater, but in film, the theater is the only place for women of all ages and types. But to support myself outside the theater I took on some supporting roles in films and realized that all genres of films are male protagonist-based. Put a woman or women in these roles but (like Thelma and Louise) they die in the end. That film is ground breaking with two women. But all those male protagonist driven stories need women in supporting roles so I found I was good at that. I did girlfriends to some of the best leading male stars out there. Robert DeNiro, Michael Douglas, Gene Hackman. I’ve kissed them all but more importantly I made their characters more interesting. I was the off center, not very pretty, a little touchy—you know, mousy-brown-hair-uh-girlfriend. From a business angle, that is what I became.
In the theater I was very fortunate. My husband, Joel Coen, could afford to support me and believed in the theater. I could do theater whenever I could make that choice and not worry about the mortgage payment. It is not about the part, it is about the play.
What about achieving a balance between personal and professional lives? Can one lead a normal life?
One of my accomplishments was adopting a son and introducing my son to his father and my husband to his son. Your universe goes from being self-centered and self-absorbed. We wanted to rear a child our way. That meant living together and working together, avoiding publicity and keeping our private life private. No scandal.That is my life. I learned this from my mother.
Any roles you regret not playing?
Well if I didn’t do them, I didn’t do them. But there are a couple of roles. Orlando is one, Doubt is another. Well I have plenty of time to do Doubt but Cherry Jones was the actress for that role. So I didn’t give up anything.
You have played all the female characters in both Streetcar named Desire and Three Sisters. How did that come about?
With Three Sisters I wanted to be in a play by Chekhov. First time I played Olga when I was the youngest. My fourth job was playing Irina at the Guthrie directed by Liviu Ciulei. I was more suited to playing Irina at that time of my life and I was working with a wonderful cast. I played Masha at the McCarter for Emily Mann. It was an interesting treatment. I was Masha, Linda Hunt was Olga and Mary Stuart Masterson was Irina. And now I want to play Anfisa someday while I direct the play. Anfisa and the servants get what they want in that play. They know what they want, the sisters don’t.
I’m a transformative actor. I want to go inside a character and come out on the other side. Some actors are better at interpreting certain plays. I believe that I am a good interpreter (maybe not of Chekhov) but definitely of Tennessee Williams. I need a play that has a woman of my age and the parts that are my age are the parts that every actress is supposed to do. I never planned to do Blanche. I felt very successful as Stella, one of the best things I was able to work on as a young actor. I was given the opportunity by Michael Colgan who runs the Gate Theater to do Blanche in Dublin to an audience of extraordinary performers (you know every Irish man or woman can tell a great story) so when they come to the theater they are tough (Fran makes a face like them) and to feel the temperature of that audience every second is exciting. I had the opportunity to play Blanche which I am not suited for but the director wanted to do it against the traditional type. She was delicate but she was also a caretaker for the death of the plantation and the family who she had watched die in the family home. It was an interesting production. Everyone gets a role like this but you shouldn’t do more than one. That’s my opinion.
Sarah What do you think about plastic surgery?
What society has pressured men and women to do to capture eternal youth! I read an article about so many of these things that are being used—botox, ingesting into the system without any question. It hasn’t been long enough to know what effects it will have and what the emotional repercussions will be. When you are talking to someone who is stressed you feel their stress. If their brow furrows, your brow furrows because your empathetic nature is reaching out to what they need. If you can’t do that you can’t do that. Your neurological response sends a trigger to your brain to care about that other person, to care what they are going through to sit there long enough to read their expression and to find out what else is going on. If you can’t do that, you are not getting that signal. THAT IS PRETTY SCARY.
Literally I will walk down the street sometimes because we are walking around in a society that is absorbing without question people’s fear. One of the reasons that I haven’t done press or publicity for about ten years now in relationship to my work is the unspoken rule that we don’t talk about that. For me it is not the same thing as not talking about someone’s private life. If I have information about someone I have worked with who has a certain amount of celebrity, I would not share that with you. It is none of your business. I started feeling like I need to make a list and I need to start walking around with a sandwich board with a list of all the people I know who have somehow altered themselves for the service of something that they were perpetuating—I think we have to be careful.
Plastic surgery is the Greek mask of our generation.
I think that when someone ages beautifully, it is partly because of an internal condition and it can relate to what they have done from suffering or comes about as a result of suffering and I think that plastic surgery is an erasure of suffering.
What was your road trip like?
We took a road trip last summer and we hadn’t done that in a while. I love road trips and everything that goes along with them. One problem was that we didn’t get our AAA map guide. We could unfold it and figure out what road we wanted to take. Oh let’s go on that road instead. I had my iPAD with the little blue dot. I spent the entire time doing this (shows iPAD to face) watching the blue dot. ‘Oh my god where are we?’ We had to stop and get a map because we were not enjoying the trip. This is my map and I can pick where I want to go, what direction I want to take and it all started when I met my son 17 years ago.
QUESTIONS FROM THE AUDIENCE
Could you speak about Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day?
We made the movie in 2006 which is not as witty or naughty as the book. I wanted to see a project from beginning to end and I really loved the story. In the book, it is about a day in the life of Miss Pettigrew and the friendship she makes with a whore, a woman who is living with three men. But that doesn’t come out like that in the movie. She is simply being kept. The other character is the fashion designer. In the book these three characters form a friendship. We had a lovely director. It was his first feature. He was a lovely man but not a visionary. We connected but he didn’t feel as passionate as I did about this film. As the producer I knew it would be a challenge to sell the film with a middle-aged female. But we were fortunate to have this really wonderful actress (Amy Adams) and she looks great in lingerie. It turned out okay, but it wasn’t great.
Could you tell us about working with Lili Taylor in a play with students
We are both members of a company called the 52nd Street Project. It started 30 years ago near the PALeague across from the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Kids in the neighborhood go take boxing lessons at the PAL after school. Curt Dempster, the late artistic director of EST, sent Willie Reale, a young actor/playwright, to teach the kids playwriting. It helped give the kids an honest creative outlet. He founded this program which eventually became a non-profit organization. We have two boards in a newly developed building on the corner of 53rd and Tenth Ave. Kids have to take the playwrights course or write a play they can stage and perform in. They go away for a weekend and have a monitor help them write their plays. When they return, they cast from a group of adult professional actors with a dramaturg and a young director and they get to see their plays performed.
Do you ever get star treatment?
I am getting it right now. I don’t want to be a star or known as a star. That being said if I want to get a table at Cafe Luxembourg, Joel will have me call. I will use shamelessly whatever advantage my name gets for a restaurant reservation.
Could you talk about how we get more roles for women.
I think the most important thing is female writers. I spent years beating my head against the wall and I would say to my husband, “Joel why can’t you write better roles for women?” Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) and Nicole Holofcener write great films with behavior and character and have a lot of trouble getting their films made. Here is what is going to be good. When the actor who is also on the board of the 52nd St. Project has a company who is going to liaison with the money market world for the goal of making money and to get them to invest in their film and money into female-centric films whether written by women, directed by women with a good business plan—a terrific spreadsheet with what has been made, what needs to be done, how it can be done, take a chance on us. That will help. It is a business. Theater is not it. I can stand up to do a sleepwalking scene right now and that is theater or on a sidewalk, but unfortunately it won’t raise money. I am trying to raise four million dollars for a film which I think is a lot of money. but in terms of films, the last epic film cost producers 300 million dollars so 4 million is nothing. But they won’t give it to you for a nice family-oriented film.
If you have not been to Bar Car Night of the NYBG Holiday Train Show, this weekend will be your last chance. The entire week, the cold has softened into the sunshine and snow melt. It would be a wonderful time to go with friends, partner, spouse, lover, blind date, seeing date or just yourself. Have a few drinks, saunter through the gorgeous conservatory and various galleries appreciating Applied Imagination’s love letter to New York and NYC and go home refreshed and ready for a new week.
The show’s main Palms of the World Gallery features the new exhibits of Mid Town Manhattan and the show is splendid with some of the seasonal decorations still hanging and lights twinkling. everywhere. One of the most popular of the NYBG shows, ‘Bar Car Nights’ is the time to leave the kids at home and enjoy the quiet, low surrounding conversations as you note the incredibly imagined replicas that pay homage to old world Victorian New York and the twentieth century.
The show advances our historical knowledge of many buildings and structures that have either been demolished or destroyed. Five bridges of New York (Brooklyn, Queensboro, Manhattan, Hells Gate and the George Washington sparkle their lights as trolleys and passenger cars slip quickly over the bridge trestles. One also notes various sections of Manhattan-Museum Row, NYPL,Central Park, Morris Jumel Mansion, Park Avenue Armory, Mid-town Manhattan-Empire State Building, East Side/West Side Row Houses; Brooklyn-Coney Island’ Queens-the TWA Flight Center, the Bronx-Poe Cottage, NYBG Haupt Conservatory, Yankee Stadium, Hudson River Valley mansions and more.
Whether you move slowly observing all of the sustainable, botanical wonder (stems, leaves, twigs, see pods, pine cones, acorn caps, cinnamon, etc.) that create finials, roof tops, gables, windows, decorative elements and stones, or just jet through taking in the overall sensual experience, you will feel wellness spark your soul. The creative energy, joy and love demonstrated by the details of the structures and placement among the NYBG’s finest living panoramas and water features will delight. It is worth it to take a trip for the evening magic and variety of visual and aural sights that will titillate, yet soothe your senses.
The show enjoying 26 years at the New York Botanical Garden has been engineered, created and lovingly collaborated to delight and enthrall by the team at Applied Imagination. Applied Imagination’s baton has passed from creator and founder Paul Busse to his daughter Laura Busse Dolan. She discussed her Dad’s evolving the show over the years. Laura Busse Dolan has fulfilled and maintained her Dad’s intention to create a world of New York grandeur in miniature. And around the fantastic replicas wholly created with sustainable plant parts and biodegradable materials, 25 gauge trains leap, choo-choo, slip smoothly.
The amazement of Bar Car Nights for me always becomes noting the differences of the daytime Holiday Train Show and the cold wintry evening in the shadowy NYGB. The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, a fountain of sunlight streaming brilliantly through the latticework and glass cheers. The delicacy of the replicas, the intricacy of their botanical components from magnolia seed pods to cinnamon sticks, bamboo, eucalyptus, acorn caps and more fascinate. How does the team innovate the use of a twig or bark for various buildings to simulate Senator William Clark’s guilded-age mansion? Clearly, their intimacy and knowledge and experience with materials and collaborative efforts prompt them to top themselves each year as they place the buildings among gorgeous flowering shrubs, orchids, palms and water displays.
The NYBG Holiday Train Show ends on 15 January. This is the last week and weekend of the show. You may check for tickets HERE. Bar Car Nights end on 13 of January, this Saturday. Pick up tickets by CLICKING HERE.
If you missed The Holiday Train Show select programming this year because you were out of town, the show will be presented annually and you should mark your calendar for special events that happen during the winter season inclusive of the Holiday Train Show. From music to dance, from movies to poetry readings, the New York Botanical Garden is a hive of activity for the entire family. If you are a New Yorker, you probably are apprised of this. If you are a global traveler, this is one of the places to be during the Christmas and Holiday season. If you can’t make it this year, check for the show around Thanksgiving in November of next year.
The Holiday Train Show is always a spectacular reaffirmation of what is beautiful, shining and creative in the human spirit. This year seems more so against a backdrop of tumultuous, grimy political scandals and redundant “breaking news” moments that jar the nerves and chill one’s core. I heartily appreciate an escape from the unsettling thesis of chaos to the antithesis of children’s screams of laughter and twinkling, colorful Holiday lights of assurance. The felt innocence is more lovely than the low details of worldly goings on. And I am uplifted to remember that throughout the labored struggles of men and women who strive to retain power, there is something more worthy and spiritual in the human soul that the season reminds us to seek and direct our attention to.
Thus, for me especially this year, and for the friends I visit with, The Holiday Train Show in the New York Botanical Garden is a sanctuary of refinement, a haven of peace. Amidst the lovingly arranged pageantry, the plantings strike poses between the stunning miniature replicas of New York’s icons, historical landmarks and stupendous structures of the gilded age, made into museums or torn down because they were too expensive to maintain.
As I note the complexity of the constructions from plant parts as tiny as a barely seed and as large as a gourd, and wander slowly in amazement at the specificity of creation, solace is delivered in cupfuls and happiness in bushels. I take picture after picture, trying to stir my memories about the location of the recreations in previous years.
If I take my time without rushing to the show finale, my memory serves me. The Poe house is situated more prominently this year on the opposite side of the central theatrical showcase. I am glad because I am writing a play about Poe and I feel akin to this replica. For example, I know that Poe’s wife Virginia Clemm died of tuberculous in Poe Cottage which is in Fordham in the Bronx a few miles from the Garden. The replica is modest, a no frills structure which is a miniature facsimile of the real Poe Cottage. The Poes were impoverished for all of their marriage a terrific irony considering just one of Poe’s short handwritten letters brought in almost $100,000 at auction a few years ago.
I see that the New York Public Library (Stephen A Schwartzman building) is up front and center as it should be. The Fifth Avenue Manhattan library with the stentorian lions is under renovation and receiving technological updates that will be completed by 2020. I note that the Coney Island display is prominent with the Elephantine Colossus, Wonder Wheel (now a film of the same name by Woody Allen about Coney Island and gangsters), The Steeple Chase, Luna Park, the Cyclone (with moving parts) and more. These structures backdropped with waterfall and reflecting pools are encircled by sauntering trains lazily enjoying their pace in the 360 degree central showcase of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Last year they were in the Palms of the World Gallery.
As I appreciate the Elephantine Colossus so carefully and brilliantly created out of variously shaped gourds and other plant pieces, I consider Leslie Salka’s (Director of Applied Imagination whose creations we love) comments about the construction of the replica of the Elephant shaped hotel. The unusual structure was an example of the period’s novelty architecture, designed by James V. Lafferty to bring in tourists. The seven-story building, which served as a hotel, concert hall and amusement bazaar, stood above Surf Avenue from 1885 to 1896 when it burned down. Leslie decided they should include the hotel in the Coney Island display in memoriam of Topsy the female elephant who was electrocuted in Coney Island’s Luna Park in 1903.
Topsy’s demise had been all but forgotten until someone noted a film had been made of her electrocution and clips of it were included in a Ric Burns documentary about Coney Island. After Burns’ film the subject of Topsy’s death has been featured in popular culture and media and has been the subject of poetry, fiction, songs and journalist Michael Daly’s book about her. Contrary to belief there is no purported direct association of Topsy’s death at Luna Park with Thomas Edison. Though Edison did electrocute animals 15 years earlier during the War of Currents when he was attempting to demonstrate the dangers of alternating current, he was not responsible for Topsy’s death. The Elephantine Colossus replica is gorgeous and the backstory of Topsy’s life and death, the preservation of the film clip, and her rise to celebrity is a notable piece of history found in The Holiday Train Show if you enjoy digging deeper.
What I particularly appreciate about The Holiday Train Show is that there is something for everyone young and ancient. Children see the trains and love to hear and watch them. Adults see the history, and depending upon their day and mood go deep or gloss over the displays. No one sees all of it during each visit. If you glean 20% of the entire production which pays homage to history, trains, New York, the five New York City boroughs and their landmarks interspersed fancifully throughout the Garden’s botanical kingdom, you will have walked away with a treasure.
The Show is overwhelming. So one may jaunt through it appreciating the overarching dazzling spectacle and briefly glance at the replicas, taking a few moments to identify the name of a particularly striking recreation. Or you may more closely observe, inspect and take a leisurely microscopic view of how each of the replicas was assembled ingeniously with twigs, varieties of flower and grain seeds, pine cones, stems, leaves, nut shells, acorn caps, pods, gourds, varieties of moss, mushrooms, flowers, herbs, spices and more.
And the trains? Use your phone video feature to capture the particularly cool passenger trains or trolleys flying over the Manhattan or Queensboro bridge high above your head. Most NYC bridges (five out of the nine) are featured. Or snap the cute novelty cars painted with butterflies or other insects trolling back and forth over the tracks. All of the trains are G-scale, whether ancient or modern, whether locomotives and freight cars or diesel engines, electrified passenger trains, trolleys and streetcars. There are over 25 full fledged train set ups clanging, whirling, zipping, steaming, chugging, purring and careening over 1/2 mile of track situated between rocks, over bridges and water features, through tree stump tunnels and under low hanging tree branches throughout the conservatory.
In the 3000 foot 360 degree display whose extension was added a few years ago, you’ll see a grand memorial to traindome. You’ll note various New York historical station replicas that are throwbacks to a time when travelers stayed at inns before they journeyed to relatives. These have since been torn down to make way for flat-looking, rectangular, unappealing buildings signifying what has been lost to progress. You will note Grand Central Station saved by Jacqueline Onassis and the magnificent station that developers couldn’t wait to get their grimy hands on, the Beaux Arts beauty, built in 1910, Pennsylvania Station. The Applied Imagination replica is a memorial to history, grand architectural effort that remains timeless though Penn Station itself was torn down in 1963. But there the miniature building stands for us to admire at The Holiday Train Show. Just consider that for a second or two.
The Palms of the World Gallery exhibit is the glorious conclusion that sends you out into the sterling night of stars if you go to Bar Car Nights (December 22, 23, 29, 30, January 6, 13) with a date, friends or are just slumming by yourself. Or if brushing by the palm fronds with goodbyes to Garden staff dressed as train engineers you slip from the tropical paradise into the bright, cold atmosphere and sunshine with a beaming smile on your face because the final exhibit is just…just. Well! You’ll have to go and see the show and come up with your own descriptors. Marvelous? Rising? Scintillating? Neat? Memorable? Illustrious?
It’s all of that and more as the display in the large reflecting pool glimmers and splits into double images which lengthen the buildings and set them skimming across the water. This segment in particular memorializes why Manhattan is its own tribute to itself: skyscraper-particular, iconic, architecturally astonishing, mesmerizing, glowing. Whether its Rockefeller Plaza, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, the GE Building, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, St. Bartholomew’s Church, this is what tourists, natives and even botanical adventurers love about New York City. Take some time to especially view the last four replicas listed here, all of which are new.
I was struck by the extravagant details and was rather gobsmacked at the illusion which is created in this gallery. These buildings effect their namesakes, but are built with completely organic, sustainable materials, unlike their reality of concrete, glass and steel. The effect will draw you in as you remember the essence of the Applied Imagination’s vision to set a monument to nature’s ineffable and infinite botanical variety and the wonder of at plants’ creative usefulness as building blocks for humans. Read that sentence again, to ken the full meaning. Heart!
There is no leaving the Palms of the World Gallery after the first minute of arrival. You leave when you receive the full effect of the display upon your senses and decide that The Holiday Train Show is a celebration of the best of who we can be as creators and lovers of nature’s bounty of which we are an integral part.
For all the intriguing programming during the Train Show, from the Evergreen Express and family events, Billy Collins poetry reading and more, go to the Garden website HERE. For BAR CAR NIGHTS, HERE. To learn about Paul Busse artistic visionary, founder and 25 year creator of Applied Imagination replicas and themes with his team click HERE.
Shakespeare’s comical plot of Measure for Measure radiates with riotous and melodic, exceptionalism in the glorious musical Desperate Measures. The musical currently at the York Theatre shines like no other rendition of Shakespeare’s work because of the adroit skill of the playwright Peter Kellogg who wrote the book and lyrics. Coupled with the musicality and memorable compositions by David Friedman, Desperate Measures is an incredible hit that is biding its time to make its mark on Broadway.
The comedy is non stop. The brilliant, clever story twists run rampant throughout.. Indeed, the Western update of Shakespeare’s work is lifted to satiric high farce. Set to an illustrative musical songscape which is both appealing and profound, Desperate Measures delivers moment to moment fun and enthralls with good will and joy.
Thus far, I have taken my measure of this production twice. Each time I’ve appreciated the specific, brilliant direction by Bill Castellino. His acting ensemble’s choreographed movements during the musical numbers are reminiscent of the amazing work of the great Graciela Daniele. Additionally, the six-member cast portray the spin-off Shakespearean characters with invested realism and inventiveness that revves up the humor and makes it a stand-out. The cast’s unparalleled singing and cavorting through the setting of the 1890s Old West transforms many of the fantastical elements into searing present-day themes.
For that reason alone. this production must be seen. Uplift and encouragement suggest hope throughout each Act. Above all Desperate Measures brings us the wonderful reminder that laughter provides goodness like a wholesome medicine. And bitterness dries up the bones. So! You need a dose of healthful chortles? This show sheds them in abundance.
In ‘The Ballad of Johnny Blood” the ensemble and Johnny (an adorable, multi-talented, effusive and expertly winning Conor Ryan), introduce the conflict. Prisoner Johnny will hang for the love of a woman who unwittingly caused his downfall when he shot his rival in self-defense. However, Johnny has an advocate in the Sheriff (the equally adorable, smooth, brilliant, reserved, heroic Peter Saide), who guards him. The Sheriff creates an effective plan to soften the law and order governor of the territory (the hilarious, preening, fascist, sexual predator Nick Wyman). The softener, Sister Mary Jo (the exquisitely voiced and excellent Emma Degerstedt), will plead for her brother’s release.
To convince the Sister to visit the governor, the Sheriff sings “That’s Just How It Is.” The superb lyrics of this tuneful, beautifully rendered song by Saide carry one of the vital themes of the production. The unfair culture creates economic injustice. The rich prosper. The children of the poor suffer. Rarely can one upturn this dynamic. However, every now and then a time comes when goodness can prevail. If people take a stand and “speak up,” they can make a difference. The demure and innocent Sister Mary Jo, persuaded by the Sheriff’s challenge decides to ask for her brother’s pardon.
Of course the novitiate, has no idea of the nefariousness of the governor. We recognize his qualities immediately with Wyman’s Governor’s “Some Day They Will Thank Me.” In the song, the arrogant, presumptive, martinet reveals he is a blaggard. As the Sheriff prompts her to be more convincing with the Governor, Susanna sings “Look in Your Heart.” Unfortunately, Wyman’s Governor confirms our worst fears about those in power. Because Susanna persuades him with her lyrical loveliness, the Governor ties her up in a Gordian knot. He will release Johnny for one night of Susanna’s love.
In the beautifully wrought “Good To Be Alive,” (a high-point among many in the show), Johnny begs his sister. Trade her chastity for his life. The humorous debate that ensues leaves Johnny facing death. And Susanna’s refusal to give her chastity to the Governor over her brother’s pleas appears cold-hearted. Nevertheless, once again, the brilliant Sheriff comes up with an ingenious (and hysterical), plan to obtain the pardon.
However, will this ridiculous and incredible plan work? To encourage themselves, Johnny the Sheriff and Susanna (Sister Mary Jo’s real name) are joined by the alcoholic atheistic priest (the hysterical Gary Marachek), to sing the uplifting “It Doesn’t Hurt to Try.” Indeed, since the risk of life and death is great, any plan that can stave off the hangman’s noose for Johnny is a boon. Thus, off Susanna and the Sheriff go to set the plan in motion eliciting the help of Johnny’s love Bella (the wonderful Lauren Molina), whose occupation as a saloon singer gives her special talents to work a miracle for Johnny’s life.
Following the basic plot of Measure for Measure, yet giving it a modern Old Western twist, Desperate Measures follows with the parallels yet adds its own flavor through the lyrics and tuneful songs. For example, in order to train Bella for her upcoming role where she switches places with Sister Mary Jo, the Sheriff assists Sister Mary Jo in teaching Bella how to present herself in “The Way You Feel on the Inside.” Additionally, as the situation to save her brother’s life has thrown the Sheriff and Sister Mary Jo together, we recognize a budding romance between them which neither wants to acknowledge. The Sheriff especially, a proud man, doesn’t even want to contemplate that he is attracted to Sister Mary Jo, who will be taking her vows to be a nun in the next few days. The memorable “Stop There” recalls the fear of unrequited love and identifies the reality of the pain of falling in love and allowing one’s imagination to run away before the love interest accepts being loved.
To conclude Act I the ensemble joins in the thrumming song “In the Dark.” As each individual identifies that the darkness is the place where anything can happen, they encourage themselves to hope for their desires. For Johnny it is his release. For the Governor it is a fulfillment of his passion for Sister Mary Jo. For Bella who is duping the Governor, she hopes for the ability to pull off the deception that she is Sister Mary Jo. For the Sheriff and Sister Mary Jo (Susanna) they secretly yearn for the hope that they might be able to love one another. The musical number beautifully caps the conflicts and themes of Act I and establishes the set up for the resolution of the conflicts in the second act.
The Governor’s fabulous seduction scene, the ensuing hi-jinks and the heroic actions of Johnny’s love, Bella, transport us to comedic heights. How the conflicts thread their way to the conclusion, bring the characters together and apart again. And they resolve in a hysterical climactic scene which brings down the house. The music of the second act is as heady as is the first. And once more, the various songs resonate as does the clever rhyming dialogue.
Memorable and engaging, this is a production where the smarmy villain receives his commuppance. And where an alcoholic, atheist priest manages to redeem himself. There is love, unique heroism, surprising justice, and redemption for even the wicked. Perhaps! As for the specifics, this review holds no spoiler alerts. You will just have to see this most superb musical production to discover the incredibly clever rhymes and production’s tremendous vibrance for yourself.
Can there be a better rollicking, musical update of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure? I think not!
I cannot say enough about the music (folks have asked when the CDs will go on sale), and the lyrics and book by this prodigiously adroit team of Kellogg and Friedman. The functional and minimalistic Western sets trope the humor, time and place, as do the costumes. Their simplicity carries the farce and comedy yet makes room for the dark, ironic undertones in the themes. Thankfully, the characters in this production suit the measure with which they have bestowed grace and beauty. However, such does not occur in life, as Kellogg reminds us and Shakespeare reminds us in Measure for Measure.
Nevertheless, the show’s currency resonates timelessness. Heroes may thwart villains. Innocence may triumph over corruption. Love may save. Justice might win out despite overwhelming odds. Does absolute power corrupt in Desperate Measures? Indeed, as it corrupts in Measure for Measure. Both works reflect the vicissitudes that confront individuals whether in the Old West 1890 or in our current world. However, when good men rise up to stand against lust, avarice and overweening privilege, the light of truth can disperse the darkness. That it does so tunefully, memorably, riotously in Desperate Measures is very welcome for us at this time.
Kudos to the musicians David Hancock Turner, Justin Rothberg, Joseph Wallace, Douglas Waterbury-Tieman. And accolades to the design team James Morgan, Nicole Wee, Paul Miller Julian Evans for their creative exploits on Desperate Measures. A word to the wise. The production most probably will be moving to a more expensive venue. This New York premiere has already enjoyed two extensions. See it now, so you will be able to see it again. You will be thrilled you did.
Desperate Measures runs with one intermission. It will be at The York Theatre (619 Lexington Avenue) until 26th November.