Category Archives: Theater News, NYC
The Price of Thomas Scott, currently at Theatre Row is an interesting period piece which has at its core central issues about conscience, upholding the values one professes to believe in and sacrificing material well being for spiritual health and soul wholeness. Written by Elizabeth Baker (1876-1962) the playwright who hailed from a religious family wrote in the early last century about London’s working classes, shop girls, clerks and the ambitiously upwardly mobile.
In focusing a spotlight on their dreams, foibles and mores, Baker entertains with an eye to unraveling key theses about the human condition. Despite fashion and social folkways, if you transplant her characters in a modern prototypical setting, the results would initially appear vastly different, but the similarities in the characters’ issues would be stark and familiar. The reason why is because the moral, ethical and personal questions her characters confront, are issues we also confront at one time or another, if we have a conscience. There’s the rub!
The setting is the back parlor of Thomas Scott’s Draper’s shop (cloth wholesaler, haberdasher) where daughter Annie Scott (the delightful and winning Emma Geer) and son Leonard (the vibrant Nick LaMedica) discuss their ambitions and dreams, all of which require a large amount of money that their father does not have. The Scotts are part of the declining middle class and the children are strivers. However, Thomas Scott’s business is not doing well because his competitors drive down the prices, and the costs, as always, seem to eat into any profits. In short, Scott wishes to sell his business, retire and go to a beautiful place in Wales, something his wife has been longing for as she is tired of city living.
One factor that we note immediately is that this is a religious family and Mr. Scott (Donald Corren’s portrayal is modulated and has none of the self-righteous tone of the “religious”) upholds his beliefs and encourages his family to attend church and eschew all the latest fads and fashions, even attending theater performances. Though he doesn’t view theater as sinful, actually, he characterizes it as immoral (this gets a laugh from the audience). He suggests he can read the about it and that time and money could be spent better with other pursuits.
After a scene where lodger Johnny Tite (Andrew Fallaize) and his friend Hartley Peters (Josh Goulding) waltz with Annie and her friend May (Ayana Workman), as brother Leonard plays for them, we understand that the young people wish to break away from the repressed culture in which they live. A waltz seems harmless enough. But we realize from the paranoid and hurried way that they rearrange the furniture which they moved to dance, that Mr. Scott would not be pleased to see them carrying on. Apparently, he doesn’t approve of dancing either. The focal point of his life seems to be church, praying, Bible study and singing religious hymns and he encourages his family to follow his upright example which they do to his face with a few lapses behind his back.
The conflict slowly develops. Mr. Scott fears running down his business to bankruptcy. And the only way out for his and his children’s dreams to come true would be to sell. However, no one is interested. And because of the other sales of neighbors’ business it appears he will not get a particularly good price for his shop. The quandray stresses him and his family who understand the stakes and the potential doom if there is no buyer.
When a buyer appears as a recommendation from elsewhere, Mr. Scott is thrilled as is the family. Following the adjurations of his friend to ask for an excellent price, he holds out for a price which would answer all of the desires of the family. Indeed, money answers all things, a Biblical scripture the play does not allude to. The 500 pound settlement would allow him to retire to Wales with his wife, set his son on a fine career path and pay for his daughter’s dream to go to Paris to learn the latest styles and return to London to employ her craft.
However, there is a fly in the ointment which may prevent their dreams from ever being realized. And the huge fly is Mr. Scott’s values and conscience. He is not enamored of the buyer or his trade.
His wife Ellen (the fine Tracy Sallows) respects him as do his children. However, if he allows his conscience to rule over their happiness, then their dreams and his own will turn to ashes. Unless a buyer shows up that he approves of, he may go bankrupt and have to close the shop without any money to forestall their downward economic decline. He is a religious man. He will have to turn to His God and his conscience for his final decision and after that the outcome which will be “good” or “ill.” When in trouble, rely on miracles!
Mr. Scott’s choices and decisions mirror those conundrums faced by every world leader, every businessman, every head of the household who has control of others’ economic well being. If one is ethical and moral, the choices are actually harder. If one is amoral and believes that it is all right to wipe all competitors and settle for an “I win you lose” result, then there is no problem making the decision, but a huge problem with the result especially if the rule of law is in force. On the other hand morality, ethics and conscience create immense problems and crises. Living by one’s own standards stolidly without hypocrisy is the problem especially if there are temptations. And it is especially the problem if one expects others to live by one’s own standards though theirs may be different. Of course if the standards are high moral ones then it should be clear and the individual should be respected for living up to them. But relativity creeps in depending upon the situation and definition of “high moral standards.”
For example racists believe their discrimination is for the common good and a “high moral standard.” Conservative religious individuals believe the LBGTQ crowd are twisted and sick and should be rejected until they are turned to normal heterosexuality. A head of the household believes he must live by his values though it will impoverish his family and take food out of their mouths. These individuals, if they stick to their beliefs unequivocally, are not hypocrites selling their souls to be accepted by others. They have defined their actions as belief and conviction, though their actions would be described in the culture at large as discriminatory and loathsome. In the case of the head of the household, money and family are less important than his/her conscience. Some might argue that this man should not even have a family if he does not properly take care of them. Questions of ethics, morality and following one’s conscience are invariably complex, as playwright Baker intriguingly points out.
Above all the play is fascinating in the questions it asks. The Mr. Scotts of the world who follow conscience to the exclusion of other reasonable considerations are as extreme as the amoralists whose greed and self-dealing may cause death, misery and devastation. Applying Baker’s questions to a current problem today, might be as follows. To fight against corporate hegemony and abuse of other cultures must one eschew all technology because of its inherent slave footprint to not be a hypocrite or amoralist as well? Can one completely eliminate one’s slave footprint and abide in First World country status knowing that other cultures do without allowing us to “do with?” Thus, living in social modernity carried to this absurd conclusion means living as a hypocrite unlike Mr. Thomas or living as a self-dealing amoralist who ignores the ramifications of his behavior.
The Price of Thomas Scott brings to life the ethics and morality of “modern” living in exposing the human condition which is as ancient as “Adam and Eve in the “Garden.” And though the play concludes on an upward note with the next generation “resolving” the issues in a lighthearted way, what they do is “in your face” ironic and rebellious by the standards of Mr. Scott. In that rebellion lays the foundation of a greater crisis of the culture which in a decade or so moves into the excesses of “The Roaring Twenties,” eventual crash and great Depression which was effected as a partial response to the reactionary time of prohibition, religious revivalism and strict morality that Mr. Scott embraces. For every action there is a reaction, especially when ethics, morality, hypocrisy and soul selling are at issue.
The production by The Mint Theater Company gives precise attention to the spectacle of theatrical performance and time period which is as always a pleasure to see from the props to the staging. Kudos to Vicki R. Davis (Sets) Hunter Kaczorowski (Costumes) Christian Deangelis (Lights) Jane Shaw Sound & Musical Arrangements) and others which helped to make this a beautifully rendered production. The hats are magnificent and made me wish for a time beyond weddings and funerals when such hats were in vogue. (not really…just the hats)
Special kudos to the director Jonathan Banks and the cast who deliver a measured and authentic view into the past of how individuals like Mr. Scott and his family made hard decisions and stuck by them without taint of hypocrisy or corruption of their own consciences. Would that current day politicos were more like Mr. Scott who quails at selling his soul for Mammon. (The question in the play is, is that what he really is doing or that he believes he is doing?) In light of our president and the actors who surround him in the administration and influencers in foreign lands, Mr. Scott’s problem with (X) appears quaint. So much more the irony of this play being produced now when the problems of selling one’s soul for betraying a nation and its democratic processes are paramount. Bravo, Mint Theater Company!
The Classic Shakespeare Company is presenting two 19th century plays by August Strindberg in Repertory. The Dance of Death (see my review by “clicking here” in a new version by the award winning Conor McPherson) and Mies Julie in an adaptation by the award winning South African director and playwright Yaël Farber.
Farber has given Strindberg’s Miss Julie a renovation in texture, location, structure and dynamic by intensifying the conflict and shortening the arc of the play’s development. Inherent in this production directed by Shariffa Ali is the force and power to further elucidate the themes about classism, chauvinism, oppression, economic injustice, racism, white supremacy and cyclical revenge with the backdrop of a new setting, South Africa, 2012. Additionally. she has changed the characterization of Christine from Jean’s fiancee to John’s mother, and worldly servant Jean to Xhosa farm worker John, intriguingly characterizing him as one who grew up with Mies Julie on the farm that Julie’s father owns.
Christine has raised Mies Julie alongside her own son when Julie’s mother abandoned her daughter suffering from severe depression. The mother, alienated and isolated from the strangeness of the colonial women with whom she never could feel comfortable, the difficulty of the farming life and her own inner regrets caved in her soul. Without any sense of purpose or the obligation of duty to take care of her own child, she shoots herself and little Julie finds the disastrous ruin of the woman. Mies Julie thinks she is responsible for her mother’s death, but is nurtured by Christine’s love to eventually recover.
Nevertheless, Mies Julie bears the scars of the trauma. And during the course of the play we intuit that her rebellious behavior and impulsiveness suppresses an inner pain as she careens through her life. If not for Christiane’s love and an emotional attachment to Christine’s son John, who protects her and secretly, hopelessly loves her, Mies Julie might follow in her mother’s footsteps. The character of Mies Julie is most similar to Strindberg’s Miss Julie in ethos, however, the fascinating twists of transformation of setting reshape all of her actions and give them additional resonance and thematic richness.
Farber’s adaptation opens in a farmhouse kitchen in Eastern Cape, Karoo, South Africa on Freedom Day, 27 of April 2012, almost 20 years after all South Africans were give the right to vote in 1994. The day is a vital symbol integral to the complex themes of this adaptation. For the blacks of South Africa, the price of freedom was purchased by blood and suffering. The black culture’s redemption and return to the land of their ancestors will also be paid for by blood and suffering in a twisted karmic resolution in Farber’s Mies Julie.
Indeed, ancestors in the form of a ghostly grandmother seek revenge as she haunts the house which was built upon ancestral graves. Although this is not effected in the set design, Christine refers to the great tree which was cut down to make way for the house, but whose roots retained life and now break through the tiles of the floor of the kitchen and continue to grow in defiance of the white, man-made structure. The symbolism of the tree as representational of the Xhosa family which belongs on the land and whose culture can never be erased is a focal point. Unfortunately, without evidence of the tree breaking through the floor (due to the repertory’s need for minimalism) an important theme of Farber’s work is diminished, opaquely realized through Christine’s dialogue which becomes too easily lost in the hum of action.
Farber presents the underlying conflict when the workers on the farm and some squatters who have returned to the land that their ancestors lived on before the colonials came, have been celebrating and dancing on Freedom Day. Mies Julie dances with the workers a bold and inappropriate act. Because her father is away, she rebelliously revels in these liberties which lower her stature and respect in the workers’ eyes. When John attempts to admonish her, we see the emotional tensions between them and realize that the relationship they have developed in many ways runs past master/servant and portends elements of love or sado-masochism or both.
During the course of the production we discover that the South African’s hope is to one day take back the land from the colonials like Julie’s father. They consider this an act of restitution for the terrible bloodshed and misery caused in the years of usurpation which brought about cultural devastation. The economic struggles continue in the present day for the workers like John and Christine must still submit to servitude to survive. Decades of economic injustice and inequality have delayed their accumulation of enough capital to purchase the land that their ancestors lived on centuries ago.
Though John has educated himself and wants the freedom to be able to prosper beyond his “class and race,” he is not the urbane, world traveler of the Jean of Strindberg’s work. And though he has had women, he has loved Mies Julie from childhood. It is this night that erupts in a culmination of many subterranean wants and desires for both Mies Julie and for John. And of course it is this night of freedom that lifts up Mies Julie’s “Afrikaaner race” out from under the degradation and debasement of oppressing the Xhosa.
John and Julie are representative of their race and class. On one level Mies Julie becomes the sacrifice to expiate the “sins” of her forefathers when she chooses to become equal and unite in a physical consummation of love with John. Likewise for John, it is a night where he asserts his privilege to repossess the land (symbolized by Mies Julie’s body) and achieve a lifelong dream to be restored to his true sense of self-worth, identity and power.
The beauty and tragedy of portraying their relationship as Farber does in layer upon layer of intricate psychological and social texture is that we understand before the characters do that perhaps decades need to pass before the destructive social MATRIX in which both live and have their being disintegrates. John comes to this realization sooner than Mies Julie, who is impaled on the immediacy and unreality of wanting an idyllic life with John away from the farm. She intends to run away with him and use her father’s money that she’s stolen from the safe. John cannot trust Mies Julie enough to leave his mother and the stultifying but familiar identity that has oppressed him his entire life. The two are trapped and their end appears to be an inevitability. The time is surely “out of joint.” And only a few options remain for them to take before Julie’s father returns the next day and stasis consumes their lives once more.
In this adaption, Farber presents some of Strindberg’s themes front and center and then embellishes and expands them. Farber suggests the following. In order for the injustices between and among economic classes to ever be resolved, the classes themselves must be dissolved. For all human beings, the trials overcoming the miseries of childhood and the nullifying stricture of social mores, are uneasily won. For outsiders who are economically challenged, the trials are even greater. Only gradually through the passing of the generations will there ever be economic and social parity between and among disparate races and ethnic groups.
Christine knows this. She treasures her job and is willing to abide in her faith believing that for her son’s generation it will be better, but for her generation, it is finished. John wants change immediately and by fathering Mies Julie’s child he will overthrow the status quo, though he risks her father’s wrath. They must leave, for if a baby comes, her father will kill them both.
The harder he and Julie attempt to extricate themselves from the binding circumstances, the more they become mired in fear. It is a truism that they must leave or die. They cannot forge new identities in the same place where old hatreds and resentments float like ghosts above the blood-soaked land. Mies Julie wisely commands that they run away from her father and the farm’s oppression and migrate to a new identity and new existence in the city. But John is stuck. Christine adjures that she will never leave the farm. John must choose. Either he abandons his mother and goes with Mies Julie to freedom, or he remains with Christine in servitude. If there is a baby, all three will die.
Farber’s adaptation presented by the CSC and directed by Shariffa Ali enthralls with strong, emotional performances by James Udon as John, Elise Kibler as Mies Julie and Patrice Johnson-Chavannes as Christine. And when the ghost of the grandmother walks the kitchen, Vinnie Burrows is uncanny and foreboding. Because of her presence, we understand that a fearful retribution is coming, but it remains unclear until the play’s conclusion.
The production runs like a bullet train on a collusion course toward destruction especially in the scenes where Kibler and Udon spar, seek to dominate and control, then relent, succumbing to their tenuous love for each other. Kibler is effective in her smoldering, wild longing. Udon is sensitive and caring as the “fool” for love, then angry and rebellious in believing he is Mies Julie’s plaything. These emotions provide a field for incredible contrasts. On the one hand Julie and John collide with their fear of abandonment and betrayal. Then they fly to each other then fly to reinforce a love perches on the edge of desperation. These tensions and the heightened interplay between Kibler’s Mies Julie and Udon’s John is wrought with ferocious zeal.
A note of warning. Some of the dialect and the accents are muffled and strained. I found that swaths of dialogue were garbled because of an overemphasis to “get the accents right.” I am not referring to the words of Afrikaans or Indigenous words in Xhosa, but the heavily accented English. The accents are vital for they introduce the setting. However, the use remained problematic. When the emotion was presented organically, the dialogue followed and the actors were easily understood.
Finally, the set design was spare and adequate as it should be in this repertory Strindberg cycle. However, the incredible symbolism of the tree should be included as an important thematic thread of the play. The music, the effects, make-up and costumes are apt. When the ghostly presence enters and leaves, all these design elements effect the supernatural wonderfully.
Mies Julie and The Dance of Death alternate in repertory at CSC (13th Street between 3rd and 4th) until 10 March. Mies Julie is a spare 75 minutes with no intermission. You can pick up tickets at their website.
This is a continuation of the conversation that took place at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, Lincoln Center as presented in collaboration by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the League of Professional Theatre Women. The event was produced by Ludovica Villar-Hauser and Sophia Romma. For Part I Click this LINK.
Elisabeth Vincentelli: Could you talk about Mlima’s Tale. It was another different approach you took.
Lynn Nottage: It was commissioned by film director Katherine Bigelow (award winning director of Hurt Locker). And we were developing it together. She has incredible passion about elephants. Mlima’s Tale is told from the point of view of an elephant that’s been poached. And the play tracks the elephant’s tusks from the hands of the people who poach him to the hands of the people in China who buy his tusks. It’s a very stylized piece. Jo Bonny came in. And we decided that we wanted to make the piece very differently. It was based on my working with designers that was very collaborative. We decided that we wanted to work with designers from beginning to end which almost never happens. Usually what happens is that designers speak to the director during the first draft of the script and then they come back into the process during tech week. We thought we don’t want to make it that way. We want designers to be there very single day which is why I think the piece is more holistic and integrated on all levels. We were talking to each other and making creative decisions in the moment which was very exciting.
It was very imaginative with the lighting, music and movement.
We worked with a composer who had never done theater before. The equipment was all set up. During the first preview, a musician felt very deeply and he didn’t know he couldn’t just spontaneously sing. We had to say “Wait, you can’t do that.” (laughter)
What are the new musicals you are working on?
The first one is The Secret Life of Bees which is an adaptation of the book by Sue Monk with composer Duncan Sheik who did the music for Spring Awakening and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead who did Jelly’s Last Jam. Sam Gold is directing it and it will be at the Atlantic Theater Company in the Spring. And we’ve been working on it for a couple of years and it’s very beautiful.
Then you’re working on another musical of Intimate Apparel.
Well, it’s not exactly a musical. It’s an opera which is a co-commission between the Met Opera and Lincoln Center Theatre. It’s been interesting developing something which is kind of a hybrid and having Peter Gelb from the Met giving notes and Andre Bishop from the theater. Both of them have very different needs. (laughter) And Ricky Ian Gordon, the composer, is doing a brilliant job.
The third one which has been announced is?
The Michael Jackson musical. I’m writing the book on the Michael Jackson Musical. Michael Jackson’s written the music. (laughter)
What are the challenges for working on the book of a musical or opera,
The opera which is an adaptation of working on my own play Intimate Apparel? The challenge was in figuring out how to write a libretto from material I was so attached to. I didn’t want to let go of anything. And working with Ricky, the first time I handed him my libretto he said, ‘You’ve re-written the play.’ The second time I handed him the libretto he said, ‘You’ve re-written the play, again.’ And I asked, ‘How do I do this?’ He said, ‘You’re not trusting your collaborator. You have to understand in musical theater and opera, the music does 50% of the work. It is what makes it expansive. Trust that I’m going to allow people to feel and teach people to feel through my music.’ And once I trusted him, I was able to make some of those cuts and get rid of the exposition. I had to let him be the collaborator that he is, and allow him to do some of the heavy lifting. I had to let him do the story telling. He does beautiful story telling which allowed me to step away.
What about with Sue Monk’s Secret Life of Bees? How was it writing book for a work that was not yours?
Well Sue Monk gave us the license to do whatever we wanted. She was like ‘I’ve written the book.’ We made it clear that we made some massive changes and that we were not doing a strict adaptation of the book. We told her that we’re creating a piece that is inspired by the book that honors all her characters without making replicas of those characters.
How do you approach the writing of the book?
From my position of writing the book? I’m the architect of the narrative. It is my job to make sure that all the pieces come together. So I’m kind of like the contractor. I am there to make sure that everything is exactly as we want it.
How did you feel writing book for that musical?
It’s incredible and liberating as a book writer. So if get to a difficult point, I can turn to Susan (lyricist) and say, “You got this right?” (laughter) It’s the lyricist that’s doing a lot of the important story telling. I throw her the ball and she does the “slam dunk.”
You said you learned at Yale what “to do as a playwright and what not to do.” Could you elaborate on that?
Sure. When I arrived at Yale I had just gone from college to graduate school. So my assumptions when I was there was that they had a blueprint about how to be a good playwright. I learned a lot about structure, but I also think I also became imprisoned by a lot of what I learned because I didn’t realize I had the freedom to make my own decisions. I think that is what I meant.
Writing the play into a libretto are you turning it into prose or are you turning it into poetry?
I think it’s both. Some of it is definitely prose and some of it is definitely poetry. It’s a combination.
From the perspective of film how does that approach differ? What is the difference between a word and an image and what is special about each one?
The way in which film and theater function differently is clear. In theater we do a lot of problem solving through language. In film a lot of the problem solving is done through images. I think particularly in film there is the short cut you can take that you don’t have the luxury of doing onstage in the theater. You can quickly convey something by taking a character somewhere else in film, but because of the limitations of the stage, we have to use language sometimes to describe the visuals.
You were raised to appreciate the arts. What are you doing to advocate for young people in the arts?
I’ve been a professor for 17 years. I’m a teacher. And I think that’s the primary way to nurture young artists, because when I was young artist I didn’t feel that there were a lot of people to nurture young African American artists. I feel it’s essential to nurture the next generation and I’ve put in a lot of time and effort into helping directors and playwrights who are up and coming and emerging.
Which characters do you use to get their stories told?
I use the characters that assert themselves. The characters that come back and demand to be represented on the stage are ultimately the ones who win out.
Do you have a specific audience in mind that you are writing for?
I like to think that I’m writing for an audience who are friends. My friends are a very diverse group of people. So those are the friends I write for. But Intimate Apparel was very specific. It was for my mother. I don’t think I’ve written anything else with that kind of intention. I did this adaptation for this film director Lars Von Trier. (laughter) He would talk to me on the phone, but he would never direct any comments or questions to me. He wanted to speak to me through his producer. And this was on the telephone. The three of us would be on the phone and he would say, “Tell Lynn. . .” And I would respond, “I can hear you.” (laughter) The film was Manderlay.
Did you have any influencers?
I did have influencers. I had my parents who took me to theater. As a professional playwright, I didn’t have mentors who helped me nurture this career.
Now you’ve reached a certain point in your career, is there another medium you would like to work in?
Because of the past year or two that I’ve become so overwhelmed and busy, I don’t feel that I have the time to nurture my self. I haven’t had the time to read books and to ruminate. I have to endeavor, in the next couple of years, just to make time to think and think about what it is I want to do.
Did you have a sense that those two pieces that won your Pulitzers would stand out in some way.
The Pultizer came as a complete and total surprise. Technically, the Pulitzer is supposed to be a play that deals with American culture. And Ruined is set in the Congo. So when I got that phone call it was an absolute surprise. For Sweat I never thought that lightening was going to strike twice. So that was a total surprise as well.
Could you still comment on the lack of production opportunities for women in theater. We’re still below 20% and women of color are really at the bottom.
I think you put it very well. (laughter) It is a fact there is work to be done. And very recently there was another survey about theater and women. I can’t speak to the specifics of this in all the other areas, but for women playwrights they found that for white women throughout the country, there’s been an increase to almost parity. But for women of color and men of color, the numbers are still staggeringly low.
How can we change the dynamics of theater pricing?
I think there is a way to make theater more affordable and more accessible, as we did in Sweat. I teach a course called American Spectacle about how to evolve beyond the proscenium. And I teach it because of my incredible frustration with we as playwrights and directors and artists. We craft our productions very specifically for the stage and proscenium of Off Broadway Theaters that are limited in space and also limited in the audience that they reach. The audience that I want to reach doesn’t necessarily relate to the audience that I look and see is watching my play.
One of the things I realized is that I don’t have to be locked into that problem. We can be incredibly flexible. We can take theater to the people. And that’s what we discovered with the mobile unit. We can break out of the proscenium and bring theater into a gym and if there’s an audience for it, we’ve broken away from that limitation. The very first production that we did in Pennsylvania, people showed up with their kids. They had not been to theater. They didn’t know they were going to sit for two and 1/2 hours and so Stephanie Ybarra, the Artistic Director of the mobile unit, and I ended up holding people’s babies while people watched theater (laughter).
And I thought, ‘This is great. Why can’t we do this in Off Broadway theaters.’ The other establishing fact was we realized that most of those folks had never been to theater before. Not a single cell phone rang. People sat rapt. And I thought ‘…there’s something about that audience that’s different from New York audiences because they want to be there and not because they bought a subscription and have to meet the quota of plays’ (laughter). They are there because they want this entire experience. I think that in some way we have to re-educate the audiences that see theater in New York. I think that there are really bad habits that are being nurtured and we have to change that. (applause)
I’m here from a class at NYU and I want to know if you consider yourself a feminist?
I do consider myself a feminist. My mother was a feminist. And she was very outspoken on women’s rights and so I’ve been a feminist since the time I can remember.
Are you inspired by to write about what is going on in current politics and what is going on at the border and the lies that we’re hearing.
Yes. I’d like to write about it. At the very end of the mobile unit tour, we ended at a Native American reservation and one of the elders stood up and said something incredibly moving. He said, “I don’t understand what this border wall is. There are no borders in America. These fences that they’ve erected where they arrest people if they cross over mean nothing.” He and others understand that these obstructions shouldn’t mean anything because this is land that has no boundaries. That’s how I feel. And there’s part of me that wants to do a Walkabout and walk the length of the border and talk to people and collect their stories but it would probably take a very long time. (applause and cheering)
You can see Lynn Nottage’s play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Irene Diamond Stage. For a schedule of where Lynn’s plays are being produced and to learn more about Lynn, go to her website: CLICK HERE.
For more about The League of Professional Theatre Women or to become a member CLICK HERE.
Monday evening at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center, the New York Library for the Performing Arts and The League of Professional Theatre Women presented another Oral History event celebrating renowned women in theater. Produced by Ludovia Villar-Hauser with Sophia Romma, those in attendance enjoyed Elisabeth Vincentelli’s interview of award-winning, globally renowned playwright and screenwriter Lynn Nottage. Elisabeth Vincentelli writes about the arts and theater for various publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal to name a few of her many writing accomplishments. She also co-hosts the “Three on the Aisle” podcast with Peter Marks (Washington Post) and Terry Teachout (Wall Street Journal) The following interview has been lightly edited. Look for Part II next week.
Elisabeth: You are the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize twice (applause) You have such a rich career. I wanted to anchor it by having you talk about where you grew up. It was right here in New York.
Lynn: I was very fortunate to grow up in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It was a community defined by people moving through it to get to other communities. It was a very marginal neighborhood at the time. My block was dominated by boarding houses. It was very multicultural. It was a neighborhood where people who were pushed out of other neighborhoods found refuge. And as an aspiring writer, I feel like it was the best place to grow up because it was so diverse and accepting and nurturing. It was a true community. Next door to me, for example, in one of the boarding houses, there was a woman who by day wore a full Burqa, a Hijab. She was completely covered up. Her husband was a taxi driver. At night when he would leave, she would actually take it off and put on a Kaftan. That was the type of community it was.
So I think it was inevitable that I would end up as a writer having lived there. As a matter of fact on the same block, if anyone knows the novelist Jonathan Lethem, he memorialized the block in the Fortress of Solitude. And the yard in back where everyone played was the yard where I grew up. Our house was the nexus point for the block. I started my first stories when I was five-years-old. I wanted to capture things that I heard. And the aspect of the place was very rich in texture. I knew there was something very special about that moment in time and about the people who congregated in that neighborhood.
Where did you go to college?
Before college, I went to the High School of Music and Art in Harlem. I was an aspiring musician. And when I got there, I discovered that I was not as good as the other aspiring musicians. (laughter) I decided to do something else. I went to Brown University as a Pre-med student with the assumption that I was going to be a doctor, not that I ever wanted to be a doctor. However, because I was very good in math and science, they decided to give me a scholarship and I got into Brown.
Even before I went to Brown I was writing plays and when I went to Brown I continued to write these little dramas that I managed to produce myself. When I was there I met two professors who were quite influential. One of them was Paula Vogel the first female playwright I had ever met. Up to then, there were only two other female playwrights that I had read. One of them was Lorraine Hansberry, the other was Ntozake Shange. At the time Lorraine Hanesberry had passed away and Ntozake Shange was not very prolific. I was under the assumption that playwriting was really a hobby for women and that it was something that I was never going to be able to make a living doing. Then I met Paula Vogel. She was the first woman who said, “You know, you can do this. And there’s strength in numbers.” There was another professor whose name was George Bass who was the executor of the Langston Hughes estate. He really taught me about the joys and the ritual of creating theater. Theater was not just about putting people on stage. But it was a place where healing could occur and where one could deal with community.
So at that point you’re still grappling with what you wanted to do.
I thought I was going to be a journalist. That summer I was working for a newspaper called The Villager. There were only four of us and we wrote the entire newspaper. For a very brief period of time I was the Arts Editor. And the only reason why I did it was because I could go to the Openings and drink wine. The Villager was located on East Fourth Street.
Did it compete with The Village Voice?
At some point it did. When I was there it did not. (audience laughter)
When did you decide to focus on writing?
I think my decision to focus on writing came when I was deciding what to do after college. I applied to Columbia Journalism School to be a journalist. And on a whim I applied to Yale School of Drama assuming I would never get in. I did. And I spent four very difficult, fraught years in Yale School of Drama where I learned how to be a playwright and then how not to be a playwright at the same time.
Did you go to the theater?
Not so much, then. I went to the theater a lot when I was young. I was fortunate to grow up in New York City. At the time there were a lot of rising African American Theater Companies. There was the New Federal Theater. There was The Negro Ensemble. There was the Billie Holiday Theatre. My parents, who were great lovers of art, made sure that not every weekend, but certainly a few times a year we saw plays. So I encountered the work of Charles Fuller. I remember when I was in High School going to see Giancarlo Esposito. I was with my girlfriends and we were so excited. The performance was electric. At that time theater was affordable. We could go as teenagers.
What about the Billie Holiday Theatre?
They did a renovation and it is thriving. There are wonderful artists that are working there and they are doing representative work emphasizing being inclusive.
You mentioned that you dropped out of playwriting?
The time I was in graduate school coincided with the time that was a crucial moment in American Social History. It was the AIDS Crisis and the Crack Epidemic. So in school we were losing students, we were losing professors. It was really hard to make art in that environment. It felt like there were many more urgent things that needed to be attended to. After I graduated from Yale School of Drama, I felt that I wanted to do something with impact. I sold my computer, if you could call it that. It was sort of like a word processor, and I went to work for Amnesty International, which at the time was the largest human rights organization in the world. I was a press officer and I spent four, intense really concentrated years doing human rights work. In many ways the time I spent with Amnesty International became my second graduate school. It really shaped me not only as an artist but as a person. By the time I left, I knew exactly what I wanted to do as an artist which I didn’t know prior to that time.
Did you feel that playwriting could convey what you wanted to say?
I did. I will tell you a story. It was the moment that I decided to go back to playwriting. A woman named Donna Ferrato, who is a quite famous photographer came to our office. She’d taken these beautiful and disturbing photographs of women arriving at a battered women’s shelter. I saw these images of women who were in a moment of absolute crisis, but there was a look of relief on their faces as well. I was incredibly moved by the photographs.
During that time at Amnesty International, we were struggling with the notion that women’s rights should be separated out from human rights. The organization wasn’t doing enough to address specific human rights abuses. I saw these photographs and I knew that there was nothing that we as an organization could do. But as a human being I felt that I needed to respond to those images. So I closed my office door and I wrote a play. It was the first time I had done that in four years. The play was Poof. Poof is a short play about a woman who’s abused. She tells her husband to go to hell. He spontaneously combusts and turns into a pile of ash. (laughter) She calls her best friend on the phone and she comes down and they have a discussion about what to do with this pile of ash. Finally, they decide to sweep it under the rug. (laughter)
I had returned to playwriting and it felt really good. I arrived at a total synthesis of the “human rights” brain and the “writing” brain. I thought, I can do both things. I don’t know why I have to compartmentalize. For me that was incredibly liberating.
Was Poof your first professional production?
Yes. It was my first professional production. I submitted it to it the Humana Festival. It won the Heideman Award. And Seret Scott who was a fantastic director became my first professional director and my first professional mentor who guided me through the process.
You had three plays in quick succession in the 1990s being produced around the country: Crumbs From the Table of Joy; Mud, River, Stone; and Por’Knockers. Could you speak about each?
Crumbs from the Table of Joy was my very first professional commission. It was commissioned by Second Stage which was still uptown in a 97-seat theater. The play was specifically commissioned for young audiences. I wrote this play assuming it would never get produced. They decided to do it.
It’s really interesting because it was directed by Joe Morton. People know him as “Papa Pope.” At the time he had a very robust acting career and in the middle of directing it he got a job and he was drawn away. So the previews went on for a really long time. As a result the play began to build an audience. By the time he came back, it actually was a success even before it opened. Word of mouth sold it. It starred Ella Joyce and she had just come off of a very popular series. And she used to go to the Beacon Theater which, at the time, was a venue for The Chitlin Circuit. And she would hand out flyers. She would say, “You think this is good, just walk down a few blocks.” People recognized her because she was on the series (Roc) and they followed her advice. She was really responsible for this robust audience that we had.
Mud, River, Stone was commissioned by The Acting Company. We actually developed it on the road before we brought it into New York. When it came to New York, we did a short performance at Playwrights Horizons and then were invited back to do a larger production. I never felt that I finished that play. Before we went into rehearsal at Playwrights Horizons, I had my first child. I was nursing and at rehearsal. Every time she cried, I’d sneak out. The day of the first preview, my mother died. So I had all of these major life events occur during that play. As a result, I felt that I never really had the opportunity to properly tend to that play. That was my great frustration with it.
My other play which was Por’Knockers began at New York Theater Workshop. It came out of this multicultural group that I was in. We presented a short evening of plays. The Vineyard Theater came to see the play which is about a group of terrorists who blow up an FBI building and inadvertently kill some children. They have to decide over the course of the evening whether to take responsibility for their actions or not. They each get their turn to go to the phone to inform others about the explosion. Each one has to figure out what is the price they are willing to pay for their beliefs. At the end, none of them are able to make the phone call. The play was enormously successful at NY Theater Workshop. Then we did it at the Vineyard Theater. But the world had changed. Six months before we did it at the Vineyard, Oklahoma City Bombing happened. The FBI building was blown up. And the day we opened at the Vineyard Theater was the Million Man March. So the play that was a social satire suddenly became very different and much more intense. As a result people just didn’t respond to it.
Now, we’ll move on to Las Meninas which is an outlier, but every one of your plays is an outlier. That’s beautiful. I love that. Could you speak about Las Meninas
Sure. Las Meninas was actually a play that I wrote in graduate school. The play is based on a tiny slip of history that I read about. It was the relationship between Queen Maria Theresa of Spain, the wife of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and her African servant, Nabo who was a dwarf. When I read about this, I thought this is fascinating. Why don’t we know more? I ended up doing years and years of research. True story. I found a book in the New York Public Library, the main branch. I think I was the first person to ever read this book. It was written in 1710 and it was a translation of one of the memoirs written by a mistress. In this memoir the mistress detailed this relationship. I wrote a little bit about this and became an almost expert. I was getting calls from historians asking “How did you find this?” I said, “I don’t know. I’m a playwright.” Because the play is so whimsical and is a costume drama, it doesn’t get done that often. But it is one of my favorite plays because it is so delightful and it’s a true story told from the point of view of their daughter.
Now we move on to a key play in your career, Intimate Apparel directed by Kate Whoriskey. Was that your first collaboration?
Yes. I describe our meeting as a theater blind date. Someone said ‘Oh you and Kate should meet.’ I remember that we met at New Dramatist, in their library which was very cold. We both talked to each other shivering. We decided to work together. I was excited to work with her. Intimate Apparel was a commission by Center Stage. And it was the first play that I had written after my mother died. My mother died of Lou Gehrig’s disease and I spent a lot of time caring for her. During that period, I didn’t have time to write. Also, I had a child. I was having to figure out, how do I make all of these pieces work. When my mother died, suddenly I became the main caregiver of my grandmother. My mother was just an only child. It was just my mother and my grandmother. My grandfather was there, but that’s a different story.
I was going through my grandmother’s things and literally, she would put photographs in the middle of magazines for some unknown reason. I found a photograph and it was the first time I had seen a photo of my great grandmother, my grandmother and her sister. And I was struck by the fact that my grandmother who had dementia, couldn’t answer questions about this woman in the photograph. I couldn’t ask my mother who was dead. And it really broke my heart. So I wanted to reconstruct her life. I went to the New York Public Library. I wanted to figure out who was this African American woman who came to New York at the turn of the century, by herself. Who was this seamstress? How did she survive? How did she make a living that enabled her to build a family and that led to me being on this stage today? So Intimate Apparel became an examination into my own ancestry.
You wrote this at the same time…you say that you work on a number of plays at the same time. While you were working on Intimate Apparel, you were working on Fabulation?
Yes, Fabulation is a social satire. I was imagining Esther who is the central character in Intimate Apparel. Esther is an African American seamstress who falls in love with a Romanian Jewish man and she’s corresponding with a Caribbean man. It’s this little love triangle. I was imagining who might Esther be one hundred years later, if she had gone through the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement and felt fully empowered. So Undine of Fabulation is Esther 100-years later. Also, I wanted an outlet. Intimate Apparel was a play I wrote for my mother. I imagined what play might my mother want to see? Fabulation became my escape…the place that I went, when I didn’t want to cry.
You were working on poems at the same time, also. But how do you handle the juggling act of writing two plays at the same time?
I have two screens. (laughter) Literally, when I would get stuck on one play, rather than step away from my computer and do something else, I can literally switch the screen and write something else. The plays are so different and use completely different muscles, I can enter in both worlds without feeling burdened by the other.
You have discussed that your plays are thoroughly researched. Then you transmogrify the information into drama.
I found in my writing process, that procrastination is a form of creative exploration. (laughter) When I’m not writing and beating up on myself, I just continue to investigate. When I was working on Sweat, for instance, I spent two-and-one-half years exploring. But I felt that I needed that time to explore. I needed that time to know my characters. Rather than to rush into writing, I felt I needed that time to know a completely different world and immerse myself. I did the same thing for Ruined. I spent three years of immersion with Ruined, going to and from East Africa trying to find a story that I wanted to tell. And I thought it was a very productive way to spend my time.
Ruined was a run-away success. It was extended numerous times. I remember one time I was seeing it with a school group in the audience, and I thought, “Oh, my God.” But they completely adored the story.
When you wrote Sweat, it was a fascinating project that you spent time researching, but you had a companion project with it.
It was a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that specifically invited playwrights to write plays about an “American Revolution.” The revolution that I wanted to write about was the Industrial Revolution in America. By the time I finished, I thought it would be history and it would be living history.
I went to Reading, PA, and spent a lot of time. I began forging these very deep, complicated relationships with people in the community. But I didn’t want to be a carpetbagger. I didn’t want to write this play that goes to Oregon, and travels to various theaters then comes to New York. I didn’t want to forget the play’s origins. I wanted to create something, a play that was still very connected to the people who were in Reading, PA and make use of these hundreds of hours of interviews that I didn’t use and didn’t filter into the play.
So after I did Sweat, the following year, I decided to build this massive performance installation that would be set in Reading, PA. We decided we wanted to re-animate the Reading Railroad that everyone knows from Monopoly. It had been abandoned since 1981. When it was closed down, it effectively shut Reading off from the rest of the country. Suddenly, people who used to get to Philadelphia in 55 minutes could no longer get there easily. They had to take a bus to Allentown and then go to Reading.
When I got to Reading, PA it was the poorest city of that size in America. When you walked around, you felt the sadness and the frustration and you felt all the things you experienced in a place that once had been an industrial powerhouse. It was literally withering on the vine. We thought, how do we revitalize this downtown area? The railroad station became symbolic. It was one of the few places that everyone had a connection to. At some point in time, everyone had passed through it.
We thought it was going to be difficult to get keys to the station. But the guy who had the keys said, ‘Yeah.” He tossed us the keys, and said “Here, just leave it in the same condition you found it.’ And we then went about building this installation that charted Reading from the moment the station closed down to the present. We wanted to create a space, like we said in our mission statement: “To create a space where a homeless person and the mayor could sit down together and recognize that they shared the same narrative,” and that they could sit side by side together. It’s not hyperbole to say that we achieved that. We didn’t get the present Mayor of Reading, PA. For various complicated reasons he was our antagonist. However, we did get two former Mayors who came and sat there and wept along with a lot of homeless folks. So it was successful and really gratifying to know that you could make theater outside of the proscenium that had resonance.
In 2017 Sweat was on Broadway. Then there was another stage in the Sweat saga with the Public Theater. (See This is Reading on Lynn Nottage’s website)
When we first produced Sweat at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, we raised a grand to bring Sweat back to Reading, PA with the same cast. So the day we closed Sweat at the Public Theater, the next day we got up at 7:30 am and drove down to Reading and performed Sweat for 250 people in the Reading community. When we drove down there we were terrified about how the community would react to the production. However, we were overwhelmed by the response. We had a Q and A and people testified and told their stories and didn’t want to leave. We recognized that there was a real necessity for people who were going through the same predicaments as the characters in the play…for them to have an outlet for them to talk about their own struggles.
Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater, was overwhelmed by the response. He said, “I’d like to do this on a larger scale.” The Public Theater has their Mobile Unit which moves around New York City, but never does that nationally. We spent a year to try and identify places to go. We decided to do a mobile tour of the Rust Belt. We selected five swing cities that first voted for Obama and then voted for Trump. We didn’t want to go to just places that were Red or Blue. We wanted to go to places where you would have a real dialogue and where you could bring people into a space where people would listen to each other. We did that in the fall of 2018. It was not just spaces, it was union halls, small colleges, we went to churches, we went to school gymnasiums. These were stripped down, bare bones productions. It was quite powerful. End of Part I
Historically, marriage has been an economic arrangement. It will continue to be so for the upper classes who understand the necessity of securing their financial legacy for posterity. Emotions of love and caring might be a by-product, but they have been secondary considerations for the wealthy who remain keen-eyed and empirical when it comes to their fortunes. However, the middle class prompted by myth and fairy tale, believed and still believes in love and marriage, stoked by romantic films, songs and lucrative cultural artifices that reinforce the notion that marriage is an imperative for the straight as well as the LGBTQ set. Cultural consumerism pivots on romance and everything in between to culminate in the big white event. When government involvement and the legal system enforced marriage as an entrenched cultural institution with privileges and prohibitions, for good or ill, everyone was impacted and still are.
Marriage folkways and the idea that the ubiquitous institution brings comfort and joy to the bonded couple is turned humorously on its head by August Strindberg (1849-1912) in The Dance of Death. Strindberg’s play at times may be difficult to balance in its tenors between tragedy and comedy. Conor McPherson has transformed it into the most hysterical of blackest comedies about what may be for some, the bleakest of social arrangements in his new version which currently runs at CSC in an August Strindberg repertory (Mies Julie, The Dance of Death). McPherson, an award winning playwright is noted for such superb works as Shining City, The Seafarer, and most recently, Girl From the North Country.
McPherson easily leaps into and out of the precipices and crevices of irony, sarcasm and sardonic interplay in this new version. Many of McPherson’s works produce uncanny grotesques that meld fear, surprise and humor and always engage, startle and most assuredly enthrall. What he has accomplished with Strindberg’s The Dance of Death is the best of McPherson.
In this new version the extraordinary relationship of bondage, fear, familiarity, loathing, quasi affection and sometime tolerance between Edgar (a Captain in the military) and Alice (a former stage actress) plays off Strindberg’s characterizations of the married couple. However, in McPherson’s iteration, the dialogue skips along in a rendering that is crisp and bold. The pace and clarity of the character and situation creates a dynamic that facilitates the humor and flat out comical brutality of husband Edgar (Rich Topol) as he jousts, using sword wit and hyperbole, with wife Alice (Cassie Beck) who as a formidable opponent dodges and wounds him with his every thrust.
The play takes place on an isolated island in a converted fortress that once housed condemned prisoners. The island surrounded by little other than the military regiment housing and social life related to a few high-placed neighbors. During the course of a few evenings, we discover the boundaries of this couple and what they fancy. Edgar is an unsuccessful skinflint who is barely able to perform his military duties as an older man in his 60s. As Edgar Topol reveals his incredible versatility, flexibility and vitality as he negotiates Edgar’s infirmities and attempts to dance, defying the illness that would swamp Edgar and remove all the luxuries and pleasantries of life, for example alcohol, a cigar, women. Topol’s ironic delivery is pitched for humor directed to deride and deliver underhanded insults at Alice. His performance is masterful.
Cassie Beck as Alice stomps down Edgar’s attempts with well-paced, clear, clipped delivery that is modulated for its utmost sardonic injury to Edgar’s ego. She transfers moods and graces with immediacy and vitality most producing audience laughter. Topol’s Edgar and Beck’s Alice are each other’s match and as the play progresses we note that their seething hate graduates to finer and fiercer levels as they insult, then bait and switch to more excoriating repartee. They are in earnest and desperate which makes the situation even more comical, for they are not playing for humor, they are clawing to get out of prison and wounding their jailer at every turn.
With the shepherding of the incisive and able director Victoria Clark, the actors reveal their characters and display them in full. We completely understand by the end of the play that Edgar’s and Alice’s seriously humorous, witty invective has been fined-tuned over their twenty-five years of marriage into an incredible waltz that appears more like a Fandago, a courtship dance that is anything but. The irony is that we realize these two devils have somehow worked out and in a perverse and sadistic/masochistic way configured the dance steps which no one watching except for themselves revel in and enjoy.
Ah! Edgar and Alice embody the pleasures/ horrors of being married to someone they despise, yet are too embroiled in knowing familiarity to consider either killing or leaving. This indeed, as McPherson/Strindberg shoves into our laughing faces suits the marriage vows,” ’til death do them part.” The problem is that though Edgar is old, and Alice is 15 years his junior, Edgar totters between mini seizures, black-outs, obstreperous dying-ins, visions of an old woman who may or may not symbolize death that no one sees but him, and energetic dancing which he vigorously enjoys, then collapses to, yet, Edgar doesn’t die. For her part, Alice repeatedly announces in bell-like tones her wish for him to die, her relish in having him die. And that she will be thrilled if he hurries up and does it. How monstrous! How funny! How can we laugh? Well, indeed, how can we? These two maul each other with finesse which because of McPherson’s ear for language manages to be damn hysterical.
When Edgar’s “friend”/Alice’s cousin Kurt (the most excellent, equally riveting Christopher Innvar) enters into the fray, he too becomes bloodied. It has been a hiatus of 15 years since he’s seen the devilish couple,. During that estrangement he obtained money but went through incredible personal trials which he weathered, the circumstance of which we learn as he is brought into their “fold.” The mysteries of affairs (Kurt’s wife was intimate with Edgar and Alice was intimate with Kurt) are not clearly drawn but they are delicious to consider as we note that the age of Edgar’s and Alice’s daughter coincides with the last time Alice saw Kurt.
The beauty of dynamically throwing Kurt into the mix is that his character remains fluid. On the one hand he must see his cousin Alice and Edgar since he will be working with him to set up a Quarantine station on the island. On the other hand, Alice paints him into the corner of rescuing her from her dire marriage. Yet, Kurt is friends with Edgar, though he has had an affair with Alice. The complications and contradictions abound with glorious humor as the characters trip over their own logic and irrationality, confound themselves and each other.
The situation is exacerbated when Alice tells Kurt that Edgar will be locked up for embezzlement as she has blown the whistle on him so that she will finally be able to free herself, divorce Edgar and be with Kurt. This is no spoiler alert. Importantly, the philosophical wisdom and underpinnings of Alice’s relationship with Edgar are revealed by the end. And we understand that perhaps even in the afterlife, these two will be scratching, slicing and impaling each other on their latest witty barbs for the love of the process and the fact that each has bestowed the good will on the other to dance in this way.
Strindberg/McPherson’s themes are playful, trenchant, profound, socially satiric. Of course the target both playwrights hit is loveless marriage, loving marriage. Couples tend to stay in long-lived marriages for they have found the “way” to be together. Everyone’s “way” is different. If there is no “way,” there is divorce or immediate death. The notions of death in life and the chain of death being wrapped around couples that can only be severed when one or the other dies may be a dangerous one. In how many marriages over the centuries has the one spouse dispatched the other becoming the inheritor of wealth, or lands or freedom unjustly, malevolently?
Perhaps Edgar and Alice are more comforting in their outrageous, authentic and honest antics. Nothing surreptitious there. With Edgar and Alice, after each “dance of death” where they have at each other in their death matches of soul and ego wounding, there is no victor standing. The resurrection comes when they live to the next day to experience some peace and reconciliation until the next bout of rancor and explosive verbal violence. In between they can laugh and that we can laugh at them is the recognition that the human condition is so strange and tragic as to be a cosmic joke. And if at the end of the play, the end of this truly marvelous production, we can laugh and have joy, that is miraculous.
This version by McPherson incredibly directed by Clark with the measured and brilliant performances by Topol, Beck and Innvar is a complete treasure that you must see. The Dance of Death currently runs with no intermission at CSC (136 East 13th Street) until 10th March. It should be extended for its actors’ clearly expressed intentions out of which the hysterical comedy arises, for McPherson’s crackling, gobsmacking version and appreciation of the genius of Strindberg’s work, for Clark’s concise staging and direction. You can purchase tickets at the CSC website.
Clueless, The Musical is a “blast from the past.” The opening projections flash photographs of people we associate with the 1990s (Bill Clinton, the Baldwins, etc.). A voice-over and vocals by Cher (Dove Cameron), her maid and others sing the song (Beautiful Life) from Ace of Base’s The Sign. The sweet, gorgeous teenage Cher, sums up her privilege, happiness and the fun of her “Beautiful Life,” with enthusiasm and hopefulness. Heckerling wrote and directed the beloved film Clueless, the basis for this Off-Broadway musical presented by The New Group and directed by Kristin Hanggi. Heckerling also contributed with lyrics.
The production in its world premiere is splendid! Especially if you love the film Clueless, you must see Clueless, The Musical. Truly, the music, dancing and spot-on singing by the principals adds to the exuberance, excitement and energy of the original story and characters.
The film Clueless was a smash comedy hit which still stands today because of the superb acting, tight screenplay and Heckerling’s clever, tongue-in-cheek direction. At the time of the film we enjoyed ranking on the Beverly Hills lifestyles of the rich and not so famous kids. Gritty New Yorkers riffed about their asinine assumptions, expectations and privileged boorishness. Clueless’s protagonist Cher (Alicia Silverstone was wonderful in the part), is an airhead, but her saving grace is her loving, generous nature and her ability to admit fault and reform.
Sounds familiar? The plot is an update of Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility. Heckerling performed a yeowoman’s effort in morphing times and settings and nailing with humor and irony Austin’s characters and their romances. In her adaptation, the modern events she selects to illuminate the growth of the characters are grand. The same applies for the musical.
Taking her successful film Clueless and transposing it into a musical, using 1990s music hits and adapting the lyrics to sync with the characters and situations, may seem a risky venture. Why? Many of us are up to our eyeballs in presumptuous rich folks, whose sense of privilege is nauseating. However, those who know Clueless appreciate the arc of Cher’s development, her foibles, her ridiculousness and her sparkling intelligence. As a character ripe for development and shaping, Heckerling has crafted a modern teen with whom women can identify and like, and men can find appealing.
Furthermore, Cher’s goodness is the antithesis of the privileged, ungenerous social set currently in political power in this nation, you know, those who would put children in cages at the border. Cher probably would be working with Miss Geist to do fund raisers to collect donations for the ACLU to help asylum seekers. Indeed, in seeing the safer, purer time of the 1990s, Clueless, The Musical is a relief, especially since our eyes have been opened and we are reeling from Trumpism in a divided country. This production is just what we need to ESCAPE from the present turmoil and chaos, sit back and have some much deserved fun being entertained without thinking about anything politically earth-shattering.
The production jets us back in time when the culture was carefree, the economy was hopping and Bill Clinton was the light-hearted, saxophone-playing president on The Late Show. Newt Gingrich and Monica Lewinsky are nowhere in sight. The setting is a time before Y2K, the Dot.com meltdown and horrors of 9/11. A funny joke from the 1990s? “What is Forrest Gump’s password?” Answer: 1Forrest1.
From the outset Cher assures us in song that her situation is beautiful. We understand that though she is from the upper class, she has suffered the loss of her mom. Well, to liposuction. (This gets a laugh.) Continually, Cher tries to get her Dad (Chris Hoch portrays all the adult males in her life, including her DMV Instructor, and speech teacher Mr. Hall) to eat right so she won’t lose another parent. Also, part of the family is her X-step brother Josh (David Thomas Brown). During Cher’s song, we become acquainted with the important people in her life, her schoolmates, best friend Dionne (Zurin Villanueva), her Dad and Josh. We also meet the various school cliques and learn that Cher is a member of the cool, happening crowd.
If you love the film Clueless, you will enjoy Clueless, The Musical. Essentially, the scenes and conflicts are similar with the same funny characters: the vacant Tai (Ephie Aardema), the snooty Amber (Danielle Marie Gonzalez) who we despise because she is like THOSE folks who are arrogant, privileged and presumptuous. Travis (Will Connolly), Miss Geist (Megan Sikora), Elton (Brett Thiele) Mr. Hall (Chris Hoch), Christian (Justin Mortelliti) round out the cast. A word about the ensemble. They are fantastic. Dove Cameron’s voice, movement and portrayal of Cher shines with adorableness and ingenuousness.
Cher’s friends Dionne and Tai are deftly rendered by Zurin Villanueva and Ephie Aardema, both of whom have fine voices. Tai is the new girl who Cher and Dionne take under their wing. They give her pointers like keeping away from the “grassy knoll” where the stoners like Travis (whom Tai likes), hang out.
The situations rock on. And the events follow in sequence humorously like in the film. Some of these include Cher negotiating an upswing in her grades, the party scene when Tai becomes interested in Elton, Cher’s mugging in the parking lot, the school dance when Josh watches over Cher and Christian, and the hysterical scene when Dionne mistakenly ends up on the Freeway. There is even Cher’s Driving Test.
The Driving Test is a turning point. After Cher fails she is insulted by Tai. But then she has a moment of realization. She must stop being “clueless,” must work toward the social good and turn herself around to be less narcissistic. At the bottom of her attempting to be match maker for Tai, she eventually acknowledges she yearns to make her own match. Finally, her match-making “prowess” pays off. By the time the students celebrate the wedding of Mr. Hall and Ms Geist she’s caught someone. Thankfully, happy endings do occur.
Each of these events are heightened with the music the energetic dance numbers and Heckerling’s dialogue interspersed with the songs to elucidate the action and feelings of the characters. Many 1990s music groups are featured as well as solo artists: Jill Souble (“Supermodel”), Acqua (“Valley Girls”), Deee’Lite (“Groove is in The Heart”), Natalie Imbruglia (“Torn”), En Vogue (“My Lovin'”), Spin Doctors (“Little Miss Cant’ Be Wrong”), Joan Osbourne (“One of Us”), N’SYNC (“Bye, Bye, Bye”) and more. The dialogue overlaps with the songs as some are reprised.
One noted change which clearly is an update occurs as Heckerling deepens the character of Christian. Indeed, Christian confides in Cher about being gay. He intimates it in one song and then confirms it in another song and they become friends. Justin Mortelliti does a fine job with his acting, singing and dancing in these scenes. Likewise, the songs which infer Cher’s and Josh’s growing feelings for each other engage us. The music heightens the ebullient atmosphere. The dancing, vibrant costumes and complementary scenic design cohere to make Clueless, The Musical a delight.
Mention must be made to the following musicians in the orchestra: Matthew Smedal, Charles Santoro, Marc Malsegna, David Lina-Burg, Amanda Ruzza, Adam Wolfe. And Kudos to Kelly Devine for choreography, Beowulf Boritt for scenic design, Amy Clark for costume design, Jason Lyons for lighting design, Gareth Owen for sound design, Darrel Maloney for projection design and Matthew Smedal for music direction. Music supervision, arrangement and orchestration is by Ethan Popp.
Clueless, The Musical presented by The New Group runs with one intermission at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. The production closes on 12 January 2019. You may pick up tickets at their website.
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.”
Tuesday, October 24th (doors open at 7 pm)
The Playroom Theater, 151 W 46th Street, 8th floor
Tuesday, October 24th (doors open at 7 pm)
The Playroom Theater, 151 W. 46th St. 8th floor
Tuesday, October 24th (doors open at 7 pm)
The Playroom Theater, 151 W. 46th St. 8th floor
Tuesday, October 24th (doors open at 7 pm)
The Playroom Theater, 151, W. 46th St., 8th floor
Tuesday, October 24th (doors open at 7 pm)
The Playroom Theater, 151, W. 46th St., 8th floor
1. Do women producers offer a different esthetic from their male counterparts?
2. Might more women producers mean more works by women and more women-centric stories?
3. Is commercial theater or not-for-profit theater more welcoming for women?
The evening is free for TRU members. For non members: $12.50. For members of Women in the Arts & Media Coalition $5.00.