Category Archives: Theater News, NYC
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.
After attending the last performance of the superb Temple of the Souls at the New York Musical Festival, I had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with its director/producer/writer Lorca Peress who discussed how she and her team evolved the Broadway quality, award-winning production which was honored in its competitive acceptance at the New York Music Festival. (see my review of the production by clicking here)
I am most curious to know how this wonderful production evolved. I know that is answering so many questions with one. This would cover.
How did you, Anita and Anika work the collaboration for the book?
Anita Velez-Mitchell was born in Vieques, Puerto Rico in 1916. Anita is Anika’s and my grandmother. Anita and I began working on the opera libretto of Temple of the Souls in 2009 through my theatre company MultiStages’ Script Development Series. We presented a reading of the script (no music existed) and received a standing ovation from the audience of over 100 people. In the audience, were 25 members of one of the Taino tribes in New York City. Anita had been working with the Taino Cacique chief on cultural authenticity, and he and his tribe members jumped to their feet at the end of the reading. During the Q & A that I moderated with guests Anita and the Cacique, one of the audience members said, “We are all descendants of Guario and Amada.” They applauded and I knew then that we had something special, novel, and important.
Anita asked a composer to write music to the opera libretto of Temple of the Souls (it took him one year to write 2 arias), and he said it was too big a task for him to complete given her advanced age. In 2010 Anita suggested we contact Anika and Dean to be the composers. Anika had written music for several MultiStages productions, but Dean had never been involved in or composed for musical theatre. I flew out to meet with them in Los Angeles, and pitched/performed the script, discussing what type of song might exist here, who sings it, etc. They wrote the Temple finale first. They sent it to Anita and me by email. We listened to the song and burst into tears. We knew this was it!
We decided a musical would be better than an opera, and Anika began working with Anita on the lyrics (much done via phone as Anika and Dean live in LA). Anika eventually joined on the development of the book, and she and Dean wrote several of the songs/lyrics independently as well.
Who had the original idea for the story and how was it developed?
On Anita’s last trip home to the Island, she visited the caves and El Yunque Rain Forest. She told me she felt the cries of the Taino souls and heard their tears dripping from the stalactites. She felt their spirits surrounding her and wrote a poem called “Totem Taino,” which she then turned into an opera libretto (described above). Anita had always been fascinated by the history of the Taino people, but for me, a Puerto Rican born in NYC, I was not as aware of the culture as I wish I had been.
Once I read Anita’s story, I went on a research mission. After reading books and finding information online, I flew to Puerto Rico to meet with Anita’s friend, Dr. Ricardo Alegria in San Juan. Dr. Alegria is an anthropologist and archaeologist, Wikipedia calls him the “father of modern Puerto Rican archaeology.” I was honored to interview/question him in his home surrounded by relics, art, and the history of our people. I was also given a private tour of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture which he founded, and learned even more. My trip to the El Yunque Rain Forest was eye-opening. I saw where the Tainos had taken refuge in the mountains, and where thousands took their lives by jumping off the mountain cliffs. Back in New York, I visited the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian which also has a good Taino collection (though not as extensive as the one at the Institute in Puerto Rico) and Museo deo Barrio, which I had been to numerous times.
One of the most fascinating things I have learned about the culture is the great debate over how many Tainos existed, and how many were killed, died of disease, or took their lives. We have seen records as large as hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands killed. The Sixteenth Century census was limited because so many people hid in El Yunque and were never counted. Suffice it to say, the Spaniards decimated the majority of Tainos. Those who live as Tainos today are mostly genetically mixed. But, how one personally identifies and lives is what keeps traditions and culture alive. And today there are thousands of Puerto Rican and Dominican natives in NYC and on the islands who live their lives as Taino.
As multicultural director, it is important that we understand the responsibility of stepping into another culture and world. I feel blessed and honored to bring elements of the Taino history to life in our musical, which has received great support and praise from the Taino community in NYC. Anita and I each received a Taino Award, and were honored at a Taino Areyto at the Museo del Barrio.
Some background on development:
TWO SHOWCASES AND AWARDS – 2011-14
AEA Showcase in December 2011 at the West End Theater, NYC, produced by MultiStages, directed by Lorca Peress. Talk backs with: Taíno tribe member Jorge Estaban, lecturer and co-curatory of The Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian Institution; and Cacike Cibanakan (NY Taíno Tribal chief) and members perform a music/dance demonstration. We were honored at an Areyto (a Taíno ceremony) at the Museo del Barrio.
- MultiStages receives Manhattan Community Arts Fund Grant from LMCC/DCA.
- 4 HOLA Awards (Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors): 2012 Gilberto Zaldivar Outstanding Production Award, Outstanding Choreography and Lighting, Special Recognition for Music for the production.
- Anita Velez-Mitchell and choreographer Milteri Tucker receive the Taíno Areyto Drama Award.
AEA Showcase in September 2014 at Theatre for the New City, NYC, produced by MultiStages, directed by Lorca Peress. Talk Back and Taíno musical demonstration with Roman Guaraguaorix (Redhawk) Perez, Cacique Chief of the Maisiti Yukayeke Taíno, a tribe of the Taíno Nation in the Bronx, NY.
- MultiStages receives Manhattan Community Arts Fund Grant from LMCC/DCA.
- Six Innovative Theatre Award Nominations: Outstanding Production (MultiStages and Co.), Outstanding Original Music (Dean Landon and Anika Paris), Outstanding Original Script (Anita Velez-Mitchell, Lorca Peress, Anika Paris), Outstanding Innovative Design (masks, Marla Speer), Outstanding Costume Design (Marla Speer), Best Lead Actress (Debra Cardona).
- Lorca Peress receives a Taíno Areyto Drama Award at the NYC Bronx Museum of Art in recognition of her work in support of the Taíno culture and its legacy.
- Anita Velez-Mitchell receives the proclamation from the Governor of Puerto Rico at the memorial concert in her honor, with songs from Temple of the Souls.
2016 – DIVERSITY IN THE ARTS CONCERT
We are invited to perform selections from Temple of the Souls with narration, at the Diversity in the Arts event at Hunter, NYC.
2017 – NEXT LINK PROJECT OF NYMF 2017
We are chosen as a Next Link Project for NYMF (New York Musical Festival). Only 10 Next Link Project musicals were chosen from over 200 submissions. An interesting marketing phenomenon to note, 80% of the ticketing audience for Temple of the Souls is of Latino heritage. We are highlighted on several Taino Facebook pages, and have a broad audience of followers over the years.
When the songs were created, were they added after the book was first created? Or was it a holistic process?
The majority of song lyrics came from the book. We continued updating the script, and new songs and lyrics were added.
How many years were you working on this together? separately?
Anita died in 2015. Lorca and Anika began reworking the book in 2016. Anika and Dean joined the project in 2010, Lorca and Anita began collaborating in 2009, Anita completed the first draft of the libretto in 2007.
Had you always planned to bring it to NYMF?
After the two showcases I produced and directed in 2011 and 2014 through MultiStages, we wanted another opportunity to present the piece and introduce it to theatre producers. I applied to NYMF and we were accepted as a Next Link Project (only 10 were chosen as Next Link Projects from over 200 submissions, which included a dramaturg and a $5000 grant toward the NYMF production).
What was the casting process like?
We attended a NYMF open casting in May, and cast one ensemble actor. We hired Michael Cassara, who had cast the 2014 production. We kept the two leads Noellia Hernandez as Amada and Andres Quintero as Guario, and two ensemble members, Theresa Burns and Miguel A. Sierra from the 2014 production. Lorraine Velez (Nana) was introduced to me through a mutual colleague and we were thrilled when she accepted the role of Nana. We opened the auditions for the remaining roles, and built a terrific cast.
Did you have to cut songs or other scenes to bring it in under the NYMF time limit?
We cut some songs, added in a few, created a stronger underscore and incidental music, and made it one act. We had the orchestrations that Dean created transformed into musical parts for a four-piece live orchestra.
Did Dean Landon and Anika Paris come onto the project early on? How are you familiar with their work? (I thought the music was smashing).
Discussed above. They are brilliant platinum and gold song writers and we are thrilled with their music.
What is the most rewarding part of the process? The final product or the journey?
For me personally the greatest reward has been to collaborate with my family. We have all had professional careers independent of each other, so collaborating on this piece has been so personal to us. Losing Anita has been very difficult. We love her dearly, but feel she is with us as we continue sharing her story and making music and art to share with all. At the sitz probe session (first opportunity for the cast to sing with the band), I pulled up Anita’s photo on my I-pad, and had her on the table during the session. In the play, we talk about souls and ancestors, and thoroughly believe she is still a part of this musical and our world.
Where do you plan to go from here?
We are setting up meetings with producers and experts who have gone through the process of moving a musical forward to brainstorm and find the next best direction for the show. There are many possibilities for this musical and we look forward to continuing its development. We are interested in international tours and want to translate the musical into Spanish.
How did you fund the production?
We raised funds through private donations from over 100 generous people and received grant support. We held a fundraising event in May where cast members sang a medley of songs, and we presented an example of the dancing Enrique was choreographing. The guests wrote checks and gave us their blessing. This NYMF production has been the most expensive I have undertaken as a producer to date. There is much more to raise going forward and we’re building a team.
To learn more about Lorca Peress, click HERE.
Whatever Soulpepper Theatre Company seems to adapt by way of masterpieces, their productions are like spun gold. They lift the soul with transcendent performances and remind us of what is beyond the material world, sounding the clarion call that there is “more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of” in any philosophy. Such is true of their shimmering production Of Human Bondage (see my review on this site and on Blogcritics) as it is true of Artistic Director Albert Schultz’s adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, with Mike Ross as adaptor, composer, arranger and music director. Soulpepper’s award-winning Spoon River is currently running at Pershing Square Signature Center until 29 of July.
Spoon River begins with the remembrance of Bertie Hume who has recently died. Before the audience is seated, they are taken on a journey back in historic time to the town of Spoon River. The audience moves, from the light of the hallway of the Signature Center into a growing darkness where they are invited into the place where Bertie lies waked. Unbeknownst to the audience they are beginning their symbolic transformation from mere audience members to mourners. In a corner of the parlor where Bertie is laid out in an open casket with flowers, a shadowy family member welcomes them and thanks them for attending. This is immersive theater and we are in a state of wonder and anticipation knowing that what comes next will be surreal and illuminating.
Proceeding down the hallway filled with sepia-toned pictures of members of the Spoon River community who have passed and whom we will meet later in the production, the audience gradually takes on the role of “living” passersby who come to pay their respects to the dead and learn a lesson or two about life in death and death in life. They are led through the graveyard on the hill where Bertie Hume is to be laid to rest joining those from Spoon River who have gone before her. The tombstones’ lettering, brightly luminescent from the full moon, is carved with the names of those who will later “have their say” about their narrow identities in the material plane, from the perspective of their expansive existence beyond the grave.
This is a momentous night; the harvest moon shines brightly; something unique will happen that audience members will partake of. The veil (represented by a thin grey-black scrim behind which the Soulpepper cast stands until their cue to step out) that separates the quick from the dead, the realms of spirit from the material world, rises. The spirits materialize. Those who have gone on (the Soulpepper cast portraying the Spoon River deceased) watch with interest the audience, the pall bearers who bring out Bertie’s casket and place it on the ground, and Mr. Pollard who briefly speaks his piece about sweet Bertie being taken by death in the bloom of her life. Bertie, like his Edmund, also deceased, “fed on life.”
Mr. Pollard is unaware of the spiritual plane filled with once living Spoon River citizens who, behind him, stare out at us in silent wakefulness. As we gaze in wonder, we realize that we are privileged to see into the things beyond the apprehension of our five senses on this special night. As happens to most individuals who live as material beings, we receive momentary glimpses into transcendent realms (a theme of this production) in the hope of learning and evolving. The audience and Mr. Pollard are given a glimpse. For the audience/passersby, this fabulous revelation lasts for 90 minutes with no intermission.
Mr. Pollard mentions that, if it is true and sometimes one can hear beyond the veil a choir singing and carrying on, Bertie will be joining them, for her voice was so lovely, the “angels were jealous.” For now she is on the hill “sleepin.” From beyond the veil the Spoon River spiritual choir loudly whisper “sleepin” which stops Pollard “dead” in his tracks at the vibration from the other world. What was that he heard? Was that a momentary aural flicker from the other side, an utterance from those in another plane of consciousness that he cannot see? It is then we begin to consider the theme of sleeping and wakefulness and their interchangeability as metaphors of life and death, and as it turns out much more as the play progresses.
Like Pollard, the audience (after the ninety minutes that we are transported by the Soulpepper company spirits), must contend with the material plane which distracts us by its toil, strife, physical pain and emotional heartache, all of which bring us “down to earth,” (another vital theme). Such earthiness is revealed by the Spoon River deceased as they refer to their secret lives and passions they experienced in Spoon River, and they tell us their personal stories that are heart-breaking, abrupt, shocking, funny, thrilling and mesmerizing. They relate their stories and lives as a clarion call and encouragement for us to feed on life while we can.
It is in that extraordinary moment when the Soulpepper cast whispers “sleepin” that the themes of awareness/unawareness, life in death in life processes, sleep referring to soul oblivion, wakefulness referring to soul awareness/life soar. It is then our eyes are opened to what this play will be about. To the cast, “sleepin” is a description of the consciousness of those who are “living” on the material plane because they are blind to the furor of life’s beauty and opportunities. It is also an unction for us to question our own sleeping consciousness. Edgar Lee Masters and this adaptation by director Albert Schultz enlighten us to the concept that we must awaken our soul/consciousness to a greater appreciation of who we are and who others are in this “thing” we call life but only see “through a glass darkly.”
Kudos to Albert Schultz the director and adaptor, Mike Ross and the phenomenal cast, all of whom make this beginning of Spoon River one of the most memorable and transformative theatrical moments I have experienced in live theater. Indeed, from start to glorious finish, this production is truly what the best of live theater is about.
As we settle in with the spirit-community of Spoon River’s deceased citizens, we recognize that they are mentoring us through important themes of life, death, human existence and other worldliness by relating their personal stories which are Edgar Lee Masters’ poems about the people who lived in the small Illinois community. What were these individuals really like? Does anyone know anyone else on the material plane of existence which sometimes can blind us into a sham of duplicity and false fronting? Does anyone know others’ true happinesses, torments, secrets, regrets, lies, crimes? Do people know themselves? The lawyer, the mayor, the housewives, the farmers, the rich, the destitute, the teenagers, the lovers, the lost, each of Master’s townspeople tell us and in each tale there is a lesson for us to learn.
Indeed, to be self-blind is perhaps the worst form of blindness and we are made to understand that even in death when various folks in the Spoon River community step forward and share who they were, they are not necessarily forthcoming and it must be their deceased friends and neighbors and spouses who let us in on their multiple realities. We are privy to the fulcrum of secrets that composed the core of many of these individuals’ lives; many of the silent mysteries they kept in life are filled with irony, pathos and humor.
The Spoon River souls (each Soulpepper cast member is prodigiously, musically multi-talented) relate stories in a celebration of music (gospel, blues, country, pop and more) songs and accompaniment (banjos, ukeleles, piano, mandolin, cello, violins, guitars, brass, casket drumming, harmonica, and more). The songs are in various measures soulful, vibrant, achingly beautiful, frightening, uplifting and stirring; the dances are variously joyful, foot stomping and rousing. The lighting, staging, costuming and props which backdrop each of the songs/stories are economic, beautiful, appropriate, innovative and inspirational; they enhance the overall atmospheric effect to create riveting and dramatic storytelling.
We watch and participate in the soul enlivening commemoration as the departed tell us about themselves in all their glorious, glowing and dastardly humanity. By the end of the production we understand why they are partying in the other realm. They have been whiling away the time, as they wait for the new member of their otherworldly community to awaken from her sleep of life’s oblivion to a new consciousness in “death.” When Bertie Hume finally arises from her “sleep state” and is renewed, the song she sings is a breathtaking and heart-rending appreciation of the beauty of her life that is now gone. She, too, didn’t love her life to the fullest. She too, was “sleepin” when she should have been soul-awake and “livin.”
If Bertie Hume realizes she didn’t love life as she could have, and she was one to feed on life, then what chance have we to live life to the fullest? What chance may we have to overturn the corporeal for incorporeal values, to fill our lives and awaken our souls with joy, peace and the fruitfulness of having a life well lived with no regrets?
This question is answered by Edgar Lee Masters’ injunction “It takes life to love life,” spoken by the exuberant Fiddler Jones who has joined his fellow spirits with little in the way of material objects, but is happy with 1000 memories and no regrets. And it is answered by the audience members at the joyous, life-affirming conclusion of Spoon River as the Soulpepper company with vibrant song, dance and accompaniment sing out “Is your soul alive? Then let it feed.”
This incredible production holds many beautiful truths. They begin and end in artistic genius; with the unified elements of brilliant music composition and arrangements by Ross, the sterling voices of the talented, superb Soulpepper actors, the musicianship of cast members, the enlightened adaptation by Schultz of Edgar Lee Masters’ concepts and work. The genius flows over, in, around and through Ken MacKenzie (Set & Lighting Designer), Erika Connor (Costume Designer), Andrea Castillo-Smith (Sound Coordinator), and all who worked on Spoon River. In this illuminating and uplifting production that all of us can relate to, Schultz, Ross and the Soulpepper company present a banquet. We feed heartily on their enthusiasm and loving generosity. We may even enjoy in our memories and consciousness, a raft of leftovers for future banquets upon which our alive souls may feed.
If your soul is alive and especially if you need renewal and want to feed off the sheer joy of Spoon River, run to see this production before it closes on 29 July. You will be glad you did. Tickets may be purchased at the Box Office at the Pershing Square Signature Center (42nd Street). To purchase from their website, CLICK HERE.
Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie, devised by David M. Lutken with Nick Corley, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein is an entertaining and poignant evening of music and story-telling. The production directed by Nick Corley with music direction by David M. Lutken, orchestrations and vocal arrangements by David M. Lutken, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein, presents the life and work of the monumental musician and singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, whose work resonates for all Americans especially so when citizens feel they are powerless in the face of injustice.
With his ballads, political, traditional folk and country-blues songs and stories, Woody Guthrie chronicled the lives of Americans in the first half of the 20th century. He traveled across the country living with the little people with whom he identified and became a call sign. He recognized that the “salt of the earth” were the backbone of the nation squeezed by the banking industry and Wall Street. He sang of their economic tribulations and deprivation, their struggles through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era which led to the California migration and the abuses of migrant farm workers by farm conglomerates such as they were at that juncture in our history.
Above all, he uplifted and encouraged that, “This land is your land, this land is my land…” With these words many were able to gather their forces, unionize and create movements to strengthen and consolidate their efforts in the struggle for economic equity.
Guthrie was the “Dust Bowl Troubadour” and advocate, whose songs excoriated the wealthy and their puppet politicians of both parties as the root of the farmers and little peoples’ hardships and evils. Though he flirted with communism and socialism and even wrote the column “Woody Sez” for the Communist paper People’s World (which appropriately is the title of this production) his music was his primary vehicle to uplift and exhort. He never joined any party and preferred to roam freely, always an observer and chronicler more than a participant who supported any one political cause. His cause was that of all of humanity. This production of Woody Sez highlights the finest and most endearing turning points in his life, always revealing the complexity of his nature in its most humorous, glorious and flawed states.
Act I starts with the Company’s singing “This Train is Bound for Glory.” It is an appropriate memorial of the journey of Guthrie’s glory that the actors/singers/musicians (stirring performances by Megan Loomis, David M. Lutken, Helen Jean Russell, Andy Teirstein) lead us through to understand the beauty and humanity of Guthrie. In a relaxed, down-to-earth performance style, Lutken assumes the persona of Guthrie first by introducing himself as one who venerates Guthrie. He becomes Woody through episodic narration as he relates the key points of Guthrie’s life and the songs that reveal major themes and issues Guthrie experiences.
The production structure is essentially a flashback of his life. It is framed by Guthrie’s time in New York City in 1940 with Guthrie’s stint on a radio show at Rockefeller Center which a friend helped secure for him. The first scene includes the ensemble. They portray various roles throughout the production: Megan Loomis, Andy Teirstein, Helen Jean Russell. Guthrie (Lutken) sings one of his political songs on the radio which ridicules the wealthy. We are introduced to Guthrie’s freedom-loving personality. He is incapable of compromising his values, his dreams, his autonomy to tow the conservative line and accept censorship of his politics and criticism of Wall Street bankers and old J.D., the scion of Rockefeller Center. When Guthrie is fired, we are transported to the past to envision how Guthrie became that revolutionary individual.
Guthrie/Lutken discusses that he was born in Okemah, Oklahoma. We are introduced to his mother and siblings in song, the ensemble filling in the roles. We learn of the family’s troubles and the tragedies they faced with his mother’s evolving illness. The narration is simple yet heart-breaking and is also chilling. The ensemble and Lutken backdrop the prose with the dynamic of themed songs that are powerful and touching.
Guthrie’s journey continues through their impoverishment and his resilience attempting to “sing for money” during the boom town years when oil was discovered in Okemah. But their family situation worsens with death and more tragedy and eventually Guthrie strikes out on his own as a teenager discovering who he is and what he is made of. He travels to Texas to see his relatives and Dad. He sings in a makeshift band with his uncle and makes some money and even gets married.
But the April Dust Storm of 1935 overwhelms, and all is lost in a country that has been consumed by dust and sand. Everyone’s bank accounts are fallow as the bankers come for the land to pay off the farmers’ debts. Once again Guthrie travels, hopping a freight to California where he sees thousands of Americans traveling across the country. Their hopes and dreams of survival must be found at the precipice of the country’s Pacific Ocean border in California, the new Eden. After that, there is nowhere else to go.
By the end of Act I, Guthrie’s young eyes have been opened, and his political discernment solidified. Life and success are about money which the working man can never obtain without credit and which gamblers seem to be luxuriating in despite their craven, wanton existence of selfishness. It is an ever-recurring theme throughout the production, threaded through various songs.
In Act II Guthrie has gained notoriety as a voice of the people. By this point he has accepted his identity that this is where he belongs as their advocate and more importantly, a mirror to validate their experiences as human beings who must never lose their power in hope. This time of American farmer migrants is represented in such songs as “I Ain’t Got No Home” “The Ballad of Tom Joad” (sung throughout the production), “Vigilante Man,” and “Union Maid” the last two based on true stories which reveal the oppression of the working class against the businessmen owners and the violent abuse they sustain when they attempt to assert their rights as human beings to obtain a living wage through organizing unions.
It is in this act that Guthrie’s legacy takes flight. He sings with Pete Seeger’s group The Almanacs and uses his voice and guitar to fight Hitler during WWII with a sign on his guitar, “This machine fights fascists.” The emphasis is on fighting fascism at home and abroad to support peace with songs which ring loudly and clearly against American and foreign war lords who would sacrifice their countrymen to make money. He records various songs and though he copywrites his music, he encourages others to sing his songs, even without paying him. This has led to controversial copywrite wars up to the last decade and represents a rapacity that Guthrie would abhor. As the production winds down to the conclusion, we discover how Guthrie’s music and recordings triumph despite his being rendered silent by the same illness that engulfed his mother. The production reminds us of this iconic man and helps us appreciate the wealth of historic moments captured for all time by his songs.
With a minimalistic set and adaptive, flexible staging, the ensemble brings together their sterling musical skills on every string instrument that rings out Guthrie’s country, folk, blues from violin to banjo, from guitar to harmonica and more. The performers’ voices soar with the haunting melodies and joyful rhythms of 20th century Americana that have been taken up by everyone from Bob Dylan to Billy Bragg.
The production reveals why tributes are continually held to honor Woody Guthrie’s music and life. His work is imminently universal and timeless. He is a beacon for future generations as long as economic injustice blankets any area of the planet. Indeed, as this production of Woody Sez thematically indicates, “the chickens have surely come home to roost.” A researcher in 2016 discovered in the archives of the Woody Guthrie Center in Oklahoma that Guthrie criticized Fred Trump, father of President Donald Trump, revealing his disgust with the father as a landlord. In song lyrics, Guthrie accuses Fred Trump of stirring up racial hate “in the bloodpot of human hearts.”
Guthrie’s words will continue to reverberate in our hearts and minds. The injunctions in his songs are a welcome anodyne to get us through the next day or over a rough patch to eventually take the stand necessary in our own lives and for our culture and nation.
This fine production of Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie (one intermission) runs at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd) until 23 July. You may purchase tickets HERE.