Tag Archives: Broadway

Life Lessons from Pippin

How to separate the drama nerds from the fantasy geeks: mention Pippin. A drama nerd will start singing Corner of the Sky.

Pippin is a Tony Award-winning musical by Stephen Schwartz, who also wrote Godspell. It’s about a young prince’s search for something meaningful to do with his life. Pippin was the son of Charlemagne, but the musical is not a faithful historical narrative. Bob Fosse directed and choreographed the original 1972 Broadway production, which starred John Rubinstein (Pippin) and Ben Vereen (Leading Player). Pippin’s grandmother Berthe was played by Irene Ryan, best known as Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies. I grew up believing the story that she died onstage during a performance of her song No Time At All. Not true, but it still makes a good “what a way to go!” story.

As a teen in the late 1970s, I was a little bit obsessed with Pippin. I knew the music and lyrics from the cast album long before I saw it onstage. A friend took me to a student production at UC Irvine in 1982, with the musical re-imagined as a futuristic space opera with loads of silver lamé. Then, in 1985, I worked with John Rubinstein at the La Jolla Playhouse (described here) which got me listening to the Pippin original cast album all over again. William Katt and Ben Vereen appeared in a filmed stage version in the early 80s, which I saw on videotape many years later.

Fast forward to 2013, and Pippin is back on Broadway. I watched the Tony Awards that year, so I was aware of the production and saw the musical number performed during the ceremony. I was also vaguely aware when the touring version came to San Francisco in fall 2014, but my budget was tight and my mind was on other things. Mostly I was busy pouting because I had to stay home while friends were at a festival in Utah.

Last summer, I finally listened to the Pippin Broadway revival cast album. My first impression was that Matthew James Thomas has a pretty voice, but it’s very different from John Rubinstein’s. I went to YouTube to see if there were any Pippin videos. And here we go, down the rabbit hole again!

I’ve now watched everything I can find with Matthew James Thomas, going back to The Bill in 1999. I was sad that he deleted his twitter account before I had the chance to follow him. I purchased his UK series Britannia High on DVD, watching it once through before my region-free DVD player packed up and died (boo). Then I actually cried when I found out that the San Francisco Pippin tour brought both Matthew James Thomas AND John Rubinstein to my doorstep, and I missed them. Thomas had given his last performance on Broadway, but he came back and filled in for the touring Pippin when that actor was put on vocal rest. John Rubinstein toured with the show as Charlemagne. Even if the tickets were beyond my budget, I could have gone to the stage door to meet the cast and see Rubinstein again. Heartbreak!

The biggest lesson learned from Pippin? Pay attention to what’s happening around me. Instead of wishing to be somewhere else, make the most of what’s right here. San Francisco isn’t perfect, and it’s way too expensive, but a lot of events are free or cheap.

(click to see better version)

Happily, Matthew James Thomas is now back on twitter. He was cast in a pilot called Shelter for NBC, but it wasn’t ordered to series. I wish him the best, look forward to seeing him onscreen again, and hope he comes back to San Francisco. (John Rubinstein, too!)

If I could have one MJT wish granted, since I can’t travel back in time to 2014, it would be to hear his Fenwick solo from the musical Diner.

Matthew James Thomas (Fenwick) in Diner. Photo by Matt Urban, Mobius New Media

Photo sources:

San Francisco Pippin tour: Review: A masterful ‘Pippin’ showcases Paulus’ bold vision

http://www.delawaretheatre.org/diner (Fenwick photo)

Screen captures made from YouTube videos, particularly from the official Broadway Pippin channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/pippinmusical/videos

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Tony Awards 2011

First of all, I must point out that I’m reviewing the Tony Awards broadcast without having seen any of the plays or musicals that were nominated.   I also have a special interest in The Book of Mormon, because co-director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw was in my theatre group as a teenager.   Living in San Francisco means the broadcast I saw was the taped version.  These are my own impressions, because I haven’t yet read any of the other reviews.

If this year’s Tony Awards broadcast was trying to be a three hour long advertisement for Broadway musicals, it may have succeeded.  If it was supposed to honor the talented folks working both onstage and behind the scenes, it was a disappointing failure.  Most of the broadcast was devoted to showcasing song and dance numbers from not just the nominated new musicals and revivals, but also from Spiderman (long delayed but now supposedly opening this month), Memphis (last year’s winner), Company (don’t know why), and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (seriously don’t know why).   All the technical awards, the two Lifetime Achievement Awards, the award for humanitarian efforts, the Regional Theatre Award, and the Special Award (for the horse puppets in War Horse) were given offscreen.  Little snippets were shown from acceptance speeches when they returned from ad breaks.  This just left the acting, directing, and best play/musical/revival awards.  It was really strange that the best musical score was given offscreen, but the best musical book was given onscreen.   There was no logic to it.  I was especially disappointed that the best choreography award was presented offscreen, even though Casey Nicholaw didn’t win for The Book of Mormon.  It was also puzzling when they presented the awards for best play and best revival of a play before they presented the best actor awards.

Host Neil Patrick Harris was awesome as usual, although I do wonder about  middle America’s reaction to lyrics like “No sodomy required” in the opening number.   Later, Harris had some fun with former host Hugh Jackman, who was heavily featured in audience reaction shots.  My favorite Harris moment was when he rode out on a War Horse puppet.   His end-of-the-show rap was great, but the last half hour of the show was rushed because of too many musical numbers and superfluous “broadway moments.”

The Book of Mormon and War Horse posters

I’m not going to list all the award winners.  It’s enough to say that The Book of Mormon (best musical), War Horse (best play), The Normal Heart (best revival of a play), and Anything Goes (best revival of a musical) were the big winners of the night.   I was thrilled when Casey Nicholaw won his first Tony Award for co-directing Mormon with Trey Parker.  He was so happy, and he thanked ‘everyone he’s ever known’ so I couldn’t help feeling included.  That’s definitely a Tony first for me!   I was also pleased that Sutton Foster won for Anything Goes, because I love her.  I’ve only seen her perform at various Tony Awards, but that’s all it takes for her to win your heart.   It was strange watching John Larroquette win for How to Succeed in Business, because just an hour before the broadcast began, I was watching him on Retro TV in Black Sheep Squadron (circa 1977).

I loved seeing Robert Morse (the original 1961 Finch) and Matthew Broderick (Finch in the 1995 revival)  introduce the nominated musical revival How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.  Morse is looking great at 80!  Both these actors won Tonys for playing Finch, but Daniel Radcliffe wasn’t even nominated.  Radcliffe really is shockingly short, especially standing next to Larroquette, but compared to the rest of the cast as well.   I have to give a shout out to Ellen Harvey, who was easy to spot because she was the only female in the number they performed.  Harvey was another member of San Diego Junior Theatre. and we worked together on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

John Larroquette, Daniel Radcliffe, Ellen Harvey and the How To Succeed cast

John Larroquette, Daniel Radcliffe, Ellen Harvey and the How To Succeed cast

Whoopi Goldberg and Frances McDormand wore the strangest outfits of the evening.  Goldberg had a hat that distracted me from her introduction of Sister Act, and McDormand (best actress for Good People) wore a denim jacket over her formal length dress.  McDormand looked angry leaving the stage, and I wonder if it’s because everyone was under orders to shorten their acceptance speeches.  Mark Rylance (best actor for Jerusalem) gave the quirkiest speech, describing the best kind of walls and fences you can walk through.  (I learned later that he was quoting poet Louis Jenkins.)  He didn’t thank anyone, but by that point, it was kind of refreshing.   Brooke Shields was having a rough night; first she forgot her lyrics in the opening number, and then the first part of her presentation speech was bleeped out for language.  (Sorry, I couldn’t lip read what she said, but I’m sure I’ll read it online later.)  Bono and The Edge were surprisingly funny introducing a ballad from Spiderman, and the most awkward introduction was given by Christie Brinkley.

The In Memoriam tributes made me cry like they always do.  This year we lost Elizabeth Taylor, of course, but there were so many other great people.  I was surprised when one of the faces was so young, so I had to look her up.  Eleven year old Shannon Tavarez from The Lion King died on November 1, 2010, of acute myeloid leukemia.

Overall, I am happy for the Tony Award winners and disappointed in the broadcast.  Last year, I complained that there were too many Hollywood actors and not enough Broadway actors among the presenters, the audience, and the award winners.  I enjoy seeing performers at the Tonys that I’ve never heard of before, because it’s my one chance during the year to discover them and learn about their work.  This year, I tried my best not to categorize the actors as stage or film types, especially since I loved seeing Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory).   He’s just joined the cast of The Normal Heart.  

Update:  I understand that the Tonys were held at the Beacon Theatre this year, which has half the number of seats as the usual venue.  This meant that many folks couldn’t attend, and lots of people associated with nominated shows were seated in the upper levels.  Now it makes a little more sense why so many awards weren’t shown, since the logistics of finding the nominees in the audience with cameras and getting them onstage quickly to accept their awards must have been a real issue.  I feel sorry for all the folks who couldn’t attend, and for the friends and families of nominees watching at home who weren’t shown their loved ones being honored.  I hope that next year, things will be different.  (Didn’t I say that last year?)

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The Tony Awards 2010

Watching the 64th Annual Tony Awards last night, I felt my usual sense of longing, since I used to dream of accepting my own Tony Award.  One of these days, I need to sit down and write a brilliant play that will take Broadway by storm. In the meantime, here are my impressions of this year’s broadcast. Please note: I avoided reading any other press about the Awards before writing this, so I wouldn’t be influenced by other opinions. I’m really taking this blog thing seriously!

Overall, I found the Tony Awards too Hollywoodized. Just because the broadcast has never had the popularity or the ratings of the Academy Awards, there is an ongoing practice of padding the presenters and audience with “movie stars.” It’s so sad to see all the talented Broadway actors shoved in the back rows so more recognizable movie stars can hog all the reaction shots. Granted, this year saw an especially large number of movie actors appearing in Broadway roles. I was suspicious of the number of movie stars who ended up being nominated for Tonys and then dismayed at how many ended up winning.

I thought Sean Hayes made a good host, and I particularly liked his Billy Elliot costume. His knees in the Annie costume, on the other hand, were downright scary.

I didn’t see Scarlett Johansson in her Broadway debut, but her acceptance speech was pretty terrible. It can’t be easy going first, and she could have learned a valuable lesson from Viola Davis, whose acceptance speech was moving and inspiring. I liked how both Viola Davis and Denzel Washington weren’t afraid to mention God in their speeches.

The weirdest team of presenters was Daniel Radcliffe and Katie Holmes. How tall is that woman?? Radcliffe looked so tiny next to her. ( Imdb.com lists Radcliffe as 5’8″ and Holmes as 5’9″)  I was very surprised to learn that Radcliffe will be playing the lead in the upcoming revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The role will really be a stretch, since the character of Finch is brash, hyper-confident, charismatic and quintessentially American. Oh, and it’s a musical. I’m not saying Radcliffe can’t pull it off, and I have to admire him for taking risks.

Eddie Redmayne won the Tony for featured actor in a play, for his performance in Red, which went on to win best director and best new play. Redmayne was very sweet accepting his award and also strangely sweaty. His director Michael Grandage gave his speech directly to the award in his hand, barely glancing at the audience. Perhaps he’s shy! Anyway, I was very pleased that women were nominated in both directing categories, for best play and for best musical.

Technical difficulties marred the acceptance speech of Katie Finneran for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, when the caption across the screen named the wrong actress. Eventually they flashed the correct name.

The award for most stunning has to go to Helen Mirren. I thought she looked marvelous. Angela Lansbury was lovely too, and I’m so pleased about her new honorary position with American Theatre Wing. Jada Pinkett Smith gets my award for shiniest skin. She looked positively oiled.

Catherine Zeta-Jones performed Send in the Clowns from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, and it was distinctly odd. I’m no judge of singing, so I can’t comment on that aspect of the performance. What I found strange was all her snappy head swings during the song. The entire song was delivered sitting on a bed, and I was seriously distracted by her head twisting left and right. Her acceptance speech later, when she won Best Actress in a Musical for the performance, was also odd but kind of endearing, though I can’t help wondering if her “shock” at winning wasn’t also a performance.

The “In Memoriam” section of Awards shows always make me cry, and this time was no exception. I was particularly moved by Lena Horne and the last Ziegfeld Follies girl.

During every single commercial break, for two and a half hours, the announcer promised Glee‘s Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele were coming up next. It was such an obvious ploy to get young viewers to stay tuned in. Then when they finally appeared, it was pointless filler which belonged earlier on in the program.

I live on the west coast, so by the time I watch the Tonys, they’ve been recorded from an earlier broadcast. This would explain, I suppose, how they were able to bleep out the four-letter words in the American Idiot musical number. It was after 10:30pm by then, but I guess they have to protect those young people who make up most of American Idiot‘s target audience. Or maybe it was the old folks they were trying not to offend. Anyway, I was pleased that Memphis won for best musical, even though I haven’t even seen it yet. As the night progressed, it seemed like the obvious popular choice. Of the nominated musicals, I’ve only seen American Idiot, and it wasn’t strong enough to deserve the Tony.

So now I have a new list of plays and musicals to see, and I hold out hope that next year I will see more Broadway faces in the front rows of the Tony Awards, favorites like Sutton Foster and her brother Hunter, Christian Hoff, and Casey Nicholaw.

**************

I woke up to the sad news that Jimmy Dean passed away. As a huge fan of the Daniel Boone TV series, I was deeply affected by Fess Parker’s death only a few months ago, and now we’ve lost another cast member. Jimmy Dean became Boone’s sidekick on the TV show after Ed Ames left to pursue his singing career. In the memorable final episode of the series, Jimmy Dean adopts feisty little Jodie Foster. My condolences to Mr Dean’s family.

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The Newsweek Pandora’s Box

It’s likely that Ramin Setoodeh is the most hated gay man in the US this week.  He’s the Newsweek journalist who posted this article about gay actors.  Have you read it?  Then read Kristin Chenoweth’s letter to Newsweek in response.  Then read Setoodeh’s response to Kristin Chenoweth and to all the others on the internet who are commenting on his piece.  Now maybe your head is spinning like mine. 

Right up front I will say that I think gay actors can and do play straight characters successfully.  They always have.  Many gay actors are “in the closet” while playing straight parts on TV, in movies, and on Broadway without anyone guessing their sexual orientation.  

What Setoodeh is saying, if I’m reading him correctly, is that once an actor comes out in public as gay, he (or she) is no longer convincing  in a straight role.  If Setoodeh is saying that our perceptions are colored by this knowledge, causing us to see homosexual traits where we didn’t before, then that’s an intriguing idea.  I don’t think he’s saying that, though.   He’s laying the blame on the actors and their abilities.  Look again at what he says about Sean Hayes in Promises, Promises: “But frankly, it’s weird seeing Hayes play straight. He comes off as wooden and insincere, like he’s trying to hide something, which of course he is.”  Or this about Jonathan Groff on Glee: “But on TV, as the shifty glee captain from another school who steals Rachel’s heart, there’s something about his performance that feels off.  In half his scenes, he scowls—is that a substitute for being straight? When he smiles or giggles, he seems more like your average theater queen, a better romantic match for Kurt than Rachel.” 

So is Setoodeh saying that gay actors are better at playing straight roles as long as they don’t come out?  That their acting skills somehow decline as soon as they let the world know their sexual orientation?  Or is he saying that the only actors who bother to come out are the ones who realize that they’re not fooling anybody?   (I’m definitely not in agreement with any of this.)

Setoodeh attempts to clarify his position in his response to Chenoweth’s letter:  “…my essay’s point: if an actor of the stature of George Clooney came out of the closet today, would we still accept him as a heterosexual leading man?”  If this is the point he’s trying to make, then he hasn’t made it very well.

Part of what makes this issue a muddle is that few people agree on what  exactly ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ characteristics are.   How can you tell a lesbian from a straight woman?  How can you tell a gay man from a straight one?   What about all the people who fall in the middle of the Kinsey scale because sexual orientation isn’t always black or white, gay or straight?  One person may be thoroughly convinced by a portrayal of a straight person onstage.  That same performance may not meet another’s expectations.

As long as questions are being asked, I have to wonder if this article would have been approved and published by Newsweek if Setoodeh wasn’t gay himself.  Should it matter?  I don’t have any answers, just a lot of questions.

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Who’s the Idiot?

American Idiot, the Green Day punk musical that premiered here in the Bay Area, opened this week on Broadway.  I have been reading the reviews with interest, since I attended the closing night performance at the Berkeley Rep.  I’m afraid it was wasted on me.

Some background here is necessary.  Way back in 2001, I chanced upon the filmed-for-DVD Jesus Christ Superstar with Jerome Pradon and Glenn Carter.  I really liked the looks and voice of Tony Vincent, the young performer playing Simon Zealot.  I bought some of his self-produced CDs after checking out his website.  A few years later I was in London and had the opportunity to see Tony Vincent play the lead in the Queen musical We Will Rock You.  The show had plenty of energy and a talented cast, but when a musical is built around a random collection of songs, the plot is usually the weak link.  This show was no exception.  Vincent sounded great singing Bohemian Rhapsody and other classic Queen tunes, while his acting relied rather too heavily on the frequent wiping of his nose to broadcast his character’s awkwardness.  I missed his bleached blonde hair from Superstar, since his look for this musical was now goth black.  At the stage door, Vincent was warm and friendly with his fans, signing autographs and posing for photos. 

I have followed Vincent’s career since then, linked as a facebook friend along with thousands of others of fans.  I was really excited when I found out he’d be performing nearby in American Idiot, as drug dealing St. Jimmy.  I bought a ticket and sent Vincent a facebook message. telling him the matinee I was attending.  I said I hoped to see him at the stage door.  Okay, I was obnoxious and insisted upon it.  His answer was brief and to the point: “i don’t come out between matinees.”  I changed my ticket to the very last evening performance, thinking that the energy on closing night would be extra special.   

Closing weekend, Vincent posted on facebook that he had a terrible case of the flu.  I took myself across the bay with a sinking feeling.  At the Berkeley Rep, I asked the box office manager if Vincent was performing.  The news was bad.  His understudy had stepped in for the entire weekend.  The show was sold out and eager young fans were lined up for return tickets.  I told the box office manager that I only wanted to see the show for Vincent, and I was considering selling my ticket.  She did her job, telling me that all the performers in the show were wonderful and that I wouldn’t regret seeing it.  I was in a foul mood at that point, but I used my ticket anyway.

So, American Idiot didn’t thrill me, but I wasn’t exactly in the right frame of mind.  I expect that colored my perception.  Mostly it made me feel old.  The audience was all aflutter before the curtain went up because “Billy Joe” or “Billy Joel” was in the audience.  I couldn’t quite hear what everyone was whispering.  Okay, I know Billy Joe is the Green Day singer guy, but Billy Joel was also in town that weekend.  It was confusing.  I was in the cheaper seats, so I couldn’t see.  The thing that made me feel decrepit was that I didn’t actually care which one it was. 

As I predicted, closing night was charged with special energy.  Everybody sang and danced their hearts out.  I was surprised how much I liked the songs, having never once listened to a Green Day album.  The performers were talented and attractive.  The staging was frantic.  The story was practically non-existent, and this is where it lost me.  It was little more than a concert, and I need an engaging story to give me a reason to care about the characters. 

American Idiot moved to Broadway where it’s getting plenty of attention.  Tony Vincent recovered from the flu (with at least three rounds of antibiotics) to join the New York cast.  The reviews this week have been extremely mixed, but ticket sales seem encouraging and audiences enthusiastic.  I wish them all well.  I won’t be buying another ticket, though.

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