Friday, June 20, 2014

Friday Dance Party: A Tapestry Of Rich And Royal Hue

Last week's Dance Party was inspired by the rather sad Tony losses of Tyne Daly and her Broadway show.  This week, then, it's only fair to celebrate one of the winners.
Jessie Mueller won the Tony last week, playing Carole King in Beautiful, which has supplanted Jersey Boys as Broadway's top jukebox musical. After a tryout in San Francisco, the show opened in New York in January; the reviews were fairly mixed, but Mueller's notices were glowing. Word of mouth was good, and the show eventually entered the Million Dollar Club (those shows which routinely gross over a million bucks a week).  Mueller's win as Best Actress in a Musical was assured when it was decided that Audra McDonald's performance was in a play, rather than a musical. 
I saw Jessie Mueller in her Broadway debut, less than three years ago, and since then, she has proven herself a substantial talent. 
Jessie won the Jeff Award (Chicago's
Tony) for She Loves Me, in a category in
which she was competing against her own
performance as Adelaide in Guys and Dolls.

She was already one of the leading ladies of the Chicago theatre scene (though success in the regions does not automatically mean equal success in New York) when she was pegged to play a supporting role in the revamped On A Clear Day You Can See Forever.
I saw Mueller's Broadway debut right before it closed. This revival of On A Clear Day... changed kooky protagonist Daisy into kooky gay boy David, who was the reincarnation of a female big band singer. Harry Connick, Jr. fell in love with her, but not him. The show was a major disappointment, but our Jessie emerged smelling like a rose, and earned a Tony nod to boot. I wrote about seeing this show here.
I also saw this performance, with Mueller unrecognizable as
the mysterious lady from Ceylon. The gent playing her twin
brother is Andy Karl, currently flexing his muscles as
Broadway's Rocky. I wrote about seeing this revival of The
Mystery of Edwin Drood here.
Our heroine's next Broadway gig was another revival, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  Following that limited engagement, she replaced Kelli O'Hara in Nice Work If You Can Get It.  In less than a year, she had three starring roles on Broadway.  This gal has been going places. 
Doesn't Matthew Broderick always look tired these days? But Jessie had another success, finishing out the run of Nice Work If You Can Get It. It was an ironic move for her, as one of her costars, Judy Kaye, had won the very Tony Award for which Mueller had been nominated earlier in the season for On A Clear Day. In another karmic twist, Jessie was replacing original leading lady Kelli O'Hara. A year later, the two of them would be competing for the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical.  O'Hara's show, The Bridges of Madison County, had already closed when Mueller won the award for Beautiful.
Last summer, NY's Shakespeare in the Park produced a dressed-down revival of Into The Woods, based on a recent British rethink. Here's Mueller as a decidedly dowdy Cinderella. The show did not make an anticipated move to Broadway, freeing our gal to feel the earth move under her feet as Carole King.
Jessie Mueller's current performance as Carole King has elevated her to the top tier of Broadway Leading Ladies, only a few years after arriving in New York. I have not seen Beautiful, but it would appear to have a long life, as long as Mueller stays with it. The show got even more publicity this week, when King's former husband and writing partner Gerry Goffin died.  Most of the songs in the score of Beautiful are written by the duo, including this week's Dance Party.
The buzz surrounding Beautiful: the Carole King Musical was strengthened by King herself, who rather coquettishly refused to see this musical depiction of her early life and career.  She even made the rounds of the talk shows, singing WITH the actress portraying her, but still claimed seeing the show would bring up too many sorrowful memories. She finally attended a performance in April, and surprised the cast onstage during the curtain call.  The crowd, and the cast, went wild. They launched into an impromptu rendition of "You've Got A Friend", which isn't even in the musical. It was a publicist's wet dream come true, as all the major news outlets covered the story. Box office receipts rose, and the show earned 7 Tony nominations.
This week's Dance Party comes from a performance given for the Today Show audience, and includes Mueller as King as well as actresses portraying the Shirelles. 
With the release of Tapestry,
King was no longer considered a songwriter in the back-
ground, she was now in the spotlight. The album spent 15
weeks at #1, and remained on Billboard's 200 chart for 40
years. The influence this album had on pop culture cannot be
overstated. Like other seminal records like Abbey Road,
Purple Rain, and Thriller, Tapestry will endure.

I have a lot of respect for Carole King, whose music became part of my life when her album Tapestry was released in 1971.  On it, she sang so many of the songs she had written for others;  the album was a smash and a defining moment of her career.  Apparently, Beautiful reveals the difficult time she had as an artist in the 50s and 60s, even as she was penning hit songs for the leading singers of the day.  I hope I can see the show before Mueller inevitably moves on, particularly since I have a personal connection to one of the performers.
Several years ago, I played Jacob (the father) in a DC production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The gent who played Joseph is the guy on the right, above, currently in the cast of Beautiful, playing one of the Drifters. I love the fact that Alan and his cohorts are joining the protest against the recent decision to dispense with the Tony for Sound Designers. It's no coincidence that the most recent Sound Design Award (and perhaps the final such award) was won by the sound designer of Beautiful.
So, at long last, please enjoy this week's Dance Party:

Friday, June 13, 2014

Friday Dance Party: Andre's Mother and Sons

An aggressive promo campaign had
our star all over town, assuring us
that it was not an Aids play nor a gay
play, and the word "sequel" was
never uttered. Mothers and Sons is
actually all three.
The Tony Awards have claimed their first victim.  There are always some shows which are struggling at the box office but try to endure their weekly losses until Tony Time, when perhaps a big win will turn the tide and put the production into the black.  I saw Mothers and Sons during its preview period, several months ago, in a sparsely attended house.  The audience numbers never really improved, and the show has been grossing dismally for many weeks.  It received only two Tony nods, but they were biggies (Best Play and Best Actress in a Play), so I guess it's possible a win might have improved things.  The show lost both awards and announced they will be closing next week.
Mothers and Sons is Terrence McNally's 20th Broadway show, an achievement not many authors can reach, and it deserved a little better than it got.  I say "a little" because, while I was thoroughly entranced throughout its 90 minute length, it is not one of McNally's best works.
We never see the titular Andre; in each
scene, he's either just left the room
 or already dead.
In Mothers and Sons, the author revisits two characters he created way back in 1988, for a little 10-minute playlet included in an evening of Aids plays.  In 1990, he expanded that short piece into a 50 minute teleplay which was broadcast on PBS.  This was my first introduction to Andre's Mother.  The TV film starred two of my favorite actors at the time, Richard Thomas and Sada Thompson (I can prove my admiration for Sada, go here for my tribute written when she died). McNally won the Emmy for writing the script.
Richard Thomas played Andre's lover Cal, and Sada Thompson played Andre's mother, Catherine. Terrence McNally has written a sequel, of sorts, to this play in Mothers and Sons, in which Catherine suddenly appears in the New York apartment of her dead son's former lover. Fireworks ensue.
Mothers and Sons, as I mentioned, revisited the characters portrayed by Thompson and Thomas, 20 years later. 
Catherine and her dead son's former flame, Cal, have lived
20 years without communication. Andre's mother suddenly
appears at the NY apt. Cal now shares with his husband
and child.  He has moved on from Andre's death, she has

(Actually, McNally has played a little bit with the time frame of these events to enhance the dramatic scope of Mothers and Sons.  He's made other changes as well:  in Andre's Mother, Cal is a writer, but 20 years later, in Mothers and Sons, he's a financial wiz married to a writer.  McNally is famous for tinkering with his plays even after they're finished.) 
The original Cal, Richard Thomas, came to
support the new Andre's mother.

He's attempting, I think, to examine how the lives of gays have changed in the past two decades, and nobody is better qualified to discuss that issue than McNally.  But his play comes off as a debate more than a dramatically satisfying piece, with no action happening onstage, as all the really dramatic moments in the play have happened 20 years ago. 

Tyne Daly as Catherine Gerard.
Sada Thompson as Catherine Gerard,
aka Andre's mother. The resemblance
to Daly is an unusual coincidence.
Still, Tyne Daly gives a very fulfilling performance as Catherine, so it's fitting that she star in this week's Dance Party.  I'm sure it will make up for her Broadway show closing next week.
Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly as Cagney and Lacey had a lock on the Best Actress Emmy.  The show ran 7 seasons, and in 6 of those years, the award was won by one or the other.  Daly won 4 times, Gless won twice.
I've changed my opinion of Daly's work over the years, as I've aged (and as she has).  I first became aware of her, as so many of us did, in Cagney and Lacey.  She was awarded the Emmy a whopping four times for that performance, which I have to confess I found to be a bit hammy. 
For 6 consecutive years, Sharon Gless
and Tyne Daly were nominated side
by side. Gless lost several years in a
row. She finally won in 1986 and
charmed the crowd when she
proclaimed "Tyne Daly is the most
relieved person in this room."

I was much more interested in the performance her costar Sharon Gless was giving, which seemed, to me, to be much more organic and natural.  I always felt I could see Daly make each and every acting decision, while I never saw Gless "acting."  Obviously I was in the minority, since Daly was honored so often for this role; Tyne's four Emmy wins as Lacey, and Sharon's two victories as Cagney, meant the duo dominated their category for half a dozen years.
Daly surprised everybody with her
unflinching portrayal of Mama Rose.

I've seen Tyne Daly onstage several times, and those performances have changed my mind about her work.  I am now a big fan and love her interesting choices.  I saw her performance in Gypsy and can attest that, though she did not sing as well as Ethel Merman or Angela Lansbury, her predecessors in the role, she nailed it.  She won the Tony in 1989.

Only a year or so after I saw Daly scorch the stage with "Mama's Turn," she appeared with the Long Beach Civic Light Opera, in a retooled version of the Michael Bennett flop Ballroom.  She played the role Dorothy Loudon owned in the short-lived Broadway production (I wrote about seeing that musical here);  in this new incarnation, the authors attempted to return to the source material, the TV film Queen of the Stardust Ballroom.  This revision did not take off as folks wished, and did not make a hoped-for transfer to better venues.  But once again, Tyne nailed the role.

Daly was almost unrecognizable as Maria Callas, she gave a
bravura performance. Master Class indeed.
Just a few years ago, Daly appeared in the Broadway revival of Master Class, earning another Tony nod for her portrayal of Maria Callas.  I saw the production and it compared favorably to the original Broadway production, which I saw years ago
This is my friend Clinton Brandhagen as the Stagehand, opposite Tyne Daly in Master Class. He played the role in DC and went with the show to New York. Daly did the show again in London. She won over the critics in all three cities who thought she was the most unlikely Maria Callas since Dixie Carter. During her time in Master Class, she developed a special bond with the playwright Terrence McNally, who offered to create a play specifically for her.  Mothers and Sons was the result. 
I suppose Tyne didn't stand much chance of winning this year's Tony, once it was decided that Audra McDonald's portrayal of Billie Holliday was in a play rather than a musical (despite the fact she sings over a dozen songs in her show).  I'm afraid McNally didn't have much hope of winning the award for his play either, not when the competition included Bryan Cranston's Broadway debut. 
Mothers and Sons will take its final bow next week, and though I've been a little harsh about it in these pages, I am sorry it was not a success. While being fairly inert, dramatically, it serves as a very good chronicle of how substantially gay life has changed in a single generation. In 1990's Andre's Mother, gay men deserted their homes and families for cities like New York, where they could live lives anonymous from their parents. Aids decimated the community while homosexuality was still viewed by most people as a degenerate disease. In 2014, gay couples live openly and freely, with legal marriages and families with children. Still, the plague-filled past haunts the survivors. Perhaps that will be the lasting influence of Mothers and Sons.
McNally is already moving on, rewriting one of his earliest plays for an allstar cast which will include Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Megan Mullally, and Stockard Channing. 
Before his 4 Tonys,
McNally wrote this Off-
Broadway script. He is
updating it for a fall opening.

If Ms. Daly is depressed a bit about her show closing, I'm sure this week's Dance Party will make it all better.  It comes from one of those Boston Pops concerts which used to appear weekly on PBS, and our Tyne stars in it.  It's not the only time I have run across her singing a song written for a man, you haven't lived until you've heard her Tevye. (I'm not kidding, there is a recording of that oddity out there.) For today, though, here's our heroine as Prof. Harold Hill.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Friday Dance Party: Mackie's Back In Town

While visiting my DC Branch the other week, I caught up on a few of the items on the local boards, one of which was this chestnut:

Not your typical tuner, and admittedly one of my least favorite musicals of all time (if you can call this atonal bit of agitprop a musical), but I had several friends in the cast, and you know by now that my friends always give terrific performances in their shows, so I went.
These are the Peachums, whose family business runs the beggar trade in London.  The daughter, Polly, secretly marries Mack the Knife, which causes most of the conflict in 3Penny. I am usually bored out of my mind by these three, but in Signature's production, DC musical theatre heavyweights attacked the roles with verve and style.  Donna Migliaccio, Bobby Smith, and Erin Driscoll defied history and made the Peachums interesting to me.  I couldn't wait to see one or all of them return to the stage.
I believe I started to dislike this work back in my undergraduate days, when I saw my first Threepenny Opera (and frankly, swore never to see another one.  Obviously, I broke that pledge.). 
I never understood everyone's
attraction to Macheath, the central
character in 3Penny. All the women
wanted him, all the men wanted to
be him, even the cops were his
friends. He's a common thug. But
in Sig's production, Mitchell Jarvis
finally showed me Mackie's secret:
charm. This was the first Mack I've
seen who was charming. Now I get
I had just entered Cal State Northridge as a theatre major, and this was the very first show I saw on the department's Main Stage. 
I had one friend in the chorus of whores in the CSUN production, though I was to become good buddies with more of them as my time in college went on.  But this rendition of 3Penny was a crushing bore, and I walked out humming the costumes, not only because they were the best things about this production, but because you can't really hum any of the songs in the score anyway. Other than "Mack the Knife," there are no songs with melody in Three Penny Opera.
I was to encounter another Brecht Wreck years later, in graduate school, and this time, it was personal, as I appeared in it.  Perhaps it's lucky that I don't have any pictures of our production of Mother Courage, in which I was forced to play the role of the Chaplain (as an actor in the MFA program, the department was free to cast me as they liked, and no amount of negotiation could get me out of this show.  I have hopes of writing all about this experience one day; it was a lousy production but a good story). 

This is not my production of Mother Courage (oh, that it were!). Meryl Streep played the role for The Public Theatre several years ago in Central Park, they even made a documentary about it. On the left is actor/director/teacher/playwright Austin Pendleton, who played my role, the Chaplain. In my experience, any character in a play who does not have an actual name is going to give the actor trouble.  I bet Pendleton would agree. Mother Courage continues to be revived, whenever an actress of note (and clout) wants to pretend it's King Lear. Diana Rigg and Kathleen Turner are other modern day offenders.

The Chaplain is (arguably) the male lead in Mother Courage, and my solo number in USC's production was so atonally obnoxious that even my fellow cast members felt sorry for me.  I performed in 11 shows during my two years on campus at the University of South Carolina, and Mother Courage wins the award as my least favorite.  The fact that our production ended up on the Best of the Year list of one of the local newspaper critics still astounds me.
In Signature's production of 3Penny, my friend Rick Hammerly played Lucy in drag. He fulfilled every requirement of the role, and got most of the laughs in this grim show. It was not Rick's first time in drag, nor was it even the first time Lucy was played by a man, but I wonder what is actually gained by having this role played by the wrong gender. What new insight on this role do we get when it's played by a crossdressing man, particularly when the character is pretending to be pregnant?
But what the heck do I know?  The Three Penny Opera is probably revived more often than any other Brecht, though I think regular theatergoers attend it because they think it's good for them.  Nobody gets any artistic nutrition out of Anything Goes, so to atone for enjoying such fluff, we must, every once in a while, see some Brecht.  Like eating broccoli or watching ballet, we do it because it's good for us.
Here's Bea Arthur in the longest running production of 3Penny in America. This Off-Broadway offering ran a whopping 2700 performances, and during its run, such future stars as Charlotte Rea, Ed Asner, Jerry Orbach, and Jerry Stiller cycled through the show. It was this production which insured 3Penny an honored place in musical theatre history. And apparently, it was Bea Arthur's performance as Lucy which, decades later, inspired at least two directors to cast men in her role.
Lotte Lenya was the leading interpreter of the
works of Bertolt Brecht and of her husband,
Kurt Weill;  she will always be remembered
in connection to The Threepenny Opera. She
was even awarded a Tony for it, the only time
in history that an Off-Broadway performance
was so honored.
Over the years, other high-profile productions have featured Raul Julia (that production was actually filmed), Blair Brown, Ellen Greene, and even Sting.  The most recent Broadway revival was a starstudded affair with Alan Cumming as Macheath, supported by Cindi Lauper, Ana Gasteyer, Jim Dale, and yet another male actor playing Lucy. 
In its most recent Broadway revival, Cindi Lauper
played Jenny, opposite the Mrs. Peachum of
Ana Gasteyer.

There are a couple of clips out there of those other revivals mentioned above, but none of them are interesting enough for the Friday Dance Party.  For our purposes, we must return to the first German revival of the piece after WWII.  It happened in Berlin in 1945, and was described as "raw...but free."  The audience had to access the bombed-out theatre by climbing over rubble and going through a tunnel.  The theatre had no roof, so the performance was in the open air, which was a good thing, as the smell of rotting bodies trapped under the rubble wafted through the space.  The audience was in rags, as were the actors, some of whom had just been released from concentration camps. 

This week's clip comes from that unique performance.  As you can see, the opening number is being shared by two actresses (there were precious few male actors left in Germany at this time), and you can almost smell the stench of the performance stage.  But the rawness of the venue is matched by the searing honesty with which these two women attack the song.  This may be the most important rendition of "Mack the Knife" ever performed.  Try to ignore the distasteful appearance of these two, and listen to the song itself;  never has it been filled with such meaning and clarity. Brecht and Weill would be so pleased.