Earlier tonight, I was lying on my bed, scrolling through youtube to see if there were any new insightful interviews with or commentary on Sondheim’s writing process, as one is wont to do when they can’t actually go outside and do anything. One of the videos that came up was the complete broadcast of the 1988 Tony Awards. It was then that I was reminded that Into the Woods and Phantom of the Opera came out in the same year and competed for most of the major awards. I’m not entirely sure why that struck me as so strange, but it did. And maybe strange isn’t the right word. Maybe I was struck by it because in so many ways, it feels emblematic. They’re such entirely different ends of the musical theatre spectrum that I never think of them together, much less think of the fact that their original audiences were processing them at the same time. Two fairly recent trends – the giant mega-budget megamusical full of visual and vocal pyrotechnics and the smaller scale musical as vehicle for revising and reevaluating the stories our culture tells itself – each reaching their full expression in the same Broadway season.
And looking through the nominees and winners for the ensuing years, it feels like the two shows began an argument about what the musical could (and possibly should?) be, a continual seesaw from big sparkly solidly crafted crowdpleasers with soaring melodies to more musically and philosophically daring and adventurous explorations of the myths that mold our society that continues to this day (and includes the rather surprising awards defeat of Wicked, which may very well be the exact center of the venn diagram between the two).
The Best Play nominees of 1988 are almost more mind blowing in their own way- David Henry Hwang, August Wilson, Lee Blessing, and David Mamet all putting new works in front of audiences- two about the elaborate ritual dance of power between white men and two diving straight into the thorny thickets of race, gender, and the painful legacies of othering. What a wild year that must have been.
In a way, reviewing this history gives me hope for the future of theatre. I feel like the dominant narrative about Broadway theatre (and musical theatre especially) is one of true depth and innovation being pushed out in favor of crass, commercial shows that appeal to the lowest common denominator. But looking through the Tonys nominee list from 1988 to now just doesn’t bear that out.
Sure, some years have been thinner than others (looking at you, 1989 and 1995), but the conventional narrative completely ignores the fact that A) Many of the big commercial shows of the last twenty years are a lot more genuinely entertaining (and sometimes even thoughtful) than they’re given credit for, and B) More literary revisionist musicals that experiment with narrative and musical forms have undergone a major renaissance in the last decade. Just the last five years (heh) has seen shows as complex and varied as Fun Home, The Visit, Hamilton, Bright Star, Shuffle Along, Waitress, Dear Evan Hanson, Come From Away, Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, and Hadestown. And that’s not even counting the fascinating off-Broadway experimentation of Lortel nominees like this year’s very challenging big hits A Strange Loop, Soft Power, and Octet.
Ultimately, Phantom and Into the Woods basically split the awards that year. Phantom made off with the more production-oriented Best Director and Best Musical awards while Into the Woods laid claim to the creatively focused Best Book and Best Score categories. And really, neither show’s legacy has completely triumphed over the other. Phantom ran for a billion years, while Into the Woods flourished in countless regional, community, and school productions in a way that its rival’s enormous scale never could. And rather than shrink the sorts of shows we see now, in a way their two entirely different views of what musical theatre is may actually be symbiotic – shows like Phantom pull in new audiences with their wide appeal and shows like Into the Woods give those new fans weightier material to chew on as they mature and keeps them coming back. At least, that’s how it worked for me. So in this time where so many of us are fretting over the future of theatre after the pandemic, it might not hurt to take a look at our recent past and realize that it may have been a lot more varied and innovative than the popular doomsday narrative might lead us to believe, which could (dare I say it) actually bode well for what comes next.
I’ve been working seriously as a playwright for a little over a decade, and yet last week managed to provide me an entirely new experience as a theatre maker. I’ve written some pretty weird things over the last eleven years, but the weirdness always emerged from the traditional process – playwright sits alone in a room for months wrestling with words on a page, then bursts out of said room with a draft of a script and a desperate need for companionship, so she gives the script to actors, who are much more fun to hang out with than a blinking cursor on a blank computer screen, and those actors do all sorts of emotionally vulnerable things to bring the script to life. I know a lot of folks who have done, or even specialize, in devised work where the director, playwright, and actors all start in the same room together from the get-go, but had never been involved in a process like that myself. So I was both excited and slightly terrified when The New Colony in Chicago selected my idea for a punk rock musical about early 1800s intellectual and activist Margaret Fuller for one of their workshops this year.
One of the first things I noticed when I walked into the rehearsal room two Sundays ago was how much I tend to rely on my writing to make first impressions for me. Usually, going into a rehearsal process, the actors who have been cast have already been sent the script and have read at least some of it before meeting me. I hadn’t realized how much I counted on that to legitimize me as a “professional playwright” and someone worth collaborating with until I started shaking hands with actors who had no reason beyond a four page outline with character descriptions they’d been given to trust I knew what I was doing. Even worse, it turned out that some of what I’d written in that outline was actually inaccurate to the historical record. Even so, the amazing actors we’d gathered dug deeply into their characters despite my initially shoddy research, and unearthed some amazing, incredibly contemporary human moments from the this group of women mostly relegated to footnotes in history.
Ultimately, the New Colony’s method of having actors bring in their take on a character for the playwright and director to listen and respond to before writing a word of actual script is as perfect a match of process to material as I can imagine. The play (at this point at least) hinges on Margaret Fuller’s famous Boston Conversations of 1839 – 1844, one of the first intellectual discussion groups specifically for women in the country. Often during those sessions, a particular word or concept would come up as a sticking point and Margaret would task all the women present with writing a short essay defining or elaborating on that concept to present to the others at the next session. So the thought that we’re building this story through a method very similar to the one used in the meetings this story is about is very meaningful to me. And the material I’ve already gathered from these incredible folks on this journey with me has got my brain absolutely spinning with ideas and germinating songs. Can’t wait to keep going with this crew, and to see what we actually end up making together.
I skyped in last night for the first read through of Earworm at the Campfire Theatre Festival in Boise, and I’m so excited! This is a great cast with some amazing chemistry right off the bat – gripping acting even at the cold read stage, lots of laughter, and some lovely time sharing the songs that have changed and shaped each of us. Arrggh, really wish I could actually physically be in the room for this one, but no, I had to have a botched emergency root canal that kept me from attending the festival as planned. Sigh. If you happen to be lucky enough to not have financially debilitating dental surgeries, and are in or near Boise, check it out. You’re in for a show!
Really quick, because I’ve not updated in WAY too long, I thought I’d actually try to keep track of things that really ring my creative bells this year. This last month there have been three big highlights –
The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe (I’m late to the party on this one, but it’s wonderful and quietly groundbreaking, I think.)
Russian Doll – A surprisingly beautiful, optimistic story with deliciously sarcastic candy coating.
The Lion – a gripping, emotional one-man musical tour de force that caught me entirely by surprise.
It’s a strange thing to finally come up for breath after a busy year and realize your last post about anything that’s happened to you was more than twelve months ago. So here’s hoping I can do better this year. At least it’s a fairly low bar to clear!
Anyhow, here’s a quick catch-up on one of my favorite events of the past year:
Back in June, I had the immense honor to have my play, An Invitation Out, presented as part of the Benchmark Theatre Fever Dream Festival in Denver, Colorado. It was a great read of the script from a really talented cast. It’s only the second time I’ve seen it on stage, and I was particularly struck by how much of the dynamic of the show transforms with different actors in the roles.
The festival itself was especially thrilling for its audacious gambit of performing thirteen total plays in three days with the same ensemble of ten actors. I saw all but one of the pieces over the course of the festival, and I’ve never had an experience quite like it. Rather than just seeing these insanely talented folks embody my characters, I got a guided tour through a large swath of what they as actors were capable of. Every time I sat down in that theatre, I was surprised by someone jumping out of the “type” my brain had subconsciously categorized them in. In that way, the festival really was more than the sum of its parts and stood out to me as a truly rare achievement.
Benchmark’s a really delightful company, and I can’t wait for an opportunity to get back to Denver and see some of these wonderful folks again.
Good lord, I just noticed it’s been almost exactly a year since I wrote the first part of this. It’s been a pretty crazy year, and a ton happened that I was apparently too busy to blog about. I’m going to try to be better at that this year, and so in that spirit, I at long last present to you my number two show for folks looking for more of that Hamiltion high going into the New Year.
2. February House
So you loved Hamilton’s heady story of a man who wrote his way to the top, then back down again, but you’re more into Sufjan Stevens and Fleet Foxes than hip hop? Have I got a show for you. Based on Sherilll Tippins’ book about a 1940 attempt at artistic communal living in Brooklyn involving the likes of W.H Auden, Carson McCullers, Erica Mann, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Benjamin Britten, February House is a stunning introduction to a new and unique voice in American musical theatre. Gabriel Kahane takes a show filled with 20th century arts titans, and manages to create an warm, intimate score around them. It’s hard for me to think of a musical theatre song in recent years that matches the achingly lovely “Coney Island,”or a comedy number funnier than Benjamin Britten and his lover Peter Pears turning the discovery of “Bedbugs” into an operatic tour de force.
In many ways, February House feels a lot like Rent for adults. It maintains the themes of community and artistic as well as sexual independence, but does so in a way that’s less colored by the defiant naivete of youth. A major plot point of February House, for instance, is just how the characters ARE going to manage to pay the rent. Its ending is also more downbeat in a way that feels very true, with the whole experiment falling apart, but going on to inspire great work in those who attempted it. I also fully anticipate that, in light of this year’s election results, February House’s central debate about just what responsibility artists have to respond to the political environment around them is going to feel very timely indeed.
As with most of the shows I’ll be talking about, I haven’t actually seen February House (Yay life in the Midwest). And having only experienced the cast recording, I can’t speak to the success or failure of the show’s book, which from reviews I’ve read seems to have its problems. Regardless of any dramaturgical missteps, though, the musical storytelling on display on the album deserves a large hearing. So if you’re a musical theatre geek looking for that one buried gem that you haven’t heard yet, this is very good place to start. A story of artists trying to create a small-scale Paradise for themselves where they can live and love freely that manages to be both buoyant and melancholy, February House is must-hear cast recording, and perhaps, a great show for smaller theatre companies to start taking a chance on.
Here’s some video to take you down the rabbit hole: