The troubled (and hopefully now, not-so-troubled) production opened tonight at the Foxwoods Theater. I’ve been following the show’s developments for a while, and was one of its biggest boosters, until actor Christopher Tierney suffered a serious injury last December. Then I just got worried. Then frustrated. Then angry. I followed, with some horror, the drama involving director / co-creator Julie Taymor being forced out by the show’s producers, in March. Things seemed very ugly and uncertain for a while, and it’s something of a miracle the show is finally opening tonight. I’m happy for everyone, though until I see it, I’m going to withhold judgment, and good or bad ideas. Still, I remain very curious.
Lastnight I somewhat quenched that curiosity, and joined a few hundred curious other folk to hear two of Spider Man’s producers, who are also its composers (and, oh yeah, mega-mondo big-ass rock stars), spoke in a public forum about the show, its problems, its challenges and its potential. The 92nd Street Y buzzed with energy as the 8pm start time came and went. The intimate auditorium brimmed with either super-excited super-U2-ers, or Broadway fans curious about what the Irish pair might have to say as newcomers to the Great White Way. Author Salman Rushdie was also present, along with a smattering of New York intellgentsia and longtime Y supporters, who sat in thoughtful silence, even as a small but annoying smattering of gushing female mondo-fans over-clapped and giggled at every little rock star face. (Note to self: next time there’s an empty seat beside Mr. Rushdie, take it.)
Interviewer Jordan Roth, President of Jujamcyn Theaters (the company behind shows like the award-winning The Book Of Mormon and Jersey Boys) and host of Broadway Talks at 92nd Street Y, asked the two about the attraction of the live stage. Edge rightly pointed out that “(U2) found its feet on a live stage”, while Bono noted that “there’s a thing happening in culture at the moment, where the live arts seem more important than the recording.” He continued:
It’s that inexplicable thing when you get a great performer and great material, and it can only happen in a live context. We were intrigued by it, and we’d seen some great shows like Les Miz and some of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows. We saw the chance to do something where we could take advantage of what we were playing around with in rock ‘n roll, and if it was the right project, it might be something we’d want to do.
I pondered this as I sat through the nearly-90 minute Q&A session, which was equal parts frustration (far too much uncritical fan worship) and fascination (body language indicating extreme nervousness for at least one of the composers), peppered with plenty of charm, sarcasm, and humor. The interview was a mix of casual and formal, focusing on U2’s creative output, and its connection with the experience of writing and producing on Broadway. Inane questions about “who do you think the next Gandhi will be?” aside (a fan question submitted earlier), it was, for the most part, an interesting mix of honesty, humor, and humility, offering a rare insight into the harried journey of composition and creativity from two very, very famous men.
Walking out of the Y at the talk’s end, I reflected on the power of live arts, and of theater especially. Sunday night saw my Twitter stream fill with people’s reactions and observations on the Tony Awards, which were unfolding in real-time. People were virtual fist-pumping, guffawing, loudly declaiming -it was a drama in and of itself -as they found a community of like-minded, live-loving souls whose whole existence seemed focused on the sheer pleasure of watching live people do rather ordinary things extraordinarily well. In the wired up world of the 21st century, there’s something awfully reassuring and simply good about going to the theater; there’s a certain kind of bond created, however unspoken, between audience and cast and crew -it’s a symbiotic relationship involving trust, tech, timbre, and sometimes even tap-dancing. MP3s, iPads, and fancy mobiles with a millions apps can’t compete -and shouldn’t. To see this kind of passion replicated on Twitter for the Tonys was an interesting experience; it’s the same phenomenon as during the Oscars, or any other awards show, or any other big event, for that matter. There’s a community -but it isn’t the same as live theater. Being part of a group of living, breathing, sweating human beings in the dark, watching other living, breathing, sweating human beings lit up and performing before you is a uniquely delicious experience, one that speaks to our common humanity and desire for shared, live experience.
Saturday night I was able to finally able to partake in this shared experience. I attended my first piece of theater since moving to New York, which felt like somewhat of a momentous occasion, even if I went in with mixed feelings about Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. I completely overlooked that awkwardness in favour of the opportunity to see -no, experience -real live people onstage, playing. Playing roles, and beautifully, simply, playing. (As it turns out, David Leveaux’s production was so excellent, I’m now a confirmed Arcadia fan.) This is something I think the composers of Spider Man inherently understand; they have, for wont of a better word, been playing, literally and figuratively, onstage now for thirty-plus years. Transferring that energetic faith and exuberant zeitgeist for live performance into a real, concrete thing that serves the difficult, choosy twins of narrative and character is always an uphill struggle, especially if you’re used to composing within the fiercely competitive, pressure-cooker world of Broadway.
Lastnight, Bono admitted that the show still has “10%” left to improve on, and won’t close that gap for at least another two months. “In the end, The Edge and I have got good manners, we’re fun… but we are motherf***ckers,” he noted. There was steel in the singer’s husky voice, a characteristically Dublin-esque stare-down in his no-nonsense expression, devoid of usual charm, but with a bald, toothsome authenticity that made the comment -and its delivery -deeply affecting and entirely believable. That simple, blunt acknowledgement captured the sexy, succulent siren’s call of play and creativity, and her fraught relationship with the ugly, gargoyle-like nose-to-the-grindstone practicality that could only (and must only) be Lady Siren’s lifelong mate. What results is frequently personal, but when you’re in the performing arts, it winds up being writ large, up for debate, criticism, hounding, and eternal judgment. Such is the fate of such a union, of such a scary, scintillating, and in many ways, artistically necessary undertaking. A near-alchemical mix of faith and hard work sometimes open doors to new worlds -and sometimes not.
In the end, the mantra is simple: Work hard. Play hard. Live hard. That is theater’s call to all of us, however we may choose to weave our webs.
My recent blog silence isn’t so much for lack of what to write about, but what to focus on. Choose one thing’ has been a constant mantra throughout my life. Social media has been both a blessing and a curse in terms of widening perspective and simultaneously driving home a tendency to un-focus; no wonder being on an airplane recently, with laptop purposely packed away, produced a weirdo mix of panic and relief.
Settling on one thing was enough of a challenge, but once I chose my topic, there were several developments that occurred with incredible rapidity, forcing updates and edits. And then, I had second, third, eleventh, twenty-eighth thoughts on posting it. I don’t like writing about things I haven’t seen, much less giving play to conjecture. But the drama at the center of the Broadway production of Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark has been weighing heavily on my mind -for the way it’s been treated in popular media, for the reports I’ve received from those who have seen it, from the things shared with me from those who’ve worked with its director, and, mainly, for my absolute love of the theatrical medium, and the close-knit family unit that squals, squeals and shrieks at its crying, bleeding, puking, unquestionably messy core.
As reported lastnight, director Julie Taymor’s role has been altered -or, to be frank, greatly diminished; the New York Times offered a “precipitous” headline on top of a solid piece of reporting, though the piece had a noticeable undercurrent of sadness that perfectly reflected my feelings at the situation. Theater is nothing but a sum of its creators/cast/crew parts, a singing, dancing Frankenstein monster that might provoke a few tears, jeers, cheers, but always, hopefully, a gilded memory framed in sighs, frills, & the tunes you’ll hum the next day. Show producers Michael Cohl and Jeremiah Harris along with composers Bono and The Edge felt Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark needed more neck bolts, some matching arms, a solid pair of shoes to walk in (though not of the “furious” eight-legged variety) and more smoochy time with the proverbial Mrs. Frankenstein. I briefly referenced the show in a past blog in which I attended The Fantasticks, and observed how low-tech it must’ve been to my companion, who’d been to the Foxwoods Theater not long before. I felt a little ripple of excitement spotting the ads and theater marquee recently. Something new is going on there, I thought. It’s hard, but so is life. So is theater. And to some, theater is life. Doctor Frankenstein had to work hard to imbue his creature with it.
The hyper-critical response to Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark is due, in part, to the starry names attached to the project; its composers are well-known rock dudes, while its director is the woman behind one of the most original pieces of theater ever produced. Famous rich people are easy targets, especially when it comes to a public spectacle involving putting one of American pop culture’s most famous (and beloved) figures onstage. Through death, bankruptcy, accolades, accidents, an addition, a withdrawl, and big, name-making snark, the show has chugged on, drawing big crowds and averaging good weekly totals. The ocean of words written about the show are a truer reflection of the lack of awareness in the general public for how theater works (or should work) and is less about the show itself, which most people who are writing (journalists aside) haven’t seen. It also shows an awesome ignorance towards the nasty politics of playing on Broadway, where artistic integrity and creativity are frequently last on the list of priorities for a Really Big Show (ROI is #1, in case you’re wondering). It all has to start somewhere -any show, large or small does -and once the germ of the idea has been sewn, the care and cultivation come when words first hit the screen. Setting: a bare stage, or, Setting: Peter Parker’s bedroom. Whatever the case, it starts with the words.
And the weak writing in Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark has been a source of concern for professional theater writers and audiences alike. This was the main complaint of my friend who’s seen it, and it’s been highlighted in the vast, bitter sea of sniping. I had a long conversation with a theater-producer friend recently, about the demands of staging a new live show, and about the pressures from investors, who frequently want to see a quick return on the money they’ve put out; with the pressure and intense public scrutiny this show is under, it seems at least plausible that the written aspect got overtaken by the fancier, much-more-hype-friendly-and-frankly-sexy special effects. He flies! He leaps! He lands on balconies! He’ll be swooshing over your head! As was pointed out in an informative article on theater-flying recently, flying = sales. Might it be a fair suggestion that Julie Taymor, for all her intense creativity, felt more pressured to focus on the visual (ie money-making) aspects of the show, and less on the actual writing? Maybe. Or maybe not. She had a decade, goes the accusation. She’d never written before. She didn’t want to make any changes. She was forced to walk the plank. Blahblahblah.
I’m left, after observing and following all these dramatic (and probably truamatic) developments, asking one small question: did anyone at the beginning suggest an outside voice (like a dramaturge) was needed? Or did the situation become like a cartoon snowball, rolling down a hill, picking up toboggans, trees, feckless bystanders, in its raging, manic race to inevitable explosion?
It’s all conjecture, and it’s worth remembering that much of what’s coming out now about the show is just that. Julie Taymor didn’t experience a soft landing, and I doubt anyone associated with the show will at this point. But we can only guess. It’s all a series of web-laced question marks. I’m going to hold off on making any firm judgments on Spider Man on Broadway until I see it. For the sake of everyone involved, I hope they, as a collective Dr. Frankenstein, can get their creature on its feet. Some of us still want to believe.
One of the most delightful evenings in theater in recent memory began with a chat about Spider Man: Turn The Dark Off. My companion had seen the much-gossiped-about Broadway show in December, and … she had a few opinions. I haven’t seen the show, and in all fairness, it hasn’t technically opened, so I’ll refrain from commenting, but I will say that our conversation ended with the lights going down, and there beginning a show that couldn’t have been more different in terms of its technical demands.
The Fantasticks doesn’t have any high-flying stunts or special effects. At one point, a painted wooden moon is hung by hand and later flipped, to become a coppery, painted sun; in another moment, a quasi-Spanish would-be kidnapper makes a dramatic leap off of a less-than-perilous (try three inch) perch. And in a piece of absolute stage hilarity, we witness a grand (if joint-challenged) stage actor making a slow exit… out of a wooden box. As I said, hardly high-tech. But it’s these small moments that makes the show so special.
The Fantasticks emanates joy. That simple quality is frequently the hardest thing to try to get right in musical theater, especially without looking like you worked for it; as Michael Cohl et al might tell you, you can go through millions trying to make things look effortless, but that one quality – joy -can remain frustratingly elusive. Simplicity -or the illusion of it -can be a powerful element to making an audience believe in the magic of live theater. Toronto company Soulpepper Theatre are currently staging a gorgeous, elegantly simple production that plays up the meta-theatrical elements of the 1960 piece while simultaneously reveling in the joyful heart that beats, quietly and consistently, at its center.
The work, with book and lyric by Tom Jones (not that Tom Jones) and music by Harvey Schmidt, is the world’s longest-running musical, with an off-Broadway run of 42 years (or 17,162 performances). It’s loosely based on Edmond Rostand’s first play and concerns two lovelorn teens and their dueling fathers. Now, you may be scratching your head (as I admittedly did) and saying, “But how can this be so successful? I don’t know the music!” Ah, but you do. Try to remember the kind of September / when life was slow / and oh-so-mellow… and if you remember / then follow…
See? You do so know it. The Fantasticks has become so ubiquitous culturally that it’s almost taken for granted. Almost. In director Joseph Ziegler‘s careful, capable hands, no small detail is overlooked, no moment overplayed, no pause too long. Everything in the Soulpepper production (running through March 24th) feels simple and effortless. It undoubtedly isn’t -musical theater is always hard -but we, the audience don’t see that. Result? Joy. But you knew that.
Krystin Pellerin, perhaps best-known in Canada for her role as the tough-as-nails cop Leslie Bennett on CBC TV’s Republic of Doyle, plays the young, wide-eyed Luisa in The Fantasticks, with the kind of exuberant zeal that you can’t take your eyes off of. Along with her impressive theater CV, Krystin has done a raft of film and TV work -and, as I found out, has one hell of a good singing voice. The Newfoundland native and I recently exchanged ideas about love, voice, and the joy of being a Fantastick.
What was your first thought when you were approached to play Luisa?
I was thrilled when (Soulpepper Artistic Director/actor) Albert (Schultz) and Joe (Ziegler) asked me to play Luisa. I was a huge fan of the musical and I couldn’t wait to be a part of it. I was immediately on-board. One of the biggest challenges for me was balancing all the different elements in my mind and in my body.
Initially it felt quite daunting but luckily (musical director) Paul Sportelli and (choreographer) Tim French were there to help us all along and explain how to live within the convention. I learned that I need to keep three brains at work through out the show for singing, acting and dancing and that at different times in the show I need to negotiate how to spend my energy and thought in order to fulfill all the elements involved.
Playing Luisa, one could easily fall into a pastiche of “cute young singing girl” or an ironic winkyness; what did you feel was important to emphasize in terms of making her sincere?
I felt it was important to connect with Luisa’s sense of wonder and determination and her elation that comes with being in love at 16. She also experiences great heartbreak and confusion in her growing up with El Gallo (Albert Schultz). These are all feelings that I was able to identify with and it helped me to stay anchored in the role.
Was there any one role you drew from in approaching this role?
I’m also playing Emily in Our Town this season so she has been in my mind through out the whole process. Her and Luisa sort of co-exist in my brain. I feel that there are a lot of similarities between them. They live in completely different worlds obviously but they are both strong young bright passionate women who learn that what they had longed for most was right in front of them the whole time. They both experience a rough awakening: Luisa, when she is shown the world and abandoned by El Gallo, and Emily when she is allowed to return to her life for one ordinary day. Luisa and Emily inform and complement each other a great deal I think.
I haven’t heard you sing before – what’s that like?
It feels wonderful to be singing again. Luisa is a big sing but the amount of growth that I experienced in rehearsal was amazing and Paul Sportelli was such a huge support to me.
I would love to do more, absolutely 🙂
How does your stage history with Jeff Lillico (who plays Matt, Luisa’s love) influence your interpretation?
Jeff and I will also be playing opposite each other in Our Town and that will be our third time playing lovers together. I feel like we know each other really well in a very specific way. We’re usually on the same page when it comes to scenes, we can talk things out very easily and get to the bottom of it a little quicker maybe because we’ve worked together so much. I’m finding that our stage history allows us to play more freely. I feel at ease with him and I think that helps the performance.
When you go from TV and back to the stage, is there a certain amount of nervousness, or nervous anticipation, at performing live in front of people again?
I was really excited to shift from playing a cop to playing a princess. It’s a complete reversal of roles and media and I think it’s the best thing I could have done. There are a normal amount of nerves that come with performing live again but I think it’s invigorating and I think it’s important to come back ‘home’.
I am loving the bouncing back and forth right now. I feel like I am being stretched and I think a lot of good comes from being out of your comfort zone.
Photo credits: Production photos by Cylla von Tiedemann Krystin Pellerin photo by Sandy Nicholson
Watching pieces of the movie Frida recently, amidst bites of crostini, answering emails, and half-sketching, was a strange experience -and not just because of the multi-tasking.
When I saw it in the cinema in 2002 I was bowled over by the mix of images, plot, and music within Julie Taymor‘s vision of the Mexican painter’s life. My initial viewing was at an early point in my own personal explorations into drawing and painting; after years of photography, including nearly two years spent in Ireland and England with an ancient, beloved manual-forward SLR camera, I thought it might be a good idea to strip the technology away to get to the heart of art-making. And so the drawing/painting/sketching odyssey began, and photography, however slowly, fell by the wayside, paralleling the dwindling of film stock and the rise of mobile (and, for that matter, internet) technology.
It was during a recent dinner party at my home that I felt a deep twinge of nostalgia for my old snapping days. I brought out the old Minolta at the request of one of my guests, a photo enthusiast. The weight of the camera, the ka-chunk of the shutter, the cylindrical beauty of the lens, the quasi-surprise of the prints… it was all magical to behold after so long away from it. Yet spying the light meter again created a small panic, a palpable sense of, what am I doing?! It was a curious mix of panic and passion.
I’m a longtime admirer of Frida’s work -“admirer”, actually, feels too mild, but “fan” feels too slavish. She takes her place, like Patti Smith, in my mental curio cabinet of beautifully imperfect heroes: shriekingly female but defying categorization, always personal but ever-cryptic, physical but very heady, hugely experimental but deeply traditional. A mass of genius in contradiction, Frida’s work, like Patti’s, has the power to bring me to tears, and frequently has.
The timing of Taymor’s movie on television was curious on a personal level (never mind Taymor’s directing Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark, opening next month on Broadway. More on that in a future post.). I’d been berating myself for not being productive enough artistically lately. I should be drawing/painting/etc is a frequent mental mantra. It’s feels like a hard thing to go off and do, and yet it shouldn’t be. That old want-to-be-doing vs should-be-doing battle is raging. The other reason productivity falls away is that I have a genuine sense of not knowing what I’m doing, that it’s all for naught, that it’s all horribly amateur and pointless and stupid. That voice of doubt is sometimes louder than the calm, quiet one that asks me to keep going.
And so, it was appropos that, looking through a bookshelf for something else entirely, Peter London’s No More Secondhand Art (Shambhala Publications, 1989) popped out at me. I opened it, as if my magic, to a page with the following header: “Am I Good Enough?” That would be my other mantra, a much older one that applies to several areas and pursuits. But I was fascinated by London’s dissection of this question to self as applied to art-making, one that works whether you love drawing, painting, photography or performance:
We can never win the encounter with such a question, because the very underlying assumption of “Am I —— enough?” is a faulty appraisal of the human condition and a false understanding of what it does take to engage in creative enterprises… Rather than paralyzing ourselves with the existential bone-crusher “Am I good enough?” we would do better to ask ourselves question that invoke no comparisons. Instead, we could become interested in describing the new terrain being uncovered or invented.
I dream of the day that voice stops -or at least softens. I dream of the day I’ll have the most precious things any artist could ask for -time, space, resources -to do what I want most to do, when my heroes smile and say, see? It wasn’t so hard after all. Because really, it’s not.
Paintings: Top: The Two Fridas, 1939. Bottom: Viva la vida, 1954. Frida Kahlo’s last painting. Photo credit: Photograph of Frida Kahlo by Lucienne Bloch, 1932.