THE KING AND I: An Addendum both Personal and Historical

Readers looking for specific responses to the recent Lincoln Center production of The King and I would do well to read my August 29 posting below.  But I guess I’m not through with this play yet.  And clearly, I’m  not alone.  It remains a worldwide phenomenon.  I want to explore some history of the play, and how one musical came to be such a fascination for me and so many others, despite its being a rather dreary non-love story about two reasonably unlikable people.  I confess that, ironically, my real opinion is that it’s too long, ends badly, and as a play is far from my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein creation.  Yet I continue to listen, sing, hum, and whistle my way through that magnificent music, and I will surely trundle up to Washington, misty-eyed and open-jawed once again, to see The King and I when it arrives on tour. This post is an exploration of how that could be so. I hope it will be a blend of historical perspective on the play itself, and a personal memoir and journal of whatever it is that attaches us at the hip like a chemical addiction.  Just why is it that some experiences, both pleasant and not so pleasant, can take hold of us early in our personal evolution as human beings, and will not let us go – ever?

                                 The Evolution of Me and The King and I 

Anna Leonowens circa 1860

Anna Leonowens
circa 1860

In 1862, Anna Leonowens, a recently widowed British school teacher, accepted a request to come to Siam to teach the 39 wives and 82 children of King Mongkut. She brought with her her then six-year-old son Louis.   During their almost six years in Bangkok, Anna kept copious notes and later produced two memoirs describing her experiences there and her various skirmishes with the king. Many of them, unchanged, remain an integral part of the script for The King and I, including the conflicted nature of a king eager to preserve his own power and traditions, and equally as eager to bring his country into the modern age of science and western civilization. In 1944, Margaret Landon, an American writer, wrote Anna and the King of Siam, a successful novel based on the Leonowens memoirs.

Two years later, director John Cromwell turned the novel into a movie with Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison (as you can see, complete with a beautifully groomed head of hair).

Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne, in the 1946 film, Anna and the King of Siam

Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne, in the 1946 film, Anna and the King of Siam

And that’s where I suspect I first heard of the king of Siam, the first corner  piece of the puzzle needed to solve my mysterious attachment to The King and I.  I don’t remember it of course (I was seven at the time). But little seeds grow big food! Turns out, my mom was a huge fan of Irene Dunne, a beautiful megastar actress-singer in the 30’s-40’s. I remember once being with Mom at an airport, when Irene emerged and quickly climbed into the back of a limo. Mom instantly morphed into a teenage movie fanatic and charged over to ask if she could take her picture. The response? “It would be a far better photograph, Dear, if you took the cap off your camera lens,” as she rolled up the window.   After that, I’m quite sure that Irene Dunne and Anna and the King were frequent topics of conversation in my household in the late 40’s.

Gertrude Lawrence

Gertrude Lawrence

It turns out that Rodgers and Hammerstein were familiar with the book, but were not interested in turning the story into a musical until they saw the movie. From the start, The King and I was essentially created as a star vehicle for the veteran British singer, Gertrude Lawrence, hugely popular in her day, if legendary for being difficult to work with. By then, her vocal skills had already begun to fade, and Rodgers’ simple but beautiful tunes were composed to accommodate her reduced range. Nonetheless, when The King and I opened on Broadway on March 29, 1951, she would become the instant talk of the town and a Tony winner for her comeback role as Anna. Sadly, her success was short-lived. It was not an easy role for a 52-year-old woman: Eight times a week she carried around 75 pounds of costume as she danced her way through an arduous 3¾ -hour performance, later trimmed to just under 3 hours. On August 16, 1952, she collapsed backstage after a matinee performance, and died on September 6, of a previously undetected cancer of the liver and abdomen.

Rodgers and Hammerstein had wanted the movie’s Rex Harrison to play the king, but he wasn’t available. So when young folk singer and TV Director Yul Brynner showed up to audition, bald and glowering, he got the part.

Yul Brynner in Anna and the King of Siam,

Yul Brynner in Anna and the King of Siam, 1972

His name was not even on the marquis under Lawrence’s when the show opened. But by the time it closed, a record-setting three years later, Brynner was the star.  And he had missed very few of its 1,265 performances.

In addition to his other work on stage and screen, for the next thirty-three years he would go on to play the role he had originated. I believe I finally saw the show with my folks at the National Theatre in Washington in late 1954, with Brynner still toughing it out on tour. Over thirty years later, in the spring of 1985, he was back on Broadway yet again. So of course, my wife and I took our own kids, ages 8 and 11, up to New York so they could experience the real thing. Later that year, on June 30, Yul Brynner gave his 4,625th and final performance as the King of Siam.  On the tenth of October, he died of lung cancer, just as he had long expected to do.

kingiobpBut back to 1951: I had missed out on all of the early excitement surrounding the opening of The King and I. I was out of the country, acquiring another subtle cog in the wheel of my fascination with the play and the story. As anyone who has spent any part of his or her childhood outside our American shores will tell you, perspectives change radically. Experience in a foreign land is an eye-opening life-changer. In 1950, my dad was an aviation expert with the Civil Aeronautics Administration (An early version of the FAA). As I understood it, he went on loan to the State Department for the purpose of supervising the conversion and delivery of our wartime transport planes to the budding Air France fleet.

But what that meant for me was two years of living in Paris … where the local kids went to school in “dresses.”  Well ok,  not really. I was told they were actually very practical blue smocks, a traditional school “uniform,”  designed to keep street clothes relatively clean. Furthermore, they all spoke French!  Still, no way was I going timages-1o wear a “dress” to school!  And unable to speak a word of French, I flat out refused to go to a perfectly good neighborhood French school. Sadly, the spoiled brat in me won out. But unfortunately, some good parental research also ruled out the American school, whose reputation at the time was a bit unsavory. Consequentially, I had to agree to attend an English-speaking boarding school on the far side of the city. Bad choice on my part: It was an overcrowded school in the Dickensian tradition, replete with uncouth sanitary conditions, where classroom misbehavior resulted in bloody knuckles dealt by the rulers of irate red-headed Englishmen. And the playground was a war zone. Oh the things my parents never knew!

The plus side was that the little “Denny International School” was populated by students with different eye shapes and skin colors, speaking strange languages, worshipping different Gods, talking of different cultures and traditions. There were French kids whose parents wanted them to learn English fast; there were war orphans; there were the sons and daughters of diplomats from all over the world. Some were wackos, others dedicated athletic or intellectual types –the full spectrum of pre-adolescent worldly humanity. Naturally, we quickly formed defensive gangs for the purpose of recess survival, without regard to any of the above features. My three very best friends, my most trustworthy allies, were John Maung, from Burma, Saïd Dehlavi from Pakistan, and Octavio Maloles, from the Philippines. I’ve often wondered what has happened to them as adults. One of these days, maybe I’ll try a search and ….

By the time we came back home to the U.S. in the summer of 1952, I was a 12-year-old committed internationalist, with a keen interest in what went on in the rest of the world, and how it was different, and how we humans were still all the same. And I knew from my friends that Burma (which in 1989 became Myanmar) was next to the Kingdom of Siam, which had already become Thailand, and was also next to China, which was next to the newly formed dominion of Pakistan, and also next to Korea, where people, including Americans, were getting killed.  And furthermore … I spoke fluent French!

By then, the family owned the 33⅓ lp original cast album of The King and I, which I already had largely memorized. I still have it. After all, the story was set in Siam, now Thailand, which was next door to Burma, which … “etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.” That whole part of the globe belonged to my best friends.  Just as Paris now belonged to me.

Rita Moreno as Tuptim, and Deborah Kerr as Anna Leonowens in the 1956, 20th Century Fox film of The King and I

Rita Moreno as Tuptim, and Deborah Kerr as Anna Leonowens in the 1956, 20th Century Fox film of The King and I

The movie of the musical came out in 1956, in Cinemascope even. It stars Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, and as we would all later find out, the unacknowledged, dubbed-in voice of the inimitable late Marni Nixon, one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets. If you look hard you might also recognize the talented and very young Rita Moreno, as Tuptim. The screenplay by Ernest Lehman and Hammerstein was now trimmed to 2¼ hours. A beautifully rendered 50th Anniversary CD of the film, minus the overture, remains available. You have to grit your teeth through the blatant racism and sexism, but the sets and costumes are glorious, and the music … Well, yes. The music!

The King and I may not be as well known as other Rodgers & Hammerstein hits. It’s got a huge cast, expensive to produce; it’s a more exotic locale than most Americans were used to, and it has neither a classic love story nor a “lived-happily-ever-after” ending. The king dies in the end, which ironically is the only major plot difference from the real story, aside from omitting the brutal torture and punishment of the runaway slaves. Historically, King Mongkut did not die until 1868, when Anna was back in England. He had been a dangerous autocrat, who bore little resemblance to the more or less likable buffoon customarily portrayed in The King and I, and he most certainly was neither a ”nice guy” nor a romantic.

King Mongkut of Siam and one of his thirty-nine wives

King Mongkut of Siam and one of his thirty-nine wives

Nonetheless, despite all objections, The King and I retains an ongoing global fascination. It has spawned a radio show, a TV series, and at least four films. It has been translated into dozens of languages. Doubtlessly, there have been thousands of theatrical productions mounted in every corner of the world, with the exception of Thailand itself, whose government censors have regarded the whole story as a myth.

So many stories. So many associations. But there is one more piece of personal history needed to complete this jigsaw puzzle, one which reinforced and cemented my affection for Rodgers and Hammerstein and The King and I for 64 years. In the summer of 1957, I was working at a summer camp on Cape Cod.  I was recruited to play the King for our annual abbreviated musical adaptation – my first featured musical role.  … And WE got the play down to 75 minutes.  On the night before the one and only performance, I was “cruelly” awakened somewhere around 3:00a.m., by five of my fellow counselor/cast mates, and pinned to the floor while they took an electric razor to my head … “so’s I would look like the ‘real’ king.” My protestations that the “real” king had plenty of hair did nothing to deter them.  There’s a picture somewhere, or was: “Come on, guys… This is not funny!!!”

On the other hand, yes it was.

 

 

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Lincoln Center’s Production of THE KING AND I

Last spring, after a long and mostly boring recovery from a January knee replacement, off I went on my customary biannual theatre binge in New York. I was eager to find plays that would be challenging, leave me excited, thinking, questioning. Picking from the discount listers, I deliberately chose The Crucible, The Effect, The Father, The Humans, Prodigal Son, and Blackbird (all discussed in previous posts below). And then, just for nostalgia’s sake, I added in The King and I. Turns out, all but two turned out to be Tony Award winners. (The exceptions were off-Broadway’s Prodigal Son, and The Effect, which should have had their turns at the Obies.)  More importantly, all seven were challenging, perceptive, excellent theatre, just what I was in the mood for. And every one of them offered a personal attachment to me, whether a familiar moral or political argument, a reference point for the workings of my own aging mind, or a poignant memory of my own experiences in the classroom.

But everyone wanted to know: What was my very favorite of the shows I’d managed to squeeze in? The answer, of all things: The King and I.  Ironic, isn’t it?  A safe old Rodgers and Hammerstein revival?  Challenging, thinking, questioning, and beautiful?  It closed at New York’s Lincoln Center on June 26, after 1¼ years and 538 performances. However, there is a planned national tour in the works.  Audiences are not done with this one yet. So just for fun, I want to spend this and my next post chatting about it.

IMG_0297 (1)

Those of you who are my regular readers know by now that I make no claims and expend no effort towards objectivity. Quite simply, this is a show I have always loved, and would see repeatedly wherever I could find a decent production. This is Rodgers and Hammerstein at their very best, working together on something very new and different from their previous work. Without a “happily-ever-after” love story, it’s perhaps less often produced, less accessible and more exotic than their more familiar Oklahoma, South Pacific, and Sound of Music. But this is music I have listened repeatedly to all my life. This is music I used to sing, once on a camp stage, and in thousands of showers. I can recite lyrics even now, from Hello Young Lovers, Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting to Know You, Shall We DanceA Puzzlement, and more.

However, if I anticipated going to a favorite mushy, nostalgic old love story purely for escapist entertainment, a break from my other more thought-provoking plays of the week, I was mistaken. This was a brand new King and I, more like a “king-of-the-mountain’ competition than a love story. This was by far the most lush, sumptuous and extravagant of anything I’ve ever seen in traditional American Musical Theatre. A break-the-bank budget allowed for more than fifty actors, and gorgeous costumes and sets: huge, golden, cleverly designed and engineered miracles of stagecraft. From my fourth row bargain seat on the side of the Vivian Beaumont Theater, the prow of the ship bringing Anna Leonowens to Siam emerged from the wings to loom impressively over my head as it docked.

Super director Bartlett Sher (six Tony nominations in the past ten years) and his team made an active choice to explore the enigmatic duality of human nature. Their focus on historical accuracy, interculturalism, sexism, feminism, and sexual slavery was carefully staged to challenge the audience’s own preconceptions, and to call undeniable attention to the certainty that human cruelty and shortsightedness remain our concern in today’s “civilized” multicultural world. It’s contemporary relevance is clear. Still, it is in no way “preachy.” It’s a complex beautifully told story about attempts to break down such barriers, some successful, others not.

I like to think that no matter how magnificent the costumes and the sets, it’s the people we come to see, and Sher sought out the best for his reconsideration of this classic. He had worked many times with superstar Kelli O’Hara, notably eight years ago on the same stage, in his award-winning South Pacific. And he chose Japanese movie star Ken Watanabe  (The Last Samurai) to play King Mongkut.

Watanabe had been forced to leave the cast for emergency surgery and treatment for stomach cancer, but he was able to return to the role shortly before I saw the show. His performance was solid, and very effective, a self-contradictory man determined to retain control over a kingdom he badly wants to usher into modern civilization. O’Hara played a strong teacher, demanding of personal and professional respect, and yet at the same time charmed by the king and his eighty some children whom she was charged to educate.

The music, of course, was as good as it gets. The choral numbers and choreography were beautifully sung and staged. Three of the songs were particularly convincing, and beautifully rendered completely in character: The King’s Number One Wife, Lady Thiang (Ruthie Ann Miles), sang “Something Wonderful” as if the music were an integral part of the natural Thai language, and her satirical “Western People Funny” turned some cartoonishly racist lyrics into a national anthem of oriental pride. And with the powerful operatic voices of the “young lovers” Tuptim and Lun Tha (Ashey Park and Conrad Ricamora), “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed” became convincingly passionate serenades, tinged with desperation and fear.

The casting of the two stars was a publicist’s dream. Watanabe was far more dangerous a king than an adorable one, and his take created new extremes of tension between himself and Anna. Their “Shall We Dance” quickly shifted from fun to manic, leaving Anna with a “What-the-hell-have-I-done?” expression on her face, and adding a whole new context to the more traditional romantic waltz. Still, the king’s bravado was consistently undercut with an extraordinary vulnerability, especially in one of my favorite numbers, “Puzzlement,” in which he questions his own wisdom, power, and place in the world.

And last but certainly not least, there was Kelli O’Hara, often deservedly dubbed the queen of Broadway musicals. I had seen her work in South Pacific and Light in the Piazza, and was suitably impressed with both her beautiful voice and her strong sense of character. She fully deserves all the kudos and awards she has earned.  However, I must confess to disappointment in the space where her two talents meet up. I’m not sure whether it’s her choice or the director’s (Sher again in both productions), but there seems to be a less than subtle line of demarcation between when she occupies a role, and when she sings a song. It’s an operatic tradition for the soprano to step forward to sing an aria directly facing the audience. But what I have always loved about American musical theatre is that lyric and music flow smoothly out of dialogue and character, thus heightening the intent. To me, especially with today’s use of body mikes and sound control, dropping character and singing frontally to the audience seems a distraction from such a flow, as well as an indulgent bow to ego. I truly hope such practice is a throwback Sher/O’Hara quirk, and not a sign of a retro trend.  It was my one and only objection to an otherwise near perfect production.

 

UP NEXT: The King and I, a Personal Historical Addendum

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John Patrick Shanley’s PRODIGAL SON

Prodigal Son opened in January, off-Broadway in the Manhattan Theatre Club at the New York City Center.  MTC had also produced The Father, with Frank Langella (Read my comments in the June 8 entry below.) After a brief extension, for which I was very grateful, Prodigal Son closed on March 27th, and I was able to be there for its final performance. It was both written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, author of the film Moonstruck, the Tony-nominated Outside Mullingar, and Doubt, which won both a Pulitzer and a Tony for best new play in 2005. The man has been around the block, and he can pretty much be counted on for terrific dialogue and complex moral explorations. My cup of tea.

IMG_0294 (1)Shanley has revealed that the play is almost entirely autobiographical, including many unchanged names and detailed conversations he recalled from his own youth. Set in 1965, it is the story of a very bright, very rebellious fifteen-year-old renegade from the Bronx (Timothée Chalamet), who gets a “lucky” break by being awarded a scholarship to an exclusive New Hampshire boarding school. Despite his superior intellect and highly polished writing skills, he spends his two years there constantly on the verge of being sacked, because he is also a thoroughly unlikable liar, a thief, a bully, and an egotistical snob. But … he has charm.

Also in the picture is Alan Hoffman, the dedicated teacher played by Robert Sean Leonard, who is determined to make the boy succeed, graduate, and go off to college with a prestigious scholarship. Many of us remember Leonard’s 1989 film debut on the other side of the desk in Dead Poets Society, as preppie Neil Perry, opposite Robin Williams’ crack performance as the unorthodox Mr. Keating.  Since then, he has had a highly respected if often unrecognized career on both stage and screen, including a seven-year run as Dr. James Wilson in House.   Like Dead PoetsProdigal Son  is also devoted to the duel between two strong-willed individuals, teacher and student, trapped by the business of education.

In 1965, I was fresh off my first year of teaching, in a somewhat less prestigious partial-boarding school across the Connecticut River in Vermont. In that year, I too took an interest in turning around the life of one particularly bright student who had had some bad breaks. I am very familiar, both with the frustrations and disappointments, and with the joy and pride in the small triumphs that can come with such an effort. There are thousands of stubborn, obsessed, brilliant teachers, mentors, coaches and parents all over the world faced with just such challenges. And at its core, Prodigal Son is a tribute to them all.

Shanley’s alter-ego is Jim Quinn, possibly the only fictionalized name in the play. Trusting the playwright when he reveals in the program that this is all true, we know from the get-go that Jim is going to turn out just fine, one way or another, because Shanley did. And it’s a major tribute to the author and the two principal actors that we are kept in suspense for the full hour and a half of the play. Chalamet is an astounding young actor, and well worth seeking out on film or stage. I recognized him from the bit role he played briefly in the TV series Homeland, before they blew him up.   In Prodigal Son he brings into sharp focus the full scope of adolescent anger and angst, the weird and wry mix of cockiness and insecurity, and the familiar disdain for the ordered world of adults that we associate with street-wise kids who have had few breaks. And Robert Sean Leonard is his perfectly matched foil.

There is an ongoing common dilemma with narratives that struggle to be accurately biographical or autobiographical. How close must a playwright stay to the truth? Must all details be as accurate as possible? Or is there an implicit license to distort stories, make up events, and invent situations just to make the play work, to give it dramatic appeal beyond the more mundane history of real life? Or on the other hand, is there some obligation for a playwright to stick to the truth of what happened, even at the expense of dramatic structure, even if it hurts the play?

History is fact.  Plays are stories.  To a dramatic artist, it’s very tempting, often very necessary, to distort history.  It happens all the time.    But I’m going to guess that just the opposite may have happened this time. At the very end of the play, Hoffman subtly reveals an untoward physical attraction to young Quinn that turns upside down everything the play has been about from the get-go, converting it into a ninety-minute shaggy dog story. I don’t know whether John Patrick Shanley was himself actually the victim of a sexual advance by his teacher, but other than an overwhelming urge to tell the truth, I can’t think of any reason to turn the play on its ear by introducing a whole new theme that remains unresolved.  Up to five minutes before the final curtain, this was NOT a play about a pederast. If it was intended to be, then I missed something very important, and I learned nothing about either character relating to their central relationship, intentions, or needs.  Not that Shanley couldn’t have written such a play if he had chosen to.  But to suggest that that was the secret that has driven the action does a major disservice to this play.

Still, Prodigal Son remains an engaging 99% of a fine play about the universal struggle to save a life, to communicate, to connect ideas, and to inspire. I’m sure it will make frequent appearances in regional and school theatre seasons. It should generate some hot discussions, and it would make excellent fodder for a fine movie.  I look forward to seeing future revisions and productions.

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On David Harrower’s BLACKBIRD

Blackbird closed on the night before the Tony Awards ceremony, after an eighteen-week limited run on Broadway. But it’s been around for quite a while, and will undoubtedly continue to shock audiences for some time to come. David Harrower was originally commissioned to write it for the 2005 Edinburgh International Festival, and that immediately generated over 40 productions world-wide.  Among them was a 2007 off-Broadway run at The Manhattan Theatre Club directed by Joe Mantello, with Jeff Daniels (Purple Rose of Cairo, The Squid and the Whale, etc.) and Alison Pill, who would go on to work together again in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.

I missed that production, but as an avid Jeff Daniels fan (with the possible exception of the Dumb and Dumber excursions, which everybody else apparently loves). I wasn’t about to miss his first Broadway run since the 2009 production of Yasmina Reza’s  God of Carnage.  He had played two roles at different times in that one, for the first of which he was also nominated for a Best Actor Tony, along with the rest of the original cast.  And now, it seems Daniels just couldn’t let Blackbird go.  Helmed again by Mantello, this time around he was paired with Michelle Williams as his nemesis.IMG_0289

Word of mouth and the initial reviews raved that Blackbird was perhaps the most intense  play of the Broadway season, echoing the 2007 excitement over the play. It picked up three Tony nominations, one for each actor and one for Best Revival of a Play, in addition to the Olivier and other recognition it had earned abroad.

As almost everyone knows by now, Blackbird  concerns one of modern civilization’s  most abhorrent taboos. It is the story of Una, a twenty-seven year old woman who returns to confront the man who had seduced her when she was twelve years old. The two of them ran off together at the time.  Ray was eventually caught, convicted and sent to prison. Fifteen years later, he has established a new identity and is comfortably settled in a steady office job … until Una tracks him down. A long and harrowing verbal duel ensues, in which excuses, pretensions, assumptions and some surprising reversals are revealed.  It’s an embarrassing, complicated, difficult, and awkward path they must walk together. And at the same time, they must both somehow earn the sympathy of the audience, horrified by the subject but entranced by what is essentially a tragic love story. Not an easy task. Daniels claims it was the most difficult role he has ever undertaken.

Both performances were intense, and demanded a huge emotional investment. As Daniels has said in interviews, the play begins badly, and ends badly. During the curtain calls, etched into his face was a grim combination of exhaustion and loathing, along with his gratitude for the inevitable standing ovation. He is no stranger to awards and applause, but it was very evident that this play “got to him,” as it has to audiences everywhere, in a way that few others do.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that performances like these must originate in the minds of playwrights.  Harrower based his play on the true story of Toby Studebaker, an American ex-marine who seduced and ran off with a 12 year-old British girl, and spent five years in prison, with an even longer sentence awaiting him in the U.S.  But the Scottish playwright has converted a tawdry and sensationalist news story into a universal exploration into the baseness of human behavior and the “justifications” we invent to forgive ourselves. It’s quite a ride.

A side note: If you missed the play, hang on; I’m quite sure it will be a prime pick with regional theatres in the coming months. And the film version, renamed as Una, will be released later this year, with Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn playing Una and Ray.

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On Stephen Karam’s THE HUMANS

You went to New York and you didn’t see Hamilton? You went to see The Humans? A little contemporary dramedy about a typical dysfunctional family, which rode onto Broadway at a time when audiences are consumed with big budget musicals featuring upbeat scores, body mikes, and wild spectacle?

I love musicals too; really I do … There’s just something irresistible about Rogers & Hammerstein and many of their heirs that has been in my blood forever. Okay, I admit to having gone through brief periods of abstention from musicals, when I was too easily offended if someone opened her mouth in song and destroyed “the moment.” I mean, who does that? … But I’m older now. I like musicals.

Still, my first choices usually run mostly in the low-key, truth-revealing little plays that ask me to join in exploring the quandaries of being a human being.   So when picking the agenda (and the budget) for my seven-plays-in-four-nights of New York theatre this spring, a play that was actually titled The Humans promised to tell me something about me and my species . And that was just too hard to resist, even before it earned all those kudos: rave reviews,  a Pulitzer nomination, and “Best Play” awards by the Tonys, The NY Drama Critics, the Outer Critics Circle, the Drama League, the Drama Desk, etc. Pretty impressive!

But what is The Humans, after all?   A family is gathered together under protest for a bare-bones, paper plate Thanksgiving dinner at daughter’s bare basement level pad in Chinatown. On the surface, this appears to be “just another” holiday-family-reunion-kitchen-sink story, featuring a relatively unknown cast (except for Mom and Dad, played by old favorite Jane Houdyshell, and Reed Birney, both of whom have been around on- and off-Broadway and on film and TV long enough to feel like relatives). However, “just another…” doesn’t really apply here.

IMG_0290Playwright Stephen Karam is no newcomer to the New York stage either. He also wrote Speech and Debate, and Sons of the Prophet (which earned him his first Pulitzer nomination). But he was himself surprised to find this play had made it to Broadway at all, never mind garnering so much praise along the way. Commissioned by the Roundabout Theatre folks, arguably the best nonprofit theater company in the country, it opened two years ago at Chicago’s American Theater Company, quickly moved just last Fall to their off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre, and then immediately boosted up to the Helen Hayes on Broadway.

As it turns out, The Humans is NOT about your typical dysfunctional family, where members aim sharply pointed clever lines at each other, rising to a climax where all the shams are exposed and everyone is destroyed and storms out of the room never to speak again. Or else somebody kills somebody.

According to Karam, The Humans began with “What’s keeping me up at night?”   Turns out to be just what’s keeping most of us up at night: Will I lose my job? Can I pay my rent?   Will anyone figure out who I really am? Will my marriage survive? Am I an alcoholic? Am I losing my mind? Among the six person cast is Grandmother, lost to Alzheimer’s, and a family member for each of the above fears and then some. And what is such a delicious surprise is that the dysfunction actually works. Despite the fear and the hurt, the distrust and the disappointment, this family actually functions. Painful emotional outbursts are inflicted, absorbed, and remarkably, in a demonstration of human resilience, life goes on. We take what’s given to us, we feel the disappointment in ourselves and each other, and we go on in the hope that things will get better. And, just maybe, they will.

The fear that they won’t, of course, never goes away. There are always the unexplained things that go bump in the night (which in this case occasionally scared the wits out of the audience). There is the constant unknown that we are lost in darkness, which is especially exploited at the end of the play, a curious throwback to the thriller/horror genre. Left alone after the Thanksgiving “feast,” during a full power outage, armed only with a lantern, Mr. Birney’s frightened character climbs into the dark at the top of the spiral staircase to seek the way out of his daughter’s seedy duplex. What kind of scary monster awaits him? A thug?   A wild animal? A mad killer?  Or worse: another day of struggling for his own and his family’s survival?

The Humans itself goes on with defiant resilience. It was expected to close this month at the Helen Hayes Theatre. Instead, boosted by its four Tony Awards, it will turn around and reopen a block away at the Gerald Schoenfeld on August 9. The box office is selling tickets thru the end of the year.

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NEXT TIME: Blackbird, and then the last two of my spring splurges in New York: John Patrick Shanley’s autobiographical Prodigal Son, and finally, the pièce de résistance, the  brilliant Lincoln Center production of The King and I. I told you. I have Rogers and Hammerstein in my blood.

A recent trip accompanying my wife to Chicago afforded me the opportunity to see two brilliant productions in the windy city that this journal will also explore: The Goodman Theatre’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Lorraine Hansberry’s too-often overlooked second play; and up at the ever inventive Steppenwolf, Mary Page Marlowe, a brand new play by Tracy Letts (August: Osage County, Superior Donuts).

We leave next week for the beautiful, welcoming little town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, in Ontario’s wine country. It has recently become a favorite vacation destination for both my wife and myself, a chance to get outside our borders and look back to see who we are in America. It’s a great place for fine wine and friendly conversation. And it also manages, without excessive commercialism, to host the annual Shaw Festival, the second largest repertory theatre company in North America. I’ll tell you all about it.

So obviously there is much more coming. Be sure to sign up at the top right corner of this entry to receive notice whenever I make a new post. And PLEASE feel free to express opinions, arguments, and comments below. Select “Reply” and speak your piece.

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The 2016 Tony Awards: An Affair to Remember

Customarily, I’m not one to be caught up in the competitive suspense generated by the Tony Awards, or for that matter in the many competitions between artists that excite most of us. How can you choose between a great orange and a great apple? The choice has little to do with the quality of the fruit; it has to do with my own personal preference, with what I feel like in the moment.

Way back in the last century, when I was a high school drama teacher, my students and I would faithfully enter all the play competitions. They were great for providing enthusiastic audiences for our work, and certainly when we won, it was a tremendous ego boost for hard-working and talented kids in need of approval. For most of us it was almost as much a kick without the win. We worked hard to focus on the time we had spent together, the joy brought to us by the work and the discovery of new ideas and attitudes, the making of new friends, the excitement of performing before an approving audience, and the pride in bringing to them the insights of our too-often-forgotten playwrights. No one was allowed to feel like a “loser,” because no one was. (For confirmation, see the related discussion below of The Crucible.)

There were certainly no losers in Sunday night’s Tony Awards Show. If you missed this one, you missed a goodie. All right, so maybe we all knew who the “winner” was destined to be, and clearly Hamilton has earned every kudo it gets. But the entire Awards Ceremony was filled with the finest and juiciest apples and oranges to be found in any market anywhere.

Choosing all that fruit must have been a tough job for Tony voters. This was an astoundingly refreshing New York Theatre season. I knew that even before I embarked on my spring play-going binge, and long before the May 23rd announcement of this year’s Tony nominees. There have often been trips when I took risks on new works I’d never heard of, some terrific, and some duds. I’ve enjoyed the majority, walked out on a few, and was frequently indifferent to the rest.  But this time I knew I had a 100% solid treat in store: I was pleased and surprised to find six straight plays I was eager to see, as well as The King and I, which I’ll eventually come to in these pages.

Of course everyone asks if I’ve seen Hamilton, but alas that one will have to wait until the price drops well below the reported current levels of $850 and up for tickets for the foreseeable future. (Or… for the cheapskates among us who act fast enough, we could probably save some by flying out to Chicago, L.A. or San Francisco, where new productions will open over the next few months.) Barring that, I will have to be satisfied for now with reading Ron Chernov’s Alexander Hamilton, the book that inspired the musical, and listening to the entire script/score on the Original Broadway Cast Album … over and over and over.

There were even four or five additional straight plays offered this spring in New York, on and off-Broadway, that I thoroughly regret not being able to see. Still,  it  didn’t surprise me that of the six I did choose, four of them earned Tony nominations: The Crucible, The Father, The Humans, and Blackbird. The latter two will be the subjects of my next journal entry. And if The Effect had been presented in a Broadway house instead of off-Broadway’s Barrow Street Theatre, it would surely be among the nominees for the 2017 Tony’s. Instead, watch for it in the Obies. The last of my six choices, was a fine production of John Patrick Shanley’s largely autobiographical Prodigal Son, which is also in my journal pipeline. It’s about a teacher and the student whose life he turns around, which is what drew me in. It too contained a performance that was well worthy of Tony consideration. Good example there: That it was not ultimately nominated does not make it any less worthy (except, of course, to the financial futures of those involved) Come back later for details.

Meanwhile, let’s get back to the 2016 Tony Awards Ceremony itself. With all of us so deeply affected by the horrific attack on the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, it was a tough year to watch something so blatantly cheerful. But it turns out that almost nine million people did tune in, more than at any time in the last fifteen years. Sure, we all wanted to get a glimpse of what has turned into a worldwide cultural phenomenon, this thing we’ll not any time soon get near unless we’re willing to give up a week’s pay, this thing called Hamilton. But most of all, I believe that in the face of the devastating and inexplicable events in Orlando, we needed to find some joy… somewhere! And boy did we find it on the Tony’s.

It was abundantly clear Sunday night that the object of Theatre, and significantly also of Theatre Education, is to provide us with joy and insight. That goes for players and audience alike. With that in mind, here are what I consider to be the most satisfying moments in the entire 3½-hour presentation. Mind you, there were plenty more. I am limited only by length consideration.

MY FIVE FAVORITE MOMENTS

  1.  The opening, in which host James Corden stood in silence, with his back to the entire theatre community, and then spoke on their behalf to the camera, to the nation at large, and particularly to all those directly affected by the Orlando murders:

“All we can say is you are not on your own right now. Your tragedy is our tragedy. Theater is a place where every race, creed, sexuality and gender is equal, is embraced and is loved. Hate will never win. Together, we have to make sure of that. Tonight’s show stands as a symbol and a celebration of that principle. This is the Tony Awards.”

2.  The immediate appearance, and every appearance thereafter, of the cast of Hamilton, expressing a seriousness of purpose sensitive to the day’s events, along with the unbounded, infectious Technicolor joy of the human spirit that will never fail to get us through the bad days. Implicit also was a clear respect for American history, and for the ordinary people who came out of nowhere to piece our complicated democracy together. Their stubborn passion was captured and reflected on the faces and bodies of every actor in this astonishing cast … and passed on as a gift to a grateful audience.

3.  The gentle moment when Blair Underwood walked down the aisle thanking Marie Maniego, his Petersburg, Virginia high school drama teacher, for her inspiration, and then planted a kiss on the forehead of a surprised Marilyn McCormick, winner of the Tony’s “Excellence in Theatre Education Award.” That and the dynamic performances of the youngsters in “School of Rock” went a long way toward reminding us that few of the performers on stage and in the audience would be here were it not for the inspiration and dedication of a most likely unrecognized “high school drama coach.” Bravo!

4.  Frank Langella wins his fourth Tony, a tie for the most ever earned by a male actor. Having just written of The Father, I took considerable delight in this one. Reminding us that there is more truth than fakery in theatre, he used his acceptance speech to express his personal anguish over his own brother’s dementia: “My brother is very much alive in me every time I play André in The Father. He’s doing well. He goes in and out. But I’m not alone in this.” He then went on to a moving tribute to the Orlando victims:

“I’m now a 78-year-old man, and I react to things a lot more profoundly than I did when I was 60, when I was 50 or 40. This constant violence and sense of madness that seems to be pervading this country is terrifying. … I urge you, Orlando, to be strong. I’m standing in a room full of the most generous human beings on earth, and we will be with you every step of the way.”

5.  The high point of the evening: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s heartfelt sonnet, evidently scratched out on a piece of paper only hours (minutes?) earlier, and delivered with tears in lieu of his expected acceptance/thankyou rap for the best musical score.   Yes, of course we all loved the production numbers from all nine of the nominees for best musical. But what will we remember?   … This:

My wife’s the reason anything gets done.
She nudges me towards promise by degrees.
She is a perfect symphony of one.
Our son is her most beautiful reprise.
We chase the melodies that seem to find us,
Until they’re finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised. Not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers
remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed
or swept aside.
I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story.
Now fill the world with music, love and pride.

© Lin-Manuel Miranda

 

 

COMING UP NEXT: Blackbird, and The Humans.

(I know, I said that last time. But this time I mean it. Come on, could I NOT have written about the Tony’s?)

 

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On Florian Zeller’s THE FATHER

It’s always a risk to see a new show in its early previews. Generally, it takes time and experience in front of an audience for a cast to settle into the meat of their work. But Frank Langella is a different story:  He consistently appears at home in any role from the get-go.  There was no way I was going to miss his performance in The Father during this spring’s New York binge trip — preview or no.

A commanding and versatile actor, Langella can fill a stage with his presence, even if he’s playing a sick old man with Alzheimer’s disease.   Way back in 1977 he terrified my children and earned my wife’s not entirely pure attention in Broadway’s Dracula. I do believe she’d have freely offered her jugular to the man (under different circumstances, of course).  I’ve not seen Langella anywhere since, on stage or on screen, where he has not been powerfully and touchingly convincing, be he lover, villain, or super hero.   He was of course brilliant in Frost/Nixon, Starting Out in the Evening, Sherlock Holmes, The Mark of Zorro  (Yeah, yeah, I know, but have a look at the cast!),  and going back 46 years, in The Diary of a Mad Housewife.   Despite his more lucrative film career (64 movies), thankfully he remains committed to the stage.

IMG_0291The Father is one of four plays I attended in New York this spring that are up for Tony’s this coming Sunday night. The others are The Humans, Blackbird and The Crucible (the last two for best revival of a play). In addition, Langella himself is up for Best Actor … Mind you he already has three actor Tony statues at home, for Frost/Nixon, Seascape and Fortune’s Fool.  By the way, this is the 70th year the Tony’s have been awarded, and this show is far superior in entertainment value and generosity of spirit to that other awards show on the West Coast.  (I’m just saying….)

            The Father:  No — not the Swedish classic by August Strindberg (although Langella was on Broadway for that one too back in 1996). This one is by a hot young French playwright named Florian Zeller, and was translated into English by veteran playwright Christopher Hampton (Les Liaisons Dangereuses). It comes to New York with a considerable pedigree, including the best new play awards in both Britain and France.

This is the story of André, seemingly a retired dancer living with his daughter in a Parisian apartment. But not even that is necessarily so:  The play takes André’s own point of view, and André is increasingly suffering from Alzheimer’s Syndrome. His brain is beginning to disintegrate. As we watch him retreat into a perceived reality that makes no sense even to him, we quickly learn not to trust André’s perception of the world around him. Who exactly is Anne, for instance? Is she his own daughter, who wants to sell their apartment, get married, move to England, and move her father into a colorless assisted living facility where he will die alone?   Or is she his own private nurse, on whom he is emboldened to attempt seduction?

Zeller weaves a tangled web indeed, but the play itself somehow falls short of the tragedy in André’s soul. The man is surely in agony.   The final scene certainly captures the horror and terror of his condition at the end of a relentless downward path, largely with considerable help from Langella. But somehow the play felt too clever to let us really feel it. It was having too much fun with its own larger question: What’s real and what’s only the perception of a diseased mind?  So much that it got in the way of a powerful story.

“Fun?” you say? Yes, there are plenty of laughs to balance out the fear, and the play is sometimes described as a tragic farce.  But “Farce?” Let’s face it: When it’s playing to an audience of folks already terrified they’re showing early signs of Alzheimer’s, the laughs can feel pretty shallow.   It’s a risky choice for an evening out.

As to the problem inherent with attending previews? The price used to be more attractive and provide incentive. …not so much anymore. And when my friend and I saw it, the cast had had under their belts only one night of playing to an audience. Langella shone … as I knew he would. The rest of the cast? Not so much. They had their lines down cold, but they lacked the connection to the material that guarantees our full involvement with their characters.   I’m sure they have it by now. But alas, the play will close on Broadway on June 19, come what may, just five days after it might or might not win two “Best” Tony Awards.

Ah the ironies of Broadway! The old battle between art & commerce rears its ugly head once again.  And the winner is … ?

There is more to come from Mr. Zeller.  A companion piece, The Mother, has played in London, and his newest play, The Truth opened there in March to enthusiastic reviews.  They’ll no doubt be along. The Father will probably see light in regional productions, and may prove more gripping in more intimate venues. I may try it again, even without Langella.

COMING UP NEXT: Tony Nominees The Humans, and Blackbird.

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