Larry Harbison, editor of How I Did It: Establishing a Playwriting Career, recently reviewed On the Twentieth Century in his Playfixer blog! Read his opinion on the musical revival, as well as his opinions on several other musicals currently on and off Broadway!
Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on AIRLINE HIGHWAY, DISENCHANTED, SOMETHING ROTTEN, THE VISIT, ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY and IT SHOULDA BEEN YOU.
Lisa D’Amour’s Airline Highway, a Steppenwolf import currently at the Samuel J.Friedman Theatre, is something of a throwback which put me in mind of the glory days of Circle Rep. It’s a thoroughly realistic large-cast slice of life play more about its characters than its plot. Think The Hot L Baltimore. Think Balm in Gilead (which was also a Steppenwolf import, directed by John Malkovich, with a sensational performance by an unknown-to-New York actress named Laurie Metcalfe. Both plays were by the late Lanford Wilson). D’Amour’s play is about the denizens of a seedy motel in New Orleans called The Humming Bird. There’s a seen-better-days hooker (played wonderfully by Julie White); there’s a transvestite with a heart of gold named Sissy Na Na, played with quite a flair by J. Todd Freedman (both actors are nominated for Tony Awards, by the way). What plot there is concerned the funeral of an elderly resident named Miss Ruby, once a madam. She ain’t dead yet (she’s in bad shape up in her room) but has requested that her funeral be held before her imminent demise so she can attend it. Joe Mantello has elicited fantastic performances from his ensemble cast.
As a Lanford Wilson fan, I was thrilled to see that his legacy is carrying on.
Disenchanted, at the Westside Theatre, spoofs heroines from Disney animated films, such as Belle and the Little Mermaid, done by an energetic cast of 5 women. The songs by Dennis T. Giacino (who also wrote the sorta one-joke book) are tuneful and clever. This is a great “Girls Night Out” show. I rolled my eyes more than once, but the ladies in the audience were whooping it up.
Something Rotten, at the St. James Theatre, is that rarity these days – a Broadway musical which is not based on a popular film. It’s about a failing theatre troupe in Elizabethan London who need to come up with a New Idea which will trump their main competition, a guy named Shakespeare. Nick Bottom, the troupe’s leader, goes to a soothsayer, who predicts that the Next Big Thing will be musical comedy, so Nigel and his writer brother, Nigel, come up with a ridiculous musical comedy called “Omelette,” about a Danish prince trying to make eggs (The addled soothsayer, trying to come up with Shakespeare’s next hit so the Bottom brothers can beat him to the punch, scrambles the title, as it were).
Brian D’Arcy James and John Cariani are hilarious as the Bottoms, and Brad Oscar equally so as the Soothsayer, Thomas Nostradamus (not him – his nephew). The book, by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell and the music and lyrics by Wayne and Carey Kirkpatrick are as funny as The Producers or Spamalot, loaded with witty references to musicals of the future, such as Cats.
You won’t find a funnier show on Broadway, except for maybe The Book of Mormon, and who can get into that?
The Visit, at the Lyceum Theatre, is a musicalization by Kander and Ebb of the great play of the same title by Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, about the world’s wealthiest woman who returns to her impoverished home town to enact revenge on the man who wronged her as a girl. She offers to give every citizen a million marks if they will kill the guy. Of course, everyone refuses – and then starts buying things on credit. Chita Rivera, although she’s more than a little creaky by this point, is striking as Claire, the rich woman intent on revenge, and Rogers Rees is touching her lover long ago whom she wants killed.
I think this is well worth seeing – but do so soon, because after the Tony Awards I don’t think it will be around much longer. There’s just too much competition, and this is not exactly an “audience-friendly” show.
The revival of On the Twentieth Century (book by Comden and Green, music by Cy Coleman), at the American Airlines Theatre is, if anything, even better than the original production. It stars Peter Gallagher as an insolvent Broadway producer named Oscar Jaffe and Kristin Chenoweth as the screen goddess he discovered and bedded years ago, named Lili Garland. who are both on the Twentieth Century Limited on its way from Chicago to New York. If Oscar can get Lily to star in his next Broadway project, a ridiculous epic of Joan of Arc which hasn’t even been written yet, all his woes are over. Problem is, she hates him. She’s travelling with her boy toy and recent co-star, Bruce Granit, played wonderfully by Andy Karl. Gallagher and Chenoweth and simply sensational, as are Scott Ellis’ direction, Warren Carlyle’s choreography and William Ivey Long’s sumptuous costumes.
You’ll get real bang for your buck with this one. Don’t miss it.
On the other hand, you could skip It Shoulda Been You at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, a contrived, unfunny musical loaded with tired ethnic humor about a wedding. She’s Jewish – he’s a goy. Both, it turns out, are gay. Oy, vey …
Also, be sure to check out both How I Did It: Establishing a Playwriting Career and You Fascinate Me So: The Life and Times of Cy Coleman!
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books has recently published How I Did It: Establishing a Playwriting Career, edited by Lawrence Harbison. The book features many interviews with successful playwrights, all conducted by Harbison.
Check out the Foreword of this new Applause book, written by Theresa Rebeck!
How do playwrights get their start? Where does the idea of being a playwright even come from, and then how does one start?
Once someone starts writing, how does that person figure out how to get a raw new play from a complete nobody to a place where someone produces it? And then what happens? And then what?
In a series of interviews that are chock full of the kind of information that other playwrights want to hear, Larry Harbison poses these questions to some of America’s finest contemporary playwrights. In conversations that range from a discussion of what kind of temp work you were doing when you started out as a playwright to how you got your first agent, and from who gave you a hand up to the thrill or heartbreak of that first production, Harbison focuses on the mysterious moment when a playwright steps out of that chrysalis and starts to emerge.
The designation emerging playwright is so commonplace that no one is quite sure what it means. Intuitively, one might think it means a playwright who nobody’s ever heard of. Or, a playwright whose plays are pretty good, but who has never had a production.
Or, a playwright who’s had a couple of productions in smaller venues but is hoping to get into a bigger house. Or, a playwright who has had a couple of productions but has made no money at all at it and still harbors the fantasy that someday someone might actually pay him or her to do this.
Or, a playwright who is teaching playwriting at a university but struggles to get his or her own work into production.
Recently, I was told that emerging playwright doesn’t mean any of that. Apparently, some people think an emerging playwright is actually a playwright who has already emerged enough to get the attention of people who might agree that this emerged playwright could use some help emerging further. Which means, I guess, that we need another word for what happens before that. Aspiring? Depressed? Hopeful? Wannabe?
People seem very concerned about these designations. Right now, the ones in vogue are emerging playwright, midcareer playwright, and master playwright. Although I have a friend who had a couple of strong pops straight out of graduate school, and since then, not much. She calls herself a “submerged playwright.” Frankly she’s not the only one who worries about submerging; anything past “emerging” and before “master” is a little worrisome. Will you make it through “mid career” or will you fall away into teaching or raising children or (oh no!) television?
That is not our concern today. Today we are looking at the moment when some of our most compelling playwrights emerged. Their stories are simply told, with appropriate attention to detail, which Harbison nurses out of them with a shrewd eye. They are in fact the stories that every young playwright wants to know. How does that moment happen?
It’s hard to emerge. As I read these interviews, they reminded me of a little bird, pecking like hell to get out of its egg and get on with things. We are right to be obsessed with the question of emergence. I’m also struck by the way the word “emergence” glides so effortlessly into the word “emergency.” There is no question that climbing out of that shell is essential to life; you will suffocate in there if you don’t make it out.
But there are ways to get out of that shell. Harbison and his pantheon of playwrights have information about that.
September 20, 2014