Saturday, June 18, 2011

Funny enough

It was the reviews that convinced me I needed to see Born Yesterday on Broadway. My initial reaction was something like, "Eh, there's a movie, and the movie has Judy Holliday, and I'm very happy with that, thanks." But reviews like Michael Feingold's made it sound like something much more exciting than a run-of-the-mill revival of a reliable old comedy was happening at the Cort. And you know I love Feingold. So I went, and I'm sorry to say it was pretty much what I would have expected if I hadn't read any of those reviews. Fine, entertaining enough, but not especially good.

I should say that Jim Belushi was out last night, and perhaps that threw everyone else's game off more than I could detect. But his understudy, Bill Christ, was just fine, and the problems I had with the production wouldn't have been fixed by a stronger presence in that one role. Basically, I didn't see the "snappy" and sensitive direction Feingold saw; what I saw was much more in line with what I've come to expect from Doug Hughes after A Man for All Seasons and Inherit the Wind. If you want to make an old play feel fresh, I don't think Hughes is your man. In this case, there was a void where much of the emotional content should have been.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Tony memories

So little attention was I paying in the run-up to the Tonys last night that I didn't even know the show had moved from Radio City to the Beacon until it began. From where I sit, the move was an upgrade -- the broadcast actually seemed professionally produced (as befits a show that pays tribute to live theatre). The performers seemed able to hear the orchestra! What a difference that makes.

In terms of professionalism and general skill, the opening "It's not just for gays anymore!" number was the best I've seen, maybe ever. On the other hand -- well, here's what I said last year: "I just don't think the motto of the Tonys should be 'Broadway: It's Not So Bad!'" Alas, so much for what I think.

Some other thoughts, as I watched:

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Oh, is that on tonight?

I can't think of a year when I've been less excited about the Tony Awards than I am now. I have been a bit distracted from paying attention to the Broadway scene this winter and spring, so that accounts for some of my lack of enthusiasm. But even when I have made it to the theatre I seem to have seen all the wrong shows, at least if the Tony nominating committee is to be trusted. And you know, I'm not certain that they are. In past years, I've managed to see at least a couple of shows that gave me something to be excited about -- I may have seen only one of the nominated Leading Actor in a Play performances, but if I could feel good about that nomination, I had a reason to cheer. This year, even the shows and performances I have seen aren't inspiring me to root for anyone special. (Here is the official list of nominees.)

For example, I saw Arcadia, which I thought was quite good. It has a big cast with several very strong performances -- in general I thought the British cast members were stronger than the Americans, and if I were to recommend individual actors for Tony nominations, Billy Crudup would probably be the last name on my list. And Billy Crudup was the only member of that cast to be nominated. Hooray?

I also saw That Championship Season, which went completely unacknowledged by the nominators. Not even a Best Revival of a Play nod! Ouch. I didn't think it was great, but it wasn't an embarrassment either, and I'm surprised it was so completely snubbed. Maybe the American Theatre Wing took my griping too much to heart? Last year I complained about the celebrity-worship on display at the Tonys -- Catherine Zeta-Jones winning an award immediately after her completely horrifying live performance of "Send in the Clowns" was a low point. In a conversation on Facebook, I griped, "Next year they're going to skip the plays altogether and just hand out Tonys to any movie star they can get to show up. And then do a tribute to Glee, because why the hell not." I have been proven wrong. To look at the list of nominees, you would never know that such stars of film and teevee as Daniel Radcliffe, Kiefer Sutherland, Chris Noth, Dan Lauria, Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, and Robin Williams all had major roles (and positive reviews!) on Broadway this year. I guess that's progress? Of course, there's still the chance (very high) that the broadcast will make the most of any famous faces it can find. And I wouldn't rule out a random tribute to Glee. But when it comes to the actual nominations, I'm wondering whether the committee leaned a little too hard in the opposite direction.

Speaking of Robin Williams: last night I saw Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. His performance didn't blow me away, but it was solid and disciplined, and a nomination wouldn't have been a mistake in my opinion. I'm glad one other actor, Arian Moayed, did get nominated, even if he's really more of a "leading" than a "featured" performer in that play. But why on earth wasn't the play itself nominated? No love for Rajiv Joseph? There's extra room in the Best Play category. I didn't see any of the shows that actually were nominated, so I can't say whether it's better than any or all of them, but it's certainly good enough to get recognized. It's better than, say, God of Carnage. And when we have a new, notable American play running on Broadway, why be stingy with the recognition?

I think the main reason I'm so grumpy about what did and did not get recognized (despite my failure to see many of the favorites) is that one show I did manage to see is Sister Act. And it was terrible. So bad I scrapped my plans to review it, because what's the point? It's not even bad in an interesting way, it's just why-is-this-show-so-insulting-to-my-intelligence bad. Yet somehow the nominating committee found room for Sister Act in nearly every category set aside for musicals. I will grant them a Best Score nomination; some of those 1970s R&B pastiche numbers are pretty amusing. But Best Book is an outrage, and honestly the whole thing should have been overlooked in embarrassed silence. I just hope it doesn't actually win anything.

So: was it an off year for Broadway, or just for the Tony powers-that-be? Or was it just an off year for me? I'm not sure, but I do know I'm barely motivated to tune in tonight. I still will, of course, and there's always the hope that the broadcast will be surprisingly professional and enjoyable!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Into the words

I got Stephen Sondheim's book Finishing the Hat for Christmas (obvs), and I spent a lot of that snowed-in vacation reading it. But I didn't feel moved to attempt a full on review, because it strikes me as a fans-only sort of book. You know if you'll like it. You'll like it if you think you will. Just having an authorized print edition of all these lyrics is a treat; the commentary (and the memorabilia) is a bonus. But I wouldn't bother recommending the book to someone who wasn't already convinced of Sondheim's significance and at least somewhat familiar with the shows included. I don't know what such a person would get out of it, especially without the music to go along with the words -- better to listen to a few cast albums. And as a book, it's not a masterpiece -- it's interesting but repetitive, not as tightly conceived or edited as it could have been. A candy store for a fan, and I'll be in line for the next volume, naturally. But I'm not sure non-fans should feel compelled to pay attention.

I was surprised, then, by all the serious reviews of Finishing the Hat I saw, and by how they continued to trickle out throughout the spring. I was finally moved to write about it myself by reading Judith Flanders's take in the Times Literary Supplement.

First, she says this, which I think is just right:
[I]t is a partial autobiography of a life in the theatre told in the interstices of a very useful – and enjoyable – collection of his lyrics, combined with introductions and running commentaries telling us why a song didn’t work, or why a replacement did. This part of the book is a revelation and a pleasure, setting out Sondheim’s beliefs and principles, and outlining, in a way academics mostly fail to do, how a show actually works.
There were places I wished he'd said more, and places where I disagreed with his judgment (I will never be convinced that the rewritten Merrily We Roll Along is, overall, an improvement on the admittedly flawed original). But I found it fascinating -- as I think any fan would.

Flanders also pinpoints the reason Finishing the Hat left me with a sour taste: