Thursday, February 26, 2015

When They Were The Top

There's a review in a right-wing magazine of a new book on American musicals that makes a couple of interesting factual assertions.  I believe the first one: the last song from a musical to become "an enduring popular hit" was "Send in the Clowns," written in 1973.

I believe it because I remember when songs from musicals were a much more important part of popular culture, and were regularly among the hit songs of a given year.  This phenomenon even survived the early years of rock & roll, into the early 1960s.  "Send in the Clowns" might well have been the last of these, especially to be recorded by artists not associated with the musical itself.  Judy Collins for example famously recorded this Sondheim song.  And it became such a part of the culture that nearly 20 years later a Star Trek Next Generation episode could have a 24th century character quip, "send in the clones."

The second assertion however is this: "But big-budget musical comedy has been in increasingly steep decline since the 1970s, and 10 long years have gone by since The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the last homegrown musical to be wholeheartedly embraced by audiences and critics alike, made it to Broadway."

The writer, Terry Teachout, does mention the trend to what he calls "commodity musicals" based on movies etc. as well as small-scale musicals.  Since many of these are proclaimed "hits" I had assumed they were comparatively successful in an historical sense.  So if that was the most recent big hit, I'm surprised.  On the other hand, if it is true, I'm surprised only that I have a lot of company in preferring some of the older musicals to most of the newer ones.  Then again, I enjoy musical comedy movies most of all--which Teachout suggests persuasively is an entirely different form.

In any case, the book under review sounds interesting: American Musicals is simply a two volume collection of the scripts of 16 musicals between 1927 and 1969--from the beginning through the golden age.

Moreover these are the scripts of shows as audiences saw them on opening night--which in many cases are not the same as the versions seen today on the North Coast and elsewhere.  These unabridged scripts contain, for example, racially charged dialogue by today's standards, but Teachout claims that they also contain writing that suggests why these shows worked so well on stage.

Scripts are sometimes changed to substitute contemporary references for obsolete ones, but also in dumbed down touring versions, for schools and non-urban audiences etc.  It's a reminder that shows hereabouts may not be lacking just the lavish Broadway staging of the originals.

Teachout mentions that the classic American musicals were almost always "sunny in tone" and had happy endings.  That certainly was one of the changes from Sondheim on, an apparent reaction against the artificiality of the musical comedy.  While the form may have been expanded, it may also have become something else.  Maybe there are no musical comedies anymore.  As for their relation to real life,  I think increasingly of what British TV writer Russell T Davies remarked, that only the arts can give us comedy.  If we want tragedy, we've got real life for that.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Classic Problem

Tom Stoppard, whose new play The Hard Problem is onstage at the National Theatre in London, made some waves by claiming in a public forum that he had to dumb down a scene because preview audiences weren't getting a literary allusion.

He noted as well that a reference in one of his earlier plays to Goneril was recognized with the appropriate laugh in its first production in 1974, but when the play was revived in 1990, about half the audience was clueless.

The allusion, by the way, is in Travesties, a play so intellectually energetic and hilarious that it is almost never done (and certainly never on the North Coast.)  Henry Carr, a minor British official in Zurich, is being offered a part in The Importance of Being Earnest by its producer, James Joyce.  He asks why Joyce could possibly believe he is qualified.  Carr's younger sister Gwendolen says she recommended him. "You were a wonderful Goneril at Eton."  It seems that knowing Goneril is one of the sisters in King Lear is less essential to the joke than simply knowing it is a woman's part, and that Eton is (or was) all male.  Though like many jokes the humor is in the sound of the specific words.

Coincidentally, the play's director Nicholas Hytner said something perhaps pertinent to this point in an exit interview as he left his position running the National Theatre.  While giving him full marks for staging new plays of social and political import, the interviewer (veteran Guardian critic Michael Billington) noted a decline in productions from the classical repertoire.  Hytner accepted this observation, and said "I think there's been a general retreat from the classic repertory" but added "I also believe things will change and that the classic rep will be rediscovered by a new generation of directors."

This may be true, though especially in the UK--in the US I'd guess that such revivals as the new New York production of Albee's A Delicate Balance owe their existence to actors with clout (usually from the movies) who want challenging roles in a time-tested play once in awhile.

 But this overall point that the classic rep is not being done extends beyond Britain, though perhaps for different reasons.  My guess is that universities are also doing fewer classic plays, even modern American classics, unless they happen to be musicals.  It seems true of HSU for instance.

So what? Here's what.  Classic plays aren't classic just because they're old.  They may challenge successive generations of actors and directors as well as audiences, but they are worth that exploration.  And they are embedded in our common culture, for more than (but also including) punch lines of new jokes.

Some of this is an unfortunate byproduct of a healthy change--plays from cultures not much represented on common stages before.  There are only so many production slots, at the National or anywhere.

But it seems some and possibly quite a lot of it is not only because theatre audiences have dumbed down, but so has theatre education, leaving young theatre artists unequipped for the hard problems of the classics.

And it's a situation that feeds on itself, as the Hytner and Stoppard observations taken together suggest.  With fewer productions, fewer theatre artists as well as audience members get to experience classic plays.  They may all then comfortably believe that splashy musicals, identity dramas and warmed-over sitcoms are all there is.  Until very soon they are right.

Meanwhile, Stoppard's The Hard Problem (which is about consciousness, not--as the playwright points out--erectile dysfunction) is meeting with mixed reviews, often pointing out that it's not as good as his earlier plays.  If you read the reviews online and follow the algorthimically generated links, you may soon run into a review that says exactly the same thing about The Coast of Utopia, Stoppard's now "classic" trilogy.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Los Pajaros and More on This North Coast Weekend

Update: It's the final weekend (Feb. 12-14) for Los Pajaros.  With Mother Teresa as Harpo, Dick Nixon as Groucho, it's the Marx Brothers meet Firesign Theatre, with a Latino edge.  The cast of 11 seems even bigger at times, so it's fascinating to recall that before this HSU production, the only performances were by the three members of Culture Clash. 

HSU Theatre is opening its major production for this school year on Thursday (Feb. 5) and it's something different for the North Coast.  It's Los Pajaros, a contemporary musical satire adapted by the Chicano American performance troupe Culture Clash from the play The Birds by Aristophanes, directed by Del Arte's Michael Fields, and featuring a Tim Randles band playing salsa, blues, gospel and rock & roll.

What's different is the Latino voice and perspective, in the Culture Clash script and as carried out by a largely bilingual HSU student cast.  The production recognizes the growing Latino population in Humboldt County and within the HSU student body, while adopting and adapting a comedic approach that's as old as theatre in western civilization.  That's pretty exciting.

So even if local media is waiting a week to review this play, it's worth saying that it opens this weekend and runs for only one more: Thursdays through Saturdays, February 5-7 and 12-14 at 7:30 p.m. with a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday February 14 in the Van Duzer Theatre.

  There's a lot more information at HSU Stage & Screen.  I usually have my complete say there, as production publicist.  But once in awhile I need to add a little emphasis when it may not be getting through otherwise.  (If you read the Journal you won't even get that link to information.  In what looks very much like deliberate pettiness, they've excised every mention of a web page link to this weekend's HSU theatre and music productions.)

Not that this is going to be a regular thing here anymore, but here's a couple of other events this weekend:

Arcata Playhouse hosts The Uncomfortables Tour, a spoken word event featuring Billy Tuggle (aka Karma Threesixty, from Chicago) and Wil Gibson from Maine, plus special guests. It's happening Thursday (Feb. 5) at 7 p.m.  There's a free workshop earlier that afternoon at 4 p.m. 707-822-1575.

First years at the Dell'Arte School present their annual Commedia dell'Arte Show  Thursday, Friday and Saturday Feb. 5-7 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo.