I’d intended to see “The Drowsy Chaperone” in previews, but life intervened. I have spent many happy hours listening to the CD. But yesterday I finally made it to the matinee. I also had an ulterior motive: I’ve been meeting with a composer about a new musical, and he’d suggested that I see it to look at the structure. The libretto hasn’t been published yet, so I must rely on memory and the Playbill.
The structure is ingenious. What tends to be the biggest problem with old musicals, and the older it is, the bigger the problem is? The books are a big snore; c.f. David Henry Hwang rewriting “Flower Drum Song” (though I think that was more a race problem than a boring issue); David Ives tinkering with old libretti for the “Encores!” series. How do we know most of these old musicals? Anything before “Oklahoma!” we know from reproductions, partial recordings (I grew up with eight songs from “Lady in the Dark” on an RCA reissue; it’s the original Broadway cast, but leaves out giant sections, including Danny Kaye singing “Tchaikovsky,” and barely begins to do service to the intricacies of Kurt Weill’s orchestrations) or individual songs. “Oklahoma!” was the first original cast album.
So what do librettists Bob Martin and Don McKellar do? They stretch the truth a little. Say that original cast albums did exist in the 1920s, what if we build a show around one of them? And this show has set pieces that are intrinsic to musicals of that time. There’s an old rich lady, Mrs. Tottendale; who has an estate with many servants and a butler, Underling; a follies showgirl, Janet Van De Graaff; the guy who runs the follies, Feldzieg, who has an intellectually challenged chorine girlfriend, Kitty; a wealthy juvenile, Robert Martin, with a best friend, George; and Janet’s chaperone (“champagne makes me drowsy”), the Drowsy Chaperone. They even manage to work in the most exciting technological advance of the 1920s with Trix the Aviatrix, and two gangsters (who wouldn’t be at all out of place in “Kiss Me, Kate”).
All of these characters and their antics live in Man in the Chair’s studio apartment, because that’s where the record player is. The action is driven by the record album itself; the Man in the Chair gives us comment on and the context of the show. It doesn’t feel forced or weird (well, it took me a minute to adjust to the action happening I the apartment, but once the refrigerator opened up, I felt at home).
Danny Burstein is hilarious as Aldolpho, as is Beth Leavel as the title character; Troy Britton Johnson and Patrick Wetzel do a great tap number, true to the period and mesmerizing. I regret not having seen Georgia Engel and Edward Hibbert in their original roles. Jo Anne Worley basically does Jo Anne Worley (where a lighter touch to the comedy might have been helpful), and Peter Bartlett appears to be trying to channel Hibbert. I've tried to include a photo, but Blogger keeps rejecting my .gif.
I think that one of the tests of what is good theatre is if you’re still thinking about what you saw and heard a few days later. I saw a musical like that last week; it’s part of this year’s NYMF festival. One of the reasons I’m still thinking about “Look What a Wonder Jesus Has Done” is that I’m still not sure it’s really a musical. It’s some mixture of musical and opera and church, with beautiful, stirring gospel music and great singers.
The show is about a slave revolt in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822. The protagonist is a freeman, Denmark Vesey (Horace Rogers), who is trying to buy freedom for his wife and two children. Chloe, Denmark and Rose Vesey are owned by the evil Col. Moore (David Andrew Anderson, who literally stops the show with the ballad “Answer My Prayer”). The bulk of the action is built around the independent church that Vesey and Bishop Thomas (Allen Kendall) found. The church flourishes, it’s thwarted, it battles on and its members literally die for it. All through this wonderful music- arias, recitatives, call-and-response. It’s incredibly compelling. And if you check out the show’s website, you’ll see praise from no less than William Styron and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I can totally see it being performed in a church setting. The musician in me is sold on it.
But at the same time, the Dramahound is thinking do you really need two cute children to exploit the audience’s empathy? The creator (composer/lyricist/librettist Walter Robinson) of the show writes gorgeous music, but the false rhymes in the lyrics start very early on, and they’re distracting (I know Tony Kushner writes false rhymes too, but I find that practice no less distracting when it comes from him). The show’s blurb (the theatrical equivalent of a logline in film- I’m not sure what you call it) is “A love story twisted by slavery.” Which is unfortunate, because we don’t so much see the love story of the couple as we see the struggles of Prosser Vesey and his church. We learn about the characters through the music itself, but we really aren’t given anything other than broad outlines in the libretto and the lyrics. And as underwritten as the male characters are, the female characters are even more so. This is not to say it’s unwatchable- there aren’t any bad performances and Hilary Adams does a commendable job with the direction. I just wanted it to be better.
You have four more chances to see it at St. Clement’s.
I have read a lot of plays, and I still do. I read plays because I’m fascinated by how they work (each them its own little kingdom), and because I love stories. Another reason I read plays is because if I’m writing a play about characters or a situation that has been a play already, I want to read it. I don’t want to make the same mistakes another playwright already made. I want to make my own, different ones.
There are many people who don’t like to read plays. I remember actor friends from college who’d complain bitterly about the reading list we had to slog through. It was quite extensive, and there are certainly plays on it I have no desire to ever read again (“Secret Service”? “Fashion”? I shudder at the thought). But I always thought it was weird that my pals complained about reading plays so much. They were all readers; they read history and novels and whatever else. But plays were somehow more work to read.
I’ve had playwriting students who don’t like to read plays. Somewhere they’ve read, or someone has told them, that playwrights should not read plays written by other people. That they will somehow be unduly influenced by reading other writers, and lose their own voice. I admit I did used to go through a period if I was writing a first draft of a play, I didn’t read other writers. I don’t need to make that demarcation as clearly anymore. I’m not so afraid of another style creeping into mine anymore. But I admit I find it counter-intuitive to ignore millennia of plays that have come before us.
Plays cost money to buy- I’ll grant you that. I have been building a library of libretti for the past two years, and it hasn’t been cheap. But I do hit the good book sales, and I know about the secret weapon: Project Gutenberg (link is above). Project Gutenberg has hundreds of plays in the public domain, in many languages. It also has foreign language (including Middle English) plays in translation. It is a wonderful, wonderful thing! It has poetry and prose as well.
I have heard Edward Albee say (and I’m paraphrasing) that he doesn’t understand why people don’t like to read plays. A play is as much of a story as a novel, and it takes a fraction of the time to read. Makes perfect sense to me.
I was a great library devotee for most of my life. At one point, I had library cards for both the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library (I was working in Brooklyn, and needed to do research there). But somewhere along the way, I fell away. My then neighborhood branch had erratic opening hours, and for months at a stretch wasn’t open at all. I was living with someone at that time who felt library books were beneath him, and I picked up his bad habits. Add to that Amazon, Alibris, and worst of all, Barnes & Noble.com, which will deliver the next day in Manhattan. So my library card fell into great disuse (I’m not sure I could find it if I tried, and that was two apartments ago). When I was in DC a few weeks ago, I was hanging out with a college friend, bemoaning the fact that other than my family and her, I know almost no one who reads a daily newspaper anymore (she reads the "Washington Post", and I read the "NY Times"). I have friends who say they read the Times, but they don’t- they read the electronic arts digest which does not count in my eyes. So I’m on quite the judge-y roll with this newspaper thing, and my friend says to me, “Yeah, I know, but what about the people who don’t have library cards?” And I became strangely silent. She is, of course, right. Even with my bimonthly trips to the Strand, there’s always books they don’t have. Or a book I want to read but will probably never read again. That’s my rule for keeping books: if it’s not research I need at hand, or something I will ever read again, it goes out, to the neighbors or to a thrift store. So one day last week I went to the Mid-Manhattan branch, and while I visited the book sale (there’s usually something in the book sale, and often for $2), I did spend time in the library proper, got myself a card and borrowed a book (a W.G. Sebald novel that’s out of print). There’s all sorts of things you can do online now- not just look up books in the card catalogue. You can reserve books, and look at the Picture Collection (click on the question mark above, and the attractive lion above can testify). The library cards themselves are quite high-tech- little swipe-y things to go on your keychain. I checked the book out myself: put the digital tag underneath the laser, and swiped my card. And now I have a red and blue lion tag on my keychain, should I ever forget the lions on Fifth Avenue and Fortieth Street. But how could I?
Last weekend, my brother and his eldest daughter were in town. So the four of us- brother, niece, my boyfriend and me- went to the American Natural History Museum to see the special exhibit on mythical creatures. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more predisposed audience for this show than us. The good parts of the show were very good. They had what’s thought to be the actual fake mermaid (the Feejee Mermaid) that P.T. Barnum had assembled from a fish tail and a monkey, and displayed to great acclaim in lower Manhattan over a hundred years ago. I’d read about it, but never dreamed I’d actually see it. There were also great displays about gryphons, and a fascinating explanation of how gryphons came to be. When dinosaurs’ fossils were found in the Gobi desert, the people of that time didn’t know from Protoceratops. They thought the fossils looked like an animal that was part-lion and part eagle, which is how the gryphon came to be. For reasons I’m not sure of, the Romans associated gryphons with Nemesis. A similar fossil explanation is given for the Cyclops. Someone found the skull of a pygmy elephant, which had a large hole in the center of it, where the trunk would have been. In looking at the skull, they assumed the big hole was for a giant, single eye. There were also displays of unicorns, and narwhals. I had seen narwhals at the museum in Valdez, Alaska (along with some really big taxidermied polar bears), but at the Natural History Museum, I got to touch a narwhal horn. The Japanese kappa, which lives in water and is said to try to pull children under to their death, may be tamed by feeding him a cucumber. I never knew vegetables could be so handy. What was disappointing to me were the dragons. For some reason, in my Readers Theatre class in prep school we spent a lot of time on Kenneth Grahame’s "The Reluctant Dragon". I have also had an idea, for years, about writing a cabaret based on the lives of the saints, one of whom will be St. George. In my research, I found one St. George legend (Syrian, I think) where the dragon was not killing people by breathing fire on them like a barbecue, but his breath was so foul that it killed any human to come near it. This Mythic Creatures show has been running since May, the ads for it are all over the subways (using the image of a dragon), there’s been at least one extensive article on it in the Times. But other than a handful of examples, the majority of the dragons were Asian, not European. I had come to be scared (well, a little scared) by the dragons, and left unscathed. Still, each of enjoyed some aspect of it. So after we paid our respects to the dinosaurs, we went off to lunch.
I belong to three Yahoo! Groups for playwrights. Two of them don’t have much (other than porn and Cialis offers), but the third is pretty active- at least three posts a day, every day. Since I joined last spring, there have been two really spirited, passionate discussions, one about charging fees for playwriting contests. The most recent has revolved around a theatre that had been (and has since desisted) charging a $12 fee to submit a ten-minute play. Since dialogue is approximately a minute a page, that struck some people as excessive. But in the midst of this passionate debate, an ancillary topic came up, which is the value of ten-minute plays. One member wrote that ten-minute plays are for students, and useless for anyone else, certainly for professional playwrights. I am not sure I would go quite that far. I think ten-minute plays are reflective of how our culture has changed since the 1950s, particularly through tv. The most visible proponent of the ten-minute play has been the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Every year, playwrights from all over the country submit their ten-minute masterpieces to ATL, where a handful are produced as part of the Humana Festival. For decades, ATL has published collections of the best ten-minute plays they’ve produced. I have used several of them in playwriting classes, if one of the goals of the class (which it often is) is to have each student complete a ten-minute play. But the truth is, writing a good ten-minute play is quite difficult. It should have a beginning, a middle and an end. It shouldn’t be a comedy sketch. It shouldn’t be the first scene of a much longer work. (I myself am most guilty of the latter.) Out of the ATL collections, even the “Best of” anthologies, at least half don’t fulfill those three criteria. And many that do, aren’t really ten-minutes long. The former artistic director of ATL, Jon Jory, used to say that no ten-minute play is really ten minutes long. On the other hand, for theatres, ten-minute plays can be a godsend. They bring in new audiences (the family and friends of the actors and the directors); they’re much faster to rehearse; it’s less daunting to put amateur actors in shorter, unsustained roles, so they save money by not paying salaries or stipends. And for audiences who aren’t used to going to the theatre, it’s less intimidating because it’s more like tv. You don’t like the first piece? That’s okay. Wait ten minutes and we’ll be on to the next one. What’s most difficult (and off-putting) to me about ten-minute plays is that the form pretty much dictates content that’s either a shallow riff about something important, or a riff on something of little importance. My friend Elaine Romero wrote a ten-minute play about Susan Smith (the woman who killed her children) which is wonderful, but ten-minute plays of that level are very rare. I have written at least ten of them myself; three are coming out in anthologies published by Smith and Kraus this year. Of course the other problem with ten-minute festivals is they have spawned ever-shorter plays- eight-minutes, five-minutes, even down to one-page (they certainly exist). I guess I wonder when they’ll shrink to two lines of dialogue. Or maybe just one word
I have been lucky, up to now, in that I have never had a computer hard drive die on me. That is, until Thursday morning. I had planned a busy day of writing. But something was not right with my Toshiba laptop. It was running really slow (even for it), and freezing.
I had an idea that its days were numbered- I was backing up much more often than usual. I’d told myself that I wouldn’t get another PC. I was sick of all the fiddling with virus software (the latest Symantec is completely impossible- I had to run a patch every week to get the virus update), the incredibly intrusive “Automatic Updates,” the buggy software, the knowledge that eventually I’d have to break down and buy Vista, which looked ridiculous. I told myself I would finally get a Mac Book and be done with it. But I had more expenses from my move than I’d counted on (like the enormous air conditioner I had to buy to make it possible to sleep in my windowless bedroom during the summer), so I kept putting it off. And frankly, I was leery of the cultishness of the Mac people I know- my brother and sister, my boyfriend, my old roommate, pretty much everyone I know under the age of 30.
The Toshiba froze when I was trying to read my email. I restarted it, printed out a copy of the one document I had to have this week (lyrics to audition for the BMI Songwriting Workshop). First the screen went blue, and then black, with a pulsating cursor, asking for the password for my hard drive. I called Toshiba, and the guy on the other end of the line said, “Lady, your hard drive is dead.”
So the all writing day turned into going into Manhattan, since I had no email access, then home, and then back again to meet my boyfriend to go to Tekserve (which is much more pleasant that Datavision, the nearest PC repair place, I must say) and buy a Mac Book. The Tekserve guy took my money, and gave me a Mac Book and a chocolate bar.
I think writers have a deep attachment to whatever they write on. When my old laptop was in the shop getting a new CD drive, I could feel this physical sense of absence. Not to mention the lack of web surfing, email, and music other than the radio. So I’m still getting used to my Mac Book. But I hope we’re together for a long time.