Friday, March 10, 2017

Opposite, Both True.

I have to say I was shocked to read the New York Times's huffy review of the new Sam Gold revival of The Glass Menagerie this morning because my experience of it was so deep and powerful -- and so intimate -- that I couldn't get my head around the notion that anyone in that room could have had such a different experience. It was hard for me to imagine anyone thinking that Gold altered or tinkered with or did violence to Tennessee Williams's play. To me, this production revealed the play.

But that's just how it works, I guess. Other critics described something more in line with what I saw.

Though, as an artist, I know how personally wounding a negative review can be, when it comes to other people's work, a polarized response makes me much more interested to see something than universal praise. (I didn't really have much interest in seeing Hamilton until the backlash started which made me think there was something interesting there after all. Yes, I'm still entering that damn lottery every. single. day.)

I keep reminding myself of this as the reviews of the London production of LIZZIE roll in. Depending on whom you believe, it is either "loud, messy, and incoherent" or it is "the greatest American musical since Sweeney Todd." The critics are just about evenly split between hating it and loving it, with not much in between. It is a roller-coaster. But if this weren't my work and I were just somebody reading reviews, this would be the show I would be dying to see.

All of which is to say that the (to my mind, clueless) Times review of The Glass Menagerie pissed me off, but on the other hand left me reassured that I'm in good company.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

I Fell In Love Last Night.

For Christmas I got C tickets to the new revival of Sunday in the Park with George. The not-really-a-gift-because-it's-for-me-too-ness of it was somewhat mitigated by the fact that I've never really liked this show. It is musical theater apostacy, but I was never -- except for the Gypsy and West Side Story lyrics and maybe a dozen songs that I think are absolutely sublime and most of them are from Company -- never really much of a Sondheim lover. All those jagged melodies, and the always sort of cool, highbrow take on the subject at hand, and here's another word that rhymes with that, and here's another, and another. And another. Sunday in the Park with George always felt like the embodiment of everything I didn't respond to in Sondheim's work.

I am happy to report that it was I who was full of shit. In the middle of the first act, just when I'm thinking "what is this show about? is anything going to actually happen?," the lights focus in on George sitting downstage left, the orchestra gets quiet,  it's the end of the song, and he sings
Look I made a hat
Where there never was a hat 
I couldn't breathe for a second. From that moment till the end I was either weeping or on the verge of it. This show that I always said I didn't know what it was about was suddenly about everything I've ever cared about in my life. I knew it was about art, but I never felt how it was about art till last night.

(One big revelation for me was learning that Putting it Together is a song about fundraising. I guess I'd never listened closely to the lyrics, but I always thought it was a song about the artistic process. I know, duh, I'm probably the last person on earth that didn't know that. It didn't resonate when I first encountered the song -- I wasn't so battered and bruised by decades of negotiating the relationship between art and money.)

Maybe it's just because I'd never seen a production of the show, or maybe because this cast make what I think is overcomplicated music emotionally straightforward. Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford both give really clear, simple performances that were at times heartbreaking. The simplicity of the staging also threw the emotional arc into relief.

I love having something new to be a fan of. What's next? God forbid, Into the Woods?

Monday, February 20, 2017

Cowboy Mouth/LIZZIE.

In the last week or so I’ve had 2 separate, different dreams in which I am walking around someplace public wearing no pants, and I haven’t forgotten to wear pants or lost them or had them taken away from me but, in both dreams, I have deliberately put together a pantsless outfit to wear, and the dreams mostly consists of my effort to commit to the decision, to tamp down my discomfort, to pull it off. In the first dream, several days ago, I was walking down the street; in the second dream, last night, I was at work, maybe in a restaurant but the setting is vague.

Tonight I'll be on a redeye to London with my friend Tim for the U.K. premiere of the musical we began devising almost 27 years ago. T and I have made lots of theater together in the years since, but LIZZIE was our first collaboration. It spans the length of our friendship. It nearly spans the length of my career, and, since about 10 years ago when we resurrected the old one-act we'd put aside after a short run in the early 90s, began rethinking the book and adding not only a bunch of new songs but a third writer, our friend Alan, it has come to sort of be my career, at least in the eyes of people who haven't known me long. I am one of the writers of LIZZIE. "Have you met Steven? He's one of the writers of LIZZIE." I guess it's a function of how long musicals take to develop, but people ask me now "How's LIZZIE going?" in the same way they would ask someone, "So how's work?"

We always talk about the various LIZZIE influences, the great rock women, Heart, the Runaways, etc. But I was thinking this morning that even deeper in the DNA is the Sam Shepard/Patti Smith play, Cowboy Mouth. I was obsessed with this play in the early 80s, and I directed a production of it when I was in college, briefly, in Indiana in 1983. Cowboy Mouth is literally about yearning for redemption by rock and roll savior:
"In the old days, they had Jesus and them guys. His words don't shake through us anymore. We created rock 'n' roll in our image -- it's our child -- a new savior, rockin' toward Bethlehem to be born. God was selfish. He kept himself hidden. You gotta be a performer."
Here's a beautiful recent clip of Patti Smith:

And there's this:

Monday, February 13, 2017

Dialing It Back.

I'm reading Christopher Isherwood's 60s Diaries. In 1961, he's living in Southern California, obsessively watching the Cold War ramp up, tension is high in Berlin (famously his home in the 1930s), people in the U.S. are building fallout shelters, everyone is anxious about nuclear war. He writes: "I must lay off the newspapers. The newspaper reader dies many times before his death, the nonreader not nearly so often."

I installed a Chrome plugin that blocks Facebook from 9:30 to 5. It had to be done. The election last year and the chaos unleashed since had me on Facebook all the time, compulsively scrolling, reading articles, linking to stuff, poring over everyone else's fear, over and over and over. On one hand, I was reading a lot of good stuff, keeping hyper-informed, learning about new things in detail, figuring out my own stances on important issues, answers to important questions. I don't regret any of that. But it was too much, way too much. I can get more information than it is possible to digest in a couple hours Internet time in the morning, and then I can catch up in the evening. More than adequate.

It's been one full week now, and in that time I've returned to my many years neglected meditation practice, I've written in my journal at length every day, I'm reading much more than I had been able to for some time, and I've made measurable progress on the musical piece I'm writing based on my high school diary. I had been doing all these things (except meditating) all along, but now I do them with a clearer mind, more focus, and for longer periods of time, every day.

It feels like a good balance. I toyed with the idea of a total Facebook break, but I didn't want to give up contact with the many friends and family I don't keep in touch with in other ways, the flow of news and information from various sources that keeps me engaged and informed. I don't want to lose touch. But I also don't want to lose my mind.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Life Goals.

As you might know, we started licensing LIZZIE last year to, well, anybody in the U.S. who wants to do it, provided they can pay the minimum advance, which we set reasonably low because we want people to be able to afford to produce it. So far, we’ve licensed the show to a couple dozen or so theater companies and I think two colleges, all over the U.S.

My favorite so far (I know that’s really impolitic to say that, but I’m just being honest) is not even a full production. We made an exception to the standard and pretty much non-negotiable terms of our license agreement and gave permission to a high school theater department in Iowa for 4 girls to sing a cutting from the show in competition in a speech meet. Today the instructor emailed us to ask for permission for one more performance because the group of girls placed high and has been selected to perform at the state competition in Ames, Iowa.

I can’t think of anything in my whole career that has made me more proud. I am not joking. Maybe it’s because I’m so immersed right now in my own adolescence because I’m writing a show about it and a big part of my high school years was theater and speech, or maybe it's because the election last year made crystal clear how deeply woman-hating our culture and politics are and I'm obsessed with the way that distorts women's voices and obsessed with the possibility of finally changing that, but the thought of high school girls singing LIZZIE, our little smash-the-patriarchy musical, in a state-level speech competition in Iowa is beyond moving. Beyond.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Future.

Everyone I know is so sad and angry.

It’s the same feeling that I had as a kid that when someone in the room was in a bad mood (well, I say “someone,” but what I mean is my mother), that it was my fault. The fact that American democracy is in peril is maybe not my fault, but it certainly is, if the word democracy has any meaning, my responsibility, and what actually is the difference?

I am sad and angry, too. Sometimes I feel like I can hardly breathe. I remember days after 9/11, I was on the phone with a dear friend in New York and she was saying that she had the TV on all day watching video of the planes crash into the towers over and over and she couldn't stop crying. I said, "Turn the TV off!" (I was, thankfully, living off the grid at the time.) But now I find myself compulsively checking Facebook, reading the same dismal news over and over and getting more and more scared and tense. Facebook for years for me has been the way I keep in touch with friends, the news, politics yes but in some kind of proportion until last year's election got underway. Now it's all bad shit 24/7, it just feels like wallowing in despair. I feel the urge to unplug from it, but then I'd lose touch with people I love and I'd miss the building community of resistance that I think is crucial right now. I'm afraid of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

In my most angry moments I think, “Who the fuck cares? I’m going to be gone in 20 or 30 years. I gave it my best and now everything is completely fucked and I’m tired and fed up with the whole shit show.” But then I imagine the faces of my beautiful nephews and my beautiful niece and my heart splits wide open. What will their lives be like? The feeling that I have no confidence it will not be unimaginably horrific is nearly unbearable.

I think I’d been sort of bopping along for a while believing I was leaving a world for them better than the one I found. Maybe I’d relaxed into thinking that since I had spent decades protesting, complaining, resisting, and dissenting, and my efforts had had some kind of effect, some measurable success, that maybe it was safe to not be quite so angry all the time, to not always have to be quite so vigilant, to not always have to swim against the current, that maybe the status quo wasn’t perfect but I could live with it because it had so noticeably improved in my lifetime, and was obviously on a path to continue in that direction.

Not so obvious now.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Thoughts On Hairspray.

We gave up our cable TV a couple weeks ago. So far, it's going well. I miss NY1, but not too much -- I get most of my local news lately from neighborhood blogs I read every day.

I did feel pretty left out Thursday morning, though, reading everyone's responses on Facebook to the NBC live broadcast of Hairspray. It's just an ego thing, but I hate being late to these of-the-moment conversations, especially about art. It was available last night to stream online, so C and I watched it, and now I'll add my two cents to the day-old conversation, because you know I have to have an opinion on everything.

As everyone is saying, this is the best one yet. There was no where to go but up after that Sound of Music, but C and I both loved Christopher Walken's performance in Peter Pan, was that two years ago? The Wiz? I don't know, that show doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me, but I will admit to a chip on my shoulder about adaptations of The Wizard of Oz in general.

So, Hairspray. I know you're not supposed to lead with the negative criticism, but there were a couple technical things that I'm sure colored my feelings about the production. One, I know they have to have commercials, but all those interstitial bits with Darren Criss were total mood-killers. Still, if that's what it takes to get live musical theater on TV, then I'll go along with it.

But the sound? I hesitate to make this criticism because I know I'm old and losing my hearing, and to be honest I have this problem almost always when I see musical theater that has electric bass and drums, I just can't hear the vocals very well and miss most of the lyrics in big loud songs. But C was having the same problem, so I wonder if it was a sound mix issue. The vocals seemed often completely buried, until Jennifer Hudson sang. But, on the other hand, not a single review I read the next day mentioned it, so maybe I'm crazy.

But Jennifer Hudson. C and I were sitting there grousing a bit during one of those interminable breaks (you can't fast-forward when you stream from NBC), and then she started singing I Know Where I've Been and our attention locked onto the screen. Good god almighty, that's how you deliver an 11 o'clock number. I forgot every negative thought I had had up to that point and to the end of the show I was completely hooked, completely sold. By the time they got to You Can't Stop the Beat, I was nearly in tears from the exuberance, that choreography, the absolute simple rightness of the message.

Things I loved:

1) The dancing. The show is about dancing, and this production delivered. One of my greatest pleasures in life is watching Broadway chorus kids do their thing. I'm in awe every time.

2) Kristin Chenoweth: she is insane, right? I don't mean insanely talented (which of course she is) but like just insane.

3) I loved the set, too, with all the tributes to John Waters' Baltimore.

4) And Harvey Fierstein is an absolute hero of our time. We should wake up every day and say, "Thank you, Harvey Fierstein."

The show kind of works no matter where you come to it from, but to a John Waters fan it's remarkable how very different the musical is from the original film yet retains in such pure form what's great about it. If Waters reveled in all that trash ("The rats on the street all dance round my feet") to be provocative, it was to provoke people into realizing that there's beauty there, and love, and innocence, and strength, and humor, and that the real trash is in the hearts of mean, narrow-minded, prejudiced people.