It was a dark and stormy night, but inside the movie theater...ok, it was also dark; but one of my favorite feelings is realizing I've just smiled continually in the dark for the entire length of a movie, play, musical. Just me and my smile. That was me for the entire ninety minutes of "One Night Stand," a documentary film that celebrates the monumental talent on which Broadway is built! This was a one-night-only showing of the film in theaters around the U.S. (it will screen in Canada in February), but there will be a DVD available down the road.
The set up is simple. A generous group of souls in the Broadway community: actors, writers, composers, musicians, directors, set designers, lighting designers, choreographers, have all come together to create four 15-20 minute musicals in one 24 hour period to be presented at a benefit that raises funds for The Exchange, which supports theatre artists.
The volunteer artists are divided into four teams with a composer (or 2), a book writer, 4 actors, a director, choreographer, etc. There's a meet and greet for the entire group before the teams are formed, during which the actors present a single prop they've brought with them with some explanation as to its significance, which may or may not influence what happens later. For example, Richard Kind's old costume from an appearance on "Sesame Street" became the basis for one of the stories, and a re-gifted pop-up book on phobias (!) gave birth to another.
At 10:00pm, the front line of the composers and writers get to work, spending all night creating the story and 2-3 songs that will be passed to the team of actors they've selected at the start. The real chaos begins when the actors, directors, et al. take over. Inexplicably, these incredibly talented people received scripts and scores at 8:00am and at 8:00pm that evening were on stage, in costume, without scripts (mostly :)), singing, dancing and acting in fully realized mini-musicals. If I hadn't seen it....
And to hear the participants talk, it is one part excitement, one part "it's for a good cause altruism," and ten parts insanity to even attempt it...and they all loved it. Alicia Witt compared it to the feeling of taking drugs without the drugs. Even in the dark moments, each one seemed able to see it as the musical theater equivalent of a so-terrifying-it's-thrilling theme park ride. In fact, Cheyenne Jackson described it as being put in the car to ride Space Mountain and laying the track down as you go. Rachel Dratch (Second City; Saturday Night Live) had seemingly the toughest time; in large part due to her insecurity with her singing in the midst of the massive voices surrounding her. She needn't have worried. She was perfect.
I think the most unbelievable part was being the fly on the wall, watching the composers and writers go from zero to plot and music. I will forever be a fan of every single one of these artists. I was familiar with many of them: Ben Pasek and Justin Paul created two of my favorite musicals this past year ("Dogfight" and "A Christmas Story"), Gina Gionfriddo wrote one my favorite plays of this past year ("Rapture Blister Burn"), and I'd seen almost every actor on stage at some point (Alicia Witt, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Tracie Thoms, Roger Bart, Cheyenne Jackson). It was sheer magic when the first seeds of a story, and first notes and lyrics of fledgling songs were tossed out by the writers and composers, and I was immediately hooked. I wanted to be in those rooms, be part of this fabulous creative maelstrom.
The stories ranged from the angst encountered the morning after a bridal shower during which an unfortunate choice of words from one of the bridesmaids caused a rift, to a celebration of phobias (complete with a song called "Purel Desire"), to a disgraced Ponzi schemer who wants to escape to Staten Island to sell his suits to the "natives," to the three brothers, all Dr. Williams, all neurosurgeons who fight over who will do the surgery on the beautiful female patient.
I immediately fell in love with the wonderful songs written by Lance Horne for the bridesmaids musical ("Rachel Said Sorry" was a highlight of the movie); and Gabriel Kahane (a musician I've been hearing a lot about lately in my Twitter feed :)), who was responsible for the criminally clever "Purel Desire" in the "phobia musical."
The filmmakers, Elisabeth Sperling and Trish Dalton, did a great job of cutting between the groups and, during the actual performance, between the scenes of the musicals, so that you got just enough substance to truly appreciate each one as a finished piece, and still feel as if you had somehow played a part in seeing them born. There was also a good balance between watching the process unfold without commentary, and listening to the artists talk about the process before, during and after the event. This was a truly unique opportunity to get the tiniest glimpse into how a musical comes to be; and I am really grateful to (and in awe of) everyone involved for the sheer magic of it all. Seriously, every single one of them has just gained a new fan!
When you love theatre as much as I do, it's tempting to fill every night with a show. And, if you have been paying attention to this website, even a little, you might think that's exactly what I do. I wish! But the cost of tickets, even discounted ones, adds up, and it's not always possible to get to a theatre, so I have to find some way to get my theatre-fix in other ways.
Of course, there's always Twitter, which can be endlessly entertaining; I love reading comments, news and general silliness from those in the theatre industry and those who love it. But there are also some theatre-themed entertainment options that involve more than 140 characters, and only require turning on a computer or the television from the comfort of my couch: a current network television show, a Canadian television show from several years ago (available on Netflix), and a web-only series about the humor to be found in the life of auditioning actors (on both sides of the table).
"Smash" / NBC Tuesday nights / Season 2 starts Feb 5
Yes, I know. It's not a documentary about the making of a musical :). It's a primetime soap opera with the theatre as its milieu. And I love it. For the most part, the acting is great (full disclosure: I'm not a huge Katharine McPhee fan), and the cast is drawn, in part, from real-life stars of the stage, which is huge draw for me.
The basic premise? Musical theatre composer/lyricist, Tom (Christian Borle, wildly talented stage actor) and book writer, Julia (Debra Messing, best known for TV's "Will & Grace"), just off the success of their hit musical "Heaven on Earth" begin work on a new musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. The major producer, "Eileen" (played by the great Anjelica Huston), is in the midst of a bitter divorce from another Broadway producer who is bound and determined to prevent her production plans from coming to fruition without proving she can't do it without him.
The primary first season storyline focused on the competition between the two women vying for the lead role (played by Broadway actor Megan Hilty of "Wicked," and Katharine McPhee, American Idol finalist), one a veteran of prior shows ("Ivy," portrayed by Hilty) and one, a newcomer with no real experience ("Karen," portrayed by McPhee). Throw in a highly talented, highly temeramental director, prone to sleeping with his leading ladies, and the show has some major pitfalls to overcome if it's to make it to opening night :). Guest stars from the first season included Bernadette Peters as Ivy's stage-star mother, difficult to please and prone to stealing Ivy's spotlight; and Uma Thurman as the film star (with issues :)) brought in as "Marilyn" to bring the show the needed press. Press it got; a successful lead actor it didn't.
The creator and original writer of the show, Theresa Rebeck, has moved on to focus on other projects (her recent Broadway play, "Dead Accounts," ran this past November/December), but if the casting news and preview of the second season (currently available on the web and on demand cable channels) are any indication, the show has upped the ante in the way of star power, bringing back Bernadette Peters and adding Jennifer Hudson as an already-successful stage star. If you follow the real-life rising stars of Broadway, you might recognize the name Jeremy Jordan, most recently the star of the Broadway hit "Newsies," who joins the show as an up and coming composer/performer. I really loved his first appearance toward the end of the preview episode, where he sings a wonderful song "Broadway Here I Come," written by another real-life up and coming musical theatre pro, Joe Iconis. I've had the pleasure of seeing Joe perform in NYC and he's one talented guy. Even the ensemble that makes up the "cast" of "Marilyn" features some very talented dancers and singers. I've enjoyed seeing dancers I recognize, including Alex Wong a fabulous dancer from the original cast of "Newsies" (and a former contestant on "So You Think You Can Dance") and Spencer Liff (a choreographer whose work I've admired on SYTYCD).
If you like story-driven primetime dramas that don't have to take place primarily in the courtroom and/or involve abundant violence, and enjoy a bit of sudsy romance, great music, and a unique setting (behind the scenes of a musical theatre venture), give "Smash" a try! The first season is also available on the web and on demand, and will shortly be available on DVD. The show's Wikipedia page is also a great overview of story, characters and cast.
"Slings and Arrows" / Canadian television series which ran from 2003-2006 / available on DVD (Netflix streaming as well)
I don't think I could do a synopsis better than the one from imbd.com: "In the fictional town of New Burbage, legendary theatrical madman Geoffrey Tennant returns to the New Burbage Theatre Festival, the site of his greatest triumph and most humiliating failure, to assume the artistic directorship after the sudden death of his mentor, Oliver Welles. When Geoffrey arrives he finds that Oliver is still there, in spirit anyway, and with his guidance (and often in spite of it) Geoffrey attempts to reconcile with his past while wrestling the festival back from the marketing department. Despite a bitter leading lady, a clueless leading man, and a scheming general manager, he manages to stage a remarkable production of Hamlet -- the play that drove him mad."
I am currently only part of the way into the second season, and so far it's a hoot! I was introduced to the show via Twitter, after seeing it mentioned several times by some theatre folk I follow. It was easy to find on Netflix (instant streaming available) and I was quickly drawn into the wacky world of New Burbage, its quirky denizens, theatrical and otherwise, and the constant question of whether the show will go in...in spite of itself :). The fact that the company focuses on the works of Shakespeare just adds to the fun!
The show reminds me a bit of "Northern Exposure" or "Ballykissangel" in the willing suspension of disbelief that it elicits from me; especially with the cast of characters, all of whom I find myself rooting for, no matter their relative madness! I have a strong feeling I'm going to be sad when I get to the end of the episodes.
By the way, you might notice a young Rachel McAdams (around the time she gained fame with the film "The Notebook") as the hopeful ensemble member desperate to make it as an actor.
"Submissions Only" / web series / Season 3 in the works, first two seasons available on the show's site
What's not to love about a hilarious peek into the trials and tribulations of auditioning for the theatre? This series, created by two uber-talented actors, Kate Wetherhead and Andrew Keenan-Bolger, centers on the character of "Penny," (played by Wetherhead), a reader for a casting agent (with aspirations of course, both on the stage and in love). The series has garnered an avid fan base; the third season is the result of a successful kickstarter campaign. It has a constant stream of recognizable faces, both from stage (Keenan-Bolger, Anne Nathan, Beth Leavel, Annaleigh Ashford) and screen (Jesse Tyler Ferguson made a cameo during the finale of the second season). If you want to see the full list, here's a link to the show's page on imdb.com.
The deadpan delivery of the snarky, not-so-assisting assistant, "Gail" (Lindsay Nicole Chambers) is always fun, as is the capable Colin Hanlon as "Tim," the casting agent who must deal with the revolving door of crazy that brings in auditioning actors, predatory producers and his friend Penny in the throes of her latest misadventure.
I've seen and enjoyed both Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Kate Wetherhead on stage as well; Andrew in "Newsies," and Kate in "The Other Josh Cohen," and it's a treat to see their talents aimed this way!
Each episode runs about 15-20 minutes; a perfect "snack" of giggles and grins with a theatre theme.
So, if you like the theatre, and want to enjoy it in a slightly different way, you might give one or more of these a try. I'm glad I did!
I've always loved that old Lifesavers commercial that had the child saying "Do it again, Daddy" after watching the sunset. There are lots of times I think we all feel like that about life moments..."do it again, universe, do it again."
I saw nearly 150 shows in the calendar year of 2012, and instead of a "Top 10" or "Best of" list, I decided to compile a list of the shows that left me thinking "do it again, please" right then~I didn't want the feeling I had at the end of the show to go away. As an experiment, I'm making this list based on my gut instincts and trying not to over think. As a result, they are not in any particular order. This is not to say that I didn't want to (and did) see other shows more than once, and/or thought them wonderful and very worth seeing; these just comprise the "experience cream" that rose to the top of the theatre pot I stirred this year.
Now these are not necessarily all shows that opened in 2012~Godspell and Priscilla both played their final performances in 2012 and those final performances were amazing experiences, so they made the list.
And now that I've made the list, these are a few shows that came to mind after I've given myself more time to consider: Newsies (a fantastic cast giving a memorable performance), The Best Man (a truly all-star cast including Angela Lansbury & James Earl Jones), The Break (a staged reading of a new musical at Signature Theatre in Virginia).
I'm always a bit overwhelmed by my eclectic tastes, and this list represents such a diversity! But I feel as if it's a real testament to the choices in theatre we are fortunate enough to be offered.
In brief, the list includes:
Time-wise, the shows cover the entire year; some are from early on and some I just saw in December.
They also represent shows with famous actors (John Lithgow, Kathleen Turner, Neil Patrick Harris, Bebe Neuwirth, Christina Ricci); Broadway stars (Will Swenson, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Christian Borle) and with lesser-known (but no less talented!) actors that I will absolutely follow to their next project (Rob McClure, Lindsay Mendez, among others).
Geographically, they cover Arlington,Virginia; Washington, DC; New York City and Boston...and they include shows that made intimate spaces seem enormous, and shows that made cavernous theaters seem intimate. Not one of these shows inspired agreement among those I know that saw them; all that mattered was how they made me feel.
By the way, I'm completely confident that 2013 will live up to its older sibling, and it begins tonight with C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, from The Shakespeare Theatre Company here in DC. Can't wait to get started!
These marquees are of three of the 2013 shows on the calendar; and I'm also really looking forward to Motown The Musical and Kinky Boots!