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January 29, 2016

January’s Leftovers and February’s Brainteaser

It was the month we lost Brian Bedford, David Bowie and Alan Rickman, all of whom might well have lights dimmed for them on Broadway marquees. Whether or not you’re in favor of one, some or all of them being commemorated this way, an item that Paul Cozby wrote in a recent piece about Oscar Hammerstein II for made a telling point.

Hammerstein’s death did lead to the lights on Broadway being dimmed on Sept. 1, 1960 – but, as Cozby reported, that hadn’t happened “since a World War II air raid drill in 1942.”

You mean in eighteen years -- during which time Broadway lost Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, Laurette Taylor, Kurt Weill, Al Jolson, George Bernard Shaw, Fanny Brice, Gertrude Lawrence, Eugene O’Neill, Lionel and Ethel Barrymore -- the lights weren’t dimmed on marquees for even a second? And yet, after Joan Rivers died, when The Broadway League’s powers-that-be decided not to dim, there was such an outcry that they changed their minds. Rivers’ entire Broadway career spanned three shows -- starring in one that lasted 50 performances, taking over in another for a few months and writing and performing in one that closed after a week. ‘Nuff said.

Say what you will about Tonya Pinkins and her decision to leave CSC’s production of MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN. But give her credit for staying on more than a week after she’d decided that she wasn’t going to finish the run. How many unhappy actors have bolted without giving any notice whatsoever?

Sleeper of the Month: The Telling Company’s production of
Gayle Damiano Waxenberg’s A BITTER PILL, which played a limited gig at the Hudson Guild and should move to points beyond. Ava (the superb Nicole O’Brien) is having trouble with her son Adam, so she does what any good and concerned mother would do: she takes him to doctors.

Actually, that doesn’t turn out to be a good idea. BITTER PILL is a cautionary tale that shows some doctors don’t have the answers but do have pills and arrogance. And because society has set them up as omnipotent (because, of course, they make so much money), everyone automatically believes everything they say. This leads to a most tragic situation for Adam (the phenomenal Alexander Nifong).

Daniel Neiden – who did such a fine job of staging my play ADAM’S GIFTS two seasons ago – again showed his skill in getting the emotion out of a story. There’s enough here for us to question every diagnosis and prescription a doctor dispenses. And don’t be surprised if people who planned to have children might think twice after seeing A BITTER PILL.

Just as potent is SKELETON CREW, Dominique Morisseau’s look at a dying automobile plant in Detroit. Lynda Gravatt delivers the best performance an actress has given in a play this season as Faye, the plant’s 29-year-veteran who’s so ingrained at the job that she says “I’m in the bulletin board. I’m in the chipped paint.”

Yes, working class people, as the best playwrights show you, can have a way with words, too. This makes us see what potential they once had until life conspired against them so that they couldn’t maximize it.

Faye is a lesbian, which she handles mighty impressively, given that she’s no kid. Many her age would be closeted, although there is one character who’d have to know of her history. (Morisseau sharply divulges that only after she’s damn good and ready.)

Working in a working-class environment often means having a boss who truly believes in “you’re guilty till proved innocent.” Wendell B. Franklin succeeds in showing us that he’d really rather not take this stance, but he needs to keep his job, too. Whether or not he and the others will is, as you might suspect, an enormous component in SKELETON CREW. What a smart title, too, for it suggests that these people have been stripped of their skins and have been dead for some time.

You may ask what THE BURIAL AT THEBES – in which Antigone battles Creon over the burial of her brother Polynices – is doing at The Irish Repertory Company. Here’s the loophole: Charlotte Moore is using the adaptation by Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize-winning poet who hailed from Castledawson in Northern Ireland. Close enough.

The dialogue isn’t, though. “You’ll rue the day you bought into this plot,” “I found the sadness coming over me” and “You get worked up” sound anachronistic for a play still set in 800 or so B.C. Although Heaney had a few ideas of his own that varied from the original, Sophocles’ theme is still in place: intransigence leads to disaster. Moore’s cast nicely underlines that.

But I missed one of my favorite passages from Jean Anouilh’s 1944 version. First, a little explanation for those of you not up on your Sophocles: Eteocles and Polynices, although brothers, were on opposite sides in Thebes’ civil war and killed each other in battle. King Creon buried Eteocles with honors but commanded that Polynices’ body remain where it was so that animals would come by and eat it.

Compounding this is that the Greeks believed that anyone who wasn’t properly buried couldn’t go to their version of heaven. Thus Antigone defies Creon and buries Polynices.

Or did she? Anoulih has Creon confide “The cavalry had ridden right over them which made a bit of a mess, rendering them not exactly recognizable. So I picked the more presentable corpse for my state funeral and ordered the other to be left where it lay. To be frank, I don’t really know which was which.” With such integrity, Creon could fit right into our 2016 presidential campaign.

It was the month I met Charles Kirsch, who reviews for Broadway World. I arranged for us to get together after I learned that he’d recently reviewed my book THE BIGGEST HIT OF THE SEASON / THE BIGGEST FLOP OF THE SEASON and said it was “highly recommended,” “one of the best reference books,” “funny, though challenging” and that it was good “for ages 10 and up.”

Those who know the book came out in 2010 may be surprised that Kirsch just got around to reviewing it. But he really couldn’t have written anything about it back then because he was only two years old.

Have you done the math? Kirsch is now EIGHT. So don’t you love his advice that my book should be read by “ages 10 and up.”

“And he’s reviewing?” you’re shrieking in surprise. Yes, Broadway World has three “Kid Critics” and Charles is one of them. Eight years old and already he’s getting press comps. When I asked if he’s given good seats, he told me he was in the second row for SCHOOL OF ROCK. Hell, I was in the eighth row and felt pretty lucky to be there. Oh, well – youth MUST be served.

It was also the month in which we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of SWEET CHARITY, the Fosse-Coleman-Fields-Charnin-Simon collaboration.

What’s Charnin’s name doing in there, you may ask – though this won’t be a question posed by those who have read Sam Wasson’s 2014 bio FOSSE. They’ll recall that Fosse chose Charnin to collaborate on the CHARITY libretto – until he heard that he could get Neil Simon, who had two Broadway hits running (BAREFOOT IN THE PARK and THE ODD COUPLE) and would soon have four after CHARITY and THE STAR-SPANGLED GIRL joined the fold in 1966. So Fosse’ wanting Simon was – to use a word that Billy Flynn would employ in a future Fosse musical – understandable.

However, Fosse didn’t tell Charnin he was firing him. The literally poor writer – ANNIE was still a dozen years away -- only learned he’d been canned when he read in a newspaper that Simon had signed on.

Charnin didn’t take this lying down – in fact, on opening night he sat straight up in his first-row front-mezzanine seat along with his lawyer and a stenographer who took down every word of the script. Charnin estimated that 80% of what he’d written was still in place. He might have started a lawsuit, but – as Ken Bloom reports in his upcoming book of theatrical anecdotes – Charnin settled for a piece of the Broadway production while conceding any monies from road companies or a film sale. Part of the agreement was that Charnin would keep his mouth shut about the whole business for twenty-five years.

But has Charnin said anything for the LAST twenty-five? He’s too busy, I guess, directing productions of ANNIE and counting his money.

I attended the opening of SWEET CHARITY on Saturday, Jan. 29, 1966, and so I’ve purposely arranged to see AN AMERICAN IN PARIS on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016 – precisely fifty years after I’d first entered the Palace. As it turns out, this will be my last time in this theater for years. Whenever AN AMERICAN IN PARIS closes, the Palace will endure a strange renovation project: the house itself will be lifted up 29 feet so that the newly-created height will allow for some valuable Times Square frontage for a store or two that will pull in obscenely fabulous rents.

Or so they say. Frankly, I don’t believe that’s the reason. I maintain that they need that extra height to accommodate all the additional names on the board that says “At This Performance the Role of (Character) Usually Played by (Name) Will Be Played by (Name).” You know how many Broadway performers call in sick when they get anything from a stubbed toe to a paper cut.

Last month’s brainteaser asked what six songs had in common. The answer was that each mentioned a famous artist: “Could I Leave You?” (FOLLIES; Braque; Chagall); “Home, Sweet Heaven” (HIGH SPIRITS; Cellini); “Is That My Prince?” (A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN; Whistler); “It’s an Art” (WORKING; Michelangelo); “Knock, Knock” (FLORA, THE RED MENACE; Picasso) and “Liaisons” (A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC; Titian).

Joseph Gaken was the first to get it followed by George Connolly, Tony Janicki, Karen Valen, Ken Bailey, Stuart Ira Soloway, Joe Keenan, Laura Frankos, Donald Tesione, Brigadude, Fred Abramowitz, AnyaToes, Joshua Ellis and Marc Miller.

This month’s brainteaser: What do the following eleven songs have in common? “All about Ruprecht” (DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS), “Back from the Great Beyond” (PRETTYBELLE), “Be Back Soon” (OLIVER!), “Bianca” (KISS ME, KATE), “Garbage” (SHOESTRING REVUE), “I Hate Musicals” (RUTHLESS!), “It’s Delovely” (RED HOT AND BLUE!), “Paula [An Improvised Love Song]” (THE GOODBYE GIRL), “Running Wild” (BULLETS OVER BROADWAY), “‘Til Him” (THE PRODUCERS) and “When You’re Good to Mama” (CHICAGO).

You know where to find me.

         — Peter Filichia



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