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Does Al Stewart think we're too stupid for historical folk rock?  (catch him at the Rubin's Naked Soul Series, 8/21)

Does Al Stewart think we’re too stupid for historical folk rock? (catch him at the Rubin’s Naked Soul Series, 8/21)

By Gwen Orel

Al Stewart—yes, the “Year of the Cat” dude, as someone asked me (watch him perform it here)—speaks fast and uses his own lyrics for illustration. Now a resident of California, he began his career in swinging London—his press bio explains how he knew Yoko Ono until she found someone “with a bigger tape recorder”—as well as Andy Summers, Paul Simon, Ian Anderson. He has been writing storytelling, evocative lyrics for more than forty years. Sparks of Ancient Light came out in 2008, and this September, he’ll be releasing a new live CD.

And that’s the tip of the iceberg—as he explained to me, despite his emphasis on lyrics, he writes the music first, and most of the songs have several sets of lyrics to them. If we’re lucky, he might find the alternate lyrics to “Year of the Cat” and sing them—one version of it was about British comedian Tony Hancock.

He’s touring right now and plays New York city tonight, 8/21, at the Rubin museum’s Naked Soul series at 7 p.m.—completely acoustic.   Details of his tour are below.

His intelligent, often yearning and moody lyrics conjured in my mind an image of a sweet troubador—but his cleverness has barbs. His assumptions about the South (he used the phrase “the great unwashed” at one point), the differences between American and English tastes, and his own unqiueness—would be hilariously irritating if he himself weren’t so funny. And when he says “Sleepwalking,” a song from Sparks of Ancient Light that references a swindler from the “east 60s” and Florida, was not about Bernie Madoff but just prescient—it’s hard to disagree.

This summer is the 40-year anniversary of Woodstock, and there is (as there always is, let’s face it) a lot of nostalgia for the 60s floating about.  What does it mean for you?

I didn’t think Woodstock was as important as everyone else seems to think. Woodstock was a lot of noise in the field. In retrospect it was not very revolutionary nor in line with what interested me. Joni Mitchell watched it on television. Leonard Cohen was doing whatever he did; he wasn’t there. It was people playing guitars mouthing inanities and rolling around in the mud. It had very little to do with what I’m interested in.

I was part of the London folk scene.  America got all our rock bands, but none of our folk singers…it’s a strange thing… Bert Jansch didn’t translate at all.  He should have been a major figure on the American folk scene.  Richard Thompson… would probably not go on Jay Leno.  Americans did very well in England, but English folk singers didn’t do as well correspondingly.  It’s probably true that there’s a bigger folk reception in England in general.

Do you still see yourself as a folk musician?

I never did really. I came out of rock and roll. There’s a subtle word play there. I didn’t say I was a folk singer… I said I came out of the English folk scene. What was nice about that scene was that it was a very big tent. It included people who were unaccompanied singing, Norfolk farm hands, the Incredible String Band, psychedelic music… the English folk scene encompassed all of that and more. I’m a lyricist really. I puddle about and play guitar and sing; I’m basically a lyric writer.

Do you write poetry too?

I do but don’t bother to read it. I’m obsessed with the nonsense poets… more in the style of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. I’m not sure that goes over well here.

You seem to have some issues with Americans and their tastes.

I live in L.A. and like it. In terms of what’s accepted, some things just don’t translate. In America you have this huge monolithic thing called Country and Western, which is completely unintelligible to me. It has no meaning whatsoever in England. Country and Western it’s so big it’s blotted out what singer-songwriters do… it’s similar and yet the subjects are different. Country singers do story songs, which is what I do. Mine might be on the Russian front and World War II, theirs might be set in the local bar. It’s hard for singer-songwriters to prevail. American singer-songwriters do better in the Northeast.

I did a Southern tour; everyone told me not to. I thought there must be some people who read books in the South. I went all these places—Greenville… the Carolinas…deep in the South, Civil War turf. I sang a series of songs about American presidential history. I got absolutely nobody, and played to rows of empty seats. Although if I’d worn a hat and played a country song….

When I knew I was going to interview you, I got two kinds of responses: enthusiasm and excitement from people in their late 40s and older (my brother’s been emailing me with thoughts, questions fotr the interview and links, for days) and “the Year of the Cat dude!”  Do you have different fan sets?

Yes. I call them the fans and the tourists. The tourists are the ones who heard “Year of the Cat” and made out in the back of a show to it. They know it as well as they know “Ring My Bell” or “Kung Fu Fighting” or “Disco Duck.” None of these people come to my shows; they’re just dimly aware of “Year of the Cat.”

People who come to the shows are people who know all of the songs. They don’t even want to hear “Year of the Cat.” “Roads to Moscow” is what they ask for—that’s a different thing.

So does that mean you won’t play “Year of the Cat?”

I probably will, but it’s candy fluff. It wasn’t even my favorite album.

What is your favorite album?

Past Present and Future is a much better album, it’s better written. What I do and what I’ve always done are these historical songs. I thought forty years ago, I looked around, if you look at the history of all the artistic endeavors of the human race, most of them, history is a dominant feature. Literature, movies— like The Titanic—all the greatest paintings are historical, sculpture, art—in ever form of art that I could find, the dominent content was historical. I thought if I applied to popular music, I would be Elvis Presley.

Now I have to admit defeat.

I chose the only medium that I could where history was not the dominant factor, and in fact something people didn’t want to hear about. There’s a crazed hardcore who like me think that historical songs are the bees knees. It’s a tiny minority—I expected it to be a huge majority. It would have changed my life if I’d been right. I thought it was a slam dunk.

I thought after “Roads to Moscow” all these historical songs would be in the top ten, but I can’t even get them played on the radio. You talk to a disc jockey and say “I’ve written a song about the fall of Constantinople” and their eyes glaze over.

If I made a movie about the fall of Constantinople and put stupid Brad Pitt in it, it would be a hit. It’s only in popular music that it’s not taken off. This means one of two things, either I am right except I’m ahead of my time, and somebody will do this in fifty years time and they will be the next Elvis, or I’m completely wrong, or, there’s a third possibility, I’m right but just not doing it well enough. At this point I’ll accept any of those possibilities. The premise made so much sense to me, but something in the execution didn’t follow through. I don’t even think it has to do with the population base.

You hit bottlenecks where you have to funnel through the media. I think there is an audience outside of the basic, everyday human concerns that will look at a larger picture of how we got here and why. It’s a hard sell, an impossible sell in Alabama.

For me, the songs that become my favorite songs have a lot of emotion in them that I can relate to.  They don’t have to be personal songs, but they have to have an emotion in them that I can latch onto.  That’s what I require.

That’s what everybody requires. That I think is the problem. I tend to… not erase emotion in songs, but it’s an entirely overdone thing. The saber-toothed tiger was a very emotional creature; it was also stupid and died out. I would prefer something to be cleverer, less aggressive… I like my music like that. I understand that Metallica are terrific at what they do but it’s not what I want to listen to.

Is there no middle ground between you and Metallica?

Oh, sure there is. I’m fairly broad-minded in my tastes.

For example, on your latest CD I like the song “Football Hero,”  but I don’t care about the person in the song or about football, but I can relate to the emotion and the frustration.

I don’t care about football either, in fact I’m astonished I wrote that song because I care zero about football.

That is my response to most story songs in general.  The story can be really fascinating but if I can’t find a way to apply it to some emotion that I have or will have, I probably won’t listen to it very often.

I think that you’re in the majority. I don’t think it affects me in that way. I’m always looking at cross-connections that are under the surface. There is an emotion, I’m not denying the emotion, but there has to be an intellectuality at work as well as the emotion. If I read a book about Rupert Brooke for example, he’s a poet, it’s emotional because he dies in 1915 on his way to the Dardanelles campaign, OK, we know he’s going to die, we know he’s having an unrequited with Violet Asquith at the time, so you’re set up for an emotional payoff on that. But when I put them into my song “Somewhere in England 1915″ the song is not about them, they’re merely transient characters wandering through one verse, they’re used as the set up for the mood of the song, and not for the emotional payoff.

If I was writing the song for you, I wouldn’t go anywhere else in the song, I’d just concentrate on Rupert Brooke and Violet Asquith and make it as emotional as all get go. But to me that’s not terribly interesting. Does that make any sense to you?

I’m not sure I see the distinction between emotion and mood.  There are—not many, I agree with you—but there are some songs that are story based or historically based that have been successful.

“American Pie,” for example, lots of people love that who weren’t alive when Buddy Holly died, but you get the feeling of yearning in it, the mood of it comes across.

I don’t think it should be completely unemotional, I just don’t think it should be tawdry. Some emotions are terribly cheap, and what you’re doing is manipulating an audience in a way. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen any Charles Bronson movies—you know the baddie is going to get shot in the end, you sit there for 90 minutes—you’re just being manipulated. What I’m trying to do is write non-manipulative songs. If there’s an emotional pull, it should come from the gravitas of the situation, rather than some false juggling going on on the part of the writer.

Would you say that your earlier songs were more personal?

My first four albums were just love songs, they’re neither here nor there, I was just trying to learn the trade.

What accounted for the evolution?

Well, I wrote love songs. Once you’ve done it, you’ve done it. Everyone else has done it. One was 18 minutes long! I did it, enough! My personal credo is play like Eddie Cochran, write like Barbara Tuchman

I always want to write about something no one else has written about. It’s the first requirement of a song to me. If someone has written about the ceiling in my hotel room, I won’t do it. Secondly, I want to use some language in every song that’s not in every other song. There are 87,000 words in the English language, use them.

No one uses antidisestablishmentarianism in a song, and they should.

Have you?

No, I may do, I’ve used pterodactyls and cormorants and amenuenses and all kinds of things.

Imagine you’re a pop singer and you open your front door and all the words ever in the English language are gathered on the lawn outside your door. Big vocal ones right at the front called “love” and “baby” and “ooh” and “you” and “I” and these are the big loud ones standing right in front of your face saying “pick me, pick me, pick me.” And antidisestablishmentarianism is this tiny little furry creature about 300 yards away, right at the back of the crowd, and in a squeaky little voice is saying “please pick me…”

You know what I mean?

You’re very silly.

Most pop singers just look at the ones at the front, and they’re very smartly dressed, and they’re hip, and they’ve got all the right hairstyles, and they say “sure you can join my group,” and they say to this little brown mouse at the back, “no we’re not having any part of you,” and they slam the door.


That is how it works in the English language. These words need people to love them too, and I’m their person.

So with your attention to words, is it safe to say you write the lyrics first?

No, I don’t! I should do, shouldn’t I… but for very good reason, too…When a blues artist makes a record, say, they lay down the backing track… then the guitar player comes in, and plays 6-8-10 different solos and they take the best one. This is the art of improv.

What I do, I make the backing piece, then start improvising the lyrics. On “Year of the Cat” I recorded all the music before I even wrote a word of it. I took home all these backing tracks and sat around with them. I’d already spent all the money from the record companies and had not one damn word written. Then it’s what do all these things suggest to me. I wrote many different sets of lyrics.

This is me being a blues guitar player. “Elvis at the Wheel”   ended up being about Elvis Presley. It’s based on a true event in his life. Prior to that it was about the cinema on Hampstead Heath. Prior to that it was a nonsense poem experimenting with being about someone going to a foreign country.

All of the songs on Sparks of Ancient Light had different lyrics apart from “Shah of Shahs.” All the others underwent radical rewrites.

I could go out in an alternate universe go out and play the tunes that everyone knows with completely different lyrics.

Oh I hope you will.

But normally I pick the best ones… the reason I don’t pick the others is that they’re not very good.

So you don’t go in saying I know I want to write a song about Elvis seeing the face of Stalin, you don’t know that ahead of time?

I don’t know what I’m going to write. Some of them read better than they sing. I learned that you can write lyrics that look awfully good on paper but when you sing don’t scan very well, don’t fit the music. I’ve discarded some sets of lyrics that I liked a lot but were hard to sing. I’m a wordslinger, it’s what you do— this is my improv. Right now I could take “Year of the Cat” and turn it into a song about turnips if I wanted to.

I hope you will.

I could do. I also write parodies of my own songs and those of others. “Roads to Moscow,” a song I get asked for the most, it’s set in World War II, and very loosely based on a book by Solzhenitsyn , I wrote a parody called “Roads to Adelaide.” I sing it in a major key; it becomes totally ridiculous. It went”

They crossed over the border, the hour before dawn,

moving in lines through the day

most of our sheep are destroyed on the ground where they lay…

It completely cracked me up. You mentioned “American Pie,” I rewrote that into a nineteenth century history song called it “Ukranian Pie.” Amazingly, the Russian word for old peasant that is “musikh” and I couldn’t resist “the day the musikh died.” So I began with

Bye Bye Miss Ukranian Pie

Took my kettle to the shtetl but the shtetl was dry

Those bad old Cossacks drinking vodka and rye

Singing this will be the day that you die

Have you read the book of Lvov, and do you have faith in Romanov…

Do you get asked “what does this or that lyric mean,” and when you do, how do you respond?

People do ask, but in the same way, I don’t know what  Dylan’s “Desolation Row” means…I know all the words…

Selling postcards at the hanging

Painting the passports brown

The beauty parlor’s full of sailors, the circus is in town

I don’t know what Dylan means by this but I get the general picture of what he’s saying.

What are you listening to?  What’s on your ipod?

I don’t have an ipod. But Joanna Newsom, she’s the best, by a long way, I don’t think there’s anyone close. There are always up and coming people. Laura Marling is interesting. Elbow just won album of the year in England. But you know what, I listen to pop too, I like the Veronicas, what can I tell you.

So “Sleepwalking” references “talk among the moneymen in Miami Beach.”  Is it a coincidence?

It wasn’t a coincidence. I think I’m prescient. It’s a song about a Madoff character that I wrote before Madoff. Every now and then these things happen. They fall into place. If you look at my song “On the Border,” largely set in Zimbabwe, it prophesies the decline and fall. Except it was written 36 years ago but it all came true. I did it hypothetically. Madoff came along and obliged me by turning it all into reality.

But you wouldn’t have written it after the fact?

That would be too obvious. I’m trying to write about things that are off the beaten track.

It’s like when I was doing American presidents, I wouldn’t write about Lincoln or Washington, the obvious people, it would be like writing about Napoleon. I would never do that. I would write about Chester Arthur. I like lifting rocks and looking at the dark places of history.

I’m always writing about human beings, using historical backgrounds. Actually what I’m doing is theater. When you look at my historical songs, it’s like the backdrop, the real action is taking place in front of the background. “Constantinople” is about the last seven thousand people who are left defending the Byzantine Empire long after it’s past its sell-by date. What are they doing there? It was a hundred years have gone by since the Byzantine Empire should have been erased from planet.

And there is a relevance to modern day history because As soon as any empire goes from offense to defense, their days are numbered. It’s happened in every single case from the Ancient Greeks to the Romans to I suppose the present day, which I suppose means we should be in Afghanistan, because if we were here building walls it would all be over.

How does it look for America?

America’s still on the offense, very much so…Read the news! I don’t see any particular decline and fall in am military power. There is an enormous exchange of international wealth going on under the surface. America may not… ever have 20% of all the money in the world again. Major changes are economic, but what that will mean in the next 20 or 30 years, I don’t know. One of the most fascinating things that could save America is that… there’s incalculable wealth to be had in arctic circle. Only 5 countries have any claim to the Arctic Circle, two of which are tiny powers, Denmark, Norway… one a medium power, Canada, and then Russia and the USA.


If that happens, it would probably be too obvious for Stewart to write about.  But if historical songs include the history of the future, we might see a song about America in the Arctic circle sometime soon.


Gwen Orel writes about theater and music for many publications.  Celtic music owns her, but they timeshare with folk, roots and world.


Al Stewart’s tour details:

FRI            8/21/09            New York, NY       Rubin Museum of Art / Naked Soul Music Series

SAT            8/22/09            Norfolk, CT           Infinity Hall

SUN            8/23/09            Saratoga Springs, NY   Caffe Lena

FRI            10/30/09 & SAT 10/31/09            Steelville, MO           Wildwood Springs Lodge

SUN            11/1/09            Kansas City, MO                  ?Knuckleheads Saloon

THU            11/5/09            Decatur, GA?Eddie’s Attic

FRI            11/6/09            York, SC?Sylvia Theatre

SAT            11/7/09            Holly Springs, NC                 Holly Springs Cultural Center

FRI            12/18/09            Denver, CO                          L2 Arts & Culture Center

SAT            12/19/09            Berkeley, CA                        Freight & Salvage??? 2010

THU            2/4/2010            Hillsboro, OR            ?Walter’s Art Center

SAT            2/6/2010            Bremerton, WA?          Admiral Theatre

THU            3/4/2010            Newberry, SC             Newberry Opera House

SAT            3/6/2010            Chatham, NJ             Sanctuary Concerts

Posted on 21 Aug 2009 at 6:09am
Serena Swings for New York

Serena Swings for New York

By Larry Getlen

Less than a week after she won the ladies singles title at Wimbledon for the third time, I got to watch Serena Williams play three sets of tennis at a small stadium right here in Manhattan, from about ten feet away. What was amazing about the experience is that despite the time proximity to her Grand Slam victory — and granted, the final versus her sister was less than thrilling, but the semi-final vs. Elena Dementieva was as well-played as tennis gets — there was a substantial number of empty seats in the stands.

The place was Randall’s Island, and the event was a match between the New York Sportimes and the Washington Kastles (seriously — who comes up with these names?) of the World Team Tennis league, which might just be, unfortunately, the best kept secret in tennis. World Team Tennis was invented in 1974 by Billie Jean King, and plays under an abbreviated and slightly bizarre set of rules. Every match is five sets, including one each of men’s and women’s singles, mens and women’s doubles, and mixed doubles. Five games wins the set, and games include no ads — the first team to four points wins the game. Also, second serves that hit the net are in play. All of this makes for a faster-paced, if less suspenseful game then regulation tournament play, but it’s clear from the presentation that while the players do take their charge to victory seriously, the emphasis is on fun, with jokey color commentary, balls thrown into the stands for the fans, and even a mascot called Tennis the Menace.

So while purists may cringe, the main attraction is still great play, and an assortment of legendary players mixed in with some that new viewers will likely be seeing for the first time. There are ten teams in the league, with New York represented by the Sportimes, which includes John McEnroe on its roster. The years have seen participants including King, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, and Jimmy Connors, this season’s greats include Andre Agassi (Philadelphia Freedoms), Anna Kournikova (St. Louis Aces), Martina Navratilova (Boston Lobsters), doubles specialists Bob and Mike Bryan (Kansas City Explorers), Michael Chang (Sacramento Capitals), Maria Sharapova (Newport Beach Breakers), and Serena’s sister Venus (Freedoms).
Given the match-ups between legends and virtually unknown players, perhaps the most surprising aspect of World Team Tennis is the competitiveness of the matches. It was easy to get to expect Serena to wipe the floor with her competition, but while she did win all three of her matches, their was discernable skill displayed on both sides of the net. And that will be truer than ever tonight (July 15) at Randall’s Island, as McEnroe plays for the Sportimes against Boston and Navratilova — and yes, the two WILL be playing against each other.
Tickets range from $40 to $125 for courtside box for tonight, and this Friday, the Sportimes host Kansas City and the Bryan Brothers. For that match, tickets range from $30 to $90.
The World Team Tennis season only runs in July, so these are the last marquee matches of the season (although there is one more match on Sunday, then, hopefully for the Sportimes, the playoffs). But as this was the team’s first year at Randall’s Island — they were in Mamaroneck, New York previously — hopefully next year will see more people coming out for what, aside from the upcoming U.S. Open, is one of the only opportunities in New York to see tennis legends do their thing.


Posted on 15 Jul 2009 at 3:58pm
Inner Monologue:  The Multi-tasked Critic in the basement, in the park, soaking up a slow drag on Tin Pan Alley (on Broadway) and passing for adolescent in the  east village:  four plays, four days

Inner Monologue: The Multi-tasked Critic in the basement, in the park, soaking up a slow drag on Tin Pan Alley (on Broadway) and passing for adolescent in the east village: four plays, four days

By Gwen Orel

I’m multitasking from East Durham, New York—up in the Catskills for the Catskills Irish Arts Week!  I will blog about that as well, with Q&As with musicians, concert reports and descriptions of the unique and beautiful scene here.   

Runners carbo-load; I theatre-loaded last week knowing it would be all music this week.

Although I saw it mid-week, I’m putting my rave about The Tin Pan Alley Rag first, because I love the show and just opened.  Read my feature in the Wall Street Journal Online here.

The Tin Pan Alley Rag

July 9th

Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre

The Tin Pan Alley Rag runs through September 6.


The first musical to be done in this space (maximum occupancy 350) isn’t exactly a musical nor “a play with music,” but a “naturalistic musical,” as director Stafford Arima explained to me when I interviewed him and playwright Mark Saltzman for the Wall Street Journal.

When I firstsaw it, the play was bookended by old Irving Berlin waiting to see something (gradually you realize as the play progresses that it’s the opera Scott Joplin pitched to him in 1915). The show depicts a young Irving Berlin meeting a kind of has-been Scott Jopin in 1915, and two composers compare notes all night long (notes, get it?).

Now, the play opens in the thick of the hustle and bustle of Tin Pan Alley I had to be won over to this new version, but I was.  It was very moving when Berlin’s aging happens as characters from his past, alive again, come and hand him bits of old man gear.  My mother cried.

I took my mother this time.  That was part of my excuse for going again.  

It’s a jukebox musical!  From a time before jukeboxes!  There’s something magical about being involved in a story that suddenly becomes a “greatest hits” of tunes you love. When Berlin went into “I Love a Piano” I looked around and the whole damn audience was grinning.  Later on when he complained he hadn’t yet managed to figure out a Christmas song, there was a happy, knowing laugh (late, late in the show, you do hear notes of “may your days be merry and bright…”).

Egotists with chops are fun to watch.  Berlin, irresistibly arrogant Michael Therriaul,  and Joplin, proper and close to priggish Michael Boatman, have huge egos.  Neither intimidates the other.  It’s kind of great.  You might not want to date them but they are fun to watch.  Then again, you might.  Both men loved their sweet young wives who drew them out of themselves, then suddenly died (the downside of this is the temptation to fantasize about being a sweet wife who dies suddenly.  Maybe it’s worth it if someone wrote “Bethena” for you.) Berlin’s romance with his first wife, Dorothy Goetz, winningly played and gorgeously sung by adorable Jenny Fellner, hits the heart when she cheerfully vanishes into death during their honeymoon to the sound of Joplin’s melancholy, lovely “Solace.”  

The Tin Pan Alley Rag offers the kind of smart musicology that the (now-closed) 33 Variations can only dream about.  In the latter play, it’s hard not to think that Moises Kaufman had just read a book on Beethoven’s variations and how they work and couldn’t wait to spit that information out at you.  In The Tin Pan Alley Rag, the characters describe how their music works because they need to tell someone else on stage.  You learn what ragtime means (as Scott Joplin explains the difference between the marching left hand and the syncopated right hand to German conductor, maestro Alfred Ernst, played by James Judy), you learn how hit songs used to make their way to the public by watching scenes of “pluggers,” songwriters, singing a few bars to publishers, by watching Ted Snyder (Michael McCormick), Irving Berlin’s partner at the publishing house of Berlin and Snyder, make a deal with vaudevillian Mooney Mulligan (Mark Ledbetter), and you learn how songs were “broken” through a scene at Macy’s where Berlin and Snyder hawk the hit song Mulligan sang the night before.  We first meet Mooney coming offstage in blackface—artfully highlighting the norms of the times.   

There should be a Tony for Multiple role-playing actors.  They are the essence of live performance.  Forget the catch-all “character actor.”  Ledbetter sings, dances as Mulligan, puts on an officious Southern accent for composer’s assistant “Thaddeus,” and has a comic turn as a “plugger.”  Judy plays Southern publisher John Stark, as well as a German conductor, and others.  Randy Aaron, Derrick Cobey, Rosena M. Hill, Erick Pinnick, Tia Speros and Idara Victor also take salamander turns.    


Usher Alert #1:  Volunteer ushers may come cheap, but they come at a price.  Mom and I entered the house and didn’t even realize a man standing gazing out into space a few rows ahead of us was an usher.  We got our own playbills and were nearly at our seat when an usher nearer the front offered to help us.  Ushers?  Go up to the patron, don’t wait for them to fall across you.

Directors:  Please let the audience in.  I understand that Arima now thinks of the show as a “naturalistic musical,” and I understand that applause breaks the fourth wall.  But dammit, we’re dying to clap.  We laugh when Berlin explains “catchy don’t happen by accident,” and when he sees a young songwriter tapping his foot, tells him “that’s the money tap.”  We’re not silent, we’re right there, we have a role to play.  When we hear a song we love beautifully sung we want to share our approval—but the show moves on so fast we can’t clap.  When Joplin plays the “Maple Leaf Rag” for white publisher John Stark, an amazingly fair white man who didn’t rip off his composers (whatever their color), and the tune gets its name, we’re just dying to clap.

Years ago I dramaturged the play Denial by Peter Sagal (yes, that Peter Sagal, now the host of NPR’s ROTFLOL radio news quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.”  To me, he will always be playwright Peter Sagal).  There’s a scene in which a character gives a dramatic exit speech and then exits.  The audience applauded.  Director Jed Harris grumbled, “I hate that.”  He restaged it so the audience couldn’t clap.

OK, it can be distracting when an audience claps every time a famous actor enters or exits—as they do for Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit—but it’s also a bonding experience. It reminds us that we, the audience, matter.  That the people onstage are there for us.

If the reviewers don’t love this, they’re in the wrong field.  It’s just a fabulous theatrical entertainment, with a great imaginative story that could have happened, with beloved songs, great acting– it’s solid, happy, and very well done.  When Joplin describes scenes from his opera Treemonisha, they are enacted before our eyes.  From what we see, I’m not sure the world lost out by not seeing it sooner (his lyrics are iffy), but Idara Victor as Treemonisha  has a truly glorious soprano.  The piano playing is live, too (albeit not by the actors, but by Michael Patrick Walker, who also conducts, and Brian Cimmet, offstage).  You can’t fake the sound of live piano.

Relatives come in handy to soften up interviewees.  Mom, who went with me, was a pianist early in her life.  Ihad  mentioned her to Saltzman because he went to Cornell, and so did Mom, when she left her music major at the University of Michigan for the Cornell Hotel School. I passed him in the house (playwrights and directors are usually in the house during previews), and introduced my mother, and he said right away, “Hotel school!” 

Critic person shout-out:  bumped into critic Simon Saltzman (Outer Critics Circle, among others) at intermission.  I spent happy hours at the ATCA (American Theatre Critics Association) conference in Sarasota, Florida with him and his wife Lucy-Ann this past April.  He asked to meet the playwright not mention that he’s a critic—but Mark said right away, “oh, the writer!”  Mark and Simon have the same last name, you see.  Could they be related? Both families seem to have a music gene—Simon described someone (can’t remember if it was a father or uncle) who played on the Cunard line all during the depression (and never experienced the Great Depression).

Venue Comfort #1:  the Laura Pels Theatre has a nice theatre bar, with tables and chairs, food and decent liquor too.  I always forget it’s there.  It makes a difference.

Program Propriety #1:  Happy to report that the Literary Manager is where he/she should be in the Roundabout’s program:  in the first group of “Artistic Staff, which is under the bolded big wigs at the theatre.  Literary Manager is the fourth line down.  Readers aren’t listed at all, but since they aren’t exactly staff, that seems fair to me.

Favorite lines and moments.  Write if you have your own!   (comments and emails earn a FP, famous person, shout-out in the next Inner Monologue):

Catchy don’t happen by accident.

That’s the money tap.

I’ve got one that’s Jewish and Irish!

You owe it to your talent to move beyond all this.

Money!  Money!  Money! –That’s the Tin Pan Alley Rag.

Getting the words so they don’t bump into each other—that took all night.



Tuesday, July 7th

Potomac Theatre Project  (ptp/nyc, as this branch is now known)

(in association with Middlebury College)

Atlantic Stage Two

Europeans runs through July 26th. 


Famous Person Shout-Out:  I was New York Times writer Neil Genzlinger’s guest.  Press Agent David Gibbs recognized me and thoughtfully handed me a press pack too.  ”That must have really confused him,” Neil said.Neil had seen and really liked their production of another Barker play, Scenes from an Execution, last summer.  Barker is one of those great 80s-90s Brit playwrights, like Edward Bond, that just aren’t done a lot over here.

Howard Barker’s play Europeans is running in rep with Neal Bell’s adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel Therese Raquin, running at Atlantic Stage Two, produced by the Potomac Theatre Company/NY.  

Rental Reps are Confusing.  Especially when they run in a theatre’s second space which is not at the same space as its first (Atlantic is on 20th Street, Stage Two is on Sixteenth).  You can get confused when you go to Theatermania to figure out what you’re seeing—if you plug in the wrong title you’ll think you have the wrong day.  They weren’t on the Atlantic site, because, I guess, they are rentals.

Get Me to the Play on Time:  Always have the cell phone of the person who invited you to the theatre.  That’s another famous person shout-out if you’re paying attention.

Curtain Times Should Standardize.  I hate 7:30 curtains.  They make me nervous. They’ve become so popular that now when I am going to an 8 p.m. show I check and check and check on my calendar that I have it right.  In William Inge’s play The Dark at the Top of the Stairs there’s a line about how theatre in New York starts at 8:30.That would give everyone a chance to eat before the show.  Stomachs grumbling loudly all around you are distracting.  Even when they’re not your own.  I had two mini éclairs at La Bergamote (highly recommended) so I know it wasn’t me.   

A Word About Rep.  ”Rep” comes from “repertory.”  A “repertory” or “repertoire” should be all the things in your bag of tricks that you can trot out.  In the Czech Republic, companies really do run “in rep”—companies learn a show, then play it a few times a month, alternating with older shows in their repertoire, for years.  There’s nothing like that here except, perhaps, in opera.  Berkeley Repertory Theatre is not a repertory company.  Seattle Repertory Company is not a repertory company.    

So far as I know there is not a true rep company in the US.  Do you know of one?  Post if you do!  There are economic reasons as well as pragmatic ones for this (Czech companies, for example, are on a payroll yearlong, like salaried folks).  

Usher Alert #2.  Like ticket pick-up lines and curtain times, the lack of norms is confusing and irritating.  As a critic, I kind of like it when there’s a little flyer with my name on it on my seat, though it’s not necessary if seats are numbered.  Atlantic (or were they Potomac?) had ushers do something new, though:  they behaved like waiters.

“This young man will show you to your seat.”

“How many in your party?”


“What’s the name?”


“First name?’

Is there really likely to be more than one Genzlinger reviewing the show that night?  Seriously. 

The nice young man tried and failed to get us to our seats two or three times before he figured it out (we were on the aisle next to a pillar).  Once there, he pulled up the flyer.  This is the theatre usher equivalent, I guess, of a waiter putting your napkin on your lap for you.   

Usher Alert #3.  Yes, two for one show.  The nice young man had his cell phone glued to his ear while he was seating us.  Most likely it was being used as a walkie-talkie (remember those?) to communicate with the house manager but it looked bad.   Neil suggested he was talking to his girlfriend and telling her he’d be done in fifteen minutes.  

Back to the Play.  It’s an epic—that’s the term the Brits use for plays with a lot of episodes instead of one big throughline.  Barker’s 1990 play is set in Vienna in in the late 1600s after a ravaging invasion of the Turks.  Its investigation of culture clash, despair and xenophobia feel fresh.  In the program, critic George Hunka situates the play as an example of what Barker called “Theatre of Catastrophe,” which was an attempt toexamine the irrationality underlying human behavior that leads to war and destruction.  But it’s also very funny.  Epic dramas have large casts.  They often have stylized languageViolence.  Sex.  Ptp/nyc’s cast is large and able, with striking costumes by Julie Emrson.  The set, designed by Mark Evancho, who also did the subtle, not overwhelming projections, is a rare beast:  evocative beams that really do lend themselves equally to multiple places (a palace, a church, a town square).  Director Richard Romagnoli makes judicious use of underscoring too, sound design by Allison Rimmer, original music by Peter Hamlin.

I didn’t envy Neil’s task of getting a review of the two and a half hour, large cast play done in 300 words.  Thankfully, since his review is up, I can just quote his review here:

In the play, written in 1990, Mr. Barker drops in on the aftermath of the siege of Vienna by the Turks in 1683. Leopold (Brent Langdon), the Holy Roman Emperor — here, a buffoon whose main interest is having his portrait painted — is ecstatic that the siege has been broken through the heroism of General Starhemberg (Robert Emmet Lunney).

Around these two real-life characters Mr. Barker interweaves fictional narratives involving a mutilated rape victim (Aidan Sullivan), her sex-hungry and just plain hungry sister (Megan Byrne), an exceedingly unobservant priest (Robert Zukerman, who is hilarious) and others.

Critic Person Shout-Out:  Sam Thielman from Variety was sitting in front of us.  Sam and I bonded a while back over our mutual dislike of Naomi Wallace’s anti-Semitic caricatures in The Fever Chart:  Three Visions of the Middle East.  I reviewed it for Back Stage.

Sam was there with his lovely wife Pamela, who is a script-reader at the Public Theatre, so she knows my friend the lovely and talented Liz Frankel, Literary Associate at the Public, who referred me to a job as a Story Editor a few years ago.

Sam wrote in his review:

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to write a play this bleak and then call it “The Europeans.” But that’s Barker’s point: Destruction on a massive scale seems to be something of a human habit. When Starhemberg tells Leopold that he and the Viennese had been reduced to eating dogs, Leopold simply says, “Dogs, have you? And not the last time dogs will stand in for pastry.”

Act One is stronger than Act Two, and at times the sudden shift from a kind of verse to really prosaic language for humor is overplayed.  Barker also likes anachronism—there’s a reference to jazz, there’s use of a flashlight—but it doesn’t really lead anywhere.  

Megan Byrne as Susannah gives what a “brave” performance—”brave,” Neil and I have decided, is code for nudity, mimed sex, vomiting or other bodily functions enacted or revealed onstage.  Byrne mimes having sex with Orphuls, the corrupr priest, and she masturbates (facing upstage) while eating one of his lovenotes.  She’s the sister of the raped and maimed Katrin, bitterly comic Aidan Sullivan with whom General Starhemberg, forcefully enacted by Robert Emmet Lunney,  falls in love (he seems to be dealing with post traumatic stress disorder, as well as generalized mommy issues).    

Female bodies are seductive, even to straight women.  That’s good and bad.  As the play wears on, though, even I was distracted by Byrne’s cleavage.   It’s to Byrne’s credit that one remembers her performance at all.

That everyone was somewhat crazy was fascinating but by the end of Act Two it also robbed events of any meaning.  When Starhemberg hints that he’s going to give Concilia, the child of Katrin’s rape, back to the Turks, he could be taking a long view of global connections, succumbing to violence, or just acting randomly.  This is a directorial problem, in the end.

But I’m still recommending it, unlike David Sheward of Back Stage (another Critic Person Shout-out!  we bumped into him on the sidewalk).  He wrote in his review:

The characters come across as symbols rather than flesh-and-blood people. Each has suffered at the hands of the oppressive Turks and cannot cope with the relative freedom offered by the conquering Austrian Empire. But because we don’t get to know them as individuals, their physical and mental pain has no resonance. We don’t identify with them, and their multiple miseries soon become tedious. 

Sheward was talking more easily than we were, having ridden the elevator.

Venue Comfort #2.  In the Basement.  We walked up four flights of stairs, four flights of very industrial stairs, concrete and steel, rather than wait for the elevator.  It extended the end-of-the-world grimness of the play (though I suspect Barker meant his ending to have a glimmer of hope about it) but trust me, wait for the elevator at Atlantic Stage Two.

Meta-theatrical Atmosphere Alert #1.  Ever notice how the play you’ve just seen sometimes creeps into the atmosphere?  Not only the stair-climbing but New York itself seemed eager to perform. 

On this hot summer night, we passed The Bikini Bar—where a girl in a yellow bikini standing outside reassured a young man that yes, she spoke Russian, and then they carried on chatting.

At Penn Station on 31st and Eighth a man in a kilt played the bagpipes.

Many people were sitting on the steps of the Post Office.  Why?    I get that it’s a nice night and apartments get stuffy, but… the Post Office on eighth avenue is the best you can do on a balmy night?  

Forget Vienna in the 17th Century, said the city.  Look at me, look at me, look at me.


Twelfth Night

July 8th

The Public Theater Presents Shakespeare in the Park, The Delacorte, Central Park

Before I go into my rant about the Public, let me say straight up that it was great. 

I RECOMMEND THE PLAY (it’s closed, but if you time-travel or have an opportunity to see it on video, do it).

 I’ve seen Twelfth Night seven or eight times and is in the top two (the other is an “island” version American Conservatory Theatre did back in the 80s, when I lived in San Francisco).  Anne Hathaway surprised me by having real Shakespearean chops, surprising for someone who has never performed Shakespeare professionally and who is known for ingénue film roles.  Viola in Twelfth Night is an ingénue, but there’s verse and comic timing and vocal projections and all kinds of things I didn’t know she could pull off.  She also sings like a bird.  On top of that, she’s tall and narrow enough that she could actually pass as a boy.  Eighteenth-century costumes by designer Jane Greenwood had grace and charm, and looked terrific on the pastoral set (literally, hills and trees onstage) by John Lee Beatty (Gwen shout-out:  I wrote the entry on Beatty for the Oxford Encylopedia of Theatre and Performance).

Theatre Music Appreciation.  There’s an Irish-y (not really Irish, but some jigs, and Swift’s session leader Chris Layer plays uillean pipes) band on stage for much of Act One.  The band HEM wrote much of the music, and a recording is in the works.  Let’s see more such recordings, please. When the play began my brother Stephen (I used to call him AOB for Adored Older Brother, but he didn’t like it really) could not stop humming “We Are the World” (the Michael Jackson death-a-thon was the day before).  After the show ended, he could not stop humming the final tune.   

The clowns—Andrew Aguecheek (Hamish Linklater) as a humble fop in particular—were the best I’ve ever seen.  I never grew tired of their predictable gags.  It didn’t hurt that comic chameleon David Pittu played Feste, Olivia’s fool, either, and that Jay O. Sanders played Sir Toby Belch.  And Julie White as Maria displayed such fun feistiness that you could understand why Olivia keeps her around, even after her mean prank on pompous steward Malvolio (Michael Cumpsty).    In addition, Raul Esparza’s lovesick Orsino had charm, Stark Sands gave Sebastian nobility, and Audra McDonald’s Olivia, for once, had sexual heat (often the role is played as just a besotted older woman) and dignity.


Now for the rant.

Shakespeare in the Park is not free.

If you go to the Public’s site,  you’ll see they now have a warning about using professional line-sitters.

Last year the New York Times had an article about people hiring line-sitters on Craig’s List (technically, not buying the tickets, which are free). The Public Theater’s Artistic Director Oskar Eustis told the Times that the line-sitting itself was a kind of communal experience:

 “In our commodity-obsessed money culture, that’s a vital civic touchstone. Some things shouldn’t be measured in dollars.”

That’s all great, if you’re a student, or an artist, or unemployed, work flexible hours, and on live in Manhattan so you can be on line at 5 a.m.  If not, these tickets are not only not free, they’re not accessible.  Unless you’re a summer employee of a law firm that gives to the Public, or a sponsor, or…You get my drift.  These tickets are not free, unless you’re Someone Who. At minimum wage, each ticket costs over $50.  It’s easy for Eustis not to “measure in dollars” what other peoples’ time is worth.

Disclaimer:  I took a class called “Dramaturgy for Playwrights” from Oskar Eustis at the (now defunct, fondly recalled) Eureka Theatre in San Francisco.  His title was “dramaturg.”  I learned to ask “what are you waiting to see happen?” and “what’s the story question?” Back then, Oskar referred to me as a “cute chick in a miniskirt,” teased me about having gone to Stanford (he’s an auto-didact, like Tom Stoppard and Irish Friend, i.e., IF), and called himself a “red diaper baby.”  He had a mane of golden hair, a smart viking from Minnesota and I thought he was a god of the theatre.

Oskar, what the hell?  How can it be a “civic touchstone” to exclude the working man?   

I hired a line-sitter from Craig’s List. I can’t get to Central Park by 5 am from New Jersey without staying over somewhere, and Wednesday was the only day I had free to see the show, which was closing Sunday.  My line-sitter flaked out on me.   I posted an ad on Craig’s List and got very, very lucky.  

Line-sitters are a sign that capitalism works.  Line-sitters can make over $100 in a day.  There’s nothing illegal about hiring someone to run an errand for you, and busy, working, elderly, infirm people can have a chance to see great theatre too. Since they aren’t going away, perhaps the Public should consider finding a way to regulate it. 

My money was well-spent.  IF (Irish Friend) waited in line for returns two nights in a row to take his theatre-loving teenage daughter and did not get in.  This is Just Wrong.

Program Propriety #2.  When Oskar was called Dramaturg, it was a pretty new profession in this country (OK, that dates me, but I got carded on Friday, so I’m down with it), and very prestigious.  Morgan Jenness, Shelby Jiggetts, John Glore—these were powerful, important people.  Dramaturg was someone who cared about the script, who worked with playwrights.  Now, though, the Public lists its “literary associate” towards the end of its staff in the playbill.   I don’t see anyone with the title “dramaturg.” Huh?

The Public Theater produces and develops new work—it even appointed its first “Master Writer,” Suzan-Lori Parks, whose name and title are in capital letters in “The Public Theater Staff” at the back of the Playbill.  So why is the literary staff is on the second page, listed after the “director of information technology?”  That’s after development, marketing, communications, capital pprojects and government relations, finance, director of Joe’s Pub, music theater initiative, Director of Shakespeare Intiative, Director of Production and facility management. 

Program Propriety #3.  Yes, twice for one show.  There’s nothing about Shakespeare in the Playbill. Joe Papp created Shakespeare in the park for the people, but you won’t get info on him here.  The synopsis gives no history of the play. The Playbill does include an essay by London-based critic Matt Wolf contextualizing this starry production with other Public productions, with quotes from Eustis.  There are also inserts about upcoming Public productions.  My brother asked me where the play falls in Shakespeare’s timeline (it’s 1601, so smack in the middle; you can read the entire play, since it’s in the Public Domain, here on Gutenberg) and I said, oh, it’s in the program I’m sure.  It isn’t.  

Outdoor Theatre Observation #1.  Things fly overhead  It was a lovely summer night—moths flying around in theatre lights posed as fireflies.  Hawks and the occasional goose flew overheadalong with were very noisy planes—one that circled around in an alarming way – that all paused for intermission

Outdoor Theatre Observation #2.  Audiences are different outside.  I’m more tolerant.  I like having my coke with me, for one.   The woman next to me was texting someone during the show, and it was annoying rather than infuriating.  She stopped for clown business.  Ushers walked around telling people not to take pictures, even of one another (Union rules forbid it, but audience members don’t understand why their civic experience is curtailed that way). 

Viola of course was written for a boy—in Shakespeare’s day women were not allowed to perform—so in the play we never do see her come out triumphantly as a girl at the end.  I was happy that director Daniel Sullivan showed her, though.  She couldn’t have looked more joyous in her white Jane Austen-ish gown as she flung her arms in the air and danced with her Orsino.  That final dance was more infectious than any hippies from last summer beckoning to the audience.  People hummed the tune.  



July 10, 2009

The Wild Project (195 East 3rd Street)



Lisa Ebersole has an amazing ear for dialogue.  She blew me away with her play Brother in 2005.  I raved about it for Back Stage and when her play was published by Samuel French they quoted me in the cover

“American theatre has found a rare new voice in Lisa Ebersole, who wrote, directed, and performs in the short, tense drama “Brother.”  Every beat is fraught with interest and impact. Ebersole presents a world that is both recognizable and entirely her own.”

I have not met Lisa, except on Facebook, but shortly after my review came out she ran into my friend Natalie Picoe (she’s now a filmmaker finishing a fantastic film about her father, The Poker Detective.) and Natalie mentioned something about seeing the play after her friend Gwen recommended it (Lisa also acts in her plays, making her a very recognizable writer, though it also may contribute to the slow progress her writing career has been having) and Lisa said “you mean Gwen OREL?  My parents LOVE her!”

Playwright-Critic Etiquette.   Don’t send thank-you notes.  Do accept friend requests.  Do gush to mutual friends.  Don’t twitter mean things about us like Alice Hoffman (Gawker link). 

Mother stars Buck Henry and Holland Taylor—two well known heavy-hitting actors from film and television.  Henry you may remember from appearances on Murphy Brown; he also wrote the screenplay to The Graduate.  Taylor won an Emmy for her role on The Practice, and has done a lot of film and television too, as theatre.

Taylor was featured on Theatermania, in a piece written by editor Brian Scott Lipton:

“I don’t think they’re madly eccentric, just different in their own way,” says Taylor about the family in Mother. “But I also think they have the kind of family dynamic that exists in all families; there’s a certain kind of squabbling between the children and a certain kind of well-worn groove of bickering with the parents. Yet, there is unquestionably the bond of love that overrides everything in this family. I think the play shows how delicate the connecting lines are in a family — how easily they can be frayed — while there’s ultimately enough strands to weave the kind of web that holds a family together. It’s really wonderful writing.”

But my question is—why aren’t there stories about EBERSOLE HERSELF?  I hope they’re coming!  at least they’ll be one here on Cityscoops; I’m doing a Q&A with the playwright tomorrow.

In a period where the gender disparity between male and female playwrights made the news, after a Town Hall meeting featuring the year-long study of Princeton undergraduate star economist Emily Sands, which received a long article in the New York Times, and then a follow-up piece on women directors, why is this emerging female playwright less the story than the stars in her play?

“There is discrimination against female playwrights in the theater community,” said Emily Glassberg Sands, who conducted the research.

Because, folks, talk (and news talk) is cheap.  At least the show is being reviewed, although not, at the Times, by Brantley or Isherwood.  I just hope a female critic covers it too, for somebody.  Because lack of female critics hurts female playwrights too.  I don’t think only women should review plays by women.  But I also don’t think only men should review plays by women.  If this were a new play by a young man with two heavy-hitters in the roles, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts the writer would be part of the story.

Back to the Play.  Though not quite as strong or as finished as Brother, it’s worth a trek downtown to see it.  What Ebersole (yeah ok, I’m using her first name when I’m thinking about gender, and her last when thinking about her work, and what that says about me I am not sure) has is a voice that is striking and recognizable.  Her storytelling and dramaturgy could use some work, and though she’s pretty and personable, I’m not convinced she’s the best actress for this piece—she seemed to be working in a different style than the others on stage.  

Meta-theatrical Atmosphere Alert #2:  I got carded at Croxley Ale!  Ok, that’s just a gloat.  As I wandered in and prepared to sit at a low table a young woman grabbed me by the arm and said EXCUSE ME CAN I SEE SOME ID!  She made my day.    The group of young women sitting near me were all trading happy stories about being beaten as children and how much good it did them.  One woman described how her mother would say “go ahead, call 911, you’ll go to foster care and be with people who don’t love you.”  Then she laughed.  She turned out so much better who never got smacked.  One woman was made to kneel on the reverse side of a bathmat before being hit with a belt.  She laughed.  Happily.

  If I didn’t know better I’d suspect some kind of stealth marketing.

Venue Comfort #3: This is a really nice venue, and the first time I’d been there.  Comfortable seats. The play is set in a dining room at a swanky hotel in West Virginia, between Christmas and New Year’s, as a family with two adult children tries to have a happy meal.  

Getting Theatrical With It:  Onstage seating put some audience members at restaurant tables too, drinking complimentary prosecco (which the family drink as well).  The program is arranged like a menu, which is also a nice touch, though it was a teensy bit confusing.  I’m a sucker for creative touches like this.  Yes, put the audience on stage.  Get creative with the program.  

Usher Alert #4:  no names on the seats, this time, but seat assignments written on the “menu”

Back to the Play.  The play reveals itself slowly—you don’t realize at first that the young man and woman are siblings, not a couple, until they both refer to Mom and Dad.  Mom comes to dinner without her shoes—both my brother Stephen (my plus one, and very appropriate for this) and I thought for a bit that the family lived there (no, they were just staying there).  There are references to “the bunker”—Stephen told me there really is a hotel outside D.C. that has a bunker in case of nuclear alert, but it’s never explained in the play so there’s a period that goes on for awhile where we seem to be in a science fiction world.  This feeling is heightened even more by a strange subplot in which Lisa has apparently been kidnapped by “The Wilsons,” a family they have known and had complex feelings of dislike, attraction and envy for, for many years. But the Wilson kidnapping gradually seems just an excuse for characters to leave the room so that we can have a series of two-person scenes.  

Directors Notes:  since the family are sitting at a table throughout, most of the movement onstage comes when characters re-enter a room and sit in a different chair.  I have never seen people chair-hop at their own table.  Maybe this family does, but it seemed forced to me.

 Holland Taylor  plays a difficult, dynamic woman who somehow centers the family—yet I still don’t know why the play is called “mother.”  It could just as easily have been called Father.  I’ll ask Ebersole when I talk to her.


 There were a number of loose ends:  why does the brother bring up this dinner to chide his father about never having talked to him about sex; what is the mother referring to when she apologizes to her adult daughter for leaving on a plane when the daughter was two?  —with no clear “story question” we can’t help investing these conversational bits with weight.

Stephen asked me, “has she been listening in on our family dinners?”  The family onstage was nothing like ours, and yet they seemed so recognizable too.  That’s huge.  That can’t even be taught.

Gender Disparity Alert #1:  Female playwrights often write about families, and some writers suggest that that keeps their plays in the “small” vein.  But men have families too.  My brother chortled really loudly.  Can we just dispel the notion that women are more interested in family than men?  Where does that come from, anyway?  Isn’t Death of a Salesman essentially a family drama?  Yes, it;s about work, but it’s just as much about a father with sons and a wife who knows that Attention Must Be Paid.

Favorite moments:

Dad pauses in the middle of talking to say “Oh I love this song” about a muzak “Little drummer boy” playing in the restaurant.

When the brother reveals he’s dating a married woman, mom is upset, but dad says “I’m relieved it’s a woman.”

Late in the play (it’s only 75 minutes, but feels a bit longer due to its lack of real urgency)—we learn that dad has lost the family money.  As Mom picks on him, daughter defends him and brother defends mom, the shifting loyalties, guilt and love hit close to home.  

Gender Disparity Alert #2:  With a talent so palpable, why isn’t Ebersole in the circuit of writers who are developed, commissioned, scouted—a talent this big should have had the opportunity to work with the best dramaturges in the best new play programs.  Truthfully, this is a question that is larger than gender, it’s a question of class in theatre.  It’s very very hard to “break in” if you don’t come from a writing program, if you don’t break in at the right age and with the right kind of work.   But once you’re in, you’re in.  Imperfect though the play is, it has more merit and weight than a lot of flashy, clever pieces I’ve seen by writers who go on to big careers writing for Showtime and HBO series to pay the rent.

It’s “who you know” in theatre too.   It always will be– even with the best of intentions we can’t really develop or read blindly, at least not beyond one play.  So there will always be some degree of sexism, racism, ageism.

But I can still bitch about it.

And maybe that will even do some good.

Posted on 14 Jul 2009 at 7:13pm
Wall to Wall Broadway (3): Frank Loesser Salute, New Musicals, Broadway Cabaret, Comedy in Revue, Lin-Manuel Miranda

Wall to Wall Broadway (3): Frank Loesser Salute, New Musicals, Broadway Cabaret, Comedy in Revue, Lin-Manuel Miranda

By Pearl Chen

Part three of Wall to Wall Broadway’s 12-hour music marathon kicked off with a Pre-Centennial Salute to Frank Loesser, the composer behind musicals such as Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Loesser, who would have turned 100 next year, apparently had a talented family as well. His second wife Jo Sulllivan and their daughter Emily both appeared in this segment, singing selections from Hans Christian Andersen and Senor Discretion Himself, among others


The next segment was my favorite of the day. “New Musicals in the Works” gave us a glimpse of shows by up-and-coming composers and producers, and it was exciting to see that the future of Broadway is in good hands. First up were composer Zina Goldrich and lyricist Marcy Heisler from the ASCAP workshop, whose combination of hilarious wit and endearing melodies was unmatched by anyone else in the show.

They began with a clever, quirky homage to Starbucks, or more to the point, the eye candy behind some of its counters. “Taylor the Latte Boy” captured all the adolescent awkwardness of trying to approach a crush, and Goldrich was an expert at channeling a funny teenage girl while singing behind the keys. The song already has quite a following – Last month, I saw it performed at the International Championships of Collegiate A Cappella, and Kristin Chenoweth sings a version of it on youtube.

Heisler joined Goldrich in the next song, from the upcoming Ever After – based on the 1998 Cinderella movie starring Drew Barrymore. The main character, Danielle, contemplates how much she really needs love with lines like “Love is being bored in pairs” and “A knight in shining armor is just one more thing to dust.” Something tells me a sappy fairy tale is the last thing this musical will be.

They ended with an adorable, island-jam number from Dear Edwina. The song’s hook — “Lola from Lima to Honolulu” — was super catchy.

The second showcase of new Broadway talent came from the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, which has created shows like Avenue Q, The Little Mermaid, and Next to Normal. On Saturday, they performed selections from their new show The Kid, about a gay couple trying to navigate an open adoption. Like the gals before them, Andy Monroe’s music and Jack Lethner’s lyrics brought together a delightful mix of quirkiness and heart – but with an extra dose of edginess. The song “The Kid” was a tongue-in-cheek number about the reasons to become a parent, including an unabashed effort to keep one’s partner in the marriage long after one’s figure has gone awry: “If we have children together, I won’t have to look good in leather.” I’m already looking forward to its off-Broadway debut come fall.


From new musicals, we dove right into old Broadway, with a Cabaret set that started with a lusciously bluesy rendition of “Embraceable You” by Rebecca Luker from Girl Crazy (1939). The segment didn’t stay in memory lane for long, and soon it launched into selections from the 90s and 2000s, with Jessica Phillips performing “I Miss the Mountains” from Next to Normal, currently on Broadway, and Michael Cerveris shaking things up with an acoustic rock guitar rendition of “Pinball Wizard” from The Who’s Tommy.( 1993) “ is still as inappropriate today as it was back then,” he said. One of the most refreshingly unconventional performances of the night.


Comedy in Revue came next, and host Isaiah Sheffer brought out a whole panel of what he called the “comedy team” to tackle slapstick numbers from musicals such as Ain’t Misbehavin’, Call Me Mister and On the Town. The standout star of this segment was Mary Brienza, whose intentionally manly walk and gruff, no-nonsense rendition of “Nobody Makes a Pass at Me” from Pins and Needles had Sheffer commenting afterwards, “That was Mary Brienza, starting fullback for the New York Jets.”


The final segment of this quarter was a real treat – an interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of In the Heights, and a performance of “Paciencia y Fe” by Olga Merediz from the show. Like a true Broadway star, she brought the house down with this soaring ballad before rushing back to the Richard Rodgers Theater for the 8pm performance. The host, a silver-haired gentleman named Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof, then introduced Miranda by way of a self-composed rap. That’s right, RAP.

There’s nothing more hilarious than watching hip-hop performed by the people you’d least expect to do hip-hop. But I gotta hand it to Mr. Harnick – bespectacled glasses or not, this man’s got flow. In one extended, adorably rhymed verse, he managed to cover all the highlights of Miranda’s career – including the recent deal he secured with Dreamworks Animation – before signing off with, “This hip-hop thing just ain’t that easy to do.” The audience ate it up. Afterwards, Miranda said, “I’ve got a framed copy of this over my piano.”

The interview was spirited but painfully short (the show was running out of time by this point). Miranda praised Fiddler on the Roof for its structure and inspiration for In the Heights and treated the audience to a “Fiddler rap.” The last few minutes of this segment had him on his feet, stomping out the rhythm while getting the audience to chant “tradition” every few bars. It was the most energetically sublime, interactive moment in the show, and there couldn’t have been a better way to cap off part three of Wall to Wall Broadway.

Overall, this 12-hour musical extravaganza was true to its mission: a virtually nonstop onslaught of music across Broadway history. When I left, bleary-eyed, after eight hours of continuous music and interviews, the show was still kicking into its final and main portion of the night: three hours of Broadway Musical Classics, with songs from Funny Girl, Anything Goes, Follies, My Fair Lady, A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park with George, and a gaggle of others. It would’ve been any classic Broadway musical lover’s dream, and truth be told, the older you were, the more likely you would’ve enjoyed it.

So much of the appeal of musical theater, I realized, depends on a nostalgic factor – if a song stirs your recognition or memory, you’ll like it regardless of how well it is written. Still, there was something for everyone in this diversified program, and with a free open-theater policy that allowed people to come and go as they pleased, the entire event had a relaxed, laid-back vibe that you don’t often find in Broadway shows.


Read Part 2 or Part 1 of Wall to Wall Broadway.

Posted on 20 May 2009 at 7:08pm

Elizabeth and the Scarlet Hunter: Sisters Are Doing It to Themselves

By Gwen Orel

Elizabeth Edwards is sexist.

She says that “women need to have respect for other women,” but what she means is that they need to respect each other’s property rights — as in, women should not touch that which belongs to another woman. As in, their husbands. This point of view turns men into objects, and women into people whose behavior is determined by gender. It’s a sexist notion, and Elizabeth Edwards needs to be called on it.

Edwards is mad – really mad – at Rielle Hunter (the unnamed other woman in her new book, Resilience), who had an affair with her husband, 2008 Presidential candidate John Edwards, then Democratic Senator from North Carolina.

As a betrayed wife, Edwards is entitled to vent, although I think that doing it publicly is doing her dignity no favors. But her self-serving assumptions about how people should behave are oppressive.

“There is no excuse to do this,” she told Oprah on May 7. ”You can’t just knock on that door and say, ‘you’re out, I’m in.’ If you admire that life, you can’t just take it. Build your own.” Edwards then called Hunter “pathetic.” (Watch some of the video and see photos of the interview here.)

But who’s pathetic? In her book, Edwards describes the beginning of Hunter’s affair with her husband as follows:

“Without my knowing, a woman who spotted my husband one afternoon in the restaurant bar of the hotel in which he was staying hung around outside the hotel for a couple of hours until he returned from a dinner and introduced herself by saying, ‘You are so hot.’” That, at least, is how John described it to her, so in her mind, it must be true. (That he lied about the length of the affair even as he was telling her this didn’t seem to mitigate this statement’s truthfulness for her.)

Edwards’ incomplete strides towards healing, her emasculating attitude to the man she claims she loves, her disregard for her children’s embarrassment while hawking this tell-all, and her venomous bitterness against Hunter are less interesting to me than what her assumptions say about the times, and how they’ve gone on a-changin’. Demonizing the Scarlet Cougar is just a part of it.

What she’s really talking about is the outdated, Boomer-era, first-wave-of-Feminism construct known as “Sisterhood.”

Our Bodies, Ourselves notwithstanding, there is no such thing as Sisterhood.  There never was. Just because the person next to you has a uterus doesn’t mean she has your back.

Edwards is 59. First-wave. Disappointed, disillusioned, and entitled. She worked as a lawyer, retiring after her teenage son died tragically in 1996, but most of her life has been about John. She retains some of the ideals of the Aquarian Age (without, needless to say, the laidback love-in approach to sexuality). She stuck with John and promoted him for president (for president! For the top role in the land! A man whose moral compass, not to mention his zipper, is sent flying downward from the utterance of four mere, albeit cheesy words!) because he believed in the Right Things.

Hunter is 45. She’s Gen-X (two years younger than Douglas Coupland, who wrote the book that gave us that term). For her, equal rights and opportunity for women would be a given, not a goal. One could see her goal-oriented approach to life and sex as a triumph of that first wave of Feminism—she’s going for what she wants and thinks she deserves.

Just like a man.

Blaming the Other Woman is not a uniquely Boomer trait, but believing in this Sisterhood concept is. A comment on one news article said women like Hunter “give women a bad name.” What does that even mean? Is there anything anybody could do to “give men a bad name?” Can you imagine a man deciding not to “hit that” out of loyalty to a husband he’s never met? He might refrain for lots of other reasons, but not out of “brotherhood.” Even writing it feels silly.

A married man who doesn’t want to cheat won’t cheat, no matter how appealing or available the woman. It takes effort to cheat—a room needs to be entered, clothes taken off, zippers pulled down, condom put on (well, maybe not; Hunter did have a baby whose paternity is as yet undetermined)—there’s lots of time in there to remember, “oh wait! I don’t actually want to do this!” And continuing an affair for years takes even more effort than that.

Edwards talks about Hunter as if she’s a malign force—”I don’t know anyone like that”—not just another woman with a sex drive, drawn to the man she loves for any number of possible reasons. Where’s the Sisterhood there?

There’s no question that Edwards has suffered through some genuinely hard times. Her son Wade died in a jeep accident just a few weeks after being honored at the White House as a Finalist in a national essay contest. She is a mother of three children, two of whom are pretty young, and she has incurable breast cancer. Her husband told her a partial truth before telling the real one—as if he were ripping a band-aid off her in teeny-tiny stages for over a year. That has to hurt. I have compassion for her. What I lack is admiration.

As someone closer to Hunter’s age than Edwards’, I’m really, really disappointed in Edwards’ discourse here, because I am a Feminist, and Feminism will never be real until we stop blaming women for the things men do. Hunter, harlot or not, didn’t betray Edwards. It was John who lied that the affair was a one-night stand. It was John who knew just how deeply an affair would hurt her. Hunter slept with her husband, but it was John who broke her heart.

Edwards told Oprah she doesn’t understand why her husband responded to Hunter’s come-on—and she was sure if you asked him, he wouldn’t understand it either.  Oh, come on. John Edwards responded because he wanted to. He found Rielle sexy, and went for it. Repeatedly. I love men, and I understand a loving woman’s impulse to make excuses for them. They have an endearing simplicity about them at times. They seem so helpless. So easy to out-argue. So at the mercy of their appetites.

Yeah, but. They run the world. We let them off the hook. Ever since Adam first told the Lord that it was the woman who tempted him (an excuse He didn’t buy, by the way), women have been taking too big a share of the rap. Nobody made Adam nibble. By turning her anger at Hunter, Edwards enables men to keep on keeping on. It’s not John Edwards’ cheating that disgusts me, it’s his cowardly-ass half-truths. His ongoing fraud made a fool of two women. For all we know, it’s still doing so.

Feminism will never be real so long as we think having a vagina predetermines our moral values. Until we believe that each woman is as individual as each man, it never will be.

Let’s say goodbye to Sisterhood.

Gwen Orel is a cultural critic based in New York.

Posted on 09 May 2009 at 8:43pm