Wednesday, December 23, 2009


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Monday, November 02, 2009

Neil Simon out; Elvis In?

Does that subject header make sense? It does when you consider that the closing of The Neil Simon Plays means that (unless things change) this spring the Nederlander will be occupied by Million Dollar Quartet, a musical featuring actors playing Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley that most of you probably forgot was announced for a Broadway berth. And if you think this post is about how in recent years we've seen both Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley musicals bomb on Broadway, that will have to be saved for another time, because this post is about the much more interesting failure of The Neil Simon Plays.

I read Patrick Healy's analysis of the closings in The New York Times and was left with the feeling that what he was saying was that it is generally impossible to produce a Neil Simon play today. That is unless it features marketable "stars," which the recently shuttered production of Brighton Beach Memoirs was lacking. I think that is crap. Yes, it doesn't help Neil Simon that many of his lines have become cliched or at the very least seem tired in 2009. But, still, I think there are many people who want to enter into the theater to the warm embrace of a time gone by. So why then do I think Brighton Beach was such a failure?

Well, I think a lot of it has to do with marketing. The ads were not good and I do not believe there was any sort of direct mail campaign. This is a show that needed flyers in the suburban JCC. It didn't have them there. The ads should have really promoted the titles and had quotes about the brilliance of the plays. This art was hopelessly old-fashioned and made it seem like the two shows were playing on the same night. And if the producers wanted David Cromer to be the "thrilling" part of the mounting (though I am not sure how that would possibly make sense), they should have said "an all new production from the acclaimed director of..." I mean, something. It was also unclear from the ad what show was playing when. My mother, for example, asked me if Brighton Beach was closing next month, as she had heard on the radio that Broadway Bound would be opening then.

You can say this all didn't make a difference--but that is foolhardy. Shows are made by marketing. For a smaller scale example, look at Altar Boyz. Yes, it got good reviews, but so have some other off-Broadway shows that failed. The reason it succeeded was the marketing, making it sexy and young and utilizing a street team element to make its fans seem more involved. If the ads had just had the title treatment and one Times quote, I don't think Altar Boyz would still be playing. Look at Jewtopia--crappy show, but great title and great marketing. Posters everywhere. I remember going to the clubhouse at my grandparents' development and seeing a small Jewtopia poster and a bunch of flyers. There should have been Brighton Beach $25 off coupons in that same place. People that live there would have totally gone to see Neil Simon. But did those people even know Brighton Beach Memoirs was open? If they are like my grandmother, they might have read the Newsday review a week late, the same day the closing was announced.

Now, I am not criticizing the press campaign, as there was a good amount of press (brought to you mainly by press agent Jim Byk, who I believe I've said here is one of my three favorite sources for musical theater history information). But, when you have a star-less Neil Simon play, target marketing is essential. It gives people who read a sort of positive review, extra incentive to go see the show. That $25 off flyer means something to people going to the JCC in Rockland County. These aren't people who know they can go to Broadwaybox to get a discount code. These are people who want to see the colorful flyer--they want it where they go to the gym or to play cards or they want to get it in the mail. The review or the David Cromer feature in The Jewish Week might not get them to call for tickets, but something targeted to them might just do it.

Do I think a better marketing campaign would have made Brighton Beach a hit? No, I am just listing factors that I think would have helped get us at least to Broadway Bound. And what of Broadway Bound? I have to say, I feel like I've seen Brighton Beach Memoirs 100 times (which cannot possibly be true), but I was excited to see Broadway Bound, which I am much less familiar with. Am I similar to the majority of audience goers? Probably not, so I am not saying Broadway Bound standing alone would have been a hit. But I do think, as stated above, the whole roll-out concept caused confusion. I also think it actually dampened excitement rather than heightened it. Case in point: my friend's parents wanted to see one of the Neil Simon plays, but they were waiting for the Broadway Bound reviews to get excited enough to buy a ticket for one. They knew in this time of economic uncertainty, they could only go see one of the shows and so they were just sitting back and waiting. I mean, let's face it, The Neil Simon Plays are not like the Coast of Utopia trilogy. In the case of Coast, you had a long gap and a subscription base and you also had a fascination element: people who saw one Coast of Utopia entry and loved it felt it necessary to see the others. This was not the case with Brighton Beach and Broadway Bound, even though they are two plays featuring the same family and are in that way more tightly connected than the three Coasts, they have different titles and seem to stand alone. After all, they were not written to be all done at once. Love of one might mean you would be more likely to buy tickets to the others, but there wouldn't be a compelling need. We all know what happens in them.

Would stars of helped? Yes, of course. Would more street marketing have helped? Yup. Would it have helped if the production was amazing? Uh, huh. And what else? Tons. Many things went wrong to lead to the failure of Brighton Beach Memoirs, not the least of which was a poor choice of venue that I think made the play seem even smaller than it was meant to be. Because of these numerous factors, it is unfair to imply that today's modern audiences simply don't want to see a Neil Simon play.

Monday, October 26, 2009

You are Pretty Enough for All Normal Purposes

Or so a line in Love, Loss and What I Wore says. But my question is more: Are you well-mannered enough for all normal purposes? But more of that later. First, I want to point out the fact that I have seen 8 Broadway shows and 3 off-Broadway shows in the last month and my two favorite have been off-Broadway (one of them being Love, Loss and What I Wore, the other being Circle Mirror Transformation). Now, don't get me wrong, we all know I LOVE my Broadway, but, I'm just sayin....

Anyway, I thought I'd do a random thoughts post. For those of you who are new to the blog, know that I do these from time to time to get out many of the theater-related things on my mind in one shot.

1) It continues to bother me that choreographer Sergio Trujillo begins some of Playbill bios with: "Broadway: Jersey Boys (2006 Tony Award, 2009 Olivier Award); Next to Normal, Guys and Dolls, All Shook Up." Note to people reading this: Sergio Trujillo has never won, or even been nominated for, a Tony Award. He was nominated for an Olivier Award, but he lost out. He puts this in his bio because the show won, but, um, yeah, that is not how people usually do it when they are choreographers and did not even contribute to the given show one big dance number. (And, yes, I refuse to count that finale number.) It is possible Mambo Kings would have brought him a nomination, but we know what happened there.

2) So, most people know my feelings about eating in the theater. (See, the story of mine I am most proud of: .) At the time that story ran, back in 2007, the Shuberts were holding strong as a theater chain that did not allow people to eat at their seats. They continue this, in theory. There is a sign up at every Shubert theater that says you cannot bring beverages back to your seat. It says nothing about food, but, I understand the idea they are trying to convey. However, I was in front of the bar 2 minutes before Oleanna started and I noted the person behind the bar selling a giant pack of Twizzlers to someone, not telling this person that the candy could not be eaten during the show. Now, you may say: "This poor girl doesn't need to tell the customer that--he should know." But the days of Miss Manners are behind us. If you sell a giant pack of Twizzlers two minutes before the start of a show without an explicit warning--where do you think that guy is eating those Twizzlers? And, indeed, all during this play people were chewing around me. Please make it stop. Please. I beg of someone.

3) I can't really comment on the God of Carnage cast in any great detail--because, well, what can I say about the new cast that the grosses won't? BUT, I do want to note that with Annie Potts coming to Broadway, the Great White Way has now officially welcomed all the Designing Women. That includes Meshach Taylor, who you may (or may not) remember was a bizarre stunt-cast for Lumiere alongside Toni Braxton's Beauty. So, welcome, Miss Potts. I have always wanted to work in an industry that embraces ALL Designing Women and Golden Girls.

4) No one really talked about who, in my opinion, loses out most by eliminating first night press from the Tony voting list: the lighting designers and orchestrators. Those of you who are confused by this statement--let me explain. The majority of the Tony voting public doesn't usually pay attention to such things--if the show is a hit, the just let those people share in the credit. I doubt people really thought Peter Kaczorowski's lighting in The Producers was stunning--but was there a doubt he would win? And how many people don't really understand the difference between the score and the orchestrations? The voters who had a tendency to take notes on such things were the critics. And now even their vote is gone, giving way to the sweeping mentality of the masses. Sad.

5) I haven't been reading the message boards and I didn't get through all of the reviews---does anyone else think that, in Memphis, Chad Kimball is doing Christian Slater's voice?

6) Sitting there watching Bye Bye Birdie I thought many thoughts. I think the first was: "Wow, this may well be much worse than Pal Joey." But somewhere along the line I started thinking about how much money it cost to present the catastrophe on display. Then my mind immediately jumped to the LORT contract, which allows non-profits to pay actors less for something like the first few months of a Broadway production (I think it varies by house, but I'd have to verify). This hasn't been covered much--but we're about to approach a time when 7 Broadway houses will be filled with such productions. Think about it: Roundabout has 3 theaters, MTC has one, Second Stage will be at the Hayes and the Beaumont makes six, but I am also adding 1 more to represent whatever Broadway house has an LCT production while South Pacific is still in residence at the Beaumont. Now, before you argue that it is actually 6 because South Pacific is off of LORT, I am just saying that 7 theaters will be filled with productions that, for at least a certain amount of time, will be entitled to discount pay rates. Does anyone else think this is going to be a growing problem for actors in years to come? I can see the contract negotiation difficulties now.

That's it for today. As always, feel free to post or email comments. I leave you with another quote from Love, Loss and What I Wore: "If you wear them again tomorrow, everyone will think it’s the new trend. That’s how trends start, you know?"

Friday, September 25, 2009

Horror at Home

Seven years ago I attended a play at the Julia Miles theater called Carson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate) by Sarah Schulman. It was embarrassing for everyone involved, especially Jenny Bacon who had to get down on her knees and say strongly "but I'm a boy!" Years later author Sarah Schulman would write a letter to those involved in another one of her horrible plays that shouldn't have been produced (which received horrible reviews, of course) saying basically "the male critical establishment is trying to get me down" and I would think two things 1) how can i get involved in the lynching? and 2) i think Linda Winer is a woman. But, regardless, I share this with you because i have often thought back to how uncomfortably bad that play was. And it was co-produced by Playwrights Horizons, who has produced some good stuff over the years but also some really, really horrible stuff, as I suppose can be said of any company, though they've seemed to have more than their fare share of the horrible. As much as I have disliked some of the stuff Playwrights has put on since then, I believe they've finally outdone themselves in the embarrassment department with THE RETRIBUTIONISTS.

Yes, I know, I had heard it was horrible before I saw it. Why then did I see it? Well, because my mother likes supporting jews. She had read about it and wanted to see it and I, ever the good daughter, told her we would go. And during it, as to make me feel better that I was missing a party to sit through this thing, she said multiple times: "I still say the idea what good."

But, let's talk about how we get from what was an interesting idea for a play (I agree), to what is onstage now at Playwrights. No one is ever going to convince me that was a good script from the start--the underlying script was hackneyed and contrived and had so many things thrown in that I began to think Daniel Goldfarb was at one point inspired by Dr. Evil and Threesome. BUT I don't blame a reader thinking that the script had some potential and, with more development, could have been good(ish). I do blame someone for thinking it was ready to be produced on a major off-Broadway stage. That said, with a better production, more things could have been worked through in rehearsals. The play could have at least been somewhat refined. But, instead, all four leads were bad. I have heard Cristin Milioti is talented and maybe the others are somehow too (though I have more doubts about the rest of them), but then they were all miscast. Something. I can't tell you. The acting of the leads was just atrocious--the lead girl, Margarita Levieva, was particular bad, she even had a fake evil "ha" laugh at one point. Seriously. She did it in earnest. Adam Driver, playing a supposedly charismatic leader, had no charisma and grabbed around a train window. You can't do that--there is supposed to be a wall there! Come on! I fear Leigh Silverman may have just not worked with any of them. Like, maybe she showed up once, gave some minor notes and then said "do what you want. make a show." I can't think of any other reasoning behind the embarrassing thing I sat through. A good 20 people left at intermission. Four more came back but then couldn't actually get through the second act. Someone behind my loudly groaned twice--not because of a lesbian kiss or anything but because of the horrible performances and dialogue we were being bombarded with.

This performance I attended was being taped for the archives. Maybe it will show up in a "what not to do" class--I'm not sure what other function it would have. But I will say: shame on everyone involved. I think part (and just part) of the reason this play was done without requiring further pre-production development is that it is about jews and many jews go see things about jews and so those things tend to sell more tickets ahead of time. It's one thing to greenlight a comedy for those reasons, but to do it with a Holocaust story is tasteless.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

West End Girl

Let us all take a minute to applaud those involved with 39 Steps. Who ever thought it would have lasted this long? Seriously--it was an impressive feet to keep it chugging along. The producers clearly kept the break-even low and the press reps. did a great job getting Times stories. It's one of those rare transplant success stories. Everyone involved deserves our congratulations.

This leads me to my next topic, inspired by a recent Ken Davenport post on his blog. (Who, unrelated to what I am writing about now, has as his top post something that begins with: "Have you ever wondered where it all began? What started the discounting phenomenon? And more importantly . . . who started it?" all questions I can answer unequivocally with a "NO.") Ken posted an article that came to his attention from the London Evening Standard about how many people are investing in theater in London. Because, in times of recession, investing in theater is apparently not as risky as some other things. By some other things--does he mean the lottery? dog-fighting? buying art by someone selling in union square not because you like it but for investment purposes? Anyway, moving on, this raised a good point--that investing in theater in London is i think a better bet than investing in it here. Lower start-up costs and lower break-evens are among the factors that are involved. I remember watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in London with its 20 kids and thinking "we'll be lucky to get 10 in the States" and, indeed, the show cost more to mount here, but had less people involved. (Though please no one correct me on the 2 to 1 ratio because I'm just making that up and it may be exaggerated, as is my license.) But I wonder has anyone really done a side by side comparison? Profits for plays with under 5 actors on Broadway vs. profits for plays with under 5 actors in the West End? Because they do always seem to have more crap moving in and out there. I suppose if someone had attempted a study, we wouldn't necessarily trust their results. This is because they don't officially report grosses there, so an examiner would have to rely on producers' words, not always the most trustworthy things. But it's an interesting question... The article says only 1/3 of shows there lose money, which seems to me to be very low. I don't know. Ken?

Speaking of things I don't know about, I'm back on sexism. Now Philip Boroff has implied that Charlotte St. Martin maybe gets paid less than Jed Bernstein did because she is a woman. Umm, again, Wellesley girl speaking here, someone who completely believes that women are paid less than men simply because they are women, but, GIVE ME A BREAK! What about the fact that they are both overpaid? What about the fact that she knew nothing about theater when she started? You can say a lot of bad things about Jed, but I feel fairly safe in saying he could name all the Sondheim shows (or would at least recognize their names).

OK, I need to rest from ranting. I will end on a happy note--I am super-psyched to see A Little Night Music. Seriously. Can't wait. I love revivals if for no other reason than i get to hear my friends Billy and Don complaining about what is wrong with the production that wasn't wrong with the original.

Friday, September 18, 2009

I Like to Complain

I refuse to comment on the Avenue Q move, I could, but I could also comment on Jon & Kate and I don't because, it's not worth it for me to add to the discussion. So I told you all that I would comment on the unsurprising rise of Jordan Roth, right? That I can/will do... in brief. I have known Jordan for quite a while. I appreciate his kindness towards me in recent years and the effort he has put in at Jujamcyn re: Givenik (which is a great thing I was very happy to sign up The Al D. Rodriguez Liver Foundation on). But I'm very wary of spin. It's great that a younger person is heading up a theater organization--I hope he is hugely successful. But I did note that the coverage sort of glossed over the "purchase" part of the story and Jordan's less-than-stellar track record as a producer. I didn't even remember he produced The Karaoke Show--and I still don't remember what The Karaoke Show was--until I read his American Theatre Web bio (which says: "He was graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University," which I thought was incorrect but is apparently just a traditional way of writing such things). Anyway, all that said, Jordan is a popular figure in the theater now and I like Jordan and I wish him success. I just like a big picture...Of course, nepotism is in full bloom over at Nederlander and the Shuberts, well, whatevs, so Jordan has a shot at out-shining those groups. If Jujamcyn does great things during his tenure, maybe people will write about him without mentioning his rich parents. One can hope.

So--I know this happened weeks ago--but Kerry Butler only doing 6 performances in Rock of Ages? Come on... And I know Amy Spanger didn't even do that many, but then again she also claimed The Wedding Singer was grueling, so, you can't judge by her. I know that there are those out there that are going to say these songs are super hard to sing, but, yeah, I really don't think that character has as hard a time as Kim in Miss Saigon. I mean, I'd rather people say they are not going to be there than just not show up (like half the other actors in the industry are doing all the time now), but I still wonder what happened to the days the same person showed up and belted out songs eight performances a week. I even think those were the days of less amplification and therefore more belting. But, anyway...

Yesterday, I attended the press conference for the announcement of the winners of the Steinberg Playwright Award (also referred to as 'the mimi,' which I have to honestly tell you kept making me think of Mimi Le Duck and that horribly misguided off-broadway staging of it). Congrats to the three winners, this post isn't about them though. Something happened at the press conference that annoyed me. A journalist (whose work I believe I've mentioned here before in a non-flattering way, but who shall remain nameless now) asked why there had "never" been any female winners of the award. Now, this is only the second year of the award. Last year, it was only given to one person, Tony Kushner, and this year to three. I was so taken aback by this question that I actually turned around and asked someone on the press team to confirm for me that this was just the second year. Eduardo Machado, who is on the award's advisory committee, stood up and gave a great answer about how good playwriting isn't about gender or race. But THEN someone from the board felt the need to get up and justify the fact that there was no woman on the list. This person informed the journalist that the advisory committee had been concerned about this topic and had thought hard about it and consulted the board about this matter. I am all for women's rights--I hope for the day when the Tonys feature as many female authors as male authors. I mean, I am a Wellesley girl. But we're not talking that these people have given 50, or even 10, awards and none have gone to women, we're talking about 4 males. Four. That's not a huge pattern of discrimination. This is like when all those articles about women playwrights came out supporting bad--or at the very most mediocre--plays just because they were written by women. I'm a huge Lynn Nottage fan--I think she is one of the most talented playwrights being produced today. I think Ruined was the best play I saw this year. I hope she gets the Mimi next year, maybe she will. But I don't think the committee should pay special attention to her because she is a black woman. If they don't like her body of work as much as I do, they can give their award to someone else they enjoy more, even if that is a guy. I don't think like Theresa Rebeck deserves this award. And I genuinely don't think it should be discussed in gender contexts at this stage. Yes, there is sometimes a need to look at something and say, "Wow, there have been 67 men and only 3 women recipients, there may be an issue here." If it rises to that degree, then I'd question it. Totally. And there is no bright line rule to when it rises to a degree that is questionable, but I'd have to say that, the Steinberg Playwright Award isn't there yet. Bringing up the gender issue now cheapens the process. It's why when women do achieve things they are often said only to get it because they are female. It's wrong.

Happy New Year to all my fellow jews! I shall be back next week.

Friday, September 11, 2009

I've Missed You All

Well, here I am. My loyal readers know I haven't posted in a very long time--the reason being I simply didn't have the desire to do it after all the loss that happened in my private life. But I have been keeping up.

I've seen a lot recently... And I'll start by commenting on The First Wives Club. I met/spoke to one of the producers of the show shortly before it was announced that they had hired Francesco Zambello to direct. He boasted about the "red hot" director they were in negotiations with. Of course, this is before anyone saw The Little Mermaid. This is when people thought Disney must know something the rest of us didn't about Zambello's ability to direct mainstream musicals. Now--I am going to detour a little bit here. I often wonder why producers continue to think it's easy to direct a musical comedy. I had this argument with some people involved with 9 to 5. Producer Bob Greenblatt only wanted Joe Mantello (who he went to high school with)--Mantello wasn't always eager to do it, but Greenblatt so wanted him. Joe Mantello has done some good things, but, he's not known for his jovial spirit. Why was there this insistence that he would be so great at directing a big budget musical comedy? The same thing with Zambello... She knows how to direct certain things, but I am not sure why anyone thought she would be a huge musical comedy director. I see why Disney hired her--she and her team were known in opera circles for being good with striking visual images and The Little Mermaid was something that seemed to need astounding visuals. We know how that turned out, but it was an attempt on their part to do something creative. That said, why anyone else hired her is a mystery to me. What about her resume screamed Little House on the Prairie? What screamed any mainstream musical?! Even if The Little Mermaid was a hit, I'm not sure anyone would want to be Zambello's Green Bird, but at least if The Little Mermaid was a hit there would be some legitimate reason to support her. Now, there is the theory that goes you have to take a risk sometimes, these other producers were taking a risk on her. But, the thing is, Disney was already taking that risk, so I am not sure I wouldn't have waited to see whether it paid off before taking my own risk on the same person.

OK, back to The First Wives Club. It's not good. There are some good tunes and Rupert Holmes did an okay job, I just can't point to one thing I really liked. It was HORRIBLY directed. Or not directed actually. The producers know this and now Zambello is gone and they plan on mounting the show at another regional with a new director. We'll see if it happens, but that is the plan.

I also finally saw West Side Story recently, which I was super excited to see. I was very grateful to be going. It actually ended up to be only my second experience with a mid-performance stop--it was halted for ten minutes do to technical problems. But I wasn't phased by that and I was happy the whole cast was there. I must admit I had mixed feelings about the language change a few weeks ago. On one hand, I am against compromising a director's artistic vision this late in the game just to pander to audiences. On the other hand, I don't speak/understand any Spanish. Not having seen it when all three songs were in Spanish, I can't comment on that version. (I do hate when people comment negatively on things they haven't seen--my friend Billy knows this more than anyone.) But I will say I find the one song in Spanish sort of bizarre. Why that one? Because it's Maria alone with her friends? But then 'America' too is Jet-less.... I don't get it. And I found it odd. Yes, I know what they were singing, because I know the lyrics to the songs in West Side Story, but I am fairly confident everyone does not. Just printing the lyrics in the Playbill doesn't negate the problem because no one wants to read the Playbill as the show is going on. I know the Spanish is supposed to make it more authentic, but we all know it is not authentic. It's a musical. This goes back to me whole "I don't care if Mama Rose was small in real life" argument.

Is this enough for my return post? I think I'll wait until next time to comment on the promotion of Jordan Roth, which was the least surprising thing to happen since In My Life closed.

I shall end with a very heartfelt thank you to those of you who have donated to the liver cancer charity we set up in my friend's honor. I was going to send you all my own personal thank you notes, but it was not clear which people donated from here and which people donated for another reason.