Monday, April 20, 2009

 

NY theater flashbacks: 1994

By Edward Copeland
I'd thought of doing something like this for a long time and since I have long-term projects and other complications preventing me from seeing new things to write about, it seemed as good as time a time as any. Of course, I'm relying on memory, so forgive any mistakes I may make along the way. My theater obsession was primarily New York and primarily Broadway. I had been to the city before on movie junkets, but never had enough free time to see a show. So, in March 1994, I planned my first trip to the Big Apple to specifically see a show. In this case, it actually was two shows or one show in two parts. In other words, it was both halves of Tony Kushner's Angels in America on consecutive nights.


Since this was the second season in which Kushner's play had run, though the first for the second half, two members of the original cast already had left. F. Murray Abraham had succeeded Ron Leibman in Leibman's Tony-winning role of Roy Cohn (in addition to some other roles). I'd seen bits of Leibman, but I felt Abraham was more than a worthy substitution. Marcia Gay Harden had departed from her Tony-nominated role as Harper Pitt (among others). Cynthia Nixon had yet to assume the role, so I got to see Harden's understudy, Susan Bruce, who was fine. One other interesting casting note that few get to experience is the chance to see both the understudy for a role and the actor who was cast in the part. When I saw Millennium Approaches on Friday night, Jeffrey Wright was off, so his understudy played Belize and his other roles. The actor was Darnell Williams, known to All My Children fans as Jesse Hubbard. He was quite good. Saturday, Wright returned for Perestroika. As good as I thought Williams was, Wright was a revelation. I wanted to leap to the stage and give him a Tony right then and, sure enough, months later Wright would win the Tony for featured actor in a play for Angels in America: Perestroika. Seeing this two-part play was a wonder; it makes perfect sense why I developed an addiction to New York theater, specifically Broadway. An expensive habit. I should have taken up heroin. The power and magic of Angels in America still resonates. What a work of imagination, blending fantasy, history, current events, real people, fictional characters and churning them all into a glorious theatrical fest. Now, 15 years and more than 100 productions later, Angels in America remains the best show I ever saw on Broadway. I was such a theater neophyte when I ordered the tickets for the show over the phone, I didn't know the difference between orchestra and mezzanine, so first row mezzanine center sounded better than ninth row orchestra center. Actually though, I think my lack of knowledge served me well. When Ellen McLaughlin's angel came crashing through the ceiling of the bedroom of Prior Walter (the magnificent Stephen Spinella who won Tonys for both halves), I was more or less even with her. Since the play was split into two halves, it won the Tony for best play in two consecutive seasons but it only won the Pulitzer Prize for part 1, Millennium Approaches. I really don't know how you can separate it like that because for me both parts make a whole and you can't have one without the other without it seeming incomplete. I fell in love with the play so much (and I'm a straight man) that I bought book copies of both halves of the play and performed them in the living room of my friend Wagstaff, playing all the parts, so he could get a sense of the play that I thought just reading the play wouldn't do. (The only other time I did this was to perform The Seagull, which I was reading for the first time when I performed it.) As Angels in America became a cultural phenomenon, there was immediate talk of a film version. I still would love to have seen what Robert Altman would have done if his plan to make it as two films had come to fruition. As much as I loved Altman, Angels in America seemed to be a uniquely theatrical experience to me and a lot of its magic and spectacle would be lost on the big screen. Now though, most people probably know Angels in America based on Mike Nichols' HBO miniseries version of it. It is very good but I was right: While it's a good thing that it doesn't seem like a filmed play, a lot of the spirit is lost. You also inevitably get into the performance comparison game since Jeffrey Wright was the only member of the Broadway cast to reprise his role in the TV version (and he got an Emmy to go with his Tony). Al Pacino put a handle on some of his worst late-career traits and was great as Roy Cohn. I can't compare him to Leibman and, of course, it's difficult sizing up performances trying to reach the balcony with the toned-down ones of film or television. Most of the miniseries and stage counterparts seem fairly evenly matched, though I actually preferred the underrated Kathleen Chalfant in all her many roles to Meryl Streep. While Justin Kirk was fine as Prior on TV, he had a helluva act to follow in Spinella (Kirk would shone for me in a later theater season on stage). Ben Shenkman's Louis on TV actually was better than Joe Mantello's on stage. (Mantello turned primarily to directing after Angels, winning several Tonys and having mixed results, in my opinion.) The biggest mistake of the miniseries though was the casting of the ultrabland Patrick Wilson as Joe Pitt. Sure, the character was supposed to be a closeted, Mormon Republican, but David Marshall Grant had no problem bringing him to life on stage. On the whole, the TV miniseries was good, but I'll probably never watch it again because my memories of the Broadway incarnation are too precious to me.

PASSION

Before I ever saw a show on Broadway, I was a fan of Broadway musicals and I had a collection of original cast recordings that might seem suspiciously too large for a heterosexual, especially since the collection was dominated by my adoration of Stephen Sondheim. A planned junket for a couple of movies (I can't even remember which ones) happened to coincide with the opening of a new Sondheim musical on Broadway. Hallelujah. I booked my flight for a day early and spent the night with a friend so I could see the 2 p.m. Saturday matinee (7th row, right orchestra) of Passion before having to show up at the junket hotel for my job. The show was still in previews, which had been extended, so I wasn't seeing the finished project but I didn't care. It's evolution was interesting. It began life as an idea of two one-act musicals, the other half being something called Muscle about bodybuilders. That would have been strange. Instead, Passion grew to a 2-hour, intermission-free show based on an Italian film from the 1970s I actually had seen accidentally late one night on Showtime or Cinemax when I was in junior high. So I had a vague idea of the plot, but I didn't care: I was going to hear a Sondheim score I'd never heard before. Passion divided its audiences in half. Many hated it, others loved it, but for me, especially upon many times listening to the score, it's the same case as with many Sondheim shows: The score is better than the show itself and Passion is one of Sondheim lushest, most beautiful scores of love and longing. The critics of the show whom I found ridiculous were the ones who mocked Donna Murphy's performance as Fosca, the sickly soldier's sister whose face and demeanor leaves a lot to be desired but whose obsession with another soldier manipulates him into loving him despite his love for a married woman. Murphy won a well-deserved Tony because she is amazing. She practically overpowers everyone else on stage with her. Some pros such as Tom Aldredge and Gregg Edelman hold their own, but Jere Shea as Giorgio, was the show's weak link and he was supposed to be the lead and every other performer got the better of him, be it Marin Mazzie as the married woman he's having an affair with to the various soldiers to Murphy. Passion is a problematic show with a great score and I'm grateful I saw it because it seems highly unlikely at this point that Sondheim will ever premiere another new score on Broadway, even if he ever solves the problem of Wise Guys/Bounce/Road Show; it's played so many different places and I doubt the entire score would go in the trash can even if it did somehow ever make it to Broadway.

GREASE

This was the point when someone should have staged an intervention, but alas I was in New York for a junket and the only people I knew were fellow entertainment journalists, and none too well. They scheduled interviews extremely late on a Sunday afternoon for some reason, so I scanned the Broadway listings. As usual, most Sunday matinees didn't start until 3 p.m., too late for me. However, one show had a 1 p.m. starting time and to get my fix, I bought tickets to the Grease revival with Rosie O'Donnell. I assure you, Rosie was not the attraction. As a kid, and even today, I love the movie version. I'd only seen one production of the stage version, a summer stock version starring Eddie Mekka of Laverne & Shirley fame and it sucked. Still, I could not be deterred. The pre-show actually got me in a good mood. The guy playing Vince Fontaine already was on stage acting as a disc jockey, bantering with the audience and playing classic 1950s songs. Unfortunately, that eventually stopped and the curtains opened. My seat was on the very front row, so much so that part of the stage extended out past my seat. This proved to be particularly odd seating when they staged Danny and Sandy's trip to the drive-in and his car literally drove over me where I had to crook my head to see some of the number, but mainly I saw a tire and the undercarriage of the fake car. Despite the fact that the show generally sucked, especially because they kept trying to insert Rosie's Rizzo into numbers in which she didn't belong, including a reprise of "Greased Lightning." What the fuck? Though since Rosie was in it, it would have made sense if she'd sang the line, "You know that I ain't braggin'/she's a real pussy wagon." Still, there were some good performances. It was a minor performance, but Megan Mullally got to play Marty. Marcia Lewis, the show's sole Tony nominee for acting, was fun as Miss Lynch, the Rydell teacher. Sam Harris showed real promise as Doody, especially in his big number "Those Magic Changes." Without a doubt though, the performance the brought the house down was the great Billy Porter as the Teen Angel really bringing "Beauty School Dropout." The original Grease at one time was the longest-running show in Broadway history. I never saw it, but it's a bit of a head-scratcher to me since the movie seemed to improve so much. This revival, which opened in May 1994, lasted until January 1998. This was largely due to its producers, the infamous Weisslers, who kept it alive and have kept Chicago alive by inserting one bit of stunt casting after another. A short list of names who went into Grease for a time following Rosie: Linda Blair (Rizzo vomits pea soup! No, but that would have been fun), Debby Boone, Chubby Checker, Mickey Dolenz, Sheena Easton, Joely Fisher, Debbie Gibson, Dody Goodman, Jasmine Guy, Jennifer Holliday, Al Jarreau, Lucy Lawless, Maureen McCormick, Mackenzie Phillips, Joe Piscopo, Jon Secada, Brooke Shields, Sally Struthers, Jody Watley, Jo Anne Worley and Adrian Zmed. Obviously, they didn't all play Rizzo. There were some Dannys, Teen Angels, Miss Lynches and Vince Fontaines thrown in as well. Of course, this revival had nothing on stunt casting compared to the Grease revival that ran from August 1997 through January of this year that picked its leads from a TV reality show.

TWILIGHT: LOS ANGELES, 1992

My job at work had switched to an interesting schedule of 10 hour days where every third week we would have three-day weekends and every third week we'd get four-day weekends. It certainly proved to be a nice schedule, but not so much for my credit card and my Broadway obsession, which you think that Grease would have slowed. So I planned my first three-play trip in June and I lucked out that they were all winners. One thing I found: I was disappointed far fewer times by Broadway plays than by Broadway musicals. The first play of the weekend amazed me and was the closest to casting the spell on me that Angels in America did. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 was a one-woman show performed by Anna Deavere Smith. Now, this wasn't the type of one-person show most people think of where an actor assumes one persona for an evening. No, Smith portrays dozens of people, people she interviewed as a journalist would to get their take on what happened to them during and after the Los Angeles riots. Very few of the people are well known, but it doesn't make Smith's performance any less riveting as she assumes every gender, ethnicity, etc., to paint a portrait of a staggering event in this nation's history as well as an intimate look at a major city that still has characteristics of a small town. It's brilliant. I only saw two of the four nominated lead actresses in a play (the other was the winner that same weekend), but I still believe that Smith deserved the prize, especially since there was no way Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 was going to (or should have) beat Perestroika for play.

AN INSPECTOR CALLS


You don't often come out of a play feeling cool and wet, but if you were close enough to the awesome set by Ian MacNeil working in tandem with Rick Fisher's lighting and Gregory Meeh's special effects, you were likely to exit the theater with tangible evidence of a night's entertainment with Stephen Daldry's revival of J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls. Now, if you go to the theater as often as I did, you are going to run into celebrities eventually. This show marked my first experience as the late Madeline Kahn and her husband sat in the row behind me. They seemed to enjoy the play as well, an old-style mystery as a mysterious inspector (Kenneth Cranham) upends family secrets while investigating a death. The family, a rich industrial clan led by Philip Bosco and Rosemary Harris, has many members and are far from functional. The entire cast excelled, the pros such as Bosco, Cranham and Harris, as well as newer finds such as Marcus D'Amico and especially Jane Adams as the clan's daughter and she won a Tony for the role, one of 5 Tonys it won, though it amazingly lost scenic design which still boggles my mind. Granted, I didn't see the show that won (Carousel), but it had to be stunning to top McNiece's set.

MEDEA

Emma Peel, meet Euripides. Diana Rigg brought her London stage triumph to the states for a limited engagement in a new translation by Alistair Elliott that seemed to draw Tonys to actresses like a magnet and it did so with Rigg in director Jonathan Kent's production. This time, I was back in the mezzanine, not by choice, but because the play was a limited engagement, it was the best I could get. Medea was the third and final play in my three-play weekend and since it was a quick 90 minutes, I had my carryon duffle bag (I travel light) under my seat so when the show ended I could grab a cab to the airport and catch my plane home. That is one advantage of going from the Eastern time zone back to the Central: Time is on your side. Back to the play. Don't get me wrong. Rigg was superb, even though Anna Deavere Smith's achievement impressed me more. Medea has to be placed in the hands of a really lousy actress to fail and Rigg doesn't fit that definition. This is a wronged woman whose idea of revenge on her husband is to kill her own children, yet somehow you still manage not to hate her or view her as a complete monster. Rigg pulls this off magnificently, making her Medea a woman of intelligence as well as sadness. She hates what she is doing yet she's certain it's the course she must follow. The play itself was set on a very sparse set of loud, clanging metal doors, ringing through the audience with appropriately echoing dins that must have driven theatergoers with assisted listening devices crazy at times. Peter J. Davidson's set along with the revival itself were the only Tony nominations besides Rigg the show received and I think that was what sort of made the production feel lopsided. Except for some occasional nice moments from the women of Corinth who serve as a chorus, everything is designed as a showcase for Medea/Rigg. Any other characters or actors seem to be an afterthought. As a result, I think that's why Rigg's performance loomed so large. Everyone else was designed to be minimized.

DAMN YANKEES

The shows I saw in 1994 (with the exception of Millennium Approaches, which was really a holdover from the 1992-93 season) were really all from the 1993-94 season in terms of the Tony Awards. The final Broadway show that I saw from that season was the revival of Damn Yankees. Bebe Neuwirth took on Gwen Verdon's famous role of Lola, the Devil's temptress trying to keep a man's soul for the Devil's collection. Victor Garber played the Devil who offered a middle-age man (Dennis Kelly) a chance for a sprint at youth and baseball glory in the form of a gifted player (Tony winner Jarrod Emick, by far the show's highlight). The cast also had some other soon-to-be familiar faces in Vicki Lewis (of NewsRadio fame), Dick LaTessa (who would win a Tony as the dad in Hairspray) and Gregory Jbara (currently playing Billy's father in the musical version of Billy Elliott.) As I said earlier, I was disappointed much more often by musicals than by plays and that was the case here. The cast certainly had talent to spare, but the production never seemed to come together for me. Emick truly shone, but Neuwirth seemed as if she were in a different show and Garber projected himself as too much of a pushover to be much of a formidable devil. It also launched what I called the "Marquis curse." The Marquis Theatre is located within the Marriott Marquis hotel and I didn't have much of a good track record with the shows I saw there. The theater itself was odd. It didn't feel like a Broadway house in the way every other theater I'd go to did. It look and felt more like a high school auditorium, more suitable for a commencement ceremony than a multimillion musical production. Now, I didn't go on this trip to New York for one show, but the other two shows I saw were my first ventures to that state of mind known as "off-Broadway," where better things often play but they are forbidden from Tony recognition because their theaters fail to have enough seats or fall between certain streets.

THREE TALL WOMEN

Edward Albee received the third of his three Pulitzer Prizes for Three Tall Women (and who knows if he's done. He turned 80 last year, but he's still working). Two of his plays have won Tonys for best plays (surprisingly, neither one was one of the Pulitzer winners) and last year he got a special Tony for lifetime achievement. Three Tall Women was my first off-Broadway visit, venturing further up the upper west side of Manhattan to see the play at the Promenade Theatre. Usually, I'm a big Albee fan, but what I think hurt this production was that it revolved around three actresses, two of whom were magnificent and one who was fairly bad. The actresses play characters named simply A, B and C. Carter was quite wonderful as the nonagenarian A, in faltering health and fuzzier memory and Seldes is nearly as good as B, her caretaker. Baker, however, fumbles as C, a young lawyer sent to try to get A's estate in order. Part of the problem could be attributed to her role, but to me it seemed to emanate from Baker. In the second act, the three actresses, all become A at different ages while a mannequin in a bed beneath an oxygen mask comes to represent the real woman. The problem with the play is that, unlike the very best Albee plays, Three Tall Women is too on the nose, missing Albee's famous obliqueness with an unfortunate tendency to spell everything out. Still, Carter and Seldes and long stretches of the dialogue made the trek worthwhile.

SUBURBIA

I began my 1994 theater journey with the greatest theatrical experiences I've ever had and I ended that season with another of the best theatrical experiences, only this one took place in Lincoln Center's off-Broadway house, the Mitzi E. Newhouse, located below its Broadway showcase, the Vivian Beaumont. No curtain hid the set from the audience before the show began. My seat was on the front row of the pseudo-in-the-round theater. The play was Eric Bogosian's Suburbia, which Richard Linklater made a fairly good film version of later. The only member of the stage cast to repeat in the movie was the hysterical Steve Zahn as the stoned, skateboarding, Buff. The play cross-breeds your usual look at aimless youth in a small town with Waiting for Godot as several of the young adult await a reunion with a former member of their pack who has found that first taste of fame and fortune as a rock musician outside of their world. Sitting so close to the action, at times it felt as if the actors were in my lap and it was a great cast that included, in addition to Zahn, Josh Hamilton, Martha Plimpton, Tim Guinee and Zak Orth. Most of the action takes place in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven and that miniature 7-Eleven was a wonder to behold. Large enough for the actors to walk through its aisles, it was fully stocked with the products you'd expect to find in a convenience store. Before the play started, it was tempting to hop the bar and walk on in and buy a cold Coke from the fridge (if they were really cold) and have a nice refreshment. Bogosian's style, as seen in his one-man shows, is often an in-your-face, electric sort of dialogue that brings its truths in stings and that was the case with Suburbia as well but, like most Bogosian works, it's also very funny. There is something about great works of art, be they plays, musicals or movies, when they are really good, afterward, you feel energized, as if you should be dancing a dance of joy as you exit, no matter what the subject matter was. That's what I discovered in the best of New York theater, a love affair that was no longer unrequited beginning in 1994.


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Comments:
i'm so glad you picked 1994 - that's one of my rare new york theatre years as well

i saw the first half of angels in america at its very first preview in 1993 and the memory of it was still seared in my memory 14 months later when i saw perestroika. because of that year long interval i got to see both leibman and abraham as roy cohn (leibman was much better) and harden (mind-blowingly sensational) and nixon (very good, she knocked that teary final monologue out of the park) as harper. i can't recall who replaced david marshall grant but future tony winner joe mantello had been replaced by future oscar nominee dan futterman. spinella, chalfant, wright and ellen mclaughlin were all still in it (and all still brilliant). stunning. two nights in the theatre only bested by my two nights at nicholas nickleby several years earlier

i also saw passion and recall donna murphy's brilliance but little else (except she went up and down that staircase more often than norma desmond)

also saw surburbia and remember steve zahn and the set but nothing else at all. i'm surprised to read martha plimpton was in it

thanks for the memories (well, the few i manage to recall...)
 
I agree with you on Three Tall Women - despite fine performances by Carter and Seldes, and a few well-written passages, it struck me at the time as one of Albee's more prosaic efforts.

You know where I stand on Passion - musically, I find it repetetive to the point of inertia, and the book isn't a whole lot better - how many times can she track him down, shriek and faint? I've admired many of Donna Murphy's subsequent performances, but her Fosca seemed like a rather one-note creation to me (albeit a beautifully sung one). At the preview performance I attended, when Jere Shea's character finally declared his love for her - seemingly out of the blue - the audience literally let out a collective groan.

By the time I saw Damn Yankees, Bebe Neuwirth (who I've always found a bit on the robotic side in or out of Boston watering holes) had moved on to greener pastures. Replacement Charlote d'Amboise gave a respectable, if unexciting performance as Lola, while Victor Garber's colorless performance served to illustrate the manner in which one piece of bad casting can flatten out an entire production.

Of course, I'll always regret not having seen Angels in America - as for the two Harpers, I've been lucky enough to catch them at their very best in other stage appearances (Ms. Harden in this year's God of Carnage, and Ms. Nixon a few years back in Rabbit Hole). I have seen Twilight: Los Angeles courtesy of its American Playhouse taping, and thought Deveare Smith was extraordinary. The highlight of the 1993-94 season for me? Nicolas Hytner's breathtaking, visually resplendent revival of Carousel for Lincoln Center, featuring one of the more exciting Broadway debuts of the last 20 years or so - heck, it took nearly 15 years before Audra McDonald was able to wow me again to the same extent.
 
And how could forget An Inspector Calls? That was great - Rosemary Harris had been supplanted by Sian Phillips by the time I saw it - all things considered, not a shabby compromise!
 
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