It’s that time again for the Broadway Super Bowl — otherwise know as the Tony Awards! I have friends getting ready all over the country for viewing parties, and I know a few folks involved with the actual show. I’m going a little more low key this year, but will try to do some live tweeting for StageAgent, so maybe I’ll see some of you on the Twitterverse!
I think I can safely predict two names we will hear A LOT tonight (at least in the musicals categories) — Evan and Dolly. We’ll be treated to performances from current and recent nominated musicals including Bandstand, Come From Away, Dear Evan Hansen, Falsettos, Groundhog Day The Musical, Hello, Dolly!, Miss Saigon, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, andÂ War Paint.Â And who knows what host Kevin Spacey has up his sleeve?
So here’s your official ballot. The live show starts at 8:00PM Eastern on CBS (also streaming, or 7:00 PM Central and tape delay for the West Coast). We’ll check in later in the week for a recap. Who are your favorites?
I hit the Broadway ticket jackpot recently — well, two of my friends did and I was lucky enough to reap the benefits. In one week’s time, I got to see two of the hottest shows on Broadway in 2017: Hamilton, still one of the most in-demand tickets as it approaches two years on Broadway, and the revival of Hello, Dolly! starring Bette Midler, which broke all first-day Broadway ticket sales records last September. Hamilton and Hello, Dolly!–complete opposites of the musical theatre spectrum, one would think. A month or two back, I wouldn’t have thought that I would find correlations in such different shows and relevance in our current political climate, nor would I see how much we need both of them today in the growth and influence of musical theatre itself.
A friend texted me a few weeks back to see if I was busy one evening, telling me he won a ticket lottery for Hamilton. I thought he was kidding. I bailed out on a board meeting that night (though my co-members were all for it — come on, Hamilton!) so I could go. Our seats were in the front row, all the way down to the right. I could hear the actors singing both live and through the monitors; I was almost hit with flying beads of sweat several times, I was that close. Now I am not a Hamilton obsessive. I’ve listened a few times to the Original Cast Recording, watched some YouTube clips, and I have looked through quite a bit of the big HamilTome (look it up). But I haven’t actively memorized any of it. But it didn’t change the fact that that night, I was excited — the spontaneity of getting to go; the proximity to the virtually bare stage; the ground-breaking elements of this musical presenting American history; and finally being in the room, yes, the room where it happened.
And the show didn’t disappoint. Even though there were at least three understudies on for major roles, and I don’t know how many were even left from the original cast, it didn’t matter. The cast was uniformly excellent, powerhouse performers communicating in fast rap, jazz riffs, and hip hop-infused choreography. The audience members were on the edges of their seats, resisting the urge to snap their fingers along with the opening number, but roused to thunderous applause time and time again as the biting lyrics coincidentally hit points reflected in today’s news, delivered with precision by the cast. The clean simple lines of the off-white knickers and corsets/vests that the ensemble members wore, the bare brick walls and wooden staircases and platform, and the way in which the central turntable kept the scenes transitioning seamlessly let the sung-through music and lyrics tell the story with minimal distraction. The show was an ensemble piece for the most part telling the story of Hamilton AND Burr, often with all actors on stage, many in multiple roles, weaving this story of the founders of our nation. It was a period piece in a most modern fashion.
For Hello, Dolly! a week later, the story was a little different. A friend went (at 4:00 AM) to queue up for standing room tickets for the Wednesday matinee. And she managed to get a pair for us. This time we were in the far back left of the orchestra–most theaters actually have numbered tags along the back wall where you can lean–almost the exact opposite of where I had been seated for Hamilton. A grand red drape with the simple show logo hung across the proscenium arch. Now I’ve listened to both the Broadway and film recordings of the show and have seen Dolly several times since childhood. It’s one of my favorites, and I know pretty much every word. As the more than 50-year-old overture started to play, I could see heads swaying in front of me as familiar strains washed over the excited crowd. Finally the grand drape opened on colorful, vaudevillian backdrops with sets dressed in the cheerful clutter of a hay and feed store or the purples and pinks of a ladies hat shop. Singers and dancers whirled across the stage in bright suits and dresses, or literally galloped around a staircase as actors farcically popped in and out from behind curtained restaurant booths. Subtle and modern, it was not. But it was glorious, and in the center of it all was a mega-watt force of Bette Midler, a leading lady of the highest caliber in a show designed for a star. Standing in the back, I was hard-pressed not to sway and dance myself bouncing on my heels during my favorite number, the brightly hued “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” and regretting a little that I was already standing as the audience leapt to their feet in a mid-show standing ovation after the title number. It was magical.
But here’s what I realized in the audience that day. We need both the Hamiltons and the Dollys in this world. We need the gems like Hello, Dolly! that stand up through the wear and tear of decades and shine that much brighter when brought into the light and are given glittering new productions, and we need the spare and edgy, forward-thinking modern musicals like Hamilton, because without one, the other cannot exist. Listen to Hamilton and you hear allusions not just to rap artists, but to Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics from South Pacific. And it’s not just a matter of building upon what came before, it’s letting the air come back into the older shows and hearing the script and lyrics in the context of today, while celebrating the traditional structure and staging of a Golden Age show. Besides the title tune and Bette Midler’s initial entrance, the most vocal audience response at Hello, Dolly! was to the line, “Money… pardon the expression… is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow!” Cheers, applause, and woots! The reaction was as visceral as if it had been one of the pointed cabinet rap battles in Hamilton, with its witty revolutionary barbs that reflect in today’s politics.
Do I have a type of show I prefer? Sure, I’m a classic Broadway girl all the way, but there is a direct line from classics like Hello, Dolly! or Fiddler on the Roof to the mega musicals of the 80s like Miss Saigon or Les Miz to Hamilton or the current Broadway darling, Dear Evan Hansen. I think the big question is where will that line next loop around and where will it lead next? And how will today’s theatre students and future actors, composers/lyricists, and directors look to the past worlds of Jerry Herman, Rodgers & Hammerstein, or Cole Porter to become the next Pasek & Paul or Lin-Manuel Miranda? There’s room, and the need, for all of them. We don’t have to choose–and we shouldn’t.
I’m sure we all remember it, heck, we might even be living it right now. Those halcyon days of educational theatre, where we spend months rehearsing a show, only to perform it two or three times over the course of a weekend in May. All that preparation, all that work, only to get a couple of cracks at glory.
That’s a reference to a typical high school schedule, where you must work around numerous conflicts and extra-curricular activities. By the time we’re in college, rehearsal schedules tend to clock in at 5 to 6 weeks, and performances tally anywhere from the high single digits to maybe 20 to 24. Hardly enough time to get bored, or the performances to become stale or uninspired. But what happens when we grab that brass ring at last, the long-running contract? It could be a tour, or a Broadway show, even some regional theatres that operate continuous schedules, producing the same show(s) for years on end? We’ve finally been rewarded for all our efforts, and that reward is…to do the same thing 6 nights a week for the next 6 months, even a year, maybe even longer?
A quick glance at my IBDB page might reveal I’m not an expert on this subject (I have a strict rule about the shows I do in New York City—they must be unpopular, even if they are very good).
But seriously folks, I do know a little bit about this. I’ve logged over 200 performances as Ravenal in Show Boat, heaven knows how many performances of the title roles in Jekyll & Hyde, and I just passed 100 as El Gallo in The Fantasticks. And I’m still going. And these minor feats aren’t even a blip on the radar to someone like Broadway star Howard McGillin, who totaled more than 10,000 performances as that creepy guy in the basement in The Phantom of the Opera.
Now, if that last paragraph of not-so humblebrag didn’t completely turn you off, stick around and let’s talk about how to keep your performances honest and true to the work, while the mileage keeps climbing.
As actors, we have certain responsibilities. We must stay true to the author’s and the director’s vision. We must keep our bodies and spirits in as good a condition as possible, so that we can access our own abilities. We are responsible to our fellow actors, to give them what they need to be successful as well. But how do we do this, when we’ve been doing the same thing, night after night, week after week, month after month? Ah, we have now arrived at one of my favorite theatrical bits of wisdom, one I couldn’t believe more strongly in if it were my own.
Okay it is my own. Don’t judge me.
As actors in a play, we are all kids in a sandbox on a playground. We can create whatever we want, build what we need, tear it down and start again. If I don’t like what’s happening in the center of the sandbox, I can go check out a corner for a while, and build something there. Maybe a friend will join me. Maybe everyone will come to this corner and we’ll all play together. Or maybe someone will drift to a different part of the sandbox and the whole process will start again. But there’s something none of us are ever allowed to do.
We can’t go play on the slide. Or the swings, or the merry-go-round. We all play in the same sandbox.
Do you follow me? We’re allowed to use different colors, as long as we’re all painting the same picture together. Some actors are comfortable giving the exact, same performance night after night. And that’s fine. Some actors are more comfortable listening and responding, and letting the performance flow more organically. Neither is wrong, both are viable, we just all should be striving for the same goal. Telling the same story, staying true to the direction and the text.
But what about the boredom? Doesn’t it get incredibly monotonous after a while? If the answer is yes, then maybe it’s time to move on to something else. I would argue that the show is never exactly the same from one night to the next. We are all humans, affected by the events of the day, and those events can (and probably should) have some impact on your performance. Sometimes you make the most amazing discoveries from the oddest of circumstance.
Not long ago in The Fantasticks, my fellow actors and I completely fell apart with laughter during one of the scenes (thankfully the scene is supposed to be funny). I can’t even remember what happened, I just know that we started to laugh and couldn’t get it back under control. The audience had a good time with us, and eventually we all got it together and proceeded with the show. The following scene is a simple, lovely monologue that I get to deliver, and I suppose it’s been fine enough. But this one day, after splitting our sides with laughter and tears rolling down our cheeks, I entered the speech practically exhausted. I was unable to do what I normally did, so I just said the words.
And the speech was never better than that one night, when I just got out of the way, and let the words do the work. The show has a handful of fans who see it quite often, and on this day our most loyal fan was there. We spoke after, and had to acknowledge the um…foolishness that happened on stage. But he offered up, the moments found after that were new, vibrant and alive, and I probably wouldn’t have found them otherwise.
So really, it’s not that hard to maintain a performance for a long period of time. Do your best to stay healthy, get along with all your fellow artists, listen and respond. Even if your performance is “by rote,” as long as you don’t shoehorn your work into the path of someone else’s, it can appear as fresh as opening night.
This week we’re taking a slight diversion away from our normal “how to” vibe, and treading out into deeper waters.
If you’ve read the byline below, you know that I’m currently a standby in the NYC Off-Broadway mainstay, The Fantasticks. And since you’ve been following the StageAgent blog religiously, you know that as a standby, I’m often in a Starbucks during most performances (it’s a tough life). Well, circumstances have resulted in me being on for the last couple of weeks as Hucklebee, one of the Fathers in the show.
My initial response was, “Damn, there goes all my free time.” I mean seriously, I have two guaranteed hours (four on two-show days!) to write, to plan, to concentrate on what’s next, to make a grocery list…you get the idea. As a parent of two small children, time is at a premium. But you may think I’ve completely missed the boat, that I should be elated at having a performing opportunity—and you’d be right, it just took me a couple of days to get here. Well, a couple of days and a close friend who reminded me that performing is always better than not performing, and a wife who said simply to do the job I was hired to do.
So I’ve been doing the show, and after a few performances, it began to feel comfortable and, dare I say it, enjoyable. I’m truly blessed with a giving, loving, talented cast, who were there for me when I said some…questionable lines…let’s say. Soon I’ll be back to my coffee and protein bistro box (pretentious twit), but for now it’s a blast.
That isn’t to say that it all comes without challenges. There was the stress of being ready, as this was my first time going on in any of the roles I cover. June was a crazy busy month, with school ending for my children, their activities coming to a close (dance class, gymnastics), new activities starting (summer swim team, more gymnastics, theatre camp is coming)—frankly I’m exhausted. And with school ending, I’m the primary caregiver as well, as that lady that makes our lives possible (my wife) works 50-60 hours a week. Caring for the kids is an all-day job, and when I’m relieved of duty at 6:15 pm, then it’s time to go to work!
I know, I know, poor me—I’m getting somewhere I promise.
A weekend or so back (Pride weekend, I believe), I was walking from the show to my car (I drive on Sundays when the parking is free) when I locked eyes with a woman, probably around my age. I nodded in that weird New Yorker “I’m acknowledging you, but I promise I’m not crazy” way, and kept going, but about ten feet later, I feel her tap my shoulder. She said to me (and all of this is paraphrased to the best I can remember), “Excuse me, but didn’t I see you in The Fantasticks last Saturday? The show was so great!”
I thanked her, and we struck up a short conversation. Her name was Ellen, and she too was an actor. Her family had just come in from Texas, and her mother wanted to see two shows, Les Miserables and The Fantasticks. I remembered the performance she was at, and it was a good show, with a lively, responsive audience.
We were slightly above Hell’s Kitchen, she lived in the neighborhood. I told her I used to live close by, but moved to New Jersey when my wife and I had our first child. She seemed lovely, genuinely interested in praising the show and chatting with a stranger. But as we began to say goodbye, she said this, and it practically floored me:
“Well, you’re married, have two kids, a great show to be in, you really are living the dream!”
I swear the blood ran out of my face. I thought, “Wow…if you only knew.”
Look, I preach a lot of positivity and self-love and self-reliance, but let’s be real for a moment. This life is hard. I’ve talked before about the sacrifices and the lack of money and the disappointment and having to pick yourself up over and over and over again…it’s exhausting. And sometimes, maybe even lots of times, we as actors choose to complain. We have to let out these feelings of discouragement. It’s only human, and we aren’t to be punished for it, but it can take over and become our default position.
I’ve been super lucky in this career: two Broadway shows, four National Tours, lots of amazing Regional Theatre—yet somehow I tend to retreat to how little money I’ve made in my lifetime, or how quickly those two shows (which I loved) closed in New York, or how I’m not certain where my path is leading as I get older. Currently, though I’m absolutely proud to be part of the New York theatre tapestry if you will, even my current job can seem like a glass half full. I think it’s a terrific show, with great people and a timeless message, but let’s face it, we’re not Wicked or The Lion King. It can be hard to be a simple, sweet, and sentimental show when you are surrounded by flying monkeys and herds of animals.
I thanked Ellen, wished her luck and continued to my car, half smiling with gratitude yet shaking my head. “If she only knew… .”
But she does know. It was me who didn’t. Everything she said was absolutely true, and as I repeated this story a few times, I began to realize it myself.
I’m sure there will come a time…or many times…when I fall back into the old habits of diminishing what I have accomplished. A director friend I love told me once, “You know how New Yorkers survive? They complain. They look at each other across the subway car and say, ‘man, it’s @#$%ing hot outside.’ They take solace in a short of shared misery.” Maybe we as actors do exactly that, we share our misery so it eases the sting, until we can celebrate a new win.
So for me, a little perspective and a lesson learned. Ellen, if you’re out there, if this message somehow reaches you (go viral troopers, serve your dark Web overlords!), good luck to you again, and thank you for stopping me.
So, that’s the 70th Annual Tony Awards in the books, and it was a great night! I spent the evening with about a dozen friends–several teens included–and we had a viewing party at my arts conservatory with the show projected on the big screen in our theatre. It was awesome! It was like we were in the Beacon Theatre, well, except that we had snacks and weren’t quite as dressed up as the Tony-goers were. And our ballots weren’t quite official.
We gathered around 7:00 PM with the red carpet arrivals playing on a monitor in our lobby, while a 60 Minutes episode featuring Hamilton coverage was streaming on the big screen. For only a dozen people, we had food enough to feed a small army. It’s so fun to see what people bring to a potluck! From roasted garlic chickpea snacks and chocolate-covered Oreo cookie balls to chili cheese dip and this crazy good grape salad (yes, you heard me, grape salad–with cream cheese, brown sugar, and pecans) and other healthy and not-so-healthy munchies. And to top it off, we had margaritas, Prosecco, and a chocolate fondue fountain — classy, eh?
So on to a quick recap (see complete list below). Hamilton didn’t break The Producers 2001 record, but it still won eleven of the sixteen awards including (as should have been pretty obvious) Best Musical. The Humans won four awards including Best Play. The four primary acting categories were all won by actors of color (three for Hamilton, one for The Color Purple)–a historic first for the Tonys, and James Corden was a terrific, charming, slightly silly host.
After a somber opening speech dedicating the evening’s show to those killed in the Orlando shootings late Saturday night, Corden in his delightful opening number spoke to something I mentioned in my previous Tony blog: that for many kids watching the Tonys every year, this was a chance to see Broadway in action and maybe even dream about being a Broadway star. Our little viewing gang of performers, parents, and kids in performing arts school agreed and cheered loudly when the number was over.
All of the performances were top notch–although due to a little glitch in streaming, we didn’t see all of the Waitress number–gonna need to find that on YouTube later. We were all thrilled to see a young student and friend rocking the house as part of the children’s cast of School of Rock, both in the main telecast number and the fun little bumpers they were doing out in front of the theatre throughout the night. Our kids (and a couple of adults) were all right down front on the floor for the Hamilton numbers and singing/rapping during commercial breaks. The grown-ups in the room gave a pleasant shout of surprise when Frank Langella won for The Father, and applauded loudly for Jessica Lange and her award for Long Day’s Journey into Night. And we all laughed when our youngest viewer, upon Broadway legend Angela Lansbury’s entrance, said, “Oh! That’s the lady from Mrs. Santa Claus!” It was a good reminder that Broadway always has its classy past to lean on, but the future, as demonstrated last night, is wide open with possibilities.