Mindful Reviewing

“Mindfulness” is getting to be a bit of a buzzword, I think. But I have found that I’m learning a lot from my study of it, and it’s certainly guiding me as I see and write about plays these days.

Now, I’ve always been a proponent of generous, compassionate reviewing. When we would bring new squad members on each summer to help us cover the FringeNYC festival, the main tenet I would share was always this: Remember, they didn’t put the show up just to annoy you.

The idea, of course, was to add some distance; to remind ourselves both not to personalize the experience and not to make any assumptions about it. Making theater is very hard work, and that is worthy of our respect and our attention.

Today, as I move to a post-reviewing mindset when I write about theater, I think a lot about a concept that underpins mindfulness: don’t want this show to be something else. This play or musical or performance is whatever IT IS, which may not be what you would like it to be. Wishing for it to change is unproductive.

We are so used to multi-tasking and distracting ourselves these days, and seeing live theater offers a rare but needed opportunity for authentic presence. Be in the room with the show, and let the experience happen as it will. Don’t judge. Don’t second guess. Don’t wish for something else. Take it on its own terms, as it is.

And here’s how to write about it:

  • Talk about what happened.
  • What occurred on that stage?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • What did it make you think about?
  • What did you do after you left: Did you talk about it (what did you say)? Did you google something when you got home?
  • Did you learn something?
  • What has this experience done to you?

You’ll note that the preceding set of questions does not include things like: was the lighting good? Why do you think the creators made such-and-such a choice? Was this performance better than that one? Because, none of that matters. What matters is what happened to you—your experience. If you sustained a mindful attitude during the show, then you’re bound to have had an experience, and I for one will want to know what it was like.

Here are a couple of reviews that I think exemplify some of the ideas outlined here:

The First Play About Me

The show that changed everything about what I thought I knew about reviewing theater was Kirk Wood Bromley’s Smoke the New Cigarette.

I should not have been surprised to discover something I didn’t understand about theater (art!) from Kirk. But this particular lesson drew me up short.

Smoke the New Cigarette was part of the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival, where it was performed at the (now gone) Bowery Poetry Club.

The conceit of the show was that it was a live re-creation of a podcast about a neglected indie punk band whose name was The New Cigarette. The podcast narration was done as pre-recorded voiceover in the show, while the excerpted “recordings” included in the podcast were performed live by Bromley and company.

The band within the show were presented as far-out eccentrics: makers of music deliberately without tone or rhythm. As I wrote in my review of Smoke the New Cigarette:

We’re invited to judge The New Cigarette’s work, over and over, as rotten, and in places we may indeed buy into that idea. Certainly there’s an over-the-topness and a blatant disregard for form and sensibility that both makes the punk designation valid and invites laughter or derision or just plain old mouth-dropping-open, depending on how you choose to feel about what you’re hearing and seeing.

The protagonist of the play was not this band or any of its members, though; it was the podcaster, an indie music enthusiast who turned into an indie website operator/writer who fell in love with The New Cigarette. I thought as I watched the play, and still think now, that the person upon whom Kirk based this character was: me.

In the review I wrote (emphasis added):

what I kept coming back to was a celebration of the valor of the crazed, eccentric, misunderstood, terminally alone artist. Not in a too-special-to-live Van Gogh context, but rather in a what-the-heck-is-the-point-of-art-unless-it-means-something-to-the-artist context. What Bromley and his collaborators are showing us in Smoke the New Cigarette is how easy it is to categorize, to assign, to decide about art—and how wrong-headed any of that ultimately is.

And after you process, think, and write that down, well…it can’t be unprocessed; it can’t be unthought; it can’t be unwritten.

And after coming to all of this, as I said at the beginning, everything I thought I understood about reviewing theater came into question.

By the way, here’s the full review and here’s the play itself on Indie Theater Now.

 

Evolving a Philosophy of Reviewing

I wrote the following for members of the nytheatre.com Reviewing Squad in 2012, eight years after I came up with these guidelines. I think a lot of what is here is right on the money.

***

I’ve written about 3,000 reviews over the past 15 years, give or take; and I’ve edited and/or read at least 4,000 more. So while I’ll be the first to say that there is no one right way to write a review, I also think I know something about what goes into a well-crafted theater review. In this essay, I want to share some of my observations with you. The place to start, I think, is with the mission of the theater review. What are we writing these for, anyway? Some possible answers might include:

  • To give potential audience members/ticket buyers information about a show, so they can decide if they want to see it.
  • To give the artists feedback about their work.
  • To provide a permanent, reasonably objective record or account of the work.
  • To initiate a conversation about the work, and by extension about theater as an art form.
  • To address themes raised in the work, possibly to make some larger point about society/the art/the world in general.

You can do some or all of these things in any given review, but for me, the main goal of a review is always to get people to see the show (or, if they can’t see it, to read the play or engage with the artists so the play can be done where they are). Often we will see shows that we don’t want to encourage people to see, and those are harder to write about. But when the art is worthy, or has worthy qualities, the review should always be intended to entice people to partake of it. This leads to several reviewing tenets that I have picked up over the years that I think are really important:

  1. The review must tantalize. Don’t give away the stuff that thrilled you–don’t reveal any of the show’s surprises or twists. You can offer a taste, but you must make sure that you’re giving the reader the chance to savor the entire wonderful experience that you got to have when you saw the show. This is often difficult, and a lot of reviewers (including me, sometimes) break the rule–we just can’t resist passing on the delightful detail or hilarious joke. But we must resist! Try to eliminate anything that seems to be telling the reader what specific things they should be expecting. Let the show do what it means to do to its audience on its own (amuse, convince, shock, whatever). Our job as reviewers is just to get them there.
  1. The review must be honest. Hyperbole has a purpose, but must be used sparingly. A show I just reviewed was in the style of Ionesco, so in the review that’s what I said; I didn’t say it was as good as The Chairs, just that it was in the same tradition.
  2. The review should be concise. Less really is more when you’re writing a review. Say enough to whet the reader’s appetite; explain the story enough to support what you need to say about the themes … and then stop writing. (The suggested word count really is useful here: a review that’s more than 1000 words long almost always needs to be cut!)
  3. The words you use should be clear, direct, and substantive. Nothing is more boring and more useless than a review that contains only empty adjectives like good, great, terrific, fine, excellent, etc. You will need to use these some of the time–absolutely!–but be sure that the meat of your argument is made with persuasive, concrete language.

Reading so many reviews over the years has also taught me some things not to do. For instance:

  • A review is not a report card. We are not grading the artists, we are responding to them.
  • A review is not a prescription. We are not teaching the artists how to do their job better, we are responding to the job they did. And similarly, we are not suggesting what the show ought to have been about, we are reacting to what it is (or seems to be) about.
  • Most people aren’t famous. When I read a review of a star-studded show like the 2012 revival of The Best Man on Broadway, I am certainly curious about James Earl Jones, Candice Bergen, Angela Lansbury, et al, and their roles in the show. Most casts are not star-studded, though, and so we can’t expect that our readers will know or care about the people involved with them. If we want them to know and care, we have to give the readers good reason to do so. If we have nothing important to say about them, we really don’t need to mention them.

I haven’t yet talked about how to write a review of a show you don’t feel enthusiastic about. So let me deal with that now.

  1. Choose shows carefully, so that the chances of feeling enthusiastic are as high as possible. (By which I mean, NEVER ask to review a show you think you won’t like. It doesn’t do anybody any good.)
  2. Engage with each show that you review on its own terms. I see lots of shows that I don’t personally love or even enjoy but that nonetheless I am able to appreciate for what they are. Keep that in mind when you start writing the review. Nobody expects anyone to like everything, but it’s not the show/artists’ fault that something isn’t to your taste. Don’t punish work solely due to your personal preference.
  3. Weigh the available resources against the result. A FringeNYC show has little to no control over the lighting, sound system, and other technical elements; don’t focus on those when you’re reviewing at FringeNYC (unless dazzling results have been achieved) because it’s just not fair. On the other hand, a big-budget Broadway musical many years in development ought to have its act together, especially when it’s charging $100+ for tickets.
  4. Always err on the side of generosity. To bring back a saying I often share with nytheatre.com reviewers; no matter how much you hated the show you just saw, remember that the artists didn’t do it just to annoy you. In the indie theater world especially, making theater is tough work, and the people making it are doing it at substantial sacrifice, almost certainly because they have something they feel compelled to share with an audience. Honor that impulse always.

 

nytheatre.com Reviewing Squad Guidelines (2004 Edition)

I’m going to be talking about the evolution of our reviewing squad on nytheatre.com for the next several posts. To set the stage, I want to share some documents that have never before been made public. Below are the guidelines we provided to our reviewers for the 2004 New York International Fringe Festival. With only a few modifications, these were the same guidelines we used through 2014. I’ve bold-faced the statement that most reviewers told me was their favorite; it was the signpost for our squad for more than a decade.

***

Please DO:

– Be fair, open-minded, and objective when you’re seeing the show and when you’re writing your review

– Try to leave behind and/or ignore any prejudices or predispositions you have about the show or the company

– Write a review that is your honest response to the show: that’s all anyone can ask of you

– Think about the experience in the room and how it made you feel and what it made you think about

– Be clear: use vivid examples and simple descriptive language

– Be quick:  FringeNYC only lasts 17 days (for example); the faster we post the review, the more impact that review will have on the production, on the audience, and for the reviewer

– Get excited: if you love the show, let us know it in your review

– Give credit where it’s due:  Mention names, and not just of cast members but the behind-the-scenes folks as well.  Be sure to double check spelling of all names!

– Be respectful: if you hate the show, remember that the artists involved have gone to a great deal of trouble to make it happen—they didn’t put it up just to annoy you

– Remember that your objectives as a reviewer for nytheatre.com are to: (a) provide constructive, honest, timely feedback to the artists; (b) provide an interesting “read” for audience members that gives them an idea about what the show is like and helps them decide if they are interested in seeing the show themselves

– Let Martin know about something that’s extremely worthwhile. I’m always on the lookout for new plays for our annual anthologies and I’ll check a show out if you tell me about it.

Please DO NOT:

– Be mean-spirited. If you are, I will delete the offending passage(s) or even not publish the review

– Be egotistical: The review is about the show, not about you. Don’t use this as an opportunity to show the world how smart or knowledgeable you are, or how you would have done something differently.

– Compare the show to another production you once saw, unless it’s absolutely essential to the point you’re making. This goes for performances, designs, etc.

– Give away the ending or other surprises. The point is to entice the reader to see the show for himself/herself.

– Worry about writing a literary masterpiece. All we’re looking for is a clear, concise, honest reaction to the production.

THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS TO HAVE A GOOD TIME WHILE YOU’RE IN THE THEATRE AND AT YOUR COMPUTER KEYBOARD!

Am I Doing This Right?

Back in the day, as a self-employed novice professional theater critic, I had nobody to give me performance reviews–except for the folks who I wrote about and the folks I wrote for.

Reaction from fellow audience members was encouraging right from the start. What surprised (and delighted) me was that actual real theater professionals were also reading what I wrote, and were occasionally taking time to let me know that they liked what I was doing.

Barry Edelstein sent me a wonderfully kind note after my review of his revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at the Roundabout (1997). This was only a few months after nytheatre.com started, so the encouragement of a professional like Barry went a long way toward making me think I might be on the right track.

Upbeat reviews often make people happy, and over the years a number of them have been gracious enough to thank me. (See the Jay Evans note, for example.) Dev Janki, who originated the role of Fakir in Side Show (1997), emailed me: “BY THE WAY… I posted your review on our call board weeks ago!! WE LOVE YOU!!”

Wow, that made me feel good.

***

But–and this is something important I learned about my own craft, from my own experience as reviewee–praise isn’t really enough. What we all really seek is validation, that sense of being understood as well as valued. I soon discovered that connecting with work in that deeper way was my true objective. And I found out, from time to time, that I was accomplishing it.

Bill C. Davis wrote this to me after my review of Avow (2000): “It’s as if you interpreted a dream. You understood and you were eloquent and clear.” Love that imagery of reviewing as dream-interpretation!

Karen Sunde, on my review of her play How His Bride Came to Abraham (2003): “You captured what I long to convey, and so gracefully…. Thank you for your understanding.”

On the rare occasion of a review of non-professional theater (a production of Barnum by community theater in Brooklyn), director Phill Greeland wrote: “Positive mentions aside, we were almost more fond of the fact that you communicated ‘who we are’ so beautifully.” I liked that.

***

On March 18, 2005, I got two emails. One was from Glyn O’Malley the (late) author of a play about the Israeli-Palestinian situation called Paradise, who wrote: “You have been the only NYC critic thus far who has done so without political bias; who reviewed the play and my production on its own merits and ‘got’ what I set out to do.”

The other was from Richard Willis, one of the actors in Aquila Theatre Company’s update of Aristophanes’ The Wasps, entitled A Very Naughty Greek Play. He said, in part: “Reviews have been mixed for the latest Aquila show in New York City, but unbelievably this is the only one that mentions the political content, which seems to be a sign of the times in this country… this reviewer grasps exactly what we were trying to do.”

That was a good day.

***

Morgan Jenness, one of contemporary theater’s staunchest supporters, forwarded a note she got from one of the players in Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge (2009):

Okay. I know we’re not supposed to care about reviews, but wow! What an astonishing pleasure when a critic actually does their job of entering into the world of the creative artist–as opposed to putting their own agenda on what they think that work should be–and communicating effectively to their readers. Hurray.

These are words reviewers must live by.

***

Of all the comments I have ever received, none has made me prouder or happier than this one, which Kirk Bromley forwarded to me after I published my review of his very difficult play it has no title (2009). The comment itself was from composer John Gideon, one of Kirk’s longtime collaborators. He wrote:

That Martin is one insightful dude.

I always like reading his reviews because he always manages to tell me what the show we’re doing is about.

I could not ask for anything more.

 

 

What It’s Like to be a Theater Reviewer

From 1999 through 2013, I was a full-time professional theater reviewer (among many hats that I wore back then). That meant that I went to the theater about six times a week. As I wrote, a few years back:

We certainly don’t have a say in when we get to do our job: myriad random factors, across decades, have bequeathed to us a crazy calendar that keeps us busy almost every Thursday through Sunday, plus the first week of most months and just about all of April and August.

Within a day or two after seeing each show, I had to write and edit a several-hundred word article about the experience I had.  There was also time required to select and schedule the shows, prepare in some tangible way (by, for example. reacquainting myself with previous work by the artists involved), and to let the press people and (sometimes) the artists know about the review once it was posted.

Counting the time to travel to theaters, that amounts to at least a 40-hour work week. I think many laypeople don’t think about it this way; I know I didn’t until I started doing it.

***

I am not complaining! Far from it: I am one of the lucky ones, a person who got to spend most of his adult life doing a job that he was passionate about and genuinely enjoyed. (This is still true, by the way, though the job duties are different these days.)

But I know that when I started nytheatre.com I really didn’t know what the life of a theater reviewer was going to be like; and I think that having lived that life for a long time, there’s some valuable perspective to be imparted in explaining what is was like:

  1. It was almost never spontaneous. A theater reviewer has to schedule shows weeks (and sometimes months) in advance. The more commercial the show, the less leeway you have in when you can go: there may be just one or two designated “press performances” to choose from, and if you don’t grab ’em when they’re offered, you may well miss out. The thing I find I value most in my life post-reviewing is that I DON’T have firm plans for every night of next week. But for 15 years, I ALWAYS did.
  2. It was never in the same place. Reviewers go where the shows are. That meant, for one thing, having to fight the throngs of tourists in Times Square way more often than I ever wanted to. It also meant having to commute, as it were, all over NYC. A typical week could be: Tuesday night at 78th Street Theater Lab, Wednesday night at Symphony Space all the way uptown, Thursday night at the Brick in Williamsburg, Friday night at the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City, Saturday afternoon at a Broadway show and Saturday late night at The Club at La MaMa. And bear in mind that all of this commuting was taking place at off-peak hours, meaning that taxi cabs might be near-impossible to find and subway trains and buses were likely operating less frequently.
  3. The agenda for each afternoon or evening was beyond your control. Here’s something I wrote for an article called “Confessions of a Critic,” which appeared in The Dramatist (the magazine of The Dramatists Guild) in Jan/Feb 2009: “We don’t get to decide what we’re going to write about—we don’t get to pick the titles or subjects, we don’t get to choose who will be involved, we don’t get a hand in what the finished products will look like. Learning this was one of the hard lessons of becoming a theatre critic. When I started writing reviews, I was sure that my wisdom would mold the emerging talents I was writing about. What I have discovered, though, is that while my encouragement has been helpful to many artists in a variety of ways, no one is looking to me for guidance or permission or even approval. This is as it should be.”
  4. It was often, in its way, pretty uncomfortable work. There’s a reason that theater reviewers usually get reserved seats (and, if you’re lucky, they’re on the aisle). That reason is that theater seating in NYC is notoriously unaccommodating, with little elbow room, little leg room, and–too often–poor sightlines for the shorter folk. So having access to a seat that management deems slightly above average (because, say, it’s on the aisle and near the front) is not just a perk but really a requirement: if I can’t see the show, it will be hard to write about it. I learned pretty quickly to travel as light as possible–only wear a coat if you HAVE to, and bring as little else with you as you can manage. I also learned something I already kind-of knew, that the better a show is, the less any of this matters.

Again, this is not meant as a plea for sympathy. All occupations have their downsides. But I know that I used to think that reviewing was going to be this really glamourous job, all hobnobbing with celebrities and influencing the taste of the masses. This proved not to be even remotely true.

Instead, an activity that for me had been purely diversionary and joyous (going to the theater) became an activity that required a great deal of effort and energy. The sense of carefree diversion morphed into a sense of careful duty. The joy remained, happily…until it began to drain away, and when that happened I knew it was time to take a break from reviewing.

How To Go To the Theatre: Thoughts and Ideas by Michael Criscuolo

Here’s a piece from the old nytheatre.com website, circa 2007, written by then-assistant editor Michael Criscuolo. I don’t know that I agreed 100% with all of this even then, but we decided to include it on the site as a potential aide to our readers. Very interested in what folks think about it today!

***

Etiquette

Rules of proper conduct and etiquette have been developed over the years by theatre professionals and regular theatregoers. These rules are commonly observed and new theatregoers are expected to follow them.

Please arrive at the theatre early. Give yourself plenty of time to use the restroom and find your seat without rushing. Getting to the theatre on time is of crucial importance to having an enjoyable theatregoing experience. Having to slide past people to reach your seats once the show has started can be highly disruptive to both the audience and the actors. For this reason many theatres will not seat latecomers until there is a reasonable break in the action, which sometimes is not until intermission.

Check your program before the show. Sometimes there will be an insert stating that an actor’s understudy will be going on in his/her place. There may also be program notes that provide helpful background information about the show you are seeing.

Photographic and video recording of every kind is prohibited during a performance. Camera flashes are a dangerous distraction to the actors onstage—they can break their concentration and momentarily impair their vision—while camera phones, digital cameras, and camcorders can be a supreme annoyance to other audience members. Plus, AEA rules stipulate that any unauthorized videotaping is against the law. Anyone who violates those rules may be removed from the theatre (in the best case scenario), or, perhaps, have their recording equipment confiscated (in the absolute worst case scenario).

There is no outside food or drink allowed in the theatre. Concessions are usually available at the theatre before the show or at intermission for those who would like some. As a rule, eating during a performance is heavily frowned upon and discouraged: rustling food wrappers, crunchy candy, and beverages slurped through a straw can also be very distracting to the actors and to those around you. In case of illness, unwrap your cough drops or other such items before the show starts. (But, if you are sick, then you really shouldn’t be out, should you?)

If you’re seeing a revival of your favorite musical, please don’t sing along. Yes, it’s fun to experience those songs in person, but keep in mind that the other audience members paid to hear the actors sing those songs, not you. If you want to sing along with the show, please wait until you get home.

Please turn off your cell phone or beeper before the show begins. If it rings during a performance, it can be especially distracting (and irritating) to both the cast and the audience. If you need to keep it on in case of emergency, switch it to “silent” or “vibrate.” That way you can still monitor any incoming calls without disturbing anyone. Under no circumstances should any phone calls be answered during a performance. There is no better way to start an audience uprising. If you need to take or make a call, it’s best to remove yourself to the lobby in order to do so. Cell phone etiquette is of utmost importance to today’s theatregoers and breaches of it are not tolerated.

If you are not enjoying the show, you are under no obligation to stay. Feel free to leave quietly during an acceptable break in the action, like a scene change, when it will cause the least interruption. Please do not stay and complain to those sitting around you. Remember: just because you aren’t enjoying the show doesn’t mean that they aren’t. Theatre is subjective.

Children

Bringing children to the theatre can be one of the most exciting moments of their young lives. Children love getting caught up in and entranced by the magic of theatre. Just as there are commonly observed rules of conduct for adult theatergoers, there are similar rules for children coming to the theatre.

Get your child involved right off the bat. Let them help you pick which show you all go see. Allowing them to put their two cents in will increase their interest level immediately. Make sure it’s a show that you’re interested in seeing, too, as your enthusiasm will be contagious.

Check and make sure that the show is appropriate for your child. If you’re not sure, call the theatre and ask: the staff will be more than glad to help you. This is a purely subjective decision, since every child is different. Just make sure to match your child with subject matter you know they can handle. (FYI: just because there’s a child actor in the show doesn’t mean that the show is for children.)

Talk to your child beforehand about being a good audience member. Acquaint them with the Rules of Theatregoing Etiquette. And remember: YOU set the example for them.

When the play is over, talk with your child about it. Find out what they liked and didn’t like. Encourage them to ask questions. The more they talk, the more it’ll help you figure out what kind of shows to take them to in the future.

Most important: have fun!

Attire

Knowing what to wear to a show can be stressful and confusing. New York’s theatre dress code runs the gamut from formal to extremely casual. The key to figuring it out is knowing what kind of show you’re seeing.

First of all: people still dress up for Broadway shows. It’s not uncommon to see men in a jacket and tie and women in fancy dresses. However, neither is necessary any longer. Business casual is an equally acceptable form of dress for Broadway shows now. Even jeans and sneakers have become acceptable, especially at matinees!

The same dress code applies to many Off-Broadway shows as well. However, the dress code Off-Broadway is also more casual than it is on Broadway. Casual wear is more acceptable Off-Broadway because the shows and the venues are more casual.

The Off-Off-Broadway dress code is even looser: anything goes, dress-wise. Sometimes, the lack of formality Off-Off-Broadway almost demands t-shirts and jeans—both of which are seen frequently adorning its patrons. But, formal wear is still more than acceptable Off-Off-Broadway: people often come to the theatre straight from work or dinner or some other engagement.

One thing that all New York theatres have in common, despite their classification, is a proliferation of cramped seating. Many venues have a stingy amount of leg room or walk space between rows of seats, making large coats, big bags, and packages difficult to handle.

 

Musicals Tonight!

Not long after nytheatre.com got off the ground, I got an email from a fellow named Mel Miller inviting me to the opening of his new project. It was a concert-style revival of a VERY obscure musical comedy called Let It Ride!. It was at the Lambs Theatre near Times Square. Would I like to review it?

Of course I would.

I wrote (in part):

Producer Mel Miller, the guiding light behind this revival, has assembled a terrific cast of ten appealing young singers and actors who put over all nineteen numbers with enthusiasm and style, as well as read and enact an abridged version of Let It Ride!‘s dopey, simple-minded book. The result: pure theatrical magic—a happy, funny, utterly charming entertainment offering a couple of hours of pleasant diversion and, not incidentally, a terrific showcase for some very deserving, very talented musical theatre performers.

Thus began the life of the Obie-winning indie theater company Musicals Tonight!, and the first of many many delightful, edifying, and surprising evenings in the theater for yours truly. Musicals Tonight! begins its 20th (!) season this fall; check it out.

Musicals Tonight! has accomplished two important things. First, it provides an honest-to-goodness showcase for musical theater performers who are currently at the chorus-level on Broadway, giving them a chance to play much larger roles in front of an audience, which can only be valuable training for them. (Mel also produces a series of concert shows called “At This Performance,” in which current Broadway understudies sing and dance the numbers they are understudying; a marvelous and awesome concept!)

The other important achievement of Musicals Tonight! has been to provide musical theater fans and aficionados a chance to see and hear work that, in general, has long been out of circulation or (sometimes) has been heretofore thought entirely lost. My favorite memories of Musicals Tonight! are the shows I’d read about and knew would never be done again:

No one but Mel Miller and Musicals Tonight! would have revived Chee-Chee. No one else should. This strange musical comedy, written by Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and Herbert Fields, ran for a month in 1928 and then disappeared; now that we can see it, it’s clear why that was the case. Chee-Chee is not uninteresting, but it certainly isn’t good. Indeed, it’s probably the worst show any of its illustrious creators every worked on. A price-y Encores presentation is far more than Chee-Chee merits; but a cozy two-week stint at the 99-seat 14th Street Y main stage is entirely appropriate: musical theatre diehards will want to take advantage of this unique opportunity to see this weird curiosity.

Of course there’s one other, very important achievement, the one that has ensured Musicals Tonight!’s longevity: the work that Mel and his collaborators do is invariably entertaining. I’ve seen more than two dozen of his revivals over the years, and I have never regretted one of those evenings. And I really adored many of them, usually when I least expected to: King of Hearts, Mademoiselle Modiste, and Face the Music are three that instantly come to mind.

The full record of nytheatre.com reviews of Musicals Tonight! shows is here.

***

Mel has a history kind-of similar to mine: he worked in the business world for a long time, all the while maintaining a true love for theater. After he left the business world, he followed his dream and became a producer of musicals.

It’s easy to get to know Mel, because–following in the footsteps of Ellen Stewart–he introduces every performance of every show personally. Here’s me talking about that in my review of Cabin in the Sky from 2003:

In 15 previous reviews of Musicals Tonight! productions, I’ve neglected to mention the charming way that producer Mel Miller opens each and every one of his shows. He climbs onto the stage, introduces himself, and then offers three or four minutes of background—about the show and its creators, and about the moment in history when this particular revival originated. So we learn, for example, that 1940-41 was the leanest Broadway season up to that time: just Ethel Merman in Panama Hattie, Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark, Gene Kelly in Pal Joey, Al Jolson in Hold on to Your Hats, and of course Ethel Waters in Cabin in the Sky.

There are few folks in the indie theater world whom I respect more than Mel. He pursues his passion full-out and shares his discoveries with audiences with an enthusiasm and aplomb that never seem to waver.

***

One final point: soon after my review of the that first Musicals Tonight! show, Let It Ride!, appeared on nytheatre.com, I received the following note in the mail:

rayevans

For someone still relatively new to theater reviewing to receive a personal note from Ray Evans (Oscar-winning lyricist of “Buttons and Bows,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Que Sera Sera”) — and to be thanked for bolstering his ego! — well, let’s just say that my ego got bolstered quite a lot, too. Thanks, Mel, for that.

Indie Theater on Broadway?

During the years I wrote about NYC theater on nytheatre.com, I often found myself enormously disenchanted with Broadway. The lack of risk-taking, the reliance on hype and known quantities, and the increasing commercialization (not to mention ticket prices) all rankled badly.

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Michael Esper, Dick Latessa, and Linda Lavin in The Lyons

But, at its best, Broadway is the pinnacle of American theater. And sometimes artists and producers do take risks and bring work there that — except for the economics — meets all the criteria of indie theater. By which I mean, the work is artist-driven (as Kirk Bromley explained, “Theater that is done to please the audience as the artist imagines it”); and that the work challenges audiences, its creators, and, most important, the status quo. And when that happens, we get pure magic.

Here are a few examples (annotated with some excerpts from my reviews):

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (2000): “….it’s just possible that, after you experience the extraordinary ending of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, you will have a renewed appreciation for the very idea of theatre. Tomlin and Wagner achieve connection to their audience in a visceral, wonderful way. A playwright friend of mine told me he could never imagine writing an ending as good as this one, and, with due respect to his talent, he’s probably right.”

Movin’ Out (2002): “The genius of Movin Out’ is the way the songs and choreography mesh. Tharp interprets Joel’s music with astonishing acuity; yet the dances are less ‘to’ the music than in juxtaposition with them, creating a tension that burrows under your skin. Tharp establishes the show’s ground rules with a prologue to ‘It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,’ introducing us to the band and the principals and getting us acquainted with a form that feels strange for about two minutes and then becomes comfortable: an abstract kind of theatre that’s aware of itself as formalized band and ballet corps, yet at the same time feels like a bunch of pals from the neighborhood jamming and cutting up on someone’s front lawn.”

Passing Strange (2008): “Passing Strange is my favorite new American musical of recent vintage; certainly the most thrillingly adventurous and high-energy-pull-the-audience-out-of-their-seats-and-up-on-their feet show to arrive on Broadway in quite some time. It feels more like Hair than anything in between 1967 and now, mainly because—and this is probably the main reason I love it so much—it doesn’t care one bit what a musical is supposed to be like. Stew and Heidi Rodewald, the authors of Passing Strange, and director Annie Dorsen have exactly zero Broadway musical credits among them before this. And it shows, in their ability to challenge and subvert expectations left and right, constantly keeping us alert and engaged and involved and utterly wrapped up inside this remarkable, singular, very personal, very empathetic musical play about growing up, growing into ourselves, and being precisely that person that we alone are meant to be. Form and content are in perfect harmony, for this show is precisely the show it alone is meant to be, and not like any other.”

A Catered Affair (2008): “…as in real life, almost all of the events and insights of A Catered Affair come gradually, and with an impact that builds and grows rather than overwhelms. The show boasts a beautifully constructed book by Harvey Fierstein, which melds seamlessly with John Bucchino’s spare, rich score. This is a show where people generally talk until mere words can’t convey what’s inside them, and only then do they start to sing: the most effective songs come exactly at the places where characters burst beyond the walls they’ve built around themselves.”

The Lyons (2012): “I love The Lyons. Now that may seem surprising, for this new play by Nicky Silver is not particularly a lovable play. (In fact, in some respects, it’s a little bit creepy.) But unlike every other new play I’ve seen on Broadway this season (indeed, in many a season), The Lyons isn’t content to just accept, reinforce, and/or report the status quo. No, this is a play meant to make you feel uncomfortable even as you howl with laughter at its outrageous goings-on; it’s a play meant to provide a sharp jolt that might cause you to reconsider what you thought you knew about American families and, more generally, America itself. It’s a play that’s unconventional in its structure and a little bit subversive in its message; the kind of play they don’t generally produce on Broadway nowadays.”

These are five sterling exemplars of indie work on Broadway in this century. Can you think of more? Please comment!

The Tony Awards on TV (Learning about Musicals, Part 2)

After Shady Grove closed down, the world of theater was generally as far away from my pre-college life as an archetypal Timbuktu. But there were lifelines.  Occasionally, there’d be an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show or some other TV program that recreated a pivotal moment from a contemporary musical. And once a year the Tony Awards telecast opened a window onto the magic of Broadway.

Even though I was pretty small when the Tonys first hit CBS in 1967, I watched. I know this because I still remember seeing Mary Martin and Robert Preston perform “Nobody’s Perfect” from I Do! I Do! (my sister and I loved the part where Preston goes after Martin: “This is a piece of paper…”).

I think I missed the 1968 show, but I know I have seen every one since. From the early ’90s on, because I was actually seeing just about all of the nominated shows live on Broadway, the TV experience lost some of its luster.

But before that, as a theater lover who lived relatively far from NYC and (in the ’70s and early ’80s) saw practically no theater at all, the Tonys were a high point of the year. As Nita Congress (mother of my nieces Julie and Sarah) wrote in her blog, “Live theater is so fleeting, so ephemeral; and to be able to get a glimpse of it—particularly when that might be your only chance to see the shows and their creators—was a privilege and a thrill.”

Except for 1971 and 1975, the Tony telecasts always featured scenes from at least some of the nominated best musicals. Through ’77, the excerpts were lengthy, unrushed and utterly loving: you get a true feel for what each of the shows were like in almost every case. Thanks to a YouTube user known as PoochSmooch, all of the shows are available online, and they are all worth watching. I’ve had a blast re-living musical theater history, watching remarkable performances like Joel Grey and company in Cabaret (1967), Bonnie Franklin and company in Applause! (1970), the opening number of A Chorus Line (1976), and the musical number montage from Annie (1977) featuring Andrea McArdle, Reid Shelton, Dorothy Loudon, Robert Fitch, Barbara Erwin, and a host of adorable orphans. (This, to my mind, is the best Tony show number, ever.)

So how did the Tony telecasts prepare me for my eventual vocation? First, they made me want to GO and SEE theater, to be part of it. Original cast albums are terrific, but they don’t have the dynamism and immediacy of a live performance, even on stage. After I saw Angela Lansbury sing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” on the Tonys, I HAD to see her in Gypsy. (Couldn’t though: the run at the Kennedy Center was sold out already.) And I really really really wanted to see Annie (but didn’t; bummer).

So the Tonys pushed me toward the theater more powerfully than other forces. And revisiting the classic stars and shows preserved on these videos reminds me of the sheer joy and delight–the irreplaceability–of great talents doing what they love and do best for an audience.

A final note: the 1971 telecast was the 25th anniversary celebration of the Tonys and features moments from Tony winning musicals from 1947-1970. It is spectacular. Imagine Zero Mostel, Carol Channing, Alfred Drake, David Wayne, Yul Brynner, Gwen Verdon, Richard Kiley, John Raitt, Robert Preston, Robert Morse, and Vivian Blaine all recreating their classic musical numbers on a single TV show. Actually you don’t have to imagine it: just check it out: