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!

Tony Winners I Liked

It’s Tony Awards week, so it makes sense to look back at some of the Tony-winning plays and musicals that I had the opportunity to review on nytheatre.com. People who know me will not be surprised to know that most of the time I did not endorse the decisions made by the Tony voters; I don’t even necessarily approve of the awards at all, except to the extent that the Tony broadcast has the capacity to bring NYC theater to the rest of the world (about which I will write in a future post).

But with the awards coming along in a few days, I’ll keep things jolly in this post and look back at the winning plays and musicals that I loved when I wrote about them. (The titles below are linked to my full original review in the nytheater indie archive.)

Musicals

The Producers (2001): “Everything that made American musical comedy (and vaudeville, and burlesque) great–slapstick, corny jokes, beautiful chorus girls, Borscht Belt shtick, ethnic jokes poking fun at every imaginable constituency, more beautiful chorus girls, unsubtle dirty jokes, hummable melodies, vigorous tap dancing, opulent and entirely unmotivated musical numbers, and some more beautiful chorus girls–it’s all here, unabashed, the way that Brooks has celebrated it throughout his career. We just never thought we’d actually get to see it on stage.”

Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002): “Thoroughly Modern Millie is as pretty to look at as it is to listen to. David Gallo’s sets–and there are quite a few of them–are attractive and elegant and inventive. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are bright and colorful and eye-popping…. It’s a musical comedy that really is musical and comical; a show where you leave happier than when you came in. Who says musicals can’t soar on gossamer wings anymore?”

Hairspray (2003): “I had a wonderful time at this show, thanks to its peppy, rock & roll and sometimes R&B-inflected score; its engaging, enthusiastic cast; its joyous, effervescent choreography; and its charmer of a book, which takes in camp, kitsch, satire, and parody and tempers them all with a healthy dose of sentiment.  Hairspray is happy and silly and infectiously giddy; it’s also fueled by a message that is heartfelt and honorable. It’s loads of fun, it makes you feel good, it’s even a little bit deliciously subversive: it ends, after all, with an overweight teenager, a black diva, and a drag queen singing their hearts out to tumultuous applause.”

Jersey Boys (2006): “So how do you take a story that everybody already knows how it ends, a story that is (upon reflection) merely one overused American Entertainment Cliché right after another, and turn it into the most exciting hour of musical theatre this side of Act One of Michael Bennett’s Dreamgirls? Know-how, my friend; know-how, and chemistry, and love. Without all three ingredients, we get formulaic junk (or just ill-crafted junk; which is worse?), the kind of stuff that gives Broadway a very bad name. With all three, you get combustion, you get goose-bump-inducing excitement, you get the stuff that memories are made of: the happy miracle that makes Broadway the world’s showplace bar none.”

Once (2012): “Once is a paean to the power of music, and the celebration begins well before the official curtain time, with an on-stage pre-show in which the members of the ensemble–who supply ALL of the show’s music, vocally and on a variety of (mostly string) instruments–each get a chance to strut their stuff and cut the rug a little, too…. I particularly loved that, bucking what seems to be the new norm for Broadway musicals, this show is content to let us come to it and discover its charms for ourselves, rather than trying to beat its audience into submission with abundant noise and production value and relentless hyperactivity.”

Plays

The Last Night of Ballyhoo (1997): “Author Alfred Uhry (who wrote Driving Miss Daisy) provides us with some interesting things to think about here, but gently; mostly this work is a loving depiction of a family coping with the most basic events of life. Reba and Boo are watching their daughters grow up; Lala and Sunny, meanwhile, are entering the adult world with all the wonder and naiveté of the young; Uncle Adolph provides the sheltering center for all four. Uhry has created wonderfully quirky, three-dimensional characters, and the actors gathered here bring them to vivid life.”

Art (1998): “It’s not exactly a news flash, but the fact is that Alan Alda is a supremely funny man. In the excellent new play Art, he stars as Marc, a curmudgeonly intellectual who is stymied by the fact that his best friend Serge has paid 200,000 francs for a painting that consists of some white lines on a white background. Shortly after the play begins, Marc goes to see the painting for the first time. Observe Mr. Alda in this act of observing: he steps back, he squints, he puts his glasses on, he adjusts his head, he blinks, he takes his glasses off, he moves right up to the canvas–it’s almost a ballet, this hilarious, futile attempt at comprehending what his pal sees that he cannot see.”

Side Man (1999): “What is Side Man about? A young man, the narrator Clifford, finding his way out of a dysfunctional family into independence. ‘There are no clean breaks,’ he tells us; and then he tells us about his parents and his childhood to try to finagle one anyway. Side Man is about perspective, about struggling to understand one’s parents; about, more importantly, finding a way to forgive them.”

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? (2002): “It’s a play that demands to be seen, and read, and heard; there’s stuff in it that will feel ringingly true and significant and useful to you. The particulars–the meaning, the precise resonance–are going to be different for each of us, I think, because the nature of Albee’s work generally and The Goat specifically is to be dense, knotty, and not quite knowable. At once a profound conundrum and a malevolent game, The Goat is engineered not to be solved. It’s designed, instead, to provoke, to challenge, to push buttons, to awaken us from lethargy and ignorance, to shock, and–yes–to amuse, too.”

Doubt (2005): “Though Shanley touches upon the very troubling notion of a priest abusing one of his altar boys, this is assuredly not the subject of this challenging and intelligent play. Doubt is about doubt, and more importantly its opposite, blind faith. This is not a whodunnit but a whydoit: Sister Aloysius builds her case against Father Flynn from the inside out, with its fueling core composed of nothing stronger than unempirical conviction. Of course, it is often true that nothing is stronger than unempirical conviction–that’s precisely the point.”

Red (2010): “Red, the new play by John Logan at Broadway’s John Golden Theatre, is a stimulating, thought-provoking exploration of art. It asks what art is for, and it plumbs deeply into the process of its creation: a director friend of mine remarked that she felt Red looked more nakedly and truthfully at the pain that goes into the making of art than anything she’d ever seen…. This play stands out among the current offerings on Broadway for its intelligence, intellectual rigor, and–especially–for knowing that audiences are smart and curious and don’t need to be served warmed-over or dumbed-down fare. If that excites you, then you will do well to make this new play the one you see this season on the Great White Way.”