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Interviews Photos

The Minutiae of The Minutes

Everything about The Minutes on Broadway has been crafted to make its world seem as real and as familiar as a half-remembered episode of a classic Americana sitcom. A lost episode of The Andy Griffith Show where Opie learns about local politics, maybe.

The Minutes is, however, a Tracy Letts play—so it doesn’t take very long before things begin to shift from the comedy of small-town bureaucracy to something more sinister. Told in real-time during a city council meeting, Letts’ play lures audiences into expecting something very different than is what is on the playwright’s mind. But it all begins with the set on the Cort Theatre stage, a room of desks and framed certificates and flag stands as instantly recognizable as your parents’ living room.

It’s an American iconography. You feel that immediately when you walk in the door because it’s so recognizable.

“The setting carries with it an iconography,” director Anna D. Shapiro says. “You look at the set, you see those tables, all those little microphones, you see the flags behind them—I mean, it’s an American iconography. You feel that immediately when you walk in the door because it’s so recognizable.”

That familiarity—culled by set designer David Zinn from an actual coffee table book of city council rooms—is the result of a specificity so honed that it becomes universal. “When you’re that specific, it really tightens the focus,” Shapiro says. “The audience starts to understand that contract of where they’re looking for their information. And all that we’re trying to do in theater is figure out a way to communicate the contract to the audience as fast as possible: These are the rules, these are the possibilities, this is the world.”

The set is all Zinn, but the individual props on each council member’s desk all came from the performers. Each character may seem like an archetype—the befuddled but vocal older man; the very prim and dignified woman of a certain age; the combative guy; the new guy still figuring it out—but each is also a fully realized person participating (or zoning out) in the meeting being held.

“I have to say, I watched probably 100 hours of YouTube videos of city council meetings from all over the country,” says Letts, who also stars as the mayor. “If you suffer from insomnia, let me recommend you watch 100 hours of YouTube videos of city council meetings, because they’re crashingly boring. But they’re also very funny in their own way.”

For a play about politics on Broadway in 2020 (and one written in 2016, no less), The Minutes is both apolitical and shockingly current. “I don’t think the words ‘Republicans’ or ‘Democrats’ are ever spoken in the play,” Letts says. The Minutes is not intended to be a comedy about political party differences; what Letts and Shapiro are interested in is engaging audiences about bigger questions. “How do we conduct ourselves as a civilization, as a society, particularly an American society?” Letts says. “And I think it’s asking some very basic questions about the kind of society you want to live in. Where do you want to live and how would you have us conduct ourselves in the world? And I hope it’s doing it in a comic and accessible way.”

Beyond local government and its politicians, Letts points out that the way we behave in any meeting—be it in an office, during a job interview, or anywhere else—is a different mode of conduct than in a restaurant or with friends. “You see a lot of different types surround the table that you recognize,” Letts says, adding that he also drew upon meetings with at the Steppenwolf Theatre for the play, “though I won’t mention any of them by name.”

“You know, you could watch it several times because you could track one person through the whole thing once you actually know the plot of the piece,” Shapiro adds. “It would be fun to be able to watch your favorite character and how they dealt with all of these little moments that you didn’t understand the first time you saw it.”

The Minutes

Those little moments add up to what Shapiro refers to as “a tipping point” in the play. In fact, it’s a major reason the play is 90 minutes long, with no intermission. “It takes a really long time for things to either go bad or get good, but the truth is that there is a tipping point,” Shapiro says. “There’s a moment where you go from being OK to not OK. There’s a moment where you were healthy, and then there’s a moment where you aren’t. There’s a moment where the German town became a Nazi village. There’s a moment, those things happen. And I think it’s important to know that that can happen in minutes.”


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Cover Story Long Form

Looking Back to Look Ahead: How Nostalgia is Baked Into Broadway

Nostalgia has always been a powerful force in the theater – and right now, it’s stronger than ever.

With shows on Broadway and around the country unlikely to resume until the current pandemic’s final phases of reopening, fans and professionals alike find themselves missing almost everything about going to the theater. The sound of a live orchestra tuning up for an overture. The feeling of an audience-wide belly laugh. The hush that falls over a crowd at a dramatic moment. Pretty soon fans might start to miss the bathroom lines at intermission.

Nostalgia is evident, too, in the ad hoc streaming offerings that theater people have produced during the current lockdown. Original casts have reconvened online for readings of shows like “Significant Other,” while Seth Rudetsky’s ongoing variety show “Stars in the House” regularly hosts reunions of TV and film actors. Even playwright Richard Nelson’s just-written “What Do We Need to Talk About?” was performed over Zoom in conversation with the past, bringing together a familiar cast of actors reprising characters they’d portrayed in the four previous shows that comprise Nelson’s Apple Family Play.

“What Do We Need to Talk About?”

“We’re all streaming content that is based in reminding us what it was like to go to the theater,” says Elizabeth Wollman, the Baruch College theater professor whose books include “The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, From ‘Hair’ to ‘Hedwig.’” “One of the reasons that I thought the new Apple Family play worked so beautifully is because it did exactly what those plays do in the theater.”

All of this is just the latest evolution of the way in which nostalgia has always had a presence theater. It’s baked into the form itself. “Theater is defined by legend, because each performance is once in a lifetime,” says Laurence Maslon, the New York University Tisch School of the Arts professor and the author of “Broadway: The American Musical.” Either you were in the house at “Gypsy” the night that Patti LuPone snatched a cell phone out of an audience member’s hand, or you weren’t.

The memory of a night at theater is more than just the show itself. It’s where you were, who you were with, what you did before and after the performance, and all the sense memories associated with those things. “It’s coming out of the subway and smelling the salty pretzels and getting a drink at Joe Allen,” Maslon says of the Broadway experience.

Joe Allen Restaurant in NYC

It’s no accident, then, that theater has always celebrated its history — its groundbreaking productions and talents — more than TV or film: The impulse rises from the effort to preserve what we can of an impermanent form, and it’s part of why we return so often to classic plays and musicals.

“People want musical art to be timeless, and it isn’t,” notes Raymond Knapp, the UCLA musicology professor whose books include “The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity.” “The impulse to revive is very, very strong. It’s partly based on nostalgia, and it’s also based on the notion that music transcends time.”

Revivals and even new works can draw on nostalgia on both a national level and a personal one. “The idea of doing a revival of ‘The King and I’ or ‘My Fair Lady,’ those tap into a national, theatrical, Broadway-musical sense of nostalgia,” notes Stacy Wolf, the Princeton University professor and author of the book “Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical.” “Broadway can be nostalgic in wanting to revive classics like those that have this aura of Americana, or sometimes, like ‘Jersey Boys,’ a show can speak to individual theatergoers or generations of fans and to their personal feelings of nostalgia for the music they grew up with.”

Adrienne Warren and the cast of Tina! The Tina Turner Musical (photo by Manuel Harlan)

For some critics and scholars, nostalgia raises red flags. Commercial producers and nonprofit theaters alike sometimes ignore new work to return again and again to established sellers like “The Sound of Music” and “Death of a Salesman,” and many new musicals draw on popular song catalogs – The Four Seasons (“Jersey Boys”), ABBA (“Mamma Mia!”), Tina Turner (“Tina”) – rather than original scores. “I get nervous about the word nostalgia, because executives often lean too heavily on it, or it’s their own personal nostalgia that clouds their decision making,” says Ashley Lee, the theater reporter at the Los Angeles Times.

But don’t dismiss nostalgia entirely, warns Chris Jones, the longtime theater critic at the Chicago Tribune. “Nostalgia is a powerful force in why people go to the theater, and some of my most glorious moments in the theater have been really driven by nostalgia either for me or the people around me,” he explains. “I remember being at the opening night of ‘Mamma Mia!’ in London, and the audience on this wave of joy remembering their youths. Or when I was at a press performance of ‘Jersey Boys’ on Broadway where I would say, of all the tens of thousands of shows I’ve seen in my life, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience so excited.”

Mamma Mia
Mamma Mia!

Right now, looking to the past can also provide clues to what Broadway and the theater business will look like in the coming months, when they finally reopen. Many point to the post-9/11 popularity of good-time shows like “Mamma Mia!” and “The Producers” as an indicator that in the wake of the coronavirus, audiences and producers will similarly gravitate to escapist fare.

But looking further back suggests that the future might not be all frivolity. Maslon notes that during the Depression, Broadway was a place not just for crowd-pleasing baubles like “Anything Goes” but also for socially consciousness works like “The Cradle Will Rock.” “There was this bifurcation where Broadway was either escapist or very engaged,” he says. “It actually forced theatermakers to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and to be very much in vogue and at the forefront.”


Gordon Cox is a theater journalist and the host of Variety’s Stagecraft podcast.

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Creative

Spotlight on Plays

Broadway’s Best Shows is proud to present Spotlight on Plays, a new series of one night only livestream readings of Broadway’s best plays to benefit The Actors Fund

Don’t miss your favorite stars coming together for these special events, only on BroadwaysBestShows.com or our YouTube channel. #SpotlightOnPlays

HOW TO WATCH

At 8pm ET, visit the Broadway’s Best Shows homepage or subscribe to our YouTube channel.


LOVE LETTERS 

by A. R. Gurney 

Starring: Bryan Cranston and Sally Field 

Directed by Jerry Zaks

A disarmingly funny and unforgettably emotional portrait about the powerful connection of love. Andrew Makepeace Ladd III wrote his first letter to Melissa Gardner to tell her she looked like a lost princess. They were both seven years old. For the next fifty years, through personal triumphs and despair, through wars and marriages and children and careers, they poured out the secrets of their hearts to each other. They defied a fate that schemed to keep them apart and lived – through letters – for the one most meaningful thing, their undying love for each other. 


One night only livestream on May 21, 2020 at 8pm ET with an encore at 11pm ET.

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Special thanks to BroadwayWorld




The Actors Fund envisions a world in which individuals contributing to our country’s cultural vibrancy are supported, valued and economically secure.

Mission: The Actors Fund fosters stability and resiliency, and provides a safety net for performing arts and entertainment professionals over their lifespan.

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Interviews

They’ll drink to that!

How the cast of Broadway’s booziest show is cocktailing in quarantine

Perhaps the most famous tribute to boozy libations ever written for the stage is the showstopping ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ from Sondheim’s Company. And that satirical ode to hat-wearing society ladies and their vodka stingers is only the tip of the iceberg in how much stage time in the musical is devoted to imbibing. Cocktails aren’t only in the show, they’re so prominent that Maker’s Mark practically deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

With at-home cocktail hours seeing a resurgence and liquor stores deemed essential businesses, there’s no better time to partake in the ritual of winding down the day (or, hey, livening up your lunch a la Joanne) by mixing yourself a boozy beverage.  

We caught up with some of the cast of the current Broadway revival to get their advice on how to drink up in style while staying home.

Join a Virtual Happy Hour 

Many of us are connecting for happy hour with family and friends via Zoom, Skype, and Facetime, and the cast of Company is no different (stars, they’re just like us!).

For Stanley Bahorek, there’s no question that catching up over cocktails has been crucial for lifting his spirits (pun intended!) and even cutting loose and blowing off steam during a stressful time. “Late one evening I had a virtual happy hour with my three dear friends who are all moms turned at-home-teachers for their kiddos. They are heroes! They needed that late-night drinking session, and it was great to catch up and virtually toast each other.” 

Kyle Dean Massey is almost enjoying these virtual cocktail dates more than the in-person ones: “In a strange way they feel more intimate than having a cocktail with someone at a bar. I think because you’re in your homes, there is no loud music and there are no other distractions from other patrons or servers. We also all have the understanding that we’ve got nowhere else to go, so for all of my virtual happy hours, the conversations have been generous and relaxed.  It’s been lovely!”

The cast of Company has a weekly Zoom virtual happy hour that we’d love to be able to peep. Anisha Nagarajan tells us, ‘they usually turn into Patti jukebox dance parties.  I’ll definitely drink to that!’ Us too, Anisha!

Learn to Make Internet-Famous Cocktails

Instagram cocktail-making video tutorials aren’t only being posted by furloughed bartenders, but celebs are getting in on the fun too: remember when the internet went crazy for Stanley Tucci’s negroni skills?

Perhaps the most insta-famous cocktail of all is Ina Garten’s notorious Cosmopolitan, and Nikki Renee Daniels actually gave it a try: “it’s so simple and great!” Having a brief break from the boards has had one fun perk for Nikki: “I don’t usually drink when I’m performing, so it’s nice to be able to try new wines and stuff without having to worry about my voice.” 

Get a Mixology Kit Subscription

Anyone that’s enjoyed the convenience of meal kits, rejoice: similar offerings are available for craft cocktail enthusiasts! Matt Doyle has been loving a gifted subscription to cocktail club Shaker and Spoon. “It provides you with all the bitters and ingredients needed, all you need is the booze. I’ve been enjoying it a great deal. It’s super easy to follow and the drinks are seasonal. If you want a Hello Fresh for booze, look into it.”

Clubs like these are especially amazing if you don’t happen to have a home bar stocked with bespoke bitters and artisan infused tonics– having these hard-to-find ingredients is the closest most of will get to a cocktail bar right now.

Company - They'll drink to that

Use What You Have in a #Quarantini

If you’re not regularly going out to the store to restock supplies and the next FreshDirect delivery slot is days from now, Claybourne Elder recommends experimenting with what you have in your pantry. If you have vodka-soda fatigue, it can be fun to get creative with ingredients and see what happens: “I have experimented, especially when my bar gets low. Favorites have included: Vodka and Fresca and Tequila and Diet Coke. Desperate times!”

Join a Wine Club

Anisha Nagarajan loves cooking and experimenting with wine pairings at home: “who doesn’t love a good glass of wine, or three, with dinner?” In lieu of a sommelier to pair the wines, she’s enjoyed her Bright Cellars Wine Club membership. “You take a quiz on their website based on what you like, and they send you wines they think will suit your taste. They also provide little cards with each bottle, giving you suggested pairings, which has inspired us to make some fun meals! I think it’s safe to say, we are cooking a lot and eating a lot.”  And if you’re staying home, there’s nothing more convenient than having wines dropped straight to your door.

Revisit the Classics

A classic cocktail hour (the kind that was popular in living rooms everywhere in the ’60s and ‘70s) is coming back– and we think this trend couldn’t pop up soon enough! For most of us with busy lifestyles, that sacred time to wind down the day over drinks has turned into hurriedly cracking a screw-cap bottle of wine and slurping it down while trying to get dinner on the table and making sure kids are doing their homework. Kyle Dean Massey has enjoyed partaking in the cocktail hour ritual: “I’m still working all day from my computer and it seems natural to have a drink when there doesn’t seem to be any other way to come down.” Stanley Bahorek agrees, saying “most evenings when that cocktail hour rolls around we are glad for it. In a way, it helps to delineate daytime (work time) and evening when we try to relax”. He recommends perfecting your Manhattan or rediscovering a retro-chic classic like the New York Sour.

Bobbi drinking Makers Mark

When All Else Fails: Drink It Straight Up

If you realize that being an at-home mixologist or amateur sommelier isn’t your calling after all, Matt Doyle reminds us there’s no shame pulling a ‘Bobbie’ and simply pouring yourself a shot of whiskey: “straight whiskey is always my go-to. Effective and full-bodied– doesn’t get much better. Woodford is my whiskey of choice, or Redbreast if I want something smoother.”

We can’t deny that it’s easy, and it gets the job done! And we can all drink to that.


Sarah Tracey is a wine and spirits writer and educator, lifestyle expert, and certified sommelier based in Brooklyn. She’s known for her blog, The Lush Life, as well as her column at Martha Stewart Living online where she’s been the resident wine expert since 2015. She regularly shares food pairing, home entertaining, and beverage expertise with media outlets such as ‘O’ The Oprah Magazine, Food & Wine, The Food Network, Elle, Refinery 29, Forbes, Town & Country, Fortune, Cosmopolitan, PureWow, Brides, and Cheddar TV.

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Creative

Talkin’ Turkey


Exclusive excerpts from Talking Turkey: The Wit and Wisdom of President Charles H.P. Smith. For one night only, tune in on Thursday, May 7, 2020 at 8pm ET to see President Smith (John Malkovich) and two key members of his campaign team, Clarice Bernstein (Patti LuPone) and Archer Brown (Dylan Baker) tackle major American concerns just days before the upcoming Presidential election. To quote one of President Smith’s most famous lines:  “I always felt I’d do something memorable… I just assumed it’d be getting impeached.”


THE ELECTORAL SEASON

My opponents are yapping at my heels.

I have been asked if I wish them ill.

No, I do not wish them ill. If I wished them ill I would withdraw from the race. For this job, finally, is an unmitigated pain in the ass.

Yes, there are moments of reward – as when the Press goes home, or I can just sit back on Air Force One and tell racist jokes; but, by and large, the job is a never ending grind, with little to look forward to but the hundreds of millions of dollars my supporters will be called upon to cough up when I have left office.

Let me serve notice on them now: you may call it “directorships,” or “Charitable Institutions,” or stock tips, or the “loan” of your beach house, but, friends, I did my part and you’re going to do yours.

And, should one of my opponents prove successful come November, I say to them what the aged parents say to those with a newborn: “Ha Ha – you’re in for it now!”

God bless the United States.

Charles H.P. Smith


ON THE SUBJECT OF THE CONSTITUTION


The constitution is one of the foundation documents of this great country. No, it is not written on stone, it is written on parchment or the skins of some animal which, though perhaps endangered now, was, at the time of its composition, perfectly disposed to have its skin written on.

Is this different than tattooing? Yes and no.

Tattooing is a custom brought to thee shores by those intrepid mariners who first ventured to the great south seas, bringing syphilis and bringing back coral, pineapples, and those cunning print shirts so popular during the summer months. Tattooing is also used, as we know, in identification of the lips of horses, poodles, and other beasts both of burden and enjoyment. These tattoos identify the animals, should they be lost or stolen. So the next time you see an ownerless horse, thank those visionaries who drafted that compact which keeps us safe and secure: your constitution.


Sincerely, 

Charles H.P. Smith, President of the United States


MY MILITARY SERVICE

Military Service, as I understand it, means nothing more and certainly nothing less than service in those branches of the Armed Forces we, as a Nation, have assembled to stand between us and those countries, individuals and groups which want us dead.

What is America? Some might say it but a “washer” keeping Mexico from crashing into Canada, and thus, unacceptably mixing the beavers and the gauchos.

But it is more than this. It is the place where we, many of us, first got laid; and, as such, it is inexpressibly dear to us. Perhaps it was in the backseat of a Chevy, perhaps it was “up against a tree.” How, and wherever, it is an event graven on our memory. And a country worth fighting for.

I recall a poster from the Days of World War II: We’re one for all and all for one Behind the Man, Behind the gun” – as was I, during the years of my eligibility for Military service. 

Did I “serve” – in the commonly accepted sense of the term? Not in uniform, no.

I wear that uniform now. It is a blue suit, and I wear it to my office. Every Day, as Commander-in-Chief of those who also risk their lives, their jobs, and the stability of their marriages, while their spouses, tempted beyond restraint to cavort with the grocer, the UPS Man or Woman, the poolboy, clerk, firefighter, secretary, whose combined effort is summarized in the phrase: “United States.”


DO I WEAR A TOUPEE?

When young we are taught not to make personal remarks. 

Which of us has not seen the unschooled youngster, shocking and disgracing its parents with the remark, “Mommy, look at that Jew!” or similar slurs.

No, we must curb our tongues. The foundation of a viable community is our ability to refrain from those thoughtless commends which sow discord.

“Look at that Big Fat Pig,” for example, is a phrase acceptable only as an expression of delight at the State Fair; and I am hard-pressed to imagine an acceptable situation for “Mormons make me vomit.”

We are all in this together, and even the least of us, the homeless, the old, producers of Reality Shows, are entitled to the same courtesy we extend to their productive neighbors.

Don’t make personal remarks. Teach your children so that they may teach their children (such conceived, hopefully, after the former’s teenage years).


Yours for Abstinence,

Charles H.P. Smith


CONGRESSIONAL SEX SCANDALS

Congressmen should be allowed to turn over a new leaf, but not allowed to turn over one of the pages.


YOGA

Yoga is responsible for more human vice and misery than any force I know.

Children in India steal, some from their very parents, to get money for the study of yoga.

I would rather have a child on drugs than “on” yoga. 

For there is an organization especially created to counter drugs, we call it the police, but where are the heroes, standing up to the scourge of yoga?

I therefore have asked congress to prepare a bill which will be named: “Defense of the Country – The War on Yoga”.


Your President, 

Charles H.P. Smith

P.S. If you see anyone “bending over” too long – call the police.

March 26, 2008

Categories
Interviews

Giving Props to Broadway’s Secret Hoarders

A lamp, a locket, a fiddle, a pie. To theatre fans, these four items conjure up images of iconic shows, and that’s the secret power of props. Though they often blend into the scenery, each prop has its own story to tell and can become the eternal image of a production. But how do you go about finding that all-important piece?

“My process starts with dramaturgy—reading the play, reading the play, reading the play,” says Kathy Fabian, owner of Propstar. “I read about the play, the playwright, about the playwright’s other plays, listen to the director and the other designers [discuss] their interpretation of the piece and their goals so I can attempt to interpret what’s in their ‘mind’s eye’ when they picture the world we are about to create.”

Kathy Fabian - courtesy American Theatre Wing
Kathy Fabian – courtesy American Theatre Wing

Since 2005, Kathy’s company has designed and managed large-scale prop packages for dozens of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, as well as for TV and film. From All My Sons to Kinky Boots, her keen eye and amazing artistic vision have dressed the sets of some of the biggest productions in New York—and her latest challenge is quite a feat.

Kathy will provide the props for David Mamet’s classic play American Buffalo, which is due to open at Circle In The Square Theatre this summer. Set in a junk shop in the late 70s, it tells the tale of the shop’s owner, Don, who plans to steal back a buffalo nickel he believes is worth more than he sold it for.

“The junk shop definitely has its own presence, and even though it doesn’t have a voice, it’s integral to telling the story,” Kathy explains.

“People who do what I do enjoy the hunt…so I got on a plane to St. Petersburg.”

Like an actor building their character, she digs deep to get to know her subject inside and out ensuring it becomes a real place in the minds’ of the audience. “I ask myself many questions like what’s the history of the shop? How long ago did the junk begin to amass? What are Don’s personal interests that might influence what he collects? Does he curate his goods or did he just happen upon/steal/salvage/buy them? What’s the difference between a pawn shop, a thrift shop, an antique store, and a junk shop?”

Monger’s Flea Market

Just like a missed line or an ill-timed lighting cue, a prop from the wrong decade or even a piece with the wrong texture can pull an audience out of the world presented on stage. But sourcing items takes time, research, and patience, particularly for a set that’s densely layered. “I start looking at advertisements from the era and head to eBay and Etsy to look for hero items first. Once I’ve got my smattering of jaw-dropping 60s and 70s lamps, famous toys, posters, comic books, car parts, and specific items mentioned in the script by name, I move onto vintage fillers. Other than a few iconic gems an audience member might recognize from their past, the merchandise, (if you can call it that), is truly junk – used items you wouldn’t believe anyone would buy.”

Kathy Fabian – courtesy American Theatre Wing

Though filling a junk shop may be a prop master’s dream, each show offers its own opportunity, challenges and excitement, with no two jobs ever being the same. “You probably won’t learn something from one project that you can use as a go-to solution on the following ones. One morning, you may find yourself embarking on a play that’s set on an imaginary planet 100 years in the future, and after you’ve translated the playwright’s words into 3D for the stage, your next endeavour might be to recreate the inside of a military hospital during World War II.”

With a breadth of eras, locations, venues, and environments to create, the number of items needed by such a prolific prop specialist is astounding. “Space is always an issue, especially in Manhattan,” Kathy explains. “I keep two large rooms of small items like houseware, tools, soft goods, and collectibles at my studio on 52nd Street. We offer smaller companies with challenged budgets the option to rent items for $5 to $10 a month. This keeps things moving. I keep larger items in storage units in New Jersey and Yonkers. Shows like American Buffalo provide a great opportunity for spring cleaning as they allow me to lend things from my own stock and make some much-needed space for a while.”

With rows and rows of incredible items that have created their very own time capsule, along with all the equipment any theatre company may need to kit out a rehearsal space, Propstar’s warehouses are treasure troves that would wow anybody lucky enough to explore them. Packed full of vintage telephones and signs, banquets of fake food and old-school accounting calculators, miniature books and handmade textiles, Propstar’s wealth of products are more than a starting point for any production’s needs. However, Kathy’s hunt for the perfect items never stops. “I visit flea markets, Goodwills, salvage yards, Craigslist… the online auction sites these days are so very helpful. When I started my career, all my shopping was on foot, and in some cases, I really had to get lucky!”

Kathy is part of a community of prop specialists that work on Broadway. Between them, they form a network of knowledge and contacts that can find almost anything a director could want or need for a show. “If I hit a wall and can’t find the particular item I’m looking for, I call around to some of my junk dealers and other pals in the business. People who do what I do enjoy the hunt, so often once I put the word out there that I’m after something, folks join in on the search. We trade favors.”

However, there are times when all the favors in the world aren’t enough to find that one special item and you have to go a little further afield to find what you’re looking for: “For Fiddler on the Roof in 2004, no one could come up with the authentic Russian antiques which were required to fulfil the design vision, so I got on a plane to St. Petersburg.”

With tight schedules and a creative team awaiting input, prop masters don’t always have time to fly across the world. Luckily, there are other ways to get your hands on that elusive object. “Sometimes, rather than wasting too much time looking for something, I decide it’s more effective to just start from scratch and build a copy of the item. The wealth of talented craftspeople in this local network affords us that option as well.”

Kathy herself has always had an interest in making and creating, learning crafty hobbies at a young age. “Both my grandmothers taught me to sew, and so my hands were busy with crochet projects, needlepoint, doll-making, etc. from a very young age.”

This creative nature followed Kathy throughout her life and eventually led her to a career in props. “During my time at the University of Vermont, I was very active in theatre, both the performance side and the technical side. I took a special interest in carpentry and finish work. When I first moved to New York, I worked as a furniture maker and began receiving offers for props work. Slowly I took on more and more projects (while keeping my night job, of course), built a small company, and graduated from Off-Broadway to Broadway offers. Finally, one day I realized I didn’t need to wait tables anymore.”

For anyone interested in starting a career in props, Kathy has two pieces of advice: “Number one, call me! And number two, be prepared for a wild ride of multitasking and shedding your fears of trying new things and asking questions. You will never find the words ‘I’m so bored’ floating in your mind again.”

Categories
Long Form

The Show Must Go Online

Since 1929, there has been a student-written musical performed at Northwestern University under the title of The Waa-Mu Show. Its consecutive run has only ever been interrupted by World War Two. And this year was no different—until students were sent home because of the worldwide spread of the coronavirus. And while the fate of a university musical in the face of a global pandemic might not be of the most urgent concern, what happened on the evening of Friday, May 1, 2020, was a glimmering light in dark times. 

The set that never got seen – Design by Scott Penner

The Waa-Mu Show is a musical written, performed, arranged, orchestrated, and produced by students at Northwestern University every May (full disclosure: I am an adjunct faculty member at Northwestern and serve as a songwriting mentor for The Waa-Mu Show).

This herculean task of building and producing an entirely original book musical in under a year begins the previous June. It goes something like this. 

At the end of the academic year, a group of student co-chairs are selected to lead the process of creating The Waa-Mu Show. Before the students break for the summer, they hear pitches from students on what the next year’s musical could be. An idea is selected and writing coordinators are chosen to lead the writing process—which will ultimately include up to fifty writers. In the fall, the student leaders begin to outline the story and slowly accumulate other participants. By winter, the outline is loosely nailed down, the set designs are approved, and casting begins—often without the existence of a single note of a song or a word of dialogue. Throughout the top of the year and into the spring, the show is concurrently written, built, rehearsed, arranged, orchestrated, promoted, choreographed, directed, and ultimately put on—culminating in a fully-produced original musical with over 160 student participants. If it sounds crazy, that’s because it is—it’s a small miracle from the gods of theatre when the show debuts every May. 

And this year, things began in a very similar fashion with every indication that the show would continue its venerated tradition. A story was pitched by student Matthew Threadgill, telling the tale of the futuristic city of Dalesworth—a metropolis vying to become a future capital while grappling with the issues of its past. Outlines were created. Characters were invented. Songs were written. However, just as the team was gearing up for its last developmental reading presentation in mid-March, the news of a spreading pandemic began to roll in. Of course, the students had concerns other than their show. “The gravity of the moment didn’t immediately draw my attention to Waa-Mu,” said writing coordinator Ruchir Khazanchi. But eventually, his thoughts turned towards the production. “Hundreds of students had been working non-stop for almost a year to make this happen. And for it to be swept into uncertainty so quickly was jarring for a lot of folks.” Writing coordinator Emmet Smith agreed, “I think the hardest part was how drawn out the process of our spring cancellation was—every day we came up with contingency plans for the best and worse case scenarios given what we knew. And every day our best-case scenario of an on-campus production grew grimmer. It would’ve been easier on our hearts if the Band-Aid was ripped right off.”

Students were sent home and the future of this year’s Waa-Mu show was thrown into question. Khazanchi feared for the worst. “Nobody knew what the next steps were, or if there were going to be next steps.” The Waa-Mu team gathered on the video conferencing tool Zoom to discuss what would happen next. Co-chair Emma Griffone knew that they had to continue. “Waa-Mu has always been a process-oriented organization, so we were primarily concerned with working through our draft.” But as discussions began, it became clear that perhaps there was something more that could be done. Music supervisor and faculty member Ryan Nelson remembers that first call fondly. “That first meeting with the co-chairs, writers, music team, and our director was really thrilling. There was so much energy and so many ideas. At the end of the call, we decided we were doing Waa-Mu. No matter what.”

But what that actually meant was still completely up in the air. And now, in the usual crush of writing and producing a new musical came the question: What does producing this musical even mean?

As rehearsals went on over Zoom, co-chair Leo Jared Scheck was impressed with how it all started to come together. “It wasn’t until rehearsals had been going for a few weeks that we started to realize, hey, this is actually turning out really well. So we decided to do a reading on May 1st, our original opening date.” Co-chair Jon Toussaint added, “And even then, it was only the week of the show where we began to open the online reading to people who weren’t on the team.”

So there it was. This completely original musical would be produced on Zoom. But how? Co-chair Olivia Worley remembers the initial challenges. “Obviously, there are a lot of aspects of a live performance that are really hard to translate to a virtual platform, so a big part of our process was figuring out how to create collaborative relationships when we can’t all be in the same room together.” Paramount to that is, how do you sing together over Zoom? Latency issues make it impossible for more than one person to sing together at once. Enter Team Music. 

“Our Team Music community is a cult of freaks of nature, and they have always thought outside of the box. So I never had a doubt in my mind that they’d be able to make it work,” said Smith. As songs neared completion, the music team—made up of music directors, arrangers, orchestrators, and copyists—would lay down a track in a program called Logic. They would then send that track to the various performers so that they could learn the song. Rehearsals would take place over Zoom alongside rehearsals with director/choreographer Amanda Tanguay. Once everything was learned, students would record their sung vocals—often on their phone—and then send them back to Team Music so that they could mix them into a final track. Now that the show was tracked, there was the question of how to come close to recreating the theatrical devices of theatre—and how to make it all as live as possible. 

On the evening of Friday, May 1, around 400 people across the world gathered on a Zoom webinar to watch the live debut of The 89th Annual Waa-Mu Show, State of the Art. By reconfiguring the default settings of the software, the entire cast and crew made it so that when they turned on their video they would appear on screen, effectively making an entrance. By muting their video, their box would disappear and they would make an exit (instead of leaving a box with their name or a picture on it). Scenes with two people could grow to have three, four, or more with just the click of a button, and Zoom would reconfigure the boxes automatically. Backgrounds were used to suggest settings, and character names appeared below every performer. 

When the time came for musical solos, the performers would activate a track in their own space and sing along live. And when group numbers arrived, a stage manager would play the pre-recorded group audio while the cast muted their own audio and sang along to the track. Over the next two hours, a fluid, entertaining, and moving live experience featuring actors all around the country was performed for an audience as far-flung as the Netherlands. 

The sets that never got seen – Designs by Scott Penner

Songs were born. Characters sprung to life. And a new story made its theatrical debut. What began last year as a dream had without warning become a seeming impossibility—but was now emerging as a full-fledged reality. And as students’ faces took to this new stage, one after the other, it was hard not to be moved by their ingenuity, artistry, and optimism. An ensemble number made up of a grid of thirty undergrads singing their hearts out to a track written by one team and assembled by another has its own theatrical power—and is touching by the very fact of its own existence. These students were handed a uniquely challenging situation and found a way to create something truly of themselves all the same. 

Writing coordinator Michael-Ellen Walden recounted the experience of watching it all come together. “An unexpected delight during the final performance was realizing that, although I couldn’t hear or see the audience, I could view the names of each of the 400-plus viewers. Scrolling through the names of Waa-Mu alumni and classmates, the parents of those who had worked on the show, and professors reminded me of not only how many people have been touched by State of the Art, but The Waa-Mu Show in years past. I hope we made everyone who has been a part of Waa-Mu proud of us continuing the tradition against the odds.” 

And although director Amanda Tanguay was thrilled with the final performance, she celebrates something bigger. “We banded together, supported the creation of new art, but also supported each other during a difficult period of time. Ultimately, it is very clear to me that the final performance is not the only thing that makes Waa-Mu special. It is the people involved.”

All musical theatre fans are right to hope that the future of their beloved art form is not relegated to the confines of Zoom webinars. It’s an imperfect simulacrum of the real thing. However, it is hard to not be inspired by a group of students who refused to let their show be interrupted by a worldwide pandemic and instead joined together to create new ways of storytelling. And if that’s not the future of musical theatre, I don’t know what is. I can’t wait to see where they lead us.  

Ryan Cunningham is a Jonathan Larson Award winner and a Drama Desk and Mac Award-nominated lyricist, bookwriter, and playwright. His Off-Broadway musical written with Joshua Salzman, I Love You Because, has played both nationally and internationally in five different languages. Also with Salzman, he has written the musicals Next Thing You Know, The Legend of New York, and Michael Collins. He is a Creative Director at the Broadway advertising agency AKA and teaches at Northwestern University. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons.