Categories
pre-publish

Two People and Limitless Possibilities: Why the two-hander is so resilient on Broadway and beyond

“When she’s around him, her mind dilates.” That’s how Adam Rapp describes Bella, the college literary professor in his play The Sound Inside who develops a life-changing connection with a student named Christopher. In the show, which opened on Broadway last fall, the pair’s banter about novels and academia evolves into a spiritual bond so intense that during the shocking final moments, they reveal the deepest parts of themselves.

Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman in The Sound Inside on Broadway

“It’s kind of metaphysical,” Rapp says. “He walks into her world and wants to throw himself into the fire of great art, and she’s inspired by him, because she’s lost that passion. There’s an element of her seeing who she was and him seeing who he wants to be.”

Crucially, Bella and Christopher don’t see anyone else, at least not on stage. The Sound Inside was one of the season’s most notable two-handers (or play for two actors), a form that has proven to be one of the most resilient in modern theatre.

On Broadway alone, two-handers like The Fourposter and Red have won the Tony Award for Best Play, while Talley’s Folley and Topdog/Underdog earned the Pulitzer Prize in the midst of their runs. Two-handers also led to Tony Award-winning, breakout roles for Anne Bancroft (Two for the Seesaw) and Nina Arianda (Venus in Fur) and earned Tony nominations for Ruth Wilson (Constellations) and Diana Sands (in a production of The Owl and the Pussycat that famously broke the color barrier in 1964).

And that doesn’t even account for two-hander musicals. I Do! I Do!, adapted from The Fourposter, is arguably the most notable example on Broadway, running for over 500 performances in the 1960s. And titles like The Last Five Years, John and Jen, Goblin Market, and Murder for Two have made two-person tuners part of the Off-Broadway landscape for decades.

But why? What is it about this type of show that’s so appealing?

Sometimes it’s a practical choice. “When I was coming up, a lot of playwrights would talk about things like unit sets and small casts, because you’d be more likely to be produced,” says Rapp.  “It was more cost efficient.” He wrote Blackbird, his first two-hander, after downtown theatre troupe Mabou Mines gave him a grant to experiment with directing his own work. Company founder Lee Breuer encouraged him to cut his teeth on something straightforward, so he wrote a play about a troubled couple trying to survive in a dank apartment.

What started as professional prudence, however, led Rapp to some deeper reasons a two-hander can work.

“It forces you to ask really in-depth questions about the characters,” he says. “You have to keep finding reasons for them to stay together. And those questions — ‘Who’s in love with who?’, ‘Who wants to hurt whom?’ — feel more feral because two people are stuck in a room together.”

Lauren Gunderson, whose two-handers like I and You and The Half-Life of Marie Curie have helped her become America’s most produced living playwright, says the form crackles with energy. “When you only have two people, then you know that something is going to happen between them,” she explains. “You can’t think, ‘Well, I don’t know. Who’s the story about?’ It can only be about these people, so for us in the audience, part of the excitement comes from wondering where we’re going with them.”

As an actor, Mary-Louise Parker has experienced that excitement firsthand. Her two-hander credits include the Broadway productions of The Sound Inside (with co-star Will Hochman)  and Simon Stephens’ play Heisenberg (with co-star Denis Arndt). She says both created an unparalleled sense of urgency. “It’s risky because you’re so dependent on that other person,” she explains. “It’s like life. If you’re stuck somewhere with one other person, it’s risky, but it’s wonderful because it forces you to create a real closeness. And when it’s working, the audience feels that, too.”

Many two-handers are potent because of how they wield the dynamic between the people on stage.  In Edward Albee’s A Zoo Story and Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman, for instance, seemingly banal interactions in public places escalate to horrific violence. In ‘night Mother (another Pulitzer Prize winner), Marsha Norman exploits our assumption that a woman can’t be serious when she enters the play and tells her mother she’s going to kill herself.

Kathy Bates and Anne Pitoniak in the original Broadway production of ‘night Mother

Sometimes, a two-hander pulls us out of reality altogether. Take Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep, in which two actors play eight characters in a camp satire about monsters run amok on a posh estate. “That play lets the audience enjoy the impossibility of what they’re seeing,” says Catherine Sheehy, Resident Dramaturg of Yale Repertory Theatre. It would be much less satisfying with eight actors, she notes, because that wouldn’t let us savor how the performers (and the playwright) create so many people with so few bodies.

“There’s tension and conflict just in the act of performing it. And it turns theatrical tradition on its head, because it refuses to let us associate one body with one character.”

That underscores how challenging a two-hander can be for the actors. “I have never had another job that called on me to do as much as that one did,” says Jeff Blumenkrantz, who played a collection of suspects in Murder for Two during its extended Off-Broadway run in 2013 and 2014. “The challenge really hit me in rehearsal. I was on stage the whole time, so for the entire eight-hour rehearsal day, I was required to fire on all cylinders. It was exhausting, but it was also really rewarding. Whatever was happening on stage, I knew for a fact that I was contributing to it.”

Brett Ryback and Jeff Blumenkrantz in Murder For Two

For Parker, the primary effort comes in staying connected with her co-star. “You have to keep the energy between two people really taut,” she says. “It’s like somebody at the top of a mountain dangling a rope: You can’t let go. I think of it being that intense.”

While performing in The Sound Inside, she was especially fascinated by the interplay between Bella’s monologues to the audience and her intense scenes with Christopher, who never addresses anyone but her. “There were some moments when I actually felt like I was in two places at once,” she recalls. “I was with him and with [the audience], talking to them. I was still working on that quite actively when the play ended, and I would just die to get the chance to do it again.”

And there it is again: The reminder that two-handers, these seemingly small theatrical jewels, can feel enormous. Just like a relationship with another person, the best ones can create an intimacy that dilates our minds.


Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the host of The Showtune Countdown on iHeartRadio Broadway.

Categories
Cover Story Long Form

CASTING A NEW MOLD FOR CAST ALBUMS

For decades, Original Broadway Cast Albums were beloved companions to the theatergoing experience. You could enjoy the music and lyrics to a Broadway show before you ever saw it, or you could relive the memories of the show long after the curtain went down. It was both merchandise and a marketing tool—a memory and an experience in and of itself. A cast recording could help fuel the run of a Broadway show and ensure its popularity in touring, licensing, and beyond for years to come. But new technologies and the ability to share and engage with Broadway scores easier than ever through streaming and social networks are making it possible for cast recordings to be something they’ve rarely been before: the engine that drives a show to the Broadway stage. 

As early as the 1930s, there were attempts to record the scores to Broadway shows. But technology made distributing those recordings in any reasonable way something of a challenge. And although there were cast recordings in the early ‘40s, like many things in musical theatre, it was Oklahoma! that really pushed cast albums in a new direction and introduced the format we are used to today—much, if not all, of the score recorded by the original cast as it was performed on stage. 

The next decade made that format the industry standard. Theatre historian and Broadway producer Jennifer Tepper said, “In this decade, a small handful of shows were recorded in the manner we understand today. This lent a permanence to the musical theatre as an art form, and changed the way the public viewed shows.” And that continues today. As theatre historian Laurence Maslon writes in the introduction to his wonderful book on Broadway cast albums “Broadway to Main Street”, “Hamilton can be seen by only 1,319 people a night on Broadway—which is about 10,000 people a week; the week the cast album was released digitally, it was downloaded by 50,000 people. More than a million people (and counting) have now listened to Hamilton in a private space. For enthusiasts of show music, the living room, to paraphrase one of Miranda’s lyrics, that’s the room where it happens.”

But what if a cast album isn’t the beginning of a theatergoer’s experience or a reminder of a show they’ve already seen? What if the cast album is the very engine of what gets a show to Broadway in the first place? This is precisely what happened with the Broadway run of the Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz musical Be More Chill.

Will Roland and cast of Be More Chill Maria Baranova)

Be More Chill is a musical based on the Ned Vizzini book of the same name. It made its world premiere at Two River Theatre in New Jersey in June of 2015. Iconis remembers the days following that production well. “When the show closed at Two River, it was dead. We got a dismissive Times review and I couldn’t get any producer or theater (non-profit, regional, whatever) interested in the show.” But the head of the board of Two River Theatre, Bob Rechnitz, refused to let that be the end of the show. He teamed with the theatre and Ghostlight Records to make a cast album of the show. Ghostlight Founder, Kurt Deutsch, recalls the journey of album.

“We recorded Be More Chill after the production in New Jersey. It sat around for a good year before people really started discovering it. And we started noticing how people started doing fan art around some of the songs. And it became this very popular trending thing on tumblr. And we saw animatics happen. And lyric videos. And people started to create their own universe around Be More Chill.”

Iconis noticed something was happening as well, “It literally just happened. I think it was a perfect storm of things—Spotify algorithms and timing (musical theater really came to the forefront of the culture in 2017 in a way it just wasn’t years earlier) but more than anything, it was just people (young people, specifically) connecting to the score. The algorithms wouldn’t have worked in our favor had people not listened to and got into the show.”

And suddenly, the show was back alive. “The viral popularity is what got Jerry Goehring to pull the trigger and take a chance on doing the show in a commercial summer run. And that summer run was such a wild box office success that we got to go to Broadway,” said Iconis.

And Tepper agrees, “Be More Chill would never have gotten to Broadway without its album.”

And Be More Chill continues to find success in productions across the globe. “We have conversations about the show in international markets that feel like conversations you’d have for a show that ran on Broadway for years and won a million Tonys,” said Iconis. “Because Be More Chill‘s popularity really exploded online, it still feels very present, very contemporary, very active.”

Alex Brightman in Beetlejuice The Musical

And it’s not the only show to see its cast album fundamentally alter the course of its Broadway journey. The musical Beetlejuice opened in April of 2019. But it struggled to find the toehold necessary to becoming a bonafide Broadway success story. 

But as the run progressed, something started to happen. Deutsch recalls seeing fans reacting to the show in a real way on social media channels. “You saw tons of tiktok engagement with Beetlejuice. You saw people recording themselves singing ‘Dead Mom’ and ‘Say My Name’. And all of these fans from all over the world who weren’t able to see the Broadway show were living vicariously through the cast album and then found each other.”

Yes, they were finding each other on new social media platforms, but crucially they were engaging with each other in a tradition that’s as old as Broadway itself—singing the songs from the show together. And as this community of people found each other they did something even more crucial—bought tickets. And Beetlejuice found its footing as a Broadway staple.  

The musical Six was a runaway hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland in 2017—a power pop musical about the six wives of Henry VIII. It was such a success that professional producers came on board to launch a UK tour and eventually a West End run. In between the tour and the West End debut, the writers Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss had an idea of what to do in the subsequent months. “Essentially, if Six is the live Beyoncé concert,” said Marlow, “we wanted to make the Beyoncé album that she’s touring. So we think of it less as a cast recording of the musical, but more as a part of the whole conceptual package.”

Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss

And the success of that album fueled the West End run, and got the show heard around the globe. By the time Six debuted in Chicago, people were flocking to the production—already deeply familiar with its score, despite its lack of a Broadway production. Marlow remembers the fan fervor, “People were flying in from across the country in homemade costumes and singing along to all the words and stuff, which was completely wild! From that point the producers were like, ‘Yep, this show could work in New York’”. And on February 13, Six debuted on Broadway with throngs of existing fans from around the world already in thrall—all before ever playing a single performance on Broadway. 

So what’s next for the Broadway cast album and its potential to fuel Broadway runs? Will a pre-Broadway cast recording become standard practice?

Despite some successes in developing this new model, Tepper has doubts. “I don’t think it will become the norm for shows that didn’t have major New York runs to create albums that go viral, leading to a major New York run within five years. But it’s certainly more of a possibility in the world we live in now than it was in the world where music wasn’t distributed online immediately.”

And whether or not the cast album comes long before a Broadway run or is released after the show debuts, the power of the cast album is undeniable. “At the end of the day, it’s your calling card,” says Deutsch. “It’s your marketing tool. It’s what makes a musical a musical. It’s what makes it sing. And it’s what’s gonna live on forever once your show is done.” 


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. 

Categories
Interviews

Hair to the Throne

You may not know the name, but you have seen Paul Huntley’s work. With a career that stretches back to Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, the wig designer has worked extensively on both sides of the Atlantic, in film, television, and theatre. Faye Dunaway’s hair in Network? A Paul Huntley wig. Princess Margaret’s ‘60s beehives? Huntley. Patti LuPone’s Evita hair? Huntley. From Mae West to Joan Crawford to Glenn Close to the hair that transformed Santino Fontana into Dorothy Michaels eight times a week in Tootsie, Huntley has been in close counsel with the biggest stars of the last 70 years.

Paul Huntley and Jan Maxwell for Lend Me a Tenor

The erstwhile Brit is still going strong, contributing hair to Broadway’s Diana and in the process recreating the look of a woman who conjures up a thousand different images in our collective memory as soon as her name is uttered. From the royal wedding to her media blitz tour post divorce, The People’s Princess was a master at recreating herself—and in that regard, she’s well-matched by the talents of Huntley.

“The truth is she looked different every time she walked out the front door,” Huntley says. “Sometimes short, spiky hair and sometimes blown out really large. And then her color changed all the time.”

Of course, recreating royal looks for a Broadway musical requires sleight of hand with which something more documentary-like (say, Netflix’s The Crown) doesn’t have to contend. There are microphones to consider, quick changes, and condensing a lifetime into a two-and-a-half evening show. 

Huntley, Tony-winning director Christopher Ashley (Come From Away), and bookwriter Joe DiPietro settled on establishing Diana with just four iconic looks: the style with which she was first introduced to the public as the future Princess of Wales (“We call that the pudding basin look. Because it really wasn’t that becoming to her”); the darker hair from the royal wedding, the must-watch event of 1981; the tousled and “quite big” hair that most people picture from the early ’90s; and the shorter, spikier style from the end of her tragically short life.

Huntley is also responsible for the rest of the royal family, as well—though one imagines Queen Elizabeth II’s hair was a fairly simple feat, changing has it has not a whit for decades at a time—in addition to Diana’s aunt, romance novelist Barbara Cartland, who sported a very specific look during the period. 

Each wig takes an average of five days’ work from Huntley and his team of five to create from human hair (Huntley sources it from “wig merchants” and most of the hair comes from Russia). For a project like Diana, what is particularly interesting is that there are very few natural blondes in the world; most blonde wigs audiences see have been dyed that shade. And throughout the process, Huntley remains in communication with both the creative team and the performers.

“That’s the first thing: You want to make sure that everyone knows what you’re going to do and whether that’s what they want,” he says. “And I prefer always to be the quiet one. People have a different view of me than that, I know!” he laughs.

Though certainly not one to back down from an argument about his work—he tried in vain to convince Faye Dunaway not to restyle the Maria Callas wig he gave her for Master Class—Huntley has a c’est la vie outlook that has kept him sane while working intimately with some of the biggest divas of all time. “We’re not curing cancer here, he says. “It is, after all, a musical. And people are wearing these things on their face, so you have to sort of say, ‘Oh well, what the fuck.’ You really can’t make too much of it, I don’t think.”

Over the course of his long career, Huntley has seen fads come and go, and stars wax and wane. But throughout, the nature of his relationship with the performers has remained steadfast, ever since the day he crawled into Mae West’s bed to set her wig. “Honestly I’ve never gotten over that,” he says. “And all I could think was… ‘My god, how does anyone have teeth that white?’ It was like Walt Disney stars, they were so fucking white!”

“I always felt from my earliest years that they were the stars, and they were the most important people and therefore I was just someone who helped,” he says. Now, of course, his reputation precedes him, but Huntley remains the “strange Englishman who’ll probably do some wonderful stuff,” as he puts it.

Beginning his career in England with Stanley Hall at Hall’s Wig Creations—a major wig creation company for film at the time—Huntley was creating wigs and false eyebrows for director Mike NIchols—who suffered from alopecia—and made the leap to America after Nichols hired him to do the hair on Carnal Knowledge and asked if he’d ever considered moving. 

“He said, ‘Well, you know, why don’t you come and live here?’” Huntley recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh I couldn’t possibly go to America! Good heavens, it’s so loud!’”

“That’s where the ‘grand voice’ comes in,” he adds dryly.

But Nichols pressed on and ultimately sponsored Huntley’s visa. Two years after Carnal Knowledge was released, Huntley made his Broadway debut with the Nichols-directed production of Uncle Vanya, starring—in a very eclectic cast—George C. Scott, Julie Christie, Elizabeth Wilson, and 70-year-old Lillian Gish.

“The sweet thing about Lillian was she said, ‘Oh, Paul darling, I’m going to look so young on the stage! You’re going to have to give me a gray wig,” Huntley recalls, laughing. “And she did look young!”

Huntley’s list of devotees reads as a Who’s Who of theatrical and Hollywood history. He worked again with Gish a decade later, when she starred with Bette Davis in The Whales of August; he did Crawford’s wigs on her final film, Trog (a project that produces the equivalent of a good-natured verbal shudder from him); he restyled Marlene Dietrich’s wigs when she toured the world with her concert act, receiving them in plain brown parcels with a note and a next destination to which he’d send the refreshed wig; he works extensively with Glenn Close, on everything from Sunset Boulevard to 101 Dalmations; and Patti LuPone famously has him written into her contract for every project since Evita. In fact, Huntley is the man behind her memorable, flame-colored wigs on Ryan Murphy’s latest Netflix series Hollywood.

Evita – Patti LuPone

But even a man who counts the original Broadway productions of Dreamgirls and Cats (the project he’d most want to relive) to the most recent revivals of Anything Goes and Noises Off! has a few projects he wishes had been his. 

“I would have liked to have worked on [the 2019] Kiss Me, Kate,” he says. “I did the 1999 revival. I would have loved to have done that again. But there are good people. David Brian Brown, Charles LaPointe…I can respect people who do good work. I have no qualms about praising people if it’s good work.”

But with more memorable creations on his résumé than even seems possible, it’s safe to say that Huntley’s missed opportunities are few and far between. And with Diana, he proves once again who the royal hair creator is.


Follow Paul Huntley on Instagram at @paul_huntley_wigs

Categories
Cover Story Interviews

All The World’s Her Stage (…and Backstage)

Beverly Jenkins is not afraid of a cut show. That’s a performance where there are more actors calling out than there are understudies or swings to replace them, and it requires a last-minute reconfiguration of everything from blocking to costuming to the placement of props.

For many people, this would be terrifying, but for Jenkins, who’s been a Broadway stage manager since the early 90s, it’s an opportunity.

“It’s a challenge I actually enjoy,” she says. “I know it’s a crazy thing to enjoy. It’s not something you wish for, but if you need to make it happen and you have the right people, you can make it happen.”

Case in point: At one performance of Broadway’s A Bronx Tale The Musical, she only had one Black actress available, even though there was a scene that required two. “I had to decide,” she recalls. “‘Do I have one Black female on stage, or do I have a Black female and a Black male in that other track?’ I’d planned for that, because you have to plan for that, even if it never happens. So I made the decision to have a Black male on stage, because otherwise it would have thrown some things off [to just have one person]. I spoke to some people; we made a few changes, and it worked. No problem.”

That solution indicates what a distinct style of stage management Jenkins has developed over her career, which includes landmark productions like Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk; the original Miss Saigon; and her current gig as the production stage manager for Hadestown.

The cast and crew of Hadestown

Crucially, she sees a cut show as a chance to connect. “It’s a community event,” she says. “You check with wardrobe, and they’ll make adjustments. The music department and the dance captains are involved. I always reach out to the director or the AD to make sure my choices are okay. And I take the personal trip to tell people what’s happening. I get a couple of extra steps in on my FitBit, and I’m good. I want to make sure I’m personally letting people know what’s going on before they step on stage.”

Those steps — up and down stairs, into the green room, into the wings — set Jenkins apart “Beverly runs a building, and she doesn’t have to open her computer to do it,” says Michael Rico Cohen, a fellow stage manager who has worked alongside her on A Bronx Tale The Musical, Amazing Grace, and Fully Committed.

“She is the person-to-person contact. She’s the problem solver. She’s the empathy master.”

Or to borrow a phrase Jenkins uses to describe herself, she’s a mom of many. “I’m fine with the tech,” she says. “It’s all good. I’m very calm, and I can call a cue just as well as the next person, but I believe my speciality is about being hands-on with the people. I put a lot of thought and care into everyone — not just the actors, but everyone — coming into that theatre.”

On every show, then, a big part of her job is figuring out exactly what this particular group of people needs. For instance, on Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, the 1996 dance musical that uses tap to trace Black history in the United States, Jenkins worked with performers who were more familiar with the dance world than with Broadway. “Sorry Equity, but I had to bend the rules for this group of young men,” she says. “I had to assess the rules and see what they needed. Like, ‘I know this is half hour, and if you’re not here at half hour, then I need you to call me and tell me how far away you are. And as Iong as I know you’re coming, you get a five-minute grace period.’ And that’s something I still do, the five-minute grace period.”

On Noise/Funk, she also turned her office into an occasional daycare center, so that parents in the company could bring their children with them when there were no other options. She recalls, “I had Barney tapes. I had a playpen. I was like, ‘You’re not going to be forced to miss work because you’re doing the right thing with your child.’ I have to get my show up, no matter what. I have to figure out how to get the best show on stage today. And on that show, watching kids was part of it.”

For Amazing Grace, the 2015 Broadway musical that explores how the British slave trade inspired the titular hymn, Jenkins knew her job required extra compassion. She says, “Amazing Grace was important to me because of what was happening on stage. How hard is it that the first time you see Black people on stage, they are stuffed in a crate, and then they get pulled out, thrown on the ground, and shot in the back? So when the actors come off stage, how can they not carry that off stage? How do we make sure that these people are not carrying the feelings of trauma off stage with them?

“We had company morale-building events. We had t-shirt day. We made sure the dressing rooms were mixed, and that we weren’t keeping the Puritans over here and the Africans over here. It was good to see everyone put thought into how to make this a harmonious backstage area and still tell that particular story.”

It no doubt helped that Jenkins herself was spearheading the backstage culture. “She is wildly good at creating fellowship and community,” says Rachel Chavkin, the director of Hadestown.

“She exudes exuberance, but also doesn’t beat around the bush when she’s got a problem to work through. And she’s not precious, because she’s focused on problem-solving at every turn.”

Jenkins asserts that small touches help a company avoid bigger problems, particularly when they’re together for a lengthy run. That’s one reasons she runs a “turkey hand” contest for Thanksgiving, getting everyone in the building to trace their hand on construction paper and then turn it into a decorated turkey drawing. “And believe me, there are prizes, honey,” she says.

Cohen confirms, “There’s nobody that loves a turkey hand competition more than Beverly Jenkins. But it’s more than just turkey hands or door decorating contests or the Father’s Day barbecue. She’s a master of the casual-but-meaningful interaction. It creates a camaraderie and an immediate trust. It’s these little things that really make the building a happy place over a period of years. All of those things are just as important — and sometimes more — than announcing what we’re doing in understudy rehearsal on Friday.”


Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the host of The Showtune Countdown on iHeartRadio Broadway.